[... back to menu for this book]
All for Her
But at our next
meeting I had no opportunity of putting the questions that had occurred to me.
Nevertheless, the evening was full of interest; for young Alf was to engage in a
glove contest at the little boxing place off the Walk, and I was invited
to witness his triumph.
It was Saturday night, and eight o'clock, and life in the Walk was at its zenith. I was first at the rendezvous, and strolled slowly along watching the haggling and chaffering at the barrows, wondering at the bawling butchers, and delighting in the children who danced to the jangle of the piano-organ. Lambeth Walk, as I have already told you, will provide you with everything you can reasonably require in life. Even when you die you need not go farther afield for your requirements, for the undertaker flourishes in the Walk, and rival artists set forth the advantages you will gain by placing yourself unreservedly in their hands. A series of photographs showed me what I could expect for five pounds, and the additional respectability I could attain for an extra two pound ten. Ornaments for my tomb beckoned me; I was especially attracted by the white artificial flowers in glass cases, and hovered from one undertaker's window to another making the final selection of the glass case that should mark my final resting-place.
Poetry, too, you may have; elegies to celebrate your virtues and waft after you the regrets of your relatives. Possibly you might have a specially hand-made elegy if you liked to pay extra for it. Those in the window are machine-made, and there are half-a-dozen varieties from which you may choose. They are stamped in black letters on white plaques fancifully wrought in the shape of a shield, a heart, or the section of a funeral urn. I had some difficulty in deciding, but I think this is the one that I should like my household to hang up in their drawing-room when I am no more -
A Light has from our Household gone,
A Voice we loved is still;
A Place is vacant in our Home
That never can be filled.
From the display in the window I inferred that this was the most popular of the obituary verses. The rhymes fascinated me. Besides, it would be rather piquant to choose and pay for my own panegyric. I was absorbed in the contemplation of these verses, and trying to make up my mind to go in and ask the price, when I was recalled to the hubbub and tumult of the Walk by a voice at my elbow.
Young Alf is no adept in the flourishes of courtesy. He can say what he means, more particularly when he does not mean well. But his forms of greeting and farewell lack polish.
We went down the Walk together, talking with some difficulty in the crowd that surged between the barrows and the shops.
Young Alf was a little paler than usual, and more carefully shaved, He was, I think, excited. But nothing showed excitement but his increased pallor and the gleam in his eyes as he talked to me in hurried snatches over his shoulder. And as we went I gathered up the thread of circumstance that led to the coming fight.
It was a fight with the gloves. But there was a bit of needle in it. It was all over Alice.
'Alice?' I inquired.
'You know. 'Er at the cawfy-'ouse.'
Yes; of course I remembered.
And then it came out.
Young Alf was really in love this time; had been in love for some months, without a waver or a doubt. He had been walking with Alice. But when a boy is really in love, and is not merely mucking about, he is always a little ashamed of himself. That, I presume, was the reason why young Alf had said nothing of Alice for some time.
But there was a rival in the case, - one Ginger, who sold newspapers on the other side of the water. Alice, I gathered, had shown a decided preference for young Alf; but Ginger had been pestering Alice with unwelcome attentions, and young Alf had sworn to mark him.
Decidedly the evening promised fun.
We passed from the glare and blare of the Walk into a dimly-lighted side street, under a railway-arch, and halted before a narrow doorway cut in a big pair of gates.
'Frippence, if you ain't got a ticket,' said a boy who stood just inside.
I paid threepence, and stepped into cobble-stones, darkness, and an odour of horse-cloths.
'Strite on,' said the boy at the gate, as young Alf slipped away from my sight.
The light guided me, and the hum of voices, and in a moment or two I was stumbling from the gloom into a sort of huge box, lighted by a couple of gas-jets suspended from the ceiling.
'Frippence extry cross there,' cried another boy. I paid the threepence, and found myself entitled to a seat on a carpeted bench at the corner of the ring, which is not a ring, but a square. I looked round, a little dazzled by the sudden glare of gas.
Three or four hundred faces, packed in tiers, which rose from each side of the ring. In the lowest tier small boys, in all varieties of undress, who stood and rested their chins on the rope. Above them, row upon row of faces, mostly young and frequently dirty, with here and there the pink shirt and pallid complexion of a flashily-dressed Jew, - and not a woman's face among them.
The piece of the evening was not yet on; but we were mildly interested in the curtain-raiser.
In the sawdust a couple of youngsters were sparring - boys of thirteen or thereabouts - glorious in the small-clothes of the ring, and enjoying themselves hugely. It takes a smack in the face to make a Lambeth boy laugh, and these infants laughed aloud as the gloves (strictly regulation gloves, as we were assured) got home upon their faces.
The genial proprietor stood, slightly swaying, in one corner, giving words of encouragement.
'Garn, yer young devils,' he said, pleasantly. 'You can get 'ome oftener'n that. When you see a place, you 'it it, 'ard; bleed'n' ard. That's the way.'
He nodded approval, and the boys with their chins on the ropes wagged their heads, knowing that old Mugs has stood up to Jem Mace in his time, and that the words that fall from his lips are golden.
No millionaire in London was prouder that night than those two small boys who had concentrated the eyes of their world upon them. And the proudest moments were when they retired on the call of time to their respective corners, laid themselves back in their respective chairs, and had a full-grown man to flap a towel in their faces. Only one man, who walked from one to the other. For boys of thirteen cannot expect more than half a second. But he flapped the towel; and the little boys, as you could see, lay back, opened their mouths, dropped their arms, and thought of Jem Mace.
'Don't forget em, gentlemen,' cried the master of ceremonies, when time was finally called.
Halfpennies into the sawdust, and two panting boys picking them up.
'Say thank you kindly, gen'l'men all,' said the master the ceremonies.
The little boys stood, still panting, in the middle of the ring. It is nervous work, that maiden speech; but they brought it off, squeakily and together, and retired into a corner where they were decently hidden from about a third of the audience to change their clothes. Here a couple of brawny young men were stripping to the waist; Bill Smith of Wapping and Tom Lodge of Limehouse - so the master of the ceremonies announced, as they stepped into the ring to give an exhibition of sparring, and I was not surprised to learn that they were sailors. They danced about the ring, ducking and feinting with the greatest good humour. And when Tom Lodge got Bill Smith's face under his arm, tapped it gently to give him a taste of what would happen if it were serious, and invited him to say his prayers we all laughed heartily.
The cap round for coppers, and the two sailor lads, who had scarcely stopped laughing all the time with the sheer joy of strength and skill, went back to their corner to resume their shirts and coats.
Already the corners were occupied by the next pair, Sammy of Stockwell, and young Spooney of Bermondsey. A six-round contest. As the lads crossed, shook hands, and set to work they looked well matched. Sixteen years old, or thereabouts, clean and neat, not an ounce of superfluous flesh on them. A boy learns something besides courage and agility in the boxing ring. He learns to wash himself. Every lad who stepped into the ring that evening looked as bright and fresh as a new pin. Little personal vanities, too, may be noted. Young Spooney, for instance, had decorated his black small-clotheS with pink ribbons, and his inunaculate white shoes were laced with pink.
But Sammy of Stockwell did not show good sport, and murmurs arose among the audience before the first round was half-way through.
'When's Sammy goin' to start?' sung out a voice. Old Mugs, the proprietor, called for silence.
But the murmurs continued as Sammy backed round and round the ring.
' 'It 'im, Sammy, 'it 'im!' called his second.
And then old Mugs ducked under the ropes, laid a heavy hand on Sammy, pulled off his gloves, and pushed him out of the ring.
'Them that wants to spar can spar,' remarked old Mugs, 'but damme if a boy's goin' to spar 'ere an' call it fightin'.'
Old Mugs looked round for approval, and got it, full measure and running over.
Sammy had retired hurriedly to cover his shame and nakedness. And here was young Spooney standing disconsolate in the middle of the ring, gloved hands hanging unemployed at his sides. Was he to be done out of his fight? Must he exchange his tasty small-clothes with the pink ribbons for patched, prosaic trousers before the company had had time to note their magnificence?
'Lemme tike 'im on.'
We all turned in the direction of the voice, and saw a shirt dragged hastily over a head, a hitch to a pair of trousers, and a reef of a belt taken in.
Old Mugs nodded assent, and young Spooney, looking much relieved, retired to his corner, in order that the conventions might be observed.
The master of the ceremonies whispered an inquiry to the new-corner, and then announced 'Sparkey.'
'Of Lambeth,' added Sparkey.
'Sparkey of Lambeth, and young Spooney of Bermondsey. Time.'
And for the next five minutes there was not a dull instant. Sparkey was no match for young Spooney, and he knew it. He was certainly not more than fourteen; a chubby-faced boy, with a firm jaw and a good pair of eyes. But he was two years younger than young Spooney, and nearly two inches shorter. Nevertheless, a boy does not often get a chance like this, even if he sits and waits for it every Saturday evening in the year.
Sparkey was game enough, taking his banging like a man, and even getting home now and again on to young Spooney's face. But, on the whole, young Spooney had it his own way, and early in the third round knocked Sparkey senseless over the ropes, close to the corner at which I was sitting. Sparkey lay quiet for a bit. Then he opened his eyes. Someone pulled him on to his legs.
'I know'd I wasn't class enough for young Spooney,' he said, blinking his eyes.
'Never you mind, cocky, you done yer level,' said old Mugs. 'Now, gen'l'men, don't forget the loser.'
We made it up to Sparkey in coppers, young Spooney courteously collecting for his late opponent. And as Sparkey pulled on his shirt again in the corner, which was technically out of view, he looked as though he thought life was not such a bad thing after all.
' 'E'll be 'eard of, that boy will,' said a voice behind me. A shrewd, unshaved face, with a pair of piercing eyes, met me as I turned.
'Sat there night after night lookin' for 'is chance. Ah, everything comes to them as waits.'
A shuffling of feet, and a general squeeze up as the very last dozen that the room would hold elbowed their way in. Expectation was at its height. The benches that rose in tiers to the ceiling were crammed with eager heads in caps that leaned forward, and showed here and there a surreptitious cigarette, in spite of the periodical cry from old Mugs: 'No smokin', gen'l'men, if you please!'
Aloft, close by the entrance, the calm cap and serene face of an inspector. For, so far, we are well within the limits of the Law, and entitled, as British subjects, to police protection. Below, the little boys craned their necks over the rope, until old Mugs swayed round and swept them back.
Suddenly, I was aware of young Alf by my side, in his chair at his own corner. But young Alf translated. Young Alf in pink breeches, white stockings and shoes. Young Alf holding out his hands superciliously for his second, a bullet-headed ruffian, to put his gloves on. Young Alf paler than ever, but with eyes that whipped round the ring and settled with a blaze of fury on Ginger in the other corner. He neither spoke to me nor looked at me, but dropped his gloved hands and waited.
The master of the ceremonies stepped forward, cleared his throat, and braced his voice for an effort. The buzz of comment dropped.
Was there any objection to our old friend Mat Mullins as timekeeper?
None whatever. And Mat Mullins was entrusted with a watch. Mat Mullins was a heavily-built man in a grey muffler. The good-humoured lines of his face were strongly marked out with coal-dust.
As to judge, there could be no objection to old Spooney, if he didn't mind being called old Spooney, seeing that his son-
Carried by acclamation. And old Spooney, who turned out to be the shrewd-eyed man who sat behind me, deprecated the compliment, and accepted the office.
'I don't shove meself forward,' said old Spooney, 'but if there's no better man-'
That settled it, for we drowned his apodosis in a shout.
Again the master of the ceremonies braced himself for an effort.
'I beg to interjuice to your notice,' he said, resting one hand on the ropes and fixing an eye on a corner of the ceiling, 'Paddy of Lambeth, and Ginger of - of-'
'Camb'well,' prompted Ginger, from his corner.
'And Ginger of Camb'well. A six-round contest, fought strictly under the Marcus o' Queensberry's rules. Dunng this 'ere contest I must arst you to keep silence, gen'l'men all. Tween the rounds you can shout.'
We were all very silent now.
Mat Mullins, the timekeeper, leaned forward with the watch between two huge fists.
Old Mugs beamed pleasantly about him from the vacant corner under the entrance.
'I know you'll be 'ighly amused,' he said. 'They're good 'uns. Their fathers bred 'em awright.'
'Seconds out,' said Mat Mullins.
Old Mugs ducked under the rope.
Young Alf, known for the moment as Paddy, was up in an instant, crossed, touched the gloved hand of Ginger, and sprang at him with a tigerish gleam in his eyes.
It was no good calling for silence; for we all knew the boys meant business, and we stood up and shouted wildly. Young Alf was going for a knock-out for all he was worth, and Ginger nearly went down before his first onslaught. It was a wild and furious round. A whirl of fists, a grapple, a break away, a spring together, a frantic dance at the far corner of the ring, and - 'Time!'
'Put yer tongue right aht,' said young Alf's second, getting to work with the sponge, while young Alf lay back in his chair, drawing deep breaths. Then flap-flap with the towel, and again- 'Seconds out!'
A final flap with the towel, for every breath of air is valuable.
Young Alf's second is under the rope, and the boys are at it again.
They are still as fresh as paint, and again young Alf goes for Ginger, like a demon chased by Furies. But Ginger - I must take a look at Ginger. He is a little taller than young Alf, but slighter; for young Alf, stripped for fighting, shows a torso in which all the muscles stand out as though carved in marble. A lad with dark hair, a calm face, and a somewhat sinister smile. Such was Ginger. And Ginger had more science than young Alf. Guarding his head from damage he brought out a rosy flush on the marble of young Alf's ribs. I wondered why they called him Ginger, and I put the question to old Spooney at the end of the second round.
' 'Cause 'e's a bit of a 'ot 'un, I eggspect,' said old Spooney.
It was not to be a walk over for young Alf. By the fourth round the boys came up panting, and we rose and shrieked encouragement and abuse as young Alf went again for Ginger's face, and Ginger put his work in upon Young Alf's ribs. Ginger was smiling unpleasantly, and Young Alf's cheeks were puffing, while his eyes gleamed luridly.
On a sudden the shouting gathered itself into a single volley of sound, - a roar of protest, - and young Alf thought better of it.
He was not fighting scientifically; he fights to win; but there are some rules you may not break.
Old Spooney's breath was on my cheek.
Young Alf's breath is coming thick and fast now, as he lies back in his chair, and permits the bullet-headed ruffian to mop his face, and squirt water upon it from his mouth. He turns his head, and catches encouragement from eyes.
'I'll do it, if I bust me guts,' pants young Alf.
'Stick tongue aht, an' don't talk,' says his second. 'Blarst yer,' he adds, as he pursues his kindly office. And again the conscientious coal-heaver who holds the watch calls-
Again young Alf leaps upon Ginger. Hard pounding this time, though Ginger is still smiling ominously. Hard shouting, too, for we are getting near the end. But suddenly someone shouts louder than the rest. It is old Spooney behind me. Someone also leaps into the ring, and pulls young Alf off Ginger, whom he has driven into a corner.
It is tied up. Young Alf looks furtively round him during the operation, and I wonder if it was an accident.
At it again, both trying to drive the final blow home.
Old Spooney leans down to my ear.
'I never see a comicker, bleed'ner fight in all me life,' he says.
Young Alf is very pale, and struggling for breath. His second fills his mouth with water and sends it as from a fire hose into young Alf's face. Flap-flap with the towel, and at the word young Alf can just rise to his task. Ginger has to be propelled into the ring by friendly hands.
In less than half-a-minute Ginger slips, - he is down. We rise in our seats, and howl. But young Alf is too pumped to reach him before he has staggered to his feet again. The boys have fought themselves out; and when time is called, young Alf is feebly patting Ginger on the left ear, while Ginger is gently tickling young Alf in the ribs.
Another victory of science. For the verdict is with Ginger.
'Don't forget the loser, gen'l'men,' said the master of the ceremonies. And young Alf recovered sufficiently to carry round his cap for pennies.
'It won't end there,' said old Spooney, presently. 'They'll 'ave that out with the raws, sure's I'm talkin'.' I looked round for young Alf. He had disappeared, Ginger, too, was not to be seen. Already the corners were occupied by another couple of combatants; and a certain listlessness was noticeable in the audience. The great event of the evening was over.
I made my way with some difficulty to the exit. The police-inspector nodded to me as I passed.
'Good 'ealthy exercise, sir,' he said. Outside, four or five constables stood, beating their hands together; for it was a cold evening.
Beyond, the street stretched into gloom and emptiness. But under the gas-lamp at the turn stood a girl. I paused for a moment, uncertain of my course.
'Are you looking for Alf?' said the girl. I recognized the voice instantly. It was the voice I had heard at the end of Irish Court. 'I sin you with him lots of times,' she added, in explanation.
'You must be Alice,' I said. Where is Alf?'
'In there,' she replied, pointing with her finger. I can't go an' look at it. You go. Say I'm 'ere.'
A couple of lanterns gave light enough to show me a stable-yard. A dozen or so of partisans formed a ring. This time there was no noise, no seconds, no towel-flapping. Also there were no rules. They were fighting in savage silence. We, too, stood round tense and earnest, making no sound; for now at last we were breaking the law and disturbing the Queen's peace. It seemed to me a long time that I stood there watching the flicker of the lanterns on those two struggling figures. But probably only a or so passed before young Alf brought off his favourite manoeuvre in the kind of fighting where nothing is barred. With a quick butt of the head, and a raised elbow, he caught Ginger under the chin, and bore him to the ground, falling on top of him.
Young Alf rose and passed his arm across his lips. Ginger remained where he was.
That is an effective stroke, if you have cobbles underneath on which to crack your adversary's skull.
Someone brought a pail of water and threw it over Ginger, who presently sat up and looked about him.
Outside, under the lamp-post, I found Alice adjusting Young Alf's neckerchief.
'You won't ear no more from Ginger, not for a bit,' said young Alf. 'Now then, come on; don't 'ang about.'
They walked away together. Alice looked proud, - and so happy!