The dress in which Miss Hopgood came to business was of light-coloured, limp material, ribbed with cheap black lace, like the hoops on a barrel. Her hat was a wide-rimmed ‘gem’, skewered so far forward that in her walks it preceded her by about half a yard; the high-heeled boots she affected accentuated the apparent precipitation of Dolly’s top-hamper.
Dolly was a plump and cheerful rapscallion, but her face had a certain granite quality characteristic of the daughters of slum families—a quality devised by an all-wise Providence, no doubt, as a provision against injury in contact with the bluchers of husbands and lovers, the ardour of whose affection, when accelerated by beer, is apt to express itself in kicks.
On the first appearance of Miss Hopgood the packer greeted her with breezy familiarity.
“’Ow is it, Sis?” he said. “Here, ain’t I seen you proppin’ the door at Crilly’s Assembly Toosday nights?”
Benno grinned approvingly. “Strike me, Feathers, you’ve fitted her in one!” he chortled.
Ginge certainly did suggest a larrikin hop.
“Gart! git back t’yer lorndry!” retorted the young lady. The remark conveyed a playful insinuation that Feathers and the clerk were of ignominious Asiatic origin.
There was usually some little diffidence about novitiates on the factory flat, but Miss Hopgood betrayed not the smallest Concern.
“Yow, there, Tilly! Scratchin’ a livin’ ’ere, are yeh?” she cried shrilly, shaking her crib basket at a distant paster. The ex-professional fat girl caught her eye. Miss Pilcher was wearing a superior expression. Ginge raised her hand, and wagged playful fingers at Martha. “Buck up, puds,” she said, “you’re all right. They’re payin’ quids a bar’l fer your sort at Stonkie Watson’s.” Watson’s was the soap-boiling establishment that gave rank to a river-side suburb. The fat girl resented the insinuation with a loathly sneer, and Ginge passed by in triumph.
Ginge Hopgood was just as gaily impertinent with the comps and machine hands on the printers’ flat, and hailed them from the stairs with frank familiarity. Clinker Gill, one of the freeders, was Sophie Oddie’s boy, but Miss Hopgood assumed possession without a trace of compunction. Clinker, greatly flattered to find himself the chief object of her somewhat personal back-street flippancies, succumbed instantly, and Sophie ceased to be an item in his daily life.
Possibly Clinker lived to repent his perfidy. Sometimes he might have looked as if he did, but he never admitted it. Master Gill was about seventeen, a round-headed lad with closely-mown black hair, and a countenance the utter commonplaceness of which beggared criticism. On the morning of the fifth day after Miss Hopgood’s arrival, Clinker came to work with a damaged eye, and all day his manner was subdued, not to say penitent.
“How’d it ’appen, Ned?” asked Feathers, when Gill came up with a bundle of printed tea papers.
“Bit iv a dust-up with a bloke down ar way,” said Clinker.
Feathers had all a woman’s curiosity about details.
“S’pose th’ other lad won’t be leavin’ his bed this side Christmas?” he said.
“Oh, I dunno.” Clinker was becomingly modest. “There ain’t nothin’ much wrong with him, barrin’ two teeth out ’n’ a thick ear.”
“Give us the strength iv it, Ned. Did yeh hand him the pass out?”
Clinker Gill grew confidential. His opponent was a rival claimant for Ginge’s favours. Miss Hopgood had had another boy for some months, a boy who was prepared to assert his prior rights on the gory battlefield, and who had already done so on two occasions, to Clinker’s great discomfort. The claimant’s name was Holland. He was a stiff-built youth, with large freckles and a fair down all over his face. Also, he was an impetuous and unscrupulous fighter, and lurked at corners to intercept Clinker and Dolly, charging down upon the former, and commencing hostilities without fair and sufficient warning.
In the course of the following fortnight Clinker had four scraps with Tommy Holland—wholly unsatisfactory Street ‘scrims’ that were interrupted by the appearance of a John, or the intervention of some benevolently-disposed old lady or gentleman; but the feeder always sustained more or less damage, and he burned to fight a conclusive engagement with his hated rival.
Apparently there was no peaceful way of settling the matter in dispute, since Ginge could not be brought to see that she was called upon to accept any responsibility. The girl would not give a decision. She might walk home with Clinker in the evening but she would stroll out with Tommy at night, and Gill was the occasion of a most unusual pleasant Sunday afternoon in the Botanical Gardens. He had discovered Holland reposing by Miss Hopgood on the sward. It took three gardeners and a whole revival meeting to stop the fight.
Truth to tell, neither young gentleman seemed to expect Dolly to express any partiality, but the packer sometimes reproached her in a frivolous spirit. “Ain’t yeh announced yer choice yet, Ginge?” he asked. “’Strewth, if yeh can’t make up yer mind which is the prettiest, why not toss ’em for it—double or quits?”
“Not me,” said Dolly. “I ain’t took on either of ’em fer keeps. I ain’t one fer tyin’ meself down.”
“Then this ’ere bloodshed is t’ continue to the bitter end?”
“My oath it is! While these blokes is fightin’ each other they ain’t fightin’ me—see?” It was a specimen of slum philosophy that tickled the packer immensely.
“Jimmy Jee! You’re a bird,” he said delightedly. “What you don’t know ain’t in the books.”
Clinker Gill came to Feathers’ board a few days after this, with an air of great importance.
“It’s all fixed up, Mills,” he said.
“What,” cried the packer, “has she given yeh brusher?”
Clinker wagged his round head confidently. “No blinded fear,” he said. “Ginge knows when she’s got a good thing. The fight’s arranged ’tween me ’n’ th’ other bloke. We fight the prelim. to the Bull Green ’n’ Coffee Hogan scrap et the Smithers Street Hathletic Club’s room on Monday night fortnight, catch-weights, fer harf-a-Jim ’n’ a five-bob side wager—eight rounds, one t’ win.”
“Go on,” ejaculated Feathers in proud appreciation.
“Yes, Markis o’ Queensbee rules, four-ounce gloves, ’n’ regerlation trunks. Prelimery starts punctual et eight; prices two, one, ’n’ a tizzie. We’ve both signed harticles.”
“Good e-nough,” cried the packer. “I must ’ave a deener’s worth iv that.”
During the following fortnight Clinker Gill was the hero of Spats’ factory. He trained industriously night and morning, and at lunch time he boxed vigorously on a full stomach in the lift-corner with any good friend who would oblige him with a generous hiding.
Clinker got punching enough in twelve days to have made him indifferent to anything short of a mad bull-camel. The bigger fellows nearly belted the head off him in the kindliest spirit imaginable, believing they were doing him a great favour, and everybody offered him advice and gave him useful hints to beginners, especially Benno the clerk. Mr Dickson insisted with great wisdom on the necessity of keeping a straight left. He committed himself no further, but he impressed that one point on Gill at least twenty times a day.
“I sticks my left into ’em,” said Benno. “Never do nothin’ else, but jab ’em with a straight left ez they come in, savin’me right fer a finisher.”
Mr Dickson had never fought a round in his life, but he was very impressive, and Clinker accepted his advice with proper respect.
Master Gill bought a shilling book on boxing, and started to learn it off by heart, from cover to cover, but he was a poor study, and had only mastered about three chapters relating to rules, training and attitudes, when the eventful night arrived.
The room of the Smithers Street Athletic Club was over a threepenny hair-cut saloon in a cheap, crowded suburb. It was a small, low, dark apartment, with a tiny ring in the centre, and just space enough between the ropes and one wall for the high-priced patrons to creep to the cramped gallery rising abruptly from the ringside to the roof. The cheap ‘sports’ were packed in a space twelve feet by twelve on the other side of roped the enclosure, and a third set of supporters gathered on the roof on the occasion of a really popular engagement, and looked on the warfare through the broken shingles. In the course of the battle the proprietor of the threepenny saloon went among these latter with a collection box, and any spectator refusing to contribute was summarily chucked off. The chucking entailed a fall of six feet to an adjoining roof.
Feathers, Benno, the Don and several comps from the factory occupied seats in the shilling reserve, the top half of the gallery close to the roof, where the smoke accumulated and the heat of perdition assailed them. For it was a summer night, and the room was packed as tight as it could hold with baking humanity, half of whom tugged at pipes which sizzled like frying-pans and stank like future punishment. The other half smoked cigarettes.
Benno took immediate steps to let it be known that he was a personal friend of one of the boxers, and in all probability had taught the lad all he knew, and then, finding nobody disposed to bet on the preliminary, he offered five to four on Clinker Gill.
“Five t’ four in quids,” said the clerk, addressing a ‘tough’ who was nursing a brindle bulldog with a face like a Japanese nightmare. Putting a trace of pleading in his voice, he added:
“Come on, Ned, be a sport. I’ll lay six t’ four the Clinker outs him inside iv five rounds.”
The tough answered hoarsely that he hadn’t four warts, and the dog growled in a venomous way, so Benno did not press his point.
At twenty past eight Tommy Holland came into the ring, followed a few minutes later by Clinker Gill and his seconds, two lads from a racing stable with which Clinker was acquainted. Tommy Holland looked strong and confident, but Clinker was pale and very nervous. He trembled visibly, his knees knocked as he sat in his chair. One of the seconds noticed this, and kicked the lad disgustedly.
“See ’ere, Clink,” he said, “drop yer bundle, ’n’ make a guy iv me, ’n’ I’ll pelt yeh a few meself.”
Clinker’s lip trembled, and a tear rolled down his cheek, which he wiped with his glove.
The MC. and official announcer was in the ring. He was a retired lightweight run to flesh, and sported a face like a freak potato.
“Gents,” he said, addressing the dress circle, “I’ll ask yez kindly t’ put out yer smokes ’n’ give the boys a chance. Youse,” he added, turning with some fierceness on the sixpenny patrons, “stop smokin’ ’r ye’ll land in the fat. A let me ’ave ter talk t’ yer agin. Gents,” he repeated, softening his voice, “this ’ere’s a perliminry iv eight rounds, ’tween a pair iv unknowns. I may tell yeh it all erbout a bit iv skirt, ’n’ I think I can promise yeh a dead willin’ go. Nar then, lads, get ready.”
The announcer then joined the seconds, and there was some argument over the appointment of a referee. During the discussion Clinker’s nervousness increased to such an extent that he began to whimper piteously, mopping up his tears with his gloves.
The announcer stepped forward again. “Is Mr Peter Nickie present in th’ ’all?” he cried.
Mr Nicklde was present. He arose with dignity. He was a fat and florid bookmaker, with a reputation for paying successful backers with stoush.
“Both parties is willin’ t’ ’ave you referee this ’ere, Pete,” said the announcer, and Peter obligingly rolled through the ropes, and swayed into a corner.
Mr Nickie was now seen to be lamentably drunk. He propped himself securely against a post.
“Is yez all ready?” he said. “Shake ’an’s!”
The boys advanced into the centre, Clinker pushed behind by his second, and touched gloves. They returned to their corners, and the timekeeper smote the gong, a superannuated dinner tray.
“Box On!” gurgled the referee, and Clinker Gill faced his enemy.
Clinker was snivelling; his face was very white; there was a wild look in his eye. The boys circled round and round, moving their hands mechanically. For a whole minute there was no attempt to strike a blow; then Tommy rushed furiously, whirling his arms, and Clinker went down. He rose again, still weeping and Holland rushed him again, and again Gill, was prostrated by the impact. On his hands and knees, his face pathetically contorted, and tears streaming down his cheeks, Clinker seemed, to be looking for a way of escape, but all exits were blocked. It seemed as if the whole world was screaming derision at him.
Gill arose, and Tommy charged him. Utterly demoralized, Clinker turned and ran. He ran three times round the ring, hotly pursued by Tommy Holland, and the onlookers roared with laughter. After the third lap, Tommy overtook Gill, and hit him in the small of the back, and Clinker fell again. While he was down the gong sounded, and the pride of Spats’ factory was dragged into his corner, and sat there, blubbering dismally, while his seconds fanned him, and covered him with scoffing and curses.
Tommy Holland came straight from his corner at the sound of the gong, and hit Clinker hard on the nose, and Clinker went to the floor. Clinker got up and Tommy hit him again.
“Yeh blinded cow!” squealed Gill, and he whirled a glove on to Tommy’s ear. He hurled his left, and hit Tommy on the mark. The crowd applauded. Clinker’s blubbering was loud now, but there was a note of anger in it. He charged at his opponent, head down, and pounded with both hands. Clinching, he got Holland’s head under his arm, and punched him five times on the nose, while Tommy’s seconds howled for a foul and the referee nodded in his corner, swaying on the ropes.
When the gong clashed the boxers continued fiercely fighting, and Clinker’s seconds had to tear him off. Benno was applauding like a madman, and yelling advice. The crowd was delighted. Clinker made a dash out of his chair to get at the foe again, and had to be carried struggling to the seat.
Gill was no longer pale, and his nervousness had evaporated. The third round was full of fight. Clinker waded in. He forgot all he had learned, and utterly ignored Benno’s wise advice. He hit in holds, he hit anyhow; he butted, and palmed, and screwed, and broke every known rule. Tommy had a cut lip, a bleeding ear, and a mouse on one eye. Again the pride of Spat’s had to be torn from his opponent.
The boys spent the greater part of the fourth round on the floor, but time was not wasted. They fought there just as well as anywhere else, pasting each other desperately. Clinker bumped Tommy’s nose against the boards, and while the crowd roared and laughed, the master of ceremonies woke up the referee, and expostulated profanely. Mr Nickie blinked about vaguely, realized where he was, and murmured:
“Sh all ready? Shake ’an’s.”
When the two minutes were up the seconds had to disentangle the boys, and drag them to their corners.
“Yiv got ’im done in, Clinker!” yelled the passionate Benno. “He’s your mutton. Keep that left goin’ how I told yeh, ’n’ it’s a moral.”
But Clinker was deaf and blind to everything but his mighty wrath. He charged Tommy, and felled him, he smote him on the chin as he was rising, and Tommy clung to his legs, and climbed up by them, and punched Clinker in the left eye, putting that organ completely out of action.
In the sixth they were both tired, but continued to fight like terriers. In the seventh Clinker had Holland down three times, but in the eighth and last Tommy freshened up, and made it very willing. They finished on the floor, punching, clawing, and even kicking.
The lads were carried to their chairs, and once more the referee was shaken up.
“Hello! what’s matter?” said Mr Nickie.
“A decision—give a decision, blarst it!” hissed the master of ceremonies behind his hand.
Mr Peter Nickie bucked up, he moved into the centre of the ring, and held aloft an impressive palm.
“Gen’lemen,” he said—“Smith the winner!”
“’Ere, ’ere,” hissed the M.C., “there ain’t no Smith in the fight!”
“Wha’s that?” said the referee, staggering to the ropes.
“I say they ain’t no Smith in the fight. Which lad are yeh givin’ it to?”
“Smith the winner!” repeated Mr Nickie, with the air of a man of marked integrity.
“But, dammitall, they ain’t no Smith!”
“Look ’ere, Spud Malone,” said Mr Nickie with great dignity, “are you refereein’ thish fight, ’r ’m I?”
“But I tell yeh they ain’t no Smith.”
“Wha’ th’ ’ell I care? Smith the winner!” Then the referee rolled out of the ring and fell into his seat, and the battered boys were led away to the changing room downstairs, while the over-joyed crowd, more delighted with the fight than it would have been with a pantomime, simmered down for the serious business of the evening.
The error of Mr Nickie left things practically as they were with Clinker Gill and Tommy Holland; and Dolly, who had spent the night of the fight in full enjoyment of a darnce at the Six-penny Quadrille, remained perfectly impartial, so far as they were concerned. This was fair, since it could be demonstrated quite satisfactorily that Clinker had won on points and Tommy had won on a foul.
On the Saturday night twelve days later, two young gentlemen were leaning in fraternal sympathy against the front of a cobbler’s shop in the push-ridden suburb. The were Clinker Gill and Tommy Holland. Some traces of their battle lingered on the countenances of both, but they were now bosom friends, drawn together by a common sorrow.
A young lady passed, walking daintily on high-heeled shoes, with a characteristic projection of the figure, and wearing a large hat liberally feathered. By her side walked a young man, his thumbs in the arm-holes of his vest, his hat hung precariously on the back of his head, a blazer screaming the local football colours tossed about his neck, his cold grey eye defying creation.
Clinker nudged Tommy Holland. “There she goes,” he whispered.
“Let ’er,” growled, Holland, “the nark!”
The passing fair was Ginge Hopgood. The young gentleman in charge was ‘Nigger’ Tish, a promising welterweight.
Clinker and Tommy have now resigned all pretensions to Dolly’s favour, knowing themselves hopelessly outclassed.