Arthur Morrison.

Tales of Mean Streets



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He fell to watching the bout. It was a hard fight, and both the lads were swinging the right again and again for a knock-out. But the pace was too hot, and they were soon breathing like men about to sneeze, wearily pawing at each other, while their heads hung forward. Somebody jogged him in the back, and he found he must get ready. His dressing was simple. An ill-conditioned old pair of rubber gymnasium shoes replaced his equally ill-conditioned bluchers, and a cotton singlet his shirt; but his baggy corduroys, ragged at the ankles and doubtful at the seat, remained.

Presently the last pair of boxers was brought into the dressing-room, and one of the seconds, a battered old pug with one eye, at once seized Neddy. "Come along, young 'un," he said. "I'm your bloke. Got no flannels? Awright. Jump on the scales."

There was no doubt as to the weight. He had scaled at eight stone thirteen; now it was eight stone bare. Patsy Beard, on the other hand, weighed the full nine, without an ounce to spare.

"You're givin' 'im a stone," said the old pug; "all the more credit 'idin' of 'im. 'Ere, let's shove 'em on. Feel 'em." He grinned and blinked his solitary eye as he pulled on Neddy's hand one of a very black and long-worn pair of boxing-gloves. They were soft and flaccid; Neddy's heart warmed toward the one-eyed man, for well he knew from many knocks that the softer the glove the harder the fist feels through it. "Sawftest pair in the place, s'elp me," grunted the second, with one glove hanging from his teeth. "My lad 'ad 'em last time. Come on."

He snatched a towel and a bottle of water, and hurried Neddy from the dressing-room to the ring. Neddy sat in his chair in the ring-corner, and spread his arms on the ropes: while his second, arms uplifted, stood before him and ducked solemnly forward and back with the towel flicking overhead. While he was fanning, Neddy was still conscious of the lump of sausage-roll in his chest. Also he fell to wondering idly why they called Beard Patsy, when his first name was Joe. The same reflection applied to Tab Rosser, and Hocko Jones, and Tiggy Magson. But certainly he felt hollow and sick in the belly. Could he stand punching? It would never do to chuck it half through. Still —

"Ready!" sang the timekeeper.

The old pug threw the towel over his arm. "'Ave a moistener," he said, presenting the water-bottle to Neddy's mouth. "Don't swaller any," he added, as his principal took a large gulp. "Spit it out."

"Seconds out of the ring!"

The old prize-fighter took his bottle and climbed through the ropes. "Don't go in-fightin'," he whispered from behind. "Mark 'im on the stickin'-plaster; an' if you don't give 'im a 'idin', bli' me, I'll give you one!"

"Time!"

The seconds seized the chairs and dragged them out of the ring, as the lads advanced and shook hands. Patsy Beard flung back his right foot, and made a flashy prance with his left knee as they began to spar for an opening: it was Patsy's way. All Neddy's anxiety was gone. The moment his right foot dropped behind his left, and his left hand rocked, knuckles up, before him, he was a competent workman, with all his tools in order. Even the lump of dough on his chest he felt no more.

"Buy, buy!" bawled a wag in the crowd, as a delicate allusion to Beard's more ordinary occupation. Patsy grinned at the compliment, but Neddy confined his attention to business. He feinted with his left, and got back; but Patsy was not to be drawn. Then Neddy stepped in and led quickly, ducking the counter and repeating before getting away. Patsy came with a rush and fought for the body, but Neddy slipped him, and got in one for nothing on the ear. The company howled.

They sparred in the middle. Patsy led perfunctorily with the left now and again, while his right elbow undulated nervously. That foretold an attempt to knock out with the right: precautions, a straight and persistent left, and a wary eye. So Neddy kept poking out his left, and never lost sight of the court-plaster, never of the shifty right. Give and take was the order of the round, and they fought all over the ring, Patsy Beard making for close quarters, and Neddy keeping off, and stopping him with the left. Neddy met a straight punch on the nose that made his eyes water, but through the tears he saw the plaster displaced, and a tiny stream of blood trickling toward the corner of Patsy's mouth. Plainly it was a cut. He broke ground, stopped half-way and banged in left and right. He got a sharp rive on the neck for his pains, and took the right on his elbow; but he had landed on the spot, and the tiny streak of blood was smeared out wide across Patsy's face. The company roared and whistled with enthusiasm. It was a capital rally.

But now Neddy's left grew slower, and was heavy to lift. From time to time Patsy got in one for nothing, and soon began to drive him about the ring. Neddy fought on, weak and gasping, and longed for the call of time. His arms felt as if they were hung with lead, and he could do little more than push feebly. He heard the yell of many voices, "Now then, Patsy, hout him! 'Ave 'im out! That's it, Patsy, another like that! Keep on, Patsy!"

Patsy kept on. Right and left, above and below, Neddy could see the blows coming. But he was powerless to guard or to return. He could but stagger about, and now and again swing an ineffectual arm as it hung from the shoulder. Presently a flush hit on the nose drove him against the ropes, another in the ribs almost through them. But a desperate, wide whirl of his right brought it heavily on Patsy's tender spot, and tore open the cut. Patsy winced, and —

"Time!"

Neddy was grabbed at the waist and put in his chair. "Good lad!" said the one-eyed pug in his ear as he sponged his face. "Nothink like pluck. But you mustn't go to pieces 'alf through the round. Was it a awk'ard poke upsetcher?"

Neddy, lying back and panting wildly, shook his head as he gazed at the ceiling. "Awright; try an' save yourself a bit. Keep yer left goin' – you roasted 'im good with that; 'e'll want a yard o' plaster to-night. An' when 'e gits leadin' loose, take it auf an' give him the right straight from the guard – if you know the trick. Point o' the jaw that's for, mind. 'Ave a cooler." He took a mouthful of water and blew it in a fine spray in Neddy's face, wiped it down, and began another overhead fanning.

"Seconds out of the ring!" called the timekeeper.

"Go it, my lad," – thus a whisper from behind, – "you can walk over 'im!" And Neddy felt the wet sponge squeezed against the back of his neck, and the cool water trickling down his spine.

"Time!"

Neddy was better, though there was a worn feeling in his arm-muscles. Patsy's cut had been well sponged, but it still bled, and Patsy meant giving Neddy no rest. He rushed at once, but was met by a clean right-hander, slap on the sore spot. "Bravo, Neddy!" came a voice, and the company howled as before. Patsy was steadied. He sparred with some caution, twitching the cheek next the cut. Neddy would not lead (for he must save himself), and so the two sparred for a few seconds. Then Patsy rushed again, and Neddy got busy with both hands. Once he managed to get the right in from the guard as his second had advised, but not heavily. He could feel his strength going – earlier than in the last round – and Patsy was as strong and determined as ever. Another rush carried Neddy against the ropes, where he got two heavy body blows and a bad jaw-rattler. He floundered to the right in an attempt to slip, and fell on his face. He rolled on his side, however, and was up again, breathless and unsteady. There was a sickening throbbing in the crown of his head, and he could scarce lift his arms. But there was no respite: the other lad was at him again, and he was driven across the ring and back, blindly pushing his aching arms before him, while punch followed punch on nose, ears, jaws, and body, till something began to beat inside his head, louder and harder than all beside, stunning and sickening him. He could hear the crowd roaring still, but it seemed further off; and the yells of "That's it, Patsy! Now you've got 'im! Keep at 'im! Hout 'im this time!" came from some other building close by, where somebody was getting a bad licking. Somebody with no control of his legs, and no breath to spit away the blood from his nose as it ran and stuck over his lips. Somebody praying for the end of the three minutes that seemed three hours, and groaning inwardly because of a lump of cold lead in his belly that had once been sausage-roll. Somebody to whom a few called – still in the other building – "Chuck it, Neddy; it's no good. Why don'cher chuck it?" while others said, "Take 'im away, tyke 'im away!" Then something hit him between the eyes, and some other thing behind the head; that was one of the posts. He swung an arm, but it met nothing; then the other, and it struck somewhere; and then there was a bang that twisted his head, and hard boards were against his face. O it was bad, but it was a rest.

Cold water was on his face, and somebody spoke. He was in his chair again, and the one-eyed man was sponging him. "It was the call o' time as saved ye then," he said; "you'd never 'a' got up in the ten seconds. Y' ain't up to another round, are ye? Better chuck it. It's no disgrace, after the way you've stood up." But Neddy shook his head. He had got through two of the three rounds, and didn't mean throwing away a chance of saving the bout.

"Awright, if you won't," his Mentor said. "Nothink like pluck. But you're no good on points – a knock-out's the on'y chance. Nurse yer right, an' give it 'im good on the point. 'E's none so fresh 'isself; 'e's blowed with the work, an' you pasted 'im fine when you did 'it. Last thing, just before 'e sent ye down, ye dropped a 'ot 'un on 'is beak. Didn't see it, didjer?" The old bruiser rubbed vigorously at his arms, and gave him a small, but welcome, drink of water.

"Seconds out of the ring!"

The one-eyed man was gone once more, but again his voice came from behind. "Mind – give it 'im 'ard and give it 'im soon, an' if you feel groggy, chuck it d'reckly. If ye don't, I'll drag ye out by the slack o' yer trousis an' disgrace ye."

"Time!"

Neddy knew there was little more than half a minute's boxing left in him – perhaps not so much. He must do his best at once. Patsy was showing signs of hard wear, and still blew a little: his nose was encouragingly crimson at the nostrils, and the cut was open and raw. He rushed in with a lead which Neddy ducked and cross-countered, though ineffectually. There were a few vigorous exchanges, and then Neddy staggered back from a straight drive on the mouth. There was a shout of "Patsy!" and Patsy sprang in, right elbow all a-jerk, and flung in the left. Neddy guarded wildly, and banged in the right from the guard. Had he hit? He had felt no shock, but there was Patsy, lying on his face.

The crowd roared and roared again. The old pug stuffed his chair hastily through the ropes, and Neddy sank into it, panting, with bloodshot eyes. Patsy lay still. The timekeeper watched the seconds-hand pass its ten points, and gave the word, but Patsy only moved a leg. Neddy Milton had won.

"Brayvo, young 'un," said the old fighter, as he threw his arm about Neddy's waist, and helped him to the dressing-room. "Cleanest knock-out I ever see – smack on the point o' the jaw. Never thought you'd 'a' done it. I said there was nothink like pluck, did'n' I? 'Ave a wash now, an' you'll be all the better for the exercise. Give us them gloves – I'm off for the next bout." And he seized another lad, and marched him out.

"'Ave a drop o' beer," said one of Neddy's new-won friends, extending a tankard. He took it, though he scarcely felt awake. He was listless and weak, and would not have moved for an hour had he been left alone. But Patsy was brought to, and sneezed loudly, and Neddy was hauled over to shake hands with him.

"You give me a 'ell of a doin'," said Neddy, "I never thought I'd beat you."

"Beat me? well you ain't, 'ave you? 'Ow?"

"Knock-out," answered several at once.

"Well, I'm damned," said Patsy Beard…

In the bar, after the evening's business, Neddy sat and looked wistfully at the stout red-faced men who smoked fourpenny cigars and drank special Scotch; but not one noticed him. His luck had not come after all. But there was the second round of bouts, and the final, in a week's time – perhaps it would come then. If he could only win the final – then it must come. Meanwhile he was sick and faint, and felt doubtful about getting home. Outside it was raining hard. He laid his head on the bar table at which he was sitting, and at closing time there they found him asleep.

IN BUSINESS

There was a great effervescence of rumor in Cubitt Town when Ted Munsey came into money. Ted Munsey, commonly alluded to as Mrs. Munsey's 'usband, was a moulder with a regular job at Moffat's: a large, quiet man of forty-five, the uncomplaining appurtenance of his wife. This was fitting, for she had married beneath her, her father having been a dock timekeeper.

To come into money is an unusual feat in Cubitt Town; a feat, nevertheless, continually contemplated among possibilities by all Cubitt Towners; who find nothing else in the Sunday paper so refreshing as the paragraphs headed "Windfall for a Cabman" and "A Fortune for a Pauper," and who cut them out to pin over the mantelpiece. The handsome coloring of such paragraphs was responsible for many bold flights of fancy in regard to Ted Munsey's fortune: Cubitt Town, left to itself, being sterile soil for the imagination. Some said that the Munseys had come in for chests packed with bank notes, on the decease of one of Mrs. Munsey's relations, of whom she was wont to hint. Others put it at a street full of houses, as being the higher ideal of wealth. A few, more romantically given, imagined vaguely of ancestral lands and halls, which Mrs. Munsey and her forbears had been "done out of" for many years by the lawyers. All which Mrs. Munsey, in her hour of triumph, was at little pains to discount, although, in simple fact, the fortune was no more than a legacy of a hundred pounds from Ted's uncle, who had kept a public-house in Deptford.

Of the hundred pounds Mrs. Munsey took immediate custody. There was no guessing what would have become of it in Ted's hands; probably it would have been, in chief part, irrecoverably lent; certainly it would have gone and left Ted a moulder at Moffat's, as before. With Mrs. Munsey there was neither hesitation nor difficulty. The obvious use of a hundred pounds was to put its possessors into business – which meant a shop; to elevate them socially at a single bound beyond the many grades lying between the moulder and the small tradesman. Wherefore the Munseys straightway went into business. Being equally ignorant of every sort of shopkeeping, they were free to choose the sort they pleased; and thus it was that Mrs. Munsey decided upon drapery and haberdashery, Ted's contribution to the discussion being limited to a mild hint of greengrocery and coals, instantly suppressed as low. Nothing could be more genteel than drapery, and it would suit the girls. General chandlery, sweetstuff, oil, and firewood – all these were low, comparatively. Drapery it was, and quickly; for Mrs. Munsey was not wont to shilly-shally. An empty shop was found in Bromley, was rented, and was stocked as far as possible. Tickets were hung upon everything, bearing a very large main figure with a very small three-farthings beside it, and the thing was done. The stain of moulding was washed from the scutcheon; the descent thereunto from dock timekeeping was redeemed fivefold; dock timekeeping itself was left far below, with carpentering, shipwrighting, and engine-fitting. The Munseys were in business.

Ted Munsey stood about helplessly and stared, irksomely striving not to put his hands in his pockets, which was low; any lapse being instantly detected by Mrs. Munsey, who rushed from all sorts of unexpected places and corrected the fault vigorously.

"I didn't go for to do it, Marier," he explained penitently. "It's 'abit. I'll get out of it soon. It don't look well, I know, in a business; but it do seem a comfort, somehow."

"O you an' your comfort! A lot you study my comfort, Hedward!" – for he was Ted no more – "a-toilin' an' a-moilin' with everything to think of myself while you look on with your 'ands in your pockets. Do try an' not look like a stuck ninny, do!" And Hedward, whose every attempt at help or suggestion had been severely repulsed, slouched uneasily to the door, and strove to look as business-like as possible.

"There you go again, stickin' in the doorway and starin' up an' down the street, as though there was no business doin'" – there was none, but that might not be confessed. "D'y' expect people to come in with you a-fillin' up the door? Do come in, do! You'd be better out o' the shop altogether."

Hedward thought so too, but said nothing. He had been invested with his Sunday clothes of lustrous black, and brought into the shop to give such impression of a shop-walker as he might. He stood uneasily on alternate feet, and stared at the ceiling, the floor, or the space before him, with an unhappy sense of being on show and not knowing what was expected of him. He moved his hands purposelessly, and knocked things down with his elbows; he rubbed his hair all up behind, and furtively wiped the resulting oil from his hand on his trousers: never looking in the least degree like a shop-walker.

The first customer was a very small child who came for a ha'porth of pins, and on whom Hedward gazed with much interest and respect, while Mrs. Munsey handed over the purchase: abating not a jot of his appreciation when the child returned, later, to explain that what she really wanted was sewing cotton. Other customers were disappointingly few. Several old neighbors came in from curiosity, to talk and buy nothing. One woman, who looked at many things without buying, was discovered after her departure to have stolen a pair of stockings; and Hedward was duly abused for not keeping a sharp look-out while his wife's back was turned. Finally, the shutters went up on a day's takings of three and sevenpence farthing, including a most dubious threepenny bit. But then, as Mrs. Munsey said, when you are in business you must expect trade to vary; and of course there would be more customers when the shop got known; although Hedward certainly might have taken the trouble to find one in a busier thoroughfare. Hedward (whose opinion in that matter, as in others, had never been asked) retired to the back-yard to smoke a pipe – a thing he had been pining for all day; but was quickly recalled (the pipe being a clay) upon Mrs. Munsey's discovery that the act could be observed from a neighbor's window. He was continually bringing the family into disgrace, and Mrs. Munsey despaired aloud over him far into the night.

The days came and went, and trade varied, as a fact, very little indeed. Between three and sevenpence farthing and nothing the scope for fluctuation is small, and for some time the first day's record was never exceeded. But on the fifth day a customer bought nearly seven shillings' worth all at once. Her husband had that day returned from sea with money, and she, after months of stint, indulged in an orgie of haberdashery at the nearest shop. Mrs. Munsey was reassured. Trade was increasing; perhaps an assistant would be needed soon, in addition to the two girls.

Only the younger of the girls, by the bye, had as yet taken any active interest in the business: Emma, the elder, spending much of her time in a bedroom, making herself unpresentable by inordinate blubbering. This was because of Mrs. Munsey's prohibition of more company-keeping with Jack Page. Jack was a plumber, just out of his time – rather a catch for a moulder's daughter, but impossible, of course, for the daughter of people in business, as Emma should have had the proper feeling to see for herself. This Emma had not: she wallowed in a luxury of woe, exacerbated on occasions to poignancy by the scoldings and sometimes by the thumpings of her mar; and neglected even the select weekly quadrille class, membership whereof was part of the novel splendor.

But there was never again a seven-shilling customer. The state of trade perplexed Mrs. Munsey beyond telling. Being in business, one must, by the circumstance, have a genteel competence: this was an elementary axiom in Cubitt Town. But where was the money? What was the difference between this and other shops? Was a screw loose anywhere? In that case it certainly could not be her fault; wherefore she nagged Hedward.

One day a polite young man called in a large pony-trap and explained the whole mystery. Nobody could reasonably expect to succeed in a business of this sort who did not keep a good stock of the fancy aprons and lace bows made by the firm he was charged to represent. Of course he knew what business was, and that cash was not always free, but that need never hinder transactions with him: three months' credit was the regular thing with any respectable, well-established business concern, and in three months one would certainly sell all the fancy aprons and lace bows of this especial kind and price that one had room for. And he need scarcely remind a lady of Mrs. Munsey's business experience that fancy aprons and lace bows – of the right sort – were by far the most profitable goods known to the trade. Everybody knew that. Should they say a gross of each, just to go on with? No? Well, then half a gross. These prices were cut so near that it really did not pay to split the gross, but this time, to secure a good customer, he would stretch a point. Mrs. Munsey was enlightened. Plainly the secret of success in business was to buy advantageously, in the way the polite young man suggested, sell at a good price, and live on the profits: merely paying over the remainder at the end of three months. Nothing could be simpler. So she began the system forthwith. Other polite young men called, and further certain profits were arranged for on similar terms.



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