XXII. A Dress Rehearsal.
 

Some people in Trevor's place might have taken the earliest opportunity of confronting Rand-Brown, so as to settle the matter in hand without delay. Trevor thought of doing this, but finally decided to let the matter rest for a day, until he should have found out with some accuracy what chance he stood.

After four o'clock, therefore, on the next day, having had tea in his study, he went across to the baths, in search of O'Hara. He intended that before the evening was over the Irishman should have imparted to him some of his skill with the hands. He did not know that for a man absolutely unscientific with his fists there is nothing so fatal as to take a boxing lesson on the eve of battle. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. He is apt to lose his recklessness--which might have stood by him well--in exchange for a little quite useless science. He is neither one thing nor the other, neither a natural fighter nor a skilful boxer.

This point O'Hara endeavoured to press upon him as soon as he had explained why it was that he wanted coaching on this particular afternoon.

The Irishman was in the gymnasium, punching the ball, when Trevor found him. He generally put in a quarter of an hour with the punching-ball every evening, before Moriarty turned up for the customary six rounds.

"Want me to teach ye a few tricks?" he said. "What's that for?"

"I've got a mill coming on soon," explained Trevor, trying to make the statement as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world for a school prefect, who was also captain of football, head of a house, and in the cricket eleven, to be engaged for a fight in the near future.

"Mill!" exclaimed O'Hara. "You! An' why?"

"Never mind why," said Trevor. "I'll tell you afterwards, perhaps. Shall I put on the gloves now?"

"Wait," said O'Hara, "I must do my quarter of an hour with the ball before I begin teaching other people how to box. Have ye a watch?"

"Yes."

"Then time me. I'll do four rounds of three minutes each, with a minute's rest in between. That's more than I'll do at Aldershot, but it'll get me fit. Ready?"

"Time," said Trevor.

He watched O'Hara assailing the swinging ball with considerable envy. Why, he wondered, had he not gone in for boxing? Everybody ought to learn to box. It was bound to come in useful some time or other. Take his own case. He was very much afraid--no, afraid was not the right word, for he was not that. He was very much of opinion that Rand-Brown was going to have a most enjoyable time when they met. And the final house-match was to be played next Monday. If events turned out as he could not help feeling they were likely to turn out, he would be too battered to play in that match. Donaldson's would probably win whether he played or not, but it would be bitter to be laid up on such an occasion. On the other hand, he must go through with it. He did not believe in letting other people take a hand in settling his private quarrels.

But he wished he had learned to box. If only he could hit that dancing, jumping ball with a fifth of the skill that O'Hara was displaying, his wiriness and pluck might see him through. O'Hara finished his fourth round with his leathern opponent, and sat down, panting.

"Pretty useful, that," commented Trevor, admiringly.

"Ye should see Moriarty," gasped O'Hara.

"Now, will ye tell me why it is you're going to fight, and with whom you're going to fight?"

"Very well. It's with Rand-Brown."

"Rand-Brown!" exclaimed O'Hara. "But, me dearr man, he'll ate you."

Trevor gave a rather annoyed laugh. "I must say I've got a nice, cheery, comforting lot of friends," he said. "That's just what Clowes has been trying to explain to me."

"Clowes is quite right," said O'Hara, seriously. "Has the thing gone too far for ye to back out? Without climbing down, of course," he added.

"Yes," said Trevor, "there's no question of my getting out of it. I daresay I could. In fact, I know I could. But I'm not going to."

"But, me dearr man, ye haven't an earthly chance. I assure ye ye haven't. I've seen Rand-Brown with the gloves on. That was last term. He's not put them on since Moriarty bate him in the middles, so he may be out of practice. But even then he'd be a bad man to tackle. He's big an' he's strong, an' if he'd only had the heart in him he'd have been going up to Aldershot instead of Moriarty. That's what he'd be doing. An' you can't box at all. Never even had the gloves on."

"Never. I used to scrap when I was a kid, though."

"That's no use," said O'Hara, decidedly. "But you haven't said what it is that ye've got against Rand-Brown. What is it?"

"I don't see why I shouldn't tell you. You're in it as well. In fact, if it hadn't been for the bat turning up, you'd have been considerably more in it than I am."

"What!" cried O'Hara. "Where did you find it? Was it in the grounds? When was it you found it?"

Whereupon Trevor gave him a very full and exact account of what had happened. He showed him the two letters from the League, touched on Milton's connection with the affair, traced the gradual development of his suspicions, and described with some approach to excitement the scene in Ruthven's study, and the explanations that had followed it.

"Now do you wonder," he concluded, "that I feel as if a few rounds with Rand-Brown would do me good."

O'Hara breathed hard.

"My word!" he said, "I'd like to see ye kill him."

"But," said Trevor, "as you and Clowes have been pointing out to me, if there's going to be a corpse, it'll be me. However, I mean to try. Now perhaps you wouldn't mind showing me a few tricks."

"Take my advice," said O'Hara, "and don't try any of that foolery."

"Why, I thought you were such a believer in science," said Trevor in surprise.

"So I am, if you've enough of it. But it's the worst thing ye can do to learn a trick or two just before a fight, if you don't know anything about the game already. A tough, rushing fighter is ten times as good as a man who's just begun to learn what he oughtn't to do."

"Well, what do you advise me to do, then?" asked Trevor, impressed by the unwonted earnestness with which the Irishman delivered this pugilistic homily, which was a paraphrase of the views dinned into the ears of every novice by the school instructor.

"I must do something."

"The best thing ye can do," said O'Hara, thinking for a moment, "is to put on the gloves and have a round or two with me. Here's Moriarty at last. We'll get him to time us."

As much explanation as was thought good for him having been given to the newcomer, to account for Trevor's newly-acquired taste for things pugilistic, Moriarty took the watch, with instructions to give them two minutes for the first round.

"Go as hard as you can," said O'Hara to Trevor, as they faced one another, "and hit as hard as you like. It won't be any practice if you don't. I sha'n't mind being hit. It'll do me good for Aldershot. See?"

Trevor said he saw.

"Time," said Moriarty.

Trevor went in with a will. He was a little shy at first of putting all his weight into his blows. It was hard to forget that he felt friendly towards O'Hara. But he speedily awoke to the fact that the Irishman took his boxing very seriously, and was quite a different person when he had the gloves on. When he was so equipped, the man opposite him ceased to be either friend or foe in a private way. He was simply an opponent, and every time he hit him was one point. And, when he entered the ring, his only object in life for the next three minutes was to score points. Consequently Trevor, sparring lightly and in rather a futile manner at first, was woken up by a stinging flush hit between the eyes. After that he, too, forgot that he liked the man before him, and rushed him in all directions. There was no doubt as to who would have won if it had been a competition. Trevor's guard was of the most rudimentary order, and O'Hara got through when and how he liked. But though he took a good deal, he also gave a good deal, and O'Hara confessed himself not altogether sorry when Moriarty called "Time".

"Man," he said regretfully, "why ever did ye not take up boxing before? Ye'd have made a splendid middle-weight."

"Well, have I a chance, do you think?" inquired Trevor.

"Ye might do it with luck," said O'Hara, very doubtfully. "But," he added, "I'm afraid ye've not much chance."

And with this poor encouragement from his trainer and sparring-partner, Trevor was forced to be content.