The White Feather by P.G. Wodehouse
XXII. A Good Finish
"Final, Light-Weights," shouted the referee.
A murmur of interest from the ring-side chairs.
"R. D. Sheen, Wrykyn College."
Sheen got his full measure of applause this time. His victories in the preliminary bouts had won him favour with the spectators.
"J. Peteiro, Ripton School."
"Go it, Ripton!" cried a voice from near the door. The referee frowned in the direction of this audacious partisan, and expressed a hope that the audience would kindly refrain from comment during the rounds.
Then he turned to the ring again, and announced the names a second time.
The Ripton man was sitting with a hand on each knee, listening to the advice of his school instructor, who had thrust head and shoulders through the ropes, and was busy impressing some point upon him. Sheen found himself noticing the most trivial things with extraordinary clearness. In the front row of the spectators sat a man with a parti-coloured tie. He wondered idly what tie it was. It was rather like one worn by members of Templar's house at Wrykyn. Why were the ropes of the ring red? He rather liked the colour. There was a man lighting a pipe. Would he blow out the match or extinguish it with a wave of the hand? What a beast Peteiro looked. He really was a nigger. He must look out for that right of his. The straight left. Push it out. Straight left ruled the boxing world. Where was Joe? He must have missed the train. Or perhaps he hadn't been able to get away. Why did he want to yawn, he wondered.
The Ripton man became suddenly active. He almost ran across the ring. A brief handshake, and he had penned Sheen up in his corner before he had time to leave it. It was evident what advice his instructor had been giving him. He meant to force the pace from the start.
The suddenness of it threw Sheen momentarily off his balance. He seemed to be in a whirl of blows. A sharp shock from behind. He had run up against the post. Despite everything, he remembered to keep his guard up, and stopped a lashing hit from his antagonist's left. But he was too late to keep out his right. In it came, full on the weakest spot on his left side. The pain of it caused him to double up for an instant, and as he did so his opponent upper-cut him. There was no rest for him. Nothing that he had ever experienced with the gloves on approached this. If only he could get out of this corner.
Then, almost unconsciously, he recalled Joe Bevan's advice.
"If a man's got you in a corner," Joe had said, "fall on him."
Peteiro made another savage swing. Sheen dodged it and hurled himself forward.
"Break away," said a dispassionate official voice.
Sheen broke away, but now he was out of the corner with the whole good, open ring to manoeuvre in.
He could just see the Ripton instructor signalling violently to his opponent, and, in reply to the signals, Peteiro came on again with another fierce rush.
But Sheen in the open was a different person from Sheen cooped up in a corner. Francis Hunt had taught him to use his feet. He side-stepped, and, turning quickly, found his man staggering past him, over-balanced by the force of his wasted blow. And now it was Sheen who attacked, and Peteiro who tried to escape. Two swift hits he got in before his opponent could face round, and another as he turned and rushed. Then for a while the battle raged without science all over the ring. Gradually, with a cold feeling of dismay, Sheen realised that his strength was going. The pace was too hot. He could not keep it up. His left counters were losing their force. Now he was merely pushing his glove into the Ripton man's face. It was not enough. The other was getting to close quarters, and that right of his seemed stronger than ever.
He was against the ropes now, gasping for breath, and Peteiro's right was thudding against his ribs. It could not last. He gathered all his strength and put it into a straight left. It took the Ripton man in the throat, and drove him back a step. He came on again. Again Sheen stopped him.
It was his last effort. He could do no more. Everything seemed black to him. He leaned against the ropes and drank in the air in great gulps.
"Time!" said the referee.
The word was lost in the shouts that rose from the packed seats.
Sheen tottered to his corner and sat down.
"Keep it up, sir, keep it up," said a voice. "Bear't that the opposed may beware of thee. Don't forget the guard. And the straight left beats the world."
It was Joe--at the eleventh hour.
With a delicious feeling of content Sheen leaned back in his chair. It would be all right now. He felt that the matter had been taken out of his hands. A more experienced brain than his would look after the generalship of the fight.
As the moments of the half-minute's rest slid away he discovered the truth of Joe's remarks on the value of a good second. In his other fights the napping of the towel had hardly stirred the hair on his forehead. Joe's energetic arms set a perfect gale blowing. The cool air revived him. He opened his mouth and drank it in. A spongeful of cold water completed the cure. Long before the call of Time he was ready for the next round.
"Keep away from him, sir," said Joe, "and score with that left of yours. Don't try the right yet. Keep it for guarding. Box clever. Don't let him corner you. Slip him when he rushes. Cool and steady does it. Don't aim at his face too much. Go down below. That's the de-partment. And use your feet. Get about quick, and you'll find he don't like that. Hullo, says he, I can't touch him. Then, when he's tired, go in."
The pupil nodded with closed eyes.
While these words of wisdom were proceeding from the mouth of Mr Bevan, another conversation was taking place which would have interested Sheen if he could have heard it. Mr Spence and the school instructor were watching the final from the seats under the side windows.
"It's extraordinary," said Mr Spence. "The boy's wonderfully good for the short time he has been learning. You ought to be proud of your pupil."
"I was saying that Sheen does you credit."
"Not me, sir."
"What! He told me he had been taking lessons. Didn't you teach him?"
"Never set eyes on him, till this moment. Wish I had, sir. He's the sort of pupil I could wish for."
Mr Spence bent forward and scanned the features of the man who was attending the Wrykinian.
"Why," he said, "surely that's Bevan--Joe Bevan! I knew him at Cambridge."
"Yes, sir, that's Bevan," replied the instructor. "He teaches boxing at Wrykyn now, sir."
"Up the river--at the 'Blue Boar', sir," said the instructor, quite innocently--for it did not occur to him that this simple little bit of information was just so much incriminating evidence against Sheen.
Mr Spence said nothing, but he opened his eyes very wide. Recalling his recent conversation with Sheen, he remembered that the boy had told him he had been taking lessons, and also that Joe Bevan, the ex-pugilist, had expressed a high opinion of his work. Mr Spence had imagined that Bevan had been a chance spectator of the boy's skill; but it would now seem that Bevan himself had taught Sheen. This matter, decided Mr Spence, must be looked into, for it was palpable that Sheen had broken bounds in order to attend Bevan's boxing-saloon up the river.
For the present, however, Mr Spence was content to say nothing.
* * * * *
Sheen came up for the second round fresh and confident. His head was clear, and his breath no longer came in gasps. There was to be no rallying this time. He had had the worst of the first round, and meant to make up his lost points.
Peteiro, losing no time, dashed in. Sheen met him with a left in the face, and gave way a foot. Again Peteiro rushed, and again he was stopped. As he bored in for the third time Sheen slipped him. The Ripton man paused, and dropped his guard for a moment.
Sheen's left shot out once more, and found its mark. Peteiro swung his right viciously, but without effect. Another swift counter added one more point to Sheen's score.
Sheen nearly chuckled. It was all so beautifully simple. What a fool he had been to mix it up in the first round. If he only kept his head and stuck to out-fighting he could win with ease. The man couldn't box. He was nothing more than a slogger. Here he came, as usual, with the old familiar rush. Out went his left. But it missed its billet. Peteiro had checked his rush after the first movement, and now he came in with both hands. It was the first time during the round that he had got to close quarters, and he made the most of it. Sheen's blows were as frequent, but his were harder. He drove at the body, right and left; and once again the call of Time extricated Sheen from an awkward position. As far as points were concerned he had had the best of the round, but he was very sore and bruised. His left side was one dull ache.
"Keep away from him, sir," said Joe Bevan. "You were ahead on that round. Keep away all the time unless he gets tired. But if you see me signalling, then go in all you can and have a fight."
There was a suspicion of weariness about the look of the Ripton champion as he shook hands for the last round. He was beginning to feel the effects of his hurricane fighting in the opening rounds. He began quietly, sparring for an opening. Sheen led with his left. Peteiro was too late with his guard. Sheen tried again--a double lead. His opponent guarded the first blow, but the second went home heavily on the body, and he gave way a step.
Then from the corner of his eye Sheen saw Bevan gesticulating wildly, so, taking his life in his hands, he abandoned his waiting game, dropped his guard, and dashed in to fight. Peteiro met him doggedly. For a few moments the exchanges were even. Then suddenly the Riptonian's blows began to weaken. He got home his right on the head, and Sheen hardly felt it. And in a flash there came to him the glorious certainty that the game was his.
He was winning--winning--winning.
* * * * *
"That's enough," said the referee.
The Ripton man was leaning against the ropes, utterly spent, at almost the same spot where Sheen had leaned at the end of the first round. The last attack had finished him. His seconds helped him to his corner.
The referee waved his hand.
"Sheen wins," he said.
And that was the greatest moment of his life.