The Prince and Betty by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter XVIII. The Highfield
John looked after him, open-mouthed. The events of the evening had been a revelation to him. He had not realized the ramifications of New York's underworld. That members of the gangs should appear in gorgeous raiment in the Astor roof-garden was a surprise. "And now," said Smith, "that our friend has so sportingly returned your watch, take a look at it and see the time. Nine? Excellent. We shall do it comfortably."
"What's that?" asked John.
"Our visit to the Highfield. A young friend of mine who is fighting there to-night sent me tickets a few days ago. In your perusal of Peaceful Moments you may have chanced to see mention of one Kid Brady. He is the man. I was intending to go in any case, but an idea has just struck me that we might combine pleasure with business. Has it occurred to you that these black-jack specialists may drop in on us at the office? And, if so, that Comrade Maloney's statement that we are not in may be insufficient to keep them out? Comrade Brady would be an invaluable assistant. And as we are his pugilistic sponsors, without whom he would not have got this fight at all, I think we may say that he will do any little thing we may ask of him."
It was certainly true that, from the moment the paper had taken up his cause, Kid Brady's star had been in the ascendant. The sporting pages of the big dailies had begun to notice him, until finally the management of the Highfield Club had signed him on for a ten-round bout with a certain Cyclone Dick Fisher.
"He should," continued Smith, "if equipped in any degree with the finer feelings, be bubbling over with gratitude toward us. At any rate, it is worth investigating."
* * * * *
Far away from the comfortable glare of Broadway, in a place of disheveled houses and insufficient street-lamps, there stands the old warehouse which modern enterprise has converted into the Highfield Athletic and Gymnastic Club. The imagination, stimulated by the title, conjures up picture-covered walls, padded chairs, and seas of white shirt front. The Highfield differs in some respects from this fancy picture. Indeed, it would be hard to find a respect in which it does not differ. But these names are so misleading! The title under which the Highfield used to be known till a few years back was "Swifty Bob's." It was a good, honest title. You knew what to export, and if you attended seances at Swifty Bob's you left your gold watch and your little savings at home. But a wave of anti-pugilistic feeling swept over the New York authorities. Promoters of boxing contests found themselves, to their acute disgust, raided by the police. The industry began to languish. Persons avoided places where at any moment the festivities might be marred by an inrush of large men in blue uniforms, armed with locust sticks.
And then some big-brained person suggested the club idea, which stands alone as an example of American dry humor. At once there were no boxing contests in New York; Swifty Bob and his fellows would have been shocked at the idea of such a thing. All that happened now was exhibition sparring bouts between members of the club. It is true that next day the papers very tactlessly reported the friendly exhibition spar as if it had been quite a serious affair, but that was not the fault of Swifty Bob.
Kid Brady, the chosen of Peaceful Moments, was billed for a "ten-round exhibition contest," to be the main event of the evening's entertainment.
* * * * *
A long journey on the subway took them to the neighborhood, and after considerable wandering they arrived at their destination.
Smith's tickets were for a ring-side box, a species of sheep pen of unpolished wood, with four hard chairs in it. The interior of the Highfield Athletic and Gymnastic Club was severely free from anything in the shape of luxury and ornament. Along the four walls were raised benches in tiers. On these were seated as tough-looking a collection of citizens as one might wish to see. On chairs at the ringside were the reporters with tickers at their sides. In the center of the room, brilliantly lighted by half-a-dozen electric chandeliers, was the ring.
There were preliminary bouts before the main event. A burly gentleman in shirt-sleeves entered the ring, followed by two slim youths in fighting costume and a massive person in a red jersey, blue serge trousers, and yellow braces, who chewed gum with an abstracted air throughout the proceedings.
The burly gentleman gave tongue in a voice that cleft the air like a cannon ball.
"Ex-hibit-i-on four-round bout between Patsy Milligan and Tommy Goodley, members of this club. Patsy on my right, Tommy on my left. Gentlemen will kindly stop smokin'."
The audience did nothing of the sort. Possibly they did not apply the description to themselves. Possibly they considered the appeal a mere formula. Somewhere in the background a gong sounded, and Patsy, from the right, stepped briskly forward to meet Tommy, approaching from the left.
The contest was short but energetic. At intervals the combatants would cling affectionately to one another, and on these occasions the red-jerseyed man, still chewing gum and still wearing the same air of being lost in abstract thought, would split up the mass by the simple method of ploughing his way between the pair. Toward the end of the first round Thomas, eluding a left swing, put Patrick neatly to the floor, where the latter remained for the necessary ten seconds.
The remaining preliminaries proved disappointing. So much so that in the last of the series a soured sportsman on one of the benches near the roof began in satirical mood to whistle the "Merry Widow Waltz." It was here that the red-jerseyed thinker for the first and last time came out of his meditative trance. He leaned over the ropes, and spoke, without heat, but firmly:
"If that guy whistling back up yonder thinks he can do better than these boys, he can come right down into the ring."
The whistling ceased.
There was a distinct air of relief when the last preliminary was finished and preparations for the main bout began. It did not commence at once. There were formalities to be gone through, introductions and the like. The burly gentleman reappeared from nowhere, ushering into the ring a sheepishly grinning youth in a flannel suit.
"In-ter-doo-cin' Young Leary," he bellowed impressively, "a noo member of this club, who will box some good boy here in September."
He walked to the other side of the ring and repeated the remark. A raucous welcome was accorded to the new member.
Two other notable performers were introduced in a similar manner, and then the building became suddenly full of noise, for a tall youth in a bath robe, attended by a little army of assistants, had entered the ring. One of the army carried a bright green bucket, on which were painted in white letters the words "Cyclone Dick Fisher." A moment later there was another, though a far less, uproar, as Kid Brady, his pleasant face wearing a self-conscious smirk, ducked under the ropes and sat down in the opposite corner.
"Ex-hib-it-i-on ten-round bout," thundered the burly gentleman, "between Cyclone Dick Fisher--"
Loud applause. Mr. Fisher was one of the famous, a fighter with a reputation from New York to San Francisco. He was generally considered the most likely man to give the hitherto invincible Jimmy Garvin a hard battle for the light-weight championship.
"Oh, you Dick!" roared the crowd.
Mr. Fisher bowed benevolently.
"--and Kid Brady, member of this--"
There was noticeably less applause for the Kid. He was an unknown. A few of those present had heard of his victories in the West, but these were but a small section of the crowd. When the faint applause had ceased, Smith rose to his feet.
"Oh, you Kid!" he observed encouragingly. "I should not like Comrade Brady," he said, reseating himself, "to think that he has no friend but his poor old mother, as occurred on a previous occasion."
The burly gentleman, followed by the two armies of assistants, dropped down from the ring, and the gong sounded.
Mr. Fisher sprang from his corner as if somebody had touched a spring. He seemed to be of the opinion that if you are a cyclone, it is never too soon to begin behaving like one. He danced round the Kid with an india-rubber agility. The Peaceful Moments representative exhibited more stolidity. Except for the fact that he was in fighting attitude, with one gloved hand moving slowly in the neighborhood of his stocky chest, and the other pawing the air on a line with his square jaw, one would have said that he did not realize the position of affairs. He wore the friendly smile of the good-natured guest who is led forward by his hostess to join in some game to amuse the children.
Suddenly his opponent's long left shot out. The Kid, who had been strolling forward, received it under the chin, and continued to stroll forward as if nothing of note had happened. He gave the impression of being aware that Mr. Fisher had committed a breach of good taste and of being resolved to pass it off with ready tact.
The Cyclone, having executed a backward leap, a forward leap, and a feint, landed heavily with both hands. The Kid's genial smile did not even quiver, but he continued to move forward. His opponent's left flashed out again, but this time, instead of ignoring the matter, the Kid replied with a heavy right swing, and Mr. Fisher leaping back, found himself against the ropes. By the time he had got out of that uncongenial position, two more of the Kid's swings had found their mark. Mr. Fisher, somewhat perturbed, scuttled out into the middle of the ring, the Kid following in his self-contained, stolid way.
The Cyclone now became still more cyclonic. He had a left arm which seemed to open out in joints like a telescope. Several times when the Kid appeared well out of distance there was a thud as a brown glove ripped in over his guard and jerked his head back. But always he kept boring in, delivering an occasional right to the body with the pleased smile of an infant destroying a Noah's ark with a tack-hammer. Despite these efforts, however, he was plainly getting all the worst of it. Energetic Mr. Fisher, relying on his long left, was putting in three blows to his one. When the gong sounded, ending the first round, the house was practically solid for the Cyclone. Whoops and yells rose from everywhere. The building rang with shouts of, "Oh, you Dick!"
Smith turned sadly to John.
"It seems to me," he said, "that this merry meeting looks like doing Comrade Brady no good. I should not be surprised at any moment to see his head bounce off on to the floor."
Rounds two and three were a repetition of round one. The Cyclone raged almost unchecked about the ring. In one lightning rally in the third he brought his right across squarely on to the Kid's jaw. It was a blow which should have knocked any boxer out. The Kid merely staggered slightly, and returned to business still smiling.
With the opening of round four there came a subtle change. The Cyclone's fury was expending itself. That long left shot out less sharply. Instead of being knocked back by it, the Peaceful Moments champion now took the hits in his stride, and came shuffling in with his damaging body-blows. There were cheers and "Oh, you Dick's!" at the sound of the gong, but there was an appealing note in them this time. The gallant sportsmen whose connection with boxing was confined to watching other men fight and betting on what they considered a certainty, and who would have expired promptly if anyone had tapped them sharply on their well-filled vests, were beginning to fear that they might lose their money after all.
In the fifth round the thing became a certainty. Like the month of March, the Cyclone, who had come in like a lion, was going out like a lamb. A slight decrease in the pleasantness of the Kid's smile was noticeable. His expression began to resemble more nearly the gloomy importance of the Peaceful Moments photographs. Yells of agony from panic-stricken speculators around the ring began to smite the rafters. The Cyclone, now but a gentle breeze, clutched repeatedly, hanging on like a leech till removed by the red-jerseyed referee.
Suddenly a grisly silence fell upon the house. For the Kid, battered, but obviously content, was standing in the middle of the ring, while on the ropes the Cyclone, drooping like a wet sock, was sliding slowly to the floor.
"Peaceful Moments wins," said Smith. "An omen, I fancy, Comrade John."
Penetrating into the Kid's dressing-room some moments later, the editorial staff found the winner of the ten-round exhibition bout between members of the club seated on a chair having his right leg rubbed by a shock-headed man in a sweater, who had been one of his seconds during the conflict. The Kid beamed as they entered.
"Gents," he said, "come right in. Mighty glad to see you."
"It is a relief to me, Comrade Brady," said Smith, "to find that you can see us. I had expected to find that Comrade Fisher's purposeful wallops had completely closed your star-likes."
"Sure, I never felt them. He's a good, quick boy, is Dick, but," continued the Kid with powerful imagery "he couldn't hit a hole in a block of ice-cream, not if he was to use a coke-hammer."
"And yet at one period in the proceedings," said Smith, "I fancied that your head would come unglued at the neck. But the fear was merely transient. When you began to get going, why, then I felt like some watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken, or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes he stared at the Pacific."
The Kid blinked.
"How's that?" he enquired.
"And why did I feel like that, Comrade Brady? I will tell you. Because my faith in you was justified. Because there before me stood the ideal fighting editor of Peaceful Moments. It is not a post that any weakling can fill. Mere charm of manner cannot qualify a man for the position. No one can hold down the job simply by having a kind heart or being good at comic songs. No. We want a man of thews and sinews, a man who would rather be hit on the head with a half-brick than not. And you, Comrade Brady, are such a man."
The shock-headed man, who during this conversation had been concentrating himself on his subject's left leg now announced that he guessed that would about do, and having advised the Kid not to stop and pick daisies, but to get into his clothes at once before he caught a chill, bade the company goodnight and retired.
Smith shut the door.
"Comrade Brady," he said, "you know those articles about the tenements we've been having in the paper?"
"Sure. I read 'em. They're to the good. It was about time some strong josher came and put it across 'em."
"So we thought. Comrade Parker, however, totally disagreed with us."
"That's what I'm coming to," said Smith. "The day before yesterday a man named Parker called at the office and tried to buy us off."
"You gave him the hook, I guess?" queried the interested Kid.
"To such an extent, Comrade Brady," said Smith, "that he left breathing threatenings and slaughter. And it is for that reason that we have ventured to call upon you. We're pretty sure by this time that Comrade Parker has put one of the gangs on to us."
"You don't say!" exclaimed the Kid. "Gee! They're tough propositions, those gangs."
"So we've come along to you. We can look after ourselves out of the office, but what we want is someone to help in case they try to rush us there. In brief, a fighting editor. At all costs we must have privacy. No writer can prune and polish his sentences to his satisfaction if he is compelled constantly to break off in order to eject boisterous toughs. We therefore offer you the job of sitting in the outer room and intercepting these bravoes before they can reach us. The salary we leave to you. There are doubloons and to spare in the old oak chest. Take what you need and put the rest--if any--back. How does the offer strike you, Comrade Brady?"
"Gents," said the Kid, "it's this way."
He slipped into his coat, and resumed.
"Now that I've made good by licking Dick, they'll be giving me a chance of a big fight. Maybe with Jimmy Garvin. Well, if that happens, see what I mean? I'll have to be going away somewhere and getting into training. I shouldn't be able to come and sit with you. But, if you gents feel like it, I'd be mighty glad to come in till I'm wanted to go into training camp."
"Great," said Smith. "And touching salary--"
"Shucks!" said the Kid with emphasis. "Nix on the salary thing. I wouldn't take a dime. If it hadn't 'a' been for you, I'd have been waiting still for a chance of lining up in the championship class. That's good enough for me. Any old thing you want me to do, I'll do it, and glad to."
"Comrade Brady," said Smith warmly, "you are, if I may say so, the goods. You are, beyond a doubt, supremely the stuff. We three, then, hand-in-hand, will face the foe, and if the foe has good, sound sense, he will keep right away. You appear to be ready. Shall we meander forth?"
The building was empty and the lights were out when they emerged from the dressing-room. They had to grope their way in darkness. It was raining when they reached the street, and the only signs of life were a moist policeman and the distant glare of saloon lights down the road.
They turned off to the left, and, after walking some hundred yards, found themselves in a blind alley.
"Hello!" said John. "Where have we come to?"
"In my trusting way," he said, "I had imagined that either you or Comrade Brady was in charge of this expedition and taking me by a known route to the nearest subway station. I did not think to ask. I placed myself, without hesitation, wholly in your hands."
"I thought the Kid knew the way," said John.
"I was just taggin' along with you gents," protested the light-weight. "I thought you was taking me right. This is the first time I been up here."
"Next time we three go on a little jaunt anywhere," said Smith resignedly, "it would be as well to take a map and a corps of guides with us. Otherwise we shall start for Broadway and finish up at Minneapolis."
They emerged from the blind alley and stood in the dark street, looking doubtfully up and down it.
"Aha!" said Smith suddenly. "I perceive a native. Several natives, in fact. Quite a little covey of them. We will put our case before them, concealing nothing, and rely on their advice to take us to our goal."
A little knot of men was approaching from the left. In the darkness it was impossible to say how many of them were there. Smith stepped forward, the Kid at his side.
"Excuse me, sir," he said to the leader, "but if you can spare me a moment of your valuable time--"
There was a sudden shuffle of feet on the pavement, a quick movement on the part of the Kid, a chunky sound as of wood striking wood, and the man Smith had been addressing fell to the ground in a heap.
As he fell, something dropped from his hand on to the pavement with a bump and a rattle. Stooping swiftly, the Kid picked it up, and handed it to Smith. His fingers closed upon it. It was a short, wicked-looking little bludgeon, the black-jack of the New York tough.
"Get busy," advised the Kid briefly.