"You're right, Bill," said one of them. "There's no one has had more trouble with them than I have. In they come of an evenin' into my bar, with the wine in their heads. 'Are you Tom Owen the bruiser?' says one o' them. 'At your service, sir,' says I. 'Take that, then,' says he, and it's a clip on the nose, or a backhanded slap across the chops as likely as not. Then they can brag all their lives that they had hit Tom Owen."

"D'you draw their cork in return?" asked Harrison.

"I argey it out with them. I say to them, 'Now, gents, fightin' is my profession, and I don't fight for love any more than a doctor doctors for love, or a butcher gives away a loin chop. Put up a small purse, master, and I'll do you over and proud. But don't expect that you're goin' to come here and get glutted by a middle- weight champion for nothing."

"That's my way too, Tom," said my burly neighbour. "If they put down a guinea on the counter--which they do if they 'ave been drinkin' very 'eavy--I give them what I think is about a guinea's worth and take the money."

"But if they don't?"

"Why, then, it's a common assault, d'ye see, against the body of 'is Majesty's liege, William Warr, and I 'as 'em before the beak next mornin', and it's a week or twenty shillin's."

Meanwhile the supper was in full swing--one of those solid and uncompromising meals which prevailed in the days of your grandfathers, and which may explain to some of you why you never set eyes upon that relative.

Great rounds of beef, saddles of mutton, smoking tongues, veal and ham pies, turkeys and chickens, and geese, with every variety of vegetables, and a succession of fiery cherries and heavy ales were the main staple of the feast. It was the same meal and the same cooking as their Norse or German ancestors might have sat down to fourteen centuries before, and, indeed, as I looked through the steam of the dishes at the lines of fierce and rugged faces, and the mighty shoulders which rounded themselves over the board, I could have imagined myself at one of those old-world carousals of which I had read, where the savage company gnawed the joints to the bone, and then, with murderous horseplay, hurled the remains at their prisoners. Here and there the pale, aquiline features of a sporting Corinthian recalled rather the Norman type, but in the main these stolid, heavy-jowled faces, belonging to men whose whole life was a battle, were the nearest suggestion which we have had in modern times of those fierce pirates and rovers from whose loins we have sprung.

And yet, as I looked carefully from man to man in the line which faced me, I could see that the English, although they were ten to one, had not the game entirely to themselves, but that other races had shown that they could produce fighting-men worthy to rank with the best.

There were, it is true, no finer or braver men in the room than Jackson and Jem Belcher, the one with his magnificent figure, his small waist and Herculean shoulders; the other as graceful as an old Grecian statue, with a head whose beauty many a sculptor had wished to copy, and with those long, delicate lines in shoulder and loins and limbs, which gave him the litheness and activity of a panther. Already, as I looked at him, it seemed to me that there was a shadow of tragedy upon his face, a forecast of the day then but a few months distant when a blow from a racquet ball darkened the sight of one eye for ever. Had he stopped there, with his unbeaten career behind him, then indeed the evening of his life might have been as glorious as its dawn. But his proud heart could not permit his title to be torn from him without a struggle. If even now you can read how the gallant fellow, unable with his one eye to judge his distances, fought for thirty-five minutes against his young and formidable opponent, and how, in the bitterness of defeat, he was heard only to express his sorrow for a friend who had backed him with all he possessed, and if you are not touched by the story there must be something wanting in you which should go to the making of a man.

Rodney Stone Page 54

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