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The old prizefighter patrolled the outer ring as if, once again, the spectators had assembled to see him. He had discarded his coat and the breeze flattened the silk of his white frilled shirt against his retired muscles, his disobedient belly. His nose had been spread by punches and there was a dent on the cheekbone beneath his left eye where bare knuckles had scored.
There were other ageing fighters circling the grass separating the inner ring from the crowd. And one or two younger ones in case the Fancy invaded as they had done when Scroggins fought Turner. But the old pugilist in the silk shirt was the foreman. His name was Hansom and he was reputed to have beaten Jem Belcher, although no one was specific about the date.
Blackstone watched him from a yellow-and-black post-chaise fifty yards from the two rings, Irish-green and still sugared with frost this bright December lunch-time.
'Even now I wouldn't like to take him on,' he said.
'I'd put my money on you,' said Foley, the professional gambler.
'Then you'd lose.'
'I don't think so.' Foley neither countenanced nor acknowledged losses despite the decline of his home, his dress and his person. He was still handsomely dressed, but there were cracks in his tall boots, baldness on his green swallow-tail coat, jaundice on his high white collar. His face was long and saddened by the uncertainty of racing certainties, his cheeks brandy-flushed by erratic celebrations. But he was courtly and women liked him. 'You see,' he explained, 'Hansom let himself go to seed.' He uncrossed his legs, opening a crack in one boot like a mouth. 'He drinks like a fish and eats like a horse. He should have taken a public house like some of the others. Cribb, Tom Belcher, Ned Painter, Tom Shelton. ...'
'I still think I'd lose.' Blackstone gazed over the tall hats of the ring-siders to the old fighter with the greying hair combed forward over a lumpy forehead. 'He looks fit enough to me. Considering he's over forty.'
'Thirty,' Blackstone said. 'Or thereabouts.'
'Fairly.' Blackstone tucked away his snuff-box.
'And you did a bit of milling yourself, didn't you?'
'Once upon a time. Before I joined the forces of law and order.'
'And I should think you were quite good at it.' Foley, who would lay odds on the sun rising and setting, appraised the power in Blackstone's shoulders. 'Six to four you thrash Hansom.'
'You're not that sure then.'
'There's only two of you. A good price I should have thought. What about the odds today? The Gasman can't lose but the bookies are only offering five to four.'
'How much have you wagered?'
'A lot of money.'
Foley shrugged, over-acting a little.
'You bet too heavily,' Blackstone told him. They had been cricketing, racing and prizefighting friends for years – Lord's, Epsom Downs, the Daffy Club. Foley also followed cockfighting, bull-baiting, and dog-fighting: Blackstone would have none of these.
'And you, Blackie? Haven't you made a wager?'
Blackstone nodded. 'Ten pounds on the Gasman.'
'And you a Bow Street Runner.'
'What of it?'
'You're supposed to break up a prizefight, not support it.' He lay back on the satin seat, dented hat tilted over his forehead, and regarded Blackstone slyly. 'After all, it's illegal, isn't it? Under an Act of 1750 if I'm not mistaken.' Foley was never mistaken about figures, only forecasts.
Blackstone said: 'I'm looking for contacts, informants, witnesses.' He grinned and took some snuff to disperse the lie.
Across the tops of the hats, as close together as roof tiles, John Hansom, or Handsome Jack as he'd been known in his brawling heyday, was tackling two intruders in the outer ring where, later, referee, umpires, backers and their friends would take their places. He waved aside the other fighters and put up his fists in classic stance. The two intruders, young and whippy, circled him warily: a couple of saplings beside a battered oak.
The Fancy – some had travelled sixty-six miles from London to Hungerford for the fight between Tom (Gasman) Hickman and Bill Neat – shouted encouragement to the old fighter.
'Tap some of their claret for them, me Handsome. Give 'em one of your old rib-roasters.'
Foley said: 'I'll give you six to four that Hansom puts them both down within three minutes.'
Blackstone said: 'Do you ever give any other odds?'
Beneath the white silk of his shirt you could see Hansom's biceps bunching. But they were no longer as pugnacious as their owner. However, you couldn't take away his experience.
One of the youths forgot the experience, prematurely heard the applause of his cockney friends and the sighs of the village girls they had met the night before. He ducked straight into a scarred, Sunday-joint of a fist and fell to the grass, blood oozing from his nostrils.
The Fancy were delighted. 'Go it, Handsome. The first drop of claret to Handsome Jack. Now rattle the other culley's ivories for him.'
The other fighters led the first youth away and Handsome Jack, who was far from handsome, turned to the second boy. The boy looked vulnerable now that his forces had been decimated.
Blackstone said: 'He should let the poor little bastard go. It was only bravado.'
Foley took out a hip-flask. 'Perhaps. But that would only humiliate the lad. One punch, perhaps.'
'Maybe. But I don't like the look of Handsome Jack.'
'He was good in his day.'
'I don't give a damn how good he was. There's something cruel about him.'
'You don't expect him to look poetic, do you?'
The youth, wearing mud-spattered trousers strapped under his shoes, too big, as if they had belonged to his father, glanced at the crowd in search of support and attempted a smile. No support, the smile a mess.
And more of a mess as Hansom's right caught him full in the face.
The boy staggered and spat out a tooth.
Blackstone leaned forward, fists clenched. 'The bastard! He didn't have to hit him as hard as that.'
Foley agreed, swallowing a mouthful of brandy.
The crowd's shouts scattered until only a few were left. 'That'll teach him, my Handsome. Now let him be.'
The youth's fists, which had shrunk, were still up, but wavering. Hansom knocked them aside with his left and caught the boy on the cheek with his right. And then another left into the belly.
The other fighters caught the folding body and dragged it away. Hansom put his fists on his hips and posed before remembering to recall his belly, forgotten in his triumph.
Blackstone said: 'I've a good mind to take him on. Who finally beat him when he was fighting? I'll give him a medal.'
'Molyneux, The Black,' Foley told him. 'He should have been champion. He came from America to take the title from Cribb. But they reckon the cold beat him. The cold and a little cheating by Cribb's seconds.'
'A medal for Molyneux then. Although he's dead, isn't he?'
Foley nodded. 'Three years ago. The booze finished him,' he added, stroking his flask thoughtfully. "They say Hansom still wants to fight every sambo he sees. Funny, isn't it, with the blacks being so popular. They also gave Molyneux the nickname of Snowball,' Foley recalled. 'Poor old Snowball, melting like that.' He drank some brandy.
Blackstone looked at his gold Breguet watch, given to him by a wealthy woman whose jewellery he had retrieved. 'Another half-hour before they come up to the scratch,' he said.
The sky was still a burnished blue but laced on the horizon with white clouds. The last of the Fancy were arriving on foot and horseback, in coaches and four, post-chaises and mails, horns sounding. Behind the swells, behind the carts, gigs and the carriages positioned overnight and the improvised stands, the crowd waited in the thin sunshine, supping porter and ale; eating hot pies; fighting; betting on cards, thimbles and rat-faced fighting dogs. Countrymen in smocks, with iron on the soles of their boots, cockneys from the Rookeries in punished velveteen with handkerchiefs at the throat; dustmen, lamplighters, farmers, butchers, grooms, weavers, watermen; pickpockets, mudlarks, magsmen, a murderer or two and a few hopeful bawds. Among the swells in their white box-coats were half a dozen Members of Parliament, some fringe Royalty and a couple of furtive magistrates who should have been denouncing the whole affair.
The backers and their friends had arrived in the outer ring. Fifteen minutes to go before the twelve-stone Gasman, so named because of his flaring brilliance, did battle with the fourteen-stone, long-armed underdog, Bill Neat. The old boxers patrolled restlessly, fisting their way back through the years to their own entrances into the inner ring. And their exits.
'Five years' time and Hickman and Neat will be joining them,' Blackstone said.
'Hickman maybe,' Foley said. 'He's too cocky by far. He's got some flash company, too. John Thurtell among them. Do you know Thurtell, Blackie?'
Blackstone nodded. 'Went bankrupt in Norwich and cheated his creditors. Moved to London and defrauded an insurance company of £20,000 by burning down his premises. A man born for the gallows.'
'Well, he's helping to train Hickman.'
'Then Hickman will have to keep a tight hand on his purse.'
'If he wins.'
'I thought you said he was a certainty.'
'So he is,' Foley said, trying to press a dent out of his hat. And then, seeking escape from the uncertainty that he had voiced: 'Did you go to the coronation, Blackie?'
'Yes,' said Blackstone. 'Why?'
'I thought you might have seen the old fighters there guarding Prinny from the mob. Eighteen of them dressed as pages at the approaches to Westminster. It was grotesque, Blackie. Humiliating. But they must have been paid well.' With thin fingers he massaged the small flushes seeking permanency high on his cheeks. 'Very well paid, I should think. Josh Hudson, Tom Oliver, Bill Eales, Cribb, Tom Spring, Bill Richmond. ...'
'A pity they didn't stay at home,' Blackstone said. 'Then we might have had another king.'
Five more minutes.
Anticipation of blood and bravery was tight in the air. Crows hung lazily in the sky. A rumour that the Dragoons were on their way to stop the fight circulated and the magistrates retreated like tortoiseshells into their coats. A mudlark dredging in the trampled mud still concealing needles of ice, found a sovereign and departed. A pieman's oven caught fire. An organ-grinder's monkey escaped and danced from shoulder to shoulder chattering with fear of his freedom. A novice trollop from Newbury offered to lift her skirts behind a hedge and was told to wait till after the fight. A thimble rigger caught rigging the thimbles escaped with a broken jaw. A small stand knocked together overnight fell to the ground slowly like an old man kneeling.
Four minutes to go; £200,000 said to have been staked on the fight.
Foley pointed to a disturbance among the gentry. A black figure was pushing its way between them, head down, swimming with his arms. Then he was through into the green moat of the outer ring.
Muscled guardians moved towards him. But Hansom held up his hand. He's mine, the hand said.
The Negro was about sixteen. He was bared to the waist, legs in faded breeches. He was lithely built but thin, the diet of the slums betraying his body. He brought warmth to the ring, the sunlight finding lights on his black skin, the frost on the grass becoming cotton in the field. His face was handsome and his teeth flashed brilliantly as he taunted Hansom.
'Good God!' Foley exclaimed. 'Hansom will kill him.'
Blackstone climbed out of the post-chaise, feeling in his coat pocket for his gilt-crowned baton.
Foley said: 'You can't do anything, Blackie. You're not even supposed to be here.'
'I'll have to.'
'You'll have to stop the fight if you show yourself.'
'Then I'll stop the fight.'
'The Fancy will murder you.'
Blackstone pushed his way through the rich and titled, hand tightly around the baton in his pocket.
The crowd was as silent as if the main fight was about to begin. 'Chuck him out, Handsome. But go easy, culley. He's only a lad.'
Blackstone reached the outer ring. He saw the hatred in Hansom's face, knew that the old pugilist was looking into the victorious face of Molyneux, the American Negro.
The black stripling, watch-spring hair shining blue-black in the sun, shouted insults at Hansom; at his big belly, his slow fists. Hansom advanced, brushing with one hand at the dent on his cheekbone; hoping, probably, to grapple with the boy, to get him in a 'suit of chancery', head under one arm, battering at his face with the other fist. Blackstone sensed more than a desire to punish: he sensed the greed to kill. He began to climb through the ropes when the Negro boy darted forward, hit Hansom on his expansive nose and danced away.
Hansom shook his head, puzzled. He tightened his fists and came on, a glowering old bull. The Negro sauntered within clouting distance, fists lowered. A Sunday-joint fist lunged but the black target had removed itself. A smaller black fist banged Hansom's ear.
The Fancy were beginning to enjoy it. 'Come on, sambo. Give old Handsome a hammering like he handed out just now. Give him a mouse. But don't let him cuddle you or he'll kill you.'
Hansom spat on his fists, looking much older now, belly forgotten again, breath like bellows, the yellow in his eyes noticeable against the quick whites and browns of his opponent.
The boy feinted with his left and let go his right, the knuckle sinking into the cushion of Hansom's belly. Blackstone retreated into the spectators. Reflexes, balance, speed, anticipation, mettle: they were all there. The style that was beginning to replace the rushing and hugging of the traditional fighters; the style with which Neat hoped to overcome the Gasman's lightning grapples. Blackstone almost felt sorry for Hansom. But not quite.
The Negro was showing off now. Dancing around Hansom, stinging him with quick punches. Blackstone hoped that Hansom would catch him with one blow: it would do him good. The boy hit him in the belly again and the old fighter winced: that was the place to hurt him, not in the face, from which pain had been erased years before.
Hansom made one last effort, rushing at the Negro, heavy arms outstretched, hoping to catch him in a bear hug; to squeeze the green-stick ribs until they split. Instead he received a jab in the nose, which uncorked the blood, and another in the kidneys. As he lumbered by, the boy stuck out his foot and tripped him. Hansom fell heavily and lay like an upturned beetle.
An elegant man standing beside Blackstone struck his thigh with his cane and said: 'A spirited lad. I'll wager there'll be a patron or two after him before the day's out.'
'I shouldn't wonder,' Blackstone replied. 'Out for some sport before they cripple the lad in mind and body.'
The Duke of Devonshire looked at him in surprise. 'What the devil are you talking about? You're here enjoying the fight, dammit. If the boy's handled properly he'll make enough money in a short while to settle down and earn an honest living.'
'If he's handled properly.'
Hansom struggled to his feet. But the other fighters held the Negro's arms. Hansom took this as an invitation to hit him while he was pinioned. He moved forward, his punished face and body ugly beside the boy's ebony grace, blood bright on his white shirt. One of the younger guardians stepped between them shaking his head. The Negro was led away grinning. Or snarling.
The Duke clapped and the rest of the Fancy followed, the applause like a shower of rain getting under way. 'The best beating out of the ring I've ever seen,' the Duke announced.
His friends agreed. The Earl of Sefton, Lord Manners and the Duke of Beaufort.
Blackstone walked thoughtfully back to the post-chaise.
A man named Lawler was waiting for him. Gambler, part-time bookmaker, informant under duress. Not bad looking, it was doubtfully agreed, with dormant virility somewhere there; a man who left you with a feeling of unease, hands checking your pockets. When he acted a part – which he frequently did at Blackstone's insistence – he did it with accomplishment, a chameleon of human behaviour. At the moment he was offstage, colourless, absorbed with the profit and loss of small bets.
'Hallo, Mr Blackstone,' he said.
'You are sure, aren't you, Mr Blackstone?' Once or twice he had called him Blackie, but this hadn't been encouraged.
'About the Gasman.'