Jack London.

When God Laughs: and other stories online

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twenty rounds, hammer and tongs, fight, fight, fight, from gong to gong,
with fierce rally on top of fierce rally, beaten to the ropes and
in turn beating his opponent to the ropes, and rallying fiercest and
fastest of all in that last, twentieth round, with the house on its
feet and yelling, himself rushing, striking, ducking, raining showers
of blows upon showers of blows and receiving showers of blows in return,
and all the time the heart faithfully pumping the surging blood through
the adequate veins. The veins, swollen at the time, had always
shrunk down again, though each time, imperceptibly at first, not
quite - remaining just a trifle larger than before. He stared at them and
at his battered knuckles, and, for the moment, caught a vision of the
youthful excellence of those hands before the first knuckle had been
smashed on the head of Benny Jones, otherwise known as the Welsh Terror.

The impression of his hunger came back on him.

"Blimey, but couldn't I go a piece of steak!" he muttered aloud,
clenching his huge fists and spitting out a smothered oath.

"I tried both Burke's an' Sawley's," his wife said half apologetically.

"An' they wouldn't?" he demanded.

"Not a ha'penny. Burke said - " She faltered.

"G'wan! Wot'd he say?"

"As how 'e was thinkin' Sandel ud do ye to-night, an' as how yer score
was comfortable big as it was."

Tom King grunted, but did not reply. He was busy thinking of the bull
terrier he had kept in his younger days to which he had fed steaks
without end. Burke would have given him credit for a thousand
steaks - then. But times had changed. Tom King was getting old; and old
men, fighting before second-rate clubs, couldn't expect to run bills of
any size with the tradesmen.

He had got up in the morning with a longing for a piece of steak, and
the longing had not abated. He had not had a fair training for this
fight. It was a drought year in Australia, times were hard, and even
the most irregular work was difficult to find. He had had no sparring
partner, and his food had not been of the best nor always sufficient.
He had done a few days' navvy work when he could get it, and he had run
around the Domain in the early mornings to get his legs in shape. But
it was hard, training without a partner and with a wife and two kiddies
that must be fed. Credit with the tradesmen had undergone very slight
expansion when he was matched with Sandel. The secretary of the Gayety
Club had advanced him three pounds - the loser's end of the purse - and
beyond that had refused to go. Now and again he had managed to borrow a
few shillings from old pals, who would have lent more only that it was a
drought year and they were hard put themselves. No - and there was no
use in disguising the fact - his training had not been satisfactory.
He should have had better food and no worries. Besides, when a man is
forty, it is harder to get into condition than when he is twenty.

"What time is it, Lizzie?" he asked.

His wife went across the hall to inquire, and came back.

"Quarter before eight."

"They'll be startin' the first bout in a few minutes," he said. "Only a
try-out. Then there's a four-round spar 'tween Dealer Wells an' Gridley,
an' a ten-round go 'tween Starlight an' some sailor bloke. I don't come
on for over an hour."

At the end of another silent ten minutes, he rose to his feet.

"Truth is, Lizzie, I ain't had proper trainin'."

He reached for his hat and started for the door. He did not offer to
kiss her - he never did on going out - but on this night she dared to kiss
him, throwing her arms around him and compelling him to bend down to her
face. She looked quite small against the massive bulk of the man.

"Good luck, Tom," she said. "You gotter do 'im."

"Ay, I gotter do 'im," he repeated. "That's all there is to it. I jus'
gotter do 'im."

He laughed with an attempt at heartiness, while she pressed more closely
against him. Across her shoulders he looked around the bare room. It was
all he had in the world, with the rent overdue, and her and the kiddies.
And he was leaving it to go out into the night to get meat for his mate
and cubs - not like a modern working-man going to his machine grind, but
in the old, primitive, royal, animal way, by fighting for it.

"I gotter do 'im," he repeated, this time a hint of desperation in his
voice. "If it's a win, it's thirty quid - an' I can pay all that's owin',
with a lump o' money left over. If it's a lose, I get naught - not even
a penny for me to ride home on the tram. The secretary's give all that's
comin' from a loser's end. Good-bye, old woman. I'll come straight home
if it's a win."

"An' I'll be waitin' up," she called to him along the hall.

It was full two miles to the Gayety, and as he walked along he
remembered how in his palmy days - he had once been the heavyweight
champion of New South Wales - he would have ridden in a cab to the fight,
and how, most likely, some heavy backer would have paid for the cab and
ridden with him. There were Tommy Burns and that Yankee nigger, Jack
Johnson - they rode about in motor-cars. And he walked! And, as any man
knew, a hard two miles was not the best preliminary to a fight. He was
an old un, and the world did not wag well with old uns. He was good for
nothing now except navvy work, and his broken nose and swollen ear were
against him even in that. He found himself wishing that he had learned
a trade. It would have been better in the long run. But no one had
told him, and he knew, deep down in his heart, that he would not have
listened if they had. It had been so easy. Big money - sharp, glorious
fights - periods of rest and loafing in between - a following of eager
flatterers, the slaps on the back, the shakes of the hand, the toffs
glad to buy him a drink for the privilege of five minutes' talk - and
the glory of it, the yelling houses, the whirlwind finish, the referee's
"King wins!" and his name in the sporting columns next day.

Those had been times! But he realized now, in his slow, ruminating way,
that it was the old uns he had been putting away. He was Youth, rising;
and they were Age, sinking. No wonder it had been easy - they with their
swollen veins and battered knuckles and weary in the bones of them from
the long battles they had already fought. He remembered the time he put
out old Stowsher Bill, at Rush-Cutters Bay, in the eighteenth round,
and how old Bill had cried afterward in the dressing-room like a baby.
Perhaps old Bill's rent had been overdue. Perhaps he'd had at home a
missus an' a couple of kiddies. And perhaps Bill, that very day of the
fight, had had a hungering for a piece of steak. Bill had fought game
and taken incredible punishment. He could see now, after he had gone
through the mill himself, that Stowsher Bill had fought for a bigger
stake, that night twenty years ago, than had young Tom King, who had
fought for glory and easy money. No wonder Stowsher Bill had cried
afterward in the dressing-room.

Well, a man had only so many fights in him, to begin with. It was the
iron law of the game. One man might have a hundred hard fights in him,
another man only twenty; each, according to the make of him and the
quality of his fibre, had a definite number, and, when he had fought
them, he was done. Yes, he had had more fights in him than most of
them, and he had had far more than his share of the hard, gruelling
fights - the kind that worked the heart and lungs to bursting, that took
the elastic out of the arteries and made hard knots of muscle out of
Youth's sleek suppleness, that wore out nerve and stamina and made brain
and bones weary from excess of effort and endurance overwrought. Yes,
he had done better than all of them. There were none of his old fighting
partners left. He was the last of the old guard. He had seen them all
finished, and he had had a hand in finishing some of them.

They had tried him out against the old uns, and one after another he had
put them away - laughing when, like old Stowsher Bill, they cried in
the dressing-room. And now he was an old un, and they tried out the
youngsters on him. There was that bloke, Sandel. He had come over from
New Zealand with a record behind him. But nobody in Australia knew
anything about him, so they put him up against old Tom King. If Sandel
made a showing, he would be given better men to fight, with bigger
purses to win; so it was to be depended upon that he would put up a
fierce battle. He had everything to win by it - money and glory and
career; and Tom King was the grizzled old chopping-block that guarded
the highway to fame and fortune. And he had nothing to win except thirty
quid, to pay to the landlord and the tradesmen. And, as Tom King thus
ruminated, there came to his stolid vision the form of Youth, glorious
Youth, rising exultant and invincible, supple of muscle and silken of
skin, with heart and lungs that had never been tired and torn and
that laughed at limitation of effort. Yes, Youth was the Nemesis. It
destroyed the old uns and recked not that, in so doing, it destroyed
itself. It enlarged its arteries and smashed its knuckles, and was in
turn destroyed by Youth. For Youth was ever youthful. It was only Age
that grew old.

At Castlereagh Street he turned to the left, and three blocks along came
to the Gayety. A crowd of young larrikins hanging outside the door made
respectful way for him, and he heard one say to another: "That's 'im!
That's Tom King!"

Inside, on the way to his dressing-room, he encountered the secretary, a
keen-eyed, shrewd-faced young man, who shook his hand.

"How are you feelin', Tom?" he asked.

"Fit as a fiddle," King answered, though he knew that he lied, and
that if he had a quid, he would give it right there for a good piece of
steak.

When he emerged from the dressing-room, his seconds behind him, and came
down the aisle to the squared ring in the centre of the hall, a burst
of greeting and applause went up from the waiting crowd. He acknowledged
salutations right and left, though few of the faces did he know. Most
of them were the faces of kiddies unborn when he was winning his first
laurels in the squared ring. He leaped lightly to the raised platform
and ducked through the ropes to his corner, where he sat down on a
folding stool. Jack Ball, the referee, came over and shook his hand.
Ball was a broken-down pugilist who for over ten years had not entered
the ring as a principal. King was glad that he had him for referee. They
were both old uns. If he should rough it with Sandel a bit beyond the
rules, he knew Ball could be depended upon to pass it by.

Aspiring young heavyweights, one after another, were climbing into the
ring and being presented to the audience by the referee. Also, he issued
their challenges for them.

"Young Pronto," Bill announced, "from North Sydney, challenges the
winner for fifty pounds side bet."

The audience applauded, and applauded again as Sandel himself sprang
through the ropes and sat down in his corner. Tom King looked across
the ring at him curiously, for in a few minutes they would be locked
together in merciless combat, each trying with all the force of him
to knock the other into unconsciousness. But little could he see, for
Sandel, like himself, had trousers and sweater on over his ring costume.
His face was strongly handsome, crowned with a curly mop of yellow hair,
while his thick, muscular neck hinted at bodily magnificence.

Young Pronto went to one corner and then the other, shaking hands with
the principals and dropping down out of the ring. The challenges
went on. Ever Youth climbed through the ropes - Youth unknown, but
insatiable - crying out to mankind that with strength and skill it would
match issues with the winner. A few years before, in his own heyday
of invincibleness, Tom King would have been amused and bored by these
preliminaries. But now he sat fascinated, unable to shake the vision
of Youth from his eyes. Always were these youngsters rising up in the
boxing game, springing through the ropes and shouting their defiance;
and always were the old uns going down before them. They climbed to
success over the bodies of the old uns. And ever they came, more and
more youngsters - Youth unquenchable and irresistible - and ever they put
the old uns away, themselves becoming old uns and travelling the same
downward path, while behind them, ever pressing on them, was Youth
eternal - the new babies, grown lusty and dragging their elders down,
with behind them more babies to the end of time - Youth that must have
its will and that will never die.

King glanced over to the press box and nodded to Morgan, of the
Sportsman, and Corbett, of the Referee. Then he held out his hands,
while Sid Sullivan and Charley Bates, his seconds, slipped on his gloves
and laced them tight, closely watched by one of Sandel's seconds, who
first examined critically the tapes on King's knuckles. A second of his
own was in Sandel's corner, performing a like office. Sandel's trousers
were pulled off, and, as he stood up, his sweater was skinned off over
his head. And Tom King, looking, saw Youth incarnate, deep-chested,
heavy-thewed, with muscles that slipped and slid like live things under
the white satin skin. The whole body was a-crawl with life, and Tom King
knew that it was a life that had never oozed its freshness out through
the aching pores during the long fights wherein Youth paid its toll and
departed not quite so young as when it entered.

The two men advanced to meet each other, and, as the gong sounded and
the seconds clattered out of the ring with the folding stools, they
shook hands and instantly took their fighting attitudes. And instantly,
like a mechanism of steel and springs balanced on a hair trigger, Sandel
was in and out and in again, landing a left to the eyes, a right to the
ribs, ducking a counter, dancing lightly away and dancing menacingly
back again. He was swift and clever. It was a dazzling exhibition. The
house yelled its approbation. But King was not dazzled. He had fought
too many fights and too many youngsters. He knew the blows for what they
were - too quick and too deft to be dangerous. Evidently Sandel was going
to rush things from the start. It was to be expected. It was the way
of Youth, expending its splendour and excellence in wild insurgence and
furious onslaught, overwhelming opposition with its own unlimited glory
of strength and desire.

Sandel was in and out, here, there, and everywhere, light-footed and
eager-hearted, a living wonder of white flesh and stinging muscle that
wove itself into a dazzling fabric of attack, slipping and leaping like
a flying shuttle from action to action through a thousand actions, all
of them centred upon the destruction of Tom King, who stood between him
and fortune. And Tom King patiently endured. He knew his business, and
he knew Youth now that Youth was no longer his. There was nothing to do
till the other lost some of his steam, was his thought, and he grinned
to himself as he deliberately ducked so as to receive a heavy blow on
the top of his head. It was a wicked thing to do, yet eminently fair
according to the rules of the boxing game. A man was supposed to take
care of his own knuckles, and, if he insisted on hitting an opponent on
the top of the head, he did so at his own peril. King could have ducked
lower and let the blow whiz harmlessly past, but he remembered his own
early fights and how he smashed his first knuckle on the head of the
Welsh Terror. He was but playing the game. That duck had accounted for
one of Sandel's knuckles. Not that Sandel would mind it now. He would go
on, superbly regardless, hitting as hard as ever throughout the fight.
But later on, when the long ring battles had begun to tell, he would
regret that knuckle and look back and remember how he smashed it on Tom
King's head.

The first round was all Sandel's, and he had the house yelling with the
rapidity of his whirlwind rushes. He overwhelmed King with avalanches of
punches, and King did nothing. He never struck once, contenting
himself with covering up, blocking and ducking and clinching to avoid
punishment. He occasionally feinted, shook his head when the weight of
a punch landed, and moved stolidly about, never leaping or springing or
wasting an ounce of strength. Sandel must foam the froth of Youth away
before discreet Age could dare to retaliate. All King's movements were
slow and methodical, and his heavy-lidded, slow-moving eyes gave him the
appearance of being half asleep or dazed. Yet they were eyes that saw
everything, that had been trained to see everything through all his
twenty years and odd in the ring. They were eyes that did not blink
or waver before an impending blow, but that coolly saw and measured
distance.

Seated in his corner for the minute's rest at the end of the round, he
lay back with outstretched legs, his arms resting on the right angle of
the ropes, his chest and abdomen heaving frankly and deeply as he gulped
down the air driven by the towels of his seconds. He listened with
closed eyes to the voices of the house, "Why don't yeh fight, Tom?" many
were crying. "Yeh ain't afraid of 'im, are yeh?"

"Muscle-bound," he heard a man on a front seat comment. "He can't move
quicker. Two to one on Sandel, in quids."

The gong struck and the two men advanced from their corners. Sandel came
forward fully three-quarters of the distance, eager to begin again; but
King was content to advance the shorter distance. It was in line with
his policy of economy. He had not been well trained, and he had not had
enough to eat, and every step counted. Besides, he had already walked
two miles to the ringside. It was a repetition of the first round, with
Sandel attacking like a whirlwind and with the audience indignantly
demanding why King did not fight. Beyond feinting and several slowly
delivered and ineffectual blows he did nothing save block and stall
and clinch. Sandel wanted to make the pace fast, while King, out of his
wisdom, refused to accommodate him. He grinned with a certain wistful
pathos in his ring-battered countenance, and went on cherishing his
strength with the jealousy of which only Age is capable. Sandel was
Youth, and he threw his strength away with the munificent abandon of
Youth. To King belonged the ring generalship, the wisdom bred of long,
aching fights. He watched with cool eyes and head, moving slowly
and waiting for Sandel's froth to foam away. To the majority of the
onlookers it seemed as though King was hopelessly outclassed, and they
voiced their opinion in offers of three to one on Sandel. But there were
wise ones, a few, who knew King of old time, and who covered what they
considered easy money.

The third round began as usual, one-sided, with Sandel doing all the
leading, and delivering all the punishment. A half-minute had passed
when Sandel, over-confident, left an opening. King's eyes and right arm
flashed in the same instant. It was his first real blow - a hook, with
the twisted arch of the arm to make it rigid, and with all the weight
of the half-pivoted body behind it. It was like a sleepy-seeming lion
suddenly thrusting out a lightning paw. Sandel, caught on the side of
the jaw, was felled like a bullock. The audience gasped and murmured
awe-stricken applause. The man was not muscle-bound, after all, and he
could drive a blow like a trip-hammer.

Sandel was shaken. He rolled over and attempted to rise, but the sharp
yells from his seconds to take the count restrained him. He knelt on
one knee, ready to rise, and waited, while the referee stood over him,
counting the seconds loudly in his ear. At the ninth he rose in fighting
attitude, and Tom King, facing him, knew regret that the blow had
not been an inch nearer the point of the jaw. That would have been a
knock-out, and he could have carried the thirty quid home to the missus
and the kiddies.

The round continued to the end of its three minutes, Sandel for the
first time respectful of his opponent and King slow of movement and
sleepy-eyed as ever. As the round neared its close, King, warned of the
fact by sight of the seconds crouching outside ready for the spring in
through the ropes, worked the fight around to his own corner. And when
the gong struck, he sat down immediately on the waiting stool, while
Sandel had to walk all the way across the diagonal of the square to his
own corner. It was a little thing, but it was the sum of little things
that counted. Sandel was compelled to walk that many more steps, to give
up that much energy, and to lose a part of the precious minute of rest.
At the beginning of every round King loafed slowly out from his corner,
forcing his opponent to advance the greater distance. The end of every
round found the fight manoeuvred by King into his own corner so that he
could immediately sit down.

Two more rounds went by, in which King was parsimonious of effort and
Sandel prodigal. The latter's attempt to force a fast pace made King
uncomfortable, for a fair percentage of the multitudinous blows showered
upon him went home. Yet King persisted in his dogged slowness, despite
the crying of the young hot-heads for him to go in and fight. Again,
in the sixth round, Sandel was careless, again Tom King's fearful right
flashed out to the jaw, and again Sandel took the nine seconds count.

By the seventh round Sandel's pink of condition was gone, and he settled
down to what he knew was to be the hardest fight in his experience. Tom
King was an old un, but a better old un than he had ever encountered - an
old un who never lost his head, who was remarkably able at defence,
whose blows had the impact of a knotted club, and who had a knockout in
either hand. Nevertheless, Tom King dared not hit often. He never
forgot his battered knuckles, and knew that every hit must count if the
knuckles were to last out the fight. As he sat in his corner, glancing
across at his opponent, the thought came to him that the sum of
his wisdom and Sandel's youth would constitute a world's champion
heavyweight. But that was the trouble. Sandel would never become a world
champion. He lacked the wisdom, and the only way for him to get it was
to buy it with Youth; and when wisdom was his, Youth would have been
spent in buying it.

King took every advantage he knew. He never missed an opportunity to
clinch, and in effecting most of the clinches his shoulder drove stiffly
into the other's ribs. In the philosophy of the ring a shoulder was as
good as a punch so far as damage was concerned, and a great deal better
so far as concerned expenditure of effort. Also, in the clinches
King rested his weight on his opponent, and was loath to let go. This
compelled the interference of the referee, who tore them apart, always
assisted by Sandel, who had not yet learned to rest. He could not
refrain from using those glorious flying arms and writhing muscles of
his, and when the other rushed into a clinch, striking shoulder against
ribs, and with head resting under Sandel's left arm, Sandel almost
invariably swung his right behind his own back and into the projecting
face. It was a clever stroke, much admired by the audience, but it was
not dangerous, and was, therefore, just that much wasted strength. But
Sandel was tireless and unaware of limitations, and King grinned and
doggedly endured.

Sandel developed a fierce right to the body, which made it appear that
King was taking an enormous amount of punishment, and it was only the
old ringsters who appreciated the deft touch of King's left glove to the
other's biceps just before the impact of the blow. It was true, the blow
landed each time; but each time it was robbed of its power by that touch
on the biceps. In the ninth round, three times inside a minute, King's
right hooked its twisted arch to the jaw; and three times Sandel's body,
heavy as it was, was levelled to the mat. Each time he took the nine
seconds allowed him and rose to his feet, shaken and jarred, but still
strong. He had lost much of his speed, and he wasted less effort. He was
fighting grimly; but he continued to draw upon his chief asset, which
was Youth. King's chief asset was experience. As his vitality had dimmed
and his vigour abated, he had replaced them with cunning, with wisdom
born of the long fights and with a careful shepherding of strength. Not
alone had he learned never to make a superfluous movement, but he had
learned how to seduce an opponent into throwing his strength away. Again
and again, by feint of foot and hand and body he continued to inveigle
Sandel into leaping back, ducking, or countering. King rested, but he


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Online LibraryJack LondonWhen God Laughs: and other stories → online text (page 11 of 12)