Wrestlers by Arthur Quiller-Couch

Story type: Literature

As Boutigo’s Van (officially styled the “Vivid”) slackened its already inconsiderable pace at the top of the street, to slide precipitately down into Troy upon a heated skid, the one outside passenger began to stare about him with the air of a man who compares present impressions with old memories. His eyes travelled down the inclined plane of slate roofs, glistening in a bright interval between two showers, to the masts which rocked slowly by the quays, and from thence to the silver bar of sea beyond the harbour’s mouth, where the outline of Battery Point wavered unsteadily in the dazzle of sky and water. He sniffed the fragrance of pilchards cooking and the fumes of pitch blown from the ship-builders’ yards; and scanned with some curiosity the men and women who drew aside into doorways to let the van pass.

He was a powerfully made man of about sixty-five, with a solemn, hard-set face. The upper lip was clean-shaven and the chin decorated with a square, grizzled beard–a mode of wearing the hair that gave prominence to the ugly lines of the mouth. He wore a Sunday-best suit and a silk hat. He carried a blue band-box on his knees, and his enormous hands were spread over the cover. Boutigo, who held the reins beside him, seemed, in comparison with this mighty passenger, but a trivial accessory of his own vehicle.

“Where did you say William Dendle lives?” asked the big man, as the van swung round a sharp corner and came to a halt under the signboard of “The Lugger.”

“Straight on for maybe quarter of a mile–turn down a court to the right, facin’ the toll-house. You’ll see his sign, ‘W. Dendle, Block and Pump Manufacturer.’ There’s a flight o’ steps leadin’ ‘ee slap into his workshop.”

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The passenger set his band-box down on the cobbles between his ankles and counted out the fare.

“I’ll be goin’ back to-night. Is there any reduction on a return journey?”

“No, sir; ’tisn’ the rule, an’ us can’t begin to cheapen the fee wi’ a man o’ your inches.”

The stranger apparently disliked levity. He stared at Boutigo, picked up his band-box, and strode down the street without more words.

By the red and yellow board opposite the tollhouse he paused for a moment or two in the sunshine, as if to rehearse the speech with which he meant to open his business. A woman passed him with a child in her arms, and turned her head to stare. The stranger looked up and caught her eye.

“That’s Dendle’s shop down the steps,” she said, somewhat confused at being caught.

“Thank you: I know.”

He turned in at the doorway and began to descend. The noise of persistent hammering echoed within the workshop at his feet. A workman came out into the yard, carrying a plank.

“Is William Dendle here?”

The man looked up and pointed at the quay-door, which stood open, with threads of light wavering over its surface. Beyond it, against an oblong of green water, rocked a small yacht’s mast.

“He’s down on the yacht there. Shall I say you want en?”

“No.” The stranger stepped to the quay-door and looked down the ladder. On the deck below him stood a man about his own age and proportions, fitting a block. His flannel shirt hung loosely about a magnificent pair of shoulders, and was tucked up at the sleeves, about the bulge of his huge forearms. He wore no cap, and as he stooped the light wind puffed back his hair, which was grey and fine.

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“Hi, there–William Dendle!”

“Hullo!” The man looked up quickly.

“Can you spare a word? Don’t trouble to come up–I’ll climb down to you.”

He went down the ladder carefully, hugging the band-box in his left arm.

“You disremember me, I dessay,” he began, as he stood on the yacht’s deck.

“Well, I do, to be sure. Oughtn’t to, though, come to look on your size.”

“Samuel Badgery’s my name. You an’ me had a hitch to wrestlin’, once, over to Tregarrick feast.”

“Why, o’ course. I mind your features now, though ’tis forty years since. We was standards there an’ met i’ the last round, an’ I got the wust o’t. Terrible hard you pitched me, to be sure: but your sweetheart was a-watchin’ ‘ee–hey?–wi’ her blue eyes.”

Samuel Badgery sat down on deck, with a leg on either side of the band-box.

“Iss: she was there, as you say. An’ she married me that day month. How do you know her eyes were blue?”

“Oh, I dunno. Young men takes notice o’ these trifles.”

“She died last week.”

“Indeed? Pore soul!”

“An’ she left you this by her will. ‘Twas hers to leave, for I gave it to her, mysel’, when that day’s wrestlin’ was over.”

He removed the lid of the band-box and pulled out two parcels wrapped in a pile of tissue-paper. After removing sheet upon sheet of this paper he held up two glittering objects in the sunshine. The one was a silver mug: the other a leather belt with an elaborate silver buckle.

William Dendle wore a puzzled and somewhat uneasy look.

“I reckon she saw how disapp’inted I was that day,” he said. After a pause he added, “Women brood over such things, I b’lieve: for years, I’m told. ‘Tis their unsearchable natur’.”

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“William Dendle, I wish you’d speak truth.”

“What have I said that’s false?”

“Nuthin’: an’ you’ve said nuthin’ that’s true. I charge ‘ee to tell me the facts about that hitch of our’n.”

“You’re a hard man, Sam Badgery. I hope, though, you’ve been soft to your wife. I mind–if you must have the tale–how you played very rough that day. There was a slim young chap–Nathan Oke, his name was–that stood up to you i’ the second round. He wasn’ ha’f your match: you might ha’ pitched en flat-handed. An’ yet you must needs give en the ‘flyin’ mare.’ Your maid’s face turned lily-white as he dropped. Two of his ribs went cr-rk! and his collar-bone–you could hear it right across the ring. I looked at her–she was close beside me–an’ saw the tears come: that’s how I know the colour of her eyes. Then there was that small blacksmith–you dropped en slap on the tail of his spine. I wondered if you knew the mortal pain o’ bein’ flung that way, an’ I swore to mysel’ that if we met i’ the last round, you should taste it.

“Well, we met, as you know. When I was stripped, an’ the folks made way for me to step into the ring, I saw her face again. ‘Twas whiter than ever, an’ her eyes went over me in a kind o’ terror. I reckon it dawned on her that I might hurt you: but I didn’ pay her much heed at the time, for I lusted after the prize, an’ I got savage. You was standin’ ready for me, wi’ the sticklers about you, an’ I looked you up an’ down–a brave figure of a man. You’d longer arms than me, an’ two inches to spare in height; prettier shoulders, too, I’d never clapp’d eyes on. But I guessed myself a trifle the deeper, an’ a trifle the cleaner i’ the matter o’ loins an’ quarters: an’ I promised that I’d outlast ‘ee.

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“You got the sun an’ the best hitch, an’ after a rough an’ tumble piece o’ work, we went down togither, you remember–no fair back. The second hitch was just about equal; an’ I gripped up the sackin’ round your shoulders, an’ creamed it into the back o’ your neck, an’ held you off, an’ meant to keep you off till you was weak. Ten good minnits I laboured with ‘ee by the stickler’s watch, an’ you heaved an’ levered in vain, till I heard your breath alter its pace, an’ felt the strength tricklin’ out o’ you, an’ knew ‘ee for a done man. ‘Now,’ thinks I, ‘half a minnit more, an’ you shall learn how the blacksmith felt.’ I glanced up over your shoulder for a moment at the folks i’ the ring: an’ who should my eye light on but your girl?

“I hadn’t got a sweetheart then, an’ I’ve never had one since–never saw another woman who could ha’ looked what she looked. I was condemned a single man there on the spot: an’, what’s more, I was condemned to lose the belt. There was that ‘pon her face that no man is good enow to cause; an’ there was suthin I wanted to see instead– just for a moment–that I could ha’ given forty silver mugs to fetch up.

“An’ I looked at her over your shoulders wi’ a kind o’ question i’ my face, an’ I did fetch it up. The next moment, you had your chance and cast me flat. When I came round–for you were always an ugly player, Sam Badgery–an’ the folks was consolin’ me, I gave a look in her direction: but she had no eyes for me at all. She was usin’ all her dear deceit to make ‘ee think you was a hero. So home I went, an’ never set eyes ‘pon her agen. That’s the tale; an’ I didn’t want to tell it. But we’m old gaffers both by this time, an’ I couldn’ make this here belt meet round my middle, if I wanted to.”

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Sam Badgery straightened his upper lip.

“No. I got a call from the Lord a year after we was married, and gave up wrestlin’. My poor wife found grace about the same time, an’ since then we’ve been preachers of the Word togither for nigh on forty years. If our work had lain in Cornwall, I’d have sought you out an’ wrestled with you again–not in the flesh, but in the spirit. Man, I’d have shown you the Kingdom of Heaven!”

“Thank ‘ee,” answered Dendle; “but I got a glimpse o’t once–from your wife.”

The other stared, failing to understand this speech. What puzzled him always annoyed him. He set down the cup and belt on the yacht’s deck, shook hands abruptly, and hurried back to the inn, where already Boutigo was harnessing for the return journey.

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