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The Face and the Mask/The Bruiser's Courtship


XVII. THE BRUISER'S COURTSHIP

While the Northern Bruiser sat in the chair in his corner and was being fanned he resolved to finish the fight at the next round. The superior skill of his opponent was telling upon him, and although the Bruiser was a young man of immense strength, yet, up to that time, the alertness and dexterity of the Yorkshire Chicken had baffled him, and prevented him from landing one of his tremendous shoulder thrusts. But even though skill had checkmated strength up to this point, the Chicken had not entirely succeeded in defending himself, and was in a condition described by the yelling crowd as "groggy."

When time was called the Bruiser was speedily on his feet. His face did not present the repulsive appearance so visible on the countenance of his opponent, but the Bruiser had experience enough to know that the body blows received in this fight had had their effect on his wind and staying powers; and that although the Chicken presented an appalling appearance with his swollen lips and cheeks, and his eyes nearly closed, yet he was in better trim for continuing the battle than the Bruiser.

The Chicken came up to the mark less promptly than his big antagonist, but whether it was from weakness or lack of sight, he seemed uncertain in his movements, and the hearts of his backers sank as they saw him stagger rather than walk to his place.

Before the Chicken, as it were, fully waked up to the situation, the Bruiser lunged forward and planted a blow on his temple that would have broken the guard of a man who was in better condition than the Chicken. The Yorkshireman fell like a log, and lay where he fell. Then the Bruiser got a lesson which terrified him. A sickly ashen hue came over the purple face of the man on the ground. The Bruiser had expected some defence, and the terrible blow had been even more powerful than he intended. A shivering whisper went round the crowd, "He is killed," and instantly the silenced mob quietly scattered. It was every man for himself before the authorities took a hand in the game.

The Bruiser stood there swaying from side to side, his gaze fixed upon the prostrate man. He saw himself indicted and hanged for murder, and he swore that if the Chicken recovered he would never again enter the ring. This was a phase of prize-fighting that he had never before had experience of. On different occasions he had, it is true, knocked out his various opponents, and once or twice he had been knocked out himself; but the Chicken had fought so pluckily up to the last round that the Bruiser had put forth more of his tremendous strength than he had bargained for, and now the man's life hung on a thread.

The unconscious pugilist was carried to an adjoining room. Two physicians were in attendance upon him, and at first the reports were most gloomy, but towards daylight the Bruiser learned with relief that the chances were in favor of his opponent.

The Bruiser had been urged to fly, but he was a man of strong common sense, and he thoroughly understood the futility of flight. His face and his form were too well known all around the country. It would have been impossible for him to escape, even if he had tried to do so.

When the Yorkshire Chicken recovered, the Bruiser's friends laughed at his resolve to quit the ring, but they could not shake it. The money he had won in his last fight, together with what he had accumulated before—for he was a frugal man—was enough to keep him for the rest of his days, and he resolved to return to the Border town where he was born, and where doubtless his fame had preceded him.

He buckled his guineas in a belt around him, and with a stout stick in his hand he left London for the North. He was a strong and healthy young man, and had not given way to dissipation, as so many prizefighters had done before, and will again. He had a horror of a cramped and confined, seat in a stage coach. He loved the free air of the heights and the quiet stillness of the valleys.

It was in the days of highwaymen, and travelling by coach was not considered any too safe. The Bruiser was afraid of no man that lived, if he met him in the open with a stick in his hand, or with nature's weapons, but he feared the muzzle of a pistol held at his head in the dark by a man with a mask over his face. So he buckled his belt around him with all his worldly gear in gold, took his own almost forgotten name, Abel Trenchon, set his back to the sun and his face to the north wind, and journeyed on foot along the king's highway. He stopped at night in the wayside inns, taking up his quarters before the sun had set, and leaving them when it was broad daylight in the morning. He disputed his reckonings like a man who must needs count the pennies, and no one suspected the sturdy wayfarer of carrying a fortune around his body.

As his face turned toward the North his thought went to the Border town where he had spent his childhood. His father and mother were dead, and he doubted now if anyone there remembered him, or would have a welcome for him. Nevertheless no other spot on earth was so dear to him, and it had always been his intention, when he settled down and took a wife, to retire to the quiet little town.

The weather, at least, gave him a surly welcome. On the last day's tramp the wind howled and the rain beat in gusts against him, but he was a man who cared little for the tempest, and he bent his body to the blast, trudging sturdily on.

It was evening when he began to recognize familiar objects by the wayside, and he was surprised to see how little change there had been in all the years he was away. He stopped at an inn for supper, and, having refreshed himself, resolved to break the rule he had made for himself throughout the journey. He would push on through the night, and sleep in his native village.

The storm became more pitiless as he proceeded, and he found himself sympathizing with those poor creatures who were compelled to be out in it, but he never gave a thought to himself.

It was nearly midnight when he saw the square church tower standing blackly out against the dark sky; and when he began to descend the valley, on the other side of which the town stood, a thrill of fear came over him, as he remembered what he had so long forgotten—that the valley was haunted, and was a particularly dangerous place about the hour of midnight. To divert his thoughts he then began to wonder who the woman was he would marry. She was doubtless now sleeping calmly in the village on the hill, quite unconscious of the approach of her lover and her husband. He could not conceal from himself the fact that he would be reckoned a good match when his wealth was known, for, excepting the Squire, he would probably be the richest man in the place. However, he resolved to be silent about his riches, so that the girl he married would little dream of the good fortune that awaited her. He laughed aloud as he thought of the pleasure he would have in telling his wife of her luck, but the laugh died on his lips as he saw, or thought he saw, something moving stealthily along the hedge.

He was now in the depth of the valley in a most lonesome and eerie spot. The huge trees on each side formed an arch over the roadway and partially sheltered it from the rain.

He stood in his tracks, grasped his stick with firmer hold, and shouted valiantly, "Who goes there?"

There was no answer, but in the silence which followed he thought he heard a woman's sob.

"Come out into the road," he cried, "or I shall fire."

His own fear of pistols was so great that he expected everyone else to be terrorized by the threat of using them; and yet he had never possessed nor carried a pistol in his life.

"Please—please don't fire," cried a trembling voice, from out the darkness. "I will do as you tell me." And so saying the figure moved out upon the road.

Trenchon peered at her through the darkness, but whether she was old or young he could not tell. Her voice seemed to indicate that she was young.

"Why, lass," said Trenchon, kindly, "what dost thou here at such an hour and in such a night?"

"Alas!" she cried, weeping; "my father turned me out, as he has often done before, but to-night is a bitter night, and I had nowhere to go, so I came here to be sheltered from the rain. He will be asleep ere long, and he sleeps soundly. I may perhaps steal in by a window, although sometimes he fastens them down."

"God's truth!" cried Trenchon, angrily. "Who is thy brute of a father?"

The girl hesitated, and then spoke as if to excuse him, but again Trenchon demanded his name.

"He is the blacksmith of the village, and Cameron is his name."

"I remember him," said Trenchon. "Is thy mother, then, dead?"

"Yes," answered the girl, weeping afresh. "She has been dead these five years."

"I knew her when I was a boy," said Trenchon. "Thy father also, and many a grudge I owe him, although I had forgotten about them. Still, I doubt not but as a boy I was as much in fault as he, although he was harsh to all of us, and now it seems he is harsh to thee. My name is Trenchon. I doubt if any in the village now remember me, although, perhaps, they may have heard of me from London," he said, with some pride, and a hope that the girl would confirm his thoughts. But she shook her head.

"I have never heard thy name," she said.

Trenchon sighed. This, then, was fame!

"Ah, well!" he cried, "that matters not; they shall hear more of me later. I will go with thee to thy father's house and demand for thee admittance and decent usage."

But the girl shrank back. "Oh, no, no!" she cried; "that will never do. My father is a hard man to cross. There are none in the village who dare contend with him."

"That is as it may be," said Trenchon, with easy confidence. "I, for one, fear him not. Come, lass, with me, and see if I cannot, after all these years, pick out thy father's dwelling. Come, I say, thou must not longer tarry here; the rain is coming on afresh, and these trees, thick as they are, form scant protection. It is outrageous that thou should wander in this storm, while thy brutal father lies in shelter. Nay, do not fear harm for either thee or me; and as for him, he shall not suffer if thou but wish it so." And, drawing the girl's hand through his arm, he took her reluctantly with him, and without direction from her soon stood before the blacksmith's house.

"You see," he said, triumphantly, "I knew the place, and yet I have not seen the town for years."

Trenchon rapped soundly on the oaken door with his heavy stick, and the blows re-echoed through the silent house. The girl shrank timidly behind him, and would have fled, but that he held her firmly by the wrist.

"Nay, nay," he said: "believe me there is naught to fear. I will see that thou art not ill-used."

As he spoke the window above was thrown up, and a string of fearful oaths greeted the two, whereat the girl once more tried to release her imprisoned wrist, but Trenchon held it lightly, though with a grip like steel.

The stout old man thrust his head through the open window.

"God's blight on thee!" he cried, "thou pair of fools who wish to wed so much that ye venture out in such a night as this. Well, have your way, and let me have my rest. In the name of the law of Scotland I pronounce ye man and wife. There, that will bind two fools together as strongly as if the Archbishop spoke the words. Place thou the money on the steps. I warrant none will venture to touch it when it belongs to me." And with that he closed the window.

"Is he raving mad or drunk?" cried Trenchon.

The girl gave a wailing cry. "Alas! alas!" she said; "he is neither. He is so used to marrying folk who come from England across the Border that he thinks not it his daughter who came with thee, but two who wished to wed. They come at all hours of the night and day, and he has married us. I am thy wife."

The astonished man dropped her wrist, and she put her hands before her eyes and wept.

"Married!" cried Trenchon. "We two married!"

He looked with interest at the girl, but in the darkness could see nothing of her. The unheeded rain pelted on them both.

"Hast thou"—he hesitated—"hast thou some other lover, since you weep?"

The girl shook her head. "No one," she said, "comes near us. They fear my father."

"Then, if this be true, why dost thou weep? I am not considered so bad a fellow."

"I weep not for myself, but for thee, who through the kindness of thy heart hast been led into this trap. Believe me, it was not my intention."

"Judging from thy voice, my girl, and if thou favorest thy mother, as I think, whom I remember well, this is a trap that I shall make little effort to get my foot out of. But thou art dripping, and I stand chattering here. Once more I will arouse my father-in-law."

So saying, he stoutly rapped again with his stick upon the door.

Once more the window was pushed up, and again the angry head appeared.

"Get you gone!" cried the maddened blacksmith, but before he could say anything further Trenchon cried out:

"It is thy daughter here who waits. Open the door, thou limb of hell, or I will burst it in and cast thee out as thou hast done thy daughter."

The blacksmith, who had never in his life been spoken to in tones or words like these, was so amazed that he could neither speak nor act, but one stout kick against the door so shook the fabric that he speedily saw another such would break into his domicile; so, leaving the window open that his curses might the better reach them, the blacksmith came down and threw the barrier from the door, flinging it open and standing on the threshold so as to bar all ingress.

"Out of the way," cried Trenchon, roughly placing his hand on the other's breast with apparent lightness, but with a push that sent him staggering into the room.

The young man pulled the girl in after him and closed the door.

"Thou knowest the way," he whispered. "Strike thou a light."

The trembling girl lit a candle, and as it shone upon her face Trenchon gave a deep sigh of happiness and relief. No girl in the village could be more fair.

The blacksmith stood, his fingers clenched with rage; but he looked with hesitation and respect upon the burly form of the prizefighter. Yet the old man did not flinch.

"Throw aside thy stick," he cried, "or wait until I can get me another."

Trenchon flung his stick into the corner.

"Oh! oh!" cried the girl, clasping her hands. "You must not fight." But she appealed to her husband and not to her father, which caused a glow of satisfaction to rise from the heart of the young man.

"Get thee out of this house," cried her father, fiercely, turning upon her.

"Talk not thus to my wife," said Trenchon, advancing upon him.

"Thy wife?" cried the blacksmith, in amaze.

"My wife," repeated the young man with emphasis. "They tell me, blacksmith, that thou art strong. That thou art brutal I know, but thy strength I doubt. Come to me and test it."

The old man sprang upon him, and the Bruiser caught him by the elbows and held him helpless as a child. He pressed him up against the wall, pushed his wrists together, and clasped them both in his one gigantic hand. Then, placing the other on the blacksmith's shoulder, he put his weight upon him, and the blacksmith, cursing but helpless, sank upon his knees.

"Now, thou hardened sinner," cried the Bruiser, bending over him. "Beg from thy daughter on thy knees for a night's shelter in this house. Beg, or I will thrust thy craven face against the floor."

The girl clung to her newly-found husband, and entreated him not to hurt her father.

"I shall not hurt him if he do but speak. If he has naught but curses on his lips, why then those lips must kiss the flags that are beneath him. Speak out, blacksmith: what hast thou to say?"

"I beg for shelter," said the conquered man.

Instantly the Bruiser released him.

"Get thee to bed," he said, and the old man slunk away.

"Wife," said Abel Trenchon, opening his arms, "I have come all the way from London for thee. I knew not then what drew me north, but now I know that One wiser than me led my steps hither. As far as erring man may promise I do promise thee that thou shalt ne'er regret being cast out this night into the storm."