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Chapter 1

"MILL--mill! A mill!"

At the entrance of Dean's Yard, Westminster, a small King's Scholar, waving his gown and yelling, collided with an old gentleman hobbling round the corner, and sat down suddenly in the gutter with a squeal, as a bagpipe collapses. The old gentleman rotated on one leg like a dervish, made an ineffectual stoop to clutch his gouty toe and wound up by bringing his rattan cane smartly down on the boy's shoulders.

"Owgh! Owgh! Stand up, you young villain! My temper's hasty, and here's a shilling-piece to cry quits. Stand up and tell me now--is it Fire, Robbery, or Murder?"

The youngster pounced at the shilling, shook off the hand on his collar, and darted down Little College Street to Hutton's Boarding House, under the windows of which he pulled up and executed a derisive war-dance.

     "Hutton's, Hutton's,
      Put up your buttons,
      Hutton's are rottenly Whigs--"

"Mill--mill! Come out and carry home your Butcher Randall! You'll be wanted when Wesley has done with him."

He was speeding back by this time, and flung this last taunt from a safe distance. The old gentleman collared him again by the entry.

"Stop, my friend--here, hold hard for a moment! A fight, you said: and Wesley--was it Wesley?"

The boy nodded.

"Charles Wesley?"

"Well, it wouldn't be Samuel--at his age: now would it?" The boy grinned. The Reverend Samuel Wesley was the respected Head Usher of Westminster School.

"And what will Charles Wesley be fighting about?"

"How should I know? Because he wants to, belike. But I was told it began up school, with Randall's flinging a book at young Murray for a lousy Scotch Jacobite."

"H'm: and where will it be?"

The boy dropped his voice to a drawl. "In Fighting-green, I believe, sir: they told me Poets' Corner was already bespoke for a turn-up between the Dean and Sall the charwoman, with the Head Verger for bottle-holder--"

"Now, look here, young jackanapes--" But young jackanapes, catching sight of half a dozen boys--the vanguard of Hutton's--at the street corner, ducked himself free and raced from vengeance across the yard.

The old gentleman followed; and the crowd from Hutton's, surging past, showed him the way to Fighting-green where a knot of King's Scholars politely made room for him, perceiving that in spite of his small stature, his rusty wig and countrified brown suit, he was a person of some dignity and no little force of character. They read it perhaps in the set of his mouth, perhaps in the high aquiline arch of his nose, which he fed with snuff as he gazed round the ring while the fighters rested, each in his corner, after the first round: for a mill at Westminster was a ceremonious business, and the Head Master had been known to adjourn school for one.

"H'm," said the newcomer; "no need to ask which is Wesley."

His eyes set deep beneath brows bristling like a wire-haired terrier's--were on the boy in the farther corner, who sat on his backer's knee, shoeless, stripped to the buff, with an angry red mark on the right breast below the collar-bone; a slight boy and a trifle undersized, but lithe, clear-skinned, and in the pink of condition; a handsome boy, too. By his height you might have guessed him under sixteen, but his face set you doubting. There are faces almost uncannily good-looking: they charm so confidently that you shrink from predicting the good fortune they claim, and bethink you that the gods' favourites are said to die young: and Charles Wesley's was such a face. He tightened the braces about his waist and stepped forward for the second round with a sweet and serious smile. Yet his mouth meant business.

Master Randall--who stood near three inches taller--though nicknamed "Butcher," was merely a dull heavy-shouldered Briton, dogged, hard to beat; the son of a South Sea merchant, retired and living at Barnet, who swore by Walpole and King George. But at Westminster these convictions--and, confound it! they were the convictions of England, after all--met with scurrilous derision; and here Master Randall nursed a dull and inarticulate resentment in a world out of joint, where the winning side was a butt for epigrams. To win, and be laughed at! To have the account reopened in lampoons and witticisms, contemptible but irritating, when it should be closed by the mere act of winning! It puzzled him, and he brooded over it, turning sulky in the end, not vicious. It was in no viciousness that he had flung a book at young Murray's head and called him a lousy Jacobite, but simply to provoke Wesley and get his grievance settled by intelligible weapons, such as fists.

He knew his to be the unpopular side, and that even Freind, the Head Master, would chuckle over the defeat of a Whig. Outside of Hutton's, who cheered him for the honour of their house, he had few well-wishers; but among them was a sprinkling of boys bearing the great Whig names--Cowpers, Sackvilles, Osborns--for whose sake and for its own tradition the ring would give him fair play.

The second round began warily, Wesley sparring for an opening, Randall defensive, facing round and round, much as a bullock fronts a terrier. He knew his game; to keep up his guard and wait for a chance to get in with his long left. He was cunning, too; appeared slower than he was, tempting the other to take liberties, and, towards the end of the round, to step in a shade too closely. It was but a shade. Wesley, watching his eye, caught an instant's warning, flung his head far back and sprang away--not quickly enough to avoid a thud on the ribs. It rattled him, but did no damage, and it taught him his lesson.

Round 3. Tempted in turn by his slight success, Randall shammed slow again. But once bitten is twice shy, and this time he overreached himself, in two senses. His lunge, falling short, let in the little one, who dealt him a double knock--rap, rap, on either side of the jaw--before breaking away. Stung out of caution he rushed and managed to close, but took a third rap which cut his upper lip. First blood to Wesley. The pair went to grass together, Randall on top. But it was the Tories who cheered.

Round 4. Randall, having bought his experience, went back to sound tactics. This and the next two rounds were uninteresting and quite indecisive, though at the end of them Wesley had a promising black eye and Randall was bleeding at mouth and nose. The old gentleman rubbed his chin and took snuff. This Fabian fighting was all against the lighter weight, who must tire in time.

Yet he did not look like tiring, but stepped out for Round 7 with the same inscrutable smile. Randall met it with a shame-faced grin-- really a highly creditable, good-natured grin, though the blood about his mouth did its meaning some injustice. And with this there happened that which dismayed many and puzzled all. Wesley's fists went up, but hung, as it were impotent for the moment, while his eyes glanced aside from his adversary's and rested, with a stiffening of surprise, on the corner of the ring where the old gentleman stood. A cry went up from the King's Scholars--a groan and a warning. At the sound he flung back his head instinctively--as Randall's left shot out, caught him on the apple of the throat, and drove him staggering back across the green.

The old gentleman snapped down the lid of his snuffbox, and at the same moment felt a hand gripping him by the elbow. "Now, how the--" he began, turning as he supposed to address a Westminster boy, and found himself staring into the face of a lady.

He had no time to take stock of her. And although her fingers pinched his arm, her eyes were all for the fight.

It had been almost a knock-down; but young Wesley just saved himself by touching the turf with his fingertips and, resting so, crouched for a spring. What is more, he timed it beautifully; helped by Randall himself, who followed up at random, demoralised by the happy fluke and encouraged by the shouts of Hutton's to "finish him off." In the fall Wesley had most of his remaining breath thumped out of him; but this did not matter. He had saved the round.

The old gentleman nodded. "Well recovered: very pretty--very pretty indeed!" He turned to the lady. "I beg your pardon, madam--"

"I beg yours, sir." She withdrew her hand from his arm.

"If he can swallow that down, he may win yet."

"Please God!"

She stood almost a head taller than he, and he gazed up into a singularly noble face, proud and strong, somewhat pinched about the lips, but having such eyes and brows as belong to the few accustomed to confront great thoughts. It gave her the ineffable touch of greatness which more than redeemed her shabby black gown and antique bonnet; and, on an afterthought, the old gentleman decided that it must have been beautiful in its day. Just now it was pale, and one hand clutched the silk shawl crossed upon her bosom. He noted, too, that the hand was shapely, though roughened with housework where the mitten did not hide it.

She had scarcely glanced at him, and after a while he dropped his scrutiny and gazed with her across the ring.

"H'm," said he, "dander up, this time!"

"Yes," the lady answered, "I know that look, sir, though I have never seen it on him. And I trust to see him wear it, one day, in a better cause."

"Tut, madam, the cause is good enough. You don't tell me I'm talking to a Whig?--not that I'd dispute with a lady, Whig or Tory."

"A Whig?" She fetched up a smile: she had evidently a reserve of mirth. "Indeed, no: but I was thinking, sir, of the cause of Christ."

"Oh!" said the old gentleman shortly, and took snuff.

They were right. Young Wesley stepped out this time with a honeyed smile, but with a new-born light in his hazel eyes--a demoniac light, lambent and almost playful. Master Randall, caressed by them, read the danger signal a thought too late. A swift and apparently reckless feint drew another of his slogging strokes, and in a flash the enemy was under his guard. Even so, for the fraction of a second, victory lay in his arms, a clear gift to be embraced: a quick crook of the elbow, and Master Wesley's head and neck would be snugly in Chancery. Master Wesley knew it--knew, further, that there was no retreat, and that his one chance hung on getting in his blow first and disabling with it. He jabbed it home with his right, a little below the heart: and in a second the inclosing fore-arm dragged limp across his neck. He pressed on, aiming for the point of the jaw; but slowly lowered his hands as Randall tottered back two steps with a face of agony, dropped upon one knee, clutching at his breast, and so to the turf, where he writhed for a moment and fainted.

As the ring broke up, cheering, and surged across the green, the old gentleman took snuff again and snapped down the lid of his box.

"Good!" said he; then to the lady, "Are you a relative of his?"

"I am his mother, sir."

Arthur Quiller-Couch