Page images
PDF
EPUB

of the court and to confess that pure curiosity was our introduction. The plea was accepted. "Wait a minute; I just want to see the instructor take on a new member, and then I shall be delighted to show you round the place. Let me introduce you to our secretary."

Accordingly, the round being now ended and the combatants having disappeared to dress, we were introduced to the sturdy man who had been talking to the president. The secretary appeared to be an enthusiast, and launched out into the merits of the various champions of the district, past and present. Then a hush fell on all. The instructor had taken his place in a corner of the ring, close to where we were sitting, and was putting on the gloves. In the opposite corner was a powerful-looking young fellow, who purported to be a complete novice. The secretary looked glum. "I've seen that chap before'somewhere," he muttered; "he ain't a novice. Tom," he added, leaning over the ropes, "keep your eyes open. That chap's warm, I reckon." The instructor only winked, and "Time!" was called. For three long minutes the instructor was in a succession of warm corners. The novice followed him all over the ring, lunging heavily, now at his head, now at his body, but in vain. Tom might have been a snake, so rapid and sinuous were his movements. His head and his body were everywhere but in the particular place where his opponent's flst happened to be. It was a splendid exhibition of self-defence, and also of self-control, for not once did he attempt to hit back. Nevertheless, he must have been glad when "Time!" was called. From his corner he beckoned to the secretary, and we overheard the conversation. "Look here, Charlie; I can't go on like this. He'll have me out by accident directly, and that won't do, you know." "Well, you know what

to do, don't you? Put it on him. Give him the one-two, and I'll tell him to keep himself a bit quieter next time he has a lesson." "Time!" We expected that something was going to happen, and watched closely. The novice, as before, made a rush. The instructor leaned lightly to one side, and hit his man under the guard on the body. Instinctively the latter bowed forward, and received a smart blow right on the point of the chin. It was all over. The instructor, after one lightning glance, walked quietly back to his place. The novice stopped as if he had been shot, and then collapsed in a heap upon the floor. "By Jove!" said a voice at our elbow, "that's the neatest knockout I ever saw." Apparently no one was badly hurt, for the novice was already recovering consciousness under the expert care of the secretary.

With our clerical friend we left the hall. As we reached the door the first headings of the secretary's sermon to the repentant novice fell upon our ears. "Come and see the rest of the institute," said the clergyman; and we accompanied him to see a tournament in various indoor games against a neighboring club which was in progress. He took us first into the downstairs billiard-room, which opened out of tne coffee-bar. Some forty or fifty men were crowded round the table, leaving barely enough room for the players, who were the objects of all eyes, to take their strokes. Both the players were surprisingly good, and the game was keenly contested. All good strokes and breaks were warmly applauded, and we were glad to notice that the applause was independent of the side represented. "A hundred and seventyseven plays a hundred and ninetyseven," said the marker, as "Plain" broke down at a difficult cannon. "Spot" chalked his cue carefully, for two hundred up was the game. He made a shot, failed to secure the pocket, but scored a surprisingly fluky cannon.

[graphic]
[graphic]

When the jeers from his supporters had subsided the marker's voice sung out, "Two to Spot." Another stroke, and the red dropped quietly into a pocket. "Five to Spot," said the marker; and a rustle went round the room, for the balls were now beautifully situated for a long break. "Ten to Spot," as the red was again pocketed and a pretty cannon scored at the same time. "Plain" put away his cue ostentatiously, as who should say, "I know how to lose like a sportsman." "Twenty-one to Spot," said the marker, and "Spot" prepared to make the winning stroke. Alas! in the excitement of the moment he hit his ball a shade too high; it took a course quite different from that intended, hung trembling for a moment on the edge of a pocket, and then dropped in. "Plain wins," said the marker, and there was a burst of applause from the victorious club. "One for the loser!" cried somebody, and everybody cheered and clapped, while the opponents shook hands cordially. Talk buzzed cheerfully, and the game was played all over again in conversation by the bystanders, till the next pair of players tossed a coin to see which should break the balls.

We watched the game for a time, but, on being reminded that there were other games in progress upstairs, accompanied our host to other quarters of the house to see what was going on there. Over the coffee-bar we found a second billiard-room, where some of the club members were playing a friendly game; and from this we passed into a large room furnished with chairs, in various stages of repair and disrepair, and small square tables. In this room the club competition was in progress.

Chess, ye gods! Do working men play chess? They did here, and played it according to knowledge, it would

seem, for the Muzio Gambit unfolded itself before our astonished eyes. We tore ourselves away, and paused to look on at a game of cribbage. Judging by the scoring-board it was a keenly contested game. One of the players, a delicate-looking lad, was counting. His face quivered with excitement as he glanced from his cards to his score, hastily calculating if he could snatch victory. "Fifteen, two; fifteen, four; pair, six; and run of three—seven," he said. An electric silence ran round the watching group. The player who had not yet pegged his score felt that something was wrong. Had he omitted to count anything? He scrutinized his cards again. "Two, four, six, and three are seven," he said with clouded brow, and marked his points. No one said a word, but we fancied that he would hear more of his arithmetic later on. For ourselves, we passed from table to table, keenly interested in the faces which we saw, and impressed both by the excitement which the match caused and by the courtesy extended by each club to each.

But time was slipping by, and with regret we prepared to depart. The regret was softened by a cordial invitation to come again. "There is a concert here the day after to-morrow; perhaps you would like to come. It might interest you, as it will be given entirely by our own men." We promised to come if possible.

It proved to be possible, though not altogether pleasant, for the rain came down in torrents. We did not anticipate a large assembly of men at that concert. They would probably prefer their own firesides, and had we not been idiots we should have done so too —that was our reflection as a passing hansom cab spattered us with mud from top to toe. But the expectation proved to be wide of the reality. The coffee-bar was crammed with members of the club, attended by their sweethearts and wives. "A nice wet night, so we are sure of a good audience," said our host, and explained, on being questioned, that the average working man does not possess a comfortable library or drawing-room to which to retire when work is done, that his courtship is usually carried on in the street, and that .he is not always wanted at home when home consists of two rooms and a small family. It began to dawn on us that wet weather might be a good thing for workingclass concerts.

[graphic]

A tide of humanity flowed, we with it, into the small hall at the back of the house. There was a platform and there was a piano. At the piano presided a tired-looking girl of about eighteen, who was playing vigorously all the popular tunes and marches of the day, while the audience crowded noisily into the seats. The hall was small and ill ventilated, and the rain found means of entry through the roof, making a fine puddle on the middle of the stage. Later on unwary singers were surprised into forgetting their songs by the descent of cold drops upon the nape of the neck. Al i the men were smoking, and the air was thick. Our host took his place in the chair by a small table on the platform, armed with a small hammer. He rapped the table, called for order, and announced,

"Our old friend Mr. will give us

the first song of the evening." There was applause as the singer in question made his way to the platform. A glass of something effervescing stood on the chairman's table; the singer wet his whistle and called to the pianist, "Sweet Rosy O'Grady, miss." Then he adjusted his hat on the back of his head and surveyed the audience, while the pianist played over a waltz refrain which we seemed to ourselves to have heard on barrel organs. The singer sung his verse and the chorus (in waltji time) concerning Miss Rosy O'Grady.

When he had informed the audience how dearly he and the said Rosy loved one another, the chairman rapped the table with his hammer: "This time, please!" he cried, and the whole audience took up the lilting chorus. It was evidently a favorite, and we trembled for the roof.

The song ended, the chairman called on somebody else, and the scene was repeated. Again the singer named his song; the pianist, whose memory must be extraordinary, played the refrain; the singer drank from the glass on the table, the chorus lifted the roof, and somebody else was called upon. So the evening proceeded. Occasionally the pianist was not familufr with the song selected. At such times the singer leaned over the piano and bummed into her ear. She listened, always with that tired, uninterested look, struck one or two chords, nodded, and accompanied the song with apparent ease.

Most of the songs were either sentimental or of the full-blooded patriotic variety. Now and then there was a comic man, and the type was unpleasant. His first two verses were usually vulgar but harmless; his third verse was disgustingly suggestive. During these fatal third verses we watched the faces of the audience. Some of the listeners were convulsed with laughter, some tittered shamefacedly; nobody seemed indignant, though there were women and girls present. The pianist looked merely bored. The chairman's countenance was a study. Once he leaned forward at the end of the second verse, and said something to the singer, who looked surprised and brought his song to an abrupt conclusion, declining the encore which was vigorously demanded by a section of the audience. The chairman hastily called for the next song. Happily the comic element was small.

After a long hour of concert an interval was announced, and a rush was made to the coffee-bar. The chairman exchanged a few words with us, again extending an invitation, which we again accepted; then he excused himself, as being responsible for the whole club, much of which had had to look .after itself that evening. We screwed up our courage and entered into conversation with the pianist. Oh, yes, «he did a good deal of this kind of thing in the winter, mostly at publichouses. No, it was not pleasant for girls, but her mother usually accompanied her, and, besides, it brought in money. She worked all day long at dressmaking, to which she was apprenticed. She had learned to play the piano when father was alive, and now it came in handy. Yes, she got very tired of it sometimes; most people did not seem to think that piano-playing was exhausting work. No, thank you, she would not have any coffee. Goodnight, sir.

We stole away before the second part of the concert, the chorus of some wellknown song tinkling faintly behind us. That afternoon we had listened to a violinist of European fame; somehow the audience at St. James's Hall did not take their pleasure quite so heartily as the audience of The Lane that" night!

Our next visit was timed to fall on a debating night . There was to be a discussion upon "The State and the Liquor Traffic," which promised sport. Under a misapprehension of the hour at which the meeting was to commence we arrived fully half an hour too early, and we were wondering how to occupy the unexpected interval when two boys, apparently some fifteen or sixteen years of age, entered the coffee bar. We stared, for we had been under the impression that the club was reserved for men; yet here were two youngsters looking as if the whole place belonged to them. Inquiries addressed to a bystander elicited the in

formation that there was a boys' club under the same roof, certain rooms at the top of the house being reserved for the "Junior side." Curiosity was piqued, and curiosity had to be satisfied. The bystander was impressed into service, and led us up certain winding and ill-lighted staircases till the evidence of our ears assured us that we were approaching the boys' domain. Our escort opened a door gingerly, and said, "In here, sir"; then he suddenly fled. His flight was not a moment too early. A youth had perceived him, raised a yell, "No seniors allowed up here!" and flung a well-aimed indiarubber-soled shoe at the departing figure. There was a buzz as of wasps in a disturbed nest, and half a dozen mischievous urchins swarmed out to protect the sanctity of their club. For a moment we wished that we were out of bowshot; but the tumult subsided as quickly as it had arisen when the discovery was made that no senior, but only a harmless stranger, was entering the forbidden city. We found ourselves, we hardly knew how, in the possession or under the protection of a lad who appeared to hold a position of authority. "It's like this, sir," he explained; "we aren't allowed in the seniors' rooms, and we take jolly good care that they don't come into ours." Verily, we could believe it!

At first sight the Junior Club seemed to be a reproduction on a small scale of the men's club. There was a billiard-table, very undersized; there was a bagatelle-table, also- undersized; there were tables with dominoes, draughts, and other games scattered all over them; there were chairs in various stages of disruption. Adroit questioning elicited the fact that there were differences as well as resemblances. We learned that no smoking or card playing was allowed on the junior side (our eyes and nose assuring us that the rule was Kept); while, on the other hand, the juniors carried on carpentry in a way and with an energy unknown to the seniors. In proof of this we were proudly shown a bookcase, a nest of cupboards, and other handiwork of the junior carpenters, made under the direction of the only senior whose presence was tolerated in the sacred junior precincts.

[graphic]

"What are those small cupbbards for?" we asked. "To keep our running things in," we were told. "Where do you run?" "In the streets." Curiosity was again aroused, and again satisfied. We learned that ns soon as darkness fell about twenty boys would, on most evenings, crowd into a dressing-room (dressing-cupboard rather— it was only some eight feet long by three feet wide), change into running costume, and go for a two or three mile run through the streets. The police did not interfere with the runners so long as the runners did not interfere with the traffic. The thing seemed incredible, and we were privately resolving to verify our information at more trustworthy sources when the door was flung open and ten or a dozen mud-bespattered figures in the last stages of panting and perspiration flocked into the dressing-room and sat down to rest awhile before dressing".

It began to dawn upon us that there seemed to be no one in charge of the place. There was no disorder, but there was no visible reason why disorder should not spring up, and we pursued our inquiries in this direction. "Who looks after the juniors?" "Oh! we look

after ourselves when Mr. is away.

The chairman of the institute is too busy looking after the seniors and making them behave to give much time 'to us" (this with a smirking Pharisaism), "and Mr. can't get here every

night, so we elect a committee, and the committee look after the rest." "But what happens if there's a row?" "Well, the chairman comes up and

gives us the choice of being turned out for the rest-of the evening or of having one of the senior committee to look after us; and we go out. But there is very seldom any real noise, excepting if one of the foothalls gets loose, and then it sometimes breaks a window. Then there is trouble."

A hasty glance at our watch told us that it was time to descend to the debate; but we resolved to see more of this boys' club, for, candidly, we did not believe that the boys had yet been invented who could keep quiet for long by themselves—especially if there were foothalls within reach.

In the room used for debating purposes five-and-twenty men were assembled, all smoking hard. A stranger presided, and just as we entered called upon the opener to deliver his address on "The State and the Liquor Traffic." The speaker was a working man, and we anticipated the usual teetotal claptrap, with the old finale of "champagne at night, real . . . ," but we were agreeably surprised. "The difficulties caused by the liquor traffic, Mr. Chairman," he began, "have a long history behind them. The first brewer that we know of was Noah, who very soon dis• covered the evil character of the drink: which he had invented." By this we were all attention, and we listened in amazement to a long speech, always fluent, sometimes even eloquent, constantly humorous, ranging through many centuries, wandering all over the world, with apt Shakespearean quotations and police-court statistics. Suddenly the speaker grappled with his main point. He dismissed the Russian Government spirit monopoly and the Scandinavian system with a few words of condemnation, and tiien he turned to prohibition. The State of Maine was evidently his earthly paradise, and prohibition bis ideal law. Arguments and facts that might be thrust against htm by subsequent speakers he anticipated

[graphic]
« PreviousContinue »