Third in the Mrs. Hudson of Baker Street Series

      Holmes Answers a Challenge
            The building’s theater had been converted to a boxing arena with a speed that left part of its earlier life still clearly visible. A roped-off square had been inserted into the middle of the theater’s orchestra section with chairs set out on two of its sides. On one of those sides the stage of the music hall remained intact, complete to a drawn curtain exposing a peaceful forest glen backdrop. More than 100 chairs stood where JW Rowley had once performed graceful somersaults while singing Up with the Lark in the Morning, doubtless to some of the same patrons who were now seeking a somewhat more raucous display of athleticism. In all, 800 spectators could be seated on the ground floor and in the six balconies, while another 500 standees could be accommodated behind those seated and on the two sides of the ring without chairs.
            Fleming shot ahead while Lonsdale strolled to his place in the front row. The Earl pointed to five empty chairs at ringside and Holmes and Watson took seats, avoiding those labeled with the names Bettinson and Fleming. Arthur Trent had left their company shortly after entering the arena to take his own assigned chair.
            Fleming’s reason for bolting ahead became quickly evident. He stood in the center of the ring, megaphone in hand, glowering his impatience at spectators standing in the aisles, most of whom carefully avoided eye contact with the would-be announcer. The arena was now filled with the sound of last minute wagers being loudly negotiated by elegantly attired men.
            In the conduct of the agency’s investigations it fell to Watson not only to record exchanges with clients, witnesses, informants, and suspects, but to detail the characteristics of individuals significant to each case. It was a practice that had become so routine over the years, he often found himself slipping into it even where there was no investigation ongoing. Such was the case tonight. Over dinner he had catalogued key features of the men at his table and now he began the same process with the men inside the ring. They faced each other from opposite corners, apparently oblivious to the controversy raging throughout the arena over which one of them would be carried from the ring at evening’s end. Both were bare-chested, wearing tights ending just below the knee and lapping dark stockings leading to high-topped leather shoes. While their outfits were identical, the men themselves bore no resemblance to each other.
            The older man, whom Watson judged to be Sailor Mackenzie, glared across the ring at his opponent, not even appearing to blink as he tried unsuccessfully to lock eyes with him, all the while pounding the fist of one thinly gloved hand into the open palm of the other. A tuft of black hair at the front of his scalp lay separate from the thinning hair at its back, the incipient baldness making him appear older than his 34 years. He was thickset, his stomach having long since caught up to and surpassed a still powerful upper body. More than once, while staring at the other fighter, he put a fist to his stomach, grimacing slightly each time in what Watson took to be an effort to make clear the punishment he meant to inflict on the young man opposite. His face was puffy, either from his profession or the drinking Trent had described, or maybe both, and his eyes seemed lost in caverns of scar tissue forged over a decade and a half of scheduled fights and spontaneous barroom brawls. Sweat glistened across his face and chest, and hung in the two day growth of beard he had acquired either as a further effort to intimidate his opponent or from unconcern with his appearance.
            Standing in his corner, some steps from the boxer, was a man in his early 60s, smaller and trimmer than the fighter, his many scars and inexpertly repaired broken nose attesting to a history inside the ring; his age and a suggestion of weary command indicating he was the Sailor’s manager. A tall muscular black man, 35 or maybe a little older, in shirt-sleeves and light colored pants was positioning a water bottle, bucket and sponge, and a brandy bottle on the strip of apron outside the ropes in preparation for their use between rounds. The Sailor’s second ignored the opponent across the ring and turned his attention to the crowd, making brief eye contact with Lonsdale, taking note of Holmes, and exchanging glances with Watson before looking beyond him to whatever or whomever had captured his interest.
            In the opposite corner Rochester Cochrane jogged a few times in place, stopped to shake his head sending straight sandy hair flying in all directions, and resumed his jogging. He repeated the sequence several times, looking neither right nor left, the task of bouncing up and down absorbing his full attention. He was a good deal taller than his opponent, and his body was leaner and more finely sculpted. His slightly pink face was unmarked, and he looked very much the boy of 19 that he was. Behind him, a sandy-haired man, an older, heavier version of the boy, massaged his neck and shoulders whenever the boy lit in one place long enough for him to do so. He returned the Sailor’s glare on behalf of his son, but while Mackenzie’s look held a small sneer intended to cow his opponent, the father looked to his son’s opponent with jaw set and eyes narrowed. The boxer’s second stood beside him, a boy even younger than the fighter, who searched the arena in wide-eyed and terrified wonder. On another day, indeed on nearly any other day, he would have been the stableboy to the coachman who now acted as his son’s manager.
            Fleming’s voice sounded through the megaphone in his best imitation of amiability. “My Lord President, my Lords, Gentlemen, good evening and welcome to the National Sporting Club. Tonight we have a match pitting youth against experience. This will be a contest of eight rounds, conducted under Marquis of Queensberry rules, between Mr. Sailor Mackenzie from Glasgow, Scotland and Mr. Rochester Cochrane of North Cumbria. The referee for tonight’s proceedings will be Mr. Corri and the timekeeper Mr. Zerega.”
            The two men thus acknowledged were seated together at a rostrum to the left of Lonsdale, their chairs set on a low platform lifting them a little more than a foot above the spectators. Each man waved to the small smattering of applause that greeted the announcement of his name. Eugene Corri was jowly and stocky, the image of the successful stockbroker that he, in fact, was. E. Zerega (what the E stood for was a matter of much speculation at the Club), although no less successful, had sunken cheeks and was slender to the point of appearing gaunt. Both wore top hats and evening dress, both chewed on small unlit cigars, and both focused wholly on events in the ring with a no-nonsense air about themselves.
            Fleming allowed the small show of appreciation for the officials to subside before putting the megaphone again to his moustache and the lips that were somewhere beneath it. “We ask all who are in attendance to obey the rules of the Club. I particularly want to make certain those rules are known to any guests joining us for the first time. We maintain silence throughout each round of the match. Conversation and a show of appreciation for our fighters’ efforts are permitted during the minute between rounds, but we ask you to conduct yourselves respectfully at those times as well.” After pausing to allow his message to be absorbed, he looked to each boxer with the same solemnity he had shown their spectators. “Gentlemen, I remind you we make use of Marquis of Queensberry rules. I know these have been explained to you and we ask you to observe them faithfully throughout this match.” He paused to stare at Mackenzie whose own eyes never left his opponent. “Mr. Corri, Mr. Zerega, I turn the proceedings over to you.”
            John Fleming exited the ring, exhibiting as much dignity as he was able while climbing over one strand of rope and ducking beneath another. He took his assigned chair between Lord Lonsdale and Bettinson while the referee, Eugene Corri, minus only the top hat he had laid on the seat he vacated, replaced him as the official inside the ring. The men who had accompanied the boxers into the ring now left as well, crouching on the arena floor behind the corners of their respective fighters.
            The room, that moments before had echoed to the sound of challenges being offered and accepted, now grew silent as if suddenly emptied of its noisy humanity. Here and there, catching the flicker of gaslight, a silver flask appeared, sometimes to be shared with a neighbor, more often to provide its owner momentary relief or stimulation, and then disappear if only briefly. The boxers continued their pre-fight routines, waiting on the timekeeper’s signal to begin the contest. The Sailor again pounded one gloved fist into the open palm of his other hand, with greater force now, but still rhythmically, mechanically; Cochrane shuffled from one foot to the other, danced a small distance from his corner jabbing the air with his left hand, then danced back, still jabbing the defenseless air.
            And then, Mr. Zerega, cigar in one hand, chronograph in the other, pressed the short stem of his timepiece, called “Time,” and the match was on. The men came to the ring’s center, exchanged the obligatory handshake, then confronted each other without further pretense of goodwill.
            The fight followed the pattern Lonsdale had predicted. Rochester Cochrane hunched low to his task, jabbing with his left hand, looking for an opening to cross with his right, bobbing his head down, back up, sometimes jerking it left or right, all the while dancing backwards, then side to side in no set pattern. The Sailor plodded forward, not dancing, not bobbing, not jabbing, simply stalking his ever active target. From his son’s corner, the senior Cochrane risked antagonizing the Club’s directors with soft cries of encouragement. The Sailor’s corner observed the request for silence.
            Neither man seemed able to gain an advantage. Cochrane’s jabs landed infrequently and weakly on the Sailor’s gloves, and the opening he sought never seemed to materialize. The Sailor was achieving even less success as he lumbered after his opponent across the ring, then up its one side and down the other. He seemed confused by his young adversary’s strategy, panting loudly as he gave chase and staggering at times, even catching himself on the ropes at one point. The crowd grew restless, although none expressed their unease with words in accord with the vow of silence they had agreed to observe. Instead, chairs creaked and coughing, that might otherwise have been an insignificant background noise, now seemed to echo through the arena.
            Perhaps his sense of the crowd’s displeasure, perhaps his own discomfort led the young man to deviate from the plan crafted by his father. His dancing now took him nearer the Sailor. At first, the strategy seemed to work. His jabs found the top of the Sailor’s balding head then grazed his temple. He pulled back his right hand to follow a left jab with a right cross, leaving himself momentarily unprotected. It was the opportunity Mackenzie had been seeking. He looped a left hand catching Rochester solidly on his right cheek. As the young man’s knees buckled, the Sailor, although off balance and lurching, managed a right uppercut that sent the coachman’s son backwards in a sprawl across the floor of the ring. The Sailor, reeling himself and breathing heavily, caught hold of the top strand of rope before moving away from his opponent in accord with the direction he received from Mr. Corri. The referee began a count while Mr. Zerega stared fixedly at the watch he held, the contest now between Mr. Corri’s ability to count ten and the ticking of Mr. Zerega’s timepiece to the end of round one. Rochester Cochrane, oblivious to the contest between timekeeper and referee, raised himself to a knee before slipping down again. Seeing that, his father ended the contests between both the fighters and the officials. Entering the ring between the strands of rope to minister to his son, he declared the fight to be over.
            As he knelt beside him, the young man turned to his father, and in the still silent arena his words were clear. “I’m sorry, dad, I’m sorry. I didn’t get it done. I’m sorry.” His father rejected his statement with a vigorous shake of his head as he stroked the boy’s forehead. “You done your best, son. There’s no shame in that. His Lordship will be proud of you and so am I. There’s no use talkin’ more, you need to get your strength.”
            Together with his stableboy, the coachman lifted his son to his chair a few feet from Lonsdale. The Earl came quickly forward to assure him he was indeed proud of the young man and urge him not to concern himself on that score, although Watson thought Lonsdale too had been shaken by events in the ring. Dr. Lang, the Club physician, appeared from the crowd of spectators, looked hard into Rochester’s eyes, had him follow the index finger he moved side to side, asked him his name and to identify where he was, and then turned away declaring him fit to be moved.