When she looked back again, the men were surrounded by their little groups of supporters—not more than half a dozen in each party. All but the two combatants were talking in excited undertones—giving advice—saying what they would do—standing on tiptoe and talking over each other’s shoulders—pushing those away who came between them and the expression of their own opinions. And in the centre of each of these groups stood the two who were about to be at each other’s throats. Except for their bared shoulders, dazzling patches of light against the dark clothes of the men surrounding them—they looked the least aggressive in the crowd. They said nothing. Their heads bent forward listening to the medley of voices that hummed unintelligibly in their ears, and their eyes roamed from one face to another, or through the clustering of heads to the other crowd beyond.
“Told you they’d be funked by all this ceremony,” said Traill. “They’re beginning to wish it was over, I should think. Hang it, why don’t they begin? They’ll get so cold it’ll be like beating frozen meat.”
Sally looked at him in amazement. All the hardness, all the cruelty, she saw then. But it did not succeed in turning her from him. She stood wondering at her own passive consent, yet could not bring herself to risk his offence by declaring that she would not stay. Of his selfishness, she saw nothing. Had his attitude in the affair been pointed out to her as frankly inconsiderate, she would have denied it with fervour. Inconsiderate? It was only her weakness of spirit. Why should he be blamed for that? If she loathed the sight of what was taking place before her, then just as surely he revelled in it. Why should he be expected to give way to her? She would give way to him—willingly—freely—without question or doubt.
Now, as she looked again, a man had stepped out of the crowd holding a watch in his hand. There was a tone of command in his voice. It was evidently he who was the master of ceremonies.
“I’ve seen that chap at the National Sporting,” said Traill, quickly. “I guessed there must be some system about this. You see, he’s going to act as timekeeper and referee.”
“Come on,” exclaimed the man referred to. “I ain’t goin’ to wait ’ere the ‘ole bloomin’ night. Get a move on for Gawd’s sake. If you ain’t made all yer bets, yer’ll ’ave ter do it after the show’s begun. Come on an’ bloody-well shake ’ands and start.”
Even when that word was uttered, loathsome enough in itself for a woman’s ears, yet indicative of many worse that were to come, Traill did not think of Sally. She glanced at him when she had heard it, remembering what he had once said to her—“I belong to the National Sporting—because there’s a beast in every man—thank God!”
The two combatants sifted their way out of the little crowds. They came slowly towards each other, rubbing their bare arms to encourage the circulation. Neither the one nor the other seemed anxious for what was to come. Sally looked tremblingly at their faces and shuddered. One of them was clean-shaven, the other wore a moustache. Both had the deep blue shadows of the day’s growth of beard upon the chin and, in that morbid yellow lamplight, their eyes were sunk in hollows dull and black as charcoal.