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22 May 1859, Edinburgh M.D., Kt, D.L., LL.D., Sportsman, Writer, Poet, Politician, Justicer, Spiritualist Crowborough, 7 July 1930

The Forbidden Subject

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The Forbidden Subject is a short story written by Arthur Conan Doyle first published in The Strand Magazine in august 1923.


The Forbidden Subject

Both the boys were becoming very fair boxers and full of the spirit of the game. Even little Billie, now a nine-year-old girl, was touched with it. She could swing a fine loose left, and her right jab to the tummy r has been favourably commented upon in influential quarters. But after all, it is not of much practical use to her sex. It was different with the boys.

A famous amateur champion had given them two pairs of small gloves, and never was a gift better bestowed. They took to the game like ducklings to the water, and a hen foster-mother was never more proud and fearful and surprised, all in one compound emotion, than was the lady when she found her two male children welting each other in furious combat, and yet grinning in the utmost good-nature over the contest.

They have different styles, and Daddy, watching with critical but approving eyes, is not too quick to alter and make conventional that which has been taught by nature. Laddie is of the old British tradition, straight-standing, firm-footed, with a quick, straight left and a covering guard. Dimples is half American and half unalloyed nature. He sinks his chin on his chest, his left vibrates in front of him like a curious antenna which either guards or strikes, while his right is his real offensive weapon, round-handed, with a touch of upper-cut, and a fine natural swing. He is the more aggressive and dangerous, but on points the left prop must win. But the charge of the younger might shake his opponent and rattle him, and after that anything would be possible.

"They really shape very well," said Daddy, in private consultation with the lady.

She had shown her usual sense in the matter. "Of course, dear, boys ought to be able to defend themselves, and be manly and brave. But don't you think that book of old fights with the pictures...?"

"Yes, I do. I've locked it up in my room."

"And the stories of those old days. They were rather brutal, were they not, when they fought for money and without gloves? Yet Laddie is for ever drawing you on to tell about them. Do you think it wise?"

"They were grand old fellows, dear. They kept up all our ideals of courage and fair play. If it had not been for the blackguards..."

"I know, dear. But still your descriptions are occasionally a little too graphic. And they love it so. They simply sit with their eyes glued upon you, lost to the world, while you talk of it. And Laddie is getting to know such a surprising amount about it. Dimples, too, tells me the most awful stories, which I trace to you."

"Well, dear, when they are so interested and inquisitive, it is not in human nature..."

"But they are interested in moths and caterpillars."

"Right oh! Prize-ring is off! Moths and caterpillars are on."

So it was arranged, and Daddy had the best of resolutions, but he was overlooking the main point of all, that he was himself interested and knowledgeable when it came to old fights, and therefore could be interesting to others, while what he knew about caterpillars would not overcrowd a pill-box. The mind will work on the line of least resistance.

A couple of days later, when the lady's wise words had. lost their full force, Daddy sat in his arm-chair with his pipe, and he manfully chatted about caterpillars, rather handicapped by the fact that Dimples was an expert upon the subject, and had forgotten rather more than his Daddy ever knew. Then the clever little brains began to work, and this was how they did it.

"It's the oak-egger, not the privet hawk, that you mean, Daddy," said Dimples, "but I expect your memory has so much in it you have no room for the moths."

"Daddy has a fine memory."

"Used to have," said Daddy apologetically.

"Could you say all the kings of England?"

"Well, most people can do that."

"I'll tell you what Daddy can do," said Laddie. "He can give the names of all the heavy-weight champions of England from the beginning, with their dates and who beat them, and how they were beaten. Couldn't you, Daddy?"

"Well, perhaps I could. Now about this blessed moth..."

"But you couldn't really, Daddy," interrupted Dimples.

"He could, I've tried him. Ask him one yourself."

"Who was the first champion, Daddy?"

"Well, I suppose you would call Fig the first champion," said Daddy, with his foot deep in the trap. "Yes, you can't further back than Fig."

"Oh, do tell us about Fig." Three pairs of elbows were on three pairs of knees, three absorbed listeners were ready for forbidden subject.

"Fig was what you might call an all-round fighter. I expect Master Fig would soon be warned off if he put in an appearance at the National Sporting Club. it was 'all in' in those days. He had, a place up in the Tottenham Court Road, if I remember right, and he would take anyone on at anything. if you wanted a good hiding with an ashen single-stick, or your head opened with a broadsword, or your nose flattened with a blow, Fig was the man to do it."

"But he wouldn't hurt his own pupils, would he?"

"Oh, wouldn't he just! Captain Godfrey said he was a man of a rugged temper, and would spare no man, high or low, who took up a stick against him. That meant a good deal in those rough old days. Godfrey ought to know, for he was one of his pupils."

"Did he get hurt by Fig?"

"Rather. But he stuck it out as a gentleman should, and took all Fig could give him and came back for more, until Fig found two could play at that game, and wasn't so fond of knocking him about."

"Who was Godfrey?"

"He was a great fellow, a fine sportsman, and a grand writer. We can't judge his fighting now, but we can judge his prose, and he had Sam Johnson and all the rest of them beaten to pieces. So far as I know, he only wrote the one little book, but it has the best English of his time. I used to be able to quote some of it, but I don't remember as clearly as I used to. There was his description of how Broughton used to guard and counter. I can remember that. He says, 'He bids a welcome to the coming blow. Then with a general summons of his swelling muscles, and his firm body seconding his arm and supplying it with all its weight, he pours his pile-driving force upon his man."

"Fine!" cried Dimples. "Fine!" His grey eyes were shining, and his cheeks flushed, for he had the soul of an artist, and every true note in music, colour, or phrase, found its answer in him.

"Who came next, Daddy?" he asked.

But this was a little too obvious, and Daddy began to be conscious of a conspiracy.

"I'm not going through the list. Don't you think it! Let's get back to that oak-egger."

"No, but really there was just one thing I wanted to ask!" cried Laddie, with a great appearance of large-eyed sincerity. "Who was it who beat Slack?"

"Why, surely it was Stephens the Nailor, a man of no great consequence, but then Slack was of no great consequence either, and yet the Nailor has survived in common speech, for often when folk are describing some tip-top man they say he's a nailor."

"But, Daddy," said the boy, cleverly argumentative, to keep the ball rolling. "You said that Slack was of no consequence. How can you say that, when he beat the wonderful old champion, whose name I forget, but you said he held the belt for twenty years?"

"Broughton. Jack Broughton. Well, it's true Slack beat him, but it was one of those battles which are decided by a single chance hit, and the worst man wins. Broughton got a single crack between the eyes, probably from over-confidence, and as he was not in good training, both his eyes puffed, and he went blind. Poor old chap, he went feeling his way round the ring, and crying, I'm not beat, your Royal Highness, but I can't see my man.' Unfortunately, his man could see him, so that was the end of the great Jack Broughton, who wanted to fight the whole regiment of Prussian Guards, one down another come on."

"But what had he to do with the Prussian Guards?"

"Well, the Duke of Cumberland used to take Jack about with him, and he went to Germany, among other places, when the old King of Prussia, the father of Frederick the Great, had a regiment of giants who excited jack's ambition."

"But, Daddy" — if you only keep on arguing, you can always hope to keep the game alive — "how can you prove that Slack was not really the better man, since he won?"

"You can prove it on public form. Broughton beat men who had beaten Slack. Of course, if Broughton were younger, he would have fought again, and soon turned the tables. But coming at such a time, when he was well on in middle age, it settled him. Now, about that old caterpillar we were discussing..."

"Just one other thing, Daddy. You were saying that several men had lost battles just by single chance blows: who did you mean?"

"Oh, there are plenty of examples, both in old times and more recently. For example, Mace was winning his fight against Tom King with the greatest ease, when his foot slipped, and at that instant he received a terrible blow from which he never had time to recover. Then there was Tom Spring. His record would, so far as I can remember, have been one long series of victories, but for his bad luck once with Ned Painter of Norwich, whom he beat once before comfortably enough. Painter was said to have some physical peculiarity in his right shoulder which gave great force to his blow, and as he chanced to get it home in the first round, down went Master Spring for the first and last time. But Painter was an awkward chap for anyone. He was beaten by Shaw, the giant Life-guardsman, who laid out so many French Cuirassiers at Waterloo. But it took him all his time. Then, of course, there was the downfall of Hickman, the terrible gasman, who invented the whisker blow, which is the father of our knockout blow to the jaw. The Bristol butcher, Neate, was really not of the same class, for Hickman was a wonder, yet that one blow did it. No doubt Hickman would have had his revenge, if it were not for his dreadful death."

"Why was his death dreadful?"

"Well, dear boy, he died drunk, and I cannot conceive anything more dreadful than that."

"What killed him then?"

"He was coming back drunk from a fight — I think it was the Hudson-Shelton battle, and he was upset from his gig, and a waggon wheel went right over his head. He had killed a dog with a poker at the last inn he had stopped at."

"Then it served him jolly well right," cried Dimples, who is a great champion of animals.

"Same here," chirped Billie.

"Oh, do go on, Daddy " cried the elder boy. "We do love it so. Tell us anything about the ring."

Daddy was conscious now of how deeply he was bogged, but it was no use stopping when the mischief was done. "Well, my dears, it's against orders, and it's the last time. What more do you want to know?"

"Who do you think was the finest fighter of them all?"

"That's a matter of opinion. I don't remember any good man in the old days — nor in modern times, either who got through without at least one defeat. Jem Belcher was beaten three times, and yet I think he was the greatest natural fighter that ever jumped into a ring. On the whole, I should vote for him."

"But, why, if he was beaten three times?"

"Because he was only beaten after his eye had been cut out."

"Oo! Who cut it out ? "asked Dimples, who is always on the lookout for horrors.

"It was a racquet ball that cut it out, and put that splendid machine out of gear. And yet his proud, brave nature would not give in, and rose in fury against the thought that any should be champion but he. Have you seen his picture?"


"Well, it's in that book... Oh, Lord, no, it's nowhere at all, but you can take it from me that he was a grand falcon of a man to look at. He was slight, and just under six foot, with no showy muscle, but he could throw a cricket ball over a hundred yards with each hand, and that will give you an idea of his hitting power."

"Who were the men who beat him?"

"Hen Pearce, the Game Chicken, beat him. It was a sad business, for they were bosom friends, but Jem's ardent spirit would brook no rival. 'I fear to hurt your other eye, Jem,' cried the gallant Chicken from time to time in the fight. The other two fights were with Cribb. Cribb was slow and stolid, and he knew well that he had no chance with the speed and fire of Belcher, but he reckoned on two things, the single eve, which interfered with judgment of distance, and the thickness of his own skull. 'He will break his hands to pieces on my head,' said he before the fight. So it happened, and Cribb won, though not till Belcher was senseless, for that was the way of those bulldogs. And it's worth while to remember it, boys!" cried Daddy, warming suddenly to a favourite hobby. "If ever you have to fight a long fight, either with your mind or your body, and if you sicken and weary, as all of us do in our weaker moments, say to yourselves, Well, if those poor ignorant chaps would fight to the last gasp for next to nothing, is it not for me, a gentleman, to fight till I am senseless too, or dead, if you like, before I give in over what I know to be right? I don't mind telling you, my dears, that there have been times when it was not the words of good and pious men, but it was the memory and example of those old rascals, that helped me over a rough patch of the road."

Daddy paused to let the sentiment sink in, but general reflections don't interest children, though they may come back to them later.

"What did Jem Belcher do then?"

"He died of a broken heart, as many of these old heroes did when they were really up against it. Exactly the same thing happened to George Taylor, who came after Fig. His eye was knocked out, he lost his battle with Faulkner, the cricketer, and he broke his heart, dying within a couple of months."

"Was Faulkner a very good cricketer?" asked Laddie, whose heart is all with the national game.

"I don't know about that I suppose he must have been pretty good, for he is always so described. Anyhow, he was a most desperate fighter. He was one of the famous three from Birmingham."

"Who were the three from Birmingham?"

"Oh, come, I am sure I've told you that story. Birmingham was only a small place then — the 'hardware village,' they called it — but it was already a great sporting centre. What do you think this little place did one day? They challenged London."

"Hurrah!" cried the children.

"The Birmingham Three were Perrins, the giant, who weighed seventeen stone in hard training ; Jacombs, of whom I know nothing ; and Faulkner, the cricketer. They were matched against Tom Johnson, Champion of England, Big Ben Brain, and Ingleston, the Brewer. The Londoners won all three battles, but the interest centred oil the giant and the champion. It was a very stern and worthy contest, and though Johnson won, it is said that he never recovered from the ponderous blows he received. Anyhow, he died not very long afterwards."

"I wish little Birmingham had won," said Laddie. " But that other Londoner, Big Ben Brain, wasn't he champion afterwards?"

"Yes, he had the better of Tom Johnson. We get a glimpse of Big Ben in the writings of Borrow, a splendid man whose books you will read some day. Borrow's father was a grenadier in the army, and a bit of a scrapper himself. One day he seems to have met Ben Brain in Hyde Park, and they paired off for a fight, quite in a cheerful and sociable way. The grenadier held his own, and became quite a friend of Brain's. Borrow describes how, when his father was dying, his memory went back to this old battle, and he described it and his terrible opponent, with the little descriptive touch that as Brain pulled his shirt over his head before the conflict, he showed that his body was swarthy and mottled like a toad.'"

"Why was it mottled?"

"I expect," said Dimples, "it was all the beatings he had had."

"Maybe he was cold," suggested Daddy.

"Anyhow, it brings him clearly back to us after all the years — a dusky, sullen, inexorable sort of man. He died three years after he won the Championship from Johnson. They didn't live long in those rough old days, for even the educated classes drank far more than was good for them, so you can imagine how it was with these poor fellows, who were taken about and made much of by the rich, so long as they were successful, and then deserted the moment some better man came along. But I owe Ben Brain thanks for one thing. He gave that beast, Hooper, the tinman, the thrashing he deserved."

"Why was he a beast?"

"Well, he was what they used to call a hired bully. He would let himself out to some dissipated young scoundrel. Then this fellow would insult decent people in public places, and if you remonstrated, you were likely to get your face knocked in by this bully, who would be in attendance. Bully Hooper used to walk behind a certain noble lord at Vauxhall Gardens, and fight his quarrels, in which he was always in the wrong. On one occasion he even went the length of dressing the bully up as a clergyman, but I think that ended by trying the patience of the public too far, and both he and his patron were driven out of the Gardens."

"What became of him?"

"The end of even the good fighting men was not generally very happy, and most of them died young, so you can think that the black sheep were not more fortunate. Hooper died in the workhouse, diseased and wretched."

"Well, he deserved it," said Laddie, "but I don't like to think that all these other brave men had such sad ends."

"There is a good deal to be said on the other side. I don't bear in mind the fate of many of them, but speaking from memory, I could give quite a list of those who did pretty well in life, and invested their winnings in a wise way. Broughton used to buy and sell curios and furniture, and lived to be over eighty. Humphries became a successful coal merchant. Cribb and Spring were both successful publicans, and lived to be about sixty. Perrins, the giant, became a very old man. Ward, the black diamond, lived to be eighty, and used to exhibit at the Royal Academy. He was a good painter. Of course, in these days, many of the best boxers are men of some culture, and all of them are, or should be, fairly rich men. But the best of them all was Gully, who said that he had three ambitions — to be Champion of England, to win the Derby, and to be a Member of Parliament. I think he won all three, certainly the first and the last. He became M.P. for Pontefract, which really means — what, Laddie?"

"Broken bridge."

"Good boy! One place up! Rather a good name for a prize-fighter to represent, for their noses are generally a bit off the plumb. And now..."

"Daddy, do tell us about Molyneux."

"Look here, we have really talked too much. I was a fool to let you start me. And I hear Mumty's step in the passage. Not a word more about fights. Yes, my dears, caterpillars do lay eggs. Also they turn into cocoons, or cocoons turn into caterpillars, I am not sure which. We have had a most edifying talk, dear, but it's a glorious day, and I think we should all be better out on the links."