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Ask Mamma By R. S. Surtees Characters: 18815

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

DESCENDING Long Benningborough Hill on the approach from the west, the reader enters the rich vale of Hit-im and Hold-im shire, rich in agricultural productions, lavish of rural beauties, and renowned for the strength and speed of its foxes.

As a hunting country Hit-im and Hold-im shire ranks next to Featherbedfordshire, and has always been hunted by men of wealth and renown. The great Mr. Bruiser hunted it at one time, and was succeeded by the equally great Mr. Customer, who kept it for upwards of twenty years. He was succeeded by Mr. Charles Crasher, after whom came the eminent Lord Martingal, who most materially improved its even then almost perfect features by the judicious planting of gorse covers on the eastern or Droxmoor side, where woodlands are deficient.

It was during Lord Martingal's reign that Hit-im and Hold-im shire may be said to have attained the zenith of its fame, for he was liberal in the extreme, not receiving a farthing subscription, and maintaining the Club at the Fox and Hounds Hotel at Hinton with the greatest spirit and popularity. He reigned over Hit-im and Hold-im shire for the period of a quarter of a century, his retirement being at length caused by a fall from his horse, aggravated by distress at seeing his favourite gorses Rattle-ford and Chivington cut up by a branch-line of the Crumpletin railway.

On his lordship's resignation, the country underwent the degradation of passing into the hands of the well-known Captain Flasher, a gentleman who, instead of keeping hounds, as Lord Martingal had done, expected the hounds to keep him. To this end he organised a subscription-a difficult thing to realise even when men have got into the habit of paying, or perhaps promising one-but most difficult when, as in this case, they had long been accustomed to have their hunting for nothing. It is then that the beauties of a free pack are apparent. The Captain, however, nothing daunted by the difficulty, applied the screw most assiduously, causing many gentlemen to find out that they were just going to give up hunting, and others that they must go abroad to economise. This was just about the gloomy time that our friend the Major was vacillating between Boulogne and Bastille; and it so happened that Mr. Plantagenet Brown, of Pangburn Park, whose Norman-conquest family had long been pressing on the vitals of the estate, taking all out and putting nothing in, suddenly found themselves at the end of their tether. The estate had collapsed. Then came the brief summing-up of a long career of improvidence in the shape of an auctioneer's advertisement, offering the highly valuable freehold property, comprising about two thousand five hundred acres in a ring fence, with a modern mansion replete with every requisite for a nobleman or gentleman's seat, for sale, which, of course, brought the usual train of visitors, valuers, Paul-Pryers, and so on-some lamenting the setting, others speculating on the rising sun.

At the sale, a most repulsive, poverty-stricken looking little old Jew kept protracting the biddings when everybody else seemed done, in such a way as to cause the auctioneer to request an imparlance, in order that he might ascertain who his principal was; when the Jew, putting his dirty hands to his bearded mouth, whispered in the auctioneer's ear, "Shir Moshes Main-chance," whereupon the languid biddings were resumed, and the estate was ultimately knocked down to the Baronet.

Then came the ceremony of taking possession-the carriage-and-four, the flags, the band of music, the triumphal arch, the fervid address and heartfelt reply, amid the prolonged cheers of the wretched pauperised tenantry.

That mark of respect over, let us return to the hounds.

Captain Flasher did not give satisfaction, which indeed was not to be expected, considering that he wanted a subscription. No man would have given satisfaction under the circumstances, but the Captain least of all, because he brought nothing into the common stock, nothing, at least, except his impudence, of which the members of the hunt had already a sufficient supply of their own. The country was therefore declared vacant at the end of the Captain's second season, the Guarantee Committee thinking it best to buy him off the third one, for which he had contracted to hunt it. This was just about the time that Sir Moses purchased Pangburn Park, and, of course, the country was offered to him. A passion for hunting is variously distributed, and Sir Moses had his share of it. He was more than a mere follower of hounds, for he took a pleasure in their working and management, and not knowing much about the cost, he jumped at the offer, declaring he didn't want a farthing subscription, no, not a farthing: he wouldn't even have a cover fund-no, not even a cover fund! He'd pay keepers, stoppers, damage, everything himself,-dom'd if he wouldn't. Then when he got possession of the country, he declared that he found it absolutely indispensable for the promotion of sport, and the good of them all, that there should be a putting together of purses-every man ought to have a direct interest in the preservation of foxes, and, therefore, they should all pay five guineas,-just five guineas a-year to a cover fund. It wasn't fair that he should pay all the cost-dom'd if it was. He wouldn't stand it-dom'd if he would.

Then the next season he declared that five guineas was all moonshine-it would do nothing in the way of keeping such a country as Hit-im and Hold-im shire together-it must be ten guineas, and that would leave a great balance for him to pay. Well, ten guineas he got, and emboldened by his success, at the commencement of the next season he got a grand gathering together, at a hand-in-the-pocket hunt dinner at the Fox and Hounds Hotel at Hinton, to which he presented a case of champagne, when his health being drunk with suitable enthusiasm, he got up and made them a most elaborate speech on the pleasures and advantages of fox-hunting, which he declared was like meat, drink, washing and lodging to him, and to which he mainly attributed the very excellent health which they had just been good enough to wish him a continuance of in such complimentary terms, that he was almost overpowered by it. He was glad to see that he was not a monopoliser of the inestimable blessings of health, for, looking round the table, he thought he never saw such an assemblage of cheerful contented countenances-(applause)-and it was a great satisfaction to him to think that he in any way contributed to make them so-(renewed applause). He had been thinking since he came into the room whether it was possible to increase in any way the general stock of prosperity-(great applause)-and considering the success that had already marked his humble endeavours, he really thought that there was nothing like sticking to the same medicine, and, if possible, increasing the dose; for-(the conclusion of this sentence was lost in the general applause that followed). Having taken an inspiriting sip of wine, he thus resumed, "He now hunted the country three days a-week," he said, "and, thanks to their generous exertions, and the very judicious arrangement they had spontaneously made of having a hunt club, he really thought it would stand four days."-(Thunders of applause followed this announcement, causing the glasses and biscuits to dance jigs on the table. Sir Moses took a prolonged sip of wine, and silence being at length again restored, he thus resumed):-"It had always stood four in old Martingal's time, and why shouldn't it do so in theirs?-(applause). Look at its extent! Look at its splendid gorses! Look at its magnificent woodlands! He really thought it was second to none!" And so the company seemed to think too by the cheering that followed the announcement.

"Well then," said Sir Moses, drawing breath for the grand effort, "there was only one thing to be considered-one leetle difficulty to be overcome-but one, which after the experience he had had of their gameness and liberality, he was sure they would easily surmount."-(A murmur of "O-O-O's," with Hookey Walkers, and fingers to the nose, gradually following the speaker.)

"That leetle difficulty, he need hardly say, was their old familiar friend £ s. d.! who required occasionally to be looked in the face."-(Ironical laughter, with sotto voce exclamations from Jack to Tom and from Sam to Harry, of-) "I say! three days are quite enough-quite enough. Don't you think so?" With answers of "Plenty! plenty!" mingled with whispers of, "I say, this is what he calls hunting the country for nothing!"

"Well, gentlemen," continued Sir Moses, tapping the table with his presidential hammer, to assert his monopoly of noise, "Well, gentlemen, as I said before, I have no doubt we can overcome any difficulty in the matter of money-what's the use of money if it's not to enjoy ourselves, and what enjoyment is there equal to fox-hunting? (applause). None! none!" exclaimed Sir Moses with emphasis.

"Well then, gentlemen, what I was going to say was this: It occurred to me this morning as I was shaving myself--"

"That you would shave us," muttered Mr. Paul Straddler to Hicks, the flying hatter, neither of whom ever subscribed.

"-It occurred to me this morning, as I was shaving myself, that for a very little additional outlay-say four hundred a year-and what's

four hundred a-year among so many of us? we might have four days a-week, which is a great deal better than three in many respects, inasmuch as you have two distinct lots of hounds, accustomed to hunt together, instead of a jumble for one day, and both men and horses are in steadier and more regular work; and as to foxes, I needn't say we have plenty of them, and that they will be all the better for a little more exercise.-(Applause from Sir Moses' men, Mr. Smoothley and others). Well, then, say four hundred a-year, or, as hay and corn are dear and likely to continue so, suppose we put it at the worst, and call it five-five hundred-what's five hundred a-year to a great prosperous agricultural and commercial country like this? Nothing! A positive bagatelle! I'd be ashamed to have it known at the 'Corner' that we had ever haggled about such a sum."

"You pay it, then," muttered Mr. Straddler.

"Catch him doing that," growled Hicks.

Sir Moses here took another sip of sherry, and thus resumed:-

"Well, now, gentlemen, as I said before, it only occurred to me this morning as I was shaving, or I would have been better prepared with some definite proposal for your consideration, but I've just dotted down here, on the back of one of Grove the fishmonger's cards (producing one from his waistcoat pocket as he spoke), the names of those who I think ought to be called upon to contribute;-and, waiter!" exclaimed he, addressing one of the lanky-haired order, who had just protruded his head in at the door to see what all the eloquence was about, "if you'll give me one of those mutton fats,-and your master ought to be kicked for putting such things on the table, and you may tell him I said so,-I'll just read the names over to you." Sir Moses adjusting his gold double eye glasses on his hooked nose as the waiter obeyed his commands.

"Well, now," said the Baronet, beginning at the top of the list, "I've put young Lord Polkaton down for fifty."

"But my Lord doesn't hunt, Sir Moses!" ejaculated Mr. Mossman, his Lordship's land-agent, alarmed at the demand upon a very delicate purse.

"Doesn't hunt!" retorted Sir Moses angrily. "No; but he might if he liked! If there were no hounds, how the deuce could he? It would do him far more good, let me tell him, than dancing at casinos and running after ballet girls, as he does. I've put him down for fifty, however," continued Sir Moses, with a jerk of his head, "and you may tell him I've done so."

"Wish you may get it," growled Mr. Mossman, with disgust.

"Well, then," said the Baronet, proceeding to the next name on the list, "comes old Lord Harpsichord. He's good for fifty, too, I should say. At all events, I've put him down for that sum;" adding, "I've no notion of those great landed cormorants cutting away to the continent and shirking the obligations of country life. I hold it to be the duty of every man to subscribe to a pack of fox-hounds. In fact, I would make a subscription a first charge upon land, before poor-rate, highway-rate, or any sort of rate. I'd make it payable before the assessed taxes themselves"-(laughter and applause, very few of the company being land-owners). "Two fifties is a hundred, then," observed Sir Moses, perking up; "and if we can screw another fifty out of old Lady Shortwhist, so much the better; at all events. I think she'll be good for a pony; and then we come to the Baronets. First and foremost is that confounded prosy old ass, Sir George Persiflage, with his empty compliments and his fine cravats. I've put him down for fifty, though I don't suppose the old sinner will pay it, though we may, perhaps, get half, which we shouldn't do if we were not to ask for more. Well, we'll call the supercilious old owls five-and-twenty for safety," added Sir Moses. "Then there's Sir Morgan Wildair; I should think we may say five-aud-twenty for him. What say you, Mr. Squeezely?" appealing to Sir Morgan's agent at the low end of the table.

"I've no instructions from Sir Morgan on the subject, Sir Moses," replied Mr. Squeezely, shaking his head.

"Oh, but he's a young man, and you must tell him that it's right-necessary, in fact," replied Sir Moses. "You just pay it, and pass it through his accounts-that's the shortest way. It's the duty of an agent to save his principal trouble. I wouldn't keep an agent who bothered me with all the twopenny-halfpenny transactions of the estate-dom'd if I would," said Sir Moses, resuming his eye-glass reading.

He then went on through the names of several other parties, who he thought might be coaxed or bullied out of subscriptions, he taking this man, another taking that, and working them, as he said, on the fair means first, and foul means principle afterwards.

"Well, then, now you see, gentlemen," said Sir Moses, pocketing his card and taking another sip of sherry prior to summing up; "it just amounts to this. Four days a-week, as I said before, is a dom'd deal better than three, and if we can get the fourth day out of these shabby screws, why so much the better; but if that can't be done entirely, it can to a certain extent, and then it will only remain for the members of the club and the strangers-by the way, we shouldn't forget them-it will only remain for the members of the club and the strangers to raise any slight deficiency by an increased subscription, and according to my plan of each man working his neighbour, whether the club subscription was to be increased to fifteen, or seventeen, or even to twenty pounds a-year will depend entirely upon ourselves; so you see, gentlemen, we have all a direct interest in the matter, and cannot go to work too earnestly or too strenuously; for believe me, gentlemen, there's nothing like hunting, it promotes health and longevity, wards off the gout and sciatica, and keeps one out of the hands of those dom'd doctors, with their confounded bills-no offence to our friend Plaister, there," alluding to a doctor of that name who was sitting about half-way down the table-"so now," continued Sir Moses, "I think I cannot do better than conclude by proposing as a bumper toast, with all the honours, Long life and prosperity to the Hit-im and Hold-im shire hounds!"

When the forced cheering had subsided, our friend-or rather Major Yammerton's friend-Mr. Smoothley, the gentleman who assisted at the sale of Bo-peep, arose to address the meeting amid coughs and knocks and the shuffling of feet. Mr. Smoothley coughed too, for he felt he had an uphill part to perform; but Sir Moses was a hard task-master, and held his "I. O. U.'s" for a hundred and fifty-seven pounds. On silence being restored, Mr. Smoothley briefly glanced at the topics urged, as he said, in such a masterly manner by their excellent and popular master, to whom they all owed a deep debt of gratitude for the spirited manner in which he hunted the country, rescuing it from the degradation to which it had fallen, and restoring it to its pristine fame and prosperity-(applause from Sir Moses and his claqueurs). "With respect to the specific proposal submitted by Sir Moses, Mr. Smoothley proceeded to say, he really thought there could not be a difference of opinion on the subject-(renewed applause, with murmurs of dissent here and there). It was clearly their interest to have the country hunted four days a week, and the mode in which Sir Moses proposed accomplishing the object was worthy the talents of the greatest financier of the day-(applause)-for it placed the load on the shoulders of those who were the best able to bear it-(applause). Taking all the circumstances of the case, therefore, into consideration, he thought the very least they could do would be to pass a unanimous vote of thanks to their excellent friend for the brilliant sport he had hitherto shown them, and pledge themselves to aid to the utmost of their power in carrying out his most liberal and judicious proposal.

"Jewish enough," whispered Mr. Straddler into the flying hatter's ear.

And the following week's Hit-im and Hold-im shire Herald, and also the Featherbedfordshire Gazette, contained a string of resolutions, embodying the foregoing, as unanimously passed at a full meeting of the members of the Hit-im and Hold-im shire hunt, held at the Fox and Hounds Hotel, in Ilinton, Sir Moses Main-chance, Bart., in the chair.

And each man set to work on the pocket of his neighbour with an earnestness inspired by the idea of saving his own. The result was that a very considerable sum was raised for the four days a-week, which, somehow or other, the country rarely or ever got, except in the shape of advertisements; for Sir Moses always had some excuse or other for shirking it,-either his huntsman had got drunk the day before, or his first whip had had a bad fall, or his second whip had been summoned to the small debts court, or his hounds had been fighting and several of them had got lamed, or the distemper had broken out in his stable, or something or other had happened to prevent him.

Towards Christmas, or on the eve of an evident frost, he came valiantly out, and if foiled by a sudden thaw, would indulge in all sorts of sham draws, and short days, to the great disgust of those who were not in the secret. Altogether Sir Moses Mainchance rode Hit-im and Hold-im shire as Hit-im and Hold-im shire had never been ridden before.

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