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Ask Mamma By R. S. Surtees Characters: 18246

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

NEXT day being a "dies non" in the hunting way, Sir Moses Mainchance lay at earth to receive his steward, Mr. Mordecai Nathan, and hear what sport he had had as well in hunting up arrears of rent as in the management of the Pangburn Park estate generally. Very sorry the accounts were, many of the apparent dullard farmers being far more than a match for the sharp London Jew. Mr. Mordecai Nathan indeed, declared that it would require a detective policeman to watch each farm, so tricky and subtile were the occupants. And as Sir Moses listened to the sad recitals, how Henery Brown & Co. had been leading off their straw by night, and Mrs. Turnbull selling her hay by day, and Jacky Hindmarch sowing his fallows without ever taking out a single weed, he vowed that they were a set of the biggest rogues under the sun, and deserved to be hung all in a row,-dom'd if they didn't! And he moved and seconded and carried a resolution in his own mind, that the man who meddled with land as a source of revenue was a very great goose. So, charging Mr. Mordecai Nathan to stick to them for the money, promising him one per cent, more (making him eleven) on what he recovered, he at length dissolved the meeting, most heartily wishing he had Pangburn Park in his pocket again. Meanwhile Messrs. Flintoff and Pringle had yawned away the morning in the usual dreamy loungy style of guests in country-houses, where the meals are the chief incidents of the day. Mr. Pringle not choosing to be tempted with any more "pie," had slipped away to the stable as soon as Cuddy produced the dread cigar-case after breakfast, and there had a conference with Mr. Wetun, the stud-groom, about his horse Napoleon the Great. The drunkard half laughed when Billy asked "if he thought the horse would be fit to come out in the morning, observing that he thought it would be a good many mornins fust, adding that Mr. Fleams the farrier had bled him, but he didn't seem any better, and that he was coming back at two o'clock, when p'raps Mr. Pringle had better see him himself." Whereupon our friend Billy, recollecting Sir Moses's earnest deprecation of his having stayed at home for want of a horse the day before, and the liberal way he had talked of Atalanta and Pegasus, and he didn't know what else, now charged Mr. Wetun not to mention his being without a horse, lest Sir Moses might think it necessary to mount him; which promise being duly accorded, Billy, still shirking Cuddy, sought the retirement of his chamber, where he indited an epistle to his anxious Mamma, telling her all, how he had left Major Yammerton's and the dangerous eyes, and had taken up his quarters with Sir Moses Mainchance, a great fox-hunting Hit-im and Hold-im shire Baronet at Pangburn Park, expecting she would be very much pleased and struck with the increased consequence. Instead of which, however, though Mrs. Pringle felt that he had perhaps hit upon the lesser evil, she wrote him a very loving letter by return of post, saying she was glad to hear he was enjoying himself, but cautioning him against "Moses Mainchance" (omitting the Sir), adding that every man's character was ticketed in London, and the letters "D. D." for "Dirty Dog" were appended to his. She also told him that uncle Jerry had been inquiring about him, and begging she would call upon him at an early day on matters of business, all of which will hereafter "more full and at large appear," as the lawyers say; meanwhile, we must back the train of ideas a little to our hero. Just as he was affixing the great seal of state to the letter, Cuddy Flintoff's "for-rard on! for-rard on!" was heard progressing along the passage, followed by a noisy knock, with an exclamation of "Pringle" at our friend's door.

"Come in!" cried he; and in obedience to the invitation, Flintoff stood in the doorway. "Don't forget," said he, "that we dine at Hinton to-day, and the Baronet's ordered the trap at four," adding, "I'm going to dress, and you'd better do the same." So saying, Cuddy closed the door, and hunted himself along to his own room at the end of the passage-"E'leu in there! E'leu in!" oried he as he got to the door.

Hinton, once the second town in Hit-im and Hold-im shire, stands at the confluence of the Long Brawlinerford and Riplinton brooks, whose united efforts here succeed in making a pretty respectable stream. It is an old-fashioned country place, whose component parts may be described as consisting of an extensive market-place, with a massive church of the florid Gothic, or gingerbread order of architecture at one end, a quaint stone-roofed, stone-pillared market cross at the other, the Fox and Hounds hotel and posting-house on the north side, with alternating shops and public houses on the south.

Its population, according to a certain "sore subject" topographical dictionary, was 23,500, whilst its principal trade might have been described as "fleecing the foxhunters." That was in its golden days, when Lord Martingal hunted the country, holding his court at the Fox and Hounds hotel, where gentlemen stayed with their studs for months and months together, instead of whisking about with their horses by steam. Then every stable in the town was occupied at very remunerative rents, and the inhabitants seemed to think they could never build enough.

Like the natives of most isolated places, the Hintonites were very self-sufficient, firmly believing that there were no such conjurors as themselves; and, when the Grumpletin railway was projected, they resolved that it would ruin their town, and so they opposed it to a man, and succeeded in driving it several miles off, thus scattering their trade among other places along the line. Year by year the bonnet and mantle shops grew less gay, the ribbons less attractive, until shop after shop lapsed into a sort of store, hardware on one side, and millinery, perhaps, on the other. But the greatest fall of all was that of the Fox and Hounds hotel and posting-house. This spacious hostelry had apparently been built with a view of accommodating everybody; and, at the time of our story, it loomed in deserted grandeur in the great grass-grown market-place. In structure it was more like a continental inn than an English one; quadrangular, entered by a spacious archway, from whose lofty ceiling hung the crooks, from whence used to dangle the glorious legs and loins of four-year-old mutton, the home-fed hams, the geese, the ducks, the game, with not unfrequently a haunch or two of presentation venison. With the building, however, the similarity ended, the cobble-stoned courtyard displaying only a few water-casks and a basket-caged jay, in lieu of the statues, and vases, and fountains, and flower-stands that grace the flagged courts of the continent. But in former days it boasted that which in the eye of our innkeeper passes show, namely, a goodly line of two-horse carriages drawn across its ample width. In those days county families moved like county families, in great, caravan-like carriages, with plenty of servants, who, having drunk the "Park or Hall" allowance, uphold their characters and the honour of their houses, by topping up the measure of intemperance with their own money. Their masters and mistresses, too, considered the claims of the innkeepers, and ate and drank for the good of the house, instead of sneaking away to pastry-cooks for their lunches at a third of the price of the inn ones. Not that any landlord had ever made money at the Fox and Hounds hotel. Oh, no! it would never do to admit that. Indeed, Mr. Binny used to declare, if it wasn't "the great regard he had for Lord Martingal and the gents of his hunt, he'd just as soon be without their custom;" just as all Binnys decry, whatever they have-military messes, hunt messes, bar messes, any sort of messes. They never make anything by them-not they.

Now, however, that the hunt was irrevocably gone, words were inadequate to convey old Peter the waiter's lamentations at its loss. "Oh dear, sir!" he would say, as he showed a stranger the club-room, once the eighth wonder of the world, "Oh dear, sir! I never thought to see things come to this pass. This room, sir, used to be occupied night after night, and every Wednesday we had more company than it could possibly hold. Now we have nothing but a miserable three-and-sixpence a head once a month, with Sir Moses in the chair, and a shilling a bottle for corkage. Formerly we had six shillings a bottle for port and five for sherry, which, as our decanters didn't hold three parts, was pretty good pay." Then Peter would open the shutters and show the proportions of the room, with the unrivalled pictures on the walls: Lord Martingal on his horse, Lord Martingal off his horse; Mr. Customer on his horse, Mr. Customer off his horse, Mr. Customer getting drunk; Mr. Crasher on his horse, Mr. Crasher with a hound, &c., all in the old woodeny style that prevailed before the gallant Grant struck out a fresh light in his inimitable "Breakfast," and "Meet of the Stag-hounds." But the reader will perhaps accompany us to one of Sir Moses's "Wednesday

evenings;" for which purpose they will have the goodness to suppose the Baronet and Mr. Flintoff arrayed in the dress uniform of the hunt-viz., scarlet coats with yellow collars and facings, and Mr. Pringle attired in the height of the fashion, bundling into one of those extraordinary-shaped vehicles that modern times have introduced. "Right!" cries the footman from the steps of the door, as Bankhead and Monsieur mount the box of the carriage, and away the well-muffled party drive to the scene of action.

The great drawback to the Hit-im and Hold-im shire hunt club-room at the Fox and Hounds hotel and posting-house at Hinton, undoubtedly was, that there was no ante or reception room. The guests on alighting from their vehicles, after ascending the broad straight flight of stairs, found themselves suddenly precipitated into the dazzling dining-room, with such dismantling accommodation only as a low screen before the door at the low-end of the room afforded. The effect therefore was much the or same as if an actor dressed for his part on the stage before the audience; a fox-hunter in his wraps, and a fox-hunter in his red, being very distinct and different beings. It was quite destructive of anything like imposing flourish or effect. Moreover the accumulation of steaming things on a wet night, which it generally was on a club dinner, added but little to the fragrance of the room. So much for generalities; we will now proceed to our particular dinner.

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Sir Moses being the great gun of the evening, of course timed himself to arrive becomingly late-indeed the venerable post-boy who drove him, knew to a moment when to arrive; and as the party ascended the straight flight of stairs they met a general buzz of conversation coming down, high above which rose the discordant notes of the Laughing Hy?na. It was the first hunt-dinner of the season, and being the one at which Sir Moses generally broached his sporting requirements, parties thought it prudent to be present, as well as to hear the prospects of the season as to protect their own pockets. To this end some twenty or five-and-twenty variegated guests were assembled, the majority dressed in the red coat and yellow facings of the hunt, exhibiting every variety of cut, from the tight short-waisted swallow-tails of Mr. Crasher's (the contemporary of George the Fourth) reign, down to the sack-like garment of the present day. Many of them looked as if, having got into their coats, they were never to get out of them again, but as pride feels no pain, if asked about them, they would have declared they were quite comfortable. The dark-coated gentry were principally farmers, and tradespeople, or the representatives of great men in the neighbourhood. Mr. Buckwheat, Mr. Doubledrill, Mr. James Corduroys, Mr. Stephen Broadfurrow; Mr. Pica, of the "Hit-im and Hold-im shire Herald;" Hicks, the Flying Hatter, and his shadow Tom Snowdon the draper or Damper, Manford the corn-merchant, Smith the saddler. Then there was Mr. Mossman, Lord Polkaton's Scotch factor, Mr. Squeezeley, Sir Morgan Wildair's agent, Mr. Lute, on behalf of Lord Harpsichord, Mr. Stiff representing Sir George Persiflage, &c., &c. These latter were watching the proceedings for their employers, Sir Moses having declared that Mr. Mossman, on a former occasion (see page 188, ante), had volunteered to subscribe fifty pounds to the hounds, on behalf of Lord Polkaton, and Sir Moses had made his lordship pay it too-"dom'd if he hadn't." With this sketch of the company, let us now proceed to the entry.

Though the current of conversation had been anything but flattering to our master before his arrival, yet the reception they now gave him, as he emerged from behind the screen, might have made a less self-sufficient man than Sir Moses think he was extremely popular. Indeed, they rushed at him in a way that none but Briareus himself could have satisfied. They all wanted to hug him at once. Sir Moses having at length appeased their enthusiasm, and given his beak a good blow, proceeded to turn part of their politeness upon Billy, by introducing him to those around. Mr. Pringle, Mr. Jarperson-Mr. Pringle, Mr. Paul Straddler-Mr. Pringle, Mr. John Bullrush, and so on.

Meanwhile Cuddy Flintoff kept up a series of view halloas and hunting noises, as guest after guest claimed the loan of his hand for a shake. So they were all very hearty and joyful as members of a fox-hunting club ought to be.

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The rules of the Hit-im and Hold-im-shire hunt, like those of many other hunts and institutions, were sometimes very stringent, and sometimes very lax-very stringent when an objectionable candidate presented himself-very lax when a good one was to be obtained. On the present occasion Sir Moses Mainchance had little difficulty in persuading the meeting to suspend the salutary rule (No. 5) requiring each new candidate to be proposed and seconded at one meeting, and his name placed above the mantelpiece in the club-room, until he was ballotted for at another meeting, in favour of the nephew of his old friend and brother Baronet, Sir Jonathan Pringle; whom he described as a most promising young sportsman, and likely to make a most valuable addition to their hunt. And the members all seeing matters in that light, Cuddy Flintoff was despatched for the ballot-box, so that there might be no interruption to the advancement of dinner by summoning Peter. Meanwhile Sir Moses resumed the introductory process, Mr. Heslop Mr. Pringle, Mr. Pringle Mr. Smoothley, Mr. Drew Mr. Pringle, helping Billy to the names of such faces as he could not identity for want of their hunting caps. Cleverer fellows than Billy are puzzled to do that sometimes.

Presently Mr. Flintoff returned with the rat-trap-like ballot-box under his arm, and a willow-pattern soup-plate with some beans in the bottom of it, in his hand.

"Make way!" cried he, "make way!" advancing up the room with all the dignity of a mace-bearer. "Where will you have it, Sir Moses?" asked he, "where will you have it, Sir Moses?"

"Here!" replied the Baronet, seizing a card-table from below the portrait of Mr. Customer getting drunk, and setting it out a little on the left of the tire. The ballot-box was then duly deposited on the centre of the green baize with a composite candle on each side of it.

Sir Moses, then thinking to make up in dignity what he had sacrificed to expediency, now called upon the meeting to appoint a Scrutineer on behalf of the club, and parties caring little who they named so long as they were not kept waiting for dinner, holloaed out "Mr. Flintoff!" whereupon Sir Moses put it to them if they were all content to have Mr. Flintoff appointed to the important and responsible office of Scrutineer, and receiving a shower of "yes-es!" in reply, he declared Mr. Flintoff was duly elected, and requested him to enter upon the duties of his office.

Cuddy, then turning up his red coat wrists, so that there might be no suspicion of concealed beans, proceeded to open and turn the drawers of the ballot-box upside down, in order to show that they were equally dear, and then restoring them below their "Yes" and "No" holes, he took his station behind the table with the soup-plate in his hand ready to drop a bean into each member's hand, as he advanced to receive it. Mr. Heslop presently led the way at a dead-march-in-Saul sort of pace, and other members falling in behind like railway passengers at a pay place, there was a continuous dropping of beans for some minutes, a solemn silence being preserved as if the parties expected to hear on which side they fell.

At length the constituency was exhausted, and Mr. Flintoff having assumed the sand-glass, and duly proclaimed that he should close the ballot, if no member appeared before the first glass was out, speedily declared it was run, when, laying it aside, he emptied the soup-plate of the remaining beans, and after turning it upside down to show the perfect fairness of the transaction, handed it to Sir Moses to hold for the result. Drawing out the "Yes" drawer first, he proceeded with great gravity to count the beans out into the soup-plate-one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, and so on, up to eighteen, when the inverted drawer proclaimed they were done.

"Eighteen Ayes," announced Sir Moses to the meeting, amid a murmur of applause.

Mr. Flintoff then produced the dread "No," or black-ball drawer, whereof one to ten white excluded, and turning it upside down, announced, in a tone of triumph, "none!"

"Hooray!" cried Sir Moses, seizing our hero by both hands, and hugging him heartily-"Hooray! give you joy, my boy! you're a member of the first club in the world! The Caledonian's nothing to it;-dom'd if it is." So saying, he again swung him severely by the arms, and then handed him over to the meeting.

And thus Mr. Pringle was elected a member of the Hit-im and Hold-im shire hunt, without an opportunity of asking his Mamma, for the best of all reasons, that Sir Moses had not even asked him himself.

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