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   Chapter 3 PETER LEATHER

Mr. Sponge's Sporting Tour By Robert Smith Surtees Characters: 18450

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Nothing bespeaks the character of a dealer's trade more than the servants and hangers-on of the establishment. The civiler in manner, and the better they are 'put on,' the higher the standing of the master, and the better the stamp of the horses.

Those about Mr. Buckram's were of a very shady order. Dirty-shirted, sloggering, baggy-breeched, slangey-gaitered fellows, with the word 'gin' indelibly imprinted on their faces. Peter Leather, the head man, was one of the fallen angels of servitude. He had once driven a duke-the Duke of Dazzleton-having nothing whatever to do but dress himself and climb into his well-indented richly fringed throne, with a helper at each horse's head to 'let go' at a nod from his broad laced three-cornered hat. Then having got in his cargo (or rubbish, as he used to call them), he would start off at a pace that was truly terrific, cutting out this vehicle, shooting past that, all but grazing a third, anathematizing the 'buses, and abusing the draymen. We don't know how he might be with the queen, but he certainly drove as though he thought nobody had any business in the street while the Duchess of Dazzleton wanted it. The duchess liked going fast, and Peter accommodated her. The duke jobbed his horses and didn't care about pace, and so things might have gone on very comfortably, if Peter one afternoon hadn't run his pole into the panel of a very plain but very neat yellow barouche, passing the end of New Bond Street, which having nothing but a simple crest-a stag's head on the panel-made him think it belonged to some bulky cit, taking the air with his rib, but who, unfortunately, turned out to be no less a person than Sir Giles Nabem, Knight, the great police magistrate, upon one of whose myrmidons in plain clothes, who came to the rescue, Peter committed a most violent assault, for which unlucky casualty his worship furnished him with rotatory occupation for his fat calves in the 'H. of C.,' as the clerk shortly designated the House of Correction. Thither Peter went, and in lieu of his lace-bedaubed coat, gold-gartered plushes, stockings, and buckled shoes, he was dressed up in a suit of tight-fitting yellow and black-striped worsteds, that gave him the appearance of a wasp without wings. Peter Leather then tumbled regularly down the staircase of servitude, the greatness of his fall being occasionally broken by landing in some inferior place. From the Duke of Dazzleton's, or rather from the tread-mill, he went to the Marquis of Mammon, whom he very soon left because he wouldn't wear a second-hand wig. From the marquis he got hired to the great Irish Earl of Coarsegab, who expected him to wash the carriage, wait at table, and do other incidentals never contemplated by a London coachman. Peter threw this place up with indignation on being told to take the letters to the post. He then lived on his 'means' for a while, a thing that is much finer in theory than in practice, and having about exhausted his substance and placed the bulk of his apparel in safe keeping, he condescended to take a place as job coachman in a livery-stable-a 'horses let by the hour, day, or month' one, in which he enacted as many characters, at least made as many different appearances, as the late Mr. Mathews used to do in his celebrated 'At Homes.' One day Peter would be seen ducking under the mews' entrance in one of those greasy, painfully well-brushed hats, the certain precursors of soiled linen and seedy, most seedy-covered buttoned coats, that would puzzle a conjuror to say whether they were black, or grey, or olive, or invisible green turned visible brown. Then another day he might be seen in old Mrs. Gadabout's sky-blue livery, with a tarnished, gold-laced hat, nodding over his nose; and on a third he would shine forth in Mrs. Major-General Flareup's cockaded one, with a worsted shoulder-knot, and a much over-daubed light drab livery coat, with crimson inexpressibles, so tight as to astonish a beholder how he ever got into them. Humiliation, however, has its limits as well as other things; and Peter having been invited to descend from his box-alas! a regular country patent leather one, and invest himself in a Quaker-collared blue coat, with a red vest, and a pair of blue trousers with a broad red stripe down the sides, to drive the Honourable old Miss Wrinkleton, of Harley Street, to Court in a 'one oss pianoforte-case,' as he called a Clarence, he could stand it no longer, and, chucking the nether garments into the fire, he rushed frantically up the area-steps, mounted his box, and quilted the old crocodile of a horse all the way home, accompanying each cut with an imprecation such as 'me make a guy of myself!' (whip) 'me put on sich things!' (whip, whip) 'me drive down Sin Jimses-street!' (whip, whip, whip), 'I'd see her -- fust!' (whip, whip, whip), cutting at the old horse just as if he was laying it into Miss Wrinkleton, so that by the time he got home he had established a considerable lather on the old nag, which his master resenting a row ensued, the sequel of which may readily be imagined. After assisting Mrs. Clearstarch, the Kilburn laundress, in getting in and taking out her washing, for a few weeks, chance at last landed him at Mr. Benjamin Buckram's, from whence he is now about to be removed to become our hero Mr. Sponge's Sancho Panza, in his fox-hunting, fortune-hunting career, and disseminate in remote parts his doctrines of the real honour and dignity of servitude. Now to the inspection.

Peter Leather, having a peep-hole as well as his master, on seeing Mr. Sponge arrive, had given himself an extra rub over, and covered his dirty shirt with a clean, well-tied, white kerchief, and a whole coloured scarlet waistcoat, late the property of one of his noble employers, in hopes that Sponge's visit might lead to something. Peter was about sick of the suburbs, and thought, of course, that he couldn't be worse off than where he was.

'Here's Mr. Sponge wants some osses,' observed Mr. Buckram, as Leather met them in the middle of the little yard, and brought his right arm round with a sort of military swing to his forehead; 'what 'ave we in?' continued Buckram, with the air of a man with so many horses that he didn't know what were in and what were out.

'Vy we 'ave Rumbleton in,' replied Leather, thoughtfully, stroking down his hair as he spoke, 'and we 'ave Jack o'Lanthorn in, and we 'ave the Camel in, and there's the little Hirish oss with the sprig tail-Jack-a-Dandy, as I calls him, and the Flyer will be in to-night, he's just out a hairing, as it were, with old Mr. Callipash.'

'Ah, Rumbleton won't do for Mr. Sponge,' observed Buckram, thoughtfully, at the same time letting go a tremendous avalanche of silver down his trouser pocket, 'Rumbleton won't do,' repeated he, 'nor Jack-a-Dandy nouther.'

'Why, I wouldn't commend neither on 'em,' replied Peter, taking his cue from his master, 'only ven you axes me vot there's in, you knows vy I must give you a cor-rect answer, in course.'

'In course,' nodded Buckram.

Leather and Buckram had a good understanding in the lying line, and had fallen into a sort of tacit arrangement that if the former was staunch about the horses he was at liberty to make the best terms he could for himself. Whatever Buckram said, Leather swore to, and they had established certain signals and expressions that each understood.

'I've an unkimmon nice oss,' at length observed Mr. Buckram, with a scrutinizing glance at Sponge, 'and an oss in hevery respect werry like your work, but he's an oss I'll candidly state, I wouldn't put in every one's 'ands, for, in the fust place, he's wery walueous, and in the second, he requires an ossman to ride; howsomever, as I knows that you can ride, and if you doesn't mind taking my 'ead man,' jerking his elbow at Leather, 'to look arter him, I wouldn't mind 'commodatin' on you, prowided we can 'gree upon terms.'

'Well, let's see him,' interrupted Sponge, 'and we can talk about terms after.'

'Certainly, sir, certainly,' replied Buckram, again letting loose a reaccumulated rush of silver down his pocket. 'Here, Tom! Joe! Harry! where's Sam?' giving the little tinkler of a bell a pull as he spoke.

'Sam be in the straw 'ouse,' replied Leather, passing through a stable into a wooden projection beyond, where the gentleman in question was enjoying a nap.

'Sam!' said he, 'Sam!' repeated he, in a louder tone, as he saw the object of his search's nose popping through the midst of the straw.

'What now?' exclaimed Sam, starting up, and looking wildly around; 'what now?' repeated he, rubbing his eyes with the backs of his hands.

'Get out Ercles,' said Leather, sotto voce.

The lad was a mere stripling-some fifteen or sixteen, years, perhaps-tall, slight, and neat, with dark hair and eyes, and was dressed in a brown jacket-a real boy's jacket, without laps, white cords, and top-boots. It was his business to risk his neck and limbs at all hours of the day, on all sorts of horses, over any sort of place that any person chose to require him to put a horse at, and this he did with the daring pleasure of youth as yet undaunted by any serious fall. Sam now best

irred himself to get out the horse. The clambering of hoofs presently announced his approach.

Whether Hercules was called Hercules on account of his amazing strength, or from a fanciful relationship to the famous horse of that name, we know not; but his strength and his colour would favour either supposition. He was an immense, tall, powerful, dark brown, sixteen hands horse, with an arched neck and crest, well set on, clean, lean head, and loins that looked as if they could shoot a man into the next county. His condition was perfect. His coat lay as close and even as satin, with cleanly developed muscle, and altogether he looked as hard as a cricket-ball. He had a famous switch tail, reaching nearly to his hocks, and making him look less than he would otherwise have done.

Mr. Sponge was too well versed in horse-flesh to imagine that such an animal would be in the possession of such a third-rate dealer as Buckram, unless there was something radically wrong about him, and as Sam and Leather were paying the horse those stable attentions that always precede a show out, Mr. Sponge settled in his own mind that the observation about his requiring a horseman to ride him, meant that he was vicious. Nor was he wrong in his anticipations, for not all Leather's whistlings, or Sam's endearings and watchings, could conceal the sunken, scowling eye, that as good as said, 'you'd better keep clear of me.'

Mr. Sponge, however, was a dauntless horseman. What man dared he dared, and as the horse stepped proudly and freely out of the stable, Mr. Sponge thought he looked very like a hunter. Nor were Mr. Buckram's laudations wanting in the animal's behalf.

'There's an 'orse!' exclaimed he, drawing his right hand out of his trouser pocket, and flourishing it towards him. 'If that 'orse were down in Leicestersheer,' added he, 'he'd fetch three 'under'd guineas. Sir Richard would 'ave him in a minnit-that he would!' added he, with a stamp of his foot as he saw the animal beginning to set up his back and wince at the approach of the lad. (We may here mention by way of parenthesis, that Mr. Buckram had brought him out of Warwicksheer for thirty pounds, where the horse had greatly distinguished himself, as well by kicking off sundry scarlet swells in the gaily thronged streets of Leamington, as by running away with divers others over the wide-stretching grazing grounds of Southam and Dunchurch.)

But to our story. The horse now stood staring on view: fire in his eye, and vigour in his every limb. Leather at his head, the lad at his side. Sponge and Buckram a little on the left.

'W-h-o-a-a-y, my man, w-h-o-a-a-y,' continued Mr. Buckram, as a liberal show of the white of the eye was followed by a little wince and hoist of the hind quarters on the nearer approach of the lad.

'Look sharp, boy,' said he, in a very different tone to the soothing one in which he had just been addressing the horse. The lad lifted up his leg for a hoist. Leather gave him one as quick as thought, and led on the horse as the lad gathered up his reins. They then made for a large field at the back of the house, with leaping-bars, hurdles, 'on and offs,' 'ins and outs,' all sorts of fancy leaps scattered about. Having got him fairly in, and the lad having got himself fairly settled in the saddle he gave the horse a touch with the spur as Leather let go his head, and after a desperate plunge or two started off at a gallop.

'He's fresh,' observed Mr. Buckram confidentially to Mr. Sponge, 'he's fresh-wants work, in short-short of work-wouldn't put every one on him-wouldn't put one o' your timid cocknified chaps on him, for if ever he were to get the hupper 'and, vy I doesn't know as 'ow that we might get the hupper 'and o' him, agen, but the playful rogue knows ven he's got a workman on his back-see how he gives to the lad though he's only fifteen, and not strong of his hage nouther,' continued Mr. Buckram, 'and I guess if he had sich a consternation of talent as you on his back, he'd wery soon be as quiet as a lamb-not that he's wicious-far from it, only play-full of play, I may say, though to be sure, if a man gets spilt it don't argufy much whether it's done from play or from wice.'

During this time the horse was going through his evolutions, hopping over this thing, popping over that, making as little of everything as practice makes them do.

Having gone through the usual routine, the lad now walked the glowing coated snorting horse back to where the trio stood. Mr. Sponge again looked him over, and still seeing no exception to take to him, bid the lad get off and lengthen the stirrups for him to take a ride. That was the difficulty. The first two minutes always did it. Mr. Sponge, however, nothing daunted, borrowed Sam's spurs, and making Leather hold the horse by the head till he got well into the saddle, and then lead him on a bit; he gave the animal such a dig in both sides as fairly threw him off his guard, and made him start away at a gallop, instead of standing and delivering, as was his wont.

Away Mr. Sponge shot, pulling him about trying all his paces, and putting him at all sorts of leaps.

Emboldened by the nerve and dexterity displayed by Mr. Sponge, Mr. Buckram stood meditating a further trial of his equestrian ability, as he watched him bucketing 'Ercles' about. Hercules had 'spang-hewed' so many triers, and the hideous contraction of his resolute back had deterred so many from mounting, that Buckram had begun to fear he would have to place him in the only remaining school for incurables, the 'bus. Hack-horse riders are seldom great horsemen. The very fact of their being hack-horse riders shows they are little accustomed to horses, or they would not give the fee-simple of an animal for a few weeks' work.

'I've a wonderful clever little oss,' observed Mr. Buckram, as Sponge returned with a slack-rein and a satisfied air on the late resolute animal's back. 'Little I can 'ardly call 'im,' continued Mr. Buckram, 'only he's low; but you knows that the 'eight of an oss has nothin' to do with his size. Now this is a perfect dray-oss in miniature. An 'Arrow gent, lookin' at him t'other day christen'd him "Multum in Parvo." But though he's so ter-men-dous strong, he has the knack o' goin', specially in deep; and if you're not a-goin' to Sir Richard, but into some o' them plough sheers (shires), I'd 'commend him to you.'

'Let's have a look at him,' replied Mr. Sponge, throwing his right leg over Hercules' head and sliding from the saddle on to the ground, as if he were alighting from the quietest shooting pony in the world.

All then was hurry, scurry, and scamper to get this second prodigy out. Presently he appeared. Multum in Parvo certainly was all that Buckram described him. A long, low, clean-headed, clean-necked, big-hocked, chestnut, with a long tail, and great, large, flat white legs, without mark or blemish upon them. Unlike Hercules, there was nothing indicative of vice or mischief about him. Indeed, he was rather a sedate, meditative-looking animal; and, instead of the watchful, arms'-length sort of way Leather and Co. treated Hercules, they jerked and punched Parvo about as if he were a cow.

Still Parvo had his foibles. He was a resolute, head-strong animal, that would go his own way in spite of all the pulling and hauling in the world. If he took it into his obstinate head to turn into a particular field, into it he would be; or against the gate-post he would bump the rider's leg in a way that would make him remember the difference of opinion between them. His was not a fiery, hot-headed spirit, with object or reason for its guide, but just a regular downright pig-headed sort of stupidity, that nobody could account for. He had a mouth like a bull, and would walk clean through a gate sometimes rather than be at the trouble of rising to leap it; at other times he would hop over it like a bird. He could not beat Mr. Buckram's men, because they were always on the look-out for objects of contention with sharp spur rowels, ready to let into his sides the moment he began to stop; but a weak or a timid man on his back had no more chance than he would on an elephant. If the horse chose to carry him into the midst of the hounds at the meet, he would have him in-nay, he would think nothing of upsetting the master himself in the middle of the pack. Then the provoking part was, that the obstinate animal, after having done all the mischief, would just set to to eat as if nothing had happened. After rolling a sportsman in the mud, he would repair to the nearest hay-stack or grassy bank, and be caught. He was now ten years old, or a leetle more perhaps, and very wicked years some of them had been. His adventures, his sellings and his returning, his lettings and his unlettings, his bumpings and spillings, his smashings and crashings, on the road, in the field, in single and in double harness, would furnish a volume of themselves; and in default of a more able historian, we purpose blending his future fortune with that of 'Ercles,' in the service of our hero Mr. Sponge, and his accomplished groom, and undertaking the important narration of them ourselves.

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