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Mr. Sponge's Sporting Tour By Robert Smith Surtees Characters: 13731

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Punctual to the moment, the railway train, conveying the redoubtable genius, glid into the well-lighted, elegant little station of Laverick Wells, and out of a first-class carriage emerged Mr. Sponge, in a 'down the road' coat, carrying a horse-sheet wrapper in his hand. So small and insignificant did the station seem after the gigantic ones of London, that Mr. Sponge thought he had wasted his money in taking a first-class ticket, seeing there was no one to know. Mr. Leather, who was in attendance, having received him hat in hand, with all the deference due to the master of twenty hunters, soon undeceived him on that point. Having eased him of his wrapper, and inquired about his luggage, and despatched a porter for a fly, they stood together over the portmanteau and hat-box till it arrived.

'How are the horses?' asked Sponge.

'Oh, the osses be nicely, sir,' replied Leather; 'they travelled down uncommon well, and I've had 'em both removed sin they com'd, so either on 'em is fit to go i' the mornin' that you think proper.'

'Where are the hounds?' asked our hero.

''Ounds be at Whirleypool Windmill,' replied Leather, 'that's about five miles off.'

'What sort of country is it?' inquired Sponge.

'It be a stiffish country from all accounts, with a good deal o' water jumpin'; that is to say, the Liffey runs twistin' and twinin' about it like a H'Eel.'

'Then I'd better ride the brown, I think,' observed Sponge, after a pause: 'he has size and stride enough to cover anything, if he will but face water.'

'I'll warrant him for that,' replied Leather; 'only let the Latchfords well into him, and he'll go.'

'Are there many hunting-men down?' inquired our friend casually.

'Great many,' replied Leather, 'great many; some good 'ands among 'em too; at least to say their grums, though I never believe all these jockeys say. There be some on 'em 'ere now,' observed Leather, in an undertone, with a wink of his roguish eye, and jerk of his head towards where a knot of them stood eyeing our friend most intently.

'Which?' inquired Sponge, looking about the thinly peopled station.

'There,' replied Leather, 'those by the book-stall. That be Mr. Waffles,' continued he, giving his master a touch in the ribs as he jerked his portmanteau into a fly, 'that be Mr. Waffles,' repeated he, with a knowing leer.

'Which?' inquired Mr. Sponge eagerly.

'The gent in the green wide-awake 'at, and big-button'd overcoat,' replied Leather, 'jest now a speakin' to the youth in the tweed and all tweed; that be Master Caingey Thornton, as big a little blackguard as any in the place-lives upon Waffles, and yet never has a good word to say for him, no, nor for no one else-and yet to 'ear the little devil a-talkin' to him, you'd really fancy he believed there wasn't not never sich another man i' the world as Waffles-not another sich rider-not another sich racket-player-not another sich pigeon-shooter-not another sich fine chap altogether.'

'Has Thornton any horses?' asked Sponge.

'Not he,' replied Leather, 'not he, nor the gen'lman next him nouther-he, in the pilot coat, with the whip sticking out of the pocket, nor the one in the coffee-coloured 'at, nor none on 'em in fact'; adding, 'they all live on Squire Waffles-breakfast with him-dine with him-drink with him-smoke with him-and if any on 'em 'appen to 'ave an 'orse, why they sell to him, and so ride for nothin' themselves.'

'A convenient sort of gentleman,' observed Mr. Sponge, thinking he, too, might accommodate him.

The fly-man now touched his hat, indicative of a wish to be off, having a fare waiting elsewhere. Mr. Sponge directed him to proceed to the Brunswick Hotel, while, accompanied by Leather, he proceeded on foot to the stables.

Mr. Leather, of course, had the valuable stud under lock and key, with every crevice and air-hole well stuffed with straw, as if they had been the most valuable horses in the world. Having produced the ring-key from his pocket, Mr. Leather opened the door, and having got his master in, speedily closed it, lest a breath of fresh air might intrude. Having lighted a lucifer, he turned on the gas, and exhibited the blooming-coated horses, well littered in straw, showing that he was not the man to pay four-and-twenty shillings a week for nothing. Mr. Sponge stood eyeing them for some seconds with evident approbation.

'If any one asks you about the horses, you can say they are mine, you know,' at length observed he casually, with an emphasis on the mine.

'In course,' replied Leather.

'I mean, you needn't say anything about their being jobs,' observed Sponge, fearing Leather mightn't exactly 'take.'

'You trust me,' replied Leather, with a knowing wink and a jerk of his elbow against his master's side; 'you trust me,' repeated he, with a look as much as to say, 'we understand each other.'

'I've hadded a few to them, indeed,' continued Leather, looking to see how his master took it.

'Have you?' observed Mr. Sponge inquiringly.

'I've made out that you've as good as twenty, one way or another,' observed Leather; 'some 'ere, some there, all over in fact, and that you jest run about the country, and 'unt with 'oever comes h'uppermost.'

'Well, and what's the upshot of it all?' inquired Mr. Sponge, thinking his groom seemed wonderfully enthusiastic in his interest.

'Why, the hupshot of it is,' replied Leather, 'that the men are all mad, and the women all wild to see you. I hear at my club, the Mutton Chop and Mealy Potato Club, which is frequented by flunkies as well as grums, that there's nothin' talked of at dinner or tea, but the terrible rich stranger that's a comin', and the gals are all pulling caps, who's to have the first chance.'

'Indeed,' observed Mr. Sponge, chuckling at the sensation he was creating.

'The Miss Shapsets, there be five on 'em, have had a game at fly loo for you,' continued Leather, 'at least so their little maid tells me.'

'Fly what?' inquired Mr. Sponge.

'Fly loo,' repeated Leather, 'fly loo.'

Mr. Sponge shook his head. For once he was not 'fly.'

'You see,' continued Leather, in explanation, 'their father is one of them tight-laced candlestick priests wot abhors all sorts of wice and himmorality, and won't stand card playin', or gamblin', or nothin' o' that sort, so the young ladies when they want to settle a point, who's to be married first, or who's to have the richest 'usband, play fly loo. 'Sposing it's at breakfast time, they all sit quiet and sober like round the table, lookin' as if butter wouldn't melt in their mouths, and each has a lump o' sugar on her plate, or by her cup, or somewhere, and whoever can 'tice a fly to come to her sugar first, wins the wager, or whatever it is they play for.'

'Five on 'em,' as Leather said, being a hopeless number to extract any good from,

Mr. Sponge changed the subject by giving orders for the morrow.

Mr. Sponge's appearance being decidedly of the sporting order, and his horses maintaining the character, did not alleviate the agitated minds of the sporting beholders, ruffled as they were with the threatening, vapouring insinuations of the coachman-groom, Peter Leather. There is nothing sets men's backs up so readily, as a hint that any one is coming to take the 'shine' out of them across country. We have known the most deadly feuds engendered between parties who never spoke to each other by adroit go-betweens reporting to each what the other said, or, perhaps, did not say, but what the 'go-betweens' knew would so rouse the British lion as to make each ride to destruction if necessary.

'He's a varmint-looking chap,' observed Mr. Waffles, as the party returned from the railway station; 'shouldn't wonder if he can go-dare say he'll try-shouldn't wonder if he's floored-awfully stiff country this for horses that are not used to it-most likely his are Leicestershire nags, used to fly-won't do here. If he attempts to take some of our big banked bullfinches in his stride, with a yawner on each side, will get into grief.'

'Hang him,' interrupted Caingey Thornton, 'there are good men in all countries.'

'So there are!' exclaimed Mr. Spareneck, the steeple-chase rider.

'I've no notion of a fellow lording it, because he happens to come out of Leicestershire,' rejoined Mr. Thornton.

'Nor I!' exclaimed Mr. Spareneck.

'Why doesn't he stay in Leicestershire?' asked Mr. Hoppey, now raising his voice for the first time-adding, 'Who asked him here?'

'Who, indeed?' sneered Mr. Thornton.

In this mood our friends arrived at the Imperial Hotel, where there was always a dinner the day before hunting-a dinner that, somehow, was served up in Mr. Waffles's rooms, who was allowed the privilege of paying for all those who did not pay for themselves; rather a considerable number, we believe.

The best of everything being good enough for the guests, and profuse liberality the order of the day, the cloth generally disappeared before a contented audience, whatever humour they might have set down in. As the least people can do who dine at an inn and don't pay their own shot, is to drink the health of the man who does pay, Mr. Waffles was always lauded and applauded to the skies-such a master-such a sportsman-such knowledge-such science-such a pattern-card. On this occasion the toast was received with extra enthusiasm, for the proposer, Mr. Caingey Thornton, who was desperately in want of a mount, after going the rounds of the old laudatory course, alluded to the threatened vapourings of the stranger, and expressed his firm belief that he would 'meet with his match,' a 'taking of the bull by the horns,' that met with very considerable favour from the wine-flushed party, the majority of whom, at that moment, made very 'small,' in their own minds, of the biggest fence that ever was seen.

There is nothing so easy as going best pace over the mahogany.

Mr. Waffles, who was received with considerable applause, and patting of the table, responded to the toast in his usual felicitous style, assuring the company that he lived but for the enjoyment of their charming society, and that all the money in the world would be useless, if he hadn't Laverick Wells to spend it in. With regard to the vapourings of a 'certain gentleman,' he thought it would be very odd if some of them could not take the shine out of him, observing that 'Brag' was a good dog, but 'Holdfast' was a better, with certain other sporting similes and phrases, all indicative of showing fight. The steam is soon got up after dinner, and as they were all of the same mind, and all agreed that a gross insult had been offered to the hunt in general, and themselves in particular, the only question was, how to revenge it. At last they hit upon it. Old Slocdolager, the late master of the hunt, had been in the habit of having Tom Towler, the huntsman, to his lodgings the night before hunting, where, over a glass of gin-and-water, they discussed the doings of the day, and the general arrangements of the country.

Mr. Waffles had had him in sometimes, though for a different purpose-at least, in reality for a different purpose, though he always made hunting the excuse for sending for him, and that purpose was, to try how many silver foxes' heads full of port wine Tom could carry off without tumbling, and the old fellow being rather liquorishly inclined, had never made any objection to the experiment. Mr. Waffles now wanted him, to endeavour, under the mellowing influence of drink, to get him to enter cordially into what he knew would be distasteful to the old sportsman's feelings, namely, to substitute a 'drag' for the legitimate find and chase of the fox. Fox-hunting, though exciting and exhilarating at all times, except, perhaps, when the 'fallows are flying,' and the sportsman feels that in all probability, the further he goes the further he is left behind-Fox-hunting, we say, though exciting and exhilarating, does not, when the real truth is spoken, present such conveniences for neck-breaking, as people, who take their ideas from Mr. Ackermann's print-shop window, imagine. That there are large places in most fences is perfectly true; but that there are also weak ones is also the fact, and a practised eye catches up the latter uncommonly quick. Therefore, though a madman may ride at the big places, a sane man is not expected to follow; and even should any one be tempted so to do, the madman having acted pioneer, will have cleared the way, or at all events proved its practicability for the follower.

In addition to this, however, hounds having to smell as they go, cannot travel at the ultra steeple-chase pace, so opposed to 'looking before you leap,' and so conducive to danger and difficulty, and as going even at a fair pace depends upon the state of the atmosphere, and the scent the fox leaves behind, it is evident that where mere daring hard riding is the object, a fox-hunt cannot be depended upon for furnishing the necessary accommodation. A drag-hunt is quite a different thing. The drag can be made to any strength; enabling hounds to run as if they were tied to it, and can be trailed so as to bring in all the dangerous places in the country with a certain air of plausibility, enabling a man to look round and exclaim, as he crams at a bullfinch or brook, 'he's leading us over a most desperate country-never saw such fencing in all my life!' Drag-hunting, however, as we said before, is not popular with sportsmen, certainly not with huntsmen, and though our friends with their wounded feelings determined to have one, they had yet to smooth over old Tom to get him to come into their views. That was now the difficulty.

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