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Mr. Sponge's Sporting Tour By Robert Smith Surtees Characters: 10217

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

True to a minute, the hissing engine drew the swiftly gliding train beneath the elegant and costly station at Lucksford-an edifice presenting a rare contrast to the wretched old red-tiled, five-windowed house, called the Red Lion, where a brandy-faced blacksmith of a landlord used to emerge from the adjoining smithy, to take charge of any one who might arrive per coach for that part of the country. Mr. Sponge was quickly on the platform, seeing to the detachment of his horse-box.

Just as the cavalry was about got into marching order, up rode John Watson, a ragamuffin-looking gamekeeper, in a green plush coat, with a very tarnished laced hat, mounted on a very shaggy white pony, whose hide seemed quite impervious to the visitations of a heavily-knotted dogwhip, with which he kept saluting his shoulders and sides.

'Please, sir,' said he, riding up to Mr. Sponge, with a touch of the old hat, 'I've got you a capital three-stall stable at the Railway Tavern, here,' pointing to a newly built brick house standing on the rising ground.

'Oh! but I'm going to Jawleyford Court,' responded our friend, thinking the man was the 'tout' of the tavern.

'Mr. Jawleyford don't take in horses, sir,' rejoined the man, with another touch of the hat.

'He'll take in mine,' observed Mr. Sponge, with an air of authority.

'Oh, I beg pardon, sir,' replied the keeper, thinking he had made a mistake; 'it was Mr. Sponge whose horses I had to bespeak stalls for,' touching his hat profusely as he spoke.

'Well, this be Mister Sponge,' observed Leather, who had been listening attentively to what passed.

''Deed!' said the keeper, again turning to our hero with an 'I beg pardon, sir, but the stable is for you then, sir-for Mr. Sponge, sir.'

'How do you know that?' demanded our friend.

''Cause Mr. Spigot, the butler, says to me, says he, "Mr. Watson," says he-my name's Watson, you see,' continued the speaker, sawing away at his hat, 'my name's Watson, you see, and I'm the head gamekeeper. "Mr. Watson," says he, "you must go down to the tavern and order a three-stall stable for a gentleman of the name of Sponge, whose horses are a comin' to-day"; and in course I've come 'cordingly,' added Watson. 'A three-stall'd stable!' observed Mr. Sponge, with an emphasis.

'A three-stall'd stable,' repeated Mr. Watson.

'Confound him, but he said he'd take in a hack at all events,' observed Sponge, with a sideway shake of the head; 'and a hack he shall take in, too' he added. 'Are your stables full at Jawleyford Court?' he asked.

''Ord bless you, no, sir,' replied Watson with a leer; 'there's nothin' in them but a couple of weedy hacks and a pair of old worn-out carriage-horses.'

'Then I can get this hack taken in, at all events,' observed Sponge, laying his hand on the neck of the piebald as he spoke.

'Why, as to that,' replied Mr. Watson, with a shake of the head, 'I can't say nothin'.'

'I must, though,' rejoined Sponge, tartly; 'he said he'd take in my hack, or I wouldn't have come.'

'Well, sir,' observed the keeper, 'you know best, sir.'

'Confounded screw!' muttered Sponge, turning away to give his orders to Leather. 'I'll work him for it,' he added. 'He sha'n't get rid of me in a hurry-at least, not unless I can get a better billet elsewhere.'

Having arranged the parting with Leather, and got a cart to carry his things, Mr. Sponge mounted the piebald, and put himself under the guidance of Watson to be conducted to his destination. The first part of the journey was performed in silence, Mr. Sponge not being particularly well pleased at the reception his request to have his horses taken in had met with. This silence he might perhaps have preserved throughout had it not occurred to him that he might pump something out of the servant about the family he was going to visit.

'That's not a bad-like old cob of yours,' he observed, drawing rein so as to let the shaggy white come alongside of him.

'He belies his looks, then,' replied Watson, with a grin of his cadaverous face, 'for he's just as bad a beast as ever looked through a bridle. It's a parfect disgrace to a gentleman to put a man on such a beast.'

Sponge saw the sort of man he had got to deal with, and proceeded accordingly.

'Have you lived long with Mr. Jawleyford?' he asked.

'No, nor will I, if I can help it,' replied Watson, with another grin and another touch of the old hat. Touching his hat was about the only piece of propriety he was up to.

'What, he's not a brick, then?' asked Sponge.

'Mean man,' replied Watson with a shake of the head; 'mean man,' he repeated. 'You're nowise connected with the fam'ly, I s'pose?' he asked with a look of suspicion lest he might be committing himself.

'No,' replied Sponge; 'no; merely an acquaintance. We met at Laverick Wells, and he pressed me to come and see him.'

'Indeed!' said Watson, feeling at ease again.

'Who did you live with before you came here?' asked Mr. Sponge, after a pause.

'I lived many years-the greater part of my life, indeed-with Sir Harry Swift. He was a real gentl

eman now, if you like-free, open-handed gentleman-none of your close-shavin', cheese-parin' sort of gentlemen, or imitation gentlemen, as I calls them, but a man who knew what was due to good servants and gave them it. We had good wages, and all the proper "reglars." Bless you, I could sell a new suit of clothes there every year, instead of having to wear the last keeper's cast-offs, and a hat that would disgrace anything but a flay-crow. If the linin' wasn't stuffed full of gun-waddin' it would be over my nose,' he observed, taking it off and adjusting the layer of wadding as he spoke.

'You should have stuck to Sir Harry,' observed Mr. Sponge.

'I did,' rejoined Watson. 'I did, I stuck to him to the last. I'd have been with him now, only he couldn't get a manor at Boulogne, and a keeper was of no use without one.'

'What, he went to Boulogne, did he?' observed Mr. Sponge.

'Aye, the more's the pity,' replied Watson. 'He was a gentleman, every inch of him,' he added, with a shake of the head and a sigh, as if recurring to more prosperous times. 'He was what a gentleman ought to be,' he continued, 'not one of your poor, pryin', inquisitive critturs, what's always fancyin' themselves cheated. I ordered everything in my department, and paid for it too; and never had a bill disputed or even commented on. I might have charged for a ton of powder, and never had nothin' said.'

'Mr. Jawleyford's not likely to find his way to Boulogne, I suppose?' observed Mr. Sponge.

'Not he!' exclaimed Watson, 'not he!-safe bird-very.'

'He's rich, I suppose?' continued Sponge, with an air of indifference.

'Why, I should say he was; though others say he's not,' replied Watson, cropping the old pony with the dog-whip, as it nearly fell on its nose. 'He can't fail to be rich, with all his property; though they're desperate hands for gaddin' about; always off to some waterin'-place or another, lookin' for husbands, I suppose. I wonder,' he continued, 'that gentlemen can't settle at home, and amuse themselves with coursin' and shootin'.' Mr. Watson, like many servants, thinking that the bulk of a gentleman's income should be spent in promoting the particular sport over which they preside.

With this and similar discourse, they beguiled the short distance between the station and the Court-a distance, however, that looked considerably greater after the flying rapidity of the rail. But for these occasional returns to terra firma, people would begin to fancy themselves birds. After rounding a large but gently swelling hill, over the summit of which the road, after the fashion of old roads, led, our traveller suddenly looked down upon the wide vale of Sniperdown, with Jawleyford Court glittering with a bright open aspect, on a fine, gradual elevation, above the broad, smoothly gliding river. A clear atmosphere, indicative either of rain or frost, disclosed a vast tract of wild, flat, ill-cultivated-looking country to the south, little interrupted by woods or signs of population; the whole losing itself, as it were, in an indistinct grey outline, commingling with the fleecy white clouds in the distance.

'Here we be,' observed Watson, with a nod towards where a tarnished red-and-gold flag, floated, or rather flapped lazily in the winter's breeze, above an irregular mass of towers, turrets, and odd-shaped chimneys.

Jawleyford Court was a fine old mansion, partaking more of the character of a castle than a Court, with its keep and towers, battlements, heavily grated mullioned windows, and machicolated gallery. It stood, sombre and grey, in the midst of gigantic but now leafless sycamores-trees that had to thank themselves for being sycamores; for, had they been oaks, or other marketable wood, they would have been made into bonnets or shawls long before now. The building itself was irregular, presenting different sorts of architecture, from pure Gothic down to some even perfectly modern buildings; still, viewed as a whole, it was massive and imposing; and as Mr. Sponge looked down upon it, he thought far more of Jawleyford and Co. than he did as the mere occupants of a modest, white-stuccoed, green-verandahed house, at Laverick Wells. Nor did his admiration diminish as he advanced, and, crossing by a battlemented bridge over the moat, he viewed the massive character of the buildings rising grandly from their rocky foundation. An imposing, solemn-toned old clock began striking four, as the horsemen rode under the Gothic portico, whose notes re-echoed and reverberated, and at last lost themselves among the towers and pinnacles of the building. Sponge, for a moment, was awe-stricken at the magnificence of the scene, feeling that it was what he would call 'a good many cuts above him'; but he soon recovered his wonted impudence.

'He would have me,' thought he, recalling the pressing nature of the Jawleyford invitation.

'If you'll hold my nag,' said Watson, throwing himself off the shaggy white, 'I'll ring the bell,' added he, running up a wide flight of steps to the hall-door. A riotous peal announced the arrival.

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