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   Chapter 20 THE F.H.H.

Mr. Sponge's Sporting Tour By Robert Smith Surtees Characters: 16748

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Nor was Sponge wrong in his conjecture, for it was a quarter to nine ere Spigot appeared with the massive silver urn, followed by the train-band bold, bearing the heavy implements of breakfast. Then, though the young ladies were punctual, smiling, and affable as usual, Mrs. Jawleyford was absent, and she had the keys; so it was nearly nine before Mr. Sponge got his fork into his first mutton chop. Jawleyford was not exactly pleased; he thought it didn't look well for a young man to prefer hunting to the society of his lovely and accomplished daughters. Hunting was all very well occasionally, but it did not do to make a business of it. This, however, he kept to himself.

'You'll have a fine day, my dear Mr. Sponge,' said he, extending a hand, as he found our friend brown-booted and red-coated, working away at the breakfast.

'Yes,' said Sponge, munching away for hard life. In less than ten minutes, he managed to get as much down as, with the aid of a knotch of bread that he pocketed, he thought would last him through the day; and, with a hasty adieu, he hurried off to find the stables, to get his hack. The piebald was saddled, bridled, and turned round in the stall; for all servants that are worth anything like to further hunting operations. With the aid of the groom's instructions, who accompanied him out of the courtyard, Sponge was enabled to set off at a hard canter, cheered by the groom's observation, that 'he thought he would be there in time.' On, on he went; now speculating on a turn; now pulling a scratch map he had made on a bit of paper out of his waistcoat-pocket; now inquiring the name of any place he saw of any person he met. So he proceeded for five or six miles without much difficulty; the road, though not all turnpike, being mainly over good sound township ones, It was at the village of Swineley, with its chubby-towered church and miserable hut-like cottages, that his troubles were to begin. He had two sharp turns to make-to ride through a straw-yard, and leap over a broken-down wall at the corner of a cottage-to get into Swaithing Green Lane, and so cut off an angle of two miles. The road then became a bridle one, and was, like all bridle ones, very plain to those who know them, and very puzzling to those who don't. It was evidently a little-frequented road; and what with looking out for footmarks (now nearly obliterated by the recent rains) and speculating on what queer corners of the fields the gates would be in, Mr. Sponge found it necessary to reduce his pace to a very moderate trot. Still he had made good way; and supposing they gave a quarter-of-an-hour's law, and he had not been deceived as to distance, he thought he should get to the meet about the time. His horse, too, would be there, and perhaps Lord Scamperdale might give a little extra law on that account. He then began speculating on what sort of a man his lordship was, and the probable nature of his reception. He began to wish that Jawleyford had accompanied him, to introduce him. Not that Sponge was shy, but still he thought that Jawleyford's presence would do him good.

Lord Scamperdale's hunt was not the most polished in the world. The hounds and the horses were a good deal better bred than the men. Of course his lordship gave the tone to the whole; and being a coarse, broad, barge-built sort of man, he had his clothes to correspond, and looked like a drayman in scarlet. He wore a great round flat-brimmed hat, which being adopted by the hunt generally, procured it the name of the 'F.H.H.,' or 'Flat Hat Hunt.' Our readers, we dare say, have noticed it figuring away, in the list of hounds during the winter, along with the 'H.H.s,' 'V.W.H.s,' and other initialized packs. His lordship's clothes were of the large, roomy, baggy, abundant order, with great pockets, great buttons, and lots of strings flying out. Instead of tops, he sported leather leggings, which at a distance gave him the appearance of riding with his trousers up to his knees. These the hunt too adopted; and his 'particular,' Jack (Jack Spraggon), the man whom he mounted, and who was made much in his own mould, sported, like his patron, a pair of great broad-rimmed, tortoise-shell spectacles of considerable power. Jack was always at his lordship's elbow; and it was 'Jack' this, 'Jack' that, 'Jack' something, all day long. But we must return to Mr. Sponge, whom we left working his way through the intricate fields. At last he got through them, and into Red Pool Common, which, by leaving the windmill to the right, he cleared pretty cleverly, and entered upon a district still wilder and drearier than any he had traversed. Peewits screamed and hovered over land that seemed to grow little but rushes and water-grasses, with occasional heather. The ground poached and splashed as he went; worst of all, time was nearly up.

In vain Sponge strained his eyes in search of Dundleton Tower. In vain he fancied every high, sky-line-breaking place in the distance was the much-wished-for spot. Dundleton Tower was no more a tower than it was a town, and would seem to have been christened by the rule of contrary, for it was nothing but a great flat open space, without object or incident to note it.

Sponge, however, was not destined to see it.

As he went floundering along through an apparently interminable and almost bottomless lane, whose sunken places and deep ruts were filled with clayey water, which played the very deuce with the cords and brown boots, the light note of a hound fell on his ear, and almost at the same instant, a something that he would have taken for a dog had it not been for the note of the hound, turned, as it were, from him, and went in a contrary direction.

Sponge reined in the piebald, and stood transfixed. It was, indeed, the fox!-a magnificent full-brushed fellow, with a slight tendency to grey along the back, and going with the light spiry ease of an animal full of strength and running.

'I wish I mayn't ketch it,' said Sponge to himself, shuddering at the idea of having headed him.

It was, however, no time for thinking. The cry of hounds became more distinct-nearer and nearer they came, fuller and more melodious; but, alas! it was no music to Sponge. Presently the cheering of hunters was heard-'For-rard! For-rard!' and anon the rate of a whip farther back. Another second, and hounds, horses, and men were in view, streaming away over the large pasture on the left.

There was a high, straggling fence between Sponge and the field, thick enough to prevent their identifying him, but not sufficiently high to screen him altogether. Sponge pulled round the piebald, and gathered himself together like a man going to be shot. The hounds came tearing full cry to where he was; there was a breast-high scent, and every one seemed to have it. They charged the fence at a wattled pace a few yards below where he sat, and flying across the deep dirty lane, dashed full cry into the pasture beyond.

'Hie back!' cried Sponge. 'Hie back!' trying to turn them; but instead of the piebald carrying him in front of the pack, as Sponge wanted, he took to rearing, and plunging, and pawing the air. The hounds meanwhile dashed jealously on without a scent, till first one and then another feeling ashamed, gave in; and at last a general lull succeeded the recent joyous cry. Awful period! terrible to any one, but dreadful to a stranger! Though Sponge was in the road, he well knew that no one has any business anywhere but with hounds, when a fox is astir.

'Hold hard!' was now the cry, and the perspiring riders and lathered steeds came to a standstill.

'Twang-twang-twang,' went a shrill horn; and a couple of whips, singling themselves out from the field, flew over the fence to where the hounds were casting.

'Twang-twang-twang,' went the horn again.

Meanwhile Sponge sat enjoying the following observations, which a westerly wind wafted into his ear.

'Oh, d-n me! that man in the lane's headed the fox,' puffed one.

'Who is it?' gasped another.

'Tom Washball!' exclaimed a third.

'Heads more foxes than any man in the country,' puffed a fourth.

'Always nicking and skirting,' exclaimed a fifth.

'Never comes to the meet,' added a sixth.

'Come on a cow to-day,' observed another.

'Always chopping and changing,' added another; 'he'll come on a giraffe n

ext.'

Having commenced his career with the 'F.H.H.' so inauspiciously and yet escaped detection, Mr. Sponge thought of letting Tom Washball enjoy the honours of his faux-pas, and of sneaking quietly home as soon as the hounds hit off the scent; but unluckily, just as they were crossing the lane, what should heave in sight, cantering along at his leisure, but the redoubtable Multum in Parvo, who, having got rid of old Leather by bumping and thumping his leg against a gate-post, was enjoying a line of his own.

'Whoay!' cried Sponge, as he saw the horse quickening his pace to have a shy at the hounds as they crossed. 'Who-o-a-y!' roared he, brandishing his whip, and trying to turn the piebald round; but no, the brute wouldn't answer the bit, and dreading lest, in addition to heading the fox, he should kill 'the best hound in the pack,' Mr. Sponge threw himself off, regardless of the mud-bath in which he lit, and caught the runaway as he tried to dart past.

'For-rard!-for-rard!-for-rard!' was again the cry, as the hounds hit off the scent; while the late pausing, panting sportsmen tackled vigorously with their steeds, and swept onward like the careering wind.

Mr. Sponge, albeit somewhat perplexed, had still sufficient presence of mind to see the necessity of immediate action; and though he had so lately contemplated beating a retreat, the unexpected appearance of Parvo altered the state of affairs.

'Now or never,' said he, looking first at the disappearing field, and then for the non-appearing Leather. 'Hang it! I may as well see the run,' added he; so hooking the piebald on to an old stone gate-post that stood in the ragged fence, and lengthening a stirrup-leather, he vaulted into the saddle, and began lengthening the other as he went.

It was one of Parvo's going days; indeed, it was that that old Leather and he had quarrelled about-Parvo wanting to follow the hounds, while Leather wanted to wait for his master. And Parvo had the knack of going, as well as the occasional inclination. Although such a drayhorse-looking animal, he could throw the ground behind him amazingly; and the deep-holding clay in which he now found himself was admirably suited to his short, powerful legs and enormous stride. The consequence was, that he was very soon up with the hindmost horsemen. These he soon passed, and was presently among those who ride hard when there is nothing to stop them. Such time as these sportsmen could now spare from looking out ahead was devoted to Sponge, whom they eyed with the utmost astonishment, as if he had dropped from the clouds.

A stranger-a real out-and-out stranger-had not visited their remote regions since the days of poor Nimrod. 'Who could it be?' But 'the pace,' as Nimrod used to say, 'was too good to inquire.' A little farther on, and Sponge drew upon the great guns of the hunt-the men who ride to hounds, and not after them; the same who had criticized him through the fence-Mr. Wake, Mr. Fossick, Parson Blossomnose, Mr. Fyle, Lord Scamperdale, Jack himself, and others. Great was their astonishment at the apparition, and incoherent the observations they dropped as they galloped on.

'It isn't Wash, after all,' whispered Fyle into Blossomnose's ear, as they rode through a gate together.

'No-o-o,' replied the nose, eyeing Sponge intently.

'What a coat!' whispered one.

'Jacket,' replied the other.

'Lost his brush,' observed a third, winking at Sponge's docked tail.

'He's going to ride over us all,' snapped Mr. Fossick, whom Sponge passed at a hand-canter, as the former was blobbing and floundering about the deep ruts leading out of a turnip-field.

'He'll catch it just now,' said Mr. Wake, eyeing Sponge drawing upon his lordship and Jack, as they led the field as usual. Jack being at a respectful distance behind his great patron, espied Sponge first; and having taken a good stare at him through his formidable spectacles, to satisfy himself that it was nobody he knew-a stare that Sponge returned as well as a man without spectacles can return the stare of one with-Jack spurred his horse up to his lordship, and rising in his stirrups, shot into his ear-

'Why, here's the man on the cow!' adding, 'it isn't Washey.'

'Who the deuce is it then?' asked his lordship, looking over his left shoulder, as he kept galloping on in the wake of his huntsman.

'Don't know,' replied Jack; 'never saw him before.'

'Nor I,' said his lordship, with an air as much as to say, 'It makes no matter.'

His lordship, though well mounted, was not exactly on the sort of horse for the country they were in; while Mr. Sponge, in addition to being on the very animal for it, had the advantage of the horse having gone the first part of the run without a rider: so Multum in Parvo, whether Mr. Sponge wished it or not, insisted on being as far forward as he could get. The more Sponge pulled and hauled, the more determined the horse was; till, having thrown both Jack and his lordship in the rear, he made for old Frostyface, the huntsman, who was riding well up to the still-flying pack.

'Hold hard, sir! For God's sake, hold hard!' screamed Frosty, who knew by intuition there was a horse behind, as well as he knew there was a man shooting in front, who, in all probability, had headed the fox.

'Hold hard, sir!' roared he, as, yawning and boring and shaking his head, Parvo dashed through the now yelping scattered pack, making straight for a stiff new gate, which he smashed through, just as a circus pony smashes through a paper hoop.

'Hoo-ray!' shouted Jack Spraggon, on seeing the hounds were safe. 'Hoo-ray for the tailor!'

'Billy Button, himself!' exclaimed his lordship, adding, 'never saw such a thing in my life!'

'Who the deuce is he?' asked Blossomnose, in the full glow of pulling-five-year-old exertion.

'Don't know,' replied Jack, adding, 'he's a shaver, whoever he is.'

Meanwhile the frightened hounds were scattered right and left.

'I'll lay a guinea he's one of those confounded waiting chaps,' observed Fyle, who had been handled rather roughly by one of the tribe, who had dropped 'quite promiscuously' upon a field where he was, just as Sponge had done with Lord Scamperdale's.

'Shouldn't wonder,' replied his lordship, eyeing Sponge's vain endeavours to turn the chestnut, and thinking how he would 'pitch into him' when he came up. 'By Jove,' added his lordship, 'if the fellow had taken the whole country round, he couldn't have chosen a worse spot for such an exploit; for there never is any scent over here. See! not a hound can own it. Old Harmony herself throws up.

The whips again are in their places, turning the astonished pack to Frostyface, who sets off on a casting expedition. The field, as usual, sit looking on; some blessing Sponge; some wondering who he was; others looking what o'clock it is; some dismounting and looking at their horses' feet.

'Thank you, Mr. Brown Boots!' exclaimed his lordship, as, by dint of bitting and spurring, Sponge at length worked the beast round, and came sneaking back in the face of the whole field. 'Thank you, Mr. Brown Boots,' repeated he, taking off his hat and bowing very low. 'Very much obleged to you, Mr. Brown Boots. Most particklarly obleged to you, Mr. Brown Boots,' with another low bow. 'Hang'd obleged to you, Mr. Brown Boots! D-n you, Mr. Brown Boots!' continued his lordship, looking at Sponge as if he would eat him.

'Beg pardon, sir,' blurted Sponge; 'my horse-'

'Hang your horse!' screamed his lordship; 'it wasn't your horse that headed the fox, was it?'

'Beg pardon-couldn't help it; I-'

'Couldn't help it. Hang your helps-you're always doing it, sir. You could stay at home, sir-I s'pose, sir-couldn't you, sir? eh, sir?'

Sponge was silent.

'See, sir!' continued his lordship, pointing to the mute pack now following the huntsman, 'you've lost us our fox, sir-yes, sir, lost us our fox, sir. D'ye call that nothin', sir? If you don't, I do, you perpendicular-looking Puseyite pig-jobber! By Jove! you think because I'm a lord, and can't swear, or use coarse language, that you may do what you like-but I'll take my hounds home, sir-yes, sir, I'll take my hounds home, sir.' So saying, his lordship roared home to Frostyface; adding, in an undertone to the first whip, 'bid him go to Furzing-field gorse.'

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