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Mr. Sponge's Sporting Tour By Robert Smith Surtees Characters: 20455

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

e fear our fair friends will expect something gay from the above heading-lamps and flambeaux outside, fiddlers, feathers, and flirters in. Nothing of the sort, fair ladies-nothing of the sort. Lord Scamperdale 'at home' simply means that his lordship was not out hunting, that he had got his dirty boots and breeches off, and dry tweeds and tartans on.

Lord Scamperdale was the eighth earl; and, according to the usual alternating course of great English families-one generation living and the next starving-it was his lordship's turn to live; but the seventh earl having been rather unreasonable in the length of his lease, the present earl, who during the lifetime of his father was Lord Hardup, had contracted such parsimonious habits, that when he came into possession he could not shake them off; and but for the fortunate friendship of Abraham Brown, the village blacksmith, who had given his young idea a sporting turn, entering him with ferrets and rabbits, and so training him on with terriers and rat-catching, badger-baiting and otter-hunting, up to the noble sport of fox-hunting itself, in all probability his lordship would have been a regular miser. As it was, he did not spend a halfpenny upon anything but hunting; and his hunting, though well, was still economically done, costing him some couple of thousand a year, to which, for the sake of euphony, Jack used to add an extra five hundred; 'two thousand five under'd a year, five-and-twenty under'd a year,' sounding better, as Jack thought, and more imposing, than a couple of thousand, or two thousand, a year. There were few days on which Jack didn't inform the field what the hounds cost his lordship, or rather what they didn't cost him.

Woodmansterne, his lordship's principal residence, was a fine place. It stood in an undulating park of 800 acres, with its church, and its lakes, and its heronry, and its decoy, and its racecourse, and its varied grasses of the choicest kinds, for feeding the numerous herds of deer, so well known at Temple Bar and Charing Cross as the Woodmansterne venison. The house was a modern edifice, built by the sixth earl, who, having been a 'liver,' had run himself aground by his enormous outlay on this Italian structure, which was just finished when he died. The fourth earl, who, we should have stated, was a 'liver' too, was a man of vertù-a great traveller and collector of coins, pictures, statues, marbles, and curiosities generally-things that are very dear to buy, but oftentimes extremely cheap when sold; and, having collected a vast quantity from all parts of the world (no easy feat in those days), he made them heirlooms, and departed this life, leaving the next earl the pleasure of contemplating them. The fifth earl having duly starved through life, then made way for the sixth; who, finding such a quantity of valuables stowed away, as he thought, in rather a confined way, sent to London for a first-rate architect. Sir Thomas Squareall (who always posted with four horses), who forthwith pulled down the old brick-and-stone Elizabethan mansion, and built the present splendid Italian structure, of the finest polished stone, at an expense of-furniture and all-say 120,000l.; Sir Thomas's estimates being 30,000l. The seventh earl of course they starved; and the present lord, at the age of forty-three, found himself in possession of house, and coins, and curiosities; and, best of all, of some 90,000l. in the funds, which had quietly rolled up during the latter part of his venerable parent's existence. His lordship then took counsel with himself-first, whether he should marry or remain single; secondly, whether he should live or starve. Having considered the subject with all the attention a limited allowance of brains permitted, he came to the resolution that the second proposition depended a good deal upon the first; 'for,' said he to himself, 'if I marry, my lady, perhaps, may make me live; and therefore,' said he, 'perhaps I'd better remain single.' At all events, he came to the determination not to marry in a hurry; and until he did, he felt there was no occasion for him to inconvenience himself by living. So he had the house put away in brown holland, the carpets rolled up, the pictures covered, the statues shrouded in muslin, the cabinets of curiosities locked, the plate secured, the china closeted, and everything arranged with the greatest care against the time, which he put before him in the distance like a target, when he should marry and begin to live.

At first he gave two or three great dinners a year, about the height of the fruit season, and when it was getting too ripe for carriage to London by the old coaches-when a grand airing of the state-rooms used to take place, and ladies from all parts of the county used to sit shivering with their bare shoulders, all anxious for the honours of the head of the table. His lordship always held out that he was a marrying man; but even if he hadn't they would have come all the same, an unmarried man being always clearly on the cards; and though he was stumpy, and clumsy, and ugly, with as little to say for himself as could well be conceived, they all agreed that he was a most engaging, attractive man-quite a pattern of a man. Even on horseback, and in his hunting clothes, in which he looked far the best, he was only a coarse, square, bull-headed looking man, with hard, dry, round, matter-of-fact features, that never looked young, and yet somehow never get old. Indeed, barring the change from brown to grey of his short stubbly whiskers, which he trained with great care into a curve almost on to his cheek-bone, he looked very little older at the period of which we are writing than he did a dozen years before, when he was Lord Hardup. These dozen years, however, had brought him down in his doings.

The dinners had gradually dwindled away altogether, and he had had all the large tablecloths and napkins rough dried and locked away against he got married; an event that he seemed more anxious to provide for the more unlikely it became. He had also abdicated the main body of the mansion, and taken up his quarters in what used to be the steward's room; into which he could creep quietly by a side door opening from the outer entrance, and so save frequent exposure to the cold and damp of the large cathedral-like hall beyond. Through the steward's room was what used to be the muniment room, which he converted into a bedroom for himself; and a little farther along the passage was another small chamber, made out of what used to be the plate-room, whereof Jack, or whoever was in office, had the possession. All three rooms were furnished in the roughest, coarsest, homeliest way-his lordship wishing to keep all the good furniture against he got married. The sitting-room, or parlour as his lordship called it, had an old grey drugget for a carpet, an old round black mahogany table on castors, that the last steward had ejected as too bad for him, four semi-circular wooden-bottomed walnut smoking-chairs; an old spindle-shanked sideboard, with very little middle, over which swung a few bookshelves, with the termination of their green strings surmounted by a couple of foxes' brushes. Small as the shelves were, they were larger than his lordship wanted-two books, one for Jack and one for himself, being all they contained; while the other shelves were filled with hunting-horns, odd spurs, knots of whipcord, piles of halfpence, lucifer-match boxes, gun-charges, and such-like miscellaneous articles.

His lordship's fare was as rough as his furniture. He was a great admirer of tripe, cow-heel, and delicacies of that kind; he had tripe twice a week-boiled one day, fried another. He was also a great patron of beefsteaks, which he ate half-raw, with slices of cold onion served in a saucer with water.

It was a beefsteak-and-batter-pudding day on which the foregoing run took place; and his lordship and Jack having satisfied nature off their respective dishes-for they only had vegetables in common-and having finished off with some very strong Cheshire cheese, wheeled their chairs to the fire, while Bags the butler cleared the table and placed it between them. They were dressed in full suits of flaming large-check red-and-yellow tartans, the tartan of that noble clan the 'Stunners,' with black-and-white Shetland hose and red slippers. His lordship and Jack had related their mutual adventures by cross visits to each other's bedrooms while dressing: and, dinner being announced by the time they were ready, they had fallen to, and applied themselves diligently to the victuals, and now very considerately unbuttoned their many-pocketed waistcoats and stuck out their legs, to give it a fair chance of digesting. They seldom spoke much until his lordship had had his nap, which he generally took immediately after dinner; but on this particular night he sat bending forward in his chair, picking his teeth and looking at his toes, evidently ill at ease in his mind. Jack guessed the cause, but didn't say anything. Sponge, he thought, had beat him.

At length his lordship threw himself back in his chair, and stretching his little queer legs out before him, began to breathe thicker and thicker, till at last he got the melody up to a grunt. It was not the fine generous snore of a sleep that he usually enjoyed, but short, fitful, broken naps, that generally terminated in spasmodic jerks of the arms or legs. These grew worse, till at last all four went at once, like the limbs of a Peter Waggey, when, throwing himself forward with a violent effort, he awoke; and finding his horse was not a-top of him, as he thought, he gave vent to his feelings in the following ejaculations:

'Oh, Jack, I'm onhappy!' exclaimed he. 'I'm distressed!' continued he. 'I'm wretched!' added he, slapping his knees. 'I'm perfectly miserable!' he concluded, with a strong emphasis on the 'miserable.'

'What's the matter?' asked Jack, who was half-asleep himself.


'Oh, that Mister Something!-he'll be the death of me!' observed his lordship.

'I thought so,' replied Jack; 'what's the chap been after now?'

'I dreamt he'd killed old Lablache-best

hound I have,' replied his lordship.

'He be --,' grunted Jack.

'Ah, it's all very well for you to say "he be this" and "he be that," but I can tell you what, that fellow is going to be a very awkward customer-a terrible thorn in my side.'

'Humph!' grunted Jack, who didn't see how.

'There's mischief about that fellow,' continued his lordship, pouring himself out half a tumbler of gin, and filling it up with water. 'There's mischief about the fellow. I don't like his looks-I don't like his coat-I don't like his boots-I don't like anything about him. I'd rather see the back of him than the front. He must be got rid of,' added his lordship.

'Well, I did my best to-day, I'm sure,' replied Jack. 'I was deuced near wanting the patent coffin you were so good as to promise me.'

'You did your work well,' replied his lordship; 'you did your work well; and you shall have my other specs till I can get you a new pair from town; and if you'll serve me again, I'll remember you in my will-I'll leave you something handsome.'

'I'm your man,' replied Jack.

'I never was so bothered with a fellow in my life,' observed his lordship. 'Captain Topsawyer was bad enough, and always pressed far too close on the hounds, but he would pull up at a check; but this rusty-booted 'bomination seems to think the hounds are kept for him to ride over. He must be got rid of somehow,' repeated his lordship; 'for we shall have no peace while he's here.'

'If he's after either of the Jawley girls, he'll be bad to shake off,' observed Jack.

'That's just the point,' replied his lordship, quaffing off his gin with the air of a man most thoroughly thirsty; 'that's just the point,' repeated he, setting down his tumbler. 'I think if he is, I could cook his goose for him.'

'How so?' asked Jack, drinking off his glass.

'Why, I'll tell you,' replied his lordship, replenishing his tumbler, and passing the old gilt-labelled blue bottle over to Jack; 'you see, Frosty's a cunning old file, picks up all the news and gossip of the country when he's out at exercise with the hounds, or in going to cover-knows everything!-who licks his wife, and whose wife licks him-who's after such a girl, and so on-and he's found out somehow that this Mr. What's-his-name isn't the man of metal he's passing for.'

'Indeed,' exclaimed Jack, raising his eyebrows, and squinting his eyes inside out; Jack's opinion of a man being entirely regulated by his purse.

'It's a fact,' said his lordship, with a knowing shake of his head. 'As we were toddling home with the hounds, I said to Frosty, "I hope that Mr. Something's comfortable in his bath"-meaning Gobblecow Bog, which he rode into. "Why," said Frosty, "it's no great odds what comes of such rubbage as that." Now, Frosty, you know, in a general way, is a most polite, fair-spoken man, specially before Christmas, when he begins to look for the tips; and as we are not much troubled with strangers, thanks to your sensible way of handling them, I thought Frosty would have made the most of this natural son of Dives, and been as polite to him as possible. However, he was evidently no favourite of Frosty's. So I just asked-not that one likes to be familiar with servants, you know, but still this brown-booted beggar is enough to excite one's curiosity and make any one go out of one's way a little-so I just asked Frosty what he knew about him. "All over the left," said Frosty, jerking his thumb back over his shoulder, and looking as knowing as a goose with one eye; "all over the left," repeated he. "What's over the left?" said I. "Why, this Mr. Sponge," said he. "How so?" asked I. "Why," said Frosty, "he's come gammonin' down here that he's a great man-full of money, and horses, and so on; but it's all my eye, he's no more a great man than I am."'

'The deuce!' exclaimed Jack, who had sat squinting and listening intently as his lordship proceeded. 'Well, now, hang me, I thought he was a snob the moment I saw him,' continued he; Jack being one of those clever gentlemen who know everything after they are told.

'"Well, how do you know, Jack?" said I to Frosty. "Oh, I knows," replied he, as if he was certain about it. However, I wasn't satisfied without knowing too; and, as we kept jogging on, we came to the old Coach and Horses, and I said to Jack, "We may as well have a drop of something to warm us." So we halted, and had glasses of brandy apiece, whips and all; and then, as we jogged on again, I just said to Jack casually, "Did you say it was Mr. Blossomnose told you about old Brown Boots?" "No-Blossomnose-no," replied he, as if Blossom never had anything half so good to tell; "it was a young woman," said he, in an undertone, "who told me, and she had it from old Brown Boots's groom."'

'Well, that's good,' observed Jack, diving his hands into the very bottom of his great tartan trouser pockets, and shooting his legs out before him; 'well, that's good,' repeated he, falling into a sort of reverie.

'Well, but what can we make of it?' at length inquired he, after a long pause, during which he ran the facts through his mind, and thought they could not be much ruder to Sponge than they had been. 'What can we make of it?' said he. 'The fellow can ride, and we can't prevent him hunting; and his having nothing only makes him less careful of his neck.'

'Why, that was just what I thought,' replied Lord Scamperdale, taking another tumbler of gin; 'that was just what I thought-the fellow can ride, and we can't prevent him; and just as I settled that in my sleep, I thought I saw him come staring along, with his great brown horse's head in the air, and crash right a-top of old Lablache. But I see my way clearer with him now. But help yourself,' continued his lordship, passing the gin-bottle over to Jack, feeling that what he had to say required a little recommendation. 'I think I can turn Frosty's information to some account.'

'I don't see how,' observed Jack, replenishing his glass.

'I do, though,' replied his lordship, adding, 'but I must have your assistance.'

'Well, anything in moderation,' replied Jack, who had had to turn his hand to some very queer jobs occasionally.

'I'll tell you what I think,' observed his lordship. 'I think there are two ways of getting rid of this haughty Philistine-this unclean spirit-this 'bomination of a man. I think, in the first place, if old Chatterbox knew that he had nothing, he would very soon bow him out of Jawleyford Court; and in the second, that we might get rid of him by buying his horses.'

'Well,' replied Jack, 'I don't know but you're right. Chatterbox would soon wash his hands of him, as he has done of many promising young gentlemen before, if he has nothing; but people differ so in their ideas of what nothing consists of.'

Jack spoke feelingly, for he was a gentleman who was generally spoken of as having nothing a year, paid quarterly; and yet he was in the enjoyment of an annuity of sixty pounds.

'Oh, why, when I say he has nothing,' replied Lord Scamperdale, 'I mean that he has not what Jawleyford, who is a bumptious sort of an ass, would consider sufficient to make him a fit match for one of his daughters. He may have a few hundreds a year, but Jaw, I'm sure, will look at nothing under thousands.'

'Oh, certainly not,' said Jack, 'there's no doubt about that.'

'Well, then, you see, I was thinking,' observed Lord Scamperdale, eyeing Jack's countenance, 'that if you would dine there to-morrow, as we fixed-'

'Oh, dash it! I couldn't do that,' interrupted Jack, drawing himself together in his chair like a horse refusing a leap; 'I couldn't do that-I couldn't dine with Jaw, not at no price.'

'Why not?' asked Lord Scamperdale; 'he'll give you a good dinner-fricassees, and all sorts of good things; far finer fare than you have here.'

'That may all be,' replied Jack, 'but I don't want none of his food. I hate the sight of the fellow, and detest him fresh every time I see him. Consider, too, you said you'd let me off if I sarved out Sponge; and I'm sure I did my best. I led him over some awful places, and then what a ducking I got! My ears are full of water still,' added he, laying his head on one side to try to run it out.

'You did well,' observed Lord Scamperdale-'you did well, and I fully intended to let you off, but then I didn't know what a beggar I had to deal with. Come, say you'll go, that's a good fellow.'

'Couldn't,' replied Jack, squinting frightfully.

'You'll oblige me,' observed Lord Scamperdale.

'Ah, well, I'd do anything to oblige your lordship,' replied Jack, thinking of the corner in the will. 'I'd do anything to oblige your lordship: but the fact is, sir, I'm not prepared to go. I've lost my specs-I've got no swell clothes-I can't go in the Stunner tartan,' added he, eyeing his backgammon-board-looking chest, and diving his hands into the capacious pockets of his shooting-jacket.

'I'll manage all that,' replied his lordship; 'I've got a pair of splendid silver-mounted spectacles in the Indian cabinet in the drawing-room, that I've kept to be married in. I'll lend them to you, and there's no saying but you may captivate Miss Jawleyford in them. Then as to clothes, there's my new damson-coloured velvet waistcoat with the steel buttons, and my fine blue coat with the velvet collar, silk facings, and our button on it; altogether I'll rig you out and make you such a swell as there's no saying but Miss Jawleyford'll offer to you, by way of consoling herself for the loss of Sponge.'

'I'm afraid you'll have to make a settlement for me, then,' observed our friend.

'Well, you are a good fellow. Jack,' said his lordship, 'and I'd as soon make one on you as on any one.'

'I s'pose you'll send me on wheels?' observed Jack.

'In course,' replied his lordship. 'Dog-cart-name behind-Right Honourable the Earl of Scamperdale-lad with cockade-everything genteel'; adding, 'by Jove, they'll take you for me!'

Having settled all these matters, and arranged how the information was to be communicated to Jawleyford, the friends at length took their block-tin candlesticks, with their cauliflower-headed candles, and retired to bed.

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