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Mr. Sponge's Sporting Tour By Robert Smith Surtees Characters: 23364

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

'Lord Scamperdale's foxhounds meet on Monday at Larkhall Hill,' &c. &c.-County Paper.

The Flat Hat Hunt had relapsed into its wonted quiet, and 'Larkhall Hill' saw none but the regular attendants, men without the slightest particle of curve in their hats-hats, indeed, that looked as if the owners sat upon them when they hadn't them on their heads. There was Fyle, and Fossick, and Blossomnose, and Sparks, and Joyce, and Capon, and Dribble, and a few others, but neither Washball nor Puffington, nor any of the holiday birds.


Precisely at ten, my lord, and his hounds, and his huntsman, and his whips, and his Jack, trotted round Farmer Springwheat's spacious back premises, and appeared in due form before the green rails in front. 'Pride attends us all,' as the poet says; and if his lordship had ridden into the yard, and halloaed out for a glass of home-brewed, Springwheat would have trapped every fox on his farm, and the blooming Mrs. Springwheat would have had an interminable poultry-bill against the hunt; whereas, simply by 'making things pleasant'-that is to say, coming to breakfast-Springwheat saw his corn trampled on, nay, led the way over it himself, and Mrs. Springwheat saw her Dorkings disappear without a murmur-unless, indeed, an inquiry when his lordship would be coming could be considered in that light.

Larkhall Hill stood in the centre of a circle, on a gentle eminence, commanding a view over a farm whose fertile fields and well-trimmed fences sufficiently indicated its boundaries, and looked indeed as if all the good of the country had come up to it. It was green and luxuriant even in winter, while the strong cane-coloured stubbles showed what a crop there had been. Turnips as big as cheeses swelled above the ground. In a little narrow dell, whose existence was more plainly indicated from the house by several healthy spindling larches shooting up from among the green gorse, was the cover-an almost certain find, with the almost equal certainty of a run from it. It occupied both sides of the sandy, rabbit-frequented dell, through which ran a sparkling stream, and it possessed the great advantage to foot-people of letting them see the fox found. Larkhall Hill was, therefore, a favourite both with horse and foot. So much good-at all events, so much well-farmed land would seem to justify a better or more imposing-looking house, the present one consisting, exclusive of the projecting garret ones in the Dutch tile roof, of the usual four windows and a door, that so well tell their own tale; passage in the middle, staircase in front, parlour on the right, best ditto on the left, with rooms to correspond above. To be sure, there was a great depth of house to the back; but this in no way contributed to the importance of the front, from which point alone the Springwheats chose to have it contemplated. If the back arrangements could have been divided, and added to the sides, they would have made two very good wings to the old red brick rose-entwined mansion. Having mentioned that its colour was red, it is almost superfluous to add that the door and rails were green.

This was a busy morning at Larkhall Hill. It was the first day of the season of my lord's hounds meeting there, and the handsome Mrs. Springwheat had had as much trouble in overhauling the china and linen, and in dressing the children, preparatory to breakfast, as Springwheat had had in collecting knives and forks, and wine-glasses and tumblers for his department of the entertainment, to say nothing of looking after his new tops and cords. 'The Hill,' as the country people call it, was 'full fig'; and a bright, balmy winter's day softened the atmosphere, and felt as though a summer's day had been shaken out of its place into winter. It is not often that the English climate is accommodating enough to lend its aid to set off a place to advantage.

Be that, however, as it may, things looked smiling both without and within. Mrs. Springwheat, by dint of early rising and superintendence, had got things into such a state of forwardness as to be able to adorn herself with a little jaunty cap-curious in microscopic punctures and cherry-coloured ribbon interlardments-placed so far back on her finely-shaped head as to proclaim beyond all possibility of cavil that it was there for ornament, and not for the purpose of concealing the liberties of time with her well-kept, clearly parted, raven-black hair. Liberties of time, forsooth! Mrs. Springwheat was in the heighday of womanhood; and though she had presented Springwheat with twins three times in succession, besides an eldest son, she was as young, fresh-looking, and finely figured as she was the day she was married. She was now dressed in a very fine French grey merino, with a very small crochet-work collar, and, of course, capacious muslin sleeves. The high flounces to her dress set off her smart waist to great advantage.

Mrs. Springwheat had got everything ready, and herself too, by the time Lord Scamperdale's second horseman rode into the yard and demanded a stall for his horse. Knowing how soon the balloon follows the pilot, she immediately ranged the Stunner-tartan-clad children in the breakfast-room; and as the first whip's rate sounded as he rode round the corner, she sank into an easy-chair by the fire, with a lace-fringed kerchief in the one hand and the Mark Lane Express in the other.

'Halloa! Springey!' followed by the heavy crack of a whip, announced the arrival of his lordship before the green palings; and a loud view halloa burst from Jack, as the object of inquiry was seen dancing about the open-windowed room above, with his face all flushed with the exertion of pulling on a very tight boot.

'Come in, my lord! pray, come in! The missis is below!' exclaimed Springwheat, from the window; and just at the moment the pad-groom emerged from the house, and ran to his lordship's horse's head.

His lordship and Jack then dismounted, and gave their hacks in charge of the servant; while Wake, and Fyle, and Archer, who were also of the party, scanned the countenances of the surrounding idlers, to see in whose hands they had best confide their nags.

In Lord Scamperdale stamped, followed by his train-band bold, and Maria, the maid, being duly stationed in the passage, threw open the parlour door on the left, and discovered Mrs. Springwheat sitting in attitude.

'Well, my lady, and how are you?' exclaimed his lordship, advancing gaily, and seizing both her pretty hands as she rose to receive him. 'I declare, you look younger and prettier every time I see you.'

'Oh! my lord,' simpered Mrs. Springwheat, 'you gentlemen are always so complimentary.'

'Not a bit of it!' exclaimed his lordship, eyeing her intently through his silver spectacles, for he had been obliged to let Jack have the other pair of tortoiseshell-rimmed ones. 'Not a bit of it,' repeated his lordship. 'I always tell Jack you are the handsomest woman in Christendom; don't I, Jack?' inquired his lordship, appealing to his factotum.

'Yes, my lord,' replied Jack, who always swore to whatever his lordship said.

'By Jove!' continued his lordship, with a stamp of his foot, 'if I could find such a woman I'd marry her to-morrow. Not such women as you to pick up every day. And what a lot of pretty pups!' exclaimed his lordship, starting back, pretending to be struck with the row of staring, black-haired, black-eyed, half-frightened children. 'Now, that's what I call a good entry,' continued his lordship, scrutinizing them attentively, and pointing them out to Jack; 'all dogs-all boys I mean!' added he.

'No, my lord,' replied Mrs. Springwheat, laughing, 'these are girls,' laying her hand on the heads of two of them, who were now full giggle at the idea of being taken for boys.

'Well, they're devilish handsome, anyhow,' replied his lordship, thinking he might as well be done with the inspection.

Springwheat himself now made his appearance, as fine a sample of a man as his wife was of a woman. His face was flushed with the exertion of pulling on his tight boots, and his lordship felt the creases the hooks had left as he shook him by the hand.

'Well, Springey,' said he, 'I was just asking your wife after the new babby.'

'Oh, thank you, my lord,' replied Springey, with a shake of his curly head; 'thank you, my lord; no new babbies, my lord, with wheat below forty, my lord.'

'Well, but you've got a pair of new boots, at all events,' observed his lordship, eyeing Springwheat's refractory calves bagging over the tops of them.

''Deed have I!' replied Springwheat; 'and a pair of uncommon awkward tight customers they are,' added he, trying to move his feet about in them.

'Ah! you should always have a chap to wear your boots a few times before you put them on yourself,' observed his lordship. 'I never have a pair of tight uns,' added he; 'Jack here always does the needful by mine.'

'That's all very well for lords,' replied Mr. Springwheat; 'but us farmers wear out our boots fast enough ourselves, without anybody to help us.'

'Well, but I s'pose we may as well fall to,' observed his lordship, casting his eye upon the well-garnished table. 'All these good things are meant to eat, I s'pose,' added he: 'cakes, and sweets, and jellies without end: and as to your sideboard,' said he, turning round and looking at it, 'it's a match for any Lord Mayor's. A round of beef, a ham, a tongue, and is that a goose or a turkey?'

'A turkey, my lord,' replied Springwheat; 'home-fed, my lord.'

'Ah, home-fed, indeed!' ejaculated his lordship, with a shake of the head: 'home-fed: wish I could feed at home. The man who said that

E'en from the peasant to the lord,

The turkey smokes on every board,

told a big un, for I'm sure none ever smokes on mine.'

'Take a little here to-day, then,' observed Mr. Springwheat, cutting deep into the white breast.

'I will,' replied his lordship, 'I will: and a slice of tongue, too,' added he.

'There are some hot sausingers comin',' observed Mr. Springwheat.

'You don't say so,' replied his lordship, apparently thunderstruck at the announcement. 'Well, I must have all three. By Jove, Jack!' said he, appealing to his friend, 'but you've lit on your legs coming here. Here's a breakfast fit to set before the Queen-muffins, and crumpets, and cakes. Let me advise you to make the best use of your time, for you have but twenty minutes,' continued his lordship, looking at his watch, 'and muffins and crumpets don't come in your way every day.'

''Deed they don't,' replied Jack, with a grin.

'Will your lordship take tea or coffee?' asked Mrs. Springwheat, who had now taken her seat at the top of the table, behind a richly chased equipage for the distribution of those beverages.

''Pon my word,' replied his lordship, apparently bewildered-''pon my word, I don't know what to say. Tea or coffee? To tell you the truth, I was going to take something out of my black friend yonder,' nodding to where a French bottle like a tall bully was lifting its head above an encircling stand of liqueur-glasses.

'Suppose you have a little of what we call laced tea, my lord-tea with a dash of brandy in it?' suggested Mr. Springwheat.

'Laced tea,' repeated his lordship; 'laced tea: so I will,' said he. 'Deuced good idea-deuced good idea,' continued he, bringing the bottle and seating himself on Mrs. Springwheat's right, while his host helped him to a most plentiful plate of turkey and tongue. The table was now about full, as was the room; the guests just rolling in as they would to a public-house, a

nd helping themselves to whatever they liked. Great was the noise of eating.

As his lordship was in the full enjoyment of his plateful of meat, he happened to look up, and, the space between him and the window being clear, he saw something that caused him to drop his knife and fork and fall back in his chair as if he was shot.

'My lord's ill!' exclaimed Mr. Springwheat, who, being the only man with his nose up, was the first to perceive it.

'Clap him on the back!' shrieked Mrs. Springwheat, who considered that an infallible recipe for the ailments of children.

'Oh, Mr. Spraggon!' exclaimed both, as they rushed to his assistance, 'what is the matter with my lord?'

'Oh, that Mister something!' gasped his lordship, bending forward in his chair, and venturing another glance through the window.

Sure enough, there was Sponge, in the act of dismounting from the piebald, and resigning it with becoming dignity to his trusty groom, Mr. Leather, who stood most respectfully-Parvo in hand-waiting to receive it.

Mr. Sponge, being of opinion that a red coat is a passport everywhere, having stamped the mud sparks off his boots at the door, swaggered in with the greatest coolness, exclaiming as he bobbed his head to the lady, and looked round at the company:

'What, grubbing away! grubbing away, eh?'

'Won't you take a little refreshment?' asked Mr. Springwheat, in the hearty way these hospitable fellows welcome everybody.

'Yes, I will,' replied Sponge, turning to the sideboard as though it were an inn. 'That's a monstrous fine ham,' observed he; 'why doesn't somebody cut it?'

'Let me help you to some, sir,' replied Mr. Springwheat, seizing the buck-handled knife and fork, and diving deep into the rich red meat with the knife.

Mr. Sponge having got two bountiful slices, with a knotch of home-made brown bread, and some mustard on his plate, now made for the table, and elbowed himself into a place between Mr. Fossick and Sparks, immediately opposite Mr. Spraggon.

'Good morning,' said he to that worthy, as he saw the whites of his eyes showing through his spectacles.

'Mornin',' muttered Jack, as if his mouth was either too full to articulate, or he didn't want to have anything to say to Mr. Sponge.

'Here's a fine hunting morning, my lord,' observed Sponge, addressing himself to his lordship, who sat on Jack's left.

'Here's a very fine hunting morning, my lord,' repeated Sponge, not getting an answer to his first assertion.

'Is it?' blurted his lordship, pretending to be desperately busy with the contents of his plate, though in reality his appetite was gone.

A dead pause now ensued, interrupted only by the clattering of knives and forks, and the occasional exclamations of parties in want of some particular article of food. A chill had come over the scene-a chill whose cause was apparent to every one, except the worthy host and hostess, who had not heard of Mr. Sponge's descent upon the country. They attributed it to his lordship's indisposition, and Mr. Springwheat endeavoured to cheer him up with the prospect of sport.

'There's a brace, if not a leash, of foxes in cover, my lord,' observed he, seeing his lordship was only playing with the contents of his plate.

'Is there?' exclaimed his lordship, brightening up: 'let's be at 'em!' added he, jumping up and diving under the side-table for his flat hat and heavy iron hammer-headed whip. 'Good morning, my dear Mrs. Springwheat,' exclaimed he, putting on his hat and seizing both her soft fat-fingered hands and squeezing them ardently. 'Good morning, my dear Mrs. Springwheat,' repeated he, adding, 'By Jove! if ever there was an angel in petticoats, you're her; I'd give a hundred pounds for such a wife as you! I'd give a thousand pounds for such a wife as you! By the powers! I'd give five thousand pounds for such a wife as you!' With which asseverations his lordship stamped away in his great clumsy boots, amidst the ill-suppressed laughter of the party.

'No hurry, gentlemen-no hurry,' observed Mr. Springwheat, as some of the keen ones were preparing to follow, and began sorting their hats, and making the mistakes incident to their being all the same shape. 'No hurry, sir-no hurry, sir,' repeated Springwheat, addressing Mr. Sponge specifically; 'his lordship will have a talk to his hounds yet, and his horse is still in the stable.'

With this assurance Mr. Sponge resumed his seat at the table, where several of the hungry ones were plying their knives and forks as if they were indeed breaking their fasts.

'Well, old boy, and how are you?' asked Sponge, as the whites of Jack's eyes again settled upon him, on the latter's looking up from his plateful of sausages.

'Nicely. How are you?' asked Jack.

'Nicely too,' replied Sponge, in the laconic way men speak who have been engaged in some common enterprise-getting drunk, pelting people with rotten eggs, or anything of that sort.

'Jaw and the ladies well?' asked Jack, in the same strain.

'Oh, nicely,' said Sponge.

'Take a glass of cherry-brandy,' exclaimed the hospitable Mr. Springwheat: 'nothing like a drop of something for steadying the nerves.'

'Presently,' replied Sponge, 'presently; meanwhile I'll trouble the missis for a cup of coffee. Coffee without sugar,' said Sponge, addressing the lady.

'With pleasure,' replied Mrs. Springwheat, glad to get a little custom for her goods. Most of the gentlemen had been at the bottles and sideboard.

Springwheat, seeing Mr. Sponge, the only person who, as a stranger, there was any occasion for him to attend to, in the care of his wife, now slipped out of the room, and mounting his five-year-old horse, whose tail stuck out like the long horn of a coach, as his ploughman groom said, rode off to join the hunt.

'By the powers, but those are capital sarsingers!' observed Jack, smacking his lips and eating away for hard life. 'Just look if my lord's on his horse yet,' added he to one of the children, who had begun to hover round the table and dive their fingers into the sweets.

'No,' replied the child; 'he's still on foot, playing with the dogs.'

'Here goes, then,' said Jack, 'for another plate,' suiting the action to the word, and running with his plate to the sausage-dish.

'Have a hot one,' exclaimed Mrs. Springwheat, adding, 'it will be done in a minute.'

'No, thank ye,' replied Jack, with a shake of the head, adding, 'I might be done in a minute too.'

'He'll wait for you, I suppose?' observed Sponge, addressing Jack.

'Not so clear about that,' replied Jack, gobbling away; 'time and my lord wait for no man. But it's hardly the half-hour yet,' added he, looking at his watch.

He then fell to with the voracity of a hound after hunting. Sponge, too, made the most of his time, as did two or three others who still remained.

'Now for the jumping-powder!' at length exclaimed Sponge, looking round for the bottle. 'What shall it be, cherry or neat?' continued he, pointing to the two. 'Cherry for me,' replied Jack, squinting and eating away without looking up.

'I say neat,' rejoined Sponge, helping himself out of the French bottle.

'You'll be hard to hold after that,' observed Jack, as he eyed Sponge tossing it off.

'I hope my horse won't,' replied Sponge, remembering he was going to ride the resolute chestnut.

'You'll show us the way, I dare say,' observed Jack.

'Shouldn't wonder,' replied Sponge, helping himself to a second glass.

'What! at it again!' exclaimed Jack, adding, 'Take care you don't ride over my lord.'

'I'll take care of the old file,' said Sponge; 'it wouldn't do to kill the goose that lays the golden what-do-ye-call-'ems, you know-he, he, he!'

'No,' chuckled Jack;' 'deed it wouldn't-must make the most of him.'

'What sort of a humour is he in to-day?' asked Sponge.

'Middlin',' replied Jack, 'middlin'; he'll abuse you most likely, but that you mustn't mind.'

'Not I,' replied Sponge, who was used to that sort of thing.

'You mustn't mind me either,' observed Jack, sweeping the last piece of sausage into his mouth with his knife, and jumping up from the table. 'When his lordship rows I row,' added he, diving under the side-table for his flat hat.

'Hark! there's the horn!' exclaimed Sponge, rushing to the window.

'So there is,' responded Jack, standing transfixed on one leg to the spot.

'By the powers, they're away!' exclaimed Sponge, as his lordship was seen hat in hand careering over the meadow, beyond the cover, with the tail hounds straining to overtake their flying comrades. Twang-twang-twang went Frostyface's horn; crack-crack-crack went the ponderous thongs of the whips; shouts, and yells, and yelps, and whoops, and halloas, proclaimed the usual wild excitement of this privileged period of the chase. All was joy save among the gourmands assembled at the door-they looked blank indeed.

'What a sell!' exclaimed Sponge, in disgust, who, with Jack, saw the hopelessness of the case.

'Yonder he goes!' exclaimed a lad, who had run up from the cover to see the hunt from the rising ground.

'Where?' exclaimed Sponge, straining his eyeballs.

'There!' said the lad, pointing due south. 'D'ye see Tommy Claychop's pasture? Now he's through the hedge and into Mrs. Starveland's turnip field, making right for Bramblebrake Wood on the hill.'

'So he is,' said Sponge, who now caught sight of the fox emerging from the turnips on to a grass field beyond.

Jack stood staring through his great spectacles, without deigning a word.

'What shall we do?' asked Sponge.

'Do?' replied Jack, with his chin still up; 'go home, I should think.'

'There's a man down!' exclaimed a groom, who formed one of the group, as a dark-coated rider and horse measured their length on a pasture.

'It's Mr. Sparks,' said another, adding, 'he's always rolling about.'

'Lor', look at the parson!' exclaimed a third, as Blossomnose was seen gathering his horse and setting up his shoulders preparatory to riding at a gate.

'Well done, old 'un!' roared a fourth, as the horse flew over it, apparently without an effort.

'Now for Tom!' cried several, as the second whip went galloping up on the line of the gate.

'Ah! he won't have it!' was the cry, as the horse suddenly stopped short, nearly shooting Tom over his head. 'Try him again-try him again-take a good run-that's him-there, he's over!' was the cry, as Tom flourished his arm in the air on landing.

'Look! there's old Tommy Baker, the rat-ketcher!' cried another, as a man went working his arms and legs on an old white pony across a fallow.

'Ah, Tommy! Tommy! you'd better shut up,' observed another: 'a pig could go as fast as that.'

And so they criticized the laggers.

'How did my lord get his horse?' asked Spraggon of the groom who had brought them on, who now joined the eye-straining group at the door.

'It was taken down to him at the cover,' replied the man. 'My lord went in on foot, and the horse went round the back way. The horse wasn't there half a minute before he was wanted; for no sooner were the hounds in at one end than out popped the fox at t'other. Sich a whopper!-biggest fox that ever was seen.'

'They are all the biggest foxes that ever were seen,' snapped Mr. Sponge. 'I'll be bound he was not a bit bigger than common.'

'I'll be bound not, either,' growled Mr. Spraggon, squinting frightfully at the man, adding, 'go, get me my hack, and don't be talking nonsense there.'

Our friends then remounted their hacks and parted company in very moderate humours, feeling fully satisfied that his lordship had done it on purpose.

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