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   Chapter 28 THE FAITHFUL GROOM

Mr. Sponge's Sporting Tour By Robert Smith Surtees Characters: 12141

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


We left our friend Mr. Sponge wending his way home moodily, after having lost his day at Larkhall Hill. Some of our readers will, perhaps, say, why didn't he clap on, and try to catch up the hounds at a check, or at all events rejoin them for an afternoon fox? Gentle reader! Mr. Sponge did not hunt on those terms; he was a front-rank or a 'nowhere' man, and independently of catching hounds up being always a fatiguing and hazardous speculation, especially on a fine-scenting day, the exertion would have taken more out of his horse than would have been desirable for successful display in a second run. Mr. Sponge, therefore, determined to go home.

As he sauntered along, musing on the mishaps of the chase, wondering how Miss Jawleyford would look, and playing himself an occasional tune with his spur against his stirrup, who should come trotting behind him but Mr. Leather on the redoubtable chestnut? Mr. Sponge beckoned him alongside. The horse looked blooming and bright; his eye was clear and cheerful, and there was a sort of springy graceful action that looked like easy going.

One always fancies a horse most with another man on him. We see all his good points without feeling his imperfections-his trippings, or startings, or snatchings, or borings, or roughness of action, and Mr. Sponge proceeded to make a silent estimate of Multum in Parvo's qualities as he trotted gently along on the grassy side of the somewhat wide road.

'By Jove! it's a pity but his lordship had seen him,' thought Sponge, as the emulation of companionship made the horse gradually increase his pace, and steal forward with the lightest, freest action imaginable. 'If he was but all right,' continued Sponge, with a shake of the head, 'he would be worth any money, for he has the strength of a dray-horse, with the symmetry and action of a racer.'

Then Sponge thought he shouldn't have an opportunity of showing the horse till Thursday, for Jack had satisfied him that the next day's meet was quite beyond distance from Jawleyford Court.

'It's a bore,' said he, rising in his stirrups, and tickling the piebald with his spurs, as if he were going to set-to for a race. He thought of having a trial of speed with the chestnut, up a slip of turf they were now approaching; but a sudden thought struck him, and he desisted. 'These horses have done nothing to-day,' he said; 'why shouldn't I send the chestnut on for to-morrow?'

'Do you know where the cross-roads are?' he asked his groom.

'Cross-roads, cross-roads-what cross-roads?' replied Leather.

'Where the hounds meet to-morrow.'

'Oh, the cross-roads at Somethin' Burn,' rejoined Leather thoughtfully-'no, 'deed, I don't,' he added. 'From all 'counts, they seem to be somewhere on the far side of the world.'

That was not a very encouraging answer; and feeling it would require a good deal of persuasion to induce Mr. Leather to go in search of them without clothing and the necessary requirements for his horses, Mr. Sponge went trotting on, in hopes of seeing some place where he might get a sight of the map of the county. So they proceeded in silence, till a sudden turn of the road brought them to the spire and housetops of the little agricultural town of Barleyboll. It differed nothing from the ordinary run of small towns. It had a pond at one end, an inn in the middle, a church at one side, a fashionable milliner from London, a merchant tailor from the same place, and a hardware shop or two where they also sold treacle, Dartford gunpowder, pocket-handkerchiefs, sheep-nets, patent medicines, cheese, blacking, marbles, mole-traps, men's hats, and other miscellaneous articles. It was quite enough of a town, however, to raise a presumption that there would be a map of the county at the inn.

'We'll just put the horses up for a few minutes, I think,' said Sponge, turning into the stable-yard at the end of the Red Lion Hotel and Posting House, adding, 'I want to write a letter, and perhaps,' said he, looking at his watch, 'you may be wanting your dinner.'

Having resigned his horse to his servant, Mr. Sponge walked in, receiving the marked attention usually paid to a red coat. Mine host left his bar, where he was engaged in the usual occupation of drinking with customers for the 'good of the house.' A map of the county, of such liberal dimensions, was speedily produced, as would have terrified any one unaccustomed to distances and scales on which maps are laid down. For instance, Jawleyford Court, as the crow flies, was the same distance from the cross-roads at Dallington Burn as York was from London, in a map of England hanging beside it.

'It's a goodish way,' said Sponge, getting a lighter off the chimney-piece, and measuring the distances. 'From Jawleyford Court to Billingsborough Rise, say seven miles; from Billingsborough Rise to Downington Wharf, other seven; from Downington Wharf to Shapcot, which seems the nearest point, will be-say five or six, perhaps-nineteen or twenty in all. Well, that's my work,' he observed, scratching his head, 'at least, my hack's; and from here, home,' he continued, measuring away as he spoke, 'will be twelve or thirteen. Well, that's nothing,' he said. 'Now for the horse,' he continued, again applying the lighter in a different direction. 'From here to Hardington will be, say, eight miles; from Hardington to Bewley, other five; eight and five are thirteen; and there, I should say, he might sleep. That would leave ten or twelve miles for the morning; nothing for a hack hunter; 'specially such a horse as that, and one that's done nothing for I don't know how long.'

Altogether, Mr. Sponge determined to try it, especially considering that if he didn't get Tuesday, there would be nothing till Thursday; and he was not the man to keep a hack hunter standing idle.

Accordingly he sought Mr. Leather, whom he found busily engaged in the servants' apartment, with a cold round of beef and a foaming flagon of ale before him.

'Leather,' he said, in a tone of authority, 'I'll hunt to-morrow-ride the hors

e I should have ridden to-day.'

'Where at?' asked Leather, diving his fork into a bottle of pickles, and fishing out an onion.

'The cross-roads,' replied Sponge.

'The cross-roads be fifty miles from here!' cried Leather.

'Nonsense!' rejoined Sponge; 'I've just measured the distance. It's nothing of the sort.'

'How far do you make it, then?' asked Leather, tucking in the beef.

'Why, from here to Hardington is about six, and from Hardington to Bewley, four-ten in all,' replied Sponge. 'You can stay at Bewley all night, and then it is but a few miles on in the morning.'

'And whativer am I to do for clothin'?' asked Leather, adding, 'I've nothin' with me-nothin' nouther for oss nor man.'

'Oh, the ostler'll lend you what you want,' replied Sponge, in a tone of determination, adding, 'you can make shift for one night surely?'

'One night surely!' retorted Leather. 'D'ye think an oss can't be ruined in one night?-humph!'

'I'll risk it,' said Sponge.

'But I won't,' replied Leather, blowing the foam from the tankard, and taking a long swig at the ale. 'I thinks I knows my duty to my gov'nor better nor that,' continued he, setting it down. 'I'll not see his waluable 'unters stowed away in pigsties-not I, indeed.'

The fact was, Leather had an invitation to sup with the servants at Jawleyford Court that night, and he was not going to be done out of his engagement, especially as Mr. Sponge only allowed him two shillings a day for expenses wherever he was.

MR. LEATHER AND SPONGE HAVE A DIFFERENCE OF OPINION

'Well, you're a cool hand, anyhow,' observed Mr. Sponge, quite taken by surprise.

'Cool 'and, or not cool 'and,' replied Leather, munching away, 'I'll do my duty to my master. I'm not one o' your coatless, characterless scamps wot 'ang about livery-stables ready to do anything they're bid. No sir, no,' he continued, pronging another onion; 'I have some regard for the hinterest o' my master. I'll do my duty in the station o' life in which I'm placed, and won't be 'fraid to face no man.' So saying, Mr. Leather cut himself a grand circumference of beef.

Mr. Sponge was taken aback, for he had never seen a conscientious livery-stable helper before, and did not believe in the existence of such articles. However, here was Mr. Leather assuming a virtue, whether he had it or not; and Mr. Sponge being in the man's power, of course durst not quarrel with him. It was clear that Leather would not go; and the question was, what should Mr. Sponge do? 'Why shouldn't I go myself?' he thought, shutting his eyes, as if to keep his faculties free from outward distraction. He ran the thing quickly over in his mind. 'What Leather can do, I can do,' he said, remembering that a groom never demeaned himself by working where there was an ostler. 'These things I have on will do quite well for to-morrow, at least among such rough-and-ready dogs as the Flat Hat men, who seem as if they had their clothes pitched on with a fork.'

His mind was quickly made up, and calling for pen, ink, and paper, he wrote a hasty note to Jawleyford, explaining why he would not cast up till the morrow; he then got the chestnut out of the stable, and desiring the ostler to give the note to Leather, and tell him to go home with his hack, he just rode out of the yard without giving Leather the chance of saying 'nay.' He then jogged on at a pace suitable to the accurate measurement of the distance.

The horse seemed to like having Sponge's red coat on better than Leather's brown, and champed his bit, and stepped away quite gaily.

'Confound it!' exclaimed Sponge, laying the rein on its neck, and leaning forward to pat him; 'it's a pity but you were always in this humour-you'd be worth a mint of money if you were.' He then resumed his seat in the saddle, and bethought him how he would show them the way on the morrow. 'If he doesn't beat every horse in the field, it shan't be my fault,' thought he; and thereupon he gave him the slightest possible touch with the spur, and the horse shot away up a strip of grass like an arrow.

'By Jove, but you can go!' said he, pulling up as the grass ran out upon the hard road.

Thus he reached the village of Hardington, which he quickly cleared, and took the well-defined road to Bewley-a road adorned with milestones and set out with a liberal horse-track at either side.

Day had closed ere our friend reached Bewley, but the children returning from school, and the country folks leaving their work, kept assuring him that he was on the right line, till the lights of the town, bursting upon him as he rounded the hill above, showed him the end of his journey.

The best stalls at the head inn-the Bull's Head-were all full, several trusty grooms having arrived with the usual head-stalls and rolls of clothing on their horses, denoting the object of their mission. Most of the horses had been in some hours, and were now standing well littered up with straw, while the grooms were in the tap talking over their masters, discussing the merits of their horses, or arguing whether Lord Scamperdale was mad or not. They had just come to the conclusion that his lordship was mad, but not incapable of taking care of his affairs, when the trampling of Sponge's horse's feet drew them out to see who was coming next. Sponge's red coat at once told his tale, and procured him the usual attention.

Mr. Leather's fear of the want of clothing for the valuable hunter proved wholly groundless, for each groom having come with a plentiful supply for his own horse, all the inn stock was at the service of the stranger. The stable, to be sure, was not quite so good as might be desired, but it was warm and water-tight, and the corn was far from bad. Altogether, Mr. Sponge thought he would do very well, and, having seen to his horse, proceeded to choose between beef-steaks and mutton chops for his own entertainment, and with the aid of the old country paper and some very questionable port, he passed the evening in anticipation of the sports of the morrow.

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