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   Chapter 29 THE CROSS-ROADS AT DALLINGTON BURN

Mr. Sponge's Sporting Tour By Robert Smith Surtees Characters: 16426

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


hen his lordship and Jack mounted their hacks in the morning to go to the cross-roads at Dallington Burn, it was so dark that they could not see whether they were on bays or browns. It was a dull, murky day, with heavy spongy clouds overhead.

There had been a great deal of rain in the night, and the horses poached and squashed as they went. Our sportsmen, however, were prepared as well for what had fallen as for what might come; for they were encased in enormously thick boots, with baggy overalls, and coats and waistcoats of the stoutest and most abundant order. They had each a sack of a mackintosh strapped on to their saddle fronts. Thus they went blobbing and groping their way along, varying the monotony of the journey by an occasional spurt of muddy water up into their faces, or the more nerve-trying noise of a floundering stumble over a heap of stones by the roadside. The country people stared with astonishment as they passed, and the muggers and tinkers, who were withdrawing their horses from the farmers' fields, stood trembling, lest they might be the 'pollis' coming after them.

'I think it'll be a fine day,' observed his lordship, after they had bumped for some time in silence without its getting much lighter. 'I think it will be a fine day,' he said, taking his chin out of his great puddingy-spotted neckcloth, and turning his spectacled face up to the clouds.

'The want of light is its chief fault,' observed Jack, adding, 'it's deuced dark!'

'Ah, it'll get better of that,' observed his lordship. 'It's not much after eight yet,' he added, staring at his watch, and with difficulty making out that it was half-past. 'Days take off terribly about this time of year,' he observed; 'I've seen about Christmas when it has never been rightly light all day long.'

They then floundered on again for some time further as before.

'Shouldn't wonder if we have a large field,' at length observed Jack, bringing his hack alongside his lordship's.

'Shouldn't wonder if Puff himself was to come-all over brooches and rings as usual,' replied his lordship.

'And Charley Slapp, I'll be bund to say,' observed Jack. 'He a regular hanger-on of Puff's.'

'Ass, that Slapp,' said his lordship; 'hate the sight of him!'

'So do I,' replied Jack, adding, 'hate a hanger-on!'

'There are the hounds,' said his lordship, as they now approached Culverton Dean, and a line of something white was discernible travelling the zig-zagging road on the opposite side.

'Are they, think you?' replied Jack, staring through his great spectacles; 'are they, think you? It looks to me more like a flock of sheep.'

'I believe you're right,' said his lordship, staring too; 'indeed, I hear the dog. The hounds, however, can't be far ahead.'

They then drew into single file to take the broken horse-track through the steep woody dean.

'This is the longest sixteen miles I know,' observed Jack, as they emerged from it, and overtook the sheep.

'It is,' replied his lordship, spurring his hack, who was now beginning to lag: 'the fact is, it's eighteen,' he continued; 'only if I was to tell Frosty it was eighteen, he would want to lay overnight, and that wouldn't do. Besides the trouble and inconvenience, it would spoil the best part of a five-pund note; and five-pund notes don't grow upon gooseberry-bushes-at least, not in my garden.'

'Rather scarce in all gardens just now, I think,' observed Jack; 'at least, I never hear of anybody with one to spare.'

'Money's like snow,' said his lordship, 'a very meltable article; and talking of snow,' he said, looking up at the heavy clouds, 'I wish we mayn't be going to have some-I don't like the look of things overhead.'

'Heavy,' replied Jack; 'heavy: however, it's due about now.'

'Due or not due,' said his lordship, 'it's a thing one never wishes to come; anybody may have my share of snow that likes-frost too.'

The road, or rather track, now passed over Blobbington Moor, and our friends had enough to do to keep their horses out of peat-holes and bogs, without indulging in conversation. At length they cleared the moor, and, pulling out a gap at the corner of the inclosures, cut across a few fields, and got on to the Stumpington turnpike.

'The hounds are here,' said Jack, after studying the muddy road for some time.

'They'll not be there long,' replied his lordship, 'for Grabtintoll Gate isn't far ahead, and we don't waste our substance on pikes.'

His lordship was right. The imprints soon diverged up a muddy lane on the right, and our sportsmen now got into a road so deep and bottomless as to put the idea of stones quite out of the question.

'Hang the road!' exclaimed his lordship, as his hack nearly came on his nose, 'hang the road!' repeated he, adding, 'if Puff wasn't such an ass, I really think I'd give him up the cross-road country.'

'It's bad to get at from us,' observed Jack, who didn't like such trashing distances.

'Ah! but it's a rare good country when you get to it,' replied his lordship, shortening his rein and spurring his steed.

The lane being at length cleared, the road became more practicable, passing over large pastures where a horseman could choose his own ground, instead of being bound by the narrow limits of the law. But though the road improved, the day did not; a thick fog coming drifting up from the south-east in aid of the general obscurity of the scene.

'The day's gettin' wuss,' observed Jack, snuffling and staring about.

'It'll blow over,' replied his lordship, who was not easily disheartened. 'It'll blow over,' repeated he, adding, 'often rare scents such days as these. But we must put on,' continued he, looking at his watch, 'for it's half-past, and we are a mile or more off yet.' So saying, he clapped spurs to his hack and shot away at a canter, followed by Jack at a long-drawn 'hammer and pincers' trot.

A hunt is something like an Assize circuit, where certain great guns show everywhere, and smaller men drop in here and there, snatching a day or a brief, as the case may be. Sergeant Bluff and Sergeant Huff rustle and wrangle in every court, while Mr. Meeke and Mr. Sneeke enjoy their frights on the forensic arenas of their respective towns, on behalf of simple neighbours, who look upon them as thorough Solomons. So with hunts. Certain men who seem to have been sent into the world for the express purpose of hunting, arrive at every meet, far and near, with a punctuality that is truly surprising, and rarely associated with pleasure.

If you listen to their conversation, it is generally a dissertation on the previous day's sport, with inquiries as to the nearest way to cover the next. Sometimes it is seasoned with censure of some other pack they have been seeing. These men are mounted and appointed in a manner that shows what a perfect profession hunting is with them. Of course, they come cantering to cover, lest any one should suppose they ride their horses on.

The 'Cross-roads' was like two hunts or two circuits joining, for it generally drew the picked men from each, to say nothing of outriggers and chance customers. The regular attendants of either hunt were sufficiently distinguishable as well by the flat hats and baggy garments of the one, as by the dandified, Jemmy Jessamy air of the other. If a lord had not been at the head of the Flat Hats, the Puffington men would have considered them insufferable snobs. But to our day.

As usual, where hounds have to travel a long distance, the field were assembled before they arrived. Almost all the cantering gentlemen had cast up.

One cross-road meet being so much like another, it will not be worth while describing the one at Dallington Burn. The reader will have the kindness to imagine a couple of roads crossing an open common, with an armless sign-post on one side, and a rubble-stone bridge, with several of the coping-stones lying in the shallow stream below, on the other.

The country round about, if any country could have been seen, would have shown wild, open, and cheerless. Here a patch of wood, there a patch of heath, but its general aspect bare and unfruitful. The commanding outline of Beechwood Forest wa

s not visible for the weather. Time now, let us suppose, half-past ten, with a full muster of horsemen and a fog making unwonted dulness of the scene-the old sign-pole being the most conspicuous object of the whole.

Hark! what a clamour there is about it. It's like a betting-post at Newmarket. How loud the people talk! What's the news? Queen Anne dead, or is there another French Revolution, or a fixed duty on corn? Reader, Mr. Puffington's hounds have had a run, and the Flat Hat men are disputing it.

'Nothing of the sort! nothing of the sort!' exclaims Fossick, 'I know every yard of the country, and you can't make more nor eight of it anyhow, if eight.'

'Well, but I've measured it on the map,' replied the speaker (Charley Slapp himself), 'and it's thirteen, if it's a yard.'

'Then the country's grown bigger since my day,' rejoins Fossick, 'for I was dropped at Stubgrove, which is within a mile of where you found, and I've walked, and I've ridden, and I've driven every yard of the distance, and you can't make it more than eight, if it's as much. Can you, Capon?' exclaimed Fossick, appealing to another of the 'flat brims,' whose luminous face now shone through the fog.

'No,' replied Capon, adding, 'not so much, I should say.'

Just then up trotted Frostyface with the hounds.

'Good morning, Frosty! good morning!' exclaim half-a-dozen voices, that it would be difficult to appropriate from the denseness of the fog. Frosty and the whips make a general salute with their caps.

'Well, Frosty, I suppose you've heard what a run we had yesterday?' exclaims Charley Slapp, as soon as Frosty and the hounds are settled.

'Had they, sir-had they?' replies Frosty, with a slight touch of his cap and a sneer. 'Glad to hear it, sir-glad to hear it. Hope they killed, sir-hope they killed!' with a still slighter touch of the cap.

'Killed, aye!-killed in the open just below Crabstone Green, in your country,' adding, 'It was one of your foxes, I believe.'

'Glad of it, sir-glad of it, sir,' replies Frosty. 'They wanted blood sadly-they wanted blood sadly. Quite welcome to one of our foxes, sir-quite welcome. That's a brace and a 'alf they've killed.'

'Brace and a ha-r-r-f!' drawls Slapp, in well-feigned disgust; 'brace and a ha-r-r-f!-why, it makes them ten brace, and six run to ground.'

'Oh, don't tell me,' retorts Frosty, with a shake of disgust; 'don't tell me. I knows better-I knows better. They'd only killed a brace since they began hunting up to yesterday. The rest were all cubs, poor things!-all cubs, poor things! Mr. Puffington's hounds are not the sort of animals to kill foxes: nasty, skirtin', flashy, jealous divils; always starin' about for holloas and assistance. I'll be d--d if I'd give eighteenpence for the 'ole lot on 'em.'

A loud guffaw from the Flat Hat men greeted this wholesale condemnation. The Puffington men looked unutterable things, and there is no saying what disagreeable comparisons might have been instituted (for the Puffingtonians mustered strong) had not his lordship and Jack cast up at the moment. Hats off and politeness was then the order of the day.

'Mornin',' said his lordship, with a snatch of his hat in return, as he pulled up and stared into the cloud-enveloped crowd; 'Mornin', Fyle; mornin', Fossick,' he continued, as he distinguished those worthies, as much by their hats as anything else. 'Where are the horses?' he said to Frostyface.

JACK FROSTY AND CHARLEY SLAPP

'Just beyond there, my lord,' replied the huntsman, pointing with his whip to where a cockaded servant was 'to-and-froing' a couple of hunters-a brown and a chestnut.

'Let's be doing,' said his lordship, trotting up to them and throwing himself off his hack like a sack. Having divested himself of his muddy overalls, he mounted the brown, a splendid sixteen-hands horse in tip-top condition, and again made for the field in all the pride of masterly equestrianism. A momentary gleam of sunshine shot o'er the scene; a jerk of the head acted as a signal to throw off, and away they all moved from the meet.

Thorneybush Gorse was a large eight-acre cover, formed partly of gorse and partly of stunted blackthorn, with here and there a sprinkling of Scotch firs. His lordship paid two pounds a year for it, having vainly tried to get it for thirty shillings, which was about the actual value of the land, but the proprietor claimed a little compensation for the trampling of horses about it; moreover, the Puffington men would have taken it at two pounds. It was a sure find, and the hounds dashed into it with a scent.

The field ranged themselves at the accustomed corner, both hunts full of their previous day's run. Frostyface's 'Yoicks, wind him!' 'Yoicks, push him up!' was drowned in a medley of voices.

A loud, clear, shrill 'TALLY-HO, AWAY!' from the far side of the cover caused all tongues to stop, and all hands to drop on the reins. Great was the excitement! Each hunt was determined to take the shine out of the other.

'Twang, twang, twang!' 'Tweet, tweet, tweet!' went his lordship's and Frostyface's horns, as they came bounding over the gorse to the spot, with the eager pack rushing at their horses' heels. Then as the hounds crossed the line of scent, there was such an outburst of melody in cover, and such gathering of reins and thrusting on of hats outside! The hounds dashed out of cover as if somebody was kicking them. A man in scarlet was seen flying through the fog, producing the usual hold-hardings. 'Hold hard, sir!' 'God bless you, hold hard, sir!' with inquiries as to 'who the chap was that was going to catch the fox.'

'It's Lumpleg!' exclaimed one of the Flat Hat men.

'No, it's not!' roared a Puffingtonite; 'Lumpleg's here.'

'Then it's Charley Slapp; he's always doing it,' rejoined the first speaker. 'Most jealous man in the world.'

'Is he!' exclaimed Slapp, cantering past at his ease on a thoroughbred grey, as if he could well afford to dispense with a start.

Reader! it was neither Lumpleg nor Slapp, nor any of the Puffington snobs, or Flat Hat swells, or Puffington swells, or Flat Hat snobs. It was our old friend Sponge; Monsieur Tonson again! Having arrived late, he had posted himself, unseen, by the cover side, and the fox had broke close to him. Unfortunately, he had headed him back, and a pretty kettle of fish was the result. Not only had he headed him back, but the resolute chestnut, having taken it into his head to run away, had snatched the bit between his teeth; and carried him to the far side of a field ere Sponge managed to man?uvre him round on a very liberal semi-circle, and face the now flying sportsmen, who came hurrying on through the mist like a charge of yeomanry after a salute. All was excitement, hurry-scurry, and horse-hugging, with the usual spurring, elbowing, and exertion to get into places, Mr. Fossick considering he had as much right to be before Mr. Fyle as Mr. Fyle had to be before old Capon.

It apparently being all the same to the chestnut which way he went so long as he had his run, he now bore Sponge back as quickly as he had carried him away, and with yawning mouth, and head in the air, he dashed right at the coming horsemen, charging Lord Scamperdale full tilt as he was in the act of returning his horn to its case. Great was the collision! His lordship flew one way, his horse another, his hat a third, his whip a fourth, his spectacles a fifth; in fact, he was scattered all over. In an instant he lay the centre of a circle, kicking on his back like a lively turtle.

'Oh! I'm kilt!' he roared, striking out as if he was swimming, or rather floating. 'I'm kilt!' he repeated. 'He's broken my back-he's broken my legs-he's broken my ribs-he's broken my collar-bone-he's knocked my right eye into the heel of my left boot. Oh! will nobody catch him and kill him? Will nobody do for him? Will you see an English nobleman knocked about like a ninepin?' added his lordship, scrambling up to go in pursuit of Mr. Sponge himself, exclaiming, as he stood shaking his fist at him, 'Rot ye, sir! hangin's too good for ye! you should be condemned to hunt in Berwickshire the rest of your life!'

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