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   Chapter 33 A SWELL HUNTSMAN

Mr. Sponge's Sporting Tour By Robert Smith Surtees Characters: 14598

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


One evening the rattle of Puff's pole-chains brought, in addition to the usual rush of shirt-sleeved helpers, an extremely smart, dapper little man, who might be either a jockey or a gentleman, or both, or neither. He was a clean-shaved, close-trimmed, spruce little fellow; remarkably natty about the legs-indeed, all over. His close-napped hat was carefully brushed, and what little hair appeared below its slightly curved brim was of the pepper-and-salt mixture of-say, fifty years. His face, though somewhat wrinkled and weather-beaten, was bright and healthy; and there was a twinkle about his little grey eyes that spoke of quickness and watchful observation. Altogether, he was a very quick-looking little man-a sort of man that would know what you were going to say before you had well broke ground. He wore no gills; and his neatly tied starcher had a white ground with small black spots, about the size of currants. The slight interregnum between it and his step-collared striped vest (blue stripe on a canary-coloured ground) showed three golden foxes' heads, acting as studs to his well-washed, neatly plaited shirt; while a sort of careless turn back of the right cuff showed similar ornaments at his wrists. His single-breasted, cutaway coat was Oxford mixture, with a thin cord binding, and very natty light kerseymere mother-o'-pearl buttoned breeches, met a pair of bright, beautifully fitting, rose-tinted tops, that wrinkled most elegantly down to the Jersey-patterned spur. He was a remarkably well got up little man, and looked the horseman all over.

As he emerged from the stable, where he had been mastering the ins and outs of the establishment, learning what was allowed and what was not, what had not been found fault with and, therefore, might be presumed upon, and so on, he carried the smart dogskin leather glove of one hand in the other, while the fox's head of a massive silver-mounted jockey-whip peered from under his arm. On a ring round the fox's neck was the following inscription: 'FROM JACK BRAGG TO HIS COUSIN DICK.'

Mr. Puffington having drawn up his mail-phaeton, and thrown the ribbons to the active grooms at the horses' heads in the true coaching style, proceeded to descend from his throne, and had reached the ground ere he was aware of the presence of a stranger. Seeing him then, he made the sort of half-obeisance of a man that does not know whether he is addressing a gentleman or a servant, or, maybe, a scamp, going about with a prospectus. Puff had been bit in the matter of some maps in London, and was wary, as all people ought to be, of these birds.

The stranger came sidling up with a half-bow, half-touch of the hat, drawling out:

''Sceuuse me, sir-'sceuuse me, sir,' with another half-bow and another half-touch of the hat. 'I'm Mister Bragg, sir-Mister Richard Bragg, sir; of whom you have most likely heard.'

'Bragg-Richard Bragg,' repeated our friend, thoughtfully, while he scanned the man's features, and ran his sporting acquaintance through his mind's eye.

'Bragg, Bragg,' repeated he, without hitting him off.

'I was huntsman, sir, to my Lord Reynard, sir,' observed the stranger, with a touch of the hat to each 'sir.' 'Thought p'r'aps you might have known his ludship, sir. Before him, sir, I held office, sir, under the Duke of Downeybird, sir, of Downeybird Castle, sir, in Downeybirdshire, sir.'

'Indeed!' replied Mr. Puffington, with a half-bow and a smile of politeness.

'Hearing, sir, you had taken these Mangeysterne dogs, sir,' continued the stranger, with rather a significant emphasis on the word 'dogs'-'hearing, sir, you had taken these Mangeysterne dogs, sir, it occurred to me that possibly I might be useful to you, sir, in your new calling, sir; and if you were of the same opinion, sir, why, sir, I should be glad to negotiate a connexion, sir.'

'Hem!-hem!-hem!' coughed Mr. Puffington. 'In the way of a huntsman do you mean?' afraid to talk of servitude to so fine a gentleman.

'Just so,' said Mr. Bragg, with a chuck of his head, 'just so. The fact is, though I'm used to the grass countries, sir, and could go to the Marquis of Maneylies, sir, to-morrow, sir, I should prefer a quiet place in a somewhat inferior country, sir, to a five-days-a-week one in the best. Five and six days a week, sir, is a terrible tax, sir, on the constitution, sir; and though, sir, I'm thankful to say, sir, I've pretty good 'ealth, sir, yet, sir, you know, sir, it don't do, sir, to take too great liberties with oneself, sir'; Mr. Bragg sawing away at his hat as he spoke, measuring off a touch, as it were, to each 'sir,' the action becoming quick towards the end.

'Why, to tell you the truth,' said Puff, looking rather sheepish, 'to tell you the truth-I intended-I thought at least of-of-of-hunting them myself.'

'Ah! that's another pair of shoes altogether, as we say in France,' replied Bragg, with a low bow and a copious round of the hand to the hat. 'That's another pair of shoes altogether,' repeated he, tapping his boot with his whip.

'Why, I thought of it,' rejoined Puff, not feeling quite sure whether he could or not.

'Well,' said Mr. Bragg, drawing on his dogskin glove as if to be off.

'My friend Swellcove does it,' observed Puff.

'True,' replied Bragg, 'true; but my Lord Swellcove is one of a thousand. See how many have failed for one that has succeeded. Why, even my Lord Scamperdale was 'bliged to give it up, and no man rides harder than my Lord Scamperdale-always goes as if he had a spare neck in his pocket. But he couldn't 'unt a pack of 'ounds. Your gen'l'men 'untsmen are all very well on fine scentin' days when everything goes smoothly and well, and the 'ounds are tied to their fox, as it were; but see them in difficulties-a failing scent, 'ounds pressed upon by the field, fox chased by a dog, storm in the air, big brook to get over to make a cast. Oh, sir, sir, it makes even me, with all my acknowledged science and experience, shudder to think of the ordeal one undergoes!'

'Indeed,' exclaimed Mr. Puffington, staring, and beginning to think it mightn't be quite so easy as it looked.

'I don't wish, sir, to dissuade you, sir, from the attempt, sir,' continued Mr. Bragg; 'far from it, sir-for he, sir, who never makes an effort, sir, never risks a failure, sir, and in great attempts, sir, 'tis glorious to fail, sir'; Mr. Bragg sawing away at his hat as he spoke, and then sticking the fox-head handle of his whip under his chin.

Puff stood mute for some seconds.

'My Lord Scamperdale,' continued Mr. Bragg, scrutinizing our friend attentively, 'was as likely a man, sir, as ever I see'd, sir, to make an 'untsman, for he had a deal of ret (rat) ketchin' cunnin' about him, and, as I said before, didn't care one dim for his neck, but a more signal disastrous failure was never recognized. It was quite lamentable to witness his proceeding.'

'How?' asked Mr. Puffington.

'How, sir?' repeated Mr. Bragg; 'why, sir, in all wayses. He had no dog language, to begin with-he had little idea of making a cast-no science, no judgement, no manner-no nothin'-I'm dim'd if ever I see'd sich a mess as he made.'

Puff looked unutterable things.

'He never did no good, in fact, till I fit him with Frostyface. I taught Fro

sty,' continued Mr. Bragg. 'He whipped in to me when I 'unted the Duke of Downeybird's 'ounds-nice, 'cute, civil chap he was-of all my pupils-and I've made some first-rate 'untsmen, I'm dim'd if I don't think Frostyface does me about as much credit as any on 'em. Ah, sir,' continued Mr. Bragg, with a shake of his head, 'take my word for it, sir, there's nothin' like a professional. S-c-e-u-s-e me, sir,' added he, with a low bow and a sort of military salute of his hat; 'but dim all gen'l'men 'untsmen, say I.'

Mr. Bragg had talked himself into several good places. Lord Reynard's and the Duke of Downeybird's among others. He had never been able to keep any beyond his third season, his sauce or his science being always greater than the sport he showed. Still he kept up appearances, and was nothing daunted, it being a maxim of his that 'as one door closed another opened.'

Mr. Puffington's was the door that now opened for him.

What greater humiliation can a free-born Briton be subjected to than paying a man eighty or a hundred pounds a year, and finding him house, coals, and candles, and perhaps a cow, to be his master?

Such was the case with poor Mr. Puffington, and such, we grieve to say, is the case with nine-tenths of the men who keep hounds; with all, indeed, save those who can hunt themselves, or who are blest with an aspiring whip, ready to step into the huntsman's boots if he seems inclined to put them off in the field. How many portly butlers are kept in subjection by having a footman ready to supplant them. Of all cards in the servitude pack, however, the huntsman's is the most difficult one to play. A man may say, 'I'm dim'd if I won't clean my own boots or my own horse, before I'll put up with such a fellow's impudence'; but when it comes to hunting his own hounds, it is quite another pair of shoes, as Mr. Bragg would say.

Mr. Bragg regularly took possession of poor Puff; as regularly as a policeman takes possession of a prisoner. The reader knows the sort of feeling one has when a lawyer, a doctor, an architect, or any one whom we have called in to assist, takes the initiative, and treats one as a nonentity, pooh-poohing all one's pet ideas, and upsetting all one's well-considered arrangements.

Bragg soon saw he had a greenhorn to deal with, and treated Puff accordingly. If a 'perfect servant' is only to be got out of the establishments of the great, Mr. Bragg might be looked upon as a paragon of perfection, and now combined in his own person all the bad practices of all the places he had been in. Having 'accepted Mr. Puffington's situation,' as the elegant phraseology of servitude goes, he considered that Mr. Puffington had nothing more to do with the hounds, and that any interference in 'his department' was a piece of impertinence. Puffington felt like a man who has bought a good horse, but which he finds on riding is rather more of a horse than he likes. He had no doubt that Bragg was a good man, but he thought he was rather more of a gentleman than he required. On the other hand, Mr. Bragg's opinion of his master may be gleaned from the following letter which he wrote to his successor, Mr. Brick, at Lord Reynard's:

'HANBY HOUSE, SWILLINGFORD.

'DEAR BRICK,

'If your old man is done daffling with your draft, I should like to have the pick of it. I'm with one Mr. Puffington, a city gent. His father was a great confectioner in the Poultry, just by the Mansion House, and made his money out of Lord Mares. I shall only stay with him till I can get myself suited in the rank of life in which I have been accustomed to move; but in the meantime I consider it necessary for my own credit to do things as they should be. You know my sort of hound; good shoulders, deep chests, strong loins, straight legs, round feet, with plenty of bone all over. I hate a weedy animal; a small hound, light of bone, is only fit to hunt a kat in a kitchen.

'I shall also want a couple of whips-not fellows like waiters from Crawley's hotel, but light, active men, not boys. I'll have nothin' to do with boys; every boy requires a man to look arter him. No; a couple of short, light, active men-say from five-and-twenty to thirty, with bow-legs and good cheery voices, as nearly of the same make as you can find them. I shall not give them large wage, you know; but they will have opportunities of improving themselves under me, and qualifying themselves for high places. But mind, they must be steady-I'll keep no unsteady servants; the first act of drunkenness, with me, is the last.

'I shall also want a second horseman; and here I wouldn't mind a mute boy who could keep his elbows down and never touch the curb; but he must be bred in the line; a huntsman's second horseman is a critical article, and the sporting world must not be put in mourning for Dick Bragg. The lad will have to clean my boots, and wait at table when I have company-yourself, for instance.

'This is only a poor, rough, ungentlemanly sort of shire, as far as I have seen it; and however they got on with the things I found that they called hounds I can't for the life of me imagine. I understand they went stringing over the country like a flock of wild geese. However, I have rectified that in a manner by knocking all the fast 'uns and slow 'uns on the head; and I shall require at least twenty couple before I can take the field. In your official report of what your old file puts back, you'll have the kindness to cobble us up good long pedigrees, and carry half of them at least back to the Beaufort Justice. My man has got a crochet into his head about that hound, and I'm dimmed if he doesn't think half the hounds in England are descended from the Beaufort Justice. These hounds are at present called the Mangeysternes, a very proper title, I should say, from all I've seen and heard. That, however, must be changed; and we must have a button struck, instead of the plain pewter plates the men have been in the habit of hunting in.

'As to horses, I'm sure I don't know what we are to do in that line. Our pastrycook seems to think that a hunter, like one of his pa's pies, can be made and baked in a day. He talks of going over to Rowdedow Fair, and picking some up himself; but I should say a gentleman demeans himself sadly who interferes with the just prerogative of the groom. It has never been allowed I know in any place I have lived; nor do I think servants do justice to themselves or their order who submit to it. Howsomever the crittur has what Mr. Cobden would call the "raw material" for sport-that is to say, plenty of money-and I must see and apply it in such a way as will produce it. I'll do the thing as it should be, or not at all.

'I hope your good lady is well-also all the little Bricks. I purpose making a little tower of some of the best kennels as soon as the drafts are arranged, and will spend a day or two with you, and see how you get on without me. Dear Brick,

'Yours to the far end,

'RICHARD BRAGG.

'To benjamin brick, Esq.,

'Huntsman to the Right Hon. the Earl of Reynard,

'Turkeypout Park.

'P.S.-I hope your old man keeps a cleaner tongue in his head than he did when I was premier. I always say there was a good bargeman spoiled when they made him a lord.

'R.B.'

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