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Mr. Sponge's Sporting Tour By Robert Smith Surtees Characters: 13437

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Perhaps it was fortunate that Mr. Bragg did take the kennel management upon himself, or there is no saying but what with that and the house department, coupled with the usual fussiness of a bachelor, the Sponge visit might have proved too much for our master. The notice of the intended visit was short; and there were invitations to send out, and answers to get, bedrooms to prepare, and culinary arrangements to make-arrangements that people in town, with all their tradespeople at their elbows, can have no idea of the difficulty of effecting in the country. Mr. Puffington was fully employed.

In addition to the parties mentioned as asked in his note to Lord Scamperdale, viz. Washball, Charley Slapp, and Lumpleg, were Parson Blossomnose; Mr. Fossick of the Flat Hat Hunt, who declined-Mr. Crane of Crane Hall; Captain Guano, late of that noble corps the Spotted Horse Marines; and others who accepted. Mr. Spraggon was a sort of volunteer, at all events an undesired guest, unless his lordship accompanied him. It so happened that the least wanted guest was the first to arrive on the all-important day.

Lord Scamperdale, knowing our friend Jack was not over affluent, had no idea of spoiling him by too much luxury, and as the railway would serve a certain distance in the line of Hanby House, he despatched Jack to the Over-shoes-over-boots station with the dog-cart, and told him he would be sure to find a 'bus, or to get some sort of conveyance at the Squandercash station to take him up to Puffington's; at all events, his lordship added to himself, 'If he doesn't, it'll do him no harm to walk, and he can easily get a boy to carry his bag.'

The latter was the case; for though the station-master assured Jack, on his arrival at Squandercash, that there was a 'bus, or a mail gig, or a something to every other train, there was nothing in connexion with the one that brought him, nor would he undertake to leave his carpet-bag at Hanby House before breakfast-time the next morning.


Jack was highly enraged, and proceeded to squint his eyes inside out, and abuse all railways, and chairmen, and directors, and secretaries, and clerks, and porters, vowing that railways were the greatest nuisances under the sun-that they were a perfect impediment instead of a facility to travelling-and declared that formerly a gentleman had nothing to do but order his four horses, and have them turned out at every stage as he came up, instead of being stopped in the ridicklous manner he then was; and he strutted and stamped about the station as if he would put a stop to the whole line. His vehemence and big talk operated favourably on the Cockney station-master, who, thinking he must be a duke, or some great man, began to consider how to get him forwarded. It being only a thinly populated district-though there was a station equal to any mercantile emergency, indeed to the requirements of the whole county-he ran the resources of the immediate neighbourhood through his mind, and at length was obliged to admit-humbly and respectfully-that he really was afraid Martha Muggins's donkey was the only available article.

Jack fumed and bounced at the very mention of such a thing, vowing that it was a downright insult to propose it; and he was so bumptious that the station-master, who had nothing to gain by the transaction, sought the privacy of the electric telegraph office, and left him to vent the balance of his wrath upon the porters.

Of course they could do nothing more than the king of their little colony had suggested; and finding there was no help for it, Mr. Spraggon at last submitted to the humiliation, and set off to follow young Muggins with his bag on the donkey, in his best top-boots, worn under his trousers-an unpleasant operation to any one, but especially to a man like Jack, who preferred wearing his tops out against the flaps of his friends' saddles, rather than his soles by walking upon them. However, necessity said yes; and cocking his flat hat jauntily on his head, he stuck a cheroot in his mouth, and went smoking and swaggering on, looking-or rather squinting-bumptiously at everybody he met, as much as to say, 'Don't suppose I'm walking from necessity! I've plenty of tin.'

The third cheroot brought Jack and his suite within sight of Hanby House.

Mr. Puffington had about got through all the fuss of his preparations, arranged the billets of the guests and of those scarcely less important personages-their servants, allotted the stables, and rehearsed the wines, when a chance glance through the gaily furnished drawing-room window discovered Jack trudging up the trimly kept avenue.

'Here's that nasty Spraggon,' exclaimed he, eyeing Jack dragging his legs along, adding, 'I'll be bound to say he'll never think of wiping his filthy feet if I don't go to meet him.'

So saying, Puffington rushed to the entrance, and crowning himself with a white wide-awake, advanced cheerily to do so.

Jack, who was more used to 'cold shoulder' than cordial reception, squinted and stared with surprise at the unwonted warmth, so different to their last interview, when Jack was fresh out of his clay-hole in the Brick Fields; but not being easily put out of his way, he just took Puff as Puff took him. They talked of Scamperdale, and they talked of Frostyface, and the number of foxes he had killed, the price of corn, and the difference its price made in the keep of hounds and horses. Altogether they were very 'thick.'

'And how's our friend Sponge?' asked Puffington, as the conversation at length began to flag.

'Oh, he's nicely,' replied Jack, adding, 'hasn't he come yet?'

'Not that I've seen,' answered Puffington, adding, 'I thought, perhaps, you might come together.'

'No,' grunted Jack; 'he comes from Jawleyford's, you know; I'm from Woodmansterne.'

'We'll go and see if he's come,' observed Puffington, opening a door in the garden-wall, into which he had man?uvred Jack, communicating with the courtyard of the stable.

'Here are his horses,' observed Puffington, as Mr. Leather rode through the great gates on the opposite side, with the renowned hunters in full marching order.

'Monstrous fine animals they are,' said Jack, squinting intently at them.

'They are that,' replied Puffington.

'Mr. Sponge seems a very pleasant, gentlemanly man,' observed Mr. Puffington.

'Oh, he is,' replied Jack.

'Can you tell me-can you inform me-that's to say, can you give me any idea,' hesitated Puffington, 'what is the usual practice-the usual course-the usual understanding as to the treatment of those sort of gentlemen?'

'Oh, the best of everything's good enough for them,'

replied Jack, adding, 'just as it is with me.'

'Ah, I don't mean in the way of eating and drinking, but in the way of encouragement-in the way of a present, you know?' adding-'What did my lord do?' seeing Jack was slow at comprehension.

'Oh, my lord bad-worded him well,' replied Jack, adding, 'he didn't get much encouragement from him.'

'Ah, that's the worst of my lord,' observed Puffington; 'he's rather coarse-rather too indifferent to public opinion. In a case of this sort, you know, that doesn't happen every day, or, perhaps, more than once in a man's life, it's just as well to be favourably spoken of as not, you know'; adding, as he looked intently at Jack-'Do you understand me?'

Jack, who was tolerably quick at a chance, now began to see how things were, and to fathom Mr. Puffington's mistake. His ready imagination immediately saw there might be something made of it, so he prepared to keep up the delusion.

'Wh-o-o-y!' said he, straddling out his legs, clasping his hands together, and squinting steadily through his spectacles, to try and see, by Puffington's countenance, how much he would stand. 'W-h-o-o-y!' repeated he, 'I shouldn't think-though, mind, it's mere conjectur' on my part-that you couldn't offer him less than-twenty or five-and-twenty punds; or, say, from that to thirty,' continued Jack, seeing that Puff's countenance remained complacent under the rise.

'And that you think would be sufficient?' asked Puff, adding-'If one does the thing at all, you know, it's as well to do it handsomely.'

'True,' replied Jack, sticking out his great thick lips, 'true. I'm a great advocate for doing things handsomely. Many a row I have with my lord for thanking fellows, and saying he'll remember them instead of giving them sixpence or a shilling; but really I should say, if you were to give him forty or fifty pund-say a fifty-pund note, he'd be-'

The rest of the sentence was lost by the appearance of Mr. Sponge, cantering up the avenue on the conspicuous piebald. Mr. Puffington and Mr. Spraggon greeted him as he alighted at the door.

Sponge was quickly followed by Tom Washball; then came Charley Slapp and Lumpleg, and Captain Guano came in a gig. Mutual bows and bobs and shakes of the hand being exchanged, amid offers of 'anything before dinner' from the host, the guests were at length shown to their respective apartments, from which in due time they emerged, looking like so many bridegrooms.

First came the worthy master of the hounds himself, in his scarlet dress-coat, lined with white satin; Tom Washball, and Charley Slapp also sported Puff's uniform; while Captain Guano, who was proud of his leg, sported the uniform of the Muffington Hunt-a pea-green coat lined with yellow, and a yellow collar, white shorts with gold garters, and black silk stockings.

Spraggon had been obliged to put up with Lord Scamperdale's second best coat, his lordship having taken the best one himself; but it was passable enough by candle light, and the seediness of the blue cloth was relieved by a velvet collar and a new set of the Flat Hat Hunt buttons. Mr. Sponge wore a plain scarlet with a crimson velvet collar, and a bright fox on the frosted ground of a gilt button, with tights as before; and when Mr. Crane arrived he was found to be attired in a dress composed partly of Mr. Puffington's and partly of the Muggeridge Hunt uniform-the red coat of the former surmounting the white shorts and black stockings of the other. Altogether, however, they were uncommonly smart, and it is to be hoped that they appreciated each other.

The dinner was sumptuous. Puff, of course, was in the chair; and Captain Guano coming last into the room, and being very fond of office, was vice. When men run to the 'noble science' of gastronomy, they generally outstrip the ladies in the art of dinner-giving, for they admit of no makeweight, or merely ornamental dishes, but concentrate the cook's energies on sterling and approved dishes. Everything men set on is meant to be eaten. Above all, men are not too fine to have the plate-warmer in the room, the deficiency of hot plates proving fatal to many a fine feast. It was evident that Puff prided himself on his table. His linen was the finest and whitest, his glass the most elegant and transparent, his plate the brightest, and his wines the most costly and recherché. Like many people, however, who are not much in the habit of dinner-giving, he was anxious and fussy, too intent upon making people comfortable to allow of their being so, and too anxious to get victuals and drink down their throats to allow of their enjoying either.

He not only produced a tremendous assortment of wines-Hock, Sauterne, Champagne, Barsack, Burgundy, but descended into endless varieties of sherries and Madeiras. These he pressed upon people, always insisting that the last sample was the best.

In these hospitable exertions Puffington was ably assisted by Captain Guano, who, being fond of wine, came in for a good quantity; first of all by asking everyone to take wine with him, and then in return every one asking him to do the same with them. The present absurd non-asking system was not then in vogue. The great captain, noisy and talkative at all times, began to be boisterous almost before the cloth was drawn.

Puffington was equally promiscuous with his after-dinner wines. He had all sorts of clarets, and 'curious old ports.' The party did not seem to have any objection to spoil their digestions for the next day, and took whatever he produced with great alacrity. Lengthened were the candle examinations, solemn the sips, and sounding the smacks that preceded the delivery of their Campbell-like judgements.

The conversation, which at first was altogether upon wine, gradually diverged upon sporting, and they presently brewed up a very considerable cry. Foremost among the noisy ones was Captain Guano. He seemed inclined to take the shine out of everybody.

'Oh! if they could but find a good fox that would give them a run of ten miles-say, ten miles-just ten miles would satisfy him-say, from Barnesley Wold to Chingforde Wood, or from Carleburg Clump to Wetherden Head. He was going to ride his famous horse Jack-a-Dandy-the finest horse that ever was foaled! No day too long for him-no pace too great for him-no fence too stiff for him-no brook too broad for him.'

Tom Washball, too, talked as if wearing a red coat was not the only purpose for which he hunted; and altogether they seemed to be an amazing, sporting, hard-riding set.

When at length they rose to go to bed, it struck each man as he followed his neighbour upstairs that the one before him walked very crookedly.

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