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Mr. Sponge's Sporting Tour By Robert Smith Surtees Characters: 18669

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Day dawned cheerfully. If there was rather more sun than the strict rules of Beckford prescribe, still sunshine is not a thing to quarrel with under any circumstances-certainly not for a gentleman to quarrel with who wants his place seen to advantage on the occasion of a meet of hounds. Everything at Hanby House was in apple-pie order. All the stray leaves that the capricious wintry winds still kept raising from unknown quarters, and whisking about the trim lawns, were hunted and caught, while a heavy roller passed over the Kensington gravel, pressing out the hoof and wheelmarks of the previous day. The servants were up betimes, preparing the house for those that were in it, and a déje?ner à la fourchette for chance customers, from without.

They were equally busy at the stable. Although Mr. Bragg did profess such indifference for Mr. Sponge's opinion, he nevertheless thought it might perhaps be as well to be condescending to the stranger. Accordingly, he ordered his whips to be on the alert, to tie their ties and put on their boots as they ought to be, and to hoist their caps becomingly on the appearance of our friend. Bragg, like a good many huntsmen, had a sort of tariff of politeness, that he indicated by the manner in which he saluted the field. To a lord, he made a sweep of his cap like the dome of St. Paul's; a baronet came in for about half as much; a knight, to a quarter. Bragg had also a sort of City or monetary tariff of politeness-a tariff that was oftener called in requisition than the 'Debrett' one, in Mr. Puffington's country. To a good 'tip' he vouchsafed as much cap as he gave to a lord; to a middling 'tip' he gave a sort of move that might either pass for a touch of the cap or a more comfortable adjustment of it to his head; a very small 'tip' had a forefinger to the peak; while he who gave nothing at all got a good stare or a good morning! or something of that sort. A man watching the arrival of the field could see who gave the fives, who the fours, who the threes, who the twos, who the ones, and who were the great o's.

But to our day with Mr. Puffington's hounds.

Our over-night friends were not quite so brisk in the morning as the servants and parties outside. Puffington's 'mixture' told upon a good many of them. Washball had a headache, so had Lumpleg; Crane was seedy; and Captain Guano, sea-green. Soda-water was in great request.

There was a splendid breakfast, table and sideboard looking as if Fortnum and Mason or Morel had opened a branch establishment at Hanby House. Though the staying guests could not do much for the good things set out, they were not wasted, for the place was fairly taken by storm shortly before the advertised hour of meeting; and what at one time looked like a most extravagant supply, at another seemed likely to prove a deficiency. Each man helped himself to whatever he fancied, without waiting for the ceremony of an invitation, in the usual style of fox-hunting hospitality.

A few minutes before eleven, a 'gently, Rantaway,' accompanied by a slight crack of a whip, drew the seedy and satisfied parties to the oriel window, to see Mr. Bragg pass along with his hounds. They were just gliding noiselessly over the green sward, Mr. Bragg rising in his stirrups, as spruce as a game-cock, with his thoroughbred bay gambolling and pawing with delight at the frolic of the hounds, some clustering around him, others shooting forward a little, as if to show how obediently they would return at his whistle. Mr. Bragg was known as the whistling huntsman, and was a great man for telegraphing and signalizing with his arms, boasting that he could make hounds so handy that they could do everything, except pay the turnpike-gates. At his appearance the men all began to shuffle to the passage and entrance-hall, to look for their hats and whips; and presently there was a great outpouring of red coats upon the lawn, all straddling and waddling of course. Then Mr. Bragg, seeing an audience, with a slight whistle and wave of his right arm, wheeled his forces round, and trotted gaily towards where our guests had grouped themselves, within the light iron railing that separated the smooth slope from the field. As he reined in his horse, he gave his cap an aerial sweep, taking off perpendicularly, and finishing at his horse's ears-an example that was immediately followed by the whips, and also by Mr. Bragg's second horseman, Tom Stot.

'Good morning, Mister Bragg! Good morning, Mister Bragg!-Good morning, Mister Bragg!' burst from the assembled spectators: for Mr. Bragg was one of those people that one occasionally meets whom everybody 'Misters.' Mister Bragg, rising in his stirrups with a gracious smile, passed a very polite bow along the line.

'Here's a fine morning, Mr. Bragg,' observed Tom Washball, who thought it knowing to talk to servants.

'Yas, sir,' replied Bragg, 'yas,' with a slight inclination to cap; 'r-a-y-ther more san, p'raps, than desirable,' continued he, raising his face towards the heavens; 'but still by no means a bad day, sir-no, sir-by no means a bad day, sir.'

'Hounds looking well,' observed Charley Slapp between the whiffs of a cigar.

'Yas, sir,' said Bragg, 'yas,' looking around them with a self-satisfied smile; adding, 'so they ought, sir-so they ought; if I can't bring a pack out as they should be, don't know who can.'

'Why, here's our old Rummager, I declare!' exclaimed Spraggon, who, having vaulted the iron hurdles, was now among the pack. 'Why, here's our old Rummager, I declare!' repeated he, laying his whip on the head of a solemn-looking black and white hound, somewhat down in the toes, and looking as if he was about done.

'Sc-e-e-use me, sir,' replied Bragg, leaning over his horse's shoulder, and whispering into Jack's ear; 'sc-e-e-use me, sir, but drop that, sir, if you please, sir.'

'Drop what?' asked Jack, squinting through his great tortoiseshell-rimmed spectacles up into Bragg's face.

''Bout knowing of that 'ound, sir,' whispered Bragg; 'the fact is, sir-we call him Merryman, sir; master don't know I got him from you, sir.'

'O-o-o,' replied Jack, squinting, if possible, more frightfully than before.

'Ah, that's the hound I offered to Scamperdale,' observed Puffington, seeing the movement, and coming up to where Jack stood; 'that's the hound I offered to Scamperdale,' repeated he, taking the old dog's head between his hands. 'There's no better hound in the world than this,' continued he, patting and smoothing him; 'and no better bred hound either,' added he, rubbing the dog's sides with his whip.

'How is he bred?' asked Jack, who knew the hound's pedigree better than he did his own.

'Why, I got him from Reynard-no, I mean from Downeybird-the Duke, you know; but he was bred by Fitzwilliam-by his Singwell out of Darling. Singwell was by the Rutland Rallywood out of Tavistock Rhapsody; but to make a long story short, he's lineally descended from the Beaufort Justice.'

'Indeed!' exclaimed Jack hardly able to contain himself; 'that's undeniable blood.'

'Well, I'm glad to hear you say so,' replied Puffington. 'I'm glad to hear you say so, for you understand these things-no man better; and I confess I've a warm side to that Beaufort Justice blood.'

'Don't wonder at it,' replied Jack, laughing his waistcoat strings off.

'The great Mr. Warde,' continued Mr. Puffington, 'who was justly partial to his own sort, had never any objection to breeding from the Beaufort Justice.'

'No, nor nobody else that knew what he was about,' replied Jack, turning away to conceal his laughter.

'We should be moving, I think, sir,' observed Bragg, anxious to put an end to the conversation; 'we should be moving, I think, sir,' repeated he, with a rap of his forefinger against his cap peak. 'It's past eleven,' added he, looking at his gold watch, and shutting it against his cheek.

'What do you draw first?' asked Jack.

'Draw-draw-draw,' replied Puffington. 'Oh, we'll draw Rabbitborough Gorse-that's a new cover I've inclosed on my pro-o-r-perty.'

'Sc-e-e-use me, sir,' replied Bragg, with a smile, and another rap of the cap: 'sc-e-e-use me, sir, but I'm going to Hollyburn Hanger first.'

'Ah, well, Hollyburn Hanger,' replied Puffington, complacently; 'either will do very well.'

If Puff had proposed Hollyburn Hanger, Bragg would have said Rabbitborough Gorse.

The move of the hounds caused a rush of gentlemen to their horses, and there was the usual scramblings up, and fidgetings, and funkings, and who-o-hayings and drawing of girths, and taking up of curbs, and lengthening and shortening of stirrups.

Captain Guano couldn't get his stirrups to his liking anyhow. ''Ord hang these leathers,' roared he, clutching up a stirrup-iron; 'who the devil would ever have sent one out a-huntin' with a pair of new stirrup-leathers?'

'Hang you and the stirrup leathers,' growled the groom, as his master rode away; 'you're always wantin' sumfin to find fault with. I'm blowed if it arn't a disgrace to an oss to carry such a man,' added he, eyeing the chestnut fidgeting and wincing as the captain worked away at the stirrups.

Mr. Bragg trotted briskly on with the hounds, preceded by Joe Banks the first whip, and having Jack Swipes the second, and Tom Stot, riding toget

her behind him, to keep off the crowd.

Thus the cavalcade swept down the avenue, crossed the Swillingford turnpike, and took through a well-kept field road, which speedily brought them to the cover-rough, broomy, brushwood-covered banks, of about three acres in extent, lying on either side of the little Hollyburn Brook, one of the tiny streams that in angry times helped to swell the Swill into a river.

'Dim all these foot people!' exclaimed Mr. Bragg, in well-feigned disgust, as he came in view, and found all the Swillingford snobs, all the tinkers and tailors, and cobblers and poachers, and sheep-stealers, all the scowling, rotten-fustianed, baggy-pocketed scamps of the country ranged round the cover, some with dogs, some with guns, some with snares, and all with sticks or staffs. 'Well, I'm dimmed if ever I seed sich a-' The rest of the speech being lost amidst the exclamations of: 'Ah! the hunds! the hunds! hoop! tally-o the hunds!' and a general rush of the ruffians to meet them.


Captain Guano, who had now come up, joined in the denunciation, inwardly congratulating himself on the probability that the first cover, at least, would be drawn blank. Tom Washball, who was riding a very troublesome tail-foremost grey, also censured the proceeding.

And Mr. Puffington, still an 'amaaizin' instance of a pop'lar man,' exclaimed, as he rode among them, 'Ah! my good fellows, I'd rather you'd come up and had some ale than disturbed the cover'; a hint that the wily ones immediately took, rushing up to the house, and availing themselves of the absence of the butler, who had followed the hounds, to take a couple of dozen of his best fiddle-handled forks while the footman was drawing them the ale.

The whips being duly signalled by Bragg to their points-Brick to the north corner, Swipes to the south-and the field being at length drawn up to his liking, Mr. Bragg looked at Mr. Puffington for his signal (the only piece of interference he allowed him); at a nod Mr. Bragg gave a wave of his cap, and the pack dashed into cover with a cry.

'Yo-o-icks-wind him! Yo-o-icks-pash him up!' cheered Bragg, standing erect in his stirrups, eyeing the hounds spreading and sniffing about, now this way, now that-now pushing through a thicket, now threading and smelling along a meuse. 'Yo-o-icks-wind him! Yo-o-icks-pash him up!' repeated he, cracking his whip, and moving slowly on. He then varied the entertainment by whistling, in a sharp, shrill key, something like the chirp of a sparrow-hawk.

Thus the hounds rummaged and scrimmaged for some minutes.

'No fox here,' observed Captain Guano, bringing his horse alongside of Mr. Bragg's.

'Not so sure o' that,' replied Mr. Bragg, with a sneer, for he had a great contempt for the captain. 'Not so sure o' that,' replied he, eyeing Thunderer and Galloper feathering up the brook.

'Hang these stirrups!' exclaimed the captain, again attempting to adjust them; adding, 'I declare I have no seat whatever in this saddle.'

'Nor in any other,' muttered Bragg. 'Yo-icks, Galloper! Yo-icks, Thunderer! Ge-e-ntly, Warrior!' continued he, cracking his whip, as Warrior pounced at a bunny.

The hounds were evidently on a scent, hardly strong enough to own, but sufficiently indicated by their feathering, and the rush of their comrades to the spot.

'A fox for a thousand!' exclaimed Mr. Bragg, eyeing them, and looking at his watch.

'Oh, d-mn me! I've got one stirrup longer than another now!' roared Captain Guano, trying the fresh adjustment. 'I've got one stirrup longer than another!' added he in a terrible pucker.

A low snatch of a whimper now proceeded from Galloper, and Bragg cheered him to the echo. In another second a great banging brown fox burst from among the broom, and dashed down the little dean. What noises, what exclamations rent the air! 'Talli-ho! talliho! talliho!' screamed a host of voices, in every variety of intonation, from the half-frantic yell of a party seeing him, down to the shout of a mere partaker of the epidemic. Shouting is very contagious. The horsemen gathered up their reins, pressed down their hats, and threw away their cigar-ends.

''Ord hang it!' roared Captain Guano, still fumbling at the leathers, 'I shall never be able to ride with stirrups in this state.'

'Hang your stirrups!' exclaimed Charley Slapp, shooting past him; adding, 'It was your saddle last time.'

Bragg's queer tootle of his horn, for he was full of strange blows, now sounded at the low end of the cover; and, having a pet line of gaps and other conveniences that he knew how to turn to on the minute, he soon shot so far ahead as to give him the appearance (to the slow 'uns) of having flown. Brick and Swipes quickly had all the hounds after him, and Stot, dropping his elbows, made for the road, to ride the second horse gently on the line. The field, as usual, divided into two parts, the soft riders and the hard ones-the soft riders going by the fields, the hard riders by the road. Messrs. Spraggon, Sponge, Slapp, Quilter, Rasper, Crasher, Smasher, and some half-dozen more, bustled after Bragg; while the worthy master Mr. Puffington, Lumpleg, Washball, Crane, Guano, Shirker, and very many others, came pounding along the lane. There was a good scent, and the hounds shot across the Fleecyhaughwater Meadows, over the hill, to the village of Berrington Roothings, where, the fox having been chased by a cur, the hounds were brought to a check on some very bad scenting-ground, on the common, a little to the left of the village, at the end of a quarter of an hour or so. The road having been handy, the hard riders were there almost as soon as the soft ones; and there being no impediments on the common, they all pushed boldly on among the now stooping hounds.

'Hold hard, gentlemen!' exclaimed Mr. Bragg, rising in his stirrups and telegraphing with his right arm. 'Hold hard!-pray do!' added he, with little better success. 'Dim it, gen'lemen, hold hard!' added he, as they still pressed upon the pack. 'Have a little regard for a huntsman's raputation,' continued he. 'Remember that it rises and falls with the sport he shows'-exhortations that seemed to be pretty well lost upon the field, who began comparing notes as to their respective achievements, enlarging the leaps and magnifying the distance into double what they had been. Puffington and some of the fat ones sat gasping and mopping their brows.

Seeing there was not much chance of the hounds hitting off the scent by themselves, Mr. Bragg began telegraphing with his arm to the whippers-in, much in the manner of the captain of a Thames steamer to the lad at the engine, and forthwith they drove the pack on for our swell huntsman to make his cast. As good luck would have it, Bragg crossed the line of the fox before he had got half-through his circle, and away the hounds dashed, at a pace and with a cry that looked very like killing. Mr. Bragg was in ecstasies, and rode in a manner very contrary to his wont. All again was life, energy, and action; and even some who hoped there was an end of the thing, and that they might go home and say, as usual, 'that they had had a very good run, but not killed,' were induced to proceed.

Away they all went as before.

At the end of eighteen minutes more the hounds ran into their fox in the little green valley below Mountnessing Wood, and Mr. Bragg had him stretched on the green with the pack baying about him, and the horses of the field-riders getting led about by the country people, while the riders stood glorying in the splendour of the thing. All had a direct interest in making it out as good as possible, and Mr. Bragg was quite ready to appropriate as much praise as ever they liked to give.

''Ord dim him,' said he, turning up the fox's grim head with his foot, 'but Mr. Bragg's an awkward customer for gen'lemen of your description.'

'You hunted him well!' exclaimed Charley Slapp, who was trumpeter general of the establishment.

'Oh, sir,' replied Bragg, with a smirk and a condescending bow, 'if Richard Bragg can't kill foxes, I don't know who can.'

Just then 'Puffington and Co.' hove in sight up the valley, their faces beaming with delight as the tableau before them told the tale. They hastened to the spot.

'How many brace is that?' asked Puffington, with the most matter-of-course air, as he trotted up, and reined in his horse outside the circle.

'Seventeen brace, your grace, I mean to say my lord, that's to say sur,' replied Bragg, with a strong emphasis on the sur, as if to say, 'I'm not used to you snobs of commoners.'

'Seventeen brace!' sneered Jack Spraggon to Sponge, adding, in a whisper, 'More like seven foxes.'

'And how many run to ground?' asked Puffington, alighting.

'Four brace,' replied Bragg, stooping to cut off the brush.

We were wrong in saying that Bragg only allowed Puff the privilege of nodding his head to say when he might throw off. He let him lead the 'lie gallop' in the kill department.

Mr. Puffington then presented Mr. Sponge with the brush, and the usual solemnities being observed, the sherry flasks were produced and drained, the biscuits munched, and, amidst the smoke of cigars, the ring broke up in great good-will.

* * *

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