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Mr. Sponge's Sporting Tour By Robert Smith Surtees Characters: 27207

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

he reason Mr. Sponge did not take his departure, after the pretty intelligible hint given by his host, was that, as he was passing his shilling army razor over his soapy chin, he saw a stockingless lad, in a purply coat and faded hunting-cap, making his way up to the house, at a pace that betokened more than ordinary vagrancy. It was the kennel, stable, and servants' hall courier of Nonsuch House, come to say that Sir Harry hunted that day.

Presently Mr. Leather knocked at Mr. Sponge's bedroom door, and, being invited in, announced the fact.

'Sir 'Arry's 'ounds 'unt,' said he, twisting the door handle as he spoke.

'What time?' asked Mr. Sponge, with his half-shaven face turned towards him.

'Meet at eleven,' replied Leather.

'Where?' inquired Mr. Sponge.

'Nonsuch House, 'bout nine miles off.'

It was thirteen, but Mr. Leather heard the malt liquor was good and wanted to taste it.

'Take on the brown, then,' said Mr. Sponge, quite pompously;' and tell Bartholomew to have the hack at the door at ten-or say a quarter to. Tell him, I'll lick him for every minute he's late; and, mind, don't let old Rory O'More here know,' meaning our friend Jog, 'or he may take a fancy to go, and we shall never get there,' alluding to their former excursion.

'No, no,' replied Mr. Leather, leaving the room.

Mr. Sponge then arrayed himself in his hunting costume-scarlet coat, green tie, blue vest, gosling-coloured cords, and brown tops; and was greeted with a round of applause from the little Jogs as he entered the breakfast-room. Gustavus James would handle him; and, considering that his paws were all over raspberry jam, our friend would as soon have dispensed with his attentions. Mrs. Jog was all smiles, and Jog all scowls.

A little after ten our friend, cigar in mouth, was in the saddle. Mrs. Jog, with Gustavus James in her arms, and all the children clustering about, stood in the passage to see him start, and watch the capers and caprioles of the piebald, as he ambled down the avenue.

'Nine miles-nine miles,' muttered Mr. Sponge to himself, as he passed through the Lodge and turned up the Quarryburn road; 'do it in an hour well enough,' said he, sticking spurs into the hack, and cantering away.

Having kept this pace up for about five miles, till he thought from the view he had taken of the map it was about time to be turning, he hailed a blacksmith in his shop, who, next to saddlers, are generally the most intelligent people about hounds, and asked how far it was to Sir Harry's?

'Eight miles,' replied the man, in a minute. 'Impossible!' exclaimed Mr. Sponge. 'It was only nine at starting, and I've come I don't know how many.'

The next person Mr. Sponge met told him it was ten miles; the third, after asking him where he had come from, said he was a stranger in the country, and had never heard of the place; and, what with Mr. Leather's original mis-statement, misdirections from other people, and mistakes of his own, it was more good luck than good management that got Mr. Sponge to Nonsuch House in time.


The fact was, the whole hunt was knocked up in a hurry. Sir Harry, and the choice spirits by whom he was surrounded, had not finished celebrating the triumphs of the Snobston Green day, and as it was not likely that the hounds would be out again soon, the people of the hunting establishment were taking their ease. Watchorn had gone to be entertained at a public supper, given by the poachers and fox-stealers of the village of Bark-shot, as a 'mark of respect for his abilities as a sportsman and his integrity as a man,' meaning his indifference to his master's interests; while the first-whip had gone to visit his aunt, and the groom was away negotiating the exchange of a cow. With things in this state, Wily Tom of Tinklerhatch, a noted fox-stealer in Lord Scamperdale's country, had arrived with a great thundering dog fox, stolen from his lordship's cover near the cross roads at Dallington Burn, which being communicated to our friends about midnight in the smoking-room at Nonsuch House, it was resolved to hunt him forthwith, especially as one of the guests, Mr. Orlando Bugles, of the Surrey Theatre, was obliged to return to town immediately, and, as he sometimes enacted the part of Squire Tallyho, it was thought a little of the reality might correct the Tom and Jerry style in which he did it. Accordingly, orders were issued for a hunt, notwithstanding the hounds were fed and the horses watered. Sir Harry didn't 'care a rap; let them go as fast as they could.'

All these circumstances conspired to make them late; added to which, when Watchorn, the huntsman, cast up, which he did on a higgler's horse, he found the only sound one in his stud had gone to the neighbouring town to get some fiddlers-her ladyship having determined to compliment Mr. Bugles' visit by a quadrille party. Bugles and she were old friends. When Mr. Sponge cast up at half-past eleven, things were still behind-hand.

Sir Harry and party had had a wet night of it, and were all more or less drunk. They had kept up the excitement with a champagne breakfast and various liqueurs, to say nothing of cigars. They were a sad debauched-looking set, some of them scarcely out of their teens, with pallid cheeks, trembling hands, sunken eyes, and all the symptoms of premature decay. Others-the sock-and-buskin ones-were a made-up, wigged, and padded set. Bugles was resplendent. He had on a dress scarlet coat, lined and faced with yellow satin (one of the properties, we believe, of the Victoria), a beautifully worked pink shirt-front, a pitch-plaster coloured waistcoat, white ducks, and jack-boots, with brass heel spurs. He carried his whip in the arm's-length-way of a circus master following a horse. Some dozen of these curiosities were staggering, and swaggering, and smoking in front of Nonsuch House, to the edification of a lot of gaping grooms and chawbacons, when Mr. Sponge cantered becomingly up on the piebald. Lady Scattercash, with several elegantly dressed females, all with cigars in their mouths, were conversing with them from the open drawing-room windows above, while sundry good-looking damsels ogled them from the attics above. Such was the tableau that presented itself to Mr. Sponge as he cantered round the turn that brought him in front of the Elizabethan mansion of Nonsuch House.

Sir Harry, who was still rather drunk, thinking that every person there must be either one of his party, or a friend of one of his party, or a neighbour, or some one that he had seen before, reeled up to our friend as he stopped, and, shaking him heartily by the hand, asked him to come in and have something to eat. This was a godsend to Mr. Sponge, who accepted the proffered hand most readily, shaking it in a way that quite satisfied Sir Harry he was right in some one or other of his conjectures. Bugles, and all the reeling, swaggering bucks, looked respectfully at the well-appointed man, and Bugles determined to have a pair of nut-brown tops as soon as ever he got back to town.

Sir Harry was a tall, wan, pale young man, with a strong tendency to delirium tremens; that, and consumption, appeared to be running a match for his person. He was a harum-scarum fellow, all strings, and tapes, and ends, and flue. He looked as if he slept in his clothes. His hat was fastened on with a ribbon, or rather a ribbon passed round near the band, in order to fasten it on, for it was seldom or ever applied to the purpose, and the ends generally went flying out behind like a Chinaman's tail. Then his flashy, many-coloured cravats, stared and straggled in all directions, while his untied waistcoat-strings protruded between the laps of his old short-waisted swallow-tailed scarlet, mixing in glorious confusion with those of his breeches behind. The knee-strings were generally also loose; the web straps of his boots were seldom in; and, what with one set of strings and another, he had acquired the name of Sixteen-string'd Jack. Mr. Sponge having dismounted, and given his hack to the now half-drunken Leather, followed Sir Harry through a foil and four-in-hand whip-hung hall to the deserted breakfast-room, where chairs stood in all directions, and crumpled napkins strewed the floor. The litter of eggs, and remnants of muffins, and diminished piles of toast, and broken bread and empty toast racks, and cups and saucers, and half-emptied glasses, and wholly emptied champagne bottles, were scattered up and down a disorderly table, further littered with newspapers, letter backs, county court summonses, mustard pots, anchovies, pickles-all the odds and ends of a most miscellaneous meal. The side-table exhibited cold joints, game, poultry, lukewarm hashed venison, and sundry lamp-lit dishes of savoury grills.

'Here you are!' exclaimed Sir Harry, taking his hunting-whip and sweeping the contents of one end of the table on to the floor with a crash that brought in the butler and some theatrical-looking servants.

'Take those filthy things away! (hiccup),' exclaimed Sir Harry, crushing the broken china smaller under his heels; 'and (hiccup) bring some red-herrings and soda-water. What the deuce does the (hiccup) cook mean by not (hiccuping) things as he ought? Now,' said he, addressing Mr. Sponge, and raking the plates and dishes up to him with the handle of his whip, just as a gaming-table keeper rakes up the stakes, 'now,' said he, 'make your (hiccup) game. There'll be some hot (hiccup) in directly.' He meant to say 'tea,' but the word failed him.

Mr. Sponge fell to with avidity. He was always ready to eat, and attacked first one thing and then another, as though he had not had any breakfast at Puddingpote Bower.

Sir Harry remained mute for some minutes, sitting cross-legged and backwards in his chair, with his throbbing temples resting upon the back, wondering where it was that he had met Mr. Sponge. He looked different without his hat; and, though he saw it was no one he knew particularly, he could not help thinking he had seen him before.

Indeed, he thought it was clear, from Mr. Sponge's manner, that they had met, and he was just going to ask him whether it was at Offley's or the Coal Hole, when a sudden move outside attracted his attention. It was the hounds.

The huntsman's horse having at length returned from the fiddler hunt, and being whisped over, and made tolerably decent, Mr. Watchorn, having exchanged the postilion saddle in which it had been ridden for a horn-cased hunting one, had mounted, and, opening the kennel-door, had liberated the pent-up pack, who came tearing out full cry and spread themselves over the country, regardless alike of the twang, twang, twang of the horn and the furious onslaught of a couple of stable lads in scarlet and caps, who, true to the title of 'whippers-in,' let drive at all they could get within reach of. The hounds had not been out, even to exercise, since the Snobston-Green day, and were as wild as hawks. They were ready to run anything. Furious and Furrier tackled with a cow. Bountiful ran a black cart-colt, and made him leap the haw-haw. Sempstress, Singwell, and Saladin (puppies), went after some crows. Mercury took after the stable cat, while old Thunderer and Come-by-chance (supposed to be one of Lord Scamperdale's) joined in pursuit of a cur. Watchorn, however, did not care for these little ebullitions of spirit, and never having been accustomed to exercise the Camberwell and Balham Hill Union Harriers, he did not see any occasion for troubling the fox-hounds. 'They would soon settle,' he said, 'when they got a scent.'

It was this riotous start that diverted Sixteen-string'd Jack's attention from our friend, and, looking out of the window, Mr. Sponge saw all the company preparing to be off. There was the elegant Bugles mounting her ladyship's white Arab; the brothers Spangles climbing on to their cream-colours; Mr. This getting on to the postman's pony, and Mr. That on to the gamekeeper's. Mr. Sponge hurried out to get to the brown ere his anger arose at being left behind, and provoked a scene. He only just arrived in time; for the twang of the horn, the cracks of the whips, the clamorous rates of the servants, the yelping of the hounds, and the general commotion, had got up his courage, and he launched out in such a way, when Mr. Sponge mounted, as would have shot a loose rider into the air. As it was, Mr. Sponge grappled manfully with him, and, letting the Latchfords into his sides, shoved him in front of the throng, as if nothing had happened. Mr. Leather then slunk back to the stables, to get out the hack to have a hunt in the distance.

The hounds, as we said before, were desperately wild; but at length, by dint of coaxing and cracking, and whooping and hallooing, they got some ten couples out of the five-and-twenty gathered together, and Mr. Watchorn, putting himself at their head, trotted briskly on, blowing most lustily, in the hopes that the rest would follow. So he clattered along the avenue, formed between rows of sombre-headed firs and sweeping spruce, out of which whirred clouds of pheasants, and scuttling rabbits, and stupid hares kept crossing and recrossing, to the derangement of Mr. Watchorn's temper, and the detriment of the unsteady pack. Squeak, squeak, squeal sounded right and left, followed sometimes by the heavy retributive hand of Justice on the offenders' hides, and sometimes by the snarl, snap, and worry of a couple of hounds contending for the prey. Twang, twang, twang

, still went the horn; and when the huntsman reached the unicorn-crested gates, between tea-caddy looking lodges, he found himself in possession of a clear majority of his unsizable pack. Some were rather bloody to be sure, and a few carried scraps of game, which fastidious masters would as soon have seen them without; but neither Sir Harry nor his huntsman cared about appearances.

On clearing the lodges, and passing about a quarter of a mile on the Hardington road, hedge-rows ceased, and they came upon Farleyfair Downs, across which Mr. Watchorn now struck, making for a square plantation, near the first hill-top, where it had been arranged the bag-fox should be shook. It was a fine day, rather brighter perhaps, than sportsmen like, and there was a crispness in the air indicative of frost, but then there is generally a burning scent just before one. So thought Mr. Watchorn, as he turned his feverish face up to the bright, blue sky, imbibing the fine fresh air of the wide-extending downs, instead of the stale tobacco smoke of the fetid beer-shop. As he trotted over the springy sward, up the gently rising ground, he rose in his stirrups; and, laying hold of his horse's mane, turned to survey the long-drawn, lagging field behind.

'You'll have to look sharp, my hearties,' said he to himself, as he ran them over in his eye, and thought there might be twenty or five-and-twenty horsemen; 'you'll have to look sharp, my hearties,' said he, 'if you mean to get away, for Wily Tom has his hat on the ground, which shows he has put him down, and if he's the sort of gem'man I expect he'll not be long in cover.'

So saying, he resumed his seat in the saddle, and easing his horse, endeavoured, by sundry dog noises-such as, 'Yooi doit, Ravager!' 'Gently, Paragon!' 'Here again. Mercury!'-to restrain the ardour of the leading hounds, so as to let the rebellious tail ones up and go into cover with something like a body. This was rather a difficult task to accomplish, for those with him being light, and consequently anxious to be doing and ready for riot, were difficult to restrain from dashing forward; while those that had taken their diversion and refreshment among the game, were easy whether they did anything more or not.

While Watchorn was thus man?uvring his forces Wily Tom beckoned him on, and old Cruiser and Marmion, who had often been at the game before, and knew what Wily Tom's hat on the ground meant, flew to him full cry, drawing all their companions after them.

'I think he's away to the west,' said Tom in an undertone, resting his hand on Watchorn's horse's shoulder; 'back home,' added he, jerking his head with a knowing leer of his roguish eye. 'They're on him!' exclaimed he after a pause, as the outburst of melody proclaimed that the hounds had crossed his line. Then there was such racing and striving among the field to get up, and such squeezing and crowding, and 'Mind, my horse kicks!' at the little white hunting wicket leading into cover. 'Knock down the wall!' exclaimed one. 'Get out of the way; I'll ride over it!' roared another. 'We shall be here all day!' vociferated a third. 'That's a header!' cried another, as a clatter of stones was followed by a pair of white breeches summerseting in the air with a horse underneath. 'It's Tom Sawbones, the doctor!' exclaimed one, 'and he can mend himself.' 'By Jove! but he's killed!' shrieked another. 'Not a bit of it,' added a third, as the dead man rose and ran after his horse. 'Let Mr. Bugles through,' cried Sir Harry, seeing his friend, or rather his wife's friend, was fretting the Arab.

Meanwhile, the melody of hounds increased, and each man, as he got through the little gate, rose in his stirrups and hustled his horse along the green ride to catch up those on before. The plantation was about twenty acres, rather thick and briary at the bottom; and master Reynard, finding it was pretty safe, and, moreover, having attempted to break just by where some chawbacons were ploughing, had headed short back, so that, when the excited field rushed through the parallel gate on the far side of the plantation, expecting to see the pack streaming away over the downs, they found most of the hounds with their heads in the air, some looking for halloos, others watching their companions trying to carry the scent over the fallow.

Watchorn galloped up in the frantic state half-witted huntsmen generally are, and one of the impromptu whips being in attendance, got quickly round the hounds, and commenced a series of assaults upon them that very soon sent them scuttling to Mr. Watchorn for safety. If they had been at the hares again, or even worrying sheep, he could not have rated or flogged more severely.

'Marksman! Marksman! ough, ye old Divil, get to him!' roared the whip, aiming a stinging cut with his heavy knotty-pointed whip, at a venerable sage who still snuffed down a furrow to satisfy himself the fox was not on before he returned to cover-an exertion that overbalanced the whip, and would have landed him on the ground, had not he caught by the spur in the old mare's flank. Then he went on scrambling and rating after Marksman, the field exclaiming, as the Edmonton people did, by Johnny Gilpin:

He's on! no, he's off, he hangs by the mane!


At last he got shuffled back into the saddle, and the cry of hounds in cover attracting the outsiders back, the scene quickly changed, and the horsemen were again overhead in wood. They now swept up the grass ride to the exposed part of the higher ground, the trees gradually diminishing in size, till, on reaching the top, they did not come much above a horse's shoulder. This point commanded a fine view over the adjacent country. Behind was the rich vale of Dairylow, with its villages and spires, and trees and enclosures, while in front was nothing but the undulating, wide-stretching downs, reaching to the soft grey hills in the distance. There was not, however, much time for contemplating scenery; for Wily Tom, who had stolen to this point immediately the hounds took up the scent, now viewed the fox stealing over a gap in the wall, and, the field catching sight, there was such a hullabaloo as would have made a more composed and orderly minded fox think it better to break instead of running the outside of the wall as this one intended to do. What wind there was swept over the downs; and putting himself straight to catch it, he went away whisking his brush in the air, as if he was fresh out of his kennel instead of a sack. Then what a commotion there was! Such jumpings off to lead down, such huggings and holdings, and wooa-ings of those that sat on, such slidings and scramblings, and loosenings and rollings of stones. Then the frantic horses began to bound, and the frightened riders to exclaim:

'Do get out of my way, sir.'

'Mind, sir! I'm a-top of you!'

'Give him his head and let him go!' exclaimed the still drunken brother Bob Spangles, sliding his horse down with a slack rein.

'That's your sort!' roared Sir Harry, and just as he said it, his horse dropped on his hind-quarters like a rabbit, landing Sir Harry comfortably on his feet, amid the roars of the foot-people, and the mirth of such of the horsemen as were not too frightened to laugh.

'I think I'll stay where I am,' observed Mr. Bugles, preparing for a bird's-eye view where he was. 'This hunting,' said he, getting off the fidgety Arab, 'seems dangerous.'

The parties who accomplished the descent had now some fine plain sailing for their trouble. The line lay across the open downs, composed of sound, springy, racing-like turf, extremely well adapted for trying the pace either of horses or hounds. And very soon it did try the pace of them, for they had not gone above a mile before there was very considerable tailing with both. To be sure, they had never been very well together, but still the line lengthened instead of contracting. Horses that could hardly be held downhill, and that applied themselves to the turf, on landing, as if they could never have enough of it, now began to bear upon the rein and hang back to those behind; while the hounds came straggling along like a flock of wild geese, with full half a mile between the leader and the last. However, they all threw their tongues, and each man flattered himself that the hound he was with was the first. In vain the galloping Watchorn looked back and tootled his horn; in vain he worked with his cap; in vain the whips rode at the tail hounds, cursing and swearing, and vowing they would cut them in two.

There was no getting them together. Every now and then the fox might be seen, looking about the size of a marble, as he rounded some distant hill, each succeeding view making him less, till, at last, he seemed no bigger than a pea.

Five-and-twenty minutes best pace over downs is calculated to try the mettle of anything; and, long before the leading hounds reached Cockthropple Dean, the field was choked by the pace. Sir Harry had long been tailed off; both the brothers Spangles had dropped astern; the horse of one had dropped too; Sawbones, the doctor's, had got a stiff neck; Willing, the road surveyor, and Mr. Lavender, the grocer, pulled up together. Muddyman, the farmer's four-year-old, had enough at the end of ten minutes; both the whips tired theirs in a quarter of an hour; and in less than twenty minutes Watchorn and Sponge were alone in their glory, or rather Sponge was in his glory, for Watchorn's horse was beat.

'Lend me your horn!' exclaimed Sponge, as he heard by the hammer and pincering of Watchorn's horse, it was all U P with him.

The horse stopped as if shot; and getting the horn, Mr. Sponge went on, the brown laying himself out as if still full of running. Cockthropple Dean was now close at hand, and in all probability the fox would not leave it. So thought Mr. Sponge as he dived into it, astonished at the chorus and echo of the hounds.


'Tally ho!' shouted a countryman on the opposite side; and the road Sponge had taken being favourable to the point, he made for it at a hand-gallop, horn in hand, to blow as soon as he got there.

'He's away!' cried the man as soon as our friend appeared; 'reet 'cross tornops!' added he, pointing with his hoe.

Mr. Sponge then put his horse's head that way, and blew a long shrill reverberating blast. As he paused to take breath and listen, he heard the sound of horses' hoofs, and presently a stentorian voice, half frantic with rage, exclaimed from behind:

'Who the Dickens are you?'

'Who the Dickens are you?' retorted Mr. Sponge, without looking round.

'They commonly call me the Earl of Scamperdale,' roared the same sweet voice, 'and those are my hounds.'

'They're not your hounds!' snapped Mr. Sponge, now looking round on his big-spectacled, flat-hatted lordship, who was closely followed by his double, Mr. Spraggon.

'Not my hounds!' screeched his lordship. 'Oh, ye barber's apprentice! Oh, ye draper's assistant! Oh ye unmitigated Mahomedon! Sing out, Jack! sing out! For Heaven's sake, sing out!' added he, throwing out his arms in perfect despair.

'Not his lordship's hounds!' roared Jack, now rising in his stirrups and brandishing his big whip. 'Not his lordship's hounds! Tell me that, when they cost him five-and-twenty 'underd-two thousand five 'underd a year! Oh, by Jingo, but that's a pretty go! If they're not his lordship's hounds, I should like to know whose they are?' and thereupon Jack wiped the foam from his mouth on his sleeve.

'Sir Harry's!' exclaimed Mr. Sponge, again putting the horn to his lips, and blowing another shrill blast.

'Sir Harry's!' screeched his lordship in disgust, for he hated the very sound of his name-'Sir Harry's! Oh, you rusty-booted ruffian! Tell me that to my very face!'

'Sir Harry's!' repeated Jack, again standing erect in his stirrups. 'What! impeach his lordship's integrity-oh, by Jove, there's an end of everything! Death before dishonour! Slugs in a saw-pit! Pistols and coffee for two! Cock Pheasant at Weybridge, six o'clock i' the mornin'!' And Jack, sinking exhausted on his saddle, again wiped the foam from his mouth.

His lordship then went at Sponge again.

'Oh, you sanctified, putrified, pestilential, perpendicular, gingerbread-booted, counter-skippin' snob, you think because I'm a lord, and can't swear or use coarse language, that you may do what you like; but I'll let you see the contrary,' said he, brandishing his brother to Jack's whip. 'Mark you, sir, I'll fight you, sir, any non-huntin' day you like, sir, 'cept Sunday.'

Just then the clatter and blowing of horses was heard, and Frostyface emerged from the wood followed by the hounds, who, swinging themselves 'forrard' over the turnips, hit off the scent and went away full cry, followed by his lordship and Jack, leaving Mr. Sponge transfixed with astonishment.

'Changed foxes,' at length said Sponge, with a shake of his head; and just then the cry of hounds on the opposite bank confirmed his conjecture, and he got to Sir Harry's in time to take up his lordship's fox.

His lordship's hounds ran into Sir Harry's fox about two miles farther on, but the hounds would not break him up; and, on examining him, he was found to have been aniseeded; and, worst of all, by the mark on his ear to be one that they had turned down themselves the season before, being one of a litter that Sly had stolen from Sir Harry's cover at Seedeygorse-a beautiful instance of retributive justice.

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