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   Chapter 67 HOW THEY GOT UP THE 'GRAND ARISTOCRATIC STEEPLE-CHASE'

Mr. Sponge's Sporting Tour By Robert Smith Surtees Characters: 13746

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


There is no saying what advantages railway communication may confer upon a country. But for the Granddiddle Junction, --shire never would have had a steeple-chase-an 'Aristocratic,' at least-for it is observable that the more snobbish a thing is, the more certain they are to call it aristocratic. When it is too bad for anything, they call it 'Grand.' Well, as we said before, but for the Granddiddle Junction, --shire would never have had a 'Grand Aristocratic Steeple-Chase.' A few friends or farmers might have got up a quiet thing among themselves, but it would never have seen a regular trade transaction, with its swell mob, sham captains, and all the paraphernalia of odd laying, 'secret tips,' and market rigging. Who will deny the benefit that must accrue to any locality by the infusion of all the loose fish of the kingdom?

Formerly the prize-fights were the perquisite of the publicans. They it was who arranged for Shaggy Tom to pound Harry Billy's nob upon So-and-so's land, the preference being given to the locality that subscribed the most money to the fight. Since the decline of 'the ring,' steeple-chasing, and that still smaller grade of gambling-coursing, have come to their aid. Nine-tenths of the steeple-chasing and coursing-matches are got up by inn-keepers, for the good of their houses. Some of the town publicans, indeed, seem to think that the country was just made for their matches to come off in, and scarcely condescend to ask the leave of the landowners.

We saw an advertisement the other day, where a low publican, in a manufacturing town, assured the subscribers to his coursing-club that he would take care to select open ground, with 'plenty of stout hares,' as if all the estates in the neighbourhood were at his command. Another advertised a steeple-chase in the centre of a good hunting country-'amateur and gentleman riders'-with a half-crown ordinary at the end! Fancy the respectability of a steeple-chase, with a half-crown ordinary at the end!

Our 'Aristocratic' was got up on the good-of-the-house principle. Whatever benefit the Granddiddle Junction conferred upon the country at large, it had a very prejudicial effect upon the Old Duke of Cumberland Hotel and Posting House, which it left, high and dry, at an angle sufficiently near to be tantalized by the whirr and the whistle of the trains, and yet too far off to be benefited by the parties they brought. This once well-accustomed hostelry was kept by one Mr. Viney, a former butler in the Scattercash family, and who still retained the usual 'old and faithful servant' entrée of Nonsuch House, having his beefsteak and bottle of wine in the steward's room whenever he chose to call. Viney had done good at the Old Duke of Cumberland; and no one, seeing him 'full fig,' would recognize, in the solemn grandeur of his stately person, the dirty knife-boy who had filled the place now occupied by the still dirtier Slarkey. But the days of road travelling departed, and Viney, who, beneath the Grecian-columned portico of his country-house-looking hotel, modulated the ovations of his cauliflower head to every description of traveller-from the lordly occupant of the barouche-and-four, down to the humble sitter in a gig-was cut off by one fell swoop from all further traffic. He was extinguished like a gaslight, and the pipe was laid on a fresh line.

Fortunately Mr. Viney was pretty warm; he had done pretty well; and having enjoyed the intimacy of the great 'Jeames' of railway times, had got a hint not to engage the hotel beyond the opening of the line. Consequently, he now had the great house for a mere nothing until such times as the owner could convert it into that last refuge for deserted houses-an academy, or a 'young ladies' seminary.' Mr. Viney now, having plenty of leisure, frequently drove his 'missis' (once a lady's maid in a quality family) up to Nonsuch House, as well for the sake of the airing-for the road was pleasant and picturesque-as to see if he could get the 'little trifle' Sir Harry owed him for post-horses, bottles of soda-water, and such trifles as country gentlemen run up scores for at their posting-houses-scores that seldom get smaller by standing. In these excursions Mr. Viney made the acquaintance of Mr. Watchorn; and a huntsman being a character with whom even the landlord of an inn-we beg pardon, hotel and posting-house-may associate without degradation, Viney and Watchorn became intimate. Watchorn sympathized with Viney, and never failed to take a glass in passing, either at exercise or out hunting, to deplore that such a nice-looking house, so 'near the station, too,' should be ruined as an inn. It was after a more than usual libation that Watchorn, trotting merrily along with the hounds, having accomplished three blank days in succession, asked himself, as he looked upon the surrounding vale from the rising ground of Hammercock Hill, with the cream-coloured station and the rose-coloured hotel peeping through the trees, whether something might not be done to give the latter a lift. At first he thought of a pigeon match-a sweepstake open to all England-fifty members say, at two pound ten each, seven pigeons, seven sparrows, twenty-one yards rise, two ounces of shot, and so on. But then, again, he thought there would be a difficulty in getting guns. A coursing match-how would that do? Answer: 'No hares.' The farmers had made such an outcry about the game, that the landowners had shot them all off, and now the farmers were grumbling that they couldn't get a course.

'Dash my buttons!' exclaimed Watchorn; 'it would be the very thing for a steeple-chase! There's old Puff's hounds, and old Scamp's hounds, and these hounds,' looking down on the ill-sorted lot around him; 'and the deuce is in it if we couldn't give the thing such a start as would bring down the lads of the "village," and a vast amount of good business might be done. I'm dashed if it isn't the very country for a steeple-chase!' continued Watchorn, casting his eye over Cloverly Park, round the enclosure of Langworth Grange, and up the rising ground of Lark Lodge.

The more Watchorn thought of it, the more he was satisfied of its feasibility, and he trotted over, the next day, to the Old Duke of Cumberland, to see his friend on the subject. Viney, like most victuallers, was more given to games of skill-billiards, shuttlecock, skittles, dominoes, and so on-than to the rude out-of-door chances of flood and field, and at first he doubted his ability to grapple with the details; but on Mr. Watchorn's assurance that he would keep him straight, he gave Mrs. Viney a key, desiring her to go into the inner cellar, and bring out a bottle of the green seal. This was ninety-shilling sherry-very good stuff to take; and, by the time they got into the second bottle, they had got into the middle of the scheme to

o. Viney was cautious and thoughtful. He had a high opinion of Watchorn's sagacity, and so long as Watchorn confined himself to weights, and stakes, and forfeits, and so on, he was content to leave himself in the hands of the huntsman; but when Watchorn came to talk of 'stewards,' putting this person and that together, Viney's experience came in aid. Viney knew a good deal. He had not stood twisting a napkin negligently before a plate-loaded sideboard without picking up a good many waifs and strays in the shape of those ins and outs, those likings and dislikings, those hatreds and jealousies, that foolish people let fall so freely before servants, as if for all the world the servants were sideboards themselves; and he had kept up his stock of service-gained knowledge by a liberal, though not a dignity-compromising intercourse-for there is no greater aristocrat than your out-of-livery servant-among the upper servants of all the families in the neighbourhood, so that he knew to a nicety who would pull together, and who wouldn't, whose name it would not do to mention to this person, and who it would not do to apply to before that.

Neither Watchorn nor Viney being sportsmen, they thought they had nothing to do but apply to two friends who were; and after thinking over who hunted in couples, they were unfortunate enough to select our Flat Hat friends, Fyle and Fossick. Fyle was indignant beyond measure at being asked to be steward to a steeple-chase, and thrust the application into the fire; while Fossick just wrote below, 'I'll see you hanged first,' and sent it back without putting even a fresh head on the envelope. Nothing daunted, however, they returned to the charge, and without troubling the reader with unnecessary detail, we think it will be generally admitted that they at length made an excellent selection in Mr. Puffington, Guano, and Tom Washball.

MR. VINEY AND MR. WATCHORN GETTING UP 'THE GRAND ARISTOCRATIC'

Fortune favoured them also in getting a locality to run in, for Timothy Scourgefield, of Broom Hill, whose farm commanded a good circular three miles of country, with every variety of obstacle, having thrown up his lease for a thirty-per-cent reduction-a giving up that had been most unhandsomely accepted by his landlord-Timothy was most anxious to pay him off by doing every conceivable injury to the farm, than which nothing can be more promising than having a steeple-chase run over it. Scourgefield, therefore, readily agreed to let Viney and Watchorn do whatever they liked, on condition that he received entrance-money at the gate.

The name occupied their attention some time, for it did not begin as the 'Aristocratic.' The 'Great National,' the 'Grand Naval and Military,' the 'Sports-man,' the 'Talli-ho,' the 'Out-and-Outer,' the 'Swell,' were all considered and canvassed, and its being called the 'Aristocratic' at length turned upon whether they got Lord Scamperdale to subscribe or not. This was accomplished by a deferential call by Mr. Viney upon Mr. Spraggon, with a little bill for three pound odd, which he presented, with the most urgent request that Jack wouldn't think of it then-any time that was most convenient to Mr. Spraggon-and then the introduction of the neatly-headed sheet-list. It was lucky that Viney was so easily satisfied, for poor Jack had only thirty shillings, of which he owed his washerwoman eight, and he was very glad to stuff Viney's bill into his stunner jacket-pocket, and apply himself exclusively to the contemplated steeple-chase.

Like most of us, Jack had no objection to make a little money; and as he squinted his frightful eyes inside out at the paper, he thought over what horses they had in the stable that were like the thing; and then he sounded Viney as to whether he would put him one up for nothing, if he could induce his lordship to send. This, of course, Viney readily assented to, and again requesting Jack not to think of his little bill till it was perfectly convenient to him-a favour that Jack was pretty sure to accord him-Mr. Viney took his departure, Jack undertaking to write him the result. The next day's post brought Viney the document-unpaid, of course-with a great 'Scamperdale' scrawled across the top; and forthwith it was decided that the steeple-chase should be called the 'Grand Aristocratic.' Other names quickly followed, and it soon assumed an importance. Advertisements appeared in all the sporting and would-be sporting papers, headed with the imposing names of the stewards, secretary, and clerk of the course, Mr. Viney. The 'Grand Aristocratic Stakes,' of 20 sovs. each, half-forfeit, and £5 only if declared, &c. The winner to give two dozen of champagne to the ordinary, and the second horse to save his stake. Gentlemen riders (titled ones to be allowed 3 lb.). Over about three miles of fine hunting country, under the usual steeple-chase conditions.

Then the game of the 'Peeping Toms,' and 'Sly Sams,' and 'Infallible Joes,' and 'Wideawake Jems,' with their tips and distribution of prints began; Tom counselling his numerous and daily increasing clients to get well on to No. 9, Sardanapalus (the Bart., as Watchorn called him), while 'Infallible Joe' recommended his friends and patrons to be sweet on No. 6 (Hercules), and 'Wide-awake Jem' was all for something else. A gentleman who took the trouble of getting tips from half a dozen of them, found that no two of them agreed in any particular. What information to make books upon!

'But what good,' as our excellent friend Thackeray eloquently asks, 'ever came out of, or went into, a betting book? If I could be Caliph Omar for a week,' says he, 'I would pitch every one of those despicable manuscripts into the flames; from my-lord's, who is "in" with Jack Snaffle's stable, and is overreaching worse-informed rogues, and swindling greenhorns, down to Sam's, the butcher's boy, who books eighteen-penny odds in the tap-room, and stands to win five-and-twenty bob.' We say ditto to that, and are not sure that we wouldn't hang a 'leg' or a 'list' man or two into the bargain.

Watchorn had a prophet of his own, one Enoch Wriggle, who, having tried his hand unsuccessfully first at tailoring, next as an accountant, then in the watercress, afterwards in the buy ''at-box, bonnet-box,' and lastly in the stale lobster and periwinkle line, had set up as an oracle on turf matters, forwarding the most accurate and infallible information to flats in exchange for half-crowns, heading his advertisements, 'If it be a sin to covet honour, I am the most offending soul alive!' Enoch did a considerable stroke of business, and couched his advice in such dubious terms, as generally to be able to claim a victory whichever way the thing went. So the 'offending soul' prospered; and from scarcely having shoes to his feet, he very soon set up a gig.

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