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Mr. Sponge's Sporting Tour By Robert Smith Surtees Characters: 27668

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Steeple-chases are generally crude, ill-arranged things. Few sportsmen will act as stewards a second time; while the victim to the popular delusion of patronizing our 'national sports' considers-like gentlemen who have served the office of sheriff, or church-warden-that once in a lifetime is enough; hence, there is always the air of amateur actorship about them. There is always something wanting or forgotten. Either they forget the ropes, or they forget the scales, or they forget the weights, or they forget the bell, or-more commonly still-some of the parties forget themselves. Farmers, too, are easily satisfied with the benefits of an irresponsible mob careering over their farms, even though some of them are attired in the miscellaneous garb of hunting and racing costume. Indeed, it is just this mixture of two sports that spoils both; steeple-chasing being neither hunting nor racing. It has not the wild excitement of the one, nor the accurate calculating qualities of the other. The very horses have a peculiar air about them-neither hunters nor hacks, nor yet exactly race-horses. Some of them, doubtless, are fine, good-looking, well-conditioned animals; but the majority are lean, lathy, sunken-eyed, woe-begone, iron-marked, desperately-abused brutes, lacking all the lively energy that characterizes the movements of the up-to-the-mark hunter. In the early days of steeple-chasing a popular fiction existed that the horses were hunters; and grooms and fellows used to come nicking and grinning up to masters of hounds at checks and critical times, requesting them to note that they were out, in order to ask for certificates of the horses having been 'regularly hunted'-a species of regularity than which nothing could be more irregular. That nuisance, thank goodness, is abated. A steeple-chaser now generally stands on his own merits; a change for which sportsmen may be thankful.

But to our story.

The whole country was in a commotion about this 'Aristocratic'. The unsophisticated looked upon it as a grand réunion of the aristocracy; and smart bonnets and cloaks, and jackets and parasols were ordered with the liberality incident to a distant view of Christmas. As Viney sipped his sherry-cobler of an evening, he laughed at the idea of a son-of-a-day-labourer like himself raising such a dust. Letters came pouring in to the clerk of the course from all quarters; some asking about beds; some about breakfasts; some about stakes; some about stables; some about this thing, some about that. Every room in the Old Duke of Cumberland was speedily bespoke. Post-horses rose in price, and Dobbin and Smiler, and Jumper and Cappy, and Jessy and Tumbler were jobbed from the neighbouring farmers, and converted for the occasion into posters. At last came the great and important day-day big with the fate of thousands of pounds; for the betting-list vermin had been plying their trade briskly throughout the kingdom, and all sorts of rumours had been raised relative to the qualities and conditions of the horses.

Who doesn't know the chilling feel of an English spring, or rather of a day at the turn of the year before there is any spring? Our gala-day was a perfect specimen of the order-a white frost succeeded by a bright sun, with an east wind, warming one side of the face and starving the other. It was neither a day for fishing, nor hunting, nor coursing, nor anything but farming. The country, save where there were a few lingering patches of turnips, was all one dingy drab, with abundant scalds on the undrained fallows. The grass was more like hemp than anything else. The very rushes were yellow and sickly.

Long before midday the whole country was in commotion. The same sort of people commingled that one would expect to see if there was a balloon to go up, and a man to go down, or be hung at the same place. Fine ladies in all the colours of the rainbow; and swarthy, beady-eyed dames, with their stalwart, big-calved, basket-carrying comrades; gentle young people from behind the counter; Dandy Candy merchants from behind the hedge; rough-coated dandies with their silver-mounted whips; and Shaggyford roughs, in their baggy, poacher-like coats, and formidable clubs; carriages and four, and carriages and pairs; and gigs and dog-carts, and Whitechapels, and Newport Pagnels, and long carts, and short carts, and donkey carts, converged from all quarters upon the point of attraction at Broom Hill.

If Farmer Scourgefield had made a mob, he could not have got one that would be more likely to do damage to his farm than this steeple-chase one. Nor was the assemblage confined to the people of the country, for the Granddiddle Junction, by its connection with the great network of railways, enabled all patrons of this truly national sport to sweep down upon the spot like flocks of wolves; and train after train disgorged a generous mixture of sharps and flats, commingling with coatless, baggy-breeched vagabonds, the emissaries most likely of the Peeping Toms and Infallible Joes, if not the worthies themselves.

'Dear, but it's a noble sight!' exclaimed Viney to Watchorn as they sat on their horses, below a rickety green-baize-covered scaffold, labelled, 'GRAND STAND; admission, Two-and-sixpence,' raised against Scourgefield's stack-yard wall, eyeing the population pouring in from all parts. 'Dear, but it's a noble sight!' said he, shading the sun from his eyes, and endeavouring to identify the different vehicles in the distance. 'Yonder's the 'bus comin' again,' said he, looking towards the station, 'loaded like a market-gardener's turnip-waggon. That'll pay,' added he, with a knowing leer at the landlord of the Hen Angel, Newington Butts. 'And who have we here, with the four horses and sky-blue flunkeys? Jawleyford, as I live!' added he, answering himself; adding, 'The beggar had better pay me what he owes.'

How great Mr. Viney was! Some people, who have never had anything to do with horses, think it incumbent upon them, when they have, to sport top-boots, and accordingly, for the first time in his life, Viney appears in a pair of remarkably hard, tight, country-made boots, above which are a pair of baggy white cords, with the dirty finger-marks of the tailor still upon them. He sports a single-breasted green cutaway coat, with basket-buttons, a black satin roll-collared waistcoat, and a new white silk hat, that shines in the bright sun like a fish-kettle. His blue-striped kerchief is secured by a butterfly brooch. Who ever saw an innkeeper that could resist a brooch?

He is riding a miserable rat of a badly clipped, mouse-coloured pony that looks like a velocipede under him.

His companion, Mr. Watchorn, is very great, and hardly condescends to know the country people who claim his acquaintance as a huntsman. He is a Hotel Keeper-master of the Hen Angel, Newington Butts. Enoch Wriggle stands beside them, dressed in the imposing style of a cockney sportsman. He has been puffing 'Sir Danapalus (the Bart.)' in public, and taking all the odds he can get against him in private. Watchorn knows that it is easier to make a horse lose than win. The restless-looking, lynx-eyed caitiff, in the dirty green shawl, with his hands stuffed into the front pockets of the brown tarriar coat, is their jockey, the renowned Captain Hangallows; he answers to the name of Sam Slick in Mr. Spavin the horse-dealer's yard in Oxford Street, when not in the country on similar excursions to the present. And now in the throng on the principal line are two conspicuous horses-a piebald and a white-carrying Mr. Sponge and Lucy Glitters. Lucy appears as she did on the frosty-day hunt, glowing with health and beauty, and rather straining the seams of Lady Scattercash's habit with the additional embonpoint she has acquired by early hours in the country. She has made Mr. Sponge a white silk jacket to ride in, which he has on under his grey tarriar coat, and a cap of the same colour is in his hard hat. He has discarded the gosling-green cords for cream-coloured leathers, and, to please Lucy, has actually substituted a pair of rose-tinted tops for the 'hogany bouts'. Altogether he is a great swell, and very like the bridegroom.

But hark-what a crash! The leaders of Sir Harry Scattercash's drag start at a blind fiddler's dog stationed at the gate leading into the fields, a wheel catches the post, and in an instant the sham captains are scattered about the road: Bouncey on his head, Seedeyhuck across the wheelers, Quod on his back, and Sir Harry astride the gate. Meanwhile, the old fiddler, regardless of the shouts of the men and the shrieks of the ladies, scrapes away with the appropriate tune of 'The Devil among the Tailors!' A rush to the horses' heads arrests further mischief, the dislodged captains are at length righted, the nerves of the ladies composed, and Sir Harry once more essays to drive them up the hill to the stand. That feat being accomplished, then came the unloading, and consternation, and huddling of the tight-laced occupants at the idea of these female women coming amongst them, and the usual peeping and spying, and eyeing of the 'creatures.' 'What impudence!' 'Well, I think!' ''Pon my word!' 'What next!'-exclamations that were pretty well lost upon the fair objects of them amid the noise and flutter and confusion of the scene. But hark again! What's up now?

'Hooray!' 'hooray!' 'h-o-o-o-ray!' 'Three cheers for the Squire! H-o-o-o-ray!' Old Puff as we live! The 'amazin' instance of a pop'lar man' greeted by the Swillingford snobs. The old frost-bitten dandy is flattered by the cheers, and bows condescendingly ere he alights from the well-appointed mail phaeton. See how graciously the ladies receive him, as, having ascended the stairs, he appears among them. 'A man is never too old to marry' is their maxim.

The cry is still, 'They come! they come!' See at a hand-gallop, with his bay pony in a white lather, rides Pacey, grinning from ear to ear, with his red-backed betting-book peeping out of the breast pocket of his brown cutaway. He is staring and gaping to see who is looking at him.

Pacey has made such a book as none but a wooden-headed boy like himself could make. He has been surfeited with tips. Peeping Tom had advised him to back Daddy Longlegs; and, nullus error, Sneaking Joe has counselled him that the 'Baronet' will be 'California without cholera, and gold without danger'; while Jemmy something, the jockey, who advertises that his 'tongue is not for falsehood framed,' though we should think it was framed for nothing else, has urged him to back Parvo to half the amount of the national debt.

Altogether, Pacey has made such a mess that he cannot possibly win, and may lose almost any sum from a thousand pounds down to a hundred and eighty. Mr. Sponge has got well on with him, through the medium of Jack Spraggon.

Pacey is now going to what he calls 'compare'-see that he has got his bets booked right; and, throwing his right leg over his cob's neck, he blobs on to the ground; and, leaving the pony to take care of itself, disappears in the crowd.

What a hubbub! what roarings, and shoutings, and recognizings! 'Bless my heart! who'd have thought of seeing you?' and, 'By jingo! what's sent you here?'

'My dear Waffles,' cries Jawleyford, rushing up to our Laverick Wells friend (who is looking very debauched), 'I'm overjoyed to see you. Do come upstairs and see Mrs. Jawleyford and the dear girls. It was only last night we were talking about you.' And so Jawleyford hurries Mr. Waffles off, just as Waffles is in extremis about his horse.

Looking around the scene there seems to be everybody that we have had the pleasure of introducing to the reader in the course of Mr. Sponge's Tour. Mr. and Mrs. Springwheat in their dog-cart, Mrs. Springey's figure looking as though 'wheat had got above forty, my lord'; old Jog and his handsome wife in the ugly old phaeton, well garnished with children, and a couple of sticks in the rough peeping out of the apron, Gustavus James held up in his mother's arms, with the curly blue feather nodding over his nose. There is also Farmer Peastraw, and faces that a patient inspection enables us to appropriate to Dribble, and Hook, and Capon, and Calcot, and Lumpleg, and Crane of Crane Hall, and Charley Slapp of red-coat times-people look so different in plain clothes to what they do in hunting ones. Here, too, is George Cheek, running down with perspiration, having run over from Dr. Latherington's, for which he will most likely 'catch it' when he gets back; and oh, wonder of wonders, here's Robert Foozle himself!

'Well, Robert, you've come to the steeple-chase?'

'Yes, I've come to the steeple-chase.'

'Are you fond of steeple-chases?'

'Yes, I'm fond of steeple-chases.'

'I dare say you never were at one before,' observes his mother.

'No, I never was at one before,' replies Robert.

And though last not least, here's Facey Romford, with his arm in a sling, on Mr. Hobler, come to look after that sivin-p'und-ten, which we wish he may get.

Hark! there's a row below the stand, and Viney is seen in a state of excitement inquiring for Mr. Washball. Pacey has objected to a gentleman rider, and Guano and Puffington have differed on the point. A nice, slim, well-put-on lad (Buckram's rough rider) has come to the scales and claimed to be allowed 3 lb. as the Honourable Captain Boville. Finding the point questioned, he abandons the 'handle', and sinks into plain Captain Boville. Pacey now objects to him altogether. 'S-c-e-u-s-e me, sir; s-c-e-u-s-e me, sir,' simpers our friend Dick Bragg, sidling up to the objector with a sort of tendency of his turn-back-wristed hand to his hat. 'S-c-e-u-s-e me, sir; s-c-e-u-s-e me,' repeats he, 'but I think you was wrong, sir, in

objecting to Captain Boville, sir, as a gen'l'man rider, sir.'

'Why?' demands Pacey, in the full flush of victory.

'Oh, sir-because, sir-in fact, sir-he is a gen'l'man, sir.'

'Is a gentleman! How do you know?' demands Pacey, in the same tone as before.

'Oh, sir, he's a gen'l'man-an undoubted gen'l'man. Everything about him shows that. Does nothing-breeches by Anderson-boots by Bartley; besides which, he drinks wine every day, and has a whole box of cigars in his bedroom. But don't take my word for it, pray,' continued Bragg, seeing Pacey was wavering; 'don't take my word for it, pray. There's a gen'l'man, a countryman of his, somewhere about,' added he, looking anxiously into the surrounding crowd-there's a gen'l'man, a countryman of his, somewhere about, if we could but find him,' Bragg standing on his tiptoes, and exclaiming, 'Mr. Buckram! Mr. Buckram! Has anybody seen anything of Mr. Buckram!'

'Here!' replied a meek voice from behind; upon which there was an elbowing through the crowd, and presently a most respectable, rosy-gilled, grey-haired, hawbuck-looking man, attired in a new brown cutaway, with bright buttons and a velvet collar, with a buff waistcoat, came twirling an ash-stick in one hand, and fumbling the silver in his drab trousers' pocket with the other, in front of the bystanders.

'Oh! 'ere he is!' exclaimed Bragg, appealing to the stranger with a hasty 'You know Captain Boville, don't you?'

'Why, now, as to the matter of that,' replied the gentleman, gathering all the loose silver up into his hand and speaking very slowly, just as a country gentleman, who has all the live-long day to do nothing in, may be supposed to speak-' Why, now, as to the matter of that,' said he, eyeing Pacey intently, and beginning to drop the silver slowly as he spoke, 'I can't say that I've any very 'ticklar 'quaintance with the captin. I knows him, in course, just as one knows a neighbour's son. The captin's a good deal younger nor me,' continued he, raising his new eight-and-sixpenny Parisian, as if to show his sandy grey hair. 'I'm a'most sixty; and he, I dare say, is little more nor twenty,' dropping a half-crown as he said it. 'But the captin's a nice young gent-a nice young gent, without any blandishment, I should say; and that's more nor one can say of all young gents nowadays,' said Buckram, looking at Pacey as he spoke, and dropping two consecutive half-crowns.

'Why, but you live near him, don't you?' interrupted Bragg.

'Near him,' repeated Buckram, feeling his well-shaven chin thoughtfully. 'Why, yes-that's to say, near his dad. The fact is,' continued he, 'I've a little independence of my own,' dropping a heavy five-shilling piece as he said it,' and his father-old Bo, as I call him-adjoins me; and if either of us 'appen to have a battue, or a 'aunch of wenzun, and a few friends, we inwite each other, and wicey wersey, you know,' letting off a lot of shillings and sixpences. And just at the moment the blind fiddler struck up 'The Devil among the Tailors,' when the shouts and laughter of the mob closed the scene.

And now gentlemen, who heretofore have shown no more of the jockey than Cinderella's feet in the early part of the pantomime disclose of her ball attire, suddenly cast off the pea-jackets and bearskin wraps, and shawls and overcoats of winter, and shine forth in all the silken flutter of summer heat.

We know of no more humiliating sight than misshapen gentlemen playing at jockeys. Playing at soldiers is bad enough, but playing at jockeys is infinitely worse-above all, playing at steeple-chase jockeys, combining, as they generally do, all the worst features of the hunting-field and racecourse-unsympathizing boots and breeches, dirty jackets that never fit, and caps that won't keep on. What a farce to see the great bulky fellows go to scale with their saddles strapped to their backs, as if to illustrate the impossibility of putting a round of beef upon a pudding plate!

But the weighed-in ones are mounting. See, there's Jack Spraggon getting a hoist on to Daddy Longlegs! Did ever mortal see such a man for a jockey? He has cut off the laps of a stunner tartan jacket, and looks like a great backgammon-board. He has got his head into an old gold-banded military foraging-cap, which comes down almost on to the rims of his great tortoise-shell spectacles. Lord Scamperdale stands with his hand on the horse's mane, talking earnestly to Jack, doubtless giving him his final instructions. Other jockeys emerge from various parts of the farm-buildings; some out of stables; some out of cow-houses; others from beneath cart-sheds. The scene becomes enlivened with the varied colours of the riders-red, yellow, green, blue, violet, and stripes without end. Then comes the usual difficulty of identifying the parties, many of whose mothers wouldn't know them.

'That's Captain Tongs,' observes Miss Simperley, 'in the blue. I remember dancing with him at Bath, and he did nothing but talk about steeple-chasing.'

'And who's that in yellow?' asks Miss Hardy.

'That's Captain Gander,' replies the gentleman on her left.

'Well, I think he'll win,' replies the lady.

'I'll bet you a pair of gloves he doesn't,' snaps Miss Moore, who fancies Captain Pusher, in the pink.

'What a squat little jockey!' exclaims Miss Hamilton, as a little dumpling of a man in Lincoln green is led past the stand on a fine bay horse, some one recognizing the rider as our old friend Caingey Thornton.

'And look who comes here?' whispers Miss Jawleyford to her sister, as Mr. Sponge, having accomplished a mount without derangement of temper, rides Hercules quietly past the stand, his whip-hand resting on his thigh, and his head turned to his fair companion on the white.

'Oh, the wretch!' sneers Miss Amelia; and the fair sisters look at Lucy and then at him with the utmost disgust.

Mr. Sponge may now be doubled up by half a dozen falls ere either of them would suggest the propriety of having him bled.

Lucy's cheeks are rather blanched with the 'pale cast of thought,' for she is not sufficiently initiated in the mysteries of steeple-chasing to know that it is often quite as good for a man to lose as to win, which it had just been quietly arranged between Sponge and Buckram should be the case on this occasion, Buckram having got uncommonly 'well on' to the losing tune. Perhaps, however, Lucy was thinking of the peril, not the profit of the thing.

The young ladies on the stand eye her with mingled feelings of pity and disdain, while the elderly ones shake their heads, call her a bold hussy-declare she's not so pretty-adding that they 'wouldn't have come if they'd known,' &c. &c.

But it is half-past two (an hour and a half after time), and there is at last a disposition evinced by some of the parties to go to the post. Broad-backed parti-coloured jockeys are seen converging that way, and the betting-men close in, getting more and more clamorous for odds. What a hubbub! How they bellow! How they roar! A universal deafness seems to have come over the whole of them. 'Seven to one 'gain the Bart.!' screams one-'I'll take eight!' roars another. 'Five to one agen Herc'les!' cries a third-'Done!' roars a fourth. 'Twice over!' rejoins the other-'Done!' replies the taker. 'Ar'll take five to one agin the Daddy!'-'I'll lay six!' 'What'll any one lay 'gin Parvo?' And so they raise such an uproar that the squeak, squeak, squeak of the

'Devil among the tailors'

is hardly heard.

Then, in a partial lull, the voice of Lord Scamperdale rises, exclaiming, 'Oh, you hideous Hobgoblin, bull-and-mouth of a boy! you think, because I'm a lord, and can't swear, or use coarse language-' And again the hubbub, led on by the

'Devil among the tailors,'

drowns the exclamations of the speaker. It's that Pacey again; he's accusing the virtuous Mr. Spraggon of handing his extra weight to Lord Scamperdale; and Jack, in the full consciousness of injured guilt, intimates that the blood of the Spraggons won't stand that-that there's 'only one way of settling it, and he'll be ready for Pacey half an hour after the race.'

At length the horses are all out-one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen-fifteen of them, moving about in all directions: some taking an up-gallop, others a down; some a spicy trot, others walking to and fro; while one has still his muzzle on, lest he should unship his rider and eat him; and another's groom follows, imploring the mob to keep off his heels if they don't want their heads in their hands. The noisy bell at length summons the scattered forces to the post, and the variegated riders form into as good a line as circumstances will allow. Just as Mr. Sponge turns his horse's head Lucy hands him her little silver sherry-flask, which our friend drains to the dregs. As he returns it, with a warm pressure of her soft hand, a pent-up flood of tears burst their bounds, and suffuse her lustrous eyes. She turns away to hide her emotion; at the same instant a wild shout rends the air-'W-h-i-r-r! They're off!'

Thirteen get away, one turns tail, and our friend in the Lincoln green is left performing a pas seul, asking the rearing horse, with an oath, if he thinks 'he stole him'? while the mob shout and roar; and one wicked wag, in coaching parlance, advises him to pay the difference, and get inside.

But what a display of horsemanship is exhibited by the flyers! Tongs comes off at the first fence, the horse making straight for a pond, while the rest rattle on in a mass. The second fence is small, but there's a ditch on the far side, and Pusher and Gander severally measure their lengths on the rushy pasture beyond. Still there are ten left, and nobody ever reckoned upon these getting to the far end.

'Master wins, for a 'undr'd!' exclaims Leather, as, getting into the third field, Mr. Sponge takes a decided lead; and Lucy, encouraged by the sound, looks up, and sees her 'white jacket' throwing the dry fallow in the faces of the field.

'Oh, how I hope he will!' exclaims she, clasping her hands, with upturned eyes; but when she ventures on another look, she sees old Spraggon drawing upon him, Hangallows's flaming red jacket not far off, and several others nearer than she liked. Still the tail was beginning to form. Another fence, and that a big one, draws it out. A striped jacket is down, and the horse, after a vain effort to rise, sinks lifeless on the ground. On they go all the same!

Loud yells of exciting betting burst from the spectators, and Buckram gets well on for the cross.

There are now five in front-Sponge, Spraggon, Hangallows, Boville, and another; and already the pace begins to tell. It wasn't possible to run it at the rate they started. Spraggon makes a desperate effort to get the lead; and Sponge, seeing Boville handy, pulls his horse, and lets the light-weight make play over a rough, heavy fallow with the chestnut. Jack spurs and flogs, and grins and foams at the mouth. Thus they get half round the oval course. They are now directly in front of the hill, and the spectators gaze with intense anxiety;-now vociferating the name of this horse, now of that; now shouting 'Red jacket!' now 'White!' while the blind fiddler perseveres with the old melody of-'The Devil among the Tailors.'

'Now they come to the brook!' exclaims Leather, who has been over the ground; and as he speaks, Lucy distinctly sees Mr. Sponge's gather an effort to clear it; and-oh, horror!-the horse falls-he's down-no, he's up!-and her lover's in his seat again; and she flatters herself it was her sherry that saved him. Splash!-a horse and rider duck under; three get over; two go in; now another clears it, and the rest turn tail.

What splashing and screaming, and whipping and spurring, and how hopeless the chance of any of them to recover their lost ground. The race is now clearly between five. Now for the wall! It's five feet high, built of heavy blocks, and strong in the staked-out part. As he nears it, Jack sits well back, getting Daddy Longlegs well by the head, and giving him a refresher with the whip. It is Jack's last move! His horse comes, neck and croup over, rolling Jack up like a ball of worsted on the far side. At the same moment, Multum-in-Parvo goes at it full tilt; and, not rising an inch, sends Captain Boville flying one way, his saddle another, himself a third, and the stones all ways. Mr. Sponge then slips through, closely followed by Hangallows and a jockey in yellow, with a tail of three after them. They then put on all the steam they can raise over the twenty-acre pasture that follows.

The white!-the red!-the yaller! The red!-the white!-the yaller! and anybody's race! A sheet would cover them!-crack! whack! crack! how they flog! Hercules springs at the sound.

Many of the excited spectators begin hallooing, and straddling, and working their arms as if their gestures and vociferations would assist the race. Lord Scamperdale stands transfixed. He is staring through his silver spectacles at the awkwardly lying ball that represents poor Spraggon.

'By Heavens!' exclaims he, in an undertone to himself, 'I believe he's killed!' And thereupon he swung down the stand-stairs, rushed to his horse, and, clapping spurs to his sides, struck across the country to the spot.

Long before he got there the increased uproar of the spectators announced the final struggle; and looking over his shoulder, he saw white jacket hugging his horse home, closely followed by red, and shooting past the winning-post.

'Dash that Mr. Sponge!' growled his lordship, as the cheers of the winners closed the scene.

'The brute's won, in spite of him!' gasped Buckram, turning deadly pale at the sight.

* * *

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