Some Experiences of an Irish R.M., by Somerville and Ross

6

Philippa’s Fox-hunt

No one can accuse Philippa and me of having married in haste. As a matter of fact, it was but little under five years from that autumn evening on the river when I had said what is called in Ireland “the hard word,” to the day in August when I was led to the altar by my best man, and was subsequently led away from it by Mrs. Sinclair Yeates. About two years out of the five had been spent by me at Shreelane in ceaseless warfare with drains, eaveshoots, chimneys, pumps; all those fundamentals, in short, that the ingenuous and improving tenant expects to find established as a basis from which to rise to higher things. As far as rising to higher things went, frequent ascents to the roof to search for leaks summed up my achievements; in fact, I suffered so general a shrinkage of my ideals that the triumph of making the hall-door bell ring blinded me to the fact that the rat-holes in the hall floor were nailed up with pieces of tin biscuit boxes, and that the casual visitor could, instead of leaving a card, have easily written his name in the damp on the walls.

Philippa, however, proved adorably callous to these and similar shortcomings. She regarded Shreelane and its floundering, foundering ménage of incapables in the light of a gigantic picnic in a foreign land; she held long conversations daily with Mrs. Cadogan, in order, as she informed me, to acquire the language; without any ulterior domestic intention she engaged kitchen-maids because of the beauty of their eyes, and housemaids because they had such delightfully picturesque old mothers, and she declined to correct the phraseology of the parlour-maid, whose painful habit it was to whisper “Do ye choose cherry or clarry?” when proffering the wine. Fast-days, perhaps, afforded my wife her first insight into the sterner realities of Irish housekeeping. Philippa had what are known as High Church proclivities, and took the matter seriously.

“I don’t know how we are to manage for the servants’ dinner to-morrow, Sinclair,” she said, coming in to my office one Thursday morning; “Julia says she ‘promised God this long time that she wouldn’t eat an egg on a fast-day,’ and the kitchen-maid says she won’t eat herrings ‘without they’re fried with onions,’ and Mrs. Cadogan says she will ‘not go to them extremes for servants.’”

“I should let Mrs. Cadogan settle the menu herself,” I suggested.

“I asked her to do that,” replied Philippa, “and she only said she ‘thanked God she had no appetite!’”

The lady of the house here fell away into unseasonable laughter.

I made the demoralising suggestion that, as we were going away for a couple of nights, we might safely leave them to fight it out, and the problem was abandoned.

Philippa had been much called on by the neighbourhood in all its shades and grades, and daily she and her trousseau frocks presented themselves at hall-doors of varying dimensions in due acknowledgment of civilities. In Ireland, it may be noted, the process known in England as “summering and wintering” a newcomer does not obtain; sociability and curiosity alike forbid delay. The visit to which we owed our escape from the intricacies of the fast-day was to the Knoxes of Castle Knox, relations in some remote and tribal way of my landlord, Mr. Flurry of that ilk. It involved a short journey by train, and my wife’s longest basket-trunk; it also, which was more serious, involved my being lent a horse to go out cubbing the following morning.

At Castle Knox we sank into an almost forgotten environment of draught-proof windows and doors, of deep carpets, of silent servants instead of clattering belligerents. Philippa told me afterwards that it had only been by an effort that she had restrained herself from snatching up the train of her wedding-gown as she paced across the wide hall on little Sir Valentine’s arm. After three weeks at Shreelane she found it difficult to remember that the floor was neither damp nor dusty.

I had the good fortune to be of the limited number of those who got on with Lady Knox, chiefly, I imagine, because I was as a worm before her, and thankfully permitted her to do all the talking.

“Your wife is extremely pretty,” she pronounced autocratically, surveying Philippa between the candle-shades; “does she ride?”

Lady Knox was a short square lady, with a weather-beaten face, and an eye decisive from long habit of taking her own line across country and elsewhere. She would have made a very imposing little coachman, and would have caused her stable helpers to rue the day they had the presumption to be born; it struck me that Sir Valentine sometimes did so.

“I’m glad you like her looks,” I replied, “as I fear you will find her thoroughly despicable otherwise; for one thing, she not only can’t ride, but she believes that I can!”

“Oh come, you’re not as bad as all that!” my hostess was good enough to say; “I’m going to put you up on Sorcerer to-morrow, and we’ll see you at the top of the hunt — if there is one. That young Knox hasn’t a notion how to draw these woods.”

“Well, the best run we had last year out of this place was with Flurry’s hounds,” struck in Miss Sally, sole daughter of Sir Valentine’s house and home, from her place half-way down the table. It was not difficult to see that she and her mother held different views on the subject of Mr. Flurry Knox.

“I call it a criminal thing in any one’s great-great-grandfather to rear up a preposterous troop of sons and plant them all out in his own country,” Lady Knox said to me with apparent irrelevance. “I detest collaterals. Blood may be thicker than water, but it is also a great deal nastier. In this country I find that fifteenth cousins consider themselves near relations if they live within twenty miles of one!”

Having before now taken in the position with regard to Flurry Knox, I took care to accept these remarks as generalities, and turned the conversation to other themes.

“I see Mrs. Yeates is doing wonders with Mr. Hamilton,” said Lady Knox presently, following the direction of my eyes, which had strayed away to where Philippa was beaming upon her left-hand neighbour, a mildewed-looking old clergyman, who was delivering a long dissertation, the purport of which we were happily unable to catch.

“She has always had a gift for the Church,” I said.

“Not curates?” said Lady Knox, in her deep voice.

I made haste to reply that it was the elders of the Church who were venerated by my wife.

“Well, she has her fancy in old Eustace Hamilton; he’s elderly enough!” said Lady Knox. “I wonder if she’d venerate him as much if she knew that he had fought with his sister-in-law, and they haven’t spoken for thirty years! though for the matter of that,” she added, “I think it shows his good sense!”

“Mrs. Knox is rather a friend of mine,” I ventured.

“Is she? H’m! Well, she’s not one of mine!” replied my hostess, with her usual definiteness. “I’ll say one thing for her, I believe she’s always been a sportswoman. She’s very rich, you know, and they say she only married old Badger Knox to save his hounds from being sold to pay his debts, and then she took the horn from him and hunted them herself. Has she been rude to your wife yet? No? Oh, well, she will. It’s a mere question of time. She hates all English people. You know the story they tell of her? She was coming home from London, and when she was getting her ticket the man asked if she had said a ticket for York. ‘No, thank God, Cork!’ says Mrs. Knox.”

“Well, I rather agree with her!” said I; “but why did she fight with Mr. Hamilton?”

“Oh, nobody knows. I don’t believe they know themselves! Whatever it was, the old lady drives five miles to Fortwilliam every Sunday, rather than go to his church, just outside her own back gates,” Lady Knox said with a laugh like a terrier’s bark. “I wish I’d fought with him myself,” she said; “he gives us forty minutes every Sunday.”

As I struggled into my boots the following morning, I felt that Sir Valentine’s acid confidences on cub-hunting, bestowed on me at midnight, did credit to his judgment. “A very moderate amusement, my dear Major,” he had said, in his dry little voice; “you should stick to shooting. No one expects you to shoot before daybreak.”

It was six o’clock as I crept downstairs, and found Lady Knox and Miss Sally at breakfast, with two lamps on the table, and a foggy daylight oozing in from under the half-raised blinds. Philippa was already in the hall, pumping up her bicycle, in a state of excitement at the prospect of her first experience of hunting that would have been more comprehensible to me had she been going to ride a strange horse, as I was. As I bolted my food I saw the horses being led past the windows, and a faint twang of a horn told that Flurry Knox and his hounds were not far off.

Miss Sally jumped up.

“If I’m not on the Cockatoo before the hounds come up, I shall never get there!” she said, hobbling out of the room in the toils of her safety habit. Her small, alert face looked very childish under her riding-hat; the lamp-light struck sparks out of her thick coil of golden-red hair: I wondered how I had ever thought her like her prim little father.

She was already on her white cob when I got to the hall-door, and Flurry Knox was riding over the glistening wet grass with his hounds, while his whip, Dr. Jerome Hickey, was having a stirring time with the young entry and the rabbit-holes. They moved on without stopping, up a back avenue, under tall and dripping trees, to a thick laurel covert, at some little distance from the house. Into this the hounds were thrown, and the usual period of fidgety inaction set in for the riders, of whom, all told, there were about half-a-dozen. Lady Knox, square and solid, on her big, confidential iron-grey, was near me, and her eyes were on me and my mount; with her rubicund face and white collar she was more than ever like a coachman.

“Sorcerer looks as if he suited you well,” she said, after a few minutes of silence, during which the hounds rustled and crackled steadily through the laurels; “he’s a little high on the leg, and so are you, you know, so you show each other off.”

Sorcerer was standing like a rock, with his good-looking head in the air and his eyes fastened on the covert. His manners, so far, had been those of a perfect gentleman, and were in marked contrast to those of Miss Sally’s cob, who was sidling, hopping, and snatching unappeasably at his bit. Philippa had disappeared from view down the avenue ahead. The fog was melting, and the sun threw long blades of light through the trees; everything was quiet, and in the distance the curtained windows of the house marked the warm repose of Sir Valentine, and those of the party who shared his opinion of cubbing.

“Hark! hark to cry there!”

It was Flurry’s voice, away at the other side of the covert. The rustling and brushing through the laurels became more vehement, then passed out of hearing.

“He never will leave his hounds alone,” said Lady Knox disapprovingly.

Miss Sally and the Cockatoo moved away in a series of heraldic capers towards the end of the laurel plantation, and at the same moment I saw Philippa on her bicycle shoot into view on the drive ahead of us.

“I’ve seen a fox!” she screamed, white with what I believe to have been personal terror, though she says it was excitement; “it passed quite close to me!”

“What way did he go?” bellowed a voice which I recognised as Dr. Hickey’s, somewhere in the deep of the laurels.

“Down the drive!” returned Philippa, with a pea-hen quality in her tones with which I was quite unacquainted.

An electrifying screech of “Gone away!” was projected from the laurels by Dr. Hickey.

“Gone away!” chanted Flurry’s horn at the top of the covert.

“This is what he calls cubbing!” said Lady Knox, “a mere farce!” but none the less she loosed her sedate monster into a canter.

Sorcerer got his hind-legs under him, and hardened his crest against the bit, as we all hustled along the drive after the flying figure of my wife. I knew very little about horses, but I realised that even with the hounds tumbling hysterically out of the covert, and the Cockatoo kicking the gravel into his face, Sorcerer comported himself with the manners of the best society. Up a side road I saw Flurry Knox opening half of a gate and cramming through it; in a moment we also had crammed through, and the turf of a pasture field was under our feet. Dr. Hickey leaned forward and took hold of his horse; I did likewise, with the trifling difference that my horse took hold of me, and I steered for Flurry Knox with single-hearted purpose, the hounds, already a field ahead, being merely an exciting and noisy accompaniment of this endeavour. A heavy stone wall was the first occurrence of note. Flurry chose a place where the top was loose, and his clumsy-looking brown mare changed feet on the rattling stones like a fairy. Sorcerer came at it, tense and collected as a bow at full stretch, and sailed steeply into the air; I saw the wall far beneath me, with an unsuspected ditch on the far side, and I felt my hat following me at the full stretch of its guard as we swept over it, then, with a long slant, we descended to earth some sixteen feet from where we had left it, and I was possessor of the gratifying fact that I had achieved a good-sized “fly,” and had not perceptibly moved in my saddle. Subsequent disillusioning experience has taught me that but few horses jump like Sorcerer, so gallantly, so sympathetically, and with such supreme mastery of the subject; but none the less the enthusiasm that he imparted to me has never been extinguished, and that October morning ride revealed to me the unsuspected intoxication of fox-hunting.

Behind me I heard the scrabbling of the Cockatoo’s little hoofs among the loose stones, and Lady Knox, galloping on my left, jerked a maternal chin over her shoulder to mark her daughter’s progress. For my part, had there been an entire circus behind me, I was far too much occupied with ramming on my hat and trying to hold Sorcerer, to have looked round, and all my spare faculties were devoted to steering for Flurry, who had taken a right-handed turn, and was at that moment surmounting a bank of uncertain and briary aspect. I surmounted it also, with the swiftness and simplicity for which the Quaker’s methods of bank jumping had not prepared me, and two or three fields, traversed at the same steeplechase pace, brought us to a road and to an abrupt check. There, suddenly, were the hounds, scrambling in baffled silence down into the road from the opposite bank, to look for the line they had overrun, and there, amazingly, was Philippa, engaged in excited converse with several men with spades over their shoulders.

“Did ye see the fox, boys?” shouted Flurry, addressing the group.

“We did! we did!” cried my wife and her friends in chorus; “he ran up the road!”

“We’d be badly off without Mrs. Yeates!” said Flurry, as he whirled his mare round and clattered up the road with a hustle of hounds after him.

It occurred to me as forcibly as any mere earthly thing can occur to those who are wrapped in the sublimities of a run, that, for a young woman who had never before seen a fox out of a cage at the Zoo, Philippa was taking to hunting very kindly. Her cheeks were a most brilliant pink, her blue eyes shone.

“Oh, Sinclair!” she exclaimed, “they say he’s going for Aussolas, and there’s a road I can ride all the way!”

“Ye can, Miss! Sure we’ll show you!” chorussed her cortège.

Her foot was on the pedal ready to mount. Decidedly my wife was in no need of assistance from me.

Up the road a hound gave a yelp of discovery, and flung himself over a stile into the fields; the rest of the pack went squealing and jostling after him, and I followed Flurry over one of those infinitely varied erections, pleasantly termed “gaps” in Ireland. On this occasion the gap was made of three razor-edged slabs of slate leaning against an iron bar, and Sorcerer conveyed to me his thorough knowledge of the matter by a lift of his hind-quarters that made me feel as if I were being skilfully kicked downstairs. To what extent I looked it, I cannot say, nor providentially can Philippa, as she had already started. I only know that undeserved good luck restored to me my stirrup before Sorcerer got away with me in the next field.

What followed was, I am told, a very fast fifteen minutes; for me time was not; the empty fields rushed past uncounted, fences came and went in a flash, while the wind sang in my ears, and the dazzle of the early sun was in my eyes. I saw the hounds occasionally, sometimes pouring over a green bank, as the charging breaker lifts and flings itself, sometimes driving across a field, as the white tongues of foam slide racing over the sand; and always ahead of me was Flurry Knox, going as a man goes who knows his country, who knows his horse, and whose heart is wholly and absolutely in the right place.

Do what I would, Sorcerer’s implacable stride carried me closer and closer to the brown mare, till, as I thundered down the slope of a long field, I was not twenty yards behind Flurry. Sorcerer had stiffened his neck to iron, and to slow him down was beyond me; but I fought his head away to the right, and found myself coming hard and steady at a stonefaced bank with broken ground in front of it. Flurry bore away to the left, shouting something that I did not understand. That Sorcerer shortened his stride at the right moment was entirely due to his own judgment; standing well away from the jump, he rose like a stag out of the tussocky ground, and as he swung my twelve stone six into the air the obstacle revealed itself to him and me as consisting not of one bank but of two, and between the two lay a deep grassy lane, half choked with furze. I have often been asked to state the width of the bohereen, and can only reply that in my opinion it was at least eighteen feet; Flurry Knox and Dr. Hickey, who did not jump it, say that it is not more than five. What Sorcerer did with it I cannot say; the sensation was of a towering flight with a kick back in it, a biggish drop, and a landing on cee-springs, still on the downhill grade. That was how one of the best horses in Ireland took one of Ireland’s most ignorant riders over a very nasty place.

A sombre line of fir-wood lay ahead, rimmed with a grey wall, and in another couple of minutes we had pulled up on the Aussolas road, and were watching the hounds struggling over the wall into Aussolas demesne.

“No hurry now,” said Flurry, turning in his saddle to watch the Cockatoo jump into the road, “he’s to ground in the big earth inside. Well, Major, it’s well for you that’s a big-jumped horse. I thought you were a dead man a while ago when you faced him at the bohereen!”

I was disclaiming intention in the matter when Lady Knox and the others joined us.

“I thought you told me your wife was no sportswoman,” she said to me, critically scanning Sorcerer’s legs for cuts the while, “but when I saw her a minute ago she had abandoned her bicycle and was running across country like ——”

“Look at her now!” interrupted Miss Sally. “Oh! — oh!” In the interval between these exclamations my incredulous eyes beheld my wife in mid-air, hand in hand with a couple of stalwart country boys, with whom she was leaping in unison from the top of a bank on to the road.

Every one, even the saturnine Dr. Hickey, began to laugh; I rode back to Philippa, who was exchanging compliments and congratulations with her escort.

“Oh, Sinclair!” she cried, “wasn’t it splendid? I saw you jumping, and everything! Where are they going now?”

“My dear girl,” I said, with marital disapproval, “you’re killing yourself. Where’s your bicycle?”

“Oh, it’s punctured in a sort of lane, back there. It’s all right; and then they”— she breathlessly waved her hand at her attendants —“they showed me the way.”

“Begor! you proved very good, Miss!” said a grinning cavalier.

“Faith she did!” said another, polishing his shining brow with his white flannel coat-sleeve, “she lepped like a haarse!”

“And may I ask how you propose to go home?” said I.

“I don’t know and I don’t care! I’m not going home!” She cast an entirely disobedient eye at me. “And your eye-glass is hanging down your back and your tie is bulging out over your waistcoat!”

The little group of riders had begun to move away.

“We’re going on into Aussolas,” called out Flurry; “come on, and make my grandmother give you some breakfast, Mrs. Yeates; she always has it at eight o’clock.”

The front gates were close at hand, and we turned in under the tall beech-trees, with the unswept leaves rustling round the horses’ feet, and the lovely blue of the October morning sky filling the spaces between smooth grey branches and golden leaves. The woods rang with the voices of the hounds, enjoying an untrammelled rabbit hunt, while the Master and the Whip, both on foot, strolled along unconcernedly with their bridles over their arms, making themselves agreeable to my wife, an occasional touch of Flurry’s horn, or a crack of Dr. Rickey’s whip, just indicating to the pack that the authorities still took a friendly interest in their doings.

Down a grassy glade in the wood a party of old Mrs. Knox’s young horses suddenly swept into view, headed by an old mare, who, with her tail over her back, stampeded ponderously past our cavalcade, shaking and swinging her handsome old head, while her youthful friends bucked and kicked and snapped at each other round her with the ferocious humour of their kind.

“Here, Jerome, take the horn,” said Flurry to Dr. Hickey; “I’m going to see Mrs. Yeates up to the house, the way these tomfools won’t gallop on top of her.”

From this point it seems to me that Philippa’s adventures are more worthy of record than mine, and as she has favoured me with a full account of them, I venture to think my version may be relied on.

Mrs. Knox was already at breakfast when Philippa was led, quaking, into her formidable presence. My wife’s acquaintance with Mrs. Knox was, so far, limited to a state visit on either side, and she found but little comfort in Flurry’s assurances that his grandmother wouldn’t mind if he brought all the hounds in to breakfast, coupled with the statement that she would put her eyes on sticks for the Major.

Whatever the truth of this may have been, Mrs. Knox received her guest with an equanimity quite unshaken by the fact that her boots were in the fender instead of on her feet, and that a couple of shawls of varying dimensions and degrees of age did not conceal the inner presence of a magenta flannel dressing-jacket. She installed Philippa at the table and plied her with food, oblivious as to whether the needful implements with which to eat it were forthcoming or no. She told Flurry where a vixen had reared her family, and she watched him ride away, with some biting comments on his mare’s hocks screamed after him from the window.

The dining-room at Aussolas Castle is one of the many rooms in Ireland in which Cromwell is said to have stabled his horse (and probably no one would have objected less than Mrs. Knox had she been consulted in the matter). Philippa questions if the room had ever been tidied up since, and she endorses Flurry’s observation that “there wasn’t a day in the year you wouldn’t get feeding for a hen and chickens on the floor.” Opposite to Philippa, on a Louis Quinze chair, sat Mrs. Knox’s woolly dog, its suspicious little eyes peering at her out of their setting of pink lids and dirty white wool. A couple of young horses outside the windows tore at the matted creepers on the walls, or thrust faces that were half-shy, half-impudent, into the room. Portly pigeons waddled to and fro on the broad window-sill, sometimes flying in to perch on the picture-frames, while they kept up incessantly a hoarse and pompous cooing.

Animals and children are, as a rule, alike destructive to conversation; but Mrs. Knox, when she chose, bien entendu, could have made herself agreeable in a Noah’s ark, and Philippa has a gift of sympathetic attention that personal experience has taught me to regard with distrust as well as respect, while it has often made me realise the worldly wisdom of Kingsley’s injunction:

“Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever.”

Family prayers, declaimed by Mrs. Knox with alarming austerity, followed close on breakfast, Philippa and a vinegar-faced henchwoman forming the family. The prayers were long, and through the open window as they progressed came distantly a whoop or two; the declamatory tones staggered a little, and then continued at a distinctly higher rate of speed.

“Ma’am! Ma’am!” whispered a small voice at the window.

Mrs. Knox made a repressive gesture and held on her way. A sudden outcry of hounds followed, and the owner of the whisper, a small boy with a face freckled like a turkey’s egg, darted from the window and dragged a donkey and bath-chair into view. Philippa admits to having lost the thread of the discourse, but she thinks that the “Amen” that immediately ensued can hardly have come in its usual place. Mrs. Knox shut the book abruptly, scrambled up from her knees, and said, “They’ve found!”

In a surprisingly short space of time she had added to her attire her boots, a fur cape, and a garden hat, and was in the bath-chair, the small boy stimulating the donkey with the success peculiar to his class, while Philippa hung on behind.

The woods of Aussolas are hilly and extensive, and on that particular morning it seemed that they held as many foxes as hounds. In vain was the horn blown, and the whips cracked, small rejoicing parties of hounds, each with a fox of its own, scoured to and fro: every labourer in the vicinity had left his work, and was sedulously heading every fox with yells that would have befitted a tiger hunt, and sticks and stones when occasion served.

“Will I pull out as far as the big rosy-dandhrum, ma’am?” inquired the small boy; “I seen three of the dogs go in it, and they yowling.”

“You will,” said Mrs. Knox, thumping the donkey on the back with her umbrella; “here! Jeremiah Regan! Come down out of that with that pitchfork! Do you want to kill the fox, you fool?”

“I do not, your honour, ma’am,” responded Jeremiah Regan, a tall young countryman, emerging from a bramble brake.

“Did you see him?” said Mrs. Knox eagerly.

“I seen himself and his ten pups drinking below at the lake ere yestherday, your honour, ma’am, and he as big as a chestnut horse!” said Jeremiah.

“Faugh! Yesterday!” snorted Mrs. Knox; “go on to the rhododendrons, Johnny!”

The party, reinforced by Jeremiah and the pitchfork, progressed at a high rate of speed along the shrubbery path, encountering en route Lady Knox, stooping on to her horse’s neck under the sweeping branches of the laurels.

“Your horse is too high for my coverts, Lady Knox,” said the Lady of the Manor, with a malicious eye at Lady Knox’s flushed face and dinged hat; “I’m afraid you will be left behind like Absalom when the hounds go away!”

“As they never do anything here but hunt rabbits,” retorted her ladyship, “I don’t think that’s likely.”

Mrs. Knox gave her donkey another whack, and passed on.

“Rabbits, my dear!” she said scornfully to Philippa. “That’s all she knows about it. I declare it disgusts me to see a woman of that age making such a Judy of herself! Rabbits indeed!”

Down in the thicket of rhododendron everything was very quiet for a time. Philippa strained her eyes in vain to see any of the riders; the horn blowing and the whip cracking passed on almost out of hearing. Once or twice a hound worked through the rhododendrons, glanced at the party, and hurried on, immersed in business. All at once Johnny, the donkey-boy, whispered excitedly:

“Look at he! Look at he!” and pointed to a boulder of grey rock that stood out among the dark evergreens. A big yellow cub was crouching on it; he instantly slid into the shelter of the bushes, and the irrepressible Jeremiah, uttering a rending shriek, plunged into the thicket after him. Two or three hounds came rushing at the sound, and after this Philippa says she finds some difficulty in recalling the proper order of events; chiefly, she confesses, because of the wholly ridiculous tears of excitement that blurred her eyes.

“We ran,” she said, “we simply tore, and the donkey galloped, and as for that old Mrs. Knox, she was giving cracked screams to the hounds all the time, and they were screaming too; and then somehow we were all out on the road!”

What seems to have occurred was that three couple of hounds, Jeremiah Regan, and Mrs. Knox’s equipage, amongst them somehow hustled the cub out of Aussolas demesne and up on to a hill on the farther side of the road. Jeremiah was sent back by his mistress to fetch Flurry, and the rest of the party pursued a thrilling course along the road, parallel with that of the hounds, who were hunting slowly through the gorse on the hillside.

“Upon my honour and word, Mrs. Yeates, my dear, we have the hunt to ourselves!” said Mrs. Knox to the panting Philippa, as they pounded along the road. “Johnny, d’ye see the fox?”

“I do, ma’am!” shrieked Johnny, who possessed the usual field-glass vision bestowed upon his kind. “Look at him over-right us on the hill above! Hi! The spotty dog have him! No, he’s gone from him! Gwan out o’ that!” This to the donkey, with blows that sounded like the beating of carpets, and produced rather more dust.

They had left Aussolas some half a mile behind, when, from a strip of wood on their right, the fox suddenly slipped over the bank on to the road just ahead of them, ran up it for a few yards and whisked in at a small entrance gate, with the three couple of hounds yelling on a red-hot scent, not thirty yards behind. The bath-chair party whirled in at their heels, Philippa and the donkey considerably blown, Johnny scarlet through his freckles, but as fresh as paint, the old lady blind and deaf to all things save the chase. The hounds went raging through the shrubs beside the drive, and away down a grassy slope towards a shallow glen, in the bottom of which ran a little stream, and after them over the grass bumped the bath-chair. At the stream they turned sharply and ran up the glen towards the avenue, which crossed it by means of a rough stone viaduct.

“‘Pon me conscience, he’s into the old culvert!” exclaimed Mrs. Knox; “there was one of my hounds choked there once, long ago! Beat on the donkey, Johnny!”

At this juncture Philippa’s narrative again becomes incoherent, not to say breathless. She is, however, positive that it was somewhere about here that the upset of the bath-chair occurred, but she cannot be clear as to whether she picked up the donkey or Mrs. Knox, or whether she herself was picked up by Johnny while Mrs. Knox picked up the donkey. From my knowledge of Mrs. Knox I should say she picked up herself and no one else. At all events, the next salient point is the palpitating moment when Mrs. Knox, Johnny, and Philippa successively applying an eye to the opening of the culvert by which the stream trickled under the viaduct, while five dripping hounds bayed and leaped around them, discovered by more senses than that of sight that the fox was in it, and furthermore that one of the hounds was in it too.

“There’s a sthrong grating before him at the far end,” said Johnny, his head in at the mouth of the hole, his voice sounding as if he were talking into a jug, “the two of them’s fighting in it; they’ll be choked surely!”

“Then don’t stand gabbling there, you little fool, but get in and pull the hound out!” exclaimed Mrs. Knox, who was balancing herself on a stone in the stream.

“I’d be in dread, ma’am,” whined Johnny.

“Balderdash!” said the implacable Mrs. Knox. “In with you!”

I understand that Philippa assisted Johnny into the culvert, and presume that it was in so doing that she acquired the two Robinson Crusoe bare footprints which decorated her jacket when I next met her.

“Have you got hold of him yet, Johnny?” cried Mrs. Knox up the culvert.

“I have, ma’am, by the tail,” responded Johnny’s voice, sepulchral in the depths.

“Can you stir him, Johnny?”

“I cannot, ma’am, and the wather is rising in it.”

“Well, please God, they’ll not open the mill dam!” remarked Mrs. Knox philosophically to Philippa, as she caught hold of Johnny’s dirty ankles. “Hold on to the tail, Johnny!”

She hauled, with, as might be expected, no appreciable result. “Run, my dear, and look for somebody, and we’ll have that fox yet!”

Philippa ran, whither she knew not, pursued by fearful visions of bursting mill-dams, and maddened foxes at bay. As she sped up the avenue she heard voices, robust male voices, in a shrubbery, and made for them. Advancing along an embowered walk towards her was what she took for one wild instant to be a funeral; a second glance showed her that it was a party of clergymen of all ages, walking by twos and threes in the dappled shade of the over-arching trees. Obviously she had intruded her sacrilegious presence into a Clerical Meeting. She acknowledges that at this awe-inspiring spectacle she faltered, but the thought of Johnny, the hound, and the fox, suffocating, possibly drowning together in the culvert, nerved her. She does not remember what she said or how she said it, but I fancy she must have conveyed to them the impression that old Mrs. Knox was being drowned, as she immediately found herself heading a charge of the Irish Church towards the scene of disaster.

Fate has not always used me well, but on this occasion it was mercifully decreed that I and the other members of the hunt should be privileged to arrive in time to see my wife and her rescue party precipitating themselves down the glen.

“Holy Biddy!” ejaculated Flurry, “is she running a paper-chase with all the parsons? But look! For pity’s sake will you look at my grandmother and my Uncle Eustace?”

Mrs. Knox and her sworn enemy the old clergyman, whom I had met at dinner the night before, were standing, apparently in the stream, tugging at two bare legs that projected from a hole in the viaduct, and arguing at the top of their voices. The bath-chair lay on its side with the donkey grazing beside it, on the bank a stout Archdeacon was tendering advice, and the hounds danced and howled round the entire group.

“I tell you, Eliza, you had better let the Archdeacon try,” thundered Mr. Hamilton.

“Then I tell you I will not!” vociferated Mrs. Knox, with a tug at the end of the sentence that elicited a subterranean lament from Johnny. “Now who was right about the second grating? I told you so twenty years ago!”

Exactly as Philippa and her rescue party arrived, the efforts of Mrs. Knox and her brother-in-law triumphed. The struggling, sopping form of Johnny was slowly drawn from the hole, drenched, speechless, but clinging to the stern of a hound, who, in its turn, had its jaws fast in the hind-quarters of a limp, yellow cub.

“Oh, it’s dead!” wailed Philippa, “I did think I should have been in time to save it!”

“Well, if that doesn’t beat all!” said Dr. Hickey.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/somerville-and-ross/some-experiences-of-an-irish-r-m/chapter6.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30