The Duke's Children, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 57

The Meeting at The Bobtailed Fox

It was now the middle of December, and matters were not comfortable in the Runnymede country. The Major with much pluck had carried on his operations in opposition to the wishes of the resident members of the hunt. The owners of coverts had protested, and farmers had sworn that he should not ride over their lands. There had even been some talk among the younger men of thrashing him if he persevered. But he did persevere, and had managed to have one or two good runs. Now it was the fortune of the Runnymede hunt that many of those who rode with the hounds were strangers to the country — men who came down by train from London, gentlemen perhaps of no great distinction, who could ride hard, but as to whom it was thought that as they did not provide the land to ride over, or the fences to be destroyed, or the coverts for the foxes, or the greater part of the subscription, they ought not to oppose those by whom all these things were supplied. But the Major, knowing where his strength lay, had managed to get a party to support him. The contract to hunt the country had been made with him in last March, and was good for one year. Having the kennels and the hounds under his command he did hunt the country; but he did so amidst a storm of contumely and ill will.

At last it was decided that a general meeting of the members of the hunt should be called together with the express object of getting rid of the Major. The gentlemen of the neighbourhood felt that the Major was not to be borne, and the farmers were very much stronger against him than the gentlemen. It had now become a settled belief among sporting men in England that the Major had with his own hands driven the nail into the horse’s foot. Was it to be endured that the Runnymede farmers should ride to hounds under a master who had been guilty of such an iniquity as that? The Staines and Egham Gazette, which had always supported the Runnymede hunt, declared in very plain terms that all who rode with the Major were enjoying their sport out of the plunder which had been extracted from Lord Silverbridge. Then a meeting was called for Saturday, the eighteenth of December, to be held at that well-known sporting little inn the Bobtailed Fox. The members of the hunt were earnestly called upon to attend. It was — so said the printed document which was issued — the only means by which the hunt could be preserved. If gentlemen who were interested did not put their shoulders to the wheel the Runnymede hunt must be regarded as a thing of the past. One of the documents was sent to the Major with an intimation that if he wished to attend no objection would be made to his presence. The chair would be taken at half-past twelve punctually at that popular and well-known old sportsman Mr Mahogany Topps.

Was ever the master of a hunt treated in such a way! His presence not objected to! As a rule the master of a hunt does not attend hunt meetings, because the matter to be discussed is generally that of the money to be subscribed for him, as to which it was as well that he should not hear the pros and cons. But it is presumed that he is to be the hero of the hour, and that he is to be treated to his face, and spoken of behind his back, with love, admiration, and respect. But now this matter was told his presence would be allowed! And then this fox-hunting meeting was summoned for half-past twelve on a hunting day; — when, as all the world knew, the hounds were to meet at eleven, twelve miles off! Was ever anything so base? said the Major to himself. But he resolved that he would be equal to the occasion. He immediately issued cards to all the members, stating that on that day the meet had been changed from Croppingham Bushes, which was ever so much on the other side of Bagshot, to the Bobtailed Fox — for the benefit of the hunt at large, said the card — and that the hounds would be there at half-past one.

Whatever might happen, he must show a spirit. In all this there were one of two of the London brigade who stood fast to him. ‘Cock your tail, Tifto,’ said one hard-riding supporter, ‘and show ’em you aren’t afraid of nothing.’ So Tifto cocked his tail and went to the meeting in his best new scarlet coat, and with his whitest breeches, his pinkest boots, and his neatest little bows at his knees. He entered the room with his horn in his hand, as a symbol of authority, and took off his hunting-cap to salute the assembly with a jaunty air. He had taken two glasses of sherry brandy, and as long as the stimulant lasted would no doubt be able to support himself with audacity.

Old Mr Topps, in rising from his chair, did not say very much. He had been hunting in the Runnymede country for nearly fifty years, and had never seen anything so sad as this before. It made him, he knew, very unhappy. As for foxes, there were always plenty of foxes in his coverts. His friend Mr Jawstock, on the right, would explain what all this was about. All he wanted was to see the Runnymede hunt properly kept up. Then he sat down, and Mr Jawstock rose to his legs.

Mr Jawstock was a gentleman well known in the Runnymede country, who had himself been instrumental in bringing the Major into these parts. There is often someone in a hunting country who never becomes a master of hounds himself, but who has almost as much to say about the business as the master himself. Sometimes at hunt meetings he is rather unpopular, as he is always inclined to talk. But there are occasions on which his services are felt to be valuable — as were Mr Jawstock’s at present. He was about forty-five years of age, and was not much given to riding, owned no coverts himself, and was not a man of wealth; but he understood the nature of hunting, knew all its laws, and was a judge of horses, of hounds — and of men; and could say a thing when he had to say it.

Mr Jawstock sat on the right hand of Mr Topps, and a place was left for the master opposite. The task to be performed was neither easy nor pleasant. It was necessary that the orator should accuse the gentleman opposite to him — a man with whom he himself had been very intimate — of iniquity so gross and so mean, that nothing worse can be conceived. ‘You are a swindler, a cheat, a rascal of the very deepest dye; — a rogue so mean that it is revolting to be in the same room with you!’ That was what Mr Jawstock had to say. And he said it. Looking round the room, occasionally appealing to Mr Topps, who on these occasions would lift up his hands in horror, but never letting his eye fall for a moment on the Major. Mr Jawstock told his story. ‘I did not see it done,’ said he. ‘I know nothing about it. I never was at Doncaster in my life. But you have evidence of what the Jockey Club thinks. The Master of our Hunt has been banished from racecourses.’ Here there was considerable opposition, and a few short but excited little dialogues were maintained; — throughout all which Tifto restrained himself like a Spartan. ‘At any rate he has been thoroughly disgraced,’ continued Mr Jawstock, ‘as a sporting man. He has been driven out of the Beargarden Club.’ ‘He resigned in disgust at their treatment,’ said a friend of the Major’s. ‘Then let him resign in disgust at ours,’ said Mr Jawstock, ‘for we won’t have him here. Caesar wouldn’t keep a wife who was suspected of infidelity, nor will the Runnymede country endure a Master of Hounds who is supposed to have driven a nail into a horse’s foot.’

Two or three other gentlemen had something to say before the Major was allowed to speak — the upshot of the discourse of all of them being the same. The Major must go.

Then the Major got up, and certainly as far as attention went he had full justice done him. However clamorous they might intend to be afterwards that amount of fair play they were all determined to afford him. The Major was not excellent at speaking, but he did perhaps better than might have been expected. ‘This is a very disagreeable position,’ he said, ‘very disagreeable indeed. As for the nail in the horse’s foot I know no more about it than the babe unborn. But I’ve got two things to say, and I’ll say what aren’t the most consequence first. These hounds belong to me.’ Here he paused, and a loud contradiction came from many parts of the room. Mr Jawstock, however, proposed that the Major should be heard to the end. ‘I say they belong to me,’ repeated the Major. ‘If anybody tries his hand at anything else the law will soon set that to rights. But that aren’t of much consequence. What I’ve got to say is this. Let the matter be referred. If that ‘orse had a nail in run into his foot — and I don’t say he hadn’t — who was the man most injured? Why, Lord Silverbridge. Everybody knows that. I suppose he dropped well on to eighty thousand pounds! I propose to leave it to him. Let him say. He ought to know more about it than anyone. He and I were partners in the horse. His Lordship aren’t very sweet upon me at the just at present. Nobody need fear that he’ll do me a good turn. I say leave it to him.’

In the matter the Major had certainly been well advised. A rumour had come become prevalent among sporting circles that Silverbridge had refused to condemn the Major. It was known that he had paid his bets without delay, and that he had, to some extent, declined to take advice from the leaders of the Jockey Club. The Major’s friends were informed that the young lord had refused to vote against him at the club. Was it not more than probable that if this matter were referred to him he would refuse to give a verdict against his late partner?

The Major sat down, put on his cap, and folded his arms akimbo, with his horn sticking out from his left hand. For a time there was a general silence, broken, however, by murmurs in different parts of the room. Then Mr Jawstock whispered something into the ear of the Chairman, and Mr Topps, rising from his seat, suggested to Tifto that he should retire. ‘I think so,’ said Jawstock. ‘The proposition that you have made can only be discussed only in your absence.’ Then the Major held a consultation with one of his friends, and after that did retire.

When he was gone the real hubbub of the meeting commenced. There were some there who understood the nature of Lord Silverbridge’s feelings in the matter. ‘He would be the last man in England to declare him guilty,’ said Mr Jawstock. ‘Whatever my lord says, he shan’t ride across my land,’ said a farmer in the background. ‘I don’t think any gentleman ever made a fairer proposition — since anything was anything,’ said a friend of the Major’s, a gentleman who kept livery stables in Long Acre. ‘We won’t have him here,’ said another farmer — whereupon Mr Topps shook his head sadly. ‘I don’t think any gentleman ought to be condemned without a ‘earing,’ said one of Tifto’s admirers, ‘and where you’re to get anyone to hunt in the country like him, I don’t know as anybody is prepared to say.’ ‘We’ll manage that,’ said a young gentleman from the neighbourhood of Bagshot, who thought that he could hunt the country himself quite as well as Major Tifto. ‘He must go from here; that’s the long and short of it,’ said Mr Jawstock. ‘Put it to the vote, Mr Jawstock,’ said the livery-stable keeper. Mr Topps, who had had great experience in public meetings, hereupon expressed an opinion that they might as well go to a vote. No doubt he was right if the matter was one which must sooner or later be determined in that manner.

Mr Jawstock looked round the room trying to calculate what might be the effect of a show of hands. The majority was with him; but he was well aware that of this majority some few would be drawn away by the apparent justice of Tifto’s proposition. And what was the use of voting? Let them vote as they might, it was out of the question that Tifto should remain master of the hunt. But the chairman had acceded, and on such occasions it is difficult to go against the chairman.

Then there came a show of hands — first for those who desired to refer the matter to Lord Silverbridge, and afterwards for Tifto’s direct enemies — for those who were anxious to banish Tifto out of hand, without reference to anyone. At last the matter was settled. To the great annoyance of Mr Jawstock and the farmers the meeting voted that Lord Silverbridge should be invited to give his opinion as to the innocence or guilt of his late partner.

The Major’s friends carried the discussion out to him as he sat on horseback, as though he had altogether gained the battle and was secure in his position as Master of the Runnymede Hunt for the next dozen years. But at the same time there came a message from Mr Mahogany Topps. It was now half-past two, and Mr Topps expressed a hope that Major Tifto would not draw the country on the present occasion. The Major, thinking that it might be as well to conciliate his enemies, road slowly and solemnly home to Tally-ho Lodge in the middle of his hounds.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:43