Hunting Sketches, by Anthony Trollope

The Master of Hounds.

The master of hounds best known by modern description is the master of the Jorrocks type. Now, as I take it, this is not the type best known by English sportsmen, nor do the Jorrocks ana, good though they be, give any fair picture of such a master of hounds as ordinarily presides over the hunt in English counties. Mr. Jorrocks comes into a hunt when no one else can be found to undertake the work; when, in want of any one better, the subscribers hire his services as those of an upper servant; when, in fact, the hunt is at a low ebb, and is struggling for existence. Mr. Jorrocks with his carpet-bag then makes his appearance, driving the hardest bargain that he can, purposing to do the country at the lowest possible figure, followed by a short train of most undesirable nags, with reference to which the wonder is that Mr. Jorrocks should be able to induce any hunting servant to trust his neck to their custody. Mr. Jorrocks knows his work, and is generally a most laborious man. Hunting is his profession, but it is one by which he can barely exist. He hopes to sell a horse or two during the season, and in this way adds something of the trade of a dealer to his other trade. But his office is thankless, ill-paid, closely watched, and subject to all manner of indignities. Men suspect him, and the best of those who ride with him will hardly treat him as their equal. He is accepted as a disagreeable necessity, and is dismissed as soon as the country can do better for itself. Any hunt that has subjected itself to Mr. Jorrocks knows that it is in disgrace, and will pass its itinerant master on to some other district as soon as it can suit itself with a proper master of the good old English sort.

It is of such a master as this, a master of the good old English sort, and not of an itinerant contractor for hunting, that I here intend to speak. Such a master is usually an old resident in the county which he hunts; one of those country noblemen or gentlemen whose parks are the glory of our English landscape, and whose names are to be found in the pages of our county records; or if not that, he is one who, with a view to hunting, has brought his family and fortune into a new district, and has found a ready place as a country gentleman among new neighbours. It has been said that no one should become a member of Parliament unless he be a man of fortune. I hold such a rule to be much more true with reference to a master of hounds. For his own sake this should be so, and much more so for the sake of those over whom he has to preside. It is a position in which no man can be popular without wealth, and it is a position which no man should seek to fill unless he be prepared to spend his money for the gratification of others. It has been said of masters of hounds that they must always have their hands in their pockets, and must always have a guinea to find there; and nothing can be truer than this if successful hunting is to be expected. Men have hunted countries, doubtless, on economical principles, and the sport has been carried on from year to year; but under such circumstances it is ever dwindling and becoming frightfully less. The foxes disappear, and when found almost instantly sink below ground. Distant coverts, which are ever the best because less frequently drawn, are deserted, for distance of course adds greatly to expense. The farmers round the centre of the county become sullen, and those beyond are indifferent; and so, from bad to worse, the famine goes on till the hunt has perished of atrophy. Grease to the wheels, plentiful grease to the wheels, is needed in all machinery; but I know of no machinery in which everrunning grease is so necessary as in the machinery of hunting.

Of such masters as I am now describing there are two sorts, of which, however, the one is going rapidly and, I think, happily out of fashion. There is the master of hounds who takes a subscription, and the master who takes none. Of the latter class of sportsman, of the imperial head of a country who looks upon the coverts of all his neighbours as being almost his own property, there are, I believe, but few left. Nor is such imperialism fitted for the present age. In the days of old of which we read so often, the days of Squire Western, when fox-hunting was still young among us, this was the fashion in which all hunts were maintained. Any country gentleman who liked the sport kept a small pack of hounds, and rode over his own lands or the lands of such of his neighbours as had no similar establishments of their own. We never hear of Squire Western that he hunted the county, or that he went far afield to his meets. His tenants joined him, and by degrees men came to his hunt from greater distances around him. As the necessity for space increased, increasing from increase of hunting ambition, the richer and more ambitious squires began to undertake the management of wider areas, and so our hunting districts were formed. But with such extension of area there came, of course, necessity of extended expenditure, and so the fashion of subscription lists arose. There have remained some few great Nimrods who have chosen to be magnanimous and to pay for everything, despising the contributions of their followers. Such a one was the late Earl Fitzhardinge, and after such manner in, as I believe, the Berkeley hunt still conducted. But it need hardly be explained, that as hunting is now conducted in England, such a system is neither fair nor palatable. It is not fair that so great a cost for the amusement of other men should fall upon any one man’s pocket; nor is it palatable to others that such unlimited power should be placed in any one man’s hands. The ordinary master of subscription hounds is no doubt autocratic, but he is not autocratic with all the power of tyranny which belongs to the despot who rules without taxation. I doubt whether any master of a subscription pack would advertise his meets for eleven, with an understanding that the hounds were never to move till twelve, when he intended to be present in person. Such was the case with Lord Fitzhardinge, and I do not know that it was generally thought that he carried his power too far. And I think, too, that gentlemen feel that they ride with more pleasure when they themselves contribute to the cost of their own amusement.

Our master of hounds shall be a country gentleman who takes a subscription, and who therefore, on becoming autocratic, makes himself answerable to certain general rules for the management of his autocracy. He shall hunt not less, let us say, than three days a week; but though not less, it will be expected probably that he will hunt oftener. That is, he will advertise three days and throw a byeday in for the benefit of his own immediate neighbourhood; and these byedays, it must be known, are the cream of hunting, for there is no crowd, and the foxes break sooner and run straighter. And he will be punctual to his time, giving quarter to none and asking none himself. He will draw fairly through the day, and indulge no caprices as to coverts. The laws, indeed, are never written, but they exist and are understood; and when they be too recklessly disobeyed, the master of hounds falls from his high place and retires into private life, generally with a broken heart. In the hunting field, as in all other communities, republics, and governments, the power of the purse is everything. As long as that be retained, the despotism of the master is tempered and his rule will be beneficent.

Five hundred pounds a day is about the sum which a master should demand for hunting an average country, that is, so many times five hundred pounds a year as he may hunt days in the week. If four days a week be required of him, two thousand a year will be little enough. But as a rule, I think masters are generally supposed to charge only for the advertised days, and to give the byedays out of their own pocket. Nor must it be thought that the money so subscribed will leave the master free of expense. As I have said before, he should be a rich man. Whatever be the subscription paid to him, he must go beyond it, very much beyond it, or there will grow up against him a feeling that he is mean, and that feeling will rob him of all his comfort. Hunting men in England wish to pay for their own amusement; but they desire that more shall be spent than they pay. And in this there is a rough justice, that roughness of justice which pervades our English institutions. To a master of hounds is given a place of great influence, and into his hands is confided an authority the possession of which among his fellow-sportsmen is very pleasant to him. For this he is expected to pay, and he does pay for it. A Lord Mayor is, I take it, much in the same category. He has a salary as Lord Mayor, but if he do not spend more than that on his office he becomes a byword for stinginess among Lord Mayors To be Lord Mayor is his whistle, and he pays for it.

For myself, if I found myself called upon to pay for one whistle or the other, I would sooner be a master of hounds than a Lord Mayor. The power is certainly more perfect, and the situation, I think, more splendid. The master of hounds has no aldermen, no common council, no liverymen. As long as he fairly performs his part of the compact, he is altogether without control. He is not unlike the captain of a man-of-war; but, unlike the captain of a man-of-war, he carries no sailing orders. He is free to go where he lists, and is hardly expected to tell any one whither he goeth. He is enveloped in a mystery which, to the young, adds greatly to his grandeur; and he is one of those who, in spite of the democratic tenderness of the age, may still be said to go about as a king among men. No one contradicts him. No one speaks evil of him to his face; and men tremble when they have whispered anything of some half-drawn covert, of some unstopped earth, some fox that should not have escaped, and, looking round, see that the master is within earshot. He is flattered, too, if that be of any avail to him. How he is flattered! What may be done in this way to Lord Mayors by common councilmen who like Mansion-house crumbs, I do not know; but kennel crumbs must be very sweet to a large class of sportsmen. Indeed, they are so sweet that almost every man will condescend to flatter the master of hounds. And ladies too, all the pretty girls delight to be spoken to by the master! He needs no introduction, but is free to sip all the sweets that come. Who will not kiss the toe of his boots, or refuse to be blessed by the sunshine of his smile?

But there are heavy duties, deep responsibilities, and much true heart-felt anxiety to stand as makeweight against all these sweets. The master of hounds, even though he take no part in the actual work of hunting his own pack, has always his hands full of work. He is always learning, and always called upon to act on his knowledge suddenly. A Lord Mayor may sit at the Mansionhouse, I think, without knowing much of the law. He may do so without discovery of his ignorance. But the master of hounds who does not know his business is seen through at once. To say what that business is would take a paper longer than this, and the precept writer by no means considers himself equal to such a task. But it is multifarious, and demands a special intellect for itself. The master should have an eye like an eagle’s, an ear like a thief’s, and a heart like a dog’s that can be either soft or ruthless as occasion may require. How he should love his foxes, and with what pertinacity he should kill them! How he should rejoice when his skill has assisted in giving the choice men of his hunt a run that they can remember for the next six years! And how heavy should be his heart within him when he trudges home with them, weary after a blank day, to the misery of which his incompetency has, perhaps, contributed! A master of hounds should be an anxious man; so anxious that the privilege of talking to pretty girls should be of little service to him.

One word I will say as to the manners of a master of hounds, and then I will have done. He should be an urbane man, but not too urbane; and he should certainly be capable of great austerity. It used to be said that no captain of a man-of-war could hold his own without swearing. I will not quite say the same of a master of hounds, or the old ladies who think hunting to be wicked will have a handle against me. But I will declare that if any man could be justified in swearing, it would be a master of hounds. The troubles of the captain are as nothing to his. The captain has the ultimate power of the sword, or at any rate of the fetter, in his hands, while the master has but his own tongue to trust, his tongue and a certain influence which his position gives him. The master who can make that influence suffice without swearing is indeed a great man. Now-a-days swearing is so distasteful to the world at large, that great efforts are made to rule without it, and some such efforts are successful; but any man who has hunted for the last twenty years will bear me out in saying that hard words in a master’s mouth used to be considered indispensable. Now and then a little irony is tried. “I wonder, sir, how much you’d take to go home?” I once heard a master ask of a red-coated stranger who was certainly more often among the hounds than he need have been. “Nothing on earth, sir, while you carry on as you are doing just at present,” said the stranger. The master accepted the compliment, and the stranger sinned no more.

There are some positions among mankind which are so peculiarly blessed that the owners of them seem to have been specially selected by Providence for happiness on earth in a degree sufficient to raise the malice and envy of all the world around. An English country gentleman with ten thousand a year must have been so selected. Members of Parliament with seats for counties have been exalted after the same unjust fashion. Popular masters of old-established hunts sin against their fellows in the same way. But when it comes to a man to fill up all these positions in England, envy and malice must be dead in the land if he be left alive to enjoy their fruition.

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