‘What does your father mean to do about Trumpington Wood?’ That was the first word from Lord Chiltern after he had shaken hands with his guest.
‘Isn’t it all right yet?’
‘All right? No! How can a wood like that be all right without a man about the place who knows anything of the nature of a fox? In your grandfather’s time —’
‘My great-uncle you mean.’
‘Well — your great-uncle! — they used to trap the foxes there. There was a fellow named Fothergill who used to come there for shooting. Now it is worse than ever. Nobody shoots there because there is nothing to shoot. There isn’t a keeper. Every scamp is allowed to go where he pleases, and of course there isn’t a fox in the whole place. My huntsman laughs at me when I ask him to draw it.’ As the indignant Master of the Brake Hounds said this the very fire flashed from his eyes.
‘My dear,’ said Lady Chiltern expostulating, ‘Lord Silverbridge hasn’t been in the house above half an hour.’
‘What does that matter? When a thing has to be said it had better be said at once.’
Phineas Finn was staying at Harrington with his intimate friends the Chilterns, as were a certain Mr and Mrs Maule, both of whom were addicted to hunting — the lady whose maiden name was Palliser, being a cousin of Lord Silverbridge. On that day also a certain Mr and Mrs Spooner dined at Harrington. Mr and Mrs Spooner were both very much given to hunting, as seemed to be necessarily the case with everybody admitted to the house. Mr Spooner was a gentleman who might be on the wrong side of fifty, with a red nose, very vigorous, and submissive in regard to all things but port-wine. His wife was perhaps something more than half his age, a stout, hard-riding, handsome woman. She had been the penniless daughter of a retired officer — but yet had managed to ride on whatever animal anyone would lend her. Then Mr Spooner, who had for many years been part and parcel of the Brake hunt, and who was much in want of a wife, had, luckily for her, cast his eyes upon Miss Leatherside. It was thought that upon the whole she made him a good wife. She hunted four days a week, and he could afford to keep horses for her. She never flirted, and wanted no one to open gates. Tom Spooner himself was not always so forward as he used to be; but his wife was always there and would tell him all that he did not see himself. And she was a good housewife, taking care that nothing should be spent lavishly, except upon the stable. Of him, too, and of his health, she was careful, never scrupling to say a word in season when he was likely to hurt himself, either among the fences, or among the decanters. ‘You ain’t so young as you were, Tom. Don’t think of doing it.’ This she would say to him with a loud voice when she would find him pausing at a fence. Then she would hop over herself and he would go round. She as ‘quite a providence to him’, as her mother, old Mrs Leatherside, would say.
She was hardly the woman that one would have expected to meet as a friend in the drawing-room of Lady Chiltern. Lord Chiltern was perhaps a little rough, but Lady Chiltern was all that a mother, a wife, and a lady ought to be. She probably felt that some little apology ought to be made for Mrs Spooner. ‘I hope you like hunting,’ she said to Silverbridge.
‘Best of all things,’ he said enthusiastically.
‘Because you know this is Castle Nimrod, in which nothing is allowed to interfere with the one great business in life.’
‘It’s like that, is it?’
‘Quite like that. Lord Chiltern has taken up hunting as his duty in life, and he does it with his might and main. Not to have a good day is a misery to him; — not for himself but because he feels that he is responsible. We had one blank day last year, and I thought he never would recover it. It was that unfortunate Trumpington Wood.’
‘How he will hate me.’
‘Not if you praise the hounds judiciously. And then there is a Mr Spooner coming here tonight. He is the first-lieutenant. He understands all about the foxes, and all about the farmers. He has got a wife.’
‘Does she understand anything?’
‘She understands him. She is coming too. They have not been married long, and he never goes anywhere without her.’
‘Does she ride?’
‘Well; yes. I never go myself now because I have so much of it all at home. But I fancy she does ride a good deal. She will talk hunting too. If Chiltern were to leave the country I think they ought to make her master. Perhaps you’ll think her rather odd; but really she is a very good woman.’
‘I am sure I will like her.’
‘I hope you will. You know Mr Finn. He is here. He and my husband are very old friends. And Adelaide Maule is your cousin. She hunts too. And so does Mr Maule — only not quite so energetically. I think that is all we shall have.’
Immediately after that all the guests came in at once, and a discussion was heard as they were passing through the hall. ‘No; — that wasn’t it,’ said Mrs Spooner loudly. ‘I don’t care what Dick said.’ Dick Rabbit was the first whip, and seemed to have been much exercised with the matter now under dispute. ‘The fox never went into Grobby Gorse at all. I was there and saw Sappho give him a line down the bank.’
‘I think he must have gone into the gorse, my dear,’ said her husband. ‘The earth was open, you know.’
‘I tell you she didn’t. You weren’t there, and you can’t know. I’m sure it was a vixen by her running. We ought to have killed that fox, my Lord.’ Then Mrs Spooner made her obeisance to her hostess. Perhaps she was rather slow in doing this, but the greatness of the subject had been the cause. These are matters so important, that the ordinary civilities of the world should not stand in their way.
‘What do you say, Chiltern?’ asked the husband.
‘I say that Mrs Spooner isn’t very often wrong, and the Dick Rabbit isn’t very often right about a fox.’
‘It was a pretty run,’ said Phineas.
‘Just thirty-four minutes,’ said Mr Spooner.
‘Thirty-two up to Grobby Gorse,’ asserted Mrs Spooner. ‘The hounds never hunted a yard after that. Dick hurried them into the gorse, and the old hound wouldn’t stick to her line when she found that no one believed her.’
This was on Monday evening, and the Brake hounds went out generally five days a week. ‘You’ll hunt tomorrow, I suppose,’ Lady Chiltern said to Silverbridge.
‘I hope so.’
‘You must hunt tomorrow. Indeed there is nothing else to do. Chiltern has taken such a dislike to shooting-men, that he won’t shoot pheasants himself. We don’t hunt on Wednesdays or Sundays, and then everybody lies in bed. Here is Mr Maule, he lies in bed on other mornings as well, and spend the rest of his day riding about the country looking for the hounds.
‘Does he ever find them?’
‘What did become of you all today?’ said Mr Maule, as he took his place at the dinner-table. ‘You can’t have drawn any of the coverts regularly.’
‘Then we found our foxes without drawing them,’ said the master.
‘We chopped one at Bromley’s,’ said Mr Spooner.
‘I went there.’
‘Then you ought to have known better,’ said Mrs Spooner. ‘When a man loses the hounds in that country, he ought to go direct to Brackett’s Wood. If you had come on to Brackett’s Wood, you’d have seen as good a thirty-two minutes as ever you wished to ride.’ When the ladies went out of the room Mrs Spooner gave a parting word of advice to her husband, and to the host. ‘Now, Tom, don’t you drink port-wine. Lord Chiltern, look after him, and don’t let him have port-wine.’
Then there began an altogether different phase of hunting conversation. As long as the ladies were there it was all very well to talk of hunting as an amusement, good sport, a thirty minutes or so, the delight of having a friend in a ditch, or the glory of a still-built rail were fitting subjects for a higher hour. But now the business of the night was to begin. The difficulties, the enmities, the precautions, the resolutions, the resources of the Brake hunt were to be discussed. And from thence the conversation of these devotees strayed away to the perils at large to which hunting in these modern days is subjected; — not the perils of broken necks and crushed ribs, which can be reduced to an average, and so an end made of that small matter; but the perils from outsiders, the perils of newfangled prejudices, the perils from more modern sports, the perils from over-cultivation, the perils from extended population, the perils from intruding cads, the perils from indifferent magistrates — the Duke of Omnium for instance — and that peril of perils, the peril of decrease of funds and increase of expenditure! The jaunty gentleman who puts on his dainty breeches and his pair of boots, and his single horse rides out on a pleasant morning to some neighbouring meet, thinking himself a sportsman, has but a faint idea of the troubles which a few staunch workmen endure in order that he may not be made to think that his boots, and his breeches, and his horse, have not been in vain.
A word or two further was at first said about that unfortunate wood for which Silverbridge at the present felt himself responsible. Finn said that he was sure the Duke would look to it, if Silverbridge would mention it. Chiltern simply groaned. Silverbridge said nothing, remembering how many troubles he had on hand at this moment. Then by degrees their solicitude worked itself round to the cares of a neighbouring hunt. The A.R.U. had lost their master. One Captain Glomax was going, and the county had been driven to the necessity of advertising for a successor. ‘When hunting comes to that,’ said Lord Chiltern, ‘one begins to think that it is in a bad way.’ It may always be observed that when hunting-men speak seriously of their sport, they speak despondingly. Everything is going wrong. Perhaps the same thing may be remarked in other pursuits. Farmers are generally on the verge of ruin. Trade is always bad. The church is in danger. The House of Lords isn’t worth a dozen years’ purchase. The throne totters.
‘An itinerant master with a carpet-bag never can carry on a country,’ said Mr Spooner.
‘You ought really to have a gentleman of property in the country,’ said Lord Chiltern, in a self-deprecating tone. His father’s acres lay elsewhere.
‘It should be someone who has a real stake in the country,’ replied Mr Spooner — ‘whom the farmers can respect. Glomax understood hunting no doubt, but the farmers didn’t care for him. If you don’t have the farmers with you, you can’t have hunting.’ Then he filled a glass of port.
‘If you don’t approve of Glomax, what do you think of a man like Major Tifto?’ asked Mr Maule.
‘That was in the Runnymede,’ said Spooner contemptuously.
‘Who is Major Tifto?’ asked Lord Chiltern.
‘He is the man,’ said Silverbridge boldly, ‘who owned Prime Minister with me, when he didn’t win the Leger last September.’
‘There was a deuce of a row,’ said Maule. Then Mr Spooner, who read his ‘Bell’s Life’ and ‘Field’ very religiously, and who never missed an article in ‘Bayley’s’, proceeded to give them an account of everything that had taken place in the Runnymede Hunt. It mattered but little that he was wrong in all his details. Narrations always are. The result to which he nearly came right when he declared that the Major had been turned off, that a committed had been appointed, and that Messrs Topps and Jawstock had been threatened with a lawsuit.
‘That comes,’ said Lord Chiltern solemnly, ‘of employing men like Major Tifto in places for which they are radically unfit. I daresay Major Tifto knew how to handle a pack of hounds — perhaps almost as well as my huntsman. But I don’t think a county would get on very well which appointed Fowler as Master of Hounds. He is an honest man, and therefore would be better than Tifto. But — it would not do. It is a position in which a man should at any rate be a gentleman. If he be not, all those who should be concerned in maintaining the hunt will turn their backs on him. When I take my hounds over this man’s ground, and that man’s ground, certainly without doing him any good, I have to think of a great many things. I have to understand that those whom I cannot compensate by money, I have to compensate by courtesy. When I shake hands with a farmer and express my obligation to him because he does not lock his gates, he is gratified. I don’t think any decent farmer would care much for shaking hands with Major Tifto. If we fall into that kind of thing there must soon be an end of hunting. Major Tiftos are cheap no doubt; but in hunting, as in most other things, cheap and nasty go together. If men don’t choose to put their hands in their pockets they had better say so, and give the thing up altogether. If you won’t take any more wine, we’ll go to the ladies. Silverbridge, the trap will start from the door tomorrow morning precisely at 9.30 am. Grantingham Cross is fourteen miles.’ Then they all left their chairs — but as they did so Mr Spooner finished the bottle of port-wine.
‘I never heard Chiltern speak so much like a book before,’ said Spooner to his wife as she drove him home that night.
The next morning everybody was ready for a start at half-past nine, except Mr Maule — as to whom his wife declared that she had left him in bed when she came down to breakfast. ‘He can never get there if we don’t take him,’ said Lord Chiltern, who was in truth the most good-natured man in the world. Five minutes were allowed him, and then he came down with a large sandwich in one hand and a button-hook in the other, with which he was prepared to complete his toilet. ‘What the deuce makes you always in such a hurry?’ were the first words he spoke as Lord Chiltern got on the box. The Master knew him too well to argue the point. ‘Well; — he always is in a hurry,’ said the sinner, when his wife accused him of ingratitude.
‘Where’s Spooner?’ asked the Master when he saw Mrs Spooner without her husband at the meet.
‘I knew how it would be when I saw the port-wine,’ she said in a whisper that could be heard all round. ‘He has got it this time sharp — in his great toe. We shan’t find at Grantingham. They were cutting wood there last week. If I were you, my Lord, I’d go away to the Spinnies at once.’
‘I must draw the country regularly,’ muttered the Master.
The country was drawn regularly, but in vain till about two o’clock. Not only was there no fox at Grantingham Wood, but none even at the Spinnies. And at two, Fowler, with an anxious face, held a consultation with his more anxious master. Trumpington Wood lay on their right, and that no doubt would have been the proper draw. ‘I suppose we must try it,’ said Lord Chiltern.
Old Fowler looked very sour. ‘You might as well look for a fox under my wife’s bed, my Lord.’
‘I daresay we should find one there,’ said one of the wags of the hunt. Fowler shook his head, feeling that this was no time for joking.
‘It ought to be drawn,’ said Chiltern.
‘Of course you know best, my Lord. I wouldn’t touch it — never no more. Let ’em all know what the Duke’s Wood is.’
‘This is Lord Silverbridge, the Duke’s son,’ said Chiltern laughing.
‘I beg his Lordship’s pardon,’ said Fowler, taking off his cap. ‘We shall have a good time coming some day. Let me trot ’em off to Michaelmas Daisies, my Lord. I’ll be there in thirty minutes.’ In the neighbouring parish of St Michael de Dezier there was a favourite little gorse which among hunting-men had acquired this unreasonable name. After a little consideration the Master yielded, and away they trotted.
‘You’ll cross the ford, Fowler?’ asked Mrs Spooner.
‘Oh yes, ma’am; we couldn’t draw the Daisies this afternoon if we didn’t.’
‘It’ll be up to the horses’ bellies.’
‘Those who don’t like it can go round.’
‘They’d never be there in time, Fowler.’
‘There’s many a man, ma’am, as don’t mind that. You won’t be one to stay behind.’ The water was up to the horses’ bellies, but, nevertheless, Mrs Spooner was at the gorse side when the Daisies were drawn.
They found and were away in a minute. It was all done so quickly that Fowler, who had along gone into the gorse, had hardly time to get out with his hounds. The fox ran right back, as though he were making for the Duke’s pernicious wood. In the first field or two there was a succession of gates, and there was not much to do in the way of jumping. Then the fox, keeping straight ahead, deviated from the line by which they had come, making for the brook by a more direct course. The ruck of the horsemen, understanding the matter very well, left the hounds, and went to the right, riding for the ford. The ford was of such a nature that but one horse could pass it at a time, and that one had to scramble through deep mud. ‘There’ll be the devil to pay here,’ said Lord Chiltern, going straight with his hounds. Phineas Finn and Dick Rabbit were close after him. Old Fowler had craftily gone to the ford; but Mrs Spooner, who did not intend to be shaken off, followed the Master, and close with her was Lord Silverbridge. ‘Lord Chiltern hasn’t got it right,’ she said. ‘He can’t do it among these bushes.’ As she spoke the Master put his horse at the bushes and then — disappeared. The lady had been right. There was no ground at that spot to take off from, and the bushes had impeded him. Lord Chiltern had got over, but his horse was in the water. Dick Rabbit and poor Phineas Finn were stopped in their course by the necessity of helping the Master in his trouble.
But Mrs Spooner, the judicious Mrs Spooner, rode at the stream where it was, indeed, a little wider, but at a place in which the horse could see what he was about, and where he could jump from and to firm ground. Lord Silverbridge followed her gallantly. They both jumped the brook well, and then were together. ‘You’ll beat me in pace,’ said the lady as he rode up alongside of her. ‘Take the fence ahead straight, and then turn sharp to your right.’ With all her faults, Mrs Spooner was a thorough sporstman.
He did take the fence ahead — or rather tried to do so. It was a bank and a double ditch — not very great in itself, but requiring a horse to land on the top and go off with a second spring. Our young friend’s nag, not quite understanding the nature of the impediment, endeavoured to ‘swallow it whole’, as hard-riding men say, and came down in the further ditch. Silverbridge came down on his head, but the horse pursued his course — across a heavily-ploughed field.
This was very disagreeable. He was not in the least hurt, but it became his duty to run after his horse. A very few furrows of that work suffice to make a man think that hunting was a ‘beastly sort of thing’. Mrs Spooner’s horse, who had shown himself to be a little less quick of foot than his own, had known all about the bank and the double ditch, and had, apparently of his own accord, turned down to the right, either seeing or hearing the hounds, and knowing that the ploughed ground was to be avoided. But his rider changed his course. She went straight after the riderless horse, and when Silverbridge had reduced himself to utter speechlessness by his exertions, brought him back his steed.
‘I am — I am, I am — so sorry,’ he struggled to say — and then as she held his horse for him he struggled up into his saddle.
‘Keep down this furrow,’ said Mrs Spooner, ‘and we shall be with them in the second field. There’s nobody near them yet.’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01