In these fine early autumn days spent at Matching, the great Trumpeton Wood question was at last settled. During the summer considerable acerbity had been added to the matter by certain articles which had appeared in certain sporting papers, in which the new Duke of Omnium was accused of neglecting his duty to the county in which a portion of his property lay. The question was argued at considerable length. Is a landed proprietor bound, or is he not, to keep foxes for the amusement of his neighbours? To ordinary thinkers, to unprejudiced outsiders — to Americans, let us say, or Frenchmen — there does not seem to be room even for an argument. By what law of God or man can a man be bound to maintain a parcel of injurious vermin on his property, in the pursuit of which he finds no sport himself, and which are highly detrimental to another sport in which he takes, perhaps, the keenest interest? Trumpeton Wood was the Duke’s own — to do just as he pleased with it. Why should foxes be demanded from him then any more than a bear to be baited, or a badger to be drawn, in, let us say, his London dining-room? But a good deal had been said which, though not perhaps capable of convincing the unprejudiced American or French man, had been regarded as cogent arguments to country-bred Englishmen. The Brake Hunt had been established for a great many years, and was the central attraction of a district well known for its hunting propensities. The preservation of foxes might be an open question in such counties as Norfolk and Suffolk, but could not be so in the Brake country. Many things are, no doubt, permissible under the law, which, if done, would show the doer of them to be the enemy of his species — and this destruction of foxes in a hunting country may be named as one of them. The Duke might have his foxes destroyed if he pleased, but he could hardly do so and remain a popular magnate in England. If he chose to put himself in opposition to the desires and very instincts of the people among whom his property was situated, he must live as a “man forbid’. That was the general argument, and then there was the argument special to this particular case. As it happened, Trumpeton Wood was, and always had been, the great nursery of foxes for that side of the Brake country. Gorse coverts make, no doubt, the charm of hunting, but gorse coverts will not hold foxes unless the woodlands be preserved. The fox is a travelling animal. Knowing well that “home-staying youths have ever homely wits”, the goes out and sees the world. He is either born in the woodlands, or wanders thither in his early youth. If all foxes so wandering be doomed to death, if poison, and wires, and traps, and hostile keepers await them there instead of the tender welcome of the loving fox-preserver, the gorse coverts will soon be empty, and the whole country will be afflicted with a wild dismay. All which Lord Chiltern understood well when he became so loud in his complaint against the Duke.
But our dear old friend, only the other day a duke, Planty Pall as he was lately called, devoted to work and to Parliament, an unselfish, friendly, wise man, who by no means wanted other men to cut their coats according to his pattern, was the last man in England to put himself forward as the enemy of an established delight. He did not hunt himself — but neither did he shoot, or fish, or play cards. He recreated himself with Blue Books, and speculations on Adam Smith had been his distraction — but he knew that he was himself peculiar, and he respected the habits of others. It had fallen out in this wise. As the old Duke had become very old, the old Duke’s agent had gradually acquired more than an agent’s proper influence in the property; and as the Duke’s heir would not shoot himself, or pay attention to the shooting, and as the Duke would not let the shooting of his wood, Mr Fothergill, the steward, had gradually become omnipotent. Now Mr Fothergill was not a hunting man — but the mischief did not at all lie there. Lord Chiltern would not communicate with Mr Fothergill. Lord Chiltern would write to the Duke, and Mr Fothergill became an established enemy. Hinc illae irae . From this source sprung all those powerfully argued articles in The Field, Bell’s Life, and Land and Water — for on this matter all the sporting papers were of one mind.
There is something doubtless absurd in the intensity of the worship paid to the fox by hunting communities. The animal becomes sacred, and his preservation is a religion. His irregular destruction is a profanity, and words spoken to his injury are blasphemous. Not long since a gentleman shot a fox running across a woodland ride in a hunting country. He had mistaken it for a hare, and had done the deed in the presence of keepers, owner, and friends. His feelings were so acute and his remorse so great that, in their pity, they had resolved to spare him; and then, on the spot, entered into a solemn compact that no one should be told. Encouraged by the forbearing tenderness, the unfortunate one ventured to return to the house of his friend, the owner of the wood, hoping that, in spite of the sacrilege committed, he might be able to face a world that would be ignorant of his crime. As the vulpicide, on the afternoon of the day of the deed, went along the corridor to his room, one maid-servant whispered to another, and the poor victim of an imperfect sight heard the words — “That’s he as shot the fox!” The gentleman did not appear at dinner, nor was he ever again seen in those parts.
Mr Fothergill had become angry. Lord Chiltern, as we know, had been very angry. And even the Duke was angry. The Duke was angry because Lord Chiltern had been violent — and Lord Chiltern had been violent because Mr Fothergill’s conduct had been, to his thinking, not only sacrilegious, but one continued course of wilful sacrilege. It may be said of Lord Chiltern that in his eagerness as a master of hounds he had almost abandoned his love of riding. To kill a certain number of foxes in the year, after the legitimate fashion, had become to him the one great study of life — and he did it with an energy equal to that which the Duke devoted to decimal coinage. His huntsman was always well mounted, with two horses; but Lord Chiltern would give up his own to the man and take charge of a weary animal as a common groom when he found that he might thus further the object of the day’s sport. He worked as men work only at pleasure. He never missed a day, even when cub-hunting required that he should leave his bed at 3 A . M . He was constant at his kennel. He was always thinking about it. He devoted his life to the Brake Hounds. And it was too much for him that such a one as Mr Fothergill should be allowed to wire foxes in Trumpeton Wood! The Duke’s property, indeed! Surely all that was understood in England by this time. Now he had consented to come to Matching, bringing his wife with him, in order that the matter might be settled. There had been a threat that he would give up the country, in which case it was declared that it would be impossible to carry on the Brake Hunt in a manner satisfactory to masters, subscribers, owners of coverts, or farmers, unless a different order of things should be made to prevail in regard to Trumpeton Wood.
The Duke, however, had declined to interfere personally. He had told his wife that he should be delighted to welcome Lord and Lady Chiltern — as he would any other friends of hers. The guests, indeed, at the Duke’s house were never his guests, but always hers. But he could not allow himself to be brought into an argument with Lord Chiltern as to the management of his own property. The Duchess was made to understand that she must prevent any such awkwardness. And she did prevent it. “And now, Lord Chiltern,” she said, “how about the foxes?” She had taken care there should be a council of war around her. Lady Chiltern and Madame Goesler were present, and also Phineas Finn.
“Well — how about them?” said the lord, showing by the fiery eagerness of his eye, and the increased redness of his face, that though the matter had been introduced somewhat jocosely, there could not really be any joke about it.
“Why couldn’t you keep it all out of the newspapers?”
“I don’t write the newspapers, Duchess. I can’t help the newspapers. When two hundred men ride through Trumpeton Wood, and see one fox found, and that fox with only three pads, of course the newspapers will say that the foxes are trapped.”
“We may have traps if we like it, Lord Chiltern.”
“Certainly — only say so, and we shall know where we are.” He looked very angry, and poor Lady Chiltern was covered with dismay. “The Duke can destroy the hunt if he pleases, no doubt,” said the lord.
“But we don’t like traps, Lord Chiltern — nor yet poison, nor anything that is wicked. I’d go and nurse the foxes myself if I knew how, wouldn’t I, Marie?”
“They have robbed the Duchess of her sleep for the last six months,” said Madame Goesler.
“And if they go on being not properly brought up and educated, they’ll make an old woman of me. As for the Duke, he can’t be comfortable in his arithmetic for thinking of them. But what can one do?”
“Change your keepers,” said Lord Chiltern energetically.
“It is easy to say — change your keepers. How am I to set about it? To whom can I apply to appoint others? Don’t you know what vested interests mean, Lord Chiltern?”
“Then nobody can manage his own property as he pleases?”
“Nobody can — unless he does the work himself. If I were to go and live in Trumpeton Wood I could do it; but you see I have to live here. I vote that we have an officer of State, to go in and out with the Government — with a seat in the Cabinet or not according as things go, and that we call him Foxmaster-General. It would be just the thing for Mr Finn.”
“There would be a salary, of course,” said Phineas.
“Then I suppose that nothing can be done,” said Lord Chiltern.
“My dear Lord Chiltern, everything has been done. Vested interests have been attended to. Keepers shall prefer foxes to pheasants, wires shall be unheard of, and Trumpeton Wood shall once again be the glory of the Brake Hunt. It won’t cost the Duke above a thousand or two a year.”
“I should be very sorry indeed to put the Duke to any unnecessary expense,” said Lord Chiltern solemnly — still fearing that the Duchess was only playing with him. It made him angry that he could not imbue other people with his idea of the seriousness of the amusement of a whole county.
“Do not think of it. We have pensioned poor Mr Fothergill, and he retires from the administration.”
“Then it’ll be all right,” said Lord Chiltern.
“I am so glad,” said his wife.
“And so the great Mr Fothergill falls from power, and goes down into obscurity,” said Madame Goesler.
“He was an impudent old man, and that’s the truth,” said the Duchess — “and he has always been my thorough detestation. But if you only knew what I have gone through to get rid of him — and all on account of Trumpeton Wood — you’d send me every brush taken in the Brake country during the next season.”
“Your Grace shall at any rate have one of them,” said Lord Chiltern. On the next day Lord and Lady Chiltern went back to Harrington Hall. When the end of August comes, a Master of Hounds — who is really a master — is wanted at home. Nothing short of an embassy on behalf of the great coverts of his country would have kept this master away at present; and now, his diplomacy having succeeded, he hurried back to make the most of its results. Lady Chiltern, before she went, made a little speech to Phineas Finn.
“You’ll come to us in the winter, Mr Finn?”
“I should like.”
“You must. No one was truer to you than we were, you know. Indeed, regarding you as we do, how should we not have been true? It was impossible to me that my old friend should have been — ”
“Oh, Lady Chiltern!”
“Of course you’ll come. You owe it to us to come. And may I say this? If there be anybody to come with you, that will make it only so much the better. If it should be so, of course there will be letters written?” To this question, however, Phineas Finn made no answer.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01