'I did,' replied Mr. Sponge; 'and a pretty passage of politeness we had of it.'
'Indeed! (hiccup),' exclaimed Sir Harry. 'Tell us (hiccup) all about it.'
'Well,' said Mr. Sponge, laying the brush lengthways before him on the table, as if he was going to demonstrate upon it. 'Well, you see we had a devil of a run—I don't know how many miles, as hard as ever we could lay legs to the ground; one by one the field all dropped astern, except the huntsman and myself. At last he gave in, or rather his horse did, and I was left alone in my glory. Well, we went over the downs at a pace that nothing but blood could live with, and, though my horse has never been beat, and is as thorough-bred as Eclipse—a horse that I have refused three hundred guineas for over and over again, I really did begin to think I might get to the bottom of him, when all of a sudden we came to a dean.'
'Ah! Cockthropple that would be,' observed Sir Harry.
'Dare say,' replied Mr. Sponge; 'Cock-anything-you-like-to-call-it for me. Well, when we got there, I thought we should have some breathing time, for the fox would be sure to hug it. But no; no sooner had I got there than a countryman hallooed him away on the far side. I got to the halloo as quick as I could, and just as I was blowing the horn,' producing Watchorn's from his pocket as he spoke; 'for I must tell you,' said he, 'that when I saw the huntsman's horse was beat, I took this from him—a horn to a foot huntsman being of no more use, you know, than a side-pocket to a cow, or a frilled shirt to a pig. Well, as I was tootleing the horn for hard life, who should turn out of the wood but old mealy-mouth himself, as you call him, and a pretty volley of abuse he let drive at me.'
'No doubt,' hiccuped Sir Harry; 'but what was he doing there?'
'Oh! I should tell you,' replied Mr. Sponge, 'his hounds had run a fox into it, and were on him full cry when I got there.'
'I'll be bund,' cried Sir Harry, 'it was all sham—that he just (hiccup) and excuse for getting into that cover. The old (hiccup) beggar is always at some trick, (hiccup)-ing my foxes or disturbing my covers or something,' Sir Harry being just enough of a master of hounds to be jealous of the neighbouring ones.
'Well, however, there he was,' continued Mr. Sponge; 'and the first intimation I had of the fact was a great, gruff voice, exclaiming, "Who the Dickens are you?"
'"Who the Dickens are you?" replied I.'
'Bravo!' shouted Sir Harry.
'Capital!' exclaimed Seedeybuck.
'Go it, you cripples! Newgate's on fire!' shouted Captain Quod.
'Well, what said he?' asked Sir Harry.
'"They commonly call me the Earl of Scamperdale," roared he, "and those are MY HOUNDS."
'"They're not your hounds," replied I.
'"Whose are they, then?" asked he.
'"Sir Harry Scattercash's, a devilish deal better fellow," replied I.
'"Oh, by Jove!" roared he, "there's an end of everything, Jack," shouted he to old Spraggon, "this gentleman says these are not my hounds!"
'"I'll tell you what it is, my lord," said I, gathering my whip and riding close up as if I was goin' to pitch into him, "I'll tell you what it is; you think, because you're a lord, you may abuse people as you like, but by Jingo you've mistaken your man. I'll not put up with any of your nonsense. The Sponges are as old a family as the Scamperdales, and I'll fight you any non-hunting day you like with pistols, broadswords, fists or blunder-busses."'
'Well done you! Bravo! that's your sort!' with loud thumping of tables and clapping of hands, resounded from all parts.
'By Jove, fill him up a stiff'un! he deserves a good drink after that!' exclaimed Sir Harry, pouring Mr. Sponge out a beaker, equal parts brandy and water.
Mr. Sponge immediately became a hero, and was freely admitted into their circle. He was clearly a choice spirit—a trump of the first water—and they only wanted his name to be uncommonly thick with him. As it was, they plied him with victuals and drink, all seeming anxious to bring him up to the same happy state of inebriety as themselves. They talked and they chattered, and they abused Old Scamperdale and Jack Spraggon, and lauded Mr. Sponge up to the skies.
Thus day closed in, with Farmer Peastraw's bright fire shedding its cheering glow over the now encircling group. One would have thought that, with their hearts mellow, and their bodies comfortable, their minds would have turned to that sport in whose honour they sported the scarlet; but no, hunting was never mentioned. They were quite as genteel as Nimrod's swell friends at Melton, who cut it altogether. They rambled from subject to subject, chiefly on indoor and London topics; billiards, betting-offices, Coal Holes, Cremorne, Cider Cellars, Judge and Jury Courts, there being an evident confusion in their minds between the characters of sportsmen and sporting men, or gents as they are called. Mr. Sponge tried hard to get them on the right tack, were it only for the sake of singing the praises of the horse for which he had so often refused three hundred guineas, but he never succeeded in retaining an hearing. Talkers were far more plentiful than listeners.
At last they got to singing, and when men begin to sing, it is a sign that they are either drunk, or have had enough of each other's company. Sir Harry's hiccup, from which he was never wholly free, increased tenfold, and he hiccuped and spluttered at almost every word. His hand, which shook so at starting that it was odds whether he got his glass to his mouth or his ear, was now steadied, but his glazed eye and green haggard countenance showed at what a fearful sacrifice the temporary steadiness had been obtained. At last his jaw dropped on his chest, his left arm hung listlessly over the back of the chair, and he fell asleep. Captain Quod, too, was overcome, and threw himself full-length on the sofa. Captain Seedeybuck began to talk thick.
Just as they were all about brought to a standstill, the trampling of horses, the rumbling of wheels, and the shrill twang, twang, twang of the now almost forgotten mail horn, roused them from their reveries. It was Sir Harry's drag scouring the country in search of our party. It had been to all the public-houses and beer-shops within a radius of some miles of Nonsuch House, and was now taking a speculative blow through the centre of the circle.
It was a clear frosty night, and the horses' hoofs rang, and the wheels rolled soundly over the hard road, cracking the thin ice, yet hardly sufficiently frozen to prevent a slight upshot from the wheels.
Twang, twang, twang, went the horn full upon Farmer Peastraw's house, causing the sleepers to start, and the waking ones to make for the window.
'COACH-A-HOY!' cried Bob Spangles, smashing a pane in a vain attempt to get the window up. The coachman pulled up at the sound.
'Here we are. Sir Harry!' cried Bob Spangles, into his brother-in-law's ear, but Sir Harry was too far gone; he could not 'come to time.' Presently a footman entered with furred coats, and shawls, and checkered rugs, in which those who were sufficiently sober enveloped themselves, and those who were too far gone were huddled by Peastraw and the man; and amid much hurry and confusion, and jostling for inside seats, the party freighted the coach, and whisked away before Mr. Sponge knew where he was.
When they arrived at Nonsuch House, they found Mr. Bugles exercising the fiddlers by dancing the ladies in turns.
A MOONLIGHT RIDE
The position, then, of Mr. Sponge was this. He was left on a frosty, moonlight night at the door of a strange farmhouse, staring after a receding coach, containing all his recent companions.
'You'll not be goin' wi' 'em, then?' observed Mr. Peastraw, who stood beside him, listening to the shrill notes of the horn dying out in the distance.
'No,' replied Mr. Sponge.
'Rummy lot,' observed Mr. Peastraw, with a shake of the head.
'Are they?' asked Mr. Sponge.
'Very!' replied Mr. Peastraw. 'Be the death of Sir Harry among 'em.'
'Who are they all?' asked Mr. Sponge.
'Rubbish!' replied Peastraw with a sneer, diving his hands into the depths of his pockets. 'Well, we'd better go in,' added he, pulling his hands out and rubbing them, to betoken that he felt cold.
Mr. Sponge, not being much of a drinker, was more overcome with what he had taken than a seasoned cask would have been; added to which the keen night air striking upon his heated frame soon sent the liquor into his head. He began to feel queer.
'Well,' said he to his host, 'I think I'd better be going.'
'Where are you bound for?' asked Mr. Peastraw.
'To Puddingpote Bower,' replied Mr. Sponge.
'S-o-o,' observed Mr. Peastraw thoughtfully; 'Mr. Crowdey's—Mr. Jogglebury that was?'
'Yes,' replied Mr. Sponge.
'He is a deuce of a man, that, for breaking people's hedges,' observed Mr. Peastraw; after a pause, 'he can't see a straight stick of no sort, but he's sure to be at it.'
'He's a great man for walking-sticks,' replied Mr. Sponge, staggering in the direction of the stable in which he put his horse.
The house clock then struck ten.
'She's fast,' observed Mr. Peastraw, fearing his guest might be wanting to stay all night.
'How far will Puddingpote Bower be from here?' asked Mr. Sponge.
'Oh, no distance, sir, no distance,' replied Mr. Peastraw, now leading out the horse. 'Can't miss your way, sir—can't miss your way. First turn on the right takes you to Collins' Green; then keep by the side of the church, next the pond; then go straight forward for about a mile and a half, or two miles, till you come to a small village called Lea Green; turn short at the finger-post as you enter, and keep right along by the side of the hills till you come to the Winslow Woods; leave them to the left, and pass by Mr. Roby's farm, at Runton—you'll know Mr. Roby?'
'Not I,' replied Mr. Sponge, hoisting himself into the saddle, and holding out a hand to take leave of his host.
'Good night, sir; good night!' exclaimed Mr. Peastraw, shaking it; 'and have the goodness to tell Mr. Crowdey from me that the next time he comes here a bush-rangin', I'll thank him to shut the gates after him. He set all my young stock wrong the last time he was here.'
'I will,' replied Mr. Sponge, riding off.
Mr. Peastraw's directions were well calculated to confuse a clearer head than Mr. Sponge then carried; and the reader will not be surprised to learn that, long before he reached the Winslow Woods, he was regularly bewildered. Indeed, there is no surer way of losing oneself than trying to follow a long train of directions in a strange country. It is far better to establish one's own landmarks, and make for them as the natural course of the country seems to direct. Our forefathers had a wonderful knack of getting to points with as little circumlocution as possible. Mr. Sponge, however, knew no points, and was quite at sea; indeed, even if he had, they would have been of little use, for a fitful and frequently obscured moon threw such bewildering lights and shades around, that a native would have had some difficulty in recognizing the country. The frost grew more intense, the stars shone clear and bright, and the cold took our friend by the nape of the neck, shooting across his shoulder-blades and right down his back. Mr. Sponge wished and wished he was anywhere but where he was—flattening his nose against the coffee-room window of the Bantam, tooling in a hansom as hard as he could go, squaring along Oxford Street criticizing horses—nay, he wouldn't care to be undergoing Gustavus James himself—anything, rather than rambling about a strange country in a cold winter's night, with nothing but the hooting of owls and the occasional bark of shepherds' dogs to enliven his solitude. The houses were few and far between. The lights in the cottages had long been extinguished, and the occupiers of such of the farmhouses as would come to his knocks were gruff in their answers, and short in their directions. At length, after riding, and riding, and riding, more with a view of keeping himself awake than in the expectation of finding his way, just as he was preparing to arouse the inmates of a cottage by the roadside, a sudden gleam of moonlight fell upon the building, revealing the half-Swiss, half-Gothic lodge of Puddingpote Bower.
We must now back the train a little, and have a look at Jog and Co.
Mr. and Mrs. Jog had had another squabble after Mr. Sponge's departure in the morning, Mr. Jog reproving Mrs. Jog for the interest she seemed to take in Mr. Sponge, as shown by her going to the door to see him amble away on the piebald hack. Mrs. Jog justified herself on the score of Gustavus James, with whom she was quite sure Mr. Sponge was much struck, and to whom, she made no doubt, he would leave his ample fortune. Jog, on the other hand, wheezed and puffed into his frill, and reasserted that Mr. Sponge was as likely to live as Gustavus James, and to marry and to have a bushel of children of his own; while Mrs. Jog rejoined that he was 'sure to break his neck'—breaking their necks being, as she conceived, the inevitable end of fox-hunters. Jog, who had not prosecuted the sport of hunting long enough to be able to gainsay her assertion, though he took especial care to defer the operation of breaking his own neck as long as he could, fell back upon the expense and inconvenience of keeping Mr. Sponge and his three horses, and his saucy servant, who had taught their domestics to turn up their noses at his diet table; above all, at his stick-jaw and undeniable small-beer. So they went fighting and squabbling on, till at last the scene ended, as usual, by Mrs. Jogglebury bursting into tears, and declaring that Jog didn't care a farthing either for her or her children. Jog then bundled off, to try and fashion a most incorrigible-looking, knotty blackthorn into a head of Lord Chancellor Lyndhurst. He afterwards took a turn at a hazel that he thought would make a Joe Hume. Having occupied himself with these till the children's dinner-hour, he took a wandering, snatching sort of meal, and then put on his paletot, with a little hatchet in the pocket, and went off in search of the raw material in his own and the neighbouring hedges.
Evening came, and with it came Jog, laden, as usual, with an armful of gibbeys, but the shades of night followed evening ere there was any tidings of the sporting inmates of his house. At length, just as Jog was taking his last stroll prior to going in for good, he espied a pair of vacillating white breeches coming up the avenue with a clearly drunken man inside them. Jog stood straining his eyes watching their movements, wondering whether they would keep the saddle or come off—whenever the breeches seemed irrevocably gone, they invariably recovered themselves with a jerk or a lurch—Jog now saw it was Leather on the piebald, and though he had no fancy for the man, he stood to let him come up, thinking to hear something of Sponge. Leather in due time saw the great looming outline of our friend and came staring and shaking his head, endeavouring to identify it. He thought at first it was the Squire—next he thought it wasn't—then he was sure it wasn't.
'Oh! it's you, old boy, is it?' at last exclaimed he, pulling up beside the large holly against which our friend had placed himself, 'It's you, old boy, is it?' repeated he, extending his right hand and nearly overbalancing himself, adding as he recovered his equilibrium, 'I thought it was the old Woolpack at first,' nodding his head towards the house. 'Well,' spluttered he, pulling up, and sitting, as he thought, quite straight in the saddle, 'we've had the finest day's sport and the most equitable drink I've enjoyed for many a long day. 'Ord bless us, what a gent that Sir 'Arry is! He's the sort of man that should have money. I'm blowed, if I were queen, but I'd melt all the great blubber-headed fellows like this 'ere Crowdey down, and make one sich man as Sir 'Arry out of the 'ole on 'em. Beer! they don't know wot beer is there! nothin' but the werry strongest hale, instead of the puzzon one gets at this awful mean place, that looks like nothin' but the weshin' o' brewers' haprons. Oh! I 'umbly begs pardon,' exclaimed he, dropping from his horse on to his knees on discovering that he was addressing Mr. Crowdey—'I thought it was Robins, the mole-ketcher.'
'Thought it was Robins, the mole-catcher,' growled Jog; 'what have you to do with (puff) Robins, the (wheeze) mole-catcher?'
Jog boiled over with indignation. At first he thought of kicking Leather, a feat that his suppliant position made extremely convenient, if not tempting. Prudence, however, suggested that Leather might have him up for the assault. So he stood puffing and wheezing and eyeing the blear-eyed, brandy-nosed old drunkard with, as he thought, a withering look of contempt; and then, though the man was drunk and the night was dark, he waddled off, leaving Mr. Leather on his once white breeches' knees. If Jog had had reasonable time, say an hour or an hour and twenty minutes, to improvise it in, he would have said something uncommonly sharp; as it was he left him with the pertinent inquiry we have recorded—'What have you to do with Robins, the mole-catcher?' We need hardly say that this little incident did not at all ingratiate Mr. Sponge with his host, who re-entered his house in a worse humour than ever. It was insulting a gentleman on his own ter-ri-tory—bearding an Englishman in his own castle. 'Not to be borne (puff),' said Jog.
It was now nearly five o'clock, Jog's dinner hour, and still no Mr. Sponge. Mrs. Jog proposed waiting half an hour, indeed, she had told Susan, the cook, to keep the dinner back a little, to give Mr. Sponge a chance, who could not possibly change his tight hunting things for his evening tights in the short space of time that Jog could drop off his loose-flowing garments, wash his hands, and run the comb through his lank, candle-like hair.
Five o'clock struck, and Jog was just applying his hand to the fat red-and-black worsted bell-pull, when Mrs. Jog announced what she had done.
'Put off the dinner (wheeze)! put off the dinner (puff)!' repeated he, blowing furiously into his clean shirt-frill, which stuck up under his nose like a hand-saw; 'put off the dinner (wheeze)! put off the dinner (puff), I wish you wouldn't do such (wheeze) things without consulting (gasp) me.'
'Well, but, my dear, you couldn't possibly sit down without him,' observed Mrs. Jog mildly.
'Possibly! (puff), possibly! (wheeze),' repeated Jog. 'There's no possibly in the matter,' retorted he, blowing more furiously into the frill.
Mrs. Jog was silent.
'A man should conform to the (puff) hours of the (wheeze) house,' observed Jog, after a pause.
'Well, but, my dear, you know hunters are always allowed a little law,' observed Mrs. Jog.
'Law! (puff), law! (wheeze),' retorted Jog. 'I never want any law,' thinking of Smiler v. Jogglebury.
Half-past five o'clock came, and still no Sponge; and Mrs. Jog, thinking it would be better to arrange to have something hot for him when he came, than to do further battle with her husband, gave the bell the double ring indicative of 'bring dinner.'
'Nay (puff), nay (wheeze); when you have (gasp)ed so long,' growled Jog, taking the other tack, 'you might as well have (wheez)ed a little longer'—snorting into his frill as he spoke.
Mrs. Jogglebury said nothing, but slipped quietly out, as if after her keys, to tell Susan to keep so-and-so in the meat-screen, and have a few potatoes ready to boil against Mr. Sponge arrived. She then sidled back quietly into the room. Jog and she presently proceeded to that all-important meal. Jog blowing out the company candles on the side-table as he passed.
Jog munched away with a capital appetite; but Mrs. Jog, who took the bulk of her lading in at the children's dinner, sat trifling with the contents of her plate, listening alternately for the sound of horses' hoofs outside, and for nursery squalls in.
Dinner passed over, and the fruity port and sugary sherry soon usurped the places that stick-jaw pudding and cheese had occupied.
'Mr. (puff) Sponge must be (wheeze), I think,' observed Jog, hauling his great silver watch out, like a bucket, from his fob, on seeing that it only wanted ten minutes to seven.
'Oh, Jog!' exclaimed Mrs. Jog, clasping her beautiful hands, and casting her bright beady eyes up to the low ceiling.
'Oh, Jog! What's the matter now? (puff—wheeze—gasp),' exclaimed our friend, reddening up, and fixing his stupid eyes intently on his wife.
'Oh, nothing,' replied Mrs. Jog, unclasping her hands, and bringing down her eyes.
'Oh, nothin'!' retorted Jog. 'Nothin'!' repeated he. 'Ladies don't get into such tantrums for nothin'.'
'Well, then, Jog, I was thinking if anything should have ha—ha—happened Mr. Sponge, how Gustavus Ja—Ja—James will have lost his chance.' And thereupon she dived for her lace-fringed pocket-handkerchief, and hurried out of the room.
But Mrs. Jog had said quite enough to make the caldron of Jog's jealousy boil over, and he sat staring into the fire, imagining all sorts of horrible devices in the coals and cinders, and conjuring up all sorts of evils, until he felt himself possessed of a hundred and twenty thousand devils.
'I'll get shot of this chap at last,' said he, with a knowing jerk of his head and a puff into his frill, as he drew his thick legs under his chair, and made a semi-circle to get at the bottle. 'I'll get shot of this chap,' repeated he, pouring himself out a bumper of the syrupy port, and eyeing it at the composite candle. He drained off the glass, and immediately filled another. That, too, went down; then he took another, and another, and another; and seeing the bottle get low, he thought he might as well finish it. He felt better after it. Not that he was a bit more reconciled to our friend Mr. Sponge, but he felt more equal to cope with him—he even felt as if he could fight him. There did not, however, seem to be much likelihood of his having to perform that ceremony, for nine o'clock struck and no Mr. Sponge, and at half-past Mr. Crowdey stumped off to bed.
Mrs. Crowdey, having given Bartholomew and Susan a dirty pack of cards to play with to keep them awake till Mr. Sponge arrived, went to bed, too, and the house was presently tranquil.
It, however, happened that that amazing prodigy, Gustavus James, having been out on a sort of eleemosynary excursion among the neighbouring farmers and people, exhibiting as well his fine blue-feathered hat, as his astonishing proficiency in 'Bah! bah! black sheep,' and 'Obin and Ichard,' getting seed-cake from one, sponge cake from another, and toffy from a third, was troubled with a very bad stomach-ache during the night, of which he soon made the house sensible by his screams and his cries. Jog and his wife were presently at him; and, as Jog sat in his white cotton nightcap and flowing flannel dressing-gown in an easy chair in the nursery, he heard the crack of the whip, and the prolonged yeea-yu-u-p of Mr. Sponge's arrival. Presently the trampling of a horse was heard passing round to the stable. The clock then struck one.
'Pretty hour for a man to come home to a strange house!' observed Mr. Jog, for the nurse, or Murry Ann, or Mrs. Jog, or any one that liked, to take up.
Mrs. Jog was busy with the rhubarb and magnesia, and the others said nothing. After the lapse of a few minutes, the clank, clank, clank of Mr. Sponge's spurs was heard as he passed round to the front, and Mr. Jog stole out on to the landing to hear how he would get in.
Thump! thump! thump! went Mr. Sponge at the door; rap—tap—tap he went at it with his whip.
'Comin', sir! comin'!' exclaimed Bartholomew from the inside.
Presently the shooting of bolts, the withdrawal of bands, and the opening of doors, were heard.
'Not gone to bed yet, old boy?' said Mr. Sponge, as he entered.
'No, thir!' snuffled the boy, who had a bad cold, 'been thitten up for you.'
'Old puff-and-blow gone?' asked Mr. Sponge, depositing his hat and whip on a chair.
The boy gave no answer.
'Is old bellows-to-mend gone to bed?' asked Mr. Sponge in a louder voice.
'The charman's gone,' replied the boy, who looked upon his master—the chairman of the Stir-it-stiff Union—as the impersonification of all earthly greatness.
'Dash your impittance,' growled Jog, slinking back into the nursery; 'I'll pay you off! (puff),' added he, with a jerk of his white night-capped head, 'I'll bellows-to-mend you! (wheeze).'
Gustavus James's internal qualms being at length appeased, Mr. Jogglebury Crowdey returned to bed, but not to sleep—sleep there was none for him. He was full of indignation and jealousy, and felt suspicious of the very bolster itself. He had been insulted—grossly insulted. Three such names—the 'Woolpack,' 'Old puff-and-blow,' and 'Bellows-to-mend'—no gentleman, surely, ever was called before by a guest, in his own house. Called, too, before his own servant. What veneration, what respect, could a servant feel for a master whom he heard called 'Old bellows-to-mend'? It damaged the respect inspired by the chairmanship of the Stir-it-stiff Union, to say nothing of the trusteeship of the Sloppyhocks, Tolpuddle, and other turnpike-roads. It annihilated everything. So he fumed, and fretted, and snorted, and snored. Worst of all, he had no one to whom he could unburden his grievance. He could not make the partner of his bosom a partner in his woes, because—and he bounced about so that he almost shot the clothes off the bed, at the thoughts of the 'why.'
Thus he lay tumbling and tossing, and fuming and wheezing and puffing, now vowing vengeance against Leather, who he recollected had called him the 'Woolpack,' and determining to have him turned off in the morning for his impudence—now devising schemes for getting rid of Mr. Sponge and him together. Oh, could he but see them off! could he but see the portmanteau and carpet-bag again standing in the passage, he would gladly lend his phaeton to carry them anywhere. He would drive it himself for the pleasure of knowing and feeling he was clear of them. He wouldn't haggle about the pikes; nay, he would even give Sponge a gibbey, any he liked—the pick of the whole—Wellington, Napoleon Bonaparte, a crowned head even, though it would damage the set. So he lay, rolling and restless, hearing every clock strike; now trying to divert his thoughts, by making a rough calculation what all his gibbeys put together were worth; now considering whether he had forgotten to go for any he had marked in the course of his peregrinations; now wishing he had laid one about old Leather, when he fell on his knees after calling him the 'Woolpack'; then wondering whether Leather would have had him before the County Court for damages, or taken him before Justice Slowcoach for the assault. As morning advanced, his thoughts again turned upon the best mode of getting rid of his most unwelcome guests, and he arose and dressed, with the full determination of trying what he could do.
Having tried the effects of an upstairs shout the morning before, he decided to see what a down one would do; accordingly, he mounted the stairs and climbed the sort of companion-ladder that led to the servants' attics, where he kept a stock of gibbeys in the rafters. Having reached this, he cleared his throat, laid his head over the banisters, and putting an open hand on each side of his mouth to direct the sound, exclaimed with a loud and audible voice:
'BAR—THO—LO—m—e—e—w!' repeated he, after a pause, with a full separation of the syllables and a prolonged intonation of the m—e—w.
No Bartholomew answered.
'MURRAY ANN!' then hallooed Jog, in a sharper, quicker key. 'MURRAY ANN!' repeated he, still louder, after a pause.
'Yes, sir! here, sir!' exclaimed that invaluable servant, tidying her pink-ribboned cap as she hurried into the passage below. Looking up, she caught sight of her master's great sallow chaps hanging like a flitch of bacon over the garret banister.
'Oh, Murry Ann,' bellowed Mr. Jog, at the top of his voice, still holding his hands to his mouth, as soon as he saw her, 'Oh, Murry Ann, you'd better get the (puff) breakfast ready; I think the (gasp) Mr. Sponge will be (wheezing) away to-day.'
'Yes, sir,' replied Mary Ann.
'And tell Bartholomew to get his washin' bills in.'
'He harn't had no washin' done,' replied Mary Ann, raising her voice to correspond with that of her master.
'Then his bill for postage,' replied Mr. Jog, in the same tone.
'He harn't had no letters neither,' replied Mary Ann.
'Oh, then, just get the breakfast ready,' rejoined Jog, adding, 'he'll be (wheezing) away as soon as he gets it, I (puff) expect.'
'Will he?' said Mr. Sponge to himself, as, with throbbing head, he lay tumbling about in bed, alleviating the recollections of the previous day's debauch with an occasional dive into his old friend Mogg. Corporeally, he was in bed at Puddingpote Bower, but mentally, he was at the door of the Goose and Gridiron, in St. Paul's Churchyard, waiting for the three o'clock bus, coming from the Bank to take him to Isleworth Gate.
Jog's bellow to 'Bartholo—m—e—w' interrupted the journey, just as in imagination Mr. Sponge was putting his foot on the wheel and hallooing to the driver to hand him the strap to help him on to the box.
'Will he?' said Mr. Sponge to himself, as he heard Jog's reiterated assertion that he would be wheezing away that day. 'Wish you may get it, old boy,' added he, tucking the now backless Mogg under his pillow, and turning over for a snooze.
When he got down, he found the party ranged at breakfast, minus the interesting prodigy, Gustavus James, whom Sponge proceeded to inquire after as soon as he had made his obeisance to his host and hostess, and distributed a round of daubed comfits to the rest of the juvenile party.
'But where's my little friend, Augustus James?' asked he, on arriving at the wonder's high chair by the side of mamma. 'Where's my little friend, Augustus James?' asked he, with an air of concern.
'Oh, Gustavus James,' replied Mrs. Jog, with an emphasis on Gustavus; 'Gustavus James is not very well this morning; had a little indigestion during the night.'
'Poor little hound,' observed Mr. Sponge, filling his mouth with hot kidney, glad to be rid for a time of the prodigy. 'I thought I heard a row when I came home, which was rather late for an early man like me, but the fact was, nothing would serve Sir Harry but I should go with him to get some refreshment at a tenant's of his; and we got on talking, first about one thing, and then about another, and the time slipped away so quickly, that day was gone before I knew where I was; and though Sir Harry was most anxious—indeed, would hardly take a refusal—for me to go home with him, I felt that, being a guest here, I couldn't do it—at least, not then; so I got my horse, and tried to find my way with such directions as the farmer gave me, and soon lost my way, for the moon was uncertain, and the country all strange both to me and my horse.'
'What farmer was it?' asked Jog, with the butter streaming down the gutters of his chin from a mouthful of thick toast. 'Farmer—farmer—farmer—let me see, what farmer it was,' replied Mr. Sponge thoughtfully, again attacking the kidneys. 'Oh, farmer Beanstraw, I should say.'
'Peastraw, p'raps?' suggested Jog, colouring up, and staring intently at Mr. Sponge.
'Pea—Peastraw was the name,' replied Mr. Sponge.
'I know him,' said Jog; 'Peastraw of Stoke.'
'Ah, he said he knew you.' replied Mr. Sponge.
'Did he?' asked Jog eagerly. 'What did he say?'
'Say—let me see what he said,' replied he, pretending to recollect.' He said "you are a deuced good feller," and I'd to make his compliments to you, and to say that there were some nice young ash saplings on his farm that you were welcome to cut.'
'Did he?' exclaimed Jog; 'I'm sure that's very (puff) polite of him. I'll (wheeze) over there the first opportunity.'
'And what did you make of Sir Harry?' asked Mrs. Jog.
'Did you (puff) say you were going to (wheeze) over to him?' asked Jog eagerly.
'I told him I'd go to him before I left the country,' replied Mr. Sponge carelessly; adding, 'Sir Harry is rather too fast a man for me.'
'Too fast for himself, I should think,' observed Mrs. Jog.
'Fine (puff—wheeze) young man,' growled Jog into the bottom of his cup.
'Have you known him long?' asked Mrs. Jogglebury.
'Oh, we fox-hunters all know each other,' replied Mr. Sponge evasively.
'Well, now that's what I tell Mr. Jogglebury,' exclaimed she. 'Mr. Jog's so shy, that there's no getting him to do what he ought,' added the lady. 'No one, to hear him, would think he's the great man he is.'
'Ought (puff)—ought (wheeze),' retorted Jog, puffing furiously into his capacious shirt-frill. 'It's one (puff) thing to know (puff) people out with the (wheeze) hounds, and another to go calling upon them at their (gasp) houses.' 'Well, but, my dear, that's the way people make acquaintance,' replied his wife. 'Isn't it, Mr. Sponge?' continued she, appealing to our friend.
'Oh, certainly,' replied Mr. Sponge, 'certainly; all men are equal out hunting.'
'So I say,' exclaimed Mrs. Jogglebury; 'and yet I can't get Jog to call on Sir George Stiff, though he meets him frequently out hunting.'
'Well, but then I can't (puff) upon him out hunting (wheeze), and then we're not all equal (gasp) when we go home.'
So saying, our friend rose from his chair, and after giving each leg its usual shake, and banging his pockets behind to feel that he had his keys safe, he strutted consequentially up to the window to see how the day looked.
Mr. Sponge, not being desirous of continuing the 'calling' controversy, especially as it might lead to inquiries relative to his acquaintance with Sir Harry, finished the contents of his plate quickly, drank up his tea, and was presently alongside of his host, asking him whether he 'was good for a ride, a walk, or what?'
'A (puff) ride, a (wheeze) walk, or a (gasp) what?' repeated Jog thoughtfully. 'No, I (puff) think I'll stay at (puff) home,' thinking that would be the safest plan.
''Ord, hang it, you'll never lie at earth such a day as this!' exclaimed Sponge, looking out on the bright, sunny landscape.
'Got a great deal to do,' retorted Jog, who, like all thoroughly idle men, was always dreadfully busy. He then dived into a bundle of rough sticks, and proceeded to select one to fashion into the head of Mr. Hume. Sponge, being unable to make anything of him, was obliged to exhaust the day in the stable, and in sauntering about the country. It was clear Jog was determined to be rid of him, and he was sadly puzzled what to do. Dinner found his host in no better humour, and after a sort of Quakers' meeting of an evening, they parted heartily sick of each other.
Jog slept badly again, and arose next morning full of projects for getting rid of his impudent, unceremonious, free-and-easy guest.
Having tried both an up and a downstairs shout, he now went out and planted himself immediately under Mr. Sponge's bedroom window, and, clearing his voice, commenced his usual vociferations.
'Bartholo—m—e—w!' whined he. 'Bartholo—m—e—w!' repeated he, somewhat louder. 'BAR—THOLO—m—e—w!' roared he, in a voice of thunder.
Bartholomew did not answer.
'Murry Ann!' exclaimed Jog, after a pause. 'Murry Ann!' repeated he, still louder. 'MURRAY ANN!' roared he, at the top of his voice.
'Comin', sir! comin'!' exclaimed Mary Ann, peeping down upon him from the garret-window.
'Oh, Murry Ann,' cried Mr. Jog, looking up, and catching the ends of her blue ribbons streaming past the window-frame, as she changed her nightcap for a day one, 'oh, Murry Ann, you'd better be (puff)in' forrard with the (gasp) breakfast; Mr. Sponge'll most likely be (wheeze)in' away to-day.'
'Yes, sir,' replied Mary Ann, adjusting the cap becomingly.
'Confounded, puffing, wheezing, gasping, broken-winded old blockhead it is!' growled Mr. Sponge, wishing he could get to his former earth at Puffington's, or anywhere else. When he got down he found Jog in a very roomy, bright, green-plush shooting-jacket, with pockets innumerable, and a whistle suspended to a button-hole. His nether man was encased in a pair of most dilapidated white moleskins, that had been degraded from hunting into shooting ones, and whose cracks and darns showed the perils to which their wearer had been exposed. Below these were drab, horn-buttoned gaiters, and hob-nailed shoes.
'Going a-gunning, are you?' asked Mr. Sponge, after the morning salutation, which Jog returned most gruffly.
'I'll go with you,' said Mr. Sponge, at once dispelling the delusion of his wheezing away.
'Only going to frighten the (puff) rooks off the (gasp) wheat,' replied Jog carelessly, not wishing to let Sponge see what a numb hand he was with a gun.
'I thought you told me you were going to get me a hare,' observed Mrs. Jog; adding, 'I'm sure shooting is a much more rational amusement than tearing your clothes going after the hounds,' eyeing the much dilapidated moleskins as she spoke.
Mrs. Jog found shooting more useful than hunting.
'Oh, if a (puff) hare comes in my (gasp) way, I'll turn her over,' replied Jog carelessly, as if turning them over was quite a matter of course with him; adding, 'but I'm not (wheezing) out for the express purpose of shooting one.'
'Ah, well,' observed Sponge, 'I'll go with you, all the same.'
'But I've only got one gun,' gasped Jog, thinking it would be worse to have Sponge laughing at his shooting than even leaving him at home.
'Then, we'll shoot turn and turn about,' replied the pertinacious guest.
Jog did his best to dissuade him, observing that the birds were (puff) scarce and (wheeze) wild, and the (gasp) hares much troubled with poachers; but Mr. Sponge wanted a walk, and moreover had a fancy for seeing Jog handle his gun.
Having cut himself some extremely substantial sandwiches, and filled his 'monkey' full of sherry, our friend Jog slipped out the back way to loosen old Ponto, who acted the triple part of pointer, house-dog, and horse to Gustavus James. He was a great fat, black-and-white brute, with a head like a hat-box, a tail like a clothes-peg, and a back as broad as a well-fed sheep's. The old brute was so frantic at the sight of his master in his green coat, and wide-awake to match, that he jumped and bounced, and barked, and rattled his chain, and set up such yells, that his noise sounded all over the house, and soon brought Mr. Sponge to the scene of action, where stood our friend, loading his gun and looking as consequential as possible.
'I shall only just take a (puff) stroll over moy (wheeze) ter-ri-to-ry,' observed Jog, as Mr. Sponge emerged at the back door.
Jog's pace was about two miles and a half an hour, stoppages included, and he thought it advisable to prepare Mr. Sponge for the trial. He then shouldered his gun and waddled away, first over the stile into Farmer Stiffland's stubble, round which Ponto ranged in the most riotous, independent way, regardless of Jog's whistles and rates and the crack of his little knotty whip. Jog then crossed the old pasture into Mr. Lowland's turnips, into which Ponto dashed in the same energetic way, but these impediments to travelling soon told on his great buttermilk carcass, and brought him to a more subdued pace; still, the dog had a good deal more energy than his master. Round he went, sniffing and hunting, then dashing right through the middle of the field, as if he was out on his own account alone, and had nothing whatever to do with a master.
'Why, your dog'll spring all the birds out of shot,' observed Mr. Sponge; and, just as he spoke, whirr! rose a covey of partridges, eleven in number, quite at an impossible distance, but Jog blazed away all the same.
''Ord rot it, man! if you'd only held your (something) tongue,' growled Jog, as he shaded the sun from his eyes to mark them down, 'I'd have (wheezed) half of them over.'
'Nonsense, man!' replied Mr. Sponge. 'They were a mile out of shot.'
'I think I should know my (puff) gun better than (wheeze) you,' replied Jog, bringing it down to load.
'They're down!' exclaimed Mr. Sponge, who, having watched them till they began to skim in their flight, saw them stop, flap their wings, and drop among some straggling gorse on the hill before them. 'Let's break the covey; we shall bag them better singly.'
'Take time (puff), replied Jog, snorting into his frill, and measuring out his powder most leisurely. 'Take time (wheeze),' repeated he; 'they're just on the bounds of moy ter-ri-to-ry.'
Jog had had many a game at romps with these birds, and knew their haunts and habits to a nicety. The covey consisted of thirteen at first, but by repeated blazings into the 'brown of 'em,' he had succeeded in knocking down two. Jog was not one of your conceited shots, who never fired but when he was sure of killing; on the contrary, he always let drive far or near; and even if he shot a hare, which he sometimes did, with the first barrel, he always popped the second into her, to make sure. The chairman's shooting afforded amusement to the neighbourhood. On one occasion a party of reapers, having watched him miss twelve shots in succession, gave him three cheers on coming to the thirteenth—but to our day. Jog had now got his gun reloaded with mischief, the cap put on, and all ready for a fresh start. Ponto, meanwhile, had been ranging, Jog thinking it better to let him take the edge off his ardour than conform to the strict rules of lying down or coming to heel. 'Now, let's on,' cried Mr. Sponge, stepping out quickly.
'Take time (puff), take time (wheeze),' gasped Jog, waddling along; 'better let 'em settle a little (puff). Better let 'em settle a little (gasp),' added he, labouring on.
'Oh no, keep them moving,' replied Mr. Sponge, 'keep them moving. Only get at 'em on the hill, and drive 'em into the fields below, and we shall have rare fun.'
'But the (puff) fields below are not mine,' gasped Jog.
'Whose are they?' asked Mr. Sponge.
'Oh (puff), Mrs. Moses's,' gasped Jog. 'My stoopid old uncle,' continued he, stopping, and laying hold of Mr. Sponge's arm, as if to illustrate his position, but in reality to get breath, 'my stoopid old uncle (puff) missed buying that (wheeze) land when old Harry Griperton died. I only wanted that to make moy (wheeze) ter-ri-to-ry extend all the (gasp) way up to Cockwhistle Park there,' continued he, climbing on to a stile they now approached, and setting aside the top stone. 'That's Cockwhistle Park, up there—just where you see the (puff) windmill—then (puff) moy (wheeze) ter-ri-to-ry comes up to the (wheeze) fallow you see all yellow with runch; and if my old (puff) uncle (wheeze) Crowdey had had the sense of a (gasp) goose, he'd have (wheezed) that when it was sold. Moy (puff) name was (wheeze) Jogglebury,' added he, 'before my (gasp) uncle died.'
'Well, never mind about that,' replied Mr. Sponge; 'let us go on after these birds.'
'Oh, we'll (puff) up to them presently,' observed Jog, labouring away, with half a ton of clay at each foot, the sun having dispelled the frost where it struck, and made the land carry.
'Presently!' retorted Mr. Sponge. 'But you should make haste, man.'
'Well, but let me go my own (puff) pace,' snapped Jog, labouring away.
'Pace!' exclaimed Mr. Sponge, 'your own crawl, you should say.'
'Indeed!' growled Jog, with an angry snort.
They now got through a well-established cattle-gap into a very rushy, squashy, gorse-grown pasture, at the bottom of the rising ground on which Mr. Sponge had marked the birds. Ponto, whose energetic exertions had been gradually relaxing, until he had settled down to a leisurely hunting-dog, suddenly stood transfixed, with the right foot up, and his gaze settled on a rushy tuft.
'P-o-o-n-to!' ejaculated Jog, expecting every minute to see him dash at it. 'P-o-o-n-to!' repeated he, raising his hand.
Mr. Sponge stood on the tip-toe of expectation; Jog raised his wide-awake hat from his eyes and advanced cautiously with the engine of destruction cocked. Up started a great hare; bang! went the gun, with the hare none the worse. Bang! went the other barrel, which the hare acknowledged by two or three stotting bounds and an increase of pace.
'Well missed!' exclaimed Mr. Sponge.
Away went Ponto in pursuit.
'P-o-o-n-to!' shrieked Jog, stamping with rage.
'I could have wiped your nose,' exclaimed Mr. Sponge, covering the hare with a hedge-stake placed to his shoulder like a gun.
'Could you?' growled Jog; ''spose you wipe your own,' added he, not understanding the meaning of the term.
Meanwhile, old Ponto went rolling away most energetically, the farther he went the farther he was left behind, till the hare having scuttled out of sight, he wheeled about and came leisurely back, as if he was doing all right.
Jog was very wroth, and vented his anger on the dog, which, he declared, had caused him to miss, vowing, as he rammed away at the charge, that he never missed such a shot before. Mr. Sponge stood eyeing him with a look of incredulity, thinking that a man who could miss such a shot could miss anything. They were now all ready for a fresh start, and Ponto, having pocketed his objurgation, dashed forward again up the rising ground over which the covey had dropped.
Jog's thick wind was a serious impediment to the expeditious mounting of the hill, and the dog seemed aware of his infirmity, and to take pleasure in aggravating him.
'P-o-o-n-to!' gasped Jog, as he slipped, and scrambled, and toiled, sorely impeded by the encumbrance of his gun.
But P-o-o-n-to heeded him not. He knew his master couldn't catch him, and if he did, that he durstn't flog him.
'P-o-o-n-to!' gasped Jog again, still louder, catching at a bush to prevent his slipping back. 'T-o-o-h-o-o! P-o-o-n-to!' wheezed he; but the dog just rolled his great stern, and bustled about more actively than ever.
'Hang ye! but I'd cut you in two if I had you!' exclaimed Mr. Sponge, eyeing his independent proceedings.
'He's not a bad (puff) dog,' observed Jog, mopping the perspiration from his brow.
'He's not a good 'un,' retorted Mr. Sponge.
'D'ye think not (wheeze)?' asked Jog.
'Sure of it,' replied Sponge.
'Serves me,' growled Jog, labouring up the hill.
'Easy served,' replied Mr. Sponge, whistling, and eyeing the independent animal.
'T-o-o-h-o-o! P-o-o-n-t-o!' gasped Jog, as he dashed forward on reaching level ground more eagerly than ever.
'P-o-o-n-to! T-o-o-h-o-o!' repeated he, in a still louder tone, with the same success.
'You'd better get up to him,' observed Mr. Sponge, 'or he'll spring all the birds.'
Jog, however, blundered on at his own pace, growling:
'Most (puff) haste, least (wheeze) speed.'
The dog was now fast drawing upon where the birds lit; and Mr. Sponge and Jog having reached the top of the hill, Mr. Sponge stood still to watch the result.
Up whirred four birds out of a patch of gorse behind the dog, all presenting most beautiful shots. Jog blazed a barrel at them without touching a feather, and the report of the gun immediately raised three brace more into the thick of which he fired with similar success. They all skimmed away unhurt.
'Well missed!' exclaimed Mr. Sponge again. 'You're what they call a good shooter but a bad hitter.'
'You're what they call a (wheeze) fellow,' growled Jog.
He meant to say 'saucy,' but the word wouldn't rise. He then commenced reloading his gun, and lecturing P-o-o-n-to, who still continued his exertions, and inwardly anathematizing Mr. Sponge. He wished he had left him at home. Then recollecting Mrs. Jog, he thought perhaps he was as well where he was. Still his presence made him shoot worse than usual, and there was no occasion for that.
'Let me have a shot now,' said Mr. Sponge.
'Shot (puff)—shot (wheeze); well, take a shot if you choose,' replied he.
Just as Mr. Sponge got the gun, up rose the eleventh bird, and he knocked it over.
'That's the way to do it!' exclaimed Mr. Sponge, as the bird fell dead before Ponto.
The excited dog, unused to such descents, snatched it up and ran off. Just as he was getting out of shot, Mr. Sponge fired the other barrel at him, causing him to drop the bird and run yelping and howling away. Jog was furious. He stamped, and gasped, and fumed, and wheezed, and seemed like to burst with anger and indignation. Though the dog ran away as hard as he could lick, Jog insisted that he was mortally wounded, and would die. 'He never saw so (wheeze) a thing done. He wouldn't have taken twenty pounds for the dog. No, he wouldn't have taken thirty. Forty wouldn't have bought him. He was worth fifty of anybody's money,' and so he went on, fuming and advancing his value as he spoke.
Mr. Sponge stole away to where the dog had dropped the bird; and Mr. Jog, availing himself of his absence, retraced his steps down the hill, and struck off home at a much faster pace than he came. Arrived there, he found the dog in the kitchen, somewhat sore from the visitation of the shot, but not sufficiently injured to prevent his enjoying a most liberal plate of stick-jaw pudding supplied by a general contribution of the servants. Jog's wrath was then turned in another direction, and he blew up for the waste and extravagance of the act, hinting pretty freely that he knew who it was that had set them against it. Altogether he was full of troubles, vexations, and annoyances; and after spending another most disagreeable evening with our friend Sponge, went to bed more determined than ever to get rid of him.
NONSUCH HOUSE AGAIN
Poor Jog again varied his hints the next morning. After sundry prefatory 'Murry Anns!' and 'Bar-tho-lo-mews!' he at length got the latter to answer, when, raising his voice so as to fill the whole house, he desired him to go to the stable, and let Mr. Sponge's man know his master would be (wheezing) away.
'You're wrong there, old buck,' growled Leather, as he heard the foregoing; 'he's half-way to Sir 'Arry's by this time.'
And sure enough, Mr. Sponge was, as none knew better than Leather, who had got him his horse, the hack being indisposed—that is to say, having been out all night with Mr. Leather on a drinking excursion, Leather having just got home in time to receive the purple-coated, bare-footed runner of Nonsuch House, who dropped in, en passant, to see if there was anything to stow away in his roomy trouser-pockets, and leave word that Sir Harry was going to hunt, and would meet before the house.
Leather, though somewhat muzzy, was sufficiently sober to be able to deliver this message, and acquaint Mr. Sponge with the impossibility of his 'ridin' the 'ack.' Indeed, he truly said that he had 'been hup with him all night, and at one time thought it was all hover with him,' the all-overishness consisting of Mr. Leather being nearly all over the hack's head, in consequence of the animal shying at another drunken man lying across the road.
Mr. Sponge listened to the recital with the indifference of a man who rides hack-horses, and coolly observed that Leather must take on the chestnut, and he would ride the brown to cover.
'Couldn't, sir, couldn't,' replied Leather, with a shake of the head and a twinkle of his roguish, watery grey eyes.
'Why not?' asked Mr. Sponge, who never saw any difficulty.
'Oh, sur,' replied Leather, in a tone of despondency, 'it would be quite unpossible. Consider wot a day the last one was; why, he didn't get to rest till three the next mornin'.'
'It'll only be walking exercise,' observed Mr. Sponge; 'do him good.'
'Better valk the chestnut,' replied Mr. Leather; 'Multum-in-Parvo hasn't 'ad a good day this I don't know wen, and will be all the better of a bucketin'.'
'But I hate crawling to cover on my horse,' replied Mr. Sponge, who liked cantering along with a flourish.
'You'll have to crawl if you ride 'Ercles,' observed Leather, 'if not walk. Bless you! I've been a-nussin' of him and the 'ack most the 'ole night.'
'Indeed!' replied Mr. Sponge, who began to be alarmed lest his hunting might be brought to an abrupt termination.
'True as I'm 'ere,' rejoined Leather. 'He's just as much off his grub as he vos when he com'd in; never see'd an 'oss more reg'larly dished—more—'
'Well, well,' said Mr. Sponge, interrupting the catalogue of grievances; 'I s'pose I must do as you say—I s'pose I must do as you say: what sort of a day is it?'
'Vy, the day's not a bad day; at least that's to say, it's not a wery haggrivatin' day. I've seen a betterer day, in course; but I've also seen many a much worser day, and days at this time of year, you know, are apt to change—sometimes, in course, for the betterer—sometimes, in course, for the worser.'
'Is it a frost?' snapped Mr. Sponge, tired of his loquacity.
'Is it a frost?' repeated Mr. Leather thoughtfully; 'is it a frost? Vy, no; I should say it isn't a frost—at least, not a frost to 'urt; there may be a little rind on the ground and a little rawness in the hair, but the general concatenation—'
'Hout, tout!' exclaimed Mr. Sponge, 'let's have none of your dictionary words.'
Mr. Leather stood silent, twisting his hat about.
The consequence of all this was, that Mr. Sponge determined to ride over to Nonsuch House to breakfast, which would give his horse half an hour in the stable to eat a feed of corn. Accordingly, he desired Leather to bring him his shaving-water, and have the horse ready in the stable in half an hour, whither, in due time, Mr. Sponge emerged by the back door, without encountering any of the family. The ambling piebald looked so crestfallen and woebegone in all the swaddling-clothes in which Leather had got him enveloped, that Mr. Sponge did not care to look at the gallant Hercules, who occupied a temporary loose-box at the far end of the dark stable, lest he might look worse. He, therefore, just mounted Multum-in-Parvo as Leather led him out at the door, and set off without a word.
'Well, hang me, but you are a good judge of weather,' exclaimed Sponge to himself, as he got into the field at the back of the house, and found the horse made little impression on the grass. 'No frost!' repeated he, breathing into the air; 'why it's freezing now, out of the sun.'
On getting into Marygold Lane, our friend drew rein, and was for turning back, but the resolute chestnut took the bit between his teeth and shook his head, as if determined to go on.
'Oh, you brute!' growled Mr. Sponge, letting the spurs into his sides with a hearty good-will, which caused the animal to kick, as if he meant to stand on his head. 'Ah, you will, will ye?' exclaimed Mr. Sponge, letting the spurs in again as the animal replaced his legs on the ground. Up they went again, if possible higher than before.
The brute was clearly full of mischief, and even if the hounds did not throw off, which there was little prospect of their doing from the appearance of the weather, Mr. Sponge felt that it would be well to get some of the nonsense taken out of him; and, moreover, going to Nonsuch House would give him a chance of establishing a billet there—a chance that he had been deprived of by Sir Harry's abrupt departure from Farmer Peastraw's. So saying, our friend gathered his horse together, and settling himself in his saddle, made his sound hoofs ring upon the hard road.
'He may hunt,' thought Mr. Sponge, as he rattled along; 'such a rum beggar as Sir Harry may think it fun to go out in a frost. It's hard, too,' said he, as he saw the poor turnip-pullers enveloped in their thick shawls, and watched them thumping their arms against their sides to drive the cold from their finger-ends.
Multum-in-Parvo was a good, sound-constitutioned horse, hard and firm as a cricket-ball, a horse that would not turn a hair for a trifle even on a hunting morning, let alone on such a thorough chiller as this one was; and Mr. Sponge, after going along at a good round pace, and getting over the ground much quicker than he did when the road was all new to him, and he had to ask his way, at length drew in to see what o'clock it was. It was only half-past nine, and already in the far distance he saw the encircling woods of Nonsuch House.
'Shall be early,' said Mr. Sponge, returning his watch to his waistcoat-pocket, and diving into his cutty coat-pocket for the cigar-case. Having struck a light, he now laid the rein on the horse's neck and proceeded leisurely along, the animal stepping gaily and throwing its head about as if he was the quietest, most trustworthy nag in the world. If he got there at half-past ten, Mr. Sponge calculated he would have plenty of time to see after his horse, get his own breakfast, and see how the land lay for a billet.
It would be impossible to hunt before twelve; so he went smoking and sauntering along, now wondering whether he would be able to establish a billet, now thinking how he would like to sell Sir Harry a horse, then considering whether he would be likely to pay for him, and enlivening the general reflections by ringing his spurs against his stirrup-irons.
Having passed the lodges at the end of the avenue, he cocked his hat, twiddled his hair, felt his tie, and arranged for a becoming appearance. The sudden turn of the road brought him full upon the house. How changed the scene! Instead of the scarlet-coated youths thronging the gravelled ring, flourishing their scented kerchiefs and hunting-whips—instead of buxom Abigails and handsome mistresses hanging out of the windows, flirting and chatting and ogling, the door was shut, the blinds were down, the shutters closed, and the whole house had the appearance of mourning.
Mr. Sponge reined up involuntarily, startled at the change of scene. What could have happened! Could Sir Harry be dead? Could my lady have eloped? 'Oh, that horrid Bugles!' thought he; 'he looked like a gay deceiver.' And Mr. Sponge felt as if he had sustained a personal injury.
Just as these thoughts were passing in his mind, a drowsy, slatternly charwoman, in an old black straw bonnet and grey bed-gown, opened one of the shutters, and throwing up the sash of the window by where Mr. Sponge sat, disclosed the contents of the apartment. The last waxlight was just dying out in the centre of a splendid candelabra on the middle of a table scattered about with claret-jugs, glasses, decanters, pine-apple tops, grape-dishes, cakes, anchovy-toast plates, devilled biscuit-racks—all the concomitants of a sumptuous entertainment.
'Sir Harry at home?' asked Mr. Sponge, making the woman sensible of his presence, by cracking his whip close to her ear. 'No,' replied the dame gruffly, commencing an assault upon the nearest chair with a duster.
'Where is he?' asked our friend.
'Bed, to be sure,' replied the woman, in the same tone.
'Bed, to be sure,' repeated Mr. Sponge. 'I don't think there's any 'sure' in the case. Do you know what o'clock it is?' asked he.
'No,' replied the woman, flopping away at another chair, and arranging the crimson velvet curtains on the holders.
Mr. Sponge was rather nonplussed. His red coat did not command the respect that a red coat generally does. The fact was, they had such queer people in red coats at Nonsuch House, that a red coat was rather an object of suspicion than otherwise.
'Well, but, my good woman,' continued Mr. Sponge, softening his tone, 'can you tell me where I shall find anybody who can tell me anything about the hounds?'
'No,' growled the woman, still flopping, and whisking, and knocking the furniture about.
'I'll remember you for your trouble,' observed Mr. Sponge, diving his right hand into his breeches' pocket.
'Mr. Bottleends be gone to bed,' observed the woman, now ceasing her evolutions, and parting her grisly, disordered tresses, as she advanced and stood staring, with her arms akimbo, out of the window. She was the under-housemaid's deputy; all the servants at Nonsuch House doing the rough of their work by deputy. Lady Scattercash was a real lady, and liked to have the credit of the house maintained, which of course can only be done by letting the upper servants do nothing. 'Mr. Bottleends be gone to bed,' observed the woman.
'Mr. Bottleends?' repeated Mr. Sponge; 'who's he?'
'The butler, to be sure,' replied she, astonished that any person should have to ask who such an important personage was.
'Can't you call him?' asked Mr. Sponge, still fumbling in his pocket.
'Couldn't, if it was ever so,' replied the dame, smoothing her dirty blue-checked apron with her still dirtier hand.
'Why not?' asked Mr. Sponge.
'Why not?' repeated the woman; 'why, 'cause Mr. Bottleends won't be disturbed by no one. He said when he went to bed that he hadn't to be called till to-morrow.'
'Not called till to-morrow!' exclaimed Mr. Sponge; 'then is Sir Harry from home?'
'From home, no; what should put that i' your head?' sneered the woman.
'Why, if the butler's in bed, one may suppose the master's away.'
'Hout!' snapped the woman; 'Sir Harry's i' bed—Captin Seedeybuck's i' bed—Captin Quod's i' bed—Captin Spangle's i' bed—Captin Bouncey's i' bed—Captin Cutitfat's i' bed—they're all i' bed 'cept me, and I've got the house to clean and right, and high time it was cleaned and righted, for they've not been i' bed these three nights any on 'em.' So saying, she flourished her duster as if about to set-to again.
'Well, but tell me,' exclaimed Mr. Sponge, 'can I see the footman, or the huntsman, or the groom, or a helper, or anybody?'
'Deary knows,' replied the woman thoughtfully, resting her chin on her hand. 'I dare say they'll be all i' bed too.'
'But they are going to hunt, aren't they?' asked our friend.
'Hunt!' exclaimed the woman; 'what should put that i' your head.'
'Why, they sent me word they were.'
'It'll be i' bed, then,' observed she, again giving symptoms of a desire to return to her dusting.
Mr. Sponge, who still kept his hand in his pocket, sat on his horse in a state of stupid bewilderment. He had never seen a case of this sort before—a house shut up, and a master of hounds in bed when the hounds were to meet before the door. It couldn't be the case: the woman must be dreaming, or drunk, or both.
'Well, but, my good woman,' exclaimed he, as she gave a punishing cut at the chair, as if to make up for lost time; 'well, but, my good woman, I wish you would try and find somebody who can tell me something about the hounds. I'm sure they must be going to hunt. I'll remember you for your trouble, if you will,' added he, again diving his hand up to the wrist in his pocket.
'I tell you,' replied the woman slowly and deliberately, 'there'll be no huntin' to-day. Huntin'!' exclaimed she; 'how can they hunt when they've all had to be carried to bed?'
'Carried to bed! had they?' exclaimed Mr. Sponge; 'what, were they drunk?'
'Drunk! aye, to be sure. What would you have them be?' replied the crone, who seemed to think that drinking was a necessary concomitant of hunting.
'Well, but I can see the footman or somebody, surely,' observed Mr. Sponge, fearing that his chance was out for a billet, and recollecting old Jog's 'Bartholo-m-e-ws!' and 'Murry Anns!' and intimations for him to start.
''Deed you can't,' replied the dame—'ye can see nebody but me,' added she, fixing her twinkling eyes intently upon him as she spoke.
'Well, that's a pretty go,' observed Mr. Sponge aloud to himself, ringing his spurs against his stirrup-irons.
'Pretty go or ugly go,' snapped the woman, thinking it was a reflection on herself, 'it's all you'll get'; and thereupon she gave the back of the chair a hearty bastinadoing as if in exemplification of the way she would like to serve Mr. Sponge out for the observation.
'I came here thinking to get some breakfast,' observed Mr. Sponge, casting an eye upon the disordered table, and reconnoitring the bottles and the remains of the dessert.
'Did you?' said the woman; 'I wish you may get it.'
'I wish I may,' replied he. 'If you would manage that for me, just some coffee and a mutton chop or two, I'd remember you,' said he, still tantalizing her with the sound of the silver in his pocket.
'Me manish it!' exclaimed the woman, her hopes again rising at the sound; 'me manish it! how d'ye think I'm to manish sich things?' asked she.
'Why, get at the cook, or the housekeeper, or somebody,' replied Mr. Sponge.
'Cook or housekeeper!' exclaimed she. 'There'll be no cook or housekeeper astir here these many hours yet; I question,' added she, 'they get up to-day.'
'What! they've been put to bed too, have they?' asked he.
'W-h-y no—not zactly that,' drawled the woman; 'but when sarvants are kept up three nights out of four, they must make up for lost time when they can.'
'Well,' mused Mr. Sponge, 'this is a bother, at all events; get no breakfast, lose my hunt, and perhaps a billet into the bargain. Well, there's sixpence for you, my good woman,' said he at length, drawing his hand out of his pocket and handing her the contents through the window; adding, 'don't make a beast of yourself with it.'
'It's nabbut fourpence,' observed the woman, holding it out on the palm of her hand.
'Ah, well, you're welcome to it whatever it is,' replied our friend, turning his horse to go away. A thought then struck him. 'Could you get me a pen and ink, think you?' asked he; 'I want to write a line to Sir Harry.'
'Pen and ink!' replied the woman, who had pocketed the groat and resumed her dusting; 'I don't know where they keep no such things as penses and inkses.'
'Most likely in the drawing-room or the sitting-room, or perhaps in the butler's pantry,' observed Mr. Sponge.
'Well, you can come in and see,' replied the woman, thinking there was no occasion to give herself any more trouble for the fourpenny-piece.
Our worthy friend sat on his horse a few seconds staring intently into the dining-room window, thinking that lapse of time might cause the fourpenny-piece to be sufficiently respected to procure him something like directions how to proceed as well to get rid of his horse, as to procure access to the house, the door of which stood frowningly shut. In this, however, he was mistaken, for no sooner had the woman uttered the words, 'Well, you can come in and see,' than she flaunted into the interior of the room, and commenced a regular series of assaults upon the furniture, throwing the hearth-rug over one chair back, depositing the fire-irons in another, rearing the steel fender up against the Carrara marble chimney-piece, and knocking things about in the independent way that servants treat unoffending furniture, when master and mistress are comfortably esconced in bed. 'Flop' went the duster again; 'bang' went the furniture; 'knock' this chair went against that, and she seemed bent upon putting all things into that happy state of sixes and sevens that characterizes a sale of household furniture, when chairs mount tables, and the whole system of domestic economy is revolutionized. Seeing that he was not going to get anything more for his money, our friend at length turned his horse and found his way to the stables by the unerring drag of carriage-wheels. All things there being as matters were in the house, he put the redoubtable nag into a stall, and helped him to a liberal measure of oats out of the well-stored unlocked corn-bin. He then sought the back of the house by the worn flagged-way that connected it with the stables. The back yard was in the admired confusion that might be expected from the woman's account. Empty casks and hampers were piled and stowed away in all directions, while regiments of champagne and other bottles stood and lay about among blacking bottles, Seltzer-water bottles, boot-trees, bath-bricks, old brushes, and stumpt-up besoms. Several pair of dirty top-boots, most of them with the spurs on, were chucked into the shoe-house just as they had been taken off. The kitchen, into which our friend now entered, was in the same disorderly state. Numerous copper pans stood simmering on the charcoal stoves, and the jointless jack still revolved on the spit. A dirty slip-shod girl sat sleeping, with her apron thrown over her head, which rested on the end of a table. The open door of the servants' hall hard by disclosed a pile of dress and other clothes, which, after mopping up the ale and other slops, would be carefully folded and taken back to the rooms of their respective owners.
'Halloo!' cried Mr. Sponge, shaking the sleeping girl by the shoulder, which caused her to start up, stare, and rub her eyes in wild affright. 'Halloo!' repeated he, 'what's happened you?'
'Oh, beg pardon, sir!' exclaimed she; 'beg pardon,' continued she, clasping her hands; 'I'll never do so again, sir; no, sir, I'll never do so again, indeed I won't.'
She had just stolen a shape of blanc-mange, and thought she was caught.
'Then show me where I'll find pen and ink and paper,' replied our friend.
'Oh, sir, I don't know nothin' about them,' replied the girl; 'indeed, sir, I don't'; thinking it was some other petty larceny he was inquiring about.
'Well, but you can tell me where to find a sheet of paper, surely?' rejoined he.
'Oh, indeed, sir, I can't,' replied she; 'I know nothin' about nothin' of the sort.' Servants never do.
'What sort?' asked Mr. Sponge, wondering at her vehemence.
'Well, sir, about what you said,' sobbed the girl, applying the corner of her dirty apron to her eyes.
'Hang it, the girl's mad,' rejoined our friend, brushing by, and making for the passage beyond. This brought him past the still-room, the steward's room, the housekeeper's room, and the butler's pantry. All were in most glorious confusion; in the latter, Captain Cutitfat's lacquer-toed, lavender-coloured dress-boots were reposing in the silver soup tureen, and Captain Bouncey's varnished pumps were stuffed into a wine-cooler. The last detachment of empty bottles stood or lay about the floor, commingling with boot-jacks, knife-trays, bath-bricks, coat-brushes, candle-end boxes, plates, lanterns, lamp-glasses, oil bottles, corkscrews, wine-strainers—the usual miscellaneous appendages of a butler's pantry. All was still and quiet; not a sound, save the loud ticking of a timepiece, or the occasional creak of a jarring door, disturbed the solemn silence of the house. A nimble-handed mugger or tramp might have carried off whatever he liked.
Passing onward, Mr. Sponge came to a red-baized, brass-nailed door, which, opening freely on a patent spring, revealed the fine proportions of a light picture-gallery with which the bright mahogany doors of the entertaining rooms communicated. Opening the first door he came to, our friend found himself in the elegant drawing-room, on whose round bird's-eye-maple table, in the centre, were huddled all the unequal-lengthed candles of the previous night's illumination. It was a handsome apartment, fitted up in the most costly style; with rose-colour brocaded satin damask, the curtains trimmed with silk tassel fringe, and ornamented with massive bullion tassels on cornices, Cupids supporting wreaths under an arch, with open carved-work and enrichments in burnished gold. The room, save the muster of the candles, was just as it had been left; and the richly gilt sofa still retained the indentations of the sitters, with the luxurious down pillows, left as they had been supporting their backs.
The room reeked of tobacco, and the ends and ashes of cigars dotted the tables and white marble chimney-piece, and the gilt slabs and the finely flowered Tournay carpet, just as the fires of gipsies dot and disfigure the fair face of a country. Costly china and nick-nacks of all sorts were scattered about in profusion. Altogether, it was a beautiful room.
'No want of money here,' said Mr. Sponge to himself, as he eyed it, and thought what havoc Gustavus James would make among the ornaments if he had a chance.
He then looked about for pen, ink, and paper. These were distributed so wide apart as to show the little request they were in. Having at length succeeded in getting what he wanted gathered together, Mr. Sponge sat down on the luxurious sofa, considering how he should address his host, as he hoped. Mr. Sponge was not a shy man, but, considering the circumstances under which he made Sir Harry Scattercash's acquaintance, together with his design upon his hospitality—above all, considering the crew by whom Sir Harry was surrounded—it required some little tact to pave the way without raising the present inmates of the house against him. There are no people so anxious to protect others from robbery as those who are robbing them themselves. Mr. Sponge thought, and thought, and thought. At last he resolved to write on the subject of the hounds. After sundry attempts on pink, blue, and green-tinted paper, he at last succeeded in hitting off the following, on yellow:
'DEAR SIR HARRY,—I rode over this morning, hearing you were to hunt, and am sorry to find you indisposed. I wish you would drop me a line to Mr. Crowdey's, Puddingpote Bower, saying when next you go out, as I should much like to have another look at your splendid pack before I leave this country, which I fear will have to be soon.—Yours in haste,
'P.S.—I hope you all got safe home the other night from Mr. Peastraw's.'
Having put this into a richly gilt and embossed envelope, our friend directed it conspicuously to Sir Harry Scattercash, Bart., and stuck it in the centre of the mantelpiece. He then retraced his steps through the back regions, informing the sleeping beauty he had before disturbed, and who was now busy scouring a pan, that he had left a letter in the drawing-room for Sir Harry, and if she would see that he got it, he (Mr. Sponge) would remember her the next time he came, which he inwardly hoped would be soon. He then made for the stable, and got his horse, to go home, sauntering more leisurely along than one would expect of a man who had not got his breakfast, especially one riding a hack hunter.
The truth was, Mr. Sponge did not much like the aspect of affairs. Sir Harry's was evidently a desperately 'fast' house; added to which, the guests by whom he was surrounded were clearly of the wide-awake order, who could not spare any pickings for a stranger. Indeed, Mr. Sponge felt that they rather cold-shouldered him at Farmer Peastraw's, and were in a greater hurry to be off when the drag came, than the mere difference between inside and outside seats required. He much questioned whether he got into Sir Harry's at all. If it came to a vote, he thought he should not. Then, what was he to do? Old Jog was clearly tired of him; and he had nowhere else to go to. The thought made him stick spurs into the chestnut, and hurry home to Puddingpote Bower, where he endeavoured to soothe his host by more than insinuating that he was going on a visit to Nonsuch House. Jog inwardly prayed that he might.
It was just as Mr. Sponge predicted with regard to his admission to Nonsuch House. The first person who spied his note to Sir Harry Scattercash was Captain Seedeybuck, who, going into the drawing-room, the day after Mr. Sponge's visit, to look for the top of his cigar-case, saw it occupying the centre of the mantelpiece. Having mastered its contents, the Captain refolded and placed it where he found it, with the simple observation to himself of—'That cock won't fight.'
Captain Quod saw it next, then Captain Bouncey, who told Captain Cutitfat what was in it, who agreed with Bouncey that it wouldn't do to have Mr. Sponge there.
Indeed, it seemed agreed on all hands that their party rather wanted weeding than increasing.
Thus, in due time, everybody in the house knew the contents of the note save Sir Harry, though none of them thought it worth while telling him of it. On the third morning, however, as the party were assembling for breakfast, he came into the room reading it.
'This (hiccup) note ought to have been delivered before,' observed he, holding it up.
'Indeed, my dear,' replied Lady Scattercash, who was sitting gloriously fine and very beautiful at the head of the table, 'I don't know anything about it.'
'Who is it from?' asked brother Bob Spangles.
'Mr. (hiccup) Sponge,' replied Sir Harry.
'What a name!' exclaimed Captain Seedeybuck.
'Who is he?' asked Captain Quod.
'Don't know,' replied Sir Harry; 'he writes to (hiccup) about the hounds.' 'Oh, it'll be that brown-booted buffer,' observed Captain Bouncey, 'that we left at old Peastraw's.'
'No doubt,' assented Captain Cutitfat, adding, 'what business has he with the hounds?'
'He wants to know when we are going to (hiccup) again,' observed Sir Harry.
'Does he?' replied Captain Seedeybuck. 'That, I suppose, will depend upon Watchorn.'
The party now got settled to breakfast, and as soon as the first burst of appetite was appeased, the conversation again turned upon our friend Mr. Sponge.
'Who is this Mr. Sponge?' asked Captain Bouncey, the billiard-marker, with the air of a thorough exclusive.
'Who's your friend?' asked he of Sir Harry direct.
'Don't know,' replied Sir Harry, from between the mouthfuls of a highly cayenned grill.
'P'raps a bolting betting-office keeper,' suggested Captain Ladofwax, who hated Captain Bouncey.
'He looks more like a glazier, I think,' retorted Captain Bouncey, with a look of defiance at the speaker.
'Lucky if he is one,' retorted Captain Ladofwax, reddening up to the eyes; 'he may have a chance of repairing somebody's daylights.' The captain raising his saucer, to discharge it at his opponent's head.
'Gently with the cheney!' exclaimed Lady Scattercash, who was too much used to such scenes to care about the belligerents. Bob Spangles caught Ladofwax's arm at the nick of time, and saved the saucer.
'Hout! you (hiccup) fellows are always (hiccup)ing,' exclaimed Sir Harry. 'I declare I'll have you both (hiccup)ed over to keep the peace.'
They then broke out into wordy recrimination and abuse, each declaring that he wouldn't stay a day longer in the house if the other remained; but as they had often said so before, and still gave no symptoms of going, their assertion produced little effect upon anybody. Sir Harry would not have cared if all his guests had gone together. Peace and order being at length restored, the conversation again turned upon Mr. Sponge.
'I suppose we must have another (hiccup) hunt soon,' observed Sir Harry.
'In course,' replied Bob Spangles; 'it's no use keeping the hungry brutes unless you work them.'
'You'll have a bagman, I presume,' observed Captain Seedeybuck, who did not like the trouble of travelling about the country to draw for a fox.
'Oh yes,' replied Sir Harry; 'Watchorn will manage all that. He's always (hiccup) in that line. We'd better have a hunt soon, and then, Mr. (hiccup) Bugles, you can see it.' Sir Harry addressing himself to a gentleman he was as anxious to get rid of as Mr. Jogglebury Crowdey was to get rid of Mr. Sponge.'
'No; Mr. Bugles won't go out any more,' replied Lady Scattercash peremptorily. 'He was nearly killed last time'; her ladyship casting an angry glance at her husband, and a very loving one on the object of her solicitude.
'Oh, nought's never in danger!' observed Bob Spangles.
'Then you can go, Bob,' snapped his sister.
'I intend,' replied Bob.
'Then (hiccup), gentlemen, I think I'll just write this Mr. (hiccup) What's-his-name to (hiccup) over here,' observed Sir Harry, 'and then he'll be ready for the (hiccup) hunt whenever we choose to (hiccup) one.'
The proposition fell still-born among the party.
'Don't you think we can do without him?' at last suggested Captain Seedeybuck.
'I think so,' observed the elder Spangles, without looking up from his plate.
'Who is it?' asked Lady Scattercash.
'The man that was here the other morning—the man in the queer chestnut-coloured boots,' replied Mr. Orlando Bugles.
'Oh, I think he's rather good-looking; I vote we have him,' replied her ladyship.
That was rather a damper for Sir Harry; but upon reflection, he thought he could not be worse off with Mr. Sponge and Mr. Bugles than he was with Mr. Bugles alone; so, having finished a poor appetiteless breakfast, he repaired to what he called his 'study,' and with a feeble, shaky hand, scrawled an invitation to Mr. Sponge to come over to Nonsuch House, and take his chance of a run with his hounds. He then sealed and posted the letter without further to do.
Four days had now elapsed since Mr. Sponge penned his overture to Sir Harry, and each succeeding day satisfied him more of the utter impossibility of holding on much longer in his then billet at Puddingpote Bower. Not only was Jog coarse and incessant in his hints to him to be off, but Jawleyford-like he had lowered the standard of entertainment so greatly, that if it hadn't been that Mr. Sponge had his servant and horses kept also, he might as well have been living at his own expense. The company lights were all extinguished; great, strong-smelling, cauliflower-headed moulds, that were always wanting snuffing, usurped the place of Belmont wax; napkins were withdrawn; second-hand table-cloths introduced; marsala did duty for sherry; and the stickjaw pudding assumed a consistency that was almost incompatible with articulation.
In the course of this time Sponge wrote to Puffington, saying if he was better he would return and finish his visit; but the wary Puff sent a messenger off express with a note, lamenting that he was ordered to Handley Cross for his health, but 'pop'lar man' like, hoping that the pleasure of Sponge's company was only deferred for another season. Jawleyford, even Sponge thought hopeless; and, altogether, he was very much perplexed. He had made a little money certainly, with his horses; but a permanent investment of his elegant person, such as he had long been on the look-out for, seemed as far off as ever. On the afternoon of the fifth day, as he was taking a solitary stroll about the country, having about made up his mind to be off to town, just as he was crossing Jog's buttercup meadow on his way to the stable, a rapid bang! bang! caused him to start, and, looking over the hedge, he saw a brawny-looking sportsman in brown reloading his gun, with a brace of liver-and-white setters crouching like statues in the stubble.
'Seek dead!' presently said the shooter, with a slight wave of his hand; and in an instant each dog was picking up his bird.
'I'll have a word with you,' said Sponge, 'on and off-ing' the hedge, his beat causing the shooter to start and look as if inclined for a run; second thoughts said Sponge was too near, and he'd better brave it.
'What sport?' asked Sponge, striding towards him.
'Oh, pretty middling,' replied the shooter, a great red-headed, freckly faced fellow, with backward-lying whiskers, crowned in a drab rustic. 'Oh, pretty middling,' repeated he, not knowing whether to act on the friendly or defensive.
'Fine day!' said Sponge, eyeing his fox-maskey whiskers and stout, muscular frame.
'It is,' replied the shooter; adding, 'just followed my birds over the boundary. No 'fence, I s'pose—no 'fence.'
'Oh no,' said Mr. Sponge. 'Jog, I dessay, 'll be very glad to see you.'
'Oh, you'll be Mr. Sponge?' observed the stranger, jumping to a conclusion.
'I am,' replied our hero; adding, 'may I ask who I have the honour of addressing?'
'My name's Romford—Charley Romford; everybody knows me. Very glad to make your 'quaintance,' tendering Sponge a great, rough, heavy hand. 'I was goin' to call upon you,' observed the stranger, as he ceased swinging Sponge's arm to and fro like a pump-handle; 'I was goin' to call upon you, to see if you'd come over to Washingforde, and have some shootin' at me Oncle's—Oncle Gilroy's, at Queercove Hill.'
'Most happy!' exclaimed Sponge, thinking it was the very thing he wanted.
'Get a day with the harriers, too, if you like,' continued the shooter, increasing the temptation.
'Better still!' thought Sponge.
'I've only bachelor 'commodation to offer you; but p'raps you'll not mind roughing it a bit?' observed Romford.
'Oh, faith, not I!' replied Sponge, thinking of the luxuries of Puffington's bachelor habitation. 'What sort of stables have you?' asked our friend.