'That's a good-shaped beast,' observed his lordship, as she now came hitching round to the door; 'I really think she would make a cover hack.'
'Sooner you ride her than me,' replied Jack, seeing his lordship was coming the dealer over him—praising the shape when he could say nothing for the action.
'Well, but she'll take you to Jawleyford Court as quick as the best of them,' rejoined his lordship, adding, 'the roads are wretched, and Jaw's stables are a disgrace to humanity—might as well put a horse in a cellar.'
'Well,' observed Jack, retiring from the parlour window to his little den along the passage, to put the finishing touch to his toilet—the green cutaway and buff waistcoat, which he further set off with a black satin stock—'Well,' said he, 'needs must when a certain gentleman drives.'
He presently reappeared full fig, rubbing a fine new eight-and-sixpenny flat-brimmed hat round and round with a substantial puce-coloured bandana. 'Now for the specs!' exclaimed he, with the gaiety of a man in his Sunday's best, bound on a holiday trip. 'Now for the silver specs!' repeated he.
'Ah, true,' replied his lordship; 'I'd forgot the specs.' (He hadn't, only he thought his silver-mounted ones would be safer in his keeping than in Jack's.) 'I'd forgot the specs. However, never mind, you shall have these,' said he, taking his tortoise-shell-rimmed ones off his nose and handing them to Jack.
'You promised me the silver ones,' observed our friend Jack, who wanted to be smart.
'Did I?' replied his lordship; 'I declare I'd forgot. Ah yes, I believe I did,' added he, with an air of sudden enlightenment—'the pair upstairs; but how the deuce to get at them I don't know, for the key of the Indian cabinet is locked in the old oak press in the still-room, and the key of the still-room is locked away in the linen-press in the green lumber-room at the top of the house, and the key of the green lumber-room is in a drawer at the bottom of the wardrobe in the Star-Chamber, and the—'
'Ah, well; never mind,' grunted Jack, interrupting the labyrinth of lies. 'I dare say these will do—I dare say these will do,' putting them on; adding, 'Now, if you'll lend me a shawl for my neck, and a mackintosh, my name shall be Walker.'
'Better make it Trotter,' replied his lordship, 'considering the distance you have to go.'
'Good,' said Jack, mounting and driving away.
'It will be a blessing if we get there,' observed Jack to the liveried stable-lad, as the old bag of bones of a mare went hitching and limping away.
'Oh, she can go when she's warm,' replied the lad, taking her across the ears with the point of the whip. The wheels followed merrily over the sound, hard road through the park, and the gentle though almost imperceptible fall of the ground giving an impetus to the vehicle, they bowled away as if they had four of the soundest, freshest legs in the world before them, instead of nothing but a belly-band between them and eternity.
When, however, they cleared the noble lodge and got upon the unscraped mud of the Deepdebt turnpike, the pace soon slackened, and, instead of the gig running away with the old mare, she was fairly brought to her collar. Being a game one, however, she struggled on with a trot, till at length, turning up the deeply spurlinged, clayey bottomed cross-road between Rookgate and Clamley, it was all she could do to drag the gig through the holding mire. Bump, bump, jolt, jolt, creak, creak, went the vehicle. Jack now diving his elbow into the lad's ribs, the lad now diving his into Jack's; both now threatening to go over on the same side, and again both nearly chucked on to the old mare's quarters. A sharp, cutting sleet, driving pins and needles directly in their faces, further disconcerted our travellers. Jack felt acutely for his new eight-and-sixpenny hat, it being the only article of dress he had on of his own.
Long and tedious as was the road, weak and jaded as was the mare, and long as Jack stopped at Starfield, he yet reached Jawleyford Court before the messenger Harry.
As our friend Jawleyford was stamping about his study anathematizing a letter he had received from the solicitor to the directors of the Doembrown and Sinkall Railway, informing him that they were going to indulge in the winding-up act, he chanced to look out of his window just as the contracted limits of a winter's day were drawing the first folds of night's muslin curtain over the landscape, when he espied a gig drawn by a white horse, with a dot-and-go-one sort of action, hopping its way up the slumpey avenue.
'That's Buggins the bailiff,' exclaimed he to himself, as the recollection of an unanswered lawyer's letter flashed across his mind; and he was just darting off to the bell to warn Spigot not to admit any one, when the lad's cockade, standing in relief against the sky-line, caused him to pause and gaze again at the unwonted apparition.
'Who the deuce can it be?' asked he of himself, looking at his watch, and seeing it was a quarter-past four. 'It surely can't be my lord, or that Jack Spraggon coming after all?' added he, drawing out a telescope and opening a lancet-window.
'Spraggon, as I live!' exclaimed he, as he caught Jack's harsh, spectacled features, and saw him titivating his hair and arranging his collar and stock as he approached.
'Well, that beats everything!' exclaimed Jawleyford, burning with rage as he fastened the window again.
He stood for a few seconds transfixed to the spot, not knowing what on earth to do. At last resolution came to his aid, and, rushing upstairs to his dressing-room, he quickly divested himself of his coat and waistcoat, and slipped on a dressing-gown and night-cap. He then stood, door in hand, listening for the arrival. He could just hear the gig grinding under the portico, and distinguish Jack's gruff voice saying to the servant from the top of the steps, 'We'll start directly after breakfast, mind.' A tremendous peal of the bell immediately followed, convulsing the whole house, for nobody had seen the vehicle approaching, and the establishment had fallen into the usual state of undress torpor that intervenes between calling hours and dinner-time.
The bell not being answered as quickly as Jack expected, he just opened the door himself; and when Spigot arrived, with such a force as he could raise at the moment, Jack was in the act of 'peeling' himself, as he called it.
'What time do we dine?' asked he, with the air of a man with the entree.
'Seven o'clock, my lord—that's to say, sir—that's to say, my lord,' for Spigot really didn't know whether it was Jack or his master.
'Seven o'clock!' muttered Jack. 'What the deuce is the use of dinin' at such an hour as that in winter?'
Jack and my lord always dined as soon as they got home from hunting. Jack, having got himself out of his wraps, and run his bristles backwards with a pocket-comb, was ready for presentation.
'What name shall I enounce?' asked Mr. Spigot, fearful of committing himself before the ladies.
'MISTER SPRAGGON, to be sure,' exclaimed Jack, thinking, because he knew who he was, that everybody else ought to know too.
Spigot then led the way to the music-room.
The peal at the bell had caused a suppressed commotion in the apartment. Buried in the luxurious depths of a well-cushioned low chair, Mr. Sponge sat, Mogg in hand, with a toe cocked up, now dipping leisurely into his work—now whispering something sweet into Amelia's ear, who sat with her crochet-work at his side; while Emily played the piano, and Mrs. Jawleyford kept in the background, in the discreet way mothers do when there is a little business going on. The room was in that happy state of misty light that usually precedes the entrance of candles—a light that no one likes to call darkness, lest their eyes might be supposed to be failing. It is a convenient light, however, for a timid stranger, especially where there are not many footstools set to trip him up—an exemption, we grieve to say, not accorded to every one.
Though Mr. Spraggon was such a cool, impudent fellow with men, he was the most awkward, frightened wretch among ladies that ever was seen. His conversation consisted principally of coughing. 'Hem!'—cough—'yes, mum,'—hem—cough, cough—'the day,'—hem—cough—'mum, is'—hem—cough—'very,'—hem—cough—'mum, cold.' But we will introduce him to our family circle.
'MR. SPRAGGON!' exclaimed Spigot in a tone equal to the one in which Jack had announced himself in the entrance; and forthwith there was such a stir in the twilit apartment—such suppressed exclamations of:
'Mr. Spraggon!—Mr. Spraggon! What can bring him here?'
Our traveller's creaking boots and radiant leathers eclipsing the sombre habiliments of Mr. Spigot, Mrs. Jawleyford quickly rose from her Pembroke writing-desk, and proceeded to greet him.
'My daughters I think you know, Mr. Spraggon; also Mr. Sponge? Mr. Spraggon,' continued she, with a wave of her hand to where our hero was ensconced in his form, in case they should not have made each other's speaking acquaintance.
The young ladies rose, and curtsied prettily; while Mr. Sponge gave a sort of backward hitch of his head as he sat in his chair, as much as to say, 'I know as much of Mr. Spraggon as I want.'
'Tell your master Mr. Spraggon is here,' added Mrs. Jawleyford to Spigot, as that worthy was leaving the room. 'It's a cold day, Mr. Spraggon; won't you come near the fire?' continued Mrs. Jawleyford, addressing our friend, who had come to a full stop just under the chandelier in the centre of the room. 'Hem—cough—hem—thank ye, mum,' muttered Jack. 'I'm not—hem—cough—cold, thank ye, mum.' His face and hands were purple notwithstanding.
'How is my Lord Scamperdale?' asked Amelia, who had a strong inclination to keep in with all parties.
'Hem—cough—hem—my lord—that's to say, my lady—hem—cough—I mean to say, my lord's pretty well, thank ye,' stuttered Jack.
'Is he coming?' asked Amelia.
'Hem—cough—hem—my lord's—hem—not well—cough—no—hem—I mean to say—hem—cough—my lord's gone—hem—to dine—cough—hem—with his—cough—friend Lord Bubbley Jock—hem—cough—I mean Barker—cough.'
Jack and Lord Scamperdale were so in the habit of calling his lordship by this nickname, that Jack let it slip, or rather cough out, inadvertently.
In due time Spigot returned, with 'Master's compliments, and he was very sorry, but he was so unwell that he was quite unable to see any one.'
'Oh, dear!' exclaimed Mrs. Jawleyford.
'Poor pa!' lisped Amelia.
'What a pity!' observed Mr. Sponge.
'I must go and see him,' observed Mrs. Jawleyford, hurrying off.
'Hem—cough—hem—hope he's not much—hem—damaged?' observed Jack.
The old lady being thus got rid of, and Jawleyford disposed of—apparently for the night—Mr. Spraggon felt more comfortable, and presently yielded to Amelia's entreaties to come near the fire and thaw himself. Spigot brought candles, and Mr. Sponge sat moodily in his chair, alternately studying Mogg's Cab Fares—'Old Bailey, Newgate Street, to or from the Adelphi, the Terrace, 1s. 6d.; Admiralty, 2s.'; and so on; and hazarding promiscuous sidelong sort of observations, that might be taken up by Jack or not, as he liked. He seemed determined to pay Mr. Jack off for his out-of-door impudence. Amelia, on the other hand, seemed desirous of making up for her suitor's rudeness, and kept talking to Jack with an assiduity that perfectly astonished her sister, who had always heard her speak of him with the utmost abhorrence.
Mrs. Jawleyford found her husband in a desperate state of excitement, his influenza being greatly aggravated by Harry having returned very drunk, with the mare's knees desperately broken 'by a fall,' as Harry hiccuped out, or by his 'throwing her down,' as Jawleyford declared. Horses fall with their masters, servants throw them down. What a happiness it is when people can send their servants on errands by coaches or railways, instead of being kept on the fidget all day, lest a fifty-pound horse should be the price of a bodkin or a basket of fish!
Amelia's condescension quite turned Jack's head; and when he went upstairs to dress, he squinted at his lordship's best clothes, all neatly laid out for him on the bed, with inward satisfaction at having brought them.
'Dash me!' said he, 'I really think that girl has a fancy for me.' Then he examined himself minutely in the glass, brushed his whiskers up into a curve on his cheeks, the curves almost corresponding with the curve of his spectacles above; then he gave his bristly, porcupine-shaped head a backward rub with a sort of thing like a scrubbing-brush. 'If I'd only had the silver specs,' thought he, 'I should have done.'
He then began to dress; an operation that, ever and anon was interrupted by the outburst of volleys of smoke from the little spluttering, smouldering fire in the little shabby room Jawleyford insisted on having him put into.
Jack tried all things—opening the window and shutting the door, shutting the window and opening the door; but finding that, instead of curing it, he only produced the different degrees of comparison—bad, worse, worst—he at length shut both, and applied himself vigorously to dressing. He soon got into his stockings and pumps, also his black Saxony trousers; then came a fine black laced fringe cravat, and the damson-coloured velvet waistcoat with the cut-steel buttons.
'Dash me, but I look pretty well in this!' said he, eyeing first one side and then the other as he buttoned it. He then stuck a chased and figured fine gold brooch, with two pendant tassel-drops, set with turquoise and agates, that he had abstracted from his lordship's dressing-case, into his, or rather his lordship's finely worked shirt-front, and crowned the toilet with his lordship's best new blue coat with velvet collar, silk facings, and the Flat Hat Hunt button—'a striding fox,' with the letters 'F.H.H.' below.
'Who shall say Mr. Spraggon's not a gentleman?' said he, as he perfumed one of his lordship's fine coronetted cambric handkerchiefs with lavender-water. Scent, in Jack's opinion, was one of the criterions of a gentleman.
Somehow Jack felt quite differently towards the house of Jawleyford; and though he did not expect much pleasure in Mr. Sponge's company, he thought, nevertheless, that the ladies and he—Amelia and he at least—would get on very well. Forgetting that he had come to eject Sponge on the score of insufficiency, he really began to think he might be a very desirable match for one of them himself.
'The Spraggons are a most respectable family,' said he, eyeing himself in the glass. 'If not very handsome, at all events, very genteel,' added he, speaking of himself in particular. So saying, he adorned himself with his spectacles and set off to explore his way downstairs. After divers mistakes he at length found himself in the drawing-room, where the rest of the party being assembled, they presently proceeded to dinner.
Jack's amended costume did not produce any difference in Mr. Sponge's behaviour, who treated him with the utmost indifference. In truth, Sponge had rather a large balance against Jack for his impudence to him in the field. Nevertheless, the fair Amelia continued her attentions, and talked of hunting, occasionally diverging into observations on Lord Scamperdale's fine riding and manly character and appearance, in the roundabout way ladies send their messages and compliments to their friends.
The dinner was flat. Jawleyford had stopped the champagne tap, though the needle-case glasses stood to tantalize the party till about the time that the beverage ought to have been flowing, when Spigot took them off. The flatness then became flatter. Nevertheless, Jack worked away in his usual carnivorous style, and finished by paying his respects to all the sweets, jellies, and things in succession. He never got any of these, he said, at 'home,' meaning at Lord Scamperdale's—Amelia thought, if she was 'my lady,' he would not get any meat there either.
At length Jack finished; and having discussed cheese, porter, and red herrings, the cloth was drawn, and a hard-featured dessert, consisting principally of apples, followed. The wine having made a couple of melancholy circuits, the strained conversation about came to a full stop, and Spigot having considerately placed the little round table, as if to keep the peace between them, the ladies left the male worthies to discuss their port and sherry together. Jack, according to Woodmansterne fashion, unbuttoned his waistcoat, and stuck his legs out before him—an example that Mr. Sponge quickly followed, and each assumed an attitude that as good as said 'I don't care twopence for you.' A dead silence then prevailed, interrupted only by the snap, snap, snapping of Jack's toothpick against his chair-edge, when he was not busy exploring his mouth with it. It seemed to be a match which should keep silence longest. Jack sat Squinting his eyes inside out at Sponge, while Sponge pretended to be occupied with the fire. The wine being with Sponge, and at length wanting some, he was constrained to make the first move, by passing it over to Jack, who helped himself to port and sherry simultaneously—a glass of sherry after dinner (in Jack's opinion) denoting a gentleman. Having smacked his lips over that, he presently turned to the glass of port. He checked his hand in passing it to his mouth, and bore the glass up to his nose.
'Corked, by Jove!' exclaimed he, setting the glass down on the table with a thump of disgust.
It is curious what unexpected turns things sometimes take in the world, and how completely whole trains of well-preconcerted plans are often turned aside by mere accidents such as this. If it hadn't been for the corked bottle of port, there is no saying but these two worthies would have held a Quakers' meeting without the 'spirit' moving either of them.
'Corked, by Jove!' exclaimed Jack.
'It is!' rejoined Sponge, smelling at his half-emptied glass.
'Better have another bottle,' observed Jack.
'Certainly,' replied Sponge, ringing the bell. 'Spigot, this wine's corked,' observed Sponge, as old Pomposo entered the room.
'Is it?' said Spigot, with the most perfect innocence, though he knew it came out of the corked batch. 'I'll bring another bottle,' added he, carrying it off as if he had a whole pipe at command, though in reality he had but another out. This fortunately was less corked than the first; and Jack having given an approving smack of his great thick lips, Mr. Sponge took it on his judgement, and gave a nod to Spigot, who forthwith took his departure.
'Old trick that,' observed Jack, with a shake of the head, as Spigot shut the door.
'Is it?' observed Mr. Sponge, taking up the observation, though in reality it was addressed to the fire.
'Noted for it,' replied Jack, squinting at the sideboard, though he was staring intently at Sponge to see how he took it.
'Well, I thought we had a bottle with a queer smatch the other night,' observed Sponge.
'Old Blossomnose corked half a dozen in succession one night,' replied Jack.
(He had corked three, but Jawleyford re-corked them, and Spigot was now reproducing them to our friends.)
Although they had now got the ice broken, and entered into something like a conversation, it nevertheless went on very slowly, and they seemed to weigh each word before it was uttered. Jack, too, had time to run his peculiar situation through his mind, and ponder on his mission from Lord Scamperdale—on his lordship's detestation of Mr. Sponge, his anxiety to get rid of him, his promised corner in his will, and his lordship's hint about buying Sponge's horses if he could not get rid of him in any other way.
Sponge, on his part, was thinking if there was any possibility of turning Jack to account.
It may seem strange to the uninitiated that there should be prospect of gain to a middle-man in the matter of a horse-deal, save in the legitimate trade of auctioneers and commission stable-keepers; but we are sorry to say we have known men calling themselves gentlemen, who have not thought it derogatory to accept a 'trifle' for their good offices in the cause. 'I can buy cheaper than you,' they say, 'and we may as well divide the trifle between us.'
That was Mr. Spraggon's principle, only that the word 'trifle' inadequately conveys his opinion on the point; Jack's notion being that a man was entitled to 5l. per cent. as of right, and as much more as he could get.
It was not often that Jack got a 'bite' at my lord, which, perhaps, made him think it the more incumbent on him not to miss an opportunity. Having been told, of course he knew exactly the style of man he had to deal with in Mr. Sponge—a style of men of whom there is never any difficulty in asking if they will sell their horses, price being the only consideration. They are, indeed, a sort of unlicensed horse-dealers, from whose presence few hunts are wholly free. Mr. Spraggon thought if he could get Sponge to make it worth his while to get my lord to buy his horses, the—whatever he might get—would come in very comfortably to pay his Christmas bills.
By the time the bottle drew to a close, our friends were rather better friends, and seemed more inclined to fraternize. Jack had the advantage of Sponge, for he could stare, or rather squint, at him without Sponge knowing it. The pint of wine apiece—at least, as near a pint apiece as Spigot could afford to let them have—somewhat strung Jack's nerves as well as his eyes, and he began to show more of the pupils and less of the whites than he did. He buzzed the bottle with such a hearty good will as settled the fate of another, which Sponge rang for as a matter of course. There was but the rejected one, which, however. Spigot put into a different decanter, and brought in with such an air as precluded either of them saying a word in disparagement of it.
'Where are the hounds next week?' asked Sponge, sipping away at it.
'Monday, Larkhall Hill; Tuesday, the cross-roads by Dallington Burn; Thursday, the Toll-bar at Whitburrow Green; Saturday, the kennels,' replied Jack.
'Good places?' asked Sponge.
'Monday's good,' replied Jack; 'draw Thorney Gorse—sure find; second draw, Barnlow Woods, and home by Loxley, Padmore, and so on.'
'What sort of a place is Tuesday?'
'Tuesday?' repeated Jack. 'Tuesday! Oh, that's the cross-roads. Capital place, unless the fox takes to Rumborrow Craigs, or gets into Seedywood Forest, when there's an end of it—at least, an end of everything except pulling one's horse's legs off in the stiff clayey rides. It's a long way from here, though,' observed Jack.
'How far?' asked Sponge.
'Good twenty miles,' replied Jack. 'It's sixteen from us; it'll be a good deal more from here.'
'His lordship will lay out overnight, then?' observed Sponge.
'Not he,' replied Jack. 'Takes better care of his sixpences than that. Up in the dark, breakfast by candlelight, grope our ways to the stable, and blunder along the deep lanes, and through all the by-roads in the country—get there somehow or another.'
'Keen hand!' observed Sponge.
'Mad!' replied Jack.
They then paid their mutual respects to the port.
'He hunts there on Tuesdays,' observed Jack, setting down his glass, 'so that he may have all Wednesday to get home in, and be sure of appearing on Thursday. There's no saying where he may finish with a cross-roads' meet.'
By the time the worthies had finished the bottle, they had got a certain way into each other's confidence. The hint Lord Scamperdale had given about buying Sponge's horses still occupied Jack's mind; and the more he considered the subject, and the worth of a corner in his lordship's will, the more sensible he became of the truth of the old adage, that 'a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.' 'My lord,' thought Jack, 'promises fair, but it is but a chance, and a remote one. He may live many years—as long, perhaps longer, than me. Indeed, he puts me on horses that are anything but calculated to promote longevity. Then he may marry a wife who may eject me, as some wives do eject their husbands' agreeable friends; or he may change his mind, and leave me nothing after all.'
All things considered, Jack came to the conclusion that he should not be doing himself justice if he did not take advantage of such fair opportunities as chance placed in his way, and therefore he thought he might as well be picking up a penny during his lordship's life, as be waiting for a contingency that might never occur. Mr. Jawleyford's indisposition preventing Jack making the announcement he was sent to do, made it incumbent on him, as he argued, to see what could be done with the alternative his lordship had proposed—namely, buying Sponge's horses. At least. Jack salved his conscience over with the old plea of duty; and had come to that conclusion as he again helped himself to the last glass in the bottle.
'Would you like a little claret?' asked Sponge, with all the hospitality of a host.
'No, hang your claret!' replied Jack.
'A little brandy, perhaps?' suggested Sponge.
'I shouldn't mind a glass of brandy,' replied Jack, 'by way of a nightcap.'
Spigot, at this moment entering to announce tea and coffee, was interrupted in his oration by Sponge demanding some brandy.
'Sorry,' replied Spigot, pretending to be quite taken by surprise, 'very sorry, sir—but, sir—master, sir—bed, sir—disturb him, sir.'
'Oh, dash it, never mind that!' exclaimed Jack; 'tell him Mr. Sprag—Sprag—Spraggon' (the bottle of port beginning to make Jack rather inarticulate)—'tell him Mr. Spraggon wants a little.'
'Dursn't disturb him, sir,' responded Spigot, with a shake of his head; 'much as my place, sir, is worth, sir.'
'Haven't you a little drop in your pantry, think you?' asked Sponge.
'The cook perhaps has,' replied Mr. Spigot, as if it was quite out of his line.
'Well, go and ask her,' said Sponge; 'and bring some hot water and things, the same as we had last night, you know.'
Mr. Spigot retired, and presently returned, bearing a tray with three-quarters of a bottle of brandy, which he impressed upon their minds was the 'cook's own.'
'I dare say,' hiccuped Jack, holding the bottle up to the light.
'Hope she wasn't using it herself,' observed Sponge.
'Tell her we'll (hiccup) her health,' hiccuped Jack, pouring a liberal potation into his tumbler.
'That'll be all you'll do, I dare say,' muttered Spigot to himself, as he sauntered back to his pantry.
'Does Jaw stand smoking?' asked Jack, as Spigot disappeared.
'Oh, I should think so,' replied Sponge; 'a friend like you, I'm sure, would be welcome'—Sponge thinking to indulge in a cigar, and lay the blame on Jack.
'Well, if you think so,' said Jack, pulling out his cigar-case, or rather his lordship's, and staggering to the chimney-piece for a match, though there was a candle at his elbow, 'I'll have a pipe.'
'So'll I,' said Sponge, 'if you'll give me a cigar.' 'Much yours as mine,' replied Jack, handing him his lordship's richly embroidered case with coronets and ciphers on either side, the gift of one of the many would-be Lady Scamperdales.
'Want a light!' hiccuped Jack, who had now got a glow-worm end to his.
'Thanks,' said Sponge, availing himself of the friendly overture.
Our friends now whiffed and puffed away together—whiffing and puffing where whiffing and puffing had never been known before. The brandy began to disappear pretty quickly; it was better than the wine.
'That's a n—n—nice—ish horse of yours,' stammered Jack, as he mixed himself a second tumbler.
'Which?' asked Sponge.
'The bur—bur—brown,' spluttered Jack.
'He is that,' replied Sponge; 'best horse in this country by far.'
'The che—che—chest—nut's not a ba—ba—bad un. I dare say,' observed Jack.
'No, he's not,' replied Sponge; 'a deuced good un.'
'I know a man who's rayther s—s—s—sweet on the b—b—br—brown,' observed Jack, squinting frightfully.
Sponge sat silent for a few seconds, pretending to be wrapt up in his 'sublime tobacco.'
'Is he a buyer, or just a jawer?' he asked at last.
'Oh, a buyer,' replied Jack.
'I'll sell,' said Sponge, with a strong emphasis on the sell.
'How much?' asked Jack, sobering with the excitement.
'Which?' asked Sponge.
'The brown,' rejoined Jack.
'Three hundred,' said Sponge; adding, 'I gave two for him.'
'Indeed!' said Jack.
A long pause then ensued. Jack thinking whether he should put the question boldly as to what Sponge would give him for effecting a sale, or should beat about the bush a little. At last he thought it would be most prudent to beat about the bush, and see if Sponge would make an offer.
'Well,' said Jack, 'I'll s—s—s—see what I can do.'
'That's a good fellow,' said Sponge; adding, 'I'll remember you if you do.'
'I dare say I can s—s—s—sell them both, for that matter,' observed Jack, encouraged by the promise.
'Well,' replied Sponge, 'I'll take the same for the chestnut; there isn't the toss-up of a halfpenny for choice between them.'
'Well,' said Jack,' we'll s—s—s—see them next week.'
'Just so,' said Sponge.
'You r—r—ride well up to the h—h—hounds,' continued Jack; 'and let his lordship s—s—see w—w—what they can do.'
'I will,' said Sponge, wishing he was at work.
'Never mind his rowing,' observed Jack; 'he c—c—can't help it.'
'Not I,' replied Sponge, puffing away at his cigar.
When men once begin to drink brandy-and-water (after wine) there's an end of all note of time. Our friends—for we 'may now call them so,' sat sip, sip, sipping—mix, mix, mixing; now strengthening, now weakening, now warming, now flavouring, till they had not only finished the hot water but a large jug of cold, that graced the centre of the table between two frosted tumblers, and had nearly got through the brandy too.
'May as well fi—fi—fin—nish the bottle,' observed Jack, holding it up to the candle. 'Just a thi—thi—thim—bleful apiece,' added he, helping himself to about three-quarters of what there was.
'You've taken your share,' observed Sponge, as the bottle suspended payment before he got half the quantity that Jack had.
'Sque—ee—eze it,' replied Jack, suiting the action to the word, and working away at an exhausted lemon.
At length they finished.
'Well, I s'pose we may as well go and have some tea,' observed Jack.
'It's not announced yet,' said Sponge, 'but I make no doubt it will be ready.'
So saying, the worthies rose, and, after sundry bumps and certain irregularities of course, they each succeeded in reaching the door. The passage lamp had died out and filled the corridor with its fragrance. Sponge, however, knew the way, and the darkness favored the adjustment of cravats and the fingering of hair. Having got up a sort of drunken simper, Sponge opened the drawing-room door, expecting to find smiling ladies in a blaze of light. All, however, was darkness, save the expiring embers in the grate. The tick, tick, tick, ticking of the clocks sounded wonderfully clear.
'Gone to bed!' exclaimed Sponge.
'WHO-HOOP!' shrieked Jack, at the top of his voice.
'What's smatter, gentlemen?—What's smatter?' exclaimed Spigot rushing in, rubbing his eyes with one hand, and holding a block tin candlestick in the other.
'Nothin',' replied Jack, squinting his eyes inside out; adding, 'get me a devilled—' (hiccup).
'Don't know how to do them here, sir,' snapped Spigot.
'Devilled turkey's leg though you do, you rascal!' rejoined Jack, doubling his fists and putting himself in posture.
'Beg pardon, sir,' replied Spigot, 'but the cook, sir, is gone to bed, sir. Do you know, sir, what o'clock it is, sir?'
'No,' replied Jack.
'What time is it?' asked Sponge.
'Twenty minutes to two,' replied Spigot, holding up a sort of pocket warming-pan, which he called a watch.
'The deuce!' exclaimed Sponge.
'Who'd ha' thought it?' muttered Jack.
'Well, then, I suppose we may as well go to bed,' observed Sponge.
'S'pose so,' replied Jack; 'nothin' more to get.'
'Do you know your room?' asked Sponge.
'To be sure I do,' replied Jack; 'don't think I'm d—d—dr—drunk, do you?'
'Not likely,' rejoined Sponge.
Jack then commenced a very crab-like ascent of the stairs, which fortunately were easy, or he would never have got up. Mr. Sponge, who still occupied the state apartments, took leave of Jack at his own door, and Jack went bumping and blundering on in search of the branch passage leading to his piggery. He found the green baize door that usually distinguishes the entrance to these secondary suites, and was presently lurching along its contracted passage. As luck would have it, however, he got into his host's dressing-room, where that worthy slept; and when Jawleyford jumped up in the morning, as was his wont, to see what sort of a day it was, he trod on Jack's face, who had fallen down in his clothes alongside of the bed, and Jawleyford broke Jack's spectacles across the bridge of his nose.
'Rot it!' roared Jack, jumping up, 'don't ride over a fellow that way!' When, shaking himself to try whether any limbs were broken, he found he was in his dress clothes instead of in the roomy garments of the Flat Hat Hunt. 'Who are you? where am I? what the deuce do you mean by breaking my specs?' he exclaimed, squinting frightfully at his host.
'My dear sir,' exclaimed Mr. Jawleyford, from the top of his night-shirt, 'I'm very sorry, but—'
'Hang your buts! you shouldn't ride so near a man!' exclaimed Jack, gathering up the fragments of his spectacles; when, recollecting himself, he finished by saying, 'Perhaps I'd better go to my own room.'
'Perhaps you had,' replied Mr. Jawleyford, advancing towards the door to show him the way.
'Let me have a candle,' said Jack, preparing to follow.
'Candle, my dear fellow! why, it's broad daylight,' replied his host.
'Is it?' said Jack, apparently unconscious of the fact. 'What's the hour?'
'Five minutes to eight,' replied Jawleyford, looking at a timepiece.
When Jack got into his own den he threw himself into an old invalid chair, and sat rubbing the fractured spectacles together as if he thought they would unite by friction, though in reality he was endeavouring to run the overnight's proceedings through his mind. The more he thought of Amelia's winning ways, the more satisfied he was that he had made an impression, and then the more vexed he was at having his spectacles broken: for though he considered himself very presentable without them, still he could not but feel that they were a desirable addition. Then, too, he had a splitting headache; and finding that breakfast was not till ten and might be a good deal later, all things considered, he determined to be off and follow up his success under more favourable auspices. Considering that all the clothes he had with him were his lordship's, he thought it immaterial which he went home in, so to save trouble he just wrapped himself up in his mackintosh and travelled in the dress ones he had on.
It was fortunate for Mr. Sponge that he went, for, when Jawleyford smelt the indignity that had been offered to his dining-room, he broke out in such a torrent of indignation as would have been extremely unpleasant if there had not been some one to lay the blame on. Indeed, he was not particularly gracious to Mr. Sponge as it was; but that arose as much from certain dark hints that had worked their way from the servants' hall into 'my lady's chamber' as to our friend's pecuniary resources and prospects. Jawleyford began to suspect that Sponge might not be quite the great 'catch' he was represented.
Beyond, however, putting a few searching questions—which Mr. Sponge skilfully parried—advising his daughters to be cautious, lessening the number of lights, and lowering the scale of his entertainments generally, Mr. Jawleyford did not take any decided step in the matter. Mr. Spraggon comforted Lord Scamperdale with the assurance that Amelia had no idea of Sponge, who he made no doubt would very soon be out of the country—and his lordship went to church and prayed most devoutly for him to go.
MR. AND MRS. SPRINGWHEAT
'Lord Scamperdale's foxhounds meet on Monday at Larkhall Hill,' &c. &c.—County Paper.
The Flat Hat Hunt had relapsed into its wonted quiet, and 'Larkhall Hill' saw none but the regular attendants, men without the slightest particle of curve in their hats—hats, indeed, that looked as if the owners sat upon them when they hadn't them on their heads. There was Fyle, and Fossick, and Blossomnose, and Sparks, and Joyce, and Capon, and Dribble, and a few others, but neither Washball nor Puffington, nor any of the holiday birds.
Precisely at ten, my lord, and his hounds, and his huntsman, and his whips, and his Jack, trotted round Farmer Springwheat's spacious back premises, and appeared in due form before the green rails in front. 'Pride attends us all,' as the poet says; and if his lordship had ridden into the yard, and halloaed out for a glass of home-brewed, Springwheat would have trapped every fox on his farm, and the blooming Mrs. Springwheat would have had an interminable poultry-bill against the hunt; whereas, simply by 'making things pleasant'—that is to say, coming to breakfast—Springwheat saw his corn trampled on, nay, led the way over it himself, and Mrs. Springwheat saw her Dorkings disappear without a murmur—unless, indeed, an inquiry when his lordship would be coming could be considered in that light.
Larkhall Hill stood in the centre of a circle, on a gentle eminence, commanding a view over a farm whose fertile fields and well-trimmed fences sufficiently indicated its boundaries, and looked indeed as if all the good of the country had come up to it. It was green and luxuriant even in winter, while the strong cane-coloured stubbles showed what a crop there had been. Turnips as big as cheeses swelled above the ground. In a little narrow dell, whose existence was more plainly indicated from the house by several healthy spindling larches shooting up from among the green gorse, was the cover—an almost certain find, with the almost equal certainty of a run from it. It occupied both sides of the sandy, rabbit-frequented dell, through which ran a sparkling stream, and it possessed the great advantage to foot-people of letting them see the fox found. Larkhall Hill was, therefore, a favourite both with horse and foot. So much good—at all events, so much well-farmed land would seem to justify a better or more imposing-looking house, the present one consisting, exclusive of the projecting garret ones in the Dutch tile roof, of the usual four windows and a door, that so well tell their own tale; passage in the middle, staircase in front, parlour on the right, best ditto on the left, with rooms to correspond above. To be sure, there was a great depth of house to the back; but this in no way contributed to the importance of the front, from which point alone the Springwheats chose to have it contemplated. If the back arrangements could have been divided, and added to the sides, they would have made two very good wings to the old red brick rose-entwined mansion. Having mentioned that its colour was red, it is almost superfluous to add that the door and rails were green.
This was a busy morning at Larkhall Hill. It was the first day of the season of my lord's hounds meeting there, and the handsome Mrs. Springwheat had had as much trouble in overhauling the china and linen, and in dressing the children, preparatory to breakfast, as Springwheat had had in collecting knives and forks, and wine-glasses and tumblers for his department of the entertainment, to say nothing of looking after his new tops and cords. 'The Hill,' as the country people call it, was 'full fig'; and a bright, balmy winter's day softened the atmosphere, and felt as though a summer's day had been shaken out of its place into winter. It is not often that the English climate is accommodating enough to lend its aid to set off a place to advantage.
Be that, however, as it may, things looked smiling both without and within. Mrs. Springwheat, by dint of early rising and superintendence, had got things into such a state of forwardness as to be able to adorn herself with a little jaunty cap—curious in microscopic punctures and cherry-coloured ribbon interlardments—placed so far back on her finely-shaped head as to proclaim beyond all possibility of cavil that it was there for ornament, and not for the purpose of concealing the liberties of time with her well-kept, clearly parted, raven-black hair. Liberties of time, forsooth! Mrs. Springwheat was in the heighday of womanhood; and though she had presented Springwheat with twins three times in succession, besides an eldest son, she was as young, fresh-looking, and finely figured as she was the day she was married. She was now dressed in a very fine French grey merino, with a very small crochet-work collar, and, of course, capacious muslin sleeves. The high flounces to her dress set off her smart waist to great advantage.
Mrs. Springwheat had got everything ready, and herself too, by the time Lord Scamperdale's second horseman rode into the yard and demanded a stall for his horse. Knowing how soon the balloon follows the pilot, she immediately ranged the Stunner-tartan-clad children in the breakfast-room; and as the first whip's rate sounded as he rode round the corner, she sank into an easy-chair by the fire, with a lace-fringed kerchief in the one hand and the Mark Lane Express in the other.
'Halloa! Springey!' followed by the heavy crack of a whip, announced the arrival of his lordship before the green palings; and a loud view halloa burst from Jack, as the object of inquiry was seen dancing about the open-windowed room above, with his face all flushed with the exertion of pulling on a very tight boot.
'Come in, my lord! pray, come in! The missis is below!' exclaimed Springwheat, from the window; and just at the moment the pad-groom emerged from the house, and ran to his lordship's horse's head.
His lordship and Jack then dismounted, and gave their hacks in charge of the servant; while Wake, and Fyle, and Archer, who were also of the party, scanned the countenances of the surrounding idlers, to see in whose hands they had best confide their nags.
In Lord Scamperdale stamped, followed by his train-band bold, and Maria, the maid, being duly stationed in the passage, threw open the parlour door on the left, and discovered Mrs. Springwheat sitting in attitude.
'Well, my lady, and how are you?' exclaimed his lordship, advancing gaily, and seizing both her pretty hands as she rose to receive him. 'I declare, you look younger and prettier every time I see you.'
'Oh! my lord,' simpered Mrs. Springwheat, 'you gentlemen are always so complimentary.'
'Not a bit of it!' exclaimed his lordship, eyeing her intently through his silver spectacles, for he had been obliged to let Jack have the other pair of tortoiseshell-rimmed ones. 'Not a bit of it,' repeated his lordship. 'I always tell Jack you are the handsomest woman in Christendom; don't I, Jack?' inquired his lordship, appealing to his factotum.
'Yes, my lord,' replied Jack, who always swore to whatever his lordship said.
'By Jove!' continued his lordship, with a stamp of his foot, 'if I could find such a woman I'd marry her to-morrow. Not such women as you to pick up every day. And what a lot of pretty pups!' exclaimed his lordship, starting back, pretending to be struck with the row of staring, black-haired, black-eyed, half-frightened children. 'Now, that's what I call a good entry,' continued his lordship, scrutinizing them attentively, and pointing them out to Jack; 'all dogs—all boys I mean!' added he.
'No, my lord,' replied Mrs. Springwheat, laughing, 'these are girls,' laying her hand on the heads of two of them, who were now full giggle at the idea of being taken for boys.
'Well, they're devilish handsome, anyhow,' replied his lordship, thinking he might as well be done with the inspection.
Springwheat himself now made his appearance, as fine a sample of a man as his wife was of a woman. His face was flushed with the exertion of pulling on his tight boots, and his lordship felt the creases the hooks had left as he shook him by the hand.
'Well, Springey,' said he, 'I was just asking your wife after the new babby.'
'Oh, thank you, my lord,' replied Springey, with a shake of his curly head; 'thank you, my lord; no new babbies, my lord, with wheat below forty, my lord.'
'Well, but you've got a pair of new boots, at all events,' observed his lordship, eyeing Springwheat's refractory calves bagging over the tops of them.
''Deed have I!' replied Springwheat; 'and a pair of uncommon awkward tight customers they are,' added he, trying to move his feet about in them.
'Ah! you should always have a chap to wear your boots a few times before you put them on yourself,' observed his lordship. 'I never have a pair of tight uns,' added he; 'Jack here always does the needful by mine.'
'That's all very well for lords,' replied Mr. Springwheat; 'but us farmers wear out our boots fast enough ourselves, without anybody to help us.'
'Well, but I s'pose we may as well fall to,' observed his lordship, casting his eye upon the well-garnished table. 'All these good things are meant to eat, I s'pose,' added he: 'cakes, and sweets, and jellies without end: and as to your sideboard,' said he, turning round and looking at it, 'it's a match for any Lord Mayor's. A round of beef, a ham, a tongue, and is that a goose or a turkey?'
'A turkey, my lord,' replied Springwheat; 'home-fed, my lord.'
'Ah, home-fed, indeed!' ejaculated his lordship, with a shake of the head: 'home-fed: wish I could feed at home. The man who said that
E'en from the peasant to the lord, The turkey smokes on every board,
told a big un, for I'm sure none ever smokes on mine.'
'Take a little here to-day, then,' observed Mr. Springwheat, cutting deep into the white breast.
'I will,' replied his lordship, 'I will: and a slice of tongue, too,' added he.
'There are some hot sausingers comin',' observed Mr. Springwheat.
'You don't say so,' replied his lordship, apparently thunderstruck at the announcement. 'Well, I must have all three. By Jove, Jack!' said he, appealing to his friend, 'but you've lit on your legs coming here. Here's a breakfast fit to set before the Queen—muffins, and crumpets, and cakes. Let me advise you to make the best use of your time, for you have but twenty minutes,' continued his lordship, looking at his watch, 'and muffins and crumpets don't come in your way every day.'
''Deed they don't,' replied Jack, with a grin.
'Will your lordship take tea or coffee?' asked Mrs. Springwheat, who had now taken her seat at the top of the table, behind a richly chased equipage for the distribution of those beverages.
''Pon my word,' replied his lordship, apparently bewildered—''pon my word, I don't know what to say. Tea or coffee? To tell you the truth, I was going to take something out of my black friend yonder,' nodding to where a French bottle like a tall bully was lifting its head above an encircling stand of liqueur-glasses.
'Suppose you have a little of what we call laced tea, my lord—tea with a dash of brandy in it?' suggested Mr. Springwheat.
'Laced tea,' repeated his lordship; 'laced tea: so I will,' said he. 'Deuced good idea—deuced good idea,' continued he, bringing the bottle and seating himself on Mrs. Springwheat's right, while his host helped him to a most plentiful plate of turkey and tongue. The table was now about full, as was the room; the guests just rolling in as they would to a public-house, and helping themselves to whatever they liked. Great was the noise of eating.
As his lordship was in the full enjoyment of his plateful of meat, he happened to look up, and, the space between him and the window being clear, he saw something that caused him to drop his knife and fork and fall back in his chair as if he was shot.
'My lord's ill!' exclaimed Mr. Springwheat, who, being the only man with his nose up, was the first to perceive it.
'Clap him on the back!' shrieked Mrs. Springwheat, who considered that an infallible recipe for the ailments of children.
'Oh, Mr. Spraggon!' exclaimed both, as they rushed to his assistance, 'what is the matter with my lord?'
'Oh, that Mister something!' gasped his lordship, bending forward in his chair, and venturing another glance through the window.
Sure enough, there was Sponge, in the act of dismounting from the piebald, and resigning it with becoming dignity to his trusty groom, Mr. Leather, who stood most respectfully—Parvo in hand—waiting to receive it.
Mr. Sponge, being of opinion that a red coat is a passport everywhere, having stamped the mud sparks off his boots at the door, swaggered in with the greatest coolness, exclaiming as he bobbed his head to the lady, and looked round at the company:
'What, grubbing away! grubbing away, eh?'
'Won't you take a little refreshment?' asked Mr. Springwheat, in the hearty way these hospitable fellows welcome everybody.
'Yes, I will,' replied Sponge, turning to the sideboard as though it were an inn.' That's a monstrous fine ham,' observed he; 'why doesn't somebody cut it?'
'Let me help you to some, sir,' replied Mr. Springwheat, seizing the buck-handled knife and fork, and diving deep into the rich red meat with the knife.
Mr. Sponge having got two bountiful slices, with a knotch of home-made brown bread, and some mustard on his plate, now made for the table, and elbowed himself into a place between Mr. Fossick and Sparks, immediately opposite Mr. Spraggon.
'Good morning,' said he to that worthy, as he saw the whites of his eyes showing through his spectacles.
'Mornin',' muttered Jack, as if his mouth was either too full to articulate, or he didn't want to have anything to say to Mr. Sponge.
'Here's a fine hunting morning, my lord,' observed Sponge, addressing himself to his lordship, who sat on Jack's left.
'Here's a very fine hunting morning, my lord,' repeated Sponge, not getting an answer to his first assertion.
'Is it?' blurted his lordship, pretending to be desperately busy with the contents of his plate, though in reality his appetite was gone.
A dead pause now ensued, interrupted only by the clattering of knives and forks, and the occasional exclamations of parties in want of some particular article of food. A chill had come over the scene—a chill whose cause was apparent to every one, except the worthy host and hostess, who had not heard of Mr. Sponge's descent upon the country. They attributed it to his lordship's indisposition, and Mr. Springwheat endeavoured to cheer him up with the prospect of sport.
'There's a brace, if not a leash, of foxes in cover, my lord,' observed he, seeing his lordship was only playing with the contents of his plate.
'Is there?' exclaimed his lordship, brightening up: 'let's be at 'em!' added he, jumping up and diving under the side-table for his flat hat and heavy iron hammer-headed whip. 'Good morning, my dear Mrs. Springwheat,' exclaimed he, putting on his hat and seizing both her soft fat-fingered hands and squeezing them ardently. 'Good morning, my dear Mrs. Springwheat,' repeated he, adding, 'By Jove! if ever there was an angel in petticoats, you're her; I'd give a hundred pounds for such a wife as you! I'd give a thousand pounds for such a wife as you! By the powers! I'd give five thousand pounds for such a wife as you!' With which asseverations his lordship stamped away in his great clumsy boots, amidst the ill-suppressed laughter of the party.
'No hurry, gentlemen—no hurry,' observed Mr. Springwheat, as some of the keen ones were preparing to follow, and began sorting their hats, and making the mistakes incident to their being all the same shape. 'No hurry, sir—no hurry, sir,' repeated Springwheat, addressing Mr. Sponge specifically; 'his lordship will have a talk to his hounds yet, and his horse is still in the stable.'
With this assurance Mr. Sponge resumed his seat at the table, where several of the hungry ones were plying their knives and forks as if they were indeed breaking their fasts.
'Well, old boy, and how are you?' asked Sponge, as the whites of Jack's eyes again settled upon him, on the latter's looking up from his plateful of sausages.
'Nicely. How are you?' asked Jack.
'Nicely too,' replied Sponge, in the laconic way men speak who have been engaged in some common enterprise—getting drunk, pelting people with rotten eggs, or anything of that sort.
'Jaw and the ladies well?' asked Jack, in the same strain.
'Oh, nicely,' said Sponge.
'Take a glass of cherry-brandy,' exclaimed the hospitable Mr. Springwheat: 'nothing like a drop of something for steadying the nerves.'
'Presently,' replied Sponge, 'presently; meanwhile I'll trouble the missis for a cup of coffee. Coffee without sugar,' said Sponge, addressing the lady.
'With pleasure,' replied Mrs. Springwheat, glad to get a little custom for her goods. Most of the gentlemen had been at the bottles and sideboard.
Springwheat, seeing Mr. Sponge, the only person who, as a stranger, there was any occasion for him to attend to, in the care of his wife, now slipped out of the room, and mounting his five-year-old horse, whose tail stuck out like the long horn of a coach, as his ploughman groom said, rode off to join the hunt.
'By the powers, but those are capital sarsingers!' observed Jack, smacking his lips and eating away for hard life. 'Just look if my lord's on his horse yet,' added he to one of the children, who had begun to hover round the table and dive their fingers into the sweets.
'No,' replied the child; 'he's still on foot, playing with the dogs.'
'Here goes, then,' said Jack, 'for another plate,' suiting the action to the word, and running with his plate to the sausage-dish.
'Have a hot one,' exclaimed Mrs. Springwheat, adding, 'it will be done in a minute.'
'No, thank ye,' replied Jack, with a shake of the head, adding, 'I might be done in a minute too.'
'He'll wait for you, I suppose?' observed Sponge, addressing Jack.
'Not so clear about that,' replied Jack, gobbling away; 'time and my lord wait for no man. But it's hardly the half-hour yet,' added he, looking at his watch.
He then fell to with the voracity of a hound after hunting. Sponge, too, made the most of his time, as did two or three others who still remained.
'Now for the jumping-powder!' at length exclaimed Sponge, looking round for the bottle. 'What shall it be, cherry or neat?' continued he, pointing to the two. 'Cherry for me,' replied Jack, squinting and eating away without looking up.
'I say neat,' rejoined Sponge, helping himself out of the French bottle.
'You'll be hard to hold after that,' observed Jack, as he eyed Sponge tossing it off.
'I hope my horse won't,' replied Sponge, remembering he was going to ride the resolute chestnut.
'You'll show us the way, I dare say,' observed Jack.
'Shouldn't wonder,' replied Sponge, helping himself to a second glass.
'What! at it again!' exclaimed Jack, adding, 'Take care you don't ride over my lord.'
'I'll take care of the old file,' said Sponge; 'it wouldn't do to kill the goose that lays the golden what-do-ye-call-'ems, you know—he, he, he!'
'No,' chuckled Jack;' 'deed it wouldn't—must make the most of him.'
'What sort of a humour is he in to-day?' asked Sponge.
'Middlin',' replied Jack, 'middlin'; he'll abuse you most likely, but that you mustn't mind.'
'Not I,' replied Sponge, who was used to that sort of thing.
'You mustn't mind me either,' observed Jack, sweeping the last piece of sausage into his mouth with his knife, and jumping up from the table. 'When his lordship rows I row,' added he, diving under the side-table for his flat hat.
'Hark! there's the horn!' exclaimed Sponge, rushing to the window.
'So there is,' responded Jack, standing transfixed on one leg to the spot.
'By the powers, they're away!' exclaimed Sponge, as his lordship was seen hat in hand careering over the meadow, beyond the cover, with the tail hounds straining to overtake their flying comrades. Twang—twang—twang went Frostyface's horn; crack—crack—crack went the ponderous thongs of the whips; shouts, and yells, and yelps, and whoops, and halloas, proclaimed the usual wild excitement of this privileged period of the chase. All was joy save among the gourmands assembled at the door—they looked blank indeed.
'What a sell!' exclaimed Sponge, in disgust, who, with Jack, saw the hopelessness of the case.
'Yonder he goes!' exclaimed a lad, who had run up from the cover to see the hunt from the rising ground.
'Where?' exclaimed Sponge, straining his eyeballs.
'There!' said the lad, pointing due south. 'D'ye see Tommy Claychop's pasture? Now he's through the hedge and into Mrs. Starveland's turnip field, making right for Bramblebrake Wood on the hill.'
'So he is,' said Sponge, who now caught sight of the fox emerging from the turnips on to a grass field beyond.
Jack stood staring through his great spectacles, without deigning a word.
'What shall we do?' asked Sponge.
'Do?' replied Jack, with his chin still up; 'go home, I should think.'
'There's a man down!' exclaimed a groom, who formed one of the group, as a dark-coated rider and horse measured their length on a pasture.
'It's Mr. Sparks,' said another, adding, 'he's always rolling about.'
'Lor', look at the parson!' exclaimed a third, as Blossomnose was seen gathering his horse and setting up his shoulders preparatory to riding at a gate.
'Well done, old 'un!' roared a fourth, as the horse flew over it, apparently without an effort.
'Now for Tom!' cried several, as the second whip went galloping up on the line of the gate.
'Ah! he won't have it!' was the cry, as the horse suddenly stopped short, nearly shooting Tom over his head. 'Try him again—try him again—take a good run—that's him—there, he's over!' was the cry, as Tom flourished his arm in the air on landing.
'Look! there's old Tommy Baker, the rat-ketcher!' cried another, as a man went working his arms and legs on an old white pony across a fallow.
'Ah, Tommy! Tommy! you'd better shut up,' observed another: 'a pig could go as fast as that.'
And so they criticized the laggers.
'How did my lord get his horse?' asked Spraggon of the groom who had brought them on, who now joined the eye-straining group at the door.
'It was taken down to him at the cover,' replied the man. 'My lord went in on foot, and the horse went round the back way. The horse wasn't there half a minute before he was wanted; for no sooner were the hounds in at one end than out popped the fox at t'other. Sich a whopper!—biggest fox that ever was seen.'
'They are all the biggest foxes that ever were seen,' snapped Mr. Sponge.' I'll be bound he was not a bit bigger than common.'
'I'll be bound not, either,' growled Mr. Spraggon, squinting frightfully at the man, adding, 'go, get me my hack, and don't be talking nonsense there.'
Our friends then remounted their hacks and parted company in very moderate humours, feeling fully satisfied that his lordship had done it on purpose.
THE FINEST RUN THAT EVER WAS SEEN
'Hoo-ray, Jack! Hoo-ray!' exclaimed Lord Scamperdale, bursting into his sanctum where Mr. Spraggon sat in his hunting coat and slippers, spelling away at a second-hand copy of Bell's Life by the light of a melancholy mould candle. 'Hooray, Jack! hooray!' repeated he, waving that proud trophy, a splendid fox's brush, over his grizzly head.
His lordship was the picture of delight. He had had a tremendous run—the finest run that ever was seen! His hounds had behaved to perfection; his horse—though he had downed him three times—had carried him well, and his lordship stood with his crownless flat hat in his hand, and one coat lap in the pocket of the other—a grinning, exulting, self-satisfied specimen of a happy Englishman.
'Lor! what a sight you are!' observed Jack, turning the light of the candle upon his lordship's dirty person. 'Why, I declare you're an inch thick with mud,' he added, 'mud from head to foot,' he continued, working the light up and down.
'Never mind the mud, you old badger!' roared his lordship, still waving the brush over his head: 'never mind the mud, you old badger; the mud'll come off, or may stay on; but such a run as we've had does not come off every day.'
'Well, I'm glad you have had a run,' replied Jack. 'I'm glad you have had a run,' adding, 'I was afraid at one time that your day's sport was spoiled.'
'Well, do you know,' replied his lordship, 'when I saw that unrighteous snob, I was near sick. If it were possible for a man to faint, I should have thought I was going to do so. At first I thought of going home, taking the hounds away too; then I thought of going myself and leaving the hounds; then I thought if I left the hounds it would only make the sinful scaramouch more outrageous, and I should be sitting on pins and needles till they came home, thinking how he was crashing among them. Next I thought of drawing all the unlikely places in the country, and making a blank day of it. Then I thought that would only be like cutting off my nose to spite my face. Then I didn't know what on earth to do. At last, when I saw the critter's great pecker steadily down in his plate, I thought I would try and steal a march upon him, and get away with my fox while he was feeding; and, oh! how thankful I was when I looked back from Bramblebrake Hill, and saw no signs of him in the distance.'
'It wasn't likely you'd see him,' interrupted Jack, 'for he never got away from the front door. I twigged what you were after, and kept him up in talk about his horses and his ridin' till I saw you were fairly away.'
'You did well,' exclaimed Lord Scamperdale, patting Jack on the back; 'you did well, my old buck-o'-wax; and, by Jove! we'll have a bottle of port—a bottle of port, as I live,' repeated his lordship, as if he had made up his mind to do a most magnificent act.
'But what's happened you behind?—what's happened you behind?' asked Jack, as his lordship turned to the fire, and exhibited his docked tail.
'Oh, hang the coat!—it's neither here nor there,' replied his lordship; 'hat neither,' he added, exhibiting its crushed proportions. 'Old Blossomnose did the coat; and as to the hat, I did it myself—at least, old Daddy Longlegs and I did it between us. We got into a grass-field, of which they had cut a few roods of fence, just enough to tempt a man out of a very deep lane, and away we sailed, in the enjoyment of fine sound sward, with the rest of the field plunging and floundering, and holding and grinning, and thinking what fools they were for not following my example—when, lo and behold! I got to the bottom of the field, and found there was no way out—no chance of a bore through the great thick, high hedge, except at a branchy willow, where there was just enough room to squeeze a horse through, provided he didn't rise at the ditch on the far side. At first I was for getting off; indeed, had my right foot out of the stirrup, when the hounds dashed forrard with such energy—looking like running—and remembering the tremendous climb I should have to get on to old Daddy's back again, and seeing some of the nasty jealous chaps in the lane eyeing me through the fence, thinking how I was floored, I determined to stay where I was; and gathering the horse together, tried to squeeze through the hole. Well, he went shuffling and sliding down to it, as though he were conscious of the difficulty, and poked his head quietly past the tree, when, getting a sight of the ditch on the far side, he rose, and banged my head against the branch above, crushing my hat right over my eyes, and in that position he carried me through blindfold.'
'Indeed!' exclaimed Jack, turning his spectacles full upon his lordship, and adding, 'it's lucky he didn't crack your crown.'
'It is,' assented his lordship, feeling his head to satisfy himself that he had not done so.
'And how did you lose your tail?' asked Jack, having got the information about the hat.
'The tail! ah, the tail!' replied his lordship, feeling behind, where it wasn't;' I'll tell you how that was: you see we went away like blazes from Springwheat's gorse—nice gorse it is, and nice woman he has for a wife—but, however, that's neither here nor there; what I was going to tell you about was the run, and how I lost my tail. Well, we got away like winking; no sooner were the hounds in on one side than away went the fox on the other. Not a soul shouted till he was clean gone; hats in the air was all that told his departure. The fox thus had time to run matters through his mind—think whether he should go to Ravenscar Craigs, or make for the main earths at Painscastle Grove. He chose the latter, doubtless feeling himself strong and full of running; and if we had chosen his ground for him he could not have taken us a finer line. He went as straight as an arrow through Bramblebrake Wood, and then away down the hill over those great enormous pastures to Haselbury Park, which he skirted, leaving Evercreech Green on the left, pointing as if for Dormston Dean. Here he was chased by a cur, and the hounds were brought to a momentary check. Frosty, however, was well up, and a hat being held up on Hothersell Hill, he clapped forrard and laid the hounds on beyond. We then viewed the fox sailing away over Eddlethorp Downs, still pointing for Painscastle Grove, with the Hamerton Brook lighting up here and there in the distance.
'The field, I should tell you, were fairly taken by surprise. There wasn't a man ready for a start; my horse had only just come down. Fossick was on foot, drawing his girths; Fyle was striking a light to smoke a cigar on his hack; Blossomnose and Capon's grooms were fistling and wisping their horses; Dribble, as usual, was all behind; and altogether there was such a scene of hurry and confusion as never was seen.
'As they came to the brook they got somewhat into line, and one saw who was there. Five or six of us charged it together, and two went under. One was Springwheat on his bay, who was somewhat pumped out; the other was said to be Hook. Old Daddy Longlegs skimmed it like a swallow, and, getting his hind-legs well under him, shot over the pastures beyond, as if he was going upon turf. The hounds all this time had been running, or rather racing, nearly mute. They now, however, began to feel for the scent; and, as they got upon the cold, bleak grounds above Somerton Quarries, they were fairly brought to their noses. Uncommon glad I was to see them; for ten minutes more, at the pace they had been going, would have shaken off every man Jack of us. As it was, it was bellows to mend; and Calcott's roarer roared as surely roarer never roared before. You could hear him half a mile off. We had barely time, however, to turn our horses to the wind, and ease them for a few moments, before the pace began to mend, and from a catching to a holding scent they again poured across Wallingburn pastures, and away to Roughacres Court. It was between these places that I got my head duntled into my hat,' continued his lordship, knocking the crownless hat against his mud-stained knee. 'However, I didn't care a button, though I'd not worn it above two years, and it might have lasted me a long time about home; but misfortunes seldom come singly, and I was soon to have another. The few of us that were left were all for the lanes, and very accommodating the one between Newton Bushell and the Forty-foot Bank was, the hounds running parallel within a hundred yards on the left for nearly a mile. When, however, we got to the old water-mill in the fields below, the fox made a bend to the left, as if changing his mind, and making for Newtonbroome Woods, and we were obliged to try the fortunes of war in the fields. The first fence we came to looked like nothing, and there was a weak place right in my line that I rode at, expecting the horse would easily bore through a few twigs that crossed the upper part of it. These, however, happened to be twisted, to stop the gap, and not having put on enough steam, they checked him as he rose, and brought him right down on his head in the broad ditch, on the far side. Old Blossomnose, who was following close behind, not making any allowance for falls, was in the air before I was well down, and his horse came with a forefoot, into my pocket, and tore the lap clean off by the skirt'; his lordship exhibiting the lap as he spoke.
'It's your new coat, too,' observed Jack, examining it with concern as he spoke.
''Deed, is it!' replied his lordship, with a shake of the head. ''Deed, is it! That's the consequence of having gone out to breakfast. If it had been to-morrow, for instance, I should have had number two on, or maybe number three,' his lordship having coats of every shade and grade, from stainless scarlet down to tattered mulberry colour.
'It'll mend, however,' observed his lordship, taking it back from Jack; 'it'll mend, however,' he said, fitting it round to the skirt as he spoke.
'Oh, nicely!' replied Jack; 'it's come off clean by the skirt. But what said Old Blossom?' inquired Jack.
'Oh, he was full of apologies and couldn't helps it as usual,' replied his lordship; 'he was down, too, I should tell you, with his horse on his left leg; but there wasn't much time for apologies or explanation, for the hounds were running pretty sharp, considering how long they had been at work, and there was the chance of others jumping upon us if we didn't get out of the way, so we both scrambled up as quick as we could and got into our places again.'
'Which way did you go, then?' asked Jack, who had listened with the attention of a man who knows every yard of the country.
'Well,' continued his lordship, casting back to where he got his fall, 'the fox crossed the Coatenburn township, picking all the plough and bad-scenting ground as he went, but it was of no use, his fate was sealed; and though he began to run short, and dodge and thread the hedge-rows, they hunted him yard by yard till he again made an effort for his life, and took over Mossingburn Moor, pointing for Penrose Tower on the hill. Here Frosty's horse, Little Jumper, declined, and we left him standing in the middle of the moor with a stiff neck, kicking and staring and looking mournfully at his flanks. Daddy Longlegs, too, had begun to sob, and in vain I looked back in hopes of seeing Jack-a-Dandy coming up. "Well," said I to myself, "I've got a pair of good strong boots on, and I'll finish the run on foot but I'll see it"; when, just at the moment, the pack broke from scent to view and rolled the fox up like a hedgehog amongst them.'
'Well done!' exclaimed Jack, adding, 'that was a run with a vengeance!' 'Wasn't it?' replied his lordship, rubbing his hands and stamping; 'the finest run that ever was seen—the finest run that ever was seen!'
'Why, it couldn't be less than twelve miles from point to point,' observed Jack, thinking it over.
'Not a yard,' replied his lordship, 'not a yard, and from fourteen to fifteen as the hounds ran.'
'It would be all that,' assented Jack. 'How long were you in doing it?' he asked.
'An hour and forty minutes,' replied his lordship; 'an hour and forty minutes from the find to the finish'; adding, 'I'll stick the brush and present it to Mrs. Springwheat.'
'It's to be hoped Springy's out of the brook,' observed Jack.
'To be hoped so,' replied his lordship, thinking, if he wasn't whether he should marry Mrs. Springwheat or not.
Well now, after all that, we fancy we hear our fair friends exclaim, 'Thank goodness, there's an end of Lord Scamperdale and his hunting; he has had a good run, and will rest quiet for a time; we shall now hear something of Amelia and Emily, and the doings at Jawleyford Court.' Mistaken lady! If you are lucky enough to marry an out-and-out fox-hunter, you will find that a good run is only adding fuel to the fire, only making him anxious for more. Lord Scamperdale's sporting fire was in full blaze. His bumps and his thumps, his rolls, and his scrambles, only brought out the beauties and perfections of the thing. He cared nothing for his hat-crown, no; nor for his coat-lap either. Nay, he wouldn't have cared if it had been made into a spencer.
'What's to-day? Monday,' said his lordship, answering himself. 'Monday,' he repeated; 'Monday—bubble-and-squeak, I guess—sooner it's ready the better, for I'm half-famished—didn't do half-justice to that nice breakfast at Springy's. That nasty brown-booted buffer completely threw me off my feed. By the way, what became of the chestnut-booted animal?'
'Went home,' replied Jack; 'fittest place for him.'
'Hope he'll stay there,' rejoined his lordship. 'No fear of his being at the roads to-morrow, is there?' 'None,' replied Jack. 'I told him it was quite an impossible distance from him, twenty miles at least.'
'That's grand!' exclaimed his lordship; 'that's grand! Then we'll have a rare, ding-dong hey—away pop. There'll be no end of those nasty, jealous. Puffington dogs out; and if we have half such a scent as we had to-day, we'll sew some of them up, we'll show 'em what hunting is. Now,' he added, 'if you'll go and get the bottle of port, I'll clean myself, and then we'll have dinner as quick as we can.'
THE FAITHFUL GROOM
We left our friend Mr. Sponge wending his way home moodily, after having lost his day at Larkhall Hill. Some of our readers will, perhaps, say, why didn't he clap on, and try to catch up the hounds at a check, or at all events rejoin them for an afternoon fox? Gentle reader! Mr. Sponge did not hunt on those terms; he was a front-rank or a 'nowhere' man, and independently of catching hounds up being always a fatiguing and hazardous speculation, especially on a fine-scenting day, the exertion would have taken more out of his horse than would have been desirable for successful display in a second run. Mr. Sponge, therefore, determined to go home.
As he sauntered along, musing on the mishaps of the chase, wondering how Miss Jawleyford would look, and playing himself an occasional tune with his spur against his stirrup, who should come trotting behind him but Mr. Leather on the redoubtable chestnut? Mr. Sponge beckoned him alongside. The horse looked blooming and bright; his eye was clear and cheerful, and there was a sort of springy graceful action that looked like easy going.
One always fancies a horse most with another man on him. We see all his good points without feeling his imperfections—his trippings, or startings, or snatchings, or borings, or roughness of action, and Mr. Sponge proceeded to make a silent estimate of Multum in Parvo's qualities as he trotted gently along on the grassy side of the somewhat wide road.
'By Jove! it's a pity but his lordship had seen him,' thought Sponge, as the emulation of companionship made the horse gradually increase his pace, and steal forward with the lightest, freest action imaginable.' If he was but all right,' continued Sponge, with a shake of the head, 'he would be worth any money, for he has the strength of a dray-horse, with the symmetry and action of a racer.'
Then Sponge thought he shouldn't have an opportunity of showing the horse till Thursday, for Jack had satisfied him that the next day's meet was quite beyond distance from Jawleyford Court.
'It's a bore,' said he, rising in his stirrups, and tickling the piebald with his spurs, as if he were going to set-to for a race. He thought of having a trial of speed with the chestnut, up a slip of turf they were now approaching; but a sudden thought struck him, and he desisted. 'These horses have done nothing to-day,' he said; 'why shouldn't I send the chestnut on for to-morrow?'
'Do you know where the cross-roads are?' he asked his groom.
'Cross-roads, cross-roads—what cross-roads?' replied Leather.
'Where the hounds meet to-morrow.'
'Oh, the cross-roads at Somethin' Burn,' rejoined Leather thoughtfully—'no, 'deed, I don't,' he added. 'From all 'counts, they seem to be somewhere on the far side of the world.'
That was not a very encouraging answer; and feeling it would require a good deal of persuasion to induce Mr. Leather to go in search of them without clothing and the necessary requirements for his horses, Mr. Sponge went trotting on, in hopes of seeing some place where he might get a sight of the map of the county. So they proceeded in silence, till a sudden turn of the road brought them to the spire and housetops of the little agricultural town of Barleyboll. It differed nothing from the ordinary run of small towns. It had a pond at one end, an inn in the middle, a church at one side, a fashionable milliner from London, a merchant tailor from the same place, and a hardware shop or two where they also sold treacle, Dartford gunpowder, pocket-handkerchiefs, sheep-nets, patent medicines, cheese, blacking, marbles, mole-traps, men's hats, and other miscellaneous articles. It was quite enough of a town, however, to raise a presumption that there would be a map of the county at the inn.
'We'll just put the horses up for a few minutes, I think,' said Sponge, turning into the stable-yard at the end of the Red Lion Hotel and Posting House, adding, 'I want to write a letter, and perhaps,' said he, looking at his watch, 'you may be wanting your dinner.'
Having resigned his horse to his servant, Mr. Sponge walked in, receiving the marked attention usually paid to a red coat. Mine host left his bar, where he was engaged in the usual occupation of drinking with customers for the 'good of the house.' A map of the county, of such liberal dimensions, was speedily produced, as would have terrified any one unaccustomed to distances and scales on which maps are laid down. For instance, Jawleyford Court, as the crow flies, was the same distance from the cross-roads at Dallington Burn as York was from London, in a map of England hanging beside it.
'It's a goodish way,' said Sponge, getting a lighter off the chimney-piece, and measuring the distances. 'From Jawleyford Court to Billingsborough Rise, say seven miles; from Billingsborough Rise to Downington Wharf, other seven; from Downington Wharf to Shapcot, which seems the nearest point, will be—say five or six, perhaps—nineteen or twenty in all. Well, that's my work,' he observed, scratching his head, 'at least, my hack's; and from here, home,' he continued, measuring away as he spoke, 'will be twelve or thirteen. Well, that's nothing,' he said. 'Now for the horse,' he continued, again applying the lighter in a different direction. 'From here to Hardington will be, say, eight miles; from Hardington to Bewley, other five; eight and five are thirteen; and there, I should say, he might sleep. That would leave ten or twelve miles for the morning; nothing for a hack hunter; 'specially such a horse as that, and one that's done nothing for I don't know how long.'
Altogether, Mr. Sponge determined to try it, especially considering that if he didn't get Tuesday, there would be nothing till Thursday; and he was not the man to keep a hack hunter standing idle.
Accordingly he sought Mr. Leather, whom he found busily engaged in the servants' apartment, with a cold round of beef and a foaming flagon of ale before him.
'Leather,' he said, in a tone of authority, 'I'll hunt to-morrow—ride the horse I should have ridden to-day.'
'Where at?' asked Leather, diving his fork into a bottle of pickles, and fishing out an onion.
'The cross-roads,' replied Sponge.
'The cross-roads be fifty miles from here!' cried Leather.
'Nonsense!' rejoined Sponge; 'I've just measured the distance. It's nothing of the sort.'
'How far do you make it, then?' asked Leather, tucking in the beef.
'Why, from here to Hardington is about six, and from Hardington to Bewley, four—ten in all,' replied Sponge. 'You can stay at Bewley all night, and then it is but a few miles on in the morning.'
'And whativer am I to do for clothin'?' asked Leather, adding, 'I've nothin' with me—nothin' nouther for oss nor man.'
'Oh, the ostler'll lend you what you want,' replied Sponge, in a tone of determination, adding, 'you can make shift for one night surely?'
'One night surely!' retorted Leather. 'D'ye think an oss can't be ruined in one night?—humph!'
'I'll risk it,' said Sponge.
'But I won't,' replied Leather, blowing the foam from the tankard, and taking a long swig at the ale. 'I thinks I knows my duty to my gov'nor better nor that,' continued he, setting it down. 'I'll not see his waluable 'unters stowed away in pigsties—not I, indeed.'
The fact was. Leather had an invitation to sup with the servants at Jawleyford Court that night, and he was not going to be done out of his engagement, especially as Mr. Sponge only allowed him two shillings a day for expenses wherever he was.
'Well, you're a cool hand, anyhow,' observed Mr. Sponge, quite taken by surprise.
'Cool 'and, or not cool 'and,' replied Leather, munching away, 'I'll do my duty to my master. I'm not one o' your coatless, characterless scamps wot 'ang about livery-stables ready to do anything they're bid. No sir, no,' he continued, pronging another onion; 'I have some regard for the hinterest o' my master. I'll do my duty in the station o' life in which I'm placed, and won't be 'fraid to face no man.' So saying, Mr. Leather cut himself a grand circumference of beef.
Mr. Sponge was taken aback, for he had never seen a conscientious livery-stable helper before, and did not believe in the existence of such articles. However, here was Mr. Leather assuming a virtue, whether he had it or not; and Mr. Sponge being in the man's power, of course durst not quarrel with him. It was clear that Leather would not go; and the question was, what should Mr. Sponge do? 'Why shouldn't I go myself?' he thought, shutting his eyes, as if to keep his faculties free from outward distraction. He ran the thing quickly over in his mind. 'What Leather can do, I can do,' he said, remembering that a groom never demeaned himself by working where there was an ostler. 'These things I have on will do quite well for to-morrow, at least among such rough-and-ready dogs as the Flat Hat men, who seem as if they had their clothes pitched on with a fork.'
His mind was quickly made up, and calling for pen, ink, and paper, he wrote a hasty note to Jawleyford, explaining why he would not cast up till the morrow; he then got the chestnut out of the stable, and desiring the ostler to give the note to Leather, and tell him to go home with his hack, he just rode out of the yard without giving Leather the chance of saying 'nay.' He then jogged on at a pace suitable to the accurate measurement of the distance.
The horse seemed to like having Sponge's red coat on better than Leather's brown, and champed his bit, and stepped away quite gaily.
'Confound it!' exclaimed Sponge, laying the rein on its neck, and leaning forward to pat him; 'it's a pity but you were always in this humour—you'd be worth a mint of money if you were.' He then resumed his seat in the saddle, and bethought him how he would show them the way on the morrow. 'If he doesn't beat every horse in the field, it shan't be my fault,' thought he; and thereupon he gave him the slightest possible touch with the spur, and the horse shot away up a strip of grass like an arrow.
'By Jove, but you can go!' said he, pulling up as the grass ran out upon the hard road.
Thus he reached the village of Hardington, which he quickly cleared, and took the well-defined road to Bewley—a road adorned with milestones and set out with a liberal horse-track at either side.
Day had closed ere our friend reached Bewley, but the children returning from school, and the country folks leaving their work, kept assuring him that he was on the right line, till the lights of the town, bursting upon him as he rounded the hill above, showed him the end of his journey.
The best stalls at the head inn—the Bull's Head—were all full, several trusty grooms having arrived with the usual head-stalls and rolls of clothing on their horses, denoting the object of their mission. Most of the horses had been in some hours, and were now standing well littered up with straw, while the grooms were in the tap talking over their masters, discussing the merits of their horses, or arguing whether Lord Scamperdale was mad or not. They had just come to the conclusion that his lordship was mad, but not incapable of taking care of his affairs, when the trampling of Sponge's horse's feet drew them out to see who was coming next. Sponge's red coat at once told his tale, and procured him the usual attention.
Mr. Leather's fear of the want of clothing for the valuable hunter proved wholly groundless, for each groom having come with a plentiful supply for his own horse, all the inn stock was at the service of the stranger. The stable, to be sure, was not quite so good as might be desired, but it was warm and water-tight, and the corn was far from bad. Altogether, Mr. Sponge thought he would do very well, and, having seen to his horse, proceeded to choose between beef-steaks and mutton chops for his own entertainment, and with the aid of the old country paper and some very questionable port, he passed the evening in anticipation of the sports of the morrow.
THE CROSS-ROADS AT DALLINGTON BURN
When his lordship and Jack mounted their hacks in the morning to go to the cross-roads at Dallington Burn, it was so dark that they could not see whether they were on bays or browns. It was a dull, murky day, with heavy spongy clouds overhead.
There had been a great deal of rain in the night, and the horses poached and squashed as they went. Our sportsmen, however, were prepared as well for what had fallen as for what might come; for they were encased in enormously thick boots, with baggy overalls, and coats and waistcoats of the stoutest and most abundant order. They had each a sack of a mackintosh strapped on to their saddle fronts. Thus they went blobbing and groping their way along, varying the monotony of the journey by an occasional spurt of muddy water up into their faces, or the more nerve-trying noise of a floundering stumble over a heap of stones by the roadside. The country people stared with astonishment as they passed, and the muggers and tinkers, who were withdrawing their horses from the farmers' fields, stood trembling, lest they might be the 'pollis' coming after them.
'I think it'll be a fine day,' observed his lordship, after they had bumped for some time in silence without its getting much lighter. 'I think it will be a fine day,' he said, taking his chin out of his great puddingy-spotted neckcloth, and turning his spectacled face up to the clouds.
'The want of light is its chief fault,' observed Jack, adding, 'it's deuced dark!'
'Ah, it'll get better of that,' observed his lordship. 'It's not much after eight yet,' he added, staring at his watch, and with difficulty making out that it was half-past. 'Days take off terribly about this time of year,' he observed; 'I've seen about Christmas when it has never been rightly light all day long.'
They then floundered on again for some time further as before.
'Shouldn't wonder if we have a large field,' at length observed Jack, bringing his hack alongside his lordship's.
'Shouldn't wonder if Puff himself was to come—all over brooches and rings as usual,' replied his lordship.
'And Charley Slapp, I'll be bund to say,' observed Jack. 'He a regular hanger-on of Puff's.'
'Ass, that Slapp,' said his lordship; 'hate the sight of him!'
'So do I,' replied Jack, adding, 'hate a hanger-on!'
'There are the hounds,' said his lordship, as they now approached Culverton Dean, and a line of something white was discernible travelling the zig-zagging road on the opposite side.
'Are they, think you?' replied Jack, staring through his great spectacles; 'are they, think you? It looks to me more like a flock of sheep.'
'I believe you're right,' said his lordship, staring too; 'indeed, I hear the dog. The hounds, however, can't be far ahead.'
They then drew into single file to take the broken horse-track through the steep woody dean.
'This is the longest sixteen miles I know,' observed Jack, as they emerged from it, and overtook the sheep.
'It is,' replied his lordship, spurring his hack, who was now beginning to lag: 'the fact is, it's eighteen,' he continued; 'only if I was to tell Frosty it was eighteen, he would want to lay overnight, and that wouldn't do. Besides the trouble and inconvenience, it would spoil the best part of a five-pund note; and five-pund notes don't grow upon gooseberry-bushes—at least, not in my garden.'
'Rather scarce in all gardens just now, I think,' observed Jack; 'at least, I never hear of anybody with one to spare.'
'Money's like snow,' said his lordship, 'a very meltable article; and talking of snow,' he said, looking up at the heavy clouds, 'I wish we mayn't be going to have some—I don't like the look of things overhead.'
'Heavy,' replied Jack; 'heavy: however, it's due about now.'
'Due or not due,' said his lordship, 'it's a thing one never wishes to come; anybody may have my share of snow that likes—frost too.'
The road, or rather track, now passed over Blobbington Moor, and our friends had enough to do to keep their horses out of peat-holes and bogs, without indulging in conversation. At length they cleared the moor, and, pulling out a gap at the corner of the inclosures, cut across a few fields, and got on to the Stumpington turnpike.
'The hounds are here,' said Jack, after studying the muddy road for some time.
'They'll not be there long,' replied his lordship, 'for Grabtintoll Gate isn't far ahead, and we don't waste our substance on pikes.'