The First Day of the Season and its Results

by "Sabretache"

"When at the close of the departing year

Is heard that joyful sound, the huntsman's cheer,

And wily Reynard with the morning air

Scents from afar the foe, and leaves his lair."

I quite agree with the distinguished foreign nobleman who declared that "Nothing was too good to go foxing in;" and with the immortal Jorrocks of Handley Cross fame, I exclaim, "'Unting, my beloved readers, is the image of war with only ten per cent. of its dangers."

Ever since I was an unbreeched urchin, and my only steed a rough Shetland pony, across whose bare back my infantine legs could scarcely stride, I have looked forward to a day's hunting with the keenest relish. The preliminary sport of cub-hunting—with its early-dawn meets: bad scent, consequent upon fallen leaves and decayed vegetable matter; riotous young hounds, which can scarcely be brought to hunt upon any terms; timid, nervous young foxes, who hardly dare poke their sharp noses out of covert—only serves to give a greater zest as it were to the opening day. One or two woodland runs, just sufficient to breathe the well-trained hunter or take the exuberant spirits (the accompaniments of high feeding and no work) from the young one, after a stripling Reynard, who as yet has no line of country of his own, and hardly dares to venture far from the place of his birth, ending with a kill just to blood the young hounds, only makes the longing for the first day of the season more intense.

Not one of her Majesty's subjects throughout her vast dominions—so vast indeed are they that, as the song tells us, "the sun never sets on them"—not one, I say, of her Majesty's lieges looked forward more anxiously than I did to the first day of the hunting season of 18—, for why should I be too explicit about dates, or let all the world know that I am so ancient as to remember anything so long buried in the past? I had just returned to old England with a year's leave from my regiment, then in India. I was possessed of capital health and spirits, was only just six-and-twenty years of age, had five hundred pounds at my bankers, and two as good nags in my stable as ever a man laid his leg across. "Hunting for ever!" I cried, as I strolled into Seamemup and Bastemwell's, the unrivalled breechesmakers' establishment in the Strand, to order a few pair of those most necessary adjuncts to the sporting man's wardrobe previous to leaving town. "Hunting for ever!" and of all the packs in England, commend me to my old acquaintance, those friends of my boyhood, the Easyallshire Muggers. I am not sure but that, strictly speaking, the term "mugger" ought only be applied to those packs of hounds which are used for that peculiar pastime which, to again quote the immortal Jorrocks, "is only fit for cripples, and them as keeps donkeys," viz., harriers.

Be that as it may, the pack I now speak of were, though called muggers, bonâ fide foxhounds, and as such, only used in the "doing to death" of that wily animal.

The country which had as it were given birth to this distinguished pack presented to the hunting man very much the same features as do most parts of England. There were the same number of ditches and dingles to be got over somehow, the same gates which would and would not be opened, the same fences, stiles, and heavers to be cleared, the same woodland parts to be hunted, from which it was next to impossible to get a fox away, and to which every one said he would never come again; but for all that no one ever kept his word, for there were just the very same number of sportsmen to be seen at the very next meet held in the district; thus proving that foxhunting, even under difficulties, is still a most fascinating diversion; and there were the same snug-lying gorse coverts, from which a run was sure to be obtained over a flat well-enclosed country, which gave both man and horse as much as ever their united efforts could accomplish, to be there or thereabouts at the finish. Nor were the meets of the Easyallshire Muggers, advertised in The Field, dissimilar in any respect to those of other packs of hounds, for there were an equal number of cross roads, turnpike gates, public houses, gibbets, woods, sign-posts, and milestones, as elsewhere. Well, to enjoy a season's sport with this so distinguished hunt was my intention; and no sooner had I completed the requisite arrangements with regard to my hunting toggery, which a residence of some half dozen years in India had rendered necessary, than I took up my abode in the little town of Surlyford, at the comfortable hotel rejoicing in the mythological sign of the Silent Woman, a fabulous personage surely, to be classed with Swans with Two Necks, Green Men, and other creatures who never had any existence. The first meet of the Easyallshire Muggers was settled, so said the county paper, to take place at the fourth milestone on the Surlyford road. Thither I repaired, fully equipped in all the splendour of a new pink, immaculate cords, brown-tinted tops, my blue birds'-eye scarf, neatly folded and fastened with a pin bearing a most appropriate device, viz., a real fox's tooth. In my impatience to be up and doing on this our opening day, I arrived at the trysting-place, from whence I was to woo my favourite pastime, some half hour or more before the master and his pack were due. I had, therefore, ample leisure to receive the greetings of my numerous old friends and acquaintances, as they came up from all parts, and in all directions, on all sorts and all sizes of nags, and at all kinds of paces, to the place of meeting. First to arrive on that useful steed yclept "Shanks's pony," slouching along, clad in rusty velveteen, baggy brown cord breeches and gaiters, billycock, as he termed his wideawake hat, on head, a stout ashen stick, cut from a neighbouring coppice, in hand, and ten to one a quantity of wires in his pockets, was handsome, dark-eyed, good-for-nothing, scampish, dishonest Gipsy Jim—the sometime gamekeeper, when he could get any to employ him, but oftener the poaching, drinking, thieving vagabond of the neighbourhood. A broad grin of recognition, and a touch of the hat on the part of the Gipsy one, and an exclamation on mine of "Bless me, Jim! not hanged yet?" placed us once again on the old familiar footing of "I will tell you all I know about foxes" (and who could afford better information than one whose habits and disposition partook more of the vermin than the man?), "providing you give me a shilling to drink your health." Gipsy Jim and I had hardly interchanged these civilities, when, trotting along on a stout, handsome, six-year-old, in capital condition, though, if anything, a little too fat (not a bad fault, however, at the beginning of the season), came farmer Thresher, of Beanstead, a florid, yellow-haired, red-whiskered, jovial, hard-riding, independent agriculturist, who, on the strength of having been at school in years gone by with some of the neighbouring squires, myself amongst the number, called us all freely by our surnames, forgetting to prefix the accustomed Mister, and thus giving great umbrage to some and causing them always to pointedly address him as "Mr Thresher." Our mutual salutations had hardly come to an end when we were joined by half a dozen more sturdy yeomen, able and willing to go, let the pace be ever so severe, and all of them contributing their five pounds yearly to the support of the Easyallshire Muggers, "spite of wheat, sir, at fourteen shillings a bag."

Young Boaster next turns up, a swaggering blade from a neighbouring hunt, who is always abusing the Easyallshire hounds, and bragging of his own prowess, which consists of riding extraordinary distances to far-off meets, and doing nothing when he gets there, save telling wonderful and fabulous stories of what he had done last time he was out, and what he intended to do then. He is succeeded by Dr Bolus, "the sporting Doctor," as he is called, who must be making a very handsome fortune in his profession, if his knowledge of medicine is anything like his judgment in horseflesh, his skill in the pigskin, or his acquaintance with the line of a fox. After Bolus, on a three-legged screw, a wonder to every one how it is kept at all on its understandings, comes Aloes, the veterinary surgeon, a pleasant-spoken, florid, little old man, skilful in his business, ever agreeing, with his "That I would, sir," and one whom I would much prefer to attend me when sick than many a professor of the healing art among men. The majesty of the law is upheld next by Mr Sheepskin, the attorney, a gentlemanly man, a lightweight, and one who rides, when need be, as hard as if not harder than any one. Nor is the Church absent (for we have not a few clerical subscribers to the Easyallshire Muggers), but is well represented in the person of the Rev. Mr Flatman, a good-looking, well-built, foxy-whiskered divine, whose handling of the ribbons on the coach-box, and seat on horseback, would entitle him to a deanery at the very least, could the Broad-Church party but come into power. His small country parish, however, does not suffer by the fondness of its rector for the sports of the field; having a hard-working and most exemplary curate, he is still a painstaking and estimable parish priest, and much preferred, I doubt not, by all his parishioners to any more busy and interfering divine of either of the other two schools of divinity. I myself am by no means the sole member of the military profession present, for we are here of all ranks, from the just-joined subaltern to the gallant colonel of the county militia, a stout fine-looking veteran, none of your feather-bed soldiers, and one who, spite of his weight, is an exceedingly difficult man to beat across country. "Mammon," as it is the fashion nowadays to call that useful article, money, is seen approaching in the person of the Surlyford banker, who, wisely flinging business to the winds at least twice in the week, gets astride a good-looking, nearly thoroughbred nag, and finds accepting bullfinches, negotiating ditches, and discounting gates, stiles, &c., a much more healthy and more pleasant, if not more profitable, occupation than everlastingly grubbing after filthy lucre.

The Master now makes his appearance, tall and upright, knowing thoroughly the duties of his office, and if not quite so bold and determined a rider as in years gone by, still making up for want of nerve in knowledge of the country, and for lack of dash in careful riding and judicious nicking-in. Suffice it to say, that at the finish, his absence is never observed, though how he came to be there is better known to the second-rank horsemen than to the flyers. The huntsman and whip are much the same as those worthies are everywhere; but the hounds, how to describe them I know not.

The Easyallshire Muggers set all rules regarding the make, size, and symmetry of foxhounds at defiance. They show almost better sport, and kill more foxes, than any pack in the kingdom; and yet they are as uneven as a ploughed field, and as many shapes and sizes as a charity school. I can only say, "handsome is as handsome does;" and if my canine friends are not pleasant to the eye of the connoisseur—if they come not up to the standard of Beckford Somerville, and other writers who have described a perfect foxhound, still they work beautifully—which to my mind is far preferable to looking beautiful—and will run and kill foxes with any hounds in England. The huntsman and whip, though not so well mounted (economy is the order of the day with the Easyallshire Muggers) as we would wish to see them, yet manage somehow to get across the country, and to be with their hounds; though for the matter of that, such is the sagacity of the Easyallshire pack, they can very frequently do quite as well without the assistance of their ruler and guide as with it. The Easyallshire Hunt, as the name implies, is an easy-going sort of concern, in which every man, gentle and simple, has a finger in the pie; every subscriber imagining that he has a perfect right, on the strength of his subscription, to hunt, whip-in, or otherwise direct the movements of the hounds whenever opportunity occurs. But for-rard! for-rard on! or I shall be at the fourth milestone on the Surlyford road all day, instead of drawing that inviting piece of gorse covert which lies so pleasant and warm, with its southern aspect on yonder bank. A guinea to a gooseberry, a fox lies there!

Joe, the huntsman, now trots along through the somewhat bare and brown pasture fields towards the covert; the pack, eager and keen for the fray, clustering round the heels of his horse. A few moments only elapse, and the sea of gorse is alive with hounds poking here, there, and everywhere, seeking the lair of sly Reynard. Old experience having taught me that Gipsy Jim's knowledge of the fox and his habits (for being half-brother to the varmint in his nature, how can it fail to be otherwise?) would serve me in good stead, I station myself near to him in order to have a good view of "Mr Reynolds," as Jim calls the cunning animal, when he breaks covert. Nor am I wrong in my conjecture; for after a few pleasant notes from old Bellman, who hits upon the place where Master Fox crossed a ride early this morning, and a "hark to Bellman" from Joe the huntsman, out jumps, almost into Jim's arms, as fine a fox as ever wore a brush. Master Reynard looks somewhat astonished at being brought so suddenly face to face with a two-legged monster, and seems half inclined to turn back again to his hiding-place; but, perhaps judging from Jim's varmint look that no danger might be apprehended from that quarter, and being warned by the deep notes of old Bellman that his late quarters were untenable, he throws back his head as if to sniff the pleasant morning breeze, and giving his brush a gentle wave of defiance, boldly takes to the open, and starts across the field which surrounds the covert at a good rattling pace. Gipsy Jim grins from ear to ear with delight, showing his white regular teeth, at the same time holding up his hand as a warning to me to keep silence for a few seconds, so as not to spoil sport by getting the fox headed back. The moment, however, Master Reynard is safely through the neighbouring hedge, Jim's tremendous view-halloa makes the whole country ring again. This is the signal for every bumpkin and footman to shout and halloa with might and main, thus making the necessary confusion of the find worse confounded still. "Hold your noisy tongues," shout the Master, huntsman, whip, and all the horsemen; but "Hold your noisy tongues" they cry in vain. "Tallyho! tallyho! tallyho!" yell the footmen, totally regardless of all expostulation. But crafty Jim, knowing the idiosyncrasy of the yokels, has made all safe by his silence, until the red-coated rascal is well away. "Hark! halloa!" "Hark! halloa!" roar the field. "Tootle, tootle!" goes Joe's horn, reëchoed by an asthmatical effort in the same direction, on the part of the worthy master, who blows as if his horn was full of dirt. The hounds, however, are accustomed to the sound, feeble as it is, and all rush to the spot where Master, huntsman, and Gipsy Jim are all cheering them exactly at the place where foxy broke away. What a burst of music now strikes upon the ear, far superior to the delights of any concert it has ever been my lot to be present at, as the hounds acknowledge with joy the rapture they feel at the strong scent left behind by him they had so unceremoniously disturbed from his comfortable lodgings! But the scent is too good for us to dwell here for description, and away they go at a killing pace, which, if it lasts long enough, will get to the bottom of many a gallant steed there present. And now comes the rush of horsemen amidst the cries of "Hold hard! don't spoil your sport!" of the master, and the "'Old 'ard!" of the huntsman, who has an eye to tips, and therefore restrains his wrath in some measure. But the Easyallshireans are not to be kept back by any such remonstrances and expostulations as these, and those who mean to be with the hounds throughout the run, hustle along to get a forward place; whilst the knowing and cunning ones, with the Master at their head, turn short round, and make for a line of gates which lie invitingly open, right in the direction which the fox has taken. I get a good start, and being well mounted, sail away, and am soon alongside of Joe the huntsman, whose horse, though a screw, and not very high in condition, is obliged to go, being compelled thereto by its rider. A stiff-looking fence, which I charge at the same moment as Joe, who takes away at least a perch of fencing, and thus lets many a muff through, lands us into the next field, and affords a fair view of the hounds streaming away a little distance before us. But why should I describe the run? The Field, weekly, gives much more graphic descriptions of such things than I am able to write; let me, therefore, confine my narrative to what befell my individual self.

A rattling burst of twenty minutes rendered the field, as may be well imagined, very select, and it would in all probability have become still more so, had not a fortunate check given horses and men a few moments' breathing time, thus enabling the cunning riders to get up to the hounds. "Away we go again, and I will be there at the finish," I exclaimed, as pressing my cap firmly on my head, and shutting my eyes, I ride at a tremendous bullfinch, the thick boughs and sharp thorns of which scratch my face all over and nearly decapitate me as I burst through it. But, as in the case of the renowned John Gilpin, it is—

"Ah, luckless speech and bootless boast,"

For which I paid full dear."

Another ten minutes' best pace and the fox is evidently sinking before us; but, alas! it was not to be my lot to see the gallant animal run into and pulled down in the open, after as fine a run as was ever seen. Trim-kept hedges, well-hung, stout, and newly-painted white gates, had shown me that for the last few moments, he had entered the domain of some proprietor, whose estate certainly presented the very pink of neatness. Little indeed did I dream that there would exist in the very heart of Easyallshire one so benighted as to object to the inroads made upon him by that renowned pack, the Muggers. But I reckoned without my host, or rather, as the sequel will show, with my host; for as, in my endeavours to save my now somewhat exhausted horse, I rode at what appeared an easy place in a very high fence, bounded on the off-side with a stiff post and rail, an irate elderly gentleman, gesticulating, shouting, and waving an umbrella in his hand, suddenly rose up as it were from the very bowels of the earth, just as my steed was preparing to make his spring, thus causing the spirited animal to rear up, and, overbalancing himself, to fall heavily to the ground with me under him. When I next recovered consciousness and opened my eyes, I was being borne along on a hurdle, by the author of my misfortunes—a gray-haired, piebald-whiskered, stout, little, red-faced old gentleman—and two of his satellites, whom I rightly conjectured to be the coachman and gardener; but the pain of my broken leg made me relapse into unconsciousness, nor did the few wits I by nature possess return to me again until I was laid on a bed, and a medical practitioner of the neighbourhood was busy at work setting my fractured limb. To make a long story short, I remained under the roof of Major Pipeclay—for that was the name of the irascible little gentleman whose hatred of hunting, hounds, and horses had caused my suffering—until my wounded limb was well again, the worthy old major doing all in his power to make amends for the catastrophe his absurd violence had brought about.

At the expiration of six weeks I was able to move about on crutches; at the termination of twice that period, I was well again, and had, moreover, fallen irretrievably in love with the bright eyes and pretty face of Belinda Pipeclay, one of the major's handsome daughters. Thinking, in my ignorance of the fair sex, that the child of so irascible a papa—having been in her juvenile days well tutored under the Solomonian code of "sparing the rod, and spoiling the child"—must therefore, of necessity, make a submissive and obedient wife, I proposed, was accepted, obtained the major's consent, and became a Benedict.

Dear reader, I am really ashamed to confess the truth: I have been severely henpecked ever since. Whether Belinda possesses the same antipathy to hounds, horses, and hunting men as her progenitor, I cannot possibly tell; for returning to India soon after my marriage, I had no opportunity of there testing her feelings in that respect. Now the increasing number of mouths in our nursery compels a decreasing ratio of animals in my stable, and I am reduced to one old broken-winded cripple, which I call "the Machiner." He takes Mrs Sabretache and myself to the market town on a Saturday, and mamma, papa, and the little Sabretaches to church on the following day.