A Day with the Drag by Fox Russell

To my mind there are few more pleasant ways of spending an afternoon, than in having a good rousing gallop with the Drag. Of course there be Drag-hunts and Drag-hunts, and unless the sport is conducted smartly and well, 'twere better far that it should not be done at all. The hounds need not be bred from the Beaufort Justice, but on the other hand, they need not be a set of skulking, skirting brutes, that one "wouldn't be seen dead with." Of course the members of such hunts ride in mufti—more familiarly called, in these degenerate days, "ratcatcher"—but I always think that Huntsman and Whips should be excepted from this rule, and anyone who is privileged to share the fun of the Royal Artillery Draghounds will find that the high officials of the hunt are arrayed, not certes, as was Solomon in all his glory, but in the very neatest and smartest of "livery," and nothing could look more sportsmanlike than the dark-blue coat, red collar and cuffs, surmounted by the orthodox black velvet hunting-cap, which are de rigeur at Woolwich now. When I first joined in their cheery gallops, there was no hunt uniform, and the appearance of the "turn out" suffered accordingly. Now, nothing is left to be desired in this direction. Good fellowship in the field we have always had, and does not this go far indeed to make up the sum of one's enjoyment? When every man out, almost without exception, knows the rest of the field personally; when a kindly hand is always ready to be stretched forth to aid a brother in distress—when you know every man well enough to say "mind you don't jump on me, old chap, if this 'hairy' comes base over apex at the next fence!" or, "Let me have that place first; I can't hold this beggar!" things all seem so much pleasanter than they are in a country where you know few people, and don't know them very well: yes, sociability, depend upon it, goes very far indeed to make up the charm of any sport, and in none more so than in that of crossing a country.

Let us imagine ourselves arrived at Woolwich and "done well" at luncheon in the R.A. mess. And here I would observe, par parenthese, that it would require a big effort of imagination to picture to yourself any occasion upon which you were not "done well" within those hospitable portals. About 2.30 when we are half way through that cigar in the ante-room, which alone "saves one's life" after such a luncheon, a crack of the whip, and a "gently there, Waterloo!" brings us quickly to the window overlooking the parade ground, where hounds have just arrived in charge of the Master and two Whips. We hurry out, after a farewell to such of our kindly hosts as are not intending to accompany us, and find that that big-boned black horse with a hog mane, is intended to carry "Cæsar and his fortunes" this afternoon. A right good one he is, too, with a perfect snaffle mouth. He is "not so young as he was," but "sweet are the uses of adversity," and this fact has its advantages, as he will not fret and worry, and pull one's arms off before starting: he has "joined the band," which is also an excellent thing in its way, because the man just ahead of you can hear him coming, and will, you hope, get out of the way at the next fence! After a short period of moving up and down the parade ground, and exchanging greetings with a few whom you have not had a chance of speaking to before, the word is given, and at that indescribable and, to me, most direful pace, a "hound's jog," off we go along the road over the Common.

How the bricks and mortar fiend has been working his wicked will with the place since last we saw it! The trots out to the several meets get longer and longer as season after season rolls by. What was once almost our best line, and where for two or three years the annual point-to-point race was held, is now an unwieldy mass of buildings, prominent amongst which stands that gigantic fraud on the long-suffering ratepayers, the Fever Hospital, with its staff of 350 to wait on a maximum of 450 patients!

At last we emerge from the region of building and railway "enterprise" (save the mark!) and see glimpses of the country ahead of us. A winding lane traversed, and we find a gate propped open on our left: here a halt is called. The Master rides into the field, whilst the Whips remain where they are in charge of the pack. Two minutes later our worthy chief returns and addresses the assembled company, not in the studied beauty of language employed by Cicero, nor in the perfervid oratory of Demosthenes, but in a manner very much more to the point than most of the harangues of those somewhat long-winded classics. "Let 'em get over the first fence: then you can ride like blazes!" he says.

The Whips move forward gently: hounds are all bristling with excitement, for they seem to know as well as we that the moment for action has arrived. "Gently there, Safety! have a care, then!" Yow, yow, yow! from the hounds. Toot, toot, from the Master's horn, and away they go. "Do wait, you dev—— fellows! You'll be bang into the middle of 'em! There, now, you can go and be blessed to you!" Amid a confused rush of horses, clatter of hoofs, and babel of tongues, we are away, and thundering down to the first fence, a big quickset. With a crash the first Whip is over or through; it doesn't matter which so long as he finds himself "all standing" on the right side. Half-a-dozen men make for the same place and great is the thrusting thereunto. The first and second get over: the third man falls: the next alights almost on top of him: now comes a gallant "just joined" one, who does not jump when his horse does, and then that first fence becomes of no further interest to us, for are we not over it, and speeding along at our best sprinting pace towards a line of post and rails, where, the Powers be praised! there is plenty of room for the whole field to have it abreast, if they wished. Two refuse at this: it is a pretty big one, and worse still the timber is new: but the next comer smashes the top rail and lets everyone through: then for three or four fields all is plain sailing—brush fences that our steeds almost gallop through, form the only obstacles. We jump into a park, and "Ware hole!" is the cry: we pull off to the right of where hounds are running in order to avoid the home of the ubiquitous bunny, but not soon enough, unluckily, to save one youngster from a tumble: the horse puts his foot in a rabbit hole and rolls over as if he is shot. "Not hurt a bit! Go on," calls out the rider, pluckily. Yes, no doubt about it, this is the game for the making of young soldiers. On we go, now descending a gentle slope to where an ominous little crowd of yokels and loafers are lining a narrow strip of green on each side: a second glance, as we rise in our stirrups for inspection purposes, shows us that this is evidently looked upon as the sensation "lep" of the run: a good sized brook, in front of which have been placed some stout, well furze-bushed hurdles. The scent has been thoughtfully laid a little on one side of this, so there is no fear of stray hounds getting in one's way. One look shows us that it will take a bit of doing, and hats are crammed on, and horses "taken by the head" in earnest, as the three leading men come along at it. A quick glance round and a lightning calculation as to where you'll go to, should your neighbour whip round or fall just in front of you, and then a vigorous hoist over the hurdles carries you just clear—and no more than just clear—of the frowning and muddy stream just beyond. The man on your left gets over also, but with one hind leg dropped in: three come slashing over, all right: then little Miffkins, in an agony of incertitude, takes a pull at his horse when within three lengths of where he should take off. Fatal mistake! for he merely succeeds in putting the break on: the horse jumps short, and just clearing the hurdles drops helplessly into the turbid stream amid the ribald jeers and laughter of the crowd assembled. Baulked by this contretemps the next horse refuses, and though ridden at the obstacle again and again, resolutely persists in remaining on the wrong side of the water. But "forrard on, forrard on!" Miffkins will get dry again—he is not hurt, in the least—and his horse will be taught an invaluable lesson in swimming. The pack is still racing away half a field ahead, but they are beginning to "string" a good deal now, from the severity of the pace. And by the same token, most of our good nags are obviously feeling that this sort of fun can't go on for ever. My own musical steed is, in especial, making the most appalling observations on the subject as we breast the next sharp slope. I feel, somehow, that he is using the equinese for "Hang it all, you know, I'm not a steam roundabout, my dear chap!" and my heart smites me. Before, however, I can make up my wavering mind as to whether conscience imperatively demands of me "a pull," or not, to my great joy, hounds suddenly throw up their heads where the drag has evidently been lifted, and we find ourselves at the ever welcome check. Most of us slip off our smoking steeds, whose shaking tails and sweat-lathered coats attest the rate at which these three miles have been covered. By twos and threes, the stragglers, and those whose luck is "out," arrive. One man has broken the cantle of his saddle, another has managed to pull his horse's bridle off in the floundering of a fall: here is a rider whose spur has been dragged off his boot: there one who has broken his girths: two men are hatless and another has lost his cigarette case, presumably whilst standing on his head after trying unsuccessfully to negotiate a stile without jumping it. However, these are but common incidents of the chase, and "all in the day's work." The troubles are taken good humouredly, and in the true spirit of philosophy. The men who have second horses out, have now mounted them, whilst the rest of us who intend riding the concluding half of the line, resume acquaintance with our splashed saddles and mud-stained steeds. Trotting off across a road, we again lay on, and have a gallop of quite five hundred yards before coming to anything in the way of an obstacle. Over a piece of timber, to the tune of a most unholy cracking of top rails, we go, and soon find ourselves approaching the far boundary which offers us the choice of a blind, hairy place, with a big ditch on the far side, a gate securely nailed up, and a greasy-looking foot-bridge adorned with several dangerous-looking holes. This last we all—as I think, wisely—eschew. Some make for the gate: the rest of us try the first-named place. One of the whips goes at it "hell for leather," and gets over. I, following him, I blush to say, rather—just a very little—too closely, utter a silent prayer that my leader may not fall, and somewhat to my astonishment feel "the musician" apparently disappearing into the bowels of the earth beneath me whilst I shoot over his head and sprawl, spread-eagled, on my hands and face into the ploughed field beyond. He has jumped short and paid the penalty by dropping into the ditch. I shout back "No" to a kindly enquiry as to whether I am hurt, and the questioner gallops on, leaving me to wrestle with the problem of how I am to extract the hog-maned one from his present retreat. As I take him by the rein and wonder how deeply his hind legs are imbedded in the sticky clay, he makes a wild flounder, plunges up the bank, rams his big, bony head into my chest and causes me to take up a most undignified position, for nothing can look much more aimless than to see the ardent sportsman attired in boots and breeches, seated involuntarily in the wet furrow of a ploughed field, his horse standing over him in an apparently menacing attitude. However, although I felt damped—and was—the animal was out of what might have been "a tight place," and I climbed into the saddle again with muddy breeches, but a cheerful heart. To catch hounds after this was, of course, out of the question, but I jogged slowly across the field I was in, and felt, I humbly confess, a thrill of unholy joy, as from the farther side of the thick hedge there, I heard a plaintive voice saying:

"Come through the gap and give us a hand, old fellow; I've come down, busted both girths and a stirrup leather, lost my curb chain and split my br—waistcoat!"

I was happy again. I had a companion in misfortune, and, better still, one in sorrier plight than my own. By the time we had (as far as a piece of string, two torn handkerchiefs and a necktie, the thongs of both hunting crops, and a pair of braces would allow) repaired damages, lighted and smoked a couple of cigars, and talked the day's doings over as we rode back to the cheery lights shining from the barrack windows, I for one felt just as happy as if I had managed to live through the whole, instead of only part, of that invigorating gallop with the Woolwich Drag.