Huntingcrop Hall by Alfred E. T. Watson

"Reputation! Reputation! oh, I have lost my reputation!" It was, I believe, one Michael Cassio, a Florentine, who originally made the remark; and I can only say I sincerely wish I were in Michael Cassio's position, and could lose mine. It may be a "bubble," this same reputation; indeed, we have high authority for so terming it: but "bubble" rhymes with "trouble," and that is the condition to which such a reputation as mine is apt to bring you; for it supposes me to be a regular Nimrod, whereas I know about as much of the science of the chase as my supposititious prototype probably knew of ballooning: it sets me down as being "at home in the saddle;" whereas it is there that I am, if I may be allowed the expression, utterly at sea.

When, last November, I was seated before a blazing fire in Major Huntingcrop's town house, and his too charming daughter, Laura, expressed her enthusiastic admiration for hunting, and everything connected with it—mildly at the same time hinting her contempt for those who were unskilled in the accomplishment—could I possibly admit that I was amongst the despised class? Was it not rather a favourable opportunity for showing our community of sentiment by vowing that the sport was the delight of my life, and firing off a few sentences laden with such sporting phraseology as I had happened to pick up in the course of desultory reading?

Laura listened with evident admiration. I waxed eloquent. My arm-chair would not take the bit between its teeth and run away; no hounds were in the neighbourhood to test my prowess; and I am grieved to admit that for a fearful ten minutes "the father of —— stories" (what a family he must have!) had it all his own way with me.

"Atra cura sedet post equitem indeed!" I concluded. "You may depend upon it, Miss Huntingcrop, that man was mounted on a screw! Black Care would never dare to intrude his unwelcome presence on a galloper. Besides, why didn't the fellow put his horse at a hurdle? Probably Black Care wouldn't have been able to sit a fence. But I quite agree with you that it is the duty of a gentleman to hunt; and I only wish that the performance of some of my other duties gave me half as much pleasure!"

Where I should have ended it is impossible to say; but here our tête-à-tête was interrupted by the advent of the Major, who heard the tag end of my panegyric with manifest delight.

"Huntingcrop is the place for you, Mr Smoothley," said he, with enthusiasm, "and I shall be more than pleased to see you there. I think, too, we shall be able to show you some of your favourite sport this season. We meet four days a week, and you may reckon on at least one day with the Grassmere. It is always a sincere pleasure to me to find a young fellow whose heart is in it."

As regards my heart, it was in my boots at the prospect; and, despite the great temptation of Laura's presence, I paused, carefully to consider the pros and cons before accepting.

How pleasant to see her fresh face every morning at the breakfast-table—how unpleasant to see a horse—most likely painfully fresh also—waiting to bear me on a fearsome journey as soon as the meal was concluded! How delightful to feel the soft pressure of her fingers as she gave me morning greeting: how awful to feel my own fingers numbed and stiff with tugging at the bridle of a wild, tearing, unmanageable steed! How enjoyable to—

"Are you engaged for Christmas, Mr Smoothley?" Laura inquired, and that query settled me. It might freeze—I could sprain my ankle, or knock up an excuse of some sort. Yes, I would go; and might good luck go with me.

For the next few days I unceasingly studied the works of Major Whyte-Melville, and others who have most to say on what they term sport, and endeavoured to get up a little enthusiasm. I did get up a little—very little; but when the desired quality had made its appearance, attracted by my authors' wizard-like power, it was of an extremely spurious character, and entirely evaporated when I arrived at the little railway station nearest to the Hall. A particularly neat groom, whom I recognised as having been in town with the Huntingcrops, was awaiting me in a dogcart, and the conveyance was just starting when we met a string of horses, hooded and sheeted, passing along the road: in training, if I might be permitted to judge from their actions, for the wildest scenes in "Mazeppa," "Dick Turpin," or some other exciting equestrian drama. I did not want the man to tell me that they were his master's: I knew it at once; and the answers he made to my questions as to their usual demeanour in the field plunged me into an abyss of despair.

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"I unceasingly studied the works of Major Whyte-Melville, and endeavoured to get up a little enthusiasm."—Page 271.

The hearty welcome of the Major, the more subdued but equally inspiriting greeting of his daughter, and the contagious cheerfulness of a house full of pleasant people, in some measure restored me; but it was not until the soothing influence of dinner had taken possession of my bosom, and a whisper had run through the establishment that it was beginning to freeze, that I thoroughly recovered my equanimity, and was able to retire to rest with some small hope that my bed next night would not be one of pain and suffering.

Alas for my anticipations! I was awakened from slumber by a knock at the door, and the man entered my room with a can of hot water in one hand and a pair of tops in the other; while over his arm were slung my—in point of fact, my breeches; a costume which I had never worn except on the day it came home, when I spent the greater portion of the evening sportingly arrayed astride of a chair, to see how it all felt.

"Breakfast at nine, sir. Hounds meet at Blackbrook at half-past ten; and it's a good way to ride," said the servant.

"The frost's all gone, I fea—— I hope?" I said, inquiringly.

"Yes, sir. Lovely morning!" he answered, drawing up the blinds.

In his opinion a lovely morning was characterised by slightly damp, muggy weather; in mine it would have been a daybreak of ultra-Siberian intensity.

I ruefully dressed, lamenting that my will was not a little stronger (nor were thoughts of my other will—and testament—entirely absent), that I might have fled from the trial, or done something to rescue myself from the exposure which I felt must shortly overwhelm me. The levity of the men in the breakfast-room was a source of suffering to me, and even Laura's voice jarred on my ears as she petitioned her father to let her follow "just a little way"—she was going to ride and see the hounds "throw off," a ceremony which I devoutly hoped would be confined to those animals—"because it was too hard to turn back when the real enjoyment commenced; and she would be good in the pony-carriage for the rest of the week."

"No, no, my dear," replied the Major; "women are out of place in the hunting field. Don't you think so, Mr Smoothley?"

"I do, indeed, Major," I answered, giving Laura's little dog under the table a fearful kick as I threw out my foot violently to straighten a crease which was severely galling the inside of my left knee. "You had far better go for a quiet ride, Miss Huntingcrop, and"—how sincerely I added—"I shall be delighted to accompany you; there will be plenty of days for me to hunt when you drive to the meet."

"No, no, Smoothley. It's very kind of you to propose it, but I won't have you sacrificing your day's pleasure," the Major made answer, dashing the crumbs of hope from my hungering lips. "You may go a little way, Laura, if you'll promise to stay with Sir William, and do all that he tells you. You won't mind looking after her, Heathertopper?"

Old Sir William's build would have forbidden the supposition that he was in any way given to activity, even if the stolidity of his countenance had not assured you that caution was in the habit of marking his guarded way; and he made suitable response. I was just debating internally as to the least circuitous mode by which I could send myself a telegram, requiring my immediate presence in town, when a sound of hoofs informed us that the horses were approaching; and gazing anxiously from the window before me, which overlooked the drive in front of the house, I noted their arrival.

Now the horse is an animal which I have always been taught to admire. A "noble animal" he is termed by zoologists, and I am perfectly willing to admit his nobility when he conducts himself with reticence and moderation; but when he gyrates like a teetotum on his hind legs, and wildly spars at the groom he ought to respect, I cease to recognise any qualities in him but the lowest and most degrading.

Laura hastened to the window, and I rose from the table and followed her.

"You pretty darlings!" she rapturously exclaimed. "Oh! are you going to ride The Sultan, Mr Smoothley? How nice! I do so want to, but papa won't let me."

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"Gazing anxiously from the window before me, I noted the arrival of the horses. Laura hastened to the window. 'You pretty darlings!' she rapturously exclaimed."—Pages 274-5.

"No, my dear; he's not the sort of horse for little girls to ride;—but he'll suit you, Smoothley; he'll suit you, I know."

Without expressing a like confidence, I asked, "Is that the Sultan?" pointing to a large chestnut animal at that moment in the attitude which, in a dog, is termed "begging."

"Yes; a picture, isn't he? Look at his legs. Clean as a foal's! Good quarters—well ribbed up—not like one of the waspy greyhounds they call thoroughbred horses now-a-days. Look at his condition, too; I've kept that up pretty well, though he's been out of training for some time," cried the Major.

"He's not a racehorse, is he?" I nervously asked.

"He's done a good deal of steeplechasing, and ran once or twice in the early part of this season. It makes a horse rush his fences rather, perhaps; but you young fellows like that, I know."

"His——eye appears slightly blood-shot, doesn't it?" I hazarded; for he was exhibiting a large amount of what I imagine should have been white, in an unsuccessful attempt to look at his tail without turning his head round. "Is he quiet with hounds?"

"Playful—a little playful," was his not assuring reply. "But we must be off, gentlemen. It's three miles to Blackbrook, and it won't do to be late!" And he led the way to the Hall, where I selected my virgin whip from the rack, and swallowing a nip of orange-brandy, which a servant providentially handed to me at that moment, went forth to meet my fate.

Laura, declining offers of assistance from the crowd of pink-coated young gentlemen who were sucking cigars in the porch, was put into the saddle by her own groom. I think she looked to me for aid, but I was constrained to stare studiously in the opposite direction, having a very vague idea of the method by which young ladies are placed in their saddles. Then I commenced, and ultimately effected, the ascent of The Sultan: a process which appeared to me precisely identical with climbing to the deck of a man-of-war.

"Stirrups all right, sir?" asked the groom.

"This one's rather too long.—No, it's the other one, I think." One of them didn't seem right, but it was impossible to say which in the agony of the moment.

He surveyed me critically from the front, and then took up one stirrup to a degree that brought my knee into close proximity with my waistcoat: The Sultan meanwhile exhibiting an uncertainty of temperament which caused me very considerable anxiety. Luckily I had presence of mind to say that he had shortened the leather too much, and there was not much difference between the two, when, with Laura and some seven companions, I started down the avenue in front of the house.

The fundamental principles of horsemanship are three: keep your heels down; stick in your knees; and try to look as if you liked it. So I am informed, and I am at a loss to say which of the three is the most difficult of execution. The fact that The Sultan started jerkily, some little time before I was ready to begin, thereby considerably deranging such plans as I was forming for guidance, is to be deplored; for my hat was not on very firmly, and it was extremely awkward to find a hand to restore it to its place when it displayed a tendency to come over my eyes. Conversation, under these circumstances, is peculiarly difficult; and I fear that Laura found my remarks somewhat curt and strangely punctuated. The Sultan's behaviour, however, had become meritorious to a high degree; and I was just beginning to think that hunting was not so many degrees worse than the treadmill, when we approached the scene of action.

Before us, as we rounded a turning in the road, a group of some thirty horsemen—to which fresh accessions were constantly being made—chatted together and watched a hilly descent to the right down which the pack of hounds, escorted by several officials, was approaching. The Major and his party were cordially greeted, and no doubt like civilities would have been extended to me had I been in a position to receive them; but, unfortunately, I was not; for, on seeing the hounds, the "playfulness" of The Sultan vigorously manifested itself, and he commenced a series of gymnastic exercises to which his previous performances had been a mere farce. I lost my head, but mysteriously kept what was more important—my seat, until the tempest of his playfulness had in some measure abated; and then he stood still, shaking with excitement. I sat still, shaking—from other causes.

"Keep your horse's head to the hounds, will you, sir?" was the salutation which the master bestowed on me, cantering up as the pack defiled through a gate; and indeed The Sultan seemed anxious to kill a hound or two to begin with. "Infernal Cockney!" was, I fancy, the term of endearment he used as he rode on; but I don't think Laura caught any of this short but forcible utterance, for just at this moment a cry was raised in the wood to the left, and the men charged through the gate and along the narrow cart-track with a wild rush. Again The Sultan urged on his wild career—half-breaking my leg against the gate-post, as I was very courteously endeavouring to get out of the way of an irascible gentleman behind me, who appeared to be in a hurry, and then plunging me into the midst of a struggling pushing throng of men and horses.

If the other noble sportsmen were not enjoying themselves more than I, it was certainly a pity that they had not stayed at home. Where was this going to end? and—but what was the matter in front? They paused, and then suddenly all turned round and charged back along the narrow path. I was taken by surprise, and got out of the way as best I could, pulling my horse back amongst the trees, and the whole cavalcade rushed past me. Out of the wood; across the road; over the opposite hedge, most of them—some turn off towards a gate to the right—and away up the rise beyond; passing over which they were soon out of sight.

That The Sultan's efforts to follow them had been vigorous I need not say; but I felt that it was a moment for action, and pulled and tugged and sawed at his mouth to make him keep his head turned away from temptation. He struggled about amongst the trees, and I felt that, under the circumstances, I should be justified in hitting him on the head. I did so; and shortly afterwards—it was not exactly that I was thrown, but circumstances induced me to get of rather suddenly.

My foot was on my native heath. I was alone, appreciating the charms of solitude in a degree I had never before experienced; but after a few minutes of thankfulness, the necessity of action forced itself on my mind. Clearly, I must not be seen standing at my horse's head gazing smilingly at the prospect—that would never do, for the whole hunt might reappear as quickly as they had gone; so, smoothing out the most troublesome creases in my nether garments, I proceeded to mount. I say "proceeded," for it was a difficult and very gradual operation, but was eventually managed through the instrumentality of a little boy, who held The Sultan's head, and addressed him in a series of forcible epithets that I should never have dared to use: language, however, which, though reprehensible from a moral point of view, seemed to appeal to the animal's feelings, and to be successful.

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"I proceeded to mount. I say proceeded, for it was a difficult and very gradual operation, but was eventually managed through the instrumentality of a little boy, who held The Sultan's head, and addressed him in a series of forcible epithets that I should never have dared to use."—Page 280.

He danced a good deal when I was once more on his back, and seemed to like going in a series of small bounds, which were peculiarly irritating to sit. But I did not so much mind now, for no critical eye was near to watch my hand wandering to the convenient pommel, or to note my taking such other little precautions as the exigencies of the situation, and the necessity for carrying out the first law of nature, seemed to suggest.

Hunting, in this way, wasn't really so very bad. There did not appear to be so very much danger, the morning air was refreshing and pleasant, and the country looked bright. There always seemed to be a gate to each field, which, though troublesome to open at first, ultimately yielded to patience and perseverance and the handle of my whip. I might get home safely after all; and as for my desertion, where everyone was looking after himself, it was scarcely likely they could have observed my defection. No; this was not altogether bad fun. I could say with truth for the rest of my life that I "had hunted." It would add a zest to the perusal of sporting literature, and, above all, extend the range of my charity by making me sincerely appreciate men who really rode.

But alas! though clear of the trees practically, I was, metaphorically, very far from being out of the wood. When just endeavouring to make up my mind to come out again some day, I heard a noise, and, looking behind me, saw the whole fearful concourse rapidly approaching the hedge which led into the ploughed field next to me on the right. Helter-skelter, on they came! Hounds popping through, and scrambling over. Then a man in pink topping the fence, and on again over the plough; then one in black over with a rush; two, three, four more in different places. Another by himself who came up rapidly, and, parting company with his horse, shot over like a rocket!

All this I noted in a second. There was no time to watch, for The Sultan had seen the opportunity of making up for his lost day, and started off with the rush of an express train. We flew over the field; neared the fence. I was shot into the air like a shuttlecock from a battledore—a moment of dread—then, a fearful shock which landed me lopsidedly, somewhere on the animal's neck. He gives a spring which shakes me into the saddle again, and is tearing over the grass field beyond. I am conscious that I am in the same field as the Major, and some three or four other men. We fly on at frightful speed—there is a line of willows in front of us which we are rapidly nearing. It means water, I know. We get—or rather it comes nearer—nearer—nearer—ah-h-h! An agony of semi-unconsciousness—a splash, a fearful splash—a struggle….

I am on his back, somewhere in the neighbourhood of the saddle: without stirrups, but grimly clutching a confused mass of reins as The Sultan gently canters up the ascent to where the hounds are howling and barking round a man in pink, who waves something brown in the air before throwing it to them. I have no sooner reached the group than the master arrives, followed by some four or five men, conspicuous among whom is the Major.

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"An agony of semi-unconsciousness—a splash, a fearful splash—a struggle…. I am on his back, somewhere in the neighbourhood of the saddle; without stirrups, but grimly clutching a confused mass of reins as The Sultan gently canters up the ascent to where the hounds are howling."—Page 283.

He hastens to me. To denounce me as an impostor? Have I done anything wrong, or injured the horse?

"I congratulate you, Smoothley,—I congratulate you! I promised you a run, and you've had one, and, by Jove! taken the shine out of some of us. My Lord"—to the master—"let me present my friend, Mr Smoothley, to you. Did you see him take the water? You and I made for the Narrows, but he didn't turn away, and went at it as if Sousemere were a puddle. Eighteen feet of water if it's an inch, and with such a take-off and such a landing, there's not a man in the hunt who'd attempt it! Well, Heathertopper! Laura, my dear,"—for she and the bulky Baronet at this moment arrived at the head of a straggling detachment of followers—"you missed a treat in not seeing Smoothley charge the brook:

'Down in the hollow there, sluggish and idle,

Runs the dark stream where the willow trees grow,

Harden your heart, and catch hold of your bridle—

Steady him—rouse him—and over we go!'

"Isn't that it? It was beautiful!"

It might have been in his opinion; in mine it was simply an act of unconscious insanity, which I had rather die than intentionally repeat.

"I didn't see you all the time, Mr Smoothley; where were you?" Laura asked.

"Where was he?" cried the Major. "Not following you, my dear. He took his own line, and, by Jove! it was a right one!"

It was not in these terms that I had expected to hear the Major addressing me, and it was rather bewildering. Still I trust that I was not puffed up with an unseemly vanity as Laura rode back by my side. She looked lovely with the flush of exercise on her cheek, and the sparkle of excitement in her eyes; and as we passed homewards through the quiet country lanes I forgot the painful creases that were afflicting me, and with as much eloquence as was compatible with the motion of my steed—I ventured!

The blushes deepen on her cheek. She consents on one condition: I must give up hunting.

"You are so rash and daring," she says, softly—very softly, "that I should never be happy when you were out."

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"I trust I was not puffed up with an unseemly vanity, as Laura rode back by my side…. 'You are so rash and daring,' she says softly, 'that I should never be happy when you were out.'"—Pages 284-5.

Can I refuse her anything—even this? Impossible!

I promise: vowing fervently to myself to keep my word; and on no account do anything to increase the reputation I made at Huntingcrop Hall.