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believe, one Michael Cassio, a Florentine, who originally made the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
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
"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
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
"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."
"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
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
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
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.
"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
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.
"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
"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."
"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