My First Day's Fox-Hunting

by the Owner of "Iron Duke"

But that was six or seven years ago, and I frankly admit that then I was a very indifferent horseman, although I was in happy ignorance of the fact—in its integrity. I was quite conscious that I did not ride very gracefully or over-comfortably, but I always discovered that the fault was my horse's and not mine. My cousins used to think otherwise, and I have spent hours at a time in trying to induce them to give up their opinions on the subject and to adopt mine. I should explain that my cousins being orphans, and my father being their guardian, they lived with us as part of our family, and that whenever they rode out they seemed to think they had a right to insist upon my accompanying them. I at length got tired of riding out with my fair cousins, and of hearing them titter as, at their suggestion, we went down steep hills at full trot (I confess I was never great at trotting down hill), and so I resolved to take to hunting. I had heard that some horses, though the worst of hacks, made the best of hunters; and I thought that something of that kind might apply to horsemen also, and that I myself might shine more in the field than I did on the road. It was the end of February, and the Coverbury pack were meeting three times a week at places within easy reach of the Stonington Station. That was jolly! I could buy a hunter, keep him at Philley's livery-stables, and on hunting-days send him by train to Stonington, meet him, have a day's hunting unknown to my cousins, and thus enjoy myself with perfect freedom. I at once drew a cheque for £50, with which I determined to buy the best hunter in all Blankshire! I called at Philley's and told him of my intention, and asked him how much a week he would require to "board and lodge" my steed when purchased. The man smiled—he seemed to have a habit of smiling; but seeing from the seriousness of my manner that I was in earnest, he replied that his charge for keeping the horse would be thirty shillings a week; and he added that if I wished to buy a "slapping" hunter he'd got just the horse for my money. "Of course," said he, "you don't want a pony, but a good tall horse as'll keep you out of the dirt; and," he added, scanning my figure from top to toe, "you don't want no cart-horse to carry your weight neither." I admitted that my ideas on the subject coincided with his exactly, and he at once called to a stable-boy to bring out Iron Duke.

"There," said Philley, as the horse was trotted into the yard, "you might go a day's march and not come across such a hunter as that—extraordinary animal, I assure you, sir." Not understanding the points of a horse, I deemed it prudent to indorse all that Iron Duke's owner chose to say in his praise; and I was thus compelled to acknowledge that his superior height (over sixteen hands), long legs, and slender build, gave him an advantage over every other horse I had seen in my life, as regards carrying a light-weight over a high-stone-wall country.

As we stood discussing the merits of the horse I happened to turn round, and there I saw the stable-boy grinning and "tipping the wink" to a companion. This aroused my suspicions that all mightn't be right; so instead of at once buying and paying for the horse, I mustered up courage to say, "Well, Mr Philley, I like the horse's appearance, but are his paces as good as his looks? Will you let me try him with the Coverbury pack to-morrow?" Mr Philley paused, thought a few moments, and then observed somewhat solemnly, "Iron Duke, you see, sir, is a very valuable horse, dirt cheap at fifty pounds; in fact, it's giving him away, it is really, and I shouldn't like anything to happen to a horse like that whilst he's mine. We don't generally let him out for hunting; he's too good for most of our customers. But I'll tell yer what we'll do; we'll let you have him to-morrow for two guineas, and then (if you have no accident with him, as of course a gentleman like you won't) you can please yourself whether you have him or not. But if you should have an accident—of course accidents will happen sometimes—why, then the horse will be yours and the fifty pounds mine." These terms seemed fair, and I accepted them, though not before they had banished my suspicions, and almost induced me to buy and pay for the horse there and then.

In the morning I called at Philley's for my hunter, and the boy brought him out bridled and saddled. As he stood straight in front of me his tall slim-built figure looked as sharp as a knife. I ventured to express this idea, but being doubtful as to whether sharpness was a good point or a bad one, I did so in a manner which might be taken as in earnest or in jest. The dealer chose to take it in the latter sense, and after laughing heartily at my "good joke," assured me that I should find my horse "as clever as a cat." I then attempted to mount, and after some time (during which the ostler gave me a "leg up" and over the other side) I was successful. The stirrup-straps having been adjusted, I set out for the station; and in my journey thither I was conscious that the commanding presence of my horse and the easy graceful attitude of his rider were fully appreciated by the numerous passers-by who stopped to stare at us—doubtless in admiration. One thing, though, nettled me a bit. Just as I got opposite the club, and was waving my whip to Fitz-Jones, De Brown, and some other fellows who were standing in the portico, my horse shied at a wheelbarrow, and I had some difficulty in getting comfortable in the saddle again. I gently remonstrated with the boy who was wheeling the barrow for not getting out of my way, when the impudent little scoundrel turned round and shouted, "Oh, crikey! yer ain't very safe up there! Get inside; safer inside!" Whereupon the whole of the bystanders, including my friends of the club, burst out laughing. I, of course, could not descend from my high horse to chastise the young urchin, and as I couldn't think of anything smart to say to him, I treated him with the silent contempt he deserved, and rode on. But still, as I said before, this nettled me.

With the exception of this trifling contretemps, I arrived safely at Stonington Wood, the place appointed for the meet. There was a good muster of ladies and gentlemen on horseback (some ten or fourteen of the gentlemen in scarlet coats), and a condescending old gentleman with grey hair, neatly trimmed whiskers, and rosy cheeks, remarked that there was a "good field," but I couldn't see it. All that I could see in the shape of a field was a small patch of turnips enclosed with a stone wall, the remainder of the surrounding country being common and wood, or, as I afterwards learned to call it, "cover." I soon began to appreciate my Iron Duke, for I found that he was the tallest horse there, and his legs seemed as light as an antelope's in comparison with the legs of the other animals, some of which seemed almost as heavy as cart-horses'.

The clock of the village church struck eleven, and three or four of the men in scarlet began to whip the dogs to make them go into the wood. I thought it was the proper thing to imitate their example, and seeing one of the dogs scrambling up the wall I instantly rode up and gave him what I thought a "lift up behind" with my whip. To my astonishment the animal, instead of going over into the wood, tumbled down at my feet and yelped most piteously. Iron Duke, not liking the noise, turned round suddenly and kicked out, and the hound had an almost miraculous escape of having his skull cracked. All this happened in less than a minute, and seemed to cause a "great sensation," for two or three of the roughest of the men in scarlet were instantly attacked with a fit of cursing and swearing, of which I took no notice, believing it to be lavished on the head of the unfortunate hound. But I soon had my doubts; for one of the gentlemen in scarlet rode up to me, and with much severity informed me that he could not have his hounds "served in that way." I protested that it was an accident, and that I thought "there could be no harm in doing what the others did." With this explanation he seemed quite satisfied, for he at once left me, and even smiled as he did so. The dog must have been a young one, for as I passed two gentlemen who were doubtless discussing puppies in general, and I suppose him in particular, I overheard one of them say, "He's evidently green." The dogs having got safely into cover, the ladies and gentlemen began to ride along the outside of the wood—cover, I mean—and I did the same, taking care, though, to keep well in the rear, that I might see what the others did. I kept clear of every one I could possibly avoid, as I found that the people who hunted at Stonington indulged in a peculiar kind of slang which I could not well understand. I had not gone far before I heard a loud laughing in my rear. I seemed to be familiar with the sound. I turned "about" in the saddle, and who should I see but my cousins, not twenty yards behind me! I was inclined to go home, and I should have done so only I saw that my cousins, besides being attended by Evans in livery, were accompanied by their old schoolfellow, Miss Trafford, a young lady to whom I had been introduced at our last county ball. To enjoy her presence I determined to brave all. I turned my horse round and raised my hat as much as the tight guard would let me, and in another moment I was at the mercy of my tormentors. "Ha! ha! ha!" laughed my cousin Emily; "we saw you stealing out of the garden gate at six o'clock this morning." "Yes," chimed in Julia, "and with those splendid top-boots on! You thought to avoid us, did you?" "I say, Adolphus," continued Emily, "when you hire a horse-box again, and don't want anyone to know, don't let your name and destination be labelled on it like an advertisement! Ha! ha! ha!" I was completely sold, and I was obliged to acknowledge it; and when I heard that my cousins had actually ridden ten miles to the meet, whilst I had come by train, I felt that I must do something to retrieve my reputation in the eyes of Miss Trafford.

The cover was a very large one, and whilst we had been talking all the people had disappeared. I told the ladies where the dogs were; and Emily at once came to the conclusion that, if we went round the other way, which was shorter, we should meet the "field" at "Keeper's Clump." Acting on this suggestion, we turned back and cantered round to the other side of the cover. As we did so I felt that field-riding was my forte; it was so much more comfortable than hard road-riding, and I at once resolved to make hunting my study and only amusement. My cousins continued to tease me as we went along; but to my delight Miss Trafford sided with me, thus giving me confirmation of the hope I had cherished at the ball, that she was not indifferent to the attentions I then paid her, slight as those attentions necessarily were.

Our passage of arms was suspended by our arrival at the far end of the cover, where the field were awaiting, as I was informed, the decision of the master as to what cover to "draw" next. I wondered whether they had any artists with them, and what good could come of drawing a cover with which nearly every one seemed familiar. But this is parenthetical. A stone wall, about four feet high, separated us from the rest of the field.

"What have you lost?" said Emily to me, as my eyes wandered up and down the wall.

"Nothing," I replied; "I am looking for the gate."

"Then you are looking for something you won't find this side a mile and a half; that's the road—over the wall. Come! give us a lead."

Here was a pretty state of things! I, who had never in my life been over anything higher than a mushroom or wider than a gutter, and who had in my charge three ladies, suddenly required to give them a lead over a four-feet wall, in presence of the whole field! The perspiration stood in great drops on my brow, and I would have given any amount if I could but have sunk into my boots. But I couldn't; and all eyes being on me (including her's) I had no time to say my prayers. I had to choose at once between disgrace and the chance of being "sent to my account with all my imperfections on my head." One glance at Miss Trafford decided me; and I put my horse's head towards the wall and then my spurs into his sides. When I was within three feet my courage failed me, and I pulled up; but it was too late. Iron Duke had already risen; and in doing so had nearly rolled me off, first over the cantle and then the pommel. Ten thousand years rolled over my devoted head in these few moments, and then all was still—i.e., as regards motion; but my ears were assailed by a deafening cheer—mixed, I must candidly admit, with some laughter. When I "came to," I discovered that I was still alive, and still in the saddle, and that my horse was, in the most matter-of-fact way possible, spanning the wall like a bridge, fore-legs on one side, hind-legs on the other. I hastily congratulated myself that things were no worse, and then began to consider what was the proper step to be taken by a man in my situation. "Pull him back!" "Job him over!" "Stick to him!" "Get off!" and similar advice came to me from every quarter. I resolved to act on the "get off" principle; and with some difficulty I did get off, taking care to be on the right side. I then endeavoured to pull the horse over with the reins; but he resisted with all the obstinacy of a costermonger's donkey—which circumstance seemed to add to the amusement of the field, for their laughter increased. Growing desperate, I slashed my whip several times over the animal's neck; at which treatment he kicked and plunged until, to my great delight, he kicked the wall down!

"Thank you for your easy lead, my dear cousin Adolphus!" said Emily, as she and the two other ladies came through the breach in the wall.

"You're quite welcome," I was about to reply, when I was interrupted by a coarse-looking lad, whose spindle-like legs were covered with breeches and gaiters.

"I say, guv'nur," said he, "you rode your horse over that there wall about as well as I'd a-rode my mother's clothes-horse over!—do it again, do!"

The ladies could not refrain from laughter, in which I made a miserable attempt at joining them; and then I tried to remount. But this was a difficult task; for my legs were short, my horse's were long, and his recent adventure had made him fidgety, and I was at last reduced to the necessity of accepting an offer from the lad with the spindle legs to give me a "leg-up." With his assistance (for which I gave him sixpence, and I have no doubt he threw his bad joke into the bargain) I managed to scramble into the saddle again. As we rode to the next cover I felt exceedingly sheepish, and the unfeeling laughter of my cousins, added to the now cool manner of Miss Trafford, and the quiet grimaces of old Evans, the groom (who of course kept pretty close to us), made me desperate, and I was determined to do something to recover my lost prestige, even if the next day's Times had to record a "Fatal accident in the hunting-field at Stonington." Emily asked me tauntingly whether I had "done leaping for to-day?"

"Not exactly," I replied; "I intend——"

"Will you take a lead from me?" she interrupted.

"I'll take any lead that you dare give me," I replied haughtily.

"Done!"

And she had no sooner said the word than the fox broke from the cover, about two hundred yards in front of us, followed in a few moments by the hounds, so close together that (as I afterwards heard one gentleman remark to another) you might have covered them with a blanket. Away they went, and away went we after them. My enthusiasm was raised to the utmost pitch, and I was determined to stop at nothing. Emily and Julia kept on my left, a few yards in advance, whilst Miss Trafford, on my right, kept about the same distance in my rear. The fox, luckily, had taken the open, and the ladies prophesied a half-hour's run with no checks. But before ten minutes of it were over, I perceived, about a hundred yards in front of us, a thick, well-laid quickset hedge, about four feet high, and as we neared it I thought I saw water glistening on the other side. There was no escape; my time had come; I was led in front, and driven in rear; and leap I must.

"Now for your lead!" cried Emily, waving her whip in the air as she cleared the fence and the brook beyond it. My horse followed bravely—and so should I, if I hadn't, by some unfortunate mishap or other, rolled out of the saddle, and in the midst of my victory fallen into the brook! As I lay sprawling on my back, and before I had time to think where I was, I saw the belly of Miss Trafford's horse as he carried her over the fence, the brook, and me!

"Stop my horse! stop my horse!" I roared, as I came dripping wet out of the brook. "Stop my horse!" But I earnestly hoped that no one would stop him, for this last contretemps had considerably damped my ardour and cooled my courage; and I thought that if nobody did "stop my horse," he would eventually find his way to the pound; and his absence would afford me a decent pretext for going home. To my horror, though, Iron Duke was brought back by the wretched lad of the spindle legs. "Be the saddle greased, sir?" said he, wiping it with his nasty dirty pocket handkerchief. I could have kicked him, and should have done so, only I thought he might have kicked back, and so I swallowed his affront, and actually gave him another sixpence. Having learned from him the road to the station, I was just stealing off when I heard in my rear the cry of "Tally-ho back!" The fox had come back—doubled, I mean—and I was forced to join the others and run after him again. But, fortunately for me, he did not run far before the dogs caught him and killed him, and then one of the men in scarlet cut off his nice long tail and gave it to Emily. She actually accepted it, although I am nearly sure she had never seen the man before in her life! I thought young ladies ought to accept presents from no gentlemen but their relatives and accepted suitors; and, besides, I don't believe that this man was a gentleman, for when I whipped the hound to make him get over the wall (which, as I have before stated, he most unreasonably declined to do), this fellow was the loudest in his oaths and curses, which he showered broadcast on the hound, or my horse, or something—I have never ascertained what—and in the presence of ladies! Emily said something about making a hair-brush of the fox's tail (what an absurd idea! but she always was queer); and as the man cut off the fox's head, she gave me to understand that that would be mine if I asked for it. I did ask for it; but for some unaccountable reason or other, I didn't get it. The remainder of the poor fox was thrown to the dogs, who soon tore him to pieces and ate him. It occurred to my philosophic mind, as I witnessed this spectacle, that the fox, like me, was a hero; but, also like me, an unsuccessful one. What a number of men, women, horses, and dogs to conquer one little fox! These and similar reflections were soon cut short, for the dogs having finished their lunch, the men and women began to think about theirs; in fact, Sir John Hausie had invited them all, including me, to lunch with him at the Manor House, about half a mile distant. As we journeyed thither I began to feel very uncomfortable, for my coat, waistcoat, and shirt, although not dirty (for the water in the brook was clean), were wet through, and, the warmth of exercise and enthusiasm having subsided, I felt very cold. When we arrived at Sir John's, I was so stiff with cold that I could scarcely dismount, which Sir John observing, he came and very kindly accosted me. He also inquired as to the cause of my fall—spill, he called it—and offered me the loan of a coat whilst mine was hastily dried at the kitchen fire. Sir John was an exceedingly pleasant man, and had a jolly, cheerful, laughing face, and we soon understood each other. I accepted his proferred loan with many thanks, and then took Miss Trafford in to lunch. As I sat by her side in the baronet's coat, and gracefully helped her to sherry, the frost of her manner gradually thawed; and when we returned to remount we were as jolly as topers—sand-boys, I mean. I of course assisted her to get into the saddle; but I was so stiff and so giddy (from the excitement of the morning) that I very nearly let her down. We were some time without finding another fox; and as my cousins had gone off with old Evans and Captain De la Grace, and as Miss Trafford seemed so amiable, I determined to improve the occasion. We were on the common just outside Sir John's park, the beauties of which I was very particular in admiring; and having thus got Miss Trafford to lag behind, I took the opportunity of unbosoming my heart to her. I got very excited, and my voice trembled with emotion (or something of that sort), as I made her a pathetic offer of my heart and hand. I paused (as well as my excitement would allow me, for it had brought on the hiccups), and she replied. I can't remember exactly what she said, but it was something about sparing me the pain of a refusal, and about not marrying a man who couldn't take a fence. I offered to jump the park wall if she would only listen to my suit. She agreed; and bracing up all my spirits, I rode full tilt at the wall; and over I went, leaving my horse on the wrong side! And as I turned an involuntary somersault I thought I heard sounds like "the receding foot-steps of a cantering horse." (Note.—This is a quotation from some lines I afterwards wrote to Miss Trafford.) There was then a slight break in the thread of my thoughts, and after that I found myself lying in the midst of some young fir-trees, whilst Iron Duke was quietly browsing on the leafless twigs of a tree on the other side of the wall. Gentle reader! I am sure you must feel for my unfortunate position. I will not torture you further by relating the painful particulars of how I scrambled over the wall; how I got on Iron Duke, only to tumble off again; how I nearly broke my neck before I got home; how Philley declared I had broken the horse's knees; how he made me pay £50 for the animal; how I sold him the next week for £10 (less £2 for carriage); and, worst of all, how Miss Trafford jilted me, and my cousins—cruel girls—laughed at my misfortunes and made sport of my troubles. Indeed, with all these we have nothing to do, for they happened after "My First Day's Fox-hunting."