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Hunting Sketches

by Anthony Trollope



The British public who do not hunt believe too much in the jumping of those who do. It is thought by many among the laity that the hunting man is always in the air, making clear flights over five-barred gates, six-foot walls, and double posts and rails, at none of which would the average hunting man any more think of riding than he would at a small house. We used to hear much of the Galway Blazers, and it was supposed that in County Galway a stiff-built wall six feet high was the sort of thing that you customarily met from field to field when hunting in that comfortable county. Such little impediments were the ordinary food of a real Blazer, who was supposed to add another foot of stonework and a sod of turf when desirous of making himself conspicuous in his moments of splendid ambition. Twenty years ago I rode in Galway now and then, and I found the six-foot walls all shorn of their glory, and that men whose necks were of any value were very anxious to have some preliminary knowledge of the nature of the fabric, whether for instance it might be solid or built of loose stones, before they trusted themselves to an encounter with a wall of four feet and a half. And here, in England, history, that nursing mother of fiction, has given hunting men honours which they here never fairly earned. The traditional five-barred gate is, as a rule, used by hunting men as it was intended to be used by the world at large; that is to say, they open it; and the double posts and rails which look so very pretty in the sporting pictures, are thought to be very ugly things whenever an idea of riding at them presents itself. It is well that mothers should know, mothers full of fear for their boys who are beginning, that the necessary jumping of the hunting field is not after all of so very tremendous a nature; and it may be well also to explain to them and to others that many men hunt with great satisfaction to themselves who never by any chance commit themselves to the peril of a jump, either big or little.

And there is much excellent good sense in the mode of riding adopted by such gentlemen. Some men ride for hunting, some for jumping, and some for exercise; some, no doubt, for all three of these things. Given a man with a desire for the latter, no taste for the second, and some partiality for the first, and he cannot do better than ride in the manner I am describing. He may be sure that he will not find himself alone; and he may be sure also that he will incur none of that ridicule which the non-hunting man is disposed to think must be attached to such a pursuit. But the man who hunts and never jumps, who deliberately makes up his mind that he will amuse himself after that fashion, must always remember his resolve, and be true to the conduct which he has laid down for himself. He must jump not at all. He must not jump a little, when some spurt or spirit may move him, or he will infallibly find himself in trouble. There was an old Duke of Beaufort who was a keen and practical sportsman, a master of hounds, and a known Nimrod on the face of the earth; but he was a man who hunted and never jumped. His experience was perfect, and he was always true to his resolution. Nothing ever tempted him to cross the smallest fence. He used to say of a neighbour of his, who was not so constant, " Jones is an ass. Look at him now. There he is, and he can't get out. Jones doesn't like jumping, but he jumps a little, and I see him pounded every day. I never jump at all, and I'm always free to go where I like." The Duke was certainly right, and Jones was certainly wrong. To get into a field, and then to have no way of getting out of it, is very uncomfortable. As long as you are on the road you have a way open before you to every spot on the world's surface, open, or capable of being opened; or even if incapable of being opened, not positively detrimental to you as long as you are on the right side. But that feeling of a prison under the open air is very terrible, and is rendered almost agonizing by the prisoner's consciousness that his position is the result of his own imprudent temerity, of an audacity which falls short of any efficacious purpose. When hounds are running, the hunting man should always, at any rate, be able to ride on, to ride in some direction, even though it be in a wrong direction. He can then flatter himself that he is riding wide and making a line for himself. But to be entrapped into a field without any power of getting out of it; to see the red backs of the forward men becoming smaller and smaller in the distance, till the last speck disappears over some hedge; to see the fence before you and know that it is too much for you; to ride round and round in an agony of despair which is by no means mute, and at last to give sixpence to some boy to conduct you back into the road; that is wretched: that is real unhappiness. I am, therefore, very persistent in my advice to the man who purposes to hunt without jumping. Let him not jump at all. To jump, but only to jump a little, is fatal. Let him think of Jones.

The man who hunts and doesn't jump, presuming him not to be a duke or any man greatly established as a Nimrod in the hunting world, generally comes out in a black coat and a hat, so that he may not be specially conspicuous in his deviations from the line of the running. He began his hunting probably in search of exercise, but has gradually come to add a peculiar amusement to that pursuit; and of a certain phase of hunting he at last learns more than most of those who ride closest to the hounds. He becomes wonderfully skillful in surmising the line which a fox may probably take, and in keeping himself upon roads parallel to the ruck of the horsemen. He is studious of the wind, and knows to a point of the compass whence it is blowing. He is intimately conversant with every covert in the country; and, beyond this, is acquainted with every earth in which foxes have had their nurseries, or are likely to locate them. He remembers the drains on the different farms in which the hunted animal may possible take refuge, and has a memory even for rabbit-holes. His eye becomes accustomed to distinguish the form of a moving horseman over half-a-dozen fields; and let him see but a cap of any leading man, and he will know which way to turn himself. His knowledge of the country is correct to a marvel. While the man who rides straight is altogether ignorant of his whereabouts, and will not even distinguish the woods through which he has ridden scores of times, the man who rides and never jumps always knows where he is with the utmost accuracy. Where parish is divided from parish and farm from farm, has been a study to him; and he has learned the purpose and bearing of every lane. He is never thrown out, and knows the nearest way from every point to point. If there be a line of gates across from one road to another he will use them, but he will commit himself to a line of gates on the land of no farmer who uses padlocks.

As he trots along the road, occasionally breaking into a gallop when he perceives from some sign known to him that the hunt is turning from him, he is generally accompanied by two or three unfortunates who have lost their way and have straggled from the hounds; and to them he is a guide, philosopher, and friend. He is good-natured for the moment, and patronizes the lost ones. He informs them that they are at last in the right way, and consoles them by assurances that they have lost nothing.

"The fox broke, you know, from the sharp corner of Granby-wood," he says; " the only spot that the crowd had left for him. I saw him come out, standing on the bridge in the road. Then he ran upwind as far as Green's barn." " Of course he did," says one of the unfortunates who thinks he remembers something of a barn in the early part of the performance. "I was with the three or four first as far as that." "There were twenty men before the hounds there," says our man of the road, who is not without a grain of sarcasm, and can use it when he is strong on his own ground. "Well, he turned there, and ran back very near the corner; but he was headed by a sheep-dog, luckily, and went to the left across the brook." "Ah, that's where I lost them," says one unfortunate. " I was with them miles beyond that," says another. "There were five or six men rode the brook," continues our philosopher, who names the four or five, not mentioning the unfortunate who had spoken last as having been among the number. "Well; then he went across by Ashby Grange, and tried the drain at the back of the farmyard, but Bootle had had it stopped. A fox got in there one day last March, and Bootle always stops it since that. So he had to go on, and he crossed the turnpike close by Ashby Church. I saw him cross, and the hounds were then full five minutes behind him. He went through Frolic Wood, but he didn't hang a minute, and right up the pastures to Morley Hall." "That's where I was thrown out," says the unfortunate who had boasted before, and who is still disposed to boast a little. But our philosopher assures him that he has not in truth been near Morley Hall; and when the unfortunate one makes an attempt to argue, puts him down thoroughly. " All I can say is, you couldn't have been there and be here too at this moment. Morley Hall is a mile and a half to our right, and now they're coming round to the Linney. He'll go into the little wood there, and as there isn't as much as a nutshell open for him, they'll kill him there. It'll have been a tidy little thing, but not very fast. I've hardly been out of a trot yet, but we may as well move on now." Then he breaks into an easy canter by the side of the road, while the unfortunates, who have been rolling among the heavy-ploughed ground in the early part of the day, make vain efforts to ride by his side. They keep him, however, in sight, and are comforted; for he is a man with a character, and knows what he is about. He will never be utterly lost, and as long as they can remain in his company they will not be subjected to that dreadful feeling of absolute failure which comes upon an inexperienced sportsman when he finds himself quite alone, and does not know which way to turn himself.

A man will not learn to ride after this fashion in a day, nor yet in a year. Of all fashions of hunting it requires, perhaps, the most patience, the keenest observation, the strongest memory, and the greatest efforts of intellect. But the power, when achieved, has its triumph; it has its respect, and it has its admirers. Our friend, while he was guiding the unfortunates on the road, knew his position, and rode for a while as though he were a chief of men. He was the chief of men there. He was doing what he knew how to do, and was not failing. He had made no boasts which stern facts would afterwards disprove. And when he rode up slowly to the wood-side, having from a distance heard the huntsman's whoop that told him of the fox's fate, he found that he had been right in every particular. No one at that moment knows the line they have all ridden as well as he knows it. But now, among the crowd, when men are turning their horses' heads to the wind, and loud questions are being asked, and false answers are being given, and the ambitious men are congratulating themselves on their deeds, he sits by listening in sardonic silence. "Twelve miles of ground !" he says to himself, repeating the words of some valiant youngster; " if it's eight, I'll eat it." And then when he hears, for he is all ear as well as all eye, when he hears a slight boast from one of his late unfortunate companions, a first small blast of the trumpet which will become loud anon if it be not checked, he smiles inwardly, and moralizes on the weakness of human nature. But the man who never jumps is not usually of a benevolent nature, and it is almost certain that he will make up a little story against the boaster.

Such is the amusement of the man who rides and never jumps. Attached to every hunt there will be always one or two such men. Their evidence is generally reliable; their knowledge of the country is not to be doubted; they seldom come to any severe trouble; and have usually made for themselves a very wide circle of hunting acquaintances by whom they are quietly respected. But I think that men regard them as they do the chaplain on board a man-of-war, or as they would regard a herald on a field of battle. When men are assembled for fighting, the man who notoriously does not fight must feel himself to be somewhat lower than his brethren around him, and must be so esteemed by others.

Turn to the next chapter: THE HUNTING PARSON.

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