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In Bad Company, and other Stories/The First Port Fairy Hunt

< In Bad Company, and other Stories


THE FIRST PORT FAIRY HUNT

The cattle were pretty well broken to their new run at Squattlesea Mere. Little more was necessary than to go round them daily and discourage explorers. The heathen were temporarily at rest, brooding (like the Boers) over fresh ambuscades. A suspicion of monotone pervaded the 'eucalyptine cloisterdom,' when, neither by telegram nor newspaper—our Arcadia knew neither brain-disturber in 1844 word came orally, personally transmitted, that the Mount Rouse Hounds were to throw off at Port Fairy, with races to follow, the whole to wind up with a ball.

These astonishing tidings so affected me that I became unable to settle down to daily details. A meet with real fox-hounds, races, and—temptation overwhelming—a ball! I have resisted things in my day, have exhibited Spartan virtue in sorrowful altruism, economies, mortifications of the flesh, what not. But this special attraction was complicated, ingenious, subtly alluring 'in the brave days when we were twenty-one.' I lacked a year or so of that romantic period, and consequently was more prudent, more intolerant, and more abstemious than in the aftertime. People may talk as they like, but youth is the time for wisdom. That riper years bring prudence, steadfastness, circumspection, indeed any improvement of mind or body, is a widespread error. It is a fable of the wary ancient. The real sage, the true philosopher, the consistent disciple, is the ingenuous youth. The Greeks knew this. Contrast Telemachus with that old humbug Ulysses, far-travelled, much experienced in war; council, battle, and peace alike familiar to him. How reprehensible was his conduct, flirting with Calypso and other beguilers, poor lonely 'Griselda Penelope' doing her worsted work and tatting from year to year, the excellent Telemachus meanwhile looking after the 'selection' at Ithaca. However, this is miles away from the scent. 'Get in there, Fancy.'

In the solitude of my slab-hut this announcement stirred my blood. I considered the pecuniary aspect of the question, and was nearly not going at all. Coin was scarce in the forties, credit shy and difficult. More prudent by far it seemed to remain quietly at home. And yet it was hard. A glimpse of Paradise to be had scarce thirty miles away. A brilliant idea flashed, meteor-like, through my brain. The expense would not amount to more than a bullock. One bullock! The herd was increasing. And I could work so much harder afterwards. My conscience was salved. I made the modest preparations befitting that pioneer period. The valise was packed, the black mare was run in, and proudly mounting that fast, clever hackney, I took the track to the crossing -place of the Shaw River, singing aloud for pure joyousness of heart, like a mavis in springtime.

When I arrived in Port Fairy, and took up my quarters at the Merrijig Hotel (the southern aboriginal predicate signifying 'good,' and thus equivalent to the 'Budgeree' of the Kamilaroi), what news and marvels were afloat! The town was full. Everybody was there or coming; also everybody's favourite horse. All the world and his wife were 'on the march for Rome.' Mr. James Lord had arrived from Tasmania with a draft of hounds for John Cox of Werongurt; had also brought with him The Caliph as a present to the same gentleman from his old friend Sir Richard Dry. The Caliph was a hunting celebrity; I was naturally anxious to see him. The Dunmore people were not down, but were coming of course, with Neil Kennedy and Bob Craufurd, Fred Burchett, the Aplins, Captain and Mrs. Baxter, the Hunters (Alick and Jimmy), George Youl, and the Kemps, Claud Farie, and his partner Rodger—in fact, everybody, as I said before. Old Tom, the stock-rider, had managed to trap a fine dingo. To-morrow the hounds would throw off near Archie M'Neill's farm, across the Moyne. There were to be races the day after, including a steeple-chase, for which Richard Rutledge was going to ride Freedom, a well-known blood hackney. Mr. Rodger had bought the grey racing pony Skipjack, a winner on the Melbourne turf. The ball was to be in the big room of the Merrijig Hotel. Could imagination have devised anything more ecstatically delightful?

The table d'hôte dinner that night was a thing to remember—a score or two of men, none of whom had passed 'the golden prime,' while the greater proportion had but lately entered manhood. One or two might have been described by a cynic as beardless boys. I was the youngest squatter in the district. I then exhibited more discretion than has always characterised the mature individual. However, nemo omnibus. We had few misgivings about the future in those days. We said to the present 'Stay, for thou art fair,' disturbing not ourselves about autumnal tints.

Such laughter, such jests—keen and incisive enough in all conscience! Such horse-talk—when every man was an owner, a breeder, a connoisseur more or less, of the noble animal; moreover, always possessed a favourite hackney, which he held to be a combination of all the equine virtues. The flowing bowl of the period was not disregarded—claret and champagne were the weaknesses of the day; Dalwood and Cawarra, Yering and Tahbilk, were all to come; even whisky had not made good its footing in society. But for the preponderance of the 'kindly Scot' in Victoria, the 'real Donald' would have been traditionary. However, then as now, the clans mustered strong in the rich pastures west of Geelong. Our host, Archie M'Neill, a stalwart, sinewy Highlander, was a horse-breeder too, Archie's colt being a promising sapling Traveller. The old hereditary feelings had by no means died out. A neighbour of his was wont, when 'the maut gat abune the meal,' to formulate thus his tribal antipathies: 'I'm Macdonald frae Glencoe! D—n the blocdy Campbells of Glenlyon!'

Although there were necessarily differences of opinion—as will arise even among friends on such topics at such times—we enjoyed ourselves in all proper moderation. There was far more talking, laughing, and indeed singing, than steady drinking. In those days it was wonderful how musically inclined were all honest revellers. Just before the finale a messenger came to say that 'Old Tom' had made the usual miscalculation, and was then lodged in the Port Fairy lock-up. It was not to be endured that the purveyor of the quarry which was to furnish our entertainment for the morrow, should languish in a dungeon. We arose and in a body marched to the watch-house, where any amount of bail was proffered to the astonished constable. The cell-door being opened, the veteran came forth, bent and humbled, looking not unlike an old dog-fox himself, as he sought his couch unobtrusively, vowing supernatural sobriety for the morrow.

The morning broke—a lovely sight;
The sun flashed down on armour bright,

wrote Hugh Ranclaud in his Marmion period. Slightly altered, this description might have suited our array, which, owing to circumstances, exhibited more variety and good intention than uniformity. A pink or two, a good many black cut-aways, with a green riding-coat worn by John Cox, the uniform of a Tasmanian hunt club. His tall figure as he reined The Caliph, a grand half- Arab grey sixteen- hander, up to any weight over any country, looked workman-like. Cords and tops were tolerably plentiful, though 'butcher boots,' such as most of us affected for ordinary stock-riding, were in the ascendant.

One frolicsome youngster, indeed, in default of a pink, resolved to conform as nearly as possible to the fashion of his forefathers. To this end he possessed himself of a bright red serge shirt, such as was occasionally donned by all sorts and conditions of men in those days of sincere effort. This he persuaded the village tailor to fashion into the form of a coatee, and thus arrayed, he rode proudly amid the front-rankers, congratulating himself, with perfect correctness, upon having added a fresh sensation to the entertainment. Fred Burchett had two chestnut hackneys, one a neat cob named Friendship. This day he rode the other, which he had christened Love, being, as he explained, 'very like friendship, only nicer.' Bob Cox (Robert Clerk's brother-in-law—not related to the Clarendon family) might have been there on Bessborough. I am not certain whether he did not join our band of heroes later on. But, if so, the hunt missed that day a joyous comrade, a handsome face with bright dark eyes, never unwelcome in hall or bower; one of the boldest yet most artistic horsemen that ever sat in saddle. Poor old Bob! I used often to think how I should have enjoyed mounting him 'regardless,' and pitting him against the best men with the Quorn, the Pytchley, or wherever the unrivalled English sport in the ancestral isle still holds sway. What nice things a Monte Cristo might do—in that and a few other ways!

The hounds were to throw off on the Warrnambool side of the Moyne, where a broad flat was bounded by farms and the line of sand-dunes, which ran parallel to the sea. A variety of jumping was ensured by this choice of country, the farm fences being of every shade of height, breadth, and solidity. Sound and springy was the turf. If the dingo, when turned down, took the cross country line towards Tower Hill, he was likely to lead us a dance, unless he found refuge in one of the wombat holes with which the ferny slopes, breast high in bracken, abounded.

It must have been ten o'clock or thereabouts when Mr. Lord, arrayed in the well-worn pink, cords, tops, and hunting-cap complete, conducted the spotted beauties across the ford of the Moyne. Within an hour all the Port Fairy world—among which half-a-dozen riding-habits showed that the ladies were not willing to be left out of the excitement—was gathered around. The Australian Reynard, all-ignorant that his imported compeer was, in after-years, to be a prize for scalp-hunters, had been liberated previously, with a due allowance of law, and on a line which involved a reasonable share of fencing. After a preliminary cast or two, the leading hounds hit off the scent, and with a burst of melody which caused more than one of us to anticipate the sensations of Mr. Jorrocks, away went the flower of the horsemen of the western district, riding rather jealous, it must be admitted, but not to be stopped by anything under a six-foot stock-yard fence.

It was a scene to be remembered. The blue sky, the green sward, sound and springy as a cricket-ground, the limitless ocean plain, the long resounding surge, the eager hounds, the medley of horsemen now slightly tailing off, as the pack raced with a breast-high scent towards the volcanic crest of Tower Hill.

Many were the falls, various the fortunes, of those who followed hounds that day. Every man rode as if the honour, firstly, of his station, of the district afterwards, were centred in him personally. It was before the Traveller days, so that the Dunmore triumvirate were mounted on steeds that, though good of their kind and well-bred (for they always went in for blood), were not quite up to the form of St. George and Trackdeer, Triton or Jupiter. William Campbell rode a roan, Houndsfoot, five years old; and Macknight, I believe, his grand old mare Die Vernon—one of those brilliant all-round goers that you couldn't put wrong.

I rode my favourite black mare Tanny, the dam of Hope, Clifton, Red Deer, and Comanchee—the first three winners in the aftertime either on the flat or 'over the sticks.' She could both jump and gallop, as I must show when I have time.

I regret that I cannot supply details anent this almost prehistoric run. I recall The Caliph sailing over everything and taking all manner of fences, from 'chock and log' to stiff three-railers, in his stride. Freedom would probably be running away as usual, being a horse that no mortal man could hold for the first mile. Alick Hunter and his brother, doubtless, were there or thereabouts; and Robert Clerk of Mummumberrich (the M.F.H. in time to come) was forward enough with Rocket in spite of weight over the average. It was pretty straight going. We were used to risks by flood and field. Ordinary stock-riding was hardly safer than this or any other run with hounds. Matters were prosperous, and everybody was looking forward to a first-class run, when 'the devil or some untoward saint' put it into our quarry's head to double back as nearly as possible along the line upon which he had come.

We had the satisfaction of taking nearly the same jumps over again, when, lo and behold! dingo, apparently bent on self-destruction, made across the hummocks, and charging the Pacific Ocean as if he meant to cross over to Tasmania, swam gaily out to sea. As he reached the surf the desperate pack raced down to the beach, where they sniffed and circled in unwonted doubt and desperation. Eventually Reynard found the enterprise disproportionate to his powers, and, swimming back, reached the beach in a state of exhaustion. The hounds were whipped off, however, and Old Tom and his bag being again called into requisition, the sheep-killer was reserved for another and perhaps a straighter run.

The day but half done. We had therefore leisure as we rode homeward* for a considerable amount of general chaff and criticism, which resulted, as usual, in wagers and a match or two.

Now my friend James Irvine of Dunmore had been riding the racing pony Skipjack, a very perfectly-shaped grey with a square tail, such being the mistaken fashion of that day and, I grieve to say, of the later one. He was an acknowledged flier, and having won races at Flemington (or the Melbourne Course as it was then called) was thought too good for anything in the provinces. I had always considered my black mare to be fast, but as she was wholly untried it might have been only the fond fancy which a man has for his favourite. Still I believed in her. It ended in my challenging the redoubtable Skipjack for a mile spin on the following day, present riders up.

The odds were against me, inasmuch as the mare was off grass and, excepting on this occasion, had not seen oats for months. She was not even shod, whereas her antagonist was, if not in training, in hard stable condition. Like many of the best hacks of those days he had been bred in Tasmania. He showed Arab blood, and probably owed his speed and strength to that ancient race. Tanny, on the other hand, was a Sydney-sider by extraction, her dam being brought over in 'Howie's mob,' one of the earliest lots of horses driven overland. I saw them sold in a cattle-yard, then standing at the corner of Bourke and Swanston Streets. Mr. Purves senior afterwards occupied the cottage built there, for I remember him showing me Banker in the stable. Dr. Campbell lived there afterwards. A similar sale in the same spot would excite astonishment now in any given forenoon.

So it was an intercolonial contest. More than this, it was all Eumeralla against the Hopkins, inasmuch as Mr. Rodger abode at Merang, while the Dunmores and I rode home towards the setting sun from Port Fairy. Old Tom, a veteran in the pigskin and a judge of pace, told his friends that 'Tanny was the divil's own mare to pull, but if the masther could hould her the first half mile, she'd give Skipjack his work to do at the finish.' A trifle of speculation resulted, the odds being tempting. James Irvine was a well-known workman on the flat and a light weight. Bets were taken accordingly, and a book or two made in a small way. When on the morrow the entire population of the district turned out to see the races, and when, ours being the first, we did the customary pipe-opener, the leading artists at Goodwood or Ascot felt less pride, possibly less desperate determination.

Down went the flag and off went we. With much ado mastering the mare's wild impulse to bolt, as she had done many a time before in company, I lay well up to my friend, but allowed him to make the pace. He made it a cracker accordingly, hoping to run me out—his obvious line with a slower or untrained horse. But I bided my time. The mare knew me well and gradually steadied down to the work, and when a safe distance from home I made my effort and landed the good, game animal a winner by a neck, I felt, amid cheers, congratulations, and smiles, as if earth had no higher glories to offer, life no brighter joys. 'Bedad, she's a reat mare intirely,' said Old Tom as he led her away. ' I wouldn't say but she'd win the Maiden Plate if we thrained her. There's an iligant course at the Native DogHole.' This suggestion was not followed up. Though passionately fond of horses, I was a practical person in those days, eschewing all connection with public racing on principle.

There were other races, a Hack Scurry among them, then a highly-enjoyable picnic lunch, after which the principal event of the day, the steeplechase, was to come off. A fair hunting line had been marked, including among others a solid 'deadwood' fence. For this race there were a dozen starters more or less, and great was the excitement. The black mare and I were among them, I know—the morning's exercise not being considered of sufficient importance to keep us out of it.

The Caliph was thought too good for the company, and was therefore not entered by his owner. Macknight and Bob Craufurd, Fred Burchett and I, Neil Kennedy and Dick Rutledge, with some others of the old set, were duly marshalled in line and started. It was on that occasion, during some preparatory schooling, that Neil made his famous reply to Norman M'Leod, who, himself a fine horseman and steeplechase jock, scandalised at Neil's loose riding, thus expostulated—

'Look here, Kennedy, why don't you lift your horse at his fence?'

'Lift be d—d,' returned Neil in desperation; 'I've quite enough to do to hold on.'

Neil was utterly fearless, a sort of Berserker horseman, ready to ride any sort of horse at any manner of leap, of any height, breadth, or stiffness; but he was not famous for adherence to the pig-skin. Falls, many or few, made no difference in his willingness to try his luck again. If he did not break his neck, practice would make him perfect in time. So, accordingly, Neil faced the starter on a hard puller, full of faith in his star, and confident in future triumphs.

The first fence was wide and high, composed of brush-timber and more or less negotiable, so we sailed over in line in a gallant and satisfactory way. The next was reasonable. Then came our rasper, the dead-wood fence, a kind of wooden wall, raised to nearly five feet, and composed of logs, stumps, and roots of trees, piled horizontally after a compact and unyielding fashion.

Freedom, with Dick Rutledge up, leading by a dozen lengths, flew it without altering stride. Bob Craufurd was over next. Neil Kennedy and I racing for a place charged it, when his horse, hitting it hard, performed a complete somersault, balancing himself for a moment on the broad of his back, and sending Neil flying so far ahead that there was as little danger of his being crushed as likelihood of his being in the race afterwards.

The majority were fairly up at the finish: three made a creditable struggle for second place; but Freedom, a fast two-miler, won the race from end to end, and taking all his leaps without baulk or mistake was never challenged.

So ended the second day's sport. Sport indeed, was it not? How little the faint copies of recreation, misnamed pleasure, resemble it nowadays! As we went home the tide was in, the ford deep, with a fair swim in the midstream, which was the reason I chose to take the short cut I suppose, thus letting off the exuberance of youthful spirits as well as directing certain bright eyes towards myself and the mare as we breasted the broad water.

The remainder of the day but sufficed to see all the horses properly looked to, after their exciting day, in the loose-boxes or improvised stabling which 'The Merrijig,' when put on its metal, was enabled to supply; afterwards a dinner, which, if the cooking was not quite equal to that of the 'Trois Frères Provencaux ' or the Café Riche, was more thoroughly enjoyed. Lastly came the needful preparation for the ball. The ladies who had come into town specially for the affair were accommodated at Mr. Rutledge's hospitable mansion or other private houses. This was just as well, as the modified communism which extended to shirt collars, ties, boots and shoes, indeed to all wearing apparel whatever, involved so much rushing in and out of rooms that awkward contretemps must inevitably have occurred.

The music was that of a piano—a really good one—lent for the occasion, and the new dining-hall of the hotel, then constructed by way of addition, properly draped and lighted, made a commodious and effective ballroom.

Would that I could have photographed the costumes displayed that evening—among us men of course. Ladies always manage to be becomingly arrayed under whatever contradictory circumstances. It was not so easy in our stage of civilisation—recently emerged from the pioneer epoch—to provide irreproachable raiment. Few possessed the accredited articles; fewer still bore them about when travelling.

I can hear the waltz now, and see the lady who played, as with one rapt glance I took in the situation on entering the room, for I had my toilette troubles to overcome, and was a trifle late. What did we dance in those days, more than fifty years agone? The trois temps and hop waltzes, the galop, quadrilles, lancers; I think there must have been reels, Scots being in the majority. But no polka, no deux temps or 'military' waltz, no Highland or other schottische, certainly no Washington Post. That sounds a tame programme, doesn't it? Still we danced and talked, nay, even flirted, very much as people do nowadays, and enjoyed ourselves generally, more, far more, than the comparatively languid moderns. It must have looked something like a hunt ball, though a slightly unconventional one, inasmuch as those who were conscious of correct riding toggery elected to sport it. Every variety of rig, in coats, shirts, collars and ties, boots and shoes, from tops to feminine stuff- boots (and not bad things on a pinch), adorned the main body. The supper was welcomed as the crowning glory of the evening. Healths were proposed, speeches were made, dancing was resumed with additional spirit, and daylight found us still unsated—ready, indeed, to begin the programme da capo. Prudence and the counsels of the aged, as represented by the infrequent paterfamilias, however prevailed, and the patriotic melody having sounded, there was an end to joy unconfined for the present. Everything had been a triumphant success. No awkwardness of any sort had occurred, if we may except an impromptu tableau vivant—a pretty housemaid fleeing Ariadne-like into the ladies' dressing-room, closely pursued by an enterprising youngster, who did not discover, until too late, the awful presence which he had invaded. A wrathful senior declined to see the classic appositeness of the incident, and muttered threats of vengeance dire; but upon Bacchus being adroitly suggested to be in fault, as of old, he was gradually appeased. And so with laugh and jest, and many a pleasant memory to cherish, we fared homewards next day from the First Port Fairy Hunt.