Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/A day with the Christchurch Drag

RECOLLECTIONS OF OXFORD.
A DAY WITH THE CHRISTCHURCH DRAG.

alt = A hunter on horseback is confronted by an angry man on foot, the owner of the land he is trespassing on, while behind him the squire’s men lock into the stable the man who has been laying the drag trail

CHAPTER I.

Although I dearly loved my uncle, the Prebendary, and honour his memory with a true respect, I am thankful that he only paid me one brief visit—on the occasion of his taking his doctor’s degree—during my pleasant years at Oxford. My uncle was just a thought too fond of Greek to be really good company for us undergraduates, and he had an uncomfortable habit of alluding to the class list, which to hunting men was almost offensive. I blushed when he asked Phil Hunter, of Oriel, who had just performed the unprecedented feat of winning the Aylesbury Steeple Chase, and being plucked for his Little Go the same week, what he thought of Peile’s “Agamemnon?” Nor did Philip at all alleviate my distress by inquiring, in reply, whether “Agamemnon was one of the colonel’s[1] young ’uns?” and whether my uncle knew “what he was by?”

Furthermore, the announcement of his coming caused me great expense and inconvenience in re-arranging my apartments. My favourite terriers must be driven from their snug retreat in “the study,” to the uncertain diet and coarse society of some dog-merchant’s yard. Highly-coloured delineations of “the cracks of the day,” and “the pets” of the evening, both performing miracles of saltation, must be taken down and concealed. The roulette table; the travelling cigar-chest, oak, bound with brass,—robur et æs triplex,—and “just holding a fortnight’s supply, sir, between three and four pounds;” the musical box—it has never recovered its original tone since that wild O’Brien would give it some preserved ginger for playing “Ah, non giunge” so “awfully jolly;”—the well-peppered target for puff-and-dart; the battledores and shuttlecocks; the devils-on-two-sticks: even the cornopean, which everybody loved, except, perhaps, the mathematical tutor,—(on one occasion he so far forgot himself as to rush out of his room, and inquire from the landing, “What lunatic was ill-treating that wretched horn?”—but there never was a mathematician yet with a soul); all these must be removed, and in their place must be set out the obsolescent reading desk, and dusty dictionaries, the solemn paraphernalia of a “sap.”

But, in spite of all my forethought and preparations, I came to signal grief. One morning we were sitting at breakfast (such a breakfast! no grills, no tankards, no top-boots on the hearth-rug), my uncle was deploring the decease of some German commentator, whose name I had not previously heard, and I was lamenting the much more palpable loss of my matutinal bit o’ baccy, when there came an ominous single knock at the door; and as, in accordance with my invitation, that door opened, I shuddered to acknowledge the presence of one whom of all men else I should least have wished my uncle to meet—I knew that my visitor was Billy Bouquet.

Ah, me! that door, I say, no sooner moved upon its hinges, than there entered the apartment, and the nostrils of my kinsman simultaneously, a most definite stink of aniseed, accompanied by various attendant smells, which gradually asserted their own identity, and represented with a cruel faithfulness the dogs, and the ferrets, and the rats, and the vermin generally, from whom they freshly came. ‘I am not the rose,’ said the perfumed earth in the Persian fable, ‘but cherish me, for we have dwelt together.” Billy might have said as much of his badger. And I shall never forget my uncles face, as he sat with his head erect, like the stag ere he left Glenartney, and snuffed the tainted gale.

Billy Bouquet, or, as he was called by undergraduates who were shy of French, Sweet William, somewhat resembled in personal symmetry Mr. Robson’s “Boots at the Swan.” His head, which gave one the painful idea of having been sadly overgrazed by his rats, was screened from the inclemencies of our fickle climate, and made symbolical at the same time of his avocations and attachments, by a memorial cap from the epidermis of a deceased bull-dog, of whom he was wont to remark, in all seriousness, that “he’d always know’d that his dog Beerhouse” (archæologists assure me that his original name was Cerberus) “was a sight too good for this world.” His neckerchief had once been scarlet—a præ-Raphaelite, vivid scarlet—but time and perspiration had done their silent work, and it was now a peaceful brick colour. His coat and vest of velveteen (the bronze buttons chastely relieved with foxes’ heads in the last stage of inflammation) were noticeable for their vast infinity of pockets, one of which, inside the coat, I verily believe would have held a calf. The rest of his person was clad in kingly cord; and of his legs have only to say, that he was the very last person whom you would have selected to stop a pig in a gate, for the obvious reason that the animal in question would most undoubtedly have run between them.

Once upon a time, some good young men had originated a most benevolent scheme for deodorising Billy Bouquet; and he was actually induced to have a bath on account, and to attire himself in a change of raiment. But “that day there was dole in Astolat;” and he came next morning in his old clothes to the chief promoter of the plan, tendering the vestments which he could not wear, in a bundle to that cock-philanthropist, and declaring, almost in tears, that “the boys howled at him, and that” (here the speaker was visibly affected) “the badger did not know him!” And our sole resource and remedy from that time, whenever we required an interview, was to fill his short pipe with the strongest tobacco at hand, and to place him at the furthest possible distance at which conversation was practicable.

But he sees now, as he stands under my lintel, with a knuckle lifted up to his right eye-brow (his idea of ordering himself lowly and reverently to all his betters), that this is no time for a colloquy, and after one short sentence he is gone:

“Tu, to-morrow, if you please, sir, Betts’s Bottoms.”

I murmured something about “College rat-catcher,” and expressed a conviction that “the fellow was drunk;” but it was quite evident that my uncle, figuratively as well as literally, “smelt a rat;” and he told me subsequently, when I had left Oxford, and he no longer felt it a duty to play the Don for my improvement, that he had never experienced greater difficulty in maintaining a dignified deportment.

 

CHAPTER II.

My uncle left the University next morning in a new shovel hat and gaiters (the avuncular legs were particularly neat, and my aunt had always yearned in spirit for that day when the world might see them); and punctually at “tu” of the clock I arrived at Betts’s Bottoms. Betts was a jovial, generous farmer, who lived some three miles out of Oxford, and who not only allowed us every now and then to have “a lark” over his fences, but gave us the best of good ale afterwards from a silver tankard, which he valued dearly, the gift of sporting undergraduates. The Bottoms were some low pastures at the outskirts of his farm, and were the rendezvous on this occasion for the followers of the Christ Church “Drag.” M. Bouquet, trailing the usual rabbit, well-steeped in aniseed, though he scarcely required any additional perfumery to secure the attentions of the pack, had been despatched over the stiffest country to be found; and the hard-riding Oxonians were gathering fast for the fun. In velvet hunting caps, short loose coats, designed for the Drag expressly by Mr. Bennett, blameless inexpressibles, and lustrous tops, they come into the field upon every species of the comprehensive genus horse, from my lord’s two hundred guinea hunter, superb and glorious in his silky sheen, to the sorry screw, the discarded of some racing stud, who was out yesterday with the Heythrop, and is engaged tomorrow for Drake’s. But every rider is as confident and cheery as though he were mounted upon Old Lottery; and there is laughter, honest and hearty, albeit the words which move it may be boisterous rather than brilliant. Exempli gratiâ:

“Percy, receive my sincere congratulations on having accomplished the ascent of that fine giraffe. Did you begin to mount him yesterday, or the day before? You’ll come down, I suppose, by parachute; though I really think, if you could get him to kneel, that you might alight on the leads of the college. Just look over that wood in the direction of Oxford, and tell us the time by St. Mary’s clock.”

“Frank, how can you, with your love of translations, look so happy and at ease on that destroyer of ‘cribs?” Q. E. D.

And even if our proposition be not proven, there must be silence now. The master of the Drag has collected according to custom a purse from the non-subscribers, and the hounds are brought into the field. Inspect them now, if you wish to do so, for you will see them no more to-day in anything like proximity. Fastidious indeed must that man be who cannot here find something to his taste, for no two of the five couple are at all alike. Here you have none of that monotonous uniformity which makes it so difficult to distinguish ordinary foxhounds, but every member of the pack, from that huge mastiff-like hound, which they sent us from the Old Berkshire, to that light little harrier from Bradley Farm, has a distinct individuality and character. But why dwell upon mere appearances? Two or three of them can go like the wind, and the others add materially to the excitement by making a good deal of noise, especially when they are ridden over, a not unfrequent catastrophe. The former will run out the Drag, and be taken home in triumph; the latter will find their way, sometime before midnight, to M. Bouquet’s chateau in the Slums, half-drowned, and maimed, and weary.

They hit the scent now, and stream away at speed. The first few fences are easy enough today, and all get over nearly in line. Now there is a formidable post and rail, which says plainly noli me tangere, and some of our party slacken their pace. Hark! there is a crashing sound, as though twenty wickets went down at once to the fast bowling of Jackson, and a couple of steeds gallop onwards riderless. Gentlemen in the rear press gratefully to the welcome fissures, and on goes the Drag.

On, swiftly over the springing turf, and steadily through the heavy plough, never swerving at wood or water, bullfinch or stile, stone-wall or stake-and-bound; on goes the Drag. An agriculturist invites us pressingly to stop, and to discuss our right to “ride over folks’ land like Beelzebubs;” some labourers salute us with a harmless discharge of turnips; but on goes the Drag. On, but how changed! Steeds came down at that horrid double, where the bank was burrowed like a spunge; three, pumped in that humid fallow, dropped short in the drain which bounded it; and from other sorrowful causes only seven out of a field of twenty (two miles gone over) are with the hounds.

And now “we few, we happy few” (for though it may not be sport, and must not be called so, it is certainly glorious fun!) rushing at full speed through a high, black-looking fence, which holds the lighter ones for a while as it were weighing them, come into a large open pasture of level and elastic sward. It need be even and elastic, for half-way across is the brook, deep and dangerous, with something like eight yards of water. My horse sees it now, and cheers my fluttering heart with a strong attempt to quicken his pace, as though he longed to be over. But I keep him well together at a moderate gallop, till we come within some five-and-twenty yards of those broad waters, so dark and cold, and then, rushing at his leap in all his strength and speed, he is over, and I am patting my brave, dear horse, in an ecstasy of gratified pride!

Looking back upon the chase, I see Percy coming next on Giraffe, in very workmanlike form; but the big brute loses heart at the last moment, desires to refuse but cannot, and, jumping short, lands his rider on the bank, and then slips back into the stream. Percy kept his hold of the reins; and I shall not readily forget the face of his quadruped, raised to the firmament as though in earnest supplication, while he tugged away with one hand, and applied his hunting-whip with the other—in vain. This unhappy precedent was fatal. The crib-biter stopped with a startling suddenness, and poor Frank looked as if he was playing at leap-frog as he bounded off into the stream, a regular case of “stand and deliver;” the rest either got in or refused; and, for the first and only time in my life, I had an undisputed monopoly of the Christ Church Drag!

On I went exulting, and without stop or stay, until, after jumping a hedge and ditch into a lane, we—my pack of four and I—came suddenly to a check. Concluding that, of course, the Drag was onwards, as Sweet William had very severe injunctions to avoid all highways and byways, I was about to charge the opposite fence with a view to casting forward, when the hounds took up the scent down the lane, and were off again at full speed. I could not understand it, but I was bound to follow. Presently we came to a neat white gate, then, to my increasing surprise, into a park-like enclosure; galloping across it to a gravelled road, which led us through plantations and shrubberies; until turning suddenly, and going at full swing, we found ourselves all at once within the portals of a stable-yard!

 

CHAPTER III.

Bolt the yard doors, Crupper, and lock up the coach-house,” were the first words which I heard on entrance, and these roared with such amazing volume, that my horse positively shied at them.

Væ Victis!” In a corner of that coach-house stood, if anything so limp and drooping could be said to stand, poor little Billy Bouquet,—a piteous contrast to his happy hounds, who, in their guileless ignorance of evil, were leaping joyfully upon him, and could not understand his grief! Solemnly and slowly, the huge folding-doors were closed by two keepers upon the unhappy captive; and Mr. Crupper, the groom, having previously cut off my retreat, locked them, and put the key in his pocket.

Then I turned in the direction whence the word of command had issued, and boldly fronted the foe. He was a handsome, military man, six feet, and sixty; and I ought to have been frightened, I know I ought. But when a young fellow of twenty has been successfully showing to the University of Oxford the way over a big brook, he is very apt to be flushed and thoughtless, and to have a strong distaste for that humble pie, which his own imprudence has made and baked for him. Accordingly, I regret to say, I lost no time in inquiring, “What the (two of cards) he meant by such ungentlemanlike behaviour?”

Ate and Alecto, what a rage he was in!

“Hear him, hear him!” he exclaimed, turning to his servants, (I remember that the under-keeper touched his hat assentingly, and was sneered at for so doing by Mr. Crupper): “don’t lose a word from this fine young gentleman, who has kindly ridden all the way from Oxford to teach us how to behave. I trust, sir, that you have brought your Catechism with you, and that you will edify us with a dissertation on our ‘Duty towards our Neighbour.’ ‘What do I mean, sir?’ By the Lord Harry,” (he made frequent reference to this nobleman, who was, I suppose, an influential friend), “what do you mean by sending your stinking friends across my estates, sir, and galloping over my wheat, sir, with those mangy curs? Won’t you take a canter with that,” (he tried hard, but could find no fault with my steed), “with that borrowed beast of yours, into the gardens, and have a turn in the conservatory? By the (usual nobleman), I’ll write to the Dons, sir, I will, and have you disgraced. And as for your delightful playmate in the coach-house, sir, I’ll have him fumigated with cayenne and brimstone, sir, and when he’s sweet enough, he goes to jail. There is my card, sir; I want yours.

“Sir,” I replied, meekly, for I apprehended mischief, “I am extremely sorry that the Drag should have been brought over your property, and I am quite sure that Lord Augustus Plantagenet” (I brought out the title with much dignity of intonation, anticipating a great impression), “who is the manager of it, will offer any apology or reparation in his power. His lordship, I am confident, will lose no time in calling upon you. Meanwhile, I trust, sir,” giving him my card, “you will overlook my intrusion, and pardon my words. I am not in very good odour with the College authorities—”

“Good odour, sir!” he replied. “I should as soon expect a foumart to be in good odour, as a man who mixed himself up with this—this putrid amusement. And you may tell Master Gussy from me, sir,” (that was a finisher, that Master Gussy), “that if he don’t mind, I’ll write to the Duke, sir, from whose house I have just returned, and have him whipped when he goes home for the holidays, and rests awhile from his refined and arduous studies. You shall hear from me shortly, sir. I wish you good morning. Crupper, give me the key of the coach-house, and open the yard doors.”

He was gone, “iracundus, inexorabilis, acer;” and there was nothing for it but to return to Oxford, and convoke my friends in council. So forth I rode, pensively and slowly, musing on the mutabilities of life, and upon the consoling influence of Mr. Hudson’s weeds.

I had not achieved a mile of the homeward route, when I heard a clattering of hoofs behind, and a voice calling me to stop.

“The General’s compliments,” says Mr. Crupper, cantering up on a pony, “and will be glad to see you, sir, if you please, immediate.”

Come, thought I, this sounds cheerier by several octaves; and back I went, hopeful, but wondering.

You will readily imagine how my surprise culminated and my spirits rose, when the General, coming to me through those most awful doors, seized me by the hand, and, looking me earnestly in the face, vociferated,

“By the Lord Harry, sir, how’s your father? Get off, get off, and take care of the horse, Crupper. Your father, sir, is one of my oldest and dearest friends, though I have not seen him since I came from India. If I had known you were his son, as I know it from this card,” (it had my country address upon it), “by (the usual nobleman) you might have jumped in at the drawing-room windows, sir, and run that odoriferous rascal to ground in the best bed!”

How I relished his “rent-day” ale! too strong for any human beings, save the undergraduate and the British yeoman. How many happy hours did I afterwards pass at his pleasant home, in the good old times, when men kept their port! How many scores of pheasants have I bagged in his broad woods!

But Billy Bouquet could never forgive himself for being “caught and trapped like a stoat,” (very like a stoat, the General would have said); and the subsequent behaviour of the under-keeper seemed to trouble him even more than the capture. “I ain’t partickler proud,” he would say, “but when I see that blackguard with the black whiskers a taking on hisself a horfice of which he know’d nothing, and a trailing of the Drag down that ’ere lane to deceive them innocent dogs, I could a punched his ’ed with the biggest o’ pleasure, and I should ’a punched it, if t’other elephant hadn’t been so illconvenient handy.”

H.

 

  1. Colonel, now General Peel.


[[Category:Reminiscences