Bedtime Stories: R. S. Surtees

Felix asleep

An occasional series in which we offer a pleasant “good night” to our readers, courtesy of hunting literature. Sweet dreams!

“Riding one day along the Calais road, I heard the unwonted cry of hounds, and, pulling up to listen, presently saw a slipshod-looking hare cross before me at a leisurely pace, as if she were not in any great fear of her pursuers. The hounds soon came yap-yapping, yough-youghing up under the cheering influence of a portly elderly gentleman in a lowish-crowned hat with a green frock coat and topboots, riding a good-looking bay horse. His servant, similarly attired, was also well mounted. Field there was none.

“It was a hot, very sunny afternoon, and there was a very bad scent. The hounds dwelt and hesitated a good deal at the road. ‘She’s across,’ at length cried I, jerking my head the way she had gone. ‘Thank you!’ replied the sportsman, holding them over, when they again took up the scent at a very languid pace, which presently ended in a general surrender. Puss was reprieved.

“This gentleman was Mr. Sackville Cresswell, a native, I believe, of Wiltshire–a gentleman accustomed to his comforts, of which a pack of hounds was one. They were chiefly dwarf foxhounds from Mr, afterwards Sir Henry, Oxenden’s kennel in Kent; and he had some seven or eight showy horses, which he kept constantly recruiting by importations from England. Indeed he was a patron of the Turf as well as the Chase, and had established a villa and what he called a race-course in a sort of rabbit-warren among the sand-hills at an out-of-the-way place named Hardelot, near the coast, some seven or eight miles to the west of Boulogne.  And here there was just going to be a great gathering. All the hacks in Boulogne were engaged, and entered for some real or imaginary stake.

“I, of course, went, and was much gratified at the way in which the English imported their manners, even down to the betting-post of Newmarket Heath. It had all the attributes of a race-meeting except jockeys and horses–refreshment booths, a band of music, gendarmes, gentlemen and ladies in carriages who had come by the overland route, seeing there was no regular road to the place. The worthy promoter was an equestrian, despising wheels.

“The course, which formed two sides of a square with an acute turn over a sand-bed, had a pond in the middle and a high sand-hill just beyond the winning-post, into or up which the intrepid horsemen could cool or burst their refractory steeds.

“The beauty of the sport was, of course, its extreme badness, but, as in all amateur performances, the actors are thoroughly satisfied, so the Boulogne gentlemen were well pleased with their equestrian exhibition; and at the close of the splendid sunshiny day Mr. Cresswell announced that his hounds would meet there at half-past ten o’clock on the following morning–being the 13th of August!

“I need not say that the crops in France were all garnered at that date; still, hunting on the 13th of August sounds rather oddly to English ears. As has been shown, however, this was by no means the first day of the season with Mr. Cresswell’s hounds. Unfortunately the promised meet did not take place. While at the zenith of his fame and apparent inexhaustibility of riches, there came a sudden collapse, and the worthy gentleman was walked off to what the French facetiously call the Hotel d’Angleterre, from the circumstances that it was chiefly inhabited by our countrymen–viz., the Boulogne gaol for debt. This, too, at the beginning of his hunting season. Though Mr. Cresswell was in daily expectation of large remittances from England, somehow they never came, and his continued incarceration seemed highly probable.

“Now a pack of hounds is of no more use to a gentleman in gaol than a riding-master to the Doge of Venice, as Geoffrey Gambado says; and the hounds, in stable parlance, were eating their heads off. At length Mr. Cresswell gladly gave them to Colonel, afterwards General, Charitte and myself, to be converted into a subscription pack.

“We encountered a little difficulty at the outset. The before-mentioned servant in green having bolted, nobody knew the name of a single hound, and as we could not bring the late owner to the hounds, we were obliged to take the hounds to him at the Hotel d’Angleterre to be christened. This we did in detachments of five couple, and were very courteously received by the gaoler, who conducted us upstairs to the late master’s apartment, who gave us the names.”

From Robert Smith Surtees, Creator of ‘Jorrocks,’ 1803-1864 by Robert S. Surtees and E. D. Cuming (1924)

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