Friday, 21 November 2014

NaNoWriMo 2014 - Week 3

To say that I was perturbed by this turn of events would be the understatement of all understatements.  Deeply rattled wouldn't even come close.  In fact, I'm not at all sure there is a word or phrase that would adequately describe how I felt as I stumbled back to my room and fell into the uncomfortable Venetian throne beside my fireplace, where I sat staring at my shoes in a dazed manner.

"Twenty minutes until the second gong, my lord," Pond came in a few minutes later, no doubt wondering what had become of me.

"Right-oh," I said, but didn't move.

"Are you unwell, my lord?"

"No, I suppose not."

"Can I help?" he asked, coming around in front of me to look into my face,  I suppose something in my voice alarmed him.

"I don't see how," I looked up at him.

"You can tell me about it while we're getting dressed," he put out his hand to get me out of the chair.

"I don't think I can," I said, taking his hand and standing up, "I don't think I can say it aloud."

"Shall I send word that your lordship is ill and can't come down to dinner?"

"No, I guess I'll get dressed," I went into the dressing-room and started peeling off my tweeds like a sleepwalker.  I was so shocked I couldn't even think about how shocked I was; my mind was humming like an engine, the thoughts like pistons going up and down so fast that I couldn't hear one separate from another.

I went down to the drawing-room and got a couple of cocktails into me, which seemed to numb the turmoil just enough that I was able to talk and walk around like a normal person—or so I assume, since nobody asked me if there was something wrong or if I was feeling ill, as Pond had done. I had no memory of walking or talking, nor of going in to dinner and eating a meal, but I must have done.

Excusing myself from the drawing room at the earliest polite moment, I went back upstairs and sat staring at the fire in my dressing-room until Pond showed up to undress me, ages and ages later.  And as I sat there, I kept ricocheting between the two columns of thought that had emerged from the chaos over the last couple of hours: Must I? and Can I?

Obviously, I had no legal obligation to give Jingo anything; but did I even have a moral obligation?  None of the people in that house was a relative, or a schoolfellow, or even a friend of long standing.  In fact, the only person at Verevale with any such claim on my loyalty was Jingo himself.  

On the other hand, I did like most of the people there, and would happily become friends of long standing with them, particularly those whose photographs I'd be buying from Jingo.  I hated to think of what being blackmailed would do to them: it would dim that wonderful light of eager conquest in Michael's bright and handsome face; it would introduce a note of shame and fear to Lavinia's and Abigail's long-standing friendship; and imagine the squalid things poor Rupert would have to do for Jingo and Dotty, since he didn't have a penny to bless himself.

I have been taught to believe that if one can be of assistance, one must be of assistance.  I could save a half-dozen or so people from the emotional and financial distress of blackmail; I could certainly cough up twenty thousand guineas without breaking the bank, and easily spend the night with a man I'd already had a hundred times already: therefore I must save that half-dozen or so people.

But then there was the problem of Dotty, which brought me immediately to the Can I? column of my worries.  I knew perfectly well that I could sleep with Jingo, my body's reaction to his nudity earlier showed that I still wanted him despite how much I'd come to dislike him.  But how could I possibly allow myself to be intimate with Dotty?  It would feel like I was cheating on Caro, for one thing; for another, it would debase to a sordid expedient something that I considered my proud duty to the Saint-Clair heritage.  And could I even perform with Dotty?  I had no idea, I'd never tried anything like it.

Mightn't that, on the other hand, be a good reason to try it with Dotty?  I mean, wouldn't it be better to know if I was actually capable of the act before I got married?  On the other other hand, though, wouldn't my feelings for Dotty make being with her an entirely different sort of experience to being with Caro?  Were the two acts even comparable?  Again, I had no idea.

The bottom line was that the very idea of laying a finger on Dotty Faringdon terrified me right out of my skin.  But since my objection to Dotty seemed to be made more of fear than any real moral or practical considerations, and since it had been drummed into my head since infancy that a Saint-Clair never allows fear to turn him from a necessary task, I began to feel that it was practically my duty to go through with it.

That was a very energising thought: my duty.  It actually helped me pull the complicated dilemma together under one heading, organising the whole mess into one easy to consider (if potentially difficult to perform) responsibility.  I may not like it, I may not want to do it, but the Saint-Clair motto is Fide Sanguinis Fæce, 'Loyal to the Last Drop of Blood.'  And in this case I didn't even have to exsanguinate myself in loyalty to my new friends, I just had to hand over a great wad of money and engage in some probably-not-unpleasant exercise.

I was so bucked up, in fact, that I was able to unburden myself to Pond with the whole story while he was changing my clothes.  He was even less enthusiastic about it than I was, and thought I was an idiot to give in to Jingo's demands; but he at least understood why I felt I had to.  I started to feel like a knight getting put into armour instead of a rather silly toff getting put into pajamas, with my faithful squire by my side and a two-headed dragon waiting out in the arena.  I even imagined a bit of fanfare as I marched off down the corridor to the Queen's Room and knocked at the bedroom door instead of the dressing-room.

"Good evening, Lord Foxbridge. Come in," Wickson opened the door to me and gestured gracefully.  She was very short and squat, with grizzled hair and a creased and oily face like a walnut, a caricature of an old Gypsy woman though faultlessly dressed in a stylish black uniform.  I wondered if she was, in fact, of Romany stock, though domestic service is certainly not the sort of career one finds Gypsies embracing.

"Foxy, darling, you actually showed up," Dotty was lounging elegantly on an ornately feminine couch in the centre of the ornately feminine room, dressed in a gossamer negligée with great feathery cuffs and absolutely nothing on underneath, like a sultry blonde Cleopatra, "I didn't think you would."

"Evening, Dotty," I said tersely, trying to be gracious but missing the mark somewhat.  I had to admit that she was alluring, even to my men-only eyes, as rosy-warm and inviting of caresses as one of those Victorian courtesan paintings you find in the better class of saloon bar; it made me feel rather nervous.

"Ah, here's our brave little soldier," Jingo came in from the bathroom, beautifully draped in a long Arab kaftan of silky gold tissue, nearly as sheer as Dotty's negligée and twice as sexy, "Come to sacrifice himself on the altar of depravity for the sake of his friends."

"Your cheque," I reached into my pocket and produced the long strip of paper, folded discreetly in half.

"Many thanks," he plucked it out of my hand, unfolded and examined it, then walked over to the magnificent Florentine writing-desk up against one wall, "If it makes you feel any better, you're paying for my little brother Georgie's education.  You like Georgie, don't you?"

"Oxford's not that expensive," I said, though it did indeed make me feel better: Jingo's younger brother, Lord George Ponsonby, called Pongo at school as Ponsonbys usually are, was a smaller, prettier, and much sweeter version of Jingo; he fagged for me in his first two years (and my last two years) at Eton, and I was extremely fond of him—an entirely Platonic fondness, I hasten to add, as young Pongo wasn't nearly the tart I was at school.

"He'll need a little income of his own, and a splash of capital when he comes down," Jingo wrote out a fairly lengthy note and folded the cheque inside it, then put it in an envelope and sealed it with his signet ring in red wax, "Massingale, take this down to the post box in the hall, would you?"

"Yes, my lord," the young valet scurried forth from whatever corner of the room he'd been hiding in.  As extravagantly pretty as the boy was, with his golden curls and gleaming complexion, he had nevertheless mastered that knack of blending into the woodwork which marks the best servants.

Wickson went out right after Massingale, leaving me alone with Jingo and Dotty; and they just sat there, Jingo at the desk and Dotty on the couch, staring at me.  Not just staring, either, but smirking at me expectantly, as if waiting for me to do something amusing.

"So, do you come here often?" I laughed nervously, hoping to ease the tension with a joke.

"You're a sweet boy, Foxy," Dotty got up and walked over to me, putting her hands on both sides of my face and kissing me softly on the mouth; her perfume enveloped me in a warm delicious cloud of ginger, vanilla, and cinnamon, like a fresh-baked cake, "I really do wish you were staying, I absolutely adore redheads."

"Here's all the film we took this week," Jingo said, carrying a large and expensive-looking alligator dressing-case with pretty gilt fittings, "I'd appreciate having the case back, it's part of a set."

"You're giving me all of it?" I took the case, which wasn't as heavy as it looked, "Not just the ones I asked for?"

"Not giving, no," Jingo put his arm around my shoulder, and Dotty was still standing close, with only the dressing-case between us, "I'm selling them to you for twenty thousand guineas."

"Wait, you wish I was staying?" I was nearly as confused as I'd been before.

"We don't like unwilling playmates, chum," Jingo kissed me on the cheek and gave my shoulders a friendly little shake, "We just wanted to see how far you'd go."

"You mean, you were just pulling my leg?" I glared at him, "I've been worried to death for the last three hours and you were just kidding?"

"I wanted to knock some of the smugness out of you," Jingo laughed, sliding his hand slowly down my back and letting it rest at the base of my spine, "I won't lie, it's given me enormous pleasure to watch you moping around all evening like Joan of Arc heading for the stake. But I guess I went too far, that's why I'm throwing in the rest of the film, sort of an apology for upsetting you."

"Oh," I couldn't even think of what to say.  Though immensely relieved, I was also oddly disappointed: it's rather jarring to work yourself up to a brave act of self-sacrifice and then find out it's not needed; all that putting-on of armour, all the fanfare and the banners, then the dragon folds his tent and goes home for his tea, "Thank you."

"If you ever change your mind, you're always welcome, Foxy," Dotty said to me, back on her couch with her steamy Cleopatra pose, but her tone gentle rather than provocative.

"Good night, old man," Jingo walked me to the door and let me out into the corridor, giving me another friendly kiss, "Off to your bed of virtue."

"Good night," I replied rather mechanically and went back to my own room, swinging the case thoughtfully as I went.

Honesty bids me admit that I was half-tempted to go back and see what it would be like with the two of them—curiosity is my most defining characteristic, after all.  But the other half wanted to run as fast as I could into my room and Pond's protective sensibility, and that was the half that won the toss.

"They didn't make me stay the night, after all," I told Pond when I came into the dressing-room, where he was still tidying up.

"But they gave you the film you requested?"

"They gave me all of their film!" I said gleefully, "To apologise for teasing me.  Wasn't that sweet?"

"Well, for twenty thousand, I should think they'd throw in a few extras," he said, taking the case from me and putting it on the dressing-table so we could examine its contents, "You could buy a country estate for that kind of money.  Just the film, though, not the cameras?"

"I didn't ask for cameras," I frowned at the idea, "Rather like asking a barber for his razors, what?  Tools of their trade and all."

"And with them, they can just go ahead and take dozens more photographs next week," he pointed out, "Are you going to buy those, too?"

"I didn't think of that," I admitted, peering into the case.  There were about thirty shiny little cans of film rolls in there; if each roll recorded one encounter, there had been quite a lot going on at Verevale Court in the last six days.  There was also a very attractive leather-bound notebook, which contained a long list of paired (and in some cases grouped) initials and dates with a number corresponding to a label on each can of film.  As I expected, ML was the most common monogram on that list, paired at least once with almost every other monogram in the book—if they could hook that boy up to the electricity somehow, they wouldn't need a generator.

"How do we know these are the actual films?" Pond went on, picking up one of the cans and shaking it by his ear, "They might just be random rolls of film."

"I could have them developed to make sure," I suggested, pleased to notice that he hadn't said 'my lord' in quite some time, like the old days when we were just friends, "Though I do believe Jingo gave me the real thing.  He's a criminal, but he's pretty straightforward about it."

"If you say so," he closed the case and took it over to the wardrobe to stow out of sight, "But I shouldn't let you go alone to a negotiation. You always pay the first price anyone asks."

"What's the point of being rich, if you have to haggle like a rag-and-bone man?" I shrugged, "Can you find someplace secure to keep that film?  Jingo wants the case back, and he didn't give me the key."

"Twenty thousand and he can't even spare the packaging?" he shook his head in exasperation; he brought the case back out and transferred the cans into a drawer in the bureau, locked it, and handed me the key, "Better put that on your watch-chain.  But aren't you just going to destroy it all?"

"I suppose I should make sure it is the real thing, first," I said, though the only real reason I wanted to get the film developed was to see what was on it.  Plain old prurient curiosity, of course, but there it is.

"Uh-huh," his tone conveyed just how much he believed my specious rationale, "Will there be anything further, my lord?"

"No, thank you, Pond," I smiled and reached out for his hand, "And really, thank you, Pond.  You've been a real brick tonight."

"One endeavours to give satisfaction, my lord," he smiled back at me and executed a comical little bow after shaking my hand.

I got into bed with my diary, which I had been neglecting of late, and sat up for more than an hour catching it up on my doings.  And nobody dropped in for a visit, so it really was a bed of virtue, as Jingo had said.  I had a hard time getting to sleep, and eventually had to turn the light back on and pick up my book; I didn't feel even remotely virtuous, I just felt lonely.

*****

The morning of the hunt dawned with perfect hunt weather, bracingly cold but not freezing, with a high, thin cloud-cover that softened the shadows without obscuring the light.

"I look amazing!" I gasped when Pond moved out of the way so I could get a load of myself in the cheval glass.  The exquisite black serge hunt-jacket was brand new, just arrived the previous day from Poole's, for which I'd had a lengthy and very thorough fitting when I stopped briefly in London between Bourneham and Verevale.  At the time, sitting for what seemed hours on a saddle in the back of the shop, I'd been bored out of my mind and resented the painstaking measurements; but now with the jacket on, I saw it had been worth every tedious minute.

The Poole hunt jacket had been Pond's idea, intended to distract attention from my having earned neither silver button nor pink coat (I like hunting, but I don't do enough of it to care about my buttons, and I look terrible in bright red).  I usually get my suiting done at Anderson & Sheppard, widely considered the most fashionable of Savile Row tailors, beloved of the Prince of Wales and your better West End headliners; J. Poole & Co., on the other hand, dresses the King, and specialises in officers' uniforms and those ruthless black suits you see in Whitehall and the City.  I mean, my father goes to Poole's, and that's all I needed to know about the place; Pond had to practically drag me in there by the nape of the neck, like a Nanny with a tantrum-throwing child.

But Pond is always right when it comes to clothes: that jacket was a dream, slim and sleek with the most ravishingly crisp shoulders and the smoothest pocket-flaps imaginable, yet immensely comfortable and allowing a full range of movement.  With a high white linen stock, buttery chamois waistcoat, close-fitting cream doeskin breeches, and my best black top-boots polished to a liquid sheen, I looked quite simply divine: a young god of the hunt, Artemis's little brother.

"Very smart, my lord," Pond agreed, his eyes traveling greedily over the faultless lines of the jacket, caressing the shoulder-seams as if he couldn't believe they were real.

"Oi, Foxy," Lord Rupert burst in from next door, sloppily shoved into parts of his riding habit and carrying the other parts in both arms, "I wonder if I might borrow your valet for a minute? All the footmen are downstairs getting the hunt breakfast ready."

"I don't own him, Rupes," I laughed at his comical appearance, his shirt buttoned wrong and his braces dangling, his left sock coming off and flapping on the floor, "You can ask him yourself."

"I would be delighted to assist your lordship in any way I can," Pond bowed and started immediately to work on him, starting with the shirt buttons.

"Oh, thank you...er..." Rupert hesitated, unable to recall my valet's name, though I must have mentioned it before.

"Pond, my lord," he whipped the poorly-laundered stock off Rupert's neck and tossed it fastidiously in my laundry basket, then started wrapping him up in one of my crisp and snowy spares.

"Thanks, Pond.  I say, Foxy, that is a spiffing jacket," of course he was calling me Foxy, now.  No matter how early or often I invite people to call me Sebastian, it just takes one person calling me Foxy and everyone else starts catching it like a cold.  With Jingo and Dotty using the name incessantly, it spread through the house by midweek, and I even overheard servants referring to me by my school nickname.

"Isn't it?  It just arrived from the tailors," I preened at the compliment and tried not to giggle as Pond stood up on tiptoe to knot Rupert's stock.  He's a fairly diminutive chap, Pond, and though I'm only a couple of inches taller than average, he stands comfortably eye-level with my necktie-knot and I can see over the top of his head when he's tying it; but Rupert is a good six or seven inches taller than me, and poor Pond looked like he was trying to hang a window-curtain.

"I'm going to look like I crawled out of a second-hand bin, standing next to you," Rupert said enviously.  His habit was well-cut and of good quality, but had indeed seen better days, and wasn't very well pressed.

"Nonsense, you look quite handsome," I went over to the open box where my jewelry was kept and chose some pieces to give him, having a hard time finding things that didn't have my initials, my crest, a fox, or flashy stones on.  While Pond was busy getting his socks and breech-cuffs sorted out near the floor, I came over and pinned a shiny gold bar with a tiny enameled horse onto his stock, then replaced the plain silk knots in his cuffs with elegant octagonal gold links, "And now just a little bit handsomer.  With my compliments."

"I can't take these," he frowned at the link in his right cuff, "They're from Cartier."

"You don't like Cartier?" I looked at him with surprise. I knew his pride would require a token objection to a valuable gift, but I hadn't expected him to recognise the maker.

"Oh, I like Cartier," he fingered the link thoughtfully, "But they're too expensive."

"Hardly," I dismissed the objection, "I never wear them, and I want you to have them."

"Well, thank you," he sounded touched, though somewhat distracted, as Pond was more or less pushing him into the armchair so he could put the boots on.

"My pleasure," I kissed him on top of the head and went over to the bureau to get my top-hat, threw my gloves and flask into it, and tucked my whip under my arm, "I'm going downstairs, I may actually die if I don't get my breakfast immediately."

When I got down to the dining-room, I discovered that guests were already arriving, and there were a number of strange women scattered about with tea and toast.

"Oh, Lord Foxbridge, how smart you look!" Lady Levondale exclaimed, partly to pay a compliment and partly to alert the new people to my identity.  Out of the entire party, she and the Duchess were the only ones who hadn't taken to calling me Foxy, "Breakfast is a little light this morning, since we'll be eating again in an hour or so."

"A jug of coffee, some toasted bread, and thou," I paraphrased dramatically, going into a sweeping bow to kiss her hand, "O, Wilderness were Paradise enow!"

"Frivolous boy," Lady Levondale giggled delightedly, then started introducing me around, "Have you met Mrs. Feversham? She's our nearest neighbour."

Mrs. Feversham was a stout bird of fifty summers dressed in tweeds so broken-in they didn't appear to be sewn and buttoned together so much as to have grown on her like moss.  Seven other ladies of similar variety and vintage were introduced as well, all near neighbours (or as near as one can get to an estate the size of Verevale), and only one was wearing a riding habit.

"Are you not hunting this morning, Lady Levondale?" I asked, parking myself halfway down the board with my coffee, toast, and a dollop of kedgeree.

"Oh, no, I haven't hunted in years," my hostess replied, shifting her legs uncomfortably, "Not since Michael was born.  So we have a little card party for those who don't hunt, amusing ourselves as best we can while the others are off on the chase."

"That sounds like fun," I lied.  Playing cards with tweedy lumps like Ma Feversham all day sounded dreary in the extreme.

More people were wandering into the house, though most seemed content to mill around in the great hall instead of coming into the dining-room; I felt an odd pressure to bolt down my breakfast and go, especially after Lady Levondale left the room; her place was taken by the lumpiest of the tweed lumps, a Mrs. Tollemache of Summerease Manor whose son was at Eton with me, though I didn't remember him beyond the name--Tollemache can be pronounced so many different ways that it sort of sticks in your head when you find out how any particular Tollemache says his own name (the Tollemaches of Summerease Manor pronounce themselves 'tool-make,' in case you were wondering).  I ate so fast trying to get away from her that I nearly gave myself indigestion.

"Oh, you're not hunting, either, Dotty?" I ran into the marchioness in the doorway, surprised to see her dressed in a skirt and cardigan with some quite handsome pearls.

"My visitor arrived early," she said mysteriously, "Makes the horses jumpy."

"Visitor?" I wondered.

"I forget sometimes how grotesquely innocent you are in the ways of women," she smiled and patted my cheek, "You'll find out when you get married."

"Oh, one of those," I nodded sagely, "I do know enough about women's things to know I'm better off not knowing at all."

"Ah, to be a fly on the wall behind your and Caro's marriage bed," she slid away from me toward the tea-pots, "It'll be like Adam and Eve on their first date, won't it?"

"Probably," I agreed, laughing.

I stopped in the great hall and chatted briefly with a couple of chaps I knew only slightly, a toadlike fellow who'd been at Magdalen and the aforementioned Tollemache who'd been at Eton, and they introduced me to various sisters, uncles, and houseguests in their retinues without any of them making any kind of impression on my memory--no fault of their own, of course, but when everyone is wearing the same thing, and talking about the same thing, you have to be fairly spectacular in the way of personality or looks to stand out.

Since there was nothing more interesting to do, I headed to the stable-yard, going around by way of the chapel-wing instead of the front door, partly to avoid the crush in the courtyard where mounted riders were already congregating and partly to stay indoors for as long as I could.  The grooms were all busy trying to work out the Vandekamps' American saddles, with Chester supervising in a tone of voice that I expect he used on his board of directors when the profits weren't up to snuff, so I saddled Samson myself and got mounted; I gave Chester a cheery halloo and suborned one of the grooms to double-check my buckles before I cantered out of the stable.

The stable-yard was rather chaotic, with several horse-boxes being unloaded and another several being pulled in behind well-traveled estate vans, horses being led and horses being ridden, Verevale grooms mixing with visitors' grooms, and dozens of extraneous boys dashing about trying to fetch and carry without being trampled underfoot.  Through a low tunnel under one of the curved colonnades, I entered the forecourt where the chaos was a little more genteel but just as noisy as people clattered about aimlessly on the cobbles and greeted each-other in voices that echoed off the stone walls.

Milling about in the gathering throng, I encountered a few more people I knew slightly, as well as some of my fellow guests.  Rupert looked exceptionally dapper when he came down and mounted his horse (or rather, one of the Levondales' horses, and not the least of them), Pond had really gone to town on him: his coat and breeches looked fresh-pressed and his slightly broken-down boots looked like they were made of lacquer rather than leather.  Even his hair looked neater and his face brighter under his beautifully brushed topper.

"I think I'll adopt you and bring you to live with me," I told him when I'd come abreast and could talk at a private volume, "just to see how good you look when Pond dresses you."

"I'd let you, Pond is worth sleeping at the foot of some bloke's bed," he laughed. "I'd steal him right away if I could afford him."

Some bloke?  Foot of the bed?  It was probably not meant as a rebuff, but was nevertheless a very clear indication that our tumbles in the tub were but a country-house fling and not to be continued or repeated--or spoken of--after we left Verevale.  I tried not to feel hurt, but I'm a terrible egotist, it breaks my heart when men don't throw themselves at my feet with pledges of undying devotion.

A short time after that, the doors of the Hunt Room were thrown open, revealing a large low-ceilinged chamber on the ground floor where an elaborate hunt breakfast was being served.  I was immediately torn as to whether to dismount and go stuff my gullet or to stay mounted and wait for the footmen to circulate with trays: on the one hand, I was still hungry, and the fruitcakes and toasted cheese circulating weren't going to be enough, plus I really wanted another cup of coffee (I'm not much of one for getting squiffy before lunch, and generally limit myself to a stirrup cup right before we set out, for tradition's sake, and the occasional warming sip at my flask); on the other hand, I hated to get down after I was mounted and before setting off, I always feel oddly naked if I do, like I'd taken off my shoes in public.

My tummy won that toss, though, so I lashed Samson to a stone basket of stone flowers on the balustrade and made my way indoors.  Coddled eggs, a delicious mushroom cream over riced potatoes, three different kinds of sausages, and a big china tankard of hot black coffee filled and warmed me to a rosy glow of contentment; a whispered word to one of the maids serving at the buffet put me in possession of a silver stirrup cup filled with more coffee instead of wine, and I mounted with it just as the hounds arrived from their kennel and started sniffing inquisitively among the horses.

I didn't count at the time, but was later informed that there were seventy-six riders and fifty-eight on foot, which is a pretty impressive turnout--when we have the North Cotswold Hunt at Foxbridge Castle, we seldom got more than thirty in the field, and since Aunt Em and Nanny are avid huntswomen who give no card-parties to entertain nonparticipants, there was hardly anyone on foot.

We were off as soon as the chapel-clock struck eleven, trotting at a good pace about halfway down the drive before turning onto the grass and making for the first covert, a broad copse with a trickly little stream that sat in the crease of two hillocks, through which the hounds went snuffling and yipping, getting no better result than to disturb the birds in the trees.

Without a great deal of standing about, we were off to draw the next covert, about a quarter-mile away on the bank of the river, where it runs deep but slow as it drains out of the dammed lake south of the house.  There was no find there, either, so we crossed the river (the showoffs taking it at a jump while the more sensible riders went two-by-two across a narrow bridge); travelling between coverts, I had a little trouble reining Samson back from the hounds, he seemed to have taken it into his head that he was a racehorse rather than a hunter and was determined to get in front of everybody, including the Master, the hounds, and perhaps even the fox.

We found at the third covert, another quarter-mile away with a shivery stand of lime-trees marooned in the middle of a wide depressed pasture, like a parsley garnish standing in a shallow bowl; a fairly sizable fox burst forth in a flurry of red and brown, making hell-for-leather southwards, apparently aiming for the large spinney visible beyond two streams and a patchwork of hedged pastures.

Then followed an absolutely splendid chase, the hounds heading off the fox before he got to the spinney and running him across just about every hedge and acre of pasture in the park, being balked by the eastern boundary wall at one point and following it along for quite a while until there was a gate onto the Piddinghoe Road, at which some farmers were gathered to watch the fun.

The little crowd frightened the fox back in the other direction across open country again, infinitely better fun than riding alongside a wall; turning back westward, we skirted the bottom of the lake and jumped the Vere two or three times, the last at the narrow bridge by the second covert, where the fox nearly succeeded in going to ground but was diverted again in the direction of the lime-trees from which he'd sprung.

It was a bad move on the fox's part, he ran straight for the trees and was caught only a half-dozen yards from the covert.  I was in at the kill, Samson had kept me at the very head of the field and occasionally forced me to rein him back lest I ride over the hounds, so the whole chase I was close enough to the Master to knock his hat off with my whip (not that I'd do such a thing).  It was rather gruesome, the hounds tearing the fox about a bit, though the death itself was a quick snap of the neck.

I've always felt a certain ambivalence about being in at the kill: I mean, foxes are vermin, and hunting foxes a grand old tradition and a hell of a lot of fun; but my family crest is a fox courant, a lot of my possessions are fox-shaped or have a fox on them somewhere, and my nickname is Foxy, so I have a certain fondness for the creatures as well. Basically, I enjoyed the hunt but the kill left me cold.  And I had never been on so competitive a horse as Samson before, usually finding myself in the middle of the field, so hadn't ever seen the kill so close-up before.

The riders pooled up in the bottom of the pasture and hooted and cheered while three youngsters and one full-grown novice were blooded; those of us with flasks passed the whiskey around, excitedly commenting on the highlights of the chase, which jumps had been most challenging, which of our number had come a cropper somewhere along the course, and how the terrain compared to other hunts anyone had been on.

It had been a pretty long run, and with that and the two failed coverts we'd been out over four hours, so were more than ready for our tea.  The sun broke through the clouds as we turned northeast back to the house, tinting everything in bright gold and sending our shadows ahead of us, and we cantered homeward along an easy route, crossing hedges at their breaks and going through gates instead of jumping the fences.

Arriving back at the house, most of the hunters turned their horses over to grooms for a rub-down in the nice warm stable, but I was feeling very chummy with Samson after such a wonderful chase, so I did the honours myself and fed him an apple or two while I was at it.  And I wasn't the only one, several people (mostly young girls) were brushing and cooing at their mounts in the old coach-house, which had been set up with gas heaters and strewn hay as a sort of loose-box.

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