Chapter Ten: Hounds are Running
My entire knowledge of fox hunting with hounds comes from watching Paradise Postponed and Brideshead Revisited, so I am just going to assume Antonia Forest has done her research and that this chapter is an accurate description of one of the peculiar things that the English upper classes do to entertain themselves (or used to do, as I think it’s illegal in England now). Mrs Marlow leaves it until the morning of the hunt (at breakfast, while having “an unusually early cigarette”) to explain the rules. Karen and Ann, the sensible ones, are mere spectators and Ann asks why the others do it, when it makes them nervous. “To see how one makes out, I suppose. It’s like Mount Everest. It’s there,” says Rowan off-handedly (Rowan is fearless and brave). Rowan is also the only one to notice how depressed Nicola is, but is too busy to investigate further. Then Mrs Marlow comes downstairs looking like this:
“I’ve never ridden anything else out hunting,” she explains airily as her children gape at her. “Your grandmother couldn’t abide breeches on women, so it was a question of riding side-saddle or being told how appalling one looked from behind four times a week.”
Lumme! I think Mrs Marlow ‘married beneath her’ when she wed that young sailor who wasn’t even expected to inherit any property.
Mrs Merrick, when they reach the stables, turns out to be far less enamoured of posh horsey activities than her husband or son, and gratefully hands over the Major’s “hot as ginger” chestnut to Rowan. Ronnie, the handsome Merrick cousin, offers to ride the chestnut instead of Rowan, but “both Rowan and Nicola understood instantly that this was the last thing Ronnie wanted”, so Rowan, of course, says she’ll do it. Because she’s so used to sacrificing her own well-being and comfort to make men’s lives easier.
Nicola goes to get Buster and finds Patrick having a meltdown because they might be late. His state of mind is not helped by his father serving drinks to Mrs Marlow and Ronnie. Then they all ride to the Meet, where the grown-ups go to the pub for a few more drinks. Keep in mind they were all up till two am drinking at the party. No wonder people are always falling off horses during hunts and breaking their limbs and necks. I notice seventeen-year-old Rowan is in the pub as well. Still, if she’s old enough to drive a car, run a farm and parent her young siblings, I guess she’s old enough to drink in a pub.
Meanwhile, Buster, usually very placid and dull, is very excited about being back with his “darling hounds” after three years away from hunting and Nicola is having trouble controlling him. Her worry about this is exacerbated by everyone joking about “Buster the Thruster” being back and indeed, Buster is “so larky and self-willed” that once the hounds catch scent of a fox, Nicola has to do all she can just to stay in the saddle. The others are Gondalling away and Lawrie uses the excuse of being King to use the gate instead of jumping the wall. Patrick and Ginty jump without hesitation, Peter grimly follows them (“because he was Malise”) and Nicola is alarmed to see she is “being carried irresistibly towards the wall”. Go Buster! He not only jumps every wall and hedge he can find, he bounds over an enormous ditch with a thirty-foot drop. Patrick is astonished when the rest of the Field catch up with Nicola and Buster:
“No one’s jumped the Cut since the Master’s grandfather did it on Bandsman …
Nicola forebore to say that for one thing she’d had no idea what she was jumping and for another Buster had given her no option and went on munching smugly at her sandwich.”
Good for you, Nicola!
Lawrie’s hired horse soon goes “lame” and Lawrie sulks all the way back to the stables, whereupon the clever horse makes a miraculous recovery and Lawrie walks home inventing excuses and slipping “into the delicious comfort of being Jason”. Then Peter’s “fraying courage” snaps completely and his horse, “unsettled by her rider’s uncertainty, catching the infection of his fright”, stops dead, throws him off and he breaks his collar bone. Despite the pain, he’s relieved that now he won’t have to hunt any more this season and he considers that by next season, he’ll be “months braver than now”. You go on thinking that, Peter…
Finally Buster, brave but tired, clips a wall going over and Nicola falls off. Patrick, right behind, nearly lands on top of her but carries on with only a glance back. Nicola is
“shaken less by the fall than by Patrick’s Rupert face looking back. Even if he had been Rupert jumping, once he had nearly jumped on her he ought to have turned into Patrick again.”
I think this is meant to be another example of the dangers of Gondalling, but it’s probably just Patrick being Patrick. He’s never shown much sympathy before when Nicola or anyone else has fallen off a horse. Mind you, he isn’t even concerned about poor Buster on his knees in the mud and technically, Buster is Patrick’s pony.
Then there’s a really lovely bit of writing, when Nicola walks Buster home and realises the fox that everyone is supposed to be hunting is actually walking along beside her, using her scent and Buster’s scent to throw off the hounds. But three of the hounds are tracking the fox and they’ve nearly caught up:
“She felt curiously neutral. If she did not want to see Charles James, so clever, so resourceful, caught at the last, neither did she want to see the white hounds, so tenacious, so resolute, disappointed.”
In the end, there’s a frantic dash up the hill as the exhausted fox races for home and the three hounds chase after him. Afterwards, the hounds return with no sign of blood, so I’m choosing to believe the fox made it to safety because there’s been enough dead animals in this book already. And then Buster takes Nicola home in the moonlight and she finally arrives back in the Merricks’ stableyard, exhausted, unable to move, half-asleep.
Next, Chapter Eleven: The Dispatch is Delivered