Search just our sites by using our customised search engine
Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Hound and Horn in Jedforrest
Chapter XV. Billy's ambition

“Happy the man who with unrivalled speed
Can pass his fellows—Somervile.

DURING the usual walk out with hounds one | afternoon, in the declining days of the season, Billy remarked: “I suppose you have just about got up to the top hole of your ambition, Master?” Joanna, appearing at the moment, asked, as she kept Lavender and Beeswing back with a dainty little riding-whip: “Which ambition, and how do you suppose?”

“Well, only his ordinary week-day desire, I mean, something quite likely to be gratified, not anything outside the possible. I guess what it is, and that now, at the end of a successful season, he has pretty well touched it.”

“Perhaps,” I put in; “and if you will tell me your ambition, Bill, I may make a small confession.”

“Right; you go ahead first.”

“I'll tell you one of his pet desires,” said Joanna, continuing to ignore my presence. “He wishes to make a record in sport, but is not over-confident of accomplishing it.”

“What sort of a record?”

Her ladyship’s permission to me to speak for myself being conveyed in a glance, I blurted out, “Well, I’d rather like to catch a fox, shoot a grouse, and land a salmon in one day on my own place.”

“Ho! ho! not so terribly immodest, and tolerably certain as regards the first two; but the combination is rather hyperambitious and touches on the extremely doubtful,” laughed Billy.

“But he has done the two once,” said Joanna, with an amount of pride she rarely displayed in her partner, again going on as if he was not present; “and he had a try for the third, and came home very much elated about it, though it was unsuccessful.”

“Well done, my own uncle,” said Miss Flo, who had been an interested listener; “go on and win. I know which is the hardest feat of the three, and I’ll tell you how I’ll help you. On some selected October morning when you are cubbing, I shall get old Geordie Mathieson as gillie, and I shall thrash the water all day till I hook a fish. If I can’t hook him legitimately, I shall rake and sniggle until I do get him, and we’ll have him ready for you to land after you have killed your cub and shot your grouse.”

“Capital!” exclaimed Billy, who had been gazing at her with rapt admiration during all the time the girl was speaking; “that would almost make a certainty of it; and I don’t mind coming with you; but to 'mak siccar,’ when we hook him we’ll just land him, and then put a line through his gills and hitch him up to a tree till the great man comes to land him, eh?”

“And this is the hero who only last night disputed the sentiment that all was fair in love and sport, and held that all sport should be played square,” said Joanna, raising her voice and throwing it over Billy’s head.

“I think I’d as lief have old Geordie for a fisherman as any one else,” Flo continued. “Now tell us your little ambition, Mr. Kerr, though I have a fair surmise of the direction in which it lies,” she added, little dreaming how near the mark she had hit.

“Don’t give me away, dear lady,” Billy had whispered, on seeing a mischievous sparkle in the eyes of the Mistress of the Forest fox-hounds.

In a mood of confidence he had recently confided to that trustworthy person that his ambition was to win the girl he loved best, and added with a heartrending sigh, “and to prove worthy of her”; a declaration which caused his hearer to howl with laughter.

“Seriously, I’d like to have a mount in the Grand National; best of all to ride the winner; but of course that is beyond my loftiest dreams; so I’d be content to get the course and nearly win on an outside chance. I’d really like to be one of that band of brave gallant men who set their face to ride out over these big fences at that terrific pace, and never grumble if they are knocked out, and the greatest ambition of their life denied them.”

To which speech we all replied with one voice and equal fervour that we hoped he might have the chance some day.

Joanna took an early opportunity in private to tell me that Miss Flo, then several years younger and a very engaging school-girl, had confessed to her that she had no desire or intention to marry till she had had a rc al good time; that her ambition was to make heaps of friends—men friends—then marry the man of her heart; and that her boy should grow into a M.F.H.—a consummation which all who knew her saw no reason for not being realised.

“Now, Mistress,” said both the young people; but Joanna adhered to her already pronounced declaration that “wild horses wouldn’t drag from her what was her ambition, or whether it had been attained.”

As we turned hounds over to Tom and the boy, I asked my super whipper-in, “If, preparatory to the ride in the Grand National which he coveted, he would ride old 'Royal’ in the 'point to point;'” adding, “and if you win, you may ride him in the 'open hunt’ chase the following week.” His look of gratitude, and the vigour with which he sucked his pipe, were answer enough without words spoken.

’Twas well that the remaining hunting days could be numbered by units, for two of my horses were straightway taken possession of by my self-appointed trainer, and with some occult design, a third, the “Pearl,” was appropriated by old Batters, from whom nothing more could be extracted than that he was going to "wund her up ti opera pitch.” This was a favourite expression of his. “I have an opera gawin’ on in here,” he had once mysteriously said, unlocking the door of a shed in the back-yard used as a sick-box, and disclosing the resigned face of old “Safety,” trussed up with a twitch and a tight-bearing rein, her fore-legs immersed in a tub of cold water.

So I had to submit, and had only the old lady and the “Omega” mare for the closing days.

On the former, on the last day but one, during a long gallop which took us to the heart of the hill-country, I was completely out-paced, coming up at the end to find a stout hill fox had been pulled down half a mile short of a strong open earth, amid the unrestrained yells of Tom Telfer and a score of ardent followers of the over-the-Border hounds.

And on the last day the Omega mare cut herself in kicking back at a wall of sharp stones, this being the only blood obtained, as Bill, with unnecessary frequency and doubtful humour, kept reiterating to me and to himself.

This last day was featureless, a fox not being found till late on in the day, and scent being faint and catchy, till by a turn of good fortune old Regent worked out a stale line which led up to a kennel in a small patch of whins, close behind a lambing shed, and pushed up a fat old dog fox, which was killed after a short scurry. With a fine grey mask and handsome brush, we found he was almost toothless.

This made up to the average number of foxes killed in previous years, so the last day of all, and the very last day of all which we had been contemplating, were reluctantly abandoned, and the entire energies of the staff were turned upon the “winding up” of the three 'chasers.

Of course the jockeys had to be wound up also; and much strange and spasmodic training was entered upon, more heroic and jerky than judicious and methodical.

The method of “Royal’s” rider was, as he expressed it, to do a bit of fastin’ and wastin’, and after he had starved himself to his satisfaction, he found he could ride five pounds under weight; so, going to the other extreme, he rapidly made it up, and three days before the races a mean between the two systems was adopted. A private trial at catch-weights was carried out with the secrecy of a conspiracy, and it was hinted that some touting had been perpetrated.

The momentous morning came, and men and horses were on the field of action, the locality of which had only been disclosed by advertisement the previous day. The heavy-weight race and a yeomanry race had been run, and sixteen of the twenty-two entered for the twelve-stone race were starters, and their jockeys were weighing out. To the great disappointment of every one, Tom Telfer was among those who had not put in an appearance, and we heard he was suffering from a bad chill likely to keep him in bed for some days. Billy, I knew, secretly feared him, but on the other hand had been counting on him as a pilot to show the way by “taking the nearest road,” as he himself put it.

Of course, “Royal’s” jockey came in for a fair share of scrutiny, and he was surrounded by a small ring of criticising spectators as he was hoisted into the saddle by old Batters. He had a few words with Miss Florence before leaving the paddock, when he said: “I hope you won’t behave like Mrs. Freddy Browne. She tells me she has driven twenty-two miles to see the race, and dare not cast an eye over the country, for her man is riding, and she cannot suffer to look on, but will sit with her back to the fun all the time lest she should see (dear Freddy fall.’ And what do you think she added?” continued Billy. “She said she couldn’t bear the excitement of seeing 'Freddy ride a close finish.’ I bet he’ll finish long before the turning flag.”

It so turned out that the gallant Fred finished in the second field, for, losing a stirrup at the first fence, he pulled up and trotted on to the knoll amongst the onlookers.

“No fear, I’ll look out for the white blaze and the bang tail popping over the last fence into the winning field at the top of the crowd,” said Flo encouragingly.

“There won’t be much of a crowd by that time, I suspect; the open ditch at the bottom will take toll of a few; but I’ll do my best for the Hunt and for the stable.”

“I’m sure you will. The best of luck to you.”

I had been more or less neglected by the Oracle, who, having instructed me in a laconic fashion, “I wad advize ye ti mak the rinnin’ an’ never heed whether ye feenish or no’,” left me to scramble up unaided, as if my winning, or even getting the course, were matters of extreme improbability, and went over to Maister Willyum. To him the Oracle’s parting injunction had been, "Keep him gawin’ on, an’ for ony favour dinna loss sicht o’ the leeders, an’ aboot a mile frae hame set him awa for a’ ye’re worth.”

As we moved away to the starting field a covered fly drove up at a fast trot, a limp figure tumbled out of it and dived into the weighing tent, where a steaming chestnut horse was standing, and two minutes later a thoroughly transformed and manifestly workmanlike pair—thorough-bred horse and finished horseman—cantered down to the assembled group of aspirants to fame, where the roll-call was in progress, and as the starter called it, a husky voice answered to the name of Tom Telfer.

Acting on Batters’ advice to set the pace, I allowed the “Pearl” to sail away, which she did pretty near the head of affairs for two miles or so, and without misadventure, to the turning flag. About this time I saw a chestnut horse putting on the steam, and with a mighty spring out and a twist of his quarters fly a mean-looking hedge, and I realised that the big ditch was behind it. The “Pearl” went boldly at it, but did not jump out quite enough, and landed in it, but without coming down, though she remained there for some time before scrambling out, dwelling long enough for me to see three or four others have it. Billy was one who got over without mishap, then two got in and went down, before the “Pearl” started again. There was now a mile and a half or so of good grass country, with stiff but fair fences, during which we heard crashing behind us and saw two loose horses going off in different directions. Two diverging lines were now available, one slightly longer, taken to avoid some heavy ploughed land, between us and the end of the course. As the “Pearl” drew up to her stable companion, the latter’s rider hissed, “By gad, old man, I believe we are alone. Jack Elliot’s and Bobby St. Clair’s horses are both off on a line of their own. Dick Waldie is out of it.”

“Steady, Billy, I'm going to try and beat you,” I shouted.

As we could hear the crowd cheering and see the flag floating in the winning field, I asked the mare to go, but she could not stay beside the old horse, and after pecking at the last fence she dropped behind, and I had the satisfaction of seeing Billy’s humped shoulders and squared elbows ten lengths in front, as he sailed between the flags.

“Bravo, Master! ” shouted John Elliot’s younger brother. “Well done, the Forest Hunt!”

“One, two, three, hip, hooray!” screamed Florence. “Why, who’s three?” I gasped, looking back at the string of riders coming into view.

“You are.”

“How’s that? I know Billy has beat me; but”

“Yes; but Tommy Telfer has been in for some time, and is now at the weighing tent! ”

And sure enough when I got there I found him surrounded by a cheering cluster of admirers. He was holding in his hand two pounds of loose lead which, as he had not had time to put into his saddlecloth, he had carried in his pocket throughout the race. The Clerk of the Scales was saying, “You want half a pound yet; but there is your breastplate and your bridle allowance. All right.”

When they came to examine the bridle of Tom’s reeking horse they found it all mud-plastered and scraped, with the bridoon bit loose below the chin like a curb chain and the browband over one ear, in fact just dropping off. When told of this, Tom said, “Of course that was at the drop into the plough behind Borthwick’s farm; the beggar stood tail end uppermost for half a minute and then ploughed along for about a whole feering on his head, and dashed nearly rubbed the bridle off—I hadn’t time to put it on right again.”

Incredible it may seem that any one should take a fall within a mile of home and be able to land a winner by the length of a street—yet so it was; and feeling it was no disgrace to be beaten by such a marvellous horseman, I said: “Congratulations, Tom; but what a ghost you look. Come up to the waggonette and we’ll christen the cup.”

“All right, thanks; but I must dodge the doctor, and then leather away home and get into bed before the wife misses me. I passed her on the stair on my way out, and said I was going for an airing, and might not be back for lunch. See you at Kelso on Monday next.”

“But, Tom,” said Billy, “how did you come in from Borthwick’s? You must have come fairly straight. I didn’t think you’d have had these two hundred-acre ploughs? ”

“No more I did; for I got a fine bit of going along the headriggs, which you two blind buffers did not see were not ploughed. When I last saw you, Master, you were sampling the ditch. What? Here comes the doctor, by gum, I’m off. See you at the ’Chases next week, eh?”

Billy won the open hunt ’chase the following week, or, as old Batters mercilessly put it, “The auld horse wan the race in spite o’ Maister Willyum.” As a matter of fact, he was nearly caught napping in the straight, after jumping the last fence with a lead of eight or ten lengths; and he was so fired by a desire for further fame that he accepted an invitation to stay with friends in the end of the week for a two-day west country meeting, where he had the promise of one mount, with the prospect of more.

On the Saturday evening, on my return from town by the last train, a hieroglyphic scribble from Joanna was handed to me. It took some time to decipher, and made the startling announcement that the writer was “going right through at once to nurse”—a decision which was painfully explained by the accompanying telegram, which read, "Mr. Kerr has had a heavy fall; rather seriously crushed; everything is being done.”

A sleepless night of great anxiety followed, and Sunday morning brought a telegram: “Still unconscious; come.” Now, Joanna was not an alarmist, so it was with sore forebodings that I started for the twelve-mile drive necessary to get the only Sunday train at the main line station. Two hours of a slow train, then a long wait, and a distressful cross country journey on a branch line, did not hearten one up. Sick with suspense and misery, I got to the end of the railway journey, obtaining some slight relief by finding a dog-cart waiting. This had been sent to meet a nurse who had come on by the same train.

From the driver, an eye-witness of, and only too willing to recount the grisly details, I obtained these particulars.

The course was rather hard, and the stewards had put down tanned bark on both sides of some of the fences, a proceeding of rather doubtful benefit, as it caused some of the horses to overjump the obstacle. Billy had ridden twice on the first day and had got the course. On the second day he had a mount in a three-mile selling steeplechase on the second favourite, and had been forcing the running, his horse jumping rather wildly. In the second round he was leading by six lengths, when the favourite came up alongside and challenged him. His horse rushed the open ditch fence and overjumped it. The narrator said, “I declare to guidness the mere stuid back toonty feet an’ flang hersel’ at the fence.” She crashed into it, and turning over, hurled Billy with great force beyond it and fell on him, rolling over him.

The doctors were in attendance at once, and he was carried to a comfortable farmhouse close to the course.

On my arrival things looked pretty black. Joanna, with a scared face, was flitting about noiselessly, carrying out the surgeon’s instructions as promptly as if she had anticipated them, and said authoritatively, “Before the nurse comes in you may come on your stocking-soles and look at him for a minute if you like.”

The sight of poor Bill, breathing heavily, and with half-closed eyes that saw nothing, was most upsetting, and his restlessness was distressing.

Before Joanna went to take her turn at the night’s watch, we passed a doleful hour together.

“Oh, the pity of it! the pity of it! ” she moaned; “this can never be his doom, to be maimed for the rest of his life!” Then with a groan and half to herself: “Poor, poor Flo; who is to tell her, and how? You know she’s off yachting with the Douglases, and may see it in the newspapers.”

Sitting up till the small hours for a report of any change in his condition, all the bright days that Bill and I had had together ran in review through my mind, and I saw him always good-natured, always cheery, always unselfish; proud of any small achievement of our little pack and jealous of its good name; with a keen appreciation of all the wholesome and natural joys that rational sport brings, and a power of enjoyment, and a love of life, and a hold on it exhibited by few: while oftener than all the other pictures that passed, was the one of that glorious September morning when we killed our first fox, and rode home through the shimmering hills, and when the talk turned upon the risks of hunting and he had said, “Anything but that!”

The morning report was “No change,” and the consulting surgeon had diagnosed concussion of the brain and of the spinal cord, with a fractured pelvis, and he nearly made us all break down by saying, “It won’t be immediate.”

On Monday afternoon I went home. The telegram of Wednesday morning said: “Conscious now, but not out of danger; asking for you.” I went through late on Wednesday night and found him very low, very restless with his arms, but not able to move his legs, and I was not allowed to see him.

On Thursday, the local doctor, a hearty man and a thorough sportsman, declared his opinion that “with the help of your good lady’s nursing and his own constitution and pluck, there is a faint chance of my pulling him through.”

Next morning I was allowed to see him, but he only pressed my hand slightly, and his smile ended in a deep-drawn sigh, as he closed his eyes. Two days later the evening report was “A good two hours’ sleep, and wishes to see you.” I sat up with him for a quarter of an hour, speaking what words I could to soothe him and cheer him, and on leaving said, “I'll come early to-morrow and sit with you for a long time.” Glancing back before leaving the room, I saw a question in his eye, so, going back and bending over him, he whispered, “Do you mind—telling—me— what was—wrong—with that—brown filly—you—sold to—my brother—last year?—It won’t matter—now.”

Nearly twelve months later, that is, in the first week of the following April, Tom Telfer was holding up the stiff body of a brushless and headless hill fox preparatory to tossing it to the clamouring hounds, when he said, “I wish Billy Kerr was here;” and then, “By gum, here he comes, and his missus with him. Let’s wait till they come up.”

A radiant girl rode up in close attendance upon a man whose clothes hung loose on him, and they were received with undisguised joy.

“How are you, Billy, old man? Mrs. Kerr, here’s to you; real glad to see you,” came from all in the little group; and from Tom Telfer, “Just nicked in in time to see them tear him and eat him. Well done, you!”

After the hundred tatters of brown were disposed of, Billy said: “Right glad I am to be here, I can assure you all, and right glad to see the end of this good hunt. I shall now be able to say I have not missed the season. I did not see much of the hunt, Master, but I heard some of it. My word, what a power of good it does one to hear the full cry of a pack of fox-hounds running hard in chase of a sinking fox that they have fairly and squarely hunted and run down ; and I declare I easily recognised old Regent's and Pirate’s deep notes, with Woodman and Pilgrim chiming in, when the leaders had for a moment overrun it, and Vanity and Beeswing squeaking in the rear. 'Pon my word, it beats cathedral bells.”

"Yes; doesn’t it?” echoed Mrs. Bill.

“Did it beat the Wedding March as you led her out of church the other day, Billy, eh, by gum?” said Tom Telfer; to which the two had no reply other than to smile rapturously in each other’s faces.

Then, as hounds moved off for the last draw of the season, I said, “Are you coming on, Billy?”

“No, sir, certainly not,” spoke out Mrs. Kerr, with decision. "He has done quite enough for a first day out. You are coming home with me, goodman.”

“All right, pet; but let’s just go to the top of Windburgh hill to watch them drawing the Hass. I like looking on from a hilltop.”

"Yes; it seems nearer heaven always, does it not?”

"I’m quite near when I’m here beside yourself, old girl; but all the same, we’ll go and watch them from the hilltop.”

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus