A Question of Bits
A Fox-Hunting Story
By Alfred Stoddart
Drawing by Max F. Klepper This story was originally published in the October 1906 edition of Outing magazine.
Don’t you think," ventured Mrs. Wilcox mildly, "that she might do better without the curb?"
Mr. Wilcox was unable to reply at the moment, being deeply engaged in the more immediate problem of retaining his seat in the saddle, while his mount pawed the air wildly, standing almost erect.
"Just like a woman," he growled at last when he obtained a moment's respite. "Never saw one yet that knew the first thing about horses."
Mrs. Wilcox smiled. It was her husband's pet theory and she recognized it immediately.
"Then, dear," she cried, "don't you think you had better let Edwards try her today?"
This was the unkindest cut of all. No man likes to be advised to turn over a difficult piece of horsemanship to his own groom. Wilcox snorted violently, as the bay mare attempted to dislodge him with a series of mild buck jumps, but he did not deign a reply to his wife's suggestion.
The scene was the back lawn of the Wilcox pretty place, Burrwood, at Meadowthorpe. Besides Wilcox, who was vainly trying to subdue the all too exuberant spirits of his latest purchase, a five-year-old hunter, and besides his wife, who was an interested spectator, there was also present the groom, Edwards, whose impassive face admirably concealed his inward delight at Wilcox's troubles. From various coignes of vantage the struggle was being enjoyed by an audience comprising all the servants on the place, from Briggs, the butler, to the cook and scullery maid.
Mrs. Wilcox was about to enter the house when she heard a somewhat startling flow of strong language from her husband, and turned to behold him struggling to his feet, while the bay mare, pursued by Edwards, was galloping toward the stable.
"Put her up," shouted Wilcox to his groom; "I've had enough of her for today. Besides – I have to run up to town," he explained to his wife. "Hounds meet at the White Horse this afternoon. Tell Edwards to meet me there with Rattles and my hunting things in the dogcart."
"Then you will not ride the new one?"
"What, that brute? Not until I've had a chance to take the foolishness out of her. Tell Edwards not to take her out."
Her husband held strong prejudices
on the subject and did not approve
of women in the hunting field.
Mrs. Wilcox was one of the few Meadowthorpe women who did not ride to hounds. It was whispered that she would not be averse to doing so, but her husband held strong prejudices on the subject and did not approve of women in the hunting field. If this was a disappointment to her it was the only one she had experienced in her four years of married life.
If anyone chanced to ask Wilcox why his wife did not come out hunting, the latter usually declared that Mrs. Wilcox always preferred the refinements of her own home to the excitement of the hunting field. For his part he believed that women should ride in carriages, and although he always understood that his wife had ridden a little as a girl, he did not wish her to do so now. Wilcox's opinions were regarded as peculiar and smiled at in a sporting community like Meadowthorpe, but nevertheless, although Wilcox himself was a constant attendant at the meets, mounted on one of his several good hunters, his wife was always significantly absent.
The down train reaching Meadowthorpe about two in the afternoon was a little late that day, which is more or less chronic with Meadowthorpe trains, and Wilcox had to look sharp. He found his dogcart awaiting him at the station in charge of an under groom, and he jumped in and drove hurriedly to the White Horse Inn.
In front of the old inn all was bustle and confusion. The huntsman surrounded by his hounds and the whips in their red coats occupied the green opposite the inn, while the stable yard and roadway were filled with horsemen and horses being led to and fro by grooms.
There was his faithful groom Edwards with Rattles waiting for him. Rattles was a sturdy old chestnut which had carried Wilcox safely if not brilliantly for three seasons now with the Meadowthorpe hounds, and as the latter hoisted himself into the saddle he breathed a sigh of relief to think that it was not that flighty five-year-old he was to ride.
To tell the truth Wilcox did not rank with the Meadowthorpe first flighters. Although fond of hunting he did not aspire to belong to the "spare neck in your pocket" crowd. He liked to be seen at the cover side well turned out, as he always was, and mounted on a good-looking bit of horse flesh. Then if there was a run he always took a few fences carefully in full view of the field, and if the pace by that time was getting too strong for him, dropped back to an inconspicuous position, that enabled him to pull up and go home when he had enough of it, which was frequently quite early in the day.
On this occasion he was afraid he would be too late to occupy his usual position near the M.F.H. at the cover side. For the hounds had trotted off briskly for Jenkins' Woods, which were quite nearby, followed by the impatient "field," and Wilcox knew that they would get away without him if they found promptly. So he put Rattles into a canter, leaving Edwards to gather up his things and take them home in the dogcart.
He was not mistaken. The hounds had found Master Reynard "at home" in Jenkins' Woods, and by the time Wilcox cantered up they were fully four fields away. Wilcox could see the red coats of the Master and hunt servants close upon the hounds, and just behind them several other riders. The "field" followed in a closely bunched crowd.
"Left at the post, by jingo!" muttered Wilcox between his teeth, but he turned Rattles' head toward a low post and rail fence determined to try and catch them.
The day was one of those rare ones toward the close of winter when there is just a faint breath of spring in the air, not enough to cause lassitude, but just enough to make the ground springy under your horse's hoofs. Rattles was in good form, and when Wilcox gave him his head the gallant old chestnut rated along in fine style. The going was good, being hard pasture, and Wilcox soon found himself galloping past the rank and file of the "field."
But there was one figure which Wilcox
did not recognize. It was that of a woman
in the neatest of brown riding habits,
holding her own with the best of the first flight.
There were no jumps of any consequence at first, and Rattles galloped so well that Wilcox's spirits arose and he felt his ambition beginning to assert itself. About two fields ahead of him were several riders in "pink." One was the Master. He knew him by the flea-bitten gray horse he rode. Then there was Dick Middleton on Bricktop, his famous chestnut, Ralph Goring on his bay colt Chorister, and one or two others. These were the men who were usually spoken of among the famous Meadowthorpe "first flight." But there was one figure which Wilcox did not recognize. It was that of a woman in the neatest of brown riding habits, who was sitting her bay horse superbly and holding her own with the best of the first flight.
In spite of his prejudices Wilcox could not restrain an admiring exclamation when the bay took a stiff four railer in good form.
"By Jove, she can ride!" he muttered to himself. "And what a figure she has!"
Curiosity getting the better of him he put spurs to Rattles in the hope of catching up with this intrepid Diana, but it was a hopeless chase. Hounds were running at a tremendous pace, and the lady on the bay horse seemed bound to keep in the van of the procession. At all events she was riding neck and neck with the M.F.H., and, as everyone knows, Bradbury's hounds must go fast indeed when he cannot keep in the same field with them.
Although he could not get near enough to identify her, Wilcox was now quite close enough to observe how cleverly the fair unknown handled her hunter. The latter, thought Wilcox, must have been a well-schooled one, for his manners were superb. He rose just right at his fences, landed easily and did not lose an instant getting away again. His rider seemed to hold him in absolute control, and Wilcox noticed that he was ridden with a single bit, probably a double rein snaffle.
Wilcox had never ridden harder in his life. He almost forgot the hounds now and bent all his energies toward overtaking the flying figure in the brown habit who eluded him so provokingly. But the bay had more speed than Rattles had ever dreamed of possessing, even in his best days, which were over now, and although Wilcox urged him with voice and heel, the good old chestnut could not do better than his best.
Hounds had crossed the Meadowthorpe Valley and there had been a good water jump at the Brook. They now turned to the north, skirting the steeplechase course near the country club and so on through a series of meadows toward Cedarhurst.
Some nasty fences now confronted Wilcox. But the sight of that slight figure, some hundred miles or so ahead of him, taking them all so easily, made his blood boil. Much as he disliked seeing women in the hunting field, he did not relish being outridden by one. Besides he was riding toward his own home, and he determined to make one more desperate effort to catch up with the fair stranger, if only to see who she was.
Rattles responded gamely to his urging. But alas! the ole chestnut was tiring rapidly. They had gone fully four miles at almost racing pace, and now as Wilcox hustled him over a "snake" fence, Rattles rapped badly and went down.
Wilcox picked himself up quickly, none the worse for the fall. But a moment's glance at Rattles told its own story. The chestnut had strained a shoulder in falling and was dead lame.
"Sorry, old man!" sang out Dick Middleton as he galloped past. One or two others, glad of some excuse to drop out, pulled up to commiserate with him. But although Wilcox swore softly to himself with vexation, there was only one thing to do — foot it home and lead Rattles.
She was leaning back listening to him
and had apparently forgotten the fox's brush
with which she was toying.
About an hour and a quarter later he entered his front door, having handed Rattles over to a waiting groom. He was tired and not in the best of humors.
"Where is Mrs. Wilcox?" he demanded of the butler. He liked to be met at the door by his wife.
"She has just come in, sir. I think she is in her room."
The next moment Mrs. Wilcox appeared on the stairs. She was attired in a loose tea gown, and Wilcox noticed that her cheeks were glowing rosily. In her hands she carried something which Wilcox failed to observe.
The butler brought tea on a tray, and they sat down before the wood fire which was burning in the hall. Wilcox was full of the run and his hard luck, and he painted a glowing picture to his wife of the fair stranger, whose back only he had seen, and her fine horsemanship.
Suddenly his eyes alighted upon the thing which Mrs. Wilcox was twirling carelessly in her hand. She was leaning back listening to him and had apparently forgotten the fox's brush with which she was toying.
Wilcox surveyed it silently for some moments before his mind even commenced to grasp the situation. Even then he did not speak, but he grew scarlet with surprise or indignation — possibly mortification. Suddenly he looked up and met his wife's eyes, and as she comprehended the situation she burst into a peal of silvery laughter.
Tommy Wilcox was not altogether lacking in a sense of humor, and it was not long before he was laughing too.
"Do you mean to tell me that you — you — " he stammered."
I told you this morning that the mare would go better without a curb," returned his wife as though nothing unusual had happened.
That was how Wilcox got over his prejudice against women in the hunting field. Both he and his wife are now numbered among the straightest riders in the Meadowthorpe "first flight."