(Masterpieces of British Fiction)

For years Michael Hardy had been the leader of the hunt in Sheepwash Vale. While he did not pay quite all the expenses of the sport, his personality and vigor kept fox hunting popular in the district. Michael was one of the old school; his hounds were unkenneled and boarded here and there, and the horses were mostly pickups. At his death, it seemed that fox hunting could no longer be accounted an attraction in the country.

There were some other difficulties. The village of Handley Cross was rapidly growing. Having discovered by chance the curative values of the local spring, a reprobate physician named Swizzle had established himself as a spa doctor, and in a few years, Handley Cross became a fashionable watering place. Swizzle was a perfect doctor for many people. He invariably prescribed game pie and rare beef for his patients and advised two quarts of port wine at dinner. He became a familiar sight in the village, as he buttonholed his patients on the street and inspected their coated tongues and gouty joints. With this new fame as a health resort, hotels and souvenir stands sprang up to bring life to the sleepy village.

There is, however, no good proposition without competition. Another shady practitioner, a sanctimonious doctor named Mello, moved in. He bought land with a small spring on it, poured epsom salts in the water every night, and set up a rival establishment. In no time the town was divided into Melloites and Swizzleites. The important change, however, was in the social life of Handley Cross.

Captain Doleful, a lean, hypocritical half-pay captain, appointed himself master of ceremonies for the town. With the help of Mrs. Barnington, the social arbiter of the fashionable set, balls and teas soon became popular, and social eminence became the goal of the visiting gentry.

In a resort so fashionable it was unthinkable not to have a hunt club. Captain Doleful and some other worthies attempted to carry on after Michael Hardy died, but their efforts were unsuccessful. First, the leaders of the hunt rode in gigs, conveyances unthinkable in Hardy’s day. Second, the townspeople were too poor or too parsimonious to hire a whipper-in and a huntsman. Third, subscribers to the hunt were often slow in paying; soon there were not enough funds to pay for damage done to crops and fences.

The fashionables decided that the only solution was a real master of the hunt, one not too elegant for a small spa but rich enough to pay the difference between subscriptions and expenses. A committee headed by Captain Doleful and the secretary Fleeceall decided to invite John Jorrocks, whose fame had spread far, to become master of the hunt. Accordingly a letter was sent, and the negotiations were soon brought to a conclusion, for Jorrocks was an easy victim.

After a life devoted to selling tea and other groceries, Jorrocks was a wealthy man. He had turned to hunting as a hobby, and despite his Cockney accent and ample girth, he was soon accepted in the field. Although he had the bad habit of selling cases of groceries to his fellow huntsmen, Jorrocks soon became a fixture among the sporting set in Surrey. Now, he was to be master in...

(The entire section is 1301 words.)