(Masterpieces of British Fiction)

Facey Romford had the reputation of being the most impudent man in the country. Because his first name was Francis and he kept a hound or two, strangers sometimes mistook him for the rich and sporting Francis Romford, Esq., owner of Abbeyfield Park. Facey was always willing to profit by the other Mr. Romford’s name and reputation and never contradicted that false impression. In fact, he kept for use on some of his own correspondence a broad seal of the right Mr. Romford’s crest, a turbot sitting on its tail on a cap of dignity, taken from an envelope in which Squire Romford had redirected a dunning shoemaker’s bill intended for Facey but delivered in error at Abbeyfield Park.

Facey lived on expectations. Early in life, he had elected himself heir to his cattle-jobbing uncle, Mr. Francis Gilroy, whose farm he was supposed to look after during the old man’s business trips. Living in lodgings in the village, Facey spent his days hunting and fishing on other men’s properties, his evenings playing on his flute or estimating the amount he would someday inherit. On occasion, under the influence of a third glass of gin, the figure rose as high as thirty thousand pounds.

Uncle Gilroy died suddenly, leaving all his worldly goods to the wife and numerous progeny he had been maintaining secretly in a London suburb. When his sharp-tongued widow arrived with her brood to take possession of the farm, Facey realized there was no hope for him in that quarter, but he was never one to let the grass grow under his feet. Before word of the Widow Gilroy’s coming could spread through the district, he carried word of his uncle’s death to Mr. Jogglebury Crowdey, a neighbor, secured a check for fifty pounds from that unwary gentleman, cashed it, and set out immediately for London.

There his first act was to look up Soapey Sponge, an old acquaintance who had once tricked him out of seven pounds ten in a card game. In palmier days, Soapey had married Lucy Glitters, the actress, and set up a cigar and betting establishment. When an unfeeling government passed laws against betting houses, however, the business ceased to prosper. Although lovely Mrs. Sponge never sold her husband’s cheap cigars under sixpence or gave change for a shilling, they had a hard time making ends meet. Facey found the shop but no Mr. Sponge, for Soapey, seeing the caller first, went out the back way. Whether Facey called early or late, Soapey was never at home, and since he called frequently, he spent much of his time in Mrs. Sponge’s company.

One day while looking into a saddlery window, Facey had his great idea. He would become a master of hounds (M.F.H.). A short time later BELL’S LIFE IN LONDON carried an advertisement stating that a gentleman was prepared to treat a country where he could enjoy shooting and fishing as well. In the correspondence which followed, Facey’s letters sealed with the turbot crest proved sufficiently impressive to members of the Heavyside Hunt. Their wives, learning from Burke that Francis Romford, Esq., was a bachelor, decided that he was a possible match for unmarried daughters. Without further delay, Facey became master of the Heavyside hounds. He bought Mrs. Sponge a tiara of brilliants to celebrate, but when he went to deliver his gift, he was greeted by the news that Soapey had bolted for Australia with all the loose cash on hand. On Facey’s advice, Lucy sold the furnishings of the store to a secondhand dealer, packed her clothes, and went to stay with her mother while she waited for something to turn up.

At Minshull Vernon, meanwhile, Facey found the Heavyside hounds a splayfooted, crooked-legged pack. On his first day out, he was forced to ride a borrowed mount, but even so his daring horsemanship put to shame the fat, timid huntsman, Jonathan Lotherington. The members were so enthusiastic about their new M.F.H. that few cared when the disgruntled huntsman resigned. Facey immediately appropriated Lotherington’s horses, the property of the hunt, for his own use. Planning to improve his pack, he wrote, under the turbot crest, to the huntsmen of the best packs in the kingdom and engaged their draughts. In this way, he secured a fine lot of hounds without the necessity of paying for them, for some of the huntsmen were pleased to oblige Francis Romford, Esq., without cost and those who presented bills received such abusive letters denouncing their hounds as overrunning, sheep-worrying beasts that they were ashamed to press their demands further.

Facey next consulted Mr. Goodhearted Green, a shady horse trader, and bought from him three mounts of good appearance but vicious habits, Honest Robin, Brilliant, and Leotard. At Tattersall’s, he hired two disreputable grooms and whippers-in, Daniel Swig and Tom Chowey. Although his horses and grooms were such as only he could manage, Facey might have had a long career with the Heavyside Hunt if he had not been tempted to make a handsome profit by selling Leotard to Mrs. Rowley Rounding. After Leotard had dumped his new mistress into a mud puddle, the horse was sent back to Facey. He insisted that the sale had been without condition and to Colonel Chatterbox, the lady’s intermediary; he also refused to return the money. Because some of the hunt sided with Mrs. Rounding, Facey planned to prove Leotard a suitable lady’s mount by having Lucy Sponge, a magnificent horsewoman, ride him in the next meet.

Having been drunk the night before, Swig and Chowey were in no condition to ride on the day of the hunt, and Facey asked Lucy to act as the whipper-in. His scheme had unforeseen results. Dressed in a fashionable London habit, Lucy rode with such ease and skill that the members unanimously judged Leotard a perfect horse for a lady. Although she won the approval of the gentlemen, Lucy also aroused the envy and dislike of their wives. Claiming that her performance and presence were an outrage to the proprieties, they insisted that the M.F.H. must go. Facey was not to be bought off lightly, however, and as a result, he found himself with fifty excellent hounds in his kennels and money in his pockets. Deciding that the way to fortune was to keep hounds, hunt a country, and get his sport at the expense of others, he advertised his services once more.

As luck would have it, the Larkspur Hunt in Doubleimupshire needed an M.F.H. for the remainder of the season. Again the turbot seal did its work; before long, Facey was engaged for a subscription of two thousand pounds a year. The seal...

(The entire section is 2663 words.)