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The Parkhurst Paper-chase Post by :Success2004 Category :Short Stories Author :Talbot Baines Reed Date :May 2011 Read :4463

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The Parkhurst Paper-chase

"The meet is to be at one o'clock, sharp, in the Dean's Warren--don't forget!"

So said Forwood, the "whipper-in" of the Parkhurst Hare and Hounds Club, to me, one March morning in the year 18--. I had no need to be reminded of the appointment; for this was the day of the "great hunt" of the year, always held by the running set at Parkhurst School to yield in interest to no other fixture of the athletic calendar.

In fine weather, and over good country, a paper-chase is one of the grandest sports ever indulged in--at least, so we thought when we were boys--and the "great hunt" was, of course, the grandest run of the year, and looked forward to, consequently, with the utmost eagerness by all lovers of running in our school.

This year, too, I had a special interest in the event, for it was my turn to run "hare"--in other words, to be, with another fellow, the object of the united pursuit of some twenty or thirty of my schoolfellows, who would glory in running me down not a whit less than I should glory in escaping them.

For some weeks previously we had been taking short trial runs, to test our pace and powers of endurance; and Birch (my fellow-"hare") and I had more than once surveyed the course we proposed to take on the occasion of the "great hunt," making ourselves, as far as possible, acquainted with the bearings of several streams, ploughed fields, and high walls to be avoided, and the whereabouts of certain gaps, woods, and hollows to be desired. We were glad afterwards that we had taken this precaution, as the reader will see.

I can't say if the Parkhurst method of conducting our "hunts" was the orthodox one; I know _we_ considered it was, as our rules were our own making, or rather a legacy left to us by a former generation of runners at the school.

We were to take, in all, a twelve miles' course, of nearly an oval shape, six miles out and six miles home. Any amount of dodging or doubling was to be allowed to us hares, except crossing our own path. We were to get five minutes' clear start, and, of course, were expected to drop our paper "scent" wherever we went.

Luckily for me, Birch was an old hand at running hare, and up to all sorts of dodges, so that I knew all it was needful for me to do was to husband my "wind," and run evenly with him, leaving him to shape our course and regulate our pace.

It was a lively scene at the Dean's Warren, when we reached it a few minutes before the appointed time that afternoon. The "pack"--that is, the twenty or thirty fellows who were to run as "hounds"--were fast assembling, and divesting themselves of everything but their light flannels. The whipper-in, conspicuous by the little bugle slung across his shoulders, and the light flag in his hand, was there in all the importance of his office; and, as usual, the doctor and a party of visitors, ladies and gentlemen, had turned out to witness the start.

"Five minutes, hares!" shouts Forwood, as Birch and I came on the spot.

We use the interval in stripping off all unnecessary apparel, and girding ourselves with our bags of "scent," or scraps of torn-up paper, which we are to drop as we run. Then we sit and wait the moment for starting. The turf is crisp under our feet; the sun is just warm enough to keep us from shivering as we sit, and the wind just strong enough to be fresh. Altogether it is to be doubted if a real meet of real hounds to hunt real hares--a cruel and not very manly sport, after all--could be much more exciting than this is.

"Half a minute!" sings out the whipper-in, as we spring to our feet.

In another thirty seconds we are swinging along at a good pace down the slope of the warren, in the direction of Colven meadows, and the hunt has begun.

As long as we were in sight of the pack we kept up a good hard pace, but on reaching cover we settled down at once to a somewhat more sober jog- trot, in anticipation of the long chase before us.

We made good use of our five minutes' start, for by the time a distant bugle note announced that the hounds were let loose on our track we had covered a good piece of ground, and put several wide fields and ditches and ugly hedges between us and our pursuers.

Now it was that Birch's experiences served us in good stead. I never knew a fellow more thoroughly cunning; he might have been a fox instead of a hare. Sometimes he made me run behind him and drop my scent on the top of his, and sometimes keep a good distance off, and let the wind scatter it as much as it could. When we came to a gap, instead of starting straight across the next field he would turn suddenly at right angles, and keep close up under the hedge half-way round before striking off into the open. Among trees and bushes he zigzagged and doubled to an alarming extent, so that it seemed as if we were losing ground every moment. So we should have been if the chase had been by sight instead of by _scent_; but that would have been against all rules.

If the hounds were to see the hares twenty yards in front of them, and the scent lay half a mile round, they would be bound, according to our rules, to go the half-mile, however tempting the short cut might seem.

It was after a very wide circuit, ending up on the top of a moderate rise, that we first caught sight of our pursuers. As they were a full six minutes behind us, we agreed to sit down under cover for a minute and watch them.

At that moment they had evidently lost the scent, and were ferreting about among some low trees and bushes in search of it. We saw the flag of the whipper-in marking the spot where it was last visible, and round this, on all sides, the hounds were exploring busily in search of the "new departure." Then, presently, came a cry of "Forward!" and off they all started in our direction; and as the scent after that seemed to lie pretty clear we considered it high time for us to resume our flight.

So we made off again, and being refreshed by our brief halt, made over a couple of ploughed fields, which Birch suggested "would make a few of the hounds look foolish"; and so on till we reached the first water we had encountered since the start. This was a trout-stream, well known to some of us who were fond of fishing--nowhere more than half a foot deep, and in some places easily passable, dry shod, on stepping-stones. Birch, however, avoided these, and boldly splashing into the stream over his ankles, bade me follow.

"We'll soon dry up," he said, "and this will gain us a minute or two."

Instead of going straight across, the wily hare began to paddle up the middle of the stream for twenty or thirty yards, and, of course, in so doing our scent was soon drifted away down the current. So we flattered ourselves, when we at last did make the opposite bank, that our pursuers would be puzzled for a minute or two to know what had become of us.

After a further quarter of a mile we thought we might venture to take another brief halt on the strength of this last manoeuvre. We were unable to do so where we could command a view of the hounds, but as we reckoned we had at least gained three minutes, we felt we could quite afford to take it easy for that length of time.

Fancy, then, our horror when, after about a couple of minutes, we heard a cry of "Forward!" close to us, and evidently on this side of the stream.

Off we dashed like mad, in a regular panic, and never checked our pace till we had put three ploughed fields and a couple of wide ditches to our credit. We did not discover till it was all over how it was our cunning scheme to perplex the hounds had thus miscarried. Then we were told that some of the scent, instead of dropping into the water, as we intended, had lodged on the top of some stones in mid-stream, and this had at once betrayed our dodge to the practised eyes of the foremost hounds. It was a caution to be more careful another time.

We had to work hard to make up for the ground we had lost by this mistake, but our next sight of the hounds showed that we were fairly ahead again, and that the ploughed fields had (as Birch predicted) told on a good portion of the pack, who now (at least, those of them who were at all well up) scarcely numbered a dozen.

Half a mile farther brought us to Wincot village, down the main street of which we sped, greatly to the admiration of the inhabitants, who turned out in force to see the sport.

By this time we had fairly got our "second winds," and began to realise the benefit of the steady training of the past fortnight. At an ordinary pace, with the second wind well laid on, we felt we ought to be able to hold out for the run home, unless some very unexpected accident should intervene.

Past the village, we rattled on till we came to the railway embankment, across which we trespassed, not without some difficulty, as it was steep and railed off on either side by high palisades. Once over this, we turned at right angles, and ran for half a mile close alongside the line, and past Wincot station. Here it was necessary to recross the line (down a cutting this time), and as we were doing so we caught sight, on our left, of the leading hounds scrambling to the top of the embankment, which we had passed only a minute or two before.

Clear of the railway, there remained a good steady piece of work cut out for us to reach home, across an awful country, full of hedges and ditches, and as hilly as a pie-crust.

But Birch and I were well in the humour of the thing by this time, and determined it should not be our fault if the "great hunt" of this year ended in a victory for the hounds. So we spurted for nearly a mile, jumping most of the narrow ditches and low hedges that crossed our path, and making as straight a course as the hilly ground allowed of. But, despite all our efforts, the occasional glimpses which we caught of our pursuers showed us that we were unable to shake off four or five of the leading hounds, who, with Forwood at their head, were coming on at a great pace, and, if not gaining on us, at least not losing ground.

This would never do. It would be all up if things went on so, we could see; so the cunning Birch had once again to resort to his dodges to gain time.

Suddenly altering our track, and leaving the fields, he struck a dusty lane, which wound in and out in the direction of Parkhurst. Now, as this was a very dusty and a very chalky lane, and as the wind was blowing the dust about very freely, it was easy to see why the artful Birch made use of it on the present occasion. Our white scraps of paper, falling on the white road, and being fallen on by the white dust, had a good chance of escaping detection, unless looked after very carefully; and to make matters more secure, we dodged off into the fields, and back again into the lane, pretty often, leaving our pursuers a ditch to jump each time.

This manoeuvre answered fairly well, for the next time we saw the hounds they were searching about by the side of a ditch for our track, a good way to the rear.

We had now to face the hardest bit of work of the afternoon. The last two miles home were over a perfectly flat bit of country--so flat that the hounds would have us in view nearly all the way, and, consequently, to dodge or double would be simply useless. Our only course was a straight hard run for it, trusting to our legs and our wind to pull us through. So we settled down to the task with a will. Scarcely had we emerged into the open ground for a couple of minutes, when we saw a figure dash out of the lane in full cry after us.

It was Forwood, the whipper-in, a terrible "scud" across country, and he was only fifty yards or so ahead of three others, also celebrated for their pace. So we hares had our work cut out for us, and no mistake!

For a mile we ran as hard as we well could, turning neither to right nor left, and halting neither at ditch nor dyke. Parkhurst Towers rose before us in the distance, and more than one boy was already strolling out in our direction to witness the finish.

How we wished we were as fresh as they!

"Put it on, hares!" shouted the first who met us, "you'll do it yet."

"Hounds are gaining!" cried the next we passed--a young urchin sitting on a bank and eating toffee.

And now there met us not single spectators only, but groups, who cheered loudly, backing, some the hares and some the hounds, till we hardly knew where we were. Some even began to run along with us, at a respectful distance, in order to be "in at the death."

The playground wall was now visible only half a mile away, on the other side of the Gravelshire Canal, which had to be crossed by a bridge which we were fast approaching.

I gave a rapid look back. Forwood was now only a hundred yards behind us, with lots of running still in him. He would certainly run us down in the next half-mile.

"Birch," I said, as I ran beside him, "are you good for a swim?"

"Rather!" he exclaimed; "if you are. Quick!"

We swerved suddenly in our course, and, to the amazement of all spectators, left the bridge on our left. In another minute we were on the margin of the canal, and the next moment the splash of a double "header," and the shouts of the assembled onlookers, proclaimed that we had made a plunge for it. The canal was only about thirty feet wide, and we were across it in a twinkling, our light flannel clothes scarcely interfering with our swimming, and certainly not adding much to the weight we carried after being soaked through.

Three hundred yards now! Ah! that cheer behind means that Forwood has followed our plunge. What are they laughing at, though? Can he have foundered? No! Another shout! That means he is safe over, and hard at our heels.

For the last three hundred yards we run a regular steeplechase. The meadows are intersected with lines of hurdles, and these we take one after another in our run, as hard as we can. Only one more, and then we are safe!

Suddenly I find myself on my face on the grass! I have caught on the last hurdle, and come to grief!

Birch in an instant hauls me to my feet, just as Forwood rises to the leap. Then for a hundred yards it is a race for very life. What a shouting there is! and what a rushing of boys and waving of caps pass before our eyes! On comes Forwood, the gallant hound, at our heels; we can hear him behind us distinctly!

"Now you have them!" shouts one.

"One spurt more, hares!" cries another, "and you are safe!"

On we bound, and on comes the pursuer, not ten yards behind--not _ten_, but more than _five_. And that five he never makes up till Birch and I are safe inside the school-gates, winners by a neck--and a neck only--of that famous hunt.

The pack came straggling in for the next hour, amid the cheers and chaffing of the boys. Three of them, who had kept neck and neck all the way, were only two minutes behind Forwood; but they had shirked the swim, and taken the higher and drier course--as, indeed, most of the other hounds did--by way of the bridge. Ten minutes after them one other fellow turned up, and a quarter of an hour later three more; and so on until the whole pack had run, or walked, or limped, or ridden home--all except one, little Jim Barlow, the tiniest and youngest and pluckiest little hound that ever crossed country. We were all anxious to know what had become of this small chap of thirteen, who, some one said, ought never to have been allowed to start on such a big run, with his little legs. "Wait a bit," said Forwood; "Jim will turn up before long, safe and sound, you'll see."

It was nearly dusk, and a good two hours after the finish. We were sitting in the big hall, talking and laughing over the events of the afternoon, when there came a sound of feet on the gravel walk, accompanied by a vehement puffing, outside the window.

"There he is!" exclaimed Forwood, "and, I declare, running still!"

And so it was. In a minute the door swung open, and in trotted little Jim, dripping wet, coated with mud, and panting like a steam-engine, but otherwise as self-composed as usual.

"How long have you fellows been in?" he demanded of us, as he sat down and began to lug off his wet boots.

"Two hours," replied Birch.

The little hero looked a trifle mortified to find he was so far behind, and we were quite sorry for him.

"Never mind," he said, "I ran on the scent every inch of the way, and only pulled up once, at Wincot, for five minutes."

"You did!" exclaimed one or two voices, as we all stared admiringly at this determined young hound.

"Yes; and a nice dance you gave a chap my size over the railway and across those ditches! But I didn't miss a single one of them, all the same."

"But what did you do at the canal?" asked Forwood.

"Why, swam it, of course--obliged to do it, wasn't I, if the hares went that way? I say, is there any grub going?"

Plucky little Jim Barlow! After all, he was the hero of that "big hunt," though he did come in two hours late.

This was the last big "hare and hounds" I ever ran in. I have many a time since ridden with a real hunt over the same country, but never have I experienced the same thrill of excitement or known the same exultation at success as when I ran home with Birch, two seconds ahead of the hounds, in the famous Parkhurst Paper-chase of 18 hundred and something.


(The end)
Talbot Baines Reed's short story: The Parkhurst Paper-Chase

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