Charlie spark villain.., p.15
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       Charlie Spark - Villain Extraordinaire, p.15

           J M S Macfarlane

  At the stables, they were almost bowled over by several toffs who were searching frantically for their nags ; with every step, Sir Harry’s boots rasped and squeaked and his trousers had him in a stranglehold. Despite these irritations, he told Charlie Spark to lead his mare on at a relaxed pace and to make sure the horse knew who was master – if it got the upper hand even for an instant, they would probably hear from Spark in a week's time after he'd found his way out of the New Forest.

  Charlie had never ridden to hounds before and had no idea what the point of it all was. To set his mind at rest, Sir Harry explained that there was nothing to worry about – all they were doing was to follow the troupe who were following the Master of the hunt who was tracking the hounds who were chasing the fox.

  "It's a snap, old boy," said Sir Harry with a smug expression, recalling his own attempts at riding ponies for the first time. "One must face up to an attack of pace at the wicket and horses are no different – one must chivvy the spurs and send 'em along – that's the ticket."

  By this time, the rooks had migrated to a tree overlooking the stables and cawed in amusement at the riders poncing about as the stable lad saddled their hacks and led them on to the forecourt. The other horses looked over the stable door, whinnying at their neighbours outside who were snuffling and snorting and jingling their harnesses and lifting their hooves and clacking them down, their ears sharp and alert, aware that they would soon be racing across the open countryside despite having to carry a load of imbeciles who didn’t know how to ride properly.

  The Bolter (who was prone to being too big for his horseshoes) took one look at Sir Harry and snorted : "Not on your life, mate." And with a horsey chuckle to the mare, he whinnied to her : "Bad luck, old girl. You get the fat one." Unknown to him, the mare would have the last laugh.

  Anyone noticing Lady Birch's jodhpurs, thought that they must have been fashioned out of sailcloth. Sir Harry couldn't fathom how the garment held itself together under such extreme pressure. As she climbed onto her unfortunate nag whose legs bowed visibly at the weight, he thought he heard the first few stitches popping like exploding rivets.

  Lord Ruffer was seated aboard his newest toy, a sleek grey stallion which he naturally compared with himself. Being just over five feet, he'd insisted on riding in the hunt and with the aid of a set of stairs, had swung himself around the horse's neck and into his saddle where he sat like a professional jockey. Both Bulot and Schwager who were seized with the novelty of the scene, attended Ruffer on either side of his horse to try and shorten his stirrups.

  As for the composer, virtuoso and recording artist, he considered himself an excellent judge of horseflesh, not least at some of the Montmartre restaurants where filet cheval was a speciality of the house.

  With slow deliberation, he strode from head to flank, proudly admiring the white three year old gelding he'd purchased from an operatic acquaintance in London. What he hadn't heard, was the soprano’s delight at the extra two noughts on his cheque.

  "I always take the lead in the hunt," bragged Piers Loathbery to his friends in the crowd who preferred not to join what they thought was some sort of barbaric rite.

  Some of the other riders sat astride their horses which were becoming restless as the various harnesses jingled and tinkled. Lord Loathbery had invited the 'local rabble' (as he called them) : these were the wealthy professional and trades people from the surrounding farms and estates. Not all of them were high Tories but each one was desperate to win social favour and had kept their invitation from the Manor House in pride of place on their mantelpieces or shown them off in the Golden Pot pub. Generally speaking, they were a sorry-looking bunch and were either ignored or laughed at by the wedding guests whom they secretly despised and envied.

  Meanwhile, at the far gate, the terrier men and the Weldon constabulary were keeping the hunt saboteurs in check as the dreadlock brigade fired popguns and starting pistols while screaming abuse, all to frighten the horses.

  Sir Harry and Charlie Spark stood to one side and well away from the 'rabble' who received sidelong glances as if they all had some infectious disease. Before long, there were signs of the off as the last glasses of brandy were emptied and the lackeys deserted them. Smiling querulously, Sir Harry whispered to Charlie Spark : "Old foxie's getting a reprieve today – only these fools don't know it yet."

  Across the stable yard, the playwright and the director spouted literary quotations to capture the atmosphere of the hunt. The director, in his fourth stirrup cup, recited a passage from his poem entitled, 'Aarr there, Bill', (these words being repeated at the end of every stanza) :

  "The wind screeling through one’s coat tails

  And the foamy sweat on the horse’s neck,

  As we were showered in dollops of mud

  From head to foot ; I saw the old fellow

  Down the road....I saw him...I almost

  Ran him down…I said....Aar there, Bill...."

  Lord Loathbery’s horse was a black gelding which proudly tossed its mane, declaring itself to be the pride of the field. Two of the grooms were energetically brushing it down in readiness for his arrival. Even Charles, for all his lack of knowledge on the subject, couldn't help admiring the animal’s stature. His chestnut mare seemed worn out in comparison. Sir Harry was the only one sniggering to himself that Loathbery, a supposed hunt enthusiast had chosen to ride an extremely valuable eventing horse which was more used to taking showground jumps than tackling a ditchwater bog.

  By this time, nearly everyone was complaining about the delay including the hounds who were voicing their impatience with the fops and toffs.

  Sir Harry took the Bolter's reins and winched himself into the saddle. At this, the chestnut mare whinnied at her big-headed companion who couldn't believe his bad luck. "Well," came the snort in return, "all I can say is that old fatty had better hang on tight or he'll know the reason why."

  "Haw haw….I say Gerald, see those damned saboteurs down at the paddock fence," said one merchant banker to another. "I’d like to meet 'em good an' proper alright," replied the other. "I'd set the dogs on 'em – wouldn't I, chaps ?"

  To this, the hounds yapped back a load of dog drivel that they didn’t hunt saboteurs, just foxes.

  Amanda Teece wore her hair in a bun, like a black pudding on the back of her head. She was dressed in a black riding habit and had a side saddle fitted to her horse, a tame old nag with a white diamond on its forehead.

  Piers Loathbery strode up and down, whacking his riding crop against his breeches. "If Father doesn't signal a start very shortly, we'll take ourselves orf without him," he announced to the other riders. Everyone looked the other way.

  From afar, Charlie Spark saw a group of hangers-on with Antoinette Loathbery and Simon Cadwaller who were both wearing red coats, white cravats, black top boots and top hats. A lackey was carrying a tray full of glasses of armagnac which all of them liberally knocked back before trying to find their horses.

  Antoinette caught sight of Spark and gave an enigmatic smile, half in amusement at his predicament the evening before and half enticingly. Spark ignored her and the withering glare from her husband by her side. Fortunately, Sir Harry was busy at the time, trying to get one of the grooms to adjust his stirrups.

  An unlucky stable boy was standing in the wrong place when Antoinette thought that her horse hadn’t been saddled. After berating the lad, one of the grooms pointed to her horse which was standing saddled up outside the stable and ready to go. "That's simply not the point," she screamed, purple with rage, tears streaming down her face. The Cad had taken the precaution of carrying wads of cotton wool with him to plug in his ears.

  Several of the more boisterous hounds such as Bouncer, Belter, Sniffer and Woofer were howling derisively at the time it was taking to begin. And joining them, the horses began whinnying, with startled eyes and sharpened ears. Streams of invective came firstly from Antoinette and were taken up by the monied set who were competing for her fa
ther's patronage.

  "Oh Good Lord," they droned in unison, "Where is he ? Where is Lord Loathbery ?.. What in heaven's name can be keeping him ?"

  The 'rabble' stared at the hung over, nauseous wedding guests, many of whom were deathly uncomfortable in their riding gear or were cold or had a thundering headache or piercing backache or had had little sleep or were already arguing with their horses. These, in turn thought the entire charade was a waste of time and would rather have been back in the stables with their cousins and whinnying over the inanity of human behaviour.

  No sooner had the imprecation to the heavens been delivered, than Loathbery appeared, as if obeying their summons. His thin bony legs sported baggy jodhpurs, which he found most comfortable for riding.

  "Ladies and gentlemen. The fox has been released and is heading in a westerly direction. I apologise for keeping you waiting however the fox didn't care to leave his cage and had become rather offended with encouragements to make him go." One of the lackeys was sporting a bandaged hand and gave a look of pure vitriol.

  Hearing this, Sir Harry's opinion of the event was even more dismal than what he'd expected. The Manor House had used a bag fox which would have been kept in a farmer's cage for several days and would have no knowledge or support of its local habitat. A bag fox wouldn't know where to run and hide as one of the local foxes would and didn't stand a great chance of keeping the hounds off its scent, if the dogs had any wits about them.

  "Then again," he thought, "with such a clueless crowd as this lot, the fox would have to be geriatric for them to catch him." And selecting a cigar, he grew aggravated trying to light it using half a box of matches but the gusty breeze that morning played tricks on him from different directions. In the end, he waved the white flag and pocketed it for a quieter moment.

  Chapter 40

  Antoinette Suffers A Fall

  When Sir Harry had gone fox-hunting in his younger days, he’d always delighted in lifting the wallets of the drones and money-men riding alongside him : left penniless and at the mercy of their friends, they were fair game.

  The fox mightn't have any defence against the rural gentry and their City friends but Sir Harry would have his revenge – and relish the moment.

  All of the riders were now mounted and ready to charge off. Miles Bentley, the master of foxhounds took Trimmer, the fastest of the pack, to the cage earlier occupied by the fox. After some prodding and waiting with no reaction but blank stares from the dog, Bentley snatched a handful of straw in desperation and thrust it under the dog’s nose for him to pick up the scent.

  In the course of this, Sir Harry looked down at the pack whose tails swayed like carpet snakes charmed by a flute. The hounds would be lucky to find their way home, let alone tackle the fox.

  All at once, a howling, hollering yowl went up with the rest of the pack following the lead hound in a commotion of legs, paws, muzzles and ears, tumbling and jumping over one another in their rush to take up the scent.

  With an audacious leap, the master of foxhounds sprang into his saddle, landing halfway up the horse’s neck. He blared out a few screeches on a brass horn which startled the horses and sounded more like a drainpipe.

  "Yoiks. Yoiks. Tally ho," cried the younger Loathbery, jabbing his spurs and sending hats flying as he snapped his whip in the air. "Come on, Bender and Bounder, after him Terror and Troweller."

  As they set off, they were followed by the terrier men, local constabulary, hunt saboteurs and some 'gentlemen' of the press who shadowed them at a distance in cars, four wheel drives, vans, bicycles and on foot along dirt roads and through the fields.

  At first, Piers Loathbery led the pack across some fallow enclosures owned by his father but before long the hounds halted at a hedgerow, appearing to have lost the scent. Just as suddenly, Trimmer let out a wail and took an insane leap at the hedge, trying to scramble over it. Some of the other hounds scratched their way under it while others were running around in a muddle, howling indiscriminately and flinging themselves at the side of the barrier to try and batter it down en masse. Bentley was at the point of dismounting and throwing them over, one by one, to the other side when a shout went up that the fox had been sighted.

  Lord Loathbery's eyesight was undiminished for his years and he’d spied the fox fleeing across the neighbouring enclosure. After a moment's scrutiny of the hedgerow, he lightly whipped up his horse, galloped headlong at the hedge, cleared it in a bound and shouted to the others to follow him.

  Nearly all of them were apprehensive, even though the hedge was around two feet high, almost low enough for the horses to step over. Some bankers were undeterred and decided to take the jump. One of them safely cleared it while the other one went careering into it. Meanwhile, the others tried taking the hedge in more of a hop than a stride. With each wave of jumpers, Simon Cadwaller was hysterical with laughter, as he ridiculed their equestrian style.

  When it was Antoinette's turn, Cadwaller said to her : "Go on. It’s easy. A child could jump it. Just get on with it, girl."

  And with a look of determination, with creased brow and pursed lips, she took her horse at a light canter and then into a full gallop but much too late and far too near the hedge : the horse itself realised that she was asking the impossible and refused to spring at the very last moment, holding itself back until its chest hit the hedge, causing her to fly forward with momentum over the horse's neck, straight out of the saddle, over the hedge and head first into a ditch full of brackish water.

  As soon as she landed, a resounding roar went up in the middle distance with the sound of jubilation and cheers given by a large number of saboteurs. Charlie Spark wheezed so much that one of the toffs thought he was asthmatic.

  At first, Antoinette was immovable and speechless, pitifully blinking through a veil of mud which coated her from head to foot. But soon, she began thrashing about and screaming like a banshee, as she was forced to sit where she'd fallen while a group of riders, including her husband, bounded over the barrier at full stride. None of the others dared to laugh but looked at the ground or each other with grins and smirks on their faces. Having seen the fall from his seat on the Bolter, Sir Harry felt that the day was at last showing signs of promise.

  For once, Antoinette was too busy sobbing to curse her horse or the other riders for her bad luck. Cadwaller dismounted, took out a silver hip flask and tried to revive her with a few swigs of brandy.

  On the other side of the enclosure, Sir Harry, Piers Loathbery, Lady Birch, the playwright and the remaining riders had found a gate at the far end of the field, allowing the hounds to tumble over themselves to find Lord Loathbery.

  While the other riders scattered into the distance, Charlie Spark brought up the tail end of the field. "Come on, old girl," he said to his horse which had already tired of the commotion. "Let's show them how it's done." And giving the mare a nudge with his heels, they set off and took the measure of the fence, launching into a confident gallop to leap smoothly over.

  For Antoinette Loathbery, indignity was heaped upon adversity as the right hoof of Spark's horse struck the edge of the muddy puddle, showering the Cad and his wife with ditchwater and lumps of mud and cow manure. Both of them were soaked to the skin and were momentarily too dumb struck, to say anything.

  An old tenant farmer was passing by at the side of the enclosure and caught sight of them. After walking across the field to them, he wagged his finger at them and said : " 'Oi, you hippies – go and camp on somebody else's land or I’ll have the law on ye. Now git out of that mud barth an' keep amovin'." And as he continued across the next field, he muttered to himself about travellers and druids at solstice and how it was all beyond him.

  As Simon and his dearest scraped the mud and muck from each other's eyes, Lord Loathbery was overtaken by the hounds hurtling at full speed, having at last caught the scent. At the same time, Sir Harry had galloped clear of the field to draw level with his host.

  "A fine horse you have there," yelled Si
r Harry.

  "Hmm…yes, thank you….By Jove, what are they playing at ?" said Loathbery straining his eyes, trying to make out what had again stopped the hounds in their tracks as they scattered in different directions, marking trees and rolling in the long grass. The master of the hunt was standing up in his saddle, also looking perplexed.

  "I say Bentley, this just isn't up to scratch. What exactly are they doing ?" his Lordship complained.

  "Well, it's there for all to see, sir – they're casting around for the scent."

  Bentley wasn't going to admit for one moment that the fox had tricked them or that Trimmer and Troweller were less than mediocre foxhounds. Their pedigree was a standing joke in all the pubs within five square miles which the huntmaster never visited as he was a fanatical teetotaller, special constable and Methodist preacher.

  By this time, Amanda Teece and the stragglers had caught up with the advance party. Everyone surmised that the hounds had no idea where the fox was taking his elevenses. From a discreet distance, the saboteurs, constabulary, journalists and spectators were scoffing and saying the same thing. However, the Master of the Hunt had a simple explanation.

  "I've seen foxes do this before, your Lordship – I'm rather an expert when it comes to this sort of thing. He's doubled back on his tracks to confuse them. He's very likely gone to ground back in the last enclosure. In fact, I'll stake my trumpet that he's done exactly that." Then he turned his old nag back in the opposite direction to the neighbouring field. As for the others, they were standing in their saddles, peering in all directions to try and spot the fox’s red mane against the lush green slopes.

  For something to do to alleviate the boredom, Charlie Spark jumped up in his saddle, pointed in the direction of some woods and shouted : "There he goes." The riders craned their necks and stared into the distance until their eyes watered but nothing resembling the fox’s brush could be seen.

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