ONE-THIRD of the soil of England is devoted to the pleasures of the aristocracy, the principal of which is sport. The story is old of the foreigner who stayed at a country-house where every morning the men of the party exclaimed : " 'Tis a fine day! Let's go out and kill something." The picture is not exaggerated. Many Englishmen of fortune seem to suppose they are sent into this world to hunt foxes and shoot grouse and deer. This is the object of their existence and the occupation of their lives. Among the aristocracy the man who does not shoot is an anomaly, almost a monstrosity. There must be something wrong about him.
All the arrangements of the upper classes political or social, in town or country are made with reference to sport. The fashionable season and the parliamentary season are determined by the game laws; country-house parties in winter and tours to the Continent in summer depend upon what are called " close times." Courtships are carried on, marriages are postponed, to suit the convenience of sportsmen. Great political revolutions are precipitated or deferred, questions of peace or war are taken up or let alone because ministers want to go to Scotland, because grouse-shooting begins in August, and fox-hunting is not over till February. The gravest crises in the history of a government are neglected when legislators are anxious to be off to the moors, and the sessions of Parliament can- not be held till the frost is out of the ground and the foxes begin to breed.
Estates are purchased and houses built because of the proximity of the covers; properties are valuable or insignificant according to the amount of game. Scores of fortunes are lost through the excessive love of sport. Every circumstance and event of English high-life revolves around this pivot, and the results are as visible as those of religion. Sport enters into politics, it colors literature, it controls society. It affects dress, manners, etiquettes, and entertainments, the relations of master and servant, man and wife, father and son ; the characteristics of whole classes in the State. It is one of the principal causes and results of aristocracy to-day.
On the 12th of August the sportsman's year begins. Grouse-shooting dissolves Parliament, and all who have moors, or invitations to them, make haste to the north. There is some good shooting in the south, but the best grouse-moors are in the opposite direction. Parties of twelve or twenty are common, but the genuine sportsmen often go oif in smaller numbers. In Scotland there are hundreds of small shootings let for the season at prices varying from forty pounds to four thousand, according to the extent and quality of the game; but the great proprietors of course reserve the best for them- selves. On many estates there are small shooting-boxes, or still simpler cabins called shielings, plainly furnished, where half a dozen men can go without ladies, and devote a few days or weeks to their favorite pastime.
More often, however, society is combined with sport. At a great house the party is usually large. The men sally out each morning " to kill something," and sometimes the ladies accompany them. Of late years a few of these are shooters themselves. This is, of course, when the game is driven to the guns ; at such times the bags made are enormous, hundreds of birds often falling to a single sports- man. The labor is less, and the glory, but the boasting is prodigious.
The shooters go out soon after breakfast by ten o'clock always, and earlier when they are very much in earnest. The dresses are rough, necessarily ; the boots heavy-soled, for tramping over the moors ; the knickerbockers coarse, and in Scotland many wear the kilt. Lunch is taken on the moors, and by two o'clock it is very acceptable. Sometimes a cart comes out from the house with a hot lunch, and the ladies accompany it on ponies or in little carriages; but if the game is far from the road the gillies carry cold meat and claret in hampers. Whiskey each man takes for himself. The gamekeepers and gillies and beaters make quite a procession, with the extra guns and the game-bags. They load for the gentry, and sometimes bring in the birds, and beat, and drive, and take as keen an interest in the sport as their masters, or the dogs, which also form an important part of the company. The fresh air, the mountain mist, the purple heather, the glimpses of scenery, the exhilaration of the exercise, all make the pastime more than fascinating, even for those who have less than an Englishman's passion for "killing things."
In Scotland deer-stalking is another favorite form of the amusement. It is much more laborious, the sportsmen must walk farther, must lie on the hillside often for hours, must watch more warily, and shoot perhaps more skilfully, but the glory of bringing home a stag is great enough to compensate. The deer-forests, as they are called, contain no trees; they are simply great stretches of broken land, probably once wooded, but now bare and bleak for miles and miles ; with little lochs scattered among the hills, their sloping banks covered with masses of bracken, the haunt and the browse of the red deer. These vast expanses devoted to stalking make up a large part of the estates of the Scotch nobility. Hundreds of thousands of acres are included in the deer-forests of some half a dozen dukes and earls.
A party of stalkers returning over the hills after a long day's sport, and standing out against the red evening sky, makes a picture that the stranger is sure to remember. Most of them are in Highland dress, with plaids and sporrans, feathers in their bonnets and daggers in their hose; their legs are bare, and their guns are at their shoulders. The stag is slung over a pony in the middle of the group, his antlers attesting his age. They shout and wave their bonnets and plaids as they approach, and those who have remained at home are sure to go out to meet them at the gate, to listen to the story of the day's exploits, to count the branches on the antlers, and accompany the party to the larder or the butchery, where the stag is weighed and divided. At night the man who has shot a stag is entitled to wear a red waistcoat at dinner.
A bath and a cup of tea refresh the jaded sportsman before the formal evening that follows. In Scotland, in the shooting season, dinner is often as late as nine, or even half-past nine ; and in the long northern twilight candles are seldom needed before you sit down. The transformation in the appearance of the company when lights are brought in is sometimes startling. The rough garb of the sportsman has been exchanged for the habiliments of civ- ilization, and the women are resplendent in jewels and lace. They take their finest diamonds to the wilds, and there is a peculiar fascination about the splendor and luxury of an aristocratic dinner, after the hardships and excitement of the forest and the moor.
The anglers have had more quiet pleasures, but they too boast at night of their successes, and the table groans under the results of the achievements of the day.
Partridge-shooting begins on the 1st of September, and is less arduous than grouse-shooting, and more of an English than a Scottish sport. Pheasants are not killed till October 1. This amusement also is principally a southern one, but every county in England has its pheasant preserves. The battues are enormous, and the covers like chicken yards. Game-keepers, indeed, are little more than stock-farmers, so far as pheasants are concerned; and many of the earnest shooters despise this phase of sport. The English themselves never call it "hunting; "they speak only of "shooting" pheasants. I should say butchering; for the pheasants are sold.
This is a feature of English sport that I never ceased to wonder at. These noblemen and gentlemen with their hundreds of thousands of acres and their hundreds of thousands of income, their estates and castles and retainers, their crowds of aristocratic guests nearly all sell their game. Now and then they send a friend a brace of birds or a haunch of venison, but the game market is stocked by the nobility. To many of them it is a considerable source of revenue. I was once staying with a well-known nobleman while General Grant was President. I had been out with the shooters, and thought it would be pleasant to send the President a brace of pheasants from the spot where they had been killed. I mentioned to one of the guests that I meant to suggest this to our host, but he cautioned me not to commit the blunder. The matter was discussed by the entire party, and every man declared it would be improper to make the request. The game was marketable, and it would be indelicate to ask for it, even if I had shot the birds. Nobody seemed to think this strange. The high spirit of an aristocrat did not revolt at selling the game that his guests had killed; and the man who was lavish of his courtesies would have been amazed had I proposed he should pay this compliment to the head of a foreign State.
The devotion to sport that characterizes the English aristocracy is not elevating. It not only makes them indifferent to more serious occupations, taking the hereditary legislators from the affairs of state to which they are supposed to apply themselves, and often distracting them from their own more important interests ; but the incessant practice is certainly brutalizing. To be forever planning and inflicting death and pain, even on animals, cannot be refining. The English nature is coarse in itself, but sport renders it still more so. They say, indeed, that they shoot and kill and torture because all this is necessary in order to procure food. But butchering is also necessary, yet gentlemen do not select the shambles for their pastimes. The Frenchman's criticism was fair. "Let us go and kill something," is the Englishman's idea of pleasure; and it is a coarse one. An American soldier once said something like this at an English table in my hearing, and one of the company insinuated that the sentiment was maudlin. But the American, who had been in forty battles, replied: " Oh! I believe in killing nothing but men."
Like everything else in England, this pleasure is a matter of privilege. Game is strictly preserved for the great. The unprivileged man may not carry a gun. Every Englishman loves sport, the peasant as well as the peer, but poaching is a criminal offence; and the poor man is sent for two months, six months, even a year, to gaol, for doing what gives the rich man his keenest gratification. Five thousand committals for poaching are made every year in England alone. The landlord is the magistrate, and decides upon the punishment after con- victing of the crime. In this country of privilege, there is property even in the air ; and the peasant who has no farm, no house, and no hope of ever owning either, no amusement, often no meat, may not shoot the rabbit that roots up his garden, or the wild bird that flies over the moor.
Nothing can be more fascinating for those who are fond of the pastime than the methods of aristocratic athletic pleasure; nothing more elaborate and imposing than its appliances and appurtenances. God's uplands and valleys themselves are the playground of the nobility. The broad domains, the stretching moors, the thick coverts, the lofty mountains, the purple heath-covered hills, rolling and billowy, like the waves of the sea, and, like them, extending to the horizon, are all reserved unbroken and undisturbed, for the amusement of the aristocracy ; these are the stage on which the great disport themselves. When across some scene of stately natural grandeur or bewitching cultivated grace there passes a company of the masters of the soil, issuing perhaps from a great castle hoary with age and famous in history, with their guests and retainers, their horses and hounds, and guns and game, bent on exhilarating, manly pleasure ; surrounded with all that makes life splendid and gay one cannot but admire the taste and luxury and magnificence that come from centuries of privilege and generations used to caste.
But at the same moment another procession of starving, houseless hinds, a million in number, is marching to the almshouse. [As Written]
RANK AND TITLE
THE PRINCE OF WALES
AMERICANS AT COURT
THE CROWN IN POLITICS
QUEENS' PERSONAL CHARACTER
SERVANTS' HALL PRECEDENCE
THE HOUSE OF LORDS
THE PRINCESS OF WALES
A NOBLEMAN INDEED
POMPS & VANITIES OF CHURCH
CHURCH & STATE
HOUSE OF COMMONS
LITERATURE & THE LORDS
THE LONDON SEASON