I feel some difficulty in dealing with the character I am now about to describe. The world at large is very prone to condemn the hunting parson, regarding him as a man who is false to his profession; and, for myself, I am not prepared to say that the world is wrong. Had my pastors and masters, my father and mother, together with the other outward circumstances of my early life, made a clergyman of me, I think that I should not have hunted, or at least, I hope that I might have abstained; and yet, for the life of me, I cannot see the reason against it, or tell any man why a clergyman should not ride to hounds. In discussing the subject, and I often do discuss it, the argument against the practice which is finally adopted, the argument which is intended to be conclusive, simply amounts to this, that a parish clergyman who does his duty cannot find the time. But that argument might be used with much more truth against other men of business, against those to whose hunting the world takes no exception. Indeed, of all men, the ordinary parish clergyman, is, perhaps, the least liable to such censure. He lives in the country, and can hunt cheaper and with less sacrifice of time than other men. His professional occupation does not absorb all his hours, and he is too often an idle man, whether he hunt or whether he do not. Nor is it desirable that any man should work always and never play. I think it is certainly the fact that a clergyman may hunt twice a week with less objection in regard to his time than any other man who has to earn his bread by his profession. Indeed, this is so manifestly the case, that I am sure that the argument in question, though it is the one which is always intended to be conclusive, does not in the least convey the objection which is really felt. The truth is, that a large and most respectable section of the world still regards hunting as wicked. It is supposed to be like the Cider Cellars or the Haymarket at twelve o'clock at night. The old ladies know that the young men go to these wicked places, and hope that no great harm is done; but it would be dreadful to think that clergymen should so degrade themselves. Now I wish I could make the old ladies understand that hunting is not wicked.
But although that expressed plea as to the want of time really amounts to nothing, and although the unexpressed feeling of old ladies as to the wickedness of hunting does not in truth amount to much, I will not say that there is no other impediment in the way of a hunting parson. Indeed, there have come up of late years so many impediments in the way of any amusement on the part of clergymen, that we must almost presume them to be divested at their consecration of all human attributes except hunger and thirst. In my younger days, and I am not as yet very old, an elderly clergyman might play his rubber of whist whilst his younger reverend brother was dancing a quadrille; and they might do this without any risk of a rebuke from a bishop, or any probability that their neighbours would look askance at them. Such recreations are now unclerical in the highest degree, or if not in the highest, they are only one degree less so than hunting. The theatre was especially a respectable clerical resource, and we may still occasionally see heads of colleges in the stalls, or perhaps a dean, or some rector, unambitious of further promotion. But should a young curate show himself in the pit, he would be but a lost sheep of the house of Israel. And latterly there went forth, at any rate in one diocese, a firman against cricket ! Novels, too, are forbidden; though the fact that they may be enjoyed in solitude saves the clergy from absolute ignorance as to that branch of our national literature. All this is hard upon men who, let them struggle as they may to love the asceticisms of a religious life, are only men; and it has a strong tendency to keep out of the Church that very class, the younger sons of country gentlemen, whom all Churchmen should wish to see enter it. Young men who think of the matter when the time for taking orders is coming near, do not feel themselves qualified to rival St. Paul in their lives; and they who have not thought of it find themselves to be cruelly used when they are expected to make the attempt.
But of all the amusements which a layman may follow and a clergyman may not, hunting is thought to be by much the worst. There is a savour of wickedness about it in the eyes of the old ladies which almost takes it out of their list of innocent amusements even for laymen. By the term old ladies it will be understood, perhaps, that I do not allude simply to matrons and spinsters who may be over the age of sixty, but to that most respectable portion of the world which has taught itself to abhor the pomps and vanities. Pomps and vanities are undoubtedly bad, and should be abhorred; but it behooves those who thus take upon themselves the duties of censors to be sure that the practices abhorred are in truth real pomps and actual vanities, not pomps and vanities of the imagination. Now as to hunting, I maintain that it is of itself the most innocent amusement going, and that it has none of that Cider-Cellar flavour with which the old ladies think that it is so savoury. Hunting is done by a crowd; but men who meet together to do wicked things meet in small parties. Men cannot gamble in the hunting-field, and drinking there is more difficult than in almost any other scene of life. Anonyma, as we were told the other day, may show herself; but if so, she rides alone. The young man must be a brazen sinner, too far gone for hunting to hurt him, who will ride with Anonyma in the field. I know no vice which hunting either produces or renders probable, except the vice of extravagance; and to that, if a man be that way given, every pursuit in life will equally lead him A seat for a Metropolitan borough, or a love of ortolans, or a taste even for new boots will ruin a man who puts himself in the way of ruin. The same may be said of hunting, the same and no more.
But not the less is the general feeling very strong against the hunting parson; and not the less will it remain so in spite of anything that I may say. Under these circumstances our friend the hunting parson usually rides as though he were more or less under a cloud. The cloud is not to be seen in a melancholy brow or a shamed demeanour; for the hunting parson will have lived down those feelings, and is generally too forcible a man to allow himself to be subjected to such annoyances; nor is the cloud to be found in any gentle tardiness of his motions, or an attempt at suppressed riding; for the hunting parson generally rides hard. Unless he loved hunting much he would not be there. But the cloud is to be perceived and heard in the manner in which he speaks of himself and his own doings. He is never natural in his self-talk as is any other man. He either flies at his own cloth at once, marring some false apology for his presence, telling you that he is there just to see the hounds, and hinting to you his own know ledge that he has no business to ride after them; or else he drops his profession altogether, and speaks to you in a tone which makes you feel that you would not dare to speak to him about his parish. You can talk to the banker about his banking, the brewer about his brewing, the farmer about his barley, or the landlord about his land; but to a hunting parson of this latter class, you may not say a word about his church.
There are three modes in which a hunting parson may dress himself for hunting, the variations having reference solely to the nether man. As regards the upper man there can never be a difference. A chimney-pot hat, a white neckerchief, somewhat broad in its folds and strong with plentiful starch, a stout black coat, cut rather shorter than is common with clergymen, and a modest, darksome waistcoat that shall attract no attention, these are all matters of course. But the observer, if he will allow his eye to descend below these upper garments, will perceive that the clergyman may be comfortable and bold in breeches, or he may be uncomfortable and semi-decorous in black trowsers. And there is another mode of dress open to him, which I can assure my readers is not an unknown costume, a tertium quid, by which semi-decorum and comfort are combined. The hunting breeches are put on first, and the black trowsers are drawn over them.
But in whatever garb the hunting parson may ride, he almost invariably rides well, and always enjoys the sport. If he did not, what would tempt him to run counter, as he does, to his bishop and the old ladies? And though, when the hounds are first dashing out of covert, and when the sputtering is beginning and the eager impetuosity of the young is driving men three at a time into the same gap, when that wild excitement of a fox just away is at its height, and ordinary sportsmen are rushing for places, though at these moments the hunting parson may be able to restrain himself, and to declare by his momentary tranquillity that he is only there to see the hounds, he will ever be found, seeing the hounds also, when many of that eager crowd have lagged behind, altogether out of sight of the last tail of them. He will drop into the running, as it were out of the clouds, when the select few have settled down steadily to their steady work; and the select few will never look upon him as one who, after that, is likely to fall out of their number. He goes on certainly to the kill, and then retires a little out of the circle, as though he had trotted in at that spot from his ordinary parochial occupations, just to see the hounds.
For myself I own that I like the hunting parson. I generally find him to be about the pleasantest man in the field, with the most to say for himself, whether the talk be of hunting, of politics, of literature, or of the country. He is never a hunting man unalloyed, unadulterated, and unmixed, a class of man which is perhaps of all classes the most tedious and heavy in hand. The tallow-chandler who can talk only of candles, or the barrister who can talk only of his briefs, is very bad; but the hunting man who can talk only of his runs, is, I think, worse even than the unadulterated tallow-chandler, or the barrister unmixed. Let me pause for a moment here to beg young sportsmen not to fall into this terrible mistake. Such bores in the field are, alas, too common; but the hunting parson never sins after that fashion. Though a keen sportsman, he is something else besides a sportsman, and for that reason, if for no other, is always a welcome addition to the crowd.
But still I must confess at the end of this paper, as I hinted also at the beginning of it, that the hunting parson seems to have made a mistake. He is kicking against the pricks, and running counter to that section of the world which should be his section. He is making himself to stink in the nostrils of his bishop, and is becoming a stumbling-block, and a rock of offence to his brethren. It is bootless for him to argue, as I have here argued, that his amusement is in itself innocent, and that some open-air recreation is necessary to him. Grant him that the bishops and old ladies are wrong and that he is right in principle, and still he will not be justified. Whatever may be our walk in life, no man can walk well who does not walk with the esteem of his fellows. Now those little walks by the covert sides, those pleasant little walks of which I am writing, are not, unfortunately, held to be estimable, or good for themselves, by English clergymen in general.