Vanity Fair, September 1916
A LITTLE CHAT ABOUT A FAVORITE SUMMER SPORT
Recollections of Week-end Meets of the Bellport Fly-Hounds and Wasp-Beagles
By Pelham Grenville, M. F. H.
IT is recorded of the Roman Emperor, Tiberius, that his favorite indoor sport was jabbing at flies with a sharp steel instrument, and that when he contrived to impale one of the startled insects in this manner he was happy for the rest of the day. One might say that here is the earliest known mention that is to be found in the pages of history of the now universal sport of fly-swatting: and, broadly, this may be so. But every true sportsman must admit that the Emperor’s methods merit an even nobler description than “swatting.” He was the super-swatter, setting the unattainable standard towards which we can struggle but vainly.
To pursue flies with a pin is as gallant an adventure as going after wild duck with a rifle. We cannot hope to rival Tiberius. The best we can achieve is to be known as good, thrusting swatters, who always do their best to be in at the death, and who never turn aside for any obstacle, until the hunt is up.
The house parties which I give on my Long Island estate consist entirely of men like myself, who can be relied on to be in shape by 10 a.m. That, in my opinion, is the ideal hour for a fly meet. The day is still cool, the optimism engendered by a good breakfast has not disappeared, and the conditions are perfect in every way. The first move is to assemble the hunters. It is a jovial gathering.
Tough old Commodore van Sprunt has his rolled-up copy of Vanity Fair, without which he never travels; while young Reggie Bootle carries the lighter and more easily-wielded Saturday Evening Post. There is a good deal of cheery chaff and laughter because Stuyvesant Goelet, who is new to the game, has armed himself with a patent steel-wire swatter, for it is contrary to all the etiquette of the chase to use these things. Your true sportsman would as soon shoot at a sitting bird. Blushing under his tan, Stuyvesant abandons his weapon in favor of yesterday’s evening paper. Meanwhile, Sigsbee, my butler—specially engaged because of his round and shiny bald head, which no fly has been known to resist—has opened the screen door, and there is a hush of anticipation.
THE laughter and jovial cries are stilled as we await our quarry. Presently, you hear a little gasp of excitement from some new member of the hunt, who has not been at the sport long enough entirely to master his feelings. A fine fly is peering in through the open window. This is the crucial moment. Will he be lured in by Sigsbee’s bald head, or will he pursue his original intention of going down to the garage to breakfast on the gasoline rags in the bushes by the door.
Another moment, and he has made his decision. He flies in and settles on the butler’s glistening cupola. Instantaneously Francis, the footman, slams the window. Sigsbee shakes his head. “Gone away, sir; gone away!” he says respectfully, as the fly rockets towards the ceiling, and a crashing, “Yoicks! Tally-ho!” from every throat announces that the hunt is up.
AH me! How many wonderful runs that old dining-room has seen. I remember once a tough old dog-fly which had survived a hundred pursuits, leading us without a check from ten in the morning to five minutes before lunch. We started him in the honey. He made a line across country for the south window, with the hunt streaming after him. From there he worked round, by way of the French windows, to the bookshelf. Bertie van Brunt took a fearful toss over an ebony what-not, and poor old General Griggs, the hero of a thousand hunts, who was not as keen-sighted as he had been back in the sixties, came to grief on a sunken art nouveau footstool.
By the end of a couple of hours only Twombley de Peyster and myself were on the active list. All the rest were nursing bruised shins and sprained ankles in the background. At a quarter to one the fly doubled back from the portrait of my grandmother, and in trying to intercept him poor Twombley fell foul of the head of a bearskin rug and had to retire. A few minutes later I had the good luck to come up with the brute as he rested on a magnificent Corot, near the fireplace. I was using a bedroom slipper that day, and it unfortunately damaged the Corot beyond recognition. But I have my consolation in the superb brush that hangs over my mantelpiece, and the memory of one of the finest runs that any swatter ever had.
AT the Long Island countryside, where, as I implied, my best week-end runs have been brought to a successful conclusion, we boast of no less than eight fly hunts and four packs of wasp beagles. Last Saturday was, in many respects, my pack’s gala day; no less than thirty-four men turning out in pink.
My head fly huntsman confessed that in his whole experience he had never seen so stiff a country more gallantly covered, and it is with special pride that he points to a fine old blue-bottle, whom—because of dry weather, a breast-high scent, a heavy rug, and dark wall-paper—we had difficulty in following.
THERE are some men who have spent summers in England who claim that fly-swatting is inferior as a sport to the wasping of the English countryside. As one who has had a wide experience of both, I most emphatically deny this. Wasping is a very fair pastime in its way, but too tame for me.
True, there is an element of danger in it which is lacking in fly-swatting; but even this is more imaginary than real. Your wasp is a foolish beast, almost entirely unable to connect cause and effect. He rarely has the intelligence to discover that the man in the room is responsible for his troubles, and almost never attacks him. Besides, admitting that the wasp has a sting, which gives the novice a thrill, it must be remembered that wasping, as compared with fly-swatting, is a sedentary pursuit. You never hear of a man barking his shin on a table during a wasp-hunt. The conventional method of wasping is to sit waiting till the brute has settled in the jam, and then to shove him earnestly below the surface with a teaspoon. Is this sport, in the sense that fly-swatting is a sport? I do not think so. The excitement of the chase is non-existent. Give me a cracking half-hour run with a fly, with plenty of jumps to take, including a grand piano and a few gate-tables. That is the life.
English poetry is rich in allusions to this king of sports. Every schoolboy is familiar with those lines of Coleridge:
It is the Ancient Mariner;
He swatteth one in three,
which are by some taken unjustly to constitute a slur on the efficiency of the American Navy. Only vapid and irreflective readers could imagine this to be the case. Mark that word “ancient.” “It is the ancient Mariner.” That is to say, he was long past his prime, having reached an age when he might reasonably have been expected to abandon the sport altogether. Yet, such was the accuracy of eye and suppleness of limb resulting from his naval training, and the clean, fresh life of the open wave, that, even in the winter of his life, he was still bagging one out of every three—a record which many a young devotee of the chase would be glad to have. It is Chaucer who is responsible for the old saw:
When noon be highe,
Then swatte ye flye,
which has led to the opinion, held by so many earnest swatters, that the proper time for the sport is after lunch. This is denied by another school of thought which insists that the ideal time for a meet is immediately after breakfast.
There is much to be said on both sides. In support of the after-breakfast theory, one can argue that the flies are fresher and stronger on the wing; while in support of the after-lunch school, one may point out that the sportsman is in better shape for the pursuit after he has had time to insert a bromo-seltzer or two in his system and reduce to reasonable dimensions the early morning head, which is so marked a feature of the swift life in the hunting districts. I have known some extremely ardent swatters who were absolutely incapable of taking any interest in flies or any other mundane thing, except ice-water, until an advanced hour of the afternoon.
It is fruitless to argue what is, after all, purely a matter of individual taste. The pros and cons are balanced with almost perfect equality. There is no doubt that a fly which has just risen from its bed and taken a cold plunge in the milk-jug is in better fettle and better equipped for a sporting run than one which has spent the morning gorging jam and bacon and wants nothing more than a quiet nap on the ceiling.
On the other hand, the average man is certainly not in any condition for violent exercise until he has pulled himself together to face the day. It is best, then, if you are a country host, to bear in mind, when you ask a few friends down for the swatting, that tastes differ, and to arrange your list of visitors accordingly.