Writing for boys, it is no sort of use going through the long catalogue of breeds. What you want is a good friend and cheery companion. Some dogs are naturally fools, others are delicate, and only to be recommended if you care for sick-nursing ; some, like the lurcher, are irreclaimable blackguards, and if you gave in to their ways would be sure to demoralise you. Then there are the staghounds and the foxhounds, death on deer or fox, extraordinarily sagacious in their special lines, but neither generally clever nor sociable. There is no prettier sight than a level pack of foxhounds ; no more exhilarating music than theirs when they are flying hot-foot on a burning scent, waking the echoes in the woodlands, and running so close that a sheet might cover them. There are boys lucky enough to hope one day to be masters of hounds, and there can be no more honourable ambition for an English county gentleman. Those favourites of fortune, born with silver spoons in their mouths, are few, but there are many who may become masters of beagles, and better sport no boy need desire.
The beagle is really a foxhound in miniature, as keen in the nose and as hot on the chase ; only instead of getting together a costly pack, two or three couples will be enough for amusement. The beauty of the beagle is its diminutive size, and the smaller they are the better, as you follow the chase on foot, and the pace should never be too severe. Fifteen inches at the shoulder is an outside height; twelve is better still, and it is seldom you get them much lower. If the hare ran straight away, like a tough old dog-fox, her pursuers would have no chance with her; but the nature of the hare is to dodge and twist and turn. The little fellows hunt her with the bloodthirsty perseverance of a weasel after a rabbit—noses and eyes on the ground, yelping ceaselessly. Nothing can be more animating than the merry music; you feel as if there were quicksilver in your legs and springs in your boot heels, as you go bounding over ditches, crashing through hedges, and coming a nasty cropper now and then, when you trip over rabbit-holes or furze-roots. The music ceases of a sudden, and you are not sorry to have breathing time, for your heart is beating at the double, though you know your wind was good. The tiny pack has been thrown out, and is casting to take up the trail again. There, they have it; there is a sharp note of delighted discovery from a veteran you have learned to trust—you could tell that keen yelp among a hundred—as the chorus swells again. To tell the truth, the hare generally has the best of it, and carries her fud away unscathed though there are stories of famous old packs of beagles who invariably wore down and worried their prey. In these days when hares have been proscribed by Act of Parliament, it is as well they should get away to give sport another time. And if you ever have the chance, nothing will excite you more than going out roe-shooting in the Highlands, with beagles to start the game and keep it going. Of course, the little dogs are far too sensible to think they can tackle such a monster as a roe. All the same, they hunt him as hard as if they hoped it. If the roe were wise he would show them a clean pair of heels. Agile above all animals and fleet of foot, in his graceful bounds he can clear bushes twice his own height. But he is loth to leave the woods he inhabits. Unlike the hare, he does not twist and turn, but he runs in rings and seems to play with his pursuers. As you stand on some knoll in a clearing you catch flying glimpses of him through the tree stems : now he is bounding as if the hounds were on his haunches ; then he pulls up and bends his head to listen. The clamorous little beagles come nearer and nearer. With a leap he is across the ride and tearing through the opposite thicket. I rather believe that he knows that water drowns scent, and takes advantage of any streamlet that comes in his way. Independently of the difference in length of legs, in any case the beagles are hard put to it; if they cannot wriggle under the thickets, they have no weight to break through. But their clamorous and inveterate perseverance absorbs the roe's attention, and unless a friendly whiff of tainted air gives him warning he forgets to look out for the guns. He comes glancing through the boughs beneath that knoll, where you stand sheltering behind the pine : rolls over to a charge behind the shoulder, and you are very sorry you have shot him when you look into those beautiful eyes, quivering and closing in the dimness of death. You vow you will never be guilty of such another murder, and you never are—till the next time. Then the little beagles come straggling up one by one—panting, with tongues hanging out, after their tremendous exertions—with burrs and fir-needles clinging to their ears, and their sleek coats torn by the thorns, smeared here and there with blood-streaks. For though there is a breed of rough beagles, as a rule they are smooth, and Nature never intended them for such rough Highland work, where the thickets are like so many chevaux de frise, and the thorns tear like the spinifex of the Australian deserts. A pack I used to run after, when hunting in Dorsetshire, were more in keeping with the surroundings. In woods where the tall Scotch firs rose clean as cathedral columns, with a soft carpeting, in brown and green, of needles and lichens, over rough heath and tussocky grass, enclosed by ditches and turf banks, you could keep the chase in view almost from start to finish.
In such a country and in the home woods, you may do as you please and there is no fear of trouble. But if you—or at least, your father— are not, like Robinson Crusoe, monarch of all you survey, you must remember that there is a law of trespass. Farmers will not always sympathise with your sporting tastes, and they have a prejudice against having their hedges broken or their spring wheat trampled down. But on the whole they are good fellows, kindly to boys, and a great deal may be done by civility, if you solemnly promise to do them no harm. It is well to take precautions beforehand, and rubbing down a rough-spoken farmer the right way is excellent practice in diplomacy. If you don't, your beagles will assuredly land you in grief, and I have heard of cases where the enthusiastic huntsmen have been collared and cudgelled. It was rough justice, but bringing actions for assault seriously adds to the expenses of a pack.