Robes flowing in the morning breeze, the Rev. Halsey Stevens stepped forward. The crowd of 70 foxhunters, fortified with bourbon and hot apple cider, drew their horses close together under the trees and bowed their heads. Huntmaster Harry R. Smith, standing at the foot of the steps below the vicar, struggled with 24 hounds.
"We thank you for the health and strength to enjoy our hunt together," Stevens intoned. "We thank you for the hounds to love and all your creation." And, with the pillars of the Blythdale mansion behind them and 1,000 acres of farmland on the other side of an avenue of trees before them, the members of the Marlborough Hunt Club began their 55th foxhunting season yesterday.
Stevens, an Episcopal newcomer to Prince George's County from Connecticut, called it "a taste of the South." Here, on the farm owned by sand and gravel magnate Alfred H. Smith, a mile from the Beltway and Pennsylvania Avenue and a scant few miles from the White House, he was surrounded by some of the county's oldest and most prosperous families, such as the Sasscers and the Clagetts.
Some of Prince George's largest landowners and several lawyers and judges were also there, with only the roar of jets from nearby Andrews Air Force Base to remind them where they were.
The season runs from the fall to early spring or, as one huntsman-farmer put it, "from the end of the soybeans to the beginning of the tobacco," while the fields are clear. The hunters ride twice a week; weekend hunts attract between 20 and 30 riders, and weekday hunts about half that number. In the last 15 to 18 years, they've never caught a fox, Smith said; the fun is in the chase.
Some hunters yesterday were regulars, such as Nancy Helmly. Saying that she is "a direct descendent of Robert Brooke, who brought the first pack of fox hounds into the country in 1652," Helmly said she rode her first hunt on a pony when she was 10 years old. In the 36 years since then, she has been riding with the hunt club every week during hunting season.
Jerri Joy, a Senate committee staff member who lives in southern Prince George's County, was the only woman riding sidesaddle. She claimed it is the most comfortable way to hunt, even jumping fences, though some of the older women, recalling the sidesaddle training of their childhoods, were suspicious.
Everybody else who came for the blessing was dressed in tight riding trousers and waistcoats in the pale yellow colors of the club, black jackets and caps and white ruffled shirts.
When Stevens finished his prayer, master of hounds Harry R. Smith blew his horn, led the dogs into the first field of cut grass, and marshaled his "whips" -- men and women who help keep the horses and hounds in line throughout the hunt. His brother Alfred Smith Jr. gathered the hunters to tell them where they would go.
The brothers had worked out the course a few days earlier. The hunt would head north through the fields and work west, sending the hounds to snuffle out ditches and gullies where a fox might hide, past tobacco barns, through fields of corn stubble and grazing cattle. Then they would head south, into the wind where the scent would carry best, circling back,in the end, to the farm where they started.
The riders filed out into the fields and over the first hill: Fred Sasscer and the Smiths, Judge Audrey E. Melbourne of the county's circuit court, Paul Herring, the tall first whip in a tall black hat, who was just back from three weeks of foxhunting in Ireland, and lawyer Hal C.B. Clagget in his red jacket, preparing for a two-week foxhunting trip to England.
It was a fine fall day, but too hot and dry for the hounds to pick up the scent of a fox. According to some experts, the scent rolled away with the fall leaves. Shortly before 11, the hounds picked up a scent by an old gravel pit, and they cried and scrambled through the brush. Just as suddenly, the trail was lost. No fox was found and the riders returned three hours after they set out.
"It was hot," sighed Jerri Joy, unsaddling her sweaty horse,"but it was worth coming out, just for the ride."