Reverie of a Sportsman

I SET out one morning in late August, with some potted-grouse sandwiches in one pocket and a magazine in the other, for a tramp toward Causdon. I had not been in that particular part of the moor since I used to go snipe-shooting there as a boy — my first introduction, by the way, to sport. It was a very lovely day, almost too hot; and I never saw the carpet of the moor more exquisite, — heather, fern, the silvery-white cotton grass, dark peat turves, and green bog-moss, all more than customarily clear in hue under a very blue sky. I walked till two o’clock, then sat down in a little scoop of valley by a thread of stream, taking rise from an awkward-looking bog at the top. It was wonderfully lovely. A heron rose below me, and flapped away; and while I was eating my potted grouse I heard the harsh cheep of a snipe, and caught sight of the twisting bird vanishing against the line of sky above the bog. ‘That must have been one of the bogs we used to shoot,’ I thought; and having finished my snack of lunch, I rolled myself a cigarette, opened the magazine, and idly turned its pages. I had no serious intention of reading — the calm and silence were too seductive; but my attention became riveted by an exciting story of some man-eating lions, and I read on till I had followed the adventure to the death of the two ferocious brutes, and found my cigarette actually burning my fingers. Crushing it out against the dampish roots of the heather, I lay back with my eyes fixed on the sky, thinking of nothing.

Suddenly I became conscious that between me and the sky a leash of snipe high up were flighting and twisting, and gradually coming lower; I appeared indeed to have a sort of attraction for them. They would dash toward each other, seem to exchange ideas, and rush away again, like flies that waltz together for hours in the centre of a room. As they came lower and lower over me, I could almost swear I heard them whisper to each other with their long bills; till presently I absolutely caught what they were saying: ‘Look at him! The ferocious brute! Oh, look at him!’

Amazed at such an extraordinary violation of all the laws of Nature, I was about to rub my eyes and ears, when I distinctly heard the ‘Go-back, go-back’ of an old cock grouse, and on turning my head cautiously, saw him perched on a heathery knob within twenty yards of where I lay. Now, I knew very well that all efforts to introduce grouse on Dartmoor have been quite unsuccessful, since for some reason connected with the quality of the heather, the nature of the soil, or the over-mild dampness of the air, this king of game birds most unfortunately refuses to become domiciled there; so that I could hardly credit my senses. But suddenly I heard him also: ‘Look at him! Go back! The ferocious brute! Go back!’ He seemed to speak to something just below; and there, sure enough, was the first hare I had ever seen out on the full of the moor. I have always thought a hare a jolly beast, and not infrequently felt sorry when I rolled one over; it has a way of crying like a child if not killed outright. I confess, then, that in hearing it, too, whisper, ‘Look at him! The ferocious brute! Oh, look at him!’ I experienced the sensation that comes over one when one has not been quite fairly treated. But just at that moment, with a warm stirring of the air, there pitched within six yards of me a magnificent old blackcock, — the very spit of that splendid fellow I shot last season at Balnagie, whose tail my wife now wears in her hat. He was accompanied by four gray hens, who, settling in a semi-circle, began at once, ‘Look at him! Look at him! The ferocious brute! Oh, look at him!' At that moment I say with candor that I regretted the many times that I have spared gray hens, with the sportsmanlike desire to encourage their breed.

For several bewildered minutes after that, I could not turn my eyes without seeing some bird or other alight close by me: more and more grouse, and black game, pheasants, partridges, — not only the excellent English bird, but the very sporting Hungarian variety, — and that unsatisfactory red-legged Frenchman which runs any distance rather than get up and give you a decent shot at him. There were woodcock too, those twisting delights of the sportsman’s heart, whose tiny wingfeather trophies have always given me a distinct sensation of achievement when pinned in the side of my shootingcap; wood-pigeons too, very shy and difficult, owing to the thickness of their breast-feathers, and, after all, only coming under the heading of ‘ sundry ’; wild duck, with their snaky dark heads, that I have shot chiefly in Canada, lurking among rushes in twilight at flighting time, — a delightful sport, exciting as the darkness grows; excellent eating too, with red pepper and sliced oranges in oil! Certain other sundries kept coming also: landrails, a plump, delicious little bird; green and golden plover; even one of those queer little creatures, moorhens, that always amuse one by their quick, quiet movements, plaintive note, and quaint curiosity, though not really, of course, fit to shoot, with their niggling flight and fishy flavor! Ptarmigan too, a bird I admire very much, but have only once or twice succeeded in bringing down, shy and scarce as it is in Scotland. And, side by side, the alpha and omega of the birds to be shot in these islands, a capercailzie and a quail. I well remember shooting the latter in a turnip-field in Lincolnshire — scrap of a bird, the only one I ever saw in England. Apart from the pleasurable sensation at its rarity, I recollect feeling that it was almost a mercy to put the little thing out of its loneliness. It ate very well. There, too, was that loon or Northern diver that I shot with a rifle off Denman Island, as it swam about fifty yards from the shore. A handsome bird; I still have the mat it made. One bird only seemed to refuse to alight, remaining up there in the sky, and uttering continually that trilling cry which makes it perhaps the most spiritual of all birds that can be eaten, — I mean, of course, the curlew. I don’t think I ever shot one. They fly, as a rule, very high, and seem to have a more than natural distrust of the human being. This curlew —ah! and a Blue Rock (I have always despised pigeon-shooting) — were the only two winged creatures that one can shoot for sport in this country, that did not come and sit round me.

There must have been, I should say, as many hundreds altogether as I have shot in my time — a tremendous number. There they sat in a sort of ring, moving their beaks from side to side, just as I have seen penguins doing on the films that explorers bring back from the Antarctic; and all the time repealing to each other those amazing words: ‘Look at him! The ferocious brute! Oh, look at him!’

Then, to my increased astonishment, I saw behind the circles of the birds a number of other animals besides the hare. At least five kinds of deer — the red, the fallow, the roe, the common deer, whose name I’ve forgotten, that one finds in Vancouver Island, and the South African springbok, that swarm in from the Karoo at certain seasons, among which I had that happy week once in Namaqualand, shooting them from horseback after a gallop to cut them off — very good eating as camp fare goes, and making nice rugs if you sew their skins together. There, too, was the hyena I missed, probably not altogether; but he got off, to my chagrin— queer-looking brute! Rabbits of course had come — hundreds and hundreds of them. Though, like everybody else, I’ve done such a lot of it, I can’t honestly say I’ve ever cared much for shooting rabbits, though the effect is neat enough when you get them just right, and they turn head over heels — and anyway, the prolific little brutes have to be kept down. There, too, actually was my wild ostrich — the one I galloped so hard after, letting off my Winchester at half a mile, only to see him vanish over the horizon. Next him was that bear whose lair I came across at the Nanaimo Lakes. How I did lurk about to get that fellow! And, by Jove! close to him, two cougars. I never got a shot at them, never even saw one of the brutes all the time I was camping in Vancouver Island, where they lie flat along the branches over your head, waiting to get a chance at deer, sheep, dog, pig, or anything handy. But they had come now sure enough, glaring at me with their greenish cats’ eyes— powerful-looking creatures! And next them sat a little meerkat — not much larger than a weasel—without its head!

Ah yes! — that trial shot, as we trekked out from Rous’s farm, and I wanted to try the little new rifle I had borrowed. It was sitting over its hole fully seventy yards from the wagon, quite unconscious of danger. I just took aim and pulled; and there it was, without its head, fallen across its hole. I remember well how pleased our ‘boys’ were. And I too! Not a bad little rifle, that!

Outside the ring of beasts I could see foxes moving, not mixing with the stationary creatures, as if afraid of suggesting that I had shot them, instead of being present at their deaths in the proper fashion. One, quite a cub, kept limping round on three legs — the one, no doubt, whose pad was given me, out cubbing, as a boy. I put that wretched pad in my hat-box, and forgot it, so that I was compelled to throw the whole stinking show away. There were quite a lot of grown foxes; it certainly showed delicacy on their part, not sitting down with the others. There was really a tremendous crowd of creatures altogether by this time! I should think every beast and bird I ever shot, or even had a chance of killing, must have been there, and all whispering, ‘Look at him! The ferocious brute! Oh, look at him!’

Animal lover, as every true sportsman is, those words hurt me. If there is one thing on which we sportsmen pride ourselves, and legitimately, it is a humane feeling toward all furred and feathered creatures — and as everyone knows, we are foremost in all efforts to diminish their unnecessary sufferings.

The corroborree about me which they were obviously holding became, as I grew used to their manner of talking, increasingly audible. But it was the quail’s words that I first distinguished.

‘He certainly ate me,’ it said; ‘said I was good, too!’

‘ I do not believe ’ — this was the first hare speaking — ‘that he shot me for that reason; he did shoot me, and I was jugged, but he would n’t touch me. And the same day he shot eleven brace of partridges, did n’t he? Twenty-two partridges assented. ‘And he only ate two of you, all told — that proves it.’

The hare’s words had given me relief; for I somehow disliked intensely the gluttonous notion conveyed by the quail that I shot merely in order to devour the result. Any one with the faintest instincts of a sportsman will bear me out in this.

When the hare had spoken there was a murmur all round. I could not at first make out its significance, till I heard one of the cougars say, ‘We kill only when we want to eat’; and the bear, who, I noticed, was a lady, added, ‘No bear kills anything she cannot devour’; and, quite clear, I caught the quacking words of a wild duck: ‘We eat every worm we kill.’ Then again from the whole throng came that shivering whisper: ‘Look at him! The ferocious brute! Oh, look at him!’

In spite of their numbers, they seemed afraid of me, seemed actually to hold me in a kind of horror — me, an animal lover, without a gun! I felt it bitterly. ‘How is it,’ I thought, ‘that not one of them seems to have an inkling of what it means to be a sportsman, not one of them seems to comprehend the instinct which makes one love sport just for the — ’ I was going to add ‘ the skill and — er — danger of it,’ when the hare spoke again.

‘Foxes,’ it said, ‘kill for the love of killing. Man is a kind of fox.’ A violent dissent at once rose from the foxes, till one of them, who seemed the eldest, said, ‘We do kill as much as we can, but we should always carry them off and eat them ourselves, if man gave us time — the ferocious brutes!’ You cannot expect much of foxes, but it certainly struck me as unfair the way he thus put his wanton destructiveness off on man, especially when he must have known how carefully we preserve him, in the best interests of sport. A pheasant ejaculated shrilly, ‘He killed sixty of us one day to his own gun, and went off that same evening without eating even a wing!’ And again came that shivering whisper: ‘Look at him! The ferocious brute! Oh, look at him!’ It was too absurd! As if they could not realize that a sportsman shoots almost entirely for the mouths of others. But, after all, one must remember that altruism is a purely human attribute. ‘They get a big price for us! ’ said a woodcock, ‘especially if they shoot us early. I fetched several shillings.’ Really, the ignorance of these birds! The modern sportsman knows nothing of what happens after he has shot them. All that is left to the butler and the keeper. Beaters, of course, and cartridges must be paid for, to say nothing of the sin of waste. ‘I would not think them so much worse than foxes,’ said a rabbit, ‘if they did n’t often hurt you, so that you take hours dying. I was seven hours dying in great agony, and one of my brothers was twelve. Were n’t you, brother?’ A second rabbit nodded. ‘But perhaps they’re better than gins,’ he said. ‘Remember mother!’ ‘Ah!’ a partridge muttered, ‘ foxes at all events do bite your head off clean. But men often break your wing, or your leg, and leave you!’ And again that shivering whisper rose: ‘Look at him! The ferocious brute! Oh, look at him!’

By this time the whole thing was so getting on my nerves that if I could have risen I should have rushed at them; but a weight as of lead seemed to bind me to the ground, and all I could do was to thank God that they did not seem to know of my condition, for, though there were no man-eaters among them, I could not tell what they might do if they realized that I was helpless, the sentiments of chivalry and generosity being confined to man, as we know.

‘Yes,’ said the capercailzie slowly, ‘I am a shy bird, and was often shot at before this one got me; and though I ’m strong, my size is so against me that I always took a pellet or two away with me; and what can you do then? Those ferocious brutes take the shot out of their faces and hands when they shoot each other by mistake, as we see from a distance; but we have no chance to do that.’ A snipe said shrilly, ‘What I object to is that he did n’t eat me till he’d had too much already. I came in on toast at the fifth course; it was n’t dignified.’

‘Ferocious brute, killing everything he sees.’

I felt my blood fairly boil, and longed to cry out, ‘You beasts! You know that we don’t kill everything we see! We leave that to cads, and cockneys, and Italians.’ But just, as I had no power of movement, so I seemed to have no power of speech. And suddenly a little voice, high up over me, piped down, ‘He’s right there; they never shoot us larks.’ I have always loved the lark; how grateful I felt to that little creature — till it added, ‘They do worse; they take and shut us up in little traps of wire till we pine away! Ferocious brutes!’ In all my life I think I never was more disappointed! The second cougar spoke: ‘He once passed within spring of me. What do you say, friends; shall we go for him?’ And the shivering answer came from all: ‘ Go for him! Ferocious brute! Oh, go for him!’ And I heard the sound of hundreds of soft wings and pads ruffling and shuffling. And, knowing that I had no power to move an inch, I shut my eyes. Lying there motionless, as a beetle that shams dead, I felt them creeping, creeping, till all round me and over me was the sound of nostrils sniffing; and every second I expected to feel the nip of teeth and beaks in the fleshy parts of me. But nothing came, and with an effort I reopened my eyes. There they were, hideously close, with an expression on their faces that I could not read: a sort of wry look, every nose and beak turned a little to one side. And suddenly I heard the old fox saying, ‘It’s impossible, with a smell like that; we could never eat him!’ From every one of them came a sort of sniff or sneeze as of disgust, and as they began to back away I distinctly heard the hyena mutter, ‘ He’s not wholesome — not wholesome — the ferocious brute!’

The utter relief of that moment was entirely swamped by my indignation that these impudent birds and beasts should presume to think that I, a British sportsman, would not be good to eat. Then that beastly hyena added, ‘If we killed him and buried him for a few days, he might be tolerable.’

An old cock grouse called out at once, ‘Go back! Let us hang him! We are always well hung. They like us a little decayed — ferocious brutes! Go back! ’ Once more I felt, from the stir and shuffle, that my fate hung in the balance; and once more I shut my eyes, lest they might be tempted to begin on them. Then, to my infinite relief, I heard the cougar — have we not always been told that they were the friends of man? — mutter, ‘Pah! No! It’s clear we could never eat him fresh, and what we do not eat at once, we do not touch!’

All the birds cried out in chorus,‘No! That is crow’s work.’ And I felt that I was saved again. Then, to my horror, that infernal loon shrieked, ‘Shall we not kill him and have him stuffed — specimen of Ferocious Brute! Or fix his skin on a tree, and look at it — as he did with me!’

For a full minute I could feel the currents of opinion swaying over me, at this infamous proposal; then that old blackcock, the one whose tail is in my wife’s hat, said sharply, ‘Specimen! He’s not good enough!’ And, once more, for all my indignation at that gratuitous insult, I breathed freely.

‘Come!’ said the lady bear quietly: ‘Let us dribble on him a little; and go. The ferocious brute is not worth more!' And, during what seemed to me an eternity, one by one they came up, deposited on me a little saliva, looking into my eyes the while with a sort of horror and contempt, then vanished on the moor. The last to come up was the little meerkat without its head. It stood there, and, since it could neither look at me nor drop saliva, said, ‘ God forgive you, ferocious brute! I was very happy!’ And it too withdrew. And from all around, out of invisible presences in the air and the heather, came once more the shivering whisper, ‘Look at him! The ferocious brute! Oh, look at him!’

I sat up. There was a trilling sound in my ears. Above me in the blue a curlew was passing, uttering its cry. Yes! Thank heaven! — I had been asleep! My nightmare had been caused by the potted grouse, and the pressure of the Review, which had lain, face downwards, on my chest, open at the page where I had been reading about the man-eating lions, and the death of those ferocious brutes. It shows what tricks of disproportion little things will play with the mind when it is not under reasonable control.

And, to get the unwholesome taste out of my mouth, I at once jumped up, and started for home at a round pace.