ALL I want you to do is hold this gun once; you’ll see what I mean,” my friend Richard K. Billingsley said, as he lifted the shotgun to his shoulder and took careful aim. For a moment he held the barrel level, pointing toward a handsome ring-necked pheasant mounted there above the fireplace in the room Mrs. Billingsley had once conceived as the library; then he handed me the gun by the stock with all the delicate care an antique dealer might use in presenting a rare and fragile Ming piece to a nearsighted old connoisseur, loaded for Ming.
“Just feel that gun,” he said; “throw it up to your shoulder and notice the balance. Sweetest little quail gun in the world, and light as a feather! The barrel’s only twenty-four inches.”
Anyone who has encountered this sort of thing in a valued friend, whether over fishing tackle, guns, or golf clubs, will instantly perceive the source and nature of my apprehension over Billingsley. It was true that he had long lived and enjoyed the good life — out of doors and in. His spotty but ardent golf game, his field and stream proclivities, his zest for the cards, and his truly masterful touch at poker — these and sundry other badges of the avid sportsman were well known, and accepted with seemly resignation, by all his friends. But here was a maverick trait, one never derived validly from the simon-pure strains of sportsmanship. Here was a wart-like parasitic quirk, enjoying a fertile host in Billingsley, and the eager inquiry he pressed upon me about the shotgun pointed it up in stark and deadly fashion.
I took the gun and aimed at the head of a Rocky Mountain goat mounted on a plaque over the gun case where an oil painting of Mrs. Billingsley’s well-heeled aunt had once graced the paneled wall. I was holding a fine bead right between the goat’s eyes, when Billingsley, by now positively transported, said: “Feel it! Did you ever hold a gun that had such a feel? Sweet, huh?”
EVEN YOUR BEST FRIENDS
Consider the answer yourself: In complete candor I might have said, “Yes, this is a sixteengauge, L. C. Smith double-barreled shotgun. It’s a ‘field grade’ model, which cost a little more than the regular model when I bought one some years ago. A gun of good quality, but unless this one is identical with thousands of others of the same make and model, Billingsley, you are entitled to complain to the manufacturers.”
Or an answer in a much lighter vein might have sufficed with a friend in the very early stages of the malady with which Billingsley was by now plainly seized; an answer such as, “Listen, Dick, this little sixteen-gauge gun is too small for a man who doesn’t shoot any better than you do. You can’t even hit them with the extra pellets in a twelve-gauge gun. What you need is a meat gun; a sort of cannon type with wheels on the sides like the ones at old battlefields.”
But everybody knows you do not make such a comment to one in Billingsley’s delicate condition. Also, everybody knows that about the only reply in the world I could have made was the one I did make as I handed the gun back to him gently. “Brother,” I lied soberly, “I never felt anything like it in my whole life. You’re mighty lucky to have a gun like that, Dick.”
I do not wish to overdramatize this account; so I shall lay aside my earlier impression that Billingsley actually slobbered as he opened the glass door to the built-in gun case, situated there above the shelves containing the complete works of Alfred Lord Tennyson and the poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. But I do still maintain that as he placed the gun on the rack along with eight other guns of varied vintage and gauge, he gurgled deep down in his throat and emitted sounds like those of French actors in movie mating scenes.
Billingsley was indeed in a dangerous groove over the little gun, but I must admit that at earlier times there had been budding symptoms, disclosed in the matters of cigars and whisky.
Just what it is which causes a man to go overboard about mediocre cigars simply because they are his own cigars, I do not know. But there were those cigars which I knew Billingsley had bought at a customs auction. They were an unknown and unheard-of brand which had been sent to an engaging local lady by a Latin-American admirer, and the consignee-donee had refused to pay the duty on them when they arrived; hence the offer by customs agents to the highest bidder, Billingsley. But from the way he touted these cigars during dinner at his house one evening, you could have assumed that they’d been made in Havana that morning by an appointment to Royalty, acquired by Billingsley’s own personal agents around noon, and flown through a hurricane by daredevil aviators just in time to be delivered for the party. Billingsley’s speech about the quality of the cigars and their exotic aroma reached a crescendo during the dessert.
Though Mrs. Billingsley and the other ladies paid him no mind at all, their disinterest deterred the great man not one whit. However, Mrs. Billingsley did require that we go out into the garden (where the Billingsley bird dogs were quartered at the time) to smoke those cigars. The brand, I remember, was El Falfo; the stogies possessed an acrid dryness suggestive of west Texas dust, and mine actually shucked out on the burning end like an ear of corn; still, not a man jack among us failed to comment, as we puffed away — avidly I might say, since it was quite cold outside that night — something along the line of, “By God, Billingsley, that’s a great cigar!”
From the foregoing you are bound to have in mind the outline at least of the whisky episode, and I shall dwell on it but briefly. The brand was Old Something-or-other, and Billingsley had had some stickers printed and pasted on the bottles beneath the strange labels, reading: “Bottled Especially for Richard K. Billingsley.” The stuff was rotgut if I ever tasted rotgut, and I have. The comments of Billingsley’s guests were, however, along customary lines — all, that is to say, except a new fellow in the community who was never invited again. He observed that he liked the booze all right, but he thought he detected a little touch of turpentine in the aftertaste.
THE REAL PORTENT OF THE QUAIL GUN
While I was exactly right about what the episode of the little sixteen-gauge gun portended — a trait in the great man telegraphed first by the cigars — I never dreamed of the lengths to which its manifestations would carry Billingsley, and some of his friends along with him.
The following year he absolutely went all out; he bought an over-and-under twenty-gauge shotgun of Belgian manufacture, which really set him back. I mean four figures — though barely, to be frank — and it was certainly a beautiful article to behold. The stock was as slim and graceful as a swan’s neck. Grouse, deer, peccary, pheasant, and partridge were etched fore and aft of the blue steel breech. The rubber pad on the butt was half an inch deep, and the leather boot covering it had still other kinds of game hand-tooled all over it.
Billingsley had a stag party in the “library” — with poker as the ostensible pièce de résistance — to show off this new gun, and the time he selected was propitious: Mrs. Billingsley was away visiting her mother in a distant city. All during the poker game, whenever he drew a dubious hand — and occasionally when his hand actually disclosed a modicum of promise — he would drop out of the pot, take out the gun, and fondle it there in our presence before replacing it in the annex to the gun case mentioned earlier (above Tennyson and Elizabeth Barrett Browning). This second gun case had been installed since Mrs. Billingsley’s departure, and a few of us noticed that it had displaced several volumes of American poetry and a few pieces of very good ornamental china which had been left the little woman by her grandmother on her mother’s side.
An unimaginative person would have said that, with these changes in the library, Billingsley had gone about as far as he could go — unless, indeed, he meant to alter completely the whole nature of the room. As a matter of fact, that was precisely what he had in contemplation, and within a few years the annex to Billingsley’s gun case was likewise filled to overflowing and a third case was projected to fill a window looking out on the garden; the wastebaskets on each side of the fireplace (originally London Illustrated News décor) had given way to two mounted hollow elephants’ feet; the walls were loaded with a growing menagerie of fiercely mounted beasts and a sailfish seven feet long; photographs of hunting groups (including Billingsley) took up all the rest of the wall space; and Mrs. Billingsley appeared to be spending more of her time with her mother.
STRAWS-AMONGST THE LAST
There was another aspect of this unfolding drama which did not escape detection on my part: a growing cast. Whether seen by new acquaintances as bona fide accident or by Billingsley cognoscenti as palpable design, each new acquisition would be followed by an occasion or successive occasions to show it off. Billingsley was sharing the fruits of his connoisseurship with an everwidening circle. When this circle began to include some pretty odd and stuffy types — by Billingsley’s own appraisal a few years before —we, the more discerning among his friends, developed increasingly serious qualms over each new wave of gadgetry.
There was, I well remember, the season he went absolutely wild on duck calls. He ordered them all summer from a dozen different manufacturers, and more still from some Acadians in Louisiana who, Billingsley claimed, actually made them under water. Then for a full month before the duck season opened, he electrified the entire neighborhood, and literally broke up a clandestine affair next door, with his practice: the feeding call of the bull sprig, the soft whistle of the teal, the beckoning sex chuckle of the mallard hen, and the plaintive cry of the common squealer.
Other items came in rashes: whistles only dogs can hear, for hunting quail and pheasant; one imported whistle which, it turned out much later, not even a dog could hear. Billingsley’s little plastic stoppers for his ears gave him alleged protection from the annoyance of close-by shots. His gun rest for long rifle shots folded three ways, snapped automatically into an aluminum holder, and fitted neatly into a second extra pocket in his hunting trousers. The first extra pocket, of course, held his detachable telescopic sight.
One obvious result of the accumulation of all this paraphernalia was that its handling soon began to cut down markedly on the time Billingsley actually spent with game. He could not start out in the morning without getting halfway there to discover an indispensable — by now it was, too — accouterment had been left behind. This was before he developed the use of a standard laundry-type list for each particular kind of hunt. Then his lists reached such lengths that on hunting days he was as busily engaged from the crack of dawn as the pilot of a medium —or even heavy — bomber going over his check list before the takeoff on a long and difficult mission.
It became plain by this time to Billingsley’s remaining friends that his outdoorsman’s impedimentation had reached a point where his plight approximated that of the Irish elk, that unfortunate creature whose proliferating antlers first made him pitifully top-heavy, then downright extinct. And since each new implement, each new gadget, took on in Billingsley’s eyes a special quality of superiority and had to be appreciated, the geometrical progression with which the lines of his companions thinned will be understood by all mathematicians, hunters, and people.
POINT OF NO RETURN PASSED
I was among the last to forsake him, and indeed I did not until the year of the hunting pants. He bought two pairs, and on the opening day of the season he did something indicating clearly that his career with game was in extremis;_namely, he gave one pair to me.
Trousers can truly be heated with some kind of chemical which is activated when you walk, and on a cold morning the added comfort is a hunter’s boon for a while; but when the warm sun is high, bringing sweat to the brow and armpits, nobody in this world wants to hunt in hot pants. But if a fellow has given you such a pair of “warmer uppers” before you go hunting with him, you wear them on that hunt. The next time, however, you find you are threatened with a cold when he calls about a weekend of hunting; and after a while, if you even have a near relative who is threatened with a cold, you beg off; or if you and everybody around are all hale and hearty, you still may have something pretty important to do all weekend at the office.
The following season, Billingsley spent a great deal of his time alone. Alone in the Billingsley library or in company with Mrs. Billingsley playing canasta, or possibly flinch. But it is not recorded that Billingsley ever hunted alone. According to Mrs. Billingsley, her husband never really cared much for shooting anyway.