A ROUGH SHOOT
BY GEOFFREY HOUSEHOLD
A ROUGH SHOOT
IT ALL BEGAN on an autumn evening so silent and peaceful that no one who had the luck to be out of doors, with copse and downland stretching away from him till the folds of England vanished into a mist of gray and green, could have a thought of human violence. We had had two weeks of storm, and then came this Tuesday, the eighteenth of October, which belonged to late summer. All the life of grass and hedgerow was too busy satisfying hunger to be on guard. I didn’t fire a shot the whole afternoon–not for lack of opportunity but because I wanted to see what game I had on the shoot and what were its movements if undisturbed.
I had rented very cheaply the rough shooting over 450 acres of a remote Dorset farm. The sport wouldn’t have appealed to a man who liked driven pheasants or to a syndicate who expected the mixed bag to pay for their week end. You had to work for your game. But on a favorable afternoon, if your liver and eyes were in good order–for it was speed that counted–you might come home with a brace of partridges, a hare and of course all the rabbits you cared to kill. I shot purely for the pot, and anything I didn’t want I left for another day. I did not even use a dog. That will horrify the purist, but I would assure him that I seldom blazed away at the improbable, and that a bird which I couldn’t retrieve myself was rare. Dull? Yes, if your fun is to fire off a lot of cartridges. No, if you shoot only for what the larder will hold. Of course with a dog I would have put up more pheasants from the hedgerows, but I got enough.
I only went up to the shoot on Saturday afternoons. Everybody knew that. Blossom, who was the tenant farmer, would have sworn to it, and I dare say that later he did. This Tuesday evening visit was due to accidents: that I had a slack afternoon at the office; that my gun happened to be at the gunsmith’s, waiting to be picked up; and that the weather promised a glorious hour before the sudden autumn twilight.
I didn’t use my gun and I moved around the shoot silently and for the most part under cover. I wanted to know the permanent population and its taste in feeding grounds. A little before sunset I established myself in the thick boundary hedge, whence I had an excellent view of four other hedges and a long, warm slope of down.
Blossom’s farm was long and narrow, running roughly north and south. Down the center was the level, bare watershed. The western slope was sharp, dropping to water meadows and a busy road; its short turf was dotted with clumps of thorn, gorse and bramble so thick that even hounds were baffled, and the foxes and rabbits kept up the balance of nature undisturbed. The eastern slope was slight, and fell away gradually to the boundary hedge, which, in places, was a jungle twenty feet thick. To the south were a hilltop barn and outhouses, and beyond them a few primmer, kinder meadows.
I stayed on in the hedge till dusk, watching the movements of a flock of pigeons. There wasn’t a soul about. Plowing was over, and there would be little work on the slopes until the kale came to be cut for winter feed and the sheep were folded on the roots. That autumn the whole work of the farm was going on in the water meadows and in the fields beyond the barn. .
At right angles to the boundary hedge was another, which had thrown out great domes and bastions of bramble. I was astonished to see, appearing from the curve of one of these bushes, the seat of a generous pair of trousers. The man was apparently pegging something down just inside the hedge, and working backwards towards me.
He half turned, and laid on the turf some sort of spike with a broad head.
Of course my mind leaped at once to rabbit traps; but when at last the man stood up, I saw that he wasn’t a farm laborer, and wasn’t dressed like a person who would be interested in rabbits. The expanse of cloth which he had persistently presented to me was town trouser.
If he were poaching, I thought, he ought to have either a dog or a companion. I looked more carefully into the dusk, and sure enough I found the companion. He was standing quite motionless on the top of the bank, under and against an ivy-covered oak, whence he could see for quarter of a mile on all sides of him. His disciplined stillness had its reward. A cock pheasant flew up to roost in the opposite tree. The trapper in the hedge saw it, drew an air pistol from his pocket and shot it neatly down.
This made me unduly angry. I wouldn’t have minded a bit if they had been local villagers out for next Sunday’s dinner, but from their clothes I knew they were not. Somehow I got it into my head that they were commercial poachers, come all the way from London or Bournemouth to supply the black market. I didn’t stop to think that, if they were, they wouldn’t be working hedgerows but would clear out some big estate where one overworked gamekeeper still managed to keep up a stock of game.
The watcher on the bank looked down at the ping of the shot. He hardly spoke above a whisper, but gave the impression of being almost hysterical with petty annoyance. The man with the air pistol said something obviously rude, picked up the pheasant and returned to his job. He continued to work with his back to me, now well outside the bush but still presenting his broad and perfect target.
The temptation was too great. I didn’t want the bother of handing them over to the law–supposing I could catch them–but I did want to teach them a lesson. The range was about eighty yards, far enough, I thought, to hurt but to do no damage that a probe and a little disinfectant couldn’t cure. I let him have a charge of No. 5 shot in the seat of the pants.
I talk lightly of this shocking brutality, but my conscience was and is appalled by the result. He straightened himself with a jerk, completely off balance as if he were diving from a springboard, and crashed heavily to the ground. He kicked twice and lay still, his face and shoulders on the thorns of the blackberry bush. His companion jumped down the far side of the bank and bolted across country with no thought but for his own safety. I didn’t call to him to stop. I was paralyzed by the shock of what I had done. And there was little doubt of it. No man who had life in him would lie in that position.
I don’t know how long I stared at him, perhaps ten seconds, perhaps twenty–a stillness which was partly horror and partly habit, acquired in war, of not giving my cover away. Then I dashed out of the hedge, taking a smack over the eye from an ash sapling, and ran to him.
I didn’t move the body at first, fearing, impossible though it seemed, that I had damaged the spine. I raised his coat, cut the waistband of his trousers and tore them down the seam. The pattern of the shot was regular and very shallow and exactly where it ought to have been. If a beater, in the days of big shoots, had suffered such an accident, he would have felt that a pint of beer and a brace of pheasants amply repaid the inconvenience.
Then I turned him over, and understood. He was like the men in the Bible. He had fallen on his sword. One of the broad-headed spikes had been lying on the ground, point uppermost like a giant thumbtack, and the round, shiny metal base was now pinned, a crimson-bordered decoration, to his left breast.
Instinctively I took hold to pull it out. Then a sort of panic reason took command and I let go, and wiped my fingerprints off it with his coat. Then I thought: Oh Lord, they’ll spot that somebody has wiped it! And after that my imagination took me through an entire dialogue with the police.
That damned mark across my eye. Signs of a struggle. You shot at him. Then he struck you. You lost your temper and stabbed him. How did the dead man’s clothes come to be torn? A wound of the spine, you thought! Ah, trying to make it manslaughter instead of murder, are you? Have you a respect for human life, Mr. Taine? Yes, profound. In the war you won a D.C.M. as a corporal, I believe? Yes, I did. How many men did you kill on that occasion? Damn you, do you suppose I counted them? You had further decorations after you were commissioned? Yes, I did. You seem to have enjoyed this single-handed stuff? I hated it, but my chaps were about all in. Come, come, Mr. Taine, now what really happened after the man struck you?