We were three guns--Hugo, myself, and a young local landowner, Sir Francis Orsden, of Audley, whom I had met before and liked. He was a good fellow, though considered effeminate by a sporting squirearchy; but that I could never see. Our shooting lay over the lower estate, from which the harvest had lately been carried, and we went out by the main gates, meeting the head gamekeeper, Hanson, with the dogs and a couple of boy beaters, in the road. Our plan was to work the stubble as far as possible in a south-westerly direction, making for Asholt Copse and Hanson's cottage, where Audrey and the Baron were to meet us, driving over in a pony trap with the lunch.
I perceived early enough that my chance of a day's sport wholly untrammelled by scruples of anxiety was destined to be a remote one. Hugh, it had been plain to me from the first, had not mastered with the new day his mood of the night before. His nervous irritabiUty seemed to me even to have increased, and the truth was he was a trying companion. I had already made him some tentative bid for his confidence, but without result; I would not be the one again to proffer my sympathy uninvited. After all, he had asked for it, and was the one to broach the subject, if he wanted it broached. Probably--I knew him-the matter was no great matter--some disappointment or monetary difficulty which his fancy exaggerated. He hated trouble of any sort, and was quite capable of summoning a friend from a sick-bed to salve some petty grievance for him. So I left it to him to explain, if and when he should think proper.
It was a grey quiet day, chill, but without wind; the sort of day on which the echo of a shot might sound pretty deceptively from a distance-a point to be remembered. I was stationed on the left, Orsden on the extreme right, and Hugh divided us. His shooting was wild to a degree; he appeared to fire into the thick of the coveys without aim or judgment, and hardly a bird fell to his gun. Hanson, who kept close behind his young master, turned to me once or twice, when the lie of the ground brought us adjacent, and shook his head in a surprised, mournful way. Once Hugh and I came together at a gap in a hedge. I had negotiated it without difficulty, and my friend was following, when something caught my eye. I snatched at his gun barrel, directing it between us, and on the instant the charge exploded.
'Good God, man !' I exclaimed. 'You?'
Like the veriest Cockney greenhorn, he had been pulling his piece after him by the muzzle, and the almost certain consequence had followed. I stood staring at him palely, and for the moment his face was distorted.
'Hugh !' I said stiffly, 'you didn't mean it?'
He broke into a mirthless laugh.
' Mean it, you mug ! Of course I didn't mean it. Why should I?'
'I don't know. Mug for saving your life, anyhow !'
'I'll remember it, Vivian. I wish I owed you something better worth the paying'.
' That's infernal nonsense, of course. Now, look here; what's it all about?'
' You know'.
'I'll tell you by-and-by, Viv-on my honour, I will,'
'Will you? Hadn't you better go back in the meantime and leave your gun with Hanson ?'
'No; don't be a fool, or make me seem one. I'll go more careful after this; I promise you on my sacred word I will. There, get on'.
I was not satisfied; but Hanson coming up at the moment to see what the shot had meant, I could have no more to say, and prepared silently to resume my place.
'It's all right, George,' said his master, 'only a snap at a rabbit'.
Had he meant to kill himself? If he had, what trouble so much more tragic than any I had conceived must lie at the root of the matter! But I would not dare to believe it; it had been merely another manifestation of the reckless mood to which his spoilt temper could only too easily succumb. Nevertheless, I felt agitated and disturbed, and still, in spite of his promise, apprehensive of some ugly business.
He shot better after this episode, however, and thereby brought some reassurance to my mind. Hanson, that astute gamekeeper, led us well and profitably, and the morning reached its grateful end in that worthy's little parlour in the cottage in the copse, with its cases of stuffed birds and vermin, and its table delectably laid with such appetising provender as ham, tongue, and a noble pigeon pie, with bottled beer, syphons, and old whisky to supply the welcome moisture. Audrey presided, and the Baron, who had somehow won her liking, and whom she had brought with her in the governess cart, made a cheerful addition to the company. He was brightly interested in our morning's sport, as he seemed to be generally in anything and everything; but even here one could never make out from his manner whether his questions arose from knowledge or ignorance in essential matters. They were not, I suppose--in conformity with his principle of inwardness--intended to betray; but the whole thing was to my mind ridiculous, like rattling the coppers in one's pocket to affect affluence. One might have gathered, for all proof to the contrary, that his acquaintance with modern sporting weapons was expert; yet he never directly admitted that he had used them, or was to be drawn into any relation of his personal experiences in their connexion. The subject of poachers was one on which, I remember, he exhibited a particular curiosity, asking many questions as to their methods, habits, and the measures taken to counter their dangerous activities. It was Orsden who mostly answered him, in that high eager voice of his, with just the suspicion of a stammer in it, which I could never hear without somehow being tickled. Hugh took no trouble to appear interested in the matter. He was again, I noticed with uneasiness, preoccupied with his own moody reflections, and was drinking far too much whisky and soda.
The Baron asked as if for information; yet it struck me that his inquiries often suggested the knowledge they purported to seek, as thus :-
'Might it not be possible, now, that among the quiet, respectable men of the village, who attend to their business, drink in moderation, go punctually to church, and are well thought of by the local policeman, the real expert poacher is mostly to be found-the man who makes a study and a business of his craft, and whose depredations, conducted on scientific and meteorological lines, should cause far more steady havoc among the preserves than that wrought by the organised gangs, or by the unprofessional loafer -" moucher," I think you call him?'
Or thus : 'This country now, with its mixture of downlands and low woods, and the variety of opportunities they afford, should be, one might imagine, peculiarly suited to the operations of these gentry?'
Or thus : ' I wonder if your shrewd poacher makes much use of a gun, unless perhaps on a foggy morning, when the sound of the report would be muffled ? He shoiild be a trapper, I think, par excellence '- and other proffered hypotheses, seeming to show an even more intimate acquaintance with the minutiae of the subject, such as the springes, nets, ferrets, and tricks of snaring common to the trade-- a list which set Orsden cackling after a time.
'On my word, Baron,' said he, 'if it wasn't for your innocent way of p-putting things, I could almost suspect you of being a poacher yourself'.
Le Sage laughed.
'Of other men's game, in books, perhaps,' he said.
'Well,' said Orsden, 'you're right so far, that one of the closest and cunningest poachers I ever heard of was a Leighway hedge-carpenter called Cleaver, and he was as quiet, sober, civil-spoken a chap as one could meet; pious, too, and reasonable, though a bit of a village politician, with views of his own on labour. Yet it came out that for years he'd been making quite a handsome income out of Audley and its neighbours--a sort of D-Deacon Brodie, you know. Not one of their preserves, though; you're at fault there, Baron. Your local man knows better than to put his head into the noose. His dealings are with the casual outsiders, so far as pheasants are concerned. When he takes a gun, it's mostly to the birds; and of course he shoots them sitting.' ' Brute !' said Audrey.
'Well, I don't know,' said the young Baronet. 'He's a tradesman, isn't he, not a sportsman, and tradesmen don't give law'.
'How did he escape so long?' asked the girl.
'Why, you see,' answered Orsden, 'you can't arrest ,a man on suspicion of game - stealing with nothing about him to prove it. He must be caught in the act; and if one-third of his business lies in poaching, quite two-thirds lie in the art of avoiding suspicion. Fellows hke Cleaver are cleverer hypocrites than they are trappers-J-Joseph Surfaces in corduroys'.
' Do you find,' said Le Sage,' men of his kind much prone to violence?'
'Not usually,' replied Orsden, 'but they may be on occasion, if suddenly discovered at work with a gun in their hands. It's exposure or murder then, you see; ruin or safety, with no known reason for any one suspecting them. I expect many poor innocent d-devils were hanged in the old days for the sins of such vermin'.
'Yes,' said Le Sage, 'a shot-gun can be a great riddler'.
One or two of us cackled dutifully over the jeu de mot. Could we have guessed what tragic application it would receive before the day was out, we might have appreciated it better, perhaps.
I shall not soon forget that afternoon. It began with Audrey and the Baron driving off together for a jaunt in the little cart. They were very merry, and our young Baronet would have liked, I think, to join them. I had noticed Le Sage looking excessively sly during lunch over what he thought, no doubt, was an exclusive discovery of his regarding these two. But he was wrong. They were good friends, and that was all; and, as to the young lady's heart, I had just as much reason as Orsden--which was none whatever--for claiming a particular share in its interest. Any thought of preference would have been rank presumption in either of us, and the wish, I am sure, was founded upon no such supposition. It was merely that with Hugh in his present mood, the prospect of spending further hours in his company was not an exhilarating one.
He was flushed, and lethargic, and very difficult to move to further efforts when the meal was over; but we got him out at last and went to work. It did not last long with him. It must have been somewhere short of three o'clock that he shouldered his gun and came plodding to me across the stubble.
' Look here, Viv.,' he said,' I'm going home. Make my apologies to Orsden, and keep it up with him; but I'm no good, and I've had enough of it'.
He turned instantly with the word, giving a short laugh over the meaning expressed obviously enough, I dare say, in my eyes, and began to stride away.
'No,' he called, 'I'm not going to shoot myself, and I'm not going to let you make an ass of me. So long !'
I had to let him go. Any further obstruction from me, and I knew that his temper would have gone to pieces. I gave his message to Orsden, and we two continued the shoot without him. But it was a joyless business, and we were not very long in making an end of it. We parted in the road- Orsden for the Bit and Halter and the turning to Leigh way, and I for the gates of Wildshott. It was near five o'clock, and a grey still evening. As I passed the stables, a white-faced groom came hurrying to stop me with a piece of staggering news. One of the maids, he said, had been found murdered, shot dead, that afternoon in the Bishop's Walk.