At the time I got this gun I was at home, and being coached by a tutor who lived about five miles away. To him I used to ride most days in the week. On my return home each day I generally found there was enough daylight left for me to get my gun and cartridges and hurry into the woods after rabbits or wood-pigeons. The rides to and fro between my woodland home and my tutor's form together one of the loneliest passages of my life. Many boys would no doubt jump at such a chance of horseback exercise, but on my return in the afternoons my chief desire was generally to get home as quickly as possible, so as to lose no more shooting time than could be prevented. And riding came perhaps to be connected overmuch with book work, and so somewhat to lose the place it earlier had in my boy affections.
In those days I was shooting chiefly in the woods, though we had some very fair partridge-shooting two miles or so from home, which on and off I went in for from September to the last day in the season. Rabbiting was our mainstay at home, and is to this day. I am in the middle of a rabbit-shooting week as I write now, the daily party consisting of one gun—myself—a gamekeeper and four dogs (two terriers and two spaniels), and am every bit as keen on the sport to-day as when I handled my first breech-loader.
Much of my early shooting was in the nature of a solitary sport. This had its advantages and its drawbacks. Sporting constantly without a companion, you have probably not quite the stimulus which the natural and wholesome competition of a companion of about your own age will give. Probably I should have excelled more in the gun if I had been often matched, as it were, against a friendly rival of my own standing. I had fame as a rabbit shot—strictly a local fame, be it understood—when a youngster. Gamekeepers, gardeners' boys, and folk generally about the place declared, after I had shot for a season or two, that I was "just about a one to cut them (i.e. rabbits) over." This tradition took root, and to this day strangers are wont to accost me as a strong performer with the gun. They should see me some days when I am just behind or just over—it is much more often behind than over —rabbit after rabbit: when rabbits going across, offering perfect broadside shots, rabbits going straight away, rabbits coming towards the gun, alike seem so very hard to stop. Emulation might well have made me a better performer. It would possibly have helped to prevent me growing into a shy shot. Thanks largely no doubt to the spirit of emulation, I learned to play billiards and pyramids " to a gallery " ; far and away the best games I have played have been in the semi-final and final rounds of tournaments and handicaps. But shooting I do better when I am my own critic. However, there are compensations. An Englishman, whose views in many things inspire conviction, said to me that a spirit of competition, if it entered into his angling, would mar his enjoyment ; that a feeling of independence, or complete indifference as to whether some other angler on the same water made better baskets of trout, was necessary to such enjoyment. There is wiseness in this. To be able to shoot or angle the entire day, without the least thought of whether or not we are likely to be beat by some other gunner or fisherman, and yet to enjoy one's successes and regret one's failures keenly—this is proof that we are doing the thing for the sheer love of it; that there is in us that enthusiasm which we should bring to bear on all we undertake in life, business and pleasure alike.
I have described my early shooting as being in the nature of a solitary sport. A gamekeeper, or some " odd hand" employed on the place, who might volunteer to come out and carry game and beat for an hour or two, scarcely counts in this connection. It is true that soon after beginning I was able, if I liked, to get up occasional shooting-parties, composed of a few farmers and others in the district who could shoot, and who moreover could bring a dog or two ; and great fun those jolly, unconventional parties used to be. How we| were wont to cut short the luncheon of bread and cheese and beer, and what zest there was in the woodcock shilling sweepstake ! What ardent sportsmen would some of the farmers turn out to be, whom ordinarily you might have taken to be men who cared for nought but turnips and dung ! And one did feel so important, so large, as the originator of those shooting-parties, as the general who decided what the strategy should be. Farmers, however, cannot shoot every day; keepers must be looking to their wires, watching poachers, trapping vermin; gardeners' boys must mainly weed. So that far more often it was a solitary shoot. Nearly always taking with me two light spaniels, far from finely bred dogs, but capital rabbiters, and quite equal to winding and putting up a woodcock or a skulking hen pheasant—the cock birds, particularly the older ones, were inveterate runners in the higher wood—I would choose now the young wood of a few years' growth, now the blackthorn thickets and rows on the common, now the scattered furze-bushes, sometimes even the high wood of from eight or nine to fourteen years' growth, where in those days one generally managed to fall in with a hare or two, which have come to be so scarce latterly in our parts.
It was on one of these solitary expeditions that I got my first woodcock; he rose from some dead bracken which had not yet been beaten to the ground by frost and snow of winter : it seemed too good to be true when he fell dead in the open. Some may say that there is not in shooting with the sporting gun, at any rate shooting in England, a sensation equal, in the pleasure it yields, to a perfectly successful stroke with the cricket bat, or the golf driver or brassey. The gratification you experience as you put your hand over your eye on a bright day to watch the soaring flight of the little white ball, till it falls just in the right line a hundred and sixty or a hundred and eighty yards away, is certainly ample ; and when the right spot exactly in the bat—even the veriest bungler with the bat has felt this — meets the cricket ball, it does impart to you a sensation worth lingering over in thought. Now a hard shot clearly and neatly brought off may possibly not be quite equal in the satisfaction it yields —given a golfer and a gunner equal in keenness over their respective pursuits — to the perfectly successful drive; for one thing it is over sooner; there is nothing here which quite corresponds to that serene watching of the ball as it soars from your smite. Mind I only say " possibly," for are there not pretty shots brought off in the face of difficulties, that are remembered years afterwards ? You will be able, very likely, twenty years hence, not only to remember, but even to point out the exact spot where you brought off a hard right and left at birds or at rabbits—these latter, by the way, do not nearly so often, in most places, yield right and left shots as partridges, pheasants, or grouse; but when they do, the sport is truly stimulating. And many single shots will in like manner have a place in your life's sporting memories.