The shots missed altogether or only half done, they are as the foozled strokes at golf, only one may recall them longer and with slightly more regret. The memory of sport, indeed, forms no small part of the joy of it. The pleasure is not over when you put by the gun for the season, even for the rest of your life. It is delightful to dwell in less active moments on scenes and incidents in past shooting-days, to exchange sporting gossip and anecdote with the boon companion. Colonel Hawker, the master of the old school of shooters in England who wrote on their sport, must have rejoiced in the writing of his sterling book, " Instructions to Young Shooters," though he allowed himself little enough of sentiment; and in books of to-day, such as Sydney Buxton's " Fishing and Shooting," the joy that lives in the sporting memory must be felt by every reader.
We were saying that there were compensations for the lonely shooter, and memory recalls the fact that being so often solitary made me the readier, during these sporting expeditions in woods and on farm lands, to improve my acquaintance with Nature. You need not by any means be unobservant of natural beauties and natural history because you are a member of a shooting party, and are enjoying the good fellow- and companion-ship that go so well with a sport like shooting. But, without any disrespect to such gatherings, often as lively in their way as fox-hunting ones, one may say safely that Nature, in wood and wild, has a shy way of disclosing her full beauty rather to those who roam alone than to those who are a jocund company. So these quiet shoots in the coppice and in the fields of autumn, down in the oozy marsh and high on the wind-swept heath, are very favouring to those who want to keep in touch with Nature as well as to enjoy to the full the use of the gun. For myself, I have found shooting in this respect only less favourable than trout-fishing. It helped me as a boy to recognise that even the days in winter, which we are wont to call dreary, are never without charm for those who are not distressed by rain or mist or snow. I have gone out with my gun when the snow has lain more than a foot deep, and when the tops of the high hedges against which it has drifted have been all but hid ; when there has been a continuous downpour all day long ; when a heavy cold mist or fog has made the cock pheasants crow, and so confused the flocks of wood-pigeons, that they have flown towards me when I have suddenly come upon them. I have been chilled, and chapt, and soaked to the skin, and my boots have been water-logged and snow-logged—my boots when I first shot always did let in the water somehow —and I can honestly say I have thoroughly enjoyed myself on such occasions, and seen many beautiful things. Why, Sir Edward Grey in his angling book says that when soaked to the skin by rain, one enjoys a feeling of intimacy with Nature ! Who would not sometimes be soaked ? It is then you may feel a little of the elemental man in you. And how, if you always were to run away from the elements and keep dry indoors, could you grow hardy and seasoned? It is part of the business of the British boy to lay in such a store of hardiness as shall serve him well in later life. It is not the least thing that can be said for shooting, that when taken up early in life, it does in many cases help to give a man the toughness and endurance which almost may be called a virtue.
I have touched on the danger of the old-fashioned muzzle-loader. Let me now give you some advice as to how to avoid accidents when handling the guns of to-day. Our modern guns are safer to handle than were our ancestors'. Yet most seasons we read or hear of some grisly mishap out shooting. With few exceptions these accidents, like the fatal adventures of Alpine climbers, are the results of ignorance or of downright wanton carelessness. I have had more than twenty years' experience of rough shooting in very thick places, where one often loses sight of one's neighbours, and yet it is my strong feeling that accidents even here always can be avoided by great care : and how shall we describe the conduct of the man who does not exercise great care out shooting ? I have seen a few lesser accidents in covert shooting, and the feeling they give one is of a sickening character. I can just recollect—at the time I was but a very small spectator—one accident in which tragedy and comedy were perilously near to being mingled. We had one or two white pheasants—freaks or varieties—among the birds reared and turned out into the " shoots." 1
My old friend, a good-hearted, peppery farmer near by, who later was often my shooting companion, was anxious to get one of these birds : no doubt he thought it would look well in a glass case in his parlour next to the stuffed green woodpecker ; there was a gentleman out with us on that 1st of October, who wore a tall white or grey hat. Suddenly, just after a shot had been fired, this gentleman ducked. Presently asked why, he replied that his object was to avoid a possible second barrel. It turned out that some shots had actually passed through the white hat. My friend was well known as a somewhat explosive gunner ; nobody doubted that he had taken the white hat for a white pheasant, and fired accordingly. At lunch the affair was mentioned, and Colonel E__- put the wise question to the owner of the injured hat— who chanced to be a doctor—" Now, must those few shot have proved fatal if they had passed through your head ?" I have wondered, since poor old D___n passed away, how in the world we could ever have borne him out shooting. He was an extremely bad shot, and, when he could not bag anything, would lose his temper and even order the keeper to take and smash his gun to bits. Fortunately he often lost his spectacles in the thickets, and would stay behind searching for them. D___n was a man to give a wide berth to. He had shot various dogs in his day. It is horrid to hear the shot of the reckless gunner rattle in the underwood about one. The reckless gunner reminds one of the reckless jester; the latter will not let his best friend stand between himself and his witticism ; the reckless gunner will not spare his best friend if the latter stands between him and the rabbit.
1 " Shoots" are young underwood of only a few years' growth.