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Chapter XXII. - Driving the Covers, etc.

The heather bloom is come and past,
The tender wild flowers faded,
And withered leaves are falling fast
On mossy banks they shaded,
While earth looks sad and weary.

The misty mountains dim and grey,
The flooded streams yet filling,
Cool starry nights and shortened day,
The robin’s plaintive trilling—
All presage winter dreary.

If such be some of the aspects of nature towards the end of autumn, it is not always so, and we have sometimes days, even weeks, at this season, which are perhaps the most beautiful and enjoyable of the whole year. Every season has its attractions, excepting, perhaps, spring, which is often simply exasperating, although frequently sung by poets, and always hopefully looked for.

On turning out in the morning to start for the woods, this day was seen at once to be one of October’s fairest gifts. The pale blue sky was without a cloud from north to south, while the sun shone brightly as at midsummer. High overhead the daws and rooks were wheeling round enjoying the sunshine; gossamer spiders busied themselves in spreading their webs from bush to bush, or in ballooning away on their mysterious voyages; and the small birds flitted about gaily, as if summer had come back again. Yet autumn was telling a tale, for the plants and late flowers were drooping under the heavy night’s dew, while the white frost still lingered in the shadows of the walls and trees. Winter was clearly coming apace. But what of that? Does not the fair Indian summer of America pass like a bird of resplendent plumage? Are not our fine days still more brief? Yet is one day like this a boon to be thankful for, ay, and to be remembered too; for uneventful as these days may be, still do they come often back to memory, not unmixed, it may be, with sad recollections of the past, yet always lovely and always welcome.

“Now, are we all ready? I think we may go,” the Laird said, and we set off for the woods.

After walking a mile or so along the highway, we turned off by a steep path leading through a larch plantation, then over the moor to the black wood, and, crossing a deep gully, we pushed through bush and fern until we came to an open part of the cover where the stations were to be fixed for the first drive. Here the guns were judiciously posted from eighty to a hundred yards apart, and so placed that no one could be hit with the shot of another—the final orders being that on no account should any one leave his post until the beaters had finished the drive and come up. Nothing was to be fired at for this beat except roe and capercailzie; even black game and woodcock must go scatheless; a fox might be shot if any one had a chance.

The post fixed for myself was a hollow in rather an open part of the wood, where I presently arranged a neat ambush amongst some tall fern and behind a piece of rock about breast high, which commanded a tolerably clear space in front, while the wood on either side was sufficiently open to afford a fair chance at any passing game. So, with large shot cartridges in the barrels of my gun, I waited patiently.

When alone and ambushed in the silence of the woods, the ear soon becomes almost painfully acute, the rustle of a field mouse, or the movement of any small bird is distinctly heard, the mere fid getting of a restless squirrel overhead twitches one’s nerves, and in the dead stillness the hum of a flying beetle sounds like the boom of a distant railway train.

As all had been now placed, silence continued for a good while, until by-and-by came the far-off sound of the horn, to tell that the beaters had moved on. They were still much too far away to be heard, yet their approach was very soon indicated by the movements of the game.

First appear the wary blackcocks, one or two at a time, going quickly past; next come the fine-eared hares, some of them louping leisurely along, or now and again stopping to throw back their ears and listen, while others, more alarmed, go scudding straight down the wood. By-and-by the great capercailzie begin to skim past the tree-tops, but, as yet, I had not got a shot, although a huge cock whished into a tree quite near; but I dare not leave my post, and presently he flew off at the other side, when I saw him go down the wood quite out of range.

By this time, shot after shot sounded near me, and twice I had heard the gun to my left. Ha, at last! three roe-deer coming down the wood on my right hand. Hang it! they have turned. No, not quite; the report of a flanking gun changes their course, and they wheel sharply and pass me within twenty yards— right and left. Down goes that doe; the buck, only wounded, quickly recovers, and follows the other in line direct on the next ambush, whence presently comes a double report, but with what effect I cannot then say. Capercailzie are now passing freely; I have five shots and drop three, one of them a magnificent cock.

The beaters were now so close that I heard their sticks rapping the trees, and, just as I was thinking the cover had been beat out, an old roebuck sped from cover across the open, ventre a terre, being literally forced out when slyly seeking to double back through the beaters. I had a quick but clear shot and killed him dead.

The men now came up, and the game being collected, we went on to the edge of the wood to arrange about the next drive, the Laird saying that he considered this a very successful beat. Ward, Leslie, McKenzie, and Fred had five roe-deer (one of them my wounded buck), and two capercailzie cocks. The Squire and Major Duncan had chosen to walk with the beaters, as they could then, of course, fire at any kind of game: they had a great deal of shooting, and bagged one capercailzie, three head of black game, a lot of hares and rabbits, and also secured the first woodcock of the season, which was claimed by the Laird. As was to be expected they had no roe, these shy creatures being too cunning to be surprised in their forms, except in very rare cases.

The next beat was more open, and the greater part of it through Scotch-fir woods, with partial undergrowths of bush and long heather, then on by a hillside covered with broom and whins, the drive finishing at the birchwood and boggy ground skirting the moor. We all went with the beaters excepting McKenzie and Ered, who were sent on to be posted at the end of the cover.

We now beat through in line, but not at first with much success; the wood seemed too extensive and irregular, diverging away here and there to the right and left, so that a great deal of game must have gone off unobserved; thus only one roe, three head of black game, and some half a score of hares and rabbits were brought to bag here. On coming to the gorse-covered hillside there was a mighty peppering of rabbits, and three woodcocks were shot in the patches of broom—I shan’t say by whose fault, but other four should have been bagged.

The finish at the birchwood turned out famously. Much of the game driven on before us had settled there, being the last cover between us and the open moors. Here we got another roe, a whole lot of hares, four head of black game and a cock pheasant. McKenzie and Fred were heard firing briskly, and when we joined them Fred was radiant; he had shot a roe—his second—and their show of game, in spite of misses manifold, was conceded to be creditable.

We now tried the bogs, got a mallard and two and a-half couple of snipe, and then sat by a turf dyke to have a pipe and see the game laid out for inspection: a sporting show it made.

Home being now the order, we set off in a direct line, and after a smart, roughish walk, came down on Dunesk before six o’clock, all being in time for dinner at seven.

In the evening, after some agreeable conversation, the Laird and the three soldiers made a quartette at whist. Miss Grant was delighting Fred with Highland legends, while I was teaching Maggy to play ecarte, being well rewarded with her merry prattle and an old song which her aunt had taught her.

I like much to associate with well-disposed youngsters, boys or girls : they seem so pleased when their elders show interest by answering their many questions, and listening to their little trivial stories, which, if you understand their way, they will relate so very seriously.

On going out to-night the weather looked threatening, and promised a speedy change of some sort, and not for the better.

Every one was up in good time for the sea bath, and we set off, although met in the face by a cold wind and drizzling rain—moreover, having to face the decidedly chilly operation of dressing on a bare rock, and be fanned by an ungentle north-easter; but after the smart return walk nobody felt hurt, only hungry.

After breakfast the rain had cleared off, and as it now blew a gale, Leslie, Ward, and I went away for a walk by the coast to have a view of the sea in its wrath; and brief time it takes to vex the Atlantic, and bring the giant waves thundering on the rocky shore—it is truly grand!

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