The Ivory Child
Chapter II: Allan Makes a Bet
On the following morning Scroope and I arrived at Castle Ragnall at or about a quarter to ten. On our way we stopped to pick up my three hundred and fifty cartridges. I had to pay something over three solid sovereigns for them, as in those days such things were dear, which showed me that I was not going to get my lesson in English pheasant shooting for nothing. The gunsmith, however, to whom Scroope gave a lift in his cart to the castle, impressed upon me that they were dirt cheap, since he and his assistant had sat up most of the night loading them with my special No. 3 shot.
As I climbed out of the vehicle a splendid-looking and portly person, arrayed in a velvet coat and a scarlet waistcoat, approached with the air of an emperor, followed by an individual in whom I recognized Charles, carrying a gun under each arm.
“That’s the head-keeper,” whispered Scroope; “mind you treat him respectfully.”
Much alarmed, I took off my hat and waited.
“Do I speak to Mr. Allan Quatermain?” said his majesty in a deep and rumbling voice, surveying me the while with a cold and disapproving eye.
I intimated that he did.
“Then, sir,” he went on, pausing a little at the “sir,” as though he suspected me of being no more than an African colleague of his own, “I have been ordered by his lordship to bring you these guns, and I hope, sir, that you will be careful of them, as they are here on sale or return. Charles, explain the working of them there guns to this foreign gentleman, and in doing so keep the muzzles up or down. They ain’t loaded, it’s true, but the example is always useful.”
“Thank you, Mr. Keeper,” I replied, growing somewhat nettled, “but I think that I am already acquainted with most that there is to learn about guns.”
“I am glad to hear it, sir,” said his majesty with evident disbelief. “Charles, I understand that Squire Scroope is going to load for the gentleman, which I hope he knows how to do with safety. His lordship’s orders are that you accompany them and carry the cartridges. And, Charles, you will please keep count of the number fired and what is killed dead, not reckoning runners. I’m sick of them stories of runners.”
These directions were given in a portentous stage aside which we were not supposed to hear. They caused Scroope to snigger and Charles to grin, but in me they raised a feeling of indignation.
I took one of the guns and looked at it. It was a costly and beautifully made weapon of the period, with an under-lever action.
“There’s nothing wrong with the gun, sir,” rumbled Red Waistcoat. “If you hold it straight it will do the rest. But keep the muzzle up, sir, keep it up, for I know what the bore is without studying the same with my eye. Also perhaps you won’t take it amiss if I tell you that here at Ragnall we hates a low pheasant. I mention it because the last gentleman who came from foreign parts--he was French, he was--shot nothing all day but one hen bird sitting just on the top of the brush, two beaters, his lordship’s hat, and a starling.”
At this point Scroope broke into a roar of idiotic laughter. Charles, from whom Fortune decreed that I was not to escape, after all, turned his back and doubled up as though seized with sudden pain in the stomach, and I grew absolutely furious.
“Confound it, Mr. Keeper,” I explained, “what do you mean by lecturing me? Attend to your business, and I’ll attend to mine.”
At this moment who should appear from behind the angle of some building--we were talking in the stableyard, near the gun-room--but Lord Ragnall himself. I could see that he had overheard the conversation, for he looked angry.
“Jenkins,” he said, addressing the keeper, “do what Mr. Quatermain has said and attend to your own business. Perhaps you are not aware that he has shot more lions, elephants, and other big game than you have cats. But, however that may be, it is not your place to try to instruct him or any of my guests. Now go and see to the beaters.”
“Beg pardon, my lord,” ejaculated Jenkins, his face, that was as florid as his waistcoat, turning quite pale; “no offence meant, my lord, but elephants and lions don’t fly, my lord, and those accustomed to such ground varmin are apt to shoot low, my lord. Beaters all ready at the Hunt Copse, my lord.”
Thus speaking he backed himself out of sight. Lord Ragnall watched him go, then said with a laugh:
“I apologize to you, Mr. Quatermain. That silly old fool was part of my inheritance, so to speak; and the joke of it is that he is himself the worst and most dangerous shot I ever saw. However, on the other hand, he is the best rearer of pheasants in the county, so I put up with him. Come in, now, won’t you? Charles will look after your guns and cartridges.”
So Scroope and I were taken through a side entrance into the big hall and there introduced to the other members of the shooting party, most of whom were staying at the castle. They were famous shots. Indeed, I had read of the prowess of some of them in The Field, a paper that I always took in Africa, although often enough, when I was on my distant expeditions, I did not see a copy of it for a year at a time.
To my astonishment I found that I knew one of these gentlemen. We had not, it is true, met for a dozen years; but I seldom forget a face, and I was sure that I could not be mistaken in this instance. That mean appearance, those small, shifty grey eyes, that red, pointed nose could belong to nobody except Van Koop, so famous in his day in South Africa in connexion with certain gigantic and most successful frauds that the law seemed quite unable to touch, of which frauds I had been one of the many victims to the extent of £250, a large sum for me.
The last time we met there had been a stormy scene between us, which ended in my declaring in my wrath that if I came across him on the veld I should shoot him at sight. Perhaps that was one of the reasons why Mr. van Koop vanished from South Africa, for I may add that he was a cur of the first water. I believe that he had only just entered the room, having driven over from wherever he lived at some distance from Ragnall. At any rate, he knew nothing of my presence at this shoot. Had he known I am quite sure that he would have been absent. He turned, and seeing me, ejaculated: “Allan Quatermain, by heaven!” beneath his breath, but in such a tone of astonishment that it attracted the attention of Lord Ragnall, who was standing near.
“Yes, Mr. van Koop,” I answered in a cheerful voice, “Allan Quatermain, no other, and I hope you are as glad to see me as I am to see you.”
“I think there is some mistake,” said Lord Ragnall, staring at us. “This is Sir Junius Fortescue, who used to be Mr. Fortescue.”
“Indeed,” I replied. “I don’t know that I ever remember his being called by that particular name, but I do know that we are old--friends.”
Lord Ragnall moved away as though he did not wish to continue the conversation, which no one else had overheard, and Van Koop sidled up to me.
“Mr. Quatermain,” he said in a low voice, “circumstances have changed with me since last we met.”
“So I gather,” I replied; “but mine have remained much the same, and if it is convenient to you to repay me that £250 you owe me, with interest, I shall be much obliged. If not, I think I have a good story to tell about you.”
“Oh, Mr. Quatermain,” he answered with a sort of smile which made me feel inclined to kick him, “you know I dispute that debt.”
“Do you?” I exclaimed. “Well, perhaps you will dispute the story also. But the question is, will you be believed when I give the proofs?”
“Ever heard of the Statute of Limitations, Mr. Quatermain?” he asked with a sneer.
“Not where character is concerned,” I replied stoutly. “Now, what are you going to do?”
He reflected for a moment, and answered:
“Look here, Mr. Quatermain, you were always a bit of a sportsman, and I’ll make you an offer. If I kill more birds than you do to-day, you shall promise to hold your tongue about my affairs in South Africa; and if you kill more than I do, you shall still hold your tongue, but I will pay you that £250 and interest for six years.”
I also reflected for a moment, knowing that the man had something up his sleeve. Of course, I could refuse and make a scandal. But that was not in my line, and would not bring me nearer my £250, which, if I chanced to win, might find its way back to me.
“All right, done!” I said.
“What is your bet, Sir Junius?” asked Lord Ragnall, who was approaching again.
“It is rather a long story,” he answered, “but, to put it shortly, years ago, when I was travelling in Africa, Mr. Quatermain and I had a dispute as to a sum of £5 which he thought I owed him, and to save argument about a trifle we have agreed that I should shoot against him for it to-day.”
“Indeed,” said Lord Ragnall rather seriously, for I could see that he did not believe Van Koop’s statement as to the amount of the bet; perhaps he had heard more than we thought. “To be frank, Sir Junius, I don’t much care for betting--for that’s what it comes to--here. Also I think Mr. Quatermain said yesterday that he had never shot pheasants in England, so the match seems scarcely fair. However, you gentlemen know your own business best. Only I must tell you both that if money is concerned, I shall have to set someone whose decision will be final to count your birds and report the number to me.”
“Agreed,” said Van Koop, or, rather, Sir Junius; but I answered nothing, for, to tell the truth, already I felt ashamed of the whole affair.
As it happened, Lord Ragnall and I walked together ahead of the others, to the first covert, which was half a mile or more away.
“You have met Sir Junius before?” he said to me interrogatively.
“I have met Mr. van Koop before,” I answered, “about twelve years since, shortly after which he vanished from South Africa, where he was a well-known and very successful--speculator.”
“To reappear here. Ten years ago he bought a large property in this neighbourhood. Three years ago he became a baronet.”
“How did a man like Van Koop become a baronet?” I inquired.
“By purchase, I believe.”
“By purchase! Are honours in England purchased?”
“You are delightfully innocent, Mr. Quatermain, as a hunter from Africa should be,” said Lord Ragnall, laughing. “Your friend----”
“Excuse me, Lord Ragnall, I am a very humble person, not so elevated, indeed, as that gamekeeper of yours; therefore I should not venture to call Sir Junius, late Mr. van Koop, my friend, at least in earnest.”
He laughed again.
“Well, the individual with whom you make bets subscribed largely to the funds of his party. I am telling you what I know to be true, though the amount I do not know. It has been variously stated to be from fifteen to fifty thousand pounds, and, perhaps by coincidence, subsequently was somehow created a baronet.”
I stared at him.
“That’s all the story,” he went on. “I don’t like the man myself, but he is a wonderful pheasant shot, which passes him everywhere. Shooting has become a kind of fetish in these parts, Mr. Quatermain. For instance, it is a tradition on this estate that we must kill more pheasants than on any other in the country, and therefore I have to ask the best guns, who are not always the best fellows. It annoys me, but it seems that I must do what was done before me.”
“Under those circumstances I should be inclined to give up the thing altogether, Lord Ragnall. Sport as sport is good, but when it becomes a business it grows hateful. I know, who have had to follow it as a trade for many years.”
“That’s an idea,” he replied reflectively. “Meanwhile, I do hope that you will win back your--£5 from Sir Junius. He is so vain that I would gladly give £50 to see you do so.”
“There is little chance of that,” I said, “for, as I told you, I have never shot pheasants before. Still, I’ll try, as you wish it.”
“That’s right. And look here, Mr. Quatermain, shoot well forward of them. You see, I am venturing to advise you now, as you advised me yesterday. Shot does not travel so fast as ball, and the pheasant is a bird that is generally going much quicker than you think. Now, here we are. Charles will show you your stand. Good luck to you.”
Ten minutes later the game began outside of a long covert, all the seven guns being posted within sight of each other. So occupied was I in watching the preliminaries, which were quite new to me, that I allowed first a hare and then a hen pheasant to depart without firing at them, which hen pheasant, by the way, curved round and was beautifully killed by Van Koop, who stood two guns off upon my right.
“Look here, Allan,” said Scroope, “if you are going to beat your African friend you had better wake up, for you won’t do it by admiring the scenery or that squirrel on a tree.”
So I woke up. Just at that moment there was a cry of “cock forward.” I thought it meant a cock pheasant, and was astonished when I saw a beautiful brown bird with a long beak flitting towards me through the tops of the oak trees.
“Am I to shoot at that?” I asked.
“Of course. It is a woodcock,” answered Scroope.
By this time the brown bird was rocking past me within ten yards. I fired and killed it, for where it had been appeared nothing but a cloud of feathers. It was a quick and clever shot, or so I thought. But when Charles stepped out and picked from the ground only a beak and a head, a titter of laughter went down the whole line of guns and loaders.
“I say, old chap,” said Scroope, “if you will use No. 3 shot, let your birds get a little farther off you.”
The incident upset me so much that immediately afterwards I missed three easy pheasants in succession, while Van Koop added two to his bag.
Scroope shook his head and Charles groaned audibly. Now that I was not in competition with his master he had become suddenly anxious that I should win, for in some mysterious way the news of that bet had spread, and my adversary was not popular amongst the keeper class.
“Here you come again,” said Scroope, pointing to an advancing pheasant.
It was an extraordinarily high pheasant, flushed, I think, outside the covert by a stop, so high that, as it travelled down the line, although three guns fired at it, including Van Koop, none of them seemed to touch it. Then I fired, and remembering Lord Ragnall’s advice, far in front. Its flight changed. Still it travelled through the air, but with the momentum of a stone to fall fifty yards to my right, dead.
“That’s better!” said Scroope, while Charles grinned all over his round face, muttering:
“Wiped his eye that time.”
This shot seemed to give me confidence, and I improved considerably, though, oddly enough, I found that it was the high and difficult pheasants which I killed and the easy ones that I was apt to muff. But Van Koop, who was certainly a finished artist, killed both.
At the next stand Lord Ragnall, who had been observing my somewhat indifferent performance, asked me to stand back with him behind the other guns.
“I see the tall ones are your line, Mr. Quatermain,” he said, “and you will get some here.”
On this occasion we were placed in a dip between two long coverts which lay about three hundred yards apart. That which was being beaten proved full of pheasants, and the shooting of those picked guns was really a thing to see. I did quite well here, nearly, but not altogether, as well as Lord Ragnall himself, though that is saying a great deal, for he was a lovely shot.
“Bravo!” he said at the end of the beat. “I believe you have got a chance of winning your £5, after all.”
When, however, at luncheon, more than an hour later, I found that I was thirty pheasants behind my adversary, I shook my head, and so did everybody else. On the whole, that luncheon, of which we partook in a keeper’s house, was a very pleasant meal, though Van Koop talked so continuously and in such a boastful strain that I saw it irritated our host and some of the other gentlemen, who were very pleasant people. At last he began to patronize me, asking me how I had been getting on with my “elephant-potting” of late years.
I replied, “Fairly well.”
“Then you should tell our friends some of your famous stories, which I promise I won’t contradict,” he said, adding: “You see, they are different from us, and have no experience of big-game shooting.”
“I did not know that you had any, either, Sir Junius,” I answered, nettled. “Indeed, I thought I remembered your telling me in Africa that the only big game you had ever shot was an ox sick with the red-water. Anyway, shooting is a business with me, not an amusement, as it is to you, and I do not talk shop.”
At this he collapsed amid some laughter, after which Scroope, the most loyal of friends, began to repeat exploits of mine till my ears tingled, and I rose and went outside to look at the weather.
It had changed very much during luncheon. The fair promise of the morning had departed, the sky was overcast, and a wind, blowing in strong gusts, was rising rapidly, driving before it occasional scurries of snow.
“My word,” said Lord Ragnall, who had joined me, “the Lake covert--that’s our great stand here, you know--will take some shooting this afternoon. We ought to kill seven hundred pheasants in it with this team, but I doubt if we shall get five. Now, Mr. Quatermain, I am going to stand Sir Junius Fortescue and you back in the covert, where you will have the best of it, as a lot of pheasants will never face the lake against this wind. What is more, I am coming with you, if I may, as six guns are enough for this beat, and I don’t mean to shoot any more to-day.”
“I fear that you will be disappointed,” I said nervously.
“Oh, no, I sha’n’t,” he answered. “I tell you frankly that if only you could have a season’s practice, in my opinion you would make the best pheasant shot of the lot of us. At present you don’t quite understand the ways of the birds, that’s all; also those guns are strange to you. Have a glass of cherry brandy; it will steady your nerves.”
I drank the cherry brandy, and presently off we went. The covert we were going to shoot, into which we had been driving pheasants all the morning, must have been nearly a mile long. At the top end it was broad, narrowing at the bottom to a width of about two hundred yards. Here it ran into a horse-shoe shaped piece of water that was about fifty yards in breadth. Four of the guns were placed round the bow of this water, but on its farther side, in such a position that the pheasants should stream over them to yet another covert behind at the top of a slope, Van Koop and I, however, were ordered to take our places, he to the right and I to the left, about seventy yards up the tongue in little glades in the woodland, having the lake to our right and our left respectively. I noticed with dismay that we were so set that the guns below us on its farther side could note all that we did or did not do; also that a little band of watchers, among whom I recognized my friend the gunsmith, were gathered in a place where, without interfering with us, they could see the sport. On our way to the boat, however, which was to row us across the water, an incident happened that put me in very good spirits and earned some applause.
I was walking with Lord Ragnall, Scroope and Charles, about sixty yards clear of a belt of tall trees, when from far away on the other side of the trees came a cry of “Partridges over!” in the hoarse voice of the red-waistcoated Jenkins, who was engaged in superintending the driving in of some low scrub before he joined his army at the top of the covert.
“Look out, Mr. Quatermain, they are coming this way,” said Lord Ragnall, while Charles thrust a loaded gun into my hand.
Another moment and they appeared over the tree-tops, a big covey of them in a long, straggling line, travelling at I know not what speed, for a fierce gust from the rising gale had caught them. I fired at the first bird, which fell at my feet. I fired again, and another fell behind me. I snatched up the second gun and killed a third as it passed over me high up. Then, wheeling round, I covered the last retreating bird, and lo! it too fell, a very long shot indeed.
“By George!” said Scroope, “I never saw that done before,” while Ragnall stared and Charles whistled.
But now I will tell the truth and expose all my weakness. The second bird was not the one I aimed at. I was behind it and caught that which followed. And in my vanity I did not own up, at least not till that evening.
The four dead partridges--there was not a runner among them--having been collected amidst many congratulations, we went on and were punted across the lake to the covert. As we entered the boat I observed that, in addition to the great bags, Charles was carrying a box of cartridges under his arm, and asked him where he got it from.