Partridge Day as it Was and as it Is

by "An Elderly Sportsman"

The world advances—good. Having accepted which tenet, it would be unreasonable to deny that the pleasures and indulgences of the world advance also. Luxury is one of the pleasures and indulgences of the world. Therefore luxury advances. The syllogism is complete and sound; there is fault in neither major nor minor premiss; and we have therefore arrived at the ultimate conclusion that luxury is on the move—that is, has increased. I have seldom come across a more perfect illustration of my argument than in the early days of this month of September. I am not an old fogey; I do not set up pretensions to a claim for talking, with a kind of accompanying sigh, of the days "when I was a boy," when "we managed things so much better," &c., &c. Yet perhaps I am not exactly middle-aged either, and can at all events look sufficiently far back to note a material change in the manner in which old September is ushered in now as compared with its reception some years ago. There are probably few, who, if lacking experience of its pleasures, can duly appreciate the ardour with which a sportsman looks forward to the "glorious first." But let the appreciative observer note how manifestly that ardour has of late years abated. It has been my frequent custom ere autumn has made her final curtsey, to take up my quarters at the country house of a certain relative, and witness the unprovoked assault on, and reckless massacre of divers unoffending partridges in the ensuing month. The relative referred to is an elderly gentleman, and, in addition to the possession of lands of his own, and liberties to shoot over those of other people, is also the happy father of three stalwart sons, not to mention the complementary portion of the family with whom at present I have nothing to do. These three stalwart sons, beknown to me as mere brats, I have watched grow up with some interest, and that not only as regards their moral and intellectual training, but also as regards the physical culture of their frames, and the sporting bent of their mind. The youngsters were always fond of me. I have always been their fidus Achates, in their adventures by land and water, from teaching them to swim and row, down to setting night lines for eels, or traps for rats. Well do I recollect arriving, on the evening of the 31st of August, some years ago, at the old place in Lincolnshire, and finding all three in a state of wild exuberance of spirits in anticipation of the morrow's sport; Jack, the eldest, just then promoted to a gun of his own, of which he was enormously proud, and the other two contenting themselves with the exciting prospect of plodding after us the whole day in the hopes of being allowed to let off our charges at its conclusion. Everybody was eager enough then, and the Squire after an evening spent—much to the disgust of the ladies—in discussing the all-engrossing topic of "the birds," sends us off early to bed, that we may all be up betimes in the morning.

We wake at seven, or rather are awoke, for the boys have been up since five, "chumming" (I know no word so appropriate) with the keepers; and even the Squire himself overhead I have heard stamping across his room to look out at the weather several times since four o'clock. We are awoke, then, at seven, and ere we have had time to take that fatal turn, the sure forerunner of a second sleep, a knock, or rather a thunderclap, is heard on the outer panels of the door, and Uncle Sam (they always call me Uncle Sam, though I am not their uncle, and my name is not Samuel) is summoned to "look sharp, and dress." Too cognizant of the fact that Uncle Sam's only chance of peace is to obey, we splash into our tub forthwith, encase our person in an old velveteen and gaiters, and having gulped our coffee and hastily devoured our toast, find ourself at nine o'clock standing on the hall steps, and comparing guns with Jack, previous to a start for the arable. Two keepers, a brace of perfect pointers, and a retriever, are awaiting, even at that hour, impatiently, our departure for the scene of action.

Two miles' walk in the soft September air serves to brace our nerves for the work before us; and the head keeper and the Squire having conferred together like two generals, on our arrival at the seat of war, we at length find ourselves placed—I should perhaps rather say marshalled—in the turnips and ready for the fray. What a picture it is! how truly English! each sportsman's eye glistening with excitement and pleasure, as he poises his gun, each in his own readiest manner and favourite position, the Squire casting his eye along the line with the careful scrutiny of a field-marshal examining his forces previous to a final and decisive struggle; the two pointers, too well disciplined to show their ardour in gestures, standing mute behind the keeper; Jack with his gun full-cocked and ready to fire almost before the quarry is started; and his two brothers bursting with excitement, talking in hurried and ceaseless whispers behind the back of Uncle Sam, bearing no distant resemblance, as far as their half-checked ardour is concerned, to the brace of pointers behind the keeper. But there is no time for indulging in reverie as to the scene; a low "Hold up, then!" is heard from the head-keeper, the two graceful dogs bound forward, the line advances, and the action has commenced. A rabbit starts from under Jack's feet: Bang!—and the shot enters a turnip, a yard behind the little white stern hopping and popping to his burrow, despite the reiterated assurances of Master Jack that he is hit, and who forgets to reload accordingly. "Hold up!" to the crouching pointers, and away we move again, watching the graceful movements of the dogs as they work the field before us. Rake, a young dog in his first season, is breaking a little too much ahead; but ere the keeper's "Gently, boy!" had reached him, he has suddenly pulled up, and, with tail stiff and leg up, is standing, motionless as a statue, over a covey. We advance, in the highest excitement:—whirr! goes bird after bird almost singly; and our first covey of the season leaves two brace and a half on the field. One o'clock comes; we have steadily beaten turnips and stubble, clover and mustard, and we spy a man with a donkey and panniers on the brow of the hill in front of us. We beat up to him, bagging a hare and a single bird on our way, and during the half-hour that is allowed us for our bread and cheese and one glass of sherry, we enjoy to our heart's content the large delights of loosing our tongues, after several hours' rigid silence. But "time is up," and we are again on the move till six; we are tired, but we don't know it; we are hungry and thirsty, but we feel not their pangs, till, with our five-and-twenty brace behind us in the bags, we strike across the park on our homeward journey. Uncle Sam's gun is yielded up to Master Tom to let off the charge with the shot drawn; but he manages surreptitiously to obtain our shot-flask, and joins us on the hall steps with a dead rabbit, somewhat mauled, however, from the young rascal's having fired at it at ten paces. We sit down to dinner in high good-humour:—who is not, after a good day? We defend our sport before the ladies from the charge of cruelty, and retire to roost so tired that we take the precaution to lock our door, to prevent the too early and too sure incursion of the young Visigoths in the morning. Alas! for the days that are no more. Seven or eight years have passed since that pleasant day, and Downcharge Hall again welcomes Uncle Sam on the evening of the 31st, under its hospitable roof; I find the boys all grown into young men; Jack is a captain of Hussars, Tom is a subaltern in the Engineers, and Dick has just left Christ Church. They are still as fond as ever of Uncle Sam, though they occasionally venture so far nowadays, as to offer an opinion adverse to his on sporting matters, in which his word was formerly supreme. As I descend to dinner, I pass Jack's room. Hailed by its tenant, of course. I enter, and find him occupied, with care above his years, in the adjustment of his spotless white necktie, two of which articles, crumpled too much in the operation, are at present adorning the floor. "Think of shooting to-morrow, Sam?" (The title of "uncle" has been dropped since Jack first stroked his downy upper lip as a second lieutenant). I stand aghast. Here is a young man, full of health and vigour, on the evening of the 31st August, questioning a fellow-man, who has just travelled some hundred miles and more to Downcharge Hall, with his arm round his gun-case, as to his intention of shooting on the 1st of September. Entertaining a faint hope that, in the exuberance of his youthful spirits, he may be chaffing his old relative, I gasp out an affirmative, and, obeying the summons of the dinner-bell, descend the stairs. There is a large party of guests, but dinner proceeds with but one allusion to the morrow and that is from Dick, who exclaims, as he fingers the delicate stem of his champagne glass, "By-the-by, to-morrow will be the 1st." The piece of fowl I was that moment in the act of swallowing stuck in my throat; my appetite was destroyed, and I silently, but sorrowfully, resolved that for the future no prodigy could have power to amaze me. Our guests stayed late, and at half-past eleven o'clock, mindful of my early rising the next day, I began to grow fidgetty. By twelve o'clock, however, they had all gone; and having despatched the ladies of the house to bed, my hand was already grasping my bed-candle, when Tom arrested my intention, bidding me, in a voice of manifest astonishment at what he was pleased to call my "early roost," to come and do a pipe or two first in Dick's room. Labouring under the delusion that a quarter of an hour was about to be devoted to arranging our sporting plans, I obeyed, and after two hours in Dick's room, spent almost entirely in discussing the relative merits and demerits of certain ladies and horses, found myself between the sheets at last. Awaking with a start, in the morning, to discover it is eight o'clock, I dress with all possible speed, haunted the while with terrible pictures of impatient sportsmen below anathematizing my tardiness as they wait breakfast for me. I hurry down stairs,—the breakfast room is tenantless. My first impression is that they have been unable to curb their sporting ardour, and have started without me. Hearing a footstep on the gravel sweep without, I step through the open casement, and confront a pretty dairymaid bringing in the milk and cream for breakfast.

"Fine mornin', sir."

"Yes. Which way have they gone—can you tell me?"

"Same gait as ever, sir. Joe have druv 'em down agin the fenny pasture, arter milkin' up hinder."

"Ah! but the gentlemen, not the cows."

"The gentlemen, is it? Maybe if ye look in their beds ye'll see 'em this time o' day."

Heaving a mighty sigh, I leave the dairymaid, and stroll up and down the garden, listening with increasing impatience to the distant call of the partridges in the park. Nature at Downcharge Hall that morning was at all events beautifully still; there was a slight mist, too, gradually clearing off from the distance, which betokened very surely a broiling day, and made me long the more to get our seven or eight brace before the mid-day heat should come upon us. My longings and reflections, however, were suddenly cut short by a pitying butler, who had brought me out the Times, with the remark that "Master and the young gentlemen seldom has their breakfasts before ten." This was cheerful; however, I consoled myself with the paper, and just as I had finished discovering who was born, married, or dead, and had commenced reading the entreaties to return to afflicted initial letters, &c., &c., Dick's terrier entered the room, the forerunner of his master, who, remarking on my actually being an earlier bird than himself, was followed, in the course of about twenty minutes, by the others.

"I suppose we shoot to-day: where shall we begin?" asks Tom.

"Oh! we will shoot up from Brinkhill," answers the Squire.

"Brinkhill—two miles;—must have a trap," says Jack.

The two-mile walk used to be part of the order of the day; it gave us a little time for conversation, prohibited from its conclusion till lunch; it braced one up, and made one, in sporting phraseology, "fit"; but nowadays a carriage is necessary, and the young Nimrod is unequal to any fatigue beyond that which he must necessarily undergo in pursuit of his game. However, we are late, so I can't object to it; and, burning my throat in my hasty disposal of my second cup of coffee, I rush upstairs to get ready my trusty Westley Richards, which, by the way, is a muzzle-loader, yet does not take so long to load as to require a man behind me with a second gun. Five minutes, and fully equipped I re-enter the breakfast-room, where I am astonished to find my "get-up" creates unfeigned amazement.

"What! ready now!" says Tom; "what's the use of being in such a hurry?—let's do a pipe and a game of billiards first."

"Ah, by-the-by," adds Dick, "what time shall we start? Better have the trap at twelve—quite early enough, eh?"

So Jack betakes himself to the newspaper; I am dragged off in disgust to the billiard-room; and the Squire goes off to show old Jones, who is staying here, all about the gardens, &c.

How I loathe the gardens from that moment!—how every shrub became a bugbear, every flower a poisonous weed, to my jaundiced eye, as I mentally abused my host for not turning out everybody sooner, and doing things smarter! My temper is rapidly vanishing; I have been beaten in two games by Tom, to whom I used formerly to allow fifteen out of fifty; I am smoking a cigar of Dick's (a bad one I think it, of course), when suddenly the sound of wheels breaks on my ear, and rushing madly to my room again, I don my shot-belt, I pocket wads, powder, and caps, shoulder my gun, and in two minutes am seated in the elegant little double dog-cart, waiting in a broiling sun for these tardy sportsmen. I have sat for full a quarter of an hour, when Jack strolls out, and, in a voice as though nothing had or was about to happen, exclaims—

"Hallo, Sam! are you ready? I must go and dress." And this to a man who has been gaitered since half-past eight. At half-past twelve he reappeared, dressed in magnificent apparel, the result of Poole's and Anderson's united efforts, and examining, to the increase of my impatience, the elaborate locks of a brand new breech-loader. Formerly, we used to take care of that sort of thing the night before at the latest. However, our horses are good ones, and Dick, who knows very well how to handle them—about the only thing I can say for him—puts them along in very neat form at a brisk pace to Brinkhill. This is all very pleasant; and as we near the ground my spirits begin to rise again. It takes us, however, at least twenty minutes to discuss which is the most advantageous beat—a matter which used to be settled as we came along; but I am at last on the move, and begin to forget the past grievances, only hoping they won't strike work too early. It is the same old field in which I so well remember Jack making his debût and missing the rabbit; but I miss the eager faces of those days sadly; it doesn't seem the same thing to me; half the pleasure of a thing, after all, is in enjoying it in company; but that half is sadly marred if the said company are cool in their enjoyment. The dogs, too, are disgustingly wild now. Old Rake breaks fence and flushes our first covey long out of gunshot, my disgust at which is further augmented by one of the keepers, as wild as the dog, breaking line and starting a hare, as remote as the partridges, by his loud imprecations after the miscreant, who is utterly deaf alike to whistle, threats, and entreaties. There is fault enough here; but it doesn't lie entirely with the keeper; it is too evident there is an absence of the eye of the master. If the Squire grows indifferent to their proceedings, he can scarcely expect his dogs and keepers to be what they were; the keeper gets lazy or dishonest, the dogs' training is neglected, and by-and-by they become useless or worse than useless, and their services are discarded. Now if there is one thing more than another which enhances the pleasure of a day's partridge-shooting, it is to watch a brace of well-trained pointers work a field. Why is it then—for obviously it is so—that the use of dogs, and especially of setters and pointers in the field, is gradually being discarded?

But to proceed. As soon as order is tolerably restored, we advance again, and pretty steadily beat two or three fields, bagging, with an unheard-of amount of missing, about two brace of birds. We are just entering the next field, when the Brinkhill tenant rides up and asks us all in to lunch. Ye gods, what a feast! Some years ago some bread and cheese, and perhaps a couple of glasses of sherry under a hedge was considered ample on these occasions. Now, however, I have before me an elegant repast of ham and tongue, of fowls and lamb, of pies and fruit, of beer and sherry, port and claret, such as would have shamed the epicurean deities of heathen mythology quaffing ambrosial nectar on the heights of Olympus. With a hopeless shudder I deposit my gun in a corner of the room and take my seat. We breakfasted at ten, but the "unwonted" exercise (alas! it should be so) has given the youngsters an appetite, and their tongues are tied for ten minutes, before worthy Mr Shorthorn, the tenant, produces a bottle of "that very fine old port" he so wishes the Squire to taste. I am not exaggerating when I state that lunch lasted a good hour. Then his pigs are inspected, and what with the wine and the waiting, I can well foresee what will happen to our sport: tongues will be loosed; misses will, if possible, increase; and I feel convinced that the partridges will have little to fear from us for this afternoon, at all events. However, we do manage at last to get away by about half-past three or four o'clock, and commence beating a very promising piece of stubble. I have just bagged a hare, and the dogs have been reduced, by dint of much rating, into a state of downcharge whilst I load, when something is heard galloping behind us, and Dick, who had stayed behind, as we thought, to fill his powder-flask, appears in the field trying the paces of the tenant's young one. Although he is well behind the beat, the galloping horse forms a disturbing element to the guns. Dick rides over the low fence at the end, round the next field, and finally returns right in the way of a shot I might have had at a landrail. I don't swear, because I don't approve thereof, and, moreover, am moderate in my temper; but this is indeed trying, and, to make matters worse, the fellow doesn't appear in the least bit ashamed of himself, but quietly dismounts, feels the legs of the colt carefully down, and, refusing to take his gun from the keepers, remarks that he is tired of missing, and (to my joy) shall go home. A prudent resolve, as he had fired at least twenty or thirty shots without touching a feather, as it seemed to my heated imagination; but the keeper, with a presence the late Duc de Morny might have envied, urges him "not to give over yet; he might 'ave a haccident and hit summut." Laughter is irresistible, but Dick's ardour is not equal to trusting to this remote contingency, so he wends his way homewards, for a wonder, on his own legs. The rest of us proceed again, but the shooting is, if possible, worse than before lunch; and as we enter the park again I ask, in a dejected tone of the head keeper, "What is the bag?" "Seven brace, three hares, and one rabbit." I turn away with a sigh, and mentally resolve to remove from my head, in the solitude of my chamber, on my return, the hairs—the many hairs—that must have turned grey during that terrible day; and I join the rest to reseek the hall, a sadder and a sulkier man. We enter the billiard-room at six, to find Dick engaged in a game of billiards with his pretty cousin, Lucy Hazard—the dog! but feeling that he deserves nothing at our hands, we break the tête-à-tête and summon the other ladies for a pool. Lucy has been chaffing Master Dick about "being such a muff as to return so soon." Quite right—an uncommonly nice girl is Miss Lucy, and with £50,000 of her own, too, they say. If I were ten years younger, I think I would marry her (I am far too vain to doubt her consent), and get some shooting of my own,—some shooting, sir, conducted on my own principles: I don't care much for the Downcharge Hall style of doing business. "C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre," remarked a French general, as he levelled his glass at our light squadrons charging through the bloody vale of Balaklava. "C'est luxurieux, mais ce n'est pas le sport," remarks the writer of this grumble, as he levels his pen at the sportsmen of Downcharge Hall and all who may resemble them.