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A LUCKY DAY IN A DEER-FOREST.
DURING the year 1893 red-deer and the places where they abide were a good deal in evidence. A Commission, biassed as regards the majority of its members from its birth, was appointed to inquire into matters connected with them, and it made many laborious journeys and compiled much interesting information. The stalking season was an unusually good one: it began well and ended well, and about the middle of it the famous Glen Quoich stag was slain, and many people who knew little about forests, and less about the Inquisition sitting on them, were interested in the twenty-pointer. The present writer has more than once had the privilege of giving in these pages an account of days when everything went awry in the forest; when the mist was always low and the wind always wrong, and stags seemed to be clad in invisible armour, impervious to an express bullet. He trusts that he will not be harshly judged, or set down as a praiser of himself if once in a while he shows a pleasant
reverse to the picture.
It was once our privilege to hear three ladies simultaneously make such an announcement. They were all young and beautiful, and the question was, How would they allot themselves? There were four passes to watch that day also, and four men to do it, and yet every one of those dames went with the present writer. It would be a never-ending source of congratulation and happiness to that individual if he could by any means persuade himself that they "kept company" with him that chilly day because they liked him best. Alas! they were quite frank in what they said; they made no foolish attempt to conceal the truth. The top pass was a very good one, but it was a high one, exposed to any wind that chose to blow into it almost, and they said they did not intend to catch colds. The next place and its occupier was rejected for the same reason. And to get at the outlook occupied by the third rifle it was necessary to go up a ride in a steep face, covered with exceedingly rank heather, trying to people encumbered with petticoats. the lowest and easiest-got-at place was chosen, and they took the man who happened to be in it with what equanimity they might.
The departure of that martyr must have been a touching sight to witness he went first, concealing his emotions. Then followed a keeper with the rifle, and thenat irregular intervals, discussing many things-came the three fair dames. But lest perchance any of these ladies should read this account, and be dissatisfied with what has been said about them, we hasten to add that no three daughters of Eve could possibly
have behaved better than they did during the whole of that day. Any desire to sally forth in white petticoats and yellow jackets and flamingo-coloured parasols was checked by the knowledge and experience of one of them, and no doubt by an innate sense of propriety in all. We reached the pass, we established the three in a kind of nest in the very long heather, and then we judiciously moved a dozen yards away, and sat alone. If no stags came out at that particular place—and none did come-it was not owing to any indiscretion on the part of the covey. If occasionally a plaintive voice was heard through the heather, announcing that its owner was cold, or stiff, and wanted to jump about and warm herself, a bit of stick judiciously thrown in among the lot always brought silence; and a very small bit of chocolate apiece was the only reward given for four or five hours' patient waiting. And so it was with no demur at all, but with cheerful confidence born of experience, that a year later we climbed to a higher pass in the same great wood. Indeed our companion was no ignoramus about deer and their ways; she was herself capable of doing a hard day's work in a real forest, and stopped to look at the view, when going up a steep hillside, as seldom as, or seldomer than, most others of her sex with whom we are acquainted. It was much to be hoped that her presence would bring a change in the luck, for a change was greatly needed. Barking roe had alarmed deer one day, and spoilt a certain chance. A little clump of bushes between us and a good stag, and a danger ous slant of wind, had been too much for us another: after some hours of patient waiting within rifle-shot, we had to give it up. But the luck was to be broken to-day.
So we sat in the pleasant sunlight, on the warm side of the hill. To the south lay the Moray Firth, backed by the Grampians: nearer at hand was the Black Isle ; the sun shining on its scores of crofters' houses made their whitewashed gables, all standing in the same direction, look like so many tents. In the immediate foreground, stretching down to the rapid Orrin, was the great wood out of which our prey was to come. It was a beautiful pass; the wood, thick below, thinned out here into scattered stunted trees, and, supposing the deer came where they were expected to come, it would be the fault of the man and not his weapon if they all got safely away. For a long time nothing was to be seen or heard; then three or four roe made. their appearance, and stood some hundred yards below the watchers. They were suspicious and uneasy, and uncertain what to do; they stood quite motionless with pointed ears, listening. Finally they decided that the wood they had come out of was safer than the open hill, and they went back into it. At last we heard a shot or two, and the far faint cry of the beaters, and then a gillie came and said we must shift our ground and take up another position. Here again we waited an hour or two, and lunched.
gillie-though we did blame him: he, poor man, had sinned with the best intentions, and was as much put out as any one by the catastrophe. But John Burns, the head-keeper, said that there was something uncanny in the air, and that it was no good going out after deer any more. And he was confirmed in his opinions by the way in which we were again done the following day. On a bit of green on the moor, which had once been worked by some long ago dead and forgotten man, we saw a stag. When we got within shot of the green the stag had disappeared. But, on the very spot on which he had been standing, sat a huge rabbit. One of its ears stuck up and one lay down, and there was a something in the expression of its countenance which told us we were looking at no ordinary beast. No doubt those possessed of that sixth sense we sometimes hear of would have been able to make out behind it the shadowy form and horns of a stag.
"We must go and shoot partridges to-morrow," said Mr Burns.
These proceedings took place on a big shooting which was not a regular forest, and then we changed our ground and made a long journey westward to a district where stalking is made a daily business and not a mere interlude; where ladies come sometimes, but not very often; where pheasants and partridges are quite unknown, and grouse are left undisturbed, and even ptarmigan are very seldom attacked. Thirty-four miles by road and six by water took us into a country very different to that we had left behind on the coast: it would be difficult to find a greater contrast than that between the house we left in the morning and its far-away lodge where we slept at night.
There are three lodges in Monar :
one of them is never occupied— has, we believe, never been slept in since it was built some forty years ago save by a passing tramp, who even in this solitary country sometimes makes his appearance. It is a somewhat eerie-looking place on a gloomy day, lying in the middle of a small thick firwood close to the loch-side, with no other habitations near; bearing perhaps some resemblance to that "lonely lodge" where the Heir of Lynne repaired, when all his gear was spent and all his hope gone.
This is the middle lodge. That on the east side is a cheery little house, in which a man might live all the year round, and be very comfortable. But when you get to the third house, away to the westward, you leave behind all luxuries as far as outdoor arrangements go-all gravel walks, and flower - beds, and trees, except a few stunted things just round the building. There is a boat-house and a venison larder, and in place of flowers and suchlike the neighbourhood of the house is ornamented during the stalking season by many skins of stags, hanging on fences and bushes to dry. loch in high water comes pretty close to the front door. It is in the very heart of deer-forests, and is as solitary a place as it would be easy to find. On any night in October you will hear the longdrawn-out roar which stags make at this season-sometimes mournful, sometimes, we have heard men say who have listened to both, as like the roar of a lion as any sound can be. In winter there is plenty of company round about hundreds of hinds come down here for shelter and grass; they are never shot or disturbed, and in gratitude for the consideration shown them they send out in the spring, not only to their own forest but to all the forests round, hundreds of
young stags. If there was, at any rate in very bad weather, something sombre about the place, it never affected the spirits of those who live there during the first autumn months. To a stalker it was an ideal home; and for our part we associate that little lochwashed, wind-swept, weather-beaten building with the happiest days we have ever spent. In such a place, if anywhere, a man can for a time shake off his troubles and forget unpleasant things.
To this lodge, then, one dull October evening we came across the hill, and we met there an old friend whose record of sport during the previous week had been at once our admiration and our envy. Our friend that day had killed two stags, and we, under Murdoch Macphail's skilful guidance, had the same. One of them was perfectly black with rolling in the peat-hags: he really looked more like a great bear on the yellow hillside than a red-deer. It would be wearisome to give an account of each day's sport; we both had ample. The weather was tolerable, the wind fairly favourable, and neither of us came in any night "clean.” And so we pass on to the last day of the season. High up above the lodge there is a great rock, or rather cliff, called "Creagan Dhu," below which at this time of the year, if the wind is right, there is often a stag. There was one on the eventful morning of which we are giving an account; but he was not in a very good place, and we decided to move the deer to the rifle instead of carrying out the reverse process. So Angy, an other of Macphail's sons, went up to the top and round to let them have his wind, and we took up our position above the line which, when shifted from their quarters here, they generally took, and
patiently waited, sitting close together, so as to be able to talk in whispers. Far below us stretched the dull yellowish flat, through which a river, so sluggish in places as almost to turn on itself, wound and twisted to the big lake. Loch Monar and the long chain of the Gedd lochs in Pait wore a sullen, lead-coloured appearance; and around us for very many miles, as far as the I could see in every direction, stood up the great brown solemn hills. Angy did his work properly; and at last the deer arrived a string of hinds and calves first, trotting along with the delicate high action which always makes one think of King Agag. The oldest and most experienced hind led the company: her long ears were well pointed forward; she moved as if she was stepping on eggs. The wind, which blew fair on her tail, told her of danger behind she peered eagerly in front, but did not pay much attention to what was above, and never noticed the two grey-clad figures sitting so motionless among the old grey stones. Then passed out more hinds, and after them the stag; he ambled leisurely along, looking rather bored at having to leave the comfortable shelter. Yet other hinds appeared, quite close, and they saw us, and, after one frightened look to make sure, bolted.
The stag, who was a good way farther down the hill, saw them galloping, and instead of making off too—as a wise beast would have done-stopped for a moment, looking up towards us. And then-without any suffering accompanying the act-he died: one tremendous shock, and his troubles, if he had any, and his life, came to an end.
As he rolled over and over down the hill, a second stag came in sight, some thirty yards below the first. All the hinds were wildly bolting
now, but they were bolting in every direction; and though this stag knew well enough that things were wrong, he had been round the corner of the rock when the shot was fired, and had not a good idea of where it came from, and was not sure which lot of deer to follow. So he too, undecided, came to a halt, wildly staring about.
There are some people who tell you that enough is as good as a feast, and that one stag in a day should satisfy the most greedy sportsman; but such folk forget that every day does not give its quota,-wrong winds and mists, and perhaps a temporary scarcity of deer, account for many blanks. Perhaps such a moralist would find it hard to carry out his theories, if he sat on a hillside with a rifle in his hand, and was capable of using it. This second stag offered a fair, almost broadside, shot, and he too parted with his life as quickly and painlessly as his brother. Then we went down to look at them: the first was a pretty eight-pointer, and was found later to weigh exactly fifteen stone; the second had also eight points, but was not so heavy. There is if the doer of deed be a novice-something a little solemn in going up to a great animal which he has killed. A few moments earlier and the deer, if it had been unable to get from you-if it had been cornered in any way-would almost have died with fear at your approach. Now you can put your hand on his shaggy sides, and touch his horns, and pull straight his long cold grey brown legs. Some people say they never shoot a stag without a feeling of regret. It is a hateful thing to shoot a hind which has a calf, and if many hinds have to be killed this must sometimes happen even with the greatest care. For our part we
experience no great satisfaction in shooting even the most barren hind.
But the measure of such folk's sorrow is to be not unfairly gauged by what they do afterwards, and by the hatred with which they look on a stag they have missed. For ourselves we have never spared a stag-a good stag-from any motives of commiseration; if he has got off unscathed it was to the hand and eye of the rifleman he was indebted, not to any pity of heart. The fight is not an unequal one: the deer, in a wild state at any rate, does not use his arms in it; but the cunning and subtlety and strength which he sets against you often turn the balance in his favour. It is otherwise with smaller beasties; sometimes—once in a day's shoot—it is a satisfaction to us to spare a rabbit. He is sitting amongst his rushes; we catch sight of him just in time to avoid putting him up. There is something touching in the little creature's appearance; his ears are set as far back as possible; nothing but a roller could press him nearer to the ground than he is now; his eyes, if they are to be seen, have something appealing in them. We let him sit, and go on, and say nothing about his affairs, hoping that the beaters on either side did not notice the short interview, dimly conscious that perhaps, after all, one has done something to be a little ashamed of. Is it quite honest, for instance, when a friend asks you to come and shoot his rabbits, that you should knowingly spare even one in a day? Perhaps in some far distant age