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from the north-east, and for the first time during the winter did there seem a prospect of getting some wildfowl shooting. Accordingly, Jack and I had arranged to start about eight o'clock to an unfrequented part of the river, and we had sent a man on with the punt up the river, to leave it in readiness for us when we arrived at the spot.
After dinner, when we had joined the ladies, and one of them began to sing one of those charming old Scotch ballads, which in their simplicity are ten times prettier and sweeter than the run of modern music, I did not feel so ready to turn out in the cold as I could have wished. Indeed, I had a sort of half hope that Jack would feel equally loth to leave the comfortable drawing-room ; and I resolved, if he did not mention it, to be careful not to draw his attention to our proposed shooting excursion. He was too keen a sportsman, however, to let an opportunity slip, and, just as I thought he had forgotten all about it, he said,
“Now, old fellow, time's up. It is no use your making yourself comfortable in that easy chair. You have got to change your dress, you know."
“It isn't eight o'clock yet,” I pleaded.
“We must be there by eight o'clock, or we shall miss the flight."
“Flight of what? Where are you going, Jack ?” asked his sister.
“Wild ducks—shooting,” said he, answering both her questions in the laconic and scarcely polite tone which brothers often adopt in speaking to their sisters.
“But you promised to play bezique with me," said Miss Clara in a reproachful tone.
“Ten thousand pardons, but I am afraid Jack can claim a prior promise;" and I unwillingly left the room with him, to dress more suitably for the occasion. · I had been loth to leave the drawing-room, but when we got out into the keen, frosty air my spirits rose, and the instinct of the sportsman began to thrill through me, infusing its own peculiar pleasure. The snow lay deep on the ground, and muffled the sound of our footsteps. We took a short cut through the wood, where, however, it was so dark that we could scarcely find our way along the numerous rides. Startled by the cracking of the rotten branches underfoot, the ringdoves left their roosting-places in the fir trees, and shook down showers of snow from the laden branches. Leaving the wood, we crossed a meadow and took the path by the river's side for nearly a mile. A sudden plunge of some heavy body into the water close by attracted our attention.
“What was that ?”
“An otter, I expect. If you see him, let fly at him.”
The otter, however, had disappeared, but on the margin we found the remains of a fine trout. Master otter must have been hungry, for the fish was nearly all devoured, instead of only the dainty part on the shoulder, known as the otter's bite.
“ Are there many of those gentry about here?”
“Yes, too many, unfortunately. We had a pack of otter hounds here not long ago; they started two otters, but killed neither. The master of the hounds was nearly drowned. He attempted to jump a narrow part of the river by means of his spear, using it as a leaping pole, but the end of it jammed in between some rocks at the bottom, and he was checked in mid air, and of course fell in. He was carried by the force of the stream into deep water, and, not being able to swim, he had a near squeak for it. Here is the place where we are to shoot. I wonder where the boat is! Can you see it ?”
“No; your man has either hidden it very carefully, or it has been taken away.”
“Ah, here it is, underneath this bush. Be careful how you step in. You take the guns, and I'll paddle her up."
The boat was a shallow, square-ended punt. It was impelled either by a pole—what the Norfolk people call a “quant”-or by a paddle. The latter was like a shovel in shape, with a long handle, and used in this manner: the paddler sits in the stern and takes long strokes on which side of the boat he prefers, letting the paddle drag a little in the water at the end of each stroke, in order to counteract the natural tendency of the boat to turn to the opposite side to that on which the paddle is worked. We soon reached our position, which was a clump of bushes and flags. Making the boat fast, stem and stern, we sat down to wait patiently until the birds began to arrive. It is needless to say we had a retriever with us, as, owing to the current, the ducks might get lost if left until the morning before being picked up, as may be done if the sport is pursued on a pool or mere. At the spot we were stationed the river took a great curve, the part enclosed by which was mostly inaccessible marsh. Our hiding-place was at the broadest part of the river, in the centre of the curve, so that before us across the stream, and to the right and left, up and down, we had a tolerably large expanse of water on which the ducks were expected to alight first. The current was slow, but there were. eddies and under-currents which prevented its freezing, and made the water flow and well up in a mysterious way.
There was time for a pipe; and as we smoked we watched the sky and the water. The sky was cloudless, and the stars shone out with that vivid brilliancy peculiar to frosty nights. The wind blew across the river, but the ripples raised were not sufficient to prevent our seeing anything on its surface. The only sounds audible were the lapping of the water along the stones of the further bank, the gurgle of an eddy suddenly waking up from its giddy, silent whirl into a bubble and boil, and relapsing into quietude again, and the occasional note of a bird. Presently I felt Nero, who was lying against my leg, start up, and I saw some object swimming across the stream towards us. “It was only a water-hen, Nero, so lie down again, good dog."
My legs were getting cramped, so I stood up in the boat to stretch myself. A couple of ducks arose from the marsh behind, and made away with a great splutter.
"How the dickens did they come there? I did not see them come.”
“We must keep a better look out. Sit down and put your pipe out."