THE BAG

“The Major is coming in to tea,” said Mrs. Hoopington to

her niece. He’s just gone round to the stables with his

horse. Be as bright and lively as you can; the poor man’s

got a fit of the glooms.”

Major Pallaby was a victim of circumstances, over which he

had no control, and of his temper, over which he had very

little. He had taken on the Mastership of the Pexdale

Hounds in succession to a highly popular man who had fallen

foul of his committee, and the Major found himself

confronted with the overt hostility of at least half the

hunt, while his lack of tact and amiability had done much to

alienate the remainder. Hence subscriptions were beginning

to fall off, foxes grew provokingly scarcer, and wire

obtruded itself with increasing frequency. The Major could

plead reasonable excuse for his fit of the glooms.

In ranging herself as a partisan on the side of Major

Pallaby Mrs. Hoopington had been largely influenced by the

fact that she had made up her mind to marry him at an early

date. Against his notorious bad temper she set his three

thousand a year, and his prospective succession to a

baronetcy gave a casting vote in his favour. The Major’s

plans on the subject of matrimony were not at present in

such an advanced stage as Mrs. Hoopington’s, but he was

beginning to find his way over to Hoopington Hall with a

frequency that was already being commented on.

“He had a wretchedly thin field out again yesterday,”

said Mrs. Hoopington. “Why you didn’t bring one or two

hunting men down with you, instead of that stupid Russian

boy, I can’t think.”

“Vladimir isn’t stupid,” protested her niece; “he’s one

of the most amusing boys I ever met. just compare him for a

moment with some of your heavy hunting men—”

“Anyhow, my dear Norah, he can’t ride.”

“Russians never can; but he shoots.”

“Yes; and what does he shoot? Yesterday he brought home a

woodpecker in his game-bag.”

“But he’d shot three pheasants and some rabbits as well.”

“That’s no excuse for including a woodpecker in his

game-bag.”

“Foreigners go in for mixed bags more than we do. A

Grand Duke pots a vulture just as seriously as we should

stalk a bustard. Anyhow, I’ve explained to Vladimir that

certain birds are beneath his dignity as a sportsman. And

as he’s only nineteen, of course, his dignity is a sure

thing to appeal to.”

Mrs. Hoopington sniffed. Most people with whom Vladimir

came in contact found his high spirits infectious, but his

present hostess was guaranteed immune against infection of

that sort.

“I hear him coming in now,” she observed. “I shall go

and get ready for tea. We’re going to have it here in the

hall. Entertain the Major if he comes in before I’m down,

and, above all, be bright.”

Norah was dependent on her aunt’s good graces for many

little things that made life worth living, and she was

conscious of a feeling of discomfiture because the Russian

youth whom she had brought down as a welcome element of

change in the country-house routine was not making a good

impression. That young gentleman, however, was supremely

unconscious of any shortcomings, and burst into the hall,

tired, and less sprucely groomed than usual, but distinctly

radiant. His game-bag looked comfortably full.

“Guess what I have shot,” he demanded.

“Pheasants, wood-pigeons, rabbits,” hazarded Norah.

“No; a large beast; I don’t know what you call it in

English. Brown, with a darkish tail.” Norah changed

colour.

“Does it live in a tree and eat nuts?” she asked, hoping

that the use of the adjective “large” might be an

exaggeration.

Vladimir laughed.

“Oh, no; not a biyelka.”

“Does it swim and eat fish?” asked Norah, with a fervent

prayer in her heart that it might turn out to be an otter.

“No,” said Vladimir, busy with the straps of his

game-bag; “it lives in the woods, and eats rabbits and

chickens.”

Norah sat down suddenly, and hid her face in her hands.

“Merciful Heaven!” she wailed; “he’s shot a fox!”

Vladimir looked up at her in consternation. In a torrent

of agitated words she tried to explain the horror of the

situation. The boy understood nothing, but was thoroughly

alarmed.

“Hide it, hide it!” said Norah frantically, pointing to

the still unopened bag. “My aunt and the Major will be

here in a moment. Throw it on the top of that chest; they

won’t see it there.”

Vladimir swung the bag with fair aim; but the strap caught

in its flight on the outstanding point of an antler fixed in

the wall, and the bag, with its terrible burden, remained

suspended just above the alcove where tea would presently be

laid. At that moment Mrs. Hoopington and the Major entered

the hall.

“The Major is going to draw our covers tomorrow,”

announced the lady, with a certain heavy satisfaction.

“Smithers is confident that we’ll be able to show him some

sport; he swears he’s seen a fox in the nut copse three

times this week.”

“I’m sure I hope so; I hope so,” said the Major moodily.

“I must break this sequence of blank days. One hears so

often that a fox has settled down as a tenant for life in

certain covers, and then when you go to turn him out there

isn’t a trace of him. I’m certain a fox was shot or trapped

in Lady Widden’s woods the very day before we drew them.”

“Major, if any one tried that game on in my woods they’d

get short shrift,” said Mrs. Hoopington.

Norah found her way mechanically to the tea-table and made

her fingers frantically busy in rearranging the parsley

round the sandwich dish. On one side of her loomed the

morose countenance of the Major, on the other she was

conscious of the seared, miserable eyes of Vladimir. And

above it all hung that. She dared not raise her eyes above

the level of the tea-table, and she almost expected to see a

spot of accusing vulpine blood drip down and stain the

whiteness of the cloth. Her aunt’s manner signalled to her

the repeated message to “be bright”; for the present she

was fully occupied in keeping her teeth from chattering.

“What did you shoot today?” asked Mrs. Hoopington

suddenly of the unusually silent Vladimir.

“Nothing—nothing worth speaking of,” said the boy.

Norah’s heart, which had stood still for a space, made up

for lost time with a most disturbing bound.

“I wish you’d find something that was worth speaking

about,” said the hostess; “every one seems to have lost

their tongues.”

“When did Smithers last see that fox?” said the Major.

“Yesterday morning; a fine dog-fox, with a dark brush,”

confided Mrs. Hoopington.

“Aha, we’ll have a good gallop after that brush

tomorrow,” said the Major, with a transient gleam of good

humour. And then gloomy silence settled again round the

tea-table, a silence broken only by despondent munchings and

the occasional feverish rattle of a teaspoon in its saucer.

A diversion was at last afforded by Mrs. Hoopington’s

fox-terrier, which had jumped on to a vacant chair, the

better to survey the delicacies of the table, and was now

sniffing in an upward direction at something apparently more

interesting than cold tea-cake.

“What is exciting him?” asked his mistress, as the dog

suddenly broke into short, angry barks, with a running

accompaniment of tremulous whines.

“Why,” she continued, “It’s your game-bag, Vladimir!

What have you got in it?”

“By Gad,” said the Major, who was now standing up;

“there’s a pretty warm scent!”

And then a simultaneous idea flashed on himself and Mrs.

Hoopington. Their faces flushed to distinct but harmonious

tones of purple, and with one accusing voice they screamed,

“You’ve shot the fox!”

Norah tried hastily to palliate Vladimir’s misdeed in

their eyes, but it is doubtful whether they heard her. The

Major’s fury clothed and reclothed itself in words as

frantically as a woman up in town for one day’s shopping

tries on a succession of garments. He reviled and railed at

fate and the general scheme of things, he pitied himself

with a strong, deep pity too poignant for tears, he

condemned every one with whom he had ever come in contact to

endless and abnormal punishments. In fact, he conveyed the

impression that if a destroying angel had been lent to him

for a week it would have had very little time for private

study. In the lulls of his outcry could be heard the

querulous monotone of Mrs. Hoopington and the sharp staccato

barking of the fox-terrier. Vladimir, who did not

understand a tithe of what was being said, sat fondling a

cigarette and repeating under his breath from time to time a

vigorous English adjective which he had long ago taken

affectionately into his vocabulary. His mind strayed back

to the youth in the old Russian folk-tale who shot an

enchanted bird with dramatic results. Meanwhile, the Major,

roaming round the hall like an imprisoned cyclone, had

caught sight of and joyfully pounced on the telephone

apparatus, and lost no time in ringing up the hunt secretary

and announcing his resignation of the Mastership. A servant

had by this time brought his horse round to the door, and in

a few seconds Mrs. Hoopington’s shrill monotone had the

field to itself. But after the Major’s display her best

efforts at vocal violence missed their full effect; it was

as though one had come straight out from a Wagner opera into

a rather tame thunderstorm. Realizing, perhaps, that her

tirades were something of an anticlimax, Mrs. Hoopington

broke suddenly into some rather necessary tears and marched

out of the room, leaving behind her a silence almost as

terrible as the turmoil which had preceded it.

“What shall I do with—that?” asked Vladimir at last.

“Bury it,” said Norah.

“Just plain burial?” said Vladimir, rather relieved. He

had almost expected that some of the local clergy would have

insisted on being present, or that a salute might have to be

fired over the grave.

And thus it came to pass that in the dusk of a November

evening the Russian boy, murmuring a few of the prayers of

his Church for luck, gave hasty but decent burial to a large

polecat under the lilac trees at Hoopington.