THE LONG shed of the Village Rifle Club reeked with the oniony smell of smokeless powder, machine-oil, and creosote from the stop-butt, as man after man laid himself down and fired at the miniature target sixty feet away. The Instructor’s voice echoed under the corrugated iron roof.“Squeeze, Matthews, squeeze! Jerking your shoulder won’t help the bullet. . . . Gordon, you’re canting your gun to the left. . . . Hold your breath when the sights come on. . . . Fenwick, was that a bull? Then it’s only a fluke, for your last at two o’clock was an outer. You don’t know where you’re shooting.”
“I call this monotonous,” said Boy Jones, who had been brought by a friend to look at the show. “Where does the fun come in?”
“Would you like to try a shot?” the Instructor asked.
“Oh—er—thanks,” said Jones. “I’ve shot with a shot-gun, of course, but this”—he looked at the miniature rifle—“this isn’t like a shot-gun, is it?”
“Not in the least,” said the Friend. The Instructor passed Boy Jones a cartridge. The squad ceased firing and stared. Boy Jones reddened and fumbled.
“Hi! The beastly thing has slipped somehow!” he cried. The tiny twenty-two cartridge had dropped into the magazine-slot and stuck there, caught by the rim. The muzzle travelled vaguely round the horizon. The squad with one accord sat down on the dusty cement floor.
“Lend him a hair-pin,” whispered the jobbing gardener.
“Muzzle up, please,” said the Instructor (it was drooping towards the men on the floor). “I’ll load for you. Now—keep her pointed towards the target—you’re supposed to be firing at two hundred yards. Have you set your sights? Never mind, I’ll set ’em. Please don’t touch the trigger till you shoot.”
Boy Jones was glistening at the edges as the Instructor swung him in the direction of the little targets fifty feet away. “Take a fine sight! The bull’s eye should be just sitting on the top of the fore-sight,” the Instructor cautioned. “Ah!”
Boy Jones, with a grunt and a jerk of the shoulder, pulled the trigger. The right-hand window of the shed, six feet above the target, starred and cracked.
The boy who cleans the knives at the Vicarage buried his face in his hands; Jevons, the bricklayer’s assistant, tied up his bootlace; the Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society looked at the roof; the village barber whistled softly. When one is twenty-two years old, and weighs twelve-stone-eight in hard condition, one does not approve of any game that one cannot play very well.
“I call this silly piffle,” said Boy Jones, wiping his face.
“Oh, not so bad as that,” said the Instructor. “We’ve all got to begin somehow. Try another?” But Boy Jones was not practising any more that afternoon. He seemed to need soothing.
“Come over to the big range,” said the Friend. “You’ll see the finished article at work down there. This is only for boys and beginners.”
A knot of village lads from twelve to sixteen were scuffling for places on the shooting-mat as Boy Jones left the shed. On his way to the range, across the windy Downs, he preserved a silence foreign to his sunny nature. Jevons, the bricklayer’s assistant, and the F.R.G.S. trotted past him—rifles at the carry.
“Awkward wind,” said Jevons. “Fish-tail!”
“What’s a fish-tail?” said Boy Jones.
“Oh! It means a fishy, tricky sort of a wind,” said the Friend. A shift in the uneasy north-east breeze brought them the far-away sob of a service rifle.
“For once in your young life,” the Friend went on, “you’re going to attend a game you do not understand.”
“If you mean I’m expected to make an ass of myself again——” Boy Jones paused.
“Don’t worry! By this time I fancy Jevons will have told the Sergeant all about your performance in the shed just now. You won’t be pressed to shoot.”
A long sweep of bare land opened before them. The thump of occasional shots grew clearer, and Boy Jones pricked his ears.
“What’s that unholy whine and whop?” he asked in a lull of the wind.
“The whine is the bullet going across the valley. The whop is when it hits the target—that white shutter thing sliding up and down against the hillside. Those men lying down yonder are shooting at five hundred yards. We’ll look at ’em,” said the Friend.
“This would make a thundering good golflinks,” said Boy Jones, striding over the short, clean turf. “Not a bad lie in miles of it.”
“Yes, wouldn’t it?” the Friend replied. “It would be even prettier as a croquet-lawn or a basket-ball pitch. Just the place for a picnic too. Unluckily, it’s a rifle-range.”
Boy Jones looked doubtful, but said nothing till they reached the five-hundred-yard butt. The Sergeant, on his stomach, binoculars to his eye, nodded, but not at the visitors. “Where did you sight, Walters?” he said.
“Nine o’clock-edge of the target,” was the reply from a fat, blue man in a bowler hat, his trousers rucked half-way to his knees. “The wind’s rotten bad down there!” He pointed towards the stiff tailed wind-flags that stuck out at all sorts of angles as the eddy round the shoulder of the Down caught them.
“Let me try one,” the Sergeant said, and reached behind him for a rifle.
“Hold on!” said the F.R.G.S. ” That’s Number Six. She throws high.”
“ She’s my pet,” said Jevons, holding out his hand for it. “Take Number Nine, Sergeant.”
“ Rifles are like bats, you know,” the Friend explained. “They differ a lot.”
The Sergeant sighted.
“He holds it steady enough,” said Boy Jones.
“He mostly does,” said the Friend. “If you watch that white disc come up you’ll know it’s a bull,”
“Not much of one,” said the Sergeant. “Too low-too far right. I gave her all the allowance I dared, too. That wind’s funnelling badly in the valley. Give your wind-sight another three degrees, Walters.”
The fat man’s big fingers delicately adjusted the lateral sight. He had been firing till then by the light of his trained judgment, but some of the rifles were fitted with wind-gauges, and he wished to test one.
“What’s he doing that for?” said Boy Jones.
“You wouldn’t understand,” said the Friend. “But take a squint along this rifle, and see what a bull looks like at five hundred yards. It isn’t loaded, but don’t point it at the pit of my stomach.”
“Dash it all! I didn’t mean to!” said Boy ones.
“None of ’em mean it,” the Friend replied. “That’s how all the murders are done. Don’t play with the bolt. Merely look along the sights. It isn’t much of a mark, is it?”
“No, by Jove!” said Jones, and gazed with reverence at Walters, who announced before the marker had signalled his last shot that it was a likely heifer. (Walters was a butcher by profession.) A well-centred bull it proved to be.
“Now how the deuce did he do it?” said Boy ones.
“By practice—first in the shed at two hundred yards. We’ve five or six as good as him,” said the Friend. “But he’s not much of a snap-shooter when it comes to potting at dummy heads and shoulders exposed for five seconds. Jevons is our man then.”
“Ah! talking of snap-shooting!” said the Sergeant, and—while Jevons fired his seven shots—delivered Boy Jones a curious little lecture on the advantages of the foggy English climate, the value of enclosed land for warfare, and the possibilities of well-directed small-arm fire wiping up—“spraying down” was his word—artillery, even in position.
“Well, I’ve got to go on and build houses,” said Jevons. “Twenty-six is my score-card—sign please, Sergeant.” He rose, dusted his knees, and moved off. His place was taken by a dark, cat-footed Coastguard, firing for the love of the game. He only ran to three cartridges, which he placed—magpie, five o’clock; inner, three o’clock; and bull. “Cordery don’t take anything on trust,” said the Sergeant. “He feels his way in to the bull every time. I like it. It’s more rational.”
While the F.R.G.S. was explaining to Boy Jones that the rotation of the earth on her axis affected a bullet to the extent of one yard in a thousand, a batch of six lads cantered over the hill.
“We’re the new two-hundred-ers,” they shouted.
“I know it,” said the Sergeant. “Pick up the cartridge-cases; take my mackintosh and bag, and come on down to the two hundred range, quietly.”
There was no need for the last caution. The boys picked up the things and swung off in couples—scout fashion.
“They are the survivors,” the Friend explained, “of the boys you saw just now. They’ve passed their miniature rifle tests, and are supposed to be fit to fire in the open.”
“And are they?” said Boy Jones, edging away from the F.R.G.S., who was talking about “jump” and “flip” in rifle-shooting.
“We’ll see,” said the Sergeant. “This wind ought to test ’em!”
Down in the hollow it rushed like a boulder-choked river, driving quick clouds across the sun: so that one minute, the eight-inch Bisley bull leaped forth like a headlight, and the next shrunk back into the grey-green grass of the butt like an engine backing up the line.
“Look here!” said the Sergeant, as the boys dropped into their places at the firing-point. “I warn you it’s a three-foot wind on the target, and freshening. You’ll get no two shots alike. Any boy that thinks he won’t do himself justice can wait for a better day.”
Nothing moved except one grin from face to face.
“No,” said the Sergeant, after a pause. “I don’t suppose a thunder-storm would shift you young birds. Remember what I’ve been telling you all this spring. Sighting shots, from the right!”
They went on one by one, carefully imitating the well-observed actions of their elders, even to the tapping of the cartridge on the rifle-butt. They scowled and grunted and compared notes as they set and reset their sights. They brought up their rifles just as shadow gave place to sun, and, holding too long, fired when the cheating cloud returned. It was unhappy, cold, nose-running, eye-straining work, but they enjoyed it passionately. At the end they showed up their score-cards; one twenty-seven, two twenty-fives, a twenty-four, and two twenty-twos. Boy Jones, his hands on his knees, had made no remark from first to last.
“Could I have a shot?” he began in a strangely meek voice.
But the chilled Sergeant had already whistled the marker out of the butt. The wind-flags were being collected by the youngsters, and, with a tinkle of spent cartridge-cases returned to the Sergeant’s bag, shooting ended.
“Not so bad,” said the Sergeant.
“One of those boys was hump-backed,” said Boy Jones, with the healthy animal’s horror of deformity.
“But his shots aren’t,” said the Sergeant. “He was the twenty-seven card. Milligan’s his name.”
“I should like to have had a shot,” Boy Jones repeated. “Just for the fun of the thing.”
“Well, just for the fun of the thing,” the Friend suggested, “suppose you fill and empty a magazine. Have you got any dummies, Sergeant?”
The Sergeant produced a handful of dummy cartridges from his inexhaustible bag.
“How d’you put ’em in?” said Boy Jones, picking up a cartridge by the bullet end with his left hand, and holding the rifle with his right.
“Here, Milligan,” the Friend called. “Fill and empty this magazine, will you, please?”
The cripple’s fingers flickered for an instant round the rifle-breech. The dummies vanished clicking. He turned towards the butt, pausing perhaps a second on each aimed shot, ripped them all out again over his shoulder. Mechanically Boy Jones caught them as they spun in the air; for he was a good fielder.
“Time, fifteen seconds,” said the Friend. “You try now.” Boy Jones shook his head. “No, thanks,” he said. “This isn’t my day out. That’s called magazine-fire, I suppose.”
“Yes,” said the Sergeant, “but it’s more difficult to load in the dark or in a cramped position.”
The boys drew off, larking among themselves. The others strolled homewards as the wind freshened. Only the Sergeant, after a word or two with the marker, struck off up the line of firing-butts.
“There seems to be a lot in it,” said Boy Jones, after a while, to his friend. “But you needn’t tell me,” he went on in the tone of one ill at ease with himself, “don’t tell me that when the hour strikes every man in England wouldn’t—er—rally to the defence of his country like one man.”
“And he’d be so useful while he was rallying, wouldn’t he?” said the Friend shortly. “Imagine one hundred thousand chaps of your kidney introduced to the rifle for the first time, all loading and firing in your fashion! The hospitals wouldn’t hold ’em!”
“Oh, there’d be time to get the general hang of the thing,” said Boy Jones cheerily.
“When that hour strikes,” the Friend replied, “it will already have struck, if you understand. There may be a few hours—perhaps ten or twelve—there will certainly not be more than a day and a night allowed us to get ready in.”
“There will be six months at least,” said Boy Jones confidently.
“Ah, you probably read that in a paper. I shouldn’t rely on it, if I were you. It won’t be like a county cricket match, date settled months in advance. By the way, are you playing for your county this season?”
Boy Jones seemed not to hear the last question. He had taken the Friend’s rifle, and was idly clicking the bolt.
“Beg y’ pardon, sir,” said the Marker to the Friend in an undertone, “but the Sergeant’s tryin’ a gentleman’s new rifle at nine hundred, and I’m waiting on for him. If you’d like to come into the trench?”—a discreet wink closed the sentence.
“Thanks awfully. That ’ud be quite interesting,” said Boy Jones. The wind had dulled a little; the sun was still strong on the golden gorse; the Sergeant’s straight back grew smaller and smaller as it moved away.
“You go down this ladder,” said the Marker. They reached the raw line of the trench beneath the targets, the foot deep in the flinty chalk.
“Yes, sir,” he went on, “here’s where all the bullets ought to come. There’s fourteen thousand of ’em this year, somewhere on the premises, but it don’t hinder the rabbits from burrowing, just the same. They know shooting’s over as well as we do. You come here with a shot-gun, and you won’t see a single tail; but they don’t put ’emselves out for a rifle. Look, there’s the Parson!” He pointed at a bold, black rabbit sitting half-way up the butt, who loped easily away as the Marker ran up the large nine-hundred-yard bull. Boy Jones stared at the bullet-splintered framework of the targets, the chewed edges of the woodwork, and the significantly loosened earth behind them. At last he came down, slowly it seemed, out of the sunshine, into the chill of the trench. The marker opened an old cocoa box, where he kept his paste and paper patches.
“Things get mildewy down here,” he explained. “Mr. Warren, our sexton, says it’s too like a grave to suit him. But as I say, it’s twice as deep and thrice as wide as what he makes.”
“I think it’s rather jolly,” said Boy Jones, and looked up at the narrow strip of sky. The Marker had quietly lowered the danger flag. Something yowled like a cat with her tail trod on, and a few fragments of pure white chalk crumbled softly into the trench. Boy Jones jumped, and flattened himself against the inner wall of the trench. “The Sergeant is taking a sighting-shot,” said the Marker. “He must have hit a flint in the grass somewhere. We. can’t comb ’;em all out. The noise you noticed was the nickel envelope stripping, sir.”
“But I didn’t hear his gun go off,” said Boy Jones.
“Not at nine hundred, with this wind, you wouldn’t,” said the Marker. “Stand on one side, please, sir. He’s begun.”
There was a rap overhead—a pause—down came the creaking target, up went the marking disc at the end of a long bamboo; a paper patch was slapped over the bullet hole, and the target slid up again, to be greeted with another rap, another, and another. The fifth differed in tone. “Here’s a curiosity,” said the Marker, pulling down the target. “The bullet must have ricochetted short of the butt, and it has key-holed, as we say. See!” He pointed to an ugly triangular rip and flap on the canvas target face. “If that had been flesh and blood, now,” he went on genially, “it would have been just the same as running a plough up you. . . . Now he’s on again!” The sixth rap was as thrillingly emphatic as one at a spiritualistic stance, but the seventh was followed by another yaa-ow of a bullet hitting a stone, and a tiny twisted sliver of metal fell at Boy Jones’s rigid feet. He touched and dropped it. “Why, it’s quite hot,” he said.
“That’s due to arrested motion,” said the F.R.G.S. “Isn’t it a funking noise, though?”
A pause of several minutes followed, during which they could hear the wind and the sea and the creaking of the Marker’s braces.
“He said he’d finish off with a magazine full,” the Marker volunteered. “I expect he’s waiting for a lull in the wind. Ah! here it comes!”
It came—eleven shots slammed in at three-second intervals; a ricochet or two; one on the right-hand of the target’s framework, which rang like a bell; a couple that hammered the old railway ties just behind the bull; and another that kicked a clod into the trench, and key-holed up the target. The others were various and scattering, but all on the butt.
“Sergeant can do better than that,” said the Marker critically, overhauling the target. “It was the wind put him off, or (he winked once again), or . . . else he wished to show somebody something.”
“ I heard ’em all hit,” said Boy Jones. “But I never heard the gun go off. Awful, I call it!”
“Well,” said his friend, “it’s the kind of bowling you’ll have to face at forty-eight hours’ notice—if you’re lucky.”
“It’s the key-holing that I bar,” said Boy Jones, following his own line of thought. The Marker put up his flag and ladder, and they climbed out of the trench into the sunshine.
“For pity’s sake, look!” said the Marker, and stopped. “Well, well! If I ’adn’t seen it, I wouldn’t have credited it. You poor little impident fool. The Sergeant will be vexed.”
“What has happened?” said Boy Jones, rather shrilly.
“He’s killed the Parson, sir!” The Marker held up the still kicking body of a glossy black rabbit. One side of its head was not there.
“Talk of coincidence!” the Marker went on. “I know Sergeant ’ll pretend he aimed for it. The poor little fool! Jumpin’ about after his own businesses and thinking he was safe; and then to have his head fair mashed off him like this. Just look at him! Well! Well!”
It was anything but well with Boy Jones. He seemed sick.
. . . . .
A week later the Friend nearly stepped on him in the miniature-rifle shed. He was lying at length on the dusty coir matting, his trousers rucked half-way to his knees, his sights set as for two hundred, deferentially asking Milligan the cripple to stand behind him and tell him whether he was canting.
“No, you aren’t now,” said Milligan patronizingly, “but you were.”