Ralph marvelled at this strange passion that could set a reasonable man twitching and panting like the figure in front of him. He himself was a good rider, and a sufficiently keen hunter when his blood was up; but this brother-in-law of his seemed to live for little else. Day after day, as Ralph knew, from the beginning of the season to the end he was out with his men and hounds, and the rest of the year he seemed to spend in talking about the sport, fingering and oiling his weapons through long mornings, and elaborating future campaigns, in which the quarries’ chances should be reduced to a minimum.
* * * * *
On a sudden Sir Nicholas’s figure stiffened and then relaxed. A doe had stepped out noiselessly from the cover, head up and feet close together, sniffing up wind—and they were shooting no does this month. Then again she moved along against the thick undergrowth, stepping delicately and silently, and vanished without a sound a hundred yards along to the left.
The cries and taps were sounding nearer now, and at any moment the game might appear. Sir Nicholas shifted his position again a little, and simultaneously the scolding voice of a blackbird rang out in front, and he stopped again. At the same moment a hare, mad with fright, burst out of the cover, making straight for the shelter. Sir Nicholas’ hands rose, steady now the crisis had come; and Ralph leaning forward touched him on the shoulder and pointed.
A great stag was standing in the green gloom within the wood eighty yards away, with a couple of does at his flank. Then as a shout sounded out near at hand, he bolted towards the shelter in a line that would bring him close to it. Ralph crouched down, for he had left his bow with his man an hour earlier, and one of the hounds gave a stifled yelp as Nicholas straightened himself and threw out his left foot. Either the sound or the movement startled the great brown beast in front, and as the arrow twanged from the string he checked and wheeled round, and went off like the wind, untouched. A furious hiss of the breath broke from Nicholas, and he made a swift sign as he turned to his horse; and in a moment the two lithe hounds had leapt from the shelter and were flying in long noiseless leaps after the disappearing quarry; the does, confused by the change of direction, had whisked back into cover. A moment later Nicholas too was after the hounds, his shoulders working and his head thrust forward, and a stirrup clashed and jingled against the saddle.
Ralph sat down on the ground smiling. It gave him a certain pleasure to see such a complete discomfiture; Nicholas was always so amusingly angry when he failed, and so full of reasons.