The Twelfth of August

"Well," said Archie McQuern, knocking out his pipe on the lowest stone of the dyke and brushing a crumb of pastry off his kilt. "I suppose we'd better be moving on."

He hoisted himself out of the heather and blew his whistle. Bess, the young black pointer, leapt to her feet; Duke and Reiver, the two liver-and-white ones, got to theirs more circumspectly, as befitted their age and experience. They all three stood looking up at him with their queer angular faces. It just shows, thought Mrs. Miniver, leaning back against the dyke and watching her brother-in-law, how careful one ought to be about what animals one gets mixed up with. Archie, tall, bony, and chestnut-headed, had been breeding pointers for twenty years and was now almost indistinguishable from Duke; while Alison, his eldest daughter, who was black-haired and who helped him to train them, was beginning to have a distinct look of Bess, especially about the eyes. Oh, well, there were worse things to look like: at any rate pointers had interesting faces, more intellectual and less sentimental than those of other gun-dogs. And she wondered, in passing, whether the narrow jaws and protruding teeth which are so distressingly prevalent among the English might not be due less to heredity than to their being encouraged to keep rabbits in their impressionable youth. Change a nation's pets and you might change its physiognomy: but she could not think, off-hand, of a nice prognathous substitute.

"No, thank you," she said, in answer to a question from her brother-in-law. "I don't think I'll walk the Laosgainn beats -- I'll stay here with Susan and join you again when you're doing the Low Moor."

The morning had been enjoyable but strenuous. Archie never dreamed of driving until he had had at least a fortnight of the subtler sport of shooting over dogs, so that the Twelfth at Quern, for onlookers, was not a ladylike affair of lolling in a grouse-butt with a well-powdered nose. It entailed a long and stiffish walk, some of it through very deep old heather. Mrs. Miniver loved it, especially now that she had Vin's shooting to watch as well as Clem's; but she was always glad enough to drop out while they did the two steepest beats of all, above the hill loch.

The guns trudged off up the lee side of the dyke. The van, loaded with empty luncheon-baskets and the morning’s bag, blundered away down the cart-track like a drunken bee. The two women moved over to a little grassy knoll shaded by rowan trees. The wind had dropped entirely; it was as hot as one always forgets the Highlands can be. Ben Cailleach and the other high tops were shimmering. Below, they could see the grey roof of Quern House jutting out of its fir plantation, with a column of smoke going up from the kitchen chimney as straight as a wand. Beyond lay the little strath dotted with haycocks, and beyond that again Judy and Toby and their two youngest cousins were busily damming the burn. It was good for them. thought Mrs. Miniver, to be for a time part of a large family, with the greater complexity, but lower intensity, of its relationships.

She brought her eyes back again from the hazy middle distance to the near, clear presence of Clem's sister, who had planted her back firmly against one of the rowans and begun to knit.

" Susan," said Mrs. Miniver, "where did that knitting come from? I swear you didn't have any on you a minute ago. I believe you materialize bits of knitting out of thin air, the way conjurers do with lighted cigarettes."

"No," said Susan, "they grow out of my finger-tips, like a thread out of a spider. As a matter of fact my whole inside is made of wool. One gets like that, you know, living in the Highlands all the year round."

"The great thing about you," said her sister-in-law, "is that you've never let it spread from the neck up."

"Oh, well," said Mrs. McQuern elliptically, "there's always Douglas and Foulis."

Mrs. Miniver lay down on her side to make the colours of the hills clearer. Across the foreground of her picture was a spray of whin in full bloom, upon which two chaffinches were swinging. Above them a pair of white butterflies were weaving quick flirtatious patterns in the air. It was idyllic -- a Chinese painting on silk; an exquisite, peaceful oasis in a day of organized death.

"It's all very well to talk like that," she said. "But you know you wouldn't live anywhere else for the world. I believe you're completely and utterly contented."

Susan chuckled. "Not always. Not when the cook breaks her leg on the eleventh of August."

"Oh, everybody has catastrophes. The only thing that matters is to be properly cast, so that you get the kind of catastrophes you can deal with. I think that's what I meant, more than contented. You're quite perfectly cast, Susan."

"Bah-hah," said Susan. "So are you, for that matter. I'd hate your sort of life just as much as you'd hate mine."

"Except for a holiday -- yes."

"In fact," said Susan, "it's just as important to marry the right life as the right person."

Well, no, thought Mrs. Miniver, not quite. But near enough for a hot day, after lunch. She shut her eyes, taking the Chinese picture with her inside the lids.

"Listen said Susan, presently. "I heard a shot."

Mrs. Miniver opened her eyes again for a moment. Eight white wings lay scattered on the grass under the gorsebush. The chaffinches were looking as though butterflies wouldn't melt in their mouths. It was too hot to work out the moral. She shut her eyes again and went to sleep.


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