The Eve of the Shoot
Every year without fail Mrs. Miniver received an invitation written in a sloping Victorian hand on lavishly stout cream-laid. The right-hand top corner was embossed in heavy black Gothic with the address "Chervil Court, Crampton." On the left were three tiny formalized sketches -- a telegraph-pole, an upright telephone, and a railway engine of the Stephenson period, stocky and high-funnelled -- followed respectively by the words, "Great Yettingford," "Buntisley 3," and "Slape Junction." The letter began with old Lady Chervil's unvarying formula:
My dear Mrs. Miniver,
Chervil and I shall be delighted if you and your Husband will stay with us from Friday 19th to Monday 22nd November.
(She would have gone to the guillotine sooner than use the expression "week-end.")
Mrs. Miniver tossed the letter over to Clem. There must, he remarked. be an air-port near there by now, and sketched in under the other pictures a little pre-War biplane, single-engined and very short in the wing, followed by the words, "Market Bumbleton. " There was no need for them to discuss whether they were going to accept the invitation. They always went to Chervil. The shooting was excellent. the food beyond praise; and it was soothing. for a short time, to slow oneself down to the pace of its old-fashioned ritual, and to spend three days in inverted commas.
"And what, " said the Colonel, turning to Mrs. Miniver at dinner on the night of their arrival, "is your opinion ... ? "
She had been afraid of this ever since, over the vol-au-vent, that woman in the wrong shade of green, on being asked whether she was coming out with the guns to-morrow, had shut her eyes and ever so delicately shuddered: thus plunging everybody around her into what was bound in that company to be a tedious and unprofitable discussion. Tedious because neither side possessed any currency but clichés, and unprofitable because it was clear from the outset that neither side was going to budge an inch. Besides, what a hare to start at a shooting party! You might with as much sense and propriety get up at a Lord Mayor's banquet and give a harangue on vegetarianism. If you felt as strongly as that, the only thing to do was to have 'flu and stay away.
It raged, if such a stale controversy could be said to rage, all through the quail, the ice-pudding, and the mushrooms on toast. Well-worn coins rang in Mrs. Miniver's ears. "After all, the birds get a sportin' chance. . . " Animals may not have souls, but still . . "Now take huntin' . . . " "Oh, bull-fightin' -- that's quite a different kettle of fish. . . . " italics bred italics. Dropped g's fell as thick as confetti. Sooner or later the tide of argument was almost certain to reach her end of the table, but she made up her mind that she would not be drawn in. She had been through it all too many times before, and even in circles where one could speak freely the subject had become too hackneyed to be borne. Her own attitude, she knew, was unethical but honest. She did not happen to be personally squeamish, which was merely a matter of chance. She enjoyed any display of skill; she enjoyed bare trees, rimy pastures, breath made visible by frost, the smell of dead leaves, and the intricate detail of winter hedgerows; above all, she enjoyed that element of woodcraft, that sense of "playing Indians, " which games fail to supply and which the detractors of hunting, shooting, and fishing so often mistake for bloodlust. And although she admitted that all shooting was cruel and that all cruelty was wrong, it seemed to her that to abolish shooting before you had abolished war was like flicking a speck of mud off the top of a midden.
For the moment the conversation on either side of her had flowed away, leaving her on a blessed little island of peace and silence. She had time to study the heraldic beauty of the pineapple (for they had now reached dessert), to speculate on the second footman's private life (he had a studious, enigmatic face and probably read-philosophy), and to reflect how unpleasing, musically, is the sound of a pack of upper-class English voices in full cry.
Lady Chervil, however, was a watchful and tidy-minded hostess of the old school. who regarded a dinner-party as a quadrille and disapproved of islands. With a masterly verbal tweak she readjusted the guests who had got out of step. "And what, " said the Colonel, turning to Mrs. Miniver, "is your opinion of all these blood sports ? "
"I think they are indefensible, but irresistible, " she answered. She had found through long experience that this remark usually closed the subject pretty quickly. It left very little to be said. Besides, she meant it.
"Ha! " said the Colonel. She noted with delight that he really did say "Ha! " This made a valuable addition to her collection. She had lately acquired a "Humph! " and two "Whews ! " but she was still waiting in vain for a "Pshaw! "
" Tell me, " she said, "werent you with an uncle of mine in Singapore -- Torquil Piggott ? "
"Piggy! " exclaimed the Colonel, beaming gratefully, and plunged into reminiscence. Thank God for colonels, thought Mrs. Miniver; sweet creatures, so easily entertained, so biddably diverted from senseless controversy into comfortable monologue: there was nothing in the world so restful as a really good English colonel. She nailed her smile to the mast and reverted to the pineapple and the second footman. Clem caught her eye across the table. It seemed to her sometimes that the most important thing about marriage was not a home or children or a remedy against sin, but simply there being always an eye to catch.