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The dull November afternoon was fast drawing to a close. Patches of white mist lay in the hollows of the elm-dotted park; the outlines of stately tree and russet copse were rapidly merging into the surrounding grey.
Already a flicker of light was beginning to appear in the windows of Radford Hall, the home of Sir Thomas Caldwell, Baronet, a house—like its owner—solid, sturdy, and unimaginative-looking. Nearly a mile away, standing well back from a high ragged hedge of blackthorn, a line of sportsmen could be seen waiting for the last drive of the day to commence; behind each stood the waiting figure of a loader, ready with the second gun. Listless and inactive as were now these figures, they would shortly become possessed of a feverish energy; for in the turnip-field beyond the blackthorn hedge were many partridges, and, struggle later as they might with obstinate cartridges, their movements would be far too slow for their impatient masters, who with gun discharged would view, in helpless wrath, the easiest of shots pass unscathed overhead.
At one end of the line, comfortably seated on a grouse-stick, a young man was waiting with the rest. He was a young man whose face wore a look of great conceit, this appearance being enhanced by a somewhat pronounced eccentricity of attire. There was something about this youth that struck the observer as unusual; he was in some indescribable manner different from his fellows, though to the majority of mankind it must be owned the difference was not of a pleasing kind. This gentleman was Lieutenant Hector Graeme, senior subaltern of Her Majesty's 1st Regiment of Lancers, now on foreign service in India. In accordance with his usual habit of evading his duties—or so said his enemies, among whom might be included the greater part of his brother officers—Graeme had been successful in dodging the troopship; and, having been left behind with the depot at Canterbury, was on leave from that place and staying as a guest at Radford Hall, Sir Thomas being an old friend of his father's.
Standing behind him—for the idea of yielding up his seat had somehow not occurred to him—was Lucy Caldwell, Sir Thomas' only daughter and the mistress of his household, he having been a widower for many years. In her hand she was holding Hector's second gun, her obvious intention being to act as loader to the fortunate subaltern. This, it may be remarked, was a task Lucy was thoroughly capable of performing, the young lady having been born and bred amongst sportsmen; indeed, there was little concerning beasts and birds of the field with which she was not thoroughly familiar.
At the present moment, however, there was a somewhat annoyed expression on her usually good-tempered face, and her brow was knit as she stood listening to the shrill "tirwit, tirwit," rising from the turnip-field.
"Most provoking you should have the worst place for this drive, Mr. Graeme," she said at length; "it will be the best of the day, I know, and the birds always fly over the centre and right."
"Don't you worry about that, Miss Caldwell," answered Hector; "it's the luck of the draw; and anyway the birds will come to me all right, you see if they don't."
"Indeed they will not; they'll make for that field of roots over there, they always do."
"Not this time, I think. Birds are curious things; they like coming to the best shot; and that I am, here anyway. Gad, I don't believe I could miss to-day. Confess, Miss Caldwell, you don't often see such shooting as mine, now do you?"
Lucy frowned. She had been taught to look upon bragging of any sort as an impossible thing, and the remark jarred.
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