Table of Contents
Both the inspiration for and the title of this story are taken from a line in “The Learned Adventure of the Dragon’s Head,” Dorothy L Sayers’ story about Lord Peter Wimsey and his young nephew, Gerald.
¤ CHAPTER 1 ¤
“Uncle John! Uncle John! I want to come, too! Please, Uncle? May I?”
Little Gracie bounced up and down as she watched her brother and her uncle pull on their boots and shrug into their jackets as they prepared to go out the kitchen door and into what promised to be a bright but very cold day.
Steed regarded her upturned face gravely.
“Hm. I don’t know,” he said. “You need to be quite grown up to go rabbit hunting.”
“But I am grown up. I’m seven next month.”
“That’s not grown up!” said William. “You have to be ten to go hunting. Right, Uncle John?”
It was a frosty New Year’s Eve morning, the day on which Steed had promised to teach his nephew to shoot. William had reached his tenth birthday two months prior, and had talked of almost nothing else for the past three weeks. He wondered aloud what kind of rifles Uncle John would bring with him; he boasted of the fine rabbits they would kill for Mrs Jenkins to make into pies; and generally drove the family quite mad with recitations of carefully researched details useful to hunters concerning firearms and ammunition and the habits of various rabbit species. And now that The Day had finally arrived, his little sister was threatening to ruin it all.
Just then, Steed’s brother-in-law ambled into the kitchen, followed by his wife. Helen went to the stove where the kettle was merrily boiling, and began to make tea while her husband seated himself at the kitchen table.
Helen was a tall, dark, graceful woman possessed of apparently infinite patience and who exuded a cheerful kindness. Although Steed knew that these qualities were very much at Helen’s core, and usually on the surface as well, he also knew that she could be fierce as a lioness if provoked, as two of her classmates were given to understand the day she caught them trying to tie her little brother to a tree by his braces. And as Steed himself found out the day that he tried to frighten her by putting four very large spiders under her bedclothes which, when discovered, she tried to kill with the back of her hairbrush. She had launched the brush with terrifying accuracy and speed at the back of Steed’s retreating head when he attempted to escape her ire. He suspected he still had the scar behind his ear.
James was a large, comfortable man who preferred a hot toddy and a good book by the fire to tramping about outdoors in the damp for the purpose of causing the demise of small, furry animals, and who, once having finished his military service at the end of the war, declared he was never going to pick up a gun ever again, not from any pronounced sense of pacifism, but rather from a dislike of the noise and smell they produced and the need to maintain them regularly. He therefore was perfectly happy to let Steed train William up in the ways of the firearm: do the boy good, get him out of the house, teach him a useful skill, and all that.
Gracie turned hopeful eyes to her father. “Please, Papa, please may I go with William and Uncle John?”
James fished in one pocket of his cardigan and brought out a pipe, then stuck his hand into the other pocket and came up with a tobacco pouch and matchbox. He paused for a moment, then looked at his daughter over the top of his lunette spectacles.
“Well, my dear, I’m not sure hunting is the kind of a thing a little girl would like to do.”
Steed couldn’t help but crack a small smile at this little domestic drama: his nephew, dark-haired like both his parents but with his father’s warm brown eyes, standing up straighter, a “yes this is just for us men” gesture; his niece, an inexplicably fair little thing, folding her arms and stamping her foot while looking daggers at her father (someone will be absolutely slain by that look some day, Steed thought); his sister glancing fondly at her husband and then towards her brother with a little “yes, he’s hopeless” roll of her eyes and a shrug. Steed sometimes wondered what Helen saw in James, but he seemed quite devoted to her and the children, and she seemed very happy, so Steed also was content.
“Yes, I would so like to do,” announced Gracie, arms still folded pugnaciously. “That’s why I asked to go. I wouldn’t have done, if I didn’t want to do it.”
“Well…” Steed began.
“No! She can’t come with us!” protested William. “Father said so!”
“No, he didn’t!” said Gracie, whipping round, her fists clenched by her side. “He said I wouldn’t like it, and he’s wrong!”
“Well,” said Steed to William, “we will need help carrying things. Because you and I will need our hands free for the guns, and it will be awkward if we’re always having to put things down and pick them up every time we need to shoot.”
William considered this. “Yes,” he said. “We’re probably going to get a lot of rabbits.”
“So do you think maybe Gracie could be our bearer, and help with that?”
“All right. She can do that,” said William, magnanimously. “But she doesn’t get to shoot.”
“I think we can let her have one or two shots,” said Steed.
“Now, John—” began James, but Steed wasn’t about to let him gain momentum.
With a quick glance at his brother-in-law, he plowed on. “Just for practice,” he said to William, “so that when she’s ten she’ll be able to keep up with us, and won’t hold us back. We wouldn’t want that to happen, now, would we? Because by then you’ll be thirteen, and probably quite fast.”
Seeing the justice in this, William nodded at his uncle.
“Right,” said Steed. “Gracie gets to come with us, as our bearer, and she gets one or two shots but otherwise stays out of the way and follows instructions. Are we agreed?”
The children nodded, Gracie beaming, William resigned but determined to show that he could be as generous as his uncle.
“Good. Now we shake on it. That makes it a deal,” said Steed, who solemnly shook hands with both children, then nudged William until he held out his hand to his sister. After the briefest possible shake he whisked his hand into his pocket.
“Hurrah! I’m going hunting!” said Gracie, galloping towards the vestibule.
“Yes,” said Steed, “but not dressed like that, love.”
Gracie looked down at her russet cardigan and dress, which was in a muted hunting plaid with lace trim at the collar, cuffs, and hem, a special Christmas gift from her father’s mother. Her face fell.
“Oh, that’s a perfectly lovely ensemble, but you wouldn’t want it to get caught on a bramble, or get it muddy, now, would you?” said Steed.
He turned to his sister, who was wrapping some pieces of cake for Steed and the children to take with them, and pouring them flasks of hot tea.
“Does she have any trousers?” Steed asked, as he took the flasks and cake from his sister with thanks. “And she’ll need a stout pair of shoes, and a warm hat and gloves.”
“I think I have some of William’s old things in the cupboard under the stairs,” Helen answered. “I was going to donate them to the church jumble sale, but Gracie can use them today, and Mrs Jenkins can clean them again later.”
“Right,” said Steed, putting the refreshments into a canvas knapsack that had been resting at his feet. “And the tins?”
“In the carrier bag next to the door,” said his sister, shepherding Gracie out of the kitchen to change.
“Tins?” said William.
“Tins,” said Steed, putting on his stocking cap and gloves and checking that William had done the same. “I’ll explain in a bit. Now, say good-bye to your father, and we’ll start our day.”