Born in London on March 3, 1878, just fifteen months shy of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, Dick entered that halcyon age of empire where high-born privilege, spit, polish, tiffin, pigsticking, boiled beef, cold showers, and God Save the Queen would form part of the intricate tapestry of his long life. It was the height of the Victorian era, and the gas-lit streets and horse-drawn transport were a lifetime away from the supersonic aircraft, submarines, electric light, wireless telegraphy, world wars, atomic bombs, and space exploration Dick would live to witness.
Britain ruled the oceans unchallenged. The sun quite literally never set on her empire. There were still vast areas of the world virtually unknown to outsiders waiting to be explored and animals still to be discovered. Our Camel Man wouldn't have known where to begin, such were the challenges still open, the wilds untouched. It was a man's world in every sense.
Meinertzhagen was destined to survive many an encounter with big game, bloody warfare in the African bush and elsewhere, train crashes, shipwrecks, pistol duels and exploding shells, espionage missions, and fearsome personality clashes. And all the while he kept a daily diary that has left a unique record of this adventurer.
He had the immense good sense to be born into the wealthy and influential Huth banking family, who could trace their origins back to the late fourteenth century in Germany. Dick liked to believe he was of Danish Viking stock, basing this on his family crest, which featured a hag berry or bird cherry bush. One presumes it wasn't rampant. The family could boast centuries-old ecclesiastical connections in Cologne and a tradition of the firstborn sons always being named Daniel. One such Daniel had been mayor of Bremen, and Dick notes that the major's diary was as dull as thirdhand wit, although he admired his ancestor's business acumen.
Dick's family became established in England in 1826, and his father, Daniel VI, married into the eccentric, highly controversial, and atypical Potter family of nine daughters, "that monstrous regiment of women," as one of the nine husbands put it. All the Potter girls married wealthily well, Dick's parents going on to have ten children in good old Victorian tradition. This was the most practical form of life insurance. It certainly insured the bloodline!
Dick was the second son. Throughout his life, until just before his father died and his mother had a change of heart, he had a troubled relationship with her. She was an icy, domineering woman capable of incredible rudeness and hurtful comment to anyone within firing range, starting with Dick, for unfathomable reasons. His father, on the other hand, was kind, tolerant, and generous. Quite obviously, the marriage was a disaster, and Dick felt shunned and unloved from a very early age. His mother's verbal cruelty bred in him a "horror of hurting other people's feelings,"1 an interesting statement from someone who, in adult life, would not hesitate to bayonet, club to death, or shoot anyone perceived as being the enemy in a conflict situation.
And Dick would encounter many, many conflict situations.
Dick Meinertzhagen was the product of a family studded with purported Gypsies and Spanish grandees who at one time were entrusted with the Spanish royal jewels in exile. As a young boy,he met such luminaries as Henry Morton Stanley, Florence Nightingale, Charles Darwin, Cecil John Rhodes, Oscar Wilde, and Richard Burton of "source of the Nile" fame. He was at school with Winston Churchill, whom he attempted to knock off a sidewalk; he saw and heard Tchaikovsky play and conduct his own compositions; and grew up to become generally conversant with and considered the mental contemporary and equal of just about anybody of repute--either good or evil--of his times. Meinertzhagen was deadly, therapeutically tough despite his velvet-glove upbringing. Lord forbid that his family had not become anglicized generations ago. The Germans could have used him.
As a boy of ten, Meinertzhagen met Harry Johnston, one of Africa's greatest pioneers and the discoverer of the okapi. He says of that meeting, during which Johnston described East and West Africa:
From that moment I had a tremendous desire to visit the Dark Continent and see for myself the big game, the huge tropical lakes and all the wonders of what was then an unknown continent.2
This proved to be one of those life-changing experiences.
As I read those words, I thought back on one of my own life-changing experiences when, as a little boy, younger than Dick at this time, I was taken to see the Carl Akeley lion-spearing bronzes in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Little Peter was never the same after that, thank God!
Young Dick had already shown an interest in the outdoors when, as a kid of six, he "stole" some ducks at a pond in Hyde Park. He killed his first bird, a cock grouse, in that same year and quickly became a seasoned rabbit hunter before he reached double-digit age.
Meinertzhagen's schooling had certain lifelong effects on his character. His first years were spent very happily at school with his adored elder brother, Dan, in his mother's native Yorkshire, where the much-loved head, the Reverend Hales, would drum into the boys, "Don't just stand there, do something!" This may as well have been Dick's motto. The school's motto, in fact, was "Ex Quercu non ex Salice," that is, "Out of oak, not willow." In other words, be tough, do not bend. Dick's adult six-foot, twelve-stone frame and fearless nature would carry him through a lifetime of situations where, had he stood and done nothing, had he bent and not resisted, he would have had no more chance of living to eighty-nine than most mortals have of obtaining easy credit.
After this grand start in life, Dick was to endure a bitter interlude at another school, where he suffered horrendous physical and mental abuse by one of the two brothers who ran the place. Such was this maltreatment, with its homosexual and sadistic undertones, that Dick literally broke down when he revisited the site of his youthful torment as an old man. He freely admitted that this period of his life left permanent scars on his psyche that made it difficult for him to express emotion and be close to people.
Dick went on to Harrow, one of the most illustrious schools in Britain, where he poached partridge and hares and generally enjoyed life again with Dan. Once, when out with the school band, he slipped off to poach a rabbit to feed to the eagles he and Dan were allowed to keep at Harrow. This occurred on the property of one Lord Salisbury, who just happened to be prime minister and foreign secretary, and who saw the critter dangling from Dick's belt.
"And how did you kill it?" asked Lord Salisbury.
"With a stone," I said, a bit reassured.
"Well done, are you going to eat it?"
"No," said I, "it's for our eagles at Harrow."3
Dick then had Lord Salisbury and his staff officers engrossed with his story of the eagles and other birds the Meinertzhagen boys were allowed to keep, already being serious and gifted ornithologists. What really enthralled Dick was the chance to speak with this symbol of Empire and conservative values. Young Dick was all fired up about "getting out to the Colonies." He'd get there, all right. More's the miracle he survived.
But it was the family estate at a place called Mottisfont, in Hampshire, just seventy miles southwest of London, that really molded Dick's character. It was a sporting boy's dreamland. Meaning "meeting place" and referring to a central spring, Mottisfont was built in 1201, making it just barely thirteenth century. It had originally been an Augustinian priory founded by one William Briwere. Ninety years later, the income for the whole abbey was only fifty-eight pounds, but it must be borne in mind that at that period a full-grown pig brought only a few pennies at market. In 1536, the abbey, with its 2,000-odd acres of land, was seized from the Church under Henry VIII, and tradition has it that a curse was attached to Mottisfont because of this decision, a curse that would come back to haunt the Meinertzhagen family.
When Dick was about seven years old, his father managed to secure a very interesting and strange agreement with the owner of Mottisfont, one Mrs. Vaudrey, who had become stinking rich on railway leases and investments. A widow, she had the habit of striding about dressed in her late husband's boots and clothes. And the terms of the agreement with the Meinertzhagens were equally eccentric.
She forbade the installation of electric lighting or a heating system, but this didn't slow down Dick's mother, who went ahead anyway and even saw to the introduction of parquet flooring. Of course, when the Meinertzhagens left, fifteen years later, the oldgirl disemboweled these modern impositions, ripping out the pipes and tearing up the flooring.
The lease ran for periods of seven years, at the end of which Mrs. Vaudrey could not cancel it but the tenant could, by giving a year's notice. However odd the arrangement may have been, this magical estate would turn out to be Dick's spiritual home for the rest of his life, an idyllic domain supporting a battalion of gardeners and gamekeepers, grooms, servants, butlers, cooks, kitchen maids, and footmen. In a word, Mottisfont was Victorian society in miniature, an upper-class fiefdom secured for the princely sum of 320 pounds per annum. Dick and Dan got to know almost every tree and mistletoe bush on the estate. In fact, in 1897, they left some tins of food and cooking utensils in a favorite spot they called the "duck-ground." Dick returned to the exact place some forty-five years later and found these objects exactly where he and Dan had left them, somewhat rusted but still usable.
Mottisfont could never be called a "place." It was more of a "location," and to have grown up there must have been an experience few will ever know who do not own Monte Carlo, a chunk of Luxembourg, or parts of Inner Mongolia. Its vast woodlands and marshes bordered several miles of the quicksilver Test River, one of the finest trout waters in England, where snaggle-toothed pike and swarms of duck and snipe certainly nurtured young Dick's hunting instincts. Acres of lawn, kitchen gardens, and hothouses blended with parks and marshland. Sweet and gentle beeches, heron rookeries, and elegant mayfly hatches embroidered the baronial landscape where the Meinertzhagens kept horses and hounds and an ever-increasing number of birds.
Daniel Sr. was a ballerina of a fly fisherman, one of the best in the realm, and Dick's whole existence was dependent on the ancient abbey and sprawling estate where he and Dan Jr. hunted,fished, rode horses, wing shot, kept aviaries of birds, and generally led the life of honest-to-God professional Victorians.
They were members of the upper class, the leaders, the soldiers, and the scholars. They picked no 'taties, and God help anybody who picked a succulent brown trout out of season, which, being landed Victorians, they owned.
Many, many decades later, as an old man, Meinertzhagen was once confronted at a dinner party about his shooting birds. His antagonist was a lady of some standing, chronologically and socially as well as self-appointedly ornithologically. She asked in rather a shrill voice if he were still thumping the general ranks of avia. He ignored her, probably feigning deafness. She tried again with the same result. Then, cocking her thumb in the classic manner, she said, "Bang! Bang!"
"No--bang," he replied without the slightest glimmer of a smile, and retired behind his chicken Kiev. As Lieutenant General Sir Gerald Lathbury, former commander of troops in East Africa, put it in his preface to the first edition of Kenya Diary: "Colonel Meinertzhagen has seldom found it necessary to use a second shot, whether killing an enemy, stopping a charging lion or expressing an opinion or contrary point of view."4
In any case, back to Mottisfont. Dick and Dan trained truffle dogs, using a torn tennis ball stuffed with the expensive fungus and burying it ever deeper under the roots of natural truffle trees. Of course, Dick was a poacher made in heaven, a point he would often prove.
Dick and Dan were particularly accomplished at the "wiring" or snaring of trout and pike, using copper wire, of all things, dangled like nooses from twenty-foot poles. They once had a contest with their father where the old boy agreed to put up a pound sterling per pound of trout by which his sons were able to exceed his skills. Old Daniel did well, too, but not well enough. He lostfive pounds, not an inconsiderable sum for the times (a gamekeeper or gardener made that amount per month), although he was certainly good for it. He became a disgusted believer when his sons took him out one night for pike. Dick also routinely speared trout, but his all-time favorite was eel, the cooked result being a delicacy he loved into his frail old age. Dick once made the mistake of bringing his old man a number of game birds without a mark of any shotgun pellets on them. His father asked him, of course, if he had been poaching. Dick does not record the answer.
An estate like Mottisfont had its staff problems, as illustrated by the following: Dick was well aware that a large truck came from nearby Romsey twice a week to collect fruit, vegetables, and sometimes flowers from the head gardener, a Mr. Reid, as well as about the same amount of game from Mr. Watts, the head gamekeeper, ho, ho, ho. Dick later found out that Reid was making roughly 1,000 pounds a year and Watts three to four hundred. The village was understandably horrified, possibly on two bases: first, that they were not invited to share in the proceedings, although this is pure presumption, and, secondly, that, as the major tenants, the Meinertzhagens were too important to the status of the local economy to be treated poorly. In any case, the letter of protest was never sent, and it took from approximately 1897 until 1935 before Dick was even shown a draft of the note to the lord of the manor, his father. Obviously, Neighborhood Watch was not yet in place.
To give an idea of the contemporary extent of the perfidy, the damage was rather like stealing Yankee Stadium every twenty minutes, or nearly so.
It was some few days before Christmas 1893, the whip of wind and the wet iron smell of snow in the air. It would be the Day soon, and there were few Christmases such as existed at Mottisfont. Owing to their father's importance, a wealth of delicacies poured through the gray stone gates of the ancient abbey, which hadtwenty fireplaces: Mallosol beluga caviar by the literal barrel from Russia; Dutch turkeys; a trundle of candy from Riga, Latvia; a slug of marzipan from Bremen as big as a boy's leg; and, always, Dick's favorite, a box of Spanish turrón from Madrid, a mixture of almonds, sugar, and honey that made Christmas worth waiting for. Apparently, BB guns had just come out but had not reached Mottisfont. At least his mother would have had cooked the usual twin geese she presented through some quirk of imagined humor on her and her husband's anniversary. Daniel Sr. thought it not funny.
Christmas Day was, however, only an overloading of the normal Meinertzhagen fare, which may explain why Dick was almost 180 pounds and over six feet by the time he was eighteen. With the exception of the twenty-foot spruce and the 200 candles (why Mottisfont hadn't burned down is in itself purely astonishing; it had had 700 Christmases), there was little difference in the daily bill of fare in the Victorian Meinertzhagens' home. In addition to the gifted goodies, Dick records that during the festivities alone encompassing 1897, for example, the dinner featured such items as two twenty-pound turkeys (one, of course boiled, the other broiled; both stuffed with Mottisfont chestnuts); eleven separate plum puddings for the children, varying in size and succulence depending on the age of the intended end consumer; a big pudding for the adults accompanied by a most impressive bowl of semi-clotted Devonshire cream; mince pies by the presumed regiment or cohort; the whole saturnalia topped off by an "enormous" box of candy from Charbonel, courtesy and Sweet Holiday Greetings from Aunt Alice. God only knows what they did for an appetizer. Perhaps a partridge in a pear tree. Maybe a dozen?
Things were far from the same, however, at Harrow, Richard's ultraprestigious prep school. At Hance's Tuck Shop, Dick records that breakfasts cost sixpence a shot and included either two sausages and mashed potatoes on toast, fried fish and chips, deviled kidneys,or mushrooms and liver and bacon, or three boiled eggs, including their grease-proof bag (presumably patented). Lunch at Harrow included beer. (After all, it builds strong bones and a tooth.) Dinner included bread, butter, cheese, and more beer. Sweaty athletes had a bath in a cold pint of water in an eighteen-inch tub, which is likely why so many Britons turned to missionarism: The concept of being eaten by generally unreconstructed cannibals had to be a more cheerful culinary prospect than the food served at obviously less cheerful Harrow.
Matters were different, however, at the Meinertzhagen home. A normal breakfast alone consisted of four courses with perhaps seconds interspersed. There would be kidneys; liver; bacon; four kinds of eggs of various degrees of rarity; kippered herring; stewed, broiled, and fried tomatoes; bacon; sausage of various types; as well as a raft of preserves, marmalades, jams, and similar stomach-stuffers. But, remember, there were no Rolaids, Turns, or Zantac in those days, although it is easy to understand why they were invented. It's a wonder Dick wasn't eight feet tall and 400 pounds.
Unfortunately, one Christmas, nobody had remembered Dick, which must have hurt. He commented that there were presents for everyone except for him and wrote about how much he yearned for his mother's love.
Ah, but the Meinertzhagen kids had an aunt and uncle by the names of Ernie and Gwavas Carlyon to make up for such childhood setbacks. Their gifts were always generous and tended to come at unexpected moments. Take, for example, the punt, a low-profile waterfowl stalking boat, and the punt gun that went with it, which arrived with Father Christmas in 1893. As Dick wrote to Dan, "Glory be to God! Uncle Ernie and Aunt Gwavas have written to say that they want to give us a real good joint Christmas present ... . Don't you think we might ask for that puntand a nice Holland swivel gun with a hundred rounds ... . Let me know at once before they change their minds."5
Now what exactly is a punt gun? you may ask. Well, it's a minicannon expressly designed to clear the sky of a cloud of waterfowl, ducks, geese, reasonably low-flying aircraft, and, perhaps, out-of-orbit satellites, if such had been around at the time. It was so called because it was mounted on a punt or shallow-draft oar-propelled small boat until it came within range and a literal sleet of lead was fired, the charge depending upon the bore size of the gun. The punt gun was usually fired above the flock of waterfowl--often handling as much as two pounds of shot--as the sound of the round would usually wash over the flock and they would flush before the lead got there. Results were usually impressive or bad news, especially if you happened to be a duck or a goose.
Some of these literal smooth-bore cannons could run up to two inches in bore size. Unfortunately, as usual, Dick Meinertzhagen does not tell us the caliber of his and his brother's brute, but it certainly worked well and was less than conservative. Recoil was normally handled by a rope-pulley system or the punt itself would have been smashed asunder and sunk by the recoil of what would now be called the firearm equivalent of T. rex. In no way could it possibly be fired from the shoulder by a lesser entity than King Kong.
Punt guns were professional weapons, normally used by full-time wildfowlers shooting for the market. It sounds a heavy-handed one, but it was actually a delicate art to smoothly paddle/scull into range on the big flowages to within ideal shot range of where the huge flotillas of ducks were loafing in calm weather. After all, they were skittish geese that saved Corinth in Greece in ancient times from attack by their warnings. There are easier items to approach than waterfowl, a thing that Dick and Dan soon learned. Their firstday proved nothing--naught. It was enough to make one take up Parcheesi on a professional basis.
The cost of a punt gun, including the boat that carried it, was about 200 pounds sterling--less ammunition. This gesture by Uncle Ernie and Aunt Gwavas would be tantamount to giving a couple of teenagers a nuclear submarine. Two hundred pounds sterling was sufficient to buy most of northern Scotland, which might well have been overpriced at that, considering the weather. But punt guns sure were hell on rafted-up ducks, especially when they flushed. The punt-gun incidents are mentioned as they well show Dick's and Dan's characters as outdoorsmen. There are things I would rather do than take a 200-pound gun in a kayak with only an inch or so freeboard into the freezing flowages of England for the sake of a couple of duck or goose breasts.
Actually, this might be a very precise place to point out that in those days, waterfowl were a most important source of British protein and relatively inexpensive. There was no bag limit such as we know it in North America today; there wasn't the gunning pressure and there was no shortage of birds. Of course, anybody who knows his nuts about ducks and geese is well aware that since outfits such as Ducks Unlimited got involved in acquiring and managing wetlands, the only problem has been natural, as in weather. If wetlands dry up, so do ducks and geese. My own late brother, Tom, founded and funded the American Brant Association, Inc., which, if you're not aware of the critter, now I'm sure pronounced "endangered" by those who have never seen one or surely cannot spell the name of the species, is sort of a trial-sized goose. Wildfowling was an industry as much as oystering or clamming or commercial fishing was and still is. These were all renewable natural resources and were handled as such. They still should be. Even the wood duck, once among the rarest as well as the most handsome of American waterfowl,is likely the most common of "puddle"--shallow water--ducks today, given the efforts of hunters to resurrect the breed. Common sense. It works if game is permitted to pay its own way. And, it does. If it can't or doesn't, it's gone: Now you see it, now you don't.
At this point in his life, Dick was a tremendously strong, ropy fifteen-year-old worshiping his elder brother. He pounced postally on Dan about the concept of asking for the punt gun from Uncle Ernie. Astonishingly, the boys got their Holland & Holland of undetermined bore size, but you can bet it was a whopper! Dick was cunning enough to ask also for just over 200 shells--each probably big enough to anchor a reasonable yacht. Punt guns are not powder puffs.
The 1912 Holland & Holland catalog explains that these horrifiers were generally made from 1 1/2 to 2 inches of excellent proofsteel. For example, the measurement of decibels, increments of sound intensity, are figured on the concept of a logarimithic scale, the basis of human hearing being about one decibel. To make it simple, the punt guns shot one hell of a lot more lead with a small increase of bore (barrel) size than common sense would suggest, not that punt gunners had any common sense to start with or they wouldn't have been punt gunners in the first place. To use an example, the 2-inch 200-pound London model that fired a full two pounds of lead shot from a steam launch was only 1/8" bigger in bore yet fifty pounds heavier and fired a charge of half a pound more than the slightly smaller London 1 7/8" model. I don't want to teach you to fly; I want to explain why you can fly if you are sufficiently foolish to attempt it.
The 2-inch-bore barrel weighed 200 pounds and used 5.5 ounces of powder in one mighty, tide-moving Boom! that was generally bad news for ducks and geese as well as UFOs, had there been any. That charge, over chilled water, must have sounded likea hailstorm with an intestinal blockage suddenly coming free. But there was no such item as overkill in punt gunning, one of the few instances where bigger was definitely, without question, quite literally better. The more lead that could be thrown, the bigger the bag, provided the target was up to it. And, if a professional who depended on his kids eating from his efforts was looking along the top of the barrel, you can be sure that a cannon was never more carefully laid. The cartridges were likely worth a week's pay each to an ordinary laborer.
The cost of the outfit was at least that of forty months' labor for one of Mottisfont's gamekeepers. Nine years later, a Best Grade double .577 engraved rifle, birthed and midwifed and spanked on the bum by John Rigby & Co., Gunmakers, a Rigby, along with Holland & Holland and Purdeys with a leather case as only the British could make them, then cost considerably less than a punt gun: You would have gotten about 136 pounds change from your 200 sterling, which convinces me that I was born not even close to the correct era. I would have liked punt gunning. Very much, in fact.
You may be sure that the blast of that minicannon rattled the inlays of anybody aboard the punt who handled it. In referring to one function of "The London" punt gun, H&H itself observed that it was "simple and certainly effective."
This was in reference to the extraction of an empty shell, but it was certainly definitive of the entire system, you can count on that.
Dan wrote to Dick from school that the best way to try things would be to treat the whole proposal as a joke. Well, it did come off, with the mild suggestion that Uncle Ernie and Aunt Gwavas be the recipients of the occasional duck dinner. As Dick observed, they sure as hell got them. They had a punt boat, a superb Holland & Holland swivel gun, and a bit more than 200 shells to go withit. Considering that it would be a rare day that more than two or three shells would be fired, they were set, from their viewpoint, for life. Youth.
Settling the boat by Christmas at a place called Totton, just where the Test River enters Southampton water and forms a flowage rafted over with ducks, the boys were smart enough to realize their inexperience and hired a tough professional gunner named Godwin to show them the drill. After he had accustomed them to the work at hand, Dick and Dan went out their first day before dawn, waterfowl moving most 'tween dawn and hangover. They didn't get a shot, through their clumsiness the first day, but fired their first broadside the second, at a raft of teal. The first round produced seven of the small ducks with the whistling wings, but things got better as the Meinertzhagens developed their skills. They nearly sank themselves several times with recoil and inadvisable shifting of weight in the shallow-draft punt (a deadly matter considering the water temperature in the Test flowage in January), but when the week ended, Uncle Ernie's larder was the richer.
That was the start of 1894. By January of the following year, Dick and Dan seemed to have a much better grasp of the technique involved and, despite a horrendous winter, managed to collect sixteen brent, two white-fronted, and three mergansers, but they also took sixty-seven wigeon (of which, presumably, Uncle Ernie and Aunt Gwavas got their share) and twenty-seven mallard. Eighteen ninety-five was so cold that often they could not even open the action of the punt gun; it was frozen shut. If they had tipped, they would have ruined this book, for sure. But 1896 was the year of their greatest success.
This was also the year of naval battles between the Meinertzhagens and the local punt gunners, although Dick had the good manners to suggest that he and his brother may have well been inthe wrong, not knowing the rules of the road--or maybe the flow of the flowage.
Dick calls the major antagonist, one Mr. Leigh, "a rough little rat of a man, truculent and resentful at our shooting on what he considered to be his own preserves, but of course our main crime was that the amateur should sell his bag and therefore become a professional. We did not then know the etiquette of puntgun-ning." 6 Leigh, like the cornered man he was, knew that attack is the best form of defense. He bared his Roquefort fangs.
The matter came to a swollen head when Leigh and the Meinertzhagen brothers were stalking the same raft of wigeon at a place called Cracknore Hard (this written with a straight face). Leigh was about a quarter mile farther away than were Dick and Dan from the target, but in the direct line of fire. The brothers would likely have been using number-four shot, as it has good sectional density and the punt gun in larger calibers was certainly sure death to waterfowl well over 100 yards, better than twice the distance that an ordinary shotgun could be relied upon even with heavy shot. The really heavy punt gun, such as Dan and Dick had, was likely a mighty painful instrument to humans up to 250 or so yards, maybe farther, depending upon shot size. Certainly a pellet would tear an eye from the skull.
Dick and Dan slewed their course a bit, but Leigh insisted on maneuvering his punt so that he was always in the line of fire, which took a touch of nerve. Unfortunately, Dick and Dan came under their first fire from somewhere between 160 and 180 yards, which made them not especially pleased. Leigh was close enough to have killed four birds, and ducks take a taint of killing. They're tough. Instantly, both brothers saw that Leigh was actually going to fire at them through the screen of ducks, using the birds as an excuse. The shot swarm swirled across the Meinertzhagen punt,marking it mightily with lead pellets, but it didn't blind either of the brothers or, as Dick fails to write, hit either of them. However, Dick's temper flared, and he decided to sink Leigh, an idea he was talked out of by his older brother. (Actually, it wasn't that bad an idea.)
Dick wanted to board Leigh's punt--as he playfully puts it, "ducking him"--but such exposure to the Freon-cold water would have very possibly killed the man, such performance being generally frowned upon by society and its assembled jurisprudence. In any case, Leigh might likely have had, as was the custom, a "cripple-stopper" twelve-gauge aboard, which may have well expanded Dick's guts as well as his outlook. Market hunters were not the type to fool with--armed men in general are not.
As Dick and Dan approached Leigh's boat, Dick declared that he had never heard such an innovative and prolonged use of skillful invective. It was so inventive that neither brother could resist roaring with laughter at him. Leigh, naturally, thought this most unhumorous until Dan tossed him a much larger punt gun shell than Leigh himself was using and advised him in quiet tones that there was plenty of room for all here, and if he didn't come to that conclusion he could happily pay the consequences, the consequences being at the bottom of the bay. Leigh's sense of humor prevailed in the end. Just as well; it might have been that Dan was not kidding.
That night, the Meinertzhagen brothers and Leigh made an uneasy peace at a local tavern over a couple of tots, which would be appropriate in Britain in January.
Dick writes that Dan was unavailable in the 1897 period but that he killed eleven curlews and that his high point included stalking a huge raft of wigeon, out of which he was successful in taking sufficient to give twenty-four to a cousin on his father's side. He borrowed a gown and spent the night at Eaglehurst as it was sofilthy out and, the following day, took the punt back to its berthing by road to Totton. A few days later he transferred the punt by train. In 1898 he and Dan made their last shoot, decided to make a second try, and figured on Langstone Harbor. There Dan made his best and final shot--forty-eight birds. It was a great way to end. Sort of a literal swan song, or a duck song. It was his last with the punt gun.
One may be as whimsical as one wishes concerning ghosts, goblins, spooks, or spirits in general. The legend of the Mottisfont ghost is rather eerie.
Mottisfont was an ancient, Druid-festooned, strange spring, at least according to those who lived there. I have spent time with Scottish lairds of note who firmly believe in "some presence"; they have even stepped aside for them on narrow, ancient hallways in dank castles as cold as grouse drives. However, there are aspects of the world of ghosts that are less than humorous.
Like most elegant and elderly architectural appendages, Mottisfont looked like it should have a ghost. Dick was convinced it did. He'd even located its nest, that being in a gilt Buddha, which he later took to his apartment or flat, Dick being afraid of extremely little, but he surely gave that Buddha some thought in later life.
This ethereal creature was supposed--or presumed--to have been somehow created by the last prior of Mottisfont when the Catholic Church went down the proverbial tubes in England under Henry VIII.
The Mottisfont ghost certainly was the subject of a conversation among the youngish Daniel, Dick, and a gardener who happened to be there at the time. Sure enough, things got onto ghosts and the former owner, Sir John Barker Mill.
"Sure an' it appears just afore death," intoned the gardener to Sir John, who happened to be loitering about, as lords are wont,asking of such matters as ghosts, as if he had nothing better to do. Sir John asked the gardener what form the spook took and was informed that it took whatever form it wished. But the story then becomes unfunny, as a man died.
In fact, make that two men.
"Sure, and ye know, it might be th't man over there cuttin' weeds," the gardener said to Sir John.
But, when Sir John looked, there was no man cutting weeds. And Sir John was dead within a short time; as Dick puts it, "within the year."
Coincidence. Chance. You're probably right. One doesn't tend to remember what goes right. But a lot went wrong--especially with Dan.
As Dick clearly says, neither he nor Dan believed in ghosts. After all, how can belt buckles and the ever-popular chains become ectoplasmic, let alone percale cotton transcend the elemental laws of nature? Ghosts and spirits in general must have a mighty tough row to hoe.
It was December 27, 1897, and Dick and Dan were out in the evening, goggling, as ornithologists are wont to do, at a flock of white-fronted geese. Dan suddenly started as he saw a form loping across the lawn. Dick asked him, "Where?"
"There he goes!" yelled Dan, pointing across the moon-tinged darkness.
Dan chased him as far as the ditch at the end of the lawn but came up empty. Nobody. Not a trace. Further, there were, strangely, no footprints. Dick, after years of experience, knew that he had better night vision than did Dan, but he saw nothing.
Later, in their common bedroom, Dan confided that he felt it was the Ghost, but Dick was not to tell his mother on any account. "Jesus," likely said Dan, "I'm the eldest son. Christ, whatever youdo, don't tell mother." The curse always meant the death of the eldest son.
As Dick said afterwards, Dan was absolutely positive that he saw somebody (or something) cross the lawn, and he was uncharacteristically upset about the matter. However, as Dick said, he just couldn't believe that Dan had seen something he couldn't.
He also observed that Dan was dead six weeks later.
And Meinertzhagen's own son, also named Daniel, died at the age of nineteen in World War II. I'll always wonder if the gilt statue of Buddha remained in Dick's apartment after that.
Copyright © 1998 by Peter Hathaway Capstick.