Read CHAPTER II of The Story of a Red Deer, free online book, by J. W. Fortescue, on

Now the very next day the Hind led her Calf away from the combe where they lay; and after travelling some little way, they met the most beautiful bird that the Calf had ever seen. His plumage was all of glossy black, which shone blue and green and purple in the sun, while to set it off he had a patch of pure white on each wing, and a spot of red above each eye; his tail was forked and bent outwards in two graceful curves, and his legs were feathered to the very heel. He flew towards them some little way, with an easy noiseless flight, and lighted just in front of them, as handsome a fellow as you will see in a summer’s day.

“Well, good Master Blackcock,” said the Hind, “has my lord not moved?”

“Not a step, my lady,” said the bird; “he lieth so quiet as my wife when she’s sitting, though the flies do worrit mun terrible.”

“Then come along, son,” she said. And she led him on and presently stopped and whispered, “Look.” And there he saw such a sight as he had never dreamed of; a great Stag nearly twice the size of his mother, with horns half grown and the velvet black with flies, lying down motionless but for constant twitching of his head. The Calf could not see how big he was, till presently he rose on to his feet, and stretched himself, throwing his horns right back, with a mighty yawn. Then he stood for a minute or two blinking rather sleepily, but always shaking his head and wincing under the torment of the flies. His back was as broad as a bullock’s and his coat shone with good living; and the little Calf, looked with all his eyes, for he had made up his mind then and there to stand just like that and to stretch himself just like that, when he had grown to be such a fine stag as that.

But presently the Hind led him away and asked the Blackcock, “And where is my sister?” And the Blackcock led them on, and after a time, to the Calf’s delight, they came in sight of two more Hinds and another little Calf. And all three caught the wind of them and came forward to meet them. One of the Hinds was very big and grey, and she had no Calf, but the other was smaller and bright red, and had at her foot as sweet a little Calf as ever you saw; and it was the smaller of the two Hinds that came to them first. Then both of the mothers laid their Calves down, and began to talk, but they had hardly exchanged a word, when the old grey Hind broke in.

“So it’s you, Tawny, is it?” she said; “and you have brought a Calf with you, I see. I suppose I must ask, is it a stag or a hind?”

“A stag, Aunt Yeld,” said the Lady Tawny (for that was the name of our Calf’s mother); “do look at him for a minute. He does look so sweet in his bed.”

“A stag, is it?” said Aunt Yeld with a little sniff. “Well, I suppose if people must have calves they had better have stags. Ruddy’s here is a hind, but I never could see the attraction of any calf myself.” For Aunt Yeld, like some old maids (but by no means like all) that have no children of their own, thought it the right thing to look down on Calves; and indeed she was rather a formidable old lady. She had two very big tushes in her upper jaw, which she was constantly showing, and she made a great point (when she was not flurried) of closing the claws of her hoofs very tight, and letting her hind-feet fall exactly where her fore-feet had fallen, which she knew to be the way of a stag.

“And now that you have brought your calves here,” continued Aunt Yeld, “I may as well tell you that the sooner you take them away the better, for there is a Greyhen here with a brood, who never ceases to pester me with enquiries about a poult which she has lost. It’s not my business to look after people’s poults; if they can’t take care of them themselves, they had better not have them, I say. The bird’s an idiot, I think. I questioned her pretty closely, and she really seemed not very clear whether she had really lost a poult or not.”

But the two Mother-Hinds looked at their calves and said:

“Poor thing;” and Ruddy’s Calf which was feeling perhaps a little lonely, uttered a plaintive little bleat.

“Ruddy,” said Aunt Yeld severely, “if your child is going to make that noise, I really must request you to bless my heart, there’s that Greyhen again. No, bird, I have not seen your poult.”

And there sure enough was the poor old Greyhen, looking sadly dowdy when compared with her mate, the Blackcock, with half a dozen fluffy little poults round her. She was evidently anxious, for she turned her head so quickly this way and that to keep them all in sight that it nearly made the Calves giddy.

“Oh, I beg your pardon, my lady,” she said very humbly, and turned round. But the Lady Tawny walked after her, and asked what was the matter.

“Oh, my lady,” said the Greyhen, “I didn’t mean no harm, but do ’ee tell me, have ’ee seen my little poult? My lady Yeld axed me so many questions that I got fairly mazed, and I’ve counted my poults times and times till I hardly know how many they be. For I’m not so young as I was, my lady, and I’ve brought up many families. My first mate he was shot, if you mind, my lady; butiful bird he was too. And a pigeon passed just now and I axed him to count, but they never have but two eggs in their nestes, he saith, so he can’t count more than two. And the old Bucky was nigh here, and I axed he. ’Bless your life, neighbour,’ he saith, ’my Bunny has so many children that I’ve a given up counting.’ But it’s not for me to stand talking with your ladyship; though there’s one poult missing, I’m sure of that.”

“Poor soul,” said the Hind very gently, “I am afraid that I have not seen your poult. I am so sorry.”

“Ah! bless your ladyship’s kind heart,” said the Greyhen. “You was always mercy on us, there ’a is. Stand over them, my lady, for mercy’s sake, stand over them?” And she crouched close to the ground with abject terror in her eyes, while the poults, frightened to death, hid themselves all round her.

For far above them against the glorious blue sky hung a little speck, with quick, nervous wings that fluttered and paused, and fluttered and paused. And it slanted down to right, and slanted back to left, as though it had been swung by a cord from the heavens; then it fluttered its wings and paused once more. But the Hind stood over the Greyhen and poults, so that they should not be seen; and all the time the Greyhen kept gasping out little broken words.

“Oh, they blue Hawks! Oh, they blue Hawks! Oh, the roog! ’Twas he that did it sure enough Oh, the blue roog!”

Then the little speck made a great lunge forward, fluttered for a moment, and passed away out of sight; and the Hind stepped back very gently, and said: “Quite safe now. Good-day, mistress. Take care of the poults.”

“Bless your kind heart, and good-day to your ladyship,” answered the Greyhen. “I have six poults yet, I’m sure ’tis six now, and that’s a many to wash and tend and feed; but when they’m grown you may depend they shall always help your ladyship, if I can teach them. Good-day, my lady, and thank you, and may you have good luck with your blessed little son.”

Now all this time you may be sure that the Hind had kept a constant eye towards the spot where her Calf was lying, the more so since she could see Aunt Yeld peering through the grass at him. So she went straight back to kiss him as soon as the Greyhen was gone, lest Aunt Yeld’s grey face might have frightened him; but he wasn’t frightened at her in the least. And Aunt Yeld for two whole steps quite forgot to walk like a stag, and said, “I must do you the justice to observe, Tawny, that he is a very handsome little fellow.” Then she turned away, blowing out her lips to show her tushes and putting on the stag’s gait as nearly as she could, and made a vicious bite at a little blade of grass, as she had seen Stags bite at a turnip; which did not become her pretty neck (for Hinds are always pretty, however old) half as much as the graceful nibble which was natural to her. But it was all make-believe, and if she had spoken her heart she would have said: “I think that your Calf is the greatest darling I ever saw, and oh, how I wish I were you!”

Then Aunt Yeld turned round and said: “Now you two mustn’t think of going. You are not fit to take care of yourselves, so you must stay with me, and I’ll take care of you.” You see she had quite forgotten what she said at first, for she had really a kind heart, though nothing could keep her from patronising every one.

So for many days they lived together, and Aunt Yeld always posted herself up wind of them to keep watch over them; and if our soldiers in their red coats were sentries half as good as she, they would be the best in the world. Now and again, though very seldom, the great Stag would join them and lie by them all day, chewing the cud and shaking his great head, which grew bigger every day. But he never uttered a word, unless it was to say, “Very good that growing wheat was this morning, to be sure,” to which the Hind would answer, “I am so glad, dearest;” or it would be, “The turnips on Yarner farm are not coming on well in this dry weather, I am told; it’s very annoying, for I was looking forward to my turnips,” and then the Hind would say, “I am so sorry, dearest. How I hope it will rain soon!” For old stags are perhaps rather too fond of their dinners.

Once only he showed himself quite different, and that was when one day the Blackcock flew up to say that all the hills were coming down. Now the way the Blackcock got the idea into his head was this. He had been taking a bath in the dust at the foot of a great sheet of screes, the loose, flat stones on the hill-side which you have often seen on the moor, and had enjoyed it greatly, fluffing out his feathers and flapping his great wings. But while he was in the middle of it a Jackdaw came flying overhead, and seeing this great ball of feathers rolling about, pitched down upon the screes to see what strange thing it might be. And as he came hopping down to look at it closer, he displaced one little stone, which displaced another little stone, and that another, until quite a number of stones were set moving, and came rushing down for twenty feet like a tiny cataract, close to the Blackcock’s ear. Whereupon the Jackdaw flapped off cawing with fright, and the Blackcock flew away screaming to tell the deer that all the hills were coming down.

But when he came the old Stag stood up at once and said: “Lady Yeld, take the lead; Ruddy and Tawny, follow her. Steadily now, no hurrying!” Then they moved on a little way and stopped, the Stag always remaining behind them; for they could see that the hills were not coming down before them, and therefore they must have begun to fall behind them, if the Blackcock spoke truth. And that was why the Stag remained behind, to be nearest to the danger, as a gentleman should be. And some day, if you go into the army, you will learn that in a retreat the rearguard is the post of greatest danger; and you must read the story of the retreat of Sir John Moore’s army to Corunna and Vigo, and see what great things Uncle Charlie’s regiment did there.

The Deer stopped for a time, and at last the Stag said: “I can see nothing, hear nothing, and wind nothing. Are you quite sure the hills are all coming down, Blackcock? I think that you must have made some mistake.” For the old Stag was a great gentleman, and always very civil and courteous. But Aunt Yeld, who was quick of temper, stamped on the ground, and said almost out loud: “Bah! I believe the bird’s as great an idiot as his wife.”

The Blackcock looked very foolish, and was so much confused that he did not know what to answer; but the Lady Tawny said kindly: “Thank you, Blackcock, for coming. You mustn’t let us keep you from your dinner.” And though it was not his dinnertime, he was so glad of the excuse that he flew straight away to his wife, and told her all about it. But all she said was: “So you went and told his lordship, did ’ee; and what about me and my poults if the world cometh to an end? It’s like ’ee, it is, to go disturbing her blessed ladyship and her sweet little son with your stories. But never a word for me, oh dear me no, who slave for the poults morning, noon, and night; oh dear, oh dear,” and so on for half an hour, till the Blackcock almost made up his mind never to have a dust-bath again. For the poults had been rather troublesome that morning, and the Greyhen’s temper was a little upset in consequence. Thus you see that the Blackcock had an unpleasant time of it; and perhaps it served him right.

But except on this one occasion the Stag never bestirred himself; behaving very lazily, as I have told you, and never opening his mouth except to munch his food or talk of it. He never spoke a word to the Calf, for old stags are not very fond of calves; and you may be sure that the Calf never said a word to him, for he was terribly afraid of him; nor was he far wrong, for an old stag, while his head is growing, is almost as irritable as an old gentleman with a gouty toe. The only difference between the two is this, that the stag can eat and drink as much as he pleases, and do nothing but good to his head, while the more a gouty old gentleman eats and drinks, the worse for his toe. And it is just because they cannot eat and drink as much as they please that gouty old gentlemen are more irritable than stags; and I for one don’t pity them, for a man is made to think of better things than his food and drink.

But if he could not talk to the Stag, he made great friends with Ruddy’s Calf, who was the sweetest, gentlest little thing that you can imagine. And though she was a little smaller than he was, she could do nearly everything that he could. They ran races, and they tried which could jump the higher and which could spring the farther, and she was as fast and as active as he was. But one day he must needs make her try which could butt the other the harder. So they butted each other gently two or three times, and he liked it so much that he took a great run and butted her hard, and hurt her, though he had not meant it. Then she cried, “Maa-a-a! You’re very rude and rough. It’s a shame to treat a little hind so; I shan’t play any more.” Of course they soon made it up again, but his mother told him to remember that she was only a little hind. And he remembered it, but he could not help thinking that it was far better to be a little stag.