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

And now the grass of the forest turned fast from green to yellow, the blossom faded off the heather, and the leaves of the woods turned to gold and to russet and to brown, and fluttered down to the kind earth which had raised them up in the spring. The nights too grew chillier and chillier; but the Hind and Calf did not mind that, for their coats only grew the thicker and warmer to protect them. But what was far more terrible was the hideous roaring that continued all night long in all quarters of the moor. It was some days before the Calf found out what it was, for his mother seemed always dreadfully frightened unless he were well hidden away. But once when she had left him for a short time snugly tucked away on a combe’s side, he saw a great Stag come down the combe driving a little herd of half a dozen Hinds before him. The Calf was astonished at the sight of him, for the Stag was quite different now from any that he had seen in the summer. The glossy coat was gone, and the great round body was lean, ragged, and tucked up, and stained with half-dried mud. His neck again was twice its usual size and looked still bigger under its great shaggy mane; and his face was not noble and calm, but fierce and restless and furrowed by two deep dark lines, so that altogether he was a most disreputable-looking old fellow.

Presently he stopped at a little boggy spot by the water’s side; and there he reared up, and plunging his great antlers into the ground he tore it up, and sent the black mire flying over his head. Then he threw himself down into the bog and rolled in it and wallowed in it, churning it up with horn and hoof, like a thing possessed. At last he got up, all dripping and black, and stretching out his great neck, till the hair of his mane hung straight and lank with the black drops running from it, he roared and roared again with a voice so terrible and unearthly that the Calf in his hiding-place shook with fright. And no wonder, for I think that even you will be startled the first time that you hear a big Stag belling.

Very soon an answering roar came from a distance, and another Stag, as thin and fierce-looking as the first, but not quite so big, came belling up the combe. And the great Stag left the Hinds and went forward to meet him, looking very stately and grand. For he walked on tip-toe, loftily and slowly, with his head thrown back, and his chin high in air, while his eyes rolled with rage, and his breath spurted forward in jets of steam through the cold, damp air, as he snorted defiance. Then presently both Stags dropped their heads and made for each other; and they fought with locked horns, shoving and straining and struggling, backward and forward and round and round, till the smaller Stag could fight no longer but turned and fled limping away, with the blood flowing from a deep thrust in his flank. Then the great Stag threw up his head and belled again with triumph, and huddling the Hinds together once more, he drove them on before him.

For three weeks and more this roaring and fighting continued; for Deer, you must know, put all the quarrelling of the year into a single month; which sounds like a curious arrangement, but may after all be better than that of certain other creatures, which fight the whole year round. All this while the Calf’s mother kept him carefully out of the way of stags; but none the less he had visitors. For one day a little brown bird with a long beak came flapping rather crookedly up the combe as if uncertain whither to go next, and then suddenly making up her mind, came down and lighted in front of the Calf’s very nose. He was a little astonished, but his mother gave the little bird her kindest glance and said:

“Welcome back to Exmoor, Mistress Woodcock. How have you fared this dry summer, and what passage had you over the sea?”

And the little bird answered with somewhat of a foreign accent and in rather a sad voice, “I am safe and sound, my lady Hind, for we had good weather; but there were a few that started before me, and are not yet come, and I greatly fear that they were blown into the sea by a storm. And the summer was so dry that many springs failed, and many times I had to catch up my chicks and carry them one by one to new feeding-grounds over the pine-forests and across the blue fiords. Ah! you think much of Exmoor, but you have never seen Norway, where your highest hills would be lost among our mountains, and your broadest streams a trickle beside our rivers. We do not duck and dive there, my lady Hind; we fly high and straight, and chirp for joy in our flight, but in this grey England we have not the heart to chirp.” And rising with a flip flap of her wings she flew silently and sadly away.

At length one day the Hind said: “Son, it is time for you to see some more of your relations.” So they set out together; and as they went they passed by all the places which the Calf had known so well when he was but a few weeks old. But they saw no deer, and when they looked about for the Greyhen they could not see her either; nor would they have heard anything of them, if the Hind had not bethought her of going to see old Bunny. And they found her as usual sitting in front of her bury, looking quite happy and comfortable, with her head a little on one side.

“Why, my lady, you’m quite a stranger,” she said when they greeted her. “Lady Yeld and Lady Ruddy was axing for ’ee but two days agone, and says they, ‘Tell her we’m going to Dunkery’; and that’s where you’m going, I reckon, my lady. And Lady Ruddy’s Calf is grown wonderful, and a sweet, pretty little thing she is, but not so pretty as yours, my lady. Look to mun, now, in his little brown coat, a proper little buty. ’Tis just what I was saying to the old Greyhen let’s see, what day was it? well, I don’t rightly mind the day, but says I, ‘Neighbour, her ladyship’s little son ’”

“But where is the Greyhen gone, Bunny?” said the Hind.

“Well, I don’t rightly know, my lady,” answered Bunny. “She comed to me a good whiles back, and she saith, ’Neighbour, the men’s been here shooting again, and I shall go.’ But it was a good whiles back; I think ’twas when I was rearing my fourth family, for I have had two more families since I seed your ladyship last, aye, and fine ones too. And I’ve got a new mate, my lady. You mind my Bucky, my lady, he that was always lying out well, he went out one day and he never comed home again, and I reckon the weasels catched mun. He was a good mate was the old Bucky, but he was the half of a fule that I should say so wouldn’t never mind what I told mun. And what was I to do, my lady? So I tooked another mate. ’Twas not a long courting, for he comes to me, and, saith he ”

“But where did you say that the Greyhen was gone?” asked the Hind, kindly.

“I think Clog’s Down was the place that she said, my lady. But, bless your life, she’ll come back here, you may depend. For she’s getting up an old bird, my lady, ”

“And there’s no place like home, Bunny,” said the Hind.

“Aye,” said Bunny, “and that’s just what I was saying only yesterday to the old Woodcock when she comed telling to me about Norway. ’Get along with ‘ee and your Norwayses,’ I says; ’isn’t Exmoor good enough for ’ee? Many’s the fine brood of Woodcocks that I’ve seen reared on Exmoor, without never crossing the sea. Look at me,’ I says; ’I don’t go crossing the sea, and look to the broods I’ve reared.’ And now, let me think, how many broods is it? ”

But she took such a long time counting, that, though the Hind was longing to hear, they were obliged to bid her good-day and go on their way. Besides, to tell truth, the Calf was so much pleased when he heard her speak of his brown coat that he was dying to find some one to whom he could show it. And in the very first water that they crossed he saw the little Salmon come hurrying towards them, and called out to them, “Come and look at my brown coat.”

But they answered all together, “Come and look at our silver jackets. We’ve got our silver jackets, we’ve got our silver jackets! And the rain will come down to-night, and we’ll be off to the sea to-morrow hurrah!” And they leaped out of the water and turned head over tail with joy, taking no more notice of the Calf’s brown coat than if it had been a rag of green weed.

So he passed on with his mother, a little disappointed, and away from the yellow grass of the forest to the brown heather of Dunkery. And there the heath was full of great stones, unlike any ground that he had ever travelled over before, so that he had to be careful at first how he trod. But he soon found that it was easy enough for him after he had gone a little distance; and his mother led him slowly so that he should have time to learn his way. So on they went to the very top of the ridge, and there where the heather and grass grow tuft by tuft among the brown turf-pits, in the heart of the bog, they found a herd of Deer. Such a number of them there were as he had never dreamed of. Great Stags, with three and four on top, like those that he had seen fighting, were lying down, four and five together, in perfect peace, and younger Stags with lighter heads and fewer points, and Two-year-olds, proud as Punch of their first brow-antlers, and Prickets, ever prouder of their first spires than the Two-year-olds, and a score or more of Hinds, nearly all of them with Calves at foot; and standing sentry over all was old Aunt Yeld.

“Come along, my dears,” she said patronisingly, “the more the merrier. You’ll find a few dry beds still empty in the wet ground, where Ruddy and her Calf are lying; but I warn you that you will have to move before nightfall.”

So they went, and found Ruddy and her Calf and lay down by them, for you may be sure that mothers and Calves had a great deal to say to each other. But as the evening began to close they heard a faint, low, continuous hum from the westward, and all the hinds with one accord left the bog, and went down into a deep, snug, sheltered combe, clothed thick with dwarf oak-coppice, while the stags went to their own chosen hiding-places. Soon the hum grew louder and louder, and presently the rain began to fall in heavy drops, as the little Salmon had foretold (though how they could foretell it, I know no more than you); and then the hum changed to a roar as the Westerly Gale came up in all his might and swept across the moor. And presently an old Dog-Fox came in and shook himself and lay down not far from them on one side, and a Hare came in and crouched close to them on the other, and little birds driven from their own roosting-places flew trembling into the branches above them; but not one dared to speak except in a whisper, and then only to say, “What a terrible night!” For all night long the gale roared furiously over their heads and the rain and scud flew screaming before it; and once they heard something whistle over their heads, crying wildly in a voice not unlike a sea-gull’s, “Mercy, mercy, mercy!” Then the little stream below them in the combe began to swell and pour down fuller and fuller; and all round the hill a score of other little streams swelled likewise, and came tearing down the hill, adding their roar to the roar of the gale; so you may be sure that the Salmon had a fine flood to carry them down to the sea.

When the Deer moved out in the morning they found the rain and wind raging as furiously as ever, and the air full of salt from the spray of the sea; and a few hundred yards to leeward of the combe they came upon a little sooty Sea-bird, quite a stranger to them, lying gasping on the ground. The poor little fellow could only say, “Mercy, mercy, where is the sea, where is the sea? Where are my brother Petrels?” Then he flapped one little wing feebly, for the other had been dashed by the gale against a branch and broken, and gasped once more and lay quite still; nor, though the deer gazed at him for long, did he ever speak or move again. So when they had fed, the deer moved back to the shelter of the combe and lay down there once more; and as the morning grew the rain ceased, though the wind blew nearly as hard as ever. But it was still a good hour before noon when the Hare suddenly jumped up and stole out of the combe. A minute after her the Fox stood up, listened for a moment, and stole out likewise, and almost directly after him the deer all sprang to their feet; for they heard the deep note of the hounds and saw their white bodies dashing into the combe full of eagerness and fire. And if any one tells you that it is incredible that Deer, Fox, and Hare should all be lying together as I have said, you may tell him from me that I saw them with my own eyes leave the combe one after another by the same path, on just such a wild morning as I have described.

The deer moved quickly on to the hill and began to run away together; but presently Aunt Yeld, and Ruddy and her Calf, and our Hind and her Calf separated from the rest, and went away at a steady pace, for as old Aunt Yeld said, “No hound can travel fast over Dunkery stones.” And, indeed, so fond was the old lady of these stones that, when she got to the edge of them, she turned back over them again and took Ruddy with her. But our Hind and her Calf moved away a mile or two towards the forest, and finding no hounds in chase of them stopped and rested.

But after half an hour or more Aunt Yeld came galloping up to them alone, very anxious though not the least tired, and said, “I can’t shake them off. Come along quick!” Then they found that the hounds were hard at their heels, and away they went, in the teeth of the gale, at their best pace. And the Calf kept up bravely, for he was growing strong, but they were pressed so hard that presently Aunt Yeld left them and turned off by herself. Then by bad luck some of the hounds forsook her line for that of his mother and himself, and drove them so fast that for the first time in their lives they were obliged to part company, and he was left quite alone. So on he ran by himself till he came to a familiar little peat-stream, which was boiling down over the stones like a torrent of brown ale; and in he jumped and ran down, splashing himself all over. Before he had gone down it fifty yards he felt so much refreshed that he quite plucked up heart, so he followed the water till it joined a far bigger stream, crossed the larger stream, climbed up almost to the top of the opposite side of the combe, and lay down.

And when he had lain there for more than an hour he saw Aunt Yeld coming down to the water two or three hundred yards above the place where he lay, with her neck bowed and her grey body black with sweat, looking piteously tired and weak. She jumped straight into the flooded water and came plunging down; and only a few minutes behind her came the hounds. The moment that they reached the water some of them leaped in and swam to the other side, and they came bounding down both banks, searching diligently as they ran. Then he saw Aunt Yeld stop in a deep pool, and sink her whole body under the water, leaving nothing but her head above it. She had chosen her place cunningly, where the bank was hollowed out and the water was overhung by a little thorn bush that almost hid her head from view. And he watched the hounds try down and down; and he now saw that two horsemen were coming down the combe’s side after them, the men bending low over their saddles, hardly able to face the gale, and the horses with staring eyes and heaving flanks, almost as much distressed as Aunt Yeld herself. The men seemed to be encouraging the hounds, though in the howling of the wind he could hear nothing.

But the pack tried down and down by themselves, till at last they came to the place where Aunt Yeld was lying; and there two of them stopped as if puzzled; but she only sank her head a little deeper in the water and lay as still as death, with her ears pressed back tight upon her neck. Then at last the hounds passed on, though they were loth to leave the spot, and followed the bank down below her. But presently the Calf became aware, to his terror, that some of them were pausing at the place where he himself had left the water, and, what was more, were unwilling to leave it. And then a great black and tan hound carried the line very, very slowly a few yards away from the bank up the side of the combe, and said, “Ough!” and the hounds on the opposite side of the stream no sooner heard him than they jumped in and swam across to him; so that in half a minute every one of them was working slowly up towards his hiding-place. He was so much terrified that he hardly knew whether to lie still or to fly; but presently the black and tan hound said “Ough!” once more with such a full, deep, awful note that he could stand it no longer, but jumped up at once and bounded up over the hill.

And then every hound threw up his head and yelled in a way which brought his heart into his mouth, but he was soon out of their view over the crest of the hill, and turning round set his head backward for Dunkery. And as he went he saw the horsemen come struggling up the hill, trying to call the hounds off, but unable to catch them. But he soon felt that he had not the strength to carry him to Dunkery, so he swung round again with the gale in his face, and then by great good luck he caught the wind of other deer, and running on found that it was Ruddy and her Calf.

By the time that he had joined them the men had stopped the hounds, and were taking them back to try down the water again after Aunt Yeld. But you may be sure that Aunt Yeld had not waited for them. On the contrary, she had made the best of her time, for she had run up the big water again, and turned from it up a smaller stream, and having run up that, was lying down in the fervent hope that she was safe.

And safe she was; for as luck would have it the wind backed to the south-east and began blowing harder than ever, with torrents of rain, so that after another hour the Calf saw horsemen and hounds travelling slowly and wearily home, as drenched and draggled and miserable as a deer could wish to see them. And a little later his mother came and found him, and though she too was terribly tired, she cared nothing about herself in the joy of seeing him. Then after a time Aunt Yeld came up too and joined them, and quite forgetting that it was not at all like a stag to be soft-hearted, she came up to him and fondled him, and said, “My brave little fellow, you have saved my life to-day.” So they made their way to the nearest shelter and curled up together to keep each other warm, banishing all thought of the day’s adventures in their joy that they were safe.