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

After this they were left in peace for a short time, but week after week the hounds came to Dunkery or to the forest, and though the Deer were not always obliged to run their hardest, yet it was seldom that they had not to fly, at any rate for a time, for their lives. So after a few weeks the Hind led the Calf back to the wood where they had made the acquaintance of the Vixen and the Badger; and there they were left alone. For there came a hard frost which covered the moor with white rime, and, though it sometimes sent them far afield for food, still saved them from annoyance by hounds. But the poor Blackbirds and Thrushes suffered much, for they were weak for want of food; and often the Calf would see them in the hedges crawling over the dead leaves, unable to fly. And then the old Vixen would come round (for she was still there, though all her Cubs were scattered), and pick up the poor struggling little birds, and make what meal she could of them, though there was little left of them but skin and bone; for she too was ravenous with hunger.

But at last the frost broke up and the warm rain came, and the days grew longer, and the sun gathered strength. So after a time they began to wander over the skirt of the moor again, and thus one day they saw a curious sight. For in the midst of the heather stood a number of Greyhens, looking very sober, and modest and respectable, and round them, in a ring worn bare by the trampling of their feet, a number of Blackcocks were dancing like mad creatures, with their beautiful plumage fluffed out and their wings half spread, to show what handsome fellows they were. While they watched them one splendid old Cock came waltzing slowly round, with his feathers all gleaming in the chill sunshine, and all the time looking out of the corner of his eye at one of the Hens. And as generally happens when people look one way and go another, particularly if they chance to be waltzing, he ran full against another Cock, who was just in front of him, and nearly knocked him over. Whereupon he asked the other Cock very angrily, “Now then, where be coming to?”

But the other answered quite as angrily: “If you come knacking agin me again like that, you old dumphead, I’ll spoil your plumes for ’ee, I will.”

Then the old bird shook out all his feathers in a towering passion, and said: “You spoil my plumes, you little, miser’ble, dirty-jacketed roog! You spoil my plumes! If you dare to come anigh me, I’ll give ’ee such a dressing as you won’t get over this side midsummer. I’ll teach ’ee to call me dumphead!”

But the other was quite as quarrelsome, and answered very rudely: “You give me a dressing? I’d like to see ’ee try it. Git out of the way, and don’t come here telling of your dressings. I bean’t afeard to call ’ee dumphead. Now then, dumphead, dumphead, dumphead!”

And with that they flew at each other, and pecked and scratched and ruffled, and beat each other with their wings, till all the ground was covered with their feathers. And all the time the Greyhens kept whispering to each other, “He’s down no, he’s up no, he’s down again. He’s too strong for mun. Dear, dear, but the old bird’s sarving mun bad!” And so he was, for after a hard fight the old Cock came back breathless and crowed with triumph, screaming, “Now, then, who’s the better bird?”

And the Greyhens answered in chorus: “Why, you be, my dear. Ah! you’m a rare bird, sure enough. Get your breath, my dear, for ’tis sweetly pretty to see ’ee dance.”

So the Deer left them dancing and fighting, and making their way over the moor again to Dunkery, went down into Horner Wood. And they found the wood quiet and peaceful as if no hound had ever been near it; and above their heads the oak-buds were swelled and ripe almost to bursting, while under their feet was a carpet of glossy green and blue, picked out with stars of pale yellow, for the bluebells and primroses had thrust their heads through the dead leaves to welcome the spring. The gorse, too, was flaming with yellow blossom, the thorns were gay in their new green leaves, and the bracken was thrusting up its green coils, impatient to uncurl and make a shelter for the deer.

They rarely saw an old stag, though they met a young one or two, and they did not even see many hinds, though they frequently met and talked to Ruddy. And the Calf now became better friends than ever with Ruddy’s daughter, for, having both of them seen a great deal of the world after a life of one whole year, they had plenty to talk about. One day she told him, as a great secret, that her mother had promised her a little brother before many months should be past; but all that he did was to make her promise that she would still like him best. And the truth is that he began to think himself rather too fine a fellow to be interested in calves when there were older male deer to associate with. For as soon as the ash began to sprout, all the male deer in Horner formed clubs to go and eat the young shoots, for there is nothing that they love so much to eat; and he of course went among them and nibbled away as greedily as any, though not being the biggest deer he did not of course get the biggest share.

Besides, not long after the ash was in leaf, he began to feel rather a pain in his head; and although a headache is not generally a pleasant thing, yet this was so slight and at the same time so interesting, that he did not much mind it. For on each side of the crown of his head there appeared a little swelling, very hot and tender, which grew into a little knob of black velvet, and which he thought very handsome, though you and I perhaps might not think so. But he was so proud of it that he always looked at it in the water, when he went down to drink of an evening, to see how it was growing. And the best of it was, that not one of the big stags now had much more on their heads than he had, for they had lost their horns, and were looking very foolish with their great necks and manes and nothing to carry on them. He saw the big stags so very seldom now that he could hardly find an opportunity of asking them what had happened; and when at last he got a chance of putting the question to a huge old fellow, whom he came upon one day with his mouth full of ivy, he was in such a hurry that I am afraid he must have seemed inquisitive. For the old Stag stared at him for a minute with the ivy sticking out of his lips, and then said very gruffly, “Go away, and mind your own business. Little calves should be seen and not heard.” And our Deer was so much vexed at being called a little Calf, whereas he was really a Pricket, that he slunk away down to the water to have a look at his velvet; but it was getting on so beautifully that he felt quite comforted, and was glad that, although the Stag had been so unkind, he had not said, “You’re another,” or something rude and disrespectful of that kind, which would have been most unbecoming in a Red-Deer.

A few days later the matter was partly explained to him. For early one morning when he was out at feed in a growing corn-field with a number of young male deer, a four-year-old came galloping up the hedge trough with a sheep-dog racing after him. The four-year-old was in such a flurry that he jumped the fence at the corner of the field without noticing an overhanging branch, and thump! down fell both of his horns on one side of the hedge, while he galloped on, leaving them behind him, on the other. The rest of the deer also went off in a hurry, you may be sure, after such a scare, for they did not expect a sheep-dog to be out so early; and, indeed, it is quite possible that the sheep-dog had no business to be out. His mother looked very grave when our Pricket told her about it; and that very night they set out across the moor, pointing straight for the covert where they had hidden themselves during the last summer.

And there they found all their old friends; for the Badger had dug himself a new earth and was quite happy, and the Vixen had found his old house so convenient that she had turned it into a nursery; and, as they passed, three little Cubs poked their heads out of one of the holes, and winked at them like so many little vulgar boys. But on the very day after they arrived they heard loud yapping, as of a little dog, about the earth, and crossing to the other side of the valley, they could faintly hear men’s voices and the constant clink of iron against stones. And when night came and they ventured to come nearer, they found the old Vixen running about like one distracted, crying for her Cubs; for the earth was all harried and destroyed, and there could be no doubt that the men had dug the Cubs out and taken them away. And the wailings of the poor old Vixen were so distressing that they left the wood and turned up again over the moor.

Soon they began to pass over strange ground, which rose higher and higher before them. The little streams grew more plentiful, coming down from every side in deep clefts which they had dug through the turf to hasten their journey to the sea; the ground beneath their feet became softer and softer, though it was never so ill-mannered as to give way under their light step, and the water dripped incessantly down from the ragged edges of the turf above the clefts. But they went on higher and higher, till at last they stood on a dreary waste of rough grass, and miry pools, and turf-pits blanched by the white bog-flower. For they were on the great ridge whence the rivers of Exmoor take their source and flow down on all sides to the sea; and a wild treacherous tract it is. They passed a little bird no bigger than a thrush, who had his beak buried so deep in the mire that he could not speak; and the Hind said, “Good day, Master Snipe. Your wife and family are well, I hope?” Then the little bird hastily plucked a long bill out of the ground, though his mouth was so full of a big worm that he was obliged to be silent for a minute or two; nevertheless at last he gulped the worm down, washed his bill in a little pool of water, and piped out, “Very well, thank you, my lady, half-grown or more.”

“You couldn’t tell me what there is over the hill?” asked the Hind.

“Not very well, not to tell your ladyship what you want to know,” said the Snipe, “but you’ll find the old Wild-duck a bit farther on and she’ll tell ’ee.” And he began routling about in the mire again with his beak.

So they lay down till evening among the turf-pits, and after travelling a little way farther they reached the very top of the hill and saw a new world. For before them the high land of the moor plunged down into a tangle of smaller hills, cut up by great green banks into innumerable little fields, and seamed and slashed by a hundred wooded valleys. Fifty miles before them the land rose high again and swelled up to the tors of Dartmoor, which stood stately and clear and blue against the sky. But on their right hand the moor seemed to leap at one bound many miles to the sea; and they saw the white line of the surf breaking on Bideford Bar, and beyond it Lundy, firm and solid in mid-sea, and far beyond Lundy the wicked rocky snout of Hartland Point, purple and gaunt beneath the sinking sun.

The Hind looked anxiously at the wooded valleys beneath their feet, wondering which she should take; but presently they heard a loud “Quack, quack, quack,” and down she went in the direction of the sound. And there in a pool of a little stream they found an old Duck, very prim and matronly, swimming about with her brood all round her, and the Mallard with them. Whereupon of course the Hind stopped in her civil way to ask after her and her little Flappers.

“Why, bless ’ee, my lady, they’m getting ’most too big to be called Flappers,” answered the Duck, “and I shall take mun out and down the river to see the world very soon. They do tell me that some ducks takes their broods straight to the big waters, but they must be strange birds, and I don’t hold wi’ such. ’Twas my Mallard was a-telling me. What was it you told me you saw down the river, my dear?”

But the old Mallard was shy and silent; he only mumbled out something that they could not hear, and swam away apart. Then the old Duck went on in a whisper: “You see, my lady, he’s just a-beginning to change his coat, and very soon he’ll be so dingy as I be for a whole month, till his new coat cometh. Every year ’tis the same, and he can’t abear it, my lady, for it makes folk think that he’s a Duck and no Mallard. Not but that I think that a Duck’s coat is beautiful, but a Mallard’s more beautiful yet, I can’t deny that; but you know, my lady, how vain these husbands be. But he did tell me about they ducks, and I say again I don’t hold wi’ mun. I reared my brood in the turf-pits and taught mun to swim, and bringed them down the little streams where they couldn’t come to no harm till they was big enough to take care of theirselves. And I don’t hold with no other way, for I’m not a-going to have my little ducks drownded.”

“And is the river quiet?” asked the Hind; “and could we live in the valley?”

“The valley’s so quiet as a turf-pit, my lady,” said the old Duck, “beautiful great woods for miles down. Surely I’ve heard tell that your family lived there years agone.”

So they took leave of the Ducks, and going down into the strange valley found it as she had said. The woods ran down by the little river for miles; and though the valley left the moor far behind it, yet there were fields of grass, and corn, and turnips, full of good food whenever they might want it; so they decided to make themselves very comfortable there for the whole summer.