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

Our Deer was so much pleased with himself after his escape that he began to look upon himself as quite grown up, and hastened back to the moor as soon as October came to find himself a wife. I needn’t tell you that it was his old play-fellow, Ruddy’s daughter, who had been born in the same year as himself, that he was thinking of; and he soon found that she wished for nothing better. But most unluckily the old Stag, whose squire he had been, had also fallen in love with her, and was determined to take her for himself. He would run after her all day, belling proposals at the top of his voice; and his lungs were so much more powerful than our Deer’s that, do what he would, our friend could not get a word in edgeways. At last the Hind was so much bored by the noise and the worry that she made up her mind to steal away with our Deer quietly one night, and run off with him under cover of the darkness; which was what he had long been pressing her to do whenever he could find a chance.

So off they started together for the quiet valley to which the Wild-Duck had shown him the way when he was still a yearling with his mother; for there he knew that they would be undisturbed and alone, which is a thing that newly-married couples particularly enjoy. And I may tell you that if ever you hear of a stag and hind that have strayed far away from their fellows to distant coverts, you may be quite sure that they are just such another young couple as this of our story.

Of course he took her everywhere and showed her everything in the valley, explaining to her exactly how he had baffled the hounds there a few weeks before. And he tried hard to find the Salmon who had helped him so kindly, but he could not light upon him anywhere, nor find any one who knew where he was gone. The Wild-Ducks were gone to other feeding-grounds, and the only people whom he could think of who might have known were a pair of Herons that roosted in the valley; but they were so dreadfully shy that he never could get within speaking distance of them. Once he watched one of them standing on the river-bank as still as a post for a whole hour together, till all of a sudden his long beak shot down into the water, picked up a little wriggling trout, and stowed it away in two seconds. Then our Stag (for so we must call him now) making sure that he would be affable after meals, as people generally are, trotted down at once to talk to him. But the Heron was so much startled that he actually dropped the trout from his beak, mumbled out that he was in a dreadful hurry, and flew away.

But, after they had lived in the valley a month or more, there came a bitter hard frost, and to their joy the Wild-Ducks came back to the river saying that their favourite feeding-ground was frozen up. The best chance of finding the Salmon, they said, was to follow the water upward as far as they could go. So up the two Deer went till the stream became so small that they could not imagine how so big a fish could keep afloat in it, but at last catching sight of what seemed to be two long black bars in the water they went closer to see what these might be. And there sure enough was the Salmon with another Fish beside him, but he was as different from his former self as a stag in October is from a stag in August. The bright silver coat was gone and had given place to a suit of dirty rusty red; his sides, so deep and full in the summer, were narrow and shrunken; and indeed the biggest part of him was his head, which ended in a great curved beak, not light and fine as they had seen it before, but heavy and clumsy and coarse. He seemed to be in low spirits and half ashamed of himself, but he was as courteous as ever. “Allow me to present you to my wife,” he said, “though I am afraid that she is hardly fit to entertain visitors just at present.”

Then the other Fish made a gentle, graceful movement with her tail, but she looked very ill and weak, and though she had no great beak like her mate she seemed, like him, to be all head and no body.

“But, my Lord Salmon,” said the Stag, “what has driven you so far up the water?”

“Well, you see,” said the Salmon in a low voice, “that my wife is very particular about her nursery; nothing but the finest gravel will suit her to lay her eggs on. So we came up and up, and I am bound to say that we have found a charming gravel-bed, and that the eggs are doing as well as possible; but unfortunately the water has fallen low with this frost, and we cannot get down again till the rain comes. Only yesterday a man came by and tried to spear me and my wife with a pitchfork, but luckily he slipped on the frozen ground and fell into the water himself, so that we escaped. But she was very much frightened, and till the frost breaks we shall still be in danger. Do not stay here, for it is not safe; and besides I am ashamed to see visitors when we are in such a state.”

“But what about the eggs, my Lord Salmon?” said the Stag.

“The stream will take care of them; and if a few are lost, what is that among ten thousand?” said the Salmon proudly. “But let me beg you not to wait.”

So the Deer went down the valley again, hoping that the West wind might soon come and drive away the frost, for the Salmon’s sake as well as for their own. And a few days later they were surprised to meet the old Cock-Pheasant from Bremridge Wood, who came running towards them, very gorgeous in his very best winter plumage, but rather nervous and flurried.

“Why, Sir Phasianus,” said the Stag, “what brings you so far from home?”

“Well, the fact is,” said the Pheasant, “that I did not quite like the look of things this morning. Some men came round early while I was feeding in my favourite stubble, and began beating the hedges to drive me and all my companions back into my wood. Most of those foolish Chinese birds flew back as the men wanted them, but I have not lived all these years for nothing, so I flew up the valley and have been running on ever since. Hark! I thought that I was right.”

And as he spoke two faint reports came echoing up the valley; “pop! pop!” and then a pause and again “pop! pop!” a sound which was strange to the Deer.

“That’s the men with their guns,” said the cunning old Bird, “they are beating my wood, and that’s why I am here. To-morrow they will be there again, but the next day I shall return, and I hope to have the pleasure of receiving you there very shortly after.” And he ran up into the covert and hid himself under a bramble bush on a heap of dead leaves, so that you could hardly tell his neck from the live leaves or his body from the dead.

The Deer would not have thought of accepting his invitation, for they were very comfortable where they were, but that a few evenings later the air grew warmer and the South-West wind began to scream through the bare branches over their heads. Then the rain came down and the wind blew harder and harder in furious gusts, till far away from them at the head of the covert they just heard the sound of a crash; and not long after a score of terrified bullocks came plunging into the covert. For a beech-tree on the covert fence had come down, smashing the linhay in which the bullocks were lying, and tearing a great gap in the fence itself; which had not only scared them out of their senses but had driven them to seek shelter in the wood. And the Deer got up at once and moved away; for they do not like bullocks for companions, and guessed that, when the day came, there would be men and dogs wandering all over the covert to drive the bullocks back.

So they went down the valley and into Bremridge Wood. The old Cock-Pheasant was fast asleep high up on a larch-tree when they came, but when the day broke he came fluttering down in spite of the rain, and begged them to make themselves at home. For the pompous old Bird was so full of his own importance that he still considered himself to be master of the whole wood and the Deer to be merely his guests. Of course they humoured him, though their ancestors had been lords of Bremridge Wood long before his; so the Stag complimented him on the beauty of his back, and the Hind told him that she had never seen so lovely a neck as his in her life. But still he seemed to want more compliments, though they could not think what more to say, until one day he turned the subject to dew-claws; and then he asked the Hind why her dew-claws were so much sharper than the Stag’s and why they pointed straight downward, while the Stag’s pointed outwards, right and left. Now these were personal questions that he had no business to put, and indeed would not have put if he had been quite a gentleman. But before the Hind could answer (for she had to think how she should snub him without hurting his feelings too much) he went on:

“And by the way, talking of dew-claws I don’t think I have ever showed you my spurs.” And round he turned to display them. “You will agree with me, I think,” he continued, “that they are a particularly fine pair, in fact I may say the finest that you are ever likely to see.”

And certainly they were very big for a pheasant, more than half an inch long, curved upward and sharp as a thorn. “I find them very useful,” he added, “to keep my subjects of this wood in order. When the Chinese Cocks first invaded my kingdom they were inclined to be rebellious against my authority, but now I am happy to say that they know better.” And he strutted about looking very important indeed.

Now about a week after this there was a full moon, and there came flying into the wood a number of Woodcocks. The Deer thought nothing of it, for they had often seen as many, and were always delighted to watch the little brown birds digging in the soft ground and washing their beaks in the water. But on the second morning after their arrival a Jay came flying over their heads, screeching at the top of his voice that there were strangers in the covert, and presently the old Cock-Pheasant came running up in a terrible fluster, not at all like the king of a wood.

“It’s too bad,” he said, “too bad. They have been here twice already, and they have no business to come again.” And as he spoke there came the sound which they had once heard before, the pop! pop! of a double-barrelled gun, but this time much nearer to them, and much more alarming. The Stag jumped to his feet at once and called to the Hind to come away.

“But you can’t get away,” said the old Pheasant, half angry, but almost ready to cry. “I have already tried to run out in half a dozen places, but wherever I went I met an odious imp of a Boy tapping two sticks together; and really a Boy tapping two sticks together is more than I can face. How I hate little Boys! But I won’t stand it. I’ll run back through the middle of them, and then I declare that I’ll never enter this wood again. It’s really past all bearing.”

And he turned and ran back, but soon came forward again. “It’s no use,” he said, “I shall run up over the hill and take my chance. But I vow that I’ll never enter this wood again. It’s high time that they should know that I won’t stand it.”

So off he ran again, but the Deer waited and listened; and they could hear behind them a steady tapping of sticks along the whole hill-side, which came slowly closer and closer to them. And every creature in the wood came stealing forward round them, Rabbits and Cock-Pheasants and Hens and Blackbirds and Thrushes, and a score of other Birds, dodging this way and that, backward and forward, and listening with all their ears. The Deer went forward a little way, but presently a Cock-Pheasant came sailing high in the air over their heads. They watched him flying on, vigorous and strong, till all of a sudden his head dropped down, and his wings closed; and as he fell with a crash to the ground they heard the report of a gun ring out sharp and angry before them. Then they hesitated to go further, but other shots kept popping by ones and twos behind them, till at last they turned up the hill as the Cock-Pheasant had turned, and began to climb steadily through the oak-coppice.

As they drew near the top of the hill they heard more tapping just above them, and going on a little further found the old Cock-Pheasant crouching down just below a broad green path. And on the path above him stood a little rosy-cheeked Boy in a ragged cap, with a coat far too big for him and a great comforter which hung down to his toes, beating two sticks together and grinning with delight. The Deer thought the Pheasant a great coward not to run boldly past so small a creature, but, as they waited, there came two more figures along the path and stood close to the Boy; and the Stag remembered them both, for they were the fair man and the pretty girl whom he had seen when he was a calf. The man looked a little older, for there was now a little fair hair, which was most carefully tended, on his upper lip, and he held himself very erect, with his shoulders well back and his chest thrown out. There he stood, tall and motionless, with his gun on his shoulder, watching for every movement and listening for every rustle, so still and silent that the Deer almost wondered whether he were alive. The girl stood behind him, as silent as he; and the Stag noticed as a curious thing, which he had never observed in them before, that both wore a scarf of green and black round their necks. But her face too had changed, for it was no longer that of a girl but of a beautiful woman, though just now it was sad and troubled. Her eyes never left the figure of the man before her except when now and again they filled with tears; and then she hastily brushed the tears away with something white that she held in her hand, and looked at him again.

But all the time the tapping behind them came closer and closer, and the shots rang louder and louder, till at last the Deer could stand it no longer, and dashed across the path and up over the hill. As they passed they heard the man utter a loud halloo, and in an instant the old Cock-Pheasant was on the wing and flying over the trees to cross the valley. He rose higher and higher in the air, and presently from the valley below came the report of two shots, then again of two shots, and once more of two shots; and they heard the fair man laugh loud after each shot. But the old Bird took not the slightest notice, but flew on in the sight of the Deer till he reached the top of the opposite hill, where he lighted on the ground, and ran away as fast as his legs could carry him.

Then the Deer too crossed the valley further down, and stood in the covert watching. And they saw a line of men in white smocks beat through the covert to the very end, while the fair man and the girl waited for them in the field outside. But presently another man came riding up on a pony, and then all the men with guns came closing round the fair man and seemed unwilling to let him go. But after a short time he jumped on to the pony and trotted back along the path waving his hand to them, while they waved their hands to him. Presently he stopped to look back and wave his hand once more, and the girl waved her white handkerchief to him, and then he set the pony into a gallop and disappeared. But the other men went on, and the girl turned back by herself very slowly and sadly. Then the shots began to ring out again in the valley, and the Deer went away over the hill to the wood whence the bullocks had driven them, and finding all quiet made their home therein once more.