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

They had not been there many days when the old Cock-Pheasant came up to them and invited them back to Bremridge Wood.

“I can assure you,” he said very pompously, “that you shall not be disturbed again for at least a year.”

“Why, Sir Phasianus,” said the Stag, “I thought you had vowed never to enter it again.”

“In a moment of haste I believe that I may have done so,” said the old bird; “but I have thought it over, and I cannot conceive how my wood can get on without me. How should all those foolish, timid birds look after themselves without me, their king, to direct them? No! there I was hatched, and there I must stay till I end my days. And I shall feel proud if you will join me, and stay with me, and honour my wood with your presence on ahem! an interesting occasion.”

“Indeed?” said the Stag.

“Yes,” said the old Pheasant; “I had the misfortune to lose my wife when the wood was shot some weeks ago. She had not the courage to come here with me,” (this, I am sorry to say, was not quite true, for he had run away alone to take care of himself without thinking of going to fetch her) “and I am contemplating a new alliance not directly, you understand but in a couple of months I hope to have the pleasure of presenting you to my bride.”

The Stag was much tempted to ask how he could marry a Chinese; and the Hind hesitated for a moment, for, as you will find out some day, every mother is deeply interested in a wedding. But she and the Stag did not like to be disturbed, and they could not trust the Cock-Pheasant’s assurance after all that had happened; besides, she had arrangements of her own to make for the spring. So they congratulated him and bade him good-bye; nor did they ever see him again. And if you ask me what became of him, I think that he must have died in a good old age, unless, indeed, he was that very big bird with the very long spurs that was shot by Uncle Archie last year. For he was such a bird as we never see nowadays, and, as he said himself, the last of his race.

So the winter wore away peacefully in the valley, and the spring came again. The Stag shed his horns earlier than in the previous year, and began to grow a finer pair than any that he had yet worn. And a little later the Hind brought him a little Calf, so that there were now three of them in the valley, and a very happy family they were. So there they stayed till quite late in the summer, and indeed they might never have moved, if they had not met the Salmon again one day when they went down to the river. He was swimming upward slowly and gracefully, his silver coat brighter than ever, and his whole form broader and deeper and handsomer in every way. He jumped clean out of the water when he saw them, and the Stag welcomed him back and asked him where he had been.

“Been?” said the Salmon, “why, down to the sea. We went down with the first flood after you left us, and merry it was in the glorious salt water. We met fish from half a dozen other rivers; and the little fellows that you saw in their silver jackets asked to be remembered to you, though you would hardly know them now, for they are grown into big Salmon. But we were obliged to part at last and go back to our rivers, and hard work it was climbing some of the weirs down below, I can tell you; indeed, my wife could not get over one of them, and I was obliged to leave her behind. Ah, there’s no place like the sea! Is there, my little fellow?” he said, looking kindly at the little Calf.

But the Hind was obliged to confess, with some shame, that her Calf had never seen the sea.

“What! an Exmoor Deer, and never seen the sea?” exclaimed the Salmon; and though he said no more, both Stag and Hind bethought them that it was high time for their Calf to see not only the sea, but the moor. So they bade the Salmon good-bye, and soon after moved out of the valley to the forest, and over the forest to the heather. And the Stag could not resist the temptation of going to look for old Bunny, so away they went to her bury. But when he got there, though he saw other Rabbits, he could perceive no sign of her; nor was it till he had asked a great many questions that one of the Rabbits said:

“Oh! you’m speaking of great-grandmother, my lord. She’s in to bury, but she’s got terrible old and tejious.” And she popped into a hole, from which after a while old Bunny came out. Her coat was rusty, her teeth were very brown, and her eyes dim with age; and at first she hardly seemed to recognise the Stag; but she had not quite lost her tongue, for after a time she put her head on one side and began.

“Good-day, my lord; surely it was you that my Lady Tawny brought to see me years agone, when you was but a little tacker. ’Tis few that comes to see old Bunny now. Ah! she was a sweet lady, my Lady Tawny, but her’s gone. And Lady Ruddy was nighly so sweet, but her’s gone. And the old Greyhen to Badgworthy, she was a good neighbour, but her’s gone; and her poults be gone, leastways they don’t never bring no poults to see me. And my last mate, he was caught in a net. I said to mun, ‘Nets isn’t nothing;’ I says, ’When you find nets over a bury, bite a hole in mun and run through mun, as I’ve a-done many times.’ But he was the half of a fule, as they all be; and he’s gone. And there’s my childer and childer’s childer, many of them’s gone, and those that be here won’t hearken to my telling. And ”

But here the other Rabbit cut in. “Let her ladyship spake to ’ee, grandmother. Please not to mind her, my lady, for she’s mortal tejious.”

But old Bunny went on. “Is it my Lady Tawny or my Lady Ruddy? I’m sure I can’t tell. I’m old, my lady, and they won’t let me spake. But I wish you good luck with your little son. Ah! the beautiful calves that I’ve seen, and the beautiful poults, and my own beautiful childer. But there’s hounds, and there’s hawks, and there’s weasels and there’s foxes; and there’s few lasts so long as the old Bunny, and ’tis ’most time for her to go.” Then she crept back slowly into the hole, and they saw her no more.

So they went on and found other deer; but Ruddy was gone, as old Bunny had said, and Aunt Yeld alone remained of the Stag’s old friends. She too was now very old and grey, and her slots were worn down, and her teeth and tushes blunted with age. But the Hind and Calf were delighted to meet with deer again, and they soon made friends and were happy. But as the autumn passed away and winter began to draw on, the Stag grew anxious to return to the valley again, and would have had the Hind come too; but she begged so hard to be allowed to stay on the moor, that he could not say her no. She always lay together with other Hinds, and they gossiped so much about their calves that the Stag took to the company of other stags on Dunkery; but he always had a craving to get back to the valley for the winter, and after a few weeks he went back there by himself.

And lucky it was for him, as it chanced, for in January there came a great storm of snow, which for three weeks covered the moor, blotting out every fence and every little hollow in an unbroken, trackless waste of white. The deer on the forest were hard put to it for food, and even our Stag in the valley was obliged to go far afield. But he soon found out the hay-mows where the fodder was cut for the bullocks, and helped himself freely; nor was he ashamed now and then to take some of the turnips that had been laid out for the sheep, when he could find them. So he passed well through the hard weather, and when the snow melted and the streams came pouring down in heavy flood, he saw the old Salmon come sailing down in his dirty red suit, and thought that, though both of them had been through hard times, he had got through them the better of the two.

Then the spring came and he began to grow sleek and fat; and, when he shed his horns, the new ones began once more to grow far larger than ever before. So he settled down for a luxurious summer, and took the best of everything in the fields all round the coverts. And when the late summer came he found that he needed a big tree to help him to rub the velvet from his horns, so he chose a fine young oak and went round it so often, rubbing and fraying and polishing, that he fairly cut the bark off from all round the trunk and left the tree to die.

One morning, soon after he had cleaned his head, he went out to feed in the fields as usual, and had just made his lair in the covert for the day, when he was aware of a man, who came along one of the paths with his eyes on the ground. The Stag waited till he was gone, and then quietly rose and left the valley for the open moor. For he had a shrewd suspicion that all was not right when a man came round looking for his slot in the early morning; and he was wise, for a few hours later the men and hounds came and searched for him everywhere. And he heard them from his resting place trying the valley high and low, and chuckled to himself when he thought how foolish the man was who thought to harbour him in such a fashion.

But after this he left the valley for good, and went back to the coverts that overhung the sea, where he hid himself so cunningly day after day that he was never found during the whole of that season. And when October came and the deer began to herd together, he looked about for his wife, but he could not find her anywhere, and he had sad misgivings that the hounds might have driven her away, or worse, while he was away in the valley. His only comfort was the reflection that if he wished to marry again, and he and another stag should fancy the same bride, he could fight for her instead of stealing her away. All that winter he lay on Dunkery with other stags, as big as himself and bigger, for he was now a fine Deer, and began to take his place with the lords of the herd. And he grew cunning too, for he soon found out that hinds and not stags are hunted in the winter-time, and he did not distress himself by running hard when there was no occasion for it. He would hear the hounds chasing in the woods quite close to him and never move.

One winter’s day when he was lying in a patch of gorse with three others, he heard the hounds come running so directly towards him that in spite of himself he raised his head to listen. And immediately after, old Aunt Yeld came up in the greatest distress, and lay down close to them. An old stag next to her was just rising to drive her off, when a hound spoke so close to them that they all dropped their chins to the ground and lay like stones. And poor Aunt Yeld whispered piteously, “Oh! get up and run; I am so tired; do help me.” But not a stag would move, and our Stag, I am sorry to say, lay as still as the rest. Then the hounds came within five yards of them, but still they lay fast, till poor Aunt Yeld jumped up in despair and ran off. “May you never know the day,” she said, “when you shall ask for help and find none! But the brown peat-stream, I know, will be my friend.” And she flung down the hill to the water in desperation, with the hounds hard after her; and they never saw her again.

So the Stag lived on in the woods above the cliffs and on the forest for two years longer. Each year found his head heavier and bearing more points, his back broader, his body heavier and sleeker, and his slots greater and rounder and blunter. He knew of all the best feeding-grounds, so he was always well nourished, and he had learned of so many secure hiding-places in the cliff from the old stag whom he had served as squire, that he was rarely disturbed. More than once he was roused by the hounds in spite of all that he could do, but he would turn out every deer in the covert sooner than run himself; and when, notwithstanding all his tricks, he was one day forced into the open, he ran cunningly up and down the water as his mother had showed him, and so got a good start of the hounds. Then he cantered on till he caught the wind of a lot of hinds and calves and dashed straight into the middle of them, frightening them out of their lives. He never remembered how much he had disliked to be disturbed in this way when he was a calf; he only thought that the hounds would scatter in all directions after the herd. And so they did, while he cantered on to the old home where he had known the Vixen and the Badger, took a good bath, and then lay down chuckling at his own cleverness.

A very selfish old fellow you will call him, and I think you are right; but unluckily stags do become selfish as they grow older. But he always kept to the chivalrous rule that the post of honour in a retreat is the rear-guard, and always ran behind the hinds when roused with a herd of them by the hounds. Still, selfish he was, and though he had profited by all of Aunt Yeld’s early lessons, he forgot until too late the last words that she had spoken to him, even though as a calf he had once saved her life.