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

One beautiful morning at the very end of September our Stag was lying in the short plantations above the cliffs in a warm sunny bed of which he had long been very fond, when his ear was disturbed, as had so often happened before, by the cry of hounds. He did not mind it so much now, for he knew that it meant at any rate that they were hunting some other deer than himself. And it was plain to him that they had found the stag that they wanted, for not two or three couple but seventeen or eighteen were speaking to the scent. Therefore he lay quite still, never doubting that before long they would leave the covert. And so it seemed that it would be, for presently the cry ceased, and he had good reason to hope that they had gone away. The only thing that disquieted him was that the horses seemed always to be moving all over the plantation, instead of galloping over the moor. He was still lying fast when he heard two horses come trotting up to within thirty yards of his lair; and peering carefully through the branches he saw them and recognised them. One of them was the fair man whom he had seen so often before, still riding the same grey horse, which was grown so light as to be almost white. But the man was greatly changed. His face was thin and hollow, and would have been pale if it had not been burnt brown; the tiny hair on the upper lip had grown to a great red moustache; and the blue eyes were sunk deep in his head. And he rode with his reins in his right hand, for his left was hung in a sling, so that he could hardly hold his whip. But for all that he was as quick and lively as ever, and his eyes never ceased roving over the plantation. And by him rode the beautiful girl whom he had seen with him before, her face aglow with happiness; and she seemed so proud of him that she never took her eyes off his face for an instant, except now and then to glance pityingly at his wounded hand. They pulled up not far from the Stag and waited.

And presently a hind came up, cantering anxiously through the plantation, for she had laid her calf down and did not wish to go far from him. She blundered on so close to the Stag that he would have got up and driven her away if he had not been afraid of being seen. But she passed on, and very soon the hounds came up after her. Then the man brought the white horse across them, trying hard to stop them from her line, but he could not use his whip; and they only swerved past him, still running hard, straight to the bed of the Stag. And up he jumped, his glossy coat gleaming bright in the sun, and every hound leaped forward with a cry of exultation as he rose.

He went off at the top of his speed straight through the plantation, for he knew that he had the better of the hounds through the thicket. But they ran harder than he had ever known since the day when they had driven him to sea as a yearling, and, as he could wind no other deer, he made up his mind to cross the moor for the friendly valley where he had lived so long. So turning his head from the sea he leaped out of the plantation, and ran down to the water below. He would gladly have taken a bath then and there, but the hounds were too close; so splashing boldly through it he cantered aslant up the steep hill beyond as though it had been level ground. And when he gained the top, he felt the West wind strike cool upon him, and saw the long waves of heather and grass rise before him till they met the sky. Then he set his face bravely for the highest point, for beyond it was the refuge that he sought.

And on he went, and on and on, cantering steadily but very fast, for though he heard no sound of their tongues he knew that the hounds were racing after him, as mute as mice. The blackcock fled away screaming before him, the hawk high in air wheeled aside as he passed, but on he went through the sweet, pink heather, without pausing to notice them. Then the heather became sparse and thin, growing only in ragged tufts amid the rank red grass and sheets of white bog-flower. He had lain in this wet ground many times, but no deer was there to help him to-day. Then the wet ground was passed and the heather came again, sound and firm, sloping down to a brown peat-stream. Never had its song sounded so sweet in his ears, never had he longed more for a bath in the amber water, but the hounds were still racing and he dared not wait. So he splashed on through the stream and up another ridge, where the heather grew but thinly amid a wilderness of hot stones. The sun smote fiercely upon him, and the air was close as he cantered down from the ridge into the combe beyond it, but he cared not, for he knew that there again was water. He ran up it for a few yards, but only for a few yards, for the hounds were still running their hardest, and he must wait till the great slope of grass before him was past.

So he breasted it gallantly, up, and up, and up. The grass was thick over the treacherous ground, but his foot was still too light to pierce it, and he cantered steadily on. His mouth was growing parched, but he still felt strong, and he knew that when the hill was crossed he would find more water to welcome him. At last he reached the summit, and there spread out before him were Dartmoor and the sea, and far, far below him the haven of his choice; and the cool breeze from the sea breathed upon his nostrils, and he gathered strength and hope. There was still one more hollow to be crossed before he reached the long slope down to the valley, but there was water in it, and he might have time for a hasty draught. So still he pressed on with the same steady stride, hoping that he might wait at any rate for a few minutes in the stream, for thirst and heat were growing upon him, and he longed for a bath. But no! it was dangerous to wait; and he turned away sick at heart from the sparkling ripple, and faced the ascent before him. And now the grass seemed to coil wickedly round his dew-claws as if striving to hold them down; and he tugged his feet impatiently from its grasp, though more than once he had half a mind to turn back to the water. But he had chosen his refuge, and he struggled gamely on.

At last he was at the top, and only one long unbroken slope of heather lay between him and the valley that he knew so well; and he turned into a long, deep combe which ran down to it, that he might not be seen. Down, and down, and down he ran, steadying himself and recovering his breath. At every stride he saw the trickle of water from the head of the combe grow larger and larger as other trickles joined it from every side, and he knew that he was near his refuge at last. Presently he came upon a patch of yellow gorse, which had thrust up its flaming head through the heather, and he plunged heavily through it, knowing that it would check the hounds. Another few hundred yards and he was within the covert, in the cool deep shade of the oak-coppice, with the merry river brawling beneath him.

And he scrambled down eagerly through the trees and plunged into the brown water. How delicious it was after that fierce race over the heather, running cool and full and strong under the shadow of the coppice! He hardly paused to drink, but ran straight down stream, for his heart misgave him that the hounds had gained on him while he was struggling up the last steep ascent. And the water carried him on, now racing down his dew-claws, now lapping round his hocks, now rising quiet and still almost to his mane, sometimes for a few seconds raising him off his weary legs and bearing him gently down.

Only too soon he heard the deep voice of the hounds throwing their tongues as they entered the wood, but he kept running steadily down, refreshed at every step by the sweet, cool water, and screened from all view by the canopy of hazel and alder that overhung it. At last he left it, and turning up into the woods ran on through them down the valley. Once he tried to scale the hill to the next valley, but he found the air hot and stifling under the dense green leaves, and he felt so much distressed that he turned back and continued his way down. Presently there rose up faintly behind him the deep note that he knew so well of the old black and tan hound; then the voices of other hounds chimed in together with it, and he knew that they had hit the place at which he had left the water. He heard the sound of the horn come floating down the valley, and tried hard to mend his pace, but he could not; and at last he was fain to leave the wood and come back to the water.

Again he ran down, and again the friendly stream coursed round him and revived him. So he splashed on for a time and then he sought the woods anew in hope of finding help, but he could not stay in them long, and returned once more to the water. At last, on turning round a bend in the stream, he came upon a Heron, standing watching for eels, and he cried out to him, “Oh! stand still. I won’t hurt you. Stand still till the hounds come, and the men will think that I have not passed.” But the Heron was too shy to listen, and flapped heavily away. Then he came to a bridge, where his passage was barred by a pole, but he threw his horns back and managed to jump between the pole and the arch, without touching anything, and though he could not help splashing the pole, he made his way down without leaving the water.

At length he came to the end of the woods, and here he hesitated, longing for some one to tell him about the stream further down, for it was strange to him. And he remembered Aunt Yeld’s words, “May you never know what it is to look for help and to find none.” But he could hear nothing of the hounds, and almost began to hope that he might have beaten them. So at last he found a corner thickly overhung with branches, and there he lay down in the water. And then whom should he see but the Lady Salmon making her way slowly up the stream, the very friend who could tell him what he wanted to know.

But before he could speak to her she said, “Beware of going further down, for there is a flood-gate across the stream which you cannot pass. Have you seen my husband?”

And he told her, “Yes,” and she swam on, while he lay still and made up his mind where he would go if the hounds came on. The hounds indeed had dropped behind him, for the men could not believe that the Deer could have leaped the pole under the bridge, and had taken them to try for him somewhere else. But the old black and tan hound had tried to walk along the pole to wind it before they came up, and having fallen into the water and been swept on past the bridge, was still trying downward by himself. And thus it was that while the Deer was lying in the water the old hound came up alone. He seemed to have made up his mind that the Stag was near, for he stopped and kept sniffing round him in all directions till at last he crept in under the bank, caught sight of him, and threw his head into the air with a loud triumphant bay. The Stag leaped to his feet in an instant and dashed at him, but the old hound shrank back and saved himself; and then the Stag broke out of the water, for he had made up his mind to breast the hill, and push on for Bremridge Wood. He knew the way, for it was that which the Partridge had shown him, and he felt that by a great effort he could reach it.

And as he slanted painfully up the steep ascent he heard the old hound still baying with disappointment and rage; for he could not scramble up the steep bank so quickly as the Deer, and the more he bayed the further he was left behind. Further up the valley the Stag could hear the horn and hallooing of men, but he pressed on bravely and gained the top of the hill at last. But when he reached it his neck was bowed, his tongue was parched, and his legs staggered under him. Still he struggled on. He was in the enclosed country now, but he knew every field and every rack, and he scrambled over the banks and hurled himself over the gates as pluckily as if he had but just been roused. Thus at last he reached the familiar wood. A Jay flew screaming before him as he entered it, but he heeded her not. His head was beginning to swim, but he still knew the densest quarter of the covert and made his way to it. The brambles clutched at him and the branches tripped him at every step, yet he never paused, but shook them off and went crashing and blundering on, till at length with one gigantic leap he hurled himself into the thickest of the underwood and lay fast.

After a time he heard the note of a hound entering the wood, and he knew the voice, but he lay still. Then other hounds came up speaking also, and he heard them working slowly towards his hiding-place. But as they drew near the thicket the voices were less numerous, and only a few hounds seemed to have strength and courage to face it. He caught the voice of the black and tan hound speaking fitfully as he came nearer and nearer, and more impatiently as he struggled with the brambles and binders that barred his way. At last it reached the place from which he had leaped into his refuge, and there it fell silent. Still the hound cast on, and from a path far above came the voice of a man encouraging him, and encouraging other hounds to help him. But the Deer lay like a stone, while the hounds tried all round within only a few yards of him, when all of a sudden the old hound caught the wind of him and made a bound at him where he lay. The Deer jumped to his feet and faced him, and the old hound bayed again with triumph, but dared not come within reach. So there they stood for two whole minutes till the other hounds came up all round him. Then one hound in his insolence came too near, and in an instant the Deer reared up, and plunging his antlers deep into his side, fairly pinned him to the ground, so that the hound never moved again. Then he broke through the rest of them, spurning them wide with horn and hoof, and crashed on through the covert towards the valley.

And as he came to the edge of the wood he heard the song of the peat-stream rise before him, and knew that he had still one refuge left. Reeling and desperate he scrambled out of the wood and leaped down into the park at its foot. The Fallow-Deer were not to be seen, for they had heard the cry of the hounds in the wood and had hidden themselves in alarm among the trees, but the Stag heard the voice of the stream calling to him louder than he had ever heard it, and he heeded nought else. And he ran towards the place where he heard it call loudest, and found it rushing round a bend, very smoothly and quietly, but very swiftly. At every foot below it seemed to rush faster, till fifty yards down it struck against a bridge of three arches, through which it raced like a cataract and poured down with a thundering roar into a boiling pool beneath.

And the Stag leaped in and set his back against some alders that grew on the opposite bank, choosing his place cunningly where he could stand but the hounds must swim. Then he clenched his teeth and threw back his head, and dared his enemies to do their worst. And the brown stream washed merrily round him, singing low, but as sweetly as he had ever heard it.

Come down with me, come. Oh! merry and free Is the race from the forest away to the sea. The pool is before me; I hark to its call And I hasten my speed for the leap o’er the fall. The Salmon are waiting impatient below, I feel them spring upward as over I go. Come down with me, come; why linger you here? You know me, the friend of the wild Red-Deer.

Then the voice of the water was broken, for the black and tan hound came bounding down in advance of the rest over the grass to the water, caught view of the Deer where he stood, and throwing up his head bayed loud and deep and long. And other hounds came hurrying down through the wood, speaking quick and short, for they were mad with impatience; and bursting through the fence straight to the black and tan hound they joined their voices in exultation to his. Then a few, a very few, men came up hastening with what speed they might on their weary, hobbling horses, a man on a white horse leading them, and they added their wild yells to the baying of the hounds, while ever and anon the shrill tones of the horn rose high above them all in short, quick, jubilant notes. Soon some of the hounds grew tired of baying in front and flew round to the bank behind him, still yelling fiercely in impotent rage; and the maddening clamour rang far up the valley through the sweet, still evening. The Fallow-Deer huddled themselves close among the trees, and the pigeons hushed their cooing and flew swift and high in the air from the terror of the sound. But the Stag stood unmoved in the midst of the baying ring, with his noble head thrown back and his chin raised scornfully aloft, in all the pride and majesty of defiance.

But all the while the stream kept pressing him downward inch by inch, very gently but very surely. Once a hound, in his impatience, burst through the branches and ran out on the stem of an alder almost on to his back, so that he was obliged to move down still lower. And there the stream pressed him still more strongly, though never unkindly, and he went downward faster than before; and he heard the full voice of the torrent, as it thundered over the fall, chanting to him grand and sonorous in a deep tone of command.

Nay, tarry no longer; come down, come down To the pool that invites you, still, peaceful, and brown. One plunge through the rush of the shivering spray And the dark, solemn eddies shall bear you away From the rustle of bubbles, the hissing of foam, To a haven of rest, and a long, long home. Come down with me, come; your refuge is near; I call you, the friend of the wild Red-Deer.

And he heard it and yielded. The water rose higher, and the strength of the current grew more urgent about him, till at length the stream lifted him gently off his weary feet and bore him silently down. For a moment he strove with all his might to stem the smooth, impetuous tide as it swept him on; then he gave himself up to the friendly waters, and throwing his head high in air in a last defiance, he went down swiftly over the fall.

And the wild baying ceased; and he heard nothing but the chorus of the waters in his ears. Once he struggled to raise his head, and the great brown antlers came looming up for a moment through the eddies; but as he passed down to the deep, still pool beyond the fall, the water called to him so kindly that he could not but obey.

From my wild forest-cradle, through deep and through shoal, You have followed me far, and have reached to the goal. Now the gallop is ended, the chase it is run, The struggle is over, the victory won. The fall is o’er-leaped and the rapids are passed, Come rest on my bosom untroubled at last. Nay, raise not your head, come, bury it here; No friend like the stream to the wild Red-Deer.

So the waters closed over the stern, sharp antlers, and he bowed his head and was at peace.

Then men came and pulled the great still body out of the water; and they took his head and hung it up in memory of so great a run and so gallant a Stag. But their triumph was only over the empty shell of him, for his spirit had gone to the still brown pool. And indeed the stream has received many another wild deer besides him, which, I suspect, is the reason why ferns, that love the water, take the shape of stags’ horns and of harts’ tongues. So there he remains; for he had fought his fight and run his course; and he asks for nothing better than to hear the river sing to him all the day long.