Read CHAPTER V - KAPCHACK of Wood Magic A Fable , free online book, by Richard Jefferies, on

“Q — q — q,” Bevis heard a starling say some weeks afterwards on the chimney-top one morning when he woke up.  The chimney was very old and big, and the sound came down it to his room.  “Q — q — q, my dear, I will tell you a secret” — he was talking to his lady-love.

“Phe-hu,” she said, in a flutter.  Bevis could hear her wings go plainly.  “Whatever is it?  Do tell me.”

“Look all round first,” he said, “and see that no one is about.”

“No one is near, dear; the sparrows are out in the corn, and the swallows are very high up; the blackbird is busy in the orchard, and the robin is down at the red currants; there’s no one near.  Is it a very great secret?”

“It is a very great secret indeed, and you must be very careful not to whistle it out by accident; now if I tell you will you keep your beak quite shut, darling?”


“Then, listen — Kapchack is in love.”

“Phe — hu — u; who is it?  Is he going to be married?  How old is she?  Who told you?  When did you hear it?  Whatever will people say?  Tell me all about it, dear!”

“The tomtit told me just now in the fir-tree; the woodpecker told him on his promising that he would not tell anybody else.”

“When is the marriage to come off, dear?” she asked, interrupting him.  “Kapchack — Phe — u!”

Somebody came round the house, and away they flew, just as Bevis was going to ask all about it.  He went to the window as soon as he was dressed, and as he opened it he saw a fly on the pane; he thought he would ask the fly, but instantly the fly began to fidget, and finding that the top of the window was open out he went, buzzing that Kapchack was in love.  At breakfast time a wasp came in — for the fruit was beginning to ripen, and the wasps to get busy — and he went all round the room saying that Kapchack was in love, but he would not listen to anything Bevis asked, he was so full of Kapchack.  When Bevis ran out of doors the robin on the palings immediately said:  “Kapchack is in love; do you know Kapchack is in love?” and a second afterwards the wren flew up to the top of the wood-pile and cried out just the same thing.

Three finches passed him as he went up the garden, telling each other that Kapchack was in love.  The mare in the meadow whinnied to her colt that Kapchack was in love, and the cows went “boo” when they heard it, and “booed” it to some more cows ever so far away.  The leaves on the apple-tree whispered it, and the news went all down the orchard in a moment; and everything repeated it.  Bevis got into his swing, and as he swung to and fro he heard it all round him.

A humble-bee went along the grass telling all the flowers that were left, and then up into the elm, and the elm told the ash, and the ash told the oak, and the oak told the hawthorn, and it ran along the hedge till it reached the willow, and the willow told the brook, and the brook told the reeds, and the reeds told the kingfisher, and the kingfisher went a mile down the stream and told the heron, and the heron went up into the sky and called it out as loud as he could, and a rabbit heard it and told another rabbit, and he ran across to the copse and told another, and he told a mouse, and he told a butterfly, and the butterfly told a moth, and the moth went into the great wood and told another moth, and a wood-pigeon heard it and told more wood-pigeons, and so everybody said:  “Kapchack is in love!”

“But I thought it was a great secret,” said Bevis to a thrush, “and that nobody knew it, except the tomtit, and the woodpecker, and the starling; and, besides, who is Kapchack?” The thrush was in the bushes where they came to the haha, and when he heard Bevis ask who Kapchack was, he laughed, and said he should tell everybody that Bevis, who shot his uncle with the cannon-stick, was so very, very stupid he did not know who Kapchack was.  Ha!  Ha!  Could anybody be so ignorant? he should not have believed it if he had not heard it.

Bevis, in a rage at this, jumped out of the swing and threw a stone at the thrush, and so well did he fling it that if the thrush had not slipped under a briar he would have had a good thump.  Bevis went wandering round the garden, and into his summer-house, when he heard some sparrows in the ivy on the roof all chattering about Kapchack, and out he ran to ask them, but they were off in a second to go and tell the yellow-hammers.  Bevis stamped his foot, he was so cross because nobody would tell him about Kapchack, and he could not think what to do, till as he was looking round the garden he saw the rhubarb, and remembered the old toad.  Very likely the toad would know; he was so old, and knew almost everything.  Away he ran to the rhubarb and looked under the piece of wood, and there was the toad asleep, just as he always was.

He was so firm asleep, he did not know what Bevis said, till Bevis got a twig and poked him a little.  Then he yawned and woke up, and asked Bevis what time it was, and how long it would be before the moon rose.

“I want to know who Kapchack is, this minute,” said Bevis, “this very minute, mind.”

“Well I never!” said the toad, “well I never!  Don’t you know?”

“Tell me directly — this very minute — you horrid old toad!”

“Don’t you really know?” said the toad.

“I’ll have you shovelled up, and flung over to the pigs, if you don’t tell me,” said Bevis.  “No, I’ll get my cannon-stick, and shoot you!  No, here’s a big stone — I’ll smash you!  I hate you!  Who’s Kapchack?”

“Kapchack,” said the toad, not in the least frightened, “Kapchack is the magpie; and he is king over everything and everybody — over the fly and the wasp, and the finches, and the heron, and the horse, and the rabbit, and the flowers, and the trees.  Kapchack, the great and mighty magpie, is the king,” and the toad bumped his chin on the ground, as if he stood before the throne, so humble was he at the very name of Kapchack.  Then he shut one eye in a very peculiar manner, and put out his tongue.

“Why don’t you like Kapchack?” said Bevis, who understood him in a minute.

“Hush!” said the toad, and he repeated out loud, “Kapchack is the great and noble magpie — Kapchack is the king!” Then he whispered to Bevis to sit down on the grass very near him, so that he might speak to him better, and not much louder than a whisper.  When Bevis had sat down and stooped a little, the toad came close to the mouth of his hole, and said very quietly:  “Bevis dear, Kapchack is a horrid wretch!”

“Why,” said Bevis, “why do you hate him? and where does he live? and why is he king?  I suppose he is very beautiful?”

“Oh, dear, no!” said the toad, hastily, “he is the ugliest creature that ever hopped.  The feathers round one eye have all come out and left a bare place, and he is quite blind on the other.  Indeed his left eye is gone altogether.  His beak is chipped and worn; his wings are so beaten and decayed that he can hardly fly; and there are several feathers out of his tail.  He is the most miserable thing you ever saw.”

“Then why is he king?” asked Bevis.

“Because he is,” said the toad; “and as he is king, nobody else can be.  It is true he is very wise — at least everybody says so — wiser than the crow or the rook, or the weasel (though the weasel is so cunning).  And besides, he is so old, so very old, nobody knows when he was born, and they say that he will always live, and never die.  Why, he put my grandfather in prison.”

“In prison?” said Bevis.  “Where is the prison?”

“In the elm-tree, at the top of the Home Field,” said the toad.  “My grandfather has been shut up there in a little dungeon so tight, he cannot turn round, or sit, or stand, or lie down, for so long a time that, really, Bevis dear, I cannot tell you; but it was before you were born.  And all that time he has had nothing to eat or drink, and he has never seen the sun or felt the air, and I do not suppose he has ever heard anything unless when the thunderbolt fell on the oak close by.  Perhaps he heard the thunder then.”

“Well, then, what has he been doing?” asked Bevis, “and why doesn’t he get out?”

“He cannot get out, because the tree has grown all round him quite hard, as Kapchack knew it would when he ordered him to be put there in the hole.  He has not been doing anything but thinking.”

“I should get tired of thinking all that time,” said Bevis; “but why was he put there?”

“For reasons of state,” said the toad.  “He knows too much.  Once upon a time he saw Kapchack do something, I do not know what it was, and Kapchack was very angry, and had him put in there in case he should tell other people.  I went and asked him what it was before the tree quite shut him in, while there was just a little chink you could talk through; but he always told me to stop in my hole and mind my own business, else perhaps I should get punished, as he had been.  But he did tell me that he could not help it, that he did not mean to see it, only just at the moment it happened he turned round in his bed, and he opened his eyes for a second, and you know the consequences, Bevis dear.  So I advise you always to look the other way, unless you’re wanted.”

“It was very cruel of Kapchack,” said Bevis.

“Kapchack is very cruel,” said the toad, “and very greedy, more greedy even than the ants; and he has such a treasure in his palace as never was heard of.  No one can tell how rich he is.  And as for cruelty, why, he killed his uncle only a week since, just for not answering him the very instant he spoke; he pecked him in the forehead and killed him.  Then he killed the poor little wren, whom he chanced to hear say that the king was not so beautiful as her husband.  Next he pecked a thrush to death, because the thrush dared to come into his orchard without special permission.

“But it is no use my trying to tell you all the shameful things he has done in all these years.  There is never a year goes by without his doing something dreadful; and he has made everybody miserable at one time or other by killing their friends or relations, from the snail to the partridge.  He is quite merciless, and spares no one; why, his own children are afraid of him, and it is believed that he has pecked several of them to death, though it is hushed up; but people talk about it all the same, sometimes.  As for the way he has behaved to the ladies, if I were to tell you you would never believe it.”

“I hate him,” said Bevis.  “Why ever do they let him be king?  How they must hate him.”

“Oh, no, they don’t, dear,” said the toad.  “If you were to hear how they go on, you would think he was the nicest and kindest person that ever existed.  They sing his praises all day long; that is, in the spring and summer, while the birds have their voices.  You must have heard them, only you did not understand them.  The finches and the thrushes, and the yellow-hammers and the wrens, and all the birds, every one of them, except Choo Hoo, the great rebel, sing Kapchack’s praises all day long, and tell him that they love him more than they love their eggs, or their wives, or their nests, and that he is the very best and nicest of all, and that he never did anything wrong, but is always right and always just.

“And they say his eye is brighter than the sun, and that he can see more with his one eye than all the other birds put together; and that his feathers are blacker and whiter and more beautiful than anything else in the world, and his voice sweeter than the nightingale’s.  Now, if you will stoop a little lower I will whisper to you the reason they do this (Bevis stooped down close); the truth is they are afraid lest he should come himself and peck their eggs, or their children, or their wives, or if not himself that he should send the hawk, or the weasel, or the stoat, or the rat, or the crow.  Don’t you ever listen to the crow, Bevis; he is a black scoundrel.

“For Kapchack has got all the crows, and hawks, and weasels (especially that very cunning one, that old wretch that cheated you), and rats, to do just as he tells them.  They are his soldiers, and they carry out his bidding quicker than you can wink your eye, or than I can shoot out my tongue, which I can do so quickly that you cannot see it.  When the spring is over and the birds lose their voices (many of them have already), they each send one or two of their number every day to visit the orchard where Kapchack lives, and to say (as they can no longer sing) that they still think just the same, and they are all his very humble servants.  Kapchack takes no notice of them whatever unless they happen to do what he does not like, and then they find out very soon that he has got plenty of spies about.

“My opinion is that the snail is no better than a spy and a common informer.  Do you just look round and turn over any leaves that are near, lest any should be here, and tell tales about me.  I can tell you, it is a very dangerous thing to talk about Kapchack, somebody or other is sure to hear, and to go and tell him, so as to get into favour.  Now, that is what I hate.  All the rabbits and hares (and your friend the hare that lives at the top of the Home Field), and the squirrel and the mouse, all of them have to do just the same as the birds, and send messages to Kapchack, praising him and promising to do exactly as he tells them, all except Choo Hoo.”

“Who is Choo Hoo?” said Bevis.

“Choo Hoo is the great wood-pigeon,” said the toad.  “He is a rebel; but I cannot tell you much about him, for it is only of late years that we have heard anything of him, and I do not know much about the present state of things.  Most of the things I can tell you happened, or began, a long time ago.  If you want to know what is going on now, the best person you can go to is the squirrel.  He is a very good fellow; he can tell you.  I will give you a recommendation to him, or perhaps he will be afraid to open his mouth too freely; for, as I said before, it is a very dangerous thing to talk about Kapchack, and everybody is most terribly afraid of him — he is so full of malice.”

“Why ever do they let him be king?” said Bevis; “I would not, if I were them.  Why ever do they put up with him, and his cruelty and greediness?  I will tell the thrush and the starling not to endure him any longer.”

“Pooh! pooh!” said the toad.  “It is all very well for you to say so, but you must excuse me for saying, my dear Sir Bevis, that you really know very little about it.  The thrush and the starling would not understand what you meant.  The thrush’s father always did as Kapchack told him, and sang his praises, as I told you, and so did his grandfather, and his great-grandfather, and all his friends and relations, these years and years past.  So that now the thrushes have no idea of there being no Kapchack.  They could not understand you, if you tried to explain to them how nice it would be without him.  If you sat in your swing and talked to them all day long, for all the summer through, they would only think you very stupid even to suppose such a state of things as no Kapchack.  Quite impossible, Bevis dear! — excuse me correcting you.  Why, instead of liking it, they would say it would be very dreadful to have no Kapchack.”

“Well, they are silly!” said Bevis.  “But you do not like Kapchack!”

“No, I do not,” said the toad; “and if you will stoop down again — (Bevis stooped still nearer.) No; perhaps you had better lie down on the grass!  There — now I can talk to you quite freely.  The fact is, do you know, there are other people besides me who do not like Kapchack.  The crow — I can’t have anything to do with such an old rogue! — the crow, I am certain, hates Kapchack, but he dares not say so.  Now I am so old, and they think me so stupid and deaf that people say a good deal before me, never imagining that I take any notice.  And when I have been out of a dewy evening, I have distinctly heard the crow grumbling about Kapchack.  The crow thinks he is quite as clever as Kapchack, and would make quite as good a king.

“Nor is the rat satisfied, nor the weasel, nor the hawk.  I am sure they are not, but they cannot do anything alone, and they are so suspicious of each other they cannot agree.  So that, though they are dissatisfied, they can do nothing.  I daresay Kapchack knows it very well indeed.  He is so wise — so very, very wise — that he can see right into what they think, and he knows that they hate him, and he laughs in his sleeve.  I will tell you what he does.  He sets the hawk on against the rat, and the rat on against the crow, and the crow against the weasel.  He tells them all sorts of things; so that the weasel thinks the crow tells tales about him, and the hawk thinks the rat has turned tail and betrayed his confidence.  The result is, they hate one another as much as they hate him.

“And he told the rook — it was very clever of him to do so, yes, it was very clever of him, I must admit that Kapchack is extremely clever — that if he was not king somebody else would be, perhaps the hawk, or the rat.  Now the rook told his friends at the rookery, and they told everybody else, and when people came to talk about it, they said it was very true.  If Kapchack was not king, perhaps the hawk would be, and he would be as bad, or worse; or the rat, and he would be very much worse; or perhaps the weasel, the very worst of all.

“So they agreed that, rather than have these, they would have Kapchack as the least evil.  When the hawk and the rat heard what the king had said, they hated each other ten times more than before, lest Kapchack — if ever he should give up the crown — should choose one or other of them as his successor, for that was how they understood the hint.  Not that there is the least chance of his giving up the crown; not he, my dear, and he will never die, as everybody knows (here the toad winked slightly), and he will never grow any older; all he does is to grow wiser, and wiser, and wiser, and wiser.  All the other birds die, but Kapchack lives for ever.  Long live the mighty Kapchack!” said the toad very loud, that all might hear how loyal he was, and then went on speaking lower.  “Yet the hawk, and the crow, and the rook, and the jay, and all of them, though they hate Kapchack in their hearts, all come round him bowing down, and they peck the ground where he has just walked, and kiss the earth he has stood on, in token of their humility and obedience to him.  Each tries to outdo the rest in servility.  They bring all the news to the palace, and if they find anything very nice in the fields, they send a message to say where it is, and leave it for him, so that he eats the very fat of the land.”

“And where is his palace?” asked Bevis.  “I should like to go and see him.”

“His palace is up in an immense old apple-tree, dear.  It is a long way from here, and it is in an orchard, where nobody is allowed to go.  And this is the strangest part of it all, and I have often wondered and thought about it months together; once I thought about it for a whole year, but I cannot make out why it is that the owner of the orchard, who lives in the house close by it, is so fond of Kapchack.  He will not let anybody go into the orchard unless with him.  He keeps it locked (there is a high wall around), and carries the key in his pocket.

“As the orchard is very big, and Kapchack’s nest is in the middle, no one can see even it from the outside, nor can any boys fling a stone and hit it; nor, indeed, could any one shoot at it, because the boughs are all round it.  Thus Kapchack’s palace is protected with a high wall, by the boughs, by its distance from the outside, by lock and key, and by the owner of the orchard, who thinks more of him than of all the world besides.  He will not let any other big birds go into the orchard at all, unless Kapchack seems to like it; he will bring out his gun and shoot them.  He watches over Kapchack as carefully as if Kapchack were his son.  As for the cats he has shot for getting into the orchard, there must have been a hundred of them.

“So that Kapchack every year puts a few more sticks on his nest, and brings up his family in perfect safety, which is what no other bird can do, neither the rook, nor the hawk, nor the crow, nor could even the raven, when he lived in this country.  This is a very great advantage to Kapchack, for he has thus a fortress to retreat to, into which no one can enter, and he can defy everybody; and this is a great help to him as king.  It is also one reason why he lives so long, though perhaps there is another reason, which I cannot, really I dare not, even hint at; it is such a dreadful secret, I should have my head split open with a peck if I even so much as dared to think it.  Besides which, perhaps it is not true.

“If it were not so far, and if there was not a wall round the orchard, I would tell you which way to go to find the place.  His palace is now so big he can hardly make it any bigger lest it should fall; yet it is so full of treasures that it can barely hold them all.  There are many who would like to rob him, I know.  The crow is one; but they dare not attempt it, not only for fear of Kapchack, but because they would certainly be shot.

“Everybody talks about the enormous treasure he has up there, and everybody envies him.  But there are very dark corners in his palace, dark and blood-stained, for, as I told you, his family history is full of direful deeds.  Besides killing his uncle, and, as is whispered, several of his children, because he suspected them of designs upon his throne, he has made away with a great many of his wives, I should think at least twenty.  So soon as they begin to get old and ugly they die — people pretend the palace is not healthy to live in, being so ancient, and that that is the reason.  Though doubtless they are very aggravating, and very jealous.  Did you hear who it was Kapchack was in love with?”

“No,” said Bevis.  “The starling flew away before I could ask him, and as for the rest they are so busy telling one another they will not answer me.”

“One thing is very certain,” said the toad, “if Kapchack is in love you may be sure there will be some terrible tragedy in the palace, for his wife will be jealous, and besides that his eldest son and heir will not like it.  Prince Tchack-tchack is not a very good temper — Tchack-tchack is his son, I should tell you — and he is already very tired of waiting for the throne.  But it is no use his being tired, for Kapchack does not mean to die.  Now, Bevis dear, I have told you everything I can think of, and I am tired of sitting at the mouth of this hole, where the sunshine comes, and must go back to sleep.

“But if you want to know anything about the present state of things (as I can only tell you what happened a long time since) you had better go and call on the squirrel, and say I sent you, and he will inform you.  He is about the best fellow I know; it is true he will sometimes bite when he is very frisky, it is only his play, but you can look sharp and put your hands in your pockets.  He is the best of them all, dear; better than the fox, or the weasel, or the rat, or the stoat, or the mouse, or any of them.  He knows all that is going on, because the starlings, who are extremely talkative, come every night to sleep in the copse where he lives, and have a long gossip before they go to sleep; indeed, all the birds go to the copse to chat, the rooks, the wood-pigeons, the pheasant, and the thrush, besides the rabbits and the hares, so that the squirrel, to whom the copse belongs, hears everything.”

“But I do not know my way to the copse,” said Bevis; “please tell me the way.”

“You must go up to the great oak-tree, dear,” said the toad, “where you once went to sleep, and then go across to the wheat-field, and a little farther you will see a footpath, which will take you to another field, and you will see the copse on your right.  Now the way into the copse is over a narrow bridge, it is only a tree put across the ditch, and you must be careful how you cross it, and hold tight to the hand-rail, and look where you put your feet.  It is apt to be slippery, and the ditch beneath is very deep; there is not much water, but a great deal of mud.  I recollect it very well, though I have not been there for some time:  I slipped off the bridge one rainy night in the dark, and had rather a heavy fall.  The bridge is now dry, and therefore you can pass it easily if you do not leave go of the hand-rail.  Good-morning, dear, I feel so sleepy — come and tell me with whom Kapchack has fallen in love; and remember me to the squirrel.”  So saying the toad went back into his hole and went to sleep.