“You, gypsy! I’ll run you off without those hands if you don’t leave them off my ware!” An angry shopkeeper brandished his shillelagh and the old woman slunk off into the market crowd.
“Good-for-nothing gypsy,” he muttered.
A young aristocrat forced his way in front of the irate butcher.
“Where does she go? Is she a gypsy after the common sort?”
“Too common, them. What mean you by it?”
“Will she say me sooth?”
“Ay, that she will, if you’re foolish enough. She’s down by the midden, with the rest of hers.”
As he worked closer to the midden at the bank of the Thames, the dress of the peasants grew more ashamed. Finally he came upon the gypsy camp, and spied the old woman crouched beside the fire. He approached her.
“I would have my fortunes told,” he said abruptly. “I will give you a shilling.”
“Well, well. He will give us a shilling,” she said. “If we tell him his fortunes.” She looked within him, under his surface. “His fortune is the white stag, to make him happy. Now he owes us a shilling.”
“The white stag? But that’s just a children’s tale.”
“A gypsies’ tale it is. He owes us a shilling.”
“Take your shilling.” He dropped it on the ground. “I’m done with you.” He walked from the camp disappointed and curiously shamed.
That night, after he had returned to the Castle Warwick, he entered the study and pored over manuscripts in his father’s collection. Morning broke finding him just leaving the study for the stables. He took with him a bow and arrows, and a haversack of food. Mounting his father’s prize black steed, he headed for the forest. He was no longer his father’s son, but a man of valour on a mythic quest.
He flew on, and as several days passed, he worked his way deep into the wood. Fired by an irresistible greed for he knew not what, he allowed himself little rest each night. The lack of sleep was gnawing at his mind, so he didn’t believe it at first when he saw a flash of white. He rode a little while longer, and then saw it and doubted not. Pulling his black horse to a halt, he stared between the trees at a stag, almost a spectre in its whiteness.
He dismounted and his feet hit the turf. As he crept carefully as he could towards the clearing where the stag waited, his weariness left him. The stag’s head lifted, and he stopped advancing towards it. Standing and drawing the bow from his back, he fitted an arrow to the string. Aiming at the heart of this unblemished animal, he drew back the bow. Suddenly, chattering a warning, a squirrel ran down a nearby tree and across his path. His horse affrighted and ran, knocking him to the ground. He pulled himself up, but rose to see the stag rising in his vision. The coal-black muzzle bore him down, and the last thing he saw was its sooty belly pass over him.