The White Doe
by Laurence Housman
One day, as the king's huntsman was riding in the forest, he came to a
small pool. Fallen leaves covering its surface had given it the colour of
blood, and knee-deep in their midst stood a milk-white doe drinking.
The beauty of the doe set fire to the huntsman's soul; he took an arrow
and aimed well at the wild heart of the creature. But as he was loosing
the string the branch of a tree overhanging the pool struck him across the
face, and caught hold of him by the hair; and arrow and doe vanished away
together into the depths of the forest.
Never until now, since he entered the king's service, had the huntsman
missed his aim. The thought of the white doe living after he had willed
its death inflamed him with rage; he could not rest till he had brought
hounds on the trail, determined to follow until it had surrendered to him
All day, while he hunted, the woods stayed breathless, as if to watch; not
a blade moved, not a leaf fell. About noon a red deer crossed his path;
but he paid no heed, keeping his hounds only to the white doe's trail.
At sunset a fallow deer came to disturb the scent, and through the
twilight, as it deepened, a grey wolf ran in and out of the underwood.
When night came down, his hounds fled from his call, following through
tangled thickets a huge black boar with crescent tusks. So he found
himself alone, with his horse so weary that it could scarcely move.
But still, though the moon was slow in its rising, the fever of the chase
burned in the huntsman's veins, and caused him to press on. For now he
found himself at the rocky entrance of a ravine whence no way led; and the
white doe being still before him, he made sure that he would get her at
last. So when his horse fell, too tired to rise again, he dismounted and
forced his way on; and soon he saw before him the white doe, labouring up
an ascent of sharp crags, while closer and higher the rocks rose and
narrowed on every side. Presently she had leapt high upon a boulder that
shook and swayed as her feet rested, and ahead the wall of rocks had
joined so that there was nowhere farther that she might go.
Then the huntsman notched an arrow, and drew with full strength, and let
it go. Fast and straight it went, and the wind screamed in the red
feathers as they flew; but faster the doe overleapt his aim, and, spurning
the stone beneath, down the rough-bouldered gully sent it thundering,
shivering to fragments as it fell. Scarcely might the huntsman escape
death as the great mass swept past: but when the danger was over he looked
ahead, and saw plainly, where the stone had once stood, a narrow opening
in the rock, and a clear gleam of moonlight beyond.
That way he went, and passing through, came upon a green field, as full of
flowers as a garden, duskily shining now, and with dark shadows in all its
folds. Round it in a great circle the rocks made a high wall, so high that
along their crest forest-trees as they clung to look over seemed but as
low-growing thickets against the sky.
The huntsman's feet stumbled in shadow and trod through thick grass into a
quick-flowing streamlet that ran through the narrow way by which he had
entered. He threw himself down into its cool bed, and drank till he could
drink no more. When he rose he saw, a little way off, a small
dwelling-house of rough stone, moss-covered and cosy, with a roof of
wattles which had taken root and pushed small shoots and clusters of grey
leaves through their weaving. Nature, and not man, seemed there to have
been building herself an abode.
Before the doorway ran the stream, a track of white mist showing where it
wound over the meadow; and by its edge a beautiful maiden sat, and was
washing her milk-white feet and arms in the wrinkling eddies.
To the huntsman she became all at once the most beautiful thing that the
world contained; all the spirit of the chase seemed to be in her blood,
and each little movement of her feet made his heart jump for joy. "I have
looked for you all my life!" thought he, as he halted and gazed, not
daring to speak lest the lovely vision should vanish, and the memory of it
mock him for ever.
The beautiful maiden looked up from her washing. "Why have you come here?"
The huntsman answered her as he believed to be the truth, "I have come
because I love you!"
"No," she said, "you came because you wanted to kill the white doe. If you
wish to kill her, it is not likely that you can love me."
"I do not wish to kill the white doe!" cried the huntsman; "I had not seen
you when I wished that. If you do not believe that I love you, take my bow
and shoot me to the heart; for I will never go away from you now."
At his word she took one of the arrows, looking curiously at the red
feathers, and to test the sharp point she pressed it against her breast.
"Have a care!" cried the hunter, snatching it back. He drew his breath
sharply and stared. "It is strange," he declared; "a moment ago I almost
thought that I saw the white doe."
"If you stay here to-night," said the maiden, "about midnight you will see
the white doe go by. Take this arrow, and have your bow ready, and watch!
And if to-morrow, when I return, the arrow is still unused in your hand, I
will believe you when you say that you love me. And you have only to ask,
and I will do all that you desire."
Then she gave the huntsman food and drink and a bed of ferns upon which to
rest. "Sleep or wake," said she as she parted from him; "if truly you have
no wish to kill the white doe, why should you wake? Sleep!"
"I do not wish to kill the white doe," said the huntsman. Yet he could not
sleep: the memory of the one wild creature which had escaped him stung his
blood. He looked at the arrow which he held ready, and grew thirsty at the
sight of it. "If I see, I must shoot!" cried his hunter's heart. "If I
see, I must not shoot!" cried his soul, smitten with love for the
beautiful maiden, and remembering her word. "Yet, if I see, I know I must
shoot—so shall I lose all!" he cried as midnight approached, and the
fever of long waiting remained unassuaged.
Then with a sudden will he drew out his hunting-knife, and scored the
palms of his two hands so deeply that he could no longer hold his bow or
draw the arrow upon the string. "Oh, fair one, I have kept my word to
you!" he cried as midnight came. "The bow and the arrow are both ready."
Looking forth from the threshold by which he lay, he saw pale moonlight
and mist making a white haze together on the outer air. The white doe ran
by, a body of silver; like quicksilver she ran. And the huntsman, the
passion to slay rousing his blood, caught up arrow and bow, and tried in
vain with his maimed hands to notch the shaft upon the string.
The beautiful creature leapt lightly by, between the curtains of moonbeam
and mist; and as she went she sprang this way and that across the narrow
streamlet, till the pale shadows hid her altogether from his sight. "Ah!
ah!" cried the huntsman, "I would have given all my life to be able to
shoot then! I am the most miserable man alive; but to-morrow I will be the
happiest. What a thing is love, that it has known how to conquer in me
even my hunter's blood!"
In the morning the beautiful maiden returned; she came sadly. "I gave you
my word," said she: "here I am. If you have the arrow still with you as it
was last night, I will be your wife, because you have done what never
huntsman before was able to do—not to shoot at the white doe when it
The huntsman showed her the unused arrow; her beauty made him altogether
happy. He caught her in his arms, and kissed her till the sun grew high.
Then she brought food and set it before him; and taking his hand, "I am
your wife," said she, "and with all my heart my will is to serve you
faithfully. Only, if you value your happiness, do not shoot ever at the
white doe." Then she saw that there was blood on his hand, and her face
grew troubled. She saw how the other hand also was wounded. "How came
this?" she asked; "dear husband, you were not so hurt yesterday."
And the huntsman answered, "I did it for fear lest in the night I should
fail, and shoot at the white doe when it came."
Hearing that, his wife trembled and grew white. "You have tricked us
both," she said, "and have not truly mastered your desire. Now, if you do
not promise me on your life and your soul, or whatever is dearer, never to
shoot at a white doe, sorrow will surely come of it. Promise me, and you
shall certainly be happy!"
So the huntsman promised faithfully, saying, "On your life, which is
dearer to me than my own, I give you my word to keep that it shall be so."
Then she kissed him, and bound up his wounds with healing herbs; and to
look at her all that day, and for many days after, was better to him than
all the hunting the king's forests could provide.
For a whole year they lived together in perfect happiness, and two
children came to bless their union—a boy and a girl born at the same
hour. When they were but a month old, they could run; and to see them
leaping and playing before the door of their home made the huntsman's
heart jump for joy. "They are forest-born, and they come of a hunter's
blood; that is why they run so early, and have such limbs," said he.
"Yes," answered his wife, "that is partly why. When they grow older they
will run so fast—do not mistake them for deer if ever you go
No sooner had she said the word than the memory of it, which had slept for
a whole year, stirred his blood. The scent of the forest blew up through
the rocky ravine, which he had never repassed since the day when he
entered, and he laid his hands thoughtfully on the weapons he no longer
Such restlessness took hold of him all that day that at night he slept
ill, and, waking, found himself alone with no wife at his side. Gazing
about the room, he saw that the cradle also was empty. "Why," he wondered,
"have they gone out together in the middle of the night?"
Yet he gave it little more thought, and turning over, fell into a troubled
sleep, and dreamed of hunting and of the white doe that he had seen a year
before stooping to drink among the red leaves that covered the forest
In the morning his wife was by his side, and the little ones lay asleep
upon their crib. "Where were you," he asked, "last night? I woke, and you
were not here."
His wife looked at him tenderly, and sighed. "You should shut your eyes
better," said she. "I went out to see the white doe, and the little ones
came also. Once a year I see her; it is a thing I must not miss."
The beauty of the white doe was like strong drink to his memory: the
beautiful limbs that had leapt so fast and escaped—they alone, of
all the wild life in the world, had conquered him. "Ah!" he cried, "let me
see her, too; let her come tame to mv hand, and I will not hurt her!"
His wife answered: "The heart of the white doe is too wild a thing; she
cannot come tame to the hand of any hunter under heaven. Sleep again, dear
husband, and wake well! For a whole year you have been sufficiently happy;
the white doe would only wound you again in your two hands."
When his wife was not by, the hunter took the two children upon his knee,
and said, "Tell me, what was the white doe like? what did she do? and what
way did she go?"
The children sprang off his knee, and leapt to and fro over the stream.
"She was like this," they cried, "and she did this, and this was the way
she went!" At that the hunter drew his hand over his brow. "Ah," he said,
"I seemed then almost to see the white doe."
Little peace had he from that day. Whenever his wife was not there he
would call the little ones to him, and cry, "Show me the white doe and
what she did." And the children would leap and spring this way and that
over the little stream before the door, crying, "She was like this, and
she did this, and this was the way she went!"
The huntsman loved his wife and children with a deep affection, yet he
began to have a dread that there was something hidden from his eyes which
he wished yet feared to know. "Tell me," he cried one day, half in wrath,
when the fever of the white doe burned more than ever in his blood, "tell
me where the white doe lives, and why she comes, and when next. For this
time I must see her, or I shall die of the longing that has hold of me!"
Then, when his wife would give no answer, he seized his bow and arrows and
rushed out into the forest, which for a whole year had not known him,
slaying all the red deer he could find.
Many he slew in his passion, but he brought none of them home, for before
the end a strange discovery came to him, and he stood amazed, dropping the
haunch which he had cut from his last victim. "It is a whole year," he
said to himself, "that I have not tasted meat; I, a hunter, who love only
the meat that I kill!"
Returning home late, he found his wife troubling her heart over his long
absence. "Where have you been?" she asked him, and the question inflamed
him into a fresh passion.
"I have been out hunting for the white doe," he cried; "and she carries a
spot in her side where some day my arrow must enter. If I do not find her
I shall die!"
His wife looked at him long and sorrowfully; then she said: "On your life
and soul be it, and on mine also, that your anger makes me tell what I
would have kept hidden. It is to-night that she comes. Now it remains for
you to remember your word once given to me!"
"Give it back to me!" he cried; "it is my fate to finish the quest of the
"If I give it," said she, "your happiness goes with it, and mine, and that
of our children."
"Give it back to me!" he said again; "I cannot live unless I may master
the white doe! If she will come tame to my hand, no harm shall happen to
And when she denied him again, he gave her his bow and arrows, and bade
her shoot him to the heart, since without his word rendered back to him he
could not live.
Then his wife took both his hands and kissed them tenderly, and with loud
weeping quickly set him free of his promise. "As well," said she, "ask the
hunter to go bound to the lion's den as the white doe to come tame into
your keeping; though she loved you with all her heart, you could not look
at her and not be her enemy." She gazed on him with full affection, and
sighed deeply. "Lie down for a little," she said, "and rest; it is not
till midnight that she comes. When she comes I will wake you."
She took his head in her hands and set it upon her knee, making him lie
down. "If she will come and stand tame to my hand," he said again, "then I
will do her no harm."
After a while he fell asleep; and, dreaming of the white doe, started
awake to find it was already midnight, and the white doe standing there
before him. But as soon as his eyes lighted on her they kindled with such
fierce ardour that she trembled and sprang away out of the door and across
the stream. "Ah, ah, white doe, white doe!" cried the wind in the feathers
of the shaft that flew after her.
Just at her leaping of the stream the arrow touched her; and all her body
seemed to become a mist that dissolved and floated away, broken into thin
fragments over the fast-flowing stream.
By the hunter's side his wife lay dead, with an arrow struck into her
heart. The door of the house was shut; it seemed to be only an evil dream
from which he had suddenly awakened. But the arrow gave real substance to
his hand: when he drew it out a few true drops of blood flowed after.
Suddenly the hunter knew all he had done. "Oh, white doe, white doe!" he
cried, and fell down with his face to hers.
At the first light of dawn he covered her with dried ferns, that the
children might not see how she lay there dead. "Run out," he cried to
them, "run out and play! Play as the white doe used to do!" And the
children ran out and leapt this way and that across the stream, crying,
"She was like this, and she did this, and this was the way she went!"
So while they played along the banks of the stream, the hunter took up his
beautiful dead wife and buried her. And to the children he said, "Your
mother has gone away; when the white doe comes she will return also."
"She was like this," they cried, laughing and playing, "and she did this,
and this was the way she went!" And all the time as they played he seemed
to see the white doe leaping before him in the sunlight.
That night the hunter lay sleepless on his bed, wishing for the world to
end; but in the crib by his side the two children lay in a sound slumber.
Then he saw plainly in the moonlight the white doe, with a red mark in her
side, standing still by the doorway. Soon she went to where the young ones
were lying, and, as she touched the coverlet softly with her right
fore-foot, all at once two young fawns rose up from the ground and sprang
away into the open, following where the white doe beckoned them.
Nor did they ever return. For the rest of his life the huntsman stayed
where they left him, a sorrowful and lonely man. In the grave where lay
the woman's form he had slain he buried his bow and arrows far from the
sight of the sun or the reach of his own hand; and coming to the place
night by night, he would watch the mists and the moonrise, and cry, "White
doe, white doe, will you not some day forgive me?" and did not know that
she had forgiven him when, before she died, she kissed his two hands and
made him sleep for the last time with his head on her knee.