MASTER NATHANIEL CHANTICLEER
The Free State of Dorimare was a very small country, but, seeing that
it was bounded on the south by the sea and on the north and east by
mountains, while its centre consisted of a rich plain, watered by
two rivers, a considerable variety of scenery and vegetation was to
be found within its borders. Indeed, towards the west, in striking
contrast with the pastoral sobriety of the central plain, the aspect
of the country became, if not tropical, at any rate distinctly exotic.
Nor was this to be wondered at, perhaps; for beyond the Debatable
Hills (the boundary of Dorimare in the west) lay Fairyland. There
had, however, been no intercourse between the two countries for many
The social and commercial centre of Dorimare was its capital,
Lud-in-the-Mist, which was situated at the confluence of two rivers
about ten miles from the sea and fifty from the Elfin Hills.
Lud-in-the-Mist had all the things that make an old town pleasant. It
had an ancient Guild Hall, built of mellow golden bricks and covered
with ivy and, when the sun shone on it, it looked like a rotten
apricot; it had a harbour in which rode vessels with white and red and
tawny sails; it had flat brick houses - not the mere carapace of human
beings, but ancient living creatures, renewing and modifying themselves
with each generation under their changeless antique roofs. It had old
arches, framing delicate landscapes that one could walk into, and a
picturesque old graveyard on the top of a hill, and little open squares
where comic baroque statues of dead citizens held levees attended by
birds and lovers and insects and children. It had, indeed, more than
its share of pleasant things; for, as we have seen, it had two rivers.
Also, it was plentifully planted with trees.
* * * * *
One of the handsomest houses of Lud-in-the-Mist had belonged for
generations to the family of Chanticleer. It was of red brick, and
the front, which looked on to a quiet lane leading into the High
Street, was covered with stucco, on which flowers and fruit and shells
were delicately modelled, while over the door was emblazoned a fine,
stylized cock - the badge of the family. Behind, it had a spacious
garden, which stretched down to the river Dapple. Though it had no lack
of flowers, they did not immediately meet the eye, but were imprisoned
in a walled kitchen-garden, where they were planted in neat ribands,
edging the plots of vegetables. Here, too, in spring was to be found
the pleasantest of all garden conjunctions - thick yew hedges and fruit
trees in blossom. Outside this kitchen-garden there was no need of
flowers, for they had many substitutes. Let a thing be but a sort of
punctual surprise, like the first cache of violets in March, let it be
delicate, painted and gratuitous, hinting that the Creator is solely
preoccupied with aesthetic considerations, and combines disparate
objects simply because they look so well together, and that thing will
admirably fill the role of a flower.
In early summer it was the doves, with the bloom of plums on their
breasts, waddling on their coral legs over the wide expanse of lawn,
to which their propinquity gave an almost startling greenness, that
were the flowers in the Chanticleers' garden. And the trunks of birches
are as good, any day, as white blossom, even if there had not been the
acacias in flower. And there was a white peacock which, in spite of
its restlessness and harsh shrieks, had something about it, too, of a
flower. And the Dapple itself, stained like a palette, with great daubs
of colour reflected from sky and earth, and carrying on its surface,
in autumn, red and yellow leaves which may have fallen on it from the
trees of Fairyland, where it had its source - even the Dapple might be
considered as a flower growing in the garden of the Chanticleers.
There was also a pleached alley of hornbeams. To the imaginative, it
is always something of an adventure to walk down a pleached alley. You
enter boldly enough, but soon you find yourself wishing you had stayed
outside - it is not air that you are breathing, but silence, the almost
palpable silence of trees. And is the only exit that small round hole
in the distance? Why, you will never be able to squeeze through that!
You must turn back ... too late! The spacious portal by which you
entered has in its turn shrunk to a small round hole.
* * * * *
Master Nathaniel Chanticleer, the actual head of the family, was a
typical Dorimarite in appearance; rotund, rubicund, red-haired, with
hazel eyes in which the jokes, before he uttered them, twinkled like a
trout in a burn. Spiritually, too, he passed for a typical Dorimarite;
though, indeed, it is never safe to classify the souls of one's
neighbors; one is apt, in the long run, to be proved a fool. You should
regard each meeting with a friend as a sitting he is unwittingly giving
you for a portrait - a portrait that, probably, when you or he die,
will still be unfinished. And, though this is an absorbing pursuit,
nevertheless, the painters are apt to end pessimists. For however
handsome and merry may be the face, however rich may be the background,
in the first rough sketch of each portrait, yet with every added stroke
of the brush, with every tiny readjustment of the "values," with every
modification of the chiaroscuro, the eyes looking out at you grow more
disquieting. And, finally, it is your own face that you are staring at
in terror, as in a mirror by candle-light, when all the house is still.
All who knew Master Nathaniel would have been not only surprised, but
incredulous, had they been told he was not a happy man. Yet such was
the case. His life was poisoned at its springs by a small, nameless
fear; a fear not always active, for during considerable periods it
would lie almost dormant - almost, but never entirely.
He knew the exact date of its genesis. One evening, many years ago,
when he was still but a lad, he and some friends decided as a frolic to
dress up as the ghosts of their ancestors and frighten the servants.
There was no lack of properties; for the attics of the Chanticleers
were filled with the lumber of the past: grotesque wooden masks, old
weapons and musical instruments, and old costumes - tragic, hierophantic
robes that looked little suited to the uses of daily life. There were
whole chests, too, filled with pieces of silk, embroidered or painted
with curious scenes. Who has not wondered in what mysterious forests
our ancestors discovered the models for the beasts and birds upon
their tapestries; and on what planet were enacted the scenes they have
portrayed? It is in vain that the dead fingers have stitched beneath
them - and we can picture the mocking smile with which these crafty
cozeners of posterity accompanied the action - the words "February,"
or "Hawking," or "Harvest," having us believe that they are but
illustrations of the activities proper to the different months. We know
better. These are not the normal activities of mortal men. What kind of
beings peopled the earth four or five centuries ago, what strange lore
they had acquired, and what were their sinister doings, we shall never
know. Our ancestors keep their secret well.
Among the Chanticleers' lumber there was also no lack of those
delicate, sophisticated toys - fans, porcelain cups, engraved
seals - that, when the civilisation that played with them is dead,
become pathetic and appealing, just as tunes once gay inevitably
become plaintive when the generation that first sang them has turned
to dust. But those particular toys, one felt, could never have been
really frivolous - there was a curious gravity about their colouring and
lines. Besides, the moral of the ephemeral things with which they were
decorated was often pointed in an aphorism or riddle. For instance,
on a fan painted with wind-flowers and violets were illuminated these
words: "Why is Melancholy like Honey? Because it is very sweet, and it
is culled from Flowers."
These trifles clearly belonged to a later period than the masks and
costumes. Nevertheless, they, too, seemed very remote from the daily
life of the modern Dorimarites.
Well, when they had whitened their faces with flour and decked
themselves out to look as fantastic as possible, Master Nathaniel
seized one of the old instruments, a sort of lute ending in the carving
of a cock's head, its strings rotted by damp and antiquity, and,
crying out, "Let's see if this old fellow has a croak left in him!"
plucked roughly at its strings. They gave out one note, so plangent,
blood-freezing and alluring, that for a few seconds the company stood
as if petrified.
Then one of the girls saved the situation with a humourous squawk, and,
putting her hands to her ears, cried, "Thank you, Nat, for your cat's
concert! It was worse than a squeaking slate." And one of the young
men cried laughingly, "It must be the ghost of one of your ancestors,
who wants to be let out and given a glass of his own claret." And the
incident faded from their memories - but not from the memory of Master
He was never again the same man. For years that note was the apex of
his nightly dreams; the point towards which, by their circuitous and
seemingly senseless windings, they had all the time been converging.
It was as if the note were a living substance, and subject to the law
of chemical changes - that is to say, as that law works in dreams. For
instance, he might dream that his old nurse was baking an apple on the
fire in her own cosy room, and as he watched it simmer and sizzle she
would look at him with a strange smile, a smile such as he had never
seen on her face in his waking hours, and say, "But, of course, you
know it isn't really the apple. It's the Note."
The influence that this experience had had upon his attitude to daily
life was a curious one. Before he had heard the note he had caused his
father some uneasiness by his impatience of routine and his hankering
after travel and adventure. He had, indeed, been heard to vow that
he would rather be the captain of one of his father's ships than the
sedentary owner of the whole fleet.
But after he had heard the Note a more stay-at-home and steady young
man could not have been found in Lud-in-the-Mist. For it had generated
in him what one can only call a wistful yearning after the prosaic
things he already possessed. It was as if he thought he had already
lost what he was actually holding in his hands.
From this there sprang an ever-present sense of insecurity together
with a distrust of the homely things he cherished. With what familiar
object - quill, pipe, pack of cards - would he be occupied, in which
regular recurrent action - the pulling on or off of his nightcap, the
weekly auditing of his accounts - would he be engaged when IT, the
hidden menace, sprang out at him? And he would gaze in terror at his
furniture, his walls, his pictures - what strange scene might they
one day witness, what awful experience might he one day have in their
Hence, at times, he would gaze on the present with the agonizing
tenderness of one who gazes on the past: his wife, sitting under the
lamp embroidering, and retailing to him the gossip she had culled
during the day; or his little son, playing with the great mastiff on
This nostalgia for what was still there seemed to find a voice in the
cry of the cock, which tells of the plough going through the land,
the smell of the country, the placid bustle of the farm, as happening
now, all round one; and which, simultaneously, mourns them as things
vanished centuries ago.
From his secret poison there was, however, some sweetness to be
distilled. For the unknown thing that he dreaded could at times be
envisaged as a dangerous cape that he had already doubled. And to lie
awake at night in his warm feather bed, listening to the breathing
of his wife and the soughing of the trees, would become, from this
attitude, an exquisite pleasure.
He would say to himself, "How pleasant this is! How safe! How warm!
What a difference from that lonely heath when I had no cloak and the
wind found the fissures in my doublet, and my feet were aching, and
there was not moon enough to prevent my stumbling, and IT was lurking
in the darkness!" enhancing thus his present well-being by imagining
some unpleasant adventure now safe behind him.
This also was the cause of his taking a pride in knowing his way about
his native town. For instance, when returning from the Guildhall to his
own house he would say to himself, "Straight across the market-place,
down Appleimp Lane, and round by the Duke Aubrey Arms into the High
Street.... I know every step of the way, every step of the way!"
And he would get a sense of security, a thrill of pride, from every
acquaintance who passed the time of day with him, from every dog to
whom he could put a name. "That's Wagtail, Goceline Flack's dog. That's
Mab, the bitch of Rackabite the butcher, I know them!"
Though he did not realise it, he was masquerading to himself as a
stranger in Lud-in-the-Mist - a stranger whom nobody knew, and who was
thus almost as safe as if he were invisible. And one always takes a
pride in knowing one's way about a strange town. But it was only this
pride that emerged completely into his consciousness.
The only outward expression of this secret fear was a sudden,
unaccountable irascibility, when some harmless word or remark happened
to sting the fear into activity. He could not stand people saying, "Who
knows what we shall be doing this time next year?" and he loathed such
expressions as "for the last time," "never again," however trivial the
context in which they appeared. For instance, he would snap his wife's
head off - why, she could not think - if she said, "Never again shall I
go to that butcher," or "That starch is a disgrace. It's the last time
I shall use it for my ruffs."
This fear, too, had awakened in him a wistful craving for other men's
shoes that caused him to take a passionate interest in the lives of
his neighbors; that is to say if these lives moved in a different
sphere from his own. From this he had gained the reputation - not
quite deserved - of being a very warm-hearted, sympathetic man, and he
had won the heart of many a sea-captain, of many a farmer, of many
an old working-woman by the unfeigned interest he showed in their
conversation. Their long, meandering tales of humble normal lives were
like the proverbial glimpse of a snug, lamp-lit parlour to a traveller
belated after nightfall.
He even coveted dead men's shoes, and he would loiter by the hour
in the ancient burying-ground of Lud-in-the-Mist, known from time
immemorial as the Fields of Grammary. He could justify this habit by
pointing out the charming view that one got thence of both Lud and
the surrounding country. But though he sincerely loved the view, what
really brought him there were such epitaphs as this:
WHO HAVING PROVIDED THE CITIZENS
OF LUD-IN-THE-MIST FOR SIXTY YEARS
WITH FRESH SWEET LOAVES
DIED AT THE AGE OF EIGHTY-EIGHT
SURROUNDED BY HIS SONS AND GRANDSONS.
How willingly would he have changed places with that old baker! And
then the disquieting thought would come to him that perhaps after all
epitaphs are not altogether to be trusted.
THE DUKE WHO LAUGHED HIMSELF OFF A THRONE
AND OTHER TRADITIONS OF DORIMARE
Before we start on our story, it will be necessary, for its proper
understanding, to give a short sketch of the history of Dorimare and
the beliefs and customs of its inhabitants.
Lud-in-the-Mist was scattered about the banks of two rivers, the Dapple
and the Dawl, which met on its outskirts at an acute angle, the apex
of which was the harbour. Then there were more houses up the side of a
hill, on the top of which stood the Fields of Grammary.
The Dawl was the biggest river of Dorimare, and it became so broad at
Lud-in-the-Mist as to give that town, twenty miles inland though it
was, all the advantages of a port; while the actual seaport town itself
was little more than a fishing village. The Dapple, however, which had
its source in Fairyland (from a salt inland sea, the geographers held)
and flowed subterraneously under the Debatable Hills, was a humble
little stream, and played no part in the commercial life of the town.
But an old maxim of Dorimare bade one never forget that 'The Dapple
flows into the Dawl.' It had come to be employed when one wanted to
show the inadvisability of despising the services of humble agents;
but, possibly, it had originally another application.
The wealth and importance of the country was mainly due to the Dawl. It
was thanks to the Dawl that girls in remote villages of Dorimare wore
brooches made out of walrus tusks, and applied bits of unicorns' horns
to their toothache, that the chimney-piece in the parlour of almost
every farm-house was adorned with an ostrich egg, and that when the
ladies of Lud-in-the-Mist went out shopping or to play cards with their
friends, their market-basket or ivory markers were carried by little
indigo pages in crimson turbans from the Cinnamon Isles, and that pigmy
peddlers from the far North hawked amber through the streets. For the
Dawl had turned Lud-in-the-Mist into a town of merchants, and all the
power and nearly all the wealth of the country was in their hands.
But this had not always been the case. In the old days Dorimare had
been a duchy, and the population had consisted of nobles and peasants.
But gradually there had arisen a middle-class. And this class had
discovered - as it always does - that trade was seriously hampered by a
ruler unchecked by a constitution, and by a ruthless, privileged class.
Figuratively, these things were damming the Dawl.
Indeed, with each generation the Dukes had been growing more capricious
and more selfish, till finally these failings had culminated in Duke
Aubrey, a hunchback with a face of angelic beauty, who seemed to be
possessed by a laughing demon of destructiveness. He had been known,
out of sheer wantonness, to gallop with his hunt straight through a
field of standing corn, and to set fire to a fine ship for the mere
pleasure of watching it burn. And he dealt with the virtue of his
subjects' wives and daughters in the same high-handed way.
As a rule, his pranks were seasoned by a slightly sinister humour. For
instance, when on the eve of marriage a maid, according to immemorial
custom, was ritually offering her virginity to the spirit of the farm,
symbolised by the most ancient tree on the freehold, Duke Aubrey would
leap out from behind it, and, pretending to be the spirit, take her at
her word. And tradition said that he and one of his boon companions
wagered that they would succeed in making the court jester commit
suicide of his own free will. So they began to work on his imagination
with plaintive songs, the burden of which was the frailty of all lovely
things, and with grim fables comparing man to a shepherd, doomed to
stand by impotent, while his sheep are torn, one by one, by a ravenous
They won their wager; for coming into the jester's room one morning
they found him hanging from the ceiling, dead. And it was believed that
echoes of the laughter with which Duke Aubrey greeted this spectacle
were, from time to time, still to be heard proceeding from that room.
But there had been pleasanter aspects to him. For one thing, he had
been an exquisite poet, and such of his songs as had come down were
as fresh as flowers and as lonely as the cuckoo's cry. While in the
country stories were still told of his geniality and tenderness - how he
would appear at a village wedding with a cart-load of wine and cakes
and fruit, or of how he would stand at the bedside of the dying, grave
and compassionate as a priest.
Nevertheless, the grim merchants, obsessed by a will to wealth, raised
up the people against him. For three days a bloody battle raged in the
streets of Lud-in-the-Mist, in which fell all the nobles of Dorimare.
As for Duke Aubrey, he vanished - some said to Fairyland, where he
was living to this day. During those three days of bloodshed all the
priests had vanished also. So Dorimare lost simultaneously its Duke and
In the days of the Dukes, fairy things had been looked on with
reverence, and the most solemn event of the religious year had been
the annual arrival from Fairyland of mysterious, hooded strangers with
milk-white mares, laden with offerings of fairy fruit for the Duke and
But after the revolution, when the merchants had seized all the
legislative and administrative power, a taboo was placed on all things
This was not to be wondered at. For one thing, the new rulers
considered that the eating of fairy fruit had been the chief cause of
the degeneracy of the Dukes. It had, indeed, always been connected with
poetry and visions, which, springing as they do from an ever-present
sense of mortality, might easily appear morbid to the sturdy common
sense of a burgher-class in the making. There was certainly nothing
morbid about the men of the revolution, and under their regime what one
can only call the tragic sense of life vanished from poetry and art.
Besides, to the minds of the Dorimarites, fairy things had always
spelled delusion. The songs and legends described Fairyland as a
country where the villages appeared to be made of gold and cinnamon
wood, and where priests, who lived on opobalsum and frankincense,
hourly offered holocausts of peacocks and golden bulls to the sun and
the moon. But if an honest, clear-eyed mortal gazed on these things
long enough, the glittering castles would turn into old, gnarled trees,
the lamps into glow-worms, the precious stones into potsherds, and the
magnificently-robed priests and their gorgeous sacrifices into aged
crones muttering over a fire of twigs.
The fairies themselves, tradition taught, were eternally jealous of the
solid blessings of mortals, and, clothed in invisibility, would crowd
to weddings and wakes and fairs - wherever good victuals, in fact, were
to be found - and suck the juices from fruits and meats - in vain, for
nothing could make them substantial.
Nor was it only food that they stole. In out-of-the-way country places
it was still believed that corpses were but fairy cheats, made to
resemble flesh and bone, but without any real substance - otherwise, why
should they turn so quickly to dust? But the real person, for which
the corpse was but a flimsy substitute, had been carried away by the
Fairies, to tend their blue kine and reap their fields of gillyflowers.
The country people, indeed, did not always clearly distinguish between
the Fairies and the dead. They called them both the "Silent People";
and the Milky Way they thought was the path along which the dead were
carried to Fairyland.
Another tradition said that their only means of communication was
poetry and music; and in the country poetry and music were still called
"the language of the Silent People."
Naturally enough, men who were teaching the Dawl to run gold, who were
digging canals and building bridges, and seeing that the tradesmen gave
good measure and used standard weights, and who liked both virtues
and commodities to be solid, had little patience for flimsy cheats.
Nevertheless, the new rulers were creating their own form of delusion,
for it was they who founded in Dorimare the science of jurisprudence,
taking as their basis the primitive code used under the Dukes and
adapting it to modern conditions by the use of legal fictions.
Master Josiah Chanticleer (the father of Master Nathaniel), who had
been a very ingenious and learned jurist, had drawn in one of his
treatises a curious parallel between fairy things and the law. The men
of the revolution, he said, had substituted law for fairy fruit. But
whereas only the reigning Duke and his priests had been allowed to
partake of the fruit, the law was given freely to rich and poor alike.
Again, fairy was delusion, so was the law. At any rate, it was a sort
of magic, moulding reality into any shape it chose. But, whereas fairy
magic and delusion were for the cozening and robbing of man, the magic