Back in my misspent youth, to judge from the pile of books I still have, I read a lot of Lord Dunsany. I still remember The King of Elfland’s Daughter but the short stories seem to have vanished from my memory like strands of mist evaporating in the morning sunshine. Consequently, I have no idea at present how typical ‘How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art Upon the Gnoles’ might be of his output, but if much of the rest is anything like this, a reread is in order at the earliest available opportunity.
Rather like Saki’s ‘Sredni Vashtar’, this story is a miracle of concision. It has been scrupulously trimmed of fat, and every word is pulling its weight. More than that, every sentence, every image is multilayered. But best of all is the way that Dunsany constantly plays with the reader’s expectations and assumptions. Nothing is quite what it seems to be.
Despite the advertisements of rival firms, it is probable that every tradesman knows that nobody in business at the present time has a position equal to that of Mr. Nuth. To those outside the magic circle of business, his name is scarcely known; he does not need to advertise, he is consummate. (68)
In many respects, this is entirely innocuous. Perhaps the name is a little unusual, but we don’t know what Mr Nuth’s business might be. It would be easy to imagine him as an emigré businessman, working in a small office somewhere in London’s East End, one of Sherlock Holmes’s many mysterious informants, or one of M.R. James’s antique or curio dealers. The tone is reminiscent of other stories of the period: a calm narration of facts, references to a back story we can only guess at, grounded in a familiar milieu of genteel trade. But as the paragraph unfolds, we learn that ‘[h]is terms are moderate, so much cash down when the goods are delivered, so much in blackmail afterwards’, and we begin to wonder.
And our suspicions are shortly after confirmed: ‘for Nuth is a burglar by trade’. Suddenly, the nature of this story has changed. On the one hand, the narrator continues to praise Nuth’s artisanal skills; on the other, the voice in the reader’s head reminds her, ‘Nuth is a burglar’. And as the otherwise unidentified narrator acknowledges, ‘It must not be thought that I am a friend of Nuth’s; on the contrary such politics as I have are on the side of Property’ (68), but there is clearly an appreciation of craftsmanship at work here. One begins to suspect that Dunsany is indeed parodying a certain style of writing, or a certain character, but if he is, he keeps a straight face about it, and never loses control of the story’s tone.
This refusal of the story to acknowledge the oddness of the situation persists as Nuth takes on an apprentice, brought to him by the young man’s mother, takes up references, teaches the boy all he knows, sends reports to Tonker’s family. The craft mysteries are preserved, merely hinted at, as though the narrator knows but sees no reason to divulge. For the reader, there is that moment’s hesitation – suppose there are trade secrets? – and then the quiet laugh: what am I thinking? And yet, the idea persists, and it is tempting to plot a line from Nuth’s London to, for example, Terry Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork, through a series of secret histories, and it would be remiss not to acknowledge E.W. Hornug’s Raffles stories, with which this has perhaps a slight nodding acquaintance, though it predates the adventures of Father Brown and Flambeau, the reformed criminal.
And then, at the story’s halfway point, almost precisely so, things change again. We have enjoyed the mild absurdity of professional consulting burglars, the talk of their trade craft and so on, but when Nuth decides to burgle the house of the gnoles, we’re suddenly in a completely different world. The story does not represent the existence of the gnoles as strange or unusual, at least no more unusual than that of a consulting burglar, nor does it seem unreasonable that they should use emeralds to ornament their house.
But suddenly, almost without explanation, we are in a ‘dreadful wood’, its location unidentified, but clearly well away from London. We have strayed into a fantastic landscape of ‘sinister gloom’, with a village whose houses have turned their backs on the wood, whose inhabitants don’t acknowledge the existence of the gnoles, a world where poachers once snared elves. As for the wood. It’s clearly no ordinary place. ‘The trees themselves were a warning, and did not wear the wholesome look of those that we plant ourselves’ (70). The two men spend all day travelling ‘deeper and deeper’, into a place which is a grotesque fairytale, best summed up in this line: ‘They saw the skeleton of some early Georgian poacher nailed to a door in an oak tree’ (70). There is a whole story contained in that one line, not to mention its oddly prefiguring Robert Holdstock’s Ryhope Wood, in Mythago Wood.
Dunsany alters the register again when Tonker breaks into the house: ‘the silence that, though ominous, was earthly, became unearthly like the touch of a ghoul’ (70). Silence, imperative to the work of a burglar, has been transformed into a threat: silence so silent it is wrong, because there is no such thing as total silence. I leave you to infer the ending of the story, but as the narrator observes, ‘Nobody ever catches Nuth.’
The economy of this story is remarkable to the end. So much is left to the reader’s imagination, yet at the same time, the way in which the reader is lulled into accepting without question the story’s premise and setting is so carefully calculated, so deftly executed. It is a literary equivalent of the craft of Nuth himself. One is left blinking at the end, much as Nuth is, wondering how this happened.