Dog and Duck, by Arthur Machen

Dog and Duck

Not long ago, I remember reading that a Stool Ball match had been played at Lord’s Cricket Ground. I said to a man I know, a person learned in games:

‘What is Stool Ball? Is it the same thing as Knurr and Spell?’

He rebuked my ignorance. He explained the two games. He explained further that even to hit the ball at Knurr and Spell a man must be northern born. He said it was one of the most difficult games that had ever been invented.

But this is merely by the way; it is an illustration of the fact that many of the old English games linger on, half-forgotten, played vehemently perhaps; but only by a few initiates.

So I dare say that many of my readers will not even have heard of the game of Dog and Duck. Yet, within ten minutes’ walk of Lord’s, the faithful few know where to find the headquarters of the M.D.D.C. — the historic Alley of the Marylebone Dog and Duck Club.

At first sight, entering the alley, one would say that here was a quiet London garden, of the old-fashioned kind, with an old-fashioned house at the back of it. Roughly, the extent of the alley — which includes, as I shall presently explain, the ‘Grounds’ and the ‘Greens’— is twenty yards by ten. It is overhung by old trees and ivy-covered walls, and seems the very place for an old-world game. Bowls, once the favourite game of the clergy and of dignified and elderly persons generally, used to be played in just such surroundings. And Dog and Duck, like Bowls, is a game for the leisurely, a game of amenities.

I said the alley was like a garden. Well, imagine a lawn, shaped somewhat like a capital D. About it goes what we may call the garden path, this is the actual alley. On the right hand are flower beds — the ‘grounds’— and to right and left the path is separated from grounds and greens by tiles: these are the ‘walls.’

Note one point. You entered by a door, which may be imagined to be in the middle of the top of the D. Here the alley widens to right and left, making a sort of bay in front of the door. This space, marked off by a white line, is called ‘Bocardo,’ in humorous allusion to a mode of the Fourth Figure in Scholastic Logic. If you got into this figure, you had considerable difficulty in getting out again, in getting back into the more natural first figure. There used to be a prison at Oxford called Bocardo. Facing Bocardo, the lawn, or greens, is marked off by three posts. These are the three ‘chaces,’ or scoring marks.

Now, suppose you are standing in the middle of the green, watching a match at Dog and Duck. The first man to play —‘first troller’ as he is called — stands in the alley on a slightly raised platform, two feet square, at the right-hand bottom corner of the D. The right foot must be on the platform —‘the trap’; the left foot on the alley behind. He takes the ball, which is a hollow india-rubber ball of two inches diameter, and begins the ‘bump’: a bump is the delivery of five balls in succession. His object is to bowl, or serve, the ball on the alley as far as possible round the top of the D. If the ball rests between chaces one and two, he scores five. If it rests between the second and third chace, he scores ten. If it turns the corner and rests in the return alley, the trailer’s score is twenty. If it passes the Duck which marks the fourth chace, the player scores forty.

But there are penalties and difficulties. The ball must not leave the alley. It may, indeed, skim on the edge of the tiles, or walls; but if it touches the earth on the right, or the lawn at the left, for a moment, the umpire, standing in the middle of the lawn, calls out ‘grounds’ or ‘greens,’ and the scorer deducts five from the player’s total: ‘lack five.’

Then, there is Bocardo. The ball that stays within the white line which marks Bocardo fails to score.

Here then, are the two great difficulties of the game. The tyro, a cricketer, possibly, possibly a distinguished amateur of bowls, smiles in a superior way as he takes his stand on the trap. He is to bowl a child’s ball round a garden path. Very good! and then, to his astonishment, the ball has jumped ‘walls,’ and is revelling in ‘grounds,’ or more rarely is disporting itself on the lawn.

The fact is that a ball, with sufficient force behind it to round the left-hand corner of the D and score twenty, is apt, save in the hands of the most skilful players, to ‘break alley,’ to ‘go to earth,’ as that famous old professional, Harry Gunter, used to put it. It takes the best part of a lifetime to learn how to impart that peculiar swirling motion to the ball which will carry it down the alley, cause it to impinge on the right wall at exactly the right angle, and then ‘bring it low,’ make it come round the D close to the top wall, and at last swing it triumphantly round the corner, perhaps to Chace IV, the Duck, and a score of forty.

The supercilious beginner comes to grief over walls; Bocardo is the terror of the experienced player. Old James Henry Messiter, who invented the ‘railway service,’ used to groan and say that ‘Bocardo beats all.’ A ball may be well held, well placed, well played, well bungled, and yet some infinitesimal error at the last moment may spoil everything. It may be only the variation of a hundredth of an inch in the ball’s position as it leaves the player’s fingers. But look, it swings down the alley, a free, a gallant ball; it impinges on the wall low down at the exact spot which the player has marked for it; and then, instead of coming down low it rolls up and abides placidly in Bocardo, and, as Dickens says of another game, the player’s score is as blank as his face.

Bocardo lies in wait for every good player, no matter what his service may be. I have seen it bring low the hopes of a distinguished Prebendary of the Church who had studied Dog and Duck under Messiter; and I have seen it foil a well-known actor, who fancied himself extremely, as the sole possessor of the secret of Jack Toplady’s ‘straight slows.’

Toplady, by the way, was the only player who was ever able to score consistently with the ‘white ball.’ This, it may be explained, is the ball which never touches ‘walls’ at all, to left or right, but wheels round the curve of the D in a perfect orbit. Old players who have seen Toplady at work, have assured me that these white balls of his looked as if they were running in tapes.

The game of Dog and Duck — sometimes, in earlier days, known as Chase Mallard — makes its rare appearances in our literature. So far as I know, there has been no scientific treatise on the sport; but there are some odd allusions to it scattered up and down in old half-forgotten books. Thus, in modernized English, the mediaeval poet, traditionally known as Nicholas Scrope — his identity is uncertain — in his House of Mirth:

When men in their dalliance Would have of mirth some pastance, Then go they to a fair ground, With the green tree well get around, And green grass in abundance To a place that is a gay pleasaunce. And there is a pathway measured well, This is their alley, as they tell. And so with ball in place of bow, They chase the mallard that may not go One jot or whit from his station, But abideth still in his fashion. But though alway his stand be stable, Yet is that ball most variable, And departeth sudden from his right way And all gates ever will stray; Till men cry out, ‘Benedicite, Ye foul ball, whither will ye flee?’

And then, the seventeenth-century moralist, some ‘seraphical’ divine of King Charles II days, speaking of the vanity of human pursuits and occupations:

So have I seen the sun break forth from the cloudy dungeons of the night and climb high in the heavens, giving gladness to the hearts of men and gently unfolding the blossom of a rose, and affording light for all our toils and salutary labours and exemplary endeavours, that we be justified, if it be but a little, before the evening cometh, and the dull curtain of darkness shut in all our scene, and it is time for a reckoning and strict account of all that we have performed. And yet within this brief allotted space of salvation which may be the last accorded to anyone, his life concluding with the day, and sinking into the gloomy retirements of the grave; yet have I seen men go forth in their madness and unthriftiness, and waste the hours of grace and of the sun, rendering to idleness and wantonness and vain sport and pleasure the sum of all they owe to God and to man. For such proceed to the places of their fond diversion, and chase a painted bird with a painted ball, till the sun vanishes under the cloud of the night, and darkness encompasses all things and the game is ended, and they have their pains for their labours, and the remorse of runagates for their choicest cogitations, and the babble of fools in their ears in place of the comfortable whisper of the angels as they lay them down to rest and to that sleep which is the quotidian prophecy of the tomb.

And so, at about the same period, Davenant doggerelizes over the game in a different spirit:

But Husband grey now comes to stall, For Prentice notch’d he strait does call; Where’s Dame, quoth he — quoth son of shop, She’s gone her cake in milk to sop: Ho! Ho! to Islington; enough! Fetch Job my son and hearty stuff. For there in sport we’ll shout for luck, And cry hay duck, there Dog, hay Duck.

And in the old song-books of ninety and a hundred years ago you may still occasionally come across —

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58