Classic Chickens

When you read the classics, you run across some strange things.  In this case, I’m talking about the appearance of chickens in classics that have absolutely nothing to do with our fine-feathered friends.  You can assume that they are added to the stories to lighten the mood, and they certainly do.

The House of the Seven Gables

One example is the story of three chickens that live outside the house of the seven gables in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1851 novel of the same name.  The house is inhabited by three people: the elderly sister and brother Hepzibah and Clifford Pyncheon, and their young country cousin, Phoebe Pyncheon.

Hawthorne tells a humorous story of the rooster, Chanticleer, and his two “wives.”

 Queer, indeed, they looked! Chanticleer himself, though stalking on two stilt-like legs, with the dignity of interminable descent in all his gestures, was hardly bigger than an ordinary partridge; his two wives were about the size of quails; and as for the one chicken, it looked small enough to be still in the egg, and, at the same time, sufficiently old, withered, wizened, and experienced, to have been founder of the antiquated race. Instead of being the youngest of the family, it rather seemed to have aggregated into itself the ages, not only of these living specimens of the breed, but of all its forefathers and foremothers, whose united excellences and oddities were squeezed into its little body. Its mother evidently regarded it as the one chicken of the world, and as necessary, in fact, to the world’s continuance, or, at any rate, to the equilibrium of the present system of affairs, whether in church or state. No lesser sense of the infant fowl’s importance could have justified, even in a mother’s eyes, the perseverance with which she watched over its safety, ruffling her small person to twice its proper size, and flying in everybody’s face that so much as looked towards her hopeful progeny. No lower estimate could have vindicated the indefatigable zeal with which she scratched, and her unscrupulousness in digging up the choicest flower or vegetable, for the sake of the fat earthworm at its root. Her nervous cluck, when the chicken happened to be hidden in the long grass or under the squash-leaves; her gentle croak of satisfaction, while sure of it beneath her wing; her note of ill-concealed fear and obstreperous defiance, when she saw her arch-enemy, a neighbor’s cat, on the top of the high fence,—one or other of these sounds was to be heard at almost every moment of the day. By degrees, the observer came to feel nearly as much interest in this chicken of illustrious race as the mother-hen did.

 The second of Chanticleer’s two wives, ever since Phoebe’s arrival, had been in a state of heavy despondency, caused, as it afterwards appeared, by her inability to lay an egg. One day, however, by her self-important gait, the sideways turn of her head, and the cock of her eye, as she pried into one and another nook of the garden,—croaking to herself, all the while, with inexpressible complacency,—it was made evident that this identical hen, much as mankind undervalued her, carried something about her person the worth of which was not to be estimated either in gold or precious stones. Shortly after, there was a prodigious cackling and gratulation of Chanticleer and all his family, including the wizened chicken, who appeared to understand the matter quite as well as did his sire, his mother, or his aunt. That afternoon Phoebe found a diminutive egg,—not in the regular nest, it was far too precious to be trusted there,—but cunningly hidden under the currant-bushes, on some dry stalks of last year’s grass. Hepzibah, on learning the fact, took possession of the egg and appropriated it to Clifford’s breakfast, on account of a certain delicacy of flavor, for which, as she affirmed, these eggs had always been famous. Thus unscrupulously did the old gentlewoman sacrifice the continuance, perhaps, of an ancient feathered race, with no better end than to supply her brother with a dainty that hardly filled the bowl of a tea-spoon! It must have been in reference to this outrage that Chanticleer, the next day, accompanied by the bereaved mother of the egg, took his post in front of Phoebe and Clifford, and delivered himself of a harangue that might have proved as long as his own pedigree, but for a fit of merriment on Phoebe’s part. Hereupon, the offended fowl stalked away on his long stilts, and utterly withdrew his notice from Phoebe and the rest of human nature, until she made her peace with an offering of spice-cake, which, next to snails, was the delicacy most in favor with his aristocratic taste.

The Virginian

The second example of chickens in the classics comes from Owen Wister’s 1902 novel The Virginian which would serve as a template for many western novels to come.  The story concerns a hen named Em’ly that doesn’t lay eggs.  Frustrated in her maternal instinct, Em’ly “sets” on anything that even remotely resembles an egg: including small stones, peaches, and bars of soap.  She also appropriates the offspring of other animals.  Whether they are fowls or not, it doesn’t matter in the least to the frustrated hen.

 We found Em’ly seated upon a collection of green California peaches, which the Judge had brought from the railroad.

 “I don’t mind her any more,” I said; “I’m sorry for her.”

 “I’ve been sorry for her right along,” said the Virginian. “She does hate the roosters so.” And he said that he was making a collection of every class of object which he found her treating as eggs.

 But Em’ly’s egg-industry was terminated abruptly one morning, and her unquestioned energies diverted to a new channel. A turkey which had been sitting in the root-house appeared with twelve children, and a family of bantams occurred almost simultaneously. Em’ly was importantly scratching the soil inside Paladin’s corral when the bantam tribe of newly born came by down the lane, and she caught sight of them through the bars. She crossed the corral at a run, and intercepted two of the chicks that were trailing somewhat behind their real mamma. These she undertook to appropriate, and assumed a high tone with the bantam, who was the smaller, and hence obliged to retreat with her still numerous family. I interfered, and put matters straight; but the adjustment was only temporary. In an hour I saw Em’ly immensely busy with two more bantams, leading them about and taking a care of them which I must admit seemed perfectly efficient.

 And now came the first incident that made me suspect her to be demented.

 She had proceeded with her changelings behind the kitchen, where one of the irrigation ditches ran under the fence from the hay-field to supply the house with water. Some distance along this ditch inside the field were the twelve turkeys in the short, recently cut stubble. Again Em’ly set off instantly like a deer. She left the dismayed bantams behind her. She crossed the ditch with one jump of her stout blue legs, flew over the grass, and was at once among the turkeys, where, with an instinct of maternity as undiscriminating as it was reckless, she attempted to huddle some of them away. But this other mamma was not a bantam, and in a few moments Em’ly was entirely routed in her attempt to acquire a new variety of family.

 This spectacle was witnessed by the Virginian and myself, and it overcame him. He went speechless across to the bunk-house, by himself, and sat on his bed, while I took the abandoned bantams back to their own circle.

 I have often wondered what the other fowls thought of all this. Some impression it certainly did make upon them. The notion may seem out of reason to those who have never closely attended to other animals than man; but I am convinced that any community which shares some of our instincts will share some of the resulting feelings, and that birds and beasts have conventions, the breach of which startles them. If there be anything in evolution, this would seem inevitable. At all events, the chicken-house was upset during the following several days. Em’ly disturbed now the bantams and now the turkeys, and several of these latter had died, though I will not go so far as to say that this was the result of her misplaced attentions. Nevertheless, I was seriously thinking of locking her up till the broods should be a little older, when another event happened, and all was suddenly at peace.

 The Judge’s setter came in one morning, wagging her tail. She had had her puppies, and she now took us to where they were housed, in between the floor of a building and the hollow ground. Em’ly was seated on the whole litter.

 “No,” I said to the Judge, “I am not surprised. She is capable of anything.”

 In her new choice of offspring, this hen had at length encountered an unworthy parent. The setter was bored by her own puppies. She found the hole under the house an obscure and monotonous residence compared with the dining room, and our company more stimulating and sympathetic than that of her children. A much-petted contact with our superior race had developed her dog intelligence above its natural level, and turned her into an unnatural, neglectful mother, who was constantly forgetting her nursery for worldly pleasures.

 At certain periods of the day she repaired to the puppies and fed them, but came away when this perfunctory ceremony was accomplished; and she was glad enough to have a governess bring them up. She made no quarrel with Em’ly, and the two understood each other perfectly. I have never seen among animals any arrangement so civilized and so perverted. It made Em’ly perfectly happy. To see her sitting all day jealously spreading her wings over some blind puppies was sufficiently curious; but when they became large enough to come out from under the house and toddle about in the proud hen’s wake, I longed for some distinguished naturalist. I felt that our ignorance made us inappropriate spectators of such a phenomenon. Em’ly scratched and clucked, and the puppies ran to her, pawed her with their fat limp little legs, and retreated beneath her feathers in their games of hide and seek. Conceive, if you can, what confusion must have reigned in their infant minds as to who the setter was!

 “I reckon they think she’s the wet-nurse,” said the Virginian.

 When the puppies grew to be boisterous, I perceived that Em’ly’s mission was approaching its end. They were too heavy for her, and their increasing scope of playfulness was not in her line. Once or twice they knocked her over, upon which she arose and pecked them severely, and they retired to a safe distance, and sitting in a circle, yapped at her. I think they began to suspect that she was only a hen after all. So Em’ly resigned with an indifference which surprised me, until I remembered that if it had been chickens, she would have ceased to look after them by this time.

 But here she was again “out of a job,” as the Virginian said.

 “She’s raised them puppies for that triflin’ setter, and now she’ll be huntin’ around for something else useful to do that ain’t in her business.”

 Now there were other broods of chickens to arrive in the hen-house, and I did not desire any more bantam and turkey performances. So, to avoid confusion, I played a trick upon Em’ly. I went down to Sunk Creek and fetched some smooth, oval stones. She was quite satisfied with these, and passed a quiet day with them in a box. This was not fair, the Virginian asserted.

 “You ain’t going to jus’ leave her fooled that a-way?”

 I did not see why not.

 “Why, she raised them puppies all right. Ain’t she showed she knows how to be a mother anyways? Em’ly ain’t going to get her time took up for nothing while I’m round hyeh,” said the cow-puncher.

 He laid a gentle hold of Em’ly and tossed her to the ground. She, of course, rushed out among the corrals in a great state of nerves.

 “I don’t see what good you do meddling,” I protested.

 To this he deigned no reply, but removed the unresponsive stones from the straw.

 “Why, if they ain’t right warm!” he exclaimed plaintively. “The poor, deluded son-of-a-gun!” And with this unusual description of a lady, he sent the stones sailing like a line of birds. “I’m regular getting stuck on Em’ly,” continued the Virginian. “Yu’ needn’t to laugh. Don’t yu’ see she’s got sort o’ human feelin’s and desires? I always knowed hawsses was like people, and my collie, of course. It is kind of foolish, I expect, but that hen’s goin’ to have a real aigg di-rectly, right now, to set on.” With this he removed one from beneath another hen. “We’ll have Em’ly raise this hyeh,” said he, “so she can put in her time profitable.”

 It was not accomplished at once; for Em’ly, singularly enough, would not consent to stay in the box whence she had been routed. At length we found another retreat for her, and in these new surroundings, with a new piece of work for her to do, Em’ly sat on the one egg which the Virginian had so carefully provided for her.

 Thus, as in all genuine tragedies, was the stroke of Fate wrought by chance and the best intentions.

 Em’ly began sitting on Friday afternoon near sundown. Early next morning my sleep was gradually dispersed by a sound unearthly and continuous. Now it dwindled, receding to a distance; again it came near, took a turn, drifted to the other side of the house; then, evidently, whatever it was, passed my door close, and I jumped upright in my bed. The high, tense strain of vibration, nearly, but not quite, a musical note, was like the threatening scream of machinery, though weaker, and I bounded out of the house in my pajamas.

 There was Em’ly, disheveled, walking wildly about, her one egg miraculously hatched within ten hours. The little lonely yellow ball of down went cheeping along behind, following its mother as best it could. What, then, had happened to the established period of incubation? For an instant the thing was like a portent, and I was near joining Em’ly in her horrid surprise, when I saw how it all was. The Virginian had taken an egg from a hen which had already been sitting for three weeks.

 I dressed in haste, hearing Em’ly’s distracted outcry. It steadily sounded, without perceptible pause for breath, and marked her erratic journey back and forth through stables, lanes, and corrals. The shrill disturbance brought all of us out to see her, and in the hen-house I discovered the new brood making its appearance punctually.

 But this natural explanation could not be made to the crazed hen. She continued to scour the premises, her slant tail and its one preposterous feather waving as she aimlessly went, her stout legs stepping high with an unnatural motion, her head lifted nearly off her neck, and in her brilliant yellow eye an expression of more than outrage at this overturning of a natural law. Behind her, entirely ignored and neglected, trailed the little progeny. She never looked at it. We went about our various affairs, and all through the clear, sunny day that unending metallic scream pervaded the premises. The Virginian put out food and water for her, but she tasted nothing. I am glad to say that the little chicken did. I do not think that the hen’s eyes could see, except in the way that sleep-walkers’ do.

 The heat went out of the air, and in the canyon the violet light began to show. Many hours had gone, but Em’ly never ceased. Now she suddenly flew up in a tree and sat there with her noise still going; but it had risen lately several notes into a slim, acute level of terror, and was not like machinery any more, nor like any sound I ever heard before or since. Below the tree stood the bewildered little chicken, cheeping, and making tiny jumps to reach its mother.

 “Yes,” said the Virginian, “it’s comical. Even her aigg acted different from anybody else’s.” He paused, and looked across the wide, mellowing plain with the expression of easy-going gravity so common with him. Then he looked at Em’ly in the tree and the yellow chicken.

 “It ain’t so damned funny,” said he.

 We went in to supper, and I came out to find the hen lying on the ground, dead. I took the chicken to the family in the hen-house.

 No, it was not altogether funny any more. And I did not think less of the Virginian when I came upon him surreptitiously digging a little hole in the field for her.

 “I have buried some citizens here and there,” said he, “that I have respected less.”

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