The Book of Dragons (10 page)

“Oh, thank you—thank you, darling Arctic moth,” cried Jane. “You
are
good—I do hope you haven’t eaten enough to disagree with you afterwards!”

Millions of moth-voices answered, with laughter as soft as moth-wings, “We should be a poor set of fellows if we couldn’t over-eat ourselves for once in a way—to oblige a friend.”

And off they all fluttered, and the white grouse flew off, and the sealskin dwarfs were all dead, and the fires went out, and George and Jane were left alone in the dark with the dragon!

“Oh, dear,” said Jane, “this is the worst of all!”

“We’ve no friends left to help us,” said George. He never thought that the dragon himself might help them—but then that was an idea that would never have occurred to any boy.

It grew colder and colder and colder, and even under the grouse feathers the children shivered.

Then, when it was so cold that it could not manage to be any colder without breaking the thermometer, it stopped. And then the dragon uncurled himself from round the North Pole, and stretched his long, icy length over the snow, and said:

“This is something like! How faint those fires did make me feel!”

The fact was, the sealskin dwarfs had gone the wrong way to work: the dragon had been frozen so long that now he was nothing but solid ice all through, and the fires only made him feel as if he were going to die.

But when the fires were out he felt quite well, and very hungry. He looked round for something to eat. But he never noticed George and Jane, because they were frozen to his back.

He moved slowly off, and the snow-wreaths that bound the children to the Pole gave way with a snap, and there was the dragon, crawling south—with Jane and George on his
great, scaly, icy shining back. Of course the dragon had to go south if he went anywhere, because when you get to the North Pole there is no other way to go. The dragon rattled and tinkled as he went, exactly like the cut-glass chandelier when you touch it, as you are strictly forbidden to do. Of course there are a million ways of going south from the North Pole—so you will own that it was lucky for George and Jane when the dragon took the right way and suddenly got his heavy feet on the great slide. Off he went, full speed, between the starry lamps, towards Forest Hill and the Crystal Palace.

“He’s going to take us home,” said Jane. “Oh, he is a good dragon. I
am
glad!”

And George was rather glad too, though neither of the children felt at all sure of their welcome, especially as their feet were wet, and they were bringing a strange dragon home with them.

They went very fast, because dragons can go up hill as easily as down. You would not understand why if I told you—because you are only in long division at present; yet if you want me to tell you, so that you can show off to other boys, I will. It is because dragons can get their tails into the fourth dimension and hold on there, and when you can do that everything else is easy.

The dragon went very fast, only stopping to eat the
collector and the sportsman, who were still struggling to go up the slide—vainly, because they had no tails, and had never even heard of the fourth dimension.

And when the dragon got to the end of the slide he crawled very slowly across the dark field beyond the field where there was a bonfire, next to the next-door garden at Forest Hill. He went slower and slower, and in the bonfire field he stopped altogether, and, because the Arctic regions had not got down so far as that, and because the bonfire was very hot, the dragon began to melt, and melt, and melt—and before the children knew what he was doing they found themselves sitting in a large pool of water, and their boots were as wet as wet, and there was not a bit of dragon left!

So they went indoors.

Of course some grown-up or other noticed at once that the boots of George and of Jane were wet and muddy, and that they had both been sitting down in a very damp place, so they were sent to bed immediately.

It was long past their time, anyhow.

Now, if you are of an inquiring mind—not at all a nice thing in a little boy who reads fairy tales—you will want to know how it is that since the sealskin dwarfs have all been killed, and the fires all been let out, the Aurora Borealis shines, on cold nights, as brightly as ever.

My dear, I do not know! I am not too proud to own that there are some things I know nothing about—and this is one of them. But I do know that whoever has lighted those fires again, it is certainly not the sealskin dwarfs. They were all eaten by moths—and moth-eaten things are of no use, even to light fires!

THE ISLAND OF THE NINE WHIRLPOOLS

T
he dark arch that led to the witch’s cave was hung round with a black and yellow fringe of live snakes. As the Queen went in, keeping carefully in the middle of the arch, all the snakes lifted their wicked, flat heads and stared at her with their wicked, yellow eyes. You know it is not manners to stare, even at royalty, except of course for cats. And the snakes had been so badly brought up that they even put their tongues out at the poor lady. Nasty, thin, sharp tongues they were, too.

Now, the Queen’s husband was, of course, the King. And besides being a King he was an enchanter, and considered to be quite at the top of his profession: so he was very wise, and he knew that when Kings and Queens want children, the Queen always goes to see a witch. So he gave the Queen the witch’s address, and the Queen called on her, though she was
very frightened and did not like it at all. The witch was sitting by a fire of sticks, stirring something bubbly in a shiny, copper cauldron.

“What do
you
want, my dear?” she said to the Queen.

“Oh, if you please,” said the Queen, “I want a baby—a very nice one. We don’t want any expense spared. My husband said—”

“Oh, yes,” said the witch; “I know all about
him
. And so you want a child? Do you know it will bring you sorrow?”

“It will bring me joy first,” said the Queen.

“Great sorrow,” said the witch.

“Greater joy,” said the Queen.

Then the witch said, “Well, have your own way. I suppose it’s as much as your place is worth to go back without it?”

“The King would be very much annoyed,” said the poor Queen.

“Well, well,” said the witch; “what will you give me for the child?”

“Anything you ask for, and all I have,” said the Queen.

“Then give me your gold crown.”

The Queen took it off quickly.

“And your necklace of blue sapphires.”

The Queen unfastened it.

“And your pearl bracelets.”

The Queen unclasped them.

“And your ruby clasps.”

And the Queen undid the clasps.

“Now the lilies from your breast.”

The Queen gathered together the lilies.

“And the diamonds of your little bright shoe-buckles.”

The Queen pulled off her shoes.

Then the witch stirred the stuff that was in the cauldron, and, one by one, she threw in the gold crown, and the sapphire necklace, and the pearl bracelets, and the ruby clasps, and the diamonds of the little bright shoe-buckles, and, last of all, she threw in the lilies.

And the stuff in the cauldron boiled up in foaming flashes of yellow, and blue, and red, and white, and silver, and sent out a sweet scent, and presently the witch poured it out into a pipkin and set it to cool in the doorway among the snakes.

Then she said to the Queen: “Your child will have hair as golden as your crown, eyes as blue as your sapphires. The red of your rubies will lie on its lips, and its skin will be clear and pale as your pearls. Its soul will be white and sweet as your lilies, and your diamonds will be no clearer than its wits.”

“Oh, thank you, thank you,” said the Queen, “and when will it come?”

“You will find it when you get home.”

“And won’t you have something for yourself?” asked the Queen. “Any little thing you fancy—would you like a country, or a sack of jewels?”

“Nothing, thank you,” said the witch. “I could make more diamonds in a day than I should wear in a year.”

“Well, but do let me do some little thing for you,” the Queen went on. “Aren’t you tired of being a witch? Wouldn’t you like to be a Duchess or a Princess, or something like that?”

“There is one thing I should rather like,” said the witch, “but it’s hard to get in my trade.”

“Oh, tell me what,” said the Queen.

“I should like some one to love me,” said the witch.

Then the Queen threw her arms round the witch’s neck and kissed her half a hundred times. “Why,” she said, “I love you better than my life! You’ve given me the baby—and the baby shall love you, too.”

“Perhaps it will,” said the witch, “and when the sorrow comes send for me. Each of your fifty kisses will be a spell to bring me to you. Now, drink up your medicine, there’s a dear, and run along home.”

So the Queen drank the stuff in the pipkin, which was quite cool by this time, and she went out under the fringe of
snakes, and they all behaved like good Sunday-school children. Some of them even tried to drop a curtsy to her as she went by, though that is not easy when you are hanging wrong way up by your tail. But the snakes knew the Queen was friends with their mistress; so, of course, they had to do their best to be civil.

When the Queen got home, sure enough there was the baby lying in the cradle, with the royal arms blazoned on it, crying as naturally as possible. It had pink ribbons to tie up its sleeves: so the Queen saw at once it was a
girl
. When the King knew this he tore his black hair with fury.

“Oh, you silly, silly Queen!” he said. “Why didn’t I marry a clever lady? Did you think I went to all the trouble and expense of sending you to a witch to get a
girl?
You knew well enough it was a boy I wanted—a boy, an heir, a Prince—to learn all my magic and my enchantments, and to rule the kingdom after me. I’ll bet a crown—my crown,” he said, “you never even thought to tell the witch what kind you wanted! Did you now?”

And the Queen hung her head and had to confess that she had only asked for a
child
.

“Very well, madam,” said the King, “very well—have your own way. And make the most of your daughter, while she
is
a child.”

The Queen did. All the years of her life had never held half so much happiness as now lived in each of the moments when she held her little baby in her arms. And the years went on, and the King grew more and more clever at magic, and more and more disagreeable at home, and the Princess grew more beautiful and more dear every day she lived.

The Queen and the Princess were feeding the gold-fish in the courtyard fountains with crumbs of the Princess’s eighteenth birthday cake, when the King came into the courtyard, looking as black as thunder, with his black raven hopping after him. He shook his fist at his family, as indeed he generally did whenever he met them, for he was not a King with pretty home manners. The raven sat down on the edge of the marble basin and tried to peck the gold-fish. It was all he could do to show that he was in the same temper as his master.

“A girl indeed!” said the King, angrily. “I wonder you can dare to look me in the face, when you remember how your silliness has spoiled everything.”

“You oughtn’t to speak to my mother like that,” said the Princess. She was eighteen, and it came to her suddenly and all in a moment that she was grown-up: so she spoke out.

The King could not utter a word for several minutes. He was too angry. But the Queen said, “My dear child, don’t interfere,” quite crossly, for she was frightened.

And to her husband she said, “My dear, why do you go on worrying about it? Our daughter is not a boy, it is true—but she may marry a clever man who could rule your kingdom after you, and learn as much magic as ever you cared to teach him.”

Then the King found his tongue.

“If she
does
marry,” he said, slowly, “her husband will have to be a
very
clever man—oh, yes, very clever indeed! And he will have to know a very great deal more magic than
I
shall ever care to teach him.”

The Queen knew at once by the King’s tone that he was going to be disagreeable.

“Ah,” she said, “don’t punish the child because she loves her mother.”

“I’m not going to punish her for
that,”
said he; “I’m only going to teach her to respect her father.”

And without another word he went off to his laboratory and worked all night, boiling different colored things in crucibles, and copying charms in curious twisted letters from old brown books with mold stains on their yellowy pages.

The next day his plan was all arranged. He took the poor Princess to the Lone Tower, which stands on an island in the sea, a thousand miles from everywhere. He gave her a dowry, and settled a handsome income on her. He engaged a
competent dragon to look after her, and also a respectable griffin whose birth and bringing-up he knew all about. And he said:

“Here you shall stay, my dear, respectful daughter, till the clever man comes to marry you. He’ll have to be clever enough to sail a ship through the Nine Whirlpools that spin round the island, and to kill the dragon and the griffin. Till he comes you’ll never get any older or any wiser. No doubt he will soon come. You can employ yourself in embroidering your wedding gown. I wish you joy, my dutiful child.”

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