The Book of Dragons (18 page)

He plunged boldly into the caves, and searched and wandered and wandered and searched, and at last he came to a third door in the mountain, and on it was written, “The baby is asleep.” Just before the door stood fifty pairs of copper shoes, and no one could have looked at them for a moment without seeing what sort of feet they were made for, for each shoe had five holes in it for the drakling’s five claws. And there were fifty pairs, because the drakling took after his mother, and had a hundred feet—no more and no less. He was the kind called
Draco centipedis
in the learned books.

Edmund was a good deal frightened, but he remembered the grim expression of the cockatrice’s eye, and the fixed determination of its snore still rang in his ears, in spite of the
snoring of the drakling, which was, in itself, considerable. He screwed up his courage, flung the door open, and called out:

“Halloa, you drakling. Get out of bed this minute.”

The drakling stopped snoring and said, sleepily, “It ain’t time yet.”

“Your mother says you are to, anyhow; and look sharp about it, what’s more,” said Edmund, gaining courage from the fact that the drakling had not yet eaten him.

The drakling sighed, and Edmund could hear it getting out of bed. The next moment it began to come out of its room and to put on its shoes. It was not nearly so big as its mother; only about the size of a Baptist chapel.

“Hurry up,” said Edmund, as it fumbled clumsily with the seventeenth shoe.

“Mother said I was never to go out without my shoes,” said the drakling; so Edmund had to help it to put them on. It took some time, and was not a comfortable occupation.

At last the drakling said it was ready, and Edmund, who had forgotten to be frightened, said, “Come on then,” and they went back to the cockatrice.

The cave was rather narrow for the drakling, but it made itself thin, as you may see a fat worm do when it wants to get through a narrow crack in a piece of hard earth.

“Here it is,” said Edmund, and the cockatrice woke up at
once and asked the drakling very politely to sit down and wait. “Your mother will be here presently,” said the cockatrice, stirring up its fire.

The drakling sat down and waited, but it watched the fire with hungry eyes.

“I beg your pardon,” it said at last, “but I am always accustomed to have a little basin of fire directly I get up, and I feel rather faint. Might I?”

It reached out a claw towards the cockatrice’s basin.

“Certainly not,” said the cockatrice, sharply; “where were you brought up? Did they never teach you that ‘we must not ask for all we see’? Eh?”

“I beg your pardon,” said the drakling, humbly; “but I am really very hungry.”

The cockatrice beckoned Edmund to the side of the basin, and whispered in his ear so long and so earnestly that one side of the dear boy’s hair was quite burnt off. And he never once interrupted the cockatrice to ask why. But when the whispering was over, Edmund—whose heart, as I may have mentioned, was very tender—said to the drakling:

“If you are really hungry, poor thing, I can show you where there is plenty of fire.” And off he went through the caves, and the drakling followed.

When Edmund came to the proper place he stopped.

There was a round iron thing in the floor, like the ones the men shoot the coals down into your cellar, only much larger. Edmund heaved it up by a hook that stuck out at one side, and a rush of hot air came up that nearly choked him. But the drakling came close, and looked down with one eye, and sniffed, and said:

“That smells good, eh?”

“Yes,” said Edmund; “well, that’s the fire in the middle of the earth. There’s plenty of it, all done to a turn. You’d better go down and begin your breakfast, hadn’t you?”

So the drakling wriggled through the hole, and began to crawl faster and faster down the slanting shaft that leads to the fire in the middle of the earth. And Edmund, doing exactly as he had been told, for a wonder, caught the end of the drakling’s tail, and ran the iron hook through it, so that the drakling was held fast. And it could not turn round and wriggle up again to look after its poor tail, because, as everyone knows, the way to the fires below is very easy to go down, but quite impossible to come back on. There is something about it in Latin, beginning:
“Facilis descensus.”

So there was the drakling, fast by the silly tail of it, and there was Edmund very busy and important, and very pleased with himself, hurrying back to the cockatrice.

“Now,” said he.

“That smells good, eh?”

“Well, now,” said it, “go to the mouth of the cave and laugh at the dragon so that she hears you.”

Edmund very nearly said, “Why?” but he stopped in time, and instead, said:

“She won’t hear me—”

“Oh, very well,” said the cockatrice, “no doubt you know best,” and it began to tuck itself up again in the fire, so Edmund did as he was bid.

And when he began to laugh his laughter echoed in the mouth of the cave till it sounded like the laughter of a whole castleful of giants.

And the dragon, lying asleep in the sun, woke up and said, very crossly:

“What are you laughing at?”

“At you,” said Edmund, and went on laughing. The dragon bore it as long as she could, but, like everyone else, she couldn’t stand being made fun of, so presently she dragged herself up the mountain very slowly, because she had just had a rather heavy meal, and stood outside, and said, “What are you laughing at?” in a voice that made Edmund feel as if he should never laugh again.

Then the good cockatrice called out:

“At
you!
You’ve eaten your own drakling—swallowed it with the town. Your own little drakling! He, he, he! Ha, ha, ha!”

And Edmund found courage to cry “Ha, ha!” which sounded like tremendous laughter in the echo of the cave.

“Dear me,” said the dragon. “I thought the town stuck in my throat rather. I must take it out, and look through it more carefully.” And with that she coughed—and choked—and there was the town on the hillside.

Edmund had run back to the cockatrice, and it had told him what to do. So before the dragon had time to look through the town again for her drakling, the voice of the drakling itself was heard howling miserably from inside the mountain, because Edmund was pinching its tail as hard as he could in the round iron door, like the one where the men pour the coals out of the sacks into the cellar. And the dragon heard the voice and said:

“Why, whatever’s the matter with baby? He’s
not
here!” and made herself thin, and crept into the mountain to find her drakling. The cockatrice kept on laughing as loud as it could, and Edmund kept on pinching, and presently the great dragon—very long and narrow she had made herself—found her head where the round hole was with the iron lid. Her tail was a mile or two off—outside the mountain. When Edmund heard her coming he gave one last nip to the drakling’s tail, and then heaved up the lid and stood behind it, so that the dragon could not see him. Then he loosed the drakling’s tail from the
hook, and the dragon peeped down the hole just in time to see her drakling’s tail disappear down the smooth, slanting shaft with one last squeak of pain. Whatever may have been the poor dragon’s other faults, she was an excellent mother. She plunged head first into the hole, and slid down the shaft after her baby. Edmund watched her head go—and then the rest of her. She was so long, now she had stretched herself thin, that it took all night. It was like watching a goods train go by in Germany. When the last joint of her tail had gone Edmund slammed down the iron door. He was a kind-hearted boy, as you have guessed, and he was glad to think that dragon and drakling would now have plenty to eat of their favorite food, for ever and ever. He thanked the cockatrice for his kindness, and got home just in time to have breakfast and get to school by nine. Of course, he could not have done this if the town had been in its old place by the river in the middle of the plain, but it had taken root on the hillside just where the dragon left it.

“Well,” said the master, “where were you yesterday?”

Edmund explained, and the master at once caned him for not speaking the truth.

“But it
is
true,” said Edmund. “Why, the whole town was swallowed by the dragon. You know it was—”

“Nonsense,” said the master; “there was a thunder-storm and an earthquake, that’s all.”

And he caned Edmund more than ever.

“But,” said Edmund, who always would argue, even in the least favorable circumstances, “how do you account for the town being on the hillside now, instead of by the river as it used to be?”

“It was
always
on the hillside,” said the master. And all the class said the same, for they had more sense than to argue with a person who carried a cane.

“But look at the maps,” said Edmund, who wasn’t going to be beaten in argument, whatever he might be in the flesh. The master pointed to the map on the wall.

There was the town,
on the hillside!
And nobody but Edmund could see that of course the shock of being swallowed by the dragon had upset all the maps and put them wrong.

And then the master caned Edmund again, explaining that this time it was not for untruthfulness, but for his vexatious argumentative habits. This will show you what a prejudiced and ignorant man Edmund’s master was—how different from the revered Head of the nice school where your good parents are kind enough to send you.

Next day Edmund thought he would prove his tale by showing people the cockatrice, and he actually persuaded some people to go into the cave with him; but the cockatrice had bolted itself in, and would not open the door—so
Edmund got nothing by that except a scolding for taking people on a wild-goose chase.

“A wild goose,” said they, “is nothing like a cockatrice.”

And poor Edmund could not say a word, though he knew how wrong they were. The only person who believed him was his granny. But then she was very old and very kind, and had always said he was the best of boys.

Only one good thing came of all this long story. Edmund has never been quite the same boy since. He does not argue quite so much, and he agreed to be apprenticed to a locksmith, so that he might some day be able to pick the lock of the cockatrice’s front door—and learn some more of the things that other people don’t know.

But he is quite an old man now, and he hasn’t got that door open yet!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

E(dith) Nesbit (Mrs. Hubert Bland, 1858–1924) was born in London and educated in France and Germany. She began her literary career as a poet and novelist, but is best known for her stories about ordinary children who discover magic in their everyday lives. In her lifetime, E. Nesbit published nearly forty works of fiction, mostly written for children.

ABOUT LOOKING GLASS LIBRARY

The Looking Glass Library series features the world’s finest fairy tales, adventure stories, and fantasy novels—yesterday’s classics for today’s readers.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Introduction copyright © 2010 by Ruth Stiles Gannett

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Originally published in 1901 by Harper Brothers.

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Nesbit, E. (Edith), 1858–1924.
The book of dragons / by E. Nesbit ; introduction by Ruth Stiles Gannett ; illustrated by H. R. Millar.
v. cm. —(Looking Glass Library ; 4)
Contents: The book of beasts—Uncle James, or, The purple stranger—The deliverers of their country—The ice dragon, or, Do as you are told—The island of the nine whirlpools—The dragon tamers—The fiery dragon, or, The heart of stone and the heart of gold—
Kind little Edmund, or, The caves and the cockatrice.
eISBN: 978-0-375-89534-0
[1. Children’s stories, English. 2. Dragons—Juvenile fiction. [1. Dragons—Fiction.
2. Short stories.] I. Millar, H. R., ill. II. Title.
PZ7.N43777Bo 2010

[Fic]—dc22
2009000578

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