The Book of Dragons (2 page)

“I think I should like a book. Will you get me one, Nurse?”

“Bless the child,” said Nurse, “you don’t suppose you’ve lost the use of your legs with just being a King? Run along, do, and get your books yourself.”

So Lionel went down into the library. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor were there, and when Lionel came in they bowed very low, and were beginning to ask Lionel most politely what on earth he was coming bothering for now—when Lionel cried out:

“Oh, what a worldful of books! Are they yours?”

“They are yours, Your Majesty,” answered the Chancellor. “They were the property of the late King, your great-great—”

“Yes, I know,” Lionel interrupted. “Well, I shall read them all. I love to read. I am so glad I learned to read.”

“If I might venture to advise Your Majesty,” said the Prime Minister, “I should
not
read these books. Your great—”

“Yes?” said Lionel, quickly.

“He was a very good King—oh, yes, really a very superior King in his way, but he was a little—well, strange.”

“Mad?” asked Lionel, cheerfully.

“No, no”—both the gentlemen were sincerely shocked. “Not mad; but if I may express it so, he was—er—too clever by half. And I should not like a little King of mine to have anything to do with his books.”

Lionel looked puzzled.

“The fact is,” the Chancellor went on, twisting his red beard in an agitated way, “your great—”

“Go on,” said Lionel.

“Was
called
a wizard.”

“But he wasn’t?”

“Of course not—a most worthy King was your great—”

“I see.”

“But I wouldn’t touch his books.”

“Just this one,” cried Lionel, laying his hands on the cover
of a great brown book that lay on the study table. It had gold patterns on the brown leather, and gold clasps with turquoises and rubies in the twists of them, and gold corners, so that the leather should not wear out too quickly.

“I
must
look at this one,” Lionel said, for on the back in big letters he read:
“The Book of Beasts.”

The Chancellor said, “Don’t be a silly little King.”

But Lionel had got the gold clasps undone, and he opened the first page, and there was a beautiful butterfly all red, and brown, and yellow, and blue, so beautifully painted that it looked as if it were alive.

“There,” said Lionel, “isn’t that lovely? Why—”

But as he spoke the beautiful butterfly fluttered its many-colored wings on the yellow old page of the book, and flew up and out of the window.

“Well!” said the Prime Minister, as soon as he could speak for the lump of wonder that had got into his throat and tried to choke him, “that’s magic, that is.”

But before he had spoken the King had turned the next page, and there was a shining bird complete and beautiful in every blue feather of him. Under him was written, “Blue Bird of Paradise,” and while the King gazed enchanted at the charming picture the blue bird fluttered his wings on the yellow page and spread them and flew out of the book.

Then the Prime Minister snatched the book away from the King and shut it up on the blank page where the bird had been, and put it on a very high shelf. And the Chancellor gave the King a good shaking, and said:

“You’re a naughty, disobedient little King,” and was very angry indeed.

“I don’t see that I’ve done any harm,” said Lionel. He hated being shaken, as all the boys do; he would much rather have been slapped.

“No harm?” said the Chancellor. “Ah—but what do you know about it? That’s the question. How do you know what might have been on the next page—a snake or a worm, or a centipede or a revolutionist, or something like that.”

“Well, I’m sorry if I’ve vexed you,” said Lionel. “Come let’s kiss and be friends.” So he kissed the Prime Minister, and they settled down for a nice quiet game of noughts and crosses, while the Chancellor went to add up his accounts.

But when Lionel was in bed he could not sleep for thinking of the book, and when the full moon was shining with all her might and light he got up and crept down to the library and climbed up and got
The Book of Beasts
.

He took it outside onto the terrace, where the moonlight was as bright as day, and he opened the book, and saw the empty pages with “Butterfly” and “Blue Bird of Paradise”
underneath, and then he turned the next page. There was some sort of red thing sitting under a palm tree, and under it was written “Dragon.” The dragon did not move, and the King shut up the book rather quickly and went back to bed.

But the next day he wanted another look, so he got the book out into the garden, and when he undid the clasps with the rubies and turquoises, the book opened all by itself at the picture with “Dragon” underneath, and the sun shone full on the page. And then, quite suddenly, a great red dragon came out of the book, and spread vast scarlet wings and flew away across the garden to the far hills, and Lionel was left with the empty page before him, for the page was quite empty except for the green palm tree and the yellow desert, and the little streaks of red where the paint brush had gone outside the pencil outline of the red dragon.

And then Lionel felt that he had indeed done it. He had not been King twenty-four hours, and already he had let loose a red dragon to worry his faithful subjects’ lives out. And they had been saving up so long to buy him a crown, and everything!

Lionel began to cry.

Then the Chancellor and the Prime Minister and the Nurse all came running to see what was the matter. And when they saw the book they understood, and the Chancellor said:

The dragon flew away across the garden

“You naughty little King! Put him to bed, Nurse, and let him think over what he’s done.”

“Perhaps, My Lord,” said the Prime Minister, “we’d better first find out just exactly what he
has
done.”

Then Lionel, in floods of tears, said:

“It’s a red dragon, and it’s gone flying away to the hills, and I
am
so sorry, and, oh, do forgive me!”

But the Prime Minister and the Chancellor had other things to think of than forgiving Lionel. They hurried off to consult the police and see what could be done. Everyone did what they could. They sat on committees and stood on guard, and lay in wait for the dragon, but he stayed up in the hills, and there was nothing more to
be
done. The faithful Nurse, meanwhile, did not neglect her duty. Perhaps she did more than anyone else, for she slapped the King and put him to bed without his tea, and when it got dark she would not give him a candle to read by.

“You are a naughty little King,” she said, “and nobody will love you.”

Next day the dragon was still quiet, though the more poetic of Lionel’s subjects could see the redness of the Dragon shining through the green trees quite plainly. So Lionel put
on his crown and sat on his throne and said he wanted to make some laws.

And I need hardly say that though the Prime Minister and the Chancellor and the Nurse might have the very poorest opinion of Lionel’s private judgment, and might even slap him and send him to bed, the minute he got on his throne and set his crown on his head, he became infallible—which means that everything he said was right, and that he couldn’t possibly make a mistake. So when he said:

“There is to be a law forbidding people to open books in schools or elsewhere”—he had the support of at least half of his subjects, and the other half—the grown-up half—pretended to think he was quite right.

Then he made a law that everyone should always have enough to eat. And this pleased everyone except the ones who had always had too much.

And when several other nice new laws were made and written down he went home and made mud-houses and was very happy. And he said to his Nurse:

“People will love me now I’ve made such a lot of pretty new laws for them.”

But Nurse said: “Don’t count your chickens, my dear. You haven’t seen the last of that dragon yet.”

Now the next day was Saturday. And in the afternoon the
dragon suddenly swooped down upon the common in all his hideous redness, and carried off the Football Players, umpires, goal-posts, football, and all.

Then the people were very angry indeed, and they said:

“We might as well be a republic. After saving up all these years to get his crown, and everything!”

And wise people shook their heads and foretold a decline in the National Love of Sport. And, indeed, football was not at all popular for some time afterwards.

Lionel did his best to be a good King during the week, and the people were beginning to forgive him for letting the dragon out of the book. “After all,” they said, “football is a dangerous game, and perhaps it is wise to discourage it.”

Popular opinion held that the Football Players, being tough and hard, had disagreed with the dragon so much that he had gone away to some place where they only play cats’ cradle and games that do not make you hard and tough.

All the same, Parliament met on the Saturday afternoon, a convenient time, when most of the Members would be free to attend, to consider the dragon. But unfortunately the dragon, who had only been asleep, woke up because it was Saturday, and he considered the Parliament, and afterwards there were not any Members left, so they tried to make a new Parliament, but being an M.P. had somehow grown as
unpopular as football playing, and no one would consent to be elected, so they had to do without a Parliament. When the next Saturday came round everyone was a little nervous, but the red dragon was pretty quiet that day and only ate an Orphanage.

Lionel was very, very unhappy. He felt that it was his disobedience that had brought this trouble on the Parliament and the Orphanage and the Football Players, and he felt that it was his duty to try and do something. The question was, what?

The blue bird that had come out of the book used to sing very nicely in the palace rose-garden, and the butterfly was very tame, and would perch on his shoulder when he walked among the tall lilies: so Lionel saw that
all
the creatures in
The Book of Beasts
could not be wicked, like the dragon, and he thought:

“Suppose I could get another beast out who would fight the dragon?”

So he took
The Book of Beasts
out into the rose-garden and opened the page next to the one where the dragon had been just a tiny bit to see what the name was. He could only see “cora,” but he felt the middle of the page swelling up thick with the creature that was trying to come out, and it was only by putting the book down and sitting on it suddenly, very
hard, that he managed to get it shut. Then he fastened the clasps with the rubies and turquoises in them and sent for the Chancellor, who had been ill on Saturday week, and so had not been eaten with the rest of the Parliament, and he said:

“What animal ends in ‘cora’?”

The Chancellor answered:

“The Manticora, of course.”

“What is he like?” asked the King.

“He is the sworn foe of dragons,” said the Chancellor. “He drinks their blood. He is yellow, with the body of a lion and the face of a man. I wish we had a few Manticoras here now. But the last died hundreds of years ago—worse luck!”

Then the King ran and opened the book at the page that had “cora” on it, and there was the picture-Manticora, all yellow, with a lion’s body and a man’s face, just as the Chancellor had said. And under the picture was written, “Manticora.”

And in a few minutes the Manticora came sleepily out of the book, rubbing its eyes with its hands and mewing piteously. It seemed very stupid, and when Lionel gave it a push and said, “Go along and fight the dragon, do,” it put its tail between its legs and fairly ran away. It went and hid behind the Town Hall, and at night when the people were asleep it went round and ate all the pussycats in the town. And then it
mewed more than ever. And on the Saturday morning, when people were a little timid about going out, because the dragon had no regular hour for calling, the Manticora went up and down the streets and drank all the milk that was left in the cans at the doors for people’s teas, and it ate the cans as well.

And just when it had finished the very last little ha’porth, which was short measure, because the milkman’s nerves were quite upset, the red dragon came down the street looking for the Manticora. It edged off when it saw him coming, for it was not at all the dragon-fighting kind; and, seeing no other door open, the poor, hunted creature took refuge in the General Post Office, and there the dragon found it, trying to conceal itself among the ten o’clock mail. The dragon fell on the Manticora at once, and the mail was no defense. The mewings were heard all over the town. All the pussies and the milk the Manticora had had seemed to have strengthened its mew wonderfully. Then there was a sad silence, and presently the people whose windows looked that way saw the dragon come walking down the steps of the General Post Office spitting fire and smoke, together with tufts of Manticora fur, and the fragments of the registered letters. Things were growing very serious. However popular the King might become during the week, the dragon was sure to do something on Saturday to upset the people’s loyalty.

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