The Book of Dragons (4 page)

The men and women and children in this wonderful island were quite the right size, because their ancestors had
come over with the Conqueror long after the island had settled down and the animals grown on it.

Now the natural history lesson is over, and if you have been attending, you know more about Rotundia than anyone there did, except three people: the Lord Chief Schoolmaster, and the Princess’s uncle—who was a magician, and knew everything without learning it—and Tom, the gardener’s son.

Tom had learned more at school than anyone else, because he wished to take a prize. The prize offered by the Lord Chief Schoolmaster was a
History of Rotundia
, beautifully bound, with the royal arms on the back. But after that day when the Princess said she meant to marry Tom, the gardener’s boy thought it over, and he decided that the best prize in the world would be the Princess, and this was the prize Tom meant to take; and when you are a gardener’s son, and have decided to marry a Princess, you will find that the more you learn at school the better.

The Princess always played with Tom on the days when the little dukes and marquises did not come to tea—and when he told her he was almost sure of the first prize, she clapped her hands and said:

“Dear Tom, dear good, clever Tom, you deserve all the prizes. And I will give you my pet elephant—and you can keep him till we’re married.”

The pet elephant was called Fido, and the gardener’s son took him away in his coat-pocket. He was the dearest little elephant you ever saw—about six inches long. But he was very, very wise—he could not have been wiser if he had been a mile high. He lay down comfortably in Tom’s pocket, and when Tom put in his hand, Fido curled his little trunk round Tom’s fingers with an affectionate confidence that made the boy’s heart warm to his new little pet. What with the elephant, and the Princess’s affection, and the knowledge that the very next day he would receive the
History of Rotundia
, beautifully bound, with the royal arms on the cover, Tom could hardly sleep a wink. And, besides, the dog did bark so terribly. There was only one dog in Rotundia—the kingdom could not afford to keep more than one: he was a Mexican lap-dog of the kind that in most parts of the world only measures seven inches from the end of his dear nose to the tip of his darling tail—but in Rotundia he was bigger than I can possibly expect you to believe. And when he barked, his bark was so large that it filled up all the night and left no room for sleep or dreams or polite conversation, or anything else at all. He never barked at things that went on in the island—he was too large-minded for that; but when ships went blundering by in the dark, tumbling over the rocks at the end of the island, he would bark once or twice, just to let the ships
know that they couldn’t come playing about there just as they liked.

But on this particular night he barked, and barked, and barked—and the Princess said, “Oh dear, oh dear, I wish he wouldn’t, I am so sleepy.” And Tom said to himself: “I wonder whatever is the matter. As soon as it’s light I’ll go and see.”

So when it began to be pretty pink-and-yellow daylight, Tom got up and went out. And all the time the Mexican lap-dog barked so that the houses shook, and the tiles on the roof of the palace rattled like milk-cans in a cart whose horse is frisky.

“I’ll go to the pillar,” thought Tom, as he went through the town. The pillar, of course, was the top of the piece of rock that had stuck itself through Rotundia millions of years before, and made it spin round the wrong way. It was quite in the middle of the island, and stuck up ever so far, and when you were at the top you could see a great deal farther than when you were not.

As Tom went out from the town, and across the downs, he thought what a pretty sight it was to see the rabbits in the bright, dewy morning, frisking with their young ones by the mouths of their burrows. He did not go very near the rabbits, of course, because when a rabbit of that size is at play it does not always look where it is going, and it might easily have
crushed Tom with its foot, and then it would have been very sorry afterwards. And Tom was a kind boy, and would not have liked to make even a rabbit unhappy. Earwigs in our country often get out of the way when they think you are going to walk on them. They too have kind hearts, and they would not like you to be sorry afterwards.

So Tom went on, looking at the rabbits and watching the morning grow more and more red and golden. And the Mexican lap-dog barked all the time, till the church bells tinkled, and the chimney of the apple factory rocked again.

But when Tom got to the pillar, he saw that he would not need to climb to the top to find out what the dog was barking at.

For there, by the pillar, lay a very large purple dragon. His wings were like old purple umbrellas that have been very much rained on, and his head was large and bald, like the top of a purple toad-stool, and his tail, which was purple too, was very, very, very long, and thin, and tight like the lash of a carriage whip.

It was licking one of its purple umbrella-y wings, and every now and then it moaned and leaned its head back against the rocky pillar as though it felt faint. Tom saw at once what had happened. A flight of purple dragons must have crossed the island in the night, and this poor one must have knocked its wing and broken it against the pillar.

Everyone is kind to everyone in Rotundia, and Tom was not afraid of the dragon, although he had never spoken to one before. He had often watched them flying across the sea, but he had never expected to get to know one personally.

So now he said:

“I am afraid you don’t feel quite well.”

The dragon shook his large purple head. He could not speak, but like all other animals, he could understand well enough when he liked.

“Can I get you anything?” asked Tom, politely.

The dragon opened his purple eyes with an inquiring smile.

“A bun or two, now,” said Tom, coaxingly; “there’s a beautiful bun-tree quite close.”

The dragon opened a great purple mouth and licked his purple lips, so Tom ran and shook the bun-tree, and soon came back with an armful of fresh currant buns, and as he came he picked a few of the Bath kind which grow on the low bushes near the pillar.

Because, of course, another consequence of the island’s having spun the wrong way is that all the things we have to make—buns and cakes and shortbread—grow on trees and bushes, but in Rotundia they have to make their cauliflowers
and cabbages and carrots and apples and onions, just as our cooks make puddings and turnovers.

Tom gave all the buns to the dragon, saying:

“Here, try to eat a little. You’ll soon feel better then.”

The dragon ate up the buns, nodded rather ungraciously, and began to lick his wing again. So Tom left him, and went back to the town with the news, and everyone was so excited at a real live dragon’s being on the island—a thing which had never happened before—that they all went out to look at it, instead of going to the prize-giving, and the Lord Chief Schoolmaster went with the rest. Now, he had Tom’s prize, the
History of Rotundia
, in his pocket—the one bound in calf, with the royal arms on the cover—and it happened to drop out, and the dragon ate it, so Tom never got the prize after all. But the dragon, when he had got it, did not like it.

“Perhaps it’s all for the best,” said Tom. “I might not have liked that prize either, if I had got it.”

It happened to be a Wednesday, so when the Princess’s friends were asked what they would like to do, all the little dukes and marquises and earls said, “Let’s go and see the dragon.” But the little duchesses and marchionesses and countesses said they were afraid.

Then Princess Mary Ann spoke up royally, and said, “Don’t be silly, because it’s only in fairy stories and histories
of England, and things like that, that people are unkind and want to hurt each other. In Rotundia everyone is kind, and no one has anything to be afraid of, unless they’re naughty; and then we know it’s for our own good. Let’s all go and see the dragon. We might take him some acid-drops.”

So they went. And all the titled children took it in turns to feed the dragon with acid-drops, and he seemed pleased and flattered, and wagged as much of his purple tail as he could get at conveniently; for it was a very, very long tail indeed. But when it came to the Princess’s turn to give an acid-drop to the dragon, he smiled a very wide smile, and wagged his tail to the very last long inch of it, as much as to say, “Oh, you nice, kind, pretty little Princess.” But deep down in his wicked purple heart he was saying, “Oh, you nice,
fat
, pretty little Princess, I should like to eat you instead of these silly acid-drops.” But, of course, nobody heard him except the Princess’s uncle, and he was a magician, and accustomed to listening at doors. It was part of his trade.

Now, you will remember that I told you there was
one
wicked person in Rotundia, and I cannot conceal from you any longer that this Complete Bad was the Princess’s Uncle James. Magicians are always bad, as you know from your fairy books, and some uncles are bad, as you see by the
Babes in the Wood, or The Norfolk Tragedy
, and one James at least
was bad, as you have learned from your English history. And when anyone is a magician, and is also an uncle, and is named James as well, you need not expect anything nice from him. He is a Three Fold Complete Bad—and he will come to no good.

Uncle James had long wanted to get rid of the Princess, and have the kingdom to himself. He did not like many things—a nice kingdom was almost the only thing he cared for—but he had never seen his way quite clearly, because everyone is so kind in Rotundia that wicked spells will not work there, but run off those blameless islanders like water off a duck’s back. Now, however, Uncle James thought there might be a chance for him—because he knew that now there were two wicked people on the island who could stand by each other—himself and the dragon. But he said nothing, only he exchanged a meaningful glance with the dragon, and everyone went home to tea. And no one had seen the meaningful glance, except Tom. And he went home, and told his elephant all about it. The intelligent little creature listened carefully, and then climbed from Tom’s knee to the table, on which stood an ornamental calendar which the Princess had given Tom for a Christmas present. With its tiny trunk the elephant pointed out a date—the fifteenth of August, the Princess’s birthday, and looked anxiously at its master.

“What is it, Fido—good little elephant—then?” said Tom, and the sagacious animal repeated its former gesture. Then Tom understood.

“Oh, something is to happen on her birthday? All right. I’ll be on the look-out,” and he was.

At first the people of Rotundia were quite pleased with the dragon, who lived by the pillar and fed himself from the bun-trees, but by-and-by he began to wander. He would creep into the burrows made by the great rabbits; and excursionists, sporting on the downs, would see his long, tight, whip-like tail wriggling down a burrow and out of sight, and before they had time to say, “There he goes,” his ugly purple head would come poking out from another rabbit-hole—perhaps just behind them—or laugh softly to itself just in their ears. And the dragon’s laugh was not a merry one. This sort of hide-and-seek amused people at first, but by-and-by it began to get on their nerves: and if you don’t know what that means, ask Mother to tell you next time you are playing blind man’s buff when she has a headache. Then the dragon got into the habit of cracking his tail, as people crack whips, and this also got on people’s nerves. Then, too, little things began to be missed. And you know how unpleasant that is, even in a private school, and in a public kingdom it is, of course, much worse. The things that were missed were nothing much at first—a few little elephants, a hippopotamus or two, and some giraffes, and things like that. It was nothing much, as I say, but it made people feel uncomfortable. Then one day a favorite rabbit of the Princess’s called Frederick mysteriously disappeared, and then came a terrible morning when the Mexican lap-dog was missing. He had barked ever since the dragon came to the island, and people had grown quite used to the noise. So when his barking suddenly ceased it woke everybody up—and they all went out to see what was the matter. And the lap-dog was gone!

By-and-by he began to wander

A boy was sent to wake the army, so that it might look for him. But the army was gone too! And now the people began to be frightened. Then Uncle James came out on to the terrace of the palace, and he made the people a speech. He said:

“Friends—fellow-citizens—I cannot disguise from myself or from you that this purple dragon is a poor penniless exile, a helpless alien in our midst, and, besides, he is a—is no end of a dragon.”

The people thought of the dragon’s tail and said, “Hear, hear.”

Uncle James went on: “Something has happened to a gentle and defenseless member of our community. We don’t know what has happened.”

Everyone thought of the rabbit named Frederick, and groaned.

“The defenses of our country have been swallowed up,” said Uncle James.

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