The Book of Dragons (5 page)

Everyone thought of the poor army.

“There is only one thing to be done.” Uncle James was warming to his subject. “Could we ever forgive ourselves if by neglecting a simple precaution we lost more rabbits—or even, perhaps, our navy, our police, and our fire brigade? For I warn you that the purple dragon will respect nothing, however sacred.”

Everyone thought of themselves—and they said, “What is the simple precaution?”

Then Uncle James said:

“Tomorrow is the dragon’s birthday. He is accustomed to having a present on his birthday. If he gets a nice present he will be in a hurry to take it away and show it to his friends, and he will fly off and never come back.”

The crowd cheered wildly—and the Princess from her balcony clapped her hands.

“The present the dragon expects,” said Uncle James, cheerfully, “is rather an expensive one. But, when we give, it should not be in a grudging spirit, especially to visitors. What the dragon wants is a Princess. We have only one Princess, it is
true; but far be it from us to display a miserly temper at such a moment. And the gift is worthless that costs the giver nothing. Your readiness to give up your Princess will only show how generous you are.”

The crowd began to cry, for they loved their Princess, though they quite saw that their first duty was to be generous and give the poor dragon what it wanted.

The Princess began to cry, for she did not want to be anybody’s birthday present—especially a purple dragon’s. And Tom began to cry because he was so angry.

He went straight home and told his little elephant; and the elephant cheered him up so much that presently the two grew quite absorbed in a teetotum which the elephant was spinning with his little trunk.

Early in the morning Tom went to the palace. He looked out across the downs—there were hardly any rabbits playing there now—and then he gathered white roses and threw them at the Princess’s window till she woke up and looked out.

“Come up and kiss me,” she said.

So Tom climbed up the white rose bush and kissed the Princess through the window, and said:

“Many happy returns of the day.”

Then Mary Ann began to cry, and said:

“Oh, Tom—how can you? When you know quite well—”

“Oh, don’t,” said Tom. “Why, Mary Ann, my precious, my Princess—what do you think I should be doing while the dragon was getting his birthday present? Don’t cry, my own little Mary Ann! Fido and I have arranged everything. You’ve only got to do as you are told.”

“Is that all?” said the Princess. “Oh—that’s easy—I’ve often done
that!”

Then Tom told her what she was to do. And she kissed him again and again. “Oh, you dear, good, clever Tom,” she said; “how glad I am that I gave you Fido. You two have saved me. You dears!”

The next morning Uncle James put on his best coat and hat and the waistcoat with the gold snakes on it—he was a magician, and he had a bright taste in waistcoats—and he called a cab to take the Princess out.

“Come, little birthday present,” he said, tenderly, “the dragon
will
be so pleased. And I’m glad to see you’re not crying. You know, my child, we cannot begin too young to learn to think of the happiness of others rather than our own. I should not like my dear little niece to be selfish, or to wish to deny a trivial pleasure to a poor, sick dragon, far from his home and friends.”

And the Princess said she would try not to be selfish.

So presently the cab drew up near the pillar, and there
was the dragon, his ugly purple head shining in the sun, and his ugly purple mouth half open.

Then Uncle James said, “Good morning, sir. We have brought you a small present for your birthday. We do not like to let such an anniversary go by without some suitable testimonial, especially to one who is a stranger in our midst. Our means are small, but our hearts are large. We have but one Princess, but we give her freely—do we not, my child?”

The Princess said she supposed so, and the dragon came a little nearer.

Suddenly a voice cried: “Run!” and there was Tom, and he had brought the Zoological guinea-pig and a pair of Belgian hares with him.

“Just to see fair,” said Tom.

Uncle James was furious. “What do you mean, sir,” he cried, “by intruding on a State Function with your common rabbits and things? Go away, naughty little boy, and play with them somewhere else.”

But while he was speaking the rabbits had come up one on each side of him, their great sides towering ever so high, and now they pressed him between them so that he was buried in their thick fur and almost choked. The Princess, meantime, had run to the other side of the pillar and was peeping round it to see what was going on. A crowd had
followed the cab out of the town; now they reached the scene of the “State Function”—and they all cried out:

“Fair play—play fair! We can’t go back on our word like this. Give a thing and take a thing? Why, it’s
never
done. Let the poor exiled stranger dragon have his birthday present.” And they tried to get at Tom—but the guinea-pig stood in the way.

“Yes,” Tom cried. “Fair play
is
a jewel. And your helpless exile shall have the Princess: if he can catch her. Now then, Mary Ann.”

Mary Ann looked round the big pillar and called to the dragon: “Boo! You can’t catch me,” and began to run as fast as ever she could, and the dragon after her. When the Princess had run half a mile she stopped, dodged round a tree, and ran back to the pillar and round it, and the dragon after her. You see, he was so long he could not turn as quickly as she could. Round and round the pillar ran the Princess. The first time she ran round a long way from the pillar, and then nearer and nearer—with the dragon after her all the time; and he was so busy trying to catch her that he never noticed that Tom had tied the very end of his long, tight, whipcordy tail to the rock, so that the more the dragon ran round, the more times he twisted his tail round the pillar. It was exactly like winding a top—only the peg was the pillar, and the dragon’s tail was the string. And the magician was safe between the Belgian hares, and couldn’t see anything but darkness, or do anything but choke.

The dragon after her

When the dragon was wound on to the pillar, as much as he could possibly be, and as tight—like cotton on a reel—the Princess stopped running, and though she had very little breath left, she managed to say, “Yah—who’s won now?”

This annoyed the dragon so much that he put out all his strength—spread his great purple wings, and tried to fly at her. Of course this pulled his tail, and pulled it very hard, so hard that as he pulled the tail
had
to come, and the pillar
had
to come round with the tail, and the island
had
to come round with the pillar, and in another minute the tail was loose, and the island was spinning round exactly like a teetotum. It spun so fast that everyone fell flat on their faces and held on tight to themselves, because they felt something was going to happen. All but the magician, who was choking between the Belgian hares, and felt nothing but fur and fury.

And something did happen. The dragon had sent the kingdom of Rotundia spinning the way it ought to have gone at the beginning of the world, and as it spun round all the animals began to change sizes. The guinea-pigs got small and the elephants got big, and the men and women and children would have changed sizes, too, if they had not had the sense
to hold on to themselves, very tight indeed, with both hands; which, of course, the animals could not be expected to know how to do. And the best of it was that when the small beasts got big and the big beasts got small the dragon got small too, and fell at the Princess’s feet—a little, crawling, purple newt with wings.

“Funny little thing,” said the Princess, when she saw it. “I will take it for a birthday present.”

But while all the people were still on their faces, holding on tight to themselves, Uncle James, the magician, never thought of holding tight—he only thought of how to punish Belgian hares and the sons of gardeners; so when the big beasts grew small, he grew small with the other beasts, and the little purple dragon, when he fell at the Princess’s feet, saw there a very small magician named Uncle James. And the dragon took him because it wanted a birthday present.

So now all the animals were new sizes—and at first it seemed very strange to everyone to have great lumbering elephants and a tiny little dormouse, but they have got used to it now, and think no more of it than we do.

All this happened several years ago, and the other day I saw in “The Rotundia Times” an account of the wedding of the Princess with Lord Thomas Gardener, K.C.D., and I knew she could not have married anyone but Tom, so I suppose
they made him a Lord on purpose for the wedding—and K.C.D., of course, means Clever Conqueror of the Dragon. If you think that is wrong it is only because you don’t know how they spell in Rotundia. The paper said that among the beautiful presents of the bridegroom to the bride was an enormous elephant, on which the bridal pair made their wedding tour. This must have been Fido. You remember Tom promised to give him back to the Princess when they were married. “The Rotundia Times” called the married couple “the happy pair.” It was clever of the paper to think of calling them that—it is such a pretty and novel expression, and I think it is truer than many of the things you see in papers.

Because, you see, the Princess and the gardener’s son were so fond of each other they could not help being happy—and besides, they had an elephant of their very own to ride on. If that is not enough to make people happy, I should like to know what is. Though, of course, I know there are some people who could not be happy unless they had a whale to sail on, and perhaps not even then. But they are greedy, grasping people, the kind who would take four helpings of pudding, as likely as not, which neither Tom nor Mary Ann ever did.

THE DELIVERERS OF THEIR COUNTRY

I
t all began with Effie’s getting something in her eye. It hurt very much indeed, and it felt something like a red-hot spark—only it seemed to have legs as well, and wings like a fly. Effie rubbed and cried—not real crying, but the kind your eye does all by itself without your being miserable inside your mind—and then she went to her father to have the thing in her eye taken out. Effie’s father was a doctor, so of course he knew how to take things out of eyes—he did it very cleverly with a soft paintbrush dipped in castor-oil. When he had got the thing out, he said:

“This is very curious.” Effie had often got things in her eye before, and her father had always seemed to think it was natural—rather tiresome and naughty perhaps, but still
natural. He had never before thought it curious. She stood holding her handkerchief to her eye, and said:

“I don’t believe it’s out.” People always say this when they have had something in their eyes.

“Oh, yes—it’s
out,”
said the doctor—“here it is on the brush. This is very interesting.”

Effie had never heard her father say that about anything that she had any share in. She said
“What?”

The doctor carried the brush very carefully across the room, and held the point of it under his microscope—then he twisted the brass screws of the microscope, and looked through the top with one eye.

“Dear me,” he said. “Dear,
dear
me! Four well-developed limbs; a long caudal appendage; five toes, unequal in lengths, almost like one of the Lacertidæ, yet there are traces of wings.” The creature under his eye wriggled a little in the castor-oil, and he went on: “Yes; a bat-like wing. A new specimen, undoubtedly. Effie, run round to the professor and ask him to be kind enough to step in for a few minutes.”

“You might give me sixpence, daddy,” said Effie, “because I did bring you the new specimen. I took great care of it inside my eye; and my eye
does
hurt.”

The doctor was so pleased with the new specimen that he gave Effie a shilling, and presently the professor stepped
round. He stayed to lunch, and he and the doctor quarrelled very happily all the afternoon about the name and the family of the thing that had come out of Effie’s eye.

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