The Book of Dragons (6 page)

But at tea-time another thing happened. Effie’s brother Harry fished something out of his tea, which he thought at first was an earwig. He was just getting ready to drop it on the floor, and end its life in the usual way, when it shook itself in the spoon—spread two wet wings, and flopped on to the table-cloth. There it sat stroking itself with its feet and stretching its wings, and Harry said: “Why, it’s a tiny newt!”

The professor leaned forward before the doctor could say a word. “I’ll give you half a crown for it, Harry, my lad,” he said, speaking very fast; and then he picked it up carefully on his handkerchief.

“It is a new specimen,” he said, “and finer than yours, doctor.”

It was a tiny lizard, about half an inch long—with scales and wings.

So now the doctor and the professor each had a specimen, and they were both very pleased. But before long these specimens began to seem less valuable. For the next morning, when the knife-boy was cleaning the doctor’s boots, he suddenly dropped the brushes and the boot and the blacking, and screamed out that he was burnt.

And from inside the boot came crawling a lizard as big as a kitten, with large, shiny wings.

“Why,” said Effie, “I know what it is. It is a dragon like St. George killed.”

And Effie was right. That afternoon Towser was bitten in the garden by a dragon about the size of a rabbit, which he had tried to chase, and next morning all the papers were full of the wonderful “winged lizards” that were appearing all over the country. The papers would not call them dragons, because, of course, no one believes in dragons nowadays—and at any rate the papers were not going to be so silly as to believe in fairy stories. At first there were only a few, but in a week or two the country was simply running alive with dragons of all sizes, and in the air you could sometimes see them as thick as a swarm of bees. They all looked alike except as to size. They were green with scales, and they had four legs and a long tail and great wings like bats’ wings, only the wings were a pale, half-transparent yellow, like the gear-cases on bicycles.

And they breathed fire and smoke, as all proper dragons must, but still the newspapers went on pretending they were lizards, until the editor of “The Standard” was picked up and carried away by a very large one, and then the other newspaper people had not anyone left to tell them what they ought not to believe. So that when the largest elephant in the Zoo
was carried off by a dragon, the papers gave up pretending—and put: “Alarming Plague of Dragons” at the top of the paper.

And you have no idea how alarming it was, and at the same time how aggravating. The large-sized dragons were terrible certainly, but when once you had found out that the dragons always went to bed early because they were afraid of the chill night air, you had only to stay indoors all day, and you were pretty safe from the big ones. But the smaller sizes were a perfect nuisance. The ones as big as earwigs got in the soap, and they got in the butter. The ones as big as dogs got in the bath, and the fire and smoke inside them made them steam like anything when the cold water tap was turned on, so that careless people were often scalded quite severely. The ones that were as large as pigeons would get into workbaskets or corner drawers, and bite you when you were in a hurry to get a needle or a handkerchief. The ones as big as sheep were easier to avoid, because you could see them coming; but when they flew in at the windows and curled up under your eiderdown, and you did not find them till you went to bed, it was always a shock. The ones this size did not eat people, only lettuces, but they always scorched the sheets and pillow-cases dreadfully.

Of course, the County Council and the police did everything that could be done: it was no use offering the hand of the Princess to anyone who killed a dragon. This way was all very well in olden times—when there was only one dragon and one Princess; but now there were far more dragons than Princesses—although the Royal Family was a large one. And besides, it would have been a mere waste of Princesses to offer rewards for killing dragons, because everybody killed as many dragons as they could quite out of their own heads and without rewards at all, just to get the nasty things out of the way. The County Council undertook to cremate all dragons delivered at their offices between the hours of ten and two, and whole wagon-loads and cart-loads and truck-loads of dead dragons could be seen any day of the week standing in a long line in the street where the County Council lived. Boys brought barrow-loads of dead dragons, and children on their way home from morning school would call in to leave the handful or two of little dragons they had brought in their satchels, or carried in their knotted pocket-handkerchiefs. And yet there seemed to be as many dragons as ever. Then the police stuck up great wood and canvas towers covered with patent glue. When the dragons flew against these towers, they stuck fast, as flies and wasps do on the sticky papers in the kitchen; and when the towers were covered all over with dragons, the police-inspector used to set light to the towers, and burnt them and dragons and all.

The largest elephant in the zoo was carried off

And yet there seemed to be more dragons than ever. The shops were full of patent dragon poison and anti-dragon soap, and dragon-proof curtains for the windows; and, indeed, everything that could be done was done.

And yet there seemed to be more dragons than ever.

It was not very easy to know what would poison a dragon, because you see they ate such different things. The largest kind ate elephants as long as there were any, and then went on with horses and cows. Another size ate nothing but lilies of the valley, and a third size ate only Prime Ministers if they were to be had, and, if not, would feed freely on boys in buttons. Another size lived on bricks, and three of them ate two-thirds of the South Lambeth Infirmary in one afternoon.

But the size Effie was most afraid of was about as big as your dining-room, and that size ate
little girls and little boys
.

At first Effie and her brother were quite pleased with the change in their lives. It was so amusing to sit up all night instead of going to sleep, and to play in the garden lighted by electric lamps. And it sounded so funny to hear mother say, when they were going to bed:

“Good-night, my darlings, sleep sound all day, and don’t get up too soon. You must not get up before it’s
quite
dark. You wouldn’t like the nasty dragons to catch you.”

But after a time they got very tired of it all: they wanted
to see the flowers and trees growing in the fields, and to see the pretty sunshine out of doors, and not just through glass windows and patent dragon-proof curtains. And they wanted to play on the grass, which they were not allowed to do in the electric-lamp-lighted garden because of the night-dew.

And they wanted so much to get out, just for once, in the beautiful, bright, dangerous daylight, that they began to try and think of some reason why they
ought
to go out. Only they did not like to disobey their mother.

But one morning their mother was busy preparing some new dragon poison to lay down in the cellars, and their father was bandaging the hand of the boot-boy which had been scratched by one of the dragons who liked to eat Prime Ministers when they were to be had, so nobody remembered to say to the children:

“Don’t get up till it is quite dark!”

“Go now,” said Harry; “it would not be disobedient to go. And I know exactly what we ought to do, but I don’t know how we ought to do it.”

“What ought we to do?” said Effie.

“We ought to wake St. George, of course,” said Harry. “He was the only person in his town who knew how to manage dragons; the people in the fairy tales don’t count. But St. George is a real person, and he is only asleep, and he is waiting
to be waked up. Only nobody believes in St. George now. I heard father say so.”


We
do,” said Effie.

“Of course we do. And don’t you see, Ef, that’s the very reason why we could wake him? You can’t wake people if you don’t believe in them, can you?”

Effie said no, but where could they find St. George?

“We must go and look,” said Harry, boldly. “You shall wear a dragon-proof frock, made of stuff like the curtains. And I will smear myself all over with the best dragon poison, and—”

Effie clasped her hands and skipped with joy, and cried:

“Oh, Harry! I know where we can find St. George! In St. George’s Church, of course.”

“Um,” said Harry, wishing he had thought of it for himself, “you have a little sense sometimes, for a girl.”

So next afternoon quite early, long before the beams of sunset announced the coming night, when everybody would be up and working, the two children got out of bed. Effie wrapped herself in a shawl of dragon-proof muslin—there was no time to make the frock—and Harry made a horrid mess of himself with the patent dragon poison. It was warranted harmless to infants and invalids, so he felt quite safe.

Then they took hands and set out to walk to St. George’s
Church. As you know, there are many St. George’s churches, but, fortunately, they took the turning that leads to the right one, and went along in the bright sunlight, feeling very brave and adventurous.

There was no one about in the streets except dragons, and the place was simply swarming with them. Fortunately none of the dragons were just the right size for eating little boys and girls, or perhaps this story might have had to end here. There were dragons on the pavement, and dragons on the road-way, dragons basking on the front-door steps of public buildings, and dragons preening their wings on the roofs in the hot afternoon sun. The town was quite green with them. Even when the children had got out of the town and were walking in the lanes, they noticed that the fields on each side were greener than usual with the scaly legs and tails; and some of the smaller sizes had made themselves asbestos nests in the flowering hawthorn hedges.

Effie held her brother’s hand very tight, and once when a fat dragon flopped against her ear she screamed out, and a whole flight of green dragons rose from the field at the sound, and sprawled away across the sky. The children could hear the rattle of their wings as they flew.

“Oh, I want to go home,” said Effie.

“Don’t be silly,” said Harry. “Surely you haven’t forgotten
about the Seven Champions and all the Princes. People who are going to be their country’s deliverers never scream and say they want to go home.”

“And are we,” asked Effie—“deliverers, I mean?”

“You’ll see,” said her brother, and on they went.

When they came to St. George’s Church they found the door open, and they walked right in—but St. George was not there, so they walked round the churchyard outside, and presently they found the great stone tomb of St. George, with the figure of him carved in marble outside, in his armor and helmet, and with his hands folded on his breast.

“How ever can we wake him?” they said.

Then Harry spoke to St. George—but he would not answer; and he called, but St. George did not seem to hear; and then he actually tried to waken the great dragon-slayer by shaking his marble shoulders. But St. George took no notice.

Then Effie began to cry, and she put her arms round St. George’s neck as well as she could for the marble, which was very much in the way at the back, and she kissed the marble face and she said:

“Oh, dear, good, kind St. George, please wake up and help us.”

And at that St. George opened his eyes sleepily, and stretched himself and said: “What’s the matter, little girl?”

So the children told him all about it; he turned over in his marble and leaned on one elbow to listen. But when he heard that there were so many dragons he shook his head.

“It’s no good,” he said, “they would be one too many for poor old George. You should have waked me before. I was always for a fair fight—one man, one dragon was my motto.”

Just then a flight of dragons passed overhead, and St. George half drew his sword.

But he shook his head again, and pushed the sword back as the flight of dragons grew small in the distance.

“I can’t do anything,” he said; “things have changed since my time. St. Andrew told me about it. They woke him up over the engineers’ strike, and he came to talk to me. He says everything is done by machinery now; there must be some way of settling these dragons. By the way, what sort of weather have you been having lately?”

This seemed so careless and unkind that Harry would not answer, but Effie said, patiently, “It has been very fine. Father says it is the hottest weather there has ever been in this country.”

“Ah, I guessed as much,” said the Champion, thoughtfully. “Well, the only thing would be … dragons can’t stand wet and cold, that’s the only thing. If you could find the taps.”

St. George was beginning to settle down again on his
stone slab. “Good-night, very sorry I can’t help you,” he said, yawning behind his marble hand.

“Oh, but you can,” cried Effie. “Tell us—what taps?”

“Oh, like in the bathroom,” said St. George, still more sleepily; “and there’s a looking-glass, too; shows you all the world and what’s going on. St. Denis told me about it; said it was a very pretty thing. I’m sorry I can’t—good-night.”

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