The Book of Dragons (8 page)

It was dark in the garden, but the fireworks all about made it seem very gay, and though the children were cold they were quite sure that they were enjoying themselves.

They got up on the fence at the end of the garden to see better; and then they saw, very far away, where the edge of the dark world is, a shining line of straight, beautiful lights arranged in a row, as if they were the spears carried by a fairy army.

“Oh, how pretty,” said Jane. “I wonder what they are. It looks as if the fairies were planting little shining baby poplar trees, and watering them with liquid light.”

“Liquid fiddlestick!” said George. He had been to school, so he knew that these were only the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights. And he said so.

“But what
is
the Rory Bory what’s-its-name?” asked Jane. “Who lights it, and what’s it there for?”

George had to own that he had not learnt that.

“But I know,” said he, “that it has something to do with the Great Bear, and the Dipper, and the Plough, and Charles’s Wain.”

“And what are they?” asked Jane.

“Oh, they’re the surnames of some of the star families. There goes a jolly rocket,” answered George, and Jane felt as if she almost understood about the star families.

The fairy spears of light twinkled and gleamed: they were much prettier than the big, blaring, blitzing bonfire that was smoking and flaming and spluttering in the next-door-but-one garden—prettier even than the colored fires at the Crystal Palace.

“I wish we could see them nearer,” Jane said. “I wonder if the star families are nice families—the kind that mother would like us to go to tea with, if we were little stars?”

“They aren’t that sort of families at all, Silly,” said her brother, kindly trying to explain. “I only said ‘families’ because a kid like you wouldn’t have understood if I’d said constel… and, besides, I’ve forgotten the end of the word. Anyway, the stars are all up in the sky, so you can’t go to tea with them.”

“No,” said Jane; “I said if we were little stars.”

“But we aren’t,” said George.

“No,” said Jane, with a sigh. “I know that. I’m not so stupid as you think, George. But the Tory Bories are somewhere at the edge. Couldn’t we go and see
them?”

“Considering you’re eight, you haven’t much sense.” George kicked his boots against the paling to warm his toes. “It’s half the world away.”

“It looks very near,” said Jane, hunching up her shoulders to keep her neck warm.

“They’re close to the North Pole,” said George. “Look here—I don’t care a straw about the Aurora Borealis, but I shouldn’t mind discovering the North Pole: it’s awfully difficult and dangerous, and then you come home and write a book about it with a lot of pictures, and everybody says how brave you are.”

Jane got off the fence.

“Oh, George,
let’s,”
she said. “We shall never have such a chance again—all alone by ourselves—and quite late, too.”

“I’d go right enough if it wasn’t for you,” George answered, gloomily, “but you know they always say I lead you into mischief—and if we went to the North Pole we should get our boots wet, as likely as not, and you remember what they said about not going on the grass.”

“They said the
lawn,”
said Jane. “We’re not going on the
lawn
. Oh, George, do,
do
let’s. It doesn’t look so
very
far—we could be back before they had time to get dreadfully angry.”

“All right,” said George, “but mind
I
don’t want to go.”

So off they went. They got over the fence, which was very cold and white and shiny because it was beginning to freeze, and on the other side of the fence was somebody else’s garden, so they got out of that as quickly as they could, and beyond that was a field where there was another big bonfire, with people standing round it who looked quite black.

“It’s like Indians,” said George, and wanted to stop and look, but Jane pulled him on, and they passed by the bonfire and got through a gap in the hedge into another field—a dark one; and far away, beyond quite a number of other dark fields, the Northern Lights shone and sparkled and twinkled.

Now, during the winter the Arctic regions come much farther south than they are marked on the map. Very few people know this, though you would think they could tell it by the ice in the jugs of a morning. And just when George and Jane were starting for the North Pole, the Arctic regions had come down very nearly as far as Forest Hill, so that, as the children walked on, it grew colder and colder, and presently they saw that the fields were covered with snow, and there were great icicles hanging from all the hedges and gates. And the Northern Lights still seemed some way off.

They were crossing a very rough, snowy field when Jane first noticed the animals. There were white rabbits and white hares, and all sorts and sizes of white birds, and some larger creatures in the shadows of the hedges which Jane was sure were wolves and bears.

“Polar bears and Arctic wolves, of course I mean,” she said, for she did not want George to think her stupid again.

There was a great hedge at the end of this field, all covered with snow and icicles; but the children found a place
where there was a hole, and as no bears or wolves seemed to be just in that part of the hedge, they crept through and scrambled out of the frozen ditch on the other side. And then they stood still and held their breath with wonder.

For in front of them, running straight and smooth right away to the Northern Lights, lay a great wide road of pure dark ice, and on each side were tall trees all sparkling with white frost, and from the boughs of the trees hung strings of stars threaded on fine moonbeams, and shining so brightly that it was like a beautiful fairy daylight. Jane said so; but George said it was like the electric lights at the Earl’s Court Exhibition.

The rows of trees went as straight as ruled lines away—away and away—and at the other end of them shone the Aurora Borealis.

There was a sign-post—of silvery snow—and on it in letters of pure ice the children read:

“This way to the North Pole.”

Then George said, “Way or no way, I know a slide when I see one—so here goes.” And he took a run on the frozen snow, and Jane took a run when she saw him do it, and the next moment they were sliding away, each with feet half a yard apart, along the great slide that leads to the North Pole.

This great slide is made for the convenience of the Polar bears, who, during the winter months, get their food from the
Army and Navy Stores—and it is the most perfect slide in the world. If you have never come across it, it is because you have never let off fireworks on the eleventh of December, and have never been thoroughly naughty and disobedient. But do not be these things in the hope of finding the great slide—because you might find something quite different, and then you would be sorry.

The great slide is like common slides in this, that when once you have started you have to go on to the end—unless you fall down—and then it hurts just as much as the smaller kind on ponds. The great slide runs down-hill all the way, so that you keep on going faster and faster and faster. George and Jane went so fast that they had no time to notice the scenery. They only saw the long lines of frosted trees and the starry lamps, and, on each side, rushing back as they slid on—a very broad, white world and a very large, black night; and overhead, as well as in the trees, the stars were bright like silver lamps, and, far ahead, shone and trembled and sparkled the line of fairy spears. Jane said that; and George said, “I can see the Northern Lights quite plain.”

It is very pleasant to slide and slide and slide on clear, dark ice—especially if you feel you are really going somewhere, and more especially if that somewhere is the North Pole. The children’s feet made no noise on the ice, and they
went on and on in a beautiful white silence. But suddenly the silence was shattered and a cry rang out over the snow.

“Hi! You there! Stop!”

“Tumble for your life!” cried George, and he fell down at once, because it was the only way to stop. Jane fell on top of him—and then they crawled on hands and knees to the snow at the edge of the slide—and there was a sportsman, dressed in a peaked cap and a frozen moustache, like the one you see in the pictures about Ice-Peter, and he had a gun in his hand.

“You don’t happen to have any bullets about you?” said he.

“No,” George said, truthfully. “I had five of father’s revolver cartridges, but they were taken away the day nurse turned out my pockets to see if I had taken the knob of the bathroom door by mistake.”

“Quite so,” said the sportsman, “these accidents will occur. You don’t carry fire-arms, then, I presume?”

“I haven’t any fire-
arms,”
said George, “but I have a fire
work
. It’s only a squib one of the boys gave me, if that’s any good;” and he began to feel among the string, and peppermints, and buttons, and tops, and nibs, and chalk, and foreign postage-stamps in his knickerbocker pockets.

“One could but try,” the sportsman replied, and he held out his hand.

But Jane pulled at her brother’s jacket-tail, and whispered, “Ask him what he wants it for.”

So then the sportsman had to confess that he wanted the firework to kill the white grouse with; and, when they came to look, there was the white grouse himself, sitting in the snow, looking quite pale and careworn, and waiting anxiously for the matter to be decided one way or the other.

George put all the things back in his pockets, and said, “No, I shan’t. The season for shooting him stopped yesterday—I heard father say so—so it wouldn’t be fair, anyhow. I’m very sorry; but I can’t—so there!”

The sportsman said nothing, only he shook his fist at Jane, and then he got on the slide and tried to go towards the Crystal Palace—which was not easy, because that way is uphill. So they left him trying, and went on.

Before they started the white grouse thanked them in a few pleasant, well-chosen words, and then they took a sideways slanting run, and started off again on the great slide, and so away towards the North Pole and the twinkling, beautiful lights.

The great slide went on and on, and the lights did not seem to come much nearer, and the white silence wrapped them round as they slid along the wide, icy path. Then once again the silence was broken to bits by someone calling:

“Hi! You there! Stop!”

“Tumble for your life!” cried George, and tumbled as before, stopping in the only possible way, and Jane stopped on top of him, and they crawled to the edge, and came suddenly on the butterfly collector who was looking for specimens with a pair of blue glasses, and a blue net, and a blue book with colored plates.

“Excuse me,” said the collector, “but have you such a thing as a needle about you—a very long needle?”

“I have a
needle-book,”
replied Jane, politely, “but there aren’t any needles in it now. George took them all to do the things with pieces of cork—in the
Boy’s Own Scientific Experimenter
and
The Young Mechanic
. He did not do the things, but he did for the needles.”

“Curiously enough,” said the collector, “I, too, wished to use the needle in connection with cork.”

“I have a hat-pin in my hood,” said Jane. “I fastened the fur with it when it caught in the nail on the greenhouse door. It is very long and sharp—would that do?”

“One could but try,” said the collector, and Jane began to feel for the pin. But George pinched her arm and whispered, “Ask what he wants it for.” Then the collector had to own that he wanted the pin to stick through the great Arctic moth, “a magnificent specimen,” he added, “which I am most anxious to preserve.”

And there, sure enough, in the collector’s butterfly-net sat the great Arctic moth listening attentively to the conversation.

“Oh, I couldn’t!” cried Jane. And while George was explaining to the collector that they would really rather not, Jane opened the blue folds of the butterfly-net, and asked the moth, quietly, if it would please step outside for a moment. And it did.

When the collector saw that the moth was free, he seemed less angry than grieved.

“Well, well,” said he, “here’s a whole Arctic expedition thrown away! I shall have to go home and fit out another. And that means a lot of writing to the papers and things. You seem to be a singularly thoughtless little girl.”

So they went on, leaving him, too, trying to go up-hill towards the Crystal Palace.

When the great white Arctic moth had returned thanks in a suitable speech, George and Jane took a sideways slanting run and started sliding again, between the star-lamps along the great slide, towards the North Pole. They went faster and faster, and the lights ahead grew brighter and brighter—so that they could not keep their eyes open, but had to blink and wink as they went—and then suddenly the great slide ended in an immense heap of snow, and George and Jane shot right
into it because they could not stop themselves, and the snow was soft so that they went in up to their very ears.

When they had picked themselves out, and thumped each other on the back to get rid of the snow, they shaded their eyes and looked, and there, right in front of them, was the wonder of wonders—the North Pole—towering high and white and glistening, like an ice-lighthouse, and it was quite, quite close, so that you had to put your head as far back as it would go, and farther, before you could see the high top of it. It was made entirely of ice. You will hear grown-up people talk a great deal of nonsense about the North Pole, and when you are grown-up, it is even possible that you may talk nonsense about it yourself (the most unlikely things do happen); but deep down in your heart you must always remember that the North Pole is made of clear ice, and could not possibly, if you come to think of it, be made of anything else.

All round the Pole, making a bright ring about it, were hundreds of little fires, and the flames of them did not flicker and twist, but went up blue and green and rosy and straight like the stalks of dream lilies.

Jane said so, but George said they were as straight as ramrods.

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