Part 2 out of 3
crowd of us, assembled in a noble church. It was not easy to
make out exactly what was going on; but in the throng I was
delighted to recognize my angels at last, happy and very much at
home. They had managed to get leave off, evidently, and must
have run up the hill and scampered breathlessly through the gate;
and perhaps they cried a little when they found the square empty,
and thought the fun must be all over. Two of them had got hold
of a great wax candle apiece, as much as they could stagger
under, and were tittering sideways at each other as the
grease ran bountifully over their clothes. A third had strolled
in among the company, and was chatting to a young gentleman, with
whom she appeared to be on the best of terms. Decidedly, this
was the right breed of angel for us. None of your sick-bed or
night nursery business for them!
Well, no doubt they were now being married, He and She, just as
always happened. And then, of course, they were going to live
happily ever after; and THAT was the part I wanted to get to.
Story-books were so stupid, always stopping at the point where
they became really nice; but this picture-story was only in its
first chapters, and at last I was to have a chance of knowing
HOW people lived happily ever after. We would all go home
together, He and She, and the angels, and I; and the armour-man
would be invited to come and stay. And then the story would
really begin, at the point where those other ones always
left off. I turned the page, and found myself free of the dim
and splendid church and once more in the open country.
This was all right; this was just as it should be. The sky was a
fleckless blue, the flags danced in the breeze, and our merry
bridal party, with jest and laughter, jogged down to the water-
side. I was through the town by this time, and out on the other
side of the hill, where I had always wanted to be; and, sure
enough, there was the harbour, all thick with curly ships. Most
of them were piled high with wedding-presents--bales of silk, and
gold and silver plate, and comfortable-looking bags suggesting
bullion; and the gayest ship of all lay close up to the carpeted
landing-stage. Already the bride was stepping daintily down the
gangway, her ladies following primly, one by one; a few minutes
more and we should all be aboard, the hawsers would splash
in the water, the sails would fill and strain. From the deck I
should see the little walled town recede and sink and grow dim,
while every plunge of our bows brought us nearer to the happy
island--it was an island we were bound for, I knew well! Already
I could see the island-people waving hands on the crowded quay,
whence the little houses ran up the hill to the castle, crowning
all with its towers and battlements. Once more we should ride
together, a merry procession, clattering up the steep street and
through the grim gateway; and then we should have arrived, then
we should all dine together, then we should have reached home!
OW! OW! OW!
Bitter it is to stumble out of an opalescent dream into the cold
daylight; cruel to lose in a second a sea-voyage, an island, and
a castle that was to be practically your own; but cruellest
and bitterest of all to know, in addition to your loss, that the
fingers of an angry aunt have you tight by the scruff of your
neck. My beautiful book was gone too--ravished from my grasp by
the dressy lady, who joined in the outburst of denunciation as
heartily as if she had been a relative--and naught was left me
but to blubber dismally, awakened of a sudden to the harshness of
real things and the unnumbered hostilities of the actual world.
I cared little for their reproaches, their abuse; but I sorrowed
heartily for my lost ship, my vanished island, my uneaten dinner,
and for the knowledge that, if I wanted any angels to play with,
I must henceforth put up with the anaemic, night-gowned
nonentities that hovered over the bed of the Sunday-school child
in the pages of the Sabbath Improver.
I was led ignominiously out of the house, in a pulpy, watery
state, while the butler handled his swing doors with a
stony, impassive countenance, intended for the deception of the
very elect, though it did not deceive me. I knew well enough
that next time he was off duty, and strolled around our way, we
should meet in our kitchen as man to man, and I would punch him
and ask him riddles, and he would teach me tricks with corks and
bits of string. So his unsympathetic manner did not add to my
I maintained a diplomatic blubber long after we had been packed
into our pony-carriage and the lodge-gate had clicked behind us,
because it served as a sort of armour-plating against heckling
and argument and abuse, and I was thinking hard and wanted to be
let alone. And the thoughts that I was thinking were two.
First I thought, "I've got ahead of Charlotte THIS time!"
And next I thought, "When I've grown up big, and have money
of my own, and a full-sized walking-stick, I will set out early
one morning, and never stop till I get to that little walled
town." There ought to be no real difficulty in the task. It
only meant asking here and asking there, and people were very
obliging, and I could describe every stick and stone of it.
As for the island which I had never even seen, that was not so
easy. Yet I felt confident that somehow, at some time, sooner or
later, I was destined to arrive.
A SAGA OF THE SEAS
It happened one day that some ladies came to call, who were not
at all the sort I was used to. They suffered from a grievance,
so far as I could gather, and the burden of their plaint was
Man--Men in general and Man in particular. (Though the words
were but spoken, I could clearly discern the capital M in their
Of course I was not present officially, so to speak. Down below,
in my sub-world of chair-legs and hearthrugs and the undersides
of sofas, I was working out my own floor-problems, while they
babbled on far above my head, considering me as but a chair-leg,
or even something lower in the scale. Yet I was listening hard
all the time, with that respectful consideration one gives to
all grown-up people's remarks, so long as one knows no better.
It seemed a serious indictment enough, as they rolled it out. In
tact, considerateness, and right appreciation, as well as in
taste and aesthetic sensibilities--we failed at every point, we
breeched and bearded prentice-jobs of Nature; and I began to feel
like collapsing on the carpet from sheer spiritual anaemia. But
when one of them, with a swing of her skirt, prostrated a whole
regiment of my brave tin soldiers, and never apologized nor even
offered her aid toward revivifying the battle-line, I could not
help feeling that in tactfulness and consideration for others she
was still a little to seek. And I said as much, with some
directness of language.
That was the end of me, from a society point of view. Rudeness
to visitors was the unpardonable sin, and in two seconds I
had my marching orders, and was sullenly wending my way to the
St. Elelena of the nursery. As I climbed the stair, my thoughts
reverted somehow to a game we had been playing that very morning.
It was the good old game of Rafts,--a game that will be played
till all the oceans are dry and all the trees in the world are
felled--and after. And we were all crowded together on the
precarious little platform, and Selina occupied every bit as much
room as I did, and Charlotte's legs didn't dangle over any more
than Harold's. The pitiless sun overhead beat on us all with
tropic impartiality, and the hungry sharks, whose fins scored the
limitless Pacific stretching out on every side, were impelled by
an appetite that made no exceptions as to sex. When we shared
the ultimate biscuit and circulated the last water-keg, the girls
got an absolute fourth apiece, and neither more nor less; and
the only partiality shown was entirely in favour of
Charlotte, who was allowed to perceive and to hail the saviour-
sail on the horizon. And this was only because it was her turn
to do so, not because she happened to be this or that. Surely,
the rules of the raft were the rules of life, and in what, then,
did these visitor-ladies' grievance consist?
Puzzled and a little sulky, I pushed open the door of the
deserted nursery, where the raft that had rocked beneath so many
hopes and fears still occupied the ocean-floor. To the dull eye,
that merely tarries upon the outsides of things, it might have
appeared unromantic and even unraftlike, consisting only as it
did of a round sponge-bath on a bald deal towel-horse placed flat
on the floor. Even to myself much of the recent raft-glamour
seemed to have departed as I half-mechanically stepped inside and
curled myself up in it for a solitary voyage. Once I was
in, however, the old magic and mystery returned in full flood,
when I discovered that the inequalities of the towel-horse caused
the bath to rock, slightly, indeed, but easily and incessantly.
A few minutes of this delightful motion, and one was fairly
launched. So those women below didn't want us? Well, there were
other women, and other places, that did. And this was going to
be no scrambling raft-affair, but a full-blooded voyage of the
Man, equipped and purposeful, in search of what was his rightful
Whither should I shape my course, and what sort of vessel should
I charter for the voyage? The shipping of all England was mine
to pick from, and the far corners of the globe were my rightful
inheritance. A frigate, of course, seemed the natural vehicle
for a boy of spirit to set out in. And yet there was something
rather "uppish" in commanding a frigate at the very first
set-off, and little spread was left for the ambition. Frigates,
too, could always be acquired later by sheer adventure; and your
real hero generally saved up a square-rigged ship for the final
achievement and the rapt return. No, it was a schooner that I
was aboard of--a schooner whose masts raked devilishly as the
leaping seas hissed along her low black gunwale. Many
hairbrained youths started out on a mere cutter; but I was
prudent, and besides I had some inkling of the serious affairs
that were ahead.
I have said I was already on board; and, indeed, on this occasion
I was too hungry for adventure to linger over what would have
been a special delight at a period of more leisure--the dangling
about the harbour, the choosing your craft, selecting your
shipmates, stowing your cargo, and fitting up your private cabin
with everything you might want to put your hand on in any
emergency whatever. I could not wait for that. Out beyond
soundings the big seas were racing westward and calling me,
albatrosses hovered motionless, expectant of a comrade, and a
thousand islands held each of them a fresh adventure, stored up,
hidden away, awaiting production, expressly saved for me. We
were humming, close-hauled, down the Channel, spray in the eyes
and the shrouds thrilling musically, in much less time than the
average man would have taken to transfer his Gladstone bag and
his rugs from the train to a sheltered place on the promenade-
deck of the tame daily steamer.
So long as we were in pilotage I stuck manfully to the wheel.
The undertaking was mine, and with it all its responsibilities,
and there was some tricky steering to be done as we sped by
headland and bay, ere we breasted the great seas outside and
the land fell away behind us. But as soon as the Atlantic
had opened out I began to feel that it would be rather nice to
take tea by myself in my own cabin, and it therefore became
necessary to invent a comrade or two, to take their turn at the
This was easy enough. A friend or two of my own age, from among
the boys I knew; a friend or two from characters in the books I
knew; and a friend or two from No-man's-land, where every
fellow's a born sailor; and the crew was complete. I addressed
them on the poop, divided them into watches, gave instructions I
should be summoned on the first sign of pirates, whales, or
Frenchmen, and retired below to a well-earned spell of
That was the right sort of cabin that I stepped into, shutting
the door behind me with a click. Of course, fire-arms were the
first thing I looked for, and there they were, sure enough,
in their racks, dozens of 'em--double-barrelled guns, and
repeating-rifles, and long pistols, and shiny plated revolvers.
I rang up the steward and ordered tea, with scones, and jam in
its native pots--none of your finicking shallow glass dishes;
and, when properly streaked with jam, and blown out with tea, I
went through the armoury, clicked the rifles and revolvers,
tested the edges of the cutlasses with my thumb, and filled the
cartridge-belts chock-full. Everything was there, and of the
best quality, just as if I had spent a whole fortnight knocking
about Plymouth and ordering things. Clearly, if this cruise came
to grief, it would not be for want of equipment.
Just as I was beginning on the lockers and the drawers, the watch
reported icebergs on both bows--and, what was more to the point,
coveys of Polar bears on the icebergs. I grasped a rifle or two,
and hastened on deck. The spectacle was indeed
magnificent--it generally is, with icebergs on both bows, and
these were exceptionally enormous icebergs. But I hadn't come
there to paint Academy pictures, so the captain's gig was in the
water and manned almost ere the boatswain's whistle had ceased
sounding, and we were pulling hard for the Polar bears--myself
and the rifles in the stern-sheets.
I have rarely enjoyed better shooting than I got during that
afternoon's tramp over the icebergs. Perhaps I was in specially
good form; perhaps the bears "rose" well. Anyhow, the bag was a
portentous one. In later days, on reading of the growing
scarcity of Polar bears, my conscience has pricked me; but that
afternoon I experienced no compunction. Nevertheless, when the
huge pile of skins had been hoisted on board, and a stiff grog
had been served out to the crew of the captain's gig, I
ordered the schooner's head to be set due south. For icebergs
were played out, for the moment, and it was getting to be time
for something more tropical.
Tropical was a mild expression of what was to come, as was
shortly proved. It was about three bells in the next day's
forenoon watch when the look-out man first sighted the pirate
brigantine. I disliked the looks of her from the first, and,
after piping all hands to quarters, had the brass carronade on
the fore-deck crammed with grape to the muzzle.
This proved a wise precaution. For the flagitious pirate craft,
having crept up to us under the colours of the Swiss Republic, a
state with which we were just then on the best possible terms,
suddenly shook out the skull-and-cross-bones at her masthead, and
let fly with round-shot at close quarters, knocking into pieces
several of my crew, who could ill be spared. The sight of
their disconnected limbs aroused my ire to its utmost height, and
I let them have the contents of the brass carronade, with ghastly
effect. Next moment the hulls of the two ships were grinding
together, the cold steel flashed from its scabbard, and the
death-grapple had begun.
In spite of the deadly work of my grape-gorged carronade, our foe
still outnumbered us, I reckoned, by three to one. Honour
forbade my fixing it at a lower figure--this was the minimum rate
at which one dared to do business with pirates. They were stark
veterans, too, every man seamed with ancient sabre-cuts, whereas
my crew had many of them hardly attained the maturity which is
the gift of ten long summers--and the whole thing was so sudden
that I had no time to invent a reinforcement of riper years. It
was not surprising, therefore, that my dauntless boarding-
party, axe in hand and cutlass between teeth, fought their way to
the pirates' deck only to be repulsed again and yet again, and
that our planks were soon slippery with our own ungrudged and
inexhaustible blood. At this critical point in the conflict, the
bo'sun, grasping me by the arm, drew my attention to a
magnificent British man-of-war, just hove to in the offing, while
the signalman, his glass at his eye, reported that she was
inquiring whether we wanted any assistance or preferred to go
through with the little job ourselves.
This veiled attempt to share our laurels with us, courteously as
it was worded, put me on my mettle. Wiping the blood out of my
eyes, I ordered the signalman to reply instantly, with the half-
dozen or so of flags that he had at his disposal, that much as we
appreciated the valour of the regular service, and the delicacy
of spirit that animated its commanders, still this was an
orthodox case of the young gentleman-adventurer versus the
unshaved pirate, and Her Majesty's Marine had nothing to do but
to form the usual admiring and applauding background. Then,
rallying round me the remnant of my faithful crew, I selected a
fresh cutlass (I had worn out three already) and plunged once
more into the pleasing carnage.
The result was not long doubtful. Indeed, I could not allow it
to be, as I was already getting somewhat bored with the pirate
business, and was wanting to get on to something more southern
and sensuous. All serious resistance came to an end as soon as I
had reached the quarter-deck and cut down the pirate chief--a
fine black-bearded fellow in his way, but hardly up to date in
his parry-and-thrust business. Those whom our cutlasses had
spared were marched out along their own plank, in the
approved old fashion; and in time the scuppers relieved the decks
of the blood that made traffic temporarily impossible. And all
the time the British-man-of-war admired and applauded in the
As soon as we had got through with the necessary throat-cutting
and swabbing-up all hands set to work to discover treasure; and
soon the deck shone bravely with ingots and Mexican dollars and
church plate. There were ropes of pearls, too, and big stacks of
nougat; and rubies, and gold watches, and Turkish Delight in
tubs. But I left these trifles to my crew, and continued the
search alone. For by this time I had determined that there
should be a Princess on board, carried off to be sold in
captivity to the bold bad Moors, and now with beating heart
awaiting her rescue by me, the Perseus of her dreams.
I came upon her at last in the big state-cabin in the stern; and
she wore a holland pinafore over her Princess-clothes, and
she had brown wavy hair, hanging down her back, just like--well,
never mind, she had brown wavy hair. When gentle-folk meet,
courtesies pass; and I will not weary other people with relating
all the compliments and counter-compliments that we exchanged,
all in the most approved manner. Occasions like this, when
tongues wagged smoothly and speech flowed free, were always
especially pleasing to me, who am naturally inclined to be
tongue-tied with women. But at last ceremony was over, and we
sat on the table and swung our legs and agreed to be fast
friends. And I showed her my latest knife--one-bladed, horn-
handled, terrific, hung round my neck with string; and she showed
me the chiefest treasures the ship contained, hidden away in a
most private and particular locker--a musical box with a glass
top that let you see the works, and a railway train with
real lines and a real tunnel, and a tin iron-clad that followed a
magnet, and was ever so much handier in many respects than the
real full-sized thing that still lay and applauded in the offing.
There was high feasting that night in my cabin. We invited the
captain of the man-of-war--one could hardly do less, it seemed to
me--and the Princess took one end of the table and I took the
other, and the captain was very kind and nice, and told us fairy-
stories, and asked us both to come and stay with him next
Christmas, and promised we should have some hunting, on real
ponies. When he left I gave him some ingots and things, and saw
him into his boat; and then I went round the ship and addressed
the crew in several set speeches, which moved them deeply, and
with my own hands loaded up the carronade with grape-shot till it
ran over at the mouth. This done, I retired into the cabin
with the Princess, and locked the door. And first we started the
musical box, taking turns to wind it up; and then we made toffee
in the cabin-stove; and then we ran the train round and round the
room, and through and through the tunnel; and lastly we swam the
tin ironclad in the bath, with the soap-dish for a pirate.
Next morning the air was rich with spices, porpoises rolled and
gambolled round the bows, and the South Sea Islands lay full in
view (they were the REAL South Sea Islands, of course--not the
badly furnished journeymen-islands that are to be perceived on
the map). As for the pirate brigantine and the man-of-war, I
don't really know what became of them. They had played their
part very well, for the time, but I wasn't going to bother to
account for them, so I just let them evaporate quietly. The
islands provided plenty of fresh occupation. For here were
little bays of silvery sand, dotted with land-crabs; groves
of palm-trees wherein monkeys frisked and pelted each other with
cocoanuts; and caves, and sites for stockades, and hidden
treasures significantly indicated by skulls, in riotous plenty;
while birds and beasts of every colour and all latitudes made
pleasing noises which excited the sporting instinct.
The islands lay conveniently close together, which necessitated
careful steering as we threaded the devious and intricate
channels that separated them. Of course no one else could be
trusted at the wheel, so it is not surprising that for some time
I quite forgot that there was such a thing as a Princess on
board. This is too much the masculine way, whenever there's any
real business doing. However, I remembered her as soon as the
anchor was dropped, and I went below and consoled her, and we had
breakfast together, and she was allowed to "pour out," which
quite made up for everything. When breakfast was over we ordered
out the captain's gig, and rowed all about the islands, and
paddled, and explored, and hunted bisons and beetles and
butterflies, and found everything we wanted. And I gave her pink
shells and tortoises and great milky pearls and little green
lizards; and she gave me guinea-pigs, and coral to make into
waistcoat-buttons, and tame sea-otters, and a real pirate's
powder-horn. It was a prolific day and a long-lasting one, and
weary were we with all our hunting and our getting and our
gathering, when at last we clambered into the captain's gig and
rowed back to a late tea.
The following day my conscience rose up and accused me. This was
not what I had come out to do. These triflings with pearls and
parrakeets, these al fresco luncheons off yams and bananas--
there was no "making of history" about them, I resolved that
without further dallying I would turn to and capture the French
frigate, according to the original programme. So we upped anchor
with the morning tide, and set all sail for San Salvador.
Of course I had no idea where San Salvador really was. I haven't
now, for that matter. But it seemed a right-sounding sort of
name for a place that was to have a bay that was to hold a French
frigate that was to be cut out; so, as I said, we sailed for San
Salvador, and made the bay about eight bells that evening, and
saw the topmasts of the frigate over the headland that sheltered
her. And forthwith there was summoned a Council of War.
It is a very serious matter, a Council of War. We had not held
one hitherto, pirates and truck of that sort not calling for such
solemn treatment. But in an affair that might almost be
called international, it seemed well to proceed gravely and by
regular steps. So we met in my cabin--the Princess, and the
bo'sun, and a boy from the real-life lot, and a man from among
the book-men, and a fellow from No-man's-land, and myself in the
The bo'sun had taken part in so many cuttings-out during his past
career that practically he did all the talking, and was the
Council of War himself. It was to be an affair of boats, he
explained. A boat's-crew would be told off to cut the cables,
and two boats'-crews to climb stealthily on board and overpower
the sleeping Frenchmen, and two more boats' crews to haul the
doomed vessel out of the bay. This made rather a demand on my
limited resources as to crews; but I was prepared to stretch a
point in a case like this, and I speedily brought my numbers up
to the requisite efficiency.
The night was both moonless and star-less--I had arranged all
that--when the boats pushed off from the side of our vessel, and
made their way toward the ship that, unfortunately for itself,
had been singled out by Fate to carry me home in triumph. I was
in excellent spirits, and, indeed, as I stepped over the side, a
lawless idea crossed my mind, of discovering another Princess on
board the frigate--a French one this time; I had heard that that
sort was rather nice. But I abandoned the notion at once,
recollecting that the heroes of all history had always been noted
for their unswerving constancy.
The French captain was snug in bed when I clambered in through
his cabin window and held a naked cutlass to his throat.
Naturally he was surprised and considerably alarmed, till I
discharged one of my set speeches at him, pointing out that my
men already had his crew under hatchways, that his vessel
was even then being towed out of harbour, and that, on his
accepting the situation with a good grace, his person and private
property would be treated with all the respect due to the
representative of a great nation for which I entertained feelings
of the profoundest admiration and regard and all that sort of
thing. It was a beautiful speech. The Frenchman at once
presented me with his parole, in the usual way, and, in a reply
of some power and pathos, only begged that I would retire a
moment while he put on his trousers. This I gracefully consented
to do, and the incident ended.
Two of my boats were sunk by the fire from the forts on the
shore, and several brave fellows were severely wounded in the
hand-to-hand struggle with the French crew for the possession of
the frigate. But the bo'sun's admirable strategy, and my
own reckless gallantry in securing the French captain at the
outset, had the fortunate result of keeping down the death-rate.
It was all for the sake of the Princess that I had arranged so
comparatively tame a victory. For myself, I rather liked a fair
amount of blood-letting, red-hot shot, and flying splinters. But
when you have girls about the place, they have got to be
considered to a certain extent.
There was another supper-party that night, in my cabin, as soon
as we had got well out to sea; and the French captain, who was
the guest of the evening, was in the greatest possible form. We
became sworn friends, and exchanged invitations to come and stay
at each other's homes, and really it was quite difficult to
induce him to take his leave. But at last he and his crew were
bundled into their boats; and after I had pressed some pirate
bullion upon them--delicately, of course, but in a pleasant
manner that admitted of no denial--the gallant fellows quite
broke down, and we parted, our bosoms heaving with a full sense
of each other's magnanimity and good-fellowship.
The next day, which was nearly all taken up with shifting our
quarters into the new frigate, so honourably and easily acquired,
was a very pleasant one, as everyone who has gone up in the world
and moved into a larger house will readily understand. At last I
had grim, black guns all along each side, instead of a rotten
brass carronade; at last I had a square-rigged ship, with real
yards, and a proper quarter-deck. In fact, now that I had soared
as high as could be hoped in a single voyage, it seemed about
time to go home and cut a dash and show off a bit. The worst of
this ocean-theatre was, it held no proper audience. It was
hard, of course, to relinquish all the adventures that still lay
untouched in these Southern seas. Whaling, for instance, had not
yet been entered upon; the joys of exploration, and strange
inland cities innocent of the white man, still awaited me; and
the book of wrecks and rescues was not yet even opened. But I
had achieved a frigate and a Princess, and that was not so bad
for a beginning, and more than enough to show off with before
those dull unadventurous folk who continued on their mill-horse
round at home.
The voyage home was a record one, so far as mere speed was
concerned, and all adventures were scornfully left behind, as we
rattled along, for other adventurers who had still their laurels
to win. Hardly later than the noon of next day we dropped anchor
in Plymouth Sound, and heard the intoxicating clamour of bells,
the roar of artillery, and the hoarse cheers of an excited
populace surging down to the quays, that told us we were being
appreciated at something like our true merits. The Lord Mayor
was waiting there to receive us, and with him several Admirals of
the Fleet, as we walked down the lane of pushing, enthusiastic
Devonians, the Princess and I, and our war-worn, weather-beaten,
spoil-laden crew. Everybody was very nice about the French
frigate, and the pirate booty, and the scars still fresh on our
young limbs; yet I think what I liked best of all was, that they
all pronounced the Princess to be a duck, and a peerless, brown-
haired darling, and a true mate for a hero, and of the right
The air was thick with invitations and with the smell of civic
banquets in a forward stage; but I sternly waved all festivities
aside. The coaches-and-four I had ordered immediately on
arriving were blocking the whole of the High Street; the
champing of bits and the pawing of gravel summoned us to take our
seats and be off, to where the real performance awaited us,
compared with which all this was but an interlude. I placed the
Princess in the most highly gilded coach of the lot, and mounted
to my place at her side; and the rest of the crew scrambled on
board of the others as best they might. The whips cracked and
the crowd scattered and cheered as we broke into a gallop for
home. The noisy bells burst into a farewell peal--
Yes, that was undoubtedly the usual bell for school-room tea.
And high time too, I thought, as I tumbled out of the bath, which
was beginning to feel very hard to the projecting portions of my
frame-work. As I trotted downstairs, hungrier even than usual,
farewells floated up from the front door, and I heard the
departing voices of our angular elderly visitors as they made
their way down the walk. Man was still catching it, apparently--
Man was getting it hot. And much Man cared! The seas were his,
and their islands; he had his frigates for the taking, his
pirates and their hoards for an unregarded cutlass-stroke or two;
and there were Princesses in plenty waiting for him somewhere--
Princesses of the right sort.
THE RELUCTANT DRAGON
Footprints in the snow have been unfailing provokers of sentiment
ever since snow was first a white wonder in this drab-coloured
world of ours. In a poetry-book presented to one of us by an
aunt, there was a poem by one Wordsworth in which they stood out
strongly--with a picture all to themselves, too--but we didn't
think very highly either of the poem or the sentiment.
Footprints in the sand, now, were quite another matter, and we
grasped Crusoe's attitude of mind much more easily than
Wordsworth's. Excitement and mystery, curiosity and suspense--
these were the only sentiments that tracks, whether in sand or in
snow, were able to arouse in us.
We had awakened early that winter morning, puzzled at first by
the added light that filled the room. Then, when the truth at
last fully dawned on us and we knew that snow-balling was no
longer a wistful dream, but a solid certainty waiting for us
outside, it was a mere brute fight for the necessary clothes, and
the lacing of boots seemed a clumsy invention, and the buttoning
of coats an unduly tedious form of fastening, with all that snow
going to waste at our very door.
When dinner-time came we had to be dragged in by the scruff of
our necks. The short armistice over, the combat was resumed; but
presently Charlotte and I, a little weary of contests and of
missiles that ran shudderingly down inside one's clothes, forsook
the trampled battle-field of the lawn and went exploring the
blank virgin spaces of the white world that lay beyond. It
stretched away unbroken on every side of us, this mysterious
soft garment under which our familiar world had so suddenly
hidden itself. Faint imprints showed where a casual bird had
alighted, but of other traffic there was next to no sign; which
made these strange tracks all the more puzzling.
We came across them first at the corner of the shrubbery, and
pored over them long, our hands on our knees. Experienced
trappers that we knew ourselves to be, it was annoying to be
brought up suddenly by a beast we could not at once identify.
"Don't you know?" said Charlotte, rather scornfully. "Thought
you knew all the beasts that ever was."
This put me on my mettle, and I hastily rattled off a string of
animal names embracing both the arctic and the tropic zones, but
without much real confidence.
"No," said Charlotte, on consideration; "they won't any of
'em quite do. Seems like something LIZARDY. Did you say a
iguanodon? Might be that, p'raps. But that's not British, and
we want a real British beast. _I_ think it's a dragon!"
"'T isn't half big enough," I objected.
"Well, all dragons must be small to begin with," said Charlotte:
"like everything else. P'raps this is a little dragon who's got
lost. A little dragon would be rather nice to have. He might
scratch and spit, but he couldn't DO anything really. Let's
track him down!"
So we set off into the wide snow-clad world, hand in hand, our
hearts big with expectation,--complacently confident that by a
few smudgy traces in the snow we were in a fair way to capture a
half-grown specimen of a fabulous beast.
We ran the monster across the paddock and along the hedge of the
next field, and then he took to the road like any tame
civilized tax-payer. Here his tracks became blended with
and lost among more ordinary footprints, but imagination and a
fixed idea will do a great deal, and we were sure we knew the
direction a dragon would naturally take. The traces, too, kept
reappearing at intervals--at least Charlotte maintained they did,
and as it was HER dragon I left the following of the slot to
her and trotted along peacefully, feeling that it was an
expedition anyhow and something was sure to come out of it.
Charlotte took me across another field or two, and through a
copse, and into a fresh road; and I began to feel sure it was
only her confounded pride that made her go on pretending to see
dragon-tracks instead of owning she was entirely at fault, like a
reasonable person. At last she dragged me excitedly through a
gap in a hedge of an obviously private character; the waste, open
world of field and hedge-row disappeared, and we found
ourselves in a garden, well-kept, secluded, most un-dragon-
haunted in appearance. Once inside, I knew where we were. This
was the garden of my friend the circus-man, though I had never
approached it before by a lawless gap, from this unfamiliar side.
And here was the circus-man himself, placidly smoking a pipe as
he strolled up and down the walks. I stepped up to him and asked
him politely if he had lately seen a Beast.
"May I inquire," he said, with all civility, "what particular
sort of a Beast you may happen to be looking for?"
"It's a LIZARDY sort of Beast," I explained. "Charlotte says
it's a dragon, but she doesn't really know much about beasts."
The circus-man looked round about him slowly. "I don't
THINK," he said, "that I've seen a dragon in these parts
recently. But if I come across one I'll know it belongs to
you, and I'll have him taken round to you at once."
"Thank you very much," said Charlotte, "but don't TROUBLE
about it, please, 'cos p'raps it isn't a dragon after all. Only
I thought I saw his little footprints in the snow, and we
followed 'em up, and they seemed to lead right in here, but maybe
it's all a mistake, and thank you all the same."
"Oh, no trouble at all," said the circus-man, cheerfully. "I
should be only too pleased. But of course, as you say, it MAY
be a mistake. And it's getting dark, and he seems to have got
away for the present, whatever he is. You'd better come in and
have some tea. I'm quite alone, and we'll make a roaring fire,
and I've got the biggest Book of Beasts you ever saw. It's got
every beast in the world, and all of 'em coloured; and we'll try
and find YOUR beast in it!"
We were always ready for tea at any time, and especially when
combined with beasts. There was marmalade, too, and apricot-jam,
brought in expressly for us; and afterwards the beast-book was
spread out, and, as the man had truly said, it contained every
sort of beast that had ever been in the world.
The striking of six o'clock set the more prudent Charlotte
nudging me, and we recalled ourselves with an effort from Beast-
land, and reluctantly stood up to go.
"Here, I'm coming along with you," said the circus-man. "I want
another pipe, and a walk'll do me good. You needn't talk to me
unless you like."
Our spirits rose to their wonted level again. The way had seemed
so long, the outside world so dark and eerie, after the bright
warm room and the highly-coloured beast-book. But a walk with a
real Man--why, that was a treat in itself! We set off
briskly, the Man in the middle. I looked up at him and wondered
whether I should ever live to smoke a big pipe with that careless
sort of majesty! But Charlotte, whose young mind was not set on
tobacco as a possible goal, made herself heard from the other
"Now, then," she said, "tell us a story, please, won't you?"
The Man sighed heavily and looked about him. "I knew it," he
groaned. "I KNEW I should have to tell a story. Oh, why did
I leave my pleasant fireside? Well, I WILL tell you a story.
Only let me think a minute."
So he thought a minute, and then he told us this story.
Long ago--might have been hundreds of years ago--in a cottage
half-way between this village and yonder shoulder of the Downs up
there, a shepherd lived with his wife and their little son.
Now the shepherd spent his days--and at certain times of the year
his nights too--up on the wide ocean-bosom of the Downs, with
only the sun and the stars and the sheep for company, and the
friendly chattering world of men and women far out of sight and
hearing. But his little son, when he wasn't helping his father,
and often when he was as well, spent much of his time buried in
big volumes that he borrowed from the affable gentry and
interested parsons of the country round about. And his parents
were very fond of him, and rather proud of him too, though they
didn't let on in his hearing, so he was left to go his own way
and read as much as he liked; and instead of frequently getting a
cuff on the side of the head, as might very well have happened to
him, he was treated more or less as an equal by his parents, who
sensibly thought it a very fair division of labour that they
should supply the practical knowledge, and he the book-learning.
They knew that book-learning often came in useful at a pinch, in
spite of what their neighbours said. What the Boy chiefly
dabbled in was natural history and fairy-tales, and he just took
them as they came, in a sandwichy sort of way, without making any
distinctions; and really his course of reading strikes one as
One evening the shepherd, who for some nights past had been
disturbed and preoccupied, and off his usual mental balance, came
home all of a tremble, and, sitting down at the table where his
wife and son were peacefully employed, she with her seam, he in
following out the adventures of the Giant with no Heart in his
Body, exclaimed with much agitation:
"It's all up with me, Maria! Never no more can I go up on them
there Downs, was it ever so!"
"Now don't you take on like that," said his wife, who was a
VERY sensible woman: "but tell us all about it first, whatever
it is as has given you this shake-up, and then me and you and the
son here, between us, we ought to be able to get to the bottom of
"It began some nights ago," said the shepherd. "You know that
cave up there--I never liked it, somehow, and the sheep never
liked it neither, and when sheep don't like a thing there's
generally some reason for it. Well, for some time past there's
been faint noises coming from that cave--noises like heavy
sighings, with grunts mixed up in them; and sometimes a snoring,
far away down--REAL snoring, yet somehow not HONEST
snoring, like you and me o'nights, you know!"
"_I_ know," remarked the Boy, quietly.
"Of course I was terrible frightened," the shepherd went on; "yet
somehow I couldn't keep away. So this very evening, before
I come down, I took a cast round by the cave, quietly. And
there--O Lord! there I saw him at last, as plain as I see you!"
"Saw WHO?" said his wife, beginning to share in her husband's
"Why HIM, I'm a telling you!" said the shepherd. "He was
sticking half-way out of the cave, and seemed to be enjoying of
the cool of the evening in a poetical sort of way. He was as big
as four cart-horses, and all covered with shiny scales--deep-blue
scales at the top of him, shading off to a tender sort o' green
below. As he breathed, there was that sort of flicker over his
nostrils that you see over our chalk roads on a baking windless
day in summer. He had his chin on his paws, and I should say he
was meditating about things. Oh, yes, a peaceable sort o' beast
enough, and not ramping or carrying on or doing anything
but what was quite right and proper. I admit all that. And yet,
what am I to do? SCALES, you know, and claws, and a tail for
certain, though I didn't see that end of him--I ain't USED to
'em, and I don't HOLD with 'em, and that's a fact!"
The Boy, who had apparently been absorbed in his book during his
father's recital, now closed the volume, yawned, clasped his
hands behind his head, and said sleepily:
"It's all right, father. Don't you worry. It's only a dragon."
"Only a dragon?" cried his father. "What do you mean, sitting
there, you and your dragons? ONLY a dragon indeed! And what
do YOU know about it?"
"'Cos it IS, and 'cos I DO know," replied the Boy, quietly.
"Look here, father, you know we've each of us got our line.
YOU know about sheep, and weather, and things; _I_ know
about dragons. I always said, you know, that that cave up there
was a dragon-cave. I always said it must have belonged to a
dragon some time, and ought to belong to a dragon now, if rules
count for anything. Well, now you tell me it HAS got a
dragon, and so THAT'S all right. I'm not half as much
surprised as when you told me it HADN'T got a dragon. Rules
always come right if you wait quietly. Now, please, just leave
this all to me. And I'll stroll up to-morrow morning--no, in the
morning I can't, I've got a whole heap of things to do--well,
perhaps in the evening, if I'm quite free, I'll go up and have a
talk to him, and you'll find it'll be all right. Only, please,
don't you go worrying round there without me. You don't
understand 'em a bit, and they're very sensitive, you know!"
"He's quite right, father," said the sensible mother. "As
he says, dragons is his line and not ours. He's wonderful
knowing about book-beasts, as every one allows. And to tell the
truth, I'm not half happy in my own mind, thinking of that poor
animal lying alone up there, without a bit o' hot supper or
anyone to change the news with; and maybe we'll be able to do
something for him; and if he ain't quite respectable our Boy'll
find it out quick enough. He's got a pleasant sort o' way with
him that makes everybody tell him everything."
Next day, after he'd had his tea, the Boy strolled up the chalky
track that led to the summit of the Downs; and there, sure
enough, he found the dragon, stretched lazily on the sward in
front of his cave. The view from that point was a magnificent
one. To the right and left, the bare and billowy leagues of
Downs; in front, the vale, with its clustered homesteads,
its threads of white roads running through orchards and well-
tilled acreage, and, far away, a hint of grey old cities on the
horizon. A cool breeze played over the surface of the grass and
the silver shoulder of a large moon was showing above distant
junipers. No wonder the dragon seemed in a peaceful and
contented mood; indeed, as the Boy approached he could hear the
beast purring with a happy regularity. "Well, we live and
learn!" he said to himself. "None of my books ever told me that
"Hullo, dragon!" said the Boy, quietly, when he had got up to
The dragon, on hearing the approaching footsteps, made the
beginning of a courteous effort to rise. But when he saw it was
a Boy, he set his eyebrows severely.
"Now don't you hit me," he said; "or bung stones, or squirt
water, or anything. I won't have it, I tell you!"
"Not goin' to hit you," said the Boy wearily, dropping on the
grass beside the beast: "and don't, for goodness' sake, keep on
saying `Don't;' I hear so much of it, and it's monotonous, and
makes me tired. I've simply looked in to ask you how you were
and all that sort of thing; but if I'm in the way I can easily
clear out. I've lots of friends, and no one can say I'm in the
habit of shoving myself in where I'm not wanted!"
"No, no, don't go off in a huff," said the dragon, hastily; "fact
is,--I'm as happy up here as the day's long; never without an
occupation, dear fellow, never without an occupation! And yet,
between ourselves, it IS a trifle dull at times."
The Boy bit off a stalk of grass and chewed it. "Going to make a
long stay here?" he asked, politely.
"Can't hardly say at present," replied the dragon. "It seems a
nice place enough--but I've only been here a short time, and one
must look about and reflect and consider before settling down.
It's rather a serious thing, settling down. Besides--now I'm
going to tell you something! You'd never guess it if you tried
ever so!--fact is, I'm such a confoundedly lazy beggar!"
"You surprise me," said the Boy, civilly.
"It's the sad truth," the dragon went on, settling down between
his paws and evidently delighted to have found a listener at
last: "and I fancy that's really how I came to be here. You see
all the other fellows were so active and EARNEST and all that
sort of thing--always rampaging, and skirmishing, and scouring
the desert sands, and pacing the margin of the sea, and chasing
knights all over the place, and devouring damsels, and going
on generally--whereas I liked to get my meals regular and then to
prop my back against a bit of rock and snooze a bit, and wake up
and think of things going on and how they kept going on just the
same, you know! So when it happened I got fairly caught."
"When WHAT happened, please?" asked the Boy.
"That's just what I don't precisely know," said the dragon. "I
suppose the earth sneezed, or shook itself, or the bottom dropped
out of something. Anyhow there was a shake and a roar and a
general stramash, and I found myself miles away underground and
wedged in as tight as tight. Well, thank goodness, my wants are
few, and at any rate I had peace and quietness and wasn't always
being asked to come along and DO something. And I've got such
an active mind--always occupied, I assure you! But time went
on, and there was a certain sameness about the life, and at
last I began to think it would be fun to work my way upstairs and
see what you other fellows were doing. So I scratched and
burrowed, and worked this way and that way and at last I came out
through this cave here. And I like the country, and the view,
and the people--what I've seen of 'em--and on the whole I feel
inclined to settle down here."
"What's your mind always occupied about?" asked the Boy. "That's
what I want to know."
The dragon coloured slightly and looked away. Presently he said
"Did you ever--just for fun--try to make up poetry--verses, you
"'Course I have," said the Boy. "Heaps of it. And some of it's
quite good, I feel sure, only there's no one here cares about it.
Mother's very kind and all that, when I read it to her, and so's
father for that matter. But somehow they don't seem to--"
"Exactly," cried the dragon; "my own case exactly. They don't
seem to, and you can't argue with 'em about it. Now you've got
culture, you have, I could tell it on you at once, and I should
just like your candid opinion about some little things I threw
off lightly, when I was down there. I'm awfully pleased to have
met you, and I'm hoping the other neighbours will be equally
agreeable. There was a very nice old gentleman up here only last
night, but he didn't seem to want to intrude."
"That was my father," said the boy, "and he IS a nice old
gentleman, and I'll introduce you some day if you like."
"Can't you two come up here and dine or something to-morrow?"
asked the dragon eagerly. "Only, of course, if you've got
nothing better to do," he added politely.
"Thanks awfully," said the Boy, "but we don't go out anywhere
without my mother, and, to tell you the truth, I'm afraid she
mightn't quite approve of you. You see there's no getting over
the hard fact that you're a dragon, is there? And when you talk
of settling down, and the neighbours, and so on, I can't help
feeling that you don't quite realize your position. You're an
enemy of the human race, you see!"
"Haven't got an enemy in the world," said the dragon, cheerfully.
Too lazy to make 'em, to begin with. And if I DO read other
fellows my poetry, I'm always ready to listen to theirs!"
"Oh, dear!" cried the boy, "I wish you'd try and grasp the
situation properly. When the other people find you out, they'll
come after you with spears and swords and all sorts of things.
You'll have to be exterminated, according to their way of
looking at it! You're a scourge, and a pest, and a baneful
"Not a word of truth in it," said the dragon, wagging his head
solemnly. "Character'll bear the strictest investigation. And
now, there's a little sonnet-thing I was working on when you
appeared on the scene--"
"Oh, if you WON'T be sensible," cried the Boy, getting up,
"I'm going off home. No, I can't stop for sonnets; my mother's
sitting up. I'll look you up to-morrow, sometime or other, and
do for goodness' sake try and realize that you're a pestilential
scourge, or you'll find yourself in a most awful fix. Good-
The Boy found it an easy matter to set the mind of his parents'
at ease about his new friend. They had always left that branch
to him, and they took his word without a murmur. The shepherd
was formally introduced and many compliments and kind
inquiries were exchanged. His wife, however, though expressing
her willingness to do anything she could--to mend things, or set
the cave to rights, or cook a little something when the dragon
had been poring over sonnets and forgotten his meals, as male
things WILL do, could not be brought to recognize him
formally. The fact that he was a dragon and "they didn't know
who he was" seemed to count for everything with her. She made no
objection, however, to her little son spending his evenings with
the dragon quietly, so long as he was home by nine o'clock: and
many a pleasant night they had, sitting on the sward, while the
dragon told stories of old, old times, when dragons were quite
plentiful and the world was a livelier place than it is now, and
life was full of thrills and jumps and surprises.
What the Boy had feared, however, soon came to pass. The most
modest and retiring dragon in the world, if he's as big
as four cart-horses and covered with blue scales, cannot keep
altogether out of the public view. And so in the village tavern
of nights the fact that a real live dragon sat brooding in the
cave on the Downs was naturally a subject for talk. Though the
villagers were extremely frightened, they were rather proud as
well. It was a distinction to have a dragon of your own, and it
was felt to be a feather in the cap of the village. Still, all
were agreed that this sort of thing couldn't be allowed to go on.
The dreadful beast must be exterminated, the country-side must be
freed from this pest, this terror, this destroying scourge. The
fact that not even a hen roost was the worse for the dragon's
arrival wasn't allowed to have anything to do with it. He was a
dragon, and he couldn't deny it, and if he didn't choose to
behave as such that was his own lookout. But in spite of
much valiant talk no hero was found willing to take sword and
spear and free the suffering village and win deathless fame; and
each night's heated discussion always ended in nothing.
Meanwhile the dragon, a happy Bohemian, lolled on the turf,
enjoyed the sunsets, told antediluvian anecdotes to the Boy, and
polished his old verses while meditating on fresh ones.
One day the Boy, on walking in to the village, found everything
wearing a festal appearance which was not to be accounted for in
the calendar. Carpets and gay-coloured stuffs were hung out of
the windows, the church-bells clamoured noisily, the little
street was flower-strewn, and the whole population jostled each
other along either side of it, chattering, shoving, and ordering
each other to stand back. The Boy saw a friend of his own age in
the crowd and hailed him.
"What's up?" he cried. "Is it the players, or bears, or a
circus, or what?"
"It's all right," his friend hailed back. "He's a-coming."
"WHO'S a-coming?" demanded the Boy, thrusting into the throng.
"Why, St. George, of course," replied his friend. "He's heard
tell of our dragon, and he's comin' on purpose to slay the deadly
beast, and free us from his horrid yoke. O my! won't there be a
Here was news indeed! The Boy felt that he ought to make quite
sure for himself, and he wriggled himself in between the legs of
his good-natured elders, abusing them all the time for their
unmannerly habit of shoving. Once in the front rank, he
breathlessly awaited the arrival.
Presently from the far-away end of the line came the sound of
cheering. Next, the measured tramp of a great war-horse
made his heart beat quicker, and then he found himself cheering
with the rest, as, amidst welcoming shouts, shrill cries of
women, uplifting of babies and waving of handkerchiefs, St.
George paced slowly up the street. The Boy's heart stood still
and he breathed with sobs, the beauty and the grace of the hero
were so far beyond anything he had yet seen. His fluted armour
was inlaid with gold, his plumed helmet hung at his saddle-bow,
and his thick fair hair framed a face gracious and gentle beyond
expression till you caught the sternness in his eyes. He drew
rein in front of the little inn, and the villagers crowded round
with greetings and thanks and voluble statements of their wrongs
and grievances and oppressions. The Boy heard the grave gentle
voice of the Saint, assuring them that all would be well
now, and that he would stand by them and see them righted
and free them from their foe; then he dismounted and passed
through the doorway and the crowd poured in after him. But the
Boy made off up the hill as fast as he could lay his legs to the
"It's all up, dragon!" he shouted as soon as he was within sight
of the beast. "He's coming! He's here now! You'll have to pull
yourself together and DO something at last!"
The dragon was licking his scales and rubbing them with a bit of
house-flannel the Boy's mother had lent him, till he shone like a
"Don't be VIOLENT, Boy," he said without looking round. "Sit
down and get your breath, and try and remember that the noun
governs the verb, and then perhaps you'll be good enough to tell
me WHO'S coming?"
"That's right, take it coolly," said the Boy. "Hope you'll be
half as cool when I've got through with my news. It's only St.
George who's coming, that's all; he rode into the village half-
an-hour ago. Of course you can lick him--a great big fellow like
you! But I thought I'd warn you, 'cos he's sure to be round
early, and he's got the longest, wickedest-looking spear you ever
did see!" And the Boy got up and began to jump round in sheer
delight at the prospect of the battle.
"O deary, deary me," moaned the dragon; "this is too awful. I
won't see him, and that's flat. I don't want to know the fellow
at all. I'm sure he's not nice. You must tell him to go away at
once, please. Say he can write if he likes, but I can't give him
an interview. I'm not seeing anybody at present."
"Now dragon, dragon," said the Boy imploringly, "don't be
perverse and wrongheaded. You've GOT to fight him some time
or other, you know, 'cos he's St. George and you're the dragon.
Better get it over, and then we can go on with the sonnets. And
you ought to consider other people a little, too. If it's been
dull up here for you, think how dull it's been for me!"
"My dear little man," said the dragon solemnly, "just understand,
once for all, that I can't fight and I won't fight. I've never
fought in my life, and I'm not going to begin now, just to give
you a Roman holiday. In old days I always let the other
fellows--the EARNEST fellows--do all the fighting, and no
doubt that's why I have the pleasure of being here now."
"But if you don't fight he'll cut your head off!" gasped the Boy,
miserable at the prospect of losing both his fight and his
"Oh, I think not," said the dragon in his lazy way. "You'll be
able to arrange something. I've every confidence in you, you're
such a MANAGER. Just run down, there's a dear chap, and make
it all right. I leave it entirely to you."
The Boy made his way back to the village in a state of great
despondency. First of all, there wasn't going to be any fight;
next, his dear and honoured friend the dragon hadn't shown up in
quite such a heroic light as he would have liked; and lastly,
whether the dragon was a hero at heart or not, it made no
difference, for St. George would most undoubtedly cut his head
off. "Arrange things indeed!" he said bitterly to himself. "The
dragon treats the whole affair as if it was an invitation to tea
The villagers were straggling homewards as he passed up the
street, all of them in the highest spirits, and gleefully
discussing the splendid fight that was in store. The Boy pursued
his way to the inn, and passed into the principal chamber, where
St. George now sat alone, musing over the chances of the fight,
and the sad stories of rapine and of wrong that had so lately
been poured into his sympathetic ears.
"May I come in, St. George?" said the Boy politely, as he paused
at the door. "I want to talk to you about this little matter of
the dragon, if you're not tired of it by this time."
"Yes, come in, Boy," said the Saint kindly. "Another tale of
misery and wrong, I fear me. Is it a kind parent, then, of whom
the tyrant has bereft you? Or some tender sister or brother?
Well, it shall soon be avenged."
"Nothing of the sort," said the Boy. "There's a misunderstanding
somewhere, and I want to put it right. The fact is, this is
a GOOD dragon."
"Exactly," said St. George, smiling pleasantly, "I quite
understand. A good DRAGON. Believe me, I do not in the least
regret that he is an adversary worthy of my steel, and no feeble
specimen of his noxious tribe."
"But he's NOT a noxious tribe," cried the Boy distressedly.
"Oh dear, oh dear, how STUPID men are when they get an idea
into their heads! I tell you he's a GOOD dragon, and a friend
of mine, and tells me the most beautiful stories you ever heard,
all about old times and when he was little. And he's been so
kind to mother, and mother'd do anything for him. And father
likes him too, though father doesn't hold with art and poetry
much, and always falls asleep when the dragon starts talking
about STYLE. But the fact is, nobody can help liking him when
once they know him. He's so engaging and so trustful, and
as simple as a child!"
"Sit down, and draw your chair up," said St. George. "I like a
fellow who sticks up for his friends, and I'm sure the dragon has
his good points, if he's got a friend like you. But that's not
the question. All this evening I've been listening, with grief
and anguish unspeakable, to tales of murder, theft, and wrong;
rather too highly coloured, perhaps, not always quite convincing,
but forming in the main a most serious roll of crime. History
teaches us that the greatest rascals often possess all the
domestic virtues; and I fear that your cultivated friend, in
spite of the qualities which have won (and rightly) your regard,
has got to be speedily exterminated."
"Oh, you've been taking in all the yarns those fellows have been
telling you," said the Boy impatiently. "Why, our villagers
are the biggest story-tellers in all the country round. It's a
known fact. You're a stranger in these parts, or else you'd have
heard it already. All they want is a FIGHT. They're the most
awful beggars for getting up fights--it's meat and drink to them.
Dogs, bulls, dragons--anything so long as it's a fight. Why,
they've got a poor innocent badger in the stable behind here, at
this moment. They were going to have some fun with him to-day,
but they're saving him up now till YOUR little affair's over.
And I've no doubt they've been telling you what a hero you were,
and how you were bound to win, in the cause of right and justice,
and so on; but let me tell you, I came down the street just now,
and they were betting six to four on the dragon freely!"
"Six to four on the dragon!" murmured St. George sadly, resting
his cheek on his hand. "This is an evil world, and
sometimes I begin to think that all the wickedness in it is not
entirely bottled up inside the dragons. And yet--may not this
wily beast have misled you as to his real character, in order
that your good report of him may serve as a cloak for his evil
deeds? Nay, may there not be, at this very moment, some hapless
Princess immured within yonder gloomy cavern?"
The moment he had spoken, St. George was sorry for what he had
said, the Boy looked so genuinely distressed.
"I assure you, St. George," he said earnestly, "there's nothing
of the sort in the cave at all. The dragon's a real gentleman,
every inch of him, and I may say that no one would be more
shocked and grieved than he would, at hearing you talk in that--
that LOOSE way about matters on which he has very strong
"Well, perhaps I've been over-credulous," said St. George.
"Perhaps I've misjudged the animal. But what are we to do? Here
are the dragon and I, almost face to face, each supposed to be
thirsting for each other's blood. I don't see any way out of it,
exactly. What do you suggest? Can't you arrange things,
"That's just what the dragon said," replied the Boy, rather
nettled. "Really, the way you two seem to leave everything to
me--I suppose you couldn't be persuaded to go away quietly, could
"Impossible, I fear," said the Saint. "Quite against the rules.
YOU know that as well as I do."
"Well, then, look here," said the Boy, "it's early yet--would you
mind strolling up with me and seeing the dragon and talking it
over? It's not far, and any friend of mine will be most
"Well, it's IRREGULAR," said St. George, rising, "but
really it seems about the most sensible thing to do. You're
taking a lot of trouble on your friend's account," he added,
good-naturedly, as they passed out through the door together.
"But cheer up! Perhaps there won't have to be any fight after
"Oh, but _I_ hope there will, though!" replied the little
"I've brought a friend to see you, dragon," said the Boy, rather
The dragon woke up with a start. "I was just--er--thinking about
things," he said in his simple way. "Very pleased to make your
acquaintance, sir. Charming weather we're having!"
"This is St George," said the Boy, shortly. "St. George, let me
introduce you to the dragon. We've come up to talk things over
quietly, dragon, and now for goodness' sake do let us have a
little straight common-sense, and come to some practical
business-like arrangement, for I'm sick of views and theories of
life and personal tendencies, and all that sort of thing. I may
perhaps add that my mother's sitting up."
"So glad to meet you, St. George," began the dragon rather
nervously, "because you've been a great traveller, I hear, and
I've always been rather a stay-at-home. But I can show you many
antiquities, many interesting features of our country-side, if
you're stopping here any time--"
"I think," said St. George, in his frank, pleasant way, "that
we'd really better take the advice of our young friend here, and
try to come to some understanding, on a business footing, about
this little affair of ours. Now don't you think that after all
the simplest plan would be just to fight it out, according to the
rules, and let the best man win? They're betting on you, I
may tell you, down in the village, but I don't mind that!"
"Oh, yes, DO, dragon," said the Boy, delightedly; "it'll save
such a lot of bother!"
"My young friend, you shut up," said the dragon severely.
"Believe me, St. George," he went on, "there's nobody in the
world I'd sooner oblige than you and this young gentleman here.
But the whole thing's nonsense, and conventionality, and popular
thick-headedness. There's absolutely nothing to fight about,
from beginning to end. And anyhow I'm not going to, so that
"But supposing I make you?" said St. George, rather nettled.
"You can't," said the dragon, triumphantly. "I should only go
into my cave and retire for a time down the hole I came up.
You'd soon get heartily sick of sitting outside and waiting
for me to come out and fight you. And as soon as you'd really
gone away, why, I'd come up again gaily, for I tell you frankly,
I like this place, and I'm going to stay here!"
St. George gazed for a while on the fair landscape around them.
"But this would be a beautiful place for a fight," he began again
persuasively. "These great bare rolling Downs for the arena,--
and me in my golden armour showing up against your big blue scaly
coils! Think what a picture it would make!"
"Now you're trying to get at me through my artistic
sensibilities," said the dragon. "But it won't work. Not but
what it would make a very pretty picture, as you say," he added,
wavering a little.
"We seem to be getting rather nearer to BUSINESS," put in the
Boy. "You must see, dragon, that there's got to be a fight
of some sort, 'cos you can't want to have to go down that dirty
old hole again and stop there till goodness knows when."
"It might be arranged," said St. George, thoughtfully. "I
MUST spear you somewhere, of course, but I'm not bound to hurt
you very much. There's such a lot of you that there must be a
few SPARE places somewhere. Here, for instance, just behind
your foreleg. It couldn't hurt you much, just here!"
"Now you're tickling, George," said the dragon, coyly. "No, that
place won't do at all. Even if it didn't hurt,--and I'm sure it
would, awfully,--it would make me laugh, and that would spoil
"Let's try somewhere else, then," said St. George, patiently.
"Under your neck, for instance,--all these folds of thick skin,--
if I speared you here you'd never even know I'd done it!"
"Yes, but are you sure you can hit off the right place?"
asked the dragon, anxiously.
"Of course I am," said St. George, with confidence. "You leave
that to me!"
"It's just because I've GOT to leave it to you that I'm
asking," replied the dragon, rather testily. "No doubt you would
deeply regret any error you might make in the hurry of the
moment; but you wouldn't regret it half as much as I should!
However, I suppose we've got to trust somebody, as we go through
life, and your plan seems, on the whole, as good a one as any."
"Look here, dragon," interrupted the Boy, a little jealous on
behalf of his friend, who seemed to be getting all the worst of
the bargain: "I don't quite see where YOU come in! There's to
be a fight, apparently, and you're to be licked; and what I want
to know is, what are YOU going to get out of it?"
"St. George," said the dragon, "Just tell him, please,--what will
happen after I'm vanquished in the deadly combat?"
"Well, according to the rules I suppose I shall lead you in
triumph down to the market-place or whatever answers to it," said
"Precisely," said the dragon. "And then--"
"And then there'll be shoutings and speeches and things,"
continued St. George. "And I shall explain that you're
converted, and see the error of your ways, and so on."
"Quite so," said the dragon. "And then--?"
"Oh, and then--" said St. George, "why, and then there will be
the usual banquet, I suppose."
"Exactly," said the dragon; "and that's where _I_ come in. Look
here," he continued, addressing the Boy, "I'm bored to death
up here, and no one really appreciates me. I'm going into
Society, I am, through the kindly aid of our friend here, who's
taking such a lot of trouble on my account; and you'll find I've
got all the qualities to endear me to people who entertain! So
now that's all settled, and if you don't mind--I'm an old-
fashioned fellow--don't want to turn you out, but--"
"Remember, you'll have to do your proper share of the fighting,
dragon!" said St. George, as he took the hint and rose to go; "I
mean ramping, and breathing fire, and so on!"
"I can RAMP all right," replied the dragon, confidently; "as
to breathing fire, it's surprising how easily one gets out of
practice, but I'll do the best I can. Goodnight!"
They had descended the hill and were almost back in the village
again, when St. George stopped short, "KNEW I had
forgotten something," he said. "There ought to be a Princess.
Terror-stricken and chained to a rock, and all that sort of
thing. Boy, can't you arrange a Princess?"
The Boy was in the middle of a tremendous yawn. "I'm tired to
death," he wailed, "and I CAN'T arrange a Princess, or
anything more, at this time of night. And my mother's sitting
up, and DO stop asking me to arrange more things till
Next morning the people began streaming up to the Downs at quite
an early hour, in their Sunday clothes and carrying baskets with
bottle-necks sticking out of them, every one intent on securing
good places for the combat. This was not exactly a simple
matter, for of course it was quite possible that the dragon might
win, and in that case even those who had put their money on
him felt they could hardly expect him to deal with his backers on
a different footing to the rest. Places were chosen, therefore,
with circumspection and with a view to a speedy retreat in case
of emergency; and the front rank was mostly composed of boys who
had escaped from parental control and now sprawled and rolled
about on the grass, regardless of the shrill threats and warnings
discharged at them by their anxious mothers behind.
The Boy had secured a good front place, well up towards the cave,
and was feeling as anxious as a stage-manager on a first night.
Could the dragon be depended upon? He might change his mind and
vote the whole performance rot; or else, seeing that the affair
had been so hastily planned, without even a rehearsal, he might
be too nervous to show up. The Boy looked narrowly at the cave,
but it showed no sign of life or occupation. Could the
dragon have made a moon-light flitting?
The higher portions of the ground were now black with sightseers,
and presently a sound of cheering and a waving of handkerchiefs
told that something was visible to them which the Boy, far up
towards the dragon-end of the line as he was, could not yet see.
A minute more and St. George's red plumes topped the hill, as the
Saint rode slowly forth on the great level space which stretched
up to the grim mouth of the cave. Very gallant and beautiful he
looked, on his tall war-horse, his golden armour glancing in the
sun, his great spear held erect, the little white pennon,
crimson-crossed, fluttering at its point. He drew rein and
remained motionless. The lines of spectators began to give back
a little, nervously; and even the boys in front stopped pulling
hair and cuffing each other, and leaned forward expectant.
"Now then, dragon!" muttered the Boy impatiently, fidgeting where
he sat. He need not have distressed himself, had he only known.
The dramatic possibilities of the thing had tickled the dragon
immensely, and he had been up from an early hour, preparing for
his first public appearance with as much heartiness as if the
years had run backwards, and he had been again a little
dragonlet, playing with his sisters on the floor of their
mother's cave, at the game of saints-and-dragons, in which the
dragon was bound to win.
A low muttering, mingled with snorts, now made itself heard;
rising to a bellowing roar that seemed to fill the plain. Then a
cloud of smoke obscured the mouth of the cave, and out of the
midst of it the dragon himself, shining, sea-blue, magnificent,
pranced splendidly forth; and everybody said, "Oo-oo-oo!" as if
he had been a mighty rocket! His scales were glittering,
his long spiky tail lashed his sides, his claws tore up the turf
and sent it flying high over his back, and smoke and fire
incessantly jetted from his angry nostrils. "Oh, well done,
dragon!" cried the Boy, excitedly. "Didn't think he had it in
him!" he added to himself.
St. George lowered his spear, bent his head, dug his heels into
his horse's sides, and came thundering over the turf. The dragon
charged with a roar and a squeal,--a great blue whirling
combination of coils and snorts and clashing jaws and spikes and
"Missed!" yelled the crowd. There was a moment's entanglement of
golden armour and blue-green coils, and spiky tail, and then the
great horse, tearing at his bit, carried the Saint, his spear
swung high in the air, almost up to the mouth of the cave.
The dragon sat down and barked viciously, while St. George
with difficulty pulled his horse round into position.
"End of Round One!" thought the Boy. "How well they managed it!
But I hope the Saint won't get excited. I can trust the dragon
all right. What a regular play-actor the fellow is!"
St. George had at last prevailed on his horse to stand steady,
and was looking round him as he wiped his brow. Catching sight
of the Boy, he smiled and nodded, and held up three fingers for
"It seems to be all planned out," said the Boy to himself.
"Round Three is to be the finishing one, evidently. Wish it
could have lasted a bit longer. Whatever's that old fool of a
dragon up to now?"
The dragon was employing the interval in giving a ramping-
performance for the benefit of the crowd. Ramping, it should be
explained, consists in running round and round in a wide
circle, and sending waves and ripples of movement along the whole
length of your spine, from your pointed ears right down to the
spike at the end of your long tail. When you are covered with
blue scales, the effect is particularly pleasing; and the Boy
recollected the dragon's recently expressed wish to become a
St. George now gathered up his reins and began to move forward,
dropping the point of his spear and settling himself firmly in
"Time!" yelled everybody excitedly; and the dragon, leaving off
his ramping, sat up on end, and began to leap from one side to
the other with huge ungainly bounds, whooping like a Red Indian.
This naturally disconcerted the horse, who swerved violently, the
Saint only just saving himself by the mane; and as they shot past
the dragon delivered a vicious snap at the horse's tail
which sent the poor beast careering madly far over the Downs, so
that the language of the Saint, who had lost a stirrup, was
fortunately inaudible to the general assemblage.
Round Two evoked audible evidence of friendly feeling towards the
dragon. The spectators were not slow to appreciate a combatant
who could hold his own so well and clearly wanted to show good
sport, and many encouraging remarks reached the ears of our
friend as he strutted to and fro, his chest thrust out and his
tail in the air, hugely enjoying his new popularity.
St. George had dismounted and was tightening his girths, and
telling his horse, with quite an Oriental flow of imagery,
exactly what he thought of him, and his relations, and his
conduct on the present occasion; so the Boy made his way down to
the Saint's end of the line, and held his spear for him.
"It's been a jolly fight, St. George!" he said with a sigh.
"Can't you let it last a bit longer?"
"Well, I think I'd better not," replied the Saint. "The fact is,
your simple-minded old friend's getting conceited, now they've
begun cheering him, and he'll forget all about the arrangement
and take to playing the fool, and there's no telling where he
would stop. I'll just finish him off this round."
He swung himself into the saddle and took his spear from the Boy.
"Now don't you be afraid," he added kindly. "I've marked my spot
exactly, and HE'S sure to give me all the assistance in his
power, because he knows it's his only chance of being asked to
St. George now shortened his spear, bringing the butt well up
under his arm; and, instead of galloping as before, trotted
smartly towards the dragon, who crouched at his approach,
flicking his tail till it cracked in the air like a great cart-
whip. The Saint wheeled as he neared his opponent and circled
warily round him, keeping his eye on the spare place; while the
dragon, adopting similar tactics, paced with caution round the
same circle, occasionally feinting with his head. So the two
sparred for an opening, while the spectators maintained a
Though the round lasted for some minutes, the end was so swift
that all the Boy saw was a lightning movement of the Saint's arm,
and then a whirl and a confusion of spines, claws, tail, and
flying bits of turf. The dust cleared away, the spectators
whooped and ran in cheering, and the Boy made out that the dragon
was down, pinned to the earth by the spear, while St. George had
dismounted, and stood astride of him.
It all seemed so genuine that the Boy ran in breathlessly,
hoping the dear old dragon wasn't really hurt. As he approached,
the dragon lifted one large eyelid, winked solemnly, and
collapsed again. He was held fast to earth by the neck, but the
Saint had hit him in the spare place agreed upon, and it didn't
even seem to tickle.
"Bain't you goin' to cut 'is 'ed orf, master?" asked one of the
applauding crowd. He had backed the dragon, and naturally felt a
"Well, not TO-DAY, I think," replied St. George, pleasantly.
"You see, that can be done at ANY time. There's no hurry at
all. I think we'll all go down to the village first, and have
some refreshment, and then I'll give him a good talking-to, and
you'll find he'll be a very different dragon!"
At that magic word REFRESHMENT the whole crowd formed up in
procession and silently awaited the signal to start. The
time for talking and cheering and betting was past, the hour for
action had arrived. St. George, hauling on his spear with both
hands, released the dragon, who rose and shook himself and ran
his eye over his spikes and scales and things, to see that they
were all in order. Then the Saint mounted and led off the
procession, the dragon following meekly in the company of the
Boy, while the thirsty spectators kept at a respectful interval
There were great doings when they got down to the village again,
and had formed up in front of the inn. After refreshment St.
George made a speech, in which he informed his audience that he
had removed their direful scourge, at a great deal of trouble and
inconvenience to him-self, and now they weren't to go about
grumbling and fancying they'd got grievances, because they
hadn't. And they shouldn't be so fond of fights, because next
time they might have to do the fighting themselves, which would
not be the same thing at all. And there was a certain badger in
the inn stables which had got to be released at once, and he'd
come and see it done himself. Then he told them that the dragon
had been thinking over things, and saw that there were two sides
to every question, and he wasn't going to do it any more, and if
they were good perhaps he'd stay and settle down there. So they
must make friends, and not be prejudiced and go about fancying
they knew everything there was to be known, because they didn't,
not by a long way. And he warned them against the sin of
romancing, and making up stories and fancying other people would
believe them just because they were plausible and highly-
coloured. Then he sat down, amidst much repentant cheering,
and the dragon nudged the Boy in the ribs and whispered that he
couldn't have done it better himself. Then every one went off to
get ready for the banquet.
Banquets are always pleasant things, consisting mostly, as they
do, of eating and drinking; but the specially nice thing about a
banquet is, that it comes when something's over, and there's
nothing more to worry about, and to-morrow seems a long way off.
St George was happy because there had been a fight and he hadn't
had to kill anybody; for he didn't really like killing, though he
generally had to do it. The dragon was happy because there had
been a fight, and so far from being hurt in it he had won
popularity and a sure footing in society. The Boy was happy
because there had been a fight, and in spite of it all his two
friends were on the best of terms. And all the others were
happy because there had been a fight, and--well, they didn't
require any other reasons for their happiness. The dragon
exerted himself to say the right thing to everybody, and proved
the life and soul of the evening; while the Saint and the Boy, as
they looked on, felt that they were only assisting at a feast of
which the honour and the glory were entirely the dragon's. But
they didn't mind that, being good fellows, and the dragon was not
in the least proud or forgetful. On the contrary, every ten
minutes or so he leant over towards the Boy and said
impressively: "Look here! you WILL see me home afterwards,
won't you?" And the Boy always nodded, though he had promised
his mother not to be out late.
At last the banquet was over, the guests had dropped away with
many good-nights and congratulations and invitations, and
the dragon, who had seen the last of them off the premises,
emerged into the street followed by the Boy, wiped his brow,
sighed, sat down in the road and gazed at the stars. "Jolly
night it's been!" he murmured. "Jolly stars! Jolly little place
this! Think I shall just stop here. Don't feel like climbing up
any beastly hill. Boy's promised to see me home. Boy had better
do it then! No responsibility on my part. Responsibility all
Boy's!" And his chin sank on his broad chest and he slumbered
"Oh, GET up, dragon," cried the Boy, piteously. "You KNEW
my mother's sitting up, and I'm so tired, and you made me promise
to see you home, and I never knew what it meant or I wouldn't
have done it!" And the Boy sat down in the road by the side of
the sleeping dragon, and cried.
The door behind them opened, a stream of light illumined the
road, and St. George, who had come out for a stroll in the cool
night-air, caught sight of the two figures sitting there--the
great motionless dragon and the tearful little Boy.
"What's the matter, Boy?" he inquired kindly, stepping to his
"Oh, it's this great lumbering PIG of a dragon!" sobbed the
Boy. "First he makes me promise to see him home, and then he
says I'd better do it, and goes to sleep! Might as well try to
see a HAYSTACK home! And I'm so tired, and mother's--" here
he broke down again.
"Now don't take on," said St. George. "I'll stand by you, and
we'll BOTH see him home. Wake up, dragon!" he said sharply,
shaking the beast by the elbow.
The dragon looked up sleepily. "What a night, George!" he
murmured; "what a--"
"Now look here, dragon," said the Saint, firmly. "Here's
this little fellow waiting to see you home, and you KNOW he
ought to have been in bed these two hours, and what his mother'll
say _I_ don't know, and anybody but a selfish pig would have
MADE him go to bed long ago--"
"And he SHALL go to bed!" cried the dragon, starting up.
"Poor little chap, only fancy his being up at this hour! It's a
shame, that's what it is, and I don't think, St. George, you've
been very considerate--but come along at once, and don't let us
have any more arguing or shilly-shallying. You give me hold of
your hand, Boy--thank you, George, an arm up the hill is just
what I wanted!"
So they set off up the hill arm-in-arm, the Saint, the Dragon,
and the Boy. The lights in the little village began to go out;
but there were stars, and a late moon, as they climbed to the
Downs together. And, as they turned the last corner and
disappeared from view, snatches of an old song were borne
back on the night-breeze. I can't be certain which of them was
singing, but I THINK it was the Dragon!
"Here we are at your gate," said the man, abruptly, laying his
hand on it. "Good-night. Cut along in sharp, or you'll catch
Could it really be our own gate? Yes, there it was, sure enough,
with the familiar marks on its bottom bar made by our feet when
we swung on it.
"Oh, but wait a minute!" cried Charlotte. "I want to know a heap
of things. Did the dragon really settle down? And did--"
"There isn't any more of that story," said the man, kindly but
firmly. "At least, not to-night. Now be off! Good-bye!"
"Wonder if it's all true?" said Charlotte, as we hurried up the
path. "Sounded dreadfully like nonsense, in parts!"
"P'raps its true for all that," I replied encouragingly.
Charlotte bolted in like a rabbit, out of the cold and the dark;
but I lingered a moment in the still, frosty air, for a backward
glance at the silent white world without, ere I changed it for
the land of firelight and cushions and laughter. It was the day
for choir-practice, and carol-time was at hand, and a belated
member was passing homewards down the road, singing as he went:--
"Then St. George: ee made rev'rence: in the stable so dim,
Oo vanquished the dragon: so fearful and grim.
So-o grim: and so-o fierce: that now may we say
All peaceful is our wakin': on Chri-istmas Day!"
The singer receded, the carol died away. But I wondered, with my
hand on the door-latch, whether that was the song, or something
like it, that the dragon sang as he toddled contentedly up the
It is a very fine thing to be a real Prince. There are points
about a Pirate Chief, and to succeed to the Captaincy of a Robber
Band is a truly magnificent thing. But to be an Heir has also
about it something extremely captivating. Not only a long-lost
heir--an heir of the melodrama, strutting into your hitherto
unsuspected kingdom at just the right moment, loaded up with the
consciousness of unguessed merit and of rights so long
feloniously withheld--but even to be a common humdrum domestic
heir is a profession to which few would refuse to be apprenticed.
To step from leading-strings and restrictions and one glass of
port after dinner, into property and liberty and due
appreciation, saved up, polished and varnished, dusted and
laid in lavender, all expressly for you--why, even the Princedom
and the Robber Captaincy, when their anxieties and
responsibilities are considered, have hardly more to offer. And
so it will continue to be a problem, to the youth in whom
ambition struggles with a certain sensuous appreciation of life's
side-dishes, whether the career he is called upon to select out
of the glittering knick-knacks that strew the counter had better
be that of an heir or an engine-driver.
In the case of eldest sons, this problem has a way of solving
itself. In childhood, however, the actual heirship is apt to
work on the principle of the "Borough-English" of our happier
ancestors, and in most cases of inheritance it is the youngest
that succeeds. Where the "res" is "angusta," and the weekly
books are simply a series of stiff hurdles at each of which in
succession the paternal legs falter with growing suspicion
of their powers to clear the flight, it is in the affair of
CLOTHES that the right of succession tells, and "the hard heir
strides about the land" in trousers long ago framed for fraternal
limbs--frondes novas et non sua poma. A bitter thing indeed!
Of those pretty silken threads that knit humanity together, high
and low, past and present, none is tougher, more pervading, or
more iridescent, than the honest, simple pleasure of new clothes.
It tugs at the man as it tugs at the woman; the smirk of the
well-fitted prince is no different from the smirk of the Sunday-
clad peasant; and the veins of the elders tingle with the same
thrill that sets their fresh-frocked grandchildren skipping.
Never trust people who pretend that they have no joy in their new
Let not our souls be wrung, however, at contemplation of the
luckless urchin cut off by parental penury from the rapture
of new clothes. Just as the heroes of his dreams are his
immediate seniors, so his heroes' clothes share the glamour, and
the reversion of them carries a high privilege--a special thing
not sold by Swears and Wells. The sword of Galahad--and of many
another hero--arrived on the scene already hoary with history,
and the boy rather prefers his trousers to be legendary, famous,
haloed by his hero's renown--even though the nap may have
altogether vanished in the process.
But, putting clothes aside, there are other matters in which this
reversed heirship comes into play. Take the case of Toys. It is
hardly right or fitting--and in this the child quite acquiesces--
that as he approaches the reverend period of nine or say ten
years, he should still be the unabashed and proclaimed possessor
of a hoop and a Noah's Ark. The child will quite see the
reasonableness of this, and, the goal of his ambition being now a
catapult, a pistol, or even a sword-stick, will be satisfied that
the titular ownership should lapse to his juniors, so far below
him in their kilted or petticoated incompetence. After all, the
things are still there, and if relapses of spirit occur, on wet
afternoons, one can still (nominally) borrow them and be happy on
the floor as of old, without the reproach of being a habitual
baby toy-caresser. Also one can pretend it's being done to amuse
the younger ones.
None of us, therefore, grumbled when in the natural course of
things the nominal ownership of the toys slipped down to Harold,
and from him in turn devolved upon Charlotte. The toys were
still there; they always had been there and always would be
there, and when the nursery door was fast shut there were no
Kings or Queens or First Estates in that small Republic on
the floor. Charlotte, to be sure, chin-tilted, at last an owner
of real estate, might patronize a little at times; but it was
tacitly understood that her "title " was only a drawing-room one.
Why does a coming bereavement project no thin faint voice, no
shadow of its woe, to warn its happy, heedless victims? Why
cannot Olympians ever think it worth while to give some hint of
the thunderbolts they are silently forging? And why, oh, why did
it never enter any of our thick heads that the day would come
when even Charlotte would be considered too matronly for toys?
One's so-called education is hammered into one with rulers and
with canes. Each fresh grammar or musical instrument, each new
historical period or quaint arithmetical rule, is impressed on
one by some painful physical prelude. Why does Time, the biggest
Schoolmaster, alone neglect premonitory raps, at each stage
of his curriculum, on our knuckles or our heads?
Uncle Thomas was at the bottom of it. This was not the first
mine he had exploded under our bows. In his favourite pursuit of
fads he had passed in turn from Psychical Research to the White
Rose and thence to a Children's Hospital, and we were being daily
inundated with leaflets headed by a woodcut depicting Little
Annie (of Poplar) sitting up in her little white cot, surrounded
by the toys of the nice, kind, rich children. The idea caught on
with the Olympians, always open to sentiment of a treacly,
woodcut order; and accordingly Charlotte, on entering one day
dishevelled and panting, having been pursued by yelling Redskins
up to the very threshold of our peaceful home, was curtly
informed that her French lessons would begin on Monday, that she
was henceforth to cease all pretence of being a trapper or a
Redskin on utterly inadequate grounds, and moreover that the
whole of her toys were at that moment being finally packed up in
a box, for despatch to London, to gladden the lives and bring
light into the eyes of London waifs and Poplar Annies.
Naturally enough, perhaps, we others received no official
intimation of this grave cession of territory. We were not
supposed to be interested. Harold had long ago been promoted to
a knife--a recognized, birthday knife. As for me, it was known
that I was already given over, heart and soul, to lawless
abandoned catapults--catapults which were confiscated weekly for
reasons of international complications, but with which Edward
kept me steadily supplied, his school having a fine old tradition
for excellence in their manufacture. Therefore no one was
supposed to be really affected but Charlotte, and even she
had already reached Miss Yonge, and should therefore have been
more interested in prolific curates and harrowing deathbeds.
Nothwithstanding, we all felt indignant, betrayed, and sullen to
the verge of mutiny. Though for long we had affected to despise
them, these toys, yet they had grown up with us, shared our joys
and our sorrows, seen us at our worst, and become part of the
accepted scheme of existence. As we gazed at untenanted shelves
and empty, hatefully tidy corners, perhaps for the first time for
long we began to do them a tardy justice.
There was old Leotard, for instance. Somehow he had come to be
sadly neglected of late years--and yet how exactly he always
responded to certain moods! He was an acrobat, this Leotard, who
lived in a glass-fronted box. His loosejointed limbs were
cardboard, cardboard his slender trunk; and his hands eternally
grasped the bar of a trapeze. You turned the box round swiftly
five or six times; the wonderful unsolved machinery worked, and
Leotard swung and leapt, backwards, forwards, now astride the
bar, now flying free; iron-jointed, supple-sinewed, unceasingly
novel in his invention of new, unguessable attitudes; while
above, below, and around him, a richly-dressed audience, painted
in skilful perspective of stalls, boxes, dress-circle, and
gallery, watched the thrilling performance with a stolidity which
seemed to mark them out as made in Germany. Hardly versatile
enough, perhaps, this Leotard; unsympathetic, not a companion for
all hours; nor would you have chosen him to take to bed with you.
And yet, within his own limits, how fresh, how engrossing, how
resourceful and inventive! Well, he was gone, it seemed--
merely gone. Never specially cherished while he tarried
with us, he had yet contrived to build himself a particular niche
of his own. Sunrise and sunset, and the dinner-bell, and the
sudden rainbow, and lessons, and Leotard, and the moon through
the nursery windows--they were all part of the great order of
things, and the displacement of any one item seemed to
disorganize the whole machinery. The immediate point was, not
that the world would continue to go round as of old, but that
Yonder corner, now swept and garnished, had been the stall
wherein the spotty horse, at the close of each laborious day, was
accustomed to doze peacefully the long night through. In days of
old each of us in turn had been jerked thrillingly round the room
on his precarious back, had dug our heels into his unyielding
sides, and had scratched our hands on the tin tacks that
secured his mane to his stiffly-curving neck. Later, with
increasing stature, we came to overlook his merits as a beast of
burden; but how frankly, how good-naturedly, he had recognized
the new conditions, and adapted himself to them without a murmur!
When the military spirit was abroad, who so ready to be a
squadron of cavalry, a horde of Cossacks, or artillery pounding
into position? He had even served with honour as a gun-boat,
during a period when naval strategy was the only theme; and no
false equine pride ever hindered him from taking the part of a
roaring locomotive, earth-shaking, clangorous, annihilating time
and space. Really it was no longer clear how life, with its
manifold emergencies, was to be carried on at all without a
fellow like the spotty horse, ready to step in at critical
moments and take up just the part required of him.
In moments of mental depression, nothing is quite so
consoling as the honest smell of a painted animal; and
mechanically I turned towards the shelf that had been so long the
Ararat of our weather-beaten Ark. The shelf was empty, the Ark
had cast off moorings and sailed away to Poplar, and had taken
with it its haunting smell, as well as that pleasant sense of
disorder that the best conducted Ark is always able to impart.
The sliding roof had rarely been known to close entirely. There
was always a pair of giraffe-legs sticking out, or an elephant-
trunk, taking from the stiffness of its outline, and reminding us
that our motley crowd of friends inside were uncomfortably
cramped for room and only too ready to leap in a cascade on the
floor and browse and gallop, flutter and bellow and neigh, and be
their natural selves again. I think that none of us ever really
thought very much of Ham and Shem and Japhet. They were only
there because they were in the story, but nobody really
wanted them. The Ark was built for the animals, of course--
animals with tails, and trunks, and horns, and at least three
legs apiece, though some unfortunates had been unable to retain
even that number. And in the animals were of course included the
birds--the dove, for instance, grey with black wings, and the
red-crested woodpecker--or was it a hoo-poe?--and the insects,
for there was a dear beetle, about the same size as the dove,
that held its own with any of the mammalia.
Of the doll-department Charlotte had naturally been sole chief
for a long time; if the staff were not in their places to-day, it
was not I who had any official right to take notice. And yet one
may have been member of a Club for many a year without ever
exactly understanding the use and object of the other members,
until one enters, some Christmas day or other holiday, and,
surveying the deserted armchairs, the untenanted sofas, the
barren hat-pegs, realizes, with depression, that those other
fellows had their allotted functions, after all. Where was old
Jerry? Where were Eugenie, Rosa, Sophy, Esmeralda? We had long
drifted apart, it was true, we spoke but rarely; perhaps,
absorbed in new ambitions, new achievements, I had even come to
look down on these conservative, unprogressive members who were
so clearly content to remain simply what they were. And now that
their corners were unfilled, their chairs unoccupied--well, my
eyes were opened and I wanted 'em back!
However, it was no business of mine. If grievances were the
question, I hadn't a leg to stand upon. Though my catapults were
officially confiscated, I knew the drawer in which they were
incarcerated, and where the key of it was hidden, and I
could make life a burden, if I chose, to every living thing
within a square-mile radius, so long as the catapult was restored
to its drawer in due and decent time. But I wondered how the
others were taking it. The edict hit them more severely. They
should have my moral countenance at any rate, if not more, in any
protest or countermine they might be planning. And, indeed,
something seemed possible, from the dogged, sullen air with which
the two of them had trotted off in the direction of the
raspberry-canes. Certain spots always had their insensible
attraction for certain moods. In love, one sought the orchard.
Weary of discipline, sick of convention, impassioned for the
road, the mining camp, the land across the border, one made for
the big meadow. Mutinous, sulky, charged with plots and
conspiracies, one always got behind the shelter of the
. . . . . . .
"You can come too if you like," said Harold, in a subdued sort of
way, as soon as he was aware that I was sitting up in bed
watching him. "We didn't think you'd care, 'cos you've got to
catapults. But we're goin' to do what we've settled to do, so
it's no good sayin' we hadn't ought and that sort of thing, 'cos
we're goin' to!"
The day had passed in an ominous peacefulness. Charlotte and
Harold had kept out of my way, as well as out of everybody
else's, in a purposeful manner that ought to have bred suspicion.
In the evening we had read books, or fitfully drawn ships and
battles on fly-leaves, apart, in separate corners, void of
conversation or criticism, oppressed by the lowering tidiness of
the universe, till bedtime came, and disrobement, and
prayers even more mechanical than usual, and lastly bed itself
without so much as a giraffe under the pillow. Harold had
grunted himself between the sheets with an ostentatious pretence
of overpowering fatigue; but I noticed that he pulled his pillow
forward and propped his head against the brass bars of his crib,
and, as I was acquainted with most of his tricks and subterfuges,
it was easy for me to gather that a painful wakefulness was his
aim that night.
I had dozed off, however, and Harold was out and on his feet,