St. George and the Witches - J. W. Dunne - ebook

St. George and the Witches ebook

J. W. Dunne

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An enchanting fairy tale, for all who liked The Sword in the Stone, but a book that should be introduced to youngsters by some discriminating adult. Fantasy and humor in a story of St. George, who has disposed of dragons for the time being, and who turns his attention to witches. Circe, still prating of Ulysses, is number one glamor girl of these daughters of darkness, and with Howling Harriet and Whimpering Willie, she cuts some fancy capers. There is plenty of magic in the plot -- and the grown-ups will get some fun out of the subtleties that the juniors may miss.

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Liczba stron: 209

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BY WAY OF INTRODUCTION

There was a clatter of racing feet on the ancient, oaken stairs. There followed, apparently, a wrestling match outside my door. Then the two entered, paused, advanced and greeted me sedately.

“Well, what shall we play tonight?” I asked.

“St. George and the Dragon,” said Rosemary.

“But we did that yesterday,” I objected.

“Well, go on with it,” said Christopher.

“But we finished St. George and the Dragon. You killed the Dragon, and you married the Princess [which is not in the real story]. There isn’t any more to go on with.”

“Well, they can have adventures after they are married, can’t they?” said Christopher.

“Oh!” said I, and paused to take this in. “Oh, very well.”

That was how it all began; but, when the story came to be written out, the children were old enough to render advisable a change of diction and an amplification of the plot.

The joyous liberties we took with history; the geography we molded to our desire; the demonology we modified to suit our needs: these, of necessity, remain. All said and done, the tale’s the thing.

J. W. Dunne

Chapter I – AN ARTIST SPEAKS OF HIS ART

When St. George, mounted upon his great war horse, rode toward the dragon, the Princess Cleodolinda closed her eyes. Then she opened them again; because she felt that she simply must have one more look at this knight before he was turned into a cinder. She wanted to remember his face. The fact that she, probably, would be chewed up by the dragon two minutes later seemed merely to make it more important that she should get that face fixed quite clearly in her mind. She was a brave girl, or she would not—you will remember—have been there at all.

Well, when she opened her eyes, she saw a most surprising thing. St. George had dismounted and was strolling—yes, strolling—toward the dragon, with nothing but a long, thin dagger in his hand. The brute was watching him in a slightly puzzled fashion, and little wisps of acrid smoke curled upward from its nostrils as it waited. St. George drew nearer, and suddenly the dragon opened its enormous jaws. At that, the Princess shut her eyes very tightly indeed. She heard a slight scuffling noise and a thud.

And then, to her joy and amazement, she heard the Knight say, “It is all right, my pretty. Open your eyes. The beast is dead.”

She looked, and there was St. George smiling at her from the other side of the prone monster. She wanted to cry “Oh! thank Heaven! thank Heaven!” but she knew that princesses must not be emotional. So, all that she did say, gravely, was “You have no right, sir, to call me your ‘pretty’ just because you have killed a dragon.”

At that St. George laughed (it made her think, somehow, of the sun sparkling on a running brook) and he cried, “Then I will call you ‘my pretty’ just because you are pretty, and because I hope you will be mine.” And he jumped over the dragon, and cut her bonds with his dagger, and then kneeled and kissed her hand. And when he looked up, and she, bending forward, looked down into his upturned face, the gravity left her lips, and her smile made him think, somehow, of stars in an evening sky when the wind blows away dark mists that are like, in some fashion, the veil of a damsel’s long hair drooping round a kneeling knight. And then they both forgot all about the dragon.

But, after they were married—(What! didn’t you know that they were married three days later? Someone must have told you the story all wrong.) After they were married, the Princess remembered; and she said, “Tell me, St. George, how did you manage to kill that dragon?”

Her father, the King of Silene (the Princess had invited them both to her private boudoir to taste a strange new beverage called “tea”), echoed her question. “Come, tell us,” he said. “There is nobody here but we three, and modesty, you know, can be overdone.”

St. George laughed. “The truest modesty, sire,” he replied, “would be for me to tell you precisely how it happened; for I fear that you will think less highly of me when you learn how easy was the deed. You see—” he paused for a moment. “But, perhaps,” he went on, “it would be simpler if I told you the story from the beginning.”

The Princess clapped her hands. “Yes, please do so,” she cried. “I simply love stories, especially when they are true. But first, will you not each have another cup of my tea? Did I tell you that it was sent to me as a birthday present by my great-uncle, the Emperor of China? It was on the last birthday—my sixteenth.”

She poured out three more cups of tea, and then St. George began.

“When I was young,” he said—but here the King interrupted.

“Young?” he cried. “I thought you told me that you had just passed twenty-three.”

“That is true,” replied St. George, “but at the time of which I am going to speak I was only eighteen.”

“Oh, ah! I see,” said the King. He had been sixty-five at his last birthday.

“When I was young,” repeated St. George firmly, “I happened to be walking in a wood. I was stepping very quietly, because I was hunting for rabbits. Suddenly, I saw a sort of heaving movement in a patch of bracken a little way ahead; and looking more closely, I perceived that the bracken partly concealed the body of a long green dragon. Smoke was rising lightly from its nostrils, making a faint blue haze above the fronds; so the beast was, clearly, one of the fire-breathing kind. They are very rare indeed; but I do not know why.”

“I do,” said the King unexpectedly.

“Why?” asked the Princess and St. George, speaking together.

“I will tell you afterwards,” replied the King. “Go on with your story now.”

“The beast did not notice me,” continued St. George, “because it lay sideways to me, with its head pointing to my right, and its gaze fixed intently upon some object in front of it. Just as I realized this, I heard a loud bellow, and glancing in the direction toward which the dragon was looking, I saw a large white bull trotting toward the monster with his head held high in the air. It was clear to me that he had scented the dragon; and that, with all the reckless stupidity of his kind, he was advancing toward the place where he smelled danger.

“The dragon lay motionless until the bull had come to within fifteen paces of its head, and then it opened its mouth to its widest stretch. Now, its lower jaw lay along the ground, so it managed the opening by bending its head backward and raising the upper jaw. As it did so it drew a long, deep breath—I could see its ribs swelling with the effort—and, meanwhile, it closed its eyes. If you will hold your lower jaw, throw your head back so as to open your mouth, and draw a deep breath, you will find that the tendency to close your eyes is so natural that it requires a distinct effort to keep them open.”

The King tried this. The Princess did not do so. “Yes,” said the King, “I see what you mean.”

“I realized, at once,” continued St. George, “that, while the monster was engaged in this operation, there would be time for a swift and active man to leap forward to the side of the brute’s head, without being seen.”

“But, surely,” gasped the Princess, “that would be horribly dangerous.”

“Much less dangerous than it sounds,” replied St. George, “but the bull, of course, made no such agile side-leap. He just lowered his head, rushed straight in, and was met by a blast of flame so bright and blinding that I was, for the moment, completely dazzled. Then I saw that the poor, foolish beast was lying in a heap on the ground, and noticed that the air was filled with a delicious aroma of roast beef. The dragon licked its lips and advanced to its meal. I dropped to the ground, and squirmed away backward, nor did I rise until I could do so without danger of being seen.

“On my way home I pondered deeply upon what I had observed. It was easy enough to understand why the dragon had opened its mouth and drawn that deep breath. The fires within it were merely smoldering, and the inrush of air was needed to blow them to a blaze. Evidently, all fire-breathing dragons would have to do this before they could shoot out the blast which should shrivel their enemies. Evidently, also, they would close their eyes during this preparatory action. Therefore, as I said before, an active man should find no difficulty in arriving uninjured beside the monster’s neck. But what was he to do when he got there? You cannot pierce a dragon’s brazen scales with a sword, you know.”

“But,” interrupted the King. He paused. “Never mind, go on.”

“Then,” continued St. George, “I had what one might call a wave of activity in whatever it is one thinks with.” He looked at them doubtfully. “I am afraid,” he said, “that I am not making myself very clear.”

“On the contrary,” replied the King, “the description is most lucid, though rather too long, perhaps, for use in everyday conversation. You see what he means, do you not, princess?”

“I think so,” said Cleodolinda, frowning slightly.

“Well,” said St. George, “this is what came to me in a flash of thought: Scales overlap, you know. Those in front lie half over those which are next behind them. So, when you poke at a dragon from its front, your lance point or sword point merely slides along the scale it strikes first and slips over the back end of this onto the middle of the scale next behind. In this way your thrust might glance along the whole length of the beast’s body without ever finding a crevice through which it could enter. But, if you were to thrust against those scales, striking forward from behind, your point would slip over the scale you struck and then slip in under the back edge of the scale next in front. Do you see what I mean?”

“Yes,” cried the Princess, “but . . .” Then she, in her turn, paused.

St. George waited; then, as she said no more, he went on. He had risen, and drew his dagger in order to show better what he meant. “Now, I,” he cried, “would be beside the monster’s neck, facing its tail. If I were to stab with a backward stroke, my point would slip in under the scales; and, if I aimed correctly, it would pass on into the brute’s brain through the soft place underneath the back of the skull.”

“Mind the teapot!” cried the Princess.

“I beg your pardon,” said St. George. He replaced his dagger in its sheath, and continued his story.

“Next day the usual news was being proclaimed by heralds throughout the town. The dragon, following custom, had demanded the King’s daughter for a meal, this being the price of his departure; and the King (so said the heralds) out of his great love for his people had decided to sacrifice his fair child. But, of course, one-half of the kingdom, together with the lady’s hand in marriage, were offered to any knight who might save the girl by slaying the monster.”

“What king was that?” asked Cleodolinda.

“The country was called ‘Etheria,’” answered St. George, “but I am afraid that I cannot tell you exactly where it is. I was traveling on the Continent at the time, and my knowledge of geography is rather weak.”

“Well,” said the Princess, “did you offer your services as a rescuer?”

“No,” said St. George. “Knights only were asked for, and I was no knight then. But I armed myself with a long, thin dagger, which I concealed in my sleeve; and I followed the procession which led the Princess to the place of sacrifice in the forest. She wore, I may say, a heavy veil. When the others had departed I hid behind a tree.”

“Go on,” said the King, as St. George hesitated.

“I do not know, really, if I ought to tell you this,” confessed the young man, “but, having gone thus far, I do not see how I can stop. . . . From the first, then, I had my doubts about that princess. The girl did not go at all willingly, as would have befitted one of royal rank, and after they had left her she did rather a lot of weeping and wailing. I was so puzzled at her behavior that, watching her, I failed to notice the approach of the dragon. The brute slithered up with surprising quietness, and suddenly poked its head out of the bracken. Then it spoke to the girl in a voice like the sound of a creaking windmill. ‘Who are you?’ it demanded.

“‘Oh! lawks-a-mussy-on-me!’ she screamed. ‘Garn away, ye nasty ugly critter!’

“Then, of course, I saw the truth—and so did the monster. ‘Where’s that king?’ it bellowed. ‘I’ll teach him to deceive a dragon!’

“It swung round away from the girl; and at that moment I stepped from behind my tree and walked slowly toward it—slowly, because I wanted the beast to misjudge my pace. It crouched immediately, resting its head on its forepaws and arching its neck; watching me the while with unwavering green eyes. It allowed me to stroll to within ten feet of it before it performed the movement I was expecting. Then, as the upper part of its head went back and its eyes closed, I stepped to the left and sprang in.”

“And then?” cried the King and the Princess together, both leaning forward.

“Oh,” said St. George, “the theory worked out perfectly. The dagger penetrated the brain, and the brute was dead before ever it had finished drawing that deep breath.”

“And what did you say to the girl afterwards?” asked the Princess. She asked it rather anxiously.

“Well, you see,” replied St. George ruefully, “she was fat as a pudding, and she kept up a continuous squalling. Testing new theories is always rather trying work, and I am afraid I rather snapped at her. What I said, actually, was, ‘For goodness’ sake, girl, stop that blubbering! Nothing is going to eat you.’”

“Oh!” said the Princess. She looked, for some reason, relieved.

“But, I suppose,” she went on, “that you have saved lots of damsels since then?”

St. George counted on his fingers. “Six, I believe,” he said.

“And did they,” inquired the Princess, “all (what was the word you used?) ‘blubber’?”

“All except one,” said the Knight. He sighed reminiscently. “She,” he added, “was a dream of beauty.”

“What did she do?” asked the Princess, quickly.

“She just looked at me,” replied St. George, “and said, very gravely, ‘You have no right, sir, to call me your “pretty” just because—’”

“Oh!” cried the Princess. She blushed. Then she smiled at St. George.

“Well, go on with the story,” said the King impatiently, after waiting nearly a minute.

“I beg your pardon,” apologized St. George. “But there is really no more to tell.”

“Oh, but there must be,” cried the King. “How, for one thing, did you get the sham princess through the town and into the palace?”

“I made her keep her veil down,” answered the Knight, “and I had the sense to order some of the crowd to run on ahead and warn the King of our coming. He was waiting for us when we arrived; and, after a hasty embrace, he hustled the girl into an anteroom. Thence there emerged, two minutes later, the real Princess wearing the girl’s clothes and veil. She walked into the courtyard and threw open the veil. The crowd yelled like anything.”

“Oh! what a shame!” cried Cleodolinda.

“And then,” said the King, “the lady threw her arms round your neck and exclaimed, ‘My preserver! My future husband.’”

“How did you know that?” cried the startled St. George.

“Oh,” remarked the King, “one learns as one grows older.” And this time it was he and the Princess who smiled at each other.

“Well,” growled St. George, “I made it pretty clear to them, after we got inside again, that I was not seeking a wife yet. I saw to it, also, that the country wench who had impersonated the Princess for the dragon’s benefit was properly rewarded and returned safely to her home. And that really is the end of the story.”

“They offered you a knighthood, of course,” observed the King, “and, of course, you refused it.”

“Of course,” echoed both St. George and the Princess.

“Yes,” mused the King, “one could not accept a knighthood from so dishonorable a man. However, let us leave that unpleasant topic. You have contrived, St. George, to make your dragon-killing sound a very easy business. But I noticed, when you returned with my daughter the other day, that your helmet was deeply dented. How did that happen?”

St. George blushed. “That was done, sire,” he admitted, “by the sting in the brute’s tail when it whipped over in the death throes. You have to look out for that, of course, and jump the right way.”

“Which way did it come this time?” demanded the King.

St. George grew still more red. “Toward your daughter’s head, sir,” he muttered.

“And you, naturally, put your own head in the way,” observed the King.

“Why, of course,” said St. George angrily. “I had a helmet and she had none.”

“And then,” said the King, “you jumped back to the far side of the dragon so that the Princess, when she opened her eyes, should not guess what you had been doing.” He gave his thigh a resounding slap and let out a gale of laughter that shook the very roof. Cleodolinda did not laugh. She looked at St. George with shining eyes, and he forgot his embarrassment in the warmth of her gaze.

“Oh, children, children!” gasped the King, and the other two thought he must have taken leave of his senses. He wiped his streaming eyes. “Do not mind me,” he said. “I am old, and I grow foolish. But now, Sir Knight, listen, and I will tell you something about dragons.”

Chapter II – CURIOUS INCIDENT IN A DRAGON DRIVE

“The information I am going to give you,” began the King, “I had direct from my own astrologer royal, Sir Marmaduke Melchior, who is probably the most learned man in the whole country of Libya. Fire-breathing dragons, he told me, are rare for the simple reason that they come from volcanoes. Each of these burning mountains has within its glowing heart one fire-dragon. Now, when a volcano becomes burnt out, or ‘extinct,’ its dragon leaves it. The creature’s preliminary stirrings start, occasionally, a serious earthquake. Thereafter it emerges and seeks for a hotter place. Of course, it never finds one, and it dies in about a fortnight; but, during that period, it does, usually, an immense amount of damage. The dragon which wanted Cleodolinda came from a volcano in the country belonging to my sister, Queen Sophia—a country which borders mine on the east. This mountain ceased to erupt about two years ago; and, eighteen months later, there was a violent earthquake which tore great fissures in the countryside. A few days ago the dragon came out and made directly for my country. Sir Marmaduke, looking from the high tower of his observatory, saw the beast arrive.

“And now, here is another thing. Your discovery, St. George, that an armor of scales gives security against attack from the front, but none against assault from behind, is not really new. It is a piece of knowledge with which my hunters and the Princess here and I myself have long been acquainted. We employ it as a matter of course in all our dragon drives.”

“Dragon what?” inquired the puzzled St. George.

“Dragon drives,” repeated the King. “Do you not drive dragons in England?”

“We have no dragons there,” answered the Knight. “But would you kindly explain, sire, what is a ‘drive.’”

“There is a large wood near here,” said the King, “which is simply teeming with a small variety of dragon. The beasts are about as large as crocodiles; and, though they are not fire-breathers, they have armor of brazen scales, and very serviceable teeth and claws. They possess no poison stings; but, on the other hand, they are magnificent fliers, and can carry off oxen with ease. We compel them to fly from the forest over a line of archers standing upon the sward just beyond the edge of the trees. Our bowmen do not make the mistake of shooting at the creatures when these first appear flying toward them above the treetops. Arrows shot thus would simply glance harmlessly from the scales. No, the archer waits until the dragon has passed overhead, and then wheels round and shoots at the beast from behind. I tell you,” he went on with rising enthusiasm, “that there is no finer sight to be seen during a sportsman’s career than is afforded by one of these smitten dragons towering up, up into the sky until it is scarcely more than a tiny dot, and then somersaulting over and over, growing rapidly larger as it falls down, down to strike the earth with a clang such as fifty forges could not imitate.”

“But how do you make the beasts fly?” asked St. George.

“With elephants,” replied the King. “We have a line of these animals stretching right across the forest. Each carries a mahout (specially imported from India) and a man whom we call the ‘beater’—because he beats upon a large gong as the line advances. The mahout blows upon a horn. The sight of this moving wave of elephants is most impressive, and the noise is quite terrific. Our dragons cannot stand elephants—claws and teeth make no impression upon those thick hides, and the mighty legs would crush any creature they trod upon. But here is an idea. Shall we have a dragon drive tomorrow, and then you, St. George, can see the sport for yourself? More, you can take your stand with the archers, for I hear that you English are skilled beyond all other men in the use of the bow.”

“Splendid!” cried the Princess, clapping her hands, “and I, also, will take my bow and have a place among the shooters.”

“Now, now, Cleodolinda!” cried her father, “you know well that children, when they attend, must ride upon the elephants. The other post is too dangerous for them.”

“I would have you to know, my father,” replied the Princess, holding her head very high, “that I am no longer a child. I am a married woman. Moreover, you will agree that the wife of the bravest knight in Christendom should be the last woman to regard her personal safety as a matter for great concern.”

“But can you shoot straight enough, my dear?” asked the anxious King.

The Princess extracted a lump of sugar from a little bowl on the table before her and presented the morsel to her father. Then she moved to the wall of the boudoir, upon which there hung a small silver-mounted bow and a quiver of arrows. “Do you, sire,” she said, “stand at the far end of the room, holding the sugar between your fingers. I will undertake to shoot that target away without injury to yourself.” She selected an arrow as she spoke.

“No, no!” cried the King. “I will take your word for your skill, my pet.” He looked across at St. George, and both men, the old and the young, raised their eyebrows and grinned feebly. It was as if they had said, with one accord, “Oh, these women!”

“Very well, then,” sighed the King, “that is settled. Tomorrow at midday, let it be; for these dragons do not fly well until they have been warmed by the sun. And now I must leave you to your rest.” He rose and kissed the Princess’ fingers. “Your tea, my dear, is excellent beyond words; but I will take no more, for I suspect that it might unsteady me for the shooting. So, good night to you both.”