A little girl was ill. Each day the doctor, Mikhail Petrovich, whom she had known for a very, very long time, came to see her. Sometimes, there were two other doctors with him whom she did not know. They would turn her on her stomach and then on her back, listening for something, their ears pressed to her body, pulling down her eyelids and looking. All the while their faces were very stern, and they made important huffing sounds, and spoke to each other in a strange tongue.
Then they would leave the nursery and go into the parlour, where her mother awaited them. The most important-looking doctor, a tall, grey-haired man in gold-rimmed eyeglasses, spoke to her for a long time in a very serious tone. The door was not shut, and so the girl could see and hear everything from her bed. There was much she could not understand, but she knew they were talking about her. Her mother looked at the doctor from her large, tired eyes that were red from weeping. In parting, the doctor said in a loud voice:
“Try to see that she is never bored, and fulfil her every wish.”
“Oh, doctor! That’s just it! She doesn’t want anything!”
“Hm… Well then, try to think of what she used to like before she became ill. Some toys … or sweets….”
“Doctor, she doesn’t want anything.”
“Then try to arouse her interest in something…. Try anything …. Take my word for it, if you are able to make her laugh, to be happy, it will be the very best medicine. You must understand that your daughter’s illness is simply an indifference to life, and nothing more. Good-day, Madame.”
“Darling, isn’t there anything you’d like? Tell me, Nadya,” her mother said.
“No, Mamma, I don’t want anything.”
“Would you like me to bring you all your dolls? We can put the little armchairs, the sofa, the table and the tea set on your bed. The dolls will have tea and talk about the weather and their children’s health.”
“Thank you. Mamma… But I don’t want them… I’m so bored….”
“All right, dear, we won’t play dolls. Would you like me to call Katya or Zhenya? They’re your best friends.”
“No, don’t. Mamma. Please, don’t. There’s not anything I want at all.
Oh, I’m so bored!”
“Would you like a bar of chocolate?”
But the girl did not reply. She just stared sadly at the ceiling. Nothing hurt her. She did not even have a fever, but she was getting thinner and weaker with each passing day. She did not care what was done to her, and did not wish for anything. She simply lay in her bed day and night, quietly and sadly. At times she would doze off for half an hour, but even her dreams were of something long, grey and as mournful as the rain in autumn.
When the door from the nursery to the parlour was left open, and the door from the parlour to the study, too, the girl could see her father. Papa kept pacing up and down, smoking one cigarette after another. Sometimes he would come into the nursery, sit down on the edge of the bed and stroke Nadya’s feet gently. Then he would suddenly get up and go over to the window. He would whistle a tune as he looked out at the street, but his shoulders would be convulsed. Then he would hastily press his handkerchief first to one eye and then to the other and would go off to his study, as if he were cross. There he would begin pacing up and down again, smoking cigarette after cigarette… His study would become fairly blue from all the smoke.
One morning the little girl was a bit more cheerful than usual when she awoke. She had dreamed about something, but couldn’t remember what it was, and so gazed long and intently into her mother’s eyes.
“Is there anything you’d like?” her mother asked.
Suddenly the girl remembered her dream and said in a whisper, as if it were a secret:
“Mamma … can I have an … elephant? But I don’t mean a picture of one. Can I?”
“Certainly you can, darling. By all means.”
Her mother went off into the study and told Papa that Nadya wanted an elephant. Papa quickly put on his hat and coat and left the house. Half an hour later he returned with a lovely, expensive toy. It was a large grey elephant which nodded its head and swished its tail. There was a red cloth on the elephant’s back and on it a gold canopied seat with three little men. But the girl looked at the toy as indifferently as she did at the ceiling and the walls, and her voice when she spoke was listless.
“No. That’s not what I meant at all. I wanted a real, live elephant, but this one is dead.”
‘Wait a minute, Nadya,” Papa said. “I’ll wind it up, and it will be just like a real, live one.
He wound up the elephant with a little key, and it nodded its head and swished its tail as it began to move its feet and walk slowly across the table. The girl was not at all interested. In fact, she was bored, but she did not want to disappoint her father and so whispered obediently: “Thank you ever so much, dear Papa. I don’t think anyone I know has such a lovely toy. But…. Remember, long ago, you promised to take me to the animal circus to see a real elephant … and you never did.”
But, darling, try to understand that this is quite out of the question. An elephant is very big. It’s as tall as the ceiling and can’t fit into our house…. Besides, where will I find one?”
Oh, I don’t need such a big one, Papa. A little one will be just as good, as long as it’s alive. Even if it’s only this big…. Even a teeny-weeny one.”
“My sweet, I’d do anything for you, but this is something I can’t do. Why, it’s just the same as if you’d suddenly said: ‘Reach up and get me the sun from the sky, Papa.
She smiled sadly.
“You’re so silly, Papa. Don’t you think I know you can’t get the sun, because it’ll bum you! Or the moon, either. Oh, I wish I had a baby elephant … a real one.”
She closed her eyes and whispered, “I’m so tired … Don’t be angry at me, Papa….”
Her father clapped his hands to his head and rushed off to his study. She could see him pacing about there for a while. Then he threw his half -finished cigarette to the floor (something Mamma always scolded him for) and shouted to the maid:
“Get my hat and coat, Olga!”
His wife followed him to the foyer and asked: “Where are you going, Sasha?”
He was breathing hard as he buttoned up his coat.
“I don’t know myself…. But I think I’ll really bring back a live elephant today.”
His wife looked at him anxiously. “Are you well, dear? Do you have a headache? Perhaps you did not sleep well?”
“I did not sleep at all,” he replied crossly. “I see you’d like to ask me whether I’m insane. Not yet. Goodbye. Everything should be settled by this evening.”
The front door banged loudly, and he was gone.
Two hours later he was in a front-row seat at the animal circus, watching the trained animals perform for their master. The clever dogs jumped, turned somersaults, danced, howled to music and spelled out words with large cardboard letters. The monkeys, some of which had on red skirts and others blue trousers, walked across a tightrope and rode a large poodle. Huge tawny lions jumped through burning hoops. A lumbering seal fired a pistol. The elephants were in the last act. There were three of them: one large elephant and two very small, midget elephants, although each was bigger than a horse. It was strange to see these huge animals, so clumsy and awkward to look at, perform the most difficult tricks which even a very agile person would never be able to do. The biggest elephant was the most clever of the three. It first stood up on its hind legs, then sat down, stood on its head with its feet in the air, walked over wooden bottles, walked on a rolling barrel, turned the pages of a large cardboard book with its trunk and, finally, sat down at a table, having first tied a napkin round its neck, and ate its dinner just like a well-mannered child.
Soon the show was over. The audience was leaving. Nadya’s father went up to the roly-poly German owner of the animal circus. He was standing in his box with a large black cigar clenched between his teeth.
“I beg your pardon,” Nadya’s father said. “Would you agree to letting your elephant come to my house for a short while?”
The German’s eyes grew wide. He gaped, and the cigar fell out of his mouth. He bent over with a grunt, picked it up and stuck it back into his mouth. Only then did he say, “Let you have the elephant? To take home? I don’t understand what you mean.”
You could see by the man’s expression that he also felt like asking Nadya’s father whether he had a headache…. But the father hastily explained the situation: his only daughter, Nadya, had a very strange illness which the doctors themselves could not even diagnose properly. She had been bedridden for a month and was getting thinner and losing strength with each passing day. She took no interest in anything, she was bored by everything and was wasting away. The doctors said she was to be entertained, but nothing pleased her; they said her every wish was to be carried out, but she did not wish for anything. Today she had asked to see a real, live elephant. Was this really so impossible?
Then he added in a tremorous voice, as he took hold of the button on the German’s coat: “You see … I certainly hope my child gets well. But … but … what if her illness progresses … and she dies?… Just think: to the end of my days I’ll torture myself with the thought that I did not carry out her last wish, her very last wish!”
The German frowned and scratched his left eyebrow absently with his pinky. Finally, he said, “How old is your daughter?”
“Hm… My Liza is also six…. But it will be very expensive. The elephant will have to be brought to your house at night and taken back the next night. It can’t be done in the daytime. The public will gather and a big scandal is sure to follow…. So, this means I lose a whole day’s earnings, and you will have to cover my losses.”
“Oh, certainly. By all means. Don’t worry about that.”
“Now, will the police let me take the elephant into the house?”
“I’ll arrange it. They will.”
“One more question: will your landlord let the elephant be taken into your house?”
“Yes. The house is mine.”
“Ah! That’s fine. Now, one more question: what floor are you on?”
“Hm… That’s not so good. Does your house have a wide staircase, a high ceiling, a large room, wide doors and a very strong floor? Because my Tommy is nine feet four inches high and fifteen and a half feet long. Besides, he weighs close to a ton.”
Nadya’s father was silent for a moment.
“You know what?” he said. “Let’s go to my house now and examine everything on the spot. If need be, I’ll have the doorways widened.”
“Good!” said the circus owner.
That night the elephant was taken to visit the sick child. He walked proudly down the middle of the street in its white robe, nodding its head and curling and uncurling its trunk. Despite the late hour, a large crowd followed him. However, the elephant paid no attention to this, for he was used to seeing hundreds of people at the show every day. He only became a bit angry once, when a street urchin ran right up to him and began making faces and hopping about to amuse the idlers. At this, the elephant calmly lifted the boy’s cap with his trunk and tossed it over a fence that had nails sticking up all along the top. A policeman entered the crowd and pleaded, “Please disperse, everybody. What’s so unusual about this? Hmph! As if you’d never seen a live elephant in the streets before.”
They approached the house. All the doors leading to the dining room, beginning with the front door, were wide open, for all the latches had been hammered back. However, the elephant stopped when he came to the staircase. He stood there anxiously and would not go on. “You have to give him something sweet,” the circus owner said. “A sweet bun or something…. Come on, Tommy! Hey, boy!”
Nadya’s father ran off to the nearby bakery and bought a large round pistachio cake. The elephant was quite prepared to swallow it whole, together with the cardboard box, but the owner only gave him a quarter. Tommy liked the taste of it and stretched his trunk out for another chunk. But his owner was too clever for him. He held the cake in his outstretched hand as he backed up the stairs, with the elephant having to follow, his trunk reaching out, his ears flapping. Tommy was given another chunk on the landing. In this way he was led into the dining room. All the furniture had already been taken out, and a thick layer of straw covered the floor. The elephant’s leg was tied to a ring that had been screwed into the floor. Fresh carrots, cabbage and turnips were set out in front of him. His owner lay down on a sofa nearby. Then the lights were put out and everyone went to sleep.
The little girl awoke at dawn the next day. The first thing she said was:
“Where’s the elephant? Did he come?”
“Yes,” her mother replied. “But he said Nadya was to wash first, and then to have a soft-boiled egg and a cup of hot milk.”
“Is he good?”
“Yes, very. Eat, dear. We’ll go in to see him right now.”
“Is he funny-looking?”
“Rather. Put on your warm sweater.”
The egg was quickly eaten, the milk was drunk. Nadya was put in the pram she used to be wheeled around in when she was still too little to walk and was taken into the dining room.
The elephant was much bigger than Nadya had expected from seeing a picture of one. He was just a tiny bit lower than the doorway and took up half the dining room in length. His skin was very coarse and fell in heavy folds. His feet were as thick as posts. His long tail had a brush on the very end. There were big bumps on his head. His drooping ears were huge and looked like burdocks. His eyes were tiny, but intelligent and kind. His tusks had been sawed off. His trunk was like a long snake and ended in two nostrils with a movable lobe like a finger at the tip. If the elephant had stretched his trunk out to its full length, he would have probably touched the window.
The girl was not frightened in the least. She was simply a little awed by his great size. However, her nurse, sixteen-year-old Polya, was terrified and began to scream. The elephant’s owner went over to Nadya and said, “Good morning, Miss. Don’t be afraid. Tommy is very good and likes children.” The girl offered the German her small, pale hand. “How do you do?” she said. “I’m not frightened at all. What’s his name?”
“How do you do, Tommy,” she said and nodded. “Did you sleep well?”
She offered him her hand, too. The elephant took it carefully and pressed her small, slim fingers with his strong, flexible one and did this much more gently than Mikhail Petrovich, the doctor. At the same time, the elephant nodded his head, and his little eyes became slits, as if they were laughing.
“He understands everything, doesn’t he?” the girl said to the German.
“Absolutely everything, Miss.”
“It’s just that he can’t talk, isn’t it?”
“Yes, that’s it. He can’t talk. You know, I have an only daughter, too, and she’sjust as big as you. Her name is Liza. Tommy and she are very good friends. The best of friends.”
“Have you had your tea yet, Tommy?” the girl asked the elephant.
The elephant stretched out his trunk again and blew a strong stream of warm air into the girl’s face, making her silky hair fly up. Nadya laughed and clapped her hands. The German guffawed. He was as big and fat and kind as an elephant, and Nadya thought there was a resemblance between them. Perhaps he and Tommy were related?
“No, he hasn’t had his tea yet. Miss. But he’d really enjoy some sugar-water. He also loves buns.” A tray of buns was brought in. The girl offered one to the elephant. He curled his finger over it quickly, and his trunk carried it up, tucking it someplace under his head, where he had a funny -looking, triangular, hairy under-lip. Nadya could hear the bun scratching against his dry skin. Tommy did the same with a second bun, and a third one, and a fourth one, and a fifth one. He nodded his head in thanks, and his little eyes became still smaller slits from pleasure. The girl laughed happily. When all the buns were gone, Nadya introduced the elephant to her dolls, saying, “See, Tommy, this pretty doll is Sonya. She’s a very kind child, but she won’t eat her soup. This is Natasha, Sonya’s daughter. She’s just starting her lessons, but knows most of the alphabet. And this is Matryoshka. She was my very first doll. See, she’s lost her nose, and her head’s glued on, and she hasn’t any hair left. But I can’t send the old thing away, can I, Tommy? she used to be Sonya’s mother, but now she’s our cook. Come on, let’s play. You’ll be the papa, Tommy, and I’ll be the mamma, and these will be our children.” Tommy agreed. He laughed, took Matryoshka by the neck and lifted the doll to his mouth. But it was only for fun. He chewed it a bit and put it back in the girl’s lap, although it was now rather wet and slightly crumpled. Then Nadya showed him a big picture book and said, “This is a horse, this is a canary, this is a rifle…. Here’s a bird in a cage, here’s a pail, a mirror, a stove, a spade, a crow…. Look! Here’s an elephant! It’s not at all like one, is it? Elephants are never this small, are they, Tommy?” Tommy agreed that elephants never were that small. In fact, he didn’t like the picture one bit. He lifted the edge of the page with his finger and turned it over.
Soon it was time for dinner, but it was impossible to get Nadya away from the elephant. The elephant’s owner came to the rescue and said, “Wait. We’ll settle things nicely. They’ll have their dinner together.” He told the elephant to sit down. The elephant sat down obediently, making the floor tremble, the dishes rattle in the cupboard and the plaster come off the ceiling in the room below. The girl sat down opposite him. The table was placed between them. A tablecloth was tied around the elephant’s neck, and the new friends began to eat their dinner. The girl had a bowl of chicken soup and a cutlet, while the elephant had a pile of raw vegetables and salad. The girl was given a tiny glass of sherry, and the elephant some warm water with a glass of rum in it. He drew the liquid up into his trunk from the bowl with relish. Then there was dessert: a cup of cocoa for the girl and half a cake for the elephant. This time it was a nut cake. All the while the German and the girl’s father were in the study, where the German was drinking beer with great pleasure.
After dinner some of her father’s friends dropped in. While still in the foyer, they were told of the elephant in the house so that they would not be frightened. At first, they did not believe it, but then, catching sight of Tommy, they huddled together in the doorway. “Don’t be afraid! He’s very good,” the girl said to calm them. Nevertheless, they quickly passed into the parlour, stayed but a few minutes and left.
Evening drew near. It was getting late and time for the little girl to go to bed, but it was impossible to get her away from the elephant. She finally fell asleep beside him and was carried back into the nursery. She did not even know she was being put to bed. That night Nadya dreamed that she married Tommy and that they had many children, all of them jolly little elephants. The elephant was taken back to the circus that night. He, too, dreamed of the sweet, lovely girl. Besides, he dreamed of nut cakes as big as the carriage gate.
The next morning the little girl awoke in the best of spirits and as before, when she had been healthy, she shouted in a loud, impatient voice for all to hear:
“I want my milk!”
When her mother heard her, she hurried in joyously.
The little girl suddenly recalled everything that had happened the day before and said: “But where’s Tommy?” Her mother explained that he had to go home to attend to his affairs, because he had children who could not be left alone, but that he had sent his regards to Nadya and had said that he was expecting her to visit him as soon as she got well.
The little girl smiled mischievously and said, ‘Tell Tommy that I’m all well now!’’
Molly loved her red hat. It was full and round and bright. It was glorious and unadorned. That hat knew more than it was saying. It could have been a ladybug, it could have been a tomato, or a red red lipstick-red dragon of fire. But it held still and was just a hat, and Molly loved it for that.
Then one day Molly’s mama bought her a little blue hat. It was sly and superficial and it didn’t know any secrets at all. Molly smiled politely and said thank you. She didn’t want her mama or the blue hat to be insulted. She put her red hat on the peg and wore the blue hat that day. But before she went out she pressed her mouth into the red hat and whispered, “I love you and I’ll always want you.”
When her little brother Billy came out into the garden, Molly realized that her mama had bought him a blue hat just like her new blue hat. Molly was polite and didn’t say what she thought about that.
But as Molly’s mama bustled out of the house in a jingle of keys, Billy burst out crying. “Mama come with!” he said.
“Have you been teasing your brother, young lady?” Molly’s mama said sharply, opening her car door.
Molly felt like a playground swing had gotten its chains tangled up and kicked her off onto the ground, wham, dirt up your nose and no air left for breathing. She grabbed the blue hat with both hands and tugged it over her ears, to keep from saying anything mean.
She hadn’t teased Billy, not even once, since her Daddy moved away.
“I’m already late,” said Molly’s mama to Billy, kissing him on the head and removing his hands from her coat. “Molly will walk you, honey. Aren’t your hats darling?” She shut the car door and drove off, vroom, without saying goodbye to Molly.
At kindergarten Molly put away the blue hat in her cubby and went bareheaded. Mrs. Telliveller raised her eyebrows in surprise. Mrs. Telliveller was the youngest in a line of powerful kindergarten teachers stretching back to the days of Morgan le Fay, and she was no fool. Molly blinked twice to let Mrs. Telliveller know that The Hat Would Be Back.
Molly was considerably less powerful without her hat, and the other kids knew it. Devilish Denise drew with purple crayon all over Molly’s drawing of an octopus and Molly let her. Craven Cristoph and Unpleasant Umberto took all the green blocks and wouldn’t let her have any, and Enervating Emily and Spurious Sue cut in line in front of Molly at lunch. None of them would have dared, if Molly weren’t hatless.
So understandably Molly rushed back home, dragging little Billy by the hand so quickly that he fell down twice and started to cry. Molly apologized and sang him “I’ve Been Working On The Railroad” and dragged him home a little slower.
But when Molly got to the peg, the Red Hat was gone.
“Where’s my hat?” she said to her mama.
“Your old hat? Honey, it’s too small for you. Don’t you like your new hat?”
“Where – is – it?” Molly said.
Her mama said, “I threw it out.”
Then Molly raged:
And Not O.K.!
Molly threw the blue hat on the ground and kicked it, and her mama took her to her room and left her there.
Oh red hat!
Oh red hat!
Oh red hat!
At dinner Molly still wasn’t happy but her mama said, “I’m sorry I threw your red hat out, honey.” So Molly, who knew how difficult it is for adults to apologize, said, “Okay.”
But it wasn’t okay.
So that night Molly brushed her teeth extra fast and got into her pajamas herself. When her mama was still struggling with Billy’s teeth and toothbrush, Molly bounced on the special place on her bed and flew
out the window
and onto the pine tree branch
over the roof and onto the top of the telephone pole
and skated along the wires
to the forest
to visit the Queen of the Owls.
The Queen of the Owls was drinking tea in a metal cup. Her white hair stuck out all over her head. She wore twelve coats and gloves with holes where the fingers poked through, red and bent. She had a fire going in an old paint can, and twelve owls sitting around her in a circle: a snowy owl, a great horned owl, a peat owl, a hoot owl, a screech owl, a nightsky owl, a coriander owl, a tick-tock owl, a can’t-see-it-when-you’re-looking owl, a fight owl, a friendship owl, and an owl-who-isn’t.
Molly was cold but she knew better than to warm herself at the fire of the Queen of the Owls without asking. She planted her bare feet in the snow and said, “I’m looking for my red hat.”
“Mmm, yes,” said the Queen of the Owls, and drank her tea. “Come warm yourself, dearie.”
“Are you sure?” said Molly.
“Oh, yes,” said the Queen of the Owls.
“Can I leave when I want to?” asked Molly.
“Oh, certainly,” said the Queen of the Owls.
“And nothing mean will happen to me?” asked Molly.
“If you insist,” said the Queen of the Owls.
So Molly darted past the tick-tock owl and sat in the lap of the friendship owl, who spread his wings protectively around her.
“Good choice,” said the Queen of the Owls, looking disappointed. The tick-tock owl folded up his claws.
“Thank you,” said Molly. “Now what about my red hat?”
The Queen of the Owls finished her tea and stared into the cup. The fire crackled, the cold night bit Molly’s toes, and the feathers of the friendship owl ticked her cheeks.
“It’s thrown out,” the Queen of the Owls said finally.
“I want it back!” said Molly. “Where is it?”
“It’s in the Outthrown Trashland, of course,” said the Queen of the Owls, “but you’re not brave enough to go there.”
“Yes I am,” said Molly.
“And even if you were, no one is brave enough to take you,” said the Queen of the Owls.
Molly said to the friendship owl, “will you take me?” But he blinked sadly and turned his head all the way around, and looked out into the night in back of him, so she could only see his feathers.
Molly looked at the coriander owl, but he did the same. So did the screech and the hoot and the peat and the great horned owl. So did the snowy and the nightsky and even the brave fight owl. Molly didn’t bother with the tick-tock owl. And the owl-that-isn’t covered her eyes with her wings-that-weren’t.
Then Molly got up from the lap of the friendship owl and ran out into the snow. She faced away from the fire and she closed her eyes tight and she covered them with her hands and she said, “will you take me, can’t-see-it-when-you’re-looking owl?”
Molly felt the small claws of the can’t-see-it-when-you’re-looking owl grab the shoulders of her pajamas. She heard its little wings beating, and she was lifted into the air.
“Molly!” the Queen of the Owls called, and her voice sounded afraid. “Don’t bring anything but the red hat back!”
Molly and the can’t-see-it-when-you’re-looking owl flew for a long time through the cold night. They heard the moaning of the moon and the scraping of the stars in their tracks. The dreams of bumblebees buzzed past them, and they flew through clouds of milk getting ready to rain upon the Doughlands. Molly kept her eyes tight shut.
Finally, Molly smelled trash, lots and lots of trash; and she heard the whispering groans and whimpers of everything lost and abandoned that wanted to find its way back to the world.
Molly’s feet touched the ground. She opened her eyes and saw
– heaps of socks, unpaired
– scarecrows and bell towers
– a few newspapers and many oldspapers
– sundials, spinning jennys, and busts of Lenin
– last year’s dolls and chewing gum
– the certainty that Man is in the center of the Universe
– the tennis shoes and basketballs of disappointed managers of fast-food restaurants in Oklahoma
– faith in Progress
– a billion pages of homework
…and a lot of other things.
Molly jumped through the air over great piles of junk and called: “Red hat! Red hat! It’s Molly! I’m here!”
“Molly!” cried a voice, and Molly landed on the roof of her old house. It was enormous and fuzzy and full of gables and slants. There was a man who looked like Molly’s Daddy, except that he was pale and had a rip through the middle of him stuck together with scotch tape.
“Molly!” he said. “Take me back!”
“You’re not my Daddy!” Molly said. “My Daddy lives in San Francisco.” She ran across the roof towards the chimney.
“I’m your mama’s love for your Daddy!” the man said, running after her. “Take me back!”
“No no no no no no no no! That’s not thrown out, you’re lying! I’m not taking back anything except the red hat!” Molly said, and she jumped down the chimney.
In the living room she crawled out of the fireplace, ran past dolls and wine glasses and her mama’s diploma, and up the stairs, calling “Red hat! Red hat!”
She opened the door to the baby’s room. There was Billy’s old crib and Billy’s old baby self in it — looking just like when he first came from the hospital, new and wrinkly and drooly and red. And there standing next to him, holding the bars of the crib, was an angry little green Molly flickering with fire.
“Hello Molly!” said angry green fiery Molly. “Take me back!”
“No!” said regular Molly and ran to the peg. There was her red hat hanging. Molly snatched it up and put it on her head. Then she jumped out the window and onto the roof of the house across the street. She faced away from her old house and closed her eyes and put her hands over them and called, “Will you take me home, can’t-see-it-when-you’re-looking owl?”
Molly felt the small claws of the can’t-see-it-when-you’re-looking owl grab the shoulders of her pajamas. She heard its little wings beating, and she was lifted into the air.
But just then angry little fiery green Molly jumped out the window, bounced off the roof across the street, and grabbed hold of Molly’s ankle in her fiery green hand!
Regular Molly couldn’t open her eyes. Her ankle burned and tickled. She kicked around with her feet, but little green Molly hung on tight. And so, that way, the three of them flew through the marshes of the night sky, and over the now baking Doughlands that filled the air with cookie smells, and heard the chuckling of the comets, and the muttering of the dawn gnomes sorting colors for the next day’s dawn.
Finally Molly’s feet touched the pine tree branch outside her bedroom window. The can’t-see-it-when-you’re-looking owl let go of her shoulders and fiery green Molly let go of her foot.
“Thank you, can’t-see-it-when-you’re-looking owl,” Molly said, “and thank the Queen of the Owls for me.” She opened her eyes and saw little angry green Molly slipping and sliding down the tree. Regular Molly pulled the red hat down tighter over her ears and jumped through her bedroom window and onto her bed.
She slipped her bare feet under the covers, because they had gotten quite cold.
Just then her mama came in, carrying Billy and his toothbrush. She stopped and stared at Molly’s red hat.
“I found it,” Molly said.
“How strange,” said Molly’s mama. “I thought I threw it out. It’s still too small for you.”
“Mama, please!” said Molly.
“We’ll talk about it tomorrow,” Molly’s mama said. She put Billy in the other bed and kissed him on the head. Then she turned off the light and went out.
Molly reached under her red hat and rubbed the place on her head that her mama hadn’t kissed.
When she looked over at Billy again, flickering green fiery Molly was in bed with him.
“You don’t remember how it was, do you?” said angry green Molly. “That’s the only thing I can think of to explain your behavior.”
“What are you talking about?” regular Molly said, sitting up.
“Molly,” said Billy, pointing at angry green Molly.
“We had Mama and Daddy all to ourselves,” said angry green Molly. “All the hugs, all the kisses. All the stories, all the songs. All the tickles, all the laughs. And then this thing came.”
“Molly — and — Molly!” said Billy, and laughed.
“And then all of a sudden, Mama could only ever hold this thing. It was always in her arms. It sucked her strength like a vampire. It drove Daddy away,” said angry green Molly, and she put her hands over Billy’s mouth and nose and shook him. Billy choked and struggled.
Molly leaped out of bed and pulled angry green Molly away from Billy. Billy gasped and started crying.
“You shut up!” Molly shouted. Her hands burned and tingled where she held angry green Molly. “You shut up or I’ll pound you into jelly!”
“Fine,” said little angry green Molly, slithering out of regular Molly’s grasp. “Then I’ll go make friends with the crows.” And she jumped out the window.
The door banged open and Molly’s mama came in. “What did you say, young lady?” she shouted. Billy kept crying and Molly’s mama picked him up.
“What?” Molly said, standing in the middle of the room.
“I distinctly heard you threaten your little brother, and I am very surprised at you.”
“No,” Molly said, “I didn’t –“
“Are you going to make it worse now by lying?” Molly’s mama asked.
Molly shut her mouth.
Molly’s mama shut the window and locked it. “We’ll talk about this tomorrow,” she said. “Shh, Billy, it’s okay, you can sleep in bed with mama.”
“No!” Billy snuffled. “Sleep — wif — Molly.”
Molly’s mama paused and frowned. Then she put Billy back in his bed. “Do you see how much trust your little brother has in you, young lady?” she said. “I hope you try and earn it from now on.”
Then she went out.
Molly put the red hat on the windowsill to protect her and Billy, and she put Babar and Celeste and Rumpelstilskin by the door. It was about all she could do. Then she got in bed and closed her eyes. Billy was already asleep.
The next day at breakfast, Molly’s mama looked tired and didn’t remember to argue with Molly about the red hat, so Molly wore it.
She walked slowly and carefully with Billy to preschool-kindergarten and sang “It Takes A Workin’ Man” to him and let him break icicles from under mailboxes and suck on them. She was having such a good time that she didn’t see angry green Molly run up and snatch the red hat from her head.
“You give that back!” Molly shouted and ran after her.
Little angry green Molly laughed and ran, but Molly had longer legs and caught up with her. She pushed little angry green Molly to the ground and sat on her, and she got her red hat back.
Little green fiery Molly kept laughing, though, and that gave regular Molly a very creepy feeling.
She looked back down the road and saw a huge flock of crows flying up into the air with Billy.
“Billy!” Molly shouted and jumped into the air. She jumped as high as the chimneys, but it wasn’t high enough to reach the crows. So she jumped onto the nearest chimney and then off the chimney into the flock of crows. She punched one crow as she flew by and it let go of Billy’s arm, but some other crows grabbed it again. Molly fell down onto a snowy roof and slid off it in a small avalanche. When she pushed her way out of it, the crows were even higher. Billy looked like an ant.
Molly pulled the red hat from her head and held it in both hands. “Red hat, red hat, I know you just like being a hat, but if there’s anything you can do, do it now!” and she threw the hat up in the air.
The red hat quavered and
paused and then
a red red lipstick-red dragon of fine red silk.
It flew up into the flock of crows and it smacked them with its tail. Pow! Pang! Zow! Zang! The crows went flying off. The hat-dragon caught Billy in its tail and flew him gently down. But as it flew down those crows came after it. They dodged its head and they tore at it with their beaks. Rip! And Strip! And Tear! And Shred! Finally the hat-dragon set Billy in a snowbank and fought back with its tail.
Molly raced for the snowbank and so did little green fiery Molly. Little green fiery Molly got there first. She grabbed Billy’s hand and tugged him to the road and without even looking both ways she pushed him out into it —
but Molly pulled him back.
Then she grabbed little green fiery Molly and lifted her into the air.
“You can’t win, Molly!” little green fiery Molly said. “You brought me back! I’m yours! I’m here to stay!”
“You’re right,” said Molly, and she put her mouth onto the forehead of little green fiery Molly and took a deep, deep breath, as if she was about to blow out the candles of a birthday cake the size of the moon. Little green fiery Molly only had time to say “Help!” once before Molly breathed her in and swallowed her.
Then she pulled Billy out of the snowbank, brushed the snow out of his face, and keeping tight hold of his hand, ran for the red hat.
The crows were gone, and all that was left of the red hat were a few shreds of red red lipstick-red fine red silk.
Molly sat down and started to cry, and Billy sat down next to her and cried too.
Mrs. Telliveller had a good idea what sort of thing might have happened when Molly didn’t show up, and came out looking. She sat down on the curb next to Molly, and she rooted around in her purse for some Kleenex and a cell phone, and she called Molly’s mama at work right then. She explained a lot of things, gently, in terms that Molly’s mama could understand.
Molly’s mama took the day off work and took Molly and Billy home. She left Billy playing with some blocks on the floor and she took Molly onto her lap on the couch and let her cry for a long, long time.
And when Molly finally fell asleep, still holding the shreds of red silk, Molly’s mama pressed her mouth into Molly’s hair and whispered, “I love you and I’ll always want you.”
After that, sometimes Molly wore the blue hat to school. Sometimes she did tease Billy and fight with him. Sometimes she felt sick to her stomach, and then she could feel the other Molly crawling around in there. Sometimes, when she was very angry, you could see the other Molly looking out of her eyes.
But every night, when she went to bed, her mama kissed her goodnight. Molly’s mama never forgot again. And all night long, Molly could feel that kiss on her forehead, warm and soft, keeping her safe.
There was once a lady who found herself in middle life with but a slight income. Knowing herself to be insufficiently educated to be able to practise any other trade or calling, she of course decided, without hesitation, to enter the profession of teaching. She opened a very select Boarding School for Young Ladies. The highest references were given and required. And in order to keep her school as select as possible, Miss Fitzroy Robinson had a brass plate fastened on to the door, with an inscription in small polite lettering. (You have, of course, heard of the “polite letters.” Well, it was with these that Miss Fitzroy Robinson’s door-plate was engraved.)
“SELECT BOARDING ESTABLISHMENT FOR THE
DAUGHTERS OF RESPECTABLE MONARCHS.”
A great many kings who were not at all respectable would have given their royal ears to be allowed to send their daughters to this school, but Miss Fitzroy Robinson was very firm about references, and the consequence was that all the really high-class kings were only too pleased to be permitted to pay ten thousand pounds a year for their daughters’ education. And so Miss Fitzroy Robinson was able to lay aside a few pounds as a provision for her old age. And all the money she saved was invested in land.
Only one monarch refused to send his daughter to Miss Fitzroy Robinson, on the ground that so cheap a school could not be a really select one, and it was found out afterwards that his references were not at all satisfactory.
There were only six boarders, and of course the best masters were engaged to teach the royal pupils everything which their parents wished them to learn, and as the girls were never asked to do lessons except when they felt quite inclined, they all said it was the nicest school in the world, and cried at the very thought of being taken away. Thus it happened that the six pupils were quite grown up and were just becoming parlour boarders when events began to occur. Princess Daisy, the daughter of King Fortunatus, the ruling sovereign, was the only little girl in the school.
Now it was when she had been at school about a year, that a ring came at the front door-bell, and the maid-servant came to the schoolroom with a visiting card held in the corner of her apron—for her hands were wet because it was washing-day.
“A gentleman to see you, Miss,” she said; and Miss Fitzroy Robinson was quite fluttered because she thought it might be a respectable monarch, with a daughter who wanted teaching.
But when she looked at the card she left off fluttering, and said, “Dear me!” under her breath, because she was very genteel. If she had been vulgar like some of us she would have said “Bother!” and if she had been more vulgar than, I hope, any of us are, she might have said “Drat the man!” The card was large and shiny and had gold letters on it. Miss Fitzroy Robinson read:—
Chevalier Doloro De Lara
Professor of Magic (white)
and the Black Art.
Pupils instructed at their own residences.
Special terms for Schools. Evening Parties
Miss Fitzroy Robinson laid down her book—she never taught without a book—smoothed her yellow cap and her grey curls and went into the front parlour to see her visitor. He bowed low at sight of her. He was very tall and hungry-looking, with black eyes, and an indescribable mouth.
“It is indeed a pleasure,” said he, smiling so as to show every one of his thirty-two teeth—a very polite, but very difficult thing to do—“it is indeed a pleasure to meet once more my old pupil.”
“The pleasure is mutual, I am sure,” said Miss Fitzroy Robinson. If it is sometimes impossible to be polite and truthful at the same moment, that is not my fault, nor Miss Fitzroy Robinson’s.
“I have been travelling about,” said the Professor, still smiling immeasurably, “increasing my stock of wisdom. Ah, dear lady—we live and learn, do we not? And now I am really a far more competent teacher than when I had the honour of instructing you. May I hope for an engagement as Professor in your Academy?”
“I have not yet been able to arrange for a regular course of Magic,” said the schoolmistress; “it is a subject in which parents, especially royal ones, take but too little interest.”
“It was your favourite study,” said the professor.
“Yes—but—well, no doubt some day——”
“But I want an engagement now,” said he, looking hungrier than ever; “a thousand pounds for thirteen lessons—to you, dear lady.”
“It’s quite impossible,” said she, and she spoke firmly, for she knew from history how dangerous it is for a Magician to be allowed anywhere near a princess. Some harm almost always comes of it.
“Oh, very well!” said the Professor.
“You see my pupils are all princesses,” she went on, “they don’t require the use of magic, they can get all they want without it.”
“Then it’s ‘No’?” said he.
“It’s ‘No thank you kindly,’” said she.
Then, before she could stop him, he sprang past her out at the door, and she heard his boots on the oilcloth of the passage. She flew after him just in time to have the schoolroom door slammed and locked in her face.
“Well, I never!” said Miss Fitzroy Robinson. She hastened to the top of the house and hurried down the schoolroom chimney, which had been made with steps, in case of fire or other emergency. She stepped out of the grate on to the schoolroom hearthrug just one second too late. The seven Princesses were all gone, and the Professor of Magic stood alone among the ink-stained desks, smiling the largest smile Miss Fitzroy Robinson had seen yet.
“Oh, you naughty, bad, wicked man, you!” said she, shaking the school ruler at him.
The next day was Saturday, and the King of the country called as usual to take his daughter Daisy out to spend her half holiday. The servant who opened the door had a coarse apron on and cinders in her hair, and the King thought it was sackcloth and ashes, and said so a little anxiously, but the girl said, “No, I’ve only been a-doing of the kitchen range—though, for the matter of that—but you’d best see missus herself.”
So the King was shown into the best parlour where the tasteful wax-flowers were, and the antimacassars and water-colour drawings executed by the pupils, and the wool mats which Miss Fitzroy Robinson’s bed-ridden aunt made so beautifully. A delightful parlour full of the traces of the refining touch of a woman’s hand.
Miss Fitzroy Robinson came in slowly and sadly. Her gown was neatly made of sack-cloth—with an ingenious trimming of small cinders sewn on gold braid—and some larger-sized cinders dangled by silken threads from the edge of her lace cap.
The King saw at once that she was annoyed about something. “I hope I’m not too early,” said he.
“Your Majesty,” she answered, “not at all. You are always punctual, as stated in your references. Something has happened. I will not aggravate your misfortunes by breaking them to you. Your daughter Daisy, the pride and treasure of our little circle, has disappeared. Her six royal companions are with her. For the present all are safe, but at the moment I am unable to lay my hand on any one of the seven.”
The King sat down heavily on part of the handsome walnut and rep suite (ladies’ and gentlemen’s easy-chairs, couch and six occasional chairs) and gasped miserably. He could not find words. But the schoolmistress had written down what she was going to say on a slate and learned it off by heart, so she was able to go on fluently.
“Your Majesty, I am not wholly to blame—hang me if I am—I mean hang me if you must; but first allow me to have the honour of offering to you one or two explanatory remarks.”
With this she sat down and told him the whole story of the Professor’s visit, only stopping exactly where I stopped when I was telling it to you just now.
The King listened, plucking nervously at the fringe of a purple and crimson antimacassar.
“I never was satisfied with the Professor’s methods,” said Miss Fitzroy Robinson sadly; “and I always had my doubts as to his moral character, doubts now set at rest for ever. After concluding my course of instruction with him some years ago I took a series of lessons from a far more efficient master, and thanks to those lessons, which were, I may mention, extremely costly, I was mercifully enabled to put a spoke in the wheel of the unprincipled ruffian——”
“Did you save the Princesses?” cried the King.
“No; but I can if your Majesty and the other parents will leave the matter entirely in my hands.”
“It’s rather a serious matter,” said the King; “my poor little Daisy——”
“I would ask you,” said the schoolmistress with dignity, “not to attach too much importance to this event. Of course it is regrettable, but unpleasant accidents occur in all schools, and the consequences of them can usually be averted by the exercise of tact and judgment.”
“I ought to hang you, you know,” said the King doubtfully.
“No doubt,” said Miss Fitzroy Robinson, “and if you do you’ll never see your Daisy again. Your duty as a parent—yes—and your duty to me—conflicting duties are very painful things.”
“But can I trust you?”
“I may remind you,” said she, drawing herself up so that the cinders rattled again, “that we exchanged satisfactory references at the commencement of our business relations.”
The King rose. “Well, Miss Fitzroy Robinson,” he said, “I have been entirely satisfied with Daisy’s progress since she has been in your charge, and I feel I cannot do better than leave this matter entirely in your able hands.”
The schoolmistress made him a curtsey, and he went back to his marble palace a broken-hearted monarch, with his crown all on one side and his poor, dear nose red with weeping.
The select boarding establishment was shut up.
Time went on and no news came of the lost Princesses.
The King found but little comfort in the fact that his other child, Prince Denis, was still spared to him. Denis was all very well and a nice little boy in his way, but a boy is not a girl.
The Queen was much more broken-hearted than the King, but of course she had the housekeeping to see to and the making of the pickles and preserves and the young Prince’s stockings to knit, so she had not much time for weeping, and after a year she said to the King—
“My dear, you ought to do something to distract your mind. It’s unkinglike to sit and cry all day. Now, do make an effort; do something useful, if it’s only opening a bazaar or laying a foundation stone.”
“I am frightened of bazaars,” said the King; “they are like bees—they buzz and worry; but foundation stones——” And after that he began to sit and think sometimes, without crying, and to make notes on the backs of old envelopes. So the Queen felt that she had not spoken quite in vain.
A month later the suggestion of foundation stones bore fruit.
The King floated a company, and Fortunatus Rex & Co. became almost at once the largest speculative builders in the world.
Perhaps you do not know what a speculative builder is. I’ll tell you what the King and his Co. did, and then you will know.
They bought all the pretty woods and fields they could get and cut them up into squares, and grubbed up the trees and the grass and put streets there and lamp-posts and ugly little yellow brick houses, in the hopes that people would want to live in them. And curiously enough people did. So the King and his Co. made quite a lot of money.
It is curious that nearly all the great fortunes are made by turning beautiful things into ugly ones. Making beauty out of ugliness is very ill-paid work.
The ugly little streets crawled further and further out of the town, eating up the green country like greedy yellow caterpillars, but at the foot of the Clover Hill they had to stop. For the owner of Clover Hill would not sell any land at all—for any price that Fortunatus Rex & Co. could offer. In vain the solicitors of the Company called on the solicitors of the owner, wearing their best cloaks and swords and shields, and took them out to lunch and gave them nice things to eat and drink. Clover Hill was not for sale.
At last, however, a little old woman all in grey called at the Company’s shining brass and mahogany offices and had a private interview with the King himself.
“I am the owner of Clover Hill,” said she, “and you may build on all its acres except the seven at the top and the fifteen acres that go round that seven, and you must build me a high wall round the seven acres and another round the fifteen—of red brick, mind; none of your cheap yellow stuff—and you must make a brand new law that any one who steals my fruit is to be hanged from the tree he stole it from. That’s all. What do you say?”
The King said “Yes,” because since his trouble he cared for nothing but building, and his royal soul longed to see the green Clover Hill eaten up by yellow brick caterpillars with slate tops. He did not at all like building the two red brick walls, but he did it.
Now, the old woman wanted the walls and the acres to be this sort of shape—
But it was such a bother getting the exact amount of ground into the two circles that all the surveyors tore out their hair by handfuls, and at last the King said, “Oh bother! Do it this way,” and drew a plan on the back of an old Act of Parliament. So they did, and it was like this—
The old lady was very vexed when she found that there was only one wall between her orchard and the world, as you see was the case at the corner where the two 1’s and the 15 meet; but the King said he couldn’t afford to build it all over again and that she’d got her two walls as she had said. So she had to put up with it. Only she insisted on the King’s getting her a fierce bull-dog to fly at the throat of any one who should come over the wall at that weak point where the two 1’s join on to the 15. So he got her a stout bull-dog whose name was Martha, and brought it himself in a jewelled leash.
“Martha will fly at any one who is not of kingly blood,” said he. “Of course she wouldn’t dream of biting a royal person; but, then, on the other hand, royal people don’t rob orchards.”
So the old woman had to be contented. She tied Martha up in the unprotected corner of her inner enclosure and then she planted little baby apple trees and had a house built and sat down in it and waited.
And the King was almost happy. The creepy, crawly yellow caterpillars ate up Clover Hill—all except the little green crown on the top, where the apple trees were and the two red brick walls and the little house and the old woman.
The poor Queen went on seeing to the jam and the pickles and the blanket washing and the spring cleaning, and every now and then she would say to her husband—
“Fortunatus, my love, do you really think Miss Fitzroy Robinson is trustworthy? Shall we ever see our Daisy again?”
And the King would rumple his fair hair with his hands till it stuck out like cheese straws under his crown, and answer—
“My dear, you must be patient; you know we had the very highest references.”
Now one day the new yellow brick town the King had built had a delightful experience. Six handsome Princes on beautiful white horses came riding through the dusty little streets. The housings of their chargers shone with silver embroidery and gleaming glowing jewels, and their gold armour flashed so gloriously in the sun that all the little children clapped their hands, and the Princes’ faces were so young and kind and handsome that all the old women said: “Bless their pretty hearts!”
Now, of course, you will not need to be told that these six Princes were looking for the six grown-up Princesses who had been so happy at the Select Boarding Establishment. Their six Royal fathers, who lived many years’ journey away on the other side of the world, and had not yet heard that the Princesses were mislaid, had given Miss Fitzroy Robinson’s address to these Princes, and instructed them to marry the six Princesses without delay, and bring them home.
But when they got to the Select Boarding Establishment for the Daughters of Respectable Monarchs, the house was closed, and a card was in the window, saying that this desirable villa residence was to be let on moderate terms, furnished or otherwise. The wax fruit under the glass shade still showed attractively through the dusty panes. The six Princes looked through the window by turns. They were charmed with the furniture, and the refining touch of a woman’s hand drew them like a magnet. They took the house, but they had their meals at the Palace by the King’s special invitation.
King Fortunatus told the Princes the dreadful story of the disappearance of the entire Select School; and each Prince swore by his sword-hilt and his honour that he would find out the particular Princess that he was to marry, or perish in the attempt. For, of course, each Prince was to marry one Princess, mentioned by name in his instructions, and not one of the others.
The first night that the Princes spent in the furnished house passed quietly enough, so did the second and the third and the fourth, fifth and sixth, but on the seventh night, as the Princes sat playing spilikins in the schoolroom, they suddenly heard a voice that was not any of theirs. It said, “Open up Africa!”
The Princes looked here, there, and everywhere—but they could see no one. They had not been brought up to the exploring trade, and could not have opened up Africa if they had wanted to.
“Or cut through the Isthmus of Panama,” said the voice again.
Now, as it happened, none of the six Princes were engineers. They confessed as much.
“Cut up China, then!” said the voice, desperately.
“It’s like the ghost of a Tory newspaper,” said one of the Princes.
And then suddenly they knew that the voice came from one of the pair of globes which hung in frames at the end of the schoolroom. It was the terrestrial globe.
“I’m inside,” said the voice; “I can’t get out. Oh, cut the globe—anywhere—and let me out. But the African route is most convenient.”
Prince Primus opened up Africa with his sword, and out tumbled half a Professor of Magic.
“My other half’s in there,” he said, pointing to the Celestial globe. “Let my legs out, do——”
But Prince Secundus said, “Not so fast,” and Prince Tertius said, “Why were you shut up?”
“I was shut up for as pretty a bit of parlour-magic as ever you saw in all your born days,” said the top half of the Professor of Magic.
“Oh, you were, were you?” said Prince Quartus; “well, your legs aren’t coming out just yet. We want to engage a competent magician. You’ll do.”
“But I’m not all here,” said the Professor.
“Quite enough of you,” said Prince Quintus.
“Now look here,” said Prince Sextus; “we want to find our six Princesses. We can give a very good guess as to how they were lost; but we’ll let bygones be bygones. You tell us how to find them, and after our weddings we’ll restore your legs to the light of day.”
“This half of me feels so faint,” said the half Professor of Magic.
“What are we to do?” said all the Princes, threateningly; “if you don’t tell us, you shall never have a leg to stand on.”
“Steal apples,” said the half Professor, hoarsely, and fainted away.
They left him lying on the bare boards between the inkstained desks, and off they went to steal apples. But this was not so easy. Because Fortunatus Rex & Co. had built, and built, and built, and apples do not grow freely in those parts of the country which have been “opened up” by speculative builders.
So at last they asked the little Prince Denis where he went for apples when he wanted them. And Denis said—
“The old woman at the top of Clover Hill has apples in her seven acres, and in her fifteen acres, but there’s a fierce bulldog in the seven acres, and I’ve stolen all the apples in the fifteen acres myself.”
“We’ll try the seven acres,” said the Princes.
“Very well,” said Denis; “You’ll be hanged if you’re caught. So, as I put you up to it, I’m coming too, and if you won’t take me, I’ll tell. So there!”
For Denis was a most honourable little Prince, and felt that you must not send others into danger unless you go yourself, and he would never have stolen apples if it had not been quite as dangerous as leading armies.
So the Princes had to agree, and the very next night Denis let himself down out of his window by a knotted rope made of all the stockings his mother had knitted for him, and the grown-up Princes were waiting under the window, and off they all went to the orchard on the top of Clover Hill.
They climbed the wall at the proper corner, and Martha, the bulldog, who was very wellbred, and knew a Prince when she saw one, wagged her kinked tail respectfully and wished them good luck.
The Princes stole over the dewy orchard grass and looked at tree after tree: there were no apples on any of them.
Only at last, in the very middle of the orchard there was a tree with a copper trunk and brass branches, and leaves of silver. And on it hung seven beautiful golden apples.
So each Prince took one of the golden apples, very quietly, and off they went, anxious to get back to the half-Professor of Magic, and learn what to do next. No one had any doubt as to the half-Professor having told the truth; for when your legs depend on your speaking the truth you will not willingly tell a falsehood.
They stole away as quietly as they could, each with a gold apple in his hand, but as they went Prince Denis could not resist his longing to take a bite out of his apple. He opened his mouth very wide so as to get a good bite, and the next moment he howled aloud, for the apple was as hard as stone, and the poor little boy had broken nearly all his first teeth.
He flung the apple away in a rage, and the next moment the old woman rushed out of her house. She screamed. Martha barked. Prince Denis howled. The whole town was aroused, and the six Princes were arrested, and taken under a strong guard to the Tower. Denis was let off, on the ground of his youth, and, besides, he had lost most of his teeth, which is a severe punishment, even for stealing apples.
The King sat in his Hall of Justice next morning, and the old woman and the Princes came before him. When the story had been told, he said—
“My dear fellows, I hope you’ll excuse me—the laws of hospitality are strict—but business is business after all. I should not like to have any constitutional unpleasantness over a little thing like this; you must all be hanged to-morrow morning.”
The Princes were extremely vexed, but they did not make a fuss. They asked to see Denis, and told him what to do.
So Denis went to the furnished house which had once been a Select Boarding Establishment for the Daughters of Respectable Monarchs. The door was locked, but Denis knew a way in, because his sister had told him all about it one holiday. He got up on the roof and walked down the schoolroom chimney.
There, on the schoolroom floor, lay half a Professor of Magic, struggling feebly, and uttering sad, faint squeals.
“What are we to do now?” said Denis.
“Steal apples,” said the half-Professor in a weak whisper. “Do let my legs out. Slice up the Great Bear—or the Milky Way would be a good one for them to come out by.”
But Denis knew better.
“Not till we get the lost Princesses,” said he, “now, what’s to be done?”
“Steal apples I tell you,” said the half-Professor, crossly; “seven apples—there—seven kisses. Cut them down. Oh go along with you, do. Leave me to die, you heartless boy. I’ve got pins and needles in my legs.”
Then off ran Denis to the Seven Acre Orchard at the top of Clover Hill, and there were the six Princes hanging to the apple-tree, and the hangman had gone home to his dinner, and there was no one else about. And the Princes were not dead.
Denis climbed up the tree and cut the Princes down with the penknife of the gardener’s boy. (You will often find this penknife mentioned in your German exercises; now you know why so much fuss is made about it.)
The Princes fell to the ground, and when they recovered their wits Denis told them what he had done.
“Oh why did you cut us down?” said the Princes, “we were having such happy dreams.”
“Well,” said Denis, shutting up the penknife of the gardener’s boy, “of all the ungrateful chaps!” And he turned his back and marched off. But they ran quickly after him and thanked him and told him how they had been dreaming of walking arm in arm with the most dear and lovely Princesses in the world.
“Well,” said Denis, “it’s no use dreaming about them. You’ve got your own registered Princesses to find, and the half-Professor says, ‘Steal apples.’”
“There aren’t any more to steal,” said the Princes—but when they looked, there were the gold apples back on the tree just as before.
So once again they each picked one. Denis chose a different one this time. He thought it might be softer. The last time he had chosen the biggest apple—but now he took the littlest apple of all.
“Seven kisses!” he cried, and began to kiss the little gold apple.
Each Prince kissed the apple he held, till the sound of kisses was like the whisper of the evening wind in leafy trees. And, of course, at the seventh kiss each Prince found that he had in his hand not an apple, but the fingers of a lovely Princess. As for Denis, he had got his little sister Daisy, and he was so glad he promised at once to give her his guinea-pigs and his whole collection of foreign postage stamps.
“What is your name, dear and lovely lady?” asked Prince Primus.
“Sexta,” said his Princess. And then it turned out that every single one of the Princes had picked the wrong apple, so that each one had a Princess who was not the one mentioned in his letter of instructions. Secundus had plucked the apple that held Quinta, and Tertius held Quarta, and so on—and everything was as criss-cross-crooked as it possibly could be.
And yet nobody wanted to change.
Then the old woman came out of her house and looked at them and chuckled, and she said—
“You must be contented with what you have.”
“We are,” said all twelve of them, “but what about our parents?”
“They must put up with your choice,” said the old woman, “it’s the common lot of parents.”
“I think you ought to sort yourselves out properly,” said Denis; “I’m the only one who’s got his right Princess—because I wasn’t greedy. I took the smallest.”
The tallest Princess showed him a red mark on her arm, where his little teeth had been two nights before, and everybody laughed.
But the old woman said—
“They can’t change, my dear. When a Prince has picked a gold apple that has a Princess in it, and has kissed it till she comes out, no other Princess will ever do for him, any more than any other Prince will ever do for her.”
While she was speaking the old woman got younger and younger and younger, till as she spoke the last words she was quite young, not more than fifty-five. And it was Miss Fitzroy Robinson!
Her pupils stepped forward one by one with respectful curtsies, and she allowed them to kiss her on the cheek, just as if it was breaking-up day.
Then, all together, and very happily, they went down to the furnished villa that had once been the Select School, and when the half-professor had promised on his honour as a Magician to give up Magic and take to a respectable trade, they took his legs out of the starry sphere, and gave them back to him; and he joined himself together, and went off full of earnest resolve to live and die an honest plumber.
“My talents won’t be quite wasted,” said he; “a little hanky-panky is useful in most trades.”
When the King asked Miss Fitzroy Robinson to name her own reward for restoring the Princesses, she said—
“Make the land green again, your Majesty.”
So Fortunatus Rex & Co. devoted themselves to pulling down and carting off the yellow streets they had built. And now the country there is almost as green and pretty as it was before Princess Daisy and the six parlour-boarders were turned into gold apples.
“It was very clever of dear Miss Fitzroy Robinson to shut up that Professor in those two globes,” said the Queen; “it shows the advantage of having lessons from the best Masters.”
“Yes,” said the King, “I always say that you cannot go far wrong if you insist on the highest references!”
He happened to be building a Palace when the news came, and he left all the bricks kicking about the floor for Nurse to clear up–but then the news was rather remarkable news. You see, there was a knock at the front door and voices talking downstairs, and Lionel thought it was the man come to see about the gas, which had not been allowed to be lighted since the day when Lionel made a swing by tying his skipping rope to the gas bracket.
And then, quite suddenly, Nurse came in and said, “Master Lionel, dear, they’ve come to fetch you to go and be King.”
Then she made haste to change his smock and to wash his face and hands and brush his hair, and all the time she was doing it Lionel kept wriggling and fidgeting and saying, “Oh, don’t, Nurse,” and, “I’m sure my ears are quite clean,” or, “Never mind my hair, it’s all right,” and, “That’ll do.”
“You’re going on as if you was going to be an eel instead of a King,” said Nurse.
The minute Nurse let go for a moment Lionel bolted off without waiting for his clean handkerchief, and in the drawing room there were two very grave-looking gentlemen in red robes with fur, and gold coronets with velvet sticking up out of the middle like the cream in the very expensive jam tarts.
They bowed low to Lionel, and the gravest one said: “Sire, your great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, the King of this country, is dead, and now you have got to come and be King.”
“Yes, please, sir,” said Lionel, “when does it begin?”
“You will be crowned this afternoon,” said the grave gentleman who was not quite so grave-looking as the other.
“Would you like me to bring Nurse, or what time would you like me to be fetched, and hadn’t I better put on my velvet suit with the lace collar?” said Lionel, who had often been out to tea.
“Your Nurse will be removed to the Palace later. No, never mind about changing your suit; the Royal robes will cover all that up.”
The grave gentlemen led the way to a coach with eight white horses, which was drawn up in front of the house where Lionel lived. It was No. 7, on the left-hand side of the street as you go up.
Lionel ran upstairs at the last minute, and he kissed Nurse and said: “Thank you for washing me. I wish I’d let you do the other ear. No–there’s no time now. Give me the hanky. Good-bye, Nurse.”
“Good-bye, ducky,” said Nurse. “Be a good little King now, and say ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ and remember to pass the cake to the little girls, and don’t have more than two helps of anything.”
So off went Lionel to be made a King. He had never expected to be a King any more than you have, so it was all quite new to him–so new that he had never even thought of it. And as the coach went through the town he had to bite his tongue to be quite sure it was real, because if his tongue was real it showed he wasn’t dreaming. Half an hour before he had been building with bricks in the nursery; and now–the streets were all fluttering with flags; every window was crowded with people waving handkerchiefs and scattering flowers; there were scarlet soldiers everywhere along the pavements, and all the bells of all the churches were ringing like mad, and like a great song to the music of their ringing he heard thousands of people shouting, “Long live Lionel! Long live our little King!”
He was a little sorry at first that he had not put on his best clothes, but he soon forgot to think about that. If he had been a girl he would very likely have bothered about it the whole time.
As they went along, the grave gentlemen, who were the Chancellor and the Prime Minister, explained the things which Lionel did not understand.
“I thought we were a Republic,” said Lionel. “I’m sure there hasn’t been a King for some time.”
“Sire, your great-great-great-great-great-grandfather’s death happened when my grandfather was a little boy,” said the Prime Minister, “and since then your loyal people have been saving up to buy you a crown–so much a week, you know, according to people’s means–sixpence a week from those who have first-rate pocket money, down to a halfpenny a week from those who haven’t so much. You know it’s the rule that the crown must be paid for by the people.”
“But hadn’t my great-great-however-much-it-is-grandfather a crown?”
“Yes, but he sent it to be tinned over, for fear of vanity, and he had had all the jewels taken out, and sold them to buy books. He was a strange man; a very good King he was, but he had his faults–he was fond of books. Almost with his last breath he sent the crown to be tinned–and he never lived to pay the tinsmith’s bill.”
Here the Prime Minister wiped away a tear, and just then the carriage stopped and Lionel was taken out of the carriage to be crowned. Being crowned is much more tiring work than you would suppose, and by the time it was over, and Lionel had worn the Royal robes for an hour or two and had had his hand kissed by everybody whose business it was to do it, he was quite worn out, and was very glad to get into the Palace nursery.
Nurse was there, and tea was ready: seedy cake and plummy cake, and jam and hot buttered toast, and the prettiest china with red and gold and blue flowers on it, and real tea, and as many cups of it as you liked.
After tea Lionel said: “I think I should like a book. Will you get me one, Nurse?”
“Bless the child,” said Nurse. “You don’t suppose you’ve lost the use of your legs with just being a King? Run along, do, and get your books yourself.”
So Lionel went down into the library. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor were there, and when Lionel came in they bowed very low, and were beginning to ask Lionel most politely what on earth he was coming bothering for now–when Lionel cried out: “Oh, what a worldful of books! Are they yours?”
“They are yours, Your Majesty,” answered the Chancellor. “They were the property of the late King, your great-great–“
“Yes, I know,” Lionel interrupted. “Well, I shall read them all. I love to read. I am so glad I learned to read.”
“If I might venture to advise Your Majesty,” said the Prime Minister, “I should not read these books. Your great–“
“Yes?” said Lionel, quickly.
“He was a very good King–oh, yes, really a very superior King in his way, but he was a little–well, strange.”
“Mad?” asked Lionel, cheerfully.
“No, no”–both the gentlemen were sincerely shocked. “Not mad; but if I may express it so, he was–er–too clever by half. And I should not like a little King of mine to have anything to do with his books.”
Lionel looked puzzled.
“The fact is,” the Chancellor went on, twisting his red beard in an agitated way, “your great–“
“Go on,” said Lionel.
“–was called a wizard.”
“But he wasn’t?”
“Of course not–a most worthy King was your great–“
“But I wouldn’t touch his books.”
“Just this one,” cried Lionel, laying his hands on the cover of a great brown book that lay on the study table. It had gold patterns on the brown leather, and gold clasps with turquoises and rubies in the twists of them, and gold corners, so that the leather should not wear out too quickly.
“I must look at this one,” Lionel said, for on the back in big letters he read: The Book of Beasts.
The Chancellor said, “Don’t be a silly little King.”
But Lionel had got the gold clasps undone, and he opened the first page, and there was a beautiful Butterfly all red, and brown, and yellow, and blue, so beautifully painted that it looked as if it were alive.
“There,” said Lionel, “Isn’t that lovely? Why–“
But as he spoke the beautiful Butterfly fluttered its many-colored wings on the yellow old page of the book, and flew up and out of the window.
“Well!” said the Prime Minister, as soon as he could speak for the lump of wonder that had got into his throat and tried to choke him, “that’s magic, that is.”
But before he had spoken, the King had turned the next page, and there was a shining bird complete and beautiful in every blue feather of him. Under him was written, “Blue Bird of Paradise,” and while the King gazed enchanted at the charming picture the Blue Bird fluttered his wings on the yellow page and spread them and flew out of the book.
Then the Prime Minister snatched the book away from the King and shut it up on the blank page where the bird had been, and put it on a very high shelf. And the Chancellor gave the King a good shaking, and said: “You’re a naughty, disobedient little King!” and was very angry indeed.
“I don’t see that I’ve done any harm,” said Lionel. He hated being shaken, as all boys do; he would much rather have been slapped.
“No harm?” said the Chancellor. “Ah–but what do you know about it? That’s the question. How do you know what might have been on the next page–a snake or a worm, or a centipede or a revolutionist, or something like that.”
“Well, I’m sorry if I’ve vexed you,” said Lionel. “Come, let’s kiss and be friends.” So he kissed the Prime Minister, and they settled down for a nice quiet game of noughts and crosses while the Chancellor went to add up his accounts.
But when Lionel was in bed he could not sleep for thinking of the book, and when the full moon was shining with all her might and light he got up and crept down to the library and climbed up and got The Book of Beasts.
He took it outside to the terrace, where the moonlight was as bright as day, and he opened the book, and saw the empty pages with “Butterfly” and “Blue Bird of Paradise” underneath, and then he turned the next page. There was some sort of red thing sitting under a palm tree, and under it was written “Dragon.” The Dragon did not move, and the King shut up the book rather quickly and went back to bed.
But the next day he wanted another look, so he took the book out into the garden, and when he undid the clasps with the rubies and turquoises, the book opened all by itself at the picture with “Dragon” underneath, and the sun shone full on the page. And then, quite suddenly, a great Red Dragon came out of the book and spread vast scarlet wings and flew away across the garden to the far hills, and Lionel was left with the empty page before him, for the page was quite empty except for the green palm tree and the yellow desert, and the little streaks of red where the paintbrush had gone outside the pencil outline of the Red Dragon.
And then Lionel felt that he had indeed done it. He had not been King twenty-four hours, and already he had let loose a Red Dragon to worry his faithful subjects’ lives out. And they had been saving up so long to buy him a crown, and everything!
Lionel began to cry.
The Chancellor and the Prime Minister and the Nurse all came running to see what was the matter. And when they saw the book they understood, and the Chancellor said: “You naughty little King! Put him to bed, Nurse, and let him think over what he’s done.”
“Perhaps, my Lord,” said the Prime Minister, “we’d better first find out just exactly what he has done.”
Then Lionel, in floods of tears, said: “It’s a Red Dragon, and it’s gone flying away to the hills, and I am so sorry, and, oh, do forgive me!”
But the Prime Minister and the Chancellor had other things to think of than forgiving Lionel. They hurried off to consult the police and see what could be done. Everyone did what they could. They sat on committees and stood on guard, and lay in wait for the Dragon, but he stayed up in the hills, and there was nothing more to be done. The faithful Nurse, meanwhile, did not neglect her duty. Perhaps she did more than anyone else, for she slapped the King and put him to bed without his tea, and when it got dark she would not give him a candle to read by.
“You are a naughty little King,” she said, “and nobody will love you.”
Next day the Dragon was still quiet, though the more poetic of Lionel’s subjects could see the redness of the Dragon shining through the green trees quite plainly. So Lionel put on his crown and sat on his throne and said he wanted to make some laws.
And I need hardly say that though the Prime Minister and the Chancellor and the Nurse might have the very poorest opinion of Lionel’s private judgement, and might even slap him and send him to bed, the minute he got on his throne and set his crown on his head, he became infallible–which means that everything he said was right, and that he couldn’t possibly make a mistake. So when he said: “There is to be a law forbidding people to open books in schools or elsewhere”–he had the support of at least half of his subjects, and the other half–the grown-up half–pretended to think he was quite right.
Then he made a law that everyone should always have enough to eat. And this pleased everyone except the ones who had always had too much.
And when several other nice new laws were made and written down he went home and made mud-houses and was very happy. And he said to his Nurse: “People will love me now I’ve made such a lot of pretty new laws for them.”
But Nurse said: “Don’t count your chickens, my dear. You haven’t seen the last of that Dragon yet.”
Now, the next day was Saturday. And in the afternoon the Dragon suddenly swooped down upon the common in all his hideous redness, and carried off the Soccer Players, umpires, goal-posts, ball, and all.
Then the people were very angry indeed, and they said: “We might as well be a Republic. After saving up all these years to get his crown, and everything!”
And wise people shook their heads and foretold a decline in the National Love of Sport. And, indeed, soccer was not at all popular for some time afterward.
Lionel did his best to be a good King during the week, and the people were beginning to forgive him for letting the Dragon out of the book. “After all,” they said, “soccer is a dangerous game, and perhaps it is wise to discourage it.”
Popular opinion held that the Soccer Players, being tough and hard, had disagreed with the Dragon so much that he had gone away to some place where they only play cats’ cradle and games that do not make you hard and tough.
All the same, Parliament met on the Saturday afternoon, a convenient time, for most of the Members would be free to attend, to consider the Dragon. But unfortunately the Dragon, who had only been asleep, woke up because it was Saturday, and he considered the Parliament, and afterwards there were not any Members left, so they tried to make a new Parliament, but being a member of Parliament had somehow grown as unpopular as soccer playing, and no one would consent to be elected, so they had to do without a Parliament. When the next Saturday came around everyone was a little nervous, but the Red Dragon was pretty quiet that day and only ate an Orphanage.
Lionel was very, very unhappy. He felt that it was his disobedience that had brought this trouble on the Parliament and the Orphanage and the Soccer Players, and he felt that it was his duty to try and do something. The question was, what?
The Blue Bird that had come out of the book used to sing very nicely in the Palace rose garden, and the Butterfly was very tame, and would perch on his shoulder when he walked among the tall lilies: so Lionel saw that all the creatures in The Book of Beasts could not be wicked, like the Dragon, and he thought: “Suppose I could get another beast out who would fight the Dragon?”
So he took The Book of Beasts out into the rose garden and opened the page next to the one where the Dragon had been just a tiny bit to see what the name was. He could only see “cora,” but he felt the middle of the page swelling up thick with the creature that was trying to come out, and it was only by putting the book down and sitting on it suddenly, very hard, that he managed to get it shut. Then he fastened the clasps with the rubies and turquoises in them and sent for the Chancellor, who had been ill since Saturday, and so had not been eaten with the rest of the Parliament, and he said: “What animal ends in ‘cora’?”
The Chancellor answered: “The Manticora, of course.”
“What is he like?” asked the King.
“He is the sworn foe of Dragons,” said the Chancellor. “He drinks their blood. He is yellow, with the body of a lion and the face of a man. I wish we had a few Manticoras here now. But the last died hundreds of years ago–worse luck!”
Then the King ran and opened the book at the page that had “cora” on it, and there was the picture–Manticora, all yellow, with a lion’s body and a man’s face, just as the Chancellor had said. And under the picture was written, “Manticora.”
In a few minutes the Manticora came sleepily out of the book, rubbing its eyes with its hands and mewing piteously. It seemed very stupid, and when Lionel gave it a push and said, “Go along and fight the Dragon, do,” it put its tail between its legs and fairly ran away. It went and hid behind the Town Hall, and at night when the people were asleep it went around and ate all the pussy-cats in the town. And then it mewed more than ever. And on the Saturday morning, when people were a little timid about going out, because the Dragon had no regular hour for calling, the Manticora went up and down the streets and drank all the milk that was left in the cans at the doors for people’s teas, and it ate the cans as well.
And just when it had finished the very last little halfpenny worth, which was short measure, because the milkman’s nerves were quite upset, the Red Dragon came down the street looking for the Manticora. It edged off when it saw him coming, for it was not at all the Dragon-fighting kind; and, seeing no other door open, the poor, hunted creature took refuge in the General Post Office, and there the Dragon found it, trying to conceal itself among the ten o’clock mail. The Dragon fell on the Manticora at once, and the mail was no defense. The mewings were heard all over the town. All the kitties and the milk the Manticora had had seemed to have strengthened its mew wonderfully. Then there was a sad silence, and presently the people whose windows looked that way saw the Dragon come walking down the steps of the General Post Office spitting fire and smoke, together with tufts of Manticora fur, and the fragments of the registered letters. Things were growing very serious. However popular the King might become during the week, the Dragon was sure to do something on Saturday to upset the people’s loyalty.
The Dragon was a perfect nuisance for the whole of Saturday, except during the hour of noon, and then he had to rest under a tree or he would have caught fire from the heat of the sun. You see, he was very hot to begin with.
At last came a Saturday when the Dragon actually walked into the Royal nursery and carried off the King’s own pet Rocking Horse. Then the King cried for six days, and on the seventh he was so tired that he had to stop. He heard the Blue Bird singing among the roses and saw the Butterfly fluttering among the lilies, and he said: “Nurse, wipe my face, please. I am not going to cry any more.”
Nurse washed his face, and told him not to be a silly little King. “Crying,” said she, “never did anyone any good yet.”
“I don’t know,” said the little King, “I seem to see better, and to hear better now that I’ve cried for a week. Now, Nurse, dear, I know I’m right, so kiss me in case I never come back. I must try to see if I can’t save the people.”
“Well, if you must, you must,” said Nurse, “but don’t tear your clothes or get your feet wet.”
So off he went.
The Blue Bird sang more sweetly than ever, and the Butterfly shone more brightly, as Lionel once more carried The Book of Beasts out into the rose garden, and opened it–very quickly, so that he might not be afraid and change his mind. The book fell open wide, almost in the middle, and there was written at the bottom of the page, “Hippogriff,” and before Lionel had time to see what the picture was, there was a fluttering of great wings and a stamping of hoofs, and a sweet, soft, friendly neighing; and there came out of the book a beautiful white horse with a long, long, white mane and a long, long, white tail, and he had great wings like swan’s wings, and the softest, kindest eyes in the world, and he stood there among the roses.
The Hippogriff rubbed its silky-soft, milky white nose against the little King’s shoulder, and the little King thought: “But for the wings you are very like my poor, dear lost Rocking Horse.” And the Blue Bird’s song was very loud and sweet.
Then suddenly the King saw coming through the sky the great straggling, sprawling, wicked shape of the Red Dragon. And he knew at once what he must do. He caught up The Book of Beasts and jumped on the back of the gentle, beautiful Hippogriff, and leaning down he whispered in the sharp, white ear: “Fly, dear Hippogriff, fly your very fastest to the Pebbly Waste.”
And when the Dragon saw them start, he turned and flew after them, with his great wings flapping like clouds at sunset, and the Hippogriff’s wide wings were snowy as clouds at moonrise.
When the people in the town saw the Dragon fly off after the Hippogriff and the King they all came out of their houses to look, and when they saw the two disappear they made up their minds to the worst, and began to think what they would wear for Court mourning.
But the Dragon could not catch the Hippogriff. The red wings were bigger than the white ones, but they were not so strong, and so the white-winged horse flew away and away and away, with the Dragon pursuing, till he reached the very middle of the Pebbly Waste.
Now, the Pebbly Waste is just like the parts of the seaside where there is no sand–all round, loose, shifting stones, and there is no grass there and no tree within a hundred miles of it.
Lionel jumped off the white horse’s back in the very middle of the Pebbly Waste, and he hurriedly unclasped The Book of Beasts and laid it open on the pebbles. Then he clattered among the pebbles in his haste to get back on to his white horse, and had just jumped on when up came the Dragon. He was flying very feebly, and looking around everywhere for a tree, for it was just on the stroke of twelve, the sun was shining like a gold guinea in the blue sky, and there was not a tree for a hundred miles.
The white-winged horse flew around and around the Dragon as he writhed on the dry pebbles. He was getting very hot: indeed, parts of him even had begun to smoke. He knew that he must certainly catch fire in another minute unless he could get under a tree. He made a snatch with his red claws at the King and Hippogriff, but he was too feeble to reach them, and besides, he did not dare to overexert himself for fear he should get any hotter.
It was then that he saw The Book of Beasts lying on the pebbles, open at the page with “Dragon” written at the bottom. He looked and he hesitated, and he looked again, and then, with one last squirm of rage, the Dragon wriggled himself back into the picture and sat down under the palm tree, and the page was a little singed as he went in.
As soon as Lionel saw that the Dragon had really been obliged to go and sit under his own palm tree because it was the only tree there, he jumped off his horse and shut the book with a bang.
“Oh, hurrah!” he cried. “Now we really have done it.”
And he clasped the book very tightly with the turquoise and ruby clasps.
“Oh, my precious Hippogriff,” he cried. “You are the bravest, dearest, most beautiful–“
“Hush,” whispered the Hippogriff modestly. “Don’t you see that we are not alone?”
And indeed there was quite a crowd round them on the Pebbly Waste: the Prime Minister and the Parliament and the Soccer Players and the Orphanage and the Manticora and the Rocking Horse, and indeed everyone who had been eaten by the Dragon. You see, it was impossible for the Dragon to take them into the book with him–it was a tight fit even for one Dragon–so, of course, he had to leave them outside.
* * * * * * *
They all got home somehow, and all lived happy ever after.
When the King asked the Manticora where he would like to live he begged to be allowed to go back into the book. “I do not care for public life,” he said.
Of course he knew his way onto his own page, so there was no danger of his opening the book at the wrong page and letting out a Dragon or anything. So he got back into his picture and has never come out since: That is why you will never see a Manticora as long as you live, except in a picture-book. And of course he left the kitties outside, because there was no room for them in the book–and the milk cans too.
Then the Rocking Horse begged to be allowed to go and live on the Hippogriff’s page of the book. “I should like,” he said, “to live somewhere where Dragons can’t get at me.”
So the beautiful, white-winged Hippogriff showed him the way in, and there he stayed till the King had him taken out for his great-great-great-great-grandchildren to play with.
As for the Hippogriff, he accepted the position of the King’s Own Rocking Horse–a situation left vacant by the retirement of the wooden one. And the Blue Bird and the Butterfly sing and flutter among the lilies and roses of the Palace garden to this very day.
It all began with Effie’s getting something in her eye. It hurt very much indeed, and it felt something like a red-hot spark – only it seemed to have legs as well, and wings like a fly. Effie rubbed and cried– not real crying, but the kind your eye does all by itself without your being miserable inside your mind – and then she went to her father to have the thing in her eye taken out. Effie’s father was a doctor, so of course he knew how to take things out of eyes – he did it very cleverly with a soft paintbrush dipped in castor oil.
When he had gotten the thing out, he said: “This is very curious.” Effie had often got things in her eye before, and her father had always seemed to think it was natural – rather tiresome and naughty perhaps, but still natural. He had never before thought it curious.
Effie stood holding her handkerchief to her eye, and said: “I don’t believe it’s out.” People always say this when they have had something in their eyes.
“Oh, yes – it’s out,” said the doctor. “Here it is, on the brush. This is very interesting.”
Effie had never heard her father say that about anything that she had any share in. She said: “What?”
The doctor carried the brush very carefully across the room, and held the point of it under his microscope – then he twisted the brass screws of the microscope, and looked through the top with one eye.
“Dear me,” he said. “Dear, dear me! Four well-developed limbs; a long caudal appendage; five toes, unequal in lengths, almost like one of the Lacertidae, yet there are traces of wings.” The creature under his eye wriggled a little in the castor oil, and he went on: “Yes; a batlike wing. A new specimen, undoubtedly. Effie, run round to the professor and ask him to be kind enough to step in for a few minutes.”
“You might give me sixpence, Daddy,” said Effie, “because I did bring you the new specimen. I took great care of it inside my eye, and my eye does hurt.”
The doctor was so pleased with the new specimen that he gave Effie a shilling, and presently the professor stepped round. He stayed to lunch, and he and the doctor quarreled very happily all the afternoon about the name and the family of the thing that had come out of Effie’s eye.
But at teatime another thing happened. Effie’s brother Harry fished something out of his tea, which he thought at first was an earwig. He was just getting ready to drop it on the floor, and end its life in the usual way, when it shook itself in the spoon – spread two wet wings, and flopped onto the tablecloth. There it sat, stroking itself with its feet and stretching its wings, and Harry said: “Why, it’s a tiny newt!”
The professor leaned forward before the doctor could say a word. “I’ll give you half a crown for it, Harry, my lad,” he said, speaking very fast; and then he picked it up carefully on his handkerchief.
“It is a new specimen,” he said, “and finer than yours, Doctor.”
It was a tiny lizard, about half an inch long – with scales and wings.
So now the doctor and the professor each had a specimen, and they were both very pleased. But before long these specimens began to seem less valuable. For the next morning, when the knife-boy was cleaning the doctor’s boots, he suddenly dropped the brushes and the boot and the blacking, and screamed out that he was burnt.
And from inside the boot came crawling a lizard as big as a kitten, with large, shiny wings.
“Why,” said Effie, “I know what it is. It is a dragon like the one St. George killed.”
And Effie was right. That afternoon Towser was bitten in the garden by a dragon about the size of a rabbit, which he had tried to chase, and the next morning all the papers were full of the wonderful “winged lizards” that were appearing all over the country. The papers would not call them dragons, because, of course, no one believes in dragons nowadays– and at any rate the papers were not going to be so silly as to believe in fairy stories. At first there were only a few, but in a week or two the country was simply running alive with dragons of all sizes, and in the air you could sometimes see them as thick as a swarm of bees. They all looked alike except as to size. They were green with scales, and they had four legs and a long tail and great wings like bats’ wings, only the wings were a pale, half-transparent yellow, like the gear-boxes on bicycles.
They breathed fire and smoke, as all proper dragons must, but still the newspapers went on pretending they were lizards, until the editor of the Standard was picked up and carried away by a very large one, and then the other newspaper people had not anyone left to tell them what they ought not to believe. So when the largest elephant in the Zoo was carried off by a dragon, the papers gave up pretending– and put ALARMING PLAGUE OF DRAGONS at the top of the paper.
You have no idea how alarming it was, and at the same time how aggravating. The large-size dragons were terrible certainly, but when once you had found out that the dragons always went to bed early because they were afraid of the chill night air, you had only to stay indoors all day, and you were pretty safe from the big ones. But the smaller sizes were a perfect nuisance. The ones as big as earwigs got in the soap, and they got in the butter. The ones as big as dogs got in the bath, and the fire and smoke inside them made them steam like anything when the cold water tap was turned on, so that careless people were often scalded quite severely. The ones that were as large as pigeons would get into workbaskets or corner drawers and bite you when you were in a hurry to get a needle or a handkerchief. The ones as big as sheep were easier to avoid, because you could see them coming; but when they flew in at the windows and curled up under your eiderdown, and you did not find them till you went to bed, it was always a shock. The ones this size did not eat people, only lettuce, but they always scorched the sheets and pillowcases dreadfully.
Of course, the County Council and the police did everything that could be done: It was no use offering the hand of the Princess to anyone who killed a dragon. This way was all very well in olden times– when there was only one dragon and one Princess; but now there were far more dragons than Princesses– although the Royal Family was a large one. And besides, it would have been a mere waste of Princesses to offer rewards for killing dragons, because everybody killed as many dragons as they could quite out of their own heads and without rewards at all, just to get the nasty things out of the way. The County Council undertook to cremate all dragons delivered at their offices between the hours of ten and two, and whole wagonloads and cartloads and truckloads of dead dragons could be seen any day of the week standing in a long line in the street where the County Council had their offices. Boys brought barrowloads of dead dragons, and children on their way home from morning school would call in to leave the handful or two of little dragons they had brought in their satchels, or carried in their knotted pocket handkerchiefs. And yet there seemed to be as many dragons as ever. Then the police stuck up great wood and canvas towers covered with patent glue. When the dragons flew against these towers, they stuck fast, as flies and wasps do on the sticky papers in the kitchen; and when the towers were covered all over with dragons, the police inspector used to set fire to the towers, and burnt them and dragons and all.
And yet there seemed to be more dragons than ever. The shops were full of patent dragon poison and anti-dragon soap, and dragonproof curtains for the windows; and indeed, everything that could be done was done.
And yet there seemed to be more dragons than ever.
It was not very easy to know what would poison a dragon, because, you see, they ate such different things. The largest kind ate elephants as long as there were any, and then went on with horses and cows. Another size ate nothing but lilies of the valley, and a third size ate only Prime Ministers if they were to be had, and, if not, would feed freely on servants in livery. Another size lived on bricks, and three of them ate two thirds of the South Lambeth Infirmary in one afternoon.
But the size Effie was most afraid of was about as big as your dining room, and that size ate little girls and boys.
At first Effie and her brother were quite pleased with the change in their lives. It was so amusing to sit up all night instead of going to sleep, and to play in the garden lighted by electric lamps. And it sounded so funny to hear Mother say, when they were going to bed: “Good night, my darlings, sleep sound all day, and don’t get up too soon. You must not get up before it’s quite dark. You wouldn’t like the nasty dragons to catch you.”
But after a time they got very tired of it all: They wanted to see the flowers and trees growing in the fields, and to see the pretty sunshine out of doors, and not just through glass windows and patent dragonproof curtains. And they wanted to play on the grass, which they were not allowed to do in the electric lamp-lighted garden because of the night-dew.
And they wanted so much to get out, just for once, in the beautiful, bright, dangerous daylight, that they began to try and think of some reason why they ought to go out. Only they did not like to disobey their mother.
But one morning their mother was busy preparing some new dragon poison to lay down in the cellars, and their father was bandaging the hand of the boot boy, which had been scratched by one of the dragons who liked to eat Prime Ministers when they were to be had, so nobody remembered to say to the children: “Don’t get up till it is quite dark!”
“Go now,” said Harry. “It would not be disobedient to go. And I know exactly what we ought to do, but I don’t know how we ought to do it.”
“What ought we to do?” said Effie.
“We ought to wake St. George, of course,” said Harry. “He was the only person in his town who knew how to manage dragons; the people in the fairy tales don’t count. But St. George is a real person, and he is only asleep, and he is waiting to be waked up. Only nobody believes in St. George now. I heard father say so.”
“We do,” said Effie.
“Of course we do. And don’t you see, Ef, that’s the very reason why we could wake him? You can’t wake people if you don’t believe in them, can you?”
Effie said no, but where could they find St. George?
“We must go and look,” said Harry boldly. “You shall wear a dragonproof frock, made of stuff like the curtains. And I will smear myself all over with the best dragon poison, and – “
Effie clasped her hands and skipped with joy and cried: “Oh, Harry! I know where we can find St. George! In St. George’s Church, of course.”
“Um,” said Harry, wishing he had thought of it for himself, “you have a little sense sometimes, for a girl.”
So the next afternoon, quite early, long before the beams of sunset announced the coming night, when everybody would be up and working, the two children got out of bed. Effie wrapped herself in a shawl of dragonproof muslin – there was no time to make the frock – and Harry made a horrid mess of himself with the patent dragon poison. It was warranted harmless to infants and invalids, so he felt quite safe.
Then they joined hands and set out to walk to St. George’s Church. As you know, there are many St. George’s churches, but fortunately they took the turning that leads to the right one, and went along in the bright sunlight, feeling very brave and adventurous.
There was no one about in the streets except dragons, and the place was simply swarming with them. Fortunately none of the dragons were just the right size for eating little boys and girls, or perhaps this story might have had to end here. There were dragons on the pavement, and dragons on the roadway, dragons basking on the front doorsteps of public buildings, and dragons preening their wings on the roofs in the hot afternoon sun. The town was quite green with them. Even when the children had gotten out of the town and were walking in the lanes, they noticed that the fields on each side were greener than usual with the scaly legs and tails; and some of the smaller sizes had made themselves asbestos nests in the flowering hawthorn hedges.
Effie held her brother’s hand very tight, and once when a fat dragon flopped against her ear she screamed out, and a whole flight of green dragons rose from the field at the sound, and sprawled away across the sky. The children could hear the rattle of their wings as they flew.
“Oh, I want to go home,” said Effie.
“Don’t be silly,” said Harry. “Surely you haven’t forgotten about the Seven Champions and all the princes. People who are going to be their country’s deliverers never scream and say they want to go home.”
“And are we,” asked Effie – “deliverers, I mean?”
“You’ll see,” said her brother, and on they went.
When they came to St. George’s Church they found the door open, and they walked right in – but St. George was not there, so they walked around the churchyard outside, and presently they found the great stone tomb of St. George, with the figure of him carved in marble outside, in his armor and helmet, and with his hands folded on his breast.
“How ever can we wake him?” they said. Then Harry spoke to St. George – but he would not answer; and he called, but St. George did not seem to hear; and then he actually tried to waken the great dragon-slayer by shaking his marble shoulders. But St. George took no notice.
Then Effie began to cry, and she put her arms around St. George’s neck as well as she could for the marble, which was very much in the way at the back, and she kissed the marble face, and she said: “Oh, dear, good, kind St. George, please wake up and help us.”
And at that St. George opened his eyes sleepily, and stretched himself and said: “What’s the matter, little girl?”
So the children told him all about it; he turned over in his marble and leaned on one elbow to listen. But when he heard that there were so many dragons he shook his head.
“It’s no good,” he said, “they would be one too many for poor old George. You should have waked me before. I was always for a fair fight – one man one dragon, was my motto.”
Just then a flight of dragons passed overhead, and St. George half drew his sword.
But he shook his head again and pushed the sword back as the flight of dragons grew small in the distance.
“I can’t do anything,” he said. “Things have changed since my time. St. Andrew told me about it. They woke him up over the engineers’ strike, and he came to talk to me. He says everything is done by machinery now; there must be some way of settling these dragons. By the way, what sort of weather have you been having lately?”
This seemed so careless and unkind that Harry would not answer, but Effie said patiently, “It has been very fine. Father says it is the hottest weather there has ever been in this country.”
“Ah, I guessed as much,” said the Champion, thoughtfully. “Well, the only thing would be … dragons can’t stand wet and cold, that’s the only thing. If you could find the taps.”
St. George was beginning to settle down again on his stone slab.
“Good night, very sorry I can’t help you,” he said, yawning behind his marble hand.
“Oh, but you can,” cried Effie. “Tell us – what taps?”
“Oh, like in the bathroom,” said St. George, still more sleepily. “And there’s a looking glass, too; shows you all the world and what’s going on. St. Denis told me about it; said it was a very pretty thing. I’m sorry I can’t – good night.”
And he fell back into his marble and was fast asleep again in a moment.
“We shall never find the taps,” said Harry. “I say, wouldn’t it be awful if St. George woke up when there was a dragon near, the size that eats champions?”
Effie pulled off her dragonproof veil. “We didn’t meet any the size of the dining room as we came along,” she said. “I daresay we shall be quite safe.”
So she covered St. George with the veil, and Harry rubbed off as much as he could of the dragon poison onto St. George’s armor, so as to make everything quite safe for him.
“We might hide in the church till it is dark,” he said, “and then – “
But at that moment a dark shadow fell on them, and they saw that it was a dragon exactly the size of the dining room at home.
So then they knew that all was lost. The dragon swooped down and caught the two children in his claws; he caught Effie by her green silk sash, and Harry by the little point at the back of his Eton jacket – and then, spreading his great yellow wings, he rose into the air, rattling like a third-class carriage when the brake is hard on.
“Oh, Harry,” said Effie, “I wonder when he will eat us!” The dragon was flying across woods and fields with great flaps of his wings that carried him a quarter of a mile at each flap.
Harry and Effie could see the country below, hedges and rivers and churches and farmhouses flowing away from under them, much faster than you see them running away from the sides of the fastest express train.
And still the dragon flew on. The children saw other dragons in the air as they went, but the dragon who was as big as the dining room never stopped to speak to any of them, but just flew on quite steadily.
“He knows where he wants to go,” said Harry. “Oh, if he would only drop us before he gets there!”
But the dragon held on tight, and he flew and flew and flew until at last, when the children were quite giddy, he settled down, with a rattling of all his scales, on the top of a mountain. And he lay there on his great green scaly side, panting, and very much out of breath, because he had come such a long way. But his claws were fast in Effie’s sash and the little point at the back of Harry’s Eton jacket.
Then Effie took out the knife Harry had given her on her birthday. It had cost only sixpence to begin with, and she had had it a month, and it never could sharpen anything but slate-pencils; but somehow she managed to make that knife cut her sash in front, and crept out of it, leaving the dragon with only a green silk bow in one of his claws. That knife would never have cut Harry’s jacket-tail off, though, and when Effie had tried for some time she saw that this was so and gave it up. But with her help Harry managed to wriggle quietly out of his sleeves, so that the dragon had only an Eton jacket in his other claw. Then the children crept on tiptoe to a crack in the rocks and got in. It was much too narrow for the dragon to get in also, so they stayed in there and waited to make faces at the dragon when he felt rested enough to sit up and begin to think about eating them. He was very angry, indeed, when they made faces at him, and blew out fire and smoke at them, but they ran farther into the cave so that he could not reach them, and when he was tired of blowing he went away.
But they were afraid to come out of the cave, so they went farther in, and presently the cave opened out and grew bigger, and the floor was soft sand, and when they had come to the very end of the cave there was a door, and on it was written: UNIVERSAL TAPROOM. PRIVATE. NO ONE ALLOWED INSIDE.
So they opened the door at once just to peep in, and then they remembered what St. George had said.
“We can’t be worse off than we are,” said Harry, “with a dragon waiting for us outside. Let’s go in.”
They went boldly into the taproom, and shut the door behind them.
And now they were in a sort of room cut out of the solid rock, and all along one side of the room were taps, and all the taps were labeled with china labels like you see in baths. And as they could both read words of two syllables or even three sometimes, they understood at once that they had gotten to the place where the weather is turned on from. There were six big taps labeled “Sunshine,” “Wind,” “Rain,” “Snow,” “Hail,” “Ice,” and a lot of little ones, labeled “Fair to moderate,” “Showery,” “South breeze,” “Nice growing weather for the crops,” “Skating,” “Good open weather,” “South wind,” “East wind,” and so on. And the big tap labeled “Sunshine” was turned full on. They could not see any sunshine – the cave was lighted by a skylight of blue glass – so they supposed the sunlight was pouring out by some other way, as it does with the tap that washes out the underneath parts of patent sinks in kitchens.
Then they saw that one side of the room was just a big looking glass, and when you looked in it you could see everything that was going on in the world – and all at once, too, which is not like most looking glasses. They saw the carts delivering the dead dragons at the County Council offices, and they saw St. George asleep under the dragonproof veil. And they saw their mother at home crying because her children had gone out in the dreadful, dangerous daylight, and she was afraid a dragon had eaten them. And they saw the whole of England, like a great puzzle map
– green in the field parts and brown in the towns, and black in the places where they make coal and crockery and cutlery and chemicals. All over it, on the black parts, and on the brown, and on the green, there was a network of green dragons. And they could see that it was still broad daylight, and no dragons had gone to bed yet.
Effie said, “Dragons do not like cold.” And she tried to turn off the sunshine, but the tap was out of order, and that was why there had been so much hot weather, and why the dragons had been able to be hatched. So they left the sunshine tap alone, and they turned on the snow and left the tap full on while they went to look in the glass. There they saw the dragons running all sorts of ways like ants if you are cruel enough to pour water into an ant-heap, which, of course, you never are. And the snow fell more and more.
Then Effie turned the rain tap quite full on, and presently the dragons began to wriggle less, and by-and-by some of them lay quite still, so the children knew the water had put out the fires inside them, and they were dead. So then they turned on the hail – only half on, for fear of breaking people’s windows – and after a while there were no more dragons to be seen moving.
Then the children knew that they were indeed the deliverers of their country.
“They will put up a monument to us,” said Harry, “as high as Nelson’s! All the dragons are dead.”
“I hope the one that was waiting outside for us is dead!” said Effie. “And about the monument, Harry, I’m not so sure. What can they do with such a lot of dead dragons? It would take years and years to bury them, and they could never be burnt now they are so soaking wet. I wish the rain would wash them off into the sea.”
But this did not happen, and the children began to feel that they had not been so frightfully clever after all.
“I wonder what this old thing’s for,” said Harry. He had found a rusty old tap, which seemed as though it had not been used for ages. Its china label was quite coated over with dirt and cobwebs. When Effie had cleaned it with a bit of her skirt – for curiously enough both the children had come out without pocket handkerchiefs – she found that the label said “Waste.”
“Let’s turn it on,” she said. “It might carry off the dragons.”
The tap was very stiff from not having been used for such a long time, but together they managed to turn it on, and then ran to the mirror to see what happened.
Already a great, round black hole had opened in the very middle of the map of England, and the sides of the map were tilting themselves up, so that the rain ran down toward the hole.
“Oh, hurrah, hurrah, hurrah!” cried Effie, and she hurried back to the taps and turned on everything that seemed wet. “Showery,” “Good open weather,” “Nice growing weather for the crops,” and even “South” and “South-West,” because she had heard her father say that those winds brought rain.
And now the floods of rain were pouring down on the country, and great sheets of water flowed toward the center of the map, and cataracts of water poured into the great round hole in the middle of the map, and the dragons were being washed away and disappearing down the waste pipe in great green masses and scattered green shoals – single dragons and dragons by the dozen; of all sizes, from the ones that carry off elephants down to the ones that get in your tea.
Presently there was not a dragon left. So then they turned off the tap named “Waste,” and they half-turned off the one labeled “Sunshine” – it was broken, so that they could not turn it off altogether – and they turned on “Fair to moderate” and “Showery” and both taps stuck, so that they could not be turned off, which accounts for our climate.
* * * * * * *
How did they get home again? By the Snowdon railway of course.
And was the nation grateful? Well – the nation was very wet. And by the time the nation had gotten dry again it was interested in the new invention for toasting muffins by electricity, and all the dragons were almost forgotten. Dragons do not seem so important when they are dead and gone, and, you know, there never was a reward offered.
And what did Father and Mother say when Effie and Harry got home?
My dear, that is the sort of silly question you children always will ask. However, just for this once I don’t mind telling you.
Mother said: “Oh, my darlings, my darlings, you’re safe – you’re safe! You naughty children– how could you be so disobedient? Go to bed at once!”
And their father the doctor said: “I wish I had known what you were going to do! I should have liked to preserve a specimen. I threw away the one I got out of Effie’s eye. I intended to get a more perfect specimen. I did not anticipate this immediate extinction of the species.”
The professor said nothing, but he rubbed his hands. He had kept his specimen – the one the size of an earwig that he gave Harry half a crown for – and he has it to this day.
You must get him to show it to you!
“Volodia is here!” cried some one in the courtyard.
“Voloditchka is here!” shrieked Natalia, rushing into the dining-room.
The whole family ran to the window, for they had been expecting their Volodia for hours. At the front porch stood a wide posting sleigh with its troika of white horses wreathed in dense clouds of steam. The sleigh was empty because Volodia was already standing in the front entry untying his hood with red, frostbitten fingers. His schoolboy’s uniform, his overcoat, his cap, his galoshes, and the hair on his temples were all silvery with frost, and from his head to his feet he exhaled such a wholesome atmosphere of cold that one shivered to be near him. His mother and aunt rushed to kiss and embrace him. Natalia fell down at his feet and began pulling off his galoshes. His sisters shrieked, doors creaked and banged on every side, and his father came running into the hall in his shirt-sleeves waving a pair of scissors and crying in alarm:
“Is anything the matter? We expected you yesterday. Did you have a good journey? For heaven’s sake, give him a chance to kiss his own father!”
“Bow, wow, wow!” barked the great black dog, My Lord, in a deep voice, banging the walls and furniture with his tail.
All these noises went to make up one great, joyous clamour that lasted several minutes. When the first burst of joy had subsided the family noticed that, beside Volodia, there was still another small person in the hall. He was wrapped in scarfs and shawls and hoods and was standing motionless in the shadow cast by a huge fox-skin coat.
“Volodia, who is that?” whispered Volodia’s mother. “Good gracious!” Volodia exclaimed recollecting himself. “Let me present my friend Tchetchevitsin. I have brought him from school to stay with us.”
“We are delighted to see you! Make yourself at home!” cried the father gaily. “Excuse my not having a coat on! Allow me!–Natalia, help Mr. Tcherepitsin to take off his things! For heaven’s sake, take that dog away! This noise is too awful!”
A few minutes later Volodia and his friend were sitting in the dining-room drinking tea, dazed by their noisy reception and still rosy with cold. The wintry rays of the sun, piercing the frost and snow on the window-panes, trembled over the samovar and bathed themselves in the slop-basin. The room was warm, and the boys felt heat and cold jostling one another in their bodies, neither wanting to concede its place to the other.
“Well, Christmas will soon be here!” cried Volodia’s father, rolling a cigarette. “Has it seemed long since your mother cried as she saw you off last summer? Time flies, my son! Old age comes before one has time to heave a sigh. Mr. Tchibisoff, do help yourself! We don’t stand on ceremony here!”
Volodia’s three sisters, Katia, Sonia, and Masha, the oldest of whom was eleven, sat around the table with their eyes fixed on their new acquaintance. Tchetchevitsin was the same age and size as Volodia, but he was neither plump nor fair like him. He was swarthy and thin and his face was covered with freckles. His hair was bristly, his eyes were small, and his lips were thick; in a word, he was very plain, and, had it not been for his schoolboy’s uniform, he might have been taken for the son of a cook. He was taciturn and morose, and he never once smiled. The girls immediately decided that he must be a very clever and learned person. He seemed to be meditating something, and was so busy with his own thoughts that he started if he were asked a question and asked to have it repeated.
The girls noticed that Volodia, who was generally so talkative and gay, seldom spoke now and never smiled and on the whole did not seem glad to be at home. He only addressed his sisters once during dinner and then his remark was strange. He pointed to the samovar and said:
“In California they drink gin instead of tea.”
He, too, seemed to be busy with thoughts of his own, and, to judge from the glances that the two boys occasionally exchanged, their thoughts were identical.
After tea the whole family went into the nursery, and papa and the girls sat down at the table and took up some work which they had been doing when they were interrupted by the boys’ arrival. They were making decorations out of coloured paper for the Christmas tree. It was a thrilling and noisy occupation. Each new flower was greeted by the girls with shrieks of ecstasy, of terror almost, as if it had dropped from the sky. Papa, too, was in raptures, but every now and then he would throw down the scissors, exclaiming angrily that they were blunt. Mamma came running into the nursery with an anxious face and asked:
“Who has taken my scissors? Have you taken my scissors again, Ivan?”
“Good heavens, won’t she even let me have a pair of scissors?” answered papa in a tearful voice, throwing himself back in his chair with the air of a much-abused man. But the next moment he was in raptures again.
On former holidays Volodia had always helped with the preparations for the Christmas tree, and had run out into the yard to watch the coachman and the shepherd heaping up a mound of snow, but this time neither he nor Tchetchevitsin took any notice of the coloured paper, neither did they once visit the stables. They sat by a window whispering together, and then opened an atlas and fell to studying it.
“First, we must go to Perm,” whispered Tchetchevitsin. “Then to Tyumen, then to Tomsk, and then– then to Kamschatka. From there the Eskimos will take us across Behring Strait in their canoes, and then–we shall be in America! There are a great many wild animals there.”
“Where is California?” asked Volodia.
“California is farther down. If once we can get to America, California will only be round the corner. We can make our living by hunting and highway robbery.”
All day Tchetchevitsin avoided the girls, and, if he met them, looked at them askance. After tea in the evening he was left alone with them for five minutes. To remain silent would have been awkward, so he coughed sternly, rubbed the back of his right hand with the palm of his left, looked severely at Katia, and asked:
“Have you read Mayne Reid?”
“No, I haven’t– But tell me, can you skate?”
Tchetchevitsin became lost in thought once more and did not answer her question. He only blew out his cheeks and heaved a sigh as if he were very hot. Once more he raised his eyes to Katia’s face and said:
“When a herd of buffalo gallop across the pampas the whole earth trembles and the frightened mustangs kick and neigh.”
Tchetchevitsin smiled wistfully and added:
“And Indians attack trains, too. But worst of all are the mosquitoes and the termites.”
“What are they?”
“Termites look something like ants, only they have wings. They bite dreadfully. Do you know who I am?”
“You are Mr. Tchetchevitsin!”
“No, I am Montezuma Hawkeye, the invincible chieftain.”
Masha, the youngest of the girls, looked first at him and then out of the window into the garden, where night was already falling, and said doubtfully:
“We had Tchetchevitsa (lentils) for supper last night.” The absolutely unintelligible sayings of Tchetchevitsin, his continual whispered conversations with Volodia, and the fact that Volodia never played now and was always absorbed in thought–all this seemed to the girls to be both mysterious and strange. Katia and Sonia, the two oldest ones, began to spy on the boys, and when Volodia and his friend went to bed that evening, they crept to the door of their room and listened to the conversation inside. Oh! what did they hear? The boys were planning to run away to America in search of gold! They were all prepared for the journey and had a pistol ready, two knives, some dried bread, a magnifying-glass for lighting fires, a compass, and four roubles. The girls discovered that the boys would have to walk several thousand miles, fighting on the way with savages and tigers, and that they would then find gold and ivory, and slay their enemies. Next, they would turn pirates, drink gin, and at last marry beautiful wives and settle down to cultivate a plantation. Volodia and Tchetchevitsin both talked at once and kept interrupting one another from excitement. Tchetchevitsin called himself “Montezuma Hawkeye,” and Volodia “my Paleface Brother.”
“Be sure you don’t tell mamma!” said Katia to Sonia as they went back to bed. “Volodia will bring us gold and ivory from America, but if you tell mamma she won’t let him go!”
Tchetchevitsin spent the day before Christmas Eve studying a map of Asia and taking notes, while Volodia roamed about the house refusing all food, his face looking tired and puffy as if it had been stung by a bee. He stopped more than once in front of the icon in the nursery and crossed himself saying:
“O Lord, forgive me, miserable sinner! O Lord, help my poor, unfortunate mother!”
Toward evening he burst into tears. When he said good night he kissed his father and mother and sisters over and over again. Katia and Sonia realized the significance of his actions, but Masha, the youngest, understood nothing at all. Only when her eye fell upon Tchetchevitsin did she grow pensive and say with a sigh:
“Nurse says that when Lent comes we must eat peas and Tchetchevitsa.”
Early on Christmas Eve Katia and Sonia slipped quietly out of bed and went to the boys’ room to see them run away to America. They crept up to their door.
“So you won’t go?” asked Tchetchevitsin angrily. “Tell me, you won’t go?”
“Oh, dear!” wailed Volodia, weeping softly. “How can I go? I’m so sorry for mamma!”
“Paleface Brother, I beg you to go! You promised me yourself that you would. You told me yourself how nice it would be. Now, when everything is ready, you are afraid!”
“I–I’m not afraid. I–I am sorry for mamma.”
“Tell me, are you going or not?”
“I’m going, only–only wait a bit, I want to stay at home a little while longer!”
“If that is the case, I’ll go alone!” Tchetchevitsin said with decision. “I can get along perfectly well without you. I want to hunt and fight tigers! If you won’t go, give me my pistol!”
Volodia began to cry so bitterly that his sisters could not endure the sound and began weeping softly themselves. Silence fell.
“Then you won’t go?” demanded Tchetchevitsin again.
“Then get dressed!”
And to keep up Volodia’s courage, Tchetchevitsin began singing the praises of America. He roared like a tiger, he whistled like a steamboat, he scolded, and promised to give Volodia all the ivory and gold they might find.
The thin, dark boy with his bristling hair and his freckles seemed to the girls to be a strange and wonderful person. He was a hero to them, a man without fear, who could roar so well that, through the closed door, one might really mistake him for a tiger or a lion.
When the girls were dressing in their own room, Katia cried with tears in her eyes:
“Oh, I’m so frightened!”
All was quiet until the family sat down to dinner at two o’clock, and then it suddenly appeared that the boys were not in the house. Inquiries were made in the servants’ quarters and at the stables, but they were not there. A search was made in the village, but they could not be found. At tea time they were still missing, and when the family had to sit down to supper without them, mamma was terribly anxious and was even crying. That night another search was made in the village and men were sent down to the river with lanterns. Heavens, what an uproar arose!
Next morning the policeman arrived and went into the dining-room to write something. Mamma was crying.
Suddenly, lo and behold! a posting sleigh drove up to the front door with clouds of steam rising from its three white horses.
“Volodia is here!” cried some one in the courtyard.
“Voloditchka is here!” shrieked Natalia, rushing into the dining-room.
My Lord barked “Bow, wow, wow!” in his deep voice.
It seemed that the boys had been stopped at the hotel in the town, where they had gone about asking every one where they could buy gunpowder. As he entered the hall, Volodia burst into tears and flung his arms round his mother’s neck. The girls trembled with terror at the thought of what would happen next, for they heard papa call Volodia and Tchetchevitsin into his study and begin talking to them. Mamma wept and joined in the talk.
“Do you think it was right?” papa asked, chiding them. “I hope to goodness they won’t find it out at school, because, if they do, you will certainly be expelled. Be ashamed of yourself, Master Tchetchevitsin! You are a bad boy. You are a mischief-maker and your parents will punish you. Do you think it was right to run away? Where did you spend the night?”
“In the station!” answered Tchetchevitsin proudly.
Volodia was put to bed, and a towel soaked in vinegar was laid on his head. A telegram was despatched, and next day a lady arrived, Tchetchevitsin’s mamma, who took her son away.
As Tchetchevitsin departed his face looked haughty and stern. He said not a word as he took his leave of the girls, but in a copy-book of Katia’s he wrote these words for remembrance:
In the town of Taydarayda there once lived a tailor by the name of Mr Joseph Threddie. He had a little pointy beard just like a billy goat, and he was always jolly. He was very thin indeed. Every tailor in the world is thin, and that’s a fact, because a tailor has to look like a needle and thread. But Mr Threddie was so extremely thin that he could get through the eye of the very needle that he was holding in his own hand. The only thing he could eat was spaghetti, because nothing else could get down his throat. He was a good man, always smiling. In his beard he had one hundred and thirty-six hairs, and sometimes on holidays he plaited them into little pigtails. And then he was tremendously handsome.
He would have lived happily enough, if it weren’t for a gypsy woman who had injured her foot. She had a very big wound, but Mr Threddie darned her skin so beautifully that you couldn’t see a thing. In gratitude, she told his fortune by reading the palm of his hand, and said:
“If you leave this town on Sunday and keep going west, eventually you’ll come to a place where they’ll proclaim you king!”
Mr Threddie laughed out loud at the idea. But that night he had a dream in which he really had become king, and thanks to his great prosperity he had grown so fat that he looked like an enormous barrel. He woke up and thought:
“But perhaps it’s the truth? Who knows? Up you get, then, Mr Threddie, and off you go to the west!”
He took a small bundle, a hundred needles and a thousand kilometres of thread, he took a thimble, an iron and a very large pair of scissors, and went out among the people to ask them how to go west. Nobody in the town of Taydarayda knew the answer, until one very old man, who was a hundred and six, thought about it and said:
“The west must surely be the place where the sun sets.”
At once it was plain to see that this was wisely said, so Mr Threddie the tailor started walking in that direction. He hadn’t gone far when suddenly the wind began to blow in the fields, just a light breeze in fact, but as Mr Threddie was so exceedingly thin, the wind picked him up and carried him away. As he flew through the air, he laughed and laughed at this mode of transport. But then the wind got tired, and let the tailor drop to the ground. Everything went spinning before his eyes, and he couldn’t think what had happened to him. All he could tell was that he had fallen into someone’s arms, because somebody angrily shouted:
“What do you mean by attacking me?”
Mr Threddie looked up and saw that he was in the middle of cornfield, and that the wind had tossed him into the arms of a Scarecrow. The Scarecrow was very smart – he had trousers that were only a little bit torn, a green jacket and a crumpled top hat. He had two legs made of sticks, and two arms made of the same kind of sticks as well.
Mr Threddie doffed his cap, bowed very low and said in a reedy little voice:
“A very good day to you, my dear Sir. Please excuse me for stepping on your foot. I am Mr Threddie the tailor.”
“How very nice to meet you,” said the Scarecrow. “I am Count Scary, of the noble house of the Four Sticks, and I keep watch here to make sure the crows don’t steal the wheat, but they don’t take up much of my time. I am extraordinarily brave, and I’d prefer to fight nothing but lions and tigers, but this year very few of them have come to eat the wheat. So where are you on your way to, Mr Threddie?”
Mr Threddie bowed again and jumped three times, because he was very polite and knew that grand gentlemen bow to each other that way.
“Where am I going, your Lordship? I’m going to the place where I shall become king.”
“Can that be possible?”
“Yes indeed! I was born to be king. Maybe you’d like to come along with me, your Lordship? That will be jollier for both of us.”
“All right,” replied the Scarecrow, “I’ve grown weary of standing here. But would you please mend me a little, Mr Threddie? Would you please sew up the holes in my clothing, because I’d like to get married along the way, and I must look handsome.”
“With pleasure!” said Mr Threddie.
He got down to work, and an hour later the Scarecrow had lovely clothes, and his top hat was nearly as good as new. The crows from all over the field did start to poke a bit of fun at him, but taking no notice of them, with great dignity he set off with Mr Threddie. Along the way they had a very nice chat and grew extremely fond of each other, as they kept on walking to the west. Mostly they slept in wheat fields, and at night Mr Threddie tied himself with a piece of thread to the Scarecrow, who was heavier, so that he wouldn’t be carried away by the wind again. And whenever dogs attacked them, the Scarecrow, who by reason of his profession was very courageous, would tear off his own leg and hurl it at the animals. Then he’d tie it onto his trunk again with a bit of string.
One day towards evening they looked about, and there in the forest they saw a little light.
“Let’s go over there ‒perhaps they’ll put us up for the night!” said Mr Threddie.
“Let us do them the honour!” replied the Scarecrow.
As they looked, they noticed that the house was rather strange, because it was able to walk. It was standing on four paws, and constantly turning on the spot.
“The owner of this house must be a merry fellow ‒” whispered Mr Threddie, “he never stops dancing.”
They waited until the door came to them, and then they went inside. It was a very strange house indeed. Although it was summer, there were some immense logs burning in the hearth, and on top of the fire sat a fine gentleman, warming himself. Now and then he gathered a handful of glowing coals and swallowed them with great relish. On catching sight of the travellers, he went up to them, bowed and said:
“So you must be Mr Threddie and Count Scary?”
They were amazed to find that he knew who they were, but they didn’t say anything; Mr Threddie just jumped three times, and the Scarecrow took off his top hat. And then the gentleman said:
“Do stay here with me for supper, and tomorrow you can be on your way. I’ll just call my wife, my daughter and our other relatives.”
He clapped his hands, and suddenly a large company appeared. Their host’s daughter was very beautiful, but when she laughed it was as if a horse were whinnying in the meadow. She took a great liking to Mr Threddie, and told him she would love to have a husband like him. Then they sat down to supper, Mr Threddie and the Scarecrow on a bench, and all the others on iron pots full of red-hot coals, which filled the guests with great astonishment.
Then their host said to them:
“Honoured guests, please don’t be surprised by the way we sit ‒ it’s just that our family always feels the cold badly.”
Soup was served in an enormous cauldron, and Mr Threddie had already raised his spoon to his lips when the Scarecrow tugged at his coat tail and whispered:
“Mr Threddie, don’t eat it – it’s boiling hot pitch!”
So secretly, while pretending they found the soup very tasty, they poured it away under the table. After that a very strange servant brought in the next dish: rats in savage sauce; then they served fried locust, earthworms with Parmesan cheese, like spaghetti, and rotten eggs for pudding. Feeling extremely scared, Mr Threddie and the Scarecrow threw it all under the table. Suddenly their host said:
“Mr Threddie, did you know that the king has died in Plonkerville?”
“Where is this Plonkerville? Is it far?” asked the tailor.
“From here a slaughtered rooster could run there in two days. And did you know that they’re looking for a new king, and the man who’s going to be king there is the man who marries my daughter?”
At this point the young lassie whinnied with joy, like an ancient horse, and threw her arms around Mr Threddie’s neck.
“Let’s run for it!” whispered the Scarecrow.
“But I don’t know where the door is. There’s nothing to be done!”
The whole family became very jolly, and then suddenly the host said:
“Let’s drink a glass of wine to your health and let’s have a merry sing-song. Mr Threddie, perhaps you know a song?”
“Indeed I do!” said Mr Threddie. “And a very fine one too.”
As he spoke, he winked at the Scarecrow and whispered:
“Keep watch, brother, and as soon as the door is behind us, shout!”
Then he stood up, doffed his cap, and in a reedy little voice he began to sing the only song he knew:
“Come now, our lips, and praise Our Holy Mother, sing of Her flawless virtue like no other!”
At this point something dreadful happened. The entire family sprang to their feet and began to howl and squeal, and hop about, and curse. But Mr Threddie took no notice – he just went on singing. He could feel the house trying its best to run away with them, just to escape this song, so he drew a deep breath into his lungs and sang like the thinnest pipe in an organ. As soon as he reached the end of the song, he started to sing it all over again. Until finally everything disappeared ‒ the house collapsed into a heap of dust, and a terrible wind sprang up.
Horrified, they looked about, and saw that they were standing in a meadow. They thanked God for their salvation, and then Mr Threddie said:
“Those were some horrible devils, but we defeated them!”
“They scared me dreadfully!” said the Scarecrow.
And they went on their way. Mr Threddie had learned from the old devil that the king had died in Plonkerville. So they headed towards that fabulous city, famous for its blacksmiths who shoe goats. For seven days they wandered, having various adventures, until finally they caught sight of a city, and realized that this was the famous one. But they were greatly amazed, and actually stopped in their tracks with astonishment: throughout the world there was nice weather, but over this city alone the rain was coming down extremely hard, bucketing out of the sky.
“I’m not going there,” said the Scarecrow, “or my top hat will get wet.”
“And I don’t really want to be king in a place as damp as that!” said the tailor.
But they had already been seen from the city, and a crowd of people came running out towards them. The Mayor arrived on a shod goat, and everyone was in tears before them.
“Venerable Sirs! Perhaps you can save us!”
“What has happened to you?” asked Mr Threddie.
“We’re in danger from a deluge that will wipe us out! Our king died a week ago, and ever since torrential rain has been pouring down on our fabulous city. There’s so much water coming down our chimneys that nobody can light a fire at home. We’re all going to die!”
“That’s bad!” said Mr Threddie very wisely.
“Oh yes, it’s very bad! But we’re feeling sorriest of all for the daughter of our late lamented king, because the poor girl is inconsolable, and won’t stop weeping – thanks to her tears there’s even more water than ever.”
“That’s even worse!” said Mr Threddie even more wisely.
“Oh, venerable Sir!” cried the Mayor, “save us, please save us! Have you heard what an inestimable reward the Princess has promised to the man who stops the rain? She has promised that she will marry him and he will become king.”
“Oh?” cried Mr Threddie. “Is that so? Count Scary, let’s go to the city. We must have a try.”
So they were escorted through the downpour to the daughter of the late king, who as soon as she set eyes on Mr Threddie exclaimed:
“Oh, what a handsome young man!”
He jumped three times very high and said:
“Is it true, O Princess, that you will marry the man who can stop the rain?”
“I have sworn an oath.”
“And what if I were to do it?”
“I’ll keep my promise.”
“And I’ll become king?” asked Mr Threddie.
“You shall, you fine young gentleman.”
“All right,” cried the tailor, “I’m going to stop the rain.”
He winked at the Scarecrow, and they were off. Full of hope, the entire city came pouring outside, wanting to see this great deed.
But Mr Threddie and the Scarecrow were walking under an umbrella, having the following conversation:
“Listen, Scary, what do we have to do to make the rain stop falling?”
“We’ve got to make good weather.”
“Hmm, let’s give it some thought.”
They thought and thought for three days, while the rain went on pouring and pouring and pouring!
Suddenly Mr Threddie clapped himself on the forehead, bleated with joy like a goat and exclaimed:
“I know where the rain is coming from!”
“From the sky!”
“Huh!” muttered the Scarecrow. “Even I am wise enough to think of that. It definitely doesn’t fall from down to up, but the other way around.”
“Yes!” said Mr Threddie, “but why is it only falling on the city, and not anywhere else?”
“Because everywhere else there’s good weather!”
“You silly twit!” said the tailor. “But tell me, since when has the rain been falling?”
“They say it’s ever since the king died.”
“Exactly! Now I can see it all! And it goes like this: the king was so great and mighty that when he died it made a hole in the sky.”
“Oh! Oh! That’s right!”
“The rain came gushing through the hole and it’ll keep on falling until the end of the world unless the hole is sewn up.”
The Scarecrow opened his eyes wide and said:
“Never in all my life have I seen such a wise tailor before.”
They were very pleased, and went to the Mayor to tell him to announce that Mr Threddie, from the town of Taydarayda, promised that the rain would stop.
“Long live Mr Threddie! Long live Mr Threddie!” cried all the citizens.
Then Mr Threddie told them to bring all the ladders there were in the entire city, tie them together, and put them up to the sky. He took his hundred needles and a reel of thread a hundred miles long, and climbed up the ladder, while the Scarecrow unreeled the thread from below. Mr Threddie climbed to the very top and saw that indeed there was a great big hole in the sky, just as big as the city; the torn piece of sky was hanging down, and the rain water was gushing through the opening. So he got to work, and sewed and sewed for two whole days on end. Even though his fingers were going numb with the effort, he never stopped. Then he smoothed the sky with his iron, and very wearily climbed back down the ladder.
And there in the city the weather was lovely! The Scarecrow almost went mad with joy, just like all the citizens of Plonkerville. The Princess wiped her eyes, which were almost half cried out by now, threw her arms around Mr Threddie’s neck and kissed him affectionately.
Mr Threddie was very happy, and then he saw the Mayor and the councillors bringing him a golden sceptre and a wonderful crown.
“Long live King Threddie!” they cried.
“Long live the King! Long live the King! May he marry the Princess, and may he reign happily!”
And indeed this merry king ruled the land for a very long time, and in his kingdom it never rained again. He appointed his good friend the Scarecrow to be Grand Scarier of State, to scare the crows away from his royal head.
*This translation is courtesy of the Polish Institute in Israel.
*Original text © published by kind permission of Wiesław Kwiatkowski.
When Croco Dancy, the little witch, finished school, she had to take her final exam. The principal put two forks on the table in front of her and said: “Now enchant them. You remember what we learned, what is needed in the world: something strong, something swift, something to buy, something to gift.”
“One, two, three,” Croco Dancy gazed intently at the forks, closed her eyes with all her might and whispered: “Wilberss, Zilberss, Minderham, Lolerham,” and quickly opened her eyes. There was a moment of silence. In place of the forks, there were two white roses lying on the table.
“Croco Dancy, white roses? That’s what you want and what you can do? That’s what you presume is needed in the world? What’s this? You believe that this is something strong, something swift, something to buy, something to gift? Croco Dancy, I’ll give you a second chance.”
Croco Dancy closed her eyes and whispered in embarrassment: “Wilberss, Zilberss, Minderham, Lolerham.” She slowly opened her eyes and looked at the table.
“Croco Dancy,” said the principal is abhorrence, “Two glass balls – have you lost your mind? This is what you learned in our school? Marbles?” he repeated in contempt. “What are you thinking? Is this something strong, something swift, something to buy, something to gift? Croco Dancy, I am giving you one last chance. Close your eyes and concentrate hard. Think what does one really need to go into the world.” Croco Dancy pursed her lips tight and whispered: “Wilberss, Zilberss, Minderham, Lolerham,” and stayed standing with her eyes shut. She was afraid to open them.
“Croco Dancy,” the principal roared, “You’re doing this on purpose, right?”
Croco Dancy’s eyes opened at once.
“Even you, Missy, can’t possibly think that the world is in need of seashells.”
Croco Dancy felt the tears beginning to form in the corners of her eyes.
“What’s wrong with you? Haven’t you learned anything here? Are you stupid or are you just pretending?”
Croco Dancy said: “I’m not doing it on purpose.”
“That’s just it,” said the principal, “to succeed in the world one requires purpose, do you understand? I’ll give you one more chance after the last. And then, if you don’t succeed, you will never be able to go into the world.”
Croco Dancy nodded her head.
“Try hard,” said the principal, “Remember what we learned at school, what all the students have already executed with ease before going deep into the world. I’ll remind you that what is needed is something strong, something swift, something to buy, something to gift.”
“One, two, three,” Croco Dancy couldn’t shut her eyes very tight now, because they were moist, and she couldn’t concentrate any longer. Even when she said: “Wilberss, Zilberss, Minderham, Lolerham,” nothing happened.
“Disgusting,” said the principal, “Croco Dancy, clearly, you cannot continue attending our school.”
And he slammed the door behind him.
Very slowly, Croco Dancy opened her eyes. On the table in front of her were two shiny black cockroaches. They wiggled their thin feelers. Croco Dancy thought they were disgusting. She wanted to leave them on the table and very quietly leave the room and go wherever a little witch without a diploma could go. But she couldn’t leave them there, letting everyone see what her forks had turned into. She walked up to the table. What would she do with them?
“Hello Ma’am, nice to meet you. My name is Zilberss, the right cockroach at your service.”
“Hello, Croco Dancy, a real pleasure, my name is Wilberss, the left cockroach at your service.”
Croco Dancy looked to both sides. God forbid anyone hears her speaking to cockroaches. And she grabbed Zilberss with the tips of her fingers and placed him in her right pocket, and she held Wilberss with her fingers and put him in her left pocket and went out into the hallway.
She looked around, there was no one there. She shook her pockets and Zilberss and Wilberss fell out.
“Tsss…” they whispered, “You can’t get rid of us just like that. You’re responsible for us. And secondly, what are we if not something strong, something swift. And you don’t need to buy us – you get us free of charge.”
What could poor Croco Dancy do? They wiggled their revolting thin feelers.
“That may be true,” said Croco Dancy, “But I didn’t invent you on purpose.”
“You know that makes no difference,” said Zilberss and Wilberss. “ Not on purpose is simply with another kind of purpose.”
“What do you want me to do?” said Croco Dancy without even looking at them. “Why do I have to be responsible for you? I, who will never get a diploma to go into the world.”
“Tsss… No problem,” said Zilberss and Wilberss. “What you need to do with us is train us.”
“I don’t want to,” said Croco Dancy and started running to get away from them.
The hallway was empty. But Zilberss and Wilberss flapped their black wings, flew up heavily and landed on Croco Dancy’s shoulders.
“Train us, Croco Dancy,” they whispered, “You have to – you’re responsible for us.”
How despicable they are, Croco Dancy thought to herself, but out loud she said: “You’re naked, go get dressed.”
Wilberss and Zilberss disappeared behind the corner. They came back dressed and stood before her.
“What do you want now?” asked Croco Dancy.
“What, aren’t we handsome? We want you to tell us. So that we see that you’ve noticed.”
“You think that one can’t see that you’re cockroaches? Dressed cockroaches are nothing but naked cockroaches with clothes on.”
Croco Dancy sat down on the bench. It’s a good job everyone has already gone home, she thought. “What do you want me to do?” she asked in a low voice.
“We want you to tell us: ‘The splendid and pleasing Wilberss and Zilberss, please dance for me.’”
How disgusting they are, Croco Dancy thought to herself. But out loud she said: “Well, dance then if you so want to dance.” And Zilberss and Wilberss danced.
After they were done they took a bow and said: “Tsss… Now we want praise.”
“What’s that?” asked Croco Dancy.
“That you say: ‘Wilberss and Zilberss, you danced so wonderfully, delicately, gracefully and with rhythm.”
Croco Dancy repeated what they had said.
“We can see you’re not convinced. And we danced to please you, but nothing has come of it. Alright, now we’ll give you another chance. So say: ‘Zilberss and Wilberss, sing a marvelous song for me.’”
What compliment diggers they are, thought Croco Dancy. But out loud she said: “Well, sing then if you so want to sing.”
Zilberss and Wilberss flapped a cockroachy screech with their dry wings, finished and stretched themselves: “Now you must tell us that we sang marvelously,” said Zilberss and Wilberss, “because we sang so that you would love us.”
“You’re true singers,” said Croco Dancy, and repeated it twice.
“We can see you’re not convinced. What can we do to make you love us?”
“Nothing, nothing-nothing-nothing. Just get away from me.”
Wilberss and Zilberss heard that, puffed themselves up, squeaked and said: “We simply can’t and will not endeavor to leave Croco Dancy forever and ever.”
Croco Dancy began to cry. Her tears were large and they came down on Zilberss and Wilberss like water stones, hitting them both with accuracy. Zilberss and Wilberss sat in the middle of the puddle, their wings wet, unable to move.
“Tsss… We’re wet. Save us, Croco Dancy.”
Croco Dancy was startled. Not loving Zilberss and Wilberss was one thing, but drowning them was another, and she didn’t mean that at all. Now she couldn’t possibly run away, so she stretched out the tip of her right nail and pulled Zilberss out of the water and then she stretched out the tip of her left nail and pulled Wilberss out of the water. And they sat like two elbow macaroni on the edge of the pool and would not be consoled.
“You’re angry,” said Croco Dancy. “Don’t be angry. I didn’t do it on purpose.”
“That’s it,” whispered Wilberss and Zilberss, “That’s the problem. You should have invited us on purpose. You should have said: ‘The splendid and pleasing Zilberss and Wilberss’.”
Poor Croco Dancy, what could she do? She whispered in a low voice: “The splendid and pleasing Zilberss and Wilberss, please fly.”
“No,” said Zilberss and Wilberss, “We can tell by your voice that you don’t mean it. We’re not moving from here, ever.”
“Zilberss and Wilberss,” repeated Croco Dancy, “you really are splendid and pleasing. Fly. Please, fly.”
“What? Say it again. We didn’t hear very well.”
“Zilberss and Wilberss,” screamed Croco Dancy, “You’re the most splendid most pleasing cockroaches in the whole world.”
There was a moment of silence. Out of the little puddle, Zilberss and Wilberss rose and, before her very eyes, transformed into two splendid white horses with long manes and waving tails.
Zilberss came up to her and licked her with his tongue from the left, looked at her with his round eyes and golden lashes and whispered: “Hello, my real name is Minderham.” Wilberss came up to her and licked her with his tongue from the right, looked at her with his round eyes and golden lashes and whispered: “Hello, my real name his Lolerham.”
“Wilberss and Zilberss, Miderham and Lolerham,” whispered Croco Dancy, “I can’t believe it.”
Right in front of her, precisely according to the rules: something strong, something swift, something to buy, something to gift. Even though no one would dream of giving away such splendid horses.
And then a carriage appeared, and Zilberss and Wilberss – that is, Minderham and Lolerham – harnessed themselves to it.
“And I did this. I, who didn’t pass the exam and didn’t get a diploma from our school,” whispered Croco Dancy and sat down in the front seat of the carriage.
Zilberss and Wilberss both stomped their right foot and then their left foot, neighed and set off.
“Fly off, Croco Dancy, fly off into the world. On you go, on you go, fly on something brave, something to hug, something to have, something to love.”
On one of the upper branches of the Congo river lived an ancient and aristocratic family of hippopotamuses, which boasted a pedigree dating back beyond the days of Noah—beyond the existence of mankind—far into the dim ages when the world was new.
They had always lived upon the banks of this same river, so that every curve and sweep of its waters, every pit and shallow of its bed, every rock and stump and wallow upon its bank was as familiar to them as their own mothers. And they are living there yet, I suppose.
Not long ago the queen of this tribe of hippopotamuses had a child which she named Keo, because it was so fat and round. Still, that you may not be misled, I will say that in the hippopotamus language “Keo,” properly translated, means “fat and lazy” instead of fat and round. However, no one called the queen’s attention to this error, because her tusks were monstrous long and sharp, and she thought Keo the sweetest baby in the world.
He was, indeed, all right for a hippopotamus. He rolled and played in the soft mud of the river bank, and waddled inland to nibble the leaves of the wild cabbage that grew there, and was happy and contented from morning till night. And he was the jolliest hippopotamus that ancient family had ever known. His little red eyes were forever twinkling with fun, and he laughed his merry laugh on all occasions, whether there was anything to laugh at or not.
Therefore the black people who dwelt in that region called him “Ippi”—the jolly one, although they dared not come anigh him on account of his fierce mother, and his equally fierce uncles and aunts and cousins, who lived in a vast colony upon the river bank.
And while these black people, who lived in little villages scattered among the trees, dared not openly attack the royal family of hippopotamuses, they were amazingly fond of eating hippopotamus meat whenever they could get it. This was no secret to the hippopotamuses. And, again, when the blacks managed to catch these animals alive, they had a trick of riding them through the jungles as if they were horses, thus reducing them to a condition of slavery.
Therefore, having these things in mind, whenever the tribe of hippopotamuses smelled the oily odor of black people they were accustomed to charge upon them furiously, and if by chance they overtook one of the enemy they would rip him with their sharp tusks or stamp him into the earth with their huge feet.
It was continual warfare between the hippopotamuses and the black people.
Gouie lived in one of the little villages of the blacks. He was the son of the chief’s brother and grandson of the village sorcerer, the latter being an aged man known as the “the boneless wonder,” because he could twist himself into as many coils as a serpent and had no bones to hinder his bending his flesh into any position. This made him walk in a wabbly fashion, but the black people had great respect for him.
Gouie’s hut was made of branches of trees stuck together with mud, and his clothing consisted of a grass mat tied around his middle. But his relationship to the chief and the sorcerer gave him a certain dignity, and he was much addicted to solitary thought. Perhaps it was natural that these thoughts frequently turned upon his enemies, the hippopotamuses, and that he should consider many ways of capturing them.
Finally he completed his plans, and set about digging a great pit in the ground, midway between two sharp curves of the river. When the pit was finished he covered it over with small branches of trees, and strewed earth upon them, smoothing the surface so artfully that no one would suspect there was a big hole underneath. Then Gouie laughed softly to himself and went home to supper.
That evening the queen said to Keo, who was growing to be a fine child for his age:
“I wish you’d run across the bend and ask your Uncle Nikki to come here. I have found a strange plant, and want him to tell me if it is good to eat.”
The jolly one laughed heartily as he started upon his errand, for he felt as important as a boy does when he is sent for the first time to the corner grocery to buy a yeast cake.
“Guk-uk-uk-uk! guk-uk-uk-uk!” was the way he laughed; and if you think a hippopotamus does not laugh this way you have but to listen to one and you will find I am right.
He crawled out of the mud where he was wallowing and tramped away through the bushes, and the last his mother heard as she lay half in and half out of the water was his musical “guk-uk-uk-uk!” dying away in the distance.
Keo was in such a happy mood that he scarcely noticed where he stepped, so he was much surprised when, in the middle of a laugh, the ground gave way beneath him, and he fell to the bottom of Gouie’s deep pit. He was not badly hurt, but had bumped his nose severely as he went down; so he stopped laughing and began to think how he should get out again. Then he found the walls were higher than his head, and that he was a prisoner.
So he laughed a little at his own misfortune, and the laughter soothed him to sleep, so that he snored all through the night until daylight came.
When Gouie peered over the edge of the pit next morning he exclaimed:
“Why, ’tis Ippi—the Jolly One!”
Keo recognized the scent of a black man and tried to raise his head high enough to bite him. Seeing which Gouie spoke in the hippopotamus language, which he had learned from his grandfather, the sorcerer.
“Have peace, little one; you are my captive.”
“Yes; I will have a piece of your leg, if I can reach it,” retorted Keo; and then he laughed at his own joke: “Guk-uk-uk-uk!”
But Gouie, being a thoughtful black man, went away without further talk, and did not return until the following morning. When he again leaned over the pit Keo was so weak from hunger that he could hardly laugh at all.
“Do you give up?” asked Gouie, “or do you still wish to fight?”
“What will happen if I give up?” inquired Keo.
The black man scratched his woolly head in perplexity.
“It is hard to say, Ippi. You are too young to work, and if I kill you for food I shall lose your tusks, which are not yet grown. Why, O Jolly One, did you fall into my hole? I wanted to catch your mother or one of your uncles.”
“Guk-uk-uk-uk!” laughed Keo. “You must let me go, after all, black man; for I am of no use to you!”
“That I will not do,” declared Gouie; “unless,” he added, as an afterthought, “you will make a bargain with me.”
“Let me hear about the bargain, black one, for I am hungry,” said Keo.
“I will let your go if you swear by the tusks of your grandfather that you will return to me in a year and a day and become my prisoner again.”
The youthful hippopotamus paused to think, for he knew it was a solemn thing to swear by the tusks of his grandfather; but he was exceedingly hungry, and a year and a day seemed a long time off; so he said, with another careless laugh:
“Very well; if you will now let me go I swear by the tusks of my grandfather to return to you in a year and a day and become your prisoner.”
Gouie was much pleased, for he knew that in a year and a day Keo would be almost full grown. So he began digging away one end of the pit and filling it up with the earth until he had made an incline which would allow the hippopotamus to climb out.
Keo was so pleased when he found himself upon the surface of the earth again that he indulged in a merry fit of laughter, after which he said:
“Good-by, Gouie; in a year and a day you will see me again.”
Then he waddled away toward the river to see his mother and get his breakfast, and Gouie returned to his village.
During the months that followed, as the black man lay in his hut or hunted in the forest, he heard at times the faraway “Guk-uk-uk-uk!” of the laughing hippopotamus. But he only smiled to himself and thought: “A year and a day will soon pass away!”
Now when Keo returned to his mother safe and well every member of his tribe was filled with joy, for the Jolly One was a general favorite. But when he told them that in a year and a day he must again become the slave of the black man, they began to wail and weep, and so many were their tears that the river rose several inches.
Of course Keo only laughed at their sorrow; but a great meeting of the tribe was called and the matter discussed seriously.
“Having sworn by the tusks of his grandfather,” said Uncle Nikki, “he must keep his promise. But it is our duty to try in some way to rescue him from death or a life of slavery.”
To this all agreed, but no one could think of any method of saving Keo from his fate. So months passed away, during which all the royal hippopotamuses were sad and gloomy except the Jolly One himself.
Finally but a week of freedom remained to Keo, and his mother, the queen, became so nervous and worried that another meeting of the tribe was called. By this time the laughing hippopotamus had grown to enormous size, and measured nearly fifteen feet long and six feet high, while his sharp tusks were whiter and harder than those of an elephant.
“Unless something is done to save my child,” said the mother, “I shall die of grief.”
Then some of her relations began to make foolish suggestions; but presently Uncle Nep, a wise and very big hippopotamus, said:
“We must go to Glinkomok and implore his aid.”
Then all were silent, for it was a bold thing to face the mighty Glinkomok. But the mother’s love was equal to any heroism.
“I will myself go to him, if Uncle Nep will accompany me,” she said, quickly.
Uncle Nep thoughtfully patted the soft mud with his fore foot and wagged his short tail leisurely from side to side.
“We have always been obedient to Glinkomok, and shown him great respect,” said he. “Therefore I fear no danger in facing him. I will go with you.”
All the others snorted approval, being very glad they were not called upon to go themselves.
So the queen and Uncle Nep, with Keo swimming between them, set out upon their journey. They swam up the river all that day and all the next, until they came at sundown to a high, rocky wall, beneath which was the cave where the might Glinkomok dwelt.
This fearful creature was part beast, part man, part fowl and part fish. It had lived since the world began. Through years of wisdom it had become part sorcerer, part wizard, part magician and part fairy. Mankind knew it not, but the ancient beasts knew and feared it.
The three hippopotamuses paused before the cave, with their front feet upon the bank and their bodies in the water, and called in chorus a greeting to Glinkomok. Instantly thereafter the mouth of the cave darkened and the creature glided silently toward them.
The hippopotamuses were afraid to look upon it, and bowed their heads between their legs.
“We come, O Glinkomok, to implore your mercy and friendly assistance!” began Uncle Nep; and then he told the story of Keo’s capture, and how he had promised to return to the black man.
“He must keep his promise,” said the creature, in a voice that sounded like a sigh.
The mother hippopotamus groaned aloud.
“But I will prepare him to overcome the black man, and to regain his liberty,” continued Glinkomok.
“Lift your right paw,” commanded Glinkomok. Keo obeyed, and the creature touched it with its long, hairy tongue. Then it held four skinny hands over Keo’s bowed head and mumbled some words in a language unknown to man or beast or fowl or fish. After this it spoke again in hippopotamese:
“Your skin has now become so tough that no man can hurt you. Your strength is greater than that of ten elephants. Your foot is so swift that you can distance the wind. Your wit is sharper than the bulthorn. Let the man fear, but drive fear from your own breast forever; for of all your race you are the mightiest!”
Then the terrible Glinkomok leaned over, and Keo felt its fiery breath scorch him as it whispered some further instructions in his ear. The next moment it glided back into its cave, followed by the loud thanks of the three hippopotamuses, who slid into the water and immediately began their journey home.
The mother’s heart was full of joy; Uncle Nep shivered once or twice as he remembered a glimpse he had caught of Glinkomok; but Keo was as jolly as possible, and, not content to swim with his dignified elders, he dived under their bodies, raced all around them and laughed merrily every inch of the way home.
Then all the tribe held high jinks and praised the mighty Glinkomok for befriending their queen’s son. And when the day came for the Jolly One to give himself up to the black man they all kissed him good-by without a single fear for his safety.
Keo went away in good spirits, and they could hear his laughing “guk-uk-uk-uk!” long after he was lost in sight in the jungle.
Gouie had counted the days and knew when to expect Keo; but he was astonished at the monstrous size to which his captive had grown, and congratulated himself on the wise bargain he had made. And Keo was so fat that Gouie determined to eat him—that is, all of him he possibly could, and the remainder of the carcass he would trade off to his fellow villagers.
So he took a knife and tried to stick it into the hippopotamus, but the skin was so tough the knife was blunted against it. Then he tried other means; but Keo remained unhurt.
And now indeed the Jolly One laughed his most gleeful laugh, till all the forest echoed the “guk-uk-uk-uk-uk!” And Gouie decided not to kill him, since that was impossible, but to use him for a beast of burden. He mounted upon Keo’s back and commanded him to march. So Keo trotted briskly through the village, his little eyes twinkling with merriment.
The other blacks were delighted with Gouie’s captive, and begged permission to ride upon the Jolly One’s back. So Gouie bargained with them for bracelets and shell necklaces and little gold ornaments, until he had acquired quite a heap of trinkets. Then a dozen black men climbed upon Keo’s back to enjoy a ride, and the one nearest his nose cried out:
And Keo ran. Swift as the wind he strode, away from the village, through the forest and straight up the river bank. The black men howled with fear; the Jolly One roared with laughter; and on, on, on they rushed!
Then before them, on the opposite side of the river, appeared the black mouth of Glinkomok’s cave. Keo dashed into the water, dived to the bottom and left the black people struggling to swim out. But Glinkomok had heard the laughter of Keo and knew what to do. When the Jolly One rose to the surface and blew the water from his throat there was no black man to be seen.
Keo returned alone to the village, and Gouie asked, with surprise:
“Where are my brothers:”
“I do not know,” answered Keo. “I took them far away, and they remained where I left them.”
Gouie would have asked more questions then, but another crowd of black men impatiently waited to ride on the back of the laughing hippopotamus. So they paid the price and climbed to their seats, after which the foremost said:
And Keo ran as before and carried them to the mouth of Glinkomok’s cave, and returned alone.
But now Gouie became anxious to know the fate of his fellows, for he was the only black man left in his village. So he mounted the hippopotamus and cried:
Keo laughed his jolly “guk-uk-uk-uk!” and ran with the speed of the wind. But this time he made straight for the river bank where his own tribe lived, and when he reached it he waded into the river, dived to the bottom and left Gouie floating in the middle of the stream.
The black man began swimming toward the right bank, but there he saw Uncle Nep and half the royal tribe waiting to stamp him into the soft mud. So he turned toward the left bank, and there stood the queen mother and Uncle Nikki, red-eyed and angry, waiting to tear him with their tusks.
Then Gouie uttered loud screams of terror, and, spying the Jolly One, who swam near him, he cried:
“Save me, Keo! Save me, and I will release you from slavery!”
“That is not enough,” laughed Keo.
“I will serve you all my life!” screamed Gouie; “I will do everything you bid me!”
“Will you return to me in a year and a day and become my captive, if I allow you to escape?” asked Keo.
“I will! I will! I will!” cried Gouie.
“Swear it by the bones of your grandfather!” commanded Keo, remembering that black men have no tusks to swear by.
And Gouie swore it by the bones of his grandfather.
Then Keo swam to the black one, who clambered upon his back again. In this fashion they came to the bank, where Keo told his mother and all the tribe of the bargain he had made with Gouie, who was to return in a year and a day and become his slave.
Therefore the black man was permitted to depart in peace, and once more the Jolly One lived with his own people and was happy.
When a year and a day had passed Keo began watching for the return of Gouie; but he did not come, then or ever afterwards.
For the black man had made a bundle of his bracelets and shell necklaces and little gold ornaments and had traveled many miles into another country, where the ancient and royal tribe of hippopotamuses was unknown. And he set up for a great chief, because of his riches, and people bowed down before him.
By day he was proud and swaggering. But at night he tumbled and tossed upon his bed and could not sleep. His conscience troubled him.
For he had sworn by the bones of his grandfather; and his grandfather had no bones.
At 17 Crooked Street there lived an old woman. She had once lived there with her husband and son, but the son grew up and left home, and the husband died, leaving the old woman all alone.
She led a quiet, peaceful life, drinking tea and writing letters to her son, and nothing more.
People said of the old woman that she had fallen down from the moon.
In summer, the old woman would go outside, look around and say: ‘Goodness me, where’s the snow gone?’
And the neighbours would begin to laugh and shout: ‘So you think there’s snow on the ground in summer? Have you fallen down from the moon or something?’
Or the old woman would go to the kerosene shop and ask: ‘How much are your French buns?’
The sales clerks would laugh. ‘What do you mean, Citizen? Where are we going to get French buns? Have you perhaps fallen down from the moon?’
That’s what the old woman was like!
One day the weather was fine and sunny, not a cloud in the sky, and on Crooked Street the dust was up. Out came the sweepers to water the street from brass-tipped hoses. They sprayed the water straight at the dust, straight through it, and the dust fell to the ground along with the water. Now the horses were trotting through puddles, and the wind was blowing free of dust.
Out the gate of number 17 came the old woman. She was holding an umbrella with a large shiny handle, and wearing a hat with black sequins and on her head.
‘Excuse me,’ she shouted to one of the street sweepers. ‘Where can I buy ink?’
‘What?’ shouted the street sweeper.
The old woman came closer.
‘Ink!’ she shouted.
‘Stand to the side!’ shouted the street sweeper, releasing a stream of water.
The old woman went to the left, and the stream of water went to the left.
The old woman hurried to the right, and the stream of water did the same.
‘What are you doing?’ shouted the street sweeper. ‘Have you fallen down from the moon? Can’t you see I’m watering the street?’
The old woman merely waved her umbrella and moved on.
The old woman came to the market where she saw a lad selling a big, juicy perch as long as an arm and as thick as a leg. He tossed the fish into the air and grabbed it by the nose with one hand. He rocked it back and forth and let it go but didn’t let it drop, adroitly catching it by the tail with the other hand. Then he held it out to the old woman.
‘Here,’ he said. ‘You can have it for a rouble.’
‘No,’ said the old woman, ‘it’s ink that I…’
But the lad didn’t let her finish.
‘Take it,’ he said, ‘I’m not asking much.’
‘No,’ said the old woman, ‘it’s ink that I…’
But again he said: ‘Take it. It’s a five-and-a-half pound fish.’ And as though his arm were weary he took the fish into the other arm.
‘No,’ said the old woman, ‘it’s ink I need.’
At last the lad heard what the old woman was saying.
‘Ink?’ he repeated.
‘You mean ink?’
‘What! Have you fallen down from the moon or something?’ said the lad.
‘That means you don’t have ink,’ said the old woman, and moved on.
‘Have some fresh meat,’ a hefty butcher shouted at the old woman as he shredded livers with a knife.
‘Have you got ink?’ asked the old woman.
‘Ink?’ roared the butcher, pulling a pig’s carcass by the leg. The old woman hurried away from the butcher because he was exceedingly fat and fierce, and a lady vendor at another stall was already shouting at her: ‘This way if you please! This way!’
The old woman went up to the vendor’s stall and put on her spectacles, expecting finally to see ink. But the vendor smiled and held out a jar of plums.
‘Here,’ she said. ‘You won’t find the likes of these anywhere.’
The old woman took the jar of plums, turned it this way and that, then gave it back.
‘It’s ink I need, not fruit,’ she said.
‘What kind of ink? Red or black?’ asked the vendor.
‘Black,’ said the old woman.
‘There isn’t any black,’ replied the vendor.
‘Well, I’ll take red then,’ said the old woman.
‘There isn’t any red, either,’ replied the vendor, pursing her lips.
‘Goodbye,’ said the old woman and moved on.
The market was already drawing to a close, and there was no ink to be seen.
The old woman left the market and started down the street.
Suddenly she saw fifteen donkeys, one following slowly after the other. Sitting on the first donkey was a man holding an enormous banner. People were sitting on the other donkeys, too, also holding signs.
‘Whatever is this?’ the old woman wondered. ‘Nowadays people must be riding donkeys like they’re trams.’
‘Hey,’ she shouted at the man on the lead donkey. ‘Wait a bit. Can you tell me where I can buy ink?’
But the man on the donkey evidently didn’t hear what the old woman said, and he lifted up a tube that was narrow at one end and wide at the other. He put the narrow end to his mouth, and began shouting right into the old woman’s face, so loud you could hear him seven versts away:
Come one, come all, see Durov on tour!
At the state circus! At the state circus!
See the sea lions – the audience favourite!
It’s the last week!
Tickets at the door!
Out of fright the old woman even dropped her umbrella. She picked the umbrella up, but the fright made her hands tremble so that the umbrella fell again. The old woman picked the umbrella up, firmly took hold of it, and hurried, hurried down the road, down the pavement, turning off one road onto another and coming out onto a third, broad and very noisy, road.
All around people were rushing somewhere, and on the road itself automobiles were bowling along and trams were rumbling.
As soon as the old woman made to cross the road, an automobile roared: ‘Tarar-ararar-arar-rrrr!’
The old woman let it go by, but then as soon as she stepped out onto the road, a cabby shouted at her: ‘Hey, watch where you’re going!’
The old woman let him go by, then quickly began running towards the other side. She made it as far as the middle of the road, but then: ‘Djen-djen! Din-din-din!’ – a tram was bearing down on her.
The old woman was going to take a step back, but from behind came the ‘pyr-pyr-pyr-pyr!’ of a motorcycle.
The old woman was truly frightened out of her wits, but luckily a good man appeared and grabbed her by the arm, saying: ‘What are you doing? It’s like you’ve fallen down from the moon! They could run you down.’
And he dragged the old woman to the other side of the road.
The old woman caught her breath and was just about to ask the good man about ink, but when she turned round he was nowhere to be seen.
The old woman moved on, supporting herself with her umbrella and looking this way and that, wondering where she might find out about ink.
Coming towards her was an old chap with a walking stick. He was very elderly and very grey.
She went up to him and said: ‘I reckon you’re a man who knows his way around. Can you tell me where they sell ink?’
The old man stopped, raised his head, rearranged the creases on his face and began to think. After standing like that a little while, he reached into his pocket and took out a small tobacco pouch, a rolling paper and a cigarette holder. Then, after he had slowly rolled a cigarette and put it into the holder, he put away the pouch and paper and took out some matches. Then he began to smoke the cigarette, and once he’d put away the matches, he mumbled toothlessly:
‘Insh shessin shuh shtor.’
The old woman couldn’t understand a word, and the old man moved on.
The old woman started thinking.
Why couldn’t anyone say something useful about ink?
Had they never heard of ink before?
And the old woman decided to go ask about ink in a shop. There they would be sure to know.
It just so happened there was a shop right next to her. With big windows the size of a wall. And the windows full of books.
‘This is the place,’ thought the old woman. ‘I’ll go in here. They’re sure to have ink if they’ve got books lying around. After all, it takes ink to write books.’
She went up to a door. The doors were of glass and strange somehow.
The old woman pushed at the door, and something pushed at her from behind.
She looked back and saw another glass door coming towards her. The old woman was going forwards, and so was the glass door behind her. There was glass all around her and all of it was going round. The old woman’s head also started going round, she was going somewhere but she didn’t know where. And all around there were doors and more doors, and they were all going round and pushing the old woman forwards. The old woman kept going round and round something, and only just managed to break free. It was a good thing she was still alive.
The old woman looked and saw a great big clock standing there and a staircase leading up.
Next to the clock stood a man. The old woman went up to him and said: ‘Where can I find out about ink?’
But he didn’t even look at her, just pointed to a little latticed door. The old woman opened the door, went in and saw it was a little room, absolutely tiny, no more than a cupboard. And in the room stood a man. But just as the old woman was about to ask about ink…
Suddenly: ‘Dzin! Ddzhhiin!’ and the floor began to go up.
The old woman stood still, not daring to move, and it felt like a stone had begun to form in her breast. She stood there and couldn’t breathe. People’s arms and legs and heads flashed past the little door, and all around it was droning like a sewing machine. Then the droning stopped and it got easier to breathe. Someone opened the little door and said: ‘This is it, the sixth floor. You can’t go any higher.’
As if in a dream, the old woman stepped up where she was told. And the little door banged shut behind her and the little cupboard started to go back down.
The old woman stood there holding her umbrella, but couldn’t catch her breath.
She was standing on the stairs. All around people were walking and banging doors, but the old woman stood there holding her umbrella.
The old woman stood there for a while, watching what was going on around her, then went through a door.
The old woman found herself in a large, light-filled room. She saw small tables in the room, and people sitting at the tables. Some of them had their noses buried in paper, writing something, while others tapped away at typewriters. It sounded like a smithy – only a pretend smithy.
On the right, next to the wall, was a sofa, and sitting on the sofa were a fat man and a thin man.
The fat man was saying something to the thin man and rubbing his hands together, and the thin man was all hunched up, looking at the fat man through light-coloured spectacles as he laced up his boots.
‘Yes,’ said the fat man, ‘I wrote a story about a boy who swallowed a frog. A very interesting story.’
‘Well I can’t think of anything to write about,’ said the thin man, running a lace through an eyelet.
‘Well, my story is very interesting,’ said the fat man. ‘The boy comes home and his father asks him where he’s been, and the frog in his stomach answers: “Ribbit!” Or at school, the teacher asks the boy how to say “good morning” in German and the frog answers: “Ribbit!” The teacher tells him off, and the frog goes: “Ribbit! Ribbit!” It’s that kind of a funny story!’ said the fat man and rubbed his hands together.
‘Have you written something too?’ he asked the old woman.
‘No,’ said the old woman. ‘My ink is all gone. I had a bottle, my son left it behind, but now it’s finished.’
‘What, is your son a writer too?’ asked the fat man.
‘No,’ said the old woman. ‘He’s a forester. Only he doesn’t live here. I used to get ink from my husband, but now he’s dead and I’m all alone. Is it possible for me to buy ink here?’ the old woman suddenly said.
The thin man laced his boot and looked through his spectacles at the old woman.
‘What do you mean by “ink”?’ he asked in surprise.
‘Ink that you write with,’ explained the old woman.
‘But there’s no ink for sale here,’ said the fat man and stopped rubbing his hands.
‘How did you get here?’ asked the fat man, rising from the sofa.
‘I came in the cupboard.’
‘What cupboard?’ asked the fat man and the thin man at the same time.
‘The one by the staircase that goes up and down,’ said the old woman.
‘Ah, the lift!’ laughed the thin man, sitting back down on the sofa because now his other boot had come unlaced.
‘But what did you come here for?’ the fat man asked the old woman.
‘I can’t find any ink anywhere,’ said the old woman. ‘I asked everyone, and no one knew. Then I saw the books here so I came inside. After all, it takes ink to write books!’
‘Ha ha ha!’ laughed the fat man. ‘You’ve fallen from the moon straight down to earth!’
‘Hey, listen!’ The thin man leapt up from the sofa without lacing his boots, and the laces flopped around on the floor. ‘Listen!’ he said to the fat man. ‘That’s it! I’ll write about the old woman who was trying to buy ink!’
‘All right,’ said the fat man and rubbed his hands together.
The thin man removed his spectacles, blew on them, wiped them with a handkerchief, then put them back on and said to the old woman: ‘Tell us about how you tried to buy some ink, and we’ll write a little book about you and give you the ink.’
The old woman thought about it and agreed.
And so the thin man wrote a little book:
‘How the old woman tried to buy ink’
The Short Story Project © | Ilamor LTD 2017
Lovingly crafted by Oddity&Rfesty