The villagers were straggling homewards as he passed up the street, all of them in the highest spirits, and gleefully discussing the splendid fight that was in store. The Boy pursued his way to the inn, and passed into the principal chamber, where St. George now sat alone, musing over the chances of the fight, and the sad stories of rapine and of wrong that had so lately been poured into his sympathetic ear.
"May I come in, St. George?" said the Boy politely, as he paused at the door. "I want to talk to you about this little matter of the dragon, if you're not tired of it by this time."
"Yes, come in, Boy," said the Saint kindly. "Another tale of misery and wrong, I fear me. Is it a kind parent, then, of whom the tyrant has bereft you? Or some tender sister or brother? Well, it shall soon be avenged."
"Nothing of the sort," said the Boy. "There's a misunderstanding somewhere, and I want to put it right. The fact is, this is a good dragon."
"Exactly," said St. George, smiling pleasantly, "I quite understand. A good dragon. Believe me, I do not in the least regret that he is an adversary worthy of my steel, and no feeble specimen of his noxious tribe."
"But he's not a noxious tribe," cried the Boy distressedly. "Oh dear, oh dear, how stupid men are when they get an idea into their heads! I tell you he's a good dragon, and a friend of mine, and tells me the most beautiful stories you ever heard, all about old times and when he was little. And he's been so kind to mother, and mother'd do anything for him. And father likes him too, though father doesn't hold with art and poetry much, and always falls asleep when the dragon starts talking about style. But the fact is, nobody can help liking him when once they know him. He's so engaging and so trustful, and as simple as a child!"
"Sit down, and draw your chair up," said St. George. "I like a fellow who sticks up for his friends, and I'm sure the dragon has his good points, if he's got a friend like you. But that's not the question. All this evening I've been listening, with grief and anguish unspeakable, to tales of murder, theft, and wrong; rather too highly coloured, perhaps, not always quite convincing, but forming in the main a most serious roll of crime. History teaches us that the greatest rascals often possess all the domestic virtues; and I fear that your cultivated friend, in spite of the qualities which have won (and rightly) your regard, has got to be speedily exterminated."
"Oh, you've been taking in all the yarns those fellows have been telling you," said the Boy impatiently. "Why, our villagers are the biggest story-tellers in all the country round. It's a known fact. You're a stranger in these parts, or else you'd have heard it already. All they want is a fight. They're the most awful beggars for getting up fights--it 's meat and drink to them. Dogs, bulls, dragons--anything so long as it's a fight. Why, they've got a poor innocent badger in the stable behind here, at this moment. They were going to have some fun with him to-day, but they're saving him up now till your little affair's over. And I've no doubt they've been telling you what a hero you were, and how you were bound to win, in the cause of right and justice, and so on; but let me tell you, I came down the street just now, and they were betting six to four on the dragon freely!"
"Six to four on the dragon!" murmured St. George sadly, resting his cheek on his hand. "This is an evil world, and sometimes I begin to think that all the wickedness in it is not entirely bottled up inside the dragons. And yet--may not this wily beast have misled you as to his real character, in order that your good report of him may serve as a cloak for his evil deeds? Nay, may there not be, at this very moment, some hapless Princess immured within yonder gloomy cavern?"
The moment he had spoken, St. George was sorry for what he had said, the Boy looked so genuinely distressed.
"I assure you, St. George," he said earnestly, "there's nothing of the sort in the cave at all. The dragon's a real gentleman, every inch of him, and I may say that no one would be more shocked and grieved than he would, at hearing you talk in that-- that loose way about matters on which he has very strong views!"
"Well, perhaps I've been over-credulous," said St. George. "Perhaps I've misjudged the animal. But what are we to do? Here are the dragon and I, almost face to face, each supposed to be thirsting for each other's blood. I don't see any way out of it, exactly. What do you suggest? Can't you arrange things, somehow?"
"That's just what the dragon said," replied the Boy, rather nettled. "Really, the way you two seem to leave everything to me- -I suppose you couldn't be persuaded to go away quietly, could you?"
"Impossible, I fear," said the Saint. "Quite against the rules. You know that as well as I do."
"Well, then, look here," said the Boy, "it's early yet--would you mind strolling up with me and seeing the dragon and talking it over? It's not far, and any friend of mine will be most welcome."
"Well, it's irregular," said St. George, rising, "but really it seems about the most sensible thing to do. You're taking a lot of trouble on your friend's account," he added, good-naturedly, as they passed out through the door together. "But cheer up! Perhaps there won't have to be any fight after all."
"Oh, but I hope there will, though!" replied the little fellow, wistfully.
"I've brought a friend to see you, dragon," said the Boy, rather loud.
The dragon woke up with a start. "I was just--er--thinking about things," he said in his simple way. "Very pleased to make your acquaintance, sir. Charming weather we're having!"
"This is St. George," said the Boy, shortly. "St. George, let me introduce you to the dragon. We've come up to talk things over quietly, dragon, and now for goodness' sake do let us have a little straight common-sense, and come to some practical business-like arrangement, for I'm sick of views and theories of life and personal tendencies, and all that sort of thing. I may perhaps add that my mother's sitting up."
"So glad to meet you, St. George," began the dragon rather nervously, "because you've been a great traveller, I hear, and I've always been rather a stay-at-home. But I can show you many antiquities, many interesting features of our country-side, if you're stopping here any time--"
"I think," said St. George, in his frank, pleasant way, "that we'd really better take the advice of our young friend here, and try to come to some understanding, on a business footing, about this little affair of ours. Now don't you think that after all the simplest plan would be just to fight it out, according to the rules, and let the best man win? They're betting on you, I may tell you, down in the village, but I don't mind that!"
"Oh, yes, do, dragon," said the Boy, delightedly; "it'll save such a lot of bother!
"My young friend, you shut up," said the dragon severely. "Believe me, St. George," he went on, "there's nobody in the world I'd sooner oblige than you and this young gentleman here. But the whole thing's nonsense, and conventionality, and popular thick-headedness. There's absolutely nothing to fight about, from beginning to end. And anyhow I'm not going to, so that settles it!"
"But supposing I make you?" said St. George, rather nettled.
"You can't," said the dragon, triumphantly. "I should only go into my cave and retire for a time down the hole I came up. You'd soon get heartily sick of sitting outside and waiting for me to come out and fight you. And as soon as you'd really gone away, why, I'd come up again gaily, for I tell you frankly, I like this place, and I'm going to stay here!"
St. George gazed for a while on the fair landscape around them. "But this would be a beautiful place for a fight," he began again persuasively. "These great bare rolling Downs for the arena,--and me in my golden armour showing up against your big blue scaly coils! Think what a picture it would make!"
"Now you're trying to get at me through my artistic sensibilities," said the dragon. "But it won't work. Not but what it would make a very pretty picture, as you say," he added, wavering a little.
"We seem to be getting rather nearer to business," put in the Boy. "You must see, dragon, that there 's got to be a fight of some sort, 'cos you can't want to have to go down that dirty old hole again and stop there till goodness knows when."
"It might be arranged," said St. George, thoughtfully. "I must spear you somewhere, of course, but I'm not bound to hurt you very much. There's such a lot of you that there must be a few spare places somewhere. Here, for instance, just behind your foreleg. It couldn't hurt you much, just here!"
"Now you 're tickling, George," said the dragon, coyly. "No, that place won't do at all. Even if it didn't hurt,--and I'm sure it would, awfully,--it would make me laugh, and that would spoil everything."
"Let's try somewhere else, then," said St. George, patiently. "Under your neck, for instance,--all these folds of thick skin, - -if I speared you here you 'd never even know I 'd done it!"
"Yes, but are you sure you can hit off the right place?" asked the dragon, anxiously.
"Of course I am," said St. George, with confidence. "You leave that to me!"
"It's just because I've got to leave it to you that I'm asking," replied the dragon, rather testily. "No doubt you would deeply regret any error you might make in the hurry of the moment; but you wouldn't regret it half as much as I should! However, I suppose we've got to trust somebody, as we go through life, and your plan seems, on the whole, as good a one as any."
"Look here, dragon," interrupted the Boy, a little jealous on behalf of his friend, who seemed to be getting all the worst of the bargain: "I don't quite see where you come in! There's to be a fight, apparently, and you're to be licked; and what I want to know is, what are you going to get out of it?"
"St. George," said the dragon, "Just tell him, please,--what will happen after I'm vanquished in the deadly combat?"
"Well, according to the rules I suppose I shall lead you in triumph down to the marketplace or whatever answers to it," said St. George.
"Precisely," said the dragon. "And then--"
"And then there'll be shoutings and speeches and things," continued St. George. "And I shall explain that you're converted, and see the error of your ways, and so on."
"Quite so," said the dragon. "And then--?"
"Oh, and then--" said St. George, "why, and then there will be the usual banquet, I suppose."
"Exactly," said the dragon; "and that's where I come in. Look here," he continued, addressing the Boy, "I'm bored to death up here, and no one really appreciates me. I'm going into Society, I am, through the kindly aid of our friend here, who's taking such a lot of trouble on my account; and you'll find I've got all the qualities to endear me to people who entertain! So now that's all settled, and if you don't mind--I 'm an old-fashioned fellow-- don't want to turn you out, but--"
"Remember, you'll have to do your proper share of the fighting, dragon!" said St. George, as he took the hint and rose to go; "I mean ramping, and breathing fire, and so on!"
"I can ramp all right," replied the dragon, confidently; "as to breathing fire, it's surprising how easily one gets out of practice, but I'll do the best I can. Good-night!"
They had descended the hill and were almost back in the village again, when St. George stopped short, "Knew I had forgotten something," he said. "There ought to be a Princess. Terror-stricken and chained to a rock, and all that sort of thing. Boy, can't you arrange a Princess?"
The Boy was in the middle of a tremendous yawn. "I'm tired to death," he wailed, "and I can't arrange a Princess, or anything more, at this time of night. And my mother's sitting up, and do stop asking me to arrange more things till to-morrow!"
The Reluctant Dragon
The Reluctant Dragon: Part Two
The Reluctant Dragon: Part Three
The Reluctant Dragon: Part Five