The Last of the Dragons
Of course you know that dragons were once as common as motor-omnibuses are now, and almost as dangerous. But as every well-brought-up prince was expected to kill a dragon, and rescue a princess, the dragons grew fewer and fewer till it was often quite hard for a princess to find a dragon to be rescued from. And at last there were no more dragons in France and no more dragons in Germany, or Spain, or Italy, or Russia. There were some left in China, and are still, but they are cold and bronzy, and there were never any, of course, in America. But the last real live dragon left was in England, and of course that was a very long time ago, before what you call English History began. This dragon lived in Cornwall in the big caves amidst the rocks, and a very fine dragon it was, quite seventy feet long from the tip of its fearful snout to the end of its terrible tail. It breathed fire and smoke, and rattled when it walked, because its scales were made of iron. Its wings were like half-umbrellas -- or like bat's wings, only several thousand times bigger. Everyone was very frightened of it, and well they might be.
Now the King of Cornwall had one daughter, and when she was sixteen, of course she would have to go and face the dragon: such tales are always told in royal nurseries at twilight, so the Princess knew what she had to expect. The dragon would not eat her, of course -- because the prince would come and rescue her. But the Princess could not help thinking it would be much pleasanter to have nothing to do with the dragon at all -- not even to be rescued from him. `All the princes I know are such very silly little boys,' she told her father. `Why must I be rescued by a prince?'
`It's always done, my dear,' said the King, taking his crown off and putting it on the grass, for they were alone in the garden, and even kings must unbend sometimes.
`Father, darling,' said the Princess presently, when she had made a daisy chain and put it on the King's head, where the crown ought to have been. `Father, darling, couldn't we tie up one of the silly little princes for the dragon to look at -- and then I could go and kill the dragon and rescue the prince? I fence much better than any of the princes we know.'
`What an unladylike idea!' said the King, and put his crown on again, for he saw the Prime Minister coming with a basket of new-laid Bills for him to sign. `Dismiss the thought, my child. I rescued your mother from a dragon, and you don't want to set yourself up above her, I should hope?'
`But this is the last dragon. It is different from all other dragons.'
`How?' asked the King.
`Because he is the last,' said the Princess, and went off to her fencing lessons, with which she took great pains. She took great pains with all her lessons -- for she could not give up the idea of fighting the dragon. She took such pains that she became the strongest and boldest and most skilful and most sensible princess in Europe. She had always been the prettiest and nicest.
And the days and years went on, till at last the day came which was the day before the Princess was to be rescued from the dragon. The Prince who was to do this deed of valour was a pale prince, with large eyes and a head full of mathematics and philosophy, but he had unfortunately neglected his fencing lessons. He was to stay the night at the palace, and there was a banquet.
After supper the Princess sent her pet parrot to the Prince with a note. It said:
Please, Prince, come on to the terrace. I want to talk to you without anybody else hearing. --The Princess.
So, of course, he went -- and he saw her gown of silver a long way off shining among the shadows of the trees like water in starlight. And when he came quite close to her he said: `Princess, at your service,' and bent his cloth-of-gold-covered knee and put his hand on his cloth-of-gold-covered heart.
`Do you think,' said the Princess earnestly, `that you will be able to kill the dragon?'
`I will kill the dragon,' said the Prince firmly, `or perish in the attempt.'
`It's no use your perishing,' said the Princess.
`It's the least I can do,' said the Prince.
`What I'm afraid of is that it'll be the most you can do,' said the Princess.
`It's the only thing I can do,' said he, `unless I kill the dragon.'
`Why you should do anything for me is what I can't see,' said she.
`But I want to,' he said. `You must know that I love you better than anything in the world.'
When he said that he looked so kind that the Princess began to like him a little.
`Look here,' she said, `no one else will go out tomorrow. You know they tie me to a rock and leave me -- and then everybody scurries home and puts up the shutters and keeps them shut till you ride through the town in triumph shouting that you've killed the dragon, and I ride on the horse behind you weeping for joy.'
`I've heard that that is how it is done,' said he.
`Well, do you love me well enough to come very quickly and set me free -- and we'll fight the dragon together?'
'It wouldn't be safe for you.'
`Much safer for both of us for me to be free, with a sword in my hand, than tied up and helpless. Do agree.'
He could refuse her nothing. So he agreed. And next day everything happened as she had said.
When he had cut the cords that tied her to the rock they stood on the lonely mountain-side looking at each other.
`It seems to me,' said the Prince, `that this ceremony could have been arranged without the dragon.'
`Yes,' said the Princess, `but since it has been arranged with the dragon --'
`It seems such a pity to kill the dragon -- the last in the world,' said the Prince.
`Well then, don't let's,' said the Princess; `let's tame it not to eat princesses but to eat out of their hands. They say everything can be tamed by kindness.'
`Taming by kindness means giving them things to eat,' said the Prince. `Have you got anything to eat?'
She hadn't, but the Prince owned that he had a few biscuits. `Breakfast was so very early,' said he, `and I thought you might have felt faint after the fight.'
`How clever,' said the Princess, and they took a biscuit in each hand. And they looked here, and they looked there, but never a dragon could they see.
`But here's its trail,' said the Prince, and pointed to where the rock was scarred and scratched so as to make a track leading to a dark cave. It was like cart-ruts in a Sussex road, mixed with the marks of sea-gull's feet on the sea-sand. `Look, that's where it's dragged its brass tail and planted its steel claws.'
`Don't let's think how hard its tail and claws are,' said the Princess, `or I shall begin to be frightened -- and I know you can't tame anything, even by kindness, if you're frightened of it. Come on. Now or never.'
She caught the Prince's hand in hers and they ran along the path towards the dark mouth of the cave. But they did not run into it. It really was so very dark.
So they stood outside, and the Prince shouted: `What ho! Dragon there! What ho within!' And from the cave they heard an answering voice and great clattering and creaking. It sounded as though a rather large cotton-mill were stretching itself and waking up out of its sleep.
The Prince and the Princess trembled, but they stood firm.
`Dragon -- I say, dragon!' said the Princess, `do come out and talk to us. We've brought you a present.'
`Oh yes -- I know your presents,' growled the dragon in a huge rumbling voice. `One of those precious princesses, I suppose? And I've got to come out and fight for her. Well, I tell you straight, I'm not going to do it. A fair fight I wouldn't say no to -- a fair fight and no favour -- but one of those put-up fights where you've got to lose -- no! So I tell you. If I wanted a princess I'd come and take her, in my own time -- but I don't. What do you suppose I'd do with her, if I'd got her?'
`Eat her, wouldn't you?' said the Princess, in a voice that trembled a little.
`Eat a fiddle-stick end,' said the dragon very rudely. `I wouldn't touch the horrid thing.'
The Princess's voice grew firmer.
`Do you like biscuits?' she said.
`No,' growled the dragon.
`Not the nice little expensive ones with sugar on the top?'
`No,' growled the dragon.
`Then what do you like?' asked the Prince.
`You go away and don't bother me,' growled the dragon, and they could hear it turn over, and the clang and clatter of its turning echoed in the cave like the sound of the steam-hammers in the Arsenal at Woolwich.
The Prince and Princess looked at each other. What were they to do? Of course it was no use going home and telling the King that the dragon didn't want princesses -- because His Majesty was very old-fashioned and would never have believed that a new-fashioned dragon could ever be at all different from an old-fashioned dragon. They could not go into the cave and kill the dragon. Indeed, unless he attacked the Princess it did not seem fair to kill him at all.
`He must like something,' whispered the Princess, and she called out in a voice as sweet as honey and sugar-cane:
`Dragon! Dragon dear!'
`WHAT?' shouted the dragon. `Say that again!' and they could hear the dragon coming towards them through the darkness of the cave. The Princess shivered, and said in a very small voice:
`Dragon -- Dragon dear!'
And then the dragon came out. The Prince drew his sword, and the Princess drew hers -- the beautiful silver-handled one that the Prince had brought in his motor-car. But they did not attack; they moved slowly back as the dragon came out, all the vast scaly length of him, and lay along the rock -- his great wings halfspread and his silvery sheen gleaming like diamonds in the sun. At last they could retreat no further -- the dark rock behind them stopped their way -- and with their backs to the rock they stood swords in hand and waited.
The dragon grew nearer and nearer -- and now they could see that he was not breathing fire and smoke as they had expected -- he came crawling slowly towards them wriggling a little as a puppy does when it wants to play and isn't quite sure whether you're not cross with it.
And then they saw that great tears were coursing down its brazen cheek.
`Whatever's the matter?' said the Prince.
`Nobody,' sobbed the dragon, `ever called me "dear" before!'
`Don't cry, dragon dear,' said the Princess. `We'll call you "dear" as often as you like. We want to tame you.'
`I am tame,' said the dragon -- `that's just it. That's what nobody but you has ever found out. I'm so tame that I'd eat out of your hands.'
`Eat what, dragon dear?' said the Princess. `Not biscuits?' The dragon slowly shook his heavy head.
`Not biscuits?' said the Princess tenderly. `What, then, dragon dear?'
`Your kindness quite undragons me,' it said. `No one has ever asked any of us what we like to eat -- always offering us princesses, and then rescuing them -- and never once, "What'll you take to drink the King's health in?" Cruel hard I call it,' and it wept again.
`But what would you like to drink our health in?' said the Prince. `We're going to be married today, aren't we, Princess?'
She said that she supposed so.
`What'll I take to drink your health in?' asked the dragon. `Ah, you're something like a gentleman, you are, sir. I don't mind if I do, sir. I'll be proud to drink you and your good lady's health in a tiny drop of' -- its voice faltered -- `to think of you asking me so friendly like,' it said. `Yes, sir, just a tiny drop of puppuppuppuppupetrol -- tha-that's what does a dragon good, sir --'
`I've lots in the car,' said the Prince, and was off down the mountain in a flash. He was a good judge of character and knew that with this dragon the Princess would be safe.
`If I might make so bold,' said the dragon, `while the gentleman's away -- p'raps just to pass the time you'd be so kind as to call me Dear again, and if you'd shake claws with a poor old dragon that's never been anybody's enemy but his own -- well, the last of the dragons'll be the proudest dragon that's ever been since the first of them.'
It held out an enormous paw, and the great steel hooks that were its claws closed over the Princess's hand as softly as the claws of the Himalayan bear will close over the bit of bun you hand it through the bars at the Zoo.
And so the Prince and Princess went back to the palace in triumph, the dragon following them like a pet dog. And all through the wedding festivities no one drank more earnestly to the happiness of the bride and bridegroom than the Princess's pet dragon -- whom she had at once named Fido.
And when the happy pair were settled in their own kingdom, Fido came to them and begged to be allowed to make himself useful.
`There must be some little thing I can do,' he said, rattling his wings and stretching his claws. `My wings and claws and so on ought to be turned to some account -- to say nothing of my grateful heart.'
So the Prince had a special saddle or howdah made for him -- very long it was -- like the tops of many tramcars fitted together. One hundred and fifty seats were fitted to this, and the dragon, whose greatest pleasure was now to give pleasure to others, delighted in taking parties of children to the seaside. It flew through the air quite easily with its hundred and fifty little passengers -- and would lie on the sand patiently waiting till they were ready to return. The children were very fond of it, and used to call it Dear, a word which never failed to bring tears of affection and gratitude to its eyes. So it lived, useful and respected, till quite the other day -- when someone happened to say, in his hearing, that dragons were out-of-date, now so much new machinery had come in. This so distressed him that he asked the King to change him into something less old-fashioned, and the kindly monarch at once changed him into a mechanical contrivance. The dragon, indeed, became the first aeroplane.