When all seemed safe some of the bolder folk came right up he hill and shook hands with Farmer Giles. A few 每 the parson, and the blacksmith, and the miller, and one or two other persons of importance 每 slapped him on the back. That did not please him (his shoulder was very sore), but he felt obliged to invite them into his house. They sat round in the kitchen drinking his health and loudly praising him. He made no effort to hide his yawns, but as long as the drink lasted they took no notice. By the time they had all had one or two (and the farmer two or three), he began to feel quite bold; when they had all had two or three (and he himself five or six), he felt as bold as his dog thought him. They parted good friends; and he slapped their backs heartily. His hands were large, red, and thick; so he had his revenge.
Next day he found that the news had grown in the telling, and he had become an important local figure. By the middle of the next week the news had spread to all the villages within twenty miles. He had become the Hero of the Countryside. Very pleasant he found it. Next market day he got enough free drink to float a boat: that is to say, he nearly had his fill, and came home singing old heroic songs.
At last even the King got to hear of it. The capital of that realm, the Middle Kingdom of the island in those happy days, was some twenty leagues distant from Hams and they paid little heed at court, as a rule, to the doings of rustics in the provinces. But so prompt an expulsion of a giant so injurious seemed worthy of note and of some little courtesy. So in due course 每 that is, in about three months, and on the feast of St Michael 每 the King sent a magnificent letter. It was written in red upon white parchment, and expressed the royal approbation of 'our loyal subject and well-beloved Egidius Ahenobarbus Julius Agricola de Hammo.' The letter was signed with a red blot; but the court scribe had added: Ego Augustus Bonifacius Ambrosius Aurelianus Antontus Pius et Magnificus, dux, rex, tyrannus, et basileus Mediterranearum Parfium, and a large red seal was attached. So the document was plainly genuine, it afforded great pleasure to Giles, and was much admired, especially when it was discovered that one could get a seat and a drink by the farmer's fire by asking to look at it.
Better than the testimonial was the accompanying gift. The King sent a belt and a long sword. To tell the truth the King had never used the sword himself. It belonged to the family and had been hanging in his armoury time out of mind. The armourer could not say how it came there, or what might be the use of it. Plain heavy swords of that kind were, out of fashion at court, just then, so the King thought it the very thing for a present to a rustic. But Farmer Giles was delighted, and his local reputation became enormous.
Giles much enjoyed the turn of events. So did his dog. He never got his promised whipping. Giles was a just man according to his lights; in his heart he gave a fair share of the credit to Garm, though he never went so far as to mention it. He continued to throw hard words and hard things at the dog when he felt inclined, but he winked at many little outings. Garm took to walking far afield. The farm went about with a high step, and luck smiled on him. The autumn and early winter work went well. All seemed set fair 每 until the dragon came.
In those days dragons were already getting scarce in the island. None had been seen in the midland realm of Augustus Bonifacius for many a year. There were, of course, the dubious marches and the uninhabited mountains, westward and northward, but they were a long way off. In those parts once upon a time there had dwelt a number of dragons of one kind and another, and they had made raids far and wide. But the Middle Kingdom was in those days famous for the daring of the King's knights, and so many stray dragons had been killed, or had returned with grave damage, that the others gave up going that way.
It was still the custom for Dragon's Tail to be served up at the King's Christmas Feast; and each year a knight was chosen for the duty of hunting. He was supposed to set out upon. St Nicholas' Day and come home with a dragon's tail not later than the eve of the feast. But for many years now the Royal Cook had made a marvellous confection, a Mock Dragon's Tail of cake and almond-paste, with cunning scales of hard icing-sugar. The chosen knight then carried this into the hall on Christmas Eve, while the fiddles played and the trumpets rang. The Mock Dragon's Tail was eaten after dinner on Christmas Day, and everybody said (to please the cook) that it tasted much better than Real Tail.
That was the situation when a real dragon turned up again. The giant was largely to blame. After his adventure he used to go about in the mountains visiting his scattered relations more than had been his custom, and much more than they liked. For he was always trying to borrow a large copper pot. But whether he got the loan of one or not, he would sit and talk in his long-winded lumbering fashion about the excellent country down away East, and all the wonders of the Wide World. He had got it into his head that he was a great and daring traveller.
'A nice land,' he would say, 'pretty flat, soft to the feet, and plenty to eat for the taking: cows, you know, and sheep all over the place, easy to spot, if you look careflly.'
'But what about the people ?' said they.
'I never saw any,' said he. 'There was not a knight to be seen or heard, my dear fellows. Nothing worse than a few stinging flies by the river.'
'Why don't you go back and stay there?' said they.
'Oh well, there's no place like home, they say,' said he. 'But maybe I shall go back one day when I have a mind. And anyway I went there once, which is more than most folk can say. Now about that copper pot.'
'And these rich lands,' they would hurriedly ask, 'these delectable regions full of undefended cattle, which way do they lie? And how far off?'
'Oh,' he would answer, 'away east or sou'east. But it's a long journey.' And then he would give such an exaggerated account of the distance that he had walked, and the woods, hills, and plains that he had crossed, that none of the other less long-legged giants ever set out. Still, the talk got about.
Then the warm summer was followed by a hard winter. It was bitter cold in the mountains and food was scarce.
The talk got louder. Lowland sheep and lone from the deep pastures were much discussed. The dragons pricked up their ears. They were hungry, and these rumours were attractive. 'So knights are mythical!' said the younger and less experienced dragons. 'We always thought so.'
'At least they may be getting rare,' thought the older and wiser worms; 'far and few and no longer to be feared.'
There was one dragon who was deeply moved. Chrysophylax Dives was his name, for he was of ancient and imperial lineage, and very rich. He was cunning, inquisitive, greedy, well-armoured, but not over bold. But at any rate he was not in the least afraid of flies or insects of any sort or size; and he was mortally hungry.
So one winter's day, about a week before Christmas, Chrysophylax spread his wings and took off. He landed quietly in the middle of the night plump in the heart of the midland realm of Augustus Bonifacius rex et basileus. He did a deal of damage in a short while, smashing and burning, and devouring sheep, cattle, and horses.
This was in a part of the land a long way from Ham, but Garm got the fright of his life. He had gone off on a long expedition, and taking advantage of his master's favour he had ventured to spend a night or two away from home. He was following an engaging scent along the eaves of a wood, when he turned a corner and came suddenly upon a new and alarming smell; he ran indeed slap into the tail of Chrysophylax Dives, who had just landed. Never did a dog turn his own tail round and bolt home swifter than Garm. The dragon, hearing his yelp, turned and snorted; but Garm was already far out of range. He ran all the rest of the night, and arrived home about breakfast-time.
'Help! help! help!' he cried outside the back door.
Giles heard, and did not like the sound of it. It reminded him that unexpected things may happen, when all seems to be going well.
'Wife, let that dratted dog in,' said he, 'and take a stick to him!'
Garm came bundling into the kitchen with his eyes starting and his tongue hanging out. 'Help!' he cried.
'Now what have you been a-doing this time?' said Giles, throwing a sausage at him.
'Nothing,' panted Garm, too flustered to give heed to the sausage.
'Well, stop doing it, or I'll skin you,' said the farmer.
'I've done no wrong. I didn't mean no harm,' said the dog. 'But I came on a dragon accidental-like, and it frightened me.'
The farmer choked in his beer. 'Dragon?' said he. 'Drat you for a good-for-nothing nosey-Parker! What d'you want to go and find a dragon for, at this time of the year, and me with my hands full? Where was it?'
'Oh! North over the hills and far away, 'beyond the Standing Stones and all,' said the dog.
'Oh, away there!' said Giles, mighty relieved. 'They're queer folk in those parts, I've heard tell, and aught might happen in their land. Let them get on with it! Don't come worriting me with such tales. Get out!'
Garm got out, and spread the news all over the village. He did not forget to mention that his master was not scared in the least. 'Quite cool he was, and went on with his breakfast.'
People chatted about it pleasantly at their doors. 'How like old times!' they said. 'Just as Christmas is coming, too. So seasonable. How pleased the King will be! He will be able to have Real Tail this Christmas.'
But more news came in next day. The dragon, it appeared, was exceptionally large and ferocious. He was doing terrible damage.
'What about the King's knights?' people began to say.
Others had already asked the same question. Indeed, messengers were now reaching the King from the villages most afflicted by Chrysophylax, and they said to him as loudly and as often as they dared: 'Lord, what of your knights?'
But the knights did nothing; their knowledge of the dragon was still quite unofficial. So the King brought the matter to their notice, fully and formally, asking for necessary action at their early convenience. He was greatly displeased when he found that their convenience would not be early at all, and was indeed daily postponed.
Yet the excuses of the knights were undoubtedly sound. First of all, the Royal Cook had already made the Dragon's Tail for that Christmas, being a man who believed in getting things done in good time. It would not do at all to offend him by bringing in a real tail at the last minute. He was a very valuable servant.
'Never mind the Tail! Cut his head off and put an end to him!' cried the messengers from the villages most nearly affected.
But Christmas had arrived, and most unfortunately a grand tournament had been arranged for St John's Day: knights of many realms had been invited and were coming to compete for a valuable prize. It was obviously unreasonable to spoil the chances of the Midland Knights by sending their best men off on a dragon-hunt before the tournament was over.
After that came the New Year Holiday.
But each night the dragon had moved; and each move had brought him nearer to Ham. On the night of New Year's Day people could see a blaze in the distance. The dragon had settled in a wood about ten miles away, and it was burning merrily. He was a hot dragon when he felt in the mood.
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