" 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 would n'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 market-place 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. Goodnight ! "
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 tomorrow !"
Next morning the people began streaming up to the Downs at quite an early hour, in their Sunday clothes and carrying baskets with bottle-necks sticking out of them, every one intent on securing good places for the combat. This was not exactly a simple matter, for of course it was quite possible that the dragon might win, and in that case even those who had put their money on him felt they could hardly expect him to deal with his backers on a different footing to the rest. Places were chosen, therefore, with circumspection and with a view to a speedy retreat in case of emergency; and the front rank was mostly composed of boys who had escaped from parental control and now sprawled and rolled about on the grass, regardless of the shrill threats and warnings discharged at them by their anxious mothers behind.
The Boy had secured a good front place, well up towards the cave, and was feeling as anxious as a stage-manager on a first night. Could the dragon be depended upon? He might change his mind and vote the whole performance rot; or else, seeing that the affair had been so hastily planned, without even a rehearsal, he might be too nervous to show up. The Boy looked narrowly at the cave, but it showed no sign of life or occupation.
Could the dragon have made a moon-light flitting?
The higher portions of the ground were now black with sightseers, and presently a sound of cheering and a waving of handkerchiefs told that something was visible to them which the Boy, far up towards the dragon-end of the line as he was, could not yet see. A minute more and St. George's red plumes topped the hill, as the Saint rode slowly forth on the great level space which stretched up to the grim mouth of the cave. Very gallant and beautiful he looked, on his tall war-horse, his golden armour glancing in the sun, his great spear held erect, the little white pennon, crimson-crossed, fluttering at its point. He drew rein and remained motionless. The lines of spectators began to give back a little, nervously; and even the boys in front stopped pulling hair and cuffing each other, and leaned forward expectant.
" Now then, dragon ! " muttered the Boy impatiently, fidgeting where he sat. He need not have distressed himself, had he only known. The dramatic possibilities of the thing had tickled the dragon immensely, and he had been up from an early hour, preparing for his first public appearance with as much heartiness as if the years had run backwards, and he had been again a little dragonlet, playing with his sisters on the floor of their mother's cave, at the game of saints-and-dragons, in which the dragon was bound to win.
A low muttering, mingled with snorts, now made itself heard; rising to a bellowing roar that seemed to fill the plain. Then a cloud of smoke obscured the mouth of the cave, and out of the midst of it the dragon himself, shining, sea-blue, magnificent, pranced splendidly forth; and everybody said, " Oo-oo-oo ! " as if he had been a mighty rocket! His scales were glittering, his long spiky tail lashed his sides, his claws tore up the turf and sent it flying high over his back, and smoke and fire incessantly jetted from his angry nostrils. " Oh, well done, dragon! " cried the Boy, excitedly. " Did n't think he had it in him! " he added to himself.