The striking of six o'clock set the more prudent Charlotte nudging me, and we recalled ourselves with an effort from Beast-land, and reluctantly stood up to go.
" Here, I'm coming along with you," said the circus-man. " I want another pipe, and a walk 'll do me good. You need n't talk to me unless you like."
Our spirits rose to their wonted level again. The way had seemed so long, the outside world so dark and eerie, after the bright warm room and the highly-coloured beast-book. But a walk with a real Man - why, that was a treat in itself! We set off briskly, the Man in the middle. I looked up at him and wondered whether I should ever live to smoke a big pipe with that careless sort of majesty! But Charlotte, whose young mind was not set on tobacco as a possible goal, made herself heard from the other side.
" Now, then," she said, " tell us a story, please, won't you ? "
The Man sighed heavily and looked about him. " I knew it," he groaned. " I knew I should have to tell a story. Oh, why did I leave my pleasant fireside? Well, I will tell you a story. Only let me think a minute."
So he thought a minute, and then he told us this story.
Long ago-might have been hundreds of years ago - in a cottage half-way between this village and yonder shoulder of the Downs up there, a shepherd lived with his wife and their little son. Now the shepherd spent his days - and at certain times of the year his nights too - up on the wide ocean-bosom of the. Downs, with only the sun and the stars and the sheep for company, and the friendly chattering world of men and women far out of sight and hearing. But his little son, when he was n't helping his father, and often when he was as well, spent much of his time buried in big volumes that he borrowed from the affable gentry and interested parsons of the country round about. And his parents were very fond of him, and rather proud of him too, though they did n't let on in his hearing, so he was left to go his own way and read as much as he liked; and instead of frequently getting a cuff on the side of the head, as might very well have happened to him, he was treated more or less as an equal by his parents, who sensibly thought it a very fair division of labour that they should supply the practical knowledge, and he the book-learning. They knew that book-learning often came in useful at a pinch, in spite of what their neighbours said. What the Boy chiefly dabbled in was natural history and fairy-tales, and he just took them as they came, in a sand-wichy sort of way, without making any distinctions; and really his course of reading strikes one as rather sensible.
One evening the shepherd, who for some nights past had been disturbed and preoccupied, and off his usual mental balance, came home all of a tremble, and, sitting down at the table where his wife and son were peacefully employed, she with her seam, he in following out the adventures of the Giant with no Heart in his Body, exclaimed with much agitation:
" It's all up with me, Maria ! Never no more can I go up on them there Downs, was it ever so! "
" Now don't you take on like that," said his wife, who was a very sensible woman: " but tell us all about it first, whatever it is as has given you this shake-up, and then me and you and the son here, between us, we ought to be able to get to the bottom of it! "
" It began some nights ago," said the shepherd. " You know that cave up there - I never liked it, somehow, and the sheep never liked it neither, and when sheep don't like a thing there's generally some reason for it. Well, for some time past there's been faint noises coming from that cave - noises like heavy sighings, with grunts mixed up in them; and sometimes a snoring, far away down - real snoring, yet somehow not honest snoring, like you and me o'nights, you know ! "
" I know," remarked the Boy, quietly.
" Of course I was terrible frightened," the shepherd went on; "yet somehow I could n't keep away. So this very evening, before I come down, I took a cast round by the cave, quietly. And there - O Lord! there I saw him at last, as plain as I see you ! "
" Saw who ?" said his wife, beginning to share in her husband's nervous terror.
" Why him, I'm a telling you ! " said the shepherd. " He was sticking half-way out of the cave, and seemed to be enjoying of the cool of the evening in a poetical sort of way. He was as big as four carthorses, and all covered with shiny scales - deep-blue scales at the top of him, shading off to a tender sort o' green below. As he breathed, there was that sort of flicker over his nostrils that you see over our chalk roads on a baking windless day in summer. He had his chin on his paws, and I should say he was meditating about things. Oh, yes, a peaceable sort o' beast enough, and not ramping or carrying on or doing anything but what was quite right and proper. I admit all that. And yet, what am I to do? Scales, you know, and claws, and a tail for certain, though I didn't see that end of him - I ain't used to 'em, and I don't hold with 'em, and that's a fact! "
The Boy, who had apparently been absorbed in his book during his father's recital, now closed the volume, yawned, clasped his hands behind his head, and said sleepily:
" It's all right, father. Don't you worry. It's only a dragon."
"Only a dragon?" cried his father. " What do you mean, sitting there, you and your dragons? Only a dragon indeed ! And what do you know about it?"
" 'Cos it is, and 'cos I do know," replied the Boy, quietly. " Look here, father, you know we've each of us got our line. You know about sheep, and weather, and things ; I know about dragons. I always said, you know, that that cave up there was a dragon-cave. I always said it must have belonged to a dragon some time, and ought to belong to a dragon now, if rules count for anything. Well, now you tell me it has got a dragon, and so that's all right. I'm not half as much surprised as when you told me it hadn't got a dragon. Rules always come right if you wait quietly. Now, please, just leave this all to me. And I'll stroll up to-morrow morning - no, in the morning I can't, I've got a whole heap of things to do - well, perhaps in the evening, if I'm quite free, I'll go up and have a talk to him, and you 'll find it 'll be all right. Only, please, don't you go worrying round there without me. You don't understand 'em a bit, and they 're very sensitive, you know! " " He's quite right, father," said the sensible mother. " As he says, dragons is his line and not ours. He's wonderful knowing about book-beasts, as every one allows. And to tell the truth, I 'm not half happy in my own mind, thinking of that poor animal lying alone up there, without a bit o' hot supper or anyone to change the news with; and maybe we 'll be able to do something for him; and if he ain't quite respectable our Boy'll find it out quick enough. He's got a pleasant sort o' way with him that makes everybody tell him everything."