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The book of beasts.

From The Book of Dragons by Edith Nesbit.

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Lionel looked puzzled. "The fact is," the Chancellor went on, twisting his red beard in an agitated way, "your great--" "Go on," said Lionel. "--was called a wizard." "But he wasn't?" "Of course not--a most worthy King was your great--" "I see." "But I wouldn't touch his books." "Just this one," cried Lionel, laying his hands on the cover of a great brown book that lay on the study table. It had gold patterns on the brown leather, and gold clasps with turquoises and rubies in the twists of them, and gold corners, so that the leather should not wear out too quickly. "I must look at this one," Lionel said, for on the back in big letters he read: _The Book of Beasts_. The Chancellor said, "Don't be a silly little King." But Lionel had got the gold clasps undone, and he opened the first page, and there was a beautiful Butterfly all red, and brown, and yellow, and blue, so beautifully painted that it looked as if it were alive. "There," said Lionel, "Isn't that lovely? Why--" But as he spoke the beautiful Butterfly fluttered its many-colored wings on the yellow old page of the book, and flew up and out of the window. "Well!" said the Prime Minister, as soon as he could speak for the lump of wonder that had got into his throat and tried to choke him, "that's magic, that is." But before he had spoken, the King had turned the next page, and there was a shining bird complete and beautiful in every blue feather of him. Under him was written, "Blue Bird of Paradise," and while the King gazed enchanted at the charming picture the Blue Bird fluttered his wings on the yellow page and spread them and flew out of the book.



Then the Prime Minister snatched the book away from the King and shut it up on the blank page where the bird had been, and put it on a very high shelf. And the Chancellor gave the King a good shaking, and said: "You're a naughty, disobedient little King!" and was very angry indeed. "I don't see that I've done any harm," said Lionel. He hated being shaken, as all boys do; he would much rather have been slapped. "No harm?" said the Chancellor. "Ah--but what do you know about it? That's the question. How do you know what might have been on the next page--a snake or a worm, or a centipede or a revolutionist, or something like that." "Well, I'm sorry if I've vexed you," said Lionel. "Come, let's kiss and be friends." So he kissed the Prime Minister, and they settled down for a nice quiet game of noughts and crosses while the Chancellor went to add up his accounts. But when Lionel was in bed he could not sleep for thinking of the book, and when the full moon was shining with all her might and light he got up and crept down to the library and climbed up and got _The Book of Beasts_. He took it outside to the terrace, where the moonlight was as bright as day, and he opened the book, and saw the empty pages with "Butterfly" and "Blue Bird of Paradise" underneath, and then he turned the next page. There was some sort of red thing sitting under a palm tree, and under it was written "Dragon." The Dragon did not move, and the King shut up the book rather quickly and went back to bed.



But the next day he wanted another look, so he took the book out into the garden, and when he undid the clasps with the rubies and turquoises, the book opened all by itself at the picture with "Dragon" underneath, and the sun shone full on the page. And then, quite suddenly, a great Red Dragon came out of the book and spread vast scarlet wings and flew away across the garden to the far hills, and Lionel was left with the empty page before him, for the page was quite empty except for the green palm tree and the yellow desert, and the little streaks of red where the paintbrush had gone outside the pencil outline of the Red Dragon. And then Lionel felt that he had indeed done it. He had not been King twenty-four hours, and already he had let loose a Red Dragon to worry his faithful subjects' lives out. And they had been saving up so long to buy him a crown, and everything! Lionel began to cry. The Chancellor and the Prime Minister and the Nurse all came running to see what was the matter. And when they saw the book they understood, and the Chancellor said: "You naughty little King! Put him to bed, Nurse, and let him think over what he's done." "Perhaps, my Lord," said the Prime Minister, "we'd better first find out just exactly what he has done." Then Lionel, in floods of tears, said: "It's a Red Dragon, and it's gone flying away to the hills, and I am so sorry, and, oh, do forgive me!"



But the Prime Minister and the Chancellor had other things to think of than forgiving Lionel. They hurried off to consult the police and see what could be done. Everyone did what they could. They sat on committees and stood on guard, and lay in wait for the Dragon, but he stayed up in the hills, and there was nothing more to be done. The faithful Nurse, meanwhile, did not neglect her duty. Perhaps she did more than anyone else, for she slapped the King and put him to bed without his tea, and when it got dark she would not give him a candle to read by. "You are a naughty little King," she said, "and nobody will love you." Next day the Dragon was still quiet, though the more poetic of Lionel's subjects could see the redness of the Dragon shining through the green trees quite plainly. So Lionel put on his crown and sat on his throne and said he wanted to make some laws. And I need hardly say that though the Prime Minister and the Chancellor and the Nurse might have the very poorest opinion of Lionel's private judgement, and might even slap him and send him to bed, the minute he got on his throne and set his crown on his head, he became infallible--which means that everything he said was right, and that he couldn't possibly make a mistake. So when he said: "There is to be a law forbidding people to open books in schools or elsewhere"--he had the support of at least half of his subjects, and the other half--the grown-up half--pretended to think he was quite right. Then he made a law that everyone should always have enough to eat. And this pleased everyone except the ones who had always had too much. And when several other nice new laws were made and written down he went home and made mud-houses and was very happy. And he said to his Nurse: "People will love me now I've made such a lot of pretty new laws for them."

       



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