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The Dragon of Wantley
by Owen Wister
How Sir Godfrey came to lose his Temper
There was something wrong in the cellar at Wantley Manor. Little
Whelpdale knew it, for he was Buttons, and Buttons always knows what
is being done with the wine, though he may look as if he did not. And
old Popham knew it, too. He was Butler, and responsible to Sir Godfrey
for all the brandy, and ale, and cider, and mead, and canary, and
other strong waters there were in the house.
Now, Sir Godfrey Disseisin, fourth Baron of Wantley, and immediate
tenant by knight-service to His Majesty King John of England, was
particular about his dogs, and particular about his horses, and about
his only daughter and his boy Roland, and had been very particular
indeed about his wife, who, I am sorry to say, did not live long. But
all this was nothing to the fuss he made about his wine. When the
claret was not warm enough, or the Moselle wine was not cool enough,
you could hear him roaring all over the house; for, though generous in
heart and a staunch Churchman, he was immoderately choleric. Very
often, when Sir Godfrey fell into one of his rages at dinner, old
Popham, standing behind his chair, trembled so violently that his
calves would shake loose, thus obliging him to hasten behind the tall
leathern screen at the head of the banquet-hall and readjust them.
Twice in each year the Baron sailed over to France, where he visited
the wine-merchants, and tasted samples of all new vintages,—though
they frequently gave him unmentionable aches. Then, when he was
satisfied that he had selected the soundest and richest, he returned
to Wantley Manor, bringing home wooden casks that were as big as
hay-stacks, and so full they could not gurgle when you tipped them.
Upon arriving, he sent for Mrs. Mistletoe, the family governess and
(for economy's sake) housekeeper, who knew how to write,—something
the Baron's father and mother had never taught him when he was a
little boy, because they didn't know how themselves, and despised
people who did,—and when Mrs. Mistletoe had cut neat pieces of
card-board for labels and got ready her goose-quill, Sir Godfrey would
say, "Write, Château Lafitte, 1187;" or, "Write, Chambertin, 1203."
(Those, you know, were the names and dates of the vintages.) "Yes, my
lord," Mistletoe always piped up; on which Sir Godfrey would peer over
her shoulder at the writing, and mutter, "Hum; yes, that's correct,"
just as if he knew how to read, the old humbug! Then Mistletoe, who
was a silly girl and had lost her husband early, would go "Tee-hee,
Sir Godfrey!" as the gallant gentleman gave her a kiss. Of course,
this was not just what he should have done; but he was a widower, you
must remember, and besides that, as the years went on this little
ceremony ceased to be kept up. When it was "Château Lafitte, 1187,"
kissing Mistletoe was one thing; but when it came to "Chambertin,
1203," the lady weighed two hundred and twenty-five pounds, and wore a
But, wig and all, Mistletoe had a high position in Wantley Manor. The
household was conducted on strictly feudal principles. Nobody, except
the members of the family, received higher consideration than did the
old Governess. She and the Chaplain were on a level, socially, and
they sat at the same table with the Baron. That drew the line. Old
Popham the Butler might tell little Whelpdale as often as he pleased
that he was just as good as Mistletoe; but he had to pour out
Mistletoe's wine for her, notwithstanding. If she scolded him (which
she always did if Sir Godfrey had been scolding her), do you suppose
he dared to answer back? Gracious, no! He merely kicked the two
head-footmen, Meeson and Welsby, and spoke severely to the nine
house-maids. Meeson and Welsby then made life a painful thing for the
five under-footmen and the grooms, while the nine house-maids boxed
the ears of Whelpdale the Buttons, and Whelpdale the Buttons punched
the scullion's eye. As for the scullion, he was bottom of the list;
but he could always relieve his feelings by secretly pulling the tails
of Sir Godfrey's two tame ravens, whose names were Croak James and
Croak Elizabeth. I never knew what these birds did at that; but
something, you may be sure. So you see that I was right when I said
the household was conducted on strictly feudal principles. The Cook
had a special jurisdiction of her own, and everybody was more or less
afraid of her.
Whenever Sir Godfrey had come home with new wine, and after the labels
had been pasted on the casks, then Popham, with Whelpdale beside him,
had these carefully set down in the cellar, which was a vast dim room,
the ceilings supported by heavy arches; the barrels, bins, kegs,
hogsheads, tuns, and demijohns of every size and shape standing like
forests and piled to the ceiling. And now something was wrong there.
"This 'ere's a hawful succumstence, sir," observed Whelpdale the
Buttons to his superior, respectfully.
"It is, indeed, a himbroglio," replied Popham, who had a wide command
of words, and knew it.
Neither domestic spoke again for some time. They were seated in the
buttery. The Butler crossed his right leg over his left, and waved
the suspended foot up and down,—something he seldom did unless very
grievously perturbed. As for poor little Whelpdale, he mopped his brow
with the napkins that were in a basket waiting for the wash.
Then the bell rang.
"His ludship's study-bell," said Popham. "Don't keep him waiting."
"Hadn't you better apprise his ludship of the facks?" asked Whelpdale,
in a weak voice.
Popham made no reply. He arose and briefly kicked Buttons out of the
buttery. Then he mounted a chair to listen better. "He has hentered
his ludship's apawtment," he remarked, hearing the sound of voices
come faintly down the little private staircase that led from Sir
Godfrey's study to the buttery: the Baron was in the habit of coming
down at night for crackers and cheese before he went to bed. Presently
one voice grew much louder than the other. It questioned. There came a
sort of whining in answer. Then came a terrific stamp on the ceiling
and a loud "Go on, sir!"
"Now, now, now!" thought Popham.
Do you want to hear at once, without waiting any longer, what little
Whelpdale is telling Sir Godfrey? Well, you must know that for the
past thirteen years, ever since 1190, the neighbourhood had been
scourged by a terrible Dragon. The monster was covered with scales,
and had a long tail and huge unnatural wings, beside fearful jaws that
poured out smoke and flame whenever they opened. He always came at
dead of night, roaring, bellowing, and sparkling and flaming over the
hills, and horrid claps of thunder were very likely to attend his
progress. Concerning the nature and quality of his roaring, the honest
copyholders of Wantley could never agree, although every human being
had heard him hundreds of times. Some said it was like a mad bull,
only much louder and worse. Old Gaffer Piers the ploughman swore that
if his tomcat weighed a thousand pounds it would make a noise almost
as bad as that on summer nights, with the moon at the full and other
cats handy. But farmer Stiles said, "Nay, 'tis like none of your bulls
nor cats. But when I have come home too near the next morning, my
wife can make me think of this Dragon as soon as ever her mouth be
This shows you that there were divers opinions. If you were not afraid
to look out of the window about midnight, you could see the sky begin
to look red in the quarter from which he was approaching, just as it
glares when some distant house is on fire. But you must shut the
window and hide before he came over the hill; for very few that had
looked upon the Dragon ever lived to that day twelvemonth. This
monster devoured the substance of the tenantry and yeomen. When their
fields of grain were golden for the harvest, in a single night he cut
them down and left their acres blasted by his deadly fire. He ate the
cows, the sheep, the poultry, and at times even sucked eggs. Many
pious saints had visited the district, but not one had been able by
his virtue to expel the Dragon; and the farmers and country folk used
to repeat a legend that said the Dragon was a punishment for the great
wickedness of the Baron's ancestor, the original Sir Godfrey
Disseisin, who, when summoned on the first Crusade to Palestine, had
entirely refused to go and help his cousin Godfrey de Bouillon wrest
the Holy Sepulchre from the Paynim. The Baron's ancestor, when a stout
young lad, had come over with William the Conqueror; and you must know
that to have an ancestor who had come over with William the Conqueror
was in those old days a much rarer thing than it is now, and any one
who could boast of it was held in high esteem by his neighbours, who
asked him to dinner and left their cards upon him continually. But the
first Sir Godfrey thought one conquest was enough for any man; and in
reply to his cousin's invitation to try a second, answered in his
blunt Norman French, "Nul tiel verte dedans ceot oyle," which
displeased the Church, and ended forever all relations between the
families. The Dragon did not come at once, for this gentleman's son,
the grandfather of our Sir Godfrey, as soon as he was twenty-one, went
off to the Holy Land himself, fought very valiantly, and was killed,
leaving behind him at Wantley an inconsolable little wife and an heir
six months old. This somewhat appeased the Pope; but the present Sir
Godfrey, when asked to accompany King Richard Lion Heart on his
campaign against the Infidel, did not avail himself of the opportunity
to set the family right in the matter of Crusades. This hereditary
impiety, which the Pope did not consider at all mended by the Baron's
most regular attendance at the parish church on all Sundays, feast
days, fast days, high days, low days, saints' days, vigils, and
octaves, nor by his paying his tithes punctually to Father Anselm,
Abbot of Oyster-le-Main (a wonderful person, of whom I shall have a
great deal to tell you presently), this impiety, I say, finished the
good standing of the House of Wantley. Rome frowned, the earth
trembled, and the Dragon came. And (the legend went on to say) this
curse would not be removed until a female lineal descendant of the
first Sir Godfrey, a young lady who had never been married, and had
never loved anybody except her father and mother and her sisters and
brothers, should go out in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve,
all by herself, and encounter the Dragon single handed.
Now, of course, this is not what little Whelpdale is trying to tell
the Baron up in the study; for everybody in Wantley knew all about the
legend except one person, and that was Miss Elaine, Sir Godfrey's only
daughter, eighteen years old at the last Court of Piepoudre, when her
father (after paying all the farmers for all the cows and sheep they
told him had been eaten by the Dragon since the last Court) had made
his customary proclamation, to wit: his good-will and protection to
all his tenantry; and if any man, woman, child, or other person,
caused his daughter, Miss Elaine, to hear anything about the legend,
such tale-bearer should be chained to a tree, and kept fat until the
Dragon found him and ate him. So everybody obligingly kept the Baron's
Sir Godfrey is just this day returned from France with some famous
tuns of wine, and presents for Elaine and Mrs. Mistletoe. His humour
is (or was, till Whelpdale, poor wretch! answered the bell) of the
best possible. And now, this moment, he is being told by the luckless
Buttons that the Dragon of Wantley has taken to drinking, as well as
eating, what does not belong to him; has for the last three nights
burst the big gates of the wine-cellar that open on the hillside the
Manor stands upon; that a hogshead of the Baron's best Burgundy is
going; and that two hogsheads of his choicest Malvoisie are gone!
One hundred and twenty-eight gallons in three nights' work! But I
suppose a fire-breathing Dragon must be very thirsty.
There was a dead silence in the study overhead, and old Popham's
calves were shaking loose as he waited.
"And so you stood by and let this black, sneaking, prowling, thieving"
(here the Baron used some shocking expressions which I shall not set
down) "Dragon swill my wine?"
"St—st—stood by, your ludship?" said little Whelpdale. "No, sir; no
one didn't do any standing by, sir. He roared that terrible, sir, we
was all under the bed."
"Now, by my coat of mail and great right leg!" shouted Sir Godfrey.
The quaking Popham heard no more. The door of the private staircase
flew open with a loud noise, and down came little Whelpdale head over
heels into the buttery. After him strode Sir Godfrey in full mail
armour, clashing his steel fists against the banisters. The nose-piece
of his helmet was pushed up to allow him to speak plainly,—and most
plainly did he speak, I can assure you, all the way down stairs,
keeping his right eye glaring upon Popham in one corner of the
buttery, and at the same time petrifying Whelpdale with his left. From
father to son, the Disseisins had always been famous for the manner in
which they could straddle their eyes; and in Sir Godfrey the family
trait was very strongly marked.
Arrived at the bottom, he stopped for a moment to throw a ham through
the stained-glass window, and then made straight for Popham. But the
head Butler was an old family servant, and had learned to know his
With surprising agility he hopped on a table, so that Sir Godfrey's
foot flew past its destined goal and caught a shelf that was loaded
with a good deal of his wedding china. The Baron was far too dignified
a person to take any notice of this mishap, and he simply strode on,
out of the buttery, and so through the halls of the Manor, where all
who caught even the most distant sight of his coming, promptly
withdrew into the privacy of their apartments.
Thus ends Chapter I
How his Daughter, Miss Elaine, behaved in Consequence
The Baron walked on, his rage mounting as he went, till presently he
began talking aloud to himself. "Mort d'aieul and Cosenage!" he
muttered, grinding his teeth over these oaths; "matters have come to a
pretty pass, per my and per tout! And this is what my wine-bibbing
ancestor has brought on his posterity by his omission to fight for the
Sir Godfrey knew the outrageous injustice of this remark as well as
you or I do; and so did the portrait of his ancestor, which he
happened to be passing under, for the red nose in the tapestry turned
a deeper ruby in scornful anger. But, luckily for the nerves of its
descendant, the moths had eaten its mouth away so entirely, that the
retort it attempted to make sounded only like a faint hiss, which the
Baron mistook for a little gust of wind behind the arras.
"My ruddy Burgundy!" he groaned, "going, going! and my rich, fruity
Malvoisie,—all gone! Father Anselm didn't appreciate it, either, that
night he dined here last September. He said I had put egg-shells in
it. Egg-shells! Pooh! As if any parson could talk about wine. These
Church folk had better mind their business, and say grace, and eat
their dinner, and be thankful. That's what I say. Egg-shells,
forsooth!" The Baron was passing through the chapel, and he
mechanically removed his helmet; but he did not catch sight of the
glittering eye of Father Anselm himself, who had stepped quickly into
the confessional, and there in the dark watched Sir Godfrey with a
strange, mocking smile. When he had the chapel to himself again, the
tall gray figure of the Abbot appeared in full view, and craftily
moved across the place. If you had been close beside him, and had
listened hard, you could have heard a faint clank and jingle beneath
his gown as he moved, which would have struck you as not the sort of
noise a hair-shirt ought to make. But I am glad you were not there;
for I do not like the way the Abbot looked at all, especially so near
Christmas-tide, when almost every one somehow looks kinder as he goes
about in the world. Father Anselm moved out of the chapel, and passed
through lonely corridors out of Wantley Manor, out of the court-yard,
and so took his way to Oyster-le-Main in the gathering dusk. The few
people who met him received his blessing, and asked no questions; for
they were all serfs of the glebe, and well used to meeting the Abbot
going and coming near Wantley Manor.
Meanwhile, Sir Godfrey paced along. "To think," he continued, aloud,
"to think the country could be rid of this monster, this guzzling
serpent, in a few days! Plenty would reign again. Public peace of mind
would be restored. The cattle would increase, the crops would grow, my
rents treble, and my wines be drunk no more by a miserable,
ignorant—but, no! I'm her father. Elaine shall never be permitted to
sacrifice herself for one dragon, or twenty dragons, either."
"Why, what's the matter, papa?"
Sir Godfrey started. There was Miss Elaine in front of him; and she
had put on one of the new French gowns he had brought over with him.
"Matter? Plenty of matter!" he began, unluckily. "At least, nothing is
the matter at all, my dear. What a question! Am I not back all safe
from the sea? Nothing is the matter, of course! Hasn't your old father
been away from you two whole months? And weren't those pretty dresses
he has carried back with him for his little girl? And isn't the
wine—Zounds, no, the wine isn't—at least, certainly it is—to be
sure it's what it ought to be—what it ought to be? Yes! But, Mort
d'aieul! not where it ought to be! Hum! hum! I think I am going
mad!" And Sir Godfrey, forgetting he held the helmet all this while,
dashed his hands to his head with such violence that the steel edge
struck hard above the ear, and in one minute had raised a lump there
as large as the egg of a fowl.
"Poor, poor papa," said Miss Elaine. And she ran and fetched some cold
water, and, dipping her dainty lace handkerchief into it, she bathed
the Baron's head.
"Thank you, my child," he murmured, presently. "Of course, nothing is
the matter. They were very slow in putting the new" (here he gave a
gulp) "casks of wine into the cellar; that's all. 'Twill soon be
dinner-time. I must make me ready."
And so saying, the Baron kissed his daughter and strode away towards
his dressing-room. But she heard him shout "Mort d'aieul!" more than
once before he was out of hearing. Then his dressing-room door shut
with a ***, and sent echoes all along the entries above and below.
The December night was coming down, and a little twinkling lamp hung
at the end of the passage. Towards this Miss Elaine musingly turned
her steps, still squeezing her now nearly dry handkerchief.
"What did he mean?" she said to herself.
"Elaine!" shouted Sir Godfrey, away off round a corner.
"Yes, papa, I'm coming."
"Don't come. I'm going to the bath. A—did you hear me say anything
"Do you mean when I met you?" answered Elaine. "Yes—no—that is,—not
"Then don't dare to ask me any questions, for I won't have it." And
another door slammed.
"What did papa mean?" said Miss Elaine, once more.
Her bright brown eyes were looking at the floor as she walked slowly
on towards the light, and her lips, which had been a little open so
that you could have seen what dainty teeth she had, shut quite close.
In fact, she was thinking, which was something you could seldom accuse
her of. I do not know exactly what her thoughts were, except that the
words "dragon" and "sacrifice" kept bumping against each other in
them continually; and whenever they bumped, Miss Elaine frowned a
little deeper, till she really looked almost solemn. In this way she
came under the hanging lamp and entered the door in front of which it
This was the ladies' library, full of the most touching romances about
Roland, and Walter of Aquitaine, and Sir Tristram, and a great number
of other excitable young fellows, whose behaviour had invariably got
them into dreadful difficulties, but had as invariably made them, in
the eyes of every damsel they saw, the most attractive, fascinating,
sweet, dear creatures in the world. Nobody ever read any of these
books except Mrs. Mistletoe and the family Chaplain. These two were,
indeed, the only people in the household that knew how to read,—which
may account for it in some measure. It was here that Miss Elaine came
in while she was thinking so hard, and found old Mistletoe huddled to
the fire. She had been secretly reading the first chapters of a new
and pungent French romance, called "Roger and Angelica," that was
being published in a Paris and a London magazine simultaneously. Only
thus could the talented French author secure payment for his books in
England; for King John, who had recently murdered his little nephew
Arthur, had now turned his attention to obstructing all arrangements
for an international copyright. In many respects, this monarch was no
credit to his family.
When the Governess heard Miss Elaine open the door behind her, she
thought it was the family Chaplain, and, quickly throwing the shocking
story on the floor, she opened the household cookery-book,—an
enormous volume many feet square, suspended from the ceiling by strong
chains, and containing several thousand receipts for English, French,
Italian, Croatian, Dalmatian, and Acarnanian dishes, beginning with a
poem in blank verse written to his confectioner by the Emperor Charles
the Fat. German cooking was omitted.
"I'm looking up a new plum-pudding for Christmas," said Mistletoe,
nervously, keeping her virtuous eyes on the volume.
"Ah, indeed!" Miss Elaine answered, indifferently. She was thinking
harder than ever,—was, in fact, inventing a little plan.
"Oh, so it's you, deary!" cried the Governess, much relieved. She had
feared the Chaplain might pick up the guilty magazine and find its
pages cut only at the place where the French story was. And I am
grieved to have to tell you that this is just what he did do later in
the evening, and sat down in his private room and read about Roger and
"Here's a good one," said Mistletoe. "Number 39, in the Appendix to
Part Fourth. Chop two pounds of leeks and——"
"But I may not be here to taste it," said Elaine.
"Bless the child!" said Mistletoe. "And where else would you be on
Christmas-day but in your own house?"
"Perhaps far away. Who knows?"
"You haven't gone and seen a young man and told him——"
"A young man, indeed!" said Elaine, with a toss of her head. "There's
not a young man in England I would tell anything save to go about his
Miss Elaine had never seen any young men except when they came to dine
on Sir Godfrey's invitation; and his manner on those occasions so awed
them that they always sat on the edge of their chairs, and said, "No,
thank you," when the Baron said, "Have some more capon?" Then the
Baron would snort, "Nonsense! Popham, bring me Master Percival's
plate," upon which Master Percival invariably simpered, and said that
really he did believe he would take another slice. After these
dinners, Miss Elaine retired to her own part of the house; and that
was all she ever saw of young men, whom she very naturally deemed a
class to be despised as silly and wholly lacking in self-assertion.
"Then where in the name of good saints are you going to be?" Mistletoe
"Why," said Elaine, slowly (and here she looked very slyly at the old
Governess, and then quickly appeared to be considering the lace on her
dress), "why, of course, papa would not permit me to sacrifice myself
for one dragon or twenty dragons."
"What!" screamed Mistletoe, all in a flurry (for she was a fool).
"Of course, I know papa would say that," said Miss Elaine, demure as
"Oh, mercy me!" squeaked Mistletoe; "we are undone!"
"To be sure, I might agree with papa," said the artful thing, knowing
well enough she was on the right track.
"Oo—oo!" went the Governess, burying her nose in the household
cookery-book and rocking from side to side.
"But then I might not agree with papa, you know. I might think,—might
think——" Miss Elaine stopped at what she might think, for really she
hadn't the slightest idea what to say next.
"You have no right to think,—no right at all!" burst out Mistletoe.
"And you sha'n't be allowed to think. I'll tell Sir Godfrey at once,
and he'll forbid you. Oh, dear! oh, dear! just before Christmas Eve,
too! The only night in the year! She has no time to change her mind;
and she'll be eaten up if she goes, I know she will. What villain told
you of this, child? Let me know, and he shall be punished at once."
"I shall not tell you that," said Elaine.
"Then everybody will be suspected," moaned Mistletoe. "Everybody. The
whole household. And we shall all be thrown to the Dragon. Oh, dear!
was there ever such a state of things?" The Governess betook herself
to weeping and wringing her hands, and Elaine stood watching her and
wondering how in the world she could find out more. She knew now just
enough to keep her from eating or sleeping until she knew everything.
"I don't agree with papa, at all," she said, during a lull in the
tears. This was the only remark she could think of.
"He'll lock you up, and feed you on bread and water till you
do—oo—oo!" sobbed Mistletoe; "and by that time we shall all be
"But I'll talk to papa, and make him change his mind."
"He won't. Do you think you're going to make him care more about a lot
of sheep and cows than he does about his only daughter? Doesn't he pay
the people for everything the Dragon eats up? Who would pay him for
you, when you were eaten up?"
"How do you know that I should be eaten up?" asked Miss Elaine.
"Oh, dear! oh, dear! and how could you stop it? What could a girl do
alone against a dragon in the middle of the night?"
"But on Christmas Eve?" suggested the young lady. "There might be
something different about that. He might feel better, you know, on
"Do you suppose a wicked, ravenous dragon with a heathen tail is going
to care whether it is Christmas Eve or not? He'd have you for his
Christmas dinner, and that's all the notice he would take of the day.
And then perhaps he wouldn't leave the country, after all. How can you
be sure he would go away, just because that odious, vulgar legend says
so? Who would rely on a dragon? And so there you would be gone, and he
would be here, and everything!"
Mistletoe's tears flowed afresh; but you see she had said all that
Miss Elaine was so curious to know about, and the fatal secret was
The Quarter-Bell rang for dinner, and both the women hastened to
their rooms to make ready; Mistletoe still boo-hooing and snuffling,
and declaring that she had always said some wretched, abominable
villain would tell her child about that horrid, ridiculous legend,
that was a perfect falsehood, as anybody could see, and very likely
invented by the Dragon himself, because no human being with any
feelings at all would think of such a cruel, absurd idea; and if they
ever did, they deserved to be eaten themselves; and she would not have
She said a great deal more that Elaine, in the next room, could not
hear (though the door was open between), because the Governess put her
fat old face under the cold water in the basin, and, though she went
on talking just the same, it only produced an angry sort of bubbling,
which conveyed very little notion of what she meant.
So they descended the stairway, Miss Elaine walking first, very
straight and solemn; and that was the way she marched into the
banquet-hall, where Sir Godfrey waited.
"Papa," said she, "I think I'll meet the Dragon on Christmas Eve!"
Thus ends Chapter II
Reveals the Dragon in his Den
Around the sullen towers of Oyster-le-Main the snow was falling
steadily. It was slowly banking up in the deep sills of the windows,
and Hubert the Sacristan had given up sweeping the steps. Patches of
it, that had collected on the top of the great bell as the slanting
draughts blew it in through the belfry-window, slid down from time to
time among the birds which had nestled for shelter in the beams below.
From the heavy main outer-gates, the country spread in a white
unbroken sheet to the woods. Twice, perhaps, through the morning had
wayfarers toiled by along the nearly-obliterated high-road.
"Good luck to the holy men!" each had said to himself as he looked at
the chill and austere walls of the Monastery. "Good luck! and I hope
that within there they be warmer than I am." Then I think it very
likely that as he walked on, blowing the fingers of the hand that held
his staff, he thought of his fireside and his wife, and blessed
Providence for not making him pious enough to be a monk and a
This is what was doing in the world outside. Now inside the stone
walls of Oyster-le-Main, whose grim solidity spoke of narrow cells and
of pious knees continually bent in prayer, not a monk paced the
corridors, and not a step could be heard above or below in the
staircase that wound up through the round towers. Silence was
everywhere, save that from a remote quarter of the Monastery came a
faint sound of music. Upon such a time as Christmas Eve, it might well
be that carols in plenty would be sung or studied by the saintly men.
But this sounded like no carol. At times the humming murmur of the
storm drowned the measure, whatever it was, and again it came along
the dark, cold entries, clearer than before. Away in a long vaulted
room, whose only approach was a passage in the thickness of the walls,
safe from the intrusion of the curious, a company is sitting round a
cavernous chimney, where roars and crackles a great blazing heap of
logs. Surely, for a monkish song, their melody is most odd; yet monks
they are, for all are clothed in gray, like Father Anselm, and a rope
round the waist of each. But what can possibly be in that huge silver
rundlet into which they plunge their goblets so often? The song grows
louder than ever.
We are the monks of Oyster-le-Main, Hooded and gowned as fools may see;
Hooded and gowned though we monks be, Is that a reason we should abstain
From cups of the gamesome Burgundie?
Though our garments make it plain That we are Monks of Oyster-le-Main,
That is no reason we should abstain From cups of the gamesome Burgundie.
"I'm sweating hot," says one. "How for disrobing, brothers? No danger
on such a day as this, foul luck to the snow!"
Which you see was coarse and vulgar language for any one to be heard
to use, and particularly so for a godly celibate. But the words were
scarce said, when off fly those monks' hoods, and the waist-ropes
rattle as they fall on the floor, and the gray gowns drop down and are
Every man jack of them is in black armour, with a long sword buckled
to his side.
"Long cheer to the Guild of Go-as-you-Please!" they shouted, hoarsely,
and dashed their drinking-horns on the board. Then filled them again.
"Give us a song, Hubert," said one. "The day's a dull one out in the
"Wait a while," replied Hubert, whose nose was hidden in his cup;
"this new Wantley tipple is a vastly comfortable brew. What d'ye call
"Malvoisie, thou oaf?" said another; "and of a delicacy many degrees
above thy bumpkin palate. Leave profaning it, therefore, and to thy
refrain without more ado."
"Most unctuous sir," replied Hubert, "in demanding me this favour, you
seem forgetful that the juice of Pleasure is sweeter than the milk of
Human Kindness. I'll not sing to give thee an opportunity to outnumber
me in thy cups."
And he filled and instantly emptied another sound bumper of the
Malvoisie, lurching slightly as he did so. "Health!" he added,
preparing to swallow the next.
"A murrain on such pagan thirst!" exclaimed he who had been toasted,
snatching the cup away. "Art thou altogether unslakable? Is thy belly
a lime-kiln? Nay, shalt taste not a single drop more, Hubert, till we
have a stave. Come, tune up, man!"
"Give me but leave to hold the empty vessel, then," the singer
pleaded, falling on one knee in mock supplication.
"Accorded, thou sot!" laughed the other. "Carol away, now!"
They fell into silence, each replenishing his drinking-horn. The snow
beat soft against the window, and from outside, far above them,
sounded the melancholy note of the bell ringing in the hour for
So Hubert began:
When the sable veil of night Over hill and glen is spread,
The yeoman bolts his door in fright, And he quakes within his bed.
Far away on his ear There strikes a sound of dread:
Something comes! it is here! It is passed with awful tread.
There's a flash of unholy flame; There is smoke hangs hot in the air:
'Twas the Dragon of Wantley came: Beware of him, beware!
But we beside the fire Sit close to the steaming bowl;
We pile the logs up higher, And loud our voices roll.
When the yeoman wakes at dawn To begin his round of toil,
His garner's bare, his sheep are gone, And the Dragon holds the spoil.
All day long through the earth That yeoman makes his moan;
All day long there is mirth Behind these walls of stone.
For we are the Lords of Ease, The gaolers of carking Care,
The Guild of Go-as-you-Please! Beware of us, beware!
So we beside the fire Sit down to the steaming bowl;
We pile the logs up higher, And loud our voices roll.
The roar of twenty *** throats and the clatter of cups banging on
the table rendered the words of the chorus entirely inaudible.
"Here's Malvoisie for thee, Hubert," said one of the company, dipping
into the rundlet. But his hand struck against the dry bottom. They had
finished four gallons since breakfast, and it was scarcely eleven gone
on the clock!
"Oh, I am betrayed!" Hubert sang out. Then he added, "But there is a
plenty where that came from." And with that he reached for his gown,
and, fetching out a bunch of great brass keys, proceeded towards a
tall door in the wall, and turned the lock. The door swung open, and
Hubert plunged into the dark recess thus disclosed. An exclamation of
chagrin followed, and the empty hide of a huge crocodile, with a pair
of trailing wings to it, came bumping out from the closet into the
hall, giving out many hollow cracks as it floundered along, fresh from
a vigourous kick that the intemperate minstrel had administered in his
rage at having put his hand into the open jaws of the monster instead
of upon the neck of the demijohn that contained the Malvoisie.
"Beshrew thee, Hubert!" said the voice of a new-comer, who stood
eyeing the proceedings from a distance, near where he had entered;
"treat the carcase of our patron saint with a more befitting
reverence, or I'll have thee caged and put upon bread and water.
Remember, that whosoever kicks that skin in some sort kicks me."
"Long life to the Dragon of Wantley!" said Hubert, reappearing, very
dusty, but clasping a plump demijohn.
"Hubert, my lad," said the new-comer, "put back that vessel of
inebriation; and, because I like thee well for thy youth and thy sweet
voice, do not therefore presume too far with me."
A somewhat uneasy pause followed upon this; and while Hubert edged
back into the closet with his demijohn, Father Anselm frowned slightly
as his eyes turned upon the scene of late hilarity.
But where is the Dragon in his den? you ask. Are we not coming to him
soon? Ah, but we have come to him. You shall hear the truth. Never
believe that sham story about More of More Hall, and how he slew the
Dragon of Wantley. It is a gross fabrication of some unscrupulous and
mediocre literary person, who, I make no doubt, was in the pay of More
to blow his trumpet so loud that a credulous posterity might hear it.
My account of the Dragon is the only true one.
Thus ends Chapter III
Tells all about him
In those days of shifting fortunes, of turbulence and rapine, of
knights-errant and minstrels seeking for adventure and love, and of
solitary pilgrims and bodies of pious men wandering over Europe to
proclaim that the duty of all was to arise and quell the pagan
defilers of the Holy Shrine, good men and bad men, undoubted saints
and unmistakable sinners, drifted forward and back through every
country, came by night and by day to every household, and lived their
lives in that unbounded and perilous freedom that put them at one
moment upon the top limit of their ambition or their delight, and
plunged them into violent and bloody death almost ere the moment was
gone. It was a time when "fatten at thy neighbour's expense" was the
one commandment observed by many who outwardly maintained a profound
respect for the original ten; and any man whose wit taught him how
this commandment could be obeyed with the greatest profit and the
least danger was in high standing among his fellows.
Hence it was that Francis Almoign, Knight of the Voracious Stomach,
cumbered with no domestic ties worthy of mention, a tall slim fellow
who knew the appropriate hour to slit a throat or to wheedle a maid,
came to be Grand Marshal of the Guild of Go-as-you-Please.
This secret band, under its Grand Marshal, roved over Europe and
thrived mightily. Each member was as stout hearted a villain as you
could see. Sometimes their doings came to light, and they were forced
to hasten across the borders of an outraged territory into new
pastures. Yet they fared well in the main, for they could fight and
drink and sing; and many a fair one smiled upon them, in spite of
their perfectly outrageous morals.
So, one day, they came into the neighbourhood of Oyster-le-Main, where
much confusion reigned among the good monks. Sir Godfrey Disseisin
over at Wantley had let Richard Lion Heart depart for the Holy Wars
without him. "Like father like son," the people muttered in their
discontent. "Sure, the Church will gravely punish this second
offence." To all these whisperings of rumour the Grand Marshal of the
Guild paid fast attention; for he was a man who laid his plans deeply,
and much in advance of the event. He saw the country was fat and the
neighbours foolish. He took note of the handsome tithes that came in
to Oyster-le-Main for the support of the monks. He saw all these
things, and set himself to thinking.
Upon a stormy afternoon, when the light was nearly gone out of the
sky, a band of venerable pilgrims stood at the great gates of the
Monastery. Their garments were tattered, their shoes were in sad
disrepair. They had walked (they said) all the way from Jerusalem.
Might they find shelter for the night? The tale they told, and the
mere sight of their trembling old beards, would have melted hearts far
harder than those which beat in the *** of the monks of
Oyster-le-Main. But above all, these pilgrims brought with them as
convincing proofs of their journey a collection of relics and
talismans (such as are to be met with only in Eastern countries) of
great wonder and virtue. With singular generosity, which they
explained had been taught them by the Arabs, they presented many of
these treasures to the delighted inmates of the Monastery, who
hastened to their respective cells,—this one reverently cherishing a
tuft of hair from the tail of one of Daniel's lions; another handling
with deep fervour a strip of the coat of many colours once worn by the
excellent Joseph. But the most extraordinary relic among them all was
the skin of a huge lizard beast, the like of which none in England had
ever seen. This, the Pilgrims told their hosts, was no less a thing
than a crocodile from the Nile, the renowned river of Moses. It had
been pressed upon them, as they were departing from the City of
Damascus, by a friend, a blameless chiropodist, whose name was Omar
Khayyam. He it was who eked out a pious groat by tending the feet of
all outward and inward bound pilgrims. Seated at the entrance of his
humble booth, with the foot of some holy man in his lap, he would
speak words of kindness and wisdom as he reduced the inflammation. One
of his quaintest sayings was, "If the Pope has bid thee wear hair next
thy bare skin, my son, why, clap a wig over thy shaven scalp." So the
monks in proper pity and kindness, when they had shut the great gates
as night came down, made their pilgrim guests welcome to bide at
Oyster-le-Main as long as they pleased. The solemn bell for retiring
rolled forth in the darkness with a single deep clang, and the sound
went far and wide over the neighbouring district. Those peasants who
were still awake in their scattered cottages, crossed themselves as
they thought, "The holy men at Oyster-le-Main are just now going to
And thus the world outside grew still, and the thick walls of the
Monastery loomed up against the stars.
Deep in the midnight, many a choking cry rang fearfully through the
stony halls, but came not to the outer air; and the waning moon shone
faintly down upon the enclosure of the garden, where worked a band of
silent grave-diggers, clad in black armour, and with blood-red hands.
The good country folk, who came at early morning with their presents
of poultry and milk, little guessed what sheep's clothing the gray
cowls and gowns of Oyster-le-Main had become in a single night, nor
what impious lips those were which now muttered blessings over their
The following night, hideous sounds were heard in the fields, and
those who dared to open their shutters to see what the matter was,
beheld a huge lizard beast, with fiery breath and accompanied by
rattling thunder, raging over the soil, which he hardly seemed to
In this manner did the dreaded Dragon of Wantley make his appearance,
and in this manner did Sir Francis Almoign, Knight of the Voracious
Stomach, stand in the shoes of that Father Anselm whom he had put so
comfortably out of the way under the flower-beds in the Monastery
garden,—and never a soul in the world except his companions in ***
to know the difference. He even came to be welcome at Sir Godfrey's
table; for after the Dragon's appearance, the Baron grew civil to all
members of the Church. By day this versatile sinner, the Grand
Marshal, would walk in the sight of the world with staid step, clothed
in gray, his hood concealing his fierce, unchurchly eyes; by night,
inside the crocodile skin, he visited what places he chose, unhindered
by the terrified dwellers, and after him came his followers of the
Guild to steal the plunder and bear it back inside the walls of
Oyster-le-Main. Never in all their adventures had these superb
miscreants been in better plight; but now the trouble had begun, as
you are going to hear. We return to Hubert and the company.
"Hubert and all of you," said Father Anselm, or rather Sir Francis,
the Grand Marshal, as we know him to be, "they say that whom the gods
desire to destroy, him do they first make drunk with wine."
"The application! the application!" they shouted in hoarse and
mirthful chorus, for they were certainly near that state favourable to
destruction by the gods. One black fellow with a sliding gait ran into
the closet and brought a sheet of thin iron, and a strange torch-like
tube, which he lighted at the fire and blew into from the other end. A
plume of spitting flame immediately shot far into the air.
"Before thy sermon proceeds, old Dragon," he said, puffing unsteady
but solemn breaths between his words, "wrap up in lightning and
thunder that we may be—may be—lieve what you say." Then he shook the
iron till it gave forth a frightful shattering sound. The Grand
Marshal said not a word. With three long steps he stood towering in
front of the man and dealt him a side blow under the ear with his
steel fist. He fell instantly, folding together like something
boneless, and lay along the floor for a moment quite still, except
that some piece in his armour made a light rattling as though there
were muscles that quivered beneath it. Then he raised himself slowly
to a bench where his brothers sat waiting, soberly enough. Only young
Hubert grinned aside to his neighbour, who, perceiving it, kept his
eyes fixed as far from that youth as possible.
"Thy turn next, if art not careful, Hubert," said Sir Francis very
quietly, as he seated himself.
"Wonder of saints!" Hubert thought secretly, not moving at all, "how
could he have seen that?"
"'Tis no small piece of good fortune," continued the Grand Marshal,
"that some one among us can put aside his slavish appetites, and keep
a clear eye on the watch against misadventure. Here is my news. That
hotch-pot of lies we set going among the people has fallen foul of
us. The daughter of Sir Godfrey has heard our legend, and last week
told her sire that to-night she would follow it out to the letter, and
meet the Dragon of Wantley alone in single combat."
"Has she never loved any man?" asked one.
"She fulfils every condition."
"Who told her?"
"That most consummate of fools, the Mistletoe," said the Grand
"What did Sir Godfrey do upon that?" inquired Hubert.
"He locked up his girl and chained the Governess to a rock, where she
has remained in deadly terror ever since, but kept fat for me to
devour her. Me!" and Sir Francis permitted himself to smile, though
not very broadly.
"How if Sir Dragon had found the maid chained instead of the ancient
widow?" Hubert said, venturing to tread a little nearer to familiarity
on the strength of the amusement which played across the Grand
"Ah, Hubert boy," he replied, "I see it is not in the Spring only,
but in Autumn and Summer and Winter as well, that thy fancy turns to
thoughts of love. Did the calendar year but contain a fifth season, in
that also wouldst thou be making honey-dew faces at somebody."
But young Hubert only grinned, and closed his flashing eyes a little,
in satisfaction at the character which had been given him.
"Time presses," Sir Francis said. "By noon we shall receive an
important visit. There has been a great sensation at Wantley. The
country folk are aroused; the farmers have discovered that the secret
of our legend has been revealed to Miss Elaine. Not one of the clowns
would have dared reveal it himself, but all rejoice in the bottom of
their hearts that she knows it, and chooses to risk battle with the
Dragon. Their honest Saxon minds perceive the thrift of such an
arrangement. Therefore there is general anxiety and disturbance to
know if Sir Godfrey will permit the conflict. The loss of his
Malvoisie tried him sorely,—but he remains a father."
"That's kind in him," said Hubert.
Sir Francis turned a cold eye on Hubert. "As befits a clean-blooded
man," he proceeded, "I have risen at the dawn and left you wine-pots
in your thick sleep. From the wood's edge over by Wantley I've watched
the Baron come eagerly to an upper window in his white night-shift.
And when he looks out on Mistletoe and sees she is not devoured, he
bursts into a rage that can be plainly seen from a distance. These six
mornings I laughed so loud at this spectacle, that I almost feared
discovery. Next, the Baron visits his daughter, only to find her food
untasted and herself silent. I fear she is less of a fool than the
rest. But now his paternal heart smites him, and he has let her out.
Also the Governess is free."
"Such a girl as that would not flinch from meeting our Dragon," said
Hubert; "aye, or from seeking him."
"She must never meet the Dragon," Sir Francis declared. "What could I
do shut up in the crocodile, and she with a sword, of course?"
They were gloomily silent.
"I could not devour her properly as a dragon should. Nor could I carry
her away," pursued Sir Francis.
Here Hubert, who had gone to the window, returned hastily, exclaiming,
"They are coming!"
"Who are coming?" asked several.
"The Baron, his daughter, the Governess, and all Wantley at their
backs, to ask our pious advice," said the Grand Marshal. "Quick, into
your gowns, one and all! Be monks outside, though you stay men
underneath." For a while the hall was filled with jostling gray
figures entangled in the thick folds of the gowns, into which the
arms, legs, and heads had been thrust regardless of direction; the
armour clashed invisible underneath as the hot and choked members of
the Guild plunged about like wild animals sewed into sacks, in their
struggles to reappear in decent monastic attire. The winged crocodile
was kicked into the closet, after it were hurled the thunder machine
and the lightning torch, and after them clattered the cups and the
silver rundlet. Barely had Hubert turned the key, when knocking at the
far-off gate was heard.
"Go down quickly, Hubert," said the Grand Marshal, "and lead them all
Presently the procession of laity, gravely escorted by Hubert, began
to file into the now barren-looking room, while the monks stood with
hands folded, and sang loudly what sounded to the uninstructed ears of
each listener like a Latin hymn.
Thus ends Chapter IV �