Of all the people who did not like Prigio, his own dear papa, King Grognio, disliked him most. For the king knew he was not clever, himself. When he was in the counting-house, counting out his money, and when he happened to say, “Sixteen shillings and fourteen and twopence are three pounds, fifteen,” it made him wild to hear Prigio whisper, “One pound, ten and twopence”—which, of course, it is. And the king was afraid that Prigio would conspire, and get made king himself—which was the last thing Prigio really wanted. He much preferred to idle about, and know everything without seeming to take any trouble.
Well, the king thought and thought. How was he to get Prigio out of the way, and make Enrico or Alphonso his successor? He read in books about it; and all the books showed that, if a king sent his three sons to do anything, it was always the youngest who did it, and got the crown. And he wished he had the chance. Well, it arrived at last.
There was a very hot summer! It began to be hot in March. All the rivers were dried up. The grass did not grow. The corn did not grow. The thermometers exploded with heat. The barometers stood at SET FAIR. The people were much distressed, and came and broke the palace windows—as they usually do when things go wrong in Pantouflia.
The king consulted the learned men about the Court, who told him that probably a
was in the neighbourhood.
Now, the Firedrake is a beast, or bird, about the bigness of an elephant. Its body is made of iron, and it is always red-hot. A more terrible and cruel beast cannot be imagined; for, if you go near it, you are at once broiled by the Firedrake.
But the king was not ill-pleased: “for,” thought he, “of course my three sons must go after the brute, the eldest first; and, as usual, it will kill the first two, and be beaten by the youngest. It is a little hard on Enrico, poor boy; but anything to get rid of that Prigio!”
Then the king went to Prigio, and said that his country was in danger, and that he was determined to leave the crown to whichever of them would bring him the horns (for it has horns) and tail of the Firedrake.
“It is an awkward brute to tackle,” the king said, “but you are the oldest, my lad; go where glory waits you! Put on your armour, and be off with you!”
This the king said, hoping that either the Firedrake would roast Prince Prigio alive (which he could easily do, as I have said; for he is all over as hot as a red-hot poker), or that, if the prince succeeded, at least his country would be freed from the monster.
But the prince, who was lying on the sofa doing sums in compound division for fun, said in the politest way:
“Thanks to the education your majesty has given me, I have learned that the Firedrake, like the siren, the fairy, and so forth, is a fabulous animal which does not exist. But even granting, for the sake of argument, that there is a Firedrake, your majesty is well aware that there is no kind of use in sending me. It is always the eldest son who goes out first and comes to grief on these occasions, and it is always the third son that succeeds. Send Alphonso” (this was the youngest brother), “and he will do the trick at once. At least, if he fails, it will be most unusual, and Enrico can try his luck.”
Then he went back to his arithmetic and his slate, and the king had to send for Prince Alphonso and Prince Enrico. They both came in very warm; for they had been whipping tops, and the day was unusually hot.
“Look here,” said the king, “just you two younger ones look at Prigio! You see how hot it is, and how coolly he takes it, and the country suffering; and all on account of a Firedrake, you know, which has apparently built his nest not far off. Well, I have asked that lout of a brother of yours to kill it, and he says——”
“That he does not believe in Firedrakes,” interrupted Prigio. “The weather’s warm enough without going out hunting!”
“Not believe in Firedrakes!” cried Alphonso. “I wonder what you do believe in! Just let me get at the creature!” for he was as brave as a lion. “Hi! Page, my chain-armour, helmet, lance, and buckler! A Molinda! A Molinda!” which was his war-cry.
The page ran to get the armour; but it was so uncommonly hot that he dropped it, and put his fingers in his mouth, crying!
“You had better put on flannels, Alphonso, for this kind of work,” said Prigio. “And if I were you, I ‘d take a light garden-engine, full of water, to squirt at the enemy.”
“Happy thought!” said Alphonso. “I will!” And off he went, kissed his dear Molinda, bade her keep a lot of dances for him (there was to be a dance when he had killed the Firedrake), and then he rushed to the field! But he never came back any more!
Everyone wept bitterly—everyone but Prince Prigio; for he thought it was a practical joke, and said that Alphonso had taken the opportunity to start off on his travels and see the world.
“There is some dreadful mistake, sir,” said Prigio to the king. “You know as well as I do that the youngest son has always succeeded, up to now. But I entertain great hopes of Enrico!”
And he grinned; for he fancied it was all nonsense, and that there were no Firedrakes.
Enrico was present when Prigio was consoling the king in this unfeeling way.
“Enrico, my boy,” said his majesty, “the task awaits you, and the honour. When you come back with the horns and tail of the Fire-drake, you shall be crown prince; and Prigio shall be made an usher at the Grammar School—it is all he is fit for.”
Enrico was not quite so confident as Alphonso had been. He insisted on making his will; and he wrote a poem about the pleasures and advantages of dying young. This is part of it:
The violet is a blossom sweet,
That droops before the day is done—Slain by thine overpowering heat,
And I, like that sweet purple flower,
May roast, or boil, or broil, or bake,If burned by thy terrific power,
This poem comforted Enrico more or less, and he showed it to Prigio. But the prince only laughed, and said that the second line of the last verse was not very good; for violets do not “roast, or boil, or broil, or bake.”
Enrico tried to improve it, but could not. So he read it to his cousin, Lady Kathleena, just as it was; and she cried over it (though I don’t think she understood it); and Enrico cried a little, too.
However, next day he started, with a spear, a patent refrigerator, and a lot of the bottles people throw at fires to put them out.
But he never came back again!
After shedding torrents of tears, the king summoned Prince Prigio to his presence.
“Dastard!” he said. “Poltroon! Your turn, which should have come first, has arrived at last. You must fetch me the horns and the tail of the Firedrake. Probably you will be grilled, thank goodness; but who will give me back Enrico and Alphonso?”
“Indeed, your majesty,” said Prigio, “you must permit me to correct your policy. Your only reason for dispatching your sons in pursuit of this dangerous but I believe fabulous animal, was to ascertain which of us would most worthily succeed to your throne, at the date—long may it be deferred!—of your lamented decease. Now, there can be no further question about the matter. I, unworthy as I am, represent the sole hope of the royal family. Therefore to send me after the Firedrake were* both dangerous and unnecessary. Dangerous, because, if he treats me as you say he did my brothers—my unhappy brothers,—the throne of Pantouflia will want an heir. But, if I do come back alive—why, I cannot be more the true heir than I am at present; now can I? Ask the Lord Chief Justice, if you don’t believe me.”
These arguments were so clearly and undeniably correct that the king, unable to answer them, withdrew into a solitary place where he could express himself with freedom, and give rein to his passions.
* Subjunctive mood! He was a great grammarian!