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- The Holiday Round - 20/53 -
"My brother," said Beauty, "was to have met me here. He is late again." She sighed and added, "He used to be SO punctual."
"But how can I help him?" asked Charming.
"It is like this. The only way in which the enchantment can be taken off him is for someone to kill the Giant. But if once the enchantment has stayed on for seven years, then it stays on for ever."
Here she looked down and burst into tears.
"The seven years," she sobbed, "are over at sundown this afternoon."
"I see," said Charming thoughtfully.
"Here IS my brother," cried Beauty.
An enormous tortoise came slowly into view. Beauty rushed up to him and, having explained the situation rapidly, made the necessary introduction.
"Charmed," said the Tortoise. "You can't miss the castle; it's the only one near here, and Blunderbus is sure to be at home. I need not tell you how grateful I shall be if you kill him. Though I must say," he added, "it puzzles me to think how you are going to do it."
"I have a friend who will help me," said Charming, fingering his ring.
"Well, I only hope you'll be luckier than the others."
"The others?" cried Charming, in surprise.
"Yes; didn't she tell you about the others who had tried?"
"I forgot to," said Beauty, frowning at him.
"Ah, well, perhaps in that case we'd better not go into it now," said the Tortoise. "But before you start I should like to talk to you privately for a moment." He took Charming on one side and whispered, "I say, do YOU know anything about tortoises?"
"Very little," said Charming. "In fact--"
"Then you don't happen to know what they eat?"
"I'm afraid I don't."
"Dash it, why doesn't ANYBODY know? The others all made the most ridiculous suggestions. Steak and kidney puddings--and shrimp sandwiches--and buttered toast. Dear me! The nights we had after the shrimp sandwiches! And the fool swore he had kept tortoises all his life!"
"If I may say so," said Charming, "I should have thought that YOU would have known best."
"The same silly idea they all have," said the Tortoise testily. "When Blunderbus put this enchantment on me, do you suppose he got a blackboard and a piece of chalk and gave me a lecture on the diet and habits of the common tortoise, before showing me out of the front gate? No, he simply turned me into the form of a tortoise and left my mind and soul as it was before. I've got the anatomy of a tortoise, I've got the very delicate inside of a tortoise, but I don't THINK like one, stupid. Else I shouldn't mind being one."
"I never thought of that."
"No one does, except me. And I can think of nothing else." He paused and added confidentially, "We're trying rum omelettes just now. Somehow I don't think tortoises REALLY like them. However, we shall see. I suppose you've never heard anything definite against them?"
"You needn't bother about that," said Charming briskly. "By to-night you will be a man again." And he patted him encouragingly on the shell and returned to take an affectionate farewell of the Princess.
As soon as he was alone, Charming turned the ring round his finger, and the dwarf appeared before him.
"The same as usual?" said the dwarf, preparing to vanish at the word. He was just beginning to get into the swing of it.
"No, no," said Charming hastily. "I really want you this time." He thought for a moment. "I want," he said at last, "a sword. One that will kill giants."
Instantly a gleaming sword was at his feet. He picked it up and examined it.
"Is this really a magic sword?"
"It has but to inflict one scratch," said the dwarf, "and the result is death."
Charming, who had been feeling the blade, took his thumb away hastily.
"Then I shall want a cloak of darkness," he said.
"Behold, here it is. Beneath this cloak the wearer is invisible to the eyes of his enemies."
"One thing more," said Charming. "A pair of seven-league boots.... Thank you. That is all to-day."
Directly the dwarf was gone, Charming kicked off his shoes and stepped into the magic boots; then he seized the sword and the cloak and darted off on his lady's behest. He had barely gone a hundred paces before a sudden idea came to him, and he pulled himself up short.
"Let me see," he reflected; "the castle was ten miles away. These are seven-league boots--so that I have come about two thousand miles. I shall have to go back." He took some hasty steps back, and found himself in the wood from which he had started.
"Well?" said Princess Beauty, "have you killed him?"
"No, n-no," stammered Charming, "not exactly killed him. I was just--just practising something. The fact is," he added confidentially, "I've got a pair of new boots on, and--" He saw the look of cold surprise in her face and went on quickly, "I swear, Princess, that I will not return to you again without his head."
He took a quick step in the direction of the castle and found himself soaring over it; turned eleven miles off and stepped back a pace; overshot it again, and arrived at the very feet of the Princess.
"His head!" said Beauty eagerly.
"I--I must have dropped it," said Charming, hastily pretending to feel for it. "I'll just go and--" He stepped off in confusion.
Eleven miles the wrong side of the castle, Charming sat down to think it out. It was but two hours to sundown. Without his magic boots he would get to the castle too late. Of course, what he really wanted to do was to erect an isosceles triangle on a base of eleven miles, having two sides of twenty-one miles each. But this was before Euclid's time.
However, by taking one step to the north and another to the south-west, he found himself close enough. A short but painful walk, with his boots in his hand, brought him to his destination. He had a moment's natural hesitation about making a first call at the castle in his stockinged feet, but consoled himself with the thought that in life-and-death matters one cannot bother about little points of etiquette, and that, anyhow, the giant would not be able to see him. Then, donning the magic cloak, and with the magic sword in his hand, he entered the castle gates. For an instant his heart seemed to stop beating, but the thought of the Princess gave him new courage....
The Giant was sitting in front of the fire, his great spiked club between his knees. At Charming's entry he turned round, gave a start of surprise, bent forward eagerly a moment, and then leant back chuckling. Like most overgrown men he was naturally kind-hearted and had a simple humour, but he could be stubborn when he liked. The original affair of the tortoise seems to have shown him both at his best and at his worst.
"Why do you walk like that?" he said pleasantly to Charming. "The baby is not asleep."
Charming stopped short.
"You see me?" he cried furiously.
"Of course I do! Really, you mustn't expect to come into a house without anything on your feet and not be a LITTLE noticeable. Even in a crowd I should have picked you out."
"That miserable dwarf," said Charming savagely, "swore solemnly to me that beneath this cloak I was invisible to the eyes of my enemies!"
"But then we AREN'T enemies," smiled the Giant sweetly. "I like you immensely. There's something about you--directly you came in ... I think it must be love at first sight."
"So that's how he tricked me!"
"Oh, no, it wasn't really like that. The fact is you are invisible BENEATH that cloak, only--you'll excuse my pointing it out--there are such funny bits of you that aren't beneath the cloak. You've no idea how odd you look; just a head and two legs, and a couple of arms.... Waists," he murmured to himself, "are not being worn this year."
But Charming had had enough of talk. Gripping his sword firmly, he threw aside his useless cloak, dashed forward, and with a beautiful lunge pricked his enemy in the ankle.
"Victory!" he cried, waving his magic sword above his head. "Thus is Beauty's brother delivered!"
The Giant stared at him for a full minute. Then he put his hands to his sides and fell back shaking in his chair.
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