The Gentle Cockatrice

by Laurence Housman

Far above the terraces of vine, where the goat pastures ended and the rocks began, the eye could take a clear view over the whole plain. From that point the world below spread itself out like a green map, and the only walls one could see were the white flanks and tower of the cathedral rising up from the grey roofs of the city; as for the streets, they seemed to be but narrow foot-tracks, on which people appeared like ants walking.

This was the view of the town which Beppo, the son of the common hangman, loved best. It was little pleasure to him to be down there, where all the other lads drove him from their play: for the hang-man had had too much to do with the fathers and brothers of some of them, and his son was not popular. When there was a hanging they would rush off to the public square to see it; afterwards they made it their sport to play at hanging Beppo, if by chance they could catch him; and that play had a way at times of coming uncomfortably near to reality.

Beppo did not himself go to the square when his father's trade was on; the near view did not please him. Perched on the rocky hillside, he would look down upon a gathering of black specks, where two others stood detached upon a space in their midst, and would know that there his father was hanging a man.

Sometimes it was more than one, and that made Beppo afraid. For he knew that for every man that he hanged his father took a dram to give him courage for the work; and if there were several poor fellows to be cast off from life, the hangman was not pleasant company afterwards for those very near and dear to him.

It happened one day that the hangman was to give the rope to five fellows, the most popular and devil-may-care rakes and roysterers in the whole town. Beppo was up very early that morning, and at the first streak of light had dropped himself over the wall into the town ditch, and was away for the open country and the free air of the hills; for he knew that neither at home nor in the streets would life be worth living for a week after, because of all the vengeances that would fall on him.

Therefore he had taken from the home larder a loaf of bread and a clump of dried figs; and with these hoped to stand the siege of a week's solitude rather than fall in with the hard dealings of his own kind. He knew a cave, above where the goats found pasture, out of which a little red, rusty water trickled; there he thought to make himself a castle and dream dreams, and was sure he would be happy enough, if only he did not grow afraid.

Beppo had discovered the cave one day from seeing a goat push out through a thicket of creepers on the side of the hill; and, hidden under their leaves, he had found it a wonderful, cool refuge from the heat of summer noons. Now, as he entered, the place struck very cold; for it was early spring, and the earth was not yet warmed through with the sun. So he set himself to gather dead grass, and briers, and tufts of goat's hair, and from farther down the hillside the wood of a ruined goat-paddock, till he had a great store of fuel at hand. He worked all day like a squirrel for its winter hoard; and as his pile mounted he grew less and less afraid of the cave where he meant to live.

Seeing so large a heap of stuff ready for the feeding of his fire, he began to rise to great heights in his own imagination. First he had been a poor outlaw, a mere sheep-stealer hiding from men's clutches; then he became a robber-chief; and at last he was no less than the king of the mountains.

"This mountain is all caves," he said to himself, "and all the caves are full of gold; and I am the king to whom it all belongs."

In the evening Beppo lighted his fire, in the far back of his cave, where its light would not be seen, and sat down by its warmth to eat dried figs and bread and drink brackish water. To-morrow he meant to catch a kid and roast it and eat it. Why should he ever go home again? Kid was good—he did not get that to eat when he was at home; and now in the streets the boys must be looking for him to play at their cruel game of hanging. Why should he go back at all?

The fire licked its way up the long walls of the cavern; slowly the warmth crept round on all sides. The rock where Beppo laid his hand was no longer damp and cold; he made himself a bed of the driest litter in a niche close to the fire, laid his head on a smooth knob of stone, and slept. But even in his sleep he remembered his fire, dreading to awake and find himself in darkness. Every time the warmth of it diminished he raised himself and put on more fuel.

In the morning—for faint blue edges of light marking the ridged throat of the cavern told that outside the day had begun—he woke fully, and the fire still burned. As he lay, his pillow of rock felt warm and almost soft; and, strangely enough, through it there went a beating sound as of blood. This must be his own brain that he heard; but he lifted his head, and where he laid his hand could feel a slow movement of life going on under it. Then he stared hard at the overhanging rock, and surely it heaved softly up and down, like some great thing breathing slowly in its sleep.

Yet he could make out no shape at all till, having run to the other side of the cave, he turned to see the whole face of the rock which seemed to be taking on life. Then he realised very gradually what looked to be the throat and jaws of a great monster lying along the ground, while all the rest passed away into shadow or lay buried under masses of rock, which closed round it like a mould. Below the nether jaw-bone the flames licked and caressed the throat; and the tough, mud-coloured hide ruffled and smoothed again as if grateful for the heat that tickled its way in.

Very slowly indeed the great Cockatrice, which had lain buried for thousands of years, out of reach of the light or heat of the sun, was coming round again to life. That was Beppo's own doing, and for some very curious reason he was not afraid.

His heart was uplifted. "This is my cave," thought he, "so this must be my Cockatrice! Now I will ride out on him and conquer the world. I shall be really a king then!"

He guessed that it must have been the warmth which had waked the Cockatrice, so he made fires all down the side of the cave; wherever the great flank of the Cockatrice seemed to show, there he lighted a fire to put heat into the slumbering body of the beast.

"Warm up, old fellow," he cried; "thaw out, I tell you! I want you to talk to me."

Presently the mouth of the Cockatrice unsealed itself, and began to babble of green fields. "Hay—I want hay!" said the Cockatrice; "or grass. Does the world contain any grass?"

Beppo went out, and presently returned with an armful. Very slowly the Cockatrice began munching the fresh fodder, and Beppo, intent on feeding him back to life, ran to and fro between the hillside and the cavern till he was exhausted and could go no more. He sat down and watched the Cockatrice finish his meal.

Presently, when the monster found that his fodder was at an end, he puckered a great lid, and far up aloft in the wall of the cave flashed out a green eye.

If all the emeralds in the world were gathered together, they might shine like that; if all the glow-worms came up out of the fields and put their tails together, they might make as great an orb of fire. All the cave looked as green as grass when the eye of the Cockatrice lighted on it; and Beppo, seeing so mighty an optic turning its rays on him, felt all at once shrivelled and small, and very weak at the knees.

"Oh, Cockatrice," he said, in a monstrous sad voice, "I hope I haven't hurt you!"

"On the contrary," said the Cockatrice, "you have done me much good. What are you going to do with me now?"

"I do with you?" cried Beppo, astonished at so wild a possibility offering to come true. "I would like to get you out, of course—but can I?"

"I would like that dearly also!" said the Cockatrice.

"But how can I?" inquired Beppo.

"Keep me warm and feed me," re-turned the monster. "Presently I shall be able to find out where my tail is. When I can move that I shall be able to get out."

Beppo undertook whatever the Cockatrice told him—it was so grand to have a Cockatrice of his own. But it was a hard life, stoking up fires day and night, and bringing the Cockatrice the fodder necessary to replenish his drowsy being. When Beppo was quite tired out he would come and lay his head against the monster's snout; and the Cockatrice would open a benevolent eye and look at him affectionately.

"Dear Cockatrice," said the boy one day, "tell me about yourself, and how you lived and what the world was like when you were free!"

"Do you see any green in my eye?" said the Cockatrice.

"I do, indeed!" said Beppo. "I never saw anything so green in all the world."

"That's all right, then!" said the Cockatrice. "Climb up and look in, and you will see what the world was like when I was young."

So Beppo climbed and scrambled, and slipped and clung, till he found himself on the margin of a wonderful green lake, which was but the opening into the whole eye of the Cockatrice.

And as soon as Beppo looked, he had lost his heart for ever to the world he saw there. It was there, quite real before him: a whole world full of living and moving things—the world before the trouble of man came to it.

"I see green hills, and fields, and rocks, and trees," cried Beppo, "and among them a lot of little Cockatrices are playing!"

"They were my brothers and sisters; I remember them," said the Cockatrice. "I have them all in my mind's eye. Call them—perhaps they will come and talk to you; you will find them very nice and friendly."

"They are too far off," said Beppo, "they cannot hear me."

"Ah, yes," murmured the Cockatrice, "memory is a wonderful thing!"

When Beppo came down again he was quite giddy, and lost in wonder and joy over the beautiful green world the Cockatrice had shown him. "I like that better than this!" said he.

"So do I," said the Cockatrice. "But perhaps, when my tail gets free, I shall feel better."

One morning he said to Beppo: "I do really begin to feel my tail. It is somewhere away down the hill yonder. Go and look out for me, and tell me if you can see it moving."

So Beppo went to the mouth of the cave, and looked out towards the city, over all the rocks and ridges and goat-pastures and slopes of vine that lay between.

Suddenly, as he looked, the steeple of the cathedral tottered, and down fell its weathercock and two of its pinnacles, and half the chimneys of the town snapped off their tops. All that distance away Beppo could hear the terrified screams of the inhabitants as they ran out of their houses in terror.

"I've done it!" cried the Cockatrice, from within the cave.

"But you mustn't do that!" exclaimed Beppo in horror.

"Mustn't do what?" inquired the Cockatrice.

"You mustn't wag your tail! You don't know what you are doing!"

"Oh, master!" wailed the Cockatrice; "mayn't I? For the first time this thousand years I have felt young again."

Beppo was pale and trembling with agitation over the fearful effects of that first tail-wagging. "You mustn't feel young!" said he.

"Why not?" asked the Cockatrice, with a piteous wail.

"There isn't room in the world for a Cockatrice to feel young nowadays," answered Beppo gravely.

"But, dear little master and benefactor," cried the Cockatrice, "what did you wake me up for?"

"I don't know," replied Beppo, terribly perplexed. "I wouldn't have done it had I known where your tail was."

"Where is it?" inquired the Cockatrice, with great interest. "It's right underneath the city where I mean to be king," said Beppo; "and if you move it the city will come down; and then I shall have nothing to be king of."

"Very well," said the Cockatrice sadly; "I will wait!"

"Wait for what?" thought Beppo. "Waiting won't do any good." And he began to think what he must do. "You lie quite still!" said he to the Cockatrice. "Go to sleep, and I will still look after you."

"Oh, little master," said the Cockatrice, "but it is difficult to go to sleep when the delicious trouble of spring is in one's tail! How long does this city of yours mean to stay there? I am so alive that I find it hard to shut an eye!"

"I will let the fires that keep you warm go down for a bit," said Beppo, "and you mustn't eat so much grass; then you will feel better, and your tail will be less of an anxiety."

And presently, when Beppo had let the fires which warmed him get low, and had let time go by without bringing him any fresh fodder, the Cockatrice dozed off into an uneasy, prehistoric slumber.

Then Beppo, weeping bitterly over his treachery to the poor beast which had trusted him, raked open the fires and stamped out the embers; and, leaving the poor Cockatrice to get cold, ran down the hill as fast as he could to the city he had saved—the city of which he meant to be king.

He had been away a good many days, but the boys in the street were still on the watch for him. He told them how he had saved the city from the earth-quake; and they beat him from the city gate to his father's door. He told his own father how he had saved the city; and his father beat him from his own door to the city gate. Nobody believed him.

He lay outside the town walls till it was dark, all smarting with his aches and pains; then, when nobody could see him, he got up and very miserably made his way back to the cave on the hill. And all the way he said to himself, "Shall I put fire under the Cockatrice once more, and make him shake the town into ruins? Would not that be fine?"

Inside, the cave was quite still and cold, and when he laid his hand on the Cockatrice he could not feel any stir or warmth in its bones. Yet when he called, the Cockatrice just opened a slit of his green eye and looked at him with trust and affection.

"Dear Cockatrice," cried Beppo, "forgive me for all the wrong I have done you!" And as he clambered his way toward the green light, a great tear rolled from under the heavy lid and flowed past him like a cataract.

"Dear Cockatrice," cried Beppo again, when he stood on the margin of the green lake, "take me to sleep with you in the land where the Cockatrices are at play, and keep quite still with your tail!"

Slowly and painfully the Cockatrice opened his eye enough to let Beppo slip through; and Beppo saw the green world with its playful cockatrices waiting to welcome him. Then the great eyelid shut down fast, and the waking days of the Cockatrice were over. And Beppo's native town lay safe, because he had learned from the Cockatrice to be patient and gentle, and had gone to be king of a green world where everything was harmless.