"What's a poor princess to do when she's dragooned into becoming a . . . "
By EVELYN E. SMITH
Illustrated by Docktor.
BACK in the Eleventh Century, I was the only daughter of a rich and powerful king in the North, as well as being the most beautiful woman in the known world, though I say it as shouldn't. Naturally a combination of such talents as my looks and my dowry would make princes come from far and near to seek my hand in marriage.
Of course they had to be princes; anyone else would be shown the drawbridge, if not the moat, immediately. After all, I did have a position to maintain.
I was pretty choosy — nobody was good enough for me. This one was this and that one was that, and Father was getting pretty exasperated. He wanted to marry me off so that he could form an alliance with an old dame who reigned in the South—and he knew how I felt about stepmothers.
Princes came from hither and princes came from yon. I turned all of them down, and not politely, either. Then Prince Suleiman came out of the East. He was young, handsome and talented. He was a very powerful magician and, in an age when printing and television had not yet been invented, a man who could do card tricks of a long winter evening was nothing to sneeze at. Besides, even a princess can turn into an old maid.
S0 I cast a favorable eye on his suit. The bargain was about to be clinched when I found out that his great-grandmother on his father's side had been a goose girl. Naturally I could not form a mes-alliance with anyone who had such a Rorshach on his escutcheon, 'even though I was crowding eighteen and well on my way to spinsterhood.
I tactfully told Suleiman we were through. "How durst thou aspire to the hand of one such as I, base-born varlet?" I demanded.
Having a had temper, he waxed mighty wroth. "Sayest thou so, jade! Well, if thou'lt not wed me, thoult wed no other."
I thought he meant he was my last chance, but it seemed that he had a more dynamic idea. He turned me into a dragon. "Thou shalt live forever in this loathly form," he told me, "thy own fair semblance vanished forever, lest thou canst persuade a prince to give thee a kiss. And thou shalt dwell in the remote fastnesses of this isle and be visible to mankind only once in a decade until and if thy prince come."
I tossed my head and snorted fire at him. "Thou mayst be noted for thy necromancy, Suleiman," I said with hauteur, "but, certes, not for thy originality. At any rate, it appears I'll outlive thee, scurvy knave, since thy curse seems to carry immortality along with it."
"I shall expend the entire resources of my magical art to make myself immortal as well," he sneered, "in order to have the pleasure of gloating over thee through the centuries." And, stepping upon his magic carpet, he was off.
Seeing that I was no longer a marriageable commodity, my father packed me off to Loch Ness and married the dame in the South. Later, I heard, she poisoned him and usurped his domains.
I LIVED in the bottom of the lake for some nine hundred years, emerging at ten-year intervals to see if there were any princes in the vicinity. But there was never anybody but a peasant or two, so I sneered at them and retired to my boudoir, where I slept between appearances. There is nothing that can ruin a girl's looks more than not getting enough sleep.
Of course, when I say there were no princes in the vicinity, I am not being strictly accurate. Suleiman was there, gloating—if you count him, that is. The first time I pretended neither to see him nor to hear his taunts, but paddled around, humming to myself with a dégagé air, and creating a mighty splash every time I came near his side of the lake. He was a nimble-footed youth, though, so I didn't succeed in dampening either his enthusiasm or his robes.
The second time I even deigned to speak to him, for twenty years without talking had been rather trying to a female of my temperament. And the local peasantry could not speak Dragon language, which was reserved for the nobility and gentry and, of course, dragons.
"Ho, varlet!" I said, trying to deluge him.
"Ha, hussy!" he retorted, springing aside.
The next time I appeared, he didn't show up at all. I began to think something had gone wrong with his plans for immortality, and I was glad. Only . . . he was the last remaining person of my acquaintance who could speak Dragon; in fact, he was the last remaining person of my acquaintance.
Apparently his spells were still working, however, for he did turn up a decade later. "Oh, good morrow, Suleiman," I said, throwing water at him. "Prithee, what is new?"
He leaped away, but was it my imagination or did a spot of moisture dabble the purple velvet of his robe? "Good morrow, cotquean," he replied. "Nothing of import. I believe some bastard from Normandy conquered the Saxons last year."
I snorted contemptuously. "Oh, those Southerners — anybody can conquer them!"
Suleiman didn't show for forty years. When he came, I was almost—not quite, mind you, but almost—glad to see him.
"I have come to gloat," he announced.
"Gloat away!" I splashed enthusiastically. He was absolutely drenched. "How now!" I exclaimed. "What hath befallen your erstwhile agility, Suleiman?"
"I've been sick," he explained.
But he didn't come again. So I was all by myself in the lake for eight hundred and fifty years. However, I always say if one has inner spiritual resources one is never really alone.
WHICH brings us up to date. One morning in 1957 came der tag. I smoothed down my scales, got my flame-thrower in working order and sallied forth to the surface ready to dazzle the world. By now I had virtually given up all hope of finding a prince and was interested primarily in frightening tourists. That always entertained me.
It was spring. The heather was in bloom. And there on the bank stood a prince.
To anybody else he would have been Fred Halbfranzband, Assistant Director of the New York Zoological Gardens, but I instantly recognized him as Manfred Agidius Rudiger Wolfgang Bonifaz Humfried von Halbfranzband und zu Saffian, rightful heir by lineal descent to the throne of Schwundia, which, even though that country had been absorbed into Luxembourg in 1867, still made him a prince in my book.
He was old, he was fat, he was nearsighted. I didn't care. All I wanted was for him to take me in his arms and kiss me—tenderly, passionately, paternally. I didn't care which type of osculation he used as long as the kiss itself was a fait accompli.
"Darling!" I trumpeted, leaping gracefully out of the lake. Water inundated him. In my girlish enthusiasm, I'd forgotten how much tonnage I drew. But he didn't mind. "Aha," he exclaimed, his pale blue eyes gleaming behind his spectacles, "just as I thought! The so-called Loch Ness Monster is nothing but a surviving specimen of Diplodocus Britannicus."
I drew myself up haughtily. "Diplodoca Britannica, if you please." But, to my astonishment, he couldn't understand Dragon. In my day, it had been a required course in all royal curricula—which just went to show how times had changed for the worse!
"Watch out, sir!" one of Manfred's assistants warned. "It looks dangerous."
Me dangerous? The idea was absurd! I was tempted to eat him just for daring to suggest such a thing, but I restrained myself. After all, he belonged to Manfred ... and so did I. Besides, I preferred herring, proving I was a dragon and not a diplodocus, because, I found out later, diplodoci are herbivorous!
"Kiss me, darling," I roared, nuzzling Manfred — which was quite a trick, as I had to keep my interior furnaces under control. A French-fried prince would be of absolutely no use to me.
"Nonsense," the prince said to his assistant, "the creature seems quite friendly. Probably the legend of its ferocity arose because tourists teased it." He extended a slightly shaky hand—apparently he hadn't quite convinced himself that I was the innocent, playful creature I appeared to be. "Come here, nice boy," he said.
Nice boy! A fine chance I had of getting him to kiss me!
But I kept my temper. I remembered that if I stuck with Manfred I could be visible all the time. And, as I was an exceptionally handsome dragon—if I do say so myself—I felt that more people should have the privilege of looking at me.
MANFRED took me down to London, where I was exhibited to vast, cheering throngs. Getting an exit visa presented no difficulty, but my entrance visa to the United States was harder. Somebody had written an anonymous letter to the State Department saying I was a subversive, and the prince had the damnedest time disproving it.
The ocean voyage was—to put it mildly—ghastly. It was ghastly for Manfred too, as never before in his long zoological career had it been necessary to take care of a seasick dragon. He was a pretty nice fellow; he came every day to my modest apartment in the hold to smooth my fevered brow and whisper words of encouragement, but he wouldn't kiss me. To tell the truth. I don't think it ever occurred to him.
I'd never before had any difficulty in getting a man to kiss me —quite the reverse, in fact—but I guess it's different when you're five-foot-seven, blonde and curved in the right places, from when you're eighty-five feet long, green and who cares where your curves are?
They gave me a ticker-tape parade down Broadway and did everything to make me feel at home; hung garlands around my neck and served up magnificent nut steaks (Manfred still was under the delusion that I was herbivorous) and chocolate creams. But nobody kissed me.
They put my picture in the papers (wrong profile) and wrote reams of copy about me; I appeared on television and was a smash hit. But nobody kissed me.
I was installed in the largest, handsomest, fanciest cage at the zoo (though I would have preferred a more exclusive one farther away from the refreshment stand), complete with private swimming pool. But nobody kissed me . . .
And then Manfred, my prince, left me, left me to go back to his wife—a middle-aged hausfrau whose bloodlines were absolutely anemic. Bourgeois, that's what he was. Bourgeois!
"Well, goodby, Dipsy," he said to me, not without regret, for he was, like all Mittel-European princes, a man of strong sentiment. "I'll drop by now and again to see how you're getting on."
I clung to him, crying so hard I almost put out my fires. My last hope was going. If he didn't kiss me, I would have to remain a dragon for the rest of my life and, since dragons are immortal unless killed by knights sans peur et sans reproche — a category which has been extinct for ages—that was a longish time.
"Look how fond she's grown of me," Manfred said, and there were tears behind his thick lenses. "Sometimes I almost think she understands. Honestly, Dipsy, I do hate to leave you, but you're going to have a very superior keeper taking care of you; he just came from the reptile house at Babylon with the finest credentials."
A little old man dressed in the blue uniform of the zoo attendants shuffled creakily into my cage, his eyes on the ground. "You'll take good care Of Dipsy, won't you, Sol?"
"Yessiree, Mr. Halbfranzband," Sol said in a cracked voice, "I sure will. You just leave her to me; I'll treat her right."
I snorted, but there was something . . . something . . .
EVEN after Manfred had left my cage, I still had the peculiar sensation that came to me whenever a prince was in the immediate vicinity.
I looked at Sol. Sol looked at me. There was something terribly familiar in those bloodshot gray eyes. "Prince Suleiman!" I exclaimed. "C'est toi!"
"See, I told „you," he cackled. "Made myself immortal so I could stay and gloat over you."
"You've certainly come down in the world," I observed. "Whatever happened to your Oriental riches?"
"Spent a lot on those two spells; they were both expensive ones," he explained. "Finally had to trade in my carpet. And then prices went up so during the last nine centuries I couldn't afford other transportation to go to Scotland for the gloating season."
"How did you get here?" I asked.
"Oh, I've been working at various zoos off and on for over a hundred years, ever since I lost my last shred of magic power. Knew you'd turn up at one some day so's I could resume gloating."
"By the way," I said, "I may have been misinformed, but I had understood that Babylon was kaputt."
"That's Babylon, Babylonia," he told me. "I worked for the zoo in Babylon, Suffolk County, Long Island,"
I looked him over critically. "You haven't kept yourself in very good condition. You look more like a thousand than only nine hundred and fifty-two years."
"Forgot to sign up for perpetual youth along with immortality. Ah, if only, when I was a student, I had paid more attention to the classics and less to Hermes Trismegistus," he sighed, "this would never have happened."
I had a smashing idea. "Listen, Suleiman," I burbled, "you'll always be a prince, come what may. And in 1957 I can afford to be broad-minded; after all, what is a goose girl in the family tree compared to what current royalty is allying itself with? Why don't you kiss me?"
"I? Kiss you?" He chewed his ragged white mustache thoughtfully. "That's right—I could break the spell, couldn't I?"
"Sure," I replied excitedly. "And if you kiss me I'll turn back into a princess again. And I'll marry you. Nine hundred and thirty years ago, you vowed eternal devotion. Don't tell me that the mere passage of time has made you fickle?"
He smiled, showing long yellow teeth. "Oh, I'm still true to you, Dipsy. And, to prove that I love you for yourself and not for your beauty, I'm going to leave you in your present form so I can demonstrate my faithfulness."
"You mean you won't kiss me?" I breathed fire.
"That's right. Then you were eighteen and I was twenty-two, we were just right for each other. But, if I kiss you, you'll become an eighteen-year-old princess again, while I'll still be a nine hundred and fifty-two-year-old zoo attendant. You wouldn't stay with me, for I'll have neither spells nor money to hold you. Anyway, at my age I'm too old for the pleasures of the flesh. I can enjoy a beautiful spiritual communion with you in your dragon shape."
"I could eat you," I threatened. "Let's see what chance immortality has against the gastric juices."
"Sure you could. But remember you'd be eating the only person remaining in the world who can understand Dragon. Immortality is a long and lonely thing, Dipsy."
SO it looked as if I were stuck. I tried to rationalize the situation. After all, I told myself, the zoo was better than the bottom of the lake. Certainly I had much more chance of running into a prince there. Moreover, I led an active social life—people thronged like mad from all over to see me, quite like in the old days at dear Papa's court—and Suleiman read me all the latest books and periodicals so that I was au courant.
He also managed to convince Manfred that I wasn't entirely herbivorous, and so occasionally I did get to have a nice kipper with my tea. And sometimes, when he was in a good mood, Suleiman would get me a box of popcorn from the refreshment and souvenir stand—I do so love popcorn. For a very special treat he would get me the raw kernels, and I would pop them myself inside my own personal furnace.
But, although physically comfortable, I was not happy. What annoyed me most were Saturdays. Saturday was Suleiman's day off, when I would be put in the charge of an absolute clod who not only couldn't speak Dragon, but had difficulties with all other languages. And Suleiman always rolled in early Sunday morning looking so happy! Not as if he'd missed me at all!
Of course he had spent some nine odd centuries without me, but I'd been under the impression that he'd spent them thinking of me. I began to suspect not only that he didn't love me any more but, what was worse, that he didn't even hate me very much.
Finally curiosity overcame pride. "Where do you go on Saturdays, Suleiman?" I asked with an idle yawn.
He shrugged. "Oh, just to a little club where we fellows get together on our days off and play a little poker or Russian roulette . .."
" 'We fellows,' " I repeated. I would have raised an eyebrow if I'd had any. "Surely you don't mean you hobnob with the other zoo attendants in your leisure time?"
Suleiman had eyebrows and he used them. "Certainly not. We weren't drawn together by a common occupation but by uncommon bloodlines. All of us are princes."
"Princes!" I repeated. I couldn't help it—I drooled . . . great, unladylike gouts of flame.
"Why, Manhattan Island is filthy with deposed royalty," he taunted me. "Just in our club alone there's Ignace, he's doorman at the Waldorf, and Rodolphe, headwaiter at the Stork, and Vsevolod has the knife-checking concession at a Forty-second Street penny arcade—"
"Say, why don't you bring some of them around to see me, Suleiman?" I interrupted. "Sort of a treat for them .. . and, of course," I added graciously, "for me, too." Princes . . . one of them must understand Dragon.
He grinned evilly. "Why not? I'm sure they'd like to meet you. After all, you are by way of being a celebrity."
S0 the next Saturday he brought a whole gaggle of princes over, emanating royalty so hard I nearly burned myself up in my excitement. "Kiss me," I kept trumpeting. "The third bar in the cage is loose; I'm too big to get out but you can get in. Come on, kiss me —you don't know what you're missing."
But they didn't understand. Like Manfred, they were illiterate. The modern prince is educated for coping with revolving doors rather than dragons. And Suleiman had known. He wanted me to be miserable.
"She has such sympathetic eyes," Vsevolod sighed. "Somehow I feel she must have suffered." And he sighed, being a Russian prince, and whispered dramatically, "I, too, have suffered."
Oh, he was so understanding and he had such sympathetic eyes himself—besides being the youngest and handsomest and best-blooded of the lot. If only he had just been able to understand a little more.
"Which side of Forty-second Street did you say Vsevolod's penny arcade was on?" I asked Suleiman after they'd left.
He laughed nastily. "The south. But you'll never see it, Dipsy. Even if you could get out of your cage, how would you persuade Vsevolod to kiss you? He wouldn't think your eyes were so sympathetic if he got really close."
Oh, is that so? I thought. That determined me. Before, I had just been hoping to get back my original shape; now I was going to do something about it. Somehow, some way I was going to get kissed. And by a prince—a genuine, authentic prince—or, wait a minute, the spell hadn't specified authenticity. All it had said was that a prince had to give me a kiss. And spells usually tended to be literal in their application . . .
It was a couple of days after I had met Vsevolod that I heard a loud commotion at the gates to the zoo. A small yipping dog flashed beneath the outstretched arms of the guards and bounded down the path, followed at a short distance by a small yipping child. This sort of thing happened from time to time at the zoo and normally I kept myself aloof from such vulgar disturbances. But this time it was different, for the child was shrieking, "Here, Prince! Nice Princey! Come here!"
My ears rose and so did Suleiman's. "Come here, Prince," I cooed thunderously. "Nice doggie."
The mutt swerved toward my cage. Most dogs instinctively understand Dragon.
"Oh, no you don't!" Suleiman snarled, grabbing the animal as it tried to slip between the bars.
"Please, Suleiman," I begged. "He reminds me of my swift-footed greyhound, Alisoun, back in the days when I was a happy princess."
"I'm not going to have the creature slobber all over you and turn you back into a happy princess again," he told me nastily. "Here —" he handed the dog to the child —"and don't let it get inside the zoo again. There's some mighty ferocious beasts around here as would gollup him in one mouthful."
"O000, thank you, sir," the child said, bestowing a sickening look of gratitude on Suleiman. "Bad Princey! Nasty old dinosaur might've swallered you up."
I wasn't as upset by this booule-versement as I let on, because I'd actually achieved my purpose and found out what I wanted to know. The spell worked literally or Suleiman wouldn't have been so apprehensive. But I carried on furiously, howling and trumpeting and crying until I was sure Suleiman would be convinced that I felt my last hope was gone.
AFTER a few hours of my loud agonies, Manfred himself appeared. "What have you been doing to Dipsy, Sol?" he demanded. "Complaints have been pouring in from visitors. They say you're beating her."
I gave a heart-rending moan.
"Oh, no, Mr. Halbfranzband," Suleiman denied. "It wasn't like that at all. This here little dog runs into her cage, see, and Dipsy makes for it—like as if to gollup it, see? And—"
"Nonsense," Manfred interrupted coldly. "Diplodoci are herbiverous, as you might have read for yourself in my book Dinosaurs I Have Known. One more disturbance like this, Sol, and we'll have to get Dipsy another keeper. In my position I simply cannot afford to antagonize the ASPCA." He turned and walked away.
"How about that, Dipsy?" Suleiman asked. "You wouldn't like that, would you? Another keeper probably wouldn't understand Dragon."
"Yeah, but it would be worse for you," I returned. "I'm your whole raison d'être. How'd you like not being able to taunt me except from outside my cage, like an ordinary visitor? And I'll bet if I screamed hard enough you'd be barred from the zoo. I throw a little weight around here myself, you know."
"Look, Dipsy," he promised desperately, "I'll do anything you like, except put you in the way of getting kissed. After all, you couldn't expect me to do that."
"All right," I conceded, with an amiability that would have aroused the suspicions of a more intelligent man. "Read to me from the paper."
So he read to me. Visitors gathered around to watch the pretty sight. There was one small child munching on an interesting and colorful assortment of sweets in a cellophane bag which obscured none of their beauties. I was fascinated, but I tore my eyes away.
"News, news, news!" I suddenly interrupted Suleiman's reading. "Who wants your old news? What do I care what happens to all those peasants? Find me a paper with something interesting in it. Read to me of romance, adventure, excitement among the upper classes."
"What do I care for your squalid little wars, your sordid little senators? What are the dukes and kings doing, I want to know? Who won the third at Epsom?"
"Look here, Dipsy—" He was getting angry; I'd counted on that terribly bad temper of his.
"I bet you're making up everything you read," I persisted. "It's too stupid to have been put down in black and white. Only a moron like you could possibly imagine such things."
He crumpled up the paper and flung it straight in my face. "All right, then, read it yourself!"
"Shame!" cried the crowd.
IT wasn't the indignity that bothered me. I eagerly looked down at myself, but I was still green, still eighty-five feet long, still a dragon. What had gone wrong? I had been smacked in the face by the public prints! I should have turned into a princess.
Suddenly , Suleiman caught on. He began to laugh. "Won't work, Dipsy," he cackled. "Prints might've passed, but smack is a colloquial term, and a literal spell doesn't comprehend colloquialisms."
I burst into hot, angry tears, accompanied with vociferous ululation. Several people detached themselves from the crowd and started walking purposefully toward the Administration Building, obviously to inform Manfred that Suleiman wasn't doing right by me.
"Oh, for God's sake, Dipsy, look happy!" Suleiman urged. "Why must you cut off your nose to spite your face?"
"I look unhappy because I am unhappy!" I howled. "And what's more I shall rage and scream and trumpet and stamp all my feet!"
"Isn't there anything . . . how about a nice bag of popcorn?"
I affected to consider his proposition. "Candy," I said. "I'll be quiet for candy."
He breathed a sigh of relief. "All right, I'll get you some from the refreshment stand."
"No, the refreshment stand always has the same old candy bars. I want a salmagundi like that one." I pointed toward the child with the cellophane bag.
"Oh, all right. I'll see if I can get it for you."
There was no difficulty, for the child proved more than willing to part with its candy for the munificent sum of fifty cents. I calmed down as Suleiman began to feed me the sweets. "Isn't that cute?" the child's mother cooed.
Suleiman gave me a handful of jelly beans and chocolate lentils and then a handful of gum drops and hard candies.
I could see Manfred approaching in the distance, breathing fire almost as well as I could. "Now do try to look happy, Dipsy," Suleiman urged, glancing nervously over his shoulder as he unwrapped the silver foil from a small piece of chocolate.
Smiling broadly, I opened my mouth. Suleiman popped the candy kiss inside.
I closed my mouth. There was a strange shrinking sensation all over me. I had won. After nine hundred and thirty years I was a princess again.
The crowd stared, open-mouthed. "All done with mirrors, folks," I told them cheerfully as I pushed aside the third bar and stepped out.
"Really, Sol," Manfred said indignantly as he met me leaving, "you should know better than to entertain friends in the animal cages. I think you had better turn in your . . . Where is Dipsy? What have you done with her?"
I smiled ravishingly at the refreshment-stand attendant. He just stared at me. "You'll let me have this to remember you by, won't you?" I asked, picking up a street guide to Manhattan. "Let me see — Forty-second Street is due south of here, isn't it?"
He nodded dumbly. I started walking in that direction. After all, bloodlines may not be particularly important when it's a question of breaking a spell, but when it comes to forming a permanent alliance they cannot be overlooked.
From Beyond Fiction #10 (1955). Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.
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