The Eyes of the Dragon, Page 2Stephen King
Some four years after the birth of Peter, on New Year's Day, a great blizzard visited Delain. It was the greatest, save one, in living memory--the other I'll tell you of later.
Heeding an impulse he could not explain even to himself, Flagg mixed the King a draught of double strength--perhaps it was something in the wind that urged him to do it. Ordinarily, Roland would have made a grimace at the awful taste and perhaps put it aside, but the excitement of the storm had caused the annual New Year's Day party to be especially gay, and Roland had become very drunk. The blazing fire on the hearth reminded him of the dragon's final explosive breath, and he had toasted the head, which was mounted on the wall, many times. So he drank the green potion off at a single gulp, and an evil lust fell upon him. He left the dining hall at once and visited Sasha. In the course of trying to love her, he hurt her.
"Please, Husband," she cried, sobbing.
"I'm sorry," he mumbled. "Huzzz . . ." He fell heavily asleep beside her and remained insensible for the next twenty hours. She never forgot the strange smell that had been on his breath that night. It had been a smell like rotten meat, a smell like death. Whatever, she wondered, had he been eating . . . or drinking?
Roland never touched Flagg's drink again, but Flagg was well satisfied, nevertheless. Nine months later, Sasha gave birth to Thomas, her second son. She died bringing him forth. Such things happened, of course, and while everyone was saddened, no one was really surprised. They believed they knew what had happened. But the only people in the Kingdom who really knew the circumstances of Sasha's death were Anna Crookbrows, the midwife, and Flagg, the King's magician. Flagg's patience with Sasha's meddling had finally run out.
Peter was only five when his mother died, but he remembered her dearly. He thought her sweet, tender, loving, full of mercy. But five is a young age, and most of his memories were not very specific. There was one clear memory which he held in his mind, however--it was of a reproach she had made to him. Much later, the memory of this reproach became vital to him. It had to do with his napkin.
Every first of Five-month, a feast was held at court to celebrate the spring plantings. In his fifth year, Peter was allowed to attend for the first time. Custom decreed that Roland should sit at the head of the table, the heir to the throne at his right hand, the Queen at the foot of the table. The practical result of this was that Peter would be out of her reach during the meal, and so Sasha coached him carefully beforehand on how he should behave. She wanted him to show up well, and to be mannerly. And, of course, she knew that during the meal he would be on his own, because his father had no idea of manners at all.
Some of you may wonder why the task of instructing Peter on his manners fell to Sasha. Did the boy not have a governess? (Yes, as a matter of fact he had two.) Were there no servants whose service was dedicated wholly to the little prince? (Battalions of them.) The trick was not to get these people to take care of Peter but to keep them away. Sasha wanted to raise him herself, at least as much as she could. She had very definite ideas about how her son should be raised. She loved him dearly and wanted to be with him for her own selfish reasons. But she also realized that she had a deep and solemn responsibility in the matter of Peter's nurture. This little boy would be King someday, and above all else, Sasha wanted him to be good. A good boy, she thought, would be a good King.
Great banquets in the King's Hall were not very neat affairs, and most nannies wouldn't have been very concerned about the little boy's table manners. Why, he is to be the King! they would have said, a little shocked at the idea that they should correct him in such piddling matters. Who cares if he spills the gravy boat? Who cares if he dribbles on his ruff, or even wipes his hands on it? Did not King Alan in the old days sometimes vomit into his plate and then command his court jester to come nigh and "drink this nice hot soup"? Did not King John often bite the heads off live trout and then put the flopping bodies into the bodices of the serving girls' dresses? Will not this banquet end up, as most banquets do, with the participants throwing food across the table at each other?
Undoubtedly it would, but by the time things degenerated to the food-throwing stage, she and Peter would long since have retired. What concerned Sasha was that attitude of who cares. She thought it was the worst idea anyone could ever plant in the head of a little boy destined to be King.
So Sasha instructed Peter carefully, and she observed him carefully on the night of the banquet. And later, as he lay sleepy in his bed, she talked to him.
Because she was a good mother, she first complimented him lovingly on his behavior and manners--and this was right, because for the most part they had been exemplary. But she knew that no one would correct him where he went wrong unless she did it herself, and she knew she must do it now, in these few years when he idolized her. So when she was finished complimenting him, she said:
"You did one thing wrong, Pete, and I never want to see you do it again."
Peter lay in his bed, his dark blue eyes looking at her solemnly. "What was that, Mother?"
"You didn't use your napkin," said she. "You left it folded by your plate, and it made me sorry to see it. You ate the roast chicken with your fingers, and that was fine, because that is how men do it. But when you put the chicken down again, you wiped your fingers on your shirt, and that is not right."
"But Father . . . and Mr. Flagg . . . and the other nobles . . ."
"Bother Flagg, and bother all the nobles in Delain!" she cried with such force that Peter cringed back in his bed a little. He was afraid and ashamed for having made those roses bloom in her cheeks. "What your father does is right, for he is the King, and what you do when you are King will always be right. But Flagg is not King, no matter how much he would like to be, and the nobles are not Kings, and you are not King yet, but only a little boy who forgot his manners."
She saw he was afraid, and smiled. She laid her hand on his brow.
"Be calm, Peter," she said. "It is a small thing, but still important--because you'll be King in your own time. Now run and fetch your slate."
"But it's bedtime--"
"Bother bedtime, too. Bedtime can wait. Bring your slate."
Peter ran for his slate.
Sasha took the chalk tied to the side and carefully printed three letters. "Can you read this word, Peter?"
Peter nodded. There were only a few words that he could read, although he knew most of the Great Letters. This happened to be one of the words. "It says GOD."
"Yes, that's right. Now write it backward and see what you find."
"Backward?" Peter said doubtfully.
"Yes, that's right."
Peter did so, his letters staggering childishly across the slate below his mother's neat printing. He was astounded to find another of the few words he could read.
"DOG! Mamma! It says DOG!"
"Yes. It says dog." The sadness in her voice quenched Peter's excitement at once. His mother pointed from GOD to DOG. "These are the two natures of man," she said. "Never forget them, because someday you will be King and Kings grow to be great and tall--as great and tall as dragons in their ninth moltings."
"Father isn't great and tall," objected Peter. Roland was, in fact, short and rather bowlegged. Also, he carried a great belly in front of him from all the beer and mead he had consumed.
"He is, though. Kings grow invisibly, Peter, and it happens all at once, as soon as they grasp the scepter and the crown is put on their heads in the Plaza of the Needle!"
"They do?" Peter's eyes grew large and round. He thought that the subject had wandered far from his failure to use his napkin at the banquet, but he was not sorry to see such an embarrassing topic lost in favor of this tremendously interesting one. Besides, he had already resolved that he would never forget to use his napkin again--if it was important to his mother, then it was important to him.
"Oh yes, they do. Kings grow most awfully big, and that's why they have to be specially careful, for a
very big person could crush smaller ones under his feet just taking a walk, or turning around, or sitting down quickly in the wrong place. Bad Kings do such things often. I think even good Kings cannot avoid doing them sometimes."
"I don't think I understand--"
"Then listen a moment longer." She tapped the slate again. "Our preachers say that our natures are partly of God and partly of Old Man Splitfoot. Do you know who Old Man Splitfoot is, Peter?"
"He's the devil."
"Yes. But there are few devils outside of made-up stories, Pete--most bad people are more like dogs than devils. Dogs are friendly but stupid, and that's the way most men and women are when they are drunk. When dogs are excited and confused, they may bite; when men are excited and confused, they may fight. Dogs are great pets because they are loyal, but if a pet is all a man is, he is a bad man, I think. Dogs can be brave, but they may also be cowards that will howl in the dark or run away from danger with their tails between their legs. A dog is just as eager to lick the hand of a bad master as he is to lick the hand of a good one, because dogs don't know the difference between good and bad. A dog will eat slops, vomit up the part his stomach can't stand, and then go back for more."
She fell silent for a moment, perhaps thinking of what was going on in the banqueting hall right now--men and women roaring with goodnatured drunken laughter, flinging food at each other, and sometimes turning aside to vomit casually on the floor beside their chairs. Roland was much the same, and sometimes this made her sad, but she did not hold it against him, nor did she tax him with it. It was his way. He might promise to reform in order to please her, and he might even do it, but he would not be the same man afterward.
"Do you understand these things, Peter?"
"Fine! Now, tell me." She leaned toward him. "Does a dog use a napkin?"
Humbled and ashamed, Peter looked down at the counterpane and shook his head. Apparently the conversation hadn't wandered as far as he had thought. Perhaps because the evening had been very full and because he was now very tired, tears rose in his eyes and spilled down his cheeks. He struggled against the sobs that wanted to come. He locked them in his chest. Sasha saw this and admired it.
"Don't cry over an unused napkin, my love," said Sasha, "for that was not my intention." She rose, her full and pregnant belly before her. The delivery of Thomas was now very near. "Your behavior was otherwise exemplary. Any mother in the Kingdom would have been proud of a young son who behaved himself half so well, and my heart is full with admiration for you. I only tell you these things because I am the mother of a prince. That is sometimes hard, but it cannot be changed, and i' truth, I would not change it if I could. But remember that someday lives will depend on your every waking motion; lives may even depend on dreams which come to you in sleep. Lives may not depend on whether or not you use your napkin after the roast chicken . . . but they may. They may. Lives have depended on less, at times. All I ask is that in everything you do, you try to remember the civilized side of your nature. The good side--the God side. Will you promise to do that, Peter?"
"Then all is well." She kissed him lightly. "Luckily, I am young and you are young. We will talk of these things more, when you have more understanding."
They never did, but Peter never forgot the lesson: he always used his napkin, even when those around him did not.
So Sasha died.
She has little more part in this story, yet there is one further thing about her you should know: she had a dollhouse. This dollhouse was very large and very fine, almost a castle in miniature. When the time of her marriage came round, Sasha mustered as much cheer as she could, but she was sad to be leaving everyone and everything at the great house in the Western Barony where she had grown up--and she was a little bit nervous, too. She told her mother, "I have never been married before and do not know if I shall like it."
But of all the childish things she left behind, the one she regretted most was the dollhouse she had had ever since she was a little girl.
Roland, who was a kind man, somehow discovered this, and although he was also nervous about his future life (after all, he had never been married before, either), he found time to commission Quentin Ellender, the greatest craftsman in the land, to build his new wife a new dollhouse. "I want it to be the finest dollhouse a young lady ever had," he told Ellender. "I want her to look at it once and forget about her old dollhouse forever."
As you'll no doubt realize, if Roland really meant this, it was a foolish thing to say. No one ever forgets a toy that made him or her supremely happy as a child, even if that toy is replaced by one like it that is much nicer. Sasha never forgot her old dollhouse, but she was quite impressed with the new one. Anyone who was not a total idiot would have been. Those who saw it declared it was Quentin Ellender's best work, and it may have been.
It was a country house in miniature, very like the one Sasha had lived in with her parents in rolling Western Barony. Everything in it was small, but so cunningly made you would swear it must really work . . . and most things in it did!
The stove, for instance, really got hot and would even cook tiny portions of food. If you put a piece of hard coal no bigger than a matchbox in it, it would burn all day . . . and if you reached into the kitchen with your clumsy big-person's finger and happened to touch the stove while the coal was burning, it would give you a burn for your pains. There were no faucets and no flushing toilets, because the Kingdom of Delain did not know about such things--and doesn't even to this day--but if you were very careful, you could pump water from a hand pump that stood not much taller than your pinkie finger. There was a sewing room with a spinning wheel that really spun and a loom that really wove. The spinet in the parlor would really play, if you touched the keys with a toothpick, and the tone was true. People who saw this said it was a miracle, and surely Flagg must have been involved somehow. When Flagg heard such stories, he only smiled and said nothing. He had not been involved in the dollhouse at all--he thought it a silly project, in truth--but he also knew it was not always necessary to make claims and tell people how wonderful you were to achieve greatness. Sometimes all you had to do was look wise and keep your mouth shut.
In Sasha's dollhouse were real Kashamin rugs, real velvet curtains, real china plates; the cold cabinet really kept things cold. The wainscoting in the receiving parlor and the front hall was of cherished ironwood. There was glass in all the windows and a many-colored fanlight over the wide front doors.
All in all it was the jolliest dollhouse any child ever dreamed of. Sasha clapped her hands over it with real delight at the wedding party when it was unveiled, and thanked her husband for it. Later she went to Ellender's workshop and not only thanked him but curtsied deeply before him, an act that was almost unheard of--in that day and age, Queens did not curtsy to mere artisans. Roland was pleased and Ellender, whose sight had failed noticeably in the course of the project, was deeply touched.
But it did not make her forget her old dear dollhouse at home, as ordinary as it seemed when compared with this one, and she did not spend as many rainy afternoons playing with it--rearranging the furniture, lighting the stove and watching the chimneys smoke, pretending that there was a high tea going on or that there was to be a great dinner party for the Queen--as she had before, even as an older girl of fifteen and sixteen. One of the reasons was very simple. There was no fun making ready for a pretend party at which the Queen would be in attendance when she was the Queen. And maybe that one reason was really all the reasons. She was a grown-up now, and she discovered that being a grown-up was not quite what she had suspected it would be when she was a child. She had thought then that she would make a conscious decision one day to simply put her toys and games and little make-believes away. Now she discovered that was not what happened at all. Instead, she discovered, interest simply faded. It became less and less and less, until a dust of years drew over the bright pleasures of childhood, a
nd they were forgotten.
Peter, a little boy who would someday be King, had dozens of toys--no, if I am to tell you the truth, he had thousands of toys. He had hundreds of lead soldiers with which he fought great battles, and dozens of play horses. He had games and balls and jacks and marbles. He had stilts that made him five feet high. He had a magical spring-stick on which he could bounce, and all the drawing paper he wanted in a time when paper was extremely hard to make and only wealthy people could afford to have it.
But of all the toys in the castle, the one he loved the best was his mother's dollhouse. He had never known the one in the Western Barony, and so to him this was the dollhouse of dollhouses. He would sit before it for hours on end when the rain poured down outside, or when the winter wind shrieked out of a blue throat filled with snow. When he fell ill with Children's Tattoo (a disease which we call chicken pox), he had a servant bring it to him on a special table that went over his bed and played with it almost ceaselessly until he was well.
He loved to imagine the tiny people that would fill the house; sometimes they were almost so real he could see them. He talked for them in different voices and invented them all. They were the King family. There was Roger King, who was brave and powerful (if not very tall, and slightly bowlegged), and who had once killed a dragon. There was lovely Sarah King, his wife. And there was their little boy, Petie, who loved and was loved by them. Not to mention, of course, all the servants he invented to make the beds, stoke the stove, fetch the water, cook the meals, and mend the clothes.