Edmund was a boy. The people who did not like him said that he was the most tiresome boy that ever lived, but his grandmother and his other friends said that he had an inquiring mind. And his granny often added that he was the best of boys. But she was very kind and very old.
Edmund loved to find out about things. Perhaps you will think that in that case he was constant in his attendance at school, since there, if anywhere, we may learn whatever there is to be learned. But Edmund did not want to learn things: He wanted to find things out, which is quite different. His inquiring mind led him to take clocks to pieces to see what made them go, to take locks off doors to see what made them stick. It was Edmund who cut open the India rubber ball to see what made it bounce, and he never did see, any more than you did when you tried the same experiment.
Edmund lived with his grandmother. She loved him very much, in spite of his inquiring mind, and hardly scolded him at all when he frizzled up her tortoiseshell comb in his anxiety to find out whether it was made of real tortoiseshell or of something that would burn. Edmund went to school, of course, now and then, and sometimes he could not prevent himself from learning something, but he never did it on purpose.
“It is such waste of time,” said he. “They only know what everybody knows. I want to find out new things that nobody has thought of but me.”
“I don’t think you’re likely to find out anything that none of the wise men in the whole world have thought of all these thousands of years,” said Granny.
But Edmund did not agree with her. He played truant whenever he could, for he was a kindhearted boy, and could not bear to think of a master’s time and labor being thrown away on a boy like himself–who did not wish to learn, only to find out–when there were so many worthy lads thirsting for instruction in geography and history and reading and ciphering, and Mr. Smiles’s “Self-Help.”
Other boys played truant too, of course–and these went nutting or blackberrying or wild plum gathering, but Edmund never went on the side of the town where the green woods and hedges grew. He always went up the mountain where the great rocks were, and the tall, dark pine trees, and where other people were afraid to go because of the strange noises that came out of the caves.
Edmund was not afraid of these noises–though they were very strange and terrible. He wanted to find out what made them.
One day he did. He had invented, all by himself, a very ingenious and new kind of lantern, made with a turnip and a tumbler, and when he took the candle out of Granny’s bedroom candlestick to put in it, it gave quite a splendid light.
He had to go to school next day, and he was caned for being absent without leave–although he very straightforwardly explained that he had been too busy making the lantern to have time to come to school.
But the day after he got up very early and took the lunch Granny had ready for him to take to school–two boiled eggs and an apple turnover–and he took his lantern and went off as straight as a dart to
the mountains to explore the caves.
The caves were very dark, but his lantern lighted them up beautifully; and they were most interesting caves, with stalactites and stalagmites and fossils, and all the things you read about in the instructive books for the young. But Edmund did not care for any of these things just then. He wanted to find out what made the noises that people were afraid of, and there was nothing in the caves to tell him.
Presently he sat down in the biggest cave and listened very carefully, and it seemed to him that he could distinguish three different sorts of noises. There was a heavy rumbling sound, like a very large old gentleman asleep after dinner; and there was a smaller sort of rumble going on at the same time; and there was a sort of crowing, clucking sound, such as a chicken might make if it happened to be as big as a haystack.
“It seems to me,” said Edmund to himself, “that the clucking is nearer than the others.” So he started up again and explored the caves once more. He found out nothing, but about halfway up the wall of the cave, he saw a hole. And, being a boy, he climbed up to it and crept in; and it was the entrance to a rocky passage. And now the clucking sounded more plainly than before, and he could hardly hear the rumbling at all.
“I am going to find out something at last,” said Edmund, and on he went. The passage wound and twisted, and twisted and turned, and turned and wound, but Edmund kept on.
“My lantern’s burning better and better,” said he presently, but the next minute he saw that all the light did not come from his lantern. It was a pale yellow light, and it shone down the passage far ahead of him through what looked like the chink of a door.
“I expect it’s the fire in the middle of the earth,” said Edmund, who had not been able to help learning about that at school.
But quite suddenly the fire ahead gave a pale flicker and went down; and the clucking ceased.
The next moment Edmund turned a corner and found himself in front of a rocky door. The door was ajar. He went in, and there was a round cave, like the dome of St. Paul’s. In the middle of the cave was a hole like a very big hand-washing basin, and in the middle of the basin Edmund saw a large pale person sitting.
This person had a man’s face and a griffin’s body, and big feathery wings, and a snake’s tail, and a cock’s comb and neck feathers.
“Whatever are you?” said Edmund.
“I’m a poor starving cockatrice,” answered the pale person in a very faint voice, “and I shall die–oh, I know I shall! My fire’s gone out! I can’t think how it happened; I must have been asleep. I have to stir it seven times round with my tail once in a hundred years to keep it alight, and my watch must have been wrong. And now I shall die.”
I think I have said before what a kindhearted boy Edmund was.