The Princess and Curdie/Chapter 24


CURDIE sat and watched every motion of the sleeping king. All the night, to his ear, the palace lay as quiet as a nursery of healthful children. At sunrise he called the princess.

"How has his Majesty slept?" were her first words as she entered the room.

"Quite quietly," answered Curdie; "that is, since the doctor was got rid of."

"How did you manage that?" inquired Irene; and Curdie had to tell all about it.

"How terrible!" she said. "Did it not startle the king dreadfully?"

"It did rather. I found him getting out of bed, sword in hand."

"The brave old man!" cried the princess.

"Not so old!" said Curdie, "—as you will soon see. He went off again in a minute or so; but for a little while he was restless, and once when he lifted his hand it came down on the spikes of his crown, and he half waked."

"But where is the crown?" cried Irene, in sudden terror.

"I stroked his hands," answered Curdie, "and took the crown from them; and ever since he has slept quietly, and again and again smiled in his sleep."

"I have never seen him do that," said the princess. "But what have you done with the crown, Curdie?"

"Look," said Curdie, moving away from the bedside.

Irene followed him—and there, in the middle of the floor, she saw a strange sight. Lina lay at full length, fast asleep, her tail stretched out straight behind her and her fore-legs before her: between the two paws meeting in front of it, her nose just touching it behind, glowed and flashed the crown, like a nest for the humming-birds of heaven.

Irene gazed, and looked up with a smile.

"But what if the thief were to come, and she not to wake?" she said. "Shall I try her?" And as she spoke she stooped towards the crown.

"No, no, no! " cried Curdie, terrified. "She would frighten you out of your wits. I would do it to show you, but she would wake your father. You have no conception with what a roar she would spring at my throat. But you shall see how lightly she wakes the moment I speak to her.—Lina!"

She was on her feet the same instant, with her great tail sticking out straight behind her, just as it had been lying.

"Good dog!" said the princess, and patted her head. Lina wagged her tail solemnly, like the boom of an anchored sloop. Irene took the crown, and laid it where the king would see it when he woke.

"Now, princess," said Curdie, "I must leave you for a few minutes. You must bolt the door, please, and not open it to any one."

Away to the cellar he went with Lina, taking care, as they passed through the servants' hall, to get her a good breakfast. In about one minute she had eaten what he gave her, and looked up in his face: it was not more she wanted, but work. So out of the cellar they went through the passage, and Curdie into the dungeon, where he pulled up Lina, opened the door, let her out, and shut it again behind her. As he reached the door of the king's chamber, Lina was flying out of the gate of Gwyntystorm as fast as her mighty legs could carry her.

"What's come to the wench?" growled the men-servants one to another, when the chambermaid appeared among them the next morning. There was something in her face which they could not understand, and did not like.

"Are we all dirt?" they said. "What are you thinking about? Have you seen yourself in the glass this morning, miss?"

She made no answer.

"Do you want to be treated as you deserve, or will you speak, you hussy?" said the first woman-cook. "I would fain know what right you have to put on a face like that!"

"You won't believe me," said the girl.

"Of course not. What is it?"

"I must tell you, whether you believe me or not," she said.

"Of course you must."

"It is this, then: if you do not repent of your bad ways, you are all going to be punished—all turned out of the palace together."

"A mighty punishment!" said the butler. "A good riddance, say I, of the trouble of keeping minxes like you in order! And why, pray, should we be turned out? What have I to repent of now, your holiness?"

"That you know best yourself," said the girl.

"A pretty piece of insolence! How should I know, forsooth, what a menial like you has got against me! There are people in this house—oh! I'm not blind to their ways! but every one for himself, say I!—Pray, Miss Judgment, who gave you such an impertinent message to his majesty's household?"

"One who is come to set things right in the king's house."

"Right, indeed!" cried the butler; but that moment the thought came back to him of the roar he had heard in the cellar, and he turned pale and was silent.

The steward took it up next.

"And pray, pretty prophetess," he said, attempting to chuck her under the chin, "what have I got to repent of?"

"That you know best yourself," said the girl "You have but to look into your books or your heart."

"Can you tell me, then, what I have to repent of?" said the groom of the chambers.

"That you know best yourself," said the girl once more. "The person who told me to tell you said the servants of this house had to repent of thieving, and lying, and unkindness, and drinking; and they will be made to repent of them one way, if they don't do it of themselves another."

Then arose a great hubbub; for by this time all the servants in the house were gathered about her, and all talked together, in towering indignation.

"Thieving, indeed!" cried one. "A pretty word in a house where everything is left lying about in a shameless way, tempting poor innocent girls!—a house where nobody cares for anything, or has the least respect to the value of property!"

"I suppose you envy me this brooch of mine," said another. "There was just a half-sheet of note-paper about it, not a scrap more, in a drawer that's always open in the writing-table in the study! What sort of a place is that for a jewel? Can you call it stealing to take a thing from such a place as that? Nobody cared a straw about it. It might as well have been in the dust-hole! If it had been locked up—then, to be sure!"

"Drinking!" said the chief porter, with a husky laugh. "And who wouldn't drink when he had a chance? Or who would repent it, except that the drink was gone? Tell me that, Miss Innocence."

"Lying!" said a great, coarse footman. "I suppose you mean when I told you yesterday you were a pretty girl when you didn't pout? Lying, indeed! Tell us something worth repenting of! Lying is the way of Gwyntystorm. You should have heard Jabez lying to the cook last night! He wanted a sweetbread for his pup, and pretended it was for the princess! Ha! ha! ha!"

"Unkindness! I wonder who's unkind! Going and listening to any stranger against her fellow-servants, and then bringing back his wicked words to trouble them!" said the oldest and worst of the housemaids. "—One of ourselves, too!—Come, you hypocrite! this is all an invention of yours and your young man's, to take your revenge of us because we found you out in a lie last night. Tell true now:—wasn't it the same that stole the loaf and the pie that sent you with the impudent message?"

As she said this, she stepped up to the housemaid and gave her, instead of time to answer, a box on the ear that almost threw her down; and whoever could get at her began to push and hustle and pinch and punch her.

"You invite your fate," she said quietly.

They fell furiously upon her, drove her from the hall with kicks and blows, hustled her along the passage, and threw her down the stair to the wine-cellar, then locked the door at the top of it, and went back to their breakfast.

In the meantime the king and the princess had had their bread and wine, and the princess, with Curdie's help, had made the room as tidy as she could—they were terribly neglected by the servants. And now Curdie set himself to interest and amuse the king, and prevent him from thinking too much, in order that he might the sooner think the better. Presently, at his majesty's request, he began from the beginning, and told everything he could recall of his life, about his father and mother and their cottage on the mountain, of the inside of the mountain and the work there, about the goblins and his adventures with them. When he came to finding the princess and her nurse overtaken by the twilight on the mountain, Irene took up her share of the tale, and told all about herself to that point, and then Curdie took it up again; and so they went on, each fitting in the part that the other did not know, thus keeping the hoop of the story running straight; and the king listened with wondering and delighted ears, astonished to find what he could so ill comprehend, yet fitting so well together from the lips of two narrators. At last, with the mission given him by the wonderful princess and his consequent adventures, Curdie brought up the whole tale to the present moment. Then a silence fell, and Irene and Curdie thought the king was asleep. But he was far from it; he was thinking about many things. After a long pause he said:—

"Now at last, my children, I am compelled to believe many things I could not and do not yet understand—things I used to hear, and sometimes see, as often as I visited my mother's home. Once, for instance, I heard my mother say to her father—speaking of me—'He is a good, honest boy, but he will be an old man before he understands;' and my grandfather answered, 'Keep up your heart, child: my mother will look after him.' I thought often of their words, and the many strange things besides I both heard and saw in that house; but by degrees, because I could not understand them, I gave up thinking of them. And indeed I had almost forgotten them, when you, my child, talking that day about the Queen Irene and her pigeons, and what you had seen in her garret, brought them all back to my mind in a vague mass. But now they keep coming back to me, one by one, every one for itself; and I shall just hold my peace, and lie here quite still, and think about them all till I get well again."

What he meant they could not quite understand, but they saw plainly that already he was better.

"Put away my crown," he said. "I am tired of seeing it, and have no more any fear of its safety."

They put it away together, withdrew from the bedside, and left him in peace.