Up the stair then they went, and the next and the next, and through the long rows of empty rooms, and up the little tower stair, Irene growing happier and happier as she ascended. There was no answer when she knocked at length at the door of the workroom, nor could she hear any sound of the spinning-wheel, and once more her heart sank within her, but only for one moment, as she turned and knocked at the other door.
'Come in,' answered the sweet voice of her grandmother, and Irene opened the door and entered, followed by Curdie.
'You darling!' cried the lady, who was seated by a fire of red roses mingled with white. 'I've been waiting for you, and indeed getting a little anxious about you, and beginning to think whether I had not better go and fetch you myself.'
As she spoke she took the little princess in her arms and placed her upon her lap. She was dressed in white now, and looking if possible more lovely than ever.
'I've brought Curdie, grandmother. He wouldn't believe what I told him and so I've brought him.'
'Yes - I see him. He is a good boy, Curdie, and a brave boy. Aren't you glad you've got him out?'
'Yes, grandmother. But it wasn't very good of him not to believe me when I was telling him the truth.'
'People must believe what they can, and those who believe more must not be hard upon those who believe less. I doubt if you would have believed it all yourself if you hadn't seen some of it.'
'Ah! yes, grandmother, I dare say. I'm sure you are right. But he'll believe now.'
'I don't know that,' replied her grandmother.
'Won't you, Curdie?' said Irene, looking round at him as she asked the question. He was standing in the middle of the floor, staring, and looking strangely bewildered. This she thought came of his astonishment at the beauty of the lady. 'Make a bow to my grandmother, Curdie,' she said.
'I don't see any grandmother,' answered Curdie rather gruffly.
'Don't see my grandmother, when I'm sitting in her lap?' exclaimed the princess.
'No, I don't,' reiterated Curdie, in an offended tone.
'Don't you see the lovely fire of roses - white ones amongst them this time?' asked Irene, almost as bewildered as he.
'No, I don't,' answered Curdie, almost sulkily.
'Nor the blue bed? Nor the rose-coloured counterpane? - Nor the beautiful light, like the moon, hanging from the roof?'
'You're making game of me, Your Royal Highness; and after what we have come through together this day, I don't think it is kind of you,' said Curdie, feeling very much hurt.
'Then what do you see?' asked Irene, who perceived at once that for her not to believe him was at least as bad as for him not to believe her.
'I see a big, bare, garret-room - like the one in mother's cottage, only big enough to take the cottage itself in, and leave a good margin all round,' answered Curdie.
'And what more do you see?'
'I see a tub, and a heap of musty straw, and a withered apple, and a ray of sunlight coming through a hole in the middle of the roof and shining on your head, and making all the place look a curious dusky brown. I think you had better drop it, princess, and go down to the nursery, like a good girl.'
'But don't you hear my grandmother talking to me?' asked Irene, almost crying.
'No. I hear the cooing of a lot of pigeons. If you won't come down, I will go without you. I think that will be better anyhow, for I'm sure nobody who met us would believe a word we said to them. They would think we made it all up. I don't expect anybody but my own father and mother to believe me. They know I wouldn't tell a story.'
'And yet you won't believe me, Curdie?' expostulated the princess, now fairly crying with vexation and sorrow at the gulf between her and Curdie.
'No. I can't, and I can't help it,' said Curdie, turning to leave the room.
'What SHALL I do, grandmother?' sobbed the princess, turning her face round upon the lady's bosom, and shaking with suppressed sobs.
'You must give him time,' said her grandmother; 'and you must be content not to be believed for a while. It is very hard to bear; but I have had to bear it, and shall have to bear it many a time yet. I will take care of what Curdie thinks of you in the end. You must let him go now.'
'You're not coming, are you?' asked Curdie.
'No, Curdie; my grandmother says I must let you go. Turn to the right when you get to the bottom of all the stairs, and that will take you to the hall where the great door is.'
'Oh! I don't doubt I can find my way - without you, princess, or your old grannie's thread either,' said Curdie quite rudely.
'Oh, Curdie! Curdie!'
'I wish I had gone home at once. I'm very much obliged to you, Irene, for getting me out of that hole, but I wish you hadn't made a fool of me afterwards.'
He said this as he opened the door, which he left open, and, without another word, went down the stair. Irene listened with dismay to his departing footsteps. Then turning again to the lady:
'What does it all mean, grandmother?' she sobbed, and burst into fresh tears.
'It means, my love, that I did not mean to show myself. Curdie is not yet able to believe some things. Seeing is not believing - it is only seeing. You remember I told you that if Lootie were to see me, she would rub her eyes, forget the half she saw, and call the other half nonsense.'
'Yes; but I should have thought Curdie -'
'You are right. Curdie is much farther on than Lootie, and you will see what will come of it. But in the meantime you must be content, I say, to be misunderstood for a while. We are all very anxious to be understood, and it is very hard not to be. But there is one thing much more necessary.'
'What is that, grandmother?'
'To understand other people.'
'Yes, grandmother. I must be fair - for if I'm not fair to other people, I'm not worth being understood myself. I see. So as Curdie can't help it, I will not be vexed with him, but just wait.'
'There's my own dear child,' said her grandmother, and pressed her close to her bosom.
'Why weren't you in your workroom when we came up, grandmother?' asked Irene, after a few moments' silence.
'If I had been there, Curdie would have seen me well enough. But why should I be there rather than in this beautiful room?'
'I thought you would be spinning.'
'I've nobody to spin for just at present. I never spin without knowing for whom I am spinning.'
'That reminds me - there is one thing that puzzles me,' said the princess: 'how are you to get the thread out of the mountain again? Surely you won't have to make another for me? That would be such a trouble!'
The lady set her down and rose and went to the fire. Putting in her hand, she drew it out again and held up the shining ball between her finger and thumb.
'I've got it now, you see,' she said, coming back to the princess, 'all ready for you when you want it.'
Going to her cabinet, she laid it in the same drawer as before.
'And here is your ring,' she added, taking it from the little finger of her left hand and putting it on the forefinger of Irene's right hand.
'Oh, thank you, grandmother! I feel so safe now!'
'You are very tired, my child,' the lady went on. 'Your hands are hurt with the stones, and I have counted nine bruises on you. just look what you are like.'
And she held up to her a little mirror which she had brought from the cabinet. The princess burst into a merry laugh at the sight. She was so draggled with the stream and dirty with creeping through narrow places, that if she had seen the reflection without knowing it was a reflection, she would have taken herself for some gipsy child whose face was washed and hair combed about once in a month. The lady laughed too, and lifting her again upon her knee, took off her cloak and night-gown. Then she carried her to the side of the room. Irene wondered what she was going to do with her, but asked no questions - only starting a little when she found that she was going to lay her in the large silver bath; for as she looked into it, again she saw no bottom, but the stars shining miles away, as it seemed, in a great blue gulf. Her hands closed involuntarily on the beautiful arms that held her, and that was all.
The lady pressed her once more to her bosom, saying:
'Do not be afraid, my child.'
'No, grandmother,' answered the princess, with a little gasp; and the next instant she sank in the clear cool water.
When she opened her eyes, she saw nothing but a strange lovely blue over and beneath and all about her. The lady, and the beautiful room, had vanished from her sight, and she seemed utterly alone. But instead of being afraid, she felt more than happy - perfectly blissful. And from somewhere came the voice of the lady, singing a strange sweet song, of which she could distinguish every word; but of the sense she had only a feeling - no understanding. Nor could she remember a single line after it was gone. It vanished, like the poetry in a dream, as fast as it came. In after years, however, she would sometimes fancy that snatches of melody suddenly rising in her brain must be little phrases and fragments of the air of that song; and the very fancy would make her happier, and abler to do her duty.
How long she lay in the water she did not know. It seemed a long time - not from weariness but from pleasure. But at last she felt the beautiful hands lay hold of her, and through the gurgling water she was lifted out into the lovely room. The lady carried her to the fire, and sat down with her in her lap, and dried her tenderly with the softest towel. It was so different from Lootie's drying. When the lady had done, she stooped to the fire, and drew from it her night-gown, as white as snow.
'How delicious!' exclaimed the princess. 'It smells of all the roses in the world, I think.'
When she stood up on the floor she felt as if she had been made over again. Every bruise and all weariness were gone, and her hands were soft and whole as ever.
'Now I am going to put you to bed for a good sleep,' said her grandmother.
'But what will Lootie be thinking? And what am I to say to her when she asks me where I have been?'
'Don't trouble yourself about it. You will find it all come right,' said her grandmother, and laid her into the blue bed, under the rosy counterpane.
'There is just one thing more,' said Irene. 'I am a little anxious about Curdie. As I brought him into the house, I ought to have seen him safe on his way home.'
'I took care of all that,' answered the lady. 'I told you to let him go, and therefore I was bound to look after him. Nobody saw him, and he is now eating a good dinner in his mother's cottage far up in the mountain.'
'Then I will go to sleep,' said Irene, and in a few minutes she was fast asleep.