After about an hour, the door opened, and the baker’s man appeared with a pail in his hand. He went to a pump that stood in the street, and having filled his pail returned with it into the shop. Curdie stole after him, found the door on the latch, opened it very gently, peeped in, saw nobody, and entered. Remembering perfectly from what shelf the baker’s wife had taken the loaf she said was the best, and seeing just one upon it, he seized it, laid the price of it on the counter, and sped softly out, and up the street. Once more in the dungeon beside Lina, his first thought was to fasten up the door again, which would have been easy, so many iron fragments of all sorts and sizes lay about; but he bethought himself that if he left it as it was, and they came to find him, they would conclude at once that they had made their escape by it, and would look no farther so as to discover the hole. He therefore merely pushed the door close and left it. Then once more carefully arranging the earth behind the shutter, so that it should again fall with it, he returned to the cellar.
And now he had to convey the loaf to the princess. If he could venture to take it himself, well; if not, he would send Lina. He crept to the door of the servants’ hall, and found the sleepers beginning to stir. One said it was time to go to bed; another, that he would go to the cellar instead, and have a mug of wine to waken him up; while a third challenged a fourth to give him his revenge at some game or other.
‘Oh, hang your losses!’ answered his companion; ‘you’ll soon pick up twice as much about the house, if you but keep your eyes open.’
Perceiving there would be risk in attempting to pass through, and reflecting that the porters in the great hall would probably be awake also, Curdie went back to the cellar, took Irene’s handkerchief with the loaf in it, tied it round Lina’s neck, and told her to take it to the princess.
Using every shadow and every shelter, Lina slid through the servants like a shapeless terror through a guilty mind, and so, by corridor and great hall, up the stair to the king’s chamber.
Irene trembled a little when she saw her glide soundless in across the silent dusk of the morning, that filtered through the heavy drapery of the windows, but she recovered herself at once when she saw the bundle about her neck, for it both assured her of Curdie’s safety, and gave her hope of her father’s. She untied it with joy, and Lina stole away, silent as she had come. Her joy was the greater that the king had waked up a little before, and expressed a desire for food – not that he felt exactly hungry, he said, and yet he wanted something. If only he might have a piece of nice fresh bread! Irene had no knife, but with eager hands she broke a great piece from the loaf, and poured out a full glass of wine. The king ate and drank, enjoyed the bread and the wine much, and instantly fell asleep again.
It was hours before the lazy people brought their breakfast. When it came, Irene crumbled a little about, threw some into the fireplace, and managed to make the tray look just as usual.
in the meantime, down below in the cellar, Curdie was lying in the hollow between the upper sides of two of the great casks, the warmest place he could find. Lina was watching. She lay at his feet, across the two casks, and did her best so to arrange her huge tail that it should be a warm coverlid for her master.
By and by Dr Kelman called to see his patient; and now that Irene’s eyes were opened, she saw clearly enough that he was both annoyed and puzzled at finding His Majesty rather better. He pretended however to congratulate him, saying he believed he was quite fit to see the lord chamberlain: he wanted his signature to something important; only he must not strain his mind to understand it, whatever it might be: if His Majesty did, he would not be answerable for the consequences. The king said he would see the lord chamberlain, and the doctor went.
Then Irene gave him more bread and wine, and the king ate and drank, and smiled a feeble smile, the first real one she had seen for many a day. He said he felt much better, and would soon be able to take matters into his own hands again. He had a strange miserable feeling, he said, that things were going terribly wrong, although he could not tell how. Then the princess told him that Curdie had come, and that at night, when all was quiet for nobody in the palace must know, he would pay His Majesty a visit. Her great-great-grandmother had sent him, she said. The king looked strangely upon her, but the strange look passed into a smile clearer than the first, and irene’s heart throbbed with delight.
The Lord Chamberlain
At noon the lord chamberlain appeared. With a long, low bow, and paper in hand, he stepped softly into the room. Greeting His Majesty with every appearance of the profoundest respect, and congratulating him on the evident progress he had made, he declared himself sorry to trouble him, but there were certain papers, he said, which required his signature – and therewith drew nearer to the king, who lay looking at him doubtfully. He was a lean, long, yellow man, with a small head, bald over the top, and tufted at the back and about the ears. He had a very thin, prominent, hooked nose, and a quantity of loose skin under his chin and about the throat, which came craning up out of his neckcloth. His eyes were very small, sharp, and glittering, and looked black as jet. He had hardly enough of a mouth to make a smile with. His left hand held the paper, and the long, skinny fingers of his right a pen just dipped in ink.
But the king, who for weeks had scarcely known what he did, was today so much himself as to be aware that he was not quite himself; and the moment he saw the paper, he resolved that he would not sign without understanding and approving of it. He requested the lord chamberlain therefore to read it. His Lordship commenced at once but the difficulties he seemed to encounter, and the fits of stammering that seized him, roused the king’s suspicion tenfold. He called the princess.
‘I trouble His Lordship too much,’ he said to her: ‘you can read print well, my child – let me hear how you can read writing. Take that paper from His Lordship’s hand, and read it to me from beginning to end, while my lord drinks a glass of my favourite wine, and watches for your blunders.’
‘Pardon me, Your Majesty,’ said the lord chamberlain, with as much of a smile as he was able to extemporize, ‘but it were a thousand pities to put the attainments of Her Royal Highness to a test altogether too severe. Your Majesty can scarcely with justice expect the very organs of her speech to prove capable of compassing words so long, and to her so unintelligible.’
‘I think much of my little princess and her capabilities,’ returned the king, more and more aroused. ‘Pray, my lord, permit her to try.’
‘Consider, Your Majesty: the thing would be altogether without precedent. it would be to make sport of statecraft,’ said the lord chamberlain.
‘Perhaps you are right, my lord,’ answered the king, with more meaning than he intended should be manifest, while to his growing joy he felt new life and power throbbing in heart and brain. ‘So this morning we shall read no further. I am indeed ill able for business of such weight.’
‘Will Your Majesty please sign your royal name here?’ said the lord chamberlain, preferring the request as a matter of course, and approaching with the feather end of the pen pointed to a spot where there was a great red seal.
‘Not today, my lord,’ replied the king.
‘It is of the greatest importance, Your Majesty,’ softly insisted the other.
‘I descried no such importance in it,’ said the king.
‘Your Majesty heard but a part.’
‘And I can hear no more today.’
‘I trust Your Majesty has ground enough, in a case of necessity like the present, to sign upon the representation of his loyal subject and chamberlain? Or shall I call the lord chancellor?’ he added, rising.
‘There is no need. I have the very highest opinion of your judgement, my lord,’ answered the king; ‘that is, with respect to means: we might differ as to ends.’
The lord chamberlain made yet further attempts at persuasion; but they grew feebler and feebler, and he was at last compelled to retire without having gained his object. And well might his annoyance be keen! For that paper was the king’s will, drawn up by the attorney-general; nor until they had the king’s signature to it was there much use in venturing farther. But his worst sense of discomfiture arose from finding the king with so much capacity left, for the doctor had pledged himself so to weaken his brain that he should be as a child in their hands, incapable of refusing anything requested of him: His Lordship began to doubt the doctor’s fidelity to the conspiracy.
The princess was in high delight. She had not for weeks heard so many words, not to say words of such strength and reason, from her father’s lips: day by day he had been growIng weaker and more lethargic. He was so much exhausted, however, after this effort, that he asked for another piece of bread and more wine, and fell fast asleep the moment he had taken them.
The lord chamberlain sent in a rage for Dr Kelman. He came, and while professing himself unable to understand the symptoms described by His Lordship, yet pledged himself again that on the morrow the king should do whatever was required of him.
The day went on. When His Majesty was awake, the princess read to him – one storybook after another; and whatever she read, the king listened as if he had never heard anything so good before, making out in it the wisest meanings. Every now and then he asked for a piece of bread and a little wine, and every time he ate and drank he slept, and every time he woke he seemed better than the last time. The princess bearing her part, the loaf was eaten up and the flagon emptied before night. The butler took the flagon away, and brought it back filled to the brim, but both were thirsty and hungry when Curdie came again.
Meantime he and Lina, watching and waking alternately, had plenty of sleep. In the afternoon, peeping from the recess, they saw several of the servants enter hurriedly, one after the other, draw wine, drink it, and steal out; but their business was to take care of the king, not of his cellar, and they let them drink. Also, when the butler came to fill the flagon, they restrained themselves, for the villain’s fate was not yet ready for him. He looked terribly frightened, and had brought with him a large candle and a small terrier – which latter indeed threatened to be troublesome, for he went roving and sniffing about until he came to the recess where they were. But as soon as he showed himself, Lina opened her jaws so wide, and glared at him so horribly, that, without even uttering a whimper, he tucked his tail between his legs and ran to his master. He was drawing the wicked wine at the moment, and did not see him, else he would doubtless have run too.
When suppertime approached, Curdie took his place at the door into the servants’ hall; but after a long hour’s vain watch, he began to fear he should get nothing: there was so much idling about, as well as coming and going. it was hard to bear – chiefly from the attractions of a splendid loaf, just fresh out of the oven, which he longed to secure for the king and princess. At length his chance did arrive: he pounced upon the loaf and carried it away, and soon after got hold of a pie.
This time, however, both loaf and pie were missed. The cook was called. He declared he had provided both. One of themselves, he said, must have carried them away for some friend outside the palace. Then a housemaid, who had not long been one of them, said she had seen someone like a page running in the direction of the cellar with something in his hands. Instantly all turned upon the pages, accusing them, one after another. All denied, but nobody believed one of them: Where there is no truth there can be no faith.
To the cellar they all set out to look for the missing pie and loaf. Lina heard them coming, as well she might, for they were talking and quarrelling loud, and gave her master warning. They snatched up everything, and got all signs of their presence out at the back door before the servants entered. When they found nothing, they all turned on the chambermaid, and accused her, not only of lying against the pages, but of having taken the things herself. Their language and behaviour so disgusted Curdie, who could hear a great part of what passed, and he saw the danger of discovery now so much increased, that he began to devise how best at once to rid the palace of the whole pack of them. That, however, would be small gain so long as the treacherous officers of state continued in it. They must be first dealt with. A thought came to him, and the longer he looked at it the better he liked it.
As soon as the servants were gone, quarrelling and accusing all the way, they returned and finished their supper. Then Curdie, who had long been satisfied that Lina understood almost every word he said, communicated his plan to her, and knew by the wagging of her tail and the flashing of her eyes that she comprehended it. Until they had the king safe through the worst part of the night, however, nothing could be done.
They had now merely to go on waiting where they were till the household should be asleep. This waiting and waiting was much the hardest thing Curdie had to do in the whole affair. He took his mattock and, going again into the long passage, lighted a candle end and proceeded to examine the rock on all sides. But this was not merely to pass the time: he had a reason for it. When he broke the stone in the street, over which the baker fell, its appearance led him to pocket a fragment for further examination; and since then he had satisfied himself that it was the kind of stone in which gold is found, and that the yellow particles in it were pure metal. If such stone existed here in any plenty, he could soon make the king rich and independent of his ill-conditioned subjects. He was therefore now bent on an examination of the rock; nor had he been at it long before he was persuaded that there were large quantities of gold in the half-crystalline white stone, with its veins of opaque white and of green, of which the rock, so far as he had been able to inspect it, seemed almost entirely to consist. Every piece he broke was spotted with particles and little lumps of a lovely greenish yellow – and that was gold. Hitherto he had worked only in silver, but he had read, and heard talk, and knew, therefore, about gold. As soon as he had got the king free of rogues and villains, he would have all the best and most honest miners, with his father at the head of them, to work this rock for the king.
It was a great delight to him to use his mattock once more. The time went quickly, and when he left the passage to go to the king’s chamber, he had already a good heap of fragments behind the broken door.
As soon as he had reason to hope the way was clear, Curdie ventured softly into the hall, with Lina behind him. There was no one asleep on the bench or floor, but by the fading fire sat a girl weeping. It was the same who had seen him carrying off the food, and had been so hardly used for saying so. She opened her eyes when he appeared, but did not seem frightened at him.
‘I know why you weep,’ said Curdie, ‘and I am sorry for you.’
‘It is hard not to be believed just because one speaks the truth,’ said the girl, ‘but that seems reason enough with some people. My mother taught me to speak the truth, and took such pains with me that I should find it hard to tell a lie, though I could invent many a story these servants would believe at once; for the truth is a strange thing here, and they don’t know it when they see it. Show it them, and they all stare as if it were a wicked lie, and that with the lie yet warm that has just left their own mouths! You are a stranger,’ she said, and burst out weeping afresh, ‘but the stranger you are to such a place and such people the better!’
‘I am the person,’ said Curdie, whom you saw carrying the things from the supper table.’ He showed her the loaf. ‘If you can trust, as well as speak the truth, I will trust you. Can you trust me?’
She looked at him steadily for a moment.
‘I can,’ she answered.
‘One thing more,’ said Curdie: ‘have you courage as well as truth?’
‘I think so.’
‘Look my dog in the face and don’t cry out. Come here, Lina.’
Lina obeyed. The girl looked at her, and laid her hand on Lina’s head.
‘Now I know you are a true woman,’ said curdie. ‘I am come to set things right in this house. Not one of the servants knows I am here. Will you tell them tomorrow morning that, if they do not alter their ways, and give over drinking, and lying, and stealing, and unkindness, they shall every one of them be driven from the palace?’
‘They will not believe me.’
‘Most likely; but will you give them the chance?’
‘Then I will be your friend. Wait here till I come again.’
She looked him once more in the face, and sat down.
When he reached the royal chamber, he found His Majesty awake, and very anxiously expecting him. He received him with the utmost kindness, and at once, as it were, put himself in his hands by telling him all he knew concerning the state he was in. His voice was feeble, but his eye was clear, although now and then his words and thoughts seemed to wander. Curdie could not be certain that the cause of their not being intelligible to him did not lie in himself. The king told him that for some years, ever since his queen’s death, he had been losing heart over the wickedness of his people. He had tried hard to make them good, but they got worse and worse. Evil teachers, unknown to him, had crept into the schools; there was a general decay of truth and right principle at least in the city; and as that set the example to the nation, it must spread.
The main cause of his illness was the despondency with which the degeneration of his people affected him. He could not sleep, and had terrible dreams; while, to his unspeakable shame and distress, he doubted almost everybody. He had striven against his suspicion, but in vain, and his heart was sore, for his courtiers and councillors were really kind; only he could not think why none of their ladies came near his princess. The whole country was discontented, he heard, and there were signs of gathering storm outside as well as inside his borders. The master of the horse gave him sad news of the insubordination of the army; and his great white horse was dead, they told him; and his sword had lost its temper: it bent double the last time he tried it! – only perhaps that was in a dream; and they could not find his shield; and one of his spurs had lost the rowel.
Thus the poor king went wandering in a maze of sorrows, some of which were purely imaginary, while others were truer than he understood. He told how thieves came at night and tried to take his crown, so that he never dared let it out of his hands even when he slept; and how, every night, an evil demon in the shape of his physician came and poured poison down his throat. He knew it to be poison, he said, somehow, although it tasted like wine.
Here he stopped, faint with the unusual exertion of talking.
Curdie seized the flagon, and ran to the wine cellar.
In the servants’ hall the girl still sat by the fire, waiting for him. As he returned he told her to follow him, and left her at the chamber door until he should rejoin her. When the king had had a little wine, he informed him that he had already discovered certain of His Majesty’s enemies, and one of the worst of them was the doctor, for it was no other demon than the doctor himself who had been coming every night, and giving him a slow poison.
‘So!’ said the king. ‘Then I have not been suspicious enough, for I thought it was but a dream! Is it possible Kelman can be such a wretch? Who then am I to trust?’
‘Not one in the house, except the princess and myself,’ said Curdie.
‘I will not go to sleep,’ said the king.
‘That would be as bad as taking the poison,’ said Curdie. ‘No, no, sire; you must show your confidence by leaving all the watching to me, and doing all the sleeping Your Majesty can.’
The king smiled a contented smile, turned on his side, and was presently fast asleep. Then Curdie persuaded the princess also to go to sleep, and telling Lina to watch, went to the housemaid. He asked her if she could inform him which of the council slept in the palace, and show him their rooms. She knew every one of them, she said, and took him the round of all their doors, telling him which slept in each room. He then dismissed her, and returning to the king’s chamber, seated himself behind a curtain at the head of the bed, on the side farthest from the king. He told Lina to get under the bed, and make no noise.
About one o’clock the doctor came stealing in. He looked round for the princess, and seeing no one, smiled with satisfaction as he approached the wine where it stood under the lamp. Having partly filled a glass, he took from his pocket a small phial, and filled up the glass from it. The light fell upon his face from above, and Curdie saw the snake in it plainly visible. He had never beheld such an evil countenance: the man hated the king, and delighted in doing him wrong.
With the glass in his hand, he drew near the bed, set it down, and began his usual rude rousing of His Majesty. Not at once succeeding, he took a lancet from his pocket, and was parting its cover with an involuntary hiss of hate between his closed teeth, when Curdie stooped and whispered to Lina.
‘Take him by the leg, Lina.’ She darted noiselessly upon him. With a face of horrible consternation, he gave his leg one tug to free it; the next instant Curdie heard the one scrunch with which she crushed the bone like a stick of celery. He tumbled on the floor with a yell.
‘Drag him out, Lina,’ said Curdie.
Lina took him by the collar, and dragged him out. Her master followed her to direct her, and they left the doctor lying across the lord chamberlain’s door, where he gave another horrible yell, and fainted.
The king had waked at his first cry, and by the time Curdie re-entered he had got at his sword where it hung from the centre of the tester, had drawn it, and was trying to get out of bed. But when Curdie told him all was well, he lay down again as quietly as a child comforted by his mother from a troubled dream. Curdie went to the door to watch.
The doctor’s yells had aroused many, but not one had yet ventured to appear. Bells were rung violently, but none were answered; and in a minute or two Curdie had what he was watching for. The door of the lord chamberlain’s room opened, and, pale with hideous terror, His Lordship peeped out. Seeing no one, he advanced to step into the corridor, and tumbled over the doctor. Curdie ran up, and held out his hand. He received in it the claw of a bird of prey – vulture or
eagle, he could not tell which.
His Lordship, as soon as he was on his legs, taking him for one of the pages abused him heartily for not coming sooner, and threatened him with dismissal from the king’s service for cowardice and neglect. He began indeed what bade fair to be a sermon on the duties of a page, but catching sight of the man who lay at his door, and seeing it was the doctor, he fell upon Curdie afresh for standing there doing nothing, and ordered him to fetch immediate assistance. Curdie left him, but slipped into the King’s chamber, closed and locked the door, and left the rascals to look after each other. Ere long he heard hurrying footsteps, and for a few minutes there was a great muffled tumult of scuffling feet, low voices and deep groanings; then all was still again.
Irene slept through the whole – so confidently did she rest, knowing Curdie was in her father’s room watching over him.
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 forelegs 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 of 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 toward 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 menservants 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 judgement, 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 bustle 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.
There was nothing now to be dreaded from Dr Kelman, but it made Curdie anxious, as the evening drew near, to think that not a soul belonging to the court had been to visit the king, or ask how he did, that day. He feared, in some shape or other, a more determined assault. He had provided himself a place in the room, to which he might retreat upon approach, and whence he could watch; but not once had he had to betake himself to it.
Towards night the king fell asleep. Curdie thought more and more uneasily of the moment when he must again leave them for a little while. Deeper and deeper fell the shadows. No one came to light the lamp. The princess drew her chair close to Curdie: she would rather it were not so dark, she said. She was afraid of something – she could not tell what; nor could she give any reason for her fear but that all was so dreadfully still.
When it had been dark about an hour, Curdie thought Lina might have returned; and reflected that the sooner he went the less danger was there of any assault while he was away. There was more risk of his own presence being discovered, no doubt, but things were now drawing to a crisis, and it must be run. So, telling the princess to lock all the doors of the bedchamber, and let no one in, he took his mattock, and with here a run, and there a halt under cover, gained the door at the head of the cellar stair in safety. To his surprise he found it locked, and the key was gone. There was no time for deliberation. He felt where the lock was, and dealt it a tremendous blow with his mattock. It needed but a second to dash the door open. Someone laid a hand on his arm.
‘Who is it?’ said Curdie.
‘I told you they wouldn’t believe me, sir,’ said the housemaid. ‘I have been here all day.’
He took her hand, and said, ‘You are a good, brave girl. Now come with me, lest your enemies imprison you again.’
He took her to the cellar, locked the door, lighted a bit of candle, gave her a little wine, told her to wait there till he came, and went out the back way.
Swiftly he swung himself up into the dungeon. Lina had done her part. The place was swarming with creatures – animal forms wilder and more grotesque than ever ramped in nightmare dream. Close by the hole, waiting his coming, her green eyes piercing the gulf below, Lina had but just laid herself down when he appeared. All about the vault and up the slope of the rubbish heap lay and stood and squatted the forty-nine whose friendship Lina had conquered in the wood. They all came crowding about Curdie.
He must get them into the cellar as quickly as ever he could. But when he looked at the size of some of them, he feared it would be a long business to enlarge the hole sufficiently to let them through. At it he rushed, hitting vigorously at the edge with his mattock. At the very first blow came a splash from the water beneath, but ere he could heave a third, a creature like a tapir, only that the grasping point of its proboscis was hard as the steel of Curdie’s hammer, pushed him gently aside, making room for another creature, with a head like a great club, which it began banging upon the floor with terrible force and noise. After about a minute of this battery, the tapir came up again, shoved Clubhead aside, and putting its own head into the hole began gnawing at the sides of it with the finger of its nose, in such a fashion that the fragments fell in a continuous gravelly shower into the water. In a few minutes the opening was large enough for the biggest creature among them to get through it.
Next came the difficulty of letting them down: some were quite light, but the half of them were too heavy for the rope, not to say for his arms. The creatures themselves seemed to be puzzling where or how they were to go. One after another of them came up, looked down through the hole, and drew back. Curdie thought if he let Lina down, perhaps that would suggest something; possibly they did not see the opening on the other side. He did so, and Lina stood lighting up the entrance of the passage with her gleaming eyes.
One by one the creatures looked down again, and one by one they drew back, each standing aside to glance at the next, as if to say, Now you have a look. At last it came to the turn of the serpent with the long body, the four short legs behind, and the little wings before. No sooner had he poked his head through than he poked it farther through – and farther, and farther yet, until there was little more than his legs left in the dungeon. By that time he had got his head and neck well into the passage beside Lina. Then his legs gave a great waddle and spring, and he tumbled himself, far as there was betwixt them, heels over head into the passage.
‘That is all very well for you, Mr Legserpent!’ thought Curdie to himself; ‘but what is to be done with the rest?’ He had hardly time to think it, however, before the creature’s head appeared again through the floor. He caught hold of the bar of iron to which Curdie’s rope was tied, and settling it securely across the narrowest part of the irregular opening, held fast to it with his teeth. It was plain to Curdie, from the universal hardness among them, that they must all, at one time or another, have been creatures of the mines.
He saw at once what this one was after. The beast had planted his feet firmly upon the floor of the passage, and stretched his long body up and across the chasm to serve as a bridge for the rest. Curdie mounted instantly upon his neck, threw his arms round him as far as they would go, and slid down in ease and safety, the bridge just bending a little as his weight glided over it. But he thought some of the creatures would try the legserpent’s teeth.
one by one the oddities followed, and slid down in safety. When they seemed to be all landed, he counted them: there were but forty-eight. Up the rope again he went, and found one which had been afraid to trust himself to the bridge, and no wonder! for he had neither legs nor head nor arms nor tail: he was just a round thing, about a foot in diameter, with a nose and mouth and eyes on one side of the ball. He had made his journey by rolling as swiftly as the fleetest of them could run. The back of the legserpent not being flat, he could not quite trust himself to roll straight and not drop into the gulf. Curdie took him in his arms, and the moment he looked down through the hole, the bridge made itself again, and he slid into the passage in safety, with Ballbody in his bosom.
He ran first to the cellar to warn the girl not to be frightened at the avengers of wickedness. Then he called to Lina to bring in her friends.
One after another they came trooping in, till the cellar seemed full of them. The housemaid regarded them without fear.
‘Sir,’ she said, ‘there is one of the pages I don’t take to be a bad fellow.’
‘Then keep him near you,’ said Curdie. ‘And now can you show me a way to the king’s chamber not through the servants’ hall?’
‘There is a way through the chamber of the colonel of the guard,’ she answered, ‘but he is ill, and in bed.’
‘Take me that way,’ said Curdie.
By many ups and downs and windings and turnings she brought him to a dimly lighted room, where lay an elderly man asleep. His arm was outside the coverlid, and Curdie gave his hand a hurried grasp as he went by. His heart beat for joy, for he had found a good, honest, human hand.
‘I suppose that is why he is ill,’ he said to himself.
It was now close upon suppertime, and when the girl stopped at the door of the king’s chamber, he told her to go and give the servants one warning more.
‘Say the messenger sent you,’ he said. ‘I will be with you very soon.’
The king was still asleep. Curdie talked to the princess for a few minutes, told her not to be frightened whatever noises she heard, only to keep her door locked till he came, and left her.
By the time the girl reached the servants’ hall they were seated at supper. A loud, confused exclamation arose when she entered. No one made room for her; all stared with unfriendly eyes. A page, who entered the next minute by another door, came to her side.
‘Where do you come from, hussy?’ shouted the butler, and knocked his fist on the table with a loud clang.
He had gone to fetch wine, had found the stair door broken open and the cellar door locked, and had turned and fled. Among his fellows, however, he had now regained what courage could be called his.
‘From the cellar,’ she replied. ‘The messenger broke open the door, and sent me to you again.’
‘The messenger! Pooh! What messenger?’
‘The same who sent me before to tell you to repent.’
‘What! Will you go fooling it still? Haven’t you had enough of it?’ cried the butler in a rage, and starting to his feet, drew near threateningly.
‘I must do as I am told,’ said the girl.
‘Then why don’t you do as I tell you, and hold your tongue?’ said the butler. ‘Who wants your preachments? If anybody here has anything to repent Of, isn’t that enough – and more than enough for him – but you must come bothering about, and stirring up, till not a drop of quiet will settle inside him? You come along with me, young woman; we’ll see if we can’t find a lock somewhere in the house that’ll hold you in!’
‘Hands off, Mr Butler!’ said the page, and stepped between.
‘Oh, ho!’ cried the butler, and pointed his fat finger at him. ‘That’s you, is it, my fine fellow? So it’s you that’s up to her tricks, is it?’
The youth did not answer, only stood with flashing eyes fixed on him, until, growing angrier and angrier, but not daring a step nearer, he burst out with a rude but quavering authority:
‘Leave the house, both of you! Be off, or I’ll have Mr Steward to talk to you. Threaten your masters, indeed! Out of the house with you, and show us the way you tell us of!’
Two or three of the footmen got up and ranged themselves behind the butler.
‘Don’t say I threaten you, Mr Butler,’ expostulated the girl from behind the page. ‘The messenger said I was to tell you again, and give you one chance more.’
‘Did the messenger mention me in particular?’ asked the butler, looking the page unsteadily in the face.
‘No, sir,’ answered the girl.
‘I thought not! I should like to hear him!’
‘Then hear him now,’ said Curdie, who that moment entered at the opposite corner of the hall. ‘I speak of the butler in particular when I say that I know more evil of him than of any of the rest. He will not let either his own conscience or my messenger speak to him: I therefore now speak myself. I proclaim him a villain, and a traitor to His Majesty the king. But what better is any one of you who cares only for himself, eats, drinks, takes good money, and gives vile service in return, stealing and wasting the king’s property, and making of the palace, which ought to be an example of order and sobriety, a disgrace to the country?’
For a moment all stood astonished into silence by this bold speech from a stranger. True, they saw by his mattock over his shoulder that he was nothing but a miner boy, yet for a moment the truth told notwithstanding. Then a great roaring laugh burst from the biggest of the footmen as he came shouldering his way through the crowd toward Curdie.
‘Yes, I’m right,’ he cried; ‘I thought as much! This messenger, forsooth, is nothing but a gallows bird – a fellow the city marshal was going to hang, but unfortunately put it off till he should be starved enough to save rope and be throttled with a pack thread. He broke prison, and here he is preaching!’ As he spoke, he stretched out his great hand to lay hold of him. Curdie caught it in his left hand, and heaved his mattock with the other. Finding, however, nothing worse than an ox hoof, he restrained himself, stepped back a pace or two, shifted his mattock to his left hand, and struck him a little smart blow on the shoulder. His arm dropped by his side, he gave a roar, and drew back.
His fellows came crowding upon Curdie. Some called to the dogs; others swore; the women screamed; the footmen and pages got round him in a half circle, which he kept from closing by swinging his mattock, and here and there threatening a blow.
‘Whoever confesses to having done anything wrong in this house, however small, however great, and means to do better, let him come to this corner of the room,’ he cried.
None moved but the page, who went toward him skirting the wall. When they caught sight of him, the crowd broke into a hiss of derision.
‘There! See! Look at the sinner! He confesses! Actually confesses! Come, what is it you stole? The barefaced hypocrite! There’s your sort to set up for reproving other people! Where’s the other now?’
But the maid had left the room, and they let the page pass, for he looked dangerous to stop. Curdie had just put him betwixt him and the wall, behind the door, when in rushed the butler with the huge kitchen poker, the point of which he had blown red-hot in the fire, followed by the cook with his longest spit. Through the crowd, which scattered right and left before them, they came down upon Curdie. Uttering a shrill whistle, he caught the poker a blow with his mattock, knocking the point to the ground, while the page behind him started forward, and seizing the point of the spit, held on to it with both hands, the cook kicking him furiously.
Ere the butler could raise the poker again, or the cook recover the spit, with a roar to terrify the dead, Lina dashed into the room, her eyes flaming like candles. She went straight at the butler. He was down in a moment, and she on the top of him, wagging her tail over him like a lioness.
‘Don’t kill him, Lina,’ said Curdie.
‘Oh, Mr Miner!’ cried the butler.
‘Put your foot on his mouth, Lina,’ said Curdie. ‘The truth Fear tells is not much better than her lies.’
The rest of the creatures now came stalking, rolling, leaping, gliding, hobbling into the room, and each as he came took the next place along the wall, until, solemn and grotesque, all stood ranged, awaiting orders.
And now some of the culprits were stealing to the doors nearest them. Curdie whispered to the two creatures next him. Off went Ballbody, rolling and bounding through the crowd like a spent cannon shot, and when the foremost reached the door to the corridor, there he lay at the foot of it grinning; to the other door scuttled a scorpion, as big as a huge crab. The rest stood so still that some began to think they were only boys dressed up to look awful; they persuaded themselves they were only another part of the housemaid’s and page’s vengeful contrivance, and their evil spirits began to rise again. Meantime Curdie had, with a second sharp blow from the hammer of his mattock, disabled the cook, so that he yielded the spit with a groan. He now turned to the avengers.
‘Go at them,’ he said.
The whole nine-and-forty obeyed at once, each for himself, and after his own fashion. A scene of confusion and terror followed. The crowd scattered like a dance of flies. The creatures had been instructed not to hurt much, but to hunt incessantly, until everyone had rushed from the house. The women shrieked, and ran hither and thither through the hall, pursued each by her own horror, and snapped at by every other in passing. if one threw herself down in hysterical despair, she was instantly poked or clawed or nibbled up again.
Though they were quite as frightened at first, the men did not run so fast; and by and by some of them finding they were only glared at, and followed, and pushed, began to summon up courage once more, and with courage came impudence. The tapir had the big footman in charge: the fellow stood stock-still, and let the beast come up to him, then put out his finger and playfully patted his nose. The tapir gave the nose a little twist, and the finger lay on the floor.
Then indeed did the footman run.
Gradually the avengers grew more severe, and the terrors of the imagination were fast yielding to those of sensuous experience, when a page, perceiving one of the doors no longer guarded, sprang at it, and ran out. Another and another followed. Not a beast went after, until, one by one, they were every one gone from the hall, and the whole crew in the kitchen.
There they were beginning to congratulate themselves that all was over, when in came the creatures trooping after them, and the second act of their terror and pain began. They were flung about in all directions; their clothes were torn from them; they were pinched and scratched any- and everywhere; Ballbody kept rolling up them and over them, confining his attentions to no one in particular; the scorpion kept grabbing at their legs with his huge pincers; a three-foot centipede kept screwing up their bodies, nipping as he went; varied as numerous were their woes. Nor was it long before the last of them had fled from the kitchen to the sculleries.
But thither also they were followed, and there again they were hunted about. They were bespattered with the dirt of their own neglect; they were soused in the stinking water that had boiled greens; they were smeared with rancid dripping; their faces were rubbed in maggots: I dare not tell all that was done to them. At last they got the door into a back yard open, and rushed out. Then first they knew that the wind was howling and the rain falling in sheets. But there was no rest for them even there. Thither also were they followed by the inexorable avengers, and the only door here was a door out of the palace: out every soul of them was driven, and left, some standing, some lying, some crawling, to the farther buffeting of the waterspouts and whirlwinds ranging every street of the city. The door was flung to behind them, and they heard it locked and bolted and barred against them.
As soon as they were gone, Curdie brought the creatures back to the servants’ hall, and told them to eat up everything on the table. it was a sight to see them all standing round it – except such as had to get upon it – eating and drinking, each after its fashion, without a smile, or a word, or a glance of fellowship in the act. A very few moments served to make everything eatable vanish, and then Curdie requested them to clean house, and the page who stood by to assist them.
Every one set about it except Ballbody: he could do nothing at cleaning, for the more he rolled, the more he spread the dirt. Curdie was curious to know what he had been, and how he had come to be such as he was: but he could only conjecture that he was a gluttonous alderman whom nature had treated homeopathically. And now there was such a cleaning and clearing out of neglected places, such a burying and burning of refuse, such a rinsing of jugs, such a swilling of sinks, and such a flushing of drains as would have delighted the eyes of all true housekeepers and lovers of cleanliness generally.
Curdie meantime was with the king, telling him all he had done. They had heard a little noise, but not much, for he had told the avengers to repress outcry as much as possible; and they had seen to it that the more anyone cried out the more he had to cry out upon, while the patient ones they scarcely hurt at all.
Having promised His Majesty and Her Royal Highness a good breakfast, Curdie now went to finish the business. The courtiers must be dealt with. A few who were the worst, and the leaders of the rest, must be made examples of; the others should be driven to the street.
He found the chiefs of the conspiracy holding a final consultation in the smaller room off the hall. These were the lord chamberlain, the attorney-general, the master of the horse, and the king’s private secretary: the lord chancellor and the rest, as foolish as faithless, were but the tools of these.
The housemaid had shown him a little closet, opening from a passage behind, where he could overhear all that passed in that room; and now Curdie heard enough to understand that they had determined, in the dead of that night, rather in the deepest dark before the morning, to bring a certain company of soldiers into the palace, make away with the king, secure the princess, announce the sudden death of His Majesty, read as his the will they had drawn up, and proceed to govern the country at their ease, and with results: they would at once levy severer taxes, and pick a quarrel with the most powerful of their neighbours. Everything settled, they agreed to retire, and have a few hours’ quiet sleep first – all but the secretary, who was to sit up and call them at the proper moment. Curdie allowed them half an hour to get to bed, and then set about completing his purgation of the palace.
First he called Lina, and opened the door of the room where the secretary sat. She crept in, and laid herself down against it. When the secretary, rising to stretch his legs, caught sight of her eyes, he stood frozen with terror. She made neither motion nor sound. Gathering courage, and taking the thing for a spectral illusion, he made a step forward. She showed her other teeth, with a growl neither more than audible nor less than horrible. The secretary sank fainting into a chair. He was not a brave man, and besides, his conscience had gone over to the enemy, and was sitting against the door by Lina.
To the lord chamberlain’s door next, Curdie conducted the legserpent, and let him in.
Now His Lordship had had a bedstead made for himself, sweetly fashioned of rods of silver gilt: upon it the legserpent found him asleep, and under it he crept. But out he came on the other side, and crept over it next, and again under it, and so over it, under it, over it, five or six times, every time leaving a coil of himself behind him, until he had softly folded all his length about the lord chamberlain and his bed. This done, he set up his head, looking down with curved neck right over His Lordship’s, and began to hiss in his face.
He woke in terror unspeakable, and would have started up but the moment he moved, the legserpent drew his coils closer, and closer still, and drew and drew until the quaking traitor heard the joints of his bedstead grinding and gnarring. Presently he persuaded himself that it was only a horrid nightmare, and began to struggle with all his strength to throw it off. Thereupon the legserpent gave his hooked nose such a bite that his teeth met through it – but it was hardly thicker than the bowl of a spoon; and then the vulture knew that he was in the grasp of his enemy the snake, and yielded.
As soon as he was quiet the legserpent began to untwist and retwist, to uncoil and recoil himself, swinging and swaying, knotting and relaxing himself with strangest curves and convolutions, always, however, leaving at least one coil around his victim. At last he undid himself entirely, and crept from the bed. Then first the lord chamberlain discovered that his tormentor had bent and twisted the bedstead, legs and canopy and all, so about him that he was shut in a silver cage out of which it was impossible for him to find a way. Once more, thinking his enemy was gone, he began to shout for help. But the instant he opened his mouth his keeper darted at him and bit him, and after three or four such essays, he lay still.
The master of the horse Curdie gave in charge to the tapir. When the soldier saw him enter – for he was not yet asleep – he sprang from his bed, and flew at him with his sword. But the creature’s hide was invulnerable to his blows, and he pecked at his legs with his proboscis until he jumped into bed again, groaning, and covered himself up; after which the tapir contented himself with now and then paying a visit to his toes.
As for the attorney-general, Curdie led to his door a huge spider, about two feet long in the body, which, having made an excellent supper, was full of webbing. The attorney-general had not gone to bed, but sat in a chair asleep before a great mirror. He had been trying the effect of a diamond star which he had that morning taken from the jewel room. When he woke he fancied himself paralysed; every limb, every finger even, was motionless: coils and coils of broad spider ribbon bandaged his members to his body, and all to the chair. In the glass he saw himself wound about with slavery infinite. On a footstool a yard off sat the spider glaring at him.
Clubhead had mounted guard over the butler, where he lay tied hand and foot under the third cask. From that cask he had seen the wine run into a great bath, and therein he expected to be drowned. The doctor, with his crushed leg, needed no one to guard him.
And now Curdie proceeded to the expulsion of the rest. Great men or underlings, he treated them all alike. From room to room over the house he went, and sleeping or waking took the man by the hand. Such was the state to which a year of wicked rule had reduced the moral condition of the court, that in it all he found but three with human hands. The possessors of these he allowed to dress themselves and depart in peace. When they perceived his mission, and how he was backed, they yielded.
Then commenced a general hunt, to clear the house of the vermin. Out of their beds in their night clothing, out of their rooms, gorgeous chambers or garret nooks, the creatures hunted them. Not one was allowed to escape. Tumult and noise there was little, for fear was too deadly for outcry. Ferreting them out everywhere, following them upstairs and downstairs, yielding no instant of repose except upon the way out, the avengers persecuted the miscreants, until the last of them was shivering outside the palace gates, with hardly sense enough left to know where to turn.
When they set out to look for shelter, they found every inn full of the servants expelled before them, and not one would yield his place to a superior suddenly levelled with himself. Most houses refused to admit them on the ground of the wickedness that must have drawn on them such a punishment; and not a few would have been left in the streets all night, had not Derba, roused by the vain entreaties at the doors on each side of her cottage, opened hers, and given up everything to them. The lord chancellor was only too glad to share a mattress with a stableboy, and steal his bare feet under his jacket.
In the morning Curdie appeared, and the outcasts were in terror, thinking he had come after them again. But he took no notice of them: his object was to request Derba to go to the palace: the king required her services. She need take no trouble about her cottage, he said; the palace was henceforward her home: she was the king’s chatelaine over men and maidens of his household. And this very morning she must cook His Majesty a nice breakfast.
Various reports went undulating through the city as to the nature of what had taken place in the palace. The people gathered, and stared at the house, eyeing it as if it had sprung up in the night. But it looked sedate enough, remaining closed and silent, like a house that was dead. They saw no one come out or go in. Smoke arose from a chimney or two; there was hardly another sign of life. It was not for some little time generally understood that the highest officers of the crown as well as the lowest menials of the palace had been dismissed in disgrace: for who was to recognize a lord chancellor in his nightshirt? And what lord chancellor would, so attired in the street, proclaim his rank and office aloud? Before it was day most of the courtiers crept down to the river, hired boats, and betook themselves to their homes or their friends in the country. It was assumed in the city that the domestics had been discharged upon a sudden discovery of general and unpardonable peculation; for, almost everybody being guilty of it himself, petty dishonesty was the crime most easily credited and least easily passed over in Gwyntystorm.
Now that same day was Religion day, and not a few of the clergy, always glad to seize on any passing event to give interest to the dull and monotonic grind of their intellectual machines, made this remarkable one the ground of discourse to their congregations. More especially than the rest, the first priest of the great temple where was the royal pew, judged himself, from his relation to the palace, called upon to ‘improve the occasion’, for they talked ever about improvement at Gwyntystorm, all the time they were going down hill with a rush.
The book which had, of late years, come to be considered the most sacred, was called The Book of Nations, and consisted of proverbs, and history traced through custom: from it the first priest chose his text; and his text was, ‘Honesty Is the Best Policy.’ He was considered a very eloquent man, but I can offer only a few of the larger bones of his sermon.
The main proof of the verity of their religion, he said, was that things always went well with those who profess it; and its first fundamental principle, grounded in inborn invariable instinct, was, that every One should take care of that One. This was the first duty of Man. If every one would but obey this law, number one, then would every one be perfectly cared for – one being always equal to one. But the faculty of care was in excess of need, and all that overflowed, and would otherwise run to waste, ought to be gently turned in the direction of one’s neighbour, seeing that this also wrought for the fulfilling of the law, inasmuch as the reaction of excess so directed was upon the director of the same, to the comfort, that is, and well-being of the original self. To be just and friendly was to build the warmest and safest of all nests, and to be kind and loving was to line it with the softest of all furs and feathers, for the one precious, comfort-loving self there to lie, revelling in downiest bliss. One of the laws therefore most binding upon men because of its relation to the first and greatest of all duties, was embodied in the Proverb he had just read; and what stronger proof of its wisdom and truth could they desire than the sudden and complete vengeance which had fallen upon those worse than ordinary sinners who had offended against the king’s majesty by forgetting that ‘Honesty Is the Best Policy’?
At this point of the discourse the head of the legserpent rose from the floor of the temple, towering above the pulpit, above the priest, then curving downward, with open mouth slowly descended upon him. Horror froze the sermon-pump. He stared upward aghast. The great teeth of the animal closed upon a mouthful of the sacred vestments, and slowly he lifted the preacher from the pulpit, like a handful of linen from a washtub, and, on his four solemn stumps, bore him out of the temple, dangling aloft from his jaws. At the back of it he dropped him into the dust hole among the remnants of a library whose age had destroyed its value in the eyes of the chapter. They found him burrowing in it, a lunatic henceforth – whose madness presented the peculiar feature, that in its paroxysms he jabbered sense.
Bone-freezing horror pervaded Gwyntystorm. If their best and wisest were treated with such contempt, what might not the rest of them look for? Alas for their city! Their grandly respectable city! Their loftily reasonable city! Where it was all to end, who could tell!
But something must be done. Hastily assembling, the priests chose a new first priest, and in full conclave unanimously declared and accepted that the king in his retirement had, through the practice of the blackest magic, turned the palace into a nest of demons in the midst of them. A grand exorcism was therefore indispensable.
In the meantime the fact came out that the greater part of the courtiers had been dismissed as well as the servants, and this fact swelled the hope of the Party of Decency, as they called themselves. Upon it they proceeded to act, and strengthened themselves on all sides.
The action of the king’s bodyguard remained for a time uncertain. But when at length its officers were satisfied that both the master of the horse and their colonel were missing, they placed themselves under the orders of the first priest.
Every one dated the culmination of the evil from the visit of the miner and his mongrel; and the butchers vowed, if they could but get hold of them again, they would roast both of them alive. At once they formed themselves into a regiment, and put their dogs in training for attack.
incessant was the talk, innumerable were the suggestions, and great was the deliberation. The general consent, however, was that as soon as the priests should have expelled the demons, they would depose the king, and attired in all his regal insignia, shut him in a cage for public show; then choose governors, with the lord chancellor at their head, whose first duty should be to remit every possible tax; and the magistrates, by the mouth of the city marshal, required all able-bodied citizens, in order to do their part toward the carrying out of these and a multitude of other reforms, to be ready to take arms at the first summons.
Things needful were prepared as speedily as possible, and a mighty ceremony, in the temple, in the market place, and in front of the palace, was performed for the expulsion of the demons. This over, the leaders retired to arrange an attack upon the palace.
But that night events occurred which, proving the failure of their first, induced the abandonment of their second, intent. Certain of the prowling order of the community, whose numbers had of late been steadily on the increase, reported frightful things. Demons of indescribable ugliness had been espied careering through the midnight streets and courts. A citizen – some said in the very act of housebreaking, but no one cared to look into trifles at such a crisis – had been seized from behind, he could not see by what, and soused in the river. A well-known receiver of stolen goods had had his shop broken open, and when he came down in the morning had found everything in ruin on the pavement. The wooden image of justice over the door of the city marshal had had the arm that held the sword bitten off. The gluttonous magistrate had been pulled from his bed in the dark, by beings of which he could see nothing but the flaming eyes, and treated to a bath of the turtle soup that had been left simmering by the side of the kitchen fire. Having poured it over him, they put him again into his bed, where he soon learned how a mummy must feel in its cerements.
Worst of all, in the market place was fixed up a paper, with the king’s own signature, to the effect that whoever henceforth should show inhospitality to strangers, and should be convicted of the same, should be instantly expelled the city; while a second, in the butchers’ quarter, ordained that any dog which henceforth should attack a stranger should be immediately destroyed. It was plain, said the butchers, that the clergy were of no use; they could not exorcise demons! That afternoon, catching sight of a poor old fellow in rags and tatters, quietly walking up the street, they hounded their dogs upon him, and had it not been that the door of Derba’s cottage was standing open, and was near enough for him to dart in and shut it ere they reached him, he would have been torn in pieces.
And thus things went on for some days.
In the meantime, with Derba to minister to his wants, with Curdie to protect him, and Irene to nurse him, the king was getting rapidly stronger. Good food was what he most wanted and of that, at least of certain kinds of it, there was plentiful store in the palace. Everywhere since the cleansing of the lower regions of it, the air was clean and sweet, and under the honest hands of the one housemaid the king’s chamber became a pleasure to his eyes. With such changes it was no wonder if his heart grew lighter as well as his brain clearer.
But still evil dreams came and troubled him, the lingering result of the wicked medicines the doctor had given him. Every night, sometimes twice or thrice, he would wake up in terror, and it would be minutes ere he could come to himself. The consequence was that he was always worse in the morning, and had loss to make up during the day. While he slept, Irene or Curdie, one or the other, must still be always by his side.
One night, when it was Curdie’s turn with the king, he heard a cry somewhere in the house, and as there was no other child, concluded, notwithstanding the distance of her grandmother’s room, that it must be Barbara. Fearing something might be wrong, and noting the king’s sleep more quiet than usual, he ran to see. He found the child in the middle of the floor, weeping bitterly, and Derba slumbering peacefully in bed. The instant she saw him the night-lost thing ceased her crying, smiled, and stretched out her arms to him. Unwilling to wake the old woman, who had been working hard all day, he took the child, and carried her with him. She clung to him so, pressing her tear-wet radiant face against his, that her little arms threatened to choke him.
When he re-entered the chamber, he found the king sitting up in bed, fighting the phantoms of some hideous dream. Generally upon such occasions, although he saw his watcher, he could not dissociate him from the dream, and went raving on. But the moment his eyes fell upon little Barbara, whom he had never seen before, his soul came into them with a rush, and a smile like the dawn of an eternal day overspread his countenance; the dream was nowhere, and the child was in his heart. He stretched out his arms to her, the child stretched out hers to him, and in five minutes they were both asleep, each in the other’s embrace.
From that night Barbara had a crib in the king’s chamber, and as often as he woke, Irene or Curdie, whichever was watching, took the sleeping child and laid her in his arms, upon which, invariably and instantly, the dream would vanish. A great part of the day too she would be playing on or about the king’s bed; and it was a delight to the heart of the princess to see her amusing herself with the crown, now sitting upon it, now rolling it hither and thither about the room like a hoop. Her grandmother entering once while she was pretending to make porridge in it, held up her hands in horror-struck amazement; but the king would not allow her to interfere, for the king was now Barbara’s playmate, and his crown their plaything.
The colonel of the guard also was growing better. Curdie went often to see him. They were soon friends, for the best people understand each other the easiest, and the grim old warrior loved the miner boy as if he were at once his son and his angel. He was very anxious about his regiment. He said the officers were mostly honest men, he believed, but how they might be doing without him, or what they might resolve, in ignorance of the real state of affairs, and exposed to every misrepresentation, who could tell? Curdie proposed that he should send for the major, offering to be the messenger. The colonel agreed, and Curdie went – not without his mattock, because of the dogs.
But the officers had been told by the master of the horse that their colonel was dead, and although they were amazed he should be buried without the attendance of his regiment, they never doubted the information. The handwriting itself of their colonel was insufficient, counteracted by the fresh reports daily current, to destroy the lie. The major regarded the letter as a trap for the next officer in command, and sent his orderly to arrest the messenger. But Curdie had had the wisdom not to wait for an answer.
The king’s enemies said that he had first poisoned the good colonel of the guard, and then murdered the master of the horse, and other faithful councillors; and that his oldest and most attached domestics had but escaped from the palace with their lives – not all of them, for the butler was missing. Mad or wicked, he was not only unfit to rule any longer, but worse than unfit to have in his power and under his influence the young princess, only hope of Gwyntystorm and the kingdom.
The moment the lord chancellor reached his house in the country and had got himself clothed, he began to devise how yet to destroy his master; and the very next morning set out for the neighbouring kingdom of Borsagrass to invite invasion, and offer a compact with its monarch.
At the cottage in the mountain everything for a time went on just as before. It was indeed dull without Curdie, but as often as they looked at the emerald it was gloriously green, and with nothing to fear or regret, and everything to hope, they required little comforting. One morning, however, at last, Peter, who had been consulting the gem, rather now from habit than anxiety, as a farmer his barometer in undoubtful weather, turned suddenly to his wife, the stone in his hand, and held it up with a look of ghastly dismay.
‘Why, that’s never the emerald!’ said Joan.
‘It is,’ answered Peter; ‘but it were small blame to any one that took it for a bit of bottle glass!’
For, all save one spot right in the centre, of intensest and most brilliant green, it looked as if the colour had been burnt out of it.
‘Run, run, Peter!’ cried his wife. ‘Run and tell the old princess. it may not be too late. The boy must be lying at death’s door.’
Without a word Peter caught up his mattock, darted from the cottage, and was at the bottom of the hill in less time than he usually took to get halfway.
The door of the king’s house stood open; he rushed in and up the stair. But after wandering about in vain for an hour, opening door after door, and finding no way farther up, the heart of the old man had well-nigh failed him. Empty rooms, empty rooms! – desertion and desolation everywhere.
At last he did come upon the door to the tower stair. Up he darted. Arrived at the top, he found three doors, and, one after the other, knocked at them all. But there was neither voice nor hearing. Urged by his faith and his dread, slowly, hesitatingly, he opened one. It revealed a bare garret room, nothing in it but one chair and one spinning wheel. He closed it, and opened the next – to start back in terror, for he saw nothing but a great gulf, a moonless night, full of stars, and, for all the stars, dark, dark! – a fathomless abyss. He opened the third door, and a rush like the tide of a living sea invaded his ears. Multitudinous wings flapped and flashed in the sun, and, like the ascending column from a volcano, white birds innumerable shot into the air, darkening the day with the shadow of their cloud, and then, with a sharp sweep, as if bent sideways by a sudden wind, flew northward, swiftly away, and vanished. The place felt like a tomb. There seemed no breath of life left in it.
Despair laid hold upon him; he rushed down thundering with heavy feet. Out upon him darted the housekeeper like an ogress-spider, and after her came her men; but Peter rushed past them, heedless and careless – for had not the princess mocked him? – and sped along the road to Gwyntystorm. What help lay in a miner’s mattock, a man’s arm, a father’s heart, he would bear to his boy.
Joan sat up all night waiting his return, hoping and hoping. The mountain was very still, and the sky was clear; but all night long the miner sped northward, and the heart of his wife was troubled.
Things in the palace were in a strange condition: the king playing with a child and dreaming wise dreams, waited upon by a little princess with the heart of a queen, and a youth from the mines, who went nowhere, not even into the king’s chamber, without his mattock on his shoulder and a horrible animal at his heels; in a room nearby the colonel of his guard, also in bed, without a soldier to obey him; in six other rooms, far apart, six miscreants, each watched by a beast-jailer; ministers to them all, an old woman and a page; and in the wine cellar, forty-three animals, creatures more grotesque than ever brain of man invented. None dared approach its gates, and seldom one issued from them.
All the dwellers in the city were united in enmity to the palace. It swarmed with evil spirits, they said, whereas the evil spirits were in the city, unsuspected. One consequence of their presence was that, when the rumour came that a great army was on the march against Gwyntystorm, instead of rushing to their defences, to make new gates, free portcullises and drawbridges, and bar the river, each band flew first to their treasures, burying them in their cellars and gardens, and hiding them behind stones in their chimneys; and, next to rebellion, signing an invitation to His Majesty of Borsagrass to enter at their open gates, destroy their king, and annex their country to his own.
The straits of isolation were soon found in the palace: its invalids were requiring stronger food, and what was to be done? For if the butchers sent meat to the palace, was it not likely enough to be poisoned? Curdie said to Derba he would think of some plan before morning.
But that same night, as soon as it was dark, Lina came to her master, and let him understand she wanted to go out. He unlocked a little private postern for her, left it so that she could push it open when she returned, and told the crocodile to stretch himself across it inside. Before midnight she came back with a young deer.
Early the next morning the legserpent crept out of the wine cellar, through the broken door behind, shot into the river, and soon appeared in the kitchen with a splendid sturgeon. Every night Lina went out hunting, and every morning Legserpent went out fishing, and both invalids and household had plenty to eat. As to news, the page, in plain clothes, would now and then venture out into the market place, and gather some.
One night he came back with the report that the army of the king of Borsagrass had crossed the border. Two days after, he brought the news that the enemy was now but twenty miles from Gwyntystorm.
The colonel of the guard rose, and began furbishing his armour – but gave it over to the page, and staggered across to the barracks, which were in the next street. The sentry took him for a ghost or worse, ran into the guardroom, bolted the door, and stopped his ears. The poor colonel, who was yet hardly able to stand, crawled back despairing.
For Curdie, he had already, as soon as the first rumour reached him, resolved, if no other instructions came, and the king continued unable to give orders, to call Lina and the creatures, and march to meet the enemy. If he died, he died for the right, and there was a right end of it. He had no preparations to make, except a good sleep.
He asked the king to let the housemaid take his place by His Majesty that night, and went and lay down on the floor of the corridor, no farther off than a whisper would reach from the door of the chamber. There, -with an old mantle of the king’s thrown over him, he was soon fast asleep.
Somewhere about the middle of the night, he woke suddenly, started to his feet, and rubbed his eyes. He could not tell what had waked him. But could he be awake, or was he not dreaming? The curtain of the king’s door, a dull red ever before, was glowing a gorgeous, a radiant purple; and the crown wrought upon it in silks and gems was flashing as if it burned! What could it mean? Was the king’s chamber on fire? He darted to the door and lifted the curtain. Glorious terrible sight!
A long and broad marble table, that stood at one end of the room, had been drawn into the middle of it, and thereon burned a great fire, of a sort that Curdie knew – a fire of glowing, flaming roses, red and white. In the midst of the roses lay the king, moaning, but motionless. Every rose that fell from the table to the floor, someone, whom Curdie could not plainly see for the brightness, lifted and laid burning upon the king’s face, until at length his face too was covered with the live roses, and he lay all within the fire, moaning still, with now and then a shuddering sob.
And the shape that Curdie saw and could not see, wept over the king as he lay in the fire, and often she hid her face in handfuls of her shadowy hair, and from her hair the water of her weeping dropped like sunset rain in the light of the roses. At last she lifted a great armful of her hair, and shook it over the fire, and the drops fell from it in showers, and they did not hiss in the flames, but there arose instead as it were the sound of running brooks.
And the glow of the red fire died away, and the glow of the white fire grew grey, and the light was gone, and on the table all was black – except the face of the king, which shone from under the burnt roses like a diamond in the ashes of a furnace.
Then Curdie, no longer dazzled, saw and knew the old princess. The room was lighted with the splendour of her face, of her blue eyes, of her sapphire crown. Her golden hair went streaming out from her through the air till it went off in mist and light. She was large and strong as a Titaness. She stooped over the table-altar, put her mighty arms under the living sacrifice, lifted the king, as if he were but a little child, to her bosom, walked with him up the floor, and laid him in his bed. Then darkness fell.
The miner boy turned silent away, and laid himself down again in the corridor. An absolute joy filled his heart, his bosom, his head, his whole body. All was safe; all was well. With the helve of his mattock tight in his grasp, he sank into a dreamless sleep.
The King’s Army
He woke like a giant refreshed with wine.
When he went into the king’s chamber, the housemaid sat where he had left her, and everything in the room was as it had been the night before, save that a heavenly odour of roses filled the air of it. He went up to the bed. The king opened his eyes, and the soul of perfect health shone out of them. Nor was Curdie amazed in his delight.
‘Is it not time to rise, Curdie?’ said the king.
‘It is, Your Majesty. Today we must be doing,’ answered Curdie.
‘What must we be doing today, Curdie?’
‘Then fetch me my armour – that of plated steel, in the chest there. You will find the underclothing with it.’
As he spoke, he reached out his hand for his sword, which hung in the bed before him, drew it, and examined the blade.
‘A little rusty!’ he said, ‘but the edge is there. We shall polish it ourselves today – not on the wheel. Curdie, my son, I wake from a troubled dream. A glorious torture has ended it, and I live. I know now well how things are, but you shall explain them to me as I get on my armour. No, I need no bath. I am clean. Call the colonel of the guard.’
In complete steel the old man stepped into the chamber. He knew it not, but the old princess had passed through his room in the night.
‘Why, Sir Bronzebeard!’ said the king, ‘you are dressed before me! You need no valet, old man, when there is battle in the wind!’
‘Battle, sire!’ returned the colonel. ‘Where then are our soldiers?’
‘Why, there and here,’ answered the king, pointing to the colonel first, and then to himself. ‘Where else, man? The enemy will be upon us ere sunset, if we be not upon him ere noon. What other thing was in your brave brain when you donned your armour, friend?’
‘Your Majesty’s orders, sire,’ answered Sir Bronzebeard.
The king smiled and turned to Curdie.
‘And what was in yours, Curdie, for your first word was of battle?’
‘See, Your Majesty,’ answered Curdie; ‘I have polished my mattock. If Your Majesty had not taken the command, I would have met the enemy at the head of my beasts, and died in comfort, or done better.’
‘Brave boy!’ said the king. ‘He who takes his life in his hand is the only soldier. You shall head your beasts today. Sir Bronzebeard, will you die with me if need be?’
‘Seven times, my king,’ said the colonel.
‘Then shall we win this battle!’ said the king. ‘Curdie, go and bind securely the six, that we lose not their guards. Can you find me a horse, think you, Sir Bronzebeard? Alas! they told me my white charger was dead.’
‘I will go and fright the varletry with my presence, and secure, I trust, a horse for Your Majesty, and one for myself.’
‘And look you, brother!’ said the king; ‘bring one for my miner boy too, and a sober old charger for the princess, for she too must go to the battle, and conquer with us.’
‘Pardon me, sire,’ said Curdie; ‘a miner can fight best on foot. I might smite my horse dead under me with a missed blow. And besides that, I must be near to my beasts.’
‘As you will,’ said the king. ‘Three horses then, Sir Bronzebeard.’
The colonel departed, doubting sorely in his heart how to accoutre and lead from the barrack stables three horses, in the teeth of his revolted regiment.
In the hall he met the housemaid.
‘Can you lead a horse?’ he asked.
‘Are you willing to die for the king?’
‘Can you do as you are bid?’
‘I can keep on trying, sir.’
‘Come then. Were I not a man I would be a woman such as you.’
When they entered the barrack yard, the soldiers scattered like autumn leaves before a blast of winter. They went into the stable unchallenged – and lo! in a stall, before the colonel’s eyes, stood the king’s white charger, with the royal saddle and bridle hung high beside him!
‘Traitorous thieves!’ muttered the old man in his beard, and went along the stalls, looking for his own black charger. Having found him, he returned to saddle first the king’s. But the maid had already the saddle upon him, and so girt that the colonel could thrust no finger tip between girth and skin. He left her to finish what she had so well begun, and went and made ready his own. He then chose for the princess a great red horse, twenty years old, which he knew to possess every equine virtue. This and his own he led to the palace, and the maid led the king’s.
The king and Curdie stood in the court, the king in full armour of silvered steel, with a circlet of rubies and diamonds round his helmet. He almost leaped for joy when he saw his great white charger come in, gentle as a child to the hand of the housemaid. But when the horse saw his master in his armour, he reared and bounded in jubilation, yet did not break from the hand that held him. Then out came the princess attired and ready, with a hunting knife her father had given her by her side. They brought her mother’s saddle, splendent with gems and gold, set it on the great red horse, and lifted her to it. But the saddle was so big, and the horse so tall, that the child found no comfort in them.
‘Please, King Papa,’ she said, ‘can I not have my white pony?’
‘I did not think of him, little one,’ said the king. ‘Where is he?’
‘In the stable,’ answered the maid. ‘I found him half starved, the only horse within the gates, the day after the servants were driven out. He has been well fed since.’
‘Go and fetch him,’ said the king.
As the maid appeared with the pony, from a side door came Lina and the forty-nine, following Curdie.
‘I will go with Curdie and the Uglies,’ cried the princess; and as soon as she was mounted she got into the middle of the pack.
So out they set, the strangest force that ever went against an enemy. The king in silver armour sat stately on his white steed, with the stones flashing on his helmet; beside him the grim old colonel, armed in steel, rode his black charger; behind the king, a little to the right, Curdie walked afoot, his mattock shining in the sun; Lina followed at his heel; behind her came the wonderful company of Uglies; in the midst of them rode the gracious little Irene, dressed in blue, and mounted on the prettiest of white ponies; behind the colonel, a little to the left, walked the page, armed in a breastplate, headpiece, and trooper’s sword he had found in the palace, all much too big for him, and carrying a huge brass trumpet which he did his best to blow; and the king smiled and seemed pleased with his music, although it was but the grunt of a brazen unrest. Alongside the beasts walked Derba carrying Barbara – their refuge the mountains, should the cause of the king be lost; as soon as they were over the river they turned aside to ascend the Cliff, and there awaited the forging of the day’s history. Then first Curdie saw that the housemaid, whom they had all forgotten, was following, mounted on the great red horse, and seated in the royal saddle.
Many were the eyes unfriendly of women that had stared at them from door and window as they passed through the city; and low laughter and mockery and evil words from the lips of children had rippled about their ears; but the men were all gone to welcome the enemy, the butchers the first, the king’s guard the last. And now on the heels of the king’s army rushed out the women and children also, to gather flowers and branches, wherewith to welcome their conquerors.
About a mile down the river, Curdie, happening to look behind him, saw the maid, whom he had supposed gone with Derba, still following on the great red horse. The same moment the king, a few paces in front of him, caught sight of the enemy’s tents, pitched where, the cliffs receding, the bank of the river widened to a little plain.
He commanded the page to blow his trumpet; and, in the strength of the moment, the youth uttered a right warlike defiance.
But the butchers and the guard, who had gone over armed to the enemy, thinking that the king had come to make his peace also, and that it might thereafter go hard with them, rushed at once to make short work with him, and both secure and commend themselves. The butchers came on first – for the guards had slackened their saddle girths – brandishing their knives, and talking to their dogs. Curdie and the page, with Lina and her pack, bounded to meet them. Curdie struck down the foremost with his mattock. The page, finding his sword too much for him, threw it away and seized the butcher’s knife, which as he rose he plunged into the foremost dog. Lina rushed raging and gnashing among them. She would not look at a dog so long as there was a butcher on his legs, and she never stopped to kill a butcher, only with one grind of her jaws crushed a leg of him. When they were all down, then indeed she flashed among the dogs.
Meantime the king and the colonel had spurred toward the advancing guard. The king clove the major through skull and collar bone, and the colonel stabbed the captain in the throat. Then a fierce combat commenced – two against many. But the butchers and their dogs quickly disposed of, up came Curdie and his beasts. The horses of the guard, struck with terror, turned in spite of the spur, and fled in confusion.
Thereupon the forces of Borsagrass, which could see little of the affair, but correctly imagined a small determined body in front of them, hastened to the attack. No sooner did their first advancing wave appear through the foam of the retreating one, than the king and the colonel and the page, Curdie and the beasts, went charging upon them. Their attack, especially the rush of the Uglies, threw the first line into great confusion, but the second came up quickly; the beasts could not be everywhere, there were thousands to one against them, and the king and his three companions were in the greatest possible danger.
A dense cloud came over the sun, and sank rapidly toward the earth. The cloud moved all together, and yet the thousands of white flakes of which it was made up moved each for itself in ceaseless and rapid motion: those flakes were the wings of pigeons. Down swooped the birds upon the invaders; right in the face of man and horse they flew with swift-beating wings, blinding eyes and confounding brain. Horses reared and plunged and wheeled. All was at once in confusion. The men made frantic efforts to seize their tormentors, but not one could they touch; and they outdoubled them in numbers. Between every wild clutch came a peck of beak and a buffet of pinion in the face. Generally the bird would, with sharp-clapping wings, dart its whole body, with the swiftness of an arrow, against its singled mark, yet so as to glance aloft the same instant, and descend skimming; much as the thin stone, shot with horizontal cast of arm, having touched and torn the surface of the lake, ascends to skim, touch, and tear again. So mingled the feathered multitude in the grim game of war. It was a storm in which the wind was birds, and the sea men. And ever as each bird arrived at the rear of the enemy, it turned, ascended, and sped to the front to charge again.
The moment the battle began, the princess’s pony took fright, and turned and fled. But the maid wheeled her horse across the road and stopped him; and they waited together the result of the battle.
And as they waited, it seemed to the princess right strange that the pigeons, every one as it came to the rear, and fetched a compass to gather force for the reattack, should make the head of her attendant on the red horse the goal around which it turned; so that about them was an unintermittent flapping and flashing of wings, and a curving, sweeping torrent of the side-poised wheeling bodies of birds. Strange also it seemed that the maid should be constantly waving her arm toward the battle. And the time of the motion of her arm so fitted with the rushes of birds, that it looked as if the birds obeyed her gesture, and she was casting living javelins by the thousand against the enemy. The moment a pigeon had rounded her head, it went off straight as bolt from bow, and with trebled velocity.
But of these strange things, others besides the princess had taken note. From a rising ground whence they watched the battle in growing dismay, the leaders of the enemy saw the maid and her motions, and, concluding her an enchantress, whose were the airy legions humiliating them, set spurs to their horses, made a circuit, outflanked the king, and came down upon her. But suddenly by her side stood a stalwart old man in the garb of a miner, who, as the general rode at her, sword in hand, heaved his swift mattock, and brought it down with such force on the forehead of his charger, that he fell to the ground like a log. His rider shot over his head and lay stunned. Had not the great red horse reared and wheeled, he would have fallen beneath that of the general.
With lifted sabre, one of his attendant officers rode at the miner. But a mass of pigeons darted in the faces of him and his horse, and the next moment he lay beside his commander.
The rest of them turned and fled, pursued by the birds.
‘Ah, friend Peter!’ said the maid; ‘thou hast come as I told thee! Welcome and thanks!’
By this time the battle was over. The rout was general. The enemy stormed back upon their own camp, with the beasts roaring in the midst of them, and the king and his army, now reinforced by one, pursuing. But presently the king drew rein.
‘Call off your hounds, Curdie, and let the pigeons do the rest,’ he shouted, and turned to see what had become of the princess.