The Princess and Curdie/Chapter 23
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 faith?"
"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 her 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 to-morrow 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, and 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 till 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 to direct her, and they left him 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 roused 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 out 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.