The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald
Chapter 19. The King's Chamber
He found himself in a large room, dimly lighted by a silver lamp that hung from the ceiling. Far at the other end was a great bed, surrounded with dark heavy curtains. He went softly toward it, his heart beating fast. It was a dreadful thing to be alone in the king's chamber at the dead of night. To gain courage he had to remind himself of the beautiful princess who had sent him.
But when he was about halfway to the bed, a figure appeared from the farther side of it, and came towards him, with a hand raised warningly. He stood still. The light was dim, and he could distinguish little more than the outline of a young girl. But though the form he saw was much taller than the princess he remembered, he never doubted it was she. For one thing, he knew that most girls would have been frightened to see him there in the dead of the night, but like a true princess, and the princess he used to know, she walked straight on to meet him. As she came she lowered the hand she had lifted, and laid the forefinger of it upon her lips. Nearer and nearer, quite near, close up to him she came, then stopped, and stood a moment looking at him.
'You are Curdie,' she said.
'And you are the Princess Irene,' he returned.
'Then we know each other still,' she said, with a sad smile of pleasure. 'You will help me.'
'That I will,' answered Curdie. He did not say, 'If I can';
for he knew that what he was sent to do, that he could do. 'May I kiss your hand, little Princess?'
She was only between nine and ten, though indeed she looked several years older, and her eyes almost those of a grown woman, for she had had terrible trouble of late.
She held out her hand.
'I am not the little princess any more. I have grown up since I saw you last, Mr Miner.'
The smile which accompanied the words had in it a strange mixture of playfulness and sadness.
'So I see, Miss Princess,' returned Curdie; 'and therefore, being more of a princess, you are the more my princess. Here I am, sent by your great-great-grandmother, to be your servant. May I ask why you are up so late, Princess?'
'Because my father wakes so frightened, and I don't know what he would do if he didn't find me by his bedside. There! he's waking now.'
She darted off to the side of the bed she had come from.
Curdie stood where he was.
A voice altogether unlike what he remembered of the mighty, noble king on his white horse came from the bed, thin, feeble, hollow, and husky, and in tone like that of a petulant child:
'I will not, I will not. I am a king, and I will be a king. I hate you and despise you, and you shall not torture me!'
'Never mind them, Father dear,' said the princess. 'I am here, and they shan't touch you. They dare not, you know, so long as you defy them.'
'They want my crown, darling; and I can't give them my crown, can I? For what is a king without his crown?'
'They shall never have your crown, my king,' said Irene. 'Here it is - all safe. I am watching it for you.'
Curdie drew near the bed on the other side. There lay the grand old king - he looked grand still, and twenty years older. His body was pillowed high; his beard descended long and white over the crimson coverlid; and his crown, its diamonds and emeralds gleaming in the twilight of the curtains, lay in front of him, his long thin old hands folded round it, and the ends of his beard straying among the lovely stones. His face was like that of a man who had died fighting nobly; but one thing made it dreadful: his eyes, while they moved about as if searching in this direction and in that, looked more dead than his face. He saw neither his daughter nor his crown: it was the voice of the one and the touch of the other that comforted him. He kept murmuring what seemed words, but was unintelligible to Curdie, although, to judge from the look of Irene's face, she learned and concluded from it.
By degrees his voice sank away and the murmuring ceased, although still his lips moved. Thus lay the old king on his bed, slumbering with his crown between his hands; on one side of him stood a lovely little maiden, with blue eyes, and brown hair going a little back from her temples, as if blown by a wind that no one felt but herself; and on the other a stalwart young miner, with his mattock over his shoulder. Stranger sight still was Lina lying along the threshold - only nobody saw her just then.
A moment more and the king's lips ceased to move. His breathing had grown regular and quiet. The princess gave a sigh of relief, and came round to Curdie.
'We can talk a little now,' she said, leading him toward the middle of the room. 'My father will sleep now till the doctor wakes him to give him his medicine. It is not really medicine, though, but wine. Nothing but that, the doctor says, could have kept him so long alive. He always comes in the middle of the night to give it him with his own hands. But it makes me cry to see him wake up when so nicely asleep.'
'What sort of man is your doctor?' asked Curdie.
'Oh, such a dear, good, kind gentleman!' replied the princess. 'He speaks so softly, and is so sorry for his dear king! He will be here presently, and you shall see for yourself. You will like him very much.'
'Has your king-father been long ill?' asked Curdie.
'A whole year now,' she replied. 'Did you not know? That's how your mother never got the red petticoat my father promised her. The lord chancellor told me that not only Gwyntystorm but the whole land was mourning over the illness of the good man.'
Now Curdie himself had not heard a word of His Majesty's illness, and had no ground for believing that a single soul in any place he had visited on his journey had heard of it. Moreover, although mention had been made of His Majesty again and again in his hearing since he came to Gwyntystorm, never once had he heard an allusion to the state of his health. And now it dawned upon him also that he had never heard the least expression of love to him. But just for the time he thought it better to say nothing on either point.
'Does the king wander like this every night?' he asked.
'Every night,' answered Irene, shaking her head mournfully. 'That is why I never go to bed at night. He is better during the day - a little, and then I sleep - in the dressing room there, to be with him in a moment if he should call me. It is so sad he should have only me and not my mamma! A princess is nothing to a queen!'
'I wish he would like me,' said Curdie, 'for then I might watch by him at night, and let you go to bed, Princess.'
'Don't you know then?' returned Irene, in wonder. 'How was it you came? Ah! You said my grandmother sent you. But I thought you knew that he wanted you.'
And again she opened wide her blue stars.
'Not I,' said Curdie, also bewildered, but very glad.
'He used to be constantly saying - he was not so ill then as he is now - that he wished he had you about him.'
'And I never to know it!' said Curdie, with displeasure.
'The master of the horse told papa's own secretary that he had written to the miner-general to find you and send you up; but the miner-general wrote back to the master of the horse, and he told the secretary, and the secretary told my father, that they had searched every mine in the kingdom and could hear nothing of you. My father gave a great sigh, and said he feared the goblins had got you, after all, and your father and mother were dead of grief. And he has never mentioned you since, except when wandering. I cried very much. But one of my grandmother's pigeons with its white wing flashed a message to me through the window one day, and then I knew that my Curdie wasn't eaten by the goblins, for my grandmother wouldn't have taken care of him one time to let him be eaten the next. Where were you, Curdie, that they couldn't find you?'
'We will talk about that another time, when we are not expecting the doctor,' said Curdie.
As he spoke, his eyes fell upon something shining on the table under the lamp. His heart gave a great throb, and he went nearer. Yes, there could be no doubt - it was the same flagon that the butler had filled in the wine cellar.
'It looks worse and worse!'he said to himself, and went back to Irene, where she stood half dreaming.
'When will the doctor be here?' he asked once more - this time hurriedly.
The question was answered - not by the princess, but by something which that instant tumbled heavily into the room. Curdie flew toward it in vague terror about Lina.
On the floor lay a little round man, puffing and blowing, and uttering incoherent language. Curdie thought of his mattock, and ran and laid it aside.
'Oh, dear Dr Kelman!' cried the princess, running up and taking hold of his arm; 'I am so sorry!' She pulled and pulled, but might almost as well have tried to set up a cannon ball. 'I hope you have not hurt yourself?'
'Not at all, not at all,' said the doctor, trying to smile and to rise both at once, but finding it impossible to do either.
'if he slept on the floor he would be late for breakfast,' said Curdie to himself, and held out his hand to help him.
But when he took hold of it, Curdie very nearly let him fall again, for what he held was not even a foot: it was the belly of a creeping thing. He managed, however, to hold both his peace and his grasp, and pulled the doctor roughly on his legs - such as they were.
'Your Royal Highness has rather a thick mat at the door,' said the doctor, patting his palms together. 'I hope my awkwardness may not have startled His Majesty.'
While he talked Curdie went to the door: Lina was not there.
The doctor approached the bed.
'And how has my beloved king slept tonight?' he asked.
'No better,' answered Irene, with a mournful shake of her head.
'Ah, that is very well!' returned the doctor, his fall seeming to have muddled either his words or his meaning. 'When we give him his wine, he will be better still.'
Curdie darted at the flagon, and lifted it high, as if he had expected to find it full, but had found it empty.
'That stupid butler! I heard them say he was drunk!' he cried in a loud whisper, and was gliding from the room.
'Come here with that flagon, you! Page!' cried the doctor. Curdie came a few steps toward him with the flagon dangling from his hand, heedless of the gushes that fell noiseless on the thick carpet.
'Are you aware, young man,' said the doctor, 'that it is not every wine can do His Majesty the benefit I intend he should derive from my prescription?'
'Quite aware, sir, answered Curdie. 'The wine for His Majesty's use is in the third cask from the corner.'
'Fly, then,' said the doctor, looking satisfied.
Curdie stopped outside the curtain and blew an audible breath - no more; up came Lina noiseless as a shadow. He showed her the flagon.
'The cellar, Lina: go,' he said.
She galloped away on her soft feet, and Curdie had indeed to fly to keep up with her. Not once did she make even a dubious turn. From the king's gorgeous chamber to the cold cellar they shot. Curdie dashed the wine down the back stair, rinsed the flagon out as he had seen the butler do, filled it from the cask of which he had seen the butler drink, and hastened with it up again to the king's room.
The little doctor took it, poured out a full glass, smelt, but did not taste it, and set it down. Then he leaned over the bed, shouted in the king's ear, blew upon his eyes, and pinched his arm: Curdie thought he saw him run something bright into it. At last the king half woke. The doctor seized the glass, raised his head, poured the wine down his throat, and let his head fall back on the pillow again. Tenderly wiping his beard, and bidding the princess good night in paternal tones, he then took his leave. Curdie would gladly have driven his pick into his head, but that was not in his commission, and he let him go. The little round man looked very carefully to his feet as he crossed the threshold.
'That attentive fellow of a page has removed the mat,' he said to himself, as he walked along the corridor. 'I must remember him.'