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George MacDonald

The Baker's Wife

T HEY were now passing through a lovely country of hill and dale and rushing stream. The hills were abrupt, with broken chasms for water-courses, and deep little valleys full of trees. But now and then they came to a larger valley, with a fine river, whose level banks and the adjacent meadows were dotted all over with red and white kine, while on the fields above, that sloped a little to the foot of the hills, grew oats and barley and wheat, and on the sides of the hills themselves vines hung and chestnuts rose. They came at last to a broad, beautiful river, up which they must go to arrive at the city of Gwyntystorm, where the king had his court. As they went the valley narrowed, and then the river, but still it was wide enough for large boats. After this, while the river kept its size, the banks narrowed, until there was only room for a road between the river and the great cliffs that overhung it. At last river and road took a sudden turn, and lo! a great rock in the river, which dividing flowed around it, and on the top of the rock the city, with lofty walls and towers and battlements, and above the city the palace of the king, built like a strong castle. But the fortifications had long been neglected, for the whole country was now under one king, and all men said there was no more need for weapons or walls. No man pretended to love his neighbour, but every one said he knew that peace and quiet behaviour was the best thing for himself, and that, he said, was quite as useful, and a great deal more reasonable. The city was prosperous and rich, and if everybody was not comfortable, everybody else said he ought to be.

When Curdie got up opposite the mighty rock, which sparkled all over with crystals, he found a narrow bridge, defended by gates and portcullis and towers with loop-holes. But the gates stood wide open, and were dropping from their great hinges; the portcullis was eaten away with rust, and clung to the grooves evidently immovable; while the loopholed towers had neither floor nor roof, and their tops were fast filling up their interiors. Curdie thought it a pity, if only for their old story, that they should be thus neglected. But everybody in the city regarded these signs of decay as the best proof of the prosperity of the place. Commerce and self-interest, they said, had got the better of violence, and the troubles of the past were whelmed in the riches that flowed in at their open gates. Indeed there was one sect of philosophers in it which taught that it would be better to forget all the past history of the city, were it not that its former imperfections taught its present inhabitants how superior they and their times were, and enabled them to glory over their ancestors. There were even certain quacks in the city who advertised pills for enabling people to think well of themselves, and some few bought of them, but most laughed, and said, with evident truth, that they did not require them. Indeed, the general theme of discourse when they met was, how much wiser they were than their fathers.

Curdie crossed the river, and began to ascend the winding road that led up to the city. They met a good many idlers, and all stared at them. It was no wonder they should stare, but there was an unfriendliness in their looks which Curdie did not like. No one, however, offered them any molestation: Lina did not invite liberties. After a long ascent, they reached the principal gate of the city and entered.

The street was very steep, ascending toward the palace, which rose in great strength above all the houses. Just as they entered, a baker, whose shop was a few doors inside the gate, came out in his white apron, and ran to the shop of his friend, the barber, on the opposite side of the way. But as he ran he stumbled and fell heavily. Curdie hastened to help him up, and found he had bruised his forehead badly. He swore grievously at the stone for tripping him up, declaring it was the third time he had fallen over it within the last month; and saying what was the king about that he allowed such a stone to stick up for ever on the main street of his royal residence of Gwyntystorm! What was a king for if he would not take care of his people's heads! And he stroked his forehead tenderly.

"Was it your head or your feet that ought to bear the blame of your fall?" asked Curdie.

"Why, you booby of a miner! my feet, of course," answered the baker.

"Nay, then," said Curdie, "the king can't be to blame."

"Oh, I see!" said the baker. "You're laying a trap for me. Of course, if you come to that, it was my head that ought to have looked after my feet. But it is the king's part to look after us all, and have his streets smooth."

"Well, I don't see," said Curdie, "why the king should take care of the baker, when the baker's head won't take care of the baker's feet."

"Who are you to make game of the king's baker?" cried the man in a rage.

But, instead of answering, Curdie went up to the bump on the street which had repeated itself on the baker's head, and turning the hammer end of his mattock, struck it such a blow that it flew wide in pieces. Blow after blow he struck until he had levelled it with the street.

But out flew the barber upon him in a rage.

"What do you break my window for, you rascal, with your pickaxe?"

"I am very sorry," said Curdie. "It must have been a bit of stone that flew from my mattock. I couldn't help it, you know."

"Couldn't help it! A fine story! What do you go breaking the rock for—the very rock upon which the city stands?"

"Look at your friend's forehead," said Curdie. "See what a lump he has got on it with falling over that same stone."

"What's that to my window?" cried the barber. "His forehead can mend itself; my poor window can't."

"But he's the king's baker," said Curdie, more and more surprised at the man's anger.

"What's that to me? This is a free city. Every man here takes care of himself, and the king takes care of us all. I'll have the price of my window out of you, or the exchequer shall pay for it."

Something caught Curdie's eye. He stooped, picked up a piece of the stone he had just broken, and put it in his pocket.

"I suppose you are going to break another of my windows with that stone!" said the barber.

"Oh no," said Curdie. "I didn't mean to break your window, and I certainly won't break another."

"Give me that stone," said the barber.

Curdie gave it him, and the barber threw it over the city wall.

"I thought you wanted the stone," said Curdie.

"No, you fool!" answered the barber. "What should I want with a stone?"

Curdie stooped and picked up another.

"Give me that stone," said the barber.

"No," answered Curdie. "You have just told me you don't want a stone, and I do."

The barber took Curdie by the collar.

"Come, now! you pay me for that window."

"How much?" asked Curdie.

The barber said, "A crown." But the baker, annoyed at the heartlessness of the barber, in thinking more of his broken window than the bump on his friend's forehead, interfered.

"No, no," he said to Curdie; "don't you pay any such sum. A little pane like that cost only a quarter."

"Well, to be certain," said Curdie, "I'll give him a half." For he doubted the baker as well as the barber. "Perhaps one day, if he finds he has asked too much, he will bring me the difference."

"Ha! ha!" laughed the barber. "A fool and his money are soon parted."

But as he took the coin from Curdie's hand he grasped it in affected reconciliation and real satisfaction. In Curdie's, his was the cold smooth leathery palm of a monkey. He looked up, almost expecting to see him pop the money in his cheek; but he had not yet got so far as that, though he was well on the road to it: then he would have no other pocket.

"I'm glad that stone is gone, anyhow," said the baker. "It was the bane of my life. I had no idea how easy it was to remove it. Give me your pickaxes young miner, and I will show you how a baker can make the stones fly."

He caught the tool out of Curdie's hand, and flew at one of the foundation stones of the gateway. But he jarred his arm terribly, scarcely chipped the stone, dropped the mattock with a cry of pain, and ran into his own shop. Curdie picked up his implement, and, looking after the baker, saw bread in the window, and followed him in. But the baker, ashamed of himself, and thinking he was coming to laugh at him, popped out of the back door, and when Curdie entered, the baker's wife came from the bakehouse to serve him. Curdie requested to know the price of a certain good-sized loaf.

Now the baker's wife had been watching what had passed since first her husband ran out of the shop, and she liked the look of Curdie. Also she was more honest than her husband. Casting a glance to the back door, she replied:

"That is not the best bread. I will sell you a loaf of what we bake for ourselves." And when she had spoken she laid a finger on her lips. "Take care of yourself in this place, my son," she added. "They do not love strangers. I was once a stranger here, and I know what I say." Then fancying she heard her husband, "That is a strange animal you have," she said, in a louder voice.

"Yes," answered Curdie. "She is no beauty, but she is very good, and we love each other. Don't we, Lina?"

Lina looked up and whined. Curdie threw her the half of his loaf, which she ate, while her master and the baker's wife talked a little. Then the baker's wife gave them some water, and Curdie having paid for his loaf, he and Lina went up the street together.