Home
  By Author [ A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z |  Other Symbols ]
  By Title [ A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z |  Other Symbols ]
  By Language
all Classics books content using ISYS

Download this book: [ ASCII | HTML | PDF ]

Look for this book on Amazon


We have new books nearly every day.
If you would like a news letter once a week or once a month
fill out this form and we will give you a summary of the books for that week or month by email.

Title: Wet Magic
Author: Nesbit, E. (Edith)
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Wet Magic" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



_Wet Magic_

[Illustration]



[Illustration: _The sea came pouring in._]



    _Wet Magic_

    E. NESBIT
    WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY H. R. MILLAR



    _Copyright © 1913 by E Nesbit_
    _Illustrations copyright © 1913 by H. R. Millar_



    _To
    Dr. E. N. da C. Andrade_,

    FROM
    E. NESBIT

    [Illustration]

    WELL HALL,
    KENT



_Contents_


    CHAPTER I
    SABRINA FAIR                1

    CHAPTER II
    THE CAPTIVE                13

    CHAPTER III
    THE RESCUE                 30

    CHAPTER IV
    GRATITUDE                  51

    CHAPTER V
    CONSEQUENCES               61

    CHAPTER VI
    THE MERMAID’S HOME         69

    CHAPTER VII
    THE SKIES ARE FALLING      84

    CHAPTER VIII
    THE WATER-WAR             101

    CHAPTER IX
    THE BOOK PEOPLE           116

    CHAPTER X
    THE UNDER FOLK            135

    CHAPTER XI
    THE PEACEMAKER            154


    CHAPTER XII
    THE END                   167



_Illustrations_


    _The sea came pouring in._      _Frontispiece_

    “_We die in captivity._”                  _26_

    “_‘Translucent wave,’ indeed!_”           _42_

    “_The police._”                           _54_

    _And disappeared entirely._               _59_

    _She caught Kathleen in her arms._        _79_

    _The golden door._                        _82_

    _The Swordfish Brigade._                 _103_

    _The First Dipsys._                      _110_

    _Book Hatefuls._                         _122_

    _Book Heroines._                         _130_

    _In the net._                            _137_

    _The Hall of Public Archives._           _149_

    _The chargers of the Horse Marines._     _152_



CHAPTER ONE

_Sabrina Fair_


THAT GOING TO THE SEASIDE was the very beginning of everything—only it
seemed as though it were going to be a beginning without an end, like
the roads on the Sussex downs which look like roads and then look like
paths, and then turn into sheep tracks, and then are just grass and
furze bushes and tottergrass and harebells and rabbits and chalk.

The children had been counting the days to The Day. Bernard indeed had
made a calendar on a piece of cardboard that had once been the bottom
of the box in which his new white sandshoes came home. He marked the
divisions of the weeks quite neatly in red ink, and the days were
numbered in blue ink, and every day he crossed off one of those numbers
with a piece of green chalk he happened to have left out of a penny
box. Mavis had washed and ironed all the dolls’ clothes at least a
fortnight before The Day. This was thoughtful and farsighted of her, of
course, but it was a little trying to Kathleen, who was much younger
and who would have preferred to go on playing with her dolls in their
dirtier and more familiar state.

“Well, if you do,” said Mavis, a little hot and cross from the ironing
board, “I’ll never wash anything for you again, not even your face.”

Kathleen somehow felt as if she could bear that.

“But mayn’t I have just one of the dolls” was, however, all she said,
“just the teeniest, weeniest one? Let me have Lord Edward. His head’s
half gone as it is, and I could dress him in a clean hanky and pretend
it was kilts.”

Mavis could not object to this, because, of course, whatever else she
washed she didn’t wash hankies. So Lord Edward had his pale kilts, and
the other dolls were put away in a row in Mavis’s corner drawer. It was
after that that Mavis and Francis had long secret consultations—and
when the younger ones asked questions they were told, “It’s secrets.
You’ll know in good time.” This, of course, excited everyone very
much indeed—and it was rather a comedown when the good time came, and
the secret proved to be nothing more interesting than a large empty
aquarium which the two elders had clubbed their money together to buy,
for eight-and ninepence in the Old Kent Road. They staggered up the
front garden path with it, very hot and tired.

“But what are you going to do with it?” Kathleen asked, as they all
stood around the nursery table looking at it.

“Fill it with seawater,” Francis explained, “to put sea anemones in.”

“Oh yes,” said Kathleen with enthusiasm, “and the crabs and starfish
and prawns and the yellow periwinkles—and all the common objects of the
seashore.”

“We’ll stand it in the window,” Mavis added: “it’ll make the lodgings
look so distinguished.”

“And then perhaps some great scientific gentleman, like Darwin or
Faraday, will see it as he goes by, and it will be such a joyous
surprise to him to come face-to-face with our jellyfish; he’ll offer
to teach Francis all about science for nothing—I see,” said Kathleen
hopefully.

“But how will you get it to the seaside?” Bernard asked, leaning his
hands on the schoolroom table and breathing heavily into the aquarium,
so that its shining sides became dim and misty. “It’s much too big to
go in the boxes, you know.”

“Then I’ll carry it,” said Francis, “it won’t be in the way at all—I
carried it home today.”

“We had to take the bus, you know,” said truthful Mavis, “and then I
had to help you.”

“I don’t believe they’ll let you take it at all,” said Bernard—if you
know anything of grown-ups you will know that Bernard proved to be
quite right.

“Take an aquarium to the seaside—nonsense!” they said. And “What for?”
not waiting for the answer. “They,” just at present, was Aunt Enid.

Francis had always been passionately fond of water. Even when he was
a baby he always stopped crying the moment they put him in the bath.
And he was the little boy who, at the age of four, was lost for three
hours and then brought home by the police who had found him sitting in
a horse trough in front of the Willing Mind, wet to the topmost hair of
his head, and quite happy, entertaining a circle of carters with pots
of beer in their hands. There was very little water in the horse trough
and the most talkative of the carters explained that, the kid being
that wet at the first start off, him and his mates thought he was as
safe in the trough as anywhere—the weather being what it was and all
them nasty motors and trams about.

To Francis, passionately attracted as he was by water in all forms,
from the simple mud puddle to the complicated machinery by which your
bath supply is enabled to get out of order, it was a real tragedy that
he had never seen the sea. Something had always happened to prevent
it. Holidays had been spent in green countries where there were rivers
and wells and ponds, and waters deep and wide—but the water had been
fresh water, and the green grass had been on each side of it. One great
charm of the sea, as he had heard of it, was that it had nothing on the
other side “so far as eye could see.” There was a lot about the sea in
poetry, and Francis, curiously enough, liked poetry.

The buying of the aquarium had been an attempt to make sure that,
having found the sea, he should not lose it again. He imagined the
aquarium fitted with a real rock in the middle, to which radiant sea
anemones clung and limpets stuck. There were to be yellow periwinkles
too, and seaweeds, and gold and silver fish (which don’t live in the
sea by the way, only Francis didn’t know this), flitting about in
radiant scaly splendor, among the shadows of the growing water plants.
He had thought it all out—how a cover might be made, very light, with
rubber in between, like a screw-top bottle, to keep the water in while
it traveled home in the guard’s van to the admiration of passengers and
porters at both stations. And now—he was not to be allowed to take it.

He told Mavis, and she agreed with him that it was a shame.

“But I’ll tell you what,” she said, for she was not one of those
comforters who just say, “I’m sorry,” and don’t try to help. She
generally thought of something that would make things at any rate just
a little better. “Let’s fill it with fresh water, and get some goldfish
and sand and weeds; and I’ll make Eliza promise to put ants’ eggs
in—that’s what they eat—and it’ll be something to break the dreadful
shock when we have to leave the sea and come home again.”

Francis admitted that there was something in this and consented to fill
the aquarium with water from the bath. When this was done the aquarium
was so heavy that the combined efforts of all four children could not
begin to move it.

“Never mind,” said Mavis, the consoler; “let’s empty it out again and
take it back to the common room, and then fill it by secret jugfuls,
carried separately, you know.”

This might have been successful, but Aunt Enid met the first secret
jugful—and forbade the second.

“Messing about,” she called it. “No, of course I shan’t allow you
to waste your money on fish.” And Mother was already at the seaside
getting the lodgings ready for them. Her last words had been—

“Be sure you do exactly what Aunt Enid says.” So, of course, they had
to. Also Mother had said, “Don’t argue,” so they had not even the
melancholy satisfaction of telling Aunt Enid that she was quite wrong,
and that they were not messing about at all.

Aunt Enid was not a real aunt, but just an old friend of Grandmamma’s,
with an aunt’s name and privileges and rather more than an aunt’s
authority. She was much older than a real aunt and not half so nice.
She was what is called “firm” with children, and no one ever called her
auntie. Just Aunt Enid. That will tell you in a moment.

So there the aquarium was, dishearteningly dry—for even the few drops
left in it from its first filling dried up almost at once.

Even in its unwatery state, however, the aquarium was beautiful. It had
not any of that ugly ironwork with red lead showing between the iron
and the glass which you may sometimes have noticed in the aquariums of
your friends. No, it was one solid thick piece of clear glass, faintly
green, and when you stooped down and looked through you could almost
fancy that there really was water in it.

“Let’s put flowers in it,” Kathleen suggested, “and pretend they’re
anemones. Do let’s, Francis.”

“I don’t care what you do,” said Francis. “I’m going to read _The Water
Babies_.”

“Then we’ll do it, and make it a lovely surprise for you,” said
Kathleen cheerily.

Francis sat down squarely with _The Water Babies_ flat before him on
the table, where also his elbows were, and the others, respecting his
sorrow, stole quietly away. Mavis just stepped back to say, “I say,
France, you don’t mind their putting flowers? It’s to please you, you
know.”

“I tell you I don’t mind _anything_,” said Francis savagely.

When the three had finished with it, the aquarium really looked rather
nice, and, if you stooped down and looked sideways through the glass,
like a real aquarium.

Kathleen took some clinkers from the back of the rockery—“where they
won’t show,” she said—and Mavis induced these to stand up like an
arch in the middle of the glassy square. Tufts of long grass, rather
sparingly arranged, looked not unlike waterweed. Bernard begged from
the cook some of the fine silver sand which she uses to scrub the
kitchen tables and dressers with, and Mavis cut the thread of the
Australian shell necklace that Uncle Robert sent her last Christmas, so
that there should be real, shimmery, silvery shells on the sand. (This
was rather self-sacrificing of her, because she knew she would have to
put them all back again on their string, and you know what a bother
shells are to thread.) They shone delightfully through the glass. But
the great triumph was the sea anemones—pink and red and yellow—clinging
to the rocky arch just as though they were growing there.

“Oh, lovely, lovely,” Kathleen cried, as Mavis fixed the last delicate
flesh-tinted crown. “Come and look, France.”

“Not yet,” said Mavis, in a great hurry, and she tied the thread of the
necklace round a tin goldfish (out of the box with the duck and the
boat and the mackerel and the lobster and the magnet that makes them
all move about—you know) and hung it from the middle of the arch. It
looked just as though it were swimming—you hardly noticed the thread at
all.

“_Now_, France,” she called. And Francis came slowly with his thumb in
_The Water Babies_. It was nearly dark by now, but Mavis had lighted
the four dollhouse candles in the gilt candlesticks and set them on the
table around the aquarium.

“Look through the side,” she said; “isn’t it ripping?”

“Why,” said Francis slowly, “you’ve got water in it—and real anemones!
Where on earth...?”

“Not real,” said Mavis. “I wish they were; they’re only dahlias. But it
does look pretty, doesn’t it?”

“It’s like Fairyland,” said Kathleen, and Bernard added, “I _am_ glad
you bought it.”

“It just shows what it will be like when we _do_ get the sea
creatures,” said Mavis. “Oh, Francis, you do like it, don’t you?”

“Oh, I like it all right,” he answered, pressing his nose against the
thick glass, “but I wanted it to be waving weeds and mysterious wetness
like the Sabrina picture.”

The other three glanced at the picture which hung over the
mantelpiece—Sabrina and the water nymphs, drifting along among the
waterweeds and water lilies. There were words under the picture, and
Francis dreamily began to say them:

          “‘_Sabrina fair,
    Listen where thou art sitting,
    Under the glassie, cool, translucent wave
    In twisted braids of Lillies knitting
    The loose train of thy amber-dropping hair...._’”

“Hullo—what was that?” he said in quite a different voice, and jumped
up.

“What was what?” the others naturally asked.

“Did you put something alive in there?” Francis asked.

“Of course not,” said Mavis. “Why?”

“Well, I saw something move, that’s all.”

They all crowded around and peered over the glass walls. Nothing, of
course, but the sand and the grass and the shells, the clinkers and the
dahlias and the little suspended tin goldfish.

“I expect the goldfish swung a bit,” said Bernard. “That’s what it must
have been.”

“It didn’t look like that,” Francis answered. “It looked more like—”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know—get out of the light. Let’s have another squint.”

He stooped down and looked again through the glass.

“It’s not the goldfish,” he said. “That’s as quiet as a trout asleep.
No—I suppose it was a shadow or something.”

“You might tell us what it looked like,” said Kathleen.

“Was it like a rat?” Bernard asked with interest.

“Not a bit. It was more like—”

“Well, like what?” asked three aggravated voices.

“Like Sabrina—only very, very tiny.”

“A sort of doll—Sabrina,” said Kathleen, “how awfully jolly!”

“It wasn’t at all like a doll, and it wasn’t jolly,” said Francis
shortly—“only I wish it would come again.”

It didn’t, however.

“I say,” said Mavis, struck by a new idea, “perhaps it’s a magic
aquarium.”

“Let’s play it is,” suggested Kathleen—“let’s play it’s a magic glass
and we can see what we like in it. I see a fairy palace with gleaming
spires of crystal and silver.”

“I see a football match, and our chaps winning,” said Bernard heavily,
joining in the new game.

“Shut up,” said Francis. “That isn’t play. There was something.”

“Suppose it is magic,” said Mavis again.

“We’ve played magic so often, and nothing’s ever happened—even when we
made the fire of sweet-scented woods and eastern gums, and all that,”
said Bernard; “it’s much better to pretend right away. We always have
to in the end. Magic just wastes time. There isn’t any magic really, is
there, Mavis?”

“Shut up, I tell you,” was the only answer of Francis, his nose now
once more flattened against the smooth green glass.

Here Aunt Enid’s voice was heard on the landing outside, saying,
“Little ones—bed,” in no uncertain tones.

The two grunted as it were in whispers, but there was no appeal against
Aunt Enid, and they went, their grunts growing feebler as they crossed
the room, and dying away in a despairing silence as they and Aunt Enid
met abruptly at the top of the stairs.

“Shut the door,” said Francis, in a strained sort of voice. And
Mavis obeyed, even though he hadn’t said “please.” She really was an
excellent sister. Francis, in moments of weakness, had gone so far as
to admit that she wasn’t half bad.

“I say,” she said when the click of the latch assured her that they
were alone, “how could it be magic? We never said any spell.”

“No more we did,” said Francis, “unless—And besides, it’s all nonsense,
of course, about magic. It’s just a game we play, isn’t it?”

“Yes, of course,” Mavis said doubtfully; “but what did you mean by
‘unless’?”

“We weren’t saying any spells, were we?”

“No, of course we weren’t—we weren’t saying anything—”

“As it happens _I_ was.”

“Was what? When?”

“When it happened.”

“What happened?”

Will it be believed that Aunt Enid chose this moment for opening the
door just wide enough to say, “Mavis—bed.” And Mavis had to go. But as
she went she said again: “What happened?”

“_It_,” said Francis, “whatever it was. I was saying....”

“MAVIS!” called Aunt Enid.

“Yes, Aunt Enid—you were saying _what_?”

“I was saying, ‘_Sabrina fair_,’” said Francis, “do you think—but,
of course, it couldn’t have been—and all dry like that, no water or
anything.”

“Perhaps magic _has_ to be dry,” said Mavis. “Coming, Aunt Enid! It
seems to be mostly burning things, and, of course, that wouldn’t do in
the water. What _did_ you see?”

“It looked like Sabrina,” said Francis—“only tiny, tiny. Not
doll-small, you know, but live-small, like through the wrong end of a
telescope. I do wish you’d seen it.”

“Say, ‘Sabrina fair’ again quick while I look.”

          “‘_Sabrina fair,
    Listen where thou art sitting,
    Under the—_’”

“Oh, Mavis, it is—it did. There’s something there truly. Look!”

“Where?” said Mavis. “I can’t see—oh, let me look.”

“MAVIS!” called Aunt Enid very loud indeed; and Mavis tore herself away.

“I must go,” she said. “Never mind, we’ll look again tomorrow. Oh,
France, if it _should_ be—magic, I mean—I’ll tell you what—”

But she never told him what, for Aunt Enid swept in and swept
out, bearing Mavis away, as it were, in a whirlwind of impatient
exasperation, and, without seeming to stop to do it, blowing out the
four candles as she came and went.

At the door she turned to say, “Good night, Francis. Your bath’s turned
on ready. Be sure you wash well behind your ears. We shan’t have much
time in the morning.”

“But Mavis always bathes first,” said he. “I’m the eldest.”

“Don’t argue, child, for goodness’ sake,” said Aunt Enid. “Mavis is
having the flat bath in my bedroom to save time. Come—no nonsense,” she
paused at the door to say. “Let me see you go. Right about face—quick
march!”

And he had to.

“If she must pretend to give orders like drill, she might at least
learn to say ‘’Bout turn!’” he reflected, struggling with his collar
stud in the steaming bathroom. “Never mind. I’ll get up early and see
if I can’t see it again.”

And so he did—but early as he was, Aunt Enid and the servants were
earlier. The aquarium was empty—clear, clean, shining and quite empty.

Aunt Enid could not understand why Francis ate so little breakfast.

“What has she done with them?” he wondered later.

“_I_ know,” said Bernard solemnly. “She told Esther to put them on the
kitchen fire—I only just saved my fish.”

“And what about my shells?” asked Mavis in sudden fear.

“Oh, she took those to take care of. Said you weren’t old enough to
take care of them yourself.”

You will wonder why the children did not ask their Aunt Enid right
out what had become of the contents of the aquarium. Well, you don’t
know their Aunt Enid. And besides, even on that first morning,
before anything that really _was_ anything could be said to have
happened—for, after all, what Francis said he had seen might have been
just fancy—there was a sort of misty, curious, trembling feeling at
the hearts of Mavis and her brother which made them feel that they did
not want to talk about the aquarium and what had been in it to any
grown-up—and least of all to their Aunt Enid.

And leaving the aquarium, that was the hardest thing of all. They
thought of telegraphing to Mother, to ask whether, after all, they
mightn’t bring it—but there was first the difficulty of wording a
telegram so that their mother would understand and not deem it insanity
or a practical joke—secondly, the fact that ten-pence half-penny, which
was all they had between them, would not cover the baldest statement of
the facts.

    _MRS DESMOND,
      CARE OF MRS PEARCE,
        EAST CLIFF VILLA,
          LEWIS ROAD,
            WEST BEACHFIELD-ON-SEA, SUSSEX_

alone would be eightpence—and the simplest appeal, such as “May we
bring aquarium please say yes wire reply” brought the whole thing
hopelessly beyond their means.

“It’s no good,” said Francis hopelessly. “And, anyway,” said Kathleen,
“there wouldn’t be time to get an answer before we go.”

No one had thought of this. It was a sort of backhanded consolation.

“But think of coming back to it,” said Mavis: “it’ll be something
to live for, when we come back from the sea and everything else is
beastly.”

And it was.



CHAPTER TWO

_The Captive_


THE DELICATE pinkish bloom of newness was on the wooden spades, the
slick smoothness of the painted pails showed neither scratch nor dent
on their green and scarlet surface—the shrimping nets were full and
fluffy as, once they and sand and water had met, they never could be
again. The pails and spades and nets formed the topmost layer of a
pile of luggage—you know the sort of thing, with the big boxes at the
bottom; and the carryall bulging with its wraps and mackers; the old
portmanteau that shows its striped lining through the crack and is so
useful for putting boots in; and the sponge bag, and all the little
things that get left out. You can almost always squeeze a ball or a
paint box or a box of chalks or any of those things—which grown-ups say
you won’t really want till you come back—into that old portmanteau—and
then when it’s being unpacked at the journey’s end the most that can
happen will be that someone will say, “I thought I told you not to
bring that,” and if you don’t answer back, that will be all. But most
likely in the agitation of unpacking and settling in, your tennis ball,
or pencil box, or whatever it is, will pass unnoticed. Of course, you
can’t shove an aquarium into the old portmanteau—nor a pair of rabbits,
nor a hedgehog—but anything in reason you can.

The luggage that goes in the van is not much trouble—of course, it
has to be packed and to be strapped, and labeled and looked after at
the junction, but apart from that the big luggage behaves itself,
keeps itself to itself, and like your elder brothers at college never
occasions its friends a moment’s anxiety. It is the younger fry of the
luggage family, the things you have with you in the carriage that are
troublesome—the bundle of umbrellas and walking sticks, the golf clubs,
the rugs, the greatcoats, the basket of things to eat, the books you
are going to read in the train and as often as not you never look at
them, the newspapers that the grown-ups are tired of and yet don’t want
to throw away, their little bags or dispatch cases and suitcases and
card cases, and scarfs and gloves—

The children were traveling under the care of Aunt Enid, who always had
far more of these tiresome odds and ends than Mother had—and it was at
the last moment, when the cab was almost to be expected to be there,
that Aunt Enid rushed out to the corner shop and returned with four new
spades, four new pails, and four new shrimping nets, and presented them
to the children just in time for them to be added to the heap of odds
and ends with which the cab was filled up.

“I hope it’s not ungrateful,” said Mavis at the station as they
stood waiting by the luggage mound while Aunt Enid went to take the
tickets—“but why couldn’t she have bought them at Beachfield?”

“Makes us look such babies,” said Francis, who would not be above using
a wooden spade at the proper time and place but did not care to be
branded in the face of all Waterloo Junction as one of those kids off
to the seaside with little spades and pails.

Kathleen and Bernard were, however, young enough to derive a certain
pleasure from stroking the smooth, curved surface of the spades till
Aunt Enid came fussing back with the tickets and told them to put their
gloves on for goodness’ sake and try not to look like street children.

I am sorry that the first thing you should hear about the children
should be that they did not care about their Aunt Enid, but this was
unfortunately the case. And if you think this was not nice of them I
can only remind you that you do not know their Aunt Enid.

There was a short, sharp struggle with the porter, a flustered passage
along the platform and the children were safe in the carriage marked
“Reserved”—thrown into it, as it were, with all that small fry of
luggage which I have just described. Then Aunt Enid fussed off again to
exchange a few last home truths with the porter, and the children were
left.

“We breathe again,” said Mavis.

“Not yet we don’t,” said Francis, “there’ll be some more fuss as soon
as she comes back. I’d almost as soon not go to the sea as go with her.”

“But you’ve never seen the sea,” Mavis reminded him.

“I know,” said Francis, morosely, “but look at all this—” he indicated
the tangle of their possessions which littered seats and rack—“I do
wish—”

He stopped, for a head appeared in the open doorway—in a round hat very
like Aunt Enid’s—but it was not Aunt Enid’s. The face under the hat was
a much younger, kinder one.

“I’m afraid this carriage is reserved,” said the voice that belonged to
the face.

“Yes,” said Kathleen, “but there’s lots of room if you like to come
too.”

“I don’t know if the aunt we’re with would like it,” said the more
cautious Mavis. “We should, of course,” she added to meet the kind
smiling eyes that looked from under the hat that was like Aunt Enid’s.

The lady said: “I’m an aunt too—I’m going to meet my nephew at the
junction. The train’s frightfully crowded.... If I were to talk to your
aunt ... perhaps on the strength of our common aunthood. The train will
start in a minute. I haven’t any luggage to be a bother—nothing but one
paper.”—she had indeed a folded newspaper in her hands.

“Oh, do get in,” said Kathleen, dancing with anxiety, “I’m sure Aunt
Enid won’t mind,”—Kathleen was always hopeful—“suppose the train were
to start or anything!”

“Well, if you think I may,” said the lady, and tossed her paper into
the corner in a lighthearted way which the children found charming. Her
pleasant face was rising in the oblong of the carriage doorway, her
foot was on the carriage step, when suddenly she retreated back and
down. It was almost as though someone pulled her off the carriage step.

“Excuse me,” said a voice, “this carriage is reserved.” The pleasant
face of the lady disappeared and the—well, the face of Aunt Enid took
its place. The lady vanished. Aunt Enid trod on Kathleen’s foot, pushed
against Bernard’s waistcoat, sat down, partly on Mavis and partly on
Francis and said—“Of all the impertinence!” Then someone banged the
door—the train shivered and trembled and pulled itself together in the
way we all know so well—grunted, snorted, screamed, and was off. Aunt
Enid stood up arranging things on the rack, so that the children could
not even see if the nice lady had found a seat in the train.

“Well—I do think—” Francis could not help saying.

“Oh—do you?” said Aunt Enid, “I should never have thought it of you.”

When she had arranged the things in the rack to her satisfaction she
pointed out a few little faults that she had noticed in the children
and settled down to read a book by Miss Marie Corelli. The children
looked miserably at each other. They could not understand why Mother
had placed them under the control of this most unpleasant mock aunt.

There was a reason for it, of course. If your parents, who are
generally so kind and jolly, suddenly do a thing that you can’t
understand and can hardly bear, you may be quite sure they have a good
reason for it. The reason in this case was that Aunt Enid was the only
person who offered to take charge of the children at a time when all
the nice people who usually did it were having influenza. Also she was
an old friend of Granny’s. Granny’s taste in friends must have been
very odd, Francis decided, or else Aunt Enid must have changed a good
deal since she was young. And there she sat reading her dull book. The
children also had been provided with books—_Eric, or Little by Little_;
_Elsie, or Like a Little Candle_; _Brave Bessie_ and _Ingenious Isabel_
had been dealt out as though they were cards for a game, before leaving
home. They had been a great bother to carry, and they were impossible
to read. Kathleen and Bernard presently preferred looking out of the
windows, and the two elder ones tried to read the paper left by the
lady, “looking over.”

Now, that is just where it was, and really what all that has been
written before is about. If that lady hadn’t happened to look in at
their door, and if she hadn’t happened to leave the paper they would
never have seen it, because they weren’t the sort of children who read
papers except under extreme provocation.

You will not find it easy to believe, and I myself can’t see why
it should have happened, but the very first word they saw in that
newspaper was Beachfield, and the second was On, and the third was
Sea, and the fifth was Mermaid. The fourth which came between Sea and
Mermaid was Alleged.

“I say,” said Mavis, “let’s look.”

“Don’t pull then, you can see all right,” said Francis, and this is
what they read together:


BEACHFIELD-ON-SEA—ALLEGED MERMAID. AMAZING STORY.

    “‘At this season of the year, which has come to be
    designated the silly season, the public press is
    deluged with puerile old-world stories of gigantic
    gooseberries and enormous sea serpents. So that it is
    quite in keeping with the weird traditions of this
    time of the year to find a story of some wonder of the
    deep, arising even at so well-known a watering place
    as Beachfield. Close to an excellent golf course, and
    surrounded by various beauty spots, with a thoroughly
    revised water supply, a newly painted pier and three
    rival Cinematograph Picture Palaces, Beachfield has
    long been known as a rising _plage_ of exceptional
    attractions, the quaint charm of its....’”

“Hold on,” said Francis, “this isn’t about any old Mermaid.”

“Oh, that’ll be further on,” said Mavis. “I expect they have to put
all that stuff in to be polite to Beachfield—let’s skip—‘agreeable
promenade, every modern convenience, while preserving its quaint....’
What does quaint mean, and why do they keep on saying it?”

“I don’t think it means anything,” said Francis, “it’s just a word
they use, like weird and dainty. You always see it in a newspaper.
Ah—got her. Here she is—‘The excitement may be better imagined than
described’—no, that’s about the Gymkhana—here we are:

    “‘Master Wilfred Wilson, the son of a well-known and
    respected resident, arrived home yesterday evening in
    tears. Inquiry elicited a statement that he had been
    paddling in the rock pools, which are to be found in
    such profusion under the West Cliff, when something
    gently pinched his foot. He feared that it might be a
    lobster, having read that these crustaceans sometimes
    attack the unwary intruder, and he screamed. So far
    his story, though unusual, contains nothing inherently
    impossible. But when he went on to state that a noise
    “like a lady speaking” told him not to cry, and that,
    on looking down, he perceived that what held him was a
    hand “coming from one of the rocks under water,” his
    statement was naturally received with some incredulity.
    It was not until a boating party returning from a
    pleasure trip westward stated that they had seen a
    curious sort of white seal with a dark tail darting
    through the clear water below their boat that Master
    Wilfred’s story obtained any measure of credence.’”

(“What’s credence?” said Mavis.

“Oh, never mind. It’s what you believe with, I think. Go on,” said
Francis.)

    “‘—of credence. Mr. Wilson, who seems to have urged an
    early retirement to bed as a cure for telling stories
    and getting his feet wet, allowed his son to rise and
    conduct him to the scene of adventure. But Mr. Wilson,
    though he even went to the length of paddling in some
    of the pools, did not see or feel any hands nor hear
    any noise, ladylike or otherwise. No doubt the seal
    theory is the correct one. A white seal would be a
    valuable acquisition to the town, and would, no doubt,
    attract visitors. Several boats have gone out, some
    with nets and some with lines. Mr. Carrerras, a visitor
    from South America, has gone out with a lariat, which
    in these latitudes is, of course, quite a novelty.’”

“That’s all,” whispered Francis, and glanced at Aunt Enid. “I say—she’s
asleep.” He beckoned the others, and they screwed themselves along
to that end of the carriage farthest from the slumbering aunt. “Just
listen to this,” he said. Then in hoarse undertones he read all about
the Mermaid.

“I say,” said Bernard, “I do hope it’s a seal. I’ve never seen a seal.”

“I hope they _do_ catch it,” said Kathleen. “Fancy seeing a real live
Mermaid.”

“If it’s a real live Mermaid I jolly well hope they don’t catch her,”
said Francis.

“So do I,” said Mavis. “I’m certain she would die in captivity.”

“But I’ll tell you what,” said Francis, “we’ll go and look for her,
first thing tomorrow. I suppose,” he added thoughtfully, “Sabrina was a
sort of Mermaid.”

“She hasn’t a tail, you know,” Kathleen reminded him.

“It isn’t the tail that makes the Mermaid,” Francis reminded her. “It’s
being able to live underwater. If it was the tail, then mackerels would
be Mermaids.”

“And, of course, they’re not. _I_ see,” said Kathleen.

“I wish,” said Bernard, “that she’d given us bows and arrows instead of
pails and spades, and then we could have gone seal-shooting—”

“Or Mermaid-shooting,” said Kathleen. “Yes, that would have been
ripping.”

Before Francis and Mavis could say how shocked they were at the idea of
shooting Mermaids, Aunt Enid woke up and took the newspaper away from
them, because newspapers are not fit reading for children.

She was somehow the kind of person before whom you never talk about
anything that you really care for, and it was impossible therefore to
pursue either seals or Mermaids. It seemed best to read _Eric_ and the
rest of the books. It was uphill work.

But the last two remarks of Bernard and Kathleen had sunk into the
minds of the two elder children. That was why, when they had reached
Beachfield and found Mother and rejoiced over her, and when Aunt Enid
had unexpectedly gone on by that same train to stay with her really
relations at Bournemouth, they did not say any more to the little
ones about Mermaids or seals, but just joined freely in the chorus of
pleasure at Aunt Enid’s departure.

“I thought she was going to stay with us all the time,” said Kathleen.
“Oh, Mummy, I am so glad she isn’t.”

“Why? Don’t you like Aunt Enid? Isn’t she kind?”

All four thought of the spades and pails and shrimping nets, and of
_Eric_ and _Elsie_ and the other books—and all said:

“Yes.”

“Then what was it?” Mother asked. And they could not tell her. It is
sometimes awfully difficult to tell things to your mother, however much
you love her. The best Francis could do was:

“Well—you see we’re not used to her.”

And Kathleen said: “I don’t think perhaps she’s used to being an aunt.
But she was kind.”

And Mother was wise and didn’t ask any more questions. Also she at once
abandoned an idea one had had of asking Aunt Enid to come and stay at
Beachfield for part of the holidays; and this was just as well, for if
Aunt Enid had not passed out of the story exactly when she did, there
would not have been any story to pass out of. And as she does now pass
out of the story I will say that she thought she was very kind, and
that she meant extremely well.

There was a little whispering between Francis and Mavis just after tea,
and a little more just before bed, but it was tactfully done and the
unwhispered-to younger ones never noticed it.

The lodgings were very nice—a little way out of the town—not a villa at
all as everyone had feared. I suppose the landlady thought it grander
to call it a villa, but it was really a house that had once been a mill
house, and was all made of a soft-colored gray wood with a red-tiled
roof, and at the back was the old mill, also gray and beautiful—not
used now for what it was built for—but just as a store for fishing nets
and wheelbarrows and old rabbit hutches and beehives and harnesses
and odds and ends, and the sack of food for the landlady’s chickens.
There was a great corn bin there too—that must have been in some big
stable—and some broken chairs and an old wooden cradle that hadn’t had
any babies in it since the landlady’s mother was a little girl.

On any ordinary holiday the mill would have had all the charm of
a magic palace for the children, with its wonderful collection of
pleasant and unusual things to play with, but just now all their
thoughts were on Mermaids. And the two elder ones decided that they
would go out alone the first thing in the morning and look for the
Mermaid.

Mavis woke Francis up very early indeed, and they got up and dressed
quite quietly, not washing, I am sorry to say, because water makes such
a noise when you pour it out. And I am afraid their hair was not very
thoroughly brushed either. There was not a soul stirring in the road as
they went out, unless you count the mill cat who had been out all night
and was creeping home very tired and dusty looking, and a yellowhammer
who sat on a tree a hundred yards down the road and repeated his name
over and over again in that conceited way yellowhammers have, until
they got close to him; and then he wagged his tail impudently at them
and flew on to the next tree where he began to talk about himself as
loudly as ever.

This desire to find the Mermaid must have been wonderfully strong in
Francis, for it completely swallowed the longing of years—the longing
to see the sea. It had been too dark the night before to see anything
but the winking faces of the houses as the fly went past them. But now
as he and Mavis ran noiselessly down the sandy path in their rubber
shoes and turned the corner of the road, he saw a great pale-gray
something spread out in front of him, lit with points of red and gold
fire where the sun touched it. He stopped.

“Mavis,” he said, in quite an odd voice, “that’s the sea.”

“Yes,” she said and stopped too.

“It isn’t a bit what I expected,” he said, and went on running.

“Don’t you like it?” asked Mavis, running after him.

“Oh—like,” said Francis, “it isn’t the sort of thing you _like_.”

When they got down to the shore the sands and the pebbles were all wet
because the tide had just gone down, and there were the rocks and the
little rock pools, and the limpets, and whelks, and the little yellow
periwinkles looking like particularly fine Indian corn all scattered
among the red and the brown and the green seaweed.

“Now, this _is_ jolly,” said Francis. “This is jolly if you like. I
almost wish we’d wakened the others. It doesn’t seem quite fair.”

“Oh, they’ve seen it before,” Mavis said, quite truly, “and I don’t
think it’s any good going by fours to look for Mermaids, do you?”

“Besides,” said Francis, saying what had been in their thoughts since
yesterday in the train, “Kathleen wanted to shoot Mermaids, and Bernard
thought it was seals, anyhow.”

They had sat down and were hastily pulling off their shoes and
stockings.

“Of course,” said he, “we shan’t find anything. It isn’t likely.”

“Well,” she said, “for anything we jolly well know, they may have found
her already. Take care how you go over these rocks, they’re awfully
slippy.”

“As if I didn’t know that,” said he, and ran across the narrow strip
of sand that divided rocks from shingle and set his foot for the first
time in The Sea. It was only a shallow little green and white rock
pool, but it was the sea all the same.

“I say, isn’t it cold,” said Mavis, withdrawing pink and dripping toes;
“do mind how you go—”

“As if I—” said Francis, again, and sat down suddenly and splashingly
in a large, clear sparkling pool.

“Now, I suppose we’ve got to go home at once and you change,” said
Mavis, not without bitterness.

“Nonsense,” said Francis, getting up with some difficulty and clinging
wetly to Mavis to steady himself. “I’m quite dry, almost.”

“You know what colds are like,” said Mavis, “and staying indoors all
day, or perhaps bed, and mustard plasters and gruel with butter in
it. Oh, come along home, we should never have found the Mermaid. It’s
much too bright and light and everyday-ish for anything like magic to
happen. Come on home, do.”

“Let’s just go out to the end of the rocks,” Francis urged, “just to
see what it’s like where the water gets deep and the seaweed goes
swish, swish, all long and lanky and grassy, like in the Sabrina
picture.”

“Halfway then, not more,” said Mavis, firmly, “it’s dangerous—deep
outside—Mother said so.”

And halfway they went, Mavis still cautious, and Francis, after his
wetting, almost showing off in his fine carelessness of whether he
went in again or not. It was very jolly. You know how soft and squeezy
the blobby kind of seaweed is to walk on, and how satin smooth is the
ribbon kind; how sharp are limpets, especially when they are covered
with barnacles, and how comparatively bearable to the foot are the pale
primrose-colored hemispheres of the periwinkle.

“Now,” said Mavis, “come on back. We’ll run all the way as soon as we
get our shoes and stockings on for fear of colds.”

“I almost wish we hadn’t come,” said Francis, turning with a face of
gloom.

“You didn’t really think we should find a Mermaid, did you?” Mavis
asked, and laughed, though she was really annoyed with Francis for
getting wet and cutting short this exciting morning game. But she was a
good sister.

“It’s all been so silly. Flopping into that pool, and talking and
rotting, and just walking out and in again. We ought to have come by
moonlight, and been very quiet and serious, and said—

    “‘_Sabrina fair,
    Listen where thou art sitting—_’”

“Ow—Hold on a minute. I’ve caught my foot in something.”

Mavis stopped and took hold of her brother’s arm to steady him; and as
she did so both children plainly heard a voice that was not the voice
of either of them. It was the sweetest voice in the world they thought,
and it said:

“Save her. We die in captivity.”

Francis looked down and had a sort of sudden sight of something white
and brown and green that moved and went quickly down under the stone on
which Mavis was standing. There was nothing now holding his foot.

“I say,” he said, on a deep breath of awe and wonder, “did you hear
that?”

“Of course, I heard it.”

“We couldn’t both have fancied it,” he said, “I wish it had told us who
to save, and where, and how—”

“Whose do you think that voice was?” Mavis asked softly.

“The Mermaid’s,” said Francis, “who else’s could it have been?”

[Illustration: “_We die in captivity._”]

“Then the magic’s really begun—”

“Mermaids aren’t magic,” he said, “anymore than flying fishes or
giraffes are.”

“But she came when you said ‘Sabrina fair,’” said Mavis.

“Sabrina wasn’t a Mermaid,” said Francis firmly. “It’s no use trying
to join things on when they won’t. Come on, we may as well be getting
home.”

“Mightn’t she be?” suggested Mavis. “A Mermaid, I mean. Like salmon
that live in rivers and go down to the sea.”

“I say, I never thought of that. How simply ripping if it turned out
to be really Sabrina—wouldn’t it be? But which do you suppose could
be her—the one who spoke to us or the one she’s afraid will die in
captivity—the one she wants us to save.”

They had reached the shore by now and Mavis looked up from turning her
brown stockings right way out to say:

“I suppose we didn’t really both fancy it. Could we have? Isn’t there
some sort of scientific magic that makes people think the same things
as each other when it’s not true at all, like with Indian mango tricks?
Uncle Fred said so, you know, they call it ‘Tell-ee-something.’”

“I’ll tell _you_ something,” said Francis, urgent with shoelace, “if we
keep on saying things weren’t when we know perfectly well they were,
we shall soon dish up any sort of chance of magic we may ever have
had. When do you find people in books going on like that? They just
say ‘This is magic!’ and behave as if it was. They don’t go pretending
they’re not sure. Why, no magic would stand it.”

“Aunt Dorothea once told me that all magic was like Prince Rupert’s
drop,” Mavis owned: “if once you broke it there was nothing left but a
little dust.”

“That’s just what I’m saying, isn’t it? We’ve always felt there was
magic right enough, haven’t we? Well, now we’ve come across it, don’t
let’s be silly and pretend. Let’s believe in it as hard as ever we
can. Mavis—shall we, eh? Believing in things makes them stronger. Aunt
Dorothea said that too—you remember.”

They stood up in their shoes.

“Shall we tell the others?” Mavis asked.

“We must,” said Francis, “it would be so sneakish not to. But they
won’t believe us. We shall have to be like Cassandra and not mind.”

“I only wish I knew who it is we’ve got to save,” said Mavis.

Francis had a very strong and perfect feeling that they would know this
all in good time. He could not have explained this, but he felt it. All
he said was, “Let’s run.”

And they ran.

Kathleen and Bernard met them at the gate, dancing with excitement and
impatience.

“Where have you been?” they cried and “What on earth?” and “Why, you’re
all wet, France.”

“Down to the sea—shut up, I know I am—” their elder brother came in and
passed up the path to the gate.

“You might have called us,” said Kathleen in a
more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger sort of voice, “but anyhow you’ve lost
something by going out so early without us.”

“Lost something. What?”

“Hearing the great news,” said Bernard, and he added, “Aha!”

“What news?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Bernard was naturally annoyed at having
been left out of the first expedition of the holidays. Anyone would
have. Even you or I.

“Out with it,” said Francis, with a hand on Bernard’s ear. There
came a yell from Bernard and Mother’s voice from the window, saying,
“Children, children.”

“All right, Mummy. Now, Bear—don’t be a young rotter. What’s the news?”

“You’re hurting my ear,” was all Bernard’s rejoinder.

“All right,” said Francis, “we’ve got some news too. But we won’t tell,
will we, Mavis?”

“Oh _don’t_,” said Kathleen, “don’t let’s be sneaky, the very first day
too. It’s only that they’ve caught the Mermaid, and I’m afraid she’ll
die in captivity, like you said. What’s yours?”

Francis had released Bernard’s ear and now he turned to Mavis.

“So that’s it,” he said slowly—“who’s got her?”

“The circus people. What’s your news?” asked Kathleen eagerly.

“After brek,” said Francis. “Yes, Mother, half a sec! I apologize
about the ear, Bernard. We will tell you all. Oh, it’s quite different
from what you think. We meet and discuss the situation in the mill the
minute we’re free from brek. Agreed? Right! Yes, Mother, coming!”

“Then there must,” Mavis whispered to Francis, “be two Mermaids. They
can’t both be Sabrina ... then which...?”

“We’ve got to save one of them anyhow,” Francis answered with the light
of big adventure in his eye, “_they die in captivity_.”



CHAPTER THREE

_The Rescue_


THE GREAT QUESTION, of course, was—Would Mother take them to the
circus, or would she, if she wouldn’t herself take them, let them
go alone? She had once, in Buckinghamshire, allowed them to go to a
traveling menagerie, after exacting from them a promise that they were
not to touch any of the animals, and they had seen reason to regret
their promise when the showman offered to let them stroke his tame
performing wolf, who was so very like a collie. When they had said,
“No, thank you,” the showman had said, “Oh, frightened, are you? Run
along home to Mammy then!” and the bystanders had laughed in a most
insulting way. At a circus, of course, the horses and things aren’t
near enough for you to stroke them, so this time they might not be
asked to promise. If Mother came with them her presence, though
agreeable, would certainly add to the difficulties, already quite
enough—as even Mavis could not but see—of rescuing the Mermaid. But
suppose Mother didn’t come with them.

“Suppose we have to promise we won’t touch any of the animals?”
suggested Cathay. “You can’t rescue a person without touching it.”

“That’s just it,” said Mavis, “a Mermaid isn’t an animal. She’s a
person.”

“But suppose it isn’t that sort of Mermaid,” said Bernard. “Suppose
it’s the sort that other people call seals, like it said in the paper.”

“Well, it isn’t,” said Francis briefly, adding, “so there!”

They were talking in the front garden, leaning over the green gate
while Mother upstairs unpacked the luggage that had been the mound with
spades on top only yesterday, at Waterloo.

“Mavis!” Mother called through the open window. “I can only find—but
you’d better come up.”

“I ought to offer to help Mother unpack,” said Mavis, and went walking
slowly.

She came back after a little while, however, quickly running.

“It’s all right,” she said. “Mother’s going to meet Daddy at the
Junction this afternoon and buy us sunbonnets. And we’re to take
our spades and go down to the sea till dinnertime—it’s roast rabbit
and apple dumps—I asked Mrs. Pearce—and we can go to the circus by
ourselves—and she never said a word about promise not to touch the
animals.”

So off they went, down the white road where the yellowhammer was
talking about himself as usual on the tree just beyond wherever you
happened to be walking. And so to the beach.

Now, it is very difficult to care much about a Mermaid you have never
seen or heard or touched. On the other hand, when once you have seen
one and touched one and heard one speak, you seem to care for very
little else. This was why when they got to the shore Kathleen and
Bernard began at once to dig the moat of a sandcastle, while the elder
ones walked up and down, dragging the new spades after them like some
new kind of tail, and talking, talking, talking till Kathleen said they
might help dig or the tide would be in before the castle was done.

“You don’t know what a lark sandcastles are, France,” she added kindly,
“because you’ve never seen the sea before.”

So then they all dug and piled and patted and made molds of their pails
to stand as towers to the castle and dug out dungeons and tunnels and
bridges, only the roof always gave way in the end unless you had beaten
the sand very tight beforehand. It was a glorious castle, though not
quite finished when the first thin flat wash of the sea reached it.
And then everyone worked twice as hard trying to keep the sea out till
all was hopeless, and then everyone crowded into the castle and the
sea washed it away bit by bit till there was only a shapeless island
left, and everyone was wet through and had to change every single thing
the minute they got home. You will know by that how much they enjoyed
themselves.

After the roast rabbit and the apple dumplings Mother started on the
sunbonnet-and-meet-Daddy expedition. Francis went with her to the
station and returned a little sad.

“I had to promise not to touch any of the animals,” he said. “And
perhaps a Mermaid _is_ an animal.”

“Not if she can speak,” said Kathleen. “I say, don’t you think we ought
to wear our best things—I do. It’s more respectable to the wonders of
the deep. She’d like us to look beautiful.”

“I’m not going to change for anybody,” said Bernard firmly.

“All right, Bear,” said Mavis. “Only we will. Remember it’s magic.”

“I say, France,” he said, “do you think we _ought_ to change?”

“No, I don’t,” Francis answered. “I don’t believe Mermaids care a bit
what you’ve got on. You see, they don’t wear anything but tails and
hair and looking glasses themselves. If there’s any beautifulness to be
done they jolly well do it themselves. But I don’t say you wouldn’t be
better for washing your hands again, and you might as well try to get
_some_ of the sand out of your hair. It looks like the wrong end of a
broom as it is.”

He himself went so far as to put on the blue necktie that Aunt Amy had
given him, and polished his silver watch chain on the inside of his
jacket. This helped to pass the time till the girls were ready. At
last this happened though they had put on their best things, and they
started.

The yellowhammer went on about himself—he was never tired of the
subject.

“It’s just as if that bird was making fun of us,” Bernard said.

“I daresay it is a wild-goose step we’re taking,” said Kathleen; “but
the circus will be jolly, anyhow.”

There is a piece of wasteland just beyond Beachfield on the least
agreeable side of that village—the side where the flat-faced shops are
and the yellow brick houses. At the nice end of Beachfield the shops
have little fat bow windows with greenish glass that you can hardly
see through. Here also are gaunt hoardings plastered with tattered,
ugly-colored posters, asking you in red to wear Ramsden’s Really Boots
or to Vote for Wilton Ashby in blue. Some of the corners of the posters
are always loose and flap dismally in the wind. There is always a good
deal of straw and torn paper and dust at this end of the village, and
bits of dirty rag, and old boots and tins are found under the hedges
where flowers ought to be. Also there are a great many nettles and
barbed wires instead of pleasant-colored fences. Don’t you sometimes
wonder who is to blame for all the uglification of places that might
be so pretty, and wish you could have a word with them and ask them
not to? Perhaps when these people were little nobody told them how
wrong it is to throw orange peel about, and the bits of paper off
chocolate, and the paper bag which once concealed your bun. And it is a
dreadful fact that the children who throw these things about are little
uglifiers, and they grow up to be perfect monsters of uglification, and
build hideous yellow brick cottages, and put up hoardings, and sell
Ramsden’s Really Boots (in red), and vote passionately for Wilton
Ashby (in blue), and care nothing for the fields that used to be green
and the hedges where once flowers used to grow. Some people like
this, and see nothing to hate in such ugly waste places as the one,
at the wrong end of the town, where the fair was being held on that
never-to-be-forgotten day when Francis, Mavis, Bernard and Kathleen set
out in their best clothes to rescue the Mermaid because Mermaids “die
in captivity.”

The fair had none of those stalls and booths which old-fashioned
fairs used to have, where they sold toys, and gilt gingerbread, and
carters’ whips, and cups and saucers, and mutton pies, and dolls, and
china dogs, and shell boxes, and pincushions, and needle cases, and
penholders with views of the Isle of Wight and Winchester Cathedral
inside that you see so bright and plain when you put your eye close to
the little round hole at the top.

The steam roundabouts were there—but hardly a lean back of their
spotted horses was covered by a rider. There were swings, but no one
happened to be swinging. There were no shows, no menagerie, no boxing
booth, no marionettes. No penny gaff with the spangled lady and the
fat man who beats the drum. Nor were there any stalls. There were
pink-and-white paper whips and bags of dust-colored minced paper—the
English substitute for _confetti_—there were little metal tubes of
dirty water to squirt in people’s faces, but except for the sale of
these crude instruments for making other people uncomfortable there was
not a stall in the fair. I give you my word, there was not a single
thing that you could buy—no gingerbread, no sweets, no crockery dogs,
not even a half-penny orange or a bag of nuts. Nor was there anything
to drink—not as much as a lemonade counter or a ginger beer stall.
The revelers were no doubt drinking elsewhere. A tomblike silence
reigned—a silence which all the steam roundabout’s hideous hootings
only emphasized.

A very dirty-nosed boy, overhearing a hurried council, volunteered the
information that the circus had not yet opened.

“Never mind,” they told each other—and turned to the sideshows. These
were all of one character—the arrangement by which you throw something
or roll something at something else, and if you hit the something you
get a prize—the sort of prize that is sold in Houndsditch at ninepence
a gross.

Most of these arrangements are so ordered that to get a prize is
impossible. For instance, a peculiarly offensive row of masks with open
mouths in which pipes are set up. In the golden days of long ago if you
hit a pipe it broke—and you got a “prize” worth—I can’t do sums—put
it briefly at the hundred and forty-fourth part of ninepence. But the
children found that when their wooden ball struck the pipe it didn’t
break. They wondered why! Then, looking more closely, they saw that
the pipes were not of clay, but of painted wood. They could never be
broken—and the whole thing was a cruel mockery of hope.

The coconut-shy was not what it used to be either. Once one threw
sticks, three shies a penny. Now it is a penny a shy, with light wooden
balls. You can win a coconut if you happen to hit one that is not glued
onto its support. If you really wish to win one of these unkindly
fruits it is well to stand and watch a little and not to aim at those
coconuts which, when they are hit, fail to fall off the sticks. Are
they glued on? One hopes not. But if they are, who can wonder or
reprove? It is hard to get a living, anyhow.

There was one thing, though, that roused the children’s
resentment—chiefly, I think, because its owners were clean and did not
look half-starved, so there was no barrier of pity between them and
dislike—a sort of round table sloping up to its center. On this small
objects were arranged. For a penny you received two hoops. If you could
throw a hoop over an object that object was yours. None of the rustic
visitors to the fair could, it seemed, or cared to. It did not look
difficult, however. Nor was it. At the first shot a tiny candlestick
was encircled. Between pride and shame Mavis held out a hand.

“Hard luck,” said one of the two young women, too clean to be pitied.
“Has to go flat on—see?”

Francis tried again. This time the ring encircled a matchbox, “flat on.”

“Hard luck,” said the lady again.

“What’s the matter now?” the children asked, baffled.

“Hoop has to be red side up,” said she. So she scored. Now they went
to the other side and had another penn’orth of hoops from the other
too clean young woman. And the same thing happened. Only on the second
winning she said:

“Hard luck. Hoops have to be blue side up.”

It was Bernard’s blood that was up. He determined to clear the board.

“Blue side up, is it,” he said sternly, and took another penn’orth.
This time he brought down a tin pin tray and a little box which, I
hope, contained something. The girl hesitated and then handed over the
prizes. “Another penn’orth of hoops,” said Bernard, warming to the work.

“Hard luck,” said she. “We don’t give more than two penn’orth to any
one party.”

The prizes were not the kind of things you care to keep, even as
trophies of victory—especially when you have before you the business
of rescuing a Mermaid. The children gave their prizes to a small
female bystander and went to the shooting gallery. That, at least,
could have no nonsense about it. If you aimed at a bottle and hit it
it would break. No sordid self-seeking custodian could rob you of the
pleasant tinkling of the broken bottle. And even with a poor weapon
it is not impossible to aim at a bottle and hit it. This is true—but
at the shooting gallery the trouble was _not_ to hit the bottles.
There were so many of them and they were so near. The children got
thirteen tinkling smashes for their fourteen shots. The bottles were
hung fifteen feet away instead of thirty. Why? Space is not valuable at
the fair—can it be that the people of Sussex are such poor shots that
thirty feet is to them a prohibitive distance?

They did not throw for coconuts, nor did they ride on the little horses
or pull themselves to dizzy heights in the swings. There was no heart
left in them for such adventures—and besides everyone in the fair,
saving themselves and the small female bystander and the hoop girls,
was dirtier than you would believe possible. I suppose Beachfield has
a water supply. But you would have doubted it if you had been at the
fair. They heard no laughter, no gay talk, no hearty give-and-take of
holiday jests. A dull heavy silence brooded over the place, and you
could hear that silence under the shallow insincere gaiety of the steam
roundabout.

Laughter and song, music and good-fellowship, dancing and innocent
revelry, there were none of these at Beachfield Fair. For music
there was the steam roundabout’s echoes of the sordid musical comedy
of the year before the year before last—laughter there was not—nor
revelry—only the dirty guardians of the machines for getting your
pennies stood gloomily huddled, and a few groups of dejected girls
and little boys shivered in the cold wind that had come up with the
sunset. In that wind, too, danced the dust, the straw, the newspaper
and the chocolate wrappers. The only dancing there was. The big tent
that held the circus was at the top of the ground, and the people who
were busy among the ropes and pegs and between the bright vans resting
on their shafts seemed gayer and cleaner than the people who kept
the little arrangements for people not to win prizes at. And now the
circus at last was opened; the flap of the tent was pinned back, and
a gypsy-looking woman, with oily black ringlets and eyes like bright
black beads, came out at the side to take the money of those who wished
to see the circus. People were now strolling toward it in twos and
threes, and of these our four were the very first, and the gypsy woman
took four warm sixpences from their four hands.

“Walk in, walk in, my little dears, and see the white elephant,” said
a stout, black-mustached man in evening dress—greenish it was and
shiny about the seams. He flourished a long whip as he spoke, and the
children stopped, although they had paid their sixpences, to hear what
they were to see when they did walk in. “The white elephant—tail,
trunk, and tusks all complete, sixpence only. See the Back Try A
or Camels, or Ships of the Arabs—heavy drinker when he gets the
chance—total abstainer while crossing the desert. Walk up, walk up. See
the Trained Wolves and Wolverines in their great National Dance with
the flags of all countries. Walk up, walk up, walk up. See the Educated
Seals and the Unique Lotus of the Heast in her famous bare-backed act,
riding three horses at once, the wonder and envy of royalty. Walk up
and see the very table Mermaid caught on your own coast only yesterday
as ever was.”

“Thank you,” said Francis, “I think we will.” And the four went through
the opened canvas into the pleasant yellow dusty twilight which was
the inside of a squarish sort of tent, with an opening at the end, and
through that opening you could see the sawdust-covered ring of the
circus and benches all around it, and two men just finishing covering
the front benches with red cotton strips.

“Where’s the Mermaid?” Mavis asked a little boy in tights and a
spangled cap.

“In there,” he said, pointing to a little canvas door at the side of
the squarish tent. “I don’t advise you to touch her, though. Spiteful,
she is. Lashes out with her tail—splashed old Mother Lee all over water
she did—an’ dangerous too: our Bill ’e got ’is bone set out in his
wrist a-trying to hold on to her. An’ it’s thruppence extry to see her
close.”

There are times, as we all know, when threepence extra is a baffling
obstacle—a cruel barrier to desire, but this was not, fortunately, such
a moment. The children had plenty of money, because Mother had given
them two half-crowns between them to spend as they liked.

“Even then,” said Bernard, in allusion to the threepence extra, “we
shall have two bob left.”

So Mavis, who was treasurer, paid over the extra threepences to a girl
with hair as fair and lank as hemp, and a face as brown and round as
a tea cake, who sat on a kitchen chair by the Mermaid door. Then one
by one they went in through the narrow opening, and at last there they
were alone in the little canvas room with a tank in it that held—well,
there was a large label, evidently written in a hurry, for the letters
were badly made and arranged quite crookedly, and this label declared:

           REAL LIVE MERMAID.
    SAID TO BE FABULUS, BUT NOW TRUE.
             CAUGHT HERE.
          PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH.
              DANGEROUS.

The little Spangled Boy had followed them in and pointed to the last
word.

“What I tell you?” he asked proudly.

The children looked at each other. Nothing could be done with this
witness at hand. At least....

“Perhaps if it’s going to be magic,” Mavis whispered to Francis,
“outsiders wouldn’t notice. They don’t sometimes—I believe. Suppose you
just said a bit of ‘Sabrina’ to start the magic.”

“Wouldn’t be safe,” Francis returned in the same low tones. “Suppose he
_wasn’t_ an outsider, and _did_ notice.”

So there they stood helpless. What the label was hung on was a large
zinc tank—the kind that they have at the tops of houses for the water
supply—you must have seen one yourself often when the pipes burst in
frosty weather, and your father goes up into the roof of the house with
a candle and pail, and the water drips through the ceilings and the
plumber is sent for, and comes when it suits him. The tank was full
of water and at the bottom of it could be seen a mass of something
dark that looked as if it were partly browny-green fish and partly
greeny-brown seaweed.

“Sabrina fair,” Francis suddenly whispered, “send him away.”

And immediately a voice from outside called “Rube—Reuben—drat the boy,
where’s he got to?”—and the little spangled intruder had to go.

“There, now,” said Mavis, “if _that_ isn’t magic!” Perhaps it was, but
still the dark fish-and-seaweed heap in the tank had not stirred. “Say
it all through,” said Mavis.

“Yes, do,” said Bernard, “then we shall know for certain whether it’s a
seal or not.”

So once again—

          “‘_Sabrina fair,
    Listen where thou art sitting,
    Under the glassie, cool, translucent wave,_’”

He got no further. There was a heaving and stirring of the seaweed and
fish tail, something gleamed white, through the brown something white
parted the seaweed, two white hands parted it, and a face came to the
surface of the rather dirty water and—there was no doubt about it—spoke.

“‘Translucent wave,’indeed!” was what the face said. “I wonder you’re
not ashamed to speak the invocation over a miserable cistern like this.
What do you want?”

Brown hair and seaweed still veiled most of the face, but all the
children, who, after their first start back had pressed close to the
tank again, could see that the face looked exceedingly cross.

“We want,” said Francis in a voice that would tremble though he told
himself again and again that he was not a baby and wasn’t going to
behave like one—“we want to help you.”

“Help _me_? You?” She raised herself a little more in the tank and
looked contemptuously at them. “Why, don’t you know that I am mistress
of all water magic? I can raise a storm that will sweep away this
horrible place and my detestable captors and you with them, and carry
me on the back of a great wave down to the depths of the sea.”

“Then why on earth don’t you?” Bernard asked.

“Well, I was thinking about it,” she said, a little awkwardly, “when
you interrupted with your spells. Well, you’ve called and I’ve
answered—now tell me what I can do for you.”

“We’ve told you,” said Mavis gently enough, though she was frightfully
disappointed that the Mermaid after having in the handsomest manner
turned out to be a Mermaid, should be such a very short-tempered one.
And when they had talked about her all day and paid the threepence each
extra to see her close, and put on their best white dresses too. “We’ve
told you—we want to help you. Another Sabrina in the sea told us to.
_She_ didn’t tell us anything about you being a magic-mistress. She
just said ‘they die in captivity.’”

[Illustration: “_‘Translucent wave,’ indeed!_”]

“Well, thank you for coming,” said the Mermaid. “If she really said
that it must be one of two things—either the sun is in the House of
Liber—which is impossible at this time of the year—or else the rope I
was caught with must be made of llama’s hair, and _that’s_ impossible
in these latitudes. Do you know anything about the rope they caught me
with?”

“No,” said Bernard and Kathleen. But the others said, “It was a lariat.”

“Ah,” said the Mermaid, “my worst fears are confirmed—But who could
have expected a lariat on these shores? But that must have been it. Now
I know why, though I have been on the point of working the magic of the
Great Storm at least five hundred times since my capture, some unseen
influence has always held me back.”

“You mean,” said Bernard, “you feel that it wouldn’t work, so you
didn’t try.”

A rattling, ripping sound outside, beginning softly, waxed louder and
louder so as almost to drown their voices. It was the drum, and it
announced the beginning of the circus. The Spangled Child put his head
in and said, “Hurry up or you’ll miss my Infant Prodigious Act on the
Horse with the Tambourines,” and took his head out again.

“Oh, dear,” said Mavis, “and we haven’t arranged a single thing about
rescuing you.”

“No more you have,” said the Mermaid carelessly.

“Look here,” said Francis, “you do _want_ to be rescued, don’t you?

“Of course I do,” replied the Mermaid impatiently, “now I know about
the llama rope. But I can’t walk even if they’d let me, and you
couldn’t carry me. Couldn’t you come at dead of night with a chariot—I
could lift myself into it with your aid—then you could drive swiftly
hence, and driving into the sea I could drop from the chariot and
escape while you swam ashore.”

“I don’t believe we could—any of it,” said Bernard, “let alone swimming
ashore with horses and chariots. Why, Pharaoh himself couldn’t do that,
you know.” And even Mavis and Francis added helplessly, “I don’t see
how we’re to get a chariot,” and “do you think of some other way.”

“I shall await you,” said the lady in the tank with perfect calmness,
“at dead of night.”

With that she twisted the seaweed closely around her head and shoulders
and sank slowly to the bottom of the tank. And the children were left
staring blankly at each other, while in the circus tent music sounded
and the soft heavy pad-pad of hoofs on sawdust.

“What shall we do?” Francis broke the silence.

“Go and see the circus, of course,” said Bernard.

“Of course we can talk about the chariot afterward,” Mavis admitted.

“There’ll be lots of time to talk between now and dead of night,” said
Kathleen. “Come on, Bear.”

And they went.

There is nothing like a circus for making you forget your anxieties.
It is impossible to dwell on your troubles and difficulties when
performing dogs are displaying their accomplishments, and wolves
dancing their celebrated dance with the flags of all nations, and
the engaging lady who jumps through the paper hoops and comes down
miraculously on the flat back of the white horse, cannot but drive
dull care away, especially from the minds of the young. So that for an
hour and a half—it really was a good circus, and I can’t think how it
happened to be at Beachfield Fair at all—a solid slab of breathless
enjoyment was wedged in between the interview with the Mermaid and
the difficult task of procuring for her the chariot she wanted. But
when it was all over and they were part of a hot, tightly packed crowd
pouring out of the dusty tent into the sunshine, their responsibilities
came upon them with renewed force.

“Wasn’t the clown ripping?” said Bernard, as they got free of the crowd.

“I liked the riding-habit lady best, and the horse that went like that,
best,” said Kathleen, trying with small pale hands and brown shod legs
to give an example of a horse’s conduct during an exhibition of the
_haute école_.

“Didn’t you think the elephant—” Mavis was beginning, when Francis
interrupted her.

“About that chariot,” he said, and after that they talked of nothing
else. And whatever they said it always came to this in the end, that
they hadn’t got a chariot, and couldn’t get a chariot, and that anyhow
they didn’t suppose there was a chariot to be got, at any rate in
Beachfield.

“It wouldn’t be any good, I suppose,” said Kathleen’s last and most
helpful suggestion—“be the slightest good saying ‘Sabrina fair’ to a
pumpkin?”

“We haven’t got even a pumpkin,” Bernard reminded her, “let alone the
rats and mice and lizards that Cinderella had. No, that’s no good. But
I’ll tell you what.” He stopped short. They were near home now—it was
late afternoon, in the road where the talkative yellowhammer lived.
“What about a wheelbarrow?”

“Not big enough,” said Francis.

“There’s an extra big one in the mill,” said Bernard. “Now, look here.
I’m not any good at magic. But Uncle Tom said I was a born general. If
I tell you exactly what to do, will you two do it, and let Cathay and
me off going?”

“Going to sneak out of it?” Francis asked bitterly.

“It isn’t. It’s not my game at all, and I don’t want to play. And if I
do, the whole thing will be muffed—you know it will. I’m so unlucky.
You’d never get out at dead of night without me dropping a boot on the
stairs or sneezing—you know you wouldn’t.”

Bernard took a sort of melancholy pride in being the kind of boy
who always gets caught. If you are that sort of boy, perhaps that’s
the best way to take it. And Francis could not deny that there was
something in what he said. He went on: “Then Kathleen’s my special
sister and I’m not going to have her dragged into a row. (“I want to,”
Kathleen put in ungratefully.) So will you and Mavis do it on your own
or not?”

After some discussion, in which Kathleen was tactfully dealt with, it
was agreed that they would. Then Bernard unfolded his plan of campaign.

“Directly we get home,” he said, “we’ll begin larking about with that
old wheelbarrow—giving each other rides, and so on, and when it’s time
to go in we’ll leave it at the far end of the field behind the old
sheep hut near the gate. Then it’ll be handy for you at dead of night.
You must take towels or something and tie around the wheel so that it
doesn’t make a row. You can sleep with my toy alarm under your pillow
and it won’t wake anyone but you. You get out through the dining room
window and in the same way. I’ll lend you my new knife, with three
blades and a corkscrew, if you’ll take care of it, to cut the canvas,
and go by the back lane that comes out behind where the circus is, but
if you took my advice you wouldn’t go at all. She’s not a nice Mermaid
at all. I’d rather have had a seal, any day. Hullo, there’s Daddy and
Mother. Come on.”

They came on.

The program sketched by Bernard was carried out without a hitch.
Everything went well, only Francis and Mavis were both astonished to
find themselves much more frightened than they had expected to be. Any
really great adventure like the rescuing of a Mermaid does always look
so very much more serious when you carry it out, at night, than it did
when you were planning it in the daytime. Also, though they knew they
were not doing anything wrong, they had an uncomfortable feeling that
Mother and Daddy might not agree with them on that point. And of course
they could not ask leave to go and rescue a Mermaid, with a chariot,
at dead of night. It is not the sort of thing you can ask leave to do,
somehow. And the more you explained your reasons the less grown-up
people would think you fit to conduct such an expedition.

Francis lay down fully dressed, under his nightshirt. And Mavis under
hers wore her short blue skirt and jersey. The alarm, true to its
trust, went off into an ear-splitting whizz and bang under the pillow
of Francis, but no one else heard it. He crept cautiously into Mavis’s
room and wakened her, and as they crept down in stockinged feet not a
board creaked. The French window opened without noise, the wheelbarrow
was where they had left it, and they had fortunately brought quite
enough string to bind wads of towels and stockings to the tire of its
wheel. Also they had not forgotten the knife.

The wheelbarrow was heavy and they rather shrank from imagining how
much heavier it would be when the discontented Mermaid was curled up in
it. However, they took it in turns, and got along all right by the back
lane that comes out above the waste ground where Beachfield holds its
fairs.

“I hope the night’s dead enough,” Mavis whispered as the circus came in
sight, looking very white in the starlight, “it’s nearly two by now I
should think.”

“Quite dead enough, if that’s all,” said Francis; “but suppose the
gypsies are awake? They do sit up to study astronomy to tell fortunes
with, don’t they? Suppose this is their astronomy night? I vote we
leave the barrow here and go and reconnoiter.”

They did. Their sandshoes made no noise on the dewy grass, and treading
very carefully, on tiptoe, they came to the tent. Francis nearly
tumbled over a guy rope; he just saw it in time to avoid it.

“If I’d been Bernard I should have come a beastly noisy cropper over
that,” he told himself. They crept around the tent till they came to
the little square bulge that marked the place where the tank was and
the seaweed and the Mermaid.

“They die in captivity, they die in captivity, they die in captivity,”
Mavis kept repeating to herself, trying to keep up her courage by
reminding herself of the desperately urgent nature of the adventure.
“It’s a matter of life and death,” she told herself—“life and death.”

And now they picked their way between the pegs and guy ropes and came
quite close to the canvas. Doubts of the strength and silence of the
knife possessed the trembling soul of Francis. Mavis’s heart was
beating so thickly that, as she said afterward, she could hardly hear
herself think. She scratched gently on the canvas, while Francis felt
for the knife with the three blades and the corkscrew. An answering
signal from the imprisoned Mermaid would, she felt, give her fresh
confidence. There was no answering scratch. Instead, a dark line
appeared to run up the canvas—it was an opening made by the two hands
of the Mermaid which held back the two halves of the tent side, cut
neatly from top to bottom. Her white face peered out.

“Where is the chariot?” she asked in the softest of whispers, but
not too soft to carry to the children the feeling that she was, if
possible, crosser than ever.

Francis was afraid to answer. He knew that his voice could never be
subdued to anything as soft as the voice that questioned him, a voice
like the sound of tiny waves on a summer night, like the whisper of
wheat when the wind passes through it on a summer morning. But he
pointed toward the lane where they had left the wheelbarrow and he and
Mavis crept away to fetch it.

As they wheeled it down the waste place both felt how much they owed to
Bernard. But for his idea of muffling the wheel they could never have
got the clumsy great thing down that bumpy uneven slope. But as it was
they and the barrow stole toward the gypsy’s tent as silently as the
Arabs in the poem stole away with theirs, and they wheeled it close to
the riven tent side. Then Mavis scratched again, and again the tent
opened.

“Have you any cords?” the soft voice whispered, and Francis pulled what
was left of the string from his pocket.

She had made two holes in the tent side, and now passing the string
through these she tied back the flaps of the tent.

“Now,” she said, raising herself in the tank and resting her hands on
its side. “You must both help—take hold of my tail and lift. Creep
in—one on each side.”

It was a wet, sloppy, slippery, heavy business, and Mavis thought her
arms would break, but she kept saying: “Die in captivity,” and just as
she was feeling that she could not bear it another minute the strain
slackened and there was the Mermaid curled up in the barrow.

“Now,” said the soft voice, “go—quickly.”

It was all very well to say go quickly. It was as much as the two
children could do, with that barrow-load of dripping Mermaid, to go at
all. And very, very slowly they crept up the waste space. In the lane,
under cover of the tall hedges, they paused.

“Go on,” said the Mermaid.

“We can’t till we’ve rested a bit,” said Mavis, panting. “How did you
manage to get that canvas cut?”

“My shell knife, of course,” said the person in the wheelbarrow. “We
always carry one in our hair, in case of sharks.”

“I see,” said Francis, breathing heavily.

“You had much better go on,” said the barrow’s occupant. “This chariot
is excessively uncomfortable and much too small. Besides, delays are
dangerous.”

“We’ll go in half a sec,” said Francis, and Mavis added kindly:

“You’re really quite safe now, you know.”

“_You_ aren’t,” said the Mermaid. “I don’t know whether you realize
that I’m stolen property and that it will be extremely awkward for you
if you are caught with me.”

“But we shan’t be caught with you,” said Mavis hopefully.

“Everybody’s sound asleep,” said Francis. It was wonderful how brave
and confident they felt now that the deed was done. “It’s perfectly
safe—Oh, what’s that! Oh!”

A hand had shot from the black shadow of the hedge and caught him by
the arm.

“What is it, France? What is it?” said Mavis, who could not see what
was happening.

“What is it—now what is it?” asked the Mermaid more crossly than she
had yet spoken.

“_Who_ is it? Oh, who is it?” gasped Francis, writhing in the grip of
his invisible assailant. And from the dark shadow of the hedge came the
simple and terrible reply:

“The police!”



CHAPTER FOUR

_Gratitude_


IT IS HARDLY POSSIBLE to imagine a situation less attractive than that
of Mavis and Francis—even the position of the Mermaid curled up in a
dry barrow and far from her native element was not exactly luxurious.
Still, she was no worse off than she had been when the lariat first
curled itself about her fishy extremity. But the children! They had
braved the terrors of night in an adventure of singular courage and
daring, they had carried out their desperate enterprise, the Mermaid
was rescued, and success seemed near—no further off than the sea
indeed, and that, in point of fact, was about a quarter of a mile away.
To be within a quarter of a mile of achievement, and then to have the
cup of victory dashed from your lips, the crown of victory torn from
your brow by—the police!

It was indeed hard. And what was more, it was dangerous.

“We shall pass the night in the cells,” thought Mavis, in agony; “and
whatever will Mother do when she finds we’re gone?” In her mind “the
cells” were underground dungeons, dark and damp and vaulted, where
toads and lizards crawled, and no daylight ever penetrated. That is
how dungeons are described in books about the Inquisition.

When the voice from the bush had said “The police,” a stricken silence
followed. The mouth of Francis felt dry inside, just as if he had been
eating cracknels, he explained afterward, and he had to swallow nothing
before he could say:

“What for?”

“Let go his arm,” said Mavis to the hidden foe. “We won’t run away.
Really we won’t.”

“You can’t,” said the Mermaid. “You can’t leave me.”

“Leave go,” said Francis, wriggling. And then suddenly Mavis made a
dart at the clutching hand and caught it by the wrist and whispered
savagely:

“It’s not a policeman at all. Come out of that bush—come out,” and
dragged. And something did come out of the bush. Something that
certainly was not a policeman. It was small and thin, whereas policemen
are almost always tall and stout. It did not wear the blue coats our
Roberts wear, but velveteen knickerbockers and a tweed jacket. It was,
in fact, a very small boy.

Francis broke into a cackle of relief.

“You little—animal,” he said. “What a fright you gave me.”

“Animal yourself, if you come to that, let alone her and her tail,” the
boy answered; and Mavis thought his voice didn’t sound unfriendly. “My!
But I did take a rise out of you that time, eh? Ain’t she bit you yet,
nor yet strook you with that there mackerel-end of hers?”

And then they recognized him. It was the little Spangled Boy. Only now,
of course, being off duty he was no more spangled than you and I are.

“Whatever did you do it for?” Mavis asked crossly. “It was horrid of
you.”

“It wasn’t only just a lark,” said the boy. “I cut around and listened
this afternoon when you was jawing, and I thought why not be in it?
Only I do sleep that heavy, what with the riding and the tumbling and
all. So I didn’t wake till you’d got her out and then I cut up along
ahind the hedge to be beforehand with you. An’ I was. It was a fair
cop, matey, eh?”

“What are you going to do about it?” Francis asked flatly; “tell your
father?” But Mavis reflected that he didn’t seem to have told his
father yet, and perhaps wouldn’t.

“Ain’t got no father,” said the Spangled Boy, “nor yet mother.”

“If you are rested enough you’d better go on,” said the Mermaid. “I’m
getting dry through.”

And Mavis understood that to her that was as bad as getting wet through
would be to us.

“I’m so sorry,” she said gently, “but—”

“I must say I think it’s very inconsiderate of you to keep me all this
time in the dry,” the Mermaid went on. “I really should have thought
that even _you_—”

But Francis interrupted her.

“What are you going to _do_?” he asked the Spangled Boy. And that
surprising child answered, spitting on his hands and rubbing them:

“Do? Why, give a ’and with the barrer.”

The Mermaid put out a white arm and touched him.

“You are a hero,” she said. “I can recognize true nobility even under a
once-spangled exterior. You may kiss my hand.”

“Well, of all the....” said Francis.

“Shall I?” the boy asked, more of himself than of the others.

“Do,” Mavis whispered. “Anything to keep her in a good temper.”

So the Spangled Boy kissed the still dampish hand of the Lady from
the Sea, took the handles of the barrow and off they all went.

[Illustration: “_The police._”]

Mavis and Francis were too thankful for this unexpected help to ask any
questions, though they could not help wondering exactly what it felt
like to be a boy who did not mind stealing his own father’s Mermaid. It
was the boy himself who offered, at the next rest-halt, an explanation.

“You see,” he said, “it’s like this here. This party in the barrow—”

“I know you don’t mean it disrespectfully,” said the Mermaid, sweetly;
“but _not_ party—and _not_ a barrow.”

“Lady,” suggested Mavis.

“This lydy in the chariot, she’d been kidnapped—that’s how I look at
it. Same as what I was.”

This was romance indeed; and Mavis recognized it and said:

“You, kidnapped? I say!”

“Yus,” said Spangles, “when I was a baby kid. Old Mother Romaine told
me, just afore she was took all down one side and never spoke no more.”

“But why?” Mavis asked. “I never could understand in the books why
gypsies kidnapped babies. They always seem to have so many of their
own—far, far more than anyone could possibly want.”

“Yes, indeed,” said the Mermaid, “they prodded at me with sticks—a
multitude of them.”

“It wasn’t kids as was wanted,” said the boy, “it was revenge. That’s
what Mother Romaine said—my father he was a sort of Beak, so he give
George Lee eighteen months for poaching. An’ the day they took him the
church bells was ringing like mad, and George, as he was being took, he
said: ‘What’s all that row? It ain’t Sunday.’ And then they tells him
as how the bells was ringing ’cause him that was the Beak—my father,
you know—he’d got a son and hare. And that was me. You wouldn’t think
it to look at me,” he added, spitting pensively and taking up the
barrow handles, “but I’m a son and hare.”

“And then what happened?” Mavis asked as they trudged on.

“Oh, George—he done his time, and I was a kiddy then, year-and-a-half
old, all lace and ribbons and blue shoes made of glove-stuff, and
George pinched me, and it makes me breff short, wheeling and talking.”

“Pause and rest, my spangled friend,” said the Mermaid in a voice of
honey, “and continue your thrilling narrative.”

“There ain’t no more to it,” said the boy, “except that I got one of
the shoes. Old Mother Romaine ’ad kep’ it, and a little shirt like a
lady’s handkercher, with R. V. on it in needlework. She didn’t ever
tell me what part of the country my dad was Beak in. Said she’d tell
me next day. An’ then there wasn’t no next day for her—not fer telling
things in, there wasn’t.”

He rubbed his sleeve across his eyes.

“She wasn’t half a bad sort,” he explained.

“Don’t cry,” said Mavis unwisely.

“Cry? Me?” he answered scornfully. “I’ve got a cold in me ’ead. You
oughter know the difference between a cold in the head and sniveling.
You been to school, I lay?—they might have taught you that.”

“I wonder the gypsies didn’t take the shoe and the shirt away from you?”

“Nobody know’d I’d got ’em; I always kep’ ’em inside my shirt, wrapt
up in a bit of paper, and when I put on me tights I used to hide ’em.
I’m a-going to take the road one of these days, and find out who it was
lost a kid with blue shoes and shirt nine years come April.”

“Then you’re ten and a half,” said Mavis.

And the boy answered admiringly:

“How do you do it in your head so quick, miss? Yes, that’s what I am.”

Here the wheelbarrow resumed its rather bumpety progress, and nothing
more could be said till the next stoppage, which was at that spot where
the sea-front road swings around and down, and glides into the beach so
gently that you can hardly tell where one begins and the other ends.
It was much lighter there than up on the waste space. The moon was
just breaking through a fluffy white cloud and cast a trembling sort
of reflection on the sea. As they came down the slope all hands were
needed to steady the barrow, because as soon as she saw the sea the
Mermaid began to jump up and down like a small child at a Christmas
tree.

“Oh, look!” she cried, “isn’t it beautiful? Isn’t it the only home in
the world?”

“Not quite,” said the boy.

“Ah!” said the lady in the barrow, “Of course you’re heir to one of
the—what is it...?”

“‘Stately homes of England—how beautiful they stand,’” said Mavis.

“Yes,” said the lady. “I knew by instinct that he was of noble birth.”

    _“‘I bid ye take care of the brat,’ said he,
    ‘For he comes of a noble race,’”_

       *       *       *       *       *

Francis hummed. He was feeling a little cross and sore. He and Mavis
had had all the anxious trouble of the adventure, and now the Spangled
Boy was the only one the Mermaid was nice to. It was certainly hard.

“But your stately home would not do for me at all,” she went on. “My
idea of home is all seaweed of coral and pearl—so cosy and delightful
and wet. Now—can you push the chariot to the water’s edge, or will you
carry me?”

“Not much we won’t,” the Spangled Boy answered firmly. “We’ll push you
as far as we can, and then you’ll have to wriggle.”

“I will do whatever you suggest,” she said amiably; “but what is this
wriggle of which you speak?”

“Like a worm,” said Francis.

“Or an eel,” said Mavis.

“Nasty low things,” said the Mermaid; and the children never knew
whether she meant the worm and the eel, or the girl and the boy.

“Now then. All together,” said the Spangled Child. And the barrow
bumped down to the very edge of the rocks. And at the very edge its
wheel caught in a chink and the barrow went sideways. Nobody could help
it, but the Mermaid was tumbled out of her chariot on to the seaweed.

The seaweed was full and cushiony and soft, and she was not hurt at
all—but she was very angry.

“You have been to school,” she said, “as my noble preserver reminds
you. You might have learned how not to upset chariots.”

“It’s we who are your preservers,” Francis couldn’t help saying.

“Of course you are,” she said coolly, “plain preservers. Not noble
ones. But I forgive you. You can’t help being common and clumsy. I
suppose it’s your nature—just as it’s his to be....”

“Good-bye,” said Francis, firmly.

“Not at all,” said the lady. “You must come with me in case there
are any places where I can’t exercise the elegant and vermiform
accomplishment you spoke about. Now, one on each side, and one behind,
and don’t walk on my tail. You can’t think how annoying it is to have
your tail walked on.”

[Illustration: _And disappeared entirely._]

“Oh, can’t I,” said Mavis. “I’ll tell you something. My mother has a
tail too.”

“I _say_!” said Francis.

But the Spangled Child understood.

“She don’t wear it every day, though,” he said; and Mavis is almost
sure that he winked. Only it is so difficult to be sure about winks in
the starlight.

“Your mother must be better born than I supposed,” said the Mermaid.
“Are you _quite_ sure about the tail?”

“I’ve trodden on it often,” said Mavis—and then Francis saw.

Wriggling and sliding and pushing herself along by her hands, and
helped now and then by the hands of the others, the Mermaid was at last
got to the edge of the water.

“How glorious! In a moment I shall be quite wet,” she cried.

In a moment everyone else was quite wet also—for with a movement that
was something between a squirm and a jump, she dropped from the edge
with a splashing flop.

And disappeared entirely.



CHAPTER FIVE

_Consequences_


THE THREE CHILDREN looked at each other.

“Well!” said Mavis.

“I do think she’s ungrateful,” said Francis.

“What did you expect?” asked the Spangled Child.

They were all wet through. It was very late—they were very tired, and
the clouds were putting the moon to bed in a very great hurry. The
Mermaid was gone; the whole adventure was ended.

There was nothing to do but to go home, and go to sleep, knowing that
when they woke the next morning it would be to a day in the course of
which they would have to explain their wet clothes to their parents.

“Even _you_’ll have to do that,” Mavis reminded the Spangled Boy.

He received her remark in what they afterward remembered to have been a
curiously deep silence.

“I don’t know how on earth we _are_ to explain,” said Francis. “I
really don’t. Come on—let’s get home. No more adventures for me, thank
you. Bernard knew what he was talking about.”

Mavis, very tired indeed, agreed.

They had got over the beach by this time, recovered the wheelbarrow,
and trundled it up and along the road. At the corner the Spangled Boy
suddenly said:

“Well then, so long, old sports,” and vanished down a side lane.

The other two went on together—with the wheelbarrow, which, I may
remind you, was as wet as any of them.

They went along by the hedge and the mill and up to the house.

Suddenly Mavis clutched at her brother’s arm.

“There’s a light,” she said, “in the house.”

There certainly was, and the children experienced that terrible
empty sensation only too well known to all of us—the feeling of the
utterly-found-out.

They could not be sure which window it was, but it was a downstairs
window, partly screened by ivy. A faint hope still buoyed up Francis
of getting up to bed unnoticed by whoever it was that had the light;
and he and his sister crept around to the window out of which they had
crept; but such a very long time ago it seemed. The window was shut.

Francis suggested hiding in the mill and trying to creep in unobserved
later on, but Mavis said:

“No. I’m too tired for anything. I’m too tired to _live_, I think.
Let’s go and get it over, and then we can go to bed and sleep, and
sleep, and sleep.”

So they went and peeped in at the kitchen window, and there was no one
but Mrs. Pearce, and she had a fire lighted and was putting a big pot
on it.

The children went to the back door and opened it.

“You’re early, for sure,” said Mrs. Pearce, not turning.

This seemed a bitter sarcasm. It was too much. Mavis answered it with
a sob. And at that Mrs. Pearce turned very quickly.

“What to gracious!” she said—“whatever to gracious is the matter?
Where’ve you been?” She took Mavis by the shoulder. “Why, you’re all
sopping wet. You naughty, naughty little gell, you. Wait till I tell
your Ma—been shrimping I lay—or trying to—never asking when the tide
was right. And not a shrimp to show for it, I know, with the tide where
it is. You wait till we hear what your Ma’s got to say about it. And
look at my clean flags and you dripping all over ’em like a fortnight’s
wash in wet weather.”

Mavis twisted a little in Mrs. Pearce’s grasp. “Oh, don’t scold us,
dear Mrs. Pearce,” she said, putting a wet arm up toward Mrs. Pearce’s
neck. “We _are_ so miserable.”

“And so you deserve to be,” said Mrs. Pearce, smartly. “Here, young
chap, you go into the washhouse and get them things off, and drop
them outside the door, and have a good rub with the jack-towel; and
little miss can undress by the fire and put hern in this clean pail—and
I’ll pop up softlike and so as your Ma don’t hear, and bring you down
something dry.”

A gleam of hope fell across the children’s hearts—a gleam wild and
watery as that which the moonlight had cast across the sea, into which
the Mermaid had disappeared. Perhaps after all Mrs. Pearce wasn’t going
to tell Mother. If she was, why should she pop up softlike? Perhaps she
would keep their secret. Perhaps she would dry their clothes. Perhaps,
after all, that impossible explanation would never have to be given.

The kitchen was a pleasant place, with bright brasses and shining
crockery, and a round three-legged table with a clean cloth and
blue-and-white teacups on it.

Mrs. Pearce came down with their nightgowns and the warm dressing gowns
that Aunt Enid had put in in spite of their expressed wishes. How glad
they were of them now!

“There, that’s a bit more like,” said Mrs. Pearce; “here, don’t look
as if I was going to eat you, you little Peter Grievouses. I’ll hot up
some milk and here’s a morsel of bread and dripping to keep the cold
out. Lucky for you I was up—getting the boys’ breakfast ready. The
boats’ll be in directly. The boys will laugh when I tell them—laugh fit
to bust their selves they will.”

“Oh, don’t tell,” said Mavis, “don’t, please don’t. Please, please
don’t.”

“Well, I like that,” said Mrs. Pearce, pouring herself some tea from
a pot which, the children learned later, stood on the hob all day and
most of the night; “it’s the funniest piece I’ve heard this many a day.
Shrimping at high tide!”

“I thought,” said Mavis, “perhaps you’d forgive us, and dry our
clothes, and not tell anybody.”

“Oh, you did, did you?” said Mrs. Pearce. “Anything else—?”

“No, nothing else, thank you,” said Mavis, “only I want to say thank
you for being so kind, and it isn’t high tide yet, and please we
haven’t done any harm to the barrow—but I’m afraid it’s rather wet, and
we oughtn’t to have taken it without asking, I know, but you were in
bed and—”

“The barrow?” Mrs. Pearce repeated. “That great hulking barrow—you
took the barrow to bring the shrimps home in? No—I can’t keep it to
myself—that really I can’t—” she lay back in the armchair and shook
with silent laughter.

The children looked at each other. It is not pleasant to be laughed at,
especially for something you have never done—but they both felt that
Mrs. Pearce would have laughed quite as much, or even more, if they had
told her what it really was they had wanted the barrow for.

“Oh, don’t go on laughing,” said Mavis, creeping close to Mrs. Pearce,
“though you are a ducky darling not to be cross any more. And you won’t
tell, will you?”

“Ah, well—I’ll let you off this time. But you’ll promise faithful never
to do it again, now, won’t you?”

“We faithfully won’t ever,” said both children, earnestly.

“Then off you go to your beds, and I’ll dry the things when your Ma’s
out. I’ll press ’em tomorrow morning while I’m waiting for the boys to
come in.”

“You _are_ an angel,” said Mavis, embracing her.

“More than you are then, you young limbs,” said Mrs. Pearce, returning
the embrace. “Now off you go, and get what sleep you can.”

It was with a feeling that Fate had not, after all, been unduly harsh
with them that Mavis and Francis came down to a very late breakfast.

“Your Ma and Pa’s gone off on their bikes,” said Mrs. Pearce, bringing
in the eggs and bacon, “won’t be back till dinner. So I let you have
your sleep out. The little ’uns had theirs three hours ago and out on
the sands. I told them to let you sleep, though I know they wanted to
hear how many shrimps you caught. I lay they expected a barrowful, same
as what you did.”

“How did you know they knew we’d been out?” Francis asked.

“Oh, the way they was being secret in corners, and looking the old
barrow all over was enough to make a cat laugh. Hurry up, now. I’ve got
the washing-up to do—and your things is well-nigh dry.”

“You _are_ a darling,” said Mavis. “Suppose you’d been different,
whatever would have become of us?”

“You’d a got your desserts—bed and bread and water, instead of this
nice egg and bacon and the sands to play on. So now you know,” said
Mrs. Pearce.

       *       *       *       *       *

On the sands they found Kathleen and Bernard, and it really now, in
the bright warm sunshine, seemed almost worthwhile to have gone through
last night’s adventures, if only for the pleasure of telling the tale
of them to the two who had been safe and warm and dry in bed all the
time.

“Though really,” said Mavis, when the tale was told, “sitting here and
seeing the tents and the children digging, and the ladies knitting,
and the gentlemen smoking and throwing stones, it does hardly seem as
though there _could_ be any magic. And yet, you know, there was.”

“It’s like I told you about radium and things,” said Bernard. “Things
aren’t magic because they haven’t been found out yet. There’s always
been Mermaids, of course, only people didn’t know it.”

“But she talks,” said Francis.

“Why not?” said Bernard placidly. “Even parrots do that.”

“But she talks English,” Mavis urged.

“Well,” said Bernard, unmoved, “what would you have had her talk?”

And so, in pretty sunshine, between blue sky and good sands, the
adventure of the Mermaid seemed to come to an end, to be now only as
a tale that is told. And when the four went slowly home to dinner all
were, I think, a little sad that this should be so.

“Let’s go around and have a look at the empty barrow,” Mavis said;
“it’ll bring it all back to us, and remind us of what was in it, like
ladies’ gloves and troubadours.”

The barrow was where they had left it, but it was not empty. A very
dirty piece of folded paper lay in it, addressed in penciled and
uncertain characters

    TO FRANCE
    TO BE OPENED.

Francis opened it and read aloud:

    “I went back and she came back and she wants you to
    come back at ded of nite.

                                                RUBE.”

“Well, I shan’t go,” said Francis.

A voice from the bush by the gate made them all start.

“Don’t let on you see me,” said the Spangled Boy, putting his head out
cautiously.

“You seem very fond of hiding in bushes,” said Francis.

“I am,” said the boy briefly. “Ain’t you going—to see her again, I
mean?”

“No,” said Francis, “I’ve had enough dead of night to last me a long
time.”

“You a-going, miss?” the boy asked. “No? You are a half-livered crew.
It’ll be only me, I suppose.”

“You’re going, then?”

“Well,” said the boy, “what do you think?”

“I should go if I were you,” said Bernard impartially.

“No, you wouldn’t; not if you were me,” said Francis. “You don’t know
how disagreeable she was. I’m fed up with her. And besides, we simply
_can’t_ get out at dead of night now. Mrs. Pearce’ll be on the lookout.
No—it’s no go.”

“But you _must_ manage it somehow,” said Kathleen; “you can’t let it
drop like this. I shan’t believe it was magic at all if you do.”

“If you were us, you’d have had enough of magic,” said Francis. “Why
don’t you go yourselves—you and Bernard.”

“I’ve a good mind to,” said Bernard unexpectedly. “Only not in the
middle of the night, because of my being certain to drop my boots.
Would you come, Cathay?”

“You know I wanted to before,” said Kathleen reproachfully.

“But how?” the others asked.

“Oh,” said Bernard, “we must think about that. I say, you chap, we must
get to our dinner. Will you be here after?”

“Yes. I ain’t going to move from here. You might bring me a bit of grub
with you—I ain’t had a bite since yesterday teatime.”

“I say,” said Francis kindly, “did they stop your grub to punish you
for getting wet?”

“They didn’t know nothing about my getting wet,” he said darkly. “I
didn’t never go back to the tents. I’ve cut my lucky, I ’ave ’ooked it,
skedaddled, done a bunk, run away.”

“And where are you going?”

“_I_ dunno,” said the Spangled Boy. “I’m running _from_, not to.”



CHAPTER SIX

_The Mermaid’s Home_


THE PARENTS of Mavis, Francis, Kathleen and Bernard were extremely
sensible people. If they had not been, this story could never have
happened. They were as jolly as any father and mother you ever met,
but they were not always fussing and worrying about their children,
and they understood perfectly well that children do not care to be
absolutely always under the parental eye. So that, while there were
always plenty of good times in which the whole family took part, there
were also times when Father and Mother went off together and enjoyed
themselves in their own grown-up way, while the children enjoyed
themselves in theirs. It happened that on this particular afternoon
there was to be a concert at Lymington—Father and Mother were going.
The children were asked whether they would like to go, and replied with
equal courtesy and firmness.

“Very well then,” said Mother, “you do whatever you like best. I should
play on the shore, I think, if I were you. Only don’t go around the
corner of the cliff, because that’s dangerous at high tide. It’s safe
so long as you’re within sight of the coast guards. Anyone have any
more pie? No—then I think I’ll run and dress.”

“Mother,” said Kathleen suddenly, “may we take some pie and things to a
little boy who said he hadn’t had anything to eat since yesterday?”

“Where is he?” Father asked.

Kathleen blushed purple, but Mavis cautiously replied, “Outside. I’m
sure we shall be able to find him.”

“Very well,” said Mother, “and you might ask Mrs. Pearce to give you
some bread and cheese as well. Now, I must simply fly.”

“Cathay and I’ll help you, Mother,” said Mavis, and escaped the further
questioning she saw in her father’s eye. The boys had slipped away at
the first word of what seemed to be Kathleen’s amazing indiscretion
about the waiting Rube.

“It was quite all right,” Kathleen argued later, as they went up the
field, carefully carrying a plate of plum pie and the bread and cheese
with not so much care and a certain bundle not carefully at all. “I
saw flying in Mother’s eye before I spoke. And if you _can_ ask leave
before you do a thing it’s always safer.”

“And look here,” said Mavis. “If the Mermaid wants to see us we’ve only
got to go down and say ‘Sabrina fair,’ and she’s certain to turn up. If
it’s just seeing us she wants, and not another deadly night adventure.”

Reuben did not eat with such pretty manners as yours, perhaps, but
there was no doubt about his enjoyment of the food they had brought,
though he only stopped eating for half a second, to answer, “Prime.
Thank you,” to Kathleen’s earnest inquiries.

“Now,” said Francis when the last crumb of cheese had disappeared and
the last trace of plum juice had been licked from the spoon (a tin one,
because, as Mrs. Pearce very properly said, you never know)—“now, look
here. We’re going straight down to the shore to try and see her. And if
you like to come with us we can disguise you.”

“What in?” Reuben asked. “I did disguise myself once in a false beard
and a green-colored mustache, but it didn’t take no one in for a
moment, not even the dogs.”

“We thought,” said Mavis gently, “that perhaps the most complete
disguise for you would be girl’s clothes—because,” she added hastily to
dispel the thundercloud on Reuben’s brow—“because you’re such a manly
boy. Nobody would give vent to a moment’s suspicion. It would be so
very unlike _you_.”

“G’a long—” said the Spangled Child, his dignity only half soothed.

“And I’ve brought you some of my things and some sandshoes of France’s,
because, of course, mine are just kiddy shoes.”

At that Reuben burst out laughing and then hummed: “‘Go, flatterer, go,
I’ll not trust to thy vow,’” quite musically.

“Oh, do you know the ‘Gypsy Countess’? How jolly!” said Kathleen.

“Old Mother Romaine knew a power of songs,” he said, suddenly grave.
“Come on, chuck us in the togs.”

“You just take off your coat and come out and I’ll help you dress up,”
was Francis’s offer.

“Best get a skirt over my kicksies first,” said Reuben, “case anyone
comes by and recognizes the gypsy cheild. Hand us in the silk attire
and jewels have to spare.”

They pushed the blue serge skirt and jersey through the branches, which
he held apart.

“Now the ’at,” he said, reaching a hand for it. But the hat was too
large for the opening in the bush, and he had to come out of it. The
moment he was out the girls crowned him with the big rush-hat, around
whose crown a blue scarf was twisted, and Francis and Bernard each
seizing a leg, adorned those legs with brown stockings and white
sandshoes. Reuben, the spangled runaway from the gypsy camp, stood up
among his new friends a rather awkward and quite presentable little
girl.

“Now,” he said, looking down at his serge skirts with a queer smile,
“now we shan’t be long.”

Nor were they. Thrusting the tin spoon and the pie plate and the
discarded boots of Reuben into the kind shelter of the bush they made
straight for the sea.

When they got to that pleasant part of the shore which is smooth sand
and piled shingle, lying between low rocks and high cliffs, Bernard
stopped short.

“Now, look here,” he said, “if Sabrina fair turns up trumps I don’t
mind going on with the adventure, but I won’t do it if Kathleen’s to be
in it.”

“It’s not fair,” said Kathleen; “you said I might.”

“Did I?” Bernard most handsomely referred the matter to the others.

“Yes, you did,” said Francis shortly. Mavis said “Yes,” and Reuben
clinched the matter by saying, “Why, you up and asked her yourself if
she’d go along of you.”

“All right,” said Bernard calmly. “Then I shan’t go myself. That’s all.”

“Oh, bother,” said at least three of the five; and Kathleen said: “I
don’t see why I should always be out of everything.”

“Well,” said Mavis impatiently, “after all, there’s no danger in
just trying to _see_ the Mermaid. You promise you won’t do anything
if Bernard says not—that’ll do, I suppose? Though why you should be
a slave to him just because he chooses to say you’re his particular
sister, I don’t see. Will _that_ do, Bear?”

“I’ll promise _anything_,” said Kathleen, almost in tears, “if you’ll
only let me come with you all and see the Mermaid if she turns out to
be seeable.”

So that was settled.

Now came the question of where the magic words should be said.

Mavis and Francis voted for the edge of the rocks where the words had
once already been so successfully spoken. Bernard said, “Why not here
where we are?” Kathleen said rather sadly that any place would do as
long as the Mermaid came when she was called. But Reuben, standing
sturdily in his girl’s clothes, said:

“Look ’ere. When you’ve run away like what I have, least said soonest
mended, and out of sight’s out of mind. What about caves?”

“Caves are too dry, except at high tide,” said Francis. “And then
they’re too wet. Much.”

“Not all caves,” Reuben reminded him. “If we was to turn and go up by
the cliff path. There’s a cave up there. I hid in it t’other day. Quite
dry, except in one corner, and there it’s as wet as you want—a sort of
’orse trough in the rocks it looks like—only deep.”

“Is it seawater?” Mavis asked anxiously. And Reuben said:

“Bound to be, so near the sea and all.”

But it wasn’t. For when they had climbed the cliff path and Reuben had
shown them where to turn aside from it, and had put aside the brambles
and furze that quite hid the cave’s mouth, Francis saw at once that the
water here could not be seawater. It was too far above the line which
the waves reached, even in the stormiest weather.

“So it’s no use,” he explained.

But the others said, “Oh, do let’s try, now we _are_ here,” and they
went on into the dusky twilight of the cave.

It was a very pretty cave, not chalk, like the cliffs, but roofed and
walled with gray flints such as the houses and churches are built of
that you see on the downs near Brighton and Eastbourne.

“This isn’t an accidental cave, you know,” said Bernard importantly;
“it’s built by the hand of man in distant ages, like Stonehenge and the
Cheesewring and Kit’s Coty House.”

The cave was lighted from the entrance where the sunshine crept
faintly through the brambles. Their eyes soon grew used to the gloom
and they could see that the floor of the cave was of dry white sand,
and that along one end was a narrow dark pool of water. Ferns fringed
its edge and drooped their fronds to its smooth surface—a surface which
caught a gleam of light, and shone whitely; but the pool was very
still, and they felt somehow, without knowing why, very deep.

“It’s no good, no earthly,” said Francis.

“But it’s an awfully pretty cave,” said Mavis consolingly. “Thank you
for showing it to us, Reuben. And it’s jolly cool. Do let’s rest a
minute or two. I’m simply boiling, climbing that cliff path. We’ll go
down to the sea in a minute. Reuben could wait here if he felt safer.”

“All right, squattez-vous,” said Bernard, and the children sat down at
the water’s edge, Reuben still very awkward in his girl’s clothes.

It was very, very quiet. Only now and then one fat drop of water would
fall from the cave’s roof into that quiet pool and just move its
surface in a spreading circle.

“It’s a ripping place for a hidey-hole,” said Bernard, “better than
that old bush of yours, anyhow. I don’t believe anybody knows of the
way in.”

“_I_ don’t think anyone does, either,” said Reuben, “because there
wasn’t any way in till it fell in two days ago, when I was trying to
dig up a furze root.”

“I should hide here if you want to hide,” said Bernard.

“I mean to,” said Reuben.

“Well, if you’re rested, let’s get on,” Francis said; but Kathleen
urged:

“Do let’s say ‘Sabrina fair,’ first—just to try!” So they said it—all
but the Spangled Child who did not know it—

        “‘_Sabrina fair
    Listen where thou art sitting
    Under the glassie, cool...._’”

There was a splash and a swirl in the pool, and there was the Mermaid
herself, sure enough. Their eyes had grown used to the dusk and they
could see her quite plainly, could see too that she was holding out her
arms to them and smiling so sweetly that it almost took their breath
away.

“My cherished preservers,” she cried, “my dear, darling, kind, brave,
noble, unselfish dears!”

“You’re talking to Reuben, in the plural, by mistake, I suppose,” said
Francis, a little bitterly.

“To him, too, of course. But you two most of all,” she said, swishing
her tail around and leaning her hands on the edge of the pool. “I
_am_ so sorry I was so ungrateful the other night. I’ll tell you how
it was. It’s in your air. You see, coming out of the water we’re very
susceptible to aerial influences—and that sort of ungratefulness and,
what’s the word—?”

“Snobbishness,” said Francis firmly.

“Is that what you call it?—is most frightfully infectious, and your
air’s absolutely crammed with the germs of it. That’s why I was so
horrid. You do forgive me, don’t you, dears? And I was so selfish,
too—oh, horrid. But it’s all washed off now, in the nice clean sea,
and I’m as sorry as if it had been my fault, which it really and truly
wasn’t.”

The children said all right, and she wasn’t to mind, and it didn’t
matter, and all the things you say when people say they are sorry, and
you cannot kiss them and say, “Right oh,” which is the natural answer
to such confessions.

“It was very curious,” she said thoughtfully, “a most odd experience,
that little boy ... his having been born of people who had always been
rich, really seemed to me to be important. I assure you it did. Funny,
wasn’t it? And now I want you all to come home with me, and see where I
live.”

She smiled radiantly at them, and they all said, “Thank you,” and
looked at each other rather blankly.

“All our people will be unspeakably pleased to see you. We Mer-people
are not really ungrateful. You mustn’t think that,” she said pleadingly.

She looked very kind, very friendly. But Francis thought of the
Lorelei. Just so kind and friendly must the Lady of the Rhine have
looked to the “sailor in a little skiff” whom he had disentangled
from Heine’s poem, last term, with the aid of the German dicker. By a
curious coincidence and the same hard means, Mavis had, only last term,
read of Undine, and she tried not to think that there was any lack of
soul in the Mermaid’s kind eyes. Kathleen who, by another coincidence,
had fed her fancy in English literature on the “Forsaken Merman” was
more at ease.

“Do you mean down with you under the sea?” she asked—

    “‘_Where the sea snakes coil and twine,
    Dry their mail and bask in the brine,
    Where great whales go sailing by,
    Sail and sail with unshut eye
    Round the world for ever and aye?_’”

“Well, it’s not exactly like that, really,” said the Mermaid; “but
you’ll see soon enough.”

This had, in Bernard’s ears, a sinister ring.

“Why,” he asked suddenly, “did you say you wanted to see us at dead of
night?”

“It’s the usual time, isn’t it?” she asked, looking at him with
innocent surprise. “It is in all the stories. You know we have air
stories just as you have fairy stories and water stories—and the
rescuer almost always comes to the castle gate at dead of night, on a
coal-black steed or a dapple-gray, you know, or a red-roan steed of
might; but as there were four of you, besides me and my tail, I thought
it more considerate to suggest a chariot. Now, we really ought to be
going.”

“Which way?” asked Bernard, and everyone held their breath to hear the
answer.

“The way I came, of course,” she answered, “down here,” and she pointed
to the water that rippled around her.

“Thank you so very, _very_ much,” said Mavis, in a voice which trembled
a little; “but I don’t know whether you’ve heard that people who
go down into the water like that—people like us—without tails, you
know—they get drowned.”

“Not if they’re personally conducted,” said the Mermaid. “Of course we
can’t be responsible for trespassers, though even with them I don’t
think anything very dreadful has ever happened. Someone once told me a
story about Water Babies. Did you ever hear of that?”

“Yes, but that was a made-up story,” said Bernard stolidly.

“Yes, of course,” she agreed, “but a great deal of it’s quite true, all
the same. But you won’t grow fins and gills or anything like that. You
needn’t be afraid.”

The children looked at each other, and then all looked at Francis. He
spoke.

“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you very much, but we would rather
not—much rather.”

“Oh, nonsense,” said the lady kindly. “Look here, it’s as easy as easy.
I give you each a lock of my hair,” she cut off the locks with her
shell knife as she spoke, long locks they were and soft. “Look here,
tie these round your necks—if I’d had a lock of human hair round my
neck I should never have suffered from the dryness as I did. And then
just jump in. Keep your eyes shut. It’s rather confusing if you don’t;
but there’s no danger.”

The children took the locks of hair, but no one regarded them with any
confidence at all as lifesaving apparatus. They still hung back.

“You really are silly,” said the sea lady indulgently. “Why did you
meddle with magic at all if you weren’t prepared to go through with
it? Why, this is one of the simplest forms of magic, and the safest.
Whatever would you have done if you had happened to call up a fire
spirit and had had to go down Vesuvius with a Salamander round your
little necks?”

She laughed merrily at the thought. But her laugh sounded a little
angry too.

“Come, don’t be foolish,” she said. “You’ll never have such a
chance again. And I feel that this air is full of your horrid human
microbes—distrust, suspicion, fear, anger, resentment—horrid little
germs. I don’t want to risk catching them. Come.”

“No,” said Francis, and held out to her the lock of her hair; so did
Mavis and Bernard. But Kathleen had tied the lock of hair round her
neck, and she said:

“I _should_ have liked to, but I promised Bernard I would not do
anything unless he said I might.” It was toward Kathleen that the
Mermaid turned, holding out a white hand for the lock.

Kathleen bent over the water trying to untie it, and in one awful
instant the Mermaid had reared herself up in the water, caught Kathleen
in her long white arms, pulled her over the edge of the pool, and with
a bubbling splash disappeared with her beneath the dark water.

[Illustration: _She caught Kathleen in her arms._]

Mavis screamed and knew it; Francis and Bernard thought they did not
scream. It was the Spangled Child alone who said nothing. He had not
offered to give back the lock of soft hair. He, like Kathleen, had
knotted it round his neck; he now tied a further knot, stepped
forward, and spoke in tones which the other three thought the most
noble they had ever heard.

“She give me the plum pie,” he said, and leaped into the water.

He sank at once. And this, curiously enough, gave the others
confidence. If he had struggled—but no—he sank like a stone, or like a
diver who means diving and diving to the very bottom.

“She’s my special sister,” said Bernard, and leaped.

“If it’s magic it’s all right—and if it isn’t we couldn’t go back home
without her,” said Mavis hoarsely. And she and Francis took hands and
jumped together.

It was not so difficult as it sounds. From the moment of Kathleen’s
disappearance the sense of magic—which is rather like very sleepy
comfort and sweet scent and sweet music that you just can’t hear the
tune of—had been growing stronger and stronger. And there are some
things so horrible that if you can bring yourself to face them you
simply _can’t_ believe that they’re true. It did not seem possible—when
they came quite close to the idea—that a Mermaid could really come and
talk so kindly and then drown the five children who had rescued her.

“It’s all right,” Francis cried as they jumped.

“I ...” He shut his mouth just in time, and down they went.

You have probably dreamed that you were a perfect swimmer? You know
the delight of that dream-swimming, which is no effort at all, and yet
carries you as far and as fast as you choose. It was like that with
the children. The moment they touched the water they felt that they
belonged in it—that they were as much at home in water as in air. As
they sank beneath the water their feet went up and their heads went
down, and there they were swimming downward with long, steady, easy
strokes. It was like swimming down a well that presently widened to a
cavern. Suddenly Francis found that his head was above water. So was
Mavis’s.

“All right so far,” she said, “but how are we going to get back?”

“Oh, the magic will do that,” he answered, and swam faster.

The cave was lighted by bars of phosphorescence placed like pillars
against the walls. The water was clear and deeply green and along
the sides of the stream were sea anemones and starfish of the most
beautiful forms and the most dazzling colors. The walls were of dark
squarish shapes, and here and there a white oblong, or a blue and a
red, and the roof was of mother-of-pearl which gleamed and glistened
in the pale golden radiance of the phosphorescent pillars. It was very
beautiful, and the mere pleasure of swimming so finely and easily swept
away almost their last fear. This, too, went when a voice far ahead
called: “Hurry up, France—Come on, Mavis,”—and the voice was the voice
of Kathleen.

They hurried up, and they came on; and the gleaming soft light grew
brighter and brighter. It shone all along the way they had to go,
making a path of glory such as the moon makes across the sea on a
summer night. And presently they saw that this growing light was from
a great gate that barred the waterway in front of them. Five steps led
up to this gate, and sitting on it, waiting for them, were Kathleen,
Reuben, Bernard and the Mermaid. Only now she had no tail. It lay
beside her on the marble steps, just as your stockings lie when you
have taken them off; and there were her white feet sticking out from
under a dress of soft feathery red seaweed.

They could see it was seaweed though it was woven into a wonderful
fabric. Bernard and Kathleen and the Spangled Boy had somehow got
seaweed dresses too, and the Spangled Boy was no longer dressed as a
girl; and looking down as they scrambled up the steps Mavis and Francis
saw that they, too, wore seaweed suits—“Very pretty, but how awkward to
go home in,” Mavis thought.

[Illustration: _The golden door._]

“Now,” said the Mer-lady, “forgive me for taking the plunge. I knew
you’d hesitate forever, and I was beginning to feel so cross! That’s
your dreadful atmosphere! Now, here we are at the door of our kingdom.
You do want to come in, don’t you? I can bring you as far as this
against your will, but not any farther. And you can’t come any farther
unless you trust me absolutely. Do you? Will you? Try!”

“Yes,” said the children, all but Bernard, who said stoutly:

“I don’t; but I’ll try to. I want to.”

“If you want to, I think you _do_,” said she very kindly. “And now
I will tell you one thing. What you’re breathing isn’t air, and it
isn’t water. It’s something that both water people and air people can
breathe.”

“The greatest common measure,” said Bernard.

“A simple equation,” said Mavis.

“Things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other,”
said Francis; and the three looked at each other and wondered why they
had said such things.

“Don’t worry,” said the lady, “it’s only the influence of the place.
This is the Cave of Learning, you know, very dark at the beginning and
getting lighter and lighter as you get nearer to the golden door. All
these rocks are made of books really, and they exude learning from
every crack. We cover them up with anemones and seaweed and pretty
things as well as we can, but the learning will leak out. Let us go
through the gate or you’ll all be talking Sanskrit before we know where
we are.”

She opened the gate. A great flood of glorious sunlight met them, the
solace of green trees and the jeweled grace of bright blossoms. She
pulled them through the door, and shut it.

“This is where we live,” she said. “Aren’t you glad you came?”



CHAPTER SEVEN

_The Skies Are Falling_


AS THE CHILDREN passed through the golden doors a sort of swollen
feeling which was beginning to make their heads quite uncomfortable
passed away, and left them with a curiously clear and comfortable
certainty that they were much cleverer than usual.

“I _could_ do sums now, and no mistake,” Bernard whispered to Kathleen,
who replied to the effect that dates no longer presented the slightest
difficulty to her.

Mavis and Francis felt as though they had never before known what it
was to have a clear brain. They followed the others through the golden
door, and then came Reuben, and the Mermaid came last. She had picked
up her discarded tail and was carrying it over her arm as you might a
shawl. She shut the gate, and its lock clicked sharply.

“We have to be careful, you know,” she said, “because of the people in
the books. They are always trying to get out of the books that the cave
is made of; and some of them are very undesirable characters. There’s a
Mrs. Fairchild—we’ve had a great deal of trouble with her, and a person
called Mrs. Markham who makes everybody miserable, and a lot of people
who think they are being funny when they aren’t—dreadful.”

The party was now walking along a smooth grassy path, between tall,
clipped box hedges—at least they looked like box hedges, but when Mavis
stroked the close face of one she found that it was not stiff box, but
soft seaweed.

“Are we in the water or not?” said she, stopping suddenly.

“That depends on what you mean by water. Water’s a thing human beings
can’t breathe, isn’t it? Well, you are breathing. So this can’t be
water.”

“I see that,” said Mavis, “but the soft seaweed won’t stand up in air,
and it does in water.”

“Oh, you’ve found out, have you?” said the Mermaid. “Well, then,
perhaps it is water. Only you see it can’t be. Everything’s like that
down here.”

“Once you said you lived in water, and you wanted to be wet,” said
Mavis.

“Mer-people aren’t responsible for what they say in your world. I told
you that, you know,” the Mermaid reminded them.

Presently they came to a little coral bridge over a stream that flowed
still and deep. “But if what we’re in is water, what’s that?” said
Bernard, pointing down.

“Ah, now you’re going too deep for me,” said the Mermaid, “at least if
I were to answer I should go too deep for you. Come on—we shall be too
late for the banquet.”

“What do you have for the banquet?” Bernard asked; and the Mermaid
answered sweetly: “Things to eat.”

“And to drink?”

“It’s no use,” said she; “you can’t get at it that way. We drink—but
you wouldn’t understand.”

Here the grassy road widened, and they came onto a terrace of
mother-of-pearl, very smooth and shining. Pearly steps led down from
it into the most beautiful garden you could invent if you tried for a
year and a day with all the loveliest pictures and the most learned
books on gardening to help you. But the odd thing about it was that
when they came to talk it over afterward they never could agree about
the shape of the beds, the direction of the walks, the kinds and colors
of the flowers, or indeed any single thing about it. But to each it
seemed and will always seem the most beautiful garden ever imagined or
invented. And everyone saw, beyond a distant belt of trees the shining
domes and minarets of very beautiful buildings, and far, far away there
was a sound of music, so far away that at first they could only hear
the music and not the tune. But soon that too was plain, and it was the
most beautiful tune in the world.

“Crikey,” said Reuben, speaking suddenly and for the first time, “ain’t
it ’evingly neither. Not arf,” he added with decision.

“Now,” said the Mermaid, as they neared the belt of trees, “you are
going to receive something.”

“Oh, thank you,” said everybody, and no one liked to add:
“What?”—though that simple word trembled on every tongue. It slipped
off the tip of Reuben’s, indeed, at last, and the Mermaid answered:

“An ovation.”

“That’s something to do with eggs, I know,” said Kathleen. “Father was
saying so only the other day.”

“There will be no eggs in this,” said the Mermaid, “and you may find
it a trifle heavy. But when it is over the fun begins. Don’t be
frightened, Kathleen—Mavis, don’t smooth your hair. Ugly untidiness is
impossible here. You are about to be publicly thanked by our Queen.
You’d rather not? You should have thought of that before. If you will
go about doing these noble deeds of rescue you must expect to be
thanked. Now, don’t forget to bow. And there’s nothing to be frightened
of.”

They passed through the trees and came on a sort of open courtyard in
front of a palace of gleaming pearl and gold. There on a silver throne
sat the loveliest lady in the world. She wore a starry crown and a
gown of green, and golden shoes, and she smiled at them so kindly that
they forgot any fear they may have felt. The music ended on a note of
piercing sweetness and in the great hush that followed the children
felt themselves gently pushed forward to the foot of the throne. All
around was a great crowd, forming a circle about the pearly pavement on
which they stood.

The Queen rose up in her place and reached toward them the end of her
scepter where shone a star like those that crowned her.

“Welcome,” she said in a voice far sweeter than the music, “Welcome
to our Home. You have been kind, you have been brave, you have been
unselfish, and all my subjects do homage to you.”

At the word the whole of that great crowd bent toward them like
bulrushes in the wind, and the Queen herself came down the steps of her
throne and held out her hands to the children.

A choking feeling in their throats became almost unbearable as those
kind hands rested on one head after another.

Then the crowd raised itself and stood upright, and someone called out
in a voice like a trumpet:

“The children saved one of us—_We die in captivity_. Shout for the
children. Shout!”

And a roar like the roar of wild waves breaking on rocks went up from
the great crowd that stood all about them. There was a fluttering of
flags or handkerchiefs—the children could not tell which—and then the
voice of their own Mermaid, saying: “There—that’s over. And now we
shall have the banquet. Shan’t we, Mamma?”

“Yes, my daughter,” said the Queen.

So the Mermaid they had rescued was a Queen’s daughter!

“I didn’t know you were a Princess,” said Mavis, as they followed the
Queen along a corridor.

“That’s why they have made such a fuss, I suppose,” said Bernard.

“Oh, no, we should have given the ovation to anyone who had saved any
of us from captivity. We love giving ovations. Only we so seldom get
the chance, and even ordinary entertaining is difficult. People are
so prejudiced. We can hardly ever get anyone to come and visit us. I
shouldn’t have got you if you hadn’t happened to find that cave. It
would have been quite impossible for me to give Kathleen that clinging
embrace from shallow water. The cave water is so much more buoyant than
the sea. I daresay you noticed that.”

Yes—they had.

“May we sit next you at the banquet?” Kathleen asked suddenly,
“because, you know, it’s all rather strange to us.”

“Of course, dear,” said the sea lady.

“But,” said Bernard, “I’m awfully sorry, but I think we ought to go
home.”

“Oh, don’t talk of it,” said the Mermaid. “Why, you’ve only just come.”

Bernard muttered something about getting home in time to wash for tea.

“There’ll be heaps of time,” said Francis impatiently; “don’t fuss and
spoil everything.”

“I’m not fussing,” said Bernard, stolid as ever. “I never fuss. But I
think we ought to be thinking of getting home.”

“Well, think about it then,” said Francis impatiently, and turned to
admire the clusters of scarlet flowers that hung from the pillars of
the gallery.

The banquet was very magnificent, but they never could remember
afterward what it was that they ate out of the silver dishes and drank
out of the golden cups. They none of them forgot the footmen, however,
who were dressed in tight-fitting suits of silver scales, with silver
fingerless gloves, and a sort of helmet on that made them look less
like people than like fish, as Kathleen said.

“But they _are_ fish,” said the Princess, opening her beautiful eyes;
“they’re the Salmoners, and the one behind Mother’s chair is the Grand
Salmoner. In your country I have heard there are Grand Almoners. We
have Grand Salmoners.”

“Are all your servants fish?” Mavis asked.

“Of course,” said the Princess, “but we don’t use servants much
except for state occasions. Most of our work is done by the lower
orders—electric eels, most of them. We get all the power for our
machinery from them.”

“How do you do it?” Bernard asked, with a fleeting vision of being some
day known as the great man who discovered the commercial value of the
electricity obtainable from eels.

“We keep a tank of them,” said she, “and you just turn a tap—they’re
connected up to people’s houses—and you connect them with your looms or
lathes or whatever you’re working. That sets up a continuous current
and the eels swim around and around in the current till the work’s
done. It’s beautifully simple.”

“It’s simply beautiful,” said Mavis warmly. “I mean all this.” She
waved her hand to the row of white arches through which the green of
the garden and the blue of what looked like the sky showed plainly.
“And you live down here and do nothing but play all day long? How
lovely.”

“You’d soon get tired of play if you did nothing else,” said Bernard
wisely. “At least I know I should. Did you ever make a steam engine?”
he asked the Princess. “That’s what I call work.”

“It would be, to me,” she said, “but don’t you know that work is what
you have to do and don’t like doing? And play’s whatever you want to
do. Have some more Andrew Aromaticus.”

She made a sign to a Salmoner, who approached with a great salver
of fruit. The company were seated by fours and fives and sixes at
little tables, such as you see in the dining rooms of the big hotels
where people feed who have motors. These little tables are good for
conversation.

“Then what _do_ you do?” Kathleen asked.

“Well, we have to keep all the rivers flowing, for one thing—the
earthly rivers, I mean—and to see to the rain and snow taps, and to
attend to the tides and whirlpools, and open the cages where the winds
are kept. Oh, it’s no easy business being a Princess in our country, I
can tell you, whatever it may be in yours. What do your Princesses do?
Do they open the wind cages?”

“I ... I don’t know,” said the children. “I think they only open
bazaars.”

“Mother says they work awfully hard, and they go and see people who are
ill in hospitals,” Kathleen was beginning, but at this moment the Queen
rose and so did everyone else.

“Come,” said the Princess, “I must go and take my turn at
river-filling. Only Princesses can do the finest sort of work.”

“What is the hardest thing you have to do?” Francis asked as they
walked out into the garden.

“Keeping the sea out of our kingdom,” was the answer, “and fighting the
Under Folk. We kept the sea out by trying very hard with both hands,
inside our minds. And, of course, the sky helps.”

“And how do you fight the Under Folk—and who are they?” Bernard wanted
to know.

“Why, the thick-headed, heavy people who live in the deep sea.”

“Different from you?” Kathleen asked.

“My dear child!”

“She means,” explained Mavis, “that we didn’t know there were any
other kind of people in the sea except your kind.”

“You know much less about us than we do about you,” said the Princess.
“Of course there are different nations and tribes, and different
customs and dresses and everything. But there are two great divisions
down here besides us, the Thick-Heads and the Thin-Skins, and we have
to fight both of them. The Thin-Skins live near the surface of the
water, frivolous, silly things like nautiluses and flying fish, very
pleasant, but deceitful and light-minded. They are very treacherous.
The Thick-Heads live in the cold deep dark waters. They are desperate
people.”

“Do you ever go down there?”

The Princess shuddered.

“No,” she said, “but we might have to. If the water ever came into our
kingdom they would attack us, and we should have to drive them out;
and then we should have to drive them right down to their own kingdom
again. It happened once, in my grandfather’s time.”

“But how on earth,” asked Bernard, “did you ever get the water out
again?”

“It wasn’t on earth, you know,” said the Princess, “and the Whales blew
a good deal of it out—the Grampuses did their best, but they don’t blow
hard enough. And the Octopuses finished the work by sucking the water
out with their suckers.”

“Do you have cats here then?” asked Kathleen, whose attention had
wandered, and had only caught a word that sounded like Pussies.

“Only Octopussies,” said the Princess, “but then they’re eight times as
pussy as your dry-land cats.”

What Kathleen’s attention had wandered to was a tall lady standing on a
marble pedestal in the middle of a pool. She held a big vase over her
head, and from it poured a thin stream of water. This stream fell in
an arch right across the pool into a narrow channel cut in the marble
of the square in which they now stood, ran across the square, and
disappeared under a dark arch in the face of the rock.

“There,” said the Princess, stopping.

“What is it?” asked Reuben, who had been singularly silent.

“This,” she said simply, “is the source of the Nile. And of all other
rivers. And it’s my turn now. I must not speak again till my term of
source-service is at an end. Do what you will. Go where you will. All
is yours. Only beware that you do not touch the sky. If once profane
hands touch the sky the whole heaven is overwhelmed.”

She ran a few steps, jumped, and landed on the marble pedestal without
touching the lady who stood there already. Then, with the utmost
care, so that the curved arc of the water should not be slackened or
diverted, she took the vase in her hands and the other lady in her turn
leaped across the pool and stood beside the children and greeted them
kindly.

“I am Maia. My sister has told me all you did for her,” she said; “it
was I who pinched your foot,” and as she spoke they knew the voice that
had said, among the seaweed-covered rocks at Beachfield: “Save her. We
die in captivity.”

“What will you do?” she asked, “while my sister performs her
source-service?”

“Wait, I suppose,” said Bernard. “You see we want to know about going
home.”

“Didn’t you fix a time to be recalled?” asked Maia. And when they said
no, her beautiful smiling face suddenly looked grave.

“With whom have you left the charge of speaking the spell of recall?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” said Bernard. “What spell?”

“The one which enabled me to speak to you that day in the shallows,”
said Maia. “Of course my sister explained to you that the spell which
enables us to come at your call is the only one by which you can
yourselves return.”

“She didn’t,” said Mavis.

“Ah, she is young and impulsive. But no doubt she arranged with someone
to speak the spell and recall you?”

“No, she didn’t. She doesn’t know any land people except us. She told
me so,” said Kathleen.

“Well, is the spell written anywhere?” Maia asked.

“Under a picture” they told her, not knowing that it was also written
in the works of Mr. John Milton.

“Then I’m afraid you’ll have to wait ’til someone happens to read what
is under the picture,” said Maia kindly.

“But the house is locked up; there’s no one there to read anything,”
Bernard reminded them.

There was a dismal silence. Then:

“Perhaps burglars will break in and read it,” suggested Reuben kindly.
“Anyhow, what’s the use of kicking up a shine about it? _I_ can’t see
what you want to go back for. It’s a little bit of all right here, so
it is—I _don’t_ think. Plucky sight better than anything _I_ ever come
across. I’m a-goin’ to enjoy myself I am, and see all the sights. Miss,
there, said we might.”

“Well spoken indeed,” said Maia, smiling at his earnest face. “That is
the true spirit of the explorer.”

“But we’re not explorers,” said Mavis, a little crossly, for her; “and
we’re not so selfish as you think, either. Mother will be awfully
frightened if we’re not home to tea. She’ll think we’re drowned.”

“Well, you _are_ drowned,” said Maia brightly. “At least that’s what I
believe you land people call it when you come down to us and neglect to
arrange to have the spell of return said for you.”

“How horrible,” said Mavis. “Oh, Cathay,” and she clutched her sister
tightly.

“But you needn’t _stay_ drowned,” said the Princess. “Someone’s sure
to say the spell somehow or other. I assure you that this is true; and
then you will go home with the speed of an eel.”

They felt, somehow, in their bones that this was true, and it consoled
them a little. Things which you feel in your bones are most convincing.

“But Mother,” said Mavis.

“You don’t seem to know much about magic,” said Maia pityingly: “the
first principle of magic is that time spent in other worlds doesn’t
count in your own home. No, I see you don’t understand. In your home
it’s still the same time as it was when you dived into the well in the
cave.”

“But that’s hours ago,” said Bernard; and she answered:

“I know. But your time is not like our time at all.”

“What’s the difference?”

“I can’t explain,” said the Princess. “You can’t compare them any more
than you can compare a starlight and a starfish. They’re quite, quite
different. But the really important thing is that your Mother won’t be
anxious. So now why not enjoy yourselves?”

And all this time the other Princess had been holding up the jar which
was the source of all the rivers in all the world.

“Won’t she be very tired?” asked Reuben.

“Yes, but suppose all the rivers dried up—and she had to know how
people were suffering—that would be something much harder to bear than
tiredness. Look in the pool and see what she is doing for the world.”

They looked, and it was like a colored cinematograph; and the pictures
melted into one another like the old dissolving views that children
used to love so before cinematographs were thought of.

They saw the Red Indians building their wigwams by the great rivers—and
the beavers building their dams across the little rivers; they saw
brown men setting their fish traps by the Nile, and brown girls sending
out little golden-lighted love-ships on the Ganges. They saw the
stormy splendor of the St. Lawrence, and the Medway’s pastoral peace.
Little streams dappled with sunlight and the shadow of green leaves,
and the dark and secret torrents that tear through the underworld
in caverns and hidden places. They saw women washing clothes in the
Seine, and boys sailing boats on the Serpentine. Naked savages dancing
in masks beside tropical streams overshadowed by strange trees and
flowers that we do not know—and men in flannels and girls in pink and
blue, punting in the backwaters of the Thames. They saw Niagara and the
Zambesi Falls; and all the time the surface of the pool was smooth as a
mirror and the arched stream that was the source of all they saw poured
ceaselessly over their heads and fell splashing softly into its little
marble channel.

I don’t know how long they would have stayed leaning their elbows
on the cool parapet and looking down on the changing pictures, but
suddenly a trumpet sounded, drums beat, and everyone looked up.

“It’s for the review,” said Maia, through the rattle of the drums. “Do
you care for soldiers?”

“Rather,” said Bernard, “but I didn’t know you had soldiers.”

“We’re very proud of our troops,” said the Princess. “I am Colonel of
the Lobster Battalion, and my sister commands the Crustacean Brigade;
but we’re not going on parade today.”

The sound of drums was drawing nearer. “This way to the parade ground,”
said the Princess, leading the way. They looked at the review through a
big arch, and it was like looking into a very big aquarium.

The first regiment they saw was, as it happened, the 23rd Lobsters.

If you can imagine a Lobster as big as a Guardsman, and rather stouter,
you will have some idea of the splendid appearance of this regiment.
Only don’t forget that Lobsters in their natural regimentals are not
red. They wear a sort of steel-blue armor, and carry arms of dreadful
precision. They are terrible fellows, the 23rd, and they marched with
an air at once proud and confident.

Then came the 16th Swordfish—in uniform of delicate silver, their drawn
swords displayed.

The Queen’s Own Gurnards were magnificent in pink and silver, with real
helmets and spiked collars; and the Boy Scouts—“The Sea Urchins” as
they were familiarly called—were the last of the infantry.

Then came Mer-men, mounted on Dolphins and Sea Horses, and the Cetacean
Regiments, riding on their whales. Each whale carried a squadron.

“They look like great trams going by,” said Francis. And so they did.
The children remarked that while the infantry walked upright like
any other foot soldiers, the cavalry troops seemed to be, with their
mounts, suspended in the air about a foot from the ground.

“And that shows it’s water,” said Bernard.

“No, it doesn’t,” said Francis.

“Well, a whale’s not a bird,” said Bernard.

“And there are other things besides air and water,” said Francis.

The Household Brigade was perhaps the handsomest. The Grand Salmoner
led his silvery soldiers, and the 100th Halibuts were evidently the
sort of troops to make the foes of anywhere “feel sorry they were born.”

It was a glorious review, and when it was over the children found that
they had been quite forgetting their desire to get home.

But as the back of the last Halibut vanished behind the seaweed trees
the desire came back with full force. Princess Maia had disappeared.
Their own Princess was, they supposed, still performing her
source-service.

Suddenly everything seemed to have grown tiresome.

“Oh, I do wish we could go home,” said Kathleen. “Couldn’t we just find
the door and go out?”

“We might _look_ for the door,” said Bernard cautiously, “but I don’t
see how we could get up into the cave again.”

“We can swim all right, you know,” Mavis reminded them.

“I think it would be pretty low down to go without saying good-bye to
the Princesses,” said Francis. “Still, there’s no harm in _looking_ for
the door.”

They did look for the door. And they did not find it. What they did
find was a wall—a great gray wall built of solid stones—above it
nothing could be seen but blue sky.

“I do wonder what’s on the other side,” said Bernard; and someone, I
will not say which, said: “Let’s climb up and see.”

It was easy to climb up, for the big stones had rough edges and so did
not fit very closely, and there was room for a toe here and a hand
there. In a minute or two they were all up, but they could not see down
on the other side because the wall was about eight feet thick. They
walked toward the other edge, and still they could not see down; quite
close to the edge, and still no seeing.

“It isn’t sky at all,” said Bernard suddenly. “It’s a sort of dome—tin
I shouldn’t wonder, painted to look like sky.”

“It can’t be,” said someone.

“It is though,” said Bernard.

“There couldn’t be one so big,” said someone else.

“But there _is_,” said Bernard.

And then someone—I will not tell you who—put out a hand, and, quite
forgetting the Princess’s warning, touched the sky. That hand felt
something as faint and thin as a bubble—and instantly this something
broke, and the sea came pouring into the Mer-people’s country.

“Now you’ve done it,” said one of those whose hand it wasn’t. And
there was no doubt about it; the person who owned the hand _had_ done
it—and done it very thoroughly. It was plain enough now that what they
had been living in was not water, and that this was. The first rush
of it was terrible—but in less than a moment the whole kingdom was
flooded, and then the water became clear and quiet.

The children found no difficulty in breathing, and it was as easy to
walk as it is on land in a high wind. They could not run, but they
walked as fast as they could to the place where they had left the
Princess pouring out the water for all the rivers in all the world.

And as they went, one of them said, “Oh don’t, don’t tell it was me.
You don’t know what punishments they may have here.”

The others said of course they wouldn’t tell. But the one who had
touched the sky felt that it was despised and disgraced.

They found the pedestal, but what had been the pool was only part of
the enormous sea, and so was the little marble channel.

The Princess was not there, and they began to look for her, more and
more anxious and wretched.

“It’s all your fault,” said Francis to the guilty one who had broken
the sky by touching it; and Bernard said, “You shut up, can’t you?”

It was a long time before they found their Princess, and when they did
find her they hardly knew her. She came swimming toward them, and she
was wearing her tail, and a cuirass and helmet of the most beautiful
mother-of-pearl—thin scales of it overlapping; and the crest on her
helmet was one great pearl, as big as a billiard ball. She carried
something over her arm.

“Here you are,” she said. “I’ve been looking for you. The future is
full of danger. The water has got in.”

“Yes, we noticed that,” said Bernard.

And Mavis said: “Please, it was us. We touched the sky.”

“Will they punish us?” asked Cathay.

“There are no punishments here,” said the pearly Princess gravely,
“only the consequences of your action. Our great defense against the
Under Folk is that thin blue dome which you have broken. It can only be
broken from the inside. Our enemies were powerless to destroy it. But
now they may attack us at any moment. I am going to command my troops.
Will you come too?”

“Rather,” said Reuben, and the others, somewhat less cordially, agreed.
They cheered up a little when the Princess went on.

“It’s the only way to make you safe. There are four posts vacant
on my staff, and I have brought you the uniforms that go with the
appointments.” She unfolded five tails, and four little pearly coats
like her own, with round pearls for buttons, pearls as big as marbles.
“Put these on quickly,” she said, “they are enchanted coats, given by
Neptune himself to an ancestor of ours. By pressing the third button
from the top you can render yourself invisible. The third button below
that will make you visible again when you wish it, and the last button
of all will enable you to become intangible as well as invisible.”

“Intangible?” said Cathay.

“Unfeelable, so you’re quite safe.”

“But there are only four coats,” said Francis. “That is so,” said the
Princess. “One of you will have to take its chance with the Boy Scouts.
Which is it to be?”

Each of the children always said, and thought that it meant to say “I
will,” but somehow or other the person who spoke first was Reuben.
The instant the Princess had said “be,” Reuben shouted: “Me,” adding
however almost at once, “please.”

“Right,” said the Princess kindly, “off with you! The Sea Urchins’
barracks are behind that rock. Off with you! Here, don’t forget your
tail. It enables you to be as comfortable in the water as any fish.”

Reuben took the tail and hastened away.

“Now,” said the Princess. And they all began putting on their tails. It
was like putting both your feet into a very large stocking. Then came
the mail coats.

“Don’t we have swords?” Francis asked, looking down at his slim and
silvery extremity.

“Swords? In the Crustacean Brigade? Never forget, children, that you
belong to the Princess’s Own Oysters. Here are your weapons.” She
pointed to a heap of large oyster shells, as big as Roman shields.

“See,” she said, “you hold them this way as a rule. A very powerful
spring is released when you hold them _that_ way.”

“But what do you do with it?” Mavis asked.

“Nip the feet of the enemy,” said the Princess, “and it holds on. Under
Folk have no tails. You wait till they are near a rock; then nip a
foe-man’s foot with your good weapon, laying the other end on the rock.
The oyster shell will at once attach itself to the rock and....”

A terrible shout rang out, and the Princess stopped.

“What is it; oh, what is it?” said the children. And the Princess
shuddered.

Again that shout—the most terrible sound the children had ever heard.

“What is it?” they said again.

The Princess drew herself up, as if ashamed of her momentary weakness,
and said:

“It is the war cry of the Under Folk.”



CHAPTER EIGHT

_The Water-War_


AFTER THE SOUND of that terrible shouting there came silence—that is,
there was silence where the children were, but all above they could
hear the rush and rustle of a quick arming.

“The war cry of the People of the Depths,” said the Princess.

“I suppose,” said Kathleen forlornly, “that if they’re so near as that
all is lost.”

“Lost? No, indeed,” cried the Princess. “The People of the Depths are
very strong, but they are very heavy. They cannot rise up and come to
us from the water above. Before they can get in they must scale the
wall.”

“But they will get over the wall—won’t they?”

“Not while one of the Royal Halibuts still lives. The Halibuts have
manned the wall; they will keep back the foe. But they won’t attack
yet. They’ll send out their scouts and skirmishers. Till they approach,
the Crustacean Brigade can do nothing. It is a hard thing to watch a
fight in which you may not share. I must apologize for appointing you
to such an unsatisfactory position.”

“Thank you, _we_ don’t mind,” said Cathay hastily. “What’s that?”

It was a solid, gleaming sheet of silver that rose above them like a
great carpet—which split and tore itself into silver threads.

“It is the Swordfish Brigade,” said the Princess. “We could swim up a
little and watch them, if you’re not afraid. You see, the first attack
will probably be delivered by one of their Shark regiments. The 7th
Sharks have a horrible reputation. But our brave Swordfish are a match
for them,” she added proudly.

The Swordfish, who were slowly swimming to and fro above, seemed to
stiffen as though to meet some danger at present unseen by the others.
Then, with a swift, silent, terrible movement, the Sharks rushed on the
noble defenders of Merland.

The Swordfish with their deadly weapons were ready—and next moment all
the water was a wild whirl of confused conflict. The Sharks fought with
a sort of harsh, rough courage, and the children, who had drawn away to
a little distance, could not help admiring their desperate onslaught.
But the Swordfish were more than their match. With more skill, and an
equally desperate gallantry, they met and repulsed the savage onslaught
of the Sharks.

Shoals of large, calm Cod swept up from the depths, and began to
shoulder the dead Sharks sideways toward the water above the walls—the
dead Sharks and, alas! many a brave, dead Swordfish, too. For the
victory had not been a cheap one.

The children could not help cheering as the victorious Swordfish
re-formed.

“Pursuit is unnecessary,” said the Princess. “The Sharks have lost too
heavily to resume the attack.”

A Shark in terror-stricken retreat passed close by her, and she clipped
its tail with her oyster shell.

The Shark turned savagely, but the Princess with one tail-swish was
out of danger, pushing the children before her outspread arms, and the
Shark began to sink, still making vain efforts to pursue them.

[Illustration: _The Swordfish Brigade._]

“The shell will drag him down,” said the Princess; “and now I must go
and get a fresh shield. I wish I knew where the next attack would be
delivered.”

They sank slowly through the water.

“I wonder where Reuben is?” said Bernard.

“Oh, he’s quite safe,” said the Princess. “The Boy Scouts don’t go
outside the walls—they just do a good turn for anybody who wants it,
you know—and help the kind Soles to look after the wounded.”

They had reached the great flooded garden again and turned toward the
Palace, and as they went a Sea Urchin shell suddenly rose from behind
one of the clipped hedges—a Sea Urchin shell and behind it a long tail.

The shell was raised, and the face under it was Reuben’s.

“Hi, Princess!” he shouted. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere.
We’ve been scouting. I got a lot of seaweed, and they thought I was
nothing _but_ seaweed; and so I got quite close to the enemy.”

“It was very rash,” said the Princess severely.

“The others don’t think so,” he said, a little hurt. “They began by
saying I was only an irregular Sea Urchin, because I’ve got this jolly
tail”—he gave it a merry wag—“and they called me Spatangus, and names
like that. But they’ve made me their General now—General Echinus. I’m a
regular now, and no mistake, and what I was going to say is the enemy
is going to attack the North Tower in force in half an hour.”

“You good boy,” said the Princess. I do believe if it hadn’t been for
his Sea Urchin’s uniform she would have kissed him. “You’re splendid.
You’re a hero. If you could do it safely—there’s heaps of seaweed—could
you find out if there’s any danger from the Book People? You know—the
ones in the cave. It’s always been our fear that they might attack,
_too_: and if they did—well, I’d rather be the slave of a Shark than
of Mrs. Fairchild.” She gathered an armful of seaweed from the nearest
tree, and Reuben wrapped himself in it and drifted off—looking less
like a live Boy Scout than you could believe possible.

The defenders of Merland, now acting on Reuben’s information, began to
mass themselves near the North Wall.

“Now is our time,” said the Princess. “We must go along the tunnel, and
when we hear the sound of their heavy feet shaking the flow of ocean
we must make sallies, and fix our shell shields in their feet. Major,
rally your men.”

A tall Merchild in the Crustacean uniform blew a clear note, and the
soldiers of the Crustacean Brigade, who having nothing particular to do
had been helping anyone and everyone as best they could, which is the
way in Merland, though not in Europe, gathered about their officers.

When they were all drawn up before her, the Princess addressed her
troops.

“My men,” she said, “we have been suddenly plunged into war. But it
has not found us unprepared. I am proud to think that my regiments are
ready to the last pearl button. And I know that every man among you
will be as proud as I am that our post is, as tradition tells us it has
always been, the post of danger. We shall go out into the depths of
the sea to fight the enemies of our dear country, and to lay down our
lives, if need be, for that country’s sake.”

The soldiers answered by cheers, and the Princess led the way to one of
those little buildings, like Temples of Flora in old pictures, which
the children had noticed in the gardens. At the order given a sergeant
raised a great stone by a golden ring embedded in it and disclosed a
dark passage leading underground.

A splendid captain of Cockles, six feet high if he was an inch, with a
sergeant and six men, led the way. Three Oyster officers followed, then
a company of Oysters, the advance guard. At the head of the main body
following were the Princess and her Staff. As they went the Princess
explained why the tunnel was so long and sloped so steeply.

“You see,” she said, “the inside of our wall is only about ten feet
high, but it goes down on the other side for forty feet or more. It
is built on a hill. Now, I don’t want you to feel obliged to come out
and fight. You can stay inside and get the shields ready for us to
take. We shall keep on rushing back for fresh weapons. Of course the
tunnel’s much too narrow for the Under Folk to get in, but they have
their regiment of highly trained Sea Serpents, who, of course, can make
themselves thin and worm through anything.”

“Cathay doesn’t like serpents,” said Mavis anxiously.

“You needn’t be afraid,” said the Princess. “They’re dreadful cowards.
They know the passage is guarded by our Lobsters. They won’t come
within a mile of the entrance. But the main body of the enemy will have
to pass quite close. There’s a great sea mountain, and the only way
to our North Tower is in the narrow ravine between that mountain and
Merland.”

The tunnel ended in a large rocky hall with the armory, hung with ten
thousand gleaming shields, on the one side, and the guardroom crowded
with enthusiastic Lobsters on the other. The entrance from the sea was
a short, narrow passage, in which stood two Lobsters in their beautiful
dark coats of mail.

Since the moment when the blue sky that looked first so like sky
and then so like painted tin had, touched, confessed itself to be a
bubble—confessed, too, in the most practical way, by bursting and
letting the water into Merland—the children had been carried along by
the breathless rush of preparations for the invasion, and the world
they were now in had rapidly increased in reality, while their own
world, in which till today they had always lived, had been losing
reality at exactly the same rate as that by which the new world gained
it. So it was that when the Princess said:

“You needn’t go out and attack the enemy unless you like,” they all
answered, in some astonishment:

“But we _want_ to.”

“That’s all right,” said the Princess. “I only wanted to see if they
were in working order.”

“If what were?”

“Your coats. They’re coats of valor, of course.”

“I think I could be brave without a coat,” said Bernard, and began to
undo his pearl buttons.

“Of course you could,” said the Princess. “In fact, you must be brave
to begin with, or the coat couldn’t work. It would be no good to a
coward. It just keeps your natural valor warm and your wits cool.”

“It makes you braver,” said Kathleen suddenly. “At least I hope it’s
me—but I expect it’s the coat. Anyhow, I’m glad it does. Because I do
want to be brave. Oh, Princess!”

“Well?” said the Princess, gravely, but not unkindly, “what is it?”

Kathleen stood a moment, her hands twisting in each other and her eyes
downcast. Then in an instant she had unbuttoned and pulled off her coat
of pearly mail and thrown it at the Princess’s feet.

“I’ll do it without the coat,” she said, and drew a long breath.

The others looked on in silence, longing to help her, but knowing that
no one could help her now but herself.

“It was me,” said Kathleen suddenly, and let go a deep breath of
relief. “It was me that touched the sky and let in the water; and I am
most frightfully sorry, and I know you’ll never forgive me. But—”

“Quick,” said the Princess, picking up the coat, “get into your armor;
it’ll prevent your crying.” She hustled Kathleen into the coat and kept
her arms around her. “Brave girl,” she whispered. “I’m glad you did it
without the coat.” The other three thought it polite to turn away. “Of
course,” the Princess added, “I knew—but you didn’t know I knew.”

“How did you know?” said Kathleen.

“By your eyes,” said the Princess, with one last hug; “they’re quite
different now. Come, let us go to the gate and see if any of our Scouts
are signaling.”

The two Lobster sentries presented claws as the Princess passed with
her Staff through the narrow arch and onto the sandy plain of the sea
bottom. The children were astonished to find that they could see quite
plain a long way through the water—as far as they could have seen in
air, and the view was very like one kind of land view. First, the
smooth flat sand dotted with copses of branching seaweed—then woods of
taller treelike weeds with rocks shelving up and up to a tall, rocky
mountain. This mountain sent out a spur, then ran along beside the
Merkingdom and joined the rock behind it; and it was along the narrow
gorge so formed that the Under Folk were expected to advance. There
were balls of seaweed floating in the air—at least, it really now had
grown to seem like air, though, of course, it was water—but no signs of
Scouts.

Suddenly the balls of seaweed drew together and the Princess murmured,
“I thought so,” as they formed into orderly lines, sank to the ground,
and remained motionless for a moment, while one ball of seaweed stood
in front of them.

“It’s the Boy Scouts,” she said. “Your Reuben is giving them their
orders.”

It seemed that she was right, for next moment the balls of seaweed
drifted away in different directions, and the one who had stood before
them drifted straight to the arch where the Princess and the children
stood. It drifted in, pulled off its seaweed disguise, and was, in
effect, Reuben.

“We’ve found out something more, your Highness,” he said, saluting the
Princess. “The vanguard are to be Sea Horses; you know, not the little
ones, but the great things they have in the depths.”

“No use our attacking the horses,” said the Princess. “They’re as hard
as ice. Who rides them?”

“The First Dipsys,” said Reuben. “They’re the young Under Folk who want
to cut a dash. They call them the Forlorn Hopers, for short.”

“Have they got armor?”

“No—that’s their swank. They’ve no armor but their natural scales.
Those look thick enough, though. I say, Princess, I suppose we Sea
Urchins are free to do exactly as we choose?”

“Yes,” said the Princess, “unless orders are given.”

“Well, then—my idea is that the Lobsters are the fellows to tackle the
Sea Horses. Hold on to their tails, see? They can’t hurt the Lobsters
because they can’t get at their own tails.”

“But when the Lobsters let go?” said the Princess.

“The Lobsters wouldn’t let go till they had driven back the enemy,”
said the Lobster Captain, saluting. “Your Highness, may I ask if you
propose to take this Urchin’s advice?”

“Isn’t it good?” she asked.

“Yes, your Highness,” the Lobster Captain answered, “but it’s
impertinent.”

[Illustration: _The First Dipsys._]

“I am the best judge of that,” said the Princess gently; “remember that
these are noble volunteers, who are fighting for us of their own free
will.”

The Lobster saluted and was silent.

“I cannot send the Lobsters,” said the Princess, “we need them to
protect the gate. But the Crabs—”

“Ah, Highness, let us go,” pleaded the Lobster Captain.

“The Crabs cannot keep the gate,” said the Princess kindly. “You know
they are not narrow enough. Francis, will you be my aide-de-camp and
take a message to the Queen?”

“May I go, too?” asked Mavis.

“Yes. But we must deliver a double assault. If the Crabs attack the
Horses, who will deal with the riders?”

“I have an idea about that, too,” said Reuben.

“If we could have some good heavy shoving regiment—and someone sharp to
finish them off. The Swordfish, perhaps?”

“You are a born general,” the Princess said; “but you don’t quite
know our resources. The United Narwhals can do the shoving, as you
call it—and their horns are sharp and heavy. Now”—she took a smooth
white chalkstone from the seafloor, and a ready Lobster brought her a
sharpened haddock bone. She wrote quickly, scratching the letters deep
on the chalk. “Here,” she said, “take this to the Queen. You will find
her at Headquarters at the Palace yard. Tell her everything. I have
only asked for the two regiments; you must explain the rest. I don’t
suppose there’ll be any difficulty in getting through our lines, but,
if there should be, the password is ‘Glory’ and the countersign is ‘or
Death.’ And hurry, hurry, hurry for your lives!”

Never before had Mavis and Francis felt anything like the glow of
excitement and importance which warmed them as they went up the long
tunnel to take the message to the Queen.

“But where is the Palace?” Mavis said, and they stopped, looking at
each other.

“I’ll show you, please,” said a little voice behind them. They turned
quickly to find a small, spruce, gentlemanly Mackerel at their heels.
“I’m one of the Guides,” it said. “I felt sure you’d need me. This
way, sir, please,” and it led the way across the gardens in and out
of the clumps of trees and between the seaweed hedges till they came
to the Palace. Rows and rows of soldiers surrounded it, all waiting
impatiently for the word of command that should send them to meet the
enemies of their country.

“Glory,” said the gentlemanly Mackerel, as he passed the outposts.

“Or Death,” replied the sentinel Sea Bream.

The Queen was in the courtyard, in which the children had received
their ovation—so short a time ago, and yet how long it seemed. Then
the courtyard had been a scene of the calm and charming gaiety of a
nation at peace; now it was full of the ardent, intense inactivity of
waiting warriors. The Queen in her gleaming coral armor met them as
the password opened a way to her through the close-packed ranks of the
soldiers. She took the stone and read it, and with true royal kindness
she found time, even at such a moment, for a word of thanks to the
messengers.

“See the Narwhals start,” she added, “and then back to your posts with
all speed. Tell your commanding officer that so far the Book People
have made no sign, but the golden gate is strongly defended by the
King’s Own Cod, and—”

“I didn’t know there was a King,” said Francis.

The Queen looked stern, and the Mackerel guide jerked Francis’s magic
coattail warningly and whispered “Hush!”

“The King,” said the Queen quietly, “is no more. He was lost at sea.”

When the splendid steady column of Narwhals had marched off to its
appointed place the children bowed to the Queen and went back to their
posts.

“I’m sorry I said anything,” said Francis to the Mackerel, “but I
didn’t know. Besides, how can a Mer-king be lost at sea?”

“Aren’t your Kings lost on land?” asked the Mackerel, “or if not Kings,
men quite as good? What about explorers?”

“I see,” said Mavis; “and doesn’t anyone know what has become of him?”

“No,” said the Mackerel; “he has been lost for a very long time. We
fear the worst. If he were alive he would have come back. We think the
Under Folk have him. They bewitch prisoners so that they forget who
they are. Of course, there’s the antidote. Every uniform is made with
a little antidote pocket just over the heart.” He put his fin inside
his scales and produced a little golden case, just like a skate’s egg.
“You’ve got them, too, of course,” he added. “If you are taken prisoner
swallow the contents at once.”

“But if you forget who you are,” said Francis, “don’t you forget the
antidote?”

“No charm,” the Mackerel assured him, “is strong enough to make one
forget one’s counter-charm.”

And now they were back at the Lobster-guarded gate. The Princess ran to
meet them.

“What a time you’ve been,” she said. “Is all well? Have the Narwhals
taken up their position?”

Satisfied on this point, she led the children up a way long and steep
to a window in the wall whence they could look down on the ravine and
see the advance of the foe. The Narwhals were halted about halfway up
the ravine, where it widened to a sort of amphitheater. Here, among the
rocks, they lay in ambush, waiting for the advance of the foe.

“If it hadn’t been for you, Reuben,” said the Princess, as they leaned
their elbows on the broad rocky ledge of the window, “they might easily
have stormed the North Tower—we should not have been ready—all our
strongest defenses were massed on the south side. It was there they
attacked last time, so the history books tell us.”

And now a heavy, thundering sound, faint yet terrible, announced the
approach of the enemy—and far away across the sea plain something could
be seen moving. A ball of seaweed seemed to drift up the ravine.

“A Sea Urchin gone to give the alarm,” said the Princess; “what
splendid things Boy Scouts are. We didn’t have them in the last war.
My dear father only invented them just before—” She paused and sighed.
“Look,” she said.

The enemy’s heavy cavalry were moving in a solid mass toward
Merland—the great Sea Horses, twenty feet long, and their great riders,
who must have been eight or ten feet high, came more and more quickly,
heading to the ravine. The riders were the most terrible beings the
children had ever seen. Clothed from head to feet in closely fitting
scales, with large heads, large ears, large mouths and blunt noses and
large, blind-looking eyes, they sat each erect on his armored steed,
the long harpoons swaying lightly in their enormous hands.

The Sea Horses quickened their pace—and a noise like a hoarse trumpet
rang out.

“They are sounding the charge,” said the Princess; and as she spoke the
Under Folk charged at the ravine, in a determined, furious onrush.

“Oh, no one can stand up against that—they can’t,” said Cathay, in
despair.

From the window they could see right down onto the amphitheater, where
the Narwhals were concealed.

On came the Sea Cavalry—so far unresisted—but as they neared the ambush
bunches of seaweed drifted in the faces of the riders. They floundered
and strove to push away the clinging stuff—and as they strove the
Narwhals made their sortie—drove their weight against the riders and
hurled them from their horses, and from the covers of the rocks the
Crabs advanced with an incredible speed and caught the tails of the
Sea Horses in their inexorable claws. The riders lay on the ground.
The horses were rearing and prancing with fear and pain as the clouds
of seaweed, each with a prickly Sea Urchin in it, flung themselves
against their faces. The riders stood up, fighting to the last; but the
harpoons were no match for the Narwhal’s horns.

“Come away,” said the Princess.

Already the Sea Horses, urged by the enormous Crabs, were retreating in
the wildest disorder, pursued by Narwhals and harassed by Sea Urchins.

The Princess and the children went back to the Lobster sentries.

“Repulsed,” said the Princess, “with heavy loss”—and the Lobsters
cheered.

“How’s that, Princess?” said a ball of seaweed, uncurling itself at the
gate and presenting the familiar features of Reuben.

“How is it?” she said. “It is Victory. And we owe it to you. But you’re
wounded?”

“Only a scratch,” said Reuben; “harpoon just missed me.”

“Oh, Reuben, you are a hero,” said Cathay.

“Get along, you silly,” he answered gracefully.



CHAPTER NINE

_The Book People_


EVEN IN THE MIDST OF WAR there are intervals for refreshments. Our
own soldiers, no matter how fierce, must eat to live, and the same is
the case with the submarine regiments. The Crustacean Brigade took
advantage of the lull in hostilities which followed the defeat of the
Sea Horses to march back to the Palace and have a meal. A very plain
meal it was, too, and very different from the “Banquet of Ovations,”
as Cathay pointed out afterward. There were no prettily spread tables
decorated with bunches of seaweed, no plates or knives or forks. The
food was passed around by hand, and there was one drinking horn (a sea
cow’s horn) to every six soldiers. They all sat on the ground as you do
at a picnic, and the Queen came and spoke a few hurried words to them
when on her way to strengthen the defenses of the golden gate. And,
as I said, the food was plain. However, everyone had enough to eat,
which was the main thing. Baskets of provisions were sent down to the
Lobsters’ guardroom.

“It is important,” said Princess Freia, “that our men should be on the
spot in case they are needed, and the same with the dinner. I shall go
down with the provisions and keep their hearts up.”

“Yes, dear, do,” said the Princess Maia; “but don’t do anything rash.
No sorties now. You Lobsters are so terribly brave. But you know Mother
said you weren’t to. Ah me! War is a terrible thing! What a state the
rivers will get into with all this water going on, and the winds all
loose and doing as they like. It’s horrible to think about. It will
take ages to get things straight again.”

(Her fears were only too well founded. All this happened last year—and
you know what a wet summer that was.)

“I know, dear,” said Freia; “but I know now who broke the sky, and it
is very, very sorry—so we won’t rub it in, will we?”

“I didn’t mean to,” said Maia, smiling kindly at the children, and went
off to encourage her Lobsters.

“And now,” said Francis, when the meal was over, “what are we going to
do next?”

“We can’t do anything but wait for news,” said the Princess. “Our
Scouts will let us know soon enough. I only hope the Book People won’t
attack us at the same time as the Under Folk. That’s always the danger.”

“How could they get in?” Mavis asked.

“Through the golden door,” said the Princess. “Of course they couldn’t
do anything if we hadn’t read the books they’re in. That’s the worst
of Education. We’ve all read such an awful lot, and that unlocks the
books and they can come out if anyone calls them. Even our fish are
intolerably well read—except the Porpoises, dear things, who never
could read anything. That’s why the golden door is guarded by them, of
course.”

“If not having read things is useful,” said Mavis, “we’ve read almost
nothing. Couldn’t we help guard the door?”

“The very thing,” said the Princess joyously; “for you possess the only
weapon that can be used against these people or against the authors
who created them. If you can truthfully say to them, ‘I never heard
of you,’ your words become a deadly sword that strikes at their most
sensitive spot.”

“What spot?” asked Bernard. And the Princess answered, “Their vanity.”

So the little party went toward the golden door and found it behind a
thick wall of Porpoises. Incessant cries came from beyond the gates,
and to every cry they answered like one Porpoise, “We never heard of
you. You can’t come in. You can’t come in. We never heard of you.”

“We shan’t be any good here,” said Bernard, among the thick, rich
voices of the Porpoises. “They can keep anyone back.”

“Yes,” said the Princess; “but if the Book Folk look through the gate
and see that they’re only Porpoises their wounded vanity will heal, and
they’ll come on as strongly as ever. Whereas if they did find human
beings who have never heard of them the wounds ought to be mortal. As
long as you are able truthfully to say that you don’t know them they
can’t get in.”

“Reuben would be the person for this,” said Francis. “I don’t believe
he’s read _anything_!”

“Well, we haven’t read much,” said Cathay comfortably; “at least, not
about nasty people.”

“I wish I hadn’t,” sighed the Princess through the noise of the voices
outside the gate. “I know them all. You hear that cold squeak? That’s
Mrs. Fairchild. And that short, sharp, barking sound—that’s Aunt
Fortune. The sort of growl that goes on all the time is Mr. Murdstone,
and that icy voice is Rosamund’s mother—the one who was so hateful
about the purple jar.”

“I’m afraid we know some of those,” said Mavis.

“Then be careful not to say you don’t. There are heaps you don’t
know—John Knox and Machiavelli and Don Diego and Tippoo Sahib and
Sally Brass and—I _must_ go back. If anything should happen, fling your
arms round the nearest Porpoise and trust to luck. These Book People
can’t kill—they can only stupefy.”

“But how do you know them all?” Mavis asked. “Do they often attack you?”

“No, only when the sky falls. But they always howl outside the gate at
the full moon.”

So saying she turned away and disappeared in the crowd of faithful
Porpoises.

And outside the noise grew louder and the words more definite.

“I am Mrs. Randolph. Let me in!”

“I am good Mrs. Brown. Let me in!”

“I am Eric, or Little by Little. I _will_ come in!”

“I am Elsie, or Like a Little Candle. Let me in—let me in!”

“I am Mrs. Markham.”

“I am Mrs. Squeers.”

“I am Uriah Heep.”

“I am Montdidier.”

“I am King John.”

“I am Caliban.”

“I am the Giant Blunderbore.”

“I am the Dragon of Wantley.”

And they all cried, again and again: “Let us in! Let me in! Let me in!”

The strain of listening for the names and calling out “I don’t know
you!” when they didn’t, and saying nothing when they did, became almost
unbearable. It was like that horrid game with the corners of the
handkerchief, “Hold fast” and “Let loose,” and you have to remember to
do the opposite. Sooner or later an accident is bound to happen, and
the children felt a growing conviction that it would be sooner.

“What will happen if they do get in?” Cathay asked a neighboring
Porpoise.

“Can’t say, miss, I’m sure,” it answered.

“But what will you do?”

“Obstruct them in the execution of our duty,” it answered. “You see,
miss, they can’t kill; they can only stupefy, and they can’t stupefy
us, ’cause why? We’re that stupid already we can’t hold no more. That’s
why they trust us to defend the golden gate,” it added proudly.

The babel of voices outside grew louder and thicker, and the task of
knowing when to say “I don’t know you,” and so wound the vanity of the
invaders, grew more and more difficult. At last the disaster, foreseen
for some time, with a growing plainness, came upon them.

“I am the Great Seal,” said a thick, furry voice.

“I don’t know you,” cried Cathay.

“You do—he’s in history. James the Second dropped him in the Thames,”
said Francis. “Yes, you’ve done it again.”

“Shut up,” said Bernard.

The last two remarks were made in a deep silence, broken only by the
heavy breathing of the Porpoises. The voices behind the golden gate had
died down and ceased. The Porpoises massed their heavy bulk close to
the door.

“Remember the Porpoises,” said Francis. “Don’t forget to hold on to a
Porpoise.”

Four of these amiable if unintellectual creatures drew away from their
companions, and one came to the side of each child.

Every eye was fixed on the golden door, and then slowly—very slowly,
the door began to open. As it opened it revealed the crowd that stood
without—cruel faces, stupid faces, crafty faces, sullen faces, angry
faces, not a single face that you ever could wish to see again.

Then slowly, terribly, without words, the close ranks of the Book
People advanced. Mrs. Fairchild, Mrs. Markham, and Mrs. Barbauld led
the van. Closely following came the Dragon of Wantley, the Minotaur,
and the Little Man that Sintram knew. Then came Mr. Murdstone, neat in
a folded white neckcloth, and clothes as black as his whiskers. Miss
Murdstone was with him, every bead of her alight with gratified malice.
The children found that they knew, without being told, the name of each
foe now advancing on them. Paralyzed with terror, they watched the
slow and terrible advance. It was not till Eric, or Little by Little,
broke the silence with a whoop of joy and rushed upon them that they
remembered their own danger, and clutched the waiting Porpoises. Alas!
it was too late. Mrs. Markham had turned a frozen glare upon them, Mrs.
Fairchild had wagged an admonitory forefinger, wave on wave of sheer
stupidity swept over them, and next moment they lost consciousness
and sank, each with his faithful Porpoise, into the dreamless sleep
of the entirely unintelligent. In vain the main body of the Porpoises
hurled themselves against the intruders; their heroism was fruitless.
Overwhelmed by the heavy truisms wielded by the enemy, they turned and
fled in disorder, and the conquering army entered Merland.

Francis was the first to recover consciousness. The Porpoise to which
he had clung was fanning him with its fin, and imploring him, for its
sake, to look up, to speak.

“All right, old chap,” said Francis. “I must have fallen asleep. Where
are the others?”

They were all there, and the devoted Porpoises quickly restored them to
consciousness.

[Illustration: _Book Hatefuls._]

The four children stood up and looked at each other.

“I wish Reuben was here,” said Cathay. “He’d know what to do.”

“He wouldn’t know any more than we do,” said Francis haughtily.

“We _must_ do _something_,” said Mavis. “It’s our fault again.”

“It’s mine,” said Cathay, “but I couldn’t help it.”

“If you hadn’t, one of us would have,” said Bernard, seeking to
console. “I say, why do only the nasty people come out of the books?”

“_I_ know that,” said his Porpoise, turning his black face eagerly
toward them. “The stupidest people can’t help knowing something. The
Under Folk get in and open the books—at least, they send the Bookworms
in to open them. And, of course, they only open the pages where the
enemies are quartered.”

“Then—” said Bernard, looking at the golden gate, which swung open, its
lock hanging broken and useless.

“Yes,” said Mavis, “we could, couldn’t we? Open the other books, we
mean!” She appealed to her Porpoise.

“Yes,” it said, “perhaps you could. Human children can open books, I
believe. Porpoises can’t. And Mer-people can’t open the books in the
Cave of Learning, though they can unlock them. If they want to open
them they have to get them from the Public Mer Libraries. I can’t help
knowing that,” it added. The Porpoises seemed really ashamed of not
being thoroughly stupid.

“Come on,” said Francis, “we’ll raise an army to fight these Book
People. Here’s something we can do that _isn’t_ mischief.”

“You shut up,” said Bernard, and thumping Cathay on the back told her
to never mind.

They went toward the golden gate.

“I suppose all the nasty people are out of the books by now?” Mavis
asked her Porpoise, who followed her with the close fidelity of an
affectionate little dog.

“_I_ don’t know,” it said, with some pride. “I’m stupid, I am. But I
can’t help knowing that no one can come out of books unless they’re
called. You’ve just got to tap on the back of the book and call the
name and then you open it, and the person comes out. At least, that’s
what the Bookworms do, and I don’t see why you should be different.”

What _was_ different, it soon appeared, was the water in the stream
in the Cave of Learning, which was quite plainly still water in some
other sense than that in which what they were in was water. That is,
they could not walk in it; they had to swim. The cave seemed dark,
but enough light came from the golden gate to enable them to read the
titles of the books when they had pulled away the seaweed which covered
many of them. They had to hold on to the rocks—which were books—with
one hand, and clear away the seaweed with the other.

You can guess the sort of books at which they knocked—Kingsley and
Shakespeare and Marryat and Dickens, Miss Alcott and Mrs. Ewing, Hans
Andersen and Stevenson, and Mayne Reid—and when they had knocked they
called the name of the hero whose help they desired, and “Will you help
us,” they asked, “to conquer the horrid Book People, and drive them
back to cover?”

And not a hero but said, “Yes, indeed we will, with all our hearts.”

And they climbed down out of the books, and swam up to the golden gate
and waited, talking with courage and dignity among themselves, while
the children went on knocking at the backs of books—which are books’
front doors—and calling out more and more heroes to help in the fight.

Quentin Durward and Laurie were the first to come out, then Hereward
and Amyas and Will Cary, David Copperfield, Rob Roy, Ivanhoe, Caesar
and Anthony, Coriolanus and Othello; but you can make the list for
yourselves. They came forth, all alive and splendid, with valor and the
longing to strike once more a blow for the good cause, as they had been
used to do in their old lives.

“These are enough,” said Francis, at last. “We ought to leave some, in
case we want more help later.”

You see for yourselves what a splendid company it was that swam
to the golden gate—there was no other way than swimming, except
for Perseus—and awaited the children. And when the children joined
them—rather nervous at the thought of the speeches they would have to
make to their newly recruited regiment—they found that there was no
need of speeches. The faithful Porpoises had not been too stupid to
explain the simple facts of danger and rescue.

It was a proud moment for the children when they marched toward the
Palace at the head of the band of heroes whom they had pressed into the
service of the Merland. Between the clipped seaweed hedges they went,
and along the paths paved with pearl and marble, and so, at last, drew
near the Palace. They gave the watchword “Glory.”

“Or Death,” said the sentry. And they passed on to the Queen.

“We’ve brought a reinforcement,” said Francis, who had learned the word
from Quentin Durward as they came along. And the Queen gave one look at
her reinforcement’s faces and said simply:

“We are saved.”

The horrible Book People had not attacked the Palace; they had gone
furtively through the country killing stray fish and destroying any
beautiful thing they happened to find. For these people hate beauty
and happiness. They were now holding a meeting in the Palace gardens,
near the fountain where the Princesses had been wont to do their
source-service, and they were making speeches like mad. You could hear
the dull, flat murmur of them even from the Palace. They were the sort
of people who love the sound of their own silly voices.

The newcomers were ranged in orderly ranks before the Queen, awaiting
her orders. It looked like a pageant or a fancy-dress parade. There
was St. George in his armor, and Joan of Arc in hers—heroes in plumed
hats and laced shirts, heroes in ruffs and doublets—brave gentlemen of
England, gallant gentlemen of France. For all the differences in their
dress, there was nothing motley about the band which stood before the
Queen. Varied as they were in dress and feature, they had one quality
in common, which marked them as one company. The same light of bravery
shone on them all, and became them like a fine uniform.

“Will you,” the Queen asked of their leader—a pale, thin-faced man in
the dress of a Roman—“will you do just as you think best? I would not
presume,” she added, with a kind of proud humility, “to teach the game
of war to Caesar.”

“Oh, Queen,” he answered, “these brave men and I will drive back the
intruders, but, having driven them back, we must ourselves return
through those dark doors which we passed when your young defenders
called our names. We will drive back the _men_—and by the look of them
’twill be an easy task. But Caesar wars not with women, and the women
on our side are few, though each, I doubt not, has the heart of a
lioness.”

He turned toward Joan of Arc with a smile and she gave him back a smile
as bright as the sword she carried.

“How many women are there among you?” the Queen asked, and Joan
answered:

“Queen Boadicea and Torfrida and I are but three.”

“But we three,” cried Torfrida, “are a match for three hundred of such
women as those. Give us but whips instead of swords, and we will drive
them like dogs to their red and blue cloth-bound kennels.”

“I’m afraid,” said the Queen, “they’d overcome you by sheer weight.
You’ve no idea how heavy they are.” And then Kathleen covered herself
with glory by saying, “Well, but what about Amazons?”

“The very thing,” said Caesar kindly. “Would you mind running back?
You’ll find them in the third book from the corner where the large
purple starfish is; you can’t mistake it.”

The children tore off to the golden gate, rushed through it, and
swam to the spot where, unmistakably, the purplish starfish spread
its violet rays. They knocked on the book, and Cathay, by previous
arrangement, called out—

“Come out, please, Queen of the Amazons, and bring all your fighting
ladies.”

Then out came a very splendid lady in glorious golden armor. “You’d
better get some boats for us,” she said, standing straight and splendid
on a ledge of rock, “enough to reach from here to the gate, or a
bridge. There are all these things in Caesar’s books. I’m sure he
wouldn’t mind your calling them out. We must not swim, I know, because
of getting our bowstrings wet.”

So Francis called out a bridge, and when it was not long enough to
reach the golden gate he called another. And then the Queen called her
ladies, and out came a procession, which seemed as though it would
never end, of tall and beautiful women armed and equipped for war. They
carried bows, and the children noticed that one side of their chests
was flatter than the other. And the procession went on and on, passing
along the bridge and through the golden gate, till Cathay grew quite
dizzy; and at last Mavis said, “Oh, your Majesty, do stop them. I’m
sure there are heaps, and we shall be too late if we wait for any more.”

So the Queen stopped the procession and they went back to the Palace,
where the Queen of the Amazons greeted Joan of Arc and the other ladies
as though they were old acquaintances.

In a few moments their plans were laid. I wish I could describe to you
the great fight between the Nice Book People and the others. But I
have not time, and besides, the children did not see all of it, so I
don’t see why _you_ should. It was fought out in the Palace gardens.
The armies were fairly evenly matched as to numbers, because the
Bookworms had let out a great many Barbarians, and these, though not so
unpleasant as Mr. Murdstone and Mrs. Fairchild, were quite bad enough.
The children were not allowed to join in the battle, which they would
dearly have liked to do. Only from a safe distance they heard the
sound of steel on steel, the whir of arrows, and the war cries of the
combatants. And presently a stream of fugitives darkened the pearly
pathways, and one could see the heroes with drawn swords following in
pursuit.

And then, among those who were left, the shouts of war turned suddenly
to shouts of laughter, and the Merlish Queen herself moved toward the
battlefield. And as she drew near she, too, laughed. For, it would
seem, the Amazons had only shot their arrows at the men among their
foes—they had disdained to shoot the women, and so good was their aim
that not a single woman was wounded. Only, when the Book Hatefuls
had been driven back by the Book Heroes, the Book Heroines advanced
and, without more ado, fell on the remaining foes. They did not fight
them with swords or spears or arrows or the short, sharp knives they
wore—they simply picked up the screaming Bookwomen and carried them
back to the books where they belonged. Each Amazon caught up one of
the foe and, disregarding her screaming and scratching, carried her
back to the book where she belonged, pushed her in, and shut the door.

Boadicea carried Mrs. Markham and her brown silk under one bare,
braceleted arm as though she had been a naughty child. Joan of Arc made
herself responsible for Aunt Fortune, and the Queen of the Amazons
made nothing of picking up Miss Murdstone, beads and all, and carrying
her in her arms like a baby. Torfrida’s was the hardest task. She had,
from the beginning, singled out Alftruda, her old and bitter enemy, and
the fight between them was a fierce one, though it was but a battle of
looks. Yet before long the fire in Torfrida’s great dark eyes seemed to
scorch her adversary, she shrank before it, and shrank and shrank till
at last she turned and crept back to her book and went in of her own
accord, and Torfrida shut the door.

“But,” said Mavis, who had followed her, “don’t you live in the same
book?”

Torfrida smiled.

“Not quite,” she said. “That would be impossible. I live in a different
edition, where only the Nice People are alive. In hers it is the nasty
ones.”

“And where is Hereward?” Cathay asked, before Mavis could stop her. “I
do love him, don’t you?”

“Yes,” said Torfrida, “I love him. But he is not alive in the book
where I live. But he will be—he will be.”

And smiling and sighing, she opened her book and went into it, and the
children went slowly back to the Palace. The fight was over, the Book
People had gone back into their books, and it was almost as though they
had never left them—not quite, for the children had seen the faces of
the heroes, and the books where these lived could never again now be
the same to them. All books, indeed, would now have an interest far
above any they had ever held before—for any of these people might be
found in any book. You never know.

[Illustration: _Book Heroines._]

The Princess Freia met them in the Palace courtyard, and clasped
their hands and called them the preservers of the country, which was
extremely pleasant. She also told them that a slight skirmish had been
fought on the Mussel-beds south of the city, and the foe had retreated.

“But Reuben tells me,” she added—“that boy is really worth his
weight in pearls—that the main body are to attack at midnight. We
must sleep now, to be ready for the call of duty when it comes. Sure
you understand your duties? And the power of your buttons and your
antidotes? I might not have time to remind you later. You can sleep in
the armory—you must be awfully tired. You’ll be asleep before you can
say Jack Sprat.”

So they lay down on the seaweed, heaped along one end of the Oysters’
armory, and were instantly asleep.

It may have been their natures, or it may have been the influence of
the magic coats. But whatever the cause, it is certain that they lay
down without fear, slept without dreams, and awoke without alarm when
an Oyster corporal touched their arms and whispered, “Now!”

They were wide awake on the instant and started up, picking their
oyster shields from the ground beside them.

“I feel just like a Roman soldier,” Cathay said. “Don’t you?”

And the others owned that so far as they knew the feelings of a Roman
soldier, those feelings were their own.

The shadows of the guardroom were changed and shifted and flung here
and there by the torches carried by the busy Oysters. Phosphorescent
fish these torches were, and gave out a moony light like that of the
pillars in the Cave of Learning. Outside the Lobster-guarded arch the
water showed darkly clear. Large phosphorescent fish were twined round
pillars of stone, rather like the fish you see on the lampposts on the
Thames Embankment, only in this case the fish were the lamps. So strong
was the illumination that you could see as clearly as you can on a
moonlit night on the downs, where there are no trees to steal the light
from the landscape and bury it in their thick branches.

All was hurry and bustle. The Salmoners had sent a detachment to harass
the flank of the enemy, and the Sea Urchins, under the command of
Reuben, were ready in their seaweed disguises.

There was a waiting time, and the children used it to practice with
their shells, using the thick stems of seaweed—thick as a man’s arm—to
represent the ankles of the invading force, and they were soon fairly
expert at the trick which was their duty. Francis had just nipped an
extra fat stalk and released it again by touching the secret spring
when the word went around, “Every man to his post!”

The children proudly took up their post next to the Princess, and
hardly had they done so when a faint yet growing sound knocked gently
at their ears. It grew and grew and grew till it seemed to shake the
ground on which they stood, and the Princess murmured, “It is the tramp
of the army of the Under Folk. Now, be ready. We shall lurk among these
rocks. Hold your good oyster shell in readiness, and when you see a
foot near you clip it, and at the same time set down the base of the
shell on the rock. The trusty shell will do the rest.”

“Yes, we know, thank you, dear Princess,” said Mavis. “Didn’t you see
us practicing?”

But the Princess was not listening; she had enough to do to find cover
for her troops among the limpet-studded rocks.

And now the tramp, tramp, tramp of the great army sounded nearer and
more near, and through the dimly lighted water the children could see
the great Deep Sea People advancing.

Very terrible they were, big beyond man-size, more stalwart and more
finely knit than the Forlorn Hopers who had led the attack so happily
and gloriously frustrated by the Crabs, the Narwhals and the Sea
Urchins. As the advance guard drew near all the children stared, from
their places of concealment, at the faces of these terrible foes of the
happy Merland. Very strong the faces were, and, surprisingly, very,
very sad. They looked—Francis at least was able to see it—like strong
folk suffering proudly an almost intolerable injury—bearing, bravely,
an almost intolerable pain.

“But I’m on the other side,” he told himself, to check a sudden rising
in his heart of—well, if it was not sympathy, what was it?

And now the head of the advancing column was level with the Princess.
True to the old tradition which bids a commander lead and not to follow
his troops, she was the first to dart out and fix a shell to the heel
of the left-rank man. The children were next. Their practice bore its
fruit. There was no blunder, no mistake. Each oyster shell clipped
sharp and clean the attached ankle of an enemy; each oyster shell at
the same moment attached itself firmly to the rock, thus clinging to
his base in the most thorough and military way. A spring of joy and
triumph welled up in the children’s hearts. How easy it was to get the
better of these foolish Deep Sea Folk. A faint, kindly contempt floated
into the children’s minds for the Mer-people, who so dreaded and hated
these stupid giants. Why, there were fifty or sixty of them tied by the
leg already! It was as easy as—

The pleasant nature of these reflections had kept our four rooted to
the spot. In the triumphant performance of one duty they failed to
remember the duty that should have followed. They stood there rejoicing
in their victory, when by all the rules of the Service they should have
rushed back to the armory for fresh weapons.

The omission was fatal. Even as they stood there rejoicing in their
cleverness and boldness and in the helpless anger of the enemy,
something thin and string-like spread itself around them—their feet
caught in string, their fingers caught in string, string tweaked
their ears and flattened their noses—string confined their elbows and
confused their legs. The Lobster-guarded doorway seemed farther off—and
farther, and farther.... They turned their heads; they were following
backward, and against their will, a retreating enemy.

“Oh, why didn’t we do what she said?” breathed Cathay. “Something’s
happened!”

“I should think it had,” said Bernard. “We’re caught—in a net.”

They were. And a tall Infantryman of the Under Folk was towing them
away from Merland as swiftly and as easily as a running child tows a
captive air balloon.



CHAPTER TEN

_The Under Folk_


THOSE OF US who have had the misfortune to be caught in a net in the
execution of our military duty, and to be dragged away by the enemy
with all the helpless buoyancy of captive balloons, will be able to
appreciate the sensations of the four children to whom this gloomy
catastrophe had occurred.

The net was very strong—made of twisted fibrous filaments of seaweed.
All efforts to break it were vain, and they had, unfortunately, nothing
to cut it with. They had not even their oyster shells, the rough edges
of which might have done something to help, or at least would have been
useful weapons, and the discomfort of their position was extreme. They
were, as Cathay put it, “all mixed up with each other’s arms and legs,”
and it was very difficult and painful to sort themselves out without
hurting each other.

“Let’s do it, one at a time,” said Mavis, after some minutes of severe
and unsuccessful struggle. “France first. Get right away, France, and
see if you can’t sit down on a piece of the net that isn’t covered with
_us_, and then Cathay can try.”

It was excellent advice and when all four had followed it, it was found
possible to sit side by side on what may be called the floor of the
net, only the squeezing of the net walls tended to jerk one up from
one’s place if one wasn’t very careful.

By the time the rearrangement was complete, and they were free to look
about them, the whole aspect of the world had changed. The world, for
one thing, was much darker, in itself that is, though the part of it
where the children were was much lighter than had been the sea where
they were first netted. It was a curious scene—rather like looking down
on London at night from the top of St. Paul’s. Some bright things,
like trams or omnibuses, were rushing along, and smaller lights, which
looked mighty like cabs and carriages, dotted the expanse of blackness
till, where they were thick set, the darkness disappeared in a blaze of
silvery light.

Other light-bearers had rows of round lights like the portholes of
great liners. One came sweeping toward them, and a wild idea came
to Cathay that perhaps when ships sink they go on living and moving
underwater just as she and the others had done. Perhaps they do.
Anyhow, this was not one of them, for, as it came close, it was plainly
to be perceived as a vast fish with phosphorescent lights in rows along
its gigantic sides. It opened its jaws as it passed, and for an instant
everyone shut their eyes and felt that all was over. When the eyes
were opened again, the mighty fish was far away. Cathay, however, was
discovered to be in tears.

“I wish we hadn’t come,” she said; and the others could not but feel
that there was something in what she said. They comforted her and
themselves as best they could by expressing a curious half-certainty
which they had that everything would be all right in the end. As I
said before, there are some things so horrible that if you can bring
yourself to face them you see at once that they can’t be true. The
barest idea of poetic justice—which we all believe in at the bottom
of our hearts—made it impossible to think that the children who had
nobly (they couldn’t help feeling it _was_ noble) defended their
friends, the Mer Folk, should have anything really dreadful happen to
them in consequence. And when Bernard talked about the fortunes of war
he did it in an unconvinced sort of way and Francis told him to shut up.

[Illustration: _In the net._]

“But what are we to do,” sniffed Cathay for the twentieth time, and all
the while the Infantryman was going steadily on, dragging the wretched
netful after him.

“Press our pearl buttons,” suggested Francis hopefully. “Then we shall
be invisible and unfeelable and we can escape.” He fumbled with the
round marble-like pearl.

“No, no,” said Bernard, catching at his hand, “don’t you see? If we
do, we may never get out of the net. If they can’t see us or feel us
they’ll think the net’s empty, and perhaps hang it up on a hook or put
it away in a box.”

“And forget it while years roll by. _I_ see,” said Cathay.

“But we can undo them the minute we’re there. Can’t we?” said Mavis.

“Yes, of course,” said Bernard; but as a matter of fact they couldn’t.

At last the Infantryman, after threading his way through streets of
enormous rocky palaces, passed through a colossal arch, and so into a
hall as big as St. Paul’s and Westminster Abbey into one.

A crowd of Under Folk, who were seated on stone benches around rude
tables, eating strange luminous food, rose up, and cried, “What news?”

“Four prisoners,” said the Infantryman.

“Upper Folk,” the Colonel said; “and my orders are to deliver them to
the Queen herself.”

He passed to the end of the hall and up a long wide flight of steps
made of something so green and clear that it was plainly either glass
or emerald, and I don’t think it could have been glass, because how
could they have made glass in the sea? There were lights below it which
shone through the green transparency so clear and lovely that Francis
said dreamily—

            “‘_Sabrina fair,
    Listen where thou art sitting,
    Under the glassie, cool, translucent wave,_’”

and quite suddenly there was much less room in the net, and they were
being embraced all at once and with tears of relief and joy by the
Princess Freia—their own Mer Princess.

“Oh, I _didn’t_ mean to—Princess dear, I _didn’t_,” said Francis. “It
was the emerald steps made me think of translucent.”

“So they are,” she said, “but oh, if you knew what I’ve felt—you, our
guests, our knights-errant, our noble defenders—to be prisoners and
all of us safe. I did so hope you’d call me. And I’m so proud that you
didn’t—that you were brave enough not to call for me until you did it
by accident.”

“We never thought of doing it,” said Mavis candidly, “but I hope we
shouldn’t have, if we _had_ thought of it.”

“Why haven’t you pressed your pearl buttons?” she asked, and they told
her why.

“Wise children,” she said, “but at any rate we must all use the charm
that prevents our losing our memories.”

“I shan’t use mine,” said Cathay. “I don’t want to remember. If I
didn’t remember I should forget to be frightened. Do please let
me forget to remember.” She clung pleadingly to the Princess, who
whispered to Mavis, “Perhaps it would be best,” and they let Cathay
have her way.

The others had only just time to swallow their charms before the
Infantryman threw the net onto a great table, which seemed to be cut
out of one vast diamond, and fell on his face on the ground. It was his
way of saluting his sovereign.

“Prisoners, your Majesty,” he said when he had got up again. “Four of
the young of the Upper Folk—” and he turned to the net as he spoke,
and stopped short—“there’s someone else,” he said in an altered voice,
“someone as wasn’t there when we started, I’ll swear.”

“Open the net,” said a strong, sweet voice, “and bid the prisoners
stand up that I may look upon them.”

“They might escape, my love,” said another voice anxiously, “or perhaps
they bite.”

“Submersia,” said the first voice, “do you and four of my women stand
ready. Take the prisoners one by one. Seize each a prisoner and hold
them, awaiting my royal pleasure.”

The net was opened and large and strong hands took Bernard, who was
nearest the mouth of the net back, and held him gently but with extreme
firmness in an upright position on the table. None of them could stand
because of their tails.

They saw before them, on a throne, a tall and splendid Queen, very
beautiful and very sad, and by her side a King (they knew the royalty
by their crowns), not so handsome as his wife, but still very different
from the uncouth, heavy Under Folk. And he looked sad too. They were
clad in robes of richest woven seaweed, sewn with jewels, and their
crowns were like dreams of magnificence. Their throne was of one clear
blood-bright ruby, and its canopy of green drooping seaweed was gemmed
with topazes and amethysts. The Queen rose and came down the steps of
the throne and whispered to her whom she had called Submersia, and she
in turn whispered to the four other large ladies who held, each, a
captive.

And with a dreadful unanimity the five acted; with one dexterous
movement they took off the magic jackets, and with another they removed
the useful tails. The Princess and the four children stood upon the
table on their own ten feet.

“What funny little things,” said the King, not unkindly.

“Hush,” said the Queen, “perhaps they can understand what you say—and
at any rate that Mer-girl can.”

The children were furious to hear their Princess so disrespectfully
spoken of. But she herself remained beautifully calm.

“Now,” said the Queen, “before we destroy your memories, will you
answer questions?”

“Some questions, yes—others, no,” said the Princess.

“Are these human children?”

“Yes.”

“How do they come under the sea?”

“Mer-magic. You wouldn’t understand,” said the Princess haughtily.

“Were they fighting against us?”

“Yes,” cried Bernard and Mavis before the Princess answered.

“And lucky to do it,” Francis added.

“If you will tell us the fighting strength of the Merlanders, your
tails and coats shall be restored to you and you shall go free. Will
you tell?”

“Is it likely?” the Princess answered. “I am a Mer-woman, and a
Princess of the Royal House. Such do not betray their country.”

“No, I suppose not,” said the Queen. And she paused a moment before she
said, “Administer the cup of forgetfulness.”

The cup of forgetfulness was exceedingly pleasant. It tasted of toffee
and coconuts, and pineapple ices, and plum cake, and roast chicken,
with a faint underflavor of lavender, rose leaves and the very best
_eau de cologne_.

The children had tasted cider-cup and champagne-cup at parties, and
had disliked both, but oblivion-cup was delicious. It was served in
a goblet of opal color, in dreamy pink and pearl—and green and blue
and gray—and the sides of the goblet were engraved with pictures of
beautiful people asleep. The goblet passed from hand to hand, and
when each had drunk enough the Lord High Cupbearer, a very handsome,
reserved-looking fish, laid a restraining touch on the goblet and,
taking it between his fins, handed it to the next drinker. So, one by
one, each took the draught. Kathleen was the last.

The draught had no effect on four out of the five—but Kathleen changed
before their eyes, and though they had known that the draught of
oblivion would make her forget, it was terrible to see it do its fell
work.

Mavis had her arm protectingly around Kathleen, and the moment the
draught had been swallowed Kathleen threw off that loving arm and drew
herself away. It hurt like a knife. Then she looked at her brothers and
sisters, and it is a very terrible thing when the eyes you love look at
you as though you were a stranger.

Now, it had been agreed, while still the captives were in the net, that
all of them should pretend that the cup of oblivion had taken effect,
that they should just keep still and say nothing and look as stupid
as they could. But this coldness of her dear Cathay’s was more than
Mavis could bear, and no one had counted on it. So when Cathay looked
at Mavis as at a stranger whom she rather disliked, and drew away from
her arm, Mavis could not bear it, and cried out in heart-piercing
tones, “Oh, Cathay, darling, what is it? What’s the matter?” before the
Princess or the boys could stop her. And to make matters worse, both
boys said in a very loud, plain whisper, “Shut up, Mavis,” and only the
Princess kept enough presence of mind to go on saying nothing.

Cathay turned and looked at her sister.

“Cathay, darling,” Mavis said again, and stopped, for no one could go
on saying “darling” to anyone who looked at you as Cathay was looking.

She turned her eyes away as Cathay looked toward the Queen—looked, and
went, to lean against the royal knee as though it had been her mother’s.

“Dear little thing,” said the Queen; “see, it’s quite tame. I shall
keep it for a pet. Nice little pet then!”

“You shan’t keep her,” cried Mavis, but again the Princess hushed her,
and the Queen treated her cry with contemptuous indifference. Cathay
snuggled against her new mistress.

“As for the rest of you,” said the Queen, “it is evident from your
manner that the draught of oblivion has not yet taken effect on you.
So it is impossible for me to make presents of you to those prominent
members of the nobility, who are wanting pets, as I should otherwise
have done. We will try another draught tomorrow. In the meantime ...
the fetters, Jailer.”

A tall sour-looking Under-man stepped forward. Hanging over his arm
were scaly tails, which at first sight of the children’s hearts leaped,
for they hoped they were their own. But no sooner were the tails fitted
on than they knew the bitter truth.

“Yes,” said the Queen “they are false tails. You will not be able to
take them off, and you can neither swim nor walk with them. You can,
however, move along quite comfortably on the floor of the ocean. What’s
the matter?” she asked the Jailer.

“None of the tails will fit this prisoner, your Majesty,” said the
Jailer.

“I am a Princess of the reigning Mer House,” said Freia, “and your
false, degrading tails cannot cling to me.”

“Oh, put them all in the lockup,” said the King, “as sullen a lot of
prisoners as ever I saw—what?”

The lockup was a great building, broader at the top than at the bottom,
which seemed to be balanced on the sea floor, but really it was propped
up at both ends with great chunks of rock. The prisoners were taken
there in the net, and being dragged along in nets is so confusing, that
it was not till the Jailer had left them that they discovered that the
prison was really a ship—an enormous ship—which lay there, perfect in
every detail as on the day when it first left dock. The water did not
seem to have spoiled it at all. They were imprisoned in the saloon,
and, worn out with the varied emotions of the day, they lay down on the
comfortable red velvet cushions and went to sleep. Even Mavis felt that
Kathleen had found a friend in the Queen, and was in no danger.

The Princess was the last to close her eyes. She looked long at the
sleeping children.

“Oh, _why_ don’t they think of it?” she said, “and why mustn’t I tell
them?”

There was no answer to either question, and presently she too slept.

I must own that I share the Princess’s wonder that the children did not
spend the night in saying “Sabrina fair” over and over again. Because
of course each invocation would have been answered by an inhabitant of
Merland, and thus a small army could easily have been collected, the
Jailer overpowered and a rush made for freedom.

I wish I had time to tell you all that happened to Kathleen, because
the daily life of a pampered lap-child to a reigning Queen is one that
you would find most interesting to read about. As interesting as your
Rover or Binkie would find it to read—if he could read—about the life
of one of Queen Alexandra’s Japanese Spaniels. But time is getting on,
and I must make a long story short. And anyhow you can never tell all
about everything, can you?

The next day the Jailers brought food to the prison, as well as a
second draught of oblivion, which, of course, had no effect, and they
spent the day wondering how they could escape. In the evening the
Jailer’s son brought more food and more oblivion-cup, and he lingered
while they ate. He did not look at all unkind, and Francis ventured to
speak to him.

“I say,” he said.

“What do you say?” the Under-lad asked.

“Are you forbidden to talk to us?”

“No.”

“Then do tell us what they will do with us.”

“I do not know. But we shall have to know before long. The prisons are
filling up quickly—they will soon be quite full. Then we shall have to
let some of you out on what is called ticket-of-leave—that means with
your artificial tails on, which prevent you getting away, even if the
oblivion-cup doesn’t take effect.”

“I say,” it was Bernard’s turn to ask.

“What do you say?”

“Why don’t the King and Queen go and fight, like the Mer Royal Family
do?”

“Against the law,” said the Under-lad. “We took a King prisoner once,
and our people were afraid our King and Queen might be taken, so they
made that rule.”

“What did you do with him—the prisoner King?” the Princess asked.

“Put him in an Iswater,” said the lad, “a piece of water entirely
surrounded by land.”

“I should like to see him,” said the Princess.

“Nothing easier,” said the Under-lad, “as soon as you get your
tickets-of-leaves. It’s a good long passage to the lake—nearly all
water, of course, but lots of our young people go there three times
a week. Of course, he can’t be a King anymore now—but they made him
Professor of Conchology.”

“And has he forgotten he was a _King_?” asked the Princess.

“Of course: but he was so learned the oblivion-cup wasn’t deep enough
to make him forget everything: that’s why he’s a Professor.”

“What was he King of?” the Princess asked anxiously.

“He was King of the Barbarians,” said the Jailer’s son—and the Princess
sighed.

“I thought it might have been my father,” she said, “he was lost at
sea, you know.”

The Under-lad nodded sympathetically and went away.

“He doesn’t seem such a bad sort,” said Mavis.

“No,” said the Princess, “I can’t understand it. I thought all the
Under Folk were terrible fierce creatures, cruel and implacable.”

“And they don’t seem so very different from us—except to look at,” said
Bernard.

“I wonder,” said Mavis, “what the war began about?”

“Oh—we’ve always been enemies,” said the Princess, carelessly.

“Yes—but how did you begin being enemies?”

“Oh, that,” said the Princess, “is lost in the mists of antiquity,
before the dawn of history and all that.”

“Oh,” said Mavis.

But when Ulfin came with the next meal—did I tell you that the Jailer’s
son’s name was Ulfin?—Mavis asked him the same question.

“I don’t know—little land-lady,” said Ulfin, “but I will find out—my
uncle is the Keeper of the National Archives, graven on tables of
stone, so many that no one can count them, but there are smaller tables
telling what is on the big ones—” he hesitated. “If I could get leave
to show you the Hall of the Archives, would you promise not to try to
escape?”

They had now been shut up for two days and would have promised anything
in reason.

“You see, the prisons are quite full now,” he said, “and I don’t see
why you shouldn’t be the first to get your leaves-tickets. I’ll ask my
father.”

“I say!” said Mavis.

“What do you say?” said Ulfin.

“Do you know anything about my sister?”

“The Queen’s new lap-child? Oh—she’s a great pet—her gold collar with
her name on it came home today. My cousin’s brother-in-law made it.”

“The name—Kathleen?” said Mavis.

“The name on the collar is Fido,” said Ulfin.

The next day Ulfin brought their tickets-of-leaves, made of the leaves
of the tree of Liberty which grows at the bottom of the well where
Truth lies.

“Don’t lose them,” he said, “and come with me.” They found it quite
possible to move along slowly on hands and tails, though they looked
rather like seals as they did so.

He led them through the strange streets of massive passages, pointing
out the buildings, giving them their names as you might do if you were
showing the marvels of your own city to a stranger.

“That’s the Astrologers’ Tower,” he said, pointing to a huge building
high above the others. “The wise men sit there and observe the stars.”

“But you can’t see the stars down here.”

“Oh, yes, we can. The tower is fitted up with tubes and mirrors and
water transparence apparatus. The wisest men in the country are
there—all but the Professor of Conchology. He’s the wisest of all. He
invented the nets that caught you—or rather, making nets was one of the
things that he had learned and couldn’t forget.”

“But who thought of using them for catching prisoners?”

“I did,” said Ulfin proudly, “I’m to have a glass medal for it.”

“Do you have glass down here?”

“A little comes down, you know. It is very precious. We engrave it.
That is the Library—millions of tables of stone—the Hall of Public
Joy is next to it—that garden is the mothers’ garden where they go to
rest while their children are at school—that’s one of our schools. And
here’s the Hall of Public Archives.”

The Keeper of the Records received them with grave courtesy. The daily
services of Ulfin had accustomed the children to the appearance of the
Under Folk, and they no longer found their strange, mournful faces
terrifying, and the great hall where, on shelves cut out of the sheer
rock, were stored the graven tables of Underworld Records, was very
wonderful and impressive.

“What is it you want to know?” said the Keeper, rolling away some of
the stones he had been showing them. “Ulfin said there was something
special.”

“Why the war began?” said Francis.

“Why the King and Queen are different?” said Mavis.

“The war,” said the Keeper of the Records, “began exactly three million
five hundred and seventy-nine thousand three hundred and eight years
ago. An Under-man, getting off his Sea Horse in a hurry trod on the
tail of a sleeping Merman. He did not apologize because he was under
a vow not to speak for a year and a day. If the Mer-people had only
waited he would have explained, but they went to war at once, and, of
course, after that you couldn’t expect him to apologize. And the war
has gone on, off and on and on and off, ever since.”

[Illustration: _The Hall of Public Archives._]

“And won’t it ever stop?” asked Bernard.

“Not till we apologize, which, of course, we can’t until _they_ find
out why the war began and that it wasn’t our fault.”

“How awful!” said Mavis; “then it’s all really about nothing.”

“Quite so,” said the Keeper, “what are your wars about? The other
question I shouldn’t answer only I know you’ll forget it when the
oblivion-cup begins to work. Ulfin tells me it hasn’t begun yet. Our
King and Queen are _imported_. We used to be a Republic, but Presidents
were so uppish and so grasping, and all their friends and relations
too; so we decided to be a Monarchy, and that all jealousies might be
taken away we imported the two handsomest Land Folk we could find.
They’ve been a great success, and as they have no relations we find it
much less expensive.”

When the Keeper had thus kindly gratified the curiosity of the
prisoners the Princess said suddenly:

“Couldn’t we learn Conchology?”

And the Keeper said kindly, “Why not? It’s the Professor’s day
tomorrow.”

“Couldn’t we go there today?” asked the Princess, “just to arrange
about times and terms and all that?”

“If my Uncle says I may take you there,” said Ulfin, “I will, for I
have never known any pleasure so great as doing anything that you wish
will give me.”

The Uncle looked a little anxious, but he said he thought there could
be no harm in calling on the Professor. So they went. The way was long
for people who were not seals by nature and were not yet compelled to
walk after the manner of those charming and intelligent animals. The
Mer Princess alone was at her ease. But when they passed a building,
as long as from here to the end of the Mile End Road, which Ulfin told
them was the Cavalry Barracks, a young Under-man leaned out of a window
and said:

“What ho! Ulf.”

“What ho! yourself,” said Ulfin, and approaching the window spoke in
whispers. Two minutes later the young Cavalry Officer who had leaned
out of the window gave an order, and almost at once some magnificent
Sea Horses, richly caparisoned, came out from under an arched gateway.
The three children were mounted on these, and the crowd which had
collected in the street seemed to find it most amusing to see people
in fetter-tails riding on the chargers of the Horse Marines. But their
laughter was not ill-natured. And the horses were indeed a boon to the
weary tails of the amateur seals.

Riding along the bottom of the sea was a wonderful experience—but soon
the open country was left behind and they began to go up ways cut in
the heart of the rock—ways long and steep, and lighted, as all that
great Underworld was, with phosphorescent light.

When they had been traveling for some hours and the children were
beginning to think that you could perhaps have too much even of such
an excellent thing as Sea Horse exercise, the phosphorescent lights
suddenly stopped, and yet the sea was not dark. There seemed to be a
light ahead, and it got stronger and stronger as they advanced, and
presently it streamed down on them from shallow water above their heads.

“We leave the Sea Horses here,” said Ulfin, “they cannot live in the
air. Come.”

They dismounted and swam up. At least Ulfin and the Princess swam and
the others held hands and were pulled by the two swimmers. Almost at
once their heads struck the surface of the water, and there they were,
on the verge of a rocky shore. They landed, and walked—if you can call
what seals do walking—across a ridge of land, then plunged into a
landlocked lake that lay beyond.

[Illustration: _The chargers of the Horse Marines._]

“This is the Iswater,” said Ulfin as they touched bottom, “and yonder
is the King.” And indeed a stately figure in long robes was coming
toward them.

“But this,” said the Princess, trembling, “is just like our garden at
home, only smaller.”

“It was made as it is,” said Ulfin, “by wish of the captive King.
Majesty is Majesty, be it never so conquered.”

The advancing figure was now quite near them. It saluted them with
royal courtesy.

“We wanted to know,” said Mavis, “please, your Majesty, if we might
have lessons from you.”

The King answered, but the Princess did not hear. She was speaking with
Ulfin, apart.

“Ulfin,” she said, “this captive King is my Father.”

“Yes, Princess,” said Ulfin.

“And he does not know me—”

“He will,” said Ulfin strongly.

“Did you know?”

“Yes.”

“But the people of your land will punish you for bringing us here,
if they find out that he is my Father and that you have brought us
together. They will kill you. Why did you do it, Ulfin?”

“Because you wished it, Princess,” he said, “and because I would rather
die for you than live without you.”



CHAPTER ELEVEN

_The Peacemaker_


THE CHILDREN thought they had never seen a kinder face or more noble
bearing than that of the Professor of Conchology, but the Mer Princess
could not bear to look at him. She now felt what Mavis had felt when
Cathay failed to recognize her—the misery of being looked at without
recognition by the eyes that we know and love. She turned away, and
pretended to be looking at the leaves of the seaweed hedge while Mavis
and Francis were arranging to take lessons in Conchology three days a
week, from two to four.

“You had better join a class,” said the Professor, “you will learn less
that way.”

“But we want to learn,” said Mavis.

And the Professor looked at her very searchingly and said, “Do you?”

“Yes,” she said, “at least—”

“Yes,” he said, “I quite understand. I am only an exiled Professor,
teaching Conchology to youthful aliens, but I retain some remnants of
the wisdom of my many years. I know that I am not what I seem, and that
you are not what you seem, and that your desire to learn my special
subject is not sincere and whole-hearted, but is merely, or mainly, the
cloak to some other design. Is it not so, my child?”

No one answered. His question was so plainly addressed to the Princess.
And she must have felt the question, for she turned and said, “Yes, O
most wise King.”

“I am no King,” said the Professor, “rather I am a weak child picking
up pebbles by the shore of an infinite sea of knowledge.”

“You _are_,” the Princess was beginning impulsively, when Ulfin
interrupted her.

“Lady, lady!” he said, “all will be lost! Can you not play your part
better than this? If you continue these indiscretions my head will
undoubtedly pay the forfeit. Not that I should for a moment grudge that
trifling service, but if my head is cut off you will be left without
a friend in this strange country, and I shall die with the annoying
consciousness that I shall no longer be able to serve you.”

He whispered this into the Princess’s ear while the Professor of
Conchology looked on with mild surprise.

“Your attendant,” he observed, “is eloquent but inaudible.”

“I mean to be,” said Ulfin, with a sudden change of manner. “Look here,
sir, I don’t suppose you care what becomes of you.”

“Not in the least,” said the Professor.

“But I suppose you would be sorry if anything uncomfortable happened to
your new pupils?”

“Yes,” said the Professor, and his eye dwelt on Freia.

“Then please concentrate your powerful mind on being a Professor. Think
of nothing else. More depends on this than you can easily believe.”

“Believing is easy,” said the Professor. “Tomorrow at two, I think you
said?” and with a grave salutation he turned his back on the company
and walked away through his garden.

It was a thoughtful party that rode home on the borrowed chargers of
the Deep Sea Cavalry. No one spoke. The minds of all were busy with the
strange words of Ulfin, and even the least imaginative of them, which
in this case was Bernard, could not but think that Ulfin had in that
strange oddly shaped head of his, some plan for helping the prisoners,
to one of whom at least he was so obviously attached. He also was
silent, and the others could not help encouraging the hope that he was
maturing plans.

They reached the many-windowed prison, gave up their tickets-of-leaves
and reentered it. It was not till they were in the saloon and the
evening was all but over that Bernard spoke of what was in every head.

“Look here,” he said, “I think Ulfin means to help us to escape.”

“Do you,” said Mavis. “I think he means to help us to something, but I
don’t somehow think it’s as simple as that.”

“Nothing near,” said Francis simply.

“But that’s all we want, isn’t it?” said Bernard.

“It’s not all _I_ want,” said Mavis, finishing the last of a fine bunch
of sea-grapes, “what I want is to get the Mer King restored to his
sorrowing relations.”

The Mer Princess pressed her hand affectionately.

“So do I,” said Francis, “but I want something more than that even. I
want to stop this war. For always. So that there’ll never be any more
of it.”

“But how can you,” said the Mer Princess, leaning her elbows on the
table, “there’s always been war; there always will be.”

“Why?” asked Francis.

“I don’t know; it’s Merman nature, I suppose.”

“I don’t believe it,” said Francis earnestly, “not for a minute I
don’t. Why, don’t you see, all these people you’re at war with are
_nice_. Look how kind the Queen is to Cathay—look how kind Ulfin is to
us—and the Librarian, and the Keeper of the Archives, and the soldiers
who lent us the horses. They’re all as decent as they can stick, and
all the Mer-people are nice too—and then they all go killing each
other, and all those brave, jolly soldier fish too, just all about
nothing. I call it simply _rot_.”

“But there always has been war I tell you,” said the Mer-Princess.
“People would get slack and silly and cowardly if there were no wars.”

“If I were King,” said Francis, who was now thoroughly roused, “there
should never be any more wars. There are plenty of things to be brave
about without hurting other brave people—exploring and rescuing and
saving your comrades in mines and in fires and floods and things and—”
his eloquence suddenly gave way to a breathless shyness—“oh, well,” he
ended, “it’s no use gassing; you know what I mean.”

“Yes,” said Mavis, “and oh, France—I think you’re right. But what can
we _do_?”

“I shall ask to see the Queen of the Under Folk, and try to make her
see sense. She didn’t look an absolute duffer.”

They all gasped at the glorious and simple daring of the idea. But the
Mer Princess said:

“I know you’d do everything you could—but it’s very difficult to talk
to kings unless you’ve been accustomed to it. There are books in the
cave, _Straight Talks with Monarchs_, and _Kings I Have Spoken My Mind
To_, which might help you. But, unfortunately, we can’t get them. You
see, Kings start so much further than subjects do: they know such a lot
more. Why, even I—”

“Then why won’t _you_ try talking to the Queen?”

“I shouldn’t dare,” said Freia. “I’m only a girl-Princess. Oh, if only
my dear Father could talk to her. If he believed it possible that
war could cease ... _he_ could persuade anybody of anything. And, of
course, they would start on the same footing—both Monarchs, you know.”

“I see: like belonging to the same club,” said Francis vaguely.

“But, of course, as things are, my royal Father thinks of nothing but
shells—if only we could restore his memory....”

“I say,” said Bernard suddenly, “does that Keep-your-Memory charm work
backward?”

“Backward?”

“I mean—is it any use taking it after you’ve swallowed your dose of
oblivion-cup? Is it a rester what’s its name as well as an antidote?”

“Surely,” said the Princess, “it is a restorative; only we have no
charm to give my Father—they are not made in this country—and alas! we
cannot escape and go to our own kingdom and return with one.”

“No need,” said Bernard, with growing excitement, “no need. Cathay’s
charm is there, in the inner pocket of her magic coat. If we could get
that, give the charm to your Father, and then get him an interview with
the Queen?”

“But what about Cathay?” said Mavis.

“If my Father’s memory were restored,” said the Princess, “his wisdom
would find us a way out of all our difficulties. To find Cathay’s coat:
that is what we have to do.”

“Yes,” said Francis. “That’s all.” He spoke a little bitterly, for he
had really rather looked forward to that straight talk with the King,
and the others had not been as enthusiastic as he felt he had a right
to expect.

“Let’s call Ulfin,” said the Princess, and they all scratched on the
door of polished bird’s-eye maple that separated their apartments from
the rest of the prison. The electric bells were out of order, so one
scratched instead of ringing. It was quite as easy.

Ulfin came with all speed.

“We’re holding a council,” said Freia, “and we want you to help. We
know you will.”

“I know it,” said Ulfin, “tell me your needs—”

And without more ado they told him all.

“You trust me, Princess, I am proud,” he told her, but when he heard
Francis’s dream of universal peace he took the freckled paw of Francis
and laid his lips to it. And Francis, even in the midst of his pride
and embarrassment at this token, could not help noticing that the lips
of Ulfin were hard, like horn.

“I kiss your hand,” said Ulfin, “because you give me back my honor,
which I was willing to lay down, with all else, for the Princess to
walk on to safety and escape. I would have helped you to find the
hidden coat—for her sake alone, and that would have been a sin against
my honor and my country—but now that I know it is to lead to peace,
which, warriors as we are, the whole nation passionately desires, then
I am acting as a true and honorable patriot. My only regret is that I
have one gift the less to lay at the feet of the Princess.”

“Do you know where the coats are?” Mavis asked.

“They are in the Foreign Curiosities Museum,” said Ulfin, “strongly
guarded: but the guards are the Horse Marines—whose officer lent you
your chargers today. He is my friend, and when I tell him what is
toward, he will help me. I only ask of you one promise in return. That
you will not seek to escape, or to return to your own country, except
by the free leave and license of our gracious Sovereigns.”

The children easily promised—and they thought the promise would be
easily kept.

“Then tomorrow,” said Ulfin, “shall begin the splendid Peace Plot which
shall hand our names down, haloed with glory, to remotest ages.”

He looked kindly on them and went out.

“He _is_ a dear, isn’t he?” said Mavis.

“Yes, indeed,” said the Princess absently.

And now next day the children, carrying their tickets-of-leaves, were
led to the great pearl and turquoise building, which was the Museum
of Foreign Curiosities. Many were the strange objects preserved
there—china and glass and books and land-things of all kinds,
taken from sunken ships. And all the things were under dome-shaped
cases, apparently of glass. The Curator of the Museum showed them
his treasures with pride, and explained them all wrong in the most
interesting way.

“Those discs,” he said, pointing to the china plates, “are used in
games of skill. They are thrown from one hand to another, and if one
fails to catch them his head is broken.”

An egg boiler, he explained, was a Land Queen’s jewel case, and four
egg-shaped emeralds had been fitted into it to show its use to the
vulgar. A silver ice pail was labeled: “Drinking Vessel of the Horses
of the Kings of Earth,” and a cigar case half full was called “Charm
case containing Evil Charms: probably Ancient Barbarian.” In fact it
was very like the museums you see on land.

They were just coming to a large case containing something whitish and
labeled, “Very valuable indeed,” when a messenger came to tell the
Curator that a soldier was waiting with valuable curiosities taken as
loot from the enemy.

“Excuse me one moment,” said the Curator, and left them.

“_I_ arranged that,” said Ulfin, “quick, before he returns—take your
coats if you know any spell to remove the case.”

The Princess laughed and laid her hand on the glassy dome, and lo! it
broke and disappeared as a bubble does when you touch it.

“Magic,” whispered Ulfin.

“Not magic,” said the Princess. “Your cases are only bubbles.”

“And I never knew,” said Ulfin.

“No,” said the Princess, “because you never dared to touch them.”

The children were already busy pulling the coats off the ruby slab
where they lay. “Here’s Cathay’s,” whispered Mavis.

The Princess snatched it and her own pearly coat which, in one quick
movement, she put on and buttoned over Cathay’s little folded coat,
holding this against her. “Quick,” she said, “put yours on, all of you.
Take your mer-tails on your arms.”

They did. The soldiers at the end of the long hall had noticed the
movements and came charging up toward them.

“Quick, quick!” said the Princess, “now—altogether. One, two, three.
Press your third buttons.”

The children did, and the soldiers tearing up the hall to arrest the
breakers of the cases of the Museum—for by this time they could see
what had happened—almost fell over each other in their confusion. For
there, where a moment ago had been four children with fin-tail fetters,
was now empty space, and beside the rifled Museum case stood only Ulfin.

And then an odd thing happened. Out of nowhere, as it seemed, a little
pearly coat appeared, hanging alone in air (water, of course, it was
really. Or was it?). It seemed to grow and to twine itself round Ulfin.

“Put it on,” said a voice from invisibility, “put it on,” and Ulfin did
put it on.

The soldiers were close upon him. “Press the third button,” cried the
Princess, and Ulfin did so. But as his right hand sought the button,
the foremost soldier caught his left arm with the bitter cry—

“Traitor, I arrest you in the King’s name,” and though he could now not
see that he was holding anything, he could feel that he was, and he
held on.

“The last button, Ulfin,” cried the voice of the unseen Princess,
“press the last button,” and next moment the soldier, breathless with
amazement and terror, was looking stupidly at his empty hand. Ulfin, as
well as the three children and the Princess, was not only invisible but
intangible, the soldiers could not see or feel anything.

And what is more, neither could the Princess or the children or Ulfin.

“Oh, where are you? Where am I?” cried Mavis.

“Silence,” said the Princess, “we must keep together by our voices, but
that is dangerous. _A la porte!_” she added. How fortunate it was that
none of the soldiers understood French!

As the five were invisible and intangible and as the soldiers were
neither, it was easy to avoid them and to get to the arched doorway.
The Princess got there first. There was no enemy near—all the soldiers
were crowding around the rifled Museum case, talking and wondering, the
soldier who had seized Ulfin explaining again and again how he had had
the caitiff by the arm, “as solid as solid, and then, all in a minute,
there was nothing—nothing at all,” and his comrades trying their best
to believe him. The Princess just waited, saying, “Are you there?”
every three seconds, as though she had been at the telephone.

“Are you there?” said the Princess for the twenty-seventh time. And
then Ulfin said, “I am here, Princess.”

“We must have connecting links,” she said—“bits of seaweed would do. If
you hold a piece of seaweed in your hand I will take hold of the other
end of it. We cannot feel the touch of each other’s hands, but we shall
feel the seaweed, and you will know, by its being drawn tight that I
have hold of the other end. Get some pieces for the children, too. Good
stout seaweed, such as you made the nets of with which you captured us.”

“Ah, Princess,” he said, “how can I regret that enough? And yet how
can I regret it at all since it has brought you to me.”

“Peace, foolish child,” said the Princess, and Ulfin’s heart leaped for
joy because, when a Princess calls a grown-up man “child,” it means
that she likes him more than a little, or else, of course, she would
not take such a liberty. “But the seaweed,” she added, “there is no
time to lose.”

“I have some in my pocket,” said Ulfin, blushing, only she could not
see that. “They keep me busy making nets in my spare time—I always have
some string in my pocket.”

A piece of stringy seaweed suddenly became visible as Ulfin took it out
of his invisible pocket, which, of course, had the property of making
its contents invisible too, so long as they remained in it. It floated
toward the Princess, who caught the end nearest to her and held it fast.

“Where are you?” said a small voice.

It was Mavis—and almost at once Francis and Bernard were there too. The
seaweed chain was explained to them, and they each held fast to their
ends of the seaweed links. So that when the soldiers, a little late in
the day, owing to the careful management of Ulfin’s friend, reached
the front door, there was nothing to be seen but four bits of seaweed
floating down the street, which, of course, was the sort of thing that
nobody could possibly notice unless they _knew_.

The bits of seaweed went drifting to the Barracks, and no one noticed
that they floated on to the stables and that invisible hands loosed
the halters of five Sea Horses. The soldier who ought to have been
looking after the horses was deeply engaged in a game of Animal Grab
with a comrade. The cards were of narwhal ivory, very fine, indeed, and
jeweled on every pip. The invisible hands saddled the Sea Horses and
invisible forms sprang to the saddles, and urged the horses forward.

The unfortunate Animal Grabber was roused from his game by the sight
of five retreating steeds—saddled and bridled indeed, but, as far as
he could see, riderless, and long before other horses could be got out
and saddled the fugitives were out of sight and pursuit was vain. Just
as before they went across country to the rock cut and then swam up,
holding by the linking seaweed.

Because it was Tuesday and nearly two o’clock, the Professor of
Conchology was making ready to receive pupils, which he did in an arbor
of coral of various shades of pink, surrounded by specimen shells of
all the simpler species. He was alone in the garden, and as they neared
him, the Princess, the three children and Ulfin touched the necessary
buttons and became once more visible and tangible.

“Ha,” said the Professor, but without surprise. “Magic. A very neat
trick, my dears, and excellently done.”

“You need not remove your jacket,” he added to Ulfin, who was pulling
off his pearly coat. “The mental exercises in which we propose to
engage do not require gymnasium costume.”

But Ulfin went on taking off his coat, and when it was off he handed
it to the Princess, who at once felt in its inner pocket, pulled out
a little golden case and held it toward the Professor. It has been
well said that no charm on earth—I mean underwater—is strong enough to
make one forget one’s antidote. The moment the Professor’s eye fell on
the little golden case, he held out his hand for it, and the Princess
gave it to him. He opened it, and without hesitation as without haste,
swallowed the charm.

Next moment the Princess was clasped in his arms, and the moment after
that, still clasped there, was beginning a hurried explanation; but he
stopped her.

“I know, my child, I know,” he said. “You have brought me the charm
which gives back to me my memory and makes a King of Merland out of
a Professor of Conchology. But why, oh why, did you not bring me my
coat—my pearly coat?” said the King, “it was in the case with the
others.”

No one had thought of it, and everyone felt and looked exceedingly
silly, and no one spoke till Ulfin said, holding out the coat which the
Princess had given back to him—

“You will have this coat, Majesty. I have no right to the magic
garments of your country.”

“But,” said Francis, “you need the coat more than anybody. The King
shall have mine—I shan’t want it if you’ll let me go and ask for an
interview with the King of the Under Folk.”

“No, have mine,” said Mavis—and “have mine,” said Bernard, and the
Princess said, “Of course my Father will have mine.” So they all
protested at once. But the King raised his hand, and there was silence,
and they saw that he no longer looked only a noble and learned
gentleman, but that he looked every inch a King.

“Silence,” he said, “if anyone speaks with the King and Queen of this
land it is fitting that it should be I. See, we will go out by the back
door, so as to avoid the other pupils who will soon be arriving in
their thousands, for my Conchology Course is very popular. And as we
go, tell me who is this man of the Under Folk who seems to be one of
you”—(“I am the Princess’ servant,” Ulfin put in)—“and why you desire
to speak with the King of this land.”

So they made great haste to go out by the back way so as not to meet
the Conchology students, and cautiously crept up to their horses—and,
of course, the biggest and best horse was given to the King to ride.
But when he saw how awkwardly their false tails adapted themselves to
the saddle he said, “My daughter, you can remove these fetters.”

“How?” said she. “My shell knife won’t cut them.”

“Bite through the strings of them with your little sharp teeth,”
said the King, “nothing but Princess teeth is sharp enough to cut
through them. No, my son—it is not degrading. A true Princess cannot
be degraded by anything that is for the good of her subjects and her
friends.”

So the Mer Princess willingly bit through the strings of the false
tails—and everybody put on his or her proper tail again, with great
comfort and enjoyment—and they all swam toward the town.

And as they went they heard a great noise of shouting, and saw parties
of Under Folk flying as if in fear.

“I must make haste,” said the King, “and see to it that our Peace
Conference be not too late”—so they hurried on.

And the noise grew louder and louder, and the crowds of flying Under
Folk thicker and fleeter, and by and by Ulfin made them stand back
under the arch of the Astrologers’ Tower to see what it was from which
they fled. And there, along the streets of the great city of the Under
Folk, came the flash of swords and the swirl of banners and the army of
the Mer Folk came along between the great buildings of their foes, and
on their helmets was the light of victory, and at their head, proud and
splendid, rode the Princess Maia and—Reuben.

“Oh—Reuben, Reuben! We’re saved,” called Mavis, and would have darted
out, but Francis put his hand over her mouth.

“Stop!” he said, “don’t you remember we promised not to escape without
the Queen’s permission? Quick, quick to the Palace, to make peace
before our armies can attack it.”

“You speak well,” said the Mer King. And Ulfin said, “This is no time
for ceremony. Quick, quick, I will take you in by the tradesmen’s
entrance.” And, turning their backs on that splendid and victorious
procession, they marched to the back entrance of the royal Palace.



CHAPTER TWELVE

_The End_


THE QUEEN of the Under Folk sat with her husband on their second-best
throne, which was much more comfortable than their State one, though
not so handsome. Their sad faces were lighted up with pleasure as they
watched the gambols of their new pet, Fido, a dear little earth-child,
who was playing with a ball of soft pink seaweed, patting it, and
tossing it and running after it as prettily as any kitten.

“Dear little Fido,” said the Queen, “come here then,” and Fido, who had
once been Cathay, came willingly to lean against the Queen’s knee and
be stroked and petted.

“I have curious dreams sometimes,” said the Queen to the King, “dreams
so vivid that they are more like memories.”

“Has it ever occurred to you,” said the King, “that we have no memories
of our childhood, of our youth—?”

“I believe,” said the Queen slowly, “that we have tasted in our time of
the oblivion-cup. There is no one like us in this land. If we were born
here, why can we not remember our parents who must have been like us?
And dearest—the dream that comes to me most often is that we once had
a child and lost it—and that it was a child like us—”

“Fido,” said the King in a low voice, “is like us.” And he, too,
stroked the head of Cathay, who had forgotten everything except that
she was Fido and bore the Queen’s name on her collar. “But if you
remember that we had a child it cannot be true—if we drank of the
oblivion-cup, that is, because, of course, that would make us forget
everything.”

“It could not make a mother forget her child,” said the Queen, and with
the word caught up Fido-which-was-Cathay and kissed her.

“Nice Queen,” purred Cathay-which-was-Fido, “I do love you.”

“I am sure we had a child once,” said the Queen, hugging her, “and that
we have been made to forget.”

Even as she spoke the hangings of cloth of gold, pieced together from
the spoil of lost galleons, rustled at the touch of someone outside.
The Queen dried her eyes, which needed it, and said, “Come in.”

The arras was lifted and a tall figure entered.

“Bless my soul,” said the King of the Under Folk, “it’s the Professor
of Conchology.”

“No,” said the figure, advancing, “it is the King of the Mer-people. My
brother King, my sister Queen, I greet you.”

“This is most irregular,” said the King.

“Never mind, dear,” said the Queen, “let us hear what his Majesty has
to say.”

“I say—Let there be peace between our people,” said the Mer-King. “For
countless ages these wars have been waged, for countless ages your
people and mine have suffered. Even the origin of the war is lost in
the mists of antiquity. Now I come to you, I, your prisoner—I was
given to drink of the cup of oblivion and forgot who I was and whence I
came. Now a counter-charm has given me back mind and memory. I come in
the name of my people. If we have wronged you, we ask your forgiveness.
If you have wronged us, we freely forgive you. Say: Shall it be
peace, and shall all the sons of the sea live as brothers in love and
kindliness for evermore?

“Really,” said the King of the Under Folk, “I think it is not at all a
bad idea—but in confidence, and between Monarchs, I may tell you, sir,
that I suspect my mind is not what it was. You, sir, seem to possess a
truly royal grasp of your subject. My mind is so imperfect that I dare
not consult it. But my heart—”

“Your heart says Yes,” said the Queen. “So does mine. But our troops
are besieging your city,” she said, “they will say that in asking for
peace you were paying the tribute of the vanquished.”

“My people will not think this of me,” said the King of Merland, “nor
would your people think it of you. Let us join hands in peace and the
love of royal brethren.”

“What a dreadful noise they are making outside,” said the King, and
indeed the noise of shouting and singing was now to be heard on every
side of the Palace.

“If there was a balcony now where we could show ourselves,” suggested
the King of Merland.

“The very thing,” said the Queen, catching up her pet
Fido-which-was-Cathay in her arms and leading the way to the great
curtained arch at the end of the hall. She drew back the swinging,
sweeping hangings of woven seaweed and stepped forth on the balcony—the
two Kings close behind her. But she stopped short and staggered back
a little, so that her husband had to put an arm about her to support
her, when her first glance showed her that the people who were shouting
outside the Palace were not, as she had supposed, Under Folk in some
unexpected though welcome transport of loyal enthusiasm, but ranks on
ranks of the enemy, the hated Mer Folk, all splendid and menacing in
the pomp and circumstance of glorious war.

“It is the enemy!” gasped the Queen.

“It is my people,” said the Mer King. “It is a beautiful thing in you,
dear Queen, that you agreed to peace, without terms, while you thought
you were victorious, and not because the legions of the Mer Folk were
thundering at your gates. May I speak for us?”

They signed assent. And the Mer King stepped forward full into view of
the crowd in the street below.

“My people,” he said in a voice loud, yet soft, and very, very
beautiful. And at the words the Mer Folk below looked up and recognized
their long-lost King, and a shout went up that you could have heard a
mile away.

The King raised his hand for silence.

“My people,” he said, “brave men of Merland—let there be peace, now and
forever, between us and our brave foes. The King and Queen of this land
agreed to make unconditional peace while they believed themselves to be
victorious. If victory has for today been with us, let us at least be
the equals of our foes in generosity as in valor.”

Another shout rang out. And the King of the Under Folk stepped forward.

“My people,” he said, and the Under Folk came quickly forward toward
him at the sound of his voice. “There shall be peace. Let these who
were your foes this morning be your guests tonight and your friends
and brothers for evermore. If we have wronged them, we beg them to
forgive us: if they have wronged us, we beg them to allow us to forgive
them.” (“Is that right?” he asked the Mer King in a hasty whisper, who
whispered back, “Admirable!”) “Now,” he went on, “cheer, Mer Folk and
Under Folk, for the splendid compact of Peace.”

And they cheered.

“Pardon, your Majesty”—it was Ulfin who spoke—“it was the stranger
Francis who first conceived the Peace Idea.”

“True,” said the Mer King, “where is Francis?”

But Francis was not to be found; it was only his name which was
presented to the people from the balcony. He himself kept his pearly
coat on and kept the invisibility button well pressed down, till the
crowd had dispersed to ring all the diving bells with which the towers
of the city were so handsomely fitted up, to hang the city with a
thousand seaweed flags, and to illuminate its every window and door and
pinnacle and buttress with more and more phosphorescent fish. In the
Palace was a banquet for the Kings and the Queen and the Princesses,
and the three children, and Cathay-who-was-Fido. Also Reuben was called
from the command of his Sea Urchins to be a guest at the royal table.
Princess Freia asked that an invitation might be sent to Ulfin—but
when the King’s Private Secretary, a very intelligent cuttlefish, had
got the invitation ready, handsomely written in his own ink, it was
discovered that no Ulfin was to be found to receive it.

It was a glorious banquet. The only blot on its rapturous splendor was
the fact that Cathay still remained Fido, the Queen’s pet—and her eyes
were still those cold, unremembering eyes which her brothers and sister
could not bear to meet. Reuben sat at the right hand of the Queen, and
from the moment he took his place there he seemed to think of no one
else. He talked with her, sensibly and modestly, and Francis remarked
that during his stay in Merland Reuben had learned to talk as you do,
and not in the language of gypsy circus-people. The Commander-in-Chief
of the Forces of the Under Folk sat at the left hand of his King.
The King of the Mer Folk sat between his happy daughters, and the
children sat together between the Chief Astrologer and the Curator of
the Museum of Foreign Curiosities, who was more pleased to see them
again than he had ever expected to be, and much more friendly than
they had ever hoped to find him. Everyone was extremely happy, even
Fido-which-was-Cathay, who sat on the Queen’s lap and was fed with
delicacies from the Queen’s own plate.

It was at about the middle of the feast, just after everybody had drunk
the health of the two Commanders-in-Chief, amid tempestuous applause,
that a serving-fish whispered behind his fin to the Under Folk Queen:

“Certainly,” she said, “show him in.”

And the person who was shown in was Ulfin, and he carried on his arm a
pearly coat and a scaly tail. He sank on one knee and held them up to
the Mer King, with only one doubtful deprecating glance at the Curator
of the Museum of Foreign Curiosities.

The King took them, and feeling in the pocket of the coat drew out
three golden cases.

“It is the royal prerogative to have three,” he said smilingly to the
Queen, “in case of accidents. May I ask your Majesty’s permission to
administer one of them to your Majesty’s little pet. I am sure you are
longing to restore her to her brothers and her sister.”

The Queen could not but agree—though her heart was sore at losing
the little Fido-Kathleen, of whom she had grown so fond. But she was
hoping that Reuben would consent to let her adopt him, and be more
to her than many Fidos. She administered the charm herself, and the
moment Cathay had swallowed it the royal arms were loosened, and the
Queen expected her pet to fly to her brothers and sister. But to Cathay
it was as though only an instant had passed since she came into that
hall, a prisoner. So that when suddenly she saw her brothers and
sister honored guests at what was unmistakably a very grand and happy
festival, and found herself in the place of honor on the very lap of
the Queen, she only snuggled closer to that royal lady and called out
very loud and clear, “Hullo, Mavis! Here’s a jolly transformation
scene. That was a magic drink she gave us and it’s made everybody jolly
and friends—I am glad. You dear Queen,” she added, “it is nice of you
to nurse me.”

So everybody was pleased: only Princess Freia looked sad and puzzled
and her eyes followed Ulfin as he bowed and made to retire from the
royal presence. He had almost reached the door when she spoke quickly
in the royal ear that was next to her.

“Oh, Father,” she said, “don’t let him go like that. He ought to be at
the banquet. We couldn’t have done anything without him.”

“True,” said the King, “but I thought he had been invited, and refused.”

“Refused?” said the Princess, “oh, call him back!”

“I’ll run if I may,” said Mavis, slipping out of her place and running
down the great hall.

“If you’ll sit a little nearer to me, Father,” said Maia obligingly,
“the young man can sit between you and my sister.”

So that is where Ulfin found himself, and that was where he had never
dared to hope to be.

The banquet was a strange as well as a magnificent scene—because, of
course, the Mer-people were beautiful as the day, the five children
were quite as pretty as any five children have any need to be, and
the King and Queen of the Under Folk were as handsome as handsome. So
that all this handsomeness was a very curious contrast to the strange
heavy features of the Under Folk who now sat at table, so pleasant and
friendly, toasting their late enemies.

The contrast between the Princess Freia and Ulfin was particularly
marked, for their heads bent near together as they talked.

“Princess,” he was saying, “tomorrow you will go back to your kingdom,
and I shall never see you again.”

The Princess could not think of anything to say, because it seemed to
her that what he said was true.

“But,” he went on, “I shall be glad all my life to have known and loved
so dear and beautiful a Princess.”

And again the Princess could think of nothing to say.

“Princess,” he said, “tell me one thing. Do you know what I should say
to you if I were a Prince?”

“Yes,” said Freia; “I know what you would say and I know what I should
answer, dear Ulfin, if you were only a commoner of Merland ... I mean,
you know, if your face were like ours. But since you are of the Under
Folk and I am a Mermaid, I can only say that I will never forget you,
and that I will never marry anyone else.”

“Is it only my face then that prevents your marrying me?” he asked with
abrupt eagerness, and she answered gently, “Of course.”

Then Ulfin sprang to his feet. “Your Majesties,” he cried, “and Lord
High Astrologer, has not the moment come when, since we are at a
banquet with friends, we may unmask?”

The strangers exchanged wondering glances.

The Sovereigns and the Astrologers made gestures of assent—then, with a
rustling and a rattling, helmets were unlaced and corselets unbuckled,
the Under Folk seemed to the Mer-people as though they were taking off
their very skins. But really what they took off was but their thick
scaly armor, and under it they were as softly and richly clad, and as
personable people as the Mer Folk themselves.

“But,” said Maia, “how splendid! We thought you were always in
armor—that—that it grew on you, you know.”

The Under Folk laughed jollily. “Of course it was always on
us—since—when you saw us, we were always at war.”

“And you’re just like us!” said Freia to Ulfin.

“There is no one like you,” he whispered back. Ulfin was now a handsome
dark-haired young man, and looked much more like a Prince than a great
many real Princes do.

“Did you mean what you said just now?” the Princess whispered. And for
answer Ulfin dared to touch her hand with soft firm fingers.

“Papa,” said Freia, “please may I marry Ulfin?”

“By all means,” said the King, and immediately announced the
engagement, joining their hands and giving them his blessing in the
most businesslike way.

Then said the Queen of the Under Folk:

“Why should not these two reign over the Under Folk and let us two be
allowed to remember the things we have forgotten and go back to that
other life which I know we had somewhere—where we had a child.”

“I think,” said Mavis, “that now everything’s settled so comfortably we
ought perhaps all of us to be thinking about getting home.”

“I have only one charm left, unfortunately,” said the Mer King, “but if
your people will agree to your abdicating, I will divide it between you
with pleasure, dear King and Queen of the Under Folk; and I have reason
to believe that the half which you will each of you have, will be just
enough to counteract your memories of this place, and restore to you
all the memories of your other life.”

“Could not Reuben go with us?” the Queen asked.

“No,” said the Mer King, “but he shall follow you to earth, and that
speedily.”

The Astrologer Royal, who had been whispering to Reuben, here
interposed.

“It would be well, your Majesties,” he said, “if a small allowance of
the cup of oblivion were served out to these land children, so that
they may not remember their adventures here. It is not well for the
Earth People to know too much of the dwellers in the sea. There is a
sacred vessel which has long been preserved among the civic plate. I
propose that this vessel should be presented to our guests as a mark of
our esteem; that they shall bear it with them, and drink the contents
as soon as they set foot on their own shores.”

He was at once sent to fetch the sacred vessel. It was a stone ginger
beer bottle.

“I do really think we ought to go,” said Mavis again.

There were farewells to be said—a very loving farewell to the
Princesses, a very friendly one to the fortunate Ulfin, and then a
little party left the Palace quietly and for the last time made the
journey to the quiet Iswater where the King of Merland had so long
professed Conchology.

Arrived at this spot the King spoke to the King and Queen of the Under
Folk.

“Swallow this charm,” he said, “in equal shares—then rise to the
surface of the lake and say the charm which I perceive the Earth
children have taught you as we came along. The rest will be easy and
beautiful. We shall never forget you, and your hearts will remember us,
though your minds must forget. Farewell.”

The King and Queen rose through the waters and disappeared.

Next moment a strong attraction like that which needles feel for
magnets drew the children from the side of the Mer King. They shut
their eyes, and when they opened them they were on dry land in a wood
by a lake—and Francis had a ginger beer bottle in his hand. The King
and Queen of the Under Folk must have said at once the charm to recall
the children to earth.

“It works more slowly on land, the Astrologer said,” Reuben remarked.
“Before we drink and forget everything I want to tell you that I think
you’ve all been real bricks to me. And if you don’t mind, I’ll take off
these girls’ things.”

He did, appearing in shirt and knickerbockers.

“Good-bye,” he said, shaking hands with everyone.

“But aren’t you coming home with us?”

“No,” he said, “the Astrologer told me the first man and woman I should
see on land would be my long-lost Father and Mother, and I was to go
straight to them with my little shirt and my little shoe that I’ve kept
all this time, the ones that were mine when I was a stolen baby, and
they’d know me and I should belong to them. But I hope we’ll meet again
some day. Good-bye, and thank you. It was ripping being General of the
Sea Urchins.”

With that they drank each a draught from the ginger beer bottle, and
then, making haste to act before the oblivion-cup should blot out with
other things the Astrologer’s advice, Reuben went out of the wood into
the sunshine and across a green turf. They saw him speak to a man and
a woman in blue bathing dresses who seemed to have been swimming in
the lake and now were resting on the marble steps that led down to it.
He held out the little shirt and the little shoe, and they held their
hands out to him. And as they turned the children saw that their faces
were the faces of the King and Queen of the Under Folk, only now not
sad anymore, but radiant with happiness, because they had found their
son again.

“Of course,” said Francis, “there isn’t any time in the other world. I
expect they were swimming and just dived, and all that happened to them
just in the minute they were underwater.”

“And Reuben is really their long-lost heir?”

“They seemed to think so. I expect he’s exactly like an ancestor or
something, and you know how the Queen took to him from the first.”

And then the oblivion-cup took effect—and they forgot, and forgot
forever, the wonderful world that they had known underseas, and Sabrina
fair and the circus and the Mermaid whom they had rescued.

But Reuben, curiously enough, they did not forget: they went home to
tea with a pleasant story for their father and mother of a Spangled Boy
at the circus who had run away and found his father and mother.

And two days after a motor stopped at their gate and Reuben got out.

“I say,” he said, “I’ve found my father and mother, and we’ve come to
thank you for the plum pie and things. Did you ever get the plate and
spoon out of the bush? Come and see my father and mother,” he ended
proudly.

The children went, and looked once more in the faces of the King and
Queen of the Under Folk, but now they did not know those faces, which
seemed to them only the faces of some very nice strangers.

“I think Reuben’s jolly lucky, don’t you?” said Mavis.

“Yes,” said Bernard.

“So do I,” said Cathay.

“I wish Aunt Enid had let me bring the aquarium,” said Francis.

“Never mind,” said Mavis, “it will be something to live for when we
come back from the sea, and everything is beastly.”

And it was.

    _The End_

       *       *       *       *       *

Transcriber’s Notes:

The first chapter’s words were ALL CAPPED to match the rest of the
book’s format. Obvious punctuation errors were repaired.





*** End of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Wet Magic" ***

Doctrine Publishing Corporation provides digitized public domain materials.
Public domain books belong to the public and we are merely their custodians.
This effort is time consuming and expensive, so in order to keep providing
this resource, we have taken steps to prevent abuse by commercial parties,
including placing technical restrictions on automated querying.

We also ask that you:

+ Make non-commercial use of the files We designed Doctrine Publishing
Corporation's ISYS search for use by individuals, and we request that you
use these files for personal, non-commercial purposes.

+ Refrain from automated querying Do not send automated queries of any sort
to Doctrine Publishing's system: If you are conducting research on machine
translation, optical character recognition or other areas where access to a
large amount of text is helpful, please contact us. We encourage the use of
public domain materials for these purposes and may be able to help.

+ Keep it legal -  Whatever your use, remember that you are responsible for
ensuring that what you are doing is legal. Do not assume that just because
we believe a book is in the public domain for users in the United States,
that the work is also in the public domain for users in other countries.
Whether a book is still in copyright varies from country to country, and we
can't offer guidance on whether any specific use of any specific book is
allowed. Please do not assume that a book's appearance in Doctrine Publishing
ISYS search  means it can be used in any manner anywhere in the world.
Copyright infringement liability can be quite severe.

About ISYS® Search Software
Established in 1988, ISYS Search Software is a global supplier of enterprise
search solutions for business and government.  The company's award-winning
software suite offers a broad range of search, navigation and discovery
solutions for desktop search, intranet search, SharePoint search and embedded
search applications.  ISYS has been deployed by thousands of organizations
operating in a variety of industries, including government, legal, law
enforcement, financial services, healthcare and recruitment.



Home