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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 carry-all 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 labelled 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 suit-cases and card-cases, and scarfs and gloves --
The children were travelling uhder 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.
"'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 newlypainted 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 bad 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 heard 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 furthest 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 under water. 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:
"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-coloured grey wood with a red-tiled roof, and at the back was the old mill, also grey and beautiful- not used now for what it was built for- but just as a store for fishing nets and wheel-barrows and old rabbit-hutches and bee-hives and harness 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 hairs were 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 yellow-hammer who sat on a tree a hundred yards down the road and repeated his name over and over again in that conceited way yellow-hammers 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 grey 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 everydayish 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."
"Half-way then, not more," said Mavis, firmly, "it's dangerous-deep outside-Mother said so."
And half-way 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 sea-weed 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-coloured 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-
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?"
"Then the magic's really begun-"
"Mermaids aren't magic," he said, "any more 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 shoe-lace, "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!"
"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 that 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 apologise 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."
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