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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 afterwards, and he had to swallow nothing before he could say:
"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 round 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.
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 gipsies 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 for 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 snivelling. You been to school, I lay?- they might have taught you that."
"I wonder the gipsies 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 round 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."
"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.
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