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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 afterwards 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 round 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 towards 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 wash-house 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 soft-like 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 soft-like? 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 theirselves 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 hot 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 arm-chair 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 to-morrow 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 likes," 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 deserts - 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 worth while 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 round 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 pencilled and uncertain characters :--
"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.|
"Well, I shan't go," said Francis.
A voice from the bush by the gate male 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 sbe 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 look-out. 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 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 tea-time."
"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."
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