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THE MERMAIDS 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 round the corner of the cliff, because that's dangerous at high-tide. It's safe so long as you're within sight of the coastguards. 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-coloured moustache, 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 sand-shoes 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 'Gipsy 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 gipsy 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, round whose crown a blue scarf was twisted, and Francis and Bernard each seizing a leg, adorned those legs with brown stockings and white sand-shoes. Reuben, the spangled runaway from the gipsy 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 sea-water?" 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 sea-water. 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 grey 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-
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 round 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 coalblack steed or a dapple-grey, 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 every one 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 round 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. Some one once told me a story about Water Babies. Did you never 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 life-saving 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 towards 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.
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 leapt 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 leapt.
"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 downwards 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 colours. 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 water-way 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.
"Now," said the Mer-lady, "forgive me for taking the plunge. I knew you'd hesitate for ever, 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 further. And you can't come any further 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 jewelled 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?"
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