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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 on to 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 afterwards they never could agree about the shape of the beds, the direction of the walks, the kinds and colours 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:
"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 round was a great crowd, forming a circle about the pearly pavement on which they stood.
The Queen rose up in her place and reached towards them the end of her sceptre 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 towards 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 afterwards 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 round and round 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 dryland 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 some one 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 till 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 bad 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 coloured 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 splendour 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 under-world 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 fall 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 to-day."
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 armour, 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 Sword-fish - 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 Mermen, 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 grey 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 some one, 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 towards 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 band, 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 towards 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 defence 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 foeman'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."
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