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THE children thought they had never seen a kinder face or more noble bearing than that of the Professor of Conchology, but the Mer Princess could not bear to look at him. She now felt what Mavis had felt when Cathay failed to recognize her - the misery of being looked at without recognition by the eyes that we know and love. She turned away, and pretended to be looking at the leaves of the seaweed hedge while Mavis and Francis were arranging to take lessons in Conchology three days a week, from two to four.
"You had better join a class," said the Professor, "you will learn less that way."
"But we want to learn," said Mavis.
And the Professor looked at her very searchingly and said, "Do you?"
"Yes," she said, "at least-"
"Yes," he said, "I quite understand. I am only an exiled Professor, teaching Conchology to youthful aliens, but I retain some remains of the wisdom of my many years. I know that I am not what I seem, and that you are not what you seem, and that your desire to learn my special subject is not sincere and whole-hearted, but is merely, or mainly, the cloak to some other design. Is it not so, my child?"
No one answered. His question was so plainly addressed to the Princess. And she must have felt the question, for she turned and said, "Yes, O most wise King."
"I am no King," said the Professor, "rather I am a weak child picking up pebbles by the shore of an infinite sea of knowledge."
"You are," the Princess was beginning impulsively, when Ulfin interrupted her.
"Lady, lady!" he said, "all will be lost! Can you not play your part better than this? If you continue these indiscretions my head will undoubtedly pay the forfeit. Not that I should for a moment grudge that trifling service, but if my head is cut off you will be left without a friend in this strange country, and I shall die with the annoying consciousness that I shall no longer be able to serve you."
He whispered this into the Princess's ear while the Professor of Conchology looked on with mild surprise.
"Your attendant," he observed, "is eloquent but inaudible."
"I mean to be," said Ulfin, with a sudden change of manner. "Look here, sir, I don't suppose you care what becomes of you."
"Not in the least," said the Professor.
"But I suppose you would be sorry if anything uncomfortable happened to your new pupils?"
"Yes," said the Professor, and his eye dwelt on Freia.
"Then please concentrate your powerful mind on being a Professor. Think of nothing else. More depends on this than you can easily believe."
"Believing is easy," said the Professor. "To-morrow at two, I think you said?" and with a grave salutation he turned his back on the company and walked away through his garden.
It was a thoughtful party that rode home on the borrowed chargers of the Deep Sea Cavalry. No one spoke. The minds of all were busy with the strange words of Ulfin, and even the least imaginative of them, which in this case was Bernard, could not but think that Ulfin had in that strange oddly-shaped head of his, some plan for helping the prisoners, to one of whom at least he was so obviously attached. He also was silent, and the others could not help encouraging the hope that he was maturing plans.
They reached the many-windowed prison, gave up their tickets-of-leaves and re-entered it. It was not till they were in the saloon and the evening was all but over that Bernard spoke of what was in every head.
"Look here," he said, "I think Ulfin means to help us to escape."
"Do you," said Mavis. "I think he means to help us to something, but I don't somehow think it's as simple as that."
"Nothing near," said Francis simply, "But that's all we want, isn't it?" said Bernard.
"It's not all I want," said Mavis, finishing the last of a fine bunch of sea-grapes, "what I want is to get the Mer King restored to his sorrowing relations."
The Mer Princess pressed her hand affectionately.
"So do I," said Francis, "but I want something more than that even. I want to stop this war. For always. So that there'll never be any more of it."
"But how can you," said the Mer Princess, leaning her elbows on the table, "there's always been war; there always will be."
"Why?" asked Francis.
"I don't know; it's Merman nature, I suppose.
"I don't believe it," said Francis earnestly, "not for a minute I don't. Why, don't you see, all these people you're at war with are nice. Look how kind the Queen is to Cathay - look how kind Ulfin is to us - and the Librarian, and the Keeper of the Archives, and the soldiers who lent us the horses. They're all as decent as they can stick, and all the Mer-people are nice too - and then they all go killing each other, and all those brave, jolly soldier-fish too, just all about nothing. I call it simply rot."
"But there always has been war I tell you," said the Mer Princess, "people would get slack and silly and cowardly if there were no wars."
"If I were King," said Francis, who was now thoroughly roused, "there should never be any more wars. There are plenty of things to be brave about without hurting other brave people - exploring and rescuing and saving your comrades in mines and in fires and floods and things and -" his eloquence suddenly gave way to a breathless shyness- "oh, well," he ended, "it's no use gassing; you know what I mean."
"Yes," said Mavis, "and oh, France - I think you're right. But what can we do?"
"I shall ask to see the Queen of the Under Folk, and try to make her see sense. She didn't look an absolute duffer."
They all gasped at the glorious and simple daring of the idea. But the Mer Princess said:
"I know you'd do everything you could - but it's very difficult to talk to kings unless you've been accustomed to it. There are books in the Cave, Straight Talks with Monarchs, and Kings I have Spoken my Mind To, which might help you. But, unfortunately, we can't get them. You see, Kings start so much further than subjects do: they know such a lot more. Why, even I-"
"Then why won't you try talking to the Queen?"
"I shouldn't dare," said Freia. "I'm only a girl-Princess. Oh, if only my dear Father could talk to her. If he believed it possible that war could cease... he could persuade anybody of anything. And, of course, they would start on the same footing - both Monarchs, you know."
"I see: like belonging to the same club," said Francis vaguely.
"But, of course, as things are, my royal Father thinks of nothing but shells - if only we could restore his memory..."
"I say," said Bernard suddenly, "does that Keep-your-Memory charm work backwards?"
"I mean- is it any use taking it after you've swallowed your dose of oblivion-cup. Is it a rester what's its name as well as an antidote?"
"Surely," said the Princess, " it is a restorative; only we have no charm to give my Father - they are not made in this country - and alas! we cannot escape and go to our own kingdom and return with one."
"No need," said Bernard, with growing excitement, "no need. Cathay's charm is there, in the inner pocket of her magic coat. If we could get that, give the charm to your Father, and then get him an interview with the Queen?"
"But what about Cathay?" said Mavis.
"If my Father's memory were restored," said the Princess, "his wisdom would find us a way out of all our difficulties. To find Cathay's coat: that is what we have to do."
"Yes," said Francis. "That's all." He spoke a little bitterly, for he had really rather looked forward to that straight talk with the King, and the others had not been as enthusiastic as he felt he had a right to expect.
"Let's call Ulfin," said the Princess, and they all scratched on the door of polished bird's-eye maple which separated their apartments from the rest of the prison. The electric bells were out of order, so one scratched instead of ringing. It was quite as easy.
Ulfin came with all speed.
"We're holding a council," said Freia, "and we want you to help. We know you will."
"I know it," said Ulfin, "tell me your needs-"
And without more ado they told him all.
"You trust me, Princess, I am proud," he told her, but when he heard Francis's dream of universal peace he took the freckled paw of Francis and laid his lips to it. And Francis, even in the midst of his pride and embarrassment at this token, could not help noticing that the lips of Ulfin were hard, like horn.
"I kiss your hand," said Ulfin, "because you give me back my honour, which I was willing to lay down, with all else, for the Princess to walk on to safety and escape. I would have helped you to find the hidden coat - for her sake alone, and that would have been a sin against my honour and my country - but now that I know it is to lead to peace, which, warriors as we are, the whole nation passionately desires, then I am acting as a true and honourable patriot. My only regret is that I have one gift the less to lay at the feet of the Princess."
"Do you know where the coats are?" Mavis asked.
"They are in the Foreign Curiosities Museum," said Ulfin, "strongly guarded: but the guards are the Horse Marines - whose officer lent you your chargers to-day. He is my friend, and when I tell him what is toward, he will help me. I only ask of you one promise in return. That you will not seek to escape, or to return to your own country, except by the free leave and licence of our gracious Sovereigns."
The children easily promised - and they thought the promise would be easily kept.
"Then to-morrow," said Ulfin, "shall begin the splendid Peace Plot which shall hand our names down, haloed with glory, to remotest ages."
He looked kindly on them and went out.
"He is a dear, isn't he?" said Mavis.
"Yes, indeed," said the Princess absently.
And now next day the children, carrying their tickets-of-leaves, were led to the great pearl and turquoise building, which was the Museum of Foreign Curiosities. Many were the strange objects preserved there - china and glass and books and land-things of all kinds, taken from sunken ships. And all the things were under dome-shaped cases, apparently of glass. The Curator of the Museum showed them his treasures with pride, and explained them all wrong in the most interesting way.
"Those discs," he said, pointing to the china plates, "are used in games of skill. They are thrown from one hand to another, and if one fails to catch them his head is broken."
An egg-boiler, he explained, was a Land Queen's jewel-case - and four egg-shaped emeralds had been fitted into it to show its use to the vulgar. A silver ice-pail was labelled, "Drinking Vessel of the Horses of the Kings of Earth," and a cigar-case half-full was called "Charm-case containing Evil Charms: probably Ancient Barbarian." In fact it was very like the museums you see on land.
They were just coming to a large case containing something whitish and labelled, "Very valuable indeed," when a messenger came to tell the Curator that a soldier was waiting with valuable curiosities taken as loot from the enemy.
"Excuse me one moment," said the Curator, and left them.
"I arranged that," said Ulfin, "quick, before he returns - take your coats if you know any spell to remove the case."
The Princess laughed and laid her hand on the glassy done, and lo! it broke and disappeared as a bubble does when you touch it.
"Magic," whispered Ulfin.
"Not magic," said the Princess. "Your cases are only bubbles."
"And I never knew," said Ulfin.
"No," said the Princess, "because you never dared to touch them."
The children were already busy pulling the coats off the ruby slab where they lay. "Here's Cathay's," whispered Mavis.
The Princess snatched it and her own pearly coat which, in one quick movement, she put on and buttoned over Cathay's little folded coat, holding this against her. "Quick," she said, "put yours on, all of you. Take your mer-tails on your arms."
They did. The soldiers at the end of the long hall had noticed the movements and came charging up towards them.
"Quick, quick!" said the Princess, "now - altogether. One, two, three. Press your third buttons."
The children did, and the soldiers tearing up the hall to arrest the breakers of the cases of the Museum - for by this time they could see what had happened - almost fell over each other in their confusion. For there, where a moment ago had been four children with fin-tail fetters, was now empty space, and beside the rifled Museum case stood only Ulfin.
And then an odd thing happened. Out of nowhere, as it seemed, a little pearly coat appeared, hanging alone in air (water, of course, it was really. Or was it?) It seemed to grow and to twine itself round Ulfin.
"Put it on," said a voice from invisibility, "put it on," and Ulfin did put it on.
The soldiers were close upon him. "Press the third button," cried the Princess, and Ulfin did so. But as his right hand sought the button, the foremost soldier caught his left arm with the bitter cry-
"Traitor, I arrest you in the King's name," and though he could now not see that he was holding anything, he could feel that be was, and he held on.
"The last button, Ulfin," cried the voice of the unseen Princess, "press the last button," and next moment the soldier, breathless with amazement and terror, was looking stupidly at his empty hand. Ulfin, as well as the three children and the Princess, was not only invisible but intangible, the soldiers could not see or feel anything.
And what is more, neither could the Princess or the children or Ulfin.
"Oh, where are you? Where am I?" cried Mavis.
"Silence," said the Princess, "we must keep together by our voices, but that is dangerous. A la porte!" she added. How fortunate it was that none of the soldiers understood French!
As the five were invisible and intangible and as the soldiers were neither, it was easy to avoid them and to get to the arched doorway. The Princess got there first. There was no enemy near - all the soldiers were crowding round the rifled Museum case, talking and wondering, the soldier who had seized Ulfin explaining again and again how he had had the caitiff by the arm, "as solid as solid, and then, all in a minute, there was nothing - nothing at all," and his comrades trying their best to believe him. The Princess just waited, saying, "Are you there?" every three seconds, as though she had been at the telephone.
"Are you there?" said the Princess for the twenty-seventh time. And then Ulfin said, "I am here, Princess."
"We must haves connecting links," she said "bits of seaweed would do. If you hold a piece of seaweed in your hand I will take hold of the other end of it. We cannot feel the touch of each other's hands, but we shall feel the seaweed, and you will know, by its being drawn tight that I have hold of the other end. Get some pieces for the children, too. Good stout seaweed, such as you made the nets of with which you captured us."
"Ah, Princess," he said, "how can I regret that enough? And yet how can I regret it at all since it has brought you to me."
"Peace, foolish child," said the Princess, and Ulfin's heart leaped for joy because, when a Princess calls a grown-up man "child," it means that she likes him more than a little, or else, of course, she would not take such a liberty. "But the seaweed," she added - "there is no time to lose."
"I have some in my pocket," said Ulfin, blushing, only she could not see that. "They keep me busy making nets in my spare time,- I always have some string in my pocket."
A piece of stringy seaweed suddenly became visible as Ulfin took it out of his invisible pocket, which, of course, had the property of making its contents invisible too, so long as they remained in it. It floated towards the Princess, who caught the end nearest to her and held it fast.
"Where are you?" said a small voice.
It was Mavis - and almost at once Francis and Bernard were there too. The seaweed chain was explained to them, and they each held fast to their ends of the seaweed links. So that when the soldiers, a little late in the day, owing to the careful management of Ulfin's friend, reached the front door, there was nothing to be seen but four bits of seaweed floating down the street, which, of course, was the sort of thing that nobody could possibly notice unless they knew.
The bits of seaweed went drifting to the Barracks, and no one noticed that they floated on to the stables and that invisible hands loosed the halters of five Sea-horses. The soldier who ought to have been looking after the horses was deeply engaged in a game of Animal Grab with a comrade. The cards were of narwhal ivory, very fine, indeed, and jewelled on every pip. The invisible hands saddled the Sea-horses and invisible forms sprang to the saddles, and urged the horses forward.
The unfortunate Animal Grabber was roused from his game by the sight of five retreating steeds - saddled and bridled indeed, but, as far as he could see, riderless, and long before other horses could be got out and saddled the fugitives were out of sight and pursuit was vain. Just as before they went across country to the rock-cut, and then swam up, holding by the linking seaweed.
Because it was Tuesday and nearly two o'clock, the Professor of Conchology was making ready to receive pupils, which he did in an arbour of coral of various shades of pink, surrounded by specimen shells of all the simpler species. He was alone in the garden, and as they neared him, the Princess, the three children and Ulfin touched the necessary buttons and became once more visible and tangible.
"Ha," said the Professor, but without surprise, "Magic. A very neat trick, my dears, and excellently done."
"You need not remove your jacket," he added to Ulfin, who was pulling off his pearly coat. "The mental exercises in which we propose to engage do not require gymnasium costume."
But Ulfin went on taking off his coat, and when it was off he handed it to the Princess, who at once felt in its inner pocket, pulled out a little golden case and held it towards the Professor. It has been well said that no charm on earth - I mean under water - is strong enough to make one forget one's antidote. The moment the Professor's eye fell on the little golden case, he held out his hand for it, and the Princess gave it to him. He opened it, and without hesitation as without haste, swallowed the charm.
Next moment the Princess was clasped in his arms, and the moment after that, still clasped there, was beginning a hurried explanation; but be stopped her.
"I know, my child, I know," he said. "You have brought me the charm which gives back to me my memory and makes a King of Merland out of a Professor of Conchology. But why, oh why, did you not bring me my coat - my pearly coat?" said the King, "it was in the case with the others."
No one had thought of it, and everyone felt and looked exceedingly silly, and no one spoke till Ulfin said, holding out the coat which the Princess had given back to him-
"You will have this coat, Majesty. I have no right to the magic garments of your country."
"But," said Francis, "you need the coat more than anybody. The King shall have mine - I shan't want it if you'll let me go and ask for an interview with the King of the Under Folk."
"No, have mine," said Mavis - and "have mine," said Bernard, and the Princess said, "Of course my Father will have mine." So they, all protested at once. But the King raised his hand, and there was silence, and they saw that he no longer looked only a noble and learned gentleman, but that he looked every inch a King.
"Silence," he said, "if anyone speaks with the King and Queen of this land it is fitting that it should be I. See, we will go out by the back door, so as to avoid the other pupils who will soon be arriving in their thousands, for my Conchology Course is very popular. And as we go, tell me who is this man of the Under Folk who seems to be one of you "-("I am the Princess's servant," Ulfin put in)- "and why you desire to speak with the King of this land."
So they made great haste to go out by the back way so as not to meet the Conchology students, and cautiously crept up to their horses - and, of course, the biggest and best horse was given to the King to ride. But when he saw how awkwardly their false tails adapted themselves to the saddle he said, "My daughter, you can remove these fetters."
"How?" said she. "My shell knife won't cut them."
"Bite through the strings of them with your little sharp teeth," said the King, "nothing but Princess-teeth is sharp enough to cut through them. No, my son - it is not degrading. A true Princess cannot be degraded by anything that is for the good of her subjects and her friends."
So the Mer Princess willingly bit through the strings of the false tails - and everybody put on its proper tail again, with great comfort and enjoyment - and they all swam towards the town.
And as they went they heard a great noise of shouting, and saw parties of Under Folk flying as if in fear.
"I must make haste," said the King, "and see to it that our Peace Conference be not too late," - so they hurried on.
And the noise grew louder and louder, and the crowds of flying Under Folk thicker and fleeter, and by and by Ulfin made them stand back under the arch of the Astrologers' Tower to see what it was from which they fled. And there, along the streets of the great city of the Under Folk, came the flash of swords and the swirl of banners and the army of the Mer Folk came along between the great buildings of their foes, and on their helmets was the light of victory, and at their head, proud and splendid, rode the Princess Maia and - Reuben.
"Oh - Reuben, Reuben! We're saved," called Mavis, and would have darted out, but Francis put his hand over her mouth.
"Stop!" he said, "don't you remember we promised not to escape without the Queen's permission? Quick, quick to the Palace, to make peace before our armies can attack it."
"You speak well," said the Mer King. And Ulfin said, "This is no time for ceremony. Quick, quick, I will take you in by the tradesmen's entrance." And, turning their backs on that splendid and victorious procession, they marched to the back entrance of the royal Palace.
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