Previous Chapter Contents Next Chapter



THE great question, of course, was- Would Mother take them to the circus, or would she, if she wouldn't herself take them, let them go alone? She had once, in Buckinghamshire, allowed them to go to a travelling menagerie, after exacting from them a promise that they were not to touch any of the animals, and they had seen reason to regret their promise when the showman offered to let them stroke his tame performing wolf, who was so very like a collie. When they had said, "No, thank you," the showman had said, "Oh, frightened, are you? Run along home to Mammy then!" and the bystanders had laughed in a most insulting way. At a circus, of course, the horses and things aren't near enough for you to stroke them, so this time they might not be asked to promise. If Mother came with them her presence, though agreeable, would certainly add to the difficulties, already quite enough - as even Mavis could not but see - of rescuing the Mermaid. But suppose Mother didn't come with them.

"Suppose we have to promise we won't touch any of the animals?" suggested Cathay. "You can't rescue a person without touching it."

"That's just it," said Mavis, "a Mermaid isn't an animal. She's a person."

"But suppose it isn't that sort of Mermaid," said Bernard. "Suppose it's the sort that other people call seals, like it said in the paper."

"Well, it isn't," said Francis briefly, adding, "so there!"

They were talking in the front garden, leaning over the green gate while Mother upstairs unpacked the luggage that had been the mound with spades on top only yesterday, at Waterloo.

"Mavis!" Mother called through the open window. "I can only find- but you'd better come up."

"I ought to offer to help Mother unpack," said Mavis, and went walking slowly.

She came back after a little while, however, quickly running.

"It's all right," she said. "Mother's going to meet Daddy at the Junction this afternoon and buy us sunbonnets. And we're to take our spades and go down to the sea till dinner-time - it's roast rabbit and apple dumps - I asked Mrs Pearce - and we can go to the circus by ourselves, - and she never said a word about promise not to touch the animals."

So off they went, down the whw road where the yellow-hammer was talking about himself as usual on the tree just beyond wherever you happened to be walking. And so to the beach.

Now, it is very difficult to care much about a Mermaid you have never seen or heard or touched. On the other band, when once you have seen one and touched one and heard one speak, you seem to care for very little else. This was why when they got to the shore Kathleen and Bernard began at once to dig the moat of a sand castle, while the elder ones walked up and down, dragging the new spades after them like some new kind of tail, and talking, talking, talking till Kathleen said they might help dig or the tide would be in before the castle was done.

"You don't know what a lark sand castles are, France," she added kindly, "because you've never seen the sea before."

So then they all dug and piled and patted and made moulds of their pails to stand as towers to the castle and dug out dungeons and tunnels and bridges, only the roof always gave way in the end unless you had beaten the sand very tight beforehand. It was a glorious castle, tbough not quite finished when the first thin flat wash of the sea reached it. And then every one worked twice as hard trying to keep the sea out till all was hopeless, and then everyone crowded into the castle and the sea washed it away bit by bit till there was only a shapeless island left, and everyone was wet through and had to change every single thing the minute they got home. You will know by that how much they enjoyed themselves.

After the roast rabbit and the apple dumplings Mother started on the sunbonnet-and-meet-Daddy expedition. Francis went with her to the station and returned a little sad.

"I had to promise not to touch any of the animals," he said. "And perhaps a Mermaid is an animal."

"Not if she can speak," said Kathleen. "I say, don't you think we ought to wear our best things - I do. It's more respectable to the wonders of the deep. She'd like us to look beautiful."

"I'm not going to change for anybody," said Bernard firmly.

"All right, Bear," said Mavis. "Only we will. Remember it's magic."

"I say, France," he said, "do you think we ought to change?"

"No, I don't," Francis answered. "I don't believe Mermaids care a bit what you've got on. You see, they don't wear anytbing but tails and hair and looking-glasses themselves. If there's any beautifulness to be done they jolly well do it themselves. But I don't say you wouldn't be better for washing your hands again, and you might as well try to get some of the sand out of your hair. It looks like the wrong end of a broom as it is."

He himself went so far as to put on the blue necktie that Aunt Amy bad given him, and polished his silver watch-chain on the inside of his jacket. This helped to pass the time till the girls were ready. At last this happened though they had put on their best things, and they started.

The yellow-hammer went on about himself - he was never tired of the subject.

"It's just as if that bird was making fun of us," Bernard said.

"I daresay it is a wild-goose step we're taking," said Kathleen; "but the circus will be jolly, anyhow."

There is a piece of waste land just beyond Beachfield on the least agreeable side of that village-- the side where the flat-faced shops are and the yellow brick houses. At the nice end of Beachfield the shops have little fat bow windows with greenish glass that you can hardly see through. Here also are gaunt hoardings plastered with tattered, ugly-coloured posters, asking you in red to wear Ramsden's Really Boots, or to Vote for Wilton Ashby in blue. Some of the corners of the posters are always loose and flap dismally in the wind. There is always a good deal of straw and torn paper and dust at this end of the village, and bits of dirty rag, and old boots and tins are found under the hedges where flowers ought to be. Also there are a great many nettles and barbed wires instead of pleasant-coloured fences. Don't you sometimes wonder who is to blame for all the uglification of places that might be so pretty, and wish you could have a word with them and ask them not to? Perhaps when these people were little nobody told them how wrong it is to throw orange-peel about, and the bits of paper off chocolate, and the paper bag which once concealed your bun. And it is a dreadful fact that the children who throw these things about are little uglifiers, and they grow up to be perfect monsters of uglification, and build hideous yellow brick cottages, and put up hoardings, and sell Ramaden's Really Boots (in red), and vote passionately for Wilton Ashby (in blue), and care nothing for the fields that used to be green and the hedges where once flowers used to grow. Some people like this, and see nothing to hate in such ugly waste places as the one, at the wrong end of the town, where the fair was being held on that never-to-be-forgotten day when Francis, Mavis, Bernard and Kathleen set out in their best clothes to rescue the Mermaid because Mermaids "die in captivity."

The fair had none of those stalls and booths which old-fashioned fairs used to have, where they sold toys, and gilt gingerbread, and carters' whips, and cups and saucers, and mutton pies, and dolls, and china dogs, and shell-boxes, and pincushions, and needlecases, and penholders with views of the Isle of Wight and Winchester Cathedral inside that you see so bright and plain when you put your eye close to the little round hole at the top.

The steam roundabouts were there - but hardly a lean back of their spotted horses was covered by a rider. There were swings, but no one happened to be swinging. There were no shows, no menagerie, no boxing-booth, no marionettes. No penny gaff with the spangled lady and the fat man who beats the drum. Nor were there any stalls. There were pink-and-white paper whips and bags of dust-coloured minced paper - the English substitute for confetti, there were little metal tubes of dirty water to squirt in people's faces, but except for the sale of these crude instruments for making other people uncomfortable there was not a stall in the fair. I give you my word, there was not a single thing that you could buy - no gingerbread, no sweets, no crockery dogs, not even a halfpenny orange or a bag of nuts. Nor was there anything to drink - not as much as a lemonade counter or a ginger-beer stall. The revellers were no doubt drinking elsewhere. A tomb-like silence reigned - a silence which all the steam roundabout's hideous hootings only emphasized.

A very dirty-nosed boy, overhearing a hurried council, volunteered the information that the circus was not yet open.

"Never mind," they told each other - and turned to the side-shows. These were, all of one character - the arrangement by which you throw something or roll something at something else, and if you hit the something you get a prize - the sort of prize that is sold in Houndsditch at ninepence a gross.

Most of these arrangements are so ordered that to get a prize is impossible. For instance, a peculiarly offensive row of masks with open mouths in which pipes are set up. In the golden days of long ago if you hit a pipe it broke, and you got a "prize" worth- I can't do sums- put it briefly at the hundred and fortyfourth part of ninepence. But the children found that when their wooden ball struck the pipe it didn't break. They wondered why! Then, looking more closely, they saw that the pipes were not of clay, but of painted wood. They could never be broken - and the whole thing was a cruel mockery of hope.

The coconut-shy was not what it used to be either. Once one threw sticks, three shies a penny. Now it is a penny a shy, with light wooden balls. You can win a coconut if you happen to hit one that is not glued on to its support. If you really wish to win one of these unkindly fruits it is well to stand and watch a little and not to aim at those coconuts which, when they are hit, fail to fall off the sticks. Are they glued on? One hopes not. But if they are, who can wonder or reprove? It is hard to get a living, anyhow.

There was one thing, though, that roused the children's resentment - chiefly, I think, because its owners were clean and did not look half starved, so there was no barrier of pity between them and dislike - a sort of round table sloping up to its centre. On this small objects were arranged. For a penny you received two hoops. If you could throw a hoop over an object that object was yours. None of the rustic visitors to the fair could, it seemed, or cared to. It did not look difficult, however. Nor was it. At the first shot a tiny candlestick was encircled. Between pride and shame Mavis held out a hand.

"Hard luck," said one of the two young women, too clean to be pitied. "Has to go flat on-see?"

Francis tried again. This time the ring encircled a match-box, "flat on."

"Hard luck," said the lady again.

"What's the matter now?" the children asked, baffled.

"Hoop has to be red side up," said she. So she scored. Now they went to the other side and had another penn'orth of hoops from the other too clean young woman. And the same thing happened. Only on the second winning she said:

"Hard luck. Hoops have to be blue side up.

It was Bernard's blood that was up. He determined to clear the board.

"Blue side up, is it," he said sternly, and took another penn'orth. This time he- brought down a tin pin-tray and a little box which, I hope, contained something. The girl hesitated and then handed over the prizes. "Another penn'orth of hoops," said Bernard, warming to the work.

"Hard luck," said she. "We don't give more than two penn'orth to any one party."

The prizes were not the kind of things you care to keep, even as trophies of victory - especially when you have before you the business of rescuing a Mermaid. The children gave their prizes to a small female bystander and went to the shooting gallery. That, at least, could have no nonsense about it. If you aimed at a bottle and hit it it would break. No sordid self-seeking custodian could rob you of the pleasant tinkling of the broken bottle. And even with a poor weapon it is not impossible to aim at a bottle and hit it. This is true - but at the shooting gallery the trouble was not to hit the bottles. There were so many of them and they were so near. The children got thirteen tinkling smashes for their fourteen shots. The bottles were hung fifteen feet away instead of thirty.

Why? Space is not valuable at the fair - can it be that the people of Sussex are such poor shots that thirty feet is to them a prohibitive distance?

They did not throw for coconuts, nor did they ride on the little horses or pull themselves to dizzy heights in the swings. There was no heart left in them for such adventures - and besides everyone in the fair, saving themselves and the small female bystander and the hoop girls, was dirtier than you would believe possible. I suppose Beachfield has a water-supply. But you would have doubted it if you had been at the fair. They heard no laughter, no gay talk, no hearty give-and-take of holiday jests. A dull heavy silence brooded over the place, and you could hear that silence under the shallow insincere gaiety of the steam roundabout.

Laughter and song, music and good-fellowship, dancing and innocent revelry, there were none of these at Beacbfield Fair. For music there was the steam roundabout's echoes of the sordid musical comedy of the year before the year before last - laughter there was not - nor revelry - only the dirty guardians of the machines for getting your pennies stood gloomily huddled, and a few groups of dejected girls and little boys shivered in the cold wind that had come up with the sunset. In that wind, too, danced the dust, the straw, the newspaper and the chocolate wrappers. The only dancing there was. The big tent that held the circus was at the top of the ground, and the people who were busy among the ropes and pegs and between the bright vans resting on their shafts seemed gayer and cleaner than the people who kept the little arrangements for people not to win prizes at. And now the circus at last was opened; the flap of the tent was pinned back, and a gipsy-looking woman, with oily black ringlets and eyes like bright black beads, came out at the side to take the money of those who wished to see the circus. People were now strolling towards it in twos and threes, and of these our four were the very first, and the gipsy woman took four warm sixpences from their four hands.

"Walk in, walk in, my little dears, and see the white elephant," said a stout, black-moustached man in evening dress - greenish it was and shiny about the seams. He flourished a long whip as he spoke, and the children stopped, although they had paid their sixpences, to hear what they were to see when they did walk in. "The white elephant - tail, trunk, and tusks all complete, sixpence only. See the Back Try A or Camels, or Ships of the Arabs - heavy drinker when he gets the chance - total abstainer while crossing the desert. Walk up, walk up. See the Trained Wolves and Wolverines in their great National Dance with the flags of all countries. Walk up, walk up, walk up. See the Educated Seals and the Unique Lotus of the Heast in her famous bare-backed act, riding three horses at once, the wonder and envy of royalty. Walk up and see the very table Mermaid caught on your own coast only yesterday as ever was."

"Thank you," said Francis," I think we will." And the four went through the opened canvas into the pleasant yellow dusty twilight which was the inside of a squarish sort of tent, with an opening at the end, and through that opening you could see the sawdust-covered ring of the circus and benches all round it, and two men just finishing covering the front benches with red cotton strips.

"Where's the Mermaid?" Mavis asked a little boy in tights and a spangled cap.

"In there," he said, pointing to a little canvas door at the side of the squarish tent. "I don't advise you to touch her, though. Spiteful, she is. Lashes out with her tails - plashed old Mother Lee all over water she did, - an' dangerous too: our Bill 'e got 'is bone set out in his wrist a-trying to hold on to her. An' it's thruppence extry to see her close."

There are times, as we all know, when threepence extra is a baffling obstacle - a cruel barrier to desire, but this was not, fortunately, such a moment. The children had plenty of money, because Mother had given them two half-crowns between them to spend as they liked.

"Even then," said Bernard, in allusion to the threepence extra, "we shall have two bob left."

So Mavis, who was treasurer, paid over the extra threepences to a girl with hair as fair and lank as hemp, and a face as brown and round as a tea-cake, who sat on a kitchen chair by the Mermaid door. Then one by one they went in through the narrow opening, and at last there they were alone in the little canvas room with a tank in it that held - well, there was a large label, evidently written in a hurry, for the letters were badly made and arranged quite crookedly, and this label declared:


The little Spangled Boy had followed them in and pointed to the last word.

"What I tell you?" he asked proudly.

The children looked at each other. Nothing could be done with this witness at hand. At least....

"Perhaps if it's going to be magic," Mavis whispered to Francis, "outsiders wouldn't notice. They don't sometimes - I believe. Suppose you just said a bit of 'Sabrina' to start the magic."

"Wouldn't be safe," Francis returned in the same low tones. "Suppose he wasn't an outsider, and did notice."

So there they stood helpless. What the label was hung on was a large zinc tank -the kind that they have at the tops of houses for the water-supply - you must have seen one yourself often when the pipes burst in frosty weather, and your father goes up into the roof of the house with a candle and pail, and the water drips through the ceilings and the plumber is sent for, and comes when it suits him. The tank was full of water and at the bottom of it could be seen a mass of something dark that looked as if it were partly browny-green fish and partly greeny-brown seaweed.

"Sabrina fair," Francis suddenly whispered, "send him away."

And immediately a voice from outside called "Rube-Reuben-drat the boy, where's he got to?"- and the little spangled intruder had to go.

"There, now," said Mavis, "if that isn't magic!"

Perhaps it was, but still the dark fish-and-seaweed heap in the tank had not stirred. "Say it all through," said Mavis.

"Yes, do," said Bernard, "then we shall know for certain whether it's a seal or not."

So once again--

"`Sabrina fair,
Listen where thou art sitting,
Under the glassy green, translucent wave...'"

He got no further. There was a heaving and stirring of the seaweed and fish tail, something gleamed white, through the brown something white parted the seaweed, two white hands parted it, and a face came to the surface of the rather dirty water and - there was no doubt about it - spoke.

"'Translucent wave, indeed!'" was what the face said. "I wonder you're not ashamed to speak the invocation over a miserable cistern like this. What do you want?"

Brown hair and seaweed still veiled most of the face, but all the children, who, after their first start back had pressed close to the tank again, could see that the face looked exceedingly cross.

"We want," said Francis in a voice that would tremble though he told himself again and again that be was not a baby and wasn't going to behave like one- "we want to help you."

"Help me? You?" She raised herself a little more in the tank and looked contemptuously at them. "Why, don't you know that I am mistress of all water magic? I can raise a storm that will sweep away this horrible place and my detestable captors and you with them, and carry me on the back of a great wave down to the depths of the sea."

"Then why on earth don't you?" Bernard asked.

"Well, I was thinking about it," she said, a little awkwardly, "when you interrupted with your spells. Well, you've called and I've answered - now tell me what I can do for you."

"We've told you," said Mavis gently enough, though she was frightfully disappointed that the Mermaid after having in the handsomest manner turned out to be a Mermaid, should be such a very short-tempered one. And when they had talked about her all day and paid the threepence each extra to see her close, and put on their best white dresses too. "We've told you - we want to help you. Another Sabrina in the sea told us to. She didn't tell us anything about you being a magic-mistress. She just said `they die in captivity.'"

"Well, thank you for coming," said the Mermaid. " If she really said that it must be one of two things - either the sun is in the House of Liber - which is impossible at this time of the year - or else the rope I was caught with must be made of llama's hair; and that's impossible in these latitudes. Do you know anything about the rope they caught me with?"

"No," said Bernard and Kathleen. But the others said, "it was a lariat."

"Ah," said the Mermaid, "my worst fears are confirmed- But who could have expected a lariat on these shores? But that must have been it. Now I know why, though I have been on the point of working the magic of the Great Storm at least five hundred times since my capture, some unseen influence has always held me back."

"You mean," said Bernard, "you feel that it wouldn't work, so you didn't try."

A rattling, ripping sound outside, beginning softly, waxed louder and louder so as almost to drown their voices. It was the drum, and it announced the beginning of the circus. The Spangled Child put his head in and said, "Hurry up or you'll miss my Infant Prodigious Act on the Horse with the Tambourines," and took his head out again.

"Oh, dear," said Mavis, "and we haven't arranged a single thing about rescuing you.

"No more you have," said the Mermaid carelessly.

"Look here," said Francis, "you do want to be rescued, don't you?"

"Of course I do," replied the Mermaid impatiently, "now I know about the llama rope. But I can't walk even if they'd let me, and you couldn't carry me. Couldn't you come at dead of night with a chariot - I could lift myself into it with your aid - then you could drive swiftly hence, and driving into the sea I could drop from the chariot and escape while you swam ashore."

"I don't believe we could - any of it," said Bernard, "let alone swimming ashore with horses and chariots. Why, Pharaoh himself couldn't do that, you know." And even Mavis and Francis added helplessly, "I don't see how we're to get a chariot," and "Do think of some other way."

"I shall await you," said the lady in the tank with perfect calmness, "at dead of night."

With that she twisted the seaweed closely round her head and shoulders and sank slowly to the bottom of the tank. And the children were left staring blankly at each other, while in the circus tent music sounded and the soft heavy pad-pad of hoofs on sawdust.

"What shall we do?" Francis broke the silence.

"Go and see the circus, of course," said Bernard.

"Of course we can talk about the chariot afterwards," Mavis admitted.

"There'll be lots of time to talk between now and dead of night," said Kathleen. "Come on, Bear."

And they went.

There is nothing like a circus for making you forget your anxieties. It is impossible to dwell on your troubles and difficulties when performing dogs are displaying their accomplishments, and wolves dancing their celebrated dance with the flags of all nations, and the engaging lady who jumps through the paper hoops and comes down miraculously on the flat back of the white horse, cannot but drive dull care away, especially from the minds of the young. So that for an hour and a half - it really was a good circus, and I can't think how it happened to be at Beachfield Fair at all - a solid slab of breathless enjoyment was wedged in between the interview with the Mermaid and the difficult task of procuring for her the chariot she wanted. But when it was all over and they were part of a hot, tightly packed crowd pouring out of the dusty tent into the sunshine, their responsibilities came upon them with renewed force.

"Wasn't the clown ripping?" said Bernard, as they got free of the crowd.

"I liked the riding-habit lady best, and the horse that went like that, best," said Kathleen, trying with small pale hands and brown shod legs to give an example of a horse's conduct during an exhibition of the haute ecole.

"Didn't you think the elephant--" Mavis was beginning, when Francis interrupted her.

"About that chariot," he said, and after that they talked of nothing else. And whatever they said it always came to this in the end, that they hadn't got a chariot, and couldn't get a chariot, and that anyhow they didn't suppose there was a chariot to be got, at anyrate in Beachfield.

"It wouldn't be any good, I suppose," was Kathleen's last and most helpful suggestion "be the slightest good saying 'Sabrina fair' to a pumpkin?"

"We haven't got even a pumpkin," Bernard reminded her, "let alone the rats and mice and lizards that Cinderella had. No, that's no good. But I'll tell you what." He stopped short. They were near home now - it was late afternoon, in the road where the talkative yellowhammer lived. "What about a wheelbarrow?"

"Not big enough," said Francis.

"There's an extra big one in the mill," said Bernard. "Now, look here. I'm not any good at magic. But Uncle Tom said I was a born general. If I tell you exactly what to do, will you two do it, and let Cathay and me off going?"

"Going to sneak out of it?" Francis asked bitterly.

"It isn't. It's not my game at all, and I don't want to play. And if I do, the whole thing will be muffed - you know it will. I'm so unlucky. You'd never get out at dead of night without me dropping a boot on the stairs or sneezing - you know you wouldn't."

Bernard took a sort of melancholy pride in being the kind of boy who always gets caught. If you are that sort of boy, perhaps that's the best way to take it. And Francis could not deny that there was something in what he said. He went on: "Then Kathleen's my special sister and I'm not going to have her dragged into a row. ("I want to," Kathleen put in ungratefully.) So will you and Mavis do it on your own or not?"

After some discussion, in which Kathleen was tactfully dealt with, it was agreed that they would. Then Bernard unfolded his plan of campaign.

"Directly we get home," he said, "we'll begin larking about with that old wheelbarrow - giving each other rides, and so on, and when it's time to go in we'll leave it at the far end of the field behind the old sheep but near the gate. Then it'll be handy for you at dead of night. You must take towels or something and tie round the wheel so that it doesn't make a row. You can sleep with my toy alarm under your pillow and it won't wake anyone but you. You get out through the dining-room window and in the same way. I'll lend you my new knife, with three blades and a corkscrew, if you'll take care of it, to cut the canvas, and go by the back lane that comes out behind where the circus is, but if you took my advice you wouldn't go at all. She's not a nice Mermaid at all. I'd rather have had a seal, any day. Hullo, there's Daddy and Mother. Come on.'

They came on.

The programme sketched by Bernard was carried out without a hitch. Everything went well, only Francis and Mavis were both astonished to find themselves much more frightened than they had expected to be. Any really great adventure like the rescuing of a Mermaid does always look so very much more serious when you carry it out, at night, than it did when you were planning it in the daytime. Also, though they knew they were not doing anything wrong, they had an uncomfortable feeling that Mother and Daddy might not agree with them on that point. And, of course, they could not ask leave to go and rescue a Mermaid, with a chariot, at dead of night. It is not the sort of thing you can ask leave to do, somehow. And the more you explained your reasons the less grown-up people would think you fitted to conduct such an expedition.

Francis lay down fully dressed, under his nightshirt. And Mavis under hers wore her short blue skirt and jersey. The alarm, true to its trust, went off into an ear-splitting whizz and bang under the pillow of Francis, but no one else heard it. He crept cautiously into Mavis's room and wakened her, and as they crept down in stockinged feet not a board creaked. The French window opened without noise, the wheelbarrow was where they had left it, and they had fortunately brought quite enough string to bind wads of towels and stockings to the tyre of its wheel. Also they had not forgotten the knife.

The wheelbarrow was heavy and they rather shrank from imagining how much heavier it would be when the discontented Mermaid was curled up in it. However, they took it in turns, and got along all right by the back lane that comes out above the waste ground where Beaehfield holds its fairs.

"I hope the night's dead enough," Mavis whispered as the circus came in sight, looking very white in the starlight, "it's nearly two by now I should think."

"Quite dead enough, if that's all," said Francis; "but suppose the gipsies are awake? They do sit up to study astronomy to tell fortunes with, don't they? Suppose this is their astronomy night? I vote we leave the barrow here and go and reconnoitre."

They did. Their sand-shoes made no noise on the dewy grass, and treading very carefully, on tiptoe, they came to the tent. Francis nearly tumbled over a guy rope; he just saw it in time to avoid it.

"If I'd been Bernard I should have come a beastly noisy cropper over that," he told himself. They crept round the tent till they came to the little square bulge that marked the place where the tank was and the seaweed and the Mermaid.

"They die in captivity, they die in captivity, they die in captivity," Mavis kept repeating to herself, trying to keep up her courage by reminding herself of the desperately urgent nature of the adventure. "It's a matter of life and death," she told herself,- "life and death."

And now they picked their way between the pegs and guy ropes and came quite close to the canvas. Doubts of the strength and silence of the knife possessed the trembling soul of Francis. Mavis's heart was beating so thickly that, as she said afterwards, she could hardly hear herself think. She scratched gently on the canvas, while Francis felt for the knife with the three blades and the corkscrew. An answering signal from the imprisoned Mermaid would, she felt, give her fresh confidence. There was no answering scratch. Instead, a dark line appeared to run up the canvas - it was an opening made by the two hands of the Mermaid which held back the two halves of the tent-side, cut neatly from top to bottom. Her white face peered out.

"Where is the chariot?" she asked in the softest of whispers, but not too soft to carry to the children the feeling that she was, if possible, crosser than ever.

Francis was afraid to answer. He knew that his voice could never be subdued to anything as soft as the voice that questioned him, a voice like the sound of tiny waves on a summer night, like the whisper of wheat when the wind passes through it on a summer morning. But he pointed towards the lane where they had left the wheelbarrow and he and Mavis crept away to fetch it.

As they wheeled it down the waste place both felt how much they owed to Bernard. But for his idea of muffling the wheel they could never have got the clumsy great thing down that bumpy uneven slope. But as it was they and the barrow stole towards the gipsy's tent as silently as the Arabs in the poem stole away with theirs, and they wheeled it close to the riven tent side. Then Mavis scratched again, and again the tent opened.

"Have you any cords?" the soft voice whispered, and Francis pulled what was left of the string from his pocket.

She had made two boles in the tent side, and now passing the string through these she tied back the flaps of the tent.

"Now," she said, raising herself in the tank and resting her hands on its side. "You must both help - take hold of my tail and lift. Creep in - one on each side."

It was a wet, sloppy, slippery, heavy business, and Mavis thought her arms would break, but she kept saying: "Die in captivity," and just as she was feeling that she could not bear it another minute the strain slackened and there was the Mermaid curled up in the barrow.

"Now," said the soft voice, "go - quickly."

It was all very well to say go quickly. It was as much as the two children could do, with that barrow-load of dripping Mermaid, to go at all. And very, very slowly they crept up the waste space. In the lane, under cover of the tall hedges, they paused.

"Go on," said the Mermaid.

"We can't till we've rested a bit," said Mavis, panting. "How did you manage to get that canvas cut?"

"My shell knife, of course," said the person in the wheelbarrow. "We always carry one in our hair, in case of sharks."

"I see," said Francis, breathing heavily.

"You had much better go on," said the barrow's occupant. "This chariot is excessively uncomfortable and much too small. Besides, delays are dangerous."

"We'll go in half a sec.," said Francis, and Mavis added kindly

"You're really quite safe now, you know."

"You aren't," said the Mermaid. "I don't know whether you realize that I'm stolen property and that it will be extremely awkward for you if you are caught with me."

"But we shan't be caught with you," said Mavis hopefully.

"Everybody's sound asleep," said Francis. It was wonderful how brave and confident they felt now that the deed was done. "It's perfectly safe.- Oh, what's that! Oh!"

A hand had shot from the black shadow of the hedge and caught him by the arm.

"What is it, France? What is it?" said Mavis, who could not see what was happening.

"What is it- now what is it?" asked the Mermaid more crossly than she had yet spoken.

"Who is it? Oh, who is it?" gasped Francis, writhing in the grip of his invisible assailant. And from the dark shadow of the hedge came the simple and terrible reply

"The police!"

Previous Chapter Contents Next Chapter