IN a modest hut upon the sea-shore, half-hidden from sight by an enormous bank of drifted sand, lived a fisherman and his wife, with their twin-children, John and Emma. Theirs was a hard life, and full of privations; but the husband and wife loved each other tenderly and did everything they could to provide for the little ones, who grew up, spite of their poverty, tall and beautiful, and happy as the day was long. Emma and John had a thousand pleasures that town-bred children covet. They chased each other continually up and down the sandy beach, hard as marble and glittering like silver in the beautiful patterns traced on it by the tide. They ran barefoot into the surf, defying the mad onslaught of the merry breakers, and dived fearlessly beneath the crested arch of green waters to seize a bit of floating seaweed. They discovered endless treasures in the rock-pools along the beach, and built with them pretty grottoes, and mysterious caves, that none but themselves knew where to find. Often their father would take them out in the fishing-boat; for John had learned to manage the sail and the nets almost as well as the fisherman himself. The two children thought it was grand to feel the little boat answer to the wind, as a horse answers to voice or whip. They liked to bound forward across the great green billows, and to see the spray dash over them like a shower of jewels. They would help their father to set his nets or lines, and wait patiently till it was time to haul in the big shining fish that sometimes lined the bottom of the boat, whiling away the hours by munching bits of brown bread that served for lunch, and by telling each other fanciful stories of the sea.
The ocean did not always smile upon them, for there were days of heavy fog, of raw east wind, when the beautiful water ceased to sparkle, while the surf boomed as if in warning of danger or sorrow to come. Then the children would run inside the cottage, and pile on drift-wood till the fire burnt cheerily. This was their time for taking down from the mantel-shelf their stores of shells, corals, and other sea-wonders. John and Emma had polished these shells until they shone beautifully, and some tiny disks of orange and gold were strung in long garlands, to loop around the brown walls and above the little looking-glass. Their mother kept the inside of the cottage as neat as a ship's cabin, which, in truth, it much resembled, the children's beds being nothing more than broad shelves in a cupboard, with doors to close by day; while every corner of the tidy place was made to do duty for some household implement, tucked away in the oddest fashion, until it should be needed.
So the days passed on until the twins were about sixteen years old, John a fine manly fellow, looking much older, and Emma a slender slip of a girl, with floating locks of purest gold, and a voice in singing like a carol of birds in a Maybush. Oftentimes when her father was steering his boat homeward, after a day of toil, he would hear the piercing strain of Emma's song come floating over the water from the rock where she stood against the western sky, awaiting him. And he rightly thought this the sweetest sound he was likely to hear before the angels should sing for him in Paradise!
One day the fisherman did not come home. A storm arose, and all that evening the wind howled madly above the beating of the angry surf. The sky was pitch-black, and the wife and children walked the shore in silent fear. When darkness fell, they lighted a huge bonfire upon the rocks, and John, begging his mother and Emma to go home to rest, stayed feeding the flames with drift-wood, till morning broke over the sullen waste of waters. Still no sign of his father, and at midday the familiar boat drifted ashore, bottom upward. Then great sorrow darkened this happy little home; and nevermore the sea gave up her dead.
The fisherman's wife did not long survive him—dying, she told her children, because she could not live without her beloved husband. John followed his father's calling, and Emma kept the house, as her mother had done. She was very sad and solitary in the changed life, but people who work hard have not much time to give way to grief. The busy maiden toiled all day over her duties in-doors, and when evening came, would go out on the rocks to await John's return. The greatest pleasure she now had was in singing. Her voice grew strong and firm, and every day at sunset it might be heard, in waves of melody, mingling with the sound of the breakers on the shore.
One day, when John was later than usual in returning to his supper, Emma wandered along the sands. It was a beautiful summer evening, the sky painted with radiant colors, the sea reflecting them. Here and there a sail dotted the horizon, but the shore was completely deserted. The girl saw before her a rock-pool filled with sea-anemones and star-fish; and, sitting down on the edge of it to study the lovely creatures, she began, as usual, to sing, without knowing that she did so.
Suddenly, over the water came rolling toward her a wonderful chariot formed of a single conch-shell all rainbow-hued within. It was drawn by two dolphins, and the driver was a handsome young man, whose long floating locks were of a changeable green color, tipped with curling white. Before Emma could recover from her astonishment, the youth spoke to her gently, thanking her for the song that had wooed him from his home beneath the sea.
"I am the king of a wonderful country down there," he said, "and if you will but sing for me once more, I shall give you gems and flowers from my own garden, such as never an earth-born maiden owned."
Dipping one hand carelessly over the chariot's edge, the king brought up a string of rare carved coral with a jewelled clasp, and, smiling at Emma's wonder, dipped his hand a second time, when out came a garland of exquisite flowers. Sea-lilies, sea-roses, sea-narcissus, sea-violets there were, larger and more beautiful than any upon land, and all glittering with the ocean brine. Emma stretched out both hands for the pretty things, while a song of joy burst from her lips.
"May I crown your brow with my garland?" said the king. "For truly, I have heard no voice to equal yours."
"Thanks—thanks," cried the innocent girl, her eyes sparkling with delight. She leant forward to receive the chain which the king threw around her neck, at the same time laying the garland on her hair. At once, Emma fell into a deep sleep, and the crafty sea-king, with a look of triumph, lifted her into the seat at his side and urged forward his chafing steeds; the chariot flew like a stormy petrel across the sea, disappearing beneath the arch of a gigantic wave!
John sought in vain for his cherished sister. The only trace of her, he and the neighbors who helped him in the search, could find, was a little gold cross, once her mother's, that Emma always wore. This lay in a crevice of the rock, whence the sea-king had carried her away. The neighbors believed her dead, but something within John convinced him that he should see her yet again. Long and dreary were the winter months without her. John forever wondered about Emma's disappearance; and, when summer came once more, it was to find the youth still possessed of a longing desire to go somewhere in search of her.
Sad and solitary, John was sailing his little fishing-smack along the coast one day, intending to go out to the usual fishing-ground, when, tempted by a creek he noticed now, as if for the first time, a fancy took him to follow up the windings of this silver inlet from the sea, running between banks as green as emerald. Looking into the water, as a light breeze carried him along, John saw a bed of weed and kelp starred with shells, where crabs of an unusual size passed in and out of a circular opening. Determined to fill a basket with these desirable dainties, which would fetch a high price in market, John fished for them so skilfully as to haul up a hand-net brimful, at the first attempt. These were no common crabs he discovered, one of them in particular, having its flippers set with rings of beaten gold, and a gold chain around its body bearing a golden key.
"My good sir," said the crab, speaking in a plaintive voice, "you probably don't know that I am the keeper of the sea-king's summer grotto, and these are my attendants. Only to-day, his majesty sent us word to have all in readiness for a visit from him and his bride-betrothed. We are in the greatest possible hurry, and if it is quite the same to you, would take it as a friendly favor, if you will let us go without delay."
"My good Mr. Crab," said John, laughing, "I should like to oblige such an important person, but really my circumstances are almost as particular as yours. I am in the greatest possible need of funds, and the price you and your friends would fetch at the present market rates is most desirable to me."
"Oh! if it is only gold and silver," said the crab, disdainfully, "you should see his majesty's dominions. Our streets are paved with it."
John became interested at this, and entered into a long conversation with the crab, who was a gossipy old soul and told him of so many wonders of the sea-king's kingdom that the lad could scarcely contain his astonishment.
What startled him more than all, was to hear of a sweet singing maiden, from the upper world, his majesty had kept for a year past imprisoned in a crystal cavern! His heart beat fast with excitement, as the crab described Emma so exactly that it was impossible to mistake her.
"Until the present time," the crab went on, with importance, "his majesty has not told the earth-maiden of his intention to make her his bride. By the laws of our kingdom, no one of us can marry a mortal, until she has lived for a year contentedly below, without uttering the name of any friend she knew in her former estate. But the year is up to-day, and they are to make a grand tour of his majesty's possessions. I should not wonder if the wedding were to take place in our grotto, for that is the king's favorite palace, although only one of the many he calls his own."
"One thing is false! Emma will never marry him, if she is to do it by forgetting those who loved her so tenderly," broke in John, furiously.
"You are very rough, my dear friend," said the crab, fanning himself with his flipper. "I think you forget you are addressing a courtier. What I tell you about the Lady Emma is undoubtedly true, since I have it from my cousin the clam. He is a close-mouthed creature, little likely to spread a false report. Lady Emma is happy as a queen in swansdown. Once a day she sings, and then his majesty always presents her with a bunch of fresh sea-violets, her favorite flowers. Under the circumstances, it is hardly possible she would keep up any of the foolish fancies for earth-born folk she may have brought there."
John pondered awhile, and finally promised the crab, who was growing very impatient, to release that functionary and his companions, if they would permit him to visit the wonders of the sea-king's grotto. The crab, since he could not well help himself, said yes, and instructed John how to dive into the round green hole, so like the nest of some strange fish, he saw at the bottom of the stream.
John made fast his boat, and sprang overboard,
having first emptied the net full of captives, who went
scuttling to the bottom in very undignified haste. So
sure was his aim, that he reached without difficulty
the passage-way indicated, which widened from its
mouth into a funnel-shaped cavern, lined with seaweed
and ferns of the rarest varieties. Following the
crab procession, John swam along a crystal streamlet,
reaching at length a second opening, larger than the
first. Within this was a door formed of a single sapphire.
The crab put his golden key into the key-hole,
and admitted John into a large and brilliant grotto,
the sides lined with the iridescent scales of fish. The
roof was encrusted with jewels, through which streamed
many colored lights, and clusters of phosphorescent
flame gleamed at intervals between pillars of glittering
spar. Beneath an arch of blooming sea-flowers, stood
Emma was greatly changed in appearance. She now wore a splendid robe of some clinging white stuff, worked with little coral branches and sprays of silver seaweed around the hem, and her neck, arms, and hair were wreathed with row upon row of priceless pearls. She was pale, but more beautiful than ever, and on her breast John saw a knot of big blue violets. Emma was seated at the king's right hand, and lovely sea-nymphs danced before her, to the music of unseen orchestras. Then his majesty asked Emma to sing, pledging her health in a shell full of wine, that shone and sparkled beautifully. Emma made no resistance, doing all that she was bid, like a person walking in her sleep. Her eyes had a far-away look and her voice, in singing, so unearthly a thrill, that John's affectionate heart ached to seize her in his arms and tear her from the spot. When Emma had finished singing, she appeared to be fatigued, and two sea-nymphs bore her to a couch of pearl, laid her on purple cushions, and combed her long hair with a golden comb, while other sea-maidens interlaced their white arms above the girl's head, soothing her to sleep.
"Let her sleep here till this day week," said his majesty. "Then I will summon my subjects and relations to the wedding. All of you present withdraw, now, and on no account disturb her slumber."
When the coast was clear, John seized his opportunity, and stealing forth, knelt beside his sleeping sister, and whispered in her ear. Emma moved, her eyes opened slowly, and uttering a deep sigh, she looked her brother full in the face. But alas! she did not recognize him. In despair, John seized her hand, and tried to urge her to fly with him. He reminded her of her home, of their happy childhood, of their dead parents, of everything that could touch the heart. All in vain! Emma smiled sweetly, and stroked his head as, shedding bitter tears of disappointment, he bent it upon her knees; but she knew him not.
"Leave me in peace," she said, "I am the sea-king's bride-betrothed, and you are but a poor fisher's lad. What you say to me of earth and home I do not understand. This is my home, and if the king should find you here, he would take your head off. If you love me as you say, please go."
Emma lifted to her face the cluster of purple violets, and at once her lids drooped; and, sinking back upon her purple cushions, she slept again.
In bitter disappointment, John retraced his way along the vestibule of the king's grotto and emerged into the inlet where his boat was moored. Carefully marking the spot, he returned to it the next night, but no trace could he find of the submarine opening. The old crab had taken good care to prevent another visit from a marauder, who might cost him his life. John felt ready to abandon all hopes, when, leaning over the edge of the boat, and dragging the water through habit, he felt a violent struggling and fluttering within the net. Hauling it quickly in, a swarm of silver-bright little fishes, each one wearing a pretty maiden's head, escaped from the meshes, leaving behind but a single token, and that John found to be a tiny golden harp. He drew his fingers across the strings, and the sweet sound it gave out was echoed by a sob from beneath a rock ledge close at hand.
"Who is there?" cried John.
"It is I—chief of the sea-king's minstrels," said a voice. "This evening, I and my band were amusing ourselves by the light of the moon, when your cruel net almost frightened us to death. Oh! what shall I do? It's nearly time for the king's visit to his bride-betrothed in the grotto; and if you will not restore to me my harp, I shall be behind-hand, and in disgrace. Oh! if you only knew how strict the leader of the court orchestra is!"
"Will you take me into the grotto, if I give the harp to you?" said John, firmly.
"Oh! I dare not," cried the little mermaid, shivering. "Only yesterday, his majesty found out that some rude outsider had found his way into the grotto, and he has placed on either side of the entrance a double-headed shark. For you to attempt to pass them would be certain death! Pray, pray ask something easier; for every moment is precious to me, now."
"Then tell me what has caused Emma to forget all her life on earth?"
"That I can do, right easily," said the mermaid, coquettishly; "for I have a sister in the band of especial hand-maidens set apart by the king to wait on the bride-betrothed. The fresh violets sent every day to Lady Emma by his majesty, have the power to make her forgetful, and indifferent to all save her present surroundings."
"I knew she had not really grown cold," cried John, in a burst of gratitude. "Here is your harp, pretty one, but answer me one question more. How can I find the entrance to the grotto?"
The little mermaid stood on tip-tail to receive her harp, and, as she once more clasped it in her arms, whispered, in a frightened tone: "When the moon is at the full, its rays strike a white cliff over against yonder dark coast-line. Steer your boat evenly along the path traced by those rays upon the water, and you may see the wedding procession go in at the state entrance. But, of all things, take care not to let yourself be perceived, for on this occasion all the monsters of the deep will be on guard, and your life would not be worth a broken clam-shell."
John bade the mermaid good-by, and from that moment all his thoughts turned upon how he might obtain admission to the wedding festival. He cast his nets diligently, but with no success. All the fishes seemed to have deserted their usual haunts; and no wonder, for the entire population of the sea was in a state of preparation for the great event.
At last the night of the full moon came, and you may be sure John was abroad and watchful, as he cast his nets in feverish anxiety. A sudden pull made him haul in rapidly, and this time he was rewarded by a catch that cost him the most tremendous struggle. What was his surprise to drag into the boat a huge fish, six feet long, with a tall fin nearly the length of its body. The most curious part of it was that the tips of this fin, and also a patch on the creature's head, shone with imprisoned fire. Along the sides of the body were a double row of luminous spots. The fish made no further fight, and John gazed at him in admiration.
"In the name of wonder, what have we here?" he said.
"My good sir," answered the fiery fish, "if you had the least idea of the nature of my business, I am sure you would not interrupt me for a moment. I am one of his majesty's torch-bearers, and the procession is already forming to go to the grotto of the bride-betrothed."
"Hurrah!" said John. "If you will manage to take me with you, I will let you go, but not else."
In vain the torch-bearer protested and begged. John was inexorable. In the end, the torch-bearer demanded time for reflection, and at last spoke as follows:
"I and four of my brothers lead the way, and by going with me you would certainly be seen and punished. But at the very tail-end of the procession, my old father and mother will jog along, accompanied by a swarm of their younger grandchildren. These pretty little creatures, as you may not know, are called Bombay ducks, and their whole bodies glow with light. They are very good-natured, and if we can but win over the other family who help to light the court festivals, the Chiasmodos, I believe we might smuggle you in unobserved between the old people."
"Who are the Chiasmodos?" asked John.
"They are a tribe of deep-sea light-givers," said the torch-bearer, "who consist entirely of a mouth and a stomach. The latter organ swells to an enormous size, and floats beneath like a transparent balloon, while above their great, wide-grinning mouth is worn a crown of light. They are rather snappishly inclined, these Chiasmodos, and may give us trouble; but we must run the risk, if you insist. So, come along, young man, there's no time to waste in talking."
John did not hesitate, but overboard he went, swimming after the released torch-bearer, who proved a friendly fellow after all. It was a beautiful summer's night, and the moon shed a path of radiant light upon the ocean, lying calm and serene beneath her spell. John and the torch-bearer swam along a track of liquid silver, and opposite the white cliff they saw a marvellous array.
The procession was formed, and about to take up its line of march. The drum-fishes were already beating a roll-call; the fiddler crabs fiddled wildly; while the sea-lions roared and rumbled, the whales blew their trumpets, the porpoise puffed, and the electric eel, who was the court jester, wriggled along the line, playing foolish tricks and giving unexpected shocks to those who did not pay attention. Such a multitude! To describe them all would fill many pages of this book; and besides, you would never be able to remember the hard names. The pilot-fish cruised around in front, the torch-bearers came next, then the mermaid musicians, and a host of sea politicians with banners, preceding the whales who sailed majestically ahead of the king's chariot of pearl, drawn by twelve milk-white dolphins with jewelled harness.
After them, every conceivable kind of fish, in regular order, according to their dignity. The octopus party was a sight to make one shudder, but they were in a good humor for once, and comparatively beaming. The sea-serpent swam alone, considering himself too much of a rarity to associate with every-day folk. The sword-fish saluted, and the skates tried to smile, but only succeeded in looking more hideous than before, very much as if they had pains under their waistcoats. The brilliant angel-fishes and the fairy nautilus made the most lovely show it is possible to imagine; though it is hardly fair to single out one or two for praise, when all did so well. Even the herrings from the public schools, and the vulgar little porgies, had clean faces and were allowed to tag after the procession. And, last of all, came the cross Chiasmodos, fortunately swimming before the old father and mother torch-bearers, who, between them, carried John along, and were followed by a gleaming myriad of little Bombay ducks, true glow-worms of the sea.
Led by the moon rays to the white cliff on the coast, the procession came to a halt; and immediately a pair of hidden doors flew back and revealed a long tunnel glittering with lights, which opened directly into John's well-remembered grotto.
There, within, stood Emma, decked in bridal lace, worked by ancient mermaids thousands of years before, to be worn by the queen at her bridal; and on her head was a fragrant crown of violets. She smiled as the king approached, and gave him her hand; the wedding at once began. John, hidden behind a projecting crag, saw, with despair in his heart, the ceremony go on.
The entire walls were lined with ranks of octopi and sharks on guard. To defy them would be death to Emma and himself. He leaned further forward than he intended, and was seen by one of the Chiasmodos, who, flashing her lantern in his face, at once informed on him to her neighbor. Immediately a new monster swam toward John. This was another of the deep-sea torch-bearers, the Chanliodus, appointed to act as chief sentry to the cave. A more ferocious countenance cannot be imagined than was his. The wide mouth bristled with sharp fangs, and his fins were tipped with flame, while all along his sides extended a row of spots like little windows in a ship, through which light was shining.
John saw that in another moment he would be lost. So long as the bridal procession was going on, no one dared to speak; and, beckoning the fierce creature to come behind the rock, John met it with an open knife, aiming so skilfully as to cut the fish open its entire length. The idea now occurred to him to place himself within the body of his dead enemy, which he promptly did, and to his joy, could swim out unobserved, and take his place at the bride's right hand. Just as Emma was about to say "I will," the sentry-fish managed to place in her hand the little gold cross that was once her mother's. The queen-elect looked at the cross in surprise, and as all had passed so quickly, not even the king understood why her head drooped forward, and she seemed about to faint. The sentry-fish whispered in her ear:
"It is I—John—your brother; be brave, and find some excuse for putting off the wedding, and we may yet be saved."
So long as Emma wore the crown of violets, she was unable entirely to break the charm they cast over her. But the little cross was a powerful reminder of her life on earth; and while she held it, she appeared to be awakening from a trance. Excusing herself to the king on the ground of illness, she was supported to her coral couch, and was surrounded by her mermaidens. The king ordered the crowd to withdraw, and soon the disappointed revellers went away, feeling blue and cross, while his majesty himself was in a terrible way, tramping up and down, tearing his green locks, and casting himself on his knees beside Emma, imploring her to speak to him once more.
In vain! Emma's eyes were now obstinately closed, and her cheeks were like marble. The faithful sentry-fish, whose duty it was to patrol the grotto, swam up and down before the couch, and every time he passed near Emma he whispered, "Be brave. I am here. Soon I will rescue you. Give no sign of life."
At last the king took the advice of an old dowager mermaid, and left Emma to herself, consenting to go outside the grotto and smoke a seaweed cigarette, until his bride should be ready to go on with the interrupted wedding.
John spied in the train of mermaidens the little creature whose harp he had restored, and very cautiously, for fear of alarming her, he made himself known. The pretty mermaid laughed and cried hysterically, when she heard his story, and consented to aid him still further by removing the crown of violets from Emma's head. Soon there was heard a great whispering among the mermaid band, and one of the boldest of them ventured to suggest to the dowager lady-in-waiting, that one reason for her majesty's continued swoon might be that her hair was plaited too tight. The dowager, for a wonder, took the suggestion in good part. She ordered the attendants to unpin her majesty's long golden braids, and in so doing the fatal crown fell to the ground unnoticed.
The blood rushed into Emma's face; she sighed, and opening her eyes, looked about her. There was the band of anxious mermaids, and a solitary sentry-fish swimming up and down. In next passing her, he whispered, "Order your attendants to withdraw." This was soon done, only the friendly little mermaid remaining at Emma's side. John, throwing off his disguise, clasped his sister in his arms, and warm tears of human happiness rushed from Emma's eyes. Trampling under foot the crown of violets, and keeping firm hold of her mother's cross, she begged John to bear her back to their own world without delay. Cautiously putting on his fish garb, John swam to the door to reconnoitre the situation. He found there, on guard, only one of the shark sentries, who had taken so much sea-beer, in honor of the king's wedding-day, that John's knife made quick work in despatching him.
And now the way seemed open for their flight. The brother and sister bade farewell to the friendly mermaid, who pledged herself never to reveal the secret of Emma's escape, and started to leave the grotto. Suddenly, lashing the sea in his wrath and fury, both of his fierce mouths spiked with rows of terrible teeth, came the other double-headed shark! John still wore his Chanliodus disguise, and, without a moment's hesitation, dashed bravely to meet the foe. Wielding his trusty knife, he stabbed the shark again and again through the body, darting aside before the monster could get the advantage of him. The shark, wounded mortally and mad with rage, darted forward in a final effort, but John planted his knife in its open jaws. Uttering a horrid death-shriek, the creature lay without motion upon the threshold of the cave.
John lost no time, for the noise of the conflict had already attracted to the scene a number of curious loungers; and, as he feared, the king himself, attended by his body-guard of monsters, now came in sight. Darting swiftly through the waves, with Emma clinging bravely to his shoulders, the assumed Chanliodus drove his sharp fin abruptly into the middle of a party of squids. These poor fellows were the disappointed reporters of a submarine newspaper, going home without an account of the wedding for their journals! The suddenness of the attack caused the squids promptly to spill the contents of the ink-pots they always carry with them, forming a dense black cloud, under cover of which the fugitives safely reached the surface of the sea.
The sun was rising, its rosy light lying upon the bright ocean like a veil. Now, they knew they were secure, for so long as the sun rules in heaven, the sea-king dares not show himself above the waves. John and Emma gazed upon the shore, finding themselves but a little distance from their boat at anchor, and wept tears of joy and thanksgiving for their deliverance from the horrors of the deep. When they had clambered into the boat, John begged his sister to cast away the embroideries and the ropes of pearl she had brought from the sea-king's dominion. Even as he spoke, they saw Emma's finery vanishing like a wisp of burnt paper, while her lovely pearls had turned into strings of common pebbles. Of all her ornaments only the little golden cross remained, and that shone with new lustre. With the full force of his stalwart arm, John cast the sea-king's tokens far into the water; and as they sank, both brother and sister fancied they saw a huge hand arise to seize them with an angry grasp, and heard a growl of baffled rage beneath the waves. Wrapping his sister in his fisherman's cloak, John hastened to sail back to the humble hut beneath the sand-drift, which had never looked so lovely in their eyes.
There they dwelt, loving and serene, until in due time a good husband came for Emma, and John took to himself a fair young wife. From that day forth, prosperity attended them, and John sailed his own ships across the ocean, while Emma lived in a beautiful home near the shore. Strangely enough, never again did John succeed in entrapping one of the talking creatures of which, as we have clearly seen, there are plenty in the sea, if one has luck to find them! And another curious thing is, that never again was Emma able to lift her voice in song. The beautiful gift which had brought about her strange adventure, and had well-nigh proved so fatal to them both, had been lost forever!