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A Man and a Mermaid.


MR. JOHN FRANKLIN HIGGINSON, senior partner of the firm of Higginson & Rush, lay stretched at ease in his deck chair on a transatlantic liner. It was a perfectly calm night, and the sea was murmuring softly in response to the full light of the moon, which was making the night eloquent. Mr. Higginson had drawn his chair to a secluded corner of the lower deck where he was closer to the water and unsheltered from the heavens. He had dined full and well, and the fragrance of his cigar was deeply satisfying. He looked out over the silver world of water, and sighed slightly, as if troubled by the exceeding beauty of the universe.

The moonlight seemed to penetrate into his brain and there to discover something which had for years been buried under a mass of legal matter, deep in the recesses of his mind. Then something stirred, took form, and turned out to bfe a couplet of poetry:

"Ah, moon of my delight—that knows no wane,
The moon of heaven Id rising once again!"

Mr. Higginson smiled. Where had he heard that? Then he remembered; it was at a musicale last winter, where some one had sung the lines just as he had entered the room. He flicked a long cone of ashes from his cigar and lost himself in further reflections. What should there be about a mere sequence of words to stir one's feelings I Poetry, as such, was all nonsense Higginson had come to that conclusion long ago; therefore, he reasoned, it could only be that it aroused memories of some former sensations, in the same way as might a perfume or a few bare of music. Presently another line of verse came pushing its way to the top of his dome of consciousness (Mr. Higginson, be it said, believed somewhat in the psychology of Herbart), "Where are the flowers of yesterday?" half murmured Mr. Higginson. He remembered perfectly, and with somewhat of a twinge of memory, the occasion of his first hearing these lines. They were introduced by Mr. Sothern in "If I were King!", and when they first fell upon the earn of Mr. Higginson, they served as a reminder that on the previous day he had neglected to send flowers to a certain lady.

From such distressing memories Mr. Higginson turned to wider and less personal thoughts, prompted by the beauty of the night. How luminous the water seemed to-night! It must be full of those phosphorescent animalcula Mr. Higginson had read about.

As he tipped off some more ashes from his cigar daintily with his little finger, he noticed how the ruby in his ring flashed in the moonlight. It was a handsome "pigeon-blood" ruby of considerable value. For a while Mr. Higginson watched the strange light it emitted under the rays of the moon.

From this musing Mr. Higginson's attention was again drawn to the water by something moving near the ship. Probably some larger species of fish, he mused, possibly—as there was a white flash—possibly even a porpoise. Then he remembered that porpoises come only in schools and leap out of the water. Mr. Higginson idly wondered at the swirling luminous water. Suddenly he stared below him. Strange! he thought, that might have l)ecn a white arm! He would have liked to have asked a sailor the meaning of such phenomena, but there seemed no one about; it was evidently late, as the passengers had all turned in.

Again came a white flash in the moonlight. Then a streak of whiteness, splashing and flashing in the shimmering water. Mr. Higginson gazed spellbound; sometimes nearer, sometimes farther off, whatever it was it kept well up with the steamer. Mr. Higginson felt a little ripple creep down his spine. Suppose it should be—! The thought was too unpleasant—besides, it was obviously alive and moving. Now it was quite close in,—and beyond a doubt, it had white feelers, which looked and moved like arms. Mr. Iligginson's brain swam. Pictures by Böcklin came dancing before his mental vision. Then he shuddered, for there, in the moonlight, by the boat's side, swam a woman, beautifully nude! What was lie to do! Could it be some demented passenger? The French lady had seemed to him somewhat unbalanced. Then, he had heard of somnambulism. Great Scott! And he would be required as a witness in case anything happened! In a turmoil of emotions Mr. Higginson waved to the lady. She came nearer somewhat cautiously. He deemed it best to humor her and temporize, as she seemed such an excellent swimmer, hoping for help to appear meanwhile. A brilliant idea presented itself to Mr. Higginson.

"I suppose you are a mermaid?" he called, very softly. He heard only what sounded like a faint laugh, while the lady, as Mr. Higginson expressed to himself, moved with a gallic abandon through the water. Perhaps she didn't understand English. "Vous-êtes une petite nymphe, n'estee pas?" he called again, with a sympathetic side gesture, suggestive of aquatic origin. This time he heard an unmistakable and impudent little giggle.

Mr. Higginson tried another tack.

"I wish I were down there with you!" he said as enviously as he could—then he stopped and blushed as he remembered the full significance of his remark. He only hoped no one had heard him!

"Do you sing?—Chantez-vous?" he called again, hoping she would throw discretion to the winds in her desire to act out the part of a Lorelei, and thus attract the attention of the watch. This time his question was answered. Soft, like silver cadences, came the most exquisite singing Mr. Higginson had ever heard. He could not tell the words, but it sounded like " Weia-Wala, Wala-Weia!" repeated in ever changing modulations. The nearest approach to it he had heard was a part of that otherwise sadly muddled opera "Das Rheingold."

Like a sigh the singing ended, and Mr. Higginson scarcely yet breathed, afraid to lose a note of it. A laugh rippled up to him. There below him was the lady whose singing was only matched by her swimming.

Mr. Higginson once more became embarrassed at the propinquity of her gleaming body, but she seemed honestly and frankly unashamed. Her hair glistened like gold and silver in the moonlight, while one arm moved out of the water and in with scarcely a ripple. She beckoned and smiled at him radiantly, and he saw she was no passenger.

"What do you want?" he asked, almost in a whisper. She made a gesture with one hand and the little finger of the other. He looked at his hand and saw the ruby shining there. He looked at her doubtfully. She made a pleading gesture and gazed at him so fully, that as in a dream he took off his ring and dropped it into the ocean. She caught it deftly as it flashed into the water and pressed it to her lips. " Thank you! thank you! " she exclaimed in perfect English.

"So you can speak English?" he queried. "Yes," she replied, and her voice sounded like a ripple of water. "I can speak any language once I have touched to my lips something belonging to one who speaks it." Mr. Higginson's mind ran over cases he had heard of witnesses who could only speak under the spell of a golden coin. "She might have asked for my handkerchief or my necktie," he thought to himself a little ruefully, but aloud he said, "Who are you?"

"You wouldn't believe me." she laughed.

"Not really!" he exclaimed, with a vague shudder. She nodded, and splashed the water up to him with a little laugh.

"Where do you live? " he asked.

"Do not move and I will tell you, as you have been so kind to me." And, softly splashing by the vessel's side, she told him the following, half singing in a curious, fascinating rhythm:

"My name is Pelagia, and I was born in a sea-shell in a cave of corals, many miles below the surface. Down there is a world of beings of all sorts—mermaids like me, mermen, oyster maidens, which grow from pearls; mothers-of-pearl, which are the mothers of the oyster maidens; coral dwarfs, which never come to the surface; and Sea Ancients, which are old men, descendants, they say, of the God Neptune. We have our laws and we are bound to keep them. One of them is that we may only appear once in our lives to human beings."

Mr. Higginson felt a subtle glow of satisfaction at these words.

"So you are having your night out?" he ventured. But she ignored his remark by diving under the water. When she came up she continued: "Have you ever heard of Undine?" He remembered the name vaguely, but could not recall her story. "Well," she went on, "You should read it, for it is quite true. A recollection flashed through his mind. " Do you mean to say that that old story of mermaids not having souls, but being able to acquire them through human love, is true?" She nodded her head half sadly. "That is why we are allowed to show ourselves to a human being once in our lives." "And do you generally choose an ocean-liner?" he asked, thinking mermaids must be developing a sense for business. "Not generally," she replied, "mostly it is sailors or fishermen. But do you remember, last year, hearing of a very rich man who was lost at sea?" Mr. Higginson remembered perfectly—a very wealthy Wall Street broker who had thrown himself overboard from a transatlantic steamer. "Yes," he said, "I remember very distinctly." "Well, he is married to one of my friends," she said, with a mischievous glance that made Mr. Higginson shiver. "I hope he's happy!" he managed to say in a conventional tone. "Oh, perfectly!" she replied, coolly, "he gave her a most lovely engagement ring, almost as handsome as this one!" Mr. Higginson turned icy cold. "But," he choked, and his voice sounded strange, "that is not an engagement ring!" She sent out a ripple of laughter and splashed the water merrily, "Oh, yes, it is!" "And do you mean to say that I am affianced to you?" gasped Mr. Higginson. "By the laws of our realm you are bound to me!" she said, tossing her golden hair in the spray. "But I know nothing of your laws. By our laws—by the laws of Great Britain and the law of the United States—I am not bound to you or any woman!" His tone was almost defiant. "But, Sweetheart mine!" she laughed, "don't you see you are not in any one of those countries, but on the ocean, and should you not be tied by the law of the realm you are in?" An awful logic in her remark struck him speechless with honor. "Besides," she resumed reflectively, gazing at the ring, "you ought to be glad to have me. Am I not beautiful?" and with naive frankness she half lifted herself on a little wave and clasped her hands behind her head, gazing up at him in a way to make him giddy and set his heart racing wildly. In truth she was gloriously beautiful! His antipathy for her seemed to melt into the moonlight.

"But I know nothing of your language, your customs, your laws," he expostulated weakly.

"You could go to school," she whispered, with a glance that made his heart stand still with ecstasy.

"School!" he said. "What school? Have you schools down there?"

"Of course!" and she smiled. "We have a school of porpoises which you might attend. That is where the rich man went to." There was a flash of merriment in her eyes, which wholly escaped him. He was bending over, devouring her beauty with his eyes. She stretched up her arms to him. "When," he whispered, "when shall I come?"

A yearning look crept into her face and her mouth seemed formed as if for an answer—or a kiss. His elbow and one foot were on the taffrail, when he was seized from behind with a grip of iron and forced backwards, while a gruff voice said in his ear:

"It's against the Cap'n's orders to jump overboard."

Mr. Higginson started, stared, and walked slowly to his stateroom.