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Wet Magic/Chapter 10

 

CHAPTER TEN

The Under Folk

 

THOSE OF US who have had the misfortune to be caught in a net in the execution of our military duty, and to be dragged away by the enemy with all the helpless buoyancy of captive balloons, will be able to appreciate the sensations of the four children to whom this gloomy catastrophe had occurred.

The net was very strong—made of twisted fibrous filaments of seaweed. All efforts to break it were vain, and they had, unfortunately, nothing to cut it with. They had not even their oyster shells, the rough edges of which might have done something to help, or at least would have been useful weapons, and the discomfort of their position was extreme. They were, as Cathay put it, "all mixed up with each other's arms and legs," and it was very difficult and painful to sort themselves out without hurting each other.

"Let's do it, one at a time," said Mavis, after some minutes of severe and unsuccessful struggle. "France first. Get right away, France, and see if you can't sit down on a piece of the net that isn't covered with us, and then Cathay can try."

It was excellent advice and when all four had followed it, it was found possible to sit side by side on what may be called the floor of the net, only the squeezing of the net walls tended to jerk one up from one's place if one wasn't very careful.

By the time the rearrangement was complete, and they were free to look about them, the whole aspect of the world had changed. The world, for one thing, was much darker, in itself that is, though the part of it where the children were was much lighter than had been the sea where they were first netted. It was a curious scene—rather like looking down on London at night from the top of St. Paul's. Some bright things, like trams or omnibuses, were rushing along, and smaller lights, which looked mighty like cabs and carriages, dotted the expanse of blackness till, where they were thick set, the darkness disappeared in a blaze of silvery light.

Other light-bearers had rows of round lights like the portholes of great liners. One came sweeping toward them, and a wild idea came to Cathay that perhaps when ships sink they go on living and moving underwater just as she and the others had done. Perhaps they do. Anyhow, this was not one of them, for, as it came close, it was plainly to be perceived as a vast fish with phosphorescent lights in rows along its gigantic sides. It opened its jaws as it passed, and for an instant everyone shut their eyes and felt that all was over. When the eyes were opened again, the mighty fish was far away. Cathay, however, was discovered to be in tears.

"I wish we hadn't come," she said; and the others could not but feel that there was something in what she said. They comforted her and themselves as best they could by expressing a curious half-certainty which they had that everything would be all right in the end. As I said before, there are some things so horrible that if you can bring yourself to face them you see at once that they can't be true. The barest idea of poetic justice—which we all believe in

In the net, Wet Magic (Nesbit).png

In the net.

at the bottom of our hearts—made it impossible to think that the children who had nobly (they couldn't help feeling it was noble) defended their friends, the Mer Folk, should have anything really dreadful happen to them in consequence. And when Bernard talked about the fortunes of war he did it in an unconvinced sort of way and Francis told him to shut up.

"But what are we to do," sniffed Cathay for the twentieth time, and all the while the Infantryman was going steadily on, dragging the wretched netful after him.

"Press our pearl buttons," suggested Francis hopefully. "Then we shall be invisible and unfeelable and we can escape." He fumbled with the round marble-like pearl.

"No, no," said Bernard, catching at his hand, "don't you see? If we do, we may never get out of the net. If they can't see us or feel us they'll think the net's empty, and perhaps hang it up on a hook or put it away in a box."

"And forget it while years roll by. I see," said Cathay.

"But we can undo them the minute we're there. Can't we?" said Mavis.

"Yes, of course," said Bernard; but as a matter of fact they couldn't.

At last the Infantryman, after threading his way through streets of enormous rocky palaces, passed through a colossal arch, and so into a hall as big as St. Paul's and Westminster Abbey into one.

A crowd of Under Folk, who were seated on stone benches around rude tables, eating strange luminous food, rose up, and cried, "What news?"

"Four prisoners," said the Infantryman.

"Upper Folk," the Colonel said; "and my orders are to deliver them to the Queen herself."

He passed to the end of the hall and up a long wide flight of steps made of something so green and clear that it was plainly either glass or emerald, and I don't think it could have been glass, because how could they have made glass in the sea? There were lights below it which shone through the green transparency so clear and lovely that Francis said dreamily—


         "‘Sabrina fair.
Listen where thou art sitting.
Under the glassie, cool, translucent wave,'"


and quite suddenly there was much less room in the net, and they were being embraced all at once and with tears of relief and joy by the Princess Freia—their own Mer Princess.

"Oh, I didn't mean to—Princess dear, I didn't," said Francis. "It was the emerald steps made me think of translucent."

"So they are," she said, "but oh, if you knew what I've felt—you, our guests, our knights-errant, our noble defenders—to be prisoners and all of us safe. I did so hope you'd call me. And I'm so proud that you didn't—that you were brave enough not to call for me until you did it by accident."

"We never thought of doing it," said Mavis candidly, "but I hope we shouldn't have, if we had thought of it."

"Why haven't you pressed your pearl buttons?" she asked, and they told her why.

"Wise children," she said, "but at any rate we must all use the charm that prevents our losing our memories."

"I shan't use mine," said Cathay. "I don't want to remember. If I didn't remember I should forget to be frightened. Do please let me forget to remember." She clung pleadingly to the Princess, who whispered to Mavis, "Perhaps it would be best," and they let Cathay have her way.

The others had only just time to swallow their charms before the Infantryman threw the net onto a great table, which seemed to be cut out of one vast diamond, and fell on his face on the ground. It was his way of saluting his sovereign.

"Prisoners, your Majesty," he said when he had got up again. "Four of the young of the Upper Folk—" and he turned to the net as he spoke, and stopped short—"there's someone else," he said in an altered voice, "someone as wasn't there when we started, I'll swear."

"Open the net," said a strong, sweet voice, "and bid the prisoners stand up that I may look upon them."

"They might escape, my love," said another voice anxiously, "or perhaps they bite."

"Submersia," said the first voice, "do you and four of my women stand ready. Take the prisoners one by one. Seize each a prisoner and hold them, awaiting my royal pleasure."

The net was opened and large and strong hands took Bernard, who was nearest the mouth of the net back, and held him gently but with extreme firmness in an upright position on the table. None of them could stand because of their tails.

They saw before them, on a throne, a tall and splendid Queen, very beautiful and very sad, and by her side a King (they knew the royalty by their crowns), not so handsome as his wife, but still very different from the uncouth, heavy Under Folk. And he looked sad too. They were clad in robes of richest woven seaweed, sewn with jewels, and their crowns were like dreams of magnificence. Their throne was of one clear blood-bright ruby, and its canopy of green drooping seaweed was gemmed with topazes and amethysts. The Queen rose and came down the steps of the throne and whispered to her whom she had called Submersia, and she in turn whispered to the four other large ladies who held, each, a captive.

And with a dreadful unanimity the five acted; with one dexterous movement they took off the magic jackets, and with another they removed the useful tails. The Princess and the four children stood upon the table on their own ten feet.

"What funny little things," said the King, not unkindly.

"Hush," said the Queen, "perhaps they can understand what you say—and at any rate that Mer-girl can."

The children were furious to hear their Princess so disrespectfully spoken of. But she herself remained beautifully calm.

"Now," said the Queen, "before we destroy your memories, will you answer questions?"

"Some questions, yes—others, no," said the Princess.

"Are these human children?"

"Yes."

"How do they come under the sea?"

"Mer-magic. You wouldn't understand," said the Princess haughtily.

"Were they fighting against us?"

"Yes," cried Bernard and Mavis before the Princess answered.

"And lucky to do it," Francis added.

"If you will tell us the fighting strength of the Merlanders, your tails and coats shall be restored to you and you shall go free. Will you tell?"

"Is it likely?" the Princess answered. "I am a Mer-woman, and a Princess of the Royal House. Such do not betray their country."

"No, I suppose not," said the Queen. And she paused a moment before she said, "Administer the cup of forgetfulness."

The cup of forgetfulness was exceedingly pleasant. It tasted of toffee and coconuts, and pineapple ices, and plum cake, and roast chicken, with a faint underflavor of lavender, rose leaves and the very best eau de cologne.

The children had tasted cider-cup and champagne-cup at parties, and had disliked both, but oblivion-cup was delicious. It was served in a goblet of opal color, in dreamy pink and pearl—and green and blue and gray—and the sides of the goblet were engraved with pictures of beautiful people asleep. The goblet passed from hand to hand, and when each had drunk enough the Lord High Cupbearer, a very handsome, reserved-looking fish, laid a restraining touch on the goblet and, taking it between his fins, handed it to the next drinker. So, one by one, each took the draught. Kathleen was the last.

The draught had no effect on four out of the five—but Kathleen changed before their eyes, and though they had known that the draught of oblivion would make her forget, it was terrible to see it do its fell work.

Mavis had her arm protectingly around Kathleen, and the moment the draught had been swallowed Kathleen threw off that loving arm and drew herself away. It hurt like a knife. Then she looked at her brothers and sisters, and it is a very terrible thing when the eyes you love look at you as though you were a stranger.

Now, it had been agreed, while still the captives were in the net, that all of them should pretend that the cup of oblivion had taken effect, that they should just keep still and say nothing and look as stupid as they could. But this coldness of her dear Cathay's was more than Mavis could bear, and no one had counted on it. So when Cathay looked at Mavis as at a stranger whom she rather disliked, and drew away from her arm, Mavis could not bear it, and cried out in heart-piercing tones, "Oh, Cathay, darling, what is it? What's the matter?" before the Princess or the boys could stop her. And to make matters worse, both boys said in a very loud, plain whisper, "Shut up, Mavis," and only the Princess kept enough presence of mind to go on saying nothing.

Cathay turned and looked at her sister.

"Cathay, darling," Mavis said again, and stopped, for no one could go on saying "darling" to anyone who looked at you as Cathay was looking.

She turned her eyes away as Cathay looked toward the Queen—looked, and went, to lean against the royal knee as though it had been her mother's.

"Dear little thing," said the Queen; "see, it's quite tame. I shall keep it for a pet. Nice little pet then!"

"You shan't keep her," cried Mavis, but again the Princess hushed her, and the Queen treated her cry with contemptuous indifference. Cathay snuggled against her new mistress.

"As for the rest of you," said the Queen, "it is evident from your manner that the draught of oblivion has not yet taken effect on you. So it is impossible for me to make presents of you to those prominent members of the nobility, who are wanting pets, as I should otherwise have done. We will try another draught tomorrow. In the meantime . . . the fetters, Jailer."

A tall sour-looking Under-man stepped forward. Hanging over his arm were scaly tails, which at first sight of the children's hearts leaped, for they hoped they were their own. But no sooner were the tails fitted on than they knew the bitter truth.

"Yes," said the Queen "they are false tails. You will not be able to take them off, and you can neither swim nor walk with them. You can, however, move along quite comfortably on the floor of the ocean. What's the matter?" she asked the Jailer.

"None of the tails will fit this prisoner, your Majesty," said the Jailer.

"I am a Princess of the reigning Mer House," said Freia, "and your false, degrading tails cannot cling to me."

"Oh, put them all in the lockup," said the King, "as sullen a lot of prisoners as ever I saw—what?"

The lockup was a great building, broader at the top than at the bottom, which seemed to be balanced on the sea floor, but really it was propped up at both ends with great chunks of rock. The prisoners were taken there in the net, and being dragged along in nets is so confusing, that it was not till the Jailer had left them that they discovered that the prison was really a ship—an enormous ship—which lay there, perfect in every detail as on the day when it first left dock. The water did not seem to have spoiled it at all. They were imprisoned in the saloon, and, worn out with the varied emotions of the day, they lay down on the comfortable red velvet cushions and went to sleep. Even Mavis felt that Kathleen had found a friend in the Queen, and was in no danger.

The Princess was the last to close her eyes. She looked long at the sleeping children.

"Oh, why don't they think of it?" she said, "and why mustn't I tell them?"

There was no answer to either question, and presently she too slept.

I must own that I share the Princess's wonder that the children did not spend the night in saying "Sabrina fair" over and over again. Because of course each invocation would have been answered by an inhabitant of Merland, and thus a small army could easily have been collected, the Jailer overpowered and a rush made for freedom.

I wish I had time to tell you all that happened to Kathleen, because the daily life of a pampered lap-child to a reigning Queen is one that you would find most interesting to read about. As interesting as your Rover or Binkie would find it to read—if he could read—about the life of one of Queen Alexandra's Japanese Spaniels. But time is getting on, and I must make a long story short. And anyhow you can never tell all about everything, can you?

The next day the Jailers brought food to the prison, as well as a second draught of oblivion, which, of course, had no effect, and they spent the day wondering how they could escape. In the evening the Jailer's son brought more food and more oblivion-cup, and he lingered while they ate. He did not look at all unkind, and Francis ventured to speak to him.

"I say," he said.

"What do you say?" the Under-lad asked.

"Are you forbidden to talk to us?"

"No."

"Then do tell us what they will do with us."

"I do not know. But we shall have to know before long. The prisons are filling up quickly—they will soon be quite full. Then we shall have to let some of you out on what is called ticket-of-leave—that means with your artificial tails on, which prevent you getting away, even if the oblivion-cup doesn't take effect."

"I say," it was Bernard's turn to ask.

"What do you say?"

"Why don't the King and Queen go and fight, like the Mer Royal Family do?"

"Against the law," said the Under-lad. "We took a King prisoner once, and our people were afraid our King and Queen might be taken, so they made that rule."

"What did you do with him—the prisoner King?" the Princess asked.

"Put him in an Iswater," said the lad, "a piece of water entirely surrounded by land."

"I should like to see him," said the Princess.

"Nothing easier," said the Under-lad, "as soon as you get your tickets-of- leaves. It's a good long passage to the lake—nearly all water, of course, but lots of our young people go there three times a week. Of course, he can't be a King anymore now—but they made him Professor of Conchology."

"And has he forgotten he was a King?" asked the Princess.

"Of course: but he was so learned the oblivion-cup wasn't deep enough to make him forget everything: that's why he's a Professor."

"What was he King of?" the Princess asked anxiously.

"He was King of the Barbarians," said the Jailer's son—and the Princess sighed.

"I thought it might have been my father," she said, "he was lost at sea, you know."

The Under-lad nodded sympathetically and went away.

"He doesn't seem such a bad sort," said Mavis.

"No," said the Princess, "I can't understand it. I thought all the Under Folk were terrible fierce creatures, cruel and implacable."

"And they don't seem so very different from us—except to look at," said Bernard.

"I wonder," said Mavis, "what the war began about?"

"Oh—we've always been enemies," said the Princess, carelessly.

"Yes—but how did you begin being enemies?"

"Oh, that," said the Princess, "is lost in the mists of antiquity, before the dawn of history and all that."

"Oh," said Mavis.

But when Ulfin came with the next meal—did I tell you that the Jailer's son's name was Ulfin?—Mavis asked him the same question.

"I don't know—little land-lady," said Ulfin, "but I will find out—my uncle is the Keeper of the National Archives, graven on tables of stone, so many that no one can count them, but there are smaller tables telling what is on the big ones—" he hesitated. "If I could get leave to show you the Hall of the Archives, would you promise not to try to escape?"

They had now been shut up for two days and would have promised anything in reason.

"You see, the prisons are quite full now," he said, "and I don't see why you shouldn't be the first to get your leaves-tickets. I'll ask my father."

"I say!" said Mavis.

"What do you say?" said Ulfin.

"Do you know anything about my sister?"

"The Queen's new lap-child? Oh—she's a great pet—her gold collar with her name on it came home today. My cousin's brother-in-law made it."

"The name—Kathleen?" said Mavis.

"The name on the collar is Fido," said Ulfin.

The next day Ulfin brought their tickets-of-leaves, made of the leaves of the tree of Liberty which grows at the bottom of the well where Truth lies.

"Don't lose them," he said, "and come with me." They found it quite possible to move along slowly on hands and tails, though they looked rather like seals as they did so. He led them through the strange streets of massive passages, pointing out the buildings, giving them their names as you might do if you were showing the marvels of your own city to a stranger.

"That's the Astrologers' Tower," he said, pointing to a huge building high above the others. "The wise men sit there and observe the stars."

"But you can't see the stars down here."

"Oh, yes, we can. The tower is fitted up with tubes and mirrors and water transparence apparatus. The wisest men in the country are there—all but the Professor of Conchology. He's the wisest of all. He invented the nets that caught you—or rather, making nets was one of the things that he had learned and couldn't forget."

"But who thought of using them for catching prisoners?"

"I did," said Ulfin proudly, "I'm to have a glass medal for it."

"Do you have glass down here?"

"A little comes down, you know. It is very precious. We engrave it. That is the Library—millions of tables of stone—the Hall of Public Joy is next to it—that garden is the mothers' garden where they go to rest while their children are at school—that's one of our schools. And here's the Hall of Public Archives."

The Keeper of the Records received them with grave courtesy. The daily services of Ulfin had accustomed the children to the appearance of the Under Folk, and they no longer found their strange, mournful faces terrifying, and the great hall where, on shelves cut out of the sheer rock, were stored the graven tables of Underworld Records, was very wonderful and impressive.

"What is it you want to know?" said the Keeper, rolling away some of the stones he had been showing them. "Ulfin said there was something special."

"Why the war began?" said Francis.

"Why the King and Queen are different?" said Mavis.

"The war," said the Keeper of the Records, "began exactly three million five hundred and seventy-nine thousand three hundred and eight years ago. An Under-man, getting off his Sea Horse in a hurry trod on the tail of a sleeping Merman. He did not apologize because he was under a vow not to speak for a year and a day. If the Mer-people had only waited he would have explained, but they went to war at once, and, of course, after that you couldn't expect him to apologize. And the war has gone on, off and on and on and off, ever since."

The Hall of Public Archives, Wet Magic (Nesbit).png

The Hall of Public Archives.

"And won't it ever stop?" asked Bernard.

"Not till we apologize, which, of course, we can't until they find out why the war began and that it wasn't our fault."

"How awful!" said Mavis; "then it's all really about nothing."

"Quite so," said the Keeper, "what are your wars about? The other question I shouldn't answer only I know you'll forget it when the oblivion-cup begins to work. Ulfin tells me it hasn't begun yet. Our King and Queen are imported. We used to be a Republic, but Presidents were so uppish and so grasping, and all their friends and relations too; so we decided to be a Monarchy, and that all jealousies might be taken away we imported the two handsomest Land Folk we could find. They've been a great success, and as they have no relations we find it much less expensive."

When the Keeper had thus kindly gratified the curiosity of the prisoners the Princess said suddenly:

"Couldn't we learn Conchology?"

And the Keeper said kindly, "Why not? It's the Professor's day tomorrow."

"Couldn't we go there today?" asked the Princess, "just to arrange about times and terms and all that?"

"If my Uncle says I may take you there," said Ulfin, "I will, for I have never known any pleasure so great as doing anything that you wish will give me."

The Uncle looked a little anxious, but he said he thought there could be no harm in calling on the Professor. So they went. The way was long for people who were not seals by nature and were not yet compelled to walk after the manner of those charming and intelligent animals. The Mer Princess alone was at her ease. But when they passed a building, as long as from here to the end of the Mile End Road, which Ulfin told them was the Cavalry Barracks, a young Under-man leaned out of a window and said:

"What ho! Ulf."

"What ho! yourself," said Ulfin, and approaching the window spoke in whispers. Two minutes later the young Cavalry Officer who had leaned out of the window gave an order, and almost at once some magnificent Sea Horses, richly caparisoned, came out from under an arched gateway. The three children were mounted on these, and the crowd which had collected in the street seemed to find it most amusing to see people in fetter-tails riding on the chargers of the Horse Marines. But their laughter was not ill-natured. And the horses were indeed a boon to the weary tails of the amateur seals.

Riding along the bottom of the sea was a wonderful experience—but soon the open country was left behind and they began to go up ways cut in the heart of the rock—ways long and steep, and lighted, as all that great Underworld was, with phosphorescent light.

When they had been traveling for some hours and the children were beginning to think that you could perhaps have too much even of such an excellent thing as Sea Horse exercise, the phosphorescent lights suddenly stopped, and yet the sea was not dark. There seemed to be a light ahead, and it got stronger and stronger as they advanced, and presently it streamed down on them from shallow water above their heads.

"We leave the Sea Horses here," said Ulfin, "they cannot live in the air. Come."

They dismounted and swam up. At least Ulfin and the Princess swam and the others held hands and were pulled by the two swimmers. Almost at once their heads struck the surface of the water, and there they were, on the verge of a rocky shore. They landed, and walked—if you can call what seals do walking—across a ridge of land, then plunged into a landlocked lake that lay beyond.

The chargers of the Horse Marines, Wet Magic (Nesbit).png

The chargers of the Horse Marines.

"This is the Iswater," said Ulfin as they touched bottom, "and yonder is the King." And indeed a stately figure in long robes was coming toward them.

"But this," said the Princess, trembling, "is just like our garden at home, only smaller."

"It was made as it is," said Ulfin, "by wish of the captive King. Majesty is Majesty, be it never so conquered."

The advancing figure was now quite near them. It saluted them with royal courtesy.

"We wanted to know," said Mavis, "please, your Majesty, if we might have lessons from you."

The King answered, but the Princess did not hear. She was speaking with Ulfin, apart.

"Ulfin," she said, "this captive King is my Father."

"Yes, Princess," said Ulfin.

"And he does not know me—"

"He will," said Ulfin strongly.

"Did you know?"

"Yes."

"But the people of your land will punish you for bringing us here, if they find out that he is my Father and that you have brought us together. They will kill you. Why did you do it, Ulfin?"

"Because you wished it, Princess," he said, "and because I would rather die for you than live without you."