The Merman and the Mermaid: A Sea-side Mystery: 1882



We all called him the Merman. He rode about in a Bath-chair in all kinds of weather, always pulled by the same man—a stranger in the town—wearing a kind of half-livery. The story had got about that the Merman resembled that terrible creature in Wilkie Collins’s tale—that he had no legs. With respect to the Mermaid, opinion was divided. Some said she was his wife, and others his daughter. She appeared to be deeply devoted to him, and was always by his side. They came early in the season, and took a furnished house. The man who dragged the chair was their only servant . They kept no company. The Mermaid was tall, and fair, and very pretty. She appeared to be between twenty-one and twenty-three. She wore the most delightful frocks, and the most dainty of shoes, with pointed toes, high heels, and arched instep. I think that, perhaps, these shoes did more than anything else towards prejudicing our ladies against the Mermaid, whose behaviour, as far as could be observed, was irreproachable, but there was a sort of defiant sniff about our ladies.

What was the matter with the Merman, and what made him ride about in a chair? unless, as I began by saying, he had no legs, and consequently could not walk. He was ridiculously ruddy, particularly about the nose. He ate and drank in public places, in turn oysters, stout, and sodas-and-b.’s. What he did indoors none could tell, but the butcher who served him said he was a good customer. Everywhere where the company was most numerous the uninteresting invalid and his fascinating companion were to be found in the thickest part of the crowd.

And now for the solution of the mystery. One day an unobtrusive gentleman, whose presence among us no one seemed to have noticed, suddenly darted at and clutched a slender wrist round which was coiled a golden serpent, and from the Mermaid’s hand fell to the ground a purse she had picked a lady’s pocket of. Almost at the same moment the Merman found his legs, good long ones, too, and sprung from his Bath-chair, bolted at full speed, never to be seen again. A moment afterwards, though, the unobtrusive gentleman’s mate, another detective, grappled with the man in livery, and he and the Mermaid had handcuffs on in half a twinkling. The Bath-chair was taken good care of, too, as well as its contents, which consisted of a watch or two and a few more purses. And then we all said we knew from the first the Mermaid and her male companions were a bad lot.

The Mermaid and Other Tales, Charles Henry Ross, 1882

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: As the summer draws to a close, Mrs Daffodil reminds her readers to beware of pickpockets and confidence persons at the sea-side and other places of amusement. The “terrible creature” in the Wilkie Collins tale was Miserrimus Dexter from The Law and the Lady [1874-75], an unbalanced creature without legs who uses a wheeled chair or walks on his hands. The plot was inspired by the thrilling Madelaine Smith arsenic-poisoning case.  Miss Smith, a young woman of unruly passions, albeit from a respectable Edinburgh family, was accused of poisoning her lover, a clerk in a pharmacy. He had refused to give up incriminating letters as she was about to become engaged; her solution was a cup of arsenic-laced cocoa. The judge expressed himself very severely on the defendant after shockingly candid excerpts from the letters were read in court. The jury delivered the peculiarly Scottish verdict, “Not proven,” which essentially means that the jury believed the defendant guilty, but is unable to prove it.

In this case, the “Mermaid” and her half-liveried accomplice are likely to have received a more definitive verdict.  Dreadful though the literary character was, “Miserrimus Dexter” is such a splendid name that Mrs Daffodil feels a certain regret that it was not chosen at the font by the parents of a person whose work she admires, Dexter Morgan.


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