The Mermaid Look: 1840s

the mermaid Howard Pyle 1910

A STORY OF THE SEA

Mary Kyle Dallas

“Do I believe in mermaids ?” said old Captain Saltwater, stirring his punch and beaming upon us from the fragrant mist which arose from the great glass before him. “Do I believe in mermaids? Of course I do. Long ago, when I went to sea as a cabin boy, I’ve heard them singing many and many a moonlight night so that I could scarcely lie still in my hammock, and have watched over the side oftener than I can tell you for the gleaming of their white arms and the floating of the sea-green hair they are so proud of. They’ve left off troubling me now, for I’m old and tough as sea water can make me; and even if it was of any use, they wouldn’t think me a prize worth capturing; but then when my heart was soft and my cheek like a peach with the down upon it, they could never leave me alone, but were always beckoning and singing to me. If I hadn’t had a good old mother that I was too fond of to forsake for any flesh and blood woman in the world, let alone a mermaid , I’ve no doubt I should have been among the coral caves to-night instead of here, my dears.

“Mermaids! bless you, you’re not half up to their arts; they have a way (I’m sure of it) of getting rid of the fishy part of ‘em and coming out on land for all the world like Christian women. I’ve met them miles and miles away from the ocean, looking as modest and blushing as much as they could if they’d been what they seemed to be. But I knew them; nothing could deceive me. I always saw the sea in their eyes. Blue eyes, and very pretty ones; but when you least expected it, that deep sea-green would rise from behind them or creep over them somehow, and you would see the mermaid look in a moment.

“It was a kind of natural instinct with me, and I never could teach any one my secret. Ah! I wish I could have taught it to Ralph Hawthorne, but he always laughed at me whenever I spoke of such things. He hadn’t been brought up a sailor, d’ye see, but had been to college, and learnt to explain everything away until he believed nothing. Corpselights he called ‘ electricity,’ and ‘Mother Carey’s chickens’ a superstition; and as for the sea serpent, he actually had the audacity to tell old Tom Pipes, a man who had sailed salt water for 40 years, that he must have dreamt he saw it close to the rock of Gibraltar, because the creature was fabulous. The sea serpent fabulous! He might as well have told old Tom he lied.

“Howsomever, the lad’s education was to blame for these things, and he was to be pitied for not being taught what he ought to have known, and I was just as fond of him as though he had been my own brother. Son, is more like it—for he was very young and there was years between us. He was the best messmate when he was off his hobby that I ever met with, and he made the Cousin Kitty ring again with the old sea songs he was so fond of singing on bright moonlight nights.

“The Cousin Kitty was the ship in which we sailed, and of which he was part owner. I had named her after a little cousin of my own, who half bewitched me when I was a lad, and I was as fond of her as I could have been of her namesake, the living cousin Kitty, if it had been written in Life’s log book that I was to be moored alongside of her. I could never have borne that a man I did not like should be part owner of that vessel.

“Our first voyage together was to the East Indies, and we had terrible weather coming home; and were in scenes that proved what stuff the men were made off. Ralph came out pure gold, and showed that college hadn’t spoiled him, and we were fast friends from that time; for when I like a man, d’ye see, I stick to him, and I liked Ralph more than I can tell.

“He had hair that clung in great black rings all about his neck and temples, an olive skin, and eyes such as I have never seen on any other living thing except a seal. You may laugh, but though they talk about gazelle’s eyes in poetry, they don’t compare with those of a seal—great, brown, loving, imploring things, with a soul behind them as sure as I’m a sinner.

“He was so handsome, that when we passed the reef where the mermaids lay in wait, I used to be afraid to see him looking down into the water. Those creatures are bold for all they’re shy, d’ye see, and I didn’t know but that they might make a spring at him and carry him off by main force if stratagem failed them. Perhaps they were daunted by his great brown eyes, for he never even heard them sing.

“Well, my dears, Ralph Hawthorne and I had sailed together four good years, and he was as dear to me as my own son could have been, when coming across from Liverpool to New York we met the very worst storm that the Cousin Kitty had ever weathered through. I never quite gave her up, but there were moments when I began to think that I and my good ship would be lying beneath the water together before the sun rose over it. For it was in the middle of the second night that the storm was at its worst, and with pitch-black water all around and a sky blacker yet overhead, we were beaten and rocked and driven as though the air were full of unseen demons.

“We had passengers on board, and though they were all fastened down below we could hear the women’s shrieks above the roaring of the wind and the breaking of the waves. Women, d’ye see, were never meant to leave dry land. I’d rather see anything on board of a vessel than a woman.

“By dawn the storm had abated, and the Cousin Kitty had acted like a queen, so Ralph and I went down to cheer the passengers up. When we told them we were out of danger, they squalled for joy, just as they had squalled for fear a little while before. The women folks were sulky with me, because when they were at their loudest the night before I beat upon the doors with a belaying pin, and told ’em if they didn’t hold their tongues I’d let the ship sink just to drown their voices. But they all clustered about Ralph as though they wanted to kiss him, and he, the rascal, looked at them out of his great seal-brown eyes as though he were in love with every girl on board.

“Somehow he quieted them, and those who were sick went back to their staterooms, and those who were well enough sat down to breakfast, and there was as much peace as could be expected with petticoats on board at all. Well, when we had settled that job we went on board again. The clouds were clearing off, and there seemed to be a prospect of pleasant weather, but straight ahead of us we saw a sight that made my heart ache—the wreck of a handsome vessel stranded on a rock, and going fast to pieces. We saw no one upon her; all hands had left her, we supposed, for the boats when she began to part. She had been a handsome French-built vessel, and the name upon her side was L’Esperance. It made me think of the Cousin Kitty, as the sight of another man’s dead child makes a man think of his own living one, and I wondered who the captain was, and how he felt when he left his hope to go down into the dark waters without him. For L’Esperance means Hope, you know, my dears, better than I do, and it was awful to see that bright word written in golden letters above the broken hulk that hadn’t so much as an anchor left to it.

“Doubtful as it seemed, we thought there might be some poor soul clinging somewhere to the wreck, and Ralph Hawthorne and I with half a dozen hands went out in a boat to look at her. It seemed plain in a few moments that she was quite deserted, and we were going back to the Cousin Kitty again, when Ralph frightened me by springing upon the boat and over the side in a moment.

“’The mermaids have got him at last!’ I shouted, but before the words were out of my lips he was swimming alongside with something white in his strong young arms.

“’Take her, for Heaven’s sake!’ he cried, and then I knew that it was a woman whom he held, and a drowned one, for if she had been living she would have clung to him until she dragged him down along with her to Davy Jones’s locker. They will do it; you can’t save a woman from drowning unless she is senseless. Well, we took the poor thing on board, and after a deal of fuss, with all the lady passengers in the way, pretending to help and doing worse than nothing, brought breath back to the poor little body. The first use she made of it was to scream for ‘mon père’ and ‘Alphonse,’ until I began to think we were wrong in bringing her to life and misery, for there was little doubt but that the two she called for were sleeping amongst the seaweed together.

“In a day or two she grew quieter, and then she told us in pretty broken English such a pitiful little story of the white-haired old father and the young lover soon to be a husband, and the storm and the darkness and the awful separation. She made me cry like a baby, and Ralph Hawthorne’s eyes were browner and more seal-like as he listened.

“She came on deck before the voyage was over every afternoon, and used to sit looking down into the water for hours and hours together. The lady passengers made a pet of her, and Ralph Hawthorne was like a brother to the little thing.

“As for myself, I had resolved that she should never want a friend while I lived. So when we arrived at the end of our voyage I took her to my sister Margaret, and told her the story. I was old and had no children, and Meg took a fancy to the girl, so when I sailed again I left her safe in moorings, and she kissed me as a daughter might when we parted. Adele she said was her name, and she would call me Monsieur le Capitaine, which I, not being French, didn’t like.

“I never in all my life knew Ralph to be so silent as he was upon that voyage. He was not himself in anything except that he did his duty, as he always did, like a man. I puzzled over the change more than I can tell you. At last, as he sat in the moonlight one night, looking at the sparkles on the dark waves, I went to him and said,

“’What has been the matter with you all this time, Ralph?”

He looked up with a start, and made no answer at first, but after a while he opened his lips and uttered one word only. That one word was ‘Adele.’

“I understood it all now, and I laughed as I slapped him on the back.

“’So it’s Adele,” said I. “Well, you’ve been sly enough about it. So you’re to take my little beauty from me, are you?’

“He shook his head, and looked up at me with his great seal-like eyes.

“’No,” he said, “she will not say I may. Her heart is with that young lover of hers who was lost when L’Esperance became a wreck, and she cares nothing for me.’

“’Nonsense,’ I answered; ‘I never heard of a woman being constant to the living, let alone the dead.’

“’She will be,’ he said, and his eyes wandered to the dark waves again, and he did not speak another word.

“I said no more at that time, but when we were at home again I went to see my little French daughterling and talked to her about it. At first she sobbed for poor Alphonse, but by-and-bye she dried her eyes and owned to liking Ralph, though she did not love him.

“’Liking is enough,’ said I; ‘love will come when you are spliced, and as I stand in the place of a father to you, I think you ought to do as I say, and make Ralph Hawthorne happy.’

“I spoke as I did because I knew that French girls were used to having their matches made for them by their parents, and that the speech would have great weight with her.

“She took my hand and kissed it. ‘ I must obey,’ she said, ‘but I shall never, never be happy with Monsieur Ralph; my heart is in the ocean with Alphonse.’

“I said nothing, for d’ye see I thought the speech meant nothing but a little woman’s coquetry.

“They were married in six months, and I sailed for the first time for years without Ralph Hawthorne. When I came back he brought his wife to see me. She was beautiful in her white dress, with her golden hair coiled in great braids about her shapely head, but she was very pale and her long lashes drooped as sadly as ever over her large eyes. That was one peculiarity about those eyes of hers. They were so shadowed that I never had been able to tell what color they were. Now, when I bent over her, and had both of her little hands in one of my own, she lifted them and looked full at me for the first time. The sight froze my blood. They were blue and beautiful, but out of them, over them, from behind them I could see the sea. It was there as plainly as the eyes themselves was that delicate sea-green shadow, and I knew all at once. The story of the shipwreck was a lie; ‘Alphonse’ and ‘mon père’ were fictions. It was a preconcerted plan hatched amongst the coral reefs. Ralph Hawthorne’s wife was a mermaid . Instead of kissing her I flung her from me.

“’I know you,’ I cried before I knew what I was saying; ‘go back to the sea from whence you came, you French mermaid; you belong there.’

“And she uttered a scream, and crying, ‘Ah, mon Dieu! if I only could,’ fell fainting to the floor.

I thought it was all over between Ralph and I after that, for he told me I was mad, and bade me leave his house, but I wouldn’t go.

“’No, my lad,’ I said, ‘no, you’ll need your old friend more with a mermaid for a wife than you would if you had married a flesh and blood Christian woman.’

“After a while, when she had come out of her swoon, and was lying white and beautiful as any water lily in his arms, Ralph made it up with me, though d’ye see I had to perjure myself by saying it was all a joke (as though she didn’t know better). My excuse is that I did it for the lad’s sake. So I stayed and went to the house often after that, and though I watched Ralph’s mermaid wife I must say I saw no harm in her. So I said to myself, ‘A reformed mermaid ought to be encouraged,’ and next time I came from sea I brought her a lot of shells and china enough to stock her pantry. She never seemed to care for the china, but she would sit for hours with the shells in her lap, dreaming over them and holding them to her ear to hear the roaring of the sea. She said they brought it close to her, and I suppose they did. But she was very mild and sweet, and if I could have seen a child of Ralph’s upon her bosom I think I could have forgotten that she was a mermaid . But two years passed by, and no baby came to look up into her sea-blue eyes with seal-like brown eyes like those of Ralph, and I was not quite at rest with all her sweetness.

“On the 25th of June—no matter in what year—the Cousin Kitty sailed for France, and Ralph Hawthorne and his wife were on board her. She it seems had longed to see her native land again (all pretence I knew), and Ralph told me with tears in his eyes that she would die if she did not go to the France she loved so dearly. I could have told him that it was the sea for which his wife pined, and which she could live without no longer.

“I tackled her with it the first day she came on board.

“’You don’t care for France, Adele,’ said I; ‘you are pining for the ocean, I’m certain.’

“’Yes,’ she answered softly; ‘but, dear monsieur, do not tell Ralph, for it would grieve him, and he is too good to grieve.’

“’Never fear,’ said I. ‘Somebody or other says, where ignorance is bliss ‘tis folly to be wise, and he was right. I’ll say nothing to the lad.’ And I kept the mermaid ‘s secret.

“Ralph went as a passenger this time, and spent every moment in petting his lily of a wife. Hour after hour he would spend reading to her, her head lying on his shoulder all the while, but I never saw her lay it there voluntarily. She was obedient to him, but as cold as the water from whence she came. The old merman of a father, who got up the match among the coral reefs, had made a mistake. The love was all on Ralph’s side. The ocean was as calm all the way, until what I shall tell you came to pass, as though oil had been poured upon it, and she was always looking down into the water with her sea-green eyes, and her skin grew more and more transparent and her little wrists smaller every day.

“At last, one bright morning, we came in sight of the very rock upon which we had seen L’Esperance stranded three years before, and from the foot of which Ralph Hawthorne had picked up his mermaid wife. We were becalmed there, and such a calm I never knew. There was not breeze enough to lift a thistledown, and sky and water were both red-hot. The moon looked like a copper shield, and all night long it was so bright that you could see every object as plainly as at daybreak. On the first of these awful nights Adele came to me, as I stood leaning over the side, and said, in her own clear voice,

“’Monsieur, will you tell me if those are the rocks?’

“’The rocks?’ I asked, pretending not to understand her, though I did.

“’Where the ship struck—where L’Esperance went down,’she said, and I answered,

“’Yes.’

“’I thought so,’ said she, ‘for listen, monsieur: a moment ago I saw Alphonse, white and wan, with seaweed tangled in his hair, beckoning to me from the water yonder.’

“She looked so wild and spirit-like as she spoke, that I was not sure but that she would melt into the sea until I had her by the arm, and felt solid flesh and bone beneath my fingers.

“’Go to your stateroom, child,’ I said; ‘you are feverish.’

“But all the while she was colder than an icicle, and I knew it. Adele went to her stateroom and lay there all night. The next day she did not rise, but Ralph was not alarmed, for she said she was not ill, but only weary. I knew then, as I know now, that she wanted to keep out of the temptation, which the sight of the sea was to her.

“All this while we were becalmed within sight of those fatal rocks, and the sun went down upon the second day without the prospect of a breeze.

“It was night. Twelve bells had struck, and the watch on deck were changing places with those who had been sleeping. I was too anxious to rest, and stood talking to the man at the wheel. My back, you understand, was toward the staterooms, and I was only aware of what had happened when he let go the wheel, and shouted, in a horrified voice,

“’She’s overboard!’

“’Who is overboard?’ I screamed.

“But the men, who were rushing to let down a boat, could not tell me. A female figure had been seen to glide, ghost-like, across the deck and spring wildly over the side in an instant.

“I went straight to Ralph’s stateroom—the pillow beside him was empty—and I wakened him from the last sweet sleep he ever knew to tell him that Adele was gone.

We never found her body. I never thought we should, for d’ye see we could not get at the coral caves under the sea; but I only spoke a few words of comfort to poor Ralph; it was no time to vex him, his heart was sore enough already. Adele had left a note upon her pillow with Ralph’s name upon it, and in it were these words:

“’Forgive me, you who have been so kind to me. I sin in leaving you only less than in ever having given myself to you while my heart was in the sea. I have seen Alphonse by our bedside every night. Yesterday he beckoned to me from the water. He waits: the very ship stands still that I may go. I dare not stay. Adieu, and forget me.’

“This was all. We had no need to linger near those rocks longer, for a breeze sprung up the moment she was gone, and by daylight we were miles away—miles from those fatal rocks, and my own handsome lad lay raving on his pillow, and did not even know me as I bent above him.

“We made the voyage, and were on our homeward way, and still there was no change in him. With his beautiful eyes for ever open, he babbled of Adele, always, always of the mermaid he had nursed in his warm bosom.

“Again on our return we neared the rocks where L’Esperance had stranded, and once more we were becalmed. The ship was waiting for something, and I guessed what it was, for Ralph grew weaker every day.

“At last, late in the summer afternoon, I heard him utter my name in his own dear voice, and flew to him.

“His eyes were glazing, but they turned lovingly towards me, and he stretched out his hand.

“Good-bye, dear friend,” he said. “I am going to the sea, to meet Adele,” and then his fingers tightened about mine, and bending down to kiss him I saw all was over.

“We buried him in the ocean when the moon was high above the ship, and I could fancy faces in the waves, and see white arms stretched up to catch the beautiful thing we lowered into the waves.

“When the mermaids had what they waited for they let go of the bottom of the ship, and she sailed on again.

“I’ve been upon the sea ever since, but I never care to go in that direction. It would be very hard to pass those rocks where L’Esperance was stranded, and where Ralph’s hope and Ralph, who was my own, went down to meet her wreck amongst the mermaids .”

Frank Leslie’s Weekly 2 August 1862

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: A sad case of that well-known maritime disorder: Capture of the Deep.

 

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

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