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CHAPTER V. THE SEA-NYMPHS.
After his friend had left him, our merman swam once more after The Sea-nymph. He felt wicked, ashamed, remorseful and very miserable, but for all that he followed his wooden goddess. He was so worn out with his long journeying and with trouble of mind that he could not keep up with the ship—he who had once beaten a fin-back whale in a race. He had lost sight of the brig before she went into the harbor of Syracuse, but he knew where she was going, and he followed in her track. It was a beautiful moonlit night. The water was all golden ripples. The ruins of the ancient town stood up white, still and solemn in the flood of silver light. The modern city did not look dirty as it does by sunlight, but white and cool and still. Only a bell rung at intervals from the tower of a convent.
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On a fragment of a broken capital that lay in the water near the island shore of Ortyggia sat three lovely ladies. They looked young and beautiful as the day, but they were very, very old. They had known the place before the first Greek ship bore the first Greek colonists to Sicily. The broken capital was the last bit of a temple that had been reared in their honor ages ago, for these were the real sea-nymphs. They had come back from the unknown countries where they went when men forgot them, and the monks shattered their beautiful marble statues to replace them with waxen virgins dressed in tinsel. They were taking a journey just to see what sort of a place this world had grown to be. They were all three rather low-spirited—as much so as sea-nymphs can be.

“This is all so different,” said Arethusa. “It was hardly sadder in the great siege; I could hardly find the place where my fountain was once.”
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“And nothing of Alpheus?” said Cymodoce with a little smile.

“No, thank Heaven!” said Arethusa; “the stream is there, but it has another name. I wonder what has become of the old gentleman? My dears, you can’t think what a torment he was. I really don’t know what I should have done but for Diana.”

“Maybe you would have married him,” said Panope. “He was very devoted to you.”

“Not he,” said Arethusa. “He was determined to have his own way, but he didn’t get it.”

“Sing something,” said Cymodoce. “What concerts we used to have on this very shore! Oh dear!”

Arethusa began to sing. I only wish you had been there to hear her.

“Years ago when the world was young,

And this weary time was yet to be,

A little bay lay the hills among

Where the hills slope down to the sand and sea.
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“The shepherd came down to the cool seashore,

Fearless and tall and fair was he;

Careless the cornel spear he bore,

As he paced the sand along the sea.

“Low in the sky the red moon hung,

The wind went wandering wild and free;

To and fro the foam-bells swung

Off from the sand into the sea.

“‘Come up, my love,’ he called, ‘oh come!

Give, oh goddess, once more to me

That fairest face in the whitening foam,

On the pebbly marge ’twixt the sand and sea.’

“The sunset faded like smouldering brand,

And never the nymph again saw he;

The shadow sloped from the tall headland

Off from the sand, out o’er the sea.

“His was a being that, born to-day,

Grows old to-morrow and dies, and she

Lived on for ages as fair alway,

To sing on the shore ’twixt the sand and the sea.

“Yet oh, my lover, by this right hand,

It was fate, not I, that was false to thee;

For thine was the life of the solid land,

And I was a thing of the restless sea.”
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As Arethusa finished her song, the merman came swimming wearily toward the three nymphs. If he had been a human being, he would not have seen them, but as it was they were revealed to his eyes. He knew what they were in a moment. They were dressed like his wooden nymph, and Arethusa carried a little silver vase in her hand, but they were not like the figure-head, for they had sweet, kind faces, and could laugh and cry. The merman made a most respectful bow, for he knew how to do it.

“Well,” said Panope, kindly, “can we do anything for you?”

“Lovely nymphs,” said the merman, “have you seen a ship pass this way with one of your fair sisters on its prow?”

“One of our sisters?” said Arethusa, a little haughtily. “That seems very unlikely.”

“I assure you she is, my lady,” said the merman, reverently but firmly. “She has her name, The Sea-nymph, written below her.”

“He has lost his wits,” said Panope, sighing.

“What a pity! Such a handsome youth!”

“You don’t mean that wooden figure-head?” cried Arethusa.
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“Surely she is your sister,” said the merman, looking at Cymodoce, who was more like the wooden nymph than the other two, and whose manners were always a little stiff and prim.

“My sister!” cried Cymodoce, quite bristling. “Am I related to a log of wood?”

Here Arethusa slyly pinched Panope behind Cymodoce’s back, for the truth was Cymodoce had once been a wooden ship, and had been made into a nymph to save her from a conflagration. She never would allow, however, that this was a true story.

“No, of course there is nothing wooden about you, dear,” said Panope, soothingly. “Don’t be vexed. Let us help the poor boy if we can.”

“He’s very like a Triton I used to know,” said Arethusa, aside.

“I saw a ship pass,” said Panope, looking down at him with her kind blue eyes. “Such a big ship! Not like the ones I used to see here years ago, and it certainly had a wooden statue on the prow, but it was only a wooden image; it was not alive.”
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“How strange it is,” thought the merman to himself, “that these three goddesses should be jealous of my beauty—just like three mortal mermaids.”

“Jealous of that stick indeed!” cried Cymodoce, answering his thought.

“Men!” said Arethusa. “Panope, my darling, they are just the creatures they always were in the water or out of it.”

“So it seems,” said Panope, playing in the sand with her little pink toes like a mortal girl.

“I assure you, sir,” said Cymodoce, gravely, “that you are under a serious mistake. That figure is a mere painted figure-head, quite incapable of a rational thought or instructive conversation.”

“What we admire in woman is her affections, not her intellect,” said the merman.

“Look at me!” said Arethusa; and the tall nymph stood up before him in all her immortal beauty and shook down her golden hair till it swept her ankles.

“My dear Arethusa,” said Cymodoce, “let me ask you to consider if this is quite proper?”

Panope only smiled, and Arethusa took no sort of notice.
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“Look at me,” she said, “and compare me with that wooden thing. Don’t you see the difference?”

A difference there certainly was. The merman felt a cold chill go to his heart. For one instant his eyes were opened; for one instant he knew he had been worshiping a stick. Then he would not see or feel the truth.

“Farewell!” he cried, desperately; “I will follow her to the ends of the earth, whether she is alive or not;” and he swam away.

“Poor fellow!” said Arethusa.

“He looks a good deal like the pious ?neas,” said Cymodoce, who often mentioned that gentleman.

“I don’t see it,” said Panope, almost sharply. “He may be a goose, but he is not a prig. I do wish you ever could talk about any one else, Cymodoce! I am tired to death of the pious ?neas.”

“So am I,” said Arethusa; “he was a humbug if ever there was one.”

“What an expression!” said Cymodoce.
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“Never mind,” said Arethusa; “suppose we do this poor merman a good turn, and get Aphrodite to make his wooden thing a live creature. Don’t you think she would do as much for wood as she did for marble?”

“We could ask her,” said Cymodoce. “I have some influence with her. I was so well acquainted with her son, the pious—”

“Oh bother him!” said Arethusa, who had been a mountain nymph originally, and was apt to be a little brusque.

“I don’t believe she’d be good for much if she did come alive,” said Panope, looking down. “I’ve heard that match of Pygmalion’s didn’t turn out very well. I saw the marble woman once. She was pretty enough, but so stiff, and she walked as though she weighed a ton, and hadn’t a word to say for herself. And as for this wooden thing, the woodenness would always remain in her mind and manners. But we can try. Come, if you like;” and the three slipped into the sea and went swimming after the merman, but he never saw them. He had caught sight of his wooden goddess, and had no eyes for the real ones. He thought he had never seen his idol looking so beautiful, so lifelike. “She wood!” he thought as he leaned back in the water and looked up in her face. Meanwhile, some strange influence was at work upon the wooden image. A kind of thrill ran over it. It began slowly to breathe.
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“Dear me!” thought the wooden creature, for it could think a little now. “I must be coming alive! How very disagreeable! I can see—even feel. I don’t like it. It’s too much trouble. What is that thing in the sea staring at me?” and she actually bent her head and looked down.

The merman, of course, was in ecstasies, for he thought she was coming to him.

“I certainly am growing alive,” thought the wooden thing. “I won’t come alive; I was made wood, and wood I’ll stay; I won’t go out of my sphere; I’m sure it’s not proper;” and she stiffened herself as stiff as she could. “I will be wood,” she thought, and wood she was, for even a goddess can’t make a thing alive against its own will. “Yes, this is much the best way,” was the wooden image’s last thought, as the breath of life went away from her and left her more wooden than ever.
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“Let it go, the stupid thing,” said Arethusa in a pet which was scarcely reasonable, as the image was wood in its nature. “Come, my dears, let us go from a world where no one cares for our gifts. Don’t cry, Panope dear. There are just as many fools in the world as ever there were, for all they pretend to be so much wiser.”
101

“It is strange too,” said Cymodoce, “considering how long they have had before them the example of the pious ?neas—”

“He never lost sight of his interest,” said Panope. “I wish we could persuade that poor merman, but I know very well that the twelve great gods couldn’t do it;” and the three vanished and were seen no more.
102

That night there came up a terrible storm. There was wind and rain and thunder such as the merman had never heard. From far away came a thick sulphurous cloud of smoke, and in the air was a dull red glare. The land shook and trembled, for ?tna was feeding his hidden fires, filling his inmost furnaces. The gale blew fiercely from land. The Sea-nymph snapped her cable, and drove out of the harbor before the tempest. The merman followed her. By the glare of the lightning he could see that the figure stood in its old place holding out her silver vase. “What wonderful courage!” he thought, for he did not know it was nailed there. The masts went crashing into the sea. The sailors threw overboard everything they could to lighten the ship. One of them sprang forward with an axe and began to cut away the figure-head. The merman swam, balancing himself on the crest of the waves; every one was too busy to notice him; he could not hear the blows of the axe in the noise of the wind and thunder; he did not see what the sailor was doing; he saw the image quiver under the strokes of the axe, and thought that at last she was coming down to him. “Oh come, come,” he cried, swimming directly below and holding out his arms. The wooden image quivered and shook; it bent forward; the next instant the solid heavy oak fell with a plunge and struck the poor merman in its fall. He felt that he was dying, but he did not know what had hurt him. “My own love, my sea-nymph,” he murmured; and he put his arms round the figure-head that was bobbing up and down in the sea quite unconcernedly. He kissed the painted lips. Then at length he knew that his idolized nymph, for whom he had given his life, was nothing but a carved log. It was well for him that his next breath was his last.


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