Read CHAPTER XVI - FLAVILLA of The Green Mouse, free online book, by Robert W. Chambers, on ReadCentral.com.

Containing a Parable Told with Such Metaphorical Skill that the Author Is Totally Unable to Understand It

The Green Mouse now dominated the country; the entire United States was occupied in getting married.  In the great main office on Madison Avenue, and in a thousand branch offices all over the Union, Destyn-Carr machines were working furiously; a love-mad nation was illuminated by their sparks.

Marriage-license bureaus had been almost put out of business by the sudden matrimonial rush; clergymen became exhausted, wedding bells in the churches were worn thin, California and Florida reported no orange crops, as all the blossoms had been required for brides; there was a shortage of solitaires, traveling clocks, asparagus tongs; and the corner in rice perpetrated by some conscienceless captain of industry produced a panic equaled only by a more terrible coup in slightly worn shoes.

All America was rushing to get married; from Seattle to Key West the railroads were blocked with bridal parties; a vast hum of merrymaking resounded from the Golden Gate to Governor’s Island, from Niagara to the Gulf of Mexico.  In New York City the din was persistent; all day long church bells pealed, all day long the rattle of smart carriages and hired hacks echoed over the asphalt.  A reporter of the Tribune stood on top of the New York Life tower for an entire week, devouring cold-slaw sandwiches and Marie Corelli, and during that period, as his affidavit runs, “never for one consecutive second were his ample ears free from the near or distant strains of the Wedding March.”

And over all, in approving benediction, brooded the wide smile of the greatest of statesmen and the great smile of the widest of statesmen ­ these two, metaphorically, hand in hand, floated high above their people, scattering encouraging blessings on every bride.

A tremendous rise in values set in; the newly married required homes; architects were rushed to death; builders, real-estate operators, brokers, could not handle the business hurled at them by impatient bridegrooms.

Then, seizing time by the fetlock, some indescribable monster secured the next ten years’ output of go-carts.  The sins of Standard Oil were forgotten in the menace of such a national catastrophe; mothers’ meetings were held; the excitement became stupendous; a hundred thousand brides invaded the Attorney-General’s office, but all he could think of to say was:  “Thirty centuries look down upon you!”

These vague sentiments perplexed the country.  People understood that the Government meant well, but they also realized that the time was not far off when millions of go-carts would be required in the United States.  And they no longer hesitated.

All over the Union fairs and bazaars were held to collect funds for a great national factory to turn out carts.  Alarmed, the Trust tried to unload; militant womanhood, thoroughly aroused, scorned compromise.  In every city, town, and hamlet of the nation entertainments were given, money collected for the great popular go-cart factory.

The affair planned for Oyster Bay was to be particularly brilliant ­a water carnival at Center Island with tableaux, fireworks, and illuminations of all sorts.

Reassured by the magnificent attitude of America’s womanhood, business discounted the collapse of the go-cart trust and began to recover from the check very quickly.  Stocks advanced, fluctuated, and suddenly whizzed upward like skyrockets; and the long-expected wave of prosperity inundated the country.  On the crest of it rode Cupid, bow and arrows discarded, holding aloft in his right hand a Destyn-Carr machine.

For the old order of things had passed away; the old-fashioned doubts and fears of courtship were now practically superfluous.

Anybody on earth could now buy a ticket and be perfectly certain that whoever he or she might chance to marry would be the right one ­the one intended by destiny.

Yet, strange as it may appear, there still remained, here and there, a few young people in the United States who had no desire to be safely provided for by a Destyn-Carr machine.

Whether there was in them some sporting instinct, making hazard attractive, or, perhaps, a conviction that Fate is kind, need not be discussed.  The fact remains that there were a very few youthful and marriageable folk who had no desire to know beforehand what their fate might be.

One of these unregenerate reactionists was Flavilla.  To see her entire family married by machinery was enough for her; to witness such consummate and collective happiness became slightly cloying.  Perfection can be overdone; a rift in a lute relieves melodious monotony, and when discords cease to amuse, one can always have the instrument mended or buy a banjo.

“What I desire,” she said, ignoring the remonstrances of the family, “is a chance to make mistakes.  Three or four nice men have thought they were in love with me, and I wouldn’t take anything for the ­experience.  Or,” she added innocently, “for the chances that some day three or four more agreeable young men may think they are in love with me.  One learns by making mistakes ­very pleasantly.”

Her family sat in an affectionately earnest row and adjured her ­four married sisters, four blissful brothers-in-law, her attractive stepmother, her father.  She shook her pretty head and continued sewing on the costume she was to wear at the Oyster Bay Venetian Fête and Go-cart Fair.

“No,” she said, threading her needle and deftly sewing a shining, silvery scale onto the mermaid’s dress lying across her knees, “I’ll take my chances with men.  It’s better fun to love a man not intended for me, and make him love me, and live happily and defiantly ever after, than to have a horrid old machine settle you for life.”

“But you are wasting time, dear,” explained her stepmother gently.

“Oh, no, I’m not.  I’ve been engaged three times and I’ve enjoyed it immensely.  That isn’t wasting time, is it?  And it’s such fun!  He thinks he’s in love and you think you’re in love, and you have such an agreeable time together until you find out that you’re spoons on somebody else.  And then you find out you’re mistaken and you say you always want him for a friend, and you presently begin all over again with a perfectly new man ­”

“Flavilla!”

“Yes, Pa-pah.”

“Are you utterly demoralized!”

“Demoralized?  Why?  Everybody behaved as I do before you and William invented your horrid machine.  Everybody in the world married at hazard, after being engaged to various interesting young men.  And I’m not demoralized; I’m only old-fashioned enough to take chances.  Please let me.”

The family regarded her sadly.  In their amalgamated happiness they deplored her reluctance to enter where perfect bliss was guaranteed.

Her choice of rôle and costume for the Seawanhaka Club water tableaux they also disapproved of; for she had chosen to represent a character now superfluous and out of date ­the Lorelei who lured Teutonic yachtsmen to destruction with her singing some centuries ago.  And that, in these times, was ridiculous, because, fortified by a visit to the nearest Destyn-Carr machine, no weak-minded young sailorman would care what a Lorelei might do; and she could sing her pretty head off and comb herself bald before any Destyn-Carr inoculated mariner would be lured overboard.

But Flavilla obstinately insisted on her scaled and fish-tailed costume.  When her turn came, a spot-light on the clubhouse was to illuminate the float and reveal her, combing her golden hair with a golden comb and singing away like the Musical Arts.

“And,” she thought secretly, “if there remains upon this machine-made earth one young man worth my kind consideration, it wouldn’t surprise me very much if he took a header off the Yacht Club wharf and requested me to be his.  And I’d be very likely to listen to his suggestion.”

So in secret hopes of this pleasing episode ­but not giving any such reason to her protesting family ­she vigorously resisted all attempts to deprive her of her fish scales, golden comb, and rôle in the coming water fête.  And now the programmes were printed and it was too late for them to intervene.

She rose, holding out the glittering, finny garment, which flashed like a collapsed fish in the sunshine.

“It’s finished,” she said.  “Now I’m going off somewhere by myself to rehearse.”

“In the water?” asked her father uneasily.

“Certainly.”

As Flavilla was a superb swimmer nobody could object.  Later, a maid went down to the landing, stowed away luncheon, water-bottles and costume in the canoe.  Later, Flavilla herself came down to the water’s edge, hatless, sleeves rolled up, balancing a paddle across her shoulders.

As the paddle flashed and the canoe danced away over the sparkling waters of Oyster Bay, Flavilla hummed the threadbare German song which she was to sing in her rôle of Lorelei, and headed toward Northport.

“The thing to do,” she thought to herself, “is to find some nice, little, wooded inlet where I can safely change my costume and rehearse.  I must know whether I can swim in this thing ­and whether I can sing while swimming about.  It would be more effective, I think, than merely sitting on the float, and singing and combing my hair through all those verses.”

The canoe danced across the water, the paddle glittered, dipped, swept astern, and flashed again.  Flavilla was very, very happy for no particular reason, which is the best sort of happiness on earth.

There is a sandy neck of land which obstructs direct navigation between the sacred waters of Oyster Bay and the profane floods which wash the gravelly shores of Northport.

“I’ll make a carry,” thought Flavilla, beaching her canoe.  Then, looking around her at the lonely stretch of sand flanked by woods, she realized at once that she need seek no farther for seclusion.

First of all, she dragged the canoe into the woods, then rapidly undressed and drew on the mermaid’s scaly suit, which fitted her to the throat as beautifully as her own skin.

It was rather difficult for her to navigate on land, as her legs were incased in a fish’s tail, but, seizing her comb and mirror, she managed to wriggle down to the water’s edge.

A few sun-warmed rocks jutted up some little distance from shore; with a final and vigorous wriggle Flavilla launched herself and struck out for the rocks, holding comb and mirror in either hand.

Fishtail and accessories impeded her, but she was the sort of swimmer who took no account of such trifles; and after a while she drew herself up from the sea, and, breathless, glittering, iridescent, flopped down upon a flat rock in the sunshine.  From which she took a careful survey of the surroundings.

Certainly nobody could see her here.  Nobody would interrupt her either, because the route of navigation lay far outside, to the north.  All around were woods; the place was almost landlocked, save where, far away through the estuary, a blue and hazy horizon glimmered in the general direction of New England.

So, when she had recovered sufficient breath she let down the flashing, golden-brown hair, sat up on the rock, lifted her pretty nose skyward, and poured forth melody.

As she sang the tiresome old Teutonic ballad she combed away vigorously, and every now and then surveyed her features in the mirror.

  Ich weiß nicht was soll es bedeuten
  Dass ich so traurig bin ­

she sang happily, studying her gestures with care and cheerfully flopping her tail.

She had a very lovely voice which had been expensively cultivated.  One or two small birds listened attentively for a while, then started in to help her out.

On the veranda of his bungalow, not very far from Northport, stood a young man of pleasing aspect, knickerbockers, and unusually symmetrical legs.  His hands reposed in his pockets, his eyes behind their eyeglasses were fixed dreamily upon the skies.  Somebody over beyond that screen of woods was singing very beautifully, and he liked it ­at first.

However, when the unseen singer had been singing the Lorelei for an hour, steadily, without intermission, an expression of surprise gradually developed into uneasy astonishment upon his clean-cut and unusually attractive features.

“That girl, whoever she is, can sing, all right,” he reflected, “but why on earth does she dope out the same old thing?”

He looked at the strip of woods, but could see nothing of the singer.  He listened; she continued to sing the Lorelei.

“It can’t be a phonograph,” he reasoned.  “No sane person could endure an hour of that fool song.  No sane person would sing it for an hour, either.”

Disturbed, he picked up the marine glasses, slung them over his shoulder, walked up on the hill back of the bungalow, selected a promising tree, and climbed it.

Astride a lofty limb the lord of Northport gazed earnestly across the fringe of woods.  Something sparkled out there, something moved, glittering on a half-submerged rock.  He adjusted the marine glasses and squinted through them.

“Great James!” he faltered, dropping them; and almost followed the glasses to destruction on the ground below.

How he managed to get safely to earth he never knew.  “Either I’m crazy,” he shouted aloud, “or there’s a ­a mermaid out there, and I’m going to find out before they chase me to the funny house!”

There was a fat tub of a boat at his landing; he reached the shore in a series of long, distracted leaps, sprang aboard, cast off, thrust both oars deep into the water, and fairly hurled the boat forward, so that it alternately skipped, wallowed, scuttered, and scrambled, like a hen overboard.

“This is terrible,” he groaned.  “If I didn’t see what I think I saw, I’ll eat my hat; if I did see what I’m sure I saw, I’m madder than the hatter who made it!”

Nearer and nearer, heard by him distinctly above the frantic splashing of his oars, her Lorelei song sounded perilously sweet and clear.

“Oh, bunch!” he moaned; “it’s horribly like the real thing; and here I come headlong, as they do in the story books ­”

He caught a crab that landed him in a graceful parabola in the bow, where he lay biting at the air to recover his breath.  Then his boat’s nose plowed into the sandy neck of land; he clambered to his feet, jumped out, and ran headlong into the belt of trees which screened the singer.  Speed and gait recalled the effortless grace of the kangaroo; when he encountered logs and gullies he rose grandly, sailing into space, landing with a series of soft bounces, which presently brought him to the other side of the woods.

And there, what he beheld, what he heard, almost paralyzed him.  Weak-kneed, he passed a trembling hand over his incredulous eyes; with the courage of despair, he feebly pinched himself.  Then for sixty sickening seconds he closed his eyes and pressed both hands over his ears.  But when he took his hands away and opened his terrified eyes, the exquisitely seductive melody, wind blown from the water, thrilled him in every fiber; his wild gaze fell upon a distant, glittering shape ­white-armed, golden-haired, fish-tailed, slender body glittering with silvery scales.

The low rippling wash of the tide across the pebbly shore was in his ears; the salt wind was in his throat.  He saw the sun flash on golden comb and mirror, as her snowy fingers caressed the splendid masses of her hair; her song stole sweetly seaward as the wind veered.

A terrible calm descended upon him.

“This is interesting,” he said aloud.

A sickening wave of terror swept him, but he straightened up, squaring his shoulders.

“I may as well face the fact,” he said, “that I, Henry Kingsbury, of Pebble Point, Northport, L.I., and recently in my right mind, am now, this very moment, looking at a ­a mermaid in Long Island Sound!”

He shuddered; but he was sheer pluck all through.  Teeth might chatter, knees smite together, marrow turn cold; nothing on earth or Long Island could entirely stampede Henry Kingsbury, of Pebble Point.

His clutch on his self-control in any real crisis never slipped; his mental steering-gear never gave way.  Again his pallid lips moved in speech: 

“The ­thing ­to ­do,” he said very slowly and deliberately, “is to swim out and ­and touch it.  If it dissolves into nothing I’ll probably feel better ­”

He began to remove coat, collar, and shoes, forcing himself to talk calmly all the while.

“The thing to do,” he went on dully, “is to swim over there and get a look at it.  Of course, it isn’t really there.  As for drowning ­it really doesn’t matter....  In the midst of life we are in Long Island....  And, if it is there ­I c-c-can c-capture it for the B-B-Bronx ­”

Reason tottered; it revived, however, as he plunged into the s. w. of Oyster Bay and struck out, silent as a sea otter for the shimmering shape on the ruddy rocks.

Flavilla was rehearsing with all her might; her white throat swelled with the music she poured forth to the sky and sea; her pretty fingers played with the folds of burnished hair; her gilded hand-mirror flashed, she gently beat time with her tail.

So thoroughly, so earnestly, did she enter into the spirit of the siren she was representing that, at moments, she almost wished some fisherman might come into view ­just to see whether he’d really go overboard after her.

However, audacious as her vagrant thoughts might be, she was entirely unprepared to see a human head, made sleek by sea water, emerge from the floating weeds almost at her feet.

“Goodness,” she said faintly, and attempted to rise.  But her fish tail fettered her.

“Are you real!” gasped Kingsbury.

“Y-yes....  Are you?”

“Great James!” he half shouted, half sobbed, “are you human?

“V-very.  Are you?

He clutched at the weedy rock and dragged himself up.  For a moment he lay breathing fast, water dripping from his soaked clothing.  Once he feebly touched the glittering fish tail that lay on the rock beside him.  It quivered, but needle and thread had been at work there; he drew a deep breath and closed his eyes.

When he opened them again she was looking about for a likely place to launch herself into the bay; in fact, she had already started to glide toward the water; the scraping of the scales aroused him, and he sat up.

“I heard singing,” he said dreamily, “and I climbed a tree and saw ­you!  Do you blame me for trying to corroborate a thing like you?

“You thought I was a real one?”

“I thought that I thought I saw a real one.”

She looked at him hopefully.

“Tell me, did my singing compel you to swim out here?”

“I don’t know what compelled me.”

“But ­you were compelled?”

“I ­it seems so ­”

“O-h!” Flushed, excited, laughing, she clasped her hands under her chin and gazed at him.

“To think,” she said softly, “that you believed me to be a real siren, and that my beauty and my singing actually did lure you to my rock!  Isn’t it exciting?”

He looked at her, then turned red: 

“Yes, it is,” he said.

Hands still clasped together tightly beneath her rounded chin, she surveyed him with intense interest.  He was at a disadvantage; the sleek, half-drowned appearance which a man has who emerges from a swim does not exhibit him at his best.

But he had a deeper interest for Flavilla; her melody and loveliness had actually lured him across the water to the peril of her rocks; this human being, this man creature, seemed to be, in a sense, hers.

“Please fix your hair,” she said, handing him her comb and mirror.

“My hair?”

“Certainly.  I want to look at you.”

He thought her request rather extraordinary, but he sat up and with the aid of the mirror, scraped away at his wet hair, parting it in the middle and combing it deftly into two gay little Mercury wings.  Then, fishing in the soaked pockets of his knickerbockers, he produced a pair of smart pince-nez, which he put on, and then gazed up at her.

“Oh!” she said, with a quick, indrawn breath, “you are attractive!”

At that he turned becomingly scarlet.

Leaning on one lovely, bare arm, burnished hair clustering against her cheeks, she continued to survey him in delighted approval which sometimes made him squirm inwardly, sometimes almost intoxicated him.

“To think,” she murmured, “that I lured you out here!”

“I am thinking about it,” he said.

She laid her head on one side, inspecting him with frankest approval.

“I wonder,” she said, “what your name is.  I am Flavilla Carr.”

“Not one of the Carr triplets!”

“Yes ­but,” she added quickly, “I’m not married.  Are you?”

“Oh, no, no, no!” he said hastily.  “I’m Henry Kingsbury, of Pebble Point, Northport ­”

“Master and owner of the beautiful but uncertain Sappho? Oh, tell me, are you the man who has tipped over so many times in Long Island Sound?  Because I ­I adore a man who has the pluck to continue to capsize every day or two.”

“Then,” he said, “you can safely adore me, for I am that yachtsman who has fallen off the Sappho more times than the White Knight fell off his horse.”

“I ­I do adore you!” she exclaimed impulsively.

“Of course, you d-d-don’t mean that,” he stammered, striving to smile.

“Yes ­almost.  Tell me, you ­I know you are not like other men! You never have had anything to do with a Destyn-Carr machine, have you?”

“Never!”

“Neither have I....  And so you are not in love ­are you?”

“No.”

“Neither am I. Oh, I am so glad that you and I have waited, and not become engaged to somebody by machinery....  I wonder whom you are destined for.”

“Nobody ­by machinery.”

She clapped her hands.  “Neither am I. It is too stupid, isn’t it?  I don’t want to marry the man I ought to marry.  I’d rather take chances with a man who attracts me and who is attracted by me....  There was, in the old days ­before everybody married by machinery ­something not altogether unworthy in being a siren, wasn’t there?...  It’s perfectly delightful to think of your seeing me out here on the rocks, and then instantly plunging into the waves and tearing a foaming right of way to what might have been destruction!”

Her flushed, excited face between its clustering curls looked straight into his.

“It was destruction,” he said.  His own voice sounded odd to him.  “Utter destruction to my peace of mind,” he said again.

“You ­don’t think that you love me, do you?” she asked.  “That would be too ­too perfect a climax.... Do you?” she asked curiously.

“I ­think so.”

“Do ­do you know it?” He gazed bravely at her:  “Yes.”

She flung up both arms joyously, then laughed aloud: 

“Oh, the wonder of it!  It is too perfect, too beautiful!  You really love me?  Do you?  Are you sure?”

“Yes....  Will you try to love me?”

“Well, you know that sirens don’t care for people....  I’ve already been engaged two or three times....  I don’t mind being engaged to you.”

“Couldn’t you care for me, Flavilla?”

“Why, yes.  I do....  Please don’t touch me; I’d rather not.  Of course, you know, I couldn’t really love you so quickly unless I’d been subjected to one of those Destyn-Carr machines.  You know that, don’t you?  But,” she added frankly, “I wouldn’t like to have you get away from me.  I ­I feel like a tender-hearted person in the street who is followed by a lost cat ­”

“What!”

“Oh, I didn’t mean anything unpleasant ­truly I didn’t.  You know how tenderly one feels when a poor stray cat comes trotting after one ­”

He got up, mad all through.

Are you offended?” she asked sorrowfully.  “When I didn’t mean anything except that my heart ­which is rather impressionable ­feels very warmly and tenderly toward the man who swam after me....  Won’t you understand, please?  Listen, we have been engaged only a minute, and here already is our first quarrel.  You can see for yourself what would happen if we ever married.”

“It wouldn’t be machine-made bliss, anyway,” he said.

That seemed to interest her; she inspected him earnestly.

“Also,” he added, “I thought you desired to take a sportsman’s chances?”

“I ­do.”

“And I thought you didn’t want to marry the man you ought to marry.”

“That is ­true.”

“Then you certainly ought not to marry me ­but, will you?”

“How can I when I don’t ­love you.”

“You don’t love me because you ought not to on such brief acquaintance....  But will you love me, Flavilla?”

She looked at him in silence, sitting very still, the bright hair veiling her cheeks, the fish’s tail curled up against her side.

Will you?”

“I don’t know,” she said faintly.

“Try.”

“I ­am.”

“Shall I help you?”

Evidently she had gazed at him long enough; her eyes fell; her white fingers picked at the seaweed pods.  His arm closed around her; nothing stirred but her heart.

“Shall I help you to love me?” he breathed.

“No ­I am ­past help.”  She raised her head.

“This is all so ­so wrong,” she faltered, “that I think it must be right....  Do you truly love me?...  Don’t kiss me if you do....  Now I believe you....  Lift me; I can’t walk in this fish’s tail....  Now set me afloat, please.”

He lifted her, walked to the water’s edge, bent and placed her in the sea.  In an instant she had darted from his arms out into the waves, flashing, turning like a silvery salmon.

“Are you coming?” she called back to him.

He did not stir.  She swam in a circle and came up beside the rock.  After a long, long silence, she lifted up both arms; he bent over.  Then, very slowly, she drew him down into the water.

“I am quite sure,” she said, as they sat together at luncheon on the sandspit which divides Northport Bay from the s.w. of Oyster Bay, “that you and I are destined for much trouble when we marry; but I love you so dearly that I don’t care.”

“Neither do I,” he said; “will you have another sandwich?”

And, being young and healthy, she took it, and biting into it, smiled adorably at her lover.