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MERMAIDS have had their day and ceased to be. Our prosaic times were too much for them. We cannot tell whether it was the fiery snort of the steam-engine or the triumphal march of the schoolmaster that gave them the deathblow. We must rest content with the fact that they are no longer found in their favourite haunts.
Even the rugged coast of the north-east of Scotland, which formed so long their happy hunting-ground—fishing-ground is the more correct term, —knows them not any more.
I remember asking an old Northerner, who had a firm faith in ghosts and was not sure but the fairies still took moonlight rambles over his ground, if he had ever seen a mermaid. No, he had not, but his grandfather had. It seems that worthy was in the habit of treating himself to a morning dip at a certain promontory. One morning he was astonished to see a head crowned with long curling hair rising out of the water. The face was beautiful beyond description. It beguiled him for a second, but prudence made him take to his heels. When he got to a safe distance he looked again ; only the graceful play of a tail marked the spot where the beautiful face had been. The seer of the strange sight often told what he had seen; and it was noted that the older he grew the face became more beautiful, the hair more golden, and the sweep of the tail more graceful. Perhaps, in his case, the distance of the years lent enchantment to the view, or the opinion of my informant may be correct: he thought that his father was better fitted in the wisdom of old age to appreciate the excellencies of the mermaid.
The grandfather became a celebrity to the boys who gathered round his chair on the winter evenings to hear the oft-told tale. Not that such tales are by any means rare in that district, but it was something to see a man who had actually figured in one.
That good fortune was denied me in my boyish days, but I had many opportunities of seeing places associated with the fair maids of the sea. One such place I remember well. It was a rock at some little distance from the shore, but accessible at low water. It bore the suggestive name of “The Mermaid's Rock.”
Of course, thereby hangs a tale. Long ago—how long ago the trustworthy chroniclers of the fireside hesitate to say—there lived a young man who, like many young men of the present day, longed to be rich. The slow returns of farming, and the chance profits of fishing, seemed quite unlikely to bring him what he wanted. Dreaming and desiring were still more unlikely. Only one way of getting gold could he see. It was firmly believed by him and his neighbours that a mermaid bathed every morning at the rock I have already spoken of, and that having performed her ablutions, like Mirza of old, she was in the habit of meditating. These meditative moments were also active moments, for she combed her hair carefully then. Whoever managed to catch her while thus engaged could have any wish gratified. The gold-seeker resolved to catch her, and make her supply him with what he wanted. He rose early one morning, and stole down to the sandy beach overlooking the rock, but no mermaid!
A second and a third morning brought no better luck, but on the fourth he caught a glimpse of the golden tresses which to him meant golden spoil. There she was beyond doubt, probably meditating, certainly combing her hair. He gently slipped down to the level of the rock. Fortunately the tide was out. He had no difficulty in moving softly over the sand till the rock was reached. A bound, and the mermaid was locked in his strong grasp. She asked him what he wanted. He told her. Now it happened that he was a good-looking fellow. His captive was at once smitten with his charms. From which interested students of mermaid lore may draw the inference that maids of the sea are no more impervious to the attractions of the other sex than their sisters on land.
She was equal to the occasion. If she granted his request, she would lose a possible lover. There was a way of humouring him and pleasing herself. She told him of her home under the sea, where gold was used as paving-stones, and diamonds were as plentiful as the weed that lay on the beach. Would he come with her and become the master of such wealth? He was quite willing. So together they plunged down, and together they sank into the depths—down, down, till they came to a palatial mansion. This they entered. The rustic found he had not been deceived about the gold. It was there in abundance. He could lift it, toy with it, and call himself owner of it.
But if he was master of the gold, he soon found that he was the servant of her who brought him to it. She was so jealous of him that she could hardly let him out of her sight. He was her property ; no other mermaid was allowed to speak to him, nor he to her. This constant watchfulness worried him, and after a time the magnificence began to pall. He longed for his old companions and former pleasures. At last he formed the daring resolution to escape to the upper world, carrying with him as much gold and silver as he could.
Fortune favours the brave. His devoted mermaid had to visit some aunts one day, and that day he chose for his meditated flight. As soon as she had gone, he hastily gathered some jewels and gold, and then sprang out into the sea to swim upwards. All went well for ten minutes ; then he heard sounds which betokened pursuit. He was strong, and swam for dear life. He trembled to think of his fate should he fall into the hands of his infuriated spouse. Some anxious seconds, and the surface of the sea is gained. The well-known rock towers before him, and in the background the familiar beach. Only let him reach the rock and he is safe. But alas! angry sounds and swift strokes behind him tell that his pursuers—not one, but a company of mermaids—are gaining on him.
He swims as only a man swimming for life can, but in vain. He is overtaken and overpowered. He knew he could hope for no mercy, and he got none. He was carried to the rock, and bound with gold chains to it. The tide rolled in round him, higher and higher, till he was drowned. Such was the punishment with which the mermaid visited her faithless lover. There was in it a fine touch of poetic justice. Gold had led him astray, and gold fastened him to the death of the cruel waves. That is the story of “The Mermaid's Rock.”
Let me now say something definite about mermaids. The word comes from the Anglo-Saxon terms mere, a lake, and moegd, a maid; where the idea comes from I cannot tell.
[A very interesting account of the mermaid myth is given in Baring Gould's Myths of the Middle Ages.]
Probably it comes from a version of the Apearas legend suited to northern minds and tastes. The Apsaras legend took its rise among the ancient Indians. They, looking up at their blue sky over which careered the white cirrus clouds, thought these clouds resembled swans gliding over a peaceful lake. Under the influence of this conception they indulged in personifications; their fertile fancy incarnated the beautiful clouds, which must be some messengers of heaven, into swan-maidens clothed in feathers of shimmering sheen, whose work it was to float in the pure atmosphere above, and there receive to rest the souls of heroes who had done noble deeds on earth. Sometimes they condescended, it was thought, to dwell among men, and even become their wives ; but that was always but for a little time. Wearied of the dull earth and the duller husbands they soon winged their way upwards again. While below they were half bird and half female. The legend may have travelled northwards, and there the seaside imagination may have dowered the heavenly visitant with a woman's head and a fish's tail.
Some would have us believe in a different origin of the myth. They tell us that the appearance of seals, walruses, and, perhaps still more, the herbivorous cetacea so wrought on the excitable minds of our forefathers that they conjured up such creatures as the mermaids are represented to have been. A relic of this belief is to be found in the same "Mermaid's Glove" (Halichondria Palmata), given to the large sponge so common in British seas.
Whatever the explanation, let the fact suffice.
Once there were maids on the lakes and in the sea widely different from those who dwelt on land. Sometimes they took the shape of swans; at other times, and more frequently, they were like women above and fishes below the waist. They often appeared to mortals. Occasionally they took to washing or beating clothes ; but that was always an omen of disaster to those who saw them. They had great power. They could unveil the future. They could grant the wish of anybody who won or forced their favour.
Thus we read of the Cromarty shipmaster who had wishes three—that neither he nor any of his friends should come to grief by sea, that he should succeed in everything he did, and that the lady he loved in vain should give an attentive ear to his unit. The mermaid granted his three wishes, and they became realities. One might think from this that mermaids were very useful. They were occasionally, but not always. Sometimes they wrought much mischief. Should any person come under their wrath his fate was awful indeed.
The curious conception of mermaids is not confined to one country. On the contrary, it is general. The American Indians have a man-fish and a woman-fish. The Chinese seas contain sea-women, though no foreigner, so far as I know, has come across them. The tritons and sirens of antiquity are familiar to all readers of the classics. Teutonic legends and Scandinavian saga abound in references to strange deeds done by maidens clothed in feathery dresses or scaly fins.