Theeda by Julian Hawthorne

 

CHAPTER I.

THE BOOK AND THE VASE.

Oscar lived beside the sea, and had no companions except the waves, the seagulls, the sunsets and sunrises, the moonlight and the shore. He was happy, and yet there was something that he wanted. He could not tell what that something was, but he did not the less feel the need of it on that account.

He knew that he had a father, but he had never seen him. He knew that his father cared for him, and gave him what he needed to eat and drink and wear. His mother had told him that his father was wise and powerful and good; and that once, before Oscar was old enough to remember anything, he had lived with her in the cottage beside the sea. But soon after Oscar was born, his father had left them and gone across the sea to another country. When a few more years had passed, he had sent for Oscar's mother to follow him, and she had gone. Oscar could just remember the ship which had taken her away. He had sat in the cottage doorway, and watched the ship grow smaller and smaller as it receded over the waves. At first its sails had looked dark, because they were against the light; but a moment before it touched the horizon, where earth and heaven meet, the great white light from beyond had touched the sails, and made them gleam like angels' wings. Then ship and sails had settled into a lustrous invisibility; a long wave had broken with a hollow sound upon the shore, and a feeling of tender sadness had come into the little boy's heart.

Although he was alone, however, he was not lonely; there was a great deal to amuse him. The cottage, which was made out of the hull of an old fishing boat, was as pleasant a place to live in as a boy could wish. It was divided into two rooms, in one of which Oscar slept, and in the other he ate his dinner. The furniture was very simple—a bed, a chair or two, a table, and a bookshelf; but these were all that Oscar required; and besides, he spent most of his time outdoors. There were two other things in the dining-room, however, for which he cared very much. One was a large book, which lay on the bookshelf. It was a gift which his father had left for him when he went away. It was a large heavy book, with a dark binding and a golden clasp. This clasp could be opened only by pronouncing over it certain words which Oscar's father had bade the boy's mother teach him when he should be old enough. These words were a secret, and if the secret were betrayed, certain penalties would follow. It was Oscar's habit, on getting up every morning, to take the book from the bookshelf, and having spoken the magic words, to open it and read. Now, the pages of the book appeared like ordinary printed pages, and if anyone besides Oscar had looked into them, they would have read only a number of stories which were not very interesting, and which did not seem to be of any especial importance to anybody. But with Oscar it was very different; for, as the morning sunshine fell upon the page, he saw, not the printed words, but wonderful pictures, which lived and moved, and had many strange and beautiful meanings. The pictures were something like the world in which the boy lived, but much brighter and more glorious, and the people who moved in them were far nobler and handsomer than any that Oscar could have imagined; and chief among them was a grand figure which the boy recognised as his father. While going over the pages of this mysterious book, therefore, Oscar, in his lonely cottage, was able to see with his own eyes all the mighty deeds that his father had done, and even many of those that he was at that moment doing; for the book was a living book, and though it told of marvels in comparison with which all other fairy stories would seem dull and commonplace, yet these marvels were all true. By studying that book a man could become wiser than the wisest of philosophers, and see more than the greatest of travellers, and yet remain as simple as a little child. It would take a long time to tell you even a few of the wonders which this book held between its dark covers. One of them was, that if Oscar was in any trouble, he had but to open his book, and the pictures would show him how the trouble was to be overcome. Every pain that he could suffer, and every difficulty that he could meet, had been met and suffered by his father long before; so that by seeing what his father had done, he learned what was the best thing to do himself. For Oscar was like his father, though he was but a little boy.

The other thing that the dining-room contained was a large crystal vase, which stood in the window. It had seven sides, and was so large round that Oscar could not make his arms meet about it. It was filled with the purest water, and at the bottom were sand and pebbles, and delicate seaweeds, red and green, and pieces of rock covered with curious mosses and tinted lichens. It was like a little sea, only that there were no living animals in it. But under the shadow of one of the rocks lay a large pearl shell, which Oscar fancied must hold some living thing, although, often as he had watched it, it had never yet moved or opened. But the boy had faith and patience, and every new day he went to the vase, in the hope that now at last something might have come from the pearl shell. It lay quiet, however, and kept its secret to itself. It must certainly be a pleasant secret, Oscar thought, for the shell was exquisitely curved, and its pearly sides shone with a delicate lustre. And the more he pondered over the matter, the surer he became that the vase must have been given for the sake of the shell, and that by-and-by the shell would show why it was there. Sometimes he felt tempted to take it out of the water, and try whether he could see inside of it. But he could never quite bring himself to do this, because, though the vase and the shell were his own, he felt that they had been given to him to look at, and not to meddle with. In his book, too, he saw that the night always comes before the morning, and the winter before the spring; and though he did not understand why that should be so—why the morning should not begin just after the sun had set, and the spring buds and flowers come out as soon as the red and yellow leaves of autumn had fallen—yet he saw that one wave followed another to break against the shore, and that every flower was a bud before it was a blossom, and that no happiness was so happy as that which had been waited for; so he believed that the secret of the shell would disclose itself when the right time should come, and that to try to find it out beforehand would perhaps be to lose it altogether. Moreover, was not the shell beautiful enough as it was?


CHAPTER II.

OSCAR INSIDE OUT.

When these early morning hours were over, Oscar used to go out of the cottage and wander about beside the sea. The waves murmured to him, and the sun was warm; the seagulls wheeled above his head and screamed with their wild voices; great white clouds built themselves into cities and palaces before his eyes; lights and shadows wavered everywhere, and made the grey rocks and the distant mountains seem alive; winds whispered in the long grass, and sang crooning melodies in the branches of the trees; little insects and animals ran hither and thither, and seemed busy even when they were doing nothing. Sometimes the rain fell, making a secret sound in the leaves, and causing the surface of the clear pools to leap aloft in tiny pyramids; then the green plants stood up and stretched out their stems, taking their wetting gladly, and growing taller after it, though it had made them bob their heads. With the evening, splendid colours came along the sky, though the hand that painted them was not seen: they, too, spoke a kind of language; the glories of the day that was past, and the thoughts and hopes that Oscar had had, seemed to glow in the heavens as they glowed in the boy's memory. They faded at last, and night darkened the world, so that Oscar might not forget the moon and stars. These never slept, and therefore Oscar knew that he might sleep. The rays that came from them found their way silently into his heart, and filled it with the fresh and quiet fancies that afterwards grew into dreams. For his dreams did not come from the world he lived in, but from some other.

But what was this that the waves and the birds, and the light and shadow, and the trees and the rain, and all the rest of it, were trying to say to him? Was it really anything? and if it were, why could he not understand it? Sometimes he thought he almost understood it. If the things would speak a very little plainer, or if he could see and hear the least bit more clearly, there would be no more mystery. He thought they would say, 'Oscar, we are like you. We are here because you are here. If you were not Oscar, we should not be what we are. And if we were not here you could not speak, nor think, nor be glad or sorry.' But they never did quite say this. Therefore Oscar was not quite content, and he felt that he needed something, he knew not what, more than the earth and the sea and the sky had given him. They were so friendly to him that they made him long for a nearer friendship still. He could not come closer to them; and if they could not come closer to him, must not something be wrong? He found them always fresh, and full of new things that never came to an end; they were alive, but the life they had was not quite the same as his own life. The world was so big that he could not put his arms round it and hug it; it was calm and orderly, and although he could never get to the end of the new things that were in it, yet he knew that every year it was the same world that it had been before. It was not so with him; for, in spite of his being always Oscar, he knew every day that he never had been and never would be exactly the same Oscar that he was at that moment. So the world was not only too big for him, but, in another way, it was too small for him also. The world could live only a year, after all, since one of its years was the same as another; but Oscar felt that he could live innumerable years, because no one of his years was the same as any other. Oh, if he could only find something to love that would grow in the same way that he grew, and answer him when he spoke, and be in all ways both as large and as small as he! Up and down the shore Oscar wandered, and through the green shade of the rustling forest, and with his eyes he sought amidst the clouds and the stars, but the thing that he wanted he did not find.

When the rain came down too hard, Oscar would stay within the cottage, and study his book, or watch his pearl-shell, or sometimes go into the bedroom and look at the things his mother had left behind her. They were very ordinary things, and there were very few of them; but they were dearer to Oscar than anything else. Here was the jacket his mother used to wear, and against which Oscar's face had often rested, while she nursed him in her arms, or lulled him to sleep. It was full of wrinkles and stains, and was torn in one or two places; but it was his own mother's own jacket, and made him think so vividly of her kind face and loving eyes and warm soft arms, that he would heave a deep sigh, and sit still with his eyes very wide open. Then there was the comb that his mother used to wear in her hair. It was made of white ivory prettily carved. Oscar remembered how his mother used sometimes to take out this comb while he was sitting on her lap, and let her hair tumble down about her shoulders; and she used to let him feel its smoothness with his small hands, and taught him how to braid it by weaving three strands of it in and out.

The feelings that Oscar had while sitting in the bedroom with these and other things that had belonged to his mother were very different from any that came to him while he was outdoors. They were less cheerful than his outdoor feelings, but he liked them better. For in thinking of his mother he forgot himself; he had been able to put his arms round his mother's neck and to kiss her cheek. She had loved him and called him by his name; he had known that no other boy could be to her what he was; she had comforted him when he was hurt or grieved; she had been made to be his mother, as he had been made to be her son. It was not so with the world outdoors—with the earth and the sea and the sky. These had been made for Oscar perhaps; but if Oscar had been some other boy they would still have remained. They belonged to him only because he was a boy, and not because he was the boy Oscar. Therefore he could not forget himself in loving and giving himself to them, as he had done in loving and giving himself to his mother. All this brought him to think that unless, out of the earth and sea and sky, something could come to him that should both bring them nearer and yet be different from them, the promise which they seemed to hold out to him would not be fulfilled. It was not a bigger or a more beautiful world that he wanted, but a world within the world, which should contain all that made the outer world beautiful and lovable, and something more besides. Such a world within the world his mother had been to him; but it was nothis mother that the boy looked for, because he knew that she was gone never to return. What was it then? Oscar did not yet know; but now something began to stir within him that seemed to mean that the answer would not be long delayed.


CHAPTER III.

THE PEARL-SHELL'S GIFT.

One morning, as he was sitting with his book open upon his knees, the page at which he looked seemed suddenly to be overspread with a grey cloud. At first he could not see through the cloud, but after a while lights and shadows began to stir duskily within it, and presently he saw, as through a mist, some one walking along a lonely pathway in a forest. The mist gradually cleared away, but the face of the person was turned from him, so that it could not be known who he was. The person came to an opening amidst the trees, overspread with soft green grass and flowers of many hues. In the centre of this grass-plot was a fountain, bubbling up like living crystal from a basin of sparkling sand. Around the margin were the golden smile of buttercups and the blue glance of forget-me-nots. The wanderer drew near and bent over the fountain. Then, out of the pure water, an arm was stretched upwards, holding in its hand a radiant pearl. The wanderer took the pearl, and then the mysterious hand and arm were drawn under the water again and disappeared. The wanderer looked at the pearl and seemed to rejoice in it, as well he might; for it was the most precious of all pearls. But while he was rejoicing, a man came up to him who, though he had eyes and a tongue, was both dumb and blind; but he talked very rapidly with his fingers, as most dumb persons can do; and he used his nose instead of eyes, for he judged whether or not a thing were beautiful or valuable by smelling of it. The wanderer spoke to this odd person, and bade him look at the pearl and rejoice with him. But the other shook his head contemptuously, and said with his fingers that his eyes were not made to see, and that seeing was all folly and deception; and that a good nose was worth all the eyesight in the world. So, instead of looking at the pearl he smelt of it, and after doing so again shook his head contemptuously, and pulled out of his pocket a raw onion. 'Smell of that,' he said with his fingers; 'that is worth all the pearls in the world!' and then he began to try to persuade the owner of the pearl, by many clever and cunning arguments, to throw the pearl away, and take an onion in its stead. Oscar bent forward in great eagerness to see whether the owner of the pearl could possibly be so foolish as to let himself believe that the most precious pearl in the world could be exchanged for an onion; but just then the mist arose once more, and rapidly deepened to an impenetrable cloud, and the figures of both the man with the pearl and of the man with the onion were blotted out. Oscar closed the book. All the rest of the day he could think of nothing but this strange picture; and he wondered deeply whether the blind man with the onion had succeeded in making the other man as blind as himself. If only the cloud had held back a few minutes longer!

Before Oscar went to bed he looked into the crystal vase, to see whether there were any change in the shell. For the first time it seemed to him that it had really moved a little. But the light was so dim that he could not be sure. Out of the window the sea had a marvellous twinkle of moonlight over it, and the night air was cool and sweet. Suddenly, a hideous bat, with broad noiseless wings of filmy black, hovered into the room, poised itself for a moment over the crystal vase, and then flitted away again.

The next day was one which Oscar, so long as he lived, never forgot.

He had had a strange dream during the night, and this had taken from his memory the change which he had fancied he noticed in the shell before going to bed. But now, when he went as usual to look at it, he saw that a change had taken place indeed.

The shell was rolled over on its back; the lid, which heretofore had closed its mouth, was open; and the shell was empty. Oscar could see far down into the very depths of the curving interior; it was as smooth as satin, and looked fit to house the queen of the fairies. But there was nothing in it. When, however, Oscar raised his eyes, he beheld a sight which made him draw in his breath with a long sigh of amazement and tremulous delight. The two largest pieces of rock in the vase leaned together in such a way as to make an arch, upon the sides of which delicate leaves of pink and green seaweed grew, and other broader leaves clustered together in a sort of grove further back. Within this grove Oscar now perceived a movement, as if something were advancing through them. In a moment they parted, and a fairy-like little figure floated between, touching the sand with the tips only of her tiny feet. Forward she came until she stood just beneath the highest part of the arch. She was scarcely six inches tall, but she was perfectly formed in every part; and her face, though it was less than an inch long, was completely and exquisitely beautiful; and, moreover, it looked even more good than lovely. Her hair, which was finer than the finest cobweb, floated around her like a sort of brown mist; it was very thick and immensely long—nearly five inches! Her skin was more pure and delicate than the inside of a white geranium bud; but the palms of her little hands had a faint rose tint, and so had the tips of her infinitesimal fingers and toes. Her eyes were like fairy forget-me-nots; and, ah! who can describe that tiniest marvel of all perfection, her mouth, with its tender curved lips, and teeth no bigger than grains of white sand. This little lady carried in one hand a broad frond of green weed, which arched over her head and protected her from the rays of the sun that fell through the crystal sides of the vase. Round her neck was hung a necklace of seed pearls that might have come out of a mussel as large as a millet seed. From the waist depended a curiously woven girdle made of thread-like sea-grasses of various colours. There she stood, gazing straight at Oscar with her wondering blue eyes, and her lips half parted. And Oscar gazed at her, almost afraid to breathe, lest she should vanish out of his sight. For he could not yet believe that she was real. He had never even dreamed of anything like her before. But he was awake, and she still stood beneath the archway of rock, and he saw many sweet expressions pass over her face. Yes, she was a real, living little maiden, and she had come into the world to make Oscar happy; to supply the want he had felt; to be something that he could love and live for.

Oscar felt so tenderly towards her, and so fearful lest he should do something to alarm or shock her, that at first he did not venture to do anything at all. He was so terribly big, he thought, that she must find him frightful. He longed to show her in some way that there was nothing in his heart but love and reverence for her. In the midst of his perplexity, however, the little maiden smiled a smile that was all the more delightful because the eyes and mouth she smiled with were so small; and with a light movement she half walked, half floated towards him, until she stood close to the crystal side of the vase. The tips of her fingers rested against it, and she looked up at Oscar with a glance so winning and so confiding that he no longer felt any doubt about her or about himself. He stooped down and put his lips to his side of the crystal vase, and they kissed each other through it.

In this way the pledge of friendship between them was given. As soon as it had been done, the little maiden made a leap as of joy, and then began to dance about inside the vase, sometimes touching the sandy bottom, but most of the time gliding to and fro in mid-water, turning herself this way and that in graceful caprioles, diving through the archway and coming up out of the grove of seaweeds on the other side; waving her arms about her head with dreamy motions; sometimes resting quietly upon nothing, as if she were asleep; then swimming like a fish with her arms folded and her feet crossed one over the other; and now playing at peep-bo with Oscar behind the rocks. Oscar had never been so delighted; his eyes sparkled and his cheeks were red. At last his little playmate dived into the pearl-shell and disappeared, and the boy began to fear that he should see her no more. But in a very short time she came out again, holding something in her hand. She smiled and nodded to him, and rose up through the water until she nearly reached the surface. Oscar thought she must be coming out, and his heart beat with expectation. But she was not coming out. Instead of that, she stretched up her tiny hand above the surface, and Oscar now saw that it held a pearl. He cautiously put out his own hand, and took the pearl from her fingers. Then she nodded again, and descended.

'Is this for me?' asked Oscar, very softly.

Hereupon she made him the most charming little bow imaginable, at the same time bringing both her hands to her lips, and blowing him a kiss.

'Thank you, you lovely little creature!' said Oscar. 'But can you understand all I say to you?'

Again the little maiden smiled, and nodded her head up and down.

'And can you speak also?' the boy demanded.

She put up one hand, and waved it slowly backwards and forwards before her face.

'Ah, she cannot speak!' thought Oscar; and he felt a momentary touch of sadness.

But at that an expression came into her face that seemed to say, as plainly as could be, 'If I cannot talk as you do, still I can talk.' And not only did her face seem to say this, but she said it, as it were, with all there was of her; and although in one sense there was very little of her, yet in another sense there was so very much, that not the largest giant ever heard of could have said so much without speaking as she could. Oscar could not account for it. Talking without speaking was something new to him. 'But, after all,' he thought, 'nobody could talk under water; and no doubt thinking under water is the same as talking out of it.' Besides, though this wonderful little water-maiden was but six inches tall, her thoughts were evidently quite as big as those of an ordinary grown-up person, so that they must be so much the more easily visible. And, finally, why should Oscar trouble himself about how anything happened, as long as it did happen, and was agreeable? Probably it was because he already loved this exquisite fairy so much, that he was able to understand what was passing in her mind.

He named her Theeda—he did not know why, except that that sounded as if it must be her name, and she seemed to be perfectly satisfied with it. And so these two fell in love with each other at first sight, though she lived in water and he in air, and there could therefore be no meeting between them, except the meeting of their hearts and eyes. They must even kiss each other through the crystal. Nevertheless they were as happy as the day was long, and indeed much happier, for time is a thing with which happiness has very little to do. Oscar's only regret was that Theeda could not be with him when he took his walks upon the shore. He enjoyed his walks, however, more than he had ever before done, because now the earth and the sea and the sky not only said to him, 'We are like you, Oscar,' but also, 'Theeda loves you!'


CHAPTER IV.

THE CRAB.

Oscar could never see enough of his little water-maiden; and he talked to her perhaps all the more because she answered him only by sympathetic thoughts. He told her all that he knew of his life before she came to him—about his dreams by night and his reveries by day; about all the beauties of the world that she could not see from the crystal imprisonment of her vase; about his mother, too, and how the sails of the ship in which she went away had been lit up by the light beyond just before reaching the horizon verge. He spoke likewise of his father, how good and great he was, and how, although he lived and ruled in a distant country, he never forgot to send his little son all things that were necessary for his comfort and happiness.

'And I believe, Theeda,' added Oscar, 'that he put you in the pearl-shell for me. Perhaps you have seen him?'

Theeda threw back her floating mist of hair, and smiled.

'Ah, of course, everybody who is good and lovely must have come from him,' Oscar murmured, as if answering something she had said. And then he went on to talk about the book, and of the strange picture he had seen in it the day before she appeared.

'I think, now,' he said, 'that the wanderer in the forest must have been myself; and the precious pearl that was given to him out of the fountain was you. But who was the blind and dumb man with the onion?'

At that Theeda's head dropped, and she sank slowly down on the sand, and she hid her face in her hands.

'What is the matter, Theeda?' cried Oscar; 'dearest Theeda, what has happened?'

She partly lifted herself up, though still crouching in the sand, and held out her arms towards Oscar as if entreating him to do something. And now, for the first time, he could not read her thought. She seemed to beseech him; but he, who would have given her everything, knew not for what she besought him. At last she trailed herself to the side of the vase and put up her lips to be kissed.

'I love you, Theeda!' said he. 'See! with my whole heart!'

But all that day Theeda's sadness did not wholly pass away; and each morning afterwards, when Oscar first came into the room, she would meet him with a kind of timorousness, and would not be happy until he had kissed her through the crystal, and had told her again that he loved her.

She was by no means an idle little maiden, however. The vase was her home and her garden, and she was busy many hours a day in keeping it in order and making it more and more beautiful. It was wonderful how much she found to do. In some places, where the red and green weeds grew too thick, she pruned them with a little knife that Oscar had given her, made out of a piece of a mussel shell, and cut away the pieces that were decayed. She sifted the brown sand between her fingers, and cleansed it from all impurities; and she brought the prettiest of the pebbles and laid them in tasteful patterns. She plaited a kind of hammock out of the sea grass, and hung it at the entrance of the archway; and in the afternoons, when the sun was hot, she lay in it and took her siesta. And now Oscar, from time to time, put in little sea-animals to keep her company and amuse her; he found many such in the rock pools along the shore. There were prawns, almost transparent, striped like zebras with fine pink stripes, and having long feelers like hairs, which they waved about, and, as it were, asked delicate questions with them of everything that came near. They moved as lightly as thistledown and as swiftly as sunshine. Then there were fishes, slender little things an inch or two long, with round astonished eyes, and open mouths that looked as if they were saying, 'Hoo! hoo!' They were of all colours, and some of them had fierce-looking spines on their backs, which they could move backwards and forwards very much as a horse moves its ears. These fish were at first very timid, and kept under the shadow of the rocks, or lurked amidst the seaweed. But Theeda soon made friends with them, so that they regularly came to her to be fed, and sometimes she used to play at tag with them, darting round and round inside the vase, and in and out amongst the rocks, while the weeds waved to and fro like banners in a gale of wind. Oscar also brought sea-snails, with brightly tinted shells, which crawled slowly about, measuring their way with their one soft foot, and stretching out little transparent horns in front, like children feeling their way in the dark. Besides these there was a hermit crab, which lived in a pearl shell very much like Theeda's, but only about a sixth part as big. This crab was the only ill-natured creature in the vase. He sat sullenly in the door of his house, in a little hollow under a large stone; his little dull eyes stuck far out of his head, and his ugly claws hung down in front like a pair of red fists. He never had a pleasant word for anybody; but, if any came near him, he either pettishly hitched himself back into his shell, or else made a vicious snap at the visitor with his claws. He even snapped at Theeda two or three times, and then Oscar wanted to take him out and throw him back into the sea. But Theeda was very forgiving, and would not let this cross little crab be punished. She always treated him kindly, brought his dinner to him every day, and did all she could to make him goodnatured and comfortable. But nothing seemed to make him any better; and one day, when Theeda had made him let go of a prawn which he had caught by the tail with one of his claws, he flew into such a terrible passion that Oscar felt very glad, for the sake of the other creatures in the vase, that he was no bigger. He made up his mind to have him out before long.

Except for the crab, the vase was the most charming place to live in that could be imagined, and Oscar often wished that he were able to breathe under water as easily as Theeda did, and that he were as small as she was. Theeda, no doubt, wished so too; but it was not to be. Then Oscar used to hope that, some day, Theeda would grow up to be as tall, or nearly as tall, as himself, and then come out of the water, and live with him in the cottage. But that did not seem very likely to happen either. And perhaps, after all, they were as near together as many people who live in the same house, and are separated by neither water nor crystal. Only, when Theeda brought out her oyster-shell dinner-table, and set it under the bower of green ulva leaves, and placed upon it her little cockle-shell dishes of fresh sea vegetables (which was all she ate), Oscar's very heart ached to be sitting at the opposite side of the table and dining with her. Water then seemed to him a much more agreeable element to pass one's time in than air. But, although wishing can do a great deal, it could not quite make a merman of Oscar. Theeda ate her dinners by herself except for the tit-bits that she gave to the prawns and snails, and the scraps that the fishes stole when they thought she was not looking.

'Some day, Theeda, perhaps....!' Oscar used to say, without ever finishing the sentence.

Theeda understood very well what he meant, and used to look as if she meant it also. And Oscar's father, who was as powerful as he was kind, would no doubt be able to make them happy in the way they wanted, if he saw that it was best for them. But the hermit crab had a very ugly and malicious look, as if he had a mind to prevent anybody from being happy if he could.


CHAPTER V.

A STRANGER.

One morning, while Oscar was looking into the vase, and admiring the bright silver beads that were forming all over the leaves of seaweed, and on the lichen-covered surface of the rocks; and while Theeda was busy feeding the fishes, who seemed to get hungrier the more they ate; and just when Oscar was about to remark that the hermit-crab was not in his usual hole, nor anywhere else that he could see—at that moment a dark shadow suddenly fell across the vase, shutting it off from the sunlight, scaring away the fishes, and making Theeda look up with a start, and then quickly take refuge in her shell, as from something she feared.

Oscar also looked up, and saw somebody standing before the window.

It was a boy; but a very odd boy, Oscar thought. He was not any bigger than Oscar, but he seemed to be a good deal older. He had a broad flat face, with a sharp little nose in the middle of it, a wide thin mouth, and pale eyes which stuck out very far, and over which he wore spectacles. He had pale reddish hair growing upright on his head. His legs were so thin that it seemed a wonder he could stand upon them, and indeed they were bowed out sideways, as if the boy's weight were too much for them. His arms also were thin, but his hands were immensely large and red, with stiff, thick fingers, and huge thumbs. He was not quite facing the window, but stood sideways towards it, and looked at Oscar askance. The skin of this boy's face was coarse and rough, and seemed as thick as orange-peel.

'What is your name?' asked the strange boy, after a while.

Oscar told him what it was.

'What an absurdly old-fashioned name!' said the boy, contemptuously. 'I have a better name than that—my name is Kanker!'

'Do you want anything?' said Oscar.

'Yes,' said Kanker. 'I want to ask questions. I am in search of truth. I never believe lies; so you needn't tell me any.'

'I never tell lies,' said Oscar, gravely.

'That is a lie to begin with. Everybody tells lies—except me! Everything lies—the things that can't talk, as well as the things that can. The world is a lie.'

'The world is not a lie,' said Oscar, indignantly. 'And if you think it is, why do you search for truth?'

'I have at all events found the only truth there is to be found—and that is, that everything is a lie,' replied Kanker. 'I have proved it a thousand times already, and every new question I ask proves it again.'

'What makes your hands so big?' Oscar could not help asking.

'They are no bigger than they ought to be,' Kanker answered, holding them up and looking at them admiringly. 'I use them to touch things with. I never believe in anything that I haven't touched. Nothing exists unless I can touch it. Come out of that room, so that I may touch you, and see whether you exist.'

'I will come out,' said Oscar; for he thought it would be better to go to Kanker than to have Kanker come in to him. 'But you need not touch me; I can touch myself if I want to.'

Nevertheless, no sooner had he come out than Kanker took hold of him by the arm, and gripped it so hard with his big red hand that Oscar said, 'Let go, you hurt me!'

'Your touching yourself would prove nothing to me, you know,' said Kanker. 'Well, you seem to exist. Where are your father and mother?'

'They are not here,' answered Oscar. 'They are gone—long ago.'

'I don't believe it. Where did they go to?'

'Over there,' said Oscar, pointing across the sea.

'Nonsense! Do you mean they are drowned?'

'No. They are gone to a country over there.'

'How do you know there is a country over there? Did you ever touch it?'

Oscar shook his head.

'I thought so. Then there is no such place. Therefore your father and mother have gone nowhere. Therefore they do not exist. And what business have you to exist if you never had a father and mother?'

'I don't know what you mean,' said Oscar, 'and I don't care whether I exist or not, so long as I do what is right, and am happy.'

At this Kanker laughed, a spluttering laugh, as if he had his mouth full of water. 'Sit down here beside me,' he said, 'I want to ask you some more questions.'

Oscar sat down beside him. He did not at all like Kanker, whose voice was as harsh as his manners were impolite. And he was certainly ugly. When Oscar did not look full at him he had something the appearance of a gigantic crab, which was increased by his sidelong shuffle in walking, and by the two great red hands that he carried hanging before him, very much as a crab carries his claws. He held a sun-umbrella over his head, a small book in one pocket, and a roll of measuring tape in the other. Nevertheless, Kanker seemed to know so much, and to be so positive about what he knew, that Oscar could not help thinking he must be an important person; not the sort of person to be contradicted, especially by a person who knew so little as Oscar did. 'For, after all,' Oscar thought, 'a great deal of what I supposed I knew has only been told me. I do not know it as he knows things—by touching them. It may be, as he says, that some things that seem to be true are not true. I wonder whether he believes in the sun and the stars? He can hardly have touched them! And I wonder why he wears spectacles?'

'Why do I wear spectacles?' repeated Kanker; for Oscar had spoken the last sentence aloud. 'To see with, of course! Nobody can see without spectacles; and not only that, but nobody can see with any other spectacles than these I have on.'

'Oh, you are mistaken there,' exclaimed Oscar; 'for I have never worn spectacles, and I have always been able to see.'

'You never saw anything in your life,' replied Kanker, very confidently. 'You only think you see. That is your hallucination. An hallucination is when you think a thing is so, and it isn't. You are blind, and probably deaf and dumb as well. What books do you read?'

'I have only one book,' said Oscar; and then he told what a wonderful book it was; how it could only be opened by repeating certain mystic words, and how its pages were full of living pictures, representing things which had been done in the world, and which were being done now. Kanker burst out laughing.

'I don't believe it,' he said. 'It's an hallucination. There is no such book, in the first place, and if there were, it couldn't be what you say it is.'

This made Oscar angry. 'There is such a book,' said he, 'and if you don't believe it I can show it to you.'

Kanker went on laughing and wagging his great hands up and down. 'Oh! show it to me—show it to me!' he spluttered. 'Let me touch it with my fingers, and then perhaps I'll believe.'

'Come into the house, then, and you shall touch it!' exclaimed Oscar. He sprang up and went into the house, and Kanker followed him readily enough. 'Let me put my fingers on it—that's all I ask,' he kept repeating. 'Let me touch it.'

'There!' said Oscar, 'there it is on that shelf. Do you believe now?'

Kanker took the book down from the shelf, and felt it all over. 'I believe that this is something that feels like a book,' he said at last. 'But I don't believe it is a book until I see it opened; and then I shan't believe it has the pictures you talk about unless I see them, and can put my finger on them; and I don't believe you can open it.'

'I can open it!' cried Oscar.

'If you can do it, then why don't you?' Kanker replied.

Now Oscar knew that the mystic words which undid the clasp were a secret which he had no right to disclose. But he wanted so much to show Kanker the inside of the book, and make him acknowledge that he was wrong, that everything else seemed of little account in comparison. He took the book from Kanker's hands. As he did so, a strange feeling came over him. A voice, that seemed to speak not to his ears, but within him, bid him pause. Did he care so much for this Kanker, with his flat face and his great red hands, as to betray the secret which his mother had confided to him? Oscar hesitated.

'Ha! I knew you were lying!' said Kanker, with his disagreeable laugh.

'You shall see that I am not!' retorted Oscar, becoming angrier than ever. Then he began to repeat the mystic words. But he found it hard to pronounce them, and some of them he could scarcely remember. His teeth chattered as he went on, and his heart beat painfully. But Kanker was watching him askance with his pale spectacled eyes, and Oscar would not stop. At last he had spoken all the words; the clasp flew back; the book opened!

'There!' said Oscar, thrusting it into Kanker's hands. 'It is open: now look for yourself!' Then he turned away, and hid his face in his hands.

All of a sudden he heard again Kanker's hateful spluttering laugh. He looked up in astonishment. Kanker was pointing contemptuously to the page.

'No pictures here!' he was saying. 'Show me your pictures! There's nothing but printing here, and very stupid commonplace printing too!'

Oscar fixed his eyes upon the book; but they were darkened, and at first he could see nothing. At length his sight cleared; but, alas! it was as Kanker had said: there were no pictures in the book, no beauty, no life, and no mystery. It was just like any other book—ordinary pages printed with ordinary print. There had been some terrible loss, but whether the loss were in Oscar or in the book, Oscar could not tell. He stood there unable to speak, and almost to think.

'It is just as I knew it was,' said Kanker, throwing down the book. 'Another of your absurd hallucinations. You dream about things until you think they are real. You had much better do as I do—wear spectacles, make up your mind that everything is a lie, and trust to your fingers. By doing that you might, in the course of time, come to know something. Look here, I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll make an exchange with you. It isn't a fair exchange, for what I give you is worth a great deal, and what you give me is worth nothing. You give me your book, and I'll give you mine.'

'What is your book?' Oscar asked.

'An arithmetic, to be sure!' replied Kanker, pulling it out of his pocket. 'See, here is the multiplication table. And here are addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. And here are vulgar fractions. And here are examples. And here is the Rule of Three. That's what I call a book worth having.'

'But if you think my book is not worth having, why do you want it?'

'To make a fire to warm myself with,' Kanker replied.

'If you are cold, will not the sun warm you?' asked Oscar.

'No one has been able to prove that there is any warmth in the sun,' said Kanker. 'It only seems to be warm. But I know that a fire is warm, because I can burn my fingers in it.'

'But if the sun feels warm, is not that as good as if it were really warm?'

'For you it may be,' answered Kanker, 'but not for me. I care only for truth, and I don't choose to be warmed by anything I don't believe in. That is the reason I carry a sun-umbrella. Well, will you let me have your book?'

'It is no more use to me,' said Oscar, gloomily. 'I do not care whether you take it or not, or what becomes of it.'

'You will find my arithmetic much more useful,' returned Kanker. 'Come outside and see me make my fire.'

But Oscar turned sullenly away.

Kanker went outside the cottage, with the book in his arms. After a moment, Oscar could not help going to the window to see what was being done.

Kanker had laid the book across two stones, and had gathered some bits of driftwood from the shore for kindlings to put underneath. Now he struck a match, and held it to the kindlings. But at that there was a sudden and mighty sound, like thunder, and also like a great voice speaking some solemn and awful word. And the book seemed to dissolve, and in its place arose a tall pillar of light, more dazzling than the lightning, which hung for a moment near the earth, and, to Oscar's amazed eyes, took on the likeness of a glorious and majestic figure, which bent upon him a look that made his heart tremble. Then the figure moved away through the air seaward, casting a radiance across the waters, and making the sun look red and dim. It drifted slowly away over the sea, and at last became as a bright star, further and further off, until it vanished in the depths of the sky. Then a great coldness fell upon Oscar, and the daylight became dusky to him, as if it were already evening; and he knew that the dazzling face which he had seen was the face of his father. Now he understood what the book had been; but it was too late.


CHAPTER VI.

THE SECRET OF THE WAVES.

It seemed to Oscar that many hours passed away while he remained crouched down on his knees in a dark corner, shivering and miserable. At last he looked up. It was evening, and a bitter wind was blowing outside; heavy clouds were driving across the sky, and rain was beating on the roof. Kanker was sitting in the middle of the room, with his chin upon his hands, staring at him.

'You had better go,' Oscar said. 'What other harm do you want to do me?'

'It is you who have done harm to me,' replied Kanker, 'by giving me a box of gunpowder to make a fire with. The explosion has cracked my spectacles. However, I bear no malice. What do you keep that jar of sea-water for?'

'Ah! that is where Theeda lives,' exclaimed Oscar, rising, with some cheerfulness in his face. 'I had forgotten her.'

'Theeda? what is Theeda?' demanded Kanker.

'She is my playmate and companion,' Oscar said. 'She is dearer to me than anything else in the world, and nothing in the world is so lovely as she.'

'And do you mean to say she lives in the water? Pray, how big is she?'

'She is not so tall as your hand is long.'

'No such creature ever existed,' said Kanker, positively. 'In the first place, no one ever was made of that size, and in the second place, it is impossible for anyone to live under water. It is another of your hallucinations. There is no use in your denying it. I shall believe in her when I see her, and not before.'

'I will not let you see her,' replied Oscar.

'Just what I expected! When did you see her last yourself?'

'Just before your shadow fell across the vase.'

'What language does she talk?'

'She does not talk at all, but I know all she thinks.'

'This is really too absurd! Have you ever touched her?'

'No. It is enough for me to look at her.'

'I will tell you what it is,' said Kanker, lifting up one of his ugly fingers and holding it at the side of his little sharp nose. 'You are crazy—quite crazy! You have lived here by yourself until you don't know what is real from what isn't. Now, I will make this bargain with you. If you will let me put my finger on this Theeda of yours, and I thereby prove to my own satisfaction that she exists, I will let you use me for your servant the rest of my life. Do you agree?'

Oscar waited a little while before answering. He hated Kanker, and he thought that if Kanker became his servant, he should be able to make him as miserable as Kanker had made him. He did not stop to think whether Theeda would like to be touched or not; it seemed to him an easy way of being revenged on his enemy, and that was all. 'Yes, I agree!' he said.

'Very well!' returned Kanker. 'And, of course, if I prove that Theeda does not exist, you are to become my servant for the rest of your life?'

'There is no danger in my promising that,' said Oscar. 'Let it be so if you wish.'

'Very well!' said Kanker again; and then they both went to the vase.

'Where is she?' asked Ranker. 'I don't see her.'

'Oh, she has gone into her shell; it is late—she must be asleep by this time,' answered Oscar. 'You must wait until to-morrow.'

'That won't do!' said Kanker. 'The agreement was for this evening. If you back out, you become my servant.'

'It shall be this evening, then,' replied Oscar; 'but you will regret it more than I!' And stooping over the vase, he called, 'Theeda! Theeda! wake up! come out!'

They waited a moment. There was no movement in the great pearl shell, and Theeda did not appear.

'Come! there's enough of this nonsense!' Kanker exclaimed. 'You may as well make up your mind at once to being my servant.'

'Not yet!' said Oscar, scornfully, and he called in a louder voice, 'Come out, Theeda! Come out—I want you!'

The shell stirred slightly, but still Theeda did not appear. Kanker laughed.

Then Oscar grew angry, and in a harsh tone he cried, 'Theeda, come out! or I shall not love you or believe in you any more!'

The sun had set long ago, and the sky was almost dark; but now, through a break in the clouds, the moon shone down, white and clear, into the crystal vase. It gleamed upon the pearly shell; and in its cold lustre Oscar saw the tiny water-maiden, whom he had loved better than anything else in the world, and who was the most precious thing that the world contained, come slowly out of her shell, and stand downcast and drooping before him. Then he felt that, in his anger, and in his desire to be revenged on his enemy, he had done a wicked thing, which could not be forgiven. He had shown what was most sacred and dear to his own soul to one who could neither believe in her nor reverence her. His heart was filled with bitter sorrow and repentance; but again it was too late.

For, as Theeda stood there in the moonlight, drooping amidst her shadowy mist of hair, Kanker put out his hideous red hand, that was less like a hand than like a crab's claw, and plunging it into the water, he tried to grasp Theeda round the waist. But his fingers met together, and behold! no Theeda was there. She had faded into nothingness where she stood; or else the shadow of a cloud which at that moment passed across the room, and made the vase and the room dark again, had caused her to become invisible. Before she disappeared, however, she bent one sad reproachful look upon Oscar, and he knew that he had seen his mother's spirit in her eyes. He understood all then; but it was too late indeed!

'I told you how it would be!' said the harsh voice of Ranker, with his spluttering laugh, 'and now you are my servant!'

'Yes, for I have lost my Theeda!' answered Oscar, with a heavy sigh.

But even as he spoke, he chanced to turn his eyes towards the sea. Beyond the moon he saw a pure white cloud drifting down the sky. To Oscar's fancy it took on the likeness of a female form—the form of someone whom he knew and loved. She seemed to beckon him to a far-off country, whither Kanker could not come, and where he would be free.

'Yes, I will follow her!' Oscar thought; and, in some way, he slipped from where he was, and left the cottage and Kanker behind him, and went down towards the ocean.

Kanker did not at first know that Oscar had escaped, for he had left something behind which resembled him, but was not really he. The next morning, when the sun peeped as usual into the crystal vase, neither Oscar nor Kanker were to be seen. But, in the pearl shell, where formerly Theeda had lived, sat a great ugly crab, twiddling its huge red claws, and peering this way and that with its malicious little eyes, which stuck far out of its head. Oscar was not in the cottage, nor on the shore, nor has he, from that day to this, ever reappeared there. But, if you should ever happen to visit the place, you will hear the waves murmur mysteriously to one another, as they gambol along the beach; and since they come from that far-off line where the world meets the sky, they may possibly know more about Oscar and Theeda than people like Kanker would be apt to believe.