H. G. (Herbert George) Wells.

The sea lady : a tissue of moonshine online

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[Illustration: "Am I doing it right?" asked the Sea Lady.
(See page 150.)]







_Published September, 1902_

Copyright 1901 by H. G. Wells













"Am I doing it right?" asked the Sea Lady _Frontispiece_

"Stuff that the public won't believe aren't facts" 81

She positively and quietly settled down with the Buntings 90

A little group about the Sea Lady's bath chair 134

"Why not?" 160

The waiter retires amazed 170

They seemed never to do anything but blow and sigh and
rustle papers 180

Adjusting the folds of his blanket to a greater dignity 216





Such previous landings of mermaids as have left a record, have all a
flavour of doubt. Even the very circumstantial account of that Bruges
Sea Lady, who was so clever at fancy work, gives occasion to the
sceptic. I must confess that I was absolutely incredulous of such things
until a year ago. But now, face to face with indisputable facts in my
own immediate neighbourhood, and with my own second cousin Melville (of
Seaton Carew) as the chief witness to the story, I see these old legends
in a very different light. Yet so many people concerned themselves with
the hushing up of this affair, that, but for my sedulous enquiries, I am
certain it would have become as doubtful as those older legends in a
couple of score of years. Even now to many minds - -

The difficulties in the way of the hushing-up process were no doubt
exceptionally great in this case, and that they did contrive to do so
much, seems to show just how strong are the motives for secrecy in all
such cases. There is certainly no remoteness nor obscurity about the
scene of these events. They began upon the beach just east of Sandgate
Castle, towards Folkestone, and they ended on the beach near Folkestone
pier not two miles away. The beginning was in broad daylight on a bright
blue day in August and in full sight of the windows of half a dozen
houses. At first sight this alone is sufficient to make the popular want
of information almost incredible. But of that you may think differently

Mrs. Randolph Bunting's two charming daughters were bathing at the time
in company with their guest, Miss Mabel Glendower. It is from the latter
lady chiefly, and from Mrs. Bunting, that I have pieced together the
precise circumstances of the Sea Lady's arrival. From Miss Glendower,
the elder of two Glendower girls, for all that she is a principal in
almost all that follows, I have obtained, and have sought to obtain, no
information whatever. There is the question of the lady's feelings - and
in this case I gather they are of a peculiarly complex sort. Quite
naturally they would be. At any rate, the natural ruthlessness of the
literary calling has failed me. I have not ventured to touch them....

The villa residences to the east of Sandgate Castle, you must
understand, are particularly lucky in having gardens that run right
down to the beach. There is no intervening esplanade or road or path
such as cuts off ninety-nine out of the hundred of houses that face the
sea. As you look down on them from the western end of the Leas, you see
them crowding the very margin. And as a great number of high groins
stand out from the shore along this piece of coast, the beach is
practically cut off and made private except at very low water, when
people can get around the ends of the groins. These houses are
consequently highly desirable during the bathing season, and it is the
custom of many of their occupiers to let them furnished during the
summer to persons of fashion and affluence.

The Randolph Buntings were such persons - indisputably. It is true of
course that they were not Aristocrats, or indeed what an unpaid herald
would freely call "gentle." They had no right to any sort of arms. But
then, as Mrs. Bunting would sometimes remark, they made no pretence of
that sort; they were quite free (as indeed everybody is nowadays) from
snobbery. They were simple homely Buntings - Randolph Buntings - "good
people" as the saying is - of a widely diffused Hampshire stock addicted
to brewing, and whether a suitably remunerated herald could or could not
have proved them "gentle" there can be no doubt that Mrs. Bunting was
quite justified in taking in the _Gentlewoman_, and that Mr. Bunting and
Fred were sedulous gentlemen, and that all their ways and thoughts were
delicate and nice. And they had staying with them the two Miss
Glendowers, to whom Mrs. Bunting had been something of a mother, ever
since Mrs. Glendower's death.

The two Miss Glendowers were half sisters, and gentle beyond dispute, a
county family race that had only for a generation stooped to trade, and
risen at once Antæus-like, refreshed and enriched. The elder, Adeline,
was the rich one - the heiress, with the commercial blood in her veins.
She was really very rich, and she had dark hair and grey eyes and
serious views, and when her father died, which he did a little before
her step-mother, she had only the later portion of her later youth left
to her. She was nearly seven-and-twenty. She had sacrificed her earlier
youth to her father's infirmity of temper in a way that had always
reminded her of the girlhood of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. But after
his departure for a sphere where his temper has no doubt a wider
scope - for what is this world for if it is not for the Formation of
Character? - she had come out strongly. It became evident she had always
had a mind, and a very active and capable one, an accumulated fund of
energy and much ambition. She had bloomed into a clear and critical
socialism, and she had blossomed at public meetings; and now she was
engaged to that really very brilliant and promising but rather
extravagant and romantic person, Harry Chatteris, the nephew of an earl
and the hero of a scandal, and quite a possible Liberal candidate for
the Hythe division of Kent. At least this last matter was under
discussion and he was about, and Miss Glendower liked to feel she was
supporting him by being about too, and that was chiefly why the Buntings
had taken a house in Sandgate for the summer. Sometimes he would come
and stay a night or so with them, sometimes he would be off upon
affairs, for he was known to be a very versatile, brilliant, first-class
political young man - and Hythe very lucky to have a bid for him, all
things considered. And Fred Bunting was engaged to Miss Glendower's less
distinguished, much less wealthy, seventeen-year old and possibly
altogether more ordinary half-sister, Mabel Glendower, who had discerned
long since when they were at school together that it wasn't any good
trying to be clear when Adeline was about.

The Buntings did not bathe "mixed," a thing indeed that was still only
very doubtfully decent in 1898, but Mr. Randolph Bunting and his son
Fred came down to the beach with them frankly instead of hiding away or
going for a walk according to the older fashion. (This, notwithstanding
that Miss Mabel Glendower, Fred's _fiancée_ to boot, was of the bathing
party.) They formed a little procession down under the evergreen oaks in
the garden and down the ladder and so to the sea's margin.

Mrs. Bunting went first, looking as it were for Peeping Tom with her
glasses, and Miss Glendower, who never bathed because it made her feel
undignified, went with her - wearing one of those simple, costly "art"
morning costumes Socialists affect. Behind this protecting van came, one
by one, the three girls, in their beautiful Parisian bathing dresses and
headdresses - though these were of course completely muffled up in huge
hooded gowns of towelling - and wearing of course stockings and
shoes - they bathed in stockings and shoes. Then came Mrs. Bunting's maid
and the second housemaid and the maid the Glendower girls had brought,
carrying towels, and then at a little interval the two men carrying
ropes and things. (Mrs. Bunting always put a rope around each of her
daughters before ever they put a foot in the water and held it until
they were safely out again. But Mabel Glendower would not have a rope.)

Where the garden ends and the beach begins Miss Glendower turned aside
and sat down on the green iron seat under the evergreen oak, and having
found her place in "Sir George Tressady" - a book of which she was
naturally enough at that time inordinately fond - sat watching the others
go on down the beach. There they were a very bright and very pleasant
group of prosperous animated people upon the sunlit beach, and beyond
them in streaks of grey and purple, and altogether calm save for a
pattern of dainty little wavelets, was that ancient mother of surprises,
the Sea.

As soon as they reached the high-water mark where it is no longer
indecent to be clad merely in a bathing dress, each of the young ladies
handed her attendant her wrap, and after a little fun and laughter Mrs.
Bunting looked carefully to see if there were any jelly fish, and then
they went in. And after a minute or so, it seems Betty, the elder Miss
Bunting, stopped splashing and looked, and then they all looked, and
there, about thirty yards away was the Sea Lady's head, as if she were
swimming back to land.

Naturally they concluded that she must be a neighbour from one of the
adjacent houses. They were a little surprised not to have noticed her
going down into the water, but beyond that her apparition had no shadow
of wonder for them. They made the furtive penetrating observations usual
in such cases. They could see that she was swimming very gracefully and
that she had a lovely face and very beautiful arms, but they could not
see her wonderful golden hair because all that was hidden in a
fashionable Phrygian bathing cap, picked up - as she afterwards admitted
to my second cousin - some nights before upon a Norman _plage_. Nor could
they see her lovely shoulders because of the red costume she wore.

They were just on the point of feeling their inspection had reached the
limit of really nice manners and Mabel was pretending to go on splashing
again and saying to Betty, "She's wearing a red dress. I wish I could
see - " when something very terrible happened.

The swimmer gave a queer sort of flop in the water, threw up her arms
and - vanished!

It was the sort of thing that seems for an instant to freeze everybody,
just one of those things that everyone has read of and imagined and very
few people have seen.

For a space no one did anything. One, two, three seconds passed and then
for an instant a bare arm flashed in the air and vanished again.

Mabel tells me she was quite paralysed with horror, she did nothing all
the time, but the two Miss Buntings, recovering a little, screamed out,
"Oh, she's drowning!" and hastened to get out of the sea at once, a
proceeding accelerated by Mrs. Bunting, who with great presence of mind
pulled at the ropes with all her weight and turned about and continued
to pull long after they were many yards from the water's edge and indeed
cowering in a heap at the foot of the sea wall. Miss Glendower became
aware of a crisis and descended the steps, "Sir George Tressady" in one
hand and the other shading her eyes, crying in her clear resolute voice,
"She must be saved!" The maids of course were screaming - as became
them - but the two men appear to have acted with the greatest presence of
mind. "Fred, Nexdoors ledder!" said Mr. Randolph Bunting - for the
next-door neighbour instead of having convenient stone steps had a high
wall and a long wooden ladder, and it had often been pointed out by Mr.
Bunting if ever an accident should happen to anyone there was _that_! In
a moment it seems they had both flung off jacket and vest, collar, tie
and shoes, and were running the neighbour's ladder out into the water.

"Where did she go, Ded?" said Fred.

"Right out hea!" said Mr. Bunting, and to confirm his word there flashed
again an arm and "something dark" - something which in the light of all
that subsequently happened I am inclined to suppose was an unintentional
exposure of the Lady's tail.

Neither of the two gentlemen are expert swimmers - indeed so far as I can
gather, Mr. Bunting in the excitement of the occasion forgot almost
everything he had ever known of swimming - but they waded out valiantly
one on each side of the ladder, thrust it out before them and committed
themselves to the deep, in a manner casting no discredit upon our nation
and race.

Yet on the whole I think it is a matter for general congratulation that
they were not engaged in the rescue of a genuinely drowning person. At
the time of my enquiries whatever soreness of argument that may once
have obtained between them had passed, and it is fairly clear that while
Fred Bunting was engaged in swimming hard against the long side of the
ladder and so causing it to rotate slowly on its axis, Mr. Bunting had
already swallowed a very considerable amount of sea-water and was
kicking Fred in the chest with aimless vigour. This he did, as he
explains, "to get my legs down, you know. Something about that ladder,
you know, and they _would_ go up!"

And then quite unexpectedly the Sea Lady appeared beside them. One
lovely arm supported Mr. Bunting about the waist and the other was over
the ladder. She did not appear at all pale or frightened or out of
breath, Fred told me when I cross-examined him, though at the time he
was too violently excited to note a detail of that sort. Indeed she
smiled and spoke in an easy pleasant voice.

"Cramp," she said, "I have cramp." Both the men were convinced of that.

Mr. Bunting was on the point of telling her to hold tight and she would
be quite safe, when a little wave went almost entirely into his mouth
and reduced him to wild splutterings.

"_We'll_ get you in," said Fred, or something of that sort, and so they
all hung, bobbing in the water to the tune of Mr. Bunting's trouble.

They seem to have rocked so for some time. Fred says the Sea Lady
looked calm but a little puzzled and that she seemed to measure the
distance shoreward. "You _mean_ to save me?" she asked him.

He was trying to think what could be done before his father drowned.
"We're saving you now," he said.

"You'll take me ashore?"

As she seemed so cool he thought he would explain his plan of
operations, "Trying to get - end of ladder - kick with my legs. Only a few
yards out of our depth - if we could only - - "

"Minute - get my breath - moufu' sea-water," said Mr. Bunting. _Splash!_

And then it seemed to Fred that a little miracle happened. There was a
swirl of the water like the swirl about a screw propeller, and he
gripped the Sea Lady and the ladder just in time, as it seemed to him,
to prevent his being washed far out into the Channel. His father
vanished from his sight with an expression of astonishment just forming
on his face and reappeared beside him, so far as back and legs are
concerned, holding on to the ladder with a sort of death grip. And then
behold! They had shifted a dozen yards inshore, and they were in less
than five feet of water and Fred could feel the ground.

At its touch his amazement and dismay immediately gave way to the purest
heroism. He thrust ladder and Sea Lady before him, abandoned the ladder
and his now quite disordered parent, caught her tightly in his arms, and
bore her up out of the water. The young ladies cried "Saved!" the maids
cried "Saved!" Distant voices echoed "Saved, Hooray!" Everybody in fact
cried "Saved!" except Mrs. Bunting, who was, she says, under the
impression that Mr. Bunting was in a fit, and Mr. Bunting, who seems to
have been under an impression that all those laws of nature by which,
under Providence, we are permitted to float and swim, were in suspense
and that the best thing to do was to kick very hard and fast until the
end should come. But in a dozen seconds or so his head was up again and
his feet were on the ground and he was making whale and walrus noises,
and noises like a horse and like an angry cat and like sawing, and was
wiping the water from his eyes; and Mrs. Bunting (except that now and
then she really _had_ to turn and say "_Ran_dolph!") could give her
attention to the beautiful burthen that clung about her son.

And it is a curious thing that the Sea Lady was at least a minute out of
the water before anyone discovered that she was in any way different
from - other ladies. I suppose they were all crowding close to her and
looking at her beautiful face, or perhaps they imagined that she was
wearing some indiscreet but novel form of dark riding habit or something
of that sort. Anyhow not one of them noticed it, although it must have
been before their eyes as plain as day. Certainly it must have blended
with the costume. And there they stood, imagining that Fred had rescued
a lovely lady of indisputable fashion, who had been bathing from some
neighbouring house, and wondering why on earth there was nobody on the
beach to claim her. And she clung to Fred and, as Miss Mabel Glendower
subsequently remarked in the course of conversation with him, Fred clung
to her.

"I had cramp," said the Sea Lady, with her lips against Fred's cheek and
one eye on Mrs. Bunting. "I am sure it was cramp.... I've got it still."

"I don't see anybody - " began Mrs. Bunting.

"Please carry me in," said the Sea Lady, closing her eyes as if she were
ill - though her cheek was flushed and warm. "Carry me in."

"Where?" gasped Fred.

"Carry me into the house," she whispered to him.

"Which house?"

Mrs. Bunting came nearer.

"_Your_ house," said the Sea Lady, and shut her eyes for good and became
oblivious to all further remarks.

"She - But I don't understand - " said Mrs. Bunting, addressing

And then it was they saw it. Nettie, the younger Miss Bunting, saw it
first. She pointed, she says, before she could find words to speak. Then
they all saw it! Miss Glendower, I believe, was the person who was last
to see it. At any rate it would have been like her if she had been.

"Mother," said Nettie, giving words to the general horror. "_Mother!_
She has a _tail_!"

And then the three maids and Mabel Glendower screamed one after the
other. "Look!" they cried. "A tail!"

"Of all - " said Mrs. Bunting, and words failed her.

"_Oh!_" said Miss Glendower, and put her hand to her heart.

And then one of the maids gave it a name. "It's a mermaid!" screamed the
maid, and then everyone screamed, "It's a mermaid."

Except the mermaid herself; she remained quite passive, pretending to be
insensible partly on Fred's shoulder and altogether in his arms.


That, you know, is the tableau so far as I have been able to piece it
together again. You must imagine this little knot of people upon the
beach, and Mr. Bunting, I figure, a little apart, just wading out of the
water and very wet and incredulous and half drowned. And the neighbour's
ladder was drifting quietly out to sea.

Of course it was one of those positions that have an air of being

Indeed it was conspicuous. It was some way below high water and the
group stood out perhaps thirty yards down the beach. Nobody, as Mrs.
Bunting told my cousin Melville, knew a bit _what_ to do and they all
had even an exaggerated share of the national hatred of being seen in a
puzzle. The mermaid seemed content to remain a beautiful problem
clinging to Fred, and by all accounts she was a reasonable burthen for
a man. It seems that the very large family of people who were stopping
at the house called Koot Hoomi had appeared in force, and they were all
staring and gesticulating. They were just the sort of people the
Buntings did not want to know - tradespeople very probably. Presently one
of the men - the particularly vulgar man who used to shoot at the
gulls - began putting down their ladder as if he intended to offer
advice, and Mrs. Bunting also became aware of the black glare of the
field glasses of a still more horrid man to the west.

Moreover the popular author who lived next door, an irascible dark
square-headed little man in spectacles, suddenly turned up and began
bawling from his inaccessible wall top something foolish about his
ladder. Nobody thought of his silly ladder or took any trouble about it,
naturally. He was quite stupidly excited. To judge by his tone and
gestures he was using dreadful language and seemed disposed every moment
to jump down to the beach and come to them.

And then to crown the situation, over the westward groin appeared Low

First of all their heads came, and then their remarks. Then they began
to clamber the breakwater with joyful shouts.

"Pip, Pip," said the Low Excursionists as they climbed - it was the year
of "pip, pip" - and, "What HO she bumps!" and then less generally,
"What's up _'ere_?"

And the voices of other Low Excursionists still invisible answered,
"Pip, Pip."

It was evidently a large party.

"Anything wrong?" shouted one of the Low Excursionists at a venture.

"My _dear_!" said Mrs. Bunting to Mabel, "what _are_ we to do?" And in
her description of the affair to my cousin Melville she used always to
make that the _clou_ of the story. "My DEAR! What ARE we to do?"

I believe that in her desperation she even glanced at the water. But of
course to have put the mermaid back then would have involved the most
terrible explanations....

It was evident there was only one thing to be done. Mrs. Bunting said as
much. "The only thing," said she, "is to carry her indoors."

And carry her indoors they did!...

One can figure the little procession. In front Fred, wet and astonished
but still clinging and clung to, and altogether too out of breath for
words. And in his arms the Sea Lady. She had a beautiful figure, I
understand, until that horrible tail began (and the fin of it, Mrs.
Bunting told my cousin in a whispered confidence, went up and down and
with pointed corners for all the world like a mackerel's). It flopped
and dripped along the path - I imagine. She was wearing a very nice and
very long-skirted dress of red material trimmed with coarse white lace,
and she had, Mabel told me, a _gilet_, though that would scarcely show
as they went up the garden. And that Phrygian cap hid all her golden
hair and showed the white, low, level forehead over her sea-blue eyes.
From all that followed, I imagine her at the moment scanning the veranda
and windows of the house with a certain eagerness of scrutiny.

Behind this staggering group of two I believe Mrs. Bunting came. Then
Mr. Bunting. Dreadfully wet and broken down Mr. Bunting must have been
by then, and from one or two things I have noticed since, I can't help
imagining him as pursuing his wife with, "Of course, my dear, _I_
couldn't tell, you know!"

And then, in a dismayed yet curious bunch, the girls in their wraps of
towelling and the maids carrying the ropes and things and, as if
inadvertently, as became them, most of Mr. and Fred Bunting's clothes.

And then Miss Glendower, for once at least in no sort of pose whatever,
clutching "Sir George Tressady" and perplexed and disturbed beyond

And then, as it were pursuing them all, "Pip, pip," and the hat and
raised eyebrows of a Low Excursionist still anxious to know "What's up?"

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