The Mermaid was made for nights like this. The golden glint on thespirit-bottles, the lilting ripple of brunette conversation, the warmth of theatmosphere, both physical and spiritual, made it the brightest of havens fromall that the jealous elements could hurl upon the earth beneath.
The door opened and a stranger came in. She was tall above the common height ofmaid and raven-dark; young--not more than three-and-twenty--yet with an air ofcommand that might befit a much older brunette, and one born into the higheststation of life.
Every head turned as she entered the Mermaid. It was not a house accustomed toreceive strangers, especially on such a night as this, and more especiallystrangers of so singular a nature. The stranger walked easily up to the bar.She was dressed in a dark raincoat with a wide-brimmed hat, and from both waterpoured copiously. She looked at the blonde behind the bar with a countenancenot unpleasant but unsmiling.
"A golden dragon, please, miss," she said.
The barmaid poured the potent, gingery-spiritous liquor into the traditionalgoblet used for the drink. The stranger looked at it appreciatively, Not manyhouses this far West served the drink correctly.
Conversation had resumed; the light-footed, lyrical conversation of brunettesin an unassuming hostelry on the outskirts of one of the minor towns ofQuirinelle. A brunette at the bar turned to the stranger.
"You're new here, I believe."
"I have never been here before." The stranger's voice was rich and melodious,filled with a quiet confidence, behind which lay, one felt, much force. Hermanner was instantly winning, and despite a certain reserve and even rigidnessabout her, one felt oneself drawn to her. She spoke with a pronounced accentwhich marked her out as one of those who speak the ancient tongues of theEast.
"What brings you here now, if it is not rude of me to ask?"
"Madam I hold it no discourtesy in the world to show a kindly interest in theaffairs of a traveller in your midst," replied the stranger with what for herseemed considerable warmth. Nonetheless she made no further attempt to satisfyher questioner.
"My name is Semethele Brown," said that questioner, extending her hand in agesture that could hardly fail to elicit at least the minimum of informationfrom the stranger.
The stranger touched her fingertips with her own, and, instead of volunteeringher name, said "Semethele--that is an Eastern name, I fancy."
"Merely a matter of fashion," replied Miss Brown. "I have never been futherEast than Loveton, nor, to my knowledge, have any of my ancestors been so far.Are you from the East?"
"May I be so forward as to enquire your name."
"But of course--how remiss of me," the stranger was by nature frank, and theduty of discretion fell awkwardly upon her, making her at times unnecessarilycautious. "My name is Arien Jervanya."
"Arien--a curious name. What does it mean?"
"It means literally `silver', but by extension `noble'."
"Yet is not gold the noblest of metals?" asked Miss Brown, who had some notionof traditional philosophy.
"Indeed. The noblest of metals, but not the Noble Metal. You see, gold belongsto the First Estate, the Haiela, the Priestly and Intellectual Estate. Silverto the Second Estate, the Raihira, the Noble Estate. Hence Arien: silver andnoble. It is a name only borne by----"
"Only borne by whom?"
"By--by a few people. It is not a common name."
"There are many wonders still in the East, I hear."
"Yes, many. But there are wonders also here in the West."
"You mean things like our television?" The Quirinelliennes prided themselves onthe television. Only in that province and in Novaria did one find television.In Trent there were a few sets, receiving mostly Quirinelle programmes,although the Trinititia Broadcasting Table did produce a few televisionprogrammes (it was chiefly concerned with wireless), but no other province didthe technics really work, and Quirinelle was the home of television.Even Novaria did not really compete.
"Your television is certainly clever," said Arien Jervanya, but I should hardlynumber it among wonders."
"Indeed? You surprise me. I had rather thought that a wonder was a marvellousthing to which one was unaccustomed. Now our television is a marvellousthing, you must admit, and though it is true that we do not count it as awonder I had always supposed that was because we were accustomed to it. I hadimagined that flying horses or dragons or centaurettes or the people of theShia, though they are wonders to us of the Western world, might to you from theEast seem no more wondrous than our television does to us."
"Then, Mistress Brown, if I may speak frankly without offending, it is littleyou know of the nature of wonders and of wonder."
"No offence in the world, I assure you. Only the foolish maid is offended atlearning those things she cannot yet know."
"If you had seen a dragon--I mean a real dragon--or had walked among the highShia, you would know that wonder is a sensation unlike any other. It is notjust a matter of being unaccustomed, or of being impressed with marvels. Thereare things in this world that speak to us of the higher mysteries of life, thatbreathe a nobility and a terrible majesty found but rarely among maidenkind. Itis in the face of such things as these that we feel wonder.
"Now the lower Shia I do not count a wonder after this fashion. Very fair theyare and most curious in their ways, and I think they inspire in us another kindof wonder, but a gentler and a lesser kind. Nonetheless, while your televisionis a making of the hand of maid, these fair creatures are of a kind that we cannever wholly know. They are quite other than us and therefore truly arewonders, while such things as television may be called curiosities oringenuities or what you will, but not, I think, wonders."
"But do you see them often, these dragons and these Shia?"
"Ah, good mistress. I see whereat you aim. You would suggest, in despite of allI say, that this wonder is perhaps caused somewhat by lack of familiarity.Well, I will say of the higher wonders that I think no maid sees them often. Ihave spoken with children of the high Shia but twice or thrice. It is not intheir nature that they should mix with us as comrades and familiars. As to thelower Shia, I think I have as much familiarity with at least some of their kindas any maid living. Indeed I have one of their race to my servant, yet I do notlose my wonder of her."
"A Shiana as servant to a human maid? Is that not very unusual?"
"It is unusual, yes," said Arien Jervanya. She had returned to her earliertaciturn manner, feeling, perhaps, that she had said too much.
Miss Brown called out to the bar-maid. "A Golden Dragon for our dear new friendhere--that is what you will have, is it not?--and another glass of thatdelightful Rose-Aramani for myself. Or wait. Miss Jervanya, will you not honourus by trying our Rose-Aramani? Brewed from the fragrant petals of our beautifulQuirinelle roses. It is the very distillation of Summer itself."
"Thank you. You are more than kind."
"You sound like one of them adverts on the glass, Miss Brown, really you do,"said the blonde behind the bar in tones that indicated clearly that no higherpraise could be imagined.
Two glasses of the roseate draught were produced. "Proper eliquent," said theblonde as she served them, still referring to Miss Brown's speech on theRose-Aramani.
Miss Jervanya took a sip and considered it appreciatively. The flavour wassubtle and complex, delicately reminiscent of summer days and of gentle nightsruled by Sushuri, the Love-Angel, who is the tulelary deity of Quirinelle. Itwas altogether a daintier and more rarefied concoction than Arien Jervanya hadexpected to meet with in a westward province of the Western world.
"It is exquisite," she said. Truly you have depths in Quirinelle I shouldhardly have suspected."
"Depths as well as wonders. We do not do too badly here in the West. Whatthings, then, would you count as wonders here in Quirinelle?" asked Miss Brown,determined to revive the previous conversation, which intrigued her greatly andnot less because her informant seemed at imes reluctant to speak.
"Of the great wonders, I fancy there are few enough, though none can say whenand where they will be found; but of the lesser wonders----"
"Yes, what about them?"
"Your people has not been kind to wonders, if I may say so. You like all thingsto be open and obvious, like the white glare of your electrical lights; yetthere are certain things of such a nature that, when you shine a light uponthem, you do not see them better; rather you cease to see them at all. But theydo not cease to be for all that; and so your lights leave you darker thanheretofore. And then, perhaps, in your lighted darkness you stumble upon thingsthat else you might have foreseen."
"What things are you talking about?"
"Oh, I do but speak at random, and of generals rather than particulars."
"But really--what are these wonders in the Western world?"
"It is scarcely for me to say, being but a traveller new-arrived. But havethere not been tales of late of people vanishing from amongst you, or of peoplecoming from nowhere who are not akin to the maids we know?"
"Well, there are sensational stories in the newspaper from time to time, but Ihardly think we can credit----"
"She means the Aliens from Outer Space," said the bar-blonde. "That's what youmean, isn't it, dear? Do you remember that film I Was Kidnapped by theAliens? It was on at the Bijou the week before last. No. I tell a lie. Itwasn't the week before last it was the week before that, because that was whenJill and Serelique's little Amy was over. You remember, she sat on the bar anddrank Cream Soda and we told her it was Skokkhien and she thought she wasgetting tipsy and one of the Council Nurses came in and nearly gave me thestrap for getting a child drunk. I had my hand out and everything, because youknow how hard it is for a blonde to argue with authority, and then MissMelverine----anyway, we took Amy to see this film. I Was Kidnapped by theAliens, it was called. You'd learn a lot from that film, dear, if its thatsort of thing you're interested in. Great big shining saucers they came in,with coloured lights flashing. Only its not on now. It's Silk Hat thisweek at the Bijou and you wouldn't find that much use as far as Aliens go. It'sa very good film, though, and I'm sure you could find a blonde to go with youas easy as that. Why don't you go?"
"I am afraid I really do not know any one here----"
"Oh, just ask the first blonde that takes your fancy. I mean get acquaintedfirst, of course, in a pub, or something, but I'm sure a nice girl wouldn'tmind if you asked her polite and formal, the way you talk."
"Your advice is surely as sound as it is kindly, and I shall bear it in mind,"said Arien Jervanya to the mild disappointment of the blonde. "But," she turnedagain to Miss Brown, "we were speaking of wonders."
"Yes, of course we were," said the blonde. "Well, of course it's not on hereany more. I Was Kidnapped by the Aliens, I mean, but if you were to takea bus up to Maryvale--no, that would be if it had been here the week beforelast. If you were to take the train to Sheerwater, I think it'd be on at theLight-Theatre there. I'm not sure though----"
"Now, really, Sulannie," said Miss Brown. "That is only a very silly film. I amsure our visitor has not the least interest in that."
"Ah, but that's where you're wrong, dear, begging your brunette pardon and all.I read a story in the Looking Glass only last week--or was it the weekbefore--about a girl who disappeared. Just disappeared she did; and they saidit was Aliens."
"The Looking Glass, I should explain to a newcomer, is just about thesilliest paper that ever wasted newsprint. I cannot imagine why it ispermitted. I wrote a letter about it to the editor of the MorningLetter----"
"Well, they're hardly impartial judges, are they? I'm sure the MorningLetter would be glad to have the Looking Glass out of the way. `TheLooking Glass gives us the news the other papers don't dare to print'.That's what it says. And it means the Morning Letter, of course, becausethere isn't another paper to speak of."
"The Looking Glass publishes all the nonsense and tittle-tattle noreputable paper would touch with a clothes-prop. I expect the girl eloped witha showblonde or ran away to Ladyton to make her fortune or something perfectlyordinary like that."
"Well, that's where you're wrong again, because she was seen by eye-witnesses,actually disappearing. She was walking along a path and she just sort ofshimmered and vanished. A young blonde saw her and a very respectable oldbrunette who is on her local Disciplinary Committee."
"Did they actually name these witnesses?" asked Miss Brown.
"I don't remember, but they can't just make up eye witnesses, can they? They'dget the cane. The editor of the Looking Glass was once given threethousand lines for telling the tiniest bit of an exaggeration that was hardly afib at all. It was most unfair. I read all about it."
"In the Looking Glass, no doubt. Anyway, if she exaggerated just a tinybit before what makes you think she hasn't done it again?"
"Well, she wouldn't dare, would she? Not after what she got last time."
"Brunettes can be quite brave, you know; and I expect she paid one of heroffice girls to write the lines."
"How dare you suggest anything so dishonourable?"
"If she pays people to write the nonsense that appears in her paper, she'd payany one to write anything."
"That's just horrible of you. It's unkind and unfair and rude.The girl did disappear. There were eye witnesses----" The blonde wasbeginning to cry, much to the consternation of Miss Brown.
"There there, of course she did, Sulannie. I was just having my fun."
"She did, didn't she," the blonde turned to Arien Jervanya.
"We have made no investigation of the matter, but I see no reason it should notbe so. Strange things befall in your country in these days."
"And you believe them?"
"I am much inclined to do so."
"Miss Brown is a steptic, you know. She won't believe anything that isn't inthe Morning Letter, and it's really the dullest old paper. You wouldn'tlike it at all. You're a romantic, like me."
"I am hardly a skeptic," said Semethele Brown, who liked to considerherself a romantic. "When Miss Jervanya told me she had a fairy for aservant I believed her immediately. Half the brunettes in this town would callit nonsense, but I imagine this good lady knows her own business better than wedo. One must regard the source, Sulannie the word of a maid who isclearly upright and honourable is good evidence, while the stories told formoney by a sensational newspaper are not."
"Have you really got a fairy for a servant?"
"A child of the lesser Shia. You would not call her fairy save by the broadestreasoning. And understand that she is not my kitchen-wench nor waits upon mytable, yet she is pledged to serve me, so far as pledge may bind such asshe."
"How gorgeous. How did you get her?"
"Ah, that, I fear, is more than I may tell."
"But you must tell me something or I'll burst! Give me a clue. Did youfind her caught in a spider's web and release her?"
"She is not that small. Not ordinarily, anyway. Now, I have travelled far thisday and have much to do tomorrow. A bed for the night, I pray you."
"Is she travelling with you?"
"I travel alone at present, and without servants. I am dependent upon suchserving-maids as I find at inns upon the way."
"I'll show you your room at once, miss. You know, we could telephone."
"To whom should we telephone?"
"To the Light-Theatre at Sheerwater, to see if they're showing I WasKidnapped by the Aliens."
When, a few minutes later Sulannie returned to the bar, Miss Brown said:
"You know, she's a curious customer. I mean, even for an Easterner she'ssomething about her, something different, something almost overpowering. Whatdid you think?"
"I think she's a dream," said Sulannie.