They each have an ocean of their own, you know; and once every hundred years they come here to visit their brother Anko. So we've seen all three many times."
"Why, how old are mermaids, then?" asked Trot, looking around at the beautiful creatures wonderingly.
"We are like all ladies of uncertain age," rejoined the Princess with a smile. "We don't care to tell."
"Older than Cap'n Bill?"
"Yes, dear," said Clia.
"But we haven't any gray whiskers," added Merla merrily, "and our hearts are ever young."
Trot was thoughtful. It made her feel solemn to be in the company of such old people. The band of mermaids seemed to all appearances young and fresh and not a bit as if they'd been soaked in water for hundreds of years. The girl began to take more notice of the sea maidens following after her. More than a dozen were in the group; all were lovely in appearance and clothed in the same gauzy robes as Merla and the Princess. These attendants did not join in the conversation but darted here and there in sportive play, and often Trot heard the tinkling chorus of their laughter. Whatever doubts might have arisen in the child's mind through the ignorant tales of her sailor friend, she now found the mermaids to be light-hearted, joyous and gay, and from the first she had not been in the least afraid of her new companions.
"How much farther do we have to go?" asked Cap'n Bill presently.
"Are you getting tired?" Merla inquired.
"No," said he, "but I'm sorter anxious to see what your palaces look like. Inside the water ain't as interestin' as the top of it. It's fine swimmin', I'll agree, an' I like it, but there ain't nuthin' special to see that I can make out."
"That is true, sir," replied the Princess. "We have purposely led you through the mid-water hoping you would see nothing to alarm you until you get more accustomed to our ocean life. Moreover, we are able to travel more swiftly here. How far do you think we have already come, Cap'n?"
"Oh, 'bout two mile," he answered.
"Well, we are now hundreds of miles from the cave where we started," she told him.
"You don't mean it!" he exclaimed in wonder.
"Then there's magic in it," announced Trot soberly.
"True, my dear. To avoid tiring you and to save time, we have used a little of our fairy power," said Clia. "The result is that we are nearing our home. Let us go downward a bit, now, for you must know that the mermaid palaces are at the very bottom of the ocean, and in its deepest part."
THE PALACE OF QUEEN AQUAREINE
Trot was surprised to find it was not at all dark or gloomy as they descended farther into the deep sea. Things were not quite so clear to her eyes as they had been in the bright sunshine above the ocean's surface, but every object was distinct nevertheless, as if she saw through a pane of green-tainted glass. The water was very clear except for this green shading, and the little girl had never before felt so light and buoyant as she did now. It was no effort at all to dart through the water, which seemed to support her on all sides.
"I don't believe I weigh anything at all," she said to Cap'n Bill.
"No more do I, Trot," said he. "But that's nat'ral, seein' as we're under water so far. What bothers me most is how we manage to breathe, havin' no gills like fishes have."
"Are you sure we haven't any gills?" she asked, lifting her free hand to feel her throat.
"Sure. Ner the mermaids haven't any, either," declared Cap'n Bill.
"Then," said Trot, "we're breathing by magic."
The mermaids laughed at this shrewd remark, and the Princess said, "You have guessed correctly, my dear. Go a little slower, now, for the palaces are in sight."
"Where?" asked Trot eagerly.
"Just before you."
"In that grove of trees?" inquired the girl. And really, it seemed to her that they were approaching a beautiful grove. The bottom of the sea was covered with white sand, in which grew many varieties of sea shrubs with branches like those of trees. Not all of them were green, however, for the branches and leaves were of a variety of gorgeous colors.