Trot turned half around, and then she stared, too. Rising from the blue water was a fair face around which floated a mass of long, blonde hair. It was a sweet, girlish face with eyes of the same deep blue as the water and red lips whose dainty smile disposed two rows of pearly teeth. The cheeks were plump and rosy, the brows gracefully penciled, while the chin was rounded and had a pretty dimple in it.
"The most beauti-ful-est in all the world," murmured Cap'n Bill in a voice of horror, "an' no one has ever lived to--to tell the tale!"
There was a peal of merry laughter at this, laughter that rippled and echoed throughout the cavern. Just at Trot's side appeared a new face even fairer than the other, with a wealth of brown hair wreathing the lovely features. And the eyes smiled kindly into those of the child. "Are you a--a mermaid?" asked Trot curiously. She was not a bit afraid. They seemed both gentle and friendly.
"Yes, dear," was the soft answer.
"We are all mermaids!" chimed a laughing chorus, and here and there, all about the boat, appeared pretty faces lying just upon the surface of the water.
"Are you part fishes?" asked Trot, greatly pleased by this wonderful sight.
"No, we are all mermaid," replied the one with the brown hair. "The fishes are partly like us, because they live in the sea and must move about. And you are partly like us, Mayre dear, but have awkward stiff legs so you may walk on the land. But the mermaids lived before fishes and before mankind, so both have borrowed something from us."
"Then you must be fairies if you've lived always," remarked Trot, nodding wisely.
"We are, dear. We are the water fairies," answered the one with the blonde hair, coming nearer and rising till her slender white throat showed plainly.
"We--we're goners, Trot!" sighed Cap'n Bill with a white, woebegone face.
"I guess not, Cap'n," she answered calmly. "These pretty mermaids aren't going to hurt us, I'm sure."
"No indeed," said the first one who had spoken. "If we were wicked enough to wish to harm you, our magic could reach you as easily upon the land as in this cave. But we love little girls dearly and wish only to please them and make their lives more happy."
"I believe that!" cried Trot earnestly.
Cap'n Bill groaned.
"Guess why we have appeared to you," said another mermaid, coming to the side of the boat.
"Why?" asked the child.
"We heard you say yesterday you would like to see a mermaid, and so we decided to grant your wish."
"That was real nice of you," said Trot gratefully.
"Also, we heard all the foolish things Cap'n Bill said about us," remarked the brown-haired one smilingly, "and we wanted to prove to him that they were wrong."
"I on'y said what I've heard," protested Cap'n Bill. "Never havin' seen a mermaid afore, I couldn't be ackerate, an' I never expected to see one an' live to tell the tale."
Again the cave rang with merry laughter, and as it died away, Trot said, "May I see your scales, please? And are they green and purple and pink like Cap'n Bill said?" They seemed undecided what to say to this and swam a little way off, where the beautiful heads formed a group that was delightful to see. Perhaps they talked together, for the brown-haired mermaid soon came back to the side of the boat and asked, "Would you like to visit our kingdom and see all the wonders that exist below the sea?"
"I'd like to," replied Trot promptly, "but I couldn't. I'd get drowned."
"That you would, mate!" cried Cap'n Bill.
"Oh no," said the mermaid. "We would make you both like one of ourselves, and then you could live within the water as easily as we do."
"I don't know as I'd like that," said the child, "at least for always."
"You need not stay with us a moment longer than you please," returned the mermaid, smiling as if amused at the remark. "Whenever you are ready to return home, we promise to bring you to this place again and restore to you the same forms you are now wearing."
"Would I have a fish's tail?" asked Trot earnestly.