Two things were said of Lord Adelbert’s daughter, Mariana: She feared nothing but the ocean, and she had never been in love. Both things were true.
One fine day the lord took her to visit his old friend, a duke who lived in a great but gloomy castle by the sea. Dinner that night might have been a dismal affair if Mariana had not brightened the table with her clever stories.
When she finished the last, the duke turned to the quiet young man sitting by his side. “My son can tell a good tale too, can you not, Sylvain?”
“Can you? Then tell us your favorite,” Mariana begged with a dazzling smile.
Sylvain lowered his eyes. All evening he had looked at nothing and no one but Mariana, but now he could not look at her at all. Nor could he utter a word until his father prodded him once again. Then in a mumble he began.
“There was a young man who went walking on the beach. He saw a merman stranded there, feebly thrashing his tail. The creature’s eyes were dull and glazed, and his voice was so weak that the youth had to lay his ear close to the merman’s cracked lips to hear him.
” ‘Because I would not do his bidding, I angered the mighty Ocean King,’ the merman said. ‘With his triton he stirred the waters and threw me from the sea. Now only a human can take me back. Will you be the one?’
“The young man took pity on the creature, for he had heard of the fearsome Ocean King and he believed the merman’s tale. So, although the sand was wet, the creature was heavy, and the youth had to struggle long and hard, he at last placed the merman back into the sea, where a mermaid who was weeping welcomed him with joy and great relief. ‘I will not forget your kindness,’ the merman called to the youth. ‘I will help you and your beloved if you ever are in need.’ ”
Sylvain abruptly stopped speaking.
His father frowned. “That is all?” he asked, for he liked to laugh or be made to shiver, and he found this story neither witty nor chilling. “Your tale has no ending. Did the merman help the lad?”
“Not yet,” muttered Sylvain.
Mariana stared uneasily at him. “You speak as if the tale were true.”
“It is,” he replied.