THERE was a great commotion in the Coral Palace of the Queen of the Sea. It was very plain that something unusual was happening in the otherwise peaceful dwelling at the bottom of the deep blue sea. As a rule, on hot summer evenings, the Queen reclined lazily on a bed of pink sea-shell, while her two mermaids-in-waiting stood near her, fanning her with tall fans, made of sharks' fins, and telling her all the latest news that occurred among the upper ten of the fish kingdom. Everything had to be kept very quiet during that time, as the Queen objected to every kind of noise that might disturb her, if she chose to take a nap, which she usually did.
But on this particular evening the royal palace wore a totally different aspect; the bed of sea-shell was deserted, the fans of sharks' fins lay idle on the ground, and not a fish was visible in any of the pink coral halls.
Stay, that is not quite correct. When I say not a fish could be seen, I mean not a whole fish, for at every crevice, every window, and every door, there were rows and rows of tails, the heads and bodies of their owners being thrust as far out as possible. Apparently they were intent on watching a most amusing spectacle, for every now and then these tails shook with suppressed laughter, making the water foam and bubble all around.
The Queen herself so far forgot her dignity as to sit at a half-opened window, and gaze out into the blue depths, and clap her hands with glee, and laugh till the tears streamed down her cheeks.
What so evidently excited the mirth of her Majesty and all her subjects was certainly, to any impartial observer, a most amusing sight. Under the shades of the giant seaweed, in the grounds of the Coral Palace, Mr. Cuttlefish was making love to dear little Marina, the Queen's favourite mermaid, whose amorous glances quite equalled his own. He rolled his great goggle eyes at her, and surrounded her graceful little form with five of his long arms.
"My dearest, I am afraid we must part," she was saying to him, "and I don't think I can possibly meet you out here again. I am sure some one will see us; the Palace is so near and the windows of the great hall look out on this part of the grounds, and," she added, kissing his great puffy cheek, "I know the Queen will never consent to our marriage; you have no appointment at court, and your business compels you to live in quite another part of the sea. I must remain near the Queen, or by our laws I should lose the human half of my body and become a fish altogether, probably a sole, or some other nasty flat thing. What a cone-down for me, dear. I have always been accounted so sharp."
Mr. Cuttlefish did not appreciate jokes which were not his own, and would have adminstered a severe rebuke to Marina for venturing to make one at so serious a moment. She, however, looked so pretty, and was evidently so much in love with him, poor dear, that he merely withdrew two or three of his arms from round her waist to show his displeasure. This act of unnecessary cruelty brought tears to the eyes of poor little Marina.
"Well, my dear," he said, when harmony was once more restored between them, "you must try and find out whether there is not some good appointment vacant at Court, and I will immediately apply for and obtain it. There were several reasons why I withdrew myself from Court life altogether . . . Ahem! . . . I will leave you to guess these reasons, dear Marina . . . As a matter of fact Her Majesty herself . . . ahem! . . . lately intimated to her subjects her desire for a fitting helpmate through the cares of State . . . ahem! . . . and when she announced this intention in public . . . ahem! . . . ahem!"
"Well! ahem! . . . you won't be jealous, dear Marina?"
"Well! the fact is," said Mr. Cuttlefish, now blushing to the tips of his fingers, or rather suckers, "that Her Majesty deigned to cast eyes of approval on one of her subjects whom modesty forbids me to name."
"Oh," said Marina, clasping her hands in awed reverence, "then you would be king of us all."
"Well; yes! my dear, I believe that would have been my position," said Mr. Cuttlefish, modestly covering his eyes with an arm or two and wiping a humble tear. "What was that?" he added, in sudden alarm, as a loud peal of irrepressible laughter from the hidden spectators of this dainty scene echoed through the grounds.
"Nothing, my dearest, only a difference of opinion, I expect, between two pikes in Her Majesty's kitchen; they never can agree over the way in which a minnow should be sliced, and quarrel over it in a most rowdy manner."
Mr. Cuttlefish thought to himself that he would not even slice a pike for that matter, but said nothing. Suddenly little Marina had an idea.
"I'll tell you what, dear Mr. Cuttlefish, I believe there is a vacant appointment at Court, it is a very lucrative one I know, and one to which, I think, you are peculiarly suited. Her Majesty's Royal Musician died the other day; one of the choir swallowed him accidentally while singing a bass solo. I know you have great talent for music, and, you see, none of your choir could possibly succeed in swallowing you."
"That is so," said Mr. Cuttlefish, "and how do you think I could best succeed in obtaining this appointment?"
"By thoroughly convincing the Queen of your musical capabilities. I should say if you could get an orchestra together, and a few soloists, you might obtain permission to perform before Her Majesty—that is," added little Marina, "if your modesty will allow you to stand once more before her after the forward advances she made to you."
At this point the laughter in the palace became so uproarious, that all the sea around became a wilderness of foam and bubbles. Little Marina ran home in dismay, terrified lest she should have been seen; and Mr. Cuttlefish sailed away more rapidly than dignity generally allows. Modesty had now got the better of him and he thought it prudent to retire for the night to his cavern between the rocks.
The next day all was quiet and peaceful in the beautiful kingdom under the sea. The light shone like brilliant emeralds through the water, illuminating the coral grottoes, and lighting their fantastic forms with innumerable points of glittering sparks. The great branches of giant seaweed waved to and fro with slow rhythmic cadence, and the ribbon-weed floated gracefully, forming myriads of little ripples.
There was a general air of festivity pervading the whole of the royal palace. Every little fish seemed to have donned his gayest colours, and all the crabs and the lobsters seemed to have assumed an air of being very busy and pressed for time.
Suddenly a most singular sound echoed through all the neighbouring caverns, and caused a general commotion in the waters. It penetrated as far as the Queen's bed-chamber, where her Majesty was enjoying a quiet rest while reflecting over the events of the night before. She had forbidden all her Court to make the slightest allusion to them before her little mermaid, as it might distress her to feel that she and her lover had been so openly laughed at. She was a dear, kind-hearted sort of Queen, and really very fond of little Marina, so she determined to smooth the path of true love as much as lay in her power.
In the meantime the noise was growing louder and louder, and more and more distinct. Now it resembled a grampus blowing through his nose, and now it seemed like a hundred engines letting steam off all at once. At last an unusually discordant note resounded through the royal bedchamber, and Her Majesty, now fully aroused, and not at all pleased at being disturbed in her nap, dispatched an attendant crab to inquire the cause of this extraordinary commotion. He came back with the startling news that Mr. Cuttlefish was preparing for a grand concert, which he proposed to give that very afternoon.
"But," said the Queen, addressing no once in particular, "I did not know the gentleman was musical."
"He is not," said an old thornback, spitefully, "but he fancies he is, and likes to be thought a distinguished amateur and musical critic. He wrote a very severe article in the 'Fly Fancier's Gazette' on the subject of your Majesty's choir."
"In which," said the nautilus, indignantly, "he disapproved of my voice."
"And distinctly hinted that we sang flat," exclaimed the chorus of crabs.
"And," added the oysters, opening their shells, and looking defiantly round, "that we have no notion of time."
A wail of indignation rose at these complaints against Mr. Cuttlefish. However, the Queen was determined to try and make matters as pleasant for Marina as possible, and influence public opinion in her lover's favour as far as she could. She wished to hear more about the concert.
"May it please your Majesty," said a little bony fish, who seemed well posted up in all the news, "Mr. Cuttlefish issued cards of invitation early this morning, but the Grand Chamberlain, the Right Honourable Tortoise, who is offended with him about something or other, has evidently withheld your Majesty's card. As for me, I shall certainly not go, he does not mention the word supper, and I don't believe there will be any." While all this was going on poor little Marina felt on thorns, she grew hot and cold alternately, and hardly knew how to hold herself erect on her tail, while fanning the Queen. The concert was evidently now in full swing, the waters around were continually disturbed by crowds of fishes trooping to join in it, and carrying their cards of invitation under their fins; the Queen was now quite unable to check her curiosity any longer, and announced her gracious intention to honour the concert by her august presence.
Lord Chamberlain Tortoise, who had been simply dying to go himself, but, of course, did not dare show his eagerness before Her Majesty, now stalked off in high glee to order the royal mermen, who always conveyed the Queen, to be in readiness.
Her Majesty mounted one of them while another swam in front, both blowing a shell trumpet; Marina and the other little seamaids brought up the rear, carrying the fans, handkerchiefs and smelling salts. On seeing the Queen approach, Mr. Cuttlefish bade the music cease, then rose with great ceremony and bowed three times, as did all the other fishes present, while the oysters, whose absence of legs forbade them to bow, clapped their shells respectfully. Mr. Cuttlefish extended one of his arms and, taking the queen's hand, led her to a seat on a large green rock, covered with beautiful anemones. Seating himself, with a look at Marina, which conveyed to her the expression of his endless love, he took a great trumpet in one hand, seized a drumstick in another, a pair of cymbals and a concertina in four more. A large lobster then gravely announced that Mr. Cuttlefish would play a grand march, composed by himself, entitled "The good old Sharks," and would be assisted in the performance by a full choir, selected and trained by himself.
The words and music were alike impressive, the orchestration eminently modern, and the chorus written in four parts. Three huge frogs, rolling their goggle eyes, rolled out the bass, the herrings sang alto in sentimental style, the whiting were high treble, and as they sang with their tails in their mouths—as all well-regulated whiting do—their voices had an additional charm. The moonfish, the trunkfish, the gurnard were all tenors, but as they had been unavoidably prevented from attending the rehearsals, their parts did not go very well; however, the sword-fish, who sang baritone, and the fire-fish, who sang contralto, managed to drown their mistakes pretty effectually.
The conductor was a great green crab, who endeavoured to keep time by waving his claws; he found this fairly easy while the slow part of the march was being performed, but in the more rapid movements no one paid any attention to him, which somewhat marred the harmony of the whole effect, but in no way interfered with the enjoyment of the performers. As for Mr. Cuttlefish's trumpet and big drum, nothing seemed to drown them, he never ceased blowing the one or beating the other; though he sometimes disengaged an available arm to administer an impressive rebuke to any of the chorus who appeared to slacken energy.
In fact the whole affair was a brilliant success, and when the piece was over, everybody clapped his shell or his fins, and congratulated the composer, who took all these honours with the indifference characteristic of genius.
Her Majesty desired his presence.
Mr. Cuttlefish advanced, and bending exceedingly low, humbly waited her gracious pleasure.
"We are very pleased with the extraordinary talent, sir, displayed by you this afternoon; in fact, our royal ears have never been struck by so large a volume of sound. We will therefore appoint you our Royal Musician, with a fitting salary, and give you the hand of our favourite sea-maiden, Marina, in marriage."
Mr. Cuttlefish cast a grateful look at his Sovereign, who taking a shark's fin fan in her hand and smiting him on top of his bald head, added:
"Rise, Sir Cuttlefish. We confer this honour upon you for your distinguished talents, and for the pleasure you have given us this afternoon."
Sir Cuttlefish wished to raise a modest protest against so much honour, but eventually thought better of it, and accepted it all with the noble resignation of the really great.
The lobster now announced a dance, Sir Cuttlefish opened the ball by standing on his head and whirling all his arms about till the water foamed, while everybody did their best to make the evening lively, by turning over and over and round and round. The shrimps waltzed together, while the eels curled themselves up first one way and then the other.
When they were all tired out the supper was brought in by five and twenty green tortoises. It was the most magnificent repast, consisting of crayfish, minnows, and some deliciously prepared carp; Sir Cuttlefish ate five hundred of these, which proved to be an injudicious quantity. There was a slight stir towards the end of the supper, caused by the sharks, who had not been invited, gobbling up some of the company, but, on the whole, the evening passed off very pleasantly. After supper the gathering broke up, Sir Cuttlefish seeing the Queen home.
Next day the great composer was suffering from a detestable fit of indigestion. The poor Queen had a fearful headache, but, nevertheless, she had never enjoyed herself so much in all her life.
The wedding of Sir Cuttlefish and Marina was fixed for an early date, and the Queen did the bride the great honour of not only being present at the ceremony, but of holding a reception at the Palace. All the Court officials were ordered to be present, and the poor Lord Chamberlain Tortoise had his hands full, what with issuing the invitation cards, settling the order of precedence, and making arrangements for the breakfast. The Queen ordered that everything should be conducted in the best style, and expense should be no obstacle to the success of the entertainment.
Meanwhile, Sir Cuttlefish was busy. He chose the leader of his choir for his "best fish." Then he ordered the lobsters to make the ring of pearl, and it took no little ingenuity on their part to round off and polish it to Sir Cuttlefish's satisfaction. The happy bridegroom also presented his bride with a brooch made of sea diamonds, in shape like a big drum—a perfect work of art—in commemoration of the great concert that had proved such a triumph.
Needless to add, I think, that the deep sea orchestra and choir played and sang the wedding march and hymns, the new R. M.—Royal Musician—having drilled them himself most carefully. On the great day, Sir Cuttlefish got himself up in most sumptuous style; he had ordered four pairs of white gloves—you see he had eight arms; this was looked upon as a piece of most extravagant folly, and the shark (who had not yet got over his annoyance at not being asked to the concert) made some very unpleasant remarks on the subject in his paper, "The Fisherman's Foe."
The gorgeousness of the ceremony and the splendour of the wedding breakfast it were vain to attempt to relate, for they even threw the glories of the Cuttlefish's concert and fête into the shade.
The bridegroom borrowed a most beautiful grotto in which to pass his honeymoon, and also spent much time in having his own house thoroughly done up and repaired, and in that newly decorated house under the sea, dear little readers, we will leave the happy pair, for in it they have lived in joy and prosperity from that day to this.