Skip to main content

Thereby Hangs A Tail

July 2024
2min read

MUSING and dreaming, I sat on the strand, Watching the waves as they crept to my feet, Musing, perchance, on the clasp of a hand, Dreaming of words whose mere echo was sweet. Swift flew the moments, while, foolish and fond, I built my fair castles, eyes bent on the sea; Then out of the mist and the darkness beyond I fancied a maiden was coming to me.
The twilight just wrapped her in mantle of gray, Yet hid not her smile, so bewitchingly sweet; The dimmest of outlines her grace would betray, And glowing and breathless I sprang to my feet. Cold Reason admonished: ” Delusion, you know— Your last mayonnaise, or that extra Champagne;” But I gazed in her eyes, and I answered, “Not so,” As I held out my arms to my darling again.
Nearer, etill nearer—then, oh, what a shock! So like, yet a stranger. “ So stupid! ” you say? Why, I watched her glide on to my seat on the rock, Like this. Could you tell her from Ethel or May? The slight lissom figure, the robe whose limp grace An artist might rave o’er, the soft fluffy hair In well-trained confusion about the sweet face; And her walk—she wore Louis Quinze heels, I could swear!
She spake, this fair stranger, in silvery tone, While doubting I waited: “Your pardon, kind Sir, But I’m seeking my sister, who left me alone In the sea, and from you I claim tidings of her . Men call me a mermaid , and call me aright; Far under this ocean in grottoes of pearl I dwell with my kindred; our sea-world is bright, And ever through wildering dances we whirl.
“But alas! since my sister has dwelt upon earth, Afar from our sapphire-lit caves I must roam. My heart is too heavy for dancing or mirth— Oh, help me to win her, Sir, back to our home!” “But how can I aid you?” I asked, with surprise; ”I know not your sister.” “Are men never true?” Quick spake the fair mermaid, with scorn in her eyes. ”False Sir, on these sands she has wandered with you .
’I’ve lingered and listened at morning and eve, While you paced back and forth; I have seen your fond smile; I have caught her low murmurs—why seek to deceive? I have watched you in silence and sadness erewhile, Half fearing yet longing to make myself known. Why answer my plea with a falsehood, I pray? On your heart rests the picture of her you disown; Is it like me? compare it, and daro to say nay!”
She snatched at the picture, and held it to view; The likeness was perfect—each outline of grace The mermaid reflected. Alas! ‘twas too true: I had loved the fish-sister. I covered my face. “You ‘know not my sister!’ Deny, if you dare, With this to convict you.” I said not a word; I was mute with the anguish of hopeless despair, And with tears—I confess it—my vision was blurred.
Then suddenly turning, I fled from the place. The night shadows hid me, they veiled my mad flight. I thought of my love, of her beauty, her grace; Her sister —and faster I fled through the night.… I know she was gentle and tender and true; I know I must mourn her ever and aye; But marry a mermaid I tell me, you, Would you, could you, be braver than I?

Anonymous, from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine , December, 1877

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.