Herman and Thusnelda - George Upton

The Water Nymph

When Tacitus says the Germans did not know of gold, he probably means they did not know anything of that use or misuse of gold for which the Romans, who thought everything could be purchased with it, were notorious. It is evident from other authorities that many golden ornaments were in use in the homes of the leading Germans. Noble maidens, for instance, frequently wore golden circlets round the head. Thus adorned we behold Thusnelda, daughter of Segest. A white robe with narrow purple bands enveloped her stately beautiful figure. The garment was sleeveless and was fastened above by a silver clasp, so that her shoulders and arms were bare. She sat in front of a polished shield hanging on the wall, which reflected her face, glowing like a fresh rose, while a maid was arranging her golden tresses.

"Shall I not fasten in your hair the string of pearls the distinguished Roman sent you by your father?" asked the maid.

"No, no," cried Thusnelda, pushing it away. "Lay it in that box by the side of the gold-embroidered cloak which also came from Rome. The gifts of those strangers bring no blessings with them. Listen while I tell what happened because of that cloak. Yesterday I put it on and went to make offering in the sacred grove. But, lo, the offering-fire was extinguished three times. When at last the fire burned upon the altar, dark clouds gathered and almost touched the tops of the trees. The column of smoke, however, did not rise, but crawled along the ground like a snake and disappeared among the bushes. I trembled, for I saw that Hertha had rejected my offering, and up to that time the goddess had always been gracious to me. Sorrowfully, I cast down my eyes; but a voice in the very depths of my soul said, 'Thou art Thusnelda no longer.' I hastened back, took off the stranger's garment, and was relieved at once. Thereupon I returned to the grove, offered anew to the goddess, and behold the divinity was appeased and graciously accepted my offering. I firmly resolved to wear in the future what my mother wore when she was a maiden, and that nothing should induce me to appear in any other dress before gods or men."

"Then I will take this rose," said her maid, "and decorate thy hair with it."

This done, both took their spindles and sat before the house upon a stone bench under the elder bushes and began spinning. The morning sun poured a flood of golden light through the trees, and the birds sang joyously as they hunted for acorns in the oaks nearby.

"You were going to tell me the story of the beautiful water nymph," said the maid.

"I will do so," replied Thusnelda. "Listen. Two great nations, the Cimbrians and the Teutons, came from the north a hundred years ago. That huge world-serpent, the ocean, which coils itself about the earth, had swallowed part of their country, and Hertha bade them go to the region of the midday sun and seek for new homes. The priests led the way with Hertha's wagon, hung with sumptuous draperies. The warriors came next, followed by the women and children, the servants and herds bringing up the rear. They reached at last the region between the Danube and the Alps, and there they found extensive unoccupied plains which furnished excellent pasturage for their herds."

As Thusnelda reached this point in her story she suddenly noticed a powerfully built man approaching among the trees. His hair and beard were shaggy, and his strong limbs were covered with a bearskin. A great dog lying at Thusnelda's feet rose and barked at the stranger, but crawled under the stone bench when he directed a piercing glance at him. Thusnelda's cheeks reddened, but not from fear at sight of the man. It seemed to her that one of the old heroes of whom she had just been speaking had risen from his grave. In a gentle and friendly manner the stranger begged that although his appearance was against him he might have a brief rest under her roof. It has already been said that hospitality was a sacred duty among the Germans. Thusnelda kindly bade him enter, and set before him the best of food and drink the house afforded. Then she went out again with the maid and they resumed their work. After a little the maid went back to see if the guest needed anything. She returned with the news that he evidently needed rest more than food, for he had eaten very little and was in deep sleep. Thereupon she begged Thusnelda to go on with the story.

"I told you," said Thusnelda, "that the Cimbrians and Teutons found a fruitful and unoccupied region between the Danube and the Alps, whose meadows offered abundant subsistence for the cattle. They sent messengers to the Romans with the tidings that they had taken possession of these lands and hoped they should be good neighbors. The Romans, however, conspired against them and invaded the region with large armies to drive them away. The Cimbrians and Teutons, however, like all German nations, were brave and heroic. They rushed to their own defence and destroyed four Roman armies. Their success made them so arrogant that they forgot they could not have conquered the enemy without the help of the gods. They were neither grateful for what had happened nor did they make offering. Thereupon the gods deserted them. At the very height of their vain-gloriousness they were annihilated by a fifth Roman army.

"Among them was a maiden named Euria, the daughter of a general. She was the most beautiful among the daughters of her race. When the battle began she brought an offering to the gods, knelt at the altar, and besought them to give her people the victory; but Hertha would not intercede for them and the enemy won the battle. The great green plain was drenched with blood. Of all the men, women, and children, Euria alone was spared. A noble Roman youth found her at the altar and made her prisoner. They were about to kill her, but he protected her with his sword, placed her in a litter at night, and bore her away. The next morning they halted on the slope of a beautiful hill, and the youth accosted the maiden. He was slender and handsome. His helmet and armor shone with their gold adornments. His hands were white, and his whole bearing betokened gentleness.

"'You are fettered,' he said, 'but I will unloose your fetters if you will be my wife. I will take you to a land which will astonish you, for our people have learned to build dwellings and temples like those of the gods. I have an abundance of gold, and you shall live like a queen. I have left the army and will take you to my home, where I will ever be at your side, so that your every wish shall be gratified.'

"The maiden answered: 'I can never be your wife. Kill me, or take me back to my people!'

"Then said the youth: 'You will seek your people in vain the wide world over, for you are the last of your race. All the others have been killed.'

"'Then will I die also,' replied Euria.

"'No!' resumed the youth. 'You must live and be my wife. I will take you to my home and your sorrow shall turn to joy.' Saying this, he placed food and drink before her.

"At that instant Hertha's favorite messenger, the little black butterfly, flew to her; and Euria told her sad plight to it, and besought it to go to Hertha and beg her to secure help from the gods. The insect spread its dark, spotted wings and disappeared.

"As Hertha was sitting in the hall of the gods upon a golden seat, lamenting the hard fate which had overtaken Euria's people, the butterfly lit upon her white hand. The goddess asked: 'Have you anything beautiful or lovely to tell me?' The butterfly told her of Euria's sad plight. At that the goddess looked down and saw her favorite, whom she had forgotten. She rose and went to Thor, who rules the lightnings and rides upon the tempest, and counselled with him. The little butterfly flew down and consoled Euria.

"Suddenly the sky darkened and Thor's fearful glances shot forth from behind the black clouds. The din of his hammer was heard in the tempest and the god's voice resounded terribly. The youth and his attendants were dashed to the ground, and a lightning flash loosed Euria's fetters. She fled and sought to find her home again. All day and all night she wandered, but she could not discover the battlefield. Again she cried to Hertha, and while looking upward she saw an eagle in the distance flying lower and lower, in wide circles. Then she knew where the battlefield was, and she soon reached it. What a spectacle met her gaze! Men and beasts, husbands and wives, old and young, were lying by thousands on the great plain. But lo, here and there a head rose out of the piles of dead, a hand moved, or a feeble moan was uttered. An overburdening pain filled the maiden's heart as she thought how they must be suffering from thirst. She took two helmets, rushed to a pool near by, and brought its refreshing water to the unfortunates. She received a gentle pressure of the hand here, and the last grateful glance of the dying there. The sun blazed down upon her, but she did not weary in her beneficent task. Her exertions at last became too arduous, and pity and sympathy overpowered her. But she made another effort, for the sun was setting. As if on wings, Euria flew over the plain, and how many there were who died blessing her! At last there was not a visible movement on the field, but she went once more to the pool, for some victim might possibly be alive. And then, she said to herself, 'I will dig a grave for my own loved ones, so that the eagles shall not pick those eyes which were like stars to me, nor tear the hearts which loved me.'

"But she could not return to the field. Her strength gave out, and she sank down upon a hillock. There Hertha changed her into a spring, and lo, a clear little brook flowed from it down the hillside. Larger and larger it grew, its wavelets sparkling like silver, and far away it wound over the plain to the right of the battlefield. At the very instant she fell, the Roman youth appeared upon the plain. Awakening from the shock of the lightning and impelled by his strong love for Euria, he had sought the fugitive everywhere and at last came to the battlefield. He rushed to the spot where he had seen her from the distance, when she disappeared so suddenly. He found only a brook, flowing at his feet, making gentle music and tinged with the red glow of the evening sky. 'Thou art Euria,' he said, 'and thou livest in these sacred waters.' He cried to the goddess who had changed her to a water nymph, imploring her to unite them. Hertha heard him and changed him into a weeping willow, whose roots were nourished by the cool, clear water of the brook. Those who were separated in life were thus united in death. The brook made the land fruitful everywhere about it. Fragrant flowers lined its banks, and never sang birds as sweetly as there. But when the moon shines brightest Euria rises from the water, sits under the weeping willow, whose drooping twigs caress her cheek, and combs her hair with a golden comb. Then the nightingale sings in the rustling branches, and drops fall into the lap of the pale, beautiful water nymph. And of the drops, which become pearls, Euria makes a chain, which she winds in her beautiful hair and then again disappears in the waves."