Undine - George Upton

How Undine was Found Again

The longer Huldbrand continued his vain search in the darkness, the more uneasy and confused he became. The fancy that Undine was only a spirit of the forest came back to him with renewed force; indeed, what with the roar of wind and wave, the crashing of branches, the utter transformation of the once quiet spot, even the hut and its occupants would have seemed a trick of his imagination had he not still heard in the distance the fisherman calling piteously to Undine, and his old wife's prayers and hymns sounding above the tumult.

At length he reached the brink of the overflowing stream, and saw by the moonlight that it was pursuing its turbulent course directly along the edge of the haunted forest, making an island of the little headland.

Merciful Heaven I" he thought, what if Undine should have ventured into that terrible wood, perhaps out of mere willfulness because I would not tell her of my adventures in it? And now the flood has cut her off, and she may be weeping there alone tormented by those spectres!"

A cry of horror escaped him, and he hastily rushed down over the rocks and fallen tree-trunks to the roaring torrent, intending to cross it and search for the wanderer on the other side. Visions of all the grisly shapes he had that day seen beneath the now wildly tossing branches, especially that of a tall white man who now seemed to nod and grin at him from the further shore, haunted him; but these grim recollections only urged him on the more when he thought of Undine possibly alone there in mortal terror.

Grasping a stout pine branch for support, he stepped boldly into the eddying current, and though scarcely able to keep his footing was making his way forward stoutly, when a sweet voice close beside him warned him: "Trust not the stream! The old fellow is tricky!"

Huldbrand well knew that musical voice, and stood as if transfixed amid the deepening shadows. Drifting clouds had obscured the moon, and the swift rush of the water at his knees confused him, but he would not yield.

"If you are not really there, if you are only hovering about me like a phantom, then will I no longer live, but become a shadow too, beloved Undine!" he cried, as he strode still deeper into the stream.

"Look around, look around, then, 0 fair and foolish youth!" said the voice once more. Turning his head, he saw in the reappearing moonlight a little island formed by the flood, and there, fair and smiling, lay Undine, nestling in the flowery grass under the closely interlacing branches.

Joyfully now the knight wielded his pine staff; a few more strides took him through the waves that roared between them, and he stood beside her safely reposing in her little shelter under the great trees. Undine had half arisen, and flinging her arms about his neck, she drew him down beside her on the soft turf.

"Now you shall tell me everything, dear friend," she whispered softly. "Those cross old people cannot hear us, and our leafy bower is far nicer than their wretched hut!"

"It is heaven!" cried Huldbrand, and he clasped the fair flatterer to his heart and kissed her.

Meanwhile the fisherman had come to the edge of the stream and now shouted across: "Is it thus, Sir Knight, you return my hospitality, by making love to my foster-child, leaving me to search for her alone all night in terror and suspense?"

"I have only this moment found her, good father," replied Huldbrand.

"So much the better for you," said the old man. "Now fetch her back here to me at once!"

But Undine refused, declaring she would rather go away altogether with the beautiful stranger into the haunted forest than return to the cottage where she could never do as she wished, and from which the knight sooner or later must depart. Twining her arms about Huldbrand, she sang with inexpressible grace and allurement,—

Forth from the misty vale the wave

Outleaped, a freer course to gain;

But lost in ocean's vast expanse

It nevermore returned again.

The old fisherman wept bitterly at this, but Undine seemed to pay no heed to him; she continued fondling her lover till at last he said to her: "The old man's grief pains me at least, if it does not pain you. Let us go back to him!"

She fixed her great blue eyes on him in astonishment, then slowly and impatiently replied: "Very well, since you wish it. Whatever you like is my pleasure also. But first he must promise to let you tell without any interruption all that happened to you in the forest; as for the rest, that we shall see."

"Come back!" cried the fisherman, "only come back!" He could say no more. He only stretched out his arms toward her across the stream and nodded his head in assent to her demand, his gray hair falling over his face as he did so in a way that reminded Huldbrand of the mysterious white man in the forest. Without giving himself time to think of this, however, the knight took the fair maiden in his arms and carried her across the narrow inlet left by the flood, between the islet and the main shore.

The old man embraced and kissed Undine in a transport of joy, and the old woman, as she joined them, also welcomed the wanderer most tenderly. There was no thought of reproaches, the more so as Undine seemed to have quite forgotten her waywardness and overwhelmed her foster-parents with affectionate caresses. When at last they recollected themselves and looked about, the tempest had subsided, dawn was beginning to shed its rosy gleam upon the lake, and the birds were singing gayly on the wet branches. Undine still insisted upon hearing the knight's promised tale, and the old people now smilingly assented. Breakfast was laid under the trees, and they all sat down to it with glad hearts, Undine reclining at Huldbrand's feet upon the grass, while he began his story as follows.