Undine - George Upton

Bertalda's Birthday

The guests were seated about the table, Bertalda at the head, decked out like a Goddess of Spring with flowers and jewels, the gifts of her friends and foster-parents; on either side of her were Undine and Huldbrand. The banquet was drawing to an end, and when dessert was brought in the doors were thrown open, according to the good old German custom, that the common people might enter and have their share of the festivities, while servants distributed wine and cake among them.

Huldbrand and Bertalda waited with suppressed impatience for the promised explanation, and kept their eyes upon Undine, who still remained silent, smiling happily to herself now and then, and playfully holding back the secret about to burst from her lips, as children sometimes keep their choicest bits for the last. Her two companions shared this delightful sensation in eager anticipation of this new happiness that was to be made known to them. Some of the guests now begged Undine for a song. This request seemed to suit her pleasure; so sending for her lute, she began as follows:

Morning so bright,

Flowers so gay,

Grasses so fragrant and tall,

On the wave-washed brink of the sea,

Among the grasses what

Glistens so brightly?

Is it a great white blossom

Dropped from the sky upon the greensward?

Ah! it is a tender child

Unconsciously playing with flowers.

Whence, whence hast thou come, sweet one?

From a far away unknown land,

The ocean has brought it hither.

Nay, stretch not out thy little hand,

No answering hand will clasp it.

Even the flowers are strange and silent.

They cannot give thee the heart's desire.

Far away is the true mother breast.

So early, even at life's threshold

With heaven's own light in thy face

Thou hast lost already the best,

Poor child, and knowest it not.

A noble knight comes riding by,

And checks his steed before thee.

He takes thee to his castle.

There thou bloom'st, the fairest in the land.

But thou hast left the highest joy

Upon the unknown wave-washed shore.

Undine smiled sadly as she laid down her lute, and the eyes of the Duke and Duchess were wet with tears. "It was thus I found you that morning, poor orphan," said the Duke, deeply moved, to Bertalda. "As our beautiful minstrel rightly says, you have lost the highest joy, and we can never restore it to you."

"Listen also how it fared with the poor parents," said Undine, and taking up the lute again, she sang:

The mother wanders through the rooms,

Seeking the lost in vain,

And only finds an empty house!

Empty house! oh bitter words!

Empty house, which once the child

Filled, day and night, with joy.

The buds are bursting on the trees,

The sunlight shines anew each morn;

But, mother, cease thy searching,

The child shall come no more.

And when the evening twilight glows,

And father seeks the hearth again,

He seeks to smile away his grief,

But tears soon follow smiles.

The father knows that in these rooms

A deathly silence must remain.

The mother only sits and sighs,

For no little child smiles at her.

"Oh, Undine, for Heaven's sake, where are my parents?" cried the weeping Bertalda. "You certainly know. You must have found it out, you wonderful creature, or you could not have torn my heart as you have done. Are they here now? Can it be possible?" And her eyes glanced over the brilliant assemblage, lingering on a reigning princess who sat next to her foster-father.

Undine leaned forward, her eyes brimming over with happy tears. "Where are the poor afflicted parents?" she asked, and the old fisherman and his wife appeared from out the crowd of spectators, looking inquiringly from Undine to the beautiful damsel, their daughter.

"It is she—she is your daughter," said the delighted benefactress.

The old people clasped their long-lost child in their arms, thanking God and weeping aloud for

joy. But Bertalda, overcome with chagrin and anger, tore herself rudely from their embrace. The discovery was too much for her proud spirit—just at the moment, too, when she was fully expecting to rise to even greater splendor, and her fancy had already pictured crown and sceptre falling to her lot. She at once conceived the idea that her rival had contrived it all on purpose to humiliate her before Huldbrand and the world. She burst into a storm of abuse and reviled Undine and the old people, calling them such odious names as "Impostors!" and "Hired impostors!"

The old woman muttered to herself: "Mercy on us! what a wicked woman she ]gas become! yet I feel in my heart she is my own child." But the fisherman had folded his hands and was praying silently that this might not be his daughter; while Undine, pale as death, looked from one to another, overcome by the suddenness with which her happy anticipations had been changed to an agony of wretchedness such as she had newer before felt, even in her dreams.

"Have you no soul, Bertalda? Have you really no soul?" she cried repeatedly, endeavoring to restore her wrathful friend to reason, as if from a sudden frenzy or some horrible nightmare. But as Bertalda only raged the worse, and the injured parents began to lament piteously, and the company to dispute, Undine suddenly arose and begged so earnestly for leave to speak in her own husband's house that all grew silent. Taking Bertalda's place at the head of the table, she stood there with such an air of modest dignity that all eyes were fixed upon her, while she spoke as follows:

"You people who look upon one another so angrily and so rudely destroy the pleasure of my feast, alas! I little knew your foolish ways and cruel hearts, nor shall I ever be able to understand you in all my life. That all my plans have gone amiss is not my fault, but your own, believe me, little as you may think it. I have only one thing more to say, but that you shall hear. I have told no lie. I have no proof except my word, but I will swear to the truth of what I have said. It was told me by the very person who lured Bertalda away from her parents into the water and afterwards laid her in the green meadow where the Duke would pass."

"She is a witch!" cried Bertalda, "a sorceress, who communes with evil spirits! she acknowledges it herself!"

Nay, that I do not!" answered Undine, a world of innocence and candor shining in her eyes; "nor am I a sorceress. Look at me!"

"Then she lies and boasts!" broke in Bertalda; "she cannot prove that I am the child of these low-born folk. My noble parents, I beseech you, take me away from this place and from this town where they all conspire to bring shame upon me!"

The venerable Duke made no motion to comply with this, and his wife said: "Nay, we must know where we stand. God forbid that I should stir a step from this room till we have learned the truth."

At this the old woman came forward and made obeisance to the Duchess. "You give me heart to speak, noble lady," she said. "If this wicked young woman is my daughter, she has a violet mark between her shoulders and another on the instep of her left foot. If she will but come with me into another room—"

"I will not disrobe, before that peasant woman I "said Bertalda, turning away contemptuously.

"But you will before me," retorted the Duchess, sternly; "follow me into the next room, damsel, and this good woman shall go with us."

The three withdrew accordingly, leaving the rest in anxious suspense. In a few moments they returned, Bertalda deadly pale, and the Duchess said: "Right is right, and I must acknowledge that our Lady Hostess has spoken truly. Bertalda is the fisherman's daughter; it is unnecessary for any one to know more than that." The princely pair then departed, taking with them their adopted child, and were followed at a sign from the Duke by the fisherman and his wife. The other guests withdrew in silence or whispering among themselves, while Undine sank weeping into Huldbrand's arms.