Undine - George Upton




The Bridal

Soft knock at the door broke the stillness and startled them all; for some trifling occurrence, happening unexpectedly, will often strike terror to the senses. Added to this, the mysterious forest was close at hand, and the cottage now seemed inaccessible to any human being. While they looked at each other doubtfully, the knocking was repeated, accompanied this time by a deep groan. The knight started to seize his sword, but his host whispered, "If it should be what I fear, no mortal weapon will avail us."

Undine, however, went straight to the door and cried boldly and indignantly, "If you are bent upon mischief, you earth-spirits, Kuhleborn shall teach you better manners!"

These strange words only seemed to add to the uneasiness of the others. They looked askance at the maiden, and Huldbrand was just summoning courage to question her, when a voice without replied: "I am no earth-spirit, unless you so call one who still inhabits mortal clay. If you fear God and are willing to aid me, you who dwell within, then open to me quickly!"

At these words Undine flung open the door and held a lamp out into the stormy night, thus revealing the form of an aged priest, who started back in amazement at the unexpected sight. So radiant a vision appearing at the door of this lowly hut might well seem the work of magic. He began to chant: "All good spirits, praise ye the Lord!"

"I am no phantom," said Undine, smiling. "Am I so frightful to look upon? You can see that pious words have no terrors for me. I too worship God and praise Him in my own way—each according to his nature as He has created us. Come in, good father, you will find most worthy people here."

The priest entered, bowed low, and looked about him. He was of mild and venerable appearance, but water dripped from every fold of his dark robe and from his long white beard and hair. Huldbrand and the fisherman conducted him at once to a chamber and furnished him with fresh clothing, while the two women dried his priestly garments by the fire. He thanked them humbly and kindly, but would on no account accept the knight's proffered cloak; he chose instead an old gray mantle of the fisherman's, and wrapped in this he returned to the kitchen, where the old woman insisted upon his seating himself in her armchair. "You are old and weary, father," she declared, "and also a priest."

Undine pushed the little stool on which she usually sat at Huldbrand's side under the stranger's feet, and waited on him with the greatest care and solicitude; and when the knight attempted to tease her about it in a whisper, she answered gravely, "He is a servant of the Creator of us all, and that is not a subject for jesting."

After the priest had been refreshed with food and wine, he told them his story. He had set out on the previous day, he said, from his monastery, far beyond the great lake, for the Bishop's palace, in order to report to him the distress that had been caused to the monks and their poor tenants by these extraordinary floods. After making a wide circuit to avoid them, he had found himself forced that evening to cross an arm of the lake with the aid of two honest boatmen. Scarcely, however, had our little vessel touched the water," he continued, "when the frightful storm arose that still is raging about us; and it seemed as if the waters had only awaited our coming to begin their mad sport. The oars were soon torn from the boatmen's hands, and their broken fragments carried away by the waves. Thus helpless and abandoned to the fury of the elements, we drifted toward your shores, which we soon saw rising before us amid the foam and spray. The boat tossed about more wildly and dizzily every moment. Whether it was overturned or I was washed out I cannot say, but I was dashed along in momentary expectation of a speedy death, till at last a wave flung me up here under the trees on your island."

"Island, indeed!" the fisherman broke in. "Only a short time ago it was a peninsula, but now that the stream and the lake seem to have gone mad together, all around us is changed."

"So I discovered," said the priest, "as I staggered along the shore in the darkness, amid the howling of the storm; but I presently perceived a well-beaten pathway which seemed to lose itself in the shadows; following it, I soon spied the light in your cottage and ventured hither; nor can I ever sufficiently thank my Heavenly Father, who has not only saved me from a watery grave but led me to such kind and pious people as yourselves; the more so as I seem likely never to see any other of my fellow beings in this life."

"Why do you say that?" asked the fisherman.

"Who can tell how long this disturbance of the elements may last?" returned the other. "Moreover, I am an old man. My own stream of life may be lost in the earth before the waters subside; nor is it impossible that they may so far separate you from the forest that you can no longer cross them, even in your boat; and the people of the outer world, absorbed in their own concerns, will quite forget your existence."

"God forbid!" murmured the old woman., crossing herself.

Her husband smiled at her and said: "How inconsistent you are! That would make no difference to you at least, dear wife. How many years is it since you crossed the edge of the forest? And whom have you seen in all that time save Undine and myself? Sir Huldbrand and the priest have been but a short time with us, and even if we were forgotten on the island they would still be here; so you would be even better off, after all."

"That may all be true," she replied, "yet it is a strange feeling to be cut off entirely from one's own kind, however little we may have seen or known of them."

"Then you will stay with us," whispered Undine tenderly to the knight, as she nestled closer to his side.

But ever since the priest had ceased speaking, Huldbrand had been lost in thought. The world beyond the forest stream seemed dimmer and farther away than ever, the blooming island where he now dwelt more fair and smiling, and his bride—was she not the sweetest flower that grew in all the world? The priest was at hand—Just then the old woman glanced at Undine reprovingly for clinging to her lover so closely in the holy man's presence, and a stream of angry words seemed about to follow. Huldbrand could no longer contain himself, and turning to the priest, he said, "Good father, you see before you a betrothed couple, and if the maiden and the old people will but consent, you shall unite us in marriage this very evening."

The fisherman and his wife were astonished. The thought had often crossed their minds, to be sure, but they had never spoken of it, and the knight's proposal fell upon their ears like something new and unheard of. Undine had grown serious all at once and sat gazing pensively down as if in deep thought, while the priest closely inquired about their relations and made sure of the old folks' consent. After much discussion the affair was finally settled, and the old woman bustled off to prepare the bridal chamber and fetch two consecrated tapers she had long kept laid away for the wedding ceremony. The knight meanwhile was twisting two rings off his gold chain for his bride and himself to exchange.

But Undine, seeing this, came to herself. "Wait!" she cried, "my parents did not send me into the world wholly destitute; they must long ago have looked forward to such an occasion as this." She ran out of the room, and quickly returned with two beautiful rings, one of which she handed to her bridegroom, keeping the other herself. The old fisherman was amazed, and his wife, who now appeared, was even more so, for neither of them had ever seen these jewels before.

"My parents," added Undine, "had these rings sewed into the fine dress I wore when I came to you, and bade me say nothing of them to any one until my wedding-day. So I took them out secretly and have kept them hidden away till now."

The priest here put an end to further inquiry by lighting the holy tapers, which he placed on a table; then calling the young couple to him and speaking a few solemn words, he united them in marriage. The old people bestowed their blessing, while the bride leaned upon her husband's arm, trembling and thoughtful.

When the ceremony was over, the priest said: "You are curious people! Why did you tell me you were the only persons on the island? During the whole ceremony there was a tall handsome man in a white cloak standing just outside the window opposite to me. He must still be near the door, if you wish to invite him in."

"Heaven forbid!" cried the dame, with a shudder; the old man shook his head silently, while Huldbrand rushed to the window. He fancied he could see a streak of white without, but it soon vanished in the darkness; so he assured the priest he must have been mistaken. Then they all seated themselves sociably about the hearth.