Undine - George Upton

Life at the Castle of Ringstettin

As the writer of this tale is moved to the heart by it and hopes that others may be also, he begs his reader's forbearance if he now covers a long space of time in a few words and barely touches upon what happened therein. He well knows that it might be related in detail, how Huldbrand's heart gradually began to turn from Undine to Bertalda; how Bertalda's ardent love for the young knight became more and more evident, till the poor wife grew to be treated as an alien, more to be feared than pitied; how Undine's tears troubled the knight's conscience without reawakening the old love, so that sometimes when he was moved to be kind to her a shudder would creep over him and he would turn from her again to Bertalda, the child of earth;—all this might be dwelt upon, and perhaps should be. But the writer's heart shrinks from such a task, for he has known such things in his experience and cannot bear even the shadow of their memory. You, too, may have had these feelings, gentle reader, since such is the fate of mortal man; and it is well if you have felt rather than inflicted them, for in this it is more blessed to receive than to give. In that case, at such memories only a gentle sadness will steal over you and a tear course down your cheek, perchance, for the withered blossoms once so fondly loved. But enough of this; we will not pierce our hearts thus a thousand separate times, but content ourselves with saying that so it befell in the present case.

Poor Undine was very wretched, and the others were far from happy; Bertalda especially was jealous and ready to suspect Undine at the slightest deviation in her lover's devotion. She had gradually assumed an air of command, to which Undine meekly submitted, while the deluded Huldbrand openly supported her. What added still more to the discomfort of the occupants of the castle were the various strange apparitions that haunted Huldbrand and Bertalda in the dark vaulted passages, such as had never before been heard of within the memory of man. The tall white personage, known to him only too well as Uncle Kuhleborn, to her as the man of the fountain, often appeared to them with threatening aspect, especially to Bertalda, who had more than once been made ill from fright and even thought of leaving the castle. She controlled herself, however, partly because of her passion for Huldbrand, although there had been as yet no open declaration of love between them, and partly because she knew not whither to turn her steps if she did leave.

In answer to Huldbrand's message that Bertalda was with them, the old fisherman sent a few scrawled lines, scarcely legible, saying: "I am now a poor old widower, for my dear faithful wife is dead; but lonely as I am in the cottage, I would rather have Bertalda there than here, so long as she does not harm my dear Undine. I will curse her if she does!" These last words Bertalda threw to the winds, but she respected her father's wish that she should stay away, as people are wont to do in such cases.

One day, while Huldbrand was away, Undine summoned the servants and ordered them to fetch a large stone and carefully cover over the fine fountain that played in the centre of the castle courtyard. The men demurred, saying they would then have to go far down into the valley to get water, but Undine smiled sadly. "I am sorry to add to your labors, good friends," she replied; "I would far rather bring up the water jugs myself, but this fountain must be closed. Believe me, there is no other way of avoiding a still greater evil."

The servants, glad of any opportunity to serve their kind mistress, said no more, but seized the huge stone and were about to place it over the fountain when Bertalda ran up, ordering them to stop. She used this water herself to bathe in, it was so good for her complexion, and she would never consent to its being sealed up. But this time, instead of yielding, Undine remained firm, declaring it was her place as mistress of the house to arrange its affairs as she thought best, and no one should call her to account except her lord and master.

"See!" cried Bertalda, anxiously, how the poor, beautiful water leaps and boils at being hidden forever from the sunshine and the cheerful human faces whose mirror it was intended to be!"

In truth the fountain did seem to boil and gurgle strangely, as if something were trying to force its way to the surface, but Undine only insisted the more firmly that her orders should be obeyed. This was hardly necessary, however. The castle retainers were as glad to obey their kind lady as they were to cross Bertalda; so in spite of her threats and anger the stone was soon laid securely over the basin of the fountain. Undine then leaned over it thoughtfully and wrote on it with her slender hand; she must have held something sharp and biting in it, for when she had turned away and the others approached, they found all kinds of strange characters on the stone which had not been there before.

When Huldbrand returned that evening, Bertalda met him with tears and complaints of Undine's action. He looked sternly at his poor wife, who averted her glance but said firmly, "C Surely my lord and spouse would not rebuke even one of his vassals before hearing him, much less should he rebuke his wedded wife!"

"Speak, then; what induced you to commit this strange act?" demanded the knight, frowning darkly.

"I prefer to tell you alone," sighed Undine.

"It can be said just as well before Bertalda," he returned.

"Yes, if you so command," said Undine. "But do not compel me to, I implore you."

She was so meek and appealing in her submission that the knight's heart seemed penetrated by a sunbeam from happier days, and putting his arm around her kindly, he led her into his own chamber, where she told him as follows:

"You well know that wicked uncle, Kuhleborn, my dearest lord, and have often been angered by his presence in this castle, where he has more than once frightened Bertalda. It is because he is soulless—merely an empty mirror of the outer world, incapable of reflecting any inward feeling. He has noticed sometimes that you were displeased with me, and I have wept over it while Bertalda laughed; and because of this he has imagined all sorts of unjust things and interfered unbidden in our concerns. What is the use of my reproaching him or sending him away harshly? He will not believe a word I say. One of his shallow life knows not that the joys and sorrows of love are so closely interwoven that no human power can separate them; that a smile may lie hidden beneath our tears, and tears gush forth at the bidding of a smile."

Undine looked up at Huldbrand smiling through her tears as she spoke, and he felt all the glamour of the old love stealing once more into his heart. Perceiving this, she drew closer to him and proceeded: "Since Kuhleborn was not to be driven away with words, I was forced to close the door against him, and his only approach to us was through that fountain. He is at variance with the other water-spirits hereabouts, and only farther down the Danube, where some of his friends have joined the river, does his power begin again. That is why I had the stone placed over the fountain and inscribed it with signs that will baffle my jealous uncle and prevent his crossing your path or mine or Bertalda's any more. The stone can be lifted off again at any time, for the inscriptions have no power over mankind; so if you choose you can grant Bertalda's request, but truly, she knows not what she asks. The bad Kuhleborn has a special spite against her, and if any of the things he prophesies were to happen, as they easily might without her meaning any harm, alas! even you, my beloved, might not be free from danger!

Huldbrand was deeply touched by his noble wife's magnanimity in baffling her formidable protector so completely, even when reviled by Bertalda for it. He embraced her tenderly and said, "The stone shall remain where it is, and everything shall be as you wish, now and always, my precious Undine!"

She returned his caresses joyfully, grateful for these long unwonted words of love; and she added: "Since you are so kind and gracious to me to-day, best friend of all, may I venture to make one request? You are like the summer, which in the height of its splendor crowns itself with thunder clouds like a true king and god of earth. So do you sometimes frown and your eyes flash lightning, and it becomes you well, though I in my folly often weep thereat. Only promise me that you will never do this when we are on the water, or even near to it, for there my family have power over me. They might tear me from you in their relentless anger, and I should be forced to spend the rest of my life below there in their crystal palaces, never to return to you; or, if they should send me up once more, ah, Heaven! that would be still worse. No, no, beloved, do not let it come to that if you love your poor little Undine!"

He solemnly promised this, and they left the room together and peaceful once more. In the hall they met Bertalda with some workmen she had sent for in the meantime, and she accosted them in the bitter manner she had assumed of late, saying: "Now that your secret conference is over I suppose we can have the stone removed. Get to work, you people, and attend to it at once."

But Huldbrand, indignant at her arrogance, exclaimed sharply, "Let the stone remain where it is!" and rebuked Bertalda for her rudeness to his wife. Whereat the workmen departed, exulting inwardly, while Bertalda turned pale and hurriedly went to her chamber.

The supper hour came and they waited in vain for her. She was sent for, but her room was empty, and the messenger brought back only a sealed letter directed to the knight. He opened it, greatly perplexed, and read:

"I am ashamed that I am only a poor fisherman's daughter. I will atone for having forgotten it by going to dwell in my parents' wretched home. Be happy with your beautiful wife!"

Grieved to the heart, Undine besought her husband to hasten after the maiden and bring her back. But alas! there was little need. His passion for Bertalda had returned afresh, and he hurried through the castle asking if any had seen what direction the fugitive had taken in her flight. He learned nothing, however, and had already mounted his horse in the courtyard, determined to try the road by which he had brought Bertalda to the castle, when a peasant lad met him and assured him he had met the lady on the wav to the Black Valley. The knight shot through the gate like an arrow and dashed off in the direction indicated, quite deaf to the anxious cries of Undine, who called after him: "To the Black Valley? Oh, not there, not there! or, in the name of Heaven, take me with you!"

Finding he did not hear her, she had her white palfrey saddled with all speed and rode away after the knight, without permitting any one to accompany her.