Undine - George Upton




The Knight's Adventures in the Forest

"It was perhaps some eight days ago that I entered the imperial city which lies just beyond the forest yonder. A fine tournament was being given there, and I spared neither steed nor lance. As I paused once in the lists to rest me from the noble sport and handed my helmet to a squire, my eyes fell upon a beautiful damsel standing in one of the balconies looking on. Upon inquiry I learned that the fair maid was Bertalda, ward of one of the richest and most powerful nobles in the neighborhood. I saw that she was watching me, and as is the custom with us young knights, though I had not ridden so very badly before, I now exerted myself to the utmost. I was Bertalda's partner in the dance not only that evening but each evening as long as the tournament lasted."

At this instant the knight felt a sudden sting in his left hand and paused to look at it. Undine had bitten sharply into his finger with her pearly teeth and was frowning darkly at him. Suddenly, however, the scowl gave place to a look of tender sadness, and she whispered softly, "So you are like all the rest!" and buried her face in her hands, while Huldbrand, troubled and perplexed, proceeded with his story.

"This Bertalda is a strange, haughty damsel. On the second day she no longer charmed me as at first, and on the third still less. But she showed me such favor that I remained with her, and so it chanced that one day in sport I begged of her her glove.

"'Yes, on condition that you ride alone into the haunted forest and bring me hack word of what it is like,' she answered.

"I really did not care so much for the token; but what is said is said, and a true knight does not wait to be urged twice to such an adventure."

"But I thought she loved you," broke in Undine. "So it would appear," said Huldbrand.

"Nay, then, she must be a fool, to send away him she loved, and into such a place too! The forest and its mystery would have waited long enough, for all I cared."

The knight smiled kindly at Undine, but without replying he continued: "Yesterday morning I started upon my journey. The sunbeams glanced so brightly on the tree-trunks and the greensward, and the leaves whispered together so merrily, that I laughed inwardly at those who fancied any evil was concealed in such a pleasant place. 'I shall soon have crossed it and back again,' I said to myself; and almost before I knew it I was deep in its green shades and had left the open plain far behind me. Then for the first time I realized how easy it would be to lose one's way in this great forest, and that therein lay the danger to travellers, perhaps; so I took care to observe the position of the sun, which by this time was high in the heavens. Looking up, I saw something black among the limbs of a tall oak, and taking it for a bear, was about to draw my sword, when a human voice, most harsh and discordant, called out to me:

"'Were I not up here to break off branches, how could we get fuel to roast you with at midnight, Sir Malapert?' And therewith the thing grinned, and rattled the boughs so that my horse took fright and bolted, before I could discover what sort of a devil's beast it was."

"Nay, do not mention his name "interrupted the old man, crossing himself, his wife doing the same; but Undine gazed at her lover with sparkling eyes, saying: "The best part of the story is that they have not really roasted him yet. Go on, fair sir!"

The knight continued accordingly: "In my steed's headlong flight I narrowly escaped being dashed against many a tree-trunk, but it was impossible to control the terrified beast, even though he was almost exhausted. At length, just as he was rushing toward a rocky precipice, a tall white man seemed to throw himself directly in front of the maddened animal, who reared and swerved aside. Exerting all my strength, I succeeded in stopping him, and then discovered that my rescuer was not a man at all, but a silvery brook that came leaping down the hill beside me and crossed the path, checking my horse's flight."

"Thanks, dear brook!" cried Undine, clapping her hands. But the old man kept shaking his head and seemed lost in thought.

Huldbrand

HULDBRAND AND THE IMP.


"Hardly had I settled myself securely in the saddle and got a strong hold of the bridle once more," resumed the knight, "when a most extraordinary little man appeared beside me, more wrinkled and hideous than I can tell. He was of a brownish yellow color, with a nose almost as large as himself; he bowed and scraped to me, grinning continually with his wide mouth. His grimaces were so unpleasant that I thanked him curtly and turned my still frightened horse about, intending to seek some other adventure, or, if none were to he found, to make my way back again, for the sun was already sinking toward the west. But the little imp sprang about with lightning rapidity and stood in front of me again.

"'Look out there!' I cried impatiently, 'my horse is unmanageable and might run over you.'

"'So!' snarled the creature, chuckling more horridly than before, 'first pay me for having stopped your horse; but for me, you and your fine steed would have been lying at the bottom of yonder pit, ha! ha!'

"'Quit your grimaces,' I said, 'and be off with your money, then. It is all a lie, though, for it was that honest brook that saved me, not you, you wretched object!' With this I dropped a gold piece in his outstretched cap and rode away. The creature uttered a howl, and with inconceivable swiftness was again at my side. I spurred my horse to a gallop, but he still kept up with me, though with difficulty it seemed, and twisting his body into the most extraordinary shapes, all the while holding up the gold piece and crying at each step: 'Bad gold, bad money! False coin, false gold!'

"He croaked this out in such a hollow tone that it seemed as if he must drop dead after each cry, and his horrible red tongue hung far out of his mouth. Much disturbed, I stopped at last and demanded of him: 'Why do you howl so? Take another gold piece—take two if you like—and get you gone!' Thereupon he began his odious grimaces again, and cried out: 'No gold! I want no gold, young sir. I have had enough of that, as I will show you.'

"Suddenly the surface of the earth seemed to become round and transparent like a green glass globe, and far down in it I saw a crowd of imps playing with gold and silver. Head over heels they tumbled about, pelting each other with the precious stuff and puffing gold dust in each other's face. My odious companion seemed to stand half above, half below the surface, and made them pass him up handfuls of gold, which he held out to me derisively and flung tinkling down again into the depths. Then he showed the gold piece I had given him to the goblins, who held their sides with laughter and pointed their lean fingers at me, hissing. Wilder and wilder, nearer and nearer grew the tumult, till, seized with terror, as my horse had been, I plunged the spurs into him and dashed madly, I know not how far, into the forest for the second time.

"When we stopped once more, it was getting dark, but a white footpath gleamed before me through the branches, which I concluded must lead back to the city; but as I was about to follow it, the apparition of an unearthly white face with ever-changing features stared at me from among the leaves. I tried to escape from it, but whichever way I went it followed me. Enraged at last, I tried to drive my horse at it; but a shower of white foam met us and forced us to turn away again blinded. Thus it drove us ever farther and farther from the footpath, compelling us to proceed in one direction. So long as we kept to this, it remained close at our heels, it is true, but did us no harm.

"Now and then, as I glanced at it, the white head seemed to be placed on an equally huge white body, but I could never be sure that it was not merely a waterfall. Wearily we continued to fly from the figure, which nodded at us frequently, as if to say, 'That is right, that is right!' At length we emerged from the forest yonder, when I beheld your little cottage with the lake and the trees, and where at last the white face vanished."

"Thank Heaven for that!" said the fisherman. He then began to wonder how their guest might best make his way back to his friends in the city; whereupon Undine laughed softly to herself. Perceiving this, Huldbrand remarked, "I thought you were glad to have me here; why are you so pleased, then, at the thought of my departure?"

"Because you cannot get away," replied the maiden. "Just try to cross the overflowing stream in a boat, on horseback, or afoot, if you choose. Do not attempt it, for you would surely be dashed to pieces against the whirling stones and tree-trunks. As for the lake, I know that well; even my father does not venture on it in his boat."

Huldbrand rose laughing to see whether Undine's words were true. The old man accompanied him, and the maiden playfully ran along beside them. They found she was quite right. So the knight was forced to remain on the island, which the slope had now become, until the flood subsided.

As they went back to the cottage, he whispered in his fair companion's ear, "Tell me, little Undine are you angry with me for staying?"

"Never mind!" replied the maiden, in a peevish manner, "If I had not bitten your finger, who knows what more we might have heard about Bertalda?"