Undine - George Upton

How the Knight Lived on the Island

You may sometime have chanced, dear reader, after many vicissitudes in the world, to come upon some pleasant spot where love of peace and simple joys revived within you; where childhood's home with all its pure affections almost seemed to have risen from the grave for you; and you felt that there indeed it would be well to live and have your habitation. True, it may have been only an illusion for which you have afterwards been forced to atone, but that does not concern us now, nor will you care to dwell upon those bitter moments. Think only of that sweet foretaste of angelic rest, and you can conceive what Knight Huldbrand felt while he lived on the island.

With quiet satisfaction he often watched the stream rushing past more wildly every day, its channel ever widening and making his isolation more complete. A part of the time he would spend roaming about with an old crossbow he had found in a corner of the hut, waylaying the birds as they flew by him, and bringing whatever he could kill to the kitchen for food. At such times Undine would reproach him bitterly for taking the life of the joyous little creatures soaring so happily in the blue depths of the sky and would even weep over the dead birds; while at other times, if he returned empty-handed, she would find fault with him for his laziness and awkwardness, which compelled them to put up with fish and crabs for food. But in either case her pretty fits of anger charmed the knight, especially as she seldom failed to atone for them by the fondest caresses.

The fisherman and his wife, having been taken into the young people's confidence, looked upon them as a betrothed or rather as a married pair, shut out from the world to dwell with them upon the island. This very isolation made Huldbrand feel as if he were already Undine's husband. It seemed to him that there was nothing beyond these encircling waters, or that, at any rate, he could never cross them to go back to the world of men; and if at times he was reminded of deeds of chivalry by the neighing of his steed or the sight of the coat-of-arms embroidered on his saddle and trappings, or if his good sword dropped unexpectedly from the nail on which it hung and slipped out of its sheath, he would silence his misgivings by assuring himself that Undine was not the fisherman's daughter, but most likely was sprung from some noble family in far-off lands. The only thing that disturbed him was to hear the old woman scolding Undine. The wilful maiden only laughed at her, to be sure, but it seemed to him as if his own honor had been touched. He could not altogether blame the old woman, either, for Undine richly deserved ten times more than she ever received. He still felt kindly toward his hostess, therefore, and their quiet life continued undisturbed.

One day there was real trouble. It had become a habit with the knight and the fisherman to enjoy a jug of wine together at noon and also in the evenings while the wind howled without, as it usually did now at night. But the supply which the old man had brought with him from the town had given out long since, and the two were vexed and out of sorts without it. Undine laughed at them all day, but they did not share her mirth so heartily as usual, and toward evening she left home to get away, as she said, from two such doleful countenances.

As darkness came on, it began to look stormy again. The waters roared and foamed, and the two men sprang to the door in alarm, thinking of the anxiety of that night when Huldbrand first came to the cottage. But they soon saw Undine coming toward them clapping her hands in great glee.

"What will you give me if I bring you some wine?" she cried. "But you need not give me anything if you will only look more cheerful than you have looked all this long tiresome day—that will be reward enough. Come with me and see what the waves have cast up on the shore. I will promise to sleep a whole week if it is not a cask of wine!"

The two followed her to a sheltered cove, and there, sure enough, lay a barrel which held out promise of the goodly liquor for which they yearned. They rolled it toward the hut with all possible haste, for the storm was rising, and through the gathering darkness they could see the waves rearing their white heads as if watching for the coming rain. Undine helped the two men as much as she could, and when the tempest seemed about to burst above from setting out at once, even in this darkness. I promise you, however, if I ever return to an inhabited country again I will seek out him or his heirs and repay them double and treble the value of this wine."

The old man nodded approvingly at the knight and drained his glass with a clearer conscience.

But Undine retorted: "Do as you please with your money, but it would be foolish to go out into the night to search for any one. I should cry my eyes out if anything happened to you; and would you not rather stay with me and the good wine?"

"Ay, that indeed!" replied Huldbrand, with a smile.

"Then," said Undine, "it was silly of you to talk so. Every one should think of himself first. What does it matter about other people?"

The fisherman's wife turned away with a sigh and shook her head; but her husband, forgetting his usual indulgence, reproved the maiden sharply: "One would think you had been brought up by Turks and heathens!" He wound up with, God forgive me, and you too, wayward child!"

"But that is what I think, whoever brought me their heads she shook her fist playfully at the black clouds, crying: "Take care that you do not drench us! We are still some way from home."

The old man reproved her for such wicked presumption, but she only laughed softly to herself, and no harm ensued. On the contrary, they succeeded, against their expectations, in reaching the comfortable hearth in safety with their prize; and not till after the cask had been opened and was found to contain a choice wine, did the rain break in torrents from the lowering clouds and the wind roar through the tree-tops, lashing the waves to fury. Enough bottles were soon filled from the great cask to supply them for several days, and they sat cosily about the glowing hearth, drinking and jesting, while the storm raged without. All at once the fisherman grew serious.

"Good Heaven!" he cried, "here we sit enjoying this noble gift, while he to whom it belonged and from whom it was carried away must have lost his life in the waves!"

"Oh no, he has not!" declared Undine, smiling slyly at the knight, who answered earnestly:

"On my honor, good father, if I but knew how to find and rescue him nothing should keep me up," retorted Undine; "so what is the use of talking about it?"

Silence!" commanded her foster-father.

Whereupon the maiden, who in spite of her audacity was sometimes easily suppressed, clung to Huldbrand, trembling. "Are you also angry with me, dear friend?" she asked softly.

The knight pressed her hand and stroked her hair gently, but could not answer. Anger with the old man for his harshness toward her had kept him silent, and so the two couples sat gloomily facing each other.