Undine - George Upton

Bertalda's Return with the Knight

The Black Valley lay deep in the heart of the mountains. What its name is now no one knows, but in those days the country folk gave it that name because of its dark appearance caused by the huge trees, many of which were pines. Even the brook which rippled along between the rocks looked almost black and had none of the sparkle of streams which reflect the blue sky above them. Now in the gathering darkness it looked even blacker and wilder as the knight rode anxiously along its bank, first fearing that delay might permit the fugitive to escape him, and then that too great haste might cause him to overlook her if she was concealed somewhere. He had ridden far into the valley by this time and thought he must surely overtake her ere long if he was on the right track. The doubt that this might not be so caused him painful anxiety. What would become of the delicate Bertalda alone in the stormy night, which was already growing black and terrible?

At last he saw something white gleaming through the trees on the mountain-side, and thinking he recognized Bertalda's gown, he started toward it. But his horse refused to stir, and reared so violently that, fearing to lose time and finding himself impeded on horseback among the bushes, he dismounted. Fastening the snorting animal to an elm-tree, he made his way carefully along on foot. Cold dew from the branches dropped upon his cheeks and forehead; distant thunder rolled from time to time beyond the mountains, and everything looked so weird and strange that he began to feel a sudden fear of the white figure lying on the ground,—so near now that he could plainly discern the form of a sleeping or fainting woman, clad in a long white gown such as Bertalda had worn that day. He came close to her, shook the branches, and rattled his sword; but she did not stir.

"Bertalda!" he cried, softly at first, then louder and louder, till the beloved name reechoed from the mountain-tops. But all was in vain; the sleeper did not awake. The natural darkness of the valley and approaching night prevented him from distinguishing the sleeper's features; but a chill misgiving crept over him, and he knelt down on the ground beside the figure. Just then a sudden flash of lightning illuminated the scene, and there before him he saw a frightfully distorted countenance, while a sepulchral voice cried, "Give me a kiss, beloved shepherd!"

Huldbrand started up with a cry of horror, and the hideous figure confronted him. "Get you home," it muttered; "evil spirits are abroad. Home! or I will get you!" and it clutched at him with its long white arm.

"Ha! malicious Kuhleborn, I know you now!" cried the knight, recovering himself. "I care not, since it is only you, foul spirit. Here is a kiss for you!" He aimed a furious blow at the apparition with his sword; but the phantom suddenly dissolved, and a drenching shower of spray left him in no doubt as to the enemy he had met.

"He is trying to frighten me away from Bertalda," he said to himself, "and thinks he can induce me by his goblin tricks to abandon the poor terrified maiden so that he may visit his vengeance upon her. But that shall never be, poor feeble creature of the elements! Little do you know what a human heart is capable of when moved by righteous purpose." The truth of these words seemed to penetrate him, and he felt his courage revive. Fortune, too, now seemed to be with him, for before he had reached the spot where his horse was tied, he clearly heard Bertalda's piteous cries as if she were near by, notwithstanding the increasing fury of the storm. With flying feet he followed the sound, and soon came upon the terrified maiden attempting to ascend the mountain so that she might escape at any risk from the valley's awful gloom.

Huldbrand met her affectionately, and however strong was her determination to adhere to her resolution, she felt only too keenly the joy of being rescued by her beloved Huldbrand from these dreadful solitudes and being so cordially urged to return with him to the cheerful life at the castle. She yielded almost without a protest, but was so exhausted that the knight was glad when they had reached his horse, which he quickly unfastened, intending to place the fair wanderer upon him and lead her carefully through the dangerous shades.

But Kuhleborn's appearance had made the beast almost frantic. Even the knight himself would have found it difficult to mount the plunging steed, while to lift Bertalda to his back was an impossibility. They resolved, therefore, to proceed on foot, Huldbrand pulling his horse along by the bridle with one arm and supporting the exhausted damsel with the other. Bertalda summoned all her strength, that she might escape as quickly as possible from this terrible valley. But fatigue weighed heavily upon her, and she shook in every limb, partly from the recollection of what she had suffered at Kuhleborn's hands, and partly from terror at the fury of the tempest and peals of thunder in the mountain forests. At length she slipped from her guide's protecting arm and sank upon the mossy ground, saying, "Go, noble lord, and leave me. Here will I expiate my sinful folly, for I must perish soon of terror and fatigue."

"Never will I forsake you, sweetest friend!" cried the knight, vainly striving to control his frantic steed, which now began to rear and plunge more wildly than ever. He endeavored to keep him far enough away from the recumbent maiden that she might not be still more agitated by fear of his trampling hoofs; but no sooner had he succeeded in withdrawing a short distance than she began in the most piteous manner to beseech him to return, thinking she was to be abandoned in this cruel wilderness. He was uncertain what to do, and would gladly have turned his horse loose in the darkness had he not feared that in this restricted space he might gallop over the spot where Bertalda lay.

While thus perplexed, he was delighted to hear a wagon slowly descending the rocky road behind him. He called for help, and a man's voice answered, urging him to be patient and promising aid. Soon after two white horses appeared through the bushes; their driver wore a white smock-frock, and a large white linen cloth covered the load they were drawing. At a loud shout from their master the obedient horses stopped, and the man came up to help Huldbrand subdue his terrified charger.

"I know what ails the beast," he said. "When I first travelled through here, my horses behaved no better. It is because there is a malicious water-sprite living hard by who delights in teasing tricks like this. But I have learned a charm, and if you will let me whisper it in your horse's ear he will stand as quietly as mine yonder, in a moment."

"Try your charm, by all means, only do it quickly," cried the impatient knight. Whereupon the wagoner drew the unruly steed's head down toward him and whispered a few words in his ear. The animal calmed down at once and stood perfectly quiet, an occasional snort and his heaving sides being the only traces of his former fury.

Huldbrand had no time to inquire how this had been accomplished. He hastily arranged with the stranger to convey Bertalda to the castle of Ringstettin in his wagon, which he declared was loaded with soft bales of cotton, while the knight himself was to follow on horseback. But the animal seemed too exhausted to bear his master's weight; so the driver urged Huldbrand to get into the cart with Bertalda and fasten his horse behind. "The road is down hill," he said, "and it will be easy for my horses."

The knight took his advice and climbed into the wagon beside Bertalda. His steed followed patiently, while the driver walked beside them.

In the stillness of night, though mutterings of the departing storm were still audible about them, and in the comforting sense of safety, the two young people fell into familiar conversation. He reproached her gently for her hasty flight, and she excused herself humbly, her love for him shining forth through all she spoke, like a lamp guiding a lover through the darkness to where his beloved waits. The knight felt this, and replied to her meaning rather than to her words.

Suddenly the driver shouted in stentorian tones: "Ho, there, my steeds! Up with your feet! Steady now, and remember what you are!"

Huldbrand leaned over the side of the wagon and observed that the horses were wading, or almost swimming rather, in the midst of a rushing river. The wheels were whirling and roaring like those of a mill, while the driver had mounted his vehicle and was overlooking the rising flood.

"What sort of a road is this?" cried the knight. "It will take us into the middle of the stream!

"Nay, sir," replied the wagoner, "it is just the contrary. The stream is in the middle of the road. Look around and see how everything is flooded!" In truth the whole valley seemed to be heaving and tossing in newly risen waves, which continued to increase rapidly.

"It is Kuhleborn, the evil water-sprite, who is trying to drown us!" cried the knight. "Have you no charm against him, good friend?

"I have one, truly," replied the man, "but neither can nor will make use of it till you know who I am."

"This is no time for riddles," shouted Huldbrand; "the flood is rising every instant. What do I care to know who you may be?"

"Nevertheless, you should care," retorted the driver, "for I myself am Kuhleborn!" And there with he leered hideously at them into the wagon—which was no longer a wagon, nor were the horses. All seemed to melt away into foaming waves, while the driver himself reared aloft into the shape of a huge billow, bearing the struggling horse down beneath the flood. Towering above the head of the unhappy lovers, he was about to swallow the] up, when suddenly Undine's sweet voice was hear above the tumult, and the moon just then breaking through the clouds revealed her standing on the heights above.

She called to Kuhleborn in a threatening tone and the mountainous wave subsided with a low murmur; the waters flowed quietly away in the moon light, as Undine like a white dove flew to them from her height. Taking Bertalda and Huldbrand by the hand, she led them to a soft grassy spot of the hillside, where she restored their courage and revived their exhausted strength with choice refreshments. After this she assisted Bertalda on to her own white palfrey, and thus all finally regained the castle of Ringstettin in safety.