Undine - George Upton




The Way Undine Came to the Fisherman

Huldbrand and the fisherman sprang from their seats and tried to stop the wrathful maiden, but before they could get to the door she had already vanished in the darkness, and not even a sound of her footsteps could be heard to tell them which way she had gone. The knight looked inquiringly at his host. It almost seemed to him that the fair apparition which had disappeared so quickly again in the dark must have been only another of those strange phantoms which had befooled him in the forest. But the old man only muttered to himself:

"It is not the first time she has played this trick on us. Now we have an anxious, sleepless night before us, for who knows what may happen to her all alone out there before morning?"

"For Heaven's sake, good father, let us follow her, then," cried Huldbrand anxiously.

"It would be of no use," replied the fisherman; "it would be a sin to let you go alone into the darkness and solitude of the forest in pursuit of that foolish child, and my old legs could never overtake the witch even if we knew whither she has fled."

"The least we can do is to call to her and beg her to return," said Huldbrand; and he began to shout at the top of his voice: "Undine! oh, Undine! Come back to us! come back!"

The old man gloomily shook his head, saying that it was of little use and that the knight did not know how wilful the child could be; yet he could not refrain from calling into the darkness himself now and then: "Ah! dear Undine, come back! Come back to us just this once, I implore you!"

It was as the fisherman had said; nothing was to be seen or heard of the runaway, and as he would not permit Huldbrand to go in search of her, they were forced at last to return to the hut together. The hearth fire was nearly out, and the old woman, who was by no means so anxious as her husband over Undine's flight, had gone to bed, but the fisherman laid some dry sticks on the embers, and by the light of the kindling flame found a jug of wine which he placed on the table between himself and his guest.

"You too are anxious about that foolish child, Sir Knight," he said; "so it will be better to spend a part of the night talking and drinking than to toss about restlessly trying in vain to sleep, will it not?"

Huldbrand was satisfied; so the fisherman gave him the old woman's seat of honor, and they sat together over their wine, gossiping like two old cronies. Indeed, as often as they heard the slightest sound outside the window, sometimes even when there was no sound at all, one or the other would look out and say, "She is coming." Then they would listen for a few moments and, as nothing happened, would continue their talk with a sigh and a shake of the head. As they could hardly talk or think of anything but Undine, the fisherman offered to relate the story of her first arrival at the cottage; and as the knight was anxious to hear it, he thus began:

"It is now some fifteen years since I went one day with my fish through that forest to the city, leaving my wife at home as usual. There was good reason for it at that time, for the Lord had given us, old as we then were, a babe of wondrous beauty. It was a girl, and we often talked of seeking a new home, so that we might give our precious treasure a good education and provide for her future. We poor folk cannot always have things as we choose, as you know, Sir Knight. We must do what we can. I was turning these things over in my mind as I went along. This little home was very dear to me, and the noise and bustle of the town made me shudder when I thought I must take up my abode there or in some other place even worse. But I have never murmured at the will of God; on the contrary, I was secretly grateful to Him for His latest gift. I cannot say that I ever met with any mischance in my journeys through the forest, or saw anything unusual. The Lord was ever by my side in its mysterious shades."

He uncovered his head and sat for a time absorbed in pious thoughts; then, replacing his cap, he continued: "On this side of the wood, as I was returning,—on this side, alas!— sorrowful news met me. My wife came toward me dressed in deep mourning, her eyes streaming like two rivulets.

"'For God's sake, where is our child?' I groaned, 'tell me—tell me quickly!'

"'With Him on whom thou callest, dear husband,' she answered; and we returned together, weeping, to the cottage. I looked about for the little body, and then heard for the first time what had happened. My wife had been sitting at the water's edge playing with the child, when suddenly it leaned over as if it saw something beautiful, wondrously beautiful, in the water. My wife saw it smiling, the sweet angel! Then it made a sudden spring out of her arms, down into the smooth waters. With all my searching I never, could find a trace of the tiny body.

"That evening we were sitting together in our cottage; we had no wish to speak, even had our tears permitted it, but were gazing silently into the fire, when something rattled at the door. It flew open, and a lovely little maid, some three or four years of age and richly dressed, stood smiling at us on the threshold. We were stricken dumb with amazement, and hardly knew at first whether it was really a human child or only a delusion. Then I saw that water was dripping from her golden hair and beautiful garments, and realized that the little maiden must have been in the water and must be in need of help.

"'Wife,' said I, "there was no one to save our precious babe for us; let us do for another what would have made us so happy had it been done for us.'

"We took the child in, gave her a warm drink, undressed her, and put her to bed; and all the while she smiled at us out of her great blue eyes, but never spoke a word. The next morning it was plainly to be seen that she had suffered no harm, and I asked her who her parents were and where she had come from; but she could only tell a strange, incoherent story. Her home must have been far from here, for in all these fifteen years I have been able to discover nothing of her origin, though she chatters now and then of such marvellous things one might suppose she had come down from the moon. She talks of golden castles with crystal roofs, and other strange things. The only thing she has told us clearly is, that she was sailing on the lake with her mother, fell from the boat into the water, and knew nothing more till she found herself lying comfortably under the trees upon our shore.

"We now had a new source of care and perplexity. To keep the foundling and bring her up in place of our poor drowned darling was easily decided upon; but who could tell whether she had been baptized or no? She herself was unable to answer the question. That she was a creature made to praise and glorify God, she did know; indeed, she told us often, and declared herself willing to submit to anything that might please or serve Him.

My wife and I reasoned thus: If she has never been baptized, it should be done without delay; if she has, then it is better to have too much of a good thing than too little. We therefore tried to think of a good name for the child, for as yet we knew not what to call her. Dorothea seemed fitting to us, for I had once heard it meant the gift of God; and she had indeed been sent by the Lord to comfort us in our sorrow. But she would not listen to that, declaring she had been named Undine by her parents, and Undine she would remain. That seemed to me a heathenish name, as it was not in the calendars. At last I took counsel of a priest in the town. He also objected to it, and at my urgent request came with me through the haunted forest to baptize her. As the little maid stood up before us in her gay clothes, she looked so charming that the priest's heart went out to her, and with her artful flatteries and coaxings he quite forgot all his objections to the name of Undine. She was so christened, therefore, and behaved all through the ceremony with a gentleness and propriety most unusual in so wild and wayward a creature. For what my wife said was quite true,—we have had much to put up with from her. If I were to tell you—"

The knight here interrupted the old man, and called his attention to the noise of rushing waters, which he had heard before during the progress of the tale, and which now seemed dashing past the windows with increasing fury. Both sprang to the door. By the light of the moon, which now had risen, they saw that the brook which flowed out from the forest had broken wildly over its banks and was carrying along rocks and branches in its headlong course. As if awakened by the noise, a storm suddenly burst from the lowering clouds that chased each other swiftly across the moon; the lake groaned beneath the furious buffeting of the wind, and the trees creaked and bent dizzily over the rushing flood.

Undine! For Heaven's sake, where are you, Undine!" cried the two men, now quite beside themselves with anxiety; but no answer came. Forgetting everything else, they dashed out of the hut and ran off in different directions, calling and searching frantically for the lost one.