Undine - George Upton




The Day after the Wedding

Huldbrand was awakened by the bright morning sunshine and lay quiet 1 for a time, busy with his thoughts. 1 Whenever he had fallen asleep in the night he had been haunted by horrible dreams of grinning spectres that suddenly changed into beautiful women, or of beautiful women who were suddenly transformed into dragons; and starting up in terror from these hateful visions he would find only the moonlight lying cold and white without the window. Then he would look anxiously at Undine slumbering peacefully beside him in all her wonted sweetness and beauty, and pressing a kiss upon her rosy lips, compose himself to sleep again, only to be roused by fresh horrors.

Looking back on all this in broad daylight, he blamed himself for ever having permitted himself a doubt of his beautiful wife, and frankly acknowledged his weakness to her. She answered him by only taking his hand and sighing deeply, though a glance more tender and confiding than he had ever before seen in her eyes assured him that she was not angry. He arose cheerfully, therefore, and went to join the others, whom he found sitting about the fire with anxious faces, no one daring to speak his thoughts, while the priest seemed secretly praying to avert some evil. As the young husband appeared, however, beaming with happiness, their faces brightened, and the fisherman began to jest with him in a quiet way that caused even his wife to smile indulgently.

Meanwhile Undine had dressed herself, and now appeared in the doorway. All rose to greet her, and stood transfixed with surprise, for she looked the same yet seemed a different being. The priest was the first to address her with a look of fatherly kindness on his face, and as he raised his hands in benediction she sank devoutly on her knees before him, begging his forgiveness for all her folly of the day before and beseeching him in the most touching tone to pray for the salvation of her soul. Then she arose and kissed her foster-parents, thanking them for all their kindness to her. "Dear people," she said, "now I feel from the bottom of my heart how much you have always done for me!"

Hulbrand and Undine

THE DAY AFTER THE WEDDING.


In the midst of her caresses, seeing that the housewife was concerned about the breakfast, she went directly over to the hearth, cooked and laid out the meal, and would not allow her good old foster-mother to be troubled over it. All through the day she was quiet, gentle, and thoughtful—at once the busy housewife and the shy, tender, loving bride. Those who had known her so long expected every moment to see a sudden transformation into one of her elfish moods, but they looked in vain; her angelic sweetness and humility continued unbroken. The priest could scarcely take his eyes from her, and said many times to Huldbrand, "Sir, it was a treasure that Heaven bestowed upon you yesterday by my unworthy aid; cherish her as she deserves, and she will prove a blessing to you for time and all eternity."

As the shades of evening began to fall, Undine took the knight's arm tenderly and drew him out of doors, where the fresh green grass and slender tree-trunks were lighted up by the rays of the setting sun. A look of tender sadness shone in the young wife's eyes, and on her lips there seemed to tremble some secret which as yet found vent only in gentle sighs. She led her lover on in silence, answering him only with glances full of love and shy submission, till they came to the banks of the overflowing stream, which, much to the knight's amazement, they found rippling along in gentle wavelets, without a trace of its recent fury.

"By to-morrow it will be completely dry," said Undine, tearfully, "and then you will be free to go wherever you choose."

"Not without you, little Undine," replied the knight, smiling at her; "even had I the wish to forsake you, the Church, the priesthood, the Emperor, and the whole empire could interpose and bring your truant back again."

"That shall be as you will," murmured Undine, half laughing, half weeping, "but I do not think you will desert me; I love you far too well for that. Carry me over to that little island yonder,—there we will part if it must be. I could easily wade across the streamlet by myself, but it is sweet to feel your arms around me, and I shall have rested happily in them once more at least."

Huldbrand, filled with strange and anxious emotion, could not answer. He took her in his arms and carried her over, remembering as he did so that it was from this very island he had taken her back to the fisherman on that first night. On the other side of the brook he laid his fair burden down on the soft turf and was about to seat himself beside her; but she cried: "Nay, nay, not here; sit opposite to me, so that I may read my fate in your eyes before your lips have spoken. Listen well, now, and I will tell you all." And she began as follows:

"You must know, my sweet darling, that in the elements there are creatures almost like yourself in form, but who are rarely visible to mortal sight. In fire the strange salamanders glitter and play; deep within the earth dwells the tricky race of gnomes; the woods are inhabited by nymphs, who are spirits of the air also; while the seas, rivers, and brooks contain the countless tribes of water-sprites. Their halls of crystal through which gleams the light of sun and stars are wondrous fair to see; tall shrubs of coral, laden with red and purple fruit, grow in the gardens; the white sea-sands are strewn with varicolored shells and treasures of olden days, too precious for the present to enjoy and long since hidden by the mysterious silver veil of the deep; many a noble monument still gleams below there bedewed by the loving waves and adorned with flowery mosses and wreaths of seaweed. Those who dwell there are far more fair to look upon than mortals. Many a fisherman who has had the good fortune to surprise some beauteous naiad rising from the water as she sang would spread the report of the wonderful apparition; and these beings came to be called Undines by men. You see before you an Undine, dear friend."

The knight tried to convince himself that his beautiful wife was only in one of her peculiar moods and teasing him with some fanciful tale; but try as he would he could not believe this for a moment. A strange thrill shot through him, and he stared in silence at the fair speaker, who sighed deeply and continued:

"We should be far better off than you the other human people (for so we call those whose forms resemble our own) but for one thing. We and the other children of the elements vanish into dust, body and spirit, leaving no trace behind; and although the time comes for you mortals to awake again to a higher life, we must remain forever commingled with our native sand and fire, wind and wave, for we have no souls. The elements sway us, obey us often as long as we live, and absorb us when we die; and we are happy, with nothing to grieve us, as the nightingale, the goldfish, and all nature's bright children are. But no one is contented with his lot. My father, who is a mighty prince in the Mediterranean Sea, desired his only daughter to possess a soul, even at the cost of the sorrows that might thereby fall to her lot. But a soul cannot be gained by those of our kind except by being united to a mortal in the closest bonds of love. I now have one, and I owe it to you, unspeakably beloved one, nor will I ever cease to bless you for it, even should it bring me life-long misery. For what would become of me were you to leave me? Yet I would not hold you by deceit. If it is your wish to leave me, do it now and go back to the land alone. I will plunge into this brook; it is my uncle, who leads a hermit life here in the forest, far from all his friends. But he is very powerful and rules over many great rivers; and as he brought me here to the fisherman, a laughing child, so will he take me back to my parents a loving, suffering woman with a human soul."

She would have said more; but Huldbrand, full of the deepest love and compassion, caught her in his arms and carried her back to the mainland. There with tears and kisses he vowed never to forsake his beloved wife; calling himself even more blessed than the Greek sculptor Pygmalion, whose beautiful statue of his love was brought to life by Venus. Undine, clinging to his arm in fondest trust as they walked back to the cottage, felt how little she had cause to regret her father's wonderful crystal palaces.