The Day after the Wedding
T HE bright morning light awoke the pair: Undine hid her face beneath the bed-coverings, while Huldbrand lay for a moment in silent thought. So oft as he had slept during the night, strange and marvellous visions had disturbed his rest: spectres, grinning mysteriously, had striven to disguise themselves as beautiful women; beautiful women had taken upon themselves the form of dragons: and when he started up from these hideous dreams, the moon shone pale and cold into the room, and in terror he looked at Undine in whose arms he had fallen to sleep. But lo, there she lay at his side, unchanged in loveliness and grace. Whereupon he would press a light kiss on her rosy lips and would fall again to sleep, only to be awakened by new terrors. Now that he was fully awake, he bethought himself of all this and blamed himself full sore for every doubt that had turned him against his sweet wife. He begged her to pardon his unjust suspicions; but for her part she only held out to him her hand and, sighing deeply, said not a word. Nathless she looked at him with a tender yearning such as he had never seen before, so that he might be certain that she bore him no manner of ill-will. With a lighter heart he rose from bed and left her to join the rest of the household in the common room.
Now the three were sitting round the hearth, with a cloud on their faces, none daring to express their fear in words. It seemed that the priest was praying in his inmost spirit that all evil might be turned aside. But as soon as they beheld the young husband come into the room with such good cheer, they put aside their trouble and anxiety; and the fisherman bethought himself to make merry jests with the knight, and so pleasantly withal that the old dame smiled, well pleased to hear them. Thereupon Undine entered the room. Now all rose to give her greeting and yet stood still a space, marvelling greatly because the young wife seemed so strange to them and yet the same. The priest first, with fatherly love in his eyes, went up to her, and as he raised his hand to bless her, she sank on her knees before him and did him reverence. With gentle and lowly words she begged him to forgive her for all that was foolish and petulant in her speech of yestereven, and implored him with no little emotion to pray for the welfare of her soul. Then, rising from her knees, she kissed her foster-parents and gave them thanks for the goodness they had shown her.
"Ah!" quoth she, "it moveth me to my inmost soul to bethink me how great, how immeasurably great, have been your kindnesses to me, my dear, dear parents!" Nor could she at the first leave off her caresses; but when she saw the old dame bestirring herself about breakfast, she went forthwith to the hearth, cooked and prepared the meal, and would not suffer the good mother to concern herself with aught.
So she remained during the day—silent, affectionate, attentive—at once a matron, and a tender, bashful girl. The three who had known her longest, thought at every moment to see some whimsical and petulant outbreak of her old wild mood. But they looked for it in vain. Undine was as mild and gentle as an angel. The priest could not take his eyes off her, and turned ofttimes to the bridegroom.
"Sir Knight," quoth he, "the goodness of God hath through me, His unworthy servant, entrusted thee with a treasure; cherish it therefore, as is thy bounden duty, so will it be for thy welfare, both in time and in eternity."
Now, as evening fell, Undine, hanging on the knight's arm with humble tenderness, drew him gently forth from the door. Full pleasant to behold was the gleam of the setting sun on the fresh grass and the slender stems of the trees. The young wife's eyes were dewy with sadness and love, while her lips seemed to quiver with some secret mystery, at once sweet and bodeful, which might only be revealed by scarcely audible sighs. Onward and onward she led her husband and spake never a word. Indeed, when he said something, she answered not at all, but turned upon him a look in which lay a whole heaven of love and timid devotion. Thus they reached the edge of the forest stream and the knight marvelled much to see it rippling along in gentle waves, without a trace of its former wild overflow. And Undine began to speak with regret in her voice.
"By to-morrow," saith she, "it will be quite dry, and then thou mayest travel whithersoever thou wilt, without let or hindrance."
But the knight answered laughingly. "Not without thee, my little Undine," quoth he, "for bethink thee that an I wished to desert thee, church and priests, empire and emperor, would interpose and bring thee back again thy fugitive."
"Nay, but all hangs on thee," whispered she, half weeping and half smiling, "all hangs on thee! Nathless, I think that thou wilt hold by me, for that I love thee so dearly. Only carry me over to that little island before us; the matter shall be decided there. Easily enough could I glide through the ripples; but it is so sweet to rest in thine arms, and if thou castest me off, at the least I shall have rested in them once more for the last time."
Now, Huldbrand, full as he was of wonder and fear at her words, knew not in what sort to make reply. But he took her in his arms, carrying her across, and thereupon bethought him that this was the same little island whence he had borne her back to the fisherman on the first night of his arrival. On the further side, he put her down on the soft grass, and was minded to throw himself fondly at her side. But she stayed him with a word. "Nay," quoth she, "sit there, opposite to me, I will read my sentence in thine eyes before thy lips speak. Now listen attentively, I pray thee, to what I shall say."
And she spake as followeth:
"Thou must know, my beloved, that there exist in the elements beings not unlike mortal men, which yet rarely let themselves be seen of men. Wonderful salamanders glisten and sport in the flames of fire; gnomes, lean and spiteful, dwell deep within the earth; spirits, which are of the air, wander through the forests; and a vast family of water-spirits live in the lakes and streams and brooks. In domes of crystal, echoing with many sounds, through which heaven looks in with its sun and its stars, the water-spirits find their beautiful home; lofty trees of coral with blue and crimson fruits shine in their gardens; they wander over the pure sand of the sea, and among lovely variegated shells and amid all the exquisite treasure of the old world, which the present world is no longer worthy to enjoy. All these the floods have covered with their mysterious veil of silver; below sparkle, stately and solemn, many noble ruins, washed by the loving waters which win from them delicate moss-flowers and entwining clusters of sea-grass. Those who dwell there are very fair and lovely to behold—more beautiful, I ween, than human beings. Here and there a fisherman has been lucky enough to espy some mermaid as she rose from the waters and sang; thereupon he would tell, near and far, of her beauty, and such wondrous beings have been called Undines. Thou, dear one, art actually seeing an Undine."
Now the knight tried hard to persuade himself that the spell of one of her strange humours was upon his wife, and that it pleased her to tease him with some extravagant fancy of her own. But albeit that he said this to himself over and over again, he persuaded himself none the better; he shook with a strange unnatural shudder, and having no power to utter a word, stared at his companion with unmoving eyes. For her part, Undine moved her head to and fro sadly, and with a deep sigh went on as followeth:
"We should live far more happily than other human beings—for human beings we call ourselves, being similar in face and stature—were it not for one evil that is peculiar to us. We, and our like in the other elements, vanish into dust and pass away, body and spirit, so that not a vestige of us remains behind; and when ye human beings awake hereafter to a purer life, we abide with the sand and the sparks of fire, the wind and the waves. For we have no souls. The element in which we live animates us; it even obeys us while we live; but it scatters us to dust when we die. And we are merry, having naught to grieve us—merry as are the nightingales and little gold-fishes, and other pretty children of nature. Nathless, all beings aspire to be higher than they are; and so my Father, who is a mighty water-prince in the Mediterranean Sea, was fain that his only daughter should become possessed of a soul, even though she must needs in that case endure the sufferings of those similarly endowed. Beings such as we can only gain a soul by an union of deepest love with one of thy race. A soul I now possess; and my soul thanks thee, oh my beloved, and will ever thank thee, if thou on thy part makest not my whole life wretched. For what, thinkest thou, will become of me if thou avoidest me and drivest me from thee? Still, Heaven forbid that I should hold thee to me by deceit. And if thou wilt reject me, do it forthwith and go back to the shore alone. I will plunge into this brook, which is my uncle, for here in the forest, alienated from other friends, he leads his strange and solitary life. Powerful, indeed, he is, and receiveth tribute from many great streams; and, as he bore me to the fisherman a light-hearted and laughing child, so will he take me back again to my parents, a loving, suffering woman, gifted with a soul."
Now she was minded to say more, but Huldbrand, taking her into his arms with the tenderest love, bore her back again to the shore. Not till he had gained it, did he swear, with full many tears and kisses, never to forsake his sweet wife, and he deemed himself happier far than the heathen sculptor, Pygmalion, whose beautiful statue Venus endowed with life, so that it became his love. And Undine, clinging to his arm with sweet trustfulness, walked to the cottage, feeling now for the first time with all her heart how little need there was for her to regret the forsaken crystal palaces of her mysterious father.