Of That Which Befell the Knight in the Wood
N OW this is what Huldbrand told of the things that had befallen him. "Eight days agone," saith he, "I rode into the imperial city which is on the other side of the forest. And it chanced that, hard on my arrival, there was a splendid tournament and running at the ring, and certès, I spared neither horse nor lance. Once, as I stood still at the lists, resting after the toil that I loved, and was handing my helmet back to my squire, lo, I espied a very beautiful woman standing, richly dight, in one of the spectators' galleries.
"I asked those about me and learnt that the name of the lady was Bertalda, and that she was the foster-daughter of a mighty duke in the land. Now her eyes rested on me, as mine on her; and as is the wont of young knights, forasmuch as I had already ridden bravely, I bore myself for the rest of the encounter with yet higher courage. That evening I was Bertalda's partner in the dance, and so I remained all the days of the festival."
Hereupon a sharp pain in his left hand, which was
hanging down, stayed Huldbrand in his discourse, and he
looked down to see what might be the cause. Undine had
bitten hard his finger, and seemed marvelously gloomy
and distempered. Of a sudden, however, she looked up
into his eyes with gentle, sorrowful face, and
whispered very softly,
"Now, this Bertalda was a wayward and a haughty damsel. She pleased me not so much the second day as the first, and the third day still less. Nathless, I busied myself about her, for that she seemed to hold me in higher favour than other knights; and thus it befell that once in sport I besought her for one of her gloves. 'Sir Knight,' quoth she, 'I will give it to thee when, all by thyself, thou hast searched the ill-omened forest through and through, and canst bring me tidings of its marvels.' I recked little of her glove; but the word of a knight once given cannot be withdrawn, and a man of honour needs no second prompting to a deed of valour."
"Methought she loved you," saith Undine.
"Ay, so it seemed," returned Huldbrand.
"Why, then," laughed the maiden, "right foolish must she be to drive from her the man she loved—and, moreover, into a wood of evil fame! The forest and its mysteries might have waited long enough for me!"
Huldbrand smiled fondly at Undine.
"Yester morning," quoth he, "I set off on my enterprise. The morning was fair, and the red tints of sunrise caught the tree-stems and lay along the green turf. The leaves were whispering merrily together, and in my heart I could have laughed at the silly folk who were frightened at so beautiful a place. 'Full soon shall I have passed and repassed the wood,' said I to myself with confident gaiety, and ere I had had time to bethink myself of the matter I was deeply plunged into the thick glades, and could see no more the plain that lay behind me. Thereupon it came to my mind for the first time that I might easily lose my way in the forest, and that perchance this was the only peril the traveller had to face. So I paused awhile and looked round at the position of the sun, which meanwhile had risen higher in the heavens. As I looked I saw something black in the branches of a high oak. 'A bear, maybe,' I thought, and I felt for my sword. But it spoke with a human voice, all harsh and ugly, and called to me from above: 'Sir Malapert,' it cried, 'an I fail to nibble away the branches up here, what shall we have to roast you with at midnight?' And so saying it grinned and made the branches shake and rustle in such sort that my horse, grown wild with terror, galloped me away before I had time to see what kind of devil's beast it might be."
"Thou must not give him a name," said the fisherman, and he crossed himself. His wife did the like with never a word.
But Undine looked at the knight with sparkling eyes. "The best of the story is," quoth she, "that they have not roasted him! Go on, fair sir!"
So the knight went on with his tale.
"So wild was my horse that it went hard with me to stay him from charging the stems and branches of trees. He was dripping with sweat, and yet he would not suffer himself to be held in. At length he galloped straight towards a precipice. Whereupon it appeared to me as though a tall white man threw himself across the path. The horse, trembling with fear, stopped, and I regained my hold on him. Then for the first time did I become aware that what saved me was no man, but a brook, bright as silver, rushing down from a hill by my side, and crossing and stemming my horse's path."
"Thanks, dear Brook," cried Undine, clapping her hands. But the old man shook his head and bent him thoughtfully over the ground.
Huldbrand continueth his tale. "Scarce," quoth he, "had I settled myself in the saddle and taken a firm grip on the reins, when, lo, a marvellous little man, very small and hideous beyond measure, stood at my side. Tawny brown was his skin, and his nose almost as big as his whole body, while, grinning like a clown and stretching wide his huge mouth, he kept bowing and scraping over and over again. Since this fool's play pleased me but ill, I gave him brief good-day, and turned about my horse which still quivered with fear. Methought I would find some other adventure or else I would bestir myself homeward, for, during my wild gallop, the sun had already passed the meridian. Whereupon, quick as lightning, the little fellow whipped round and again stood before my horse. 'Make room there,' I cried angrily, 'the animal is fiery and may easily overrun thee.' 'Oh, ay,' snarled the imp, grinning yet more hideously, 'give me first some drink-money, for it was I who stopped your horse; without my aid both thou and he would now be lying in the stony ravine, Ugh!' 'Make no more faces,' quoth I; 'take your gold, albeit that thou liest, for see, it was the good brook that saved me and not thou, thou wretched wight!' And therewith I dropped a piece of gold into the quaint cap which he held before me in his begging. And I made as though I would ride on. But he shrieked aloud, and swifter than can be imagined he was once more at my side. I urged my horse to a gallop; the imp ran too, and strange enough were the contortions he made with his body, half laughable and half horrible, the while he held up the gold piece, crying at each leap of his, 'False gold! false coin! false coin! false gold!'
And these words he uttered in such sort, with so hollow a sound from out his breast, that one might well conceive that after each shriek he would fall dead to the ground.
"Moreover his hideous red tongue lolled out of his mouth. And for my part, I stopped in doubt and said, 'What meaneth this screaming? Take another gold piece or yet another; but quit my side.' Once more he began his strange mockery of courtesy and snarled: 'Not gold, not gold, young sir,' quoth he, 'enough and to spare of that trash have I myself, as forthwith I will show you.' Thereupon of a sudden it appeared to me as if the solid ground were as transparent as green glass, and the smooth earth were a round ball, wherein a multitude of goblins made sport with silver and gold. Heads up and heads down they rolled hither and thither, pelting one another in jest with the precious ore and blowing gold dust in perverse sport into one another's eyes. My horrible comrade stood partly on the ground and partly within it; at times he bade the others reach him up handfuls of gold: then with harsh laugh, having shown them to me, he would fling them down clattering into the bottomless abyss. Thereupon he minded to show the piece of gold I had given him to the goblins below, and they laughed themselves half dead over it and hissed out at me. At length they all pointed their stained fingers at me, and more and more wildly, more and more densely, and more and more madly, the whole swarm came clambering up to me.
A terror seized me as erst it had seized my horse; clapping the spurs into him I galloped, for the second time, I know not how far into the forest.
"But when at last I stayed my wild course the coolness of evening was around me. A white footpath—so it appeared to me—gleamed through the branches of the trees, and that methought must needs lead to the city. Full eager was I to work my way thither: but lo, a face, white, indistinct, with features constantly changing, was ever peering at me between the leaves. Try as I might to avoid it, it accompanied me wherever I turned. And being wroth thereat, I drave my horse against it, when the phantom gushed forth volumes of water upon us and forced us, willy-nilly, to retreat. So that at the last, perpetually diverting us step by step from the path, it left the way open only in one direction: and so long as we obeyed its guidance, though it kept close behind, it did us no harm.
"From time to time I eyed it and meseemed that the white face that had besprinkled us with foam belonged to a body equally white and of gigantic stature. Full oft I fancied that it was but a moving stream: but never did I gain any certainty on this matter. Horse and knight both wearied out, we yielded to the influence of the white man, who kept nodding his head as though he would say 'Quite right, quite right!' And so at the last we came out here to the end of the forest, where I saw grass and lake and your little hut, and the white man vanished."
"Because thou cannot go," returned Undine; "essay the task, an thou wilt: cross that swollen stream with boat or horse or thine own legs, according to thy fancy. Nay but do not try, for sure would be thy fate: thou wouldest be crushed by the stones and tree-trunks swirling down its course like lightning. And as for the lake, full well I know it; Father dare not adventure himself far enough out with his boat."
Thereat Huldbrand arose with a smile that he might see whether Undine were right. The old man bore him company: and the maiden danced merrily along by their side. And in sooth Undine was right, and the knight found that he must needs abide on the tongue of land that was now an island, until such time as the flood might subside.
As the three made their way back to the cottage, the knight bent his head to whisper in the maiden's ear: "How is it," quoth he, "my pretty Undine, art angry that I stay?"
"Ah," saith she petulantly, "let me be. Had I not bitten thy hand, who knoweth how much more of Bertalda might not have appeared in the story?"