The Black Valley
N OW the Black Valley lieth deep within the mountains. What name it may bear now I know not; at that time the country people gave it this title because of the deep gloom that the tall trees, chiefly fir-trees, threw over the ravine. Even the brook bubbling between the rocks had a black look, and was far less joyous in its flow than streams that have the blue sky over them. And now, in the darkening twilight, it ran yet more wild and gloomy beneath the hills.
With no little anxious care the knight rode along the edge of the brook; at one moment he feared that by delay he might allow the fugitive to get too far in advance, and at the next, that in his overhaste he might pass her by in some hiding-place. He had meanwhile penetrated far into the valley and hoped soon to win his quest, if so be that he were on the right track. The fear, indeed, that this might not be the case, made his heart beat fast with dread. How, he asked himself, might Bertalda fare, should he fail to find her, throughout the stormy night which lowered so threateningly over the valley?
At length something white gleaming through the branches on the slope of the mountain caught his eye, and he thought he recognised Bertalda's dress. But when he turned in that direction his horse refused to advance and reared furiously; and the knight, because he was unwilling to lose a moment, and also because he saw that the brushwood opened no passage for him on horseback, dismounted. Fastening his snorting and terrified horse to an elm-tree, he worked his way cautiously through the bushes. On his forehead and cheeks the branches shed the cold drops of evening dew; distant thunder growled beyond the mountains; and all looked so wild that he began to feel a dread of the white figure, now lying only a short distance from him on the ground. Still right plainly he could see that it was a woman, either asleep or in a swoon, and that she wore long white robes such as Bertalda had worn that day. Close to her he stepped, rustled the branches, and let his sword fall with a clatter. She did not move.
"Bertalda!" he cried, first softly, then louder and louder. She did not hear. At last, in answer to a yet louder appeal to her name, a hollow echo from the mountain caverns repeated "Bertalda!" But the sleeper awoke not. He bent over her, but the gloom of the ravine and the darkness of coming night did not allow him to recognise her features.
And now a strange thing chanced. As with sickening dread he stooped still closer over her, a flash of lightning shot across the valley, and he saw before him a face distorted and hideous, while a hollow voice exclaimed, "Kiss me, thou love-sick fool!"
Huldbrand sprang up with a cry, and the hideous figure rose with him.
"Go home," it muttered, "unholy spirits are abroad. Go home, or I shall claim thee!" and it caught at him with its long white arms. Thereupon the knight recovered himself.
"Malicious Kühleborn," he cried, "thy tricks are vain, I know thy goblin arts. There, take thy kiss!" And he struck his sword madly against the figure. But it vanished like vapour, and a drenching spray left the knight in no manner of doubt as to who his enemy might be.
"He would fain scare me away from Bertalda," he said aloud. "Doubtless he thinks to frighten me with his foolish pranks, and to force me to abandon the helpless girl to his vengeance. But that he shall not do. Poor, weak spirit as he is, he is powerless to understand what a strong man's heart can dare, when once he is firmly resolved in purpose." He felt the truth of his words and they brought him fresh courage. Fortune herself, too, or so it seemed, was on his side, for no sooner did he reach his tethered horse than he heard, distinctly enough, Bertalda's moaning voice at no great distance, and through the growing tumult of thunder and storm he could catch the sound of her sobs. Hurrying forthwith to the spot, he found her. She was trying to climb the side of the hill, so that she might at least escape the awful darkness of the valley. As he came with loving words towards her, all her pride and strength of resolve fainted and failed before the delight of seeing the friend, who was so dear to her, close at hand to rescue her from her terrible loneliness. "Once more," she thought, "the happy life of the castle holds out to me its arms. I can but yield." So she followed the knight unresisting, but so wearied was she that Huldbrand was right glad to have his horse to carry her. In all haste he untethered him in order to put the fugitive on his back, and thus, holding the reins with all care, he hoped to win his way through the uncertain shades of the valley.
Howbeit the wild apparition of Kühleborn had made the horse mad with terror. Scarce might the knight himself have mounted and ridden so ungovernable a beast; but to put the trembling Bertalda on him was wholly beyond his power. So they resolved, perforce, to go home on foot. Drawing the horse after him by the bridle, the knight supported Bertalda with his other hand, and she, on her part, made brave show to pass as quickly as might be through the ravine. But weariness weighed her down like lead, and her limbs trembled—partly because of the past terror she had undergone through Kühleborn's pursuit, and partly because of her continued alarm at the howling of the storm and the pealing of the thunder in the wooded mountains.
And, at the last, she could no more. She slid down from the knight's supporting arm and sank on the moss.
"Leave me here, my noble lord," cried she; "I must needs suffer the penalty of my folly and die here in weariness and fear."
"Nay, nay, sweet friend," quoth he, "say not so, for desert thee I will not." And so saying he endeavoured all the more to curb his furious horse, who, rearing and plunging worse than before, must now be kept at some distance from Bertalda lest he might increase her discomfiture. So the knight withdrew a few paces, but no sooner had he gone than she called after him in most piteous sort as though in truth he were going to leave her in this solitary wilderness. What course to take he knew not; he was utterly at a loss. Gladly enough would he have given the excited beast his liberty to gallop away into the night and so exhaust his terror. Yet he feared that in this narrow defile he might come thundering with his iron-shod hoofs over the very spot where Bertalda lay.
Now he was in this sore distress and perplexity, when he heard with unspeakable relief the sound of a waggon driven slowly down the stony road behind them. He called out for help; a man's voice answered, bidding him have patience but promising assistance; and soon after two grey horses appeared through the bushes, and beside them the driver in the white smock of a carter; next a great white tilt came into sight covering the goods that lay in the waggon. At a sign from their master the obedient horses halted, and the waggoner coming towards the knight helped him to soothe his frightened animal.
"Full well I see," quoth he, "what aileth the beast. When I first travelled this way it fared no better with my horses. An evil water-spirit in truth haunteth the place, and he taketh delight in mischief of this sort. But I have learned a spell: if thou wilt let me whisper it in thy horse's ear, he will forthwith stand as quiet as my greys yonder."
"Try thy spell and quickly!" cried the knight impatiently. Then the man drew down to him the head of the restive horse and whispered something in his ear. Straightway the animal stood still and subdued, and his heaving flanks bedewed with sweat alone bore witness to his former fury. Huldbrand had no time to inquire how all this had come about; he agreed with the carter that he should take Bertalda in his waggon—in which, so the man assured him, there were a quantity of soft cotton bales—and so bear her back to Castle Ringstetten. He himself was minded to follow on horseback, but the horse appeared too exhausted by his past fury to carry his master so far, and the waggoner persuaded him to take his place beside Bertalda. The horse could be fastened behind.
"We are going down hill," said the man, "and that will be easy work for my greys." Thereupon the knight agreed and entered the waggon with Bertalda; the horse followed patiently behind, and the waggoner steadily and watchfully walked by the side.
Amid the stillness of the night, now that the darkness had fallen and the subsiding storm seemed to grow more and more remote, Huldbrand and Bertalda, in the pleasant sense of renewed security and a right happy escape, began to converse in low and confidential tones. Caressingly he rallied her on her daring flight, and she excused herself full humbly; but from every word she said there shone as it were a light which revealed amidst the darkness and mystery that her love was truly his. The meaning of her words was felt rather than heard, and it was to the meaning only that the knight responded. Of a sudden the waggoner gave a shout: "Step high, my greys," cried he; "lift up your feet! Step together and bethink ye who ye are!" The knight looked forth from the waggon and saw how the horses were stepping into the midst of a foaming stream; already they were almost swimming, while the waggon wheels turned and flashed like the wheels of a mill, and the driver had got up in front to escape the swelling waters.
"Why, what sort of road is this?" cried Huldbrand, "it goeth into the very middle of the stream!"
"By no means," said their guide, with a laugh, "it is just the reverse; the stream goeth into the very middle of our road. Look round and see how overwhelming is the flood." And, indeed, the whole valley was filled with a rushing and heaving torrent of water, which was visibly swelling higher and higher.
"Ay, ay," returned he. "I know one well enough. But I may not and cannot use it until thou knowest who I am."
"Is this a time for riddles?" shouted Huldbrand. "The flood is rising higher and higher; and what mattereth it to me who thou art?"
"Nathless, it doth matter," quoth the waggoner, "for I am Kühleborn!" Thereupon he thrust a distorted face into the waggon with a grin. But, lo and behold, the waggon was a waggon no longer! The horses were no longer horses—all melted into foam and vanished in the seething waters. Even the waggoner himself towering over them as some gigantic billow, and dragging down the horse beneath the waves despite his struggles, rose and swelled higher and higher over the drowning pair of lovers, like a mighty column of water, threatening to bury them for ever.
And then, hark, 'twas Undine's voice which rang through the uproar; 'twas Undine herself who, as the moon swam clear of the clouds, was seen standing on the heights above the valley. 'Twas she, in sooth, who rebuked and threatened the floods below; and the menacing column of water vanished, murmuring and muttering, and the streams flowed gently away in the moonlight. Like a white dove Undine flew down from the height; she laid hold on the knight and Bertalda, and bore them with her to a green and grassy spot on the hill. There she refreshed their weariness and dispelled their fears; and when she had helped Bertalda to mount her white palfrey, they all three made their way back, as best they might, to Castle Ringstetten.