How They Fared at Castle Ringstetten
N OW the story is silent concerning some events, and only mentioneth others cursorily; while it passeth over a considerable space of time. And for this he who reads the tale must pardon him that wrote it, the reason being that the writer is himself moved by the sadness of it, and would fain have others touched likewise. He could, an he willed it, portray—for perchance he hath the skill—how, step by step, Huldbrand's heart began to turn from Undine to Bertalda; how Bertalda more and more answered devotion by devotion; how both looked upon the wife as a mysterious being to fear rather than to pity; how Undine wept, and how her tears stirred the knight's remorse without awakening his old love—in such sort that, though at times he was kind and affectionate, a cold shudder would soon drive him from her and make him turn to his fellow mortal, Bertalda. All this, the writer knoweth full well, might be drawn out at length; mayhap, it ought so to be; but it grieveth him overmuch, for he hath known such things by sad experience, and he dreadeth even the shadow of their remembrance. And thou, too, who readest these pages, art like to have had a similar knowledge, for such is the lot of man. Happy art thou if thou hast felt the pain, rather than caused it; for in such things 'tis more blessed to receive than to give. If so it be, such a memory will give thee sorrow, and a tear, perchance, may fall on the faded flowers which once thou wert wont to prize. But enough of this. We will not pierce our hearts with a thousand separate stings, but be content to know that matters were so as I have stated them.
Now poor Undine was sad, and the others in no better case. Bertalda in especial thought she detected an injured wife's jealousy whenever her wishes were thwarted. For this reason it was her wont to bear herself imperiously, and Undine gave way sorrowfully; while as for Huldbrand, his blindness was such that he encouraged Bertalda in her arrogance. Moreover, the peace of the castle was still further disturbed by many apparitions, strange and marvellous, which met Huldbrand and Bertalda in the vaulted galleries, and these had never been heard of before in the memory of man. The tall white man, whom the knight knew only too well as Uncle Kühleborn, and Bertalda as the spectral master of the fountain, often passed before them with threats in his eye. It was Bertalda whom he especially menaced—so much so that many times she had been sick with terror, and often bethought her of leaving the castle. But Huldbrand was all too dear; and she trusted to her innocence, sith no words of love had passed between them. Besides, she knew not whither to go.
Now you must know that the old fisherman, when he received the message from the lord of Ringstetten that Bertalda was his guest, had written a few words in an almost illegible hand—such words as in his old age, and his want of experience, it would be natural for him to write.
"I am now," he wrote, "a widower: my dear and faithful wife is dead. Nathless, though I be lonely in my cottage, I would rather that Bertalda were with thee than with me. Only let her do no harm to my beloved Undine—on pain of my curse."
The last words Bertalda flung to the winds; but she paid especial attention to the part concerning her absence from her father. We are all wont to do the like in similar circumstances.
It happened one day, when Huldbrand had just ridden forth, that Undine called together the servants of the household. She bade them bring a large stone and carefully cover with it the magnificent fountain, which was in the midst of the castle court. The servants urged that this would oblige them to fetch water from far down in the valley. Undine smiled sadly.
"Full sorry am I, friends," quoth she, "to increase your labour. I would rather carry the pitchers with my own hands. But this fountain must be closed. Believe me, there is no other way of escaping a much greater evil."
Well pleased, I ween, were the whole household to do anything for their gentle mistress. They asked no more questions, but took up the enormous stone. Already they had raised it in their hands, and were poising it over the fountain, when, lo, Bertalda came up running, and ordered them to stop. It was from this fountain that the water came which was so good for her complexion, and, for her part, said she: "I will never allow it to be closed." Undine, however, despite her usual gentleness, was firmer than her wont. She told Bertalda that it was her business, as mistress of the house, to make such arrangements as she thought best, and that in this she was accountable only to her lord and husband.
"Nay, but look," cried Bertalda, angry and displeased, "look how the poor water curls and writhes! It cannot bear to be shut out from the bright sunshine and the cheerful look of human faces which it loveth to mirror!"
And, in sooth, the water bubbled and hissed full strangely; it was as though there were something within which strove to release itself; but Undine only the more earnestly insisted that her orders should be carried out. There was no need to urge; the servants were as glad to obey their gentle mistress as they were to thwart Bertalda's self-will; and despite all her rude and angry threats, the stone was soon firmly fixed over the opening of the fountain. Thereupon Undine bent thoughtfully over it, and wrote something on its surface. It would seem that she held a sharp and cutting instrument in her hand, for when she had gone and the servants came near to examine the stone, they saw various strange characters upon it which none had seen before.
Now, when the knight returned home in the evening, Bertalda received him with tears and complaints of Undine's conduct. Huldbrand looked hard and cold at his wife, and she cast down her eyes in distress. Yet she made answer calmly enough.
"My lord and husband," said she, "doth not reprove even a bond slave without hearing; how much less his wedded wife?"
"Speak," said the knight, with a stern face, "what moved thee to act so strangely?"
"I fain would tell thee when we are alone," sighed Undine.
"Thou mayest tell me just as well in Bertalda's presence," he returned.
"Ay," quoth Undine, "if such be thy command. But command it not, I beseech thee." She looked so humble, so sweet, so obedient, that a gleam from better times shone in the knight's heart. He took her with some show of tenderness by the hand and led her within to an inner room, where she began to speak as followeth:
"My beloved lord," saith she, "knoweth somewhat of my evil uncle, Kühleborn, and it hath displeased him more than once to meet him in the galleries of the castle. Several times hath Kühleborn frightened Bertalda and made her ill. This is because he is devoid of soul; he is an elemental force, a mere mirror of external things, without ability to reflect the world within. Now at times he seeth that thou art displeased with me; that I, in my childlike way, am crying; and that Bertalda is perhaps at the same moment laughing. Hence he imagineth various unlikely jars and troubles in our home life, and in many ways mixeth himself unbidden with our circle. What avails it that I reprove him, that I send him angrily away? He doth not believe a word I say. His undeveloped nature can give him no idea how sweetly the joys and sorrows of love resemble one another, how closely and inseparably they are united. Why, tears beget smiles, and from their hidden source smiles conjure up tears!"
She looked up at Huldbrand, smiling and weeping, and once more he felt within him all the enchantment of his old love. She was aware of this and pressed him closer to her, as she went on more happily:
"As the disturber of our peace was not to be dismissed with words, I have had to shut the door upon him, and the only door by which he can enter is that fountain. He is at variance with all the water-spirits of the adjacent valleys, and his dominion only beginneth again far down the Danube, to which some of his good friends are tributaries. 'Twas for this reason that I had the stone placed over the opening of the fountain, and I inscribed characters on it which cripple all my jealous uncle's power in such sort that he can come neither in thy way, nor mine, nor Bertalda's. Now it is true that ordinary men can raise the stone again with but common effort, for all that it is marked with strange characters. They are not let or hindered by the inscription. If it be thy will, therefore, comply with Bertalda's desire; but in truth she knoweth not what she asketh. On her, above all, the rude Kühleborn hath set his mark; and if that came to pass which he hath predicted to me, and which might well enough happen without any evil intention on thy part—thou thyself, beloved one, wouldst not be safe from peril!"
Huldbrand felt deeply how generous had been his wife in her eagerness to shut up her formidable champion, albeit that she had been upbraided therefor by Bertalda. Folding her most tenderly in his arms he said with obvious sincerity, "The stone shall remain, and all shall remain, as thou wilt have it, now and ever, my sweet Undine." Timidly and fondly she kissed him in this re-awakening of a love so long withheld; and at the last she said:
"Dearest husband," quoth she, "so gentle and kind art thou to-day that I would fain ask a favour of thee. See now, it is the same with thee as it is with summer. In the height of its glory, summer puts on its flaming and thundering crown of storms, so as to prove that it is a king over the earth. And thou, too, sometimes, art angry, and thine eyes flash and thy voice stormeth; and these things become thee well, though they make me in my folly weep. But never, I pray thee, behave thus on the water or even near it, for in that case my kinsfolk would regain power over me. They would tear me irrevocably from thy arms, deeming that one of their race was injured; and then I must needs dwell all my life below in the crystal palaces, never daring to come up to thee again; or else they would send me up to thee, and that, O Heaven, would be infinitely worse! No, no, beloved one, let it not come to this, if poor Undine be dear to thee!"
Full solemnly he gave the promise to do as she desired, and both left the room, full of love and gladness. As they came forth, lo, Bertalda appeared with some workmen to whom she had already given orders, and in the sullen tone she had assumed of late, said: "The secret conference, methinks, is over at last. I suppose the stone may now be removed; go ye men, and see that it be done."
But the knight, incensed at her forwardness, gave orders, shortly and decisively, that the stone should be left where it was; and he uttered some reproof likewise to Bertalda for her behaviour towards his wife. Whereupon the workmen went away, smiling and well-satisfied; and Bertalda, pale with rage, hurried to her room.
The hour of supper arrived and, behold, they waited in vain for Bertalda. They sent to summon her, but the servant found her room empty and only brought back a sealed letter addressed to the knight. He opened it in some amazement and read as follows: "I am but a fisher-girl—I know it well; and shame holdeth me fast. If I forgot it for a moment, I will atone by going to the miserable cottage of my parents. Live happy with thy beautiful wife!"
Now Undine was much distressed thereat: and she earnestly begged Huldbrand to hasten after their friend and bring her back. Alas, there was no need to urge! His love for Bertalda burst out anew. Hurrying round the castle, he inquired if any had seen which way the fugitive had gone. Naught could he learn, and he was already on his horse in the castle-yard, resolved at a venture to take the road by which he had brought Bertalda hither, when, of a sudden, a page came up and assured him that he had met the lady on the path to the Black Valley. Like an arrow, the knight sped through the gateway in the direction pointed out to him; nor did he hear Undine's voice of agony, as she called to him from the window: "The Black Valley! Oh, go not there, Huldbrand, go not there! or else, for Heaven's sake, take me too!" And when she saw that she cried in vain, she ordered her white palfrey to be saddled forthwith, and rode after the knight. Nor did she permit any servant to accompany her.