How Undine Was Found Again
H EREUPON the story telleth how Huldbrand fared in his search for Undine.
The longer he sought for her beneath the shades of the trees and found her not, the more anxious and distraught did he become. Once more the thought that Undine was but a phantom, a vision caused by the mysterious forest, took possession of him. Indeed, as the waves howled and the tempest roared, and the trees crashed down in ruin, the complete change and contrast in a scene which had been but a few moments agone so peaceful and beautiful, made him marvel whether peninsula, cottage and fisherman were not all a mockery and an illusion. Yet still from afar he could hear through the din the cries of the old man for Undine, and the wife's loud prayers and hymns.
At length cometh he to the brink of the swollen stream and marked how it had driven its wild course right in front of the forest, so that the peninsula was turned into an island. "Ah, God," he thought, "it might well be that Undine has adventured herself into that fearful wood—perchance in her pretty petulance because I was not allowed to tell her aught of its horrors; and now behold how the stream severs us from her, and she may well be weeping on the other side alone, among ghosts and spectres!" Sharply did he cry out in his terror, and swiftly did he clamber down some rocks and uprooted pine-stems, that he might reach the raging stream and by wading or swimming across find the fugitive on the other side. He bethought him of all the shapes of wonder and fear that he had encountered even in daylight beneath the branches that now rustled and roared so ceaselessly. And more than all, it seemed to him as though on the opposite shore a tall man in white, whom he knew only too well, were grinning and nodding at him in mockery. It was these very monstrous forms which urged him to cross the flood, as he bethought him that Undine might be among them, alone in her agony.
Now, as he grasped the stout branch of a pine and stood, supporting himself by it in the midst of the current, which only with all his force could he withstand; and while yet with unblenching courage he pressed further into the stream: he heard a soft voice which said to him, "Venture not, venture not; full crafty is that old man, the stream!" He knew the sweet tones: he stood there, beneath the shadows which shrouded the moon, as though in a trance, all dizzy and bewildered in the waves which were now rapidly rising up to his very waist. Nathless he would not desist.
"If thou are not really there, if thou art but a floating mist, then let me too cease to live and become a shadow like thee, thou dear Undine!" Crying these words aloud, he stepped deeper still into the waters.
"Look round, look round," came a voice to his ear; and as he turned he saw by the moonlight, momentarily unveiled, a little island encircled by the flood; and there under the branches of the overhanging trees was Undine, smiling and nestling happily in the flowery grass.
Ah, how much more joyously now than before did the knight use the aid of his stout pine-branch! Nimbly he crossed the flood, and stood beside the maiden on a little plot of grass, safely guarded and screened by the good old trees. Undine half raised herself from the ground, and under the green leafy tent, throwing her arms round his neck, she drew the knight down beside her on her soft couch.
"Beautiful friend," whispered she, "thou shalt tell me thy story here. Here the cross old people cannot hear us. And our roof of leaves giveth us as good shelter as their poor old hut!"
"Nay, but it is Paradise itself!" quoth Huldbrand, as he covered her face with eager kisses.
Meantime the fisherman had come to the edge of the stream and raised his voice to the young people. "Why, how is this, Sir Knight?" said he, "I welcomed thee as one honest man may welcome another, and behold, I find thee playing in secret the lover with my foster-child, and leaving me the while to run hither and thither through the night in search of her!"
"I have only just found her myself, old father," returned the knight.
"So much the better," was the answer; "and now bring her across forthwith to firm ground."
But this Undine would by no means allow. She protested that she would rather go with the stranger into the depths of the forest than return to the cottage where no one would do what she wished, and from which the knight himself would sooner or later depart. Then, again throwing her arms round Huldbrand, she sang with pretty grace:
The old man wept bitterly at her song, but this seemed not to move her a jot. She was all for kissing and caressing her new friend, until he said to her, "Undine, if the old man's grief touch not thy heart, it toucheth mine; let us go back to him."
She opened wide her large eyes in wonder, and spoke at last slowly and hesitatingly. "If this be thy wish, well and good. What is right for thee is right for me. But the old man yonder must first give me his word that he will let thee tell me what thou sawest in the wood and—other things will follow as they must."
"Come, only come," cried the fisherman, unable to utter another word. He stretched his hands to her across the rushing stream, and as he nodded his head as though in fulfilment of her request, his white hair fell strangely over his face in such sort that Huldbrand bethought himself of the nodding white man of the forest. But not letting himself think of anything that might baffle or confuse him, the knight took the beautiful girl in his arms and bore her over the narrow space where the stream had divided her little island from the shore.
The old man fell on Undine's neck and seemed as though he could never have his fill of joy; his good wife also came up and with great tenderness kissed her recovered child. No word of reproach passed their lips, and even Undine, forgetting all her petulance, almost overwhelmed her foster-parents with loving endearments. When at last they had recovered themselves of their transports, lo, it was already dawn and the lake shone rosy red. Peace had followed storm and the little birds were singing merrily on the dripping branches. And now when Undine insisted on hearing the knight's story, the old couple smiled and readily acceded to her wish. They brought out breakfast under the trees which screened the cottage from the lake and then sate down with thankful hearts. Undine, because she must needs have it so, lay on the grass at Huldbrand's feet, the while he proceeded with his story.