How the Knight Came to the Fisherman
N OW it may be hundreds of years agone that there lived a worthy old fisherman: and he was seated on a fine evening before his door, mending his nets. The part of the country where he lived was right pleasant to behold. The grassy space on which his cottage stood ran far into the lake, and perchance one might well conceive that it was through love of the clear blue waters that the tongue of land had stretched itself among them; while with embrace as close and as loving the lake sent its arms round the pleasaunce where the flowers bloomed and the trees yielded their grateful shade. It was as though water welcomed land and land welcomed water, and it was this made both so lovely. But on this happy sward the fisherman and his household dwelt alone. Few human beings, or rather none at all, even cared to visit it. For you must know that at the back of this little tongue of land there lay a fearsome forest right perilous to traverse. It was dark and solitary and pathless, and many a marvellous strange creature and many a wraith and spectral illusion haunted its glades, so that none might dare adventure unless a sheer necessity drave them.
Nathless, the worthy fisherman might pass unharmed, whensoever he was carrying some choice fish caught in his beautiful home to a large town bordering the confines of the forest. He was a man full of holy thoughts, and as he took his way through the gloomy shades peopled with forms of dread, he was wont to sing a pious chaunt with a clear voice, and an honest heart, and a conscience void of guile.
Well, the fisherman sate him over his nets, and he minded no evil, when a sudden fear came over him. He thought he heard a rustling noise in the forest as though a horse and rider were drawing every moment nearer to his little home. And it seemed as though all he had dreamed on many a stormy night of the wizardry of the forest was coming to his ken, and above all, the semblance of a snow-white man, huge and terrible, who nodded his head unceasingly with vague and bodeful portent. Nay, but as he raised his eyes towards the wood, he thought he saw the nodding man drawing nigh through the branches of the trees. Yet comfort came to him and a better mind: for he bethought himself how no evil had befallen him even in the forest itself, and here upon the open tongue of land there was little chance of evil influences. So he said aloud a verse from Holy Writ, repeating it with all his heart, and his courage came back so that he almost laughed at the vain fancy that had possessed him. And the white nodding man he saw to be nothing but a stream, well-known and familiar, which ran foaming from the forest and fell into the lake. But the noise he had heard was no fancy. It was in sooth caused by a gallant knight, bravely apparelled, who issued forth from the shadow of the wood and came riding towards the cottage. A scarlet mantle was thrown over his doublet, embroidered with gold; red and violet feathers waved from his golden-coloured headgear; and a beautiful sword, richly dight, flashed from his shoulder-belt. The white horse whereon the knight rode was more slender than chargers are wont to be, and as he trod lightly over the turf, it seemed as though the green and flowery carpet took no harm from the print of his hoofs.
It was a fair and comely sight to see the knight advance. Nathless, the old fisherman was not wholly at his ease, albeit that he told himself that no evil might come to him from so much beauty. He stayed, therefore, quietly busy with his nets, politely taking off his head-gear as the stranger drew near, and saying never a word.
Presently the knight came up and asked whether he and his horse might have shelter and care for the night.
"Fair sir," quoth the fisherman, "as for your horse, I may give him no better stable than this shady meadow, and no better provender than the grass that groweth thereon. But for yourself I bid you welcome to my cottage, and glad shall I be to offer such supper and lodging as we have."
Right pleased was the knight: he dismounted forthwith, and with the fisherman's help took off both saddle and bridle from the horse, letting him loose upon the flowery green. Then turning to the fisherman: "Good fisherman," quoth he, "I thank thee. Yet had I found thee less hospitable and kind, methinks thou wouldst scarcely have got quit of me to-day. For, as I see, there is a broad lake before us, and behind lieth the wood. God forbid that I should ride back into its mysterious depths, now that the shades of night are falling."
"Nay, nay," quoth the fisherman, "we will not speak too much of that!" So he led his guest into the cottage.
Within, beside the hearth, whence a scanty fire shed a dim light through a clean-swept room, was sitting the fisherman's old wife in a large chair. She rose as the knight entered to give him a kindly welcome, but seated herself again in the chair of honour without offering it to her guest. Whereupon saith the fisherman, with a smile, "Fair sir, thou must not be angered nor take it amiss that she hath not given to thee the best seat in the house. For it is a custom among poor people that only the aged should have it."
"Why, husband," quoth the dame, "of what art thou thinking? Doth not our guest belong to Christian folk, and how then might it come into his head, being of good young blood, to drive old people from their seats? Take a chair, I beseech thee, young master," said she, turning to the knight. "Pretty enough is the chair over yonder. Only treat it not with roughness, I beg thee, for one of its legs is none of the soundest."
Then the knight took the chair with care and seated himself upon it in all good humour; for indeed it seemed to him as though he were kinsman to this little household, and had but just come back from abroad.
The three soon began to talk in friendly and familiar manner. As to the forest, indeed, concerning which the knight asked some questions, the old man showed no desire to speak at large; for it was not a subject, it seemed to him, to discuss at nightfall. But of their home and former life the old couple spoke freely, and listened eagerly enough when the knight discoursed to them on his travels, and how he had a castle near the source of the Danube, and how he was hight Sir Huldbrand of Ringstetten. While the talk went on pleasantly and eagerly, the knight became aware that now and again there was a splashing sound at the little low window, as though some one were throwing water against it. Each time the splash came, the old man knit his brow and seemed marvellously distempered.
But when at length a whole shower dashed against the panes and bubbled into the room through the decayed window-frame, he rose, with anger in his face, and called out in threatening tones: "Undine," cried he, "wilt thou for once leave off these childish pranks? And to-day there is the more reason, for that there is a stranger knight with us in the cottage."
All grew silent without; only a low laugh was faintly heard, and the fisherman, as he came back from the window, addressed himself to the stranger. "Honoured sir," quoth he, "thou must needs pardon such tricks, and perchance many a freakish whim besides. For indeed, she meaneth no harm. It is but our foster-child, Undine, who though she hath already entered her eighteenth year, will not wean herself from such childishness. Nathless, as I have said, she hath a good heart."
"Nay, thou mayest talk," quoth the old dame. "Certès, when thou comest home from fishing or a journey her frolics may please thee well enough. But an thou hadst her with thee the whole day long, and heard not a sensible word, and so far from being a help in the housekeeping as she grew older, found that it was only by much care and anxiety she could be kept from ruining us altogether by her follies—that meseemeth, is quite another thing; nor could the patience of a saint fail to be worn out at last."
"Ay, ay," quoth the fisherman with a smile, "thou hast thy troubles with the girl, and I have mine with the lake. Often it breaketh through my dams and teareth my nets to pieces. Yet I love it; and so too dost thou love the pretty elf, for all the torment and vexation she bringeth. Is it not so?"
"Nay," quoth the dame,
Then of a sudden the door flew open and lo! a strangely fair and beautiful maiden glided into the room, with happy laughter on her lips. "Thou hast jested with me, father," saith she, "for where is thy guest?"
And then she saw him. Full of wonder and amazement she stood watching the handsome knight; while Huldbrand, on his part, looked with all the more earnestness at her beautiful face, because he deemed that it was but her momentary surprise which lent her so strange a charm. Right soon, he thought, will she turn away her eyes and become all the more bashful and composed. But it was not so. When she had gazed her full, she drew near to him confidingly, and knelt at his feet; and while she played with a gold medal hanging from a rich chain on his breast, she whispered:
"Kind sir and handsome guest, why then is it that thou art come at last to our poor cottage? Hast thou wandered about the world for years and only now found thy way? Is it out of that wild forest that thou comest, my beautiful knight?"
The quick reproof of the angry beldame gave him no moment for reply. Sternly she bade the maiden behave herself seemly, and go to her work. But Undine, minding not a jot for all her words, drew a little footstool close to Huldbrand's chair and sat down on it with her spinning. "It is here that I will work," quoth she. The old man did, as parents are wont to do with spoilt children. He made as though he had marked naught of Undine's wilfulness, and was beginning to talk of something else. But this the girl would not suffer. "I have asked," said she, "our beautiful guest whence he cometh, and he hath not answered me as yet."
"I come," saith Huldbrand, "from the forest."
Then said she, "Thou must tell me how you came there, for all men dread it: and what marvellous adventures befell thee, for without some strange things of the sort no man can win his way."
Now Huldbrand shuddered at the memory, and as he looked towards the window, it seemed as though one of the weird figures he had met in the forest were pushing in his grinning face; but it was but the deep dark night that he saw, shrouding everything without. So he collected himself and was about to begin his tale, when the fisherman broke in. "Sir Knight," quoth he, "this is no fit hour for such discourse as this." Whereupon Undine sprang angrily from her stool, and standing straight before the old man with her little hands pressed to her sides, "Father," cried she, "he is not to tell his story? He shall not? But I will have it! It is my will! He shall, in spite of you!" And she stamped her foot on the floor.
Now, albeit that she was violent enough, she wore through all her fury so comic a grace that Huldbrand could but the more eagerly watch her anger than at first he did her gentleness. But far other did it fare with the fisherman. His wrath, which hitherto he had suppressed, burst forth in open flame, and with harsh words he reproved Undine's disobedience and unmannerly behaviour towards the stranger, his good old wife joining with him heartily. But Undine cared not a jot. "If ye choose to scold," cried she, "and will not do what I want, ye may sleep alone in your smoky old hut!" And like an arrow she was at the door and out into the dark night.