How the Knight Huldbrand Is Married
T HE story now telleth of the marriage feast at Castle Ringstetten, how it was held and what cheer they had who were present thereat. Bethink thee of a multitude of bright and pleasant things heaped together, and over them all a veil of mourning spread. Would not the gloom of the covering make mockery of all their brilliance? Would it be happiness, think you, on which you looked? Would it not rather suggest the nothingness of all human joys? Now it is true that no ghostly visitants disturbed the festal company, for the castle, as we well know, had been made safe against the mischief of angry water-sprites. But that of which the knight was ware, ay, and the fisherman, too, and all the guests, was that the chief person of the feast was absent, and that the chief person could be none other than the gentle and much loved Undine. If so be that a door opened, all eyes turned, willy-nilly, in that direction; and if it were but the steward with new dishes, or the cellarer with a flask of still richer wine, each would look down sadly, and the few flashes of wit and merriment which had passed to and fro would be quenched in sad memories. Not but what the bride was happy enough, just because she was less troubled by thought; yet ever to her, I ween, it seemed passing strange that she should be sitting at the head of the table, with green wreath and gold embroidered gown, while Undine lay a corpse, cold and stiff, at the bottom of the Danube, or else was driven far by the current into the mighty ocean. Her father had spoken some such words as these, and ever since they had rung in her ears. To-day, above all, 'twas little likely that they would be forgotten.
Early enough in the evening the company went their ways, sadly and gloomily. It was not the impatience of the bridegroom which dismissed them, but their own joyless mood and their forebodings of evil. Bertalda retired with her women, the knight with his attendants; but the wedding was too sad for the usual gay escort of bridesmaids and bridegroom's men.
Now Bertalda was all for more cheerful thoughts; therefore had she ordered the magnificent jewels which Huldbrand had given her, together with rich apparel and veils, to be spread out before her, that she might choose from them the brightest and most beautiful for next morning's attire. Her waiting-women were not slow to wish their mistress well; in flattering words they vaunted high the beauty of the bride, and added praise to praise, until at length Bertalda looked at a mirror and sighed.
"See ye not," she said, "the freckles which disfigure my throat?" They looked and saw that it was even as their mistress had said—only they called them beauty-spots, mere tiny blemishes, which set off the exceeding whiteness of her skin. But Bertalda shook her head. "A defect is a defect," quoth she. "And I could remove them," she sighed, "only the fountain is closed whence comes the precious water with its purifying power. Oh! if I had but a flask of it to-day!"
Thereupon one of the waiting-women laughed. "Is that all?" she said, as she slipped out of the room.
"Surely," said Bertalda, at once surprised and well pleased, "she will not be so mad as to have the stone removed from the fountain this very evening?" Full soon they listened and heard how men were crossing the castle yard, and they could espy from the window the waiting-woman busying herself with her task, and leading straight to the fountain men who carried levers and other tools on their shoulders. And Bertalda smiled.
"Well-pleased am I," saith she, "if only the work taketh not too long." She was happy in that now a mere look from her could effect what had long since been so irritatingly denied, and she had no eyes save for the progress of the work in the moonlit castle yard.
It was no light task, be sure, to raise the enormous stone, and now and again one of the men would sigh as he remembered that he was undoing the work of his beloved first mistress. Nathless, the labour was not so severe as they had imagined. It seemed as if some power within the fountain were aiding them to raise the stone. The workmen stared at each other and marvelled. "Why," said they, "it is all one as though the water within had become a springing fountain!" And indeed the stone rose higher and higher, and, almost by itself, it rolled slowly down upon the pavement, making a hollow sound. Forthwith from the fountain's mouth there rose as it were a white column of water, and at first they were minded to think that it had in truth become a springing fountain; but afterwards they perceived that it was a pale woman's figure which rose, all veiled in white. It was weeping bitter tears, and wringing its hands distractedly, as it paced with slow and solemn steps to the castle building. Swiftly the servants fled from the spring; pale and stiff with horror, the bride with her attendants watched the scene from her window. And now the figure had come close below her room, and as it looked up at her with choked sobs, Bertalda thought she recognised beneath the veil the white face of Undine. But on paced the weeping figure, slow and sad and reluctant, as though passing to a place of judgment. Bertalda shrieked out to her women to call the knight, but none of them dared to move; and even the bride herself was struck with silence, as though scared at the sound of her own voice.
Motionless, like statues, they stood at the window; and the wanderer from another world reached the castle and passed up the familiar stairs and through the well-known halls, still with silent tears. Alas! 'twas with a different step that once she had wandered there!
Now Huldbrand had dismissed his men, and stood, half-dressed, before a mirror, revolving bitter thoughts; a torch burnt dimly at his side. Of a sudden there was a light tap at the door—just so light a tap was Undine wont to give in merry sport.
"Nay, 'tis but my fancy," said the knight to himself, "I must to my wedding chamber."
"Ay, ay," said a tearful voice without, "thou must indeed, but the bed is cold!" Thereupon he saw in the mirror how the door opened slowly, slowly, and a white figure entered and carefully shut the door after her.
"They have opened the fountain," and her voice was soft and low. "And now I am here and thou must die." Straightway in his beating heart he knew full well that it must be so; but he covered his face with his hands.
"Make me not mad with terror," he whispered, "in my hour of death. If thou hidest a hideous face behind that veil, raise it not. Take my life, but let me not see thy face!"
The white figure made answer. "I am as fair as when thou didst woo me on the promontory. Wilt thou not look upon me once more?"
"Ah," sighed Huldbrand, "if only it might be so! and I might die by a kiss from thy lips!"
"Right glad am I, my beloved!" saith she; she threw back her veil and her face smiled forth, divinely beautiful. And, trembling with love and with the nearness of death, the knight bent towards her, and she kissed him with a holy kiss. But she did not again draw back, she pressed him to her ever closer and closer, and wept as if she would weep away her soul. Tears rushed into Huldbrand's eyes, and his breast surged and heaved, till, at the last, breath failed him, and he fell back softly from Undine's arms upon the pillows of his couch—dead.
"My tears have been his death," she said to some servants who met her in the ante-chamber. This is all she spake, and passing them by as they stared on her with terror, she went slowly out towards the fountain.