N OW in the midst of this stillness came the sound of soft knocking at the door, and startled those that were within; for, at times, but a trifling incident can scare us, when it happeneth unexpectedly. But in this case there was the more reason for alarm in that the enchanted forest lay so near, and that the little promontory appeared out of the reach of all human visitors. They looked at each other with doubt in their faces, and when the knocking came again, and this time accompanied with a groan, the knight sprang to reach his sword. But the old man whispered softly, "Sir Knight," quoth he, "an it be what I fear, no weapon will be of avail." Meantime Undine approached the door and called out boldly and angrily, "Spirits of the earth, I warn ye! If ye mean mischief, Kühleborn shall teach ye better!"
Words so full of mystery only added to the terror of the others, and they looked at the maiden fearfully. When Huldbrand, however, was minded to ask Undine what she might mean by such a speech, there came a voice from without. "I am no spirit of the earth," it said, "but a spirit still within its earthly frame. I pray ye within the hut, if ye fear God and will help me, open to me."
Undine at these words opened the door and held out a lantern into the night, so that they perceived an aged priest standing there. He stepped back in wonder: full startled was he to see so beautiful a maiden at the humble cottage entrance, and he might well suppose in such a case that witchcraft and magic were at work. So he began to pray, "All good spirits praise the Lord God!"
"No spirit am I," saith Undine, smiling. "Do I then look so ugly? Moreover, thou mayest see that holy words do not frighten me. I, too, know of God, and understand how to praise him—every one in his own way, to be sure, for so hath he created us. Come in, reverend father, thou art come among good people."
So the holy man came in, bowing and looking around him. Full venerable and mild was his demeanour, but the water was dropping from every fold of his garment, and from his long white beard and his white hair. The fisherman and knight took him into another chamber, and gave him clothes to wear, while they left his own wet attire for the women to dry. The old man thanked them in humble and courteous sort; but he would on no account take the knight's rich mantle when it was offered to him, choosing instead an old grey overcoat of the fisherman. Thereupon they returned to the outer room, and the old dame at once gave up her easy chair for the reverend father, and would not rest till he had sate himself down in it. "For," quoth she, "thou art old and weary, and a priest to boot." Moreover, Undine pushed under the stranger's feet the little stool on which she was wont to sit by Huldbrand's side, and showed herself in all ways gentle and kind towards the priest. Huldbrand whispered some jest about it in her ear, but she answered full seriously, "He is a servant of Him who hath made us all: holy things must not be mocked."
Then the knight and fisherman refreshed their guest with food and wine, and when he had somewhat recovered himself he began to tell his story. He told how the day before he had set out from his monastery, which lay far on the other side of the great lake, with intent to journey to the Bishop, for that he ought to know how deep was the distress into which both monastery and its dependent villages had fallen owing to the present marvellous floods. He had gone far out of his way, for the floods compelled him, and this day towards evening he had been forced to ask the aid of two stout boatmen to cross an arm of the lake, where the water had overflown its banks. "Hardly, however," said he, "had our little craft touched the waves when the furious storm came down upon us which is now raging over our heads. It seemed as though the waters had only waited our approach to begin their maddest dance with our boat. The oars were torn out of the hands of the boatmen and driven by the force of the waves further and further beyond our reach. Ourselves, a helpless prey in the hands of natural forces, drifted over the surging billows towards your distant shore, which we saw looming through the mist and foam. Then our boat was caught in a giddy whirlpool, and for myself I know not whether I was upset or fell overboard. Suffice it to say that in a vague agony of approaching death, I drifted on, till a wave cast me here, under the trees of your island."
"Island," cried the fisherman, "ay, 'tis an island for sure! But a day or two agone, it was a point of land; but, now that stream and lake have alike been bewitched, all is changed with us."
"Ay, so it seemed to me," said the priest, "as I crept along the shore in the dark. Naught but the wild uproar could I hear, but at last I saw a beaten footpath, which lost itself in the waters, and then I caught sight of the light in your cottage and ventured hither. Nor can I ever thank enough my Heavenly Father that he hath saved me from death and led me to such good and pious people as ye are; the more so, since I know not, whether beside you four, I shall ever look upon human beings again."
"What mean you by that?" asked the fisherman.
"Know you then," replied the holy man, "how long this turmoil of the elements may last? And I am old in years. Full easily may the stream of my life run itself out ere the overflow of the forest stream may subside. And indeed it were not impossible that more and more of the flood may force itself between you and yonder forest, until you are cut off from the rest of the world in such sort that your fishing-boat may not suffice to carry you across. Then the dwellers on the continent beyond, giving themselves up to their own pleasures and cares, may entirely forget you in your old age."
The old wife started at this, and crossing herself, said, "God forbid!"
But the fisherman looked at her with a smile. "What strange creatures we are," quoth he. "Even were it so, things would not be very different—at least not for thee, dear wife—than they are now. For many years past hast thou ever been further than the edge of the forest? And hast thou seen any human beings other than Undine and myself? The knight and this holy man are but recent visitors; and they will stay with us even if this become a forgotten island. Methinks thou wouldest be a gainer by it, after all!"
"I know not," said the dame, "it is a gloomy thought to be altogether cut off from other people, even though we neither see them nor know them."
"Then thou wilt stay with us; thou wilt stay with us!" whispered Undine, in a low, chanting voice, as she nestled closer to Huldbrand's side. But he was lost in deep and strange thoughts. Since the priest spoke his last words, the other side of the forest seemed to fade away; the island grew more green and smiled more freshly to his thought. The maiden whom he loved shone as the fairest rose of this little spot of earth, and even of the world—and lo, there was a priest ready at hand! Moreover, at that moment, the old dame shot an angry glance at the maiden, because even in the presence of the holy man she leaned so closely on the knight; and it seemed that a torrent of reproach might break forth. So Huldbrand turned him to the priest and exclaimed: "Holy Father," quoth he, "thou seest before thee a pair betrothed to one another, and if this maiden and these good people have no word to say, thou shalt wed us this very evening." The old couple marvelled greatly at this speech. Somewhat of the kind had indeed ere this entered their minds. But they had never given it utterance; and the knight's words came upon them as something wholly new and unexpected. And Undine had of a sudden grown grave, casting her eyes down to the ground in thought; while the priest inquired of the facts of the case and asked whether the old people gave their consent or no. And much discourse took place ere the matter was finally settled.
The old dame went to prepare the bridal chamber for the youthful pair, and to seek out two consecrated tapers which had long been in her possession and which she deemed necessary for the nuptial ceremony. Meantime the knight unfastened his gold chain, so that he might take off two gold rings to make exchange with his bride. Undine, however, when she saw what he did, roused her from her reverie. "Nay, not so," she cried, "my parents have not sent me into the world quite destitute; on the contrary, they must surely have reckoned that such an evening as this would come." Thus saying, she quickly left the room and came back in a moment with two costly rings, one of which she gave to the bridegroom and kept the other herself. The old fisherman marvelled greatly thereat, and yet more his wife, for neither had ever seen these jewels in the child's possession.
"See," said Undine, "my parents had these baubles sewn into the beautiful gown I was wearing when I came to you. They forbade me to speak of them to any one before my wedding, so I unfastened them in secret and kept them hidden till now." Thereupon the priest stayed all further questionings by lighting the consecrated tapers. He placed them on a table and summoned the bridal pair to stand before him. With a few solemn words he gave them each to the other: the elder pair blest the younger; and the bride, trembling and thoughtful, leaned upon the knight.
Then spake the priest of a sudden. "Ye are strange people!" quoth he. "Why did ye tell me that ye were alone on the island? During the whole ceremony a tall stately figure, clad in a white mantle, has been looking at me through the window opposite. He must be still there before the door if ye will invite him into the house." "God forbid," said the old dame shuddering: the fisherman shook his head in silence and Huldbrand sprang to the window. It seemed to him that he could still see a white streak, but it soon vanished altogether in the darkness. Wherefore he assured the priest that he must have been mistaken; and they all seated themselves together round the hearth.