All who have meditated on the art of governing mankind have been convinced that the fate of empires depends on the education of youth. — Aristotle

Undine - George Upton




How the Knight Came to the Fisherman's Home

Many hundreds of years ago there lived a good old fisherman, who was sitting one fine evening before his door, mending nets. All about him lay a most beautiful country. The green slope upon which his cottage was built extended far out into a great lake. It seemed as if, delighted with the wonderful clear blue waters, it were pressing forward into their em brace, or else that the lake had fondly embraced the blooming headland with its tall waving grasses and the grateful shade of the trees. Each seemed to welcome and thereby enhance the beauty of the other. And yet this lovely spot was rarely visited, save by the fisherman and his family, for behind the promontory lay a dark forest, gloomy and pathless, which was shunned by all on account of the strange creatures and spectres that infested it. The good old man, however, often crossed it without being molested, when he went to the large city that lay beyond to sell the fine fish he caught. There was little danger for him even in this forest, for his thoughts were usually pious ones, and it was his custom to sing a hymn loudly as soon as he had entered its evil shades.

On this evening, as he sat peacefully over his nets, he was suddenly startled by a rustling noise in the forest, like that of an approaching horseman, and it seemed to come nearer and nearer. Visions that had haunted him on many a stormy night, of the spectres of the forest, floated through his mind, especially the image of a gigantic snow-white man who kept nodding his head mysteriously. Indeed, as he looked up, he seemed to see the creature advancing toward him through the trees. But he soon collected himself, remembering that, as no harm had ever befallen him even in the forest itself, on the open promontory evil spirits would have even less power over him. At the same time he earnestly and devoutly repeated aloud a verse of Scripture, which so restored his courage that he almost laughed at his illusions. The nodding white man suddenly became a well-known brooklet that bubbled out from the forest and lost itself in the lake, while the cause of the rustling sound proved to be a gorgeously attired knight, who now came riding toward him from under the shadow of the trees.

The stranger wore a scarlet mantle over his purple, gold-embroidered jerkin; a red and purple plume adorned his cap, and at his golden belt glittered a splendid, richly decorated sword. His white charger was not so large as most battle-steeds, and trod so lightly over the green turf that it scarcely seemed to leave the impression of its hoofs.

The old man could not quite rid himself of his fears, but assuring himself that so pleasing an apparition could surely do him no harm, he lifted his cap courteously and went on with his work. The knight drew rein, and asked if he and his steed might have shelter there for the night.

"As for your horse, good sir," replied the fisherman, "I can offer him no better stall than this shady meadow, and no food but its grass; but you are heartily welcome to my simple hut and to the best supper and lodging I can offer you." The knight, quite satisfied with this, dismounted, unsaddled his horse with the fisherman's aid, and turned it loose on the meadow, saying to his host:

"Even had I found you less obliging, my good old man, you would scarcely have been rid of me to-night, for I see a wide lake lies before us, and God forbid I should cross the haunted forest again in the dark."

"Nay, let us not talk of that," said the fisherman, as he led his guest into the cottage. Near the hearth, upon which a scanty fire burned, and shed its gleam over the spotless little room, his aged wife was sitting in a great armchair. She arose as they entered, and greeted the noble guest kindly, but resumed her place in the chair without offering it to him, whereat the fisherman smiled and said, "Do not be offended, young sir, if she does not give up the most comfortable seat in the house to you; among us poor folk it is always kept for the oldest."

What can you be thinking of, husband?" interposed the wife. "Surely our guest is a Christian, and would never have the heart to turn old people out of their places. Sit down there, my lord," she continued, addressing the knight; "that is a very comfortable seat yonder; only be careful with it, for one of the legs is none too strong."

The knight seated himself, and soon felt as much at home as if he belonged to the family and had just returned from a long journey.

The three friends talked together in the friendliest and most sociable manner. Of the forest, about which the knight asked many questions, the old man could not be induced to talk much; least of all, he declared, should it be mentioned after nightfall. But of household affairs and other matters they had much to tell, and they also listened with great interest to the knight's account of his travels. He told them his name was Lord Huldbrand of Ringstettin, and that he had a castle near the source of the Danube.

As they were talking, the stranger heard a splashing sound outside the window now and then, as if some one were throwing water against it. The old man frowned and looked displeased whenever this occurred, but finally, as a perfect shower flew against the panes and even spirted into the room through the badly fitting window-frames, he started up and cried out sharply: "Undine! Will you never stop these childish pranks? To-day, too, when we have a strange gentleman in the house!"

Silence at once followed, save for a suppressed tittering without, and the fisherman sat down again, saying:

"You must bear with this and possibly other foolish antics of hers, my noble guest, but no harm is meant. It is only our foster-daughter, Undine, who still clings to her childish ways though already in her eighteenth year. But, as I told you, she is really a good child at heart."

"That is very well for you to say!" retorted the old woman, shaking her head. "Her nonsense may be pleasant enough to you when you come home from fishing or from a journey; but to be troubled all day with her, as I have to be, never hearing a sensible word or getting any help in my household tasks, and trying to keep her out of mischief lest her folly ruin us completely,—that is another matter, and enough to try the patience of a saint!"

"Nay, nay, there!" said the old man, laughing, "you have trouble with Undine as I do with the lake. It often tears my nets and washes away my banks, yet I love it for all that, as you do our pretty little one, with all her teasing ways. Is it not so?"

"Well, well, one cannot be really angry with her, that is so," said his wife, nodding in assent.

Just then the door flew open, and in skipped a beautiful maiden. "You were only making fun 17) ?> of me, father," she said playfully; "where is your guest?

The next instant she perceived the knight and stood as if entranced by the handsome stranger. Huldbrand also sat as if fascinated, trying to impress the charming figure on his mind before it vanished again, as he feared it might, in a fit of shyness. Not so, however. After looking long at him she came forward confidently, and, kneeling down beside his chair, began to play with a gold medal that hung from the costly chain about his neck.

"So you have come at last, most gracious guest!" she said. "Has it taken you so many years to find our humble cottage? and did you come through the haunted forest, my handsome friend?"

The old woman gave him no time to answer, but hastily ordered the maiden to arise and betake herself to her work. Undine, however, without replying drew a small stool close to Huldbrand's chair and seated herself at her spinning, gently saying, "I will work here."

The fisherman behaved as parents are wont to do with spoiled children. He pretended not to notice Undine's forwardness, and tried to talk of something else; but she would not let him.

"I asked our noble guest where he came from, and he has not told me yet," she declared.

"I came from the forest, fair sprite," answered Huldbrand.

"Then you must tell us how you fared and what strange adventures befell you," she went on, "for nobody can escape having them there."

Huldbrand could not repress a shudder at the recollections thus awakened, and looked involuntarily at the window, almost expecting to see one of the horrid creatures he had met in the forest leering at him through the panes; he saw nothing except the blackness of night. Composing himself, therefore, he was about to begin his tale, when the old man exclaimed: "Nay, nay, Sir Knight! It is no time now for such things."

Undine sprang furiously from her stool and defiantly exclaimed to the fisherman: "You say he shall not tell his story, father? He shall not? But I say he must, he shall!" With that she stamped her foot on the ground passionately, but was so droll and bewitching in her anger that Huldbrand was even more fascinated than by her gentler mood. This was too much for the old man, however. His smouldering anger burst out uncontrolled, and he berated Undine soundly for her disobedience and unseemly behavior toward the stranger, his good wife joining in.

At last Undine cried out, "Very well, then, if you choose to scold and not do what I want, you may sleep alone in your smoky old hut!" Darting from the door like an arrow, she flew out into the dark night.