I.-HOW THE KNIGHT CAME TO THE FISHERMAN'S COTTAGE
Once-it may be some hundreds of years ago-there lived a good old Fisherman, who, on a fine summer's evening, was sitting before the door mending his nets. He dwelt in a land of exceeding beauty. The green slope, upon which he had built his hut, stretched far out into a great lake; and it seemed either that the cape, enamoured of the glassy blue waters, had pressed forward into their bosom, or that the lake had lovingly folded in its arms the blooming promontory, with her waving grass and flowers, and the refreshing shade of her tall trees. Each bade the other welcome, and increased its own beauty by so doing. This lovely nook was scarcely ever visited by mankind, except by the Fisherman and his family. For behind the promontory lay a very wild forest, which, beside being gloomy and pathless, had too bad a name as the resort of wondrous spirits and goblins, to be crossed by anyone who could help it. Yet the pious old Fisherman went through it without being molested, whenever he walked to a large city beyond the forest, to dispose of the costly fish that he caught in the lake. For him, indeed, there was little danger, even in that forest; for his thoughts were almost all thoughts of devotion, and his custom was to carol forth to Heaven a loud and heartfelt hymn, on first setting foot within the treacherous shades.
As he sat this evening most peacefully over his nets, he was startled in an unwonted manner by a rustling sound in the forest, like that of a man and horse; and the noise came nearer and nearer. The dreams he had had in many a stormy night of the spirits of the forest started up before his mind, particularly the image of a gigantic long snow-white man, who kept nodding his head mysteriously. Nay, as he raised his eyes and looked into the forest, he could fancy he saw, through the thick screen of leaves, the nodding creature advance toward him. But he soon composed himself, recollecting that even in the heart of the woods nothing had ever befallen him; much less here, in the open air, could the bad spirits have power to touch him. He moreover repeated a text from the Bible aloud and earnestly, which quite restored his courage, and he almost laughed to see how his fancy had misled him. The white nodding man suddenly resolved himself into a little brook he knew of old, which gushed bubbling out of the wood, and emptied itself into the lake. And the rustling had been caused by a horseman in gorgeous attire, who now came forward toward the hut from beneath the trees.
He wore a scarlet mantle over his purple, gold-embroidered jerkin; a plume of red and purple feathers waved over his gold-coloured barret-cap; and from his golden belt hung a glittering jewelled sword. The white courser which carried him was of lighter make than the generality of chargers, and trod so airily, that the enamelled turf seemed scarcely to bend under him. The aged Fisherman could not quite shake off his uneasiness, although he told himself that so noble a guest could bring him no harm, and accordingly doffed his hat courteously, and interrupted his work when he approached.
The Knight reined in his horse, and asked whether they could both obtain one night's shelter.
"As to your horse, good sir," answered the Fisherman, "I have no better stable to offer him than the shady meadow, and no provender but the grass which grows upon it. But you shall yourself be heartily welcome to my poor house, and to the best of my supper and night lodging."
The stranger seemed quite content; he dismounted, and they helped each other to take off the horse's girth and saddle, after which the Knight let him graze on the flowery pasture, saying to his host, "Even if I had found you less kind and hospitable, my good old man, you must have borne with me till to-morrow; for I see we are shut in by a wide lake and Heaven forbid that I should cross the haunted forest again at nightfall!"
"We will not say much about that," replied the Fisherman; and he led his guest into the cottage.
There, close by the hearth, from whence a scanty fire shed its glimmering light over the clean little room, sat the Fisherman's old wife. When their noble guest came in, she rose to give him a kind welcome, but immediately resumed her place of honour, without offering it to him; and the Fisherman said with a smile: "Do not take it amiss, young sir, if she does not give up to you the most comfortable place; it is the custom among us poor people that it should always belong to the oldest."
"Why, husband!" said his wife, quietly, "what are you thinking of? Our guest is surely a Christian gentleman, and how could it come into his kind young heart to turn old people out of their places? Sit down, my young lord," added she, turning to the Knight; "there stands a very comfortable chair for you; only remember it must not be too roughly handled, for one leg is not so steady as it has been." The Knight drew the chair carefully forward, seated himself sociably, and soon felt quite at home in this little household, and as if he had just returned to it from a far journey.
The three friends began to converse openly and familiarly together. First the Knight asked a few questions about the forest, but the old man would not say much of that; least of all, said he, was it fitting to talk of such things at nightfall; but, on household concerns, and their own way of life, the old folks talked readily; and were pleased when the Knight told them of his travels, and that he had a castle near the source of the Danube, and that his name was Lord Huldbrand of Ringstetten. In the middle of their discourse, the stranger often observed a noise outside a small window, as if someone were dashing water against it. The old man knit his brows and looked grave whenever this occurred; at last, when a great splash of water came full against the panes, and some found its way into the room, he could bear it no longer, but started up, crying, "Undine! will you never leave off these childish tricks-when we have a stranger gentleman in the house too!" This produced silence outside, all but a sound of suppressed giggling, and the Fisherman said as he came back; "My honoured guest, you must put up with this, and perhaps with many another piece of mischief; but she means no harm. It is our adopted child Undine; there is no breaking her of her childish ways, though she is eighteen years old now. But as I told you she is as good a child as ever lived at bottom."
"Ay, so you may say!" rejoined his wife, shaking her head. "When you come home from fishing, or from a journey, her playful nonsense may be pleasant enough. But, to be keeping her out of mischief all day long, as I must do, and never get a word of sense from her, nor a bit of help and comfort in my old age, is enough to weary the patience of a saint."
"Well, well," said the good man, "you feel toward Undine as I do toward the lake. Though its waves are apt enough to burst my banks and my nets, yet I love them for all that, and so do you love our pretty wench, with all her plaguey tricks. Don't you?"
"Why, one cannot be really angry with her, to be sure," said the dame, smiling.
Here the door flew open, and a beautiful fair creature tripped in, and said, playfully: "Well, father, you made game of me; where is your guest?" The next moment she perceived the Knight, and stood fixed in mute admiration; while Huldbrand gazed upon her lovely form, and tried to impress her image on his mind, thinking that he must avail himself of her amazement to do so, and that in a moment she would shrink away in a fit of bashfulness. But it proved otherwise. After looking at him a good while, she came up to him familiarly, knelt down beside him, and playing with a golden medal that hung from his rich chain, she said: "So, thou kind, thou beautiful guest! hast thou found us out in our poor hut at last? Why didst thou roam the world so many years without coming near us? Art come through the wild forest, my handsome friend?" The old woman allowed him no time to answer. She desired her to get up instantly, like a modest girl, and to set about her work. But Undine, without replying, fetched a footstool and put it close to Huldbrand's chair, sat down there with her spinning, and said cheerfully-"I will sit and work here." The old man behaved as parents are apt to do with spoiled children. He pretended not to see Undine's waywardness, and was beginning to talk of something else; but she would not let him. She said, "I asked our visitor where he came from, and he has not answered me yet."
"From the forest I came, you beautiful sprite," answered Huldbrand; and she continued:
"Then you must tell me how you came there, and what wonderful adventures you had in it, for I know that nobody can escape without some."