FFRIGHTED AND enraged, Bertalda shrank from their embrace. It was more than her proud spirit could bear, to be thus degraded; at a moment, too, when she was fully expecting an increase of splendour, and fancy was showering pearls and diadems upon her head. She suspected that her rival had contrived this, on purpose to mortify her before Huldbrand and all the world. She reviled both Undine and the old people; the hateful words, "Treacherous creature! and bribed wretches!" burst from her lips. The old woman said in a half whisper, "Dear me, she has grown up a wicked woman; and yet my heart tells me she is my own child." The Fisherman has clasped his hands, and was praying silently that this girl might not prove to be theirs indeed. Undine, pale as death, looked from Bertalda to the parents, from the parents to Bertalda, and could not recover the rude shock she had sustained, at being plunged from all her happy dreams into a state of fear and misery, such as she had never known before.
"Have you a soul? Have you indeed a soul, Bertalda?" she exclaimed once or twice, trying to recall her angry friend to reason, from what she took for a fit of madness, or a kind of nightmare. But Bertalda only stormed the louder; the repulsed parents wailed piteously, and the company began to dispute angrily and to side with one or the other; when Undine stepped forward, and asked with so much earnest gentleness to be listened to in her husband's house that all was hushed in a moment. She took the place which Bertalda had left, at the head of the table, and as she stood there in modest dignity, the eyes of all turned toward her, and she said: "You all that cast such angry looks at each other, and so cruelly spoil the joy of my poor feast, alas! I little knew what your foolish angry passions were, and I think I never shall understand you. What I had hoped would do so much good has led to all this; but that is not my fault, it is your own doing, believe me; I have little more to say, but one thing you must hear: I have told no falsehood. Proofs I have none to give, beyond my word, but I will swear to the truth of it. I heard it from him who decoyed Bertalda from her parents into the water, and then laid her down in the meadow where the Duke was to pass."
"She is a sorceress," cried Bertalda, "a witch who has dealings with evil spirits! she has acknowledged it."
"I have not," said Undine, with a heaven of innocence and guilelessness in her eyes. "Nor am I a witch-only look at me!"
"Then she lies," cried Bertalda, "and she dares not assert that I was born of these mean people. My noble parents, I beseech you take me out of this room, and this town, where they are leagued together to insult me."
But the venerable Duke stood still, and his lady said, "We must first sift this matter to the bottom. Nothing shall make me leave the room till my doubts are satisfied."
Then the old woman came up, made a deep obeisance to the Duchess, and said, "You give me courage to speak, my noble, worthy lady. I must tell you, that if this ungodly young woman is my daughter, I shall know her by a violet mark between her shoulders, and another on the left instep. If she would but come with me into another room-"
"I will not uncover myself before that country-woman," said Bertalda, proudly turning away.
"But before me, you will," rejoined the Duchess gravely. "You shall go with me into that room, young woman, and the good dame will accompany us." They withdrew together, leaving the party in silent suspense. In a few minutes they came back; Bertalda was deadly pale, and the Duchess said, "Truth is truth, and I am bound to declare that our Lady Hostess has told us perfectly right. Bertalda is the Fisherman's daughter; more than that, it concerns nobody to know." And the princely pair departed, taking with them their adopted child, and followed (upon a sign from the Duke) by the Fisherman and his wife. The rest of the assembly broke up, in silence or with secret murmurs, and Undine sank into Huldbrand's arms, weeping bitterly.
XII.-HOW THEY LEFT THE IMPERIAL CITY
There was certainly much to displease the Lord of Ringstetten in the events of this day; yet he could not look back upon them, without feeling proud of the guileless truth and the generosity of heart shown by his lovely wife. "If indeed her soul was my gift," thought he, "it is nevertheless much better than my own;" and he devoted himself to the task of soothing her grief, and determined he would take her away the next morning from a spot now so full of bitter recollections.
They were mistaken, however, in thinking that she had lost in the eyes of the world by this adventure. So prepared were the minds of the people to find something mysterious in her, that her strange discovery of Bertalda's origin scarcely surprised them; while, on the other hand, everyone that heard of Bertalda's history and of her passionate behaviour, was moved with indignation. Of this, the Knight and Undine were not aware; nor would it have given them any comfort, for she was still as jealous of Bertalda's good name as of her own. Upon the whole, they had no greater wish than to leave the town without delay.
At daybreak next morning, Undine's chariot was in readiness at the door, and the steeds of Huldbrand and of his squires stood around it, pawing the ground with impatience. As the Knight led his fair bride to the door, a fishing girl accosted them. "We want no fish," said Huldbrand; "we are just going away." The girl began to sob bitterly, and they then recognised her as Bertalda. They immediately turned back into the house with her; and she said that the Duke and Duchess had been so incensed at her violence the day before, as to withdraw their protection from her, though not without giving her a handsome allowance. The Fisherman too had received a liberal gift, and had departed that evening with his wife, to return to the promontory. "I would have gone with them," she continued, "but the old Fisherman, whom they call my father-"
"And so he is, Bertalda," interrupted Undine. "He is your father. For the man you saw at the fountain told me how it is. He was trying to persuade me that I had better not take you to Ringstetten, and he let drop the secret."
"Well then," said Bertalda, "my father-if so it must be-my father said, 'You shall not live with us till you are an altered creature. Take courage and come across the haunted forest to us; that will show that you sincerely wish to belong to your parents. But do not come in your finery; be like what you are, a fisherman's daughter.' And I will do as he bids me; for the whole world has forsaken me, and I have nothing left, but to live and die humbly in a poor hut, alone with my lowly parents. I do dread the forest very much. They say it is full of grim spectres, and I am so timid! But what can I do? I came here only to implore the Lady of Ringstetten's pardon for my rude language yesterday. I have no doubt you meant what you did kindly, noble Dame; but you little knew what a trial your words would be to me, and I was so alarmed and bewildered, that many a hasty, wicked word escaped my lips. Ah forgive me, forgive me! I am unhappy enough already. Only consider what I was yesterday morning, even at the beginning of your feast, and what I am now."
Her words were lost in a flood of bitter tears, and Undine, equally affected, fell weeping on her neck. It was long before her emotion would let her speak: at length she said, "You shall go to Ringstetten with us; all shall be as we had settled it before; only call me Undine again, and not 'Lady' and 'noble Dame.' You see, we began by being exchanged in our cradles; our lives have been linked from that hour, and we will try to bind them so closely that no human power shall sever us. Come with us to Ringstetten, and all will be well. We will live like sisters there, trust me for arranging that." Bertalda looked timidly at Huldbrand. The sight of this beautiful, forsaken maiden affected him; he gave her his hand and encouraged her kindly to trust herself to him and his wife. "As to your parents," said he, "we will let them know why you do not appear;" and he would have said much more concerning the good old folks, but he observed that Bertalda shuddered at the mention of them, and therefore dropped the subject. He gave her his arm, placed first her and then Undine in the carriage, and rode cheerfully after them; he urged the drivers on so effectually, that they very soon found themselves out of sight of the city, and beyond the reach of sad recollections-and the two ladies could fully enjoy the beautiful country through which the road wound along.