ERE A SUDDEN pain in his left hand, which hung beside him, checked the Knight in his tale, and he looked at his hand. Undine's pearly teeth had bitten one of his fingers sharply, and she looked very black at him. But the next moment that look changed into an expression of tender sadness, and she whispered low: "So you are faithless too!" Then she hid her face in her hands, and the Knight proceeded with his tale, although staggered and perplexed.
"That Bertalda is a high-spirited, extraordinary maid. On the second day she charmed me far less than the first, and on the third, less still. But I remained with her, because she was more gracious to me than to any other knight, and so it fell out that I asked her in jest for one of her gloves. 'You shall have it,' said she, 'if you will visit the haunted forest alone, and bring me an account of it.' It was not that I cared much for her glove, but the words had been spoken, and a knight that loves his fame does not wait to be twice urged to such a feat."
"I thought she had loved you," interrupted Undine.
"It looked like it," he replied.
"Well," cried the maiden, laughing, "she must be a fool indeed! To drive him away whom she loves! and into a haunted forest besides! The forest and its mysteries might have waited long enough, for me."
"I set out yesterday morning," continued the Knight, smiling kindly at Undine. "The stems of the trees looked so bright in the morning sunshine, as it played upon the green turf, and the leaves whispered together so pleasantly, that I could not but laugh at those who imagined any evil to lurk in such a beautiful place. I shall very soon have ridden through it and back again, thought I, pushing on cheerily, and before I was aware of it, I found myself in the depths of its leafy shades, and the plains behind me far out of sight. It then occurred to me that I was likely enough to lose my way in this wilderness of trees, and that this might be the only real danger to which the traveller was here exposed. So I halted, and took notice of the course of the sun; it was now high in the heavens.
"On looking up, I saw something black among the boughs of a tall oak. I took it for a bear, and seized my rifle; but it addressed me in a human voice, most hoarse and grating, saying: 'If I did not break off the twigs up here, what should we do to-night for fuel to roast you with, Sir Simpleton?' And he gnashed his teeth, and rattled the boughs, so as to startle my horse, which ran away with me before I could make out what kind of a devil it was."
"You should not mention his name," said the Fisherman, crossing himself; his wife silently did the same, while Undine turned her beaming eyes upon her lover, and said-
"He is safe now; it is well they did not really roast him. Go on, pretty youth."
He continued: "My terrified horse had almost dashed me against many a trunk and branch; he was running down with fright and heat, and yet there was no stopping him. At length he rushed madly toward the brink of a stony precipice; but here, as it seemed to me, a tall white man threw himself across the plunging animal's path, and made him start back, and stop. I then recovered the control of him, and found that, instead of a white man, my preserver was no other than a bright silvery brook, which gushed down from the hill beside me, checking and crossing my horse in his course."
"Thanks, dear brook!" cried Undine, clapping her hands. But the old man shook his head, and seemed lost in thought.
"Scarcely had I settled myself in the saddle, and got firm hold of my reins again," proceeded Huldbrand, "when an extraordinary little man sprang up beside me, wizen and hideous beyond measure; he was of a yellow-brown hue, and his nose almost as big as the whole of his body. He grinned at me in the most fulsome way with his wide mouth, bowing and scraping every moment. As I could not abide these antics, I thanked him abruptly, pulled my still-trembling horse another way, and thought I would seek some other adventure, or perhaps go home; for during my wild gallop the sun had passed his meridian, and was now declining westward. But the little imp sprang round like lightning, and stood in front of my horse again.
"'Make way!' cried I impatiently, 'the animal is unruly, and may run over you.'
"'Oh,' snarled the imp, with a laugh more disgusting than before, 'first give me a piece of coin for having caught your horse so nicely; but for me, you and your pretty beast would be lying in the pit down yonder: whew!'
"'Only have done with your grimaces,' said I, 'and take your money along with you, though it is all a lie: look there, it was that honest brook that saved me, not you-you pitiful wretch!' So saying, I dropped a gold coin into his comical cap, which he held out toward me like a beggar.
"I trotted on, but he still followed, screaming, and, with inconceivable rapidity, whisked up to my side. I put my horse into a gallop; he kept pace with me, though with much difficulty, and twisted his body into various frightful and ridiculous attitudes, crying at each step as he held up the money: 'Bad coin! bad gold! bad gold! bad coin!' And this he shrieked in such a ghastly tone, that you would have expected him to drop down dead after each cry.
"At last I stopped, much vexed, and asked, 'What do you want, with your shrieks? Take another gold coin; take two if you will, only let me alone.'
"He began his odious smirking again, and snarled, 'It's not gold, it's not gold that I want, young gentleman; I have rather more of that than I can use: you shall see.'
"All at once the surface of the ground became transparent; it looked like a smooth globe of green glass, and within it I saw a crowd of goblins at play with silver and gold. Tumbling about, head over heels they pelted each other in sport, making a toy of the precious metals, and powdering their faces with gold dust. My ugly companion stood half above, half below the surface; he made the others reach up to him quantities of gold, and showed it to me laughing, and then flung it into the fathomless depths beneath. He displayed the piece of gold I had given him to the goblins below, who held their sides with laughing and hissed at me in scorn. At length all their bony fingers pointed at me together; and louder and louder, closer and closer, wilder and wilder grew the turmoil, as it rose toward me, till not my horse only, but I myself was terrified; I put spurs into him, and cannot tell how long I may have scoured the forest this time.
"When at last I halted, the shades of evening had closed in. Through the branches I saw a white footpath gleaming and hoped it must be a road out of the forest to the town. I resolved to work my way thither; but lo! an indistinct, dead-white face, with ever-changing features, peeped at me through the leaves; I tried to avoid it, but wherever I went, there it was. Provoked, I attempted to push my horse against it; then it splashed us both over with white foam, and we turned away, blinded for the moment. So it drove us, step by step, further and further from the footpath, and indeed never letting us go on undisturbed but in one direction. While we kept to this, it was close upon our heels, but did not thwart us. Having looked round once or twice, I observed that the white foaming head was placed on a gigantic body, equally white. I sometimes doubted my first impression, and thought it merely a waterfall, but I never could satisfy myself that it was so. Wearily did my horse and I precede this active white pursuer, who often nodded at us, as if saying, 'That's right! that's right!' and it ended by our issuing from the wood here, where I rejoiced to see your lawn, the lake, and this cottage, and where the long white man vanished."