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Chapter XI. Bertalda’s Birthday. Undine by by Friedrich de la Motte Fouque. Illustrated by Arthur Rackham (1909)

CHAPTER XI
BERTALDA'S BIRTHDAY

Here beginneth the story of the feast of Bertalda's name-day, how it fared for those who took part in it and in what sort it ended.

Bertalda. Undine by by Friedrich de la Motte Fouque. Illustrated by Arthur Rackham (1909)

Now the company were sitting at dinner, and Bertalda, who shone like some goddess of spring with her flowers and her jewels given her by her foster-parents and friends, was placed between Undine and Huldbrand. When the rich repast was ended, and the last course had been served, the doors remained open, as the good old German custom hath it, so that the common people might look on and bear a part in the festivity of the nobles. Servants were bearing cake and wine among the spectators. Huldbrand and Bertalda, for their part, waiting with scarce-concealed impatience till the secret might be divulged, kept their eyes fixed on Undine. Silent, however, she still remained; only that now and again she smiled to herself in her hidden joy. Those who knew of the promise she had made, might espy well enough that she was ever on the point of making the revelation, and that it was only by a sort of gay self-denial that she repressed her longing, as children are wont to do when they defer to the last their choicest dainties. Bertalda and Huldbrand shared this delightful feeling, looking forward with impatient hope to Undine’s message. Just at that moment some of the guests pressed Undine to sing. The time was opportune, and when her lute had been brought to her, she sang as followeth:

Fair was the morn and gay the flowers,
The grasses sweet and tall:
But there on the verge of the glassy lake
Was a pearl outshining all.

What glitters there amid the grass?
A blossom white as snow?
Or is it a gem of Heavenly light
Fallen to earth below?

’Tis an infant child, so frail and dear,
And while it dreams it plays
With rosy buds and happy flowers,
And grasps the morning rays.

Ah, whence, poor stranger, art thou here
From far and unknown strand?
The waves of the lake have borne thee on
To an unfamiliar land.

Nay put not forth, O little child,
Thy tiny hands outspread:
No answering hand will meet thine own
Voiceless that flowery bed.

The flowers may deck themselves full sweet,
And sweetly scent the air;
But none can press thee to its heart
With the love of a mother’s care.

So early at the gate of life
Has dawned an orphan’s lot;
The highest blessing thou hast missed
And yet thou know’st it not.

A noble duke comes riding by,
And stops, beholding thee:
He takes thee to his castle-halls,
A maid of high degree.

Great is the boon and great thy gain,
Thou’rt fairest in the land:
Yet, ah, the purest joy of all
Is lost–on an unknown strand!

With a sad smile Undine let fall her lute, and the eyes of Bertalda’s foster-parents filled full of tears.

“Ay, ay,” quoth the duke, “’twas so indeed that I found thee, my poor orphan,” and he seemed deeply moved; “the fair singer says truly. The purest joy of all we have had no power to give thee!”

“But now listen,” said Undine, “for we must hear how it fared with the poor parents.” Thereat she struck the strings and sang as followeth:

The mother wanders through the house:
Wherever she might come,
She seeks with tears she knows not what,
And finds an empty home.

An empty home! oh, word of woe
To one that had been blest:
Who held her child throughout the day
And cradled it to rest!

The beech is growing green again,
The sun shines on the shore;
But, mother, fruitless is thy search,
Thy babe comes back no more!

And when the breath of eve blows cool
And father home returns,
He tries to smile as he smiled of yore,–
But a tear his eyelid burns.

For him his hearth is desolate
And he finds but blank despair;
For he hears the wail of that mother pale
And no child to greet him there!

“Ah, in Heaven’s name,” cried Bertalda through her tears, “tell me, Undine, I pray thee, where are my parents? For surely thou must know; surely thou must have discovered; for else thou wouldst not so have torn my heart! Perchance they are here? Can it be so?” Her eyes glanced quickly over the brilliant company and rested on a lady of high rank who was seated hard by her foster-father.

But Undine turned her towards the door and her eyes shone with tender light. “Where, then,” quoth she, “are the poor parents who have waited so long!” Whereupon, look you, ’twas the old fisherman and eke his wife, who stepped hesitatingly forth from the crowd of spectators! They looked, and there was much question in their looks–first at Undine and then on the beautiful maiden said to be their daughter.

"Ay, 'tis she," murmured Undine, "'tis she, indeed!" And the two old people flung their arms round the neck of their long-lost child, weeping sore and praising God.

But little pleasure, I wis, did Bertalda gain therefrom. Angry and astonished, she tore herself from their embrace. A discovery such as this was more than her proud spirit could bear at a moment when she had fondly dreamed that still greater fortune was to be her lot–nay that she might come even to royal honours. Her rival, it seemed to her, had devised this plan so that she might be all the more signally humiliated before Huldbrand and the whole world. Undine she covered with reproaches; the old people she reviled; and bitter, hateful words, such as "liar," "deceiver," "bribed impostors," fell from her lips. Thereupon the old fisherman's wife said to herself in a low voice: "Ah me, she is become, I ween, a wicked girl, and yet I feel in my heart that she was born of me." As for the fisherman, he folded his hands and prayed silently that it might not be his daughter. Undine, pale as death, turned from the parents to Bertalda and from Bertalda to the parents. From the heaven of happiness of which she had dreamed she was of a sudden cast out, and such anguish and terror as she had never known even in dreams overwhelmed her thoughts.

"Hast thou a soul?" cried she, "hast thou indeed a soul, Bertalda?" She uttered these words over and over again as though to rouse her, despite her wrath, from some sudden madness or distracting nightmare. But when Bertalda only grew the hotter in her anger, while the parents whom she had rejected began to utter loud lamentation, and the guests, in eager dispute, took this side or that in the controversy, Undine asked with such dignity and seriousness to be allowed to speak in this, her husband's hall, that all were forthwith silenced. Then she moved to the upper end of the table, where Bertalda had sate her down; and, while every eye was fixed upon her, she spoke with modesty and pride the words that follow:

"My friends," quoth she, "I see that ye are troubled and angry, and truly, God wot, ye have marred my happy feast with your bickerings. But in sooth I know naught of your foolish ways and your harsh thoughts; nor indeed am I fain through all my life to become acquainted with them. No fault is it of mine that the matter hath turned out so ill; but, believe me an ye will, the fault may very well be with you, little as it so appears. Wherefore I have little to say; but one thing I must say. I have spoken naught but the truth. I cannot, nor I will not, give ye proof beyond these words of mine, but I declare it to be so. He told me of it, who lured Bertalda from her parents into the water, and who afterwards placed her on the green meadow in the duke's path."

"She is a sorceress!" cried Bertalda, "a witch who holdeth intercourse with evil spirits! Why, she confesseth it herself!"

"Nay, not so," quoth Undine, and a heaven of innocence and truth was in her eyes. "I am no witch: only look at me."

"False is she," saith Bertalda, "false and boastful. Nor can she prove that I am the child of these base-born people. My noble parents, I ask ye to take me from this company, and from this city, where they are only minded to bring me to shame." Nathless, the duke's sense of honour forbade him to move, while his wife was as firm as he.

"We must be careful," said she, "how we act. God forbid that we should take a step from this hall without due thought."

Thereupon the fisherman's wife drew near, and curtseying low to the duchess, she said these words: "Thou hast opened my heart, noble lady, for thou fearest God. If this wicked child be in sooth my daughter, I must tell thee that she hath a mark, like a violet, between her shoulders, and another like it on the instep of her left foot. If she will but come with me out of the hall---"

She hath a mark, like a violet, between her shoulders, and another like it on the instep of her left foot. Undine by by Friedrich de la Motte Fouque. Illustrated by Arthur Rackham (1909)

"I shall not bare myself before a peasant woman," cried Bertalda, turning proudly away.

"But before me thou wilt," said the duchess, very gravely. "Follow me into yonder room, and the good old woman shall come with us."

So the three disappeared, and the others remained where they were, waiting in silence. After a time they came back. Bertalda was deadly pale.

"Right is right," said the duchess; "needs must I therefore declare that our hostess hath spoken naught but the exact truth. Bertalda is the fisherman's daughter, and that is all that it is necessary to say."

Duke and duchess went out with their adopted daughter; at a sign from the duke, the fisherman and his wife followed. The other guests departed in silence, or with secret murmurs; and Undine sank weeping into Huldbrand's arms.

Chapter XI. The End. Undine by by Friedrich de la Motte Fouque. Illustrated by Arthur Rackham (1909)

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