Now the story here telleth how next morning Huldbrand, waking from his sleep, found not his wife by his side; and how forthwith the strange thoughts returned to his mind that his marriage, ay, and sweet Undine herself, were but delusions and sorceries. But as he mused thus, lo, Undine came into the room and sate her down beside him.
"Dear love," saith she, "I have been out betimes to see if my uncle keeps his word. And he hath already led all the waters back again into his own quiet channel, and behold he floweth once more through the forest, lonely and dreaming, as is his wont. His friends in air and water have also gone to rest; all is again peaceful and orderly around us, and thou mayest travel homewards, when thou wilt, dryshod."
Now to Huldbrand it seemed that he was in some waking dream, and little enough could he understand the strange kindred of his wife. Nathless, he made no comment on the matter, and the exquisite grace of Undine soon lulled to rest every uneasy misgiving. When, after some space of time, he stood with her before the door, and looked over the green peninsula with its boundary of clear waters, he felt so happy in this cradle of his love that he could not forbear to say:–
"Why must we needs travel to-day? Rarely enough shall we find happier days in the world yonder than those we have spent in this quiet shelter. Nay, but let us see the sun go down here, twice or thrice more!"
"As my lord willeth," said Undine, humbly. "It is only that the old people will in any case part from me with pain, and when they now for the first time discern the true soul within me, and know how heartily I can love and honour them, methinks their aged eyes will be dimmed with many tears. At present they still hold my quietness and gentleness for nothing better than what they were once–the calm of the lake when the air is still; and, as matters now are, they will full soon learn to cherish a flower or a tree as they have cherished me. Let me not, therefore, I beg thee, reveal to them this soul of mine, so loving and so newly-won, just at the moment when they must lose it for this world; and how can I conceal it if we remain longer together?"
Huldbrand perceived that she was right, and forthwith spoke to the old people of the journey which he proposed to undertake that very hour. The priest offered to bear company with the young pair, and so, after taking a hasty farewell, he and the knight helped the bride to mount the horse and both walked with rapid steps by her side across the dry channel of the forest stream into the wood beyond. Silently and bitterly did Undine weep, while, as for the old people, they cried aloud. It seemed that all that they were losing in their foster-child was now borne in upon their minds.
Now the three travellers had reached in silence the densest shades of the forest. Right fair was it to see how, under the green canopy of leaves, the beautiful Undine sat on the richly-caparisoned steed, while on one side walked the venerable priest in the white garb of his order, and on the other strode the knight in gay and splendid attire, girt with his sword. Huldbrand had no eyes save for his wife. Undine, who had dried her tears, had no eyes save for him. Full soon there was naught between them but a mute converse of glance and gesture, from which they were roused at length by the low talk of the priest with a fourth traveller, who, meantime, had joined them unobserved.
He was clad in a white garment, almost like the habit of the monk, only that the hood hung low over his face; and his raiment with its vast folds floated round him in such sort that ever and anon he must needs gather it up and throw it over his arm or dispose of it in some fashion, albeit that in no way did it let or hinder his movements. When the young couple first became aware of his presence, he was speaking as followeth:
"Sir Priest," quoth he, "for many years have I dwelt thus in the forest and yet no hermit am I, in the proper sense of the word. For, as I have said, of penance I know naught, nor do I think myself to have any special need of it. I love the forest in that it hath a beauty peculiar to itself; and it pleaseth me well to pass in my white flowing garments midmost the leaves and dusky shadows, while here and there a sweet sunbeam cometh upon me unawares."
"Thou art a strange man," saith the priest, "and full willingly would I know thee better."
"And to pass from one thing to another," returned the stranger, "what sort of man art thou?"
"Father Heilmann am I called," quoth the priest, "and I come from the monastery of Our Lady beyond the lake."
"Indeed," was the reply, "my name is Kühleborn, and, so far forth as courtesy requireth, I might claim the title of Lord Kühleborn or Free-lord Kühleborn; for free am I as the birds of the forest, perchance somewhat freer. For example, I have a word to say to the lady there."
And, ere they saw what he would be at, he was on the other side of the priest, hard by Undine. He raised himself up to whisper something in her ear, but she turned away with alarm, and cried out "Nothing more have I to do with thee!"
"Ho, ho," laughed the stranger, "hast made so grand a marriage that no longer thou recognisest thy relations? Hast forgotten thy uncle Kühleborn, who so faithfully bore thee on his back to this region?"
"Nathless I beg of thee," quoth Undine, "not to appear to me again. I fear thee now. What if my husband were to learn to avoid me, when he seeth me in such strange company and with such relations!"
"Little niece," saith Kühleborn, "forget not that I am here with thee as a guide–else might the malicious goblins of the earth play some stupid pranks with thee. Let me therefore go on quickly at thy side. The old priest had better memory for me than thou hast, for he told me that I seemed familiar to him and that perchance I was with him in the boat, out of which he fell into the water. In sooth was I, for I was the waterspout that threw him out of it and washed him safely ashore for thy bridals."
Undine and the knight turned then to Father Heilmann, but he seemed walking as it were in a dream, and perceived naught of what was passing. Thereupon said Undine to Khüleborn, "Lo! there I see the end of the forest. No need have we of thy help, and 'tis only thou who scarest us. I beg thee, therefore, in all love and goodwill, vanish and leave us in peace."
But Kühleborn was angered thereat, his face grew hideous, and right fiercely did he gnash his teeth at Undine, who screamed aloud and called on her husband for help. Quick as lightning the knight sprang to the other side of the horse and aimed a stout blow with his sword at Kühleborn's head. But the blade struck against a waterfall, which was rushing down near them from a lofty crag, and with a splash, which sounded almost like a burst of laughter, it poured over them and drenched them to the skin. Whereat the priest of a sudden woke from his dream: "Long since," quoth he, "have I been expecting something of the sort, for the stream ran down from the heights so close to us. At the first, methought it was really a man and could speak with human voice."
Now, as the waterfall rushed down, it distinctly spoke to Huldbrand's ear in words like these:
I am not wroth,
Nor will I chide.
But ever guard, whate'er betide,
Thy wife as closely at thy side:
A few steps more and they were upon open ground. Bright shone the imperial city before them, and the evening sun, which gilded its towers, dried with its kindly beams the drenched garments of the travellers.
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