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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Marriage of Undine
By Friedrich, Baron de La Motte-Fouqué (1777–1843)
 
From ‘Undine’

BEFORE the nuptial ceremony, and during its performance, Undine had shown a modest gentleness and maidenly reserve; but it now seemed as if all the wayward freaks that effervesced within her burst forth with an extravagance only the more bold and unrestrained. She teased her bridegroom, her foster-parents, and even the priest, whom she had just now revered so highly, with all sorts of childish tricks; but when the ancient dame was about to reprove her too frolicsome spirit, the knight in a few words imposed silence upon her by speaking of Undine as his wife.  1
  The knight was himself indeed just as little pleased with Undine’s childish behavior as the rest; but all his looks and half-reproachful words were to no purpose. It is true, whenever the bride observed the dissatisfaction of her husband—and this occasionally happened—she became more quiet, and placed herself beside him, stroked his face with caressing fondness, whispered something smilingly in his ear, and in this manner smoothed the wrinkles that were gathering on his brow. But the moment after, some wild whim would make her resume her antic movements; and all went worse than before.  2
  The priest then spoke in a kind although serious tone:—  3
  “My fair young maiden, surely no one can look on you without pleasure; but remember betimes so to attune your soul, that it may produce a harmony ever in accordance with the soul of your wedded bridegroom.”  4
  “Soul!” cried Undine, with a laugh. “What you say has a remarkably pretty sound; and for most people, too, it may be a very instructive and profitable caution. But when a person has no soul at all, how, I pray you, can such attuning be then possible? And this in truth is just my condition.”  5
  The priest was much hurt, but continued silent in holy displeasure, and turned away his face from the maiden in sorrow. She went up to him, however, with the most winning sweetness, and said:—  6
  “Nay, I entreat you, first listen to me, before you are angry with me; for your anger is painful to me, and you ought not to give pain to a creature that has not hurt you. Only have patience with me, and I will explain to you every word of what I meant.”  7
  It was evident that she had come to say something important; when she suddenly faltered as if seized with inward shuddering, and burst into a passion of tears. They were none of them able to understand the intenseness of her feelings; and with mingled emotions of fear and anxiety, they gazed on her in silence. Then wiping away her tears and looking earnestly at the priest, she at last said:—  8
  “There must be something lovely, but at the same time something most awful, about a soul. In the name of God, holy man, were it not better that we never shared a gift so mysterious?”  9
  Again she paused, and restrained her tears, as if waiting for an answer. All in the cottage had risen from their seats, and stepped back from her with horror. She, however, seemed to have eyes for no one but the holy man; an awful curiosity was painted on her features, which appeared terrible to the others.  10
  “Heavily must the soul weigh down its possessor,” she pursued, when no one returned her any answer—“very heavily! for already its approaching image overshadows me with anguish and mourning. And alas, I have till now been so merry and light-hearted!” and she burst into another flood of tears and covered her face with her veil.  11
  The priest, going up to her with a solemn look, now addressed himself to her, and conjured her, by the name of God most holy, if any spirit of evil possessed her, to remove the light covering from her face. But she sank before him on her knees, and repeated after him every sacred expression he uttered, giving praise to God, and protesting that she “wished well to the whole world.”  12
  The priest then spoke to the knight: “Sir bridegroom, I leave you alone with her whom I have united to you in marriage. So far as I can discover there is nothing of evil in her, but assuredly much that is wonderful. What I recommend to you is prudence, love, and fidelity.”  13
  Thus speaking, he left the apartment; and the fisherman with his wife followed him, crossing themselves.  14
  Undine had sunk upon her knees. She uncovered her face, and exclaimed, while she looked fearfully round upon Huldbrand, “Alas, you will now refuse to look upon me as your own; and I still have done nothing evil, poor unhappy child that I am!” She spoke these words with a look so infinitely sweet and touching, that her bridegroom forgot both the confession that had shocked and the mystery that had perplexed him; and hastening to her, he raised her in his arms. She smiled through her tears; and that smile was like the morning light playing upon a small stream. “You cannot desert me!” she whispered confidingly, and stroked the knight’s cheeks with her little soft hands. He turned away from the frightful thoughts that still lurked in the recesses of his soul, and were persuading him that he had been married to a fairy, or some spiteful and mischievous being of the spirit world. Only the single question, and that almost unawares, escaped from his lips:—  15
  “Dearest Undine, tell me this one thing: what was it you meant by ‘spirits of earth’ and ‘Kühleborn,’ when the priest stood knocking at the door?”  16
  “Tales! mere tales of children!” answered Undine laughing, now quite restored to her wonted gayety. “I first frightened you with them, and you frightened me. This is the end of my story, and of our nuptial evening.”  17
  “Nay, not so,” replied the enamored knight, extinguishing the tapers, and a thousand times kissing his beautiful and beloved bride; while, lighted by the moon that shone brightly through the windows, he bore her into their bridal apartment.  18
  The fresh light of morning woke the young married pair: but Huldbrand lay lost in silent reflection. Whenever, during the night, he had fallen asleep, strange and horrible dreams of spectres had disturbed him; and these shapes, grinning at him by stealth, strove to disguise themselves as beautiful females; and from beautiful females they all at once assumed the appearance of dragons. And when he started up, aroused by the intrusion of these hideous forms, the moonlight shone pale and cold before the windows without. He looked affrighted at Undine, in whose arms he had fallen asleep: and she was reposing in unaltered beauty and sweetness beside him. Then pressing her rosy lips with a light kiss, he again fell into a slumber, only to be awakened by new terrors.  19
  When fully awake he had thought over this connection. He reproached himself for any doubt that could lead him into error in regard to his lovely wife. He also confessed to her his injustice; but she only gave him her fair hand, sighed deeply, and remained silent. Yet a glance of fervent tenderness, an expression of the soul beaming in her eyes, such as he had never witnessed there before, left him in undoubted assurance that Undine bore him no ill-will.  20
  He then rose joyfully, and leaving her, went to the common apartment, where the inmates of the house had already met. The three were sitting round the hearth with an air of anxiety about them, as if they feared trusting themselves to raise their voice above a low, apprehensive undertone. The priest appeared to be praying in his inmost spirit, with a view to avert some fatal calamity. But when they observed the young husband come forth so cheerful, they dispelled the cloud that remained upon their brows: the old fisherman even began to laugh with the knight, till his aged wife herself could not help smiling with great good-humor.  21
  Undine had in the mean time got ready, and now entered the room: all rose to meet her, but remained fixed in perfect admiration—she was so changed, and yet the same. The priest, with paternal affection beaming from his countenance, first went up to her; and as he raised his hand to pronounce a blessing, the beautiful bride sank on her knees before him with religious awe; she begged his pardon in terms both respectful and submissive for any foolish things she might have uttered the evening before, and entreated him with emotion to pray for the welfare of her soul. She then rose, kissed her foster-parents, and after thanking them for all the kindness they had shown her, said:  22
  “Oh, I now feel in my inmost heart how much, how infinitely much, you have done for me, you dear, dear friends of my childhood!”  23
  At first she was wholly unable to tear herself away from their affectionate caresses; but the moment she saw the good old mother busy in getting breakfast, she went to the hearth, applied herself to cooking the food and putting it on the table, and would not suffer her to take the least share in the work.  24
  She continued in this frame of spirit the whole day: calm, kind, attentive—half matronly and half girlish. The three who had been longest acquainted with her expected every instant to see her capricious spirit break out in some whimsical change or sportive vagary. But their fears were quite unnecessary. Undine continued as mild and gentle as an angel. The priest found it all but impossible to remove his eyes from her; and he often said to the bridegroom:—  25
  “The bounty of Heaven, sir, through me its unworthy instrument, intrusted to you yesterday an invaluable treasure: cherish it as you ought, and it will promote your temporal and eternal welfare.”  26
  Toward evening Undine was hanging upon the knight’s arm with lowly tenderness, while she drew him gently out before the door, where the setting sun shone richly over the fresh grass and upon the high slender boles of the trees. Her emotion was visible; the dew of sadness and love swam in her eyes, while a tender and fearful secret seemed to hover upon her lips, but was only made known by hardly breathed sighs. She led her husband farther and farther onward without speaking. When he asked her questions, she replied only with looks, in which, it is true, there appeared to be no immediate answer to his inquiries, but a whole heaven of love and timid devotion. Thus they reached the margin of the swollen forest stream, and the knight was astonished to see it gliding away with so gentle a murmuring of its waves, that no vestige of its former swell and wildness was now discernible.  27
  “By morning it will be wholly drained off,” said the beautiful wife, almost weeping, “and you will then be able to travel, without anything to hinder you, whithersoever you will.”  28
  “Not without you, dear Undine,” replied the knight, laughing: “think only, were I disposed to leave you, both the Church and the spiritual powers, the emperor and the laws of the realm, would require the fugitive to be seized and restored to you.”  29
  “All this depends on you—all depends on you,” whispered his little companion, half weeping and half smiling. “But I still feel sure that you will not leave me; I love you too deeply to fear that misery. Now bear me over to that little island which lies before us. There shall the decision be made. I could easily, indeed, glide through that mere rippling of the water without your aid, but it is so sweet to lie in your arms; and should you determine to put me away, I shall have rested in them once more,… for the last time.”  30
  Huldbrand was so full of strange anxiety and emotion, that he knew not what answer to make her. He took her in his arms and carried her over, now first realizing the fact that this was the same little island from which he had borne her back to the old fisherman, the first night of his arrival. On the farther side he placed her upon the soft grass, and was throwing himself lovingly near his beautiful burden; but she said to him:—“Not here, but opposite me. I shall read my doom in your eyes, even before your lips pronounce it; now listen attentively to what I shall relate to you.” And she began:—  31
  “You must know, my own love, that there are beings in the elements which bear the strongest resemblance to the human race, and which at the same time but seldom become visible to you. The wonderful salamanders sparkle and sport amid the flames; deep in the earth the meagre and malicious gnomes pursue their revels; the forest spirits belong to the air, and wander in the woods; while in the seas, rivers, and streams live the widespread race of water spirits. These last, beneath resounding domes of crystal, through which the sky can shine with its sun and stars, inhabit a region of light and beauty; lofty coral-trees glow with blue and crimson fruits in their gardens; they walk over the pure sand of the sea, among exquisitely variegated shells, and amid whatever of beauty the old world possessed, such as the present is no more worthy to enjoy,—creations which the floods covered with their secret veils of silver; and now these noble monuments sparkle below, stately and solemn, and bedewed by the water, which loves them, and calls forth from their crevices delicate moss-flowers and enwreathing tufts of sedge.  32
  “Now, the nation that dwell there are very fair and lovely to behold, for the most part more beautiful than human beings. Many a fisherman has been so fortunate as to catch a view of a delicate maiden of the waters, while she was floating and singing upon the deep. He would then spread far the fame of her beauty; and to such wonderful females men are wont to give the name of Undines.—But what need of saying more? You, my dear husband, now actually behold an Undine before you.”  33
  The knight would have persuaded himself that his lovely wife was under the influence of one of her odd whims, and that she was only amusing herself and him with her extravagant inventions. He wished it might be so. But with whatever emphasis he said this to himself, he still could not credit the hope for a moment: a strange shivering shot through his soul; unable to utter a word, he gazed upon the sweet speaker with a fixed eye. She shook her head in distress, sighed from her full heart, and then proceeded in the following manner:—  34
  “We should be far superior to you, who are another race of the human family,—for we also call ourselves human beings, as we resemble them in form and features,—had we not one evil peculiar to ourselves. Both we and the beings I have mentioned as inhabiting the other elements vanish into air at death and go out of existence, spirit and body, so that no vestige of us remains; and when you hereafter awake to a purer state of being, we shall remain where sand and sparks and wind and waves remain. Thus, we have no souls; the element moves us, and again is obedient to our will while we live, though it scatters us like dust when we die; and as we have nothing to trouble us, we are as merry as nightingales, little gold-fishes, and other pretty children of nature.  35
  “But all beings aspire to rise in the scale of existence higher than they are. It was therefore the wish of my father, who is a powerful water prince in the Mediterranean Sea, that his only daughter should become possessed of a soul, although she should have to endure many of the sufferings of those who share that gift.  36
  “Now, the race to which I belong have no other means of obtaining a soul than by forming with an individual of your own the most intimate union of love. I am now possessed of a soul, and my soul thanks you, my best beloved, and never shall cease to thank you, if you do not render my whole future life miserable. For what will become of me, if you avoid and reject me? Still, I would not keep you as my own by artifice. And should you decide to cast me off, then do it now, and return alone to the shore. I will plunge into this brook, where my uncle will receive me; my uncle, who here in the forest, far removed from his other friends, passes his strange and solitary existence. But he is powerful, as well as revered and beloved by many great rivers; and as he brought me hither to the fisherman a light-hearted and laughing child, he will take me home to my parents a woman, gifted with a soul, with power to love and to suffer.”  37
  She was about to add something more, when Huldbrand with the most heartfelt tenderness and love clasped her in his arms, and again bore her back to the shore. There amid tears and kisses he first swore never to forsake his affectionate wife, and esteemed himself even more happy than Pygmalion, for whom Venus gave life to this beautiful statue, and thus changed it into a beloved wife. Supported by his arm, and in the confidence of affection, Undine returned to the cottage; and now she first realized with her whole heart how little cause she had for regretting what she had left—the crystal palaces of her mysterious father.  38
 
 
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