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The Water Spirit






Source: Folk-lore And Legends: German

About the middle of the sixteenth century, when Zuendorf was no larger
than it is at present, there lived at the end of the village, hard by
the church, one of that useful class of women termed midwives. She was
an honest, industrious creature, and what with ushering the new-born
into life, and then assisting in making garments for them, she
contrived to creep through the world in comfort, if not in complete
happiness.

The summer had been one of unusual drought, and the winter, of a
necessity, one of uncommon scarcity, so that when the spring arrived
the good woman had less to do than at any period in the preceding
seven years. In fact she was totally unemployed. As she mused one
night, lying abed, on the matter, she was startled by a sharp, quick
knock at the door of her cottage. She hesitated for a moment to answer
the call, but the knocking was repeated with more violence than
before. This caused her to spring out of bed without more delay, and
hasten to ascertain the wish of her impatient visitor. She opened the
door in the twinkling of an eye, and a man, tall of stature, enveloped
in a large dark cloak, stood before her.

"My wife is in need of thee," he said to her abruptly; "her time is
come. Follow me."

"Nay, but the night is dark, sir," replied she. "Whither do you desire
me to follow?"

"Close at hand," he answered, as abruptly as before. "Be ye quick and
follow me."

"I will but light my lamp and place it in the lantern," said the
woman. "It will not cost me more than a moment's delay."

"It needs not, it needs not," repeated the stranger; "the spot is
close by. I know every foot of ground. Follow, follow!"

There was something so imperative, and at the same time so
irresistible, in the manner of the man that she said not another word,
but drawing her warm cloak about her head followed him at once. Ere
she was aware of the course he had taken, so dark was the night, and
so wrapt up was she in the cloak and in her meditations, she found
herself on the bank of the Rhine, just opposite to the low fertile
islet which bears the same name as the village, and lies at a little
distance from the shore.

"How is this, good sir?" she exclaimed, in a tone of surprise and
alarm. "You have missed the way--you have left your road. Here is no
further path."

"Silence, and follow," were the only words he spoke in reply; but
they were uttered in such a manner as to show her at once that her
best course was obedience.

They were now at the edge of the mighty stream; the rushing waters
washed their feet. The poor woman would fain have drawn back, but she
could not, such was the preternatural power exercised over her by her
companion.

"Fear not; follow!" he spoke again, in a kinder tone, as the current
kissed the hem of her garments.

He took the lead of her. The waters opened to receive him. A wall of
crystal seemed built up on either side of the vista. He plunged into
its depths; she followed. The wild wave gurgled over them, and they
were walking over the shiny pebbles and glittering sands which strewed
the bed of the river.

And now a change came over her indeed. She had left all on earth in
the thick darkness of a starless spring night, yet all around her was
lighted up like a mellow harvest eve, when the sun shines refulgent
through masses of golden clouds on the smiling pastures and emerald
meadows of the west. She looked up, but she could see no cause for
this illumination. She looked down, and her search was equally
unsuccessful. She seemed to herself to traverse a great hall of
surpassing transparency, lighted up by a light resembling that given
out by a huge globe of ground glass. Her conductor still preceded
her. They approached a little door. The chamber within it contained
the object of their solicitude. On a couch of mother-of-pearl,
surrounded by sleeping fishes and drowsy syrens, who could evidently
afford her no assistance, lay the sick lady.

"Here is my wife," spake the stranger, as they entered this chamber.
"Take her in hand at once, and hark ye, mother, heed that she has no
injury through thee, or----"

With these words he waved his hand, and, preceded by the obedient
inhabitants of the river, who had until then occupied the chamber,
left the apartment.

The midwife approached her patient with fear and trembling; she knew
not what to anticipate. What was her surprise to perceive that the
stranger was like any other lady. The business in hand was soon
finished, and midwife and patient began to talk together, as women
will when an opportunity is afforded them.

"It surprises me much," quoth the former, "to see such a handsome
young lady as you are buried down here in the bottom of the river. Do
you never visit the land? What a loss it is to you!"

"Hush, hush!" interposed the Triton's lady, placing her forefinger
significantly on her lips; "you peril your life by talking thus
without guard. Go to the door; look out, that you may see if there be
any listeners, then I will tell something to surprise you."

The midwife did as she was directed. There was no living being within
earshot.

"Now, listen," said the lady.

The midwife was all ear.

"I am a woman; a Christian woman like yourself," she continued,
"though I am here now in the home of my husband, who is the spirit of
these mighty waters."

"God be praised!" ejaculated her auditor.

"My father was the lord of the hamlet of Rheidt, a little above
Luelsdorf, and I lived there in peace and happiness during my girlish
days. I had nothing to desire, as every wish was gratified by him as
soon as it was formed. However, as I grew to womanhood I felt that my
happiness had departed. I knew not whither it had gone, or why, but
gone it was. I felt restless, melancholy, wretched. I wanted, in
short, something to love, but that I found out since. Well, one day a
merry-making took place in the village, and every one was present at
it. We danced on the green sward which stretches to the margin of the
river; for that day I forgot my secret grief, and was among the gayest
of the gay. They made me the queen of the feast, and I had the homage
of all. As the sun was going down in glory in the far west, melting
the masses of clouds into liquid gold, a stranger of a noble mien
appeared in the midst of our merry circle. He was garbed in green from
head to heel, and seemed to have crossed the river, for the hem of his
rich riding-cloak was dripping with wet. No one knew him, no one cared
to inquire who he was, and his presence rather awed than rejoiced us.
He was, however, a stranger, and he was welcome. When I tell you that
stranger is my husband, you may imagine the rest. When the dance then
on foot was ended, he asked my hand. I could not refuse it if I would,
but I would not if I could. He was irresistible. We danced and danced
until the earth seemed to reel around us. I could perceive, however,
even in the whirl of tumultuous delight which forced me onward, that
we neared the water's edge in every successive figure. We stood at
length on the verge of the stream. The current caught my dress, the
villagers shrieked aloud, and rushed to rescue me from the river.

"'Follow!' said my partner, plunging as he spoke into the foaming
flood.

"I followed. Since then I have lived with him here. It is now a
century since, but he has communicated to me a portion of his own
immortality, and I know not age, neither do I dread death any longer.
He is good and kind to me, though fearful to others. The only cause of
complaint I have is his invariable custom of destroying every babe to
which I give birth on the third day after my delivery. He says it is
for my sake, and for their sakes, that he does so, and he knows best."

She sighed heavily as she said this.

"And now," resumed the lady, "I must give you one piece of advice,
which, if you would keep your life, you must implicitly adopt. My
husband will return. Be on your guard, I bid you. He will offer you
gold, he will pour out the countless treasures he possesses before
you, he will proffer you diamonds and pearls and priceless gems,
but--heed well what I say to you--take nothing more from him than you
would from any other person. Take the exact sum you are wont to
receive on earth, and take not a kreutzer more, or your life is not
worth a moment's purchase. It is forfeit."

"He must be a cruel being, indeed," ejaculated the midwife. "God
deliver me from this dread and great danger."

"See you yon sealed vessels?" spake the lady, without seeming to heed
her fright, or hear her ejaculations.

The midwife looked, and saw ranged on an upper shelf of the apartment
about a dozen small pots, like pipkins, all fast sealed, and labelled
in unknown characters.

"These pots," pursued she, "contain the souls of those who have been,
like you, my attendants in childbirth, but who, for slighting the
advice I gave them, as I now give you, and permitting a spirit of
unjust gain to take possession of their hearts, were deprived of life
by my husband. Heed well what I say. He comes. Be silent and
discreet."

As she spake the water spirit entered. He first asked his wife how she
did, and his tones were like the rushing sound of a current heard far
off. Learning from her own lips that all was well with her, he turned
to the midwife and thanked her most graciously.

"Now, come with me," he said, "I must pay thee for thy services."

She followed him from the sick-chamber to the treasury of the palace.
It was a spacious crystal vault, lighted up, like the rest of the
palace, from without, but within it was resplendent with treasures of
all kinds. He led her to a huge heap of shining gold which ran the
whole length of the chamber.

"Here," said he, "take what you will. I put no stint upon you."

The trembling woman picked up a single piece of the smallest coin she
could find upon the heap.

"This is my fee," she spake. "I ask no more than a fair remuneration
for my labour."

The water spirit's brow blackened like a tempestuous night, and he
showed his green teeth for a moment as if in great ire, but the
feeling, whatever it was, appeared to pass away as quickly as it
came, and he led her to a huge heap of pearls.

"Here," he said, "take what you will. Perhaps you like these better?
They are all pearls of great price, or may be you would wish for some
memento of me. Take what you will."

But she still declined to take anything more, although he tempted her
with all his treasures. She had not forgotten the advice of her
patient.

"I desire nothing more from you, great prince as you are, than I
receive from one of my own condition." This was her uniform answer to
his entreaties--

"I thank you, but I may not take aught beside my due."

"If," said he, after a short pause, "you had taken more than your due,
you would have perished at my hands. And now," proceeded the spirit,
"you shall home, but first take this. Fear not."

As he spake he dipped his hand in the heap of gold and poured forth a
handful into her lap.

"Use that," he continued, "use it without fear. It is my gift. No evil
will come of it; I give you my royal word."

He beckoned her onward without waiting for her reply, and they were
walking once again through the corridors of the palace.

"Adieu!" he said, waving his hand to her, "adieu!"

Darkness fell around her in a moment. In a moment more she awoke, as
from a dream, in her warm bed.





Next: Peter Klaus

Previous: The Grey Mare In The Garret



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