The Water Spirit

: 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

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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


"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


"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


"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


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


"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.