The gold-hued light of the dipping sun touched the castle and the oak trees growing all around. It stepped in through the windows of the banqueting hall and basked on the gallery and the sweeping staircase leading up to it. In front was a most ancient and mossy grove of oaks which stood in a circle around a pond, leaning their heads in towards each other like elders in council.
Into this scene came the kitchen boy. There was sauce on his cheek and broth down his front, a dusting of flour in his hair and a bright bloom on his face from standing near the hot ovens. He stepped a little stealthily and furtively, with much peeping and peering. He shut the side door, cast a final look, and crept on past the stairs. But a sudden voice stopped him mid-step.
‘Come, come, my dear boy, don’t keep your uncle Vaňek in the dark! What is all the bustle about? The hall is swarming with guests, and the kitchens are all fevered work, with spoons, plates and bowls on every table. As for the maids, they haven’t breath left to say two words!’
The boy crossed his arms with a very self-important air. ‘We of the Prince’s inner circle do know these things…’
‘Well then, tell your story,’ said his uncle, good-naturedly but growing rather impatient.
‘We are all in a great hurry, dearest Uncle Vanya,’ replied the boy, leaning in with a knowing, conspiratorial look. ‘From dawn till dusk and all through the night we work without rest or respite! And have you ever heard of such a thing? Just think of it!’
‘Of what, my boy?’ frowned the gamekeeper.
‘The prince found a creature in your forest and brought her home with him! It seems he wants to marry her. He came upon her deep, deep in your gloomy forest. But wherever he found her, I’d be afraid of her! She utters not a single word, she has not a drop of red blood, she goes around as if in a trance – a fine bride she’ll make!’
‘So the rumours I’ve heard are true!’ He shook his head. ‘As you say, it will not end well. God deliver us from evil. There is, I suspect, some strange sorcery behind the Prince’s infatuation.’
The kitchen boy’s eyes grew wide with fear. He crouched at his uncle’s feet where he sat on a bench beside the pond.
‘The forest is haunted by sinister powers,’ continued the gamekeeper. ‘Stranger still are the creatures which gather there at midnight. Weaklings are in danger of being caught by Ježibaba the witch, and at the lake the Vodník will drag you fast down into the depths.’
At this, the kitchen boy started up and peered nervously into the pool. All he saw was his own reflection, but it frightened him nonetheless. He snatched up a stick and poked at it a bit.
‘And any who see the wood nymphs unclothed go mad with desire for love,’ the gamekeeper added sternly. ‘Lord deliver us from that wickedness!’
‘Uncle, I’m frightened!’ cried the boy, tossing aside his stick and backing quickly away from the water.
‘I think I know very well why. May the Lord have mercy on your sinful soul!’
The kitchen boy shuffled and sullenly adjusted his cap. Then, making an effort to regain his earlier air, he shrugged and picked up the stick. ‘The Prince was once smiling and carefree,’ he said, poking about in the leaves. ‘But no longer! He has been changed. He wonders around as if in a dream. Auntie Háta, his old nurse, prays for him day and night. And when the priest heard of the creature from the forest, he came to warn our prince. But said the Prince: “No, no, she stays! I’ll not hear another word against her!”’
‘So that is why all the noble guests are here and why the pantry’s nearly bare!’ said Uncle Vaňek, stroking his beard. ‘And also why I had to quickly catch and bring all that game!’
The boy crossed his arms and gave a grownup sort of nod. ‘With luck, nothing will come of it and another woman will profit from our preparations! Old Háta says the Prince’s heart is fickle, that his love is already cooling. His head has been turned by a beautiful foreign princess. It is on her his mind now dwells.’
‘God be praised,’ said Uncle Vaňek, wiping his brow. ‘May He bless and keep our prince and give him peace. If I were him I’d chase out that forest creature before she drags me down to hell!’
‘Here comes the prince and his forest witch!’ the boy cried suddenly, pointing to one of the doors leading out onto the gallery.
The gamekeeper jumped up. ‘I don’t want to see her! May God save us all!’
And the two of them fled in opposite directions.
The sun had set and evening was upon the castle and the park. The dying day stained the sky red from west to east, and the forest-clad mountains were a dark, hazy blue in the distance. Rusalka came out on the prince’s arm attired in a beautiful gown of blue silk chiffon beaded with tiny river pearls.
But radiant as her loveliness was, her face was sad and pale. She lingered at the banister and gazed silently out at the dusky park.
The Prince watched her with troubled eyes. ‘You have now dwelt with me a week,’ he said standing on the steps as she passed down. ‘And still you seem but an apparition. In vain I search your eyes to find your secret! Will our marriage bring what I have long yearned for? Will you ever burn with passion as a true woman should?’
Rusalka turned her head away in silent anguish.
‘Why is your embrace so cold?’ cried the Prince. ‘Why do you flee from passion? Why do I tremble afraid when I hold you in my arms? In vain I try to banish this feeling, yet I cannot free myself from you – even if you were a hundred times colder I still would have to possess you!’
His final passionate words breathed a fragile delight across pale Rusalka’s face. But before she could take the Prince’s hand, a sound disturbed the peaceful dusk. It was the thick, dull rustle of costly silken skirts and the tip-tap of a lady’s fancy feet. It was the beautiful Foreign Princess. Her thick red hair was piled high on her head and adorned with glittering rubies. Her long, full red brocade skirt and green silk train whooshed along with her progress, a jewelled belt marked the curve of her form, and rings glimmered on her slightly plump fingers.
When she caught sight of the Prince and Rusalka down below, the Foreign Princess' eyes hardened and her nostrils flared subtly. Anger simmered in her heart. There that freakish, waif-like creature stands, in the place where I by rights should be, thought she. But if I cannot have him, neither shall she! They will not live in happiness if I have anything to do with it!
And the princess stepped forward. ‘Lover you may be, Prince, but you are still a host too – I trust you have not forgotten?’ She seductively tilted her head a little to the side. ‘Must your guests be but onlookers to your happiness, and partake of no enjoyment themselves?’ The foreign princess had come down the stairs, and now stood between the Prince and Rusalka.
‘Your reproach is justified, Princess,’ said the Prince, stepping up and bending to kiss the hand she held out. ‘From your lips I hear it gladly. Even the bridegroom, your highness, must be your servant above all else!’
Feeling a little more satisfied, the Foreign Princess grandly turned her eyes upon Rusalka. ‘How come this beauty who is queen of your heart looks on mutely while you neglect your guests?’ she demanded, pointing her jewel-weighted finger at the shrinking girl. ‘Are her eyes so full of feeling that she speaks to you through them alone?’
Rusalka regarded the foreign princess with pained, angry eyes. But she could say nothing.
‘My bride’s eyes have forgotten to remind me of my duty!’ said the embarrassed Prince. ‘Allow me to now make amends to you, Princess, for my earlier negligence.’ He offered her his hand.
But before the Foreign Princess could take it, Rusalka seized the Prince’s hand and fell to her knees at his feet.
‘What is the matter with you? Why do you tremble?’ the Prince demanded, angrily freeing himself. ‘Go, make haste to prepare yourself for the ball!’
And he turned from her and gave the Foreign Princess his escorting arm.
As he led the regal lady away, she looked bitterly back to Rusalka. ‘Dress in your finest gown; I might have his gallantry, but it is you who has his heart.’
Rusalka watched as the Prince and the Foreign Princess passed up the stairs and through the gallery. But her relief was stabbed with bitterness when she saw the Prince press the Foreign Princess’ hand to his lips as they paused in the doorway. Her rival’s gratified laughter showered on Rusalka’s ears like winter raindrops: bitingly cold and hard with ice. She turned away and clutched the banister with her pale, trembling hands. Night had fallen. The silver moon watched the darkened world from high in the heavens above. The all-seeing moon offered little comfort now. Sad and heartbroken, Rusalka departed through the gallery.
Lights now shone bright from the hall, whence festive music and merry laughter drifted. More guests were arriving in the hall by the minute. Long tables almost groaned beneath the weight of the food piled high upon them, and flowers from the meadows, forests and gardens decked the hall. Looking like a host of flowers themselves, the maidens passed in dressed in silks of pink, red, yellow, purple, green and blue. Jewels glittered at fair throats and dangled from delicate wrists, and their lace and gold headdresses rayed about them like halos.
A group of fine, handsome young lads stepped forward and offered their arms to the maidens. With faintly flushed cheeks and smiles all the brighter for their occasional shyness, they accepted and stepped out to dance, forming pairs and then circles. They circled faster, then spun away and were caught up by the lads, who tossed the light-footed girls high and set them down. The vigorous stumps of the lads’ boots and the laughter of the girls passed out through the open doors and drifted down into the night-cloaked park. A faint white mist trailed after the night here and there among the oaks and birches, like a bride’s tattered veil floating from her dark-haired head. This vaporous veil gathered thickest around the pool beneath the ancient oak trees.
There was a stirring beneath the water. Dark ripples rayed out to the mossy stones ringing it. A shape moved in the depths, rising closer and closer. It was the Vodník. His thick, dark, blue-and-green hued mane rose slowly up out of the waters. River pearls glimmered in it like fireflies in the night. His eyes, dark and blue as a deep lake, were full of sadness.
‘Poor, pale Rusalka!’ he lamented. ‘Caught in the humans’ web. Alas! Alas! Alas!’
With water streaming off him and water-plants clinging to him, the Vodník emerged from the pool to stand upon the rocks. From there, he looked in through the windows of the bright, gaily animated hall.
‘You cannot find in this world what my own realm is rich in, my poor Rusalka,’ he muttered, shaking his head. ‘Human or not, a primeval bond fetters you to the waters. Whether he loves you or not, he cannot be yours. Poor, pale Rusalka, caught in the web of human evil! Your sisters yearn to embrace you, the waters long to receive you. But when you do return to us, you will bring death with you. Weary of life will you come, and cursed eternally… Poor, pale Rusalka!’
Bubbles rose around the Vodník as he sank lower in the water. A joyful chorus sung by youthful voices came from the hall:
White roses were blooming
All along the roadside
As on a day fine and fair
A lad was riding
To see his maiden dear.
Hurry, my boy, and do not be hiding,
For near is the year
When you a man shall be evermore.
When upon this way
You come riding back as before,
It will be red roses that sway
Alongside the path and not white;
They are the first to succumb to the ray
Of the sun burning above us so bright.
The roses of fiery red
Shall adorn your bridal bed.
Within the hall, the smiling Prince gave the Foreign Princess his arm and led her to join the dance.
The Vodník sadly shook his head once again. ‘It is white water lilies which will be your sad companions, my poor Rusalka. No red roses will ever adorn your marriage bed…’
As the Prince danced with the Foreign Princess, he whispered low in her ear and looked attentively upon her, and here and there brushed her arm or neck with his fingers. The onlookers noted it well; there was much murmuring and shaking of heads among their ranks. As the hands of the great clock neared midnight, the Prince had not once offered Rusalka his hand to join the dance. With her eyes downcast and her pale hands tightly entwined, she shrunk in a corner. Now and then she started as a deer grazing a forest clearing might, and darted her wide blue eyes about the room. She saw the festive throng; handsome lads offering escorting hands to blushing favoured maids, matrons smiling as they remembered their own morning years, wise silver heads nodding in considered discussion, young husbands leaning in close to their fair brides. Rusalka began to tremble and shudder. It felt as though ice flowed in her veins. The waters called to her as the air calls to the hunted bird.
Desperate Rusalka flung open a door and stumbled into the gallery. Deathly pale and with tears making silvered paths down her cheeks, she ran from the castle and into the park. She flew to the pool, heedless of the mud and leaves her chiffon hem and silver slippers gathered as she went.
‘Rusalka, my daughter!’ cried the surprised Vodník.
The girl fell to her knees at the water’s edge. ‘Dearest father!’
‘I come to your splendid palace and find you weeping already?’
Rusalka grasped the hand he held out to her. ‘Save me, save me, father! A terror has seized me; how I tremble and quake! Woe that I ever betrayed you; woe to any of us who come to know the humans! Alas! Alas that I ever saw a human form! Have mercy on me, father!’
‘What is it, my child?’ asked he. ‘What has happened to you?’
‘Another’s allure has captured the Prince’s heart, a throbbing, red-blooded human beauty. I, Rusalka from the forest, am nothing to him. He has forgotten me!’
‘The Prince has rejected you?’ asked the Vodník. ‘But he loved you so fervently! You must persevere, for there is surely hope of winning him back.’
‘No, father. Useless, useless it is! My heart is empty.’ And she laid her cheek upon the mossy stone and gazed sad and pale into the waters. ‘All my charms are for nothing, for I am only half human. He thinks of me, his Rusalka from the forest, no more. He dreams only of her whose eyes burn with accursed human passion. I, born from the cold, clear waters, blaze with no such passion. Useless, useless it is. My heart is empty…’ Her chill tears rolled silently down and dropped into the waters.
The Vodník shook his head mournfully.
‘I am cursed by you and rejected by him, nothing but a faint echo of Nature’s elements!’ sobbed Rusalka. ‘I am not nature-spirit, nor am I woman. I cannot live, yet I cannot die!’ And she plunged her hand into the dully reflected face gazing at her from the dark deep.
A noise from the castle made Rusalka lift her head. It was the Prince and the Foreign Princess, who appeared in the gallery.
‘Oh, see them, father!’ she cried, reaching out to the waters. ‘Save me! Save me!’
The Prince led the Foreign Princess down the sweeping steps and twirled her in his arms under the moonlight.
‘A strange fire lights your eyes, my prince,’ said the Foreign Princess. ‘Your words are becoming more ardent, your glances sweeter. How they enchant me! Say, my host, what is the meaning of this? Where is your chosen bride, she who has no name and will speak none? Where has she fled to? She ought to see her prince now!’
‘Where has she gone?’ The Prince removed his arms from her and turned away. ‘God alone knows.’ He looked into the darkened park with troubled eyes. Then he turned back and smiled upon the Foreign Princess. ‘It is you who have caused this change, not merely the charms of this summer night and its glowing moon. If you like, call it a whim that I loved her for a little while. My Princess!’ – he seized her hand – ‘blaze as bright fire where the pale moonlight ruled before! Replace her wan light with your burning fire!’
The Foreign Princess drew her hand back. ‘And when my fire has burnt you and I am gone far, far away from you, what will you think of her lunar light then? Your silent sleepwalker will embrace you in her lovely arms – who will your heart leap for then? Will you forget me?’
Full of passion, the Prince took her hand and ardently pressed it to his lips. ‘You are like the red rose whose bloom is but fleeting! Only now do I see it is you my soul seeks to return my dying body to health!’
‘Now I see – I am being courted,’ the Princess said sourly. ‘The bridegroom does not know himself whether he courts me or her!’
‘What remains of that love which once entrapped me?’ said the Prince. ‘Its bonds I’d gladly break if you’ll be mine!’
Suddenly desperate, pale Rusalka ran out from the shadows and threw herself into the Prince’s arms.
‘Your arms are cold as ice!’ cried the frightened Prince, pushing her back. ‘Away with you, freezing beauty!’
A sudden shape appeared in the pool, lit bright by the light of the full moon. It was the Vodník. ‘Flee into that mortal woman’s arms if you will; Rusalka’s embrace you cannot escape!’ he cried. And he seized Rusalka and dragged her down into the depths.
The Prince fell to his knees at the Foreign Princess’ feet. ‘Save me from the hand of this mysterious force! Help me! Save me!’
The Foreign Princess threw back her head and laughed a cruel, mocking laugh. ‘Go, follow your bride into the dark abyss of hell!’ she cried.
And still laughing and chuckling, she stalked haughtily away to rejoin the feasting throng within.
* * * *
A rumpled grey sky hung low over the forest. The lake in the glade dully reflected its grim, shaded light, murmuring in ominous tongue as dark ripple chased dark ripple to the shore. It was a silent shore they beached upon. No birds sing to such heavy, brooding skies, and, like fishing boats do, the dragonflies stayed harboured in their rushy moorings.
But one living creature – if she can be called so – stirred beneath these silent, sad clouds which hung overhead like tattered scraps of rag caught in a thorn bush. It was Rusalka. Her skin was wan and white, her hair an ashen grey, and her eyes now not crystal lakes, but murky marshland pools. On an old swamp willow she sat, mournfully trailing her fingers in the waters.
‘Cruel waters who have fettered my to your depths’ said she, ‘why can I not die in your cold embrace? Robbed of my sisters and my youth, and forever banished because of my ill-fated love, I grieve alone in these cold, bleak currents. My sweet charms I have lost, my beloved has cursed me. I seek my sisters in vain, and in vain do I long for the world. Those enchanted summer nights when the white water lilies bloomed; where are they now? Gone, gone never to return… O cruel waters who have fettered me to your dark, icy deeps, let me, oh let me die in your cold, pitiless embrace!’
The cursed nymph’s cry moaned low over the lonely waters and silent forest. Perhaps it was few listening ears who heard it, or perhaps it was many. But there was only one pair whose owner answered.
Wrinkling her nose and narrowing her shrewd little eyes, Ježibaba the witch came shuffling out of her cottage. ‘Ah!’ croaked she, ‘Rusalka has returned, has she? You’ve been gone but a gnat’s wing-flap. And looking so tattered and white. Why do you sit here all alone disturbing my peace with your lamenting? Were human kisses not to your taste, eh?’ She prodded Rusalka with her staff. ‘Did the warmth of his bed fail to thaw the cold in your veins?’
‘Alas,’ cried Rusalka, ‘they all have betrayed me and everything is lost!’
‘Your joy was short, but after kissing human lips, your suffering will be long,’ the witch replied sternly. ‘A man is an outcast of Nature, uprooted from the earth long ago. Woe unto them who longed for his love and because of his betrayal are now cursed!’
‘Is there truly no hope for me? Surely you can help, wise auntie?’ implored Rusalka.
‘Your lover has abandoned you for another, and again you expect Ježibaba to help you?’
‘Please help me, auntie!’
‘After tasting worldly pleasures you now wish to return to your sisters in the waters?’
Clasping her hands in pleading, the wan nymph nodded her head.
Ježibaba grunted. ‘Very well. I will tell you what to do – although whether or not you will heed my counsel is another thing!’ She planted herself upon a rotting tree stump and set her staff down. ‘There is but one thing which will wash Nature’s curse from you: human blood! You sought love in the arms of a mortal and that is the price you must pay. Do this and you will return to what you were ere I changed you.’
‘Rusalka quivered. ‘Human blood?’
‘Nothing but the warm blood of a man will ease your suffering and make you happy again!’ And the witch struck her staff upon the ground – whereon a stunned squirrel fell from the branches above. ‘With your own hand you must take the lifeblood of he who seduced you!’
Rusalka’s smile of growing joy was snuffed in an instant. ‘Ježibaba,’ cried the nymph, ‘have pity; you ask too much!’
The witch pressed a knife into Rusalka’s hand. ‘Take this blade and plunge it into his heart – vow you will obey!’
‘No!’ cried Rusalka, and she tossed the knife far out into the lake. ‘I would rather suffer my curse for all eternity than take a single drop of his blood. I’ll live in unending torment, rejected and despairing. But he, my mortal beloved, must live happy!’
The witch burst into wild, cackling laughter. ‘Longing enticed you to brave life among the foolish, deceitful humans, and yet now you haven’t the strength to spill a drop of mortal blood? Mind you, man only became man when he stained his hands with blood, when through passion he killed his brother!’ The witch spat over her shoulder and poked away a toad that hopped at her feet. ‘And you, pale, insipid water-bubble, thought to win a man with love! Bah, you empty moon-ray, good for nothing!’ The witch struck Rusalka with her staff. ‘Go, have it as you wish; suffer through all ages, dry up in longing for your beloved mortal!’
After giving the nymph a final contemptuous poke, Ježibaba shuffled away into the forest, muttering and mumbling sourly to herself all the while.
Rusalka dragged herself up from where she had fallen amid the leaf-mould. She staggered to the lake edge and slipped into the darkening waters.
‘Banished, rejected, despised, I sink into the lonely deeps without my sisters,’ she sorrowed. ‘Beloved Prince, never again will I see you. Never! Alas! Alas!’ And she submerged in the lake.
But voices cried all around her as she descended: ‘You fled from our games and left us to walk among mortals. Now you are cursed, do not come near us! She who has known a man’s embrace may not join our dance! We will flee at your approach. Your grief and suffering frighten us; we cannot enjoy our games with you near. Play with the willow-the-wisps upon the marsh at night! Linger at the crossroads and lead human souls astray with your pale blue light. Lure them to their graves in the murky depths! But to us do not dare return!’
Silence reclaimed lake and glade. The skies had faded with the dying day. Only an evening glow now remained low in the west. A pair of water birds passed over the forest and glided down to settle on the lake. Then a short while later, another thing came into the scene. Shuffling, scowling, looking over his shoulder – it was the kitchen boy, with the gamekeeper, dear uncle Vaňek, pushing him along.
‘Frightened, my boy?’ the gamekeeper asked gruffly. ‘There is no need to be so silly; many have come here before us. Call at her door and calmly say what we ordered you to say: An evil forest creature came to the castle, the Prince is gravely ill and has lost his mind, and old Háta begs Ježibaba’s advice!’
The kitchen boy planted his feet as though stuck in treacle. ‘My knees are knocking and my eyes are foggy – for heaven’s sake, uncle, go in my stead!’
‘I’ve walked past this way many times during the dark night hours,’ Vaňek replied placidly, holding the boy in place (for he had turned to flee!) ‘Only the worst coward is afraid of an old woman!’
‘It is you with your stories who frightened me, uncle. You oughtn’t be surprised that I’m afraid of the dark forest!’
The gamekeeper waved a dismissive hand. ‘It was just idle talk, boy, idle talk – I exaggerate a little from time to time! Now, never mind what I said. Go quickly and’ – the gamekeeper grasped the boy just in time before he could sneak off – ‘go quickly and summon the old hag for her answer.’
They were now near the witch’s cottage. Uncle Vaňek pushed his nephew forward and pointed at the door.
But again the boy’s feet stuck fast. ‘I’m in such a fright I’d do nothing but mumble! Better if you ask her yourself!’ Step by step he retreated backwards...
The gamekeeper’s stick arrested his progress. ‘If you were my son I’d be ashamed! And just to show you how a real man walks without fear, I’ll call her myself.’
‘No, no –’ the boy was shaking his head and tugging at his uncle’s sleeve – ‘don’t call her!’
‘Ježibaba!’ called the gamekeeper, ‘Ježibaba! Hola there, hola!’
‘Who’s making that noise? Who’s calling me?’ croaked the witch, coming shuffling out of her cottage.
The kitchen boy instantly darted to hide behind his uncle. He cowered there with eyes round as saucers and knees knocking together as he shuddered and shook.
The witch wrinkled her nose and stubbed her staff impatiently on the ground.
Quickly the gamekeeper thrust his nephew in front of him. ‘Old Háta s-sent us h-here, Ježibaba, to ask for your advice!’ he stammered, trembling at the knees.
‘And as payment for that bit of wit, she sends me this sapling to eat?’ Frowning, Ježibaba pinched the boy’s arm and poked at his ribs. ‘I see this cornstalk needs fattening. But after, he’ll make a tasty roast!’ She smacked her lips with relish.
The kitchen boy flapped desperately at her grasping, pinching fingers. ‘Let go of me, let go of me! Uncle, you heard: she wants to eat me! Uncle!’
‘Ha! Ha! Ha!’ The witch was shaking with laughter. ‘Bah, you scrawny mite – a bad bit of meat you’d make, dim-witted creature! Hell can have you and your clan to swallow whole! Now don’t be standing there rattling your teeth any longer; tell me what you want!’
‘Our – prince is – very – very sick,’ recited the boy, fixing his round eyes directly ahead. ‘A – great – sorceress – cast a – spell upon him! Yes indeed.’ His eyes wandered to the departing path. But his uncle’s stick poked in his back before his feet could follow. ‘The Prince brought her to the castle and gave her everything she could wish for,’ the boy continued bravely. ‘He loved her as he loves his own life. It was all arranged; the pretty witch was to be his bride. But she didn’t wait for their wedding day. Once the web of her spell was drawn tight, the faithless witch all of a sudden disappeared. The castle is still under her spell. I suppose the devil himself must have yanked her back to hell!’
Suddenly the Vodník emerged from the lake. ‘Who did you say took her?’ he boomed. ‘Who did you say she betrayed?’ Dark and glistening in the rippling waters, his rearing form made a terrifying sight. ‘A curse upon the one who sent you here! You low, snivelling creatures, weavers of lies! It is he, your prince, who betrayed her and brought the curse upon her!’
‘The Vodník, the Vodník!’ shrieked the gamekeeper. And, wild-eyed and trembling from top to toe, he threw aside his stick and his bag and took to his heels.
‘Uncle, uncle, wait, for heaven’s sake! Uncle!’ cried the kitchen boy, fleeing as best he could but trailing behind.
Soon they were gone, never to return.
‘With all the might that is mine I will take my revenge!’ roared the Vodník, in a terrible voice.
Cackling wildly, Ježibaba hobbled back to her cottage.
Night had now fallen and the moon was above the treetops, peeping over and peering into the secret glade, where her serene silver countenance gazed back from the dark lake surface. Shapes flitted to and fro among the trees. They wove and danced and turned.
The trio of wood nymphs danced out into the moonlit glade. One silvery-voiced nymph sang:
Hair, golden hair have I,
Around which at night whirls the firefly.
My pearly hand now has loosed my hair from its stays
And the moon above is combing it with her silver rays.
Her sister twirled forward:
Feet, white feet have I,
Upon them in the glade I go running by.
Barefoot I’ve been dancing, with dew my feet have been washed clean,
And the moon above has shod them with slippers of golden gleam.
And the third nymph sang:
Slender, my limbs are slender,
In the glade they glisten in splendour.
Wherever in the glade with my lovely form I traipsed,
I find dresses of silver moonbeams are around it draped.
‘Let us dance, sisters!’ they sang together, joining hands and whirling in a circling throng. ‘Let us dance in the soft evening breeze! It’s nearly that time when the Vodník calls us up from the reeds!’
‘Oh, there he is, there he is, already mending his nets!’ cried the first wood nymph, pointing to where the Vodník was moving in the shallows.
‘Hey, old father river! Heya, heya, hey!’ they sang, skipping down to the shore and tripping from boulder to boulder, circling around him. ‘Try to catch us if you can, and the one you catch, old man, and do not miss, might reward you with a kiss! But, heyda, heyda, hey, then your wife will box your ears next day!’ On they danced, splashing water at the Vodník with their fine white feet.
The Vodník sadly shook his matted mane. ‘Cease your games, my golden-haired children. For, alas, our native waters have been polluted by human evil.’
The wood nymphs stood still. ‘Who is it that has spoiled our carefree dance?’ they asked, their eyes growing grim. ‘Tell us!’
‘Tell us!’ echoed her sister.
‘In the dark depths, rejected by her sisters, poor, pale Rusalka sits sorrowing. Alas! Alas! Alas!’ cried the Vodník. And he slowly submerged into the lake.
The wood nymphs looked at each other.
‘My eyes are misted with tears, and suddenly I feel cold,’ said the first nymph, shuddering.
‘Dark clouds have blotted out the moon,’ said the second, stepping to the shore.
‘Darkness oppresses my being!’ cried the third. ‘Sisters, let us flee this place!’
The wood nymphs darted away and faded into the shadowy forest.
The waters whispered to the night, and the dreaming willows dipped their tresses low into the lake. The nocturnal breeze shivered in the birch leaves and rustled the grass heads out in the glade and the purple irises at the shore. An owl cried shrilly in the distant forest, and closer, a startled water bird rose from among the reeds.
Then a sudden movement disturbed the night. It was the Prince, who came running out of the forest like a madman, his eyes wild and vacant, his dark curls in disarray, his short cloak hanging from him by a thread.
‘Where are you, my white hart?’ he cried desperately. ‘My dream, my silent vision! Will there never be an end to my grief and my constant searching?’ With his dark eyes wild, he looked franticly about the glade. ‘Day after day, driven by longing, I seek you in the forest! At the approach of night I feel your presence near. I look for you in the moonlit mist. I search for you everywhere – my beloved dream, come to me!’
Breathless and pale, he fell to his knees at the water’s edge. With a hand bleeding from the forest thorns, he dipped into the cool, crystal water and watched the drops he brought up trickle through his fingers. He gazed out over the mysterious waters, which murmured softly in the darkness. Then, with a clammy dew beading his brow, he lifted his head and looked anew at the tall trees looming out of the night.
‘Here, here is the place it happened!’ he whispered, as recognition came upon him. ‘Speak, silent forest. Tell me your secret…’ His yearning gaze wandered the water’s edge. ‘O beloved phantom, where are you? Where…?’
A rustle came from somewhere. The prince started to his feet and run towards the sound. ‘Where are you, my white hart?’ he cried, becoming frantic once more. ‘Where are you? By all that still remains in my dead heart, I implore heaven and earth, gods and demons: speak to me, tell me where she is! Show yourself to me, beloved!’
The Prince stopped. The sound had brought him to the bleak marsh. Grassy islands stood here and there among the grey, murky water, and here and there a black, bare-branched tree was stark against the dim sky. A lonely wind wandered the marsh, moaning among the reeds, disturbing the glassy waters, parting the tall grasses as if searching for something lost. A presence drew the Prince on. His feet moved as if compelled by an invisible force. The wind that wandered the marsh blow back his dark curls and cooled his fevered cheeks. Entranced, he walked onwards.
Then, slowly and silently, moon emerged from behind the clouds.
‘Do you still remember me, my love?’ asked a sad voice of tenderness. ‘Do you think of me sometimes, beloved?’
The Prince slowly turned. Illuminated by the silvery moon, Rusalka stood above the dark, still waters. She appeared as if a veil of ash had been cast over her. Her face was wan, her eyes were grey, and her once-golden hair now looked like grass stalks after a fire had passed through them, ready to fall into dust at the lightest touch.
Reaching out with her pale, translucent hand, she stepped towards him. ‘Do you still recognise me, my love?’
‘If you are dead, let me die; if you still live, save me!’ cried the Prince.
Rusalka looked mournfully upon him. ‘Neither living nor dead, neither mortal woman nor spirit, I wander accursed through the night. In vain I dreamt in your arms. My poor, wretched boy – once I was your beloved, now I can only be your death!’
The Prince’s dark eyes were fixed upon Rusalka with anguished yearning. He reached his hand out towards her. ‘I cannot live without you. Can you, oh can you forgive me?’
‘Why did you take me in your arms? Why did you speak lies to me?’ Rusalka asked sadly, standing still in the marsh while the wind tugged at her tattered dress and tossed her hair. ‘Now I am nothing but a lunar phantom destined forever to torment you. I am a cursed ghost in the night, wandering with the will-o-the-wisps in the treacherous marsh, luring you to your death. I never possessed the passion you desired, but if I kiss you now, you are lost for eternity!’
The Prince tore his hanging cloak off and tossed it aside. ‘Kiss me, kiss me and give me peace!’ he begged, staggering towards her. ‘I shall never return to the world; kiss me, kiss me until I am dead!’
Rusalka lifted a stilling hand. ‘And you, my dear boy, gave me so much. Why did you betray me? Do you know, my beloved, that from my embrace there is no returning? In my arms you will meet your doom!’
Still with his dark eyes fixed upon her, the Prince clasped the hand Rusalka held out. ‘I want to give you everything. Kiss me, kiss me a thousand times! I don’t want to return to the world’s circling dance. Let me die in your embrace. Kiss me and give me peace! Kiss me, and forget the past!’
‘My love will freeze your heart and you will die!’ Rusalka cried in warning. ‘And yet I must take you into my icy arms!’
She stepped from the water, took him in her arms, and kissed him again and again.
The Prince fell as though pierced through the heart. ‘Your kiss has bestowed peace,’ he gasped, as she helped him to the ground, still embracing him in her arms. ‘I know your loving kisses will redeem my sin. I die happy in your embrace…’
That word was formed with his last breath. Peace was upon his pale countenance. He looked up at Rusalka with love. Then, with a soft sigh, he died, and his head fell against her breast.
A slight sob caught Rusalka’s breath. Still with her hand entwined in his clasp, she laid her cheek tenderly against her Prince’s.
Then a booming voice came from deep down in the depths. ‘He dies in your arms in vain! All sacrifice is useless! Poor, pale Rusalka! Alas! Alas! Alas!’
Rusalka tenderly laid the Prince’s body down on the soft grass and placed his cloak beneath his head as a pillow. Then she leaned over him and kissed his lips one last time.
‘For your love, for your beauty, for your inconstant human heart, for all that cursed my fate, God have mercy on you, dear human soul!’ And she raised her hands to heaven.
Then, sadly and quietly, she turned away and returned to the waters. But before she sank beneath the waves, she looked one last time upon her Prince. And as she did, a glittering golden light came down from above and descended upon him. It spread around him and tenderly bore his human soul upwards as it returned to the heavens. Silent tears of joy slid down Rusalka’s pale, moon-washed cheeks.
As the shimmering golden light receded into the heavens, a golden teardrop fell down and dropped into the lake. Rusalka reached out and took the glowing orb. Then, pressing the glowing golden light to her heart, she sunk down into the depths of the lake.