Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The story begins by describing an old man, (Reinhard, the reader learns later) coming home to his rooms after taking a walk. He is a well-dressed, dignified man with a notable feature:
his dark eyes, in which the whole of his long-lost youth seemed to have centred, and which contrasted strangely with his snow-white hair . . .
After settling into his book-lined study, he contemplates a picture hanging there. His eyes
reached a little picture in a simple black frame. "Elisabeth!" said the old man softly; and as he uttered the word, time had changed: he was young again.
This theme of lost and restored youth plays out in the remainder of the story, which promptly goes back to Reinhard’s childhood, when Elisabeth became his dearest friend. They had met when he was ten and she was five. They love telling and hearing stories and roaming together in the countryside. One day when they are looking for wild strawberries, he realizes his love for her.
[S]he was not only his little sweetheart, but was also the expression of all that was lovely and wonderful in his opening life.
When Reinhard goes away to school, he starts writing his own stories and sending them to her. When she writes back, Elisabeth sometimes includes stories of his old school friend, Eric. When he goes home to visit, he finds her subdued and senses something has come between them. Reinhard cannot find the words to tell her of his feelings before he goes back to school.
The nearer they came to their destination the more he felt as if he had something he must say to her before he bade her a long farewell, something on which all that was worthy and all that was sweet in his future life depended, and yet he could not formulate the saving word.
Of course, Elisabeth ends up marrying Eric, who is plain and prosaic but wealthy. After they marry and she and her mother go to live at his estate, Reinhard comes home and sees her one last time. While he is out walking alone, he sees a water lily in a pond and swims out to pick it, but he cannot reach it and gets entangled in roots. Admitting defeat, he turns back.
At length he had come so near the flower that he was able clearly to distinguish the silvery leaves in the moonlight; but at the same time he felt himself entangled in a net formed by the smooth stems of the water plants which swayed up from the bottom and wound themselves round his naked limbs.
The unfamiliar water was black all round about him, and …such an uncanny feeling overpowered him in the midst of this strange element that with might and main he tore asunder the network of plants and swam back to land in breathless haste. And when from the shore he looked back upon the lake, there floated the lily on the bosom of the darkling water as far away and as lonely as before.
When Elisabeth asks him what on earth he had been doing, he says he used to be friends with a lily.