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Authors: Isak Dinesen

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BOOK: Last Tales
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“Lady Flora had traveled in many countries, but till now had not visited Rome. She spoke our language freely and fluently, as she spoke French and German, even if with that particular accent which her countrymen cannot or will not put off. She had great connections all over Europe, and she was as much at her ease talking to a cabman as to a prince. At the same time something in her manner would remind her partner that the motto of her country is
Noli me tangere
. She also declined to follow the British custom of shaking hands in meeting or parting.

“On the evening in question I only exchanged a few words with Lady Flora. From our short conversation I gathered that she had come to Rome, by no means attracted by the beauty or holiness of the Eternal City, but on the contrary in order to confirm by personal observation her deep distrust of all that its name implies—from the Holy Father himself and us, his humble servants, to the music of our churches, the art of our museums, and the customs of our simple Roman people. Lady Flora had been brought up in one of those North-European denominations which most of all despise and abhor beauty, and when later in life she
rejected its teachings, she at the same time, through her own experience, adopted a still harder view of life. In the course of our talks I felt that she had, wherever she had traveled, inspected the loveliest and most famous countries and cities of our poor earth with this same purpose: to corroborate her essential suspicion of both Creator and creation. The lady inspired me with profound pity, but at the same time with profound respect. For in everything she said and did there was nobility and truthfulness.

“She was, moreover, an exceptionally witty woman; indeed her rare gift of repartee during her stay in Rome made her a highly welcome, if somehow feared, guest in all drawing rooms. Still here as elsewhere she preserved a peculiar quality which set her apart from our own wits. Whenever a sensational event or a scandal in society touched on an
amorette
or did in the slightest way taste of
la belle passion
, to her eyes it lost any kind of interest, and she turned away from it as from something altogether beneath her dignity.

“My friend, the Prince Scipione Odescalchi, who at that time was more than ninety years old, said to me: ‘Oh, that I were only seventy-five years younger! For our young Roman beaus of today are nothing but a handful of
petit-maîtres!
They have lost sense of the sublime, and they see not that this Lady Flora is a goddess. Sweet Cupid, God of Love, deign to let the shadow of one of your pinions fall upon our guest, for it is a disgrace to all of us that she should leave the Eternal City the same as she came!’

“Later on from Father Jacopo I learned some of the lady’s history.

“Lady Flora was an only child, and sole heir to her father’s wealth, which had been increased by her mother’s great dowry. This virtuous and noble lady, her mother, had been as tall as the daughter and had weighed as much. But on the other hand the maiden’s father—around whom a multitude of gay and gallant anecdotes had grown up, so that to his countrymen he had become a kind of mythic figure—was
below medium height and slight of build. Yet at the same time the Scots nobleman had been so harmoniously proportioned, with such big radiant eyes, such rich locks, and such perfect gracefulness in all his movements, that till his death he was reckoned to be the finest-looking man in the Kingdom. He had made use of his rare beauty, as well as of his many talents, to enjoy to the full the delights of this earth—and above all the delights of love! It seems that he was ever irresistible to the ladies of his own country, as well as to those of other countries, for like his daughter he had traveled much. His consort, who was deeply in love with him, and jealous by nature, suffered much in her married life.”

The Cardinal made a short pause, then continued:

“Are you, my amiable audience, familiar with the name of the great English poet and philosopher Jonathan Swift? Without doubt he was a man of true genius. But he was also, sad to say—and, to us, incomprehensibly—filled with a strange and terrible loathing of the earth and of humanity as a whole. In his most celebrated book,
Lemuel Gulliver’s Travels
, with almost satanic cleverness he manages to ridicule human conditions and functions, simply by distorting their dimensions. Military valor and glory, the grandeur and pathos of the battlefield he holds up to laughter by making officers and soldiers, horses and cannon, present themselves
en miniature
, the size of pins and thimbles.

“But the immortal passion of love, with all its attributes, he burlesques by magnifying to a monstrous, a fabulous scale the persons of the lovers and their mistresses, and such charms of the human body as are elsewhere praised and sung. His adventurous traveler, Gulliver, ascends the bosoms of the amorous
dames d’honneur
as an alpine climber scales a snow-white mountain. Under their languishing sighs he totters as under an earthquake, and he comes near to drowning in the beads of sweat which the rapture of the rendezvous makes start out on their skin. The faint perfumes
which surround a woman’s body are turned into exhalations which nearly stifle him; nay, I will not detail to you, my graceful and gallant listeners, this poet’s sinister representation of what other poets have made the subject of sonnets.

“Father Jacopo more than once, he told me, discussed this remarkable book with Lady Flora. She evidently knew it by heart, and made use of it to deride in toto the Almighty’s work of creation.

“ ‘Look, Reverend Father,’ she said to him, ‘how little is needed, what slight transposition of dimensions suffices to reveal to us the true nature of your noble and beautiful universe!’

“Father Jacopo in his heart was horrified at her heresy, but he answered her, as he always did, discreetly and meekly. ‘Unless, Signora,’ he said, ‘these same observations will reveal to us with what subtle precision the harmony of our universe is adjusted and balanced. Unless they will tell us with what reverence we must eye the ordinance of the creator, so that not even in imagination do we presume to alter or transpose any jot or title thereof. The shortening or lengthening of a single string of an instrument may enable us to distort, aye, to annihilate its music. But surely, surely the fact does not justify us in blaming that master who built the violin.’

“It now appears as if Lady Flora’s father, when exasperated by his lady’s jealousy, was wont to quote to her the book of this English poet, and that he would even with cruel fantasy and wit add to it and invent and recount new adventures of Lemuel Gulliver. Verily, when we consider the lady’s situation we cover our eyes, as if invited to gaze into an abyss of suffering and injury. A small young woman, who had her slightness and scantiness made an object of mockery and complaints from her husband, might well feel personally hurt and mortified. Yet in her case it would not be the insignia of womanhood itself which were blasphemously discussed.
This Scots lady, to whom her husband would recite hexameters describing the adventures of the Prophet Jonah, his tremblings and final engulfment, will have suffered not only in her personal dignity, but in that of her sex. It is not to be wondered at that through the years she was changed, until the friends of her childhood and youth no longer found in her any trace of the maiden’s or the new-married wife’s rich and innocent nature. The incessant, burning wish to grow smaller had acted as a corrosive on her heart.

“It furthermore appears that Lady Flora’s mother, while heroically keeping silent on her misfortune to the whole outer world, in the end failed to suppress all articulation of her misery. She made her daughter her confidante! Young Flora, while growing up, and month by month approaching the measures and weight of the elder woman, had heard her father’s sallies repeated by the mouth of her mother. And yet the girl was like her father in courage and wit, and this handsome and gay father of hers, at the time when she was still a pretty, nimble little girl, had taken pleasure in galloping with her across the Scottish heather and in training her to the arts of dance and sword-play. She could not possibly wish him any ill. But with the lamentations of her mother in her mind she yearned to annihilate the small, slim wanton women who seduced him, and with the flippancies of her father in her mind she longed to annihilate that same sacred body, which was just now budding into its season of rich flowering. Undoubtedly at an early age she vowed never through a marriage or a love affair to repeat her mother’s misery, and this in itself was a barren and desolate destiny. But her reason for the resolution, of which she could not speak, was a still heavier burden. What sad condition in a young virgin to grow pale with shame at the very same thoughts which will make her sisters blush deeply with sweet, delicate modesty!

“Thus daily life at the ancient Scottish castle, between the two mighty ladies and the small gentleman, to the eyes
of the world passed nobly and harmoniously. But within this same existence a young heart day by day hardened, until it could find comfort but in one single thing—absolute loneliness. The maiden shrank from any touch, physical or mental. Her great wealth and high rank, far from making her lot easier, seemed to render her even more lonely. Her isolation became her pride, and by the time when, after the death of both her parents, she first traveled in Italy, her arrogance was boundless.

“Father Jacopo made Lady Flora’s acquaintance without at first suspecting in the presence of what misfortune and of what obduracy he found himself. These two, who in the future were to signify so much to each other, met for the first time in a small village of Tuscany, where Lady Flora had rented a villa for a couple of months, and where Father Jacopo on his way to Rome had fallen ill with a sudden fever, and was laid up at the inn. When Lady Flora was informed that an old priest was lying at death’s door in the miserable tavern, she had him fetched up to her own house and saw to it that he was nursed and nourished until he had regained his strength. The priest already in the inn had learned of the lady’s exceptional wealth; his primary feelings toward her were gratitude and admiration. But in his simplicity he had knowledge of the human heart, and before long he looked deep into the condition of her soul. Undoubtedly the sight struck him with awe; without doubt, too, her impenitence itself did tie him to her, so that at no price in the world would he have let go of her.

“They were brought closer together by the fact that she soon left to him to distribute the rich alms which she dealt out, without ever, in her general contempt of man, bothering who received them. And when she made up her mind to continue to Rome, she invited Father Jacopo to keep her company in her comfortable English coach, while her British and Italian attendants followed in two other carriages.

“In the Eternal City the friendship between the noblewoman and the priest was continued and confirmed; for three months they met almost daily. Father Jacopo’s manner in his intercourse with his fellow creatures was so naturally winning that most people, almost unknowingly, disclosed to him their feelings and their doings. It must have been the same in the case of Lady Flora. I cannot imagine that she did ever confide in him, still less complain to him. Her communications about her past life were given gaily and with a high hand. But his mysterious intuition had its effect even on this haughty lady; step by step she was led to speak to him with absolute frankness.

“A particular circumstance made itself felt in the relation between them. Lady Flora had known many clergymen, high and low, of her own country, but till now had not conversed with a priest of our church. It had amused her to shock and scandalize the British ecclesiastics by her utter disbelief and her utter contempt of Heaven and Earth. She now took it for granted that it would be still easier to give offense to a Roman Catholic priest; she lost no time trying her hand at Father Jacopo. This task, however, she did not undertake out of malice, but out of a kind of hard jocularity peculiar to her nature. But there was no scandalizing Father Jacopo. He was, as he himself told me, by no means a courageous man, and in the confessional while he listened to the reports of evil doings and thoughts his hair would often stand on end. But he could no more take offense at such things than he could take offense at a stroke of lightning or at an avalanche. In the one case as in the other he would at once endeavor, in every possible way, to stop or repair the havoc worked by the savage powers of nature; but in the one case as in the other he would accept the catastrophe without the slightest personal rancor. This attitude in a servant of the Church surprised Lady Flora; she carried her blasphemy further and grew coarser and harder of speech. Father Jacopo’s
imperturbable peacefulness under this persecution in the end forced from her a kind of respect which she can rarely, if ever, have felt toward any human being.

“ ‘In my dealings with Lady Flora,’ Father Jacopo said to me, ‘I sometimes felt that she had donned a heavy armor, which she had till now, quite rightly, considered impenetrable. She had taken pleasure in seeing all bullets glance off from it. And yet it is not impossible that within her proud heart she had at times vaguely desired to meet an opponent worthy of her.’

“Now Father Jacopo in his quality of priest had a peculiar trait. It went against him to set forth in his prayer any particular request; he disliked pestering Heaven with a specified petition. Nor did he ever pray directly for the salvation of his penitents. Lady Flora a couple of times challenged him: ‘I suppose, Father Jacopo, that you will now be praying for my conversion?’ And guiltily he would have to confess that this he had never done. Whenever the weal and woe of any individual human being lay heavy on his heart, he was wont, he told me, before he began to recite his breviary, to center his thoughts upon that person, and during the prayer to hold him or her, as it were, upon his arms until they ached from the weight. ‘And then,’ he used to explain, ‘it came to me that I must act in such and such a way.’

BOOK: Last Tales
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