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Authors: Isak Dinesen

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BOOK: Seven Gothic Tales
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As if they had been four marionettes, pulled by the same wire, the four people turned their faces to one another.

“How will he do to dance with?” a young girl asks herself, when, at the ball, the
Chapeau
is presented to her. She may even add: “How will he do as a beau, an
Épouseur
, the Intended of my life?”

“How will these people do to die with?” the castaways of the hayloft, scrutinizing each other’s faces, asked themselves. Miss Malin, always inclined toward a bright view of things, found herself satisfied with her partners.

The Cardinal gave expression to these thoughts. The old man stood for a little while in deep silence, as if it took him time to get used again to the steadiness of a house, after a day spent in boats upon the restless seas, and to an atmosphere of comparative quiet after long hours of incessant danger—for nothing was likely to happen here at the moment—to get used, also, after his work with the broken-hearted peasants and fishermen around him, to the company of his equals. Slowly his manner changed from that of a commander to that of a convive. He smiled at his companions.

“My sisters and my brother,” he said, “I congratulate myself upon being amongst brave people. I am looking forward to what hours I shall, under the favor of God, spend with you here. Madame,” he said to Miss Malin, “I am not surprised at your gallantry, for I know about your race. It was a Nat-og-Dag who, at Warberg, when the King’s horse was shot under him, jumped from his own horse and handed it to the King, with the words: To the King, my horse; to the enemy, my life; to the Lord, my soul.’ It was a Svinhoved,
1
if I am not wrong—your great-great-grandfather—who, at the sea battle of Koege, rather than expose
the rest of the Danish fleet to the danger of fire from his burning ship, chose to go on fighting with his last breath, until the fire reached the powder room, and he was blown up with his crew. Here,” he said, looking around him at the loft, “I may say it: Blessed are the pure in blood, for they shall see—” He paused, reflecting upon his theme. “Death,” he concluded. “They shall see, verily, the face of death. For this moment here, for us, our fathers were brought up, through the centuries, in skill of arms and loyalty to their king; and our mothers, in virtue.”

He could have said nothing which would better have strengthened and inspired the hearts of the women, who were both fierce devils in racial pride. But young Jonathan Mærsk, the bourgeois amongst them, made a gesture as if of protest. Nevertheless he said nothing.

They closed the door of the loft, but as it was hanging loose, and kept knocking about, the Cardinal asked the women if they could not find something with which to tie it fast. The girl felt for the ribbon which had tied her hair, but it had blown away. Miss Malin then gracefully lifted her petticoat and took off a long garter, embroidered with rosebuds. “The zenith in the career of a garter, My Lord,” she said, “is generally in the loosening, not in the fastening, of it. On that account the sister of this ribbon, which is now being sanctified by your holy hand, lies in the vault of the Royal Mausoleum of Stuttgart.”

“Madame,” said the Cardinal, “you speak frivolously. Pray do not talk or think in that way. Nothing sanctifies, nothing, indeed, is sanctified, except by the play of the Lord, which is alone divine. You speak like a person who would pronounce half of the notes of the scale—say,
do, re
and
mi
—to be sacred, but
fa, sol, la
, and
si
to be only profane, while, Madame, no one of the notes is sacred in itself, and it is the music, which can be made out of them, which is alone divine. If your garter be sanctified by my feeble old hand, so is my hand by your fine silk garter. The lion lies in wait for the antelope at the ford, and the antelope is sanctified by the lion, as
is the lion by the antelope, for the play of the Lord is divine. Not the bishop, or the knight, or the powerful castle is sacred in itself, but the game of chess is a noble game, and therein the knight is sanctified by the bishop, as the bishop by the queen. Neither would it be an advantage if the bishop were ambitious to acquire the higher virtues of the queen, or the castle, those of the bishop. So are we sanctified when the hand of the Lord moves us to where he wants us to be. Here he may be about to play a fine game with us, and in that game I shall be sanctified by you, as you by any of us.”

When the door of the loft was closed, the place became dark, but the little lantern on the floor shed a gentle light. The loft looked like a home to the hearts of the derelicts. It was as if they had lived here a long time. The farmers had lately harvested their hay, and half the loft was stacked with it. It smelled very sweet and made a clean and soft seat. The Cardinal, who was very tired, soon sank down into it, his long cloak spread around him on the floor. Miss Malin faced him from the opposite side of the lantern. The young girl sat next to her, her legs crossed, like a small oriental idol. The boy, when at last he sat down with them, took a seat upon a ladder which lay on the floor, and which raised him a little above the others. The dog kept close to the Cardinal. Sitting up, its ears back, from time to time it seemed, in a deep movement, to swallow its fear and loneliness. In these positions the party remained for most of the night. Indeed, the Cardinal and Miss Malin kept theirs, as will be heard, until the first light of dawn. All their shadows, thrown away in a circle from the center of the stable lamp, reached up to the rafters under the roof. In the course of the night it often seemed as if it were these long shadows which were really alive, and which kept up the spirit and the talk of the gathering, behind the exhausted people.

“Madame,” said the Cardinal to Miss Malin, “I have been told of your salon, in which you make everybody feel at ease and at the same time keen to be at his best. As we want to feel like this
tonight, I pray that you will be our hostess, and transfer your talents to this loft.”

Miss Malin at once fell in with his suggestion and took command of the place. During the night she performed her rôle, regaling her guests upon the rare luxuries of loneliness, darkness, and danger, while up her sleeve she had death itself, like some lion of the season, some fine Italian tenor, out of the reach of rival hostesses, waiting outside the door to appear and create the sensation of the night. Some people manage to loll upon a throne; Miss Malin, on the contrary, sat in the hay as upon one of those tabourets which are amongst the privileges of duchesses. She made Jonathan cut up the bread and hand it around, and to her companions, who had had no food all day, the hard black crusts held the fragrance of the cornfields. In the course of the night she and the Cardinal, who were old and faint, drank between them most of the gin in the keg. The two young people did not touch it.

She had, straight away, more than she had asked for in the task of making her companions comfortable, for hardly had the Cardinal spoken when he fell down in a dead faint. The women, who dared not loosen the bandages around his head, sprinkled them with water out of the jar. When he first recovered he stared wildly at them, and put his hands to his head, but as he regained consciousness he gently apologized for the trouble he had given them, adding that he had had a fatiguing day. He seemed, however, somehow changed after his recovery, as if weaker than before, and, as if handing some of his leadership and responsibility to Miss Malin, he kept close to her.

It may be well at this point to give a brief account of Miss Malin Nat-og-Dag:

It has been said that she was a little off her bead. Still, to the people who knew her well, it sometimes seemed open to doubt whether she was not mad by her own choice, or from some caprice of hers, for she was a capricious woman. Neither had she always
been mad. She had even been a woman of great sense, who studied philosophy, and held human passions in scorn. If Miss Malin had now been given the choice of returning to her former reasonable state, and had been capable of realizing the meaning of the offer, she might have declined it on the ground that you have in reality more fun out of life when a little off your head.

Miss Malin was now a rich woman, but she had not always been that, either. She had grown up an orphan girl in the house of rich relations. Her proud old name she had always had, also her very proud big nose.

She had been brought up by a pious governess, of the sect of the Hernhuten, who thought much of female virtue. In those days a woman’s being had one center of gravity, and life was simpler to her on this account than it has been later on. She might poison her relations and cheat at cards with a high hand, and yet be an
honnête femme
as long as she tolerated no heresy in the sphere of her specialty. Ladies of her day might themselves fix the price of their hearts and minds and of their souls, should they choose to deal with the devil; but as to their bodies, those were the women’s stock in trade, and the lowering of the sacred standard price for them was thought of as disloyal competition to the guild of the
honnêtes femmes
, and was a deadly sin. Indeed, the higher a young woman could drive up the price individually, the greater was her state of holiness, and it was far better that it should be said of her that for her sake many men had been made unhappy, than that she should have made many men happy.

Miss Malin, urged on by her disposition as well as her education, ran amuck a little in her relation to the doctrine. She took the line, not only of defense, but of a most audacious offensive. Fantastical by nature, she saw no reason for temperance, and drove up her price fantastically high. In fact, in regard to the high valuation of her own body she became the victim of a kind of megalomania. Sigrid the Haughty, the ancient Queen of Norway, summoned to her all her suitors amongst the minor kings of the country, and
then put fire to the house and burned them all up, declaring that in this way she would teach the petty kings of Norway to come and woo her. Malin might have done the same with an equally good conscience. She had taken to heart what her governess had read her out of the Bible, that “whoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath already committed adultery with her in his heart,” and she had made herself the female counterpart of the conscientious young male of the Gospel. A man’s desire for her was to her, as probably to Queen Sigrid, a deadly impertinence, and as grave an offense as an attempted rape. She showed but little feminine
esprit de corps
, and appeared not to consider in the least that it would have been hard on the honest young women in general if the principle had been carried through, since their whole field of action lay between the two ideas, and, by amalgamating them, you would put as quick an end to their activity as you would to that of a concertina player by folding up the concertina and hooking its two end pieces together. She cut a slightly pathetic figure, as do all people who, in this world, take the words of Scripture
au pied de la lettre
. But she did not at all mind what sort of figure she cut.

In her youth, however, this fanatical virgin cut no mean figure in society, for she was highly talented and brilliant. Though not beautiful, she had the higher gift of seeming so, and in society she played the part of a belle when far lovelier women were left unattended. The homage that she received she took as the natural tribute to a Nat-og-Dag, and she was not insensitive to flatteries which concerned her spirit and courage, or her rare gifts for music and dancing. She even chose her friends mostly amongst men, and thought women a little stupid. But she was at the same time ever on the outlook, like a fighting bull for a red cloth, or a crusader for the sign of the half-moon, for any sign of the eye of lust, in order to annihilate the owner without pity.

Yet Miss Malin had not escaped the common fate of human beings. She had her romance. When she was twenty-seven, already
an old maid, she decided to marry after all. In this position she felt like a very tall bitch surrounded by small yapping lap dogs. She was still prepared to burn up the petty kings who might come to woo her, but she picked out her choice. So did Queen Sigrid, who swooped down on the Christian hero, Olav Trygveson, and in the saga can be read the tragic outcome of the meeting of these two proud hearts.

Malin, for her part, picked out Prince Ernest Theodore of Anhalt. This young man was the idol of his time. Of the highest birth and enormously rich, since his mother had been a grand duchess of Russia, he was also handsome as an angel, a
bel-esprit
, and a lion of Judah as a soldier. He had even a noble heart, and no frivolity in his nature, so that when, to the right and left of him, fair women died from love of him, he grieved. With all this he was an observer; he saw things. One day he saw Miss Malin, and for some time saw little else.

This young man had obtained everything in life—and women in particular—too cheaply. Beauty, talents, charm, virtue had been his for the lifting of his little finger. About Miss Malin there was nothing striking but the price. That this thin, big-nosed, penniless girl, two years older than he, would demand not only his princely name and a full share in his brilliant future, but also his prostrate adoration, his life-long fidelity, and subjection in life and death and could be had for nothing less—this impressed the young Prince.

Some people have an unconquerable love of riddles. They may have the chance of listening to plain sense, or to such wisdom as explains life; but no, they must go and work their brains over a riddle, just because they do not understand what it means. That the solution is most likely silly in itself makes no difference to those possessed by this particular passion. Prince Ernest had this mentality, and, even from his childhood, would sit for days lost in riddles and puzzles—a pastime which, in his case, was taken as a proof of high intellectuality. When, therefore, he found this hard
nut to crack, the more easily solved beauties faded before his eyes.

So nervous was Prince Ernest about this first risk of refusal which he had taken in his life—and God knows whether he most dreaded or coveted it—that he did not propose to Malin Nat-og-Dag until the very last evening before he was to depart for the war. A fortnight later he was killed upon the battle field of Jena, and he was clasping in his hand a small gold locket with a curl of fair hair in it. Many lovely blondes found comfort in the thought of this locket. None knew that amongst all the riches of silken tresses that had weighed him down, only this lock from an old maid’s head had been to him a wing feather of a Walkyrie, lifting him from the ground.

BOOK: Seven Gothic Tales
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