Authors: Isak Dinesen
If Malin had been a Roman Catholic she would have gone into a nunnery after the battle of Jena, to save, if not her soul, at least her self-respect, for, say what you will, no maiden makes such a brilliant match as she who becomes the bride of the Lord. But being a good Protestant, with a leaning toward the teachings of the Hernhuten, she just took up her cross and carried it gallantly. That nobody in the world knew of her tragedy fell in well with her opinion of other people, namely, that they never did know anything of any importance. She gave up all thought of marriage.
At the age of fifty she came unexpectedly into a very great fortune. There were people who understood her so little as to believe that it was this that went to her head and caused there the confounding of fact and fantasy. It was not so. She would not have been in the least upset by finding herself in possession of the treasures of the Grand Turk. What changed her was what changes all women at fifty: the transfer from the active service of life—with a pension or the honors of war, as the case may be—to the mere passive state of a looker-on. A weight fell away from her; she flew up to a higher perch and cackled a little. Her fortune helped her only in so far as it provided the puff of air under her wings that enabled her to fly a little higher and cackle a little louder, although
it also did away with all criticism from her surroundings. In her laughter of liberation there certainly was a little madness.
This madness took, as already said, the curious form of a firm faith in a past of colossal licentiousness. She believed herself to have been the grand courtesan of her time, if not the great whore of the Revelation. She took her fortune, her house, and her jewels as the wages of sin, collected in her long career of falls, and because of this she was extremely generous with her money, considering that what had been frivolously gathered must be frivolously spent. She could not open her mouth without referring to her days of debauchery. Even Prince Ernest Theodore, the chaste young lover whom she had refused even a parting kiss, figured in her waxwork collection as a victim of her siren’s arts and ferocity.
It is doubtful whether any spectacle can be enjoyed in the same way by those people who may, after all, run a risk of becoming part of it and by those who are by circumstance entirely cut off from any such possibility. The Emperor of Rome himself might, after a particularly exciting show, see the trident and the net in a nightmare. But the Vestal Virgins would lie on their marble couches and, with the knowledge of connoisseurs, go over every detail in the fight, and imagine themselves in the place of their favorite gladiator. In the same way it is unlikely that even the most pious old lady would attend the trial and burning of a witch with quite the untroubled mind of the male audience around the stake.
No young woman could, even from a nun’s cell, have thrown herself into the imaginary excesses of Miss Malin without fear and trembling. But the old woman, who had seen to her safety, could dive down into any abyss of corruption with the grace of a crested grebe. Faithful by nature, she stuck to the point of view of her youth with regard to the Gospel’s words concerning adultery. She had the word of the Bible for it that a multitude of young men had indeed committed it with her. But she resolutely turned them
inside out, as a woman will a frock the colors of which have disappointed her by fading. She was the catoptric image of the great repenting sinner whose sins are made white as wool, and was here taking a genuine pleasure in dyeing the pretty lamb’s wool of her life in sundry fierce dyes. Jealousy, deceit, seduction, rape, infanticide, and senile cruelty, with all the perversities of the human world of passion, even to the
, of which she exhibited a surprising knowledge, were to her little sweetmeats which she would pick, one by one, out of the
of her mind, and crunch with true
. In all her fantasies she was her own heroine, and she ran through the spheres of the seven deadly sins with the ecstasy of a little boy who gallops through the great races of the world upon his rocking-horse. No danger could possibly put fear into her, nor any anguish of conscience spoil her peace. If there was one person of whom she spoke with contempt it was the Mary Magdalene of the Gospel, who could no better carry the burden of her sweet sins than to retire to the desert of Libya in the company of a skull. She herself carried the weight of hers with the skill of an athlete, and was up to playing a graceful game of bilboquet with it.
Her face itself changed under her great spiritual revolution, and at the time when other women resort to rouge and belladonna, her lenience with human weakness produced in her a heightened color and sweet brilliancy of eye. She was nearer to being a pretty woman than she had ever been before. Like a witch she had always looked, but in her second childhood her appearance had more of the wicked fairy of the children’s tales than of the Medusa, the revenging angel with her flaming sword who had held her own against Prince Ernest. She had preserved her elfin leanness and lightness, and as for her skill as a dancer, she might still be the belle of any great ball. The little cloven hoof beneath was now daintily gilded, like that of Esmeralda’s goat itself. It was in this glow of mild madness and second youth that she now sat, marooned
in the hayloft of the peasant’s barn, conversing vivaciously with the Cardinal Hamilcar.
“When, as a boy, I stayed for some time at Coblentz, at the court of the emigrant Duke of Chartres,” the Cardinal said, after a little pause, pensively, “I knew the great painter Abildgaard, and used to spend my mornings in his studio. When the ladies of the court came to him to have their portraits painted—for he was much sought by such fair women who wanted their beauty immortalized—how many times have I not heard him tell them: ‘Wash your faces, Mesdames. Take the powder, rouge, and kohl off them. For if you will paint your faces yourselves I cannot paint you.’ Often, in the course of my life, have I thought of his words. It has seemed to me that this is what the Lord is continually telling the too weak and vain mortals: ‘ Wash your faces. For if you will do the painting of them yourselves, laying on humility and renunciation, charity and chastity one inch thick, I can do nothing about them.’ Tonight, indeed,” the old man went on, smiling, as a deep movement of the sea seemed to shake the building, “the Lord is doing the washing for us with his own hands, and he is using a great deal of water for it. But we will seek comfort in the thought that there is no higher honor or happiness for us than this: to have our portraits painted by the hand of the Lord. That alone is what we have ever longed for and named immortality.”
Seeing that the face of the speaker was covered with bloodstained bandages, Miss Malin was about to make a remark, but she restrained herself, for she did not know what lasting disfigurements of a noble presence they might conceal. The Cardinal understood her thought and expressed it with a smile. “Yes, Madame,” he said, “my face the Lord has seen fit to wash in a more ardent spirit. But have we not been taught of the cleansing power of blood? Madame, I know now that it is stronger even than we thought. And perhaps my face needed it. Who, but the Lord, knows what rouge and powder I have put on it in the course of
seventy years? Verily, Madame, in these bandages I feel that I am nearer to posing for my portrait by him than I ever have been before.”
Miss Malin blushed slightly at being detected in a lack of tact, and nimbly put back the conversation a little, as one sets back a clock. “I am thankful,” she said, “that I have in my life had neither rouge nor powder on my face, and Monsieur Abildgaard might have painted it at any moment. But as to this divine portrait of me, which is, I suppose, to be hung in the galleries of heaven, when I myself am dead and gone—allow me to say, My Lord, that here my ideas differ from yours a little.
“The ideas of art critics,” said the Cardinal, “are likely to differ; that much I learned in the studio. I have seen the master himself strike the face of a great French painter with a badger’s-hair brush full of cadmium, because they disagreed about the laws of perspective. Impart to me your views, Madame. I may learn from you.”
“Well, then,” said Miss Malin, “where in all the world did you get the idea that the Lord wants the truth from us? It is a strange, a most original, idea of yours, My Lord. Why, he knows it already, and may even have found it a little bit dull. Truth is for tailors and shoemakers, My Lord. I, on the contrary, have always held that the Lord has a penchant for masquerades. Do you not yourself tell us, my lords spiritual, that our trials are really blessings in disguise? And so they are. I, too, have found them to be so, at midnight, at the hour when the mask falls. But at the same time nobody can deny that they have been dressed up by the hand of an unrivaled expert. The Lord himself—with your permission—seems to me to have been masquerading pretty freely at the time when he took on flesh and dwelt amongst us. Indeed, had I been the hostess of the wedding of Cana, I might have resented the feat a little—I might, I tell you, My Lord—had I there asked that brilliant youth, the carpenter’s son, in order to give him a treat on my best Berncastler Doktor, and he had, at the moment when it
suited him, changed pure water into a far finer vintage! And still the lady did not know, of course, of what things he was really capable, being God Almighty.
“Indeed, My Lord,” she went on, “of all monarchs of whom I have ever heard, the one who came, to my mind, nearest to the true spirit of God was the Caliph Haroun of Bagdad, who, as you know, had a taste for disguise. Ah, ah! had I lived in his day I should have played the game with him to his own taste, should I have had to pick up five hundred beggars before knocking against the Commander of the Faithful under the beggar’s robe. And when I have, in my life, come nearest to playing the rôle of a goddess, the very last thing which I have wanted from my worshipers has been the truth. ‘Make poetry,’ I have said to them, ‘use your imagination, disguise the truth to me. Your truth comes out quite early enough’—under your favor, My Lord—‘and that is the end of the game.’
“And now, what, My Lord,” said the old lady, “do you think of womanly modesty? Surely, that is a divine quality; and what is it but deceit on principle? Since here a youth and a maiden are present, you and I, who have observed life from the best of observatories—you from the confessional, and I from the alcove—will take pains to disregard the truth; we will talk only of legs. I can tell you, then, that you may divide all women according to the beauty of their legs. Those who have pretty legs, and who know the concealed truth to be sweeter than all illusions, are the truly gallant women, who look you in the face, who have the genuine courage of a good conscience. But if they took to wearing trousers, where would their gallantry be? The young men of our days, who wear tight trousers which oblige them to keep two valets for drawing them on, one for each leg—”
“And a difficult job even at that,” said the Cardinal thoughtfully.
“To walk about as true missionaries of the truth, Miss Malin resumed, “may be more human, but surely they have nothing divine.
They may have the facts of life on their side, while the legs of the women, under their petticoats, are ideas. But the people who go forth on ideas are the ones who have the true heroism. For it is the consciousness of hidden power which gives courage. But I beg your pardon, My Lord, for speaking so long.”
“Madame,” said the Cardinal gently, “do not apologize. I have profited by your speech. But it has not convinced me that you and I are not really of one mind. This world of ours is like the children’s game of bread and cheese; there is always something underneath—truth, deceit; truth, deceit! When the Caliph masqueraded as one of his own poor subjects, all his hidden splendor could not have saved the jest from being in pretty poor taste, had he not had beneath it a fraternal heart for his poor people. Likewise, when our Lord did, for some thirty years, masquerade as a son of man, there would have been no really good sense in the thing had he not had, after all, a humane heart, and even, Madame, a sympathy with lovers of good wine. The witty woman, Madame, chooses for her carnival costume one which ingeniously reveals something in her spirit or heart which the conventions of her everyday life conceal; and when she puts on the hideous long-nosed Venetian mask, she tells us, not only that she has a classic nose behind it, but that she has much more, and may well be adored for things other than her mere beauty. So speaketh the Arbiter of the masquerade: ‘By thy mask I shall know thee.’
“But let us agree, Madame,” he went on, “that the day of judgment shall not be, as insipid preachers will have us believe, the moment of unveiling of our own poor little attempts at deceit, about which the Lord does indeed already know all, but, on the contrary, that it shall be the hour in which the Almighty God himself lets fall the mask. And what a moment! Oh, Madame, it will not be too much to have waited for it a million years. Heaven will ring and resound with laughter, pure and innocent as that of a child, clear as that of a bride, triumphant as that of a faithful warrior who lays down the enemy’s banners at his sovereign’s feet,
or who is at last lifted from the dungeon and the chains, cleared of his slanderer’s calumnies!
“Still, Madame, has not the Lord arranged for us here a day of judgment in miniature? It will be soon midnight. Let it be the hour of the falling of the mask. If it be not your mask, or mine, which is to fall, let it be the mask of fate and life. Death we may soon have to face, without any mask. In the meantime we have nothing to do but to remember what life be really like. Come, Madame, and my young brother and sister! As we shall not be able to sleep, and are still comfortably seated here, tell me who you are, and recount to me your stories without restraint.
“You,” the old man said, addressing himself to Jonathan Mærsk, “rose up in the boat, with danger of capsizing it, at the sight of the falling granary. Thus, I believe, some proud building of your life has fallen, and has gone to pieces under your eyes. Tell us which it was.