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Authors: Isak Dinesen

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BOOK: Seven Gothic Tales
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“To find out whether Rasmus was right I did, I think, a brave, even a heroic, thing, which proves to my mind that I had been well brought up, after all, by the skipper and his wife. I went to a big party at the house of Countess Danneskjold, and sang to them again. I sang my old songs, and I heard my own voice, or what was left of it. You will understand, who are listening to me now, how poor that must have been. I had sung to them before, and done my best, and it seemed to me that I had then given them the very best which I had in me. As I now sang there was not one of the faces around me which showed the slightest disappointment or regret. All the people were kind and complimentary to me, as
they had always been. I felt then that I had never given them anything, had never done anything to them at all. It was the world around me which was watching me, and meant to do something to me. All eyes were on me, for I was a genuine Joachim Gersdorff, a young man of fashion. I came away from that house at midnight, and that was the hour, My Lord, of which the fall of the granary reminded me.

“The same night I wrote a letter to the Baron, to take leave of him. I was so filled with abhorrence of him and all his world that, on reading my letter through, I found the word ‘fashion’ recurring nine times. I gave my letter to Rasmus to hand to him. As he was leaving I remembered that I had said nothing of the fortune which the Baron meant to leave to me. I now charged my friend to communicate to him my refusal of any of it.

“I could not stand the sight of the streets. Leaving my pretty rooms in the neighborhood of the Gersdorff Palace, I went in a boat across the harbor to the small fortified island of Trekroner, and took lodgings with the quartermaster, where I could see nothing but the sea. Rasmus walked down with me, and carried my bag. All the time he was trying to hold me back. We had to pass the door of the Gersdorff Palace, and such a sudden loathing of the whole place filled me at the sight of it that I spat at it, as my father—alas, as the skipper Clement Mærsk of Assens—had taught me to spit when I was a boy.

“For a few days I lived at Trekroner, trying to find again there the world as it had once been mine—not myself, for I wanted nothing less than myself. I thought of the garden of Assens, but it was closed to me forever. Once you have eaten of the tree of knowledge, and have seen yourself, gardens close themselves to you. You become a person of fashion, even as did Adam and Eve when they began to occupy themselves with their appearance.

“But only a few days later Rasmus came over to see me. He had taken a small yawl to get to me, he who was so terrified of the sea.

“ ‘Ah, my friend,’ he said, rubbing his hands, ‘you were born under a lucky star. I gave your letter to the Baron, and as he read it he became to the highest degree excited and delighted. He got up and walked to and fro, and exclaimed: “God, this misanthropy, this melancholy! How I know them. They are my own altogether! For the first week after I had become the lover of the Empress Catherine I felt all that he feels now. I meant to enter a monastery. It is young Joachim Gersdorff to a turn, but done all in black, an etching from the colored original. But good God, what power the boy has got in him, what a fine deep black! I had not thought it of him with his high voice. This is the winter night of Russia, the wolves upon the steppes.” After he had read your letter a second time he said: “He will not be a man of fashion? But so we all are, we Gersdorffs; so was my father at the court of the young Empress. Why should not my son be the same? Surely he shall be our heir, the glass of fashion, and the mold of form.”

“ ‘I tell you, Jonathan,’ said Rasmus, ‘that your melancholy is the highest fashion of the day. The elegant young men of Copenhagen wear black and speak with bitterness of the world, and the ladies talk of the grave.’

“And this was the time when they took to calling me Timon of Assens.

“ ‘Did you tell him,’ I asked Rasmus, ‘that I will on no account have any of his money?’ And Rasmus answered, ‘Yes, I did; and he was so pleased that I thought that he might have a stroke and leave you his heir there and then. “Good,” he said, “good, my son Timon. Let me see you throw it away. Scatter it well. Show the world your contempt of it in the true Gersdorff way Let the hetæra have it; there is no better advertisement for a melancholy man of fashion. They will follow you everywhere and make a charming contrast to your deep black. How I love that boy,” he said. “I have,” he added, “a collection of emeralds, unmatched in all Europe. I will send him that to start with.” And here, indeed, it is,’ said Rasmus, handing me, with great care, a case of jewels.

“ ‘But when the Baron heard,’ Rasmus said, ‘Of your spitting at the door of his house, he became very grave. “That,” he said, “I did to my father’s door, to the door of the Gersdorff Palace of St. Petersburg.” He at once sent for his lawyer, and drew up a document to acknowledge you as his son, and to leave you all his fortune. Likewise he has written to obtain for you the title of Knight of Malta, and the name of De Résurrection.’

“By this time I was so depressed that I thought of death with a true longing and nostalgia. I returned with Rasmus to town, to pay my debts, so that my tailor and my hatter should not talk of me when I was dead, and I walked out upon the bridge of Langebro, looking at the water and the boats lying there, some of which came from Assens. I waited until there were not so many people about. It was one of the blue April evenings of Copenhagen. A barcarole by Salvadore that I had used to sing ran into my mind. It gave me much ease, together with the thought that I would soon disappear. As I was standing there a carriage, driving by, slackened its pace, and a little later a lady dressed in black lace came up, looked around, and spoke to me in a low voice, quite out of breath. ‘You are Jonathan Mærsk?’ she asked me, and as I said yes, she came up close to me. ‘Oh, Jonathan Mærsk,’ she said, ‘I know you. I have followed you. I see what you are about. Let me die with you. I have long meant to seek death, but I dare not go alone. Let me go in your company. I am as great a sinner as Judas,’ she said, ‘like him I have betrayed, betrayed. Come, let us go.’ In the spring twilight she seized my hand and held it. I had to shake her off and run away.

“I thought: There are probably always in Copenhagen four or five women who are on the verge of suicide; perhaps there are more. If I have become the man of fashion amongst them, how shall I escape them, to die in peace? Must I die, now, in fashionable company, and give the tone of fashion to the bridge of Langebro? Must I go down to the bottom of the sea in the society of
women who do not know a major from a minor key, and is my last moan to be—”

“Le dernier cri”
said Miss Malin, with a truly witchlike little laugh.

“I went back to Trekroner,” said Jonathan after a short pause, “and sat in my room. I could neither eat nor drink.

“At this moment I unexpectedly received a visit from skipper Clement Mærsk of Assens. He had been away to Trankebar, and had just returned, and had looked me up.

“ ‘What is this,’ he said, ‘that I hear of you, Jonathannerl? Are they to make you a Knight of Malta? I know Malta well. As you go into the entrance and have got the Castle of San Angelo on your right hand, you have to be careful about a rock to port.’

“ ‘Father,’ I said, remembering again how we had sailed together, ‘is Baron Gersdorff my father? Do you know that man?’

“ ‘Leave the women’s business alone,’ he said. ‘Here you are, Jonathan, a seaworthy ship, whoever built you.’

“I told him then all that had happened to me.

“ ‘Little Jonathan,’ he said, ‘you have fallen amongst women.’ I said that I really did not know many women. ‘That does not signify,’ he said, ‘I have seen the men of Copenhagen. Those people who want things to happen are all of them women, masquerading in a new model of wax noses. I tell you, in regard to ships, if it were not for the women sitting in ports waiting for silks, tea, cochineal, and pepper—all things which they want for making things happen—the ships would sail on quietly, content to be on the sea and never thinking of land. Your mother,’ he went on after a little while, ‘was the only woman I ever knew who did not want things to happen.’ I said, ‘But even she, Father, did not succeed in it, and God help me now.’

“I told him how Baron Gersdorff had wanted to leave me his fortune. Father had become hard of hearing. Only after a time he said, ‘Did you speak of money? Do you want money, Jonathan? It would be curious if you did, for I know where there is a lot
of it. Three years ago,’ he recounted, ‘I was becalmed off a small island near Haiti. I went ashore to see the place, and to dig up some rare plants which I meant to bring your mother, and there I struck upon the buried treasure of Captain l’Olonnais, who was one of the
Filibustiers
. I dug it all up, and as I wanted exercise I dug it all down again, in better order than the Captain had done. I know the exact place of it. If you want it I will get it for you some time, and if you cannot stop the Baron from giving you his money, you might make him a present of it. It is more than he has got.’

“ ‘Father!’ I cried, ‘you do not know what you say. You have not lived in this town. What a gesture that would be. It would make me a man of fashion forever—I should indeed be Timon of Assens. Bring me a parrot from Haiti, Father, but not money.’

“ ‘I believe you are unhappy, Jonathan,’ he said.

“ ‘I am unhappy, Father,’ I said. ‘I have loved this town and the people in it. I have drunk them down with delight. But they have some poison in them which I cannot stand. If I think of them now, I vomit up my soul. Do you know of a cure for me?’

“ ‘Why, yes,’ he said, ‘I know of a cure for everything: salt water.’

“ ‘Salt water?’ I asked him.

“ ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘in one way or the other. Sweat, or tears, or the salt sea.’

“I said: ‘I have tried sweat and tears. The salt sea I meant to try, but a woman in black lace prevented me.’

“ ‘You speak wildly, Jonathan,’ he said.

“ ‘You might come with me,’ he said after a little time. ‘I am bound for St. Petersburg.’

“ ‘No,’ I said, ‘to St. Petersburg I will not go.’

“ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I am bound for it. But go and get well while I am there, for you are looking very sick. I will take you when I come back, into open sea.’

“ ‘I cannot stay in Copenhagen,’ I said.

“ ‘Good,’ he said, ‘go to some place of which the doctors can tell you, and I will pick you up at Hamburg.’

“And in this way, My Lord, and Miss Nat-og-Dag,” the young man said, “I was sent here, by skipper Mærsk, whether he be my father or not, to get cured by salt water.”

“Ah, ah, ah,” said Miss Malin, when the young man had finished his tale, in which she had by this time become quite absorbed. She rubbed her small hands together, as pleased as a child with a new toy. “What a story, Monsieur Timon. What a place this is! What people we are! I myself have by now become aware of my identity: I am Mademoiselle Diogenes, and this little lantern, which the fat old peasant woman left us, that is my famous lamp, by the light of which I have sought a man, and by which I have found him. You are the man, Timon! If I had searched all Europe with lamp and lantern I should not have found more precisely what I wanted.”

“What do you want me for, Madame?” Jonathan asked her.

“Oh, not for myself,” said Miss Malin. “I am not in a mood for love-making tonight. In fact, I might have had, for supper, a decoction of the tree agnus castus, of which a specimen is shown in Guinenne. I want you for Calypso.

“You see this girl?” she asked him, looking with pride and tenderness at the fair young creature by her side. “She is not my own daughter, and still, by the Holy Ghost, I am making her, as much as my old friend Baron Gersdorff ever made you. I have carried her in my heart and my mind, and sighed under her weight. Now the days are accomplished when I shall be delivered, and here we have the stable and the manger. But when I have brought her forth, I shall want a nurse; further, I shall want a governess, a tutor, a
maestro
for her, and you are to be all that.”

“Alas, to teach her what?” asked Jonathan.

“To teach her to be seen,” said Miss Malin. “You complain of people looking at you. But what if you were bent down by the opposite misfortune? What if nobody could or would see you,
although you were, yourself, firmly convinced of your own existence? There are more martyrdoms than yours, Misanthrope of Assens. You may have read the tale of the Emperor’s new clothes, by that brilliant, rising young author, Hans Andersen. But here we have it the other way around: the Emperor is walking along in all his splendor, scepter and orb in hand, and no one in the whole town dares to see him, for they believe that they shall then be thought unfit for their offices, or impossibly dull. This is my little Emperor; the procession a bad man made, about whom I shall tell you; and you, Monsieur Timon, you are the innocent child who cries out: ‘But there
is
an Emperor!’

“The motto of the Nat-og-Dag family,” went on Miss Malin, “runs thus: ‘The sour with the sweet.’ Out of piety to my ancestors I have partaken of many of the mixed dishes of life: the giblet soup of Mr. Swedenborg, the salad of platonic love, even the sauerkraut of the divine Marquis. I have developed the palate of a true Nat-og-Dag; I have come to relish them. But the bitterness of life, that is bad nourishment, particularly to a young heart. Upon the meadows of the Westerlands they raise a sort of mutton which, fed on salt grass, produces an excellent-tasting meat known in the culinary world as
pré-salé
. This girl has been fed on such salt plains and on brine and bitter herbs. Her little heart has had nothing else to eat. She is indeed, spiritually, an
agneau pré-salé
, my salted little ewe lamb.”

The girl, who had all the time sat crouching near her old friend, drew herself up when Miss Malin began to tell her story. She sat up straight then, her amber-colored eyes below their delicate, long-drawn eyebrows that were like the markings on a butterfly’s wings, or themselves like a pair of low extended wings, were fixed on the air, too haughty to turn toward her audience. In spite of her gentle brow she was a dangerous animal, ready to spring. But at what? At life altogether.

BOOK: Seven Gothic Tales
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