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Authors: Isak Dinesen

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BOOK: Seven Gothic Tales
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“She walked up the stairs very gently, and went close to the great bed of her uncle. There he was, between the yellow silk hangings, his eyes shut, his nose in the air, white in a fine white nightshirt. The girl still had on a great yellow-brocade frock, and she stood by his bedside like Psyche beside the couch of Eros. Psyche had feared to see a monster, and had found the god of love. But Calypso had held her uncle to be a minister of truth, an arbiter of taste, an Apollo himself, and what did she find? A poor little doll stuffed with sawdust, a caricature of a skull. She blushed deeply. Had she been afraid of this creature—she, who was the sister of the nymphs and had centaurs for playmates? She was a hundred times as strong as he.

“Had he woke up then, and seen her by his bedside, still with her hatchet in her hand, he might have died from fear, or it might have done him good in some other way. But he slept on—God knows what his dreams were—and she did not cut off his head. She gave him instead a little swift epigram out of her French book, which had once been made about a king who also imagined himself much-beloved:

Ci-git Louis, ce pauvre roi
L’on dit qu’il fut bon—mais à quoi

And she did not bear him the slightest grudge; for she was not a freed slave, but a conqueror with a mighty train, who could afford to forget.

“She left the room as quietly as she had come, and blew out the candle, for in the summer night she could find her way without it. All around her the whole seraglio was silent; only as she passed a door she heard two of the young boys arguing upon divine love. They might all have been dead as far as she was concerned. As
she lifted the heavy medieval lock of the front door she lifted their weight off her heart.

“When she came out it was raining. The night itself wanted to touch her.

“She walked over the moors, grave as Ceres herself with a thunderbolt borrowed from Jove in her hand, who, even as she knits her brows, smells of strawberries and honey. Around the horizon the corn-lightnings were playing in her honor. She let her frock trail over the heather. Why should she not? Had a young highwayman met her, she might have made him her husband then and there, until death had them parted; or she might have chopped off his head, and God knows which fate would have been more to be envied him.

“She had no gay ditty on her lips. She had been seriously brought up as a good Protestant, and life had taught her no frivolity. In her heart she repeated the hymn of good Paul Gerhardt, altering it as to the personal pronoun only:

Against me who can stand?
The lightnings in my hand
Who dares to bring distress
Where I decide to bless

“In the early morning she came to the house where I was staying. She was wet all through like a tree in the garden. She knew of me, for I am her godmother, and she felt that I had knowledge of, and might tell her more about, nymphs and centaurs. She found me getting into my carriage to go to the bath of Norderney. In this way fate drove us together, to be, in the end, like yourself, Mr. Timon, cured by salt water.”

“And to shine above them,” the Cardinal said, as gently as he had all the time been listening to the tale of the old woman, “a Stella Maris in the darkness of our loft.”

“Madame, indeed,” said Jonathan, “I do not know if you will think it strange, but I have never in my life, until you told me
so now, thought that fair women could suffer. I held them to be precious flowers, which must be looked after carefully.”

“And what do you feel now that I have told you so?” Miss Malin asked him.

“Madame,” said the young man after having thought it over, “I feel how edifying is the thought that toward women we are always in the wrong.”

“You are an honest young man,” said Miss Malin. “Your side hurts you now, where your rib was once taken out of you.”

“If I had been in the castle of Angelshorn,” he went on, in high agitation, “I should not have minded dying to serve this lady.”

“Come, Jonathan and Calypso,” said Miss Malin, “it would be sinful and blasphemous were you two to die unmarried. You have been brought here from Angelshorn and Assens, into each other’s arms. You are hers, and she is yours, and the Cardinal and I, who stand you in parents’ stead, will give you our blessing.” The two young people stared at each other. “If anybody will say,” said Miss Malin, “that you are not her equal in birth, I shall answer him that you belong to the order of knighthood of the hayloft of Norderney, outside of which no member of it can marry.” The girl, in great excitement, rose half up and stood on her knees. “Did you not see, Calypso,” Miss Malin addressed herself kindly to her, “how he followed you here, and how, the moment he heard that you were staying here with me, nothing in the world could induce him to go with the boat? Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it.”

“Is that true?” asked the girl, turning her eyes upon the boy with such an intense and frantic look as if life and death for her depended upon his answer.

“Yes, that is true,” said Jonathan. It was not in the least true. He had not even, at the time, been aware of the girl’s existence. But the power of imagination of the old woman was enough to sway anybody off his feet. The girl’s face, at his words, suddenly paled into a rare pearly white. Her eyes grew bigger and darker.
They shone at him like stars with a moisture deeper than tears, and at the sight of her changed face Jonathan sank upon his knees before her in the hay.

“Oh, Jonathan,” said Miss Malin, “are you going to thank the Baron, upon your knees, that he took the trouble about you?”

“Yes, Madame,” said the young man.

“And you, Calypso,” she asked the girl, “do you want him to look at you forever and ever?”

“Yes,” said the girl.

Miss Malin looked at them triumphantly. “Then, My Lord,” she said to the Cardinal, “will you consent to marry these two people, who stand in great need of it?”

The Cardinal’s eyes gravely sought their faces, which had now colored as strongly as if they had been in front of a high fire. “Yes,” he said. “Lift me up.” The bridegroom-to-be helped him to rise.

“You will,” said Miss Malin, “have a Cardinal to marry you, and a Nat-og-Dag for a bridesmaid, which no one will have hereafter. Your marriage must be in every way a more intense affair than the lukewarm unions generally celebrated around us, for you must see her, listen to her, feel her, know her with the energy which you meant to use for jumping into the sea from Langebro. One kiss will make it out for the birth of twins, and at dawn you shall celebrate your golden wedding.”

“My Lord,” she said to the Cardinal, “the circumstances being so unusual—for we have no need of procreation, seeing that the boat can hold no more than we are, and we run but little risk of fornication, I feel; and as to the company of one another, we cannot escape it if we would—I think that you will have to make us out a new marriage rite.”

“I am aware of that,” said the Cardinal.

To make a clear space in the middle of the circle, Miss Malin lifted up the little lamp in her clawlike hand, and Calypso moved the bread and the keg away. The dog, at this rearrangement of the
group, got up and walked around them uneasily. In the end it settled down close to the young bride.

“Kneel down, my children,” said the old priest.

He stood up, his huge and heavy figure looming over them in the large, half-dark room. At this moment, as the wind had risen a little, they heard the sighing of the waters all around and beneath them.

“I cannot,” said the Cardinal very slowly, “here tonight call upon the magnificence of the cathedral, or the presence of a congregation, to sanction this covenant. I have no time to teach or prepare you. You must, therefore, accept my profession to you solely on my authority. You two, I have seen,” he went on after a pause, “have had your faith in the cohesion and justice of life shaken. Have faith in me now; I will help you. Have you a ring?”

The young people had no ring, and were much put out by the lack of it, but Miss Malin took off a very magnificent diamond, which she handed to the old man.

“Jonathan,” said he, “place this ring on this girl’s finger.” The boy did so, and the Cardinal placed a hand on the head of each of the kneeling people. “Jonathan,” said the Cardinal again, “do you now believe that you are married?”

“Yes,” said Jonathan.

“And you, Calypso?” the Cardinal asked the girl.

“Yes,” she whispered.

“And that you will,” said the Cardinal, “from now, love and honor each other until the end of your lives, and even in death and eternity?”

“Yes,” they said.

“Then,” said the Cardinal, “you are married.”

Miss Malin stood by, erect, holding the lamp like a sibyl.

The hours of rest in the hayloft had not strengthened the Cardinal, who was probably past all his strength. He was less steady in his movements than when he had come out of the boat.
His figure seemed to sway, strangely, in time to the sound of the water.

“As to the state of marriage,” he said, “and the matter of love I suppose that neither of you knows anything at all about these things?” The two young people shook their heads. “I cannot,” said the Cardinal again, “here make the Scripture and the Fathers of the Church bear witness to my words to you. I cannot even, for I am very tired, call up the texts and examples wherewith to enlighten and instruct you. You will, again, accept my profession on my authority as a very old man who has been throughout a long and strange life a student of divine matters. These matters, I tell you, are divine. Do you, Jonathan, expect and hold them to be so?”

“Yes,” said Jonathan.

“And you, Calypso?” he asked the bride.

“Yes,” she said.

“Then that is all,” said the Cardinal.

As he did not appear to be going to say any more, the married young people, after a moment, got up, but they were too strongly moved to be able to get away. Standing there, they looked at each other for the first time since they had been called out to be married, and this one look took away all self-consciousness from both of them. They went back to their places in the hay.

“As to you and me, Madame,” said the Cardinal, speaking over their heads to Miss Malin, but apparently forgetting that he was no longer in the pulpit, for he went on talking as solemnly as he had done when performing the marriage ceremony, “who are only onlookers upon this occasion, and who know more about the matters of love and marriage, we will consider the lesson which they, above and before all other things, teach us about the tremendous courage of the Creator of this world. Every human being has, I believe, at times given room to the idea of creating a world himself. The Pope, in a flattering way, encouraged these thoughts in me when I was a young man. I reflected then that I might, had
I been given omnipotence and a free hand, have made a fine world. I might have bethought me of the trees and rivers, of the different keys in music, of friendship, and innocence; but upon my word and honor, I should not have dared to arrange these matters of love and marriage as they are, and my world should have lost sadly thereby. What an overwhelming lesson to all artists! Be not afraid of absurdity; do not shrink from the fantastic. Within a dilemma, choose the most unheard-of, the most dangerous, solution. Be brave, be brave! Ah, Madame, we have got much to learn.”

Upon this, he fell into deep thought.

As they sat down, their former positions were not much changed, except that the newly married people now sat closer together, and held each other’s hands. Sometimes they also turned their faces toward each other. The lantern stood on the floor in front of them. Miss Malin and the Cardinal, after their effort in marrying them, remained silent for about half an hour, and drank a few drops out of the keg of gin.

Miss Malin sat up straight, but by now she looked like a corpse of twenty-four hours. She was deeply moved and happy, as if she had really given away a daughter in marriage. Long shudders ran through her from head to feet. When she at last took up the conversation again, her voice was faint, but she smiled. She had probably been reflecting upon marriage and the Garden of Eden.

“Do you, My Lord,” she asked, “believe in the fall of man?”

The Cardinal thought over her question for some time, then he bent forward, his elbows on his knees, and pushed back the bandage a little from his brow.

“This is a question,” he said, in a voice slightly changed, thicker than before, but also with a great deal more energy in it, as if he had at the same time pushed back ten years of his age, “upon which I have thought much. It is pleasant that I shall get an opportunity for talking of it tonight.

“I am convinced,” he declared, “that there has been a fall, but
I do not hold that it is man who has fallen. I believe that there has been a fall of the divinity. We are now serving an inferior dynasty of heaven.”

Miss Malin had been prepared for an ingenious argument, but at this speech she was shocked, and for a moment held her little hands to her ears. “These are terrible words to the ear of a Legitimist,” she cried.

“What are they, then,” asked the Cardinal solemnly, “to the lips of a Legitimist? I have detained them for seventy years. But you asked me, Madame, and, if the truth must out, this is a good place and night for it. At some time there has taken place, in heaven, a tremendous overturning, equal to the French Revolution upon earth, and its after-effects. The world of today is, like the France of today, in the hands of a Louis Philippe.”

“There are traditions still,” he went on, “from
le Grand Monarque
le Grand Siècle
. But no human being with a feeling for greatness can possibly believe that the God who created the stars, the sea, and the desert, the poet Homer and the giraffe, is the same God who is now making, and upholding, the King of Belgium, the Poetical School of Schwaben, and the moral ideas of our day. We two may at last speak about it. We are serving Louis Philippe, a human God, much as the King of France is a bourgeois King.”

Miss Malin stared at him, pale, her mouth a little open.

BOOK: Seven Gothic Tales
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