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Authors: Isak Dinesen

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BOOK: Seven Gothic Tales
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“Madame,” he said, “we who are by birth the grandees of the King, and hereditary office-holders of his court, and who have the code of
le Grand Monarque
in our veins, have a duty toward the legitimate king, whatever we think of him. We must keep up his glory. For the people must not doubt the greatness of the king, or suspect any weakness of his, and the responsibility for keeping up their faith rests upon you and me, Madame. The barber of the court was not capable of keeping his own counsel; he had to whisper to the reeds of the king’s asses’ ears. But we—are we barbers? No, Madame, we are no barbers.”

“Have we not done our best?” asked Miss Malin proudly.

“Yes,” said the Cardinal, “we have done our best. When you look around, Madame, you see everywhere the achievements of the faithful, who have worked, nameless, for the king’s honor. I could name you many examples out of history, of which I have thought. I shall give you a few only. God made the shell, which is a pretty object, but not more than what even Louis Philippe might have hit upon when he was playing with a pair of dividers. Out of the shell we made all the art of the rococo, which is a charming jest, in the true spirit of the
Grand Monarque
. And if you read the history of great people, you will find that the lords and ladies of the bedchamber have been at work, serving our master of blessed memory. The Pope Alexander and his children, according to the latest historical researches, were a group of pleasant people, given to gardening and house decoration, and full of family affection,
et voilà tout
—obviously the handwork of Louis Philippe. But out of that indifferent material we have made our figures of the Borgias. You will find very nearly the same thing if you go into the facts about the great reputations of history. Or even, Madame, if you do not mind,” the old man went on, “death: What is it, nowadays, at the hand of Louis Philippe? A negation, a decay, not even in the best of taste. But look at what we have made of it, faithful to our gone Lord: the Imperial Mausoleum of Escurial, Madame, the ‘Funeral March’ of Herr Ludwig von Beethoven. How could we ever have made those—poor human beings as we are, and, moreover, ourselves bound to be part in this meager affair—if we had not in our hearts the unquenchable love for our departed Lord, the great adventurer, to whom our family did first swear its oath of allegiance.”

“But with all that,” he went on, very gravely, “the end is nearing. I hear the cocks crow. King Louis Philippe cannot last. In his cause the blood of Roland himself would be shed in vain. He has all the qualities of a good bourgeois, and none of the vices of a
Grand Seigneur
. He claims no rank except that of the first citizen
of his kingdom, and no privileges except on account of his loyalty to the bourgeois code of morals. When it comes to that, the days of royalty are counted. I will pronounce a prophecy, Madame: that good King of France will not last another thirteen years. And the good God, whom Louis Philippe and his bourgeoisie worship today, he has all the virtues of a righteous human being; he claims no divine privileges except by virtue of his virtues. We, we no more expected a moral attitude in our God than we meant to hold our great King responsible to the penal law. The humane God must share the fate of the bourgeois King. I was myself brought up by humane people to have faith in a humane God. It was to the highest extent intolerable to me. Ah, Madame, what a revelation, what a bliss to my heart, when, in the nights of Mexico, I felt the great traditions rise up again of a God who did not give a pin for our commandments. In this manner, Madame, we are dying for a lost cause.”

“To get our reward in paradise,” said Miss Malin.

“Oh, no, Madame,” said the old man, “we shall not get into paradise, you or I. Look at the people whom the King Louis Philippe today decorates, elevates to peer’s rank and places in the great offices. They are safely bourgeois, all of them; no name of the old aristocracy appears in the list. Neither you nor I succeed in pleasing the Lord nowadays; we even irritate him a little, and he is not beyond showing it in his behavior toward us. The old nobility, whose manner and very names bring back the traditions of the Great Monarch, must needs be a little trying to King Louis Philippe.”

“So we have no hope of heaven, you or I?” asked Miss Malin proudly.

“I wonder if you would be keen to get in there,” said the old Cardinal, “if you were first allowed a peep into the place. It must be the rendezvous of the bourgeoisie. Madame, to my mind there never was a great artist who was not a bit of a charlatan;
nor a great king, nor a god. The quality of charlatanry is indispensable in a court, or a theater, or in paradise. Thunder and lightning, the new moon, a nightingale, a young girl—all these are bits of charlatanry, of a divine swank. So is the
de glaces
at Versailles. But King Louis Philippe has no drop of blood of the charlatan in him; he is genuinely reliable all through. Paradise, these days, is very likely the same. You and I, Madame, were not brought up to a reasonable content. We shall cut a finer figure in hell. We were trained for it.

“It is a satisfaction, Madame, to do a thing that one has learned well. It must be a satisfaction to you, I am sure, to dance the minuet. Let us take an example. Let us say that I have been trained from a child to do something. For argument’s sake, let us say to do rope-dancing. I have been taught it, beaten to learn it. If I fall down and break my bones, I still have to get up again on my rope. My mother has wept over me, and has still encouraged me. She has had to go without bread to pay the vaulter who teaches me. And I have become a good rope-dancer, say the best rope-dancer in the world. It is a fine thing, then, to be a rope-dancer. And I shall be amply rewarded when, upon some great occasion, at the entertainment of a great foreign monarch, my King says to his royal guest: ‘You must really see this, Sire and my Brother; this is my finest show, my servant Hamilcar, the rope-dancer!’ But what if he should say, Madame, ‘There is not much sense in rope-dancing. It is a rough performance; I am going to stop it?’ What sort of performance, on the part of the King, should that be to me?

“Have you been to Spain, Madame?” he asked the old lady.

“Oh, yes,” said Miss Malin, “a beautiful country, My Lord. I had serenades sung under my window, and my portrait painted by Monsieur Goya himself.”

“Have you seen a bullfight there?” the Cardinal asked.

“Yes,” said Miss Malin. “It is a very picturesque thing, though not to my taste.”

“It is a picturesque thing,” said the Cardinal. “And what do you imagine, Madame, that the bull thinks of it? The plebeian bull may well think: ‘God have mercy on me, what terrible conditions here. What disasters, what a run of bad luck. But it must be endured.’ And he would be deeply thankful, moved even to humble tears, were the King, in the midst of the bullfight, to send directions to have it stopped, out of compassion for him. But the purebred fighting bull falls in with it, and says: ‘Lo, this is a bullfight.’ He will have his blood up straight away, and he will fight and die, because otherwise there would be no bullfight out of the thing at all. He will also be known for many years as that black bull which put up such a fine fight, and killed the matador. But if, in the middle of it, when this bull’s blood had already flowed, the King chose to stop it, what would the true fighting bull think of it? He might go for the audience, even for the master of ceremonies then. He would roar at them: ‘You should have thought of this before!’ Madame, the King should have his show. He has bred and reared me for it, and I am ready to fight and die before the Great Monarch, when he comes in state to see me. But I am hanged,” he said after a moment, with great energy, “if I care to perform before Louis Philippe.”

“Ah, but wait,” said Miss Malin. “I have thought of something else. Perhaps you are mistaken in your ideas of the sense of humor of King Louis Philippe. He may have a quite different taste from yours and mine, and may like a world turned upside down, like that Empress of Russia who, to amuse herself, made her old Councilors, the tears running down their faces, dance in a ballet before her, and her ballet-dancers sit in council. That, My Lord, might well be his idea of a joke. I will tell you a little story to make myself clear, and it fits in well, since we have been talking of rope-dancing.

“When I was in Vienna twenty years ago,” she began, “a pretty boy with big blue eyes made a great stir there by dancing on a rope blindfolded. He danced with wonderful grace and skill, and
the blindfolding was genuine, the cloth being tied around his eyes by a person out of the audience. His performance was the great sensation of the season, and he was sent for to dance before the Emperor and Empress, the archdukes and archduchesses, and the court. The great oculist, Professor Heimholz, was present. He had been sent for by the Emperor, since everybody was discussing the problem of clairvoyance. But at the end of the show he rose up and called out: ‘Your Majesty,’ he said, in great agitation, ‘and your Imperial Highnesses, this is all humbug, and a cheat.’

“ ‘It cannot be humbug,’ said the court oculist, ‘I have myself tied the cloth around the boy’s eyes most conscientiously.’

“ ‘It is all humbug and a cheat,’ the great professor indignantly insisted. ‘That child was born blind.’ ”

Miss Malin made a little pause. “What,” she said, “if your Louis Philippe shall say, on seeing us cutting such fine figures in hell: This is all humbug. These people have been in hell from their birth.” She laughed a little.

“Madame,” said the Cardinal after a silence, “you have a great power of imagination, and a fine courage.”

“Oh, I am a Nat-og-Dag,” said Miss Malin modestly.

“But are you not,” said the Cardinal, “a little—”

“Mad?” asked the old lady. “I thought that you were aware of that, My Lord.”

“No,” said he, “that was not what I meant to say. But a little hard on the King of France. I may perhaps be in a position to understand him better than you. Bourgeois he is, but not canaille.

“I shall also tell you a story,” went on the old man, “seeing that I have not yet contributed to the night’s entertainment. I shall tell it just to illustrate that there are—with your permission, Madame—worse things than perdition, and I shall call it—” he reflected a moment—“I shall call it ‘The Wine of the Tetrarch’.”

“As, then, upon the first Wednesday after Easter,” the Cardinal began, “the Apostle Simon, called Peter, was walking down the
streets of Jerusalem, so deeply absorbed in the thought of the resurrection that he did not know whether he was walking upon the pavement or was being carried along in the air, he noticed, in passing the Temple, that a man was standing by a pillar waiting for him. As their eyes met, the stranger stepped forward and addressed him. ‘Wast thou not also,’ he asked, ‘with Jesus of Nazareth?’

“ ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ Peter replied quickly.

“ ‘Then I should much like to have speech with you,’ said the man. ‘I do not know what to do. Will you come inside the inn close hereby, and have a drink with me?’ Peter, because he could not disengage himself from his thoughts sufficiently to find an excuse, accepted, and soon the two were seated together inside the inn.

“The stranger seemed to be well known there. He at once obtained a table to himself at the end of the room and out of earshot of the other guests who from time to time entered the inn and went out again, and he also ordered the best wine for himself and the Apostle. Peter now looked at the man, and found him an impressive figure. He was a swarthy, strongly built, proud young man. He was badly dressed and had on a much-patched goatskin cloak, but with it he wore a fine crimson silk scarf, and he had a gold chain around his neck, and upon his hands many heavy gold rings, one of which had a large emerald in it. It now seemed to Peter that he had seen the man before, in the midst of terrible fear and turbulence; still, he did not remember where.

“ ‘If you are indeed one of the followers of the Nazarene,’ he said, ‘I want to ask you two questions. I will tell you my reasons, too, for asking them, as we go on.’

“ ‘I shall be glad if I can help you in any way,’ said Peter, still absent-minded.

“ ‘Well,’ said the man, ‘first: Is it true, what they tell of this Rabbi whom you served, that he has risen from the dead?’

“ ‘Yes, it is true,’ said Peter, even feeling his own heart to swell at his proclamation.

“ ‘Nay, I heard rumors about it,’ said the man, ‘but I did not know for sure. And is it true that he told you himself, before he was crucified, that he would rise?’

“ ‘Yes,’ said the Apostle, ‘he told us. We knew that it would happen.’

“ ‘Do you think, then,’ the stranger asked, ‘that every word which he has spoken is certain to come true?’

“ ‘Nothing in the world is as sure as that,’ Peter answered. The man sat silent for a while.

“ ‘I will tell you why I ask you this,’ he suddenly said. ‘It is because a friend of mine was crucified with him on Friday at the place of a skull. You saw him there, I think. To him this Rabbi of yours promised that he should be with him in paradise on the very same day. Do you then believe that he did go to paradise on Friday?’

“ ‘Yes, he is sure to have gone there and he is there now,’ said Peter. The man again was silent.

“ ‘Well, that is good,’ he said. ‘He was my friend.’

“Here a young boy of the inn brought the wine which the man had ordered. The man poured some of it out into their glasses, looked at it, and put it down again. ‘And this,’ he said, ‘is the other thing that I wanted to speak with you about. I have tried many wines within the last few days, and they all tasted bad to me. I do not know what has happened to the wine of Jerusalem. It has neither flavor nor body any longer. I think it may be due to the earthquake which we had on Friday afternoon; it has turned it all bad.’

“ ‘I do not think that this wine is bad,’ said Peter, to encourage the stranger, for he looked sad as death.

“ ‘Is it not?’ the man said hopefully, and drank a little of it. ‘Yes, this also is bad,’ he said, as he put down his glass. ‘If you call it good, perhaps you have not much knowledge of wine? I have,
and good wine is my great pleasure. Now I do not know what to do.

BOOK: Seven Gothic Tales
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