The Cardinal's First Tale
by Karen Blixen

"Who are you?" the lady in black asked Cardinal Salviati.

The Cardinal looked up, met the gaze of her wide-open eyes and smiled very gently.

"Who am I?" he repeated. "Verily, Madame, you are the first of my penitents who has ever asked me that question - the first, indeed, who has ever seemed to presume that I might have an identity of my own to confess to. I was not prepared for your question."

The lady remained standing up straight before him; without taking her eyes off his face, she mechanically pulled on her long gloves.

"Men and women," the Cardinal went on, "in the course of time have come to me and have asked my advice. Many of them have come in deep distress . . ."

"As I myself!" she exclaimed.

"In deep distress and anguish," he continued, "which, however, have never been deeper than my compassion with each of them - and have put their problems before me in all kinds of terms. Madame, the multitude of statements and arguments have been but so many variations of one single cry of the heart, of one single question: 'Who am I?' If I could but answer that question, if I could but solve that riddle for them, my consultants would be saved."

"As I myself!" she cried out for the third time. "When I first told you of the horrible conflict, of the cruel dilemma which was rending my heart, I put before you, I know, a number of details, in themselves unconnected and contradictory, and so jarring that I had to stop the ears of my mind to them. In the course of our talks together all these fragments have been united into a whole. Oh, not into an idyll - I am well aware that I am in for a furioso - but into a harmony without a discordant note to it. You have shown me myself! I might tell you that you had created me, and that I had come to life under your hands, and surely it would have been both happiness and pain to have been thus created. But it is not so; my happiness and my pain are greater still, for you have made me see that I was already created - aye, created by the Lord God Himself and issued from His hands. From this hour, what on earth or in heaven can harm me? To the eyes of the world, it is true, I am standing at the edge of an abyss, or walking in a blizzard in wild mountains, but the abyss and the blizzard are the work of God and are infinitely and magnificently beautiful!"

She closed her eyes, then after a second looked up again.

"Yet," she said, her voice soft, like the voice of a violin, "I shall be asking one more favor from you. I beg you to answer my question. Who are you?"

"Madame," said the Cardinal after a long pause, "I am not in the habit of talking about myself, and your demand makes me feel a little shy. But I do not want to see you go away - and maybe we two shall never meet again - without having granted you your last request. And indeed," he added, "I am beginning to take an interest in your question. Allow me, then, in order to save my modesty, to answer you in the classic manner, and to tell you a story.

"Take a seat, Madame. The story may be somewhat intricate, and I myself may be a somewhat slow raconteur."

Without a word more the lady sat down in the big armchair indicated to her. The library in which the two found themselves was cool and high up; the noises of the street only reached the talker and the listener like the carefree murmur of a calm sea.

A girl of fifteen, the Cardinal began, with rich gifts of heart and mind, and magnificently innocent, was given away in marriage to a brusque and bigoted nobleman three times her age, who took a wife to have his name live on. A son was born to them, but the child was delicate and had but one eye. The doctors, who found a reason for the sad misfortune in the mother's young age, advised her husband to allow a few years to pass before the birth of another child. Not without some bitterness, the gentleman decided to follow their advice, and in his own mind fixed the period of waiting at three years. So as not to expose his inexperienced wife, during these three years, to the temptations of a worldly life, he took up residence in a palatial villa of his, overlooking beautiful, lonely mountain scenery, and engaged an old, impoverished but proud-hearted maiden aunt as dame de compagnie. And so as not to have the daily anxiety for a feeble, threatened being affect the Princess' youthful vitality, he put his son out to nurse with a tenant family on another estate.

Possibly Prince Pompilio, who generally had firm faith in his own judgment, ought not this once to have yielded so easily to the old doctors' opinion. His young wife had accepted her circumstances in life, her marriage and her husband, her palazzo and her coach, the admiration of a brilliant society, and in the end her frail little son, exactly as in former days she had accepted the dolls and the rosaries presented to her, the regulations of the convent school, and her own transformation from child into schoolgirl, and from schoolgirl into maiden. Even the separation from her child she had suffered in the same way, as the ordinance of higher powers. During her pregnancy, while she had been watched over and petted by all who surrounded her, she had come to see herself as a fragile, precious vessel, within which a rare seed had been laid down to germinate, and at the end of the term it had been her husband's old name to which she had given birth. Her personal share in the venture was now but the slightly aching echo of a faint little cry. In the course of the three years by the mountain-lake she learned to dream.

The villa contained a fine library. Here its master passed most of the time that he could spare from the administration of his property and the visits of prominent ecclesiastics. Upon the library shelves tall tomes, with their backs to the world, preserved the ponderous knowledge of ages. But from time to time during three centuries, volumes of more frivolous thoughts, of longing and levity and words that rhymed, had happened to leap in amongst them. On a day when her husband was away, the mistress of the villa found her way to the library. The large cool room, which till now had known only black and bleak human figures, became the abode of a fresh young being in white muslin, whose rich tresses, as she was reading, tumbled forward and caressed the parchment, and who seemed to be lifted from her chair by her own deep sighs of sadness or delight, and to be blown by them to and fro on the marble floor. It fell in love with her; it became a bower above a fountain nymph, shaking down on its own the sweet fruits that her heart demanded.

Such excessive reading, the Prince reflected, might be harmful to his wife's health and mind; she should be otherwise occupied. Princess Benedetta had a pure and sweet voice, and within the second year of waiting the Prince appointed for her an old singing-master, who had once sung in opera. She gave herself up to music, as she had given herself up to books; her nature at first had listened, now it sang. Here, she felt, was a reasonable human language, within which things could be truthfully expressed. She was in good understanding with the cadenza, both the full or perfect cadenza and the deceptive cadenza, the cadenza d'inganno, of which musical dictionaries will tell you that it makes every preparation for a perfect finish and then, instead of giving the expected final accord, suddenly breaks off and sounds an unexpected, strange and alarming close. Here, quite obviously, the girl's heart told her, was the infallible rule of the irregular.

A pleasant friendship soon united teacher and pupil. The old maestro entertained the noble young lady with reminiscences of the opera, and within the third year of waiting he obtained her husband's consent to escort her and the old aunt to Venice to a performance of Metastasio's masterpiece Achilles in Scyros. Here she heard Marelli sing.

How describe the beatitude into which, in the course of a few hours, her whole being was transported. It was a birth, the pangs of which were sweet beyond words, a mighty process which needed, and made use of, every particle of her nature, and in which, undergoing a total change, she triumphantly became her whole self. Gratia, Saint Thomas Aquinas himself says, supponit et perficit naturam - Grace presupposes Nature and brings it to perfection. Any person of soul and imagination will recognize the experience, every lover in the world is a disciple of the Angelic Doctor. I shall leave my analysis at that; I do not venture to compete with Saint Thomas.

At the seventh recall, before the last drop of the curtain - while the whole house was afoot and applauding madly - from the stage-boards and from a nobleman's gilt box, a pair of blue and a pair of black eyes met across the pit in a long deep silent glance, the first and the last.

Smile not - not even in pity - at the fact that the youth, who called to life a young woman's heart, was a being of Marelli's kind, a soprano, formed and prepared in the Conservatorio of Sant' Onofrio, and once and for all cut off - no, laugh not! - from real life. But bear in mind that this whole love affair was of a seraphic order and went to a tune.

Old courtesans have confided to me that in their career they have met with young lovers, whose embrace had power to restore a long-lost virginity. Might there not likewise be young inamoratas with such genius for devotion that their glance will bestow upon its object the manhood of a demi-god?

And all in all - that the emotion of longing, if suddenly and mightily aroused, should choose for its object the unrealizable - this may be a tragic or a grotesque phenomenon in life, but it is by no means a rare phenomenon. Among very young people it is even common, for with very young people the contempt of death and the love of death will be but one and the same heroic passion.

Their eyes met! Was, then, the unfortunate young singer, in the same way as the lady, wounded in the heart? All authorities agree that that year, in Venice, something happened to the soprano Giovanni Ferrer, who sang under the name of Marelli. His chief biographer, possibly out of tenderness for his ill-fated hero, interprets the fact differently, but does not deny it. The world-famous treble was changed. Till this hour it had been a celestial instrument, carried from stage to stage by an exquisitely elegant and graceful doll. Now it was the voice of the human soul. When, many years later, Marelli sang in St. Petersburg, the Empress Catherine, who had never been known to weep, sobbed bitterly all through the programme and cried: "Ah, que nous sommes punis pour avoir le coeur pur!" Poor Giovanni all his life remained faithful to the dark-eyed lady of Venice.

Alas, Princess Benedetta was less stable. In the course of her second, third and fourth youths not a few lively scandals came to be associated with her name. I myself am the only person to know that all the time a slim, gentle, grave guardian-angel was walking with her and seeing to it that there should ever be music in her heart. And now, if you feel like it, you are free to smile at the fact that this dazzling and beguiling, often-embraced lady had for her only true lover the Marelli, who was the lover of no woman.

Shortly after the episode of Venice the term of waiting stipulated by Prince Pompilio expired, and the husband once more with much dignity turned toward his spouse.

No man's hand during the three years had touched Princess Benedetta's lovely person, yet it was changed by more than time. By now she knew the nature and value of what she was giving into the arms of her husband, and in her second bridal night she shed tears different from those of her first.

The Princess became with child, but as long as possible kept the happy state of things to herself. "Caprice de femme enceinte," the Prince exclaimed, not a little piqued at an order of nature which would confide a momentous family matter to a lady, before informing her lord. Even afterwards she remained so strangely silent that it seemed as if she had given away only half her secret and had anchored her whole being in the other half. Her family physician had advised her not to sing, and she submitted to this recommendation as she had submitted to all other recommendations of his, for she meant her son to be glorious in strength and comeliness. In order to be secure against temptation she even dismissed her old singing-master. The old man, all in tears, blessed and kissed her at the parting hour, went back to his native village, lived on the pension granted him by his former pupil and gave no more singing-lessons. But deep in her mind and blood ran the lovely air of Metastasio's in which some day that son was to proclaim to the world the triumph of beauty and poetry as well as his own identity: "Ha! Now I know myself Achilles!"

The change of surroundings had not meant as much to the husband as to the wife, for at whatever scene of town or country Prince Pompilio would gaze, he would see in it the figure of Prince Pompilio. But the fall of dropping water, as Lucretius tells us, wears away the stone. The monotony of a country existence - without high duties at Court, without prominent roles in grand church ceremonies or grim political conferences - after a while began to tell on the master of the villa. He looked round vaguely for something to bear out the fundamental dogma of his own importance.

The villa had a chaplain and librarian, Don Lega Zambelli, a short, paunchy man - I have seen him, and remember his face - who in his career upwards from the humble position of a swineherd's son had become skilled in the art of handling great people, particularly in handling them by flattery. By the time the princely couple took up residence at the villa, Don Lega in his fat and secure office had begun to miss opportunities for practicing his talents, and he now welcomed such a magnificent patron of the art as the Prince. The master of the villa, on his side, was pleasantly surprised to find in the midst of wild lonely mountains a man of so much virtue and discrimination. As he listened to Don Lega, he came to realize that - unappreciated by his wife, unfortunate in his son and heir, exiled from the elevated circles in which he was wont to shine, and in the heyday of his manhood condemned to celibacy - he had been favored with a particularly noble and precious cross. Before long he saw himself as a chosen martyr on earth, and a saint in embryo. His visitors noticed that with every month their host's waistcoats, and his face, grew longer.

On a day six weeks before the Princess' confinement, he formally asked her for an interview, and in her green boudoir, which overlooked the valley and the lake, made her a little solemn speech. He wished to inform her of a decision to which - in his long meditations upon the melancholy state of the world - he had arrived. If his patience was to be rewarded with the birth of a son, the infant should become a pillar of the Church. In order to find the right name for this future light of the family - for a name is a reality, and a child is made known to himself by his name - he had made his librarian go through the whole of the Vitae Sanctorum, and had settled upon the great Father of the Church St. Athanasius, who is known as "the Father of Orthodoxy." For sponsors to young Atanasio he had, after pious deliberation, selected the Cardinal Rusconi and the very holy Bishop of Bari.

The Princess during the address had kept her embroidering frame on her lap, and her eyes on it. When he had finished she looked up, and very quietly informed her husband that she too had been pondering the future and the name of her son, and had made up her mind. She had borne the house of her husband one son; now she was free. The child to come was to be the son of his mother, and the godson of the Muses. His name should be Dionysio, in reminiscence of the God of inspired ecstasy, for a name is a reality, and a child is made known to himself by his name - and for sponsors to her son she had selected the poet Gozzo, the composer Cimarosa, and the young sculptor Canova.

The Prince was first deeply surprised, then even more deeply shocked, to hear his wife, to his face, defy Heaven and him. Before he could find words to express his feelings, the Princess spoke again as quietly as before. She would remind him, she said, that at this moment the child was of one mind and body with her, and that it would follow her in whatever course she took. There was, indeed, nothing to prevent the two of them from walking out of the house and joining, say, a band of gypsies camping in the mountains or a troupe of jugglers giving performances in the villages. Under no circumstances, she wished her husband to understand, would he ever see the ghost of a pillar of the Church.

Having made this final statement the lady rose from her chair and took a small, very stately step toward the door, as if she meant to carry out her plan then and there. The Prince, seeing the sudden terrifying shadow of public scandal fall on his house, hurriedly placed himself between her and the door, and at her second little step forward, still speechless, took a desperate, awkward hold of her slim arm. The moment he touched her the Princess fainted. Her husband laid her on the sofa, rang for her maids and marched out of the boudoir.

In his own rooms he bethought himself that no wise man will attempt to reason with a wife in her eighth month, and so as not to risk a repetition of a painful experience, he ordered his coach and left for Naples.

Six weeks later, in the palazzo of Naples, he received the message that his wife had been brought to bed of twin sons, and that the doctors feared for her life.

During the hurried return journey to the villa, Prince Pompilio, in his coach and for the first time in his married life, gave himself up to reflections on the character and disposition of his wife. He remembered her childish freshness at their first meeting, the gracefulness of her movements, her little timid attempts at confidence - an echo, of her voice when she sang and of her trilling girlish laughter, rang with a strange perplexing sadness in his ear. Possibly, he thought, he himself had been lacking in patience with the pretty child he had made his wife. Indeed, if he found the Princess alive, he would forgive her. And since Providence, here, in an inventive mood, had miraculously supplied him with a means of being generous, he began to take pleasure in the idea of being so.

At the sight of her, in the enormous four-poster, transparently white, fixing unfathomable dark eyes on his face, he resolved to be even magnanimous. He touched her limp fingers with his hand, and slowly and solemnly, in a distinct voice so that she should be able to follow him, vowed to fulfill the wish that she had expressed in their last, turbulent meeting.

And in order to prove the worth of his princely word, he had the baptism of his sons take place in the chapel. The elder of the boys was christened Atanasio, and had for sponsors the Cardinal Rusconi and the Bishop of Bari. The younger boy was christened Dionysio, and his sponsors were the poet Gozzo, the composer Cimarosa, and the young sculptor Canova.

When the baptism was over, the old great-aunt of the children, not venturing to take liberties with the Prince-to-be of the Church, tied a pale-blue silk ribbon round the neck of little Dionysio in order to distinguish him from his brother, for the children were as like as two peas.

At the moment when the Princess was told that she was the mother of a live Dionysio, a faint flush rose to her white face. It was the beginning of an amazing recovery. Within a month she sat watching the children and their nurses in the rose garden. She had insisted on giving suck herself to her youngest son, and the repeated daily meetings between these two were - like losses - reciprocal givings and takings of vigor and bliss.

You are a woman of the South, Madame, and you will not, like the more frivolous ladies of France, be amazed at the fact that a beautiful young creature, with the world at her feet, should find a full outlet for her emotional nature in her love for her infant. You will know that to watch our Southern mothers playing with and fondling their infants is to see the hearts aflame, and that an infant son, while still in swaddling clothes, may well be his mama's lover. It will be so, most of all, in the cases in which a divine power has condescended to take human form, and where the young mother feels that she is fondling or playing with a saint or a great artist. Why, we have before our eyes every day the image of that highest relation between mother and son, which includes all aspects of exalted, flaming love. A young maiden in love may seek sympathy and advice with the Virgin of Virgins, and the Queen of Heaven will not, like the austere virgins of the earth who know nothing of love, turn away from her confidence, but in the memory of a babe on her lap she will listen and answer in the manner of a grande amoureuse. I am not blaspheming, Madame, when I express the idea that any young mother of a saint or great artist may feel herself to be the spouse of the Holy Ghost. For it is a divinely innocent jest, and the Virgin herself may smile upon it, as upon a child toying with a bit of glass and catching in it the sun of the heavens itself.

The Prince now sent for his eldest son, and for a fortnight the life of the reunited family unexpectedly blossomed into an idyll, and only the Princess knew the happiness of the household to be radiating from the cradle of the infant of the pale-blue ribbon. Finding herself suddenly surrounded by a family of three - like a little girl all at once presented with three life-size dolls - she gave herself up whole-heartedly to the role of a materfamilias, distributing her tenderness equally to her three small sons, and generously washing her mind of past disagreements with their papa. She attended Mass every morning with the Prince in the chapel, and there patiently listened to the praying of Don Lega; of an afternoon she took the air with her husband in his light carriage round the lake and on the mountain roads, and in the evenings listened with sweet attention while he held forth on politics and theology. The Prince felt that his magnanimity had been rewarded with a genuine change of heart in his young wife.

Alas, the idyll was as short-lived as it was perfect.

Six weeks after the birth of Atanasio and Dionysio, while the Prince and Princess were out, the librarian of the villa placed his glasses on the window sill upon a pile of old missives from the Holy See to worthy ancestors of the Prince. The rays of the sun hit the lenses and ignited the irreplaceable documents, the fire leapt to moldering papers and books and spread to wainscots and ceiling. The whole pavilion, which contained, on the ground floor, the library and, on the first floor, the nursery of the two babies, was burnt down.

The father and mother in their carriage from beyond the lake saw smoke rising from and soon enveloping the villa, and had the horses set into a gallop. As they swept up the avenue they took hope for a moment on seeing the fire partly conquered; indeed, the main part of the building still stands today. But rushing from the carriage they were received with dreadful news.

At the moment when the fire had reached the nursery, only one nurse was present there. She had snatched both children from their cradles, but upon the burning stairs, her clothes aflame and herself half choked with smoke, she had fainted. Other servants of the villa - headed by that dauntless old lady, Prince Pompilio's aunt, who cried out in a high voice: "Atanasio!" - had forced their way up and had dragged her out onto the terrace. Of her small precious charges one had been rescued from the pavilion alive, the other was laid down in the hall of the main building limp and lifeless, his guileless little soul borne upwards with the smoke. The pale-blue silk ribbon was gone.

I have been told that the Princess, as, wavering on her feet, she reached the group of weeping women in the hall, seized the surviving child from a lap, tore open her bodice and laid the baby to her breast, as if she meant to make him, in this one gesture, forever her own.

The Prince in a talk with a friend, on the evening of that same day, showed great fortitude of mind. "The hand of the Lord," he said, "has fallen heavy upon me, but I shall try to acquiesce in His will. Praise be to St. Rocco, the patron saint of my house - my son Atanasio has been spared to me."

A second tragic event trod upon the heels of the first: the noble and brave old lady of the villa, who at first had not seemed to be fatally hurt in the accident, two days later succumbed either to some internal injury or to shock. It was a strange thing that on her last day she went on invoking the name of Dionysio, and in her incoherent talk gave vent to odd fancies which nobody could understand. "Do you not know," she cried, "that I am a nymph of the mountain Nysa, and the chosen guardian of this child!"

Princess Benedetta never attempted to argue the matter with her husband; in fact she never once touched upon the question of the children's identity. Along her small son's left cheek there ran a long burn, the scar of which showed for the rest of his life. His mother often, even when he had grown into a tall young man and was no longer her bambino lover, kissed this scar, as if seeing in it a proof that the burnt-up silk ribbon had once been tied round his neck. The son, as an old man, would also remember the little pet name of Pyrrha, by which she had called him in their most intimate hours of play and confidence. For a year she wore mourning with much dignity. Her calm made the Prince vaguely uneasy; at times he watched mother and child with a kind of strange misgiving.

To the household and to the friends of the house the little boy remained Atanasio. Only on a marble tablet in the family mausoleum was the name of Dionysio preserved.

As to Don Lega Zambelli, whose negligence had caused the disaster, his happy days as the Prince's adviser and comforter were over. He was dismissed from the villa, gave up his ecclesiastical career, and after many vicissitudes became accountant to an illustrious English milord. Atanasio happened to meet his father's former chaplain on the day before he was ordained priest, and mused upon the part which this fat man had played in his young life.

It was during the years which followed the catastrophe that Princess Benedetta's beauty, her talents and her rare gaiety of heart blossomed out. It has been said, earlier in this story, that at one time of her life she had learned to dream. By now she had done with dreaming and stood in need of reality.

Her son, who had known her in no other quality than that of a great lady of the world, later in life tried to form for himself a picture of the young Benedetta.

"Dear Mother," he thought, "you were ever a loyal and dauntless seeker of happiness. You willed the world to be a glorious place and life a fine and sweet undertaking. A man in your situation might have been perplexed and bewildered to the extent of losing confidence in his own judgment, giving up realities and taking refuge in illusions. But your sex possesses sources and resources of its own; it changes its blood at celestial order, and to a fair woman her beauty will be the one unfailing and indisputable reality. A very lovely woman, such as yourself, may indeed feel freest and most secure upon an edge or a pinpoint in life, with this reality as her balancing pole. You had been, till now, a small boat upon the great waters of existence, striving only, amongst its swells and breakers, to keep afloat and on an even keel, and looking to the stars for guidance. Now you set sail and stood out, gallantly making headway against tide and current, a full-rigged sailer. And O my dear Mother, in your arrogance and exuberance there was ever much deep humility!" He might even, here, with a sigh quote to himself the lines of a great poet: "Humility, and that I never had!"

So indeed daily life in the palazzo or the villa of the young Princess was gradually turned into a majestic and graceful regatta, with gay streamers flying. Its circle of friends grew to include all that the country contained of wit, splendor, elegance and romanticism, and outside the gate of the palazzo the poor of the streets would crowd to see its mistress stepping into her carriage, and cry out: "Bella! Bella!"

The Prince, at first watching the career of his wife with surprise and anxiety, before he knew of it was overpowered and laid low. In the course of years he came to accept, in sublime glow, the role of a saintly, dethroned king. Possibly his vanity even found a kind of melancholy gratification in the renown and glory of his palazzo and in the envy of other palazzos. To the eyes of the world the princely spouses from then on remained on befitting terms of stately amicability.

Little Atanasio grew up in this house, without realizing it himself, a highly important figure in it. Prominent tutors and preceptors to the two young Princes, of all subjects of learning, came and went in the halls. Ercole, the heir to the name and its future perpetuator, was trained in all accomplishments of a nobleman and a courtier, while Atanasio was schooled in Greek and Hebrew and the Fathers of the Church, and at times sent a longing glance toward the worldlier exercises. Still, as the elder brother wished to have the younger constantly by his side and was found to make faster progress when he partook of his lessons, the quick-witted and industrious little boy managed to become a fair horseman and to acquire skill on the harpsichord and in a minuet. He was a favorite in his mother's circle and at home in the great world; he was as happy on horseback as with the classics and, during the family's sojourns at the villa, he took delight in lonely wanderings in the mountains.

All the same, Madame, the task of existing and growing up was not an easy one to this child. It will never be an easy task to a child who, in the relation to father and mother, finds himself placed in the line of fire between two belligerent fortresses. But it was particularly exacting to the boy of whom we are speaking inasmuch as here father and mother did view his small person in totally different lights, did in fact see him as two totally different personalities.

To his father he was from the beginning the Prince of the Church and the glory of his name. While the Prince kept his son to his Latin and Greek and allowed him little freedom and no levity, there was ever in his extremely dignified manner toward the prelate-to-be a little touch of reverence. To the mother the pretty boy - apart from being his own adorable self - was the child-prophet of earthly beauty and delight. She spent much time in his company, was even annoyed when her love affairs took her away from him, and in her smiles and sighs made him her confidant, as if she wished to see his little figure in the classical role of Cupid loosening his mother's girdle. The child was thus at an early age schooled in the art of equipoise.

He kept his small head by adopting and perfecting, in the innocent manner of a child, the doubleness of his elders. He saw the lovely and beloved form of his mother with the eyes of the priest, the spiritual physician and gardener, watching her with tenderness and forbearance, and at times gently remonstrating with her and imposing upon her light, graceful penances. He saw his father with the eyes of the artist, and followed the stern figure with the attention and approval with which a connoisseur follows the movements of an accomplished actor or ballet dancer. To the perception of this child-connoisseur his papa was the brilliant, finishing coal-black brush stroke within the exquisite color scheme of the palazzo. The papa himself, who had never been a picturesque figure to anyone, faintly sensed the fact; as the boy grew up he became almost indispensable to his father.

In this way the hand of a child out of the elements of an anomalous family life produced a reconciling synthesis.

It is seemly, here, to say a few words about Ercole. The heir to the name - otherwise a taciturn and sullen boy, who showed no partiality to any human being, and only distinguished himself by growing up to a most unusual height - all through their childhood together displayed a staunch and loyal friendship toward his little brother. In the life of Atanasio he was, during that time, a support and a comfort, possibly on account of the fact that he had but one eye.

At the age of twenty-one the young Prince was ordained to the priesthood, and six months later his brother and friend quite suddenly died from nothing more alarming than a cold in the head caught at a levee. Out of the three sons born to Pompilio and Benedetta, Atanasio was now the sole heir to the great name and wealth of the family. In the course of time the old Prince completed his role on the stage of life, draped his grandeur and loneliness round him in heavy folds of black marble, and lay down to rest in the mausoleum, at Dionysio's side. Even that fair lady the Princess Benedetta, like to a child at eventide, yawned and let go of her dolls. Her son, by then a bishop, had the happiness of administering extreme unction to her.

"I have seen your mother," said the lady in the armchair. "She was a friend of Mama's and, when I was a very little girl, from time to time came to the house - in the most lovely frocks and bonnets! I adored her because she could smile and weep at the same time. She made me a present of a bowl of goldfish."

"A week ago," said the Cardinal, "in going through the drawers of an old cabinet, I came upon a small flask of the perfume which she had made for her in Bologna - the recipe will have been lost by now. The flask was empty, but still gave out a faint fragrance. A multitude of things were in it, all in one. Smiles, as you say, and tears, dauntlessness and fear, unconquerable hope and the certainty of failure - in short: what will, I suppose, be found in the belongings of most deceased ladies."

"And so her son," said the lady after a pause, "early trained in the art of equipoise, was left to promenade in the high places of this world, in one single magnificently harmonious form, two incompatible personalities."

"Oh, no, Madame," said the Cardinal, "use not that word. Speak not of incompatibility. Verily, I tell you: you may meet one of the two, speak to him and listen to him, confide in him and be comforted by him, and at the hour of parting be unable to decide with which of them you have spent the day.

"For who," he continued very slowly, "who, Madame, is the man who is placed, in his life on earth, with his back to God and his face to man, because he is God's mouthpiece, and through him the voice of God is given forth? Who is the man who has no existence of his own - because the existence of each human being is his - and who has neither home nor friends nor wife - because his hearth is the hearth of and he himself is the friend and lover of all human beings?"

"Alas!" whispered the lady.

"Pity him not, this man," said the Cardinal. "Doomed he will be, it is true, and forever lonely, and wherever he goes his commission will be that of breaking hearts, because the sacrifice of God is a broken and contrite heart. Yet the Lord indemnifies his mouthpiece. If he is without potency, he has been given a small bit of omnipotence. Calmly, like a child in his father's house binding and loosening his favorite dogs, he will bind the influence of Pleiades and loose the bands of Orion. Like a child in his father's house ordering about his servants, he will send lightnings, that they may go and say to him: 'Here we are.' Just as the gate of the citadel is opened to the vice-regent, the gates of death have been opened to him. And as the heir apparent will have been entrusted with the regalia of the King, he knows where light dwells, and as to darkness, where is the place thereof."

"Alas!" the lady again whispered.

The Cardinal smiled a little.

"Oh, do not sigh, dear and kind lady," he said. "The servant was neither forced nor lured into service. Before taking him on, his Master spoke straightly and fairly to him. 'You are aware,' he said, 'that I am almighty. And you have before you the world which I have created. Now give me your opinion on it. Do you take it that I have meant to create a peaceful world?' 'No, my Lord,' the candidate replied. 'Or that I have,' the Lord asked, 'meant to create a pretty and neat world?' 'No, indeed,' answered the youth. 'Or a world easy to live in?' asked the Lord. 'O good Lord, no!' said the candidate. 'Or do you,' the Lord asked for the last time, 'hold and believe that I have resolved to create a sublime world, with all things necessary to the purpose in it, and none left out?' 'I do,' said the young man. 'Then,' said the Master, 'then, my servant and mouthpiece, take the oath!'

"But if indeed," the Cardinal went on after a moment, "your kind heart yearns to melt in compassion, I may tell you, at the same time, that to this chosen officeholder of the Lord - so highly favored in many things - certain spiritual benefits, granted to other human beings, are indeed withheld."

"Of what benefits are you speaking?" she asked in a low voice.

"I am speaking," he answered, "of the benefit of remorse. To the man of whom we speak it is forbidden. The tears of repentance, in which the souls of nations are blissfully cleansed, are not for him. Quod fecit, fecit!"

He was silent for a second, then added thoughtfully: "In this way, because of his steadfast renunciation of repentance, and even though he be rejected as a judge and as a human being, Pontius Pilate took immortal rank amongst these elect at the moment when he proclaimed: 'Quod scripsi, scripsi.'

"For the man of whom I speak," he once more added, after a longer pause, "within the play and strife of this world, is the bow of the Lord."

". . . the arrow of which," the lady exclaimed, "each time strikes the heart!"

"An ingenious jeu-de-mots, Madame," said he and laughed, "but I myself used the word in a different sense and had in mind that frail implement, mute in itself, which in the hand of the master will bring out all music that stringed instruments contain, and be at the same time medium and creator.

"Then answer me now, Madame," he concluded, "who is this man?"

"It is the artist," she answered slowly.

"You are right," he said. "It is the artist. And who more?"

"The priest," said the lady.

"Yes," said the Cardinal.

She rose from her chair, dropping her lace mantilla over the back and arms of it, walked up to the window and looked out, first down into the street, then up into the sky. She came back, but remained standing, as in the beginning of the conversation.

"Your Eminence," she said, "in answer to a question, has been telling me a story, in which my friend and teacher is the hero. I see the hero of the story very clearly, as if luminous even, and on a higher plane. But my teacher and adviser - and my friend - is farther away than before. He no more looks to me quite human, and alas, I am not sure that I am not afraid of him."

The Cardinal lifted an ivory paper-knife from the table, turned it between his fingers and put it down.

"Madame," he said, "I have been telling you a story. Stories have been told as long as speech has existed, and sans stories the human race would have perished, as it would have perished sans water. You will see the characters of the true story clearly, as if luminous and on a higher plane, and at the same time they may look not quite human, and you may well be a little afraid of them. That is all in the order of things. But I see, Madame," he went on, "I see, today, a new art of narration, a novel literature and category of belles-lettres, dawning upon the world. It is, indeed, already with us, and it has gained great favor amongst the readers of our time. And this new art and literature - for the sake of the individual characters in the story, and in order to keep close to them and not be afraid - will be ready to sacrifice the story itself.

"The individuals of the new books and novels - one by one - are so close to the reader that he will feel a bodily warmth flowing from them, and that he will take them to his bosom and make them, in all situations of his life, his companions, friends and advisers. And while this interchange of sympathy goes on, the story itself loses ground and weight and in the end evaporates, like the bouquet of a noble wine, the bottle of which has been left uncorked."

"Oh, Your Eminence," said the lady, "do not speak ill of the new fascinating art of narration, to which I am myself a devotee. Those live and sympathetic persons of the modern novels at times have meant more to me than my acquaintances of flesh and blood. They have indeed seemed to embrace me, and when, reading by candlelight, I have wetted my pillow with the tears of Ellenore, this sister of mine - frail and faultful as myself - seems to have been shedding my own."

"Mistake me not," said the Cardinal, "the literature of which we are speaking - the literature of individuals, if we may call it so - is a noble art, a great, earnest and ambitious human product. But it is a human product. The divine art is the story. In the beginning was the story. At the end we shall be privileged to view, and review, it - and that is what is named the day of judgment.

"But you will remember," he remarked, as in a parenthesis and with a smile, "that the human characters in the book do come forth on the sixth day only - by that time they were bound to come, for where the story is, the characters will gather!

"A story," he went on as before, "has a hero to it, and you will see him clearly, luminous, and as upon a higher plane. Whatever he is in himself, the immortal story immortalizes its hero. Ali Baba, who in himself is nothing more than an honest woodcutter, is the adequate hero of a very great story. But by the time when the new literature shall reign supreme and you will have no more stories, you will have no more heroes. The world will have to do without them, sadly, until the hour when divine powers shall see fit, once more, to make a story for a hero to appear in.

"A story, Madame, has a heroine - a young woman who by the sole virtue of being so becomes the prize of the hero, and the reward for his every exploit and every vicissitude. But by the time when you have no more stories, your young women will be the prize and reward of nobody and nothing. Indeed I doubt whether by then you will have any young women at all. For you will not, then, see the wood for trees. Or," he added, as if in his own thoughts, "it will be, at the best, a poor time, a sad time, for a proud maiden, who will have no one to hold the stirrup to her, but will have to come down from her milk-white steed to trudge on a dusty road. And - alas! - a poor and sad lover of hers who will stand by to see his lady disrobed of her story or her epos and, all naked, turned into an individual.

"The story," he took up the thread, "according to its essence and plan, moves and places these two young people, hero and heroine - together with their confidants and competitors, friends, foes and fools - and goes on. They need not distress themselves about material for the burnt offering, for the story will provide. It will separate the two, in life, by the currents of the Hellespont and unite them, in death, in a Veronese tomb. It provides for the hero, and his young bride will exchange an old copper lamp for a new one, and the Chaldeans shall make out three bands and fall upon his camels and carry them away, and he himself with his own hand shall cook, for an evening meal with his mistress, the falcon which was to have saved the life of her small dying son. The story will provide for the heroine, and at the moment when she lifts up her lamp to behold the beauty of her sleeping lover it makes her spill one drop of burning oil on his shoulder. The story does not slacken its speed to occupy itself with the mien or bearing of its characters, but goes on. It makes the one faithful partisan of its old mad hero cry out in awe: 'Is this the promised end?' - goes on, and in a while calmly informs us: 'This is the promised end.'"

"O God," said the lady. "What you call the divine art to me seems a hard and cruel game, which maltreats and mocks its human beings."

"Hard and cruel it may seem," said the Cardinal, "yet we, who hold our high office as keepers and watchmen to the story, may tell you, verily, that to its human characters there is salvation in nothing else in the universe. If you tell them - you compassionate and accommodating human readers - that they may bring their distress and anguish before any other authority, you will be cruelly deceiving and mocking them. For within our whole universe the story only has authority to answer that cry of heart of its characters, that one cry of heart of each of them: 'Who am I?'"

There was a long silence.

The lady in black stood still, sunk in thought. At last, absent-mindedly, she lifted her mantilla from the chair and draped it round her shoulders and torso in most fashionable style. She took a step toward the man, and stopped. At this moment of parting she was pale.

"My friend," she said, "dear teacher, adviser and consoler. I see and understand, by now, that you serve, and that you are a loyal and incorruptible servant. I feel that the Master whom you serve is very great."

She closed her eyes, then after a second looked up again.

"Yet," she said, "before I go away - and perhaps we two shall never meet again - I beg you to answer one more question of mine. Will you grant me this last favor?"

"Yes," said he.

"Are you sure," she asked, "that it is God whom you serve?"

The Cardinal looked up, met her eyes and smiled very gently.

"That," he said, "that, Madame, is a risk which the artists and the priests of the world have to run."

End of The Cardinal's First Tale by Karen Blixen