He dropped the hand

The States-General that convened in Copenhagen in the late autumn
brought to town many of the nobility, all anxious to guard their
ancient rights against encroachment, but none the less eager for a
little frolic after the busy summer. Nor were they averse to flaunting
their wealth and magnificence in the faces of the townspeople, who had
grown somewhat loud-voiced since the war, and to reminding them that
the line between gentlemen of the realm and the unfree mob was still
firm and immutable, in spite of the privileges conferred by royalty,
in spite of citizen valor and the glamor of victory, in spite of the
teeming ducats in the strong boxes of the hucksters.

The streets were bright with throngs of noblemen and their ladies,
bedizened lackeys, and richly caparisoned horses in silver-mounted
harness. There was feasting and open house in the homes of the nobility.
Far into the night the violin sounded from well-lit halls, telling the
sleepy citizens that the best blood of the realm was warming to a stately
dance over parquet floors, while the wine sparkled in ancestral goblets.

All these festivities passed Marie Grubbe by; none invited her. Because
of their ties to the royal family, some of the Grubbes were suspected
of siding with the King against the Estate, and moreover the good old
nobility cordially hated that rather numerous upper aristocracy formed
by the natural children of the kings and their relatives. Marie was
therefore slighted for a twofold reason, and as the court lived in
retirement during the session of the States-General, it offered her no
compensation.

It seemed hard at first, but soon it woke the latent defiance of
her nature and made her draw closer to Ulrik Frederik. She loved him
more tenderly for the very reason that she felt herself being wronged
for his sake. So when the two were quietly married on the sixteenth
of December, sixteen hundred and sixty, there was the best reason to
believe that she would live happily with the Master of the King’s Hunt,
which was the title and office Ulrik Frederik had won as his share of
the favors distributed by triumphant royalty.

This private ceremony was not in accordance with the original plan, for
it had long been the intention of the King to celebrate their wedding
in the castle, as Christian the Fourth had done that of Hans Ulrik and
Mistress Rigitze, but at the eleventh hour he had scruples and decided,
in consideration of Ulrik Frederik’s former marriage and divorce, to
refrain from public display.

* * * * *

So now they are married and settled, and time passes, and time flies,
and all is well–and time slackened its speed, and time crawled; for
it is true, alas! that when Leander and Leonora have lived together
for half a year, the glory is often departed from Leander’s love,
though Leonora usually loves him much more tenderly than in the days
of their betrothal. She is like the small children, who find the old
story new, no matter how often it is told with the very same words,
the same surprises, and the self-same “Snip, snap, snout, my tale’s
out,” while Leander is more exacting and grows weary as soon as his
feeling no longer makes him new to himself. When he ceases to be
intoxicated, he suddenly becomes more than sober. The flush and glamor
of his ecstasy, which for a while gave him the assurance of a demigod,
suddenly departs; he hesitates, he thinks, and begins to doubt. He
looks back at the chequered course of his passion, heaves a sigh, and
yawns. He is beset with longing, like one who has come home after a
lengthy sojourn in foreign parts, and sees the altogether too familiar
though long-forgotten spots before him; as he looks at them, he wonders
idly whether he has really been gone from this well-known part of the
world so long.

In such a mood, Ulrik Frederik sat at home one rainy day in September.
He had called in his dogs and had frolicked with them for a while, had
tried to read, and had played a game of backgammon with Marie. The rain
was pouring. It was impossible to go walking or riding, and so he had
sought his armory, as he called it, thinking he would polish and take
stock of his treasures–this was just the day for it! It occurred to
him that he had inherited a chest of weapons from Ulrik Christian; he
had ordered it brought down from the attic, and sat lifting out one
piece after another.

There were splendid rapiers of bluish steel inlaid with gold, or
silvery bright with dull engraving. There were hunting-knives, some
heavy and one-edged, some long and flexible like tongues of flame,
some three-edged and sharp as needles. There were toledo blades, many
toledos, light as reeds and flexible as willows, with hilts of silver
and jasper agate, or of chased gold or gold and carbuncles. One had
nothing but a hilt of etched steel, and for a sword-knot a little
silk ribbon embroidered in roses and vines with red glass beads and
green floss. It must be either a bracelet, a cheap bracelet, or–Ulrik
Frederik thought–more likely a garter, and the rapier was stuck
through it.

It comes from Spain, said Ulrik Frederik to himself, for the late owner
had served in the Spanish army for nine years. Alack-a-day! He too
was to have entered foreign service with Carl Gustaf; but then came
the war, and now he supposed he would never have a chance to get out
and try his strength, and yet he was but three and twenty. To live
forever here at this tiresome little court,–doubly tiresome since the
nobility stayed at home,–to hunt a little, look to his estate once
in a while, some time in the future by the grace of the King to be
made Privy Councillor of the Realm and be knighted, keep on the right
side of Prince Christian and retain his office, now and then be sent
on a tedious embassy to Holland, grow old, get the rheumatism, die,
and be buried in Vor Frue Church,–such was the brilliant career that
stretched before him. And now they were fighting down in Spain! There
was glory to be won, a life to be lived–that was where the rapier and
the sword-knot came from. No, he must speak to the King. It was still
raining, and it was a long way to Frederiksborg, but there was no help
for it. He could not wait; the matter must be settled.

The King liked his scheme. Contrary to his custom, he assented at once,
much to the surprise of Ulrik Frederik, who during his whole ride had
debated with himself all the reasons that made his plan difficult,
unreasonable, impossible. But the King said Yes, he might leave before
Christmas. By that time the preparations could be completed and an
answer received from the King of Spain.

The reply came in the beginning of December, but Ulrik Frederik did
not start until the middle of April; for there was much to be done.
Money had to be raised, retainers equipped, letters written. Finally he
departed.

Marie Grubbe was ill pleased with this trip to Spain. It is true, she
saw the justice of Mistress Rigitze’s argument that it was necessary
for Ulrik Frederik to go abroad and win honor and glory, in order that
the King might do something handsome for him; for although his Majesty
had been made an absolute monarch, he was sensitive to what people
said, and the noblemen had grown so captious and perverse that they
would be sure to put the very worst construction on anything the King
might do. Yet women have an inborn dread of all farewells, and in this
case there was much to fear. Even if she could forget the chances of
war and the long, dangerous journey, and tell herself that a king’s
son would be well taken care of, yet she could not help her foreboding
that their life together might suffer such a break by a separation of
perhaps more than a year that it would never be the same again. Their
love was yet so lightly rooted, and just as it had begun to grow, it
was to be mercilessly exposed to ill winds and danger. Was it not
almost like going out deliberately to lay it waste? And one thing she
had learned in her brief married life: the kind of marriage she had
thought so easy in the days of her betrothal, that in which man and
wife go each their own way, could mean only misery with all darkness
and no dawn. The wedge had entered their outward life; God forbid that
it should pierce to their hearts! Yet it was surely tempting fate to
open the door by such a parting.

Moreover, she was sadly jealous of all the light papistical feminine
rabble in the land and dominions of Spain.

* * * * *

Frederik the Third, who, like many sovereigns of his time, was much
interested in the art of transmuting baser metals into gold, had
charged Ulrik Frederik when he came to Amsterdam to call on a renowned
alchemist, the Italian Burrhi, and to drop a hint that if he should
think of visiting Denmark, the King and the wealthy Christian Skeel of
Sostrup would make it worth his while.

When Ulrik Frederik arrived in Amsterdam, he therefore asked Ole
Borch, who was studying there and knew Burrhi well, to conduct him
to the alchemist. They found him a man in the fifties, below middle
height, and with a tendency to fat, but erect and springy in his
movements. His hair and his narrow moustache were black, his nose was
hooked and rather thick, his face full and yellow in color; from the
corners of his small, glittering black eyes innumerable furrows and
lines spread out like a fan, giving him an expression at once sly and
goodhumored. He wore a black velvet coat with wide collar and cuffs and
crape-covered silver buttons, black knee-breeches and silk stockings,
and shoes with large black rosettes. His taste for fine lace appeared
in the edging on his cravat and shirt bosom and in the ruffles that
hung in thick folds around his wrists and knees. His hands were small,
white, and chubby, and were loaded with rings of such strange, clumsy
shapes that he could not bring the tips of his fingers together. Large
brilliants glittered even on his thumbs. As soon as they were seated,
he remarked that he was troubled with cold hands and stuck them in a
large fur muff, although it was summer.

The room into which he conducted Ulrik Frederik was large and spacious,
with a vaulted ceiling and narrow Gothic windows set high in the
walls. Chairs were ranged around a large centre table, their wooden
seats covered with soft cushions of red silk, from which hung long,
heavy tassels. The top of the table was inlaid with a silver plate on
which the twelve signs of the zodiac, the planets, and some of the
more important constellations were done in niello. Above it, a string
of ostrich eggs hung from the ceiling. The floor had been painted
in a chequered design of red and gray, and near the door a triangle
was formed by old horseshoes that had been fitted into the boards. A
large coral tree stood under one window, and a cupboard of dark carved
wood with brass mountings was placed under the other. A life-size doll
representing a Moor was set in one corner, and along the walls lay
blocks of tin and copper ore. The blackamoor held a dried palm leaf in
his hand.

When they were seated and the first interchange of amenities was over,
Ulrik Frederik–they were speaking in French–asked whether Burrhi
would not with his learning and experience come to the aid of the
searchers after wisdom in the land of Denmark.

Burrhi shook his head.

“‘Tis known to me,” he replied, “that the secret art has many great
and powerful votaries in Denmark, but I have imparted instruction
to so many royal gentlemen and church dignitaries, and while I will
not say that ingratitude or meagre appreciation have always been my
appointed portion, yet have I encountered so much captiousness and
lack of understanding, that I am unwilling to assume again the duties
of a master to such distinguished scholars. I do not know what rule
or method the King of Denmark employs in his investigations, and my
remarks can therefore contain no disparagement of him, but I can assure
you in confidence that I have known gentlemen of the highest nobility
in the land, nay, anointed rulers and hereditary kings, who have been
so ignorant of their _historia naturalis_ and _materia magica_ that the
most lowborn quacksalver could not entertain such vulgar superstitions
as they do. They even put their faith in that widely disseminated
though shameful delusion that making gold is like concocting a
sleeping-potion or a healing-pillula, that if one has the correct
ingredients, ’tis but to mix them together, set them over the fire,
and lo! the gold is there. Such lies are circulated by catch-pennies
and ignoramuses–whom may the devil take! Cannot the fools understand
that if ’twere so simple a process, the world would be swimming in
gold? For although learned authors have held, and surely with reason,
that only a certain part of matter can be clarified in the form of
gold, yet even so we should be flooded. Nay, the art of the gold-maker
is costly and exacting. It requires a fortunate hand, and there must
be certain constellations and conjunctions in the ascendant, if the
gold is to flow properly. ‘Tis not every year that matter is equally
gold-yielding. You have but to remember that it is no mere distillation
nor sublimation, but a very re-creating of nature that is to take
place. Nay, I will dare to say that a tremor passes over the abodes of
the spirits of nature whenever a portion of the pure, bright metal is
freed from the thousand-year-old embrace of _materia vilis_.”

“Forgive my question,” said Ulrik Frederik, “but do not these occult
arts imperil the soul of him who practises them?”

“Indeed no,” said Burrhi; “how can you harbor such a thought? What
magician was greater than Solomon, whose seal, the great as well as
the small, has been wondrously preserved to us unto this day? And who
imparted to Moses the power of conjuring? Was it not Sabaoth, the
spirit of the storm, the terrible one?” He pressed the stone in one of
his rings to his lips. “‘Tis true,” he continued, “that we know great
names of darkness and awful words, yea, fearful mystic signs, which
if they be used for evil, as many witches and warlocks and vulgar
soothsayers use them, instantly bind the soul of him who names them in
the fetters of Gehenna, but we call upon them only to free the sacred
primordial element from its admixture of and pollution by dust and
earthly ashes; for that is the true nature of gold, it is the original
matter that was in the beginning and gave light, before the sun and the
moon had been set in their appointed places in the vault of heaven.”

They talked thus at length about alchemy and other occult arts, until
Ulrik Frederik asked whether Burrhi had been able to cast his horoscope
by the aid of the paper he had sent him through Ole Borch a few days
earlier.

“In its larger aspects,” replied Burrhi, “I might prognosticate your
fate, but when the nativity is not cast in the very hour a child is
born, we fail to get all the more subtle phenomena, and the result
is but little to be depended upon. Yet some things I know. Had you
been of citizen birth and in the position of a humble physician, then
I should have had but joyful tidings for you. As it is, your path
through the world is not so clear. Indeed, the custom is in many ways
to be deplored by which the son of an artisan becomes an artisan,
the merchant’s son a merchant, the farmer’s son a farmer, and so on
throughout all classes. The misfortune of many men is due to nothing
else but their following another career than that which the stars
in the ascendant at the time of their birth would indicate. Thus if
a man born under the sign of the ram in the first section becomes a
soldier, success will never attend him, but wounds, slow advancement,
and early death will be his assured portion, whereas, if he had chosen
a handicraft, such as working in stone or wrought metals, his course
would have run smooth. One who is born under the sign of the fishes,
if in the first section, should till the soil, or if he be a man of
fortune, should acquire a landed estate, while he who is born in the
latter part should follow the sea, whether it be as the skipper of a
smack or as an admiral. The sign of the bull in the first part is for
warriors, in the second part for lawyers. The twins, which were in the
ascendant at the time of your birth, are, as I have said before, for
physicians in the first part and for merchants in the second. But now
let me see your palm.”

Ulrik Frederik held out his hand, and Burrhi went to the triangle of
horseshoes, touching them with his shoes as a tight-rope dancer rubs
his soles over the waxed board before venturing out on the line. Then
he looked at the palm.

“Ay,” said he, “the honor-line is long and unbroken; it goes as far
as it may go without reaching a crown. The luck-line is somewhat
blurred for a time, but farther on it grows more distinct. There is the
life-line; it seems but poor, I grieve to say. Take great care until
you have passed the age of seven and twenty, for at that time your life
is threatened in some sinister and secret fashion, but after that the
line becomes clear and strong and reaches to a good old age. There is
but one offshoot–ah, no, there is a smaller one hard by. You will have
issue of two beds, but few in each.”

He dropped the hand.

“Hark,” he said gravely, “there is danger before you, but where it
lurks is hidden from me. Yet it is in no wise the open danger of war.
If it should be a fall or other accident of travel, I would have you
take these triangular malachites, they are of a particular nature. See,
I myself carry one of them in this ring; they guard against falling
from horse or coach. Take them with you and carry them ever on your
breast, or if you have them set in a ring, cut away the gold behind
them, for the stone must touch if it is to protect you. And here is a
jasper. Do you see the design like a tree? It is very rare and most
precious and good against stabbing in the dark and liquid poisons.
Once more I pray you, my dear young gentleman, that you have a care,
especially where women are concerned. Nothing definite is revealed to
me, but there are signs of danger gleaming in the hand of a woman, yet
I know nothing for a certainty, and it were well to guard also against
false friends and traitorous servants, against cold waters and long
nights.”

Ulrik Frederik accepted the gifts graciously, and did not neglect, the
following day, to send the alchemist a costly necklace, as a token of
his gratitude for his wise counsel and protecting stones. After that he
proceeded directly to Spain without further interruption.

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