(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The storyteller, looking back from the twentieth century, sets her tale before the backdrop of Romantically influenced early nineteenth century European culture. Fashionable society, in search of desolate scenery, moved its resorts to such areas as the wild seacoast of what was then a part of Denmark. In late summer of 1835, a terrible storm churned the sea, causing it to rise and break the dikes. Disastrous flooding ensued.

Cardinal Hamilcar von Sehestedt had been living for the summer in a small cottage near the bath at Norderney; there he was collecting his writings into a book on the Holy Ghost. Of an old and distinguished family, the cardinal was famous throughout Europe for his insight and compassion. He had traveled throughout the world and wielded great influence over all he met; he was credited with the power to work miracles. His only companion in the cottage that summer was Kasparson, his valet or secretary, a former actor who had known various adventures and who spoke several languages and read widely.

During the flood, the cardinal’s cottage was destroyed. Kasparson was killed; the cardinal was wounded and wore a bloody bandage around his head during his rescue work. Despite his wound, the cardinal labored steadily all through the day of the flood to rescue survivors. Late in the day, he traveled to the bath to retrieve a group of visitors for whom there had been no room in the earlier boat. As the party returned with him to safety, they passed a castaway farm family unable to escape the rising water; because the boat would not hold the additional load, the group was forced to decide who would remain behind to wait for a returning rescue barge. The cardinal, affirming his safety in God’s hands, announced that he would stay. Not to be outdone, the eccentric Miss Malin Nat-og-Dag determined to stay also; her companion, Countess Calypso von Platen Hallermund, would not leave without her. Young Jonathan Maersk roused himself to action and agreed to stay with them. The four survivors found refuge in the hayloft of a flooded farmhouse and settled in to wait for rescue or death.

The storyteller has set the stage, and the drama begins. Once closed inside the loft, the four establish the terms of their coexistence. The cardinal asks Miss Malin to act as hostess and treat the loft as her salon. The company dines on bread; the...

(The entire section is 968 words.)