(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Madame Baek, who lives as the caretaker in the now empty De Coninck house in Elsinore, reflects on her memories. She has spent most of her life with the De Coninck children and senses the doom that hangs over the breed. For the two sisters, this doom takes the form of restless dispositions, which causes them to be bitterly unhappy despite their great beauty, family wealth, and social success. As young ladies growing up in the family home, they were the bright lights of Elsinore society, surrounded by admiring friends and beaux and much in demand at parties, balls, and outings.

However, even as young women they were obsessed with the dark side of life and gave themselves up to bitter tears in the privacy of their own rooms, dwelling on the sham and hypocrisy about them. At the time of the story, they are “old maids” of fifty-two and fifty-three, for they have found it impossible to accept any of their suitors.

As a young man, their brother, Morten, exceptionally handsome and elegant, was pursued by every girl in Elsinore. He became engaged to Adrienne Rosenstand, a friend of his sisters, but then he went to serve in the Napoleonic Wars. As the commander of a privateer, he engaged in many thrilling encounters with British ships, which earned for him public adulation. When privateering was finally prohibited, everyone thought that he would marry his sweetheart and settle down. On the morning of the wedding, however, he disappeared.

In the ensuing years, however, strange rumors of him drifted back to Denmark. It was rumored that he was a pirate, that he had distinguished himself in wars in America, that he had become a wealthy landowner in the Antilles. Eventually, the townspeople came to think of him as a legendary figure, much like Bluebeard or Sindbad the Sailor.

Fanny and Eliza, initially overcome with grief and shame at the sudden disappearance of Morten, inflated the rumors into portents of great honors that would befall him. As years have passed, however, they have come to accept the worst. Someone has seen Morten in New Orleans, poor and sick, and the last news that the sisters hear...

(The entire section is 874 words.)