Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 874
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 is that he has been hanged. As for Adrienne, she waited fifteen years for Morten to return, then finally married another. At her wedding, the two De Coninck sisters appeared for the last time as the belles of Elsinore.
Now, in the present time of the story, Madame Baek begins to decline, with fainting, shrieking, and deep, silent spells. Her friends believe that she is near death, but she rallies and sets off for Copenhagen, where the two sisters now live. She arrives on the day of Fanny’s birthday and waits in the kitchen. Upstairs, the two maiden ladies entertain their guests, talking happily of the past, on which they love to dwell. They also enjoy talking about their married friends with pity and contempt, as those whose fates are sealed. Eliza, particularly, is as lovely as ever, and wears an air of expectation, as if extraordinary things might still happen.
When the guests leave, the sisters meet with Madame Baek. She tells them that Morten has returned to Elsinore, that he “walks in the house.” She has seen him seven times. The sisters journey to Elsinore and assemble in the room in which they shared so many secret suppers with their brother in the old days. He appears and takes the chair between them, as he had in the past. His noble forehead bears a strange likeness to a skull. He soon reveals that he comes from Hell.
Morten questions his sisters about their lives, then tells them of his five wives. What he loved best, however, was his life as a pirate on the finest schooner that ever flew over the Atlantic, the loveliest thing he ever saw. He was sent to buy the schooner by a wealthy old shipowner, but he fell in love with it and kept the ship himself. That was the beginning of his downfall. He named the ship La Belle Eliza. Eliza now admits that she knew of the ship, having heard of it from a merchant captain of her father. She has guarded the secret from all the world, and it has kept her happy throughout the years.
Fanny asks Morten to tell her one or two things he knows that they do not. He tells them that he has learned one thing, “that you cannot eat your cake and have it.” Morten was eventually hanged for stealing the ship. Before he died, he asked the priest for one more minute of life, to “think, with the halter around my neck, for one minute of La Belle Eliza.” Fanny, exhausted from the strain, turns on Morten and bitterly complains that he has at least lived. She is always cold, she says, so cold that her warming pans in bed do not warm her. When the clock strikes midnight, Fanny stretches out her arms to Morten, but at the last strike he is gone. Eliza, in great pain or joy, repeats Morten’s last wish on earth, “to think, with the halter around my neck, for one minute of La Belle Eliza.”
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