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The Faun of Rome: A Romance

by Oscar Wilde, edited by Nate Maturin

Nate Maturin, Author

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Chapter 12: The Monk

“What is matter, Donatello?” Miriam whispered gently as her Faun led her into the third chapel along the nave and again bent his knee before the saint’s picture. “You are quite atremble and seem to bend your knee in desperation.”

“The air is so heavy, and even in the bright sunshine of the morning I cannot escape the impression of yesterday evening upon me!” he exclaimed, still on bended knee.

“Donatello, Donatello,” Miriam cooed, bending too to join him before Saint Francis. “You must set aside that impression as but a dream, a figment of our imaginations at midnight, as I have done. But this languid Roman atmosphere is not the airy wine that you were accustomed to breathe at home, and it is little wonder that you find it oppressive to you.”

“I can never return there!” Donatello burst out, deeply moved.

“Donatello, it is an awful thing to exile oneself from one’s homeland. Do not speak rashly,” Miriam cautioned him. “Come. Stand. Let us return to Kenyon and Hilda, and let us go out into the sunshine once more and speak no more about the sad moments of yesterday.” She took his hand and encouraged him to his feet.

“Yes, Miriam, yes,” Donatello said quietly, allowing himself to be soothed. His love for Miriam was as strong as ever, and his trusting nature was eager to be reassured by her.

Donatello followed Miriam from the chapel just as Kenyon and Hilda emerged from the first, Kenyon with Hilda’s sketch still in his hand. “If you will offer me a moment’s forbearance, dear friends, I would take a look at the sadly passed member of the brotherhood before we return to the sunshine,” Kenyon said.

“Of course,” Miriam answered, Donatello and Hilda quiet with their own reflections. As a group, they moved towards the centre of the church and the illuminated form of the dead monk. “It is odd how, even shortly after death, these religious figures come to bear a sort of waxen repose that they share with their long-dead brethren. There is something, I would wager, in the religious spirit that affects the body both before and after death.”

“I think that is a sheer fancy, Miriam. Were you to dress the most profane of Italian gentlemen in a robe after death, the effect would be the same as if he were the purest,” Kenyon said wryly. Miriam’s spirits seemed higher than they had been for many weeks, and he was pleased and amused to find them so. Her attitude of mystery was perversely deepened by gaiety, and became flat and all of a piece when she was melancholy.

They approached the bier and the blaze of the candles momentarily dimmed their eyes’ clear sight. The figure was enveloped in the brown woollen garb of his brotherhood, and the hood had been drawn over his head, obscuring the hair entirely and the top of his features, as though he were stood with head bowed. A number of persons, chiefly women and children, were stood around the corpse, and one mother knelt and kissed the beads and crucifix that hung from the monk’s girdle as her little boy clung to her skirt.

The four friends had approached the bier at the end, so as not to disturb those waiting to kiss the rosary. The feet, bare as in life, were tied at the ankles with a black ribbon that gleamed in the flickering light. That symbol of death discomfited Hilda, its beautiful materiality seeming to restrict the spiritual motion of the now-immobile figure.

She moved to the side and approached the head of the monk, the features being of the greatest artistic relevance, Kenyon following behind her. The countenance had a purplish hue, as far from the flush of life as the paleness of an ordinary corpse. The eyelids, scarcely visible beneath the hood, had been drawn down in order to conceal the otherwise eerie stare of the corpse.

Kenyon stooped a little to gain a better view of the cheeks and sockets of the eyes, so much more prominent after death, and then straightened up directly. “Hilda,” he whispered. “I cannot trust my eyes.”

“Whatever do you mean?” she asked, turning her gaze from the crossed hands whose fine details she had been examining.

“The face seems to me one that we saw but yesterday. Is it a figment of my imagination?”

“What is this?” Miriam murmured from behind them. She had glimpsed the partially covered face of the monk, and her familiarity with its features could not be confounded. “Can it be he?” she questioned, even as her eyes told her yes, these were those features she had once known so well, the visage she had known from her childhood, a form of clay now, irrefutable in death.

“Miriam!” Kenyon turned and moved aside with her. “So it is he?”

“It cannot be, yet is,” she murmured, as though in a dream, as Hilda led her to a nearby pew. Almost involuntarily, Miriam adopted a kneeling position but did not raise her hands to pray, but clasped one of Hilda’s instead. “So it is over. And I had thought it would be my death to end it…”

“Miriam!” Hilda scolded her. “Do not say such a thing. You will live a long time, and happily, God willing.”

“Come. It were best to go,” Kenyon said gently. The pale faces of the two women suggested a shared agitation that might at any moment overwhelm them, and he thought only to remove them from the stimuli that had precipitated such strong emotion. The relation between Miriam and this monk was a mystery whose resolution he did not seek, fearful of the change that it might produce in his own relation with the painter. Kenyon, as with so many of his artistic brethren, had a quick sensibility that perceived the true state of matters even beyond his own vision.

“Yes, yes, let us go,” Miriam breathed in excitement. “Where is Donatello?”

The three friends turned to find Donatello kneeling at the side of the bier, the rosary to his lips, and tears on his face, diffusing the light of the candles across his visage in an almost supernatural glow. It was but the work of a moment to deduce that he had recognised the monk, just as they had, and was extremely moved by the discovery.

“Come away, Donatello!” Miriam cried, exciting disapproval from the other mourners gathered around the corpse. “Let us escape from this dismal church. The sunshine will do you good,” she said more quietly as he gazed up at her face, the dismay and horror twisting his features into a mask that she did not recognise. “Do not scowl upon me so, Donatello,” she cautioned him, a hand on her shoulder. “Come!”

It was wonderful to see how the crisis in Donatello developed in Miriam a feminine fortitude that ceased her own trembling and led to a haughty repose settling instead over her features, and Kenyon admired the force of will with which she urged Donatello to stand and depart with them as though the monk was an unknown figure and his emotion only the proper exercise of an aesthetic sensibility.

At the door, the sacristan stoped them and proposed to show the cemetery of the convent, a common enough offering in such churches, for a small donation. Miriam could not conceal a shudder at the notion, and yet she replied coolly enough. “Will yonder monk be buried there?”

“Brother Antonio? Why, yes, our good brother will be put to bed there.”

“And how did it happen? He seems so young to be ready for the grave,” Miriam remarked, as though the question were a mere curiosity.

“He came to his death but last night,” the sacristan answered. “He returned from midnight devotions elsewhere in the city with an injury from a fall, and a dizziness that could not be stayed. It is dangerous to walk the city without a taper or some other guide, no matter the swell of the moon,” he added in a chastising tone, as though the four young people before him had proposed to do such a thing, before shaking his head in sorrow. “Brother Antonio’s collapse was precipitated by a short fever before the Lord took him to his bosom. His suffering was but brief.”

“How tragic!” Hilda exclaimed, despite herself.

Kenyon pressed a small token into the sacristan’s hand and on behalf of them all took their leave from the kindly man. The leathern curtain fell silently closed behind them as they stepped, blinking, onto the steps of the church and into the now-warm spring air.

“A fall,” Miriam murmured to herself. She felt as though she were in a dream. The trick, she felt, was not to realise the situation, but to move through it, and to the other side, without touching upon it, or it her. She glanced at Donatello, in whose face she expected to see an echo of that tearful sorrow that he had expressed at the dead monk’s side. His eyes were now ablaze with a fierce energy that spoke of an intelligence which was no native characteristic of the Faun whom she had known the previous day. Rather, there was a calculation taking place behind those eyes that had once looked upon her with a steady, simple admiration.

“Miriam, will you return with me to my studio? I should like you to see the final touches that I have put to my Beatrice, and to have your judgment of it,” Hilda said, looping her arm into her friend’s.

“Of course, Hilda. It would be a pleasure.” Miriam was pleased at the steady tone of her voice, the gentle pressure of Hilda’s arm upon hers a soothing balm. “Good day, Kenyon. Donatello.”

“Good day, Miriam,” Kenyon replied. Donatello’s silence, so unlike him at parting with Miriam, seemed to follow the two women as they passed quickly down the stairs and across the piazza.

Only once Miriam and Hilda disappeared from view did Donatello speak. “A fall, they said. A fall.”

“Yes. So it is believed to be. And so it may have been,” Kenyon added.

“I struck him only once. Never since my young boyhood had I tussled so with a fellow,” Donatello said.

“Donatello!” Kenyon urged. “I saw but little, and require no explanation for what occurred on that hill. You have released Miriam from a haunting spectre whose presence seemed to drain the very blood from her face and light from her expression.”

“You say that it was done with your good will, Kenyon?”

The sculptor blanched and took a step back from that man, so lately an innocent youth, who seemed now to wish to draw Kenyon into horror and agony. “Donatello, no! I say only that Miriam, Hilda and I must know no more than we do now of what took place.”

“The deed knots us together, for all eternity!” the Faun exclaimed, his face taking on a hardened aspect. “Your eyes, and Hilda’s, met mine as I struck him.”

“Do not suppose that Hilda would have given her consent or approbation to such an act!” Kenyon retorted. “Her purity is shaken, her generous spirit faltering under the deed which she was forced to witness.”

“This act has sundered us forever, then, as friends. And yet, poor Miriam knows not of it,” Donatello began to reason. Kenyon caught his meaning swiftly.

“You cannot separate those two sisters thus, Donatello. It would be sheer cruelty to them both.”

Donatello turned towards the piazza. “We should part here, Kenyon.”

“Dear friend,” Kenyon began, but the words faltered on his lips. Donatello was not dear to him, not as he now appeared before him. The Faun with whom he had wandered the Capitol seemed to have been left there. The Count of Monte Beni had replaced him. “We shall meet tomorrow, perhaps? In the grounds of the Borghese?”

“Yes, perhaps. Send word,” Donatello replied shortly, and he took his leave, gliding down the stairs with a quick, light step that made little sound. Kenyon watched as he departed across the square, and a chill thought made him shiver. The struggle that he had witnessed between Miriam’s two shadows had ended in a seclusion from her, a remoteness that only he could feel.

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