Chapter 13: A Package
Miriam and Hilda’s walk was short but pleasant, and the silence was one of gentle, womanly intimacy. Despite her moment of shock in the church’s shadows, in the sunlight, in the company of a dear friend, Miriam felt her heart lifted; the shadow that had troubled her yesterday was now a distant memory, that was all. She was thus impervious to the weight that pressed upon Hilda’s spirit. It was only when they were safely in Hilda’s little rooms that Miriam noticed the pale expression of her friend’s face, in contrast with her usually pink cheek.
“Is everything well, sweet Hilda?”
“Quite well enough, Miriam, as I have you by my side. It is only that I was most unhappy with the sketch I have drawn, and the comparisons made in the church only confirmed my suspicions about its inadequacy.”
“Well, you cannot expect every piece to have the same charm as this sweet Beatrice!” Miriam exclaimed, lifting the cloth from the easel to admire Hilda’s finished work. “Poor sister Beatrice. I know not whether Guido will thank you for repeating her, or be jealous of your skill. It is really your masterpiece, Hilda, and indeed an improvement upon the original, for as a woman you have given it something of the sensibility, of the sympathy, which the original lacked. Oh, you must resign yourself to conduct inferior work afterward!”
Hilda summoned a quiet laugh. “I suppose I must, Miriam. Perhaps I may have to turn again to producing my own works, from life or from imagination.”
“There are worse fates, Hilda.” Miriam turned to her friend with a smile, but a sudden recollection of the weight in her pocket drew the corners of her mouth downwards. “Hilda, I have some favour to ask you. I thought of it yesterday, although now I am not so sure of the scheme.”
“Well, what is it, Miriam?” Hilda asked nervously. Had Miriam seen or known more than she appeared regarding the events of that fateful evening? Might she intend to invite Hilda into a confidence which the young American might prefer to have had left unspoken? Still, her sense of friendship and honour led her not to shrink from the favour that Miriam might ask of her. It was better to hear everything, to know the true nature of the situation, and then to act, rather than to decide based on her own fearful superstition and risk the sweetest friendship she had ever known.
“It is not a matter of difficulty. It is merely to take charge of this small packet and keep it for me awhile.” Miriam extracted a large envelope from her pocket. It was white, sealed, and bore a simple address: Signore Luca Barboni, Piazza Cenci.
The address, to the place where that Beatrice once had lived and suffered, gave Hilda a chill, she knew not quite why, but she answered her friend with equanimity. “Of course, Miriam, if you wish me to. But might it not be safer in your own charge?”
“I had a sensation last night, Hilda, that it might soon be necessary for me to leave Rome for a while, when the malarial fever is at its height over the summer months. Two months and a few days hence, unless you hear more from me, I would have you deliver the package. You see how, if abroad, I may not be able to achieve that aim, in particular having the package delivered at so precise a day.” She turned the package in her hand, to demonstrate a particular date, written in her careful, looping hand, on the rear.
“Very well, Miriam,” Hilda replied, holding out her hand. “Although I myself had thought of departing Rome and seeing the countryside, as my fellow painters do, I suspect that plan will come to naught.”
“Ah, no! Hilda!” Miriam clutched the packet to her chest. “I would not deprive from you the chance of such a trip for my sake. It is one of the finest pleasures that life as an artist in Rome can offer. One may study the old schools of art in the mountain towns whence they came, in the frescoes of Cimabue and the paintings of Perugino. The long, bright galleries of Florence offer a pause from that sunny, wandering life, that offers its own treasures. No, if you will, we shall go away together. The packet is of little import, and I can undertake myself to return it at such a date, if we do not travel too far!”
“Hilda, I shall not hear another word. It was but a flight of fancy.” Miriam tucked the package back into her skirts. “Let us settle that we will go abroad together when the heat increases.”
“Very well, Miriam. You may show me the opportunities that lay outside this sweet city, and we may return to it refreshed and able to continue our work in peace.”
“Farewell, then,” said her visitor. “I leave you in your dovecote with your masterpiece.” And so Miriam took her leave and went down the long descent of the staircase, leaving Hilda alone indeed, with both her Beatrice and her Donatello. Covering the painting again, as though to shield its innocence, she unfolded the drawing that she had partly crumpled, spreading its corners across her worktable.
“Yes, it is really an excellent and most fateful likeness!” she murmured to herself. “And not at all what I had intended.” Having taken to the art of reproducing so swiftly, Hilda had never yet experienced the uncertainty and self-doubt that came with producing a piece so different from the intention she had held in her mind’s eye. To her, the secret meaning of the sketch was clear: she had uncovered a truth about her friend’s character that had been concealed from her. She could not, like Kenyon, admit of some moral excuse; the Archangel’s pure and piercing gaze became in some way her own, and she felt assured of the righteous nature of his judgment. Still, she wished never to see a fellow creature suffer, and so she wished only that Donatello might, by one of those miraculous turns of Fate that so often dictate the bonds of human friendship, release Miriam, and so she and Kenyon also, from their bonds.
When Miriam reached her own studio, she was surprised to find that her young Italian follower awaited her there. “What news, Donatello? Nothing eventful has brought you here so soon after our parting, I hope?”
Donatello bowed. “Nothing at all, Signorina. It was only after you and Hilda had made your way homeward that I recalled that your painting of me was still not quite concluded. I thought perchance that, as one or other of us must surely soon depart from Rome, it might be opportune to finish it today?”
“It is kind of you to think of it, Donatello,” Miriam answered, letting them both in to the studio, “the final few touches I might have done from memory. And you are right, Hilda has agreed this year to leave Rome for the hottest months, and will go to the country with me. We may leave in a week or so, and I would have this painting completed and varnished for you as a token of our friendship.”
“It has been a pleasure to sit for you and be the subject of your careful, loving gaze,” Donatello replied, taking her hand in his. “There is so much in this city that I cannot love, but that you walk its streets and past its monuments gives it a charm that I would not be away from.”
“Soon you will be free to depart Rome for your pleasanter country home, then.” She relinquished his grasp. “Give me put a moment to prepare my easel and my palette, Donatello, and we shall continue our work together. You may look at some of my latest sketches, if you would pass the time with some amusement.”
As Miriam bade him, Donatello turned to Miriam’s work table, upon which there was a great confusion of pencil drawings and ink sketches, the piles having been disordered by Miriam’s hurried collection of the pieces that contained that monk’s face that had been the subject of such discussion that morning and the previous evening. Those images all resided now together, shut up in Miriam’s neat portfolio. Reassured by the knowledge of their absence, Donatello sought to interest himself in the pieces left upon the table. In one, Miriam had attempted to tell the story of Judith, a common theme amongst Old Masters. The head of Holofernes was depicted with touches of pure scorn, while Judith she had depicted with a passionate and fiery conception of the woman’s commingled horror and righteousness. The picture fascinated him, and he held it close to his eyes, the better to examine the expression of Holofernes, comparing it to the mask of death that Brother Antonio had worn.
Another sketch, continuing a theme of decapitation that might, in other circumstances, have troubled simple Donatello, showed Salomé, moon-lit, her clothing gorgeous but also very scarce, receiving the head with an expression as though she might stoop to kiss that face which might no longer scorn her. It bore a debt, although that fact escaped Donatello’s notice, to Luini’s piece in its expression, and still yet more to da Vinci’s investigations of the human form. Examining the face of that saint, Donatello felt a swell of fear and disgust, and thrust the sketch into the middle of the pile so as to lose it there.
“Will you sit, Donatello? I am almost ready,” Miriam called from the other side of the room.
“Yes, sweet Miriam.” Donatello moved across the room, into the persistent shadow and his chair. Miriam had not yet dismantled her apparatus for producing that specific darkness which she sought for Donatello’s picture. “Miriam, might one, like that gentle maiden daughter of Herodias, give rise to another’s death, not directly, but through a chance word or action, and
“So you have seen my Salomé, dear Faun?” Miriam replied with a laugh. “I think her less gentle than you may imagine, and more sure of her choice and its outcome than others may see. It is rare indeed that one does something utterly unintended and unforeseen, although we might veil from ourselves such consequences or motives.”
Donatello’s brow furrowed, and he crossed his legs. Miriam did not correct him; her focus was on the shading of his hands, their articulation, and the final colouring of his dark curls, so near was the portrait to completion.
“You think the worst of me, Miriam.”
“You and everyone, Donatello!” she replied with a laugh. “But you must not be so serious about it. It is simply a fact that we cannot know every consequence of or motive for our actions. To seek to do so would be to become forever paralysed into inaction. You are a natural creature, Donatello. You must act!”
Donatello gave a shudder, but the furls upon his brow loosened somewhat.
“Turn you head towards the window, Donatello, so that I might see the light play on your curls?” she instructed as she painted.
After about twenty minutes, Miriam stepped back and declared the portrait complete. “It is still wet, Donatello, so have care, but you may look at it and tell me if it pleases you.”
He rose from the chair, as though summoned from slumber. Shaking his head, his curls dancing side to side, he approached Miriam and rounded the easel. There he sat, instantly recognisable, amongst the accoutrements of his agricultural estate. The sharp tools, their metal glinting, had been painted from memory, Miriam having sketched them many times during her summer travels across the Italian countryside. Through an imagined window, foliage too was represented from memory, smooth dark-green leaves glistening in a light source that seemed impeccably natural. His face, young and fresh, work an expression generous and kind, such as he had never noticed before. It was far from the contortions of pain or malice that he had seen so many times already that day.
“It is as pleasing a representation as any man could hope for, Miriam. I can only thank you,” he stooped his head to kiss her hands, “a thousand times for your generosity in painting it.”
“I hope that it shall hang in your ancestral halls until your grandchildren’s time, Donatello, and that they will all look up at you as their grandfather the Faun, a creature of nature, pure and true,” Miriam replied, thrilling in his pleasure at the portrait. “You must leave me an address to have it sent when it is varnished and framed.”
“You must bring it, Miriam. You must come to Monte Beni.” He clutched her hands to him passionately, overcome with the idea.
“Donatello, I cannot. Hilda and I will go north, yes, but certainly no further than Firenze. We will go west instead, in search of the cooling breeze of the coast, and the sparkle of light that is only possible in such places.”
“The campagna has its own brightness,” Donatello argued. “You will come and stay with me, and see your painting installed above the staircase?”
“Donatello, I cannot,” Miriam repeated. “You must visit us in Firenze, when we are there.”
“My hospitality will betoken my gratitude to you!” Miriam was surprised at his insistence, the fixity with which he clung to the idea, but it was quite impossible for she and Hilda to call on and visit Donatello at his family home. Instead, Miriam sought a different outlet for his gratitude.
“Donatello, might I beg from you another favour? I have need of someone whom I can trust to take care with the delivery of a packet.” She withdrew the envelope from her pocket, where it had remained the whole morning.
“Anything, Signorina. I will take it to the ends of the earth!” Donatello exclaimed. He seemed to really mean the enthusiasm which he expressed for a trip of great danger or duration.
“That will not be needed, Donatello. You are too kind. It must only go to an address in Rome, but two months hence.”
“Of course. I will deliver it myself!”
“That is generous. Yet I think—“ Miriam paused, her thoughts wandering from her momentarily, as though she were remembering something that she would have rather forgotten but could not avoid. “It will need a few amendments before I part with it. I wrote it in such haste, before I knew quite what I ought to say. Will you wait with me awhile, and admire yourself, perhaps?”
Donatello bowed deeply towards her, in a gesture that made Miriam almost laugh. “I am yours to bid. I will wait, Miriam. I will wait!”
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