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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 14: The Capitol Once More

The matter having been decided upon, Hilda and Miriam proceeded swiftly in setting their affairs in order before leaving the city. Uneasy of mind about his American friend’s change to her usual summer routine, and somewhat surprised at the rapidity of the two women’s departure, Kenyon turned his steps to her studio a few days after their visit to the Church of the Capuchins.

Hilda he found, alone, sat listlessly in her painting-room, beside the portrait of Beatrice Cenci, which had not yet been taken from the easel. “Ah, what brings you all this way, Kenyon? Are we not to visit the Capitol this afternoon?” The friends had settled upon a final visit to that museum’s galleries before they must needs part ways for the summer.

“We have, and I will keep the engagement, but would speak to you more privately, Hilda.”

She looked at him solemnly, and it seemed to him that Beatrice, too, turned her face a little more toward him. That painting’s profound expression can only be caught by glimpses, or from the corner of one’s eye as one approaches or leaves it. So it was now that it seemed to suggest more of its true tokens of grief and guilt as he took a place beside Hilda. He watched, for a moment, a speck of sunshine that came through the shuttered window, before turning to his purpose.

“I cannot help but wonder, Hilda, whether the sudden nature of your departure from Rome flows from that fateful night upon the hill above the Coliseum?”

Hilda’s pale face showed no flicker of surprise or distress. “Kenyon, we have both an impression of that night, burnt by the moonlight into our memories, and it would little profit either of us to share our personal view. But you cannot say that your own memory of that evening, and of the monk lain out upon his bier, does not follow you everywhere!”

“Hilda.” Kenyon paused, feeling his way. “You fear for the soul of our good friend?”

“I fear for the soul of that monk who made his way precipitously to his maker!” Hilda reproved him.

“Fear not for him, Hilda. He was a monk, a brother of that order, a man for whom many prayers will be spoken by those who have taken wholly orders. Think instead of Donatello!”

She turned her face from him, a flicker of disgust upon it. “I think now of Donatello as I drew him, Kenyon. It cannot be differently.”

“That is very hard, Hilda. Donatello little deserves it. You may see from Miriam’s portrait of him how kind and simple he remains.”

“Poor Miriam!” Hilda exclaimed. “I cannot undeceive her. She would not believe that which she could not test with her own eyes. But I cannot admit of her view of the situation over my own.”

“You are very certain, Hilda. Your precise abilities of perception are admirable in a creative sense, but in the world of personalities, there is something greater in the shading of each man’s character than your acute vision may allow.”

Hilda looked at him, wide-eyed, seeking his motivation and finding nothing. “Kenyon, I think that you too feel a sense of horror at that memory, that sight of Donatello reaching out to strike down that hooded monk, which I can scarce believe myself to have seen, except that it is there, in my mind’s eye, a clear as the sight of Guido’s Beatrice or any of the other images which I have henceforth copied.”

“I do, Hilda, and Donatello shares that sentiment too. And so I cannot condemn him, but that I must needs condemn myself, for urging him to leave that fellow and not raising the alarm.”

Hilda tightened her lips, a silent reproach. “This you did for friendship, and for Miriam’s sake.”

“Indeed. Motivations honourable, perhaps, like Donatello’s own.”

“Not so, Kenyon!” Hilda urged. “You heard the sacristan whom Miriam quizzed, just as sure as I. Brother Antonio made his own return, but the injury was too great. Raising the alarm would not have spared him his dreadful fate.”

“Hilda, I had hoped to lift your spirits, to help you come to a more generous view of Donatello’s situation, not to have you perform that same function upon myself!”

“It is often the way that we seek to comfort others when we ourselves are most in need, Kenyon,” Hilda replied, smiling gently. “My recollection prompts me to leave Rome, to accompany a friend to see new sights and take fresh air. Such a change can be only for the good. Do you propose this year to remain in Rome?”

“I may, Hilda, I may,” Kenyon prevaricated. “My Cleopatra is not yet finished.”

“Ah, Kenyon. But without your inspiratrice, it may be that your Cleopatra were best left unfinished for a time?”

Kenyon laughed wryly. “Hilda, you return all of my good aims to myself, untouched. Your point is well made. Perhaps I shall return to my studio and sit in quiet contemplation with my clay, until the appointed hour for our tour of the Capitol.”

That afternoon, the sun was almost wholly hidden from Kenyon until he emerged into Piazza Venezia. The contrast was so dazzling to his eyes that it was only after he had stumbled into his friend that he recognised that shadowy form as Donatello. The two men made their customary pleasantries, and moved in step together around the edges of that busy square.

“Miriam is to have delivered to me tomorrow my portrait,” Donatello said, after a pause. “It recalls to me all of the glories of my ancestors, rooted in the Tuscan soil that nourished them. It will suit so well at home that it is almost as though Miriam had been there herself, and absorbed all its character.”

Kenyon smiled, recalling the skill with which Miriam had rendered the man and his customary surroundings. “I am glad, Donatello. You are most fortunate to have such a friend and such a picture. Will you take it back home yourself, or have it sent on?”

“I will not leave Rome until Miriam has done so!” Donatello answered with a certain vehemence. “She makes to go, but I know not when.”

“She goes with Hilda, soon,” Kenyon replied. “First towards Florence, without much deviation, as that city will make a fine study for our two talented friends, and they must make good their time there. Then, once exhausted, they propose to travel towards the coast, which will refresh them for the journey south again.”

Donatello nodded. Such a trip accorded with what Miriam had told him previously, and what he hoped her plans to be. “Florence is so near my way, I will follow along behind them,” he said. “It will be but the work of a sunny day in Florence to persuade them to visit my castle among the Apennines, which is quite as refreshing as the coast and has far purer air. I have stayed long in this languid Roman atmosphere for Miriam’s company, and it has oppressed both she and I.” Kenyon remained silent a moment as Donatello discoursed. “Yes, she will wish to taste the airy wine that we are accustomed to breathe at home. It is my fixed purpose to show her that happy place.”

Kenyon held his tongue, unsure of whether Donatello had spoken of these intentions to Miriam, or to Hilda. Kenyon could not imagine, following his morning’s interview with her, that Hilda would succumb to the charms of Monte Beni which Donatello expounded. Rather, it seemed her own intention that her travel from Rome would forever sunder her from Donatello. That idée fixe might, with her own departure from Rome, dissipate. He could only hope that such would be the case, for the idea of any direct confrontation between the Italian and the innocent painter filled him with a sort of horror, as it would inevitably require the disclosure to Miriam, the close friend of both, of some certain facts that Kenyon would keep concealed from her.

“Ah, here are our friends and, I hope, my sometime travelling companions!” Donatello exclaimed, and he burst into a quick trot that ended with a flourish at Miriam’s side. Once united, the four friends hurried in, as the afternoon was growing late. Whereas before they had traversed the museum’s galleries as one, moving between the ancient works of art as though joined one to another by a thread, Hilda moved firmly forwards without a look rearward to identify the progress of her friends. She paused momentarily at one statue or another, and while Miriam sought to attend her, she seemed with every few monuments to fall further behind.

“Hilda, you seem distracted. Do you seek anything in particular?” Kenyon asked her quietly, looping from behind Donatello to join Hilda, at the expense of several rather fine female forms whose grace and beauty he had oft admired.

“Nothing in particular, Kenyon. Only something that quiets my mind,” she sighed. They drew to a stop before the She-Wolf, which leered with a melancholy sort of energy towards them, apparently unaware of what occurred beneath her. “Bronzes are such savage pieces. I cannot but think of them as once having been swords, wielded by conquered warriors and dissolved as punishment!”

“Your imagination is more vivid than ever, Hilda. I should wonder to see you translate such an idea onto your canvas,” Kenyon said admiringly.

“Yes, Kenyon, do encourage her. I have hopes that our long days of travel will inspire an active period in Hilda’s individual creative life, so accomplished has she become as a copyist.” Miriam had come behind them, Donatello quietly upon her heels.

“Miriam, you think our travels will be so boring? I wonder that you encourage me on them, if that will be the case!”

“Not at all, Hilda. I think our travels will be so interesting, and too speedy to allow of your using your usual method of long and careful contemplation!”

“You must not go too fast or too far,” Donatello interjected. “You must come to Monte Beni, and yield to its sylvan landscapes.”

“No. That cannot be!” Hilda exclaimed before Miriam could speak. “We will go no further than Florence. We cannot,” she repeated.

“I have told you, dear Faun,” Miriam said more soothingly, “that Hilda and I intend to take the road west after we have completed our tour of Florence’s museums and galleries. Your home must suit your own nature quite perfectly, a Faun and his woodland groves, but we are of a more modern sort, and ruined by Rome. We can take in the countryside only in very small doses,” she continued teasingly.

“Rome ruins all!” Donatello remarked rather savagely. “But you must come, Miriam. You must see the portrait that you have made of me hung in its rightful place.”

“I cannot, Donatello,” she said quietly. “I travel with Hilda, and we will from Florence to Livorno. You must settle the portrait in its new home, and I will come to visit it once it has stood upon the wall and communicated its sympathies to your castle, and likewise your castle to its painted form. Then I will be able to appreciate it as you wish.”

As Miriam had continued to speak, Donatello’s expression had slowly pinched itself into a frown. The eyes, narrowed and overshadowed by his stern brow, seemed to conceal thoughts not wholly suited to polite company. One hand was concealed in the pocket of his trousers, an apparently casual gesture that did not suit the rigidity of the rest of his frame.

“Come, friends, let us move onwards. It is the glare of the She-Wolf that sours our talk.” Kenyon spoke brightly, beckoning his friends towards the next figure. He and Hilda exchanged casual remarks upon the statues, their groupings, and their histories, speaking rather more than they might otherwise have done, until the party came upon the Dying Gladiator once again.

“Do you still judge the sculptor and his decision to immortalise an incipient collapse as coldly as you last did, Kenyon?” Hilda enquired, recalling Kenyon’s disdain for the posture there represented.

“It does not strike me as so forcefully unwelcome as when last we came,” he admitted, somewhat amused. “But it may be that the figure’s pathos speaks to me more strongly than before, when we admired so greatly the frolicsome marble of Praxiteles.” He realised immediately that he had struck the wrong note, as Hilda kept her gaze fixed firmly upon the Gladiator, as though he had not spoken at all. His remark had not gone unnoticed by Miriam and Donatello, however, who stepped now towards that other statue.

“As you feel with your Gladiator, Kenyon, so I feel with this figure,” Miriam said slowly, contemplating the ivory marble with a careful gaze. The Faun remained nonchalant, resting upon his post, as peaceful as any such natural animal could appear. “Although it struck my fancy strongly on our last visit, this woodland creature bears little resemblance now to you, Donatello, or rather, you to it. You are a Faun, it is true, but entirely of your own form!”

“Dear lady, has my faced changed so much, or its expression altered?” Donatello cried, a hand raised to his chin dramatically. “Do you not wish to check my ears beneath my curls for points alike to those of this marble figure?”

“Oh, Donatello, you are sweet!” Miriam laughed. “It is nothing except that our mood has changed. It is for the best. It would not be well for us to live too long in the fantasy that you are a statue come to life.”

“All such fantasies must come to an end,” Hilda agreed, looping her arm into Miriam’s, looking full at Donatello for the first time that day. “You will be a Faun again in your home in Monte Beni, Donatello, but no longer in Rome. The hot summer has broken over our dewy, fantastic spring.”

“You tease me, Hilda,” Donatello answered her, his expression as fierce as before. “You must come to Monte Beni and see your Faun, then, Miriam. Now that is sure.”

“Donatello—“ Miriam began in exasperation.

“Come, Donatello,” Kenyon interrupted, with a laugh. “If you wish for company, then you must needs accept me as a poor replacement. I should like to see your castle; the more that you speak of it, the more it fascinates me. I cannot complete my Cleopatra in this fugue of Rome’s heat. I will follow you to the countryside, if you will have me.”

“And you must visit us too, in Florence, Kenyon, when you have had your fill of the country in its purest form,” Miriam added.

“We shall,” Donatello said. “Kenyon, you will find Monte Beni an idyll for you, full of inspiration, and it is but a short journey to Florence to visit our charming friends.” He gave a little gambol around the statue, so alike his old self that the contrast was amusing.

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