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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 15: To Monte Beni

A few days after Miriam and Hilda had left Rome for Florence, their travelling cases full of paintboxes, blank paper, and half-finished sketches borne forth with the greatest optimism for their completion under a new influence, Kenyon and Donatello too took to the road leading north from Rome. Donatello had sent on ahead the portrait of him which Miriam had painted, now varnished and beautifully framed. His excitement to rejoin it in the Monte Beni seemed to Kenyon feverish, but his insistence that Hilda and Miriam join them at his ancestral home had dissipated, to Hilda’s apparent relief. It had seemed to Kenyon, in the last few days of theirs together in Rome, that Hilda had oft been on the verge of making explicit to Donatello her wish to be apart from him forever; her frank and honest nature was discomfited by the secret that had cleaved them, and by her dear friend Miriam’s ignorance thereof. Yet both women had seemed to feel a palpable relief and gaiety when they took their leave of Donatello and Kenyon, as though they sought to slough off both Rome and its attachments. It was with a heavy heart, then, that Kenyon followed Donatello out of the city and north into the countryside. They formed part of the flow of retreating foreign residents, and for a few days were accompanied, quite coincidentally, by Arthur Derby, the painter and a countryman of Kenyon’s, with whom he was on friendly terms.

That man, who was just now perfecting the art of the midnight sketch, of country or town, had a mania for travelling under the moon, during the cool of the morning or the evening twilight. During the midday heat, which was only increasing in its power, they wandered churches or small galleries, and Donatello bore the slow nature of their progress calmly. Indeed, it seemed to suit a certain religious mania that he had developed, and upon which Kenyon had not yet had the heart to question him. As usual on Italian waysides, they passed a good many shrines to the Blessed Virgin, as well as black crosses hung about with instruments of the sacred agony and passion; against the blackened wood or stone hung crowns of thorns, hammers and nails, pincers, spears, and even sponges left to the elements. At each such consecrated cross, he begged his fellows to wait a moment and alighted his horse to kneel and kiss the cross, pressing his forehead against its foot, and at each such shrine, he knelt before the benign maiden who watched him from her bas-relief of plaster or marble, or a painted wooden frame, and seemed to honour that wayside worship with her blessing.

These devotions were beautiful to observe, and on more than one occasion had Arthur questioned Kenyon about the propriety of dashing off a quick sketch of Donatello’s kneeling figure, dwarfed by a great cross, or framed by the arched niches and backed by the offering of sweet flowers, fresh with morning’s dew or illuminated with the sun’s heat. Although Kenyon himself would own that there was a beauty in the tender feelings of Donatello’s soul towards the Virgin, reflecting the tenderness with which that blessed saint immortally cherishes all human souls, he cautioned Arthur against the notion, for fear that Donatello might find in Arthur’s sketches—of which Kenyon had not always had the highest opinion—another representation of himself that would trouble his mind. Poor Donatello, as he went kneeling from shine to cross, and from cross to shine, doubtless found an efficacy in those symbols that might be brought to nought by a careless action of another’s pencil.

Yet, in their second week of travel, Donatello’s mood changed; his impatience to be home increased, and so Kenyon took his leave of his painter friend at a small Umbrian town outside Perugia, and he and Donatello sped northwards. They stayed in Perugia but a day before Donatello sought again to press on, and Kenyon yielded to his wish, after writing to Miriam and Hilda at their intended hotel in Florence. Although he knew not quite why, he kept that correspondence a secret to himself, just as he did the two women’s proposed destination. Before they had taken their leave of each other, Hilda had impressed upon him her anxiety that at any moment Donatello’s desire to return to Miriam’s side might re-emerge and prove impossible for Kenyon to forestall. And, had he been put on the spot himself, Kenyon might have also conceded that he himself would prefer to keep Miriam and Donatello apart for a little while longer.

The two men rode with few lengthy interruptions after that, except that Kenyon insisted on spending several days at Arezzo instead of passing by it. He visited the Chimera’s replica and executed a small handful of sketches with a view to comparing them with the original in Florence, should their travels later allow. Of a rather different nature were the Baroque sculptures which he had admired on a previous journey through the city. The bust of Francesco Redi, he admired for the expressive nature of the face’s lines, and the many pieces of that illustrious artist and historian, Vasari, he inspected in their former owner’s home, and turned again to his copy of the Lives.

As they set forth again, intending to travel northward and forge between two mountainous ranges, keeping their distance from that ultimate but unspoken goal of Florence, Kenyon remarked, “Now that you are within but a short distance, your enthusiasm for reaching home seems ever to grow, Donatello. You become everyday more like the imperious Count of Monte Beni than an innocent Faun, but we must not go too fast, or we shall find that when we reach Monte Beni we are still catching up with ourselves, and bring with us the ways of the city because we have yet to relax into the country.”

Donatello laughed at Kenyon’s figure of speech. “We shall catch up with ourselves perfectly well at Monte Beni, and upon the road catch up too with our dear friends.”

“The distance is not large enough to be made up before they reach Florence, Donatello,” Kenyon said quietly. “I have no doubt they have already reached their destination.” This he knew; he had at Arezzo received a letter from Hilda, written upon their arrival, and following the directions of his letter from Perugia, which had provided an address for use should she wish. That letter had expressed a sweet joy at the pleasures of travel through a countryside that seemed forever to wish to surprise and delight, as well as the pleasures of making an end to one’s journey. Florence held many treasures which both women were eager to enjoy.

Donatello moved along silently for a moment, before conceding, “You are very right, Kenyon, but you must forgive me my preoccupation. I must keep Miriam close, for she has entrusted me with a task, to be performed for her in a few weeks’ time, and she will want to be assured when I depart to undertake it.”

Kenyon looked at Donatello in some surprise, perplexed by his friend’s cryptic description, and rather disquieted at the fact that such an arrangement had gone unmentioned, both by Donatello and by Miriam. “What task, Donatello? If it is one that she has asked you to undertake, she cannot have intended you to be together, or else she would have undertaken it herself.”

Donatello reached into his pocket and withdrew a slender envelope, the address on which Kenyon could not see. “I have carried it on my person each day since she gave me it. I cannot leave it anywhere. It is to be delivered to an address in Rome on a specific day, upon Miriam’s express order.” Donatello’s expression was serious and yet animated. “Kenyon, I will do Miriam’s bidding throughout the rest of her life, as long as she will let me! I pray that she will allow me to live the rest of my days in such a state of atonement, for having taken from her that figure from her past, who seemed to love her nigh as much as I.”

Kenyon was silent for a moment. He and Donatello had spoken of that evening above the Coliseum only in a roundabout way. “Miriam would not have you suffer so for her sake, and I think it was not love that drove that spectre to follow her thus,” he added forcefully. He remembered clearly Miriam’s unsettled reactions when that figure had come upon her unexpectedly, and although he had never questioned the nature of their relations, could not believe that it was sensations love that had bound that man so closely to her.

“Miriam need not ask me. I do her bidding because I wish it, and I ask only to be permitted into her company as a faithful friend in order to better serve her.” Donatello spoke quietly, and he slipped the package back into his pocket.

“You intend to return to Rome, then, Donatello, in order to carry out this task?”

“I do. From Florence.”

Kenyon nodded silently. Donatello had thought much more than Kenyon had about their travels over the summer months. They rode on for a little while in silence, and Kenyon turned distractedly to the scenery which they passed. His unaccustomed eye delighted in the picturesque rustic character of the small farms that lay along the way, and the manners of the old women with whom they crossed paths, tending pigs or sheep. So wrinkled and stern were they, that it was a surprise to see them following the vagrant steps of their charges with infinite patience, as they deviated to graze on shrubs and rubbed against one another in competition. In fields, the younger folk toiled, men and women alike, distinguished from afar only by their high-crowned, broad-brimmed hats of Tuscan straw.

“You will have realised, Donatello,” Kenyon began, “that although your relations with Miriam remain as ever warm and honourable, with Hilda things stand differently. She, who bore witness to your terse struggle with Miriam’s spectre, remains uncertain of your motives. The laying out of that man in the church of his brotherhood made a strong and unpleasant impression upon her, which the beauty of your native countryside has yet to overcome.”

“That Hilda hates me for my sin, I admit and allow, but as a woman of faith, she cannot stand in the way of my acts of penance,” Donatello replied with a certain aggressive vehemence. “You understand me, Kenyon.”

Kenyon was not sure that he did follow Donatello’s meaning, but merely shook his head. It had several times struck his fancy that, as they distanced themselves from Rome and approached the other man’s ancestral homelands, he seemed to mature, both in character and appearance. There was, Kenyon fancied, a certain glisten of white amongst Donatello’s curls, but could never get a clear enough look in even light to confirm the presence of what otherwise might be the too-bright flashes of the sunshine upon Donatello’s glossy dark curls. He felt as though he had been separated from his friend for many years, and now rejoined him to find him much altered.

“You ought not act so as to separate those two sisters, Donatello. It would be sheer cruelty to Miriam.”

“I must do as Miriam bids me.”

“With her task, does it not seem that she bid you to remain in Rome, rather than follow her to Florence?” Kenyon exclaimed, his patience stretched. To allow Donatello into Miriam’s company once again, while she travelled alone with Hilda, would be to drive the two women apart for reasons that Hilda would never be willing to admit to her friend. She would, he had no doubt, take her leave and return to America before confessing to Miriam all that she knew and had witnessed. Such a departure would undoubtedly upset Miriam and the rhythm of her daily life in Rome, and would likely precipitate her own departure; where she would turn, he could not speculate, but Rome would cease to be a place of artistic repose for her. In turn, without those two gentle friends, he felt sure that he too would tire of the place.

The angry silence with which this was met troubled Kenyon, but there seemed little he could say to remedy that hurt without reducing the force of his remark. He felt sure that it had been Miriam’s intention to be free of Donatello, at the very least for a short while. Perhaps she had sensed her friend’s desire to be alone with her, or she and Hilda had discussed the matter expressly.

At the next shrine, Kenyon and Donatello both bowed their heads in silent prayer.

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