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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 16: At Monte Beni

It was a few days after that Kenyon and Donatello arrived on horseback at the gate of an ancient country house in a part of Tuscany usually unknown to travellers. The square tower rose above a broad valley, and the winding road up to its iron gateway offered glimpses of industrious activity below. As Donatello dismounted to unlock the gates, Kenyon admired the tower itself, which was covered at its base with close-clinging lichens and yellow moss, evidence of its great antiquity, although it would be many more centuries before such a mossy attire would reach the heights of the tower’s machicolated summit. Along the height of the tower were three windows upon each side, the lower ones grated with iron, and the upper ones wholly empty to the elements. It was Kenyon’s immediate fancy that many a crossbowman had shot his shafts from those windows, and from the vantage of those battlements, and the spirit of the place came immediately to life.

Kenyon followed Donatello into the courtyard below the tower, and now came into view a spacious residence, connected with the tower but of a more modern date. It bore a fresh coat of stucco and yellow wash, and offered several entrances, the nearest of which, almost at the base of the tower, bore a cross above it, indicating that that portion was the chapel of the mansion. As Donatello gestured towards a side path, Kenyon felt again that vague sense of his friend’s significant change; not the sylvan, untutored youth with whom Miriam, Hilda and himself had laughed and sported, but a solemn nobleman, his gait indicate a certain gravity and measured steps at odds with the irregular buoyancy which had distinguished Donatello in Rome.

Kenyon followed his friend a short distance back down the hill behind the tower, until they reached a stable, and in the near distance was a farm, with which the manor seemed to share its stables. Opposite and along from the farm ran a set of vineyards, at the edge of which, at several intervals, stood several of the contadini, in their shirt-sleeves, evidently aroused to curiosity by the sound of the master’s horses.

Donatello spoke a few low words in Italian to the young boy whom they found inside, before turning back to Kenyon. “The farm is farm more populous, at least during the working day, than is the manor. We are but a few living here now. In fact, only Tomaso, who has been butler since my grandfather’s time, and Stella, his wife, who cares for the house, and Girolamo, for a cook.” Donatello led him back up the hill to the tower. “It is rather solitary here, but your presence will keep it cheerful.” Donatello smiled, and for a moment again resembled the sculptured Faun of Rome. “And we shall seek out the mediæval sculpture that is hidden away in the churches hereabouts, which has a different quality to the figures in Rome. Stella is devout and can be our guide.”

Donatello led the way into the manor, through a square and lofty entrance hall, paved with heavy blocks of stone and vaulted overhead. Archways left the hall from two sides, opening into long suites of anterooms and saloons; on the third side, a spacious stone staircase rose to another floor of similar extent. The contrast between the profusion of rooms and Donatello’s description of the scarce inhabitants struck Kenyon as melancholy, and he wondered how large a family might have once sufficed to fill the hallways with human life and sounds.

“Come.” Donatello moved towards the right-most arch. “This was a cheerful place in my boyhood, when uncles, aunts, and all manner of kindred dwelt here as one family, a merry race, but it is gloomy now.”

“I trust that the genial blood of your race still flows in many veins besides your own?” Kenyon inquired. Such a dissipation struck him as gloomy indeed.

“I am the last,” Donatello replied. “The pleasant customs of my forefathers no longer seem sufficient to sustain the race; they have all vanished from me, since my childhood.”

They had gained a saloon, carefully shaded with green-gold window-blinds. Donatello called now for refreshment. Stella appeared with rapidity, placing a cold fowl upon the table, which was quickly followed by a savour omelette, and afterwards some stone fruits, for which Donatello called for an accompaniment of Sunshine. Old Tomaso appeared after a moment with a small, straw-covered flask. He extracted the flask’s cork, and then inserted a little white cotton-ball into the bottle’s neck, absorbing the olive oil used to seal the liquid from the air.

“The secret of the making of this wine has been with the Count’s family for centuries,” Tomaso said with a certain borrowed pride as he poured the wine into two glasses.

“This is true, but it is a secret that belongs to the land, not to me,” Donatello corrected him. “It is the vineyard and its grapes that keep the secret. But taste and tell me whether it is worthy to be called Sunshine!”

“It is a glorious name,” Kenyon replied, “and the fragrance is bold and strong, penetrating any little corners open to it, like the sun itself.” He took a sip, “The flavour, too, is rare! Your wine, dear friend, is like the airy sweetness of youthful hopes.”

“And its promise as likely to be fulfilled.”

The men fell silent for a moment, sipping at intervals, their palates testing the hidden subtleties and delicate piquancy of that pale golden liquid. The taste, Kenyon thought, eluded immediate analysis, demanding rather a series of moments of promise left slightly unfulfilled, the full nature of the wine’s exquisite taste left only to the construction of the taster’s memory. “You must not linger too long in the drinking, Kenyon,” Donatello warned him, “or the finest qualities will make their escape. We joke that, when once the flask is uncorked, the experience of the height of the wine’s flavours is almost at an end!”

As they drank again, a second glass, Kenyon fancied indeed that the wine had become almost clouded, the clear gold of the first glass more like the dull shimmer of a commoner vintage. Still, it was refreshing, and when Kenyon had finished it, he found himself contented and at ease, and glanced around him with an artist’s curiosity for any such atmospheric surroundings. The walls, punctuated by supporting arches that crossed one another in the vaulted ceiling, were adorned, he now realised, with frescos that once must have been brilliant in their colour and design. The scenes were Arcadian in nature, and of a festive and joyous character. Yet, having faded slowly, it now became impossible to identify fauns and satyrs from mortal youths, nymphs from earthly maidens, or Pan and his music-making from the entertainers of other groves.

“This saloon was meant for merry-making and mirth, with its decorative complements there to guide the proceedings. Yet, methinks they have all faded a little more since I saw them last, and that they may fade still while we sit here.”

The idea struck Kenyon as maudlin and unearthly, although of course he knew that the frescoes could not but fade at their own natural rate, oblivious to the occupation or desertion of the room itself. Such was to be the primary atmosphere of his stay at Monte Beni. After a week, the tour of medieval sculpture that Stella and the nearest churches could offer was concluded, and Kenyon sought instead to employ a little of his leisure in modelling a bust of Donatello from clay. At first, he kept the intended subject of the figure from Donatello; the early work of sculpting requires the building up of a human form that might, in due course, become any number of individuals. However, at length he proposed to Donatello that he ought to sit.

“My dear Count, I would seek your indulgence upon a further point. You recall what a striking resemblance Miriam and I found between your features and those of the Faun displayed in Rome? Then, it seemed an identity, but now that I have seen your face in its natural light, and your form travel across its native lands, the likeness is far less apparent. Allow me to produce a bust of you, dear Donatello, that might be held against the marble of Praxiteles and your individuality brought to light. Will you sit for me?”

“Kenyon, your offer fills me with pleasure, and I would do whatever I could for the sake of your art, but I must admit that after the portrait painted for me by Miriam’s hand, I cannot sit again for anyone. It would not be to good effect, and to seek to depict me would only spoil your art. Would that I were the Faun whom we saw in Rome,” he cried, “as then I may be worthy of your art indeed. Yet that cannot be, and even after your kindly touch had worked its magic upon the marble, any figure of mine would compare to that marble only as baser a figure, too knowing to be at one with nature.” Donatello spoke with vigour and certainty, and Kenyon was surprised at the force of his feeling.

Miriam’s portrait, which Kenyon and Donatello had followed on its long journey from Rome to Monte Beni, now hung above the wide stone staircase of that manor. Although Donatello oft spoke of transferring it to the tower, where he kept his own apartments, the charming enthusiasm of old Stella for that delicate depiction of her young master’s beauty prevented him from removing it from her view. Still, Kenyon had noticed that Donatello oft stood beneath the portrait, when he believed himself alone and his fellow residents at another end of the house, and spoke to it in a low voice in his native Italian, which despite long years of familiarity, Kenyon still could not decipher.

Kenyon tried another tack. “Miriam’s painting is a fine work of art, an elegant summary of yourself and your natural place in the world, but a painting is not a bust. It would well suit the Count of Monte Beni—he who may, although God prevent it, be the last—to have a more formal memorial, more solemn and befitting his position as the descendent of so many great men.”

“You flatter me, Kenyon,” Donatello replied knowingly. “I cannot sit for you.”

“This reticence is an ailment that you have caught in the Roman air and brought with you.”

“That may be true, Kenyon, but it is one which I cannot cure.”

“Very well, my friend. I would not force the issue, only it would cost you very little, and mean a great deal to me, if you were to reconsider.”

Donatello smiled sadly. “I will think about it each day, Kenyon, and you will be the only sculptor for whom I will consent to sit, should I ever do so.”

This brought to an end Kenyon’s formal request to render Donatello’s form in marble, and yet, having already prepared a head, he bethought himself of Hilda’s method and pursued, in quiet hours during the morning and at night, a depiction of the man from memory. Yet in those efforts Kenyon found reflected back to himself those impressions of many small changes in his companion—possibly of natural growth and development, possibly of a more melancholy nature, but certainly of change—which together took away much of the simple grace that had been near to the marble Faun’s own, and had been the best of Donatello’s peculiarities amongst society in Rome. Still, Kenyon found that despite the changes to Donatello’s expression, there was nothing base in his appearance, as the Count had feared, but something severe, as of a man who had long borne the responsibility for a large family’s prosperity and happiness, and had become somehow compressed by that weight so that every small feature of him was firmly set.

It was at this time that, with the guidance of old Tomaso, Kenyon took an interest in the written records of his friend’s family, the genealogy of Monte Beni from the epoch of kingly rule back into the times of the Roman republic, the thread for decades sometimes lost and yet always emerging again, as some tree’s deep root from the woodland floor, to assert its continued strength. One tale from early in the family’s history, wild and fascinating, interested the sculptor deeply, and inspired him to return to his clay figurine to make some small amendments, after which he found the bust to be both more alike and more unalike his host, such that he put it away from himself, carefully enclosed in a wooden case.

The story ran thus. The progenitor of that race, in those delightful times when demigods appeared familiarly on earth, and the whole train of classical fable hardly took pains to conceal themselves, was not altogether human, but possessed of gentle qualities that made him a friend to all mankind. Native among the woods, he loved a mortal maiden, who in time came to reciprocate that love, and left the nearby village for a happy wedded life in the hollow of a great tree. From that union sprang a vigorous progeny which took its place unquestioned among human families, as in that age the intermingling of human and animal spirits was by no means restrained by social laws of nicety. Through the generations, as the admixture of human blood worked its quiet effect, the characteristics of that original father appeared to vanish, but when a son was born at a certain time of the solar year, combined with a certain time of the lunar month, the characteristics that were attributed to the original founder the race would reassemble themselves. Beautiful, strong, brave, kindly, sincere, endowed with simple tastes and the love of homely pleasures, such sons possessed many other gifts by which he could associate himself with the wild things of the forest, and could even feel a sympathy with the trees, among which it was his joy to dwell. And yet, unless nurtured fittingly, there might emerge also deficiencies both of intellect and of heart. Such was the case with Francisco, son of Pietro, who perished ignominiously during a sixteenth-century skirmish after he and horse had become panicked and turned to flee. Such was the case also with Domingo, whose enthusiasm in matters of business was not rewarded with any concomitant growth of the family’s estate, but from whom derived the belief that Sunshine could not but travel a few miles from Monte Beni without souring precipitously. The delicacy of the collectors of these family myths prevented them from collecting too the stories of faithless men whose advancing age revealed the animal spirits settled at the base of their souls, and who grew sensual, addicted to gross pleasures, heavy, unsympathising, and selfish, who left innumerable bastard lines of the Monte Benis traced across the rest of Tuscany, and yet Kenyon, adept at interpreting human lives from mere appearances, deduced the existence of the latter from the existence of the former. So it was that, afterwards, Kenyon could not but observe the grim and savage faces of some of Donatello’s more ancient ancestors without imagining the stories of each.

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