Chapter 17: Florence
It was the second week of June before the two men departed to visit their friends in Florence. Donatello’s agitation at remaining in Monte Beni grew and grew, and Kenyon sensed, although could not be certain, that the appointed day of Donatello’s delivery of that slim package in Rome was drawing nigh.
They settled it that they would first take rooms at one of the hotels most commonly used by travelling artists, and then seek out Hilda and Miriam, as it would, so Donatello thought, be impossible to locate them beforehand. Kenyon remained silent as to the hotel which they occupied, but mentally selected one in the near vicinity in which to take rooms. He had had no further correspondence with Hilda since the letter that reached him at Arezzo, and he felt sure that Hilda’s antipathy towards Donatello might now have dissipated, and that the two women would be ready to resume friendly relations as they had existed in Rome.
They entered Florence around nightfall, and turned themselves to the hotel which Kenyon had intended. “It is but early, Kenyon,” Kenyon said after they had made their toilets and sat down to dinner. “After dinner, we might make a walk through the streets of Florence and see how the city fares? It has been two years since I was last here.” He had half in mind the possibility that they might come upon Miriam and Hilda, spending their evenings in the same mode of recreation, and so obviate the need for seeking the two women the following day.
“I am afraid I have no heart for nighttime walks,” Donatello replied, somewhat to his friend’s surprise, as Donatello had often insisted that Kenyon accompany him on walks through the vineyards and surrounding woods at Monte Beni.
“You will not take offence if I make a tour of the city alone, though, dear Donatello? I would capture the spirit of the city again before setting myself before some of its treasures in the morning.”
“But we must seek out Miriam in the morning!” Donatello corrected him.
“Yes, indeed,” Kenyon consented. His conscience pricked at continuing to deceive his friend, and yet he wished to hold Hilda’s confidence, and could not now in good conscience tell Donatello where she and Miriam resided, for fear that he might insist on visiting them that very night. So it was that, an hour hence, Kenyon approached the reception of the women’s hotel alone and learnt that the two ladies were still dining. A message was duly sent, and Kenyon welcomed into the dining room to join the ladies at their digestifs.
“Dear Kenyon!” Miriam exclaimed as he was shown to them and seated at her side. “You have come alone. Did Donatello make the journey with you?”
“Yes, dear Miriam, and he is as enthusiastic to see you as ever he was, but preferred not to make an evening walk. We had hoped we might accompany you to the Uffizi, or some other such place, on the morrow?”
“Gladly, Kenyon!” Miriam said with a broad smile. “We had been planning precisely such a trip.”
“Kenyon, Miriam, I fear I must prove unfaithful. I had entirely forgotten that I had asked a curator of a private gallery to allow me in a second time tomorrow, in order to look once again at a certain portrait that has rather captivated me,” Hilda said demurely, her eyes upon Kenyon’s. Her look chastised him, and he would have made a defence of himself had he been alone in her presence.
“You have returned to copying following your old method, Hilda?” Kenyon asked her lightly. “I had thought to find you with a portfolio full of original pieces.”
“Oh, she has, Kenyon!” Miriam said admiringly, answering for her friend. “But she has one particular object in mind, and it is a secret one.”
“How delightful! I bear a secret artwork with me, too, or the beginnings of one. We must compare them, dear Hilda.”
“It is not a secret. I simply seek to test my old skills, and make my sketches simply for my own amusement,” Hilda replied.
“Well, you and I will go, then, Miriam, and Donatello will join us also, for he intends to remain in Florence only a few days before continuing on his journey.”
“Back to Monte Beni?” Hilda inquired.
“No. Back to Rome,” Kenyon replied significantly, glancing briefly at Miriam, who started slightly, and then, as though gathering her recollections, tilted her head to one side. “He will return to Monte Beni then, no doubt. It is something of a gloomy place, but requires its Count in order to refresh itself.”
“I am glad that we were not persuaded to follow you there, then, Kenyon,” Hilda remarked firmly.
“We have had much in Florence to keep us busy,” Miriam added. “Our portfolios bulge with new sketches, and both our rooms have canvases arranged along the walls that we may send on to Rome ahead of us in a packet.”
“How wise!” Kenyon replied. “I bear with me in a wooden box the clay upon which I have been working. Sculpture is rather an unwieldy art for a traveller.”
“You must send your wooden case along with our canvases, then, and accompany us to Livorno. We will go a week from now,” Miriam suggested. “We have been working so intently that we will take at least a week there where we will admire only the scenery and the town itself, and pretend that we are not such servants to our art.”
“I shall sketch at will,” Hilda replied sceptically. “The only thing worse than forcing oneself to work is forcing oneself not to.” Miriam gave a little smile at this, which Kenyon was unable to interpret, but which Hilda seemed to notice and resist with a stern tightening of her lips. Shortly thereafter, she took her leave and retired to bed, leaving Miriam and Kenyon alone.
“Hilda will be angry with me at breakfast tomorrow. I have teased her rather mercilessly. She carries with her a sketch whose features I have not seen, but which she contemplates each day, and she executes smaller pieces of it, of which I have caught only a few glimpses. I do believe that Hilda is pining for some other friend or fellow of Rome!”
“I had not noticed any such attachment during the spring, Miriam,” Kenyon replied sceptically. “Had you?” All that he knew of Hilda suggested that she was all but immune to the romantic notions of other young women her age, saving all her romance and imagination for her art. And yet he had a suspicion regarding the nature of the sketch, and what it portrayed: that first betrayal of her art by her own imagination.
“I had not,” Miriam conceded, “but cannot otherwise explain the sketch which she carries, which I firmly believe to be her own work, and which she yet seems intent on copying.”
“It may be a piece with which she is dissatisfied,” Kenyon reasoned. “Might not that explain just as well her hesitance in sharing it with you, who otherwise is her firmest friend?”
“Oh, Kenyon, you are so sensible!” Miriam exclaimed, as though it were a heavy charge to level at one so dear to her. “You may be right. I have missed you calm, incisive reason. I am too impulsive and too taken with my own fancies at times.”
“You seem more contented, Miriam, then those last few weeks we spent in Rome.” Kenyon spoke slowly and with care. It had once been his hope, before the night above the Coliseum, that in due course he and Miriam might form a deeper and more formal attachment, but the death of Brother Antonio and their precipitous departures from Rome had quieted his thoughts of that possibility.
Momentarily, Miriam laid her hand upon his own on the table-top. “You are kind, Kenyon. My tranquil travels with Hilda have indeed quieted my mind. And yet, your mention of Donatello’s return to Rome reminds me of many sad events which I would put far from us both, but which are not within my power to move.”
“I would gladly have fulfilled that errand, whatsoever it may be,” Kenyon remarked quietly. “Donatello seems overtaken with the idea of a lifelong devotion to you as a form of penance. He gropes blindly about him for some method of sharp self-torture, and finds, of course, no other so efficacious as this.”
“Oh, Kenyon, you chastise me but very gently for my conduct both towards you and towards Donatello. I do not know what penance Donatello believes he owes me, but do not think that I am a party to it, or to some secret relation with him that merits such acts of devotion, and do not take as an affront my granting to him such a small request. I had thought to ask Hilda to perform that errand, as you call it, but could not burden her with it when it was clear her will was to leave Rome. Donatello but offered, and it seemed so simple to accept. He is a generous and straightforward soul, and I knew would execute the task precisely as requested.”
“As would I.” He had not intended to be put out. Indeed, Kenyon had barely thought of Donatello’s task for Miriam since it had first come to his attention. Yet, now it seemed there was a reason quite unfavourable to him that lay beneath it all.
“Of course! But I would have had you travel with Hilda and I, had you not wished to visit Monte Beni.”
Miriam’s eyes were fixed upon the empty glass that lay before her, and Kenyon felt momentarily that his taking offence had, in turn, wounded her quite unintentionally. To explain that he had felt himself to be fulfilling Hilda’s wishes in removing Donatello from her society would only have been to deepen that wound, and possibly to inflict another. Instead, Kenyon answered, “Will you not tell me the task with which you have charged Donatello?”
Miriam blushed. “I cannot, Kenyon. It was but a flight of fancy, this delay of that letter’s delivery, and I wish now that I might have pushed aside my attempts at obfuscation and simply delivered it myself. But it has little bearing upon our friendship and society.”
With such reassurance, Kenyon took his leave, promising to bring Donatello to the Uffizi the following morning.
Their tour of the Uffizi the following day followed a template familiar to all idle people of an artistic nature, and although at moments Donatello tired of the museum’s many galleries, he would have borne far more to be within Miriam’s compass once again. His chatter seemed nearly endless, first about this piece, and then about another, or about the similarities of this painting and that sculpture to the ones that they had many times seen in Rome. He spoke also of her portrait’s hanging in the very centre of his ancestral home, having had several paintings of illustrious ancestors moved to less prominent places in order to make space for it.
“Donatello, you have made me feel guilty at the painting of it, if it has resulted in the demotion of your beloved forefathers to some lesser place!”
“What guilt can you feel, my dear, sweet Miriam?” Donatello clasped at her hands with such fervour that one or two of the gallery’s other patrons, drawn by the rapidity of his motion and the tenor of his voice, turned to observe them, and revoked their gaze only after a stern glare from Kenyon. “I act in your defence and on your behalf without requiring any spur or prompt,” Donatello was saying as Kenyon turned back to them.
“Come, Donatello, you go too far,” he said very quietly, laying a firm hand on his friend’s arm and forcing him to lower his own hands to his sides once more.
“That seems to me all vanity, felt by you on mine own behalf without any cause or need,” Miriam responded, blushing a little as she did so. “What guilt can I feel in my relation to you? We are friends, dear friends,” she insisted, with a frown of confusion and misapprehension at the strength of Donatello’s feelings.
“Come, Donatello, Miriam. Let us go to the other wing, and see what treasures are waiting for us there,” Kenyon urged, and so the tension of the moment seemed to pass. But when they entered the narrow courtyard between the two wings, Donatello would not continue with them back indoors, and instead settled there.
“I will await you in the sunshine until you return,” he assured them both, and so Miriam and Kenyon completed the second half of their tour of the museum alone. It was but later, when Miriam had returned to her hotel to find Hilda, and Donatello and Kenyon were left alone, that Kenyon appreciated the significance of Donatello’s remaining behind.
“Oh, Kenyon, I am more miserable now than I think I have ever been!” he exclaimed once they were out of earshot of any passers-by.
“Why, Donatello,” Kenyon replied in surprise, “whatever is the matter? If you and Miriam quarrelled, it was but for a moment, and all is forgiven, my friend, I am sure of it.”
“Did you not see? She spoke of having no possible guilt towards me, and yet her look spoke of guilt and of betrayal more clearly than I could ever have imagine. I could not help but wonder what package I have carried with me these two months, and perchance whether it might be to send me to my doom!”
“Whatever do you mean? I cannot for a moment believe that Miriam would undertake such a scheme against you, Donatello. To even think so is madness!”
“I have opened it, Kenyon.” Donatello cast his eyes downwards to his feet. “I have breached her trust forever,” he continued, his mouth downturned in a look of sadness so exaggerated that Kenyon might have laughed as his sincerity had the situation been less awful.
“Well. What did it say? Did it confess to such a scheme against you?”
“I can make neither head nor tail of it,” Donatello confessed, and from his pocket he withdrew a now somewhat scuffed envelope, torn impatiently along one side.
Wordlessly, Kenyon took the offering from Donatello and removed the two folded pieces of paper from within. The first, a sketch which he had seen before, he thought, upon Miriam’s work table or in her portfolio. It bore the tell-tale gestures of her pencil, and he would have immediately owned it hers wheresoever he had come upon it.
The letter, he read quickly:
You must forgive me my delay in writing. You must understand the nature of my situation, and Antonio’s.
I must tell you, if word has not reached you by any other means—I pray that it has! There is much I did not ask of him about his position!—that Antonio is dead. It is a bald truth, and there is no way to put it other than as it really is. The brotherhood with whom he lodged, as one of them—it is not my place to pass judgment on his aptitude for such holy orders—believe him to have suffered from a fall and fever, and his death came swiftly to him. He was buried with all honours in their traditional burial place. I cannot tell you where, or all may unravel. Erect a monument and mourn for him at home. You must do that. I enclose a memorial of him, one sketch of many that I have made. I have had one such drawing finely engraved, but cannot wear it, lest it be noticed by someone who might recognise it. Such is the nature of the bargain that he and I made, in plunging ourselves headlong into exile and separation.
This letter comes to you by several hands. Do not trouble those whose sole task was to pass it along the inevitable chain to you.
Yours ever thus,
Kenyon read the letter only once before turning his eyes back to Donatello’s face. He pushed aside thoughts of the memorialisation of that monk by Miriam, and of the relations between them at which the letter hinted. He had been persuaded that their relation was not one of love, and believed it so still. Yet, there was sorrow in her words, and gestures towards the honouring of the memory of that man who had seemed to haunt her as a malignant force. What did it mean?
“Do you not see how she means to reveal me as that satyr’s murderer? Her sympathies all lie with him!” Donatello exclaimed, snatching the letter, sketch and envelope back from him. “The letter claims to deceive its recipient, a sure sign of a hidden meaning.” Kenyon looked at his friend in some bewilderment. His mind was struggling to determine the signs by which Donatello read such a meaning, although he could not quite fix upon a reading of his own. “It does not reach its recipient by several hands, but merely by my own,” Donatello said forcefully by way of apparent elucidation.
“What can be made of that, Donatello?” Kenyon cried in response. His friend touched upon the least puzzling of all the letter’s mysterious parts. “How could the recipient know it to be false? It strikes me as a white lie, made to protect you from questioning by the letter’s recipient. It is clear that Miriam wishes to remain separated from them, and so seeks to discourage a reply.” Kenyon reasoned coolly, almost without thinking of it.
“I would have thought thus had it not been for the flash of guilt which her eyes betrayed to me. Those beautiful dark eyes, in whose depths I have long searched for comfort, joy, and hope, spoke to me more eloquently than I can explain.” Donatello spoke quickly; his hands moved around with some agitation, like the limbs of a marionette whose operator has momentarily forgotten it.
“A wonderful process is taking place in your mind, Donatello, which you must not allow to overwhelm you,” Kenyon counselled, seeking to calm him. “This letter speaks of things which you and I do not understand, and of a relation between Maria—I do not know why Miriam signs her name thus, but it is certainly her own hand—and the dead monk who once followed her as devotedly as you now do.” Kenyon began to reprove Donatello now. “In speculating thus upon it, you are bewildered with the revelations that you believe it discloses to you. You should not have intervened in Miriam’s affairs thus, confusing yourself and abusing her trust. You must confess this to her,” he said at last.
“No, that I cannot do!” Donatello replied. “I must deliver this as I once promised, and make my apologies to its addressee for the damage to the original.”
“Donatello, we cannot have read this piece of private correspondence and now pretend to Miriam that we know nothing at all of it!” Kenyon argued. “To do so would be a gross abuse of her trust.”
“But we deceive her as to our knowledge about Brother Antonio’s fate,” Donatello said. “The one requires the other.”
“We must confess all, then, Donatello,” Kenyon reasoned. His sense of propriety was strong, and he could not but abhor the possibility of deceiving Miriam against her own interests in such a way.
“But to do so would be to be cast out from her society forever!” Donatello cried.
“Then that must be our fate.”
“I will not, Kenyon. I will to Rome tonight, and you must swear an oath to bear another of my secrets.”
“I cannot, Donatello. What you ask of me is dishonourable. It is beneath the Count of Monte Beni,” Kenyon said, although unbidden his mind called forth recollections of those half-hidden tales in that ancient family’s past, those Counts who were also satyrs, lustful, drunken, selfish and cunning.
“Very well, Kenyon.” Donatello spoke quietly now, his temper apparently much cooled. “You are right, perhaps. Miriam is very dear to me, and for a moment those strong feelings clouded my sense of honour. I will confess all to her tonight, at dinner.” For such a plan had they made, and Miriam had proposed to bring Hilda with her, too, if she were able.
“Donatello, this must be done. You must make a full confession to having opened and read this letter, and then throw yourself upon Miriam’s mercy. She owes us no explanation for that letter. It was not meant for us.” There was something in Donatello’s demeanour that made Kenyon doubt him, although he felt the suspicion itself to be base. Donatello was a nobleman, and had never shown himself to be anything but true to his blue blood.
“It was not, Kenyon. Your honourable nature reminds me of my duties as a gentleman. I must to church, to confess these sins before I make my confession to dear Miriam. I would have God’s blessing and forgiveness before I seek hers.”
And so Donatello went along his way to the nearest church to seek the comfort of a Papal ritual which Kenyon envied at that moment. It was only afterwards that he came to wonder about the influence of that ritual’s efficacy in absolving men both of their sin in the eyes of God, and of their sense of guilt in their own.
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