Chapter 19: A Return to Rome
Although the midday sun was strong, Kenyon set off on his journey to Rome as soon as he had left instructions with the hotel for his belongings to be sent along separately. He had made inquiries as to his friend’s possession, but learnt without much surprise that Donatello’s things had been taken that morning away to be transported to Monte Beni. It seemed that Donatello intended not to linger in Rome, but to return to the country, and for a moment Kenyon wondered whether Donatello planned to deliver Miriam’s message at all. Perhaps the Count had, in shame, decided merely to abandon that commission, rather than forge its completion. Yet, he had seemed sincere in his proposal to forge the letter’s address upon a new envelope, and deliver it as promised. It was in this deception that Donatello’s crime against Miriam lay, not in the abandonment of his duty.
Changing horses when his tired, Kenyon made swift progress on that first day, clattering past any number of shrines and blackened crosses along the wayside. He was tempted, at first, to make stops at them, so ingrained had that habit of travel become during his journey northwards with Donatello. Yet he made haste along his route, and on the second and third day, too, although much fatigued, he refused to make pause at any of the pilgrims’ stops.
On the fourth day, Kenyon began to question whether Donatello himself was making such haste to Rome. He had forgotten to ask either that man or Hilda, his only resource, about the date or address of delivery required by Miriam for her original missive. He knew not even whether it was important that his own letter preceded or succeeded the delivery of that first note. Kenyon began to slow at each shrine that he passed, but when he found them occupied by kneeling pilgrims, none bore any sign of being the young Count of Monte Beni. Perhaps he had misjudged, and Donatello had sped on to Rome unrelentingly, his prayers abandoned.
In such a state of confusion and uncertainty, Kenyon reached Rome, sad of mouth and eye and fatigued from his many leagues of travel. As he had rode toward Rome, he had lost track of the usual thoughts and attentive nature; the sculptor who might have attended carefully to the stoop of a fellow rider leant forward on his horse, or a young stableboy whose just-grown appearance spoke of the vigour and honour of youth, was no more, and he knew only that at Rome there was a church, and a man whom he had never met, and who did not know that he awaited the letter in Kenyon’s possession. It was late, and the streets of Rome were filled with only a few tourists, newly reappeared in Rome, and the patient residents of that city, who wound their way homeward. For a moment, Kenyon considered whether to make delivery of his letter that night, to try the church and see whether its evening attendants might include Sr Binbua or a colleague who might transfer the letter to him. Yet, his own curiosity about the man for whom the letter was destined—and its contents—made him hesitate, and instead he turned his steps to the studio in Via Antonio Canova.
It was early on the following morning, while it was still cool among the shaded streets, that Kenyon made his way to the church of Santa Maria de Montserrat along Via di Montserrat. The night’s rest had refreshed him somewhat, and he set himself resolutely towards the church willing to deliver the letter only into Sr Binbua’s own hands.
The front of that church was low, with the large single doorway flanked by Composite columns, the Ionic and Corinthian orders of architecture blend with an impressive harmony that Kenyon recognised dully. The ironic pun of the large sculpture above them, the Christ-Child equipped with an iron saw to use upon the mountains which he and the Virgin occupy as thrones, was lost on him. Pressing through the doorway’s curtain, he entered the church’s single nave, which was entirely empty. The church’s heavy silence made him wary of calling out, Kenyon proceeded towards the sacristy, only to be halted by a short greeting in Spanish from behind him. He turned and found himself facing a small, compact old man, dressed in a simple priest’s attire, but older than Kenyon might have expected. His expression was gentle, but the structure of his face was a stern one, as though he drew his lineage back to a race of warriors whose lives had been short, serious, and yet just.
“Buongiorno,” Kenyon returned. In Italian, he continued, “I seek Sr Carlo Binbua.”
“It is early for such a visit,” the man replied in clear but creaky English. “But I have gone by that name, in other walks of life.”
“I bear a message from a friend of mine. She has left Rome, but writes from the north.” Kenyon hesitated. He wished to explain his presence to the man; he was keenly aware of the rude nature of his introduction, and of the fact that he did not, in fact, know to whom he was addressing himself, if Sr Carlo Binbua was another name of his.
“I see,” the man replied solemnly. “I believe I know to whom you refer.”
“Then you have received an earlier missive from her?” Kenyon exclaimed. Sr Binbua gave him a cool look, as though aware that Kenyon exceeded a confidence in asking that question. “Here. I wished to deliver it only into your own hand.” He withdrew from his waistcoat pocket the small note that Hilda had given him to carry and passed it to the other man, who nodded his thanks and quietly unfolded the note.
After a moment scrutinising the paper, Sr Binbua raised his gaze again to meet Kenyon’s. “You have read this note?” The man scrutinised him carefully, eyes narrowed. Like many religious men, he gave the impression of being able to determine the truth or lie of a thing simply by examining the face of the actor.
“I have not,” Kenyon responded with a bow, which elicited a second terse nod.
“You will wait a moment. I will make a short reply, which you must hold for me for our mutual friend. She must not read it unless she returns to Rome. You understand?”
Kenyon nodded his agreement. Whatsoever was in Miriam’s service, he would do. That Sr Binbua described her as a friend was a comfort to him, although their relation to one another he could not possibly fathom.
“I will be a moment. You may find the third chapel most interesting, as a sculptor,” he added, with a nod to the right of the church. He had moved past Kenyon before the sculptor could register his surprise at this recognition, and he could only suppose that he himself formed part of Miriam’s message, about which his honour would not allow him to enquire. Instead, he followed the older man’s direction and attended to the polychromatic marbles of that third chapel. On the altar, the Virgin looked over Saint James and Vicente Ferrer, who lay prostrate at her feet, while to the right was the Assumption and the left an Immaculate Conception that showed a Virgin of lustrous dark hair which lay, shining, in deep turns upon her white and deep-blue clothing. Kenyon knew not why, but a strong impulse bade him kneel before that picture. Perhaps it was that he had refused himself leave to stop at any of the shrines of the Virgin on his way back to Rome, and the desire to kneel before her erupted now that his journey was no longer a constraint. Perhaps it was simply that the face, its eyes turned heavenward, reminded him of the woman in whose name he had visited the church that morning. Kenyon’s Protestantism, although ingrained from childhood, was not so forceful, and the comfort which he found in the Catholic arts was good and natural in its piety, and well capable of satisfying his soul’s yearnings without any resulting feeling of surfeit or impropriety.
“You are a man of faith?” The quiet voice interrupted him from behind once again. Kenyon made to rise, but instead the priest joined him upon the cool stone floor of the chapel, setting his hands and the white slip of a letter upon his knees neatly. “Let us pray a moment together for her intercession.” He bowed his head, and Kenyon followed the gesture involuntarily, words of praise and prayer bubbling uncertainly in his mind. Although he could not string them together into a formal prayer, those wordless impulses, he felt, were just as efficacious. After a moment of silence, the other man elevated his head again. “Maria has lost one who was once like a brother to her, and to a criminal mischief that cannot be atoned for.” It took a moment to realise that he was referring not to the Virgin, but to the woman Kenyon knew only as Miriam.
“She has with her one of the kindest, purest women whom I have ever met. I hope that in her grief Hilda will be a comfort and a prop to her,” Kenyon ejaculated. This was the prayer, perhaps, that with bowed head he had only articulated in his own mind through impressions and feelings.
“You will keep this for her, should she return to Rome.” The man handed him the small envelope. It was not a question, and the man rose elegantly to his feet without awaiting a response.
Kenyon remained kneeling a moment, contemplating the envelope with which he had been entrusted. Upon the envelope was no address, merely the name of the church in a neat but billowing cursive in the bottom left-hand corner. It was a reminder. Who knew how long he might hold that letter before Miriam returned and he could furnish her with it.
When he exited the church, Kenyon found that the sun was full in the sky, and the heat had begun to gather, collecting in the dust of the streets. That letter now delivered, and another but in his possession awaiting the return of its rightful owner, Kenyon felt freed yet also listless. There was no reason to rejoice in the completion of his task, except in so far as it appeared to have been executed correctly according to Miriam’s design. There was little that he might do now but write to Hilda and hope to hear by way of return how things fared with her and Miriam. Unconsciously, his steps turned toward Piazza Navona. Rome has a certain species of consolation ready at hand for all necessities, her artistic monuments so enduring that they soothe and steady even the most worried or anxious mind. He passed, therefore, the remainder of his morning in wandering the city’s many piazzas, admiring her fountains and sculptures as a mode of gathering sensation, rather than details or inspiration for his own work.
Upon returning to his own studio, Kenyon found his assistants quietly at work, the last of his several commissions tasking them with a few hours work each day. His Cleopatra, still veiled, they had kept fresh, awaiting his return and the final touches that would turn the piece from a perfunctory objet d’art into a veritable relic of a honourable but long-lost culture. Setting aside the priest’s letter to Miriam upon the mantel of the studio’s antechamber, Kenyon lost himself in recapturing his old vision for Cleopatra
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