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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 2: The Model

The foregoing conversation had been conducted in a mood that is common to all imaginative people, and in which they love to indulge. In such a frame of mind, those artists find their profoundest truths lain side by side with idle jests, and they utter either one or the other without appearing to assign any considerable value to their speech or distinguishing between the two. The resemblance of the Faun to their friend, or of their friend to the Faun, as they case might be, had made a deep, half-serious, half-mirthful impression on the other three, and had elevated them away from the actual earthy texture of life and to an airy region where thoughts might come and go in peace. For a moment, the world had taken flight, relieving them for just such a duration, and no longer, of all customary responsibility for their words and thoughts, extending to one another the same generosity of spirit as they extended to Donatello and his sylvan personality. 

Under this influence, or perhaps because sculptors are wont to abuse one another’s works, Kenyon threw a criticism upon the Dying Gladiator.

“I used to admire this statue exceedingly,” he declared sadly, “but, latterly, I find myself weary and annoyed that the man should be such a length of time leaning on his arm in the very act of death. If he is so terribly hurt, why does he not sink down and die without further ado? What holds him there, on one elbow, dying but refusing to die?”

“I see,” said Miriam mischievously, “you think that sculpture should be a sort of fossilising process.”

“Fleeting moment, imminent emergencies, imperceptible intervals between two breaths; they ought not to be encrusted with the eternal repose of marble. In any sculptural subject,” Kenyon began to lecture, “there should be a moral standstill, since there must of necessity be a physical one.”

“Then, in truth, your frozen art has nothing like the scope and freedom of Hilda’s and mine. In painting, there is no similar objection to the representation of brief snatches of time.” Miriam had on her adventurer’s hat, and she would forge on into the thorny spinney with little thought to the moral consequences or conclusions thereof.

“Perhaps,” Kenyon conceded, “it is a power of painting that a story can be more fully told, buttressed about with circumstances that give it an epoch. But to seek to do the same in a sculpture is like flinging a block of marble into the sea and, by some trick of engineering, causing it to float there. One feels strongly that it ought to sink, and after a moment of wonder, we are dissatisfied that it does not obey that natural law.”

“Perhaps that is true, Kenyon, and as Miriam ventures, your art suffers more restraints than ours; but the painter must have regard for other natural laws,” Hilda remarked.

“Quite so!” Miriam parried at the branches of the thicket once more. “For instance, a painter never would have sent down yonder Faun out of his far antiquity, lonely and desolate, with no sympathetic offering to the need to keep his simple heart warm. Ah, that poor Faun! I have been looking at him too long.” In truth, her eyes had barely left the Faun, even as the group had moved towards the Dying Gladiator. With a little gesture of impatience, she added, “Now, instead of a beautiful statue, immortally young, I see only a corroded and discoloured stone. This change is very apt to occur in statues.”

“And a similar one in pictures, surely,” retorted the sculptor, taking her remark as a continuation of their debate regarding the arts’ merits and demerits. “It is the spectator’s mood that transfigures the Transfiguration itself. I defy any painter to move and elevate me without my own consent and assistance.”

“Then you want a very necessary and proper artistic feeling,” retorted Miriam, setting the discussion at an end.

Freed now from the melancholy influence of the Dying Gladiator, the party rambled onward from hall to hall of that gallery, pausing occasionally to look at the multitude of noble and lovely shapes that had been dug up out of the deep grave in which old Rome lies buried. And still, the realisation of the antique Faun in the person of Donatello, granted a more vivid character to all of the marble ghosts they met. For, why should not each statue there grow warm with life? Antinous might lift his brow and tell why he is forever sad. The Lycian Apollo might strike his lyre, and, at the first vibration, the others rise up and begin a dance, all joining hands with Donatello and his counterpart, Bacchus too stepping down from his pedestal with a rosy flush veiling his time-stained surface. Recognising Donatello as a loyal follower of old, who had so often shared his revels in times gone past, he might offer a cluster of purple grapes to that faun’s lips. And here, on this sarcophagus, the wildly merry figures might assume life, and chase one another round its sharp corners, precipitated blindly and headlong into the unknown.

As when all shared fancies begin to pale, however, a more sombre mood grounded the four friends’ spirits as they descended the stairs.

“Do you know,” said Miriam in low tones to Hilda, “I doubt the reality of this likeness of Donatello to the Faun, which we have been talking so much about? To say the truth,” she continued, “the idea never struck me so forcibly as it did Kenyon and yourself, though I yielded to whatever you were pleased to fancy, for the sake of a moment’s shared mirth and wonder.”

Hilda gave a little start, and forgot utterly that it had been she who had voiced the differences between their friend and the statue. “I was certainly in earnest,” Hilda replied, “and you seemed equally so.” She glanced back toward their Italian friend, as though to reassure herself of her perceptions. “Yet faces change so much.”

“Even from hour to hour, in canvas or in flesh” Miriam agreed.

“Quite so. The same set of features has often no keeping with itself; to an eye, at least, which looks at expression more than outline, as we painters do.”

“Ah yes, the error is far greater on Kenyon’s part,” Miriam said quickly.

Hilda flushed. “That was not the conclusion I wished to draw, Miriam. Must you tease me so?” She glanced rearward again at Kenyon and Donatello a few paces behind. “How sad he has grown all of a sudden!”

“Angry, I warrant!” Miriam corrected her. “I have seen Donatello in such a mood once or twice before. If you consider his character well, you will observe an odd admixture of the fierce brute with our friend’s otherwise gentle composition.” 

Hilda tilted her head slightly to the right in a gesture characteristic of her sweet but forthright nature; she was not quite willing either to assent or dissent, but to give her friend’s view a moment’s more consideration. “That savage trait comes as a most unexpected element to such a a gentle creature’s constitution that it is difficult to credit how it might have been produced.”

“He is a wonderfully strange young man. I wish he would not haunt my footsteps so continually!”

“You have bewitched the poor man,” Kenyon interjected from above Miriam’s shoulder. “You have a peculiar faculty of bewitching people, and it is gathering a singular train of followers, Miriam.”

“I think I see another of them yonder,” Hilda said, “and I wouldn’t wonder that it is his presence that has aroused gentle Donatello’s wrath.”

The four had now emerged from under the gateway of the Capitol; partly concealed by one of the pillars of the portico, reclined at a seemingly innocuous angle, stood a figure such as may be encountered nowhere else but in the streets and piazzas of Rome. He looked as if he might just have stepped or down from one of the Capitol’s plinths, and was likely enough to find his way into a dozen pictures, being nothing less than one of those   living models, dark of hue and bushy bearded, wild of aspect and attire, whom artists convert into humble saints or disguised assassins, as their purposes demand.

“It is your model, Miriam,” said Kenyon coolly. The singular nature of Miriam’s model’s first appearance, and the way in which he had become one of Miriam’s train of followers, had little attracted Kenyon’s sympathies, although he was otherwise generous and fair towards those who found themselves posing for the city’s many artists.

The same four friends had, some months before, chanced to have gone together to the catacomb of St. Calixtus. They went joyously down into that vast tomb, and wandered by torchlight in a sort of dream, in which reminiscences of church aisles, and chiefly grimy cellars, seemed to be broken into fragments and hopelessly intermingled. The intricate passages along which they followed their guide had been hewn, in some illustrious yet forgotten age, out of a dark-red, crumbly stone. On either side of those intricate passages were horizontal niches where, if they held their torches closely, the shape of a human body was discernible in white ashes, into which the entire immortality of a man or woman had resolved itself. Amongst that extinct dust, there might perchance emerge a thigh-bone, which crumbled at a touch, or a skull, grinning at its own wretched plight.

Sometimes their gloomy pathway pushed upwards, and, through a crevice, a little daylight glimmered down upon them, or a streak of sunshine peeped into a burial niche. But ever again they then went downward by gradual descent, or by abrupt, rudely hewn steps, into deeper and deeper recesses of the earth. Here and there the narrow and tortuous passages widened somewhat, developing themselves into small chapels, which once, no doubt, had been adorned with marble and lighted with ever-burning lamps and tapers. All such illumination and ornament, however, had long since been stripped away; except, indeed, that the low roofs of a few of these ancient sites of worship were covered with a stained and muted stucco, on which frescoed were scriptural scenes and subjects, in the dreariest stage of ruin.

In such a chapel, the guide showed them a low arch, unobtrusive in appearance and unlikely to draw attention from its visitors, eyes unfamiliar with subterranean habitations, but beneath which the body of St. Cecilia had been buried after her martyrdom. That delicate outer shell of saintliness had long lain there before a sculptor saw it, and rendered it forever beautiful in marble, and still afterwards remained. In a similar spot, they found two sarcophagi, no different in form to those that graced the Capitol and many other museums besides. One contained a skeleton, the other a shrivelled body, still dressed in the garments of if its former life.

“How dismal this place is!” said Hilda, shuddering. “I do not know why we came here, nor why we should stay a moment longer.”

“I hate it all!” cried Donatello, emboldened with a peculiar energy, as though the words emerged from his entire frame. “Friends, let us hasten back into the blessed daylight!”

From Kenyon’s first proposal for the expedition, Donatello had shown little fancy for it. Like most Italians, and in especial accordance with his own simple and physically happy nature, the young man had an infinite repugnance to graves and skulls and to all that ghoulish circumstances which the Gothic mind associates with the idea of death. He shuddered, and looked fearfully around, drawing near to Miriam, whose attractive influence alone had enticed him into that gloomy region.

“What a child you are, poor Donatello! You are afraid of ghosts!” Miriam observed.

“Yes, signorina; I am afraid,” he replied truthfully.

“I also believe in ghosts,” she answered, “and could tremble at them as you do, in a suitable place. But these sepulchres are so very old, and these skulls and white ashes so dry, that methinks they have ceased to be haunted. The most awful fact now connected with these catacombs is their immeasurable length, and the consequent chance of going astray into their labyrinth of darkness, which broods around the little glimmer of our tapers.”

“It is this chance that gives the catacombs their immeasurable appeal,” Kenyon concluded. “Has any one ever been lost here?” he asked of their guide, a slight thrill in his voice anticipating the answer.

“Surely, signor,” the guide said with a little bow of his head, noticeable only by the shifting shadows on his forehead. “One, no longer ago than my father’s time.” And he added, with the air of a man who believed in the truth of the story he retold, “But the first that went astray here was a pagan of old Rome, who hid himself in order to spy out and betray the blessed saints, who then dwelt and worshipped in these dismal places. You have heard the story? A miracle was wrought upon the accursed one; and ever since, for fifteen centuries at least, he has groped in the darkness, seeking his way out of the catacomb without success.”

“Has he ever been seen?” asked Hilda, who like Donatello felt a great and tremulous faith in marvels of this kind.

The guide shook his head. “These eyes of mine never beheld him, signorina; the saints forbid! But it is well known that he watches near parties that come into the catacombs, especially if they be heretics, hoping to lead some one of them astray. What this lost shade pines for, almost as much as for the blessed sunshine, is a companion to be join him in his misery.”

“At all events, an intense desire for sympathy suggests something amiable in the poor fellow,” observed Kenyon. 

They had reached by this time a larger chapel than those through which they had passed heretofore. It was of a circular shape, and, though hewn out of the solid mass of red sandstone, had pillars and a carved roof, and other tokens of a regular architectural design. Nevertheless, considered as a church, the room was minute, being scarcely twice a man’s stature in height, and only two or three paces from wall to wall; and while their collected torches illuminated that small, consecrated spot, the great darkness spread all round it, like that immenser mystery which envelops our little life, and into which friends vanish from us, one by one.

“Why, where is Miriam?” cried Hilda. They looked about themselves hurriedly, gazing from face to face, and became aware that one of their party had, just so, vanished into the great darkness. 

“She cannot be lost!” exclaimed Kenyon. “It is but a moment since she was speaking.”

“No, no! It is a long while since we have heard her voice. She was behind us all,” Hilda said in great alarm. 

“Torches, torches!” cried Donatello desperately, to no person in particular. “I will seek her, be the darkness ever so great!”

But the guide wisely held him back, with a few quick words in Italian to calm the young faun’s nerves, and assured them all that there was no possibility of assisting their lost friend unless by shouting at the very top of their voices. As the sound would go very far along the close and narrow and empty passages, there was a fair probability that Miriam might in that way hear their calls and be able to retrace her steps back to them.

Accordingly, they all—Kenyon with his bass voice; Donatello with his tenor; the guide with that high and hard Italian cry, which makes the streets of Rome so resonant; and Hilda with her slender scream, piercing farther than the united uproar of the rest—began to shriek and bellow, and soon heard a responsive call in a female voice.

“It was the signorina!” cried Donatello joyfully.

“Yes; it was certainly dear Miriam’s voice,” said Kenyon.

“And here she comes.” This from Hilda. “Thank Heaven! Thank Heaven!”

The torchlight of their friend, and her slender silhouette, were now discernible, approaching out of one of the cavernous passages. She stepped forward, not with the eagerness and joy of a frightened girl, rescued from a labyrinth of gloomy mystery, but rather with something absorbed, thoughtful, and self-concentrated in her deportment. She made no immediate response to their tumultuous welcomes, but looked pale, and held her torch with a nervous grasp, the chief perceptible sign of any recent agitation or alarm.

“Dearest, dearest Miriam,” exclaimed Kenyon after a moment of welcomes that went unanswered. “Where have you been straying from us?”

“Thanks be to Providence, who has guided you back to us,” Hilda added.

“Hush, dear Hilda!” whispered Miriam, with a strange little laugh. “Are you sure that it was Heaven’s guidance which brought me back? If so, it was by an odd messenger, as you will admit. See, there he stands.”

Startled at Miriam’s words and manner, her three friends stared into the darkness whither she pointed. There stood a figure just on the doubtful limit of obscurity, at the very threshold of the small, illuminated chapel. Kenyon drew nearer with his torch; although the guide attempted to dissuade him, averring that, once beyond the consecrated precincts of the chapel, the apparition would have power to tear him limb from limb. It struck the sculptor, however, when he afterwards recalled the moment, that the guide manifested no such apprehension on his own account, but kept close to each of his three paces across the chapel floor, while still endeavouring to restrain him. They both drew near enough to the spectre to get as good a view as the smoky light of their torches might allow. 

The stranger was of melodramatic aspect. He had on a broad-brimmed, conical hat, beneath the shadow of which a wild visage was indistinctly seen, floating away, as it were, into a dusky wilderness of moustache and beard. He was clad in a voluminous cloak that seemed to be made of a buffalo’s hide, and a pair of goat-skin breeches with the hair outward, of the sort which are still commonly worn by the peasants of the Roman Campagna. In such garb, they look exceedingly picturesque, like ancient Satyrs; and, in truth, the Spectre of the Catacomb might have represented the last survivor of that vanished race, hiding himself in sepulchral gloom, and mourning over his lost life of woods and streams. The spectre’s eyes winked, turning uneasily from the torches, like a creature to whom midnight would be more congenial than noonday, whilst their friend the Faun shrunk from the great darkness.

On the whole, such a spectre might have made a considerable impression on the sculptor’s nerves, only that he was in the habit of observing similar figures, almost every day, reclining on the Spanish steps, and waiting for some artist to invite them within the magic realm of picture. The picturesque nature of Rome’s streets thus quieted his mind to the stranger’s peculiarities of appearance. Even thus, Kenyon could not help wondering to see such a personage, shaping himself so suddenly from the dusk of the catacomb. 

“What are you?” asked the sculptor, advancing his torch nearer. “And how long have you been wandering here?”

“A thousand and five hundred years!” muttered the guide, loud enough to be heard by all the party at the other perimeter of the chapel. “It is the old pagan phantom that I told you of!”

“Yes, it is a phantom,” said Donatello with a shudder. “Ah, dearest signorina, what a fearful thing has beset you in those dark corridors!”

“Nonsense, Donatello,” said the sculptor irritably. “The man is no more a phantom than yourself. The only marvel is, how he comes to be hiding himself in the catacomb.”

The spectre himself here settled the point of his tangibility and physical substance by approaching a step nearer, and laying his hand on Kenyon’s arm.

“Inquire not what I am, nor wherefore I abide in the darkness,” said he, in a hoarse, harsh voice, as if a great deal of damp were clustering in his throat. “Henceforth, I am nothing but a shadow behind her footsteps. She came to me when I sought her not. She has called me forth, and must abide the consequences of my reappearance in the world.”

“May you stay as you are in this catacomb!” Kenyon exclaimed in reply.

We need follow the scene no further, except to say that Miriam led forth with her the unknown man, first into the torchlight, and thence into the sunshine. As if her service to him, or his service to her, had given him an indefeasible claim on Miriam’s regard and protection, the Satyr of the Catacomb from that day forward never long allowed her to lose sight of him.

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