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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 7: Villa Borghese

It was still a doubtful question between morning after afternoon when Donatello strolled along the broad, gravelled carriage-drives of the Villa Borghese, towards the soft, secluded lawns of the grounds. The Faun in him drew long and delightful breaths from the air of those shadowy walks, and the breeze unsettled his curled locks around his veiled ears. In the opening of the wood, fountains plashed into marble pools and tumbled from rock to rock, sending their murmur afar, so that Donatello felt he was always within hearing of them, and them of him. He drew past ilex trees which seemed to have lived undisturbed for ages in those grounds, and feared the axe or thunder-stroke not at all, but grew as they would and scorned all cultivation. The grounds’ open spots were abloom with anemones and violets, which betrayed themselves by a rich fragrance, even when their blue eyes failed to meet those of the gardens’ many visitors. The Faun’s eyes met theirs somehow, though, insistent in his gaze as he passed among the sunny shadows. He felt that he had climbed many miles away from the ancient dust, the hard pavements, the convent bells and heavy incense of the Rome of studios, churches, galleries, and ancient palazzos, which lay below him now.

In a sudden rapture he embraced the trunk of a sturdy tree, and seemed to imagine it a creature worthy of affection and capable of tender sympathy. He clasped it closely in his arms, as a Faun might have clasped the warm feminine grace of a nymph, before grasping one limb and climbing to the top and looking out beneath him. Statues and columns from within the shrubbery poked up to meet him, the fountains winking to him in the sunlight. He saw the villa, a fairy palace, an abode in which the lord and lady of that fair domain might fitly dwell. The advance of the vegetation, in that softer clime, was slow and steady, and crept upon the land, and the half-furled young leaves of the trees, and fresh flowers down below, were still in a stage of that tender half-development which Donatello recognised sympathetically and instinctively as his own, a state in which he dwelt for many springs.

Then his eyes fell to the path beneath him and beheld Miriam just turning into its shaded warmth.

Descending between the foliage, he dropped from an extended bough onto the path before her. “Donatello! If it weren’t for the gleam of sunshine which you bring with you, I should imagine you sprouted from the earth.”

“Welcome.” He fell into a steady step at her side, and they walked on together between the trees, the Faun jigging at little with joyous ebullition in her society in that Sylvan plane.

They were silent for a while, her sadder mood and Donatello’s natural disinclination to express himself copiously in words effecting the same outcome. As they come out again into a sunny spot, his bright mood moved him to dance along the path, running a little way ahead and standing to watch her as she emerged from the shadowy path. His joy at her approach expressed itself in the language of the natural man, an effusion of gesticulations that encouraged her approach.

When they drew together again, she asked him, “What are you, my good friend, if not a creature of such an enchanted wood? Call forth your kindred, the Dryads and the water-nymphs, to dance with you, and I shall try to catch a glimpse of your perfection for a painting, with Bacchus himself at the head of your festivities.”

“You will have me to paint, Miriam, but I am afraid I cannot bring forth the rest. I must rely on your imagination and agreeable fantasies to accompany me,” Donatello answered. He smiled heartily, joyous still at her proximity, a happiness seldom found in man.

“Then you must wait a while longer until I may be able to paint you in such an attitude. Of late, my fantasies are nowhere so agreeable as your image would require.”

Donatello smiled the more and caught up her arm to put in his. “Perhaps we should dance together, and you will feel the same pleasure in the woods as I.”

“Donatello, you seem very happy. What makes you so?”

“It is because I love you!” Donatello answered in a rush. It was a simple confession, and Miriam met it without disturbance. Their wanderings in Arcadia had led them to a civil polity where young men might avow such passions just as birds pipe their notes and streams burble their news.

“Ah, you simple Faun. But why? We have no points of sympathy, and are as unalike as two creatures in this same city might be.”

“You are yourself. Therefore I love you!”

Miriam shook her head. “Certainly, there can be no more explicable reason, although I must own, Donatello, that this one is not fit for its purpose. Your pure and unsophisticated heart must be more readily suited to a feminine nature of greater simplicity than my own.” It crossed her mind, not for the first time, that Donatello’s simplicity might be better suited to Hilda’s generosity of spirit than to her own, with its darker elements. Miriam could not think seriously of Donatello’s avowal, as he held out his love so freely that she could not but think of it as a toy or pet, of great charm and amusement, but for only the merest of hours. It could not, she had decided, be other than an innocent pastime, yet still she felt it needful to supply him with a warning against peril with the same futility as telling a secret to a tree, and all the risk of its sweet music still being her own. “If you were wiser, Donatello, you might think me dangerous, and that my footsteps will lead you to no good. Those who come too near me are in danger of great mischiefs, and you are too sweet by far for that.”

“I would as soon think of fearing the air we breathe!” Donatello exclaimed in bold reply, to which Miriam only smiled. To mention the word ‘malaria’, and the fevers of Rome in summer-time, would be to labour the point.

Instead, she asked, “You have had a happy life hitherto, have you not, Donatello?”

“Yes, but never so happy as now, here, and with you, amongst these groves.”

“How delightful!” she replied. “And how silly,” she remarked to herself. “But, Donatello, how long might this happiness last?”

“Why should it have any end?” he asked in return. The contemplation of the future perplexed Donatello more than the memory of the past. “Forever!”

Sudden laughter came upon Miriam, which she checked with some effort, and she sought again to issue her warning. “For your own sake, Donatello, you would be better to return to your own Appenine home, and seek out a girl who may wander in the woods as happily as you, without a share of melancholy that exceeds what must be each person’s own by rights.”

Donatello looked at her with perfect trust. “I fear nothing, not even you own sad moods, sweet lady.”

Miriam allowed herself now to laugh. “Well,” she said to herself, “for those one hour, let be as he imagines. Tomorrow will be time enough to return from his Sylvan paradise to my reality. And yet.” She and Donatello fell silently into step again, and he began to frisk around her, recalling snatches of song and little sweet words of endearment that had no individual meaning other than to express their own pleasure. “Is the past so indestructible, and the future immutable?” Miriam questioned herself. “Is the dark shadow that haunts me inescapable? Should it prove thus, I still might save myself this hour!”

“How close you are to nature, Donatello,” she said, observing his pleasant familiarity with a bird that married his own song with Donatello’s. The freshness of that moment’s duet soothed her melancholy, a fitting complement to the darker augurs that she sometimes felt followed her through Rome, and she set off into a run that invited race after race amongst the early flowers.

Reaching a sunny expanse once again, Donatello stopped short. “Hark! There is music somewhere in the grove, a piper somewhere. I shall find it, dear lady, and bring him back, or return to bring you to him.” With this promise, Donatello darted off toward a shaded path.

Scarce was he out of sight when the shade appeared to reach out to greet her in her sunny spot.

“Ah! You follow me too closely,” she uttered, raising a hand in a moment’s hope to stop the shadow’s advance, which had dogged her ever since the visit to the catacomb. The music that Donatello had gone in search of seemed to have stopped. The chatter of the fountains and streams was at once quieted, such was the fascination that this satyr held over Miriam. “You allow me scarce enough room to draw my breath. Do you know what will be the end of this?” The question was both a remonstrance and a plea.

“I know well what must be the end. There can be but one result,” the satyr answered. “You must throw off your present mask, and I throw off the mask of model. We must both assume another. Quit Rome with me, and leave no trace whereby that sweet young boy, or your fellow artists may follow,” he urged.

“It may be your power to compel my acquiescence, but it is mine to compel a less grievous end. Death!”

“Your own, or mine?”

“Do you think me a murderer?” Miriam almost shrieked, pulling back a pace or two. “Mine, of course.”

His smile was but a grimace. “Men have said that your white hand once bore a crimson stain. But death is not so opportune a forfeit as you may imagine. You are strong and warm with life.” The satyr had advanced to but an arm’s length distance, and seemed to contemplate a gesture reaching out to her. A shudder on her part stayed its hand. “These many months of trouble, which are but of your own making, have left your cheek scarcely paler than in your girlhood. You cannot die!”

She met his eyes, controlling a second shudder. “I am not so diminished that a dagger would not find my heart, or the Tiber drown me.”

“I allow that you are mortal,” her persecutor allowed. “But it is not your fate to die, as it is not my fate to be free of you. I too sought to break the tie between us, burying myself and the past in a fathomless grave, but with what result? Our meeting in the antechamber of the bowels of the earth? My design was futile, as is yours. Your heart trembled with horror at the sight of me, but you did not guess at the equal horror that was in my own!”

Miriam covered her face with her hands.

“Could the knots between us be severed, Miriam, I would have achieved it. I call you Miriam, thus, as the earth beneath us might shudder to hear another name, but we must submit and leave this place.”

“Pray. You satyr, you! Pray!” Miriam instructed, and at this her companion shuddered. “Yes,” she said, pressing on while there seemed to be some advantage. “Your faith allows you consolations. Try what help these may be, and leave me to my own.” His eyes were fearful and dark, pained and yet resolute.

“Those comforts are denied us.”

“Why? Why should they not suit us as so many others in Rome?” She threw a hand out towards the city at large. “I have made for myself new friends, new occupations. Let us but keep asunder—“

He leapt forward now, and pulled her hand into his own. “We thought ourselves forever sundered. I hear your companion calling. The pipes are louder. Do not think I leave you to these consolations as a form of consent. I hold you to our bond, Miriam, as the fates will fling us together howsoever we struggle. You must come with me.”

With this, he dropped her hand and flitted past her. She clasped the hand to her chest, as though pricked by a needle or burnt by an unexpected flame. It was thus that Donatello found her, although the gesture to him was no more than a gesture of surprise and pleasure at the small troop of musicians and dancers who followed him from the shadows.

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