Chapter 8: Palazzo Cenci
The custodians of Palazzo Cenci knew Hilda well, and she and Kenyon were admitted swiftly and with good grace. They needed no guide to reach their goal, and so were permitted to wander freely along the halls to the Guido that Hilda wished to contemplate one final time before putting the finishing touches to her own Beatrice.
They came across the painting with two sparse stools in front, set out beforehand in preparation for their visit. Hilda’s quite unconscious charm led to such little comforts in all of the galleries which she haunted.
“You must show me your method, then, Hilda,” Kenyon said, leaving her to choose the stool which suited her best.
Hilda laughed. “Kenyon, I had hoped that you would bring with you your own method, although I know that you must think across the arts to look at Beatrice as I do. But I cannot show you anything that will be of particular value to see, only me, gazing with care and thought. I invite you to join me in quiet contemplation of Beatrice as she sits there on the wall.”
“Very well. I shall endeavour to be an attentive student.” Kenyon took his seat and turned his gaze to the dimly lit portrait before them. In the still, cloistered air, he found himself distracted by thoughts of a narrative kind—to whom had she turned? how was the light in that dim cell, and the contrast with the wide open scaffold?—but sought to keep his gaze as pure as Hilda’s. This went on for some minutes, until Kenyon felt that he had truly absorbed the atmosphere of the piece. Too shy, momentarily, to rise up from his seat and approach the painting, the better to understand the suggested structure of the face, its bones, its delicate flesh, he instead turned his eyes sideways towards his companion.
In observing her observe Beatrice, Kenyon thought Hilda might form an excellent subject for a portrait of her own. Although there was a simplicity and generosity to her character, she had her own subtle reserve, as though she were already an inhabitant of some piece of portraiture that, by a certain magical influence, was allowed to walk freely.
“You will find Beatrice, or Miriam, more suited for a sculptural portrait than myself, dear sculptor!” Hilda murmured laughingly, in what might have been a cheerful cry, had the dim light and enclosed space not inspired her to hush.
Kenyon nearly blushed and turned his eyes towards the Guido once more. “When you are in an attitude of such concentrated appreciation, there is much to be conveyed by the tiny movements of your eyes and mouth. I think you would make a better model than the picture before us, Hilda!”
He turned his face full to her now, and although she kept her eyes ahead, Hilda’s pretty and girlish face grew striking as an inward thought rose to the surface. Kenyon waited a moment, hopeful that the thought might be freely shared.
“Miriam has oft asked me to sit, or to let her sit with me, but I fear that modelling is not in my nature. I should hate to see myself on canvas, and wonder whether my left eye does turn up this way, or sit a little further south than its companion. Modelling is for those with greater poise and grace than I, or those who are too selfless to question the canvas thus, like our dear friend Donatello.”
“I should rather see him in oil than the face of that satyr who follows Miriam so, and seems to infiltrate her every sketch as though by some as-yet-undivined malicious spell,” Kenyon replied with a certain vehemence. “Hilda. I sometimes wonder to myself, who and what is Miriam? I am sure of her, and yet—”
“Kenyon!” Hilda turned to him abruptly, surprised at his tone. “I am sure of her entirely. Miriam is kind, good, and generous. I look upon Miriam as a true and faithful friend, and I am sure she is thus to you as well. Of what else need we be sure?”
“Ah, it is not her character that I doubt. These are my own impressions, too. But she is a mystery still, and I cannot help but doubt whether there is something in her history that may trouble her and yet she chooses not to share.”
“That may be an act of generosity, not jealousy, Kenyon,” Hilda warned him, her tone sharpening. Hilda would no more accept doubt thrown upon a friend as doubt thrown upon the beauty of a painting that had spoken its secret to her heart.
“You are quite right, of course,” Kenyon acquiesced. “And yet, we do not even know whether she may be a countrywoman of yours, or mine, or a German perhaps instead. There is Anglo-Saxon blood in her veins, one would judge, and an English accent on her tongue, but that says little about one’s place of birth or breeding, and so it is impossible to imagine the difficulties which she might carry with her still.”
“Yes, I see. Nowhere else but in Rome, and as an artist, could Miriam give so little clue as to her past and still remain in good society. And Rome is all the better for it!” Hilda exclaimed with some vigour. “I love her dearly, and trust her most entirely.”
Hilda’s sharp tone had an air of finality, to which Kenyon bowed with some misgivings, as he would have pursued the subject further and in greater detail had the opportunity presented itself. Instead, he tried a different tack.
“What of the satyr who dogs her steps, Hilda? What do your delicate sensibilities make of that character, which she has led from the bowels of the earth, to her own dismay?”
“Without having conversed with the poor soul, it is difficult to make a judgment,” Hilda owned.
“But Anglo-Saxon too, perhaps?”
“Perhaps. He seems to me a sorrowful fellow, who has taken to the habit as a form of escape but found there precisely that which he wished to flee.”
“He strikes me as a danger, one of those malevolent creatures whose sole pleasure and purpose is to remind those happier souls of their own potential for misery!”
“Kenyon, you judge him harshly,” Hilda chastised him gently. “I do not think Beatrice would judge him so. She might see in him both that fatality which you spy and the sorrow which speaks to me. His melancholy seems never-ending, a burden both for him and those whom he infects. He is in that regard the precise opposite of our dear friend Donatello, whose innocence and sweet temper seem always without end, and encourages even the glummest soul to be gay. As a veritable Faun, he plays the part with never-ending grace.”
“And therein lies his history. He is a Tuscan born, of a noble old race, with a moss-grown tower among the Apennines where his forefathers have dwelt, tending their vines and fig-trees, since antiquity.” Kenyon drew upon the Faun’s genealogy the better to highlight the mystery of Miriam and her model’s own, and yet the figure seemed to capture Hilda’s imagination.
“And from that idyll, Donatello comes to us without capacity for sin or the folly of low spirits.”
“It is his passion for Miriam, and not his spotlessness, that has introduced him to our little circle, but we have in our artistic freedom of intercourse included him on equal terms.”
“His passion!” Hilda cried with a gentle laugh. “I am not sure we ought term it thus, Kenyon. His enthusiasm has too little maturity to call it passion.”
Kenyon smiled. “In truth, I do not doubt his innocence, Hilda, and so perhaps what I term passion is poorly phrased. And yet, betimes he strikes me as wearily sad, as when he follows behind Miriam in one of her more teasing moods.”
Hilda nodded. Donatello’s mood, although most usually effervescent, could at times become bewildered and beleaguered by the burdens heaped upon it by Miriam’s changing fancies. “It seems to me that she might do well to treat her shadow thus, and Donatello with the freedom granted to that spectre.”
“What freedom do you mean, Hilda?” Kenyon questioned, eyes widened in surprise.
“Oh, nothing base, Kenyon!” Hilda laughed. “I had forgotten that I was speaking with a man, and not a fellow maiden. I meant only the freedom to follow at her heels without reprisal.”
“That you have perceived rightly. He seems to enjoy that freedom at any time of day or night, to appear from thin air and lurk in the shadows until she moves.”
“Is he as persistent as all that, Kenyon?” Hilda enquired. Although she had oft seen the monk in places where Miriam was, or on the street before or behind them when they walked, she had noted also his days of absence.
“He awaited her outwith my studio this morning. I was half-surprised we did not find him at the foot of your dovecote!”
Hilda turned back to Beatrice once more. “There is nothing so very wrong with watching, if it is with a sympathetic heart. How can we know that poor soul’s aim or intent without finding him to ask?”
“Oh, Hilda, what a treasure of sweet faith you keep within your heart! But you are very right. It may be for reasons utterly artistic, or utterly banal, that he follows her, and if the latter, the knowledge might lower my opinion of him, and of Miriam as a muse. But he strikes me as no artist.”
“Nor Donatello. Yet sympathy is not restricted to our kind, Kenyon. I fancy that Beatrice had that same capacity.”
“The delicacy of her look suggests it, Hilda, it is true. That quirk of personality does not always bring with it the joy and satisfaction that one might hope.”
Hilda caught at Kenyon’s meaning, but mistook it, her grasp close but incomplete. “I fear for Donatello’s sake that his capacity for sympathy and joy at natural beauty will not serve him to win Miriam’s affections, however,” she mused.
“Donatello! Ah yes, poor rude, uncultivated boy. It would seem impossible. And yet, a gifted woman may fling away her affections unaccountably, sometimes, or marry a perfect husband and feel themselves punished for it.”
Hilda, who had given marriage some thought before deciding upon her trip alone to Rome, gave Kenyon a queer look. “You think us so silly as all that? Affections can always be accounted for. They are effects themselves, not reasons.”
Kenyon set a hand on Hilda’s arm by way of apology. “I mean only that Miriam, despite her enchanted Faun, has been very morbid and miserable of late. It seems to me that the effects of his affections have been little, or overcome by the effects of that Satyr’s affections. Love gives one an instinct for things, but Miriam seems to me rather adrift.”
“It may be that perhaps Miriam would benefit from the affections of a more fitting suitor, one neither too innocent nor too overcome by worldly sorrow, who might with a more refined personality offer a more solid sort of happiness, of clay and marble rather than of air or dust.”
Kenyon withdrew his hand. “I’m not sure I grasp your meaning, Hilda, but I suspect some jibe at me!” he exclaimed, half-seriously. “Well, I am as innocent as Donatello in my own way, plying away with but little encouragement because it gives me joy.”
“Your sculpture is of a brave sort, Kenyon. Your Cleopatra will win you acclaim yet! It is the best thing that you have done.”
“I hope that one day it will draw your notice and your efforts at sympathy, Hilda. I should like to see you draw it, and bring to it a pliable warmth that my art forbids.”
“When it is finished, Miriam and I shall be the first to sit before it and rework it into art of our own, if I have not forgotten how to do justice to that which is not already paint and canvas!”
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