The Marble Faun Volume 1 (Chapter 7)

Previous Chapter
Next Chapter

Chapter 7

Miriam was glad to find the Dove in her turret-home; for being endowed
with an infinite activity, and taking exquisite delight in the sweet
labor of which her life was full, it was Hilda's practice to flee abroad
betimes, and haunt the galleries till dusk. Happy were those (but they
were very few) whom she ever chose to be the companions of her day; they
saw the art treasures of Rome, under her guidance, as they had never
seen them before. Not that Hilda could dissertate, or talk learnedly
about pictures; she would probably have been puzzled by the technical
terms of her own art. Not that she had much to say about what she most
profoundly admired; but even her silent sympathy was so powerful that
it drew your own along with it, endowing you with a second-sight that
enabled you to see excellences with almost the depth and delicacy of her
own perceptions.

All the Anglo-Saxon denizens of Rome, by this time, knew Hilda by sight.
Unconsciously, the poor child had become one of the spectacles of the
Eternal City, and was often pointed out to strangers, sitting at her
easel among the wild-bearded young men, the white-haired old ones, and
the shabbily dressed, painfully plain women, who make up the throng of
copyists. The old custodes knew her well, and watched over her as their
own child. Sometimes a young artist, instead of going on with a copy
of the picture before which he had placed his easel, would enrich
his canvas with an original portrait of Hilda at her work. A lovelier
subject could not have been selected, nor one which required nicer skill
and insight in doing it anything like justice. She was pretty at all
times, in our native New England style, with her light-brown ringlets,
her delicately tinged, but healthful cheek, her sensitive, intelligent,
yet most feminine and kindly face. But, every few moments, this pretty
and girlish face grew beautiful and striking, as some inward thought and
feeling brightened, rose to the surface, and then, as it were, passed
out of sight again; so that, taking into view this constantly recurring
change, it really seemed as if Hilda were only visible by the sunshine
of her soul.

In other respects, she was a good subject for a portrait, being
distinguished by a gentle picturesqueness, which was perhaps
unconsciously bestowed by some minute peculiarity of dress, such as
artists seldom fail to assume. The effect was to make her appear like an
inhabitant of pictureland, a partly ideal creature, not to be handled,
nor even approached too closely. In her feminine self, Hilda was
natural, and of pleasant deportment, endowed with a mild cheerfulness of
temper, not overflowing with animal spirits, but never long despondent.
There was a certain simplicity that made every one her friend, but it
was combined with a subtile attribute of reserve, that insensibly kept
those at a distance who were not suited to her sphere.

Miriam was the dearest friend whom she had ever known. Being a year or
two the elder, of longer acquaintance with Italy, and better fitted to
deal with its crafty and selfish inhabitants, she had helped Hilda to
arrange her way of life, and had encouraged her through those first
weeks, when Rome is so dreary to every newcomer.

"But how lucky that you are at home today," said Miriam, continuing the
conversation which was begun, many pages back. "I hardly hoped to find
you, though I had a favor to ask,--a commission to put into your charge.
But what picture is this?"

"See!" said Hilda, taking her friend's hand, and leading her in front of
the easel. "I wanted your opinion of it."

"If you have really succeeded," observed Miriam, recognizing the picture
at the first glance, "it will be the greatest miracle you have yet

The picture represented simply a female head; a very youthful, girlish,
perfectly beautiful face, enveloped in white drapery, from beneath which
strayed a lock or two of what seemed a rich, though hidden luxuriance
of auburn hair. The eyes were large and brown, and met those of the
spectator, but evidently with a strange, ineffectual effort to escape.
There was a little redness about the eyes, very slightly indicated, so
that you would question whether or no the girl had been weeping. The
whole face was quiet; there was no distortion or disturbance of any
single feature; nor was it easy to see why the expression was not
cheerful, or why a single touch of the artist's pencil should not
brighten it into joyousness. But, in fact, it was the very saddest
picture ever painted or conceived; it involved an unfathomable depth of
sorrow, the sense of which came to the observer by a sort of intuition.
It was a sorrow that removed this beautiful girl out of the sphere
of humanity, and set her in a far-off region, the remoteness of
which--while yet her face is so close before us--makes us shiver as at a

"Yes, Hilda," said her friend, after closely examining the picture,
"you have done nothing else so wonderful as this. But by what unheard-of
solicitations or secret interest have you obtained leave to copy Guido's
Beatrice Cenci? It is an unexampled favor; and the impossibility
of getting a genuine copy has filled the Roman picture shops with
Beatrices, gay, grievous, or coquettish, but never a true one among

"There has been one exquisite copy, I have heard," said Hilda, "by
an artist capable of appreciating the spirit of the picture. It was
Thompson, who brought it away piecemeal, being forbidden (like the
rest of us) to set up his easel before it. As for me, I knew the Prince
Barberini would be deaf to all entreaties; so I had no resource but
to sit down before the picture, day after day, and let it sink into my
heart. I do believe it is now photographed there. It is a sad face to
keep so close to one's heart; only what is so very beautiful can never
be quite a pain. Well; after studying it in this way, I know not how
many times, I came home, and have done my best to transfer the image to

"Here it is, then," said Miriam, contemplating Hilda's work with great
interest and delight, mixed with the painful sympathy that the picture
excited. "Everywhere we see oil-paintings, crayon sketches, cameos,
engravings, lithographs, pretending to be Beatrice, and representing the
poor girl with blubbered eyes, a leer of coquetry, a merry look as if
she were dancing, a piteous look as if she were beaten, and twenty other
modes of fantastic mistake. But here is Guido's very Beatrice; she that
slept in the dungeon, and awoke, betimes, to ascend the scaffold, And
now that you have done it, Hilda, can you interpret what the feeling
is, that gives this picture such a mysterious force? For my part, though
deeply sensible of its influence, I cannot seize it."

"Nor can I, in words," replied her friend. "But while I was painting
her, I felt all the time as if she were trying to escape from my gaze.
She knows that her sorrow is so strange and so immense, that she ought
to be solitary forever, both for the world's sake and her own; and this
is the reason we feel such a distance between Beatrice and ourselves,
even when our eyes meet hers. It is infinitely heart-breaking to meet
her glance, and to feel that nothing can be done to help or comfort her;
neither does she ask help or comfort, knowing the hopelessness of her
case better than we do. She is a fallen angel,--fallen, and yet sinless;
and it is only this depth of sorrow, with its weight and darkness, that
keeps her down upon earth, and brings her within our view even while it
sets her beyond our reach."

"You deem her sinless?" asked Miriam; "that is not so plain to me. If
I can pretend to see at all into that dim region, whence she gazes so
strangely and sadly at us, Beatrice's own conscience does not acquit her
of something evil, and never to be forgiven!"

"Sorrow so black as hers oppresses her very nearly as sin would," said

"Then," inquired Miriam, "do you think that there was no sin in the deed
for which she suffered?"

"Ah!" replied Hilda, shuddering, "I really had quite forgotten
Beatrice's history, and was thinking of her only as the picture seems
to reveal her character. Yes, yes; it was terrible guilt, an inexpiable
crime, and she feels it to be so. Therefore it is that the forlorn
creature so longs to elude our eyes, and forever vanish away into
nothingness! Her doom is just!"

"O Hilda, your innocence is like a sharp steel sword!" exclaimed her
friend. "Your judgments are often terribly severe, though you seem all
made up of gentleness and mercy. Beatrice's sin may not have been so
great: perhaps it was no sin at all, but the best virtue possible in the
circumstances. If she viewed it as a sin, it may have been because her
nature was too feeble for the fate imposed upon her. Ah!" continued
Miriam passionately, "if I could only get within her consciousness!--if
I could but clasp Beatrice Cenci's ghost, and draw it into myself! I
would give my life to know whether she thought herself innocent, or the
one great criminal since time began."

As Miriam gave utterance to these words, Hilda looked from the picture
into her face, and was startled to observe that her friend's expression
had become almost exactly that of the portrait; as if her passionate
wish and struggle to penetrate poor Beatrice's mystery had been

"O, for Heaven's sake, Miriam, do not look so!" she cried. "What an
actress you are! And I never guessed it before. Ah! now you are yourself
again!" she added, kissing her. "Leave Beatrice to me in future."

"Cover up your magical picture, then," replied her friend, "else I
never can look away from it. It is strange, dear Hilda, how an innocent,
delicate, white soul like yours has been able to seize the subtle
mystery of this portrait; as you surely must, in order to reproduce it
so perfectly. Well; we will not talk of it any more. Do you know, I
have come to you this morning on a small matter of business. Will you
undertake it for me?"

"O, certainly," said Hilda, laughing; "if you choose to trust me with

"Nay, it is not a matter of any difficulty," answered Miriam; "merely to
take charge of this packet, and keep it for me awhile."

"But why not keep it yourself?" asked Hilda.

"Partly because it will be safer in your charge," said her friend. "I
am a careless sort of person in ordinary things; while you, for all you
dwell so high above the world, have certain little housewifely ways of
accuracy and order. The packet is of some slight importance; and yet, it
may be, I shall not ask you for it again. In a week or two, you know,
I am leaving Rome. You, setting at defiance the malarial fever, mean to
stay here and haunt your beloved galleries through the summer. Now, four
months hence, unless you hear more from me, I would have you deliver the
packet according to its address."

Hilda read the direction; it was to Signore Luca Barboni, at the Plazzo
Cenci, third piano.

"I will deliver it with my own hand," said she, "precisely four months
from to-day, unless you bid me to the contrary. Perhaps I shall meet the
ghost of Beatrice in that grim old palace of her forefathers."

"In that case," rejoined Miriam, "do not fail to speak to her, and
try to win her confidence. Poor thing! she would be all the better for
pouring her heart out freely, and would be glad to do it, if she were
sure of sympathy. It irks my brain and heart to think of her, all shut
up within herself." She withdrew the cloth that Hilda had drawn over the
picture, and took another long look at it. "Poor sister Beatrice! for
she was still a woman, Hilda, still a sister, be her sin or sorrow what
they might. How well you have done it, Hilda! I knot not whether Guido
will thank you, or be jealous of your rivalship."

"Jealous, indeed!" exclaimed Hilda. "If Guido had not wrought through
me, my pains would have been thrown away."

"After all," resumed Miriam, "if a woman had painted the original
picture, there might have been something in it which we miss now. I
have a great mind to undertake a copy myself; and try to give it what
it lacks. Well; goodby. But, stay! I am going for a little airing to
the grounds of the Villa Borghese this afternoon. You will think it very
foolish, but I always feel the safer in your company, Hilda, slender
little maiden as you are. Will you come?"

"Ah, not to-day, dearest Miriam," she replied; "I have set my heart on
giving another touch or two to this picture, and shall not stir abroad
till nearly sunset."

"Farewell, then," said her visitor. "I leave you in your dove-cote. What
a sweet, strange life you lead here; conversing with the souls of the
old masters, feeding and fondling your sister doves, and trimming the
Virgin's lamp! Hilda, do you ever pray to the Virgin while you tend her

"Sometimes I have been moved to do so," replied the Dove, blushing,
and lowering her eyes; "she was a woman once. Do you think it would be

"Nay, that is for you to judge," said Miriam; "but when you pray next,
dear friend, remember me!"

She went down the long descent of the lower staircase, and just as she
reached the street the flock of doves again took their hurried flight
from the pavement to the topmost window. She threw her eyes upward
and beheld them hovering about Hilda's head; for, after her friend's
departure, the girl had been more impressed than before by something
very sad and troubled in her manner. She was, therefore, leaning forth
from her airy abode, and flinging down a kind, maidenly kiss, and a
gesture of farewell, in the hope that these might alight upon Miriam's
heart, and comfort its unknown sorrow a little. Kenyon the sculptor, who
chanced to be passing the head of the street, took note of that ethereal
kiss, and wished that he could have caught it in the air and got Hilda's
leave to keep it.

Previous Chapter
Next Chapter

Rate This Book

Current Rating: 2.5/5 (191 votes cast)

Review This Book or Post a Comment