The Marble Faun Volume 1 (Chapter 21)

Previous Chapter
Next Chapter

Chapter 21

The dead monk was clad, as when alive, in the brown woollen frock of
the Capuchins, with the hood drawn over his head, but so as to leave the
features and a portion of the beard uncovered. His rosary and cross hung
at his side; his hands were folded over his breast; his feet (he was of
a barefooted order in his lifetime, and continued so in death) protruded
from beneath his habit, stiff and stark, with a more waxen look than
even his face. They were tied together at the ankles with a black

The countenance, as we have already said, was fully displayed. It had a
purplish hue upon it, unlike the paleness of an ordinary corpse, but
as little resembling the flush of natural life. The eyelids were
but partially drawn down, and showed the eyeballs beneath; as if the
deceased friar were stealing a glimpse at the bystanders, to watch
whether they were duly impressed with the solemnity of his obsequies.
The shaggy eyebrows gave sternness to the look. Miriam passed between
two of the lighted candles, and stood close beside the bier.

"My God!" murmured she. "What is this?"

She grasped Donatello's hand, and, at the same instant, felt him give a
convulsive shudder, which she knew to have been caused by a sudden
and terrible throb of the heart. His hand, by an instantaneous change,
became like ice within hers, which likewise grew so icy that their
insensible fingers might have rattled, one against the other. No wonder
that their blood curdled; no wonder that their hearts leaped and paused!
The dead face of the monk, gazing at them beneath its half-closed
eyelids, was the same visage that had glared upon their naked souls, the
past midnight, as Donatello flung him over the precipice.

The sculptor was standing at the foot of the bier, and had not yet seen
the monk's features.

"Those naked feet!" said he. "I know not why, but they affect me
strangely. They have walked to and fro over the hard pavements of Rome,
and through a hundred other rough ways of this life, where the monk went
begging for his brotherhood; along the cloisters and dreary corridors
of his convent, too, from his youth upward! It is a suggestive idea, to
track those worn feet backward through all the paths they have trodden,
ever since they were the tender and rosy little feet of a baby, and
(cold as they now are) were kept warm in his mother's hand."

As his companions, whom the sculptor supposed to be close by him, made
no response to his fanciful musing, he looked up, and saw them at the
head of the bier. He advanced thither himself.

"Ha!" exclaimed he.

He cast a horror-stricken and bewildered glance at Miriam, but withdrew
it immediately. Not that he had any definite suspicion, or, it may be,
even a remote idea, that she could be held responsible in the least
degree for this man's sudden death. In truth, it seemed too wild a
thought to connect, in reality, Miriam's persecutor of many past months
and the vagabond of the preceding night, with the dead Capuchin
of to-day. It resembled one of those unaccountable changes and
interminglings of identity, which so often occur among the personages
of a dream. But Kenyon, as befitted the professor of an imaginative art,
was endowed with an exceedingly quick sensibility, which was apt to give
him intimations of the true state of matters that lay beyond his actual
vision. There was a whisper in his ear; it said, "Hush!" Without asking
himself wherefore, he resolved to be silent as regarded the mysterious
discovery which he had made, and to leave any remark or exclamation
to be voluntarily offered by Miriam. If she never spoke, then let the
riddle be unsolved.

And now occurred a circumstance that would seem too fantastic to be
told, if it had not actually happened, precisely as we set it down. As
the three friends stood by the bier, they saw that a little stream of
blood had begun to ooze from the dead monk's nostrils; it crept slowly
towards the thicket of his beard, where, in the course of a moment or
two, it hid itself.

"How strange!" ejaculated Kenyon. "The monk died of apoplexy, I suppose,
or by some sudden accident, and the blood has not yet congealed."

"Do you consider that a sufficient explanation?" asked Miriam, with a
smile from which the sculptor involuntarily turned away his eyes. "Does
it satisfy you?"

"And why not?" he inquired.

"Of course, you know the old superstition about this phenomenon of blood
flowing from a dead body," she rejoined. "How can we tell but that the
murderer of this monk (or, possibly, it may be only that privileged
murderer, his physician) may have just entered the church?"

"I cannot jest about it," said Kenyon. "It is an ugly sight!"

"True, true; horrible to see, or dream of!" she replied, with one of
those long, tremulous sighs, which so often betray a sick heart by
escaping unexpectedly. "We will not look at it any more. Come away,
Donatello. Let us escape from this dismal church. The sunshine will do
you good."

When had ever a woman such a trial to sustain as this! By no possible
supposition could Miriam explain the identity of the dead Capuchin,
quietly and decorously laid out in the nave of his convent church, with
that of her murdered persecutor, flung heedlessly at the foot of the
precipice. The effect upon her imagination was as if a strange and
unknown corpse had miraculously, while she was gazing at it, assumed the
likeness of that face, so terrible henceforth in her remembrance. It was
a symbol, perhaps, of the deadly iteration with which she was doomed
to behold the image of her crime reflected back upon her in a thousand
ways, and converting the great, calm face of Nature, in the whole, and
in its innumerable details, into a manifold reminiscence of that one
dead visage.

No sooner had Miriam turned away from the bier, and gone a few steps,
than she fancied the likeness altogether an illusion, which would vanish
at a closer and colder view. She must look at it again, therefore, and
at once; or else the grave would close over the face, and leave the
awful fantasy that had connected itself therewith fixed ineffaceably in
her brain.

"Wait for me, one moment!" she said to her companions. "Only a moment!"

So she went back, and gazed once more at the corpse. Yes; these were
the features that Miriam had known so well; this was the visage that she
remembered from a far longer date than the most intimate of her friends
suspected; this form of clay had held the evil spirit which blasted her
sweet youth, and compelled her, as it were, to stain her womanhood
with crime. But, whether it were the majesty of death, or something
originally noble and lofty in the character of the dead, which the soul
had stamped upon the features, as it left them; so it was that Miriam
now quailed and shook, not for the vulgar horror of the spectacle, but
for the severe, reproachful glance that seemed to come from between
those half-closed lids. True, there had been nothing, in his lifetime,
viler than this man. She knew it; there was no other fact within her
consciousness that she felt to be so certain; and yet, because her
persecutor found himself safe and irrefutable in death, he frowned upon
his victim, and threw back the blame on her!

"Is it thou, indeed?" she murmured, under her breath. "Then thou hast
no right to scowl upon me so! But art thou real, or a vision?" She bent
down over the dead monk, till one of her rich curls brushed against his
forehead. She touched one of his folded hands with her finger.

"It is he," said Miriam. "There is the scar, that I know so well, on his
brow. And it is no vision; he is palpable to my touch! I will question
the fact no longer, but deal with it as I best can."

It was wonderful to see how the crisis developed in Miriam its own
proper strength, and the faculty of sustaining the demands which it made
upon her fortitude. She ceased to tremble; the beautiful woman gazed
sternly at her dead enemy, endeavoring to meet and quell the look of
accusation that he threw from between his half-closed eyelids.

"No; thou shalt not scowl me down!" said she. "Neither now, nor when
we stand together at the judgment-seat. I fear not to meet thee there.
Farewell, till that next encounter!"

Haughtily waving her hand, Miriam rejoined her friends, who were
awaiting her at the door of the church. As they went out, the sacristan
stopped them, and proposed to show the cemetery of the convent, where
the deceased members of the fraternity are laid to rest in sacred earth,
brought long ago from Jerusalem.

"And will yonder monk be buried there?" she asked.

"Brother Antonio?" exclaimed the sacristan.

"Surely, our good brother will be put to bed there! His grave is already
dug, and the last occupant has made room for him. Will you look at it,

"I will!" said Miriam.

"Then excuse me," observed Kenyon; "for I shall leave you. One dead monk
has more than sufficed me; and I am not bold enough to face the whole
mortality of the convent."

It was easy to see, by Donatello's looks, that he, as well as the
sculptor, would gladly have escaped a visit to the famous cemetery of
the Cappuccini. But Miriam's nerves were strained to such a pitch, that
she anticipated a certain solace and absolute relief in passing from
one ghastly spectacle to another of long-accumulated ugliness; and there
was, besides, a singular sense of duty which impelled her to look at
the final resting-place of the being whose fate had been so disastrously
involved with her own. She therefore followed the sacristan's guidance,
and drew her companion along with her, whispering encouragement as they

The cemetery is beneath the church, but entirely above ground, and
lighted by a row of iron-grated windows without glass. A corridor runs
along beside these windows, and gives access to three or four vaulted
recesses, or chapels, of considerable breadth and height, the floor of
which consists of the consecrated earth of Jerusalem. It is smoothed
decorously over the deceased brethren of the convent, and is kept
quite free from grass or weeds, such as would grow even in these gloomy
recesses, if pains were not bestowed to root them up. But, as the
cemetery is small, and it is a precious privilege to sleep in holy
ground, the brotherhood are immemorially accustomed, when one of their
number dies, to take the longest buried skeleton out of the oldest
grave, and lay the new slumberer there instead. Thus, each of the good
friars, in his turn, enjoys the luxury of a consecrated bed, attended
with the slight drawback of being forced to get up long before daybreak,
as it were, and make room for another lodger.

The arrangement of the unearthed skeletons is what makes the special
interest of the cemetery. The arched and vaulted walls of the burial
recesses are supported by massive pillars and pilasters made of
thigh-bones and skulls; the whole material of the structure appears
to be of a similar kind; and the knobs and embossed ornaments of this
strange architecture are represented by the joints of the spine, and
the more delicate tracery by the Smaller bones of the human frame. The
summits of the arches are adorned with entire skeletons, looking as if
they were wrought most skilfully in bas-relief. There is no possibility
of describing how ugly and grotesque is the effect, combined with a
certain artistic merit, nor how much perverted ingenuity has been shown
in this queer way, nor what a multitude of dead monks, through how many
hundred years, must have contributed their bony framework to build
up these great arches of mortality. On some of the skulls there are
inscriptions, purporting that such a monk, who formerly made use of
that particular headpiece, died on such a day and year; but vastly the
greater number are piled up indistinguishably into the architectural
design, like the many deaths that make up the one glory of a victory.

In the side walls of the vaults are niches where skeleton monks sit or
stand, clad in the brown habits that they wore in life, and labelled
with their names and the dates of their decease. Their skulls (some
quite bare, and others still covered with yellow skin, and hair that
has known the earth-damps) look out from beneath their hoods, grinning
hideously repulsive. One reverend father has his mouth wide open, as if
he had died in the midst of a howl of terror and remorse, which perhaps
is even now screeching through eternity. As a general thing, however,
these frocked and hooded skeletons seem to take a more cheerful view of
their position, and try with ghastly smiles to turn it into a jest. But
the cemetery of the Capuchins is no place to nourish celestial hopes:
the soul sinks forlorn and wretched under all this burden of dusty
death; the holy earth from Jerusalem, so imbued is it with mortality,
has grown as barren of the flowers of Paradise as it is of earthly weeds
and grass. Thank Heaven for its blue sky; it needs a long, upward gaze
to give us back our faith. Not here can we feel ourselves immortal,
where the very altars in these chapels of horrible consecration are
heaps of human bones.

Yet let us give the cemetery the praise that it deserves. There is no
disagreeable scent, such as might have been expected from the decay of
so many holy persons, in whatever odor of sanctity they may have taken
their departure. The same number of living monks would not smell half so

Miriam went gloomily along the corridor, from one vaulted Golgotha to
another, until in the farthest recess she beheld an open grave.

"Is that for him who lies yonder in the nave?" she asked.

"Yes, signorina, this is to be the resting-place of Brother Antonio, who
came to his death last night," answered the sacristan; "and in yonder
niche, you see, sits a brother who was buried thirty years ago, and has
risen to give him place."

"It is not a satisfactory idea," observed Miriam, "that you poor friars
cannot call even your graves permanently your own. You must lie down
in them, methinks, with a nervous anticipation of being disturbed, like
weary men who know that they shall be summoned out of bed at midnight.
Is it not possible (if money were to be paid for the privilege) to leave
Brother Antonio--if that be his name--in the occupancy of that narrow
grave till the last trumpet sounds?"

"By no means, signorina; neither is it needful or desirable," answered
the sacristan. "A quarter of a century's sleep in the sweet earth
of Jerusalem is better than a thousand years in any other soil. Our
brethren find good rest there. No ghost was ever known to steal out of
this blessed cemetery."

"That is well," responded Miriam; "may he whom you now lay to sleep
prove no exception to the rule!"

As they left the cemetery she put money into the sacristan's hand to an
amount that made his eyes open wide and glisten, and requested that it
might be expended in masses for the repose of Father Antonio's soul.

Previous Chapter
Next Chapter

Rate This Book

Current Rating: 2.5/5 (191 votes cast)

Review This Book or Post a Comment