The Marble Faun Volume 1 (Chapter 18)

Previous Chapter
Next Chapter

Chapter 18

"Let us settle it," said Kenyon, stamping his foot firmly down, "that
this is precisely the spot where the chasm opened, into which Curtius
precipitated his good steed and himself. Imagine the great, dusky gap,
impenetrably deep, and with half-shaped monsters and hideous faces
looming upward out of it, to the vast affright of the good citizens who
peeped over the brim! There, now, is a subject, hitherto unthought of,
for a grim and ghastly story, and, methinks, with a moral as deep as
the gulf itself. Within it, beyond a question, there were prophetic
visions,--intimations of all the future calamities of Rome,--shades of
Goths, and Gauls, and even of the French soldiers of to-day. It was a
pity to close it up so soon! I would give much for a peep into such a

"I fancy," remarked Miriam, "that every person takes a peep into it
in moments of gloom and despondency; that is to say, in his moments of
deepest insight."

"Where is it, then?" asked Hilda. "I never peeped into it."

"Wait, and it will open for you," replied her friend. "The chasm was
merely one of the orifices of that pit of blackness that lies beneath
us, everywhere. The firmest substance of human happiness is but a thin
crust spread over it, with just reality enough to bear up the illusive
stage scenery amid which we tread. It needs no earthquake to open the
chasm. A footstep, a little heavier than ordinary, will serve; and we
must step very daintily, not to break through the crust at any moment.
By and by, we inevitably sink! It was a foolish piece of heroism in
Curtius to precipitate himself there, in advance; for all Rome, you see,
has been swallowed up in that gulf, in spite of him. The Palace of the
Caesars has gone down thither, with a hollow, rumbling sound of its
fragments! All the temples have tumbled into it; and thousands of
statues have been thrown after! All the armies and the triumphs have
marched into the great chasm, with their martial music playing, as they
stepped over the brink. All the heroes, the statesmen, and the poets!
All piled upon poor Curtius, who thought to have saved them all! I am
loath to smile at the self-conceit of that gallant horseman, but cannot
well avoid it."

"It grieves me to hear you speak thus, Miriam," said Hilda, whose
natural and cheerful piety was shocked by her friend's gloomy view of
human destinies. "It seems to me that there is no chasm, nor any hideous
emptiness under our feet, except what the evil within us digs. If there
be such a chasm, let us bridge it over with good thoughts and deeds, and
we shall tread safely to the other side. It was the guilt of Rome, no
doubt, that caused this gulf to open; and Curtius filled it up with his
heroic self-sacrifice and patriotism, which was the best virtue that the
old Romans knew. Every wrong thing makes the gulf deeper; every right
one helps to fill it up. As the evil of Rome was far more than its good,
the whole commonwealth finally sank into it, indeed, but of no original

"Well, Hilda, it came to the same thing at last," answered Miriam

"Doubtless, too," resumed the sculptor (for his imagination was greatly
excited by the idea of this wondrous chasm), "all the blood that the
Romans shed, whether on battlefields, or in the Coliseum, or on the
cross,--in whatever public or private murder,--ran into this fatal gulf,
and formed a mighty subterranean lake of gore, right beneath our feet.
The blood from the thirty wounds in Caesar's breast flowed hitherward,
and that pure little rivulet from Virginia's bosom, too! Virginia,
beyond all question, was stabbed by her father, precisely where we are

"Then the spot is hallowed forever!" said Hilda.

"Is there such blessed potency in bloodshed?" asked Miriam. "Nay, Hilda,
do not protest! I take your meaning rightly."

They again moved forward. And still, from the Forum and the Via Sacra,
from beneath the arches of the Temple of Peace on one side, and the
acclivity of the Palace of the Caesars on the other, there arose singing
voices of parties that were strolling through the moonlight. Thus,
the air was full of kindred melodies that encountered one another, and
twined themselves into a broad, vague music, out of which no single
strain could be disentangled. These good examples, as well as the
harmonious influences of the hour, incited our artist friends to make
proof of their own vocal powers. With what skill and breath they had,
they set up a choral strain,--"Hail, Columbia!" we believe, which
those old Roman echoes must have found it exceeding difficult to repeat
aright. Even Hilda poured the slender sweetness of her note into her
country's song. Miriam was at first silent, being perhaps unfamiliar
with the air and burden. But suddenly she threw out such a swell and
gush of sound, that it seemed to pervade the whole choir of other
voices, and then to rise above them all, and become audible in what
would else have been thee silence of an upper region. That volume of
melodious voice was one of the tokens of a great trouble. There had long
been an impulse upon her--amounting, at last, to a necessity to shriek
aloud; but she had struggled against it, till the thunderous anthem gave
her an opportunity to relieve her heart by a great cry.

They passed the solitary Column of Phocas, and looked down into the
excavated space, where a confusion of pillars, arches, pavements, and
shattered blocks and shafts--the crumbs of various ruin dropped from the
devouring maw of Time stand, or lie, at the base of the Capitoline Hill.
That renowned hillock (for it is little more) now arose abruptly above
them. The ponderous masonry, with which the hillside is built up, is as
old as Rome itself, and looks likely to endure while the world retains
any substance or permanence. It once sustained the Capitol, and now
bears up the great pile which the mediaeval builders raised on the
antique foundation, and that still loftier tower, which looks abroad
upon a larger page of deeper historic interest than any other scene
can show. On the same pedestal of Roman masonry, other structures will
doubtless rise, and vanish like ephemeral things.

To a spectator on the spot, it is remarkable that the events of Roman
history, and Roman life itself, appear not so distant as the Gothic ages
which succeeded them. We stand in the Forum, or on the height of the
Capitol, and seem to see the Roman epoch close at hand. We forget that
a chasm extends between it and ourselves, in which lie all those dark,
rude, unlettered centuries, around the birth-time of Christianity, as
well as the age of chivalry and romance, the feudal system, and the
infancy of a better civilization than that of Rome. Or, if we remember
these mediaeval times, they look further off than the Augustan age. The
reason may be, that the old Roman literature survives, and creates for
us an intimacy with the classic ages, which we have no means of forming
with the subsequent ones.

The Italian climate, moreover, robs age of its reverence and makes it
look newer than it is. Not the Coliseum, nor the tombs of the Appian
Way, nor the oldest pillar in the Forum, nor any other Roman ruin, be
it as dilapidated as it may, ever give the impression of venerable
antiquity which we gather, along with the ivy, from the gray walls of an
English abbey or castle. And yet every brick or stone, which we pick up
among the former, had fallen ages before the foundation of the latter
was begun. This is owing to the kindliness with which Natures takes an
English ruin to her heart, covering it with ivy, as tenderly as Robin
Redbreast covered the dead babes with forest leaves. She strives to make
it a part of herself, gradually obliterating the handiwork of man, and
supplanting it with her own mosses and trailing verdure, till she has
won the whole structure back. But, in Italy, whenever man has once hewn
a stone, Nature forthwith relinquishes her right to it, and never lays
her finger on it again. Age after age finds it bare and naked, in the
barren sunshine, and leaves it so. Besides this natural disadvantage,
too, each succeeding century, in Rome, has done its best to ruin the
very ruins, so far as their picturesque effect is concerned, by stealing
away the marble and hewn stone, and leaving only yellow bricks, which
never can look venerable.

The party ascended the winding way that leads from the Forum to the
Piazza of the Campidoglio on the summit of the Capitoline Hill. They
stood awhile to contemplate the bronze equestrian statue of Marcus
Aurelius. The moonlight glistened upon traces of the gilding which
had once covered both rider and steed; these were almost gone, but the
aspect of dignity was still perfect, clothing the figure as it were with
an imperial robe of light. It is the most majestic representation of
the kingly character that ever the world has seen. A sight of the old
heathen emperor is enough to create an evanescent sentiment of loyalty
even in a democratic bosom, so august does he look, so fit to rule,
so worthy of man's profoundest homage and obedience, so inevitably
attractive of his love. He stretches forth his hand with an air of grand
beneficence and unlimited authority, as if uttering a decree from which
no appeal was permissible, but in which the obedient subject would
find his highest interests consulted; a command that was in itself a

"The sculptor of this statue knew what a king should be," observed
Kenyon, "and knew, likewise, the heart of mankind, and how it craves a
true ruler, under whatever title, as a child its father."

"O, if there were but one such man as this?" exclaimed Miriam. "One such
man in an age, and one in all the world; then how speedily would the
strife, wickedness, and sorrow of us poor creatures be relieved. We
would come to him with our griefs, whatever they might be,--even a poor,
frail woman burdened with her heavy heart,--and lay them at his feet,
and never need to take them up again. The rightful king would see to

"What an idea of the regal office and duty!" said Kenyon, with a smile.
"It is a woman's idea of the whole matter to perfection. It is Hilda's,
too, no doubt?"

"No," answered the quiet Hilda; "I should never look for such assistance
from an earthly king."

"Hilda, my religious Hilda," whispered Miriam, suddenly drawing the girl
close to her, "do you know how it is with me? I would give all I have or
hope--my life, O how freely--for one instant of your trust in God! You
little guess my need of it. You really think, then, that He sees and
cares for us?"

"Miriam, you frighten me."

"Hush, hush? do not let them hear yet!" whispered Miriam. "I frighten
you, you say; for Heaven's sake, how? Am I strange? Is there anything
wild in my behavior?"

"Only for that moment," replied Hilda, "because you seemed to doubt
God's providence."

"We will talk of that another time," said her friend. "Just now it is
very dark to me."

On the left of the Piazza of the Campidoglio, as you face cityward, and
at the head of the long and stately flight of steps descending from the
Capitoline Hill to the level of lower Rome, there is a narrow lane
or passage. Into this the party of our friends now turned. The path
ascended a little, and ran along under the walls of a palace, but soon
passed through a gateway, and terminated in a small paved courtyard. It
was bordered by a low parapet.

The spot, for some reason or other, impressed them as exceedingly
lonely. On one side was the great height of the palace, with the
moonshine falling over it, and showing all the windows barred and
shuttered. Not a human eye could look down into the little courtyard,
even if the seemingly deserted palace had a tenant. On all other sides
of its narrow compass there was nothing but the parapet, which as it now
appeared was built right on the edge of a steep precipice. Gazing
from its imminent brow, the party beheld a crowded confusion of roofs
spreading over the whole space between them and the line of hills that
lay beyond the Tiber. A long, misty wreath, just dense enough to catch
a little of the moonshine, floated above the houses, midway towards the
hilly line, and showed the course of the unseen river. Far away on the
right, the moon gleamed on the dome of St. Peter's as well as on many
lesser and nearer domes.

"What a beautiful view of the city!" exclaimed Hilda; "and I never saw
Rome from this point before."

"It ought to afford a good prospect," said the sculptor; "for it
was from this point--at least we are at liberty to think so, if we
choose--that many a famous Roman caught his last glimpse of his native
city, and of all other earthly things. This is one of the sides of the
Tarpeian Rock. Look over the parapet, and see what a sheer tumble there
might still be for a traitor, in spite of the thirty feet of soil that
have accumulated at the foot of the precipice."

They all bent over, and saw that the cliff fell perpendicularly downward
to about the depth, or rather more, at which the tall palace rose in
height above their heads. Not that it was still the natural, shaggy
front of the original precipice; for it appeared to be cased in ancient
stonework, through which the primeval rock showed its face here and
there grimly and doubtfully. Mosses grew on the slight projections, and
little shrubs sprouted out of the crevices, but could not much soften
the stern aspect of the cliff. Brightly as the Italian moonlight fell
adown the height, it scarcely showed what portion of it was man's work
and what was nature's, but left it all in very much the same kind of
ambiguity and half-knowledge in which antiquarians generally leave the
identity of Roman remains.

The roofs of some poor-looking houses, which had been built against the
base and sides of the cliff, rose nearly midway to the top; but from an
angle of the parapet there was a precipitous plunge straight downward
into a stonepaved court.

"I prefer this to any other site as having been veritably the Traitor's
Leap," said Kenyon, "because it was so convenient to the Capitol. It was
an admirable idea of those stern old fellows to fling their political
criminals down from the very summit on which stood the Senate House and
Jove's Temple, emblems of the institutions which they sought to violate.
It symbolizes how sudden was the fall in those days from the utmost
height of ambition to its profoundest ruin."

"Come, come; it is midnight," cried another artist, "too late to be
moralizing here. We are literally dreaming on the edge of a precipice.
Let us go home."

"It is time, indeed," said Hilda.

The sculptor was not without hopes that he might be favored with the
sweet charge of escorting Hilda to the foot of her tower. Accordingly,
when the party prepared to turn back, he offered her his arm. Hilda at
first accepted it; but when they had partly threaded the passage between
the little courtyard and the Piazza del Campidoglio, she discovered that
Miriam had remained behind.

"I must go back," said she, withdrawing her arm from Kenyon's; "but pray
do not come with me. Several times this evening I have had a fancy that
Miriam had something on her mind, some sorrow or perplexity, which,
perhaps, it would relieve her to tell me about. No, no; do not turn
back! Donatello will be a sufficient guardian for Miriam and me."

The sculptor was a good deal mortified, and perhaps a little angry: but
he knew Hilda's mood of gentle decision and independence too well not to
obey her. He therefore suffered the fearless maiden to return alone.

Meanwhile Miriam had not noticed the departure of the rest of the
company; she remained on the edge of the precipice and Donatello along
with her.

"It would be a fatal fall, still," she said to herself, looking over the
parapet, and shuddering as her eye measured the depth. "Yes; surely yes!
Even without the weight of an overburdened heart, a human body would
fall heavily enough upon those stones to shake all its joints asunder.
How soon it would be over!"

Donatello, of whose presence she was possibly not aware, now pressed
closer to her side; and he, too, like Miriam, bent over the low parapet
and trembled violently. Yet he seemed to feel that perilous fascination
which haunts the brow of precipices, tempting the unwary one to fling
himself over for the very horror of the thing; for, after drawing
hastily back, he again looked down, thrusting himself out farther than
before. He then stood silent a brief space, struggling, perhaps, to make
himself conscious of the historic associations of the scene.

"What are you thinking of, Donatello?" asked Miriam.

"Who are they," said he, looking earnestly in her face, "who have been
flung over here in days gone by?"

"Men that cumbered the world," she replied. "Men whose lives were the
bane of their fellow creatures. Men who poisoned the air, which is the
common breath of all, for their own selfish purposes. There was short
work with such men in old Roman times. Just in the moment of their
triumph, a hand, as of an avenging giant, clutched them, and dashed the
wretches down this precipice."

"Was it well done?" asked the young man.

"It was well done," answered Miriam; "innocent persons were saved by the
destruction of a guilty one, who deserved his doom."

While this brief conversation passed, Donatello had once or twice
glanced aside with a watchful air, just as a hound may often be seen to
take sidelong note of some suspicious object, while he gives his more
direct attention to something nearer at, hand. Miriam seemed now first
to become aware of the silence that had followed upon the cheerful talk
and laughter of a few moments before.

Looking round, she perceived that all her company of merry friends had
retired, and Hilda, too, in whose soft and quiet presence she had always
an indescribable feeling of security. All gone; and only herself and
Donatello left hanging over the brow of the ominous precipice.

Not so, however; not entirely alone! In the basement wall of the palace,
shaded from the moon, there was a deep, empty niche, that had probably
once contained a statue; not empty, either; for a figure now came forth
from it and approached Miriam. She must have had cause to dread some
unspeakable evil from this strange persecutor, and to know that this was
the very crisis of her calamity; for as he drew near, such a cold, sick
despair crept over her that it impeded her breath, and benumbed her
natural promptitude of thought. Miriam seemed dreamily to remember
falling on her knees; but, in her whole recollection of that wild
moment, she beheld herself as in a dim show, and could not well
distinguish what was done and suffered; no, not even whether she were
really an actor and sufferer in the scene.

Hilda, meanwhile, had separated herself from the sculptor, and turned
back to rejoin her friend. At a distance, she still heard the mirth of
her late companions, who were going down the cityward descent of the
Capitoline Hill; they had set up a new stave of melody, in which her
own soft voice, as well as the powerful sweetness of Miriam's, was sadly

The door of the little courtyard had swung upon its hinges, and
partly closed itself. Hilda (whose native gentleness pervaded all her
movements) was quietly opening it, when she was startled, midway, by the
noise of a struggle within, beginning and ending all in one breathless
instant. Along with it, or closely succeeding it, was a loud, fearful
cry, which quivered upward through the air, and sank quivering
downward to the earth. Then, a silence! Poor Hilda had looked into the
court-yard, and saw the whole quick passage of a deed, which took but
that little time to grave itself in the eternal adamant.

Previous Chapter
Next Chapter

Rate This Book

Current Rating: 2.5/5 (191 votes cast)

Review This Book or Post a Comment