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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Marble Faun - Volume I - Chapter XVII - MIRIAM'S TROUBLE
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The Marble Faun - Volume I - Chapter XVII - MIRIAM'S TROUBLE Post by :Myrddin Category :Long Stories Author :Nathaniel Hawthorne Date :April 2011 Read :1063

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The Marble Faun - Volume I - Chapter XVII - MIRIAM'S TROUBLE

As usual of a moonlight evening, several carriages stood at the entrance
of this famous ruin, and the precincts and interior were anything but a
solitude. The French sentinel on duty beneath the principal archway eyed
our party curiously, but offered no obstacle to their admission. Within,
the moonlight filled and flooded the great empty space; it glowed upon
tier above tier of ruined, grass-grown arches, and made them even too
distinctly visible. The splendor of the revelation took away that
inestimable effect of dimness and mystery by which the imagination might
be assisted to build a grander structure than the Coliseum, and to shatter
it with a more picturesque decay. Byron's celebrated description is
better than the reality. He beheld the scene in his mind's eye, through
the witchery of many intervening years, and faintly illuminated it as if
with starlight instead of this broad glow of moonshine.

The party of our friends sat down, three or four of them on a prostrate
column, another on a shapeless lump of marble, once a Roman altar; others
on the steps of one of the Christian shrines. Goths and barbarians though
they were, they chatted as gayly together as if they belonged to the
gentle and pleasant race of people who now inhabit Italy. There was much
pastime and gayety just then in the area of the Coliseum, where so many
gladiators and Wild beasts had fought and died, and where so much blood of
Christian martyrs had been lapped up by that fiercest of wild beasts, the
Roman populace of yore. Some youths and maidens were running merry races
across the open space, and playing at hide and seek a little way within
the duskiness of the ground tier of arches, whence now and then you could
hear the half-shriek, halflaugh of a frolicsome girl, whom the shadow had
betrayed into a young man's arms. Elder groups were seated on the
fragments of pillars and blocks of marble that lay round the verge of the
arena, talking in the quick, short ripple of the Italian tongue. On the
steps of the great black cross in the centre of the Coliseum sat a party
singing scraps of songs, with much laughter and merriment between the
stanzas.

It was a strange place for song and mirth. That black cross marks one of
the special blood-spots of the earth where, thousands of times over, the
dying gladiator fell, and more of human agony has been endured for the
mere pastime of the multitude than on the breadth of many battlefields.
From all this crime and suffering, however, the spot has derived a more
than common sanctity. An inscription promises seven years' indulgence,
seven years of remission from the pains of purgatory, and earlier
enjoyment of heavenly bliss, for each separate kiss imprinted on the black
cross. What better use could be made of life, after middle age, when the
accumulated sins are many and the remaining temptations few, than to spend
it all in kissing the black cross of the Coliseum!

Besides its central consecration, the whole area has been made sacred by a
range of shrines, which are erected round the circle, each commemorating
some scene or circumstance of the Saviour's passion and suffering. In
accordance with an ordinary custom, a pilgrim was making his progress from
shrine to shrine upon his knees, and saying a penitential prayer at each.
Light-footed girls ran across the path along which he crept, or sported
with their friends close by the shrines where he was kneeling. The
pilgrim took no heed, and the girls meant no irreverence; for in Italy
religion jostles along side by side with business and sport, after a
fashion of its own, and people are accustomed to kneel down and pray, or
see others praying, between two fits of merriment, or between two sins.

To make an end of our description, a red twinkle of light was visible amid
the breadth of shadow that fell across the upper part of the Coliseum.
Now it glimmered through a line of arches, or threw a broader gleam as it
rose out of some profound abyss of ruin; now it was muffled by a heap of
shrubbery which had adventurously clambered to that dizzy height; and so
the red light kept ascending to loftier and loftier ranges of the
structure, until it stood like a star where the blue sky rested against
the Coliseum's topmost wall. It indicated a party of English or Americans
paying the inevitable visit by moonlight, and exalting themselves with
raptures that were Byron's, not their own.

Our company of artists sat on the fallen column, the pagan altar, and the
steps of the Christian shrine, enjoying the moonlight and shadow, the
present gayety and the gloomy reminiscences of the scene, in almost equal
share. Artists, indeed, are lifted by the ideality of their pursuits a
little way off the earth, and are therefore able to catch the evanescent
fragrance that floats in the atmosphere of life above the heads of the
ordinary crowd. Even if they seem endowed with little imagination
individually, yet there is a property, a gift, a talisman, common to their
class, entitling them to partake somewhat more bountifully than other
people in the thin delights of moonshine and romance.

"How delightful this is!" said Hilda; and she sighed for very pleasure.

"Yes," said Kenyon, who sat on the column, at her side. "The Coliseum is
far more delightful, as we enjoy it now, than when eighty thousand persons
sat squeezed together, row above row, to see their fellow creatures torn
by lions and tigers limb from limb. What a strange thought that the
Coliseum was really built for us, and has not come to its best uses till
almost two thousand years after it was finished!"

"The Emperor Vespasian scarcely had us in his mind," said Hilda, smiling;
"but I thank him none the less for building it."

"He gets small thanks, I fear, from the people whose bloody instincts he
pampered," rejoined Kenyon. "Fancy a nightly assemblage of eighty
thousand melancholy and remorseful ghosts, looking down from those tiers
of broken arches, striving to repent of the savage pleasures which they
once enjoyed, but still longing to enjoy them over again."

"You bring a Gothic horror into this peaceful moonlight scene," said Hilda.


"Nay, I have good authority for peopling the Coliseum with phantoms,"
replied the sculptor. "Do you remember that veritable scene in Benvenuto
Cellini's autobiography, in which a necromancer of his acquaintance draws
a magic circle--just where the black cross stands now, I suppose--and
raises myriads of demons? Benvenuto saw them with his own eyes,--giants,
pygmies, and other creatures of frightful aspect, capering and dancing on
yonder walls. Those spectres must have been Romans, in their lifetime,
and frequenters of this bloody amphitheatre."

"I see a spectre, now!" said Hilda, with a little thrill of uneasiness.
"Have you watched that pilgrim, who is going round the whole circle of
shrines, on his knees, and praying with such fervency at every one? Now
that he has revolved so far in his orbit, and has the moonshine on his
face as he turns towards us, methinks I recognize him!"

"And so do I," said Kenyon. "Poor Miriam! Do you think she sees him?"

They looked round, and perceived that Miriam had risen from the steps of
the shrine and disappeared. She had shrunk back, in fact, into the deep
obscurity of an arch that opened just behind them.

Donatello, whose faithful watch was no more to be eluded than that of a
hound, had stolen after her, and became the innocent witness of a
spectacle that had its own kind of horror. Unaware of his presence, and
fancying herself wholly unseen, the beautiful Miriam began to gesticulate
extravagantly, gnashing her teeth, flinging her arms wildly abroad,
stamping with her foot.

It was as if she had stepped aside for an instant, solely to snatch the
relief of a brief fit of madness. Persons in acute trouble, or laboring
under strong excitement, with a necessity for concealing it, are prone to
relieve their nerves in this wild way; although, when practicable, they
find a more effectual solace in shrieking aloud.

Thus, as soon as she threw off her self-control, under the dusky arches of
the Coliseum, we may consider Miriam as a mad woman, concentrating the
elements of a long insanity into that instant.

"Signorina! signorina! have pity on me!" cried Donatello, approaching
her; "this is too terrible!"

"How dare you look, at me!" exclaimed Miriam, with a start; then,
whispering below her breath, "men have been struck dead for a less offence!"

"If you desire it, or need it," said Donatello humbly, "I shall not be
loath to die."

"Donatello," said Miriam, coming close to the young man, and speaking low,
but still the almost insanity of the moment vibrating in her voice, "if
you love yourself; if you desire those earthly blessings, such as you, of
all men, were made for; if you would come to a good old age among your
olive orchards and your Tuscan vines, as your forefathers did; if you
would leave children to enjoy the same peaceful, happy, innocent life,
then flee from me. Look not behind you! Get you gone without another
word." He gazed sadly at her, but did not stir. "I tell you," Miriam
went on, "there is a great evil hanging over me! I know it; I see it in
the sky; I feel it in the air! It will overwhelm me as utterly as if this
arch should crumble down upon our heads! It will crush you, too, if you
stand at my side! Depart, then; and make the sign of the cross, as your
faith bids you, when an evil spirit is nigh. Cast me off, or you are lost
forever."

A higher sentiment brightened upon Donatello's face than had hitherto
seemed to belong to its simple expression and sensuous beauty.

"I will never quit you," he said; "you cannot drive me from you."

"Poor Donatello!" said Miriam in a changed tone, and rather to herself
than him. "Is there no other that seeks me out, follows me,--is obstinate
to share my affliction and my doom,--but only you! They call me
beautiful; and I used to fancy that, at my need, I could bring the whole
world to my feet. And lo! here is my utmost need; and my beauty and my
gifts have brought me only this poor, simple boy. Half-witted, they call
him; and surely fit for nothing but to be happy. And I accept his aid!
To-morrow, to-morrow, I will tell him all! Ah! what a sin to stain his
joyous nature with the blackness of a woe like mine!"

She held out her hand to him, and smiled sadly as Donatello pressed it to
his lips. They were now about to emerge from the depth of the arch; but
just then the kneeling pilgrim, in his revolution round the orbit of the
shrines, had reached the one on the steps of which Miriam had been sitting.
There, as at the other shrines, he prayed, or seemed to pray. It struck
Kenyon, however,--who sat close by, and saw his face distinctly, that the
suppliant was merely performing an enjoined penance, and without the
penitence that ought to have given it effectual life. Even as he knelt,
his eyes wandered, and Miriam soon felt that he had detected her, half
hidden as she was within the obscurity of the arch.

"He is evidently a good Catholic, however," whispered one of the party.
"After all, I fear we cannot identify him with the ancient pagan who
haunts the catacombs."

"The doctors of the Propaganda may have converted him," said another;
"they have had fifteen hundred years to perform the task."

The company now deemed it time to continue their ramble. Emerging from a
side entrance of the Coliseum, they had on their left the Arch of
Constantine, and above it the shapeless ruins of the Palace of the Caesars;
portions of which have taken shape anew, in mediaeval convents and modern
villas. They turned their faces cityward, and, treading over the broad
flagstones of the old Roman pavement, passed through the Arch of Titus.
The moon shone brightly enough within it to show the seven-branched Jewish
candlestick, cut in the marble of the interior. The original of that
awful trophy lies buried, at this moment, in the yellow mud of the Tiber;
and, could its gold of Ophir again be brought to light, it would be the
most precious relic of past ages, in the estimation of both Jew and
Gentile.

Standing amid so much ancient dust, it is difficult to spare the reader
the commonplaces of enthusiasm, on which hundreds of tourists have already
insisted. Over this half-worn pavement, and beneath this Arch of Titus,
the Roman armies had trodden in their outward march, to fight battles a
world's width away. Returning victorious, with royal captives and
inestimable spoil, a Roman triumph, that most gorgeous pageant of earthly
pride, had streamed and flaunted in hundred-fold succession over these
same flagstones, and through this yet stalwart archway. It is politic,
however, to make few allusions to such a past; nor, if we would create an
interest in the characters of our story, is it wise to suggest how
Cicero's foot may have stepped on yonder stone, or how Horace was wont to
stroll near by, making his footsteps chime with the measure of the ode
that was ringing in his mind. The very ghosts of that massive and stately
epoch have so much density that the actual people of to-day seem the
thinner of the two, and stand more ghost-like by the arches and columns,
letting the rich sculpture be discerned through their ill-compacted
substance.

The party kept onward, often meeting pairs and groups of midnight
strollers like themselves. On such a moonlight night as this, Rome keeps
itself awake and stirring, and is full of song and pastime, the noise of
which mingles with your dreams, if you have gone betimes to bed. But it
is better to be abroad, and take our own share of the enjoyable time; for
the languor that weighs so heavily in the Roman atmosphere by day is
lightened beneath the moon and stars.

They had now reached the precincts of the Forum.

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The proposal for a moonlight ramble was received with acclamation by allthe younger portion of the company. They immediately set forth anddescended from story to story, dimly lighting their way by waxen tapers,which are a necessary equipment to those whose thoroughfare, in thenight-time, lies up and down a Roman staircase. Emerging from thecourtyard of the edifice, they looked upward and saw the sky full of light,which seemed to have a delicate purple or crimson lustre, or, at leastsome richer tinge than the cold, white moonshine of other skies. Itgleamed over the front of the opposite palace, showing the
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