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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Marble Faun - Volume I - Chapter XVIII - ON THE EDGE OF A PRECIPICE
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The Marble Faun - Volume I - Chapter XVIII - ON THE EDGE OF A PRECIPICE Post by :mrtwist Category :Long Stories Author :Nathaniel Hawthorne Date :April 2011 Read :1704

Click below to download : The Marble Faun - Volume I - Chapter XVIII - ON THE EDGE OF A PRECIPICE (Format : PDF)

The Marble Faun - Volume I - Chapter XVIII - ON THE EDGE OF A PRECIPICE

"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 chasm."

"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
necessity."

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

"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 standing."

"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 benediction.

"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 all."

"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
missed.

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.

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The door of the courtyard swung slowly, and closed itself of its ownaccord. Miriam and Donatello were now alone there. She clasped her hands,and looked wildly at the young man, whose form seemed to have dilated,and whose eyes blazed with the fierce energy that had suddenly inspiredhim. It had kindled him into a man; it had developed within him anintelligence which was no native characteristic of the Donatello whom wehave heretofore known. But that simple and joyous creature was goneforever."What have you done?" said Miriam, in a horror-stricken whisper.The glow of rage was still lurid on
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As usual of a moonlight evening, several carriages stood at the entranceof this famous ruin, and the precincts and interior were anything but asolitude. The French sentinel on duty beneath the principal archway eyedour party curiously, but offered no obstacle to their admission. Within,the moonlight filled and flooded the great empty space; it glowed upontier above tier of ruined, grass-grown arches, and made them even toodistinctly visible. The splendor of the revelation took away thatinestimable effect of dimness and mystery by which the imagination mightbe assisted to build a grander structure than the Coliseum, and to shatterit with
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