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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Marble Faun - Volume I - Chapter XXI - THE DEAD CAPUCHIN
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The Marble Faun - Volume I - Chapter XXI - THE DEAD CAPUCHIN Post by :jetnetbiz Category :Long Stories Author :Nathaniel Hawthorne Date :April 2011 Read :733

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The Marble Faun - Volume I - Chapter XXI - THE DEAD CAPUCHIN

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 ribbon.

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,
signorina?"

"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 went.

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
unexceptionably.

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.

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