The Marble Faun, by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Chapter 14

Cleopatra

My new statue!” said Kenyon, who had positively forgotten it in the thought of Hilda; “here it is, under this veil.” “Not a nude figure, I hope,” observed Miriam. “Every young sculptor seems to think that he must give the world some specimen of indecorous womanhood, and call it Eve, Venus, a Nymph, or any name that may apologize for a lack of decent clothing. I am weary, even more than I am ashamed, of seeing such things. Nowadays people are as good as born in their clothes, and there is practically not a nude human being in existence. An artist, therefore, as you must candidly confess, cannot sculpture nudity with a pure heart, if only because he is compelled to steal guilty glimpses at hired models. The marble inevitably loses its chastity under such circumstances. An old Greek sculptor, no doubt, found his models in the open sunshine, and among pure and princely maidens, and thus the nude statues of antiquity are as modest as violets, and sufficiently draped in their own beauty. But as for Mr. Gibson’s colored Venuses (stained, I believe, with tobacco juice), and all other nudities of to-day, I really do not understand what they have to say to this generation, and would be glad to see as many heaps of quicklime in their stead.”

“You are severe upon the professors of my art,” said Kenyon, half smiling, half seriously; “not that you are wholly wrong, either. We are bound to accept drapery of some kind, and make the best of it. But what are we to do? Must we adopt the costume of to-day, and carve, for example, a Venus in a hoop-petticoat?”

“That would be a boulder, indeed!” rejoined Miriam, laughing. “But the difficulty goes to confirm me in my belief that, except for portrait-busts, sculpture has no longer a right to claim any place among living arts. It has wrought itself out, and come fairly to an end. There is never a new group nowadays; never even so much as a new attitude. Greenough (I take my examples among men of merit) imagined nothing new; nor Crawford either, except in the tailoring line. There are not, as you will own, more than half a dozen positively original statues or groups in the world, and these few are of immemorial antiquity. A person familiar with the Vatican, the Uffizzi Gallery, the Naples Gallery, and the Louvre, will at once refer any modern production to its antique prototype; which, moreover, had begun to get out of fashion, even in old Roman days.”

“Pray stop, Miriam,” cried Kenyon, “or I shall fling away the chisel forever!”

“Fairly own to me, then, my friend,” rejoined Miriam, whose disturbed mind found a certain relief in this declamation, “that you sculptors are, of necessity, the greatest plagiarists in the world.”

“I do not own it,” said Kenyon, “yet cannot utterly contradict you, as regards the actual state of the art. But as long as the Carrara quarries still yield pure blocks, and while my own country has marble mountains, probably as fine in quality, I shall steadfastly believe that future sculptors will revive this noblest of the beautiful arts, and people the world with new shapes of delicate grace and massive grandeur. Perhaps,” he added, smiling, “mankind will consent to wear a more manageable costume; or, at worst, we sculptors shall get the skill to make broadcloth transparent, and render a majestic human character visible through the coats and trousers of the present day.”

“Be it so!” said Miriam; “you are past my counsel. Show me the veiled figure, which, I am afraid, I have criticised beforehand. To make amends, I am in the mood to praise it now.”

But, as Kenyon was about to take the cloth off the clay model, she laid her hand on his arm.

“Tell me first what is the subject,” said she, “for I have sometimes incurred great displeasure from members of your brotherhood by being too obtuse to puzzle out the purport of their productions. It is so difficult, you know, to compress and define a character or story, and make it patent at a glance, within the narrow scope attainable by sculpture! Indeed, I fancy it is still the ordinary habit with sculptors, first to finish their group of statuary — in such development as the particular block of marble will allow — and then to choose the subject; as John of Bologna did with his Rape of the Sabines. Have you followed that good example?”

“No; my statue is intended for Cleopatra,” replied Kenyon, a little disturbed by Miriam’s raillery. “The special epoch of her history you must make out for yourself.”

He drew away the cloth that had served to keep the moisture of the clay model from being exhaled. The sitting figure of a woman was seen. She was draped from head to foot in a costume minutely and scrupulously studied from that of ancient Egypt, as revealed by the strange sculpture of that country, its coins, drawings, painted mummy-cases, and whatever other tokens have been dug out of its pyramids, graves, and catacombs. Even the stiff Egyptian head-dress was adhered to, but had been softened into a rich feminine adornment, without losing a particle of its truth. Difficulties that might well have seemed insurmountable had been courageously encountered and made flexible to purposes of grace and dignity; so that Cleopatra sat attired in a garb proper to her historic and queenly state, as a daughter of the Ptolemies, and yet such as the beautiful woman would have put on as best adapted to heighten the magnificence of her charms, and kindle a tropic fire in the cold eyes of Octavius.

A marvellous repose — that rare merit in statuary, except it be the lumpish repose native to the block of stone — was diffused throughout the figure. The spectator felt that Cleopatra had sunk down out of the fever and turmoil of her life, and for one instant — as it were, between two pulse throbs — had relinquished all activity, and was resting throughout every vein and muscle. It was the repose of despair, indeed; for Octavius had seen her, and remained insensible to her enchantments. But still there was a great smouldering furnace deep down in the woman’s heart. The repose, no doubt, was as complete as if she were never to stir hand or foot again; and yet, such was the creature’s latent energy and fierceness, she might spring upon you like a tigress, and stop the very breath that you were now drawing midway in your throat.

The face was a miraculous success. The sculptor had not shunned to give the full Nubian lips, and other characteristics of the Egyptian physiognomy. His courage and integrity had been abundantly rewarded; for Cleopatra’s beauty shone out richer, warmer, more triumphantly beyond comparison, than if, shrinking timidly from the truth, he had chosen the tame Grecian type. The expression was of profound, gloomy, heavily revolving thought; a glance into her past life and present emergencies, while her spirit gathered itself up for some new struggle, or was getting sternly reconciled to impending doom. In one view, there was a certain softness and tenderness — how breathed into the statue, among so many strong and passionate elements, it is impossible to say. Catching another glimpse, you beheld her as implacable as a stone and cruel as fire.

In a word, all Cleopatra — fierce, voluptuous, passionate, tender, wicked, terrible, and full of poisonous and rapturous enchantment — was kneaded into what, only a week or two before, had been a lump of wet clay from the Tiber. Soon, apotheosized in an indestructible material, she would be one of the images that men keep forever, finding a heat in them which does not cool down, throughout the centuries?

“What a woman is this!” exclaimed Miriam, after a long pause. “Tell me, did she ever try, even while you were creating her, to overcome you with her fury or her love? Were you not afraid to touch her, as she grew more and more towards hot life beneath your hand? My dear friend, it is a great work! How have you learned to do it?”

“It is the concretion of a good deal of thought, emotion, and toil of brain and hand,” said Kenyon, not without a perception that his work was good; “but I know not how it came about at last. I kindled a great fire within my mind, and threw in the material — as Aaron threw the gold of the Israelites into the furnace — and in the midmost heat uprose Cleopatra, as you see her.”

“What I most marvel at,” said Miriam, “is the womanhood that you have so thoroughly mixed up with all those seemingly discordant elements. Where did you get that secret? You never found it in your gentle Hilda, yet I recognize its truth.”

“No, surely, it was not in Hilda,” said Kenyon. “Her womanhood is of the ethereal type, and incompatible with any shadow of darkness or evil.”

“You are right,” rejoined Miriam; “there are women of that ethereal type, as you term it, and Hilda is one of them. She would die of her first wrong-doing — supposing for a moment that she could be capable of doing wrong. Of sorrow, slender as she seems, Hilda might bear a great burden; of sin, not a feather’s weight. Methinks now, were it my doom, I could bear either, or both at once; but my conscience is still as white as Hilda’s. Do you question it?”

“Heaven forbid, Miriam!” exclaimed the sculptor.

He was startled at the strange turn which she had so suddenly given to the conversation. Her voice, too — so much emotion was stifled rather than expressed in it, sounded unnatrural.

“O, my friend,” cried she, with sudden passion, “will you be my friend indeed? I am lonely, lonely, lonely! There is a secret in my heart that burns me — that tortures me! Sometimes I fear to go mad of it; sometimes I hope to die of it; but neither of the two happens. Ah, if I could but whisper it to only one human soul! And you — you see far into womanhood; you receive it widely into your large view. Perhaps — perhaps, but Heaven only knows, you might understand me! O, let me speak!”

“Miriam, dear friend,” replied the sculptor, “if I can help you, speak freely, as to a brother.”

“Help me? No!” said Miriam.

Kenyon’s response had been perfectly frank and kind; and yet the subtlety of Miriam’s emotion detected a certain reserve and alarm in his warmly expressed readiness to hear her story. In his secret soul, to say the truth, the sculptor doubted whether it were well for this poor, suffering girl to speak what she so yearned to say, or for him to listen. If there were any active duty of friendship to be performed, then, indeed, he would joyfully have come forward to do his best. But if it were only a pent-up heart that sought an outlet? in that case it was by no means so certain that a confession would do good. The more her secret struggled and fought to be told, the more certain would it be to change all former relations that had subsisted between herself and the friend to whom she might reveal it. Unless he could give her all the sympathy, and just the kind of sympathy that the occasion required, Miriam would hate him by and by, and herself still more, if he let her speak.

This was what Kenyon said to himself; but his reluctance, after all, and whether he were conscious of it or no, resulted from a suspicion that had crept into his heart and lay there in a dark corner. Obscure as it was, when Miriam looked into his eyes, she detected it at once.

“Ah, I shall hate you!” cried she, echoing the thought which he had not spoken; she was half choked with the gush of passion that was thus turned back upon her. “You are as cold and pitiless as your own marble.”

“No; but full of sympathy, God knows!” replied he.

In truth, his suspicions, however warranted by the mystery in which Miriam was enveloped, had vanished in the earnestness of his kindly and sorrowful emotion. He was now ready to receive her trust.

“Keep your sympathy, then, for sorrows that admit of such solace,” said she, making a strong effort to compose herself. “As for my griefs, I know how to manage them. It was all a mistake: you can do nothing for me, unless you petrify me into a marble companion for your Cleopatra there; and I am not of her sisterhood, I do. assure you. Forget this foolish scene, my friend, and never let me see a reference to it in your eyes when they meet mine hereafter.”

“Since you desire it, all shall be forgotten,” answered the sculptor, pressing her hand as she departed; “or, if ever I can serve you, let my readiness to do so be remembered. Meanwhile, dear Miriam, let us meet in the same clear, friendly light as heretofore.”

“You are less sincere than I thought you,” said Miriam, “if you try to make me think that there will be no change.”

As he attended her through the antechamber, she pointed to the statue of the pearl-diver.

“My secret is not a pearl,” said she; “yet a man might drown himself in plunging after it.”

After Kenyon had closed the door, she went wearily down the staircase, but paused midway, as if debating with herself whether to return.

“The mischief was done,” thought she; “and I might as well have had the solace that ought to come with it. I have lost — by staggering a little way beyond the mark, in the blindness of my distress, I have lost, as we shall hereafter find, the genuine friendship of this clear-minded, honorable, true-hearted young man, and all for nothing. What if I should go back this moment and compel him to listen?”

She ascended two or three of the stairs, but again paused, murmured to herself, and shook her head.

“No, no, no,” she thought; “and I wonder how I ever came to dream of it. Unless I had his heart for my own — and that is Hilda’s, nor would I steal it from her — it should never be the treasure Place of my secret. It is no precious pearl, as I just now told him; but my dark-red carbuncle — red as blood — is too rich a gem to put into a stranger’s casket.”

She went down the stairs, and found her shadow waiting for her in the street.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38