The Marble Faun, by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Chapter 23

Miriam and Hilda

On leaving the Medici Gardens Miriam felt herself astray in the world; and having no special reason to seek one place more than another, she suffered chance to direct her steps as it would. Thus it happened, that, involving herself in the crookedness of Rome, she saw Hilda’s tower rising before her, and was put in mind to climb to the young girl’s eyry, and ask why she had broken her engagement at the church of the Capuchins. People often do the idlest acts of their lifetime in their heaviest and most anxious moments; so that it would have been no wonder had Miriam been impelled only by so slight a motive of curiosity as we have indicated. But she remembered, too, and with a quaking heart, what the sculptor had mentioned of Hilda’s retracing her steps towards the courtyard of the Palazzo Caffarelli in quest of Miriam herself. Had she been compelled to choose between infamy in the eyes of the whole world, or in Hilda’s eyes alone, she would unhesitatingly have accepted the former, on condition of remaining spotless in the estimation of her white-souled friend. This possibility, therefore, that Hilda had witnessed the scene of the past night, was unquestionably the cause that drew Miriam to the tower, and made her linger and falter as she approached it.

As she drew near, there were tokens to which her disturbed mind gave a sinister interpretation. Some of her friend’s airy family, the doves, with their heads imbedded disconsolately in their bosoms, were huddled in a corner of the piazza; others had alighted on the heads, wings, shoulders, and trumpets of the marble angels which adorned the facade of the neighboring church; two or three had betaken themselves to the Virgin’s shrine; and as many as could find room were sitting on Hilda’s window-sill. But all of them, so Miriam fancied, had a look of weary expectation and disappointment, no flights, no flutterings, no cooing murmur; something that ought to have made their day glad and bright was evidently left out of this day’s history. And, furthermore, Hilda’s white windowcurtain was closely drawn, with only that one little aperture at the side, which Miriam remembered noticing the night before.

“Be quiet,” said Miriam to her own heart, pressing her hand hard upon it. “Why shouldst thou throb now? Hast thou not endured more terrible things than this?”

Whatever were her apprehensions, she would not turn back. It might be — and the solace would be worth a world — that Hilda, knowing nothing of the past night’s calamity, would greet her friend with a sunny smile, and so restore a portion of the vital warmth, for lack of which her soul was frozen. But could Miriam, guilty as she was, permit Hilda to kiss her cheek, to clasp her hand, and thus be no longer so unspotted from the world as heretofore

“I will never permit her sweet touch again,” said Miriam, toiling up the staircase, “if I can find strength of heart to forbid it. But, O! it would be so soothing in this wintry fever-fit of my heart. There can be no harm to my white Hilda in one parting kiss. That shall be all!”

But, on reaching the upper landing-place, Miriam paused, and stirred not again till she had brought herself to an immovable resolve.

“My lips, my hand, shall never meet Hilda’s more,” said she.

Meanwhile, Hilda sat listlessly in her painting-room. Had you looked into the little adjoining chamber, you might have seen the slight imprint of her figure on the bed, but would also have detected at once that the white counterpane had not been turned down. The pillow was more disturbed; she had turned her face upon it, the poor child, and bedewed it with some of those tears (among the most chill and forlorn that gush from human sorrow) which the innocent heart pours forth at its first actual discovery that sin is in the world. The young and pure are not apt to find out that miserable truth until it is brought home to them by the guiltiness of some trusted friend. They may have heard much of the evil of the world, and seem to know it, but only as an impalpable theory. In due time, some mortal, whom they reverence too highly, is commissioned by Providence to teach them this direful lesson; he perpetrates a sin; and Adam falls anew, and Paradise, heretofore in unfaded bloom, is lost again, and dosed forever, with the fiery swords gleaming at its gates.

The chair in which Hilda sat was near the portrait of Beatrice Cenci, which had not yet been taken from the easel. It is a peculiarity of this picture, that its profoundest expression eludes a straightforward glance, and can only be caught by side glimpses, or when the eye falls casually upon it; even as if the painted face had a life and consciousness of its own, and, resolving not to betray its secret of grief or guilt, permitted the true tokens to come forth only when it imagined itself unseen. No other such magical effect has ever been wrought by pencil.

Now, opposite the easel hung a looking-glass, in which Beatrice’s face and Hilda’s were both reflected. In one of her weary, nerveless changes of position, Hilda happened to throw her eyes on the glass, and took in both these images at one unpremeditated glance. She fancied — nor was it without horror — that Beatrice’s expression, seen aside and vanishing in a moment, had been depicted in her own face likewise, and flitted from it as timorously.

“Am I, too, stained with guilt?” thought the poor girl, hiding her face in her hands.

Not so, thank Heaven! But, as regards Beatrice’s picture, the incident suggests a theory which may account for its unutterable grief and mysterious shadow of guilt, without detracting from the purity which we love to attribute to that ill-fated girl. Who, indeed, can look at that mouth — with its lips half apart, as innocent as a babe’s that has been crying, and not pronounce Beatrice sinless? It was the intimate consciousness of her father’s sin that threw its shadow over her, and frightened her into a remote and inaccessible region, where no sympathy could come. It was the knowledge of Miriam’s guilt that lent the same expression to Hilda’s face.

But Hilda nervously moved her chair, so that the images in the glass should be no longer Visible. She now watched a speck of sunshine that came through a shuttered window, and crept from object to object, indicating each with a touch of its bright finger, and then letting them all vanish successively. In like manner her mind, so like sunlight in its natural cheerfulness, went from thought to thought, but found nothing that it could dwell upon for comfort. Never before had this young, energetic, active spirit known what it is to be despondent. It was the unreality of the world that made her so. Her dearest friend, whose heart seemed the most solid and richest of Hilda’s possessions, had no existence for her any more; and in that dreary void, out of which Miriam had disappeared, the substance, the truth, the integrity of life, the motives of effort, the joy of success, had departed along with her.

It was long past noon, when a step came up the staircase. It had passed beyond the limits where there was communication with the lower regions of the palace, and was mounting the successive flights which led only to Hilda’s precincts. Faint as the tread was, she heard and recognized it. It startled her into sudden life. Her first impulse was to spring to the door of the studio, and fasten it with lock and bolt. But a second thought made her feel that this would be an unworthy cowardice, on her own part, and also that Miriam — only yesterday her closest friend had a right to be told, face to face, that thenceforth they must be forever strangers.

She heard Miriam pause, outside of the door. We have already seen what was the latter’s resolve with respect to any kiss or pressure of the hand between Hilda and herself. We know not what became of the resolution. As Miriam was of a highly impulsive character, it may have vanished at the first sight of Hilda; but, at all events, she appeared to have dressed herself up in a garb of sunshine, and was disclosed, as the door swung open, in all the glow of her remarkable beauty. The truth was, her heart leaped conclusively towards the only refuge that it had, or hoped. She forgot, just one instant, all cause for holding herself aloof. Ordinarily there was a certain reserve in Miriam’s demonstrations of affection, in consonance with the delicacy of her friend. To-day, she opened her arms to take Hilda in.

“Dearest, darling Hilda!” she exclaimed. “It gives me new life to see you!”

Hilda was standing in the middle of the room. When her friend made a step or two from the door, she put forth her hands with an involuntary repellent gesture, so expressive that Miriam at once felt a great chasm opening itself between them two. They might gaze at one another from the opposite side, but without the possibility of ever meeting more; or, at least, since the chasm could never be bridged over, they must tread the whole round of Eternity to meet on the other side. There was even a terror in the thought of their meeting again. It was as if Hilda or Miriam were dead, and could no longer hold intercourse without violating a spiritual law.

Yet, in the wantonness of her despair, Miriam made one more step towards the friend whom she had lost. “Do not come nearer, Miriam!” said Hilda. Her look and tone were those of sorrowful entreaty, and yet they expressed a kind of confidence, as if the girl were conscious of a safeguard that could not be violated.

“What has happened between us, Hilda?” asked Miriam. “Are we not friends?”

“No, no!” said Hilda, shuddering.

“At least we have been friends,” continued Miriam. “I loved you dearly! I love you still! You were to me as a younger sister; yes, dearer than sisters of the same blood; for you and I were so lonely, Hilda, that the whole world pressed us together by its solitude and strangeness. Then, will you not touch my hand? Am I not the same as yesterday?”

“Alas! no, Miriam!” said Hilda.

“Yes, the same, the same for you, Hilda,” rejoined her lost friend. “Were you to touch my hand, you would find it as warm to your grasp as ever. If you were sick or suffering, I would watch night and day for you. It is in such simple offices that true affection shows itself; and so I speak of them. Yet now, Hilda, your very look seems to put me beyond the limits of human kind!”

“It is not I, Miriam,” said Hilda; “not I that have done this.”

“You, and you only, Hilda,” replied Miriam, stirred up to make her own cause good by the repellent force which her friend opposed to her. “I am a woman, as I was yesterday; endowed with the same truth of nature, the same warmth of heart, the same genuine and earnest love, which you have always known in me. In any regard that concerns yourself, I am not changed. And believe me, Hilda, when a human being has chosen a friend out of all the world, it is only some faithlessness between themselves, rendering true intercourse impossible, that can justify either friend in severing the bond. Have I deceived you? Then cast me off! Have I wronged you personally? Then forgive me, if you can. But, have I sinned against God and man, and deeply sinned? Then be more my friend than ever, for I need you more.”

“Do not bewilder me thus, Miriam!” exclaimed Hilda, who had not forborne to express, by look and gesture, the anguish which this interview inflicted on her. “If I were one of God’s angels, with a nature incapable of stain, and garments that never could be spotted, I would keep ever at your side, and try to lead you upward. But I am a poor, lonely girl, whom God has set here in an evil world, and given her only a white robe, and bid her wear it back to Him, as white as when she put it on. Your powerful magnetism would be too much for me. The pure, white atmosphere, in which I try to discern what things are good and true, would be discolored. And therefore, Miriam, before it is too late, I mean to put faith in this awful heartquake which warns me henceforth to avoid you.”

“Ah, this is hard! Ah, this is terrible!” murmured Miriam, dropping her forehead in her hands. In a moment or two she looked up again, as pale as death, but with a composed countenance: “I always said, Hilda, that you were merciless; for I had a perception of it, even while you loved me best. You have no sin, nor any conception of what it is; and therefore you are so terribly severe! As an angel, you are not amiss; but, as a human creature, and a woman among earthly men and women, you need a sin to soften you.”

“God forgive me,” said Hilda, “if I have said a needlessly cruel word!”

“Let it pass,” answered Miriam; “I, whose heart it has smitten upon, forgive you. And tell me, before we part forever, what have you seen or known of me, since we last met?”

“A terrible thing, Miriam,” said Hilda, growing paler than before.

“Do you see it written in my face, or painted in my eyes?” inquired Miriam, her trouble seeking relief in a half-frenzied raillery. “I would fain know how it is that Providence, or fate, brings eye-witnesses to watch us, when we fancy ourselves acting in the remotest privacy. Did all Rome see it, then? Or, at least, our merry company of artists? Or is it some blood-stain on me, or death-scent in my garments? They say that monstrous deformities sprout out of fiends, who once were lovely angels. Do you perceive such in me already? Tell me, by our past friendship, Hilda, all you know.”

Thus adjured, and frightened by the wild emotion which Miriam could not suppress, Hilda strove to tell what she had witnessed.

“After the rest of the party had passed on, I went back to speak to you,” she said; “for there seemed to be a trouble on your mind, and I wished to share it with you, if you could permit me. The door of the little courtyard was partly shut; but I pushed it open, and saw you within, and Donatello, and a third person, whom I had before noticed in the shadow of a niche. He approached you, Miriam. You knelt to him! I saw Donatello spring upon him! I would have shrieked, but my throat was dry. I would have rushed forward, but my limbs seemed rooted to the earth. It was like a flash of lightning. A look passed from your eyes to Donatello’s — a look”—“Yes, Hilda, yes!” exclaimed Miriam, with intense eagerness. “Do not pause now! That look?”

“It revealed all your heart, Miriam,” continued Hilda, covering her eyes as if to shut out the recollection; “a look of hatred, triumph, vengeance, and, as it were, joy at some unhoped-for relief.”

“Ah! Donatello was right, then,” murmured Miriam, who shook throughout all her frame. “My eyes bade him do it! Go on, Hilda.”

“It all passed so quickly, all like a glare of lightning,” said Hilda, “and yet it seemed to me that Donatello had paused, while one might draw a breath. But that look! Ah, Miriam, spare me. Need I tell more?”

“No more; there needs no more, Hilda,” replied Miriam, bowing her head, as if listening to a sentence of condemnation from a supreme tribunal. “It is enough! You have satisfied my mind on a point where it was greatly disturbed. Henceforward I shall be quiet. Thank you, Hilda.”

She was on the point of departing, but turned back again from the threshold.

“This is a terrible secret to be kept in a young girl’s bosom,” she observed; “what will you do with it, my poor child?”

“Heaven help and guide me,” answered Hilda, bursting into tears; “for the burden of it crushes me to the earth! It seems a crime to know of such a thing, and to keep it to myself. It knocks within my heart continually, threatening, imploring, insisting to be let out! O my mother! — my mother! Were she yet living, I would travel over land and sea to tell her this dark secret, as I told all the little troubles of my infancy. But I am alone — alone! Miriam, you were my dearest, only friend. Advise me what to do.”

This was a singular appeal, no doubt, from the stainless maiden to the guilty woman, whom she had just banished from her heart forever. But it bore striking testimony to the impression which Miriam’s natural uprightness and impulsive generosity had made on the friend who knew her best; and it deeply comforted the poor criminal, by proving to her that the bond between Hilda and herself was vital yet.

As far as she was able, Miriam at once responded to the girl’s cry for help.

“If I deemed it good for your peace of mind,” she said, “to bear testimony against me for this deed in the face of all the world, no consideration of myself should weigh with me an instant. But I believe that you would find no relief in such a course. What men call justice lies chiefly in outward formalities, and has never the close application and fitness that would be satisfactory to a soul like yours. I cannot be fairly tried and judged before an earthly tribunal; and of this, Hilda, you would perhaps become fatally conscious when it was too late. Roman justice, above all things, is a byword. What have you to do with it? Leave all such thoughts aside! Yet, Hilda, I would not have you keep my secret imprisoned in your heart if it tries to leap out, and stings you, like a wild, venomous thing, when you thrust it back again. Have you no other friend, now that you have been forced to give me up?”

“No other,” answered Hilda sadly.

“Yes; Kenyon!” rejoined Miriam.

“He cannot be my friend,” said Hilda, “because — because — I have fancied that he sought to be something more.”

“Fear nothing!” replied Miriam, shaking her head, with a strange smile. “This story will frighten his new-born love out of its little life, if that be what you wish. Tell him the secret, then, and take his wise and honorable counsel as to what should next be done. I know not what else to say.”

“I never dreamed,” said Hilda —“how could you think it? — of betraying you to justice. But I see how it is, Miriam. I must keep your secret, and die of it, unless God sends me some relief by methods which are now beyond my power to imagine. It is very dreadful. Ah! now I understand how the sins of generations past have created an atmosphere of sin for those that follow. While there is a single guilty person in the universe, each innocent one must feel his innocence tortured by that guilt. Your deed, Miriam, has darkened the whole sky!”

Poor Hilda turned from her unhappy friend, and, sinking on her knees in a corner of the chamber, could not be prevailed upon to utter another word. And Miriam, with a long regard from the threshold, bade farewell to this doves’ nest, this one little nook of pure thoughts and innocent enthusiasms, into which she had brought such trouble. Every crime destroys more Edens than our own!

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