The Marble Faun, by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Chapter 27

Myths

After the sculptor’s arrival, however, the young Count sometimes came down from his forlorn elevation, and rambled with him among the neighboring woods and hills. He led his friend to many enchanting nooks, with which he himself had been familiar in his childhood. But of late, as he remarked to Kenyon, a sort of strangeness had overgrown them, like clusters of dark shrubbery, so that he hardly recognized the places which he had known and loved so well.

To the sculptor’s eye, nevertheless, they were still rich with beauty. They were picturesque in that sweetly impressive way where wildness, in a long lapse of years, has crept over scenes that have been once adorned with the careful art and toil of man; and when man could do no more for them, time and nature came, and wrought hand in hand to bring them to a soft and venerable perfection. There grew the fig-tree that had run wild and taken to wife the vine, which likewise had gone rampant out of all human control; so that the two wild things had tangled and knotted themselves into a wild marriage bond, and hung their various progeny — the luscious figs, the grapes, oozy with the Southern juice, and both endowed with a wild flavor that added the final charm — on the same bough together.

In Kenyon’s opinion, never was any other nook so lovely as a certain little dell which he and Donatello visited. It was hollowed in among the hills, and open to a glimpse of the broad, fertile valley. A fountain had its birth here, and fell into a marble basin, which was all covered with moss and shaggy with water-weeds. Over the gush of the small stream, with an urn in her arms, stood a marble nymph, whose nakedness the moss had kindly clothed as with a garment; and the long trails and tresses of the maidenhair had done what they could in the poor thing’s behalf, by hanging themselves about her waist, In former days — it might be a remote antiquity — this lady of the fountain had first received the infant tide into her urn and poured it thence into the marble basin. But now the sculptured urn had a great crack from top to bottom; and the discontented nymph was compelled to see the basin fill itself through a channel which she could not control, although with water long ago consecrated to her.

For this reason, or some other, she looked terribly forlorn; and you might have fancied that the whole fountain was but the overflow of her lonely tears.

“This was a place that I used greatly to delight in,” remarked Donatello, sighing. “As a child, and as a boy, I have been very happy here.”

“And, as a man, I should ask no fitter place to be happy in,” answered Kenyon. “But you, my friend, are of such a social nature, that I should hardly have thought these lonely haunts would take your fancy. It is a place for a poet to dream in, and people it with the beings of his imagination.”

“I am no poet, that I know of,” said Donatello, “but yet, as I tell you, I have been very happy here, in the company of this fountain and this nymph. It is said that a Faun, my oldest forefather, brought home hither to this very spot a human maiden, whom he loved and wedded. This spring of delicious water was their household well.”

“It is a most enchanting fable!” exclaimed Kenyon; “that is, if it be not a fact.”

“And why not a fact?” said the simple Donatello. “There is, likewise, another sweet old story connected with this spot. But, now that I remember it, it seems to me more sad than sweet, though formerly the sorrow, in which it closes, did not so much impress me. If I had the gift of tale-telling, this one would be sure to interest you mightily.”

“Pray tell it,” said Kenyon; “no matter whether well or ill. These wild legends have often the most powerful charm when least artfully told.”

So the young Count narrated a myth of one of his Progenitors — he might have lived a century ago, or a thousand years, or before the Christian epoch, for anything that Donatello knew to the contrary, — who had made acquaintance with a fair creature belonging to this fountain. Whether woman or sprite was a mystery, as was all else about her, except that her life and soul were somehow interfused throughout the gushing water. She was a fresh, cool, dewy thing, sunny and shadowy, full of pleasant little mischiefs, fitful and changeable with the whim of the moment, but yet as constant as her native stream, which kept the same gush and flow forever, while marble crumbled over and around it. The fountain woman loved the youth — a knight, as Donatello called him — for, according to the legend, his race was akin to hers. At least, whether kin or no, there had been friendship and sympathy of old betwixt an ancestor of his, with furry ears, and the long-lived lady of the fountain. And, after all those ages, she was still as young as a May morning, and as frolicsome as a bird upon a tree, or a breeze that makes merry with the leaves.

She taught him how to call her from her pebbly source, and they spent many a happy hour together, more especially in the fervor of the summer days. For often as he sat waiting for her by the margin of the spring, she would suddenly fall down around him in a shower of sunny raindrops, with a rainbow glancing through them, and forthwith gather herself up into the likeness of a beautiful girl, laughing — or was it the warble of the rill over the pebbles? — to see the youth’s amazement.

Thus, kind maiden that she was, the hot atmosphere became deliciously cool and fragrant for this favored knight; and, furthermore, when he knelt down to drink out of the spring, nothing was more common than for a pair of rosy lips to come up out of its little depths, and touch his mouth with the thrill of a sweet, cool, dewy kiss!

“It is a delightful story for the hot noon of your Tuscan summer,” observed the sculptor, at this point. “But the deportment of the watery lady must have had a most chilling influence in midwinter. Her lover would find it, very literally, a cold reception!”

“I suppose,” said Donatello rather sulkily, “you are making fun of the story. But I see nothing laughable in the thing itself, nor in what you say about it.”

He went on to relate, that for a long While the knight found infinite pleasure and comfort in the friendship of the fountain nymph. In his merriest hours, she gladdened him with her sportive humor. If ever he was annoyed with earthly trouble, she laid her moist hand upon his brow, and charmed the fret and fever quite away.

But one day — one fatal noontide — the young knight came rushing with hasty and irregular steps to the accustomed fountain. He called the nymph; but — no doubt because there was something unusual and frightful in his tone she did not appear, nor answer him. He flung himself down, and washed his hands and bathed his feverish brow in the cool, pure water. And then there was a sound of woe; it might have been a woman’s voice; it might have been only the sighing of the brook over the pebbles. The water shrank away from the youth’s hands, and left his brow as dry and feverish as before.

Donatello here came to a dead pause.

“Why did the water shrink from this unhappy knight?” inquired the sculptor.

“Because he had tried to wash off a bloodstain!” said the young Count, in a horror-stricken whisper. “The guilty man had polluted the pure water. The nymph might have comforted him in sorrow, but could not cleanse his conscience of a crime.”

“And did he never behold her more?” asked Kenyon.

“Never but once,” replied his friend. “He never beheld her blessed face but once again, and then there was a blood-stain on the poor nymph’s brow; it was the stain his guilt had left in the fountain where he tried to wash it off. He mourned for her his whole life long, and employed the best sculptor of the time to carve this statue of the nymph from his description of her aspect. But, though my ancestor would fain have had the image wear her happiest look, the artist, unlike yourself, was so impressed with the mournfulness of the story, that, in spite of his best efforts, he made her forlorn, and forever weeping, as you see!”

Kenyon found a certain charm in this simple legend. Whether so intended or not, he understood it as an apologue, typifying the soothing and genial effects of an habitual intercourse with nature in all ordinary cares and griefs; while, on the other hand, her mild influences fall short in their effect upon the ruder passions, and are altogether powerless in the dread fever-fit or deadly chill of guilt.

“Do you say,” he asked, “that the nymph’s race has never since been shown to any mortal? Methinks you, by your native qualities, are as well entitled to her favor as ever your progenitor could have been. Why have you not summoned her?”

“I called her often when I was a silly child,” answered Donatello; and he added, in an inward voice, “Thank Heaven, she did not come!”

“Then you never saw her?” said the sculptor.

“Never in my life!” rejoined the Count. “No, my dear friend, I have not seen the nymph; although here, by her fountain, I used to make many strange acquaintances; for, from my earliest childhood, I was familiar with whatever creatures haunt the woods. You would have laughed to see the friends I had among them; yes, among the wild, nimble things, that reckon man their deadliest enemy! How it was first taught me, I cannot tell; but there was a charm — a voice, a murmur, a kind of chant — by which I called the woodland inhabitants, the furry people, and the feathered people, in a language that they seemed to understand.”

“I have heard of such a gift,” responded the sculptor gravely, “but never before met with a person endowed with it. Pray try the charm; and lest I should frighten your friends away, I will withdraw into this thicket, and merely peep at them.”

“I doubt,” said Donatello, “whether they will remember my voice now. It changes, you know, as the boy grows towards manhood.”

Nevertheless, as the young Count’s good-nature and easy persuadability were among his best characteristics, he set about complying with Kenyon’s request. The latter, in his concealment among the shrubberies, heard him send forth a sort of modulated breath, wild, rude, yet harmonious. It struck the auditor as at once the strangest and the most natural utterance that had ever reached his ears. Any idle boy, it should seem, singing to himself and setting his wordless song to no other or more definite tune than the play of his own pulses, might produce a sound almost identical with this; and yet, it was as individual as a murmur of the breeze. Donatello tried it, over and over again, with many breaks, at first, and pauses of uncertainty; then with more confidence, and a fuller swell, like a wayfarer groping out of obscurity into the light, and moving with freer footsteps as it brightens around him.

Anon, his voice appeared to fill the air, yet not with an obtrusive clangor. The sound was of a murmurous character, soft, attractive, persuasive, friendly. The sculptor fancied that such might have been the original voice and utterance of the natural man, before the sophistication of the human intellect formed what we now call language. In this broad dialect — broad as the sympathies of nature — the human brother might have spoken to his inarticulate brotherhood that prowl the woods, or soar upon the wing, and have been intelligible to such extent as to win their confidence.

The sound had its pathos too. At some of its simple cadences, the tears came quietly into Kenyon’s eyes. They welled up slowly from his heart, which was thrilling with an emotion more delightful than he had often felt before, but which he forbore to analyze, lest, if he seized it, it should at once perish in his grasp.

Donatello paused two or three times, and seemed to listen — then, recommencing, he poured his spirit and life more earnestly into the strain. And finally — or else the sculptor’s hope and imagination deceived him — soft treads were audible upon the fallen leaves. There was a rustling among the shrubbery; a whir of wings, moreover, that hovered in the air. It may have been all an illusion; but Kenyon fancied that he could distinguish the stealthy, cat-like movement of some small forest citizen, and that he could even see its doubtful shadow, if not really its substance. But, all at once, whatever might be the reason, there ensued a hurried rush and scamper of little feet; and then the sculptor heard a wild, sorrowful cry, and through the crevices of the thicket beheld Donatello fling himself on the ground.

Emerging from his hiding-place, he saw no living thing, save a brown lizard (it was of the tarantula species) rustling away through the sunshine. To all present appearance, this venomous reptile was the only creature that had responded to the young Count’s efforts to renew his intercourse with the lower orders of nature.

“What has happened to you?” exclaimed Kenyon, stooping down over his friend, and wondering at the anguish which he betrayed.

“Death, death!” sobbed Donatello. “They know it!”

He grovelled beside the fountain, in a fit of such passionate sobbing and weeping, that it seemed as if his heart had broken, and spilt its wild sorrows upon the ground. His unrestrained grief and childish tears made Kenyon sensible in how small a degree the customs and restraints of society had really acted upon this young man, in spite of the quietude of his ordinary deportment. In response to his friend’s efforts to console him, he murmured words hardly more articulate than the strange chant which he had so recently been breathing into the air.

“They know it!” was all that Kenyon could yet distinguish —“they know it!”

“Who know it?” asked the sculptor. “And what is it their know?” “They know it!” repeated Donatello, trembling. “They shun me! All nature shrinks from me, and shudders at me! I live in the midst of a curse, that hems me round with a circle of fire! No innocent thing can come near me.”

“Be comforted, my dear friend,” said Kenyon, kneeling beside him. “You labor under some illusion, but no curse. As for this strange, natural spell, which you have been exercising, and of which I have heard before, though I never believed in, nor expected to witness it, I am satisfied that you still possess it. It was my own half-concealed presence, no doubt, and some involuntary little movement of mine, that scared away your forest friends.”

“They are friends of mine no longer,” answered Donatello.

“We all of us, as we grow older,” rejoined Kenyon, “lose somewhat of our proximity to nature. It is the price we pay for experience.”

“A heavy price, then!” said Donatello, rising from the ground. “But we will speak no more of it. Forget this scene, my dear friend. In your eyes, it must look very absurd. It is a grief, I presume, to all men, to find the pleasant privileges and properties of early life departing from them. That grief has now befallen me. Well; I shall waste no more tears for such a cause!”

Nothing else made Kenyon so sensible of a change in Donatello, as his newly acquired power of dealing with his own emotions, and, after a struggle more or less fierce, thrusting them down into the prison cells where he usually kept them confined. The restraint, which he now put upon himself, and the mask of dull composure which he succeeded in clasping over his still beautiful, and once faun-like face, affected the sensitive sculptor more sadly than even the unrestrained passion of the preceding scene. It is a very miserable epoch, when the evil necessities of life, in our tortuous world, first get the better of us so far as to compel us to attempt throwing a cloud over our transparency. Simplicity increases in value the longer we can keep it, and the further we carry it onward into life; the loss of a child’s simplicity, in the inevitable lapse of years, causes but a natural sigh or two, because even his mother feared that he could not keep it always. But after a young man has brought it through his childhood, and has still worn it in his bosom, not as an early dewdrop, but as a diamond of pure white lustre — it is a pity to lose it, then. And thus, when Kenyon saw how much his friend had now to hide, and how well he hid it, he would have wept, although his tears would have been even idler than those which Donatello had just shed.

They parted on the lawn before the house, the Count to climb his tower, and the sculptor to read an antique edition of Dante, which he had found among some old volumes of Catholic devotion, in a seldom-visited room, Tomaso met him in the entrance hall, and showed a desire to speak.

“Our poor signorino looks very sad to-day!” he said.

“Even so, good Tomaso,” replied the sculptor. “Would that we could raise his spirits a little!”

“There might be means, Signore,” answered the old butler, “if one might but be sure that they were the right ones. We men are but rough nurses for a sick body or a sick spirit.”

“Women, you would say, my good friend, are better,” said the sculptor, struck by an intelligence in the butler’s face. “That is possible! But it depends.”

“Ah; we will wait a little longer,” said Tomaso, with the customary shake of his head.

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