The Marble Faun, by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Chapter 40

Hilda and a Friend

When Hilda knelt to receive the priest’s benediction, the act was witnessed by a person who stood leaning against the marble balustrade that surrounds the hundred golden lights, before the high altar. He had stood there, indeed, from the moment of the girl’s entrance into the confessional. His start of surprise, at first beholding her, and the anxious gloom that afterwards settled on his face, sufficiently betokened that he felt a deep and sad interest in what was going forward.

After Hilda had bidden the priest farewell, she came slowly towards the high altar. The individual to whom we have alluded seemed irresolute whether to advance or retire. His hesitation lasted so long that the maiden, straying through a happy reverie, had crossed the wide extent of the pavement between the confessional and the altar, before he had decided whether to meet her. At last, when within a pace or two, she raised her eyes and recognized Kenyon.

“It is you!” she exclaimed, with joyful surprise. “I am so happy.”

In truth, the sculptor had never before seen, nor hardly imagined, such a figure of peaceful beatitude as Hilda now presented. While coming towards him in the solemn radiance which, at that period of the day, is diffused through the transept, and showered down beneath the dome, she seemed of the same substance as the atmosphere that enveloped her. He could scarcely tell whether she was imbued with sunshine, or whether it was a glow of happiness that shone out of her.

At all events, it was a marvellous change from the sad girl, who had entered the confessional bewildered with anguish, to this bright, yet softened image of religious consolation that emerged from it. It was as if one of the throng of angelic people, who might be hovering in the sunny depths of the dome, had alighted on the pavement. Indeed, this capability of transfiguration, which we often see wrought by inward delight on persons far less capable of it than Hilda, suggests how angels come by their beauty, it grows out of their happiness, and lasts forever only because that is immortal.

She held out her hand, and Kenyon was glad to take it in his own, if only to assure himself that she was made of earthly material.

“Yes, Hilda, I see that you are very happy,” he replied gloomily, and withdrawing his hand after a single pressure. “For me, I never was less so than at this moment.”

“Has any misfortune befallen you?” asked Hilda with earnestness. “Pray tell me, and you shall have my sympathy, though I must still be very happy. Now I know how it is that the saints above are touched by the sorrows of distressed people on earth, and yet are never made wretched by them. Not that I profess to be a saint, you know,” she added, smiling radiantly. “But the heart grows so large, and so rich, and so variously endowed, when it has a great sense of bliss, that it can give smiles to some, and tears to others, with equal sincerity, and enjoy its own peace throughout all.”

“Do not say you are no saint!” answered Kenyon with a smile, though he felt that the tears stood in his eves. “You will still be Saint Hilda, whatever church may canonize you.”

“Ah! you would not have said so, had you seen me but an hour ago!” murmured she. “I was so wretched, that there seemed a grievous sin in it.”

“And what has made you so suddenly happy?” inquired the sculptor. “But first, Hilda, will you not tell me why you were so wretched?”

“Had I met you yesterday, I might have told you that,” she replied. “To-day, there is no need.”

“Your happiness, then?” said the sculptor, as sadly as before. “Whence comes it?”

“A great burden has been lifted from my heart — from my conscience, I had almost said”— answered Hilda, without shunning the glance that he fixed upon her. “I am a new creature, since this morning, Heaven be praised for it! It was a blessed hour — a blessed impulse — that brought me to this beautiful and glorious cathedral. I shall hold it in loving remembrance while I live, as the spot where I found infinite peace after infinite trouble.”

Her heart seemed so full, that it spilt its new gush of happiness, as it were, like rich and sunny wine out of an over-brimming goblet. Kenyon saw that she was in one of those moods of elevated feeling, when the soul is upheld by a strange tranquility, which is really more passionate and less controllable than emotions far exceeding it in violence. He felt that there would be indelicacy, if he ought not rather to call it impiety, in his stealing upon Hilda, while she was thus beyond her own guardianship, and surprising her out of secrets which she might afterwards bitterly regret betraying to him. Therefore, though yearning to know what had happened, he resolved to forbear further question.

Simple and earnest people, however, being accustomed to speak from their genuine impulses, cannot easily, as craftier men do, avoid the subject which they have at heart. As often as the sculptor unclosed his lips, such words as these were ready to burst out:—“Hilda, have you flung your angelic purity into that mass of unspeakable corruption, the Roman Church?”

“What were you saying?” she asked, as Kenyon forced back an almost uttered exclamation of this kind.

“I was thinking of what you have just remarked about the cathedral,” said he, looking up into the mighty hollow of the dome. “It is indeed a magnificent structure, and an adequate expression of the Faith which built it. When I behold it in a proper mood — that is to say, when I bring my mind into a fair relation with the minds and purposes of its spiritual and material architects — I see but one or two criticisms to make. One is, that it needs painted windows.”

“O, no!” said Hilda. “They would be quite inconsistent with so much richness of color in the interior of the church. Besides, it is a Gothic ornament, and only suited to that style of architecture, which requires a gorgeous dimness.”

“Nevertheless,” continued the sculptor, “yonder square apertures, filled with ordinary panes of glass, are quite out of keeping with the superabundant splendor of everything about them. They remind me of that portion of Aladdin’s palace which he left unfinished, in order that his royal father-in-law might put the finishing touch. Daylight, in its natural state, ought not to be admitted here. It should stream through a brilliant illusion of saints and hierarchies, and old scriptural images, and symbolized dogmas, purple, blue, golden, and a broad flame of scarlet. Then, it would be just such an illumination as the Catholic faith allows to its believers. But, give me — to live and die in — the pure, white light of heaven!”

“Why do you look so sorrowfully at me?” asked Hilda, quietly meeting his disturbed gaze. “What would you say to me? I love the white light too!”

“I fancied so,” answered Kenyon. “Forgive me, Hilda; but I must needs speak. You seemed to me a rare mixture of impressibility, sympathy, sensitiveness to many influences, with a certain quality of common sense; — no, not that, but a higher and finer attribute, for which I find no better word. However tremulously you might vibrate, this quality, I supposed, would always bring you back to the equipoise. You were a creature of imagination, and yet as truly a New England girl as any with whom you grew up in your native village. If there were one person in the world whose native rectitude of thought, and something deeper, more reliable, than thought, I would have trusted against all the arts of a priesthood — whose taste alone, so exquisite and sincere that it rose to be a moral virtue, I would have rested upon as a sufficient safeguard — it was yourself!”

“I am conscious of no such high and delicate qualities as you allow me,” answered Hilda. “But what have I done that a girl of New England birth and culture, with the right sense that her mother taught her, and the conscience that she developed in her, should not do?”

“Hilda, I saw you at the confessional!” said Kenyon.

“Ah well, my dear friend,” replied Hilda, casting down her eyes, and looking somewhat confused, yet not ashamed, “you must try to forgive me for that, ~ if you deem it wrong, because it has saved my reason, and made me very happy. Had you been here yesterday, I would have confessed to you.”

“Would to Heaven I had!” ejaculated Kenyon.

“I think,” Hilda resumed,” I shall never go to the confessional again; for there can scarcely come such a sore trial twice in my life. If I had been a wiser girl, a stronger, and a more sensible, very likely I might not have gone to the confessional at all. It was the sin of others that drove me thither; not my own, though it almost seemed so. Being what I am, I must either have done what you saw me doing, or have gone mad. Would that have been better?”

“Then you are not a Catholic?” asked the sculptor earnestly.

“Really, I do not quite know what I am,” replied Hilda, encountering his eyes with a frank and simple gaze. “I have a great deal of faith, and Catholicism seems to have a great deal of good. Why should not I be a Catholic, if I find there what I need, and what I cannot find elsewhere? The more I see of this worship, the more I wonder at the exuberance with which it adapts itself to all the demands of human infirmity. If its ministers were but a little more than human, above all error, pure from all iniquity, what a religion would it be!”

“I need not fear your conversion to the Catholic faith,” remarked Kenyon, “if you are at all aware of the bitter sarcasm implied in your last observation. It is very just. Only the exceeding ingenuity of the system stamps it as the contrivance of man, or some worse author; not an emanation of the broad and simple wisdom from on high.”

“It may be so,” said Hilda; “but I meant no sarcasm.”

Thus conversing, the two friends went together down the grand extent of the nave. Before leaving the church, they turned to admire again its mighty breadth, the remoteness of the glory behind the altar, and the effect of visionary splendor and magnificence imparted by the long bars of smoky sunshine, which travelled so far before arriving at a place of rest.

“Thank Heaven for having brought me hither!” said Hilda fervently.

Kenyon’s mind was deeply disturbed by his idea of her Catholic propensities; and now what he deemed her disproportionate and misapplied veneration for the sublime edifice stung him into irreverence.

“The best thing I know of St. Peter’s,” observed he, “is its equable temperature” We are now enjoying the coolness of last winter, which, a few months hence, will be the warmth of the present summer. It has no cure, I suspect, in all its length and breadth, for a sick soul, but it would make an admirable atmospheric hospital for sick bodies. What a delightful shelter would it be for the invalids who throng to Rome, where the sirocco steals away their strength, and the tramontana stabs them through and through, like cold steel with a poisoned point! But within these walls, the thermometer never varies. Winter and summer are married at the high altar, and dwell together in perfect harmony.”

“Yes,” said Hilda; “and I have always felt this soft, unchanging climate of St. Peter’s to be another manifestation of its sanctity.”

“That is not precisely my idea,” replied Kenyon. “But what a delicious life it would be, if a colony of people with delicate lungs or merely with delicate fancies — could take up their abode in this ever-mild and tranquil air. These architectural tombs of the popes might serve for dwellings, and each brazen sepulchral doorway would become a domestic threshold. Then the lover, if he dared, might say to his mistress, ‘ Will you share my tomb with me? ‘ and, winning her soft consent, he would lead her to the altar, and thence to yonder sepulchre of Pope Gregory, which should be their nuptial home. What a life would be theirs, Hilda, in their marble Eden!”

“It is not kind, nor like yourself,” said Hilda gently, “to throw ridicule on emotions which are genuine. I revere this glorious church for itself and its purposes; and love it, moreover, because here I have found sweet peace, after’ a great anguish.”

“Forgive me,” answered the sculptor, “and I will do so no more. My heart is not so irreverent as my Words.”

They went through the piazza of St. Peter’s and the adjacent streets, silently at first; but, before reaching the bridge of St. Angelo, Hilda’s flow of spirits began to bubble forth, like the gush of a streamlet that has been shut up by frost, or by a heavy stone over its source. Kenyon had never found her so delightful as now; so softened out of the chillness of her virgin pride; so full of fresh thoughts, at which he was often moved to smile, although, on turning them over a little more, he sometimes discovered that they looked fanciful only because so absolutely true.

But, indeed, she was not quite in a normal state. Emerging from gloom into sudden cheerfulness, the effect upon Hilda was as if she were just now created. After long torpor, receiving back her intellectual activity, she derived an exquisite pleasure from the use of her faculties, which were set in motion by causes that seemed inadequate. She continually brought to Kenyon’s mind the image of a child, making its plaything of every object, but sporting in good faith, and with a kind of seriousness. Looking up, for example, at the statue of St. Michael, on the top of Hadrian’s castellated tomb, Hilda fancied an interview between the Archangel and the old emperor’s ghost, who was naturally displeased at finding his mausoleum, which he had ordained for the stately and solemn repose of his ashes, converted to its present purposes.

“But St. Michael, no doubt,” she thoughtfully remarked, “would finally convince the Emperor Hadrian that where a warlike despot is sown as the seed, a fortress and a prison are the only possible crop.”

They stopped on the bridge to look into the swift eddying flow of the yellow Tiber, a mud puddle in strenuous motion; and Hilda wondered whether the seven-branched golden candlestick — the holy candlestick of the Jews, which was lost at the Ponte Molle, in Constantine’s time, had yet been swept as far down the river as this.

“It probably stuck where it fell,” said the sculptor; “and, by this time, is imbedded thirty feet deep in the mud of the Tiber. Nothing will ever bring it to light again.”

“I fancy you are mistaken,” replied Hilda, smiling. “There was a meaning and purpose in each of its seven branches, and such a candlestick cannot be lost forever. When it is found again, and seven lights are kindled and burning in it, the whole world will gain the illumination which it needs. Would not this be an admirable idea for a mystic story or parable, or seven-branched allegory, full of poetry, art, philosophy, and religion? It shall be called ‘The Recovery of the Sacred Candlestick.’ As each branch is lighted, it shall have a differently colored lustre from the other six; and when all the seven are kindled, their radiance shall combine into the intense white light of truth.”

“Positively, Hilda, this is a magnificent conception,” cried Kenyon. “The more I look at it, the brighter it burns.”

“I think so too,” said Hilda, enjoying a childlike pleasure in her own idea. “The theme is better suited for verse than prose; and when I go home to America, I will suggest it to one of our poets. Or seven poets might write the poem together, each lighting a separate branch of the Sacred Candlestick.”

“Then you think of going home?” Kenyon asked.

“Only yesterday,” she replied, “I longed to flee away. Now, all is changed, and, being happy again, I should feel deep regret at leaving the Pictorial Land. But I cannot tell. In Rome, there is something dreary and awful, which we can never quite escape. At least, I thought so yesterday.”

When they reached the Via Portoghese, and approached Hilda’s tower, the doves, who were waiting aloft, flung themselves upon the air, and came floating down about her head. The girl caressed them, and responded to their cooings with similar sounds from her own lips, and with words of endearment; and their joyful flutterings and airy little flights, evidently impelled by pure exuberance of spirits, seemed to show that the doves had a real sympathy with their mistress’s state of mind. For peace had descended upon her like a dove.

Bidding the sculptor farewell, Hilda climbed her tower, and came forth upon its summit to trim the Virgin’s lamp. The doves, well knowing her custom, had flown up thither to meet her, and again hovered about her head; and very lovely was her aspect, in the evening Sunlight, which had little further to do with the world just then, save to fling a golden glory on Hilda’s hair, and vanish.

Turning her eyes down into the dusky street which she had just quitted, Hilda saw the sculptor still there, and waved her hand to him.

“How sad and dim he looks, down there in that dreary street!” she said to herself. “Something weighs upon his spirits. Would I could comfort him!”

“How like a spirit she looks, aloft there, with the evening glory round her head, and those winged creatures claiming her as akin to them!” thought Kenyon, on his part. “How far above me! how unattainable! Ah, if I could lift myself to her region! Or — if it be not a sin to wish it — would that I might draw her down to an earthly fireside!”

What a sweet reverence is that, when a young man deems his mistress a little more than mortal, and almost chides himself for longing to bring her close to his heart! A trifling circumstance, but such as lovers make much of, gave him hope. One of the doves, which had been resting on Hilda’s shoulder, suddenly flew downward, as if recognizing him as its mistress’s dear friend; and, perhaps commissioned with an errand of regard, brushed his upturned face with its wings, and again soared aloft.

The sculptor watched the bird’s return, and saw Hilda greet it with a smile.

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