The Marble Faun, by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Chapter 9

The Faun and Nymph

Mirian’s sadder mood, it might be, had at first an effect on Donatello s spirits. It checked the joyous ebullition into which they would otherwise have effervesced when he found himself in her society, not, as heretofore, in the old gloom of Rome, but under that bright soft sky and in those Arcadian woods. He was silent for a while; it being, indeed, seldom Donatello’s impulse to express himself copiously in words. His usual modes of demonstration were by the natural language of gesture, the instinctive movement of his agile frame, and the unconscious play of his features, which, within a limited range of thought and emotion, would speak volumes in a moment.

By and by, his own mood seemed to brighten Miriam’s, and was reflected back upon himself. He began inevitably, as it were, to dance along the wood-path; flinging himself into attitudes of strange comic grace. Often, too, he ran a little way in advance of his companion, and then stood to watch her as she approached along the shadowy and sun-fleckered path. With every step she took, he expressed his joy at her nearer and nearer presence by what might be thought an extravagance of gesticulation, but which doubtless was the language of the natural man, though laid aside and forgotten by other men, now that words have been feebly substituted in the place of signs and symbols. He gave Miriam the idea of a being not precisely man, nor yet a child, but, in a high and beautiful sense, an animal, a creature in a state of development less than what mankind has attained, yet the more perfect within itself for that very deficiency. This idea filled her mobile imagination with agreeable fantasies, which, after smiling at them herself, she tried to cofivey to the young man.

“What are you, my friend?” she exclaimed, always keeping in mind his singular resemblance to the Faun of the Capitol. “If you are, in good truth, that wild and pleasant creature whose face you wear, pray make me known to your kindred. They will be found hereabouts, if anywhere. Knock at the rough rind of this ilex-tree, and summon forth the Dryad! Ask the water-nymph to rise dripping from yonder fountain, and exchange a moist pressure of the hand with me! Do not fear that I shall shrink; even if one of your rough cousins, a hairy Satyr, should come capering on his goat-legs out of the haunts of far antiquity, and propose to dance with me among these lawns! And will not Bacchus — with whom you consorted so familiarly of old, and who loved you so well — will he not meet us here, and squeeze rich grapes into his cup for you and me?”

Donatello smiled; he laughed heartily, indeed, in sympathy with the mirth that gleamed out of Miriam’s deep, dark eyes. But he did not seem quite to understand her mirthful talk, nor to be disposed to explain what kind of creature he was, or to inquire with what divine or poetic kindred his companion feigned to link him. He appeared only to know that Miriam was beautiful, and that she smiled graciously upon him; that the present moment was very sweet, and himself most happy, with the sunshine, the sylvan scenery, and woman’s kindly charm, which it enclosed within its small circumference. It was delightful to see the trust which he reposed in Miriam, and his pure joy in her propinquity; he asked nothing, sought nothing, save to be near the beloved object, and brimmed over with ecstasy at that simple boon. A creature of the happy tribes below us sometimes shows the capacity of this enjoyment; a man, seldom or never.

“Donatello,” said Miriam, looking at him thoughtfully, but amused, yet not without a shade of sorrow, “you seem very happy; what makes you so?”

“Because I love you!” answered Donatello.

He made this momentous confession as if it were the most natural thing in the world; and on her part — such was the contagion of his simplicity — Miriam heard it without anger or disturbance, though with no responding emotion. It was as if they had strayed across the limits of Arcadia; and come under a civil polity where young men might avow their passion with as little restraint as a bird pipes its note to a similar purpose.

“Why should you love me, foolish boy?” said she. “We have no points of sympathy at all. There are not two creatures more unlike, in this wide world, than you and I!”

“You are yourself, and I am Donatello,” replied he. “Therefore I love you! There needs no other reason.”

Certainly, there was no better or more explicable reason. It might have been imagined that Donatello’s unsophisticated heart would be more readily attracted to a feminine nature of clear simplicity like his own, than to one already turbid with grief or wrong, as Miriam’s seemed to be. Perhaps, On the other hand, his character needed the dark element, which it found in her. The force and energy of will, that sometimes flashed through her eyes, may have taken him captive; or, not improbably, the varying lights and shadows of her temper, now so mirthful, and anon so sad with mysterious gloom, had bewitched the youth. Analyze the matter as we may, the reason assigned by Donatello himself was as satisfactory as we are likely to attain.

Miriam could not think seriously of the avowal that had passed. He held out his love so freely, in his open palm, that she felt it could be nothing but a toy, which she might play with for an instant, and give back again. And yet Donatello’s heart was so fresh a fountain, that, had Miriam been more world-worn than she was, she might have found it exquisite to slake her thirst with the feelings that welled up and brimmed over from it. She was far, very far, from the dusty mediaeval epoch, when some women have a taste for such refreshment. Even for her, however, there was an inexpressible charm in the simplicity that prompted Donatello’s words and deeds; though, unless she caught them in precisely the true light, they seemed but folly, the offspring of a maimed or imperfectly developed intellect. Alternately, she almost admired, or wholly scorned him, and knew not which estimate resulted from the deeper appreciation. But it could not, she decided for herself, be other than an innocent pastime, if they two — sure to be separated by their different paths in life, to-morrow — were to gather up some of the little pleasures that chanced to grow about their feet, like the violets and wood-anemones, to-day.

Yet an impulse of rectitude impelled Miriam to give him what she still held to be a needless warning against an imaginary peril.

“If you were wiser, Donatello, you would think me a dangerous person,” said she, “If you follow my footsteps, they will lead you to no good. You ought to be afraid of me.”

“I would as soon think of fearing the air we breathe,” he replied.

“And well you may, for it is full of malaria,” said Miriam; she went on, hinting at an intangible confession, such as persons with overburdened hearts often make to children or dumb animals, or to holes in the earth, where they think their secrets may be at once revealed and buried. “Those who come too near me are in danger of great mischiefs, I do assure you. Take warning, therefore! It is a sad fatality that has brought you from your home among the Apennines — some rusty old castle, I suppose, with a village at its foot, and an Arcadian environment of vineyards, fig-trees, and olive orchards — a sad mischance, I say, that has transported you to my side. You have had a happy life hitherto, have you not, Donatello?”

“O, yes,” answered the young man; and, though not of a retrospective turn, he made the best effort he could to send his mind back into the past. “I remember thinking it happiness to dance with the contadinas at a village feast; to taste the new, sweet wine at vintage-time, and the old, ripened wine, which our podere is famous for, in the cold winter evenings; and to devour great, luscious figs, and apricots, peaches, cherries, and melons. I was often happy in the woods, too, with hounds and horses, and very happy in watching all sorts, of creatures and birds that haunt the leafy solitudes. But never half so happy as now!”

“In these delightful groves?” she asked.

“Here, and with you,” answered Donatello. “Just as we are now.”

“What a fulness of content in him! How silly, and how delightful!” said Miriam to herself. Then addressing him again: “But, Donatello, how long will this happiness last?”

“How long!” he exclaimed; for it perplexed him even more to think of the future than to remember the past. “Why should it have any end? How long! Forever! forever! forever!”

“The child! the simpleton!” said Miriam, with sudden laughter, and checking it as suddenly. “But is he a simpleton indeed? Here, in those few natural words, he has expressed that deep sense, that profound conviction of its own immortality, which genuine love never fails to bring. He perplexes me — yes, and bewitches me — wild, gentle, beautiful creature that he is! It is like playing with a young greyhound!”

Her eyes filled with tears, at the same time that a smile shone out of them. Then first she became sensible of a delight and grief at once, in feeling this zephyr of a new affection, with its untainted freshness, blow over her weary, stifled heart, which had no right to be revived by it. The very exquisiteness of the enjoyment made her know that it ought to be a forbidden one.

“Donatello,” she hastily exclaimed, “for your own sake, leave me! It is not such a happy thing as you imagine it, to wander in these woods with me, a girl from another land, burdened with a doom that she tells to none. I might make you dread me — perhaps hate me — if I chose; and I must choose, if I find you loving me too well!”

“I fear nothing!” said Donatello, looking into her unfathomable eyes with perfect trust. “I love always!”

“I speak in vain,” thought Miriam within herself.

“Well, then, for this one hour, let me be such as he imagines me. To-morrow will be time enough to come back to my reality. My reality! what is it? Is the past so indestructible? the future so immitigable? Is the dark dream, in which I walk, of such solid, stony substance, that there can be no escape out of its dungeon? Be it so! There is, at least, that ethereal quality in my spirit, that it can make me as gay as Donatello himself — for this one hour!”

And immediately she brightened up, as if an inward flame, heretofore stifled, were now permitted to fill her with its happy lustre, glowing through her cheeks and dancing in her eye-beams.

Donatello, brisk and cheerful as he seemed before, showed a sensibility to Miriam’s gladdened mood by breaking into still wilder and ever-varying activity. He frisked around her, bubbling over with joy, which clothed itself in words that had little individual meaning, and in snatches of song that seemed as natural as bird notes. Then they both laughed together, and heard their own laughter returning in the echoes, and laughed again at the response, so that the ancient and solemn grove became full of merriment for these two blithe spirits. A bird happening to sing cheerily, Donatello gave a peculiar call, and the little feathered creature came fluttering about his head, as if it had known him through many summers.

“How close he stands to nature!” said Miriam, observing this pleasant familiarity between her companion and the bird. “He shall make me as natural as himself for this one hour.”

As they strayed through that sweet wilderness, she felt more and more the influence of his elastic temperament. Miriam was an impressible and impulsive creature, as unlike herself, in different moods, as if a melancholy maiden and a glad one were both bound within the girdle about her waist, and kept in magic thraldom by the brooch that clasped it. Naturally, it is true, she was the more inclined to melancholy, yet fully capable of that high frolic of the spirits which richly compensates for many gloomy hours; if her soul was apt to lurk in the darkness of a cavern, she could sport madly in the sunshine before the cavern’s mouth. Except the freshest mirth of animal spirits, like Donatello’s, there is no merriment, no wild exhilaration, comparable to that of melancholy people escaping from the dark region m which it is their custom to keep themselves imprisoned.

So the shadowy Miriam almost outdid Donatello on his own ground. They ran races with each other, side by side, with shouts and laughter; they pelted one another with early flowers, and gathering them up twined them with green leaves into garlands for both their heads. They played together like children, or creatures of immortal youth. So much had they flung aside the sombre habitudes of daily life, that they seemed born to be sportive forever, and endowed with eternal mirthfulness instead of any deeper joy. It was a glimpse far backward into Arcadian life, or, further still, into the Golden Age, before mankind was burdened with sin and sorrow, and before pleasure had been darkened with those shadows that bring it into high relief, and make it happiness.

“Hark!” cried Donatello, stopping short, as he was about to bind Miriam’s fair hands with flowers, and lead her along in triumph, “there is music somewhere in the grove!”

“It is your kinsman, Pan, most likely,” said Miriam, “playing on his pipe. Let us go seek him, and make him puff out his rough cheeks and pipe his merriest air! Come; the strain of music will guide us onward like a gayly colored thread of silk.”

“Or like a chain of flowers,” responded Donatello, drawing her along by that which he had twined. “This way! — Come!”

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