in earnest, and you seemed equally so," replied Hilda, glancing back
at Donatello, as if to reassure herself of the resemblance. "But faces
change so much, from hour to hour, that the same set of features has
often no keeping with itself; to an eye, at least, which looks at
expression more than outline.
How sad and sombre he has grown all of a
sudden!" "Angry too, methinks! nay, it is anger much more than sadness,"
said Miriam. "I have seen Donatello in this mood once or twice before.
If you consider him well, you will observe an odd mixture of
the bulldog, or some other equally fierce brute, in our friend's
composition; a trait of savageness hardly to be expected in such a
gentle creature as he usually is. Donatello is a very strange young man.
I wish he would not haunt my footsteps so continually."
"You have bewitched the poor lad," said the sculptor, laughing. "You
have a faculty of bewitching people, and it is providing you with a
singular train of followers. I see another of them behind yonder pillar;
and it is his presence that has aroused Donatello's wrath."
They had now emerged from the gateway of the palace; and partly
concealed by one of the pillars of the portico stood a figure such as
may often be encountered in the streets and piazzas of Rome, and nowhere
else. He looked as if he might just have stepped out of a picture, and,
in truth, was likely enough to find his way into a dozen pictures; being
no other than one of those living models, dark, bushy bearded, wild
of aspect and attire, whom artists convert into saints or assassins,
according as their pictorial purposes demand.
"Miriam," whispered Hilda, a little startled, "it is your model!"
Miriam's model has so important a connection with our story, that it is
essential to describe the singular mode of his first appearance, and
how he subsequently became a self-appointed follower of the young female
artist. In the first place, however, we must devote a page or two to
certain peculiarities in the position of Miriam herself.
There was an ambiguity about this young lady, which, though it did not
necessarily imply anything wrong, would have operated unfavorably as
regarded her reception in society, anywhere but in Rome. The truth was,
that nobody knew anything about Miriam, either for good or evil. She had
made her appearance without introduction, had taken a studio, put her
card upon the door, and showed very considerable talent as a painter in
oils. Her fellow professors of the brush, it is true, showered abundant
criticisms upon her pictures, allowing them to be well enough for the
idle half-efforts of an amateur, but lacking both the trained skill and
the practice that distinguish the works of a true artist.
Nevertheless, be their faults what they might, Miriam's pictures met
with good acceptance among the patrons of modern art. Whatever technical
merit they lacked, its absence was more than supplied by a warmth
and passionateness, which she had the faculty of putting into her
productions, and which all the world could feel. Her nature had a great
deal of color, and, in accordance with it, so likewise had her pictures.
Miriam had great apparent freedom of intercourse; her manners were so
far from evincing shyness, that it seemed easy to become acquainted with
her, and not difficult to develop a casual acquaintance into intimacy.
Such, at least, was the impression which she made, upon brief contact,
but not such the ultimate conclusion of those who really sought to know
her. So airy, free, and affable was Miriam's deportment towards all who
came within her sphere, that possibly they might never be conscious of
the fact, but so it was, that they did not get on, and were seldom any
further advanced into her good graces to-day than yesterday. By some
subtile quality, she kept people at a distance, without so much as
letting them know that they were excluded from her inner circle. She
resembled one of those images of light, which conjurers evoke and cause
to shine before us, in apparent tangibility, only an arm's length beyond
our grasp: we make a step in advance, expecting to seize the illusion,
but find it still precisely so far out of our reach. Finally, society
began to recognize the impossibility of getting nearer to Miriam, and
There were two persons, however, whom she appeared to acknowledge as
friends in the closer and truer sense of the word; and both of these
more favored individuals did credit to Miriam's selection. One was
a young American sculptor, of high promise and rapidly increasing
celebrity; the other, a girl of the same country, a painter like Miriam
herself, but in a widely different sphere of art. Her heart flowed out
towards these two; she requited herself by their society and friendship
(and especially by Hilda's) for all the loneliness with which, as
regarded the rest of the world, she chose to be surrounded. Her two
friends were conscious of the strong, yearning grasp which Miriam laid
upon them, and gave her their affection in full measure; Hilda, indeed,
responding with the fervency of a girl's first friendship, and Kenyon
with a manly regard, in which there was nothing akin to what is
distinctively called love.
A sort of intimacy subsequently grew up between these three friends
and a fourth individual; it was a young Italian, who, casually visiting
Rome, had been attracted by the beauty which Miriam possessed in a
remarkable degree. He had sought her, followed her, and insisted, with
simple perseverance, upon being admitted at least to her acquaintance; a
boon which had been granted, when a more artful character, seeking it by
a more subtle mode of pursuit, would probably have failed to obtain it.
This young man, though anything but intellectually brilliant, had many
agreeable characteristics which won him the kindly and half-contemptuous
regard of Miriam and her two friends. It was he whom they called
Donatello, and whose wonderful resemblance to the Faun of Praxiteles
forms the keynote of our narrative.
Such was the position in which we find Miriam some few months after her
establishment at Rome. It must be added, however, that the world did not
permit her to hide her antecedents without making her the subject of
a good deal of conjecture; as was natural enough, considering the
abundance of her personal charms, and the degree of notice that she
attracted as an artist. There were many stories about Miriam's origin
and previous life, some of which had a very probable air, while others
were evidently wild and romantic fables. We cite a few, leaving the
reader to designate them either under the probable or the romantic head.
It was said, for example, that Miriam was the daughter and heiress of
a great Jewish banker (an idea perhaps suggested by a certain rich
Oriental character in her face), and had fled from her paternal home
to escape a union with a cousin, the heir of another of that golden
brotherhood; the object being to retain their vast accumulation of
wealth within the family. Another story hinted that she was a German
princess, whom, for reasons of state, it was proposed to give in
marriage either to a decrepit sovereign, or a prince still in his
cradle. According to a third statement, she was the off-spring of a
Southern American planter, who had given her an elaborate education and
endowed her with his wealth; but the one burning drop of African
blood in her veins so affected her with a sense of ignominy, that she
relinquished all and fled her country. By still another account she was
the lady of an English nobleman; and, out of mere love and honor of
art, had thrown aside the splendor of her rank, and come to seek a
subsistence by her pencil in a Roman studio.
In all the above cases, the fable seemed to be instigated by the large
and bounteous impression which Miriam invariably made, as if necessity
and she could have nothing to do with one another. Whatever deprivations
she underwent must needs be voluntary. But there were other surmises,
taking such a commonplace view as that Miriam was the daughter of a
merchant or financier, who had been ruined in a great commercial crisis;
and, possessing a taste for art, she had attempted to support herself by
the pencil, in preference to the alternative of going out as governess.
Be these things how they might, Miriam, fair as she looked, was plucked
up out of a mystery, and had its roots still clinging to her. She was a
beautiful and attractive woman, but based, as it were, upon a cloud, and
all surrounded with misty substance; so that the result was to render
her sprite-like in her most ordinary manifestations. This was the case
even in respect to Kenyon and Hilda, her especial friends. But such was
the effect of Miriam's natural language, her generosity, kindliness, and
native truth of character, that these two received her as a dear friend
into their hearts, taking her good qualities as evident and genuine, and
never imagining that what was hidden must be therefore evil.
We now proceed with our narrative.
The same party of friends, whom we have seen at the sculpture-gallery of
the Capitol, chanced to have gone together, some months before, to the
catacomb of St. Calixtus. They went joyously down into that vast
tomb, and wandered by torchlight through a sort of dream, in which
reminiscences of church aisles and grimy cellars - and chiefly the
latter - seemed to be broken into fragments, and hopelessly intermingled.
The intricate passages along which they followed their guide had been
hewn, in some forgotten age, out of a dark-red, crumbly stone. On either
side were horizontal niches, where, if they held their torches closely,
the shape of a human body was discernible in white ashes, into which the
entire mortality of a man or woman had resolved itself. Among all this
extinct dust, there might perchance be a thigh-bone, which crumbled at
a touch; or possibly a skull, grinning at its own wretched plight, as is
the ugly and empty habit of the thing.
Sometimes their gloomy pathway tended upward, so that, through a
crevice, a little daylight glimmered down upon them, or even a streak of
sunshine peeped into a burial niche; then again, they went downward by
gradual descent, or by abrupt, rudely hewn steps, into deeper and deeper
recesses of the earth. Here and there the narrow and tortuous passages
widened somewhat, developing themselves into small chapels; - which
once, no doubt, had been adorned with marble-work and lighted with
ever-burning lamps and tapers. All such illumination and ornament,
however, had long since been extinguished and stript away; except,
indeed, that the low roofs of a few of these ancient sites of worship
were covered with dingy stucco, and frescoed with scriptural scenes and
subjects, in the dreariest stage of ruin.
In one such chapel, the guide showed them a low arch, beneath which the
body of St. Cecilia had been buried after her martyrdom, and where it
lay till a sculptor saw it, and rendered it forever beautiful in marble.
In a similar spot they found two sarcophagi, one containing a skeleton,
and the other a shrivelled body, which still wore the garments of its
"How dismal all this is!" said Hilda, shuddering. "I do not know why we
came here, nor why we should stay a moment longer."
"I hate it all!" cried Donatello with peculiar energy. "Dear friends,
let us hasten back into the blessed daylight!"
From the first, Donatello had shown little fancy for the expedition;
for, like most Italians, and in especial accordance with the law of his
own simple and physically happy nature, this young man had an infinite
repugnance to graves and skulls, and to all that ghastliness which the
Gothic mind loves to associate with the idea of death. He shuddered,
and looked fearfully round, drawing nearer to Miriam, whose attractive
influence alone had enticed him into that gloomy region.
"What a child you are, poor Donatello!" she observed, with the freedom
which she always used towards him. "You are afraid of ghosts!"
"Yes, signorina; terribly afraid!" said the truthful Donatello.
"I also believe in ghosts," answered Miriam, "and could tremble at them,
in a suitable place. But these sepulchres are so old, and these skulls
and white ashes so very dry, that methinks they have ceased to be
haunted. The most awful idea connected with the catacombs is their
interminable extent, and the possibility of going astray into this
labyrinth of darkness, which broods around the little glimmer of our
"Has any one ever been lost here?" asked Kenyon of the guide.
"Surely, signor; one, no longer ago than my father's time," said the
guide; and he added, with the air of a man who believed what he was
telling, "but the first that went astray here was a pagan of old Rome,
who hid himself in order to spy out and betray the blessed saints, who
then dwelt and worshipped in these dismal places. You have heard the
story, signor? A miracle was wrought upon the accursed one; and, ever
since (for fifteen centuries at least), he has been groping in the
darkness, seeking his way out of the catacomb."
"Has he ever been seen?" asked Hilda, who had great and tremulous faith
in marvels of this kind.
"These eyes of mine never beheld him, signorina; the saints forbid!"
answered the guide. "But it is well known that he watches near parties
that come into the catacomb, especially if they be heretics, hoping to
lead some straggler astray. What this lost wretch pines for, almost as
much as for the blessed sunshine, is a companion to be miserable with
"Such an intense desire for sympathy indicates something amiable in the
poor fellow, at all events," observed Kenyon.
They had now reached a larger chapel than those heretofore seen; it
was of a circular shape, and, though hewn out of the solid mass of red
sandstone, had pillars, and a carved roof, and other tokens of a regular
architectural design. Nevertheless, considered as a church, it was
exceedingly minute, being scarcely twice a man's stature in height, and
only two or three paces from wall to wall; and while their collected
torches illuminated this one small, consecrated spot, the great darkness
spread all round it, like that immenser mystery which envelops our
little life, and into which friends vanish from us, one by one. "Why,
where is Miriam?" cried Hilda. The party gazed hurriedly from face to
face, and became aware that one of their party had vanished into
the great darkness, even while they were shuddering at the remote
possibility of such a misfortune.
THE SPECTRE OF THE CATACOMB
"Surely, she cannot be lost!" exclaimed Kenyon. "It is but a moment since
she was speaking."
"No, no!" said Hilda, in great alarm. "She was behind us all; and it is
a long while since we have heard her voice!"
"Torches! torches!" cried Donatello desperately. "I will seek her, be
the darkness ever so dismal!"
But the guide held him back, and assured them all that there was no
possibility of assisting their lost companion, unless by shouting at
the very top of their voices. As the sound would go very far along these
close and narrow passages, there was a fair probability that Miriam
might hear the call, and be able to retrace her steps.
Accordingly, they all - Kenyon with his bass voice; Donatello with his
tenor; the guide with that high and hard Italian cry, which makes the
streets of Rome so resonant; and Hilda with her slender scream, piercing
farther than the united uproar of the rest - began to shriek, halloo, and
bellow, with the utmost force of their lungs. And, not to prolong the
reader's suspense (for we do not particularly seek to interest him
in this scene, telling it only on account of the trouble and strange
entanglement which followed), they soon heard a responsive call, in a
"It was the signorina!" cried Donatello joyfully.
"Yes; it was certainly dear Miriam's voice," said Hilda. "And here she
comes! Thank Heaven! Thank Heaven!"
The figure of their friend was now discernible by her own torchlight,
approaching out of one of the cavernous passages. Miriam came forward,
but not with the eagerness and tremulous joy of a fearful girl, just
rescued from a labyrinth of gloomy mystery. She made no immediate
response to their inquiries and tumultuous congratulations; and, as they
afterwards remembered, there was something absorbed, thoughtful, and
self-concentrated in her deportment. She looked pale, as well she might,
and held her torch with a nervous grasp, the tremor of which was seen
in the irregular twinkling of the flame. This last was the chief
perceptible sign of any recent agitation or alarm.
"Dearest, dearest Miriam," exclaimed Hilda, throwing her arms about her
friend, "where have you been straying from us? Blessed be Providence,
which has rescued you out of that miserable darkness!"
"Hush, dear Hilda!" whispered Miriam, with a strange little laugh. "Are
you quite sure that it was Heaven's guidance which brought me back?
If so, it was by an odd messenger, as you will confess. See; there he
Startled at Miriam's words and manner, Hilda gazed into the duskiness
whither she pointed, and there beheld a figure standing just on the
doubtful limit of obscurity, at the threshold of the small, illuminated
chapel. Kenyon discerned him at the same instant, and drew nearer with
his torch; although the guide attempted to dissuade him, averring that,
once beyond the consecrated precincts of the chapel, the apparition
would have power to tear him limb from limb. It struck the sculptor,
however, when he afterwards recurred to these circumstances, that the
guide manifested no such apprehension on his own account as he professed
on behalf of others; for he kept pace with Kenyon as the latter
approached the figure, though still endeavoring to restrain 'him.
In fine, they both drew near enough to get as good a view of the spectre
as the smoky light of their torches, struggling with the massive gloom,
The stranger was of exceedingly picturesque, and even melodramatic
aspect. He was clad in a voluminous cloak, that seemed to be made of a
buffalo's hide, and a pair of those goat-skin breeches, with the hair
outward, which are still commonly worn by the peasants of the Roman
Campagna. In this garb, they look like antique Satyrs; and, in truth,
the Spectre of the Catacomb might have represented the last survivor
of that vanished race, hiding himself in sepulchral gloom, and mourning
over his lost life of woods and streams.
Furthermore, he had on a broad-brimmed, conical hat, beneath the shadow
of which a wild visage was indistinctly seen, floating away, as it were,
into a dusky wilderness of mustache and beard. His eyes winked, and
turned uneasily from the torches, like a creature to whom midnight would
be more congenial than noonday.
On the whole, the spectre might have made a considerable impression
on the sculptor's nerves, only that he was in the habit of observing
similar figures, almost every day, reclining on the Spanish steps,
and waiting for some artist to invite them within the magic realm of
picture. Nor, even thus familiarized with the stranger's peculiarities
of appearance, could Kenyon help wondering to see such a personage,
shaping himself so suddenly out of the void darkness of the catacomb.
"What are you?" said the sculptor, advancing his torch nearer. "And how
long have you been wandering here?"
"A thousand and five hundred years!" muttered the guide, loud enough to
be heard by all the party. "It is the old pagan phantom that I told you
of, who sought to betray the blessed saints!"
"Yes; it is a phantom!" cried Donatello, with a shudder. "Ah, dearest
signorina, what a fearful thing has beset you in those dark corridors!"
"Nonsense, Donatello," said the sculptor. "The man is no more a phantom
than yourself. The only marvel is, how he comes to be hiding himself in
the catacomb. Possibly our guide might solve the riddle."
The spectre himself here settled the point of his tangibility, at all
events, and physical substance, by approaching a step nearer, and laying
his hand on Kenyon's arm.
"Inquire not what I am, nor wherefore I abide in the darkness," said he,
in a hoarse, harsh voice, as if a great deal of damp were clustering in
his throat. "Henceforth, I am nothing but a shadow behind her footsteps.
She came to me when I sought her not. She has called me forth, and must
abide the consequences of my reappearance in the world."
"Holy Virgin! I wish the signorina joy of her prize," said the guide,
half to himself. "And in any case, the catacomb is well rid of him."
We need follow the scene no further. So much is essential to the
subsequent narrative, that, during the short period while astray in
those tortuous passages, Miriam had encountered an unknown man, and
led him forth with her, or was guided back by him, first into the
torchlight, thence into the sunshine.
It was the further singularity of this affair, that the connection, thus
briefly and casually formed, did not terminate with the incident
that gave it birth. As if her service to him, or his service to her,
whichever it might be, had given him an indefeasible claim on Miriam's
regard and protection, the Spectre of the Catacomb never long allowed
her to lose sight of him, from that day forward. He haunted her
footsteps with more than the customary persistency of Italian
mendicants, when once they have recognized a benefactor. For days
together, it is true, he occasionally vanished, but always reappeared,
gliding after her through the narrow streets, or climbing the hundred
steps of her staircase and sitting at her threshold.
Being often admitted to her studio, he left his features, or some shadow
or reminiscence of them, in many of her sketches and pictures. The moral
atmosphere of these productions was thereby so influenced, that rival
painters pronounced it a case of hopeless mannerism, which would destroy
all Miriam's prospects of true excellence in art.
The story of this adventure spread abroad, and made its way beyond
the usual gossip of the Forestieri, even into Italian circles, where,
enhanced by a still potent spirit of superstition, it grew far more
wonderful than as above recounted. Thence, it came back among the
Anglo-Saxons, and was communicated to the German artists, who so richly
supplied it with romantic ornaments and excrescences, after their
fashion, that it became a fantasy worthy of Tieck or Hoffmann. For
nobody has any conscience about adding to the improbabilities of a
The most reasonable version of the incident, that could anywise be
rendered acceptable to the auditors, was substantially the one suggested
by the guide of the catacomb, in his allusion to the legend of Memmius.
This man, or demon, or man-demon, was a spy during the persecutions
of the early Christians, probably under the Emperor Diocletian, and
penetrated into the catacomb of St. Calixtus, with the malignant purpose
of tracing out the hiding-places of the refugees. But, while he stole
craftily through those dark corridors, he chanced to come upon a little
chapel, where tapers were burning before an altar and a crucifix, and
a priest was in the performance of his sacred office. By divine
indulgence, there was a single moment's grace allowed to Memmius, during
which, had he been capable of Christian faith and love, he might have
knelt before the cross, and received the holy light into his soul, and
so have been blest forever. But he resisted the sacred impulse. As
soon, therefore, as that one moment had glided by, the light of the
consecrated tapers, which represent all truth, bewildered the wretched
man with everlasting error, and the blessed cross itself was stamped
as a seal upon his heart, so that it should never open to receive
Thenceforth, this heathen Memmius has haunted the wide and dreary
precincts of the catacomb, seeking, as some say, to beguile new victims
into his own misery; but, according to other statements, endeavoring to
prevail on any unwary visitor to take him by the hand, and guide him out
into the daylight. Should his wiles and entreaties take effect, however,
the man-demon would remain only a little while above ground. He would
gratify his fiendish malignity by perpetrating signal mischief on his
benefactor, and perhaps bringing some old pestilence or other forgotten
and long-buried evil on society; or, possibly, teaching the modern
world some decayed and dusty kind of crime, which the antique Romans