"A White Bird–his Own Soul Was Like That"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: Marius, a young Roman of the second century A.D.–who is finally to die as a Christian–lives with his widowed mother on his family estate, White-nights, in northern Italy. A meditative and devout boy, he takes pleasure in observing the rites of Roman belief, "the religion of Numa," with its many observances centered about the family funeral urn–"a tiny, delicately carved marble house, still white and fair, in the family-chapel, wreathed always with the richest flowers of the garden." Influenced by his mother's devotion to the memory of her dead husband, Marius develops a reverence for maternity and, in addition, "an urbane and feminine refinement" of temperament himself. He so loves the country life that in the harsh winters, when the flocks suffer as people do from the rigors of nature, he feels a sympathy for all creatures:

. . . It was a feeling which had in it something of religious veneration for life as such–for that mysterious essence which man is powerless to create in even the feeblest degree. One by one, at the desire of his mother, the lad broke down his cherished traps and springs for the hungry wild birds on the salt marsh. A white bird, she told him once, looking at him gravely, a bird which he must carry in his bosom across a crowded public place–his own soul was like that! Would it reach the hands of his good genius on the opposite side, unruffled and unsoiled? . . .