Gentles, do not reprehend:

If you pardon, we will mend:

And, as I am an honest Puck,

If we have unearned luck

Now to 'scape the serpent's tongue,

We will make amends ere long;

Else the Puck a liar call.

So, good night unto you all.

Give me your hands, if we be friends,

And Robin shall restore amends.

--"A Midsummer Night's Dream"

Puck, the whimsical imp, the mischievous sprite, a joker who acts more out of fun than malice in Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," bends a marble knee atop a fountain outside the Folger Shakespeare Library. The Hobgoblin is facing the U.S. Capitol. And he seems to be smirking, grinning at it or those inside, and perhaps stage-whispering behind their backs.

"LORD, WHAT FOOLS THESE MORTALS BE!"

But as he whispers, something is amiss: He seems to be disintegrating, melting away. His right hand and forearm, left thumb and four fingertips from the left hand are gone.

What "outrageous fortune"! He appears to be sugaring, turning to fairy dust. His whimsical spirit crumbles under the lightest touch. His fingers, toes and curls of hair have vanished into the starry, starry night.

A few years back, his hand fell off, a guard said, when a teenage skateboarder jumped to give Puck a high-five. And as if following the cue from the play--"give me your hands if we be friends"--it came off that instant. Plop.

The teenager, fearing he would be in trouble, delivered the hand to the guard.

Now the immortal "merry wanderer of the night," one of the few statues in Washington that portrays a character from a work of fiction, can no longer applaud.

Throughout this marble city, and beyond, outdoor sculptures that make us stand in awe and wonder what artist gave such life to a block of marble, are crumbling from vandalism and the elements. Marble is not as strong as once thought. Vulnerable to acid rain, our symbols of power and myth made from it are melting away.

At the Library of Congress, not far from where Puck kneels, presides Neptune, the great god of the sea, thunderous in slow motion. At his side, mermaids ride muscular horses with whale tales, bigger than life. At his feet, sea turtles spew forth water. But one of Neptune's subjects, in all his silent splendor, is exposed, missing a fig leaf that someone stole.

Meanwhile, at the Capitol, the Peace Monument, erected in 1877 to commemorate naval deaths during the Civil War, is losing parts. At the top of the monument two female figures--Grief and History--are wrapped in robes. Grief presses her face against the shoulder of History and weeps. Below, Victory holds a laurel wreath. Until recent restorations, the Peace Monument was missing feet, arms and facial features, eaten away by wind and acid rain and damaged by frequent protesters.

As if to say peace is fragile and can fall apart.

"We are obligated to try to take care of these pieces," said Clifford Craine, a conservator of sculpture with the Boston conservation company Daedalus Inc. "When they are lost, we lose our history, a terrible thing to lose. The flip side of that is nothing lasts forever."

Of the 32,000 outdoor sculptures across the country, 50 percent need repair, according to Heritage Preservation and the National Museum of American Art, two organizations overseeing a nonprofit project called Save Outdoor Sculpture.

Lawrence Reger, president of Heritage Preservation, said the project was started nine years ago to protect the "orphans of the art world," outdoor sculptures not owned by museums.

At Meridian Hill Park in Northwest Washington, the bronze sculpture of Joan of Arc has lost a sword. At Union Station, the statue of Christopher Columbus has been splattered with red paint.

The legs and base of the monument to Marion Kahlert, erected in Congressional Cemetery in memory of the person believed to be the first motor vehicle fatality in Washington, have been broken.

The Joseph Darlington Fountain near Judiciary Square is corroded and missing gold, and its basin collects trash. The buffaloes on Dumbarton Bridge on Q Street are fading.

The major issue in this city and across the country is that many monuments are made out of materials that are not indigenous to the climate they are used in, said Barbara Wolanin, curator for the architect of the Capitol, which oversees all federal buildings on Capitol Hill.

Both metal and marble have a difficult time holding up to the city's acid rain that has a pH of 4 on a scale of 7 to 1, with 1 being very acid.

Over time acid rain quietly dissolves marble, making it weaker and easier for vandals to break. The statues also can break from people simply climbing on them.

With each passing year, a few millimeters of marble surface on stones and buildings dissolve. On buildings, the melting process does not show so readily. But on statues, where the very beauty of the art lies in the details, the first few lost millimeters take a toll.

The works begin to look like used soap carvings.

Conservators usually follow the philosophy that you can't stop the wind or the rain, Craine said, so they concentrate on replacing what is vital to the meaning of the art.

"My personal feeling on outdoor stone sculptures is small parts like fingers or edges of drapery don't necessarily need to be replaced because you are more likely to do additional damage in the replacement," Craine said.

Any attribute that identifies a figure of peace or victory--such as laurel leaves or olive branches--would be a priority.

"If they are not there," Craine said, "it is not clear what the piece means."

Replacement parts (often made from a soft lime-based mortar mixed with crushed marble and sand) are lighter than the originals--a marble arm might weigh as much as 100 pounds. The replacements are attached "in such a way that if the sculpture gets abused again, the parts break away without any further damage to the sculpture."

After restoration, the Peace Monument was covered in a chemical coat to protect it from acid rain.

Captain of our fairy band,

Helena is here at hand;

And the youth, mistook by me,

Pleading for a lover's fee.

Shall we their fond pageant see?

Lord, what fools these mortals be!

Puck was commissioned for installation at the Folger Shakespeare Library when the facility opened in 1932. It was sculpted by Brenda Putnam; Puck is considered one of her finest works, compact and stylized. And he is in a precarious state.

"To lose Puck," officials at the library wrote recently in a proposal to have the statue restored, "would be an egregious loss, for as designed and situated, the work is part of the building. . . . Soon Puck may look nothing like his original form and may reach a stage at which it will be beyond hope for conservation or reproduction."

A romance novelist has made it her mission to save him--find a hand for him, raise enough money to repair him, make a cast of him and move him inside out of the elements, replacing him outside with a cast that is more than a shadow of the real thing.

"I've always loved Puck," says Mary W. Schaller, who writes under the name of Tori Phillips. Schaller, who has been a docent at the Folger for 21 years, has sent out appeals to her loyal readers asking them "to give Puck a hand."

"Puck appeals to my sense of whimsy," Schaller said in an interview. "I'm a writer with a reasonably nice following in romance. The books I write are set in Shakespearean time. If readers like that, I thought they might respond to a plea."

About $26,000 is needed to restore Puck and to make the aluminum cast of him. So far, since the campaign began in June, the donations have trickled in--sometimes in $10 donations, sometimes $20. So far they have amounted to $600. Save Outside Sculpture has donated about $8,750.

Jane Kolson, director of development for the Folger, said the library received $1.26 million last year to maintain its priceless collection of 255,000 books and 25,000 manuscripts. The library also has a program that introduces elementary and secondary students to Shakespeare in classrooms. After all those programs, little money is left in the budget to care for Puck.

"As much as we love Puck, we can't really make the case that it would be better for the institute to replace his hand than it would be better for the institute to provide pre-college outreach," Kolson said. "Poor Puck has just been at the bottom of our wish list for a while. We feel bad about it, but that is the way it has to be."

So Puck waits and silently makes this plea for magic:

My fairy lord, this must be done with haste,

For night's swift dragons cut the clouds full fast,

And yonder shines Aurora's harbinger;

At whose approach, ghosts, wandering here and there,

Troop home to churchyards: damned spirits all,

That in crossways and floods have burial,

Already to their wormy beds are gone;

For fear lest day should look their shames upon,

They wilfully themselves exile from light

And must for aye consort with black-bro'd night.

CAPTION: Puck more recently, a victim of acid rain and an emphatic high-five.

CAPTION: The imp intact: Puck in 1963, still in one piece despite 31 years of wear.

CAPTION: King Neptune and his court, awash in an erosive sea outside the Library of Congress.