Romola, by George Eliot

Chapter 12 — The Prize is Nearly Grasped

Tito walked along with a light step, for the immediate fear had vanished; the usual joyousness of his disposition reassumed its predominance, and he was going to see Romola. Yet Romola’s life seemed an image of that loving, pitying devotedness, that patient endurance of irksome tasks, from which he had shrunk and excused himself. But he was not out of love with goodness, or prepared to plunge into vice: he was in his fresh youth, with soft pulses for all charm and loveliness; he had still a healthy appetite for ordinary human joys, and the poison could only work by degrees. He had sold himself to evil, but at present life seemed so nearly the same to him that he was not conscious of the bond. He meant all things to go on as they had done before, both within and without him: he meant to win golden opinions by meritorious exertion, by ingenious learning, by amiable compliance: he was not going to do anything that would throw him out of harmony with the beings he cared for. And he cared supremely for Romola; he wished to have her for his beautiful and loving wife. There might be a wealthier alliance within the ultimate reach of successful accomplishments like his, but there was no woman in all Florence like Romola. When she was near him, and looked at him with her sincere hazel eyes, he was subdued by a delicious influence as strong and inevitable as those musical vibrations which take possession of us with a rhythmic empire that no sooner ceases than we desire it to begin again.

As he trod the stone stairs, when he was still outside the door, with no one but Maso near him, the influence seemed to have begun its work by the mere nearness of anticipation.

‘Welcome, Tito mio,’ said the old man’s voice, before Tito had spoken. There was a new vigour in the voice, a new cheerfulness in the blind face, since that first interview more than two months ago. ‘You have brought fresh manuscript, doubtless; but since we were talking last night I have had new ideas: we must take a wider scope — we must go back upon our footsteps.’

Tito paying his homage to Romola as he advanced, went, as his custom was, straight to Bardo’s chair, and put his hand in the palm that was held to receive it, placing himself on the cross-legged leather seat with scrolled ends, close to Bardo’s elbow.

‘Yes,’ he said in his gentle way; ‘I have brought the new manuscript, but that can wait your pleasure. I have young limbs, you know, and can walk back up the hill without any difficulty.’

He did not look at Romola as he said this, but he knew quite well that her eyes were fixed on him with delight.

‘That is well said, my son.’ Bardo had already addressed Tito in this way once or twice of late. ‘And I perceive with gladness that you do not shrink from labour, without which, the poet has wisely said, life has given nothing to mortals. It is too often the “palma sine pulvere,” the prize of glory without the dust of the race, that attracts young ambition. But what says the Greek? “In the morning of life, work; in the mid-day, give counsel; in the evening, pray.” It is true, I might be thought to have reached that helpless evening; but not so, while I have counsel within me which is yet unspoken. For my mind, as I have often said, was shut up as by a dam; the plenteous waters lay dark and motionless; but you, my Tito, have opened a duct for them, and they rush forward with a force that surprises myself. And now, what I want is, that we should go over our preliminary ground again, with a wider scheme of comment and illustration: otherwise I may lose opportunities which I now see retrospectively, and which may never occur again. You mark what I am saying, Tito?’

He had just stooped to reach his manuscript, which had rolled down, and Bardo’s jealous ear was alive to the slight movement.

Tito might have been excused for shrugging his shoulders at the prospect before him, but he was not naturally impatient; moreover, he had been bred up in that laborious erudition, at once minute and copious, which was the chief intellectual task of the age; and with Romola near, he was floated along by waves of agreeable sensation that made everything seem easy.

‘Assuredly,’ he said; ‘you wish to enlarge your comments on certain passages we have cited.’

‘Not only so; I wish to introduce an occasional excursus, where we have noticed an author to whom I have given special study; for I may die too soon to achieve any separate work. And this is not a time for scholarly integrity and wellsifted learning to lie idle, when it is not only rash ignorance that we have to fear, but when there are men like Calderino, who, as Poliziano has well shown, have recourse to impudent falsities of citation to serve the ends of their vanity and secure a triumph to their own mistakes. Wherefore, my Tito, I think it not well that we should let slip the occasion that lies under our hands. And now we will turn back to the point where we have cited the passage from Thucydides, and I wish you, by way of preliminary, to go with me through all my notes on the Latin translation made by Lorenzo Valla, for which the incomparable Pope Nicholas V. — with whose personal notice I was honoured while I was yet young, and when he was still Thomas of Sarzana — paid him (I say not unduly) the sum of five hundred gold scudi. But inasmuch as Valla, though otherwise of dubious fame, is held in high honour for his severe scholarship, whence the epigrammatist has jocosely said of him that since he went among the shades, Pluto himself has not dared to speak in the ancient languages, it is the more needful that his name should not be as a stamp warranting false wares; and therefore I would introduce an excursus on Thucydides, wherein my castigations of Valla’s text may find a fitting place. My Romola, thou wilt reach the needful volumes — thou knowest them — on the fifth shelf of the cabinet.’

Tito rose at the same moment with Romola, saying, ‘I will reach them, if you will point them out,’ and followed her hastily into the adjoining small room, where the walls were also covered with ranges of books in perfect order.

‘There they are,’ said Romola, pointing upward; ‘every book is just where it was when my father ceased to see them.’

Tito stood by her without hastening to reach the books. They had never been in this room together before.

‘I hope,’ she continued, turning her eyes full on Tito, with a look of grave confidence — ‘I hope he will not weary you; this work makes him so happy.’

‘And me too, Romola — if you will only let me say, I love you — if you will only think me worth loving a little.’

His speech was the softest murmur, and the dark beautiful face, nearer to hers than it had ever been before, was looking at her with besecching tenderness.

‘I do love you,’ murmured Romola; she looked at him with the same simple majesty as ever, but her voice had never in her life before sunk to that murmur. It seemed to them both that they were looking at each other a long while before her lips moved again; yet it was but a moment till she said, ‘I know now what it is to be happy.’

The faces just met, and the dark curls mingled for an instant with the rippling gold. Quick as lightning after that, Tito set his foot on a projecting ledge of the book-shelves and reached down the needful volumes. They were both contented to be silent and separate, for that first blissful experience of mutual consciousness was all the more exquisite for being unperturbed by immediate sensation.

It had all been as rapid as the irreversible mingling of waters, for even the eager and jealous Bardo had not become impatient.

‘You have the volumes, my Romola?’ the old man said, as they came near him again. ‘And now you will get your pen ready; for, as Tito marks off the scholia we determine on extracting, it will be well for you to copy them without delay — numbering them carefully, mind, to correspond with the numbers in the text which he will write.’

Romola always had some task which gave her a share in this joint work. Tito took his stand at the leggio, where he both wrote and read, and she placed herself at a table just in front of him, where she was ready to give into her father’s hands anything that he might happen to want, or relieve him of a volume that he had done with. They had always been in that position since the work began, yet on this day it seemed new; it was so different now for them to be opposite each other; so different for Tito to take a book from her, as she lifted it from her father’s knee. Yet there was no finesse to secure an additional look or touch. Each woman creates in her own likeness the love-tokens that are offered to her; and Romola’s deep calm happiness encompassed Tito like the rich but quiet evening light which dissipates all unrest.

They had been two hours at their work, and were just desisting because of the fading light, when the door opened and there entered a figure strangely incongruous with the current of their thoughts and with the suggestions of every object around them. It was the figure of a short stout black-eyed woman, about fifty, wearing a black velvet berretta, or close cap, embroidered with pearls, under which surprisingly massive black braids surmounted the little bulging forehead, and fell in rich plaited curves over the ears, while an equally surprising carmine tint on the upper region of the fat cheeks contrasted with the surrounding sallowness. Three rows of pearls and a lower necklace of gold reposed on the horizontal cushion of her neck; the embroidered border of her trailing black-velvet gown and her embroidered long-drooping sleeves of rose-coloured damask, were slightly faded, but they conveyed to the initiated eye the satisfactory assurance that they were the splendid result of six months’ labour by a skilled workman; and the rose-coloured petticoat, with its dimmed white fringe and seed-pearl arabesques, was duly exhibited in order to suggest a similar pleasing reflection. A handsome coral rosary hung from one side of an inferential belt, which emerged into certainty with a large clasp of silver wrought in niello; and, on the other side, where the belt again became inferential, hung a scarsella, or large purse, of crimson velvet, stitched with pearls. Her little fat right hand, which looked as if it had been made of paste, and had risen out of shape under partial baking, held a small book of devotions, also splendid with velvet, pearls and silver.

The figure was already too familiar to Tito to be startling, for Monna Brigida was a frequent visitor at Bardo’s, being excepted from the sentence of banishment passed on feminine triviality, on the ground of her cousinship to his dead wife and her early care for Romola, who now looked round at her with an affectionate smile, and rose to draw the leather seat to a due distance from her father’s chair, that the coming gush of talk might not be too near his ear.

‘La cugina’ said Bardo, interrogatively, detecting the short steps and the sweeping drapery.

‘Yes, it is your cousin,’ said Monna Brigida, in an alert voice, raising her fingers smilingly to Tito, and then lifting up her face to be kissed by Romola. ‘Always the troublesome cousin breaking in on your wisdom,’ she went on, seating herself and beginning to fan herself with the white veil hanging over her arm. ‘Well, well; if I didn’t bring you some news of the world now and then, I do believe you’d forget there was anything in life but these mouldy ancients, who want sprinkling with holy water if all I hear about them it true. Not but what the world is bad enough nowadays, for the scandals that turn up under one’s nose at every corner — I don’t want to hear and see such things, but one can’t go about with one’s head in a bag; and it was only yesterday — well, well, you needn’t burst out at me, Bardo, I’m not going to tell anything; if I’m not as wise as the three kings, I know how many legs go into one boot. But, nevertheless, Florence is a wicked city — is it not true, Messer Tito? for you go into the world. Not but what one must sin a little — Messer Domeneddio expects that of us, else what are the blessed sacraments for? And what I say is, we’ve got to reverence the saints, and not to set ourselves up as if we could be like them, else life would be unbearable; as it will be if things go on after this new fashion. For what do you think? I’ve been at the wedding to-day — Dianora Acciajoli’s with the young Albizzi that there has been so much talk of — and everybody wondered at its being to-day instead of yesterday; but, cieli! such a wedding as it was might have been put off till the next Quaresima for a penance. For there was the bride looking like a white nun — not so much as a pearl about her — and the bridegroom as solemn as San Giuseppe. It’s true! And half the people invited were Piagnoni — they call them Piagnoni now, these new saints of Fra Girolamo’s making. And to think of two families like the Albizzi and the Acciajoli taking up such notions, when they could afford to wear the best! Well, well, they invited me — but they could do no other, seeing my husband was Luca Antonio’s uncle by the mother’s side — and a pretty time I had of it while we waited under the canopy in front of the house, before they let us in. I couldn’t stand in my clothes, it seemed, without giving offence; for there was Monna Berta, who has had worse secrets in her time than any I could tell of myself, looking askance at me from under her hood like a pinzochera, and telling me to read the Frate’s book about widows, from which she had found great guidance. Holy Madonna! it seems as if widows had nothing to do now but to buy their coffins, and think it a thousand years till they get into them, instead of enjoying themselves a little when they’ve got their hands free for the first time. And what do you think was the music we had, to make our dinner lively? A long discourse from Fra Domenico of San Marco, about the doctrines of their blessed Fra Girolamo — the three doctrines we are all to get by heart; and he kept marking them off on his fingers till he made my flesh creep: and the first is, Florence, or the Church — I don’t know which, for first he said one and then the other — shall be scourged; but if he means the pestilence, the Signory ought to put a stop to such preaching, for it’s enough to raise the swelling under one’s arms with fright: but then, after that, he says Florence is to be regenerated; but what will be the good of that when we’re all dead of the plague, or something else? And then, the third thing, and what he said oftenest, is, that it’s all to be in our days: and he marked that off on his thumb, till he made me tremble like the very jelly before me. They had jellies, to be sure, with the arms of the Albizzi and the Acciajoli raised on them in all colours; they’ve not turned the world quite upside down yet. But all their talk is, that we are to go back to the old ways: for up starts Francesco Valori, that I’ve danced with in the Via Larga when he was a bachelor and as fond of the Medici as anybody, and he makes a speech about the old times, before the Florentines had left off crying “Popolo” and begun to cry “Palle” — as if that had anything to do with a wedding! — and how we ought to keep to the rules the Signory laid down heaven knows when, that we were not to wear this and that, and not to eat this and that — and how our manners were corrupted and we read bad books; though he can’t say 4hat of me —’

‘Stop, cousin!’ said Bardo, in his imperious tone, for he had a remark to make, and only desperate measures could arrest the rattling lengthiness of Monna Brigida’s discourse. But now she gave a little start, pursed up her mouth, and looked at him with round eyes.

‘Francesco Valori is not altogether wrong,’ Bardo went on. ‘Bernardo, indeed, rates him not highly, and is rather of opinion that he christens private grudges by the name of public zeal; though I must admit that my good Bernardo is too slow of belief in that unalloyed patriotism which was found in all its lustre amongst the ancients. But it is true Tito, that our manners have degenerated somewhat from that noble frugality which, as has been well seen in the public acts of our citizens, is the parent of true magnificence. For men, as I hear, will now spend on the transient show of a Giostra sums which would suffice to found a library, and confer a lasting possession on mankind. Still, I conceive, it remains true of us Florentines that we have more of that magnanimous sobriety which abhors a trivial lavishness that it may be grandly open-handed on grand occasions, than can be found in any other city of Italy; for I understand that the Neapolitan and Milanese courtiers laugh at the scarcity of our plate, and think scorn of our great families for borrowing from each other that furniture of the table at their entertainments. But in the vain laughter of folly wisdom hears half its applause.’

‘Laughter, indeed!’ burst forth Monna Brigida again, the moment Bardo paused. ‘If anyhody wanted to hear laughter at the wedding to-day they were disappointed, for when young Niccolo Macchiavelli tried to make a joke, and told stories out of Franco Sacchetti’s book, how it was no use for the Signoria to make rules for us women, because we were cleverer than all the painters, and architects, and doctors of logic in the world, for we could make black look white, and yellow look pink, and crooked look straight, and, if anything was forbidden, we could find a new name for it — Holy Virgin! the Piagnoni looked more dismal than before, and somebody said Sacchetti’s book was wicked. Well, I don’t read it — they can’t accuse me of reading anything. Save me from going to a wedding again, if that’s to be the fashion; for all of us who were not Piagnoni were as comfortable as wet chickens. I was never caught in a worse trap but once before, and that was when I went to hear their precious Frate last Quaresima in San Lorenzo. Perhaps I never told you about it, Messer Tito? — it almost freezes my blood when I think of it. How he rated us poor women! and the men, too, to tell the truth, but I didn’t mind that so much. He called us cows, and lumps of flesh, and wantons, and mischief-makers — and I could just bear that, for there were plenty others more fleshy and spiteful than I was, though every now and then his voice shook the very bench under me like a trumpet; but then he came to the false hair, and, O misericordia! he made a picture — I see it now — of a young woman lying a pale corpse, and us light-minded widows — of course he meant me as well as the rest, for I had my plaits on, for if one is getting old, one doesn’t want to look as ugly as the Befana, — us widows rushing up to the corpse, like bare-pated vultures as we were, and cutting off its young dead hair to deck our old heads with. Oh, the dreams I had after that! And then he cried, and wrung his hands at us, and I cried too. And to go home, and to take off my jewels, this very clasp, and everything, and to make them into a packet, fu tutt’uno; and I was within a hair of sending them to the Good Men of St Martin to give to the poor, but, by heaven’s mercy, I bethought me of going first to my confessor, Fra Cristoforo, at Santa Croce, and he told me how it was all the work of the devil, this preaching and prophesying of their Fra Girolamo, and the Dominicans were trying to turn the world upside down, and I was never to go and hear him again, else I must do penance for it; for the great preachers Fra Mariano and Fra Menico had shown how Fra Girolamo preached lies — and that was true, for I hear them both in the Duomo — and how the Pope’s dream of San Francesco propping up the Church with his arms was being fulfilled still, and the Dominicans were beginning to pull it down. Well and good: I went away con Dio, and made myself easy. I am not going to be frightened by a Frate Predicatore again. And all I say is, I wish it hadn’t been the Dominicans that poor Dino joined years ago, for then I should have been glad when I heard them say he was come back —’

‘Silenzio!’ said Bardo, in a loud agitated voice, while Romola half started from her chair, clasped her hands, and looked round at Tito, as if now she might appeal to him. Monna Brigida gave a little scream, and bit her lip.

‘Donna!’ said Bardo, again, ‘hear once more my will. Bring no reports about that name to this house; and thou, Romola, I forbid thee to ask. My son is dead.’

Bardo’s whole frame seemed vibrating with passion, and no one dared to break silence again. Monna Brigida lifted her shoulders and her hands in mute dismay; then she rose as quietly as possible, gave many significant nods to Tito and Romola, motioning to them that they were not to move, and stole out of the room like a culpable fat spaniel who has barked unseasonably.

Meanwhile, Tito’s quick mind had been combining ideas with lightning-like rapidity. Bardo’s son was not really dead, then, as he had supposed: he was a monk; he was ‘come back: ‘ and Fra Luca — yes! it was the likeness to Bardo and Romola that had made the face seem half-known to him. If he were only dead at Fiesole at that moment! This importunate selfish wish inevitably thrust itself before every other thought. It was true that Bardo’s rigid will was a sufficient safeguard against any intercourse between Romola and her brother; but not against the betrayal of what he knew to others, especially when the subject was suggested by the coupling of Romola’s name with that of the very Tito Melema whose description he had carried round his neck as an index. No! nothing but Fra Luca’s death could remove all danger; but his death was highly probable, and after the momentary shock of the discovery, Tito let his mind fall back in repose on that confident hope.

They had sat in silence, and in a deepening twilight for many minutes, when Romola ventured to say —

‘Shall I light the lamp, father, and shall we go on?’

‘No, my Romola, we will work no more to-night. Tito, come and sit by me here.’

Tito moved from the reading-desk, and seated himself on the other side of Bardo, close to his left elbow.

‘Come nearer to me, figliuola mia,’ said Bardo again, after a moment’s pause. And Romola seated herself on a low stool and let her arm rest on her father’s right knee, that he might lay his hand on her hair, as he was fond of doing

‘Tito, I never told you that I had once a son,’ said Bardo, forgetting what had fallen from him in the emotion raised by their first interview. The old man had been deeply shaken, and was forced to pour out his feelings in spite of pride. ‘But he left me — he is dead to me. I have disowned him for ever. He was a ready scholar as you are, but more fervid and impatient, and yet sometimes rapt and self-absorbed, like a flame fed by some fitful source; showing a disposition from the very first to turn away his eyes from the clear lights of reason and philosophy, and to prostrate himself under the influences of a dim mysticism which eludes all rules of human duty as it eludes all argument. And so it ended. We will speak no more of him: he is dead to me. I wish his face could be blotted from that world of memory in which the distant seems to grow clearer and the near to fade.’

Bardo paused, but neither Romola nor Tito dared to speak — his voice was too tremulous, the poise of his feelings too doubtful. But he presently raised his hand and found Tito’s shoulder to rest it on, while he went on speaking, with an effort to be calmer.

‘But you have come to me, Tito — not quite too late. I will lose no time in vain regret. When you are working by my side I seem to have found a son again.’

The old man, preoccupied with the governing interest of his life, was only thinking of the much-meditated book which had quite thrust into the background the suggestion, raised by Bernardo del Nero’s warning, of a possible marriage between Tito and Romola. But Tito could not allow the moment to pass unused.

‘Will you let me be always and altogether your son? Will you let me take care of Romola — be her husband? I think she will not deny me. She has said she loves me. I know I am not equal to her in birth — in anything; but I am no longer a destitute stranger.’

‘Is it true, my Romola?’ said Bardo, in a lower tone, an evident vibration passing through him and dissipating the saddened aspect of his features.

‘Yes, father,’ said Romola, firmly. ‘I love Tito — I wish to marry him, that we may both be your children and never part.’

Tito’s hand met hers in a strong clasp for the first time, while she was speaking, but their eyes were fixed anxiously on her father.

‘Why should it not be?’ said Bardo, as if arguing against any opposition to his assent, rather than assenting. ‘It would be a happiness to me; and thou, too, Romola, wouldst be the happier for it.’

He stroked her long hair gently and bent towards her.

‘Ah, I have been apt to forget that thou needest some other love than mine. And thou wilt be a noble wife. Bernardo thinks I shall hardly find a husband for thee. And he is perhaps right. For thou art not like the herd of thy sex: thou art such a woman as the immortal poets had a vision of when they sang the lives of the heroes — tender but strong, like thy voice, which has been to me instead of the light in the years of my blindness . . . And so thou lovest him?’

He sat upright again for a minute, and then said, in the same tone as before, ‘Why should it not be? I will think of it; I will talk with Bernardo.’

Tito felt a disagreeable chill at this answer, for Bernardo del Nero’s eyes had retained their keen suspicion whenever they looked at him, and the uneasy remembrance of Fra Luca converted all uncertainty into fear.

‘Speak for me, Romola,’ he said, pleadingly. ‘Messer Bernardo is sure to be against me.’

‘No, Tito,’ said Romola, ‘my godfather will not oppose what my father firmly wills. And it is your will that I should marry Tito — is it not true, father? Nothing has ever come to me before that I have wished for strongly: I did not think it possible that I could care so much for anything that could happen to myself.’

It was a brief and simple plea; but it was the condensed story of Romola’s self-repressing colourless young life, which had thrown all its passion into sympathy with aged sorrows, aged ambition, aged pride and indignation. It had never occurred to Romola that she should not speak as directly and emphatically of her love for Tito as of any other subject.

‘Romola mia!’ said her father fondly, pausing on the words, ‘it is true thou hast never urged on me any wishes of thy own. And I have no will to resist thine; rather, my heart met Tito’s entreaty at its very first utterance. Nevertheless, I must talk with Bernardo about the measures needful to be observed. For we must not act in haste, or do anything unbeseeming my name. I am poor, and held of little account by the wealthy of our family — nay, I may consider myself a lonely man — but I must nevertheless remember that generous birth has its obligations. And I would not be reproached by my fellow-citizens for rash haste in bestowing my daughter. Bartolommeo Scala gave his Alessandra to the Greek Marullo, but Marullo’s lineage was well known, and Scala himself is of no extraction. I know Bernardo will hold that we must take time: he will, perhaps, reproach me with want of due forethought. Be patient, my children: you are very young.’

No more could be said, and Romola’s heart was perfectly satisfied. Not so Tito’s. If the subtle mixture of good and evil prepares suffering for human truth and purity, there is also suffering prepared for the wrong-doer by the same mingled conditions. As Tito kissed Romola on their parting that evening, the very strength of the thrill that moved his whole being at the sense that this woman, whose beauty it was hardly possible to think of as anything but the necessary consequence of her noble nature, loved him with all the tenderness that spoke in her clear eyes, brought a strong reaction of regret that he had not kept himself free from that first deceit which had dragged him into the danger of being disgraced before her. There was a spring of bitterness mingling with that fountain of sweets. Would the death of Fra Luca arrest it? He hoped it would.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54