The moving crowd and the strange mixture of noises that burst on him at the entrance of the piazza, reminded Tito of what Nello had said to him about the Fierucoloni, and he pushed his way into the crowd with a sort of pleasure in the hooting and elbowing, which filled the empty moments, and dulled that calculation of the future which had so new a dreariness for him, as he foresaw himself wandering away solitary in pursuit of some unknown fortune, that his thought had even glanced towards going in search of Baldassarre after all.
At each of the opposite inlets he saw people struggling into the piazza, while above them paper lanterns, held aloft on sticks, were waving uncertainly to and fro. A rude monotonous chant made a distinctly traceable strand of noise, across which screams, whistles, gibing chants in piping boyish voices, the beating of drums, and the ringing of little bells, met each other in confused din. Every now and then one of the dim floating lights disappeared with a smash from a stone launched more or less vaguely in pursuit of mischief, followed by a scream and renewed shouts. But on the outskirts of the whirling tumult there were groups who were keeping this vigil of the Nativity of the Virgin in a more methodical manner than by fitful stone-throwing and gibing. Certain ragged men, darting a hard sharp glance around them while their tongues rattled merrily, were inviting country people to game with them on fair and open-handed terms; two masquerading figures on stilts, who had snatched lanterns from the crowd, were swaying the lights to and fro in meteoric fashion, as they strode hither and thither; a sage trader was doing a profitable business at a small covered stall, in hot berlingozzi, a favourite farinaceous delicacy; one man standing on a barrel, with his back firmly planted against a pillar of the loggia in front of the Foundling Hospital (Spedale degl’ Innocenti), was selling efficacious pills, invented by a doctor of Salerno, warranted to prevent toothache and death by drowning; and not far off, against another pillar, a tumbler was showing off his tricks on a small platform; while a handful of ‘prentices, despising the slack entertainment of guerilla stone-throwing, were having a private concentrated match of that favourite Florentine sport at the narrow entrance of the Via de’ Febbrai.
Tito, obliged to make his way through chance openings in the crowd, found himself at one moment close to the trotting procession of barefooted, hard-heeled contadine, and could see their sun-dried, bronzed faces, and their strange, fragmentary garb, dim with hereditary dirt and of obsolete stuffs and fashions, that made them look in the eyes of the city people, like a way-worn ancestry returning from a pilgrimage on which they had set out a century ago. Just then it was the hardy, scant-feeding peasant-women from the mountains of Pistoia, who were entering with a year’s labour in a moderate bundle of yarn on their backs and in their hearts that meagre hope of good and that wide dim fear of harm, which were somehow to be cared for by the Blessed Virgin, whose miraculous image, painted by the angels, was to have the curtain drawn away from it on this Eve of her Nativity, that its potency might stream forth without obstruction.
At another moment he was forced away towards the boundary of the piazza, where the more stationary candidates for attention and small coin had judiciously placed themselves, in order to be safe in their rear. Among these Tito recognised his acquaintance Bratti, who stood with his back against a pillar, and his mouth pursed up in disdainful silence, eyeing every one who approached him with a cold glance of superiority, and keeping his hand fast on a serge covering which concealed the contents of the basket slung before him. Rather surprised at a deportment so unusual in an anxious trader, Tito went nearer and saw two women go up to Bratti’s basket with a look of curiosity, whereupon the pedlar drew the covering tighter, and looked another way. It was quite too provoking. and one of the women was fain to ask what there was in his hasket?
‘Before I answer that, Monna, I must know whether you mean to buy. I can’t show such wares as mine in this fair for every fly to settle on and pay nothing. My goods are a little too choice for that. Besides, I’ve only two left, and I’ve no mind to sell them; for with the chances of the pestilence that wise men talk of, there is likelihood of their being worth their weight in gold. No, no: andate con Dio.’ The two women looked at each other. ‘And what may be the price?’ said the second.
‘Not within what you are likely to have in your purse, buona donna,’ said Bratti, in a compassionately supercilious tone. ‘I recommend you to trust in Messer Domeneddio and the saints: poor people can do no better for themselves.’
‘Not so poor!’ said the second woman, indignantly, drawing out her money-bag. ‘Come, now! what do you say to a grosso?’
‘I say you may get twenty-one quattrini for it,’ said Bratti, coolly; ‘but not of me, for I haven’t got that small change.’
‘Come: two, then?’ said the woman, getting exasperated, while her companion looked at her with some envy. ‘It will hardly be above two, I think.’
After further bidding, and further mercantile coquetry Bratti put on an air of concession.
‘Since you’ve set your mind on it,’ he said, slowly raising the cover, ‘I should be loth to do you a mischief; for Maestro Gabbadeo used to say, when a woman sets her mind on a thing and doesn’t get it, she’s in worse danger of the pestilence than before. Ecco! I have but two left; and let me tell you, the fellow to them is on the finger of Maestro Gabbadeo, who is gone to Bologna — as wise a doctor as sits at any door.’
The precious objects were two clumsy iron rings, beaten into the fashion of old Roman rings, such as were sometimes disinterred. The rust on them, and the entirely hidden character of their potency, were so satisfactory, that the grossi were paid without grumbling, and the first woman destitute of those handsome coins, succeeded after much show of reluctance on Bratti’s part in driving a bargain with some of her yarn, and carried off the remaining ring in triumph. Bratti covered up his basket, which was now filled with miscellanies, probably obtained under the same sort of circumstances as the yarn, and, moving from his pillar, came suddenly upon Tito, who, if he had had time, would have chosen to avoid recognition.
‘By the head of San Giovanni, now,’ said Bratti, drawing Tito back to the pillar, ‘this is a piece of luck. For I was talking of you this morning, Messer Greco; but, I said, he is mounted up among the signori now — and I’m glad of it, for I was at the bottom of his fortune — but I can rarely get speech of him, for he’s not to be caught lying on the stones now — not he! But it’s your luck, not mine, Messer Greco, save and except some small trifle to satisfy me for my trouble in the transaction.’
‘You speak in riddles, Bratti,’ said Tito. ‘Remember, I don’t sharpen my wits, as you do, by driving hard bargains for iron rings: you must be plain.’
‘By the Holy ‘Vangels! it was an easy bargain I gave them. If a Hebrew gets thirty-two per cent, I hope a Christian may get a little more. If I had not borne a conscience, I should have got twice the money and twice the yarn. But, talking of rings, it is your ring — that very ring you’ve got on your finger — that I could get you a purchaser for; ay, and a purchaser with a deep money-bag.’
‘Truly?’ said Tito, looking at his ring and listening.
‘A Genoese who is going straight away into Hungary, as I understand. He came and looked all over my shop to see if I had any old things I didn’t know the price of; I warrant you, he thought I had a pumpkin on my shoulders. He had been rummaging all the shops in Florence. And he had a ring on — not like yours, but something of the same fashion; and as he was talking of rings, I said I knew a fine young man, a particular acquaintance of mine, who had a ring of that sort. And he said, “Who is he, pray? Tell him I’ll give him his price for it.” And I thought of going after you to Nello’s to-morrow; for it’s my opinion of you, Messer Greco, that you’re not one who’d see the Arno run broth, and stand by without dipping your finger.’
Tito had lost no word of what Bratti had said, yet his mind had been very busy all the while. Why should he keep the ring? It had been a mere sentiment, a mere fancy, that had prevented him from selling it with the other gems; if he had been wiser and had sold it, he might perhaps have escaped that identification by Fra Luca. It was true that it had been taken from Baldassarre’s finger and put on his own as soon as his young hand had grown to the needful size; but there was really no valid good to anybody in those superstitious scruplcs about inanimate objects. The ring had helped towards the recognition of him. Tito had begun to dislike recognition, which was a claim from the past. This foreigner’s offer, if he would really give a good price, was an opportunity for getting rid of the ring without the trouble of seeking a purchaser.
‘You speak with your usual wisdom, Bratti,’ said Tito. ‘I have no objection to hear what your Genoese will offer. But when and where shall I have speech of him?’
‘To-morrow, at three hours after sunrise, he will be at my shop, and if your wits are of that sharpness I have always taken them to be, Messer Greco, you will ask him a heavy price; for he minds not money. It’s my belief he’s buying for somebody else, and not for himself — perhaps for some great signor.’
‘It is well,’ said Tito. ‘I will be at your shop, if nothing hinders.’
‘And you will doubtless deal nobly by me for old acquaintance’ sake, Messer Greco, so I will not stay to fix the small sum you will give me in token of my service in the matter. It seems to me a thousand years now till I get out of the piazza, for a fair is a dull, not to say a wicked thing, when one has no more goods to sell.’
Tito made a hasty sign of assent and adieu, and moving away from the pillar, again found himself pushed towards the middle of the piazza and back again, without the power of determining his own course. In this zigzag way he was carried along to the end of the piazza opposite the church, where, in a deep recess formed by an irregularity in the line of houses, an entertainment was going forward which seemed to be especially attractive to the crowd. Loud bursts of laughter interrupted a monologue which was sometimes slow and oratorical, at others rattling and buffoonish. Here a girl was being pushed forward into the inner circle with apparent reluctance, and there a loud laughing minx was finding a way with her own elbows. It was a strange light that was spread over the piazza. There were the pale stars breaking out above, and the dim waving lanterns below leaving all objects indistinct except when they were seen close under the fitfully moving lights; but in this recess there was a stronger light, against which the heads of the encircling spectators stood in dark relief as Tito was gradually pushed towards them, while above them rose the head of a man wearing a white mitre with yellow cabalistic figures upon it.
‘Behold, my children!’ Tito heard him saying, ‘behold your opportunity! neglect not the holy sacrament of matrimony when it can be had for the small sum of a white quattrino — the cheapest matrimony ever offered, and dissolved by special bull beforehand at every man’s own will and pleasure. Behold the bull!’ Here the speaker held up a piece of parchment with huge seals attached to it. ‘Behold the indulgence granted by his Holiness Alexander the Sixth, who, being newly elected Pope for his peculiar piety, intends to reform and purify the Church, and wisely begins by abolishing that priestly abuse which keeps too large a share of this privileged matrimony to the clergy and stints the laity. Spit once, my sons, and pay a white quattrino! This is the whole and sole price of the indulgence. The quattrino is the only difference the Holy Father allows to be put any longer between us and the clergy — who spit and pay nothing.’
Tito thought he knew the voice, which had a peculiarly sharp ring, but the face was too much in shadow from the lights behind for him to be sure of the features. Stepping as near as he could, he saw within the circle behind the speaker an altar-like table raised on a small platform, and covered with a red drapery stitched all over with yellow cabalistical figures. Half-a-dozen thin tapers burned at the back of this table, which had a conjuring apparatus scattered over it, a large open book in the centre, and at one of the front angles a monkey fastened by a cord to a small ring and holding a small taper, which in his incessant fidgety movements fell more or less aslant, whilst an impish boy in a white surplice occupied himself chiefly in cuffing the monkey, and adjusting the taper. The man in the mitre also wore a surplice, and over it a chasuble on which the signs of the zodiac were rudely marked in black upon a yellow ground. Tito was sure now that he recognised the sharp upward-tending angles of the face under the mitre: it was that of Maestro Vaiano, the mountebank, from whom he had rescued Tessa. Pretty little Tessa! Perhaps she too had come in among the troops of contadine.
‘Come, my maidens! This is the time for the pretty who can have many chances, and for the ill-favoured who have few. Matrimony to be had — hot, eaten, and done with as easily as berlingozzi! And see!’ here the conjuror held up a cluster of tiny bags. ‘To every bride I give a Breve with a secret in it — the secret alone worth the money you pay for the matrimony. The secret how to — no, no, I will not tell you what the secret is about, and that makes it a double secret. Hang it round your neck if you like, and never look at it; I don’t say that will not be the best, for then you will see many things you don’t expect: though if you open it you may break your leg, e vero, but you will know a secret! Something nobody knows but me! And mark — I give you the Breve, I don’t sell it, as many another holy man would: the quattrino is for the matrimony, and the Breve you get for nothing. Orsu, giovanetti, come like dutiful sons of the Church and buy the Indulgence of his Holiness Alexander the Sixth.’
This buffoonery just fitted the taste of the audience; the fierucola was but a small occasion, so the townsmen might be contented with jokes that were rather less indecent than those they were accustomed to hear at every carnival, put into easy rhyme by the Magnifico and his poetic satellites; while the women, over and above any relish of the fun, really, began to have an itch for the Brevi. Several couples had already gone through the ceremony, in which the conjuror’s solemn gibberish and grimaces over the open book, the antics of the monkey, and even the preliminary spitting, had called forth peals of laughter; and now a well-looking, merry-eyed youth of seventeen, in a loose tunic and red cap, pushed forward, holding by the hand a plump brunette, whose scanty ragged dress displayed her round arms and legs very picturesquely.
‘Fetter us without delay, Maestro!’ said the youth, ‘for I have got to take my bride home and paint her under the light of a lantern.’
‘Ha! Mariotto, my son, I commend your pious observance . . .’ The conjuror was going on, when a loud chattering behind warned him that an unpleasant crisis had arisen with his monkey.
The temper of that imperfect acolyth was a little tried by the over-active discipline of his colleague in the surplice, and a sudden cuff administered as his taper fell to a horizontal position, caused him to leap back with a violence that proved too much for the slackened knot by which his cord was fastened. His first leap was to the other end of the table, from which position his remonstrances were so threatening that the imp in the surplice took up a wand by way of an equivalent threat, whereupon the monkey leaped on to the head of a tall woman in the foreground, dropping his taper by the way, and chattering with increased emphasis from that eminence. Great was the screaming and confusion, not a few of the spectators having a vague dread of the Maestro’s monkey, as capable of more hidden mischief than mere teeth and claws could inflict; and the conjuror himself was in some alarm lest any harm should happen to his familiar. In the scuffle to seize the monkey’s string, Tito got out of the circle, and, not caring to contend for his place again, he allowed himself to be gradually pushed towards the church of the Nunziata, and to enter amongst the worshippers.
The brilliant illumination within seemed to press upon his eyes with palpable force after the pale scattered lights and broad shadows of the piazza, and for the first minute or two he could see nothing distinctly. That yellow splendour was in itself something supernatural and heavenly to many of the peasant-women, for whom half the sky was hidden by mountains, and who went to bed in the twilight; and the uninterrupted chant from the choir was repose to the ear after the hellish hubbub of the crowd outside. Gradually the scene became clearer, though still there was a thin yellow haze from incense mingling with the breath of the multitude. In a chapel on the left hand of the nave, wreathed with silver lamps, was seen unveiled the miraculous fresco of the Annunciation, which, in Tito’s oblique view of it from the right-hand side of the nave, seemed dark with the excess of light around it. The whole area of the great church was filled with peasant-women, some kneeling, some standing; the coarse bronzed skins, and the dingy clothing of the rougher dwellers on the mountains, contrasting with the softer-lined faces and white or red head-drapery of the well-to-do dwellers in the valley, who were scattered in irregular groups. And spreading high and far over the walls and ceiling there was another multitude, also pressing close against each other, that they might be nearer the potent Virgin. It was the crowd of votive waxen images, the effigies of great personages, clothed in their habit as they lived: Florentines of high name in their black silk lucco, as when they sat in council; popes, emperors, kings, cardinals, and famous condottieri with plumed morion seated on their chargers; all notable strangers who passed through Florence or had aught to do with its affairs — Mohammedans, even, in well-tolerated companionship with Christian cavaliers; some of them with faces blackened and robes tattered by the corroding breath of centuries, others fresh and bright in new red mantle or steel corselet, the exact doubles of the living. And wedged in with all these were detached arms, legs, and other members, with only here and there a gap where some image had been removed for public disgrace, or had fallen ominously, as Lorenzo’s had done six months before. It was a perfect resurrection-swarm of remote mortals and fragments of mortals, reflecting, in their varying degrees of freshness, the sombre dinginess and sprinkled brightness of the crowd below.
Tito’s glance wandered over the wild multitude in search of something. He had already thought of Tessa, and the white hoods suggested the possibility that he might detect her face under one of them. It was at least a thought to be courted, rather than the vision of Romola looking at him with changed eyes. But he searched in vain; and he was leaving the church, weary of a scene which had no variety, when, just against the doorway, he caught sight of Tessa, only two yards off him. She was kneeling with her back against the wall, behind a group of peasant-women, who were standing and looking for a spot nearer to the sacred image. Her head hung a little aside with a look of weariness and her blue eyes were directed rather absently towards an altar-piece where the Archangel Michael stood in his armour, with young face and floating hair, amongst bearded and tonsured saints. Her right hand, holding a bunch of cocoons, fell by her side listlessly, and her round cheek was paled, either by the light or by the weariness that was expressed in her attitude: her lips were pressed poutingly together, and every now and then her eyelids half fell: she was a large image of a sweet sleepy child. Tito felt an irresistible desire to go up to her and get her pretty trusting looks and prattle: this creature who was without moral judgment that could condemn him, whose little loving ignorant soul made a world apart, where he might feel in freedom from suspicions and exacting demands, had a new attraction for him now. She seemed a refuge from the threatened isolation that would come with disgrace. He glanced cautiously round, to assure himself that Monna Ghita was not near, and then, slipping quietly to her side, kneeled on one knee, and said, in the softest voice, “Tessa!’ She hardly started, any more than she would have started at a soft breeze that fanned her gently when she was needing it. She turned her head and saw Tito’s face close to her: it was very much more beautiful than the Archangel Michael’s, who was so mighty and so good that he lived with the Madonna and all the saints and was prayed to along with them. She smiled in happy silence, for that nearness of Tito quite filled her mind.
‘My little Tessa! you look very tired. How long have you been kneeling here?’
She seemed to be collecting her thoughts for a minute or two, and at last she said —
‘I’m very hungry.’
‘Come, then; come with me.’
He lifted her from her knees, and led her out under the cloisters surrounding the atrium, which were then open, and not yet adorned with the frescoes of Andrea del Sarto.
‘How is it you are all by yourself, and so hungry, Tessa?’
‘The Madre is ill; she has very bad pains in her legs, and sent me to bring these cocoons to the Santissima Nunziata, because they’re so wonderful; see!’ — she held up the bunch of cocoons, which were arranged with fortuitous regularity on a stem, — ‘and she had kept them to bring them herself, but she couldn’t, and so she sent me because she thinks the Holy Madonna may take away her pains; and somebody took my bag with the bread and chestnuts in it, and the people pushed me back, and I was so frightened coming in the crowd, and I couldn’t get anywhere near the Holy Madonna, to give the cocoons to the Padre, but I must — oh, I must.’
‘Yes, my little Tessa, you shall take them; but first come and let me give you some berlingozzi. There are some to be had not far off.’
‘Where did you come from?’ said Tessa, a little bewildered. ‘I thought you would never come to me again, because you never came to the Mercato for milk any more. I set myself Aves to say, to see if they would bring you back, but I left off, because they didn’t.’
‘You see I come when you want some one to take care of you, Tessa. Perhaps the Aves fetched me, only it took them a long while. But what shall you do if you are here all alone? Where shall you go?’
‘Oh, I shall stay and sleep in the church — a great many of them do — in the church and all about here — I did once when I came with my mother; and the patrigno is coming with the mules in the morning.’
They were out in the piazza now, where the crowd was rather less riotous than before, and the lights were fewer, the stream of pilgrims having ceased. Tessa clung fast to Tito’s arm in satisfied silence, while he led her towards the stall where he remembered seeing the eatables. Their way was the easier because there was just now a great rush towards the middle of the piazza, where the masqued figures on stilts had found space to execute a dance. It was very pretty to see the guileless thing giving her cocoons into Tito’s hand, and then eating her berlingozzi with the relish of a hungry child. Tito had really come to take care of her, as he did before, and that wonderful happiness of being with him had begun again for her. Her hunger was soon appeased, all the sooner for the new stimulus of happiness that had roused her from her languor, and, as they turned away from the stall, she said nothing about going into the church again, but looked round as if the sights in the piazza were not without attraction to her now she was safe under Tito’s arm.
‘How can they do that?’ she exclaimed, looking up at the dancers on stilts. Then, after a minute’s silence, ‘Do you think Saint Christopher helps them?’
‘Perhaps. What do you think about it, Tessa?’ said Tito slipping his right arm round her, and looking down at her fondly.
‘Because Saint Christopher is so very tall; and he is very good: if anybody looks at him he takes care of them all day. He is on the wall of the church — too tall to stand up there — but I saw him walking through the streets one San Giovanni, carrying the little Gesu.’
‘You pretty pigeon! Do you think anybody could help taking care of you, if you looked at them?’
‘Shall you always come and take care of me?’ said Tessa, turning her face up to him, as he crushed her cheek with his left hand. ‘And shall you always be a long while first?’
Tito was conscious that some bystanders were laughing at them, and though the licence of street fun, among artists and young men of the wealthier sort as well as among the populace, made few adventures exceptional, still less disreputable, he chose to move away towards the end of the piazza.
‘Perhaps I shall come again to you very soon, Tessa,’ he answered, rather dreamily, when they had moved away. He was thinking that when all the rest had turned their backs upon him, it would be pleasant to have this little creature adoring him and nestling against him. The absence of presumptuous self-conceit in Tito made him feel all the more defenceless under prospective obloquy: he needed soft looks and caresses too much ever to be impudent.
‘In the Mercato?’ said Tessa. ‘Not to-morrow morning, because the patrigno will be there, and he is so cross. Oh! but you have money, and he will not be cross if you buy some salad. And there are some chestnuts. Do you like chestnuts? ’
He said nothing, but continued to look down at her with a dreamy gentleness, and Tessa felt herself in a state of delicious wonder; everything seemed as new as if she were being carried on a chariot of clouds.
‘Holy Virgin!’ she exclaimed again presently. ‘There is a holy father like the Bishop I saw at Prato.’
Tito looked up too, and saw that he had unconsciously advanced to within a few yards of the conjuror, Maestro Vaiano, who for the moment was forsaken by the crowd. His face was turned away from them, and he was occupied with the apparatus on his altar or table, preparing a new diversion by the time the interest in the dancing should be exhausted. The monkey was imprisoned under the red cloth, out of reach of mischief, and the youngster in the white surplice was holding a sort of dish or salver, from which his master was taking some ingredient. The altar-like table, with its gorgeous cloth, the row of tapers, the sham episcopal costume, the surpliced attendant, and even the movements of the mitred figure, as he alternately bent his head and then raised something before the lights, were a sufficiently near parody of sacred things to rouse poor little Tessa’s veneration; and there was some additional awe produced by the mystery of their apparition in this spot, for when she had seen an altar in the street before, it had been on Corpus Christi Day, and there had been a procession to account for it. She crossed herself and looked up at Tito, but then, as if she had had time for reflection, said, ‘It is because of the Nativita.’
Meanwhile Vaiano had turned round, raising his hands to his mitre with the intention of changing his dress, when his quick eye recognised Tito and Tessa who were both looking at him, their faces being shone upon by the light of his tapers, while his own was in shadow.
‘Ha! my children!’ he said, instantly, stretching out his hands in a benedictory attitude, ‘you are come to be married. I commend your penitence — the blessing of Holy Church can never come too late.’
But whilst he was speaking, he had taken in the whole meaning of Tessa’s attitude and expression, and he discerned an opportunity for a new kind of joke which required him to be cautious and solemn.
‘Should you like to be married to me, Tessa?’ said Tito, softly, half enjoying the comedy, as he saw the pretty childish seriousness on her face, half prompted by hazy previsions which belonged to the intoxication of despair.
He felt her vibrating before she looked up at him and said, timidly, ‘Will you let me?’
He answered only by a smile, and by leading her forward in front of the cerretano, who, seeing an excellent jest in Tessa’s evident delusion, assumed a surpassing sacerdotal solemnity, and went through the mimic ceremony with a liberal expenditure of lingua furbesca or thieves’ Latin. But some symptoms of a new movement in the crowd urged him to bring it to a speedy conclusion and dismiss them with hands outstretched in a benedictory attitude over their kneeling figures. Tito, disposed always to cultivate goodwill, though it might be the least select, put a piece of four grossi into his hand as he moved away, and was thanked by a look which, the conjuror felt sure, conveyed a perfect understanding of the whole affair.
But Tito himself was very far from that understanding, and did not, in fact, know whether, the next moment, he should tell Tessa of the joke and laugh at her for a little goose, or whether he should let her delusion last, and see what would come of it —— see what she would say and do next.
‘Then you will not go away from me again,’ said Tessa, after they had walked a few steps, ‘and you will take me to where you live.’ She spoke meditatively, and not in a questioning tone. But presently she added, ‘I must go back once to the Madre though, to tell her I brought the cocoons, and that I am married, and shall not go back again.’
Tito felt the necessity of speaking now; and in the rapid thought prompted by that necessity, he saw that by undeceiving Tessa he should be robbing himself of some at least of that pretty trustfulness which might, by-and-by, be his only haven from contempt. It would spoil Tessa to make her the least particle wiser or more suspicious.
‘Yes, my little Tessa,’ he said, caressingly, ‘you must go back to the Madre; but you must not tell her you are married — you must keep that a secret from everybody; else some very great harm would happen to me, and you would never see me again.’
She looked up at him with fear in her face.
‘You must go back and feed your goats and mules, and do just as you have always done before, and say no word to any one about me.’
The corners of her mouth fell a little.
‘And then, perhaps, I shall come and take care of you again when you want me, as I did before. But you must do just what I tell you, else you will not see me again.’
‘Yes, I will, I will,’ she said, in a loud whisper, frightened at that blank prospect.
They were silent a little while; and then Tessa, looking at her hand, said —
‘The Madre wears a betrothal ring. She went to church and had it put on, and then after that, another day, she was married. And so did the cousin Nannina. But then she married Gollo,’ added the poor little thing, entangled in the difficult comparison between her own case and others within her experience.
‘But you must not wear a betrothal ring, my Tessa, because no one must know you are married,’ said Tito, feeling some insistance necessary. ‘And the buona fortuna that I gave you did just as well for betrothal. Some people are betrothed with rings and some are not.’
‘Yes, it is true, they would see the ring,’ said Tessa, trying to convince herself that a thing she would like very much was really not good for her.
They were now near the entrance of the church again, and she remembered her cocoons which were still in Tito’s hand.
‘Ah, you must give me the boto,’ she said; ‘and we must go in, and I must take it to the Padre, and I must tell the rest of my beads, because I was too tired before.’
‘Yes, you must go in, Tessa; but I will not go in. I must leave you now,’ said Tito, too feverish and weary to re-enter that stifling heat, and feeling that this was the least difficult way of parting with her.
‘And not come back? Oh, where do you go?’ Tessa’s mind had never formed an image of his whereabout or his doings when she did not see him: he had vanished, and her thought, instead of following him, had stayed in the same spot where he was with her.
‘I shall come back some time, Tessa,’ said Tito, taking her under the cloisters to the door of the church. ‘You must not cry — you must go to sleep, when you have said your beads. And here is money to buy your breakfast. Now kiss me, and look happy, else I shall not come again.’
She made a great effort over herself as she put up her lips to kiss him, and submitted to be gently turned round, with her face towards the door of the church. Tito saw her enter; and then with a shrug at his own resolution, leaned against a pillar, took off his cap, rubbed his hair backward, and wondered where Romola was now, and what she was thinking of him. Poor little Tessa had disappeared behind the curtain among the crowd of peasants; but the love which formed one web with all his worldly hopes, with the ambitions and pleasures that must make the solid part of his days — the love that was identified with his larger self — was not to be banished from his consciousness. Even to the man who presents the most elastic resistance to whatever is unpleasant, there will come moments when the pressure from without is too strong for him, and he must feel the smart and the bruise in spite of himself. Such a moment had come to Tito. There was no possible attitude of mind, no scheme of action by which the uprooting of all his newly-planted hopes could be made otherwise than painful.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54