Romola, by George Eliot

Chapter 29 — A Moment of Triumph

‘The old fellow has vanished; went on towards Arezzo the next morning; not liking the smell of the French, I suppose, after being their prisoner. I went to the hospital to inquire after him; I wanted to know if those broth-making monks had found out whether he was in his right mind or not. However, they said he showed no signs of madness — only took no notice of questions, and seemed to be planting a vine twenty miles off. He was a mysterious old tiger. I should have liked to know something more about him.’

It was in Nello’s shop that Piero di Cosimo was speaking on the twenty-fourth of November, just a week after the entrance of the French. There was a party of six or seven assembled at the rather unusual hour of three in the afternoon; for it was a day on which all Florence was excited by the prospect of some decisive political event. Every lounging-place was full, and every shopkeeper who had no wife or deputy to leave in charge, stood at his door with his thumbs in his belt; while the streets were constantly sprinkled with artisans pausing or passing lazily like floating splinters, ready to rush forward impetuously if any object attracted them.

Nello had been thrumming the lute as he half sat on the board against the shop-window, and kept an outlook towards the piazza.

‘Ah,’ he said, laying down the lute, with emphasis, ‘I would not for a gold florin have missed that sight of the French soldiers waddling in their broad shoes after their runaway prisoners! That comes of leaving my shop to shave magnificent chins. It is always so: if ever I quit this navel of the earth something takes the opportunity of happening in my piazza.’

‘Yes, you ought to have been there,’ said Piero, in his biting way, ‘just to see your favourite Greek look as frightened as if Satanasso had laid hold of him. I like to see your ready-smiling Messeri caught in a sudden wind and obliged to show their lining in spite of themselves. What colour do you think a man’s liver is, who looks like a bleached deer as soon as a chance stranger lays hold-of him suddenly?’

‘Piero, keep that vinegar of thine as sauce to thine own eggs! What is it against my bel erudito that he looked startled when he felt a pair of claws upon him and saw an unchained madman at his elbow? Your scholar is not like those beastly Swiss and Germans, whose heads are only fit for battering-rams, and who have such large appetites that they think nothing of taking a cannon-ball before breakfast. We Florentines count some other qualities in a man besides that vulgar stuff called bravery, which is to be got by hiring dunderheads at so much per dozen. I tell you, as soon as men found out that they had more brains than oxen, they set the oxen to draw for them; and when we Florentines found out that we had more brains than other men we set them to fight for us.’

‘Treason, Nello!’ a voice called out from the inner sanctum; ‘that is not the doctrine of the State. Florence is grinding its weapons; and the last well-authenticated vision announced by the Frate was Mars standing on the Palazzo Vecchio with his arm on the shoulder of San Giovanni Battista, who was offering him a piece of honeycomb.’

‘It is well, Francesco,’ said Nello. ‘Florence has a few thicker skulls that may do to bombard Pisa with; there will still be the finer spirits left at home to do the thinking and the shaving. And as for our Piero here, if he makes such a point of valour, let him carry his biggest brush for a weapon and his palette for a shield, and challenge the widest-mouthed Swiss he can see in the Prato to a single combat.’

‘Va, Nello,’ growled Piero, ‘thy tongue runs on as usual, like a mill when the Arno’s full — whether there’s grist or not.’

‘Excellent grist, I tell thee. For it would be as reasonable to expect a grizzled painter like thee to be fond of getting a javelin inside thee as to expect a man whose wits have been sharpened on the classics to like having his handsome face clawed by a wild beast.’

‘There you go, supposing you’ll get people to put their legs into a sack because you call it a pair of hosen,’ said Piero. ‘Who said anything about a wild beast, or about an unarmed man rushing on battle? Fighting is a trade, and it’s not my trade. I should be a fool to run after danger, but I could face it if it came to me.’

‘How is it you’re so afraid of the thunder, then, my Piero?’ said Nello, determined to chase down the accuser. ‘You ought to be able to understand why one man is shaken by a thing that seems a trifle to others — you who hide yourself with the rats as soon as a storm comes on.’

‘That is because I have a particular sensibility to loud sounds; it has nothing to do with my courage or my conscience.’

‘Well, and Tito Melema may have a peculiar sensibility to being laid hold of unexpectedly by prisoners who have run away from French soldiers. Men are born with antipathies; I myself can’t abide the smell of mint. Tito was born with an antipathy to old prisoners who stumble and clutch. Ecco! ’

There was a general laugh at Nello’s defence, and it was clear that Piero’s disinclination towards Tito was not shared by the company. The painter, with his undecipherable grimace, took the tow from his scarsella and stuffed his ears in indignant contempt, while Nello went on triumphantly —

‘No, my Piero, I can’t afford to have my bel erudito decried; and Florence can’t afford it either, with her scholars moulting off her at the early age of forty. Our Pheenix Pico just gone straight to Paradise, as the Frate has informed us; and the incomparable Poliziano, not two months since, gone to — well, well, let us hope he is not gone to the eminent scholars in the Malebolge.’

‘By the way,’ said Francesco Cei, ‘have you heard that Camilla Rucellai has outdone the Frate in her prophecies? She prophesied two years ago that Pico would die in the time of lilies. He has died in November. “Not at all the time of lilies,” said the scorners. “Go to!” says Camilla; “it is the lilies of France I meant, and it seems to me they are close enough under your nostrils.” I say, “Euge, Camilla!” If the Frate can prove that any one of his visions has been as well fulfilled, I’ll declare myself a Piagnone to-morrow.’

‘You are something too flippant about the Frate, Francesco,’ said Pietro Cennini, the scholarly. ‘We are all indebted to him in these weeks for preaching peace and quietness, and the laying aside of party quarrels. They are men of small discernment who would be glad to see the people slipping the Frate’s leash just now. And if the Most Christian King is obstinate about the treaty to-day, and will not sign what is fair and honourable to Florence, Fra Girolamo is the man we must trust in to bring him to reason.’

‘You speak truth, Messer Pietro,’ said Nello; ‘the Frate is one of the firmest nails Florence has to hang on — at least, that is the opinion of the most respectable chins I have the honour of shaving. But young Messer Niccolo was saying here the other morning — and doubtless Francesco means the same thing — there is as wonderful a power of stretching in the meaning of visions as in Dido’s bull’s hide. It seems to me a dream may mean whatever comes after it. As our Franco Sacchetti says, a woman dreams over-night of a serpent biting her, breaks a drinking-cup the next day, and cries out, “Look you, I thought something would happen — it’s plain now what the serpent meant.” ’

‘But the Frate’s visions are not of that sort,’ said Cronaca. ‘He not only says what will happen — that the Church will be scourged and renovated, and the heathens converted — he says it shall happen quickly. He is no slippery pretender who provides loopholes for himself, he is —’

‘What is this? what is this?’ exclaimed Nello, jumping off the board, and putting his head out at the door. ‘Here are people streaming into the piazza, and shouting. Something must have happened in the Via Larga. Aha!’ he burst forth with delighted astonishment, stepping out laughing and waving his cap.

All the rest of the company hastened to the door. News from the Via Larga was just what they had been waiting for. But if the news had come into the piazza, they were not a little surprised at the form of its advent. Carried above the shoulders of the people, on a bench apparently snatched up in the street, sat Tito Melema, in smiling amusement at the compulsion he was under. His cap had slipped off his head, and hung by the becchetto which was wound loosely round his neck; and as he saw the group at Nello’s door he lifted up his fingers in beckoning recognition. The next minute he had leaped from the bench on to a cart filled with bales, that stood in the broad space between the Baptistery and the steps of the Duomo, while the people swarmed round him with the noisy eagerness of poultry expecting to be fed. But there was silence when he began to speak in his clear mellow voice —

‘Citizens of Florence! I have no warrant to tell the news except your will. But the news is good, and will harm no man in the telling. The Most Christian King is signing a treaty that is honourable to Florence. But you owe it to one of your citizens, who spoke a word worthy of the ancient Romans — you owe it to Piero Capponi!’

Immediately there was a roar of voices.

‘Capponi! Capponi! What said our Piero?’ ‘Ah! he wouldn’t stand being sent from Herod to Pilate!’ ‘We knew Piero!’ ‘Orsu! Tell us, what did he say?’

When the roar of insistance had subsided a little, Tito began again —

‘The Most Christian King demanded a little too much — was obstinate — said at last, “I shall order my trumpets to sound.” Then, Florentine citizens! your Piero Capponi, speaking with the voice of a free city, said, “If you sound your trumpets, we will ring our bells!” He snatched the copy of the dishonouring conditions from the hands of the secretary, tore it in pieces, and turned to leave the royal presence.’

Again there were loud shouts — and again impatient demands for more.

‘Then, Florentines, the high majesty of France felt, perhaps for the first time, all the majesty of a free city. And the Most Christian King himself hastened from his place to call Piero Capponi back. The great spirit of your Florentine city did its work by a great word, without need of the great actions that lay ready behind it. And the King has consented to sign the treaty, which preserves the honour, as well as the safety, of Florence. The banner of France will float over every Florentine galley in sign of amity and common privilege, but above that banner will be written the word “Liberty!”

‘That is all the news I have to tell; is it not enough? — since it is for the glory of every one of you, citizens of Florence, that you have a fellow-citizen who knows how to speak your will.’

As the shouts rose again, Tito looked round with inward amusement at the various crowd, each of whom was elated with the notion that Piero Capponi had somehow represented him — that he was the mind of which Capponi was the mouthpiece. He enjoyed the humour of the incident, which had suddenly transformed him, an alien, and a friend of the Medici, into an orator who tickled the ears of the people blatant for some unknown good which they called liberty. He felt quite glad that he had been laid hold of and hurried along by the crowd as he was coming out of the palace in the Via Larga with a commission to the Signoria. It was very easy, very pleasant, this exercise of speaking to the general satisfaction: a man who knew how to persuade need never be in danger from any party; he could convince each that he was feigning with all the others. The gestures and faces of weavers and dyers were certainly amusing when looked at from above in this way.

Tito was beginning to get easier in his armour, and at this moment was quite unconscious of it. He stood with one hand holding his recovered cap, and with the other at his belt, the light of a complacent smile in his long lustrous eyes, as he made a parting reverence to his audience, before springing down from the bales — when suddenly his glance met that of a man who had not at all the amusing aspect of the exulting weavers, dyers, and wool-carders. The face of this man was clean-shaven, his hair close-clipped, and he wore a decent felt hat. A single glance would hardly have sufficed to assure any one but Tito that this was the face of the escaped prisoner who had laid hold of him on the steps. But to Tito it came not simply as the face of the escaped prisoner, but as a face with which he had been familiar long years before.

It seemed all compressed into a second — the sight of Baldassarre looking at him, the sensation shooting through him like a fiery arrow, and the act of leaping from the cart. He would have leaped down in the same instant, whether he had seen Baldassarre or not, for he was in a hurry to be gone to the Palazzo Vecchio: this time he had not betrayed himself by look or movement, and he said inwardly that he should not be taken by surprise again; he should be prepared to see this face rise up continually like the intermittent blotch that comes in diseased vision. But this reappearance of Baldassarre so much more in his own likeness tightened the pressure of dread: the idea of his madness lost its likelihood now he was shaven and clad like a decent though poor citizen. Certainly, there was a great change in his face; but how could it be otherwise? And yet, if he were perfectly sane — in possession of all his powers and all his learning, why was he lingering in this way before making known his identity? It must be for the sake of making his scheme of vengeance more complete. But he did linger: that at least gave an opportunity for flight. And Tito began to think that flight was his only resource.

But while he, with his back turned on the Piazza del Duomo, had lost the recollection of the new part he had been playing, and was no longer thinking of the many things which a ready brain and tongue made easy, but of a few things which destiny had somehow made very difficult, the enthusiasm which he had fed contemptuously was creating a scene in that piazza in grand contrast with the inward drama of self-centred fear which he had carried away from it.

The crowd, on Tito’s disappearance, had begun to turn their faces towards the outlets of the piazza in the direction of the Via Larga, when the sight of mazzieri, or mace-bearers, entering from the Via de’ Martelli, announced the approach of dignitaries. They must be the syndics, or commissioners charged with the effecting of the treaty — the treaty must be already signed, and they had come away from the royal presence. Piero Capponi was coming — the brave heart that had known how to speak for Florence. The effect on the crowd was remarkable; they parted with softening, dropping voices, subsiding into silence, — and the silence became so perfect that the tread of the syndics on the broad pavement, and the rustle of their black silk garments, could be heard, like rain in the night. There were four of them; but it was not the two learned doctors of law, Messer Guidantonio Vespucci and Messer Domenico Bonsi, that the crowd waited for; it was not Francesco Valori, popular as he had become in these late days. The moment belonged to another man, of firm presence, as little inclined to humour the people as to humour any other unreasonable claimants — loving order, like one who by force of fortune had been made a merchant, and by force of nature had become a soldier. It was not till he was seen at the entrance of the piazza that the silence was broken, and then one loud shout of ‘Capponi, Capponi! Well done, Capponi!’ rang through the piazza.

The simple, resolute man looked round him with grave joy. His fellow-citizens gave him a great funeral two years later, when he had died in fight; there were torches carried by all the magistracy, and torches again, and trains of banners. But it is not known that he felt any joy in the oration that was delivered in his praise, as the banners waved over his bier. Let us be glad that he got some thanks and praise while he lived.

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