‘My Romola,’ said Tito, the second morning after he had made his speech in the Piazza del Duomo, ‘I am to receive grand visitors to-day; the Milanese Count is coming again, and the Seneschal de Beaucaire, the great favourite of the Cristianissimo. I know you don’t care to go through smiling ceremonies with these rustling magnates, whom we are not likely to see again; and as they will want to look at the antiquities and the library, perhaps you had better give up your work to-day, and go to see your cousin Brigida.’
Romola discerned a wish in this intimation, and immediately assented. But presently, coming back in her hood and mantle, she said, ‘Oh, what a long breath Florence will take when the gates are flung open, and the last Frenchman is walking out of them! Even you are getting tired, with all your patience, my Tito; confess it. Ah, your head is hot.’
He was leaning over his desk, writing, and she had laid her hand on his head, meaning to give a parting caress. The attitude had been a frequent one, and Tito was accustomed, when he felt her hand there, to raise his head, throw himself a little backward, and look up at her. But he felt now as unable to raise his head as if her hand had been a leaden cowl. He spoke instead, in a light tone, as his pen still ran along.
‘The French are as ready to go from Florence as the wasps to leave a ripe pear when they have just fastened on it.’
Romola, keenly sensitive to the absence of the usual response, took away her hand and said, ‘I am going, Tito.’
‘Farewell, my sweet one. I must wait at home. Take Maso with you.’
Still Tito did not look up, and Romola went out without saying any more. Very slight things make epochs in married life, and this morning for the first time she admitted to herself not only that Tito had changed, but that he had changed towards her. Did the reason lie in herself? She might perhaps have thought so, if there had not been the facts of the armour and the picture to suggest some external event which was an entire mystery to her.
But Tito no sooner believed that Romola was out of the house than he laid down his pen and looked up, in delightful security from seeing anything else than parchment and broken marble. He was rather disgusted with himself that he had not been able to look up at Romola and behave to her just as usual. He would have chosen, if he could, to be even more than usually kind; but he could not, on a sudden, master an involuntary shrinking from her, which, by a subtle relation, depended on those very characteristics in him that made him desire not to fail in his marks of affection. He was about to take a step which he knew would arouse her deep indignation; he would have to encounter much that was unpleasant before he could win her forgiveness. And Tito could never find it easy to face displeasure and anger; his nature was one of those most remote from defiance or impudence, and all his inclinations leaned towards preserving Romola’s tenderness. He was not tormented by sentimental scruples which, as he had demonstrated to himself by a very rapid course of argument, had no relation to solid utility; but his freedom from scruples did not release him from the dread of what was disagreeable. Unscrupulousness gets rid of much, but not of toothache, or wounded vanity, or the sense of loneliness, against which, as the world at present stands, there is no security but a thoroughly healthy jaw, and a just, loving soul. And Tito was feeling intensely at this moment that no devices could save him from pain in the impending collision with Romola; no persuasive blandness could cushion him against the shock towards which he was being driven like a timid animal urged to a desperate leap by the terror of the tooth and the claw that are close behind it.
The secret feeling he had previously had that the tenacious adherence to Bardo’s wishes about the library had become under existing difficulties a piece of sentimental folly, which deprived himself and Romola of substantial advantages, might perhaps never have wrought itself into action but for the events of the past week, which had brought at once the pressure of a new motive and the outlet of a rare opportunity. Nay, it was not till his dread had been aggravated by the sight of Baldassarre looking more like his sane self, not until he had begun to feel that he might be compelled to flee from Florence, that he had brought himself to resolve on using his legal right to sell the library before the great opportunity offered by French and Milanese bidders slipped through his fingers. For if he had to leave Florence he did not want to leave it as a destitute wanderer. He had been used to an agreeable existence, and he wished to carry with him all the means at hand for retaining the same agreeable conditions. He wished among other things to carry Romola with him, and not, if possible, to carry any infamy. Success had given him a growing appetite for all the pleasures that depend on an advantageous social position, and at no moment could it look like a temptation to him, but only like a hideous alternative, to decamp under dishonour, even with a bag of diamonds, and incur the life of an adventurer. It was not possible for him to make himself independent even of those Florentines who only greeted him with regard; still less was it possible for him to make himself independent of Romola. She was the wife of his first love — he loved her still; she belonged to that furniture of life which he shrank from parting with. He winced under her judgment, he felt uncertain how far the revulsion of her feeling towards him might go; and all that sense of power over a wife which makes a husband risk betrayals that a lover never ventures on, would not suffice to counteract Tito’s uneasiness. This was the leaden weight which had been too strong for his will, and kept him from raising his head to meet her eyes. Their pure light brought too near him the prospect of a coming struggle. But it was not to be helped; if they had to leave Florence, they must have money; indeed, Tito could not arrange life at all to his mind without a considerable sum of money. And that problem of arranging life to his mind had been the source of all his misdoing. He would have been equal to any sacrifice that was not unpleasant.
The rustling magnates came and went, the bargains had been concluded, and Romola returned home; but nothing grave was said that night. Tito was only gay and chatty, pouring forth to her, as he had not done before, stories and descriptions of what he had witnessed during the French visit. Romola thought she discerned an effort in his liveliness, and attributing it to the consciousness in him that she had been wounded in the morning, accepted the effort as an act of penitence, inwardly aching a little at that sign of growing distance between them — that there was an offence about which neither of them dared to speak.
The next day Tito remained away from home until late at night. It was a marked day to Romola, for Piero di Cosimo, stimulated to greater industry on her behalf by the fear that he might have been the cause of pain to her in the past week, had sent home her father’s portrait. She had propped it against the back of his old chair, and had been looking at it for some time, when the door opened behind her, and Bernardo del Nero came in.
‘It is you, godfather! How I wish you had come sooner! it is getting a little dusk,’ said Romola, going towards him.
‘I have just looked in to tell you the good news, for I know Tito has not come yet,’ said Bernardo. ‘The French king moves off to-morrow: not before it is high time. There has been another tussle between our people and his soldiers this, morning. But there’s a chance now of the city getting into order once more and trade going on.’
‘That is joyful,’ said Romola. ‘But it is sudden, is it not? Tito seemed to think yesterday that there was little prospect of the king’s going soon.’
‘He has been well barked at, that’s the reason,’ said Bernardo, smiling. ‘His own generals opened their throats pretty well, and at last our Signoria sent the mastiff of the city, Fra Girolamo. The Cristianissimo was frightened at that thunder, and has given the order to move. I’m afraid there’ll be small agreement among us when he’s gone, but, at any rate, all parties are agreed in being glad not to have Florence stifled with soldiery any longer, and the Frate has barked this time to some purpose. Ah, what is this?’ he added, as Romola, clasping him by the arm, led him in front of the picture. ‘Let us see.’
He began to unwind his long scarf while she placed a seat for him.
‘Don’t you want your spectacles, godfather?’ said Romola, in anxiety that he should see just what she saw.
‘No, child, no,’ said Bernardo, uncovering his grey head, as he seated himself with firm erectness. ‘For seeing at this distance, my old eyes are perhaps better than your young ones. Old men’s eyes are like old men’s memories; they are strongest for things a long way off.’
‘It is better than having no portrait,’ said Romola, apologetically, after Bernardo had been silent a little while. ‘It is less like him now than the image I have in my mind, but then that might fade with the years.’ She rested her arm on the old man’s shoulder as she spoke, drawn towards him strongly by their common interest in the dead.
‘I don’t know,’ said Bernardo. ‘I almost think I see Bardo as he was when he was young, better than that picture shows him to me as he was when he was old. Your father had a great deal of fire in his eyes when he was young. It was what I could never understand, that he, with his fiery spirit, which seemed much more impatient than mine, could hang over the books and live with shadows all his life. However, he had put his heart into that.’
Bernardo gave a slight shrug as he spoke the last words, but Romola discerned in his voice a feeling that accorded with her own.
‘And he was disappointed to the last,’ she said, involuntarily. But immediately fearing lest her words should be taken to imply an accusation against Tito, she went on almost hurriedly, ‘If we could only see his longest, dearest wish fulfilled just to his mind!’
‘Well, so we may,’ said Bernardo, kindly, rising and putting on his cap. ‘The times are cloudy now, but fish are caught by waiting. Who knows? When the wheel has turned often enough, I may be Gonfaloniere yet before I die; and no creditor can touch these things.’ He looked round as he spoke. Then, turning to her, and patting her cheek, said, ‘And you need not be afraid of my dying; my ghost will claim nothing. I’ve taken care of that in my will.’
Romola seized the hand that was against her cheek, and put it to her lips in silence.
‘Haven’t you been scolding your husband for keeping away from home so much lately? I see him everywhere but here,’ said Bernardo, willing to change the subject.
She felt the flush spread over her neck and face as she said, ‘He has been very much wanted; you know he speaks so well. I am glad to know that his value is understood.’
‘You are contented then, Madonna Orgogliosa?” said Bernardo, smiling, as he moved to the door.
Poor Romola! There was one thing that would have made the pang of disappointment in her husband harder to bear; it was, that any one should know he gave her cause for disappointment. This might be a woman’s weakness, but it is closely allied to a woman’s nobleness. She who willingly lifts up the veil of her married life has profaned it from a sanctuary into a vulgar place.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54