Romola, by George Eliot

Chapter 63 — Ripening Schemes

A month after that Carnival, one morning near the end of March, Tito descended the marble steps of the Old Palace, bound on a pregnant errand to San Marco. For some reason, he did not choose to take the direct road, which was but a slightly-bent line from the Old Palace; he chose rather to make a circuit by the Piazza di Santa Croce, where the people would be pouring out of the church after the early sermon.

It was in the grand church of Santa Croce that the daily Lenten sermon had of late had the largest audience. For Savonarola’s voice had ceased to be heard even in his own church of San Marco, a hostile Signoria having imposed silence on him in obedience to a new letter from the Pope, threatening the city with an immediate interdict if this ‘wretched worm’ and ‘monstrous idol’ were not forbidden to preach, and sent to demand pardon at Rome. And next to hearing Fra Girolamo himself, the most exciting Lenten occupation was to hear him argued against and vilified. This excitement was to be had in Santa Croce, where the Franciscan appointed to preach the Quaresimal sermons had offered to clench his arguments by walking through the fire with Fra Girolamo. Had not that schismatical Dominican said, that his prophetic doctrine would be proved by a miracle at the fitting time? Here, then, was the fitting time. Let Savonarola walk through the fire, and if he came out unhurt, the Divine origin of his doctrine would be demonstrated; but if the fire consumed him, his falsity would be manifest; and that he might have no excuse for evading the test, the Franciscan declared himself willing to be a victim to this high logic, and to be burned for the sake of securing the necessary minor premiss.

Savonarola, according to his habit, had taken no notice of these pulpit attacks. But it happened that the zealous preacher of Santa Croce was no other than the Fra Francesco di Puglia, who at Prato the year before had been engaged in a like challenge with Savonarola’s fervent follower Fra Domenico, but had been called home by his superiors while the heat was simply oratorical. Honest Fra Domenico, then, who was preaching Lenten sermons to the women in the Via del Cocomero, no sooner heard of this new challenge, than he took up the gauntlet for his master, and declared himself ready to walk through the fire with Fra Francesco. Already the people were beginning to take a strong interest in what seemed to them a short and easy method of argument (for those who were to be convinced), when Savonarola, keenly alive to the dangers that lay in the mere discussion of the case, commanded Fra Domenico to withdraw his acceptance of the challenge and secede from the affair. The Franciscan declared himself content: he had not directed his challenge to any subaltern, but to Fra Girolamo himself.

After that, the popular interest in the Lenten sermons had flagged a little. But this morning, when Tito entered the Piazza di Santa Croce, he found, as he expected, that the people were pouring from the church in large numbers. Instead of dispersing, many of them concentrated themselves towards a particular spot near the entrance of the Franciscan monastery, and Tito took the same direction, threading the crowd with a careless and leisurely air, but keeping careful watch on that monastic entrance, as if he expected some object of interest to issue from it.

It was no such expectation that occupied the crowd. The object they were caring about was already visible to them in the shape of a large placard, affixed by order of the Signoria, and covered with very legible official handwriting. But curiosity was somewhat balked by the fact that the manuscript was chiefly in Latin, and though nearly every man knew beforehand approximately what the placard contained, he had an appetite for more exact knowledge, which gave him an irritating sense of his neighbour’s ignorance in not being able to interpret the learned tongue. For that aural acquaintance with Latin phrases which the unlearned might pick up from pulpit quotations constantly interpreted by the preacher could help them little when they saw written Latin; the spelling even of the modern language being in an unorganised and scrambling condition for the mass of people who could read and write, while the majority of those assembled nearest to the placard were not in the dangerous predicament of possessing that little knowledge.

‘It’s the Frate’s doctrines that he’s to prove by being burned,’ said that large public character Goro, who happened to be among the foremost gazers. ‘The Signoria has taken it in hand, and the writing is to let us know. It’s what the Padre has been telling us about in his sermon.’

‘Nay, Goro,’ said a sleek shopkeeper, compassionately, ‘thou hast got thy legs into twisted hose there. The Frate has to prove his doctrines by not being burned: he is to walk through the fire, and come out on the other side sound and whole.’

‘Yes, yes,’ said a young sculptor, who wore his white-streaked cap and tunic with a jaunty air. ‘But Fra Girolamo objects to walking through the fire. Being sound and whole already, he sees no reason why he should walk through the fire to come out in just the same condition. He leaves such odds and ends of work to Fra Domenico.’

‘Then I say he flinches like a coward,’ said Goro, in a wheezy treble. ‘Suffocation! that was what he did at the Carnival. He had us all in the Piazza to see the lightning strike him, and nothing came of it.’

‘Stop that bleating,’ said a rall shoemaker, who had stepped in to hear part of the sermon, with bunches of slippers hanging over his shoulders. ‘It seems to me, friend, that you are about as wise as a calf with water on its brain. The Frate will flinch from nothing: he’ll say nothing beforehand, perhaps, but when the moment comes he’ll walk through the fire without asking any grey-frock to keep him company. But I would give a shoestring to know what this Latin all is.’

‘There’s so much of it,’ said the shopkeeper, ‘else I’m pretty good at guessing. Is there no scholar to be seen?’ he added, with a slight expression of disgust.

There was a general turning of heads, which caused the talkers to descry Tito approaching in their rear.

‘Here is one,’ said the young sculptor, smiling and raising his cap.

‘It is the secretary of the Ten: he is going to the convent, doubtless; make way for him,’ said the shopkeeper, also doffing, though that mark of respect was rarely shown by Florentines except to the highest officials. The exceptional reverence was really exacted by the splendour and grace of Tito’s appearance, which made his black mantle, with its gold fibula, look like a regal robe, and his ordinary black velvet cap like an entirely exceptional head-dress. The hardening of his cheeks and mouth, which was the chief change in his face since he came to Florence, seemed to a superficial glance only to give his beauty a more masculine character. He raised his own cap immediately and said —

‘Thanks, my friend, I merely wished, as you did, to see what is at the foot of this placard — ah, it is as I expected. I had been informed that the government permits any one who will, to subscribe his name as a candidate to enter the fire — which is an act of liberality worthy of the magnificent Signoria — reserving of course the right to make a selection. And doubtless many believers will be eager to subscribe their names. For what is lit to enter the fire, to one whose faith is firm? A man is afraid of the fire, because he believes it will burn him; but if he believes the contrary?’ — here Tito lifted his shoulders and made an oratorical pause — ‘for which reason I have never been one to disbelieve the Frate, when he has said that he would enter the fire to prove his doctrine. For in his place, if you believed the fire would not burn you, which of you, my friends, would not enter it as readily as you would walk along the dry bed of the Mugnone?’

As Tito looked round him during this appeal, there was a change in some of his audience very much like the change in an eager dog when he is invited to smell something pungent. Since the question of burning was becoming practical, it was not every one who would rashly commit himself to any general view of the relation between faith and fire. The scene might have been too much for a gravity less under command than Tito’s.

‘Then, Messer Segretario,’ said the young sculptor, ‘it seems to me Fra Francesco is the greater hero, for he offcrs to enter the fire for the truth, though he is sure the fire will burn him.’

‘I do not deny it,’ said Tito, blandly. ‘But if it turns out that Fra Francesco is mistaken, he will have been burned for the wrong side, and the Church has never reckoned such victims to be martyrs. We must suspend our judgment until the trial has really taken place.’

‘It is true, Messer Segretario,’ said the shopkeeper, with subdued impatience. ‘But will you favour us by interpreting the Latin?’

‘Assuredly,’ said Tito. ‘It does but express the conclusions or doctrines which the Frate specially teaches, and which the trial by fire is to prove true or false. They are doubtless familiar to you. First, that Florence —’

‘Let us have the Latin bit by bit, and then tell us what it means,’ said the shoemaker, who had been a frequent hearer of Fra Girolamo.

‘Willingly,’ said Tito, smiling. ‘You will then judge if I give you the right meaning.’

‘Yes, yes; that’s fair,’ said Goro.

‘Ecclesia Dei indiget renovatione; that it, the Church of God needs purifying or regenerating.’

‘It is true,’ said several voices at once.

‘That means, the priests ought to lead better lives; there needs no miracle to prove that. That’s what the Frate has always been saying,’ said the shoemaker.

‘Flagellabitur,’ Tito went on. ‘That is, it will be scourged. Renovabitur: it will be purified. Florentia quoque post flagellam renovabitur et prosperabitur: Florence also, after the scourging, shall be purified and shall prosper.’

‘That means we are to get Pisa again,’ said the shop-keeper.

‘And get the wool from England as we used to do, I should hope,’ said an elderly man, in an old-fashioned berretta, who had been silent till now. ‘There’s been scourging enough with the sinking of the trade.’

At this moment, a tall personage, surmounted by a red feather, issued from the door of the convent, and exchanged an indifferent glance with Tito; who, tossing his becchetto carelessly over his left shoulder, turned to his reading again, while the bystanders, with more timidity than respect, shrank to make a passage for Messer Dolfo Spini.

‘Infideles convertentur ad Christum,’ Tito went on. ‘That is, the infidels shall be converted to Christ.’

‘Those are the Turks and the Moors. Well, I’ve nothing to say against that,’ said the shopkeeper, dispassionately.

‘Haec autem omnia erunt temporibus nostris: and all these things shall happen in our times.’

‘Why, what use would they be else?’ said Goro.

‘Excommunicatio nuper lata contra Reverendum Patrem nostrum Fratrem Hieronymum nulla est: the excommunication lately pronounced against our reverend father, Fra Girolamo is null. Non observantes eam non peccant: those who disregard it are not committing a sin.’

‘I shall know better what to say to that when we have had the Trial by Fire,’ said the shopkeeper.

‘Which doubtless will clear up everything,’ said Tito. ‘That is all the Latin — all the conclusions that are to be proved true or false by the trial. The rest you can perceive is simply a proclamation of the Signoria in good Tuscan, calling on such as are eager to walk through the fire, to come to the Palazzo and subscribe their names. Can I serve you further? If not — ’

Tito, as he turned away, raised his cap and bent slightly, with so easy an air that the movement seemed a natural prompting of deference.

He quickened his pace as he left the Piazza, and after two or three turnings he paused in a quiet street before a door at which he gave a light and peculiar knock. It was opened by a young woman whom he chucked under the chin as he asked her if the Padrones was within, and he then passed, without further ceremony, through another door which stood ajar on his right hand. It admitted him into a handsome but untidy room, where Dolfo Spini sat playing with a fine stag-hound which alternately snuffed at a basket of pups and licked his hands with that affectionate disregard of her master’s morals sometimes held to be one of the most agreeable attributes of her sex. He just looked up as Tito entered, but continued his play, simply from that disposition to persistence in some irrelevant action, by which slow-witted sensual people seem to be continually counteracting their own purposes. Tito was patient.

‘A handsome bracca that,’ he said, quietly, standing with his thumbs in his belt. Presently he added, in that cool liquid tone which seemed mild, but compelled attention, ‘When you have finished such caresses as cannot possibly be deferred, my Dolfo, we will talk of business, if you please. My time, which I could wish to be eternity at your service, is not entirely my own this morning.’

‘Down, Mischief, down!’ said Spini, with sudden roughness. ‘Malediction!’ he added, still more gruffly, pushing the dog aside; then, starting from his seat, he stood close to Tito, and put a hand on his shoulder as he spoke.

‘I hope your sharp wits see all the ins and outs of this business, my fine necromancer, for it seems to me no clearer than the bottom of a sack.’

‘What is your difficulty, my cavalier?’

‘These accursed Frati Minori at Santa Croce. They are drawing back now. Fra Francesco himself seems afraid of sticking to his challenge; talks of the Prophet being likely to use magic to get up a false miracle — thinks he himself might be dragged into the fire and burned, and the Prophet might come out whole by magic, and the Church be none the better. And then, after all our talking, there’s not so much as a blessed lay brother who will offer himself to pair with that pious sheep Fra Domenico.’

‘It is the peculiar stupidity of the tonsured skull that prevents them from seeing of how little consequence it is whether they are burned or not,’ said Tito. ‘Have you sworn well to them that they shall be in no danger of entering the fire? ’

‘No,’ said Spini, looking puzzled; ‘because one of them will be obliged to go in with Fra Domenico, who thinks it a thousand years till the fagots are ready.’

‘Not at all. Fra Domenico himself is not likely to go in. I have told you before, my Dolfo, only your powerful mind is not to be impressed without more repetition than suffices for the vulgar — I have told you that now you have got the Signoria to take up this affair and prevent it from being hushed up by Fra Girolamo, nothing is necessary but that on a given day the fuel should be prepared in the Piazza, and the people got together with the expectation of seeing something prodigious. If, after that, the Prophet quits the Piazza without any appearance of a miracle on his side, he is ruined with the people: they will be ready to pelt him out of the city, the Signoria will find it easy to banish him from the territory, and his Holiness may do as he likes with him. Therefore, my Alcibiades, swear to the Franciscans that their grey frocks shall not come within singeing distance of the fire.’

Spini rubbed the back of his head with one hand, and tapped his sword against his leg with the other, to stimulate his power of seeing these intangible combinations.

‘But,’ he said presently, looking up again, ‘unless we fall on him in the Piazza, when the people are in a rage, and make an end of him and his lies then and there, Valori and the Salviati and the Albizzi will take up arms and raise a fight for him. I know that was talked of when there was the hubbub on Ascension Sunday. And the people may turn round again: there may be a story raised of the French king coming again, or some other cursed chance in the hypocrite’s favour. The city will never be safe till he’s out of it.’

‘He will be out of it before long, without your giving yourself any further trouble than this little comedy of the Trial by Fire. The wine and the sun will make vinegar without any shouting to help them, as your Florentine sages would say. You will have the satisfaction of delivering your city from an incubus by an able stratagem, instead of risking blunders with sword-thrusts.’

‘But suppose he did get magic and the devil to help him, and walk through the fire after all?’ said Spini, with a grimace intended to hide a certain shyness in trenching on this speculative ground. ‘How do you know there’s nothing in those things. Plenty of scholars believe in them, and this Frate is bad enough for anything.’

‘Oh, of course there are such things,’ said Tito, with a shrug: ‘but I have particular reasons for knowing that the Frate is not on such terms with the devil as can give him any confidence in this affair. The only magic he relies on is his own ability.’

‘Ability!’ said Spini. ‘Do you call it ability to be setting Florence at loggerheads with the Pope and all the powers of Italy — all to keep beckoning at the French king who never comes? You may call him able, but I call him a hypocrite who wants to be master of everybody, and get himself made Pope.’

‘You judge with your usual penetration, my captain, but our opinions do not clash. The Frate, wanting to be master, and to carry out his projects against the Pope, requires the lever of a foreign power, and requires Florence as a fulcrum. I used to think him a narrow-minded bigot, but now, I think him a shrewd ambitious man who knows what he is aiming at, and directs his aim as skilfully as you direct a ball when you are playing at maglio.’

‘Yes, yes,’ said Spini, cordially, ‘I can aim a ball.’

‘It is true,’ said Tito, with bland gravity; ‘and I should not have troubled you with my trivial remark on the Frate’s ability, but that you may see how this will heighten the credit of your success against him at Rome and at Milan, which is sure to serve you in good stead when the city comes to change its policy.’

‘Well, thou art a good little demon, and shalt have good pay,’ said Spini, patronisingly; whereupon he thought it only natural that the useful Greek adventurer should smile with gratification as he said —

‘Of course, any advantage to me depends entirely on your —’

‘We shall have our supper at my palace to-night,’ interrupted Spini, with a significant nod and an affectionate pat on Tito’s shoulder, ‘and I shalI expound the new scheme to them all.’

‘Pardon, my magnificent patron,’ said Tito; ‘the scheme has been the same from the first — it has never varied except in your memory. Are you sure you have fast hold of it now?’ Spini rehearsed.

‘One thing more,’ he said, as Tito was hastening away. ‘There is that sharp-nosed notary, Ser Ceccone; he has been handy of late. Tell me, you who can see a man wink when you’re behind him, do you think I may go on making use of him?’

Tito dared not say ‘No.’ He knew his companion too well to trust him with advice when all Spini’s vanity and self-interest were not engaged in concealing the adviser.

‘Doubtless,’ he answered, promptly. ‘I have nothing to say against Ceccone.’

That suggestion of the notary’s intimate access to Spini caused Tito a passing twinge, interrupting his amused satisfaction in the success with which he made a tool of the man who fancied himself a patron. For he had been rather afraid of Ser Ceccone. Tito’s nature made him peculiarly alive to circumstances that might be turned to his disadvantage; his memory was much haunted by such possibilities, stimulating him to contrivances by which he might ward them off. And it was not likely that he should forget that October morning more than a year ago, when Romola had appeared suddenly before him at the door of Nello’s shop, and had compelled him to declare his certainty that Fra Girolamo was not going outside the gates. The fact that Ser Ceccone had been a witness of that scene, together with Tito’s perception that for some reason or other he was an object of dislike to the notary, had received a new importance from the recent turn of events. For after having been implicated in the Medicean plots, and having found it advisable in consequence to retire into the country for some time, Ser Ceccone had of late, since his reappearance in the city, attached himself to the Arrabbiati, and cultivated the patronage of Dolfo Spini. Now that captain of the Compagnacci was much given, when in the company of intimates, to confidential narrative about his own doings, and if Ser Ceccone’s powers of combination were sharpened by enmity, he might gather some knowledge which he could use against Tito with very unpleasant results.

It would be pitiable to be balked in well-conducted schemes by an insignificant notary; to be lamed by the sting of an insect whom he had offended unawares. ‘But,’ Tito said to himself, ‘the man’s dislike to me can be nothing deeper than the ill-humour of a dinnerless dog; I shall conquer it if I can make him prosperous.’ And he had been very glad of an opportunity which had presented itself of providing the notary with a temporary post as an extra cancelliere or registering secretary under the Ten, believing that with this sop and the expectation of more, the waspish cur must be quite cured of the disposition to bite him.

But perfect scheming demands omniscience, and the notary’s envy had been stimulated into hatred by causes of which Tito knew nothing. That evening when Tito, returning from his critical audience with the Special Council had brushed by Ser Ceccone on the stairs, the notary, who had only just returned from Pistoja, and learned the arrest of the conspirators, was bound on an errand which bore a humble resemblance to Tito’s. He also without giving up a show of popular zeal, had been putting in the Medicean lottery. He also had been privy to the unexecuted plot, and was willing to tell what he knew, but knew much less to tell. He also would have been willing to go on treacherous errands, but a more eligible agent had forestalled him. His propositions were received coldly; the council, he was told, was already in possession of the needed information, and since he had been thus busy in sedition, it would be well for him to retire out of the way of mischief, otherwise the government might be obliged to take note of him. Ser Ceccone wanted no evidence to make him attribute his failure to Tito and his spite was the more bitter because the nature of the case compelled him to hold his peace about it. Nor was this the whole of his grudge against the flourishing Melema. On issuing from his hiding-place, and attaching himself to the Arrabbiati, he had earned some pay as one of the spies who reported information on Florentine affairs to the Milanese court; but his pay had been small, notwithstanding his pains to write full letters, and he had lately been apprised that his news was seldom more than a late and imperfect edition of what was known already. Now Ser Ceccone had no positive knowledge that Tito had an underhand connection with the Arrabbiati and the Court of Milan, but he had a suspicion of which he chewed the cud with as strong a sense of flavour as if it had been a certainty.

This fine-grown vigorous hatred could swallow the feeble opiate of Tito’s favours, and be as lively as ever after it. Why should Ser Ceccone like Melema any the better for doing him favours? Doubtless the suave secretary had his own ends to serve; and what right had he to the superior position which made it possible for him to show favour? But since he had tuned his voice to flattery, Ser Ceccone would pitch his in the same key, and it remained to be seen who would win at the game of outwitting.

To have a mind well oiled with that sort of argument which prevents any claim from grasping it, seems eminently convenient sometimes; only the oil becomes objectionable when we find it anointing other minds on which we want to establish a hold.

Tito, however, not being quite omniscient, felt now no more than a passing twinge of uneasiness at the suggestion of Ser Ceccone’s power to hurt him. It was only for a little while that he cared greatly about keeping clear of suspicions and hostility. He was now playing his final game in Florence, and the skill he was conscious of applying gave him a pleasure in it even apart from the expected winnings. The errand on which he was bent to San Marco was a stroke in which he felt so much confidence that he had already given notice to the Ten of his desire to resign his office at an indefinite period within the next month or two, and had obtained permission to make that resignation suddenly, if his affairs needed it, with the understanding that Niccolo Macchiavelli was to be his provisional substitute, if not his successor. He was acting on hypothetic grounds, but this was the sort of action that had the keenest interest for his diplomatic mind. From a combination of general knowledge concerning Savonarola’s purposes with diligently observed details he had framed a conjecture which he was about to verify by this visit to San Marco. If he proved to be right, his game would be won, and he might soon turn his back on Florence. He looked eagerly towards that consummation, for many circumstances besides his own weariness of the place told him that it was time for him to be gone.

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