On the fourteenth of April Romola was once more within the walls of Florence. Unable to rest at Pistoja, where contradictory reports reached her about the Trial by Fire, she had gone on to Prato; and was beginning to think that she should be drawn on to Florence in spite of dread, when she encountered that monk of San Spirito who had been her godfather’s confessor. From him she learned the full story of Savonarola’s arrest, and of her husband’s death. This Augustinian monk had been in the stream of people who had followed the waggon with its awful burthen into the Piazza, and he could tell her what was generally known in Florence — that Tito had escaped from an assaulting mob by leaping into the Arno, but had been murdered on the bank by an old man who had long had an enmity against him. But Romola understood the catastrophe as no one else did. Of Savonarola the monk told her, in that tone of unfavourable prejudice which was usual in the Black Brethren (Frati Neri) towards the brother who showed white under his black, that he had confessed himself a deceiver of the people.
Romola paused no longer. That evening she was in Florence, sitting in agitated silence under the exclamations of joy and wailing, mingled with exuberant narrative, which were poured into her ears by Monna Brigida, who had backslided into false hair in Romola’s absence, but now drew it off again and declared she would not mind being grey, if her dear child would stay with her.
Romola was too deeply moved by the main events which she had known before coming to Florence, to be wrought upon by the doubtful gossiping details added in Brigida’s narrative. The tragedy of her husband’s death, of Fra Girolamo’s confession of duplicity under the coercion of torture, left her hardly any power of apprehending minor circumstances. All the mental activity she could exert under that load of awe-stricken grief, was absorbed by two purposes which must supersede every other; to try and see Savonarola, and to learn what had become of Tessa and the children.
‘Tell me, cousin,’ she said abruptly, when Monna Brigida’s tongue had run quite away from troubles into projects of Romola’s living with her, ‘has anything been seen or said since Tito’s death of a young woman with two little children?’
Brigida started, rounded her eyes, and lifted up her hands.
‘Cristo! no. What! was he so bad as that, my poor child? Ah, then, that was why you went away, and left me word only that you went of your own free will. Well, well; if I’d known that, I shouldn’t have thought you so strange and flighty. For I did say to myself, though I didn’t tell anybody else, “What was she to go away from her husband for, leaving him to mischief, only because they cut poor Bernardo’s head off? She’s got her father’s temper,” I said, “that’s what it is.” Well, well; never scold me, child: Bardo was fierce, you can’t deny it. But if you had only told me the truth, that there was a young hussey and children, I should have understood it all. Anything seen or said of her? No; and the less the better. They say enough of ill about him without that. But since that was the reason you went —’
‘No, dear cousin,’ said Romola, interrupting her earnestly, ‘pray do not talk so. I wish above all things to find that young woman and her children, and to take care of them. They are quite helpless. Say nothing against it; that is the thing I shall do first of all.’
‘Well,’ said Monna Brigida, shrugging her shoulders and lowering her voice with an air of puzzled discomfiture, ‘if that’s being a Piagnone, I’ve been taking peas for paternosters. Why, Fra Girolamo said as good as that widows ought not to marry again. Step in at the door and it’s a sin and a shame, it seems; but come down the chimney and you’re welcome. Two children — Santiddio!’
‘Cousin, the poor thing has done no conscious wrong: she is ignorant of everything I will tell you — but not now.’
Early the next morning Romola’s steps were directed to the house beyond San Ambrogio where she had once found Tessa; but it was as she had feared: Tessa was gone. Romola conjectured that Tito had sent her away beforehand to some spot where he had intended to join her, for she did not believe that he would willingly part with those children. It was a painful conjecture, because, if Tessa were out of Florence, there was hardly a chance of finding her, and Romola pictured the childish creature waiting and waiting at some wayside spot in wondering, helpless misery. Those who lived near could tell her nothing except that old deaf Lisa had gone away a week ago with her goods, but no one knew where Tessa had gone. Romola saw no further active search open to her; for she had no knowledge that could serve as a starting-point for inquiry, and not only her innate reserve but a more noble sensitiveness made her shrink from assuming an attitude of generosity in the eyes of others by publishing Tessa’s relation to Tito, along with her own desire to find her. Many days passed in anxious inaction. Even under strong solicitation from other thoughts Romola found her heart palpitating if she caught sight of a pair of round brown legs, or of a short woman in the contadina dress.
She never for a moment told herself that it was heroism or exalted charity in her to seek these beings; she needed something that she was bound specially to care for; she yearned to clasp the children and to make them love her. This at least would be some sweet result, for others as well as herself, from all her past sorrow. It appeared there was much property of Tito’s to which she had a claim; but she distrusted the cleanness of that money, and she had determined to make it all over to the State, except so much as was equal to the price of her father’s library. This would be enough for the modest support of Tessa and the children. But Monna Brigida threw such planning into the background by clamorously insisting that Romola must live with her and never forsake her till she had seen her safe in Paradise — else why had she persuaded her to turn Piagnone? — and if Romola wanted to rear other people’s children, she, Monna Brigida, must rear them too. Only they must be found first.
Romola felt the full force of that innuendo. But strong feeling unsatisfied is never without its superstition, either of hope or despair. Romola’s was the superstition of hope: somehow she was to find that mother and the children. And at last another direction for active inquiry suggested itself. She learned that Tito had provided horses and mules to await him in San Gallo; he was therefore going to leave Florence by the gate of San Gallo, and she determined, though without much confidence in the issue, to try and ascertain from the gatekeepers if they had observed any one corresponding to the description of Tessa, with her children, to have passed the gates before the morning of the ninth of April. Walking along the Via San Gallo, and looking watchfully about her through her long widow’s veil, lest she should miss any object that might aid her, she descried Bratti chaffering with a customer. That roaming man, she thought, might aid her: she would not mind talking of Tessa to him. But as she put aside her veil and crossed the street towards him, she saw something hanging from the corner of his basket which made her heart leap with a much stronger hope.
‘Bratti, my friend,’ she said abruptly, ‘where did you get that necklace?’
‘Your servant, madonna,’ said Bratti, looking round at her very deliberately, his mind not being subject to surprise. ‘It’s a necklace worth money, but I shall get little by it, for my heart’s too tender for a trader’s; I have promised to keep it in pledge.’
‘Pray tell me where you got it; — from a little woman named Tessa, is it not true?’
‘Ah! if you know her,’ said Bratti, ‘and would redeem it of me at a small profit, and give it her again, you’d be doing a charity, for she cried at parting with it — you’d have thought she was running into a brook. It’s a small profit I’ll charge you. You shall have it for a florin, for I don’t like to be hard-hearted.’
‘Where is she?’ said Romola, giving him the money, and unclasping the necklace from the basket in joyful agitation.
‘Outside the gate there, at the other end of the Borg, at old Sibilla Manetti’s: anybody will tell you which is the house.’
Romola went along with winged feet, blessing that incident of the Carnival which had made her learn by heart the appearance of this necklace. Soon she was at the house she sought. The young woman and the children were in the inner room — were to have been fetched away a fortnight ago and more — had no money, only their clothes, to pay a poor widow with for their food and lodging. But since madonna knew them — Romola waited to hear no more, but opened the door.
Tessa was seated on the low bed: her crying had passed into tearless sobs, and she was looking with sad blank eyes at the two children, who were playing in an opposite corner — Lillo covering his head with his skirt and roaring at Ninna to frighten her, then peeping out again to see how she bore it. The door was a little behind Tessa, and she did not turn round when it opened, thinking it was only the old woman: expectation was no longer alive. Romola had thrown aside her veil and paused a moment, holding the necklace in sight. Then she said, in that pure voice that used to cheer her father —
Tessa started to her feet and looked round.
‘See,’ said Romola, clasping the beads on Tessa’s neck, ‘God has sent me to you again.’
The poor thing screamed and sobbed, and clung to the arms that fastened the necklace. She could not speak. The two children came from their corner, laid hold of their mother’s skirts, and looked up with wide eyes at Romola.
That day they all went home to Monna Brigida’s, in the Borgo degli Albizzi. Romola had made known to Tessa by gentle degrees, that Naldo could never come to her again: not because he was cruel, but because he was dead.
‘But be comforted, my Tessa,’ said Romola. ‘I am come to take care of you always. And we have got Lillo and Ninna.’
Monna Brigida’s mouth twitched in the struggle between her awe of Romola and the desire to speak unseasonably.
‘Let be, for the present,’ she thought; ‘but it seems to me a thousand years till I tell this little contadina, who seems not to know how many fingers she’s got on her hand, who Romola is. And I will tell her some day, else she’ll never know her place. It’s all very well for Romola; — nobody will call their souls their own when she’s by; but if I’m to have this puss-faced minx living in my house she must be humble to me.’
However, Monna Brigida wanted to give the children too many sweets for their supper, and confessed to Romola, the last thing before going to bed, that it would be a shame not to take care of such cherubs.
‘But you must give up to me a little, Romola, about their eating, and those things. For you have never had a baby, and I had twins, only they died as soon as they were born.’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54