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by George Eliot
The original, squashed down to read in about 25 minutes
Mary Ann Evans ("George Eliot") was born Nov. 22, 1819, at South Farm, Arbury, Warwickshire, England, where her father was agent on the Newdigate estate. Mary established herself as one of the leading novelists of the Victorian era using the male pen name 'George Eliot' she said to ensure her works were taken seriously, but possibly also to shield her identity and hide her close relationship with the married George Henry Lewes.
"Romola" was George Eliot's fifth book, and followed "Silas Marner," which was published in 1861. It is a story of Florence in the days of Savonarola, and was largely the outcome of a visit the novelist paid to Italy with Lewes. She made exhaustive researches in the Florentine libraries, gathering historical and topographical details of the city and its life as they were in the mediæval period.
For more works by George Eliot, see The Index
Under the Loggia de Cerchi, in the heart of old Florence, in the early morning of April 9, 1492, two men had their eyes fixed on each other. One was looking downward with the scrutiny of curiosity; the other, lying on the pavement, was looking upward with the startled gaze of a suddenly awakened dreamer.
"Young man," said the standing figure, pointing to a ring on the finger of the other, "when your chin has got a stiffer crop on it you'll know better than to take your nap in street corners with a ring like that on your forefinger. By the holy 'vangels, if it had been anybody but me standing over you - but Bratti Ferravecchi is not the man to steal! Three years ago, one San Giovanni, the saint, sent a dead body in my way - a blind beggar, with his cap well lined with pieces. But how comes a young man like you, with the face of Messer San Michele, to be sleeping on a stone bed? Your tunic and hose match ill with that jewel, young man. Anybody might say the saints had sent you a dead body; but if you took the jewels, I hope you buried him - and you can afford a mass or two for him into the bargain!"
Something like a painful thrill appeared to dart through the frame of the listener, and arrest the careless stretching of his arms. But he immediately recovered an air of indifference, took off the red Levantine cap which hung like a great purse over his left ear, and pushing back his long, dark brown curls, said smiling, "The fact is, I'm a stranger in Florence, and when I came in footsore last night, I preferred flinging myself in the corner of this hospitable porch to hunting for a chance hostelry, which might turn out to be a nest of bloodsuckers. Can you show me the way to a more lively quarter, where I can get a meal and a lodging?"
"That I can," said Bratti.
And, talking volubly as they went, Bratti led the way to the Mercato Vecchio, or the Old Market, promising to conduct him to the prettiest damsel in the Mercato for a cup of milk.
But as soon as they emerged from the narrow streets into the Old Market, they found the place packed with excited groups of men and women humming with gossip.
"Diavolo!" said Bratti. "The Mercato has gone as mad as if the Holy Father had excommunicated us again! I must know what this is."
He pushed about among the crowd, inquiring and disputing, and was presently absorbed in discussing the newest development of Florentine politics, the death of Lorenzo de Medici, and whether or not this death was the beginning of the time of tribulation that Savonarola had been seeing in visions and foretelling in sermons.
Indifferent to this general agitation, the young stranger became tired of waiting for Bratti's escort, and strolling on round the piazza, felt, on a sudden thought, in the wallet that hung at his waist.
"Not an obolus, by Jupiter!" he murmured, in a language that was not Tuscan or even Italian. "I must get my breakfast for love, then!"
In a corner, away from any group of talkers, two mules were standing. One carried wooden milk vessels, the other a pair of panniers filled with herbs and salads. Resting her elbow on the mule that carried the milk, there leaned a young girl, apparently not more than sixteen, with a red hood surrounding her face, which was all the more baby-like in its prettiness from the entire concealment of her hair. The poor child was weary, and it seemed to have gone to sleep in that half-standing, half-leaning posture. Nevertheless, our stranger had no compunction in awaking her. She opened her baby-blue eyes, and stared up with astonishment and confusion.
"Forgive me, pretty one, for awaking you," he said. "I'm dying with hunger, and the scent of milk makes breakfast seem more desirable than ever."
She bestirred herself, and in a few moments a large cup of fragrant milk was held out to him; and by the time he set the cup down she had brought bread from a bag which hung by the side of the mule, and shyly and mutely insisted on his taking it, even though he told her he had nothing to pay her with; and just as he was leaning down to kiss her he was harshly interrupted by Monna Ghita, Tessa's mother, who had come upon them unobserved.
The handsome presence of the stranger and his charm of manner were of no avail with Monna Ghita; her noisy rating of him drew Bratti and the barber, Nello, to the spot, and with these he was glad to make good his escape, having waived a furtive adieu to the pretty Tessa.
It was not until after Bratti, having business at home, had handed the young stranger over to Nello, and in the barber's shop he had been shaved and trimmed, and made to look presentable, that Tito Melema became more confidential, and explained that he was a Greek; that he was returning from adventures abroad, had suffered shipwreck, and found himself in Florence with nothing saved from the disaster but some few rare old gems for which he was anxious to obtain a purchaser.
"Let us see, let us see," said Nello, walking up and down his shop. "What you want is a man of wealth and influence and scholarly tastes; and that man is Bartolommeo Scala, the Secretary of our Republic. He came to Florence as a poor adventurer himself, a miller's son; and that may be a reason why he may be the more ready to do a good turn to a strange scholar. I could take you to a man who, if he has a mind, can help you to a chance of a favourable interview with Scala - a man worth seeing for his own sake, too, to say nothing of his collections, or of his daughter Romola, who is as fair as the Florentine lily before it got quarrelsome and turned red."
"But if the father of this beautiful Romola makes collections, why should he not like to buy some of my gems himself?"
Nello shrugged his shoulders. "For two good reasons - want of sight to look at the gems and want of money to pay for them."
He was a moneyless, blind old scholar, the Bardo de Bardi, to whom Nello introduced Tito Melema; a man who came of a proud, energetic stock, whose ancestors had loved to play the signor, had been merchants and usurers of keen daring, and conspicuous among those who clutched the sword in the earliest world-famous quarrels of Florentine with Florentine. The family passions lived on in Bardo under altered conditions; he was a man with a deep-veined hand cramped by much copying of manuscripts, who ate sparing dinners, and wore threadbare clothes, at first from choice, and at last from necessity; who sat among his books and manuscripts, and saw them only by the light of those far-off younger days which still shone in his memory.
And among his books and antiquities and rare marble fragments, in a spacious room surrounded with laden shelves, Romola was his daily companion and assistant. There was a time when he had hoped that his son, Dino, would have followed in his steps, to be the prop of his age, and to take up and continue his scholarly labours after he was dead. But Dino had failed him; Dino had given himself up to religion and entered the priesthood, and the passion of Bardo's resentment had flamed into fierce hatred towards this recreant son of his, and none dared so much as to name him within his hearing.
Maso, the old serving-man ushered in the two visitors he had announced a few minutes previously, and Nello introduced Tito to Bardo and his daughter as a scholar of considerable learning.
Romola's astonishment could hardly have been greater if the stranger had worn a panther-skin and carried a thyrsus, for the cunning barber had said nothing of the Greeks age or appearance, and among her father's scholarly visitors she had hardly ever seen any but gray-headed men.
Nevertheless, she returned Tito's bow with the same pale, proud face as ever; but as he approached the snow melted, and when he ventured to look towards her again a pink flush overspread her face, to vanish again almost immediately, as if her imperious will had recalled it. Tito's glance, on the other hand, as he looked at this tall maiden of seventeen or eighteen, as she stood at the reading-desk with one hand on the back of her father's chair, had that gentle, beseeching admiration in it which is the most propitiating of appeals to a proud, shy woman, and is perhaps the only atonement a man can make for being too handsome.
"Messere, I give you welcome," said Bardo with some condescension; "misfortune wedded to learning, and especially to Greek learning, is a letter of credit that should win the ear of every instructed Florentine."
He proceeded to question Tito as to what part of Greece he came from, learned that he was a young man of unusual scholastic attainments, and that he had a father who was himself a scholar.
"At least," said Tito, "a father by adoption. He was a Neapolitan, but," he added, after another slight pause, "he is lost to me - was lost on a voyage he too rashly undertook to Delos."
Bardo forbore to speak further on so painful a topic; he discoursed freely upon his own studies, his past hopes, and the one great ambition that remained to him - that his library and his magnificent collection of treasures should not be dissipated on his death, but should become the property of the public, and be honourably housed in Florence for all time, with his name over the door.
In his eagerness he made passing reference to his son, of how Romola had been filling his place to the best of her power, and plainly hinted - and Tito was not slow to profit by the opportunity - that if he could have the young Greek scholar to work with him instead of her, he might yet look to fulfill some of the notable designs he had abandoned when his blindness came upon him.
"But," he resumed, in his original tone of condescension, "we are departing from what I believe is your most important business. Nello informed me that you had certain gems which you would fain dispose of."
"I have one or two intagli of much beauty," said Tito. "But they are now in the keeping of Messer Domenico Cennini, who has a strong and safe place for such things. He estimates them as worth at least five hundred ducats."
"Ah, then, they are fine intagli!" said Bardo. "Five hundred ducats! Ah, more than a man's ransom!"
Tito gave a slight, almost imperceptible start, and opened his long, dark eyes with questioning surprise at Bardo's blind face, as if his words - a mere phrase of common parlance at a time when men were often being ransomed from slavery or imprisonment - had some special meaning for him.
But Bardo had used the words in all innocence, and went on to talk of superstitions that attached to certain gems, and to undertake that he would use his influence with the Secretary of the Republic in Tito's behalf. Both Romola and her father were attracted by the charm and freshness and apparent simplicity of the young man; but just as he was making ready to depart they were interrupted by the entrance of Bernardo del Nero, one of the chief citizens of Florence, Bardo's oldest friend, and Romola's godfather; and Bernardo felt an instant, instinctive distrust of the handsome, ingratiating stranger, and did not hesitate to say so after Tito had left them.
"Remember, Bardo," he said at length, "thou hast a rare gem of thy own; take care no one gets it who is not like to pay a worthy price. That pretty Greek has a sleekness about him that seems marvelously fitted for slipping into any nest he fixes his mind on."
It was undeniable that Tito's coming had been the dawn of a new life for both father and daughter, and he grew to care for Romola supremely - to wish to have her for his beautiful and loving wife.
He took her place as Bardo's assistant, and served him with an easy efficiency that had been beyond her; and she, happier in her father's happiness, had given her love to Tito even before he ventured to offer her his own. He was thus sailing under the fairest breeze, and besides convincing fair judges that his talents squared with his good fortune, he wore that fortune so unpretentiously that no one seemed to be offended by it.
And that was not the whole of Tito's good fortune, for he had sold his jewels, and was master of full five hundred gold florins. Yet the moment when he first had this sum in his possession was the crisis of the first serious struggle his facile, good-humoured nature had known.
"A man's ransom!" Who was it that had said five hundred florins was more than a man's ransom? If, now, under this mid-day sun, on some hot coast far away, a man somewhat stricken in years - a man not without high thoughts, and with the most passionate heart - a man who long years ago had rescued a little boy from a life of beggary, filth, and cruel wrong, and had reared him tenderly, if that man were now, under this summer sun, toiling as a slave, hewing wood and drawing water? If he were saying to himself, "Tito will find me. He had but to carry our gems to Venice; he will have raised money, and will never rest till he finds me out?" If that were certain, could he - Tito - see the price of the gems lying before him, and say, "I will stay at Florence, where I am fanned by soft airs of love and prosperity; I will not risk myself for his sake?" No, surely not if it were certain. But the galley had been taken by a Turkish vessel; that was known by the report of the companion galley which had escaped; and there had been resistance and probable bloodshed, a man had been seen falling overboard.
He quieted his conscience with such reasonings as these, and when definite tidings reached him that his father was still a prisoner, he contrived to keep the knowledge to himself, and still did nothing. The death of the exhausted, emaciated monk who had brought these tidings freed him of one fear; but this monk was Romola's brother, Dino, and obeying his summons she had been in secret to see him as he lay dying.
"Romola," her brother began to speak, "in the deep night, as I lay awake, I saw my father's room, and I saw you ... And at the leggio where I used to stand stood a man whose face I could not see. I saw him move and take thee, Romola, by the hand, and then I saw thee take my father by the hand, and you all three went down the stone steps into the streets, the man, whose face was a blank to me, leading the way. And you stood at the altar of Santa Croce, and the priest who married you had the face of death; and the graves opened and the dead in their shrouds followed you like a bridal train. And it seemed to me that at last you came to a stony place where there was no water, and no trees or herbage; but instead of water I saw written parchment unrolling itself everywhere, and instead of trees and herbage I saw men of bronze and marble springing up and crowding round you. And my father was faint, and fell to the ground; and the man loosed thy hand and departed; and as he went I could see his face, and it was the face of the Great Tempter.... Thrice have I had that vision, Romola. I believe it is a revelation meant for thee - to warn thee against marriage as a temptation of the enemy...."
The words died away.
"Frate," said the dying voice. "Give her - - "
"The crucifix," said the voice of Fra Girolamo Savonarola, who was standing in the shadows behind her.
"Dino!" said Romola, with a low but piercing cry.
"Take the crucifix, my daughter," said Fra Girolamo, after a few minutes. "His eyes behold it no more."
But, heedless of the distrust and opposition of Messer Bernardo del Nero, and with this vision of Dino's menacing his highest hope, Tito went gaily on his triumphant way.
Also he had renewed acquaintance with the little Tessa. He came upon her in the thronged streets during carnival time, and seeing her, a timorous, tearful little contadin, terrified by the burlesque threats of a boisterous conjurer, took her under his protection.
Thereafter, he met her again at intervals, finding her naive love and humble adoration and obedience very pleasant; and, meeting her once at a peasant's fair, he jestingly yielded to the burlesque solicitations of a mountebank in a white mitre, paid a small fee, and went through an absurd ceremony of mock-marriage with her.
Tessa herself believed the marriage to be real enough, and he would not mar her delight by undeceiving her. Later, since she was wretched at home with her scolding mother and a brutal step-father, and there were dangers in allowing her to go on waylaying him in streets when too long a period elapsed between his visits to her, he quietly took her away and established her in a small house on the outskirts of the city, with the deaf, discreet old Monna Lisa as her servant and companion.
Neither this nor the darker secret of his treachery to his adoptive father cast any cloud over his habitual cheerfulness. His love for Romola was a higher and deeper passion than anything he felt for the child-like, submissive little Tessa, and when she told him frankly of her brother's warning vision, he set himself to convince her it was the mere nightmare of a diseased imagination, and the perfect love and trust she had for him made the task easy.
For a while after their marriage she was ideally happy; she was not even separated from her father, for Tito came to live with them, and was to Bardo, in his scholastic labours, all that he had wished his own son to be. Then came the first cloud.
On November 17, 1494, more than eighteen months after the marriage of Tito and Romola, the King of France marched his army into Florence on his way to take possession of Naples and impose peace on the warring little states into which Italy was divided. There were those in Florence who were prepared to welcome the invaders, but the majority, the common people in particular, resented their coming.
With the soldiery came three wretched prisoners; they were led in ropes by their captors, and with blows from knotted cords were stimulated to beg. Two, as they passed, held out their hands, crying piteously, "For the love of God and the Holy Madonna, give us something towards our ransom!"
But the third remained obstinately silent. He was old, white-haired, emaciated, with a thick-set figure that seemed to express energy in spite of age; yet there was something fitful in his eyes.
This sight was witnessed by the Florentines with growing exasperation, and presently from jeering at the French soldiers and hustling them, they became bent upon rescuing this third prisoner from his tormentors; one venturesome youth suddenly dashed in, cut the old man's bonds and urged him to run; and the next moment he had plunged into the crowd, which closed behind him and hampered the pursuit.
With one soldier struggling desperately on his track, the fugitive sped towards the Duomo, to seek refuge in that sanctuary, but in mounting the steps his foot slipped, he was precipitated towards a group of signori who stood there with their backs to him, and clutched one to save himself.
It was Tito Melema who felt the clutch. He turned, and saw the face of his adoptive father, Baldassarre Calvo, close to his own. The two men looked at each other silent as death; Tito with cheeks and lips all bloodless, fascinated by terror. The next instant the grasp on his arm relaxed, and Baldassarre disappeared within the church.
With Baldassarre lurking in Florence, Tito went in hourly fear. At any moment the story of his baseness might be blown abroad; at any moment, worse still, he might be struck down by the old man, in whose wild eyes he had read only a fierce yearning for vengeance.
As a precaution, Tito took to wearing a coat of fine chain-mail under his doublet, and the discovery of this alarmed Romola for his safety, and shocked her with a suspicion that he was something of a coward.
But by now Tito was deeply involved in Florentine politics, and easily persuaded her that it was against secret political intriguers that he thus shielded himself. He went on to confess that his life was no longer safe in Florence, and he was resolved to leave the city for good. But to this she demurred; her father had died and left his library and his collection as a sacred trust to her and Tito, and until they had carried out his wish and made them over to the city authorities, she felt she could not go.
Tito made light of her scruples. Her father's wish, he said, had been a mere foolish vanity; they had need of money, and he intended to sell both the library and collection, and when, for the first time in her life, she spoke bitterly, in scorn and anger of his faithlessness, he told her flatly it was useless to bandy words for he had sold them already, and they were to be removed that day.
Frantic with grief and resentment, she thought of desperate ways of preventing the accomplishment of his heartless plans, even to borrowing of her godfather and buying back the treasures, so that Tito might keep his ill-gotten gain and her father's last wish still be fulfilled; but he convinced her that all interference was too late, for the things had been purchased by the Count di San Severino and the Seneschal de Beaucaire, who were already on their way with the French king to Sienna.
Latterly, in many ways, Romola had been disappointed in her husband's character; she had found that his handsome face and gay air masked a cowardice, a cunning meanness, a sordid selfishness of disposition that were all at variance with her high ideal of him; but that final unspeakable treachery of the dead man who had trusted him so implicitly shattered her love for Tito utterly.
As soon as her father's library was dismantled and his treasures taken away, Romola went from the house with the old man-servant, Maso, and would never have looked upon Tito's face again, but that Fra Girolamo intercepted her.
"I have a command to call you back," he said. "My daughter, you must return to your place. You are flying from your debts; the debt of a Florentine woman to her fellow citizens; the debt of a wife. You are turning your back on the lot that has been appointed for you - you are going to choose another. My daughter, you are fleeing from the presence of God into the wilderness. My daughter, if the cross comes to you as a wife, you must carry it as a wife. You may say, 'I will forsake my husband,' but you cannot cease to be a wife."
There was hunger and misery in the streets, and he urged upon her that if she had no other purpose in life she could stay, and help the poor of her own city. Her pride was broken, and she yielded.
Meanwhile, Baldassarre, lurking about Florence, had armed himself with a knife, and was ravenous for revenge. Being homeless, he called by chance at Tessa's little house, and she, not knowing who he was, took pity on his age and misery, gave him shelter in a shed, and food and drink.
Whilst he was there, Tito came, and, too frankly simple to keep anything from him, Tessa confessed that she had disobeyed his injunctions against holding converse with strangers, and was sheltering a strange, weary old man in the shed without. Her description of this guest left Tito in no doubt as to his identity, and, subduing his first perturbation, he conceived that he might turn the situation to his own advantage. He went out to the shed, and looking down upon Baldassarre in the moonlight, sought to propitiate him with honeyed words, specious explanations, and a plea for pardon. But the old man answered nothing, till his smouldering fury burst into a flame, then he precipitated himself upon the intruder and struck with all his force; but the blade of the knife broke off short against the hidden coat of mail.
Tito insisted that he was welcome to remain there, and said what he could to soothe him, but Baldassarre would stay no longer when he knew whose roof covered him. Presently, he armed himself anew, and waited for another opportunity. He learned all that was to be known of Tito's career since his arrival in Florence; ascertained that he was married, and had thoughts of winning his wife's sympathy and telling her of Tessa. Then one night he contrived to get into the Rucellai Gardens, where Tito was at supper with a gathering of Florentine notabilities, and, seized in time and held back from assassinating him, he passionately denounced him before the company as a scoundrel, a liar, and a robber.
There were those present who had been on the church steps that day when Baldassarre had clutched Tito by the arm, and Tito had then explained away his momentary panic. Questioned now by one of these, he declared that though when first he encountered his accuser he did not recognise him, he now saw that he was the servant who years ago accompanied him and his adoptive father to Greece, and was dismissed on account of misdemeanours, and that the story of his being rescued from beggary was the vision of a disordered brain.
Baldassarre was given a chance to prove that he was not the servant, but the great scholar to whom Tito was indebted for his learning.
"The ring I possess," said Rucellai, "is a fine sard that I myself purchased from Messer Tito. It is engraved with a subject from Homer. Will you turn to the passage in Homer from which that subject was taken?"
But sitting to look over the book, Baldassarre realised that the sufferings through which he had passed had unhinged his mind and his memory; the words he stared at had no meaning for him, and he lifted his hands to his head in despair.
The consequence of this fresh failure was that Baldassarre was cast into prison, and Tito was at liberty to pursue his political ambitions unhaunted by that dogging shadow that was to him as the shadow of death. He managed his affairs so cleverly that whichever party came uppermost he was secure of favour and money.
But by-and-by the tide began to turn against him. Baldassarre was at large again, and met Romola and told her not only of his own wrongs, but of Tessa. She saw Tessa and her two children, and befriended them, and was so far from blaming that innocent little creature that she did not even disclose the truth to her; but she was importunate with Tito that he should make atonement to the man who had been a father to him. Then came a day when Tito's treacheries were discovered by the party he was supposed to serve, and he had to flee for his life through Florence. Scattering jewels and gold to delay his pursuers, he leaped from the bridge into the river, and swam in the darkness, leaving the bellowing mob to think he was drowned.
But far down the stream there were certain eyes that saw him from the banks of the river, and when he landed and fell, faint and helpless, Baldassarre's hands closed on his throat; and next evening a passer-by found the two dead bodies there.
● Copyright © 2014 Glyn Hughes.
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