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Romola. “You must take her up, and I will sit down in this chair - may I? - and nurse Lillo. Come, Lillo!"
She had sat down in Tito's chair, and put out her arms towards the lad, whose eyes had followed her. He hesitated, and, pointing his small finger at her with a half-puzzled, halfangry feeling, said, “That's Babbo's chair,” not seeing his way out of the difficulty if Babbo came and found Romola in his place.
“But Babbo is not here, and I shall go soon. Come, let me nurse you as he does,” said Romola, wondering to herself for the first time what sort of Babbo he was whose wife was dressed in contadina fashion, but had a certain daintiness about her person that indicated idleness and plenty. Lillo consented to be lifted up, and, finding the lap exceedirgly comfortable, began to explore her dress and hands, to see if there were any ornaments besides her rosary.
Tessa, who had hitherto been occupied in coaxing Ninna out of her waking peevishness, now sat down in her low chair, near Romola's knee, arranging Ninna's tiny person to ad. vantage, jealous that the strange lady too seemed to notice the boy most, as Naldo did
“Lillo was going to be angry with me, because I sat in Babbo's chair,” said Romola, as she bent forward to kiss Ninna's little foot. “Will he come soon and want it?”
“Ah, no!" said Tessa, "you can sit in it a long while. I shall be sorry when you go. When you first came to take care of me at the Carnival, I thought it was wonderful; you came and went away again so fast. And Naldo said, perhaps you were a saint, and that made me tremble a little, though the saints are very good, I know; and you were good to me, and now you have taken care of Lillo. Perhaps you will always come and take care of me. That was how Naldo did a long while ago; he came and took care of me when I was frightened, one San Giovanni. I couldn't think where he came from - he was so beautiful and good. And so are you," ended Tessa, looking up at Romola with devout admiration.
“Naldo is your husband. His eyes are like Lillo's," said Romola, looking at the boy's darkly-pencilled eyebrows, unusual at his age. She did not speak interrogatively, but with a quiet certainty of inference which was necessarily mysterious to Tessa. "Ah!
you know him!” she said, pausing a little in wonder. "Perhaps you know Nofri and Peretola, and our house on the hill, and everything. Yes, like Lillo's; but not his hair. His hair is dark and long-” she went on, getting rather excited. “Ah! if you know it, ecco!”
She had put her hand to a thin red silk cord that hung round her neck, and drew from her bosom the tiny old parchment Breve, the horn of red coral, and a long dark curl carefully tied at one end and suspended with those mystic treasures. She held them towards Romola, away from Ninna's snatching hand.
“It is a fresh one. I cut it lately. See how bright it is!” she said, laying it against the white background of Romola’s fingers. “They get dim, and then he lets me cut another when his hair is grown; and I put it with the Breve, because sometimes he is away a long while, and then I think it helps to take care of me."
A slight shiver passed through Romola as the curl was laid across her fingers. At Tessa's first mention of her husband as having come mysteriously she knew not whence, a possibility had risen before Romola that made her heart beat faster; for to one who is anxiously in search of a certain object the faintest suggestions have a peculiar significance. And when the curl was held towards her, it seemed for an instant like a mocking phantasm of the lock she herself had cut to wind with one of her own five years ago. But she preserved her outward calmness, bent not only on knowing the truth, but also on coming to that knowledge in a way that would not pain this poor, trusting, ignorant thing, with the child's mind in the woman's body. "Foolish and helpless:" yes; so far she corresponded to Baldassarre's account.
“It is a beautiful curl," she said, resisting the impulse to withdraw her hand. "Lillo's curls will be like it, perhaps, for his cheek, too, is dark. And you never know where your husband goes to when he leaves you?”
“No," said Tessa, putting back her treasures out of the children's way. “But I know Messer San Michele takes care of him, for he gave him a beautiful coat, all made of little chains; and if he puts that on, nobody can kill him. And perhaps, if —"Tessa hesitated a little, under a recurrence of that original dreamy wonder about Romola which had been expelled by chatting contact — "if you were a saint, you would take care of him, too, because you have taken care of me and Lillo."
An agitated flush came over Romola's face in the first moment of certainty, but she had bent her cheek against Lillo's head. The feeling that leaped out in that flush was something like exultation at the thought that the wife's burden might be about to slip from her overladen shoulders; that this little ignorant creature might prove to be Tito's lawful wife. A strange exultation for a proud and high-born woman to have been brought to! But it seemed to Romola as if that were the only issue that would make duty anything else for her than an insoluble problem. Yet she was not deaf to Tessa's last appealing words; she raised her head, and said, in her clearest tones
“I will always take care of you if I see you need me. But that beautiful coat? your husband did not wear it when you were first married? Perhaps he used not to be so long away from you
then?" “Ah, yes! he was. Much much longer. So long, I thought he would never come back. I used to cry. Oh, me! I was beaten then; a long, long while ago at Peretola, where we had the goats and mules.”
“And how long had you been married before your husband had that chain-coat?” said Romola, her heart beating faster and faster.
Tessa looked meditative, and began to counton her fingers, and Romola watched the fingers as if they would tell the secret of her destiny.
"The chestnuts were ripe when we were married," Tessa, marking off her thumb and fingers again as she spoke; "and then again they were ripe at Peretola before he came back, and then again, after that, on the hill. And soon the soldiers came,
and we heard the trumpets, and then Naldo had the coat.”
“You had been married more than two years. In which church were you married ?” said Ro a, too entirely absorbed by one thought to put any question that was less direct. Perhaps before the next morning she might go to her godfather and say that she was not Tito Melema's lawful wife
that the vows which had bound her to strive after an impossible union had been made void beforehand.
Tessa gave a slight start at Romola’s new tone of inquiry, and looked up at her with a hesitating expression. Hitherto she had prattled on without consciousness that she was making revelations, any more than when she said old things over and over again to Monna Lisa.
“Naldo said I was never to tell about that,” she said, doubtfully. “Do you think he would not be angry if I told you?"
“It is right that you should tell me. Tell me everything," said Romola, looking at her with mild authority.
If the impression from Naldo's command had been much more recent than it was, the constraining effect of Romola's mysterious authority would have overcome it. But the sense that she was telling what she had never told before made her begin with a lowered voice.
“It was not in a church it was at the Natività', when there was the fair, and all the people went overnight to see the Madonna in the Nunziata, and my mother was ill and couldn't
go, and I took the bunch of cocoons for her; and then he came to me in the church and I heard him
"Tessa!' I knew him because he had taken care of me at the San Giovanni, and then we went into the Piazza where the fair was, and I had some berlingozzi, for I was hungry and he was very good to me; and at the end of the Piazza there was a holy
father, and an altar like what they have at the processions outside the churches. So he married us, and then Naldo took me back into the church and left me; and I went home, and my mother died, and Nofri began to beat me more, and Naldo never came back. And I used to cry, and once at the Carnival I saw him and followed him, and he was angry,
and said he would come some time, I must wait. So I went and waited; but, oh! it was a long while before he came; but he would have come if he could, for he was good; and then he took me away, because I cried and said I could not bear to stay with Nofri. And, oh! I was so glad, and since then I have been always happy, for I don't mind about the goats and mules, because I have Lillo and Ninna now; and Naldo is never angry, only I think he doesn't love Ninna so well as Lillo, and she is pretty."
Quite forgetting that she had thought her speech rather momentous at the beginning, Tessa fell to devouring Ninna with kisses, while Romola sat in silence with absent eyes. It was inevitable that in this moment she should think of the three beings before her chiefly in their relation to her own lot, and she was feeling the chill of disappointment that her difficulties were not to be solved by external law. She had relaxed her hold of Lillo, and was leaning her cheek against her hand, seeing nothing of the scene around her. Lillo was quick in' perceiving a change that was not agreeable to him; he had not yet made any return to her caresses, but he objected to their withdrawal, and putting up both his brown arms to pull her head towards him, he said, “Play with me again!"
Romola, roused from her self-absorption, clasped the lad anew, and looked from him to Tessa, who had now paused from her shower of kisses, and seemed to have returned to the more placid delight of contemplating the heavenly lady's face. That face was undergoing a subtle change, like the gradual oncoming of a warmer, softer light. Presently Romola took her scissors from her scarsella, and cut off one