And all the while the darkness was growing, and on the hill where the church stands lights were beginning to move about, in that mysterious way which torches have when a procession is being mobilized, while all the villas on the hills around had their rows of candles.
And then the shifting flames came gradually into a mass and took a steady upward progress, and the melancholy strains of an ancient ecclesiastical lamentation reached our listening ears. As the lights drew nearer I left the bank where all the Mamies and Sadies with their Mommas were stationed and walked down into the river valley to meet the vanguard. On the bridge I found a little band of Roman soldiers on horseback, without stirrups, and had a few words with one of them as to his anachronistic cigarette, and then the first torches arrived, carried by proud little boys in red; and after the torches the little girls in muslin veils, which were, however, for the most part disarranged for the better recognition of relations and even more perhaps for recognition by relations: and very pretty this recognition was on both sides. And then the village priests in full canonicals, looking a little self-conscious; and after them the dead Christ on a litter carried by a dozen contadini who had a good deal to say to each other as they bore Him.
This was the same dead Christ which had been lying in state in the church, for the past few days, to be worshipped and kissed by the peasantry. I had seen a similar image at Settignano the day before and had watched how the men took it. They began by standing in groups in the piazza, gossipping. Then two or three would break away and make for the church. There, all among the women and children, half-shyly, half-defiantly, they pecked at the plaster flesh and returned to resume the conversation in the piazza with a new serenity and confidence in their hearts.
After the dead Christ came a triumphal car of the very little girls with wings, signifying I know not what, but intensely satisfying to the onlookers. One little wet-nosed cherub I patted, so chubby and innocent she was; and Heaven send that the impulse profited me! This car was drawn by an ancient white horse, amiable and tractable as a saint, but as bewildered as I as to the meaning of the whole strange business. After the car of angels a stalwart body of white-vestmented singers, sturdy fellows with black moustaches who had been all day among the vines, or steering placid white oxen through the furrows, and were now lifting their voices in a miserere. And after them the painted plaster Virgin, carried as upright as possible, and then more torches and the wailing band; and after the band another guard of Roman soldiers.
Such was the Grassina procession. It passed slowly and solemnly through the town from the hill and up the hill again; and not soon shall I forget the mournfulness of the music, which nothing of tawdriness in the constituents of the procession itself could rid of impressiveness and beauty. One thing is certain—all processions, by day or night, should first descend a hill and then ascend one. All should walk to melancholy strains. Indeed, a joyful procession becomes an impossible thought after this.