THE GOD OF LOVE
JUSTIN HUNTLY McCARTHY
"THE GORGEOUS BORGIA" "SERAPHICA" "IF I WERE KING" ETC.
"The God of Love—ah, Benedicite, How mighty and how great a lord is he!" —CHAUCER.
NEW YORK AND LONDON HARPER & BROTHERS PUBLISHERS MCMIX
Copyright, 1909, by HARPER & BROTHERS.
All rights reserved
Published October, 1909.
I. THE MAY-DAY QUEEN 1 II. A CHILD AND A CHILD 28 III. VITTORIA 46 IV. THE WORDS OF THE IMAGE 54 V. ONE WAY WITH A QUARREL 66 VI. LOVER AND LASS 80 VII. CONCERNING POETRY 92 VIII. MONNA VITTORIA SENDS ME A MESSAGE 108 IX. MADONNA VITTORIA SOUNDS A WARNING 120 X. THE DEVILS OF AREZZO 131 XI. MESSER FOLCO'S FESTIVAL 138 XII. DANTE READS RHYMES 144 III. GO-BETWEENS 164 XIV. MESSER SIMONE SPOILS SPORT 176 XV. A SPY IN THE NIGHT 190 XVI. THE TALK OF LOVERS 204 XVII. A STRANGE BETROTHAL 215 XVIII. A WORD FOR MESSER SIMONE 225 XIX. THE RIDE IN THE NIGHT 243 XX. THE FIGHT WITH THOSE OF AREZZO 256 XXI. MALEOTTI BEARS FALSE WITNESS 266 XXII. THE RETURN OF THE REDS 279 XXIII. THE PEACE OF THE CITY 286 XXIV. BREAKING THE PEACE 297 XXV. MEETING AND PARTING 309 XXVI. THE ENEMY AT THE GATE 322 XXVII. THE SOLITARY CITY 335 NOTE 343
THE GOD OF LOVE
THE MAY-DAY QUEEN
This is the book of Lappo Lappi, called by his friends the careless, the happy-go-lucky, the devil-may-take-it, the God-knows-what. Called by his enemies drinker, swinker, tumbler, tinker, swiver. Called by many women that liked him pretty fellow, witty fellow, light fellow, bright fellow, bad fellow, mad fellow, and the like. Called by some women who once loved him Lapinello, Lappinaccio, little Lappo. Called now in God as a good religious should be, Lappentarius, from a sweet saint myself discovered—or invented; need we quibble?—in an ancient manuscript. And it is my merry purpose now, in a time when I, that am no longer merry, look back upon days and hours and weeks and months and years that were very merry indeed, propose to set down something of my own jolly doings and lovings, and incidentally to tell some things about a friend of mine that was never so merry as I was, though a thousand times wiser; and never so blithe as I was, though a thousand times the better man. For it seems to me now, in this cool grim grayness of my present way, with the cloisters for my kingdom and the nimbused frescoes on the walls for my old-time ballads and romances, as if my life that was so sunburnt and wine-sweetened and woman-kissed, my life that seemed to me as bright, every second of it, as bright ducats rushing in a pleasant plenteous stream from one hand to another, was after all intended to be no more than a kind of ironic commentary on, and petty contrast to, the life of my friend.
He and I lived our youth out in the greatest and fairest of all cities that the world has ever seen, greater a thousand times than Troy or Nineveh, or Babylon or Rome, and when I say this you will know, of course, that I speak of the city of Florence, and we lived and loved at the same time, lived and loved in so strangely different a fashion that it seems to me that if the two lives were set side by side after the fashion of Messer Plutarch of old days, they would form as diverting a pair of opposites as any student of humanity could desire for his entertainment.
I shall begin, with the favor and permission of Heaven, where I think the business may rightly be said to begin. The time was a May morning, the morning of May-day, warm and bright with sunlight, one of those mornings which makes a clod seem like a poet and a poet seem like a god. The place was the Piazza Santa Felicita, with the Arno flowing pretty full and freely now between its borders of mud. I can see it all as I write, as I saw it yesterday, that yesterday so many years ago when Lappo Lappi was young and Lappentarius never dreamed of.
There is no lovelier day of all the years of days for Florence than May-day. On that day everybody is or seems to be happy; on that day the streets of the city are as musical as the courses of the spheres. Youths and maidens, garlanded and gayly raimented, go about fifing and piping, and trolling the chosen songs of spring. I think if a stranger should chance to visit Florence for the first time on a May-day, with the festival well toward, he might very well think that he had fallen back by fortunate chance into the youth of the world, when there was nothing better nor wiser to do than to dance and sing and make merry and make love. I have heard Messer Brunetto Latini declare, with great eloquence, that of all the cities man has ever upbuilded with his busy fingers, the dear city of Cecrops, which Saint Augustine called the dear City of God—in a word, Athens, was surely the loveliest wherein to live. But with all respect to Messer Brunetto, I would maintain that no city of Heathendom or Christendom could be more beautiful than Florence at any season of the year. What if it be now and then windy; now and then chilly; now and then dusty? I have talked with a traveller that told me he had found the winters mighty bitter in Greece. But I think that in all the history of Florence there never was a May-day like that May-day. It was gloriously green and gold, gloriously blue and white, gloriously hot, and yet with a little cool, kissing breeze that made the flaming hours delectable. And, as I remember so well, I sat on the parapet of the bridge of the Holy Felicity.
Where the parapet of the embankment joined the beginning of the bridge of the Santa Felicita there stood, in those days, a large, square, ornamental fountain. May be it stands there now. I was banished from Florence at the same time as my friend, and we left our Mother of the Lilies to seek and find very dissimilar fortunes. This fountain had a niche above it, in which niche he that built the fountain designed, no doubt, to set some image of his own design. But he never carried out his purpose, why or wherefore I neither knew nor cared, and in that niche some Magnifico that was kindly minded to the people had set up a stone image, a relic of the old beautiful pagan days, that had been unearthed in some garden of his elsewhere. It was the figure of a very comely youth that was clothed in a Grecian tunic, and because, when it was first dug up, it showed some traces of color on the tunic and the naked legs and arms and the face and the hair, therefore one of the artificers of the said Magnifico took it upon himself to paint all as, so he said, it had once been painted. And he made the limbs a flesh color, and gave the face its pinks, and the lips their carnation, and the eyes their blackness, very lively to see; and he adorned the hair very craftily with gold-leaf, and he painted the shirt of the adorable boy a very living crimson. It was a very beautiful piece of work with all these embellishments, and though there were some that said it was an idol and should not be tolerated, yet, for the most part, the Florentines liked it well enough, and it saved the cost of a new statue for the vacant space.
So it stood there this day that I think of and write of, a very brave and radiant piece of color, too, for the eye to rest on that had wearied of looking at the gray stone palace hard by, the palace of Messer Folco Portinari, that showed so gray and grim in all weathers, save where the brown rust on its great iron lamps and on the great rings in the wall lent its dulness some hint of pigment. Over the wall that hid the garden of the palace I saw and see crimson roses hang and scarlet pomegranate blossoms. Opposite this gloomy house of the great man that was so well liked of the Florentines, against the pillars of the arcade, there stood, as I recall it, a bookseller's booth, where manuscripts were offered for sale on a board. Here he that had the means and the inclination could treat himself at a price to the wisdom of the ancient world. I fear I was never one of those so minded. The wisdom of my own world contented me to the full, and ever it seemed to me that it mattered less what Messer Plato or Messer Cicero said on this matter and on that matter than what Messer Lappo Lappi said and did in those affairs that intimately concerned him.
Now, on this day, which I see again so clearly, I was seated, as I say, on the parapet of the bridge, propped against the fountain. If I turned my head to the left, I could please myself with a sight of the briskly painted statue of the young Greek youth. If I turned my head to the right, I could look on the river and the smiling country beyond. But, as it happened, I turned my head neither to the left nor to the right, but straight before me and a little below me. For I was singing a song to a lute for an audience of pretty girls who looked up at me, some admiringly and some mockingly, but all very approvingly. One of the girls was named Jacintha, and one was named Barbara, and another, that had hair of a reddish-yellow and pale, strange eyes, was called Brigitta. There were also many others to whom, at this time, I cannot give a name, though I seem to see their faces very clearly and hear the sound of their voices, as well I might, for I was very good friends with most of them then or thereafter. And this is the song that I was singing:
"Flower of the lily or flower of the rose, My heart is a leaf on each love-wind that blows. A face at the window, a form at the door, Can capture my fancy as never before. My fancy was captured, since-well, let us say Since last night, or the night before last, when I lay In the arms of—but, hush, I must needs be discreet; So farewell, with a kiss for your hands and your feet. I worship your fingers, I worship your toes, Flower of the lily or flower of the rose."
Then the girl Brigitta, she that had the red-gold hair and the eyes like pale glass, thrust her face very near to me and said, laughing, "Messer Lappo, Messer Lappo, who is your sweetheart?"
And I, who was ever ready with a brisk compliment to pretty maid or pretty woman, or pretty matron, answered her as swiftly as you please, "She shall be named by your name, dainty, if you will lend me a kiss of the lips."
And, indeed, I wished she would give me my will, for at that time I had a great desire for Brigitta; but she only pinched up her face to a grin, and answered me, teasingly, "Nay, I cannot kiss you; I think you have a Ghibelline mouth."
Now this seemed to me a foolish answer as well as a pert one, for, besides that I was ever a Guelph and a Red, I think that politics have no business to interfere with the pleasant commerce and suave affairs of love, so I answered her reprovingly. "Kisses have no causes," said I; "I will kiss Guelph-wise; I will kiss Ghibelline-wise; I will kiss Red; I will kiss Yellow; it's all one to me, so long as the mouth be like yours, as pink as a cleft pomegranate, and the teeth as white as its seeds."
Now at this Jacintha, who had eyes the color of amethysts, and dark hair with a purplish stain in it, wagged a finger at me reprovingly, saying, "I fear you are a wanton wooer." And at this all the other girls laughed like the jolly wantons they were.
But I pretended to take it all mighty seriously, and answered as solemnly as any philosopher, "Never say it, never think it. I am the golden rose of constancy; I have loved a lass for three days on end, and never yawned once."
Now, while I was talking thus, and pulling my face to keep it from laughing, the girl that was named Barbara had come up very close to me, and I was minded to slip my arm about her waist and draw her closer with a view to the kissing of lips. But she had only neighbored me to mock me, for she cried aloud, "Mirror of chivalry, I will give you a Guelph cuff on your Ghibelline cheek." And as she spoke, being a girl of spirit, she kept her word very roundly, and fetched me a box on the ear with her brown hand that made my wits sing.
Now this was more than my philosophy could stomach, so I made a grab at her, but she dipped from my outstretched fingers and slipped into the midst of the crowd of other girls, and straightway I dropped from my parapet and ran after her, vowing the merriest, pleasantest skelping. However, she was too swift for me, and too nimble, capering behind this girl and that girl, and ever eluding me when I seemed to be on the point of seizing the minx, till at last, what with laughing and running and calling, my breath failed me, and I stood in the midst of the pretty jades, panting.
"Nay, I am fairly winded," I protested. "If some sweet she do not give me a kiss, I shall die of despair."
Then Brigitta, who was nearest to me, came nearer with a kind look in her strange eyes. "Nay then," she said, "for your song's sake, and to save your life." So she said and so she did, for she kissed me full on the mouth before all of them, and, indeed, this was the first time I had kissed her, though I thank Heaven it was not the last.
And because there is nothing so contagious as kindness and so stimulating as a good example, the other girls were now ripe and ready to do as she did, and Jacintha cried, "I will be generous, too!" and set her red lips where Brigitta's kiss had rested, and then one kissed me and another, and at the end of it all, Barbara herself, that had been so ready with her fingers, surrendered and kissed me too. And it was while she was kissing me, and I was making rather a long business of it, seeing how she was the last to be kissed, and how she had provoked me, that there came unobserved into our group another youth whose coming I had not noticed, being so busy on pleasant business.
But I heard a very sweet and tunable voice speak, and the voice asked, "When the air is so brisk with kisses, is there never a kiss for me?" And I looked up from the lips of Barbara and saw that my very dear friend, Messer Guido Cavalcanti, was newly of our company.
It is many a long year since my dear friend Messer Guido dei Cavalcanti died of that disastrous exile to which, by the cynical irony of fate, my other dear friend, Messer Dante dei Alighieri, was foredestined to doom him. That sadness has nothing to do with this sadness, and I here give it the go-by. But at nights when I lie awake in my cell—a thing which, I thank my stars happens but rarely—or in the silence of some more than usually quiet dawn, I seem to see him again as I saw him that morning, so blithe, so bright, so delightful. Never was so fine a gentleman. It is to be regretted, perhaps, that his was not a spirit that believes. I that am a sinner have no qualms and uncertainties, but credit what I am told to credit, and no more said. After all, why say more? But Messer Guido was of a restless, discontented, fretting spirit, that chafed at command and convention, and would yield nothing of doubt for the sake of an easy life. Well, he was the handsomest man I have ever known, and he never seemed fairer than on that May morning—Lord, Lord, how many centuries ago it seems!—when he came upon me in the sunlit Place of the Holy Felicity, and thereafter, for the first time, made the acquaintance of Messer Dante.
When the girls heard that complaint of Messer Guido's, they gathered about him noisily, crying, "Surely, Messer Guido, surely!" and pushing their impudent faces close to his, and catching him with their hands, for indeed Messer Guido was a very comely personage, and one that was always well-eyed by women.
But it seems that for all his asking he had little mind for the amorous traffic, for he laughingly disengaged himself from the girls, and I said to him, pretending to be jealous, "If you taste of their bounty, I shall tell Monna Giovanna"—for so was named the lady he loved—"and then you will weep red tears."
Messer Guido pointed to me with a mock air of indignation. "See what it is," he said, "to take a traitor to one's heart." He ran his laughing eyes over the little knot of us, and went on, "Sweet ladies, and you, sour gentleman, I have news for you."
But I protested, drolling him, for it was always our custom when we met to toss jests and mockery to and fro, as children toss a ball. "Do not heed him," I said, "Guido's news is always eight days old."
Then the girls laughed at him, for I think in their hearts they were vexed because he had not taken their kisses—at least, most of them; for I have it in mind that Brigitta was content with my kissing and none other. But Guido was not to be downed by their laughter.
"This is not an hour old," he said. "You should all be at the Signory. The fair ladies of Florence have chosen Monna Beatrice, of the Portinari, for the queen of their May festival, and will bear her about the city presently in triumph."
Now this was no piece of news for me, but I was where I was for a reason, which was to meet Messer Dante. It was news to the girls, though, for Brigitta cried, "Monna Beatrice, she who has been away from Florence these nine years?" and Jacintha questioned, "Monna Beatrice! Is she daughter of Folco Portinari that builds hospitals?" and Barbara sighed, "Monna Beatrice, whom some call the loveliest girl in the city?"
And Guido gave to their several questions a single answer: "Even she. For her beauty's sake and in compliment to Messer Folco, because he builds hospitals."
Now, though I had little interest in this news of Guido's, I was so glad of his coming that I was as ready to be rid of the girls by this time as I had been eager before to keep them about me. So I waved my hand at them as housewives wave their hands to scare the chickens, and I called to them: "So! Away with you girls to join the merry-making. I will kiss you all another day."
Then the girls began to mock at me again, and Jacintha hailed me as prince of poets, and Brigitta, half laughing and half earnest, called me prince of lovers, and Barbara shot out her pink tongue at me, saying, "Prince of liars!"
Straightway I made as if I would catch them and slap them, and they all ran away laughing, and Messer Guido and I were left alone, at the corner of the bridge of the Holy Felicity, with the image of the God of Love hard by.
"Good-bye, lilies of life!" I called after the flying fugitives, kissing my hand at them; and then I turned to my friend. "This lady Beatrice," I questioned, "is she very fair?" For though I had heard not a little of her return to our city from Fiesole, I had not yet seen her, and I am always curious—I mean I was then always curious—about fair women.
"Angel fair," Guido answered, briskly. "Our Florence is ever a nest of loveliness, but no one of her women is fairer than Folco's daughter."
"May be she seems fairer, being strange," I hinted, quizzically. "Are we not Athenian in our love of new things?"
Guido answered me very gravely. "I think we should have held her as precious if she had never left us."
Now, I had never given the affairs of the Portinari many thoughts, and though I had heard how Messer Folco had brought his daughter home of late from Fiesole, I knew nothing more than so much, wherefore I questioned, less because I cared, than because Messer Guido seemed to care, "Why did she leave us?"
Guido seated himself by my side on the parapet, swinging his slim legs, and told the tale he wanted to tell.
"It is nine years ago. She was one of those fairy children—I remember her very well—too divine, too bright, it might seem, to hold in the four walls of any mortal mansion. That as it may, the physicians found her a delicate piece of flesh, and so banished her out of our hot Florence into the green coolness of the hills."
I do not think that I cared very much about what Messer Guido was telling me, but because I loved him I feigned to care.
"And has she lived there ever since?" I asked, with such show of interest as I could muster.
And he answered me, very lively. "There she has lived ever since. But now Messer Folco, being reassured of her health, brings her to Florence, where her beauty will break hearts, I promise."
I think he sighed a little, and I know that I laughed as I spoke. "Well, I that have broken my heart a hundred times will break it again for her, if she pleases."
Messer Guido grinned at me a little maliciously. "Better not let Messer Simone dei Bardi hear you," he said, and his words suddenly brought before me the image of a very notable figure in the Florence of my youth, a very forward man in the squabbles of the Yellows and the Reds.
It would, I think, be very hard to make any stranger acquainted with the state of our city at this time, for it was more split and fissured with feuds and dissensions than a dried melon rind. It had pleased Heaven in its wisdom to decide that it was not enough for us to be distraught with the great flagrant brawls between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, between those that stood for Roman Emperor and those that stood for Roman Pope. No, we must needs be divided again into yet further factions and call ourselves Reds and Yellows, and cut one another's throats in the name of these two colors with more heat and zeal in the cutting than had ever stirred the blood of the partisans of the two great camps.
This Red and Yellow business began simply enough and grimly enough in a quarrel between two girls, distant kinswomen, of the House of the Casa Bella. One of these girls maintained, at some merry-making, that she was comelier than the other, which that other very stoutly denied, and from the bandying of words they came to the bandying of blows, and because it is never a pretty sight to see two women at clapper-claws together, those about bestirred themselves to sunder the sweet amazons, and in the process of pulling them apart more blows were given and exchanged between those that sought at first to be peacemakers, and there were many hot words and threats of vengeance.
From this petty beginning, like your monumental oak from your pigmy acorn, there grew up a great feud between the families of the two girls, and like a poison the plague of the quarrel spread to Florence, and in a twinkling men were divided against each other in a deathly hatred that in their hearts knew little of the original quarrel, and cared nothing at all for it. But as all parties must needs have a nickname, whether chosen or conferred, the first of these parties was called Yellow, because the girl that began the quarrel had yellow eyes; and the other party in mockery called itself Red, because the girl that was, as it were, the patron saint of their side of the squabble had red hair. These Reds and Yellows fought as fiercely in Florence as ever the Blues and the Greens in Constantinople of old time. And in our city the Donati sided with the Reds, and the Cerchi with the Yellows, and all that loved either of these great houses chose their color and conducted themselves accordingly. But you must not suppose that the heads of the great houses of the Donati and the Cerchi publicly avowed themselves as the leaders of these whimsical factions, however much they might, for their own purposes, foster and encourage their existence. At the time of which I write Messer Guido Cavalcanti was ostensibly the chief man among the Reds, and the chief man among the Yellows was Messer Simone dei Bardi.
Here, in consequence of this business of Reds and Yellows, was a thickening of the imbroglio of Florentine life. For now it was not enough to be told whether a man was Guelph or Ghibelline in order to know how to deal with him. It was not merely prudent but even imperative to inquire further, for a rooted Guelph might be Red or Yellow in this other scuffle, and so might a rooted Ghibelline. Thus our poor City of the Lilies was become a very Temple of Discord, and at any moment a chance encounter in the street, a light word let fly—nay, even no more than a slight glance—might be the signal for drawn swords and runnels of blood among the cobbles. Truly, therefore, it is not to be denied that for such poor gentlemen as, like myself, desired their ease, together with much singing and kissing and sipping, Florence was by no means an Arcadia. And yet there was no one of us that would willingly have lived elsewhere, for all the quarrelling and all the feuds.
Now I do not say it because I was a Red myself, but I do think that the Reds were of a better temper than the Yellows. Very certainly no one was less eager to fan the flames of these quarrellings and feuds than the man that was by my side, Messer Guido Cavalcanti. And no less certainly of those that were hottest for quarrellings and keenest to keep old feuds alive, and to enforce distinctions of faction, and make much of party cries, there was no one hotter and keener than Messer Simone dei Bardi, whose name had just come to Messer Guido's lips.
Messer Simone came of a house that was of excellent good repute in our city. Bankers his folk were, very busy and prosperous, and bankers they had been for many a long day before Messer Simone was begotten. Messer Simone was not the greatest heir, but I think in his way he was the most notable, though his way was not quite the way of the family, no less steady-going than honorable, from which he came. For, indeed, it was his chief delight to lavish the money which his forebears had amassed, and there was no one in all Florence more prompt than he to fling hoarded florins out of the window. By rights he should have been a free-companion, and received on the highroad at the heads of a levy of lesser devils, for of a truth he was too turbulent and quarrelsome for Florence, which is saying much. The men of my spring days, as I have written, were ranged in many ways of opposition, Guelph against Ghibelline, Red against Yellow, Donati against Cerchi, and Messer Simone should have been content to be Guelph and Yellow and Cerchi, but at times he carried himself as if he were ranged against every one, or perhaps I should rather say that he carried himself as if his single will was above all the wranglers of others, and that it was given to him to do as he pleased, heedless of the feelings of any faction. Had he had but the wit to balance his arrogance, Messer Simone might have been a great man in Florence. As it proved, he was only a great plague.
Now I laughed at Guido's words, for it seemed strange to me to think of Messer Simone dei Bardi as a wooer of countrified damsels. "What has that Bull-face to do with it?" I asked, and whistled mockingly after the asking.
Guido still looked grave. "Why, I think his fist gapes, finger and thumb, to seize Monna Beatrice," he said, and he said no more, but looked as if he could say much.
Here was an oracle anxious to be interrogated, so I questioned him further. I knew by report that the girl was fair, but I could not think of her in any fashion as a maid for Messer Simone, and I conveyed my doubts to Guido. "Is the girl to be snared so?" I asked.
Guido looked cryptic. "That is for father Folco to settle," he said. "And father Folco is a man that loves his fellow-men, but would have his children obey him even to the death, like a Roman father of old."
I began to take the matter hotly, thinking it over and looking at it this way and that way. "Well, if I were a woman," I protested, "which I thank Heaven I am not," I interpolated, fervently, "I would drown in Arno sooner than be bride to Simone of the Bardi."
Guido shrugged his shoulders. He was a man that believed anything of women. "Yet I think Vittoria loves him," he said, softly, more as if to himself than to me.
But, bless you, I caught him up nimbly, seeing the weakness of his argument. "Vittoria, the courtesan! She loves any man, every man."
Guido looked at me very thoughtfully. Then he said, slowly: "I will tell you a tale I heard yesterday. Some while ago our bull-headed Simone, being with Vittoria at supper at her house, and as drunk as is his custom at the tail of the day, dozed on a sofa while the company began to talk of fair women."
I was horrified at the ill-manners of the hog, though it all seemed of a piece with his habitual hoggishness. "One should never be too drunk," I averred, "to talk on that illuminating theme."
Now Guido was fretted at my interruption, and he showed it with a frown and a silencing gesture of his hand. "Peace, Lappo, peace!" he cried; "this is my story. Some praised this lady, some praised that, all, as was due to their guesthood, giving the palm to Vittoria, till some one said there lived a lady at Fiesole that was lovelier than a dream."
"Who was this nonesuch?" I asked, all agog over any word of loveliness.
Guido chastened my impatience with a grave glance. "I come to that," he continued. "She was named Beatrice, daughter of Folco Portinari, and he that praised her averred that whoso might wed her would be the happiest of mortals."
Now, though the air was warm, I shivered at his words, as if it had suddenly turned cold, for, indeed, I was never a marrying man, and my pleasantest memories of women are not memories of any wife of mine. "Marriage—and happiness?" I said, questioning and grinning. "I am not of his mind."
Guido looked at me with a good-humored smile, as one that was prepared to bear with my interruptions. "Nor he of yours," he answered. "Now, as they talked thus, our Simone stirred in his stupor, and swore that if this were true he would marry the maiden. Vittoria laughed, and her laughter so teased the ruffian that he swore a great oath he would take any wager he would wed this exquisite maiden."
"Who took him?" I asked. The tale promised to be interesting, and spurred my curiosity.
Guido went on with his narrative. "No man. Simone's luck is proverbial as his enmity deadly. But Vittoria grinned at him, swearing no such maid would marry him, and at last so goaded him that he defied her to a wager. Then she dared him to this—staking her great emerald, in a ring that the French prince gave her, on the terms that if he failed to gain the daughter of Folco Portinari he was in all honor and solemnity to marry her, Vittoria."
I remember as well as if it were yesterday my amazement when I heard this story, and am inclined now to uplift my hands as I then uplifted them in wonder, and am inclined to say again, as I said then, "Gods, what a wager!"
Guido seemed amused at my astonishment, for he laughed a little while softly to himself, and then went on with his tale-telling. "Simone's red gills winced, like a dying fish, but he was too drunk to qualify. He swore a foul oath, 'I will marry this lily,' says he, 'within a year, and if I do not, why I will wed you, you—' And he called Vittoria by such lewd names as your wit can picture. But she, turning no hair, called for pen and parchment, and had it fairly engrossed and Simone's sprawling signature duly witnessed before even the company departed. So it stands—Simone must win the maid or wed the light o' love."
Then I said, "I take it he will win the maid."
Guido nodded his head gravely. He did not like Simone any better than I did, but he had a way of accepting facts more readily. "Simone mostly wins his wish. See how far he has gone already. He has so worked it that her father has brought his lovely daughter from the hills to the city. Old Folco favors him, and small wonder, Messer Simone being the power he is in Florence. As for this triumph of Folco's daughter through our streets, I take it to be rather Simone's displaying of his prize, that all men may envy him his marvel."
For my part, I protested very honestly and from the core of my heart. "If I were old Portinari, I would rather rot in exile than have Simone dei Bardi for my son-in-law."
Guido tapped me on the shoulder. "That is," he said, "because you have the heart of an amorist that would let none be lover save himself."
I laughed in his face, and gave him the lie courteously. "No, because I have the heart of a poet, and the full-favored brute vexes my gorge."
Guido still seemed to mock me. "As you will," he said. "Shall we go to the Signory and stare at the pageant?"
I shook my head. I was sorry to deny Messer Guido in anything or to deprive myself of the comfort of his company. But I had come to that place to keep a tryst. "I cannot," I said. "I wait here for young Dante of the Alighieri."
Now Messer Dante and I had been friends for some years past, friends not indeed because we were both Florentines, but perhaps I should say in spite of the fact that we were both Florentines. For in those days, as in the days before them, and in the days that since have come to pass, while every Florentine loved Florence with all the passion of an old Roman for the city of Romulus, Florentine very often loved Florentine as day loves night, eld youth, health sickness, poverty riches, or any other pair of opposites you please. But I was never much of a politician, I thank my stars, and though a good enough Guelph to pass muster in a crowd, and a good enough Red to cry "Haro!" upon the Yellows if need were, I bothered my head very little about such brawls so long as there were songs to sing, vintages to sip, and pretty girls to kiss.
In Messer Dante I found one of my own age, or, perhaps, a little less that was in those days scarcely more pricked by the itch political than I myself was, and for a while he and I had been jolly companions in the merry pleasant ways of youth. But of late days this Dante, that was ever a wayward fellow, had suddenly turned away from sports and joys, and devoted himself with an unwholesome fervor to study, and seemed, as it were, lost to me in the Humanities. Which is why I had made a tryst with him that day to upbraid him and bring him to a better sense, and so I could not go with Messer Guido as he was good enough to wish.
Guido looked at me with a sudden interest. "You are much his friend, are you not?" he questioned.
Now I had for long been mightily taken with Messer Dante, and, indeed, for a while I seemed to see the world as he saw it, and to speak as he would have spoken. I am of that mood now, after all these years—at least, in a measure. But just then I was in a reaction and vexed, and I voiced my vexation swiftly. "Why, I thought so once. But I wash my hands of him. We were as one in the playthings of youth. Now he dances no more to my piping. He will not laugh when my wit tickles him. He is no longer for drinking or kissing, for dicing or fighting. He has a cold fit of wisdom come upon him, and rests ever with Messer Brunetto, the high dry-as-dust, reading of Virgilius, Tullius, and other ancients, as if learning were better than living. I have made a tryst with him here to upbraid him; but I doubt he will keep it."
"I know little of him," Guido said, thoughtfully. "I should like to know more, to know much."
Now, it was a great compliment to any youth in our city that Messer Guido should desire his acquaintance, yet I feared in this case he had made a rash choice.
"Lord," I said, "he is hard to know. Yet, laugh if you will, but I think there are great things in him."
Messer Guido did not laugh. Rather he looked grave. "Pray God there be," he said. "For indeed the age lacks greatness."
"So every man has said in every age," I protested. "But our Dante baffles me. He changes his moods as a chameleon changes his coat, and feeds each mood so full. Yesteryear he was mad for the open air, and the games, and the joy of life. To-day he is mewed in the cloisters of knowledge. He is damned in his Latin. I will wait no more for him."
So I spoke in my impatience, and made as if to go; but Guido caught me by the sleeve and restrained me, saying, "Why, here, as I think, he comes, by way of the bridge."
Now, even as he spoke, I looked where he looked, and whom should I see coming toward us on the shady side of the bridge than this very lad we were talking of, and with him Messer Brunetto, the great scholar. So I went on with a new anger in my voice, "It is he, indeed, in Messer Brunetto's escort," and then I plucked Guido by the arm and pulled him round about, so that we were out of ken of the coming pair. "Let us stand off one side till he be alone."
So I urged and so I persuaded, and Messer Guido and I, that were curious to have speech with Dante, but had no desire to have speech with the elder, slipped apart and hid ourselves in the shadow of the pillars of the Arcade that faced the Portinari palace.
A CHILD AND A CHILD
Guido and I had scarcely taken cover when Messer Brunetto came into view on the lip of the bridge. He was talking as he walked, but he walked and talked alone, for unperceived by him Dante had lagged behind and stood with his elbows rested on the parapet looking down at Arno below him. Messer Brunetto was discoursing very learnedly about Messer Virgilius, and how he did, in a measure, form and model himself upon Messer Homerus, when he suddenly became aware that he was wasting his periods upon empty air—for of us where we lurked he knew nothing. Turning round, he saw where Dante stood pensive, and called to him sharply, asking him why he dawdled.
Dante, thus addressed, raised his head from the cup of his palms and his elbows from the parapet, and, with a pleasant smile on his face, came down to where Messer Brunetto had halted. I have never known a man's face that could be blither than Dante's when he smiled, and in those days, when he and I were young together, before that happened which was so soon to happen, I had seen him smile many a time, though for the most part his countenance had a great air of gravity. Now he and Messer Brunetto stood in talk, and from where I lay hid I could catch most of the words these two spoke, and my wit was nimble enough to piece out the rest at my convenience; and you must take it with a good will that what I set down was spoken or might be spoken by my friend. And the first I heard him say was this, in a grave voice, "Forgive me for lingering, Master; I was listening to the Song of the River."
And Messer Brunetto echoed, in surprise: "The Song of the River! What in the name of all the ancients is the Song of the River?"
Messer Dante seemed to muse for a while, and then I heard him answer his master in that strong voice of his, that even then was deep and full, and always brought to my mind the sound of a bell.
"The Song of the River, the Song of Life. I cannot sing you the Song of the River. If I could tell you its meaning, I should be a greater poet than Virgilius."
Messer Brunetto held up his hands in a horror that was only part pretended. "Do not blaspheme!" he cried. Dante smiled for a moment at his whimsical vehemence, and then went on with his own thoughts, talking as one that mused aloud.
"It must be glorious to be a great poet, to weave one's dreams into wonderful words that live in men's hearts forever. Master, I would rather be a great poet than be the Emperor of Rome."
Then the elder looked at the younger with a smile and shook his head at his ambition. "It is given to few to be great poets; there have been fewer great poets than emperors since the world began."
But my friend was not to be so put off. I knew him ever to be persistent when once his mind was made up, and it may be that he knew well enough that such warnings had been addressed idly to all the great poets in their youth. He answered Messer Brunetto slowly.
"My mother, who died young—I cannot remember her—dreamed a strange dream of me. She dreamed that I stood a shepherd beneath a laurel-tree, and strove to gather the leaves thereof, and failed in my strivings and fell, and rose again, and lo! no longer a man, but a peacock, a glory of gold and purple."
The youth paused for a moment as if he lingered lovingly over the bequeathed vision, then he questioned Messer Brunetto. "What could this dream mean, Master?"
Messer Brunetto looked sour. "Who shall say? Who shall guess?" he answered, fretfully. "Your peacock is a vain bird with a harsh voice."
Dante seemed to pay no heed to the impatience or the disdain of his master. He went on talking as if he were talking to himself, or to some congenial companion such as I would be.
"Sometimes I dream of that laurel-tree, and then I wake with joy in my heart and verses humming in my brain. They vanish when I try to set them down, but they sweeten the leave of the day."
I think Messer Brunetto did not like the turn which his pupil's thoughts had taken. "Dreams are but dreams," he answered, impatiently. "Wisdom, philosophy, these are the true treasures. There is no harm in a Latin ode after the manner of Messer Ovidius, but for the most part poets or those that call themselves such are foolish fellows enough, and keep very bad company. Ply your book, my son, and avoid them."
"Messer Guido Cavalcanti is a poet," Dante objected, firmly, yet gently, for he was speaking to his elder, and to a very great and famous man, and he always carried himself with a becoming reverence to those that should be revered.
The scholar smiled a little acidly. "He is of a noble house, and he may divert himself with such trifles and no harm done."
Then I saw Dante raise his head, and his eyes flashed and his cheeks flushed. "I, too, am of a noble house," he asserted, proudly; and indeed this was true, for he could claim descent from people of very pretty genealogy. "I, too, am of a noble house," he insisted. "I derive from the Alighieri of Ferrara, the Frangipani of Rome. Heaven my witness, that matters little, but to be a great poet would matter much."
Messer Brunetto patted my Dante very kindly on the shoulder, and looked at him with the look that old men wear when they are advising young men.
"I have better hopes for you," he declared, "for I swear you have in you the makings of a pretty scholar."
He smiled as he spoke, paternally, as one that feels he has spoken the last word that has any need to be spoken on any matter of dispute.
But Dante seemed to be little impressed by his advice, and he showed his own thoughts in his words, for when he spoke it was rather as if he were speaking to himself than to his companion. "Am I a fool to feel these stirrings of the spirit? God knows. But my dreams are full of stars and angels, and the sound of sweet words like many winds and many waters. And then I wake in an exultation and the words die on my lips."
Messer Brunette lifted his hands in protest. "Thank Heaven they do die. It must needs be so. Purge yourself of such folly. Poetry died with the ancients. Virtue, my young friend, not verses. Will you dine with me? We will eat beans and defy Pythagoras."
Dante shook his head.
"I thank you," he answered, slowly, and I supposed it grieved him a little to deny so wise a man, "but I may not. I keep a tryst here."
Messer Brunetto instantly assumed an air of alarm, and he allowed his voice to tremble as he said, "With no woman, I hope."
Dante looked at him squarely. "With no woman, I swear. I have no more to do with women. What woman is as fair as philosophy, as winsome as wisdom?"
Messer Brunetto beamed on him with an admiring smile.
"Right, my son, right!" he cried, delighted. "Better Seneca for you than sensuality; Virgilius than venery. When you are as ripe as I, you may trifle awhile if you like with lightness." Here I, listening, sniggered, for it was blown about the city that Messer Brunetto had his passions or fancies or vagaries, call them what you will, and humored them out of school hours. "For the present," he went on, "read deep and lie chaste, and so farewell."
He patted Dante again paternally on the shoulder and wished him good-day, and went off down the street, muttering to himself, as I make very little doubt, his wonder that any could be found so foolish as to wish to string rhymes together when they might be studying the divine philosophies of the ancients. As for Messer Dante, he stood for a while where his master had left him, as one that was deep in thought, and we, though we had a mind to spring out and accost him, yet refrained, for I knew of old that when my friend was deep in his reflections he was sometimes inclined to be vexed with those that disturbed him. So we still lingered and peeped, and presently Dante sighed and went over to where the bookstall stood and began turning over some of the parchments that lay on the board. As he did so the bookseller popped his head out at him from the booth, as a tortoise from his shell, and I never beheld tortoise yet so crisp and withered as this human. Messer Cecco Bartolo was his name. And Dante addressed him. "Gaffer Bookman, Gaffer Bookman, have you any new wares?"
The bookseller dived into the darkness of his shop again and came out in a twinkling with an armful of papers, which he flung down on the board before Dante. "There," he said. "There lie some manuscripts that came in a chest I bought last week. Is there one of them to your taste?"
We watched Dante examining the manuscripts eagerly, and putting the most part of them impatiently aside. One seemed to attract his attention, for he gave it a second and more careful glance, and then addressed the bookseller. "This seems to be a knightly tale," he said, extending the volume. "What do you ask for it?"
The bookseller took the manuscript from him, glanced at it, and then handed it back to him. "Take it or leave it, three florins is its price."
We heard Dante sigh a little, and we saw Dante smile a little, and he answered the bookseller, humorously: "My purse is as lean as Pharaoh's kine, but the story opens bravely, and a good tale is better than shekels or bezants. What do you buy with your money that is worth what you sell for it?"
The bookseller shrugged his stooped shoulders. "Food and drink and the poor rags that Adam's transgression enforces on us."
Dante laughed at his conceit. "You are a merry peddler," he said, and took out of his pouch a few coins, from which he counted scrupulously the sum that the bookseller had asked, and gave it to him. Then he moved slowly away from the stall, reading in his new purchase until he came to the fountain that had the painted statue over it. There he sat himself down on a stone bench in the angle of the wall and buried himself in his book.
And by now we were resolved to address him, but again we were diverted from our purpose, for there came by a little company of merrymakers, youths and maidens, that were making sport as is fit for such juvenals in that season of felicity which is named May-day. Some had pipes and some had lutes and some had tambourines, and all were singing as loud as they could and making as much noise as they might, and when they came into the open space hard by the fountain they paused for a while in their progress, and broke into as lively a morris-dance as ever I had seen skipped. How they twisted and turned and tripped; how bravely they made music; how lustily they sang. I recall them now, those bright little human butterflies. I can see the pretty faces and slim figures of the girls, the blithe carriage of the lads. The musical tumult that they make seems to be ringing in my ears as I write, and my narrow room widens to its harmony.
But would you believe it, no sound of all that singing and dancing served to rouse Messer Dante for one moment from his book. Though the air was full of shrill voices and sweet notes and the clapping of hands and the flapping fall of dancing feet, he remained motionless, and never once lifted up his eyes to look at the merry crowd. As for the dancers, I do not think that they saw him, certainly they paid him no heed. Why should such merry fellows as they take note of a book-worm while there were songs to sing and tunes to turn and dances to dance? And by-and-by, when they had made an end of their measure, they fell into procession again and went away as quickly as they had come, leaving me mightily delighted with their entertainment. As they trooped off over the bridge, Guido and I made up our minds that now we would have speech with Dante; so we came out from where we had lain hid and walked softly across the space that divided us from him, and stood by his side and called his name loudly into his ears. Then, after a while, but not at all at first calling, Dante slowly lifted his eyes from his book and looked at us, and the look on his face was the look of a man that is newly wakened from a pleasurable dream. Then he smiled salutation on me, for, indeed, I believe he always liked me, and recognizing Messer Guido, he rose and saluted him courteously.
"Now, Heaven bless you, brother," I cried, "that you seem to sleep in the midst of all these rumors."
Dante gazed at me with untroubled curiosity. "What rumors?" he asked, indifferently.
"Why," replied Guido, staring at him, "here was the daintiest dancing."
Now by this I remembered that of us three present two were not known one to the other, and I hastened to amend the matter.
"Nay," said I, "here is another that can tell you better than I. Here is Messer Guido of the Cavalcanti that has kicked heels with me on this ground for the wish to make your acquaintance."
Now, Messer Guido, that had stood quietly by, made speed to speak to Dante. "It is very true," he declared. "I have heard your praises." And as he spoke the face of Dante flushed with pleasure, for it was no small honor to be sought in friendship by Messer Guido. So he answered him very gladly, yet with a certain calmness that was his character in all things.
"Messer Guido," he said, "I am honored to the top of my longing, though, indeed, I have no greater claim to your favor than this: that I know by root of heart every rhyme that you have written and given."
At this Messer Guido laughed joyously. "Heaven, friend," he cried, "what better recommendation could a man have to one that writes verses?"
"Is there one in Florence," Dante asked, "that could not say as much?" Then, as if to break away from bandying of compliments, he asked: "But what were the rumors you spoke of?"
"Why," replied Guido, looking at him in some wonder, "here was the daintiest festal ever devised: delicate youths and exquisite maidens footing it to pipe and cymbal as blithely as if they would never grow old."
Dante shook his head a little. "I did not mark them."
As for me, I marvelled, and I cried, "A beatific disposition that can sleep in such a din."
But Dante reproved me with that gravity he always showed when there was any matter of truth to be considered. "I did not sleep," he asserted. "I read."
"What, in Heaven's name," asked Guido, "did you read, that could shut your ears to such a din?"
Dante lifted up toward him the manuscript he had newly bought. "The love-tale of Knight Lancelot and Queen Guinevere. The fellow that wrote it discourses nothing but marvels."
Now I was curious, for I love all strange tales, and I questioned him: "What marvels?"
Dante answered me smiling, and his face was always very sweet when he smiled. "Why, the rogue will have it that when such a cavalier as Lancelot tumbles into love he becomes a very ecstatic, and sees the world as it never is, was, or shall be. The sun is no more than his lady's looking-glass, and the moon and stars her candles to light her to bed. You are a lover, Messer Guido. Do you think thus of your lady?"
Messer Guido answered emphatically, for he was indeed deep in love with a lady well worth the loving. "Very surely and so will you when the fever wrings you."
Dante turned to me, still with that same luminous smile on his face. "And you, Lappo?"
Now, it was then and ever my creed that it is a man's best business to be in love as much and as often as he can, and I answered him according to my fancy. "I should scorn myself if I did not overtop every conceited fancy that lover has ever sighed or sung for his lady."
Dante still smiled, but there was now a little scorn in his smile that nettled me. "It is strange," he said. And then made a feint of returning to his book, saying, "Well, I will read in my book again if you are no wiser."
But Guido laid his hand upon the pages and protested. "Plague on your reading, brother; you read too much. You are young to be so studious of pothooks and hangers. The Book of Life is a brave book for a youth to read in."
And here I put in my word. "And the two best chapters, by your leave, are those that treat of Squire Bacchus and Dame Venus."
"You are a pretty ribald," Dante said to me, mockingly. "Leave me to my ease. Let our star wheel where it pleases; I cannot guide the chariot of the sun. Let me bask in its bounty, warm my hands at it, eat the fruit it ripens, and drink the wine it kindles. I am content. Florence is the fairest city in the world. I shall be happy to grow old in Florence, studiously, peacefully, pleasantly, dreaming my dreams."
Guido protested against his placidity. "What a slugabed spirit! Rings there no alarum in your blood?"
Dante said nothing, but looked at me, and I supported Guido's theme. "There are ladies in Florence as lovely as the city's lilies. I would rather lie in white arms than dream dreams."
Dante shook his head, and he fluttered the pages of his book as he answered us slowly: "Restless, feverish Titans, forever challenging the great gods of Love and War. Give me the dappled shade of a green garden, the sable shadows quivering on a ground of gold, a book of verse by me to play with when I would be busy, and a swarm of sweet rhythms like colored butterflies floating about my drowsy senses. What to me are wars and rumors of wars in that delicious ease? What to me are the white breasts of the fair Florentines?"
Guido and I looked at each other in wonder, and then Guido asked again, "Tell me, comrade, have you ever been in love?"
Now, when Guido asked him that question, I expected to hear from Dante a mocking answer, but instead, to my surprise, he sat quite still for a little while, almost like a man in a trance, with his hands clasped about his knees, and it seemed to me as if he were seeing, as indeed he was seeing, things that we who were with him did not see and could not see. After a while he spoke in a soft voice, and for the most part his words came sharp and clear, like the words of a man that speaks in a dream.
"Once, when I was still a child, I saw a child's face, a girl's face; it lives in my memory as the face of an angel. It was a sunny morning, a May morning, such a morning as this, one of those days that always make one think of roses. I had a rose in my hand, and I was smelling at it—and then I saw the child. She was younger than I—and I was very young."
Now, although I am a liberal lover of women, I have, I thank Heaven, such a nature that any talk of love pleases me and interests me, and I can listen to any lover with content. But this talk of children only tickled me, and I turned to my comrade Guido, that was known to be a very devoted swain to his lady, and that served her in song and honor with all fidelity, and pointed Dante out to him now, as if laughing at the radiant gaze on his face. "Look at the early lover, Guido," I said, and laughed; but Messer Guido would not humor me by laughing too, and he told me later that he never found a love-tale a thing to laugh at.
Dante seemed neither to heed nor to be vexed at my mirth. "Laugh if you like," he said, good-humoredly, "but I learned what love might mean then, as I peeped over the red breast of the rose at the little maiden. She was younger than I was; she had hair like woven sunlight, and her wide eyes seemed to me bright with a better blue than heaven's. Oh, if I had all the words in the world at my order, I could not truly tell you all I thought then of that little child."
Guido said very gravely, "A boy may have great thoughts." And he said no more, but looked steadfastly upon the rapt countenance of Dante.
Now by this time I was all afire with curiosity, for this strange talk stirred me to wonder, and I entreated Messer Dante very zealously to tell me who this child was. Dante went on as if he had not heard my question, telling his tale in a measured voice. "She looked at me and she looked at my red rose, and I felt suddenly as if that rose were the most precious gift in the world, a gift for a god, and that I should give it to her. I held out my hand to her with the rose in it, and she took the flower, and her fingers touched my fingers as she took it. They still thrill with the memory."
As I have but just recorded, to my shame, I took all this story of our friend's in a spirit of mockery. "O father Socrates," I cried, "listen to the philosopher!" And then, because I was still burning with desire for more knowledge in this strange business, I repeated my question. "Who was she?"
And this time Dante heeded me and answered me. "I do not know. I never saw her again."
Guido's amazement at this answer found speech. "You never saw her again?" he questioned. "A girl in Florence?"
And indeed it was a strange thing for our city, where one sees every one every day.
But Dante nodded. "It is strange, but so it is. I never saw her again. That is nine years ago now."
Guido's eyes were filled with a tender pity. Never before saw I true lover so moved by a profession of true love. "Are you sure you ever really saw her?" he questioned, somewhat sadly. "Are you sure that you did not dream this wonder?"
Dante showed no anger at this doubt, though indeed at other times he was quick enough to take offence if he found just cause. But I guessed then what I know since, that he found this matter at once so simple and so sacred that nothing any man could say concerning it could in any way vex him. So he answered very mildly, "Sometimes I almost doubt, but the scent of a red rose on a May morning always brings her back to me."
Now I grieve to record it, but the silly spirit of mockery within me had so far infected my wits that I cried out in pretended astonishment, "O marvellous fancy that can so ennoble a neighbor's brat!" The which was very false and foolish of me, for I know well enough now, and knew very well then, that love, while it lasts, can ennoble any child, maid, or matron. Lord, the numbers of girls I have likened to Diana that were no such matter, and the plump maids I have appraised as Venus, though, indeed, they would have shown something clumsy if one had caught them rising from the sea! But, as I say, Dante never heeded my jeers, and sat there very quiet and silent, very much as if he had forgotten our existence, and was thinking only of that gracious child he spoke of. And I, my laughter being somewhat abashed by his gravity, and the edge of my jest being blunted by his indifference, as well as by the reproof on Guido's face, stood there awkwardly, not knowing whether to abide with him or leave him, when there came, to break my embarrassment, the presence of a mighty fair lady.
The lady that now came toward us over the little bridge was one whose acquaintance I could claim, and whose beauty I admired very greatly. Madonna Vittoria Crescimbeni was a very fair lady that was generous of her favors to those that were wealthy, and even to those that were not, if they happened to take her fancy, as indeed I am pleased to recall. She lived on the other side of Arno, in a gracious dwelling that had been built for her by a great lord that had given her everything, except his name, while he lived, and had died and left her a fortune. For all that, she was a light child; she carried herself with much show of discretion, and was only to be come at warily, as it were, and with circumspection; and because of her abundance she was at no man's beck and call, and could choose and refuse as it liked her. She was made something full of figure, with a face like an ancient statue, which was the less to be wondered at because her mother was a Greek; but her hair, of which she had a mighty quantity, was of that tawny red tincture that is familiar to those that woo Venetian women. As for her mouth, it was like flame, and her eyes were flames too, though of another hue, having a greenish light in them that could delight or frighten as she pleased. She went her ways in great state, having two small knavish blackamoor pages in gold tissue at her heels, and a little ways off she was followed by a brace of well-armed serving-rascals.
For my own part, I was mightily pleased to see her, for though she was, in the native ways of affairs, somewhat out of my star, still, as I said, she was to show later that she had an eye for a pretty fellow and owned a spirit above mere dross. I say no more. She seemed content enough to see me, but still more content to see Messer Guido. This was an experience in the ways of ladies with which those that walked with Messer Guido were familiar. Every woman that saw him admired him highly. So Vittoria smiled a little on me and a great deal on Messer Guido; and as for Dante, she glanced at him slightly and gave him little heed, for his habit was modest and his looks were not of a kind at once to tickle the fancy of such as she. Yet Dante looked at her curiously, though without ostentation, as one whose way it is instinctively to observe all men and all women with an exceeding keenness and clearness of vision.
Messer Guido greeted Madonna Vittoria very courteously, as was ever his way with women. Were they fair or plain-favored, chaste or gay, he was ever their very gentle servant. And by this time Vittoria, being very close to us, paused and gave us the greeting of the day; and her pages came to a halt behind her, and her men-at-arms stood at ease a little space away.
The beautiful lady looked at us with a kind of wonder and a kind of mockery in her dark eyes. And when she spoke to us her voice was marvellously soft with a rich softness that made me, being then of a very sensual disposition, think instantly of old wine and ripe fruit, and darkened alcoves, and the wayward complaining of lutes. Indeed, wherever Monna Vittoria went she seemed to carry with her an atmosphere of subtle seclusion, of a cloistered lusciousness, of dim, green, guarded gardens, where the sighs of love's novices are stifled by the drip of stealthy fountains and the babble of fantastic birds. I suppose it was no more than my fancy, or a trick of my memory confusing later things with earlier, that makes me now, as I write, seem to recall what seemed like a smile on the face of the pagan effigy of Love as Madonna Vittoria swam into her company, as if the Greekish image recognized in the woman a creature of the early days when cunning fingers fashioned him. For, indeed, Vittoria was not modern in the sense that we Florentines are modern. She derived from a world long dead and buried. Heavens, how Messer Alcibiades would have admired her!
"Good-morrow, gentle gentles," she began, in that caressing voice, "why are you absent from the sacrifice?"
Guido looked for the instant perplexed by the woman's words, and he moved a little nearer to her. As for Dante, he seemed to have forgotten us all, even to have forgotten his book, and though he had risen when Monna Vittoria approached, he had by this time sunk onto the stone seat again, and seemed drowned in a brown study.
"What sacrifice, lady?" Guido asked of Vittoria; and whenever Guido spoke to a woman, he spoke as if all the pleasures and destinies of the world depended upon that one woman's interest and caprice.
Madonna Vittoria smiled, self-satisfied, as all women smiled when Guido so addressed them. "Why, the sacrifice of the pearl to the pig," she answered; and she still smiled as she spoke, but there was a kind of anger in her eyes. "The sacrifice of a clean child to a coarse churl, the sacrifice of Folco Portinari's little Beatrice to my big Simone, that I do not choose to lose."
Here I broke in, laughing, for I took the drift of her meaning, and was wishful to prove myself alert. "Most allegorical lady," I protested, "I take you very clearly when you explain your own fable." And I rubbed my hands, instantly pleased with myself and my nimbleness.
But Messer Guido still looked thoughtful. "If the ladies of Florence," he said, slowly, "make Madonna Beatrice their May-queen, that dainty deed does not deliver her to Simone of the Bardi."
Madonna Vittoria turned upon him with a sharpness seldom seen on a woman's face when it bent toward Messer Guido of the Cavalcanti. Her smooth forehead wrinkled with an unfamiliar frown; her full lips seemed to tighten and narrow to a red thread; her eyes were as a cat's eyes are when the cat is very, very angry.
"Who goes by her side," she asked, sourly, "as she goes through the city?" And she answered her own question with a name. "Simone dei Bardi." She went on: "Who is her father's faithful friend? Simone dei Bardi." She glanced from one to the other of us—Messer Guido and I, I mean, for Dante took no heed of her and she seemed to take no heed of him. "I will tell you," she said, fiercely, "the trap is baited for the prey, and, as things go, it seems as if I were like to lose my emerald, that I can spare ill, as well as a husband, that I could spare very readily were it not that I had a mind to marry him."
Now at this there was a pause, and in a little while I turned to Dante, thinking that it was high time he took a share in our parley.
"Is not," I said, "Monna Vittoria much to be pitied?"
Being thus questioned, Dante seemed to shake himself free from his lethargy, or his disdain, or whatever you may call it, and he answered very indifferently, as one that speaks of another that is not present, "I do not know the cause of her sorrow."
Monna Vittoria turned to him now very directly and faced him, and there was a kind of challenge in her carriage.
"Messer Dante," she said, "if you know nothing of me, I know something of you, for Messer Brunetto, your philosopher, is one of my very good friends. I had this trinket of him a week ago." And as she spoke she fingered an enamelled and jewelled pendant against her neck that must have cost the scholar a merry penny. "Well, Messer Dante, you who are young and of high spirit, would you have a queen of beauty married to a king of beasts?"
Dante shrugged his shoulders a little, feigning no interest in the handsome creature that addressed him. "The alliance sounds unnatural," he answered, carelessly, and looked as if he would be glad that the matter should end.
But Vittoria would not have it so. "Well, now," she said, "when all Florence is luting and fluting for the queen of beauty, the king of beasts walks warden by her side."
Still Dante showed no interest. "Who is this queen of beauty?" he asked, listlessly. And when Guido made answer that she was Folco Portinari's daughter Beatrice, he only shook his head a little and declared that he did not know her.
"She is new to Florence," I explained.
And Vittoria went on. "I will give her this credit, that she is a comely piece. Let us go and see the girl in her triumph." She addressed herself directly to Guido, but she had an after-glance for me as well.
Guido turned toward his new-made friend. "Will you come with us, Messer Dante?" he asked.
But Dante denied him. "Not I, by your leave," he replied. "I find folly enough here in my book without tramping the highways to face it in its pageant."
Now I felt a little vexed at his churlishness, for Madonna Vittoria was a lovely lady, and very pleasant company, and one worth obliging. So I spoke to the others, saying, "Well, well, let us not starve because Dante has no appetite." And therewith I caught a hand of Guido and a hand of Vittoria, and made to lead them from the place. And they both responded well enough to my summons.
But Monna Vittoria checked me a little and paused, and spoke again to Dante. "Farewell, Messer Dante," she said, sweetly. "Will you come visit me one of these days?"
But Dante, who had poked that hooked nose of his now in his book again, shook his head and made her no very civil answer. "Madonna," he said, "I have little money and less lust. God be with you."
So, lapped in that mood, we left him, and went our ways toward the Signory, and our Dante was soon out of sight, and, if truth be told, out of mind.
THE WORDS OF THE IMAGE
Now I proceed to tell under all caution what happened to our Dante, sitting there alone in the shady angle of that sunny place, after we had left him to go to the Signory. For, indeed, I did not see it, although I heard it from his lips, that had the gift, even then, to make the strangest things seem as real as, say, the door of a house. The tale was so told, in such twists of thought and turns of phrase, that it might, if you chose, be taken as an allegory or the vision of a dream; but, for my own part, I prefer to believe that it came about just as I shall set it down, for the world is merrier for a spice of the marvellous in its composition, and, for myself, I could believe anything of that same painted image.
It seems, then, that when Dante was left alone he turned to his book again, and set himself very resolutely to reading of the loves of Lancelot and Guinevere, in the hope, most like, to still that stirring of the spirit occasioned by our talk. And when the fall of our footsteps and the babble of our voices could be heard no more, he confessed that at first he felt grateful for the silence and the peace. But of a sudden it appeared to him that the silence was greater than there was any need or reason for it to be, that it seemed to him as if all Florence held its breath in the suspense of a great hush which lapped the world in its embrace—such a hush as might perchance occur before the coming of Doom. Then, after an interval that seemed too age-long to be endured, out of the very core of the silence Dante heard a voice calling to him that he had never heard before, and that spoke to him with such a sweet imperiousness that he was as physically and spiritually bound to obey and attend as ever Moses was on the holy hill. And the commanding voice cried to him, "Dante, behold a deity stronger than thou, who comes to govern thee."
Then it seemed to Dante that at the sound of that voice his consciousness returned to him, and, looking up from his book, he called aloud, "Who speaks to me?" And as he spoke he saw, or thought he saw—but I give it to you as he gave it to me—to his amazement, how the painted image of the beautiful youth that stood above the fountain seemed slowly to quicken into being, and how all the gaudy colors and gilding of the figure seemed to soften to the exquisite and tender hues of a life that was more marvellous than life. The hair of the youth was radiantly sunny, his cheeks flamed and paled with a divine white and red, his perfect limbs and perfect body seemed moulded with such exquisite rounded flesh as the immortal gods assumed long ago when they deigned to descend from Olympus or appear in Cytherea, and speak to men and love them. And the pagan boy that stood above the plashing fountain lifted a hand toward Dante and parted his lips and spoke, and this was what he said: "The God Love speaks to you, Dante, and to none but you. Lift up your heart, for soon your happiness shall be made manifest unto you."
At this Dante, though, as he told me thereafter, he felt no fear, was full of a great astonishment, and he strove to speak and could not for an instant, and at last he cried out, "Must I believe you?" For it seemed to him as if the image uttered the very voice of truth, but that he, listening, rebelled against it.
Then the beautiful, breathing boy, that had been the beautiful, silent image, stretched out a hand to him in command, and said, "You that denied me must now believe me, for henceforth I shall govern your soul."
At these words Dante crossed himself, for all this seemed strange work for commonplace Florence in full day, and he tried to repeat a prayer, but wonderfully could remember none, and only his ears buzzed with the words of all the love-songs he had ever heard, and he entreated, "Leave me in peace." And as he spoke he stretched out his hands in supplication to the quickened image.
Now it is to be said that it seemed to Dante as if a kind of pale flame appeared to blaze all about the living image, and to spread from him in fine and delicate rays till it seemed to play on Dante's body and burn through the armor of the flesh and lurk about his naked heart. And the agony of that burning was beyond words, yet there was a kind of joy in it that was beyond thought.
And the God that was Love cried out again: "You pray in vain for peace who shall ever be peaceless from this time forth. For the unavoidable hour is at hand when you shall know my power. Farewell awhile." As the figure spoke those last words it seemed slowly to stiffen into stone again, and the beautiful, vital coloring faded away, and the pale, leaping flames vanished, and Dante found himself sitting and staring at the painted image above the lisping water that he had looked at unmoved a thousand times, as he passed it going to and fro on his way through the city.
Dante rubbed his forehead and wondered. "I have been dreaming," he murmured, "and the love-tale in the book colored my thoughts."
Now, though all this vision, or whatever you may please to call it, seemed brief enough, it took longer than the telling, for Messer Dante told me that the next thing he knew was that he heard my voice calling to him. Wherefore, the most will probably say that Messer Dante had fallen asleep in the heat of the day and dreamed a dream, but I do not think so. Now, Guido and I and Monna Vittoria had gone on our ways to the Signory, thinking to witness the crowning of the lady Beatrice of the Portinari, but we had not travelled very far when we heard the noise of many people mixed with the sound of music, and we knew that the procession was coming our way and that the ceremony at the Signory was over and done with. Then it seemed a shame to me that my friend should lose all the pleasure, and I said I would go back for him, and Messer Guido came with me because Monna Vittoria had found other friends and stayed in speech with them. And when Guido and I came back to the place where we had left Dante, I found him, as I say, seated upon the stone seat. His closed book lay by his side, and he was staring straight before him, as a man that is newly awakened from a trance. But I, taking little notice of his state at the moment, ran toward him and clapped him on the shoulder, calling to him: "They are moving this way!" I cried. "Come and see!"
But Dante did not seem to hear me, and sat gazing at that painted image that was such an old friend of mine and his, as if he had never seen it before. But presently, partly by persuasion, and partly by pushing and urging, we got him to turn from the statue and accompany us a little ways till we came to a stand in the neighborhood of the Palace of the Portinari, toward which the procession of the May-day was making its way.
The open space of the Piazza of the Santa Felicita was now pretty well filled with the curious and the seekers for amusement, and all the air was full of sweet noises, and all the smiling faces shone in the warm sunlight. And Guido and I, piloting our Dante, pushed our way to the inner circle of the loiterers, and paused there, waiting for the coming of the merrymakers. And even as we paused the folk that we expected came upon us. They were a gallant company of youths and maidens, dressed all in their best and brightest, and there were excellent musicians with them that made the most noble of cheerful music, and the comely girls scattered flowers on the cobbles, and the comely youths laughed and shouted, and in the midst of the throng a dozen of the strongest lads were tugging at a chariot that carried a gilded throne, and on that throne was seated Madonna Beatrice of the Portinari. She was dressed in a robe of crimson silk, and she carried red roses in her hand, and I think that all who looked upon her held her as the loveliest maid in all Florence. I know that, for my part, I frankly admitted to myself that none of the girls that I was in love with at that time could hold a candle to her. Yet I knew for my sins that I could never be in love with Madonna Beatrice of the Portinari. Standing by her side was a big, thick-set, fierce-looking man, with a shag of black hair and a black beard like a spade, whom I knew well enough and whom all there knew well enough to be Messer Simone dei Bardi, the man of whom Guido and I had talked that morning. There was a great crowd behind the chariot, Reds and many Yellows, seemingly at peace that day, friends of Guido, and followers of Simone, and revellers of many kinds and townsfolk of many classes. I could see that Monna Vittoria was in the thick of the crowd that followed the Car of Triumph, and presently she made her way beneath the shelter of the arcade, and stood there hard by one of the pillars, watching the lady Beatrice on her throne and Simone dei Bardi keeping so close beside her. And Simone, as I believe, had no knowledge of Vittoria's presence.
Now, when that brave company came into the place where we stood, Dante, that had stood by our sides listlessly enough, turned away from us as suddenly and sharply as if he had received an order. So he turned, and, turning, he saw in full view the face of the lady Beatrice as she sat on her car of triumph; and, at the sight of her, he gave a great cry, and then stood silent and stiff as if spellbound.
Guido, delighted by the girl's beauty, cried to him, not looking at him, "Is she not fair?"
But I saw what strange case our Dante was in, and pulled at Guide's sleeve and jerked his attention to my friend, saying, "Our Dante stands at gaze as if he were sun-dazzled."
Guido turned to Messer Dante and saw the rapture in his face, and, seeing, questioned him. "Is she not fair?" he asked, and his glance travelled again to where the May-queen sat.
And Dante answered him, speaking very slowly, as a man might speak in some sweet sleep when he dreamed a dear dream, "She is the loveliest woman in the world." He paused for a moment, and then added, in a lower tone, "She is the child I worshipped."
Now, I could plainly read amazement and doubt on Messer Guido's face when he heard Dante speak thus strangely, and he caught at his arm and shook it a little gently, as one would do that wishes to wake a sleeping man. "You are dreaming, for sure," he said.
But Dante only answered him very quietly, still keeping his rapturous face fixed on the girl as she and her company came nearer. "She is the lady of my dreams."
Now I, that was glancing in much bewilderment from Dante, where he stood at gaze so radiant, to the fair girl on her gilded car, saw, or thought I saw, all of a sudden, a look in the girl's eyes that betokened more knowledge of Dante than merely the knowledge that a man stood in the roadway and stared at her beauty. So I whispered to Guido in his ear, "See, she seems to note him, and, as I think, with recognition."
Now, even as I said this, the little company that carried the Queen of Beauty came to a halt some yards from the gate of the gray palace, and Messer Simone dei Bardi, quitting the side of her chariot, advanced toward the Palace of the Portinari to give the formal summons that the Queen of May demanded admittance, all of which was part and parcel of the ceremonial of the pretty sport. At the same instant Dante, quitting Guido's side, advanced a little nearer to the girl, who did not descend from her chair, but sat still in her chariot as if waiting for his coming, and the little crowd of juvenals about her fluttered aside before his resolute advance, and I thought even then how strong his young face looked, and how purposeful, for all his youth, that grim nose of his and the steady eyes above it, in contrast with the pink-and-white prettiness of the many slim lads that were the Queen of Beauty's satellites.
And Dante raised his voice and called to the girl as a friend calls to a friend: "Give me a rose for my rose, madonna! Give me a rose for my rose!"
Now the girl, as she sat, had in her lap a great quantity of roses exceedingly red and large, and she took up one of these in answer to the call and cast it through the air to Dante, who caught it as it fell, and, catching it, lifted it to his lips with his eyes fixed on the girl. Then, whether because of his action or the eagerness of his gaze above the crimson petals I know not, but Madonna Beatrice flushed a little, and she gathered the rest of her roses into her arms and rose from her chair, and descended from her chariot and mounted the steps of the great house, whose doors had now opened to Simone's summons. Messer Folco of the Portinari stood smiling on his threshold, but Messer Simone, by his side, was not smiling, for he had seen that pretty business of the given rose, and I could note that its prettiness pleased him little. I think he would have stepped down then and there and eased his spleen, but Messer Folco, as his way was ever, wished to improve the occasion by making a speech.
"Friends and neighbors," he began, in his ample, affable voice, "Florentines all, in my daughter's name, and for my own sake, I thank you." Thereat there came a little cheer from the crowd, and then Folco turned toward his daughter, plainly very proud of her, but still flagrantly paternal and pompous.
"Come, child," he said, solemnly. "Come, you have been queen for a day, but your reign is over, and you are no more now than honest goodman Folco's daughter. Get you within." Then Madonna Beatrice she paused for a moment with two of her girl friends by her side and looked down upon her company very graciously and sweetly, and wished them farewell. Then the door of the palace opened and swallowed her up with her two companions, and when she had gone it seemed to us watching as if the sunshine had gone with her, though the street was still flooded with its light.
Then Messer Folco spoke again to the multitude, saying that there would be simple cheer and sport provided in his gardens that lay in the meadow-land on the other side of Arno for such as chose to go so far, at which his hearers cheered again, and made all speed to take him at his word and hurry away over the bridge. Thereafter Messer Folco turned to Messer Simone, as if inviting him to enter.
But Messer Simone shook his head. "Later, Messer Folco," I heard him say, "later; I have some busy hours before me." Then Messer Folco, acquiescing, entered his great house, and its great doors closed behind him, and those that were conveying the car wheeled it about and pulled it away, returning on the road by which they had come, and by this time most of the revellers had departed over bridge.
Guido and I, that were not tempted to travel so far as Messer Folco's river gardens, turning to our companion, noted that Dante was standing entranced with his eyes fixed upon his rose, and I heard him murmur to himself, "O wonderful world, that can boast of so wonderful a woman!"
Now, when I say that all of Madonna Beatrice's escort had gone from there, I mean that the gay youths and maidens had departed, but Messer Simone dei Bardi had remained behind, leaning against the wall of the house with his arms folded and an evil smile on his face.
Messer Simone's own followers, seeing him, lingered, waiting upon his pleasure, and though most of the May-day merrymakers had disappeared, there were not a few idlers and passers-by.
There were a certain number of Messer Guido's friends there, too, that had joined him in the procession, and that now lingered in the hope to bear him with them to some merriment more to their liking than Messer Folco's transpontine hospitality. So that the open place was far from empty for all its bigness.
ONE WAY WITH A QUARREL
Now when the door had shut upon Beatrice, Messer Simone shook himself from the wall and advanced with a steady, heavy stride to where Dante stood lost in contemplation of his rose, and I thought he looked like some ugly giant out of a fairy-tale, and his sullen eyes were full of mischief. He came hard by Messer Dante, and spoke to him roughly. "I do not care to see you and that flower in fellowship."
Now both Guido and I feared that this might breed a quarrel, so we lingered, and Messer Simone's people drew together, watching their lord, and some that were passing paused to note what was toward. But Messer Dante lifted his head very quietly, and looked calmly into Simone's angry face and spoke him seemingly fair. "The world is wide, friend," he said, very smoothly; "you have but to turn the corner, and I and my flower will no longer vex your vision."
But Simone was not to be so put off. "I have a mind to wear that rose myself," he said, savagely, and he came a little nearer to Dante as he spoke, and his followers dogged his advance, ready to obey his orders.
He looked so big and so strong and so brutal by the side of our friend that I was ill at ease, for I knew well what a truculent ruffian this Simone was.
But Dante seemed to be no more troubled than he would have been by the buzzing of a wasp. "Then you had better change your mind speedily," he answered, in an even voice, "lest being crossed in a peevish whim sour your blood."
Now, the being spoken to so sweetly, and yet with words that had so little of sweetness in them and no fear at all, teased Messer Simone's black blood till it bubbled like boiling pitch, and his voice had got a kind of silly scream in it, as he cried: "Why, you damnable reader of books, you pitiful clerk, do you think I will bandy words with you? Give me that rose instantly, or I will cut out your heart and eat it!"
Dante was still unruffled, and answered him very suavely, "If you cut out my heart you would still find the rose in it and the name of earth's loveliest lady."
Now at this Messer Simone's face showed as red as an old roof-tile, and his voice was hoarse with anger as he called, furiously, "Give me the flower!"
For a breathing while Dante made him no answer, while he gathered the rose carefully together in the cup of his hand and then slipped it into his bosom. Then he spoke to Simone with a grave impatience. "You are a boisterous braggart, and you scream like the east wind. I am very weary of you."
Simone slapped his big hand to the hilt of his sword. "Patter an Ave quickly," he growled, "ere I slay you with the sight of a drawn sword."
It was such a menace as might have fretted many a man that was brave enough, for Simone was out of the common tall and strong, but it fretted our Dante no whit, and he only smiled derisively at the giant.
By this time the brawl—for such it was proving to be—had begun to attract public notice, and those that walked halted to watch the altercation between the big man and the slim youth. I caught a glimpse of Monna Vittoria beneath the arcade, and saw amusement on her face and wonder, and some scorn of Simone and much admiration of Dante. But I had no time to concern myself with Vittoria, for now Messer Simone's fingers were gripping at the hilt of his weapon, but he did no more than grip the hilt of it. Indeed, I do not think that he would have drawn on an unarmed man, and very likely he meant no more than to frighten the scholar. If this were Messer Simone's purpose, it was frankly baffled by the fact that Dante did not seem to be frightened at all, but just stood his ground and watched his adversary with a light of quiet amusement in his eyes that was very exasperating to Simone. The whole quarrel had kindled and thriven so quickly that Messer Guido, who was standing apart and talking with certain of his friends, had as yet no knowledge of it, but now I moved to him and plucked him by the sleeve and told him what was toward. In truth, I felt no small alarm for my friend, for I knew him to have no more than that passable facility with the sword which is essential to gentility. Then Messer Guido turned and came with me, and his friends followed him, and our numbers added to the circle that was forming about the disputants. So now, while Messer Simone was still angrily handling his sword-hilt, and while the smile still lingered on Dante's lips, Messer Guido stepped nimbly between the two, being eager to keep the peace for the sake of his new-made friend that seemed so slight a thing by the side of Simone.
"How now!" Guido cried, aloud. "I hear shrill words that seem to squeak of weapons. What is your quarrel, gentles?"
If every man there present knew who Messer Simone of the Bardi was and what he stood for in Florence, so also every man there present knew who Messer Guido of the Cavalcanti was and what he stood for, and there were few that would have denied him the right to speak his mind or to question the cause of the quarrel. So Messer Guido stood between Dante and Simone, looking from one to the other of the pair and waiting for his answer.
Dante answered in a kind of ironic simplicity, and he seemed to me as I looked upon him like a man exalted out of all reason by some great joy. "It is but a gardener's wrangle—how best to guard roses from slugs."
Simone began to frown upon the brawl that himself had caused, and he looked toward Messer Guido, whom he knew, with a forced show of friendliness, and spoke with a gruff assumption of good-humor. "Messer Guido, will you tell this blockhead who I am?"
Now, Guido was as good a swordsman as the best man in Florence, and far better than the most that handled steel, and he thought and spoke in the wish to protect his new-made friend, whom he took to have no such skill as his own.
"Gently, gently," he said to Simone, and his tone was by no means gentle. "My friend's name is my name, and I take terms from no man. You will answer me now." And as he spoke he placed his hand upon his hilt, and made ready to draw.
Now at this Simone frowned again, for he had no personal quarrel with Messer Guido Cavalcanti, yet from the very bullness of his nature he would take a dare from no man. So he showed his teeth and eased his blade to make ready.
But Dante moved swiftly forward and pulled Messer Guido from between him and Messer Simone, doing this with a courtesy due to one of Messer Guido's standing, yet with a very plain decision. "Messer Guido," he said, "I entreat you to refrain. I guess your purpose, but I will not have it so. This is my quarrel, and, believe me, I can handle it."
Guido plucked him a little apart, and whispered him hurriedly. "This is Simone of the Bardi, a very notable soldier," he said.
I heard Dante answer him very calmly. "Were he a very notable devil, I would stand to him enough."
By this time Messer Simone was in such a black rage at being thwarted that he cared not what might come of it, and he called out to Dante, in a bellowing voice, "Come, sir, come! Will you fight or yield?"
Messer Dante's carriage showed very plainly that he would not yield; of a contrary, he moved composedly a little nearer to Simone, still smiling and stretching out his hands as he went, as if to show that he held no weapon. "Surely I will not yield," he said; and then questioned, "But how shall I fight, being swordless?"
Simone grinned hideously at him. "You should have remembered that," he said, "before you chose to play hufty-dufty." Then he scowled and pointed to the armed men about them. "Some one will lend you a sword if you have the courage to hold it," he said, scornfully.
Once again Messer Guido intervened, eagerly, passionately. "For God's sake, forbear," he entreated Dante, and thrusting himself against the other. "Messer Simone," he said, "you cannot deny me if I take up this quarrel."
My Dante laid an arresting hand upon Messer Guido's arm. "Gently, Messer Guido," he said, "you are too good, and if I were a woman I could not choose a nobler champion. But being no better than a man, I must even champion myself to the best of my wit." He paused, and his eyes followed the course of Simone's gaze and then came back to Simone. "You are a soldier," he said; "it is your business to kill. You prize the life of other men lightly; 'tis but a puff of your heavy breath and out goes his candle. I am no such butcher, and though I am not unskilled in arms, we should be ill-matched, you and I." And as he spoke he laughed softly, as at some jest known only to himself.
Now Messer Guido, that was growing very angry, as I could see from the way in which the color quitted his cheeks, thrust himself in front of Dante, and he spoke to Simone boldly. "He says rightly," he cried. "A stripling against your bulk. It were murder."
Simone always addressed Messer Guido with as much courtesy as he could compass, for the sake of his great house and his great friends, and his standing with the Reds, that was as high as his own with the Yellows. "Then he should not steal roses," he answered, quietly enough. But immediately thereafter, as if the mention of roses had stirred him to fury, his wrath foamed over again, and, turning to Dante, he shouted, "Give me the rose, you cowardly clerk, or I will pinch out your life between finger and thumb!" He held out his huge hand as he spoke, and to those who looked at it, or to me, at least, among the multitude, it seemed easy enough for him to carry out his threat, for Messer Dante looked so slight and spare in the front of such a ruffian.
But Messer Dante was in no ways discomposed, and he still kept smiling while he shook his head, and he answered very quietly: "Idle giant, you will do no such thing. For if you prize my life very little, you prize your own life very well. Now, while I think nothing of your life, I also think nothing of my own, and would rather end it here in this instant than surrender this flower. Why, I would see a hundred fellows like you dead and damned to save a single petal of it from the pollution of such filthy fingers." He paused for a moment and paid Messer Simone the tribute of a mocking inclination of the head. Then he spoke very clearly and sweetly. "I hope I make myself clear to your thick head."
Simone's red face grew redder. "By Paul's jaws, I will wring your squeaking neck!" he said, savagely, and made a move nearer to Dante.
But here Guido's paling face grew paler, and again he thrust himself between Dante and Simone, and his sword flashed into the air. "By Paul's jaws, you will not!" he cried; and then looking about him, he shouted, "A Cavalcanti! a Cavalcanti!"
At that cry all those that inclined to Messer Guido, and there were many in the place, bared their swords likewise and rallied about him in an eager press of angry men.
When Simone saw that the swords were out, he drew his own sword and raised it aloft and cried his cry, "A Bardi! a Bardi!"
Then the people of his following bared their weapons and gathered to his side, and such of the spectators as took no part in the quarrel drew a little apart, for fear they might come to harm in the brawl, but still went not very far, so eager is the curiosity of all Florentines to see sights. So the folk stood, two little armies of fighting men facing each other, as Greek and Trojan faced each other long ago, and ready for fighting, as Greek and Trojan fought, and as men always will fight with men, for the sake of a woman. And I, with my sword drawn, being never so intent upon battle that I have not an eye to all things about me, could see, looking aloft, that a curtain was drawn from a window in the great house of the Portinari, and that a woman stood by the window, and I made sure that the woman's name was Beatrice.