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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 [Pg 29]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 [Pg 30]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 [Pg 31]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 [Pg 32]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."

[Pg 33]

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 [Pg 34]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 [Pg 35]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 [Pg 36]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 [Pg 37]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, [Pg 38]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."

[Pg 39]

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 [Pg 40]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?"

[Pg 41]

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.

[Pg 42]

"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 [Pg 43]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?"

[Pg 44]

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, [Pg 45]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.


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