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III VITTORIA

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 [Pg 47]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 [Pg 48]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 [Pg 49]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 [Pg 50]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.

[Pg 51]

"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."

[Pg 52]

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?"

[Pg 53]

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.


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