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IV 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 [Pg 55]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 [Pg 56]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 [Pg 57]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 [Pg 58]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 [Pg 59]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 [Pg 60]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.

[Pg 61]

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 [Pg 62]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 [Pg 63]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, [Pg 64]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 [Pg 65]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.


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