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V 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, [Pg 67]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, [Pg 68]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 [Pg 69]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 [Pg 70]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 [Pg 71]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 [Pg 72]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," [Pg 73]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 [Pg 74]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 [Pg 75]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.

But this Dante saw not and knew not, for he stood between the two opposing forces very composedly, with the same quiet smile upon his face, and he held up his hands toward either party as a man might do that wished to sunder and pacify quarrelling children. "Gently, friends, gently," he said; "there is a pleasant way to end this dilemma." Then he turned to me, and I never saw his face serener. "Friend Lappo," he said, "will you lend me your dice-bones a minute?"

It was characteristic of his readiness in the pinch of emergency that he knew where to apply for what he needed, for I was at that time a most inveterate gamester, and loved to stake my all, which for the most part was truly little enough, upon the toss of a die; and for my greater ease in this exercise, I ever carried the bones with me in a little inner pocket at my breast. Now, then, for Dante's pleasure, though indeed I did not know what he would be at, I lugged them out of their concealment, and dropped the three, one after the other, into his open palm, which he held to me extended there as steady as the palm of a stone image.

[Pg 76]

Dante laughed a little softly to himself as he looked at my dice where they lay, and indeed it was curious to see him and them in such close companionship, for Dante had no taste for those gamblers' games that I delighted in. Then he turned and showed the dice to Simone, who stared at him in amazed rage, and he spoke very pleasantly and evenly as he dandled the tools of chance. "Messer Simone," he said, "here be three cubes of bone that shall settle our quarrel better than shearing steel. We will throw on this ground here, you and I in turn, and he that has the ill-fortune to make the lowest cast shall, on his honor, very presently kill himself."

At this drolling challenge most of the spectators began to laugh, and the laughter ran through the ranks of Cavalcanti's adherents, and even found some echo, albeit soon stifled, among Bardi's men.

But Simone saw no laughter in the matter. "You are a fool!" he fumed. It was plain that he felt himself to be at a disadvantage before the gravity of Dante's disdainful courage, and that he was better with blows than with words. "You are a fool!" he repeated.

But Dante denied him. "I am wise." Then he moved his head a little this way and that, as if to show that he was addressing all his audience, and, indeed, there was not a man in all that assemblage that did not listen to him intently, Simone's [Pg 77]own following not excepted. "Fellow Florentines," he said, "here is a straight challenge. It equals the big man with the little; it fills me to the giant's girth and inches. It saves him from shame if he wins, for it were little to his credit to kill a civilian. It denies me if I win the vainglory of overcoming a Titan. Is not this an honest dare?"

As he finished speaking he looked about him, and saw sympathy and approval on the faces of most. As for me, I was so taken with his ingenuity and his insolence in thus braving the big fellow that I cried aloud, "Well dared; well done." And Guido called out sharply, addressing the Bardi, "Do you take him, Messer Simone? I will be surety for his pledge."

As Messer Guido dei Cavalcanti ended there went up a great shout of applause from the spectators, who were tickled with the thought of witnessing so new a way of ending a quarrel. While they were clapping their hands and laughing, a cunning, sharp-faced fellow named Maleotti, that was one of Bardi's men, came close to his master, and spoke to him in none so low a whisper that I could not hear his words. "Consider, signor," he said; "this were a mad wager to accept, for the State cannot spare you, and who can say how scraps of bone may fall? Yet, if you refuse and force a quarrel, the Cavalcanti outnumber us." As he spoke he indicated with quick glances of his evil [Pg 78]eyes that there were indeed many more in the place that seemed to side with Guido than friends to the Bardi.

While Messer Simone, seeing this, sucked his lips like one puzzled, Dante again addressed him in the same bantering manner. "Come," he cried, "'tis but a toss of three ivories and the world is lighter by one of us, and purgatory the more populous. You shall toss first or last, as you please." As he spoke he shook the dice invitingly on his extended palm, and laughed as he did so.

Simone answered him with a great frown and a great voice. "You should have been a mountebank and cried cures on a booth, for your wit is as nimble as an apothecary's flea. But if you have any man's blood in you, you will make such friends with master sword that hereafter we may talk to better purpose. Come, friends." So, with a scowling face, Messer Simone jammed his sword back again into its scabbard, and he and his fellows went away roughly, and the crowd parted very respectfully before them.

At the wish of Messer Guido, his friends and sympathizers went their ways; and as for the crowd of unconcerned spectators, they, understanding that there was nothing more to stare at, went their ways too, and in a little while the place that had been so full and busy was empty and idle, and Guido and I were left alone with Dante.

[Pg 79]

As we stood there in silence, Madonna Vittoria came forward from her shelter under the arcade and advanced to Dante, and addressed him. "Give me leave," she said, "to tell you that you are a man whose love any woman might be proud to wear. Beware of Simone dei Bardi. I know something of him. He is neither clever enough to forget nor generous enough to forgive. Remember, if you care to remember, that I am always your friend."

Dante saluted her. "I thank you," he said, in a dull, tired voice.

Then Madonna Vittoria went her way over the bridge with her people after her, and when she was gone I made bold to go up to where Dante stood thoughtful, and clapped him on the back in very hearty commendation of his courage and daring. "You have bubbled Simone well," I said, joyously.

But, to my surprise, Dante turned to me with a face that was not at all joyous. "I think he had the best of me in the end," he said, sadly. And as he spoke he hung his head for all the world like a schoolboy that had been reproved before his class.

Messer Guido, that was as tender to melancholy as a gentlewoman, caught him by the hand. "Are you teased by that fellow's taunt?" he asked.

Dante sighed, as he answered: "To the quick of my heart. Will you leave me, friends, to my thoughts?"


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