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VI LOVER AND LASS
I  sighed in my turn to see him so perverse who had been so triumphant. "He is as humorous as a chameleon," I protested. Then Guido and I took Dante by the arms to lead him away, I applauding him for his cunning, and Guido gently reproving him for his foolhardiness in getting into a quarrel with such a man of might as Messer Simone—had got him and us some few yards from the scene of the scuffle when Dante suddenly came to a halt and would budge no farther. When we asked him what ailed him, he told us that he had left his book behind him, the book that he had been so deep in a little while ago; and for all we could say to him, he would not be prevailed upon, but must needs return for his precious love-tale. So he quitted us and returned on his steps, and Guido and I looked at each other in some amusement, thinking what a strange fellow our Dante was, that could play scholar and lover and soldier in so many breaths, and could show so much care for some pages of written parchment. Then Guido would have me [Pg 81]go with him, but I was of a mind to see what Dante would do next, and was fain to watch him. Guido disapproved of this, and he would not share in it, saying that it was not for us to dog the heels of a friend.

Guido went his way without me, for it seemed to me less scrupulous and seeking only to be amused that one who had done so much in a short time might well be counted upon to do more. I hid in the arcade, and I saw how Dante went straight to the seat where he had left his book, and found it still lying there, and took it up and thrust it into his bosom. And when he had done this he turned and went like one that walked in a dream—and I spying on him from my hiding-place—till he came to the front of the Palace of the Portinari, and there he paused and gazed wistfully at the gray walls. And I, concealing myself behind a convenient pillar of the colonnade, observed him unseen, and presently saw how the small door in the great door of the gray palace opened, and how Madonna Beatrice came out of it, followed by two girls, her companions. They both were pretty girls, I remember, that would have suited my taste very pleasantly. All three maidens stood on top of the steps looking at Dante where he stood, and Dante remained in his place and looked up at them silently and eagerly.

Madonna Beatrice seemed to hesitate for a moment, [Pg 82]and then, quitting her companions, descended the steps and advanced toward Dante, who, seeing her purpose, advanced in his turn toward her, and they met in the middle of the now deserted square. I was very honestly—or dishonestly, which you may please—anxious to hear what these two might say to each other, so I lingered in my lurking-place, and there I lay at watch and strove to listen. And because the time was very peaceful, and I very quiet and the air very still and their young voices very clear, I could hear much and guess more, and piecing out the certain with the probable, record in my memory this delicate dialogue.

Madonna Beatrice spoke first, for Dante said nothing, and only gazed at her as the devout gaze at the picture of a saint, and there was some note of reproof in her voice as she spoke. "Messer," she said, "they tell me that you have fought for a rose."

Then Dante shook his head, and he smiled as he answered, blithely, "Madonna, I fought for my flag, for my honor, for the glory of the sempiternal rose."

Beatrice looked at him with a little wonder on her sweet face. "Was it very wise to risk a man's life for a trifle?" she asked.

Dante was silent for a short time, then he said: "There are trifles that outweigh the world in a true balance. I would die a death for every petal of that rose."

[Pg 83]

Beatrice began to laugh very daintily, and spread out her pretty palms. "This Florence is a very nest of nightingales," she said, softly; and then she added, quaintly, "You talk like a poet."

I heard Dante sigh heavily as he answered her fancy. "I would I were a poet, for then my worship would have words which now shines dumbly in my eyes."

Beatrice gave him a little mocking salutation. "You are very gallant," she said. "Farewell." There was a hint of reproof in her voice, and she made as if to go.

But Dante stopped her. "Stay, lady, stay," he protested. "I speak with a simple heart. I have been your servant ever since you took a rose from my hands. I am your servant forever, now that you have given me a rose. We are old friends, sweet lady, though we wear young faces, and friends may speak their minds to friends."

Then Beatrice asked him, "Who are you who risked your life for my rose?"

Dante answered her: "I am named Dante Alighieri. Yesterday I was nobody. To-day I would not change places with the Emperor, since I declare myself your servant."

Beatrice smiled a smile of sweet content, and I could see that she was both amused and pleased. "I am glad we are old friends," she said, "for so it was not unmaidenly of me to speak to you, but [Pg 84]indeed I was grieved to think I had put you in peril. I did not think what I did when I threw you that flower. I only felt that we were children again, you and I. Forgive me."

"It was a happy peril," Dante declared, gladly.

Again Beatrice said him farewell and turned to go, and again Dante stayed her, and when she had paused he looked as if he knew not what to say; but at last he questioned, "When may we meet again?"

Beatrice answered him gravely. "Florence is not so wide a world that you should fear to lose sight of a friend."

Once more she made as if she would join her companion maidens, but as she did so Dante looked all about him with an air of great surprise, and I heard him say: "How dark the air grows. I fear an eclipse."

Beatrice, pausing in her path, cried to him, marvelling, "Why, the sun is at its brightest."

Dante shook his head. "I do not find it so when you are leaving me."

Then I think that Beatrice looked half alarmed and half diverted at the way of Dante's speech, and I heard her say, "Is not the spring of our friendship something too raw for such ripeness of compliment?"

Dante persisted. "I would speak simpler and straighter if I dared."

[Pg 85]

Then Beatrice shook her head and tried to wear an air of severity, but failed because she could not help smiling. "The arrows of your wit must not take me for their target," she said, and made a pretence to frown.

Then Dante, at a loss what to say, made the best plea he could when he pleaded, "Pity me."

At that cry the growing gravity on the girl's face softened to her familiar gentleness, for she was touched, as all women who are worthy of womanhood must be touched by that divine appeal. "Are you in need of pity?" she said, softly.

And Dante answered, instantly, "Neck-deep in need."

Then he sighed and Beatrice sighed, and she said, very kindly, "In that case, I pity you," and made again to leave him, and again the appeal in his eyes stayed her.

"Can you do no more than pity me?" he asked.

Beatrice was smiling now, for all she strove to be serious. "Why, you are for a greedy garner; you want flower, fruit, and all, in a breath."

I could see Messer Dante's face suddenly stiffen into solemnity; I could hear Messer Dante's voice, for all its youthful freshness, take upon it the gravity of age. "For nine years, day in and day out, I have thought of you," he sighed. "Have you ever thought of me?"

He looked steadfastly at the girl as he spoke, [Pg 86]and if there was much of entreaty in his question there was something of command also, as if he chose to compel her to tell him the very truth. And the girl answered, indeed, as if she were compelled to speak and could not deny him, and her cheeks were as pink as the earliest roses as she answered him: "Sometimes."

Again Dante spoke and questioned her, and again in his carriage and in his voice there was that same note of command. "With what thoughts?"

But I could plainly see that if our Dante would seek to give orders to the girl with an authority that was beyond his years, the girl could meet his assumption of domination with a composure that was partly grave and partly humorous and wholly adorable.

She nodded very pleasantly at him as she answered, "Kind thoughts for the gentle child who gave his rose to a little girl."

I knew very well, as I leaned and listened, that the mind of Dante leaped back on that instant to the day he had told us of so little a while before, the day nine years ago when, as the sweet lady said, he gave his rose to a little girl. I knew, too, that the chance meeting with Madonna Beatrice on this fair morning must in some mighty fashion alter the life of my friend. The fantastic love which he, a child of nine, felt or professed to feel for the little girl of a like age was now, through this accident, [Pg 87]setting his soul and body on fire and forcing him to say wild words, as a little while back it had forced him to do wild deeds, out of the very exhilaration of madness. And Dante spoke as all lovers speak when they wish to touch the hearts of their ladies, only making me who was listening not a little jealous, seeing that he spoke better than most that I knew of.

"Madonna," he said, "Madonna, the lover-poets of our city are very prodigal of protestations—what will they not do for their lady? They offer her the sun, moon, and stars for her playthings—and in the end she is fortunate if she gets so much as a farthing rushlight to burn at her shrine."

Beatrice was listening to him with the bright smile upon her face which for me was the best part of a beauty that, if I had been in Dante's place, I should have found a thought too seraphic and unearthly for my fancy.

"My heart," she assured him, "would never be touched by such sounding phrases."

Now Dante's face glowed with the fire that was in him, and his words seemed to glow as he spoke like gold coins dropping new-moulded from the mint. "I am no god to give you a god's gifts," he protested. "But of what a plain man may proffer from the heart of his heart and the soul of his soul, say, is there any gift I can give you in sign of my service?"

[Pg 88]

The bright smile on the face of Beatrice changed to a gracious air of thoughtfulness, and I think I should have been glad had I been wooing a woman in such fashion to have seen such a look on the face of my fair. "Messer Dante," she said, "you have some right to be familiar with me, for you risked your life for my rose. So I will answer your frankness frankly. Men have tried to please me and failed, for I think I am not easy to please greatly."

Dante stretched out both his hands to her. "Let me try to please you!" he cried.

The girl answered him, speaking very slowly, as if she were carefully turning her thoughts into words and weighing her words while she uttered them. "That is in your own hands. I do not cry for the sun and stars and the shining impossibilities. But I am a woman, and if a man did brave deeds (and by brave deeds I do not mean risking two souls for the sake of a rose) or good deeds (and by good deeds I do not mean the rhyming of pretty rhymes in my honor), and did them for love of me, why, I have so much of my grandmother Eve in me that I believe I should be pleased."

I saw Dante draw himself up as a soldier might in the ranks when he saw his general riding by and thought that the rider's eye was upon him. "With God's help," he vowed, "you shall hear better things of me."

[Pg 89]

There was a look of such fine kindness on Beatrice's face while he spoke thus as made even me, that am a man of common clay, and like love as I like wine and victuals, thrill in my hiding-place. "I hope as much," she said, softly—"almost believe as much. But I linger too long, and my comrades wonder. Farewell."

She gave him an enchanting salutation, and Dante bowed his head. "Farewell, most fair lady," he murmured.

Then Beatrice moved away from him, and ascended the steps where the two girls stood and waited for her, and she laid her white finger on the ring of brass that governed the lock of the little door, and the little door opened and she passed into the gray palace, she and her maids, and to me too, as I am very sure to Dante, the world seemed in a twinkling robbed of its sweetness. For though, as I have said, Madonna Beatrice was never a woman for me to love, I could well believe that to the man who loved her there could be no woman else on the whole wide earth, which, as I think, is an uncomfortable form of loving.

When she had gone Dante stood there very silent for a while, and it may be that I, tired of watching him, drifted into a doze, and leaned there for a while against my sheltering pillar with closed lids, as sometimes happens to men that are weary of waiting. If this were so, it would explain why [Pg 90]I did not see what seems to have happened then—or perhaps it was because I was of a temper and composition less fine than my friend's that I was not permitted to see such sights. But it appears, as I learned from his lips later, that as he stood there in all the ecstacy of his sweet intercourse with the well-beloved, the painted image of the God of Love that stood beside the bridge, above the fountain, came to life again, and moved and came in front of Dante and looked upon him very searchingly. The God of Love lifted the hand that carried his fateful arrow and pointed with the dart toward the gray palace, and it spoke to Dante in a voice of command, and said, "Behold thy heart." Then Dante felt no fear such as he had felt at the first appearance of the God of Love, but only an almost intolerable sense of joy at the glory and the beauty and the divinity of true and noble love. And he said to himself, as if he whispered a prayer, "O Blessed Beatrice," and therewith the figure of the God of Love departed back to its familiar place.

If I had, indeed, been dozing, my sleep lasted no longer than this, and I was conscious again, and saw Dante, and I leaped from my hiding-place and ran to where Dante stood alone in the square, with his hands against his face. I called to him, as I came up, "Dante, are you drowned in a wonder?" and at the sound of my voice Dante plucked the fingers [Pg 91]from his face and stared at me vacantly, as if he did not know me. This gaze of ignorance lasted, it may be, for the better part of a minute.

Then Dante, seeming to recognize me, all of a sudden drew me toward him and spoke as a man speaks that tells strange truths truly. "Friend," he said, "you are well met, for you see me now as I am who will never see me again as I was. I am become a man, for I love God's loveliest woman. Enough of nobility in name; I mean to prove nobility in deed. Say to my friends that Dante of the Alighieri, a Florentine, and a lover, devotes himself for love's sake to the service of his city."

And when he had spoken he stood very still with his hands clasped before him, and I, because it is my way to laugh at all things, laughed at him, and cried out: "Holy Saint Plato, what a hot change of a cold heart! Bring bell, book, and candle, for Jack Idle is dead and Adam Active is his heir."

But Dante turned his face to me, and his eyes were shining very bright, and he looked younger than his youth, and he spoke to me not as if he were chiding my mirth, but as if he were telling me a piece of welcome news, and he said, very gently, "Here beginneth the New Life."



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