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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » The God of Love » IX MADONNA VITTORIA SOUNDS A WARNING
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Madonna Vittoria received me so very graciously that for a while I began to think no little good of myself, and to reconsider my latest opinion as to the value of poets and poetry in the eyes of such ladies. But this mood of self-esteem was not fated to be of long duration. After some gracious words of praise for my verses, which made me pleased to find her so wise in judgment, she came very swiftly to the purpose for which she had summoned me, and that purpose was not at all to share in the delight of my society.

"Are you not a friend," she said, very gravely, "of young Dante of the Alighieri?"

I made answer that for my own poor part I counted myself his very dear and devoted friend, and that I had reason to believe that he held me in some affection. I was not a little surprised at this sudden introduction of Messer Dante into our conversation, and began to wonder if by any chance Monna Vittoria had taken a fancy to him. Such women have such whims at times. However, I was not long left in doubt as to her meaning.

[Pg 121]

"If you are a true friend to him," she said, "you would do well to counsel him to go warily and to have a care of Messer Simone of the Bardi, for I am very sure that he means to do him a mischief when time shall serve."

Now I had seen nothing of Dante since that day of the little bicker with Simone, long weeks earlier, but as I had heard by chance that he was busy with the practice of sword-craft, I took it for granted that he was thus keeping his promise to a certain lady, and was by no means distressed at his absence. As for Messer Simone, he went his ways in Florence as truculently as ever, and I hoped he would be willing to let bygones be bygones.

"Does he still bear such a grudge for a single rose-blossom?" I asked. And it seemed to me that it was scarcely in reason to be so pettily revengeful toward a youth that had carried himself so valiantly and so cunningly in the countenance of a great danger.

Monna Vittoria answered me very swiftly and decidedly. "Messer Simone has a little mind in his big body, and little minds cling to trifles. But it is not the matter of the rose alone that chokes him, but chiefly the matter of the poems."

I stared at Monna Vittoria with round eyes of wonder. "What poems?" I asked; for, indeed, I did not understand her drift.

She frowned a little in impatience at my slowness. [Pg 122]"Why, surely," she said, "those poems that Messer Dante has written in praise of Beatrice of the Portinari, and in declaration of his service to her. Have you not seen them? Have you not heard of them? Do you not, who are his friend, know that they were written by young Dante?"

Now, indeed, I knew nothing of the kind, and I could not, in reviewing the matter, blame myself very greatly for my lack of knowledge. Who could guess that a scholarly youth who was now very suddenly and wholly, as I had heard, addicted to martial exercises, should, in a twinkling and without the least warning, prove the peer of the practised poets of Florence? Nor was there in the poems that I had seen any plain hint given that the lady they praised was Madonna Beatrice.

"Are you very sure?" I asked. And yet even as I asked I felt that it must be so, and that I ought, by rights, to have known it before, for all that it was so very surprising. For when a man is in love and has anything of the poet in him, that poet is like to leap into life fully armed with equipment of songs and sonnets, as Minerva, on a memorable occasion, made her all-armored ascent from the riven brows of Jove.

The lady was very scornful of my thick-headedness, and was at no pains to conceal her scorn, for all that I had written her so honorable a copy of verses.

[Pg 123]

"Am I sure? How could I be other than sure? Why, on that day when Madonna Beatrice flung your Dante the rose from her nosegay, I knew by the look in the lad's face that he no less than worshipped her. Was I not standing in the press? Did I not see all, even to the humiliation of Simone? It needed no very keen vision to divine the beginning of many things, love and hate and grave adventures. So when a new and nameless poet filled the air of Florence with his sweetness it did not take me long to spell the letters of his name."

I felt, as I listened, very sure that it ought not to have taken me long either, and the thought made me penitent, and I was about to attempt apologies for my folly when Madonna Vittoria cut me short with new words.

"It mattered little," she went on, "for me to guess the secret of the new poet's mystery, but it mattered much that Simone should guess it. Yet he did guess it. For my Simone, that should be and shall be mine, though he knows nothing and cares nothing for poetry, guessed with the crude instinct of brutish jealousy the authorship that has puzzled Florence."

I felt and looked disturbed at these tidings, and I besought Monna Vittoria to give me the aid of her counsel in this business, as to what were best to do and what not to do. And Madonna Vittoria very earnestly warned me not to make light of [Pg 124]Messer Simone's anger, nor to doubt that my Dante was in danger.

"It were very well," she said, after a few moments of silent thoughtfulness, "if Messer Dante could be persuaded to pay some kind of public addresses to some other lady, so as to divert the suspicions of Messer Simone. Let him show me some attention; let him haunt my house awhile. Messer Simone will not be jealous of me, now that he is in this marry mood of his."

I have sometimes wondered since if Madonna Vittoria, in her willingness to help Dante, was not also more than a little willing to please herself with the society of one that could write such incomparable love-verses. Whatever the reason for it might be, I found her idea ingenious and commended it heartily, but Madonna Vittoria, that seemed indifferent to my approval, interrupted the full flood of my eloquence with a lifted hand and lifted eyebrows.

"I know your Dante too well," she said, "though I know him but little, to think that he will be persuaded to any course in order to avoid the anger of Messer Simone."

I knew that this was true as soon as Madonna Vittoria had said it, and I admired the insight of women by which they are so skilled to distinguish one man from another, even when they have seen very little of the man that happens to interest them. [Pg 125]I may honestly confess that if the case had been my case, I would cheerfully have availed myself of Monna Vittoria's suggestion and seemed to woo her—though, indeed, I could have done it very readily with no seeming in the matter—that I might avoid the inimical suspicions of Messer Simone or his like. Not, you must understand, that in the heart of my heart I was so sore afraid of Messer Simone or of another man as to descend to any baseness to avoid his rage, but just that there was in me the mischievous spirit of intrigue which ever takes delight in disguisings and concealments and mysteries of all kinds. But I knew when Madonna Vittoria had said it, and might have known before Madonna Vittoria had said it, if I had reflected for an instant, that my Dante was not of this inclination and must walk his straight path steadfastly. Wherefore, I felt at a loss and looked it, staring at Monna Vittoria.

"Messer Dante," she went on, "must do this thing that I would have him do, not for any care or safety of his own, but for the sake and for the safety and the ease and peace of mind of Madonna Beatrice. If it gets to be blown about the city that the lad Dante of the Alighieri is madly in love with her, and can find no other occupation for his leisure than the writing in her praise of amorous canzonets, not only will Messer Simone, her suitor, be fretted, but also Messer Folco, her father, be vexed, [Pg 126]neither of which things can in any way conduce to her happiness. Let Messer Dante, therefore, for his love's sake, be persuaded to wear the show of affection for some other lady, and as there is already nothing in the wording of his verses to betray the name of the lady he serves, let him by his public carriage and demeanor make it seem as if his heart and brain were bestowed on some other, such another even as myself."

Here, for an instant, Madonna Vittoria paused to take breath, and I nodded approval, and would have spoken, but she was too quick for me.

"Get him to do this," she said, earnestly. "Let him be made very sure that I thoroughly know that he does not care and never could care two fig-pips for me, and tell him, if you like, that I could never waste a smile or sigh on the effort to make his sour face look sweet. Besides, I am not urging this to serve him, but to help myself, for I do not wish Messer Simone to marry Madonna Beatrice, the which thing is the more likely to happen if Messer Folco has any hint of sweethearting between his magnificence's daughter and an insignificant boy."

What Madonna Vittoria said was splendid sense, and I applauded it lustily, and made her my vows that it should be my business to seek out my Dante and bring him to her thinking. And then we passed from that matter to talk of love-poems, and from love-poems to lovers, and from lovers to the art of [Pg 127]love. I would not for all the world seem indiscreet, so I will say no more than that it was a very pleasant afternoon which I passed in that fair lady's society, the memory of which I treasure very preciously in the jewel-casket of my tenderest recollections.

But when the time came for me to bid her farewell she renewed again and very insistently her warning that Simone of the Bardi meant mischief to Dante of the Alighieri, and her counsel that young Dante should be persuaded, for his dear lady's sake, to fob off suspicion by feigning an affection which indeed had no place in his bosom. To this, as before, I agreed very heartily, and so took my leave of a very winsome and delicious creature, and went my ways wishing with all my heart that it might be my privilege to woo such a lady daily, either for my own safety or the safety of another. Which shows that the fates are very fantastical in their favors, for this exquisite occasion of felicity was offered, not to me who would have appreciated it at its right value, but to Messer Dante, who would not value it at the worth of a single pomegranate seed.

But, however that may be, I did as the lady bade me, and I sought out Messer Dante and found him, and gave him the sum of Madonna Vittoria's discourse, urging him to do as she counselled. In doing this I spoke not at all of the danger there [Pg 128]might be to my friend from the rage of Messer Simone, but solely of the need for every true and humble lover to keep his love and service secret enough to avoid either care or offence to his lady. To all of which wisdom Messer Dante agreed very readily, being, indeed, over-willing to reproach himself for heedlessness in the matter of his verses, though, indeed, he named no name in them and kept himself as close and invisible as a cuckoo. And I promised and vowed to tell no man nor no woman the secret of the authorship of the verses that Florence was beginning to love so well.

I kept my word as to this promise, and the time was not yet before other than Monna Vittoria and myself and Messer Simone knew the secret. Dante kept his word to me and followed Madonna Vittoria's advice, and showed himself attentive in her company time and again, and was seen on occasion going to or coming from her house. Which conduct on his part, for all that it was intended for the best, did not, as so often happens with the devices of human cunning, have the best result. For of course, in a city like Florence, where gossip is blown abroad like thistle-seed, it came soon enough to the ears of Madonna Beatrice that young Messer Dante of the Alighieri was believed by many to be a lover of Madonna Vittoria. Now, Madonna Beatrice knew nothing of Dante's wonder-verses in her honor, nor of Dante's way of life since the day of their [Pg 129]meeting in Santa Felicita, for Dante was resolved not to bring himself again to her notice until he considered himself in some degree more worthy to do so. Therefore, Madonna Beatrice was little pleased by the talk that coupled the name of Vittoria with his name to whom she had given the rose. So it chanced that one day when she with her companions met Dante in the street, she refused him her salutation, whereat my poor Dante was plunged in a very purgatory of woe.

Of course, he had no knowledge of how he had offended his sweet lady, for it was no great wonder if a youth of his age were to be friends with Madonna Vittoria, as many of the youths of the city were friends. Besides, his own consciousness that his friendship with the woman was no more than friendship—and indeed would have been no more for him, in those ecstatic hours, had she been the goddess Venus herself—caused him to look at the matter very indifferently, regarding it as no more than a convenient cloak to screen from the prying curiosity of the world his high passion for Madonna Beatrice. But I, that was more in the way of girl-gossips than Dante, got in time to know the truth of the reason why the lady Beatrice had refused her salutation to my friend, and I began to see that Madonna Vittoria's counsel might well prove more mischievous than serviceable in the end.

However, I had no more to do than to communicate [Pg 130]to Dante the reason that I had discovered for his dear idol's lack of greeting, and at the news of it he was cast into a great gloom and remained disconsolate for a long while. And I urged him that he should let Madonna Beatrice know what he had done and why, but he would not hear of this, saying that he would never seek to win either her favor or her pity so, by trading on any service he might seem to do her. He added that he hoped in God's good time to set himself right with her again, when he was more worthy to approach her. All of which was very beautiful and devoted and noble, but not at all sensible, according to my way of doing or my way of thinking.

Anyway, Messer Dante would go to visit Madonna Vittoria no more, and she wondered at his absence and sent for me and questioned me, and I told her the truth, how following her advice had brought Dante into disgrace with his lady. Then Vittoria seemed indeed grieved, and she commended Dante for keeping away from her, and vowed that he should be set right some way or other in the eyes of his lady. Indeed, it was a pleasure and a marvel that Madonna Vittoria could show such zeal and heat for so simple a love-business as this of the boy of the Alighieri and the girl of the Portinari.


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