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X THE DEVILS OF AREZZO
Now, the next page in the book of my memory that is concerned with the fortunes of my friend has to do with the feast that Messer Folco Portinari gave to the magnificoes and dignitaries, the notables and worthies, the graces and the radiancies of Florence—a feast that, memorable in itself, was yet more memorable from all that came of it by what we in our wisdom or our ignorance call chance. It was a very proper, noble, and glorious festival, and I am almost as keen to attend it again in my memory as I was keen to be present at it in the days when Time and I were boys together. Yet for all my impatience I think it good before I treat of it and of its happenings to set down in brief certain conditions that then prevailed in Florence—conditions which had their influence in making Messer Folco's festival memorable to so many lives.

You must know that at this time the all-wise and all-powerful Republic of Florence was not a little harassed in its peace and its comfort, if not in its [Pg 132]wisdom and its power, by the unneighborly and unmannerly conduct of the people of Arezzo. These intolerant and intolerable folk were not only so purblind and thick-witted as not to realize the immeasurable supremacy of the city of Florence for learning, statesmanship, and bravery over all the other cities of Italy put together, but had carried the bad taste of their opinions into the still worse taste of offensive action. For a long time past Arezzo had pitted itself in covert snares and small enterprises against the integrity and well-being of the Republic. Were Florence in any political difficulty or commercial crisis, then surely were the busy fingers—ah, and even the busy thumbs and the whole busy hands—of the people in Arezzo sure to be thrust into the pie with the ignoble object of plucking out for their own advantage such plums as they could secure. Florentine convoys were never safe from attack on the highroads that neighbored the Aretine dominion, and if any brawl broke out between Florence and one of her neighbors, a brawl never provoked by Florence, too magnanimous for such petty dealings, but always inaugurated by the cupidity or the treachery of her enemies, the Aretines were sure to be found taking part in it, either openly or secretly, to the disadvantage and detriment of the noble city.

Now, this state of things had endured long enough in the minds of most good citizens, and it was felt [Pg 133]that the patience of Florence had been over-abused and her good nature too shamelessly counted upon, and that it was time to teach these devils of Arezzo a lesson in civility and fair fellowship. The time for giving this lesson seemed at this present time the more auspicious because for the moment Florence had her hands free from other external complications, and was perhaps less troubled than was her wont by internal agitations. The jolly Guelphs had it their own way more or less in the city; those that were Ghibelline in principle or Ghibelline by sentiment were wise enough to keep their opinions to themselves. Such exiled Ghibellines as had been permitted to return kept very mum and snug. The Reds and the Yellows wore a show of peace, and the city would have appeared to any stranger's eyes to be a very marvel of union and agreement. Under these circumstances it was thought by many, and indeed boldly asserted by many, that it would be a good opportunity to take advantage of an idle, peaceful time and give the people of Arezzo a trouncing. Wherefore, according to certain wise heads, it became all good citizens to do the utmost that in them lay to further so excellent a cause, the elders by appropriate contributions, according to their means, to the coffers of the state, the younger by volunteering eagerly for service in the ranks of a punitive army to be raised against Arezzo.

Never was such a time of military enthusiasm [Pg 134]among the young with whom I frequented, nor did any youth of them all show to me more enthusiasm for the cause of the city than Messer Dante. Ever since that day when he had seen again the fair girl whom he had loved as a fair child he had been, as indeed he had said he would be, a changed man, no longer indifferent to the great concerns of state, no longer absorbed in unproductive studies to the extinction of all sense of citizenship, but a patriotic youth keenly alive to the duties that devolved upon a true-hearted Florentine, and zealous in the practice of all those arts that should make him more worthy to be called her son. If he had surprised me by his quiet and his wiliness on the day of his quarrel with Messer Simone dei Bardi, if he had amazed me by the writing of those verses, the authorship of which Madonna Vittoria had been the first to make known to me, he astonished me still more now by the proofs of his application to military and political science. He would talk very learnedly of the disposition of armies in the field, of the advantages and disadvantages of the use of mercenary troops, and the best way to defend and the best way to assault a well-walled citadel, so that you would think, to listen to him, that he was some gray old generalissimo steeped in experience, and not the smooth-cheeked fellow whom we knew, as we thought, so well, and whom perhaps we knew so little. He showed himself as eager for the affairs [Pg 135]of state as for the affairs of war, ever ready to weigh new problems of political administration, and to argue as to the merits or defects of this or that form of government.

In a word, from being a reserved and scholarly lad that seemed to take little or no interest in the busy world about him, he had suddenly become an active, enthusiastic man to whom all living questions seemed exceedingly alive. And with all this he kept on with his sword-practice as if he had not other thought but arms, and kept on at his rhymings as if he had no other thought but love and song. And since I kept the knowledge that Monna Vittoria had given me to myself—yea, kept it even from Messer Guido Cavalcanti—those in Florence that cared for verses still marvelled at the music of the unknown, and wondered as to his identity.

Now, as the natural result of the great ferment and headiness in the city and in the hearts of all men in Florence, there was a mighty desire to come to a proper understanding with these Aretines, the proper understanding having, of course, for its object the placing of the neck of Arezzo under the heel of Florence. But though, as I have said, the bickerings between the two powers had been going on for a long while, Florence did not as yet, in view of the complications that existed, and the new complications that might arise from overt act, feel herself strong enough to take the field in open war [Pg 136]and to hazard all, it might be, upon the chances of a single field.

Then it was that there came into the mind of Messer Simone dei Bardi, instigated thereunto, as I verily believe, more for his own purpose than from any pure patriotism, a scheme for sapping the strength of the Aretines by some sudden and secret stroke. It was with this end in view that he went up and down the city, talking with those that were young and inflammable, and baiting his plans with many big words and sounding phrases that were as stimulating to the ear as the clanging of the bells on the war-wagon, so that those who heard them, flushed and troubled by their music, were at little pains to inquire as to the wisdom that lay behind them. When Messer Simone found that there were plenty of young men in the city that were as headstrong and valorous as he could wish, he began to mould his words into a closer meaning and to make plainer what he would be at. This was, as it seemed, no other than the formation of a kind of sacred army, such as he had professed to have read of in the history of certain of the old Greek cities, that was to be entirely devoted to the gain and welfare of the city, and to regard all other purposes in life as of little or no value in comparison. He hinted, then, at the levying of a legion of high-spirited and adventurous gentlemen, whose object was to strike surely and suddenly at the strength [Pg 137]of Arezzo, being sworn beforehand never to endure defeat or to know retreat when once they had taken their work in hand. To give their object greater significance, he suggested that this legion should be known as the Company of Death, thereby signifying that those who pledged themselves thereto were only to return victorious or not at all.

You may be sure that a great many gallant youths caught eagerly at such a chance of serving their city, all the more so, it may be, because it offered them no direct reward in the case of success and assured them a self-promised death in the event of failure. Now you shall see wherein this scheme helped to serve the purpose of Messer Simone dei Bardi, for it was his hope that Messer Dante should be tempted to enroll himself in this same Company of Death, whereby there was every possibility of Messer Simone being well rid of him.


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