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XII DANTE READS RHYMES
The great hall of Messer Folco's house where now he received his guests, and me among the number, was a mighty handsome piece of work, very brave with gay color and rich hangings and the costly pelts of Asian beasts, and very splendidly lit with an infinity of lamps of bronze that had once illumined C?sarian revels, and flambeaux that stood in sconces of silver and sconces of brass very rarely wrought. At the farther end the room gave through a colonnade on to the spacious garden which it was Messer Folco's privilege to possess, a garden which, it was said, had belonged in old time to a great noble of the stately Roman days. This colonnade, be it noted, for all it looked so open and amiable, could be shut off, if need were, by sliding doors, so as to make the room defensible whenever the war-cries rattled in the streets and Guelph and Ghibelline or Red and Yellow met in deadly grips together.

When I arrived, and I was among the earliest visitors, for I dearly loved all manner of merry-making, [Pg 145]and thought it foolish to stand upon my dignity and seem indifferent to mirth, and so come late and lose pleasure—when I arrived, I say, the musicians were tuning their lutes in the gallery on high, and Messer Folco was standing before the doorway greeting his guests. Those that had forestalled me were moving hither and thither over the smooth floor, and staring, for lack of other employment, at the splendid tapestries, and impatient enough for the dancing and the feasting to begin. And then, because I wished to be courteous as becomes the careful guest, I wrung by his hand Messer Folco, who, as I think, had no notion, or at best the dimmest, of who I was, and I said to him, "Blessed be Heaven, Messer Folco, 'tis good to have such a man as you in Florence."

To which Messer Folco answered, returning with dignity my friendly pressure, "'Tis good for any man to be in Florence; there is no place like Florence from here to world's end."

And then, as I stood something agape and framing a further speech, another guest pushed by me and clasped Messer Folco's hand and addressed him, saying, "So you have started a-building your new hospital. Will you never have done being generous?"

And because it always amuses me to watch give and take of talk between human beings, I stood off one side, Messer Folco having done with me and [Pg 146]forgotten me, and listened to the traffic of voices and the bandying of compliments, and heard Messer Folco respond, "One that is happy enough to be a citizen of Florence should be grateful for the favor."

"Well," said the new-comer, whom I knew very well to be one that made the most of his great monies by usury—"well," says he, "a man cannot spend money better than by benefiting the disinherited."

To which Messer Folco, eying him with gravity, and having, as I make no doubt, his own opinion, answered, "So I think."

Now, by this time the enthusiastic usurer had said his say and had his audience, and was straightway pushed on one side. Then my usurer, not knowing me, though indeed I knew him, or not liking the looks of me, as indeed his looks were distasteful to me, for I think a man's money greed is ever written in bitter ink upon the parchment of his face, passed away into the crowd beyond. Thereafter there accosted Messer Folco a man whose name I knew at the time but for the life of me I cannot recall it now, and all that I can remember of him is that he was fat and affable and a notorious giver and gleaner of gossip, as well as one that aped acquaintance with the arts.

"Messer Folco, your servant," he began, in a voice that was as fat as his abdomen. Then went on, in a splutter of rapture, "Why, what a company! [Pg 147]Here is all Florence, from base to apex." He paused for a moment, and said behind his hand, in a loud whisper which came easily to my ears, "Is the mysterious poet of your fellowship?" And he glanced around knowingly, as if he hoped to divine the unknown among the arriving guests.

Messer Folco looked at him gravely. "What poet, friend?" he asked; and I truly think he questioned in all honesty of ignorance as to the man's meaning, and my jolly gossip answered, all agog with his knowledge:

"Why, the poet we in Florence that have an ear for sweet sounds are all talking of; the poet whose name no man knows, whose rhymes are on all men's lips; the fellow that praises fair ladies as never fair ladies were praised before since Orpheus carolled in Arcady."

Then I noted how Messer Folco, with the air of one that did indeed recall some idle rumor, looked at him curiously, as one that is puzzled how busy men can interest themselves in such trifles as love rhymes, and he answered, quietly, "I have given little heed to this wonder; I have been too busy with bricks and mortar. Here comes one who may lighten our darkness."

Even as he spoke my ever beloved friend and the ever beloved friend of all who were young with me and of all good Florentines, Messer Guido Cavalcanti, came into the room.

[Pg 148]

Messer Folco wrung him heartily by the hand, for he loved him no less than the rest of us. "Messer Guido, ever welcome," he cried, "never more than now. Perhaps you can tell us—"

But before he had time to say what he had to say, Messer Guido Cavalcanti interrupted him, not uncivilly, but as one that wished to spare a good man the pains of saying what his hearer already understood as clearly as words could utter it. "I wager I know what you would say," he declared. "Do I know the name of the unknown poet?"

Messer Folco nodded. "Well, do you?" he asked, and those that were standing about him, and especially my good fat gossip merchant that aired his learning, pricked their ears to hear what Messer Guido might have to say on a matter that tickled them. I, with my wider knowledge, that I had kept steadfastly to myself, stood by and chuckled.

For I had that inside my jerkin against my breast which, though indeed it belonged to Messer Guido, Messer Guido had never yet seen, and I had brought it with me to deliver to him. And it concerned the subject-matter of the speech of Folco and his friends.

But Messer Guido could say little to please them. "Why," he declared, "I know no more than all Florence knows by this time, that some one has [Pg 149]written songs which all men sing, sonnets which all women sigh over. There is a ballad of his addressed to all ladies that are learned in love which is something more than beautiful."

My jolly gossip nodded sagaciously. "Aye, but who made it?" he questioned, sententiously, and looked as complacent as if he had said something really wise.

Guido saluted him politely. "Ask some one wiser than I."

As for me, I grinned to think that I was that some one wiser, and that Guido never suspected it.

Messer Folco touched my dear friend lightly on the shoulder. "It was not your honor's self?" he asked, benignly, with his shrewd eyes smiling upon the handsome face.

Messer Guido shook his head. "No, Messer Folco," he protested, "my little wit flies my flag and wears my coat. If I could write such rhymes as those I should never be mum about them, I promise you."

Then, with a gracious gesture, as of apology for having failed to satisfy the curiosity of those that accosted him, he saluted Messer Folco and moved toward the centre of the room. I was on his heels in an instant, for I wished for a word with him before he was unfindable in the thick and press of his friends, and I had somewhat to say to him concerning the very matter on which he had been [Pg 150]speaking. I caught him by the arm, and he turned to greet me as he greeted all that knew him and loved him, with a smile, and I whispered him, plucking a paper from my breast.

"Guido, heart, hearken. Here is a new song sent to your house that seems better than all the others. I called at your lodgings and saw a scroll on your table, and knowing what it must be, I made bold to read it, and, having read it, to bear it to you."

And Messer Guido answered me, eagerly: "I have not been home; I have been all day with the cardinal. For love's sake, let me see." He took the paper from me and read it over, and then he said to me, gravely: "Why, this is better than the best we have had yet. This is the finish of the ballad of fair Florentines. Here is the nightingale of Florence singing his heart out for us, and we are at a loss for his name."

Then I, being delighted at my own initiation into this mystery of the nameless singer, and fired by Guido's praises of him, turned to those about me, and the room had filled a little by this time, and I cried out, as indeed I had no business to do in a house where at best I was little more than a stranger. And this is what I said: "Gentles all, squires and dames, loving and loved, here is rose-scented news for you. The unknown poet has sung again, and Messer Guido has the words in his fingers."

[Pg 151]

Now there came a hush of talking in the room as I said these words, and Messer Guido looked at me something reprovingly, because of my forwardness, and all eyes were fixed upon the pair of us.

Then Messer Folco, moving close up to me, touched me on the shoulder and said, with a quiet irony, "You are very good, sir, to be my major-domo."

Instantly I bowed to the ground in sober recognition of my error. "Forgive me the heat of my zeal," I protested. "I diminish, I dwindle, I wither. Unless your pity forgives me, I shall evaporate into air."

Then Messer Folco laughed good-humoredly, and, turning to Guido, said, "Messer Guido, of your charity, let us hear."

But Guido, the ever obliging, was here unwilling to oblige. "Shall the owl croak the notes of the nightingale?" he asked, extending his open palms in a gesture of emphatic denial.

Now even at that moment, with Messer Guido politely declining, and Messer Folco still in a mood between smiling and frowning on account of my presumption, and I gaping open-mouthed, and the guests that were gathered about us staring eagerly at the parchment which my dear friend held in his hand, something curious occurred. There came a voice from the press hard by me, a voice that I seemed to know very well and yet that I could not on the instant name with the owner's name, and this [Pg 152]voice cried aloud, so that all present could hear the cry distinctly: "Let Messer Dante read the rhymes!" Even as the voice spoke I saw the reason for its spending of breath, for at that very moment Messer Dante entered the hall, and was making his way toward Messer Folco with the bearing of one that courteously salutes his host.

I looked about me sharply to right and to left, in the hope that I might by chance catch sight of the guest that thus called upon my friend, but I could see no one to whom I could with any surety credit the utterance. I observed, indeed, a certain youth that was cloaked as to his body and masked as to his face slipping out of the crowd about me who might have been the speaker, but whom I could in nowise identify. It was so much the mode with many of us that were young in Florence to come—and sometimes to come unbidden—to such galas as this of Messer Folco's in antic habits and to hide our features with vizards, that there was nothing in this costume to single out the youth whom I believed to be the utterer of that call for Dante. There were many other masked and muffled figures within the walls of Messer Folco's house that night as hard to tell apart as one cherry from another. But whoever the speaker may have been, the speech had the desired effect. Coupled as it so timely was with the appearance of Dante under Messer Folco's roof, it caught the fancy of all that heard it, and [Pg 153]each hearer echoed readily enough the suggestion: "Let Messer Dante read the rhymes!" Thus it came about that Messer Dante had scarcely gone many paces down the hall toward his host when he became aware that he was the target of all eyes.

Though he was surprised at this unexpected attention on the part of so large a concourse of persons, he was in no sense taken aback or embarrassed, but came quietly to a halt and looked with a curious and composed scrutiny at the crowd of men and women that were all regarding him so intently. As he did so, some one cried again, "Let Messer Dante read the rhymes!" And this time Dante heard the words, and he saw also how Messer Guido stood in the throng hard by to Folco and held in his hands a roll of parchment. For a moment Dante showed some signs of discomposure. He changed his fresh color a little to an unfamiliar paleness, and his eyes meeting mine, they flashed a question at me which I could but answer by a determined shake of the head. For I saw that Dante's had a misgiving that I had revealed his secret, which indeed I had not. Then Dante looked at Guido as if to question him, but before he could speak Messer Folco had paid him a grave salutation and began to address him gravely.

"Messer Dante," he said, "you are very welcome to my house, and I greet you cheerfully. Beyond [Pg 154]this it is fit that I should explain to you why, in this instant of your coming, your name is in so many mouths. We were speaking here but now of the unknown poet whose verses have of late at once enraptured and bewildered our city, and many of us were entreating Messer Guido, who holds in his hand the latest verses of the nameless singer, to read them aloud to us. And he declining from, as we think, an over-delicate sense of modesty, it was suggested by him or by another, I know not, on seeing you enter, that you should read to us the rhymes in question."

Here Messer Folco bowed very courteously to Dante, but before Dante, who seemed, as indeed he well might, somewhat at a loss what to say, could utter a syllable in reply, Messer Guido had forestalled him.

"There could not be a better choice," he protested, "though it was none of my proposing. Messer Dante has a sweet and clear voice, and if it will but please him to meet our entreaties we shall be indeed his debtors."

And as he spoke he thrust into Dante's hand the roll of parchment on which the poem was written, and all that heard him applauded, and waited for Dante to begin. Indeed, it was a common thing then, in places where friend met friend, for one that had a voice to read somewhat aloud for the delectation of the others, whether a pleasant tale in prose [Pg 155]or a poetic canzonet. But Dante, while he took the parchment from Guido's fingers, looked about him quietly and spoke, and his voice and words were very decided in denial.

"I do not know," he said, "why this privilege should be given to me, and with your good leaves I will ask Messer Guido to find him a worthier interpreter." With that he made as if he would put the parchment back again into the hand of Messer Guido, and I could understand very well, if no one else could, why he should be so unwilling to do this thing. But you know how it is with a crowd: once any mob of men or women, or men and women, gets an idea into its head, it is an adventure that would trouble the devil to get it out again. Ever since the masked youth had voiced his call for Messer Dante to read the poem, it had become the assembly's hunger and thirst, will, desire, and determination that the poem should be read by no other than Messer Dante, though I will dare make wager that any single man or woman of them all, if individually addressed, would as lief any other than Dante should take up the task. I thought I caught a glimpse of my masked youth in another part of the crowd prompting the demand. So Messer Guido, as herald of the general wish, smilingly refused to take back the paper parchment, and Dante, ever too wise to be stubborn for stubbornness' sake, surrendered, where to persist in [Pg 156]refusal would have seemed churlish to his host and to his company.

"Since you honor me so far," he said, with the wistful smile of one who feels that chance has penned him in a corner, "I must needs obey." And with the word he began to unroll the parchment carefully. As he did so something moved me to look round, and I saw that Madonna Beatrice had entered the great hall and had come to a halt, observing that something unusual was toward.

Madonna Beatrice stood arrested there among her maidens, pale and fair, as an angel might stand, ranged about by radiant mortality. I never could find then, and I never shall find, though I have tried often enough, Lord knows, the exact word or exact sequence of words that should fittingly convey the effect of her beauty, even upon those who having seen it often seemed on each occasion to behold it for the first time. Of her, as of every beauty that has graced the world since Helen set fire to Troy, and Semiramis sent dead lovers adrift down the river of Assyria, and Cleopatra charmed C?sar and Antony and Heaven knows who besides, it might be said that she had the familiar features of womankind; but what it was that made those features so marvellous, ah! there was the task for a greater poet than I to take upon his shoulders. Even the great poet that loved her—and I keep his love-book on my shelf to this hour, wedged in between [Pg 157]a regiment of the Fathers—even Dante has told us nothing that shall serve to make the ages yet to come understand what the woman was like that a man could love with so rapturous a madness of passion. Sometimes I have thought, in my gropings after the phrase to express her, that the word "luminous" was, perhaps, of all single words, the word that seemed to hold shut in its casket the most of the meaning that I sought to convey. There seemed to be about her, even to me that was never her lover, a radiancy, a nimbus, as it were, of celestial light that gave to pulsing flesh and running blood and circumambient skin a quality that was, as it were, flamelike, ethereal, unreal.

Yet though the essence of her bodily being was, as I knew, so frail, there was no show of frailness in her gracious presence. She was tall for a woman, and her coloring was fresh and sane; her bust and limbs were moulded with a wise and restrained generosity that became her youth, and promised nobility of proportion for her maturity. She moved with the smooth and lively carriage of a nymph down the woodland lawns, with her head easily erect and her eyes steadily seeing the world. She might almost have been the youngest of the Amazons or the latest of those strange demi-deities that haunted the hills and woods and waters until the death of the god Pan dealt them, too, their death-blow. Her eyes had the clearness of a clear night in June; [Pg 158]her lips were quick with the brisk crimson of a pink quince. Oh, Saint Cupido, what vanity is this, to essay to paint the unpaintable! Enough that she was young and fair and shapely, and that if in her eyes there dwelt the pensiveness of those whose very loveliness suggests a destined melancholy, her lips were always smiling, and her greeting always blithe, yet I seemed to see black care incarnate behind her, and I will tell you why.

Among the girls that were gathered about her, plump, comely, jolly girls that were, I will readily confess it, more in my way of wooing than their radiant mistress, there stood the figure of a thin and withered man in black, with very white hair and very smooth, gray cheeks and very bright, wise eyes. Him I knew to be Messer Tommaso Severo, that had served the Portinari as leech for longer years than many in Florence could count. He it was that had ushered Messer Folco himself into this troublesome world, that is, however, less troublesome at Florence than elsewhere. He had done the like for Madonna Beatrice, and from the hour of her birth he, whom many blamed for a pagan cynicism and philosophic disdain of humanity, had watched over her life with the tenderness that watches the growth of some fair and unfamiliar flower. He was, besides being a master-physician, one that was thoroughly learned in the science of the stars, and I have always heard that the horoscope [Pg 159]he drew for my lady Beatrice was the chief cause of his tireless devotion and care. To her service he had dedicated the lees of his life and the ripeness of his knowledge. It was he who had carried her away for so long a space of years from the summer heats and winter colds of Florence to the green temperance and tranquillity of the hills. It was he who at last, still guided by that horoscope of which he alone knew the lesson, sanctioned the maiden's return to the city, to live outside which, though even in the loveliest places thereafter attainable, is to live in exile. I know for sure that he said of his sweet charge that flesh and spirit were so exquisitely poised in her perfect body that it needed but some breath of fate to scatter them irrevocably apart, as a child's breath can scatter the down of a dandelion to all the corners of a field. But though I thought of this now, as I beheld the girl and the elder so close together, I could not, for my life, believe it, seeing how buoyantly she carried her beauty and the nobility of her color.

Messer Dante still had the two ends of the roll of parchment in his fingers as Madonna Beatrice entered the hall, and in the very instant of her appearance he was aware of her presence, and I that was watching all things at once, like Argus in the antique fable, I saw how his hands trembled and how his lips quivered with the knowledge of her [Pg 160]approach. But otherwise he showed no sign of the advance of divinity, and holding the parchment well before his face, rolling and unrolling as the duty needed, he began to read what was written on the skin.

The poem, as I already knew, made up the second part of a lengthy ballad in praise of the ladies of Florence. It was cast in an allegorical fashion, aiming to portray a pageant of fair women, each single verse seeking to picture some one of the many lovely ladies that in those days made Florence a very Venus Hill for the ravishment of the senses and the stirring of the blood. I wish with all my heart that I could set the whole of it down here, for it was most ingeniously fancied and handled, and it was not over difficult for the admirers of any particular beauty to pierce the dainty veil of symbolism with which the poet had pretended to envelop her identity. Alas! my memory will not serve me to recall the greater part of it, or, indeed, any but a little, though that little is in truth the very kernel of the whole, and I have no copy of the ballad by me to mend my memory. But, as I say, what I do remember is the centre-jewel of its crown of song.

My Dante read the verses that were his own verses in a voice that was very even, melodious, but so sustained and tamed as to make it seem plain to all that listened that he was dealing with somewhat[Pg 161] whose matter he had never seen before. And as he read each stanza, with its laudation of some lovely lady that was one of the living graces and glories of our city, those that spelled the cryptic riddle of its meaning clapped their hands for pleasure and turned their eyes to where the lady thus bepraised stood and smiled at her, and she, delighted, would bridle and fidget with her fan and seek to maintain herself as if she did not care one whit for what in reality she prized very highly. So the river of sweet words ran on, sweetly voiced, and flowing in its appointed course with a golden felicity of thought and phrase.

Very soon the roll of parchment in Dante's right hand was larger by much than the roll of parchment in Dante's left, and it was plain indeed to all present that the reading and the poem were coming to an end. It was also plain to all present that the utterance of the poet was growing more agitated, and his manner more embarrassed and anxious, and it was manifest to me, who watched him keenly, that he was trembling like a cypress in a light wind. As he came to the last verse it seemed as if some irresistible compulsion compelled him to turn his head in the direction where Madonna Beatrice stood apart with her women and her leech. As he did so the parchment fell from his suddenly parted fingers and lay in two rolls at his feet. But, as if he were unaware of what had happened, Dante [Pg 162]went on with his recitation of the poem. I could see very clearly that the madness of love was wholly upon him, the madness that makes a man lose all heed of what he does and be conscious of naught save the presence of the beloved. He stood there rigid, as one possessed, with his face turned in the direction where the lady Beatrice stood amid her women, and his hands, newly liberated from the control of the parchment that lay at his feet, were clasped together in a tight embrace. And when I turned my gaze from him to her whose beauty he so passionately regarded, I was aware that she too was under the spell of his words, and was conscious of the adoration in his eyes. Truly that boy and that girl, as they stood there in the clean springtide of their youth and comeliness, seemed to me to be a pair very properly and lovingly made by Heaven one for the other. "Here," said I to myself, "if there be any truth in Messer Plato's theory of affinities, here is a living proof of the Grecian whimsy. And here," I said to myself, "if folk must needs marry—a thing I never could understand—here, as I think, is an instance in which a man and a woman might really be happy together, making true mates, lovers, and friends, finding life sweet to share, and finding nothing in their union that was not noble and pure." So I thought while my Dante was betraying his secret by repeating his lesson without his book.
 
These were the words that he spoke with his eyes fixed upon the lady Beatrice, and they live in my memory as fresh as they seemed on the day when I first read them in Messer Guido's lodging, and the evening when I first heard them in Messer Folco's hall. Here is what they said:
"Blessed they name the lady whom I love, Even as the angelic lips in Paradise At last shall bless her when she moves above The sun and all the stars. But while mine eyes Regard her ere she numbers the Nine Skies, Immortal in her mortal loveliness, Can I be scorned if to my soul of sighs Earth's blessing seems the greater, Heaven's the less?"

Even as he came to an end in the great quiet that reigned over the place, I saw how Dante grew of a sudden strangely pale, and how his body swayed as if his senses were about to drown themselves in a swoon, and I truly think that he would have fainted away and fallen to the ground in the transport of his passion if I had not sprung forward from amid the throng where I stood and caught him in my arms.


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