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To most of those that were present in Messer Folco's house that night it was little less than impossible to misunderstand the meaning of those latest rhymes that Messer Dante had read. Even if none had taken into account the agitation that had come over my friend, and which at least identified him in spirit with the substance of what he read, if it did not patently proclaim him the author, at least it was staringly evident that the stanza was a public tribute to the loveliness of Madonna Beatrice. Did not her name of Beatrice imply blessedness, and was not blessedness, terrestrial and celestial, the intimate theme of the octave? Further, since I speak of the octave, were not those that had nimble judgments and sprightly memories able to recall that Madonna Beatrice's name was made up of eight letters, and then, following on this pathway of knowledge, to discover that the first letter of each line of the stanza corresponded in its order with the like letter in the name of the daughter of Folco Portinari.

[Pg 165]

In the face of such an amazing revelation a kind of heavy silence brooded awhile over the company, and lasted, indeed, as long as the time, which was indeed but brief, that Dante lay in my arms in his stupor. While some believed that in Dante they beheld—as in very truth they did—the author of the poem, and in consequence the body of the unknown poet that had haunted their imaginations, others merely appreciated that the unknown poet, whoever he might be, had declared himself very patently the adorer of Monna Beatrice, wherefore it was to be inferred that all those other love-songs, which the golden youth of Florence loved to murmur to the ears of their ladies, were so many roses and lilies and violets laid on the same shrine.

Whoever misunderstood the true meaning of what had happened, I think that Messer Folco understood well enough, and was mightily little pleased in the understanding. Though Dante had, indeed, the right to claim nobility of birth, neither his station in the city nor his worldly means were such as to commend him to Messer Folco's eyes as a declared lover of his daughter. Whatever annoyance Messer Folco may have felt at the untoward occurrence, he was too accomplished a gentleman to allow any sign of chagrin to appear in his voice or countenance or demeanor. He did no more than thank Dante, who had by this time quite overmastered his passing weakness, for his courtesy in [Pg 166]reading such very pleasing verses. Then, turning to the guests that stood about, somewhat disconcerted and puzzled by what had taken place, he addressed them in loud tones, telling them that a slight banquet was set forth in the adjacent room, and begged them to enjoy it before the dancing should begin.

At these pleasant tidings the most of Messer Folco's company were greatly elated, and hastened to pair themselves off very merrily, and to make their ways toward the banqueting-room, where, indeed, a very delectable feast was spread, such an one as might have tickled the palate and flattered the appetite of any of the high-livers and dainty drinkers of old Rome. As our jolly Florentine lads and winsome Florentine lasses ate and drank, they chattered of what they had just heard, of what they had just seen, and were all agreed to a man Jack and a woman Jill that Madonna Beatrice was a very flower of women, and that if Messer Dante laid his heart at her feet it was no doubt a piece of great presumption, but otherwise an act highly to be applauded. We were very young in Florence in those days, and our hearts were always quick to beat time to the drum-taps of love or any other high and generous passion. If we have changed since, it is the fault of the changing years and the loss of the Republic.

I make no doubt that there were some who [Pg 167]grumbled and carped and cavilled; said this and said that; grunted porcine over the pretty pass things were coming to in the city when a nobody or a next-to-nobody like young Dante of the Alighieri could presume to lift his impudent eyes to a daughter of a man like Folco Portinari, one of the first citizens of Florence, and a man that builded hospitals and basilicas at his own expense. But the growls of these grumblers and carpers and snarlers did not count in the general and genial applause that our youth gave to mellifluous numbers and lovely love, and the thousand beautiful things and thoughts that make this poor life of ours seem for a season Elysium. So they feasted and prattled, and I turn to another theme.

If the meaning of what Messer Dante said and the meaning of what Messer Dante did was plain and over-plain to Messer Folco, it was surely in the very nature of things no less plain to his daughter. To her, at least, there can have been no riddle to read in the young man's words, in the young man's actions. Love, splendid and fierce and humble, reigned in the glowing words that he read, ruled his failing voice, swayed his reeling figure. She could not question the identity of the Blessed One whose beauty made the singer sacrilegious in the white-heat of his devotion. She could not misinterpret the significance of the abandoned parchment lying discarded where it had fallen on the floor while the [Pg 168]reciter, with his sad eyes fixed upon her face, repeated so familiarly the words which he was supposed never to have seen. For Beatrice, Dante of the Alighieri was the author of the ballad in praise of fair Florentines; for her he was the unknown poet whose fame had flamed through Florence, and she was the lady that was praised with words of such enchanting sweetness in his songs.

While the guests were going toward the banquet as brisk as bees to blossoms, Dante caught me by the hand and drew me apart, and entreated me to seek speech with Beatrice, and to entreat her to grant him an interview in private that very night. He dared not, so he said, approach her himself, in the first place because the doing so might prove too noticeable after what had occurred, and, in the second place, because he feared that she had some cause of complaint against him, seeing that she had of late refused him her salutation. He bade me urge her very strenuously to grant his prayer, for his soul's sake and his body's sake, that he might live and not die.

Since I was ever willing to serve my friend, I agreed to do this thing, and so left him to the care of Messer Guido, who came up on that instant and addressed him in very loving terms, charging him with being indeed the poet whose name they had sought so long. Dante not denying this, as indeed [Pg 169]denial would have been idle, even if Dante had been willing, as indeed he never was, to utter such a falsehood, saying that he had not done that which he had done, Messer Guido began to praise him in such glowing words as would have made another man happy. But for Dante happiness lay only in the kind thoughts of his lady, and the very shaft of his ambition was only to please her. He listened very quietly while Messer Guido praised him so highly, and I, for my part, set about performing the task with which he had intrusted me.

I did not know at the time, though I learned it later, that my mission, if not forestalled, had in very truth been rendered much easier by the action of another. That masked youth I told you of, who would needs have Dante read his own poem that none there knew for his, was no other a person than Monna Vittoria. Vittoria had ever a freakish humor for slipping into man's apparel, which some of her friends found diverting and others not, as the mood took them. Madonna Vittoria took it into her head that she would be present at Messer Folco's festival, and to do so was easy enough for her when once she had clothed her shapely body in the habit of a cavalier, and flung a colored cloak about her, and curled her locks up under a cap, and clapped a vizard upon her face. She went to Messer Folco's house for this reason most of all, that she meant to speak with Madonna Beatrice, a thing not [Pg 170]ordinarily very easy to come at for such as she. Indeed, there was no risk for her of discovery, doing what she did in the way she did, with a man's jacket on her back and a man's hose upon her legs.

She came, as it seems, upon Beatrice in the early hours of the festival, having bided her time till she should find Folco's daughter alone or nearly so, and then and there addressed her earnestly with a request for some private speech. In such a season of merry-making the request did not come so strangely from a masked youth as to seem either insolent or unfitting. But Beatrice knew at once that the voice was a woman's, and so said, smilingly, as she drew a little apart with her challenger. Then it appears that Vittoria unmasked and named herself, and that Beatrice looked at her very steadily and gravely, and said no more than this: "I have heard of you. You are very beautiful," the which words, as Vittoria told me later, gave her a greater pleasure than any she had ever tasted from the praises of men's lips.

Vittoria said, "If you have heard of me, perhaps you will think that I should not be here and seeking speech with you."

To which Beatrice answered, very sweetly, that it was no part of the law of her life to deny hearing to one that wished for speech with her, and while she spoke she was still smiling kindly, and there was no anger in her eyes and no scorn, but only a [Pg 171]kind of sad wonder. Then Vittoria said that she had made bold to do what she did for the sake of a friend and for the sake of Beatrice herself. Thereat the manner of Beatrice, albeit still courteous, grew colder, and she answered that she did not know how the doings of any friend of Vittoria's could concern her, and Vittoria knew that she guessed who the friend was.

Vittoria said, "The friend of whom I speak, the friend whom I would serve with you, is not and never has been more than my friend."

At this Beatrice made a gesture as if to silence her and a movement as if to leave her.

But Vittoria barred her way and delayed her entreatingly, saying, "Do not scorn me because I am what I am."

Whom, thus entreated, Madonna Beatrice answered, very gently: "Indeed, I do not scorn you for being what your are. I will not even say that I do not understand you, for I have it in my heart that a woman must always understand a woman, however different the way of the one may be from the way of the other. And it might very well have happened, if our upbringings had been other, that you were as I am and I as you."

Vittoria answered: "I think not so, for God has so made you that you would never care for the things I care for, and God has so made me that I should always care for them."

[Pg 172]

Beatrice replied: "Very well, then; let us leave the matter with God, who made us, and say to me what you wish to say."

Then Vittoria told Beatrice of Dante, how he was devoted soul and body to Beatrice, and how it was only in consequence of Vittoria's well-meant but ill-proving advice that he at all sought her society. She told how she had given that advice to save the youth from the hatred of Simone, but had not told him this, telling him rather that by so doing he would keep his love for Beatrice a secret from the world. Then the paleness of Beatrice changed for a little to a soft red, and Vittoria saw that she believed, and kissed her hand and left her. Thus it came about that my labor was already lightened, though I knew it not when I set out to seek for Beatrice on behalf of my friend.

The good chance that sometimes favors the ambassadors of Love served me in good stead very presently by affording me occasion to approach Madonna Beatrice and engage her in speech, for she was ever courteous in her bearing toward her father's guests. After we had discoursed for a brief while on trifles, I, finding that where we stood and talked I might speak with little fear of being overheard, straightway disclosed my mission to her, and delivered my errand, putting it, as I think, in words no less apt than choice, and making a very proper plea for my friend, presenting, indeed, his [Pg 173]petition so well that, though I say it who, perhaps, should not say it, I do not think that he could have done it any better himself. I made bold to add that my friend went in fear that he had in some way offended her, but that I was very sure he would be able to excuse himself to her eyes if only she would afford him the opportunity to do so.

Madonna Beatrice listened to me very quietly while I delivered myself of my message and of such embroideries of my own as I saw fit to tag on to its original simplicity, and though I thought I could discern that she was affected not unkindly toward my friend, in spite of whatever fault he might have committed, she did not in any way change color or display any other of those signals by which ladies are accustomed to make manifest their agitation when any whisper of love business is in the air. When I had finished, she did no more at first than to ask me if, indeed, Messer Dante was the unknown poet who had so delighted Florence.

To which question I made answer that the truth was indeed so, at which assurance she seemed to me at first to smile, and then to look sad, and then to smile again. But when I was beginning to utter some golden words in the praise of my friend's verses, she very sweetly but very surely cut my compliments short, and gave me the answer to my embassy.

"Tell Messer Dante," she said, "that he is so [Pg 174]great a poet that it were scarcely gracious for me to refuse him the favor he asks, though, indeed, he must know as well as I know that it is no small favor. It is not perhaps fitting, and it certainly is not easy, for a maiden to accord a lonely meeting to a youth, even when that youth has some reason to call himself the maiden's friend. But I shall retire before this festival comes to an end, and I shall walk awhile on the loggia above in the moonlight and the sweet air before going to my sleep. If he will come to me there I will speak with him and hear him speak for a little while. Tell him I do this for the sake of his verses."

Therewith she made me a suave salutation and turned to speak to another, and I, finding myself thus amiably dismissed, and being very well satisfied with the fruits of my enterprise, bowed very lowly before her, and turned and went my ways, seeking my friend. Soon I found him with many youths and elders about him, all as eager as Guido had been to congratulate him on what he had done. But if Dante seemed pleased to hear their praises, as it was only right he should seem pleased, he showed still greater pleasure in beholding me and reading the message of my smiling face.

He made some excuse for quitting his company and drawing apart with me, and when he had heard what I had got to say, I think that he looked the happiest man that I had ever seen. "Heaven bless [Pg 175]my lady Beatrice for her sovereign grace," he said, very softly and earnestly, and then he wrung me very hard by the hand, and left me and went back to his admirers, and thereafter, during the progress of the night's pleasures, I saw him move and take his share with an unwonted brightness of countenance and mirthfulness of bearing, and I was glad with all my heart to see him so cheerful.

Indeed, that was a cheering time, and the man or woman would have been hard to please who found nothing to delight or to amuse at Messer Folco's festival. To speak for myself, I had never known better diversion. There was a whole world of pretty women assembled within Messer Folco's walls, and I may as well confess here, if I have not confessed it already, that I take great delectation in the companionship of pretty women. How many little hands, I wonder, did I press that night, with the tenderest protestations? How many kisses, I wonder, did I venture to steal, or, rather, pretend to steal? for I swear the dainty rogues met me half way in the matter of the robbery. Well, well, it was all very merry and pleasant, and we feasted very gayly, and we danced very nimbly, and we wandered in the green glooms of the garden, and then we feasted anew, and after that we set to work to dancing in good earnest. Save for a few, we all danced and danced and danced again, as if we could dance the world back into its young-time.


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