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XIV MESSER SIMONE SPOILS SPORT
The dance was at the very top of its progress; all the youths and maidens were bright and smiling; the musicians scraped and plucked like mad, and the strings quivered with happy melody. All about against the wall the elders ranged at gaze, recalling wistfully or cheerfully, according to their temperaments, the days when they, too, tripped lightly to music and made love in a measure, and some old toes ached for a caper. While the mirth was at its blithest there suddenly came an interruption to the gayety, and in a twink, one knew not how, the dance that had been so jovial and harmonious seemed suddenly resolved into its individual elements, so many youths and men, and so many maids and matrons staring at the thing that had thus suddenly marred their pleasure. I, that had been placed by chance at a post in the dance the most removed from the main door of the apartment, was not at first aware of what had caused the commotion among the dancers; I was only aware of the commotion and the pause in the [Pg 177]dancing and the knowledge that the faces of those near to me showed surprise or fear or wonder, according to their instinct. Meanwhile the musicians in their gallery, knowing nothing of any reason why they should stop, were still twitching their strings busily, though no one marked them and no one danced to their music. But I, being resolved to argue, as it were, from the effect to the cause, pushed my way through the men and women that were huddled together in my neighborhood, and then I came to an open space of the floor, and face to face, at a distance, with the cause of the disturbance.

This cause was Messer Simone dei Bardi, who was standing in the centre of the room with Messer Folco Portinari and other grave elders about him, and he was talking in a loud voice, as it were, to them in particular, but also in general to the assembled company. Now, I had never in all my life felt any kindly liking for Messer Simone, but I had to confess to myself that he cut something of a flourishing figure just then and just there. While all of us that were gathered under Messer Folco's roof were habited in our best bravery of velvets and soft stuffs and furs and such gold trinkets and jewels as it were in our power to display, and so looked very frivolous and foppish and at ease, Messer Simone dei Bardi came among us clad as a soldier-citizen of a great Republic should be clad [Pg 178]in time of danger to his nation. His huge bulk was built about in steel, a great sword swung at his side, and though his head was bare, a page in his livery stood close behind him resting his master's helmet in the bend of his arm. So lapped in mail, so menacing in carriage, Simone might have seemed some truculent effigy of the god Mars suddenly appearing from the riven earth in a pastoral gallantry of shepherds and shepherdesses.

What he was saying he was saying very clearly with the purpose that all should hear, and I among the rest benefited by what he said. It was to this effect: that our enemies the Aretines were planning a secret stroke at Florence, knowledge of which had come to his patriotic ears; and according to the estimation of his mind, it was no time for Florentine citizens to be singing and dancing and making merry when there was a stroke to be struck with a strong hand against her enemies.

These bellicose words of Messer Simone found their immediate echo in the hearts of all men present; for to do us Florentines justice, we have never loved frolicking so much that we did not like fighting a great deal better, and we have never had private business or private pleasure which we were not ready at a moment's notice to thrust on one side when the great bell of the city sounded its warning of danger to the Republic. So for the immediate time Messer Simone was the hour's hero, [Pg 179]and dancing and banqueting and laughing and love-making were clean forgotten, and every youth and every mature man there present, and, for that matter, every elder, too, was eager to ring himself in steel and to teach the devils of Arezzo of what stuff a Florentine citizen was made. I must honestly and soberly confess that I myself was so readily intoxicated with the heady wine of the excitement about me that I found myself cheering and shouting as lustily as the rest, for the which I do not blame myself, and that I found myself for the moment regarding Messer Simone dei Bardi as a kind of hero, for the which I severely blame myself even now, after all this lapse of years.

When Messer Simone found that he had got the company, so to speak, in the hollow of his hands, he was silent for a little while, looking about him sharply, as if he were making sure of the courage and enthusiasm of his fellow-citizens, and seeking to find in the press of flushed and eager faces any countenance that seemed unwilling to answer to his call. All about him the elders of the city were gathered giving and taking counsel, giving, I think for the most part, more readily than taking, and hurriedly revolving in their minds what were best to do for the city in the crisis that Messer Simone had made plain to them. While these deliberations went on, we that had been dancing danced no longer, nor had desire to dance, and though some [Pg 180]talked among themselves, the main kept silence, for the most part waiting upon events. By this time, my wits having grown cooler and my old distrust of Messer Simone being resuscitated, I scrutinized him closely as he stood there in his steel coats, the centre figure of the assembly.

As I looked at Messer Simone where he stood there, girt with strength in every line of his body, in every curl of his crisp hair and short beard, in the watchful ferocity of his eyes, he seemed to me a kind of symbol of what man may be who is unlifted by any inspiration of divinity or tincture of letters from the common herd. In him brute strength, brutish desires, brutal passions were presented, so it seemed to my fancy, as a kind of warning to others of what man may be that is content to be merely man, with no higher thought in him than the gratification of his instincts and his impulses. I have heard tell in travellers' tales of strange lands, beneath fiercer suns than ours, where naked savages disport themselves with the lawless assurance of wild beasts, and it seemed to me—being always given to speculation—that Messer Simone, if he found himself in such a company, would never be at a loss, but would straightway be admitted to their ruffian fellowship. I think, indeed, he would be better suited for such companionship than for citizenship of the fair, the wise, the gifted, the civilized queen-city of Florence. But [Pg 181]even as such savages are reported to have, in place of a higher wit, such natural craft as Providence has implanted in the hearts of foxes and hyenas and other such wild beasts, so Messer Simone, for all his bestiality, could be cunning enough when it served his ends, as you shall presently learn.

In a little while Messer Simone began to speak again, and to tell his hearers of the plan which he had formed for the service of Florence and the confusion of her enemies. This plan, as you already know, was to be furthered by the enrollment of all such among the youth of Florence as desired to prove themselves true patriots into a body which was to be known by the high-sounding name of the Company of Death, the meaning of this title being that those who so enrolled themselves were prepared at any moment to give their lives for the advantage of the mother-city. Messer Simone's plan had, as we now learned, been applauded by all the magnates, such as Messer Corso Donati and Messer Vieri dei Cerchi, and had received the approval of the priors of the city. As the scheme was due to Messer Simone, it was agreed on all hands that he should be its leader so long as the Republic of Florence was in a state of war. Whoever had taught him his lesson, Messer Simone had learned it creditably enough. He talked well, and while you listened to him it was hard not to feel that the Company of Death was indeed a very noble and [Pg 182]hopeful thought, and that it might very well be the duty of all honorable patriots to join it. But such thoughts might have cooled off under reflection and deliberation if Messer Simone had not been at the pains to prevent reflection and deliberation by a cunning stroke of policy.

So he pitched his loud voice some notes higher, bellowing like a bull of Bashan as he rolled off sonorous sentences very deftly learned and remembered, in which glory and the service of the state and the example of old Rome were cleverly compounded into a most patriotic pasty. Even as he was in the thick of his speaking there came a flourish of trumpets at the door, and to the sound of that music there came into the room a brace of pages that were habited in cloth of gold, and that bore on their breasts the badge that showed them to be the servants of Messer Simone. This pair of pages carried between them a mighty gold charger, and on this charger lay a huge book of white vellum that was bound and clasped in gold. These pages were followed by other two pages, one of whom carried ink in a great golden ink-horn and sand in a golden basin, while the other bore a kind of golden quiver that was stuffed full, not indeed of arrows, but of quills of the gray goose. When this little company of pages had come anigh to Messer Simone, who seemed to greet their approach with great satisfaction, the pages that carried [Pg 183]the book stood before their master, and Simone, stooping to the charger, unclasped the great book and flung it open and showed that its leaves were white and fair. The book-bearers supported the book so open, on the charger, making themselves into a living desk, and he that carried the ink and sand and he that carried the quills came alongside of them, and stood quietly, waiting for their work to begin.

Then Messer Simone struck with his open palm upon the smooth, fair parchment, and cried aloud that in time to come this book would prove to be one of the city's most precious possessions, for it was to be the abiding record of those noble-souled patriots who had enrolled their names upon the roll-call of the Company of Death. And he said again that such a book would be, indeed, a catalogue of heroes; and after much more talk to this purpose, he called upon all those present that had high hearts and loved their mother-city to come forward and inscribe their names, to their own eternal honor, upon the pages of the there presented volume.

Now at this there came a great shout of applause from many that listened to Messer Simone, and because men in such an assemblage, at such an hour, in such a mood of merry-making, are little likely to prove thoughtful critics of what may be said by a big voice using big words, it seemed to many of [Pg 184]those there standing that Messer Simone's scheme of the Company of Death was the best that had ever been schemed for the salvation of the city, and that to write one's name on the pages of Messer Simone's book was the noblest duty and proudest privilege of a true citizen.

There was a great hurrying and scurrying on the part of those that stood around to get to the book and borrow quill and ink from the attendant pages, and be among the earliest to deserve the honorable immortality that Messer Simone promised. There were certain restrictions, so Messer Simone explained, attendant upon the formation of the Company of Death. Its members must be young men of no less than eighteen and no more than thirty years of age. You will bear in mind that Messer Dante was but just turned eighteen, and that Messer Guido was in his eight-and-twentieth year. But no one thought of that at the time, not even I, though it showed plain enough to me afterward. Furthermore, the Companions were to be all unmarried men, such as therefore were free to dedicate their lives to the cause of their country with a readiness that was not to be expected or called for from men that had wives and families.

While Messer Simone thus explained, youth after youth of the young gentlemen of Florence, both of the Reds and of the Yellows, came forward and wrote their names with great zeal and many [Pg 185]flourishes on the smooth, white parchment, and soon the white leaves began to be covered thick with names, and still the would-be votaries came crowding about the ink-bearer and the pen-bearer, and catching at the quills and dipping them in the ink. As fast as a sheet was filled the attendant would spill a stream of golden sand over the wet inscription and make ready a fresh sheet for the feverish enthusiasm of the signatories.

After a while Messer Simone called a halt in the business of signing, and now he began to speak anew, and though his voice was rough and harsh from all the talk that he had talked before, and though he rather growled his words than gave them liberal utterance, yet what he said was what he wanted to say, and came from his black heart with a very damnable aptness. He was speaking in the praise of those Florentine youths that had first enrolled their names in the book of the Company of Death, and he was praising them ostentatiously for their valor and their patriotism, and yet while he praised, I, listening, thought that his praises were not very good to get, though some share of them was due to me who had written my name on the pages of the big book, partly because I had drunk much wine, and partly because I could never resist the contagion of any enthusiasm, and partly because the pretty girl that was by my side—I forget her name now—egged me on to the folly.

[Pg 186]

After Simone had made an end of his laudations, he came to speak with a rough scorn of those that were content to show their devotion to their mother-city by no greater sacrifice than the serving to defend her in case of an attack. While he spoke I could see that his eyes were fixed upon the face of Dante, where he stood a little apart and watched and listened. I had lost thought of Dante in my merry-makings and lost sight of him in the hurly-burly, and now suddenly I saw him leaning against a pillar a little apart, and looking at the eager crowd of youths and Simone that was its central figure. If I had been a painter like Messer Giotto it would have pleased me to paint in the same picture the faces of those two men, the one no more than beastly flesh, and the other, as it seemed to me, the iron lamp in which a sacred spirit burned unceasingly, purifying with its glowing flame the human tabernacle. Then Messer Simone gave a short laugh, and said, mockingly, that such stay-at-home tactics were well enough for puling fellows that liked to lie snug behind city walls and write puling sonnets, and would rather be busy with such petty business than risk their fine skins in brisk adventures.

Now, as for the taunt in Messer Simone's speech, it was, as who should say, an arrow that might have been aimed at the heart of many there, even at my own poor heart, for I was myself an indifferent poet, as you know by this time if you have not [Pg 187]known it before. But I knew that Messer Simone had no thought of me when he spoke, for indeed I do not think he thought of me at all, and for my part I thought of him as little as I could help, for I have no love for ugliness. Messer Guido Cavalcanti, who was also there, he, too, was a poet, and a great poet, but it was not of him that Messer Simone spoke, and if it had been it would not have mattered, for Messer Guido would have cared no whit for what Messer Simone said of him or thought of him, and now as Simone spoke, Guido only stood there and laughed in his face, swaying gently with the laughter.

Messer Guido despised Simone dei Bardi, thinking him, what indeed he was, a vulgar fellow, and making no concealment of his thought, and what Messer Guido thought counted in Florence in those days, for he came of a great race and was himself a very free-hearted and noble gentleman, against whom no man had anything to say save this, that it was whispered that he did not believe as a devout man should believe. This tale, for my part, I hold to be exaggeration, thinking that Messer Guido, in the curious clarity and balance of his mind, was less of a sceptic than of a man who should say, standing in a strange country, "I do not know whither my road shall lead me, and therefore I will not say that I do know."

Anyway, it was not with Messer Guido Cavalcanti [Pg 188]that Messer Simone dei Bardi would have chosen to quarrel, unless the quarrel were forced upon him, and then I will do him the justice to say that he would have fought for his cause like the untameable male thing he was. But he had set his eyes evilly upon Messer Dante while he had been speaking, and he kept them fixed on Messer Dante's face now that he had made an end of speaking. I saw that Dante's face flushed a little, even to the hair above the high forehead, and his eyes for a moment seemed to widen and brighten like those of some fierce, brave bird. Then he pushed his way to the front of the company and looked up at Simone steadfastly, and his arms were still folded across his body and his sharp-featured face was tense with suppressed rage, and he spoke very quickly but clearly, too, for all the quickness of his words.

What he said was to this effect: "Messer Simone, I thank Heaven that it may be possible for a man to write verses in the praise of his sweet lady and to draw sword in the service of his sweet city. Because I think that no man can honor his lady better than in honoring the city that is blessed in giving her birth and blessed in sheltering her beauty, I hereby very cheerfully and joyously give my name to be written on the list of the Company of Death."

Thereat there was a great cheering and shouting on the part of the younger men, and they gathered [Pg 189]about Dante, hotly applauding him. My heart was heavy within me, for I looked at the face of Simone dei Bardi and saw that it shone with pleasure, and I looked at the face of Guido Cavalcanti and saw that it was gray with pain, and I knew that Messer Simone had gained his purpose. As I looked from face to face of the two men that made such ill-matched enemies, Messer Guido Cavalcanti came forward, and, taking a quill from him that held them, wrote his name on the book of the Company of Death, just below the name of Dante.


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