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XV A SPY IN THE NIGHT
Messer Simone had in his service, as you know already who have read this record of mine, a fellow named Maleotti that was of great use to his master—a brisk, insidious villain that was ever on good terms with all the world, and never on such good terms with a man as when he was minded to do him an ill turn, assuming, of course, that such ill turn was to his own advantage or in the service of his master, Messer Simone dei Bardi. To Messer Simone this fellow Maleotti was altogether devoted, as, indeed, he had a right to be, for Simone was a good paymaster to all those that served him, and he knew the value of Maleotti's tongue when it had a lying tale to tell, and Maleotti's hand when it had a knife in it and a man to be killed standing or lying near to its point.

This Maleotti wisely, from his point of view, made it his business not merely to serve Messer Simone to the best of his ability in those things in which Messer Simone directly demanded his obedience and intelligence, but he also was quick [Pg 191]to be of use to him in matters concerning which Messer Simone was either ignorant or gave no direct instructions. It was Maleotti's pleasure to mingle amid crowds and overhear talk, on the chance of gleaning some knowledge which might be serviceable to his patron, and, indeed, in this way it was said that he had heard not a few things spoken heedlessly about Messer Simone which were duly carried to Messer Simone's ears, and wrought their speakers much mischief. Also he would, if he could find himself in company where his person and service were unknown, in the wine-house or elsewhere, endeavor to engage those about him in conversation which he would ever lead deftly to the subject of his master and his master's purpose, and so win by a side wind, as it were, a knowledge of Florentine opinion that more than once had been valuable to Simone.

Now it had occurred to this fellow, since the beginning of the feud between Simone dei Bardi and Dante dei Alighieri, that it would be to his master's advantage, and to his own, if thereby he pleased his master, that he should set himself to spy upon Messer Dante and keep him as frequently as might be under his eye. It was thus that Messer Simone came to know—what, indeed, was no secret—that our Dante had devoted himself very busily to the practice of arms, and was making great progress therein. But this information, as I [Pg 192]learned afterward, did little more than to tickle Messer Simone and make him grin, for he believed that he was invincible in arms, and that no man could stand against him, in which belief he was somewhat excused by his long record of successes, and it seemed to him no more than a sorry joke that a lad and a scholar like Dante should really pit his pigmy self against Simone's giantship. It was no information of Maleotti's that told Simone the truth about the unknown poet. That, as you know, he found out for himself, and if he did but despise any skill that Dante might attain in arms, he had the clumsy man's horror of the thing he could not understand, of the art of weaving words together to praise fair ladies and win their hearts. Maleotti did not know what his master knew, therefore, about Dante, but he came to know it on this night. For Maleotti was among the hearers when Dante, yielding to Messer Guide's insistence, consented to read the verses of the unknown poet, and his quick eyes had been as keen as Messer Guido's to understand the meaning of Dante's change of voice and color when Madonna Beatrice came into the room.

Now this fellow Maleotti, having, as it seems, nothing better to do with his petty existence, must have judged, after this discovery, that it might please his master in some fashion to keep an eye upon Messer Dante what time he was the guest of [Pg 193]Messer Folco of the Portinari on that evening of high summer. And I believe it to be little less than certain that he must have observed the meeting and the greeting between Monna Beatrice and me, although it is no less certain that he could have heard none of our speech. So when our speech, whatever it was, for it was all nothing to Maleotti, had come to an end, and I had glided quietly away from Madonna Beatrice and carried her message to my friend, the Maleotti rascal still continued his observation of Messer Dante and his actions.

As I learned afterward from one to whom Maleotti told the matter, he saw at a later hour Messer Dante linger for a while in the garden as one that is lost in thought. Maleotti swore that he seemed all of a sudden to stiffen where he stood, even as a man in a catalepsy might do, and that he stood so rigid and tense for the space, as it seemed to Maleotti, of several minutes, though why he stood so or what the cause of his immobility this Maleotti could in nowise conjecture. I, of course, know very well that this was one of the moments when the God of Love made itself manifest to him. But after a while, as he affirmed that told it to me, Messer Dante seemed to shake off the trance or whatever it was that held him possessed, and then, moving with the strange steadiness of one that walks in his sleep, made through the most lonely part of the garden for that wing of the house of [Pg 194]Messer Folco where Madonna Beatrice was lodged. Maleotti, creeping very stealthily at his heels, saw how he came, after a space, to a little gate in the wall, and how, as it seemed to Maleotti, the gate lay open before him, and how Messer Dante straightway passed through the open gateway and so out of his sight.

Now Maleotti, who was as familiar with the house of Messer Folco as he was with his own garret in the dwelling of Messer Simone dei Bardi, knew that this gateway gave on a winding flight of stairs that led to an open loggia, on the farther side of which lay the door of Madonna Beatrice's apartments. Whereupon it pleased this Maleotti, putting two and two together, after the manner of his kind, and making God knows what of them, to be quick with villanous suspicions and to be pricked with a violent desire to let his master know what had happened, partly, as I believe, knowing the vile nature of the man, because he thought the knowledge he had to impart might prove a little galling to his master. However that may be, for in his damnable way he was a faithful servant to his lord, he waited awhile until he saw that Beatrice walked on the loggia and that Dante came to her, and that she seemed to greet him as one expected. Now it taxes no more the wit of a rogue than the wit of an honest man to guess that when two young people stand apart and talk, it is God's [Pg 195]gold to the devil's silver that they talk love-talk. So as Maleotti had seen enough, and durst not go nearer to hear aught, he made his way back as swiftly as he could through the green and silent garden to the noisy rooms within the house where folk still were dancing and singing and eating and drinking and making merry, as if they knew not when they should be merry again.

High at the table Maleotti spied his master, Messer Simone. He had now disarmed, and sat, very big with meat and drink and very red of face, talking loudly to a company of obsequious gentlemen who thought, or seemed to think, his utterances oracular. A good way off, at the head of his own table, sat Messer Folco, grave and gray and smiling, his one thought seeming to be that those that came under his roof should be happy in their own way, so long as that way accorded with the decorum expected of Florentine citizens. I fancy that his glance must have fallen more than once, and that unadmiringly, upon that part of the table where Messer Simone sat and babbled and brawled and drank, as if drinking were a new fashion which he was resolved to test to the uttermost. Messer Simone, being such a mighty giant of a man, was appropriately mighty in his appetites, and could, I truly believe, eat more and drink more, and in other animal ways enjoy himself more, than any man in all Italy. But though he would, and often [Pg 196]did, drink himself drunk at the feasts where he was a guest, as very notably in that case where he made his wager with Monna Vittoria, he could, if need were, and if occasion called for the use of his activities, shake off the stupor of wine and the lethargy of gluttony and be ready for any business that was fitted to the limitations of his intelligence and the strength of his arms.

Such ways as Messer Simone's, however, were distasteful to the major part of our Florentine gentry, who always cherished a certain decorum in their bodily pleasures and admired a certain restraint at table, and what they approved was naturally even more highly esteemed and commended by Messer Folco Portinari, who was very fastidious in all his public commerce with the world, and punctilious in the observance of the laws and doctrines of good manners. How such a man could ever have consented to consider Messer Simone for a single moment as a suitor for his daughter passes my understanding. But Messer Simone was rich and powerful and of a great house, and Messer Folco loved riches and power and good birth as dearly as ever a woman loved jewels.

However that may be, our Maleotti got near to Simone, and after trying unavailingly to catch the attention of his eye, made so bold as to come hard by him and to pluck him by the sleeve of his doublet once or twice. This failing to stir Messer Simone, [Pg 197]who was thorough in his cups, Maleotti spurred his resolve a pace further, and first whispered and then shrieked a call into Messer Simone's ear. The whisper Messer Simone passed unheeded, the shriek roused him. He turned in his seat with an oath, and, gripping Maleotti by the shoulder, peered ferociously into his face. Then, for all his drinking, being clear-headed enough to recognize his henchman's countenance, he realized that the fellow might have some immediate business with him, and, relaxing his grip, he asked Maleotti none too affably what he wanted. Thereupon, Maleotti explained that he needed some private speech with his master, and very anxiously and urgently beckoned to him to quit the table and to come apart, the which thing Messer Simone very unwillingly, and volubly cursing, did.

But when he had risen from the table and quitted the circle of the revellers, and stood quite apart from curious ears, if any curious ears there were, his manner changed as he listened to the hurried story that Maleotti had to tell him. The news, as it filtered through his wine-clogged brain, seemed to clarify his senses and quicken his wits. He was, as I guess, no longer the truculent, wine-soaked ruffian, but all of a sudden the man of action, as alert and responsive as if some one had come to tell him that the enemy were thundering at the city's gates. He asked Maleotti, as I understand, if he were very [Pg 198]sure of what he said and of what he saw, and when Maleotti persisted in his statement, Messer Simone fell for a while into a musing mood that was no stupor of intoxication. Once or twice he made as if to speak to his fellow, and then paused to think again, and it was not until after some minutes that he finally decided upon his course of action.

I think it would have pleased Messer Simone best if this spying creature of his had waited for Dante when he came from his meeting, and stabbed him as he passed. But he thought, as I believe, that what had not been done by the man might very well be done by the master, and with that, as I conceive, for his most immediate intention, he had Maleotti wait for him in the garden. There in a little while he joined him, and the two went together toward the part of the palace where Beatrice had her dwelling. But when they came to the gateway beneath the loggia where Beatrice had talked with Dante, the lovers had parted, and Dante had gone his ways and Beatrice had returned to her rooms. Then Messer Simone turned to his follower and bade him hasten to Messer Folco, where he sat at his wine, and get his private ear, and tell him that a man was having speech with his daughter on the threshold of her apartments. Messer Simone knew well enough how great an effect such a piece of news would have upon the austere nature of his host, and I make no doubt [Pg 199]that his red face grinned in the moonlight as he dispatched his fellow upon his errand. When Maleotti had gone, Messer Simone slowly ascended the staircase that conducted to the loggia, and concealed himself very effectually behind a pillar in a dark corner hard by the door of Beatrice's rooms.

I have stood upon that loggia in later years, and looked out upon Florence when all the colors of summer were gay about the city. I know that the prospect is as fair as man could desire to behold, and I know that there was one exiled heart which ached to be denied that prospect and who died in exile denied it forever. I dare swear that his latest thoughts carried him back to that moon-lit night of July when he made bold to climb the private stair and seek private speech with Madonna Beatrice. I can guess very well how the scene showed that night in the moonbeams—all the city stretched out below, a harlequin's coat of black and silver, according to the disposition of the homes and the open spaces with their lights and shadows. I can fancy how, through the gilded air, came the cheerful sounds of the dancing and the luting and the laughter and the festival, and how all Florence seemed to be, as it were, one wonderful, perfect flower of warmth and color and joy.

It is all very long ago, this time of which I write, and it may very well be that I exaggerate its raptures, as they say—though in this I do not agree—is [Pg 200]the way with elders when they recall the sweet, honey-tinted, honey-tasting days of their youth. It would not be possible for any man to overpraise the glories and beauties of Florence in those days. Those glories, as I think, may be said to have come to an end with the Jubilee of His Holiness Pope Boniface the Eighth, the poor pope who was said to be killed by command of the French king, but who, as I have heard tell, escaped from that fate and died a nameless hermit in a forest of Greece.

However that may be, I am glad to think, for all that I am now so chastened, and for all that I have learned patience, that I can recall so clearly that pillared place with the moonbeams dappling the marble, and can rekindle in my withered anatomy something of the noble fire that burned in the heart of Dante, as he stood there in his youth and his hope and his love, and looked into the eyes of his marvellous lady. Also, I am glad to think that I know much of the words that passed between the youth and the maid in that hour, and if not their exact substance, at least their purport. For though Dante never made confidence to me of a matter so sacred as the speech exchanged at such an interview, yet he spoke of it to Messer Guido, whom, after he had entered into terms of friendship with him, he loved and trusted, very rightly, better than me. Also—for that was his way—he set much [Pg 201]of that night's discourse into the form of a song which he gave to Messer Guido. Messer Guido, before his melancholy end, over which, as I believe, the Muses still weep, knowing how great a concern I had in the doings of Messer Dante, told me with great clarity the essence of what Dante had told to him, and showed me the poem, not only allowing me to read it, but granting me permission, if it so pleased me, to take a copy. This, indeed, I should have done, but being, as I always have been, a lazy knave, I neglected to do, thinking that any time would serve as well as the present, and being, as I fear, entangled in some pleasant pastime with a light o' love or two that interfered with such serious interests as I owned in life, and of which certainly none should have been more serious than any matter concerning my dear friend and poet. Then, when it was too late for me to amend my error, came Messer Guido's death, and no man knows now what became of those verses.

As for me, I cannot remember them, try I never so hard to cudgel my brains for their meaning and sequence. Sometimes, indeed, at night, in sleep, I seem to see them plain and staring before me on a smooth page of parchment, every word clear, every rhyme legible, the beautiful thoughts set forth in a beautiful hand of write; but when I wake they have all vanished. Sometimes on an evening of late summer, when the winds are blowing softly [Pg 202]through the roses and filling the air with odors almost unbearably sweet, it seems to me as if the sweet voices of lovers were chanting those lines, and that I have only to listen heedfully to have them for my own again. But it is all in vain that I try to remember them to any profit. A few phrases buzz in my own brains, but they are no more than phrases, such as I, or any man that was at all nimble in the spinning of words, might use about love and a sweet lady, and there are not enough of them left to build up again the noble structure of so splendid a vision.

Well, as I say, Messer Dante, having quitted the festivity, made his way into the garden, where he lingered a little while. Then it seemed to him that the God of Love appeared to him in the same form as before, only more glorious, and bade him follow, and he went, guided, as it seemed to him, ever by that strange and luminous presence through this path and that path, till he came to the appointed staircase and climbed it, following ever the winged feet of Love. When he came to the top of the stairway he passed through a little door on to the open, moon-drenched loggia, and straightway his first thought was that he beheld the stars, seeing that they seemed to him to shine so very brightly in heaven after the blackness of the darkness through which he had passed. And I think it must be some memory of that night which has made [Pg 203]him thrice record with much significant insistence his beholding of the stars.

In the mingled moonlight and starlight of the loggia the figure of the God of Love showed, he said, as clearly to his eyes as when he had ascended the winding stair, albeit differently, for whereas in the darkness the shape of Love had appeared to him luminous and fluttering, as if it had been composed of many living and tinted fires, now in the clear light of that open space it showed more like a bodily presence, not human indeed, but wearing such humanity as it pleased the gods of old time to assume when they condescended to commune with mortals. I remember how he said, in the poem which I spoke of, that he could have counted, had he the leisure, every feather in Love's wings. But the god, or the vision which he took to be a god, gave him no such leisure, for he came to a halt, and he had his arrow in his hand, and with that arrow he pointed before him, and then the image of the God of Love melted into the moonlight and vanished, and the glory of the stars was forgotten, and Dante knew of nothing and cared for nothing but that his lady Beatrice stood there awaiting him.



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