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XVI THE TALK OF LOVERS
When Dante came to the loggia it was very white in the moonlight, save where the shadows of the marble pillars barred it with bands of black. Amid the moonlight and the shade Beatrice walked, and waited for his coming. When she heard his footsteps she came to a halt in her course, and he, as he advanced, could see the shining of her eyes and the quickened color of her cheeks; and it seemed to him in his rapture that he did not move as mortals do, but that he went on winged feet toward that vision of perfect loveliness. But when he came nigh to her, so near that if he had stretched out his arm he could have touched her with his hand, he stopped, and while he longed with all his soul to speak, the use of words seemed suddenly to be forbidden to him, and his members began to tremble again, as they had trembled before, when he came to an end of reading the poem.

Madonna Beatrice saw the case he was in, and her heart pitied him, and, perchance, she marvelled that Dante, who carried himself so valiantly and [Pg 205]could make songs of such surpassing sweetness, should be so downcast and discomfited in the presence of her eighteen years. However that may be, she addressed him, and the sound of her voice fell very fresh and soft upon his ears, enriching the summer splendor of the night with its music as her beauty enhanced its glory with the glory of her bodily presence. "What have you to say to me," she asked, "that is so urgent that it cannot wait for the day?"

At this question Dante seemed to pluck up some courage—not much, indeed, but still a little; and he made bold to answer her after the manner that is called symbolic, and this, or something like this, is what he said:

"Madonna, I may compare myself to a man that is going on a journey very instantly, and since no man that rides out of a gate can say to himself very surely that he will ride in again, I have certain thoughts in my heart that clamor to make themselves known to you, and will not by any means be gainsaid if I can at all compass the way to utter them."

Beatrice smiled at him very kindly in the moonlight, for the youth in his voice appealed very earnestly to the youth in her heart, and it may be to a gaingiving that had also its lodging in her body and warned her of youth's briefness.

While she smiled she spoke. "Many would say [Pg 206]that I lacked modesty if they knew that I talked with you thus belated and unknown, but I think that I know you too well, though I know you so little, to have any doubt of your honesty and well-meaning."

At the kindness in her voice and the confidence of her trust Dante carried himself very straight and held his head very high for pride at her words, and he was so strangely happy that he was amazed to find himself even more happy than he had hoped to be in her presence.

With that blissful exaltation upon him, he addressed her again. "Lady, when a traveller takes the road, if he has possessions, and if he be a wise man, he makes him a will, which he leaves in safe hands, and he sets all his poor affairs in order as well as may be. And he leaves this possession to this kinsman, and that gift to that friend, till all that he has is properly allotted, so that his affairs may be straight if evil befall. But I, when I go upon a journey, have no greater estate than my heart to bequeath." He paused for a moment, watching her wistfully, and seeing that her face was changeless in the moonlight, showing no sign either of impatience or of tolerance, he spoke again, in a very low voice, asking her, "Have I your leave to go on with what I am hot to say?"

"You may go on," Beatrice answered him, and her voice seemed calm as she spoke.

[Pg 207]

But if Dante had known women better—if he had been like me, for instance—he would have known that, for all her show of calm, she was no less agitated than he who stood before her and adored her. But he only saw her divinely aloof and himself most humanly mortal. Yet he took courage from her permission to speak again. "Madonna, ever since that sacred day when you gave me the rose that I carry next my heart, my mind has had no other thought but of you, and my life no other purpose than to be worthy, if only in a little, of your esteem. Yet, for some reason unknown to me, you have of late, in any chance encounter, chosen to withdraw from me the solace of your salutation, and I grieve bitterly that this is so, though I know not why it is so."

"Let that pass," said Beatrice, gently, "and be as if it had not been. I had heard that you kept light company. Young men often do so, and it is no part of my duty to judge them. But you yourself, Messer Dante, invited my judgment, challenged my esteem, told me that for my sake you meant to do great things, prove yourself noble, a man I must admire. When, after all the fine-sounding promises, I found you counted by gossip as the companion of Vittoria, you need not wonder if I was disappointed, and if my disappointment showed itself plainly on my averted face."

"Madonna," Dante began, eagerly, but the girl [Pg 208]lifted her hand to check interruption, and Dante held his peace as the girl continued to speak.

"I know now that I was wrong in my reading of your deed; that what you did, you did for a reason that you believed to be both wise and good. Though I do not think that it is ever well for a true man to play an untrue part, yet I know that you acted thus in the thought of serving me. So let it pass, and be as if it had not been."

She was silent, and for a little while Dante was silent too, staring at her beautiful face and clasping his hands tightly together, as one that has much to say and knows not how to say it. Once and again his lips that parted to speak closed again, for if he rejoiced greatly to stand there in her presence and be free to speak his mind unimpeded, yet also he feared greatly lest the words he might utter should prove unworthy of this golden chance given him by Heaven.

But at length his longing conquered his alarm, and he spoke quickly. "Hear me, Beatrice," he pleaded. "My heart is young, and I will never be so vain as to swear that it is untainted by the folly of youth, or free from the pride of youth, or clean of the greed of youth. But now it is swept and garnished, made as a fair shrine for a divine idol, for a woman, for a girl, for an angel—for you!"

Beatrice looked very steadfastly upon the eager face of her lover while she listened to his eager [Pg 209]words, and when he paused she began to murmur very softly the opening lines of one of the sonnets that Dante had written in those days of his secrecy:
"The lady that is angel of my heart, She knows not of my love and may not know—"

She stopped and looked at Dante as if she questioned him, and Dante answered her by carrying on the lines:
"Until God's finger gives the sign to show That I to her the secret may impart."

He paused for a moment, rejoicing to think that she had so far cherished his verses; then he went on, eagerly: "God's finger gives me the sign to-night, and I will speak, lest I die with the message of my soul undelivered. I love you." It seemed to him that she must needs hear the fierce beatings of his heart as he spoke these words.

Beatrice looked at him with a melancholy smile. "Is that the message of your soul?" she asked.

And Dante answered: "That is my soul itself. All my being is uplifted by my love for you. It has made a new heaven and a new earth for me: a new heaven whither you shall guide me, a new earth where I shall walk more bravely, and yet more warily, than of old, fearing nothing, for your sake, save only to be found unworthy to say, 'I love you.'"

[Pg 210]

If Dante spoke with a passionate happiness in thus setting free his soul, there was happiness too, in Beatrice's voice as she answered him. "I am, indeed, content to hear you speak, for your words seem, as words seldom seem in this city and in this world, to be quite true words. So when you say you love me, I feel neither agitation, nor flattered vanity, nor amazement—all which feelings, as I have read in books and heard of gossips, are proper to maidens in these hours. Only I know that I believe you, and that I am glad to believe you."

Dante interrupted her, crying her name with passionate eagerness—"Beatrice!" But he kept the place where he stood.

The girl spoke again, finishing her thought. "And I think you will always be worthy to offer love and to win love."

Dante moved a little nearer to her, and he stretched out his hands as one that begs a great gift. "Beatrice," he entreated, "will you give me your love?"

The smile that was partly kind and partly wistful came again to the girl's face. "Messer Dante, Messer Dante," she said, "how can you ask, and how can I answer? A raw youth and a green girl do not make the world between them, nor change the world's laws, nor the laws of this little city, nor the laws of my father in my father's house. And my father's law is like a hand upon my lips, forbidding [Pg 211]them to speak, and like a hand upon my heart, forbidding it to beat."

Dante protested very vehemently, in all the zeal and freshness of his youth. "The law of Love is greater than all other laws. The strength of Love is stronger than all strength. The sword of Love is stronger than the archangel's sword, and conquers all enemies."

Beatrice shook her head at her lover's fury, and her eyes shone very brightly in the moonlight. "Oh, Dante! Dante!" she said, softly, "if this were indeed so, the world would be an easier world for lovers. If you were to tell my father what you have told me, or if I were to tell my father what I have told you, he would twit us for a pair of silly children, and take good heed that we were kept apart. If you were to ask my father for me, he would deny you, and laugh while he denied; for my father is a proud man, and one that loves wealth and power very greatly, and will not give his child save where wealth and power abide. If he were to come upon us here, now, where we talk alone in the moonlight, he would raise his hand to slay you, and he has not a neighbor nor a friend but would say he did right. You know all this, even as I know it. Why, then, do you ask me to give what I cannot give?"

She was very calm and sad as she spoke, and the truth that was in her mournful words was not to [Pg 212]be denied by Dante. But all the ardors of his being were spurred by his consciousness that he had made known his love for her, and that she, surely, had scarcely done less than confess her love for him, and while such sweet happenings hallowed the world, it did not seem to the poet possible that any mortal power could come between them. And in this confidence he addressed his beloved again, all on fire.

"Dear woman," he urged, "not all the fathers in Florence can bind our spirits. I love you now, I shall love you while I live—in hunger and thirst, in feasting and singing, in the church and in the street, in sorrow and in joy, in cross or success. My life and every great and little thing within my life is sanctified to a sacrament by my love for you. Cannot your spirit, that is as free as mine, uplift my heart with a word?"

So he petitioned her, ardently, and his warmth found favor in the girl's grave, watchful eyes.

"I have heard you praised highly of late," she said, "and men give you great promise. But, truly, I judge you with the sight of my own eyes, not with the sound of others' words. And I think you are indeed a man that a woman might be happy to love."

Dante's heart leaped to hear such sweet speech, and for very joy he was silent awhile. Then he said: "If I be indeed anything worth weighing [Pg 213]in the scales of your favor, it is for your sake that I have made myself so, Madonna."

Beatrice laughed a little, very gently, at his words, and pretended to frown, and failed. "My cold reason," she asserted, "tells me that I would rather you bettered yourself just for the sake of being better, and with no less unselfish intention; but, to be honest, my warm heart throbs at your homage."

Dante would have come closer, but she stayed him with a gesture. "You make me very proud," he murmured.

Beatrice went on. "Yet I know well that men have done greatly to please women that were not worth the pleasing, or merely for the lure of some grace of hand or lip. I should like to think that my lover would always live at his best for my sake, though he never won a kiss of me."

"Then here I swear it," Dante said, proudly, "to dedicate my life to your service, and to make all honorable proof of my devotion. But you, beloved, will you not give me some words of hope?"

Beatrice extended her hands to him, and he caught those dear hands in his, and held them tightly, and Beatrice was smiling as she spoke, although there were tears in her eyes. "So far," she said, "as a woman can promise the life that is guided by another's law, I give you my life, Dante. But my love is my own, to hold or to yield, and I give it [Pg 214]all to you with all my heart, knowing that because you think it worth the winning, you will be worthy of what you have won."

Now, as I think, here my Dante made to take his lady in his arms, but she denied him, very delicately and gently, pleading with such sweet reason that the most ardent lover in the world could not refuse her obedience. For she would have it thus, that until their love could be avowed, as in time it might be, if Dante won to fame and honor in the state, until their love could be avowed there should be no lover's commerce between them, not even to the changing of a kiss. For she would not have him nor her act otherwise than in perfect honorability as befitted their great love. Because Dante did, indeed, cherish a great love for her, that was greater than all temptings of the flesh, he let it be as she wished. So this pair, that were almost as the angels in the greatness of their love, pledged their troths with the simplicity of children, and parted with the innocence of children, as gentle and as chaste.


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