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XVII A STRANGE BETROTHAL
What happened now happened after I had left the festival, but I heard all the facts later from eye-witnesses, so that I honestly think I can make it as plain a tale as if I had seen the things myself. Messer Maleotti, doing as he was told and rejoicing in the thought that he was making mischief, came into the feasting-hall where Messer Folco sat apart with certain old friends and kinsfolk of his, sober gentlefolk of age and repute, that made merry in their grave way and laughed cheerfully over the jests of yesteryear, and one of them was Master Tommaso Severo, that was Madonna Beatrice's physician. Now Maleotti, catching sight of a certain ancient servant of Messer Folco's, whom he knew well to be an honest man and one much trusted by his master, made for him and drew him a little apart, and whispered into his ear that very amazing message with which Messer Simone had intrusted him.

This message, bluntly and baldly stated, came to this: that Maleotti, taking his ease in the garden [Pg 216]and wandering this way and that, came at last by chance beneath the walls of that part of the palace where Madonna Beatrice dwelt. There, on the loggia, very plain in the moonlight, he saw Madonna Beatrice in discourse with a man. Though the moonlight was bright and showed the face of Madonna Beatrice very distinctly, the man stood at an angle, as it were, and he could make nothing of him, face or figure. Such was the story which Maleotti, primed thereto by Simone, had to tell. At first the man to whom he told it seemed incredulous, as well he might be, albeit it chanced the tale was true, and then he became doubtful—for, after all, youth is youth and love love—and finally, upon Maleotti's insistence, he did indeed consent to go toward his master, and, plucking him by the sleeve, solicit the favor of a private word with him. Messer Folco, who was always very affable in his bearing to those that served him, and who had a special affection for this fellow, rose very good-humoredly from the table and the converse and the wine, and going a little ways apart, listened to what his old servant, who seemed so agitated and aghast, had to tell him.

When Messer Folco heard what it was that his man had to say, Messer Folco frowned sternly, and expressed a disbelief so emphatic and so angry that there was nothing for the poor servitor to do but to call Maleotti himself, who, with great seeming [Pg 217]reluctance and with many protestations of regret, that must have made him seem like a particularly mischievous monkey apologizing for stealing nuts, repeated, with a cunning lack of embellishment, the plain statement that he had made to the retainer. Thereupon, Messer Folco, in a great rage which it took all his boasted philosophy to keep under control, called to him two or three of his old cronies that were still lingering about the deserted tables. These folk were, indeed, also his kinsfolk, and it was from one of them that I had the particulars which I am about to set forth with almost as much certainty as if I had seen them myself.

Making hurried excuses to those few that remained at the table, Messer Folco and his friends quitted the room upon their errand of folly. And Maleotti, having done his devil's work, departed upon other business of his master's, that was no less damnable in its nature and no less threatening to Simone's enemies.

Messer Folco and his friends hurried swiftly and in silence through the still, moon-lit gardens till they came to the gateway that Dante had opened and the little staircase whereby Dante had ascended. Passing through this gateway and mounting those steps, Messer Folco and his friends came to the loggia and stood there for a moment in silence. Had they been less busy upon a bad and unhappy errand, they must needs have been enchanted by [Pg 218]the beauty of all that lay before and around them in that place and on that night of summer.

The air was very hot upon the loggia, and the night was very still. All over the field of the sky the star-candles were burning brightly, and it scarcely needed the torches that certain of Messer Folco's companions carried to see what was to be seen. Those of Messer Folco's kinsfolk that stood huddled together about the entrance of the loggia, curious and confused at the suddenness of the unlovely business, could see that their leader looked very pale and grave as he crossed the pavement and struck sharply with his clinched hand at the door which faced him. In a little while the door opened, and one of Madonna Beatrice's ladies peeped out her head, and gave a little squeal of surprise at the sight of her lord and the rest of the company, the unexpected presence, and the unexpected torches. But Messer Folco bade her very sternly be still, and when Messer Folco commanded sternly he was generally obeyed. Then he ordered her that she should summon her mistress at once to come to him there, where he waited for her. When the sorely frightened girl had gone, there was silence for a little while on the loggia, while the perplexed friends stared at each other's blanched faces, until presently the little door opened again and Monna Beatrice came forth from it, and saluted her father very sweetly and gravely, as if nothing were [Pg 219]out of the ordinary, though some thought, and Messer Tommaso Severo knew, that there was a troubled look in her usually serene eyes.

Messer Folco addressed her calmly, with the calmness of one that, being consciously a philosopher, seeks to restrain all needless, unreasonable rages, and he said, slowly: "Madonna, I have been told very presently by one that pretends to have seen what he tells, that you talked here but now with a man alone. The thing, of course, is not true?"

The question which went with the utterance of his last words was given in a very confident voice, and he carried, whether by dissimulation or no, a very confident countenance.

The look of confidence faded from his face as Madonna Beatrice answered him very simply. "The thing is true," she said, and then said no more, as if there were no more to say, but stood quietly where she was, looking steadily at her father and paying no heed to any other of those that were present.

The voice of Folco was as stern as before, though harder in its tone as he again addressed his daughter. "The thing is true, then? I am grieved to hear it. Who was the man?"

Madonna Beatrice looked at him very directly. She seemed to be neither at all abashed nor at all defiant, as she answered, tranquilly, "I cannot tell you, father."

[Pg 220]

For a little while that seemed a great while a dreary quiet reigned over that moon-bathed loggia. Father and daughter faced each other with fixed gaze, and the others, very ill at ease, watching the pair, wished themselves elsewhere with all their hearts.

While those that assisted reluctantly at this meeting wondered what would happen next, seeing those two high, simple, and noble spirits suddenly brought into such strange antagonism—before they, I say, could formulate any solution of the problem, a man stepped out of the shadow of the doorway and advanced toward Folco boldly, and the astonished spectators saw that the man was none other than Messer Simone dei Bardi. However he may have revelled at the now ended festival, there were no signs of wine or riot about him now. He stood squarely and steadily enough, and his red face was no redder than its wont. Only a kind of ferocious irony showed on it as he loomed there, largely visible in the yellow air.

"What is all this fuss about?" he asked, with a fierce geniality. "I am the man you seek after, and why should I not be? Though why you should seek for me I fail to see. May not a man speak awhile in private to the lady of his honorable love, and yet no harm done to bring folk about our ears with torches and talk and staring faces?"

[Pg 221]

As he spoke those present saw how Madonna Beatrice looked at him, and they read in her face a proud disdain and a no less proud despair, and they knew that somehow or other, though of course they could not guess how, this fair and gracious lady was caught in a trap. They saw how she longed to speak yet did not speak, and they knew thereby there was some reason for her keeping silence. Messer Folco looked long at Messer Simone dei Bardi as he stood there clearly visible in the mingled lights—large, almost monstrous, truculent, ugly, the embodiment of savage strength and barbaric appetites. Then Folco looked from Simone's bulk to his daughter, who stood there as cold and white and quiet as if she had been a stone image and not a breathing maid.

Folco advanced toward Beatrice and took her by the hand and drew her apart a little ways, and it so chanced that the place where they came to a pause was within ear-shot of one of those that Messer Folco had brought with him, one who stood apart in the darkness and looked and listened, and this one was Tommaso Severo, the physician. Messer Simone kept his stand with his arms folded and a smile of triumph on his face, and I have it on good authority—that, namely, of Messer Tommaso Severo—that at least one of the spectators wished, as he beheld Simone, that he had been suddenly blessed by Heaven with the strength of a giant, that [Pg 222]he might have picked the Bardi up by the middle and pitched him over the parapet into the street below. But as Heaven vouchsafed this spectator no such grace, Severo kept his place and his peace, and he heard what Messer Folco said to his daughter Beatrice.

And what he said to her and what she answered to him was very brief and direct.

Messer Folco asked his daughter, "Was this the man you talked with but now?"

And Beatrice, looking neither at her father nor at any other one there present, but looking straight before her over the gilded greenness of the garden, answered, quietly, "No."

Then Folco questioned her again. "Will you tell me who the man was that you talked with here?"

And again Beatrice, as tranquil, resolute to shield her lover from danger, with the same fixed gaze over the green spaces below her, answered as before the same answer, "No."

Then there came a breathing-space of quiet; Messer Folco looked hard at his daughter; and she, for her part, looking, as before, away from him, because, as I guess, she judged that there would be something irreverent in outfacing her father while she denied his wishes and defied so strangely his parental authority. Messer Simone stood at his ease a little apart with the mocking smile of conquest [Pg 223]on his face, and the guests, kinsfolk, and friends, that were witnesses of the sad business, huddled together uncomfortably.

Then Messer Folco, seeing that nothing more was to be got from the girl, turned round and addressed himself to those of his kin that stood by the entrance to the loggia. "Friends," he said, and his voice was measured, and his words came slow and clear—"kinsmen and friends, I have a piece of news for you. I announce here and now the betrothal of my daughter Beatrice to Messer Simone dei Bardi, and I bid you all to the wedding to-morrow in the church of the Holy Name."

Then, in the silence that greeted this statement, Messer Folco held out his right hand to Simone and took his right hand, and he drew Simone toward him and then toward Beatrice, and he lifted the right hand of Beatrice, that lay limply against her side, and made to place its whiteness on the brown palm of Messer Simone. Messer Simone's face was flushed with triumph and Monna Beatrice's face was drawn with pain, and those that witnessed and wondered thought a great wrong had been wrought, and wondered why. But before Messer Folco could join the two hands together Beatrice suddenly plucked her hand away from her father's clasp.

"No! no! no!" she cried, in a loud voice, and [Pg 224]then again cried "No!" And even as she did so she reeled backward in a swoon, and would have fallen upon the marble pavement if Messer Severo, that was watching her, had not sprung timely forward and caught her in his arms.


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