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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » The God of Love » XVIII A WORD FOR MESSER SIMONE
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I  must, in the fulness of my heart, agree with those that speak in favor of Messer Simone dei Bardi. It is the native, intimate, and commendable wish of a man to abolish his enemies—I speak here after the fashion of the worldling that I was, for the cell and the cloister have no concern with mortal passions and frailties—and Messer Simone was in this, as in divers other qualities, of a very manly disposition. He thought in all honesty that it would be very good for him to be the ruler of Florence, yet, also, and no less, that it would be very good for Florence to be ruled by him. This is the way of such great personages, as indeed it is the way of meaner creatures: to persuade themselves very pleasantly that what they desire for themselves they are justified in desiring on account of the benefit their accomplished wishes must bear to others.

Messer Simone, having the idea once lodged in his skull—a dwelling-place of unusual thickness, that was well made for keeping any idea that ever [Pg 226]entered it a prisoner—that it would be well for him to take charge of Florence, had no room in his pate for tender or merciful consideration of those that sought or seemed to seek to cross him in his purpose. They were his enemies; there was no more to be said about it, and for his enemies, when it was possible, he had ever a short way. Now, Messer Guido Cavalcanti, and those of his inclining, were very curiously and truly his enemies, and he had been longing for a great while to get them out of the way of his ambitions and his purposes, yet could find no ready means to compass their destruction. But of late he had found a new enemy in the person of my friend Dante, and a formidable enemy for all his seeming insignificance; and if Simone sought to crush Dante, I cannot blame him for the attempt, however much I may rejoice in his failure.

I believe Messer Simone to have been as much in love with Monna Beatrice as it was humanly possible for such a man to be in love with such a maid. He was in love, of course, with the great houses that Messer Folco owned, with the broad lands that fattened Messer Folco's vineyards; for though he had houses of his own and broad lands in abundance, wealth ever covets wealth. But I conceive that whatever of god-like essence was muffled in the hulk of his composition was quickened by the truly unearthly beauty of that pale [Pg 227]face with its mystic smile and the sweet eyes that seemed to see sights denied to the commonalty. I think Messer Simone was in love with Beatrice very much as I might have been, out of very wonder at a thing so rare and fair and unfamiliar. I was never, as I have said, in love with Folco's daughter; my tastes are simpler, more carnal; give me an Ippolita in my affectionate hours, and I ask nothing better. Love for me must be a jolly companion, never squeamish, never chilly, never expecting other homage than such salutations as swordsmen may use for preliminary to a hot engagement. Messer Dante has written a very beautiful book on his business, its words all fire and golden air, but I wrote my rhymes in a tavern with red wine at my elbow and a doxy on my knee. I wonder which of us will be remembered longest.

Yet if I was never in love with Beatrice, I could understand the matter, and feel how the thick-headed, thick-hearted, thick-fingered giant must shiver at the unfamiliar twinges and rigors. When a man of such a kind finds himself in such a dilemma, he is in much such a case as if he were sick of some childish ailment more dangerous to maturity than to youth. The thought that another should challenge his right or traverse his desire galled him to a choler little short of madness. Wherefore, if he had hated the Cavalcanti faction before, he hated them a thousand times more now, seeing that [Pg 228]Dante was of their number, this Dante that had gained a rose of lady Beatrice, and wore it next his heart no doubt, and had denied him and defied him with such cheer and cunning, and dared to make verses in praise of his lady. If Simone had wished ere this that the Cavalcanti party was ruined, now he was resolved upon its ruin, and for no reason more strongly than because it included Dante in its company. In this resolve, I say again, I cannot honestly blame Messer Simone. He only acted as most of us would have acted if we had been in his place.

Messer Simone, I must cheerfully admit, had calculated his plans cleverly enough. Long before his magnificent appearance at Messer Folco's house he had been at the pains to make himself aware that the bulk of the youth of the city were with him hand and heart in his desperate adventure. To do the youth of Florence the merest justice, it was every ready to risk its life cheerfully for the advantage of the city, and, furthermore, for the sheer lust of fighting. What Messer Simone had hoped to gain at Folco's house, and, indeed, had succeeded in gaining, was the allegiance of certain young men of the Cavalcanti inclining, adherents of the Reds, that were not in the natural way of things affected over kindly to him. All this he had accomplished very successfully. The heady enthusiasm upon which he had cunningly counted, [Pg 229]the presence of fair women whose sweet breaths are ever ready to fan the flame of the war-like spirit, the stimulating influences of wine and light and laughter and dancing—all these had played their parts in furthering Messer Simone's aims by spurring the Florentine chivalry to a pitch of exuberance, at which any proposal made in a sounding voice in the name of the God of War might be relied upon to carry them away. As you know, it did so carry them away, and Messer Simone's book was scrawled thick with hurried signatures, and, best of all for his pleasure, it carried at last the name of Messer Dante, and best of all, perhaps, for his personal advantage, it carried the name of Messer Guido Cavalcanti.

I know very well, looking back on those old days, that were so much better than these new days, that if Messer Simone had failed to lure Messer Dante into that immediate scheme of his, and had so compelled a postponement of his revenge, he would still have carried out his purpose of sending the others that were his enemies to their deaths. But, in his piggish way, Messer Simone had a kind of knowledge of men. He that was all ungenerous and bestial—he, this most unknightly giant—he could realize, strangely enough, what a generous and uplifted nature might do on certain occasions when the trumpets of the spirit were loudly blowing. And it was a proof of his mean insight that he had [Pg 230]spread his net in the sight of the bird and had snared his quarry.

Having won so briskly the first move in his game, Messer Simone lost no time in making the second move. Fortified, as he was, by the friendship and the approval of certain of the leaders of the city, he could confidently count upon immunity from blame if any seeming blunder of his delivered to destruction a certain number of young gentlemen whose opinions were none too popular with many of those in high office. So, while still the flambeaux of the festival were burning, and while still a few late guests were carousing at Messer Folco's tables, the emissaries of Messer Simone were busy in Florence doing what they had to do. Thus it was that so many of the fiery-hearted, fiery-headed youths who had set their names in Messer Simone's Golden Book found, as they returned gay and belated from Messer Folco's house, the summons awaiting them—the summons that was not to be disobeyed, calling upon them at once to prove their allegiance to the Company of Death and obey its initial command. It is well to recollect that not one single man of all the men so summoned failed to answer to his name.

It is in that regard, too, that I can scarcely do less than extend my admiration to Messer Simone. For, in spite of the fact that he was a very great villain, as he needs must be counted, being the [Pg 231]enemy of our party, he had in him so much as it were of the sovereign essence of manhood that he could read aright men's tempers. And he knew very well that such words as "patriotism" and "service of the sweet city" and "honorable death for a great cause" are as so many flames that will set the torch of a young man's heart alight. There was no generosity in Messer Simone, yet—and this I think is the marvel—he could guess at and count upon the generosity of others, and know that they would be ready to do in an instant what he would never do nor never dream of doing. He was not impulsive, he was not high-spirited, he was not chivalrous; yet he could play upon the impulses, the high spirits, and the chivalries of those whom he wished to destroy as dexterously as your trained musician can play upon the strings of a lute. Of course it is impossible not to admire such a cunning, however perverted the application of that cunning may be. For there is many a rascal in the broad world that has no wit to appreciate anything outside the compass of his own inclinations, and takes it for granted that because he is a rogue with base instincts, that can only be appealed to by base lures, all other men are rogues likewise, and only basely answerable to some base appeal.

Nor can I do otherwise than admire him for the ingenuity of the means by which he sought to attain his end. It was in its way a masterpiece of [Pg 232]imagination, for one that throve upon banking, to conceive that scheme of the Company of Death, with its trumpet-call to youth and courage and the noble heart. It was excellently clever, too, of Messer Simone so to engineer his contrivance that while he seemingly included in its ranks the young bloods of every party in the state, he was able, by the wise adjustment of his machinery, to deal, or at least to intend, disaster only to those that were opposed to him. C?sar might well have been praised for so intelligent an artifice, and yet Messer Simone of the Bardi, for all that he was brave enough, was very far from being a C?sar. However, he planned his plan well, and I praise him for it all the more light-heartedly because it came to grief so signally, and all through one whose enmity he rated at too light a price.

It is ever the way of such fellows as Simone, that are of the suspicious temperament and quick to regard folk as their enemies, to overlook, in their computation of the perils that threaten their cherished purposes, the gravest danger of all. Simone had plenty of enemies in Florence, and he thought that he had provided against all of them, or, at the least, all that were seriously to be reputed troublesome, when he swaddled and dandled and matured his precious invention of the Company of Death. But while he grinned as he read over the list of the recruits to that delectable regiment, and hugged [Pg 233]himself at the thought of how he would in a morning's work thoroughly purge it of all that were his antagonists, he suffered his wits to go wool-gathering in one instance where they should have been most alert. Either he clean forgot or he disdained to remember a certain wager of his, and a certain very fair and very cunning lady with whom he had laid it, and to whose very immediate interest it was that she should win the wager. Messer Simone seemed either to think that Madonna Vittoria was not in earnest, or that she might be neglected with safety. Whichever his surmise, Messer Simone made a very great mistake.

It proved to be one of the greatest factors in the sum of Messer Simone's blunder that he should have been tempted by ironic fortune to turn for aid in the ingenious plot he was hatching to the particular man upon whom he pitched for assistance. Already in those days of which I write, far-away days as they seem to me now in this green old age—or shall I, with an eye to my monkish habit, call it gray old age?—of mine, those gentry existed who have now become so common in Italy, the gentry that were called Free Companions. These worthy personages were adventurers, seekers after fortune, men eager for wealth and power, and heedless of the means by which they attained them. Italian, some of them, but very many strangers from far-away lands. It was the custom [Pg 234]of these fellows to gather about them a little army of rough-and-ready resolutes like themselves, whom they maintained at their cost, and whose services they were always prepared to sell to any person or state that was willing to pay the captain's price for their aid. And these captains, as their fortunes waxed, increased the numbers of their following till they often had under their command as many lances as would go to the making of a little army. Of these captains that were then in Italy, and, as I have said, they were fewer in that time than they are to-day, the most famous and the most fortunate was the man who was known as Messer Griffo of the Claw. He was so nicknamed, I think, because of the figure on the banner that he flew—a huge dragon with one fiercely clawed foot lifted as if to lay hold of all that came its way.

Messer Griffo was a splendid fellow to look at, as big every way as Messer Simone, but built more shapely, and he had a finer face, and one that showed more self-control, and he was never given to the beastly intemperances that degraded the Messer Simone. Messer Griffo and his levy of lances lived in a castle that he held in the hills some half-way between Florence and Arezzo. He was, as I believe, by his birth an Englishman, with some harsh, unmusical, outlandish name of his own that had been softened and sweetened into the name by which he was known and esteemed in all [Pg 235]the cities of Italy. He had been so long a-soldiering in our country that he spoke the vulgar tongue very neatly and swiftly, and was, indeed, ofttimes taken by the people of one town or province in our peninsula for a citizen of some other city or province of Italy. So that his English accent did him no more harm in honest men's ears than his English parentage offended their susceptibilities. For the rest, he was of more than middle age, but seemed less, was of amazing strength and daring, and a great leader of Free Companions.

At the time of which I tell he was in command of a force of something like five hundred lances, that were very well fed, well kept, well equipped, and ready to serve the quarrel of any potentate of Italy that was willing to pay for them. He had just captained his rascals very gallantly and satisfactorily in the service of Padua, and having made a very considerable amount of money by the transaction, was now resting pleasantly on his laurels, and in no immediate hurry to further business. For if Messer Griffo liked fighting, as is said to be the way of those islanders, he did not like fighting only, but recognized frankly and fully that life has other joys to offer to a valiant gentleman. His long sojourn in our land had so civilized and humanized him that he could appreciate, after a fashion, the delicate pleasures that are known to us and that are denied to those that abide in his [Pg 236]frozen, fog-bound, rain-whipped island—the delights of fine eating, fine drinking, fine living, fine loving. Honestly, I must record that he took to all these delectations very gayly and naturally, for all the world as if he had the grace to be born, I will not say a Florentine, but say a man of Padua, of Bologna, or Ferrara. In a word, he had all the semblance of a very fine gentleman, and when he was not about his proper business of cutting throats at so much a day, he moved at his ease with a very proper demeanor.

When Messer Simone began to hatch his little conspiracy of the Company of Death, he bethought him of Messer Griffo, that was then at liberty and living at ease, and he sent to the Free Companion a message, entreating him to visit Florence and be his guest for a season, as he had certain matters of moment to communicate to him. Now if this Griffo liked idling very well, he did not like it to the degree that would permit him to push on one side a promising piece of business. This is, I believe, the way of his country-people, that are said to be traders before all, though thereafter they are sailors and soldiers. When the message of Messer Simone reached him, he appreciated very instantly the value of Messer Simone's acquaintance, and the probability of good pay and good pickings if he found reason to enter the Bardi's service. So with no more unwillingness than was reasonable, [Pg 237]considering that he was passing the time very happily in his house with pretty women and jolly pot-companions, he made answer to the message that he would wait upon Messer Simone very shortly in the fair city of Florence. In no very long time after he kept his word, and came to Florence to have speech with Messer Simone and drink his wine and consider what propositions he might have to make.

It was, perhaps, unfortunate for Simone dei Bardi that while there were many points of resemblance between himself and the Free Companion that was his guest, the advantages were on the side of the stranger rather than of the Florentine. Both were big men, both were strong men, both were practised to the top in all manner of manly exercises. But while there was a something gross about the greatness of Simone of the Bardi, the bulk of the Englishman was so well proportioned and rarely adjusted that a woman's first thought of him would be rather concerning his grace than his size. While Messer Simone's face betrayed too plainly in its ruddiness its owner's gratification of his appetites, Messer Griffo's face carried a clean paleness that commended him to temperate eyes, albeit he could, when he pleased, eat and drink as much as ever Messer Simone.

Messer Simone's plan had one great merit to the mind of a foreigner denied the lucidity of our [Pg 238]Italian intelligence—it was adorably simple. I can give it to you now in a nutshell as I learned it later, not as I knew it then, for I did not know it then. Nobody knew it then except Messer Simone of the one part, and Messer Griffo of the other part, and one other who was not meant to know it or supposed to know it, but who, in defence of special interests, first guessed at it, and then made certain of it, with results that were far from satisfactory to Messer Simone, though they proved in the end entirely pleasing to Messer Griffo.

Here and now, in few words, was Messer Simone's plan. Messer Griffo was to enter his, Simone's, service at what rate of pay he might, weighed in the scale of fairness and with a proper calculation of market values, demand. At least Messer Simone was not inclined to haggle, and the five hundred lances would find him a good paymaster. In return for so many stipulated florins, Messer Griffo was to render certain services to Messer Simone—obvious services, and services that were less obvious, but that were infinitely more important.

In the first place, the Free Companion was ostensibly to declare himself Messer Simone's very good and zealous subaltern in the interests of the city of Florence, and very especially in those interests which led her to detest and honestly long to destroy the city of Arezzo. For this proclaimed [Pg 239]purpose he was to hold himself and his men in readiness to march, when the time came, against Arezzo. This was the first page of the treaty. But there was a second page of the treaty that, if it were really written out, would have to be written in cipher. By its conditions Messer Griffo bound himself to wait with his fellows on a certain appointed night at a certain appointed place some half-way between Florence and Arezzo. What his business was to be at this appointed time and place makes pretty reading even now, when almost all that were concerned in the conspiracy have passed away and are no more than moth-like memories.

When Messer Simone dei Bardi contrived to chain upon the Company of Death that law which bound every member of the fellowship to unquestioning obedience to its founder, he had in his mind from the start the goal for which he was playing. At a certain given hour a certain given number of the Company of Death would be called upon to foregather outside the walls of Florence, bent on a special adventure for the welfare of the state. By a curious chance those that were thus summoned were all to be members of the party that was opposed to Messer Simone, and would include all those youths who, like Guido Cavalcanti and Dante Alighieri, had incurred the special detestation of the would-be dictator.

The rest of the scheme was as easy as whistling. [Pg 240]The hot-headed, hot-hearted gallants of the Company of Death were to ride swiftly in the direction of Arezzo, carrying with them the information that they would be reinforced half-way upon their journey by a levy of mercenaries under the command of Griffo. It was, however, privately arranged between Simone and Griffo that when the young Florentines made their appearance they were to be very promptly and decisively put to the sword, after which deed Messer Griffo and his followers were to betake themselves to Arezzo, declare themselves the saviors of that city, and insist on entering its service at a price. After a little while Messer Griffo was to make his peace with indignant Florence by offering to betray, and, in due course, by betraying, the town of Arezzo into the hands of her enemies. By such ingenious spider-spinnings of sin did Messer Simone of the Bardi promise himself that he would within a very little space of time cleanse Florence of the pick of his enemies, and also earn the gratitude of her citizens by placing Arezzo within their power. This was a case of killing two birds with one stone that mightily delighted Messer Simone, and he made sure that he had found the very stone that was fit for his fingers in the excellent, belligerent Free Companion.

It is whimsical to reflect that all would probably, nay, almost certainly, have gone as Messer Simone desired if only Messer Simone had not been so [Pg 241]bullishly besotted as to leave the name of a certain lady out of his table of calculations; for Messer Griffo liked the scheme well enough. Though it was, as it were, a double-edged weapon, cutting this way at the Florentines of one party and that way at Arezzo, it was a simple scheme enough that required no feigning to sustain it, no dissimulation—qualities these apparently repugnant to the English heart. Griffo also liked the florins of Messer Simone that were to be spent so plenteously into his exchequer, and he liked exceedingly the prospect of the later plunder of Arezzo. That he did not like Messer Simone very much counted for little in the business. It was no part of his practice to like or dislike his employers, so long as they paid him his meed. Still, perhaps the fact that if Simone had not been his employer he would have disliked him may have counted as an influence to direct the course of later events.

Certainly Messer Griffo had no compunctions, no prickings of the conscience, to perturb or to deflect the energy of his keen intelligence from following the line marked out for it. That he was to dispatch without quarter the flower of the youth of Florence troubled him, as I take it, no whit. He was too imperturbable, too phlegmatic for that. Had he been of our race he might, perhaps, have sighed over their fate, for we that are of the race of Rome have some droppings of the old Roman [Pg 242]pity as ingredients in our composition. Messer Griffo was no such fantastico, but a plain, straightforward, journeyman sword-bearer that would kill any mortal or mortals whom he was paid to kill, unless—and here is the key to his character and the explanation of all that happened after—unless he was paid a better price by some one else not to kill his intended victims. In this particular business he was, maugre Messer Simone's beard, paid a better price not to do what Simone paid a less price to have done. What that price was you shall learn in due course.


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