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XIX THE RIDE IN THE NIGHT
Through all the quiet of that divine night the minions of the Messer Simone had slipped hither and thither through the moon-lit streets of Florence, bearing the orders of the captain of the Company of Death to certain of his loyal lieutenants and faithful federates. And the order that each man received was to report himself ready for active service and properly armed at the gate of the city which gave upon the highroad that led in the fulness of time to Arezzo. It was a curious fact, though of course it was not realized until later, that no one of these summonses was delivered to any man other than a man known to be a member of the Red party, and, therefore, by the same token, one that was an opponent of Messer Simone dei Bardi and his friends of the Yellow League. The call to each man told him that at the tryst he would find a horse ready to carry him to his destination.

Each man that received that summons had but a little while before been feasting blithely at the house of Messer Folco. Each man hastened to [Pg 244]obey his summons without a sinister thought, without a fear. Each man hastily armed himself, hurriedly flung his cloak about him, and sped swiftly from his abode or lodging across the night-quiet streets to the appointed meeting-place. Each man, on arrival at the indicated gate, found the warders awake and ready for him, ready on his production of his summons to pass him through the great unbolted doors into the liberty of the open country. The later arrivals found those that had answered earlier to the call waiting for them in the gray vagueness between night and dawn, each man standing by a horse's head, while a number of other horses in the care of a company of varlets waited, whinnying and shivering in the shadow of the walls, to be chosen from by the new-comers. Every man that crossed the threshold of the gateway that night found Maleotti waiting for him on the other hand with a smile of welcome on his crafty face, and whispered instructions on his evil lips.

Those instructions were simple enough. The little company of gallant gentlemen, citizens, for the most part, in the flower of their youth, and certainly the very flower of the Red party, was to fall under the temporary command of Messer Guido Cavalcanti. Messer Guido was to conduct the party, which numbered in all some two hundred souls, to a designated place, a thickly wooded spot some half-way between Arezzo and Florence. Here the adventurers [Pg 245]were to find waiting for them a company of Free Companions, some six hundred lances, under the command of the very illustrious condottiere, Messer Griffo of the Claw, to whom, at the point of conjunction, Messer Guido was instantly to surrender his temporary leadership of the dedicated fellowship. After that it was for Messer Griffo to decide the order of the enterprise and the form in which the attack upon Arezzo was to be made. These were very plain and simple instructions, very simple to follow, very simple to understand, very easy to obey. No man of all the some two hundred men to whom they were confided by Maleotti, or one of Maleotti's comrades, required to be told them a second time or felt the need to ask a single explanatory question.

It was true enough, as Messer Simone had said, that the rogue Ghibellines of Arezzo had a mind to deal Florence an ugly stroke, if ever they could, and that the hope of the Aretines was to trap the Florentines in a snare. As you know, Messer Simone had hatched a double-edged plot, though we young hot-heads of the Company of Death knew of but one-half of its purpose. He had caused information to be sent to Arezzo that there was a traitor within their walls who was prepared on a certain night to let in a certain number of Florentines, who thus would seize and hold one of the gates until reinforcements came from Florence to [Pg 246]secure the weakened city. He schemed all this with the aid of a Guelph that dwelt in Arezzo as a red-hot Ghibelline. Now, it would have been simple enough for him after this to send the little handful of Florentines against a warned Arezzo and have them cut to pieces by an Aretine ambuscade. But his purpose went further than merely demolishing a number of his enemies. He wanted to win Arezzo, if he could, as well. So, by his machinations, he arranged that the forces of Arezzo should be out to meet and overthrow the adventurous Florentines, whereafter they might march on Florence and take the city unawares. But, to counteract this, he made his arrangements with Messer Griffo, who was, in one and the same job, to massacre the Florentines of the Red and give battle to the Aretines unaware of his presence, and so, at a stroke, rid Simone of his enemies, and cover him with patriotic glory.

It will be seen by this that Messer Simone, if treacherous to his enemies within the city, was in nowise treacherous to the city herself. But we were ignorant of his wiles that night, as we gathered together outside the gates.

In an amazingly short space of time we were all a-horseback, and riding quietly through the night on the road toward Arezzo, with Messer Maleotti, on a high-mettled mount, shepherding us as we rode, as if we were so many simple sheep and he [Pg 247]our pastor. I, that had come late to the meeting-place, had sought for and found Messer Dante, after a little seeking hither and thither through the press of eager, generous youths that were bestirring themselves to strike a good stroke for Florence that night. I found him standing quietly alone, with his hand resting in a kindly command upon the neck of the steed that he had chosen, and a look of great happiness softening the native sternness of his regard. I stood by him in silence till we rode, for after our first salutation he chose to be taciturn, and that in no unfriendly seeming, but as one might that had great thoughts to think and counted very certainly upon the acquiescence of a friend. And I was ever a man to respect the humors, grave or merry, of my friends.

So I stood by him and held my peace until the muster-roll of our fellowship was completed, and it seemed good to Maleotti that the signal should be given for our departure upon our business. But while I waited I looked hither and thither through the moon-lit gloom to discern this face and that of familiar youth, and as I noted them and named them to myself, I was dimly conscious of a thought that would not take shape in words, and yet a thought that, all unwittingly, troubled me. I seemed like a child that tries, and tries in vain, to recall some duty that was set upon it, and that has wickedly slipped its memory. Man after man of [Pg 248]the figures that moved about me in the darkness was well known to me. Those faces, those figures, were the faces and figures of intimates whose pleasures I shared daily, companions with whom I had grown up, playfellows in the days when we gambolled in the streets, playfellows now in the pleasant fields of love and revelry. What could there be, I asked myself, almost unconscious that I did so question—what could there be in the presence of so many well-known, so many well-liked, so many well-trusted gentlemen, to make me feel so inexplicably ill at ease? Where can a man stand better, I seemed to ask myself, than in the centre of a throng of men that are all his friends? Thus I puzzled and fumed in the silent minutes ere we started, struggling with my unaccountable misgivings, not realizing that it was the very fact that all about me were my friends which was the cause of my most natural disquiet. It was not until we were all in the saddle and well upon our way to Arezzo, that with a sudden clearness my muffled thought asserted itself, and I must needs make it known at once to Dante, at whose side I rode.

"Friend of mine," I said to him, in a low voice, "I would not willingly seem either suspicious or timorous, and I hope I am neither. But I think I have reason for some unquiet. I have noticed something that seems curious to me in the composition of our company."

[Pg 249]

To my surprise he turned to me a smiling face, as of one that was too well contented with his star to be fretted by wayward chances. "I think I know what you would say," he answered me, cheerfully, "and indeed I have noticed what you have noticed—that we who ride thus to-night are all the partisans of one party in Florence. There is not, so far as I have been able to see, a single man of the other favor among us."

Now this was exactly the fact that I had at last been able to realize, the portentous fact which had thrilled my spirit with significant alarms, the fact to which I wished to call his attention, and, behold, he had anticipated my observation and seemed to draw from it an agreeable and exhilarating deduction.

"Is it not a compliment," he went on, "to us that are of the Red party, to be thus signalled out for an errand of such great danger, and, in consequence, of such great glory, by the head man of the Yellow faction? I do not suppose," he said, with a smile, "that Messer Simone has planned the matter solely to pleasure us. Doubtless he has reasoned it somewhat thusly: if we fail in our enterprise, why then he has very cleverly got rid of a number of his adversaries."

He paused for a moment, and I caught at the pause to interrupt him somewhat petulantly. "And if we succeed?" I said, in a questioning voice, for [Pg 250]I was in that happy age of youth and that sanguinity of temperament which makes it hard to realize that failure can associate its grayness or its blackness with one's own bright colors of hope. "If we succeed?"

"If we succeed," Dante echoed me, slowly, "why, if we succeed, then will not Messer Simone appear indeed to be a very generous and perfect gentleman, who was willing to give this great opportunity for honor and conflict to those that were so hotly opposed to him and his people in the brawls of the city?"

I could not, for my own part, see Messer Simone in this character of the high-minded and chivalrous knight, and Madonna Vittoria's words of warning buzzed in my ears with a boding persistence. To be frank, I felt qualmish, and though I did not exactly say as much, having a sober regard for the censure of my friend, yet, in a measure, I did indeed voice my doubts.

But my dear friend was not to be fretted by my agitations, and much to my surprise and something to my chagrin, would indeed scarcely consider them as, to my thinking, they deserved to be considered.

"I feel very sure," he said, tranquilly, "that we shall succeed in what we are set to do to-night, though I could give you no other reason for my confidence than the certainty that reigns so serenely [Pg 251]in my heart. Have you not already noted, comrade, for all that you are young and the way of the world before you, how there sometimes comes to one, although rarely, such a magic mood in which the liberated spirit seems to swim in an exalted ether, and the body seems to move uplifted in a world made to its liking?"

It was at a later time that I learned the great cause of Messer Dante's contentment and serenity displayed in our journey. It came, in the main, from the fact that he had that night given and taken troth with Madonna Beatrice, and that he esteemed himself, as most men esteem themselves in such a case, though not all as rightly, the man the most happy in all the world. But this joy of his had its complement and sustainer in a marvel, a portent vouchsafed to him, as he believed and averred, that same evening and journey. For as himself told me thereafter, he was, or thought himself, companioned through all that night-riding by a youth clad after the fashion of the Grecians, that wore a crimson tunic and that rode a white horse. Ever and anon this youth turned a smiling countenance upon Dante, as one that bade him be of cheer, for again he should see his lady. Dante knew that strange and beautiful presence, seen of him alone, to be the incarnation of the God of Love that had already appeared to him before this, time and again, ever since that morning on the Place of the Holy [Pg 252]Felicity, where he beheld for the second time the lady Beatrice. It is one of my regrets that I have never been favored, on my own account, with any such celestial apparitions, but I am glad that Dante was so graced, and I wish I had known at the time that Love was riding by our side. The presence of Love in the Company of Death: what an allegory for a poet!

It was very beautiful to hear Messer Dante talk as he talked, and his calm reasoning, together with the sweetness and serenity of his confidence, cheered me mightily. In such company, and hearkening to such speech, it was impossible to be downhearted, and as the brave, hopeful words fell from him, I that had been not a little in the dumps grew blithe to whistling-point—not that I did whistle, of course, seeing that such an ebullition of high spirits would be something out of place on a night march toward an enemy's country, and scarcely to be commended by your strategists. Some may say, when they learn the leave of my tale, that it makes an ironic commentary on Messer Dante's speech and Messer Dante's conviction, to learn, after all, that what saved us from the destruction that was spread for our feet was no more and no other than the craft of a woman and a light o' love. But me-thinks the answer to that is, that the instruments whereby it may please Heaven to work out its purposes are not of our choosing, but of Heaven's; [Pg 253]and those that cavil may recall, to their own abashment, how one that was of the same way of life as our Vittoria was permitted by celestial grace to be a minister unto holiness. I will not venture to say that Monna Vittoria did that which she did do with any very conscious thought of serving Heaven. Nay, more, I am very sure that, as far as she knew, her main purpose was to serve herself; but it is the result we must look to in such instances as these. After all, the Sybil, when she uttered her words of wisdom to all Greece, was as ignorant of what she communicated as a jug is of the liquor it contains, and yet what a mighty service the jug renders to your true toper!

Now, while we thus wiled away the journey in such profitable conversation, the tide of the night had turned, the glory of the summer stars had paled and faded and departed from the lightening skies. Behind the hills dawn, in its cloak of unearthly colors, was beginning to fill the cup of heaven, and the multitude of small birds, waking from their slumbers, unwinged their heads and started to utter their matins like honest choristers. The world that had been all black and silver, like the panoply on a knightly catafalque, was now flooded with a gray clearness in which all things showed strange, as if one dreamed of them rather than saw them. Below and beyond us lay a great stretch of wooded land, and here it was that we [Pg 254]knew we were to meet our reinforcement; here we realized that from this point the adventure might veritably be said to begin. Our spirits rose with the rising day to the blithest altitudes; already we seemed to savor the taste of brisk campaigning; I think we all longed boyishly for action. Pray you, remember that the most of us were very young, that to most of us the events of life had still something of the zest that a schoolboy finds in robbing an orchard and glutting himself with its treasures.

But while most of us were thus brimful of eagerness, he that had been until now our guide and leader, even Simone's man Maleotti, was all of a sudden retarded in his progress by the ill conduct of his nag. It was always a mettled beast, but now it turned restive and took to all kinds of bucking and jibbing and shying, that seemed strangely disconcerting to its rider, albeit he was known as a skilful cavalier. So Maleotti must needs dismount and look to his girths and gear, to see what ailed his steed, while we rode merrily forward, eager to join hands with those that we knew were awaiting us behind the mask of yonder clump of trees. What was it to us if Maleotti could not handle an unmanageable horse? Behind that brown wood Messer Griffo of the Dragon-flag waited for our coming—Messer Griffo, the famousest soldier of fortune in all Italy. Who could be more lucky than we to be thus chosen as sharers in an [Pg 255]enterprise that was honored by the alliance of so astonishing a condottiere? If I were to judge of all our fellowship by myself, as I fairly think I may judge, then I can assure you that all our pulses were drumming, that we were hungry and thirsty to get to grips with the devils of Arezzo.

How exquisitely vain is youth! We who rode and thought that we were going to do great deeds and win endless applause, how little we dreamed that we were no more than the toys of chance, the valueless shuttles between a rich man's gold and the kisses of a courtesan. We that likened ourselves to the conquerors of worlds were no better than petty pawns on an unfriendly chess-board, making moves of which we knew nothing, in obedience to forces of which we were as ignorant as children. All we knew, all we cared to know, in our then mood, was that we had come to the point where it was ordained that we were to meet and join forces with Messer Griffo of the Dragon-flag.


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