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XX THE FIGHT WITH THOSE OF AREZZO
This was what was to have happened at this point; this is what caused Messer Maleotti to have so much show of trouble with his steed. The little company of Florentine gentlemen were to have joined their forces with those that rode under the Dragon-flag of Messer Griffo, were to have ridden with them into the darkness of the wood, and were then and there incontinently to have been cut to pieces by the mercenaries. Maleotti, lingering behind to look after that troublesome horse of his, saw that much of this came very properly to pass. As the Florentines of the Company of Death came within view and hail of that midway wood, there rode out to greet them a number of Free Companions, with Messer Griffo at their head. In the gray of the growing dawn Maleotti could recognize him very clearly by his height on horseback and his burly English bulk, and Maleotti, still busy with his horse, could see how the two forces joined hands, so to speak, and how the free-lances gathered around the little company of youths from Florence, [Pg 257]and, as it were, swallowed them up in their greater number, and how the whole force, thus united, disappeared into the darkness of the wood, as the children in the fairy tale disappear into the mouth of the giant.

Then Maleotti made up his mind that he had seen enough, and congratulated himself upon his wisdom in holding aloof from that meeting, for, as he very sensibly reflected, in a scuffle of the sort that was arranged to follow, your mercenary who is paid to kill is not always clear-headed enough to distinguish between his properly appointed victims and a respectable individual like Maleotti, who was a firm friend and faithful servant of the master butcher. So Maleotti mounted on his horse, which, now that we were out of sight, had very suddenly and unexpectedly grown quiet again, and rode off at an easy walking pace toward Florence, congratulating himself and his master upon a night's work well done.

Yet Maleotti had to learn that it does not always follow in life that because the first portion of a carefully prepared plan goes as it was intended to go, the rest of the plan must necessarily move with equal success along its appointed lines. Though Maleotti was as sure as if he had seen it of our slaughter in the forest shambles, there came no moment in that journey of ours through the darkness of the wood when Messer Griffo, drawing his [Pg 258]sword, thundered an appointed order, and forces of destruction were let loose upon the Company of Death. On the contrary, Messer Griffo rode very quietly and pleasantly by the side of Messer Guido, chatting affably of the affairs of Florence and the pleasures and advantages of a morning attack, when you take your enemy by surprise, and ever and anon, to Messer Guido's surprise, leading the conversation craftily to the name of Monna Vittoria, and dwelling enthusiastically on her manifold charms and graces. I, still by the side of Dante, trotted on in the most blissful unconsciousness that if things had gone as they were intended to go, we should all be lying on the carpet of the wood with our throats cut.

It was only later that I learned, partly from the lady herself that was the main cause of the change, and partly from Messer Griffo, in a moment of confidence over a flask of Lacrima Christi, when all those things that I am speaking of were as ancient as the Tale of Troy. Julius C?sar! what that morning's business might have been, and was meant to be, by our friend Simone! It seems that Monna Vittoria, being a woman, and shrewd, and knowing her Simone pretty well, saw clearer through the device of the Company of Death when it was first hinted at than any of the feather-headed enthusiasts who were eager to swell its levy. And being a watchful woman and a cunning and a clever, she [Pg 259]soon found out that Messer Simone was in treaty with Messer Griffo of the Dragon-flag, and feeling sure that what she might fail to elicit from Simone she could get from Messer Griffo, she was at pains to make herself acquainted with that gallant adventurer, and to show him certain favors and courtesies which won his English heart. So that in a little while Madonna Vittoria knew all about Simone's purposes, and very pleasantly resolved to baffle them.

In her opinion, it was a very important point in her game that Dante should be alive and well, and the wooer of lady Beatrice. So long as Dante lived to love and be loved, as she, with her cunning intuition, guessed him to love and be loved, so long there was little likelihood that Messer Simone would win the girl's hand and his wager, and leave her, Vittoria, very patently in the lurch. She reasoned rightly that such a maid as Beatrice would not yield her love while her lover lived, and she hoped that Messer Folco, for all he liked to play the Roman father, was in his heart over fond of his daughter to seek to compel her to a hateful marriage by force. It was, therefore, of the first importance to Vittoria to thwart the devices of Simone having for their object the death of Dante, and, to a woman like Vittoria, it was by no means of the first difficulty to carry out her purpose.

The winning over of Messer Griffo was no very [Pg 260]difficult business. He was paid so much by Messer Simone; it only remained for Monna Vittoria to pay him more to secure at least a careful consideration of her wishes. She pointed out to the condottiere that all the advantage lay for him in doing what she desired and leaving undone what was desired by Messer Simone. Messer Griffo would serve Florence by preserving the lives of so many of her best citizens; he would serve Florence by aiding those citizens in that raid upon Arezzo, from which so much was hoped; he would serve Florence by saving Messer Simone from the stain of such unnecessary blood-guiltiness; above all, which to her, and indeed to the Free Companion, seemed perhaps the most important point in the argument, he would serve Monna Vittoria.

Messer Griffo had ever an eye for a fine woman, and he was mightily taken with Monna Vittoria, and made his taking plain in his bluff, simple, soldierly fashion with a fine display of jewels and gold, which only served to move Monna Vittoria to laughter, for she had as much as she cared to have of such trifles, and was not to be purchased so. But she clinched her bargain with him by assuring him, when she paid into the hands of a sure and trusted third party the overprice agreed upon, which was to make Messer Griffo false to Messer Simone, that after the return to Florence of the Company of Death uninjured by him or his, he [Pg 261]would be a very welcome visitor at her house, and might consider himself for a season the master of everything it contained. Messer Griffo was in his way an amorist and in his way an idealist, to the extent of regarding one pretty woman as more important than another pretty woman, so he took Monna Vittoria's money and fooled Messer Simone, and spared the lives of the young Florentine gentlemen, and rode with them and fought with them, as you shall presently hear.

It is no part of my intention to rehearse all that happened as the result of our little raid. You can read all about it at great length elsewhere. It was, as it proved, a very successful little raid. The Aretines, marching out of their stronghold in good force to assault us, whom they expected to find marching in all innocence to our doom, were very neatly and featly taken in ambuscade by us. For, by the advice and orders of Messer Griffo, who knew his business if ever a soldier of fortune did, we that were of the Company of Death, we that the men of Arezzo expected to see, we rode the latter part of our ride alone, as if indeed we were the only attacking force, the while Messer Griffo dissimulated his lances easily enough in the woods and valleys adjacent. And when the Aretines perceived us, they shouted for satisfaction and made to fall upon us pell-mell, having no heed of order or the ordinances of war. Then it was, while they [Pg 262]were in this hurly-burly, that Messer Griffo launched his men upon them from the right and from the left, and that the real business of the day began. For what seemed to me quite a long space of time, though indeed the whole business lasted little more than an hour, there was some very pretty fighting, with the solution of the war-like riddle far from certain. For the Aretines were more numerous than we expected by a good deal, and, for all they were taken by surprise, they carried themselves, as I must confess, with a very commendable display of valor.

To be entirely honest, I must confess that I remember very little about the skirmish or scuffle or battle or whatever you may please to call it. There was a great deal of charging and shouting, and though there were a good many of us engaged on both sides on that field, it seemed to me, at the time, as if I enjoyed a kind of isolation, and had no immediate, or at least dangerous, concern with all those swords and lances that were hacking and thrusting everywhere about me. I have since been told by tough soldiers that when they were tender novices they felt much the same as I felt in the clash of their first encounter, felt as if the whole thing were a business that, however serious and significant to others, was of no more moment than a pageant or a play to them themselves that were having their first taste of war. Though I gave and [Pg 263]took some knocks as the others did, and shouted as they shouted, I had at the time no fear, not because of my valor, but because of a sudden numbing of my wits, which left me with no intelligence to do otherwise than charge and shout and lay about me like the rest.

I am glad to record that Dante carried himself valiantly; not, indeed, that I saw him at all till the tussle was over and such of our enemies as were left taking to their heels as nimbly as might be. But I had it on the word of Messer Guido, who could see as well as do, and who told me the tale, that our friend bore himself most honorably and courageously in the skirmish, which ended by beating back the discomfited and diminished Aretines within the shelter of their walls. It was, indeed, but a petty engagement, yet to those concerned it was as serious as any pitched battle, and afforded the same chance of a wreath of laurel or a broken head. And it seems certain that our Dante deserved the wreath of laurel. He showed a little pale at first, according to Guido, when the moment came to engage, and it may be that there was a little trembling of the unseasoned members that was not to be overmastered. But in a twinkling our Dante was as calm as a tempered veteran, and in the thickest of the scrimmage he urged himself as indifferent to peril as if, like Achilles in the old story, he had been dipped in Styx.

[Pg 264]

What he told me himself later, as we rode for home, though he spoke but little of the business and unwillingly, in reply to my eager and frequent questionings, did but confirm what Guido related. He had, he admitted frankly, been somewhat scared at first, but instantly he had thought of his lady, and with that thought all terror fell away from him, and his one desire became so to carry himself in that encounter as to be deserving of her esteem. Afterward he told me that while he was in the tremors of that first and unavoidable alarm he was cheered by a miracle. You know already how the God of Love, in very person, had ridden, visible only to the eyes of Dante, by Dante's side that night, though the vision vanished at the time when the lances of the Dragon-flag rode out of the sheltering wood to welcome our coming. Well, now it seems that, when Dante was assailed by that very human, pitiable, and pardonable pain and frailty, he suddenly became aware again of the God of Love that was riding hard by him, but this time a little in front, and this time on a great black war-horse. It seemed to Dante that the wonderful youth turned a little in his saddle as he rode, and showed his comely face to Dante and smiled, and it appeared to Dante as if Love said to him, "Where I go, will not you go too?" And at the sound of those words, Dante's heart was as hot as fire within his body, and he carried himself very valiantly in [Pg 265]the battle, as every man should that serves his city and loves a fair woman.

Now if you that read me be at all inclined to wonder why we rode back so rapidly to Florence on the very top of our victory, I am very ready to tell you the why. It was Messer Griffo's doing, which is as much as to say that it was Monna Vittoria's doing, who had laid her commands upon her trusty Free Companion for her own ends. When the battered Aretines had scurried back within the shelter of their walls, we would have been ready and willing enough, we of the Company of Death, to stay and besiege them. But Messer Griffo would not have it so, and Messer Griffo was our captain. His orders were that as soon as we were breathed after our battle—for I like to call it a battle—and had eaten and drunk of the food and wine with which the mercenaries were plentifully provided, we should ride back to Florence as briskly as might be, and uplift the hearts of our fellow-citizens with our joyful tidings of triumph. Which is why we got back to Florence on the morning of our engagement, as Monna Vittoria wished, but not so early as Monna Vittoria would have wished if she had known what was happening in our absence—known what you are about to know.


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