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XXI MALEOTTI BEARS FALSE WITNESS
On that summer morning which saw us riding homeward, all flushed and triumphant over our little victory, all Florence was early astir. Florence was ever a matutinal city, and her citizens liked to be abroad betimes to get at grips with their work, which they did well, and earn leisure for their pleasures, which they enjoyed as thoroughly. But on this especial morning the town seemed to open its eyes earlier than usual, and shake itself clear of sleep more swiftly, and to bestir itself with an activity unfamiliar even to a town of so active a character. The cause for this unwonted bustle was not easy to ascertain with precision. Somehow or other rumors, vague, fantastic, contradictory, perplexing, irritating, bewildering, had blown hither and thither as it were along the eaves and through chinks of windows and under doorways, as an autumn wind carries the dried dead leaves. These were rumors of some event of moment to the Republic that either had happened, or was about to happen, or was happening at that very instant of [Pg 267]time. What this event of moment might precisely be, few, indeed, could say, though all could make a guess and all availed themselves of the power, and many and varied were the guesses that men made, and very confident was every man that his particular guess was the only right and true one.

It is, indeed, strange how often, when some subtle move of statecraft is being made whereof secrecy is the very vital essence, though those that be in that secret keep their lips truly sealed, some inkling of what is going on seems by some mysterious intuition to be given to folk that have neither need of such knowledge, nor right nor title to it. So it certainly proved in Florence on the morning after the ride against Arezzo. Every man that came out into the streets—and the streets were soon full of people, as a pomegranate is full of seeds—was positive that something had happened of importance, or no less positive that something of importance was going to happen, or that something of importance was actually happening. In some occult manner it had leaked out that a number of the youths of Florence were absent from their dwellings. It gradually became known that all those that were thus absent were members of the same party, and that party the one which was held in no great affection by Messer Simone, the party of the Reds. Furthermore, the story of the formation of the Company of Death had become known, and it [Pg 268]needed no very elaborate process of speculation to assume that the youths whose lodgings lacked their presence had overnight, in Messer Folco's palace, inscribed their names in Messer Simone's great book of enrollment.

It being established, therefore, definitely, beyond doubt or cavil, that something had happened, the next great question for the expectant Florentines was, What thing had happened? But the answer to this question was not yet, and in the meantime the expectant Florentines had another matter of interest to consider and to discuss. Through all the noise and babble and brawling of that agitated morning there came a whisper, at first of the very faintest, which breathed insidiously and with much mystery a very amazing piece of news. Men passed the whisper on to men, women to women, till in a little while it had swelled into a voice as loud as the call of a public crier, carrying into every corner of the quarter where Messer Folco lived, and from thence into every other quarter of the city its astonishing message of amazing wedlock. Gossip told to gossip, with staring eyes and wagging fingers, that Messer Folco's daughter, Monna Beatrice, she that had been the May-day queen, and was so young and fair to look upon, she was to be married at nine of that morning to Messer Simone dei Bardi, the man that so few Florentines loved, the man that so many Florentines feared. It had, [Pg 269]of course, long been known in Florence, where the affairs of any family or individual are for the most part familiar to all neighbors, that Messer Simone wished to wed Monna Beatrice. It was known, too, that Messer Folco was in nowise opposed to the match. Yet, for the sake of the girl's sweetness and loveliness, all were ready to hope that such ill nuptials would never come to pass. Thus, when the news of the immediate marriage fluttered through Florence streets, it was the cause of no little astonishment to those that first heard it, and they carried it on the very edge of their lips to the nearest ears, and so made the circle of astonishment greater.

I am proud to say it, to the credit of my fellow-citizens, that the greater part of those that heard the tidings shook their heads and sighed. And, indeed, it needed no very great niceness of feeling or softness of heart to recognize that a marriage between a man like Messer Simone and a maid like Monna Beatrice was no admirable marriage, however much the wish of a parent was to be respected. Every one recognized that Beatrice was a maid as unusual in her goodness as Simone was a man, thank Heaven, unusual in his badness. Wherefore, all detested the undertaking. Yet disbelief in the story, a disbelief that was popular, had perforce to change into unpopular belief when the very church was named in which the ceremony was to [Pg 270]take place—the Church of the Holy Name; and those that hastened thither did indeed find all preparations being made for a wedding, and learned from the sacristan that Messer Simone did, indeed, upon that very morning, mean to marry the daughter of Folco Portinari. Yet, as I learned afterward, for all these assurances and all these preparations, the marriage was, up to a certain moment, no such sure a matter as Messer Simone wished and Messer Folco willed and the good-hearted folk of Florence regretted.

I have always accepted the customs of my time, and found them on the whole excellent, and it has ever been our custom for us to wed our daughters as we will, and not according to their wishes, our view being that elders are wiser than youngsters, and that it is more becoming and orderly that a maid should marry to please her father than that she should marry to please herself. For there may be a thousand reasons for a certain marriage, very obvious to a prudent parent, such as land, houses, plate, linen, vineyards, florins, and the like, all of which are of the utmost importance in the economy of a well-domesticated household, but are unhappily little calculated to attract the dawning senses of a nubile girl. Yet in a little while, when she has become a matron and got used to her husband, with what a complacent, with what a housewifely approving eye she will behold her treasures of gold [Pg 271]and silver and pewter and fine linen and the rest of her possessions. So, for the most part, it should always be; but there is no rule that has not its exception, and if ever there were a case in which a daughter might be justified for resisting the will of her parent in the matter of a marriage, I think the case of Folco's daughter is the case, and I for one can never be brought to blame her in the slightest degree for her conduct, or call it misconduct.

It seems that when the morning came Madonna Beatrice showed herself unexpectedly and unfamiliarly opposed, not merely to her parent's wish, but to her parent's commands. Messer Folco, who had not seen his daughter since the previous night, when she fell swooning in the arms of Messer Tommaso Severo, at first could not believe in her opposition. She told him, astonished as he was at this amazing mutiny, that she could not and would not wed Messer Simone, because her heart was pledged to another, and that other one whom she would not name. Madonna Beatrice kept silence thus rigorously the identity of her lover, because of her certainty that the swords of her kinsmen would be whetted against him the moment that his name was known. In this she was right, for Dante was everything that the Portinari scorned, being poor with a poverty that tarnished, in their eyes, his rightful nobility, being of the Reds, being of no [Pg 272]account in the affairs of Florence. That he was a poet would no more hinder them from killing him than the gift of song would save a nightingale from a hawk. Messer Folco was at first very stern and then very angry at his daughter's attitude, but he was stern and angry alike in vain. The more Messer Folco stormed, the less he effected. Though Beatrice seemed to grow paler and frailer at her father's nagging, she grew none the less stubborn, and Messer Folco's fury flamed higher at her unwonted obstinacy. His naturally choleric disposition got the better of his philosophic training and his habitual self-restraint, and he threatened, pleaded, and commanded in turns without making any change in Beatrice's frozen resistance. The pitiable struggle lasted until Messer Maleotti, having ridden leisurely through the cool of the morning, chose, when within sight of Florence, to spur his horse to a gallop and to come tearing through the gates, reeling on his saddle, as one that bore mighty tidings, which must be delivered to Messer Simone dei Bardi without delay.

What these tidings were Folco was soon enough to learn. Messer Simone hastened to Messer Folco's house and demanded audience of the lady Beatrice. He found her and her father together, Messer Folco still fuming, Madonna Beatrice still pale and resolved. Simone stayed with a large gesture Messer Folco's protestations of regret at [Pg 273]having so unmannerly a daughter, and, addressing himself to Beatrice, asked her if it was true that her affection for another stood in the way of her obedience to her father's wishes. She seemed to be almost past speech after the long struggle with her father, but she made a sign with her head to show that this was so. Thereupon Simone, making his voice as gentle and tender as it was possible for him to make it, went on to ask her if by any chance the man she so favored was young Messer Dante of the Alighieri. Madonna Beatrice would not answer him this question, either by word or sign. Then Simone, allowing his voice to grow sad, as one that sorrows for another's loss, assured her that if that were so, there could be no further obstacle to her father's wishes, because he was at that moment the bearer of the bad news that Messer Dante and all those that were with him had been killed that morning by treason in a wood half-way to Arezzo. While Messer Simone was telling this tale to Beatrice, the same story was running like fire through the streets of Florence, for Messer Maleotti was very willing to tell what had happened, or rather what he thought had happened, to whomsoever cared to ask or to listen, and I take it that there was not a man or woman in all Florence who did not seek to have news at first hand of the disaster.

It seems that at this news the unnatural resistance of Madonna Beatrice to her father's orders [Pg 274]broke down entirely. I use the term "unnatural" as one in nowise implying any censure of Madonna Beatrice for her resistance to her father's wishes, but rather as describing the strength beyond her nature which she put into that resistance. For I hold that the dominion of parents on the one side, and the obedience of children and the deference of children to that dominion on the other side, may be made too much of and thought too much of, and in no case more so than when a controversy arises concerning matters of the heart. All this wisdom by the way. If Madonna Beatrice had been pale before, she was paler now, and for a breathing-while it seemed as if she would swoon, but she did not swoon. They sent for her physician, Messer Tommaso Severo, who could do nothing, and said as much. Madonna Beatrice, he declared, was very weak; it were well not to distress her over-much. Beyond that he said little, partly because he was naturally enough in agreement with Messer Folco in his views as to the rule of parents over children, and partly because he was aware how frail a spirit of life was housed in her sweet body, and knew that no art of his or of any man's was of avail to strengthen it or to hinder its departure when the time must be.

While all this was toward, Madonna Beatrice seemed to come out of the silent fit into which the false news of Dante's death had cast her, and when [Pg 275]her father asked her again, something less sternly than before, but still peremptorily, if she would have Messer Simone for mate, she did no more than incline her head in what Messer Folco took to be a signal of submission to his will. At this yielding he, being by nature an authoritarian, seemed not a little pleased. For the death of Dante, and the effect that death might have upon his daughter's welfare, he did not care and did not profess to care in the least. Dante as a human being was nothing to him—nothing more, at least, than a young man who belonged to an opposite party, had no money or family backing, and owed what little esteem he had gained in the public mind to his writing some clever verses and making a mystery about their authorship, the said verses being particularly offensive to him, Folco Portinari, because they had the insolence to be aimed at his daughter. So having carried his point and enforced his authority, Messer Folco straightway sent a messenger to the church chosen for the ceremony to have all in readiness for the immediate nuptials.

As for Beatrice, though she still seemed like a woman that was stricken with a catalepsy, she was, by her father's orders, girded in a white gown and girdled and garlanded with white roses, and in such guise Messer Folco and Messer Simone between them—with my curse on them for a fool and [Pg 276]a knave—led their helpless victim from the Portinari house into the open air. There a litter awaited her, into which she went unresisting, and so with the people of her father's household about her, wearing her father's crest upon their coats, she went her way to the Church of the Holy Name.

I do not think that in all the tragic tales of old time there is one more lamentable than this of lady Beatrice. Monna Iphigenia, so piteously butchered in Aulis, that the Greek kings might have a soldier's wind toward Troy, was not more sadly sacrificed, and in the case of Beatrice, as in that of the Greek damsel, a father was a consenting party to the crime. The case of Jephthah's daughter was less pathetic, for there at least the parent was deeply afflicted by the darts of destiny, whereas old Agamemnon and our Folco were, whatever their reluctance to dedicate their daughters to an uncomfortable fate, quite prepared to do so. All of which goes to show that humanity is the same to-day as it was yesterday, and will, in all likelihood, be the same to-morrow. There will always be good and bad, kind and unkind, wise and foolish, always sweet lovers will be singing their songs in the praise of their sweethearts that are walking in the rose-gardens, and sour parents will be scowling from the windows. For my own part, I am always on the side of any lover, young or old, straight or [Pg 277]crooked, gentle or simple, for to my mind, in this muddle of a world, the state of being in love is at least a definite state, and, whenever and however gratified, a pleasant state.

I can honestly say, in looking back over the book of my memory, that I can find no page therein which is not overwritten with the name of some pretty girl. And though I will not be such a coxcomb as to assert that I was always favored by any fair upon whom it might please me to cast an approving eye, yet I must needs admit that I found a great deal of favor. This I attribute largely to a merry disposition and a ready desire to please, together with a very genial indifference if, by any chance, the maid should prove disdainful. For it may be taken as a general principle that maids are the less tempted to be disdainful if they guess—and they are shrewd guessers—that their disdain will be met with a blithe carelessness. Speaking of carelessness and disdain and the like, reminds me that I have never done what I meant to from the beginning, and tell you how I fared in my love-affair with Brigitta, the girl that gave me the cuff and had such strange eyes. But I fear now that I am too deeply embarked upon the love-affairs of another to have the leisure to digress into my own adventures. The world is more interested in love's tragedies than in the comedies of love, wherein I have ever played my part, and so I will go back to my Dante and [Pg 278]his sad affairs, and leave my little love-tale for another occasion. But at least I may be suffered to set down this much in passing—that Brigitta was a very attractive girl, and that I was really very fond of her.


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