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XXIII THE PEACE OF THE CITY
While Messer Folco spoke, he did not look at Messer Dante at all, but seemed to address himself solely to Messer Guido, as being the man of most standing present among his antagonists, and he began to reprove Messer Guido very sharply for such brawling and riotous conduct. But Messer Guido answered him very plainly and courteously that he was there present merely as a friend of his friend, and that it was for Messer Dante and not for him to speak as to the reasons for what he had done.

Then Dante cried out in a loud voice to those about him, saying: "Oh, Florentines, I am here to demand justice of the Republic! For this lady and I were troth-pledged, and she has only been persuaded to marry my enemy through a lying tale of my death."

At these words of Dante's, the clamor and tumult that had lulled for a moment broke out afresh, every man striving to say his say at the same time, with the result that no man was anywise [Pg 287]audible in the great din that followed. It seemed likely that Florence would see again enacted one of those bloody public feuds such as had not now, for some time, desolated her hearths and distracted her streets. People were beginning to divide on this unexpected quarrel and take this side or that, as their fancy or their allegiance might lead them, and I think that the most part of the public took sides with Dante, partly because he was young and a lover, and partly because he was one of the victors in the fight against the Aretines, and fresh from the field of triumph, and partly, too, out of a very general dislike to Messer Simone. But Simone had plenty of followers too, that were very ready to draw sword and to strike for him, and Messer Folco Portinari had his friends and his kinsfolk, who shared his indignation at the wrong which, as they conceived, was thus publicly put upon him.

The object of Messer Folco's friends was to take away Beatrice from Dante, by whose side she now stood, very pale and calm and determined. The object of Messer Simone was now, if by any means he could compass it, to kill Dante where he stood, and as many of his friends as were with him, and so get rid of this troublesome young opponent once for all. Therefore, many swords were raised in the air, and many voices screamed old war-cries that had not vexed the winds of Florence for long enough, and enemy taunted enemy, and antagonist [Pg 288]challenged antagonist, and it needed but a little thing to set fire to the torch of civic war. But before any sword could strike against another, and before those zealous champions of peace, that were running as fast as they could to the Signory to summon the city authorities to intervene and stay strife, could gain their end, there came an unexpected interruption to the threatened conflict.

It was Beatrice herself who held back the hostile forces and stayed the lifted swords. She moved from her place by the side of her lover and stood a little ways apart from him, at about an equal distance between him and her father, and she raised her voice to speak to the people of her city; and those about her, seeing what she meant to do, were instantly silent, and the silence spread over all the assembled crowd; and when Beatrice spoke she was heard by all who were present. It was a rare and a strange thing for a Florentine woman thus to address a turbulent assemblage of citizens that seemed bent on immediate battle. Yet the lady Beatrice spoke to all those fierce and eager people as sweetly and as quietly as if she had been welcoming her father's guests in her father's house. What she said was to the effect that she entreated all those that were about her to have patience, even as she would have patience. She further said that a great wrong had been done to her, for it was indeed true that she had plighted her troth to Messer [Pg 289]Dante there present, though this had been done in secret, for which secrecy she now asked her father's forgiveness, but that when her father desired her to marry Messer Simone, she had refused to wed another than the man she loved, whatever might come of it. Then she said she had been told of Dante's death, and had no further strength left in her to disobey her father's wishes, seeing that if her lover were indeed dead, she had no care for what might become of her. Now she appealed to her father and to the people of her city to take her strange and sad case into their hands, and to protect her until it was made plain that she had been wrought upon by fraud and cunning, and forced by false representations into a marriage that should never have taken place and should now be annulled.

All the people marvelled to hear her speak so calmly and so wisely, and the most part of them applauded her when she had done speaking, and Messer Folco, for all his anger and his wounded pride, was touched by her words, and extended his hand to her, and she came to him and stood by his side. But Messer Simone and Messer Simone's people would have none of the proposal, and shouted loudly against it, and it seemed as if the brawl were likely to begin again on the instant, and I am very sure it would have done so had it not been for the arrival of the Priors of the city with an armed following. These kept the two [Pg 290]opposing parties asunder, and the Captain of the People of the city demanded to know the meaning of what had happened, and Messer Guido Cavalcanti began to tell him the tale.

Now, while he did so, and while all were listening to him in silence, Messer Dante, who was standing very still and stern, with his hands resting upon the hilt of his sword, felt that one plucked him by the garment, and, turning, found that a woman stood at his side with a hood drawn closely over her face. This woman told him, in a low voice that seemed to him familiar, that if he was alive in that hour it was no thanks to Messer Simone, who had sold him to Griffo, and had, as he believed, sent him and his companions to a certain and treacherous death, and that he would have perished if Messer Griffo had not been persuaded to play an honorable part and be faithful to the city of Florence. When the woman had done speaking she slipped away from Dante and disappeared into the crowd, and Dante, with that strange story humming in his brain, waited with little patience till Messer Guido had finished saying his say to the listening authorities. Then he sprang forward toward the Captain of the People, declaring, in a loud voice, that Messer Simone was a traitor to the city, inasmuch as to gratify a private hate, he had sent him and his fellows to perish in an ambuscade.

Now at these words, of course, the brawling was [Pg 291]renewed a thousandfold worse than before, every man screaming at the top of his voice and gesticulating, as if in the hope that pantomime might succeed in conveying his opinions where words indeed must fail in the hubbub. Under cover of the clamor, men of the Red party and men of the Yellow party challenged one another to the arbitrament of steel, and what with the shouting and counter-shouting and the clatter of weapons, and the stamping of many feet on the cobbles, there was such a din set up as seemed to some of us, in our bewilderment, likely to last forever. Words would speedily have become blows and blows brought blood, and all the place become a battle-field very presently, if it had not been for the presence of the Captain of the People and the Priors of the city, whose dignity indeed counted for nothing to allay the tumult, but whose strong escort of armed men served the turn better by keeping the would-be combatants apart, that were so lusting to be upon one another. After a while, for want of a better settlement, this composition was agreed upon, or, rather, was decided upon by the Priors, that were enabled to enforce their authority by their showing of armed force.

What they did was to put the Peace of Florence, as the custom was in those days, upon the belligerent disputants. According to this custom, each of the parties to any quarrel that threatened to become [Pg 292]such a public brawl as might cause disturbance to the state was called upon to clasp the hand of the Captain of the People, and swear to keep the Peace of the City. If he did this, he was suffered to go to his own house, where for a while, as I think, authority kept a wary eye upon him. If he would not do this, then the Captain of the People had the right to clap him into prison and keep him there till he was of a more reasonable and pacific mood of mind. All of which serves to show how excellent were our laws and customs, and how intelligently and discriminatingly they were administered.

Well, our Captain and Priors put the Peace of the City upon Messer Simone dei Bardi, that was on one side of the quarrel, and on Messer Dante dei Alighieri, that was on the other side of the quarrel. Messer Simone took the peace because he could not very well help doing so at that time and in that place, being, as it were, in a tight corner. He was outnumbered for the moment; the feeling of the fickle public was against him, taken, as it naturally was and rightly was, by the love-tale and Dante's youth and daring, and Beatrice's beauty and her sadness and her courage. So, with a sour smile enough, the bull-faced fellow flung out his right hand to the Captain of the People and gave the clasp of peace, and then drew back a little, very sullen and scowling, yet for the nonce tame enough. [Pg 293]Then Dante in his turn came forward to give and take the pressure of peace, and all we that looked upon him and loved him, Messer Guido and I and others of our age and company, thought that we had never beheld him show more noble. His spirit, that had been tempered in conflict, gave an elder's dignity to his youth; his anger had set him in a splendid sternness, while his love had invested him with the raiment of a no less splendid serenity. It was a brave and chivalrous soldier that stood there in the sight of all Florence, a figure infinitely better to my eyes than the scholar who dogged the footsteps of Brunetto Latini, or even than the poet whose songs had enchanted the city. For a scholar is often a thing of naught, and a poet, as I know, may be little enough, but our Dante, as he stood there and gave the pledge of peace, was indeed a man.

So it was for the time arranged and settled. Madonna Beatrice, she that was a wife and yet no wife, went with her father to her father's house, there to abide until such time as a decision might be come to as to her case. Messer Simone, in high dudgeon, withdrew to his dwelling-place with his friends about him. As for Messer Dante, he was for going to his lodging, very lonely and stern and silent, but I would not have it so. For I could guess, being, after all, no fool, how bad it might be for one of so sensitive a disposition as my friend [Pg 294]to fret his spirit in isolation. So I persuaded him—and indeed I think in the end he was not sorry to be so persuaded—to take up his quarters with me.

Mine were merry rooms in a merry house of a merry neighborhood, and therein I installed him, and did my best to cheer him, and in the end persuaded him to talk a little, but not much. For he was one of those that will spin out the secret of his heart in rhymes for all the world to read, but is inclined to be sullenly mumchance if invited to open his bosom to a sympathetic listener. But anyways I sang to him; I had a mellow voice in those days, and even now, though I ought not to say it, Brother Lappentarius is as good as another, and perhaps better, when it comes to chanting a hymn. I pressed food and wine upon him, of which, however, he would taste but little, for the which lack of good-fellowship I was obliged to make amends myself, that was ever a good trencherman, by eating and drinking for the pair of us. Which I did, as I am pleased to believe, very honestly and thoroughly. But I think, on the whole, I was glad, as I sat and watched him sitting there by my hearth, with the brooding look on his face that was already so eagle-like, that my love-affairs had not conducted me to such great stresses of the soul. I had enjoyed myself very much. I was, as I am pleased to record, to enjoy myself even more in the years that [Pg 295]followed. But my pastimes had never cost me, and never did cost me, an hour's sleep for any cares that they brought me, and I never had to strive with the great ones of the earth for the smiles of any she. While here was my Dante, very unhappy, in a position of great danger, menaced by mighty enemies, threatened by an infinity of perils, and all for a woman. "All for the woman!" he would have answered me, rebuking me, if I had been so unwise as to set my views of life and love before him on that day.

I was not so unwise. I merely babbled and chanted to divert him from his distress, and was careful to keep my thoughts to myself. In my heart I wondered how it was all to end for him, that was so young and so little rich, pitted against such powerful interests. At least I could read in his face, and in those lines which destiny was already tracing with iron pencil on his springtime's flesh, that he would face his dangers and his difficulties with a dauntless spirit, and that no enemy or bunch of enemies would ever get the better of that so long as it still held a lodging within the carnal house. If I was glad, on the whole, that I was not in Messer Dante's shoes, I may say very truly that I did not think any the better of myself then, and do not think any the better of myself now, for being so glad. But it is well to know one's own boundaries, and I knew [Pg 296]very well that I was never made for Dante's loves or Dante's hates or Dante's adventures on life's highway. Well, if there must be knights-errant, there must also be more easy-going, flower-picking pilgrims in the pageant of life.


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