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XXV MEETING AND PARTING
Dante, when he left me, accompanied Messer Tommaso Severo to the house of Folco Portinari. He was very silent on the way, thinking troubled thoughts, but Messer Tommaso Severo talked, telling him many things to which he listened heedfully in spite of his cares. Messer Tommaso Severo told him that Messer Folco had greatly changed in his bearing toward his daughter, the which, indeed, he had already told me, and that he seemed to understand, as it were, for the first time, how precious a life hers was, and how lovely and how fragile. Severo believed that Messer Folco would now be willing, if only he could liberate his child from the weight of the Bardi name, to leave her all liberty of choice as to the man she would wed, even if that man had neither wealth nor fame to back him. Such changes of mood, the physician averred, were not uncommon in men of Messer Folco's temperament, who are led by pride and vanity and many selfish motives into some evil course without rightly appreciating the fulness of [Pg 310]the evil. But when, by some strange chance, their eyes are cleansed to see the folly or the wickedness of their conduct, the native goodness in them asserts itself very violently, to the complete overthrow and banishment of the old disposition, and they are straightway as steadfast in the good extreme as of old they had been stubborn in the bad.

But what Messer Severo most spoke of was the strange delicacy of the physical nature and composition of Beatrice. Never, he declared, in all his long experience as a physician, had he met with any case like to hers. Although she seemed to the beholder to carry the colors of health in her cheeks and the form of health on her body, he asserted that she was of so ethereal a creation that the vital essence was barely housed by its tenement of flesh, and could, as he fancied, set itself free from its trammels with well-nigh unearthly ease. All of which he dwelt upon, because, being a man of science, it interested him mightily, and though he loved the girl dearly, it did not enter his wise head that what he said must cause a pang to the youth by his side, the youth who also loved her. But Dante made no sign that he heeded him to his hurt, but marched on doggedly, with a grim determination on a face that had aged much in a few days.

Florence was quiet enough as they trudged along through the streets that had been so crowded, so uproarious, yesterday. We soon settle down again [Pg 311]after one of our little upheavals, and whether the event has been Guelph killing Ghibelline, or Yellow hounding Red, or Black baying at White, the next morning sees the sensible Florentines going about their affairs as composedly as if nothing ever had happened, or, indeed, ever could happen, out of the common. So when the pair came to the Portinari palace, the Piazza of the Santa Felicita was well-nigh as desolate as the desert. Dante glanced, you may be very sure, at that painted image of the God of Love that ruled above the fountain by the bridge, and it seemed to him as if the statue gave him a melancholy glance. Yet Dante was going to see his beloved, and he could not be downcast.

When the two were under the shadow of the Portinari palace, Messer Tommaso Severo ceased talking, and going to the little door, knocked thrice upon it, whereupon the warder within, after peeping for a moment through a grill, opened it and admitted the doctor and his companion. In silence Severo conducted Dante through the silent corridors of the great house, which seemed strangely quiet in its contrast to the gayety on the night when Dante last beheld it. The pair met no one in their progress through the palace. Severo informed Dante that Folco was within, but keeping his rooms in much gloom because of all that had occurred, and the physician made no offer to bring Dante to his presence. After a time Severo came to a halt before [Pg 312]a certain door, on which he knocked again three times, as before. One of Beatrice's women answered his summons, and after a moment's whispered colloquy the girl withdrew. An instant later Severo pushed Dante into the room, and Dante found himself in the presence of Beatrice.

As Dante entered the room, Beatrice rose from the couch and advanced toward him with extended hands. "You are welcome, friend," she said.

Dante looked upon her paleness, and trembled and hardly knew what to say. "My lady, my dear lady—" he began, and paused and looked at her wistfully.

Beatrice smiled sadly at him. "Our loves have fallen upon evil days, Messer Dante," she said. "It is but a few poor hours ago since we changed vows, and here am I wedded to your enemy, wedded to my enemy. Dear God, it is hard to bear!" For a moment she hid her face in her hands, as if her sorrow was too great for her.

Dante's heart seemed to burn with a fierce flame. "It shall not be borne, Madonna!" he cried. "I have hands and a heart and a brain as good as Simone's. I would rather play the knave and stab him in the back than have him live to be your lord. But there is no need of stabbing or idle talk of stabbing. This false wedlock shall be broken like a false ring."

Beatrice chilled the hope of his mind with a [Pg 313]look of despair. "I do not know," she sighed, "I do not know. My father will do all he can. My father is a changed man in these hours. He weeps when he sees me, poor soul. But it is not sure we can break the marriage, after all."

"The Pope can break the marriage," Dante said.

Beatrice shook her head. "The Pope can do what he will, but he may not choose to tamper with a sacrament for the sake of two young lovers. It is all the world and its sober governance against two young lovers. It is all my fault, Dante."

Dante interrupted her with a groan. "Oh, my love—" he said, and said no more, for her look stayed him.

The girl went on, sadly: "If I had not yielded when I thought you dead, yielded in obedience, yielded in despair, we should be free now, you and I, to change many sweet thoughts into sweet words. But we are not so free, and it may be that we never shall be so free."

Dante compelled himself to speak bravely, combating her alarms. "Dearest, have no fear, have no doubt. Why, I will fight this Simone. Never smile at my slightness. All these weeks I have labored to make myself master of my sword, and I have mastered it. I tested my courage and my skill yesterday. Of my courage it is not fitting for me to speak, but my skill is a thing outside myself [Pg 314]that I may speak of, and I found it sufficient. I will fight Simone, I will kill Simone, you will be free."

Beatrice sighed. "Are we right to talk so lightly of life and death, you and I? Are we not wasting time? I sent for you to tell you that if I can never be yours, I will never be another's. I have no right to kill my body, that I know, but neither have I the right to kill my soul; and of the two sins I will choose the lesser, and sooner kill myself than lie in loveless arms. I gave myself to you, my lover, that night, when we changed vows in the moonlight. I will kiss no other man's lips, I will share no other man's bed. I am your wife by the laws of God, and I will die before I dishonor my bridal."

Dante took her hand and held it in his. "Oh, if Heaven could grant me a thousand hearts to house my love in and a thousand tongues to give my love utterance, I should still seem like a child stammering over its alphabet when I tried to tell how I love you. All about me I seem to hear the swell of mighty voices that thunder what my lips are too weak to whisper, yet what they say is only as if a chorus of angels cried aloud what I say beneath my breath, the three words that mean everything—I love you!"

Before the warmth and passion of his words a faint color kindled in the girl's cheeks as she gave him back assurance for assurance.

[Pg 315]

"I love you, Dante, as you love me, and if, on this earth, we should never meet again, my love would remain unchangeable with the changing days. If I that am now young live to be old, I shall think, with death before me and Heaven behind the wings of death, that my withered body in the Holy Field shall quicken into the fragrance of spring flowers because of the cleanness and the sweetness of my faith. My love shall keep the spirit of the girl that was Beatrice fresh and blithe for the boy that was Dante when they meet again in Heaven beyond the frontier of the stars."

Her voice seemed to fail a little as she spoke, but she held herself erect, as if her unconquerable purpose lent her the strength she lacked. Dante stood before her, silent, in a kind of awe. His passion for the girl had always been so chastened by reverence, his desires so girdled about by mystical emotions, that it seemed to him in that memorable hour as if he and she were rather the priest and priestess of some fair and ancient faith than man and woman that were lover and lover. His great love seemed to burn about him like a fierce white flame consuming all that was evil, all that was animal, in his corporeal being, and leaving nothing after its fiery caress but a body so purified as to be scarcely distinguishable from pure spirit. So Dante felt, enchanted, gazing in adoration upon Beatrice, and reading in the rapture of her answering [Pg 316]eyes the same splendid, terrible exaltation.

The spell lasted for an age-long while, and then Beatrice broke it, turning away from her lover's gaze, and as she did so Dante, lowering his eyes, saw how upon a table near the girl there stood a little silver casket, richly wrought with images of saints, and the lid of the casket was lifted, and in the casket Dante saw that there lay a single red rose, or, rather, that which had once been a red rose, but now lay withered and faded, the mummy of its loveliness. Dante looked at it in some wonder, and Beatrice followed his gaze and saw what he saw, and turned to him, smiling.

"Forgive me, friend," she said, "if in the joy of seeing you I forgot to thank you for your gift."

And Dante looked from the rose to her and from her to the rose, and his wonder grew, and he said, quickly, "I sent you no gift."

Then Beatrice gazed at him in surprise and told him. "One left this casket here for me this morning, a little while ago, shortly after I had sent for you, saying that it came from him whose name would be revealed by the treasure it contained. When I opened it I saw this rose, and I made sure it came from you, for I thought, 'This is the rose that I gave him, and he sends it to me in sign of greeting and of faith.'"

Dante shook his head, and he put his hand to [Pg 317]his bosom and drew forth a small piece of crimson, colored silk and unfolded it, and within the silk there lay a withered red rose, and he showed it to Madonna Beatrice, holding it on his extended hand.

"This is the rose you gave me, Madonna," he said. "Ever since that day it has lived next to my heart." And as he spoke his wonder seemed growing into fear, and he looked again at the casket and the rose that it held.

"What, then, is this rose?" Beatrice asked. "And who sent it?"

Dante folded his own rose away in its coverlet of silk, and put it back into his bosom. He shook his head. He was still full of wonder, the wonder that was growing into fear. Before he could put his troubled thoughts into words there came a hurried knocking at the door, and Messer Tommaso Severo entered, looking anxious and alarmed.

"I fear there is some new trouble moving," he said; "there is one come to your father with grave tidings, for Messer Folco's face was troubled; but I know not what the tidings are."

Dante paid no heed to the old man's words. He took the mysterious rose from the casket, and held it toward Severo. "Here," he said, "is a token that was sent to Madonna Beatrice this morning; do you know anything of it?"

Severo shook his head. "I know nothing of it," he said. "Who should send Madonna Beatrice a [Pg 318]withered rose?" He lifted it for a moment to his nostrils. "For all it is withered," he said, "it has a strange scent, a strong scent." He looked at the girl anxiously. "Have you smelled it?" he asked.

"Yes," said Beatrice, "I have smelled it, and I have kissed it, for I thought it came from Dante."

The old man muttered to himself, examining the flower and peering curiously into its petals. He seemed as if he would have spoken again, but was interrupted ere he could do so by the entrance of Messer Folco looking very wrathful and stern. Folco showed no surprise at Dante's presence, and saluted him with grave courtesy. Before Messer Folco could speak, Severo slipped from the room.

Folco spoke. "Beatrice," he said, "here is bad news. Messer Simone of the Bardi is coming hither at the head of an armed following to claim you and take you."

Beatrice said nothing in reply to these words. She only clasped her hands against her heart and looked wistfully at her lover.

Dante spoke. "Surely this cannot be, Messer Folco, seeing that the Peace of the City was put upon him, as upon me, yesterday, before all Florence."

"Messer Simone is no stickler for principles," Folco said, sourly; "he cares for no laws that he can break. But in this case he claims to be acting [Pg 319]according to his right, since the breaking of the peace comes from you."

"From me!" Dante stared at Folco in amazement.

But Messer Folco nodded his head emphatically in support of what he had just affirmed. "I have it all," he said, "from a friend of mine that has just come hotfoot from his neighborhood to give me warning, so that we may be ready to yield without making difficulties. Messer Simone affirms that you have broken the peace by visiting his wedded wife without his knowledge or consent, and that he is in his rights as a citizen, a husband, and a man in coming here to claim his bride and to defend her from your advances."

"I do no wrong in coming here," Dante said, sternly. "I came here without secrecy, as I had a right to come if you were not unwilling."

"Yes, yes," Folco said, "you came here without secrecy; but Simone's man, Maleotti, sees you and runs to tell his master, and presently his master will be here to claim his wife."

"What will you do, then?" asked Dante, studying the elder's face.

Messer Folco spoke proudly. "Folco Portinari will defend his daughter. Folco Portinari will defend his house so long as the stones of its walls hold together. My servants are arming now. I have sent to the Signory for aid from the Priors. [Pg 320]If the Bardi beards me, let him look to himself." He turned to Dante, and addressed him. "Young man, I know you better than I did, and rate you higher. I overheard your talk with my daughter just now, as I had a right to do, and I esteem you a brave and honorable man. You have already shown that you can serve the state. If there comes a happy way out of this tangle, I shall be glad to welcome you again. But now it were well you should leave us."

Dante respectfully saluted Folco. "I thank you with all my heart," he said, simply, "for to-day's favor. I take my leave quickly, for I have a word to say to Simone." He turned to Beatrice, took her hand, and, bending, kissed it reverentially. "Most dear lady, farewell." He looked once, longingly, into the wide, tearless eyes of Beatrice, then turned and left the room rapidly.

With a loving glance at his daughter, Messer Folco turned and followed him. A minute later Tommaso Severo, entering the room with a look of grave anxiety on his face, was but just in time to catch Beatrice in his arms as she fell in a swoon.

As Dante made his way through the corridors of the palace, Messer Folco came after him hot upon his heels. "You will lose your way, Messer Dante," he panted, "if you have not me to guide you." He led Dante quickly by the way along which he had come, the two going in silence.

[Pg 321]

Suddenly Dante caught his companion by the arm, and addressed him eagerly: "Do me a good turn before I go," he said. "You see me with the Peace of the City upon me; I carry no weapon. Lend me a sword."

Messer Folco would have dissuaded Dante, urging him to put himself in some place of safety as speedily as might be.

But Dante shook his head. "I must have a sword," he insisted. "I wish to speak with my enemy at the gate."

Then Messer Folco, seeing that he was obdurate, and in his heart applauding his obstinacy, took him aside to a kind of armory, and there, from an abundance of weapons, Dante chose him a long sword, which he thrust into his belt. Thus weaponed, he followed Messer Folco to the gate of the palace and passed out into the fierce daylight, and as he heard the bolts shot behind him, he looked about him to see if there was any one hard by whom he knew. He saw a youth with whom he had some acquaintance, and called him to him, and begged him to go with all speed to Messer Guido Cavalcanti and tell him that his friend Dante waited for him and such friends as he could muster at the Portinari palace. And when the youth had gone Dante stood patiently, waiting for the things to be.


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