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XXVI THE ENEMY AT THE GATE
Dante had not long to wait. From all directions folk came hurrying into the Place of the Holy Felicity, presaging by their presence untoward events. Among these were certain friends of Dante's, youths that, like him, had enrolled themselves on the fellowship of the Company of Death and had ridden to Arezzo together. These he called toward him, and put them quickly in possession of what was toward, and those that carried weapons stood by him, and those that were weaponless hastened to find weapons and came back swiftly. As the square was filling with people there came along at a trot the few guards that the Priors, in their wisdom, had deemed it sufficient to send for the defence of Messer Folco's house, and these gathered together hard by the door and stood there, seeming to find little comfort in their business. Scarcely had they taken their places when a great roar from the farther end of the square announced some event of moment, and immediately thereafter Messer Simone rode forward on his [Pg 323]great war-horse with a small army of soldiers, friends, and adherents after him. At the selfsame moment Messer Guido Cavalcanti and a number of his friends came racing into the square from the other corner and rushed in a body toward the door of the Portinari palace, where Dante was standing very quietly, seemingly all unconscious of the myriads of eyes that were fixed upon him. Thus, by the time that Messer Simone and his followers had advanced half-way across the square, there was a goodly number of well-armed and resolute gentlemen gathered about the doors of Folco's palace, and their strength was increased almost every instant by new additions to their count.

When Messer Simone saw the opposition that was intended to him, and who those were that offered it, he was hugely delighted, for he perceived now an excellent opportunity of getting rid of the majority of his enemies at a single stroke, as it were. The men he had with him that filled a goodly part of the square were far more numerous than those that had been thus hastily rallied against him, and he chuckled at his luck. But when he saw Dante where he stood he reviled him, calling him the thief that would steal a man's wife from his side, and summoning him to yield himself a prisoner instantly. He did this to put himself in the right with the people before he made an attack, and to disgrace Dante in their eyes. But Dante [Pg 324]answered him very quietly, saying that he was a liar and a traitor that had cheated a woman with fables like a coward, and sent his fellow-citizens to death by treachery like a rogue. "But," so Dante went on, "liar though you be, and traitor and coward and rogue, as this is our quarrel, yours and mine and no other man's, I call upon you to dismount and meet me here sword in hand, that it shall be seen which of us two is the friend of God in this matter."

At these brave words many of the people cheered, and Simone was in a red rage at their cries, but he laughed at Dante and mocked him; yet I think he cannot have been so sure of himself as before, or he would have taken Dante's challenge for the pleasure of slaying him with his own hands. I am not sure that he would have slain Dante, and very possibly Dante might have slain him, for Dante's skill with the weapon was now marvellous for his age. But, however, that was not to be. Then Messer Simone bade Messer Guido and his friends stand away from Messer Folco's gates, for he had a mind to go in and get his wife. When Messer Guido denied him steadfastly, and called upon him to keep the peace, Messer Simone grinned, and, turning to his men, was for giving them the word to fall on. But even then another great roar from the crowd told of some new thing, and the trampling of many horses was heard, and over the bridge [Pg 325]came a company of lances, and over their heads fluttered the Dragon-flag of Griffo of the Claw, and the great Free Companion and his fellows forced their way through the yielding throng and took up their station opposite Messer Simone and his friends, and it was very plain that it was their intention to oppose him. This was just the time that I got to the square, as I have already told.

Messer Simone's plans had been grievously marred by the, for him, untimely appearance of Messer Griffo and his lances. Up to that moment he seemed to have the city pretty well at his mercy. His party counted the more numerous adherents and the better prepared. The Reds were taken by surprise, and were largely scattered about among the crowd, instead of being drawn together into a solid body like the Yellows. In the seats of authority counsels were much divided, and, in view of such division, it was difficult, if not impossible, to take any decided action against Simone and his friends. Moreover, there was, or so at least it seemed to many who were not necessarily on Messer Simone's side, on the face of it, not a little to be said for Bull-face of the Bardi. The daughter of Folco Portinari was indeed his wife, and it seemed to those that were sticklers for the solemnity of the married state, however brought about, that he had every right to claim her, and, if put to it by unwise opposition, to take her from her father's house.

[Pg 326]

That the girl's consent to the wedding had been either extorted from her by menace or won from her by means of a sorry trick mattered little in the eyes of these disciplinarians. A daughter, according to their philosophy, had no right to have an opinion of her own as to her spouse. She was bound by the old rules and customs of the country to accept with submission, and not merely with submission but with meekness, and not merely with meekness but with gratitude, the husband that might be selected for her by the wisdom of her elders. All this volume of feeling—and it ran with a pretty strong current—was in favor of Messer Simone, and Messer Simone knew that it would be so in his favor, and counted on it, and made the most of it, displaying himself very obstreperously before the city as the defrauded husband.

Nor, as I have said, was the fact that Messer Simone had been a party—if, indeed, this could be proved against him, and were no more than mere malicious rumor—to a planned ambuscade, with its consequent slaughter of Florentine chivalry, found to weigh very heavily against him in the minds of many that belonged to the Yellow fellowship. A man must get rid of his enemies as best he can, after all, and the misfortune in this matter for Messer Simone was that he had flagrantly failed in his enterprise, and had rather strengthened than weakened his adversaries by his misadventure. [Pg 327]Anyway, he may have had nothing whatever to do with the matter, and must for the present be accorded the benefit of the doubt.

All these things combined to make Messer Simone's rising a mighty serious matter, and his appearance at the head of his little army of followers before the house of Messer Folco of the Portinari a thing of sufficiently grave concern for Messer Folco. Simone clamored for his wife, Simone insisted on his wife being delivered over to him, Simone loudly announced his intention, if the girl were not promptly and peaceably surrendered to him, of laying siege to the Portinari palace and taking her thence by force.

Now, of the populace of Florence, that was soon set astir and buzzing by all this war-like circumstance, I think that the most part were against Messer Simone in this business, because of the general pity felt for the girl, and the general admiration for young Dante that was now proved poet and proved soldier, and the general sympathy for two young lovers troubled by adverse stars. But such sympathy could do little against the grim arguments of Simone, against those steady ranks of his adherents, heavily armed, and resolute to follow their leader wherever he might choose to lead them. Yet the people had found a leader in Dante, whose words had set their minds on fire, and the gradually increasing number of the Reds [Pg 328]that had made their way to the place and were clustered about Guido Cavalcanti stiffened their fluent units into something like a solidity of opposition. But the odds were amazingly on the side of the Yellows in everything that was necessary for success, in readiness, in discipline, in weapons, in stubbornness of determination to do the thing they wished to do—as indifferent to the laws of the city as heedless of the laws of Heaven. The points of the game were all in favor of Messer Simone.

But when Messer Griffo of the Claw rode into the city at the head of his levy of lances, with Monna Vittoria in her male attire riding by his side, and the Dragon banner flapping over all, things began to wear a very different face. Messer Griffo and his merry men forced their way easily enough across the bridge, pushing steadily through the crowds that gave way before them and cheered them as they passed, for Griffo of the Claw was popular in Florence. The company of mercenaries, as I have said, came to a halt by Messer Folco's house, and drew up in face of Simone and his forces.

Now, when I came upon the scene, I was still a little dizzy with wine and sleep, whose fumes my race through the streets of the city had not wholly dissipated, but I was beginning to collect my senses and to understand what was going forward. My Dante, standing with his drawn sword in front of [Pg 329]Folco's door, the few and frightened civic guards about the Portinari palace, the group of Guido Cavalcanti and his brethren of the Red, the Bull-face Bardi with a multitude behind him, and in front of these the new-come Free Companions, calm as statues behind their master and the man-woman by his side—all these made up such a sight as I never saw before and have never seen since, though I saw much in my time when I was a worldling, but naught to equal that day's doings.

I have told you already how I forced and coaxed a passage through the throng on the piazza as quickly as I could, with the aid of my cry, "Make way for the Company of Death!" shouted with great assurance, as if I had at my heels all who had enrolled themselves in that strange brotherhood. As a fact, many of the company were ranked behind Messer Simone, serving his cause, and of those that rode with me to Arezzo, the most part were gathered together about Messer Guido Cavalcanti and backed Dante's quarrel, and, indeed, the company never served together as a company after that day. But the name was just then very pleasing to Florentine ears, because of the little triumph over the Aretines, and so the name of the company served me as a talisman to squeeze me through the press to the front, and so to place myself by Guido's side.

Messer Simone glared very ferociously at the new-comers, at Griffo of the Claw, that had lost [Pg 330]him one toss already, and at the woman who rode beside him so gay and debonair in her mannish habit—the woman he had slighted, the woman who had, as he guessed, baffled his plans once, and had now come, as he might be very sure, to baffle them again. It was plain to him that he had lost the day. It needed no great tactician, no strategist, to perceive that the coming of the condottieri had turned the scale against him. They were better weaponed than his men, and when their strength was added to that of the adversaries already arrayed against him, he was gravely outnumbered. The arrival of the mercenaries had served to define the mood of many a waverer and to stiffen the courage of many that had been against Simone all along, but feared to make themselves marked men by publicly opposing him. The most prudent thing for Messer Simone to do—and I am sure he knew it—was to give up his game, withdraw his forces, and trust to the chance of some opportunity of revenge hereafter. This was assuredly the wisest course open to Simone to pursue. But Simone did not pursue that wisest course. His temper was worse than his intelligence.

When Dante, from where he stood, saw the coming of Griffo, he saluted him with his sword, for he rightly believed that he came as a friend to himself, or at least as a foe to Simone; and Messer Guido, that had a right to take a foremost place in [Pg 331]the affairs of the City, especially in such a time and place where none of those in authority were present, went up to the condottiere and stood by his bridle, and spoke him fair, and asked him very courteously why he came thus among them. And Griffo answered, speaking also very courteously and quietly, that he had heard from a sure source that there were dissensions in Florence whereby some of his friends were in danger whom he would be sorry to have come to hurt—and as he spoke he saluted Messer Guido very civilly and also Dante—and that in consequence he had ridden over, he and his men, from the neighborhood of Arezzo, in the hope that perhaps he and they might be of some service to the authorities in aiding them to keep the public peace.

Now, Messer Griffo said what he said in a very loud voice, so that as many as might be should hear him. As the people were keeping very still since the coming of the mercenaries, out of eagerness and curiosity, very many did hear him, and naturally Messer Simone, that was only a few feet away, heard him. It seemed as if his rage and hatred boiled over within him, so that he could not abide in silence, but must needs give speech to his spleen. So he urged his horse a little forward and looked straight at Messer Griffo, and very fiercely. Then he called out, in a huge voice, "Florence has come to a poor pass if her peace depends upon a scoundrel [Pg 332]and his strumpet!" And as he said this he pointed a great finger direct at Vittoria, and burst out into a horrible laugh. And Griffo showed no sign that he had as much as heard Simone, but the woman went pale under the insult, and tried to speak, but at first she could not.

At length, in a little, she found her breath, and she cried back at the giant: "You have won your wager, Messer Simone, and I wish you joy of your winning and the wife that loves another lord! But I would not have you now or ever, for I have found a better man!"

At this I guessed, and was right in my guesswork, that she meant Messer Griffo, of whom, it seems, that she had suddenly become overweeningly fond, as indeed he of her. Then Madonna Vittoria pulled with her right hand at a finger of her left, and drew thence a heavy gold ring that carried a great emerald set in its socket, and I remembered, as I saw that this was the ring she had staked in her wager against Simone's promise to wed. She rose a little in her stirrups, holding up the ring. "Take your gain, beast!" she screamed, and she flung the ring with all her force in Simone's face, and struck him on the left cheek and cut it open, and the ring fell clattering to the ground among the horses' hooves, and the red blood ran over Simone's face, very ugly to behold.

What happened then happened more quickly [Pg 333]than I can write it down, happened more quickly than I could tell it across a table to a friend. With a cry that was more like the bellow of some beast of the field than any sound of a man's voice, Simone drove his horse against Vittoria, and, bending over his charger's neck, gripped the woman about the neck with both hands, and, lifting her out of her saddle, flung her across his crupper and held her there, squeezing at her throat. For what seemed to me an age, I and those near me stared at Vittoria's face, all red and swollen with the choked blood, made horrid with the starting eyes, its beauty ruined by the grasp of those two strangling hands. Simone was a madman at the moment, with a madman's single thought, to kill his victim, his fingers tightening and his blood-stained face twisted into a hideous grin. Before the ghastly sight men stood still, and knew not what to do—all but one man.

Griffo's sword rose in the air, shining like fire in the sunlight; Griffo's sword fell like a falling star for swiftness, and struck Simone between the head and the shoulder, slicing into the flesh as a knife slices into an apple. It was a well-nigh headless trunk that rolled from the saddle fountaining its blood. As the dead giant fell, Griffo let his sword drop clanging on the stones and caught hold of Vittoria, and, wrenching her from the relaxing fingers, clasped her senseless body in his arms.

In the fury of confusion that followed—the screaming [Pg 334]and plunging of startled horses, the shouts and oaths and cries of men that seemed to themselves to have kept silence for a great while, and, finding voice as last, must needs use it inarticulately, like savages—I remember best how I saw Dante standing erect on the palace steps, with his sword held high above him, and his face was set and stern as the face of some herald of the wrath of Heaven.

"The judgment of God!" he shouted, in a voice so loud that I heard it above all the din, and many others heard it too, "the judgment of God! the judgment of God!"


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