Our Little Florentine Cousin of Long Ago - C. V. Winlow




The Fight for Life, and After

Hesitating not a second, Filippo set his hand to the parapet, vaulted up, and threw himself headlong into the rushing tide.

Down, down he went, with a great roaring in his ears; and then more slowly upward. His muscles, trained and hardened though they were by fencing, riding, tilting, and swimming, were almost powerless here. He was swept onward even as he rose to the surface, opening his eyes in a wild stare to see where his goal lay.

By a great blessing Filippo landed east of his object, so that he did not have to breast the current. But the boat, too, was being borne on to the west, with the child clinging to it. Yet, being a big object, it was moving slowly, and Filippo was making almost directly for it.

But would there be time? The child cried out again, and for an instant Filippo thought he had loosened his hold.

With all the strength that was in him, Filippo swerved into line with the skiff and swam forward with the tide.

A violent shock! He had hit the upturned boat.

But—too late!—the boy was gone. Automatically drawing in a deep breath, Filippo let go, and dived.

Almost before he had opened his eyes under water, he felt an object, a leg, an arm. Slowly, slowly, with great effort, he rose to the surface, dragging the other with him.

Where were they? Where was the boat? Could they reach it?

The little boy had clutched his rescuer around the neck. "Let loose! Let loose! Hold my clothes!" came from Filippo in gurgling gasps. The child was game, and despite his wild terror, did so.

Then, with this great weight impeding him, Filippo swam on, hardly able now to keep afloat. His head went so low that he could scarcely breathe. He would throw back his neck so as to get a whiff of air, then seem to sink, lower . . . still lower.

There was an awful throbbing in his temples. He could hardly see. Where . . . was . . the . .. boat . . .?

There seemed to be many sounds . . . shouting . . . screaming. This must be the end.

What was this great weight dragging at him? He must shake himself. No, no; it was the child. Oh, the great tumult in his cars, like the roaring of cataracts filled with human voices.

Was the child loosening his hold? He must save him. . . . Must save him. . . . Grasp him with one hand.

Down . . . down . . . down . . . .

All was over.

Filippo came quickly to himself, to find that he was lying on the northern bank just west of the Ponte alla Carraja. A considerable crowd, some of them wet and dripping, others with ropes and planks, were about him. "You only swallowed a cup or two of river water," said a rough artisan, in a leather jerkin and a coat of coarse wool, cheerfully. "You'll be all right in no time."

Filippo lay for a moment too exhausted to think, then suddenly sat up with an excited question: "Where is the boy?"

Hardly had he spoken than he felt arms around his neck and a child's face pressed against his hair. The younger boy, kept on top by his rescuer, had been scarcely affected at all.

Coming around now to the front, he commanded with youthful authority: "Bring him to my palace. I'm Virginio Pazzi."

He mentioned the not far distant home of one branch of this important family. The crowd good-heartedly insisted on making a handseat for Filippo, although he protested that he was quite recovered. "Make way! Make way for the David!" shouted the crowd, swinging along at a lively gait and making a little festival out of the occasion. The artisan in the leather jerkin swung Virginio up to one shoulder and formed one flank. A young man in black doublet and three-colored hose waved his cap.

In this way Filippo found himself within a very short time before one of the smaller of the Pazzi palaces, made of great blocks of stone like the usual Florentine palazzo. Virginio led him into a room with little furniture, but sumptuously decorated with paintings, sculpture, and magnificent hangings and displays of gold and silver. Ordering a servant to make a rousing fire in the great fireplace, he conducted Filippo on to his own bedroom, with its bed hung with brocaded tapestries, where both boys stripped off their dripping garments.

"I'm afraid you'll look very funny in my clothes," said Virginio, laughing. "Well, no matter; I'll tell the servants to dry yours as quickly as possible. I'm home alone today," he went on. "My tutor was called away." Then suddenly interrupting himself: "Santa Maria, what do I not owe to you! You saved me in the very nick of time; I couldn't hold on any longer. I shall love you always."

"It was nothing," returned Filippo. "I think I did rather badly. I'm ashamed I didn't swim better than I did."

"Ashamed! The men who pulled us in were all saying that they would never have ventured to do what you did—to jump down from the bridge into the middle of the river when it's swollen as it is now."

"But how did you come to be out in it, Virginio?"

"The little boat was tied to shore—the rope was nice and long, so I thought I'd pull it up, climb in, and try paddling around a bit. It was fine sport, only suddenly I noticed the rope had broken loose. I was frightened lest I couldn't paddle back to shore, leaped up—and the boat overturned."

As the boys talked, they had returned to the first room, where they settled themselves on the seats inside the enormous fireplace, on the hearth of which the flames now crackled and danced.

"But what is your name?" asked Virginio.

"Filippo de' Nerli."

"Ah, I know: the son of Ser Guido. I'm grateful to you forever. If Virginio Pazzi can ever do anything for you—" said the young boy very seriously.

Filippo laughed, and took his hand. "You can do something right now," he smiled. "Have some food brought here where it is warm. I have missed comestio today."

Virginio clapped his hands with pleasure, and they were soon eating bowls of hot soup made from vegetable stock poured over bread soaked in olive oil; after this came more substantial fare, finished off with some delicious sweetmeats made of sugar and almonds and pine-nuts.

"Yes," said little Virginio, following up his idea, "I am a Pazzi and I may some day be able to serve you. Ours is a very important family; and it is going to be more important," he added, and paused mysteriously.

"Is it?" said Filippo, rather amused by the boy.

"Ah, yes. I have heard. They don't know it, but I have listened at the doors. They are going to kill Lorenzo de' Medici and his brother, and then we will rule Florence instead of him."

Filippo jumped up with a startled and shocked face. "What! Surely your father isn't—"

Virginio was not old enough to grasp the impression he was making. "Why, no," he replied rather regretfully, "papa won't have anything to do with it; I don't know why: Lorenzo de' Medici has done many things against our House."

"But—why, it isn't possible that anyone would think of killing him! How do you know?"

The little boy was delighted that he seemed to be interesting Filippo. "I tell you I heard it all. Papa took me only yesterday to the palace of Francesco Pazzi, who has come back from Rome. Then we rode out to Montughi, and they thought I was playing in the garden, but I listened at the door and peeped through the crack. There was a lot of foreigners there with the men of our family, and Francesco talked to them. He said: 'We will have help from other states who are enemies of Florence, and we will rouse the people, and we will be swept into power in the place of the Medici.' And he said right out: 'Lorenzo and Giuliano de' Medici must be killed,' and nearly everyone agreed, but papa said: 'It is wrong; I will have nothing to do with it:"

"San Michele!"  exclaimed Filippo, his face white, "when and how will this "—he was about to say, "wicked," and stopped—" this—deed be done?"

"Oh, they could not decide; some were saying one thing and some another, until I got tired of listening."

So it was only something talked of! That might mean nothing at all. Filippo felt considerably relieved. None the less, he tried to find out more, but Virginio had told him all he knew. The latter proposed, as Filippo's clothes were now dry, that he dress and come out into the garden.

Going to study had quite slipped Filippo's mind, and he assented readily. Together they wandered under the oranges and cypresses and rose vines, plucking a violet here and there to twist into a flower wreath, and looking at the statues set among the shrubbery. Then Filippo made Virginio radiant with delight by telling him to bring out foils and he would play at fencing with him.

The art of swordsmanship was just beginning to be finely developed, but Filippo was having instruction thrice a week from the best Florentine masters, and already was a graceful fencer for the time. Virginio watched in admiration as his guest illustrated different thrusts with the blunted rapier, and parries with the wooden practice dagger. Then Filippo watched Virginio go through his exercises, and showed him how to improve this and that thrust, and shift and recover his body with the lightning speed necessary in rapier play.

"The whole matter is, in making a hit, not to leave yourself open to be hit in turn," laughed Filippo, passing his sword at an imaginary antagonist, and protecting his own body by the movement of the dagger in his left hand.

In this way time passed quickly, and it was past mid-afternoon when Filippo said good-by. Far from feeling tired by the adventures of the day, he was as full of lively energy as usual. He walked briskly the mile or so to the great monastery of San Marco, one of the largest in Italy. Here in the church and cloisters were many of the paintings of the good Friar Angelico, among the most appealing in Christian art, and many relics of Saint Antonino, who had been prior of this monastery before becoming Archbishop of Florence, in which latter high post he had continued his life of charity and self-denial for fifteen years. Although he had now been dead seventeen years, people still reverently remembered his good works and how he had lived in the barest poverty, spending all his vast income for the poor.

Behind San Marco, and extending hence to the city wall, was a splendid open space where Florentine boys and men were usually at play. Here, to one side, was a court for playing the graceful ball game of pallone. Some youths were hot at it, hitting the good-sized ball from fist to fist, trying to prevent its coming to rest on their side of the field.

Filippo, however, after glancing at them, found himself more interested in some younger boys, who were engaged in the game called pome  or apple. An apple was hanging on a string from a spreading branch of a tree, at a distance of about five feet from the ground. Three lads were taking turns at running at it full tilt, and when within a certain distance, throwing a dart in an effort to pierce the fruit.

This was very far from an easy matter. So far, none of the three had been successful, though one of the boys had three times thrown his weapon so that it grazed the apple and set it to swaying violently.

"Bravo!" cried Filippo at the last time the dart brushed the difficult target. "I will stake on you! Win, comrade, win!"

The best player, a boy as handsome as Filippo but with light colored hair in place of Filippo's dark, turned half around with a smile and nod. "There's something very familiar about that boy," thought Filippo at once. He wrinkled his brow in trying to place him.

It had come the turn of Filippo's champion again. With a smiling glance at Filippo, he balanced his missile, looked keenly at the target, and sped off as lightly as the breeze. As he neared the apple, he seemed to poise even as he ran. His dart flashed like a lightning streak. The dart had split the apple.

For a second it hung there quivering, then apple and dart fell together to the ground, the former separating into two halves as cleanly cut as by a knife.

"It was agreed that we should have five turns each, and Rinaldo here and I have had only four," said one of the other two boys, not too graciously.

"Certainly," returned the winner, and going to his coat, which he had flung off on the grass, he brought another apple. It was suspended as the first had been. Rinaldo prepared to take his turn.

He ran and threw well, but far from perfectly. Then it was the chance of the boy who had demanded his fifth turn to prove himself.

He took his position with far more deliberation than had Rinaldo, flexed his muscles, tried a second way of grasping his dart, and at last ran, but not as fast as he might have. His dart whizzed through the air, not near enough to make the apple give even a quiver.

"Per Bacco!"  cried Filippo, "you are pretty players, all of you!—only one of you able to hit the target once out of your fifteen throws! I give an apple's worth of credit to the victor, and that is all."

"It is easy to be a hero when one is not in the combat," retorted the boy who had split the apple, coming to the defense of himself and his companions.

"I expect no more of others than I can do myself!" flashed back Filippo, coloring at the implication of the other's remark.

"Ah, so! If your arm is as brilliant as your tongue, you are very welcome to join in our game."

"That is no more than my right, after what you just said!" Filippo was already throwing off his cloak.

"Come, Rinaldo," said the other boy sourly, "'tis nearly time for prandium"  (the evening meal). With a curt nod he moved off. Rinaldo hesitated, said he thought he'd better be going, and hurried after his comrade.

"Well," said the first boy, looking at Filippo, "the contest is up to us now."

"Exactly. Three strikes win the game."

"Agreed. But you have not your own dart. Will you try this one of mine first? I am pretty well 'warmed up' to it now."

Filippo shook his head. "Thank you; it is not necessary."

The other indicated for Filippo to be first, and Filippo, feeling himself the injured party, accepted the slight advantage in being first. The apple circled tantalizingly in the faint breeze.

Filippo ran and threw. His dart brushed the apple, but no more.

The other let his dart fly.

"You have hit!" cried Filippo, as the missile fell to the ground.

"No, just grazed it."

"No, no. I saw the dart pierce the apple." Filippo ran to the target, and found as he had expected a chunk of it upon the earth beneath. "First hit," he said, returning to his place.

He ran again; and a second time, by as small a margin, missed.

The other took his second turn, and also missed by a hairsbreadth.

Filippo tried for a third time, sending the dart with the beautiful grace that characterized all his movements.

"You have struck," said his adversary.

"You are mistaken," returned Filippo. "It touched the apple but did not pierce it."

The two walked together to look at the target. There was a rent along one side made by the sharp point of the weapon.

"It doesn't count," said Filippo.

"It certainly does."

"It does not. I have never needed to win by half-way strokes."

"In that case, my hit does not count either," returned the fair-haired boy. "It did not bring down the apple."

After some protest from Filippo, they set-to again on an even basis. The stranger brought down the prize with his first throw. Filippo tried his luck on a new apple, and chipped it. After this, there were several throws on both sides that were close but not conclusive. Filippo tried again, and knocked a big piece from the apple.

Some indifferent plays followed. Probably because he was in truth quite tired, Filippo was hardly improving his throws. For the third time that day, the stranger brought down the pome.

"You have won," said Filippo, his face rather pale, but no quaver in his sweet ringing voice.

"Not so." The other threw again, and as luck would have it, sent the apple once more to earth. "Well," he smiled, "you are a fair player, friend, but not up to your boasting."

Filippo's cheeks burned red. He looked at the other silently. He could not bring himself to make excuses, though he knew inwardly that he had been very foolish to engage in this contest on the same day that he had been so taxed by the courageous river rescue that he had fainted.

Of this, of course, the other knew nothing. Although generous and courteous by nature, he could not, flushed by triumph as he was, for-bear adding: "I think little of my own playing."

This veiled reproach was more than Filippo could endure. "Come over yonder where the grass is soft," he muttered through his teeth,

and we will see whether you are as good at defending yourself as you are at the pretty amusement of pome."

"You seem rather tired; I noticed you sitting down twice or thrice at the end of our game. Let's put other contests off till other days."

"Coward!" burst out Filippo.

That settled it. They walked slowly and apart to where the grass was fresh and untrodden underneath some trees. Filippo had brought over his mantle. "You had better bring your coat," he suggested coldly. "Someone might steal it."

The other nodded and went back for it, while Filippo leaned against a tree trunk. When they were together again, the latter slipped out of his tunic, standing only in his shirt and oricello  hose. The other boy followed suit with his brown and scarlet doublet.

The wrestling match began. Filippo, his pride stung to the quick, seemed not at a disadvantage now. True, very unusual for him, his breath almost at once came in short gasps, he that could ordinarily run a mile without panting. But when his opponent succeeded in tripping him, he was on top before they struck the ground.

The two rolled over and over, each trying to get a grip that would hold the other helpless. Now one was on his back, now the other; now the one, now the other was risen to his knees.

With a mighty effort the stranger lurched to his feet, dragging Filippo with him. They grappled there for a moment, then he managed to fling Filippo again to earth, himself on top. He had his knee on the panting chest.

"Are you beaten?"

"Never!"

Nevertheless, Filippo lay passive beneath the knee. "Now for a grip that will make him know he's done for," thought the other. His two hands imprisoned Filippo's two arms, and he made an effort to bend the latter upwards and across, so that he might at last grasp the throat and make his adversary cry, "Enough!"

It was Filippo's chance. A violent wrench freed one arm; instantly it was encircling the other's neck; and with a heave of his body he had reversed their positions. The struggle grew truly fierce as he felt himself so near total exhaustion. To be beaten for a second time by this easy-spoken stranger with the familiar face! Never!

They had staggered to their feet again, and by a dexterous move Filippo threw his foe. Down he came on top of him, and almost to his own surprise found himself uppermost. More than that, he had at last got him in a wrestling grip he knew as almost unbreakable. He twisted tight, and gasped as his adversary had done:

"Are you beaten?"

And the same word he himself had given came in answer: "Never!"

Filippo shut his eyes, feeling very weak. Could he keep his hold? In a sort of trance he was aware that the other still struggled, was breaking loose. He gripped very hard at something, and whispered brokenly: "Do . . . you ... give . . . in?"

From far away a very gentle and tender voice seemed to say:

"Yes, dearest Filippo, my friend, to you."