There were many enemies outside the gates of the fair City of Flowers, and many a war did she wage with envious neighbours, but even now, when quietness reigned without, there was little peace to be found within. The two great families of the Buondalmonti and the Bardi kept the city in constant turmoil. They were both strong and powerful, proud and overbearing, and though the quarrel between the families was so old that scarcely one of them remembered what it was about, still they hated each other with hearty, unquestioning hatred, just as their fathers had done before them.
Of course the servants and followers of the different houses kept up the quarrel even more fiercely than their masters. Whenever, by evil chance, they happened to meet in some narrow street, neither would give way to let the other pass, and there would begin at once a fierce fight and a call for help until the whole quarter rang with the uproar. "A Bardi, a Buondalmonti" was shouted from every side, while all friends and enemies hastened to join in the fray.
But, after all, the Florentines were used to quarrels and bloodshed, and they never allowed such things to interfere with their holidays and merry-makings. So it was that on the Feast of San Giovanni, when this story begins, all Florence was blithe and gay and bent on pleasure, though the prudent did not forget to carry a weapon handy in case of need.
From early morning the bells had rung out. Coloured cloths and gay carpets hung out from every window. In the great square the city banners were floating in the breeze, and throngs of country-people came hurrying through the gates, all dressed in holiday attire. The churches were hung with crimson silk and velvet hangings, and a blaze of candles lit up each altar in honour of the festa of the patron saint of Florence.
It was in the church of San Giovanni that the principal service of the day was held, and in the crowd of nobles who thronged the place, many a fair young face was to be seen, beautiful as the flowers that give the city its name. But there was one face more lovely than all the rest, or at least so it seemed to a young man who stood leaning against a pillar, with eyes intent upon a maiden who knelt close by. She was tall and slender, with a wealth of golden hair in which shone the soft gleam of pearls cunningly twisted among the braids. Her white silk robe edged with shining embroideries hung in long, straight folds around her, and gave her the look of some fair, slender lily. But it was the beauty of her face and her innocent, star-like eyes that kept the young Ippolito Buondalmonti spell-bound, and made him forget to kneel and join in the prayers with the other worshippers.
Who could she be? Ippolito knew most of the noble Florentine ladies by sight, but he had never seen this fair maid before. As he stood gazing, there was a stir among the crowd, and with a start the young man realised that the service was over and people were preparing to leave the church. Quickly he elbowed his way till he reached the great door and then waited until his fair vision should come out.
He had not long to wait, and then it was an easy matter to keep her in sight, for there were so many people hurrying along the streets that no one could notice if she was followed. Darting in and out, sometimes close and sometimes further off, he never lost sight of her until she and her companion turned into the narrow, gloomy street of the Via dei Bardi, and he saw her about to mount the steps of a grim old palace there.
Ippolito hurried forward and stood at the side of the door, and as she turned her head their eyes met. With deep reverence the young man lifted his plumed cap and bared his head. The maiden started and for a moment looked almost afraid. Her companion had gone on in front and had noticed nothing, so the maiden looked timidly again at the handsome young man who made such a brave show standing there in his sky-blue embroidered doublet and mantle and silken hose. Then a half-mischievous smile lit up her face, and although she knew full well that no well-brought-up maiden should take notice of a stranger, be he never so handsome, she waved her hand and ran lightly up the steps after her companion.
There were several loiterers in the street, and Ippolito turned to a man who stood idly leaning against the wall, munching his midday meal of black bread and onions.
"Canst thou tell me what palace that is?" asked Ippolito, pointing to the grim old doorway where his vision had disappeared.
"Art thou a Florentine and yet dost not know the palace of the Bardi?" answered the man. "Why, thou wilt be asking next where dwell the Buondalmonti?"
Ippolito started and bit his lips. If this was indeed true, all his new-born hopes were dashed to the ground. If the maiden belonged to the hated family of the Bardi, there was but little chance they would ever meet, for never was the feud between the families fiercer than now.
It did not take long to find out all that he wished to know, and, alas, his worst fears turned out to be well founded.
The maiden's name was Dianora, the only child of the stern old Bardi. She was but sixteen years old and motherless. Brought up by an aged aunt, she led a lonely, dull life in the grim old palace, with no companions of her own age.
It was little wonder then that the face of the handsome young stranger whom she had seen on the festa day should haunt her thoughts. The very next time she went out for one of her solemn, stately walks on the Piazza with her father, she could not help smiling to herself when she saw the same face watching her from a distance, and caught a glimpse of a plumed cap swept low, as she turned to enter the palace gateway.
That night, when the moonbeams slanted their way into the narrow street, she heard the sound of soft music below, and when she noiselessly opened her window and looked down, there was the same handsome face upturned and the wistful eyes lifted towards her window, as the notes of a love-song and the gentle music of a guitar floated on the night air.
But though Ippolito caught these glimpses of his fair lady, he could do no more. It seemed hopeless to dream that they would ever learn to know each other. Yet the more and more hopeless it became the more Ippolito's heart was set upon it.
He began to grow thin and worn and could neither eat nor sleep, until at last he thought of a plan. He had an old friend, Madonna Contessa, who had always been good to him, and had taken no part in the family quarrels. She was a kind, sensible person, and knew Dianora, so one day poor Ippolito went to her and told her all his story.
"Now, are there not enough fair maidens in Florence to choose from, that thou must needs fix on a daughter of the Bardi?" asked Madonna Contessa, shaking her wise old head.
"There is but one Dianora," said Ippolito sadly.
"Ah, well," said she, folding her hands and looking across to the blue hills that were growing misty in the dim magic of the twilight hour, "I have not forgotten the dreams and disappointments of my youth, and I would fain make two young hearts happy. But it is a difficult and a dangerous task."
"If I may but touch her hand and speak to her," sighed Ippolito.
"Well, at least I can promise thee so much," answered Madonna Contessa briskly. "This very week I celebrate here the feast of the vintage, and Dianora Bardi shall be among my guests. Behave thyself wisely and leave it to me. All will go well, as thou shalt see."
The summer was passing over and it was time for the grapes to be gathered in when Madonna Contessa invited her friends to the great feast held every year in honour of the vintage. The young people came early, and soon the vineyard was thronged with gaily dressed youths and maidens, and there was much laughing and merry chatter as they gathered the purple clusters of grapes that hung from the leafy festoons of the vines.
Ippolito had arrived first of all, but he was not among the gatherers in the vineyard. In a quiet, cool parlour of the villa he waited with beating heart, striving to be patient until Dianora should appear. He had not long to wait, for very soon the curtain was drawn aside and the kind old Contessa entered with Dianora at her side. It seemed to Ippolito as if suddenly the whole world was flooded with sunshine, and he knew at last what happiness meant.
How much they had to say to each other, and how quickly the time sped past! It seemed as if they had scarcely met when it was time to part.
"Thou wilt be true to me?" said Ippolito as he bade her adieu.
"I will be true till death," said Dianora; "but I fear there is naught but trouble in store for us. Dost thou think my father will ever consent to my marriage with a Buondalmonti?"
"Then we shall find a way to wed without his consent," said Ippolito gaily.
But though they both tried to speak so bravely they knew they would be parted for ever if the secret of their friendship became known to either of those fierce families.
So time went on, bringing no hope of happier days, until at last Ippolito determined to take matters into his own hands. He thought if Dianora was once his wife no power on earth could part them, and together they would brave any fate in store.
So once more the kind old Contessa stood their friend and she arranged for a priest to come to the villa, and one happy day Dianora and Ippolito were married there in the little private chapel, with only the quiet sculptured angels to look on, and the birds to sing the wedding hymn of praise from the green boughs of the trees that shaded the open windows.
Still no one guessed their secret, and Dianora lived on as usual her quiet, dull life in the old palace of the Via dei Bardi. But her heart was light, and she dreamed of happy days that must surely come if only she waited patiently.
But to wait patiently was exactly the one thing that Ippolito could not do, and very soon he contrived to tell her of a plan he had arranged which would bring them many happy meetings. With a long silken ladder coiled under his cap, he made his way one dark night to the Via dei Bardi, when the old palace looked more grim and forbidding by night than even by day. There was a faint light in one window, however, and Ippolito's heart beat with happiness as he stood below and softly gave the signal they had agreed to use. The window was opened very quietly, and soon a cord came dangling down. Swiftly and silently Ippolito fastened his ladder to the cord and waited breathlessly while it was pulled up and he could feel it securely fastened above.
But, alas! for the careful plan. Scarcely had Ippolito began to climb than there was a sudden clanking sound of weapons, and a crowd of armed servants came hurrying out of the Bardi palace waving torches and swords.
There hung Ippolito defenceless, at their mercy, and in a moment he was seized, dragged down, and securely bound.
"A robber! a robber!" they cried; "away with him to the Bargello."
But when they arrived at the city guard-house and they asked him his name, great was their surprise to learn he was a young noble, and one belonging to the house of their enemy the Buondalmonti.
"What was thy errand at the palace when thou wert found?" they asked, perplexed.
"To rob," said Ippolito boldly, for nothing would tempt him to betray Dianora.
"And what then?" they said.
"To set fire to my enemy's palace," said Ippolito recklessly.
Here was wickedness indeed, and it was high time such a bold young robber should be caught and securely locked up.
In the morning, when the old Bardi learned of the capture, he rubbed his hands with glee.
"Aha!" said he, "we have made a famous capture this tune. With this weapon we will strike a final blow at the pride of the house of Buondalmonti."
It was the time for the morning meal, and Dianora and her aunt were seated at the table when the old Bardi came in with the news.
"Dost know young Ippolito Buondalmonti?" he asked. "A gay young cock that will soon cease to crow. We have caught him red-handed trying to break into the palace last night with intent to rob and plunder."
"To rob and plunder?" echoed Dianora. "Surely that could not be."
"Ay, and he was seized under thy very window," said her father grimly, "and soon he will swing in a different manner."
Dianora turned deadly white and gazed with terrified eyes at her father's angry face.
"Do not frighten the maid with thy tales of midnight robbers," said her old aunt crossly; "see how pale she grows. It is enough to terrify any one to hear of such deeds."
"Tush, tush, keep up a stout heart, little daughter," said the old man. "We have this gay young robber safely under guard at the Bargello, and soon there will be no more climbing of palace walls for him."
Poor Dianora clasped her hands together in agony. Oh, if only she were brave enough to confess the truth. She tried to speak, but the words died away, for she dared not face her father's terrible anger. She could only creep away to her own room and sob her heart out with fear and grief.
Meanwhile Ippolito was taken before the podestà, or chief magistrate of Florence, and again examined. It seemed difficult to believe that a young noble could be a common thief, and he was asked again and again why he had tried to enter the palace. But nothing could move him to confess. He held Dianora's honour dearer than his life, and his only answer was that he had gone there to plunder and to burn down his enemy's house. In vain his powerful family offered to pay a fine or undergo any sacrifice if he might be set free. The laws of Florence were strict, and the podestà refused to be bribed. There was but one sentence for such a crime, and Ippolito must die.
Now it was the custom in Florence that any one condemned to death should be granted one last request, and when in the early morning Ippolito was led out to his execution he prayed that he might pass by way of the Via dei Bardi instead of by the usual road. The wish was granted, although it was a long way round, for they fancied the young man might desire to beg forgiveness ere he died.
It was a mild spring day, and the sun was just glinting over the roofs of the houses and scarcely yet lighting up the gloom of the narrow street, when the procession turned into the Via dei Bardi. There, in front, walked the frati chanting their solemn prayers, then came the soldiers, then the guard with Ippolito bound between them. The young noble walked with firm steps and head proudly erect, and he never paused until they were beneath the palace windows. Then his steps faltered a moment and he cast one swift glance upwards to the window of Dianora's room. Ah, yes! he knew she would be there. For a moment they looked into each other's eyes, and he gave a silent gesture of farewell which she alone saw, and then passed on.
That look was more than Dianora could bear. It was early morning, and she still wore only her white night-robe, while her hair hung unbound in a golden cloud about her shoulders. But she did not pause to think of that. In an instant she had opened the door and flown down the stairs, and before the procession could pass she was among the crowd, parting the soldiers from right to left. She never paused until she reached the prisoner and clasped her arms around his neck.
"He is innocent, innocent," she sobbed out. "He is my husband."
In a moment all was noise and confusion, while the old Bardi appeared in a furious rage.
"She is mad," he shouted; "the fright has turned her brain, poor maid. Carry her in and pay no heed to her raving."
But Dianora clung all the more tightly round her husband's neck, and repeated in a clear, steady voice, "Indeed it is naught but the truth; he is my husband, and he is innocent."
In vain the Bardi tried to carry her off, until one of the frati, who perhaps had heard Ippolito's confession and knew the truth, interfered.
"Mad or not, the maiden must come with us before the podestà that we may make inquiry into this," he said.
They wrapped a cloak around Dianora's trembling form, and gently carried her with them, soothing her fears and telling her all would be well.
The whole story was soon told, and Ippolito was set free from his bonds. Then the chiefs of the city ordered that the Bardi and the Buondalmonti should appear before them.
"Is it not time that your senseless quarrelling and unmeaning hatred should cease?" they sternly asked. "Your son and daughter are married, and nothing can undo the deed. It were better to join hands now and henceforth forget your feud."
So it was agreed that there should be peace between the families, and Florence at last had rest from their fierce quarrellings. Ippolito and Dianora, of course, lived happily together, and as the old chronicle tells us, "they had twelve children, sons and daughters, each as brave and beautiful as their father and mother."