The Student's Tale - The Falcon Of Ser Federigo - The Wayside Inn - Part First


    One summer morning, when the sun was hot,
    Weary with labor in his garden-plot,
    On a rude bench beneath his cottage eaves,
    Ser Federigo sat among the leaves
    Of a huge vine, that, with its arms outspread,
    Hung its delicious clusters overhead.
    Below him, through the lovely valley flowed
    The river Arno, like a winding road,
    And from its banks were lifted high in air
    The spires and roofs of Florence called the Fair;
    To him a marble tomb, that rose above
    His wasted fortunes and his buried love.
    For there, in banquet and in tournament,
    His wealth had lavished been, his substance spent,
    To woo and lose, since ill his wooing sped,
    Monna Giovanna, who his rival wed,
    Yet ever in his fancy reigned supreme,
    The ideal woman of a young man's dream.

    Then he withdrew, in poverty and pain,
    To this small farm, the last of his domain,
    His only comfort and his only care
    To prune his vines, and plant the fig and pear;
    His only forester and only guest
    His falcon, faithful to him, when the rest,
    Whose willing hands had found so light of yore
    The brazen knocker of his palace door,
    Had now no strength to lift the wooden latch,
    That entrance gave beneath a roof of thatch.
    Companion of his solitary ways,
    Purveyor of his feasts on holidays,
    On him this melancholy man bestowed
    The love with which his nature overflowed.

    And so the empty-handed years went round,
    Vacant, though voiceful with prophetic sound,
    And so, that summer morn, he sat and mused
    With folded, patient hands, as he was used,
    And dreamily before his half-closed sight
    Floated the vision of his lost delight.
    Beside him, motionless, the drowsy bird
    Dreamed of the chase, and in his slumber heard
    The sudden, scythe-like sweep of wings, that dare
    The headlong plunge thro' eddying gulfs of air,
    Then, starting broad awake upon his perch,
    Tinkled his bells, like mass-bells in a church,
    And, looking at his master, seemed to say,
    "Ser Federigo, shall we hunt to-day?"

    Ser Federigo thought not of the chase;
    The tender vision of her lovely face,
    I will not say he seems to see, he sees
    In the leaf-shadows of the trellises,
    Herself, yet not herself; a lovely child
    With flowing tresses, and eyes wide and wild,
    Coming undaunted up the garden walk,
    And looking not at him, but at the hawk.
    "Beautiful falcon!" said he, "would that I
    Might hold thee on my wrist, or see thee fly!"
    The voice was hers, and made strange echoes start
    Through all the haunted chambers of his heart,
    As an aeolian harp through gusty doors
    Of some old ruin its wild music pours.

    "Who is thy mother, my fair boy?" he said,
    His hand laid softly on that shining head.
    "Monna Giovanna.    Will you let me stay
    A little while, and with your falcon play?
    We live there, just beyond your garden wall,
    In the great house behind the poplars tall."

    So he spake on; and Federigo heard
    As from afar each softly uttered word,
    And drifted onward through the golden gleams
    And shadows of the misty sea of dreams,
    As mariners becalmed through vapors drift,
    And feel the sea beneath them sink and lift,
    And hear far off the mournful breakers roar,
    And voices calling faintly from the shore!
    Then, waking from his pleasant reveries
    He took the little boy upon his knees,
    And told him stories of his gallant bird,
    Till in their friendship he became a third.

    Monna Giovanna, widowed in her prime,
    Had come with friends to pass the summer time
    In her grand villa, half-way up the hill,
    O'erlooking Florence, but retired and still;
    With iron gates, that opened through long lines
    Of sacred ilex and centennial pines,
    And terraced gardens, and broad steps of stone,
    And sylvan deities, with moss o'ergrown,
    And fountains palpitating in the heat,
    And all Val d'Arno stretched beneath its feet.
    Here in seclusion, as a widow may,
    The lovely lady whiled the hours away,
    Pacing in sable robes the statued hall,
    Herself the stateliest statue among all,
    And seeing more and more, with secret joy,
    Her husband risen and living in her boy,
    Till the lost sense of life returned again,
    Not as delight, but as relief from pain.
    Meanwhile the boy, rejoicing in his strength,
    Stormed down the terraces from length to length;
    The screaming peacock chased in hot pursuit,
    And climbed the garden trellises for fruit.
    But his chief pastime was to watch the flight
    Of a gerfalcon, soaring into sight,
    Beyond the trees that fringed the garden wall,
    Then downward stooping at some distant call;
    And as he gazed full often wondered he
    Who might the master of the falcon be,
    Until that happy morning, when he found
    Master and falcon in the cottage ground.

    And now a shadow and a terror fell
    On the great house, as if a passing-bell
    Tolled from the tower, and filled each spacious room
    With secret awe, and preternatural gloom;
    The petted boy grew ill, and day by day
    Pined with mysterious malady away.
    The mother's heart would not be comforted;
    Her darling seemed to her already dead,
    And often, sitting by the sufferer's side,
    "What can I do to comfort thee?" she cried.
    At first the silent lips made no reply,
    But moved at length by her importunate cry,
    "Give me," he answered, with imploring tone,
    "Ser Federigo's falcon for my own!"
    No answer could the astonished mother make;
    How could she ask, e'en for her darling's sake,
    Such favor at a luckless lover's hand,
    Well knowing that to ask was to command?
    Well knowing, what all falconers confessed,
    In all the land that falcon was the best,
    The master's pride and passion and delight,
    And the sole pursuivant of this poor knight.
    But yet, for her child's sake, she could no less
    Than give assent to soothe his restlessness,
    So promised, and then promising to keep
    Her promise sacred, saw him fall asleep.

    The morrow was a bright September morn;
    The earth was beautiful as if new-born;
    There was that nameless splendor everywhere,
    That wild exhilaration in the air,
    Which makes the passers in the city street
    Congratulate each other as they meet.
    Two lovely ladies, clothed in cloak and hood,
    Passed through the garden gate into the wood,
    Under the lustrous leaves, and through the sheen
    Of dewy sunshine showering down between.

    The one, close-hooded, had the attractive grace
    Which sorrow sometimes lends a woman's face;
    Her dark eyes moistened with the mists that roll
    From the gulf-stream of passion in the soul;
    The other with her hood thrown back, her hair
    Making a golden glory in the air,
    Her cheeks suffused with an auroral blush,
    Her young heart singing louder than the thrush.
    So walked, that morn, through mingled light and shade,
    Each by the other's presence lovelier made,
    Monna Giovanna and her bosom friend,
    Intent upon their errand and its end.

    They found Ser Federigo at his toil,
    Like banished Adam, delving in the soil;
    And when he looked and these fair women spied,
    The garden suddenly was glorified;
    His long-lost Eden was restored again,
    And the strange river winding through the plain
    No longer was the Arno to his eyes,
    But the Euphrates watering Paradise!

    Monna Giovanna raised her stately head,
    And with fair words of salutation said:
    "Ser Federigo, we come here as friends,
    Hoping in this to make some poor amends
    For past unkindness.    I who ne'er before
    Would even cross the threshold of your door,
    I who in happier days such pride maintained,
    Refused your banquets, and your gifts disdained,
    This morning come, a self-invited guest,
    To put your generous nature to the test,
    And breakfast with you under your own vine."
    To which he answered: "Poor desert of mine,
    Not your unkindness call it, for if aught
    Is good in me of feeling or of thought,
    From you it comes, and this last grace outweighs
    All sorrows, all regrets of other days."

    And after further compliment and talk,
    Among the asters in the garden walk
    He left his guests; and to his cottage turned,
    And as he entered for a moment yearned
    For the lost splendors of the days of old,
    The ruby glass, the silver and the gold,
    And felt how piercing is the sting of pride,
    By want embittered and intensified.
    He looked about him for some means or way
    To keep this unexpected holiday;
    Searched every cupboard, and then searched again,
    Summoned the maid, who came, but came in vain;
    "The Signor did not hunt to-day," she said,
    "There's nothing in the house but wine and bread."

    Then suddenly the drowsy falcon shook
    His little bells, with that sagacious look,
    Which said, as plain as language to the ear,
    "If anything is wanting, I am here!"
    Yes, everything is wanting, gallant bird!
    The master seized thee without further word.
    Like thine own lure, he whirled thee round; ah me!
    The pomp and flutter of brave falconry,
    The bells, the jesses, the bright scarlet hood,
    The flight and the pursuit o'er field and wood,
    All these forevermore are ended now;
    No longer victor, but the victim thou!

    Then on the board a snow-white cloth he spread,
    Laid on its wooden dish the loaf of bread,
    Brought purple grapes with autumn sunshine hot,
    The fragrant peach, the juicy bergamot;
    Then in the midst a flask of wine he placed,
    And with autumnal flowers the banquet graced.
    Ser Federigo, would not these suffice
    Without thy falcon stuffed with cloves and spice?

    When all was ready, and the courtly dame
    With her companion to the cottage came,
    Upon Ser Federigo's brain there fell
    The wild enchantment of a magic spell!
    The room they entered, mean and low and small,
    Was changed into a sumptuous banquet-hall,
    With fanfares by aerial trumpets blown;
    The rustic chair she sat on was a throne;
    He ate celestial food, and a divine
    Flavor was given to his country wine,
    And the poor falcon, fragrant with his spice,
    A peacock was, or bird of paradise!

    When the repast was ended, they arose
    And passed again into the garden-close.
    Then said the lady, "Far too well I know
    Remembering still the days of long ago,
    Though you betray it not with what surprise
    You see me here in this familiar wise.
    You have no children, and you cannot guess
    What anguish, what unspeakable distress
    A mother feels, whose child is lying ill,
    Nor how her heart anticipates his will.
    And yet for this, you see me lay aside
    All womanly reserve and check of pride,
    And ask the thing most precious in your sight,
    Your falcon, your sole comfort and delight,
    Which if you find it in your heart to give,
    My poor, unhappy boy perchance may live."

    Ser Federigo listens, and replies,
    With tears of love and pity in his eyes:
    "Alas, dear lady! there can be no task
    So sweet to me, as giving when you ask.
    One little hour ago, if I had known
    This wish of yours, it would have been my own.
    But thinking in what manner I could best
    Do honor to the presence of my guest,
    I deemed that nothing worthier could be
    Than what most dear and precious was to me,
    And so my gallant falcon breathed his last
    To furnish forth this morning our repast."

    In mute contrition, mingled with dismay,
    The gentle lady tuned her eyes away,
    Grieving that he such sacrifice should make,
    And kill his falcon for a woman's sake,
    Yet feeling in her heart a woman's pride,
    That nothing she could ask for was denied;
    Then took her leave, and passed out at the gate
    With footstep slow and soul disconsolate.

    Three days went by, and lo! a passing-bell
    Tolled from the little chapel in the dell;
    Ten strokes Ser Federigo heard, and said,
    Breathing a prayer, "Alas! her child is dead!"
    Three months went by; and lo! a merrier chime
    Rang from the chapel bells at Christmas time;
    The cottage was deserted, and no more
    Ser Federigo sat beside its door,
    But now, with servitors to do his will,
    In the grand villa, half-way up the hill,
    Sat at the Christmas feast, and at his side
    Monna Giovanna, his beloved bride,
    Never so beautiful, so kind, so fair,
    Enthroned once more in the old rustic chair,
    High-perched upon the back of which there stood
    The image of a falcon carved in wood,
    And underneath the inscription, with date,
    "All things come round to him who will but wait."


    Soon as the story reached its end,
    One, over eager to commend,
    Crowned it with injudicious praise;
    And then the voice of blame found vent,
    And fanned the embers of dissent
    Into a somewhat lively blaze.

    The Theologian shook his head;
    "These old Italian tales," he said,
    "From the much-praised Decameron down
    Through all the rabble of the rest,
    Are either trifling, dull, or lewd;
    The gossip of a neighborhood
    In some remote provincial town,
    A scandalous chronicle at best!
    They seem to me a stagnant fen,
    Grown rank with rushes and with reeds,
    Where a white lily, now and then,
    Blooms in the midst of noxious weeds
    And deadly nightshade on its banks."

    To this the Student straight replied,
    "For the white lily, many thanks!
    One should not say, with too much pride,
    Fountain, I will not drink of thee!
    Nor were it grateful to forget,
    That from these reservoirs and tanks
    Even imperial Shakespeare drew
    His Moor of Venice, and the Jew,
    And Romeo and Juliet,
    And many a famous comedy."

    Then a long pause; till some one said,
    "An Angel is flying overhead!"
    At these words spake the Spanish Jew,
    And murmured with an inward breath:
    "God grant, if what you say be true,
    It may not be the Angel of Death!"
    And then another pause; and then,
    Stroking his beard, he said again:
    "This brings back to my memory
    A story in the Talmud told,
    That book of gems, that book of gold,
    Of wonders many and manifold,
    A tale that often comes to me,
    And fills my heart, and haunts my brain,
    And never wearies nor grows old."


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