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Romance of Roman Villas (The Renaissance) By Elizabeth W. Champney Characters: 16520

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


LET the trovere ease her conscience at the outset-the tale about to be recorded is over true.

Even as there was more truth than called for in the testimony of that ingenious witness who, being adjured by the judge to speak the truth, replied: "Of a surety, your honor, that will I, the truth, the whole truth, and-a little more."

But the little more which I shall give you is peradventure the truest part of my tale; for, though you will find it not in the chronicles of such historiographers as give their quills solely to statecraft and wars, yet it lies like a pressed flower between the musty leaves of the novellini of Franco Sacchetti and of Ser Giovanni Fiorentino, who relate with great particularity the artifice by which the head of the house of the Aldobrandini won his bride.

Let who will carp that in combining matter from various sources I have followed the example of those unscrupulous antiquaries who, discovering an antique statue, straightway replace its missing parts by others lying near at hand, or, more criminal still, complete it according to the whims of their own fancy.

To that accusation needs must that I plead at the outset mea culpa, advancing only that the original torso as well as the legs and arms which I have made free to assemble are still preserved, properly ticketed, in the museum of history, while for him who cavils with the authenticity of this "restoration" the buried palaces of the ancient world patiently await exhumation to yield to each body its own particular members, and to each excavator his own treasure trove.

Villa Aldobrandini, Frascati. The Grand Cascade and Fountain of Atlas Alinari

Let thus much suffice for apology-now to our legend.

In the Court of the Cascade of that most magnificent of the Frascati villas, namely that of the Aldobrandini, whoso lists may see to-day two fountains; the greater, figuring the demigod Atlas, well-nigh crushed under the weight of our terrestrial globe, is niched conspicuously to the fore of the grand terrace; but the other is in a hidden pleasance, and is but a lop-sided vase, considered to have settled thus awry from the natural subsidence of the soil rather than to have been so placed by design. Nevertheless, our legend will have this to have been done a purpose; and there are no acts in all the annals of that illustrious house more chivalrous or magnanimous than those supposed to be commemorated by this fountain of Atlas and its fellow of the Spilling Cup.

And first of Atlas Aldobrandino, lord of that fair estate and many others in that dim time centuries before the building of the villa. Atlas was he named not at his baptism, but half in admiration, half in derision by his mates, for his burliness of body and his inordinate greediness of all kinds, for he coveted, say they, the entire earth, clutched at a mighty part thereof, and what he seized upheld manfully.

Beside his Italian possessions he was lord of the whole of Venisi in Southern France adjoining fair Provence, and though a bachelor of upwards of seventy-one winters found himself mightily distraught with love for the fair daughter of his neighbour, the figures of whose age exactly reversed his own.

Many lords, counts, and barons were sighing suitors for her regard, and when Aldobrandino, prefacing his request with lavish gifts of steeds, falcons, and hounds, besought her hand of the great Count of Provence, her father, the latter, not wishing to offend him, replied:

"I would willingly give her to you, were it not that it might seem strange to the multitude of young knights eighteen to twenty years of age now in pursuit of her, lords of Baux, of Toulouse, of Perpignan, and vavasours of the great Emperor beyond the Rhone, who might all join together and fall upon me. It is my one desire to live at peace with my neighbours and to this end I have had to fight many hard battles. Moreover, the girl herself may have her eye set upon some one of those fresher sparks who are continually fluttering about her."

Upper Cascade, Villa Aldobrandini Alinari

"Friend," returned Aldobrandino, "be not anxious as to the event, for I will devise a method of arranging the affair amicably with our young friends."

We are informed that the enamoured Aldobrandino slept not a wink that night, but concocted a wileful scheme which he confided to his friend.

"Do you announce a tournament at which whoever desires the honour of your daughter's hand, and is of a rank and wealth sufficient to warrant such pretension, shall have cordial welcome to fight, and in God's name let her be the prize of the victor."

This proposition appealed to the lord of Provence, for it seemed a fair one to which none of his warlike neighbours could object. Moreover, it was even generous, coming as it did from Aldobrandino, who, though he had been a doughty knight in his day, could now scarcely sit his saddle for corpulency or aim a straight lance-thrust with his shaking arm.

The lists were made ready at Arles, heralds sent into all countries near and far, and the tournament given out for the first of May following.

But Aldobrandino was more wily than appeared. He had no over-confidence in his own prowess, and he sent immediately to the King of France, with whom he was closely allied, begging him to lend him to act as his champion for this occasion his most doughty knight, the most invincible that could be met with in all feats of arms. In consideration of his esteem for Aldobrandino the King sent him his favourite cavalier Ricciardo (of whom much more hereafter), who, arriving at the castle of the aged lover thus reported himself:

"I am sent," quoth he, "by my royal master to act in whatever capacity may be most agreeable to you. Give your orders, therefore; it is my devoir to execute them manfully."

"Then hear me," explained Aldobrandino. "It is my wish that you should carry all before you at this tournament until I ride into the field, when I will engage you, and you must suffer yourself to be vanquished, so that I may remain the victor of the day."

Thus far have we followed with exact circumstantiality the relation of the Italian writers before mentioned, to which also we shall later return; but let us, for the sake of novelty in the telling of an old story, for a little space change our view-point and give the play as it was acted before the eyes of the fair lady who was herself its heroine.

Sancie was her name, or, if you will, Sanchia, third of the four fair daughters of Raymond Berenger, Count of Provence, who had the singular fortune to marry each of the four to a king.

Perilous seemed this honour to this future father-in-law of monarchs, as he admitted to his friend, Romeo de Villeneuve, what time he ceded to St. Louis of France the strong castle of Tarascon as the dowry of his daughter Marguerite. But Villeneuve very shrewdly consoled him. "For," quoth he, "let not this great expense trouble you. If you marry your eldest high the mere consideration of that alliance will get the others husbands at less cost."

The event approved his sagacity and also the prediction of a soothsayer, to whom the four sisters had applied to know the rank of their future husbands, for, requested to draw at venture from a pack of cards, Marguerite straightway drew the king of swords, Eleanor the king of money, Sancie the king of goblets, and Beatrice the king of clubs.[5]

The witch expounded this to mean that Marguerite should wed the knightliest king in all the world and in all ages (which indeed came to pass in the person of St. Louis); that Eleanor should in her king of coins gain the monarch of the wealthiest of all realms, namely, England; that Beatrice should have the misfortune to mate with a hard-hitting savage, but still a king-a forecast fulfilled in Charles of Anjou, brother of St. Louis, who won his kingdom of the two Sicilies by as hard and as cruel fighting as ever dinted the armour or soiled the fame of a knight; and that, finally, Sancie, the third in order of birth, but last to find a lover, should of her own free will choose for her husband a king of good fellows, whose kingdom was but that of cups.

This prophecy, I say, had been more than half fulfil

led. The two elder daughters were queens; the youngest was besought and contracted, when their father, fearing perchance that the prediction would be carried out in the case of his third and best-loved, set himself against fate and called a halt in its proceedings.

It was unfitting, he declared, that Beatrice should be married before her elder sister Sancie, and Charles of Anjou must perforce hold his amorous desires in leash until his prospective sister-in-law was disposed of.

This at first sight seemed no such difficult matter, for while the others had each been meted one lover, on Sancie fortune had bestowed a full half dozen. But though their numbers flattered the vanity and pleased the coquetry of the lady, the quality of no one of them was satisfactory to the father.

He had now an appetite for kings. Counts, barons, princes even would not suit his palate, and as no monarch or scion of royalty had as yet applied for Sancie's hand it struck his humour that a tournament such as Aldobrandino proposed, well advertised in every court of Europe, might draw some king, or at least an adventurous princeling, to the lists, as indeed was proved by the sequel.

The queenly sisters of Sancie took up the project with great enthusiasm. Queen Eleanor, consort of Henry III. of England, was visiting her sister of France, and together they arranged every detail of the tournament, of which King Louis was to be the judge.

The hopes of Beatrice jumped also with this plan as one which would remove Sancie from her own path to true love, and of all the four daughters of Raymond, Sancie was the only one who looked upon the scheme with any dubiety.

But her older sisters, on their arrival at their father's capital city of Arles, reassured her, explaining that though there would be a great show of fair dealing yet they had plotted so cleverly that Sancie would take her own pick from this rich strawberry plot of lovers.

"It is my husband's privilege," expounded Queen Marguerite, "before ever the fighting begins, to bar out any knight as the procession files before him in the grand entrée of the lists. You shall sit beside him and indicate any whom you wish disallowed. Moreover, you can at any moment whisper in Louis's ear and he will throw every advantage possible in the way of your champion."

"Nevertheless," continued Queen Eleanor, "since it is possible that the knight you favour may be notoriously inept in arms, you shall have resource to another trial of skill-namely that of minstrelsy. Here (like my predecessor of the same name, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine) I will be judge.

"From the knights who have previously taken part in the tournament you yourself shall winnow out a half dozen, and shall tell me secretly to which of these I am to award the prize. Now confess, can anything be fairer? Is there a possibility of your true love failing, if so be he but enter the contest?"

But Sancie hung her head. "I have no true love," she said, "I am absolutely heart-free."

"So much the better," cried the Queen of France, "and this shall be announced at the outset. The tournament also shall be delayed a week after the time set, to give you an opportunity to meet the contestants and to know your own mind."

But the Queen of England caught Sancie's cheeks between her two hands.

"Listen little sister," she said softly, "I have brought with me from England the very prince for you, my husband's brother, Richard, Earl of Cornwall[6]; well worthy he to bear the name of his great uncle, C?ur de Lion. 'King of Good Fellows' he is dubbed by his friends, for he is loved by all who know him."

"King of Good Fellows," repeated Sancie softly; "tell me more of him, sweet sister. Is he as valiant in arms as he is lovable, as fortunate as he is deserving?"

"Accomplished is he in all that becomes a knight," replied Eleanor, "but fortunate so far is he not. Always when he stands on the verge of success he yields his advantage to another, holding that love, even that of an adversary, is the dearest prize of all."

"Would he so yield me, think you?" questioned Sancie.

"Nay, not if he knew you," replied Queen Eleanor; "therefore to your instant acquaintance, I have bidden him this afternoon to a game of ball in the pleasance of the castle."

King Louis heard this conversation and it irked him, for though he had assured the sisters that Richard would take part in the tournament, he had not confided to them that he would do so in behalf of Prince Aldobrandino. The pretensions of this aged lover had greatly amused the ladies. They counted so surely on his discomfiture that even Sancie, who abhorred him, had not thought it worth while to ask King Louis to bar him from the contest.

Richard also had given his word to play but the part of an understudy in this drama before he had seen Sancie, else never would he have consented to the compact. King Louis had indeed explained it to him before sending him to Aldobrandino, and Richard had demanded carelessly: "Of what sort is the maiden?" The King had answered: "All of the daughters of Raymond Berenger are fair, and Sancie is next to my Marguerite, who is fairest fair."

Then Richard smiled, for he remembered that when he had questioned his brother Henry, of England, what time he went to claim his bride, of her beauty, he had answered: "All of the daughters of Raymond Berenger are fair, but my Eleanor is fairest, and the next in beauty is Sancie."

"Where such difference of opinion exists," thought Richard, "it were well to leave the matter to an umpire," and he straightway submitted the question to Charles of Anjou.

"Nay, they are both wrong," confidently declared that prince; "my Beatrice is fairest, but Sancie is not far beneath her."

Then Richard laughed to himself: "Truly if the girl ranks but second when compared with each of these her sisters, whose beauty I esteem not at all, she is not worth the winning on my own behalf; and I am safe in adventuring for the joy of the mere adventure."

But when Aldobrandino spake to him of her it was in other wise. "Consider well," he said, "ere you undertake this business, for should the beauty of Sancie drive you to such madness as to play me false then of a surety I will kill you. Not in vain am I dubbed Atlas, for all things upon earth which I desire I bear away upon my shoulders, and I have sworn by the five wounds of God that she and she alone shall sit as princess in my palace."

"'Tis a great oath," said Richard, "but you shall not be forsworn by me, and verily I marvel that you have set your heart upon her if the opinion of her brothers-in-law be credible." And with that he told the several answers given to his questions.

Aldobrandino glowered upon him and grunted this reply: "You mind me of a stornello sung by our peasants:

"'Flower o' the peach,

Flowers for all fancies, his own love for each.'

"And verily," he added, "it is well that it is so, else should I have had for rivals Louis and Henry and Charles, and perchance you also. The flower o' the peach suits her well; she is but a homely little bloom o' the kitchen garden beside her statelier rose and lily sisters. But, look you, what use have I for such useless ornaments as your waxy-pale lilies, your flaunting and fragile roses? What fruit bear they, I ask? Why, pips and briars. Whereas the peach is a stocky tree, prolific and profitable to its owner, for to its unadmired and modest blossom succeedeth a toothsome fruitage. Therefore say I the flower o' the peach for me. For, hist, Ricciardo, I am past the age when one goes maying for flowers only. Women have had no great power over me, and a bachelor I should die but that I have regard for what shall happen after me, and a natural desire for the continuance of my race upon their old estates. It is not so much a wife that I seek as a mother for my children. I would see many and goodly sons about me, strong of body, lusty in fight, such as only a wholesome and sturdy woman can bear and rear. If she have wit enough to rule them it is enough for me; and as for beauty, the less the better in the eyes of other men for her whom my descendants shall claim with pride as mother of the Aldobrandini."

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