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The Spider's Web by Maurice Baring

To K. L.

He heard the bell of the Badia sound hour after hour, and still sleep refused its solace. He got up and looked through the narrow window. The sky in the East was soft with that luminous intensity, as of a melted sapphire, that comes just before the dawn. One large star was shining next to the paling moon. He watched the sky as it grew more and more transparent, and a fresh breeze blew from the hills. It was the second night that he had spent without sleeping, but the weariness of his body was as nothing compared with the aching emptiness which possessed his spirit. Only three days ago the world had seemed to him starred and gemmed like the Celestial City--an enchanted kingdom, waiting like a sleeping Princess for the kiss of the adventurous conqueror; and now the colours had faded, the dream had vanished, the sun seemed to be deprived of his glory, and the summer had lost its sweetness.

His eye fell upon some papers which were lying loose upon his table. There was an unfinished sonnet which he had begun three days ago. The octet was finished and the first two lines of the sestet. He would never finish it now. It had no longer any reason to be; for it was a cry to ears which were now deaf, a question, an appeal, which demanded an answering smile, a consenting echo; and the lips, the only lips which could frame that answer, were dumb. He remembered that Casella, the musician, had asked him a week ago for the text of a canzone which he had repeated to him one day. He had promised to let him have it. The promise had entirely gone out of his mind. Then he reflected that because the ship of his hopes and dreams had been wrecked there was no reason why he should neglect his obligations to his fellow- travellers on the uncertain sea.

He sat down and transcribed by the light of the dawn in his exquisite handwriting the stanzas which had been the fruit of a brighter day. And the memory of this dead joy was exceedingly bitter to him, so that he sat musing for some time on the unutterable sadness which the ghosts of perished joys bring to man in his misery, and a line of Virgil buzzed in his brain; but not, as of yore, did it afford him the luxury of causeless melancholy, but like a cruel finger it touched his open wound. The ancients, he thought, knew how to bear misfortune.

  Levius fit patientia
  Quidquid corrigere est nefas.

As the words occurred to him he thought how much better equipped he was for the bitter trial, since had he not the certain hope of another life, and of meeting his beloved in the spaces of endless felicity? Surely then he should be able to bear his sorrow with as great a fortitude as the pagan poets, who looked forward to nothing but the dust; to whom the fabled dim country beyond the Styx was a cheerless dream, and to whom a living dog upon the earth was more worthy of envy than the King of all Elysium. He must learn of the ancients.

The magic of the lemon-coloured dawn had vanished now before the swift daylight. Many bells were ringing in the city, and the first signs of life were stirring in the streets. He searched for a little book, and read of the consolation which Cicero gave to Laelius in the De Amicitia. But he had not read many lines before he closed the book. His wound was too fresh for the balm of reason and philosophy.

"Later," he thought, "this will strengthen and help me, but not to-day; to-day my wound must bleed and be allowed to bleed, for all the philosophy in the world cannot lessen the fact that yesterday she was and to-day she is not."

He felt a desire to escape from his room, which had been the chapel of such holy prayers, the shrine where so many fervent tapers of hope had burnt, where so sweet an incense of dream had risen. He left his room and hurried down the narrow stone stairs into the street. As he left the house he turned to his right and walked on till he reached Or San Michele; there he turned to his right again and walked straight on till he reached the churches of Santa Reparata and San Giovanni. He entered San Giovanni and said a brief prayer; then he took the nearest street, east of Santa Reparata, to the Porta a ballo, and found himself beyond the walls of the city. He walked towards Fiesole.

The glory of the sunrise was still in the sky, the fragrance of the dawning summer (it was the 11th of June) was in the air. He walked towards the East. The corn on the hills was green, and pink wild roses fringed every plot of wheat. The grass was wet with dew. The city glittered in the plain beneath, clean and fresh in the dazzling air; it seemed a part of the pageant of summer, an unreal piece of imagery, distinct and clear-cut, yet miraculous, like a mirage seen in mid- ocean. "Truly," he thought, "this is the city of the flower, and the lily is its fitting emblem."

But while his heart went out towards his native town he felt a sharp pang as he remembered that the flower of flowers, the queen of the lilies, had been mowed down by the scythe, and the city which to him had heretofore been an altar was now a tomb. The lovely Virgilian dirge,

            Manibus date lilia plenis . . .
  His saltem accumulem donis et fungar inani
  Munere,

rang in his ears, and he thought that he too must bring a gift and scatter lilies on her grave; handfuls of lilies; but they must be unfading flowers, wet with immortal tears. He pondered on this gift. It must be a gift of song, a temple built in verse. But he was still unsatisfied. No dirge, however tender and solemn; no elegy, however soft and majestic; no song, however piteous, could be a sufficient offering for the glorious being who had died in her youth and beauty. But what could he fashion or build? He thought with envy of Arnolfo and of Giotto: the one with his bricks could have built a tomb which would prove to be one of the wonders of the world, and the other with his brush could have fixed her features for ever, for the wonder of future generations. And yet was not his instrument the most potent of all, his vehicle the most enduring? Stones decayed, and colours faded, but verse remained, outliving bronze and marble. Yes, his monument should be more lasting than all the masterpieces of Giotto, than all the proud designs of Arnolfo; but how should it be?

He had reached a narrow lane at the foot of a steep hill covered with corn and dotted with olives. He lay down under a hedge in the shade. The sun was shining on two large bramble bushes which grew on the hedge opposite him. Above him, on his right, was a tall cypress tree standing by itself, and the corn plots stretched up behind him till they reached the rocky summits tufted with firs. Between the two bramble bushes a spider had spun a large web, and he was sitting in the midst of it awaiting his prey. But the bramble and the web were still wet with the morning dew, whose little drops glistened in the sunshine like diamonds. Every tiny thread and filament of the web was dewy and lit by the newly-awakened sun. He lay on his back in the shade and pondered on the shape and nature of his gift of song, and on the deathless flowers that he must grow and gather and lay upon her tomb.

The spider's web caught his eye, and from where he lay the sight was marvellous. The spider seemed like a small globe of fire in the midst of a number of concentric silvery lines studded with dewy gems; it was like a miniature sun in the midst of a system of gleaming stars. The delicate web with its shining films and dewdrops seemed to him as he lay there to be a vision of the whole universe, with all its worlds and stars revolving around the central orb of light. It was as though a veil had been torn away and he were looking on the naked glory of the spheres, the heart of Heaven, the very home of God.

He looked and looked, his whole spirit filled with ineffable awe and breathless humility. He lay gazing on the chance miracle of nature till a passing cloud obscured the sun, and the spider's web wore once more its ordinary appearance. Then he arose with tears in his eyes and gave a great sigh of thankfulness.

"I have found it," he thought, "I will say of her what has never yet been said of any woman. I will paint all Hell, all Purgatory, and all that is in them, to make more glorious the glory of her abode, and I will reveal to man that glory. I will show her in the circle of spotless flame, among the rivers and rings of eternal light, which revolve around the inmost heart, the fiery rose, and move obedient to the Love which moves the sun." And his thought shaped itself into verse and he murmured to himself:

  L'amor che muove il sole e l'altre stelle.