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
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
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.