101 Classic Short Stories: There Was in Florence a Lady

By Jennete Lee


The soft wind of an Italian spring stirred among the leaves outside. The windows of the studio, left open to the morning air, were carefully shaded. The scent of mulberry blossoms drifted in. The chair on the model-stand, adjusted to catch the light, was screened from the glare; and the light falling on the rich drapery flung across its back brought out a dull carmine in the slender, bell-shaped flowers near by, and dark gleams of old oak in the carved chair. The chair was empty; but the two men in the studio were facing it, as if a presence were still there.

The painter, sketching idly on the edge of his drawing-board, leaned back to survey the child’s head that developed under his pencil. “She will not come this morning, then?” he asked almost indifferently.

The older man shook his head. “She said not. She may change her mind.”

The painter glanced up quickly. He could see nothing in the face of the other, and he devoted himself anew to the child’s head. “It does not matter,” he said. “I can work on the background—if I feel like working at all,” he added, after a moment’s pause.

The older man stared moodily at the floor. He flicked a pair of long riding-gloves lightly through his fingers. He glanced toward the easel standing in front of the painter, a little to the left. “It is barbarous that you have had to waste so much time!” he broke out. “How long is it? Two—no, three years last Christmas time since you began. And there it stands.” The figure on the easel, erect, tranquil, in the old chair, seemed to half shrug its shapely shoulders in defense of the unfinished face. He looked at it severely. The severity changed to something else. “And it is so perfect—damnably perfect,” he said irritably.

The artist raised his eyebrows the least trifle. A movement so slight might have indicated scrutiny of his own work. “You are off for the day?” he asked, glancing at the riding-whip and hat on a table by the door.

“Yes; I shall run up, perhaps, as far as Pistoia. Going to see the new altarpiece.” He took up the hat and whip. He waited, fingering them indecisively. “She seems to me more fickle than ever, this last month or two.”

“I see that she is restless.” The painter spoke in a low tone, half hesitating. “I have wondered whether—I had hoped that the Bambino”—he touched the figure lightly with his foot—“might not be needed.”

The other started. He stared at him a full minute. His eyes fell. “No, no such good luck,” he said brusquely. “It is only caprice.”

The draperies near him parted. A boyish figure appeared in the opening. “Castino wishes me to say that the musicians wait,” said the youth.

The painter rose and came toward him, a smile of pleasure on his face. “Tell them that there will be no sitting to-day, Salai,” he said, laying his hand, half in greeting, half in caress, on the youth’s shoulder.

“Yes, Signor.” Salai saluted and withdrew.

The painter turned again to the older man. “It was a happy thought of yours, Zano—the music. She delights in it. I almost caught, one day last week, while they were playing, that curve about the lips.”

They stood for a moment in silence, looking toward the portrait. The memory of a haunting smile seemed to flicker across the shaded light.

“Well, I am off.” The man held out his hand.

The artist hesitated a second. Then he raised the hand in his supple fingers and placed it to his lips. “A safe journey to you, Signor,” he said, in playful formality.

“And a safe return, to find our Lady Lisa in better temper,” laughed the other. The laugh passed behind the draperies.

The artist remained standing, his eyes resting absently on the rich colors of the Venetian tapestry through which his friend had disappeared. His face was clouded with thought. He had the look of a man absorbed in a problem, who has come upon an unexpected complication.

When the chess-board is a Florentine palace, and the pieces are fifteenth-century human beings, such complications are likely to occur. The Lady Lisa had more than once given evidence that she was not carved of wood or ivory. But for three years the situation had remained the same—the husband unobservant, the lady capricious and wilful. She had shown the artist more kindness than he cared to recall. That was months ago. Of late he had found scant favor in her sight…. It was better so.

He crossed to the easel, and stood looking down at it. The quiet figure on the canvas sent back a thrill of pride and dissatisfaction. He gazed at it bitterly. Three years—but an eternal woman. Some day he should catch the secret of her smile and fix it there. The world would not forget her—or him. He should not go down to posterity as the builder of a canal! The great picture at the Dominicans already showed signs of fading. The equestrian statue of the Duke was crumbling in its clay—no one to pay for the casting. But this picture—For months—with its rippling light of under sea, its soft dreamy background, and in the foreground the mysterious figure…. All was finished but the Child upon her arm, the smile of light in her eyes.

The lady had flouted the idea. It was a fancy of her husband’s, to paint her as Madonna. She had refused to touch the Bambino—sometimes petulantly, sometimes in silent scorn. The tiny figure lay always on the studio floor, dusty and disarranged. The artist picked it up. It was an absurd little wooden face in the lace cap. He straightened the velvet mantle and smoothed the crumpled dress. He stepped to the model-stand and placed the tiny figure in the draped chair. It rested stiffly against the arm.

A light laugh caused him to turn his head. He was kneeling in front of the Bambino.

“I see that you have supplied my place, Sir Painter,” said a mocking voice.

He turned quickly and faced the little doorway. She stood there, smiling, scornful, her hands full of some delicate flimsy stuff, a gold thimble-cap on her finger. “It would not make a bad picture,” she said tranquilly, “you and the Bambino.”

His face lighted up. “You have come!” He hastened toward her with outstretched hand.

With a pretty gesture of the fragile sewing she ignored the hand. “Yes, I dared not trust you. You might paint in the Bambino face instead of mine, by mistake.”

She approached the chair and seated herself carelessly. The Bambino slipped meekly through the arm to the floor.

“Zano told me”—he began.

“Yes, I know. He was very tiresome. I thought he would never go. I really feared that we might quarrel. It is too warm.” She glanced about the shaded room. “You manage it well,” she said approvingly. “It is by far the coolest place in the palace.”

“You will be going to the mountains soon?” He saw that she was talking lightly to cover herself, and fell in with her mood. He watched her as he arranged the easel and prepared his colors. Once he stopped and sketched rapidly for a minute on the small drawing-board.

She looked inquiry.

“Only an eyebrow,” he explained.

She smiled serenely. “You should make a collection of those eyebrows. They must mount into the hundreds by this time. You could label them ‘Characters of the Lady Lisa.’”

“The Souls of Lady Lisa.”

The lady turned her head aside. “Your distinctions are too subtle,” she said. Her eye fell on the Bambino, resting disgracefully on its wooden head. “Poor little figurine,” she murmured, reaching a slender hand to draw it up. She straightened the tumbled finery absently. It slipped to her lap, and lay there. Her hands were idle, her eyes looking far into space.

The painter worked rapidly. She stirred slightly. “Sit still,” he said, almost harshly.

She gave a quick, startled look. She glanced at the rigid little figure. She raised it for a minute. Her face grew inscrutable. Would she laugh or cry? He worked with hasty, snatched glances. Such a moment would not come again. A flitting crash startled him from the canvas. He looked up. The Bambino lay in a pathetic heap on the floor, scattered with fragments of a rare Venetian glass. She sat erect and imperious, looking with scorn at the wreck. Two great tears welled. They overflowed. The floods pressed behind them. She dropped her face in her hands. Before he could reach her she had darted from the chair. The mask of scorn was gone. She fled from him, from herself, blindly, stopping only when the wall of the studio intervened. She stood with her face buried in the drapery, her shoulders wrenched with sobs.

He approached her. He waited. The Bambino lay with its wooden face staring at the ceiling. It was a crisis for them all. The next move would determine everything. He must not risk too much, again. The picture—art—hung on her sobs. Lover—artist? He paused a second too long.

She turned toward him slowly, serenely. Her glance fell across him, level and tranquil. The traces of ignored tears lay in smiling drops on her face. The softened scorn played across it. “Shall we finish the sitting?” she asked, in a conventional voice.

He took up his brush uncertainly. She seated herself, gathering up the scattered work. For a few moments she sewed rapidly. Then the soft fabric fell to her lap. She sat looking before her, unconscious, except that her glance seemed to rest now and then on the fallen figure in its fragments of glass.

For two hours he worked feverishly, painting with swiftest skill and power. At times he caught his breath at the revelation in the face. He was too alert to be human. The artist forgot the woman. Faithfully, line by line, he laid bare her heart. She sat unmoved. When at last, from sheer weariness, the brush dropped from his hand, she stepped from the model-stand, and stood at his side. She looked at the canvas attentively. The inscrutable look of the painted face seemed but a faint reflex of the living one.

“You have succeeded well,” she said at last. “We will omit the Bambino.”

She moved slowly, graciously, toward the door, gathering the fragile sewing as she went. He started toward her—suddenly conscious of her power—a man again. A parting of the draperies arrested them. It was Salai, his face agitated, looking from the lady to the painter, inarticulate.

“The Signor”—he gasped—“his horse—they bring him—dead.”

She stirred slightly where she stood. Her eyelids fell. “Go, Salai. Await your master’s commands in the hall below.”

She turned to the painter as the draperies closed. “I trust that you will make all use of our service, Signor Leonardo, in removing from the palace. The apartments will, I fear, be needed for relatives. They will come to honor the dead.”

He stood for a moment stupefied, aghast at her control of practical, feminine detail; then moved toward her. “Lisa—”

She motioned toward the easel. “Payment for the picture will be sent you soon.”

“The picture goes with me. It is not finished.”

“It is well.” She bowed mockingly. The little door swung noiselessly behind her. He was left alone with the portrait. It was looking sideways at the fallen Bambino amid the shattered fragments on the floor.


It was the French monarch. He fluttered restlessly about the studio, urbane, enthusiastic. He paused to finger some ingenious toy, to praise some drawing or bit of sunlit color that caught his fancy. The painter, smiling at the frank enthusiasm, followed leisurely from room to room. The wandering Milanese villa was a treasure house. Bits of marble and clay, curious mechanical contrivances, winged creatures, bats and creeping things mingled with the canvases. Color and line ran riot on the walls. A few finished pieces had been placed on easels, in convenient light, for the royal inspection. Each of these, in turn, the volatile monarch had exalted. He had declared that everything in the villa, including the gifted owner, must return with him to France.

“That is the place for men like you!” he exclaimed, standing before a small, exquisitely finished Madonna. “What do these Milanese know of art? Or the Florentines, for that matter? Your ‘Last Supper’—I saw it last week. It is a blur. Would that the sainted Louis might have taken it bodily, stone by stone, to our France, as he longed to do. You will see; the mere copy has more honor with us than the original here. Come with us,” he added persuasively, laying his hand on the painter’s shabby sleeve.

The painter looked down from his height on the royal suitor. “You do me too much honor, sire. I am an old man.”

“You are Leonardo da Vinci,” said the other stoutly, “the painter of these pictures. I shall carry them all away, and you will have to follow,” laughed the monarch. “I will not leave one.” He rummaged gayly in the unfinished débris, bringing out with each turn some new theme of delight.

The painter stood by, waiting, alert, a trifle uneasy, it might seem. “And now, sire, shall we see the view from the little western turret?”

“One moment. Ah, what have we here?” He turned the canvas to the light. The figure against the quaint landscape looked out with level, smiling glance. He fell upon his knees before it. “Ah, marvellous, marvellous!” he murmured in naïve delight. He remained long before it, absorbed, forgetful. At last he rose. He lifted the picture and placed it on an easel. “Is she yet alive?” he demanded, turning to the painter.

“She lives in Florence, sire.”

“And her name?”

“Signora Lisa della Gioconda.”

“Her husband? It matters not.”

“Dead these ten years.”

“And children?”

“A boy. Born shortly after the husband’s death,” he added, after a slight pause. “Shall we proceed to the turret? The light changes fast at sunset.”

“Presently, presently. The portrait must be mine. The original—We shall see—we shall see.”

“Nay, your Majesty, the portrait is unfinished.”

“Unfinished?” He stared at it anew. “Impossible. It is perfect.”

“There was to be a child.”

“Ah!” The monarch gazed at it intently for many minutes. The portrait returned the royal look in kind. He broke into a light laugh. “You did well to omit the child,” he said. “Come, we will see the famous sunset now.” He turned to the regal figure on the easel. “Adieu, Mona Lisa. I come for you again.” He kissed his fingers with airy grace. He fluttered out. The mocking, sidelong glance followed him.


The western sun filled the room. On a couch drawn near the low French window lay the painter. His eyes looked across the valley to a long line of poplars, silver in the wind. Like a strange processional, up the hill, they held him. They came from Lombardy. In the brasier, across the room, burned a flickering fire. Even on the warmest days he shivered for sunnier skies. Above the fire hung a picture—a woman seated in a rock-bound circle, looking tranquilly out upon the world of life.

The painter touched a silver bell that stood on a table at hand. A figure entered. It crossed to the window. The face was turned in shadow. It waited.

“Has our good physician gone, Francesco?” asked the painter.

Francesco bowed. There was silence in the room except for the fire.

“What does he say of us today?”

The youth brushed his hand across his eyes impatiently. “He always croaks. He is never hopeful.” He approached the couch and knelt by it, his face in the shadow still.

The painter lay tranquil, watching the poplars. “Why grieve? An exile has not so many joys that he need fear to lose them, Francesco.”

The younger man made no reply. He was adjusting the pillows. He slipped a fresh one beneath the long white hair. The locks strayed in a dull silvery glimmer over it.

“Ah, that is good,” murmured the old man. “Your hand is like a woman’s. I have not known many women,” he said, after a pause…. “But I have not been lonely. Friends are faithful”—he pressed the youth’s warm hand. “His Majesty?”—the voice ended with a question.

“No, master. But there is yet time. He often comes at sunset. See how bright it grows.”

The painter turned his head. He looked long. “Tell us what the wise physician said, Francesco. Will it be soon?”

“Nay, master, I know not. He said if you have any wishes—”

“Ah, yes.” He lay musing, his eyes looking across the room. “There will be few bequests. My pictures—they are mine no longer. Should a painter barter the sons and daughters of his soul?… Gold cannot buy…. They are mine…. Four thousand shining gold pieces Francis put into my hand. He took away the Lisa. He would not be refused. But I followed. I could not live without her. When a man is old, Francesco, his hand trembles. He must see something he has done, something perfect….” He lay looking long at the portrait. “And yet it is not finished…. There was to be the child.” He smiled dreamily. “Poor Bambino.” His eyes rested again on the portrait…. He smiled back upon it. “Yes, you will live,” he said softly. “Francis will have you. You scorned him. But he was generous. He gave you back to me. You will be his—his and his children’s. I have no child—At least…. Ah, well—Francis will have you. Leda and Pomona will pass. The Dominican picture… all but gone. The hand of time has rested on my work. Crumbling—fading—nothing finished. I planned so much. Life runs, Francesco, while one sits and thinks. Nothing finished. My manuscripts—do with them what you will. I could not even write like other men—this poor left hand.” He lifted the filmy lace ruffle falling across his hand. He smiled ironically at the costly folds, as they fluttered from his fingers. “A man is poor who has few wants. Then I have not been poor. But there is nothing left. It will be an empty name.”

Silence fell between them.

“There is in Florence a lady. You must seek for her, Francesco. She is rich and beautiful. She did me once a kindness. I should like her—this ring—” He slipped it from his finger—a heavy stone, deep green, with translucent lights. “It was my father’s crest. He gave it to my mother—not his wife—a woman—faithful. She put it on my finger when she died—a peasant woman. Tell the lady when you give it her … she has a son…. Tell her….” The voice fell hushed.

The young man waited, with bowed head. He looked up. He started quickly, and leaned his ear to listen. Then he folded the hands across the quiet breast. He passed swiftly from the silent chamber, down to the courtyard, out on the King’s highway, mounted and fleet.

The French King was riding merrily. He carolled a gay chanson. His retinue followed at a distance. Francesco Melzi saluted and drew rein. He spoke a word in the monarch’s ear. The two men stood with uncovered heads. They looked toward the western windows. The gay cavalcade halted in the glow of light. A hush fell on their chatter. The windows flamed in the crimson flood. Within the room, above the gleaming coals, a woman of eternal youth looked down with tranquil gaze upon an old man’s face.