Marjorie Bowen: The Sword Decides! (part two)
The Sword Decides!
Konrad dropped the curtain and advanced. The golden plumage on the brow of Andreas shimmered as he raised his head.
“Good evening, Prince.” Konrad scowled at the girl. “I must speak with you.”
“Well, do.” Slowly Andreas sat up, his annoyance frank. “Hippolyta is helping me better my Italian. She tells me of Naples, and of Giovanna.”
“I also,” answered Konrad, “have to tell of Naples and Giovanna.”
He pronounced the name with such meaning that the face of Andreas shaded from arch to curious. The peasant girl sat still, smiling from one to the other.
“Of Giovanna, my wife?”
Konrad flung himself onto a carved chest at the tent’s far end. “Send the girl away.”
Andreas looked from the man to the maid; at length he said: “Get thee gone, Hippolyta.” She rose, spilling her fruit on the floor, and picked up the basket. Then, flinging the black hair from her eyes, she laughed at Andreas. She stepped lightly to his couch and kissed his hand.
“Come tomorrow and I will pay thee.” Andreas watched her through the curtains, with a glance up at Konrad. “You could have spoken before the little fruit-seller. She amuses me.”
“And what I have to say will not.”
“Yes. But first, because I am so much older, and your friend, and your brother’s friend, let me be plain with you. This marriage is politic, is it not?”
“What else? I haven’t seen her!”
“And it is not Giovanna you desire, but the throne of Naples?”
A flash of anger. At the Prince’s side, the hand clenched. “By Christ! I am the nearer heir. I am of the elder branch, and she…my cousin, my wife…only the grandchild of a usurper! You know it, Konrad.”
“And the King, her grandfather, knows it, and has brought about this match. It goes some way to atone for his theft. You will marry into your rights and all differences be encircled with a ring.”
“True…but not all?”
“The King is crazed with age. Will Heaven be reconciled in such manner?”
“What! King Roberto is dying. His heir, this Giovanna…she is a child and my wife. I shall be King of Naples and Sicily, Jerusalem and Provence.”
Konrad’s face was quizzical. “And she?”
“The woman, Giovanna?”
“Why, if I care for her, she can be my Queen. If I dislike her, I’ll send her to Hungary, or into a convent, and rule alone. She will do well to please me…I do not care for my uncle’s race.”
“And she will take this meekly, Prince?”
“She is a woman! What should she oppose to me?”
Konrad made to rise. “By Christ, Prince, take care! There is more to it than you dream of.” He drew a parchment from his pocket. “This, that I intercepted, was being taken by a peasant to Giovanna. The dispatch of this very San Severino who escorts you to Naples…you will see how much you may trust the Italian witch.”
Andreas stared at Konrad with the bewilderment of a slow-witted man. “A letter, to Giovanna?”
“From San Severino. Her spy, we must suppose.”
Today’s passage demonstrates the sort of book Sword! is. Though it dates from 1908, and predates those Hollywood swashbucklers of the 40s and 50s, starring Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power, it prefigures them. Adventure we have; historical accuracy, not so much. Our story is set in 1343, a century before the inventions of Johannes Gutenberg. Often enough—more so in the past, when novelists were not necessarily researchers—stories set in history have characters more literate, and greater numbers of literate characters, than could have been. There weren’t things to read, for one. Books made by hand were in Latin; Latin was a modest lingua franca, but chiefly among clerics. A German lord was unlikely to know Latin, unlikely even to know the German dialect of a neighboring state.
The Church of Rome controlled the Bible; most people, noble or peasant, knew little of what was in it. Systems of spelling and grammar in vernacular languages barely existed, weren’t taught, and weren’t acquirable in print, until that important 15th century invention made books for the people a possibility.
Nobles of the late Middle Ages to Early Renaissance were not predominantly literate, would not have seen much purpose to it, and did not feel inferior for the lack of it. They didn’t jot chatty remarks to share with friends, on vellum or parchment, and mail them off. Nor did they get “caught out” having rashly written down secrets. Letters from this era were public documents, with a formalistic style, and not truly private correspondence.
Travelers didn’t follow roads with printed signs to tell them where to go, or find printed signs on buildings indicating various types of businesses. Heraldry, in this environment, was a serious form of communication. By the 15th and 16th centuries, with the rise of Protestantism, commerce, and conquest, the need for larger segments of the populace to record and share information became persuasive, and paper and printing technologies were up to it.
Nevertheless, we’ll bear along with events as the author has them, and I’ll only correct the egregious anachronisms…if practicable.
I have made changes in this section to punch up the dialogue, and I’ve removed excess business, well exemplified by this bit:
Konrad looked at him curiously.
“And she?” Andreas raised his blue-gray eyes haughtily. “The woman, Giovanna?”
“Yes,” said Konrad briefly.
(The Sword Decides!, 1908, Marjorie Bowen; edit, 2020, Stephanie Foster)