Marjorie Bowen: The Sword Decides! (part four)
The Sword Decides!
“You are master,” was the answer. “Remember afterwards I had told you it was folly.” And the Lord of Gottif left the tent.
Again, the Prince flung himself onto the couch. Head in hands, he stared at the dagger lying now between his elbows. He shouted for his pages, ordered them to light more lamps and clear away the lemons and oranges strewn on the rug.
“Bring me my sword…put it behind that coffer. Then keep your places and do not enter, whatever noise, until I call for you.”
The tent became bright with light. The sword was settled, the boys between them barely able to shift so massive a weapon. Andreas watched in grim humour, and when they had gone, frowned at a golden orange overlooked.
Octavio San Severino, arriving with a light step and observant eyes, found him so, and paused with a hand on the tapestry curtain.
“Good evening, Prince,” he said.
Andreas affected a slow noticing, but measured the alert figure, the blaze of blue satin and silver. He said nothing.
San Severino for his part marked all. The naked weapon on the bearskin, the flushed face of the boy stretched on the couch, the light-coloured averted eyes still furious in their effort to see.
He wore a smile, though he shifted his girdle so that his own dagger rested in reach of his thin fingers. “How do you enjoy our Italian nights?”’
“Sit down,” was the answer.
San Severino obeyed, the light running in and out of his clothes like molten gold as he sank into a carved chair. He had an air of keeping a constant watch on himself, and to Andreas both the eyes and teeth gleamed overmuch. The bare weapon Andreas fondled, but his gaze strayed from San Severino’s person before he spoke.
“I want to ask you of my wife.”
The Italian laughed, a sound that drove the young prince upright on his couch, the eagle plumes into a dance of anger.
“Why do you laugh…signor?”
San Severino sobered himself. “Ah! For pure idleness. Yet what shall I tell you of Giovanna d’Anjou?”
“Tell me with what mind she awaits me.”
The slightest movement of the hand on the arm of the chair. The eyes grew narrow. “I, Prince? How should I know?”
Andreas leant forward. “Tell me what her welcome to me may be, at Naples?”
“Her welcome…to her cousin and her lord?”
“She is meek, then? And gentle?” But at this, Andreas allowed a sneer.
San Severino returned a frank gaze. “She is very beautiful, and Italian. She is of royal blood…she bears herself with the pride that is her due.” He mastered something in his voice near scornful. “Madonna Giovanna is well loved in Naples.”
Silence fell; San Severino, for all his easy bearing, sat wholly attentive. The Prince seemed to rest self-absorbed. But suddenly he said: “Who is Raymond de Cabane?”
The Italian’s hand clenched. The letter…
With quiet control he replied: “The Conte d’Eboli, captain of the King’s Guard in Naples.”
“And what else?”
“A favourite of the old King.”
“A nobleman, of a fine family?”
San Severino laughed once more. “His father was a negro slave who rose to become major-domo to the King. His mother a Catanian washerwoman, who nursed the Madonna Giovanna’s father.”
Andreas scowled. “And she accepts among her friends such scum?”
“Friends, you say?” San Severino rose. “What thought is in your head? Put there by whom?”
“You! By God, by you!”
“So indeed you have been shown my letter. Yes, Prince, my lady has powerful friends. You have learned a truth.”
Andreas stood, picking up the dagger.
“We are too near Naples, lord, too near. Your education comes to you slowly. In Austria, you might have challenged me.”
“You insolent spy!”
San Severino smoothed his glistening blue sleeve. “You are not in your brother’s kingdom. Take care.”
“I am master here. Master enough to have you hanged!”
“A boy’s talk. Your Hungarian boors will not touch me, and you, Prince, are a fool. In Naples you may be glad yourself of a friend.”
“Hound! I shall be king in Naples!”
San Severino looked at him pityingly. “Don’t wish it. If you were wise you would not go to Naples.”
“Dare…” Andreas crushed the handle of the dagger until it seemed he might break it. “Dare you say that to me?”
San Severino put his back to the Prince, but turned on reaching the curtain. “I dare for Giovanna.” He despised this barbarous foreigner, held himself safe under the protection of Naples. But a malicious streak, born in his nature, made him add, “And I dare as one who knows Raymond de Cabane.”
“Do you speak in friendship, then? Say plainly…who is this man to me?”
“One you will do well to be aware of.”
“Tell me.” Andreas flung his dagger to the couch.
In this, San Severino conceded, was dignity. The Prince had folded his arms over his chest, a gesture towards peace. He remained a boy, ignorant and clumsy. Under the blue satin robe San Severino of course wore the protection of armour.
“You will know. Rule yourself, Prince. Do not make me sorry for you.”
“Tell me.” The fury resurged, though Andreas struggled to contain it.
In this section I’ve altered the dialogue quite a bit, to have the characters prod more pointedly each other’s sensitivities, though keeping Bowen’s gist.
I once read an interview with an author, possibly Jackie Collins, who gave the phrase “his breath came in short pants” as an example of bad romance writing. The Sword Decides! actually contains this passage:
His self-control was small; he struggled painfully and obviously with surging fury; his breath came in short pants, his face flushed and paled.
I don’t know if Bowen’s work is the source, Collins (or whoever) had in mind.
In stories that span nations, or especially in the genres of fantasy and science fiction, writers have to figure out conversation among people who don’t share a language.
A naturalistic approach calls for practical explanations. The Suspension of Disbelief principle leaves room for dramatic license. We pretend, in books and films alike; we accept English language entertainments full of characters speaking English-French, English-German, English-Spanish, etc. The gadget handiest for cross-cultural dialogue is an atypical education (in sci-fi, a futuristic invention that translates all galactic speechforms), allowing a Hungarian and an Italian to converse—while as discussed, the above scene is highly fictionalized over the characters’ historical templates.
For dramatic purposes, characters have to understand each other well enough to know when they’ve been insulted, and to believe the offense was intentional. Andreas and San Severino could hardly spar with subtlety, and neither would be comfortable flying into a passion, with an intermediary in the room conducting their exchange.
J. R. R. Tolkien was a language specialist, and gave extensive thought to these mechanics, inventing an system for his nations to communicate: the Common Speech, Westron. In Lord of the Rings the famous conflict between Éomer and Gimli works (while Rohan, a country in the grip of nationalism instigated by foreign interference, ought to have had a movement against the use of Weston—a possibility touched on in Tolkien’s notes). In this scene, then, the slur against Galadriel could be taken ill in real time; while if Aragorn had been acting as translator, he would sensibly have restated the remark.
(The Sword Decides!, 1908, Marjorie Bowen; edit, 2020, Stephanie Foster)