Marjorie Bowen: The Sword Decides! (part six)
The Sword Decides!
“Someone…Henryk, Konrad…has told you to say that to me!”
The girl rose, trembling. “God strike me if I lie! I don’t know why I spoke…it only came to me to say it when I heard the music. I looked at you, I heard the singing… I felt such horror!”
“I am going to Naples. What is there you’d have me fear?” He gestured to take in the camp around him, thinking on shows of cowardice more than of arms.
Hippolyta shot him a timid glance. “Raymond de Cabane cannot be your friend.”
“Do you know that? You! Do you sit at his right hand, wench?”
“Because,” she murmured, “he holds the power you come to take.”
“Oh, get you gone! When I have my throne, I will have his head!”
Once more he said, “Get you gone,” but half-hearted…and she made no move to leave. Andreas said, “No, you are a good girl…don’t trouble so. Say rather I will have his oath, or his banishment…there! Call the page and I will give your money.”
Hippolyta said, “Prince, you don’t know what they are. You must not have such words go to Naples before you!”
He thought her a girl nonetheless, a fruit-seller’s daughter who hardly could have feasted with princes. This was gossip she passed, chatter from the marketplace. Andreas had no doubt of it…yet her speech with its touching earnestness pleased…
She said to him then: “My brother is a soldier at the palace. I have gone there certain times. But you are a strong man, and you have your Hungarian guards…”
“For whom I cannot be approached,” he nodded. “Except by my choosing. I will be King…to the people another Roberto.”
“Oh. And will you?”
He meant, of course…he told himself he did…that as Cabane, or any of Giovanna’s creatures, respected and obeyed Roberto, so did God require they respect his successor. For did He demand otherwise, Naples by now would have felt His wrath. All men knew these things.
Hippolyta had small knowledge of Giovanna, Duchess of Calabria, come to her by her brother’s vague report. She deemed, wisely enough, that grandeur and beauty might win a simple heart, and that to a younger sister, a brother might boast. She had knowledge, too, of Raymond de Cabane, and of the fierce court intrigues their sainted King kept in check. She had even laid eyes on Giovanna’s cousin, the magnificent Carlo di Durazzo. Wistfully she gazed on Andreas of Hungary, and found him the most splendid of men she had ever seen.
“It is my wish. I mean to speak most humbly, signor. Please, if you will hear me, do not go to Naples.”
A page entered, knelt before the Prince and proffered a small oblong box.
“A gift, mein Herr. It comes from Naples, by courier.”
Andreas said merely, “I wish the girl to have a gold piece.”
The boy made himself busy, finding the purse under one of the skins on the couch. Andreas opened the box to withdraw a small, rolled parchment. A single line was written there…
He stared at it.
Then he crushed the parchment in his fist. The boy laid the purse aside and left. Hippolyta looked up into the face of Andreas, saying only, “What…” in so quiet a voice he might suppose she spoke a thought aloud.
He blinked, noticing. He took up the purse and said to her, dropping the coin in her hand, “Go home! Why do I find you still here?”
Yet she lingered, pitying his loneliness, his brave and useless splendour. “Prince…” Hippolyta drew from her bosom a little cross of ash wood, hung on a ribbon of gold. “My grandmother made this amulet…a good amulet! Will you wear it, in Naples?”
He did not rebuke her. He said nothing at all, and she rushed on: “Neither poison nor sword can touch the one who wears it. She had made two…my brother lost his and wanted this, but my nonna meant it for my sweetheart. But I haven’t one, so I give it to you…my poor prince.”
“Poison or sword. Need I fear them?”
“Oh, take it! No matter…a blessing can only do good!”
Their hands touched as he accepted the amulet. Thanking her, he fastened it round his neck.
“Wear it always,” she breathed, honoured by this. “The saints defend you!”
Aware she had slipped past the curtain, Andreas stirred himself, moved to the fly of his tent, and gazed half-seeing, where moonlight and torchlight showed white chestnut blossoms, fingering leaves, and the Italians’ gorgeous tents. The men themselves lay on the grass close by, their satins in the muted light curiously dim.
One was singing. Andreas listened from the shadows, hearing an accompanying murmur of the Adriatic.
The grapes have withered in the sun,
The loving-cup is broken,
The guests, departing one by one,
the last farewell have spoken.
O Birenice! O Birenice!
I loved you once,
I’d love you twice
Would you return, O Birenice!
A party of horsemen approached from the tents farthest afield. The singer continued, the ivory neck of his lute gleaming softly as he touched the strings.
The stars are risen on the dusk,
Thus ends the merry feast;
Rich blows the perfume of the musk,
And incense of the East;
O Birenice, O Birenice!
I loved you once,
I’d love you twice
Would you return, O Birenice!
Dead are the roses round my feet
That youth and love had once made sweet,
Your northern eyes I held most dear,
Blue as the sea; your red-gold hair
Bedecked in pearls, your skin milk-fair
The horsemen were retainers of the Prince; the Italian singer stopped short, to exchange a lazy laugh with his comrades. Henryk of Belgrade pulled off his velvet cap at the sight of Andreas.
“How long is this to last, Prince?” He reined up his great warhorse. “We have been three days resting in these meadows.”
“Go, if it pleases you.” Andreas shrugged.
“And so I will, if I am to take that as permission. It will be wiser to arrive sooner. They say the old King is dying fast.”
Andreas, for his youth, followed a shrug with a sigh, but said to Henryk: “No. We will go, all of us, with the dawn. To Naples!”
This, being by way of a sovereign’s exhortation, brought the rise of mailed fists, and the answering shout: “To Naples!”
The Hungarian force put spurs to their mounts and galloped, with some menace, past the Italians and away upon the meadows. The Prince smoothed the crumpled parchment and read again:
Do not come to Naples. Maria d’Anjou
This section, while full of dialogue, had much of the usual repetition of “business” between statements of plot points already established. I have rewritten a few passages to give the characters other relevant things to do and say, adding a bit of background psychology. Bowen’s people tend to swear oaths over-frequently, and always the same ones:
The girl rose, trembling. “By Christ! they did not by Christ! I know not why I spoke! It came to me to say it, when I heard the music and looked at you; I grew full of horror, and I heard those words…”
Andreas lifted his hand. “Do not repeat them,” he said, suddenly gloomy again. “I am going to Naples. God’s heaven! am I a coward? And what should I fear in Naples?”
Hippolyta glanced at him timidly. “This Raymond de Cabane,” she began, “will not be your friend.”
He swung round on her fiercely and thundered out, “God’s name! why?” so passionately that she shrank before him.
I altered the lyrics of the song, since I couldn’t find via Google that it was a real folk song. But it seems to have been created out of meter, so I balanced the syllables of the lines.
(The Sword Decides!, 1908, Marjorie Bowen; edit, 2020, Stephanie Foster)