Marjorie Bowen: The Sword Decides! (part seven)
The Sword Decides!
The Entry into Naples
The midday sun burned in the blazing white streets.
Heavy on the air lay the perfume of Sorrento’s orange groves, while the city rang with the tolling of bells. By all her three hundred churches the people were summoned to recite the prayers for the dying. The old King was near his end. To these bells the Hungarian party entered Naples.
“An omen,” said Henryk of Belgrade. “Chance has robbed you. They should be triumphal bells.”
“They should be. For I am come into my kingdom.”
Andreas, satisfied with these biblical words, rode a little ahead and glanced down on the surge of humanity that filled the streets, the vulgi making their way to the Castel del Nuovo to learn news of their King’s dying.
No company had been sent to meet the Hungarian Prince. San Severino and his Italians seemed fallen away, scarce to be located in the confusion. Andreas drew reins short where two streets met, impeded by the crowd and uncertain of his way.
The Hungarians bunched and scowled. By their natures they were free with complaint; their complaints were loud and profane.
“They do us honour!” said Konrad of Gottif. He meant the opposite, and in his simplicity, laboured to make this plain. “Can they offer no better welcome to a King?”
In the narrow lanes the Napolitani shouted and gathered round the cavalcade of strangers, blocking them. Andreas on his great white warhorse, his colours showing scarlet, a leopard-skin over his chainmail, red plumes fluttering above his closed visor, drew bold stares for the splendour of his appointments and the pomp of his carriage.
His horse struggled ungovernable without a fierce grip, his own frustration growing to rage. To be so mortified before these eyes! This, his entry into Naples! They could not even clear the streets for him, or herald his approach!
It was for malice that San Severino lagged…
Henryk of Belgrade reached his side and leant from the saddle. “We must make on to the palace, or Giovanna will be proclaimed alone.”
Yet the way was impassable. The swarming citizenry squeezed the Hungarian train between stuccoed houses. Andreas tried in vain to force a passage, to shed impudent hands on his person. Tighter still he tugged the reins and spurred his mount. The rearing animal knocked a man down. And around the Hungarians rose a disorder of voices.
Andiamo! Togliti di mezzo…!
The Prince’s fury broke beyond control. “Let me pass!” He thought of what he knew, and shouted: “Contadini insolenti! Do you not know me? By God! Do you people not know me?”
He lifted his visor to gaze upon them with hauteur, giving the crowd sight of his pale, unremarkable face. “I am Andreas of Hungary, and when the breath is out of the old man’s body, I will be your King! Make way for me, or I’ll ride you down!”
Now they shrank against the houses to right and left, giving him a silent passage; but when Andreas had ridden ahead they muttered insults and gestured at his soldiers. Roundly, the Hungarians answered with curses.
Konrad of Gottif shouted above the press of men and horses: “The Castel del Nuovo! Show us the way, dogs! Cani,” he amended, driving his horse into a dance of flailing hooves. He struck the man nearest him with his gauntlet.
An angry cry met this, the crowd swelling again from the house fronts; women cursed from windows and spat down on the Hungarians. The heat was terrible. The glare of the white walls, the glitter of sea that between them showed here and there, with a sweep of turquoise sky, was unendurable, blinding. The armour of the mounted men blazed like fire where caught by the sun, and the steel plates on the horses’ harness grew too hot to touch.
“I have never known such heat in Buda,” said Henryk, as they made slow, confused progress.
Into a wider street they fought onwards, still with the crowd about them and the tolling bells of three hundred churches in their ears. To the right ran a cobblestoned slope, the bay at its foot too dazzling to look upon. Beyond, sat the coast, Vesuvius clad in a purple haze of heat.
Andreas spotted a monk in a black robe and seized his shoulder.
“Which way to the palace?”
“The way the crowd goes. The other side of the palazzo.” The monk shrugged free to worm from view.
Andreas willed himself not to heed this torment of heat, but with raised visor and squinting eyes guided his white horse through the Naples crowd. Under the beautiful front of the Santa Chiara, with its tower pitching into the blue, the company passed. A market occupied the forecourt: oranges from Pausilippo, lemons lying in their leaves, olives and grapes, sat neglected on the stalls in the shadows of the church, whose bells clanged the dirges of the dying. Andreas raised eyes to the campanile and shuddered.
“Jesus!” he murmured, his mailed hand tracing the sign of the cross on his breastplate. But progress was easier on these wider streets, and under the eye of the church the crowd’s energy flagged. Andreas cantered his horse into the Grand Palazzo, from the far side of which rose the towers of the Castel del Nuovo, the fleur-de-lis of Anjou rippling above its ramparts.
Many people were assembled here. The drawbridge was down, but the walls and gates were thronged with soldiers, while into the palace a thin but constant stream of visitors passed. They were officers of the crown and nobles of the kingdom summoned to attend the deathbed of Roberto d’Anjou.
(The Sword Decides!, 1908, Marjorie Bowen; edit, 2020, Stephanie Foster)