Marjorie Bowen: The Sword Decides! (part ten)
The Sword Decides!
The room was small, shrouded from daylight by a velvet curtain. Before the window an alabaster lamp cast a faint glow, catching sparks from the fleurs-de-lis of the purple hangings, their glue dull, their flecks of gold powder bright. The canopied bed occupying the centre of the chamber sat in shadow. Andreas turned his eyes here, and crossed himself. The King lay stiff and straight, his stretched arms on an embroidered coverlet. He wore a Franciscan’s habit—and around his waist a loose rope, on his breast a heavy crucifix of silver. A doctor and a monk supported him, so that from the tasselled pillows his head was raised, and he could gaze about the room.
The atmosphere was close, stifling with incense and the breathing of too many persons. To Andreas the strange glimmering light, the heavy perfume, and the silence, brought awe and bewilderment. There were three here unmet. A big man with folded arms, his dark face composed, stood by the head of the bed. Andreas felt certain of him…he was Raymond de Cabane, of whom San Severino had spoken. As well had Hippolyta, and Maria d’Anjou.
Confused as to expectations, Andreas moved to the foot of the bed. The incense was like a drug. He was now near the girl seated on a stool, who by proximity seemed under Cabane’s protection. Her face was hidden by a bedcurtain. The gown she wore was primrose velvet, and where it fell away at the arms and throat, showed a vest of brilliant turquoise. Her hair below her cap fell long, in curls of soft auburn. On a stand at her elbow an illuminated missal, that bloomed in gilt and bright pigment, sat open.
Behind her stood a man of noble appearance, the cut of his coat unadorned. The contained face bore a likeness to the sisters; the cropped hair was of the same auburn. Maria d’Anjou crept to the opposite side of the bed and sank to her knees. Andreas clasped one of the wooden angels that supported the canopy and let himself peer at the dying man. Silence. Only the distant tolling of the bells, reaching the chamber like a hawker’s cry. The King opened his blue eyes, moist and strained.
“Giovanna!” he whispered. The girl in primrose velvet turned her eyes towards the dying man. Andreas, alerted by this name, surveyed her eagerly, but saw only a delicate profile. She gave no sign that he had entered.
“My father,” she said softly.
“Did you finish the prayers?” murmured the King.
She lifted a hand, but Cabane leant to turn the page, revealing phases of the moon framed by a vivid blue arch.
“Shall I read them again, my dear Papa?”
With one feeble shake of the head, he asked her, “I composed them, did I not?”
“For your brother, the Bishop of Toulouse.”
The King muttered under his breath: “Everything is very strange. There is a lamp burning in a great darkness… And lilies, little glimmering lilies of Anjou. Giovanna, daughter, have I been a good King, have I ruled well and wisely? Have I been father indeed to you young ones…?”
His hand searched, then clutched at hers. “Where is your husband? There is a wrong to be righted yet. Anjou, Anjou, I die in penitence! Jesus!” His head rolled to one side and his eyes closed.
“Mio padre, you have been a saintly King,” Giovanna said.
The King’s eyes opened and closed, his breaths struggled to lift the weighty crucifix. “I founded churches,” he muttered, “and hospitals, and convents… Oh Jesus Lord, Light of the World, and I forgave my enemies! Take me to Heaven… Oh, God.”
He struck feebly at his breast. “I have not sinned since my last confession. I die in humility.” He paused and made a sudden bid to rise. “Who is that at the end of my bed? In scarlet and leopard-skin?”
All eyes turned to Andreas.
“Charles Martel!” cried the King. The crucifix slipped to the coverlet. He patted at the monk’s robe with trembling hands. “My brother, Charles Martel!”
Maria sprang up and put her arms around the old man, but Giovanna studied her husband.
“Your brother, Charles Martel, was my grandsire…” Andreas began.
“He announces himself,” said Giovanna. “He is Andreas of Hungary, arrived late, and showing his courtesies later.”
The old King lay helpless in Maria’s arms. “I am a usurper. It was my brother’s kingdom. It belonged to Charles and to his sons…this was sin. Mio salvatore, perdonami!”
“God be gracious to you, Robert d’Anjou, that you make reparation!”
Sincere of feeling, Andreas missed the great silence his words brought. “I am my father’s heir. And by His Grace, King of this realm.”
He bent his head and again crossed himself.
Robert d’Anjou writhed under the Franciscan garb. “Holy Virgin and Blessed Son, he has the right of it… I am a poor usurper. My brother’s heirs are first! Forgive a miserable sinner. Perdonami. Perdonami.”
Giovanna stood and moved her face near his.
“Have a heed what you say,” she whispered. “Think. Oh, think of me! Am I not your heir, am I not to be Queen?”
“His wife,” gasped the King. “I have seen to that.”
“In my own right, alone. Papa, you wrong me.”
The King caught her hand. “Andreas… Andreas!”
Andreas inched to Giovanna.
“Call the court, Raymond,” whispered the King. “For I am surely near the end.”
The Conte Raymond left the chamber, and the doctor raised the dying man, wetting his throat with a draught of wine. The monk sprinkled him with holy water.
Andreas sought the eye of his bride. He wanted to take her chin and turn that pale face; of a sudden she met him, her gaze a glitter more violet than blue, and filled with pride and loathing.
“Late reparation,” muttered the King. “Just reparation. I have righted the wrong, God will remember that to me. Andreas, give me your hand.”
He obeyed, and the King’s dry fingers clasped his with that of Giovanna.
“Husband and wife. King and Queen.” Then, in command: “Cousins of Anjou, love each other. So is the rift healed…” The faint voice died away, and the head sank onto the pillows.
Andreas gripped Giovanna’s hand, stilling her steadfast withdrawal. The fingers sat cold, then, and lifeless. The touch of her was strange. He shuddered to feel her limp hand in his, and her eyes were those of an enemy. The King in his miserable garb of penitence, lay muttering remorse to God and His saints, and Andreas saw it—
Authority died here, and protection. The need for these stirred a slow-waking panic.
The door glided open. Nobly dressed men now entered in a crowd, as many as the chamber could hold. Raymond de Cabane, cutting a swath through their deference, took his place. The oppressive heat, the incense, the gloom, gave an air of menace and unreality. The lilies of Anjou winked on the dark walls.
From the rear, the vice-chancellor stirred; Cabane clamped a hand on his shoulder and steered his advance to the bedside. Lamplight yellowed this official’s embroidered robe, and great seals on his parchments shook with the trembling of his hands. He bowed to the King.
What he had brought to the assembly was the dying man’s will and testament.
“Roberto d’Anjou, by God His Grace King of Naples, of Sicily, of Jerusalem, of Provence, of Alba, of Grati, of Giordano, and of Forcalquier, declares as his successors to all his kingdoms his illustrious nephew, Andreas of Hungary, and wife of Andreas, Giovanna, Duchess of Calabria.”
Dealing with the Bigotries of Old Publications
But we need a method for translating the past to the present. My policy begins with the certainty that publishers (who make their living selling books) have, today and historically, the intention of not offending. They will not put words in print that they understand to be cruel, and costly. They will seek to be agreeable to anyone who might be a customer. Publishers make gaffes of cultural tone-deafness. But existing imprints can withdraw, correct, recontextualize.
Public domain books are past help in that respect, but when we’re working with them, we may be guided by those intentions we can safely presume. The legalistic argument is, thus, that if a publisher of today would fix it, you can (should) fix it.
The argument against fixing offensive descriptions is one of historical truthfulness. With the original text fully available, however, and changes you make addressed straightforwardly, no one can claim truth is being concealed.
My other guidelines are:
If the stereotype or slur is part of a character’s speech, or if the narration closely follows a character’s thoughts, leave it in. The character bears the onus. A translator or re-editor, if changing a character’s nature, would be changing the plot.
If the offense is part of the omniscient narrator’s staging of scenes, do modernize the words (at times by omitting them). The expressed prejudice might have been the author’s own, actively or as unquestioning acceptance of her day’s norms—but going back to the first rule, what we can assume a present-day editor would correct, for the sake of not propagating offenses senselessly, we ought to as well.
(The Sword Decides!, 1908, Marjorie Bowen; edit, 2021, Stephanie Foster)