Marjorie Bowen: The Sword Decides! (part sixteen)
The Sword Decides!
The dwarf nodded. “Silvestro, the King’s page, told me that the other day, when the Queen revoked his order to free a Hungarian prisoner, and shut the council doors in his face, he sobbed in his room. Cried and raged like a child, Silvestro said.”
“To take things so heavily! He will give away all his store of secrets and be played upon like a lute. But he is, after all, only a barbarian.”
“It may be a barbarian has feelings, my lord. They say he has not spoken closeted with the Queen since the day of his arrival. I saw them meet yesterday. He was going hunting…”
“He hunts in all weathers. His imagination suggests him no sport but that, to pass his hours,” said the Duke, with a mischievous twitch at the corner of his mouth.
“Well, he was going hunting. In the hall, there was that fellow Konrad with him, and one or two dogs. Of a sudden, arrives the Queen, with a great company of ladies. Andreas grows red in the face and dodges for the passage, but they are upon him before he can leave. Her eyes travel over him, and, Going hunting, my lord? our Queen says. The ladies stare at him as if he were a bumpkin from the fields. He colours now to the roots of his hair. The Queen laughs, in a way to make plain she despises him for an awkward boy. Do you hunt as you woo, my lord, she says, we need not weep the prey you chase! She throws her arm round the neck of the Contessa Terlizzi, who says, But he may catch a bird in the hand more easily than a lady’s fancy. They all laugh and sweep from the room. Andreas stands silent (though he shows in his face how he has been struck). He bursts out to Konrad, Is this bearable? Less in Naples than in Hungary, comes the answer. Why not bide at home? And Andreas says, God, no!”
The Duke stretched his limbs. “It will be curious, if the Pope does recognise his claims; for, considering that Naples is his fief, were he to send a bull of coronation, the nobles would desert my fair cousin. The positions would be reversed. And Andreas placed to take a terrible revenge.”
“Therefore hedge, my lord, until the answer comes from Avignon.”
This, Carlo met with a yawn. “Saints’ name, I would rather see you eat more plums than see you suck the stones!”
“But it seems there are no more plums, and the stones have some sweet to them,” sighed the dwarf. “Does your magnificence object to my cracking the stones and abstracting the kernels?”
“Immensely,” answered the Duke. “You are quite sufficiently like a monkey.”
“It is generous of you to say so. I wish I could find your magnificence sufficiently like a man.”
“What is your idea of a man?” asked the Duke pleasantly.
“Raymond de Cabane,” said the dwarf.
“The son of a slave and a washerwoman!”
The dwarf rose and gave a wink to the Duke; in an absent manner, he repeated his word: “Hedge, hedge…” while putting the plumstones in his pocket. He bowed, and said in full voice: “I will take my leave.”
Carlo yawned again and looked across the bay.
The dazzle of sunlight lay everywhere like a veil. On the marble pavement swayed the shadows of the trellised roses; the acacias murmured in the breeze that blew from Capri. Tall lilies, caught in gusts, tapped at the woodwork; cedars showed black against the sky; the silvery leaves of poplars quivered. Two white doves whistled in flight across the arbour. Maria d’Anjou emerged, pushing aside blooms along the overgrown path. A zither inlaid with tortoiseshell and ivory was under her arm. Her gown was mauve, and her bright chestnut hair lay heavy at the nape of her neck.
She seated herself beside the Duke, who gazed at her tenderly.
“They are going hunting, Carlo. “Will you not go with them? It looks as if you stayed away to flout the King, as the others do.”
Carlo smiled. “You pity Andreas, cousin?”
“I pity us all,” she said, and drew a sharp breath. “Andreas is king, and you nobles won’t call him so. He is served shamefully. What reception has he but mortification and insult? Even the servants go to him slowly, do his bidding ill, and carry away gossip.”
“I wonder…” said Carlo. “If he would not pay court to the Queen, praise her, beg her advice?”
“Make love to her? She is cold as the winter wind!” said Maria. “But you have the right of it, I’m sure. Her vanity would persuade, where her heart cannot.”
“And where do they hunt today, friend of Andreas?”
She pinkened, but supplied the answer: “Towards Capua… Melito, I think.”
“Sweet cousin, I am too lazy to go. I would sit here and have you sing.”
Her eyes became pleading. “Carlo, he is so wretched. He has no one save his Hungarians to ride with him. Cabane rules in the king’s place when he is away…if you would go, gentle cousin, it would give me pleasure.”
“Why, then, it is pleasure to me,” he answered, rising. “If I do not hunt, at least before them all I will offer him my best falcon. Is that enough?”
“I am very grateful, sweet cousin.”
She gave him her hand. He kissed it and turned from her with reluctance; she watched his clothing glitter into the distance. Then, resting her elbows on the marble walls, Maria looked over Naples and sighed. In a moment, she took up the zither and tuned it. Music and the garden were the best company she knew; all her peace and happiness came to her when she sat alone in sunlight under the trees, with flowers right and left.
With an absorbed, dreaming face, she began to sing; her low, sweet voice wending through the stillness.
Orpheus sang to a silver lute
Amid Arcadian trees
When all the world had fallen mute
To listen at his knees
(The Sword Decides!, 1908, Marjorie Bowen; edit, 2021, Stephanie Foster)