Marjorie Bowen: The Sword Decides! (part nineteen)
The Sword Decides!
Now the knights themselves arrived. The Queen’s stand shimmered with coifs of tissue cloth, bright plaits of hair, and silk veils.
First to enter was the Prince of Taranto on a white horse. The animal’s bronze and azure trappings swept the sand at either side, marking the knight’s passage in two meandering trails. His damascened Milan armour was graced with an ermine surtout and a great silk scarf of his colours. From his helmet’s torse of blue and brown floated the graceful folds of the lambrequin, and above rose his crest of a swan with a silver circlet round its neck. He bore on his left arm a huge painted shield blazed with fifteen quarterings; his right arm supported the spear in its socket.
Cleopatra di Perlucchi, the Contessa di Montalto, led his horse. She was gowned in orange and gold, her headdress an elaboration of twisted locks, that the wig’s creator had oiled to a tawny gleam. On her brow was a sprig of ivy. To the cheers of the crowd and the murmured applause of the stands, she led her knight round the lists, while the tossing of the horse’s head pulled her hand on the studded reins up and down.
As they passed the Queen, Luigi of Taranto lowered his lance and the Contessa swept an obeisance, at which the charger shook his head free, and the people laughed. The Prince seized the reins, while the Contessa, smiling, but a little flushed, caught the bridle once more, and the two passed to their place in front of the bronze and azure herald.
Trumpets came again; the shouting, far more lusty and far louder, proclaimed the next contender a general favourite. The ladies clapped; Maria d’Anjou leant a little forward, the peacock fan shadowing her face, as Carlo di Durazzo entered the lists. His armour was gilt from head to foot, his surtout was vair, the blue bells on white, his lambrequin was violet, his crest a red rose transfixed with an arrow, sparkling in jewels on his helm. Leading his black horse was Giulia di Terlizzi, the Conte Raymond’s sister. Her bold, dark-eyed beauty was clothed in vivid scarlet, and in the waves of her sombre hair glittered the gems of a chaplet. At a quick pace the two passed round, a breeze, sweeping from Pausilippo and scented with the orange groves of Sorrento, blowing back Giulia di Terlizzi’s gown, showing the line of her figure, and ruffling the tassels on the chest of the great warhorse.
As they paused before the throne, Maria saw her cousin raise his visor and look at her with adoring, ardent eyes. She smiled faintly; then Carlo was gone. Now Raymond de Cabane, unarmed, in black velvet and wearing the Queen’s colours, was galloping to and fro arranging the order of the jousts. Fresh and less famous competitors entered: San Severino in white and blue, his horse led by the Contessa da Morcane, Giulia di Terlizzi’s sister. Bertrand d’Artois, a young noble from Provence, was there, and Lello d’Aquila, the captain of the Florentine mercenaries. So was the Conte di Terlizzi, and Bertrand des Beaux, grand seneschal of the kingdom of Naples. Then followed unknown knights who tilted without crests or arms, and refused to disclose their identity until they had tried their fate.
The lists were now full—a mass of sparkling colour and movement.
“God,” murmured Giovanna, “the heat! My throat is parched.”
But she dared not appear bored with the field; no more than partisan towards one knight or another. Her gown, enclosing her like stiff upholstery, stirred with an impatient movement. She pushed against the footstool, felt her spine seem to flow with blood again…
Then she held herself in majestic stillness.
Pages wearing royal livery ran to put up the wood and silk barriers down the centre of the lists The ladies who had led the knights climbed to their places, their elbows supported by squires.
Cleopatra di Perlucchi, sinking with some drama, said: “I believe my arm is broken!”
“Truly, I would break mine so!” cried Sancia. “To lead a knight around the lists!”
“You, the Queen’s woman, which would you choose? Not to destroy all diplomacy.” Giulia di Terlizzi spoke, with sparkling eyes.
And at this the Queen turned, to smile at her, not pleasantly. “For it is politic in you to lead my cousin Carlo’s horse. Though he wears my sister’s favours at his breast.”
A whisper fluttered among the ladies. Giulia di Terlizzi laughed; she dared allow the Queen to hear mockery in this. She said low, to Sancia: “As, between Carlo and Maria no marriage can be made. Giovanna neglects her cousin, fearing to displease her lord.”
“It begins,” said Giovanna. She tried a careful stretch, leaning back in her chair, and played with a rose drawn from her bosom.
Cleopatra di Perlucchi, also softly, but with voice enough for royal ears to hear, said to Giulia: “Carlo will recover. While Andreas, so crushed by his disappointment, seeks to lose himself in the wilds.”
(The Sword Decides!, 1908, Marjorie Bowen; edit, 2021, Stephanie Foster)