Marjorie Bowen: The Sword Decides! (part twenty-seven)
The Sword Decides!
Andreas cared for Maria, recalling her a well-wisher. Giovanna had twisted Maria’s arm, she had played the girl false…this at times seemed apparent… And had he not witnessed it? How Giovanna had leant on the arm of Maria, steering her where she would? At other times, isolated from the only woman of his age ever to speak to him in sympathy, in private confidence, Andreas distrusted memory itself. He wondered if Maria had cozened him, if from the start she had conspired with her sister…
Giovanna might escape to Provence and raise war against him there, or she might enlist some city in her favour—these rumours Henryk floated at the supper table, eliciting what Andreas could not give. The passing of weeks made him careless of threats. Henryk set spies, sent promises to the streets of San Marcellino, of leniency in city laws…the unwelcome finding common cause with the dispossessed. But he was unable to bring any certain report—
Not of the woman’s refuge; not of movements in the land, those of men or money.
A day came when a messenger rode to the palace gate. He was a lowly friar, mounted on an ass. He travelled in company with a prioress, from the convent of Santo Pietro a Maiella, at Aversa, a league or two outside the town. The visitors were invited to refresh themselves indoors, with some awkwardness at this new concern, how to receive a holy nun. Andreas had no lady appointed to his household for the managing of female proprieties. His advisors had not until now observed the lack.
Before a rank of stiff-backed servants, ushering the cloistered pair forth, Andreas sought to address the friar, who spoke aside to the sister:
“His Majesty King Andreas agrees to hear of what you would apprise him.”
As though she would pray, the prioress knelt. Henryk, ever quick to suspect mockery, snorted. “Rise, woman. Speak.”
“The message I bring is sent to you by Giovanna d’Anjou, who as your wife stands Queen in Naples.”
A start shook the King and his right-hand.
Henryk, still the arms master who had taught the boy Andreas, said unthinking: “Fetch Konrad. I believe he is in the garden with Carlo.”
Andreas moved to obey. His courtiers, unoccupied on this day, stood comparing birds, a falconer at each elbow prodding the creatures to show the spread of wings, or grip of a talon.
“Konrad, come. They are not beggars…they are from Giovanna!”
The King blurted this, but as Carlo’s turn of the head directed, the party need not enter the hall, for under the arching vines Henryk and the messengers approached. Carlo dared an appraising glance at the youthful face of the prioress.
Her eyes went to his. “My Lords. I have the message of the Queen rendered here, that there be no error of understanding. But her words I know, and I will state them to you.”
Maintaining his muteness, the friar produced a sealed scroll.
“This eleventh day of September, in the year of Our Lord 1344, to my husband Andreas of Hungary.”
“All arranged this very morning!” Carlo made to marvel. “The conventual life…of quiet and industry, yes? Why, there must be something to say for it!”
Not quite smiling, the prioress let pass this interruption. “For the welfare of the kingdom, for Our several comforts, for the sake of the illustrious Maria d’Anjou, I beg that you honour this summons, to confer with me at this house of peace. A woman, for she is defenceless, may rightly fear to enter a city armed with mercenaries and foreign soldiery. Yet by God His grace I am Queen of this realm, and your wife also. This abandonment cannot credit Your Majesty, though patiently I bear all wrongs. Therefore, come to this place of sanctuary and treat with me; and God His blessing be upon our meeting… It is for you to unseal the missive,” the prioress added, speaking to Andreas. “But I will tell you that she has signed her name to it, Giovanna D’Anjou.”
Andreas, neither doubting the prioress’s good memory, nor desiring any pretence of reading, did unseal the letter, and for a moment stared at it. Had Giovanna said, “this abandonment”? Was it possible she meant to shade an act of her own into a fault of his?
Carlo laughed. “Defenceless! But, come to think of it, how has she disposed of Raymond and the others?”
The friar held yet to his post of silence, but the prioress answered, “The Queen’s men are living within the gatehouse.”
“Andreas must carry his gift to your Lady Superior, and if he solicits her well, be allowed to pass words with his queen through a niche in the wall.”
Carlo spoke to the prioress in a knowing way, the prompting way of flirtation. The prioress smiled at last, secrecy behind her closed lips.
Konrad—at last—was the one to express scandal. “Holy Mother! You will not go?”
“I have to. But only think…”
Andreas struggled, both with his reasoning and his sudden consciousness, that his manner before Giovanna’s spies was boyish, not kingly, and that this exhausting woman forcibly wived to him would pluck a weakness from their accounts, and make use of it. “Think, Konrad…” He turned appealing eyes to Henryk. “Must I not treat with her? I have no claim against her. She has only fifteen men, so you tell me. And neither Cabane, nor any of them, can profane the sanctity of the cloister. You don’t counsel me to fear her?”
“She means some gain by it,” said Konrad.
Henryk glowered. “Send answer by these messengers, Andreas. It is not too late for their return before nightfall.”
Seeing his meaning partly grasped, Henryk finished his sovereign’s task of instructing the messengers: “Andreas will arrive. He gives no day or hour. All the forest of Aversa is of his kingdom, if the convent is of the church. You, brother, you know…that which a worthy servant would advise his Lady.”
The friar spoke: “I take my leave, good my lord. You will find the road open when you ride.”
(The Sword Decides!, 1908, Marjorie Bowen; edit and original material, 2021, Stephanie Foster)