Marjorie Bowen: The Sword Decides! (part thirty-two)
The Sword Decides!
He shut the door, finding it could not be bolted. Neither a hasp of metal, nor a board to be laid into brackets, barred visitors. But why should a Bishop, come to confer with one appointed by his own approbation; come to examine this portion of his estate—its cleanliness, its devotions, its profit in alms, its inmates’ conduct—fear any presence within these walls?
It was for Andreas to fear, and he did. He scanned the white chamber. He sat on the foot of the bed; a penitential bed, narrow and hard. A crucifix hung from the wall opposite. At his right hand was a niche, with a figure of the Madonna.
At his left was a window. A carved and heavy screen blocked the view. The chamber withal made a cell, nothing larger. The interior was squared, despite the curve of the tower’s face. A terrible thought of immurement came to him, that a body dropped into that arc of mystery, or worse, a living person, would not be discovered—would effectively have vanished from earth.
He folded the screen, laid it flat, wanting the company of dwindling daylight, wanting that faint voice, and another, from the stables, the neigh of a horse…he thought not his Samson…
It would be best to escape this tower and ride away.
Andreas bunched his fists, unconscious of doing so, the picture having crowded his mind of a need to fight his way clear. Of this holy place.
But a knock, and a servant, aromatic of the scullery, arrived bearing his supper. Something more than bread and wine had been supplied; the breast of a bird curved from the platter, mushroom and sprigs of herbs arranged in its cavity.
“Thank you. Is there a scribe? I have a mind to send word to my brother.”
Duty, placed on the head of this girl, whose family must live nearby and have hopes of her acceptance here, made her blush and tremble.
Backing to the threshold, she faltered: “A scribe…?”
“A man who writes Latin. Or French, if there is such. Will you not ask at the gatehouse? And ask if my friend Konrad has arrived.”
He settled, and drew with his fingers one thing and another from the bird, thinking that these threats of poison, offered either with vengeful cunning, or utter innocence…a menace imagined…represented choice. A sensible man would eat his supper, bird, mushrooms, bread and all, sate his hunger and trust in the Lady at his right. Or a sensible man, held to blame for Henryk’s cruelty (while Andreas knew at the hour of San Severino’s death, he had enjoyed it), might rather die in some peace.
In this room, where even for agonies of the bowels, he might lie on a bed.
He thought at last, wiping his hands on the coarse linen, that all of it was madness. They had got him panicked, away from his friends, no one to calm his fancies…
Without ceremony, a man entered, sat himself crosslegged on the floor, propped on his knees a lap desk for writing. On this he centered an irregular paper, a rough thing that seemed pounded from the chaff of a poor harvest.
While the man finicked with knife and quill, Andreas tried: “This is from King Andreas of Naples to his brother, King Ludovic of Hungary.”
“Yes,” answered the scribe. “Konrad of Gottif rests with your other servants, at the gatehouse.”
He seemed not to have absorbed the point. But if a good parchment was not to be used—
After all, the exercise was only for comfort.
“It is the seventeenth evening of September, and I am guest at the convent of Santo Pietro a Maiello. Such terms as I am able to come to, with my espoused wife Giovanna, I will add to this letter tomorrow.”
“Nothing more. Not yet.”
“I have another message. If you please to follow me, signor. Our Lady Queen Giovanna desires to see you.”
There were seated, in this refectory, around its long table, Giovanna, Mother Crispina, the sister of the coffer, the friar, and a tonsured brother whose robe was black.
He alone stood.
“Though I am Brother Matteo, it is better you know me as Benedetto di Terlizzi. When I took vows I died to the world and gave my estates to my son. But of matters regarding estates I have yet fair knowledge. Giovanna asks that I counsel her, in these negotiations.”
Matteo gestured, and Andreas took a seat, a table’s length from his wife. The auburn hair was gathered in netting, the dress was the beaded and sumptuous one she had worn the day of her fleeing. She was pale this night as though cloistered here for years.
He studied Giovanna, and she looked aside from him, finally at the hands on her lap.
Negotiations… “Where is Maria?”
“The Duchess keeps to her room,” said Mother Crispina.
“Where have your retainers gone?”
Giovanna’s eyes came up slowly. “My Lord. How do you, yourself? Well, I hope. I was escorted here by some gentlemen, once of my household. They have dispersed to their own households.”
A guardian angel seemed to nudge Andreas, prompting a late-dawning awareness. “I wish to have my advisors as well, Henryk of Belgrade…”
Matteo smiled, looked to the stool, where the scribe had sat. It was empty. But at once through the door came Henryk and Konrad, and when their bulk had passed and they had placed themselves right and left of Andreas, the stool showed occupied again.
(The Sword Decides!, 1908, Marjorie Bowen; edit and original material, 2021, Stephanie Foster)