Marjorie Bowen: The Sword Decides! (part thirty-nine)
The Sword Decides!
Hands attached to her bare arms, as in her shift she bent over the window ledge, staring, searching. A contrary thing in Maria’s heart made her refuse any gasp or cry. She turned, and slowly.
“Sister, I was only looking.”
“I would not have you dizzy yourself and fall.” The words broke lame, Apollonia unable quite to act the part when her dialogue had been anticipated.
“I have been ill,” said Maria, levelly. “I feel strong today. I dismiss you.”
“The order of Saint Peter is not above the ruling house of Anjou. I dismiss you.”
Apollonia backed from the room. This was appropriate, though never with a servant had Maria insisted. The eyes, she watched dart here and there…
A report was being mentally worded; the cause of this irregularity guessed at.
Maria pitied the stupid girl. Mother Crispina…yes, there was a woman bland-faced, sly, the very type to have a tartar inside.
Telling herself so, Maria formed pictures in her mind, while hurriedly she dressed. Would they cease all pretence; had they cells of a truer kind, for persons held under the Bishop’s law?
Her quarters had no looking-glass. She found a cloak to guard her bodice, but of hats or head-coverings, none…
None to swaddle in virtue the antic locks of a woman visiting a man where he slept. Yet Maria had been ensconced with Andreas before, in the antechamber of her grandfather’s dying room. She twisted her hair under her collar, and slipped into the passage.
Someone was coming. Male voices Maria heard below, and women murmuring, the noises filtering up on her right…she could not run that way. On her left, she knew of a shuttered window, leading to the tower stairs… The window was within Giovanna’s room. At the sound of laboured climbing, Maria found her choice made.
She would escape, or be punished for failing.
The baldness of these options taught her youth a new lesson: how much of fear is indecision, the wish to allow for choices not there. Maria slid around a stone pillar. The heaviness of the hanging rug surprised her…but no ripple hinted at disturbance.
She saw that Sancia and Giovanna sat ignorant; they were behind the bed-curtains, speaking low in conference.
Now a tapestry came aside in the hand of Raymond de Cabane. Terlizzi entered with him. Sun glanced in, showing to Maria that this marked what she sought, and that no other of Cabane’s henchmen blocked her way.
He nodded at the sister of his Queen, his hoped-for bride, who frozen returned his gaze. Then he went to the bed and spoke with urgency: “Madonna!”
“What a disorderly house Mother Crispina keeps,” came the voice. It trembled, angry, the next words as queerly mannered as the first. “She has let my husband run roughshod over all propriety. I do fear he will trouble me. I hope he does not.”
Her presence, it occurred to Maria, did not strike the men odd; they thought her summoned, to wait on Giovanna. No eyes were on her. Indeed, Terlizzi had crossed the room already and exited to the passage. Cabane was bent, speaking assurances, parrying complaints.
Behind the tapestry Maria darted, to find herself exposed on a narrow landing. And yet the courtyard below looked empty. “Run, hurry,” she coached, snatching a too-generous fold of skirt, tapping her slippers along the rough edges, avoiding the worn centres of the steps. She rounded the base of the tower.
A man was there—she knew him and didn’t. A servant she had seen in company with Andreas. He locked his gaze on hers, and by this chance seemed spurred to flee. Maria followed…but it had not been her habit since childhood to run…
The sprint soon left her winded, an ache in her side. She heard the cracking of limbs.
All along the dormitory were slotted windows, uncovered; passing them Maria picked up dreamlike bursts of speech, a voice resembling Cabane’s, another Malazzo’s. Malazzo had partnered her at a masked ball, and she had marvelled at his bloody talk, his man’s world of feats and vengeances. A woman would be given him. If he merited well, a daughter of Anjou…hmm?
No. And when Maria reached the rear of the convent, silence again, emptiness. She peered in at the tidy rows. Between the cots was stone flagging. This was wrong…
Somehow, it was not right. Softly, Maria entered, no wall sconce lit, the interior dim. Softly, she treaded, and saw at last the carpet rolled, put aside. She had reached the vestibule at the tower end. Her slippers, making a wet sound, kissed the stone, reluctant to part from it.
Water from a pail sloshed her skirt. A girl edged Maria, raised wide eyes, but exclaimed nothing for herself. She knelt; Maria watched…and understood the girl was dispatched to scrub something from the stones, with a rag she dipped and wrung.
A shudder of loathing went head to toe. Some mockery of fate was driving Maria in a dance, and now the murmurs were above, whispering through the tower room’s open door. She chose to move right this time, and on the building’s opposite side found a buttress, crouched at its foot. A blank wall of the gatehouse faced her.
She wept, not knowing she did, huddling herself small. In some extraordinary way she was hidden from the world, while plainly in sight. A thud—almost a sympathetic response to a noise unheard—rattled Maria and a gasp, not her own.
The sound coming faint, unsexed, from off in the trees.
(The Sword Decides!, 1908, Marjorie Bowen; edit and original material, 2021, Stephanie Foster)