Marjorie Bowen: The Sword Decides! (part forty)
The Sword Decides!
“You have seen the body. Your eyes are witness, Lord. Shall such witness be gainsaid? But allow…though I insult you to suggest it… For how a man might bring himself to suspect these good women…! No, ignore me. But say that they contrive to hide the signs. There, it seems to me again, that a rope cannot be unseen, nor its marks washed clean from the neck. The sisters will lay the King on his bier with reverence, with all ceremony as suits a Godly calling, be sure, Lord. But thinking of yourself… Thinking, I mean to say, of your place and that of your soldiers, and of those court officials the King from his Hungarians has installed. And whether you do not wish to be off at once, for word to Ludovic is advanced the further on its road, if it speed from the palace. You will consider, making your way, whether it seems most sensible to beg a larger company of Ludovic… An honour guard…perhaps only that. I find Lord Konrad well-meant and good-tempered.”
“Brother, cease this. My head is splitting.”
Maria opened her eyes. She had lain temple pressed against the cold stones of the wall, her heart racing; she could not fathom having dozed. Could she have fainted? The voices belonged to Lord Henryk, he whose head was splitting…and to Brother Adamo.
have seen the body a rope cannot be unseen lay the King on his bier
“Why, now, what mischief in this wretched place! Who is this girl? Is she drunk? God’s mercy…! No,” Henryk subsided. “But she is very like to one of the princesses.”
“Leave her,” said Adamo.
Maria met his gaze. Henryk walked at the monk’s side as though drunk himself, bent and wobbling on the balls of his feet. Adamo braced an elbow of his charge, and steered Henryk towards the back of the gatehouse. To make entry again, after viewing whatever sight their talk described—
Adamo, over his shoulder, looked at Maria, smiling. A knowing smile, and yet a pitying one. She pushed to her feet. She felt that Adamo would destroy her, by insisting this female lying woozily on the convent grounds was mad, besotted, a pitiful village fixture given alms by the nuns. Henryk, when they returned to the palace, would see her at Giovanna’s side; he would say to himself: But the madwoman and Maria d’Anjou are one!
To others, in confidence, he would repeat this…
But they were not to return. Why think it?
Words insisted themselves into consciousness, into that part of Maria’s mind telling her, while terror at such helplessness numbed it, where she was going. The sound of chanted prayer crossed the unshuttered sill of the workshop window. She glanced inside. The sisters sat on their benches, a dark-stained cloth before them, pitting cherries with small knives.
A rope. The King on his bier.
The tiled roof rose, angling to the second storey, and Maria followed the contour of the convent-house, until back again at the door below the tower stairs. She broke into a run. She halted, staggering, feet askew in her thin slippers.
Three men were here. One was Brother Matteo, the second and third unknown to her. The last man’s belted tunic was green, a cowl that had been on his head draping the face of a figure, supine on the ground. Nearby was a rope, not horrid by itself…a snaking length. Yet this lay as though, like Cleopatra’s asp, it stretched to touch the figure’s neck, its fibres freshly cut.
Stockings clung to the legs, peeled to the ankles; the soles exposed were torn as well, their scoring wounds apparent. The red that rimmed them had thickened, blood that did not flow. While these legs untanned by the sun were white…
How very strangely they were white.
Maria dropped to her knees and drew back the cowl. By another lapse of time, not to be accounted for, she was at the side of the corpse, the soul flown, the young life pitifully spent. She was here, Brother Matteo murmuring restraint, begged of the others.
The face was slack. Crushed in a way and not bruised. Spotted and mottled. The ears devoid of colour, the nose…
The tan of the cheeks ashen.
Then romantic yarns of the troubadours were false. How could a heroine of Arthur’s time have crawled to the side of her vanquished love…to croon over him, dead, but lovely as in life?
Maria saw that violent death lay unmistakeable when seen, no loveliness in it.
No wonder, that they tied the jaw and placed coins on the eyes.
“Madonna, rise,” Brother Matteo said. “Cover him.”
She obeyed a light tug at her sleeve; the green man knelt and redrew the cowl. Maria shook with a sudden ague. A voice uttered condemnations, shrilled to its highest pitch—and over and over, it cried: “Murder!”
“Hush, hush.” Arms came round her shoulders. Sister Apollonia, bodily dragging her away, gave her into custody of two others, one the groom Pio, whose hands at Maria’s elbows clenched tight. A cloth, aromatic of herbs, was pressed to her face.
But at this pass, Maria wished to faint. She pretended she did, and let herself be carried.
Apollonia, assuming an authority, said: “What is the truth, Matteo?”
Maria heard his words recede.
“That which concerns you little. It is thought the King fell into bad company, a gang of rogues, for, alas, it was his way to frequent taverns. Tell Mother Crispina so, that no aspersion falls upon her house, for none can put aside the will of a king.”
(The Sword Decides!, 1908, Marjorie Bowen; edit and original material, 2021, Stephanie Foster)