Marjorie Bowen: The Sword Decides! (part forty-four)
The Sword Decides!
The Last Masquerade
Maria rode with her sister in a light, open cart, drawn by a white horse. Between them in honour sat the old Hungarian woman, a pet now of Giovanna’s. Well rear the cart travelled, of the funerary wagon. An escort flanked the royal party in a wing pattern, a small, pious space, wherein the Queen presented herself bereaved, to the growing crowd.
The veiled figure leant in solicitation towards Nagyanya, tucked up the ermine lap-robe, a gift; offered a pear from a basket. The old woman’s face, Maria thought, showed a vein of scepticism amid the flattery.
The old woman, indeed, allowed herself both appreciation (why should she not, when the condition of being bought did not exist, enjoy these fine attempts?), and a private pleasure at carrying news to Lord Henryk, which he wanted, and must fret himself over. Her donkey walked docile, tethered at the cart’s back.
The late King’s entourage led the procession, fully armed and coloured, stiff-legged in a ceremonial cadence, a curiosity for the contadini, come eagerly to line the road. Among them Raymond de Cabane had placed his agents.
To exclaim over tragedy was a commonplace. And this young death felt of the world itself, of what it was coming to…
“That goat,” said a woman. “He will open his door to anyone with two coins to rub together. One of the foresters told me the men were dark, and gabbling. Because Venice is another sort of place to Naples. Any pirate or thief can make his way among the islands.”
“What goat? Do you mean di Salvo, the innkeeper? But, they were assassins, Ottomans, purposed to murder the King.”
“Why do you say it?”
“Of course! Of course!” someone shouted, until he had silenced the others. “While Hungary looks west, the Musselman plots to rise from the south.”
Listeners craned to see the Queen, disappointed somewhat that the King was in a casket, the condition of the body only hearsay. Events would come to them half-heard, patched, remade as they recalled them, recounting this day to friends at home. The Turkish assassins, and other inventions planted, took root wherever the forest parted.
Shortly, the procession left Aversa. The road widened; men and women, children chivvied forth for their instruction, treaded down from the hills, falling in behind to make a mournful parade. Or a holiday parade—as the deaths of monarchs, coming one on the heels of the other, had excited the city, given cause to leave off chores…to gossip, to buy new things, stock larders, play host to guests.
“Maria, love,” Giovanna said.
“Oh, Gia, if you mean to ask, I’m well. I’m well.”
“Have patience. We are not far now from the cloister.”
Patience, Maria drew into her lungs, in a long breath through the nose. Else, she might sigh and be further accused. Holy Mother, she prayed, if I lack humility, if I find myself so important I imagine my sister the Queen to machinate against me, lend me strength, give me true sight.
The feeling persisted. The Cavaliere rode ahead and to Giovanna’s right; Cabane opposite, guarding his intended. He did not dislike her mad, Maria supposed. The better cause, when he had forced on her a son, and taken her lands, to put her away…in the care of Apollonia… Giovanna spoke, then, to impress her sister’s trouble of mind on the marshal. Mastracchio was rather a foolish man, and he believed—Maria judged it so—in the assassins. Or the brigands, or whatever Raymond would have them.
The candidates to arrive on wings of rumour, be tortured to confession, hanged. Or beheaded, a showier fate—or, if the poor souls proved foreign enough, burnt at the stake. Ludovic would accept this answer.
We must accept an answer, if it is pressed on us at every turn.
Maria, the day of deciding she was not mad, had left her bed. Hours she had crouched, arms round her knees, swathed in covers, eating nothing, knowing she was horribly hungry. Knowing herself detached somehow, as if another person felt this pain.
She had listened while her sister and Sancia, outside the bedcurtains, seemed to stage one more of their exchanges.
“Why not lie abed and be catered to? She does not refuse wine. And what follows, naturally, she manages without disgracing herself.”
“You are jealous, cara,” Giovanna had said. “Be kind.”
The Queen’s role was of gentle service to all, uncomplaining. Forbearance for her sister, charity for the old nurse of Andreas. Stupidity, now, for the counsels of Raymond de Cabane.
“I am a woman. It is, alas, my fate to rule. For my own part, keeping the royal court, my heart may bid me do this or that, but for the kingdom’s good, I rely on whom my grandfather trusted.”
Konrad of Gottif, auditor of this soft rebuke, had withdrawn, shamefaced. He rode today at the head of the Hungarian soldiers. And Maria, for wandering mute in Giovanna’s wake, had gained this intuition… Her collapse had been the paralysis of terror. Her brain could not choose among evils, could not even support her body, for a time.
Her sister, in excising Andreas from all influence over Naples, a threat not to rise twice, had speculated, and waited the return. No move of Giovanna’s, surely not for a year or more, could smack of scheming, of grasping after power.
“Am I to marry Ludovic?” Maria had asked her.
“They tell me Henryk of Belgrade will carry to him the news. If Hungary sends an envoy, and informs me of his will…and if his will is to marry you yet, I must consult Clement. I’ll not have you sent away north, midwinter.”
(The Sword Decides!, 1908, Marjorie Bowen; edit and original material, 2021, Stephanie Foster)