Marjorie Bowen: The Sword Decides! (part forty-five)
The Sword Decides!
It was a Monday, a February Monday, the weather dry enough for the staging of Giovanna’s tournament.
The crown’s revenues had for 1345 been poor. During the year of Andreas, his spending on revels had drained monies from the war chest, held for fear of Sicily; the Hungarians, driven by Henryk, had fallen into the bribing of cooperation, with any sort of haste wanting addition sums.
The last Lenten season, noise had travelled through Europe of Chauliac, the Pope’s physician, who had marked the conjoining of planets most potent: Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars, on the very day of a solar eclipse. The eclipse had been observed by the common. The movement of planets was for the learned to tell. But Heaven spoke an evil omen; this, no one doubted. (While Andreas, for dying in the autumn of that year, was little thought to have deflected a curse so large, a pagan trio’s wrath against a continent.)
The curse was on the minds of the people. The Season again approached; Shrove Tuesday of 1346 would fall on the last day of February, Ash Wednesday, the first of March. This bifurcation—penance refusing the touch of sin—seemed among the Napolitani further proof that an ill fate lay wrought in the calendar.
The Queen’s own revels were not the banging of pots to frighten demons.
“I never did despise these games, though I always hated them.”
“A new mother may be forgiven if she gossips with her women, or plies at her stitching.”
“Oh, is that solace for me? I may idle myself with diversions?”
“Do I explain again… No, I have never found you slow of understanding.”
Her looks for Raymond were hard; Giovanna doubted their import could penetrate. What did a man know, thinking the ruse a minor one, a choice of politics, better borne than mourned?
A woman possessed a certain power, whatever rank she held, whatever her riches, her poverty…
It was virtue kept the nunneries holy, allowing a place for women to escape. Raymond, even, was daunted by virtue. Maria’s shield was that…that of which he wished to strip her honourably, as husband.
But he (politics, he would say) had stolen this from Giovanna. The child was made a nursery within the palace; they had named him Charles Martel, and the people were bade rejoice in the Anjou heir. The procurer Guido Magnaccia had furnished a woman for Andreas, a spy. Simona, sometimes da Siena, (“by inclination if not birth”, her handler quipped), had dispatched a first pregnancy, taking wormwood.
The second brat had proved insistent—debuting sickly, but alive.
Given audience, Guido would have sold it as readily to Henryk, to swaddle home a chit for bargaining; and Raymond did not purchase the boy before Andreas had been laid to rest, in the tombs of Santa Chiara.
The Queen was left to her discontent, a complaint unarguable. Clement, with a word, could raise armies on her behalf; with a word, he could leave her islanded. He must prefer, as any man, to see Naples governed by a King.
Matteo, and perhaps the scribe who had recorded the terms of divorce…
Discipline halted the thought. Giovanna amended: the woman, acting to save herself, and the Brother, her counsellor, had known. The parchment was a sham. It was burnt; it would not be spoken of. The scriveners, of course, spoke none of what they knew. By silence they eked slow advantage, until the greatest of notaries, such as the elder Malazzo, held kings at beck and call, and pocketed showers of coins.
The heir, the costly show of tournament and masquerade, were stages of a Queen’s grip strengthening. Parsimony and mourning had closed the year. But it was six months past September; if she did not emerge, find occasion to speak to her people, tell them that for their sake, their kingdom’s sake, she had put grief aside and would ascend the throne—
Sicily would grow ambitious. Hungary as well. Ludovic was placed now to attack the interests of his nephew, a dilemma that might settle him. Thinking so, Giovanna forgave Raymond. The child was ingenious, if nothing else.
Feasting tables were laid for all the town’s merchants. Cartloads of fruits, cakes, and cheeses were to be tossed to the most of labourers and servants, casks of wine let flow. Only the very poor, and the forbidden, would celebrate Carnival night untreated.
All was expense too great. The foodstuffs were impressed, the soldiers of the palace having lightly twisted arms. The masquerade must be an affair of pure dazzlement, paid for by credit. A full hundred of attendants were taken on; they would be given masks to please them, as though for a night become noble themselves. A scrap of satin to be carried home, caressed…
And the whisper of its fabric would say: You belong to Naples. Never forget.
(The Sword Decides!, 1908, Marjorie Bowen; edit and original material, 2021, Stephanie Foster)