Marjorie Bowen: The Sword Decides! (part forty-six)
The Sword Decides!
Carlo wore his cap sewn with locks of horsehair, to hang in learned silver, part-obscuring the black. He wore a long robe of satin, painted with its zodiacal designs…
He was bothered that the robe looked cheap. But his household women had giggled at him, and so (knowing nothing of stitchery, but that it appeared dull as dirt) he had bowed to authority. Time lacked, and a mountebank he must remain.
He had still told them all he was a physician.
While persisting in widowhood, the Queen had not entertained. Disgraced and favoured alike walked eggshells through the dark months, keeping to their homes. The royal calendar for February had been declared on the second, on the day consecrated to Jesus and Mary.
Carlo died to see this infant, to question his cousin on the miracle of its delivery.
He would tease her, lightly; she would smile in time, and confide in him.
But the promised masque pended for guests to bite nails over, until each personal invitation had arrived. And if none came, Carlo—he had thought of it—would undertake a pilgrimage to Hippo Regius.
For splendour’s sake, in the event, or because more guests justified more appropriations of larder-stocks, few from the old circle had found themselves snubbed.
“Prognosticate,” Giulia di Terlizzi whispered.
“A travesty of a peafowl counts its conquests unaccountable, as the commandments instruct nothing to a cock that plays cuckold.”
“Beast!” Carlo’s lover shrieked a laugh. The speaker was Tafano the dwarf, frankly in the room with them. Giulia wore the feathering of the male, holding that of the hen in contempt.
“On what theme?” Carlo asked.
He fingered his chin. “What, vanishing assassins, virgin births, loaves and fishes, no less? Something in our present way of life strikes you mad?”
“Do you wager she’ll pull it off?”
The door began to inch. “Tafano!” Carlo said. “Throw your body into the breach, won’t you?”
He and Giulia rolled off the bed, patted their headgear into place, and restored their masks, first. Next they found loose tyings of garments, secured them; Carlo stooping last to recover a stray feather.
A demon had got in. It carried a pitchfork, the prongs of which the dwarf bowed clear. The demon stood with its naked chest dyed green, its arms crossed, and mockery on its lips. It was accompanied by an angel, suggesting collaboration.
But by the etiquette of the masquerade, all disguises were complete. Voice and lineament must be regarded moot, if Terlizzi and his mistress had thought also of the dead King’s chambers being empty.
“They have left the shutters open and let the pigeons in.” Terlizzi took a playful swipe at his wife’s rump. The mistress, whose wings were mere paint on thin veneering, attached by harness, sat and flung these off, but said nothing.
“Doctor,” Giulia said, “is an exorcism in your purview?”
“Signor Vanesio is a lay practitioner.” (This was Tafano.)
“Your kind, Devil, must have been playing about the Bishop’s tower, when our host…” Carlo gestured the room’s span. “…had his fall circumvented by a rope.”
Terlizzi, unbaited, performed for answer a demonic cackle. “Are you staying?”
“I, no,” Carlo decided. He felt that Terlizzi disliked him. And he considered the pitchfork. “I think the time has come to be drunk. Come with me, cara, or…”
“Heavens, I won’t spoil the ending for the poor girl!” Giulia swept, shedding, into the passage.
They reached the gallery, where the air hung with smoke and smelled of burnt tallow. By impulse, they leaned in tandem over the balusters, to assess the tables laid with disordered spoils, and judge the leader in the race to mortification.
“Run, Tafano!” Carlo whispered. “Steal all the wine!”
“What dugs old Malini has!” Giulia remarked.
Carlo drew breath. “And so, Basto had ridden off with Gia, that summer past, to be her support in exile, while you managed the villa alone…a thing we know.”
“Please. Don’t be stupid, Carlo. Why ask this night? And since…”
He had opened his mouth to speak.
“…I understand your mysteries, Doctor Vanesio, why do you hint?”
“Fear of demons.”
“Call me and I will bat him down for you.”
She had, he noted, almost told in any case. Who would her brother enlist but family, bound by loyalty to silence? Supposing the accident…the tragedy, in the accepted story…had been of Cabane’s engineering.
“I could have been no use to them, hmm? No one imagines so?”
Merry laughter. “No. I think nothing much is held against you—if you worry, lambkin. And I have never heard my brother mention you.”
“I worry a bit for Maria.”
“You love Maria.”
“I love you. Have pity.”
(The Sword Decides!, 1908, Marjorie Bowen; edit and original material, 2021, Stephanie Foster)