Marjorie Bowen: The Sword Decides! (part fifty-two)
The Sword Decides!
Ludovic, falling thoughtful, allowed Konrad his seat and plate. His eyes could not avoid Mastracchio’s table habit of tendering morsels to the animal, of kissing it on the nose and mouth, of feeding himself with fingers licked by the animal’s tongue. All the while he chatted…and as to Proserpina’s recent adventures, her opinions on life, the practiced Montferrat looked an attentive listener. The Italian of their talk came rapid, too much so for Ludovic to know himself ignored, or roundly insulted.
He soaked his stub of bread in a brown, harsh sauce of onion, and sucked free the soft end. The dead priest of Messina preyed on his mind.
Belief in Mediterranean chicanery—
In this, of a nature beyond all bounds known at home, he found not difficult. Women…he believed this too…had the ways of devils. The messenger, the doctor, the priest, why suppose they were other than Giovanna’s…
Tools, her inventions. “Fiorina!” he said suddenly. “Is there a famous doctor in the city of Alba?”
She did not look for consultation to the guests. But, as girls must, she stammered, “I… Oh, but I think… Is there a man of Persia, famous for his library of books…? No, I beg pardon, I think I know little…”
“Be easy. I did not expect an answer. Konrad, go after the messenger. I want that document.”
Konrad stood from his meal, his face composed, though he caught Montferrat’s commiserating smile.
“Ludovic,” Montferrat said. “Send the girl away.”
He shooed her himself with a flap of the tablecloth, and when Fiorina had scurried after Konrad, and had put herself behind the screen (placed to temper the funneling of wind through the passage), Montferrat said:
“Now, Ludovic, my friend the marshal has come to me with news, news of your brother’s murderers, and he has wished to ask me, how does one approach the king of Hungary? I have said to Signor Mastracchio, Ludovic is not an ill-disposed man, not at all. Often I ride to the old Dellucci villa, where he keeps his quarters, and often I have dined with him, and shared those things that concern us both, Ludovic and I. By which, as Ludovic knows, I refer to movements within the walls of Naples.”
Ludovic allowed him a nod, wondering at this formality. Why must Montferrat preamble in the style of a public letter? Weary of going without counsel, Ludovic wanted but one small thing that did not mystify, demand decision.
Mastracchio said, “Everything we had feared to be true, has been brought out in testimony. Brother Paolo had found refuge in a village all but abandoned, a dry, stony place on a mountainside, where there is a spring in a cave that steams, and the fumes that fill this cave are poisonous. The people once had a practice of sending in a goat, and when it died, of reading the entrails, to know the will of the gods. A very old story, Signor Ludovic.”
He took a moment to adjust Proserpina on his shoulder.
Ludovic rubbed his temple. “You have news? Paolo is prisoner?”
“Ah! You will never guess. He fought my men with a sword, and as he was in a hut of stone, with no window and only one door, they felt they would camp there until he began to starve and surrendered. But having little to do, only to trade places on the watch, a sergeant of mine, who is called Carlo Nitti, thought to survey the land thereabouts. If one miscreant hid himself in this hut, perhaps also others. And as he searched, he spotted a great nest of wasps.”
“He put the wasps into the hut and drove Paolo out?”
The sergeant had; the story’s denouement was nothing but its apparent one…still, Mastracchio walked Ludovic through the conversations between Nitti and an underling, Aldo, as to whether any local herder might have a crock or a barrel, with a tight-fitting lid, and if so, would he lend it to the marshal’s men? No, he would not, but allowed them to pay him for an hour’s use. This herder possessed a name as well…
Ludovic twice more filled his wine cup and downed the contents.
(The Sword Decides!, 1908, Marjorie Bowen; edit and original material, 2022, Stephanie Foster)