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From Chapter Two:

        Barbara’s first mother-in-law, Princess Sophia Gasztold is a survivor. She has seen countless women “bartered, bred, and buried early,” as she puts it. She herself has lived to see her husband and only child (Barbara’s first husband) die and the vast estates they had struggled to accumulate revert back to the King. All the sacrifices to preserve the dynasty have come to naught. She is bedridden and Augustus has come to grant her tenure of her castle and estate for life and bid her goodbye. She is remarkably outspoken. He accepts that, but teases her in return. The conversation is reported by Angelo, who eavesdrops and peeks from the antechamber.


        “It was your daughter-in-law who requested this arrangement, and it was my pleasure to grant her wish,” Augustus said.

        “Barbara asked it of you?” she responded. She sounded surprised.

        “Yes, perhaps she plans to make her home here with you, to play Ruth to your Naomi.”

        “No,” she said firmly. “She must return to Vilnius shortly.”

        The Prince raised his eyebrows. “You plan to send her away?”

        “Her cousin Nicholas will send for her. Her beauty is too powerful an instrument for the Radziwills to leave her here caring for a useless, old lady. He will summon her, and I will not try to stop her going.”

        Augustus shifted in his chair. He was looking in the direction of the altar table and the Virgin crowned with so many pearls. “Then I will see her again at court,” he said absently.

        “It would be best for you both if you ignored her presence,” she said decisively.

        He fixed his attention on the bed once more. “Why do you say that?” he asked.

        “Has not the Lord God provided you with a wife to bear your heirs?”

        “My father has provided me with such a wife and would like me to return to her. My mother, on the other hand, would like me to return that wife to her father.”

        “You cannot with decency return her to her father. Moreover, she is the hope of your people. You need a wife who will breed sons, or the peace of two realms will be disrupted.”

        “Are you afraid that if I return her to her father, I will claim your Ruth to provide the heirs I need?”

        The idea was so preposterous that I had to stifle a laugh, but the old lady struggled to raise herself and then subsided onto her cushions. “She has failed at that task once already,” she said weakly, as if forced to speak.

        That was the single instance in which anyone at Gieranony placed blame for the failure of the Gasztold line. The statement lay there for a moment before the old lady added, “What I wish for her is a long and comfortable widowhood. She dutifully submitted to the marriage her father arranged for her and happily survived it. Why should she not enjoy her new and comfortable estate?”

        “And remain a living memorial to your deceased son?” he said wryly.

        She ignored his suggestion. “I would have her a free woman whose actions are governed by her own heart and reason, not the ambitions of some young man chosen for her with regard to the ambitions of her family.”

        “Intriguing notion,” he said, suddenly grown attentive.

        “Fortunately, in Lithuania, a woman can hold inherited or dower property in her own name and manage it according to her own judgment. Why should Barbara not live as mistress of her own household and fate?”

         “That might work well for an elderly widow whose judgment has matured and whose appetites have cooled….”

        She actually interrupted him. “Again, widows in Lithuania are more fortunate than those in Poland. Her friends will allow her to satisfy her appetites as long as she is careful and discrete.”

        “But surely a woman who grew up in the bosom of a family will desire to recreate that family in her own life,” he said.

        His thoroughness had pushed him to the last and least of his objections, and she demolished it quickly.

        “Given your own reluctance to recreate a family, why would you impose such an inclination on my daughter-in-law?”

        That was impertinent and she changed direction before he could respond. “If she must marry again, I would wish her an older husband who already has all the heirs he requires and is ripe enough to love and cherish a wife who will love and cherish him.”

        She followed Augustus with her eyes, turning her head against the cushion, as he rose and walked to the foot of the bed. I took his response as more of the playfulness that her challenging remarks seemed to elicit from him. “And what if I wanted a marriage that was a haven of cherishing rather than a paddock for breeding?” he asked.

        “You, Your Highness?” she said as she stifled a cough. “Listen to me:  People who have read the ancients—heretics, Humanists, I don’t know what you call them—talk about a marriage of love and companionship. It is an elegant idea, a comforting concept—but not for you. For the sake of the order ordained by God, a prince must take a wife of royal blood who produces indisputable heirs to his authority.”

        Augustus nodded. “And so the dutiful prince who longs for companionship must take a mistress in addition to his wife.”

        This time the old lady did raise herself on her elbows. “And would you deny Barbara both her freedom as a widow and a suitable second marriage?”

        He barely stifled a grin. “But I was speaking theoretically,” he said.

        “Your Highness,” she responded with the last of her strength propping her up, “listen to an old woman. For the sake of your people, your family and your respect for yourself, return to your bride and give your full attention to begetting numerous sons.”

        The Prince laughed as she sank back into her cushions. “With counselors like you pointing the way, how can I fail?” he said again.


Excerpt from In the Matter of the King's Marriage

Copyright Jeffrey R. Prince

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