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From Chapter Three:

        Once the assistant to a village healer, then a page in Queen Bona’s court, Angelo, now Latin secretary to Augustus, delivers a note to Barbara in her salon. He soon finds himself playing cards with three woman who talk freely about their ideas on love and marriage.


        The sunlight from two high windows fell onto the rose gown and embroidered, pink skirt of Lady Barbara, who stood softly conversing with two other women by a small square table.

        “They print them from a copper plate and then the painter colors them by hand,” she was saying.

        She spread a fan of what looked like large playing cards on the table, and her two companions leaned over the table to examine them. I recognized one of the women immediately. She was the shorter, plainer cousin who had been at Lady Barbara’s side when I had first seen her alight from her coach and walk through the admiring crowd into the palace. The third woman was also shorter than her hostess and suffered equally by comparison. Her shapely nose was a little too pert for classic beauty and her eyes too wide apart. Still, what you could see of her face was attractive, and the arching brows over it all suggested there might be glossy, dark hair coiled under her white wimple. That headdress and the loose, black gown indicated that, young as she was, she had lost a husband. It seemed there were two young widows at that table, the first in rose and pink, the second in black—and one maiden all bedecked in monotonous green.

        “Each of the face cards is different,” the black-clad widow said. “Each of the four kings has a different face and different robes.”

        The bumbling servant had hesitated to interrupt their conversation to announce me, but Lady Barbara looked up. “Angelo,” she said, “how delightful to see you.”

        The green cousin turned to look. “How forgiving you are, Barbara. A strange man, unbidden, invades our happy circle in your private salon, and you say, ‘What a pleasure to see you, Angelo.’” Then she cocked her head and added, “Although I must admit, it certainly is a pleasure to see him. He has a ‘sweet countenance.’ Isn’t that what they call it?  He does not look like a dangerous interloper at all.”

        She was staring directly at me, but speaking as if I weren’t present. When I was a page, Bona’s women used to speak of me that way, but now it felt demeaning. I blushed with modesty or indignation; I hardly knew which.

        Lady Barbara simply ignored her. “Angelo,” she said, “come and see these splendid playing cards. My father purchased them from Germany some time before he died.”

        The cousin—I would soon learn her name was Petronella—had turned her attention to the cards, and I moved awkwardly toward the table and handed Lady Barbara the Prince’s letter. She took it with her right hand and deftly tucked it into the billowing sleeve above her left wrist.

        Picking up one of the queens, Cousin Petronella said, “Look at her. Look how placid her expression is and how simple the flow of her robe—no bodice or underskirts or overskirts or detachable sleeves. But why does she have that large hunting horn hanging around her neck?”

        “That is her suit; she is the queen of horns,” Lady Barbara said. “Each of the four suits in this deck was named for something used in the hunt. My father would have demanded that. There is ‘collars,’ used for restraining the dogs, ‘tethers,’ used for controlling the hounds, ‘nooses,’ used for hanging small prey from your belt, and ‘horns’….”

        “Used to announce that man is the master of all the beasts in the wild,” Petronella interjected.

        Lady Barbara laughed. “And the symbol of the family Radziwill. I am sure he insisted it be included among the four.”

        “So that card is the ‘queen of horns’ and this,” said the pretty widow in black, lifting another card, “is ‘the queen of tethers.’” She paused, pursed her lips and looked at Lady Barbara.  “To tell the truth, I do not think women should be allowed to ride to hounds.”

        “Would you transform the queen of tethers into the tethered queen?”  Petronella shot back. “I think women should do everything they have a mind to do.”

        “Because Queen Bona went hunting while she was with child, she lost her only other son, the second heir to the throne,” the little widow said.

        I had heard that story, too. A bear had charged directly at the Queen, her horse reared and she fell to the ground. The bear veered away at the last moment, but the fall caused Bona to go into labor. Born much too soon, the infant lived only long enough to be baptized.

        “Shall we play primero with these cards?” the pretty widow suggested, assuming that reference to Bona’s loss had ended the debate.

        “We need a fourth player?” Petronella said. “It is no fun unless you have four.”

        Lady Barbara gave me an appealing smile. “Angelo, would you join us for one hand with these beautiful cards?”

        “Yes, Lord Angelo, be our fourth,” Petronella insisted. “Do not spoil our fun.”

        Lady Barbara started gathering up the cards. Pointing with one of them at the bowl of small coins her cousin was placing on the table, she added, “Even if you lose, there will be little pain. We all wager with the groshy my mother keeps in that bowl.”

        “You sit across the table from Ela,” Petronella directed, pointing to the pretty widow, who now had a name. Reluctantly, I took the stool indicated. I used to play primero with Bona’s ladies-in-waiting, who were disciplined courtiers and knew how to behave toward a page drafted as a fourth. I was, however, no longer a page, and this cousin, this Petronella, seemed determined to embarrass me in front of Lady Barbara, who had always treated me so kindly. As for the other widow, Ela, she seemed both mild mannered and opinionated; I had no idea what to expect from her.

        Seating herself to my right, Lady Barbara gave me a reassuring glance, and then looked down at the cards. Although their size made them difficult to handle, she efficiently dealt us each two. Ela led off, passing and throwing down a fairly valuable card. She drew another card from the deck, and a quickly suppressed smile suggested she had taken a chance and won. I guessed she held a valuable hand. Then, Petronella passed, discarded the three of collars and looked with obvious distaste at the card she drew.

        I was the first to bid. I took five groshy from the bowl and placed them on the table in front of me.

        “Well, look at him,” Petronella muttered. “He intends to beat us all.” She was actually looking to her left at Ela. “I do not know why you say women should not ride to hounds. The implication is that we are only good for childbearing and should not allow any other activity to get in the way?”

        “The Roman goddess Diana was a huntress and a virgin forever,” I offered.

        “Petra, you say these things just to shock me,” Ela responded, her eyes still on her cards. “Of course mortal women, unlike goddesses”—she glanced at me—“should marry and bear children. That is their role in life.”

        Petronella put her cards face down on the table. “Is that true for every woman? Look at you. They married you off to an old man, who died and left you a childless widow with a considerable income. You have done your duty in regard to your family. What is to stop you from having the fun men assume is reserved for them—hunt all day, dance all night, take some handsome young fellow as your lover? Or, if you are of more serious a disposition, which I suppose you are, why not return to Mir and manage your household and estates the way you think they should be handled?”

        “Do not listen to her nonsense, Ela,” Lady Barbara intruded. “She is really talking to me—her favorite cousin—God help me. You and I are in the same situation, so she thinks she can lecture me through you.”

        “Then you must be the one to tell her how misguided she is,” Ela said mildly.

        “Admittedly, she is young and foolish—well, you are, Petra,” Lady Barbara said, “but my mother-in-law, who is a wise, old woman, gave me much the same advice, albeit more delicately phrased.”

        “What about your own mother? She must care more…,” Ela began, but broke off when Lady Barbara glanced at Petronella and laughed.

        “You must not look to my mother for support. She says that after five years locked in a boring marriage, I should seek passion in the arms of some gallant. She claims that moments of passion are all that you remember when you grow old.” 

        For the first time, Ela did look shocked, but Petronella was clearly intrigued.

        “And?” she prompted.

        “And what?” Lady Barbara said.

        “What happened when you followed her advice?”

        Lady Barbara looked down at her cards. I thought for a moment, she might be perturbed because I was sitting at the table listening, but then she sighed and looked up at her cousin. “If you must know,” she said, “the gallants experienced all the passion, and I had virtually nothing to remember the next morning, let alone in my old age.”

        Ela glanced at me and looked away. “Barbara, it is your turn,” she said, waving her cards in front of her face.

        Petronella had as yet not even picked up her cards. “You can each do what you want with your liberty. As for me, I want my own household and lands to manage, and I want to manage them as I think best.”

        Lady Barbara heard more in that statement than either Ela or I. “Sweetheart,” she said with a soft smile, “Do not worry so much. Wait and see. The King is just and will award you your rightful inheritance.” She paused and the smile turned sly. “He is also pious and will no doubt stick you with some husband of the Queen’s choosing when he gives you the land.”

        But Petronella refused to yield even to a just and pious king. “I will not marry until I find a gentleman—as in gentle man—who does what he wants and wants me to do everything that is within my capacity to do.”

        “Oh, you are aiming high, considering who you are and where you live. I sometimes think I would settle for a gentle man, as you put it, who needs me to help him do everything in his capacity to do. When the court assembles, every man is a Hercules, made of stone.”

        “What about the memorable passion?” Petronella asked.

        “That seems to arise from rubbing up against softer stuff than stone. I thought that’s what you meant when you called for a gentle man.”

        This time mild Ela was emphatic. “Are we playing cards or not,” she demanded.

        Lady Barbara sensed some of her discomfort. “Do not worry about Angelo. He will not repeat a word of what we say.”

        “Of course not,” I said. “And who would believe me if I did. Everyone knows Lithuanian women are dutiful and never complain about their role in life.”

        In fact, I had heard much worse from the women who came to my mother to treat the diseases their husbands gave them, or interrupt the umpteenth pregnancy, or sell them poison to end the beatings one way or another. “An abundance of lust is the root problem,” my mother would tell them. “Place boiled wild lettuce over his loins while it is still warm and it will extinguish his desire.”


Excerpt from In the Matter of the King's Marriage

Copyright Jeffrey R. Prince

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