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CELEBRATED CRIMES VOLUME 6(of 8), Part 1

By Alexandre Dumas, Pere




JOAN OF NAPLES
1343-1382



CHAPTER I

In the night of the 15th of January 1343, while the inhabitants of
Naples lay wrapped in peaceful slumber, they were suddenly awakened
by the bells of the three hundred churches that this thrice blessed
capital contains.  In the midst of the disturbance caused by so rude
a call the first bought in the mind of all was that the town was on
fire, or that the army of some enemy had mysteriously landed under
cover of night and could put the citizens to the edge of the sword.
But the doleful, intermittent sounds of all these fills, which
disturbed the silence at regular and distant intervals, were an
invitation to the faithful pray for a passing soul, and it was soon
evident that no disaster threatened the town, but that the king alone
was in danger.

Indeed, it had been plain for several days past that the greatest
uneasiness prevailed in Castel Nuovo; the officers of the crown were
assembled regularly twice a day, and persons of importance, whose
right it was to make their way into the king's apartments, came out
evidently bowed down with grief.  But although the king's death was
regarded as a misfortune that nothing could avert, yet the whole
town, on learning for certain of the approach of his last hour, was
affected with a sincere grief, easily understood when one learns that
the man about to die, after a reign of thirty-three years, eight
months, and a few days, was Robert of Anjou, the most wise, just, and
glorious king who had ever sat on the throne of Sicily.  And so he
carried with him to the tomb the eulogies and regrets of all his
subjects.

Soldiers would speak with enthusiasm of the long wars he had waged
with Frederic and Peter of Aragon, against Henry VII and Louis of
Bavaria; and felt their hearts beat high, remembering the glories of
campaigns in Lombardy and Tuscany; priests would gratefully extol his
constant defence of the papacy against Ghibelline attacks, and the
founding of convents, hospitals, and churches throughout his kingdom;
in the world of letters he was regarded as the most learned king in
Christendom; Petrarch, indeed, would receive the poet's crown from no
other hand, and had spent three consecutive days answering all the
questions that Robert had deigned to ask him on every topic of human
knowledge.  The men of law, astonished by the wisdom of those laws
which now enriched the Neapolitan code, had dubbed him the Solomon of
their day; the nobles applauded him for protecting their ancient
privileges, and the people were eloquent of his clemency, piety, and
mildness.  In a word, priests and soldiers, philosophers and poets,
nobles and peasants, trembled when they thought that the government
was to fall into the hands of a foreigner and of a young girl,
recalling those words of Robert, who, as he followed in the funeral
train of Charles, his only son, turned as he reached the threshold of
the church and sobbingly exclaimed to his barons about him, "This day
the crown has fallen from my head: alas for me! alas for you!"

Now that the bells were ringing for the dying moments of the good
king, every mind was full of these prophetic words: women prayed
fervently to God; men from all parts of the town bent their steps
towards the royal palace to get the earliest and most authentic news,
and after waiting some moments, passed in exchanging sad reflections,
were obliged to return as they had come, since nothing that went on
in the privacy of the family found its way outside--the castle was
plunged in complete darkness, the drawbridge was raised as usual, and
the guards were at their post.

Yet if our readers care to be present at the death of the nephew of
Saint Louis and the grandson of Charles of Anjou, we may conduct them
into the chamber of the dying man.  An alabaster lamp suspended from
the ceiling serves to light the vast and sombre room, with walls
draped in black velvet sewn with golden fleur-de-lys.  Near the wall
which faces the two entrance doors that at this moment are both shut
close, there stands beneath a brocaded canopy an ebony bed, supported
on four twisted columns carved with symbolic figures.  The king,
after a struggle with a violent paroxysm, has fallen swooning in the
arms of his confessor and his doctor, who each hold one of his dying
hands, feeling his pulse anxiously and exchanging looks of
intelligence.  At the foot of the bed stands a woman about fifty
years of age, her hands clasped, her eyes raised to heaven, in an
attitude of resigned grief: this woman is the queen, No tears dim her
eyes: her sunken cheek has that waxen yellow tinge that one sees on
the bodies of saints preserved by miracle.  In her look is that
mingling of calm and suffering that points to a soul at once tried by
sorrow and imbued with religion.  After the lapse of an hour, while
no movement had disturbed the profound silence which reigned about
the bed of death, the king trembled slightly; opened his eyes, and
endeavoured feebly to raise his head.  They thanking the physician
and priest with a smile, who had both hastened to arrange his
pillows, he begged the queen to come near, and told her in a low
voice that he would speak with her a moment alone.  The doctor and
confessor retired, deeply bowing, and the king followed them with his
eyes up to the moment when one of the doors closed behind them.  He
passed his hand across his brow, as though seeking to collect his
thoughts, and rallying all his forces for the supreme effort,
pronounced these words:

"What I must say to you, Sancha, has no concern with those two good
persons who were here a moment ago: their task is ended.  One has
done all for my body that human science could teach him, and all that
has come of it is that my death is yet a little deferred; the other
has now absolved me of all my sins, and assured me of God's
forgiveness, yet cannot keep from me those dread apparitions which in
this terrible hour arise before me.  Twice have you seen me battling
with a superhuman horror.  My brow has been bathed in sweat, my limbs
rigid, my cries have been stifled by a hand of iron.  Has God
permitted the Evil Spirit to tempt me?  Is this remorse in phantom
shape?  These two conflicts I have suffered have so subdued my
strength that I can never endure a third.  Listen then, my Sandra,
for I have instructions to give you on which perhaps the safety of my
soul depends."

"My lord and my master," said the queen in the most gentle accents of
submission, "I am ready to listen to your orders; and should it be
that God, in the hidden designs of His providence, has willed to call
you to His glory while we are plunged in grief, your last wishes
shall be fulfilled here on earth most scrupulously and exactly.
But," she added, with all the solicitude of a timid soul, "pray
suffer me to sprinkle drops of holy water and banish the accursed one
from this chamber, and let me offer up some part of that service of
prayer that you composed in honour of your sainted brother to implore
God's protection in this hour when we can ill afford to lose it."

Then opening a richly bound book, she read with fervent devotion
certain verses of the office that Robert had written in a very pure
Latin for his brother Louis, Bishop of Toulouse, which was, in use in
the Church as late as the time of the Council of Trent.

Soothed by the charm of the prayers he had himself composed, the king
was near forgetting the object of the interview he had so solemnly
and eagerly demanded and letting himself lapse into a state of vague
melancholy, he murmured in a subdued voice, "Yes, yes, you are
right; pray for me, for you too are a saint, and I am but a poor
sinful man."

"Say not so, my lord," interrupted Dona Sancha; "you are the
greatest, wisest, and most just king who has ever sat upon the throne
of Naples."

"But the throne is usurped," replied Robert in a voice of gloom; "you
know that the kingdom belonged to my elder brother, Charles Martel;
and since Charles was on the throne of Hungary, which he inherited
from his mother, the kingdom of Naples devolved by right upon his
eldest son, Carobert, and not on me, who am the third in rank of the
family.  And I have suffered myself to be crowned in my nephew's
stead, though he was the only lawful-king; I have put the younger
branch in the place of the elder, and for thirty-three years I have
stifled the reproaches of my conscience.  True, I have won battles,
made laws, founded churches; but a single word serves to give the lie
to all the pompous titles showered upon me by the people's
admiration, and this one word rings out clearer in my ears than all
the, flattery of courtiers, all the songs of poets, all the orations
of the crowd:--I am an usurper!"

"Be not unjust towards yourself, my lord, and bear in mind that if
you did not abdicate in favour of the rightful heir, it was because
you wished to save the people from the worst misfortunes.  Moreover,"
continued the queen, with that air of profound conviction that an
unanswerable argument inspires, "you have remained king by the
consent and authority of our Holy Father the sovereign pontiff, who
disposes of the throne as a fief belonging to the Church."

"I have long quieted my scruples thus," replied the dying man, "and
the pope's authority has kept me silent; but whatever security one
may pretend to feel in one's lifetime, there yet comes a dreadful
solemn hour when all illusions needs must vanish: this hour for me
has come, and now I must appear before God, the one unfailing judge."

"If His justice cannot fail, is not His mercy infinite?" pursued the
queen, with the glow of sacred inspiration.  "Even if there were good
reason for the fear that has shaken your soul, what fault could not
be effaced by a repentance so noble?  Have you not repaired the wrong
you may have done your nephew Carobert, by bringing his younger son
Andre to your kingdom and marrying him to Joan, your poor Charles's
elder daughter?  Will not they inherit your crown?"

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