The Decree of Duke Deodonato
THE DECREE OF DUKE DEODONATO
By Anthony Hope
"IT is a most anxious thing to be an absolute ruler," said Duke Deodonato, "but I have made up my mind. The Doctor has convinced me (here Dr. Fusbius, Ph.D., bowed very low) that marriage is the best, noblest, wholesomest, and happiest of human conditions."
"Your Highness will remember——" began the President of the Council.
"My lord, I have made up my mind," said Duke Deodonato.
Thus speaking, the Duke took a large sheet of foolscap paper, and wrote rapidly for a moment or two.
"There," he said, pushing the paper over to the President, "is the decree."
"The decree, sir?"
"I think three weeks afford ample space," said Duke Deodonato.
"Three weeks, sir?"
"For every man over twenty-one years of age in this Duchy to find himself a wife."
"Your Highness," observed Dr. Fusbius, with deference, "will consider that between an abstract proposition and a practical measure——"
"There is to the logical mind no stopping-place," interrupted Duke Deodonato.
"But, sir," cried the President, "imagine the consternation which this——!"
"Let it be gazetted to-night," said Duke Deodonato.
"1 would venture," said the President, "to remind your Highness that you are yourself a bachelor."
"Laws," said Duke Deodonato, "do not bind the Crown unless the Crown is expressly mentioned."
"True, sir; but I humbly conceive that it would be pessimi exempli—— "
"You are right; I will marry myself," said Duke Deodonato.
"But, sir, three weeks! The hand of a princess cannot be requested and granted——"
"Then find me somebody else," said Deodonato; "and pray leave me. I would be alone;" and Duke Deodonato waved his hand to the door.
Outside the door the President said to the Doctor,
"I could wish, sir, that you had not convinced his Highness."
"My lord," rejoined the Doctor, "truth is my only preoccupation."
"Sir," said the President, "are you married?"
"My lord," answered the Doctor, "I am not."
"I thought not," said the President, as he folded up the decree, and put it in his pocket.
It is useless to deny that Duke Deodonato's decree caused considerable disturbance in the Duchy. In the first place, the Crown lawyers raised a puzzle of law. Did the word "man" as used in the decree, include "woman"? The President shook his head, and referred the question to his Highness.
"It seems immaterial," observed the Duke. "If a man marries, a woman marries."
"," assented the Doctor.
"But, sir," said the President, "there are more women than men in the Duchy."
Duke Deodonato threw down his pen. "This is very provoking," said he. "Why was it allowed? I'm sure it happened before I came to the throne."
The Doctor was about to point out that it could hardly have been guarded against, when the President (who was a better courtier) anticipated him.
"We did not foresee that your Highness, in your Highness's wisdom, would issue this decree," he said humbly.
"True," said Duke Deodonato, who was a just man.
"Would your Highness vouchsafe any explanation?"
"What are the Judges for?" asked Duke Deodonato. "There is the law—let them interpret it."
Whereupon the Judges held that a "man" was not a "woman," and that although every man must marry, no woman need.
"It will make no difference," said the President.
"None at all," said Dr. Fusbius.
Nor, perhaps, would it, seeing that women are ever kind, and in no way by nature averse from marriage, had it not become known that Duke Deodonato himself intended to choose a wife from the ladies of his own dominions, and to choose her (according to the advice of Dr. Fusbius, who, in truth, saw little whither his counsel would in the end carry the Duke) without regard to such adventitious matters as rank or wealth, and purely for her beauty, talent, and virtue. Which resolve being proclaimed, straightway all the ladies of the Duchy, of whatsoever station, calling, age, appearance, wit, or character, conceiving each of them that she, and no other, should become the Duchess, sturdily refused all offers of marriage (although they were many of them as desperately enamoured as virtuous ladies may be), and did nought else than walk, drive, ride, and display their charms in the park before the windows of the ducal palace. And thus it fell out that when a week had gone by, no man had obeyed Duke Deodonato's decree, and they were, from sheer want of brides, like to fall into contempt of the law and under the high displeasure of the Duke.
Upon this the President and Dr. Fusbius sought audience of his Highness, and humbly laid before him the unforeseen obstacle which had occurred.
"Woman is ever ambitious," said Dr. Fusbius.
"Nay," corrected the President, "they have seen his Highnesses's person as his Highness has ridden through the city."
Duke Deodonato threw down his pen.
"This is very tiresome," said he, knitting his brows. "My lord, I would be further advised on this matter. Return at the same hour to-morrow."
The next day, Duke Deodonato's forehead had regained its customary smoothness, and his manner was tranquil and assured.
"Our pleasure is," said he to the President, "that, albeit no woman shall be compelled to marry if so be that she be not invited thereunto; yet, if bidden, she shall in no wise refuse, but straightway espouse that man who first after the date of these presents shall solicit her hand."
The President bowed in admiration.
"It is, if I may humbly say so, a practical and wise solution, sir," he said.
"I apprehend that it will remedy the mischief," said Duke Deodonato, not ill-pleased.
And doubtless it would have had an effect as altogether satisfactory, excellent, beneficial, salutary, and universal as the wisdom of Duke Deodonato had anticipated from it, had it not fallen out that, on the promulgation of the decree, all the aforesaid ladies of the Duchy, of whatsoever station, calling, age, appearance, wit, or character, straightway, and so swiftly that no man had time wherein to pay his court to them, fled to and shut and bottled and barricaded themselves in houses, castles, cupboards, cellars, stables, lofts, churches, chapels, chests, and every other kind of receptacle whatsoever, and there remained beyond reach of any man, be he whom he would, lest haply one, coming, should ask their hand in marriage, and thus they should lose all prospect of wedding the Duke.
When Duke Deodonato was apprised of this lamentable action on the part of the ladies of the Duchy, he frowned and laid down his pen.
"This is very annoying," said he. "There appears to be a disposition to thwart our endeavours for the public good."
"It is gross contumacy," said Dr. Fusbius.
"Yet," remarked the President, "inspired by a natural, if ill-disciplined, admiration for his Highness's person."
"The decree is now a fortnight old," observed Duke Deodonato. "Leave me, I will consider further of this matter."
Now even as his Highness spoke a mighty uproar arose under the palace windows, and Duke Deodonato, looking out of the window (which, be it remembered, but for the guidance of Heaven he might not have done), beheld a maiden of wonderful charms struggling in the clutches of two halberdiers of the guard, who were haling her off to prison.
"Bring hither that damsel," said Deodonato.
Presently the damsel, still held by the soldiers, entered the room. Her robe was dishevelled and rent, her golden hair hung loose on her shoulders, and her eyes were full of tears.
"At whose suit is she arrested?" asked Deodonato.
"At the suit of the most learned Dr. Fusbius, may it please your Highness."
"Sir," said Dr. Fusbius, "it is true. This lady, grossly contemning your Highness's decree, has refused my hand in marriage."
"Is it true, damsel?" asked Duke Deodonato.
"Hear me, your Highness!" answered she. "I left my dwelling out an instant, for we were in sore straits for——"
"Bread?" asked Deodonato, a touch of sympathy in his voice.
"May it please your Highness, no—pins wherewith to fasten our hair. And, as I ran to the merchant's, this aged man——"
"I am but turned of fifty," interrupted Fusbius.
"And have not yet learnt silence?" asked Deodonato severely. "Damsel, proceed!"
"Caught me by my gown as I ran and——"
"I proposed marriage to her," said Fusbius.
"Nay, if you proposed marriage, she shall marry you," said Deodonato. "By the crown of my fathers, she shall marry you. But what said he, damsel?"
"May it please your Highness, he said that I had the prettiest face in all the Duchy, and that he would have no wife but me; and thereupon he kissed me; and I would have none of him, and I struck him and escaped."
"Send for the Judges," said Duke Deodonato. "And meanwhile keep this damsel and let no man propose marriage to her until Our pleasure be known."
Now when the Judges were come, and the maiden was brought in and set over against them on the right hand, and the learned Doctor took his stand on the left, Deodonato prayed the Judges that they would perpend carefully and anxiously of the question—using all lore, research, wisdom, discretion, and justice—whether Dr. Fusbius had proposed marriage unto the maiden or no.
"Thus shalt Our mind be informed, and we shall deal profitably with this matter," concluded Duke Deodonato.
Upon which arose great debate. For there was one part of the learned men which leant upon the letter and found no invitation to marriage in the words of Dr. Fusbius; while another part would have it that in all things the spirit and mind of the utterer must be regarded, and that it sorted not with the years, virtues, learning, and position of the said most learned Doctor to suppose that he had spoken such words and sealed the same with a kiss, save under the firm impression, thought, and conviction that he was offering his hand in marriage; which said impression, thought, and conviction were fully and reasonably declared and evident in his actions, manner, bearing, air, and conduct.
"This is very perplexing," said Duke Deodonato, and he knit his brows; for as he gazed upon the beauty of the damsel, it seemed to him a thing unnatural, undesirable, unpalatable, unpleasant, and unendurable, that she should wed Dr. Fusbius. Yet if such were the law—Duke Deodonato sighed, and he glanced at the damsel: and it chanced that the damsel glanced at Duke Deodonato, and, seeing that he was a proper man and comely, and that his eye spoke his admiration of her, she blushed; and her cheek that had gone white when those of the Judges who favoured the learned Doctor were speaking, went red as a rose again, and she strove to order her hair and to conceal the rent that was in her robe. And Duke Deodonato sighed again.
"My Lord," he said to the President, "we have heard these wise and erudite men; and, forasmuch as the matter is difficult, they are divided among themselves, and the staff whereon we leant is broken. Speak, therefore, your mind."
Then the President of the Council looked earnestly at Duke Deodonato, but the Duke veiled his face with his hand.
"Answer truly," said he, "without fear or favour; so shall you fulfil Our pleasure."
And the President, looking round upon the company, said:
"It is, Your Highness, by all reasonable, honest, just, proper, and honourable intendment, as good, sound, full, and explicit an offer of marriage as hath ever been had in this Duchy."
"So be it," said Duke Deodonato; and Dr. Fusbius smiled in triumph, while the maiden grew pale again.
"And," pursued the President, "it binds, controls, and rules every man, woman, and child in these Your Highness's dominions, and hath the force of law over all."
"So be it," said Deodonato again.
"Saving," added the President, "Your Highness only."
There was a movement among the company.
"For," pursued the President, "by the ancient laws, customs, manners, and observances of the Duchy, no decree or law shall in any way whatsoever impair, alter, lessen, or derogate from the high rights, powers, and prerogatives of Your Highness, whom may Heaven long preserve. Although, therefore, it be, by and pursuant to Your Highness' decree, the sure right of every man in this Duchy to be accepted in marriage of any damsel whom he shall invite thereunto, yet is this right in all respects subject to and controlled by the natural, legal, inalienable, unalterable, and sovereign prerogative of Your Highness to marry what damsel soever it shall be Your pleasure to bid share your throne. Hence I, in obedience to Your Highness' commands, pronounce and declare that this damsel is lawfully and irrevocably bound and affianced to the learned Dr. Fusbius, unless and until it shall please Your Highness yourself to demand her hand in marriage. May what I have spoken please Your Highness." And the President sat down.
Duke Deodonato sat awhile in thought, and there was silence in the hall. Then he spoke:
"Let all withdraw, saving the damsel only."
And they one and all withdrew, and Duke Deodonato was left alone with the damsel.
Then he arose and gazed long on the damsel; but the damsel would not look on Duke Deodonato.
"How are you called, lady?" asked Duke Deodonato.
"I am called Dulcissima," said she.
"Well-named!" said Deodonato softly, and he went to the damsel, and he laid his hand, full gently, on her robe, and he said,
"Dulcissima, you have the prettiest face in all the Duchy, and I will have no wife but you;" and Duke Deodonato kissed the damsel.
The damsel forbore to strike Duke Deodonato, as she had struck Dr. Fusbius. Again her cheek went red, and again pale, and she said,
"I wed no man on compulsion."
"Madam, I am Your Sovereign," said Duke Deodonato; and his eyes were on the damsel.
"If you were an Archangel——!" cried the damsel.
"Our House is not wont to be scorned of ladies," said Deodonato. "Am I crooked, or baseborn, or a fool?"
"This day in your Duchy women are slaves, and men their masters by your will," said she.
"It is the order of nature," said Deodonato.
"It is not my pleasure," said the damsel.
Then Deodonato laid his hand on his silver bell, for he was very angry.
"Fusbius waits without," said he.
"I will wed him and kill him," cried Dulcissima.
Deodonato gazed on her.
"You had no chance of using the pins," said he, "and the rent in your gown is very sore."
And upon this the eyes of the damsel lost their fire and sought the floor; and she plucked at her girdle, and would not look on Deodonato. And they said outside,
"It is very still in the Hall of the Duke."
Then said Deodonato,
"Dulcissima, what would you?"
"That you repealdecrees," said she.
Deodonato's brow grew dark; he did not love to go back.
"What I have decreed, I have decreed," said he.
"And what I have resolved, I have resolved," said she.
Deodonato drew near to her.
"And if I repeal the decrees?" said he.
"You will do well," said she.
"And you will wed——?"
"Whom I will," said she.
Deodonato turned to the window, and for a space he looked out; and the damsel smoothed her hair and drew her robe, where it was whole, across the rent; and she looked on Deodonato as he stood, and her bosom rose and fell. And she proved a prayer that no man heard or, if he heard, might be so base as to tell. But she saw the dark locks of Deodonato's hair and his form, straight as an arrow and tall as a six-foot wand, in the window. And again, outside, they said,
"It is strangely still in the Hall of the Duke."
Then Deodonato turned, and he pressed with his hand on the silver bell, and straightway the Hall was filled with the Councillors, the Judges, and the halberdiers, attentive to hear the will of Deodonato and the fate of the damsel. And the small eyes of Fusbius glowed and the calm eyes of the President smiled.
"My Cousins, Gentlemen, and my faithful Guard," said Deodonato, "Time, which is Heaven's mighty Instrument, brings counsel. Say! what the Duke has done, shall any man undo?"
Then cried they all, save one,
And the President said,
"Saving the Duke."
"The decrees which I made," said Deodonato, "I unmake. Henceforth let men and maidens in my Duchy marry or not marry as they will, and God give them joy of it."
And all, save Fusbius, cried "Amen." But Fusbius cried,
"Your Highness, it is demonstrated beyond cavil, ay, to the satisfaction of your Highness——"
"This is very tedious," said Deodonato. "Let him speak no more."
And again he drew near to Dulcissima, and there, before them all, he fell on his knee. And a murmur ran through the hall.
"Madam," said Deodonato, "if you love me, wed me. And, if you love me not, depart in peace and in honour; and I, Deodonato, will live my life alone."
Then the damsel trembled, and barely did Deodonato catch her words:
"There are many men here," said she.
"It is not given to Princes," said Deodonato, "to be alone. Nevertheless, if you will, leave me alone."
And the damsel bent low, so that the breath of her mouth stirred the hair on Deodonato's head, and he shivered as he knelt.
"My Prince and my King!" said she.
And Deodonato shot to his feet, and before them all he kissed her, and, turning, spoke:
"As I have wooed, let every man in this Duchy woo. As I have won, let every man that is worthy win. For, unless he so woo, and unless he so win, vain is his wooing and vain is his winning, and a fig for his wedding, say I, Deodonato! I, that was Deodonato, and now am—Deodonato and Dulcissima."
And a great cheer rang out in the Hall, and Fusbius fled to the door; and they tore his gown as he went and cursed him for a knave. But the President raised his voice aloud and cried—
"May Heaven preserve your Highnesses—and here's a blessing on all windows!"
And that is the reason why you will find (if you travel there, as I trust you may, for nowhere are the ladies fairer or the men so gallant) more windows in the Duchy of Deodonato than anywhere in the wide world besides. For the more windows, the wider the view; and the wider the view, the more pretty damsels do you see; and the more pretty damsels you see, the more jocund a thing is life—and that is what the men of the Duchy love—and not least Duke Deodonato, whom, with his bride Dulcissima, may Heaven long preserve!