domingo, 23 de febrero de 2014

SNIPPETS FROM "THE COUNTESS OF TOGGENBURG"

Remember that post about a messenger who was drugged instead of plunged into an ethylic coma?

Because this part of the Handless Maiden story usually shows the use of ethanol as a narcotic (though Homer had done it centuries before in the Odyssey). Which is as true as the Pope is Catholic.
"Patient Helen", the Victorian retelling by Sabine Baring-Gould, calls the young royals Constant and Helen of England. He goes forth to fight the infidels on an unspecified battlefield on the Continent, and chaos is come again.
The Queen Stepmother lives near Dover...
But what struck me most was how the author has bowdlerised the story, having the messenger drugged instead of plunged into an ethylic coma (this was an age of temperance, but the story is for young children!):
She bade a feast be made for him, and she spiced his wine 
with something that would make him sleep. So he ate and drank, and 
then felt drowsy, and went to sleep with his head on the table. 
When the messenger awoke, he was rather ashamed at having slept;
and he had no idea as to what had been done while he was sleeping. 

Now by her orders the servants of the queen- 
mother were on the watch for the return of the 
messenger, and when he reached Dover they in- 
vited him to sup at the house of their lady, whilst 
his horses were being got ready. He agreed, and 
was well entertained, and again the queen-mother 
spiced his cup so that he fell asleep. 
 
This reminds me, in turn, of a 1980s Othello production, 
(the "Victorian" one by Trevor Nunn, with McKellen as Iago)
in which Iago spikes Cassio's first drink with brandy behind the 
young lieutenant's back. 
Said detail has inspired me to include it in most of my Othello fiction, 
most notably The Countess of Toggenburg,
 a novella that retells the supposed real events behind 
the Shakespearean tragedy in Reformation-era Central Europe. 

My latest retelling of Othello happens to be written in Catalan, so these snippets are translated into English.

From Chapter I, "The Betrothal". Heinrich von Toggenburg, Protestant rebel, leaves the Alps for the Lechfeld to encounter his Catholic bride Juditha "Itha" von Kirschberg:
The idea of marrying a daughter of a Kaiser's vassal had made him doubt, but he had an eleventh-hour change of heart upon meeting Itha herself, having been charmed by her wit.
After spending that night in the guest room, Heinrich took his fiancée for a wife in the Kirschberg chapel. The parents and siblings of the bride did weep, and so did the peasant children who were her friends despite the social difference.

From Chapter II, "A Landsknecht's Intrigue". Introducing the Iago character:
We should also mention the captain of the guard at Toggenburg, since he was a key player in the story you are being told. He was as old as Christ when crucified (33 years old) and a landsknecht by profession. Id est, one of those soldiers of fortune, born and raised in military camps, stateless and owing no one loyalty. In those days, landsknechts used to frequent the various courts and armies of Europe, in pursuit of adventures, prizes to be claimed, and wars to be won. It came as no surprise that Dominic, having served so many masters, was a master in the fine art of counterfeiting love and loyalty for his own personal aims. He was tall and slender, with a scar on his brow, and his raven hair and black eyes betrayed his foreign descent.

From Chapter II, "A Landsknecht's Intrigue". The first trick:
Konrad and Dominic returned to the courtyard together. Erika was pleased to meet them. The youth proved, indeed, that he was responsible: he'd like a nice tankard of Riesling, as long as it was diluted. The officer said he'd help his wife with the errand, and the young esquire let them in, as the drunken landsknechts' laughter kept on echoing and the sun was gradually setting.
The reader will surely be much more intrigued than Konrad upon the fact that Erika and her husband entered the tavern together. For it should be explained that the veteran had already thought of his whole scheme. In those days, it should be explained, we Europeans had already learned to distill liquors, and landsknechts usually carried their canteens full, to ease the pain of wounds and the chill of cold waters.
And thus, Erika, threatened by her spouse, mixed the contents of the half-filled tankard not with water, but with brandy. She found the youth a charming fellow indeed, but, being usually weak-willed, she was cautious not to dare provoke the raven-haired landsknecht, the slayer of so many enemies! She handed over the cup with a smile on her lips, but racked with regret within. She turned pale, indeed, as Konrad drained the tankard at one fell swoop, without stopping to breathe. "What will happen now, as this strong liquor surges down this unfortunate fellow's throat?", she thought. 
Five seconds later, Konrad left his empty cup on the table as he breathed deeply. He felt that his vitals were ablaze, and that there couldn't be a happier person in all possible worlds. He burst into laughter, and he started to sing with the others at the table. They drank to freedom and to victory, to Count Heinrich and to Countess Itha... Soon, Konrad's downy cheeks flushed bright red, and his blue eyes sparkled, as an enchanting veil of mist clouded his thoughts, leaving the unfortunate youth bereft of reason. 
He leapt onto the table, uttering a defiant warcry that drew the other guards' attention. Thus, some of them rushed down to the courtyard, to find their leader in such a pitiable state.
Then, one of the older veterans provoked him:
"This is what happens when they make a stripling an officer!"
Konrad couldn't restrain himself. Feeling almighty and full of life, due to the brandy that surged through his veins, he drew his sword and raised it, as he pursued the other landsknechts at the table. Soon, the laughter of celebration gave way to the clanking of steel, a sound most unwelcome after the end of the war.


From Chapter V, "Unchecked Passion". The climax, the scene when Heinrich (Othello) "kills" Itha (Desdemona) in their bedchamber: (She survives, she flees to the cloister, and they finally reunite and make amends)
In his firm left hand, he carried a candlestick: the "sister" of the one in the bedchamber. The flames flew like flags in the wind, and his eyes sparkled like lit gunpowder. He entered with faltering steps, then he pushed both the bed-curtain and the window curtain back.
The fair-haired young lady, sleeping so peacefully, reminded him of the enchanted princesses in the fairytales his nannies once had told him. Itha was breathing steadily, and her cheeks were rosy and warm. Heinrich thought of how easily he could put out the lights of the candlestick, then light them up again with just a click of the tinderbox. Was there perchance, somewhere in the universe, a tinder able to light up cheeks pale and cold as ice, to return the sparkle to dull eyes, and to stir up the heart and lungs within the bosom of one who sleeps for all eternity?
His right hand sprung to the hilt of his sword, then it sprung back hastily, as if the hilt were red hot. He bent forward, without wavering, on the sleeping beauty, white as snow and fair-haired as the sun. And, just like it happened to his childhood heroes of fairytale, Heinrich's lips touched those of his beloved.
Itha blinked, surprised, then she gazed at her spouse, as he gazed back at her, his eyes sparkling with restrained rage.
"Have you said your prayers?", he ironically asked her.
"Yes, indeed!", the countess innocently replied.
"Perchance your soul will live on, as your body is sacrificed..."
"Sacrificed?" Itha drew back, teary-eyed and pale as the moon.
"A sinner's death, better than a dozen broken hearts", Heinrich explained, without controlling himself.
"Broken hearts?" Itha couldn't believe it.
"Yes, go wash your hands the Pilate way, the way Catholics do. You go to the priest, kneeling, weeping, chanting I-have-sinned (upon saying these words, Heinrich changed his usual baritone for a ridiculous falsetto, as he imitated Itha's Austrian accent), and everything's forgiven, but your soul still remains black as midnight! Around these parts, with our Reverend... that phony trick will never do!"
"Why?"
"You've forgotten already, you tangle of weeds!?" Heinrich started to lose control of himself. All that passion was heating up his blood, his cheeks flushed and his eyes sparkled. "Why why? (falsetto and Austrian accent, once more) You gave him the ring!!"
"I gave whom the ring?" a bewildered Itha asked. "I lost it!"
"I lost it! Keep on feeding me your excuses! Try to confess yourself, and it won't do at all! Why else would Konrad wear it as a pendant?"
"I lost it, and he found it."
"Keep on washing your hands, you tangle of weeds! Keep on feeding me excuses! What on Earth were you two doing behind my back, while I was defending you on the battlefield?", her spouse asked her, seizing the countess by the throat.
"We love each other merely as good friends, like brother and sister..."
"So it appears when I am nearby!" Heinrich struck Itha with a bare fist in the middle of her chest.
"Ask Konrad himself!"
"Soon, he'll be executed in the courtyard... Luckily, you won't be there to see him die, if you do love him!"
"Let me live just for a while... just for the time to pray a Hail Mary!" the young lady replied, in tears. Her beloved was no longer like a great general, but like an ogre without a mind or a heart of his own.
Her heart sped up in fear. His heart sped up in fury.
He was still holding her by the throat with a stalwart right hand, as she opened the window and (not without any difficulties) managed to climb up onto the windowsill. Below her feet, a bluish mist veiled the tops of the fir trees, as the first light of day appeared faintly in the east. The young countess slipped when her spouse doubtlessly let go of the hand that seized her neck. Itha fell rapidly, like a shooting star, instantly swallowed up by the mist, by the woods, and by the night, as Heinrich laughed at her and wept at the same time.




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