Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1088
At the court of Roberto, king of Sicily, at Palermo, where the arrival of an ambassador from the duke of Urbin is momentarily expected, the conversation of those waiting has turned to discussion of the sinister influence of Fulgentio, the king’s unworthy favorite, and of the soldierly qualities of Bertoldo, the king’s illegitimate half brother. Upon the arrival of the ambassador, the political situation is explained: The duke of Urbin, in love with the duchess of Siena but rejected by her, has attacked her territories. On the verge of defeat at the hands of the Sienese, he is appealing to Sicily for aid on the basis of a treaty of mutual assistance. King Roberto, however, maintains that the treaty has been rendered void by the aggressive action of the duke and that Sicily is not obligated to come to the rescue. This pacifistic attitude is abhorrent to the king’s half brother, Bertoldo, who in a fiery speech accuses the king of cowardice, claims that Sicily’s honor demands intervention, and urges the nobles to follow him to the relief of the duke. The king, angered by the speech, replies that any might volunteer who wishes, but that they will then cease to be his subjects and can expect no protection from him if fortune goes against them.
On that same day, at the house of Camiola, the maid is being plagued by the suit of one Sylli, a man of almost unbelievable conceit. He, however, leaves upon the arrival of Bertoldo, who has come to say farewell and to declare his own love. In spite of Camiola’s evident love for Bertoldo, she rejects his suit because, as a Knight of Malta, he is vowed to celibacy, nor can she be moved by his suggestion that a dispensation can be obtained. He leaves for the war with the determination to have honor as his only mistress.
The next day King Roberto learns of Bertoldo’s departure with his volunteers and is displeased at the news. Fulgentio, however, is delighted, for with Bertoldo gone he can pursue his own wooing of Camiola. On his arrival at her house he behaves in an overbearing manner toward all present, particularly her other suitors, Sylli and Adorni. Sylli faints, but Adorni is prepared to fight until restrained by Camiola. In a series of frank and witty speeches, Camiola tells Fulgentio exactly what she thinks of him and outlines his despicable character. He leaves, vowing to avenge himself by ruining her reputation by spreading scandal about her.
Meanwhile, in the territories of Siena, the forces of the duke of Urbin are still faring badly. Bertoldo and his Sicilian volunteers have arrived, but they cannot change the fortunes of war. In the ensuing battle they are captured. When Gonzaga, the Sienese general, recognizes Bertoldo as a Knight of Malta, he tears the cross from his prisoner’s cloak, for Bertoldo has broken the vows of the order by attacking the duchess in an unjust war. Further, when Astutio arrives as ambassador from King Roberto to disclaim his sovereign’s part in the attack, Gonzaga agrees to accept the usual ransom for all the Sicilian nobles except Bertoldo, for whom he demands fifty thousand crowns. Astutio bears the news that the king will pay nothing for his half brother and has, in fact, confiscated the unfortunate man’s estates. Unable to pay the ransom, Bertoldo faces a lifetime of imprisonment.
In Sicily, Adorni challenges Fulgentio for his treatment of Camiola, but the cowardly favorite declines the challenge. On Camiola’s birthday, in the middle of the celebration, Adorni enters bleeding. He has been wounded in the fight that he finally forced upon Fulgentio, but he has compelled the latter to sign a paper repudiating the slanders he has been spreading about Camiola. Adorni then confesses his love for Camiola, but she rejects him with the admonition that he must not aspire so high. When, through the agency of the ransomed Sicilian noblemen, she learns of Bertoldo’s plight, she is ready enough, however, to send Adorni with the fifty thousand crowns to ransom the man she loves. Adorni promises to execute the commission faithfully, although he feels that he will not survive for long, and departs for Siena to bring happiness to his rival. Bertoldo, in ecstasies at the goodness of Camiola, gladly agrees to sign the contract of betrothal that she has demanded. It is his tragedy, however, to be sent for by the victorious duchess of Siena, who has heard of his martial prowess. Almost instantly she falls violently in love with him, and he, after a short struggle against the sin of ingratitude, falls equally in love with her and promises to marry her.
While this surprising event is in progress at Siena, an equally unexpected change of fortune is taking place in Sicily. The king and his favorite arrive at Camiola’s house; the former, with seeming sternness, rebukes her for disobedience in refusing Fulgentio’s suit and for urging Adorni to attack him. Camiola defends her conduct and accuses Fulgentio of having slandered her. King Roberto then orders Fulgentio out of his sight, threatens him with death, and praises the behavior of Camiola. Thus the villain is discomfited.
Camiola, informed by the faithful Adorni of Bertoldo’s perfidy, makes plans accordingly. At a reunion in the palace at Palermo, the king forgives his half brother and consents to his marriage to the duchess of Siena. Camiola enters and, after promising Fulgentio to try to secure his peace with the king, asks the monarch for justice on Bertoldo. Producing the contract of betrothal that he has signed, she makes such a noble plea for her rights that even the love-smitten duchess acknowledges her superiority and yields Bertoldo to her, while he admits his falseness and confesses himself branded with disloyalty and ingratitude. Camiola forgives him and announces her approaching marriage.
The entrance of a group of friars provides another surprise for the gathering. Camiola announces that she has determined to become the bride of the Church; by entering a religious order she is to become, in another sense, a maid of honor. As her last act, she gives Adorni one-third of her estate and returns to Bertoldo the cross of the Knights of Malta, bidding him to redeem his honor by fighting against the enemies of the faith. As she departs for the convent, King Roberto states admiringly that she well deserves her title of Maid of Honor.
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