Domnei: A Comedy of Woman-Worship

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Domnei

A Comedy of Woman-Worship

By

JAMES BRANCH CABELL

1920

En cor gentil domnei per mort no passa.”

TO

SARAH READ McADAMS

IN GRATITUDE AND AFFECTION

“The complication of opinions and ideas, of affections and habits,
which prompted the chevalier to devote himself to the service of a
lady, and by which he strove to prove to her his love, and to merit
hers in return, was expressed, in the language of the Troubadours, by a
single word, by the word domnei, a derivation of domna, which may
be regarded as an alteration of the Latin domina, lady, mistress.”

—C. C. FAURIEL,
History of Provencal Poetry.

CONTENTS

CHAPTER
A PREFACE
CRITICAL COMMENT
THE ARGUMENT

PART ONE—PERION

I HOW PERION WAS UNMASKED
II HOW THE VICOMTE WAS VERY GAY
III HOW MELICENT WOOED
IV HOW THE BISHOP AIDED PERION
V HOW MELICENT WEDDED

PART TWO—MELICENT

VI HOW MELICENT SOUGHT OVERSEA
VII HOW PERION WAS FREED
VIII HOW DEMETRIOS WAS AMUSED
IX HOW TIME SPED IN HEATHENRY
X HOW DEMETRIOS WOOED

PART THREE—DEMETRIOS

XI HOW TIME SPED WITH PERION
XII HOW DEMETRIOS WAS TAKEN
XIII HOW THEY PRAISED MELICENT
XIV HOW PERION BRAVED THEODORET.
XV HOW PERION FOUGHT
XVI HOW DEMETRIOS MEDITATED.
XVII HOW A MINSTREL CAME
XVIII HOW THEY CRIED QUITS
XIX HOW FLAMBERGE WAS LOST
XX HOW PERION GOT AID

PART FOUR—AHASUERUS

XXI HOW DEMETRIOS HELD HIS CHATTEL
XXII HOW MISERY HELD NACUMERA.
XXIII HOW DEMETRIOS CRIED FAREWELL
XXIV HOW ORESTES RULED
XXV HOW WOMEN TALKED TOGETHER
XXVI HOW MEN ORDERED MATTERS
XXVII HOW AHASUERUS WAS CANDID
XXVIII HOW PERION SAW MELICENT
XXIX HOW A BARGAIN WAS CRIED
XXX HOW MELICENT CONQUERED
THE AFTERWORD
BIBLIOGRAPHY

A Preface

By

Joseph Hergesheimer

It would be absorbing to discover the present feminine attitude toward
the profoundest compliment ever paid women by the heart and mind of men
in league—the worshipping devotion conceived by Plato and elevated to
a living faith in mediaeval France. Through that renaissance of a
sublimated passion domnei was regarded as a throne of alabaster by
the chosen figures of its service: Melicent, at Bellegarde, waiting for
her marriage with King Theodoret, held close an image of Perion made of
substance that time was powerless to destroy; and which, in a life of
singular violence, where blood hung scarlet before men’s eyes like a
tapestry, burned in a silver flame untroubled by the fate of her body.
It was, to her, a magic that kept her inviolable, perpetually, in spite
of marauding fingers, a rose in the blanched perfection of its early
flowering.

The clearest possible case for that religion was that it transmuted the
individual subject of its adoration into the deathless splendor of a
Madonna unique and yet divisible in a mirage of earthly loveliness. It
was heaven come to Aquitaine, to the Courts of Love, in shapes of vivid
fragrant beauty, with delectable hair lying gold on white samite worked
in borders of blue petals. It chose not abstractions for its faith, but
the most desirable of all actual—yes, worldly—incentives: the sister,
it might be, of Count Emmerick of Poictesme. And, approaching beatitude
not so much through a symbol of agony as by the fragile grace of a
woman, raising Melicent to the stars, it fused, more completely than in
any other aspiration, the spirit and the flesh.

However, in its contact, its lovers’ delight, it was no more than a
slow clasping and unclasping of the hands; the spirit and flesh,
merged, became spiritual; the height of stars was not a figment….
Here, since the conception of domnei has so utterly vanished, the
break between the ages impassable, the sympathy born of understanding
is interrupted. Hardly a woman, to-day, would value a sigh the passion
which turned a man steadfastly away that he might be with her forever
beyond the parched forest of death. Now such emotion is held strictly
to the gains, the accountability, of life’s immediate span; women have
left their cloudy magnificence for a footing on earth; but—at least in
warm graceful youth—their dreams are still of a Perion de la Forêt.
These, clear-eyed, they disavow; yet their secret desire, the most
Elysian of all hopes, to burn at once with the body and the soul, mocks
what they find.

That vision, dominating Mr. Cabell’s pages, the record of his revealed
idealism, brings specially to Domnei a beauty finely escaping the
dusty confusion of any present. It is a book laid in a purity, a
serenity, of space above the vapors, the bigotry and engendered spite,
of dogma and creed. True to yesterday, it will be faithful of
to-morrow; for, in the evolution of humanity, not necessarily the turn
of a wheel upward, certain qualities have remained at the center,
undisturbed. And, of these, none is more fixed than an abstract love.

Different in men than in women, it is, for the former, an instinct, a
need, to serve rather than be served: their desire is for a shining
image superior, at best, to both lust and maternity. This
consciousness, grown so dim that it is scarcely perceptible, yet still
alive, is not extinguished with youth, but lingers hopeless of
satisfaction through the incongruous years of middle age. There is
never a man, gifted to any degree with imagination, but eternally
searches for an ultimate loveliness not disappearing in the circle of
his embrace—the instinctively Platonic gesture toward the only
immortality conceivable in terms of ecstasy.

A truth, now, in very low esteem! With the solidification of society,
of property, the bond of family has been tremendously exalted, the mere
fact of parenthood declared the last sanctity. Together with this,
naturally, the persistent errantry of men, so vulgarly misunderstood,
has become only a reprehensible paradox. The entire shelf of James
Branch Cabell’s books, dedicated to an unquenchable masculine idealism,
has, as well, a paradoxical place in an age of material sentimentality.
Compared with the novels of the moment, Domnei is an isolated, a
heroic fragment of a vastly deeper and higher structure. And, of its
many aspects, it is not impossible that the highest, rising over even
its heavenly vision, is the rare, the simple, fortitude of its
statement.

Whatever dissent the philosophy of Perion and Melicent may breed, no
one can fail to admire the steady courage with which it is upheld.
Aside from its special preoccupation, such independence in the face of
ponderable threat, such accepted isolation, has a rare stability in a
world treacherous with mental quicksands and evasions. This is a valor
not drawn from insensibility, but from the sharpest possible
recognition of all the evil and Cyclopean forces in existence, and a
deliberate engagement of them on their own ground. Nothing more, in
that direction, can be asked of Mr. Cabell, of anyone. While about the
story itself, the soul of Melicent, the form and incidental writing, it
is no longer necessary to speak.

The pages have the rich sparkle of a past like stained glass called to
life: the Confraternity of St. Médard presenting their masque of
Hercules; the claret colored walls adorned with gold cinquefoils of
Demetrios’ court; his pavilion with porticoes of Andalusian copper;
Theodoret’s capital, Megaris, ruddy with bonfires; the free port of
Narenta with its sails spread for the land of pagans; the
lichen-incrusted glade in the Forest of Columbiers; gardens with the
walks sprinkled with crocus and vermilion and powdered mica … all are
at once real and bright with unreality, rayed with the splendor of an
antiquity built from webs and films of imagined wonder. The past is, at
its moment, the present, and that lost is valueless. Distilled by time,
only an imperishable romantic conception remains; a vision, where it is
significant, animated by the feelings, the men and women, which only,
at heart, are changeless.

They, the surcharged figures of Domnei, move vividly through their
stone galleries and closes, in procession, and—a far more difficult
accomplishment—alone. The lute of the Bishop of Montors, playing as he
rides in scarlet, sounds its Provençal refrain; the old man Theodoret,
a king, sits shabbily between a prie-dieu and the tarnished hangings of
his bed; Mélusine, with the pale frosty hair of a child, spins the
melancholy of departed passion; Ahasuerus the Jew buys Melicent for a
hundred and two minae and enters her room past midnight for his act of
abnegation. And at the end, looking, perhaps, for a mortal woman,
Perion finds, in a flesh not unscarred by years, the rose beyond
destruction, the high silver flame of immortal happiness.

So much, then, everything in the inner questioning of beings condemned
to a glimpse of remote perfection, as though the sky had opened on a
city of pure bliss, transpires in Domnei; while the fact that it is
laid in Poictesme sharpens the thrust of its illusion. It is by that
much the easier of entry; it borders—rather than on the clamor of
mills—on the reaches men explore, leaving’ weariness and dejection for
fancy—a geography for lonely sensibilities betrayed by chance into the
blind traps, the issueless barrens, of existence.

JOSEPH HERGESHEIMER.

CRITICAL COMMENT

And Norman Nicolas at hearté meant

(Pardie!) some subtle occupation

In making of his Tale of Melicent,

That stubbornly desiréd Perion.

What perils for to rollen up and down,

So long process, so many a sly cautel,

For to obtain a silly damosel!

—THOMAS UPCLIFFE.

Nicolas de Caen, one of the most eminent of the early French writers of

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