Read The Prologue of Chivalry, free online book, by James Branch Cabell, on ReadCentral.com.

Inasmuch as it was by your command, illustrious and exalted lady, that I have gathered together these stories to form the present little book, you should the less readily suppose I have presumed to dedicate to your Serenity this trivial offering because of my esteeming it to be not undeserving of your acceptance.  The truth is otherwise:  your postulant approaches not spurred toward you by vainglory, but rather by equity, and equity’s plain need to acknowledge that he who seeks to write of noble ladies must necessarily implore at outset the patronage of her who is the light and mainstay of our age.  I humbly bring my book to you as Phidyle approached another and less sacred shrine, farre pio et saliente mica, and lay before you this my valueless mean tribute not as appropriate to you but as the best I have to offer.

It is a little book wherein I treat of divers queens and of their love-business; and with necessitated candor I concede my chosen field to have been harvested, and scrupulously gleaned, by many writers of innumerable conditions.  Since Dares Phrygius wrote of Queen Heleine, and Virgil (that shrewd necromancer) of Queen Dido, a preponderating mass of clerks, in casting about for high and serious matter, have chosen, as though it were by common instinct, to dilate upon the amours of royal women.  Even in romance we scribblers must contrive it so that the fair Nicolete shall be discovered in the end to be no less than the King’s daughter of Carthage, and that Sir Dooen of Mayence shall never sink in his love affairs beneath the degree of a Saracen princess; and we are backed in this old procedure not only by the authority of Aristotle but, oddly enough, by that of reason.

Kings have their policies and wars wherewith to drug each human appetite.  But their consorts are denied these makeshifts; and love may rationally be defined as the pivot of each normal woman’s life, and in consequence as the arbiter of that ensuing life which is eternal.  Because as anciently Propertius demanded, though not, to speak the truth, of any woman

  Quo fugis? ah démens! nulla est fuga, tu licet usque
  Ad Tanaim fugias, usque sequetur amor.

And a dairymaid, let us say, may love whom she will, and nobody else be a penny the worse for her mistaking of the preferable nail whereon to hang her affections; whereas with a queen this choice is more portentous.  She plays the game of life upon a loftier table, ruthlessly illuminated, she stakes by her least movement a tall pile of counters, some of which are, of necessity, the lives and happiness of persons whom she knows not, unless it be by vague report.  Grandeur sells itself at this hard price, and at no other.  A queen must always play, in fine, as the vicar of destiny, free to choose but very certainly compelled in the ensuing action to justify that choice:  as is strikingly manifested by the authentic histories of Brunhalt, and of Guenevere, and of swart Cleopatra, and of many others that were born to the barbaric queenhoods of extinct and dusty times.

All royal persons are (I take it) the immediate and the responsible stewards of Heaven; and since the nature of each man is like a troubled stream, now muddied and now clear, their prayer must ever be, Defenda me, Dios, de me!  Yes, of exalted people, and even of their near associates, life, because it aims more high than the aforementioned Aristotle, demands upon occasion a more great catharsis, which would purge any audience of unmanliness, through pity and through terror, because, by a quaint paradox, the players have been purged of humanity.  For a moment Destiny has thrust her scepter into the hands of a human being and Chance has exalted a human being to decide the issue of many human lives.  These two with what immortal chucklings one may facilely imagine have left the weakling thus enthroned, free to direct the heavy outcome, free to choose, and free to evoke much happiness or age-long weeping, but with no intermediate course unbarred. Now prove thyself! saith Destiny; and Chance appends:  Now prove thyself to be at bottom a god or else a beast, and now eternally abide that choice.  And now (O crowning irony!) we may not tell thee clearly by which choice thou mayst prove either.

In this little book about the women who intermarried, not very enviably, with an unhuman race (a race predestinate to the red ending which I have chronicled elsewhere, in The Red Cuckold), it is of ten such moments that I treat.

You alone, I think, of all persons living, have learned, as you have settled by so many instances, to rise above mortality in such a testing, and unfailingly to merit by your conduct the plaudits and the adoration of our otherwise dissentient world.  You have often spoken in the stead of Destiny, with nations to abide your verdict; and in so doing have both graced and hallowed your high vicarship.  If I forbear to speak of this at greater length, it is because I dare not couple your well-known perfection with any imperfect encomium.  Upon no plea, however, can any one forbear to acknowledge that he who seeks to write of noble ladies must necessarily implore at outset the patronage of her who is the light and mainstay of our age.

Therefore to you, madame most excellent and noble lady, to whom I love to owe both loyalty and love I dedicate this little book.