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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Last Supper of the Borgias

By William Waldorf Astor (1848–1919)

[Born in New York, N. Y., 1848. Died in Brighton, England, 1919. Valentino. An Historical Romance of the Sixteenth Century in Italy. 1886.]

THE CARDINAL’S fate was not long undetermined. A messenger from the Pontiff brought to him at his adjacent palace the gift of a rarely illuminated missal—the Horæ Beata Vergine—and a kindly invitation to supper in the Belvedere Villa at the setting of the sun.

A guilty conscience awakened his alarm. There was nothing extraordinary in the summons; he had often broken bread with his spiritual master in the latter’s favorite summer-house; but now, in the act of promising attendance, his voice changed, and as the messenger made his ceremonious exit the cardinal sank unnerved in his chair.

He remained but a moment thus overcome. Hastening through an obscure vicolo to a remote part of the Vatican, he entered unannounced the chamber of Resequenz, major-domo to the Duke of Romagna, where he beheld that individual seated at a table and plunged in abstraction.

“Resequenz!” exclaimed the cardinal in an agony of apprehension, eagerly scrutinizing the face of the man before him, as the latter with sudden start rose to his feet and made formal obeisance, “a fearful dread has come upon me—I behold a spectre from which you alone, perhaps, can save me.”

The official thus addressed had been taken off his guard, and failed to show that instantaneous self-possession which alone would have deceived the searching gaze of his panic-stricken interlocutor. Something unconsciously sinister in his face confirmed the cardinal’s alarms.

Throwing himself on his knees in a frenzy of terror, he clasped the hands of the silent steward:

“It is true, then!” he cried; “play not upon words, but answer!”

“Would not your fate then be mine?” asked the other, simply.

The cardinal rose to his feet. He trembled violently, but the transformation of a nervous fear to the certainty of a danger from which he saw but one escape gave him presence of mind.

“You will not lay such inhuman cruelty upon your soul,” he pleaded. “Would you have to answer for a crime against one of the heads of the Church? Resequenz,” piteously cried the cardinal, “if you hope for mercy hereafter, take what you will of my wealth and grant me life. To-morrow I will fly; and far from the vengeance of my enemies, and remote from this centre of infamy, I will end my days in seclusion, at peace with Heaven and unmolested by the world.”

“Why not escape at once? Why are you not already on the road?”

“Heartless man! would you have me go empty-handed? The sun is near the meridian; betwixt now and the hour of this accursed supper I will make ready, and at midnight start for Viterbo with my goods and a retinue of men sufficient to protect me by the way, and pressing forward without stopping to draw breath, I can be in safety at Perugia ere pursuit can overtake.”

“Gold! Gold!” ejaculated the other with a sardonic laugh; “its chains link you even to the chance of death in preference to life without it.”

“But, dear Resequenz,” interposed Corneto, “there need be no chance of death.”

“And what would you pay me for the risk to myself?”

“Fifty thousand sequins.”

The major-domo’s face illumined.

“It must be here before the supper,” he said.

“Fear not. It would need a bolder man than I to trifle with you now.”

“You must feign to be poisoned—cramp, vertigo, quivering chill—cause yourself to be assisted from the room, and after that it will not be my fault if antidotes cure you, and you escape from Rome. But at Perugia you must pretend a lingering illness.”

“Of course; the after-effect of the drug.”

“Here,” said the major-domo, “I put into your hand this blue vial which the duke gave me an hour ago. Both at the beginning and at the end of the repast there will be sweet comfits, sugar-coated nuts, and the like; my orders are to prepare the second course, which I shall serve myself; you will notice that the Pope and Valentino and the Farnèse eat not a morsel from that dish, however much they take upon their plates. Do you eat plentifully of it, and let the effect be manifested within a quarter of an hour.”

The cardinal nodded, pressed his benefactor’s hand in silence, and taking with him the poison vial, turned to go.

“Be not seen going hence,” whispered Resequenz after him, “or a rope in the court of St. Angelo would be presently waiting for us both.”

Corneto turned with a sudden thought:

“Suppose that the Borgias examine the comfits and discover why the dose failed?”

“The instant you are out of the room,” answered the other, “every atom remaining in the dish will be destroyed.”

At the Belvedere Villa, as the sun passed below the line of the Ostian hills, Cardinal Corneto was in waiting, and presently Pope Alexander, accompanied by his son and followed by Pulcio and Resequenz, and the usual escort of pages, were seen leisurely walking through the garden behind the Vatican. All were in serene good spirits, and no one scanning Corneto’s placid face would have suspected the tempest of the morning.

They seated themselves, Cesare and the cardinal at the right and left of the Pope, the places at first set for Giulia Farnèse and for Michelotto having been removed on account of the “indisposition” of those personages.

The major-domo withdrew to superintend the serving of the repast, and Pulcio addressed himself to a brace of chained falcons perched in shady nooks upon a veranda where was also suspended the frame of staples upon which the birds taken in the chase were hung.

“I have a letter to-day from the Viceroy,” said the Pope to the cardinal; “you shall read it to-morrow; his letters always put one in good humor; so calm, so practical, so decided, and so amiable withal.”

“The Viceroy is a man of the world,” answered Corneto, slightly troubled by an allusion to despatches from Naples.

“Wait till he grows a few years older,” remarked Cesare, “and he may not be so smooth-spoken. Time plants a crotchet beneath every white hair.”

“Master,” inquired the dwarf, turning from the birds, “do white hairs, think you, represent the sorrows or the indulgences of life?”

“When mine begin to come, Pulcio,” answered the duke, “I shall rather please myself by thinking that each stands for a pleasure than that all of them have sprung from a grief.”

Resequenz entered at this moment, accompanied by servants who offered a prelude of sweets.

These were followed by the pièce de resistance of the meal, a boar’s head, with slices cut from the hams prepared in the manner of the modern agro dolce.

“I pray you eat heartily,” said the Pope, “if but to keep me company. It is said that large eaters are not graceful men; but surely a small eater never was a good companion.”

Agro dolce gave place to a peacock with tail magnificently spread, which was the supreme effort of the Italian cuisine.

“A beautiful dish,” remarked the cardinal, declining to be helped from it, “but a tough bird.”

“So say I,” assented Alexander, “but my cooks would die of chagrin if I forbade their serving it occasionally.”

The silver chalices they drank from were replenished with white wine of Montefiascone, or with red from the slopes of Vesuvius.

“I notice we have a flask of Cyprus,” said Cesare, emptying his cup.

“I know nothing of it,” answered Alexander; “it was brought doubtless as a matter of course.”

“It stands in the ante-camera,” rejoined his son, “but be it of your store or of mine, let us keep it for the last.”

Upon hearing this colloquy, the dwarf left the room and returned a moment later.

“I have laid the Chypre in snow,” he explained.

“Your Holiness will have been pleased,” remarked Corneto, addressing the Pope, “to hear of the discovery at Hadrian’s Tiburtine villa.”

“What is the discovery?” inquired Cesare.

“A mosaic the size of this table, representing a basket of flowers, and of marvellous workmanship.”

“Those ancients were wonderful men; they made their roses and their loves immortal; only their songs cannot reach to us. ’Tis pity, for how melodious must the Greek and how inspiriting must the Roman music have been.”

“Simple and monotonous, though,” objected Alexander; “cymbals, trumpets with three notes, the lyre with half a dozen, and pipes in abundance—a wretched concert we should call that now.”

The peacock was removed after sustaining but moderate damage, and its place was filled by a heap of sugar egg-shells, each of which contained a quail stuffed with herbs.

There were no game-laws in the sixteenth century, and quails were eaten in August as in December. This proved a welcome dish, and paid the penalty of the peacock’s toughness.

“Is there news from the French in the Abruzzi?” inquired the cardinal, moistening his fingers in a silver basin.

“Only a budget of descriptions by eye-witnesses of Ives d’Allégre’s defeat; the Spaniards set upon him in a difficult place, and drove half his army into the Garigliano.”…

The fateful moment had come, and the second course of sweets was placed before the feasters, by whom it was observed with different sentiments. Corneto bore himself with heroic self-possession. Rising, he took the dish from the hand of Resequenz, who was about to offer it to the Pope, and with profound reverence presented it himself, by that act implying that although permitted to sit at the same table, he was but the menial of the head of the Church.

Alexander took several pieces upon his plate; the cardinal resumed his place, the major-domo handed him the dish from which he helped himself, and passed it to Cesare, who declined it, saying:

“Sweets once at a meal is enough for my taste.”

The wine of Cyprus appeared at this moment fresh from its cold bath, and with a few flakes of the snow of the Apennines in the spaces of the straw wrapper that enfolded the glass. The goblets were filled while the Pope nibbled a crust of bread, leaving his sugar-plums untasted.

Both he and his son observed that the cardinal ate without stint of those on his plate.

Resequenz also watched him with interest, for the part of a poisoned man was now to be acted before the eyes of connoisseurs.

The cardinal went on with his candies with increasing relish.

“To return to Ives d’Allégre,” he said, addressing Valentino with the satisfied good humor of one who has eaten and drunk well, “I have often thought, and the mention of military affairs recalls the subject, that even if your superb stroke at Sinigallia had not been made, you with your army would none the less have crushed the Orsini.”

“It might have been so,” replied the duke reflectively; “nothing is stronger than desire backed by despair.”

“But it was surer and safer in the method adopted,” pursued the cardinal, glad to talk upon a subject which could not be agreeable to the remembrance of either of his companions.

“Sinigallia has made me many enemies,” said Cesare, answering the cardinal; “success is the one unpardonable sin.”

“Success!” exclaimed Corneto, emptying his silver cup. “What a pregnant word is that. No man can look without emotion down the vista of life to the brilliant days when all was new, and the future seemed a galaxy of stars. But how glad must be the retrospect when the harvest is ours, and all the things we coveted are garnered.”

“Is the Chypre cold enough?” inquired the dwarf as the three goblets were set down empty.

“Ay, it keeps its subtle flavor, which too much snow would spoil.”

The servants had withdrawn from the room, and only Resequenz remained standing in respectful attention and with his eyes fixed upon the cardinal. It was time, he thought, for the effect of the sweets.

“I once heard you say,” remarked Corneto to Cesare, “that there are seven ways to strike an enemy; through life, health, freedom, reputation, wife, children, property.”

“I but quoted Galeazzo Visconti,” answered the duke.

“And have you never thought, since Sinigallia, that the greatest of all faults is to suffer the heirs of the dead to escape? Think you the children of Vitellozzo and the son of Pagolo Orsini will not rise to confront you with arms, or to strike you unawares hereafter?”

The answer was upon Valentino’s lips, when Resequenz perceived at length the first indication of the comedy to be enacted.

Alexander and Cesare also observed it, and fixed their eyes in silence upon the cardinal, whose face, till now flushed with the good cheer, had changed color. His jaw dropped, his breath became labored, the eyes stared vacantly, a shudder convulsed his frame.

“Done to perfection,” murmured Resequenz to himself; “he must have seen a poisoned man die.”

“What is it?” cried Cesare in pretended amaze. “Give him air and water,” he said as the major-domo sprang to the cardinal’s assistance. But the latter shook him off with a gasp of anguish. “Poisoned! Poisoned!” he shrieked with a wail that rang down the silent gardens of the Belvedere. “Your promise was false—you have killed me!”

Resequenz started with a sudden thrill of dismay.

“Yet no,” continued Corneto in a stifled voice—“I wrong you … it is that hateful dwarf … he got the vial from me … he has poured it in the wine … oh!… it is the wine that burns like fire!”

Valentino sprang to his feet, and glanced hastily about him, but the jester had vanished. His eyes fell on the face of his father—there too he beheld the change of color, the vacant stare, the head dropped backward, a foam gathering upon the lips.

Summoned by the cries of the cardinal, the servants rushed into the room.

“Quick,” said Valentino, to the foremost of them, “take me to the palace … to my room … one of you bring the drops that …”

His utterance failed, his body became rigid beneath the first spasm of the fiery poison; he would have fallen, had not strong arms borne him from the room.

By Resequenz’s direction the Pontiff and the cardinal were similarly removed, each to his chamber.

Cesare was laid upon his bed, and a leech was sent for. On hearing this order, he murmured, “No … Ormès.”

One of the servants hastened away in quest of the magician; a second ran to find some philter of his own, the third stood awestruck. The duke’s power of speech had nearly failed, and his face was distorted with the spasm of an approaching convulsion, but with the supreme effort of one whose life depends upon utterance, he said in accents barely audible:

“The ivory cabinet in the next room—break it—in a secret drawer is an antidote …”

The servant hurried from the room, and a moment later was heard the crash of the cabinet being wrenched to pieces.

The duke’s eyes became fixed upon a presence that had crept swiftly to his side. It was Pulcio, his worn old face suddenly tenfold wrinkled, and with mouth askew and quivering. “It was I did it,” he hissed in Valentino’s ear; “I met Corneto with the blue bottle in his hand; I knew what it was, I had seen one like it before. I swore if he did not give it me I would denounce him as plotting to poison you—ha! ha!” laughed the dwarf—the poor fool’s last jest!” And now my heart is content, for she is avenged.”

“She!” faintly echoed Valentino; “of whom speak you?”

“Of Nerina—my little daughter whom you took from me three years ago. She died dishonored—but that crime, at least, you expiate!”

The steps of the returning servant were heard, but ere be passed the threshold the fool had gone.

Valentino was past speech and barely conscious. The servant poured a little of the essence into his mouth. A moment after arrived Ormès, breathless; he snatched the vial from the domestic, glanced at it, and raising the sufferer’s head, poured all that remained down his throat.

The effect of this remedy became presently apparent; the rigid muscles relaxed, the convulsion which was commencing ceased, the breathing showed that the heart was recovering its action.

Don Michele entered the room aghast at the result of the attempt upon the cardinal. Soon after came del Nero; for the news had flashed over the city that the Pope was dead and the Duke of Romagna dying.

“Will he live?” asked the condottiere.

“Yes,” answered Ormès; “begone all of you, and by midnight I shall have brought him back to consciousness.”…

The condottiere made his way through the streets which thronged with the populace, flocking this way and that, bearing torches, questioning one another, and adding to the general alarm by the fearful rumors which sprang into circulation. At the bridge of St. Angelo the guards had been doubled; hurrying from their barrack came a column of infantry to seize the approaches to the Vatican.

The posts at the city gates were ordered to be on the alert; it was vaguely feared that some calamity was about to smite the city, and that the Pope and his son had been but the first victims of an unknown enemy.

But none spoke a word of commiseration.

Some shouted for Colonna, and some called that the Orsini were at hand; but all, between the exclamations of apprehension and the faction cries with which they made the air resound, cursed the fallen Borgias. It almost reached the sick man’s room—that startling cry of rage and vengeance long restrained—

“To the Tiber with Duca Valentino!”