Last chapter. Sorry for the long wait. I've been pretty business. Anyway I hope everyone enjoyed this story. I'm also really happy that this story has as many reviews as chapters :) I knew we could do it! Thank you and R&R.
Ippolito, having been informed of Lucrezia's condition, approached her apartments with great trepidation. Alfonso, standing to his left, had arrived back scarcely an hour ago from his travels. He had bathed and dressed, looking for once appropriate to his rank in his regal state.
"Is she as bad as Angela said?"
"I would say worse, but you'll see for yourself. Take care when you speak, brother, her equilibrium at the moment swings as freely as a pendulum."
"I'll wage her mourning will be short lived this time. She may have been saddened at the former Pope's passing, but from all appearances Cesare wasn't her favorite brother."
"You'll be surprised at her state with such preconceived opinion."
"Are you saying my assumptions are wrong?"
"I thought as you did about their relationship, but upon seeing her devastation…it became entirely clear her devotion to her brother was genuine and not contrived by false feelings. Her support of him since his imprisonment and her mourning now are not for her own sake."
"I see." Alfonso pushed open the door without further words. Ippolito followed him reluctantly into the dimly lit chamber. "Why are all the windows shuttered?"
"Lucrezia tried to leap out one."
"Surely not!" Alfonso stopped walking and whirled around to face him. Ippolito looked away, unable to meet the disbelief in his brother's eyes. Her husband marching over to her canopied bed and pushing the lacy fabric aside.
Lucrezia lay like a person dead to the world. Her dress, black from head to toe, bore no opulence. Her beautiful face bore the blunt of her sorrow; red marks covered her cheeks where she had scratched at her face in delirium.
"What has she done to herself!"
"She fought with one of the maids and ended up gouging her flesh with her nails."
"Why? What madness possessed her?" His disheartened look reminded Ippolito of his own sorrow at losing Angela. He glanced anywhere but at the man's face.
"I would surmise the same affliction which caused her to tear out chucks of her hair."
"Is she lost to reason?" He demanded as he sat on the bed and took his unresisting wife into his arms.
"I cannot say. There are times where she seems compos mentis…other times deranged."
"Lucrezia?" Alfonso stroked her cheek, but she lay as if she didn't feel anything. Ippolito looked uneasily at his feet and the wreck of a room. He watched as his brother kissed her repeatedly, whispered soft words, and then rose. They stood awkwardly by the fire for several minutes. The cardinal toyed with a jeweled ring as the Duke of Ferrara stared blankly into the fire. Ippolito's refined robes and Alfonso's black and gold doublet stood out as an odd contract against the ravished room.
"I thought if anyone could bring her back it was going to be you, Alfonso."
"Perhaps if I were the Duke of Bisceglie I might be able to. I am merely the imitation…her replacement husband."
"Hasn't Lucrezia showered you in love?"
"She gives affection as freely as an infant to any who holds her, Ippolito, but explain to me why would she seek lovers outside our marriage if she truly loved me?"
"For the same reason you go to brothels?"
"No. Wives aren't as lusting as husbands. They seek lovers when love doesn't blossom in marriage."
"I can't believe she feels nothing for you."
"If she feels anything…it is gratitude for keeping her when I didn't have to."
"I wager she feels much more than mere gratitude."
They both started at the murmur behind them; a soft barely audible whimper akin to a kitten meowing for the first time. One man felt despair; the other hope. Alfonso leaped onto the bed, sending a silken pillow flying off the edge where it had previously perched as if a bird in flight.
Alfonso took her limp hand, kissing the knuckles and wrist tenderly. Lucrezia's blonde hair was ruffled and sticking up at odd angles as she sat up. Her dress was torn in several places, her well maintained nails broken, her face bearing none of her color or warmth of person. She gazed at her husband with a noncommittal expression, her countenance that of someone trying desperately to remember a vague acquaintance.
"How long has it been?"
"Far too long, my love."
"You use to always call me honey pie or sugar plum, do you remember? I always thought the names so stupid." Silence descended as the two men exchanged nervous glances. Alfonso had never called her nonsense names before.
"Which Alfonso do you see?"
"Alfonso," her smile was faint. "You always bring me joy. Whenever I played the flute you would stroke my vanity with praise. Cesare plays better than I. Oh, don't make that face for I promise not to bring him up again. I bet you ten ducats Louise is a beauty. Cesare was a cute boy. Did I ever tell you that?"
"He and Juan use to climb the highest tree they could find. Always challenging each other those two."
"I'm sure they did."
"You sound bitter. Don't be, darling, Cesare always soars above everyone." Her look was wistful.
"I'm not bitter."
"Giovanni…I shouldn't talk about Giovanni. You hate when I mention Cesare…"
"I don't mind talking about Giovanni."
"You're a terrible liar. Little Giovanni," her maternal smile made her face glow. "I named him after Juan. I know what you think, husband, that Cesare was responsible, but if you'd known him better you'd know he'd never kill Juan."
"Cesare never envied Juan," her eyes numbed him with fear. He dropped her hand and looked away from her reminisce face. "Don't envy Cesare, Alfonso, this…isn't worth envying."
"Why are you telling me this?"
"What harm is there in telling the dead?" She remembered the events leading to the previous Alfonso's death it seemed, but not her life in Ferrara.
"You had a smile on your lips. You trusted me so much. I felt your love every time you smiled, felt it like a sharp reminder of what I didn't feel. Don't smile now, darling, I hate it. Tell me what I already know."
"And what do you know?"
"I'm in Hell and for some strange reason God has sent you to punish me for your murder."
"This isn't Hell."
She stared listlessly at the wall, her face scrunched up as she recalled old memories. Her face bore recognition when she gazed upon him once more. "Alfonso?"
"You've been very stressed lately," he held her, aware of how frail she was.
"What's wrong with me, Alfonso? I'm scared."
"Nothing, love, don't be afraid."
"I fear I tether on the brink of madness!"
"Nothing so severe," he mumbled, clutching her head and smoothing her dress with the other. Or so he hoped, Ippolito thought, wondering if madness was only a step away.
"God, Alfonso, is it true?"
"Cesare?" The frightened wide eyes she bestowed on her husband tore at his heart brutally.
"Yes." Lucrezia was still a moment, eyes reverting back to normal, face regaining color, hands loosening their tight grip on Alfonso's doublet. Then she collapsed against him, screaming in that Valencian and sobbing violently.
Ercole Strozzi recited each word of his elegy in the hope that this would be the Duchess' final farewell to her life in Rome. He addressed the Duchess directly at the beginning, remarking that her and Charlotte's grief was as deep as that of Cassandra and Polyxena for Achilles. He then recanted Cesare's exploits, comparing them to his namesake Julius Caesar, and counted off the numerous cities he'd acquired before his star fell. He added envious fate had denied him the acquisition of more cities, but if she had been kinder it would have been Cesare to conquer Bologna, not Pope Julius. He ventured on a tandem about Calixtus next, added a soft sprinkling of Eratus, nodded to Pallas and Venus as friends of Cesare and Spain and the other Italy respectively, and to get to the point of the poet had Pallas and Venus complain to Jupiter about Italy lacking a king. Jupiter, he informed the listening audience, assured the two that Cesare, like Achilles, had to die, but from the two lines of Este and Borgia, akin to Troy and Greece, would arise the promised savior. Then he continued with a dream Cesare had while in Nepi after his father's death of Pallas visiting him like heroes of old and informing him he had to suffer his end bravely. Then Pallas traveled to Ferrara and he ended on a high note, assuring Lucrezia, that though her brother was gone, her yet-unborn child would be the savior of Italy.
There was much appreciation given to Ercole's verse and Lucrezia graced him with kind words as well. Afterwards she sat with Angela, reading a letter from Isabella of Aragon, "She says Rodrigo is progressing well and has high hopes for his future."
"That is good news."
"You need that. Lucrezia?"
"I really wish you would put your grief aside." Angela, ever dotting on her since Cesare's passing, had been an added incentive not to end her life besides that of her precious children. She smiled gratefully, appreciative of her cousin's concern.
"Grief I find is not easy to shake off, but time heals the wounds until the pain is scantly noticeable."
"Do your wounds still fester, dear cousin?"
"They all ache a little, some days more than others. I still recall a happy moment or two with Juan or Papa and occasionally great outrage overcomes me or sorrow, but they are far and few between. I imagine Cesare's will soon be thus."
She still had a hard time saying his name and she still couldn't say he was dead. She didn't know how to confess to Angela that the wound Cesare left was never going to be filled; no lover, no husband, no friend, no one could take away the pain of the passing of her brother and soul-mate. Angela didn't deserve to know the truth, not that Lucrezia felt her unworthy of the knowledge, but the fact that such knowledge would render all her sweet consolation meaningless in the only way it mattered. Yes, Angela's presence and affection was touching to Lucrezia, but the woman could never truly understand to what depths her love for Cesare amounted to. Angela would only feel at best useless and at worst indignation that she wasn't good enough to heal her wounds.
The wounds Alfonso felt at the riddled admission she'd given to him of her true affection had marred their relationship since. He was still in love with her, still adored her, and treated her well, but a sort of tension hid just behind the surface of every intercourse. On April the fifth, Lucrezia, who had tried tirelessly to provide an heir and hopeful that the infant would bring Alfonso's much needed affection back, gave birth to Ercole II d'Este. Finding the heir to his liking, Lucrezia was pleased, though his affections towards her remained stagnant.
She clung to Francesco and he returned her affections with as much force. The worse their relationships with their spouses became the shorter the span between their trysts and the more fevered their countless letters and secret messages through servants became. They both were aware that love wasn't a part of their relationship; the sexual aspect was the pivotal point in their dealings with each other.
In August of 1509 she gave birth to Ippolito II d'Este, named by Alfonso in his brother's honor. In was late in the evening when a letter arrived from Isabella of Aragon, informing her that Rodrigo was dead. She cried for many days after, especially when faced with Ippolito or Ercole's little faces. She could barely remembered Rodrigo's bright face and that awareness would bring her to new tears.
Lucrezia was hit with another loss, though this one was not the worst of her life. Vannozza was gone. Her mother had lived a respectable life in Rome after Alexander's passing. She'd been wealthy, generous, and charitable to the end of her days. Lucrezia reread the letter detailing her passing with little grief. She'd never been close to Vannozza growing up and thus couldn't feel as much grief as she knew she should. She was only someone grateful this was one death which didn't hurt as much.
She laughed, picking Alessandro up into her arms. He was five years old now, having been born in 1514. He had Alfonso's looks and smile. She ruffled his hair affectionately and set him back down beside pretty fair haired Leonora, his junior by a year, and little baby Francesco, who was scantly three. She often wondered about Francesco's parentage; Alfonso thankfully did not.
She turned when Catalina came over, "The Marquis of Mantua is asking for you, Duchess."
"Can you watch the little ones?" She found Francesco loitering near the entrance to the garden. He walked in silence with her, hands covered by gloves and bare face as ravaged as she imagined Cesare's had been beneath his masks. Francesco, though enticed by her and occasionally Isabella, had never given up his whoring and the punishment for such dalliances was killing him.
"Francesco?" She waited patiently as he paced the room.
"We can't see each other anymore."
"Does Isabella know?"
"Because of the disease?"
"What else?" His frustration was paramount as he kicked a chair. "I'm told it causes anger and madness. Do you believe that?" He was staring at the chair he'd knocked down, fear expressed in his eyes if in his stoical face.
"I've been told that too, but Cesare was rarely angry."
"Is that so?" Francesco ran a hand through his hair. "I hate this."
"Don't be, you didn't give it to me." A guilt-ridden, concerned part of her whispered that she might have gotten it from Cesare, even as the more rational side of her pointed out that symptoms would have occurred by now. "I've had it before I even knew you. Isabella won't even look at me now."
"I'm sure it isn't that bad."
"She hates me, utterly detests me."
"I'm sure that's not true."
"She said as much the day I found out about the pox. Her eyes said all the disgust and contempt her words didn't as she advised me not to bed her anymore."
"She doesn't find you disgusting or she wouldn't have married you."
"Don't give me flimsy platitudes, Crezia, or pity. Isabella has a right to detest me. I'm a hot headed, foolish philanderer."
"You are many things, Francesco Gonzaga, hot head, foolish, a philanderer, arrogant, vane―." He raised an annoyed eyebrow as she prattled on. "But all those vices don't make up who you really are, which is a relatively good man."
"Relatively being the word."
"Many people accused Cesare of being the devil and in many aspects they were correct in judging him so severely, but deep down he was kind, gentle, and good, if only to family and friends."
"Francesco hates me too."
"I gave him the pox." She winced and turned around the room in thought. Francesco II was his eldest son and at the age of nineteen still young and impressionable.
"Isabella no doubt putting such thoughts into his mind. He has always adored his mother."
"I'll never see him marry and Ferrante is only twelve. I'll die before he even reaches manhood." Ferrante was their younger son.
"Don't talk nonsense."
"It's true. Just wait and see. I think you are one of few people I'll miss, if you can miss people in death." She smiled weakly, kissing his cheek as he felt and reminding him he was free to call on her at any time before he disappeared down the hall.
Lucrezia wiped tears from her eyes as she sat at her writing desk. Her hand kept wavering all over the vellum when she set the quill on it. She threw another piece of paper away and sat for some time trying not to think of Francesco. With her mind empty of fond memories she quickly scribbled, aware her feelings would overcome her if she didn't get this dispatch out soon enough.
Illustrious Lady, Sister-in-law, and Most Honored Sister:
The great loss by death of your Excellency's husband, of blessed memory, has caused me such profound grief, that instead of being able to offer consolation I myself am in need of it. I sympathize with your Excellency in this loss, and I cannot tell you how grieved and depressed I am, but, as it has occurred and it has pleased our Lord so to do, we must acquiesce in his will. Therefore I beg and urge your Majesty to bear up under this misfortune as befits your position, and I know that you will do so. I will at present merely add that I commend myself and offer my services to you at all times.
Your Sister-in-law Lucrezia, Duchess of Ferrara, the last of March, 1519.
"Mother?" Ercole, face scrunched up from crying, rocked back and forth on the stool beside her bed. Alessandro, Leonora, and Francesco crowded behind him, little angelic faces confused at the commotion. Ercole was the only one old enough to grasp, though perhaps not fully comprehend, the fact his mother was in immense pain.
"Is Isabella going to live?" She asked Alfonso as she took little Ercole's hand. She's heard nothing of her newborn since she'd been sick with fever.
"I'm sorry, love."
"Not the first I've lost."
"Nor the last I fear."
"Silly husband. Come and kiss me Alfonso." He leaned over Ercole and pressed a firm kiss to her forehead, nose, and lips. Ippolito came into the room and crawled onto the bed, nestling into her arms. "My little son."
He sobbed against her shoulder and Ercole started crying once more too. Leonora, seeing her siblings in distress, began wailing.
"I'm taking the children out now, wife." Alfonso herded them all to the door, practically tearing Lucrezia's sheets as he forced Ippolito away. Alfonso hurried back into the room and took the vacated stool and her limp hand.
"Save your strength, you are going to need it for your recovery."
"You always were as optimistic as Bisceglie."
"Is it because Francesco's gone?"
"Is that why you're leaving me?"
"Don't be silly."
"I haven't been here for a long time."
"God…" His voice cracked and he lowered his head, pressing his lips to her knuckles. The old memories stirred of Cesare's confidant smile, soft kisses, and passionate touches. If he wasn't waiting in the afterlife she'd find him somewhere else.
"Alfonso, will you fetch me some quill and vellum? I want to write my last letter."
"Dictate it to me. Don't waste your energy."
"I've enough left for this. Can you make sure it gets sent?"
"You know I will."
"Don't cry. I've loved you too Alfonso."
Most Holy Father and Honored Master:
With all respect I kiss your Holiness's feet and commend myself in all humility to your holy mercy. Having suffered for more than two months, early on the morning of the 14th of the present, as it pleased God, I gave birth to a daughter, and hoped then to find relief from my sufferings, but I did not, and shall be compelled to pay my debt to nature. So great is the favor which our merciful Creator has shown me, that I approach the end of my life with pleasure, knowing that in a few hours, after receiving for the last time all the holy sacraments of the Church, I shall be released. Having arrived at this moment, I desire as a Christian, although I am a sinner, to ask your Holiness, in your mercy, to give me all possible spiritual consolation and your Holiness's blessing for my soul. Therefore I offer myself to you in all humility and commend my husband and my children, all of whom are your servants, to your Holiness's mercy. In Ferrara, June 22, 1519, at the fourteenth hour.
Your Holiness's humble servant,
He cried throughout her letter writing and only sobered up enough to hand the letter to the messenger. "Sit with me until I fall asleep."
"I'll stay until the end."
"Thank you. Do you think Cesare's in Hell?"
"I don't know."
"If he is he'd fight his way into Heaven to get me. I suppose I only have to be practice patience which isn't my strong suit."
"Oh, Lucrezia!" Those were the last words she heard before she slept.
Alfonso lifted his head on the morning of June the twenty-fourth to find Lucrezia gone from the world. He stood immediately, walked out of the room and pass the servants, friends, and relatives and into his own quarters. He was a mess when he sat down to write his nephew Federico Gonzaga.
Illustrious Sir and Honored Brother and Nephew:
It has just pleased our Lord to summon unto Himself the soul of the illustrious lady, the duchess, my dearest wife. I hasten to inform you of the fact as our mutual love leads me to believe that the happiness or unhappiness of one is likewise the happiness or unhappiness of the other. I cannot write this without tears, knowing myself to be deprived of such a dear and sweet companion. For such her exemplary conduct and the tender love which existed between us made her to me. On this sad occasion I would indeed seek consolation from your Excellency, but I know that you will participate in my grief, and I prefer to have someone mingle his tears with mine rather than endeavor to console me. I commend myself to your Majesty.
Ferrara, June 24, 1519, at the fifth hour of the night. Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara.