1635 – The Papal Stakes — Snippet 43



John O’Neill was able to keep back the tears until the barge drew round the last bend in the Tiber and he saw the Ponte Emilio, which Romans were now starting to call the Ponte Rotto, or Broken Bridg e. It had been broken forever, like most things in Rome, but there was something particularly forlorn about it now. Its single proudly-carved arch, the only one remaining, now led boldly to nowhere. As if cut by the cleaver of a giant, the bridge no longer spanned the Tiber, but stopped in its midst; there was no way to tell whether it commemorated a dream abandoned before completion, or one that had fallen into decay.

John wiped his eyes on his sleeve and wondered at the changes that had come over Rome. He had only spent a few weeks there, and his ostensible reason for going — studies — had been both a threadbare excuse and a dismal failure. But the city had left its mark on him, had whispered to him of empires. And with all the exuberance of youth, he embraced only half of the timeless lesson about empires: that they did indeed rise. The sad truth that empires also fell was of concern only to those who were born to be beaten, who lacked the valor to take what was theirs, who doubted that God was on their side and guiding their sword and scepter.

Luke Wadding, along with the other priest-lecturers at St. Isidore’s, had striven, mightily, to temper Johnnie’s embrace of such mundane glory and destiny. They offered him visions of the divine Empire of God and Trinity, of the Christian conquest of hearts not bodies, of the power of the cross — and yes, the pen — over that of the sword.

But John O’Neill, third earl of Tyrone, had remained dubious of these pacifistic pieties. For him, the story of God’s role in the fate of man lost its appeal after the Old Testament, and did not regain it until the records of the Crusades. His one complaint with military life was that there was entirely too much thinking and talking over what to do, and how to do it, and who might be angered. Soldiering was in the doing of deeds, not the conceiving of them. And, being a soldier born and bred, he knew well enough how and when to act.

But seeing Rome this way — sullen, gray, singed around the edges — left him uncertain how to act or feel. Rome had never been a quiet city, or a clean city, or a kind city. It had been loud and crowded and tempestuous — but it had always been very much alive. The average Roman never stopped long enough to look at the monuments of their past; they were too busy scavenging them for pieces with which they could build their future. John liked that about Romans, and so the ruins had never seemed sad or melancholy.

Until now.

As the barge moved toward the left bank, making easier headway in the lee of the current that accelerated as it swept around the Isola Tiberina on both sides, Owen Roe came to stand by his first cousin, once removed. “Are you feeling quite well, Johnnie?”

John nodded. “My body is fine, but my heart; my heart… My God, look what they’ve done, Owen. The Spanish bastards. First, playing us as fools for years, and now this. Look at all the burned houses, the broken walls. It will be years — no, decades — in the fixing. Damn us, damn me, that I ever served the Spanish. If I could do it over again –”

“Calm now, Johnnie. As Isabella said, not all the Spanish meant to mislead us. Just as I doubt many of the Spaniards arrived in Rome thinking they’d do this –” He glanced in the direction of the decapitated bulk of the Castel Sant’Angelo.

“No, maybe this wasn’t what they intended, or even what they wanted, but they did it right enough anyhow, didn’t they?

Owen shook his head as the barge bumped to a stop against a row of hawsers and the warm-weather stink wafted down to them from where the effluent of the Cloaca Maximus dumped the city’s wastes into the Tiber. “Can’t say that we always made much better distinctions than the Spanish did during our own campaigning, Johnnie. I’m sure enough regretting things we did in the Provinces. Orders notwithstanding. Might well have been the same here.”

“Maybe,” said John, watching a half-dozen morion-helmeted occupiers stagger off in the direction of the Borgo, bottles of wine dangling loosely in their fingers. “But I’m not exactly sensing an undercurrent of regret.” He hopped over the low gunwale of the barge. “Have the men gather their gear and be ready.”

“Are we in a rush, John?”

“Aye. We need to find lodging, rest, and then move as soon as possible.”


“Why?” John looked around at the sagging skyline of Rome, the almost empty streets. “Because that damned battle-axe Isabella was right about something else: if the Spanish did this to a lovely old city, who knows what they might do to a lovely old priest like Luke Wadding?”


Once the door closed behind the invariably sour doctor, Frank turned to Giovanna. “See? I told you my fever was gone.”

Giovanna — small, dark, curvaceous, part-Madonna, part-hellion, and just starting to show — pouted. As only she could. “So. Very well. Maybe he is right.”

“He is a doctor,” Frank pointed out.

“He is a Spaniard and a tool of the Inquisition,” Giovanna countered.

“Okay, so he’s one of the bad guys, but he seems pretty conscientious. And besides, I think they want me well enough so they can move us again.”

She eyed the valises and chests that had been brought in during the doctor’s visit. “Because they gave us some containers in which to put our clothes?”

Frank shrugged. “That. But only partly. I was thinking more of the good doctor’s visits. Four in the past week, one of which was yesterday, and then today’s. That’s not just medical prudence; that’s a detailed assessment of our readiness to relocate. That’s why he wanted to examine you, too.”

“The pig. As if I would let –”

“I don’t think the Spanish brought any midwives with them, Gia. And I don’t think they’re going to permit any contact between us and the locals. They’ve created what we used to call an information firewall.”

Giovanna’s wonderful, alluring pout was back. “What does this mean, an ‘information firewall’?”

“It means that they are making sure that there’s no communication between us and the outside world. I’ll bet even the guards are specially selected for this duty: probably bunked apart from the others, so that there’s no word of us even in barracks gossip — which frequently winds up repeated in bordellos.”

Giovanna’s head rose to a condemning (if modest) height upon her shoulders. “And how would you know what transpires in bordellos, husband?”