1635 – The Papal Stakes — Snippet 49



Father Luke Wadding entered the rectory in a rush. Spare, soft-eyed, and already white-haired, his face seemed to radiate equal measures of surprise and delight. “My dear Tyrone, how good to see you! Had I known –”

John waved aside the pleasantries. “Father Luke, we’re not going to have to go through another long period before you start calling me ‘John’ again, are we?”

Father Wadding — counselor to popes, rector of the Irish College at St. Isidore’s, famous theologian, and lightning rod for Church matters touching upon Ireland’s exiles — blushed. John smiled. Padre Luca was indeed unchanged: just as humble and accessible and plain in his manners as he’d ever been. “Very well — John. And Father Hickey is going to be delighted to see you, I know.”

John felt a sudden pull in his chest, fought down a lump in his throat. “He’s still here? I was worried that maybe –”

“Still here; couldn’t get rid of him if I tried. Not that I ever would. Now, John, do have a seat. Tell me how things are in the Low Countries, and how –”

John stared at the waiting chairs, then at the two Spanish guards. “Er, Father…” He shifted languages. “I will speak in Spanish so your protectors understand this clearly. I am here on Fernando’s business, concerning sensitive interests of Spain. But I am unable to speak of these matters except in private. So I would be grateful if your men would be willing to wait here while you and I retire to a more private venue.”

“Alas, unless we were to sit on the edge of my own bed, this is as private a place as I can offer. But here now,” — Wadding looked at his guards — “surely you know of the earl of Tyrone, of the Irish Wild Geese? With him here, I have nothing to fear. In his presence, I am guarded as though by my own nephew. So kindly wait in the church; I shall be quite safe.”

These two Spanish guards also exchanged long looks. John almost rolled his eyes. Oh, please, please, sweet Jayzus; not another pair who specialize in eyeball dancing…

The older of the two guards began to stammer out, “P-Padre Luca, we d-d-do not wish to d-displease you, but –”

“Your orders are to ensure that I am guarded by the might of Spain at all times, yes?”

The stammerer nodded.

Wadding gestured toward John and then Synnot and McEgan. “Well, here I am: protected by the might of Spain. Indeed, by one of its most famous warriors and two of his best soldiers. So, your orders are fulfilled. If you wish, bring your lieutenant and I will explain the matter yet again.”

The two guards looked at each other, traded shrugs, and filed out.

John smiled after them. The moment they were beyond earshot, he gestured quickly at Synnot. “Watch the door. Tell me if someone’s coming. If they are, stall them. We’re not to be disturbed. McEgan, down to the kitchen with you. Tell them there’s word that the cistern behind the apse has been defiled, maybe poisoned.”

“Why the kitchen?”

“Because they cook with that water, and because the cook sends meals to guards at their posts. So he’ll know where they are, and when he sends word of the cistern, that will pull many, maybe most, of the guards off their rotations. Which is just what we want: no unnecessary obstructions on our way out.”

Wadding was openmouthed when John turned back to him. Then the priest’s mouth shut and brows lowered. “John O’Neill, what errant nonsense are you up to now?”

“Not nonsense at all, Father. You need to come with me. Now.”

“I do not, and I will not.”

“Father, tell me something: why are you up to your neck in Spanish soldiers?”

For the first time in John’s knowledge of him, Wadding looked away from an incipient staring match. “Cardinal Borja expressed apprehension about my safety.”

“More likely he’s worried about how you jeopardize his.”

“John, perhaps you are succumbing to the Roman fever. Or maybe standing close to cannons for fifteen years has damaged more than just your hearing. Because a bit of clearheaded logic will tell you that there’s no way on earth that I could jeopardize Cardinal Borja.”

“Oh, you can, Father; you can jeopardize him on Earth, and in Heaven too, unless we’re wrong in our guess.”

“Who’s ‘we’? And what guess?”

“Jesus on the Cross, but you always were a great one for turning ev’ryting into words and more words, Father.”

“And you were ever a blasphemer. A bad habit you’ve not managed to break, I see. And I’ll hear your confession for it. But first I’ll hear answers to my questions. Who is making these absurd claims about the threat I pose to Cardinal Borja?”

John settled his temper. Father Luke was as mild as a kitten — until you raised his ire. And if you did raise it? Well, John had repulsed siege assaults that hadn’t been quite that fierce. “Father Luke, you have many friends who are cardinals, am I right?”


“And how many of them have you seen since Philip’s troops arrived in Rome?”

Wadding darkened. But then he smiled.

“Have I said something funny, Father?”

“No. But ten years ago, you hadn’t the patience for irony. Or indirect argument. Very well, John. You make a point. As a rule, I’d not judge the actions of a cardinal, particularly when there’s so much wild rumor abroad. But it’s plain there’s been abuse of power, here.”

“Plain? Plain? Yes, Father: plain to a blind man at the bottom of an oubliette, even.”

Wadding closed his eyes. “John, these are evil times, no question. But what would you have me do?”

“What I asked you to do at the first: come with us. Now. It’s the right thing. And it’s the safe thing, before Borja realizes he can’t trust you either.”

“Can’t trust me? Even if he couldn’t, why should he care? Why would –?”

“Because if the pope made you a cardinal in pectore, and Urban is, then you’ll have a vote on the Consistory. And Isabella knows you well enough to know you’ll vote your conscience if it comes down to having to choose between Urban and Borja.”

John had never witnessed Luke Wadding speechless. Somehow, it was even more unnerving than being the object of his wrath — an experience with which John had a reasonable familiarity. When Wadding spoke, it was as though he were in a daze. “So, that’s the ‘they’ to whom you’ve been referring: the infanta and her nephew, the king in the Low Countries.”

“Yes. And they’re not alone in their opinion regarding Borja’s intentions.”

Wadding closed his eyes. “So they must suspect that Borja is guilty of much of what he’s been accused of, here.”

“Much. Perhaps all.”

Wadding opened his eyes. “For Borja to have done what you accuse him of would mean he is insane. I know the man; he is not insane.”

“Father, I’m not here to argue his sanity, or anything else, for that matter: I am charged to bring you out of Rome.”

Wadding stood. “And I may not leave. There are issues that have not been considered: students and clergy who are in my care, and scholarly matters, as well. There are also archives here, crucial to the history of Mother Church, which could be lost if –”

“Damn it, Father Wadding, you are coming with me, if I have to take you out of here at gunpoint –”

“Well now,” drawled a new voice, also in English, “you might not want to make threats when you’re at gunpoint yourself.”

John started, jumped up, hand halfway to his sword when he saw a wide, but unusually thin-walled, black muzzle aimed straight at his eyes. And the face behind it seemed to match descriptions he’d heard of the much-storied and infamous —


“Harry Lefferts, or I’m a caffler!”

Harry stared at the unfamiliar term, couldn’t suppress the slight pulse of gratification that went through him at being recognized, and raised his gun meaningfully. “Well, I’m not saying yes or no, but who the hell are you, and why are you threatening this priest?”

The fellow Harry was questioning — the foreign Boss-man who had breezed past the guards at the gate — did not seem particularly daunted by the barrel that tracked with him. “Where are my men? If you’ve done them ill, I swear by Christ Almighty, I’ll –”

The priest was on his feet. “Enough blasphemy, John O’Neill, or I’ll strike you here and now.”

Harry and Donald exchanged glances, eyebrows climbing high, before the priest turned on them. “And I do not recall inviting you gentlemen into the rectory. And I’m thinking that you did not simply walk past my guards, or the earl’s.”