Princess Carlota of Mexico
Meets with Blessed Pius IX
When Henry IV visited the Louvre, he would touch only eggs he had boiled and peeled himself. The Jewish doctor Lopes tried to poison Queen Elizabeth by smearing poison on the pommel of her saddle; he was hanged, drawn, and quartered. Isn't it obvious, Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's consort, was poisoned? He was a Saxe-Coburg, the English conspired against him. Or --- ah --- the Fenians, they did it. Lead, antimony, mandrake --- an over-dose of tincture of laudanum, is that not what General Bazaine's first wife, supposedly, killed herself with? But perhaps she was not a suicide! Strychnos Nux Vomica works lightning-fast, but its bitter taste must be masked by honey, its victim dies with her hands in claws and spine so arched that only the head and the heels touch the bed.

The Borgias had their formulae: crushed glass, belladonna, wolfsbane. Cleopatra: snake venom. Socrates: hemlock. Livia poisoned Augustus; Tiberius poisoned Germanicus. Agrippina fed Claudius a dish of poison mushrooms. Napoleon Bonaparte was given gargantuan doses of arsenic, that is why his body did not decompose. Neither did Marie-Louise of Bourbon's, and before she died, her fingernails fell off. Nero favored cherry laurel water, which contains cyanide. The signs of cyanide poisoning are anxiety, headache, drowsiness --- check, check, check! (Her heart is pounding in her chest ---)

Saint Peter was martyred in the Neronian gardens, at the foot of the Janiculum: Is not the Holy Father the successor of Saint Peter, first Apostle of the Son of God?

Her stomach makes another growl.

"Pater noster... Our father who art in Heaven ...," she begins, but then, as if possessed, she jerks her head back. Suddenly, she's on her feet again and swanning down the nave. It happens so quickly that Blasio scarcely has the chance to run ahead and open the door for her.

Her Majesty orders the coachman, "II Vaticano. É urgente!"

Caray, the Vatican? Madame del Barrio does not dare ask what Her Majesty wants to see there. The carriage hurtles into the traffic; soon it clatters onto the bridge over the Tiber. In the nearing distance, the dome of Saint Peter's gleams through molten sunlight. They have already --- three days ago, when Her Majesty had her audience with the pope --- been given an extensive tour of the Vatican's museums. They had not seen the half of the Vatican, and still, it was more than a body could digest in a lifetime: the stupendous basilica with Bernini's baldachino overlooking the crypt of Saint Peter, Michelangelo's Pieta, all the gold, all the marble of all colors, the Sistine Chapel, Raphael's frescos, gallery upon gallery of Egyptian gold, Greek amphorae, Etruscan and Roman mosaics, busts, statues, sarcophagi, untold chalices, urns, and silken robes embroidered in China, paintings by Titian, Da Vinci, more Raphaels, more Michelangelos, Adoration of the Magi by Pinturrichio, and in the library, maps, illuminated manuscripts, incunabula...

What more could Her Majesty possibly want to see?

And that had not been Carlota's first visit to the Vatican. Often she spoke of her confirmation, when the pope first gave her the benediction, as he did again, three years ago, on her departure for Mexico. As she had told Madame del Barrio, taking communion from the Holy Father's hand was one of the most moving experiences of her life. In Saint Peter's, what had impressed her (more than the great art) were the confessionals, their little signs --- "Italiano"; "Français"; "English"; "Español." That Christians of all the world could come here, to the True Home of the True Church, it was sublime consolation. To speak of it, her eyes had filled with tears.

Perhaps Her Majesty wants to confess?

Her Majesty puts her head out the window. She cries to the driver, "Not that entrance! I am going to see the pope!"

Horrified, Madame del Barrio says, "But Your Majesty is not dressed for an audience with the pope!"

"You forget, Manuelita, it is the emperors who make the rules of etiquette. They themselves are above them."

After this smoldering rebuke, Madame del Barrio falls silent.

In her impeccable Italian, Carlota instructs the driver, "Take my secretary back to the hotel. You need not return for me."

Madame del Barrio follows Carlota past the Swiss Guards, into the residential compound, and up the steps. The pope's secretary emerges. Blinking with surprise, he bows to Her Majesty.

"I must see the Holy Father."

"That is impossible. His Holiness is having his breakfast."

"I do not care. Tell him I am here."

In a moment, the pope's secretary ushers Her Majesty in; Madame del Barrio, cringing with embarrassment, watches the door to the pope's private chamber click shut.

§     §     §

The pope extends his hand for the empress of Mexico to kiss his ring --- but she's collapsed at his feet, sobbing, her lips upon his slipper!

"Per piacere... Please, please help me, Father, I beg you! Louis Napoleon is trying to assassinate me!"

"What --- assassinate --- you?"

"Louis Napoleon has sent his spies, vipers nest in my own household, the von Kuhacseviches, and the doctor, and Vázquez de Leon and Count del Valle!"

"Vázquez del Leon and Count del Valle? What are you saying?"

"They are in Satan's pay."

"No, these are good men, your loyal subjects --- "

"Tutti, tutti... All, all of them have been bribed ... I beg you. Father, give me asylum! Inside the Vatican, it is the only place I can be safe!"

"Inside --- ?"

Again she kisses his slipper. "Permit me to sleep at your feet."

"No, no --- "

"Give me a bedroom then!"

Never has a woman, not even a nun, slept beneath the roof of the Vatican. "Impossible!"

"Then I shall sleep in the corridor! I would sleep on the floor, oh Father..." she heaves with sobs, "Oh, Father, I am so afraid... The poison..."

The pope looks up to see the undisguised disgust on his secretary's face, but being a man of gentle nature and genuine good heart, the pope wonders, could it be? In centuries past, a pope or two has been poisoned, is this not so? He has to shift his weight; Her Majesty is clinging to his ankles. "There, there." He pats the top of her head. But his nascent credulity, a fine, fattening montgolfier, all of a sudden deflates: she's jumped up and stuck her fingers into his cup of chocolate. She licks her fingers.

"I am starving! Everything they give me is poisoned!"

"Well, my goodness, well! I'll have them bring you a cup of chocolate."

"No! I will only drink out of Your Holiness's cup; if they know it is for me, it will be poisoned."

"In that case, by all means --- "

She tips back his cup, gulping it to the dregs. She then licks the inner lip of it. Her pupils seem dilated; there is a strange light in her eyes. She rushes to his desk and snatches up the silver goblet.

"Father, give me this so that I may drink without being poisoned."

A souvenir of a visit to the shrine of Our Lady of Loreto, it is such a large and heavy goblet he has never used it for drinking. To his astonishment --- and at this point, he hadn't thought he could be astonished any further --- with her teeth, Her Majesty tears off one tie of her bonnet and, knotting the ribbon around the neck of the goblet, thus secures it to her belt. "Now, Father, I want to discuss Mexico." She plants herself on a sofa. This is the opportunity for his secretary to slip out and alert Cardinal Antonelli.

"Yes?" the pope says smoothly, easing back into his chair. She begins a breathless ramble on the province of Yucatán, San Luis Potosí, the archbishop of Mexico --- a farrago of nonsense, accusation, and natural history, but then she interrupts herself: "What is the most effective antidote to poison?"

"The rosary and prayer, my child."

She asks him again. His answer does not deviate.

--- From The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire
Catherine Mansell Mayo
©2009 Unbridled Books
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