Lucrezia was at a loss as to how to explain her new husband’s behavior. His desertion of her bed had caused an immense wound to her pride. If I only knew why she thought to herself if I only had a way of making sense of this I would know what if it meant. If it meant anything.
She insisted that Constanzia remain with her until she presented herself at breakfast. As they had done so many times in childhood, she and Constanzia took their bath together. She even had her cousin wear one of her gowns—a red velvet camorra trimmed with black and gold ribbons worn over a white shift. Her maids dressed Constanzia’s hair, coiling her braid at the back of her head and covering it with a net crocheted with seed pearls. A red veil heavily embroidered with tiny red beads completed the outfit.
“How lovely you look!” Lucrezia exclaimed when her maids finished their ministrations. She chose to wear an outfit almost identical—only the camorra was black and she wore her hair in a net and veil twinkling with rubies.
She was conscious of the image she and Constanzia presented as they made their way to the dining room, followed by a string of her attendants. She knew that everything that she was doing was being watched by Isabella D’Este and Elizabetta Gonzaga, so if they wanted to gossip about her, she would give them something to talk about.
Alfonso greeted them, bowing and sweeping off his hat. “Good morning, signoras, it is such a privilege having two such lovely women gracing our humble home.” He held out his arm to Lucrezia, who took it with a knowing smile and surprised Constanzia by offering his other.
Lucrezia was dismayed by the open hostility of Isabella D’Este. She had no wish to engage in any conflict with her sister in law, but she was no fool and sooner or later the D’Este would have to learn this. She had the support of her husband, that was becoming plain, and nothing Isabella could do would lodge her from her rightful place.
And she had found favor with Alfonso. As the days went by, she noticed that he sought out her company more and more frequently. He played his viol for her, so beautifully that it almost brought tears to her eyes. He showed favor to Constanzia, too, and the three were seen frequently in each other’s company. And if he had believed the rumors of incest that had been spread about her throughout Italy, he seemed to no longer believe them.
His sexual behavior was an increasing source of mystery to her. Nightly, he would visit her bed, make love to her, and then bid her a courteous good night. At first, this was upsetting, now she was becoming used to it. Despite the protestations of his love for her, she had discovered that he sought out other women. The daughter of Pope Alexander had pondered what she should do about this, then decided to do nothing was the course of action that she would take. Once she had given him children, she would go her own way as he went his.
Isabella D’Este was a problem that would not go away. Lucrezia knew that she had won over her father-in-law Ercole, but Isabella’s nagging had now advanced to the subject of money. She pointed out to Ercole how much the attendants from Rome were costing him, and with some apologies to Lucrezia, he sent them back to Rome. This included many of her ladies with whom she could converse in Valencian, and it upset to see them go, but she bore it bravely. Isabella tried to include Constanzia, but Lucrezia put her foot down, explaining that having her cousin at her side helped to ease her homesickness.
“It is hard for me, my lord,” she said sweetly, “To be away from my family who I miss dreadfully. Constanzia and I grew up together, she was there for the birth of my children. It would be such a cause of grief for me were I to lose her. My father has provided her with an allowance so she could not be the burden that Isabella claims.”
But Isabella D’Este was not through. She could not rid her brother of his unwelcome bride, but she was determined to make Lucrezia’s life miserable in any way that she could. During Lent, she pointed out to her father the extravagance of Lucrezia’s table. It did not merely contain the customary fish, but also oysters, sturgeon, shrimp, crayfish, and caviar.
“Papa,” she said to her father one day, “I know that the Pope secured Lucrezia a twelve-thousand ducat a month allowance, but that is a luxury you cannot afford. She could do just as easily on eight thousand. Why you consented to such an amount in the first place surprises me.”
The idea of a reduction in Lucrezia’s allowance appealed to him, but eight thousand seemed somewhat miserly, so he offered to give her ten thousand. But when the pope heard of his plan he objected. He thought twelve thousand a reasonable amount and the idea of his beloved daughter having to accept less was unacceptable.
Lucrezia was caught in the middle between two formidable men, and Isabella’s machinations. But soon she discovered she had a card to play—she was pregnant. Eager to escape the inevitable gossip that would ensue, she and Constanzia retreated to the Convent of Corpus Domini so that Lucrezia would have a respite.
Constanzia had kept a constant eye on Lucrezia since their coming to Ferrara. Lucrezia’s health was not robust, and she confessed to Constanzia that she had suffered a miscarriage before the birth of Giovanni. Lucrezia had seemed her old self during the week of the marriage festivities, but she had since grown pale and listless. The malice of Isabella had done nothing to improve this, but her pregnancy would provide a shield against the D’Este’s scheming.
When they returned to Ferrara, Lucrezia had improved somewhat, but the summer heat was taking a toll on her. Her pregnancies with Giovanni and Rodrigo had gone much better than this one. She was only twenty-one and had always been healthy, now it pained Constanzia to see her so fragile and ill.
By July Lucrezia had grown worse. The heat in the city was making Lucrezia ill, and the efforts of Constanzia and the court physician brought no improvement. Lucrezia was suffering a high fever and was often delirious, asking for Constanzia, not recognizing that she was at her side, and for Cesare.
There was a flu circulating through the city, highly contagious and often fatal, and Lucrezia had contracted it somehow. Against her better judgment, Constanzia sent for Cesare, knowing his presence would comfort her, even though he was the last person she wished to see.
“I am summoning you for Lucrezia’s sake, not my own,” she wrote him, “She is very ill and I fear for her. This city and this pregnancy are taking a toll on her and I fear for her very life. You and your father, and your damned ambitions are responsible for this. I blame you in particular, you supported this marriage whole-heartedly, not even considering what she may have wanted for herself. Alfonso has not been neglectful, as soon as I wrote to him he returned from his business to be at her side. I expect you to do no less.”
Upon hearing the news that Cesare would be coming to see her, Lucrezia seemed to rally and when he arrived he found her sitting up in bed. Two days later though, she suffered a relapse and all through the month of August no one was sure that she would survive.
Since his arrival, Constanzia had said little to Cesare and had avoided his company. After one long day at Lucrezia’s bedside, holding her hand and bathing her feverish forehead with water she had left to seek a little rest in her own rooms. Upon standing she fainted and would have fallen to the floor had Cesare not caught her.
“Take her to her rooms, your highness,” one of the doctors had begged him, “She has had little rest and even less to eat since her grace has fallen ill. Indeed, we have been afraid that she too would fall ill, but the Madonna has a strong constitution.”
“Show me where her rooms are,” Cesare instructed one of Lucrezia’s attendants, “I will see that she rests for a while.” She led him to the suite of rooms Lucrezia had obtained for Constanzia, not so far from hers. The maid opened the door, and Cesare laid her on the bed.
He saw Carmilla staring at him, giving him the look he knew so well. “Get out of here, and make sure that we are left alone, Carmilla. I will summon you if I need you, but do not anticipate that you will be needed for a while.” She curtsied and left the room, sparing one last look at her mistress lying helpless on the bed.
“So we meet again at last, cousin, although I am sure you hoped to avoid me altogether.” He began to remove her garments one by one until she lay helpless and naked on the bed. “Should I have you now while you are unaware, or should I wait until you waken?”
He began to strip off his clothes, wish it were her hands that were removing his garments. He lay on the bed next to her and took her in his arms, fighting his desire, knowing it would come to fruition soon enough.
At last her eyelashes fluttered and she opened her amber brown eyes and saw him, then realized he’d undressed her and his bare strong arms were firmly around her. “No, Cesare, I do not want this. Please let me go.”
“Ah, but madam I do. You have avoided me ever since my arrival, now you can do so no longer.” He turned and bent over her, his mouth brushing her breast, then taking the nipple in his mouth, pleased that her body was not resisting him. When had it ever?
“Don’t, stop this madness, Cesare. You have no right…”
“Ah, but I have every right. Are you not the mother of my son?” The hand that had been caressing now slipped down between her legs, “You belong to me, me, and no one else. Not one letter have I received from you even though you have written mother and Sancia. Do you not care how our son is doing? Why is his mother not at his side?”
His strong hand pushed her legs apart. “I want you and I want you now, madam, and I will have you.” Tears sprang into her eyes as she pushed himself into her and began to move, slowly at first then more quickly as his desire took over both of them.
“I hate you,” she said weakly and he replied, “No you don’t, you love me, and you always will.”
On the fifth of September Lucrezia gave birth to a stillborn daughter. Two days later Cesare returned to find that she was suffering from puerperal fever and was dangerously ill.
“I am glad you have returned, Cesare,” Constanzia told him, “The doctors wish to bleed her but she won’t allow them. Please, talk to her, convince her it is for her own good.”
“I had thought you hoped to see the last of me, madam,” he answered, “But here I am again and you are once more asking for my help.”
“I wish you would go to the devil,” she cried, “But this is not for me, it is for Lucrezia whom we both love. If I have to sacrifice myself to you to save her, I will, just go to her.”
Lucrezia lay very white and still in her bed, but greeted Cesare when she saw him. “Brother, I knew you would not neglect me. The doctors wish to bleed me, but I will not allow it.”
“But you must, my love,” he said, and sat next to her, “This is for your own good. See, I will hold you and you will find it will be over in an instant and then you will get well.”
He held her tiny foot while the doctors bled her, and she protested only a little. Then they bound the wound and drew up the satin covers of her bed. Cesare kissed her, saying, “Rest now, my love, rest and get well. There will be other children, you’ll see.”
He gave Constanzia a look of meaning as he left Lucrezia’s rooms and she followed him, knowing what he wanted. When they reached her rooms he took her roughly in his arms and kissed her.
“I will not be so gentle this time, madam, you owe me and I intend to take what I want.” He ripped her bodice open, exposing her firm breasts. Tears of anger and grief welled in her eyes but soon turned to tears of desire. His treacherous hands knew how to make her so weak that she would yield to him, even though to do so was not her will.