Charles remained twelve days longer in Rome, and set out at last, on January 28, upon the conquest of Naples. First he went solemnly to take his leave of the Pope, and they parted with every outward mark of a mutual esteem which they most certainly cannot have experienced. When Charles knelt for the Pope's blessing, Alexander raised him up and embraced him ; whilst Cesare completed the show of friendliness by presenting Charles with six beautiful chargers.
They set out immediately afterwards, the French king taking with him his hostages, neither of which he was destined to retain for long, with Cesare riding in the place of honour on his right.
The army lay at Marino that night, and on the following at Velletri. In the latter city Charles was met by an ambassador of Spain Antonio da Fonseca. Ferdinand and Isabella were moved at last to befriend their cousins of Naples, whom all else had now abandoned, and at the same time serve their own interests. Their ambassador demanded that Charles should abandon his enterprise and return to France, or else be prepared for war with Spain.
It is eminently probable that Cesare had knowledge of this ultimatum to Charles, and that his knowledge influenced his conduct. However that may be, he slipped out of Velletri in the dead of that same night disguised as a groom. Half a mile out of the town, Francesco del Sacco, an officer of the Podesta of Velletri, awaited him with a horse, and on this he sped back to Rome, where he arrived on the night of the 30th. He went straight to the house of one Antonio Flores, an auditor of the Tribunal of the Ruota and a person of his confidence, who through his influence and protection was destined to rise to the eminence of the archbishopric of Avignon and Papal Nuncio to the Court of France.
Cesare remained at Flores's house, sending word to the Pope of his presence, but not attempting to approach the Vatican. On the following day he withdrew to the stronghold of Spoleto.
Meanwhile Rome was thrown into a panic by the young cardinal's action and the dread of reprisals on the part of France. The quaking municipality sent representatives to Charles to assure him that Rome had had nothing to do with this breach of the treaty, and to implore him not to visit it upon the city. The king replied by a special embassy to the Pope, and there apparently dropped the matter, for a few days later Cesare reappeared at the Vatican.
Charles, meanwhile, despite the threats of Spain, pushed on to accomplish his easy conquest.
King Alfonso had already fled the kingdom (January 25), abdicating in favour of his brother Federigo. His avowed object was to withdraw to Sicily, retire from the world, and do penance for his sins, for which no doubt there was ample occasion. The real spur was probably as opined by Commines cowardice ; for, says that Frenchman, " Jamais homme cruel ne fut hardi."
Federigo's defence of the realm consigned to him was not conspicuous, for the French entered Naples almost without striking a blow within twenty days of their departure from Rome.
Scarcely had Charles laid aside his armour when death robbed him of the second hostage he had brought from the Vatican. On February 25, after a week's illness, Prince Djem died of dysentery at the Castle of Capua, whither Charles had sent him.
Rumours that he had been poisoned by the Pope arose almost at once ; but, considering that twenty eight days had elapsed since his parting from Alexander, it was, with the best intentions in the world, rather difficult to make that poisoning credible, until the bright notion was conceived, and made public, that the poison used was a " white powder " of unknown components, which did its work slowly, and killed the victim some time after it had been administered. Thus, by a bold and brazen invention, an impossible falsehood was made to wear a possible aspect.
And in that you have most probably the origin of the famous secret poison of the Borgias. Having been invented to fit the alleged poisoning of Prince Djem, which it was desired to fasten upon the Pope by hook or by crook, it was found altogether too valuable an invention not to be used again. By means of it, it became possible to lay almost any death in the world at the door of Alexander.
Before proceeding to inquire further into this particular case, let us here and now say that, just as to day there is no inorganic toxin known to science that will either lie fallow for weeks in the human system, suddenly to become active and slay, or yet to kill by slow degrees involving some weeks in the process, so none was known in the Borgian or any other era. Science indeed will tell you that the very notion of any such poison is flagrantly absurd, and that such a toxic action is against all the laws of nature.
But a scientific disquisition is unnecessary. For our present needs arguments of common sense should abundantly suffice. This poison this white powder was said to be a secret of the Borgias. If that is so, by what Borgia was the secret of its existence ever divulged ? Or, if it never was divulged, how comes it to be known that a poison so secret, and working at such distances of time, was ever wielded by them ?
The very nature of its alleged action was such as utterly to conceal the hand that had administered it; yet here, on the first recorded occasion of its alleged use, it was more or less common knowledge if Giovio and Guicciardini are to be believed !
Sagredo1 says that Djem died at Terracina three days after having been consigned to Charles VIII, of poison administered by Alexander, to whom Bajazet had promised a large sum of money for the deed. The same is practically Giovio's statement, save that Giovio causes him to die at a later date and at Gaeta ; Guicciardini and Corio tell a similar story, but inform us that he died in Naples.
It is entirely upon the authority of these four writers that the Pope is charged with having poisoned Djem, and it is noteworthy that in the four narratives we find different dates and three different places given as the date and place of the Turk's death, and more noteworthy still that in not one instance of these four is date or place correctly stated.