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Alexander the Ratcatcher

By Richard Garnett

“Alexander Octavus mures, qui Urbem supra modum vexabant,
anathemate perculit.”—Palatius. Fasti Cardinalium, tom. 5, p. 46.


“ROME and her rats are at the point of battle !”

This metaphor of Menenius Agrippa’s became, history
records, matter of fact in 1689, when rats pervaded the Eternal
City from garret to cellar, and Pope Alexander the Eighth
seriously apprehended the fate of Bishop Hatto. The situation
worried him sorely ; he had but lately attained the tiara at an
advanced age—the twenty-fourth hour, as he himself remarked in
extenuation of his haste to enrich his nephews. The time vouch-
safed for worthier deeds was brief, and he dreaded descending to
posterity as the Rat Pope. Witty and genial, his sense of humour
teased him with a full perception of the absurdity of his position.
Peter and Pasquin concurred in forbidding him to desert his post;
and he derived but small comfort from the ingenuity of his
flatterers, who compared him to St. Paul contending with beasts
at Ephesus.

It wanted three half-hours to midnight, as Alexander sat amid


                        222 Alexander the Ratcatcher

traps and ratsbane in his chamber in the Vatican, under the pro-
tection of two enormous cats and a British terrier. A silver bell
stood ready to his hand, should the aid of the attendant chamber-
lains be requisite. The walls had been divested of their tapestries,
and the floor gleamed with powdered glass. A tome of legendary
lore lay open at the history of the Piper of Hamelin. All was
silence, save for the sniffing and scratching of the dog and a sound
of subterranean scraping and gnawing.

“Why tarries Cardinal Barbarigo thus?” the Pope at last
asked himself aloud. The inquiry was answered by a wild burst
of squeaking and a clattering and scurrying to and fro, as who
should say, “We’ve eaten him ! We’ve eaten him !”

But this exultation was at least premature, for just as the
terrified Pope touched his bell, the door opened to the narrowest
extent compatible with the admission of an ecclesiastical personage
of dignified presence, and Cardinal Barbarigo hastily squeezed
himself through.

“I shall hardly trust myself upon these stairs again,” he
remarked, “unless under the escort of your Holiness’s terrier.”

“Take him, my son, and a cruse of holy water to boot,” the
Pope responded. ” Now, how go things in the city ?”

“As ill as may be, your Holiness. Not a saint stirs a finger to
help us. The country-folk shun the city, the citizens seek the
country. The multitude of enemies increases hour by hour.
They set at defiance the anathemas fulminated by your Holiness,
the spiritual censures placarded in the churches, and the citation
to appear before the ecclesiastical courts, although assured that
their cause shall be pleaded by the ablest advocates in Rome. The
cats, amphibious with alarm, are taking to the Tiber. Vainly the
city reeks with toasted cheese, and the Commissary-General reports
himself short of arsenic.”


                        By Richard Garnett 223

“And how are the people taking it ?” demanded Alexander.
“To what cause do they attribute the public calamity ?”

“Generally speaking, to the sins of your Holiness,” replied the

“Cardinal !” exclaimed Alexander, indignantly.

“I crave pardon for my temerity,” returned Barbarigo. ” It is
with difficulty that I force myself to speak, but I am bound to lay
the ungrateful truth before your Holiness. The late Pope, as all
men know, was a personage of singular sanctity.”

“Far too upright for this fallen world,” observed Alexander,
with unction.

“I will not dispute,” responded the Cardinal, “that the head of
Innocent the Eleventh might have been more fitly graced by a
halo than by a tiara. But the vulgar are incapable of placing
themselves at this point of view. They know that the rats hardly
squeaked under Innocent, and that they swarm under Alexander.
What wonder if they suspect your Holiness of familiarity with
Beelzebub, the patron of vermin, and earnestly desire that he
would take you to himself ? Vainly have I represented to them
the unreasonableness of imposing upon him a trouble he may well
deem superfluous, considering your Holiness’s infirm health and
advanced age. Vainly, too, have I pointed out that your anathema
has actually produced all the effect that could have been reasonably
anticipated from any similar manifesto on your predecessor’s part.
They won’t see it. And, in fact, might I humbly advise, it does
appear impolitic to hurl anathemas unless your Holiness knows
that some one will be hit. It might be opportune, for example, to
excommunicate Father Molinos, now fast in the dungeons of St.
Angelo, unless, indeed, the rats have devoured him there. But I
question the expediency of going much further.”

“Cardinal,” said the Pope, “you think yourself prodigiously

The Yellow Book—Vol. XII. o


                        224 Alexander the Ratcatcher

clever, but you ought to know that the state of public opinion
allowed us no alternative. Moreover, I will give you a wrinkle
in case you should ever come to be Pope yourself. It is unwise to
allow ancient prerogatives to fall entirely into desuetude. Far-
seeing men prognosticate a great revival of sacerdotalism in the
nineteenth century, and what is impotent in an age of sense may
be formidable in an age of nonsense. Further, we know not
from one day to another whether we may not be absolutely
necessitated to excommunicate that fautor of Gallicanism, Louis
the Fourteenth, and before launching our bolt at a king, we may
think well to test its efficacy upon a rat. Fiat experimentum. And
now to return to our rats, from which we have ratted. Is there,
indeed, no hope ?”

Lateat scintillula forsan” said the Cardinal, mysteriously.

“Ha ! How so ?” eagerly demanded Alexander.

“Our hopes,” answered the Cardinal, “are associated with the
recent advent to this city of an extraordinary personage.”

” Explain,” urged the Pope.

“I speak,” resumed the Cardinal, ” of an aged man of no
plebeian mien or bearing, albeit most shabbily attired in the skins,
now fabulously cheap, of the vermin that torment us ; who, pro-
fessing to practising as an herbalist, some little time ago established
himself in an obscure street of no good repute. A tortoise hangs
in his needy shop, nor are stuffed alligators lacking. Under-
standing that he was resorted to by such as have need of philters
and love-potions, or are incommoded by the longevity of parents
and uncles, I was about to have him arrested, when I received a
report which gave me pause. This concerned the singular
intimacy which appeared to subsist between him and our enemies.
When he left home, it was averred, he was attended by troops of
them, obedient to his beck and call, and spies had observed him


                        By Richard Garnett 225

banquetting them at his counter, the rats sitting erect and com-
porting themselves with perfect decorum. I resolved to investigate
the matter for myself. Looking into his house through an un-
shuttered window, I perceived him in truth surrounded by feasting
and gambolling rats ; but when the door was opened in obedience
to my attendants’ summons, he appeared to be entirely alone.
Laying down a pestle and mortar, he greeted me by name with
an easy familiarity which for the moment quite disconcerted me,
and inquired what had procured him the honour of my visit.
Recovering myself, and wishing to intimidate him :

“‘I desire in the first place,’ I said, ‘to point out to you your
grave transgression of municipal regulations in omitting to paint
your name over your shop.’

“‘Call me Rattila,’ he rejoined with unconcern, ‘and state
your further business.’

“I felt myself on the wrong tack, and hastened to interrogate
him respecting his relations with our adversaries. He frankly
admitted his acquaintance with rattery in all its branches, and his
ability to deliver the city from his scourge, but his attitude
towards your Holiness was so deficient in respect that I question
whether I ought to report it.”

“Proceed son,” said the Pope, “we will not be deterred from
providing for the public weal by the ribaldry of a ratcatcher.”

“He scoffed at what he termed your Holiness’s absurd position,
and affirmed that the world had seldom beheld, nor would soon
behold again, so ridiculous a spectacle as a Pope besieged by rats.
‘I can help your master,’ he continued, ‘and am willing, but my
honour, like his, is aspersed in the eyes of the multitude, and he
must come to my aid, if I am to come to his.’

“I prayed him to be more explicit, and offered to be the bearer
of any communication to your Holiness.

                                                “‘I will

                        226 Alexander the Ratcatcher

“‘I will unfold myself to no one but the Pope himself,’ he
replied, ‘and the interview must take place when and where I
please to appoint. Let him meet me this very night, and alone,
in the fifth chamber of the Appartamento Borgia.’

“‘The Appartamento Borgia !’ I exclaimed in consternation.
‘The saloons which the wicked Pope, Alexander the Sixth,
nocturnally perambulates, mingling poisons that have long lost
their potency for Cardinals who have long lost their lives !’

“‘Have a care !’ he exclaimed sharply, ‘You speak to his late
Holiness’s most intimate friend.’

“‘Then,’ I answered, ‘you must obviously be the Devil, and I
am not at present empowered to negotiate with your Infernal
Majesty. Consider, however, the peril and inconvenience of
visiting at dead of night rooms closed for generations. Think of
the chills and cobwebs. Weigh the probability of his Holiness
being devoured by rats.’

“‘I guarantee his Holiness absolute immunity from cold,’ he
replied, ‘and that none of my subjects shall molest him either
going or returning.’

“‘But,’ I objected, ‘granting that you are not the Devil, how
the devil, let me ask, do you expect to gain admittance at midnight
to the Appartamento Borgia ?’

“‘Think you I cannot pass through a stone wall ?’ answered
he, and vanished in an instant. A tremendous scampering of rats
immediately ensued, then all was silence.

“On recovering in some measure from my astounded condition,
I caused strict search to be made throughout the shop. Nothing
came to light but herbalists’ stuff and ordinary medicines. And,
now, Holy Father, your Holiness’s resolution ? Reflect well.
This Rattila may be the King of the Rats, or he may be
Beelzebub in person.”


                        By Richard Garnett 227

Alexander the Eighth was principally considered by his con- temporaries in the light of a venerable fox, but the lion had by no means been omitted from his composition.

“All powers of good forbid,” he exclaimed, “that a Pope and a Prince should shrink from peril which the safety of the State summons him to encounter ! I will confront this wizard, this goblin, in the place of his own appointing, under his late intimate friend’s very nose. I am a man of many transgressions, but something assures me that Heaven will not deem this a fit occasion for calling them to remembrance. Time presses ; I lead on ; follow, Cardinal Barbarigo, follow ! Yet stay, let us not forget temporal and spiritual armouries.”

And hastily providing himself with a lamp, a petronel, a bunch of keys, a crucifix, a vial of holy water, and a manual of exor- cisms, the Pope passed through a secret door in a corner of his chamber, followed by the Cardinal bearing another lamp and a naked sword, and preceded by the dog and the two cats, all ardent and undaunted as champions bound to the Holy Land for the recovery of the Holy Sepulchre.


The wizard had kept his word. Not a rat was seen or heard upon the pilgrimage, which was exceedingly toilsome to the aged Pope, from the number of passages to be threaded and doors to be unlocked. At length the companions stood before the portal of the Appartamento Borgia.

“Your Holiness must enter alone,” Cardinal Barbarigo admon- ished, with manifest reluctance.

“Await my return,” enjoined the Pontiff, in a tone or more


                        228 Alexander the Ratcatcher

confidence than he could actually feel, as, after much grinding
and grating, the massive door swung heavily back, and he passed
on into the dim, unexplored space beyond. The outer air, stream-
ing in as though eager to indemnify itself for years of exile, smote
and swayed the flame of the Pope’s lamp, whose feeble ray flitted
from floor to ceiling as the decrepit man, weary with the way he
had traversed and the load he was bearing, tottered and stumbled
painfully along, ever and anon arrested by a closed door, which he
unlocked with prodigious difficulty. The cats cowered close to
the Cardinal ; the dog at first accompanied the Pope, but whined
so grievously, as though he beheld a spirit, that Alexander bade
him back.

Supreme is the spell of the genius loci. The chambers traversed
by the Pope were in fact adorned with fair examples of the painter’s
art, mostly scriptural in subject, but some inspired with the devout
Pantheism in which all creeds are reconciled. All were alike in-
visible to the Pontiff, who, with the dim flicker of his lamp, could
no more discern Judaea wed with Egypt on the frescoed ceiling
than, with the human limitation of his faculties, he could foresee
that the ill-reputed rooms would one day harbour a portion of the
Vatican Library, so greatly enriched by himself. Nothing but
sinister memories and vague alarms presented themselves to his
imagination. The atmosphere, heavy and brooding from the long
exclusion of the outer air, seemed to weigh upon him with the
density of matter, and to afford the stuff out of which phantasmal
bodies perpetually took shape and, as he half persuaded himself,
substance. Creeping and tottering between bowl and cord, shielding
himself with lamp and crucifix from Michelotto’s spectral poniard
and more fearful contact with fleshless Vanozzas and mouldering
Giulias, the Pope urged, or seemed to urge, his course amid
phantom princes and cardinals, priests and courtesans, soldiers and


                        By Richard Garnett 229

serving-men, dancers, drinkers, dicers, Bacchic and Cotyttian
workers of whatsoever least beseemed the inmates of a Pontifical
household, until, arrived in the fifth chamber, close by the, to him,
invisible picture of the Resurrection, he sank exhausted into a
spacious chair that seemed placed for his reception, and for a
moment closed his eyes. Opening them immediately afterwards,
he saw with relief that the phantoms had vanished, and that he
confronted what at least seemed a fellow- mortal, in the ancient
rat-catcher, habited precisely as Cardinal Barbarigo had described,
yet for all his mean apparel, wearing the air of one wont to confer
with the potentates of the earth on other subjects than the exter
mination of rats.

“This is noble of your Holiness—really,” he said, bowing with
mock reverence. “A second Leo the Great !”

“I tell you what, my man,” responded Alexander, feeling it
very necessary to assert his dignity while any of it remained, “you
are not to imagine that, because I have humoured you so far as to
grant you an audience at an unusual place and time, I am going to
stand any amount of your nonsense and impertinence. Youcan catch
our rats, can you ? Catch them, then, and you need not fear that we
shall treat you like the Pied Piper of Hamelin. You have com
mitted sundry rascalities, no doubt ? A pardon shall be made out
for you. You want a patent or a privilege for your ratsbane ?
You shall have it. So to work, in the name of St. Muscipulus !
and you may keep the tails and skins.”

“Alexander,” said the ratcatcher composedly, “I would not
commend or dispraise you unduly, but this I may say, that of all
the Popes I have known you are the most exuberant in hypocrisy
and the most deficient in penetration. The most hypocritical,
because you well know, and know that I know that you know,
that you are not conversing with an ordinary rat-catcher : had


                        230 Alexander the Ratcatcher

you deemed me such, you would never have condescended to meet
me at this hour and place. The least penetrating, because you
apparently have not yet discovered to whom you are speaking.
Do you really mean to say that you do not know me ?”

“I believe I have seen your face before,” said Alexander, “and
all the more likely as I was inspector of prisons when I was

“Then look yonder,” enjoined the ratcatcher, as he pointed
to the frescoed wall, at the same time vehemently snapping his
fingers. Phosphoric sparks hissed and crackled forth, and coal-
esced into a blue lambent flame, which concentrated itself upon a
depicted figure, whose precise attitude the ratcatcher assumed as
he dropped upon his knees. The Pope shrieked with amazement,
for, although the splendid Pontifical vestments had become ragged
fur, in every other respect the kneeling figure was the counterpart
of the painted one, and the painted one was Pinturicchio’s portrait
of Pope Alexander the Sixth kneeling as a witness of the Resur-

Alexander the Eighth would fain have imitated his predecessor’s
attitude, but terror bound him to his chair, and the adjuration
of his patron St. Mark which struggled towards his lips never
arrived there. The book of exorcisms fell from his paralysed
hand, and the vial of holy water lay in shivers upon the floor.
Ere he could collect himself, the dead Pope had seated himself
beside the Pope with one foot in the grave, and, fondling a ferret-
skin, proceeded to enter into conversation.

“What fear you?” he asked. “Why should I harm you?
None can say that I ever injured any one for any cause but my
own advantage, and to injure your Holiness now would be to
obstruct a design which I have particularly at heart.”

“I crave your Holiness’s forgiveness,” rejoined the Eighth


                        By Richard Garnett 231

Alexander, “but you must be aware that you left the world with
a reputation which disqualifies you for the society of any Pope in
the least careful of his character. It positively compromises me
to have so much as the ghost of a person so universally decried
as your Holiness under my roof, and you would infinitely oblige
me by forthwith repairing to your own place, which I take to be
about four thousand miles below where you are sitting. I could
materially facilitate and accelerate your Holiness’s transit thither
if you would be so kind as to hand me that little book of

“How is the fine gold become dim !” exclaimed Alexander the
Sixth. “Popes in bondage to moralists ! Popes nervous about
public opinion ! Is there another judge of morals than the Pope
speaking ex cathedra, as I always did ? Is the Church to frame
herself after the prescriptions of heathen philosophers and profane
jurists ? How, then, shall she be terrible as an army with banners ?
Did I concern myself with such pedantry when the kings of
Spain and Portugal came to me like cats suing for morsels, and I
gave them the West and the East ?”

“It is true,” Alexander the Eighth allowed, “that the lustre
of the Church hath of late been obfuscated by the prevalence of

“It isn’t the heretics,” Borgia insisted. “It is the degeneracy
of the Popes. A shabby lot ! You, Alexander, are about the
best of them ; but the least Cardinal about my court would have
thought himself bigger than you.”

Alexander’s spirit rose. “I would suggest,” he said, “that
this haughty style is little in keeping with the sordid garb wherein
your Holiness, consistent after death as in your life, masquerades
to the scandal and distress of the faithful.”

“How can I other ? Has your Holiness forgotten your Rabelais ?”


                        232 Alexander the Ratcatcher

“The works of that eminent Doctor and Divine,” answered
Alexander the Eighth, “are seldom long absent from my hands,
yet I fail to remember in what manner they elucidate the present

“Let me refresh your memory,” rejoined Borgia, and, pro-
ducing a volume of the Sage of Meudon, he turned to the chapter
descriptive of the employments of various eminent inhabitants of
the nether world, and pointed to the sentence :


“Is this indeed sooth ?” demanded his successor.

“How else should Franois Rabelais have affirmed it ?” re-
sponded Borgia. “When I arrived in the subterranean kingdom,
I found it in the same condition as your Holiness’s dominions at
the present moment, eaten up by rats. The attention which,
during my earthly pilgrimage, I had devoted to the science of
toxicology indicated me as a person qualified to abate the nuisance,
which commission I executed with such success, that I received
the appointment of Ratcatcher to his Infernal Majesty, and so
discharged its duties as to merit a continuance of the good opinion
which had always been entertained of me in that exalted quarter.
After a while, however, interest began to be made for me in even
more elevated spheres. I had not been able to cram Heaven with
Spaniards, as I had crammed the Sacred College—on the contrary.
Truth to speak, my nation has not largely contributed to the
population of the regions above. But some of us are people of
consequence. My great-grandson, the General of the Jesuits, who,
as such, had the ear of St. Ignatius Loyola, represented that had I
adhered strictly to my vows, he could never have come into


* Pantagruel, book xi. ch. 30.

                        By Richard Garnett 233

existence, and that the Society would thus have wanted one of its
brightest ornaments. This argument naturally had great weight
with St. Ignatius, the rather as he, too, was my countryman.
Much also was said of the charity I had shown to the exiled Jews,
which St. Dominic was pleased to say made him feel ashamed of
himself when he came to think of it ; of my having fed my people
in time of dearth, instead of contriving famines to enrich myself,
as so many Popes’ nephews have done since ; and of the splendid
order in which I had kept the College of Cardinals. Columbus
said a good word for me, and Savonarola did not oppose. Finally I
was allowed to come upstairs, and exercise my profession on earth.
But mark what pitfalls line the good man’s path ! I never could
resist tampering with drugs of a deleterious nature, and was con-
stantly betrayed by the thirst for scientific experiment into
practices incompatible with the public health. The good nature
which my detractors have not denied me was a veritable snare.
I felt for youth debarred from its enjoyments by the un-
natural vitality of age, and sympathised with the blooming damsel
whose parent alone stood between her and her lover. I thus lived
in constant apprehension of being ordered back to the Netherlands,
and yearned for the wings of a dove, that I might flee away and
be out of mischief. At last I discovered that my promotion to a
higher sphere depended upon my obtaining a testimonial from the
reigning Pope. Let a solemn procession be held in my honour,
and intercession be publicly made for me, and I should ascend
forthwith. I have consequently represented my case to many of
your predecessors : but, O Alexander, you seventeenth-century
Popes are a miserable breed ! No fellow feeling, no esprit de corps.
Heu pletas ! heu prisca fides ! No one was so rude as your ascetic
antecessor. The more of a saint, the less of a gentleman. Person-
ally offensive, I assure you ! But the others were nearly as bad.


                        234 Alexander the Ratcatcher

The haughty Paul, the fanatic Gregory, the worldly Urban, the
austere Innocent the Tenth, the affable Alexander the Seventh, all
concurred in assuring me that it was deeply to be regretted that I
should ever have been emancipated from the restraints of the
Stygian realm, to which I should do well to return with all
possible celerity ; that it would much conduce to the interests of
the Church if my name could be forgotten ; and that, as for doing
anything to revive its memory, they would just as soon think or
canonising Judas Iscariot.”

“And therefore your Holiness has brought these rats upon us,
enlisted, I nothing doubt, in the infernal regions ?”

“Precisely so : Plutonic, necyomantic, Lemurian rats, kindly
lent by the Prince of Darkness for the occasion, and come drip-
ping from Styx to squeak and gibber in the Capitol. But I note
your Holiness’s admission that they belong to a region exempt
from your jurisdiction, and that, therefore, your measures against
them, except as regards their status as belligerents, are for the
most part illegitimate and ultra vires.”

“I would argue that point,” replied Alexander the Eighth, “if
my lungs were as tough as when I pleaded before the Rota in
Pope Urban’s time. For the present I confine myself to for-
mally protesting against your Holiness’s unprecedented and
parricidal conduct in invading your country at the head of an
army of loathsome vermin.”

“Unprecedented !” exclaimed Borgia. “Am I not the
modern Coriolanus ? Did Narses experience blacker ingrati-
tude than I ? Where would the temporal power be but for me ?
Who smote the Colonna ? Who squashed the Orsini ? Who
gave the Popes to dwell quietly in their own house ? Monsters
of unthankfulness !”

“I am sure,” said Alexander the Eighth, soothingly, “that my


                        By Richard Garnett 235

predecessors’ inability to comply with your Holiness’s request
must have cost them many inward tears, not the less genuine
because entirely invisible and completely inaudible. A wise Pope
will, before all things, consider the spirit of his age. The force
of public opinion, which your Holiness lately appeared to disparage,
was, in fact, as operative upon yourself as upon any of your suc-
cessors. If you achieved great things in your lifetime, it was
because the world was with you. Did you pursue the same
methods now, you would soon discover that you had become an
offensive anachronism. It will not have escaped your Holiness’s
penetration, that what moralists will persist in terming the eleva-
tion of the standard of the Church, is the result of the so-called
improvement of the world.”

“There is a measure of truth in this,” admitted Alexander the
Sixth, “and the spirit of this age is a very poor spirit. It was
my felicity to be a Pope of the Renaissance. Blest dispensation !
when men’s view of life was large and liberal ; when the fair
humanities flourished ; when the earth yielded up her hoards of
chiselled marble and breathing bronze, and new-found agate urns
as fresh as day ; when painters and sculptors vied with antiquity,
and poets and historians followed in their path ; when every be-
nign deity was worshipped save Diana and Vesta ; when the arts
of courtship and cosmetics were expounded by archbishops; when
the beauteous Imperia was of more account than the eleven thou
sand virgins ; when obnoxious persons glided imperceptibly from
the world ; and no one marvelled if he met the Pope arm in arm
with the Devil. How miserable, in comparison, is the present
sapless age, with its prudery and its pedantry, and its periwigs and
its painted coaches, and its urban Arcadias and the florid impo-
tence and ostentatious inanity of what it calls its art ! Pope
Alexander ! I see in the spirit the sepulchre destined for you, and

                                                I swear

                        236 Alexander the Ratcatcher

I swear to you that my soul shivers in my ratskins ! Come, now !
I do not expect you to emulate the Popes of my time, but show
that your virtues are your own, and your faults those of your
epoch. Pluck up a spirit ! Take bulls by the horns ! Look
facts in the face ! Think upon the images of Brutus and Cassius !
Recognise that you cannot get rid of me, and that the only safe
course is to rehabilitate me. I am not a candidate for canonisa-
tion just now ; but repair past neglect and appease my injured
shade in the way you wot of. If this is done, I pledge my word
that every rat shall forthwith evacuate Rome. Is it a bargain ? I see
it is ; you are one of the good old sort, though fallen on evil days.”

Renaissance or Rats, Alexander the Eighth yielded.

“I promise,” he declared.

“Your hand upon it !”

Subduing his repugnance and apprehension by a strong effort,
Alexander laid his hand within the spectre’s clammy paw. An
icy thrill ran through his veins, and he sank back senseless into
his chair.


When the Pope recovered consciousness he found himself in bed,
with slight symptoms of fever. His first care was to summon
Cardinal Barbarigo, and confer with him respecting the surpris
ing adventures which had recently befallen them. To his amaze-
ment, the Cardinal’s mind seemed an entire blank on the subject.
He admitted having made his customary report to his Holiness
the preceding night, but knew nothing of any supernatural rat-
catcher, and nothing of any midnight rendezvous at the Apparta-
mento Borgia. Investigation seemed to justify his nescience ; no
vestige of the man of rats or of his shop could be discovered ; and
the Borgian apartments, opened, and carefully searched through,


                        By Richard Gannett 237

revealed no trace of having been visited for many years. The
Pope’s book of exorcisms was in its proper place, his vial of holy
water stood unbroken upon his table ; and his chamberlains de-
posed that they had consigned him to Morpheus at the usual
hour. His illusion was at first explained as the effect of a pecu-
liarly vivid dream ; but when he declared his intention of actually
holding a service and conducting a procession for the weal of his
namesake and predecessor, the conviction became universal that
the rats had effected a lodgement in his Holiness’s upper stories.

Alexander, notwithstanding, was resolute, and so it came to
pass that on the same day two mighty processions encountered
within the walls of Rome. As the assembled clergy, drawn from
all the churches and monasteries in the city, the Pope in his litter
in their midst, marched, carrying candles, intoning chants, and,
with many a secret shrug and sneer, imploring Heaven for the
repose of Alexander the Sixth, they were suddenly brought to bay
by another procession precipitated athwart their track, disorderly,
repulsive, but more grateful to the sight of the citizens than all
the pomps and pageants of the palmiest days of the Papacy.
Black, brown, white, grey ; fat and lean ; old and young ; stri-
dent or silent ; the whiskered legions tore and galloped along ;
thronging from every part of the city, they united in single
column into an endless host that appeared to stretch from the
rising to the setting of the sun. They seemed making for the
Tiber, which they would have speedily choked ; but ere they
could arrive there a huge rift opened in the earth, down which
they madly precipitated themselves. Their descent, it is affirmed,
lasted as many hours as Vulcan occupied in falling from Heaven to
Lemnos ; but when the last tail was over the brink the gulf closed
as effectually as the gulf in the Forum closed over Marcus Curtius,
not leaving the slightest inequality by which any could detect it.


                        238 Alexander the Ratcatcher

Long ere this consummation had been attained, the Pope, look-
ing forth from his litter, observed a venerable personage clad in
ratskins, who appeared desirous of attracting his notice. Glances
of recognition were exchanged, and instantly in place of the rat-
catcher stood a tall, swarthy, corpulent, elderly man, with the
majestic, yet sensual features of Alexander the Sixth, accoutred
with the official habiliments and insignia of a Pope, who rose
slowly into the air as though he had been inflated with hydrogen.

“To your prayers !” cried Alexander the Eighth, and gave the
example. The priesthood resumed its chants, the multitude
dropped upon their knees. Their orisons seemed to speed the
ascending figure, which was rising rapidly, when suddenly ap-
peared in air Luxury, Simony, and Cruelty, contending which
should receive the Holy Father into her bosom.* Borgia struck
at them with his crozier, and seemed to be keeping them at bay,
when a cloud wrapt the group from the sight of men. Thunder
roared, lightning glared, the rush of waters blended with the ejacu-
lations of the people and the yet more tempestuous rushing of the
rats. Accompanied as he was, it is not probable that Alexander
passed, like Dante’s sigh, “beyond the sphere that doth all spheres
enfold;” but, as he was never again seen on earth, it is not
doubted that he attained at least as far as the moon.

    * Per aver riposo
    Portato fu fra 1’anime beate
    Lo spirto di Alessandro glorioso ;
    Del qual seguiro le sante pedate
    Tre sue familiar! e care ancelle,
    Lussuria, Simonia, e Crudeltate.

            Machiavelli. Decennale Primo.

MLA citation:

Garnett, Richard. “Alexander the Ratcatcher.” The Yellow Book, vol. 12, January 1897, pp. 221-238. Yellow Book Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2010-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2020.