The liquid in the shallow dish ignited, releasing a burst of yellow-green fire. The audience, a curious mix of Tuscan scholars and glitterati, applauded.
Lewis Philip Bartolli acknowledged the applause with a briefly lifted hand. "This lovely green reveals the presence of the element boron, which was not known to the ancients. The liquid is distilled spirits, which burn nicely. To the spirits, I added what chemists call boric acid. This boric acid contains one atom of boron, three of oxygen, and three of hydrogen, and it was obtained from the volcanic emissions of the Maremma of southern Tuscany."
A servant in the livery of the reigning Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinand de Medici, silently glided down the aisle, and whispered into the ear of Andrea di Giovanni Battista Cioli, the Tuscan Secretary of State. Cioli flinched, then muttered something to his companion, the teenaged Prince Leopold.
"The green color of the flame is the result of the excitation of the electrons of boron. Next, I would like to show you—"
Cioli rose abruptly. "On behalf of the Serenissime Grand Duke, of His Highness don Leopoldo, the learned fellows of the Academy, our guests, and myself, I would like to thank Dottore Bartolli for a fascinating presentation on chemistry. Unfortunately, we must excuse him, as he has a pressing engagement."
I do? But Lewis kept this thought to himself, and bowed.
The crowd filed out. The increased hubbub woke up Galileo Galilei, who was snoring away in a front seat. Like Lewis, the great man was expected to entertain the court. Lewis gave chemistry demonstrations during the day, and Galileo set up his telescope and explained the wonders of the night sky. Since he was up half the night, and was more than twice Lewis' age, it was perhaps understandable that he couldn't always stay awake for Lewis' lecture.
"Um, what. Oh. Wonderful presentation, Lewis. Another nail in the coffin of the Aristotelians."
Cioli put his arm around Lewis. "Walk with me, dear chemist. You can take my coach to your pressing engagement." He turned to Leopold. "Your Highness, you are welcome to join us, I think you will find the matter of interest." Leopold was the grand duke's youngest brother.
In the privacy of the coach, Lewis finally could speak his mind. "For Christ's sake, what is this all about?"
"Grand Duke Ferdinando was dining with one of his leading noblemen. The man suddenly showed signs of severe gastric distress."
"I am not a physician—"
"You don't need to be; he is already dead."
"And you suspect—"
"Murder. Yes. By poison, we think. So we need your expertise."
Prince Leopold chimed in. "Surely your mentor, the great Sherlock Holmes, would expect you to assist us."
The grand duke and his brothers had not initially grasped the concept that the Sherlock Holmes Lewis had told them about was a fictional character, and Lewis' business associate in Tuscany, Niccolo Cavriani, had warned Lewis not to correct them. "In general, it is not a good idea to tell a ruler that he is wrong. Especially when the error is a harmless one" were his words. Hence, earlier that year, Lewis had not protested when Grand Duke Ferdinand proclaimed the young up-timer to be "Consulting Detective to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany."
They rode in silence for a few minutes.
Cioli cleared his throat. "During your investigation, Lewis, please keep in mind that the deceased lord might not have been the real target of the poisoner. The grand duke is not popular in all circles of power in Tuscany. Or beyond. Especially since he has shown favor to you, and thus, however obliquely, to your United States of Europe."
"So you think it was an assassination attempt gone amiss?"
Cioli shrugged. "Who can say? But you see that the investigation is of the greatest importance. You doubtless will be rewarded appropriately for proving the identity the poisoner." Cioli was too polite to mention the consequences of failure.
Or perhaps he thought it more effective to leave them to Lewis' imagination.
The coach stopped in front of a villa. The footman stepped down and opened the door. Lewis was about to step out when he was stopped by a soldier. He aimed a lantern into the compartment. "Excuse me, Your Highness, Your Lordship, Dottore. I have my orders. Would you wait just a moment, please?" He closed the door.
"This is exciting, isn't it, Dottore?" asked Leopold.
Lewis reminded himself that Leopold was only sixteen. With the gravitas that came from being fully two years older, Lewis acknowledged that the case might have its interesting aspects.
When the door was opened once more, it was to reveal the familiar visage of the ruler of Tuscany. "A curious turn of events, eh, Lewis?".
"Yes, Your Grace."
"But with you here, the game is now afoot."
Lewis fought back a groan. "Indeed."
"Thank you for your assistance, Lord Cioli. Oh, and hi, Leopoldo. Try not to bother Lewis with too many questions."
Ferdinand beckoned to a tall fellow in an officer's uniform. "This is Lieutenant Cosimo Capponi. He and his men will help you conduct searches, question suspects, and so forth. I want to make sure that you encounter no difficulties on account of your being a foreigner."
Cosimo bowed. "I look forward to working with you, Dottore. I will make sure that you can go where you need to go, and that people answer your questions. And of course I can question witnesses on your behalf."
Cosimo pointed out two soldiers. "Carlo and Rocco. If you need a suspect watched, or a door broken in, they're your men.
"Also permit me to introduce Giovanni di Niccolo Ronconi, who is one of our family physicians. A Padua man."
"I'm a West Virginia man, myself," said Lewis. The Tuscans all nodded sagely.
"But please proceed with your investigations, Lewis."
"Your Grace, who was at the table besides yourself?"
"Pietro, the deceased. His wife Silvia, and their children Domenico and Olimpia. The Senator Francesco di Alessandro Arrighi, and his wife Lucrezia. The banker Alberto Spinelli, and his sister Isabella. La Cecchina—"
"I beg your pardon? La Cecchina? 'The Songbird,' who's that?"
"I perceive you are not a musician, Lewis," Ferdinand said. "Why not? Didn't Sherlock Holmes play the violin?"
Cioli intervened. "La Cecchina is the composer and singer Francesca Caccini. She sang for our court for at least two decades. Maria of Tuscany, the Queen of France, tried to steal her from us but her uncle, Ferdinando the First, forbade Francesca to leave."
"A wise move. She was, I think, the first woman to write an opera. Do you remember it, Cioli? It was 'La liberazione di Ruggiero dall'isola d'Alcina'; it was performed at my villa in 1625."
"It was exquisite. She married a Luccan nobleman, he died, and she returned to Ferdinando's service last year."
"That's right. And then there was Lorenzo Lippi, the poet. Or perhaps I should say Perlone Zipoli, since that's his pen name."
"Would-be poet," muttered Cioli. "Wise of him to use a pen name. Should have stuck to painting."
Ferdinand laughed. "Perhaps a half-dozen others whose names slip my mind. Silvia can tell you who they were."
"So describe the dinner," Lewis prompted. "What was served, who ate what, that sort of thing. And when did Pietro show the first signs of distress?"
"Hmm . . . first course was prosciutto cooked in wine and Neapolitan spice cakes. Those were served off the sideboard, 'help yourself.' I did."
"No spit-roasted songbirds, this time?" asked Leopold.
Cioli shook his head minutely. "Now that wouldn't have been very polite, with Francesca Caccini in attendance."
Ferdinand chuckled. "Second course, several different roasts. I had the goat and the rabbit, I am not sure what else there was.
"For the third course, there was a stuffed goose, smothered with almonds, with cheese, sugar and cinnamon on the side. Also Turkish-style rice, in milk, with more sugar and cinnamon sprinkled over it. Cabbage soup with sausages half-submerged, like those submarines you once told me about, Lewis. And boiled calves' feet. How could I forget that?
"We saw, but never got to taste, the fourth course, the desserts. They were arranged on the sideboard. Quince pastries. Pear tarts. Leopoldo, do you remember the time—"
"Please, brother, don't tell them."
"Oh, very well. More cheese. More almonds. Roast chestnuts. My, it's making me hungry just thinking about them. And it's barely an hour past sunset.
"Anyway, La Cecchina sang between the first and second courses."
"Paying for her supper," Leopold said.
Better than listening to restaurant muzak. Or worse, karaoke, thought Lewis.
"Lorenzo recited a few of his poems between the second and third courses. That's when Pietro started seeming out of sorts."
"And no wonder," grumbled Cioli.
"The remains of the third course had just been carried off and we were heading toward the sideboard, when Pietro clutched his stomach and claimed he was nauseous. We urged him to lie down, but he refused. Then he vomited.
"Silvia ordered the servants to carry him to the nearest couch and lay him down there. At that point of course, none of us were thinking about poison."
"Or dessert," Leopold said.
Ferdinand gave his brother a quelling look. "We assumed it was just a case of indigestion. At worst, that he ate something that was spoiled. Pietro complained that he was thirsty, and we brought him some wine. He seemed to have difficulty in swallowing, and he complained that his throat was sore. He soon vomited again.
"When Pietro was still in great distress an hour later, I sent a messenger to fetch Dottore Ronconi. Since the incident happened in my presence, I was insistent that Pietro be seen by the best doctor in Florence." Ronconi bowed.
"Ronconi will have to tell you what happened next."
Ronconi took a deep breath. "I came and questioned Pietro. He told me that he was of the opinion that there were people 'out to get him.'"
Lewis raised his eyebrows. "So he thought he was poisoned. Did he name any names?"
"He did not. He said that they must be in league with the Devil to get through his defenses."
"He has an armed guard at the door," Cioli said. "And I have heard that he has detailed servants to spy on each other, and that it is rare for a servant to stay more than a year or two before being dismissed on suspicion of wrongdoing. It is not a happy household."
"In any event, I examined him," said Ronconi. "Besides the obvious problem of the nausea and repeated vomiting, his stomach was very sensitive to pressure. He found even a light touch to be painful. I prescribed some medications, and departed.
"The following morning, I received a message from Silvia, urging my return. He had had an attack of diarrhea. Several in fact. By the time I arrived, he was in an advanced state of tenesmus."
"No medical gobbledygook, please," ordered Ferdinand.
"You feel you have to poop, and you can't. And it hurts." Ronconi shrugged. "It was at that point that I began to wonder whether there was some truth to Pietro's speculations, and I asked that the leftovers be gathered together for testing."
"I am surprised that the servants hadn't eaten them all by then," Leopold said. Since he was a sixteen year old boy, the concept of failing to eat any available food was no doubt alien to him.
"They had, indeed, eaten most of what had been left from the first and second courses, but naturally that tended to suggest that those courses were free of any taint. The servants had not disturbed the third course; no doubt Pietro's sufferings discouraged them from doing so.
"Hence, I was able to feed the remains of the third course to the family dog, and he seemed none the worse for the experience."
Clearly, thought Lewis, animal rights have yet too make much headway in early modern Italy.
"That quieted my concerns for a time. But the next day, Pietro's skin became cold and clammy, his pulse weakened, and at last he died."
"Were his wife and children present? How did they react to his death?" asked Ferdinand sharply.