1634: THE BALTIC WAR – snippet 31:
The siege lines of the Spanish army in the Low Countries,
outside the walls of Amsterdam
“This would be an irrevocable step, Your Highness. I do not say you should refuse, simply…”
Pieter Paul Rubens shrugged. “Simply be aware, from the beginning, of the likely consequences. They will most probably be severe.”
Don Fernando turned his eyes away from their examination of Amsterdam’s walls to look at Rubens. The Habsburg prince most people called the “Cardinal-Infante”—he was the younger brother of Philip IV, King of Spain—knew from his reading of the up-time texts that as the centuries passed, Rubens would be remembered almost entirely for his art. But in the world he lived in, he was just as well-known for being one of Europe’s premier diplomats.
And not by accident. In the weeks—months, now—since the siege began, Don Fernando had come to have the same confidence in the artist that most members of the Habsburg dynasty did. Members of other dynasties, for that matter. Whatever his private opinions, which he generally kept to himself, Rubens invariably gave counsel designed to help the person asking for it determine what they actually wanted in the first place. He did not ever seem to have—to use the American expression the prince has learned from the nurse, Anne Jefferson—“an ax to grind.”
A charming expression, as were several others the prince had learned from Jefferson in her various visits to the Spanish camp. Visits that she’d officially made as a model for Rubens, but which had actually been disguised diplomatic maneuvers of one sort or another. Both the Cardinal-Infante and his opponents on the other side of Amsterdam’s walls, the Prince of Orange and the Abrabanel wife of the USE’s Prime Minister, had found the young and innocent-looking nurse a most handy instrument for conducting what amounted to negotiations while officially fighting a bitter siege.
But he was not thinking of those charming expressions, explained to him by a very charming woman. It was something else she’d said to him, in her last visit, that had been gnawing at him for days, now. Especially coming on top of many months of growing doubts and uncertainties. To use another one of her expressions, the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“I asked her,” he said abruptly, “what she—an educated woman, quite intelligent—knew about the Habsburgs. Not today, but when she still lived in that…”
He waved his hand, vaguely. “Future world she came from.”
He would leave it at that. The prince knew of the speculations and arguments that had been roiling Europe’s theologians and philosophers—not to mention kings and princes and their advisers—since the Ring of Fire. They ranged from crude and simple accusations of demonism and witchcraft to logical arguments that were so convoluted they were impossible to follow at all. Inevitably—God knows how they managed it, but they did—a number of the theologians had tied the debate back to the dispute over trans-substantiation versus cons-substantiation.
One bishop in southern Italy had even gone so far as to suggest that the Ring of Fire somehow called into question the Nicene Creed. Of course, the man was obviously a lunatic—the proof of it being that he’d advanced the argument within reach of the Spanish Inquisition. A reach which had grasped him as quickly and surely as a snake seizing a mouse.
Rubens inclined his head. “And her response was…”
Don Fernando could feel his jaws tightening. “She was quite startled, you understand. And I pressed the matter—perhaps rudely—because I really wanted to see what her answer would be.”
He took a deep breath and let it out. “Worse than I’d feared. Far worse.” He could still remember, quite vividly, the nervous way the nurse’s eyes had shifted about. As she so obviously tried to think of something pleasant she could say. Inoffensive, at least.
She’d failed, because the prince had not given her time. He had been rather rude, he could see now. Still, the rudeness had served its purpose.
“What she said—her exact words, Pieter—was: ‘Well, you suffered from hemophilia. And you all had that famous lower lip.”
Rubens smiled faintly, as did the prince himself. Hard not to—since Don Fernando himself had the famous lip.
“Perhaps…” said Rubens. “Please remember that—yes, the woman is quite intelligent, but still—she had a limited education. Tightly-focused, it would be better to day.”
“And what does that matter?” demanded the prince, with some exasperation. “It makes it all the worse, in fact. She’s certainly no more poorly educated than most people of her time. Which means that her unstudied response is a good reflection of what posterity will remember about us. What the world will remember. Who cares what a few scholars in that future might think?”
He waved his hand again, not vaguely but firmly. “And what they think is not much different, anyway. Don’t play the diplomat here, Pieter. I’ve read some of the scholarly accounts.”
Don Fernando had to force himself to loosen his jaws. He’d almost snarled the last few sentences. It wouldn’t do to have Rubens think he was angry at him. He wasn’t, at all. He needed the man’s sage advice, now more than ever.
“We were—are, damnation—the greatest dynasty ever produced by humanity. If that sounds arrogant, so be it. Who compares to us? The Plantagenet dynasty of England that those up-time accounts romanticize so grotesquely? They were limited to part of an island and part of France, and they only lasted three centuries. We’ve already lasted longer than that, and according to those same up-time account, will—would—ah! how does one express it grammatically?—better those idiot theologians should concentrate on that practical problem—last well over half a millennium. And we dominated the entire continent almost throughout. As we do today. As we have since at least Charles V. And not just Europe! Half the world, for the past century.”
Now he waved—again, firmly—toward the east. “I even examined what I could find about the Chinese and the Persians and the Hindus. None of them, so far as I can determine, ever produced a dynasty that lasted longer than the Plantagenets. Nor did anyone in the ancient world. The famous Roman Antonines didn’t even last two centuries.”
He looked at Rubens, almost glaring. “You’ve read more of the texts that I have, I imagine. Did you encounter anything different?”
After a pause, Rubens shook his head. “No, Your Highness. I did not.”
“Thought so! No, Pieter, I am not mistaken about this. Let things continue as they did—as they will, if nothing is done—and our posterity in this universe will be the same. Some sort of horrid disease of the blood, and”—he flicked his fleshy lower lip with a finger—“this stupid thing. Not even a nose!”