1634: THE BALTIC WAR – snippet 33:
As he walked back to his quarters, picking his way carefully through the trenches and earthworks that had turned the land around Amsterdam into something that reminded him of nightmarish paintings by the elder Brueghel, Rubens mused over which up-timer would be sent as a consultant.
Not Anne, unfortunately, as much as Pieter liked the woman. The young nurse had several times commented jokingly on her complete ineptitude with up-time mechanical devices. “Outside of nursing and medical equipment, I’m hopeless. I can change a light bulb and that’s about it. Ask me to tell a spark plug from an alternator, and I’d have to go eeny-meeny-miny-mo.”
The terms themselves had all been meaningless to Rubens, but the gist of the statement was clear enough.
Probably the big one, who was married to the agitator woman, Gretchen. Jeff, his name was, if Pieter remembered correctly. The artist had gathered, from various comments he’d heard, that the young man was considered a “geek.” So far as Rubens could determine, that referred to a person who was obsessed with up-time devices and mechanical skills—something called “electronics,” especially. Like some astrologers and alchemists of his own time, it seemed, about whom similar jokes were made.
Odd, really. From the man Jeff’s appearance, Pieter would have assumed he was a simple soldier—and perhaps a brutish one, at that.
He paused for a moment, after negotiating his way through a particularly tortuous set of trenches, and gazed back at Amsterdam.
‘ But that was the key to it all, he thought. In a small way, that contradiction between a young up-timer’s appearance and the lurking truth behind it was a good symbol.
How else describe that titan who stood behind the boy? Who had in some way, even been responsible for creating him. A brute on the outside, but underneath…
Rubens resumed his walk. Very slowly now, because his thoughts were mostly elsewhere.
The Cardinal-Infante’s confidences had come as no surprise to the artist and diplomat. Rubens had been expecting them, before too long. The enemy’s proposal to allow their Prime Minister to fly to Amsterdam and land safely beyond the walls right in front of the Spanish guns had simply been the immediate trigger. Had the proposal not been made, the prince would still have done the same a bit later.
Rubens had seen it coming, for weeks. Partly because, from his long experience as a diplomat, he could see the logic and sense the way it was unfolding in the mind of the prince who sought his advice and counsel. But mostly for the simplest reason of all.
Pieter Paul Rubens, a man who had been faithful to the Habsburgs all his life—and he was now fifty-six years old—had come to the edge of treason. To call things by the name that almost everyone would soon be calling it. Granted, the difference between a “traitor” and a “loyalist” being something that only history could finally pass verdict upon. If Don Fernando’s scheme succeeded, the world would only remember the success. All but a sullen few would forget that the triumph began with treason, for treason it surely was—just as surely as Rubens would be executed for it, if the prince’s plans failed and Rubens fell into the hands of the Spanish crown.
For, even before the prince spoke, Rubens had already decided he would support the plot and do everything in his power to make it succeed.
And why? Because a titan had been set loose in the world, and the monster had a mind more cold and savage and ruthless than any king or prince of the day. Not since Constantine, Rubens thought, had such a terrible soul walked the earth. Perhaps not since Alexander.
And there, of course, lay the quandary. For had not Constantine created the basis for the triumph of the true church? Had not Alexander, before him, created the world in which that church could arise?
Let the churchmen and the theologians insist that Constantine was a saint who had been impelled by his own faith. What difference did it make? Suppose the opposite were true, and the Roman emperor had been motivated by nothing beyond his own ambition. The result was the same, no?
Rubens had reached his quarters, now. He could hear his wife chatting with a servant in the kitchen, but he passed by the entrance and went to the room set aside for his work. There, as if driven by compulsion, he opened a drawer and drew out the document. He still had the original papers the nurse had left behind. Acting, he was quite certain, on another’s orders.
The monster’s stiletto, that the creature had driven into the heart of the world’s greatest dynasty, his aim guided by a dragon’s cunning and the force of the thrust by a titan’s thews.
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Who else could have conceived such an assassin’s stroke?
For a moment, he had to fight not to crush the papers in his hands. Those papers that had opened the door to treason.
A sudden burst of laughter from the kitchen drew him there, again as if under compulsion.
When he entered, his wife looked up at him, smiling. Helena Fourment, only nineteen years old, of whom he was very fond. He would have five children by her, the first of whom was now sitting on her lap. The last child would be born eight months after his death at the age of sixty-three. Which would seem to indicate that he never lost that affection, even at the end—nor the ability to express it.
Seven years from now.
Perhaps. That was his biography in another world. Who could say, in this one?
But he wasn’t really looking at Helena. He was seeing another face there. That of his first wife, Isabella Brant, whom he had also loved.
But that was the past, fixed, certain. Not something even the monster and his minions could change.
Isabella had died five years before the Ring of Fire. Taken from him by disease, at the age of thirty-five, in the prime of her life. [NOTE: see if that can be confirmed. No account I’ve found gives the reason for Isabella’s death.]
He looked now at his new daughter. Barely one year old. He had named her Clara Johanna, in memory of his first daughter by Isabella, Clara Serena.
Who had also been taken from him by disease, at the age of twelve. One of many struck down by another epidemic.
“Is something wrong, husband?”
“No, dearest. I’m… simply pre-occupied.”
And he was, suddenly. With a glorious burst of inspiration, such as he had not felt in years. Not since he first saw the up-time book that depicted his life and work—much of which he still hadn’t done, or even conceived of—and sensed a great emptiness yawning beneath him.
How does an artist paint something he has already painted? Without the master becoming his own apprentice? Ending a life full of triumphs as if he were nothing more than an understudy?
Another of those impossible quandaries the monster brought with him into the world. But Rubens could resolve it now, using the monster himself.
He came into the room and wiggled fingers at his daughter, who was staring up at him with the wondering eyes of a child barely one year into a life that, for half the children in the world—including some of his—would never be much longer than that.
Then, smiled at Helena to reassure her, while he gently stroked the hair sprouting on Clara Johanna. “You will live, girl,” he said, so softly that he didn’t think Helena could hear the words. He hoped not, certainly, since she would insist on an explanation later, and what could he say? If nothing else, he would carefully shield Helena from any charges of treason.
“But I must go to work now,” he said abruptly, and left.