1634: THE BALTIC WAR – snippet 34
By the end of the day, he already knew it would be one of his best paintings. He had that sure sense of the thing, that always came with the very finest ones.
A painting that existed in no up-time book, because he had never conceived such a portrait in that other world. Could not have conceived it. He didn’t think Brueghel’s fevered mind could have dreamed of it—nor even the mad brain of Hieronymus Bosch, for all that the structure of the image shared the logic of Bosch’s triptychs.
The Titan’s Choice, he thought he would call it. Or, better still, simply The Titan. The choice being obvious in the painting itself. Cities wracked by flame and destruction issuing from the right hand, clad in mail and armor. The right hand that any man could resist, with sufficient will and courage. While the left hand, unarmored—the assassin’s hand, with the main gauche—delivered the fatal blow. Children spilling out like fruit from a cornucopia. The blow that passed beneath any armor, any defense, any will or steadfastness or courage, because it did not strike at kings and princes and soldiers at all. It struck the fathers and husbands hidden beneath.
Of course, he would not be able to show it in public, but that didn’t really matter. The joy of finally recapturing his own creation was enough.
Who could he show it to, after all? Even if Don Fernando triumphed, Rubens would have to conceal it from the prince become a king. Rubens liked the young Habsburg scion, a great deal, and he wished him all the best. A long reign over a prosperous realm, with many children to carry on his line, sired upon a convivial and comely wife he actually loved. Had affection for, at least.
For that matter, Rubens was partial to the Habsburgs taken as a whole, and hoped that Don Fernando would be able to revitalize that great family. But he also knew that Don Fernando’s dreams of future Habsburg glory were already doomed. The best the prince and his heirs would manage—no small thing, of course—would be to protect and nurture one corner of the world.
The world itself no longer belonged to them. A titan had come, and shaken it loose. For good or ill, it would be his name that the future would bestow upon this time, just as it had in ages past upon Alexander. And would, in the future of the titan’s world, bestow upon a man named Napoleon.
His enemies could assassinate him tomorrow, and it wouldn’t matter. The deadliest blows had already been delivered. Alexander died in Babylon at the age of thirty-three—but the Persian world was already gone, swept aside by the Greek torrent brought by its conqueror. Just as surely as the world Rubens and Don Fernando had been born in was already gone.
So be it. Rubens had made the father’s decision, the husband’s decision. In the end, dynasties were a small thing.
He decided he would leave the face till the last. True, he could request a portrait of some sort—they might have one of those “photographs” in their possession, in Amsterdam—but why bother? That would require awkward explanations, and he would have several days to study the titan himself after he arrived, with no one being the wiser.
He came. He went. For days, that fair but plain face fascinated Rubens. He’d thought he would have to idealize it—or demonize it, perhaps—but in the end decided the face was perfect as it was. Inscrutable in its simplicity, just as were the titan’s deeds themselves.
A week later, the painting was done. It was the best work Rubens had done in years. A pity it would have to remain hidden, of course. But whatever else, the work had shattered the artist’s paralysis. Everything he’d done since the Ring of Fire, except this, had been a copy of something, in one way or another. If not a copy of his own works, those of another—like that portrait he’d done of the Gretchen woman and her magnificent bosom, mimicking an artist of the future named Delacroix.
Well, not some of the Jefferson portraits, perhaps. But those had been so closely tied to a public purpose that he’d felt tightly constrained.
He thought he probably still only had seven years left, himself, regardless of what happened. He’d died of gout, in that world that would have been. From what Anne had told him, there didn’t seem to be any magical medical cure for that condition, not even for the up-timers. Only a dreary list of things he shouldn’t eat, and a still drearier list of things he shouldn’t do. It hardly seemed worth it, just to gain a few extra years. Sixty-three wasn’t so bad, better than most.
He didn’t care much, really. They would be seven productive years, perhaps the most productive of his life. And he always had the consolation—given to precious few men since Adam—of knowing that almost the last act of his life would be to impregnate a wife whom he would leave behind in comfort and good health.
Still, as weeks passed, he felt increasingly dissatisfied. He hadn’t even dared show the painting to Helena. Somebody should see it, before his death.
Finally, he realized that there was one witness possible. Who better, really? And she could certainly be relied upon to hold the confidence, for a multitude of reasons.
So, in one of the many visits across the lines into Amsterdam—those had practically becoming a regular traffic, by then—he passed the word along. And, two days later, his witness arrived at his home.
He ushered her into the small room where he kept the painting tucked away in a closet. He’d chosen that room because, small and awkwardly designed as it was, it had the only closet in the house that was big enough. It was a very large painting.
After setting it up on an easel for viewing, he upwrapped the cloth that hid it. Then, waited while she studied his work.
By the time she was done, Rebecca Abrabanel’s brown eyes were watery. “Oh, Pieter,” she whispered. “It’s magnificent. But it’s so… wrong.”
She turned the eyes to him, her gaze almost—not quite—an accusing one. “He is not a cruel man. I can assure you of that. Very kind and gentle, actually, most of the time.”
So, Rubens knew he had succeeded.
“Of course not. I never imagined he was cruel.” Finally satisfied, and in full, he gazed upon his work. “Nothing but grace can wreak such havoc and destruction, Rebecca. Nothing else can even come close. Had Lucifer understood that, we would never have needed for the Christ to be sent at all.”