1635: The Wars For The Rhine – Snippet 18
The horse Melchior had chosen for Father Johannes in Cologne had plodded on steadily up along the Rhine and Main rivers, across the new bridge at Frankfurt and then north along the Fulda river to Fulda town. The country side had so far been peaceful but active with the harvest under way, but the closer Father Johannes got to Fulda, the more people seemed to be looking back over their shoulders. The guards at the border stations had given him no problems — though he had had to be careful which of his two sets of letters he let them see — and those guards willing to chat had known of no fighting.
Rumors had come down from Fulda: vague talks about expected rebellions once the harvest was over, but nothing had seemed alarming until the night before. Father Johannes had stopped for the night at the Inn of the Red Bear, and sat talking to a south-bound postman named Martin Wackernagel, who claimed to have seen troops moving in the area between Fulda and Kassel. Father Johannes would have liked to know more, but the entrance of Felix Gruyard surrounded by three soldiers, had made him withdraw from the common room before Gruyard saw him. Gruyard had last been heard of in connection with the disappearance of Duke Wolfgang of Jülich-Berg’s young widow, and finding him now near Fulda was not a good omen.
Fulda looked like a disturbed anthill in its broad, fertile valley, when Father Johannes approached. As expected the overcast sky made a few farmers hurry around getting the last grain into the barns, but aside from that, all kinds of people seemed to be moving around; not fleeing, not looking frightened and not all carrying weapons. The guard at the gate politely stopped Father Johannes and asked the usual questions: identity, origin, destination and business in town. He also wanted to know if Father Johannes had noticed any people — perhaps soldiers — transporting one or more prisoners. Father Johannes mentioned Gruyard and the three soldiers, and upon hearing that a henchman of the Archbishop of Cologne had been in the area until the night before, an officer was called and Father Johannes had to repeat the entire story plus as much as he knew about Gruyard.
It was thus late in the evening before Father Johannes made his way to the Church of Saint Severi. The small grey church had been build two centuries ago by the important Wool-Weavers Guild on a small rise between the Council Hall and the Cathedral, and the new, tall, surrounding half-timber houses seemed to hover protectingly around it. The evening service had just ended, and the congregation dispersed along with the priest with softly murmured goodnights. Father Johannes approached the sexton snuffing out the lights by the door, “Blessed evening Goodman, I was wondering if you would be as kind as to help me. My name is Father Johannes Grunwald and I’m a painter. I’ve been told your church has been richly decorated within the last few years, and I would very much like to come see the church properly in daylight tomorrow. For now, could you tell me the whereabouts of the painter? I would enjoy talking to a colleague.”
“The painter is here in the church, but he keeps to himself, and I doubt he wants company.”
“Perhaps, you’d be kind enough to ask him. Say Father Johannes Grunwald wishes to see him.” Father Johannes placed a few copper coins on the wooden bench beneath the window, and went to put a few more in the collection box by the door into the nave. The sexton swiped the coins from the bench and disappeared, only to come back followed by a small, thin man in rag-shoes and a worn tunic.
“Paul! So it is you.” Father Johannes went to embrace his friend, but was stopped by the lack of reaction in the other man’s face.
Paul blinked his eyes a few times, “Yes, I’m Paul,” he seemed to pull himself together, “please come in. We can talk in the sacristy.”
* * *
In the sacristy a half-open closet showed a collection of stoles, albas and other priestly garments, while an oak table with neatly line-up painting paraphernalia, and a pallet and a slop-bucket made it clear that Paul both lived and worked out of the small room.
Paul waived Father Johannes toward a stool by the table, then kicked off his shoes made of braided rags, before sitting down on the pallet pressing his back against the wall; the skin on his feet and legs were scarred and twisted, and several toes were missing.
“Paul …” Father Johannes stopped and hesitated.
“Please sit down, Father Johannes, you lean so.” Paul pulled his feet up under his tunic and looked away.
Father Johannes sat down, pulling a bottle from inside his doublet. “I’m staying at the Inn of the Wise Virgin, they had bottles of the plum-wine you used to like. I wasn’t sure you were the painter at Saint Severi, but I brought along a bottle. Just in case. Do you need anything?”
Paul shook his head and rattled by his friend’s silence Father Johannes went on, “Three years ago I saw the Black Mass pictures by Van Beekx, that you were accused of painting. And read the interrogation protocol and what else the archives contained. I should have come looking for you in Aschaffenburg, but I didn’t. I’m sorry. I should have.”
Paul remained silent.
“I was on my way to Magdeburg. To paint propaganda for that campaign. You know I’m very good at closing my eyes to those things I don’t wish to see, but Magdeburg was too much. I rebelled and had to flee. Ended up with the Americans in Grantville. Last winter I accepted a commission from Prince-Bishop Franz von Hatzfeldt of Würzburg and went to Cologne to try if I could find you. I know I should have searched when I first knew that you had been in trouble. I’m sorry. Paul? Is there anything I can do?”
Paul turned his head back to look at Father Johannes. “No. And it would have made no difference if you had come earlier. By the time Magdeburg burned I had been here for more than a year. And this is where I want to be. Right here. Some of my Aunt Louise’s Baril relatives are here, working for the American administration — and the parish supply me with food and paint in return for me decorating the church. I want nothing but to stay here and paint.”
Paul looked down on his hands rubbing them against each other before continuing. “I’ve gone to see the American people twice. It was the right thing to do. Felix Gruyard has been doing his dirty work here. I wanted to stop him, but I don’t want to go outside. I want to stay here. This is sanctuary.” Paul looked up again at Father Johannes, his eyes wide open, “Isn’t it funny? A torturer working for a Prince of the Catholic Church hurt me until something inside me broke, and I did what he wanted me to do. Yet once a shot made my horse panic, and I had the chance to escape, it was in that same church I felt safe. I don’t want to go anywhere.”
Father Johannes rose and went to kneel before Paul, touching first his shoulder then his cheek. “Dear Paul, this will change. After Magdeburg I fled to my childhood home, hiding in a cabin like a wounded animal in its den. Encountering Evil in your fellow man taint you, destroy your innocence, as you will never again be able to delude yourself that such Evil isn’t real. But as pain and evil is real, so is joy and love. The Bible tell us not to put our Faith in princes, nor in the sons of man; I agree on the first but not on the second. We are all sons of man: princes and beggars, soldiers and painters, even Our Lord Jesus Christ came to us as son of man.”
Father Johannes stopped and swallowed before continuing. “Paul, I’ll come to see your paintings tomorrow, and we can talk again. I’ll stay in town for a while. I’m going to see the American people about the archives from the abbey. If you don’t want to come with me when I leave, I’ll arrange to leave you some money with them, as well as addresses for people who will know where I’ve gone. If you ever want — or are forced — to leave, you can use the money to go to your family or come to me. I’ll most likely be in Magdeburg working with porcelain.” Father Johannes rose and smiled, “And by the way: your Heavenly Madonna is beautiful, and it no longer belongs to the archbishop, but to a most lovely lady called Maxie.