1634: THE BALTIC WAR – snippet 68:
Rubens paused, in the corridor beyond the conference room, until Scaglia emerged. Then, fell in beside him.
“I was thinking we should talk some more. We’ve really not had that much in the way of private discussion.”
“Yes, I agree. I was meaning to approach you myself, Pieter. Where? I can come up to the siege camp, if that’s easier for you.”
Rubens smiled. “Oh, there’s no need for anything so rigorous. Mind you, the house I purchased there is quite adequate. But within a week, I believe I shall have acquired a much more spacious home in Amsterdam itself.”
“Dear God,” Scaglia said, chuckling. “What a preposterous siege this has turned into. The chief diplomat for the besiegers setting up his domicile in the city besieged. What’s that American expression? Charles V must be spinning in his grave.”
“There are some precedents, actually. Not many, I admit. But that’s always the advantage of being an artist, you know. People are willing to label my behavior as ‘eccentric’ when they need to look the other way.”
“True enough.” Scaglia sighed. “I should have thought of that, when I began my career. Of course, I doubt if even the most wretched and ignorant Reichsritter in Germany would have paid a Swedish copper for anything I painted. Two things, Pieter.”
“I’ve been to Grantville myself, you know. The first thing is that I want your solemn assurance that you will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with me in doing everything in our power to prevent the American trampling of the Low Countries. They can have their Freedom Arches, fine. But no hamburgers. I want those abominations banned.”
“Done. Mind you, I doubt we can do it by law. But I’m sure we can find more subtle means to the same end. If nothing else, I’ll do a still-life of a hamburger that will nauseate anyone who looks at it. And the second thing?”
They’d reached an intersection at the end of the corridor. Scaglia stepped to the side, out of any traffic, drawing Rubens with him. Very quietly:
“I was taken by the expression ‘soft landing,’ once you explained it. And I’ve been thinking for some time myself—you’re absolutely right about Richter—that we need our own committees of correspondence. One that is completely continental, just as they are. Call it the European Committees for a Soft Landing, if you will.”
Rubens thought about it. He’d often had similar notions himself, although he’d never crystallized them the way Scaglia had.
“The membership to consist of?”
“Open to anyone. From prince to pauper, who wishes to join. I think that’s essential, Pieter.”
“Yes… I agree. Difficult to carry out in practice, you understand. Neither you nor I—not I, for certain—is really that well-suited to organizing the masses.”
“No, we’re not. We’re diplomats, not agitators. But I have studied the CoCs very carefully, Pieter. I’ve read a great deal of their literature, spent time in their Freedom Arches, talked to their supporters and activists. Most of what their enemies ascribe to their supposedly demonic methods is no more intelligent than the Protestant prattle about Jesuit devils. The real key to what the CoCs do is simply that they plant their flag, out in the open, where everyone can see it. And then people come to them. And it is among those people that you find your organizers. We can do the same. Not as easily, no, and we’ll certainly be drawing a much higher portion of our supporters from more prosperous classes than they do. That will give us the advantage of more money and better connections with existing powers, but shallower roots in the populace as whole. Still, it can be done. With will and energy, it can be done.”
Rubens studied him, for a moment. “Are you willing to be—what’s that American term?”
“The point man. Yes. I believe I have the skills for it, also.”
Rubens continued to study him, for quite a while longer. “So do I. And I think a little mystery—for me, at least—just got cleared up. This is really why you left Savoyard service and came here, isn’t it? And—ah, I will not say ‘wormed’ or even ‘worked’—but got yourself into Isabella’s graces.”
“Yes. I’ve been thinking about it for two years, now. Ever since the full ramifications and implications of the Ring of Fire became clear to me.” He made a little waving gesture with his hand. “I’m partial to the Savoyards, I admit, and probably always will be. But the Savoy is a hopeless place from which to… Perhaps a better way to put it is to remember Archimedes. ‘Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum, and I can move the world.’”
Rubens nodded, looking away down the corridor. Not at any of the decorations on the walls, or the guards standing at the end, but simply seeking a sense of space and perspective. “Yes, I see it. It will be up to us to construct the lever. But the Low Countries can be the fulcrum. God and Don Fernando willing, at least.”
“Done.” He extended his hand and they exchanged a clasp. “How soon can you come up to the siege?”
“A week, you said, for the new house? How about… eight days from now?”
Gretchen Richter arrived in Brussels three weeks later. She came quietly, with her husband, not quite in disguise but absent her usual insistence on doing everything as visibly as possible. She brought her pistol, too, and her husband brought his shotgun. But after she came into the archducal palace and was escorted to her room, she and her husband left the weapons there.
“I only brought them in case we encountered robbers,” she explained to Isabella, once they finally met in a private audience chamber. Other than two guards standing some distance away at the door, the only person who accompanied Isabella was her confessor, Bartolomé de los Rios y Alarcon. But the priest never spoke once, throughout.
“Well, I am relieved, I will admit,” said Isabella.
The Richter woman’s husband smiled. It seemed a very sweet sort of smile, too, although the man was much larger and more imposing-looking than the archduchess had expected. Perhaps that was because Gretchen Richter’s reputation was so much that of an ogress that Isabella had assumed any husband would seem tiny next to her.
“Ms. Isabella,” the husband said, “I’m not really what you’d call a religious person. But you never know—and while I’m willing to risk the devil, I’m not willing to risk the chance that I might run into my parents in the afterlife. Anywhere in an afterlife, heaven or hell or anything in between. My mother finds out I brought a gun into the presence of a lady, I’d never hear the end of it for eternity. And my pa—this is guaranteed—would whip my ass for a good portion of it.”
The meeting went quite well, to her surprise. Very pleasant, in fact, more often than not.
Partly, because they made no attempt to negotiate anything of political substance. There was no point in that, really, under the circumstances. Everyone in the room—probably half the people in all the Netherlands—understood that everything now waited, until a young prince of Spain could finally make a decision.
Isabella had simply wanted to get a sense of the woman, beneath the reputation. And, after two hours, thought she had done so.
The key was the husband. From almost the moment he’d come into the room, something about him had nagged at her memory. It took two hours, however, before she could finally bring it into focus—and when she did, she felt a catch in her throat.
Twelve years, now. They didn’t look the least bit alike. But there was something there that reminded her of Albrecht. A quiet gentleness—say better, considerateness—beneath the massive appearance. In the young husband’s case, the physical mass; in her husband’s, the mass brought by titles and position. But both of them were men who would take that extra moment to consider what their actions might do, to those around them, before they shifted the mass.
She could not imagine such a man, married to an ogress. A ruler, yes, even a ruthless one as all rulers must be at times. And that Gretchen Richter was a ruler was no longer in doubt, to Isabella. Titles were ephemera, in the end. The Christ had said so himself, in terms which were unmistakable to anyone not willfully blind. The young woman already wielded more in the way of real power in Europe than most princes, did she not? She’d even bullied Isabella’s great-nephew!—and Pieter’s attempt to put a philosophical gloss on the matter could go into a chamber pot, as far as Isabella was concerned.
The archduchess could live with that, well enough. It would be hypocrisy, if nothing else, to feel otherwise. She, too, had been what most people had considered the dominant partner in the joint sovereignty she’d exercised with her husband. By his nature, Albrecht had been too… considerate, to be able to do what was sometimes necessary. But he’d always been there, for her; her bulwark, when she needed it; her restraint also, when she needed that. She often thought that only his memory had enabled her to continue after his death. For sure and certain, she’d only been able to make the great and fateful decision she’d just recently made after many hours spent on her knees in the chapel, consulting his spirit as much as she prayed to the Lord they both worshipped.
There was only one ugly moment, at the very end.
“It has been most pleasant,” she said, when they rose to leave. “I would ask you to visit again, but…” She sighed, half-caressing the arms of her wheeled chair. “It’s not likely I’ll be alive long enough to do so.”
Richter’s face turned to stone. A very pretty young woman—almost beautiful, actually, and Pieter had certainly been right about that magnificent bosom—transformed, in a instant, into something so harsh it was almost cruel.
“You are what? Sixty-five?” she demanded.
Startled, Isabella replied: “Ah… no. Sixty-seven.”
“My grandmother is not so much younger. Do you know my history?”
“Ah… yes. Basically.”
“Do you know hers?”
“Ah…” Isabella had never even considered the possibility that someone like Richter would have a grandmother in the first place. “No.”
“When the soldiers came, she was too old to be raped. So she was able to protect my younger sister while they murdered her son in front of her eyes and raped me. In the two years that followed, she lived through torments that you have never seen outside of paintings.”
Like an ancient heathen idol, that face was now.
“Many times I’ve heard her complain about her age. Bores everyone to tears, sometimes, going on and on about her aches and pains. But I’ve never once heard her sighing like a stupid sheep and whining about her inevitable imminent death. Stop it, woman. I despise cowardice—and you have no excuse at all.”
With that, she turned and left. On his way out, following her, the young husband paused at the door and looked back. With that same sweet smile with which he’d entered.
“Yeah, I know, she’s rougher than a cob, sometimes. Sorry ‘bout that. But she’s still right.”
And he was gone, too. Isabella gaped at the empty doorway. No one had spoken like that to her…
Ever, so far as she could recall. Not even her father. And he had been the ruler of the world’s mightiest empire!
“The impudence! I can’t believe—!”
For a moment, she considered summoning the guards.
But… Well, she had promised safe conduct. And as quickly as she imagined the Richter creature was striding, she’d probably reach her room before the guards could catch up with her. With that horrid pistol in it, which Isabella had no doubt at all the monstrous creature would use before letting herself be arrested.
Her husband’s shotgun, too, which might well be worse. Isabella had heard tales of the destruction those up-time weapons could deliver, at close quarters. Higgins himself was even famous for it, apparently. But it hardly mattered. Albrecht had been but an indifferent armsman, but had anyone ever come for Isabella they would only have reached her over her husband’s corpse.
So, she let it pass. But she was livid for the rest of the day, furious for three, and sour and disgruntled for a week thereafter.
That night in the chapel, though, when he said his evening prayers, Bartolomé de los Rios y Alarcon added a prayer for the soul of Gretchen Richter. She was Catholic herself, after all, even if mostly a lapsed one. But Bartolomé would have prayed for her soul even had she been an outright heathen. He was quite sure the ogress had just added five years—three, for sure—to the lifespan of the archduchess.