1636: The Ottoman Onslaught – Snippet 59
“So why the fuck are we all the way down here in Brussels?” she demanded.
That being a purely rhetorical question, Rita moved right on to providing the answer without giving either Bonnie or Heinz so much as a second’s pause in which to insert a response. “I’ll tell you why. Because in the seventeenth fucking century — no offense, Heinz; you’re okay but your time period sucks — you can’t chew gum without getting His Royal Uppitiness to sign off on it.”
She paused for a breath of air, her hands planted on hips, and surveyed the train they’d arrived in. It consisted of a very primitive more-or-less open air steam locomotive hauling five equally primitive if not quite as open air coaches, all of it traveling on a single heavy wooden rail with — in some places; not others — thin iron plates attached to the top of the rail to cut down on wear and tear. The locomotive and all the coaches had outrigger wheels which ran on the side of the road to maintain balance. They reminded Rita of nothing so much as the wheels on Conestoga wagons she’d seen — once in a museum; a jillion times on TV.
Heinz had told them that the design was a variation of the nineteenth century Ewing system that had been briefly depicted in one of the books in Grantville. It moved very slowly, not more than ten miles an hour and usually less. But even at that speed, if you keep it up around the clock, a train can travel quite a ways. The distance from Amsterdam to Brussels was less than one hundred and fifty miles. Theoretically, they could have made it less than a day.
In the real world, it had taken them a little more than two days. The steam engine had had problems. One of the outrigger wheels had broken, almost derailing that coach — not theirs, thankfully. At several places along the way the track had gone askew. Still, it had been kind of interesting and it beat riding horses or (still worse) being hauled in carriages.
They hadn’t intended to make the trip on a train at all. The original plan had been to use one of the hot air dirigibles built by the same consortium that was building the hydrogen one. But there were only two of the airships, one of which was in Copenhagen, and the one that was available had promptly suffered engine failure — and of a fairly catastrophic sort. They’d managed to get the problem under control before the boiler exploded, but two of the crew had been hurt and the engine was pretty much a complete write-off.
They could have waited for the airship in Copenhagen to return, but that would have taken a few days and in any event none of them were too keen on riding through the air in a small basket right after seeing how another basket had just gotten partially parboiled.
There was this to be said for the seventeenth century. It made you reassess the way you calculated risks. Riding halfway across the Netherlands on a dinky one-rail train that was kept from falling over by a wooden wheel sounded just peachy.
“Oh, quit crabbing, Rita,” said Bonnie. “You’re just cranky because you’re nervous.”
“Well, yeah. No kidding. The last time I got dragooned into being Ms. Well-Connected Ambassadress, I got pitched into one of the world’s most famous prisons. They kept me there for a whole year. I wonder what’s waiting for us here in the Netherlands. That stands for ‘Low Countries,’ you know. They say it’s on account of the elevation but you gotta wonder a little. Dungeons have a low elevation too. ”
“Speaking of ambassadors,” said Heinz, “here comes your greeting party.”
Rita looked in the direction he was indicating. “Jesus H. Christ,” she said. Rita had little truck with down-time sensibilities on the subject of blasphemy. “That mob needs a damn train their own selves.”
A mob they may have been, but they were a courteous one — excessively so, in Rita’s opinion, although she didn’t make any objection. She didn’t, for two reasons. First, because despite her frequent complaints and protests, she understood that her job on this mission was to be a di-plo-mat, the dictionary definition of which included: “a person who is tactful and skillful in managing delicate situations, handling people, etc.” Second, because it is hard to be rude to people who are being nice to you. A few people can manage it — more than a few, if they have the benefit of New York or Paris training — but most can’t. Rita was in the latter category. There were some disadvantages to being brought up in a place like West Virginia.
When she — she alone, Bonnie and BÃ¶cler having been deftly peeled away by courtiers — was brought into the presence of Archduchess Isabella, Rita found herself being quite disarmed. Most people can manage to be polite, with a little effort. The archduchess, when she was inclined to do so — which was not always, by any means — could turn it into an art form.
She was one of the Grand Old Ladies of the European aristocracy, as grand as it can get short of being an outright queen — and for most of her life, Isabella had actually wielded more real power than all but a handful of queens in the continent’s history.
She was known as Isabella Clara Eugenia of Austria, although she’d been born in Segovia and was an infanta of Spain. Her father had been King Philip II — yes, that Philip II, the one who launched the Armada against England and whose reign was considered the heyday of Spanish power. His empire had included territories on five of the seven continents, lacking only Australia and Antarctica, and the Philippine Islands had been named after him. The reference to an empire upon which the sun never sets, which most Americans attributed to the English empire of a later day, was originally coined to refer to Philip’s.
Isabella’s mother had been no slouch in the royalty department herself. She was Elizabeth of Valois, the daughter of Henry II of France and Catherine de’ Medici. Isabella’s other two grandparents had been Emperor Charles V and Infanta Isabella of Portugal, on her father’s side.
While still in her twenties, Isabella Clara Eugenia had been a contender for the throne of France, being advanced for that position by the Catholic party that controlled the Parlement de Paris. In the end a different contender seized the throne, the Protestant Henry III of Navarre, who converted to Catholicism after supposedly making the famous quip “Paris is well worth a mass” and became Henry IV of France, the founder of the Bourbon dynasty.
As if in compensation — it was really just another move in the constant strife of dynasties — Isabella was given in marriage to her cousin, Archduke Albert of Austria. The representatives of the two Habsburg branches were given the Netherlands over which they would rule jointly. She was thirty-three years old at the time.
The marriage was a happy one, except for the fact that all three of their offspring had died in childhood. Their joint rule inaugurated a period of relative peace and prosperity in the southern Netherlands, and it was during that period that the great age of Flemish art began, with their patronage of such figures as Peter Paul Rubens and Pieter Brueghel the Younger.