This picture, this etching he has made, recalls an event: a surprise meeting, a veiled disclosure.
The scene it shows plays in his head. Here’s a river so wide it looks like a lake, with timber-ribbed houses at its edge. And here’s the diplomat, sauntering by docks and jetties. Beside him poops and fo’c’sles sway, there are thickets of sails bound tight to their yards. These are not what amaze him. His eyes have screwed to a place where the currents disturb. Something rises there from the deep, and moves towards him. It’s a water-snake. A seal’s back. Now a long ridge shows. The humped shape swells, the diplomat steps back. Will a monster rear up – Leviathan, glaring with jagged eyes?
Now the apparition looks like nothing so much as a rowboat turned upside down. The oars break surface, emerging from leather sleeves that stick out, like a beetle’s legs, from either side of the vessel. For a vessel it must be, though it is a ludicrous thing – he gives a yelp of laughter. The oars plash and splash, coming closer.
Others have joined him: beside him hulks a grizzled, hirsute man: with his mane, beard and flat-featured face he looks to have the head of a lion; another, in black, wears the steeple-crowned hat of a Puritan; and other various citizens come, in doublet and mantle.
The upside-down vessel bumps the timbers of the wharf. On its top there’s something like a window-frame covered in leather, coated black with pitch. The boat rocks unsteadily, there are sounds from within. What beings from the undersea world will emerge? The leather creaks as it bends and the wooden frame lifts. A handsome head appears -- a gentleman’s head, with hazel moustachios though with thinning hair. But his face is pale, he gasps for breath. The diplomat stares, then bursts out,
‘Sieur Peter Paul! What in the name of all the saints do you here?’
The gentleman looks round, blinking, panting. Though pale he is beaded with sweat. He cries out, ‘Dudley!’
As he clambers up they see his lace and his reddish-gold doublet. Shakily, for the vessel tips, he grabs a timber and climbs onto the landing stage. Is he faint? Dudley offers a hand to his elbow.
‘You are well, Peter Paul?’
‘I have heard— I have seen— ’ He takes a breath, ‘Come, Cornelis,’ and turns to help the next man emerge. This figure is stranger still. He too, it seems, wears his smarter clothes, though his deep-turquoise doublet is threadbare and patched. His face is ravaged with marks, stains, burns and scars which even interrupt his straggling beard. He stands, none the less, with proud assurance as the gentleman introduces him to the diplomat.
‘Sir Dudley Carleton – Cornelis Jacobszoon Drebbel of Alkmaar.’
‘Minheer Drebbel,’ the diplomat exclaims, ‘your fame is great. This is one of your engines?’
‘My descending engine. The Sieur Rubens desired to see it.’
‘Peter Paul!’ Carleton says, ‘I never thought to see our master painter go diving in the mud of Thames.’
Rubens is a better colour now. ‘Nor is this my first “dive” there.’
‘I had a ludicrous mishap – but never mind.’
Drebbel is explaining, ‘This is the latest of my engines. The great king, royal James, he deigned to travel in my first underwater boat. He marvelled much, though it was a simple thing. My improved engine hides a terrible power.’
He nods to Rubens, who for a moment looks stricken. They have turned to the vessel, from which other men clamber. They are stripped to the waist, sweat runs and joins on their wide flushed shoulders. They swing and work their arms and take great breaths.
‘We should all breathe deep,’ Drebbel says. ‘The air in my engine is not of the freshest.’
Rubens nods. ‘Cornelis makes air in a wondrous way.’
‘I heat salts of urine inside a great flask, but when that is used up we breathe their gaseous excrement.’
‘Indeed!’ Dudley’s eyes have sharpened.
Cornelis bows. ‘You will excuse me. I must tend to the storing of my engine.’ He steps back to the landing stage, and is busy with the men, who are shaking on shirts and jerkins.
‘Peter Paul,’ Carleton says, ‘you are bent on seeing all the sights in this woebegone realm.’
‘Cornelis is a fellow-countrymen. He has shown me… marvels. I have learned today that the future is a precipice.’
Carleton too grows grave. ‘The present is a precipice where you tread, I think.’
‘Have you heard more at Court? The reports I catch trouble me.’
‘It is true, for sure, that perils beset you. Your noble purpose, which some fear, and some hate. Great powers in Europe are ranged against you, and you have made a mighty enemy. He dwells across the sea, but he has long fingers, that reach even to where we stand.’
‘The Cardinal? He loves great art. When I talked with him a few years since, he made to be my friend.’
‘He is no friend now. Of all the cunning minds of Europe, his is the brain I should most fear to be shaping machinations against me.’
Rubens heaves a sigh, Carleton studies his face.
‘All I will say is, beware, Peter Paul. En garde!’
Rubens nods and looks behind him. ‘For certain I am followed. Whichever way I go.’
Perhaps Carleton gives the slightest nod in response.
Cornelis returns. ‘Let us sit a moment, and refresh!’ He motions to a ramshackle tavern nearby. ‘Servitor, ho!’
They sit at a bench there, and presently bread, pickles, salt fish and ale are brought to them.
‘I know this house, for I am fallen to keeping an inn myself, as the Sieur Rubens knows.’
Carleton exclaims, ‘You keep an alehouse, Minheer Drebbel?’
‘I am reduced to that. The new King does not favour my inventions, as the Emperor and royal James were wont to do. But so the world goes – now up, now down.’
‘Cornelis has shown me many things,’ Rubens says. ‘I have seen his Blazing Glass, which makes fire far away, and his perpetuum mobile which never stops. Within his house I have seen him transformed into a jungle beast.’
‘I would like to see that, I love a wonder.’ Hearing of the jungle beast, Dudley Carleton looks round. His eye has rested for some time on a shock-head of grey hair near the wall of the inn. As the man lifts his face, Carleton sees it is the lion-head who came beside him on the river bank.
When they have eaten, Drebbel orders a clay pipe from the house, and asks whether they want one likewise. On their declining, and with their permission, he lights up from the tinder box he has in his breeches, and soon is half hidden in cloud.
As they sit, talk and smoke the larger clouds beyond the river break. The sun peeps through, like the eye of God stooping beneath the cloud’s brim to watch them. People’s clothes come out in bright colours, reds, greens, yellows, blues. A fiery light bathes the derricks and the warehouses while a thousand sparkles play on the lapping waters, and on the further boats, scudding before the breeze, flags, banners and pennants break into fresh colour.
Rubens gazes as though he drinks the change in the light. Carleton murmurs, ‘My friend, you are smitten. I see you altogether changed from how you were a short while since.’
Rubens smiles. ‘My mood has brightened. And look who is come.’
The others turn to see two girls approaching the inn. One has deeply dark hair and a crimson dress, the other is sandy haired and wears light green. Both have scarlet lips, and much kohl to their eyes.
‘Peter Paul, do you know these ladies?’
‘They know me.’ Across the company Rubens bows to the girls – in a way, however, that does not invite them to join him. They curtsey low with gentle, mocking exaggeration, then one whispers to the other so both dissolve in laughter.
Rubens shakes his head. ‘Mistress Bridget and Mistress Audrey. Do not look so stricken, friend Dudley. I am alone in a strange land.’
‘But such! And to acknowledge them! And before the world! For shame, Peter Paul!’
Rubens shrugs. ‘Maybe I am not a gentleman truly. I am, after all, one that works with his hands, as all at Court remind me.’
‘As do I,’ Cornelis chimes. ‘The painter and the engineer – they admire our works but hold aloof from us.’
Rubens reaches into the pocket of his trunk-hose.
‘These girls remind me. There is something I had brought to show you, Cornelis. I had searched for it long before I found it here.’
He pulls out an object wrapped round in cloths. It grows smaller as he removes the wrappings, which themselves grow finer, so the last but one is a scrap of velvet, and the last itself is silk.
‘What do you say?’
He sets the object on the bench. Carleton is the first to speak.
‘Sieur Rubens! Where did you find this?’
‘Why, in an old shop not far from here. But is it not most fine? The Romans left it. It is a treasure from the ancient world.’
‘I know not what to say. I am both amazed, and shocked to my roots. Wrap it close, I pray. This evening I shall write to my wife. I shall tell her we met, but I shall not tell her you showed me this.’ Carleton turns, for some at neighbouring tables are blinking now and narrowing their eyes.
‘Dudley, Dudley, the world is huge, yet a vision of the world is hid in this thing. A vision which in these holy days we have lost. Cornelis, you have not spoken.’
‘Nay, but I am not appalled. I wonder, though, how the parts are fastened, or whether it all was cast in one.’
‘There speaks the engineer.’
Carefully Rubens wraps the object again, but afterwards simply sits staring at it. A change is occurring: his face shows red streaks, his breaths sound like panting; when he looks up, his eyes are bloodshot. He stuffs the object in his pocket. ‘There is something I have learned anew, which in truth I knew before.’ He catches their eyes. ‘Of those things that make or ruin a life, the greatest and most grievous is what passes in the bedchamber.’
Dudley and Drebbel exchange a glance, then Drebbel stands. ‘I have business in the house.’ He is quickly gone indoors.
Seeing Rubens still in a study, Carleton places a hand on his knee. ‘Well, friend. You have seen the sights London offers.’
‘I have. I have been in the theatre. The King hath let me to copy the mighty 'Triumph' canvases by Mantegna, of which he is so proud. I but pray he see not himself as Caesar, in some like procession yet to come through London...’ He stops, then starts again. ‘Dudley, I told you I heard something not good today. I have learned other bad lessons here. But a few days since, I made a discovery in this town that turned my world – in that word you used once – widdershins.’
‘You speak of your mission? The Court? The Cardinal?’
‘No, nothing of those. I speak of something altogether other.’
Carleton waits, while Rubens gets to his feet and says, ‘I must make my way. I am awaited at the Gerbier house. I have handsome hosts, I must not delay them.’
He waves to Drebbel, speaking with someone by the door of the inn. ‘Cornelis, I must bid you farewell. I thank you for all you have shown me today. I still am in a daze of astonishment.’
‘It was my pleasure. You will remember me to the King of Spain?’
At that Rubens frowns, even glares. Still, they exchange farewells, and further thanks.
‘Dudley, it was a delight that we met. Commend my devotions to Lady Anne.’
‘I shall this day, when I write.’
They too make their parting salutes, yet Rubens lingers. For a moment he seems to woolgather. ‘I do believe some among my works may even last one hundred years – before the oilpaint flake and the canvas fray.’ He shrugs. ‘Whether any in a future age will pause to learn my own true story, that is more than I may guess.’
‘You speak of that thing you “discovered” here?’
‘No! For none must know of that.’
They tip again to each other, and he is almost gone. Then he stamps his foot. ‘Damn Van Dyck! God rot his bones!’
Dudley’s eyebrows rise. ‘Yes? Indeed! Strong words, Peter Paul. No?’
Rubens turns an inflamed eye on him. He gives a growl, another shrug, then a friendly nod, and leaves.
As his not-slim form walks away down the river-bank the man with the lion-head rises and follows, walking close to the walls of buildings. The man with the black tall hat reappears, and at his own distance follows the first. A man in a buff jerkin comes out of the inn, and he too follows after.
All of which Dudley sees, murmuring, ‘Friend Peter Paul – indeed, you have roused most dangerous powers. I half guess who these may be, and on whose orders they pursue you. I fear for the mission that brought you here. Nay, Peter Paul, more than that, I fear for you.’
The Envoy from Madrid
Bloodsmith gazes through his Thameside etching to that Thameside meeting of the artist, the inventor and the diplomat. The scene is described in the battered paperback on Bloodsmith’s trestle, Playing Chess with Kings. But what did Rubens mean when he spoke of a discovery that made his world go ‘widdershins’? The author of the book does not say, though he hints he may know forbidden things.
Bloodsmith wonders, So – do I play the detective? Can I drag to light a scandal not known before?
He picked up ‘Thameside’, slipping it in with the other prints. Lightly he shuffled them neatly together, and zipped the black portfolio shut.
He turned to go. His studio was in order, as he liked to leave it, the weird square room he had painted red, slope-ceilinged on four sides like the inside of a pyramid. Its walls were spattered with images: cartoons of historical figures, an army with pikes, a war-wounded man, blind and with no limbs; exploded buildings, the twin towers fuming; nudes, Renoir, Ingres, but especially Rubens, their pearly, yielding, puckered bodies delicately, nearly touch each other.
He stopped before the big canvas that leaned by the door. No Old Master this, but one of his own, where the naked woman runs forward in – what? a battle-group? fleeing or charging? Behind her, artillery cranes to the sky and tank-barrels wallow to a curving perspective. Soldiers in hard-hats turn bemused. But what will happen at the garrison gates? Will this naked woman dance straight through, or be stopped at gunpoint and asked for credentials? Is she an attacker – unwanted refugee? In the meantime she boldly dances, the lovely full-figured blonde nude woman, in her graceful swooping coil. Her figure shows through a haze of dust.
He has stopped; he studies. Not an easy look, either. He sniffs and the holes in his blunt nose dilate. The dancer, we see, has serious eyes, pale-blue, keen, even dangerous. But what does she know of what he thinks? What does he know of what she does? We only have a man and woman, gazing with eyes that meet and don't meet, a rueful gaze of hours or years.
His shoulders rise, stirring as though he had wings in his shirt, then fall as he breathes out in an endless emptying.
Enough, he snaps to.
‘Oh sodding hell, Robyn!’
Gone. The closing door fans us, the lock has snicked shut, his crisp steps die.
Nor will time, or light, stand still. Late afternoon it must be outside, while the sun emerging from clouds causes the red wall, the nudes and the soldier-photos, and, above all, this painted dancer, lovely naked with piercing eyes, to slowly brighten in gathering goldenness.
Lugging his portfolio through the streets. Why didn't I bring the car? But the real question is different. How do you ask her, how do you say it?
At that thought he stops, on the crest of the railway bridge. I don't want this question, I want Rubens’ secret. Yet the question cuts him like a scalpel left inside by a careless surgeon.
There has been a shower, slates catch the light. The wet rails shine, snaking to the west, while a train pulls softly to a halt at the station. The evening city at peace. Beside him traffic beats, stalled on the bridge, and cyclists nudge him, insinuating on the inside. The weight in his hand is the hope of his art, he can feel the colours shut there like heat.
But bite the bullet, Bloodsmith, you’ll say, it must stop, Robyn. I won't have it! I know it's going on.
He resumes his march into the eye of the storm, lugging the black portfolio.
I see this picture of an ordered house, warm red brick in a stasis of health. At his gate he stops. What was clear on the bridge is stale by now, and he's tired, at the fag-end of the day. The question is still there, it has walked home beside him, inflating with each breath. If he turned he'd see it.
How does it look, a question of this order? Well, its body and head are fused together, but it has a big ear like an elephant's ear, and a single aching big dish-eye. A mouth of fangs runs from side to side of its gut – this question is hungry, it will eat man and woman. Also it is proboscid: its snout extends, quivering, tentacular, a moist, snuffing trunk.
So the question looks, as it stands beside you in the early evening. Surely the neighbours will be peeping to see it?
'Hello, love,' she calls, from the upstairs room she has turned to an office. At her friendly tone his structure shakes.
As he heads to the kitchen, he hears the question follow down the hall, with a swish on the panelling, and the muffled glump of its shapeless feet.
Some moments after, she clatters down.
'Hello, Stephen.' It's the woman from the picture, fair and pleasant-figured. She's handsome, straight-nosed, her warm-blond hair coiled loosely up. She stands by the window, while he has sloped down on a kitchen chair. Beyond her, in the garden - how lovely, the Judas-tree, the purple-pink blossoms, delicate-rich, sprout in clumps from its trunk… He thinks: I can't spoil this. But his voice inquires,
'How was your day?'
'Did you go out?' A fair question; her photo-gallery is closed between shows.
'Yes, I went out.' She smiles as she speaks: a warm close private smile.
'Where did you go?'
She looks at him quickly. He meant the question to be light, but it made a heavy landing.
'What do you mean, where? I went into town. I was thinking about sites, actually.'
'For the gallery?'
'What else?' She has talked of moving, re-locating.
'Did you find any?'
She has ice-eyes now, he beats a retreat. Is that all it took, to shut me up, to throw me back? The air in the room has set, you could cut it with a saw in invisible cubes. Looking round, he sees the question: its head-body shows above a chair-back. It has grown more eyes, roving apprehensively.
He asks, 'Where's Sal?'
'Out, of course.'
'Out? She's always out.'
'So are you.'
'I've been working late.'
She studies him, arms folded. 'You work late a lot, Stephen.' The counter-attack.
'I'm here when she's here.'
'That's not the point. We've said this before. The point is that even when you're here, you're not here.'
'I don't know that I can be the heavy father.'
'You have to set limits. She wants you to.'
He nods, he knows it’s true. Is it true for Robyn too? You must set limits to what happens in your marriage.
From the corner of his eye, he's aware of the question, sinking from sight behind the chair. It won't be asked tonight. And he's thinking, perhaps I'm wrong. Maybe it's all my imagination.
He gets up, they begin to make a meal.
'Do you want a drink?' His well-tried cop-out. Their Punt e Mes period.
'Not right now.'
They have laid down terms, of a sort, for the evening, cooking side by side. He looks out at the brilliant Judas-blossoms. She says bright-voiced, 'How's Rubens?'
It's a signal, let's not bicker now.
'I think I'm ready.'
'You're seeing Miles tomorrow?'
'You haven't shown me the prints.'
'I've brought them home. I'd like to show you.'
'What, the night before. What if you need to change them?'
Change them? That's not what he wants to hear. He softly says 'I'm sorry.'
'Yes, you're a lamb, when you want me to look at your prints.'
'It's true.' What corruption - I was ready to rage, from my suspicions, now I lay out flannel so she likes my pictures.
'We'll look at them after the food,' he says demurely.
'We'll eat when Sally comes. Show me now.'
She smiles forcefully, nice-nosed, clear-faced. He smiles shyly.
They leave the kitchen, and their meal's components, and go to the living-room, where the pictures wait…