"I still can't believe I did that," said Anne Jefferson, studying the painting. It was obvious that she was struggling not to erupt in a fit of giggles.
Pieter Paul Rubens looked at her, smiling faintly, but said nothing. He'd gotten a better sense of the way the woman's mind worked, in the days he'd spent doing a portrait of the American nurse, even to the point of understanding that for her the menial term "nurse" was a source of considerable personal pride. But he still didn't fool himself that he really understood all the subtleties involved. There was a chasm of three and half centuries separating them, after all, even leaving aside the fact that they were—at least officially—enemies in time of war. If not, admittedly, actual combatants.
The sound of siege cannons firing outside reminded him of that enmity. For a moment, the big guns firing at distant Amsterdam caused the windows in the house to rattle.
The Jefferson woman heard them also, clearly enough. Her grin was replaced by a momentary grimace. "And back to the real world . . . " he heard her mutter.
But the grin was back, almost immediately. "It's the pom-poms and the baton," Jefferson said. "Ridiculous! I never even tried out for the cheerleading squad."
Rubens examined the objects referred to. His depiction of them, rather. The objects themselves were now lying on a nearby table. They weren't really genuine American paraphernalia, just the best imitations that Rubens' assistants had been able to design based on the American nurse's description. But she'd told him earlier than he'd managed to capture the essence of the things in the portrait.
"Coupled with the American flag!" she half-choked. "If anybody back home ever sees this, I'll be lucky if I don't get strung up."
The English term strung up eluded Rubens, since his command of that language was rudimentary. He'd spent some months in England as an envoy for King Philip IV of Spain, true, during which time he'd also begun painting the ceiling of the Royal Banqueting House at Whitehall Palace. But he'd spent most of his time there in the entourage of the English queen, who generally spoke in her native French.
However, he understood the gist of it. Jefferson had spoken the rest of the sentence in the German which they'd been using as their common tongue. Jefferson's German was quite good, for someone who'd only first spoken the language three years ago. Rubens' own German was fluent, as was his French, Italian, Latin and Spanish. Not surprising, of course, for a man who was—and had been for several decades now—recognized by everyone as the premier court artist for Europe's Roman Catholic dynasties, as well as being a frequently used diplomat for those same dynasties.
"Do you really think they will be offended?" he asked mildly.
Jefferson rolled her eyes. "Well, if anyone ever sees it I'll probably get away with it just because it was done by Rubens. You know, the Rubens. But they don't call them 'hillbillies' for nothing. Seeing me half-naked, wrapped in an American flag and holding pom-poms and a cheerleader's baton . . . " She brought her eyes back to the portrait, and shook her head ruefully. "I still don't know what possessed me to agree to this."
"Indulging a confused old artist, shall we say?" Rubens smiled crookedly. "You have no idea what a quandary your books from the future pose to an artist. If you can see a painting you would have done, do you still do it? When every instinct in you rebels at the notion? On the other hand . . . "
He glanced over his shoulder. His young wife Hélèna Fourment was sitting on a chair nearby, looking out the window. "Who knows? I may still do the original portrait, with her as the model as she would have been. But this seemed to me an interesting compromise. Besides . . . "
His eyes moved to the portrait, then to the young American model. "I was trying to capture something different here. Hard to know whether I succeeded or not, of course. You are such a peculiar people, in many ways."
Hearing a small commotion in the corridor outside his studio, the artist cocked his head. "Ah. Apparently the day's negotiations are concluded. Your escort is here to return you to Amsterdam. It has been a pleasure, Miss Jefferson. Will I see you again some day?"