Birgit's mother had warned her not to take any food or drink from boys, not to answer any of their questions, and, most especially, not to smile at them. Birgit had dutifully agreed. Unfortunately, she broke all three rules the same day.
Birgit and her friends Anna and Barbel had gone to Halberstadt to enjoy a festival. They walked arm in arm across the town square, the Domplatz, and were surprised to find several of their fellow villagers clustered around a young foreigner. He was regaling them with tales of the fabulous New World. Strange beasts. Indians. He even had drawings to show them. Drawings he had made himself.
Birgit and her companions hovered on the edge of the crowd. Suddenly, the storyteller gestured in her direction. "Now, that beautiful lass would amaze the natives. They would say that her hair was like a river, lit by the morning sun." Birgit smiled involuntarily. Then she collected herself and started to pull away. Her girlfriends pulled her right back.
"Say something to him," Anna whispered furiously.
"But he's a man!"
"That's the point, you idiot."
Birgit blushed. "Um—can you draw me?"
"Draw us all," said Barbel.
"All of you? It will endanger my health and sanity, to study so much beauty all at once. But I will attempt it." The young man took out a piece of chalk and drew rapidly in his sketchbook. "What do you think of this?"
The artist had drawn them as if they were wearing elegant gowns, and were standing on a cloud, looking down at a shepherd who looked like him.
Birgit puzzled over the scene. "It doesn't seem to be a story from the Bible."
"No, it isn't. It is the judgment of Paris. The Greek goddesses Aphrodite, Hera and Athena appeared before Paris, the Prince of Troy, and asked him to choose who would be awarded a golden apple, inscribed, 'to the fairest.'"
Barbel fluttered her eyelashes. "So which of us would you choose?"
"Hmm . . . In the myth, Paris didn't even try to judge the goddesses' beauty, he just picked the one who offered him the best bribe."
Barbel giggled. "And what sort of bribe would you like?"
Birgit carefully stepped on Barbel's toe. "Would you like to share my apple?" she asked.
"I would be delighted."
Anna spoke up. "Come, Barbel, I think Max is on the other side of the square, let's go say hello."
"I am fine right here. Or I would be, if my toe weren't hurting."
"I think your toe will hurt even more if you stay. Come. Now." She turned to Birgit. "Call us if you need us."
Birgit took a bite out of her apple, and then handed it to the stranger. "I am Birgit. Birgit Wegener. I am the eldest daughter of the smith in Stroebeck.
He took a bite, too, and smacked his lips. "I am Felix Gruenfeld. My father is—was—a book printer and bookseller; he is . . . retired . . . now. I am a member of the Guild of Saint Luke's in Amsterdam. The artists' guild, that is. I was returning to that city when I discovered that it was under siege. I decided to flee to Germany."
"It is hard for me to think of Germany as a place of refuge, especially after the sack of Magdeburg," said Birgit.
"I understand, but you have the Lion of the North to defend you now. And Amsterdam has been in sorry straits since the English and French betrayed the Dutch at the Battle of Dunkirk."
Felix reached for the drinking horn at his side. "May I offer you something to drink? I am sorry, it is just small beer." Birgit took a sip, and he did the same. He scrounged up some cheese for them to share, too.
They chatted for a while. Birgit grew more and more interested in this man, so different from the others she knew. She was disappointed when he said, "Unfortunately, I need to take my leave of you. I must try to sell a few pictures in the market this afternoon. Once the festival is over, the local guild will be very hostile to any outsider trying to sell paintings in this town."
"Of course, I understand. Have you sold any pictures so far?"
"I have not been doing as well as I expected. The landscapes and natural studies which were snapped up by the burghers back home don't seem to satisfy Germanic tastes."
Birgit waved the picture of her and her friends at him. "Your sketch was very good. Perhaps you should be trying to sell portrait miniatures, instead."
Felix had a pained expression. "It is my desire to use my art to convey the reality of nature, which is God's creation. To depict the sweep of great mountains, and the delicate colors of a butterfly's wing. And to express these both beautifully and accurately. To paint portraits is to trivialize my skills."
Birgit had noticed that Felix wore clothes which, while made of a good material, had been carefully patched. She was also a practical girl. "I apologize, good sir. I had not realized that you were independently wealthy, and hence could paint and draw without catering to popular tastes."
Felix held up his hands. "Touché!" He paused. "Still, I can't very well paint portraits in advance, in the hopes that the sitter's father or spouse will show up at the marketplace. Portraits must be commissioned. So on one visit I look for prospects, and on the next, I deliver the portrait and get paid. Right now, I need works which will appeal to many people, and might be sold then and there."
"You could always paint scenes from the Bible."
"There is that. Although they are difficult to sell in some towns."
"But surely an artist of your caliber can overcome the problem. You could leave out the saints' halos, for example."
Felix nodded thoughtfully. "I thank you for your advice. I will think on it." Waving goodbye to Birgit, Felix said, "I think that at the hour of vespers, I will go pray inside the Church of Saint Martin."
"That is very pious of you," said Birgit. "I am very pious myself."
Felix and Birgit's courtship progressed from there, albeit in fits and starts. Birgit could not go to Halberstadt often without arousing parental suspicions. For that matter, Halberstadt, with only ten thousand inhabitants, was not the best place for Felix to sell paintings. Still, they found opportunities to meet, even though it took some effort.
Felix's story began to come out. There were many painters in the Netherlands, and hence it was important to have a specialty in which you were the acknowledged expert. After achieving mastery, Felix had decided to make himself the expert on the New World, and had wangled a position in the entourage of the Governor of New Amsterdam. He painted portraits, made maps, and so forth.
Felix returned to the Netherlands, only to find that his mother and elder brother had died of some potent disease, and that his father had abandoned himself to drinking and gambling. His life savings, which could have gone to setting himself up in his own shop, as an independent master, went instead to paying his father's debts. Felix had to make do by inking in landscape backgrounds for the portraits of others. Boring work. Felix admitted to Birgit that this might explain some of his antipathy for portraiture. Except when the subject was her, of course.
Besides his artistic activities, Felix also collected "curiosities"—plants, minerals and so forth which might interest a collector. In the Netherlands, the interest in these wonders was not limited to the nobility; many wealthy merchants had Wunderkaemmer. Felix' curiosities could be sold, or given, to a prospective patron.
It was while Felix was away from home, on a collecting trip, that the next disaster occurred. It was a turn for the worse in the long war with the Spanish Hapsburgs. They destroyed the Dutch fleet, seized Haarlem, and laid siege to Amsterdam. It was clearly not the best time to try selling nature art in the Netherlands. Or art of any kind, for that matter. Except perhaps Catholic altarpieces.
Since Felix was of German descent, he decided to try his luck in the Germanies. Unfortunately, most of his stock and materials were in Amsterdam, on the other side of the siege line.
"Do you play chess?" Birgit asked.
"No, I don't. Didn't you ask me that before?" Felix took a closer look at her. They were in a dark corner of the cathedral in Halberstadt, but now that his eyes were better adjusted to the gloom, he could see that she was upset. "Hey, what's wrong?"
"One of my friends was indiscreet."
"Let me guess. Barbel."
"Yes. She said something about us . . . didn't realize her mother was nearby. And her mother makes Barbel seem like a Trappist monk."
"Yes. It is only a matter of time before my father finds out. Days at most."
"So perhaps I should make a preemptive strike. Tell him that we are engaged to be married. I can say that, right?" He grinned at her. She smiled for an instant, then looked grim.
"It is more complicated than that. I have put off telling you about the peculiar courtship and marriage customs of Strobeck. If your art were selling well again, they wouldn't matter so much. But under the present circumstances—I am worried."
Felix was puzzled. "Just what are these customs?"
"Let's say that you need to learn to play chess. Right now."
Felix Gruenfeld studied the board glumly. This was no friendly chess game. He was in the Saxon village of Stroebeck, where commoners had played chess for six centuries. In Stroebeck, the game of chess was an intimate part of the game of life.
Felix quietly tipped over his king, conceding the game. His opponent, Hans Wegener, smirked.
The mayor of Stroebeck cleared his throat. "Felix Gruenfeld, you have asked for the hand of Birgit, daughter of Hans Wegener. Under the laws and customs of Stroebeck, in order to proceed with the marriage, in spite of the opposition of Hans Wegener, you had to either defeat him at chess or pay a forfeit of twenty gulden to the village treasury. Since you have lost the game, you must either pay, or leave." Birgit was fighting back tears.
"I just don't have that kind of money right now. But if--"
Hans cut him off. "We don't need vagrants like you in Stroebeck,"
The Mayor was more tactful. "I am sorry. The forfeit must be paid in cash, and on the spot."
Felix looked despairingly at Birgit. She blurted out, "You can try again after Easter!"
"Hah!" said Wegener. "You are hopelessly inept. A few months or a few years, you still aren't going to win against me without tutoring from a master. And how would you gain such training? If you can't pay the penalty, you can hardly pay for chess lessons. For that matter, outside of Stroebeck, chess is strictly a nobleman's game, and you can hardly expect a nobleman to agree to teach you. If one took pity on you, and gave you a few lessons, they won't make you the equal of someone who has played every day for three dozen years."
Felix looked at him stonily. "That may be, but I will be back after Easter, and if I must, the next challenge date after that."
He bowed to Birgit and left the room.
Felix had realized that his chances of winning the game were not good. After his defeat, he had gone, as he and Birgit had planned, to the nearby city of Halberstadt. There, Birgit's brother, Karl, met him.
At one point, Felix had been a bit nervous about how Karl would regard the whole affair. Felix feared that Karl might be inclined to protect his little sister from undesirable suitors, and Karl was a journeyman smith. Swing a hammer all day, for years on end, and you are quite capable of flooring a mere artist. Even one who has roughed it in the New World.
However, Karl had reached that stage of life in which the son knows much more than the father. Hans' heated opposition to Felix had made Felix prime brother-in-law material, so far as Karl was concerned.
"Here, Birgit gave me these for you. This is for your stomach,"—he handed over a loaf of bread—"and this is for your heart." The second present was a small leather pouch, which contained a lock of blonde hair. Felix quickly hung it around his neck, and concealed it under his blouse.
"Where are you going next?" Karl asked.
"I hear that Gustavus Adolphus is in Magdeburg. Perhaps he has need of an artist? Or at least of a draftsman? My status would be much enhanced if I had a royal patron.
"If the Swede is off with his armies, I will try my luck at that Grantville we keep hearing about.
"Once I am settled, I will send word here. Check for messages at that tavern you are so fond of, The Roasted Pig. Now give me a moment to write a note for you to carry back to your sister."
Birgit was, indeed, a practical girl. This first became evident to her family, years before, when her mother was sick for a few weeks. Birgit went to the market, and did the shopping. And, of course, the obligatory haggling. She was a natural. After her mother recovered, it was decided to let Birgit continue in that role. She was so good that she impressed the pros. One merchant said he would have hired her on the spot, if she were a boy.
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- The Grantville Gazette Staff