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Magdeburg, November 12, 1636
Daniel von Block sat in his studio, drinking hot black coffee and watching embers glow in the stove that heated the room. He was cold, but more than that, he was frustrated. Now that phase two of the competition was over, their mural delivered to the opera house and awaiting public review, there wasn’t anything to do. Weeks of furious discussion and activity tantamount to madness had suddenly been replaced with silence and the gentle patter of cold rain on the window. I must get Ursula to tell me where we stand on other proj . . . oh, that’s right, she’s no longer here. Neither was Johann. Neither were the other two, for that matter. He’d given them a few days off to rest and to take care of personal matters. So he found himself alone in his studio, fidgeting and drinking coffee.
His body ached, and he had been nursing a nagging cough and a runny nose for a couple days. He let the grey wool throw fall from his shoulders, got up slowly, and walked over to a stack of sketches that Ursula had started before she left.
He studied the top-most drawing. Decent, no doubt about it, though she did have issues with arm and leg proportions, especially on heavier people. He set the sample down and looked at others. He found a few pieces from Johann as well. Not bad either, though it was clear that Johann’s problem wasn’t lack of talent, but lack of care. He was sloppy, always had been. Oh well, that doesn’t matter anymore, either. Both are gone, and there’s nothing I can do about it now. Now, he had to refocus his attention on the other two—refocus their attention on finishing other commissions.
He turned from the sketches to go back upstairs, but a knock came at the door.
There were three silhouettes outside, waiting in the rain. He opened the door quickly and greeted them with a generous smile.
"Frau Simpson, Lady Beth, Herr Lurz. This is a pleasant surprise. Please, come in."
He stepped aside, smiling at each in turn as they entered.
They did not return his smile, but he spoke kindly anyway. "Would you care for some coffee? Tea?"
Simpson shook her head. "Thank you, Herr von Block, for your hospitality, but I’m afraid we are not here on a social call."
"Oh? Then what can I do for you?"
Lady Beth sighed. "Two days ago, we had a visit from Johann Bartel."
"Yes," Daniel said, raising his eyebrows.
"He claims that he has been providing the Le Nain brothers information about your activities. He says he’s been doing this for quite a while."
Daniel felt a tightening in his chest, and he pressed his hand to his mouth. "My God. I can’t believe it."
"He’s a student of yours?" Frau Simpson asked.
"No, no. He was a student, yes, but Johann left about a week ago."
"Left, or did you kick him out?"
Daniel shook his head. "He had become surly, despondent, and he was drinking a lot. He came in and started accusing me again of not taking him seriously as an artist. It’s a squabble that goes back a ways. Well, finally I’d had enough of his disrespect. I told him to leave."
Herr Lurz shot a glance at Lady Beth, who nodded. "Daniel," he said, "the matter goes beyond this confession, I’m afraid. He also told us that you learned of his deception and then tried to get him to spy on the Le Nains for you."
"That is a lie!"
Lady Beth nodded. "We’re inclined to agree with you, Herr von Block, but we must take his accusation seriously. The integrity of the competition is at stake. We will be investigating the matter fully, and you will have to answer further questions in time."
"I’m telling you, I had no knowledge of this. Ask Konrad, ask Melchior. They were here the night Johann left. Goddammit, ask them!"
Frau Simpson put her hand up in a calming gesture. "Of course, Herr von Block. We will speak with them. And nothing will change for now. The competition will continue as we investigate this matter. But we must investigate, and we ask that you make yourself and your apprentices available to answer our questions."
He started to speak but paused, trying to control his anger, his fear. He tried looking Frau Simpson in the eye to place emphasis on his innocence, but it was hard to do so. He was so angry, so upset. Do you believe me? He wondered, looking at their faces. Did they know of his background, how he used to be in his youth? A loose cannon, as some might say, quick to anger, quick to judge, and quick to throw a punch. Once a man had shown his darker side, it was hard for anything he said to be taken seriously. I’m innocent, damn you! I’m innocent!
"Yes," he said finally, "of course. I have nothing to hide. I won’t be impugned by that drunken little cretin. It’s the Le Nains behind all this, I’m sure. They’re the ones you should be investigating."
"All angles will be investigated, Herr von Block, I promise you," Lady Beth said. "All angles."
Hans Ulrich Franck stood in the lobby of the Magdeburg Opera House, watching small clusters of townspeople pass through. They would stop before each painting on display and, speaking softly in the solemn space, point at specific areas of each canvas and murmur to their fellows. He heard few words clearly, but he could tell from their expressions and gestures that the first three paintings met with their approval, for the most part.
There were some areas of clear disagreement. The flying man in Block’s painting seemed controversial, and the modern aspects of the Le Nains’ canvas seemed to elicit much debate. A few austere, older men appeared to disapprove of something about Gentileschi’s work. One old man proclaimed loudly, before being shushed and moved along: "Too many women!"
Franck sneered. The work overall was too . . . placid, perhaps? Too domestic, too optimistic, for his taste. Its serenity elided untold atrocities. But to dislike it because it represented women’s roles in the world? Old fool.
And as for his own painting? He smiled as he watched them. Heads shook and faces grimaced. Gestures expressed anger and dismay. They hated it, almost every single one of them.
But—but! They stood there and looked at it—almost could not look away. They discussed his painting with animation and passion—and they ended up spending far more time and thought on his work than on any other. He might not win this competition—had known from the start that he had no chance of winning—but he would make his mark, all the same. And perhaps a few of them would keep thinking about it later on, when it really mattered. That was enough for him.
A man appeared at his side, and Franck raised his eyebrows at him, without speaking.
The man, tall but exceptionally thin, cleared his throat and shifted. "Sir, I believe you spoke with Gunther Achterhof at the unveiling, did you not?"
The man beamed. "We have been to see it—your painting? All of us, I mean, the entire Committee of Correspondence here in Magdeburg. You know of us, yes?"
Franck scowled, wishing the young man were gone so he could watch the public viewing in peace. He was in no mood for chatting; however, he could hardly ignore the man completely. "I have heard something about it, yes, but to be honest, I know little of what it is you actually do."
"Ah!" the man said. "Wonderful, wonderful. Then we have much to discuss."
Franck glared at him, and was about to turn and walk away, when the man added: "And of course, you will want to see our headquarters here. Yes, Gunther was quite right." He turned and gazed in clear admiration at Franck’s painting. "A bit gory, perhaps, but you understand the struggles of the people. You understand that there is far more to our history than the acts of a few leaders and their" —he waved his hand dismissively— "their machines. Yes, you are precisely the artist we have been looking for. Your mural will be the most powerful, most true work of art that Magdeburg has ever seen."