The miniaturist, p.10
The Miniaturist, p.10Jessie Burton
A separate package catches Nella’s eye, glinting through the cloth. Nestling in the folds she finds a tiny golden key, hanging on a ribbon. She swings it in the cold morning light. It is beautiful, no longer than her little fingernail, intricately wrought with a carved pattern running down its neck. Too small to open any door, Nella thinks. Useless but ornate.
There is nothing else in the package – no note, no explanation, just the strange motto of defiance and this flurry of gifts. Cornelia swore she delivered the letter telling the miniaturist to desist. So why didn’t he obey me?
But as she looks at these pieces – their extraordinary beauty, their unreachable purpose, Nella wonders if she really wants the miniaturist to cease. The miniaturist himself clearly has no desire to do so.
Tenderly, Nella places the new items in the cabinet, one after the other. She feels a fleeting sense of gratitude that takes her by surprise.
‘Where are you going?’ Marin asks as Nella crosses the hallway an hour later.
‘Nowhere,’ Nella replies, her mind already on the sign of the sun, on the explanations which lie behind the miniaturist’s door.
‘I thought so,’ Marin says. ‘Pastor Pellicorne is preaching at the Old Church and I assumed you would want to attend.’
‘Is Johannes coming?’
Johannes is not coming, having claimed the need to be at the bourse, attending the latest figures being bandied on the trading floor. Nella wonders whether it is worship that her husband is avoiding.
Desperate to visit the Kalverstraat, Nella deliberately lags behind Marin, whose feet are pounding the canal paths as if they have done her a personal disservice. Rezeki, never that happy without her master, is at the bourse with Johannes. Not wanting to leave Dhana behind, Nella walks with the second whippet, the dog trotting obediently at her side, wet black nose tipped up towards her new-adopted mistress.
‘Do you usually take dogs to church?’ Nella asks Cornelia.
The maid nods. ‘Madame Marin says they can’t be trusted on their own.’
‘I could bring Peebo.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ says Marin from over her shoulder, and Nella marvels at her ability to eavesdrop.
It is a brilliant day, the terracotta rooftops almost vermilion, the temperature cold enough to dilute any stench from the canal. Carriages clatter by, the waterways full of vessels loaded with men, women, bundles of goods, even a few sheep. They walk up the Herengracht, up Vijzelstraat and over the bridge onto the Turf Market leading towards the Old Church. Nella looks longingly towards her original destination, before Cornelia reminds her that unless Madame looks in the direction she is going, Madame will trip upon the cobbles.
From the boats, from their windows, from the canal path, the people stare. With every step they take past the tall and slender silk merchants’ houses on the Warmoestraat, past the shop windows selling Italian maiolica, Lyons silk, Spanish taffeta, porcelain from Nuremburg and Haarlem linen, the Amsterdammers impress upon them a selection of looks. For a moment, Nella wonders what it is they have done, then she sees the muscles tense in the back of Otto’s neck. He calls to Dhana to put her on the lead. ‘It speaks!’ Nella hears someone say to a peal of laughter.
When Otto passes there’s hardly a face that doesn’t open in surprise to see him walking with these women. Some expressions curdle to suspicion, others to disdain or outright fear. Some are blankly fascinated, others seem unbothered, but it doesn’t make up for the rest. As the party drops down off the Warmoestraat approaching the back of the Old Church, a man with smallpox scars, sitting on a low bench at a door, calls out as Otto passes by. ‘I can’t find work, and you give that animal a job?’
Marin wavers but Cornelia stops walking. She strides back and raises her fist inches from his cratered skin. ‘This is Amsterdam, Hole-Face,’ she says. ‘The best man wins.’
Nella makes a strangled, nervous laugh which dies as the man lifts his own fist to Cornelia’s face. ‘This is Amsterdam, bitch. The best man knows the right friends.’
‘Cornelia, hold your tongue,’ calls Marin. ‘Come away.’
‘He should have his cut out!’
‘Cornelia! Sweet Jesu, are we all of us animals?’
‘Ten years Toot’s been here, and nothing’s changed,’ the maid mutters, coming back to her mistress. ‘You think they’d be used to it.’
‘Hole-Face, Cornelia. How could you?’ Marin says, but Nella hears a distinct note of approval in her voice.
Otto gazes towards a horizon far beyond the buildings of Amsterdam. He does not look at Hole-Face. ‘Dhana,’ he calls. The dog finally stops, perks her head up and trots towards him. ‘Don’t go too far, girl,’ he says.
‘Me, or the dog?’ Cornelia sighs.
Though people continue to goggle, no one else offers their commentary. Nella notices how they look at Marin too. Unusually tall for a woman, with her long neck and head held high, Marin is like the figurehead on the bow of a ship, leaving waves of turning faces in her wake. Nella sees her through their eyes, the perfect Dutchwoman, immaculate, handsome and walking with a purpose. The only thing missing is a husband.
‘How it looks, that Johannes does not come to church,’ Nella hears Marin observing to Otto. In the face of his silence, Marin turns back to the girls. ‘Did he invite the Meermanses to dinner?’ she asks Nella.
Nella hesitates, on the cusp of a lie. ‘Not yet,’ she replies.
Marin stops, unable to hide her fury, her mouth held in an undignified O of shock as she accuses Nella with a flash of her grey eyes.
‘Well, I couldn’t make him invite them,’ says Nella.
‘My God,’ Marin cries, stepping in a puddle of slop. She strides ahead, leaving the other three behind. ‘Must I do it all?’
Boom and Bloom
Nella has never been in the Old Church before. ‘Who’s Pellicorne?’ she whispers to Cornelia. ‘Don’t we have enough of the Bible at home?’
Cornelia grimaces, for Marin has overheard. ‘One must also worship in public, Petronella,’ Marin says.
‘Whatever you have to endure?’ mutters Otto.
Marin pretends not to have heard. ‘Pellicorne,’ she breathes, as if referring to a particularly favourite actor. ‘And the civitas is watching.’
They have a smaller church in Assendelft and this building is enormous in comparison. Soaring white stone columns divide the arches around and up the middle of the nave. Painted scenes from the Bible are in several of the windows, and through their stained-glass saints the sunlight floods the floor in watery red and gold, pale indigo and green. Nella feels she could dive in, but the names of the dead embedded in the floor remind her that the water is actually stone.
The church is busy; the living are staking their claim. Nella is surprised by the permitted level of noise, the fathers and mothers, the gossip and pleasantry, the unleashed dogs and little children. Barks and infant chatter scale the whitewashed walls, the sounds only lightly absorbed by the wood above. One dog is relieving itself nearby, its leg cocked jauntily against a pillar. There is light everywhere Nella looks, as if for one hour, God has turned his sole attention to this soaring chamber and the hearts that beat within it.
As Nella lowers her gaze to the people milling inside the church, her heart sends a hot thump of blood into her stomach.
The strange woman from the Kalverstraat is here. She sits alone in a chair near the side door, the sun through a plain window catching the top of her blonde head. Again, she watches Nella. There is nothing neutral in this gaze; it is active, enquiring and curious – but she is so still that Nella believes she could be one of the stained-glass saints, fallen from the church’s pane.
Succumbing to the sensation of being measured and found not entirely whole, Nella is powerless to resist the stare. This time, however, the woman’s gaze glides over Otto, Cornelia and Marin, even Dhana – taking all five into her understanding. Nella lifts her hand in greeting and Marin’s voice interrupts her. ‘She’s t
‘What?’ Nella says, dropping her hand.
‘The dog,’ says Marin, bending over, trying to move Dhana, from where the animal has placed her rump firmly on the floor. Dhana refuses to budge, whining, her snout up in the direction of the woman, her claws clattering the stone. ‘What on earth is wrong with her?’ Marin straightens, massaging the base of her spine. ‘She was fine a minute ago.’
Nella looks back to where the woman is sitting, but all she sees is an empty chair. ‘Where did she go?’
‘Who?’ asks Cornelia.
Despite the light from the sun, the church seems very cold. The hubbub rises and falls and rises again, the people continue to mill, and the woman’s chair remains untaken. Dhana starts to bark.
‘Nothing,’ says Nella. ‘Be quiet, Dhana, you’re in a house of God.’
Cornelia giggles. ‘You’re both too loud,’ Marin says. ‘Please remember that people are always watching.’
‘I know they are,’ says Nella, but Marin has moved away.
True to Calvinist form, the pulpit is in the middle of the nave, where the murmuring crowd congregates in clusters. ‘Like flies upon a piece of meat,’ says Marin disapprovingly, as they catch up with her, gliding with slow dignity up the nave. ‘We shall not sit in the crowd. God’s word reaches far. They don’t need to clamber like four-year-olds to see Pastor Pellicorne.’
‘The more they try to look holy the less I am convinced,’ says Otto.
A tiny smile forms in the corner of Marin’s mouth, dying quickly as Agnes and Frans Meermans come into view.
Billowing a cloud of intense, flowery fragrance, Agnes swims in her great skirts across the freezing grave-slabs. ‘They’ve brought the savage,’ she whispers in earshot to her husband, her eyes riveted on Otto.
‘Seigneur and Madame Meermans,’ Marin says, retrieving her psalter from a pouch at her waist, passing it from palm to palm as if she’s weighing it up as a missile. The women curtsey. Frans Meermans bows, watching Marin’s slender fingers move nervously over her well-worn leather book.
‘Where is your brother?’ asks Agnes. ‘The Day of Judgement—’
‘Johannes is working. He offers thanks to God a different way today,’ Marin replies. Meermans snorts. ‘It is quite true, Seigneur.’
‘Oh yes,’ he says. ‘The bourse is known to be a haven for the godly.’
‘There was an oversight at the Guild of Silversmiths,’ Marin says, ignoring his tone. ‘My brother meant to invite you to eat with us, but so many duties distract his mind.’ She pauses. ‘You must come and dine at our house.’
Meermans sniffs. ‘We don’t need—’
‘We are honoured, Madame Brandt,’ Agnes interrupts, her dark eyes sly with undisclosed excitement. ‘Though should not his wife be issuing this invitation?’
Nella feels her cheeks go red. ‘Dine with us tomorrow,’ Marin says, her voice tight.
‘Tomorrow?’ Nella is unable to help herself. It seems unlike Marin to be so hasty. ‘But—’
‘And do bring a sugar loaf. We will taste it and toast your fortune to come.’
‘You wish to taste our Carib treasure?’ Agnes buries her chin in her ostentatious fur collar, jet irises boring into Marin.
Marin smiles, and Nella notices how attractive she is when she does so, even if it is pretend.
‘I do,’ says Marin. ‘Very much.’
‘Agnes,’ says Meermans, and his wife’s name becomes a note of caution. ‘Let us take our place.’
‘We will come tomorrow,’ Agnes adds, ‘and will bring such sweetness the like of which you’ve never tasted.’
They drift off, calling greetings, waving and nodding as they go.
‘I could kill him,’ Marin murmurs, her eyes on their retreating backs. Nella wonders whom she means. ‘Carib treasure my eye. Why did Johannes ever agree to this?’
‘But don’t we need it, Madame?’ Cornelia murmurs. ‘You said so yourself—’
Marin snaps her head round. ‘Don’t parrot me my own words, girl. Listening at doors – you know nothing. Just make sure there’s a decent supper tomorrow.’
Cornelia shrinks back, bending down to busy herself with the dog, her face a mask of hurt pride. Marin rubs her temples, eyes closed in pain. ‘Are you quite well?’ Nella asks, feeling the need to intervene.
Marin looks at her. ‘Quite well.’
‘We must take our seats,’ Otto says. ‘There’s room in the choir.’ He looks marooned among the barely whispered commentaries that accompany his every move.
Pastor Pellicorne goes up to the pulpit. He is tall, over fifty, clean-shaven, his grey hair short and neat, his collar wide and sparkling white. His appearance suggests he has an attentive set of servants.
Pellicorne does not bother with introductions. ‘Foul practices!’ he booms over the dogs and children, the scuffling feet and mewling of the gulls outside. A silence falls, all eyes on him but those of Otto, who bows his head, focused on the knot of his intertwined hands. Nella looks over at Agnes, whose face is turned upwards to the pastor like a mesmerized child. She is so odd, Nella thinks. One minute so glib and haughty, the next so infantile and striving to impress.
‘There are many closed doors in our city through which we cannot see,’ Pellicorne continues, hard and unrelenting. ‘But do not think you can hide your sin from God.’ His tapering fingers grip the edge of the pulpit. ‘He will find you out,’ Pellicorne calls across their heads. ‘There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed. His angels will look through the windows and keyholes of your heart, and He will hold you to your acts. Our city was built on a bog, our land has suffered God’s wrath before. We triumphed, we turned the water to our side. But do not rest easy now – it was prudence and neighbourliness that helped us triumph.’
‘Yes,’ calls a man in the crowd. A baby begins to wail. Dhana whimpers and tries to get under Nella’s skirts.
‘If the reins of our shame are not held tight,’ says Pellicorne, ‘we all will return to the sea. Be upright for the city! Look into your hearts and think how you have sinned against your neighbour, or how your neighbour is a sinner!’
He pauses for effect, breathless in his righteousness. Nella imagines the congregation pulling open their ribs, staring into the beating mess of their sinful hearts, peering into everyone else’s before slamming their bodies shut. In the corner of the church, a starling beats its wings. Somebody should let it out, she thinks.
‘They’re always getting trapped,’ Cornelia whispers.
‘Let us not allow his fury to harm us again.’ There are several grunts of assent from the congregation, and by now, Pellicorne’s voice is slightly quavering with emotion. ‘It is greed. Greed is the canker we must cut out – greed is the tree and money the deep-lying root!’
‘It also paid for your nice collar,’ Cornelia mutters. Nella feels breathless with trying not to giggle. She risks a glance at Frans Meermans. Whilst his wife’s attention is drawn to the pulpit, he is watching the Brandts.
‘We must not fool ourselves that we have harnessed the power of the seas,’ Pellicorne modulates his voice to an insistent, lulling hum before sticking in the knife. ‘Yes, the bounty of Mammon has come to us – but one day it will drown us all. And where will you be on that fateful day? Where? Up to your elbows in sugared sweets and fat chicken pies? Swamped in your silks and strings of diamonds?’
Cornelia sighs. ‘If only,’ she murmurs, ‘if only.’
‘Take care, take care,’ warns Pellicorne. ‘This city thrives! Its money gives you wings to soar. But it is a yoke on your shoulders and you would do well to take note of the bruise around your neck.’
Marin has screwed her eyes tight as if she’s going to cry. Nella hopes it is merely a sort of spiritual bliss, an abandonment to the power of Pellicorne’s holy warning words. Meermans is still staring. Marin opens her eyes and notices this; her knuckles tighten on her psalter. She shifts in her seat, misery writ across her waxen face. Nella’
‘Adulterers. Money-men. Sodomites. Thieves,’ the pastor cries. ‘Beware them all, look for them! Tell your neighbour if the cloud of danger is approaching. Let not evil pass your doorstep, for once the canker comes it will be hard to take away. The very ground beneath us will break apart, God’s fury will seep into the land.’
‘Yes,’ says the man in the crowd again. ‘Yes!’
Dhana barks with increasing agitation. ‘Shut up,’ Cornelia whispers.
‘What can you do to make it go away?’ booms Pellicorne, back to his full volume, arms aloft like Christ himself. ‘Love. Love your children, for they are the seeds that will make this city bloom! Husbands, love your wives, and women, be obedient, for all that is holy and good. Keep your houses clean, and your souls will follow suit!’
He is finished. There are sighs of release, sounds of agreement, an awakening and stretching of legs. Nella is beginning to feel lightheaded. The light is shining on the grave-slabs. Be obedient. Husbands, love your wives. You are sunlight through a window, which I stand in, warmed. My darling. The baby wails again and Nella and Marin look up together as its mother unsuccessfully tries to hush it, absenting herself from the congregation and slipping out through the side-door of the church.
Nella follows Marin’s gaze, both staring enviously at the brief square of golden sunlight afforded by the mother’s exit. In this intense new world of Amsterdam, in this cold city church, one hour of worship feels like a year.
That night in Nella’s room, the moon illuminates her cabinet in patches. The tock of the pendulum clock beats the air like a muffled pulse, seeming to grow louder in her ears. She thinks of the woman in the church, observing her in silence.
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes