The miniaturist, p.11
The Miniaturist, p.11Jessie Burton
‘Why didn’t you speak to me?’ Nella asks out loud, watching the spaces of her nine dark rooms. ‘What do I have that you want?’
No answer comes, of course, and the pieces inside the cabinet give off a shifting silver radiance. Tomorrow, Nella thinks, I will go to the miniaturist to settle their unwanted presence once and for all. It is not right, surely, to be sent things you didn’t ask for? It is a staking of forbidden territory.
Nella is glad to be out of Assendelft, true – but home is nowhere – it is neither back there in the fields nor here in the canals. Adrift, she feels shipwrecked between the idea of her marriage and its actual state, and the cabinet, beautiful and useless, is a horrible reminder of it all.
Johannes’ diffidence towards her has begun to pierce deeply. He has disappeared many times to the bourse, to the VOC, to his warehouse by the eastern taverns, where the potatoes have the fluffiest flesh. He takes no interest in her, he doesn’t come to church. At least Marin notices me enough to give me a bruise, Nella thinks. How ridiculous this is, to be grateful for a pinch! Her anchor has dropped but found no place to hold – and so it goes through her, massive, unstoppable and dangerous, plunging through the sea.
The sound of whispering rouses her from self-pity. Sitting up, Nella can still smell lily oil hanging on the air. Even I am beginning to dislike it, she thinks. She creeps across her room, straining her ears as she opens her door. The corridor is freezing, but there are definitely two voices in the hallway, words winnowing from urgent breath. They seem excited or fearful – certainly careless, their whispers coming up the house.
Nella wonders if her imagination is betraying her as the voices pause, two doors are shut, and the house falls again to quiet. She moves along the corridor, pressing her forehead between the spindles of the banister, listening vainly. But there is only silence, as if the speakers have vanished into the panelling of the wall.
When the scrabbling starts up, the hairs rise on the back of Nella’s arms. Her guts swill as she looks down to where the noise increases – but it is only Rezeki, Rezeki, peering up at her before slinking low across the tiles. The animal moves like spilled liquid, masterless, a chess piece rolling out of place.
By midday, Cornelia has already spent hours in the working kitchen preparing for the Meermans’ dinner. The feast is to be sumptuous; a spread of winter fare, spiced to the hilt with treats from Johannes’ deals in the East.
Nella finds her sitting at the table chopping a pair of huge cabbages. ‘Hungry?’ the maid asks, looking up at her young mistress, who hovers on the bottom step, Dhana at her side.
‘Like a dog,’ Nella replies, trying to trace signs of a sleepless night on Cornelia’s face. The maid looks more flustered than anything.
‘Talk about short notice!’ Cornelia says. ‘You’ve got dried bread and herring until I’ve finished all my dishes – Madame Marin insists. This cabbage needs a dress.’ On seeing Nella’s face, Cornelia relents. ‘Oh, here. Have a puffert. They’ve just come out of the pan.’ She pushes a plate towards her, piled up with small fried pancakes dusted in sugar.
‘What did Hanna give you, in her husband’s shop?’ As Dhana moves to her bed by the stove, Cornelia’s hand hovers over the remaining cabbage. Her skin is red-raw, her fingernails white from all the soap.
‘You’re eating it,’ Cornelia says, leaning in. How round and blue her eyes are, her irises ringed in black. ‘The last of Arnoud’s best sugar. Hanna’s right. So much for sale in this city is terrible. It’s a shame the Seigneur is selling all of Agnes’ abroad.’
Cornelia’s act of sharing has cracked a carapace, and Nella feels within a sense of rising warmth. Even the cabbage seems to glow, a green orb in the friendly firelight of the open stove.
Taking a deep gulp of cold air, Nella coughs on the tinge of sewage. In summer this canal will be hell, she thinks, walking up the Golden Bend. But for now, walking alone feels wonderful – and unaccompanied women, as her husband observed on the barge, are not such a rarity that Nella feels any scrutiny. Passing through Vijzelstraat, crossing Reguliersdwarsstraat and onto Kalverstraat after asking for directions, Nella quickly finds the sign of the sun with the motto underneath: Everything Man Sees He Takes For A Toy. She knocks on the heavy door. The street is not busy – people want to stay inside where it is warm. Nella’s breath turns into moisture on the air as she knocks again.
‘Hello?’ she calls. Please answer, she thinks. ‘Hello? It’s Nella Oortman. Petronella Brandt. I need to speak with you. You sent some things I didn’t order. I like them, but I don’t understand why you did it.’
Nella puts her ear to the dense wood, straining vainly for the sound of feet. She stands back, looking up into the panes. No candles are lit from within and all is still – yet the place has the unmistakeable air of occupation.
When the face at the window appears, Nella stumbles back into the middle of the Kalverstraat, a shock of recognition stopping the breath in her throat. The glass may be thick and warped, but that hair is unmistakeable. It is the woman who watched her at church.
Her face a pale coin, blonde locks beaming through the dark glass shadows, the woman rests her palm upon the windowpane. She remains motionless in that position, casting a calm regard down onto the street.
‘You!’ Nella says. But the woman doesn’t move. ‘Why—’
‘She won’t come out,’ interrupts a man’s voice. ‘However hard you try. I’ve got a good mind to report her to the authorities.’
Nella swivels towards the speaker. He is a little way off from her, sitting outside what appears to be a wool shop. Nella swallows. It’s smallpox man – Hole-Face – the one who called Otto an animal, whom Cornelia yelled at in the street. Up close, his skin is like a sea-sponge, full of pinkish craters.
Nella looks back to the window. The woman has gone, the pane empty, and the house has a sudden deadened aspect, as if no one lives there at all. She rushes to the door and starts hammering, as if to beat the building back to life.
‘I told you, she doesn’t answer. She’s a law unto herself,’ Hole-Face remarks.
Nella spins round and presses her back against the door. ‘Who is she? Tell me who she is.’
He shrugs. ‘She doesn’t talk much. Funny accent. Nobody knows.’
‘Nobody? I don’t believe you.’
‘Well, we’re not all civic-minded, Madame,’ he says. ‘She keeps herself to herself.’
Nella pauses for breath. ‘In Smit’s List, a miniaturist advertised under this address. Are you telling me, Seigneur, that the only person who lives here is a woman?’
Hole-Face brushes wisps of wool from his trousers. ‘I am, Madame. And who knows what she’s getting up to in there?’
‘All and yet nothing,’ Nella replies.
‘Is that what you ladies call it.’
It cannot be possible that a woman lives alone in the heart of Amsterdam, under the eye of the burgomasters, the guilds, the hypocritical puritans like Hole-Face. What thoughts whir under her pale hair, why does she send out these breathtaking, unasked-for pieces?
I just want to know, thinks Nella, closing her eyes, remembering the inexpressible sensation of the woman’s gaze in the church and before that, out here on the Kalverstraat. This is too wonderful to be believed – a woman! Shame courses through Nella for what she wrote in her second letter – Sir . . . I will curtail our transactions forthwith. But it hasn’t seemed to matter. The woman seems to enjoy disobeying rules.
‘A woman alone like that can only mean one thing,’ Hole-Face goes on. ‘She’s a strumpet. And the boy who came to take her parcels was another foreigner. Those goings on should be kept for the Eastern Islands. Honest people who just want to work and live well shouldn’t have to—’
‘How long has she been here?’
‘Three or four months, I suppose. Why’s she so important to you?’
‘She’s not,’ says Nella, the fib jarring in her mouth. It feels the same a
From one of the higher windows Nella thinks she sees movement, but it’s muddled by the reflection of another woman in the window above the wool shop, beating a rug into the street and looking irritated by the fuss outside her door.
‘Seigneur, if you speak to her—’
‘I won’t be doing that,’ Hole-Face interrupts. ‘She’s got the devil in her.’
Nella fumbles for a guilder, placing it in his filthy palm. ‘If you do speak to her,’ she turns and calls up to the window. ‘Tell her Nella Brandt is sorry! And to ignore her last letter. I only want to know why. And tell her – I’m looking forward to what she sends next.’
Even as she shouts these words up to the window, Nella wonders if they are exactly truthful. Only widows and whores live alone, some happily, others unwilling – so what exactly is the miniaturist doing up there, sending out her pieces, wandering the city alone? Nella has no idea what she’s playing with, but it certainly doesn’t feel like a toy.
She drags her heels back up the Kalverstraat. The miniaturist’s extraordinary existence is wasted on people like Hole-Face, she thinks. And it will be extraordinary – whatever it turns out to be – those eyes alone, that stare, these incredible packets full of clues and stories. The back of Nella’s neck prickles and she turns quickly, believing herself connected to that house at the sign of the sun.
But the Kalverstraat is once again quiet, unaware of the presence hiding in its heart.
Nella returns home and rushes upstairs to the cabinet, running her fingers over the miniaturist’s pieces. They are charged with a different energy, laden with a meaning she cannot penetrate, yet even more addictive in their mystery. She’s chosen me, Nella thinks, glowing with this discovery, yearning to know more.
Cornelia’s voice and approaching footsteps pull her from her reverie. Hastily, she draws the cabinet’s curtains as the maid pokes her head round the door. ‘The Meermanses are coming within the hour,’ Cornelia gabbles, ‘and the Seigneur still isn’t home.’
Downstairs, Cornelia and Otto have exhausted themselves with extra polishing, sweeping, mopping, beating the curtains, pummelling the cushions, as if the house is out of shape and needs a realignment which cannot be achieved. The faience and China-ware glitter in the best kitchen, the mother-of-pearl winks from inlays, and seeing how all the tallow candles have been replaced with those of beeswax, Nella takes the chance to inhale their lovely scent.
‘Chores over chaos will only go so far,’ Otto murmurs to himself as he passes by, and she wonders what he means.
Marin has dressed in her finest black. Not stooping so low as perfume but armed with a shield of voluminous skirts, she now paces the salon, her stride long and regular as the pendulum clock. Her slender fingers worry her psalter, her hair screened off her face by a stiff white lace headband, handsome features stern. Nella sits, dressed by Cornelia in another of her altered gowns, this one the colour of gold. ‘Where is Johannes?’ she asks.
‘He’ll be here,’ Marin says.
With every restless footfall Marin makes across the polished floor, Nella wishes she could go back upstairs and search her miniatures for some clue as to what might come next, if anything, and what the mottoes mean.
By the time the Meermanses arrive, the cold blast of canal-side air shooting behind them into the hall, Johannes has still not returned. All the windows have been washed by Otto and the panes catch the reflection of twenty burning candles winking in the early twilight, their honey scent mingling with the sharper tang of vinegar and lye.
If Agnes notices the effort Marin has exerted on her servants, she makes no comment. Gliding in, her poise perfect now, all traces of the childlike girl at church are quite evaporated. They curtsey to each other, their silence broken only by the crush of their wide skirts towards the floor. Frans comes forward, a look of strain upon his face. Marin raises her hand and he takes it, the gold of his wedding ring gaudy on her pale skin. Time appears to slow, the lights twinkling in the air around them.
‘Seigneur,’ says Marin.
‘Come in, both of you, please.’ She extricates her hand and leads them to the salon.
‘Is your Negro here?’ Agnes calls, but Marin pretends not to hear.
It takes the women a few minutes to arrange themselves in the chairs around the fire, due to the amount of material that swathes them. Meermans stands by one of the windows, looking out. Nella eyes the green velvet seats – their copper studs and carved wooden lions – and thinks about their shrunken doubles upstairs in the cabinet. How on earth did the miniaturist know to send me those? she wonders, desperate to know.
But a pulse of fear beats inside her. She has chosen me, but for what? Who is this woman, watching from afar, who comments on my life? Instinctively, she turns to the windows, thinking she might see a face there, peering from the street. But the light outside has darkened further, and Meermans’ bulk would scare a person off.
‘Cornelia should draw the curtains,’ Marin says.
‘No,’ says Nella.
Marin turns to her. ‘It’s cold, Petronella. It would be best.’
‘Sit by me,’ says Agnes, interrupting.
Nella obeys, rustling over in her golden dress. ‘You look like a coin!’ exclaims Agnes – and the ridiculous comment, thrown hard and bright in the air, falls to the floor with a thud.
‘Where’s Johannes?’ asks Meermans.
‘He’s coming, Seigneur,’ says Marin. ‘He’s been delayed by unexpected business.’
Agnes glances at her husband. ‘We are rather tired.’
‘Oh?’ Marin replies. ‘Why is that, Madame?’
‘Oh, Agnes, call me Agnes. Marin, I don’t know why, after twelve years, you can’t do it.’ Agnes laughs, the ha that makes Nella wince.
‘Agnes,’ says Marin quietly.
‘Feasts, mainly,’ Agnes goes on, sounding conspiratorial. ‘So many weddings before the winter. Did you know Cornelis de Boer has married Annetje Dirkmans?’
‘I do not know the name,’ says Marin.
Agnes demurs, jutting her lower lip. ‘Always the same,’ she says to Nella, her tone a mix of playful admonishment and deliberate barb. ‘I love a wedding,’ she goes on. ‘Don’t you?’
Neither Marin nor Nella say anything. ‘Marriage is—’ Agnes stops deliberately, considering her audience.
Marin’s hands are so still in her lap, they could be carved upon a tomb. Nella feels the jangle of this conversation, the dead ends of it and the unsaid words forming a knot in her mind. The only sound is the crackling of the fire and the occasional creak of Meermans’ leather boots as he shifts his weight at the window. From the working kitchen, the smells of Cornelia’s cooking waft, capons in mace and rosemary, a parsley pigeon in ginger.
‘I have to know,’ Agnes announces. Marin turns to her, alarm in her eyes. ‘What did Brandt buy you for your wedding gift, Nella?’
Nella’s eyes meet Marin’s. ‘A house,’ she says.
‘How wicked of him! Is it a hunting lodge? We’re buying a lodge in Bloemendaal.’
‘This one is enamelled with tortoiseshell,’ Nella says, beginning to enjoy herself, as Agnes’ eyes saucer in their sockets. ‘You . . . couldn’t possibly live inside it.’
Agnes seems puzzled. ‘Why not?’
‘It is this house, shrunk to the size of a cabinet,’ says Marin. From the window, Meermans turns.
‘Oh, one of those,’ Agnes tuts. ‘I thought you meant a real house.’
‘Do you have one, Agnes? Petronella’s is shot through with pewter,’ Marin says.
Agnes’ girlishness rises up once again, a momentary defiance flickering over her face. ‘Of course I do. Mine is covered in silver,’ she replies.
Her hard boast melts to a raw fib, pooling between the silent women. Each of them examines the material of her dress, unable t
Nella falters. The thought of Agnes going to the Kalverstraat, of her having a connection with that woman, of her knowing she even exists, feels insupportable. It would feel as if her secret knowledge had been plucked, its best bits pecked away.
As if she senses weakness, Agnes leans forward. ‘Well?’
‘My mother left me some childhood pieces. Petronella has been using those,’ Marin says.
‘What, Marin?’ says Agnes. ‘You had a childhood?’
‘I must fetch the Rhenish wine,’ Marin adds, ignoring both this and the gratitude which beams from Nella’s face. ‘Otto has failed to put it out.’
Marin disappears from the room, calling Otto’s name. Agnes watches her exit, leaning back against her chair. ‘Poor thing,’ she breathes. ‘Poor thing.’ She turns to Nella, concern etched on her face. ‘I don’t know why she’s so unhappy.’ She leans ever closer, scooping Nella’s hand in both of hers. Her fingers are damp, like a pond-pulled frog. ‘Our husbands, Nella, used to be such good friends.’ She squeezes tight, the stones of her twisted rings indenting Nella’s palm. ‘They made it through some of the worst storms the North Sea has ever seen.’
‘You are too interested in the past, my darling,’ her husband calls from the window. ‘Is not today more interesting?’
Agnes laughs. ‘Oh, Frans. Nella, your husband must have told you, they met when they were twenty-two, working in the VOC ships? Over the Equator they went – missing the Carib storms because the north-east trade wind was pushing them on.’ Agnes recites it like a fairy tale, learned by years of repetition.
‘They were so talented, working for the glory of the republic! Of course, Frans found his calling at the Stadhuis in the end, but the brick walls of Amsterdam could never hold Brandt.’
When her husband stops at the door, Agnes’ gaze follows him like a hawk. ‘Has Brandt told you his tales of Batavia?’ she asks Nella.
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes