The miniaturist, p.12
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       The Miniaturist, p.12

           Jessie Burton
 

  ‘No.’

  ‘He sold his stock and quadrupled the money he went with. He practically talked the guilders into his pocket and came back with a crew of his own.’

  Agnes’ admiration, laced with an indefinable scorn, is hypnotic. Although this information seems to cause Meermans some discomfort, Nella is eager for more.

  ‘That was seventeen years ago, Agnes,’ says Meermans, his voice forcefully hearty. ‘These days he’s happier down on the Eastern Islands stuffing himself with potatoes.’

  He walks out of the room as if he lives here and knows where he’s going. She hears the pause of his heavy clump across the hallway and imagines him sitting in one of the hall chairs, seeking a moment of relief – but from what exactly, she cannot tell.

  He’s right about one thing, though – Agnes is the only person Nella has met who likes to bring up the past. It pained her mother, it made her father weep. The rest of Amsterdam seems to want to move forward, building ever upwards despite the boggy land that might well sink them all.

  Agnes looks breathless, slightly wild. Opening her hands with a shrug, she picks absently at an invisible mote of dust on her skirt. ‘Men are men,’ she says, oblique and adult once again.

  ‘Of course,’ Nella replies, thinking that two men couldn’t be more different than Frans Meermans and Johannes Brandt.

  ‘I’ve given a loaf of our sugar to your maid,’ says Agnes. ‘Frans said we’ll try it after dinner. Do you think Marin will have a spoonful?’ She closes her eyes. ‘All those perfect loaves! Frans has been – wonderful. The refining process has gone very smoothly.’

  ‘It was your sole inheritance, am I correct?’

  Agnes blinks. ‘In the act of submission, Madame Brandt,’ she murmurs, ‘one always gains much more.’

  Nella instinctively rejects this offered confidence. Disappointed by the curdling silence between them, Agnes straightens up. ‘Although there may be more sugar to come, it is important your husband does well by us,’ she says. ‘The weather is not always kind to Surinam, and foreigners are constantly attacking my father’s – that is to say, our land. This crop could be our only fortune for many a year.’

  ‘Yes, Madame. We are highly honoured you have selected us.’

  Agnes visibly softens a little. ‘Have you ever been to your husband’s office?’ she asks.

  ‘Never, Madame.’

  ‘I go quite frequently to the Stadhuis. It is pleasant for Frans when I pay him visits. Such a thrill to see his achievements in regulating this republic. He is an exceptional man. But tell me,’ Agnes continues. ‘Has Marin made you eat her herring dinners, those culinary massacres of self-improvement?’

  ‘We—’

  ‘One-herring dinners and plain black gowns!’ Agnes places a hand on her heart, closing her eyes again. ‘But in here, Madame, God sees our truest deeds.’

  ‘I—’

  ‘Do you think Marin looks unwell?’ Agnes snaps her eyes open, adopting her previous pose of concern.

  Nella doesn’t know what to say, exhausted by the woman’s mercurial conversation. Unhappiness seems to roll off Agnes in uneven waves, and yet, she can be so convincingly confident that it makes for such confusion. She hungers for something, and Nella cannot sate her.

  ‘Marin always used to be the strongest,’ Agnes observes, a faint wisp of spite.

  Nella is saved from replying by the sound of Rezeki’s bark.

  ‘Ah!’ says the guest, rearranging her dress. ‘Your husband is finally home.’

  Exchanges

  The meal, for all of Nella’s hunger and Cornelia’s cooking talent, is excruciating. Over the downy white expanse of cloth, Agnes drinks three glasses of Rhenish and talks of Pastor Pellicorne’s excellent sermons and his piety, of the importance of always being grateful – and what about those petty thievers with their severed hands she’s seen being let out of the Rasphuis?

  ‘What is the Rasphuis?’ Nella asks.

  ‘The male prison,’ Agnes replies. ‘The Spinhuis is where wicked women are sent, the Rasphuis where they tame the wild men. It’s where the lunatics live,’ she continues, craning forward and boggling her eyes in some approximation of madness. It is a shocking sight and when Agnes persists in it, Frans stares into the tablecloth. ‘Abandoned by their families, paid for with a stipend to the prison to keep them safe.’ She points a ringed finger at Nella. ‘But the really wild men get sent to the torture chamber in the bottom of the Stadhuis, next to the storerooms for the city’s gold.’

  Marin says little, throwing glances at her brother, who matches Agnes glass for glass and then one extra by the time Cornelia removes the first course.

  Johannes holds himself together, but he is glassy-eyed, his stubble unshaved silvering his tanned face. He considers his plate with extra concentration, plunging his fork into the chunks of pigeon slicked in ginger sauce. As Agnes becomes more foolish, Meermans takes over, trying to impress with his mercantile talk. He wants to discuss cane juice and copper equipment, sugar loaves, the degree to which one must punish a slave. Johannes chomps on his carrots with a barely muted ferocity.

  Eventually, the plum pie and thick cream has been fought with and swallowed down, the meal is done, and the real reason for their being there can be avoided no longer. At a nod from Marin, Cornelia comes in with the sugar loaf on a China-ware plate, as tentative as if she were carrying a newborn child. Behind her, Otto enters with a tray of spoons.

  Nella examines the sugar loaf, a conical, glittering structure the length of her forearm, the crystals tightly compacted.

  ‘Half of the crop was loaved before it shipped,’ Meermans says. ‘The other half has been refined in Amsterdam.’

  ‘Spoons?’ says Johannes, handing them out. Everyone takes an implement. ‘Cornelia, Otto, you should try,’ he says. ‘You’re the likely experts.’

  Agnes’ nostrils flare and she purses her lips. Gingerly, Cornelia accepts a spoon and passes one to Otto. As Johannes pulls out a small flick-knife and stands to make the first incision, Meermans rises from his chair and draws a dagger from his belt. ‘Allow me,’ he says, brandishing the blade. Johannes smiles and sits back down. Marin remains rigid, both hands resting on the damask cloth.

  The first white shaving lands in a curl at the base of the cone. ‘For you,’ says Meermans, handing it with a flourish to his wife. Agnes beams. He hands out more shavings, leaving Johannes and Otto till last. ‘Incroyable,’ he says, popping his own curl in his mouth. ‘Your father may not have been blessed with sons, my dear, but in his sugar he got the prize.’

  Nella feels the shaving melt in her mouth, sweet and granular, vanished in a moment. It leaves a sheen of vanilla behind, and tacks her tongue onto her palate. Marin holds her spoon, her eyes averted from the waiting sweetness. Agnes’ eyes never leave her as Marin’s knuckles tighten on the handle, her mouth barely opening as she swallows it quickly.

  ‘Exceptionally good,’ Marin says; a thin smile.

  ‘Another taste, Madame?’ says Agnes.

  ‘Cornelia, what do you think of it?’ Johannes asks. Marin throws the maid a warning glance.

  ‘Very good, Seigneur. Delicious.’ Cornelia’s voice is the most timid Nella has ever heard.

  ‘Otto, what do you think?’ Johannes asks.

  ‘Now God be thanked, but you are going to make our fortunes, Brandt!’ Agnes interrupts. Johannes smiles, accepting another white curl from the glistening loaf. Nella watches Otto wipe his mouth delicately, every move one of controlled economy.

  ‘When are you going to Venice?’ asks Meermans. ‘All those palazzos and gondolas – it’ll be home away from home.’

  Marin, who had been trying another shaving, puts down her spoon. ‘Venice?’ she says.

  ‘What is a gondola, dearest?’ Agnes asks her husband, her voice stupid, her eyes shining with Rhenish wine and a desire to be loved.

  ‘C’est un bateau,’ he replies.

  ‘Oh,’ says Agnes.

  ‘I’ll be gon
e within the month,’ says Johannes. ‘Perhaps you would like to join me, Frans? Ah,’ he adds, putting up a finger. ‘I forget how hard you find the water.’

  Meermans sniffs. ‘Very few men bear choppy waves.’

  ‘True.’ Johannes drains his glass. ‘But there are always those who can.’

  Marin rises from the table. ‘Petronella, will you play the lute?’

  ‘The lute?’ With Marin’s warning not to pluck her brother’s strings rising in her mind, Nella cannot conceal her surprise.

  ‘That is what I said.’

  Their eyes meet for the third time that evening. Nella, seeing the fatigue in Marin’s face, refrains from any protest. ‘Of course I will, Marin,’ she says. ‘Of course.’

  It is a pleasure to play the lute, but an even greater one to see her audience’s faces as the hastily re-tuned strings lend themselves to her fingers. For once, Nella is the object of appreciative attention, playing for forty minutes in a horseshoe of chairs. Even Otto and Cornelia come to listen.

  The contentious, now-diminished sugar loaf is back in Agnes’ pouch, and a quiet descends, strung together moment by moment with simple notes and a cracked song of lost love. Johannes watches his new wife with something akin to pride. Marin stares into the fire, listening, and Agnes nods out of time whilst her husband shifts his buttocks in his seat.

  The Meermanses leave soon after, with promises to check with Johannes on his progress through November. Marin closes the door. ‘God be thanked they’ve gone,’ she breathes. ‘Clear it all in the morning,’ she tells Cornelia, who cannot hide her shock at being excused a night’s worth of plate-cleaning.

  Exhilarated from her triumph, Nella cradles the lute in her hands, leaning up against the hallway window. Agnes and Frans are making their way down the front steps.

  ‘Tortoiseshell, Frans.’ Agnes barely bothers, or is unable after all that wine, to keep her voice down. ‘With pewter.’

  ‘Agnes, be quiet.’

  ‘What a strange wedding gift – the way these great minds work! I’m having one of my own, Frans. We can afford it soon. And I want mine to be better than hers.’

  ‘I wouldn’t say his mind was precisely great—’

  ‘And, God be praised – did you see Marin’s face when she ate our sugar? Weeks I’ve been waiting for that. Fransy, the Lord has been merciful—’

  ‘Oh, just hold your insufferable tongue.’

  As they walk away, Madame Meermans falls to a silence that does not break again.

  The Deserted Girl

  Cornelia has already lit a fire by the time Nella comes to the next morning. Nella dresses herself, not bothering with the constriction of a stomacher, preferring a shirt and waistcoat to all the whalebone Cornelia would inflict.

  ‘Are there any deliveries for me?’ she asks Otto downstairs.

  ‘No, Madame,’ he replies. He sounds relieved.

  Agnes’ observation still rings round Nella’s head. It is pleasant for Frans when I pay him visits. Though Nella had felt buoyed from the lute-playing, the whole evening has left a residue of discontent.

  Whilst Nella has no desire to copy Agnes Meermans in anything – she does know more about marriage than anyone in this household. I must be seen to encourage Johannes, Nella thinks, to praise him at his tasks. In turn, perhaps, he will soon praise me. Her plan is to surprise Johannes at his place of work, and after that, to return to the sign of the sun. If Hole-Face isn’t hovering, perhaps the miniaturist will want to speak.

  Though all the rooms are now once more immaculate, the whole house has a muted feel, an air of exhaustion after a fight. Johannes’ study door is open, and Nella can see his maps and papers scattered on the floor.

  She wanders into the dining room and stops at the sight of Marin. Not fully dressed, wearing her house coat over a blouse and skirt, Marin draws it close. Her light brown hair is loose and tumbles past her shoulders, giving off the vague scent of nutmeg. It is like seeing Marin, but through a softer and enriching lens.

  ‘Has Johannes already gone to the Old Hoogstraat?’ Nella asks.

  Otto comes to pour two cups of coffee, and the bitter smell sharpens her senses. A few drops fall from the spout, spreading on the cloth like virgin islands on a map. He keeps his expression focused on the stains that he has made.

  ‘Why?’ asks Marin.

  ‘I wanted to ask him where Bergen is.’

  ‘It’s in Norway, Petronella. Don’t bother him.’

  ‘But—’

  ‘And why do you want to know about Bergen, of all places? All they do there is trade fish.’

  In the hallway, Cornelia is brushing the black and white tiles around the front door, her head dipped in concentration. Otto continues down to the kitchen, the waft of the coffee pot in his wake. The weak October light is dim through the windows, and the tallow candles, newly rescued from their hiding place, are already lit. Nella pulls back the bolts and opens the door. Cornelia stops and straightens as the outside air comes in. ‘Madame, it’s only eight o’clock,’ she says, her head erect, hands gripping the broom like a spear. ‘Where are you going so early?’

  ‘I’m running errands,’ says Nella. Her temper swells at Cornelia’s unconvinced look. She feels imprisoned again, the fledgling sense of power imbued by the lute already faded. ‘Ladies don’t have errands, Madame,’ Cornelia says. ‘They should know their place.’

  It feels like a slap, an outrage that no servant would ever dare commit in Assendelft.

  ‘You should stay here,’ Cornelia persists, looking almost wretched. Nella turns to breathe the air of the outdoors, away from the smoky scent of the candles, her watchful face. ‘Wherever it is, you shouldn’t go alone,’ the maid murmurs, more gently this time, putting a hand on Nella’s arm. ‘I’m only—’

  ‘Unlike you, Cornelia, I can go wherever I want.’

  It will be interesting to see her husband in his place of work, to witness his efforts at solidifying his wealth. It is a way to understand him. Nella turns onto the Kloveniersburgwal, within reach of the sea-smell, the masts of the tall ships in the middle distance. As she walks along the canal, she even considers showing Johannes the models of his precious dogs. Surely they would please him.

  She walks through the main arch of the Old Hoogstraat entrance to the VOC house, near the armoury, where shields and breastplates are clanked and sorted for size. This place is the hub of the whole city, some might say the whole republic. Her father once told her that Amsterdam had funded over half the entire country’s war chest. He’d sounded suspicious of the city’s wealth and power, but mingled with that wariness was a wistful awe.

  Nella walks the perimeter of the first courtyard, dizzied by the repetitive brickwork. Two men are talking in the far corner and as she passes them, they drop to low bows. She curtsies and they consider her with curiosity.

  ‘We never see women at the VOC,’ the first man says.

  ‘Except at night,’ his friend chimes in, ‘with the fragrance of vanilla musk.’

  ‘I’m looking for Johannes Brandt,’ she replies, her voice tight with anxiety at their suggestive manner. A spray of red pimples covers the second man’s forehead. He’s little more than a boy. God has been malicious with his paintbrush.

  The men exchange a glance. ‘Go through that arch, into the second courtyard, and there’s a door on your far left,’ says the first. ‘It’s confidential up there,’ he adds. ‘No women allowed.’

  Nella can feel their eyes on her back as she walks under the second arch. No one answers when she knocks on the far-left door, and with impatience she pushes it open. Salt has infused the sparse furniture and walls, making the room dank. At the back is a spiral staircase and Nella begins to climb it, up and up, until she reaches an airier floor, a long corridor at the end of which is another large oak door.

  ‘Johannes?’ she calls.

  I am always calling after him, she thinks. Always waiting at his doors. She runs towards his office, fleet-footed as a cat, her
excitement growing as she thinks of his surprise.

  The handle at the end of the corridor is stiff, and as Nella pushes it hard and the door bursts open, her husband’s name mangles in her throat.

  Lying at the back of the room, Johannes is stretched out on a couch, eyes closed, naked, so naked, unable to move for a head of dark curls that hovers over his groin.

  The curls seem stuck there on her husband. And then Nella sees that the head is moving, up and down, up and down. The head is attached to a body, a lean torso, a pair of kneeling legs, half hidden behind the couch.

  Johannes’ eyes open on the sound of the door slam, widening in horror as he sees his wife. His body starts to buck. The head of curls lifts and it’s Jack Philips, mouth open, eyes shocked, turning his pale face towards her. He rears upright on the other side of the couch, his slicked bare chest drawing Nella’s horrified gaze.

  Moving as if underwater, Johannes does not, or cannot cover himself. He is slow and seems unable to breathe. His thing, his worm, is a mast – so meat-like, so upright, so glistening wet. He pushes Jack away and rises like a burly courtesan from his bower, his broad chest so hairy compared to the younger man’s.

  The day’s grey light is a pallor on them all.

  ‘Nella,’ her husband says, but her head is on fire and she can barely hear him. ‘You’re not supposed. You’re not—’

  The spell breaks as Jack tosses Johannes his shirt. They fumble – arms, fingers, knees – both ungainly, both of them panicking, and as she watches their hasty dance, Nella’s own knees begin to give way. From the floor she looks up and sees that her husband has managed to stand. He reaches out – for her, for Jack, for clothes, she cannot tell – it’s as if he’s grasping at invisible ropes in the air. And there is Jack from Bermondsey, topless, running his fingers through his curls. Is he grinning or grimacing or both at once? The idea dies in the roar of her head and her hands fly up to her eyes.

  The last thing she sees is Johannes’ penis, beginning to loll, long and dark against the top of his thigh.

 

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