The miniaturist, p.13
The Miniaturist, p.13Jessie Burton
The silence bellows down Nella’s ears, pain bursts from the centre of her heart. Humiliation spreads from one black spore to thousands, and the hurt that has been hibernating finally finds a voice.
She doesn’t know if he can hear her, if words are coming out. ‘Idiot, idiot, idiot,’ she whispers, her eyes shut tight. Her legs are leaden, her skin hot, her body heavy as a millstone. She feels men’s hands upon her, and, lifted, her head lolling, she sees the five white toes on one of Johannes’ feet. It is the first time since Marin’s pinch that anyone has touched her.
‘Nella,’ says a familiar voice.
It is Cornelia. Cornelia has come. Nella allows herself to be dragged from the room, fumbled rapidly down the endless corridor, as if the two of them are running from a wave.
Johannes is calling her name. Nella can hear him, but she can’t answer, and would she want to even if she could? Her mouth won’t make words. They choke upon her tongue.
Cornelia descends with her down the last steps, orders her to move one foot in front of the other, Jesus Christ, Madame, just walk, please just walk so we can get you home. They pass the same men still standing in the courtyard. Cornelia has to drag her, shielding Nella’s head so no one can see the devastation smacked across her mistress’s face.
As they move up the Kloveniersburgwal, Nella’s distress surges and she retches. Cornelia puts a firm hand over her mouth, for a cry will attract too much unwelcome attention on these close and watchful streets.
They reach the house. The door swings open as if by its own accord, but then Nella sees Marin and Otto waiting in the shadows. Hiding her face, she allows Cornelia to be her barrier, helping her up the stairs. Nella climbs onto her bed, and pulls at the bridal sheets, trying to breathe, choking on her tears.
Then, from deep within, the howl comes – a scream which rips apart the air.
Nella feels someone stroke her forehead, again and again, holding her, forcing a drink down her throat. She can hear her howling start to fade, the last noise dying. Otto, Marin and Cornelia lean like Magi over the crib, their faces full-moons of concern.
I am the wrong one, Nella thinks. Idiot. I was not supposed—
The faces disappear and Nella falls, the image of her naked husband vanishing beneath a darkened pool.
Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter?
An irresistibly sweet smell wakes her up. Nella opens her eyes and sees Marin at the end of her bed, deep in thought, a plate of wafers in her lap. Marin unawares looks so much softer, her grey eyes lidded low, her mouth a dejected line. For seven days she has come to sit at the end of Nella’s bed, and on every one of those days Nella has pretended to sleep.
The image of Johannes and Jack Philips thrummed for days inside Nella’s skull, like a moth with constantly beating wings. Through the force of her own will Nella has made it flightless. She has stupefied it and removed its wings. But it has not disappeared.
What else did the two men do before she arrived in that office – their bed a rolled-out atlas, gods above their paper world? I am not capable of this life in Amsterdam, Nella thinks, wishing herself far away. I feel younger than eighteen but burdened as an eighty-year-old. It is as if her entire life has come at once, and she is wading through a sea of suppositions with no way of bailing. How foolish I was, to imagine I could make Amsterdam my own, that I could ever match Johannes Brandt! I have pulled my own wings off. I have no dignity.
The cabinet house, unpeopled, looms in the corner. Someone has opened its curtains, and it seems to grow as the rays of sunlight illuminate its frame. It captures Marin’s attention too – she places the plate of wafers on the floor and walks slowly towards it, putting her free hand inside the miniature salon. Pulling out the cradle, she rocks it back and forth across her palm.
‘Don’t touch that,’ Nella snaps, the first words she has spoken in a week. ‘Those things don’t belong to you.’
Marin jumps and puts the cradle back. ‘There are rose-water wafers for you,’ she says. ‘With cinnamon and ginger. Cornelia has a new griddle.’
Nella wonders what Cornelia has done to deserve a new griddle. The fire has been lit, bright and cheering in the grate. Outside, winter has made its true arrival, and within the room she can feel a trace of cold.
‘I thought you said an empty belly was better for the soul?’ she says, although she has been accepting the bowls of hutspot and the slices of Gouda Cornelia has been leaving outside the door. She feels the accusations boiling up inside her, ready to burst forth.
‘Eat,’ says Marin. ‘Please. Then let us talk.’
Nella takes the plate, a Delft pattern of flowers and intricate leaves. Marin plumps her pillows, resuming her perch at the end of the bed. The wafers are gold and crisped to perfection and the rosewater mingles with the warming ginger. From the corner Peebo squawks in his cage, as if he senses Nella’s reluctant pleasure.
What will Marin say, she wonders, when I tell her what I’ve seen?
‘Perhaps you would like to get out of bed?’ Marin sounds like a queen trying to be friends with a peasant.
Nella points towards the cabinet. ‘I suppose you’d be happier to see me in there.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘My life here is over.’
Marin stiffens at this, and Nella pushes the plate of unfinished wafers towards her sister-in-law. ‘No more of your orders, Marin. I understand it all.’
‘But I wonder if you do?’
‘I do.’ Nella takes a deep breath. ‘There is something you must know.’
Blood flushes into Marin’s pale face. ‘What?’ she says. ‘What is it?’
Nella, made momentarily powerful by her withheld knowledge, crosses her hands on the coverlet and stares into Marin’s grave eyes. Her body feels heavy, anchored to the bed.
‘There’s a reason I’ve stayed in here all week, Madame. Johannes – your brother – no, I can barely say it.’
‘Johannes is – your brother is – a sodomite.’
Marin blinks. The hardened image of Johannes and Jack bursts to fresh life in Nella’s mind. A flake of pastry sticks in her throat. Still Marin does not speak, examining instead the embroidery of the bedcover, the fat Bs swirled amongst the foliage and woodland birds.
‘I’m very sorry you are upset, Nella,’ Marin says in a quiet voice. ‘Johannes is unlike most husbands, I admit.’
At first, Nella does not understand. Then Marin’s face opens towards her, a book showing its pages. A prickling sensation runs over her. It pinks her cheeks, it rushes through her blood.
‘You knew? You knew?’ She feels the sob come – this is almost worse than seeing her husband naked on his office couch with Jack. ‘Dear God. I am your fool – I’ve been a fool since the moment I arrived.’
‘We have not laughed at you, Petronella. Ever. You are no one’s fool.’
‘You’ve humiliated me. And I’ve seen it with my own eyes now. The disgusting, awful thing he did with – that boy—’
Marin stands up and walks to the window. ‘Does Johannes disgust you in his entirety?’
‘What? Yes. Sodomites – beware them all, Pellicorne said. God’s fury will seep into the land. I’m his wife, Marin!’ Words pour out of her, words she never thought she’d say. Letter by letter, she feels lighter, as if she might take off.
Marin spreads her fingers wide against the windowpane until the tips go white. ‘Your memory of that sermon is prodigious.’
‘You knew that Johannes would not love me!’
When Marin speaks, her voice is cracked. ‘I wondered how he could not. I – do not always understand.’ She pauses. ‘He likes you.’
‘Like a pet. And he likes Rezeki more. I cannot forgive this trick, this shame – you knew what this would be for me. The nights I waited—’
‘I did not
‘You? Did Johannes even pick me himself?’
Marin hesitates. ‘Johannes was – reluctant. He did not want – but – I made enquiries. One of your father’s friends in the city mentioned your family’s financial predicament he’d left behind. Your mother was more than enthusiastic. I thought it would satisfy everyone.’
Nella pushes the plate onto the floorboards where it breaks in three pieces. ‘And what opportunity have I had, Marin?’ she cries. ‘You’ve controlled everything. You’ve ordered my clothes, you hold the ledger book, you drag me to church, you push me into guild feasts where everyone stares at me. I was so grateful when you let me play the lute. Pathetic. I’m supposed to be the wife in this house but I’m no better than Cornelia.’
Marin covers her face with her hands as the air thickens between them. Nella feels her own vitality surge as she watches Marin’s struggle to remain composed.
‘Marin, stop pretending to be so calm! This is a disaster.’ Tears bubble up and Nella wills them to stop, but they run down her face despite her. ‘How can I be happy with a man who is going to burn in Hell?’
Marin’s face turns into a mask of rage. ‘Be quiet. Be quiet. Your family had nothing but your name. Your father left you paupers. You would have ended up a farmer’s wife.’
‘There’s nothing wrong with that.’
‘You say that in ten years’ time when the dams break, when your hands are raw and ten children are running around your feet, needing to be fed. You needed security, you wanted to be a merchant’s wife!’ Nella stays silent. ‘Petronella? What are you going to do?’
As the panic in Marin’s speech intensifies, it begins to dawn on Nella that some real power is finally hers. Does Marin think I’m going to the burgomasters? She stares in wonder at Marin’s contorted, pale features, feeling giddy that she – an eighteen-year-old from Assendelft – could go and tell the fathers of Amsterdam that her respectable merchant husband is possessed by the Devil.
Oh, you could do it, Nella tells herself. Right now, she feels like doing it. You could report Jack Philips, too. Who could stop you, if you wanted to go? You could crush this woman’s life in one sentence and free yourself of all humiliation.
As if she has read her mind, Marin speaks again. ‘You’re part of this family, Petronella Brandt. Its truth sticks to you like oil on a bird. What do you want, a pauper’s life again? And what would happen to Otto and Cornelia if you let our secret out?’
She spreads her arms wide like wings, and Nella feels her own body contract into the bed.
‘We can do nothing, Petronella – we women,’ Marin says. ‘Nothing.’ Her eyes burn with an intensity Nella has never seen in her before. ‘All we can do if we’re lucky is stitch up the mistakes that other people make.’
‘Agnes is happy enough.’
‘Agnes? Oh, Agnes plays her role, but what will happen when her lines run out? That plantation was her father’s and now she’s handed it to her husband. It astonishes me how she can feel so clever about it. And some of us can work,’ Marin cries, ‘back-breaking work, for which they won’t even pay us half of what a man could earn. But we can’t own property, we can’t take a case to court. The only thing they think we can do is produce children who then become the property of our husbands.’
‘But you have not married, you do not—’
‘There are some women whose husbands don’t leave them alone. Baby after baby till their body’s like a wrinkled sack.’
‘I’ll be a wrinkled sack if it means I’m not alone! A public wife, a private life – isn’t that the way the motto goes?’
‘And how many women die on the birthing bed, Petronella? How many girls become a housewife corpse?’
‘Stop shouting at me! There were funerals at Assendelft too, you know – I understand the danger.’
‘Did my mother know what he was? Did she?’
Marin, breathless, stops. ‘I do not think so. But she told me that you were a girl with imagination – strong and capable – and that you would thrive in the city. “Nella will find a way”, she wrote – “Assendelft is too small for a mind like hers.” I was happy to believe it.’
‘That may be,’ Nella says. ‘But to decide that I was never going to live as a proper woman was not your choice to make.’
Marin’s sneer scrapes Nella’s skin. ‘What do you mean – a proper woman?’
‘A proper woman marries – she has children—’
‘Then what does that make me? Am I not a proper woman? Last time I looked I certainly was.’
‘We neither of us are.’
Marin sighs, rubbing her forehead. ‘God’s blood. I do not mean to lose my temper. It slips from me and I cannot catch it. I’m sorry.’
The true quality of this apology creates a moment of peace. Exhausted, Nella lies back on her bed and Marin breathes deeply. ‘Words are water in this city, Nella,’ she says. ‘One drop of rumour could drown us.’
‘Did you and Johannes sacrifice my future,’ Nella says, ‘because your own were in such peril?’
Marin closes her eyes. ‘The marriage has benefited you, has it not?’
‘Well, I wouldn’t have drowned in Assendelft.’
‘Yet your life there was like one underwater. A few cows, your draughty house, and boredom. I thought this marriage might give you – an adventure.’
‘I thought you said women don’t have adventures,’ Nella snaps. Even as she says this, she thinks about the miniaturist on the Kalverstraat. ‘Are we in danger, Marin? Why do we need that sugar money? Johannes wouldn’t sell it if he didn’t have to.’
‘Keep your enemies close.’
‘I thought Agnes Meermans was supposed to be your friend.’
‘The sugar profits will protect us,’ Marin replies, looking back out of the window. ‘In Amsterdam, God, for all His glory, only goes so far.’
‘How can you say such a thing? You, who are so pious—’
‘What I believe has nothing to do with what I can control. We are not poor, but the sugar is a dam against the rising waves. And you protect us too, Petronella.’
‘I protect you?’
‘Of course. And believe me, we are grateful.’
Marin’s awkward gratitude blooms in Nella’s blood, swelling her with self-importance. She tries to hide her pleasure, concentrating on the swirling design of the coverlet.
‘Marin, tell me – what would happen if Agnes and Frans found out about Johannes?’
‘I hope they would have mercy.’ Marin pauses, finding a chair. ‘But I suspect that they would not.’
In the heavy silence, Marin collapses slowly like a puppet, her legs folding beneath her, arms and neck slack, chin to chest. ‘Do you know what they do to men like my brother?’ she says. ‘They drown them. The holy magistrates put weights on their necks and push them in the water.’ A wave of devastation seems to draw down Marin’s body. ‘But even if they dragged Johannes back up and cut him open,’ she says, ‘they still wouldn’t find what they wanted.’
Tears start to strand on Marin’s pale cheeks. She presses her hand to her chest as if to ebb her grief. ‘Because, Petronella – it’s something in his soul. It’s something in his soul and you cannot get it out.’
Nella opens her door an hour later, holding Peebo in his cage. The sun shines a thin light through the landing window, turning the wall before her pale lemon. She can hear Johannes in Marin’s tiny room, the low rise and fall of their hushed voices. Leaving Peebo’s cage at the top of the stairs, she creeps along the corridor.
‘Why can’t you keep away from that man? I think how this might end and I cannot bear it.’
‘He has no one, Marin.’
‘You underestimate him.’ Marin sounds exhausted. ‘He has no loyalty.’
‘You think the worst of everyone.’
‘He’s helping guard the sugar. It’s a fair exchange. At least it stops him making deliveries and coming round here.’
Nella measures the beats of Marin’s silence. ‘With what blind eyes you view the world,’ she finally says, her voice holding down her fury. ‘Why is your warehouse any less exposed than this house? He should be kept as far away as possible from anything to do with us. What if Petronella tells her mother – or the burgomasters?’
‘Nella has a heart—’
‘Whose existence you’ve barely acknowledged.’
‘Not true. Not fair. I’ve bought that cabinet, those dresses, I took her to the feast. What else am I supposed to do?’
‘You know what else.’
There is a long pause. ‘I believe,’ Johannes says, ‘that she’s the lost piece in our puzzle.’
‘Which you are in danger of losing. The damage you’ve done, so careless with other people’s needs—’
‘Me? Your hypocrisy is breathtaking, Marin. I warned you back in August that I couldn’t—’
‘And I warned you, that if you didn’t stop with Jack something terrible was going to happen.’
Nella cannot bear to hear any more. She walks back to the staircase and picks up Peebo’s cage. As she goes downstairs she realizes never has she felt more powerful, nor more frightened. She pictures Johannes disappearing underwater, a face distorted, hair swirling like grey seaweed. Her hand could be the doing of it. They have been protected by these walls and that heavy front door for years – but they opened it and let Nella in, and now look what has happened. We don’t like traitors – Marin’s words come back to her, a reminder of the strange unity of these people to whom Nella half-belongs, waiting to see where her loyalty lies.
On the last stair, she sits and puts the cage beside her. Peebo is on his perch, gripping it obediently. Nella begins to tug at the door and it swings open with a light clang. Her little bird jumps in shock, his head twitching with curiosity, blinking at her with his bead-like eyes.
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes