The miniaturist, p.14
The Miniaturist, p.14Jessie Burton
He is tentative at first, but then he takes his chance, and flies. Round and round the giant hall, up and up, swooping and flapping at the great space, his droppings falling abundant on the floor tiles. Let them fall, Nella thinks. Let him cover these blasted tiles with shit.
She leans back, watching Peebo’s upward spiral, shivering from the front window, left ajar. The bird flits from one side of the hall to the other. Nella can feel the displacement of air as his wings beat – the papery flap of bone and feather, the riffling of pinions as he finds a perch in the rafters his mistress cannot see.
Whatever her mother’s warnings – the women buried too soon in the Assendelft churchyard – Nella has always assumed that one day a baby would come. She touches her abdomen, imagining a curve there, a balloon of flesh hiding a child. Life in this house isn’t just preposterous, it’s a game, an exercise in fakery. Who is she now? What is she supposed to do?
‘Hungry?’ asks a voice.
Nella jumps as Cornelia appears from under the stairs, looking pale and apprehensive. She doesn’t bother to question what the maid is doing hovering there. No one is ever truly alone in this house; there will always be someone watching or listening. Doesn’t she herself listen – to footsteps, closing doors, those hurried whisperings?
‘No,’ she says, but she is hungry. She could eat that whole feast from the silversmiths’ now, and never stop – consuming every morsel to make her feel she has some substance.
‘Are you going to leave him flying around?’ asks Cornelia, pointing to the brief glimpse of green feathers as Peebo flies low before moving off again into the shadows.
‘I am,’ Nella replies. ‘He’s been waiting for this moment since the day he arrived.’
She hunches over and the maid kneels down and places both her hands on Nella’s knees. ‘This is your home now, Madame.’
‘How can this house of secrets ever be called a home?’
‘There’s only one secret in this house,’ Cornelia says. ‘Unless you have one too?’
‘No,’ Nella says, but she thinks of the miniaturist.
‘What’s in Assendelft for you, Madame? You never talk of it, you can hardly miss it.’
‘No one ever asks me about it, except for Agnes.’
‘Well, from what I’ve heard, it’s got more cows than people.’
But Nella relents with a nervous giggle, musing on the distance she now feels from that crumbling house, that lake, those childhood memories. She does wish people wouldn’t be so rude about it. I could find my way back, she supposes – Mama would have to forgive me eventually, especially when I told her the truth. And if I stay, Johannes will still have his escapes, running his risks with pastors and magistrates, the prospect of eternal damnation diminishing in the face of his desires. I, on the other hand, will have almost nothing. No promise of motherhood, no shared secrets in the night, no household to run – except the one inside a cabinet where no living soul can thrive.
And yet, Nella thinks to herself. I fight to emerge, that’s the message the miniaturist sent me. Assendelft is small, its company is limited, mired in the past. Here, in Amsterdam, the cabinet’s curtains have opened a new world, a strange world, a conundrum she wishes to solve. And most of all, there is no miniaturist in Assendelft.
The woman who lives on the Kalverstraat is nebulous, uncertain. She is possibly even dangerous – but right now, she is the only thing Nella can call her own. If she went back to the countryside, she would never know why the miniaturist had chosen to send her these unexpected pieces, she would never discover the truth behind the work. She knows she wants these deliveries to continue more than she wants them to stop. In a fanciful moment, it occurs to her that their very existence might keep her alive.
‘Cornelia – you followed me that day. At Johannes’ office.’
The maid looks sombre. ‘I did, Madame.’
‘I don’t like being followed. But I’m glad you did.’
In the working kitchen, the maid hands Nella a kandeel of hot spiced wine, pouring one for herself. ‘Peace at last,’ she says.
‘I don’t want peace, Cornelia. I’d rather have a husband.’
‘My pasties will be ready,’ the maid replies, wiping her hands on her apron as a log in the fire breaks open with a shower of glowing sparks. Nella lays her kandeel down on the oiled surface of the little chopping table by her knee. I will not hurt you, Petronella, was Johannes’ promise, made in the barge on their way towards the Guild of Silversmiths. She has always thought that kindness was an active thing. But the not doing of something, an act of restraint – could that be kindness too?
She was taught that sodomy was a crime against nature. In that respect, there is little difference between the doctrine of an Amsterdam preacher and a childhood priest in Assendelft. But how right is it to kill a man for something that is in his soul? If Marin is right, and it cannot be removed, then what is the point of all that pain? Nella takes a sip from the kandeel and lets the taste of hot spices carry her away from the awful image of Johannes under a cold black sea.
‘I put dried peas in them too. A new idea,’ Cornelia says as heat rushes out of the stove door, filling the room. She puts the pasty on a plate, drizzling it in grape juice, mutton-stock and butter before handing it over to Nella.
‘Cornelia, was there someone Marin once loved?’
‘That’s what I said.’
Cornelia’s fingers tighten on the plate. ‘Madame says love is best a phantom than reality, better in the chase than caught.’
The flames of the fire arch and disappear. ‘She might say that, Cornelia. But – I found something. A note. A love note, hidden in her room.’
The colour drains from Cornelia’s face. Nella hesitates, then takes the risk. ‘Did Frans Meermans write it?’ she whispers.
‘Oh, by all the angels,’ Cornelia breathes. ‘It can’t possibly – they never—’
‘Cornelia – you want me to stay, don’t you? You don’t want me to make a fuss?’
The maid tips up her chin and peers at Nella down her nose. ‘Are you bargaining with me, Madame?’
‘Perhaps I am.’
Cornelia wavers, then pulls a stool near and places her hand on Nella’s heart.
‘Do you swear, Madame? Do you swear not to speak of this to a soul?’
‘Then I’ll tell you now,’ the maid says, lowering her voice. ‘Agnes Meermans has always been a cat to hide her claws. All those airs and graces – but look closer, Madame. Look at the worry in the middle of her eye. She can’t ever hide her feelings about Marin – because Marin stole her husband’s heart.’
Cornelia stands up. ‘I can’t tell you all this without having something to keep my hands busy. I’ll make some olie-koecken.’ She gathers together a bowl of almonds, a handful of cloves and a cinnamon jar. As she starts crushing the nuts and cloves, the maid’s whispering, her air of secrecy and conviction tastes more delicious to Nella than the pasty on her plate.
Cornelia checks the stairs to see no one is coming. ‘Madame Marin was a lot younger than you when she first met Meermans,’ she says. ‘He was the Seigneur’s friend when they worked as clerks at the treasury. The Seigneur was eighteen, and Madame Marin must have been about eleven.’
Nella tries to imagine Marin as a child, but Agnes had it right; it is impossible. Marin is who she surely always was. Something rises in Nella’s mind, a jarring note. ‘But Agnes said that Frans and Johannes met at the VOC when they were twenty-two.’
‘Well, she was making that up – or else Meermans lied to her. He never worked at the VOC. He met the Seigneur at the Amsterdam treasury and ended up making laws at the Stadhuis. Not very impressive, is it – to stay in the office when your friend is out at sea with the republic’s greatest company. He gets seasick, Madame. Can you imagine a seasick Dutchman?’
Cornelia shrugs. ‘And both can throw you out the saddle. Anyway, Meermans first met Madame Marin on the feast of St Nicholas. Music filled the place, citterns, horns and viols – and Madame Marin danced with Meermans more than once. She thought he was a prince, so handsome. He eats too much now, but he was everyone’s favourite then.’
‘But how do you even know this, Cornelia? Were you even born?’
Cornelia frowns, dropping in her wheat-flour and ginger, thickening her batter with a whisk. ‘I was a baby in the orphanage then. But I’ve put it together, haven’t I? Keyholes’ she whispers, fixing her blue eyes on Nella with a knowing look. ‘I’ve worked her out.’ She draws a small bowl of apples close, peeling each one with a single rotation of her knife. ‘There’s something about Madame Marin. She’s a knot we all want to untie.’
But Nella wonders if there are any fingers sharp or deft enough to pick at Madame Marin. With her moodiness, her moments of shy generosity dashed by an unkind comment, Marin is the most tightly bound of them all.
As Cornelia resumes her whisking, Nella’s heart feels as if it’s swelling in her ribs. This girl came to Johannes’ office to save me, she thinks. And if that is true, then she’s the first real friend I’ve ever had. Nella can hardly bear it – any moment she’s going to stand up and throw her arms round this strange child from the orphanage, whose talent with food has given her the power to console.
‘The Seigneur and Meermans were good friends,’ Cornelia says. ‘So he would often be calling at the house to play a game of verkerspeel. Love came into it later – what did Madame Marin know of love, at eleven years old?’
‘I’m nearly nineteen, and a married woman, Cornelia. And yet I can make no more claim on love than if I were a child.’
Cornelia blushes. Growing older, Nella realizes, does not seem to make you more certain. It simply presents you with more reasons for doubt.
‘Their parents died when Madame Marin was fourteen, and the Seigneur left the treasury to join the VOC,’ Cornelia continues. ‘Meermans moved to the Stadhuis.’
‘How did their parents die?’
‘Their mother was always sickly, and weakened by her labours. She barely survived after Madame Marin was born. There were more babies than just the Seigneur and Madame Marin, of course – but none of them lived. A year after their mother died, their father went of the fever, and the Seigneur took his first VOC ship out to Batavia. Madame Marin turned fifteen. Frans Meermans was working in the Stadhuis, but without a chaperone, she couldn’t meet him.’
Nella pictures her husband under boiled blue skies, upon hot sands laced with tinkling shells and shed blood. Piracy and adventure, whilst Frans and Marin were marooned amidst the mahogany furniture and smothering tapestries, the sluggish canals and the peal of bells to worship.
‘The Seigneur tried to encourage him into the VOC. Told him to seize the opportunity. “Don’t criticize Frans,” Madame Marin said. “Not everyone has had your chances, Johannes, and you like it that way.” ’
Cornelia swirls a bowl of soaked raisins with the end of her wooden spoon. ‘Problem was, Meermans couldn’t match the Seigneur. Couldn’t open the right doors, didn’t inspire the men – had only modest success, while the Seigneur got very rich. And then five years later, when Marin was twenty, Meermans called by without her knowing. He’d saved his money up and asked the Seigneur if he could have her hand in marriage.’
‘He waited five years? And what did Johannes say?’
‘The Seigneur said no.’
‘What? Five years waiting to be given a no – but why? Meermans didn’t have a bad reputation, did he? And he must have truly loved her.’
‘The Seigneur never does anything without good reason,’ Cornelia says defensively, dropping her first strip of batter into a pan of sizzling oil.
‘Yes, but –’
‘Meermans was handsome, if you like that type,’ Cornelia says, ‘but he didn’t have the best of reputations.’ She pauses. ‘He had a temper on him, he always wanted better than what he had. And after that snub, he never came back. Until now.’
She draws out the new doughnut and lays it gently on the tray of prepared sugar. ‘I shaved the top of Agnes’ sugar cone,’ she adds, a little sly.
‘Perhaps Johannes wanted to keep Marin where he needed her,’ Nella says. ‘A puppet wife – and look! Now he has two.’ Cornelia makes a face. ‘Oh, Cornelia. She’s still mistress of this household. You see how strict she is, keeping us all in order. That’s supposed to be my job. Although – have you noticed how distracted she can seem?’
Cornelia is silent for a moment. ‘I’ve noticed no difference, Madame,’ she says.
‘Did Marin find out what Johannes had done?’
‘Eventually, but by then Meermans had gone and married one of Madame Marin’s friends. Agnes Vynke.’ Cornelia enunciates the name like the parts of a wasp. ‘Agnes’ father worked with the West India Company and had got rich in the New World. He’d forbidden her from marrying any man not wealthy enough. He was a monster, Seigneur Vynke – trying to sire sons at eighty to make sure she didn’t inherit! Agnes’ marriage to Meermans was her first and last rebellion. She adores Frans like a sickness. She turned the other guild wives against Madame Marin, just to be sure that chapter was closed. Agnes wanted a little power, but then her father died and left her all those fields.’
Nella remembers the ladies Cornelia described, visiting the house, putting songbirds in Otto’s hair – was Agnes Vynke one of them, ordered by Marin never to return?
‘It was a huge wedding feast,’ Cornelia goes on, ‘paid for by Frans with all the guilders he’d borrowed, no doubt. Always in debt, that one. The party lasted three days. But you know what they say about big weddings. They cover up a lack of appetite.’
Nella blushes. If the reverse was true – after their measly ceremony, she and Johannes should never have left their bedchamber.
‘Frans and Agnes have been married twelve years – and still no children,’ Cornelia says. ‘And then comes Agnes’ sugar plantation, straight into his lap! For him, it’s better than an heir. He may be counting on that sugar to make a legacy, but it doesn’t change his love for Madame Marin.’
She hands Nella the first olie-koeck. It is still warm, and the fried crust breaks apart under Nella’s teeth, releasing the perfect blend of almond, ginger, clove and apple. ‘And Marin still loves him?’ Nella asks.
‘Oh, I’m sure of it. He sends her a gift every year. Pigs and partridges – once a haunch of deer. And Madame Marin won’t send them back. It’s like a silent conversation they want to maintain. Of course, I’m the one who has to deal with it all. Pluck, chop, stuff, fry, boil. A necklace would be easier.’ Cornelia wipes out the batter bowl with a damp cloth. ‘That’s how Madame Marin found out that the Seigneur had rejected Frans’ proposal. It was soon after Agnes’ wedding when the first gift came.’
‘What was it?’
‘I’d just arrived. I remember Madame Marin quite clearly, holding up a salted piglet in the hallway. She looked so unhappy. “Why is he sending me a present, Johannes?” she asked, and the Seigneur took her to the study, where I suppose he had to explain.’
Cornelia looks grim. ‘And Meermans has sent something ever since. Although he never puts his name, we all know it’s him.’ She rubs her forehead. ‘But a love note’s different,’ she says. ‘A love note’s dangerous. Oh, close your eyes to it, Madame Nella, and pretend you never saw.’
Nella goes back upstairs to give Peebo the leftover crumbs of the olie-koeck, her head filled with images of a young Marin, throwing blushed glances in the direction of princely Meermans. It is like trying to imagine her parents as young people, falling in love. I’d prefer to rise in love, she thinks – lifting up to the clouds, not plunging to the earth. She pictures herself, weightless and adored, delirious in ecstasy.
The rafters are empty. She wand
Johannes’ sparsely furnished chamber is also empty. ‘Peebo?’ Nella calls again. Dhana bounds up, sensing in her voice there is some problem to be chased. Nella imagines the parakeet mauled in the dog’s teeth, a chance snap, Nature following her cruellest course. A sense of dread charges through her stomach and she runs down the stairs. ‘Cornelia?’ she calls. ‘Do you know where—?’
And then she sees it. The hall window, no longer ajar but swinging open, the cold air rushing in.
All afternoon and into evening, Cornelia and Nella have called up and down the canal for the bird, to no avail. Indoors, the rafters are empty, no thrum of wings. Disorientated and freezing cold, it is impossible Peebo will last long. The temperature has dropped overnight, ice is forming a thin veneer over the Heren canal, and the last thread of her old life has unravelled across the sky. ‘I’m sorry,’ Nella whispers. ‘I’m so sorry.’
Exhausted from worry and lack of sleep over Peebo’s disappearance, Nella finds a small posy of bright red and blue flowers with a note the next morning, left outside her door. She is gripped with the hope that it’s from the miniaturist, but to her surprise, a large capital letter of her name launches the missive, the handwriting rushing forward, a keen slant towards the full stop.
Blue periwinkle for early friends, Persicaria for restoration — I would buy you a new bird, but it would pale in imitation.
Nella smells the flowers in the semi-darkness of her room, their gentle scent battling with her grief and resurging feelings of humiliation.
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes