The miniaturist, p.17
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       The Miniaturist, p.17

           Jessie Burton
 

  They tell me the burgomasters have banned images of people in all forms. I wonder whether you fear their wrath – the worlds you make, your tiny idols which have crept into my mind and plan to stay. You have not sent me anything for a while, and though it is true that I worry what you might send, my greater concern is that you will cease completely.

  I assume I still have it in my power to request items, do I not? Therefore, kindly make for me a verkeerspel board, my favourite game of strategy and chance. I am not returning to my childhood home for Christmas, and my life is short of such amusements. Therefore, content me with a miniature version.

  One day, we will meet, you and I. I insist upon it. I am sure that it will happen. I feel you are guiding me, bright star, but there is terror in my hope that your light is not benign. I will not rest until I know more of you, but in the meantime, written missives must take the place of better understanding.

  Enclosed is another promissory note, for five hundred guilders. Let that be the oil on your front door’s stubborn hinges.

  With thanks and anticipation,

  Nella signs the letter: Petronella Brandt.

  She looks out of her window to admire the white stretch of ice. The city is beautiful tipped in frost like this, the air thin, the bricks redder and the painted windowframes like pristine eyes. To her surprise, she sees Otto hurrying along the canal path. It piques Nella’s curiosity, so not bothering with breakfast or putting on a coat, she puts the letter in her pocket and follows him quickly, slipping out of the house unseen.

  Otto crosses Dam Square, past the looming new building of the Stadhuis, where Frans Meermans has a post and may be working even now. Sell his wife’s sugar, Johannes, Nella thinks, sending him a silent message as she skips over the sand which has been scattered for easy passage on the cobbles. Again, she remembers Marin in her bath, questioning the air, ‘What have you done?’ It would be better if the Meermanses were not in their lives at all.

  After the suppression of St Nicholas’s Day, the people of Amsterdam seem to be taking full advantage. The sun is high, the Old Church bells ring to the sparkling rooftops, and the sound is magnificent. Four high bells peal to the skies, ringing the coming birth of the Holy Child, and one lower bell – God’s voice, deep and true and long – strikes under their clamour. In the name of communal obedience, it seems some music can play loud.

  The smell of cooking meat fills the air, and Otto walks past a spiced-wine stall which has been erected, flagrantly facing the front entrance to the church. Pastor Pellicorne shoos the vintners away, whilst Amsterdammers look longingly at the trestle bowing under the weight of the wine-tureens.

  ‘Tighter than a piglet’s arse, that one,’ a man mutters. ‘The guild arranged it, the burgomasters gave permission!’

  ‘God before guilds, my friend,’ replies his friend, putting on a haughty voice.

  ‘That’s what Pellicorne wants us to think.’

  ‘Cheer up. Look,’ says the second man, revealing under his coat two small flagons of steaming red liquid. ‘Even got a piece of orange in it.’

  They hurry off to less salubrious surroundings and Nella feels pleased they have got away, even more pleased that they don’t stop to gawp at Otto. Pellicorne’s glance rests on her, but she pretends she hasn’t noticed.

  Otto enters the Old Church, his head down. Nella shivers as she steps inside, for the church seems colder than the air. Even though she’s supposed to be following Otto, she can’t help looking round for a bright blonde head, a gold beacon among the plain brown and white of the church interior. She pats the letter in her pocket. At this festive time, might not the miniaturist make another visit – to remember her family in Norway, to pray for clemency from the Burgomasters? The threads of Nella’s imagination begin to spool, embroidering conversations, patches of which it stitches loosely together. Who are you, why are you, what do you want? The problem is this – heading straight towards the miniaturist seems to make her disappear. And yet, she is so often there, watching and waiting. Nella wonders which one of them is hunter, which one prey.

  She keeps her eyes on Otto. The chairs clustering the pulpit are mainly empty, save for a single person here or there who perhaps has nowhere else to be. Normally, of course, worship is done communally, people making sure everyone else sees them at prayer as if this will make the prayer more pure. Otto takes a seat, and unseen by him, Nella moves round and watches him from behind a pillar.

  His lips move in a fever. This is no serene prayer – this is almost distraught. It’s astonishing that Otto should be here, alone – what has driven him to such a need to be witnessed in the house of God, given who he is, and what might happen? Nella sees the twisting of Otto’s hands, the panic in his body. Something stops her going towards him. It would not be right to interrupt someone in that state.

  Nella shivers, her gaze straying over the chairs, along the white walls, up onto the ceiling covered with old Catholic pictures. She wants so much for the miniaturist to reveal herself. Maybe she’s hiding here right now, watching them both?

  Behind her the organ starts up, a booming that shakes Nella to her very core. She doesn’t like thundering organs, preferring the lighter pluck of the lute, the recorder’s reedy ease. A cat, who has come in to shelter from the cold, slinks over the graves, its fur standing to a point. Its movement makes Otto look up and Nella ducks behind the pillar. She covers her ears from the booms of the organ and closes her eyes, dizziness taking her.

  A hand touches her sleeve. Nella screws her eyes tighter, not daring to look. It is the moment – it is the woman, she has come.

  ‘Madame Brandt?’ says a voice.

  Nella opens her eyes. Agnes Meermans stands before her, looking thinner than last time, her plain face narrowed, glowing white amidst a muffle of rabbit and fox. She retains her grasp on Nella’s sleeve. ‘Madame Brandt?’ she repeats. ‘Are you quite well? You aren’t even wearing a coat. For a moment I thought the Holy Spirit was upon you!’

  ‘Madame Meermans. I came – to pray.’

  Agnes links her arm through Nella’s. ‘Or to keep an eye on your savage?’ she whispers, motioning beyond the pillar where Otto sits. ‘Very wise. You cannot be too careful, Nella. What’s wrong with him that he looks so distracted?’ Agnes emits her dry ha. ‘Come,’ she says, draping one of her foxes around Nella, pulling it too tight. Nella can smell that fruity pomade again. The fur is wetly cold.

  ‘We have not seen Marin much at church,’ Agnes observes, patting down the fur round Nella’s neck. She cannot seem to keep her fingers still, and Nella notices how blank they are, devoid of rings. Their absence makes Agnes seem half-naked. The organ stops suddenly, and Agnes is uneasy, as if something is cracking deep beneath her well-polished veneer. ‘Nor have we seen Brandt,’ she continues. ‘Nor you.’

  ‘My husband is travelling.’

  Agnes’ nostrils flare. ‘Travelling? Frans didn’t say.’

  ‘Perhaps he didn’t know. I believe he is working on your behalf, Madame. He has gone to Venice.’ She tries to pull away. ‘I must go back, Madame Meermans. Marin isn’t well.’

  Though she wants to escape, Nella immediately regrets her excuse. Agnes’ eyes widen. ‘Why?’ she says. ‘What’s wrong with her?’

  ‘A winter malady.’

  ‘But Marin’s never sick,’ Agnes says. ‘I could send round my physician, though Marin never trusts them.’

  The organ’s notes begin again, falling one upon the other, to Nella’s ears a crashing anti-harmony. ‘She will be well, Madame. It is the season for colds.’

  Agnes places her hand on Nella’s sleeve again. ‘This might spring Marin from her sick bed. You tell her this: my entire inheritance is still in his warehouse on the Eastern Islands.’ She’s almost hissing. ‘Those cane-fields are unreliable, Madame – who knows when the next crop will come? Your husband hasn’t sold a single loaf of what we’ve managed to refine. And now it seems he’s gone to Venice empty-handed? We need that money.’
/>
  ‘He will dispatch it, I’m sure. His word is enough—’

  ‘Frans went to the warehouse. He saw with his own eyes. I could barely believe it when he told me. Piled up to the ceiling! It won’t be long, Agnes, he said. It will crystallize. Our money will rot before we’ve even plucked it.’

  The organ notes vibrate in Nella’s ribcage as she absorbs Agnes’ growing agitation. She looks around the pillar for Otto, but he is nowhere to be seen. ‘Be assured, Madame—’

  ‘My husband won’t be taken for a fool!’ Agnes snaps. ‘He wondered whether Johannes Brandt was the best man for the task, but I insisted. Me. The Brandts think they can have it all, but they can’t. Don’t laugh at him, Madame. Or me.’ As quickly as she gripped, Agnes pulls away. Nella watches her hurry up the church, hunched over and unusually graceless. Opening the small side door, Agnes disappears.

  Nella decides the best thing is to go home and tell Marin about this unsettling exchange. Yet again, the miniaturist languishes unvisited. I will send Cornelia with my letter, she thinks, her head spinning from Agnes’ fury. She turns out of the church and back towards the Herengracht.

  As she approaches the house in a rush to tell Marin, she knows that something is wrong. The front door is wide open, a gaping maw onto the unlit hall. She can hear the sounds of the dogs barking, but no human voices. She hesitates, then moves soundlessly up the steps to the side of the door.

  It is his boots she sees first. Softest calfskin leather, by now a little scuffed. The sight of them slides her stomach. Horrified, she watches Jack Philips, fevered-looking, the malice written on his face, stride across the hallway tiles.

  Cracks

  They face each other. Jack is unshaven, underfed, his skin is dull where once it seemed so lustrous. Purple smudges smear the lower curve of his staring eyes. But he still has a presence, in his leather coat, those boots now broken in. The last time Nella saw Jack this close he was topless, slicked in her husband’s sweat, and the memory of it makes her breathless.

  Cornelia rushes up from the kitchen stairs and tries to push him through the front door.

  ‘Wait, I’ve got something for you, Madame,’ Jack cries, holding his hands up, the innocent. Nella remembers his strange English accent, his inability to cling to the roll and strut of Dutch. He reaches under his jacket and Cornelia tenses like a cat. ‘I’m back on deliveries,’ he says.

  ‘What? You’re supposed to be guarding our sugar,’ says Nella. ‘Johannes said—’

  ‘Oh, you squeal like a mouse.’

  He stands with his hand outstretched, as if the parcel he’s offering will gloss his insult. The package is smaller than the last – but there it is – the unmistakeable black ink sign of the sun. Nella snatches it from him, not wanting his fingers anywhere near it.

  Cornelia scurries upstairs, her face white with fear. ‘I need to see him,’ Jack says. ‘Is he returned? Johannes, are you here?’ he calls down the passage towards the study door.

  Upstairs, a door clicks open and Nella hears Cornelia’s hissed whispering.

  ‘Is it true he’s gone to Venice?’ Jack says. ‘Typical.’

  Nella blushes, perceiving the intimacy between the men, something she’s denied. ‘He exchanges our Dam Square for the Rialto,’ Jack grins. ‘More fresh fish.’ He approaches her, a lulling insistence in his voice. ‘Did you believe him, when he said he was going there to work?’

  ‘How dare you come—’

  ‘I know more about him than you ever will, Madame. No one works in Venice. Milan, maybe. But Venice is dark canals and courtesans, and boys like moths, flying to the brightest flame.’

  Nella’s own body feels light, hypnotized by Jack’s voice. He might have been a good actor, in his own language. Her heart feels the size of a pea bouncing around inside her ribs.

  ‘What’s happening here?’ Marin’s voice rings with authority from the top of the staircase. ‘Why is the front door still open?’

  Jack steps into the light at the sound of her, opening his arms wide. He is really so beautiful, Nella thinks. So wild. She cannot take her eyes off him. ‘Petronella, close the door,’ Marin orders.

  ‘I don’t want to be locked in—’

  ‘Just close it, Petronella. Now.’

  Her hand trembling, Nella shuts the front door. The hallway becomes a half-lit arena – for what exactly, she cannot bear to think. She wonders if Johannes is glad to be away from this rough boy, or whether he misses his mesmeric presence, that jumping voice. A sound of something being gutted makes Nella turn.

  Jack has plunged a long and narrow dagger through the canvas of a still life. Its profusion of flowers and insects flaps open like a wound, the petals hanging awkwardly. Cornelia, standing on the stairs behind Marin, utters a nauseous moan.

  ‘Stop that!’ Nella shrieks. Control your voice, she thinks – he’s right. You’re a mouse. You’re not the mistress of this house. Her stomach swills, her mouth goes dry. ‘Otto,’ she tries to call, but her voice is not much more than a whisper.

  ‘Mr Philips!’

  The ice in Marin’s voice, in contrast, slides all the way down the stairs, making Jack freeze. Clearly Jack is not the only actor in the room. Marin transforms herself, focused entirely on this dark-haired boy entering her realm.

  ‘How many times have I told you to keep away?’ she asks. Her words echo, multiplying the menace of her presence.

  Jack backs into the middle of the floor and Marin comes to stand at the bottom of the staircase, ignoring the painting entirely. He lets the dagger hang loose in his hand, and spits onto the floor.

  ‘Clean that up,’ she says.

  Jack brandishes the dagger in front of her body. ‘Your brother would fuck a dog if the price was right.’

  ‘Mr Philips—’

  ‘They say he gives it to you too – that he’s the only man who will.’

  Marin holds up her hand. ‘What a tired old insult,’ she says, bringing her open palm closer and closer to the tip of his dagger’s blade. Jack backs away slightly, but there is no more than an inch between the sharp tip of his weapon and Marin’s flesh. ‘How brave are you, really, Jack?’ she wheedles. ‘Do you dare draw my blood? Is that what you want to do?’

  Jack grips the dagger tighter and when Marin places her palm directly on the tip, he swings the blade away. ‘Bitch,’ he says. ‘He told me I couldn’t work for him any more. And whose decision was that?’

  ‘Come, Jack,’ Marin says, her voice quiet and reasonable. ‘We’ve been here before. Stop being such a child, and tell me what it will cost to make you go away.’

  ‘Oh, I don’t want your money. I’m here to show what happens when you meddle.’ With a cry Jack lifts the dagger towards himself, and almost before Nella can register it, Marin shoots out her hand and slaps him on the cheek. He drops his arms and stares at her, agog.

  ‘Why are you so weak?’ Marin hisses, though Nella can see that she herself is trembling. ‘You can’t be trusted for one hour.’

  Jack rubs his face, collecting himself. ‘You made him get rid of me.’

  ‘I did no such thing,’ Marin says. ‘Johannes is a free man and you chose to believe what he told you. That belonged to my father,’ she adds, pointing to the dagger.

  ‘Well, Johannes gave it to me.’

  From her pocket, Marin produces a crumpled set of guilder notes. She hands them over, her fingers brushing his palm. ‘There’s nothing for you here,’ she says.

  Jack pats the guilders thoughtfully. Without warning he pulls Marin towards him and kisses her hard on her mouth.

  ‘Oh, God,’ Nella whispers.

  Both Cornelia and Nella move towards Marin, of one mind to pull them apart – but Marin puts her hand up as if to say, Keep away – this transaction must take place.

  Cornelia stops, in horrified disbelief. Marin, rigid, does not put her arms around the boy, but the kiss seems to last for ever. Why is he doing this? thinks Nella – and why is Marin letting him? Yet a small part of
her cannot help wondering how it must feel to be Marin in this moment: the touch of such a lovely mouth.

  The front door swings open. Otto, returned from church, stops on the threshold, his whole body stupefied by the entwined figures of Marin and Jack. Something in him seems to snap – he rushes towards them – ‘He has a knife!’ Nella cries, but Otto doesn’t stop.

  At Nella’s cry, Jack breaks away from Marin, who staggers back towards the main staircase. ‘The old hag tastes of fish,’ he sneers in Otto’s face.

  ‘Go,’ hisses Otto. ‘Before I kill you.’

  Jack hops over to the front door. ‘You might dress up as a lord, but you’re nothing but a savage,’ he says.

  ‘Filth.’ Otto’s voice booms like Pastor Pellicorne’s.

  Jack freezes. ‘What, boy? What did you say to me?’

  Otto advances towards Jack. ‘Otto,’ Marin cries.

  ‘He’s going to get rid of you, savage,’ says Jack. ‘He knows you’ve done something and he’s going to—’

  ‘Toot! Keep away from him! Don’t be a fool.’

  ‘Someone close the door!’

  ‘—he says a nigger can’t be trusted.’

  Otto lifts his fist. ‘No!’ screams Cornelia as Jack shrinks away.

  But all Otto does is place his palm gently on Jack’s chest. An iron feather that pins, his hand rising and falling with the Englishman’s ragged breath. ‘You’re nothing to him, boy,’ Otto murmurs. ‘Now go.’

  Otto removes his hand just as Rezeki bounds back into the hall, a shaft of the weak light from outside turning her the colour of a pale mushroom. She snarls at Jack, her ears flattening on the top of her skull. Crouching low to the tiles, she warns him off. ‘Rezeki!’ Otto calls. ‘Get away!’

  The flash of panic in Jack’s eyes compels Nella. ‘Jack,’ she says. ‘Jack, I promise. I’ll tell Johannes you were—’

 
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