The miniaturist, p.18
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       The Miniaturist, p.18

           Jessie Burton
 

  But Jack has driven his dagger into Rezeki’s skull.

  It is as if they all are underwater, and no one can breathe. The blade rips with a sickening squeak through fur and flesh and Rezeki slumps to the floor.

  A wail starts low, rising higher and higher, and Nella realizes it’s coming from Cornelia, staggering across the tiles towards Rezeki’s body.

  Rezeki is beginning to choke. Jack has driven in the dagger so hard that Cornelia’s fingers cannot pull it out. Dark blood spreads in skirts of scarlet. Tender and trembling, Cornelia cradles the animal’s head. Rezeki’s breath rattles; a reddened tongue lolls from her gaping mouth. As the nerves twitch to stillness in the dog’s legs, Cornelia presses her tight, desperate to hold together her fading warmth. ‘She’s gone,’ Cornelia whispers. ‘His girl is dead.’

  Otto closes the door and stands between Jack and the outside world, his body spread across the entrance. Jack wrenches his dagger from Rezeki’s head and more blood gushes on the tiles. ‘Move!’ he shouts, his head butting Otto in the chest, his blade aloft. They scuffle, there is a fumble – a moment – and then Jack staggers back. He looks down at himself with terror in his eyes.

  Jack turns to Nella. His own dagger is sticking in the top of his upper chest, below the collarbone but near enough to the heart for danger. His hands flutter round the hilt. My God, Marin cries, far off. No, please God!

  Jack totters like a foal, arms out, knees buckling, and as he sinks to the floor he hangs on Nella’s skirts. They kneel together on the black and white, his shirt beginning to bloom a festive red, and not even the earthy smell of mingled bloods can hide the tang of his urine.

  ‘Otto,’ Nella says, but her voice comes out like a cracked whisper. ‘What have you done?’

  Jack pulls Nella close and she feels the solid heat of the knife handle pressed between their bodies. He weeps with pain into her ear. ‘I’m bleeding,’ he pleads. ‘I don’t want to die.’

  ‘Jack—’

  ‘Get up,’ cries Marin. ‘Get up!’

  ‘Marin, he’s dying—’

  ‘Madame Nella,’ Jack murmurs in her ear, holding Nella tighter, as if gripping onto life.

  ‘All will be well,’ Nella says. ‘We’ll fetch you a surgeon.’

  His voice is muffled in her cap, but Jack sounds like he is laughing. ‘Oh, Madame,’ he whispers. ‘You little girl. It’ll take more than a fucking needle to murder me.’

  It takes Nella a moment to understand. Jack crawls to his feet. He lurches towards the front door, the knife still in him, his movement like a tavern roll, drunk on his performance. She cannot marry the blood-soaked shirt, the protruding hilt and his pleadings for life with this cockiness, this morbid glee at having tricked her that he was on his way to meet his maker.

  ‘I believed you,’ she whispers.

  Otto steps back, stunned. Jack opens the door and, moving slowly into the thin light, he turns to face them, bowing deep and low as his fingers fumble with the hilt. He winces, sliding the dagger from out of the wound, pleased at the expression on Nella’s horrified face. ‘I’ll be needing this,’ he says, staunching the flow with one hand, the other lifting the flash of scarlet metal. ‘Attempted murder. Evidence.’

  ‘I wish that knife had found your heart,’ says Nella.

  ‘I hide it well,’ he says, giving her a winner’s smile. His wild curls mat to his brow, the dagger drips in his hand. He turns, running a crooked passage down the steps.

  Marin, her face smeared with the faint red mark of Jack’s lips, slumps against the panelling. ‘Sweet Jesu,’ she whispers, her grey eyes on Otto. ‘Sweet Jesu, save us all.’

  THREE

  December, 1686

  His mouth is most sweet: yea, he is altogether lovely.

  This is my beloved, and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem.

  Song of Solomon 5:16

  Stains

  ‘The Seigneur found Rezeki in a sack,’ Cornelia says in the hallway, her voice murky with grief. She watches Nella shuck the dog’s rigid body into an empty grain bag. ‘Around the back of the VOC, eight years ago. They were all dead – all the puppies, except for her.’

  ‘We need a mop, Cornelia. Lemon juice and vinegar.’ Cornelia nods. There are still red sweeps of blood across the marble tiles, but the maid doesn’t move. The picture frame attacked by Jack is now propped against the panelling. Marin ordered it to be hollowed out. ‘He won’t care, Madame,’ Otto had advised, but she insisted. ‘It is not for him,’ she said. ‘I cannot stand to see it half-ravaged.’ Otto completed Jack’s handiwork, his hand shaking slightly as he carved the canvas from the wood.

  Now in the kitchen, Marin and Otto talk in low voices. It’s my fault, Nella thinks – I carried Jack’s doll inside after Marin threw him out. There he was the next morning, laid out on the front step, an omen of what was to come. If it was the miniaturist who laid him there, a horrid presage of what was to happen in this hall – why would she do that – why insist that this poisonous creature should stay close at all? ‘Cornelia,’ she says, rousing herself. ‘We need to clean this up.’

  She tries to push Rezeki’s legs into the bag, but they are too long.

  When Nella and Cornelia go down to the kitchen, Rezeki’s paws protruding inelegantly from the sack, an air of aftermath hangs between the gleam of pans. So near to Christmas, the killing of a master’s beloved dog feels like the opening act of some macabre carnival. The dog-murderer is out there somewhere, nursing more than simply a physical wound.

  Otto places his trembling hands on the ancient oak of the table. Nella’s thoughts are clogged. She wants to comfort him, but he won’t even look at her. Dhana is slumped by the fire, whining at the sack in Nella’s hand.

  ‘Please can we bury her now?’ asks Cornelia.

  There is an uneasy pause. ‘No,’ Marin says.

  ‘But she’ll start to smell—’

  ‘Just put her in the cellar.’

  It is Nella who places Rezeki down gently, in the dark, upon the damp loam and potatoes. ‘Poor, poor girl,’ she says, choking on her breath. ‘Godspeed.’

  ‘What if Jack reports what I did?’ says Otto, back in the kitchen. ‘He’s got the knife, the wound to prove it and a tongue in his head to tell tales. He mentioned evidence, attempted murder. The militia will arrest me. And what if they ask him why he was here?’

  ‘Exactly,’ Marin says, banging her fist on the table. ‘I know a bit about Jack Philips. He likes the taste of life. Jack is a bragger but he would never go to the authorities. He would be signing his own death warrant and he knows it. He’s English, he’s a sodomite, and he used to be an actor. I can’t think of three things our burgomasters hate more.’

  ‘He has no money, Madame. What might a man do when he is desperate?’ Otto says, his expression clouding. ‘If they ask him why he came here, then the Seigneur is embroiled.’

  He shakes his head and Cornelia bustles over with a basket of herenbrood, some pieces of chicory and a contrary, sunny wedge of Gouda. Nella cuts the cheese as the maid busies herself at the stove. There will be no potatoes or mushrooms in tonight’s dish, for Cornelia cannot even bear to look at the cellar door, let alone go into the darkness. Nella clings to her sounds of determined, domestic activity – the clang of pans, the onions softening in butter, the spitting of the bacon. Their irregular but constant beat is better now than any street-musician’s festive melody.

  Cornelia places the slices of fried bacon in front of them, and Nella sees how blanched she is with worry.

  ‘The Seigneur saved me,’ says Otto. ‘He taught me everything. And look how I’ve repaid him. Rezeki—’

  ‘That was Jack’s doing, not yours. And there’s never been a debt to pay,’ Marin says. ‘My brother bought you for his own amusement.’

  Cornelia drops a heavy pan into the sink and curses under her breath.

  ‘He employed me, Madame,’ says Otto.

  Marin wipes a piece of bread back and forth in the bac
on fat, but doesn’t eat. Nella cannot work out her mood. She seems determined not to be overwhelmed by these events, yet here she is, provocative as ever.

  ‘The boy’s alive,’ Marin snaps. ‘You haven’t killed anyone. Johannes will be more concerned with Rezeki than with you.’

  This statement seems to hit Otto in the chest. ‘I have endangered you,’ he says. ‘I have endangered all of you.’

  Marin reaches out for Otto’s hand. It is an extraordinary sight – their fingers, the dark and light together – and Cornelia cannot pull her eyes away. Otto withdraws and heads up the kitchen stairs, and Marin watches his departure, the colour drained from her face, her eyes exhausted. ‘Petronella, you need to change,’ she says, her voice barely a whisper.

  ‘Why? What’s wrong with me?’

  Marin points at her, and when Nella looks down, she sees her corset and shirt are covered in the brown stains of English blood.

  Upstairs, Nella sits shivering in her undergarments as Cornelia sponges off the specks of Jack. Putting Nella in a robe, the maid asks to be excused. ‘I’m worried about Otto, Madame. He has no one else to talk to.’

  ‘Then you must go.’

  She is relieved to be alone. Her body aches from the tension of the morning, the imprint of Jack’s grip on her arms. She scoops up her own doll from the cabinet, lying inert in the miniature kitchen, and presses her little figure, as if to do so will push the pain away. Her own ribs ache as she squeezes her miniature tight, and for a brief moment she believes there is no difference between the miniaturist’s minor version of herself and her own human limbs. For what am I, she wonders, but a product of my own imagination? Yet the little bean-face looks up at her, giving nothing away, whilst Nella remains in tumult and grief remains.

  On Nella’s bed is the parcel from the miniaturist, brought to her just hours ago by Jack. She almost left it under the chair in the hallway, unsure if she wanted to open it, and now, observing it again, a wet sort of dread spreads through her. But who else is there to open these parcels? She couldn’t bear for it to be anyone but her.

  If the miniaturist is a strange teacher who will not stop, Nella feels a most reluctant pupil. She has failed to catch the meaning of these lessons. She yearns for just one piece that will explain what the miniaturist wants from her. Pulling open the package, she sees there is only one item.

  A tiny verkeerspel board nestles in her palm. The board’s triangles aren’t simply painted, but have been inlaid with wood – and there are counters too, in a minuscule pouch. Their scent reveals that they are coriander seeds sliced in half, painted black and red.

  Nella drops the board and fumbles through the pockets of her skirt. The long letter she wrote this very morning, addressed to the miniaturist and requesting a verkeerspel board, is no longer there. But I had it, she thinks. I had it today. I followed Otto to the church, I felt it in my pocket, I spoke to Agnes and I ran home to find Jack pacing in the hall. After that, all thought of it had been forgotten.

  Time has melted; the hours mean nothing when you cannot keep hold of them. Nella tips up the packet and a piece of paper flutters out.

  NELLA: THE TURNIP CANNOT THRIVE

  IN THE TULIP’S PATCH OF SOIL

  She’s used my name, thinks Nella, the personal pleasure of this dissolving quickly in the oddness of the statement that follows. She feels an embarrassment creeping in – does the miniaturist mean I’m a turnip? Turnips and tulips are entirely different phenomena of nature – one practical and simple in its structure, the other decorative and engineered by man.

  Nella touches her face instinctively, as if the neat handwriting will transform her cheeks into a dense and rotund earthiness, a dull vegetable from Assendelft. The miniaturist is the brilliant one, graceful and colourful, her power drawing the eye. Is this her way of warning me to stay away, Nella wonders – to tell me I may never come to an understanding?

  Reaching into her cabinet house, Nella takes the doll of Jack and pulls off his leather coat. Pinching one of the tiny fish knives between her forefinger and thumb, she drives it in the front of his chest like a pin, near enough to the throat that he might choke. It makes a satisfying entry, slipping into the soft body, a protruding silver dart.

  Placing Jack back in the cabinet, his doll-self now more accurately reflecting their dire situation, Nella picks up the painful reminder of Rezeki’s body. Johannes should have taken you with him, she tells the little doll. How will it be, telling him what has happened to his favourite pet? I will offer this miniature as a memento of her life, she thinks, as a guiltier thought enters her mind. It will remind my husband what Jack is really like.

  Stroking the head, Nella’s fingers freeze between the blades of the dog’s neck. There, on the tiny body, is an uneven, red mark almost the shape of a cross. Nella moves to the window; it is unmistakeable, the colour of rust. Her heart begins to throb, her throat goes dry. She cannot remember if the mark was there before today. She did not look closely enough.

  Perhaps it was accidental, the miniaturist dropping a fleck of red onto the dog’s head as she moved with her paintbrush? Perhaps she didn’t notice her mistake, letting the thin lines spread on the skull’s curve. The model of Rezeki lolls in Nella’s palm, her head articulated, the mark behind it a ghoulish baptism. The room is cold, but it is Rezeki’s stained body that sends a chill to Nella’s tail bone.

  She tries to control her thinking. The miniaturist didn’t seem to know what Otto was going to do when he drove that dagger into Jack’s shoulder – because Jack’s doll arrived unmarked. I had to tell that story for her. So are these pieces echoes or presages – or, quite simply, a lucky guess?

  You have to go to the Kalverstraat, she tells herself. No distractions this time – and this time, you will stay until the miniaturist comes out. If you have to stand there all day with Hole-Face, you will do it.

  Nella puts the dog back in the cabinet, Cornelia and Marin’s conversation about papist idols swimming through her mind. Cornelia said you could never be sure that these things wouldn’t come to life, and right now the puppet of Rezeki seems to thrum with a power Nella cannot name. And the house itself – the wooden frame appears to glow, the tortoiseshell so rich, the interiors so sumptuous. Nella stares at her own miniature clutching the tiny birdcage, that gilded trap encasing nothing. Silently, she recites the earlier mottoes from the miniaturist – Things Can Change. Every Woman Is the Architect of Her Own Fortune. I Fight To Emerge.

  But who is fighting to emerge here, Nella wonders, and who is the architect – the miniaturist, or me? The old, unanswered question rises up – why is this woman doing this? Unnamed, the miniaturist lives on the outside of society, not bounded by its rules – but be you a tulip or a turnip, we are all of us accountable to someone in the end. Rezeki dead and Peebo gone, Jack at large and Agnes’ sugar languishing on the Eastern Islands, Nella can feel the chaos coming, and all she craves is some control.

  The miniaturist must help her. The miniaturist knows. Everyone in this house is too scared to do a thing except throw puppets out of windows, but that doesn’t work. Nella fetches a pen and paper.

  Dear Madame, she writes.

  The turnip grows out of sight, while the tulip flourishes above. The latter serves the eye’s pleasure, while the former nourishes the body – but both creations enjoy the soil. Separately, they have their uses, and one is no more valued than the other.

  Nella hesitates – then, unable to help herself, she writes – And the tulip’s petals will fall, Madame. They will drop long before the turnip emerges, filthy but triumphant, from the earth.

  Nella worries she’s been too rude, too direct. Tell me, she adds. What is it I should do?

  She lays down her pen, feeling slightly silly with all this talk of vegetables, but panicky at the thought that the miniaturist has known all along what was going to happen to Johannes’ dog. Before this mark on Rezeki’s neck, Nella has taken her for a watcher, a teacher, a commentator – but this, well,
this is more like prophecy. What else does she know – what else can she prevent? Or worse – what is she determined must come to pass?

  It is almost dawn the next morning when Nella creeps out of her room, her fourth note to the miniaturist in the pocket of her travelling cloak. I’m going to keep hold of this one, she thinks, until I press it myself in the palm of her hand. She is more than a little fearful of what she might discover on the Kalverstraat, face to face at last with the woman who not only looks deep into her world, but seems to build it too.

  Holding a candlestick in one hand, Nella slowly withdraws the front door bolts. Opening the door, glad for the dull light breaking in the sky beyond, she hears a light clanking noise from deep in the bowels of the house. She freezes; the clanking continues. Looking down the canal path and back then towards the kitchen, Nella feels torn in two. Always, she thinks – always when it’s time to see the miniaturist, this house never fails to pull me back.

  The clanking inside the house wins her natural curiosity. It is too immediate to ignore. Too long I’ve heard these whisperings and noises, she thinks, closing the door, tiptoeing downstairs, moving through the best kitchen in an attempt to follow the sound. The round plates – maiolica, Delft and China-ware – glow in the huge dresser like rows of opening eyes as she passes with her solitary candle.

  She pauses, sniffing the air. An iron smell, wet earth; a laboured breathing sound. Instantly, she thinks of Rezeki. She’s come alive. The miniaturist is in this house, she’s brought Rezeki back to life. Slowly, Nella walks down the narrow corridor which separates the best and working kitchens, towards the small door at the end where the barrels of ale and pickles are kept. The smell intensifies, clogging on the back of her tongue. It’s blood, unmistakeable now. The breathing has got louder.

  Nella stops, her fingers on the handle – a nightmarish belief that Rezeki is behind it, that with her long legs she has dug a way out of the sack and is scratching to be free. Nella swallows and pushes on the cellar door, terrified to her core.

 
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