The miniaturist, p.19
The Miniaturist, p.19Jessie Burton
Marin is standing there, her sleeves rolled up, a weak lantern on the table beside her. Next to the lantern is a line of white rags, from which she appears to be cleaning blood.
‘What are you doing?’ Nella asks, relief flooding her body even as confusion battles with it in this strange new scene. ‘What on earth are you doing?’
‘Get out,’ Marin hisses. ‘Do you hear me? Get out.’
Nella backs away, shocked by the ferocity in Marin’s voice, the fury stretching her face, the shocking smear of blood upon her cheek. Slamming the cellar door, she trips up the kitchen stairs into the hallway. Rezeki’s red mark mingles in her mind’s eye with Marin’s crimson cloths, as she stumbles through the front door and down the steps into the dawn.
The Kalverstraat, with its long strip of trade and noise, is still relatively quiet. There is the occasional fruit-seller trundling his barrow, and an enterprising ginger cat, sorting through the animal bones which didn’t make it to the canal the night before. His yellow eyes shine at Nella and he stretches his fat body, witness to his forage-cunning.
Nella finds the sign of the sun. She stands before it, breathing the damp air, the residue of mist, the smell of waste covered hastily in straw. She knocks on the door, a sharp confident rap, and waits. No one comes. But I will wait, Madame Tulip, she thinks, patting the note in her pocket. I will wait and wait until I get my answer.
She takes a step back, looking up at the four windows, the golden sun and the motto engraved beneath it. Everything Man Sees He Takes For A Toy. It seems a taunt, and Nella bristles. I don’t, she thinks. At least, not any more. There is nothing toylike or comforting about her miniature Peebo, or Rezeki and her blood-mark.
‘I know you’re in there,’ she shouts despite the early hour. ‘What do I have to do?’
Immediately, the door behind her swings open. Nella turns and sees a fat man in an apron, squat-faced, his gut overhanging his boots by a good foot, standing with his hands on his hips. Beyond him, a small, cool room displays long hanging yarns of undyed wool and several sheepskins nailed to the walls.
‘Girl, there’s no need to bellow to Antwerp.’
‘I’m sorry, sir. I’ve come to see the miniaturist.’
The man raises his eyebrows. ‘The what?’
Nella looks up at the house again and the man stamps his feet in the cold. ‘Oh. Her. She won’t answer you,’ he says in a kindlier voice. ‘There’s no point trying.’
Nella swivels back to him. ‘So I’ve been told. But I am happy to wait.’
He squints up at the house. ‘Well, you’ll freeze to death doing it, because no one’s been in that building for over a week.’
A small desolation pitches in Nella’s stomach. ‘That isn’t possible,’ she says. ‘Just yesterday, she sent—’
‘What’s your name?’ asks the wool-seller.
‘I might have something for you.’
‘My name—’ She pauses. ‘– is Petronella Brandt.’
‘Hold on.’ He dips back into the gloom of his shop. He re-emerges, holding a small packet in his hand, inked with the sign of the sun. ‘Left on the doorstep opposite. I thought one of the cats might have had a go. Seems her English boy’s stopped delivering, so I kept it safe.’
He places it on Nella’s outstretched palm and looks up again into the burnished sun engraved above the miniaturist’s door. ‘What does it even mean?’ he asks. ‘Everything Man Sees He Takes For A Toy?’
‘It means we think we’re giants, but we’re not.’
He raises his eyebrows. ‘I see. I should think so little of myself, should I?’
‘Not at all, sir. Just that things – aren’t always what they seem.’
‘I’m giant enough,’ the wool-seller laughs, his arms out wide. ‘Pretty sure of that.’
Nella gives up, smiling wanly, looking over his shoulder into the gloom of his shop, holding her packet tight. ‘Do you have someone working for you – a man with smallpox scars?’
‘Oh, yes. Hauled wool for two weeks then upped and left.’
‘Why did he leave?’
‘He was spooked.’
‘Completely terrified. Ran off in the night. God knows what happened to him.’
From the near distance comes the sound of marching, thump-thump up the Kalverstraat. The wool-seller goes back into his shop. ‘The St George Militia,’ he mutters, throwing down the front shutter. ‘Move out of the way, girl, or you’ll get crushed.’
‘Wait!’ says Nella, maddened. ‘Where has she gone? Did you see her go?’
But the St George Militia loom on the horizon, the yellow-eyed cat scurrying away only just in time. All the guards have strapped red ribbons over their wide chests, and the colour catches the winter sunlight like a streamer of blood. Their steel-capped boots scuff the path and over-zealous weaponry clanks at their hips, pearlized pistols and hanging donderbusses for everyone to see.
Nella sees Frans Meermans among their number, his chest puffed out, scowling at the sign of the sun. ‘Seigneur?’ she calls, and on seeing her he turns away, drawing his pike nearer to his chest. They are gone in a cloud of dust, marching effortfully into the Amsterdam morning.
The street falls silent, and Nella notices how numb her toes have become in the cold. She rips the packet open, furious with Frans Meermans’ rudeness, incensed with the miniaturist for eluding her yet again. Every time I search for her, she thinks, I am left with only myself.
But her frustration melts into delight, for before her inside is a collection of tiny cakes and pastries. Pufferts and cross-hatched waffles, tiny gingerbread people, olie-koecken dusted with white powder, round and moreish in appearance. They look as if they have been made of real pastry, yet when Nella touches them, they are hard and unforgiving. She finds another message, written on the paper beneath them:
DON’T LET SWEET WEAPONS STRAY
Nella looks up at the windows of the house. ‘Sweet weapons?’ she cries, pushing her own, pleading note underneath the miniaturist’s door. The morning light shifts over the panes, concealing the miniaturist’s secrets. Nella looks down at these inedible delicacies, almost tempted to hurl them into the nearest canal. What does the woman mean by these? No war was ever won, Nella thinks, with an arsenal of sugared treats.
The Empty Space
When Nella returns to the house, Cornelia is waiting for her at the door.
‘What is it?’ Nella asks, seeing the stricken look on the maid’s face.
‘The Seigneur’ Cornelia whispers. ‘He’s back from Venice. He’s already asking where Rezeki is.’
‘What?’ Nella feels the quality of the air thicken, and a nub of fear lodges itself in her throat. She pictures Rezeki’s bloodstained body waiting in the cellar – and Johannes, unaware, waiting for the tip-tip sound of her shapely paws.
‘It has to be you who tells him, Madame,’ Cornelia pleads. ‘I cannot.’
Nella closes the front door quietly, scanning the floor, relieved there is no more blood to be seen. Cornelia has mopped and mopped, dousing the tiles in vinegar and lemon juice, a bath of boiling water and lye over the stains. Yet upstairs in the cabinet house, it wasn’t possible to rub away the cross-like mark on Rezeki’s miniature head.
‘But why me, Cornelia?’ she asks.
‘You’re strong, Madame. It’s better coming from you.’
Nella doesn’t feel strong. She feels ill-prepared, daunted by the story she will have to tell. All I needed was a bit more time to sweeten this truth to some sort of a lie, she thinks. How does anyone start such a conversation?
Johannes is standing in the centre of the salon, his gaze resting on the hollowed picture frame propped against the painted mural that stretches round the walls. He has brought two rugs back with him, thick weaves with mathematical patterns. They already have twenty, thirty of these tapestries, Nella thinks. What is the point of more? The room is freezing,
To her surprise, Johannes’ eyes light up. Her husband actually seems pleased to see her.
‘Johannes,’ she says. ‘You are home safely. Was Venice – enjoyable?’ She hears Jack’s crooked Dutch in her ear – more fresh fish.
Johannes sniffs the air, wrinkling his nose at the lingering scent of vinegar wafting in from the hall. Nella prays that Cornelia’s bubbling kitchen pots will soon overwhelm it.
‘Venice was Venice,’ he says. ‘Venetians talk a lot. And there was too much dancing for my knees.’
To her astonishment, he takes her in a huge embrace. Nella’s head only reaches Johannes’ breastbone, and he presses her ear to where she feels the thump of his heart. As he digs his chin onto the top of her head, she finds the awkward hold an unexpected comfort. She has never touched this much of Johannes before. Her feet begin to lift off the floor as if she’s clinging to a raft. As she closes her eyes, Rezeki’s bloodied face rises into view, and no amount of scrunching her eyelids will make it go away.
‘I am glad to see you, Nella,’ he says before putting her down. ‘Why is there no fire in this room? Otto!’ he calls.
‘And I am glad too, Johannes,’ she replies, her mind reaching for words that simply slip away every time they feel her coming. ‘I – shall we sit?’
He collapses into a chair with a sigh, and Nella finds herself still standing.
‘What’s wrong?’ he asks, and she thinks the concern in his voice will break her.
‘Nothing, Johannes. There’s – I – Agnes was angry with me,’ she blurts. She cannot do it – she cannot say the words. It is easier to choose the subject of Agnes Meermans over news of his beloved dog.
Johannes’ expression clouds. ‘And why was Agnes angry?’
‘I – saw her at the Old Church. She says that all their sugar is still in the warehouse. That it might start to crystallize.’
Johannes draws his hand down the side of his face. ‘She had no right to speak to you like that.’
Otto appears at the threshold of the salon, carrying a basket of peat. He hovers, barely able to look up.
‘Ah, the fire,’ says Johannes. ‘Come in, Otto, and make us warm.’
‘Seigneur. Welcome home.’
‘What’s Cornelia cooking?’
‘Pig-liver pudding with barley, Seigneur.’
‘My favourite for December! I wonder what I’ve done to deserve it.’ Johannes smiles, sniffing the air again, running his hand over the empty frame. ‘What happened here? This was one of my favourites.’
Otto seems almost grey in the half-light, and Johannes looks at him shrewdly.
‘An accident,’ says Nella.
‘I see. Well, pile up the kindling, Otto. My feet are so cold they might fall off.’
Nella turns to see Marin, standing at the door. Her face is pinched, and she hesitates before she glides in, remaining near the wall.
‘How many loaves did you sell in Venice?’ Marin asks.
‘Make it a big fire, Otto.’
‘Brother, how many did we sell?’
From his seat, Johannes places the empty frame upright on his lap. His upper body is in the middle, and he gestures in the hollow. He picks a regent’s pose, self-satisfied and ridiculous. ‘It was as slow as I predicted it would be,’ he says. ‘It would have been better to go in the new year.’
‘Then perhaps you will light such a gigantic fire when the sugar is actually sold?’ Johannes’ ensuing silence appears to incense his sister. ‘The greedy will bring ruin to their households.’
‘Your welcomes are getting worse, Marin. You’re the one that pushed me out on a ship to Italy in the dead of winter. Do not speak to me of greed. And please, don’t keep quoting the Bible. It becomes tiresome, given your own doubtful piety.’
Marin laughs, a strange sound which cuts the air. ‘You are the constant provocator, not me,’ she says, her every word straining on a leash.
He pulls off his travelling cloak and throws it in a bundle. ‘And stop talking about this household as if it’s yours. It belongs to Petronella.’
These words shoot through the air towards Nella like a bolt of light, but Marin stares at him in disbelief. ‘Then Petronella may have it,’ she says.
As easy as that? Nella thinks, turning to her. It doesn’t seem possible; Marin cannot mean it.
‘I’ve wasted my whole life keeping yours smooth,’ Marin says, stepping towards her brother. ‘We’re nothing more than prisoners to your desire.’
Johannes sighs, holding his palms up to the fire to warm himself. ‘Prisoners?’ He turns to Otto, kneeling on the other side of the growing flames. ‘Otto, do you feel like a prisoner?’
Otto swallows, his voice barely a whisper. ‘No, Seigneur.’
‘Nella, do I keep you under lock and key?’
‘No, Johannes,’ Nella replies. Though, she thinks, those empty nights waiting for your visits have felt like prison enough. She wants to be up in her room right now, alone, buried under the coverlet.
‘This house is the only place any of us are free.’ Johannes leans over in his chair and puts his head in his hands. ‘And, Marin, you of all people cannot deny it.’
‘Don’t be a fool,’ Marin snaps. This argument feels well trodden to Nella, and like the fire, its heat is rising fast. ‘You are so selfish. It suits you to have me here, whilst you barely bother to hide the things you do.’
Johannes looks up at his sister. Nella sees how exhausted he is, face drawn, eyes dark. ‘You think it suits me, is that the tale you tell yourself?’ he says. ‘Marin, against the counsel of my soul, I married a child. And I did it for you.’
‘I’m not a child,’ Nella whispers, finally sinking into a chair under the force of his words. And yet, she does feel childish. Johannes has transformed her in a moment, and she wants her mother, someone to notice her pain, someone else to take Rezeki’s body away.
‘And nothing’s changed,’ Marin says, oblivious to Johannes’ plea. ‘The careless attitude to Meermans’ sugar, our future—’
Johannes kicks the empty frame and it splinters, skidding across the polished floor just as Cornelia enters, her sleeves rolled up, perspiration on her brow. Holding a tray of wine and bread, the maid stares at the broken frame and hovers by the door.
‘You’ve never had to compromise!’ Johannes says.
‘It’s all I’ve ever done. You think you can buy abstracts, Johannes. Silence, loyalty, people’s souls—’
‘You’d be surprised—’
‘So tell me – what happens when you’re actually caught? What happens when the burgomasters find out what you are?’
By the fire, Otto seems to choke on his breath.
‘I am too rich for the damned burgomasters,’ Johannes says.
‘No.’ Marin’s voice is hard. ‘No. You’ve not been paying attention. I am the one who looks twice at the ledger books. I am the one – and let me tell you, the story they tell is a sorry one indeed.’
Johannes stands from his chair, seeming to seize up inch by inch as Marin’s words plot upon him with thirty years of practised ease.
‘You always thought you were different, didn’t you, Marin – not marrying, interfering in my business. Do you really think, that because you have some maps of the East Indies up on your wall, some books on travelling, some rotten berries and a few animal skulls, that you know what life is like out there? What I do to keep you comfortable? You are the one who has no idea.’
Marin’s eyes bore into him. ‘I’ve got bad news for you,’ she says.
No, Nella thinks. Not like this. Otto drops a large piece of peat onto the floorboards. Its black crumbs spray onto the wood.
‘The burgomasters would scourge you for being a single woman if they could!’ Johannes cajoles, coming towards her. ‘The only thing you had to do, Marin – marry rich, marry well – oh, God, just to be married – you couldn’t even manage that. We tried, didn’t we? We tried to get you mar
A dark and ragged sound rises up through Marin’s throat, her mouth twisted, years of frustration writ large across her face. ‘Are you listening to me, Johannes?’
‘You’ve been a useless, friendless pain since the day you were born—’
‘Your Englishman came knocking yesterday. Your brothel moth. And do you know what he did?’
‘No!’ cries Nella.
‘Thanks to him, your beloved Rezeki is dead.’
Johannes doesn’t move. ‘What did you say?’
‘You heard me.’
‘What? What did you say?’
‘Jack Philips rammed a dagger in her neck in the middle of your hallway. I warned you. I told you he was dangerous.’
Johannes moves very slowly back towards the chair, sitting down on it with strange caution, as if he cannot trust the touch of the wood. ‘You’re lying,’ he says.
‘If it hadn’t been for Otto, he might have killed us all.’
‘Marin!’ Nella shouts. ‘Enough!’
Johannes looks over to his wife. ‘Is it true, Nella? Or is my sister lying?’
Nella opens her mouth to speak, but no words come. At the sight of her expression, Johannes covers his mouth as if repressing a scream.
Otto stands up from the fire, his eyes full of tears. ‘He had a dagger, Seigneur. I thought he was going to – I never meant—’
‘Jack isn’t dead, Johannes. Otto showed more mercy,’ Marin interrupts. ‘Your little Englishman got up and walked away and your wife put Rezeki’s body in the cellar.’
‘Otto?’ Johannes utters his servant’s name like a question he can hardly bear to ask. His hand drops from his face, a raw blank space waiting the wave of grief.
‘It was all so fast,’ Nella whispers, but Johanne, a strange energy upon him, pushes past his sister, past Cornelia, mute with shock at the door. They hear him stumbling across the hallway, down the kitchen stairs. Nella follows him, and hears him opening the cellar. Johannes’ loss echoes up the corridor. ‘My sweet girl,’ he cries. ‘My sweet girl, my sweet girl. What has he done?’
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes