The miniaturist, p.2
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       The Miniaturist, p.2

           Jessie Burton
 

  ‘Oh no,’ says Nella. ‘Then you must keep it.’

  They face each other, hemmed in by the mass of needlework, the abundance of linen covered in B for Brandt, encircled by vine leaves, entrenched in birds’ nests, rising out of flower beds. The Bs have gobbled up her maiden name, their bellies fat and swollen. Feeling uneasy but duty-bound, Nella brushes a finger over this bounty of wool, now bearing on her spirits.

  ‘Your grand ancestral Assendelft seat, is it warm and dry?’ Marin asks.

  ‘It can be damp,’ Nella offers as she bends over and tries to adjust the large pattens strapped awkwardly to her feet. ‘The dykes don’t always work. It’s not grand, though—’

  ‘Our family may not have your ancient pedigree, but what’s that in the face of a warm, dry, well-made house,’ Marin interrupts. It is not a question.

  ‘Indeed.’

  ‘Afkomst seyt niet. Pedigree counts for nothing,’ Marin continues, prodding a cushion to emphasize the word nothing. ‘Pastor Pellicorne said it last Sunday and I wrote it in the flyleaf of our Bible. The waters will rise if we’re not careful.’ She seems to shake herself out of a thought. ‘Your mother wrote,’ she adds. ‘She insisted she would pay for you to travel here. We couldn’t allow that. We sent the second-best barge. You’re not offended?’

  ‘No. No.’

  ‘Good. Second-best in this house still means new paint and a cabin lined in Bengal silk. Johannes is using the other one.’

  Nella wonders where her husband is, on his best barge, not back in time to greet her. She thinks about Peebo, alone in the kitchen, near the fire, near the pans. ‘You only have two servants?’ she asks.

  ‘It’s enough,’ says Marin. ‘We’re merchants, not layabouts. The Bible tells us a man should never flaunt his wealth.’

  ‘No. Of course.’

  ‘That is, if he has any left to flaunt’ Marin stares at her and Nella looks away. The light in the room is beginning to fade, and Marin sets a taper on the candles. They are tallow and cheap, and Nella had hoped for more fragrant beeswax. The choice of this meat-smelling, smoky variety surprises her. ‘Cornelia seems to have sewn your new name on everything,’ Marin says over her shoulder.

  Indeed, thinks Nella, remembering Cornelia’s baleful scrutiny. Her fingers will be red ribbons, and who will she punish for that?

  ‘When is Johannes coming – why is he not here?’ she asks.

  ‘Your mother said you were keen to begin your life as a wife in Amsterdam,’ Marin says. ‘Are you?’

  ‘Yes. But one needs a husband in order to do so.’

  In the frost-tipped silence that follows, Nella wonders where Marin’s husband is. Maybe she’s hidden him in the cellar. She smothers her desperate impulse to laugh by smiling at one of the cushions. ‘This is all so beautiful,’ she says. ‘You didn’t have to.’

  ‘Cornelia did it all. I am no use with my hands.’

  ‘I’m sure that is not true.’

  ‘I’ve taken my paintings down. I thought these might be more to your taste.’ Marin gestures to the wall where a brace of game-birds has been captured in oil, hanging from a hook, all feather and claw. Further along the wall is a portrait of a strung-up hare, a hunter’s prize. Next to it a painted slew of oysters are piled on a Chinese patterned plate, shadowed by a spilt wineglass and a bowl of over-ripened fruit. There is something unsettling about the oysters, their exposed openness. In her old home, Nella’s mother covered the walls in landscapes and scenes from the Bible. ‘These belong to my brother,’ Marin observes, pointing at a brimming vase of flowers, harder than life, coloured in excess, half a pomegranate waiting at the bottom of the frame.

  ‘Thank you.’ Nella wonders how long it will take her to turn them to the wall before she goes to sleep.

  ‘You’ll want to eat up here tonight,’ says Marin. ‘You’ve been travelling for hours.’

  ‘I have, yes. I would be grateful.’ Nella shudders inwardly at the birds’ bloodied beaks, their glassy eyes, promising flesh puckering away. At the sight of them, she is taken by the desire for something sweet. ‘Do you have any marzipan?’

  ‘No. Sugar is – not something we take much of. It makes people’s souls grow sick.’

  ‘My mother used to roll it into shapes.’ There was always marzipan in the pantry, the only predilection for indulgence in which Mrs Oortman echoed her husband. Mermaids, ships and necklaces of sugared jewels, that almond doughiness melting in their mouths. I no longer belong to my mother, Nella thinks. One day I will roll sugar shapes for other little clammy hands, voices baying for treats.

  ‘I will ask Cornelia to bring you some herenbrood and Gouda,’ Marin says, drawing Nella out of her thoughts. ‘And a glass of Rhenish.’

  ‘Thank you. Do you have an idea of when Johannes will arrive?’

  Marin tips her nose into the air. ‘What is that smell?’

  Instinctively, Nella’s hands fly to her collarbone. ‘Is it me?’

  ‘Is it you?’

  ‘My mother bought me a perfume. Oil of Lilies. Is that what you smell?’

  Marin nods. ‘It is,’ she says. ‘It’s lily.’ She coughs gently. ‘You know what they say about lilies.’

  ‘No?’

  ‘Early to ripe, early to rot.’

  With that, Marin shuts the door.

  Cloak

  At four o’clock the next morning, Nella is still unable to sleep. The oddness of her new surroundings, gleaming and embroidered, wreathed with the smell of smoking tallow, forbids her to be easy. The paintings in their frames remain exposed, for she had not the courage to switch them to the wall. Lying there, she lets the events that have led to this moment swirl through her exhausted head.

  When he died two years ago, they said in Assendelft that Seigneur Oortman had been a man who fathered breweries. Though Nella loathed the suggestion that her papa was nothing more than a sozzled Priapus, it proved depressingly true. Her father tied them up with his knot of debts – the soup thinned, the meat got scraggier, the servants fell away. He’d never built an ark, as all Dutchmen were supposed to, fighting the rising sea. ‘You need to marry a man who can keep a guilder in his purse,’ her mother said, taking up her pen.

  ‘But I have nothing to give in return,’ Nella replied.

  Her mother tutted. ‘Look at you. What else do we women have?’

  The statement had stunned Nella. To be reduced by her own mother caused her a new sort of distress, and grief for her father was replaced by a sort of grief for herself. Her younger siblings, Carel and Arabella, were allowed to continue outside, playing at cannibals or pirates.

  For two years, Nella practised being a lady. She walked with new poise – though there was nowhere to walk to, she complained, feeling for the first time a desire to escape her village, ignoring the enormous skies, seeing only a bucolic prison already developing fine layers of dust. In a newly tightened corset she improved her lute, moving her neat fingers on the fretboard, concerned about her mother’s nerves just enough not to rebel. In July this year her mother’s enquiries, through the last of her husband’s connections in the city, finally fell on fertile ground.

  A letter arrived, the handwriting on the front neat and flowing, confident. Her mother didn’t let her read it – but a week later, Nella discovered she was to play for a man, a merchant called Johannes Brandt, come to the country from Amsterdam. As the sun lowered over the browning Assendelft flatlands, this stranger sat in their gently crumbling house and listened to her play.

  Nella thought he seemed moved, and when she’d finished he said that he’d enjoyed it. ‘I love the lute,’ he told her. ‘A beautiful instrument. I have two hanging on my wall, but they haven’t been played for years.’ And when Johannes Brandt – thirty-nine, a true Methuselah! Carel crowed – had asked for her hand, Nella decided to accept. It would have seemed ungrateful and certainly stupid to say no. What other option was there but – as Marin puts it – life as a wife?

  After the Assendelft ceremony in Se
ptember, their names entered in the church register, they had a brief dinner at the Oortman home and Johannes left. A shipment needed to be delivered to Venice, he’d said, and he had to do it himself. Nella and her mother had nodded. Johannes was so charming, with his crooked smile, his suggestion of such power. On her wedding night, the newly married Nella slept as she had for years, top to toe with her wriggling sister. But it was all to the good, she thought, picturing herself rising from the flames of Assendelft like a new woman – a wife, and all to come—

  Her thoughts are interrupted by the sound of dogs in the hall. Nella hears a man – Johannes’ voice, she is sure. Her husband is here, in Amsterdam – a little late, but here. Nella sits up in her wedding bed, blearily rehearsing. I am so pleased. Was your journey safe? Yes? So happy, oh so happy.

  But she dares not go down. Struck with nerves, the excitement of seeing him is not quite enough to overcome. Waiting, apprehension blooming in her stomach, she wonders how to begin. Finally she shucks on her pattens, pulls a shawl over her nightgown and creeps along the passageway.

  The dogs’ claws skitter across the tiles. They bring the sea air in their fur, their tails thwack the furniture. Marin has got to Johannes first, and Nella can hear them talking.

  ‘I never said that, Marin,’ Johannes says. His voice is deep and dry.

  ‘Forget it now. Brother, I am glad to see you. I have prayed for your safe return.’ As Marin moves out of the shadow to survey him, the light of her candle dips and dances. Craning over the banister, Nella watches the unfamiliar bulk of Johannes’ travelling cloak, the surprising butcher’s fingers. ‘You look worn out,’ Marin goes on.

  ‘I know, I know. And autumn in London—’

  ‘Is gruesome. So that’s where you have been. Let me.’

  With her spare hand, Marin helps remove his cloak. ‘Ah, Johannes. You are thin. You have been away too long.’

  ‘I am not thin.’ He moves away. ‘Rezeki, Dhana,’ he calls, and the dogs follow him like familiars. Nella digests the odd sounds of their names. Rezeki, Dhana. In Assendelft, Carel called their dogs Snout and Blackeye, unimaginative but perfect reflections of character and appearance.

  ‘Brother,’ says Marin. ‘She’s here.’

  Johannes stops but he does not turn. Shoulders dropping, his head inclines a little lower to his chest. ‘Ah,’ he says. ‘I see.’

  ‘It would have been better for you to be here when she arrived.’

  ‘I’m sure you coped.’

  Marin pauses, and the silence grows between her pale face and the closed bulk of her brother’s back. ‘Don’t forget,’ she says.

  Johannes runs his fingers through his hair. ‘How could I?’ he replies. ‘How could I?’

  Marin seems about to say something else, but instead she folds her arms across her body. ‘It’s so cold,’ she says.

  ‘Then go to bed. I have to work.’

  He shuts his door, and Marin swings her brother’s cloak onto her shoulders. Nella leans further over, watching Marin bury her face in the long folds of material. The banister creaks and Marin whips off the cloak, peering up into the darkness. When Marin opens a cupboard off the hallway, Nella creeps back to her room to wait.

  Minutes later, at the sound of Marin’s bedroom door closing at the end of the corridor, Nella sidles down the main staircase. She stops by the hall cupboard and expects to find the cloak hanging, but it is crumpled on the floor. Kneeling down to pick it up, she finds it has a damp scent of a tired man and the cities he’s seen. After placing it on the hook, Nella approaches the door behind which her husband disappeared, and knocks.

  ‘For God’s sake,’ he says. ‘We’ll speak in the morning.’

  ‘It’s me. Petronella. Nella.’

  After a moment, the door opens and Johannes stands there, his face in shadow. He is so broad-shouldered – Nella hadn’t remembered him being this imposing at the half-empty church in Assendelft. ‘Esposa mía,’ he says.

  Nella does not know what this means. As he steps back into the candlelight she sees his face is tanned and beaten by the sun. His irises, grey like Marin’s, are almost translucent. Her husband is no prince, his hair greasy at the scalp, a dull metallic. ‘I’m here,’ she says.

  ‘So you are.’ He gestures to her nightgown. ‘You should be asleep.’

  ‘I came to greet you.’

  He comes forward and kisses her hand, his mouth softer than she imagined. ‘We’ll talk in the morning, Nella. I am glad you arrived safely. I’m so glad.’

  His eyes rest on nothing for long. Nella considers the conundrum of his energetic fatigue, noticing a musky tang in the air, intense and unsettling. Retreating into the yellow glow of what looks to be his study, Johannes shuts the door.

  Nella waits for a moment, looking up the main staircase into the pitch black. Marin must surely be asleep, she thinks. I’ll just take one look, to be sure my little bird’s all right.

  Tiptoeing down the stairs to the kitchens, she finds her parakeet’s cage hanging by the open stove, the dying embers gently illuminating the metal bars. ‘All maids are dangerous,’ her mother had said, ‘but the city ones are worse.’ She hadn’t explained exactly why, but at least Peebo is alive, on his perch, feathers up, hopping and clicking in acknowledgement of Nella’s presence. More than anything she wants to take him upstairs, but she thinks of what Marin might do if she’s disobeyed, Cornelia arranging a dinner of two little drumsticks with a garland of green feathers. ‘Goodnight, Peebo,’ she whispers.

  Through her bedroom window the mists rise off the Herengracht, the moon above a faded coin. Drawing the curtains and gathering her shawl around her, Nella takes a seat in the corner, still wary of her giant bed. Her new husband is a rich man in Amsterdam, a city power-broker, a lord of the sea and all its bounty. ‘Life’s hard if you’re not a wife,’ her mother had observed. ‘Why?’ Nella asked. Having witnessed her mother’s constant annoyance at her father turn to panic on the news of his posthumous debts, she asked why Mrs Oortman was so keen to shackle her daughter to a possibly similar risk. Her mother looked at her as if she was mad, but this time she did explain. ‘Because Seigneur Brandt is a city shepherd, and your father was only a sheep.’

  Nella looks at the silver ewer on the side, the smooth mahogany writing desk, the Turkey rug, the voluptuous paintings. A beautiful pendulum clock makes its gentle measure of time. There are suns and moons on its face, its hands are filigreed. It is the most beautiful clock Nella has ever seen. Everything looks new, and speaks of wealth. Nella has never learned this particular language, but she thinks it will be necessary. Picking up the fallen cushions on the floor, she mounts them on the coverlet of deep red silk.

  The first time Nella bled, aged twelve, her mother told her that the purpose of that blood was ‘the security of children’. Nella never thought there was much to feel secure about, hearing the cries through the village of women in their labour pains, the coffins sometimes marched to church soon after.

  Love was much more nebulous than stains on linen rags. Her monthly blood never seemed connected to what Nella suspected love could be – of the body but beyond it. ‘That’s love, Petronella,’ Mrs Oortman said, observing how Arabella held the puppy Blackeye tight until she nearly choked his canine life away. When musicians in the village sang about love, they sang indeed of pain concealed in the bounty. True love was a flower in the gut, its petals unfurling inside out. You would risk all for love – blissful, never without its drops of dismay.

  Mrs Oortman had always complained there were no suitors good enough for miles – ‘hay-chewers’, she called the local boys. The city, and Johannes Brandt, held her daughter’s future.

  ‘But – love, Mother. Will I love him?’

  ‘The girl wants love,’ Mrs Oortman cried theatrically to the peeling Assendelft walls. ‘She wants the peaches and the cream.’

  Nella was told it was right that she leave Assendelft, and God knows that by the end to escape was all she wanted. She had no
desire to play shipwrecks with Carel and Arabella any more, but this doesn’t stop the disappointment flooding in now, sitting by her empty wedding bed in Amsterdam like a nursemaid to a patient. What is the point of being here if her husband will not even greet her properly? Clambering up on the blank mattress, she burrows amongst the cushions, thwarted by the scornful look in Cornelia’s eyes, the edge in Marin’s voice, Johannes’ indifference. I am the girl, Nella thinks, who hasn’t had a single peach, never mind the cream.

  The house still seems awake despite the unforgiving hour. She hears the sound of the front door being opened and shut, and then another door above her. There is whispering, footsteps padding across the corridor, before an intense quiet wraps the rooms.

  She listens, desolate, a hairline crack of moonlight glinting over painted hare and rotten pomegranate. It is a deceptive quiet, as if the house itself is breathing. But she doesn’t dare leave her bed again, not on her first night. Thoughts of last summer’s lute playing have gone, and all Nella can hear running through her head is the herring-seller’s words – idiot, idiot, screeching her country voice.

  New Alphabet

  After opening the curtain to let in the morning sun, Cornelia stands at the end of Nella’s rumpled bed. ‘The Seigneur’s arrived from London,’ she says to the small foot poking through the bedclothes. ‘You’ll breakfast together.’

  Nella’s head shoots up from the pillow, her face puffy as a cherub’s. She can hear every maid along the Herengracht, their mops clanking in buckets like muted bells as they wash the filth from their front steps. ‘How long have I been asleep?’ she asks.

  ‘Long enough,’ replies the maid.

  ‘I could have been in this bed for three months, under a spell.’

  Cornelia laughs. ‘What a spell.’

  ‘What do you mean?’

  ‘Nothing, Madame.’ She offers her hands. ‘Come. I have to dress you.’

 
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