The miniaturist, p.20
The Miniaturist, p.20Jessie Burton
Nella creeps along, wading against her own desire to stop, another part of her knowing she must try and give comfort. She finds Johannes on his knees, cradling the rigid dog, half-hanging out of her bloodstained sack. Rezeki’s head rests on her master’s arm, her wound oily in the half-light, teeth bared in a crooked grin.
‘I’m so sorry,’ Nella whispers, but Johannes cannot speak. He looks up at his wife, eyes wet, clinging to his love in disbelief.
For the next two days, the house seems to nurse itself in a suspended quiet. Marin stays in her room, Cornelia plans the charity boxes they will send to the orphanages for Christmas, the cakes smaller this year, the meat pies fewer. Otto avoids them all, staying in the garden where he prods unnecessarily at the frozen soil. ‘You’ll disturb the bulbs, Toot,’ Cornelia says, but he ignores her. Nella smells a pig’s trotter pottage on the boil, and hears the chafing dishes and skimmers banging in time to Cornelia’s misery.
Johannes goes out both these evenings. No one asks him where he’s going, because they dread the answer. On the second evening after the argument, alone in her room, Nella stands before her cabinet house and holds up Agnes’ doll to the fading light. Somewhere in the house, she can hear a person being sick, the splatter of vomit in a tin bowl, susurrations, the refreshing waft of mint tea to settle a bad stomach. She too would like to purge the worry that waits inside. She hopes Johannes is in the warehouse on the Eastern Islands, working on the sugar – although there was something so unnerving about Agnes’ behaviour in the Old Church, that Nella can hardly believe the only cause for her anger is her business prospects.
As she examines Agnes’ miniature, Nella feels a shudder running up her back, her skin a sudden rash of goosebumps. The tip of Agnes’ cone of sugar has turned completely black. She cries aloud, trying to scratch the spores away, but they smear the rest of the loaf like soot. She attempts to break the loaf off – thinking to bury it in the garden, to inter its power – and it snaps, taking Agnes’ tiny hand with it.
Nella hurls the maimed doll to the floor, the severed hand with its ruined loaf still between her fingers. ‘I’m sorry,’ she mutters, unsure exactly to whom she is apologizing – to the doll, to Agnes, the miniaturist. The ruination in Agnes’ tiny hand feels irrevocable, and somehow all her fault.
The poor weather could have caused these tiny spores – but the cabinet is on the first floor, where the damp is not so bad. It could be dirt from the chimney, yet the cabinet’s contents are nowhere near it. All these logical possibilities; they never seem to fit. Like Rezeki’s mark, was this black stain always there, minuscule and virtually unnoticeable? Or has it inexplicably appeared, spreading in response to her panic over Agnes? No, Nella thinks – don’t be so ridiculous. It was simply another warning that you missed. She looks at the cabinet, at the array of baked pastries, the cradle, the paintings, the cutlery and books, wishing she’d paid more attention when the dolls and dogs first arrived. Are there more little bombs in there she cannot see, ready to explode?
Marin hates these dolls for their idolatry – but this blackened cone, this red mark on Rezeki, these extraordinary pieces of craftswomanship, are more than idolatry. They are intrusions Nella still cannot define. There is a story here and it seems like Nella’s, but isn’t hers to tell. She spins my life, she thinks. And I cannot see the consequences.
Nella opens Smit’s List once more. The miniaturist’s mottoes, pressed between the pages, fall from the opened spine like scattering confetti. She finds the miniaturist’s advertisement. Trained with the great Bruges clockmaker, Lucas Windelbreke. All, and yet nothing. Every time I go to her house, Nella thinks – every time, foolishly bashing on her unopened door – I want all and I certainly achieve nothing. A different approach is required, and as she stares at the advertisement, Nella wonders why she didn’t think of it before. There will be no more long letters, no more witty, semi-philosophical retorts, no more tulips and turnips or running in the cold to be embarrassed on the Kalverstraat.
She hurries to her mahogany writing table, remembering how she waited on Johannes’ doorstep that first day, the people wandering up the Herengracht, the blind boy with the herring, the women laughing. Had the miniaturist known me even then? Had she known how much I looked forward to a room, a desk, a piece of paper to embellish my unhappy welcome?
Drawing out a sheet, Nella dips the pen and begins her letter:
Dear Seigneur Windelbreke,
I am writing to enquire about an apprentice you once had.
All I know of her is that she is female and has a tall, fair-haired appearance, and stares as if she would look into my soul. She has crept into my life, Seigneur, and the miniatures she sends are becoming more unnerving. How is it that she will not respond to me directly, yet chooses to make me the focus of her work?
Tell me how she came to you and why she left. What forces move within her to make my life in miniature – unasked for, exquisite, mysterious in their message? I named her my teacher but now, God save me, I call her a prophet – but if she was once a spying devil you had to cast out, then you must write to me.
I wait with painful anticipation,
There is a knock on her door. Nella shoves the letter under a book, draws the curtains on the cabinet and gathers up the miniaturist’s mottoes.
‘Come,’ she says.
To her complete surprise, Johannes shuffles in. ‘Did you find him?’ she asks, drawing her robe around her and pocketing the mottoes. She finds herself unable to say Jack’s name out loud, but surely that is who Johannes has been with these two nights, though no one dared to say it.
‘Alas, no,’ he replies, holding his hands out like a clumsy thief, as if Jack has slipped through his fingers.
‘You’re like a child, Johannes, lying about a stolen puffert.’
He raises his eyebrows, and although Nella is surprised at her own directness, increasingly with Johannes she finds it difficult to hide her feelings. He doesn’t deny this accusation, but tries to soften her. ‘Petronella,’ he says. ‘I know you’re not a child.’
His kindness almost hurts more than his cruelty. ‘There is much I cannot understand,’ she says, sitting up on the cover of her bed, glancing at the closed cabinet. ‘Sometimes in this house, I see a crack of light, as if I have been given something. And yet other days, I feel shrouded in ignorance.’
‘By that measure, indeed we are all of us children,’ Johannes says. ‘I didn’t mean what I said in the salon. When Marin – she makes me—’
‘Marin just wants you to be safe, Johannes. As do I.’
‘I am safe,’ he replies.
Nella closes her eyes at this, feeling a deep unease. How hard it must have been for Marin all these years, caring for someone who thinks the force of his own will is enough to fight the troubles of existence! He is a citizen of Amsterdam – surely he knows he cannot survive here alone?
‘This is not the marriage you imagined for yourself,’ he says.
She stares at him. A glimpse of parties, a feeling of security, the dying laughter of chubby babies – it falls between them and fades to black. All that belongs to another Nella, one who will never exist.
‘Perhaps I was foolish to imagine anything.’
‘No,’ he says. ‘We are born to imagine.’ He still hovers, unwilling to leave. Nella thinks again of her latest delivery from the miniaturist, the buns and cakes arranged in a tiny basket, hiding behind the mustard-coloured curtains.
‘Johannes, did you manage to sell any of Agnes’ sugar in Venice?’
He collapses on the end of her bed. ‘It’s a mountain, Nella,’ he sighs. ‘Literally. Metaphorically. Finding buyers, at this time of year, will take a while.’
‘But did you find any?’
‘A couple, yes. A cardinal and one of the Pope’s courtesans. People seem to have less to spend these days.’ He smiles sadly.
‘You will have to think of something for t
Johannes smiles. ‘I wasn’t expecting the woman you’ve turned out to be.’
Nella’s first obsession is an elusive Norwegian woman who moulds her life through miniatures, and her second is keeping Johannes’ wealth from rotting near the sea. It was not the picture her mama had painted back in Assendelft.
‘You only know me slenderly.’
‘I was complimenting you,’ Johannes says. ‘You are extraordinary.’ He pauses, looking embarrassed. ‘Come January I’ll be gone again, and I’ll make their profit for them. My stock always sells.’ He opens his arms wide, as if the stature and ornament of his Herengracht house should be sufficient proof.
‘But do you promise, Johannes?’
‘I believed your vow once,’ Nella says. ‘I pray this time you hold it true.’ In the background, the pendulum clock marks its velvet time. ‘Here,’ she says, lifting off the bed and gently parting the curtains of the cabinet. ‘I want you to have this.’
She puts the puppet of Rezeki in his hand and Johannes looks down, blinking with tired eyes, not sure at first what he’s seeing. ‘Rezeki?’ he utters.
‘Keep her safe.’
For a moment Johannes pauses, his eyes riveted to the tiny model in his hand. Then he lifts it up, touches the silky grey fur, the small intelligent eyes, the slender legs. ‘I’ve never seen such a thing. In all my travels.’
Nella notices that he does not comment on the red mark. If Johannes doesn’t choose to see it, she supposes, so much the better. ‘Your wedding present,’ she whispers. ‘I know Rezeki was never human-shaped, but still – don’t tell the burgomasters.’
Johannes looks at her, too moved to speak, clutching the gift like a talismanic comfort. Nella closes the door on him, listening to his quiet tread back to his own room, feeling strangely at peace.
But at dawn the next day, she finds herself woken roughly by Cornelia. The sky is split in streaks of orange and dark blue – it cannot be later than five o’clock. Nella shivers out of her dreams of red-soaked cloths and shrinking rooms, quickly conscious of the cold morning air.
‘What is it?’
‘Wake up, Madame, wake up.’
‘I am awake. What’s wrong?’ she asks. As she focuses on Cornelia’s looming, drawn face, fear plummets through her. ‘What’s happened to Johannes?’
Cornelia’s hands fall from Nella’s body like a pair of dead leaves.
‘Not the Seigneur. It’s Otto,’ she whispers, her voice breaking. ‘Otto’s gone.’
Souls and Purses
Cornelia dances around Johannes, having to be two servants. She puts his boots on, dropping small pies into his pockets, an apple, feeding him against her fears. Johannes pushes his arms through his jacket. ‘Where’s my brocade?’ he asks.
‘Trust you to ask that now,’ Marin mutters, grey with exhaustion.
‘I couldn’t find it, Seigneur,’ says Cornelia.
‘I’m going to check the docks,’ Johannes says. ‘Why did he run like that?’
‘Check the sugar too,’ calls Nella, chasing him outside.
Johannes looks at her in disbelief. ‘Toot comes first,’ he says. ‘We cannot lose him.’
But Nella cannot help thinking of Agnes’ blackened little loaf upstairs. It’s a sign – the miniaturist is trying to warn them, as she warned about Rezeki. Surely there is something to be done before they lose the sugar too? But Johannes has gone, and no wife can turn up to her husband’s warehouse unannounced.
There is no sign of a struggle in Otto’s bed, no broken furniture, the door unforced. A bag of clothes has gone.
‘He took the Seigneur’s jacket, I’m sure of it,’ Cornelia says.
‘Maybe he’ll sell it,’ Nella says.
‘It’s more likely he’ll keep it to wear. Why did he have to go?’
It strikes Nella that she has not asked Cornelia what she was doing looking for Otto in his bedroom at five o’clock in the morning. But Cornelia is literally unmanned, and to probe her now might do more harm than good.
‘Cornelia,’ Marin calls up the stairs. ‘Come here.’
Marin is in the salon, in three jackets, a shawl and two pairs of woollen stockings, clumsily trying to light a peat fire. When she straightens, she looks so bulky, so much taller than Nella and Cornelia. ‘I cannot light the peat,’ she says. Her speech slides like butter in a pan.
‘It’s Toot’s job to light fires, Madame.’ It is not on the peat’s thick smell that Cornelia appears to choke, tears welling in her eyes. ‘I’m not very good at this.’ The maid kneels before the grate, her body a folded mirror to her soul. ‘I asked along the canal,’ she murmurs. ‘No Africans taken into the Rasphuis or the Stadhuis prison.’
‘Cornelia,’ says Marin, lowering herself into the same chair Johannes had collapsed in at the news of Rezeki. Red-eyed and worrying at her layers, Marin cannot sit still. She takes a bite from a week-old slice of apple tart that Cornelia has brought for her, then puts it to one side.
Nella sends a prayer to the miniaturist, wherever she may be at this moment – Madame, send my husband a pair of wings. Fly him faster to the departing ships. Keep beloved Otto on this land.
‘He’ll escape,’ Marin says, rubbing her temples as if trying to solidify something restless shifting in her skull. ‘He’ll go to London. Down by the Thames he’ll have a hope of blending in.’
‘You sound so sure,’ says Nella.
‘I told him nothing would happen,’ Cornelia says. ‘Why didn’t he listen to me?’
‘Because he was frightened,’ Marin says, her breathing becoming heavier. She takes up the apple tart again and picks at it, almost talking to herself. ‘Better that he is gone. By removing himself he protected us. And what would happen to a man like Otto if the burgomasters got hold of him?’
‘Marin?’ Nella says. ‘Did you know he was going to leave?’
Marin betrays a glint of dismay at her question. ‘He is a man of sense,’ she replies, looking away and smoothing down her skirt.
‘And was it you who told him to go?’ Nella presses. The oblique answers behind which Marin hides are infuriating.
‘It was the lesser of two evils,’ she says. ‘I may have suggested it, but I forced nobody.’
‘I know how your suggestions work.’
Cornelia stares in abject horror. ‘You sent him away, Madame? You said Jack wouldn’t report him.’
‘Jack is infinite in his capacity to surprise. He is opportunistic. Say he took a chance to attack us – Otto would have no trial, he’d have no chance to live.’
‘How much you love to pull all our strings, Marin! Trial or not, Otto could die out there.’
Cornelia stands up. ‘He is the Seigneur’s servant.’
‘Is he not my servant too?’ Marin hurls her slice of apple tart against the wall, narrowly missing Cornelia. The maid jumps as the tart explodes upon the oil mural of the countryside, its currants spattering like dark bullets over the painted sheep. ‘Have I not got his best interests at heart?’ Marin cries. ‘Johannes doesn’t care.’
‘He’s out looking for him now!’
‘Johannes loves no one but himself,’ she hisses. ‘And that’s why we are here.’ The currants slide down the mural and lie on the floor, and Marin moves slowly from the room as if weighed down by her clothes.
Christmas, like a poor relation to the promise it once held, shuffles past, with still no sign of Otto. The donations of food are sent to the orphanages, and Johannes buries Rezeki in the wintry, hibernating garden. ‘I’ve never seen the Seigneur like this before,’ Cornelia says to Nella, her face white with worry. ‘He even read a passage from the Bible. It was like he wasn’t there.’
Diminished and withdrawn, Johannes goes out daily, claiming he is making enquiries for his missing servant and working on the sale of the Meerman
The spores on the miniature cone play on Nella’s mind, and she checks them daily, certain they will have spread. The cone remains frozen in time, however – and Nella clings to this, by now a full believer in the prophetic power of the miniaturist. I will fight to emerge, she thinks – but the problem is that Nella has no idea where she is emerging. A dead end, she supposes. The end of a sack, a mute and feeble existence.
Otto is no place she can picture him, and his absence is a question none of them can answer. So far, his doll reveals nothing, so Nella relies on the household’s speculation on his whereabouts. Marin is adamant for London, Johannes reckons Constantinople. Cornelia is convinced he is still on these shores. It is too much for her to accept that Otto would willingly stray far.
‘Better for him in a port city,’ Nella says. ‘In Assendelft, people would shut their doors on him.’
‘What, in this cold?’ says Cornelia.
‘I believe it,’ Marin says.
‘I can’t believe he agreed to leave,’ says Nella, staring at her, but Marin looks away. ‘It just doesn’t seem like him.’
‘You’ve been here twelve weeks, Petronella,’ Marin snaps. ‘A lifetime isn’t enough to know how a person will behave.’
Cornelia begins to slack on her vinegar and lemon juice cleans, her sweeping and polishing, her laundering, cleaning, brushing and beating. Nella sends her letter to Lucas Windelbreke in Bruges, and waits for a reply. The winter weather might slow the messenger, she thinks, but it seems like her only resort.
She decides she must ask Marin if Johannes has spoken to her about the sugar still lying in the warehouse. She finds her in the hallway, where Marin has taken to pacing, staring at the space in the salon where she argued with her brother. The candied walnuts have emerged from her room, and piled in a bowl on a side table, their half-shells glint like beetles. Nella looks at them in surprise; this is not like Marin, eating sugary fripperies in plain view. I suppose if I’d had a fight like that with Carel, she thinks, I’d eat my weight in marzipan.
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes