The miniaturist, p.21
The Miniaturist, p.21Jessie Burton
‘Marin, I must ask you something,’ she says.
Marin winces, clutching her shawl about her.
‘The walnuts,’ Marin replies. ‘I ate too many.’ She turns upstairs towards her room and the moment for discussion vanishes.
Cornelia and Nella spend hours in the kitchen, where it is warmest. One late afternoon, when Marin is asleep and Johannes is out, there is a hard and heavy knocking on the front door.
‘What if it’s the militia, coming for Toot? God save us,’ whispers Cornelia.
‘Well, they won’t find him here, will they?’ Nella would never admit her relief to Marin, but she is glad that Otto has disappeared. She imagines Jack in the middle of a gang, pointing an accusing finger.
The knocking doesn’t stop. ‘I’ll go,’ Nella says, trying to keep at least the illusion of control. This topsy-turvy house, she thinks, where the mistress is the first to greet the guests.
But through the windowpane, just one broad-brimmed hat shimmers on top of a long, full face. Nella pulls the door open, her relief that it isn’t the militia only slightly subsiding as Frans Meermans removes his hat and walks straight in. The December cold rushes in with him and he bows, playing the brim through his fingers.
‘Madame Brandt,’ he says. ‘I’ve come to see your husband.’
‘He’ll be at the bourse,’ says Marin.
Nella jumps, turning to see Marin waiting on the stairs. It is as if Marin knew he was coming. The air feels charged, and Nella waits for the giveaway signs of affection between them both. None comes. Of course, Nella tells herself. Marin is well practised at keeping a surface calm.
‘I’ve been to the bourse,’ says Meermans. ‘And the VOC. And several taverns. I was surprised to find he wasn’t there.’
‘I am not my brother’s keeper, Seigneur,’ Marin says.
At this, Meermans raises his eyebrows. ‘And more’s the pity.’
‘Would you like some wine while you wait?’ asks Nella, for Marin refuses to emerge from the shadows.
He turns to her. ‘You told my wife at the Old Church that your husband had been selling our sugar in Venice.’
Nella can feel Marin’s scrutiny on the back of her neck. ‘Yes, Seigneur. He’s back now—’
‘I know he is, Madame. A man like that will find his every move observed. Brandt is well-returned from the Venetian papists. Christmas is gone and the New Year is almost upon us. So, I ask myself – where is my profit?’
‘I’m sure it’s coming—’
‘He didn’t write to me. So last night I went to the warehouse to find out how his Venice voyage had gone, and this time, I took Agnes. How I wish that I had not!’ He spins towards Marin, fury bulging his eyes. ‘Not a grain has been shifted, Madame. Not a single blasted grain. You are worse than useless – all our fortune, all our future, mouldering in the dark. I touched it – some of it was paste.’
Marin is visibly shocked, unable to grasp the situation and shake it into obedience. Guilt runs through Nella as Marin flails, unarmed against his fury.
‘Frans,’ Marin stutters, ‘that’s impossible—’
‘That would be reason enough to ruin Johannes Brandt, and God knows, I already had my reasons. But when we walked outside the warehouse, we saw something worse. Something much worse.’
Marin comes forward a little from the shadows. ‘He is selling it, Frans,’ she says, quietly. ‘Be assured—’
‘Do you know what we saw, Madame, pressed against the walls?’
Cornelia scurries up the kitchen stairs. Nella’s heart is climbing out of her body. She wants to grip Cornelia’s hands and form a ring around this man, to keep both him and her hammering heart under control. I should have told Marin, she thinks, the air vibrating around her as Meermans’ fury builds. Marin already had her suspicions, but if I’d confirmed that the sugar was untouched, that Frans had already been to see it, maybe she could have stopped all this. She’s the only one who brings into any order.
On the staircase, Marin shrinks as Meermans advances, the opposite of a romantic vision or any tender love. As he stares her down, two images of their old story shimmer in Nella’s mind, the gift of the salted piglet and Frans’ beautiful note, hidden in a book. Let Frans be kind to her, she prays.
‘We saw him,’ Meermans says, his voice low and hypnotic in its intensity. ‘We saw his devilry.’
‘What are you talking about?’ Marin says. ‘What devilry?’
‘I expect you’ve always known it,’ he says. ‘How he spends his time up against the warehouse walls. And such a thing you cannot unsee.’
‘No,’ Marin says.
‘Yes,’ says Meermans, drawing himself up and turning to Nella. ‘The world will have to know, Madame, how your disgusting husband took his pleasure – with a boy.’
Nella closes her eyes as if to stop Meermans’ words entering her. But it’s too late. When she opens them again, Meermans looks grotesquely pleased. Oh, you are not the first to bring me this revelation, she thinks, unable to meet his gaze. My husband gave me that, at least.
None of the women seem able to speak and Meermans seems irritated by their muteness. ‘Johannes Brandt is a degenerate,’ he says as if to prod their terrified stupefaction. ‘A worm in the fruit of this city. And I will do my duty as a godly citizen.’
‘There must be a mistake,’ Marin whispers.
‘No mistake. And what’s more, the boy claims Johannes attacked him.’
‘What?’ says Nella.
‘You’re his friend.’ Marin’s voice is breathless, her hand slipping from the banister. ‘Don’t seek this punishment when you know where it will end.’
‘My friendship with that man died years ago.’
‘Then why did you ask him to sell your sugar? Out of all the merchants – why did you pick my brother?’
‘It was Agnes who insisted,’ he says, pushing his hat roughly onto his head.
‘But you agreed, Frans. Why would you agree if there was not some affection there still?’
Meermans holds his hand up to stop her speaking. ‘Our sugar is as abandoned as his soul. And when I saw what blasphemy he was committing, it was like Beelzebub himself had burst from the skies.’
‘Beelzebub will burst on all of us, Frans, if you carry on like this! You speak of doing your duty to God but I think it’s for your guilders. Money, wealth – you never used to be like this.’
It has to be Jack, Nella thinks, up against the warehouse wall. She almost wants it to be him – some constancy at least, some love perhaps, in the changing shades of this disaster. She wonders if Johannes is still there at the warehouse, unaware that he has been discovered. He needs to know, she thinks. He needs to get away.
‘Did you speak to my husband?’ she asks.
Meermans turns to her with a sneer. ‘Certainly not,’ he says. ‘Agnes was – it became imperative for us to leave the scene. She is not yet quite recovered.’
‘Don’t seek this triumph, Frans,’ Marin begs. ‘You’ll ruin us all. We can come to an arrangement—’
‘Arrangement? Don’t you dare talk to me about an arrangement, Madame. Johannes has arranged enough in my life.’
‘Frans, we’ll sell your sugar, and let that be an end—’
‘No, Marin,’ he says, wrenching open the door. ‘I am a different man now, and I will not stem the tide.’
As Frans Meermans storms out into the freezing day, Marin’s legs give way. It is disturbing to watch, like the collapse of a particularly beautiful tree. Cornelia rushes to her, trying to prop her up. ‘I can’t believe it,’ Marin says, staring at Nella. ‘Can it be true? Can he really have been such a fool?’
‘To bed, Madame,’ Cornelia says, trying to lift Marin up in a desperate effort. She bows under Marin’s weight and her mistress shakes her off, sitting down on the hall stairs.
‘Frans will go to the burgomasters,’ Marin says. The words bruise the tender atmosph
‘Then we must take advantage of his self-importance,’ Nella says. ‘Johannes doesn’t know that he was seen. He only has a few hours in which to escape.’
‘The Seigneur too?’ Cornelia says. ‘But we cannot live here just the three of us.’
‘Can you think of something better?’ Nella asks.
The hallway falls very quiet. Irritated with her own bad mood, Nella worries Dhana’s silky ears through her fingers, thinking about Agnes’ blackened loaf upstairs, wondering where Johannes is. The sugar has made Meermans angry, angrier perhaps than seeing Johannes enjoying forbidden fruit. Several thousand guilders might neutralize this rage against the Brandts.
‘I don’t know how, but we have to sell the sugar,’ she says. ‘Meermans is looking for payment.’
Marin looks up at her. ‘He said some of it was paste.’
‘Exactly. Some of it. He’s probably exaggerating. He likes to lie. And he might stay silent if we sell his stock.’
‘Nothing will keep that man silent. Believe me. And what are you proposing? Do you know all the buyers in Europe and beyond, Petronella – the London cooks, the Milanese pastry-men, the duchesses and marquises and sultans? Do you speak five languages?’
‘I am searching for the light, Marin. In the middle of all this murk.’
An hour later, Nella stands before her cabinet house, staring at the rooms for some clue, some sign, of what to do. The golden pendulum clock is an awful, regular reminder that her husband has still not come home, that the minutes are ticking by. How odd it is, she thinks, that some hours feel like days, and others fly too fast. It is freezing cold outside the window, and she feels the numbing sensation in her toes, imagining her flesh made inert like that man found hacked beneath the ice. At least her breath is misting. I’m still alive, she thinks.
Moonlight creeps in through a gap in the curtain, extraordinary in its strength, showing up every swirling pattern of the pewter, turning it to quicksilver shooting through the wood. All nine rooms are illuminated, and the faces of the people inside them almost glow. Nella’s betrothal cup is a pale thimble, the cradle lace a shining web. Agnes’ severed hand still rests on a chair like a silver charm, the sugar loaf bone-white except for the tip. Nella tries to see if the tip has darkened any further. She cannot tell. Black spores still grimly visible, it rests in her palm like something diseased.
I am not even fortune’s bricklayer, let alone its architect, she thinks. The miniaturist’s elliptical mottoes and her beautiful pieces are still locked in their own world, so tactile yet so unreachable. Tonight, they seem to taunt her. The less Nella understands the miniaturist’s reasons for doing all this, the more powerful the miniaturist seems. Nella prays that Lucas Windelbreke has received her letter, that some clarity will come for her to find the key.
Taking her husband’s doll from the cabinet, Nella weighs him in her palm. Did the miniaturist see this coming too – Johannes discovered on the dock by his enemy? His back is still bent to the side, burdened by his bag of money. It doesn’t seem to have lightened, and Nella tries to take encouragement from this, but cannot fully trust herself to intuit its true meaning.
She hears the front door, followed by the familiar click as Johannes enters his study. Putting his doll back in the cabinet, Nella runs downstairs and walks straight in.
‘Johannes, where have you been?’ She presses her feet into the soft wool pile of his rug, the old smell of Rezeki infused for ever in the fibres.
He looks tired, and old – and this makes her feel older too. He doesn’t know he’s been spotted, she thinks. She can tell he has no idea. Rushing towards him, she takes him by the sleeves. ‘You have to leave, Johannes. You have to get away.’
‘But you must know this. I believe you’ve tried your best for me – with your cabinet, and your silversmiths’ feast, and your posies and your dresses. Conversations the like of which I’ve never shared. I want you to know that – before you have to go.’
‘Sit down, calm yourself. You look so unwell.’
‘Johannes, no.’ Nella stops, looking around at the maps, the paperwork, the golden inkstand – anything but the measured stare of his grey eyes. ‘Agnes and Frans – they saw you, Johannes. At the warehouse. With a young man.’
He leans against his high stool. He looks as if the cogs inside him have broken and he is slowing to a stop.
‘The burgomasters will kill you,’ Nella presses on in the face of his silence, hearing her reckless words slurring into one another. ‘Was it Jack? How could you? Even though he betrayed you with what he did to Rezeki—’
‘It is not Jack Philips who has betrayed me,’ Johannes says. His voice is harder than she’s ever heard it. ‘It is this city. It is the years we all spend in an invisible cage.’
‘Any person’s behaviour would mutate under such constant scrutiny, such bigoted piety – neighbours watching neighbours, twisting ropes to bind us all.’
‘But you once said to me that this city wasn’t a prison, if you plotted your path correctly.’
He spreads his hands. ‘Well, it is a prison. And its bars are made of murderous hypocrisy. I’ll leave tonight before it becomes an impossible escape.’
He is abrupt, in pain, it doesn’t sound like him. Nella’s bones are falling through her body, as if she’s going to slide into her husband’s rug and never stand again. ‘Where will you go?’
‘I’m sorry, sweet girl.’ This tenderness is almost as unbearable. ‘It is best I don’t tell you. They’ll ask what you know – and they have means of getting their answers.’ He rifles around on the desk and hands her a piece of paper. ‘I’ve been working on a list of names who might be interested in the sugar. Give it to Marin. She’s well versed in the ledger book, so you won’t have any problems there. I will give you the name of an agent I trust at the VOC.’
‘More commission to share, Johannes? Any profit will be so diminished.’
‘You have been paying attention.’ He smiles with difficulty, lifting the lid of his chest to take a wad of guilders, and Nella notices how empty the inside looks. ‘But I don’t see how you can sell it without an agent.’
‘Will you come back to us?’
Johannes sighs. ‘This city is like no other city in the world, Nella. It is brilliant but it is bloated, and I’ve never called it home.’
‘Then where is home, Johannes?’
He looks at the maps on his wall. ‘I don’t know,’ he says. ‘Where comfort is. And that is hard to find.’
That night, Nella is the only one to see Johannes off, draped in his travelling cloak, hunched against the cold. ‘Goodbye,’ he says.
‘I’ll – miss you.’
He nods, and she notices his eyes are wet. ‘You won’t be alone,’ he says, rubbing the emotion away. ‘You have Cornelia.’
He pauses, adjusting the strap on his bag, and he looks so vulnerable, an old man forced on an unwanted adventure. ‘I have friends in many countries,’ he says. ‘It will be well.’ His breath is like hot smoke in the freezing air, and she watches it disappear. ‘I will think of you. Watch Marin. Guard her. She needs it more than you think. And don’t let her feed you only herrings.’
The joke lodges inside her like a dart, a magnitude of pain she did not expect. She cannot deal with this camaraderie come too late, the sweetness of this understanding slipping out of time. ‘Johannes,’ she whispers, ‘promise you’ll come back.’
But her husband does not reply, for he has moved soundlessly up the canal path, a seasoned disappearer, the bag of money swinging from his side. I will never see him again, she thinks.
The night darkens, the stars unfriendly, the cold a knife upon her neck – but Nella waits, until she can no longer tell the diff
A clanking sound outside wakes her. Nella has slept all night in Johannes’s study, and her husband’s rug has left an imprint on her face. At first, she thinks the noise is coming from the maids along the Herengracht, dipping their mops in buckets, washing the step, sloshing away the debris of the last day of 1686. For one moment, she forgets it all, staring at Johannes’ beautiful maps. Then Meermans’ anger and Johannes’ escape rush into her mind, overcrowding any path to calm thought. She looks up at the ceiling, where the candle-spots are as black as the stains on Agnes’ miniature loaf.
She is being called – it is Cornelia, high-pitched, hysterical – Madame Nella! Madame Nella! Nella rubs her eyes. The clanking has stopped. Dazed, she stands up on the trunk of guilders and looks through the window. Red ribbons over barrel chests, the flash of burnished metal, swords and pistols. The St George Militia. Then the hammering on the front door starts up. Cornelia bursts in. ‘It’s them,’ she hisses, terrified. ‘They’ve come.’
Nella closes her eyes and gives quick thanks that by now Johannes is on a ship, far from here. Marin is in the hallway as the hammering continues, and the three women have a rushed conference, Dhana bucking on her paws between them.
‘Did he go?’ Marin asks. When Nella nods, she can see the fleeting pain in Marin’s face, quickly masked. ‘I cannot trust myself in front of them,’ Marin says, moving up the staircase as Nella tries to control the dog.
‘I will only lose my temper, especially if Frans Meermans is among them.’
‘What? You can’t leave me with them—’
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes