The miniaturist, p.22
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       The Miniaturist, p.22

           Jessie Burton
 
‘I trust you, Petronella.’

  Marin disappears. Cornelia opens the front door and on the top step are six guards of the St George Militia, dressed in the costume of wealthy warriors. They present their silver and pewter breastplates, their donderbusses swinging at their hips. Nella says nothing, her hands clasped, her bowels beginning to churn. She notices with relief that Frans Meermans is not among their number.

  ‘We’ve come for Johannes Brandt,’ states the guard nearest to the door. He has a Hague accent – his syllables staccato, not so Amsterdammish.

  ‘He is not here, Seigneur,’ Nella replies, feeling her jaw slacken. I will not ask him why he’s come, she thinks. No rope, no inch, no chance to humiliate us further.

  The civil guard looks her in the eye. He is tall, about Johannes’ age, bald except for a beard more ornate than the others, streaked grey and worked into old-fashioned points. ‘So where is he?’ he asks.

  ‘Travelling,’ replies Nella, the lie as quick as breath, though her tongue feels fat and sodden and she finds it hard to sound convincing. She tries to emulate Marin’s imperiousness, but she feels their collective confidence as they look down on her, their shared medals glinting, their pressed red ribbons, grim streamers of fraternity. Chests swell towards her, full-bellied, sated with the finest food.

  ‘We know he’s here,’ says another man. ‘You don’t want to make a fuss on your doorstep.’

  ‘Good day to you,’ she says, beginning to close the door. The militiaman puts his foot out and stops her. To the sound of snickering from the other five, he pushes against the wood, and for a moment the young woman and the grizzled soldier are locked in a small war of force. He wins, easily, and the six men troop in, their heavy feet ringing on the marble tiles. They remove their helmets, looking round at the tapestries and paintings, the finely polished staircase, the wall-sconces and gleaming windows. They look less like military men than lawyers drawing up a corpse’s inventory.

  ‘Girl,’ the first guard barks, spying Cornelia. ‘Go and fetch your master.’ When Cornelia doesn’t move, he puts his hand on the hilt of his sword. ‘Get him,’ he says, ‘or we’ll take you too.’

  ‘Let’s drop her off at the Spinhuis for a dose of discipline,’ says another with a laugh.

  Nella wonders if these six men have ever seen a real day of battle. They seem to like their uniforms too much. Run, Johannes, she thinks, trying to tamp down her rising panic. Run, run, far away.

  ‘I’ve said it once already, he isn’t here,’ she says. ‘Now, Seigneurs, good day.’

  ‘Do you know why we want him?’ the first guard asks, approaching Nella. The other five fan out, making a loose horseshoe around her and Cornelia. ‘We’re here under the jurisdiction of Schout Slabbaert and the Head Burgomaster at the Stadhuis, Madame Brandt. The prison guards at the Stadhuis are looking forward to his visit.’

  ‘Close the door,’ says Nella, and Cornelia scuttles to obey, the light dimming as the maid shuts away the life outside. ‘You may speak to my husband when you find him.’

  ‘Why, have you lost him?’ asks one of the other guards.

  ‘I bet I know where he is,’ replies another to a ripple of more open laughter. Nella wishes they were all dead.

  ‘An Englishman has reported an attack on the Eastern Islands, Madame,’ the first guard says. ‘The English diplomat is up in arms on behalf of his king – and there’s two witnesses to verify it all,’ the first guard says.

  The Meermanses and Jack must have worked together, Nella thinks – the boy receiving payment, no doubt, for playing another of his parts. Agnes and Frans are such improbable allies with Jack Philips, but what does that matter in the face of collective sweet revenge? Nella imagines pulling off their puppet heads – all three of them dismembered and stripped of their power.

  The situation is slipping from her grasp. She looks desperately round the faces, for a drop of kindness, even of discomfort. Any point of weakness will do, and she will pulverize it. There is one guard who looks older than Johannes, but with the same tanned and open face. When their eyes meet, he looks away, and Nella pulls on what she hopes is a hanging shred of shame.

  ‘What’s your name, Seigneur?’ she asks.

  ‘Aalbers, Madame.’

  ‘What are you doing here, Seigneur Aalbers? You’re a better man than this. Go and catch your murderers, go and catch your thieves.’ It isn’t working, and she can hear herself, desperate and frightened. ‘My husband has helped make this republic great, has he not?’

  ‘I will make sure your husband is treated well.’

  ‘You’ll go home to your wife. And then you will forget.’

  ‘Your husband’s in trouble, Madame Brandt,’ says the first guard, tramping round the glory of Johannes’ hallway. ‘And none of this will save him.’

  Fury stings her; a careless rage. ‘How dare you?’ she shouts, moving towards them, and the rest break apart like a shoal of surprised fish. ‘You imperfect men, dressed in borrowed glories!’

  ‘Madame!’ Cornelia pleads.

  ‘Get out,’ she hisses. ‘All of you. You speak to me in my house like brutes—’

  ‘Madame,’ the first guard calls across the tiles, ‘the far more brutish thing is your husband’s sodomy.’

  The word hangs in the air. Nella is winded by it, frozen between the hush of men. It is a word that sets dynamite under Amsterdam’s buildings, beneath its churches and across its lands, splintering apart its precious life. After greed and flood it is the worst word in the city’s lexicon – it means death and the guards know it. Silenced by their leader’s bravado, they cannot look Nella in the eye.

  From upstairs comes the almost imperceptible click of a closing door. A sound of running footsteps outside breaks the strange, suspended moment. They all turn and a young boy, no older than nine, Nella supposes, pokes his head around the front door, his face alive with glee, his mouth hanging open as he catches his breath. ‘We found him,’ he cries.

  ‘Dead?’ asks Aalbers.

  The boy grins. ‘Alive. Sixty miles upland. We’ve got him.’

  Nella feels her stomach pitching, her knees sliding to the cold hard ground. Someone holds her before she falls – it is Aalbers, setting her gently on her feet. She sways as the boy’s information forces itself into her, hardly able to breathe. She feels so alone with all these men, who do not care whether her husband receives fair justice.

  ‘Where was he, Christoffel?’ asks the first guard.

  ‘He was on a ship, sir, up in the Texel.’ Christoffel advances into the hall, his eyes on sticks at the majesty around him. ‘The advance party got him. He whimpered like a kitten.’ He makes a mewling sound.

  ‘For the love of Christ,’ mutters Aalbers.

  ‘No,’ Nella whispers. ‘You’re lying.’

  The boy sneers. ‘He joked he’d never been to the Stadhuis. Well, he won’t be joking now.’

  Aalbers slaps the boy round the head. ‘Show some respect,’ he shouts as the child squeals in pain.

  The first guard restrains Aalbers. ‘Christoffel just did the republic a great service,’ he says.

  ‘So did my husband,’ Nella retorts. ‘For twenty years.’

  He turns to her. ‘We need keep you no longer.’

  They move towards the door. ‘Wait,’ Nella says, hardly able to muster up the words. ‘What – will you do to him?’

  ‘That’s not for me to say, Madame. The Schout will examine the evidence. A hearing followed by a trial. A brief one, I expect, if what we hear is true.’

  They make their way down the front steps, Christoffel a triumphant mascot between them, moving up the canal towards the city. Aalbers looks back once, giving Nella a peremptory, embarrassed nod. The militia’s walking rhythm is uneven, as if the excitement of their success has overpowered discipline. Before long they are casually strolling, jostling one another, Christoffel’s laughter echoing until they disappear from view.

  Nella shivers in the blue air of the December day.
Up and down the Herengracht, a few shadows in window casements shrink from her regard. There are many eyes watching her, it seems, but no one comes to help.

  ‘They will kill him,’ Cornelia says, hunched over on the hallway stairs.

  Nella crouches down, placing her hands on Cornelia’s knees. ‘Hush, hush. We must follow him to the Stadhuis.’

  ‘You cannot do that.’ Marin has emerged, wrapped in her shawl, her silhouette thrown long in the candlelight.

  ‘What?’

  ‘You will only draw attention.’

  ‘Marin, we need to know what they’re going to do to him!’

  ‘They will kill him,’ Cornelia repeats, beginning to shake. ‘They will drown him.’

  ‘Cornelia, for God’s sake.’

  Marin closes her eyes, rubbing her temples, Nella feels rage at her inertia, her reluctance to grab the scruff of the situation and shake it down into submission. ‘Where is your heart, Marin? I would never abandon my brother to his fate.’

  ‘But that’s exactly what you did, Petronella. You left him in Assendelft and made your own escape.’

  ‘I would not call this an escape.’

  ‘What do you know of the burgomasters?’ says Marin. ‘You, who have eked your life out in fields, drinking cream from your country cows?’

  ‘That isn’t fair. What’s wrong with you?’

  Marin starts moving down towards Nella at the bottom of the staircase, step by step with slow and strange precision. ‘Do you know what Johannes used to say to me?’ she asks. The venom in her voice cuts the winter air and the hairs on Nella’s arms rise up. ‘ “Freedom is a glorious thing. Free yourself, Marin. The bars on your cage are of your own making.” Well, it’s all very well freeing yourself, but there’s always someone who has to pay.’

  ‘Your self-pity is what keeps us from doing anything. You had your chance—’

  Marin lashes out her arms and pins Nella by the wrists against the wall. ‘Get off me!’ Nella cries, weakened by the magnificence of Marin’s fury. Cornelia staggers back in horror.

  ‘I’m not abandoning my brother,’ Marin says. ‘He has abandoned me. I have kept our secrets, as he never could, I have paid his debts as much as I’ve paid mine – and I know you think that now you understand us, but you don’t.’

  ‘I do.’

  Marin releases her. Nella sags against the panelling. ‘No, Petronella,’ Marin says. ‘The knot’s tied too tight for you.’

  Hidden Bodies

  Nella stands on the step of Johannes’ house, the eve of new year passing with no ceremony. She wants to be splintered by the cold, transfigured by the light. The canal path is empty, the ice a ribbon of white silk between the Herengracht houses. The moon above is larger than she has ever seen it, larger even than last night; an astonishing pale circle of power. It looks as if she could reach out and touch it, that God has pushed it down from the heavens for her human hand to hold.

  She hopes Johannes can see this moon through the bars of his cell, somewhere in the bowels of the Stadhuis. His attempt at escape has made him look so guilty. Where is Otto now – where is the miniaturist, still hiding from view? If it weren’t for Cornelia, Nella thinks, I might run away too. While the house dwindles, occupant by occupant, the cabinet feels fuller, ever more alive.

  From the open door behind her a strange smell has begun to emanate, and Nella comes back into the house. It is not coming from the kitchens. From upstairs, she hears a distant gulping, caught gasps of air. She follows the odd scent and sound up the staircase and along the dark corridor, to where a fine line of candlelight runs round Marin’s door. No sweet lavender nor sandalwood this time; this is a rotting-vegetable stench that makes Nella gag.

  It’s some awful incense Marin’s burning, she thinks, some misguided perfume block. But the gulping sound is a sob. Nella listens, bending down to look through the keyhole, and discovers it has been blocked.

  ‘Marin?’ she whispers.

  There is no reply, just the sobbing. Nella pushes on the slightly open door. The rooms stinks – a tang of matted undergrowth, roots and bitter leaves macerated to release their secret properties. Marin is on her bed, holding a glass of green mixture the colour of canal water, as if the very silt off the Herengracht has been ladled in. Her collection of animal skulls has been swept to the floor, some broken into uneven shards of yellow bone. A map on the wall has been ripped in two.

  ‘Marin? What by all the angels—’

  At the sound of Nella’s voice, Marin looks up, her face tear-streaked, her eyes closing in relief. Her hand goes slack and she lets Nella remove the glass. Nella places her hand on the side of Marin’s face, on her neck, her chest, attempting to calm her shaking body, her unending tears. ‘What is it?’ she asks. ‘We will save him, I promise.’

  ‘Not him. I’m not—’

  Marin cannot make a sentence. The strange pliancy of Marin’s body still beneath her fingers, Nella smells the vile mixture, and it makes her feel ill. She thinks of Marin’s sicknesses, her headaches, the new appetite for sugar, for apple tarts and candied nuts. Marin’s tiredness, her moodiness; the hive you mustn’t kick for fear of being stung. Her bulky clothes, her slower way of moving. Marin’s black dresses lined with fur, her secret love note, ripped to nothingness. I love you. I love you. From back to front, I love you. ‘What have you done?’ Marin had cried into the air, lying in her lavender bath.

  Marin does not stop Nella’s probing hands, and so further Nella goes, slower, over her sister-in-law’s full, firm breasts, to the top of her stomach, hidden deep beneath swathes of high-waisted skirts.

  When she presses down, Nella utters a cry.

  Time stops. There are no words. Just a hand on a womb, and wonder and silence. Marin’s concealed stomach is hard and huge, full as the moon. Marin? Nella whispers her name, not sure if she’s even spoken out loud.

  She exhales as the baby turns in its tiny home, and when a small foot kicks she drops to her knees. Still Marin stays silent, head erect, eyes pouched with tiredness, fixed on an invisible horizon before her, the exertion of keeping the secret draining from her face.

  This is not a small baby. This is a baby that is nearly ready to arrive.

  ‘I wouldn’t have drunk it,’ is all Marin says.

  The walls of the room seem nothing more than the flats of a stage set, falling, and beyond them another landscape never glimpsed. An unpainted place stretching out in all directions, no signposts or landmarks; just endless space. Marin sits very still.

  Nella thinks of the little cradle in the cabinet house and a shiver runs up her body. How did the miniaturist know about this? Marin’s gaze is on the candle – beeswax, no burning tallow, just the pleasant smell of honey. The flame dances like a sprite, a little god of light mocking their paralysis of thought. How to start, what to say?

  ‘You tell no one,’ Marin whispers finally.

  ‘Marin, there must be no more secrets within this house. Cornelia will have to know.’

  Marin sighs. ‘If she doesn’t already. I’ve been soaking my rags in pig’s blood so she wouldn’t be suspicious.’ Her eyes flick toward Nella. ‘And you know full well this house’s keyholes.’

  ‘So that’s what you were doing in the cellar. I thought you were cleaning them.’

  ‘You saw what you wanted to see.’

  Nella closes her eyes, conjuring Marin in the cellar with her reddened hands aloft. Such lengths she has gone to in the name of her secret; preparing her ghostly menstruation, keeping up the appearance that her body is just the same. Marin’s profound convex is mesmerizing. She has duplicated herself – two hearts, two heads, four arms, four legs – like a monster to be recorded in a ship’s log, annotated on one of Johannes’ stolen maps. She’s hidden it so well.

  How many times has it happened, the snatched chances out of sight of Agnes, Johannes, the whole city? It is shocking, and the fact that it’s Marin’s deed even more so. Fornication, skin on skin, throwing the Bible out the windo
w. But this is love, Nella thinks. This is what it makes you do.

  Marin lowers her head into her hands. ‘Frans,’ she says, his name enough to convey all that she has hidden, the truth that could ruin her life.

  ‘He was just angry about the sugar, Marin. He loves you.’ Marin looks up, an expression of surprise blooming on her exhausted face. ‘Tell him about the child. Once he knows, he won’t hurt Johannes because such action will endanger you.’

  ‘No, Petronella,’ Marin says. ‘This isn’t one of Cornelia’s stories.’

  They sit in silence for a moment. Nella remembers Meermans’ ugly aggression, his look of triumph when he broke the news of what he and Agnes had seen.

  ‘People needn’t know about this, Marin. We’re good at hiding things.’

  Marin rubs her eyes. ‘I’m not so sure.’ She takes a deep breath. ‘If he survives, this child will be stained.’

  ‘Stained?’

  ‘By his mother’s sin, his father’s sin—’

  ‘It’s a baby, Marin, not a devil. We can go away,’ Nella says more gently. ‘Take you to the countryside.’

  ‘There’s nothing to do in the countryside.’

  Nella bites her tongue and absorbs the barb. ‘Well, exactly. No prying eyes.’

  ‘Do you know what the word pregnant is in French, Nella? Enceinte.’

  Nella is irritated – Marin is so like her brother, diverting the path of conversation with her foreign tongues, blanketing you with worldly overtones.

  ‘Do you know what else it means?’ Marin persists, and now Nella hears the faint note of panic in her voice. ‘A surround. A wall. A trap.’

  Nella kneels down in front of her. ‘How far are you gone?’ she says, wanting to be practical.

  Marin exhales, resting her arms on the top of her belly. ‘Seven months or so.’

  ‘Seven months? I would never have known. My mother’s been pregnant four times since I can remember, but I couldn’t tell with you.’

  ‘You weren’t looking, Nella. I let my skirts out and bound my breasts.’

  Nella cannot help smiling – even in this extraordinary situation, the act of tamping herself down, of sliding her truth away from all their gazes, makes Marin proud. ‘But these days I’m finding it hard to walk. It’s like bending over a globe.’

 

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