The miniaturist, p.23
The Miniaturist, p.23Jessie Burton
‘You’ll show soon. However many skirts and shawls you wear.’
‘I’m tall at least. I shall just look like a glutton, the embodiment of my sin.’
Nella glances at the glass. This preparation could easily have killed her. Preparation – named as if it is the beginning of something, when really it is the end. A girl in Assendelft died from drinking a preparation of hellebore and pennyroyal. Her brother’s friends had forced themselves upon her and one of them had ‘hooked in his child’ as the saying went. Her father made the mixture, and something went wrong, for they buried her the next morning.
Most countryside people can tell a poisonous mushroom, a fatal shrub. Seven months is far too late; after so much careful concealment, Marin would have perished too. Does Marin know this or not? Both possibilities disturb.
‘Where did you get the poison from?’
‘A book,’ says Marin. ‘The ingredients came from three separate apothecaries. Johannes thinks I stole all my seeds and leaves from him, but in fact half of them come from quacks in Amsterdam.’
‘But why tonight? Had you never wondered before now what you were going to do?’ Marin looks away, refusing to answer. ‘Marin, these preparations are very dangerous if you don’t drink them early enough,’ Nella persists, but Marin stays silent.
‘Marin, did you want this child to live?’
Marin touches her stomach, and still she doesn’t speak, staring into an infinity Nella cannot see. Nella’s eye moves to the stack of books. One title now stands out, Children’s Diseases by Stephanus Blankaart, and she cannot believe she didn’t consider its presence the last time she was here.
Marin focuses on the book too, and she looks frightened and strangely young. Nella takes her hand, a little pulse passing from palm to palm. ‘I remember you reaching for my fingers the first day I arrived.’
‘No. That isn’t true.’
‘Marin, I recall it quite clearly.’
‘You gave me your hand as if it were a gift. You were so . . . confident.’
‘I was not. And you proffered yours as if you were pointing me back outside. You said I had strong bones for seventeen.’
‘What a ridiculous thing to say.’ Marin sounds mystified.
‘Especially as I was eighteen.’
It is Marin’s skin that has softened; the exchange is now complete. Her body leans against Nella’s, lulled into a truce. Nella cannot quite believe what the evening has brought, in this tiny room of maps. It is too large a fact to incorporate – her mind hums around the edges of it, making its way in. She wants to ask so many questions, but doesn’t know how to start.
The two of them rest in this unprecedented state, and she has a thought. This child could be proof that Johannes is the husband he’s supposed to be – the creator of a good Dutch family. But looking over at Marin’s pale face, Nella stops her tongue. Give me your child, Marin, and protect your brother’s fate. They are not easy words to offer, and probably harder to receive. Marin has been making sacrifices all her life, and such a suggestion must be gently made. ‘We’ll have to find a midwife,’ she says gently.
‘You’ll have to go to the warehouse and check the sugar,’ comes Marin’s reply. Her body starts to stiffen.
‘But, Marin! What are we going to do with you?’
Nella marvels at Marin’s ability to divide herself like this, slipping the fact of her baby like a jewel into her pocket. Marin rises unsteadily off the bed and picks her way across the scattered skulls. Without her overskirts on, Nella can see her full curve, the rising swell of her breasts. Behind the walls of Marin’s anchored body a baby tumbles, possessed and possessor, its unmet mother a god to it. The child is coming – and despite Nella’s hope for openness, she knows this will be the greatest secret they will ever have to keep.
The mention of the sugar unfurls a memory in her mind. ‘Johannes gave me a list of names for selling the sugar,’ she says, reluctantly, having no wish to let Marin divert the conversation from the question of her unborn child.
But before Nella can continue, they hear the patter of receding footsteps along the corridor. ‘Cornelia,’ Marin says. ‘All her life, listening at doors!’
‘I’ll talk to her.’
Marin sighs. ‘I suppose you must, before she fabulates another story.’
‘She won’t need to,’ Nella says, heading for the door. ‘Nothing here is more fabulous than the truth.’
In Nella’s room, Cornelia is at first silent and stubborn, but she breaks, collapsing to the bed as if her bones are ash. ‘I knew it,’ she says, but her mystified face betrays her fighting talk. Nella rushes to the maid, giving her a tight embrace. Poor Cornelia, she thinks. You’ve been hoodwinked. But the monumental sleight of hand has been played upon all their watch. This is the greatest trick Marin has ever pulled – except it’s real.
‘I knew something was wrong,’ says Cornelia. ‘But I didn’t want to believe. A baby?’
‘She put animal blood on her rags to fool us.’
‘Clever idea,’ Cornelia replies, her frown changing to a grudging admiration.
‘Certainly cleverer than being unmarried and getting with child.’
‘Madame!’ Cornelia looks outraged, and Nella realizes that she is not going to tell this orphan about Marin’s mixture. Although, she thinks with a surge of fondness, I’ll bet this Queen of Keyholes heard it all.
A child is on its way. Marin’s secret has been released, and now Nella sees it in the curtains’ swell, in the roundness of her bedroom pillows. She stares past Cornelia, to the middle of her bed. Marin has the one thing I will never have. Unbidden, the image of Meermans and Marin together enters Nella’s mind. Their two bodies, the swell of him pressing between her legs, the rod of pain – him rolling down Marin’s stockings, opening her, crying out in the heat of it. That is unfair, she thinks. It was probably more than that – for here is a man who believed that Marin’s touch lingered for a thousand hours, that she was the sunlight which he stood in, warmed. With such poetry, how could it ever have been so underwhelming?
‘What will we do with the child?’ Cornelia asks.
‘I suppose Marin might take it to a private orphanage.’
Cornelia jumps to her feet. ‘No! We must keep it, Madame.’
‘Cornelia, it isn’t your choice to make,’ Nella says. ‘Nor mine neither,’ she adds, thinking of Johannes in his cell.
The maid folds her arms. ‘I would look after that baby like a lion.’
‘That may be, Cornelia. But don’t dream of things you can’t have.’
This is too harsh, and Nella knows it, her exhaustion boiling over. It sounds like something Marin might say. Cornelia moves away from her towards the cabinet. The moon has now gone behind a cloud, and the candlelight pitches unevenly across the tortoiseshell.
Cornelia draws back the yellow velvet curtains and peers in. Nella, too ashamed by her outburst, does nothing to stop her. The maid lifts out the cradle, rocking it back and forth on her hand. ‘So beautiful,’ she breathes.
I should have noticed, Nella thinks – that of all the items Marin wanted to hold, the cradle was her first choice. How much else have I failed to observe? Too much, and still I keep on failing.
Cornelia has already pulled out Marin’s doll. ‘It’s her,’ she says, staring in disbelief at her mistress. ‘As if I’m holding her in my palm!’
Marin in miniature stares up at both women, her mouth set firm, her grey eyes unwavering. Cornelia runs her hand down the seam of her mistress’s skirt, the soft black wool a voluminous pleasure to touch. She holds her up in the candlelight. ‘Be safe, Madame,’ she whispers, clutching the doll in both hands. As Cornelia’s lips meet the miniature stomach to give it a kiss, she pulls away with a jerk.
‘What’s wrong? Cornelia, what is it?’
‘I can feel something.’
Nella snatches the doll back, lifting the skirts and then the
Unmistakeable, Marin’s diminutive body holds the curve of an unborn child. A nub, a walnut, a nothing-yet, but soon-to-be. The doll appears weighed down like the woman along the corridor, full-bellied with time.
Cornelia is horrified. ‘You ordered a doll of Madame Marin, carrying a child?’ As the maid’s cornflower-blue eyes shine at her with accusation, Nella’s own body feels unwieldy. ‘How could you betray us like this?’
‘No, no,’ Nella pleads. The slipping has begun, the loose brick, the hole in the dam.
‘You know how rumour spreads—’
‘I – I – didn’t order it, Cornelia.’
‘Then who did?’ Cornelia looks aghast.
‘I was sent it – I asked for nothing but a lute, and—’
‘Then who is spying on us?’ The maid spins round the room, brandishing the doll like a shield.
‘The miniaturist isn’t a spy, Cornelia. She’s more than that—’
‘She? I thought all those notes were going to a craftsman?’
‘She’s a prophetess – look at Marin’s stomach! She sees our lives – she’s trying to help, to warn us—’
Cornelia pulls out doll after doll, pressing their bodies for more clues, dropping them one by one to the floor. ‘Warn us? Who is this woman, this somebody? What is this miniaturist?’ She grips her own doll in her fist, staring at it in horror. ‘Sweet Jesu, I’ve lived carefully, Madame, I’ve been obedient. But ever since this cabinet arrived, so many doors have opened that I’ve always managed to keep shut.’
‘But is that such a bad thing?’
Cornelia looks at her as if she’s mad. ‘The Seigneur is in prison, Otto’s gone and Madame Marin carries a secret shame with the man who is this household’s enemy! Our world has fallen apart – and this – miniaturist – has been watching all this time? How has she warned us, how has she helped?’
‘I’m sorry, Cornelia, I’m so sorry. Please don’t tell Marin. The miniaturist has the answers.’
‘She’s nothing but a snooper,’ Cornelia fumes. ‘No one pulls my strings but God above.’
‘But if we didn’t know about Marin, then how did she, Cornelia?’
‘We would have found out. We did find out. We didn’t need her to tell us.’
‘And look at this.’ Nella shows her Agnes’ blackened sugar loaf. ‘It was white when it first arrived.’
‘It’s soot from the fire.’
‘It doesn’t rub off. And Rezeki had a mark on her head, just where Jack killed her.’
Cornelia backs away from the cabinet. ‘Who is this witch?’ she hisses.
‘She isn’t a witch, Cornelia. She’s a woman from Norway.’
‘A Norwegian witch turned Amsterdam spy! How dare she send you these evil things—’
‘They’re not evil.’
Cornelia’s bile burns through Nella’s heart. She feels as if she is being dissected as much as her secret miniaturist, her one possession cut apart and its innards doled out.
‘I had nothing in this city, Cornelia. Nothing. And she took an interest. I don’t understand why she’s picked me, I don’t always understand the messages she sends, but I’m trying—’
‘What else does she know? What is she going to do?’
‘I don’t know. Please believe me – I asked her to stop, but she didn’t. It was like she understood my unhappiness, and carried on.’
Cornelia frowns. ‘But I tried to make it happy for you. I was here—’
‘I know you were. And all I’ve discovered is that she was apprenticed to a clockmaker in Bruges. I’ve written to him, but he is as silent as her.’ Nella can hear her voice pressing down into a sob, the hot tears threatening to break into her eyes. ‘But what was it that Pellicorne preached? There’s nothing hidden that will not be revealed.’
‘No woman can be an apprentice,’ Cornelia snaps. ‘No man is keen to train a woman. No guild except the seamstresses or stinking peat-carriers would have her. And what would be the point? Men are the makers of this world.’
‘She made minutes and seconds, Cornelia. She created time.’
‘If I wasn’t boiling your sturgeons, spicing your pies and cleaning your windows, I could have made time. I could have made evil puppets and spied on people—’
‘You do spy on people. In that way, you’re just like her.’
Hot and breathless, Cornelia purses her lips and shoves the doll of herself back in the cabinet. ‘I am nothing like her.’
Nella gathers up the motley cast of characters. ‘I shouldn’t lose my temper, Cornelia,’ she says in a small voice.
There is a pause. ‘Nor I, Madame. But my world has shifted too fast these last days. It’s broken up.’
‘I know, Cornelia. I know.’
Nella draws the curtains across the cabinet as a means to bring some momentary peace. In silent response, Cornelia draws the main curtains of the window, and the two girls stand in the muffled half-light.
‘I must see to Madame Marin,’ Cornelia says, turning her back resolutely on the cabinet.
Left alone, Nella imagines the miniaturist as a younger woman. Maybe Cornelia had a point – maybe no one would buy the miniaturist’s clocks, preferring those constructed by a man? She could never improve her skills, so she stopped trying to harness man’s artificial rhythms, and turned inwards. At what point did she choose these more intimate, irregular jumps of an interior life and why did she pick me? Nella rests her head on the side of the cabinet, the cooling wood touching her skin like a balm. In showing me my own story, she thinks, the miniaturist has become the author of it herself. How I wish I could have it back.
Behold, ye are this day as the stars in the heaven for multitude . . .
How can I myself alone bear your cumbrance, and your burden, and your strife?
The first day of the year is a time for Amsterdammers to throw open their windows in a brave ritual of letting in the cold air, dislodging cobwebs and bad memories. Nella is dressed as a servant and Cornelia helps her mistress pull on her boots, draping Johannes’ warehouse key around her neck like a medal.
It is not yet Epiphany, the day of difference, but they have no time to waste. The maid looks as if she is expecting Lucifer himself and his goblins to come marching out, but has promised not to tell Marin about the secret hidden under the skirts of her doll, nor the blackened tip of Agnes’ loaf. ‘She needs peace,’ Nella said. ‘Think of the child.’
Nella draws the maid’s coarse coat to her neck. She tries to stand firm, but feels herself plummeting, further than she thinks possible, deep into the bog and marsh of the city, back to the times of mud and sea.
‘You shouldn’t go to the Eastern Islands alone,’ Cornelia says.
‘We have no choice. You need to stay here with Marin. I won’t be long.’
‘Take Dhana with you. She can be your guard.’
Nella walks out of the house and up the Herengracht, with Dhana trotting by her side, the key lying heavy on her chest. She wanted to see Johannes in the Stadhuis first – but in Amsterdam the guilder reigns and she must be sensible. She wonders what she’s going to find on the Eastern Islands. ‘Who else will do this, Marin?’ she had pleaded earlier this morning. ‘Johannes is in a cell. If Agnes and Frans decide to have no mercy, we might be able to bribe Jack to change his story at least.’
Marin had nodded her consent, hands on her stomach. Now her pregnancy has been acknowledged, her body seems to have grown larger. I’m a giant loaf, Nella’s mother had once said, when she was carrying Arabella. Now it seems that Marin is also waiting to prove herself, to see if her flesh is adequate. Marin and her too-tight knot; whatever did she mean?
‘I will visit Johannes afterwar
Marin’s face appeared to seize up in grief. Dropping her hands to her sides, she moved away, staring towards the salon. ‘There is nothing I can say.’
‘Hope is dangerous, Petronella.’
‘It is better than nothing.’
The cold is bitter, sharp little knives on Nella’s face. Let it soon be spring, she thinks, and then wonders whether it is wise to wish this time away for Marin, for Johannes. By the time spring comes, their own republic could have crashed around their feet. Trying to shake away the gloom, she walks quickly, ten minutes or so east of the city. The miniaturist’s departure from the Kalverstraat tugs on her. Nella hasn’t given up hope – she still yearns on the streets for a flash of blonde hair, for a knock at the door and another delivery. But there has been only silence for so many days now. Although she had told Cornelia that the miniaturist was showing her the way, Nella feels alone, fumbling in the dark. She needs more mottoes, more miniatures, to understand what is to come and what has passed before. Come back, she thinks as she crosses one of several bridges towards the Eastern Islands. I cannot do this without you.
There is water everywhere she looks, lagoons still as glass, patched with murk like a foxed mirror when the weak sun moves behind cloud. Johannes’ favourite potatoes with their fluffiest flesh are served in a tavern near here. It is unsurprising that this is his preferred area; nearer the sea, fewer people. Plenty of places to hide.
The warehouses start to loom, brick buildings towering to the sky, far wider than the houses nestling together inside the ring of the city. The Islands feel empty this morning. Most people are probably still in bed, she supposes, sleeping off the excesses of bringing in New Year. Her father was never seen until the evening after sending off the old year, then he woke to say that nothing much had changed. Not so here, Nella thinks. Nothing is the same any more. She can hear her own footsteps, the light pant of Dhana’s breath as she hurries along.
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes