The miniaturist, p.24
The Miniaturist, p.24Jessie Burton
Despite their peace, there is something concentrated about these separate pieces of land, for all things here have one purpose – the raw end of commerce, the storing of supplies, the repair of ships, the sustenance of sailors and captains alike. Following Marin’s directions, she finally reaches Johannes’ warehouse, six storeys high, a small black door at the front.
The lock is well oiled and the door opens easily. She readjusts Cornelia’s too-large skirt and apron. They had tried to decide what would be worse – a maid caught in her master’s storehouse, or his wife? Better a maid, they thought. Johannes Brandt’s reputation could do without the added news that Madame Petronella was snooping on the Islands. She imagines Frans and Agnes coming here, creeping round the back of the building.
‘Sit here, girl,’ she orders Dhana, trying to focus on the task in hand. She pats the whippet on the head. ‘And bark if anyone comes near.’ We should hire a guard dog permanently, she thinks. Now Jack has disappeared.
The interior takes Nella’s breath away. She feels so small, standing at the bottom of a long, spindly ladder that reaches past five busy floors of Johannes’ stock. He is the man who has it all, but who has so often felt bereft of everything.
Nella begins to scale the ladder, seeking out the sugar. It feels as if she is climbing through her husband’s life. Up and up she goes into the cavernous chamber, her skirts catching on the rungs, threatening her with a fall. Past bolts of Coromandel and Bengal silk, cloves, mace and nutmeg in crates marked Molucca, pepper labelled from Malabar, peels of Ceylonese cinnamon, tea-leaves in crates painted via Batavia, planks of expensive-looking wood, copper pipes, strips of tin, piles of Haarlem wool. Past Delft plates, casks of wine branded España and Jerez, boxes of vermilion and cochineal, mercury for mirrors and the syphilis, Persian trinkets cast in gold and silver. Gripping the rungs, she understands Marin’s fascination with her brother’s work. Here is real life, she thinks, out of breath and giddy. Here is where true adventures come to land.
Nella has to climb right to the eaves to find the sugar loaves. Johannes has stored them in the middle of the floorboards, covered in linen, away from the damp. This attention touches her; it almost makes her cry. Meermans would have her think he’d just thrown Agnes’ loaves on the ground floor with the spare sails and untarred ropes. But it isn’t true. Johannes has taken care. There are so many loaves, they touch the beams of the roof.
Scrambling off the ladder, Nella approaches the linen cape and lifts a corner gingerly. The sugar loaves are laid on top of each other like cannon. It looks like one loaf is missing, no doubt the one Agnes brought to dinner – a dubious sweetener if ever there was. If this came tumbling down, Nella thinks, I’d be crushed.
There are well over a thousand cones here. Nella kneels by the loaves which seem to have been more recently refined. They are still neat and shining bright, are indeed marked with the three crosses of the city of Amsterdam. Some of the other half, refined in Surinam, is damp to the touch, and Nella’s fingers come away slightly covered in white paste. At the back of the sugar structure, tiny black spores have indeed spread over a quarter of the Surinam side. Nothing can save the precious crystals that already have the blight. But still, she thinks – Meermans has exaggerated, seen what he wanted to see. Maybe we could dry them out – part of each loaf would surely be salvageable.
Exhilarated, she tastes what has come away on her fingers. Imagine if I died from a lick of bad sugar, from the craving craze of lekkerheid, she thinks. Wouldn’t Pastor Pellicorne love that.
She pulls out Johannes’ list from her pocket, full of abundant, ornamental names. It contains the households of earls and cardinals, an infanta, a baron, people with a desire to sweeten their leisure times in London, Milano, Roma, Hamburg, even the outposts of the VOC. It is astonishing how Johannes has managed to trade with the Spanish individuals, the English, given how his country has warred with theirs. It reminds Nella of something he said to Meermans at the silversmiths’. We are seen abroad as untrustworthy. I have no desire to be such a thing.
There is so much more sugar than she anticipated. The reality of Johannes and Marin’s current helplessness weighs on Nella’s shoulders. When she suggested to Johannes that employing an agent to sail abroad for them would take up too much of their precious commission, he hadn’t denied it. But they need someone nearer to hand, someone who understands, someone keen to get their hands on the sugar. Nella stands, hands on her hips, thinking hard, staring into Frans and Agnes’ livelihood. And then it comes to her – a comment the first month she was in Amsterdam, sitting wide-eyed with an unwrapped cake resting in her lap. The speaker was a person Nella had immediately liked, a woman with grace and expertise. Honeycomb this morning and marzipan in the afternoon.
Nella crumples her husband’s list. Yes, she cries silently to the brickwork and beams, the caulked timber roof of her husband’s domain. I know what we must do.
Nella follows a guard through the first underground passageway of the Stadhuis prison and then down a long flank of the building. She can hear the inmates’ rough coughs and complaints. The place is bigger than she thought. It seems to expand inexplicably as she walks it, escaping her sense of proportion. Cell after cell, brick after brick, she cannot seem to comprehend it.
Nella starts to hear shrieks and moans, clanging bars and whimpering. She holds her head high in case they can smell her growing fear, trying to block out the cacophony of male squeals.
She and the guard walk along the side of an open courtyard, and in the middle of it Nella can see contraptions made of planks fastened with adjustable bolts. Another machine has a row of sharp spikes. The prisoners are quite literally here to be reformed. Nella averts her eyes, determined not to be cowed, touching the warehouse key hidden on her breast, her fresh idea still glowing in her mind. Don’t let sweet weapons stray.
‘Here he is,’ says the guard, opening the door to Johannes’ cell. He lingers for longer than is necessary, then locks the door behind her.
‘Don’t come back too soon,’ Nella says, handing him a guilder through the bars. The things this city has taught me, she thinks. The guard pockets the guilder and quickly his footsteps fade to silence. From outside, Nella can hear gulls wheeling far up in the sky, the distant clatter of carts on cobbles.
In the shadows, Johannes is leaning against a small table. There is no stool or chair, so she stands against the door. There’s a dank atmosphere, moss covering the walls, a map of green islands devoid of latitudes. Johannes looks pensive, but his energy is powerful. Even here, stripped of his rights, he still has the capacity to impress. ‘Bribing officials?’ he asks.
‘We should keep them as friends.’ Her voice is deadened by the mineral thickness of the walls.
‘You sound like Marin,’ he says with a smile.
Both his eyes have been punched, and the skin around them is the colour of a dying tulip. His hair is wild like bleached seaweed, and his clothes look filthy. His arms tremble as he supports himself against the table. ‘They won’t let me have a Bible,’ he says. ‘Or anything to read, for that matter.’
From the pocket not containing the scrunched-up sugar list, Nella pulls out three slices of smoked ham wrapped in paper, half a bread roll covered in fluff and two small olie-koecken. She walks across the cell, her palms open and Johannes takes the offering, visibly touched. ‘You’d have got in trouble if they’d found it.’
‘Yes,’ she says, stepping away again, sweeping the corner of the cell with her foot.
‘I nearly got away.’
Nella looks towards the corner of the cell, where a family of newborn mice rustle the straw, crawling over one another in blind familiarity. She sits down heavily on the pallet, and a deep sadness diffuses inside her, fogging her will to fight. ‘What have they said to you?’
Johannes points to his black eyes. ‘They are men of few words.’
‘When I first met you,’ she says, desperate to crush her sadness,
‘How do you know that I did not?’
‘You did not attend church, you itched at Marin’s home-prayers. And you bought such things. You ate richly, you enjoyed the delights you could take. You were your own god, the architect of your fortune.’
He smiles, gesturing to the walls around him. ‘And look at the building I made.’
‘But you’ve been free, haven’t you? Think of the places you’ve seen.’ Nella swallows, scarcely able to keep her speech afloat.
‘My sister always said I was an awful combination of carelessness and determination.’
‘Is that why you went back to Jack?’
Johannes closes his eyes as if the name floods him.
‘He betrayed you, Johannes. Money paid and money taken—’
‘I haven’t given him a penny since the day he drove his dagger through my dog,’ Johannes says. His words seem to drop through him like stones. ‘I employed him to guard the sugar, but Marin was so worried about him that I decided to dismiss him. I saw her point, of course. He went back to making deliveries, and that’s when it all went wrong. I did see Jack after he killed Rezeki.’ His face softens in the dim light. ‘I’ve never seen a body so full of remorse for what he’d done.’
Nella bites her tongue. Jack probably had no choice but to seem sorry, and Johannes in turn to believe that it was true.
‘You must hold him in great store – to forgive such a thing,’ she says. He is silent. ‘Johannes, was it – love?’
He considers her question, and she is struck again by how seriously he always takes her. ‘With Jack, it seemed as if . . . something ungraspable . . . quickly became very real. The speed of it, Nella. By telling me lies, Jack made me see truth, the way a painting can better show a thing whilst never being the thing itself. He became nearly indistinguishable to me from love,’ Johannes sighs, ‘but he was only ever love’s painting. Do you see? The conceit of love was better than the mess it left behind.’
Johannes bestows his honesty on her like another unexpected gift. The open channel between them can be so clear and crystalline, but when Nella closes her eyes all she sees is a stagnant stream.
‘Are you quite well?’ he asks.
‘Marin believes love is better in the chase than caught,’ she says.
He raises his eyebrows. ‘That does not surprise me. It is not better. But it is easier. One’s imagination is always more generous. And yet, the chase always tires you out in the end.’
What are we all chasing? Nella wonders. To live, of course. To be unbound from the invisible ropes that Johannes spoke of in his study. Or to be happy in them, at least. ‘Where were you going when they caught you at Texel?’
‘London. I was hoping I’d find Otto. Marin was so convinced he was there. How is my sister?’
‘You’re powerful, Johannes.’ Nella feels compelled to rush past his question, knowing that otherwise her face will let the truth about Marin slip. ‘I saw you at the silversmiths’ feast. You said it yourself – the burgomasters cannot touch you.’
He lowers himself onto the pallet beside her. ‘It’s the crimen nefandum, Nella. Two men together. In the face of that accusation no one has power, only God. To do nothing would be to condone it, and the burgomasters must be seen to act.’
‘Then we must make Meermans change his mind!’
Johannes runs a shaking hand over the crown of his head, as if to find some answer there. ‘It was years ago now,’ he says, ‘but I did something to make Frans very unhappy. And then I committed the greater crime of being successful. It echoes on and now comes back to haunt me.’
Nella imagines the younger Johannes turning Frans away from the house, his sister watching hidden at a window, the ugly humiliation which has now enwrapped them all.
‘I had thought that accepting their commission of the sugar might perhaps bring about an entente’ Johannes says. ‘But Frans has . . . curdled. He has waited a long time to take his revenge on the Brandts. I am everything he hates, and wants to be. And Agnes – well. Agnes will always follow the path of his poison crumbs.’
‘I believe Agnes admires you.’
‘Well, that will only make it worse.’ Johannes’ eyes glitter like two grey beads in the bad light. ‘I’m so glad you’ve come. I don’t deserve it,’ he says, taking her hand.
Nella supposes it is something to be appreciated at least, if she cannot be loved. Finding substitutes for the real thing – when will that ever stop? And yet, she would rather stay next to him than be anywhere else.
‘If I don’t confess, there’ll be a trial,’ Johannes says. ‘In a few weeks. Either way, I don’t expect to get out of here alive.’
‘Don’t talk like that.’
‘I’ll make arrangements. You, Marin, Cornelia. And Otto, if he ever comes back.’ Johannes sounds brisk all of a sudden, a notary dividing up someone else’s will. ‘There’ll be a few men of the Amsterdam schepenbank at the hearing, although Schout Pieter Slabbaert will oversee it.’
‘Why not just the Schout?’
‘Because of the severity of the charge. Because it’s me. Because the more scandalous the case, the more our goodly citizens become involved.’ He pauses. ‘But I imagine it will be quickly done.’
‘Severe charges usually end in death.’ His voice begins to catch. ‘And the Schout likes to share the blame. The more people take part in a ritual, the more justified it seems.’
‘I’ll find Jack,’ Nella says, ‘I’ll pay him more to change his story.’ She pictures Johannes’ emptying chest of guilders, the blackening sugar piled up on the sixth floor of his warehouse. ‘And I’ve thought of a plan—’
‘There’s a guard,’ Johannes says. ‘They call him the Bloody Shepherd.’ He grips her hand tighter. ‘A priest by profession, by nature a monster.’
The last word hangs in the damp air, gigantic, undefeatable. Nella touches her face. The moisture in the air has made it so cold. How has Johannes survived in here one day?
‘I’ve seen his victims carried past,’ Johannes says. ‘Their bones popped out of every socket – and you can’t put them back. Legs no longer legs, limbs of soggy cotton, guts like addled meat. They’ll twist me open to make me say things. I’ll say them, Nella, and that will be that.’
Johannes buries his face as deep as he can in her shoulder. Nella feels the plane of his nose pointing into her flesh, and she puts her arms around him. She wants to wash him from tip to toe, to make him fresh again, make him smell of spice, cardamom caught in the nail. ‘Johannes,’ she whispers. ‘Johannes. You have a wife. You have me. Isn’t that proof enough?’
‘It would never have been enough.’
Then what about a child? she wants to ask. What about a child? Marin’s secret is on the tip of her tongue. More time, she thinks – all I want is more time. Who knows what story we could have told with two months’ grace?
‘Johannes,’ she says, ‘I wish I’d been enough.’
Johannes pulls back from her, and clasps the sides of her face. ‘You have been a miracle.’
The light is fading in the cell, the guard will be back soon. Nella has not spent this much time alone with her husband in the whole of their four-month marriage. She remembers telling Johannes in his study how much he fascinated her. Looking at him now, those words hold true. His conversation and knowledge, his dry accommodation of the world’s hypocrisies, his desire to be what he is. He lifts his hand to the candlelight, and the strong, hard ridges of his fingers are beautiful. How much she wants him to live.
This talk of transformation, how things can change, of rooms inhabited and emptied, sibling bodies stretched to reveal two such different secrets – it makes her want to tell him about the miniaturist. It seems a lifetime ago that she walked down the staircase and saw the cabinet waiting on the marble tiles. How offended she was, how angry Marin had been.
‘Did Jack ever
‘He worked for lots of people.’
‘A woman from Bergen? With blonde hair? She trained with a clockmaker.’
Johannes takes a small bite of one of the sugared doughnuts and lights a candle on his table. Nella feels his cool regard on the top of her head. ‘No,’ he says. ‘I’d have remembered that.’
‘She is the miniaturist I hired to furnish the cabinet house. She made Rezeki’s puppet.’
At this, his tired eyes light up. ‘A woman?’
‘Yes, I believe so.’
‘What extraordinary skill and observation. I’d have been her patron, given half a chance.’ He reaches into his pocket, and with a captivated expression, tenderly lifts out the little dog. ‘I take her with me everywhere I go. She is the greatest comfort.’
‘Really?’ she whispers. Johannes hands her the miniature, and respectfully, Nella takes it, with a trembling fingertip stroking the softness of Rezeki’s mouse-skin head. On the dog’s skull, there is not the slightest trace of red. Nella checks again, but nothing remains of the rusty mark she had once been so convinced of.
‘I don’t understand,’ she breathes.
‘Nor I. I’ve never seen anything like it.’
Nella peers one last time at the animal’s tiny skull. Nothing. Did I even see it? she asks herself. Doubt now riots against certainty – what she has seen and not seen these past few months swirls inside her head.
‘I sometimes wonder, if I sit very still in here,’ Johannes says, ‘if I have already died too.’
‘You are alive, Johannes. You are alive.’
‘A strange world,’ he says. ‘Human beings going around reassuring each other that they haven’t died. We know this is not Rezeki, and yet we somehow feel it is. Thus a solid object makes a formless memory. If only it were the other way round, that our minds could conjure into being anything we wanted.’ He sighs, drawing his hands down his face. ‘When Otto left, for the little I recognized myself, I could have been dead.’
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes