The miniaturist, p.27
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       The Miniaturist, p.27

           Jessie Burton
 

  ‘When I ask you a question,’ Slabbaert says, ‘answer me with the respect that every citizen must show to the rule of law.’

  ‘Then ask me a question that deserves that respect.’

  The schepenbank seem to be revelling in this exchange, their heads turning back and forth between the two men.

  ‘You are married?’ asks Slabbaert.

  ‘I am.’

  Nella shrinks back into her seat. Agnes looks over the space at her, a grimace playing on her lips.

  ‘And what sort of husband are you?’

  ‘I’m in one piece, aren’t I?’

  Some men in the gallery laugh, and Johannes looks up. He recognizes Cornelia’s face leaning over the rail, and manages to smile.

  ‘That does not answer my question,’ says Slabbaert, his voice rising a little. ‘Are you a good or a bad husband?’

  Johannes shrugs. ‘I believe I am a good husband. My wife is content. She is wealthy and secure.’

  ‘That is a merchant’s answer. To be wealthy does not mean you are content.’

  ‘Ah, yes, I forget your spiritual agonies when it comes to money, Slabbaert. Try telling that to a journeyman – a man who keeps this republic afloat and yet can barely keep up his landlord’s rent. Try telling him that to be secure should not mean to be happy.’

  A few grunts of assent are heard in the gallery and a member of the schepenbank writes something down. ‘Have you any children?’ Slabbaert asks.

  ‘Not yet.’

  ‘Why not?’

  ‘We’re but four months married.’ Cornelia clutches Nella’s hand. Unwittingly, Johannes has thrown the chance of Marin’s baby as a means to save him.

  ‘How often do you lie with her?’

  Johannes pauses. If he wants to make the impertinence of such a question felt, this crass invasion of his bed chamber, it does not work. The schepenbank crane forward, as does Frans Meermans. Agnes grips her hands on the banister, waiting like a carrion crow.

  ‘As often as I can,’ Johannes says. ‘I have to travel a great deal.’

  ‘You are late to marry, Seigneur.’

  Johannes looks up to the gallery. ‘My wife was worth the wait.’

  His tenderness rings clear, and Nella feels a sadness ebbing through her. Two women behind her sigh appreciatively.

  ‘You have, over the years, employed many apprentices in the various guilds,’ Slabbaert observes.

  ‘It is my duty as a citizen of Amsterdam and a senior member of the VOC. I am happy to do so.’

  ‘Some might say too happy. Over the years, a preponderance of young men—’

  ‘With respect, are not all apprentices young men?’

  ‘—the number of which is greater than any other senior guild member or VOC representative has employed. I have your figures here.’

  Johannes shrugs, his shoulders lifting crookedly. ‘I have more money than most of them,’ he says. ‘People wish to learn from me. One might even argue that is the reason I’m here.’

  ‘And what do you mean?’

  ‘The poorest hunters always want the biggest stag. I wonder, Schout Slabbaert – who will take my business if I drown? Will it be you, dividing it up and locking it awayin your Stadhuis coffers?’

  ‘You insult the city of Amsterdam!’ Slabbaert shouts. ‘You disgust us with your insinuations.’ The Schout looks round to the schepenbank. ‘Taking the city as a plaything, undermining everything we work for.’

  ‘That is not a statement of fact. That is your opinion.’

  ‘You also have employed a Negro, have you not?’

  ‘He’s from Porto-Novo, in Dahomey.’

  ‘You have kept him close, taught him our ways. You have tamed the savage.’

  ‘What are you circling, Slabbaert? What do you have in your sight?’

  ‘Merely to observe that you have a taste for the unusual, Seigneur Brandt. Many of your colleagues will attest to that. Call the plaintiff,’ Slabbaert snaps and at this, Johannes’ eyes widen in shock.

  ‘The plaintiff?’ Nella turns to Cornelia. ‘I thought today was just to list the charge?’

  But no, they hear his footsteps, and the two girls look down in horror as the guards bring Johannes’ accuser through the chamber door.

  The Actor

  Cornelia clasps Nella’s hand on seeing the Englishman again. Rezeki’s killer wanders into the chamber. His wild hair has lost its lustre and he wears a bloodied bandage on his shoulder.

  ‘That’s not his blood,’ Nella murmurs. ‘It would have healed by now.’ Jack peers up to the gallery and Nella notices how it is Agnes’ turn to shrink into her seat.

  At the sight of him, a real-life English devil, the schepenbank sit up. ‘Are you Jack Philips, of Bermondsey, England?’ asks Slabbaert.

  Jack seems momentarily uncertain in the face of the spectators’ stares and whispers. Nella, remembering his consummate performance in the hallway after stabbing Rezeki, cannot work out if he is terrified or just pretending.

  ‘I am,’ Jack replies. He throws down the two words like gauntlets at Johannes’ feet, his strange Dutch echoing through the chamber. A few people in the gallery snigger openly at Jack’s accent.

  ‘Hand him the Bible,’ Slabbaert intones and a court clerk stands up and brandishes a small, dense copy. ‘Place your hand on it and swear you will tell the truth.’

  Jack places his tremulous fingers on the top cover. ‘I will,’ he says.

  Johannes’ face is an unreadable mask and Jack does not return his gaze. ‘Do you recognize this man?’ Slabbaert points to Johannes, but Jack keeps his head bowed. ‘I said, do you recognize this man?’

  Still Jack doesn’t look. Is this guilt, or feigned fear, just one of the tricks Jack learned in the playhouses by the River Thames? ‘Are you deaf?’ Slabbaert says, a little louder. ‘Or do you not understand me?’

  ‘I do understand,’ says Jack. His eyes flick towards Johannes, lingering on his crooked legs, his tattered-looking cloak.

  ‘What charges do you bring to him?’ asks Slabbaert.

  ‘I bring the charges of a sodomitic attack, assault and bribery.’

  The schepenbank rustles with excitement. ‘Let me read your statement out to the assembly.’ Slabbaert clears his throat. ‘ “I, Jack Philips, of Bermondsey, England, lodging at the sign of the rabbit off the Kloveniersburgwal near Bethaniënstraat, was summarily seized and sodomitically abused late in the evening on the twenty-ninth of December. My abuser was Johannes Matteus Brandt, merchant of Amsterdam and bewindhebber of the VOC. I was taken against my will, and was stabbed in the shoulder for my resistance.” Was there anything else you wished to add?’ asks Slabbaert, peering over his eye-glasses.

  ‘No.’

  Cornelia turns to Nella. ‘Did he just say that the Seigneur stabbed him? Does that mean Toot’s safe?’ she looks, as if she can hardly believe it. ‘One small miracle, Madame.’

  But Nella cannot feel so pleased. The lie sets his servant free, yet it binds Johannes tighter to the threat of death.

  ‘And everything in there is correct?’ Slabbaert says, referring to the statement.

  ‘Yes, Seigneur. Except that when he stabbed me, he only just missed my heart.’

  ‘I see. And where did he seize you, Mr Philips?’

  ‘On the Eastern Islands. I work now and then as a stower at the VOC warehouses.’

  ‘And how did he appear to you?’

  ‘What do you mean?’

  ‘Well, how did Johannes Brandt behave before he – seized you?’

  ‘He was frenzied.’

  How does Jack know a word like that in Dutch? Nella thinks.

  ‘Did you speak together?’

  Jack is warming to his performance now. With a mastery of the actor’s pause, he waits, letting the chamber hear nothing but their own wonderings and the falling rain.

  ‘Did he speak to you?’ Slabbaert repeats.

  ‘He called me his little niece and asked me where I lived.’


  ‘He called you his little niece?’ Slabbaert turns to the schepenbank. ‘On all levels of life these men are unnatural. They even steal the language of the family and turn it to mockery. Did he say anything else, Mr Philips?’

  ‘He said he’d been watching me,’ says Jack. ‘He asked if he could come back and see my lodgings.’

  ‘And how did you reply?’

  ‘I pushed him away and told him to leave me alone.’

  ‘And after you pushed him?’

  ‘He took me by my coatsleeves and dragged me against his warehouse.’

  ‘And then?’ Jack goes silent. ‘And then?’ presses Slabbaert. ‘You were abused?’

  ‘I was.’

  ‘You were sodomized.’

  ‘Yes.’

  Two members of the schepenbank explode into a fit of coughing, their chairs scraping. In the gallery, people are muttering. One of the youngest children, no more than three years old, stares between the banister spindles in horrified wonder.

  The Schout leans forward to Jack, a faint flicker of delight in his amphibian eyes. ‘Did he say anything as he was attacking you?’

  ‘He said – he said he had to have me. That he would show me how much he loved his little niece.’

  ‘And did you say anything?’

  Jack throws back his shoulders, showing his bloody bandage, puffing out his chest. ‘I told him he had the Devil in him. Then I told him he was the Devil, but he wouldn’t stop. He said he would show a wretch like me what it was to be taken by a man like him. He said he always got everything that he wanted, and he would beat me if I didn’t submit.’

  ‘We have a surgeon’s account of the plaintiff’s physical state when he came to the Stadhuis with his accusation,’ says Slabbaert, handing copies of it to the schepenbank. ‘He stabbed you, my lad. Any lower and he’d have punctured your heart.’

  Lad. Softening English slang – poor Jack the Lad, caught in the dark by Lucifer himself. In light of this clear declaration of where Slabbaert’s sympathies lie, Johannes looks weighed down, as if his bones are made of stone.

  ‘He did,’ says Jack. At this Johannes looks up. Hastily, Jack turns to the schepenbank. ‘And he beat me. I could barely walk.’

  ‘This is all lies,’ Johannes interrupts.

  ‘He can’t speak to me, Schout Slabbaert,’ Jack says. ‘Tell him he can’t speak to me.’

  ‘Silence, Brandt. You’ll have your chance. Mr Philips, you are entirely sure that the man assaulting you that night was Johannes Brandt?’

  ‘I am entirely sure,’ Jack says, but his knees begin to sag.

  ‘The boy’s about to faint,’ Johannes says as Jack staggers towards the floor.

  ‘Take him out,’ says Slabbaert, waving a hand at Jack. Two guards scoop him up. ‘We will adjourn until tomorrow morning at seven o’clock.’

  ‘Schout Slabbaert,’ says Johannes. ‘Today was just supposed to be the reading of the charges, and yet you bring out my accuser. What is the game you are playing? When will it be my turn to ask questions? You have sought to defame me and shock the crowd. I must have my say.’

  ‘You speak too much as it is. We haven’t even had the witnesses yet.’

  ‘It is written down that it must be so,’ says Johannes. ‘We must both of us have our chance.’ He points at the Bible. ‘Do not show partiality in judging; hear both small and great alike. Bring me any case too hard for you, and I will hear it.’ ‘Deuteronomy. In case you want to check.’

  ‘You will have your moment, Brandt,’ Slabbaert replies. ‘But for now, we adjourn. Seven o’clock tomorrow.’

  Johannes and Jack are led out through different doors. Jack keeps his head down, but Johannes turns briefly to the gallery, where Cornelia and Nella are already on their feet. She holds up her hand, and he nods at her before being bundled off.

  People stretch their limbs and exchange expressions of surprise and consternation, morbid picnickers rustling in their pockets for their bags of nuts, their curls of cheese and ham. Agnes hurries down the aisle. Nella is surprised again at the narrowness of her frame, her birdlike steps. Frans Meermans has already disappeared.

  She knows she hasn’t got much time. ‘I won’t be long,’ she says to Cornelia. ‘Go back to Marin.’

  Immediately, Hanna looks curious, but Nella can only throw Cornelia a warning glance. Not even Hanna can know. Cornelia answers with an almost imperceptible nod.

  Making her way round to where Agnes has exited, Nella notices that something has fallen on the floorboards where she was sitting, lying in the dust amid fresh orange peel. Two tiny feet poke out from under the bench, wrapped in a pair of pattens. I know those feet, she thinks, kneeling down in the dirt.

  The feet belong to a small doll, dressed in gold. The face is Nella’s, her hair escaping in wisps from a saffron-coloured headband. ‘By all the angels,’ she breathes. This version of herself looks less surprised than the doll back home in the cabinet. It is more level-gazed. Instinctively, she searches the miniature body – for wounds, she tells herself, to arm against any coming danger. But in a dark, rarely visited pocket of her mind, she knows she’s doing it to find any sign of a child. There is none; no hidden bump. Nella pushes away the sadness. At least you have no cuts and breaks, she tells herself. Now is not your time.

  The Guilder and the Doll

  Agnes could have had this doll for months. She was jealous of my cabinet, Nella thinks – pretending she had one, giving herself away on the outside steps after the sugar party. I want mine to be better than hers, she’d said to Frans. And surely there can be only one place Agnes procured me? This doll is so pertinent, so accurate. It is painful to accept it’s been made for someone else.

  Nella puts her shining self in her pocket with Arnoud’s guilders and rushes down the steps in search of Meermans. The rain has eased a little, the light is misty. Spectators hang around in the narrow street, avoiding the puddles. Nella spies the old-fashioned white ruff, the tall black smock of Pastor Pellicorne. His immaculate face, his crown of grey hair, those maddened-preacher eyes. Others have gathered round him, like burrs on wool. ‘This is sin,’ he pronounces as the rain patters down. ‘You can smell it. Johannes Brandt has led a sinful life.’

  ‘It’s the consequence of luxury,’ the woman next to him observes.

  ‘But he’s made the city money,’ says a man. ‘He’s made us rich.’

  ‘Who exactly has he made rich? And look what it’s done to his soul,’ says Pellicorne. He whispers the word, as if disposing with one last breath the abomination of Johannes Brandt.

  Nella can hardly breathe. Smells of rotting food rise as the thick, smoky stench of tavern meat rolls down the walls. Pellicorne glides his eyes over her.

  ‘Are you not well, girl?’ asks one of the women with Pellicorne, but Nella does not answer.

  ‘The wife,’ someone whispers, and more heads turn.

  Look at me then, Nella thinks. Look at the wife. ‘Yes,’ she shouts. ‘I am his wife.’

  ‘God sees through doors, Madame,’ says the first woman. ‘He sees it all.’

  Nella walks in the opposite direction, squeezing the doll in her pocket. She tries to picture the house without Johannes. No, she thinks, feeling her husband’s life slipping through her grip. You cannot let him die.

  ‘Madame Brandt.’

  She turns. Frans Meermans is standing before her. Be calm, Nella Elisabeth. ‘Seigneur,’ she says. ‘I have been looking for you. Where is your wife?’

  Meermans pushes his hat on his head. ‘Agnes has gone home and will return tomorrow. She has been – out of sorts, ever since she saw the horror—’

  ‘You have to stop this, Seigneur. Is it worth killing your friend for guilders?’ She hesitates. ‘Or making Marin this unhappy?’

  Meermans puts his foot into a puddle. ‘Johannes Brandt is not my friend, Madame. And Agnes is a witness before God. I am sorry for Madame Marin, but what your husband did with that boy cannot go unpunished.’

  ‘I
t’s not about what Johannes did with Jack, is it?’ Nella whispers. ‘It’s what happened twelve years ago. You think my husband ruined your life. But it wasn’t him.’

  Meermans’ chest swells. ‘Madame—’

  She is desperate. ‘I know what happened, Seigneur. You and Marin. I understand Agnes’ jealousy, but—’

  ‘Be quiet,’ he hisses. ‘Keep your vicious imagination to yourself.’

  ‘Twelve years ago, Johannes made a decision for you,’ she says. ‘But he didn’t—’

  ‘I will not talk of this, Madame.’ Meermans looks hastily up and down the street, wincing at the rain that continues to soak the brim of his hat and the squared toes of his boots. ‘Agnes is my wife.’

  ‘But it isn’t over, Seigneur Meermans. And there’s something else you need to know.’ Nella pulls out the thousand guilders, the little doll of herself tucked beneath. ‘It’s some of your money,’ she says. ‘Johannes sold a substantial amount of your sugar, Seigneur. To Arnoud Maakvrede.’

  ‘One thousand guilders. Still taking me for a fool?’ Meermans’ countenance changes; he tenses with fear. ‘And what’s that?’

  He is looking aghast at the doll. She remembers him in the Kalverstraat march of the St George Militia, staring up at the sign of the sun. ‘Where did you get it?’ he hisses.

  ‘I – it’s me.’

  ‘Put it away. Now.’

  Nella takes a deep breath. Telling him about Marin she thinks. It might be the only thing that stops this madness. ‘Seigneur,’ she says, ‘Marin is—’

  ‘Never show anyone that, do you hear?’ Meermans sweeps his brim of rainwater, splashing Nella’s dress.

  Nella pushes the doll back in her pocket. ‘Why not?’ she asks, but he won’t reply. ‘Seigneur, did Agnes commission a cabinet of your house?’

  ‘A cannonball would do less damage to my marriage than those cursed miniatures,’ he snaps, snatching the money from her. ‘I will count these guilders then bid you goodbye.’

  ‘There are more to come. And perhaps then you might reconsider your plan against my husband.’

 
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