The miniaturist, p.29
The Miniaturist, p.29Jessie Burton
‘You can’t leave me,’ Cornelia pleads. ‘I don’t know what to do.’
Marin’s pillow is soaked in sweat, and Thea, wrapped in a blanket, is asleep on her chest. At the sound of their voices the new mother flicks her eyes open. Beneath the salt-sheen, her skin still smells faintly of nutmeg, and Nella breathes it in. She must go to the Stadhuis, but she feels uneasy leaving Marin like this.
‘Nella, go and tell me what they’re doing to him,’ Marin says, her voice even weaker than the night before. ‘Go. Cornelia, stay with me.’
Cornelia takes Marin’s hand and kisses it with the intense affection of a child. ‘Of course, Madame. Of course I will.’
Nella goes round to the foot of the bed. The cord is still inside Marin, the end coiled upon the mattress. She tries to pull it, as if that will unstopper something – this sense of dread, but it is stuck, and Marin moans with pain.
‘She needs to sleep,’ says Cornelia. ‘We should leave her.’
‘I know you want to call for someone, Nella,’ Marin whispers. ‘But nobody must know.’
Marin’s stomach is a little deflated now that Thea has made her escape, but there is still a lump inside it. When Nella presses it, Marin flinches. This isn’t right, Nella thinks; none of this is right. The lump is hard, unyielding, and for a moment she wonders if there is a second child in there, a quieter twin, reluctant to emerge into the chaos. She wishes she knew more, she wishes her mother was there. Never has she felt more powerless.
The breath catches in Marin’s throat. Cornelia swoops Thea away as Marin ravages her lungs. ‘Madame?’ says Cornelia, but Marin bats the air with her hand, a visual echo of her brother.
Thea, on hearing her mother’s extraordinary sounds, begins to make more of her own. They are heartbreaking, exhilarating; short, homing squeals of a brand-new voice. Under the cover of the cries, Nella motions Cornelia to join her in the corner. ‘Look, Madame, look,’ the maid whispers, peering miserably at Thea. ‘What are we to do?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘It doesn’t seem possible. It cannot be true!’
‘Find Smit’s List,’ Nella hisses, ignoring her. ‘And bring a wet-nurse, a midwife – anyone who might understand what’s happening to her.’
Cornelia looks at the baby in terror. ‘But Marin will kill me.’
‘Cornelia, just do it. Johannes keeps guilders in the chest in his study. Give the woman whatever it takes to keep her quiet. And if there isn’t enough, then – sell the silver.’
Nella flees the room, too desperate to stop.
Running to the Stadhuis, breathless and red-faced, she arrives to find the gallery already full and proceedings underway, and has to take a seat at the back. Drained and delirious, her head aches, her eyes so tired and dry, her fingernails rusty with the residue of Marin’s blood. Nella wants to shout to Johannes what Marin has achieved, what magic lies waiting for him back in his house, but she knows she can’t. What kind of world do we live in, she wonders, where I might cause Thea harm by announcing her very existence?
She looks over the heads of the gallery spectators, down into the chamber. Johannes is holding his racked body very still upon a chair, with his head held high. Slabbaert is at his desk, the schepenbank lined up by his side. Jack is now among the spectators downstairs, watching Frans Meermans perched upon a chair in the centre of the flagstones.
Why isn’t Agnes there with him? What have I missed? She spies the back of Pastor Pellicorne’s head, his body inclined; excited, anticipating. ‘Did Agnes Meermans give her testimony?’ she asks the woman next to her.
‘At seven o’clock, Madame. Trembling, she was. I thought she was never going to let go of the Bible.’ The woman shakes her head as Slabbaert’s voice comes to Nella. The Schout is already in full flow.
‘Your wife has told us simply what she saw that night of the twenty-ninth of December, Seigneur Meermans,’ he says. ‘I would never offend a woman’s sensibilities, but now it is your turn to speak, I would like to probe deeper. Tell us what you witnessed, Seigneur Meermans.’
Meermans looks pale and large in his chair, nods. ‘We walked round the back of the warehouse and could hear voices. Seigneur Brandt had pushed this young man against the side of the building. The boy’s face was pressed against the brickwork. Both of them had their breeches round their ankles, their hats knocked off.’
There are sharp intakes of breath at this; an image of indignity and forceful desire rolled into one. ‘Jack Philips – as I now know him to be – was begging to be set free. He saw us and called for help. My wife, you understand, was highly distressed. She had entertained this merchant at her table.’
Meermans’ shaking voice fills the room, and to Nella it seems the Stadhuis walls are closing in.
‘Go on,’ says Slabbaert.
‘We heard the cry of Brandt’s disgusting release,’ Meermans says. ‘I left Agnes and as I came near, I could see the lust in Brandt’s eyes. He scooped up his breeches as I approached, and began to beat Mr Philips – rapidly, ferociously. There was a dagger. I saw him stab Jack’s shoulder. It nearly went into the man’s heart – he isn’t lying. No woman should have to witness that. No man either.’
The chamber is captivated by Meermans’ account. Johannes has bowed his head, hunching his creaking body into a position of resistance.
‘Frans Meermans,’ Slabbaert says, ‘you have known Johannes Brandt for many years. Despite this moment you witnessed – despite your good wife’s Bible-sworn testimony – now is your chance to confirm there may be good in this man.’
‘Brandt has said that you knew each other well.’
‘As young men, we worked together.’
‘And what kind of man was he?’
Meermans seems to be struggling. He cannot even look at the curve of Johannes’ back, preferring to stare instead into the pointed black cone of his own hat. ‘Astute,’ he says. ‘Prone to his own philosophies.’
‘Johannes Brandt was selling your stock, is this correct?’
Nella feels a slowing sensation inside her, as if her heart has begun to leak the last of its strength. Yet another accusation is going to fall at Johannes’ feet – lazy trading, no small crime in Amsterdam.
‘It is correct,’ says Meermans.
‘And with regard to that deal, was the sugar well kept – was Brandt doing his job?’
Meermans hesitates. ‘Yes,’ he says. ‘He was.’
Nella sits up. Why has Meermans said such a thing? According to this account, the sugar in its entirety is pristine. As a couple of the men from the schepenbank write something down, she realizes that Meermans has no desire to reveal his anger at Johannes. By concealing the issue of the unsold sugar, Meermans denies Johannes the chance of exposing it as a motive for his revenge. He is blocking the channels of Johannes’ defence. Meermans wants this to seem a clean case of unholy behaviour against God and the republic, nothing else. And it is unlikely, she supposes, that Johannes would admit to a sluggish sale. To do so would make him the author of his own damaged reputation.
Nella has not thought Meermans would be so calculating. And yet, she thinks, glancing over at Arnoud Maakvrede – with this very public assurance that the whole crop is good, Meermans may have handed the Brandts a gift for selling it in the future. Guilty for this feather-tip of pleasure, Nella tries to concentrate on the moment in hand.
‘So you would say that he was a good merchant?’ Slabbaert asks. Meermans takes a deep breath. ‘You have sworn an oath to tell the truth,’ Slabbaert presses. ‘Well?’
‘Under oath, I – would question that description.’
‘You think he is a poor merchant?’
‘Historically, I think his reputation has masked a self-centredness. His successes are not all deserved.’
‘And yet you employed him to sell your stock?’
‘My wife . . .’ He trails off.
Meermans drops his hat on the floor and retrieves it. Johannes lifts his head, never taking his eyes off his old friend.
‘Brandt has always pursued his will with a defiant insistence,’ Meermans says, turning to Johannes. ‘But I didn’t realize how defiant you really were. The bribes you gave, the debts you grew – not just to me but to guilds, to clerks and friends—’
‘Who are these men?’ Johannes says. ‘Is that a formal accusation? Show them to me. Show me their ledgers.’
‘It is your soul I am here for today—’
‘I have no debt to you, Frans. Nor any man—’
‘But God has spoken to me, Johannes.’
‘He has told me that my silence is no longer enough.’
Even as Meermans speaks he sounds surprised, as if he has caught himself in the act, overwhelmed, by his own compulsion, by the bitter relish everyone can taste in his performance.
‘You have never been silent, Frans, when it comes to denigrating me.’
‘My old friend needs salvation, Schout Slabbaert. He is broken. He is living in the shadow of the Devil. I couldn’t see what I saw that evening and remain silent. No citizen of Amsterdam could.’
His speech over, Meermans lifts his head as if expecting relief – but there is none, just Johannes in front of him, his face a picture of disgust. Slowly, Johannes straightens his back in agony. Even from above, Nella can hear the clicks of his bones.
‘We are all of us weak, Frans,’ Johannes says. ‘But some are weaker than others.’
Meermans bows his head; the hat slips from his hands and this time he leaves it where it lies. The sight of his heaving shoulders keeps the crowd in mute suspense. Johannes is a mirror for Meermans to look at himself, and the man has seen a dark hole in place of a reflection. No one touches Meermans, no one comes forward to console or congratulate him for what he’s done.
‘Frans,’ says Johannes. ‘Have you not netted a sodomite, a rapacious taker of what he pleases – haven’t you helped cleanse these canals and city streets? Why is it, then, that all you can do is cry?’
The chamber erupts into shouts and whistles. Slabbaert calls for quiet so that he and the schepenbank can decide their verdict.
‘No!’ Johannes calls loudly, his gaze breaking away from Meermans and turning to the Schout. ‘That is not right.’
The court hushes, the gallery craning to see this man with his glamour and his dangerous nature, who has ripped open their neatly ordered community. Johannes stands up with immense difficulty, leaning on the chair. ‘It is customary that the accused may speak.’
Slabbaert clears his throat, looking at him with unconcealed loathing. ‘You wish to speak?’
Like a bird with broken wings, Johannes lifts his arms as far as they will reach. Jack lets out a cry as the drapes of Johannes’ dark cloak fall crookedly to the floor.
‘You put on that costume in the morning, Pieter Slabbaert,’ Johannes says. ‘As do you, Frans Meermans – and you both hide your own sins and your weaknesses in a box under your beds, and you hope we’ll forget them in the dazzle of your robes.’
‘Talk of yourself, Johannes Brandt, not me,’ says Slabbaert.
Johannes looks at him. ‘Am I the only sinner in this room?’ he asks, turning round, looking up at the rows of the gallery. ‘Am I?’
No answer comes. A stillness has descended on the crowd. ‘I have worked for this city,’ Johannes says, ‘from the moment I was old enough. I sailed to lands I didn’t think existed, even in my dreams. I saw men fight and die and work for this republic, on hot beaches and high seas, risking their lives for a glory greater than the one they’d been handed at birth. Striving, building, never once complacent. Schout Slabbaert picks on my African servant, a man from Dahomey. Does the Seigneur even know where Dahomey is, as he drinks his sugared tea, or eats his little buns? Frans Meermans criticizes my freedoms but suffers no guilt enjoying his own. Find a map, Seigneurs, and learn.
‘We took in an orphan girl. I sponsored apprentices, worked tirelessly against the drowning waves. And the waves will drown us all, Seigneurs. I have seen the ledger books, I have seen how the VOC is crumbling into the waters – but I have exploited no man’s need in the process, I have never perjured a soul with bribes. I tried to make my wife happy, as in the times we spent together, she made me. But the problem is, Seigneurs – Mesdames – those with no horizons want to pull yours down. They have nothing, only bricks and beams, not one jot of God’s great joy.’ He looks at Jack. ‘I pity them, truly. They will never hold the republic in the glory I have seen.’
Walking like an old man, Johannes approaches Meermans. He lifts his hand, and Meermans flinches, expecting a blow. Johannes touches his shaking shoulder.
‘Frans,’ he says. ‘My forgiveness is all yours.’ Meermans seems to sag under the force of his touch. ‘And you, Jack Philips?’
Jack lifts his gaze and meets Johannes’ eye. ‘Me?’
‘You are a stone, thrown upon a lake. But the ripples you create will never make you still.’
‘Get him out!’ shouts Slabbaert, pointing at Johannes.
The men of the schepenbank stare at the prisoner in mystification, as if, like a giant among men, his mere touch has the power to crumple. The chamber becomes a cacophony of mutterings and tuts, and Pellicorne looks sick with excitement. Death is hovering in the air, hinting at them all, its terror or its bliss beyond. They don’t want Johannes to go, they want to keep him here. Rich men have tried to silence them before, but not a single one has ever worn his power so lightly, or pointed out a magistrate’s false teeth and raised a laugh.
But Johannes is taken out, and the schepenbank gather round Slabbaert in a half-circle as Meermans stumbles to a distant chair, white and shaken. The power of the state is about to exercise itself and people’s bodies are tense. Nella is no different. She feels a pressure between her legs, as if she might wet herself with fear.
Minutes pass. Ten, then twenty, thirty. It is horrific to watch these men decide Johannes’ fate. There is always the chance of pardon, Nella thinks – but Slabbaert, squatting in the middle of their crescent, keeps up his murmur in the other men’s ears.
Eventually they break apart, returning to their chairs. The Schout lumbers into the main square of flagstones and calls for Johannes Brandt to be brought forth once more. Unaccompanied, the prisoner walks slowly back in, dragging his damaged feet. Johannes stops opposite the Schout, and looks straight into his eyes. Nella stands up in the shadows and raises her arm. I’m here, she whispers, but Johannes is focused on Slabbaert’s face, and Nella finds no louder voice to beat her terror.
‘You have been caught,’ Slabbaert says. ‘The crime of sodomy seeks to destroy the holiness and integrity of our society. You are so swollen with your self-belief and wealth that you have forgotten your God. Your pleasure was overheard and witnessed, but so was your sin.’
Slabbaert circulates the centre square of the chamber. Johannes holds his hands behind his back. Something is rising inside Nella; she chokes on the effort of keeping it in.
‘Death comes to all of us,’ Slabbaert intones. ‘It is the only sure thing in this life.’
No, Nella thinks. No, no, no.
‘For the foul crime you have committed, let it be heard today, the ninth day of January 1687, that I, Pieter Slabbaert, Schout of Amsterdam, and these six members of this city’s schepenbank, find you, Johannes Matteus Brandt, guilty on the count of the sodomitic attack on Jack Philips, guilty of assault and subsequent bribery. Therefore, I declare your just punishment is to be weighted down at the neck, and to be drowned in the sea, this Sunday at sundown. Let the new baptism of Johannes Brandt be a warning to you all. And may God have mercy on his sinning soul.’
There is a moment – one split-hair second of time – when the chamber falls out of Nella’s reach. Free of a body, of a mind, she grapples with the air, trying to stop her crashing world. Then, a
‘Johannes,’ she calls. ‘I will come for you!’
‘No,’ says a voice. Nella is sure she hears it – a woman’s voice, coming from the top of the gallery stairs. She turns, searching blindly for its owner. Then she sees it – the sudden movement, the unmistakeable dip and flash of a pale blonde head.
Her blood singing notes so high she doesn’t think them possible, Nella runs from the Stadhuis. She runs faster than she has ever run in her life, faster than when she was a girl, chasing Carel or Arabella through the woods and fields. People turn to watch her, this mad young woman with her mouth wide open, her eyes streaming – with the wind, they suppose. Where is she, Nella thinks, where has she gone? The burgomasters haven’t got her yet. There was no sign of her when Nella had stumbled to the bottom of the gallery steps, so she ran up the Heiligeweg and is now on the Kalverstraat. Nella, always nimble, propelled by a force that lets her fly.
But when she reaches the miniaturist’s house, she stops dead.
The door is still there, but the sign of the sun has gone. The rays of the heavenly body have been roughly hacked from the brickwork, the motto is half vanished, all that is left is For A Toy. Mounds of brick dust pile up on the step and the door has been left ajar.
Finally – today of all days – Nella can go inside. She looks up and down the street. The wool-seller opposite is nowhere to be seen. Let them put me in the Spinhuis for trespassing, she thinks, let them drown me too.
Nella pushes the door open and slips into a small room. It is shockingly bare, the floorboards scratched and dirty, empty shelves on exposed walls. How Cornelia would love to attack this place with her vinegar and beeswax. It looks as if it’s never been inhabited.
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes