The miniaturist, p.3
The Miniaturist, p.3Jessie Burton
‘You were up late.’
‘I was, was I?’ Cornelia’s tone is impudent, and this confidence makes Nella falter. None of her mother’s maids spoke to her in such a way.
‘I heard the front door in the night,’ she says. ‘And one above me. I’m sure of it.’
‘Impossible,’ replies the maid. ‘Toot locked it before you went up.’
‘It’s what I call Otto. He thinks nicknames are silly, but I like them.’ Cornelia takes an undershirt and puts it over Nella’s head and rigs her into a blue gown shot with silver. ‘The Seigneur paid for this,’ she says, her voice full of admiration. Nella’s excitement at the gift quickly fades – the sleeves are too long, and however tightly Cornelia ties her in, her ribcage seems to shrink within the oversized corset.
‘Madame Marin sent the seamstress your measurements,’ Cornelia tuts, pulling the stays tighter and tighter, dismayed by the acres of ribbon left over. ‘Your mother put them in a letter. What will I do with all this spare material?’
‘The seamstress must have got it wrong,’ says Nella, looking down at her swamped arms. ‘I’m sure my mother knows my size.’
When Nella enters the dining room, Johannes is talking with Otto, murmuring over some lengthy documents. On seeing his wife he bows, an amused expression on his face. The colour of his eyes has solidified, from fish to flint. Marin sips lemon water, her eyes fixed on the gigantic map on the wall behind her brother’s head, pieces of land suspended in gaping paper oceans.
‘Thank you for my dress,’ Nella manages to say. Otto moves to the corner and waits, hands full with Johannes’ paperwork.
‘This must be one of them,’ replies Johannes. ‘I ordered several. But it does not look as I imagined it would. Is it not a little large? Marin, is it not a little large?’
Marin takes a seat, tidying her napkin into a perfect white square, a loose tile on the black expanse of her lap.
‘I fear it may be, Seigneur,’ says Nella. The quiver in her voice is embarrassing. Where was it, along the line of communication between Assendelft and Amsterdam, that her bridal body was shrunk to parody? She looks at the map on the wall, determined not to pick at the ludicrous length of her sleeves. There is Nova Hollandia, palm trees fringing its coast, turquoise seas and ebony faces inviting the onlooker in.
‘Never mind,’ Johannes says, ‘Cornelia will trim you down.’ His hand wraps round a small glass of beer. ‘Come and sit, eat something.’
A hardened loaf and a slim fish lie on a plate in the centre of the damask tablecloth. ‘We are eating frugally this morning,’ Marin explains, eyeing her brother’s glass. ‘A gesture of humility.’
‘Or privation as a thrill,’ Johannes murmurs, taking up a forkful of herring. The room is silent except for the sound of his gentle mastication, the bread a block between them, dry, untouched. Nella tries to swallow her fear, staring at her empty plate, noticing how the aura of sadness so quickly gathers around her husband. ‘Think of the things you’ll eat, Nella,’ her brother Carel had said. ‘I heard in Amsterdam they scoff strawberries dipped in gold.’ Now how little impressed he’d be.
‘Marin, have some of this fine ale,’ Johannes says eventually.
‘It gives me indigestion,’ she replies.
‘The Amsterdammer’s diet of money and shame. You can’t trust yourself. Go on, be defiant. Bravery in this city is so rare these days.’
‘I just don’t feel well.’
Johannes laughs at this, but Marin’s face is pinched in humourless pain. ‘Papist,’ she says.
During the self-improving breakfast, Johannes does not apologize for failing to attend his new wife’s arrival the day before. It is to his sister he talks, whilst Nella is forced to roll up her shirtsleeves in order not to drag them through her piece of oily fish. Otto is dismissed and he bows, his fingers clasped carefully around the sheaves of paper. ‘See to it, Otto,’ Johannes says. ‘With my thanks.’ Nella wonders whether the men Johannes trades with also have a servant like Otto, or whether he is the only one. She scrutinizes Otto’s face for any expression of discomfort, but he seems sure and deft.
Bullion prices, paintings as currency, the carelessness of some of the cargo-packers moving his stock from Batavia – Marin devours Johannes’ far tastier titbits. If he ever seems reluctant, Marin snatches them, an honour which might evaporate. She takes his snippets of tobacco sales, those of silk and coffee, of cinnamon and salt. He talks of the shogunate’s new limitations of transporting gold and silver from Dejima, of the long-term damage this might cause, but how the VOC are determined that profit must come before pride.
Nella feels drunk with all this new information, but Marin’s head seems steady. What news of the pepper treaty with the Sultan of Bantam, and what does that mean for the VOC? Johannes tells her of the clove-planters’ rebellions in Ambon, their land over-populated with trees at the VOC’s behest. When Marin demands the exact nature of their unrest, he grimaces. ‘By now, the situation will have changed, Marin, and we’ll know nothing.’
‘And that, Johannes, is too often the problem.’ She asks him about some silk due to a tailor in Lombardy. ‘Who won the import right?’
‘I forget,’ he says.
‘Who, Johannes? Who?’
‘Henry Field. A merchant with the English East India,’ he replies.
Marin thumps her fist. ‘The English.’ Johannes looks at her, saying nothing. ‘Think of what this means, brother. Think. The last two years. Allowing it to wander to another man’s purse. We haven’t—’
‘But the English buy up our Haarlem linen.’
‘With their tight fists.’
‘They say the same of us.’
From bullion to sultans via the English, Marin’s lexicon is a serious astonishment. Johannes is surely crossing a forbidden boundary – for what other woman knows this much about the ins and outs of the VOC?
Nella feels quite invisible and ignored – it is her first day here and neither of them has asked her a single question, though at least the mercenary debate gives Nella an opportunity to inspect her new husband under lowered lids. That suntanned skin – she and Marin are ghostly in comparison. Nella imagines him with a pirate’s hat, his ship beating the dark-blue waves of a faraway sea.
She goes further – picturing Johannes without his clothes, imagining the thing he has underneath the table waiting for her. Her mother has told her what wives can hope for – a rising rod of pain, the chance it won’t go on too long, the wet clam dribble between your legs. There are enough rams and ewes in Assendelft to know exactly what happens. ‘I don’t want to be just that kind of wife,’ she told her mother. ‘There is no other kind,’ came the reply. Seeing her daughter’s expression, Mrs Oortman had softened slightly, taking Nella in her arms and patting her stomach. ‘Your body is the key, my love. Your body is the key.’ When Nella asked what exactly she was supposed to unlock, and how, her mother had demurred. ‘You’ll have a roof over your head, thanks be to God.’
For fear the other two might see these memories cross her face, Nella stares at her plate. ‘Enough about all that,’ Marin says. Nella jumps, as if her sister-in-law has read her mind. Johannes is still talking about the English, swilling the amber ale at the bottom of his glass.
‘Have you spoken to Frans Meermans about his wife’s sugar?’ Marin interrupts. His silence makes her grim. ‘It’s just sitting in the warehouse, Johannes. It arrived from Surinam over a week ago and you still haven’t told them what you’re going to do with it. They’re waiting.’
Johannes puts down his glass. ‘Your interest in Agnes Meermans’ new wealth surprises me,’ he says.
‘I’m not worried about her wealth. I know how Agnes wants to breach these walls.’
‘Always your suspicions! She wants me to distribute her sugar because she knows I’m the best.’
‘Well, sell it and be done with them. Remember what is at stake.’
‘But of all the things I mi
Nella, remembering her rebuffed request for marzipan, feels grateful for his sudden attention. Souls and purses, she thinks, these two are obsessed with souls and purses.
‘I’m merely keeping my head above the flood,’ Marin says, her voice tight. ‘I fear my God, Johannes. Do you?’ Marin grips her fork like a small trident. ‘Please just sell the sugar, brother. It is to our advantage that there is no Guild of Sugar-sellers. Our own prices, to whom we want. Get rid of it and soon. It would be best.’
Johannes stares at the untouched loaf still resting in the middle of the damask. Nella’s stomach rumbles and she clutches it instinctively as if her hand will keep it quiet. ‘Otto would not approve of our new kind of free trade,’ Johannes says, his eyes flicking to the door.
Marin drives her fork tines into the damask cloth. ‘He’s a Dutchman. A pragmatist. He’s never even seen a cane plantation.’
‘He nearly did.’
‘He understands our business as well as we do.’ Her grey eyes bore into his. ‘Wouldn’t you agree?’
‘Do not speak for him,’ Johannes says. ‘He works for me, not you. And this tablecloth cost thirty guilders, so kindly stop making holes in everything I own.’
‘I was at the docks,’ Marin snaps. ‘The burgomasters drowned three men yesterday morning, one after the other. Hung weights on their necks. Put them in sacks and threw them in the water.’
Somewhere in the hallway, a plate clatters. ‘Rezeki, bad dog!’ comes Cornelia’s cry, but Nella notices both Johannes’ dogs are in the corner of this room, fast asleep. Johannes closes his eyes, and Nella wonders how drowning men have anything to do with stocks of sugar, or Otto’s opinions, or Agnes Meermans trying to breach their walls.
‘I know how a man drowns,’ he murmurs. ‘You seem to forget I’ve had to spend most of my life on the sea.’
There is a warning in Johannes’ voice, but Marin keeps going. ‘I asked the man clearing the dockside why the burgomasters had drowned them. He said they didn’t have the guilders to appease their God.’
Breathless, she stops. Johannes seems almost bereft, sagging in his chair. ‘I thought God forgives all, Marin?’ he says. He doesn’t seem to want an answer to his question.
The air is hot, the atmosphere a bruise. Red-faced, Cornelia appears and clears the plates, and Johannes rises from his chair. The three women look at him expectantly, but he moves out of the room, batting the air with his hand. Marin and Cornelia seem to know what this means, Marin taking up the book she has brought with her to breakfast. Nella eyes the title – Hooft’s play, True Fool.
‘How often does he go away?’ Nella asks.
Marin puts the book down, tutting in displeasure as a page bends the wrong way on the table. ‘My brother leaves. He comes back. He leaves again,’ she sighs. ‘You’ll see. It’s not difficult. Anyone could do it.’
‘I didn’t ask if it was difficult. And who is Frans Meermans?’
‘Cornelia, how is Petronella’s parakeet this morning?’ Marin asks.
‘He’s well, Madame. Well.’ Cornelia avoids Nella’s eye. Today there are no giggles, no sly remarks. She seems tired, as if something is bothering her.
‘He needs clean air,’ says Nella. ‘The kitchen must be so full of cooking fumes. I’d like to fly him round my room.’
‘He’ll peck at something valuable,’ says Marin.
‘He’ll fly out of the window.’
‘I’ll keep it closed.’
Marin slams her book shut and walks out. The maid straightens, narrowing her blue eyes in her mistress’s wake. After a moment’s hesitation, she too leaves the room. Nella slumps back in her chair, staring sightlessly into Johannes’ map. The door is still open, and she can hear Marin and Johannes whispering outside the study.
‘For the love of Christ, Marin. Have you got nothing better to do?’
‘You’ve a wife now. Where are you going?’
‘I also have a business.’
‘What business do you have on a Sunday?’
‘Marin, do you think this house is run by magic? I’m going to check the sugar.’
‘I don’t believe you,’ Marin hisses. ‘I won’t allow this.’ Nella feels the tension condensing between the siblings, a second, silent language filling to the brim.
‘What other man lets his sister speak to him like this? Your word is not the law.’
‘Perhaps. But it’s closer than you think.’
Johannes strides out of the front door, and Nella hears the velvet suck of air, the outside once more shut away. She peers round the door and observes her new sister-in-law in the hallway. Marin has covered her face, and her shoulders hunch; a pose of misery.
As Marin turns upstairs and her footsteps echo away, Nella creeps down to the lower ground floor, where Peebo clicks for his mistress. To her surprise, Peebo’s cage is now hanging in the best kitchen. No cooking takes place here – that exertion is saved for the working kitchen, across the corridor. The best kitchen is a room used solely to display the Brandt collection of China-ware, free of spattering pots and pans, the walls unstained. Nella wonders how long Peebo has been breathing clean air, and more intriguingly, who committed this act of charity.
Otto sits at a small side table, slowly buffing the silver cutlery they will be using for dinner. He is not tall, but his shoulders are wide and he looks too big for his chair. On seeing her at the threshold, he points towards Peebo’s cage. ‘He’s a noisy little thing,’ he says.
‘I’m sorry. I’d have him in my room—’
‘I like his noise.’
‘Oh. Good. Thank you for putting him there.’
‘It wasn’t me, Madame.’
Madame. It feels lovely when he says it. His shirt is immaculate, neatly pressed, no loose threads or stains. His arms beneath the calico move with unconscious grace. How old is he? Thirty, perhaps a little younger. His boots shine like a general’s. Everything about him is so fresh, so unfamiliar. To be called Madame in her own house by a servant in such perfect clothes is suddenly the apogee of her very being. Her heart swells with gratitude but Otto doesn’t seem to notice.
Blushing, Nella walks to the cage and begins to stroke her parakeet through the bars. Peebo makes a gentle ick-ick sound, and runs his beak through his feathers as though in search of something.
‘Where’s he from?’ Otto asks.
‘I don’t know. My uncle bought him.’
‘Not born from an egg in Assendelft, then?’
Nella shakes her head. Nothing so bright and otherly would ever be born in Assendelft. She feels awkward but giddy – Otto knows the name of her village. What would her mother, the grandfathers in the town square, the little schoolchildren, make of this man?
As Otto picks up a fork and runs a soft cloth through each of the tines, Nella presses on the cage bars until her fingertips turn white, craning her neck as she follows the polished wall tiles, right up to the ceiling. Someone has painted a trick of the eye upon it – a glass dome pushes up beyond the plaster towards an impossible sky.
‘Seigneur Brandt had that made,’ says Otto, following the direction of her gaze.
‘It’s a trick,’ he replies. ‘It’ll peel off soon enough in the damp.’
‘But Marin told me that this house is dry. And that pedigree counts for nothing.’
Otto smiles. ‘Then she and I must disagree.’
Nella wonders to which of Marin’s two statements Otto is referring. She surveys the enormous shelves built into the wall, where three huge glass panes protect various plates and pieces of porcelain. She has never seen such a large collection. At home, they had a small ar
‘The Seigneur’s world in a set of plates,’ says Otto. Nella listens, trying to tell his voice for pride or envy, but hearing neither. Otto’s tone is studiedly neutral. ‘Delft, Dejima, China,’ he goes on. ‘Spanning the seas in crockery.’
‘Isn’t my husband rich enough for someone to travel for him?’
Otto frowns at the knife blade he’s buffing. ‘You have to keep your wealth afloat and no one will do it for you. It’ll run through your fingers if you don’t take care.’ He finishes, folding his soft cloth into a neat square.
‘So he works hard?’
Otto makes a spiral motion with his finger, to the fake glass dome above their heads, toward the illusion of depth. ‘His shares have gone up and up.’
‘And what happens when they get to the top?’
‘What always happens, Madame. Things will spill over.’
‘Why then,’ he says, ‘I suppose we sink or swim.’ Picking up a large soup spoon, Otto looks at his warped features shrunk into the convex silver.
‘Do you go with him to sea?’
‘Why not? You are his servant.’
‘I no longer sail.’
Nella wonders how long he’s lived upon this man-made land, shored up from the marshes with deep polders and determination. Marin called him a Dutchman. ‘The Seigneur’s spirit belongs on the seas,’ Otto says. ‘And mine does not, Madame.’
Nella pulls her hand out of Peebo’s cage and takes a seat next to the fireplace. ‘How do you know so much about my husband’s spirit?’
‘Haven’t I ears and eyes?’
Nella is startled. Such boldness was not expected – but then Cornelia too feels this free to speak her mind. ‘Of course you do, I—’
‘The sea is something the land can never be, Madame,’ Otto says. ‘No patch stays the same.’
There is Marin, standing at the doorway. Otto rises, his cutlery laid out like an arsenal of gleaming weapons. ‘He’s working,’ Marin says to Nella. ‘With much to do.’
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes