The miniaturist, p.31
The Miniaturist, p.31Jessie Burton
‘You will be amply rewarded – for all your help. A guilder a day,’ Nella manages to say, a tremor in her voice revealing the shock at what she’s seeing; a face in a face, a secret rising. From back to front, I love you.
Lysbeth puffs out her cheeks in contemplation, her rough hand gently patting Thea’s black hair. The illegal wet-nurse takes in the paintings, the pendulum clock, the silver ewer. Her eyes focus on the huge cabinet holding their miniature lives, standing so opulent, so redundant, that Nella feels ashamed.
‘I’m sure I will, Madame,’ Lysbeth finally observes. ‘I’ll take four guilders a day.’
Nella is still too astonished to say much, but she’s been in Amsterdam long enough to know that one barters as soon as breathes. Generally, she feels relieved that Lysbeth seems to desire their money more than their secrets, but perhaps the woman is enjoying her sudden luck too much. I will not be beholden, Nella tells herself. The wet-nurse seems to know the chaos that swirls beneath the surface, but unfortunately she also knows her price.
Maybe Johannes was right – even abstracts such as silence can be negotiated as one might a haunch of deer, a brace of pheasant, a handsome slab of cheese. She thinks of Johannes’ dwindled chest of guilders. You must go and see Hanna, she reminds herself. All that sugar needs to sell. But when? Things are already spilling over, just as Otto said they would.
‘Two guilders a day, Madame.’
Lysbeth Timmers wrinkles her nose. ‘Given the unusual circumstances I’m sure you’ll understand. Three.’
I nearly told Frans Meermans that Marin had birthed his child, Nella thinks, inwardly wincing at what might have happened had he caught that secret too. ‘So be it, Mrs Timmers,’ she says. ‘Three guilders a day. For all your help.’
Lysbeth nods, satisfied. ‘You can rely on me. I’m not interested in the burgomasters.’
‘I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, Mrs Timmers.’
Lysbeth grins. ‘Like that, is it? Well, a father’s a father in my world. All the same. And she’s a pretty one, make no mistake.’
‘No mistake,’ echoes Nella, trying to take control of her daze. Does Otto even know? she wonders. Did Marin ever tell – is that why he ran away? Cornelia looks as if she’s going to faint, and Nella wonders if the maid ever suspected this extraordinary truth. How determinedly she told the tale of Marin and Frans Meermans, how she boasted of her credentials as a keyhole queen! Otto was Cornelia’s friend, her equal in this house. She has lost her crown.
‘They like it, you know,’ Lysbeth says.
‘What on earth do you mean?’ snaps Cornelia.
‘The tightness of the swaddling,’ observes Lysbeth drily, blinking away Cornelia’s provocation. ‘It reminds them of the womb.’
Grief and confusion spreads over Cornelia’s face. When she thinks of Johannes in the Stadhuis and what has been indicted on his head, Nella knows it will be almost impossible to tell Cornelia another truth.
In Marin’s room, amid the seeds and feathers, Lysbeth proceeds to demonstrate the correct order of the swaddling bandages. Thea is pliant and half-asleep. She then feeds her again, and the child rouses, holding on for life, with an intensity of purpose that reminds Nella of Marin, poring over the ledger book or staring at one of Johannes’ maps. She stands peering at the wonderful conundrum, the peach toffee glow of Thea’s skin. Thea makes a little snuffle and curls her fingers to a fist. In the pattern of her newborn face, she has clearly claimed her father, but it is too early to tell exactly how far on one side the coin will fall.
Cornelia, moving as if in a dream, begins to light oil burners through the house, keeping the smell of death at bay. She turns all the mirrors to the wall, making sure her mistress’s spirit finds its way to Heaven. They do not want Marin stuck in the chimneys; they want her soul to fly through the clouds above the Amsterdam roofs.
They will have to move Marin’s body very soon, Lysbeth tells them. The bad airs will not be good for Thea. ‘Put a plain sheet on her, Madame.’
‘A plain sheet?’ says Nella. ‘I think not. Marin deserves the finest damask.’
‘She’d probably prefer the plain,’ comes Cornelia’s small voice.
Once the child is asleep, Lysbeth collects her three guilders, tucking them into her apron pocket. ‘Call for me when she wakes. I’m not far.’
Making her way through the kitchen door, under Nella’s insistence – no front door for Lysbeth Timmers, however much she’s being paid – she stops again and turns to her new employer. ‘What’s that thing you’ve got up there?’ she asks. ‘The big cupboard in the corner. I’ve never seen anything like it.’
‘It’s nothing,’ Nella says. ‘A toy.’
‘Quite a toy.’
‘You must get the child baptized. Be quick, Madame. These early days are dangerous.’
Nella’s eyes fill with tears. She thinks of Slabbaert’s last words. Let the new baptism of Johannes Brandt be a warning to you all.
Lysbeth looks at her with a mixture of pity and impatience. ‘Just keep her cap on, Madame,’ she whispers. ‘I dare say it’s beautiful hair, but the poor child does have to live in these streets.’
As she says it, Nella wonders how that will even be possible. But Cornelia will never let the child go.
Cornelia is huddling by the cradle. Her face is waxen, blank. She looks wizened, and Nella is reminded of their first ever encounter in the hallway, her cockiness, her confident eye-balling of the new arrival. It does not seem possible that this is the same girl.
‘I tried, Madame.’
‘You did everything you could.’
Nella pauses, listening to the house. In the garden, a bundle of stiff browned sheets burns to light flakes, charred cotton fibre floating in the sky. Amongst the flames, Nella sees the sewn square of a cushion, a colourful bird’s nest in foliage. Cornelia has embroidered too much. Every moment, Marin’s voice.
‘We’re going to keep Thea, aren’t we, Madame?’ Cornelia whispers. ‘She’s safest here.’
‘We’re already bribing new people to keep our latest secret. When will it ever stop?’ Nella says. It’ll stop when the money runs out, the voice in her head replies.
‘I will die before I let anything happen to this child.’ Cornelia’s eyes are fierce.
‘Cornelia, even if it means taking her out of here to Assendelft, I promise you we won’t be giving her away.’
Now it is Assendelft which feels as far away as Batavia, not Amsterdam, as Agnes once said. Nella hears Marin again, her voice clear as a bell, grey eyes lighting up with scorn. There’s nothing to do in the countryside.
Cornelia nods. ‘Thea can wear a cap for her hair outside, and leave it free when she’s indoors.’
‘And we will have to tell Pastor Pellicorne about Madame Marin. We can’t just have her buried anywhere. I don’t want her put in St Anthonis’. It’s too far. I want her here, within the city walls—’
‘Let me make you something to eat,’ says Nella, sensing the maid’s rising hysteria. ‘Some cheese and bread?’
‘Not hungry,’ Cornelia replies, jumping to her feet. ‘But we must make something and take it to the Seigneur.’
Nella sits, depleted in the face of Cornelia’s mania, unable to find the words to explain what has happened today at the Stadhuis. She longs to see Johannes, but they will have to do something about Marin, first thing tomorrow morning, after some sleep. Today is Thursday. By Sunday at sundown, she, Cornelia and Thea will be in freefall, Lysbeth Timmers hanging on to their hems. It seems as easy to take a life in this city as it is to lift a counter off the verkeerspel board.
There may never have been a baby like this in the whole of Amsterdam. There are the Sephardi Jews, of course – the dark Lisboa boys and girls, and the mulattos brought by Portuguese merchants, who wait outside the synagogue on the Houtgracht, reserving seats for their mistresses. There are the Armenians fleeing the Ottoman
From back to front, I love you. Otto and Toot, full circle, the notes and the child he left behind a reflection of himself. Nella remembers the whisperings at night, the closing doors, the blank face of Cornelia when in the mornings Nella would ask her if she’d been up late. Marin, in tears at the Old Church. Otto, terrified, weeks later in the same pew. Had Marin told him then?
The only thing Nella may ever understand about Otto and Marin is Thea, who in turn will be a secret to herself; her mother dead and father missing. Nella thinks of another mother, in Bergen, and another frustrated child, growing up in Bruges with an elderly father. Why was the miniaturist taken away? I am crazed for lack of sleep, Nella tells herself, trying to look backwards, to signs she might have missed about Otto and Marin, or the other Petronella. She cannot be sure if a new day will make any of it easier to understand.
Cornelia peers at Thea’s face. ‘I wanted it to be Seigneur Meermans,’ she says in a quiet voice. ‘I wanted it to be him.’
But Cornelia doesn’t reply; this is the stretch of her confession. She had been so determined about the identity of Marin’s secret love, the gift of salted piglet and Agnes’ wifely jealousy. I should have given Cornelia more chores, said Marin, grumbling about her propensity to embroider stories. Meermans’ gaze would linger on Marin, true; but Marin herself never presented any proof. And what did she say when questioned over her affections? You’re carrying his child, Nella had said to her. I have taken things from Johannes that were not mine to take, was her reply. Elliptical Marin, as ever, living in the shadows between lies and truth.
‘I want things to be the way they were,’ Cornelia says.
‘Cornelia,’ Nella says, reaching for her hand. ‘I have to tell you about Johannes.’ She feels her grief bloom, an unwieldy rose dropping its petals too quickly. Clear-eyed, quiet, the maid sits on the bed.
‘So tell me,’ Cornelia says, not letting go.
Nella thinks the walls will break with the force of Cornelia’s tears. Thea wakes of course, and Nella lifts the crying newborn from her cloud of cotton. The child is mesmerizing, their little crotchet wrapped in white, her lungs a tiny pair of bellows calling to the room.
‘Why has God punished us, Madame? Did He always plan this?’
‘I don’t know. He may have posed the question, but we are the answer, Cornelia. We must endure. For Thea’s sake, we must emerge from this.’
‘But how? How will we live?’ Cornelia asks, burying her face in her hands.
‘Fetch Lysbeth,’ Nella says, ‘Thea needs to feed.’
Calmed by the need to calm, Cornelia quietens at the baby’s noise. Blotchy-faced and numb, she leaves Nella on the bed, with Thea squalling in her arms. Lying back with the child, something digs into the top of Nella’s spine, and when she feels under the pillow, her fingers find a small, hard object.
Otto, she breathes, looking at his doll, his real daughter weighing the crook of her other arm. Nella hadn’t noticed he’d been taken from the cabinet. Did Marin sleep here, night after night with him hidden beneath her, a comfort that failed to conjure him home?
‘Where are you?’ Nella asks, as if her words will bring him back where the doll has so miserably failed. Thea cries for milk, their noisy cherub of a brave new world. This child has a beginning, just as Johannes and Marin have been handed an end.
Quietly, in the midst of the baby’s chaos, Nella utters a particular prayer. Back in Assendelft, bereft at the death of his father, Carel had written a summons to God. It was defiant and childish, in the best sense of the words. It comes back to Nella now, the words etched in her heart, and she murmurs it into the shell of Thea’s tiny ear. A call for comfort, a desire for resurrection. A never-ending hope.
Lysbeth Timmers sleeps in the kitchen. The next morning, Friday, her face looks misted with the room’s damp air. ‘The lady’s body,’ she says. ‘You’ll need some help.’
Nella feels a surge of gratefulness. She hears Johannes’ voice in her head, questioning his sister. Marin, do you think this house is run by magic? Not by magic, Nella thinks, but by people like Cornelia and Lysbeth Timmers.
Cornelia, whose fingers barely brushed Marin in life, now has to handle her mistress and hold her tightly. ‘She always hated to be touched,’ the maid says. Presented with the reality of Thea, Nella wonders how true this statement can really be.
‘This one.’ Cornelia holds up a long black skirt. She is talkative today, as if her voice will banish the demons calling from the Stadhuis, the words Sunday at sundown now spiralling in her head too. The fabric panels of the corset they select are lined with lengths of sable and squirrel, and a strip of velvet runs along the spine. ‘It will suit Madame Marin perfectly,’ Cornelia says.
Nella feels as if she is standing on wet sand that could sink at any moment. Her armpits are wet with sweat, her bowels feel loose. ‘So it will,’ she replies with a weak smile.
Lysbeth frowns. ‘Clothes are all very well,’ she says. ‘But we must prepare her first.’
This is the hardest part.
They sit Marin up, and Lysbeth uses a sharp knife to cut off the petticoat and cotton blouse. Nella steels herself as the fabric parts in two, trying to focus solely on the task in hand. It is almost too painful to look at the empty, sagging pouch where Thea has lived for nearly nine months – and unavoidable to see Marin’s rounded, ready breasts. Between her legs the birth cord still remains, the thing they couldn’t get out.
Cornelia gulps for air, from grief or repulsion, Nella cannot tell. The entrance Thea made into the world seems sealed up, but Nella dares not go too close, fearing she may dislodge more blood. Instead, they rub the remainder of the lavender oil into other parts of Marin’s body, smothering her gradually intensifying smell, so strangely sweet.
Nella and Lysbeth stagger as they lift Marin; Cornelia gently puts on the skirt, tying it with shaking fingers. As Nella leans her forward, Marin’s head thuds to her chest. Cornelia threads an arm through the corset. ‘I haven’t dressed her for years,’ she says, her voice light and high, skimming on her breath. ‘She always did it herself.’
Cornelia rolls on woollen stockings, and a pair of rabbit-skin slippers embroidered with the initials M and B. Nella washes Marin’s face, dabbing it reverently with fresh towels. Lysbeth unbinds her hair and re-plaits it, tucking it in a neat white cap.
‘Wait,’ Nella says. She runs to Marin’s small room, where Thea lies sleeping in her oak cradle. Nella pulls down the map of Africa, still annotated with its unanswered questions – Weather? Food? God?
‘We should put more of her collections in with her,’ says Cornelia, when she sees what Nella has brought. ‘The feathers and spices – those books.’
‘No,’ says Nella. ‘We’re going to keep them.’
‘Because one day they’ll be Thea’s.’
Cornelia nods, looking overwhelmed by the logic and melancholy of such an idea. Nella imagines Cornelia in four years’ time, showing the little girl the wider world her mother once so assiduously, no doubt lovingly pieced together. As the maid’s blue eyes take on an absent look, Nella wonders if Cornelia is thinking of that future too – Thea, dangling her little legs over the bed, shown this strange inheritance by the maid who loved her mother. Nella wants Cornelia to cling to the image, a future boon to drag her from the horror of today.
‘She looks peaceful,’ says Cornelia.
But Nella sees the familiar furrow on her sister-in-law’s brow, as if she was doing a mildly taxing sum, or thinking of her brother. Marin does
Whilst Lysbeth and Cornelia go to Marin’s room to tend to Thea, Nella walks downstairs to Otto’s tool cupboard, where his implements are laid out on a tidy shelf, ever ready, neatly oiled and sharpened. She finds what she’s looking for. Assendelft farmers used to call them bludgeoners, and she watched them as a girl, their stocky arms swiping hardily at dying trees.
Back upstairs, the women’s voices murmuring along the corridor, Nella locks her bedroom door for the first time.
She eyes it in the corner, Johannes’ beautiful gift. Back in October, he had called the cabinet a distraction, but Nella, on the threshold of a new life, had taken it as no more than an insult to her fragile status. She rejected this uninhabitable world, then gradually believed it held the answers, that the miniaturist was the one who held the light. But Johannes was right, in a way, Nella thinks. Everything about this cabinet was indeed distracting. So much happened while I was looking the other way. I was sure I’d been standing still, yet look how far I’ve come.
Only now is Nella sure what must be done. She approaches the cabinet and lifts up her arms, mirroring the local men who’d hacked at groaning trunks. One inhaled breath, one held moment, then down the axe comes. It drives through the tortoiseshell, it buckles the splintering elm. Pewter veins snake like plant roots, velvet curtains crumple to the ground. Nella smashes and smashes, bringing the house to its knees. The floors collapse, the ceilings cave, the craft and time, the detail and power, tumbling to her feet.
Blood pumping through her body, Nella drops the axe and reaches into the wreckage. She rips the Italian leather wallpaper, the tapestry, the glue between the marble floor. Taking the books, she tears their tiny pages. She crushes the betrothal cup in her clenched fist, and the soft metal submits to her pressure, the couple round the side flattened to nothingness. Gathering the rosewood chairs, the birdcage, Peebo, the box of marzipan, the lute, she breaks them under the sole of her shoe, all unrecognizable, for ever ruined.
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes