The miniaturist, p.32
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       The Miniaturist, p.32

           Jessie Burton

  With fingers like claws, Nella breaks open Meermans’ body, shredding his broad-brimmed hat. She pulls Jack’s head off like a dying flower. With a piece of elm, she smashes Agnes’ hand, still clutching the blackened sugar loaf. Nella does not spare Cornelia nor her own two selves – the grey and gold, one sent by the miniaturist, the other left by Agnes on the Stadhuis gallery floor. She hurls them into the pile along with Johannes’ sack of money. Only Marin and Johannes does she keep intact, putting them in her pocket with Otto and the little child. Thea can have them when she’s older; portraits out of time.

  She feels Arnoud in her pocket and hesitates. It’s just a doll, she tells herself, still astonished by the miniaturist’s strange alchemy of craftsmanship and spying. It’s nothing. She weighs him in her palm. Most of the sugar has not yet sold. Almost hating herself, Nella stuffs the pastrymaker hastily back into her skirt, safe and out of sight.

  Emptied, exhausted, Nella can destroy no more; her wedding gift has turned into a pyre. Sliding to the floor beside it, she rests her head upon her drawn-up knees. With no one to hold her, she holds herself; her body wracked with sobs.

  The Canker in the Orchard

  That evening, Cornelia will not be dissuaded from going to the Stadhuis prison. In a fever of activity, she has made pasties of hen and veal, rosewater and sweetened pumpkin, cabbage and beef. They smell of home, of a solid kitchen with good utensils, a sensible cook at the helm.

  ‘I’m going, Madame,’ she says. Determination has put some colour back in her face.

  ‘Don’t tell him what’s happened here.’

  Cornelia draws the warm package of her food to her body, her eyes welling with tears. ‘I would rather die than break his heart, Madame,’ she says, burying the pies deep in her apron.

  ‘I know.’

  ‘But if we did tell him about Thea, a baby, a beginning—’

  ‘It would give him more regret for the life he is about to leave. I don’t think he could bear it.’

  Cornelia bridles at the awful decisions they are being forced to make. Nella watches the maid’s forlorn figure as she moves up the canal.

  Lysbeth is in the working kitchen, folding fresh cloths for Thea. ‘Will you stay with her for a couple of hours while I go out?’ asks Nella.

  Lysbeth looks up. ‘Gladly, Madame.’

  It pleases Nella that Lysbeth doesn’t ask where she’s going; so unlike Cornelia. She wonders what Lysbeth might say about the carnage in her room, the damage wreaked by a child bride upon her toy. ‘There’s firewood upstairs,’ she says to the wet-nurse. ‘We should keep Thea warm.’

  Nella is granted entry through the door of the kerkmeester’s room behind the organ of the Old Church. Pastor Pellicorne is at his desk. It is for Cornelia that Nella is here. She would rather have Marin buried quietly in St Anthonis’ church, away from public scrutiny. ‘Wouldn’t that have been what she wanted too?’ she’d asked Cornelia.

  ‘No, Madame. She’d have wanted the highest civic honour this city can bestow.’ This is normality, Cornelia stilling the surface. Thus Marin’s legacy lives on; that the most obsessive of Marin’s preoccupations should remain alive in her maid is a bitter heartening.

  Pellicorne looks at Nella, trying to bury the glint of his distaste. You know who I am, she thinks, her hatred budding. You were standing outside the Stadhuis, bellowing for all to hear. Nella has come armed in her wealth, but pearls and a silver dress feel like flimsy armour in the face of Pellicorne’s disdain.

  ‘I have come to report a death,’ she says, looking straight at him, her voice clear.

  Pellicorne dips his chin upon his abundant collar. ‘I thought that wasn’t till Sunday?’ he says, pulling his bulging burial register towards him, a large leather-covered book accounting for all the bodily traffic of this city, leaving for Heaven or Hell. He dips his pen in the ink.

  Nella steadies herself, breathing deeply. ‘I’ve come to report the death of Marin Brandt.’

  Pellicorne’s pen hovers. He peers at Nella, his hard face craning forward over the ledger. ‘Death?’ he utters.

  ‘Yesterday afternoon.’

  The pen is laid down, Pellicorne leans back. ‘May God bless her soul,’ he says eventually. He narrows his eyes. ‘Tell me, how did our sister Marin Brandt leave the world?’

  Nella pictures Marin’s corpse, the bloodied sheets, newborn Thea, then she travels back; Otto and Marin intertwined, their secret buried deep in Marin’s living body.

  ‘She died of a fever, Pastor.’

  He looks alarmed. ‘The sweating sickness, you think?’

  ‘No, Seigneur. She was sick for a while.’

  ‘True, I have not seen her in church these last weeks.’ Pellicorne draws his hands together, rests his chin upon the tips of his tapering fingers. ‘I had wondered if her absence was anything to do with her brother.’

  ‘The shock would not have helped, Seigneur. She was already very weak,’ Nella says quietly, hatred blooming within her, barely letting her breathe.

  ‘It most certainly would not’ Nella keeps silent – she does not want to give this man the fuel he craves. ‘Has your gebuurte come to help?’ he asks.

  She remembers her father’s funeral in Assendelft, how the neighbours had come to aid her grieving mother; undressing his corpse, putting him in a nightgown, lifting his stiffening body onto an iron sheet, laying straw for leakage. Then the young unmarried females of the village, coming to lay palms and flowers, laurel leaves. There was no such gebuurte for Marin, just Cornelia and herself, desolation creeping through their panic – and Lysbeth, a woman who’d never even met her alive. At least Cornelia has lit those oil burners.

  Nella is pained by the lack of dignity Marin is suffering in death. There should have been a gebuurte, for Marin was a good person, she was strong. In another life she could have led an army. But in the end, Marin kept no friends close – only one, and he is missing.

  ‘Yes, Pastor,’ she replies. ‘The neighbours have come. But we have to move her soon. We have to bring her to the church.’

  ‘She never married,’ Pellicorne says. ‘A waste.’

  For some of us, Nella thinks, it’s a waste to be married.

  It is completely dark outside. In the main body of the church, she can hear the organist practising on his pipes, torches being lit for evening prayer. The pastor stands up, smoothing his black tunic as if it is an apron. ‘If you have come to bury her here,’ he says, ‘that is impossible.’

  There is a moment of silence. Nella keeps her feet upon the floor, her back straight.

  ‘Why, Pastor?’

  Her voice is strong and reasonable, because she’s made it so. She will not let it trill, or give way to emotion. Pellicorne closes the burial register and looks at her, surprised, as if he is not used to being asked to elaborate. ‘We cannot have her, Madame. She is tainted by association. As are you.’ He pauses, boring into her with his stony eyes. ‘You have all of my pity, Madame.’

  ‘And yet none of your mercy.’

  ‘We are overflowing. I give my sermons to more skeletons than flesh. Dear God, the stink,’ he says to himself. ‘All the perfumes of Araby cannot mask these rotting Dutchmen.’ To Nella, he merely adds, ‘I am sorry for her death, but I cannot have her here.’


  ‘Go to the men at St Anthonis’, they will help you.’

  ‘No, Pastor. Not beyond the city walls. She worshipped here.’

  ‘Burial within the city is not an option for most these days, Madame.’

  ‘It must be for Marin Brandt.’

  ‘I have no more room. Do you hear?’

  Nella pulls out of her pocket two hundred guilders from Arnoud and lays them on Pellicorne’s register. ‘If you will organize the gravestone, the coffin, the men to carry it, and the space in the church floor, I will, upon completion, double that sum,’ she says.

  Pellicorne looks at the money. It is money coming from the wife of a sodomite. It is money coming
from a woman. It is the deep-lying root of evil, but it is a lot of money. ‘I cannot accept this,’ he says.

  ‘Greed is the canker we must cut out,’ Nella replies, her expression mournful.

  ‘Precisely.’ She can see he is pleased to have his sermon echoed.

  ‘You, a man of God, are surely best placed to guard the canker,’ Nella continues.

  ‘Once it’s been removed,’ he replies, his eyes flicking to the guilders.

  ‘Of course.’

  ‘There are many alms required for our city’s unfortunates.’

  ‘And something must be done for them, or the canker begins to bloom.’

  They sit in silence.

  ‘There is a small space in the east corner of the church,’ Pellicorne says. ‘Room for a modest slab, nothing more.’

  What a fool he is, Nella thinks. He is just a man like every other man, no closer to God than the next. She wonders how much will be skimmed off the four hundred before the pallbearers and the alms are paid. Would Marin like it, in the corner? She spent her life in the corner, perhaps she would prefer it in the nave. But then, in the nave, people would walk up and down on her. Some citizens probably desire such an ending, so they never are forgotten, held in memory and prayed for – but to Nella’s mind it is too undignified for Marin. It is better in the corner.

  ‘I am speaking the truth, Madame,’ says Pastor Pellicorne. ‘We are full up. That corner is the best that I can do.’

  ‘It will suit,’ she replies. ‘But I want the finest elm for the coffin.’

  Pellicorne resumes his pen and opens the register once again. ‘I will see to it. The funeral could be next Tuesday evening, after the normal service?’

  ‘Very well.’

  ‘It is easier in the night. The smell that rises when you open up the floor puts people off their prayers.’

  ‘I see.’

  ‘How many people will come?’ he asks.

  ‘Not many,’ Nella replies. ‘Her life was quite secluded.’ She says this almost as a challenge, to see if he will contradict her, or offer some knowing aside regarding Marin’s hidden life. The bookshops she visited, he might say. The company she kept, that Negro she paraded through the streets.

  But Pellicorne merely purses his lips. Seclusion is bad; Nella knows what his expression means. Civic-mindedness, neighbourly surveillance, everyone checking up on everybody else – that’s what keeps this city ticking on. Not cloistering yourself away from prying eyes. ‘It will be a brief ceremony,’ he says, putting the guilders into the register.

  ‘We don’t like pomp,’ she replies.

  ‘Precisely. And aside from her name and dates, what would you have inscribed on the gravestone?’

  Nella closes her eyes and conjures Marin in her long black dress, the perfection of her cap and cuffs concealing so much turmoil underneath. Publicly rejecting sugar but sneaking candied walnuts, hiding Otto’s love notes, annotating unvisited countries on her brother’s pilfered maps. Marin, so dismissive of the miniatures, but who slept with Otto’s doll beneath her pillow. Marin, who didn’t want to be a wife, but who had Thea’s name waiting on her tongue.

  Nella feels weighed down by the pointless loss of Marin’s life, the many unanswered questions. Frans, Johannes, Otto – this trio of men, did they know her sister-in-law any better than she?

  ‘Well?’ asks Pellicorne impatiently.

  Nella clears her throat. ‘T’can vekeeren,’ she replies.

  ‘Is that all?’

  ‘Yes,’ she says. ‘T’can vekeeren.’

  Things can change.

  Degrees of Being Alive

  On Saturday morning, Nella takes a pie from the pantry, thinking it’s made of berries. She’s starving, having barely eaten since the verdict.

  The crust is deceptive, turning out to conceal a pie made of cold fish, prosaic flounder where she’d hoped for winter fruits. In Nella’s nervous state, it almost feels like the food is taunting her. She wonders miserably whether Cornelia will ever candy anything again. The sight of a crystallized walnut might conjure Marin and her delicious contradictions.

  Her stomach rumbling, Nella heads to Hanna and Arnoud’s shop, under their sign of two sugar loaves.

  ‘We’ll take more,’ says Arnoud when he sees her. ‘It works well with the honeycomb, and you’ll be desperate to get rid of it, no doubt.’

  ‘Noud,’ Hanna reprimands. ‘I’m sorry, Nella. They never taught him decent manners in the Hague.’

  Nella smiles. Business is business. I don’t have to like you, Arnoud, she thinks – though she is fond of Hanna – clear-speaking, a diplomat in a dusted apron. As soon as this sugar’s sold, Nella promises herself she will shove Arnoud’s doll into a city apiary, to be covered by greedy bees.

  ‘Come,’ Hanna says, beckoning her to sit down on the polished bench in the front of the shop. Arnoud stomps to the back, banging out his trays.

  ‘Try this new cocoa-bean drink I’ve been testing,’ Hanna says brightly. ‘I put some of your sugar loaf in, and a few vanilla seeds.’

  It is truly delicious. Like a happy childhood memory, it warms Nella up. ‘Have you heard?’ Hanna asks.


  ‘The burgomasters have lifted the ban on people-shaped biscuits. Though our dogs were so popular, I’m pleased we can go back to carving people’s sweethearts for those lucky enough to be young and in love. It’s good news for your stock.’

  Nella wraps her grateful fingers round the hot terracotta mug. It is good news, and yet, not good enough to lift the overwhelming bleakness she feels inside. ‘I cannot be long away,’ she says, thinking of her household; newly configured, half of whom she’s only just met.

  ‘Of course,’ says Hanna, looking at her carefully.

  Does she know, Nella wonders – has Cornelia finally held her tongue? ‘But I thank you,’ she says, ‘for your friendship and your trade.’

  ‘I would do anything for her,’ Hanna says.

  Nella imagines Hanna and Cornelia in the orphanage – what pacts did they swear, what blood oaths till the day they died? Hanna lowers her voice. ‘Since my marriage—’ She cuts herself off, looking over her shoulder at Arnoud. ‘Running a business takes up every hour of my day.’

  ‘You have Arnoud.’

  ‘Exactly.’ Hanna smiles. ‘He is not a cruel man. Nor is he a selfish one. I have made my doughy bed.’ She leans forward, whispering. ‘We will pay you the money you need. From little seeds great flowers grow.’

  Nella looks into the kitchen. ‘But what will Arnoud say? I cannot sell at a low price.’

  Hanna shrugs. ‘There are means of persuasion. It’s my money too. I earned and saved what I could before I married. My brother gambled for me on the bourse and once I’d made a profit I told him to stop. He listened, unlike some.’ She sighs. ‘Arnoud admires my abilities, but he seems to have forgotten the source of half his capital. He likes his new role as sugar-trader. It’s brought him status in the Guild of Pastry Bakers. They might appoint him as an overman. The product is good, so they think he is too.’ Hanna smiles. ‘New recipes, plans for expansion. He wants to go and sell the next batch of sugar in Delft and Leiden, as well as The Hague.’ Hanna pauses. ‘All decisions I have encouraged.’

  ‘Will you go with him?’

  ‘Someone has to keep the business open here. We’ll take another three hundred loaves. And give you six thousand. That’s fair, isn’t it? Sugar crystals are more use to me than diamonds, Madame Brandt.’

  What is she buying here – peace, or a moment to enjoy her own hard work? Nella glows with the sum Hanna has proposed.

  ‘In the long run,’ Hanna says, ‘I believe it will benefit us all.’

  Nella walks quickly from Hanna and Arnoud towards the Stadhuis. The guard lets her through the gates, she treads the same corridor, and Johannes’ door is drawn back. It is three guilders this time to allow more than the usual quarter-hour. Johannes’ finite existence is making him more expensive, but Nella wou
ld give ten times that if she had to. There is a distinct smell of rosewater and pumpkin wafting about the guard, Nella notices. Checking the money in his hand, he nods, closing the cell door.

  Someone, maybe Cornelia, has shaved Johannes’ stubble, which serves to make him more cadaverous, as if his skull is making its way inside out. I should have brought him a new shirt, she thinks, peering at her husband in the dim light. The one he’s wearing is ragged and thin. Nella swallows, girding herself against the sight. He sits on the pallet of straw, head against the damp brick, long legs twisting awkwardly out of his hips.

  She realizes how like Marin he looks, haughty in repose, half-handsome even now. Her throat tightens. There is excrement in the corner, covered haphazardly with straw. She looks away.

  If I told him everything, Nella wonders, who would Johannes think had betrayed him more? She remembers Jack screaming at Otto – he knows you’ve done something. Johannes had once questioned Marin’s piety in that argument in the salon, and later, she’d said she had taken something of her brother’s that wasn’t hers to take. Did Johannes know, and look away? It seems incredible but then much about Johannes’ person is incredible. He and Marin often pulled Otto between themselves, claiming him like territory, arguing over who appreciated or needed him most.

  The two remaining pasties lie uneaten at Johannes’ side. ‘You should eat those while they’re fresh,’ she says.

  ‘Sit with me,’ he replies, his voice quiet.

  How frail he looks, the light drained from his eyes. Nella can almost feel his spirit dissolving into the air, to nothingness. She wants to grab at it and hold it in fistfuls, stop it from getting away.

  ‘I’m selling the sugar,’ she says, sitting down. ‘A confectioner is helping me.’

  ‘I don’t think you’ll shift it all by tomorrow,’ he replies, with the shade of a smile.

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