The miniaturist, p.33
The Miniaturist, p.33Jessie Burton
Nella pushes back the instinct to sob. It seems Cornelia has kept her promise to keep quiet about Marin, but how can they not confess to him what has happened? His sister, his most beloved adversary, is dead. How is it possible he cannot tell the grief in the faces of his women?
‘Meermans will never take a bribe now, anyway,’ Johannes says. ‘It appears that some things don’t have a price after all. Marin was right, you cannot barter for abstracts. Certainly not for betrayal.’
Nella pictures Lysbeth Timmers, hustling for her silence. ‘But this is Amsterdam—’
‘Where the pendulum swings from God to a guilder. Frans says he’s doing this to save my soul, but underneath it, he’s fuming that I didn’t sell the sugar overnight. He’s fighting for his loaves by calling me a sodomite.’
‘Is that the only reason, Johannes – revenge?’
He looks at her in the gloom, and she waits. Now, she thinks; now surely he will tell about Marin and her refusal to marry. But Johannes is loyal to the end. ‘That sugar represented so much for him,’ he says. ‘And I mocked it with indifference.’
‘Why did you do that? Because of Jack?’
‘No. Because I could taste Frans’ and Agnes’ greed upon the air and it disgusted me.’
‘But you’re a merchant, not a philosopher.’
‘Greed is not a prerequisite for being good at business, Nella. I crave very little for myself.’
He smiles. ‘Just potatoes. And you are right, I am not a philosopher. I am merely a man who happens to have sailed to Surinam.’
‘You said the sugar was delicious.’
He looks grimly round the room. ‘And thus am I amply rewarded. The secret in business is not to care too much, to always be prepared to lose. It seems I cared both too little and too much.’
The prospect of Johannes’ greatest loss to come looms large. ‘I misjudged the situation. Old wounds,’ he says. ‘No matter now. Come, there’s nothing to do. Cornelia drenched me with her tears and now you too. You could have brought me a new shirt. What a terrible wife you are,’ he chides, squeezing her hand. ‘You must tell Marin that she cannot come here.’
Loss washes through her; a brackish tide.
‘I would not want her to see me like this,’ he says.
‘Johannes. Why did Jack betray you?’
He runs a hand through his silvering hair. ‘Money, I suppose, and what money means. It has to be money, because any other reason I cannot counter.’ The silence thickens; she senses Johannes’ struggle to keep down his own fear. ‘You should have heard Agnes’ testimony,’ he says. ‘Her spirit was always brittle, but in that moment, I believe it truly snapped.’
He speaks quickly, pulling himself away from darker thoughts. ‘Agnes has always loved Frans, but too much love like that can be a poison. How happy she was to do his bidding this time, I know not. She believes in her God, of course, and the sanctified order of how things should be. But there was something about her on Thursday morning. She seemed quite disordered, as if she knew perfectly well she was doing something wrong, but was going to do it anyway. She has probably never known herself better than in that moment, nor taken herself more by surprise.’
He laughs, and Nella encloses the sound inside her.
‘Marin was always right about Agnes and Frans,’ he continues. ‘They are the type of people who see blackened sugar everywhere.’
God knows her husband has not always been the most prudent judge of character, but when it comes to Marin, Johannes has always known his sister’s worth. He has years stored up of her brilliance, and her gentler moods. Perhaps he watched her change from a bright girl to a harder woman who couldn’t find the path she’d plotted in her head. He is generous about her, and to Nella, it is almost as if all Marin’s selves are with them, shining in the gloom of the cell.
Nella is not Jack. She will not be the one to rip Johannes’ image of his sister from her frame. She can never tell Johannes what he has lost, nor, in the end, how slenderly Marin was known to them all.
‘I hate them, Johannes,’ she says. ‘With all my soul.’
‘No, Nella, don’t waste yourself. Cornelia told me the work you’ve done with Arnoud Maakvrede. I am not surprised, but it brought me such pleasure to hear. To think, the sugar staying here in the republic!’
‘Marin has been so helpful,’ she says, feeling the key to his warehouse under her shirt, pressed against her skin. Falling to silence, they entwine their hands, as if the touch of flesh will keep away the dawn.
Nella sees the hundreds of ships moored, their bodies spanning down the long, tapering jetties belonging to the VOC. Fluyts and galliots, hookers, square-sterns, various shapes and purposes all for the republic’s good. Most of the masts are naked, the rigging and sails folded away, protected from the elements until it is their time to be freshly tarred, drawn up and stretched across the wood.
Those ships that have sails look as if they are in bloom, ready to catch the trade winds and take their sailors far away. The hulls creak, swollen with the irrepressible salty damp that blights every deck-hand’s life. The air tangs on the tongue – the smell of bilge around the dock edge, the seagulls’ detritus they couldn’t quite finish, half-pecked bodies of fish. Below the diminishing light, sewage from the ships swills in the water.
The ships would normally be an impressive sight, their vast frames lilting on the waves, these vehicles of empire, dogs of war who do everyone’s dirty business. But in the fading Sunday afternoon, everyone’s eyes are drawn to the man with the millstone round his neck.
Whether it is a wedding or a funeral, ceremony in Amsterdam is frowned upon, ritual can be too gross, too papist, and must be avoided. But a rich man to be drowned is different, the moral juiciness, the symbolism that could be plucked out of the Bible, and of course a crowd has come. Along the jetty they stand, many other staff of the VOC, sea captains and clerks. There is Pastor Pellicorne, Schout Slabbaert, even Agnes Meermans, alone in her tatty fur collar. Her husband is not with her. There are several guildsmen, regents from the Stadhuis, their wives, other pastors, and the three solemn men who make up Johannes’ guard.
Nella stands at the back of the dockside crowd. Pellicorne glides his hard gaze over her, pretending not to see. The Pastor’s pall-bearers came last night to lift her sister-in-law into a coffin and take her away, and now Marin waits in the Old Church crypt for the last service she will ever attend.
Pellicorne turns back to the matter at hand. What inward glories must he be feeling now, Nella thinks. The will of the law and the will of the church are making their bloodthirsty claim, and he looks so disgustingly satisfied.
Nella has promised Johannes she would be here this afternoon, and a worse promise she has never had to keep. Last night they had sat in the dark of his cell for an hour, holding hands in silence, the guard leaving them be. That quiet, that hour, had a quality to it Nella will never experience again. In the future she will refer to it as her first wedding night, a communion where no words were needed. They lost their tangling, deceptive power, and in their place was a deeper, richer language.
When she left him, Nella stood at the door of his cell, and he smiled and looked so young – and she felt extremely old, as if somehow the silence had passed on all his grief to her. She will have to carry it whilst Johannes flies up, empty, hollow and free.
At the house, Cornelia has been sedated with a heavy sleeping draught, drawn up with frightening ease by Lysbeth Timmers, who had turned up at sunrise to feed Thea and decided not to leave. ‘You might be needing me for more today,’ she said. Their eyes met. Nella nodded wordlessly and now Lysbeth is in the house, waiting in the kitchen for her return.
Nella cannot be sure of the ground beneath her and she stands, trying to steady herself with her feet apart. The boisterous January wind blows through her coat, sharp as a cat’s claw. She is wearing a hood, a plain brown skirt of Cornelia’s. She has come
Johannes is in a costume too. They have put him in a suit of silver satin which doesn’t fit, and a preening feather in his hat that Johannes would never wear, a pointed marker to indicate that how you dress is who you are. Nella catches flashes of it through the shoulders of the crowd, a bright sleeve like armour through the dun and black. She leans suddenly on the woman next to her. The woman jumps at the contact and turns.
‘It’s all right, my love,’ she says, seeing Nella’s terror. ‘Don’t look if you can’t bear it.’
Her kindness nearly splits Nella apart. How can good people come and watch this?
Slabbaert lays his hand on Johannes’ shoulder and from then on, Nella doesn’t look. She only hears, closing her eyes, the wind on her face, the sails slapping like wet laundry. She hears the millstone being dragged by the two executioners. Johannes, attached to the end of it, will by now be teetering on the edge of the jetty. The half-ton of stone makes a drawn-out, grating sound that runs under Nella’s skin into the core of her bones.
As the crowd inhales, she feels the hot release of urine rush down her stockinged legs, the wool soaking it up and chafing her skin. He is speaking. She imagines him turning to look for her, for Marin, for Cornelia. Let him see me, she thinks. Let him think I’m sending him a prayer.
But the wind blows Johannes’ final words off course and she does not catch them. Johannes, she whispers. She strains to hear, but there are prosaic mutterers around her, prayers and futile utterances. He is too weak to make his voice carry, and by the time the mutters fall to silence, the millstone has been rolled off the end of the jetty. Johannes. It smashes the choppy surface of the sea and plunges underneath.
She opens her eyes. A thick wave pushes up, crests in a white circle and disappears in seconds.
No one moves.
‘He was one of our best merchants,’ a man eventually says. ‘We’re fools.’
The crowd exhales, their hair whipping on their foreheads. ‘No body to bury,’ someone says. ‘They’re not bringing him back up.’
Nella turns away. She is alive, and she is not. She is down in the water with Johannes. Leaning against the wall, head towards the ground, her body threatens to turn her inside out. How long will it take for the sea to fill his lungs? Be quick, she thinks. Be free.
She senses something. The back of her neck prickles, her knees want to sag. Nella lifts her head, scanning the crowd for a flash of pale hair. She’s still here, Nella thinks. I can feel it. She looks across the people’s faces, searching for that cool, appraising gaze, a moment for the miniaturist to say good bye.
But it is not the miniaturist standing in the line of her eye.
He is thinner, dressed in the same clothes he left in, wearing that rich brocade coat. For a mad second Nella thinks her husband has come up from the water, that an angel has brought him back to life. But no, he is unmistakeable. Nella raises her hand in recognition, and, open-mouthed with grief, Otto lifts his palm. Five trembling fingers, a star shining out from the dark.
The same evening, Sunday, 12th January 1687
Let us solace ourselves with loves.
For the goodman is not at home, he is gone a long journey:
He hath taken a bag of money with him, and will come home at the day appointed.
She supposes he’s in shock at what he’s witnessed, for she has to pull him away by the sleeve, their feet slipping on the tiles.
‘Come home,’ she says. ‘Come home.’ Nella is in agony, breathless because it hurts so much. The light has failed now, and dusk is on them. She tries to banish the image of the cresting water, the sound of Johannes being dragged beneath the surface of the sea. Her speed increases for fear grief will paralyse her, that she’ll curl up in a ball on the canal path and never move.
Otto turns to her, stunned, drawing Johannes’ coat tight around his body. He stops, pointing back in the direction of the docks.
‘Madame, what has happened here?’
‘I can’t. I don’t know the words, Otto. He’s gone.’
He shakes his head, still stupefied. ‘I did not know he’d been arrested. I thought to go to London would protect you all, Madame. I would never have—’
When they reach the Herengracht, Otto is overcome by the sight of the house. He grips the dolphin door-knocker like a prop to ward away collapse, his face a battle between agony and self-control. What he is about to discover beyond the door unfurls like a malicious flower in Nella’s body, for it seems impossible that a person could withstand this double pain. She stumbles in Otto’s wake at this worst of homecomings; but the peaceful interior belies the loss of Marin.
‘This way.’ She leads him through to the salon, where Lysbeth Timmers has indeed set a fire burning in the grate, warmer than any of them has felt for weeks, the dancing flames incongruously cheerful. Nella feels her blood brightening. At the back of the blaze, prongs of pewter bend in curtsey, panels of tortoiseshell split apart and crackle.
Lysbeth stands in the centre of the room, holding Thea tightly to her chest, eyeing Otto as he stares at the child. ‘Who’s this?’ she asks.
Nella turns to him, wondering if he is capable of introducing himself, if he is thinking the same question of Lysbeth Timmers. As if in a dream, Otto puts out his expectant palms towards the child. Nella realizes she’s seen him make that gesture before, his hands outstretched that first day she was here, when he gave her a pair of pattens against the cold.
Lysbeth shrinks away.
‘Lysbeth, this is Otto. Please hand him the child,’ Nella says.
Her edge of authority is so palpable that Lysbeth immediately obeys. ‘Softer with her,’ the wet-nurse mutters. Otto scoops Thea to his chest as if she is life itself – as if her tiny, beating heart might keep his alive. Even Lysbeth is muted, watching an introduction so strange in the midst of all this loss; so strange, and yet so natural.
‘Lysbeth,’ Nella murmurs. ‘Go and wake Cornelia.’
As soon as they’re alone, Nella knows that she must speak. ‘Her name is Thea,’ she says. ‘Otto. I have to tell you something.’
But drawn into Thea’s face, absorbed by his little mirror, it does not seem as if Otto is listening.
‘Madame Marin said it would be a boy,’ he says.
Nella does not know how to respond. It feels impossible to speak. ‘You knew, then?’ she says eventually.
He nods, and as his face moves before the firelight, Nella sees his tears, how he too is struggling for the right word, any word that might support a fragment of the weight his shoulders seem to bear. He gestures suddenly to the unpolished floor, to the dusty rosewood chairs. ‘She isn’t here,’ he says, as if these inanimate objects are comprehensive proof of loss.
‘No,’ says Nella. ‘She isn’t here.’ She swallows, knowing a sob is there, worrying that to cry might be an invasion of his grief. ‘I’m sorry, Otto.’
‘Madame,’ Otto says. His voice is raw; it cracks the simple word in two. She looks up and he holds her devastated gaze. ‘You saved the child. She would have laid down her life that this little creature might survive.’
‘But why did she have to?’ Nella says. Her tears are coming now, she can’t stop them; the effort to stop only makes them fall quicker, fuller, blurring her sight. ‘She worsened so quickly. I – we could not bring her back to life. We tried, Toot, but we didn’t know—’
‘I understand,’ he says, but from the pain on his face it is clear that he cannot. Nella feels her legs giving way and she reaches for a chair. He remains standing, staring at the top of Thea’s head. ‘I never saw her more determined than when she told me she was with child,’ he says. ‘I was sure the world was coming to an end. I asked her, “What will this child’s life be?”’
Otto holds Thea closer. ‘She said, “His life must be what he makes of it.” ’
‘I knew it might be safer if I left. But I had to come back. I had to see.’
The fact of Thea – the act of her creation – hovers in the air, life hand in hand with death. Maybe it’s a secret Otto will always keep, she thinks. God knows Cornelia will help him, pretending it never happened, as if Thea was immaculate, or found growing from a tree. Perhaps one day he will tell how it started between him and Marin, and why – and whether each felt love like power or abandon, and whether their hearts were freely exchanged and full of ease, or weighed down over time.
Thea, the map of herself – she will see those plotted points of her father’s face in half of hers and wonder, where is my mother? I’ll give her the doll, Nella thinks. I will show her those grey eyes, those slender wrists, even the bodice lined with fur. There must be no more secrets, so I said. So I will show her that observed curve, the miniaturist’s gift revealed. You were there, Thea. Petronella Windelbreke saw that you were coming, and she knew that it was good. She even sent you a cradle. She was telling your story before you were born, but now you must be the one to finish it.
Still tipsy from the valerian, Cornelia has been fetched from her bed by Lysbeth. She stands at the door of the salon, her face a question, its astonishment feasting on the answer before her eyes. ‘You,’ she breathes.
‘Me,’ Otto replies, nervously. ‘I’ve been in London, Cornelia. The English called me blackamoor and lambkin. My lodging was the Emerald Parrot. I was almost going to write and tell you. I—’
Words fall on words. Otto shores up against the tide of grief before it breaks on his oldest friend’s head.
Cornelia totters towards him – she touches his elbows and shoulders, his hands still full with Thea. She touches his face, anything to prove his flesh is real. She cuffs the back of his head in loving fury. ‘Enough,’ she says, encasing him, breathing in his presence. ‘Enough.’
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes