The miniaturist, p.4
The Miniaturist, p.4Jessie Burton
‘I was only asking him about the Seigneur’s—’
‘Leave that, Otto,’ Marin says. ‘You need to send those scrolls.’
Marin turns away and disappears. ‘Madame,’ Otto whispers to Nella under the receding footfall. ‘Would you kick a hive? It’ll only get you stung.’
Nella cannot tell if this is a piece of advice or an order. ‘I’d keep that cage shut, Madame,’ he adds, nodding at Peebo. She listens to his step up the kitchen stairs; perfectly measured and soft.
For the next two nights in the house, Nella waits for Johannes to put his hands on her and start her life anew. She leaves her bedroom door ajar, the key hanging off the thick oak panel – but when she wakes in the morning, it is, like her, untouched. He seems to be working late. At night, she hears the front door creak open, and often in the early morning when the sun cracks low along the sky. The dull light seeps into her eyes as she sits up, followed by the realization she is yet again alone.
Once dressed, Nella wanders aimlessly around the rooms on the ground and first floors. At the back of the house, further away from any possible guests, the rooms are plainer, for all grandeur has been saved up for the ones whose windows overlook the street. These front chambers seem at their most beautiful when no one is in them, wearing their furniture down or placing muddy footprints on their polished floors.
She pokes her head round marble pillars and empty fireplaces, roving an untrained eye over the paintings – so many paintings! Ships with crucifix-like masts rising to the sky, hot-looking landscapes, more dying flowers, upturned skulls like brown root vegetables, broken-stringed viols, sprawling taverns and dancers, gold plates, enamelled seashell cups. To stare quickly at them all has a sickening effect. The gold-leaf leather wallpaper on the walls still smells vaguely of pig, reminding her of the Assendelft farmyards. Turning away, unwilling to be reminded of a place she thought she was so keen to leave behind – Nella is confronted with vast Bible tapestries hanging from the panels; Mary and Martha with Jesus, the wedding at Cana, clever Noah and his sturdy ark.
In the best kitchen, Nella notices Johannes’ two lutes that Cornelia keeps polished and hanging on the tiles. Reaching up to take one off its hook, Nella jumps with shock, for a restraining hand is already on her shoulder.
‘It’s not for playing,’ snaps Marin. ‘It’s a piece of craftsmanship that will be ruined by your plucking.’
‘Are you following me?’ When Marin does not reply, Nella taps the lutes. ‘Their strings are sagging. From lack of care.’
She turns on her heel and stalks upstairs. Marin’s room at the end of the first floor corridor has remained unexplored, and she eyes its distant keyhole, wondering what bare cell must lie within. Her fury almost propels her in. Who is Marin to tell her no? She is the mistress of this house, after all.
But Nella goes back to her own room, instead staring in dismay at the bloodstained feathers of the painted birds, their lizardish beaks and curving nostrils. Good God, Marin even hates music! Doesn’t she know that lutes weren’t made to hang up on a wall?
Marin will usually not converse with her unless it is an instruction, or a homily plucked out of the family Bible, usually designed to crush. When she gathers the household in the hallway to hear passages from the Holy Book, Nella is surprised to see this is Marin’s job. At home, when her father was sober he undertook it – and now Carel, aged thirteen and well practised, reads to his sisters and mother.
Other times, Marin sits on a green velvet chair in the salon, working on her ledger book. Nella’s new sister-in-law seems so diligent with the household accounts, the vertical columns a natural stave for her, the numbers her musical notes where their money trips a silent melody. Nella wants to ask more about her husband’s business, about Frans and Agnes Meermans’ sugar, but conversation with Marin is never easy.
On the third day, however, she creeps into the salon where Marin is sitting, head bent as if in prayer. The household ledger is, as usual, open on her lap.
Nella has not used Marin’s first name to her face before; she feels the strange raw daring of it, her stab at intimacy falling short.
‘Yes?’ Marin snaps her head up. She makes a show of resting her pen upon the open pages, placing her hands on the elaborate leaf carving of the chair. From the hard look in Marin’s grey eyes, Nella supposes that the exchange over the lute is not forgotten; feeling the scrutiny of her sister-in-law’s gaze, her panic rises. A blot of ink has leaked from Marin’s nib.
‘Will it always be like this?’ Nella blurts.
The bald question charges the atmosphere, stiffening Marin’s spine. ‘Like what?’
‘I – never see him.’
‘If you mean Johannes, I can assure you, he exists.’
‘Where is it that he works?’ Nella shifts the conversation to where Marin must give her a more solid answer. Her question has an almost stranger effect than the first; Marin’s face becomes a mask.
‘In several places,’ Marin replies, her voice controlled and tight. ‘The bourse, the docks, the VOC offices on the Old Hoogstraat.’
‘And – what exactly does he do in these places?’
‘If I knew that, Petronella—’
‘But you do know. I know you know—’
‘He turns mud to gold. Water to guilders,’ Marin snaps. ‘He sells other men’s stock at better prices. He fills his ships and puts them out to sea. He thinks he’s everybody’s favourite. That’s all I know. Pass me the brazier, my feet are like icebergs.’
Nella believes that may be the longest string of sentences Marin has ever spoken to her. ‘You could always light a fire,’ she replies, shunting one of the small hot braziers towards Marin, who secures it with a stamping foot. ‘I’d like to see where he works. I will go and visit him soon.’
Marin closes the ledger book, the pen still trapped inside, and stares at its battered leather cover. ‘I wouldn’t do that.’
Nella knows she should stop asking questions, because she only gets told no. But she cannot help herself. ‘Why not?’
‘Surely your mother told you it would be like this?’ Marin cries. ‘You haven’t married the local notary.’
‘Petronella! He has to work. And you had to marry someone.’
‘You haven’t. You haven’t married anyone.’
Marin’s jaw tightens and Nella feels a little spark of triumph.
‘No,’ Marin replies. ‘But I’ve always had everything I wanted.’
The next morning, Marin chooses a proverb, a brimstone story from Job, and finishes with the clear waters of Luke.
‘But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation.
Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger.
Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep.’
She’s quick about it, unmusical, as if embarrassed to hear her own voice ringing out over those interminable black and white tiles, her hands holding the lectern like a raft. Nella shifts her eyes up as her sister-in-law intones, wondering why Marin is still here, unmarried, no gold band enclosing her finger. Perhaps there was no man with heart stout enough to take the battering? Nella relishes the pleasure of a vicious thought.
Is this my new family? she asks herself. It seems impossible that any of these people have ever laughed except for a hidden giggle in a sleeve. Cornelia’s chores seem endless. If she is not downstairs boiling a sturgeon, she’s polishing the oak and rosewood furniture, or sweeping the acres of floor upstairs, beating the sheets, polishing pane upon pane upon pane of glass. Everyone knows that toil makes you virtuous – that it keeps all good Dutch from the grasp of slovenly and dangerous luxury – and yet, something about Cornelia does not seem so pure.
Otto has a thoughtful expression on his face as he listens to the words. Catching Nella’s eye, he looks hastily away.
Nella returns to her room and attempts to write a letter to her mother, explaining her predicament. But the words she chooses withhold their best qualities, they refuse to match the way she feels inside. Nella cannot describe her bafflement, her exchanges with Marin, her husband who speaks in all tongues save that of love – nor the servants whose worlds are hidden, whose laughter is another language too. Instead she doodles names – Johannes, Otto, Toot, and draws a picture of Marin with a giant head, screwing up the paper in a ball and throwing it short of the fire.
An hour later, the sounds of men’s voices, barking dogs and Johannes’ laughter come up the main staircase. Nella looks out of the window onto the canal path and sees three strong journeymen with ropes slung over their shoulders. They are stepping out of the house, their sleeves rolled up.
By the time Nella has left her room, Marin is already in the hall. ‘Johannes,’ she hisses. ‘What on earth have you done?’
Nella moves quietly along the landing, and gasps when she sees what the three men have left in the hallway.
In the middle of the tiles is a cabinet – an enormous, looming structure, measuring nearly half Johannes’ height again; a huge cupboard supported by eight curved and sturdy feet, two mustard-coloured velvet curtains drawn across its front. Having shunted the Bible lectern into the corner to make room, Johannes stands by its side. One hand rests upon it; he gazes up at the gleaming wood, his smile unrelenting. He seems refreshed, more handsome than Nella has ever seen him.
Marin approaches the cabinet with caution, as if it might fall on her, or start to move of its own accord. Rezeki backs away with a deep growl. ‘Is this a joke?’ asks Marin. ‘How much did it cost?’
‘For once, sister, let us not talk of money,’ Johannes says. ‘You told me to find a distraction—’
‘Not a monstrosity. Is that saffron dye in those curtains?’
‘A distraction?’ Nella echoes, standing on the stairs. Marin spins round to face her, her expression aghast.
‘Something for you,’ Johannes calls. ‘A wedding gift’ He pats the side of the cabinet, and its curtains seem to twitch.
‘What is it, Seigneur?’
‘Made of oak and elm. Elm is strong,’ Johannes says, as if this is the explanation his new wife has been waiting for. He looks at Marin. ‘It’s used for coffins.’
Marin’s mouth sets in a thin line. ‘Where did you get it, Johannes?’
Johannes shrugs. ‘A man at the docks said he had some cabinets left over from a dead carpenter’s business. I had it improved with a tortoiseshell veneer and pewter inlays.’
‘Why have you done this?’ Marin says. ‘Petronella has no need of such a thing.’
‘It’s for her education,’ Johannes replies.
Johannes reaches out for Rezeki but the dog bucks away from her master. ‘Hush, girl. Hush.’
‘She doesn’t like it,’ says Cornelia, who has followed Nella down the stairs. Nella wonders whether Cornelia is referring to her or the dog. Both of us, by the look of it, she thinks, watching Rezeki’s hackles rise. Cornelia holds her broom like a staff in front of herself, as if expecting an attack.
‘Education?’ Marin scoffs. ‘What does Petronella need with education?’
‘I should say she has very great need,’ Johannes says.
No I don’t, thinks Nella. I’m eighteen, not eight. ‘But what is it, Seigneur?’ she asks, trying to hide her dismay.
Finally, Johannes reaches for the curtains, and with an extravagant flourish, he pulls them aside. The women gasp. The inside of the cabinet is revealed, divided into nine sections, some lined with gold-embossed wallpaper and others with wooden panels.
‘Is it – this house?’ Nella says.
‘It’s your house,’ Johannes corrects her, pleased.
‘It’s a lot easier to manage,’ says Cornelia, craning to see into the upper rooms.
The accuracy of the cabinet is eerie, as if the real house has been shrunk, its body sliced in two and its organs revealed. The nine rooms, from the working kitchen, the salon, up to the loft where the peat and firewood are stored away from damp, are perfect replicas. ‘It’s got a hidden cellar too,’ Johannes says, lifting the floor up between the working and best kitchens, to reveal a concealed empty space. The ceiling in the best kitchen has even been painted with an identical trick of the eye. Nella remembers her conversation with Otto. Things will spill over, he’d said, pointing his finger to that unreal dome.
Rezeki growls and circles the cabinet. ‘How much was this, Johannes?’ Marin demands.
‘The frame was two thousand,’ he says placidly. ‘The curtains brought it to three.’
‘Three thousand guilders? Three thousand? Invested properly, a family could live off that for years.’
‘Marin, you have never lived off two thousand guilders in one year, for all your herring dinners. And with Meermans’ deal, what is there to worry about?’
‘Well, if you were doing something about it, I wouldn’t be worrying—’
‘For once in your life, be quiet.’
Marin reluctantly stands away from the wooden construction. Otto appears from the kitchen and eyes the new arrival with interest. Johannes seems slightly deflated, as if sensing his gesture is beginning to backfire.
The tortoiseshell casing reminds Nella of autumn in Assendelft, oranges and browns caught in motion, of Carel taking her by the hands and spinning her around beneath the garden trees. Pewter has indeed been embedded through like metal veins, fine and flowing over the entire surface, even the legs. There is an odd thrill in the wood and shell. Even the touch of the velvet curtains suggests a certain power.
In Assendelft, Nella knew richer children who’d been given cabinet houses, but none so grand as this. Before her father had drunk away their money there might have been a chance she’d have one too – smaller than this, a practice-instrument so she might learn to manage her larders, her linen, her servants and furnishings. Now she’s married, she’d like to think there is no need.
Nella catches Johannes watching her. ‘The hallway floor is identical,’ she offers, gesturing beneath their feet to where the black and white tiles span out. She places her finger delicately on the correspondent, miniature squares. ‘Italian marble,’ says Johannes.
‘I don’t like it,’ says Marin. ‘And neither does Rezeki.’ Johannes snaps. ‘Well, that’s a bitch’s taste.’ Marin’s face flames red, and she storms to the front door, slamming it behind her.
‘Where’s she going?’ asks Cornelia, sounding panicked. She and Otto watch their mistress’s progress from the front window.
‘I thought it would be a good surprise,’ Johannes says. ‘
But, Seigneur,’ says Nella. ‘What must I do with it?’
Johannes looks at her, slightly blank. He rubs the velvet curtains between forefinger and thumb before drawing them shut. ‘You’ll think of something.’
Johannes disappears into his study with the click of a lock. Otto and Cornelia make a quick descent to the lower ground floor, towards the working kitchen. Alone except for Rezeki whimpering around the hallway walls, Nella considers her gift. Her heart sinks. I am too old for this, she thinks. Who will see this piece of work, who will be able to sit on those chairs, or eat the waxen food? She has no friends, no family in this city to come and exclaim at it – it is a monument to her powerlessness, her arrested womanhood. It’s your house, her husband had said – but who can live in tiny rooms, these nine dead ends? What sort of man buys a gift like this, however majestic its casing, however beautifully made?
‘I don’t need to be educated,’ she says out loud. Rezeki whines. ‘Nothing to be frightened of,’ Nella tells her. ‘It’s just a toy.’ Perhaps the curtains could be cut into a hat, she thinks, pulling them apart.
As Nella s
With Marin out and those two downstairs in the working kitchen, I could fetch Peebo and give him a fly, Nella thinks. Johannes wouldn’t notice, and it would be good to see my Peeblet soar. But as she turns from the cabinet towards the main staircase, her thoughts catch again on Marin’s distant keyhole, upstairs at the corridor’s end. Forget this insult of a dolls’ house, Nella cajoles herself, drawing its mustard-coloured curtains shut. You can go wherever you like.
Blood thumping, leaving Johannes’ present stranded on the tiles, Nella makes her way upstairs towards Marin’s room, Peebo quite forgotten. But her hallway bravado begins to feel flimsy. What if I’m caught? she wonders, her imagination surging once again as she scuttles along the corridor as quick as her skirts will allow. What happens to me then?
But Nella pushes open the heavy door and on the edge of Marin’s sanctuary, she is caught short, the extraordinary sight within vanquishing all caution.
Still on the threshold, Nella cannot believe what she is seeing. Nun-small, the room’s contents could fill a convent. She wonders how willingly Marin gave up the dimensions of her old chamber for this overflowing cell of fantasy.
Dangling from the ceiling is the shed skin of a huge snake, draped like a pennant, papery to touch. Plumes of all patterns and shapes, once attached to the most exotic of birds, brush against her outstretched fingers. Instinctively Nella looks for a green feather, relieved to find none that resemble Peebo’s. A butterfly, wider than her palm, is pinned to the wall, the sky blue of its wings overwritten with swirls of black. The room is full of smells. The strongest is of nutmeg, but there is also a sandalwood tang, and clove and pepper imbuing the very walls, such scents of heat and warning.
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes