The miniaturist, p.5
The Miniaturist, p.5Jessie Burton
Nella moves further in. Along the simple wooden shelves is a miscellany of yellowing animal skulls, belonging to creatures she can’t even guess at – long jaws, snub craniums, strong, sharp teeth. Beetle carapaces, shiny as coffee beans, iridescent in the light, glow black with a tinge of red. An upturned tortoise shell rocks gently at her touch. Dried plants and berries, seed pods, seeds themselves – the source of these intoxicating scents – are everywhere. This room is not from Amsterdam, though it shows an Amsterdammer’s drive for acquisition. This is the republic’s reach, in four small walls.
There is a map of the African continent, huge, so much unknown. Ringed in the centre of the western coastline is a place called Porto-Novo. There are questions written over it, in Marin’s neat hand. Weather? Food? God? There is a map of the Indies, with many more circles and arrows, marking from where the flora and fauna found in this room have come. Molucca 1676, Batavia 1679, Java 1682 – all voyages Marin has surely never made herself.
On the table by the window is an open notebook, and it appears to contain a detailed categorization of all these things. Marin’s handwriting flows better than her speech, and Nella recognizes it from the envelope that was sent to her mother earlier this year. She feels again the trespasser’s tension – desperate to stay and find out more, but dreading the trap she has wilfully set herself. I’m no more mistress of this house than little Arabella back in Assendelft, she thinks.
Further along the shelf is a strange-looking lamp, with the wings of a bird and a woman’s head and breasts. Nella reaches out to touch its cool, thick metal. Next to the lamp is a pile of books, and their pages emanate a loamy mix of damp and pigskin. Nella lifts the top one off the pile, too curious about Marin’s reading habits to think about anyone coming up the stairs.
The first book is a travel journal entitled The Unfortunate Voyage of the Ship Batavia. Most people in the United Provinces are familiar with the story of Corneliszoon’s mutiny, the infamous onboard enslavement of Lucretia Jans and her implication in the murders of survivors. Nella is no exception, but her mother hated the more salacious aspects of the story. ‘It’s because of that Jans woman that ladies no longer sail so much, and a good thing too,’ Nella’s father had observed when he was still alive. ‘Women on board bring bad luck.’
‘They only bring the luck men give them,’ Mrs Oortman had retorted.
Nella closes the book, puts it back and runs her fingers delicately over the uneven bump and jut of the spines. There are so many books here – and as much as she would like to read all the titles, she knows she cannot dawdle. Marin must spend a good guilder on this habit, Nella supposes, rubbing the luxurious paper.
Beneath The Unfortunate Voyage is a book by Heinsius, who everyone knows is banished from the country for manslaughter. It is almost a crime to own it, and the fact that Marin has a copy astonishes Nella. There is also a folio edition of Saeghman’s Almanac, Children’s Diseases by Stephanus Blankaart and Bontekoe’s The Memorable Accounts of the Voyage of the Nieuw Hoorn. Nella flicks through. Bontekoe’s accounts are tales of voyage and peril, full of brilliant woodcuts, ribs of shipwrecks, great sunrises and swallowing seas. One woodcut depicts a shoreline, waves in the background cushioning a large vessel. In the foreground, two men face each other. The first man has his arms and legs filled in with fine black lines, a ring through his nose and a spear in his hand. The other is dressed in the old-fashioned style of a Dutchman. Their expressions are the same, however. Impassive, trapped in their own closed orb of experience, the gap between them wider than the sea beyond.
The spine is flexible, the book has been used often. As Nella moves to put it back on the pile, a piece of paper covered in writing falls from its middle pages. She scoops it from the floor and the words charge her blood.
I love you. I love you. From back to front, I love you.
Nella feels a tingling sensation in the roof of her mouth. In a daze, she puts the book back, unable to let go of the extraordinary note. There are more words on the scrap of paper – hasty, dancing words not in Marin’s handwriting.
You are sunlight through a window, which I stand in, warmed.
One touch lasts a thousand hours. My darling—
Pain shoots through Nella’s arm – someone grips it tightly and won’t let go. Marin looms, white-faced, turning Nella around like a rag doll. The note flutters to the floor, and Nella covers it with her foot as Marin drags her away. ‘Did you look at my books?’ Marin hisses. ‘Did you?’
‘No – I—’
‘Yes you did. Did you open them?’
‘Of course not—’
Marin adjusts her grip, her hand shaking from the pressure. ‘Marin—’ Nella gasps. ‘It hurts. You’re hurting me.’
For a couple more seconds, Marin does not let go, then Nella wrenches herself free. ‘I’ll tell my husband,’ she shouts. ‘I’ll show him what you’ve done!’
‘We don’t like traitors,’ Marin hisses. ‘Go. Now.’
Nella stumbles away, straight into the snakeskin in her hurry to escape. ‘These things don’t belong to you!’ Marin calls after her. She slams her door and the scent of spice evaporates.
Safely on the island of her own bed, Nella murmurs to her pillow, her mouth dry and mind incredulous. One touch lasts a thousand hours. That ink was secret nectar, for Marin isn’t married.
The writing was scrawled but Nella is sure it was not Marin’s. I should never have gone in there, she thinks. Perhaps Marin was even waiting in the darkness, to catch me in the act? She imagines her sister-in-law stringing her up on one of the ceiling beams, pattens falling off her swinging feet among the feathers, her cold body warmed by poetic sunlight through a window.
Marin starts to shift in Nella’s mind. From her drab black clothes, Marin rises like a phoenix, enveloped in her nutmeg scent – no lily for her, no floral nicety. Covered in the symbols of the city, Marin is a daughter of its power – she is a secret surveyor of maps, an annotator of specimens – an annotator of something else as well, not so easy to slot into a category. Nella imagines the smell of spice on Marin’s skin, hearing her across the damask tablecloth, telling her brother exactly how to trade. Who is this woman? From back to front, I love you.
The next day, just before dawn, she tiptoes down into the best kitchen. The house is wrapped in quiet – even Otto and Cornelia are still asleep. Unhesitant, determined, Nella scoops up Peebo’s cage. She takes him to her room, thinking of those hanging feathers, convinced that from now on she must keep her parakeet close.
Above Nella’s head, Peebo flaps and chirrups in delight around her room, his black eyes glittering. ‘Marin might behead you,’ she tells her little bird, drawing her shawl close against the morning chill, trying the threat for size. In daylight, it now seems ridiculous, but the rules of this house are written in water. I must either sink or swim, Nella thinks. Her bruise, day-old, like a small splash of wine, truly hurts when she presses it. It is staggering, really. Does Johannes not see his sister? He has done nothing to tame Marin, despite her obvious dislike of his new bride.
A sharp knock at the door makes Nella’s stomach flip. ‘Come in,’ she says, irritated by how apprehensive she sounds.
Marin appears on the threshold, looking pale. Nella stands and drops her shawl to expose the darkening mark. Stiffening, Marin stares instead at the parakeet, now perched on the end of the bed. She has a book clutched close to her chest, and her slender fingers tighten round it.
‘I will keep him in my room,’ Nella says.
‘Here,’ is all Marin’s reply, her voice cracked, hand outstretched, offering the book.
‘What is it?’
‘Smit’s List. A register of all craftspeople and businesses in this city.’
‘And why would I need Smit’s List?’ Nella asks, prising it from Marin’s grasp.
‘To decorate your house.’
‘Which one, Marin?’
‘If you leave that cabinet
‘I don’t have to do anything—’
‘Here,’ Marin rushes on, ‘these are promissory notes with my brother’s stamp and signature.’ She pulls out a sheaf from the book, her fingers tangling them in a fluster. ‘Any seller you buy from can take their note to the Stadhuis and have it exchanged. You just fill in the amount and countersign.’ Marin extends the promissory notes towards Nella as if she’s keeping the devil at bay. ‘No more than a thousand guilders per note.’
‘Why are you doing this, Marin? I thought the Bible says it doesn’t pay to flaunt your wealth,’ Nella says, but she feels excited about the money. She is not as far as she would like to be from that awful day when her papa died, when Arabella found nothing in the coin jar but a button and an upturned spider. Marin would never understand such relief, she thinks.
‘Just take them, Petronella.’
Aggression spreads between them, a familiar stain. When Nella duly lifts the promissory notes from Marin’s hand, she notices how miserable her sister-in-law looks. If this is a game, we’ve both lost, she thinks, but as she rubs her fingers over the notes she can feel their invisible power.
‘And what will my husband say about this?’
Exhaustion blooms on Marin’s face. ‘Don’t worry. My brother knows the danger of having nothing to do.’
After Marin has gone, Nella attempts to put all thought of her sister-in-law and the love note aside. She carries Smit’s List to her writing desk and opens it up. The book is neatly laid out in alphabetical order of trade. Apothecaries, astronomers, chandlers, chocolate-makers, librettists and locksmiths are but some of the sundry craftsmen paying Marcus Smit a fee to appear. The advertisements are self-penned, with no restriction on how they are written.
Outside her window, the canal is full of life. Boatmen call to one another about the winter nip in the air, on a far-off corner a bread-seller cries his wares, and two children holler with a hoop and stick. Within, however, all is quiet and still, the only sound in her room the light tock of the golden pendulum. As Nella continues to flick through the book, an entry under M catches her eye:
Residing at the sign of the sun, on Kalverstraat
Originally from Bergen
Trained with the great Bruges clockmaker, Lucas Windelbreke
ALL, AND YET NOTHING
It is the only entry under Miniaturist, and Nella likes its brevity, its odd ring. She has no idea where Bergen is, nor what a miniaturist does, nor indeed that clockmakers could be considered great. The miniaturist is certainly not from Amsterdam, that much is clear. Therefore he cannot be a member of its city guilds – and it is illegal to undertake work for which registered citizens could earn money. Her father taught her that. He was from Leiden, and claimed the draconian guild laws were more to blame for his downfall than the flagons of beer. Not that there can be a guild for miniaturists, surely? Nella is surprised the advertisement is in Smit’s List at all.
Free from the pressure of Marin’s presence, Nella can feel her defiance solidifying. Marin didn’t even apologize for pinching her as if she were a naughty child. Marin, with her maps and bossiness, Johannes and his ever-closing door, Cornelia and Otto – their shared sanctuary, their silent language of chopping, polishing, the slop of mop and flash of knife—
Nella jumps up, desperate to be rid of her own thoughts, what Marin calls the danger of having nothing to do. She cannot care for the cabinet – it is an insult to her womanhood. And yet, when she fans the promissory notes, she’s never seen so much potential money in her entire life.
As Peebo circles Johannes’ expensive paintings, Nella takes up her pen at the desk and explodes her fury in a burst of scrawl:
I have seen your advertisement in Smit’s List, and wish to solicit your help.
I have a house of nine rooms, on a miniature scale, that is to be displayed in a cabinet. I venture these three requests to you and await your response. I cannot guess but that you are trained in the art of small things. The list is by no means exhaustive, and I am amply able to pay.
Item: One lute, with strings
Item: One betrothal cup, filled with confetti
Item: One box of marzipan
In advance gratitude,
Petronella Brandt, at the sign of the dolphin, Herengracht
Her new surname seems so truncated, so brusque compared to the one she’s had for eighteen years. Writing it still feels uncomfortable, like donning a particular costume that’s hers but doesn’t fit. She crosses it out and puts instead the words Thank you, Nella Oortman. He’ll notice that, Nella thinks. And he’ll probably laugh. She tucks the letter into her pocket along with a promissory note of three hundred guilders, and goes down to the working kitchen to see if she can quickly swipe a late breakfast from Cornelia’s scarred worktop. A roll, a slice of meat, anything but herring.
Cornelia appears to be stuffing a goose with a carrot, not scrimping on the brutality of insertion. Behind her, Otto is sharpening pins and using them to prick holes in walnuts. Nella wonders why he’s doing it, but doesn’t ask, supposing that the answer will be his usual generous evasion. Over the fire, a sauce bubbles. Cornelia and Otto look for all the world like a married couple in their cottage, handling their daily meal. Again, Nella feels their comfortable closeness, and it makes her wretched. She grips the letter in her pocket, trying to gain strength from her subversion of Johannes and Marin’s attempt to tame their new arrival. Oh, I will decorate my house, Marin, Nella thinks – with all the things that you detest.
‘Does it hurt, Madame?’ Cornelia asks, carrot peelings now suspended in her hands like muddy orange streamers.
Nella pulls her shawl around her. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Were you spying?’
Otto glances at Cornelia, but the maid laughs. ‘She’s like a crab coming out of her shell for a nip, Madame! We ignore it and so should you.’ Cornelia lays the peelings down. ‘You took your bird,’ she says, looking almost impressed. ‘I’ll tell you a thing. Madame Marin only wears black, but underneath’s a different story.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Cornelia,’ Otto says, a warning in his voice.
‘The lining,’ Cornelia carries on, seemingly determined to offer Nella this crumb. ‘Sable fur and velvet, under every dress. My mistress – who quotes us Ezekiel – “I will put an end to the pride of the mighty” – walks around in secret furs.’
‘Really?’ Nella laughs, overwhelmed by Cornelia’s offering. Encouraged, she yanks down her shawl to show her wound.
Cornelia whistles. ‘That’s going to be pretty,’ she says, glancing at Otto. ‘But it’ll fade. Like everything else.’
Nella, who had hoped for a more motherly reaction, now feels foolish. ‘Were you up late again last night?’ she asks, concealing her bruise.
‘Why, Madame?’ Cornelia chucks the carrot skins in the fire and picks up her mop.
Nella can feel the friendly atmosphere ebbing away with every question she asks.
‘I’m sure I heard voices.’
Cornelia stares into the bucket of dirty water.
‘We’re too tired to hear voices,’ Otto says.
Dhana trots out of the gloom, nuzzling Nella’s hand. She rolls on her back and offers her belly, a small black marking on the fur. Cornelia considers this display of affection. ‘She doesn’t do that to anyone,’ she says, a sliver of admiration in her voice. Nella turns and makes her way up the stairs. ‘Here, Madame,’ Cornelia calls. Her palm is outstretched. A hot roll, buttered; Nella takes it. Peace offerings in this house come in rather strange shapes.
‘Where are you going, Madame?’ Otto asks.
‘Out. That’s allowed, isn’t it? I’m going to the Kalverstraat.’
At this, Cornelia shoves her mop into the bucket. The water slaps against the side, it
‘Do you know where that is, Madame?’ asks Otto, gently.
Nella feels drops of butter running down her wrist. ‘I’ll find it,’ she says. ‘I have a good sense of direction.’
Otto and Cornelia exchange another, longer glance; Nella catches the almost imperceptible shake of Otto’s head.
‘I’ll come with you, Madame,’ says Cornelia. ‘I need some air.’
‘You’ll want a coat,’ says Otto. ‘It’s very cold.’
But Cornelia grabs her shawl and ushers Nella out.
On the Kalverstraat
‘Sweet Jesu,’ mutters Cornelia. ‘Otto was right. This winter is going to be awful. Why do you want to go to the Kalverstraat?’
‘To leave a message for somebody,’ Nella replies, piqued at the ease with which Cornelia interrogates.
‘No one. A craftsman.’
‘I see.’ Cornelia shivers. ‘We’ll need to get our meat in soon, stretch it out till March at least. It’s odd he hasn’t sent us a cut.’
‘Who hasn’t sent us a cut?’
‘Never mind,’ Cornelia says, looking towards the canal and linking her arm through Nella’s. ‘Somebody.’ The young women huddle close, walking swiftly up the Herengracht towards the centre of the city. The cold is not quite unbearable yet – but its force is coming, Nella can tell. Feeling Cornelia’s arm through hers, she reflects on the oddness of their touching limbs. In Assendelft, maids and manservants were never so friendly with their actions. Most of them were actively unwilling.
‘Why didn’t Otto come?’ Nella asks. When Cornelia says nothing, she persists. ‘I saw him, he refused.’
‘He stays where it’s easiest,’ Cornelia replies.
‘Easiest?’ Nella laughs.
The maid scowls and Nella hopes she that she isn’t going to be given another never mind. But no; when it comes to Otto, Cornelia is expansive.
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes