The miniaturist, p.6
The Miniaturist, p.6Jessie Burton
‘Toot calls his luck a double-edged sword,’ she says. ‘He’s here – and yet he isn’t.’
‘I don’t know what you mean.’
‘He was put on a Portuguese slave-ship, Madame – bound from Porto-Novo in Dahomey to Surinam. His parents were dead. The Seigneur was visiting the West India Company at the time, selling them copper for their cane refineries.’
‘The Seigneur saw the state of Toot and brought him back to Amsterdam.’
‘Johannes bought him.’
Cornelia bites her lip. ‘Guilders sometimes work quicker than a prayer.’
‘Don’t let Marin hear you say that.’
Cornelia ignores this comment; it appears the window for gossip about Marin and her pincers has been closed. ‘Otto was sixteen when he arrived,’ she says, ‘and I was twelve, as new to the house as him.’
Nella tries to picture them both arriving on the doorstep as she had. Was Marin lurking in the shadows of the hallway even then? What world had Otto left behind? She longs to ask him, but wonders if he’d want to tell. Nella has heard of a palm tree, but she cannot imagine the heat of Porto-Novo, the world of Surinam. All of it – exchanged for brick walls and canals, and a language he didn’t speak.
‘He’s quite the Dutch gentleman,’ Cornelia says, ‘but people think differently.’ Nella detects a new edge in her voice. ‘When he arrived he didn’t speak for a month. Just listening, always listening. That coffee-bean skin. I see you looking,’ she adds, a little sly.
‘I don’t,’ Nella protests.
‘Everyone does. Most people have never seen a man like him. When they still visited, the ladies rested their songbirds in his hair as if it was a nest. He hated it.’ Cornelia pauses. ‘No wonder Madame Marin can’t stand your parakeet.’
They walk on, the canal paths strangely muted, the slow brown water between them forming a thin veneer of ice around the edges. Nella tries to grasp at this image of the young black man, his head filled with birdsong, the women’s fingers pawing at his hair. She feels ashamed that her fascination with him is so obvious. Johannes treats him just like any other man, and Otto is just that – but his voice, his face – no one back in Assendelft would believe it. ‘Why don’t the ladies come any more?’ she asks.
But there is no answer to this, for Cornelia has stopped outside a confectioner’s shop, the sign of two sugar loaves and the name Arnoud Maakvrede above the door. ‘Madame,’ Cornelia urges. ‘Let us stop in here.’ Though wishing to exert just one drop of authority, Nella smells the baking and cannot resist.
Within is a delicious heat. Through an arch at the back of the shop, Nella spies a rotund middle-aged man, red-faced and sweating from the stove. On seeing them, he rolls his eyes. ‘Hanna, your friend’s here,’ he shouts into the air.
A woman appears, slightly older than Cornelia, her cap neatly pressed, flour and sugar dusting on her dress. Her face lights up. ‘Cornflower!’ she exclaims.
‘Cornflower?’ says Nella.
Cornelia blushes. ‘Hello, Hanna.’
‘Where’ve you been?’ Hanna motions for them both to take a seat in the coolest corner of the shop floor. She puts up a sign saying Closed, a waft of cinnamon in her wake.
‘What by all the angels are you doing, woman?’ cries the man.
‘Oh, Arnoud. Five minutes,’ Hanna says. The couple stare at each other, and he returns to the stove to bang an angry rhythm with his trays. ‘Honeycomb this morning,’ Hanna murmurs. ‘And marzipan in the afternoon. He’s best avoided.’
‘But to avoid him now is to see much more of him later,’ says Cornelia, the concern etched on her face.
Hanna throws her a glance. ‘Well, you’re here now and I want to see you.’
Nella looks around at the shining wooden floors, the scrubbed counter, the pastries adorning the shop window, piled like irresistible presents. She wonders why Cornelia has brought her here instead of taking her straight to the Kalverstraat, but the smell of sweet cakes is so delicious. Who is Cornflower – this softer, sweeter person conjured by the wife of a confectioner? The verbal baptism is sudden and strange, unsettling Cornelia’s essence. She remembers something Cornelia said the first morning, about calling Otto Toot. He thinks nicknames are silly, but I like them.
The paper used to wrap the cakes looks expensive, and comes in a variety of colours: scarlet, indigo, grass-green, cloud-white. Cornelia looks meaningfully at Hanna, gives her a dip of the chin that the older woman seems to understand. ‘Please, Madame,’ Hanna says to Nella. ‘Do have a look around.’
Dutifully, Nella roams the shop, looking over the waffles, the spiced biscuits, the cinnamon and chocolate syrups, the orange and lemon cakes, the fruit rolls. As she watches Arnoud through the arch, bashing the cooled stubborn trays of honeycomb, she tries to listen to Hanna and Cornelia as they keep their voices low.
‘Frans and Agnes Meermans wanted only the Seigneur to distribute it,’ Cornelia says. ‘They know how far his business spreads abroad. And Madame Marin’s encouraging it. Even though she hates sugar, even though it belongs to them.’
‘It could make them all a lot of money.’
Cornelia sniffs. ‘It could. But I think there’s other reasons.’
Hanna ignores this, more interested in the business side of things. ‘But why not sell it here? With no guild to control these rapscallions, so much of this city’s sugar is cut at the cheap refineries with flour, chalk and God knows what. There are pastry chefs and bakers along the Nes and the Street of Buns who can do with better product.’
Arnoud curses loudly, finally dislodging the honeycomb.
‘Try something,’ Hanna calls brightly to Nella. She reaches over the counter and comes back with a little crinkled parcel. Nella, confused to see pity in the older woman’s eyes, unwraps the offering and discovers a fried ball of dough, covered with sugar and cinnamon.
‘Thank you,’ she says, returning her gaze to Arnoud firing up his oven, pretending her attention is solely on the fat confectioner.
‘Hanna, I think it’s happening again,’ Cornelia whispers.
‘You were never sure the first time.’
‘I know, but—’
‘You can do nothing, Cornflower. Head down, that’s what they taught us.’
‘Han, I wish—’
‘Shh, take this. It’s nearly the last of it.’
Nella turns in time to see a packet pass between the women, disappearing swiftly from Hanna’s fingers into Cornelia’s skirts.
‘I have to go,’ says Cornelia, standing up. ‘We must pay a visit to the Kalverstraat’ She weights the word, a shadow passing her face.
Hanna squeezes Cornelia’s hand. ‘Well, give the door a kick from me,’ she says. ‘My five minutes is up. I must go and help Arnoud. Anyone would think he was hammering armour the way he bangs those trays.’
Back outside, Cornelia hurries along. ‘Who is Hanna?’ Nella asks. ‘Why does she call you Cornflower? And why are we kicking a door?’
But Cornelia is morose and mute; the talk with Hanna has released an unexpected gloom.
The Kalverstraat is a long, busy street away from the canal, where many sellers ply their trade. They no longer sell calves and cows there, but the manure from horses lends it a meaty, pungent atmosphere amidst the print and dye shops, the haberdashers and apothecaries.
‘Cornelia, what’s wrong?’
‘Nothing, Madame,’ comes the eventual, sullen reply. But Nella has already spotted the sign of the sun. A small stone sun has indeed been engraved on a plaque, embedded in the brickwork. Painted freshly gold, it’s a heavenly body come to earth; bright stone rays shoot from a glowing orb. It is so high up in the wall that Nella cannot touch it. Beneath the sun, a motto has been engraved: Everything Man Sees He Takes For A Toy.
‘Thus is he always, forever a boy,’ Cornelia says wistfully. ‘I haven’t heard that saying for years.’ She looks up and down the street as though in search of somethin
There is no reply. Cornelia stamps her feet with cold. ‘Madame, there’s no one there.’
‘Just wait,’ Nella says, knocking again. There are four windows looking onto the street, and she thinks that perhaps there is a shadow at one of them, but she cannot be sure. ‘Hello?’ she shouts, but no answer comes.
There is nothing for it; she slips her letter and the promissory note as far under the door as possible. Only then does Nella realize that Cornelia is no longer with her. ‘Cornelia?’ she calls, scanning the Kalverstraat.
The maid’s name dies in Nella’s throat. Several feet away from the miniaturist’s door, a woman is watching her. No, not watching – staring. She stands still amidst the milling crowd, her eyes fixated on Nella’s face. Nella experiences the unprecedented sensation of being impaled – the woman’s scrutiny is like a beam of cold light dissecting her, filling her with an awareness of her own body. The woman does not smile, but she drinks Nella in, her brown eyes nearly orange in the weak midday light, her uncovered hair like pale gold thread.
A chill, a sharp clarity, enters Nella’s bones. She draws her shawl tight, and still the woman keeps staring. Everything seems brighter, thrown into relief – yet the sun is still behind cloud. Nella supposes it could be the old bricks, the damp stone accounting for the sudden lack of warmth. It could be, but those eyes – no one has ever looked at Nella like that before in her life – such a calm, transfixing curiosity.
A boy with a barrow trundles past, almost running Nella over. ‘You nearly broke my foot!’ she shouts after him.
‘Never did!’ the barrow-boy yells back.
When Nella looks back, the woman has gone. ‘Wait!’ she calls, making her way up the Kalverstraat, spying the back of a head the colour of shining wheat. But the sun comes out from behind the clouds, obscuring Nella’s vision. ‘What do you want?’ Sure she has seen the woman disappearing up a narrow passage, Nella begins to push harder through the crowd. Plunging down this dark alleyway, her heart leaps to see a figure up ahead – but it is Cornelia, alone at the end, pinch-faced, trembling at a large front door.
‘Where is she? What are you doing?’ Nella asks. ‘Did you see a woman with blonde hair?’
Cornelia aims a swift kick on the panel of the door. ‘Every year,’ she says. ‘Just to remember how lucky I am.’
Cornelia closes her eyes. ‘My old home.’
The noise of the shoppers on the Kalverstraat is now muffled by the tight walls of the passage. Nella steadies herself against the kicked door. A plaque depicting children dressed in city colours of black and red, grouped around a giant dove, has been placed above the architrave. Beneath it, the words span out a humourless rhyme:
We’re growing in numbers and our walls are groaning
Please give what you can to stop our masters moaning.
‘Cornelia, an orphanage?’
But the maid is already walking back up the passage, towards life and light and noise. Nella can only pursue her, still hollowed by the fair-haired woman’s gaze.
On returning to the Herengracht, Nella discovers that Marin has arranged for the cabinet to be put in her room. Too wide to fit through the bedroom door, it has been winched up the front of the house.
‘It couldn’t stay in the hall,’ Marin says, drawing open the mustard-coloured curtains to reveal the nine empty rooms. ‘It’s far too large. It was taking up the light.’
Aside from the intrusive presence of the cabinet, Nella’s room now also stinks of lily. That night, she discovers her perfume bottle from Assendelft, knocked on its side, the oil pooled to the floor in a viscous mess beneath her bed.
‘It was the delivery men,’ Marin says when Nella shows her the glass shards and asks for an explanation. Unconvinced, Nella throws some of the embroidered wedding cushions onto the stain. Glad not to be reminded of those taunting marriage emblems, she hopes their bulk will absorb the smell.
Lying back, listening to Peebo clicking in his cage, the air tinged with the ill-advised gift from her mother, Nella thinks about Otto and Cornelia. The slave boy, the orphan girl. How did Cornelia get from there to the Herengracht? Was she ‘rescued’ like Otto? Were you rescued too? Nella asks herself. So far, life here feels the opposite of escape.
In the dark of her room, she conjures the white-blonde head and unusual eyes of the woman on the Kalverstraat. It was as if she was skinning Nella, like one of those animals in Johannes’ paintings, and then dismantling her body bit by bit. And yet, simultaneously, Nella felt so concentrated. Why was the woman there, on the busiest street in the city, just standing, staring – had she nothing better to do? And why was she looking at me?
As Nella drifts to sleep, she imagines great silver dishes and Johannes spinning them, his face turned to his counterfeit ceiling, towards the depth that doesn’t exist. Ascending into this restless, spiral nightmare she is woken by a short, high cry that sounds like a dog in pain. Perhaps it’s Rezeki, she thinks, wide awake, her heart hammering.
The silence descends again, heavy as damask, and Nella turns to the empty cabinet. Monumental, almost watchful, as if it has always stood there, in the corner of her room.
Three days later, Cornelia is with Marin at the meat market. ‘Can I come?’ Nella had asked. ‘It’s quicker with two of us,’ came Marin’s swift reply. Johannes has gone to his VOC offices on the Old Hoogstraat, and Otto is in the back garden, planting bulbs and seeds for next year’s spring. The garden is his domain. He is often out there, making new hedge patterns, conversing with Johannes about the dampness of the soil.
As Nella crosses the hallway with some pilfered nuts for Peebo, a rapid set of knocks on the front door makes her jump. Pocketing the nuts, she draws back the bolts and pulls the heavy door.
A young man stands before her on the top step, a little older than herself. Nella’s breath catches in her throat. His long legs are wide apart as if he’s trying to take up all the space. Dark tousled hair crowns a pale face, and his cheeks are carved with symmetrical precision. His clothes are fashionable but messily arranged. Cuffs spill from the arms of his rich leather coat, and a pair of boots, even newer than the coat, cling to his calves as if they don’t want to let go. His shirt laces are loose, and a triangle of skin at the top reveals a few freckles. His body is a story in itself, starting sharp with an uncertain end. Nella holds on to the door frame, hoping that she is shining back at him, as he seems to know he’s shining at her.
‘Delivery,’ he says with a smile. Nella is surprised by his voice. The accent is unusual – unmusical, flat. He knows the Dutch word, but it’s clearly not his mother tongue.
Rezeki bounds up and starts barking at this boy, growling when he tries to pat her head. Nella looks at his empty hands. ‘You’re supposed to use the lower door for deliveries,’ she says.
He smiles again. ‘Of course,’ he says. ‘I always forget.’ Nella, unsettled by his beauty, wants to touch those cheekbones if only to push them away. Sensing a presence behind her, she turns. Johannes is upon them, ploughing forward and standing between Nella and the boy.
‘Johannes? I thought you were at work,’ she exclaims. ‘Why are you—’
‘What are you doing here?’Johannes asks the boy, his voice constricted, almost whispering. He ignores Nella’s puzzled expression and pushes a snarling Rezeki back into the house.
Although the young man puts his hand nonchalantly under his jacket, he has straightened up a little, drawing his legs together. ‘Just come with a package,’ he says.
‘For Nella Oortman.’
The boy weighs out the word of Nella’s maiden name with care, meeting Johannes with a level look, and Nella feels her husband tense. The young man holds a parcel aloft, and she can see it has been inked with the sign of a sun. Has the miniaturist already
‘Your master works quickly,’ she observes, wishing to scrape back some modicum of poise. This was my delivery, she thinks, not my husband’s.
‘What master is she referring to?’ demands Johannes.
The young man laughs, handing her the parcel, and Nella holds it close to her body. ‘I’m Jack Philips. From Bermondsey,’ he says, taking Nella’s hand. His kiss is dry and soft, and leaves a shiver of sensation.
‘Ber-mond-sey? she echoes. Nella has no image she can fix to this unusual word – no meaning in fact, for this unusual boy.
‘Just outside the City of London. I sometimes work for the VOC,’ Jack says. ‘Sometimes for myself. I was an actor back home.’
From the hallway, Rezeki barks and her noises echo in the cloudy sky. ‘Who paid you to do this?’ asks Johannes.
‘People all over the city pay me to deliver, Seigneur.’
‘Who paid you this time?’
Jack takes a step away. ‘Your wife, Seigneur,’ he says. ‘Your wife.’ He bows to Nella, sauntering down the steps and away.
‘Come, Nella,’ Johannes says. ‘Let us close the door on prying eyes.’
Back inside, they find Otto waiting at the top of the kitchen stairs, a rake in his hand, the sharp prongs glinting in the light. ‘Who was it, Seigneur?’ he asks.
‘No one,’ Johannes says, and Otto nods.
Johannes turns to Nella, and she shrinks from his size, seeming larger to her now in the confines of the hall. ‘What is in the parcel, Nella?’
‘Something for the cabinet you bought,’ she says, wondering what he’d say if he saw the lute, the marzipan, the cup to celebrate betrothal.
Nella waits for more curiosity, but none is forthcoming – in fact, Johannes seems nothing but agitated. ‘Shall I open it upstairs? You could come and see,’ she offers, hoping he will join her. ‘You could see how your wedding gift might grow.’
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes