The miniaturist, p.7
The Miniaturist, p.7Jessie Burton
‘I must work, Nella. I’ll let you to your privacy,’ he replies with an anxious smile, waving a hand towards his study.
I don’t want my privacy, she shouts in silence. I’d throw it away in an instant if you would pay me some attention.
But Johannes has already gone – Rezeki, as ever, trotting behind.
Still unsettled by the vision of Jack Philips from Bermondsey, Nella climbs onto her giant bed and sits with the parcel. Bulky, the width of a dinner plate, it has been wrapped in smooth paper and string. A sentence has been written round the sun in black capitals:
EVERY WOMAN IS THE ARCHITECT OF HER OWN FORTUNE
Nella reads it twice, puzzled, a feather-thrum of excitement in her belly. Women don’t build anything, let alone their own fates, she thinks. All our fates are in the hands of God – and women’s in particular, after their husbands have passed them through their fingers and childbirth has put them through the wringer.
She pulls out the first object and weighs a tiny silver box in her palm. On the top, an N and an O have been carved, with encircling flowers and vines. She carefully prises open the lid, the miniature hinges well-oiled, silent. Inside lies a neat block of marzipan about the length of a coffee bean, and her taste buds come alive at the prospect of the sweet almond sugar. She probes with a fingernail and puts it on the tip of her tongue. The marzipan is real, even scented with rosewater.
Nella removes a second object. Here is a lute, no longer than her forefinger – with real, tuned strings, its wooden body swelling to hold the sound of notes. Never has she seen things like this – the craftsmanship, the care, the beauty of these objects. She plucks tentatively, astonished as a quiet chord sings out. Remembering the skeleton of the tune she played Johannes in Assendelft, Nella now plays it again, alone.
The next dive in reveals the requested betrothal cup. Made of pewter, a man and a woman with their hands entwined around the rim, its diameter is no wider than a grain. All newly married couples drink from these cups in their republic, just as she and Johannes should have done, back in September. Nella imagines them both taking a sip of the Rhenish wine, standing in her father’s old orchard, rice and petals showered on their heads. This little cup is a memento of something that never actually occurred. What she had intended as a rebellion against Marin now makes Nella feel strange and pathetically sad.
She picks up the wrappings in order to discard them, then realizes there are more things inside. This cannot be correct, she thinks, her gloom warping into curiosity. Everything I asked for is already on the bed.
She tips the packet up, and three wrapped items fall onto the coverlet. Nella fumbles with the material encasing the first, and discovers two exquisite wooden chairs. Lions the size of ladybirds have been carved on their arm-rests, the backs are covered with green velvet, studded with copper nails. On each of the arms, sea monsters writhe in acanthus leaves. Nella realizes she’s seen these chairs before. Last week in the salon downstairs, Marin was sitting on one of them.
Beginning to feel uneasy, she unwraps the next item. Something small but bulky waits in the folds of cloth, and she wrenches it free. It is a cradle, made of oak, with intricate floral inlays, tin runners and a fringe of lace at the hood. A quiet miracle of wood, its tiny presence nevertheless makes Nella’s throat constrict. She places it in the middle of her palm, where it rocks in a perfect motion, almost of its own accord.
This has to be a mistake, she thinks – these pieces are intended for someone else. Chairs, a cradle – perhaps the usual things a woman might ask for a replica of her house – but I didn’t. I definitely didn’t. She rips apart the wrapping on the third package, and beneath another layer of blue material is a pair of miniature dogs. Two whippet bodies no larger than moths, covered in silky grey fur, with skulls the size of peas. Between them, there is a bone for them to chew, a shank of clove painted yellow – the smell is unmistakeable. Nella picks up the animals and peers closer, her blood charging round her body. These dogs are not any dogs. They are Rezeki and Dhana.
Nella drops them quickly as if they have stung her, and jumps off the bed. In the dark and unlit corner of the room, the cabinet waits for its new deliveries. Its curtains are still pulled open, like unseemly lifted skirts. She allows herself a brief glance down to the whippets’ scattered bodies. The same curve and colour of their flanks, their wonderful streamlined ears. ‘Come on, Nella Elisabeth,’ she says to herself. ‘Who says they’re the same whippets curled up by Cornelia’s stove?’
She holds both miniature dogs up to the light. Their bodies are slightly spongy, their joints articulated, covered in grey mouse-skin and soft as an earlobe. When Nella turns them over, her blood slows to an uncomfortable thump. On one of the dog’s bellies is a small black spot, in exactly the same place as Dhana’s.
Nella stares around the room. Is someone here? She tries hard to be reasonable. Of course not, Nella, she thinks – you’ve never felt more alone. Who might want to trick her? Cornelia wouldn’t have the money to play such games, nor time to think of them. Nor would Otto – and surely he would not willingly write to a stranger?
Nella feels a sense of invasion, as if she is being closely observed in her bridal foolishness. It’s Marin, she thinks. Marin is taking revenge for Johannes’ marriage and me getting in her way. She spills my lily perfume, she forbids me marzipan, she pinches me hard on the arm. She was the one who gave me Smit’s List. Why wouldn’t Marin pay the miniaturist to frighten me? For her, it’s just another idle amusement.
And yet. Idle and amusement are not words one might associate with Marin Brandt, and even as she thinks of her sister-in-law, Nella knows it doesn’t make sense. Marin eats like a mouse and shops like a nun, except for her books and her specimens probably purloined from Johannes’ travels. This can’t be Marin’s doing, because it involves spending money. But as Nella looks over the unasked-for pieces again, part of her actually hopes it’s her sister-in-law. Because if it’s not Marin, she wonders – what other sort of strangeness have I invited in?
Someone has peered into Nella’s life and thrown her off centre. If these items aren’t sent in error, then the cradle is a mock to her unvisited marriage bed and what’s beginning to feel as though it’s an eternal virginity. What sort of person would dare such impertinence? The dogs, so particular; the chairs, so exact – the cradle, so suggestive – it’s like the miniaturist has a perfect, private view.
Climbing back onto her bed, Nella registers the disturbance these pieces have created, how her curiosity churns with a cusping terror. This will not do, she thinks. I will not be bullied from afar as well as near.
As she listens to the constant tock of the gold pendulum, surrounded by these inexplicable deliveries, she writes a second note to the miniaturist.
I thank you for the items I requested, delivered today by Jack Philips of Bermondsey. Your craftsmanship is exceptional. You work miracles with your fingertips. The marzipan is particularly good.
Nella’s pen hovers, but before she can change her mind, the nib meets the paper in a fever of words.
However, you expanded the delivery in a way I did not foresee. The whippets, whilst accurate, might suggest a lucky guess, Seigneur, for many people in the city own such dogs. Yet I am not many people – and these dogs, the cradle and chairs, are not mine. As wife of a high-ranking VOC merchant, I shall not be intimidated by an artisan. Thank you for your work and time, but I will curtail our transactions forthwith.
Yours in good faith,
She hides the pieces under her coverlet and calls for Cornelia, placing the newly drafted, sealed note in the maid’s hands before she can change her mind. She will admit that the possibility is quite real. Perhaps I have rejected something here, she thinks – a challenge, a hidden purpose to these surprise pieces, never to be discovered. Will I have a sliver of regret? No, Nella corrects herself. That’s just your imagination.
Cornelia reads the addre
‘Don’t open it,’ Nella orders and the maid nods, for once muted by the urgency in her younger mistress’s voice.
It is only after Cornelia has gone to the Kalverstraat that Nella realizes she has not returned the miniaturist’s unasked-for pieces. One by one, she pulls them from under the coverlet and places them in the cabinet. They look perfectly at home.
The next day, Cornelia seems reinvigorated. ‘Come, Madame,’ says the maid, bounding in, Marin on her heels. ‘Let me tidy those wisps of hair. Tuck them under, hide them away!’
‘What are you talking about, Cornelia?’
‘Johannes is taking you to a feast at the Guild of Silversmiths tonight,’ Marin says.
‘Was it his idea?’
Marin looks over at the cabinet, its curtains now shut from prying eyes. ‘He loves a feast,’ she replies. ‘He thought it appropriate you should attend.’
Now the adventure is surely to begin, Nella thinks – my husband is launching his little raft into the storm-tossed seas of Amsterdam’s finest society – and he, the best of sailors, will be there as my guide. Putting the miniature whippets and the cradle out of her mind, Nella leans under her bed, takes a smear of lily oil on her fingers, and in full view of Marin, rubs it on her neck.
After Marin has left, Nella asks Cornelia what happened at the Kalverstraat. ‘No one answered again,’ the maid says. ‘So I slipped it underneath the door.’
‘At the sign of the sun? You saw no one?’
‘Not a soul, Madame. But Hanna sends her greetings.’
‘Marin, why aren’t you coming?’ Johannes asks that evening, waiting for their barge. He is wearing an exquisite suit of black velvet, a starched white shirt and collar and a pair of calfskin boots polished to mirrors by Otto, who waits with a clothes-brush in one hand.
‘All things considered, I think you should be seen with your wife,’ Marin replies, fixing him with a stare.
‘What do you mean, “all things considered”?’ Nella asks.
‘Talk to people, Johannes,’ Marin says. ‘Show her off—’
‘I’ll introduce you, Nella,’ Johannes interrupts, frowning at his sister. ‘I think that’s what Marin means.’
‘And speak with Frans Meermans, brother. He’ll be there tonight,’ Marin persists, her expression grim. ‘Invite them both to dine.’
To Nella’s surprise, Johannes nods. Why does he let his sister talk to him like this?
‘Johannes, do you promise—’
‘Marin.’ Johannes finally snaps at the sound of her voice. ‘When have I ever got my business wrong?’
‘You haven’t,’ she sighs. ‘At least, not yet.’
Nella’s mouth feels dry but her stomach is a creel of fish. The boat journey to the Guild of Silversmiths is the first time she and her husband have been alone outside the house. She thinks the silence will drown her, but the voice inside her head is so loud she’s convinced Johannes can hear it too. She wants to ask him about Marin’s room of maps, Otto and his slave-ship – she wants to tell him about the tiny whippets, the cradle, the beautiful miniature lute. She won’t tell him about the woman on the Kalverstraat, staring at her – that feels like something she wants to keep to herself – but at any rate, her mouth won’t move.
Johannes begins cleaning his nails absentmindedly. The discarded crescents of dirt float to the floor of the boat, and he catches her looking.
‘Cardamom,’ he says. ‘It gets caught under the nail. As does salt.’
Nella inhales the air in the boat, the hint of the places he’s been, the scent of cinnamon stuck in his very pores. He smells vaguely of that musky tang she smelled in his study the night he first came home. Her husband’s brown face and his too-long hair, bleached and toughened by sun and wind, trigger an awkward longing – the desire not necessarily for him, but to know how it will feel when they finally lie together. The gift of the cabinet, and now this trip together to the Guild – perhaps it will happen tonight after the feast? Both of them, wine-flushed – they will get it done.
The water is so smooth and the boatman so expert that it feels as if the houses are moving and not the barge. Nella, more used to riding on a horse, is unsettled by the sedate pace, supposedly tranquil when she feels anything but. She tries to press away her agitation between the palms of her hands. How do I begin to love you? – the question, enormous, impossible to ignore, goes round and round in her head as she stares at him.
She tries to focus on how the silversmiths’ hall will look, a room full of watery light, plates like giant coins, the diners reflected on every surface.
‘What do you know of the guilds?’ Johannes asks, breaking her thoughts.
‘Nothing,’ she replies.
Johannes absorbs her ignorance with a nod, and Nella watches it sink into him, wishing she could sound more clever. ‘The silversmiths’ guild has a lot of money,’ he says. ‘One of the richest. Guilds offer protection in hard times, apprenticeships and a means to sell, but they also determine their workload and control the market. It’s why Marin’s so keen on selling the sugar.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, like chocolate and tobacco – and diamonds, silk and books, the market is open. There’s no guild for them. I can name my price – or Frans and Agnes Meermans can.’
‘So why are we going to the silversmiths’ guild?’
He grins. ‘Free meal. No, I jest. They want me to increase my patronage, and it’s good to be seen doing just that. I’m the crack in the wall that leads to the magic garden.’
Nella wonders how magic his garden is, how much he can truly afford to stretch his purse strings open. Marin seemed so uneasy about his expenditure on the cabinet house, and what was it Otto said? Things will spill over. Don’t be silly, she thinks. You live on the Herengracht now.
‘Marin seems very keen for you to sell Frans Meermans’ sugar,’ she dares, immediately regretting her decision. There is a long pause, so long, that she believes she would rather die than endure it any longer.
‘It’s Agnes Meermans’ plantation,’ Johannes says eventually. ‘But Frans has taken over the managing of it. Agnes’ father died last year with no sons – though not for want of going at it till his final breath.’ He stops himself on seeing Nella’s blushes. ‘My apologies. I did not mean to be coarse. Her father was an awful man – and yet Agnes inherited his acres of cane fields – a woman’s name on the papers, despite all her father’s best efforts. And now she’s handed them to Frans. Overnight these cones of sugar have made them both quite venal. It’s what they’ve been waiting for.’
‘What have they been waiting for?’
He grimaces. ‘A good opportunity. I’m storing the cones in my warehouse, and have agreed to sell them. My sister constantly doubts I will.’
‘Because Marin sits indoors and has ideas, but does not understand the nuances involved in actual trade. I’ve been doing this for twenty years – for too long,’ he sighs. ‘One must tread carefully, and yet she crashes like an elephant.’
‘I see,’ Nella says, though she has no idea what an elephant is. It sounds like an elegant flower, but Johannes didn’t seem to be paying his sister a compliment. ‘Johannes, is Marin – friends with Agnes Meermans?’
Johannes laughs. ‘They have known each other a long time, and sometimes it’s hard to love a person you know too well. There’s your answer. Don’t look shocked.’
The observation lodges in Nella like a shard of ice. ‘Do you really think that, Johannes?’
‘When you have truly come to know a person, Nella – when you see beneath the sweeter gestures, the smiles – when you see the rage and the pitiful fear which each of us hide – then forgiveness is everything. We are all in desperate need of it. And Marin is – not so forgiving.’ He pauses. ‘There are – ladders in this society. . . and Agnes loves to climb them.
‘Do wives often attend these feasts?’
He smiles. ‘Women are usually proibidas, except for special occasions. Though there is a freedom among Amsterdam ladies that the French and English lack.’
‘Ladies can walk alone on the street. Couples can even hold each other’s hands.’ He pauses again, looking through the window. ‘It is not a prison, this city, if you plot your path correctly. The foreigners may tut, with their well-I-nevers and alors, but I’m sure they’re envious.’
‘Of course,’ Nella replies, again not understanding his alien words, not seeing at all. Proibidas. Over her short stay in the house Johannes has often spoken in other languages, and it mesmerizes her when he does it. He doesn’t seem to be showing off – it’s more a reaching for something his own tongue can never achieve. Nella realizes that no man – no person, in fact – has ever talked to her the way he has tonight. Despite the mysterious allusions, Johannes treats her like an equal; he expects her to understand.
‘Come here, Nella,’ he says.
Obediently, with a little fear she moves towards him and he tips her chin gently to lengthen her neck. She stares back at him and they size each other up like slave and master at a market. Taking her face in his hands, he brushes the contour of her young cheek. She leans forward. The tips of his fingers are roughened, but this is what Nella has waited for. Her head thrums at the feel of his touch. She closes her eyes, remembering her mother’s words – the girl wants love. She wants the peaches and the cream.
‘Do you like silver?’Johannes asks.
‘Yes,’ Nella breathes. She will not babble this moment away.
‘There’s nothing more beautiful in the world than silver,’ Johannes says. His hands drop from her face, her eyes snap open and she feels a swoop of embarrassment at her craned position. ‘I’ll have a necklace made for that throat.’
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes