The miniaturist, p.8
The Miniaturist, p.8Jessie Burton
His voice sounds far away from the roar of her thoughts. Nella pulls back, rubbing her gullet as if bringing it back to life. ‘Thank you,’ she hears herself say.
‘You’re a wife now. We’re supposed to dress you up.’
Johannes smiles, but the sentence is brutal to Nella, and a stone of fear hardens in her gut. She finds she has nothing to say.
‘I will not hurt you, Petronella.’
Nella looks through the window towards the unending flow of house-fronts passing by. Closing her legs together tight, she imagines the moment of penetration – is there something in her that will rip, will it feel as painful as she fears? Whatever the sensation, she knows she cannot avoid it, that it must be overcome.
‘I am quite serious,’ Johannes says. ‘Quite serious.’ Now it is his turn to lean towards her. The smell of trapped salt and cardamom, his strange maleness, threatens to overpower her. ‘Nella, Nella, are you listening?’
‘Yes. I am, Johannes. I – you will not hurt me.’
‘Good. You have nothing to fear from me.’
As Johannes says this, he withdraws, staring at the canalside houses. Nella thinks of the picture in Marin’s travel book, the native and the conqueror, acres of misunderstanding between their bodies. Night has fallen fully. She looks at the lights of the smaller boats, and feels completely alone.
The Guild of Silversmiths’ feast chamber is large and full of people, whose faces blend into a blur of eyes and mouths and feathers bouncing off the brims of hats. Around them, the sound of silverware on silverware builds, male laughter hitting the walls to a subtler counterpoint of women’s titters. There is an almost monstrous presence of food. Long tables draped in white damask have been lined up, piled with plates of chickens, turkeys, candied fruit, five-meat pies and twisted silver candelabra. Johannes links his arm tight through Nella’s and they skirt the dizzying array, keeping close to the dark mahogany panelling. It seems that whispers and snickering run the room in their wake.
The other wives glide to their places, seeming to know where to sit. They are all in black, the skin above their bosoms covered with lace jabots, a sliver of white flesh on show. One woman in particular darts her eyes, glittering like jet in the candlelight, focusing their intent on Nella. Her stare couldn’t be more different than that of the woman on the Kalverstraat. ‘Smile, and sit with me,’ Johannes says, proffering the woman a hard-boiled grin. ‘Let us put something in our stomachs before facing the masses.’ Nella thinks she might be eaten alive were it not for the food.
They take their seats at a table where a first course of crab has been laid.
‘I find much of myself in food,’ observes Johannes, holding his crabbing fork aloft. Nella, staring at the shining silver chargers and the doughty jugs of wine, wonders what he means. In the presence of these other people, his problems with Marin are forgotten. Johannes is genial, aware of the gazes of the gathered company, chatting to his junior bride as if they’ve spent two decades together weathering the seven seas.
‘Cumin seeds, studding a new cheese, remind me that I am capable of delight,’ Johannes says loudly. ‘Delft butter – so fine and creamy, so different from the others, gives me enormous satisfaction. I sell China-ware plates in Delft and pick it up in pats. And Cornelia’s marjoram and plum beer makes me happier than a successful deal. She must make you some.’
‘My mother makes it,’ Nella replies, the chomping, clattering noises of the feast beginning to daunt her. She feels drained by the chamber’s energy, as crystallized as the chunks of sugar-dusted fruit.
‘Figs and sour cream for an early breakfast in summer,’ Johannes goes on, oblivious. ‘A particular joy, taking me back to childhood, only the taste of which I now remember.’ He looks at her. ‘You remember yours, no doubt, for it was not so long ago.’
Nella wonders if this sharp point is deliberate, or a symptom of his nerves, being out here in company, under its scrutiny. At any rate, she wants to disagree. Right now, her childhood feels incredibly distant. It has been replaced with uncertainty, a low level of constant dismay. The stone of fear splits into a sick anxiety in her stomach; she hates the room’s cacophony, the timbre of this conversation, the invasion of the unfamiliar.
‘I left my cradle long ago,’ she murmurs, thinking of the miniaturist’s unwanted nursery offering and feeling even more at sea.
‘Memory through food,’ Johannes says. ‘Food is a language in itself. Parsnips, turnips, leeks and endives – and yet I crunch when no one else can hear. And fish! Flounder, sole, dab and cod are my favourites, but I’ll eat anything else offered up by the seas and rivers running round my republic.’
Nella senses there is something protective in the way he is talking, as if he hopes his words will keep her mind from straying to worry. ‘What do you eat when you’re on the oceans?’ she asks, summoning the courage to play along.
He puts his fork down. ‘Other men.’
Nella offers a laugh, a shy burst that falls between them and lands on the tablecloth. Johannes pops another piece of crab into his mouth. ‘Cannibalism is the only way to survive once the food runs out,’ he says, ‘but I’d rather have potatoes. My favourite tavern in this city is on the Eastern Islands, by my warehouse. Their hot potatoes have the fluffiest flesh.’ He prods the crab on his plate. ‘It is my secret place.’
‘But you’ve just told it to me.’
He lays his fork down. ‘So I have,’ he says. ‘So I have.’ He seems caught by her observation, and looks away towards his crab. With nothing to say, Nella also examines the splayed and perishable flesh, its pincers the colour of ink, its shell turning angrier shades of red. Ripping off a leg and using his fork to scoop out the last of the fibrous whiteness, Johannes calls a greeting to one of the silversmiths. Nella manages a small mouthful of her own crab. It tastes salty, and it sticks in her teeth.
Johannes leaves her after his crab is fully scooped. ‘I won’t be long,’ he says with a sigh. ‘Business.’ He makes it sound a chore, installing himself in a corner with a group of men.
Nella feels wholly exposed without him, but watches with fascination as her husband appears to transform. If Johannes is tired of talking about work, commissions, the state of trade, he manages to hide it. How handsome he is compared to the others, despite their own fine coats and leather boots. Laughter rises above their hats, heads are thrown back – and amongst the tipped-up moony faces and russet cheeks, the beards flecked with tiny bits of crab, Johannes is in the centre, tanned and smiling.
I could love him, Nella thinks. It should be easy to be the wife of a man like that. And love has to come, otherwise I cannot live. Perhaps it will grow slowly, like one of Otto’s winter seeds.
Apprentices begin to approach Johannes, showing him what they have made, and he holds each piece up, handling the silver ewers and vases with delicate respect. A compliment from him sends the young men away delighted. The other merchants step back, watching Johannes with shrewd eyes as he opens the floor to artistic debate, the merits of seascape engravings over floral. He appears knowledgeable, observant, unusual to his core. He takes down names, pockets a silver box, tells an apprentice to see him at the VOC.
Nella is looking at her second course, a bowl of scallops drizzled in mutton broth and onion sauce, when the woman with the darting eyes moves forward. She is straight-backed, her fair hair twisted into an elaborate coif crowned by a black velvet band, seed pearls sewn along its curve. Silently, Nella thanks God for His small miracles, for Cornelia’s deft sewing that has made her dress fit.
The woman stops at the table, curtseying low. ‘Well, they said that you were young. Has he abandoned you?’
Nella grips the side of her bowl. ‘I’m eighteen.’
The woman stands up straight, her eyes scanning the room. ‘We wondered what you would look like,’ she carries on in the same quiet voice. ‘But now I see Brandt keeps the same standard of wife as he does everything else. The Oortman n
Nella attempts to extricate herself from the bench, but the table top and her large skirt conspire to wedge her in. The woman waits patiently for a curtsey, eyeing Nella’s struggle. Finally free from the narrow gap between trestle and bench, Nella bends low, her face close to the woman’s black brocade skirt, spanning out before her like the wings of a smothering crow.
‘Oh up, child,’ says the woman. Too late, Madame, thinks Nella. ‘I’m Agnes, wife to Frans Meermans. We live at the sign of the fox on the Prinsengracht. Frans adores hunting, so he picked it himself.’
This offered intimacy holds awkwardly in the air, and Nella merely smiles, having learned already from Marin that silence is a marginal advantage.
Agnes pats her coif and Nella sees what she’s supposed to – the rings adorning every one of her fingers – small rubies, amethysts and the mineral green flash of emerald. It is rather un-Dutch, all those precious stones for everyone to see – most women wear any jewel buried deep under the folds of their clothes. Nella tries to imagine Marin’s hands glittering this way.
In the face of Nella’s silence, Agnes gives a tight smile and continues. ‘We are practically neighbours, part of the same gebuurte.’
Agnes Meermans has a strangely laboured way of speaking, her words unspontaneous, as if she has been practising her gracefulness in front of a mirror. Nella stares at the collapsed halo of seed pearls circling the woman’s haughty head. The pearls are the same size as milk teeth, glinting in the candelabras’ dancing light.
Agnes is perhaps a little older than Marin, but her slim, plain face is unworked – no moles or sun patches, no dark half-moons beneath her eyes, no sign of toil or children. She seems ethereal, un-lived in – except for those dark eyes, which blink in quick succession and then half-close in feline laziness. Agnes takes in Nella’s silver dress, her narrow waist. ‘Where are you from?’ she asks.
‘Assendelft. My name is Petronella.’
‘A popular name, shared by many in this city. Did you like Assendelft?’
Agnes’ teeth, Nella notices, are slightly stained. She considers the best answer to give this woman, who seems to be testing her. ‘I have been from it for eleven days, Madame, and it could have been a decade.’
Agnes laughs. ‘Time is such a stubborn candle in the young. And how did Marin find you?’
Again Agnes laughs, cutting Nella off – a light expulsion of air, an aspirated disdain. This is not a conversation, it is Agnes sending out darts and watching them pierce. There seems to be a permanent lilt of amusement in her voice, but Nella is sure there is something else working away beneath this propped-up confidence, something she senses but cannot name. She looks straight at Agnes and smiles, defending her distress with whiter, younger teeth.
Around them the smells of cooked chicken, the stewed fruit and the sloshing sounds of wine jugs threaten to encroach upon their little circle, but Nella’s magnetic attraction to Agnes repels all else.
‘A bride for Johannes Brandt,’ says Agnes with a sigh, drawing Nella down gently but insistently by the arm to sit with her on the bench. ‘It’s been such a long time. Marin must be so pleased; she always said he must have children. But Brandt was so infuriating about heirs.’
‘No sure bet, he said. “Ugly from a beauty’s legs, rude under decent care, and stupid despite their clever parents.” Funny to a point, of course – Brandt always is. But one does have to pass it all on.’
It seems so disrespectful, so irreverent of Agnes to use only Johannes’ last name, to talk of him so freely. Nella feels affronted, mute, unable to imagine in what circumstance Johannes would ever talk about heirs to this peculiar woman.
Agnes lifts a jug and pours them two glasses of wine. For a few moments they sit in silence, surveying the steady inebriation, the splash of port on damask cloth, the glint of clearing platters, the last of the food ladled in. ‘The Golden Bend,’ says Agnes, her eyes sorting through Nella as if she was a pack of cards. ‘Coming from Assendelft, it must seem as far away as Batavia.’ She tucks an imaginary hair behind one ear, her ringed fingers glinting once again.
‘But a love match like my own – so rare! Frans spoils me,’ she whispers conspiratorially. ‘Much like Brandt will spoil you.’
‘I hope so,’ Nella replies, feeling ridiculous.
‘My Frans is a good man,’ Agnes says.
The uninvited observation hovers like a challenge, and Nella wonders at its odd defiance. Perhaps this is fashionable conversation – combative and unsettling, passing for casual talk.
‘And have you met the Negro?’ Agnes continues. ‘A marvel. There are hundreds on my Surinam estate, but I’ve not met a single one.’
Nella takes a sip of her wine. ‘You speak of Otto. Have you been to Surinam?’
Agnes laughs. ‘How sweet you are!’
‘So you haven’t?’
Agnes’ smile drops. She looks almost mournful. ‘The whole estate being given to us was a wonderful example of God’s beneficence, Madame. No brothers lurking, you see – just me. I could never risk my life on a three-month voyage, now God has charged me with Papa’s sugar loaves. How could I honour his memory if I was stuck somewhere on a ship?’
Nella’s wine goes up her nose. Agnes leans in closely. ‘I suppose the Negro is not perhaps a slave in the strictest sense,’ she says. ‘Brandt would not have us call him that. A couple of regentesses I know have one here in Amsterdam. I’d like one that plays music. The Receiver-General has three, and one of them’s a woman, and she can play the viol! Proof now you can buy anything under the sun, I suppose. What can it be like for him? We all wonder. Just like Brandt to bring him home—’
‘Agnes,’ says a voice, and Nella hastens to stand. ‘Please,’ the man before them says, gesturing to reassure her that curtseying in heavy taffeta is not required.
Agnes’ deft fingers twine in her lap. ‘My husband, Seigneur Meermans,’ she says. ‘And this is Petronella Oortman.’
‘Petronella Brandt,’ he says, looking round the room. ‘I know.’
For a moment, this scene – this man standing, the woman sitting by his side, dressed in their wealth, bound by invisible ties – is the most perfect image of a marriage Nella has ever seen. The unity of it is intimidating.
Frans Meermans is slightly younger than Johannes, and his large face has not been roughened by wind or sun; five scallops could be eaten off that clean, wide jaw. He is holding a hat, the brim of it wider than anyone else’s in the room. One guilder to you, Johannes, Nella thinks, wondering what other sorts of bets her husband wins.
Meermans is the sort of man who will soon get fat, she imagines. And he’s likely to, given the food they serve in these places. He smells a little of wet dog and wood smoke, wilder than the fruity pomade of his wife. He leans forward and picks up a shining spoon. ‘Are you a silversmith?’ he asks.
Agnes smiles tightly at the weak joke. ‘Will we speak with Brandt tonight?’ she says.
Instinctively, Meermans lifts his head and scans the room. Johannes has moved away from the group near Nella’s table and is nowhere to be seen. ‘We will,’ he says. ‘The sugar has been in his warehouse nearly two weeks.’
‘We – you – must agree upon the terms. Just because she will not have anything sweet, doesn’t mean that others won’t’ Agnes offers the air her unamused ha; pouring herself another glass of wine, her hand makes a tiny tremble.
Nella stands up. ‘I must find my husband.’
‘He’s coming now,’ says Agnes primly. Meermans grips the brim of his hat. Agnes offers a deep, slow reverence at Johannes’ approach. Meermans’ spine stiffens, he puffs his chest.
‘Madame Meermans,’ says Johannes. The two men do not gree
‘Seigneur,’ breathes Agnes, her dark eyes drinking in the expensive cut of his coat. It seems to Nella as if Agnes is doing her very best not to reach out and caress his velvet lapel. ‘I see you are working your usual magic this evening.’
‘Not magic, Madame. Just me.’
Agnes glances at her husband, who appears to be concentrating on the tablecloth. As if he can feel her eyes on his neck, Meermans speaks. ‘We wanted to discuss the sugar . . . ’ He trails off, and Nella sees the cloud on his half-hidden face.
‘When will it sell?’ Agnes asks, her question jabbing the air.
‘I have it in hand, Madame.’
‘Of course, Seigneur. I would never doubt—’
‘Van Riebeeck’s corruption at the Goede Hoop, these bloody little emperors at our far-flung outposts,’ Johannes says. ‘Batavian back-handers, black markets in the east – people are craving good product, and I’m telling them it’s coming from you, Madame. The West Indies will end up saving us all, I imagine – but I will not take your sugar to the bourse. The trading floor is a circus, the brokers like crazed harpies. This sugar requires careful, controlled release abroad—’
‘But not the English,’ Agnes interrupts. ‘I hate the English. The trouble they caused my father in Surinam.’
‘Never the English,’ Johannes assures her. ‘It’s well stored,’ he adds smoothly. ‘You can go and check it if you want.’
‘You are most unusual, Seigneur, in insisting you sell abroad,’ Meermans observes. ‘Most good Dutchmen would keep such treasure to themselves, and given the quality of it, it would fetch a handsome price.’
‘I find such amour-propre self-defeating,’ Johannes says. ‘It helps no one. We are seen abroad as untrustworthy. I have no desire to be such a thing. Why not spread your sugar’s reputation?’
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes