The miniaturist, p.9
The Miniaturist, p.9Jessie Burton
‘For better or worse, we have put our trust in you.’
‘I’m keeping a sugar loaf at home,’ Agnes interrupts, pouring balm on heated water. ‘It’s so – beautifully solid. Hard as a diamond, sweet as a puppy. That’s what my father used to say.’ She fiddles with the lace at her neck. ‘I can hardly bear to break it.’
Nella sways, staring at the dregs in her wineglass, slightly drunk.
‘I will sail to Venice for you both,’ Johannes says. ‘Plenty of buyers there. It is not the best time for your sugar to arrive, but be assured there are Venetians who will want to buy.’
‘Venetians?’ Agnes gasps. ‘Papists?’
‘Her father worked very hard, Seigneur Brandt,’ Meermans snaps, ‘not to fill Catholic stomachs.’
‘But a guilder from any pocket is just as useful, is it not? A true businessman knows that. Venice and Milan eat sugar like we Dutchmen breathe—’
‘Come, Agnes,’ Frans says. ‘I’m tired. And full.’ He jams his hat back on his head like a stopper on his thoughts. Agnes stands waiting as the awkward silence grows.
‘Goodnight, then,’ says Johannes finally, his broad smile unable to mask the fatigue behind his eyes.
‘God be with you,’ Agnes says, snaking her arm upon her husband’s. As the couple make their way along the mahogany panelling, the massacred tablecloths, the tipped-over silver jugs and scraps of food, Nella feels a spreading sense of worry.
‘Johannes,’ she says. ‘Marin said we must invite—’
He puts his hand on her shoulder, and she sags at his weight. ‘Nella,’ he sighs, ‘with people like that, you must always leave them wanting more.’
But when Agnes looks over her shoulder and throws her a haughty glance, Nella is not so sure.
On their way back, Johannes lies stretched like a beached seal inside the barge.
‘You know lots of people, Johannes. They admire you.’
He smiles. ‘Do you think they’d talk to me if I wasn’t rich?’
‘Are we rich?’ she asks. The words come out of her before she can stop them, the worry in her voice too obvious, the question mark too loud and accusatory.
He turns his head to her, his hair trapped on the bench beneath his cheek. ‘What’s wrong?’ he asks. ‘Ignore Marin, the things she says. She loves to worry.’
‘It isn’t Marin,’ Nella replies, but then she wonders if it is.
‘Just because someone tells you something with a bit of passion doesn’t mean it’s true. I have been richer. I’ve also been poorer. It never seems to make a visible difference.’ His voice slows, drugged by food and the exhaustion of the evening. ‘You cannot really touch my wealth, Nella. It is in the air, swelling, diminishing. Growing again. The things it buys are solid but you can put your hand through it like a cloud.’
‘But, husband, surely there is nothing more solid than a coin?’
As he yawns and closes his eyes, Nella pictures her husband’s money, no more than moisture, dissolving and reforming without prediction. ‘Johannes, there is something I should tell you.’ She pauses. ‘There was – a miniaturist I hired—’
But looking over, she sees he has succumbed to the oblivion of a full stomach. Nella wants him to wake up, so she can ask him more questions. Unlike Marin, he always gives her an interesting answer. He seemed restless after Frans and Agnes left, his grey eyes shifting over private thoughts, locking her out once more. Why did Meermans seem so much less enthusiastic than his wife in dealing with Johannes? Why did Johannes not invite them to the house?
Nella smells the residue of Agnes’ floral pomade on her hands. Her stomach mewls under her lace petticoat and she wishes she’d eaten more. Johannes’ age is showing in the way his eyelids droop and his chin draws to his chest. He looks craggy, at thirty-nine a face from a fairy tale. She thinks about the silences that follow on from his bright chattiness, before he moves once more into darker distraction. She closes her eyes, putting her hand on the flat plane of her stomach. Much like Brandt will spoil you.
The love note hidden in Marin’s room comes back to her. Where has it come from, how many days – or years – has it lain there in her pages? Nella wonders how Marin reads it – with pleasure or disdain? The soft touch of sable in the severity of her plain black bodice, her bridal bouquet a yellowing skull propped upon her shelves. No. Nobody would ever spoil Marin. She wouldn’t let them.
Nella lifts her hand in the semi-darkness, looking at her wedding ring, her nails like faint pink shells. In Assendelft, there may have only been one town square, but at least the people sitting in it would listen to her. Here she is a puppet, a vessel for others to pour their speech. And it is not a man she has married, but a world. Silversmiths, a sister-in-law, strange acquaintances, a house she feels lost in, a smaller one that frightens her. There is ostensibly so much on offer, but Nella feels that something is being taken away.
When they enter the house, she turns, determined to speak – but now Johannes is bent over in commune with Rezeki. She is clearly his favourite, and Johannes runs a tight palm over the dog’s skull. Rezeki bares her teeth in unaggressive pleasure. No one has lit the candles in the hall. The space is so dark, no moon through the high windows.
‘Have they fed you, my beauty?’ he asks, his voice gentle, full of love. The whippet responds by thumping her muscular tail on the tiles, and Johannes chuckles.
The chuckle irritates Nella, the attention she wants given to an animal. ‘I shall go to bed, then,’ she says.
‘Do, do,’ he replies, straightening up. ‘You must be tired.’
‘No, Johannes. I am not tired.’
She holds his gaze until he looks away. ‘I must make notes on those men I met.’ He walks towards his study and the dog follows immediately.
‘Does she keep you company?’ Nella calls. Eleven days alone as a wife, she thinks. Longer than it took God to make the world.
‘She helps me,’ he replies. ‘If I try and solve a problem directly, I can’t do it. If I tend to her, the answer comes.’
‘She is useful then.’
Johannes smiles. ‘She is.’
‘And how much did you pay for Otto – is he useful?’ she asks, her voice cold and shrill with nerves.
Johannes’ expression clouds and Nella feels the blood pounding in her face. ‘What did Agnes say to you?’ he says.
‘Nothing,’ she replies, but it is true that Agnes’ words have crept under her skin.
‘I merely paid Otto’s first wages in advance,’ he says, his voice level.
‘Does Otto think you set him free?’
Johannes sets his jaw. ‘Does it bother you, Petronella, living here with him?’
‘Not at all. It’s just – I’ve never – I mean—’
‘He’s the only manservant I’ve ever had,’ Johannes replies. ‘And ever will.’
He turns away. Don’t go, Nella thinks. If you go then I will become invisible, right now in this hallway, and no one will ever find me again. She points to the dog, sitting obediently at his side. ‘Is that Rezeki or Dhana?’ she asks.
Johannes raises his eyebrows, patting the animal with a loving hand. ‘You have been paying attention. This is Rezeki. Dhana has a spot on her belly.’
I know she does, Nella thinks, picturing the little dog upstairs, waiting in the cabinet. ‘They have strange names.’
‘Not if you’re from Sumatra.’
‘What does Rezeki mean?’ She feels young and stupid.
‘Fortune,’ he replies, slipping into the study and closing the door.
Nella peers into the darkness of the hall, a cold draught blowing towards her as if another door has opened somewhere beyond the expanse of marble tiles. The hairs on the back of her neck rise up. Someone is in the shadows.
‘Hello?’ she calls.
From deep in the kitchen come faint voices, urgent mutterings, the occasional clang of a pan. The sensation of being observed diminishes slightly, and these sounds,
‘Marin, not now.’
Johannes doesn’t reply, and Nella stares down the darkness, trying not to let her terror win. ‘Johannes, please. Let me in.’
When the door opens, the yellow glow is so welcoming that Nella could almost cry.
What strikes her is that the study feels so much more lived-in than anywhere else she has been in the house. This is a room with a firm purpose. It knows itself, and it is the closest Nella has felt to her husband. As she steps inside and he closes the door, she tries to shake away her hallway fright.
‘There’s no one out there, Nella,’ he says. ‘It’s just the dark. Why don’t you go to bed?’
Nella wonders how he knew her fear, just as he knew how Agnes had ruffled her over Otto. Being observed by Johannes is like being watched by an owl, she thinks. You feel pinioned.
Outside it has begun to rain, a gentle night patter, rhythmic and familiar. There is a tangy, papery smell in the small room, a high wooden table hinged to the wall, a mess of scrolls and an inkstand made of gold. Candle smoke covers the low ceiling with black welts, and the swirling design of a deep Turkey rug is scarcely visible for loose sheets covered in unfamiliar languages. Bits of red wax seals are scattered everywhere, and some have been ground into the wool.
There are maps on all the walls, more than Marin has. Nella looks over the shapes of Virginia and the rest of the Americas, the Mare Pacificum, the Moluccas, Japan. Each one is scored with fine lines shooting off in diamond patterns. These are items of precision, not dotted with wishful questions. Beneath the window is a huge padlocked chest, carved from a dark wood. ‘That’s where the guilders are stored,’ Johannes says, sitting up on his stool.
Nella wishes Johannes would be more wolfish than owlish. It would give her the sense of a proper role, if not her wifely cue. ‘I wanted – to thank you,’ she falters. ‘For my cabinet. I have such plans—’
‘You do not need to thank me,’ he says, batting the air with his hand again. ‘It is the least I can do.’
‘But I wanted to show you my thanks,’ she says.
Nella attempts to mimic the physical grace of Agnes Meermans, giving a caress of his shirtsleeve with her trembling hand. She wants that unity, that image of a marriage to be made real. He does not react. Her fingers paw him like a tugging child’s.
‘Yes?’ he says.
She lowers her hand and rests it upon the top of his thigh. Never in her life has she touched a man like this, never mind someone so imposing. She can feel the muscular bulk of his leg through the thick wool. ‘When you speak those languages, you fascinate me,’ she says.
Immediately, she knows she’s said something wrong. He pulls himself off the stool. ‘What?’ he says.
Johannes looks so dismayed that Nella puts her hands to her mouth as if to wipe away the words. ‘I just – it was just—’
‘Come here,’ he interrupts. To Nella’s surprise, he strokes her hair with rough movements.
‘I’m sorry,’ she says, though she does not know for what she is apologizing. He leans down, holding her narrow arms, and kisses her on the mouth.
The shock of it – the alarming hot residues of wine and crab – assaults her, and it takes all her might not to tense up in his grip. She parts her lips a little, if only to release the pressure from his mouth. He keeps holding her – and she decides quickly before fear gets the better – to bring her hand down to the front of his breeches. If this is what all women have to do, she thinks – then practice must make it vaguely pleasurable.
Nella can just make it out, the snug bulge she has no knowledge of. But it isn’t the rod her mother promised, it’s more of a curled worm, a—
Her fingers seem to set off a spring, and Johannes drops her, jumping back into the edge of his desk. ‘Nella,’ he says. ‘Oh, God.’
‘Go!’ he cries. ‘Get out.’
Nella stumbles away to a single admonishing bark from Rezeki, and Johannes slams the door. She hears his key turn in the lock, and as the terror of being out in this darkened hallway floods back, she runs upstairs to her room.
The cabinet is in the corner, and she pulls its curtains back, the cradle within glowing like an insult in the moonlight. Nella kicks the cabinet’s leg, but the wood and tortoiseshell do not yield, and she hears the crack of bone. Yelping in pain, she refuses to cry. She limps round the room, turning her husband’s paintings to the wall. Caught hare and rotten pomegranate, every single one.
‘Why are the paintings all topsy-turvy?’ Cornelia asks, turning the one nearest her back to its normal position. A painted caterpillar, crawling from the pomegranate, creeps towards the edge of the frame. The maid shudders, glancing at the cabinet. ‘You can learn to live here, Madame,’ she says quietly. ‘You just have to want to do it.’
Nella watches her with one eye open, last night’s humiliation flooding in. It pins her to the bed and she pushes her face in the pillow. Was it Cornelia down in the hall last night, listening to the disaster unfold? Then why didn’t she comfort me? The thought of her wifely failure being overheard is devastating.
Johannes’ rejection coats Nella’s spirit like a film. She’d dash her own head if it meant she could remove these foolish ideas of true love, of marriage beds, laughter and children. As Cornelia turns another painting, the splayed oyster on a dark indigo background, Nella feels the walls closing in, their magnifying images of dead game and overblown blooms.
‘I think Marin tried to slip the worst pictures over to you,’ Cornelia says. Another crumb, at least – this grin, Cornelia’s little offering of information, Marin and her cunning betrayed by someone slyer.
Cornelia pulls open the curtains and the late-October morning light throws everything into stark relief. She grimaces as she shucks off one of her pattens, jutting out a small foot. ‘Believe it or don’t believe it, Madame,’ she says, ‘but my feet get tired too.’ Balancing herself against the wall, she begins rubbing her sole. ‘Bloody tired. Like a dead man’s.’
Nella sits up. Back in Assendelft, there was never a maid like her. This sense of freedom Cornelia has, to do and say things she wouldn’t anywhere else. Cornelia’s voice is brightly conversational; the pleasure of feet-rubbing appears too great to worry what her mistress thinks. Perhaps it is something in this house, Nella thinks, some permissiveness I do not understand. Life here is indeed topsy-turvy – seeming wrong, but shining a light upon them all. How darned Cornelia’s stockings are, a criss-cross of stitches, a rash of wool. Can’t Marin give her better ones? Nella remembers Johannes’ comment on his cloudy, untouchable wealth.
The vague touch of Johannes – pouched and unresponsive, comes back to her. Nella shudders. Watching as Cornelia turns back the painting of the strung-up hare, she feels a resentment prickling on her skin. You have no idea, she wants to say. You try being married.
‘Cornelia,’ she says. ‘Why is Marin so intent on selling Agnes’ sugar? Are we poor?’
Cornelia gapes at her. ‘Madame, don’t be ridiculous. Poor? Women all over the city would give their right arm to be where you are—’
‘I don’t need a lesson, Cornelia. I asked a question—’
‘To have a master who treats you with respect, who takes you to feasts and buys you dresses and three-thousand-guilder cabinets? He feeds us, he asks after us. Otto will tell you the same.’
‘Otto told me that things would spill over.’
‘Well, there is much to admire in the Seigneur,’ Cornelia replies, her words propulsive, urgent. ‘He raised Toot like a son. Who else would do that? A manservant who can speak French and Englis
‘But what can Otto do with all of that, Cornelia? What can any of us do?’
Cornelia looks uncomfortable. ‘From where I’m standing, Madame, your life has only just begun. Here.’ The maid reaches in the main pouch of her apron and places a large parcel on Nella’s bed. ‘It was left outside on the step, addressed to you. What’s wrong?’
‘Nothing,’ Nella falters. Inked with the sign of the sun, the uninvited package rests on the coverlet.
‘No herrings today, you’ll be pleased to hear,’ Cornelia goes on, eyeing the parcel. ‘Winter jams and creamed butter. The Seigneur requested supper early.’ She scoops up her errant patten and pushes it back over her shoe.
‘I’m sure he did,’ says Nella. ‘Apparently he finds much of himself in food. I’ll be down soon.’
Once the door is closed, Nella takes the parcel gently in her hands. I didn’t ask for this, she thinks. My letter expressly told the miniaturist to cease. But even as she remembers this, Nella’s fingers rip the paper. Who would not open such a parcel? she reasons. She remembers her letter clearly. As wife of a high-ranking VOC merchant, I shall not be intimidated by an artisan.
A note flutters out, and upon it, the words:
I FIGHT TO EMERGE
‘Oh, do you, Mr Miniaturist?’ Nella says out loud.
She tips up the rest of the package and an array of minuscule domestic items fall out. Irons as long as two barley grains, tiny baskets, woven sacks, a few barrels and a mop, a brazier for drying clothes. There are pots and pans, tiny fish knives and forks, an embroidered cushion, a rolled-up tapestry that reveals a portrait of two women and a man. Nella is convinced that is the same as the stitched story hanging on Johannes’ wall downstairs – Martha and Mary, arguing over Jesus. Fear starts to mingle with her indignation.
In a small gold frame, a vase of flowers has been painted in oils, complete with a crawling caterpillar. It’s a common motif, Nella tells herself, trying to keep calm, looking at the life-size version that Cornelia has just flipped over on the wall. There are a few exquisitely bound books, some no bigger than a stuiver coin, covered in unreadable handwriting. She flicks through their pages, half-expecting to find a love note – but there is none. There are two small maps of the Indies, and a Bible with a big B upon the front.
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes