The Miniaturist

Jessie Burton | 10 mins

Outside In

On the step of her new husband’s house, Nella Oortman lifts and drops the dolphin knocker, embarrassed by the thud. No one comes, though she is expected. The time was prearranged and letters written, her mother’s paper so thin compared with Brandt’s expensive vellum. No, she thinks, this is not the best of greetings, given the blink of a marriage ceremony the month before – no garlands, no betrothal cup, no wedding bed. Nella places her small trunk and birdcage on the step. She knows she’ll have to embellish this later for home, when she’s found a way upstairs, a room, a desk.

Nella turns to the canal as bargemen’s laughter rises up the opposite brickwork. A puny lad has skittled into a woman and her basket of fish, and a half-dead herring slithers down the wide front of the seller’s skirt. The harsh cry of her country voice runs under Nella’s skin. ‘Idiot! Idiot!’ the woman yells. The boy is blind, and he grabs in the dirt for the escaped herring as if it’s a silver charm, his fingers quick, not afraid to feel around. He scoops it, cackling, running up the path with his catch, his free arm out and ready.

Nella cheers silently and stays to face this rare October warmth, to take it while she can. This part of the Herengracht is known as the Golden Bend, but today the wide stretch is brown and workaday. Looming above the sludge-coloured canal, the houses are a phenomenon. Admiring their own symmetry on the water, they are stately and beautiful, jewels set within the city’s pride. Above their rooftops Nature is doing her best to keep up, and clouds in colours of saffron and apricot echo the spoils of the glorious republic.

Nella turns back to the door, now slightly ajar. Was it like this before? She cannot be sure. She pushes on it, peering into the void as cool air rises from the marble. ‘Johannes Brandt?’ she calls – loud, a little panicked. Is this a game? she thinks. I’ll be standing here come January. Peebo, her parakeet, thrills the tips of his feathers against the cage bars, his faint cheep falling short on the marble. Even the now-quiet canal behind them seems to hold its breath.

Nella is sure of one thing as she looks deeper into the shadows. She’s being watched. Come on, Nella Elisabeth, she tells herself, stepping over the threshold. Will her new husband embrace her, kiss her or shake her hand like it’s just business? He didn’t do any of those things at the ceremony, surrounded by her small family and not a single member of his.

To show that country girls have manners too, she bends down and removes her shoes – dainty, leather, of course her best – although what their point has been she can’t now say. Dignity, her mother said, but dignity is so uncomfortable. She slaps the shoes down, hoping the noise will arouse somebody, or maybe scare them off. Her mother calls her over-imaginative, Nella-in-the-Clouds. The inert shoes lie in anti-climax and Nella simply feels a fool.

Outside, two women call to one other. Nella turns, but through the open door she sees only the back of one woman, capless, golden-headed and tall, striding away towards the last of the sun. Nella’s own hair has loosened on the journey from Assendelft, the light breeze letting wisps escape. To tuck them away will make her more nervous than she can bear to seem, so she leaves them tickling her face.

‘Are we to have a menagerie?’

The voice sails sure and swift from the darkness of the hall. Nella’s skin contracts, for being right about her suspicions can’t banish the goosebumps. She watches as a figure glides from the shadows, a hand outstretched – in protest or in greeting, it is hard to tell. It is a woman, straight and slim and dressed in deepest black, the cap on her head starched and pressed to white perfection. Not a wisp of her hair escapes, and she brings with her the vaguest, strangest scent of nutmeg. Her eyes are grey, her mouth is solemn. How long has she been there, watching? Peebo chirrups at the intervention.

‘This is Peebo,’ Nella says. ‘My parakeet.’

‘So I see,’ says the woman, gazing down at her. ‘Or hear. I take it you have not brought any more beasts?’

‘I have a little dog, but he’s at home—’

‘Good. It would mess in our rooms. Scratch the wood. Those small ones are an affectation of the French and Spanish,’ the woman observes. ‘As frivolous as their owners.’

‘And they look like rats,’ calls a second voice from somewhere in the hall.

The woman frowns, briefly closing her eyes, and Nella takes her in, wondering who else is watching this exchange. I must be younger than her by ten years, she thinks, though her skin’s so smooth. As the woman moves past Nella towards the door frame, there is a grace in her movements, self-aware and unapologetic. She casts a brief, approving glance at the neat shoes by the door and then stares into the cage, her lips pressed tight together. Peebo’s feathers have puffed in fear.

Nella decides to distract her by joining hands in greeting, but the woman flinches at the touch.

‘Strong bones for seventeen,’ the woman says.

‘I’m Nella,’ she replies, retracting her hand. ‘And I’m eighteen.’

‘I know who you are.’

‘My real name is Petronella, but everyone at home calls me—’

‘I heard the first time.’

‘Are you the housekeeper?’ Nella asks. A giggle is badly stifled in the hallway shadows. The woman ignores it, looking out into the pearlescent dusk. ‘Is Johannes here? I’m his new wife.’ The woman still says nothing. ‘We signed our marriage a month ago, in Assendelft,’ Nella persists. It seems there is nothing else to do but to persist.

‘My brother is not in the house.’

‘Your brother?’

Another giggle from the darkness. The woman looks straight into Nella’s eyes. ‘I am Marin Brandt,’ she says, as if Nella should understand. Marin’s gaze may be hard, but Nella can hear the precision faltering in her voice. ‘He’s not here,’ Marin continues. ‘We thought he’d be. But he’s not.’

‘Where is he then?’

Marin looks out towards the sky again. Her left hand fronds the air, and from the shadows near the staircase two figures appear. ‘Otto,’ she says.

A man comes towards them and Nella swallows, pressing her cold feet upon the floor.

Otto’s skin is dark, dark brown everywhere, his neck coming out from the collar, his wrists and hands from his sleeves – all unending, dark brown skin. His high cheeks, his chin, his wide brow, every inch. Nella has never seen such a man in her life.

Marin seems to be watching her to see what she will do. The look in Otto’s large eyes makes no acknowledgement of Nella’s ill-concealed fascination. He bows to her and she curtsies, chewing her lip till the taste of blood reminds her to be calm. Nella sees how his skin glows like a polished nut, how his black hair springs straight up from his scalp. It is a cloud of soft wool, not flat and greasy like other men’s. ‘I—’ she says.

Peebo begins to chirp. Otto puts his hands out, a pair of pattens resting on his broad palms. ‘For your feet,’ he says.

His accent is Amsterdam – but he rolls the words, making them warm and liquid. Nella takes the pattens from him and her fingers brush his skin. Clumsily she slips the raised shoes onto her feet. They are too big, but she doesn’t dare say it, and at least they lift her soles off the chilly marble. She’ll tighten the leather straps later, upstairs – if she ever gets there, if they ever let her past this hall.

‘Otto is my brother’s manservant,’ says Marin, her eyes still fixed on Nella. ‘And here is Cornelia, our maid. She will look after you.’

Cornelia steps forward. She is a little older than Nella, perhaps twenty, twenty-one – and slightly taller. Cornelia pins her with an unfriendly grin, her blue eyes moving over the new bride, seeing the tremor in Nella’s hands. Nella smiles, burnt by the maid’s curiosity, struggling to say some piece of empty thanks. She is half-grateful, half-ashamed when Marin cuts her off.

‘Let me show you upstairs,’ Marin says. ‘You will want to see your room.’

Nella nods and a look of amusement flickers to life in Cornelia’s eyes. Blithe pirrips from the cage bounce high up the walls, and Marin indicates to Cornelia with a flick of her wrist that the bird must go to the kitchen.

‘But the cooking fumes,’ Nella protests. Marin and Otto turn back to her. ‘Peebo likes the light.’

Cornelia takes up the cage and starts swinging it like a pail. ‘Please, be careful,’ says Nella.

Marin catches Cornelia’s eye. The maid continues to the kitchen, accompanied by the thin melody of Peebo’s worried cheeps.

Upstairs, Nella feels dwarfed by the sumptuousness of her new room. Marin merely looks displeased. ‘Cornelia has embroidered too much,’ she says. ‘But we hope Johannes will only marry once.’

There are initialled cushions, a new bedspread and two pairs of recently refreshed curtains. ‘The velvet heaviness is needed to keep out canal mists,’ Marin observes. ‘This was my room,’ she adds, moving to the window to look at the few stars which have begun to appear in the sky, placing her hand upon the windowpane. ‘It has a better view, so we gave it to you.’

‘Oh no,’ says Nella. ‘Then you must keep it.’

They face each other, hemmed in by the mass of needlework, the abundance of linen covered in B for Brandt, encircled by vine leaves, entrenched in birds’ nests, rising out of flower beds. The Bs have gobbled up her maiden name, their bellies fat and swollen. Feeling uneasy but duty-bound, Nella brushes a finger over this bounty of wool, now bearing on her spirits.

‘Your grand ancestral Assendelft seat, is it warm and dry?’ Marin asks.

‘It can be damp,’ Nella offers as she bends over and tries to adjust the large pattens strapped awkwardly to her feet. ‘The dykes don’t always work. It’s not grand, though—’

‘Our family may not have your ancient pedigree, but what’s that in the face of a warm, dry, well-made house,’ Marin interrupts. It is not a question.


Afkomst seyt niet. Pedigree counts for nothing,’ Marin continues, prodding a cushion to emphasize the word nothing. ‘Pastor Pellicorne said it last Sunday and I wrote it in the flyleaf of our Bible. The waters will rise if we’re not careful.’ She seems to shake herself out of a thought. ‘Your mother wrote,’ she adds. ‘She insisted she would pay for you to travel here. We couldn’t allow that. We sent the second-best barge. You’re not offended?’

‘No. No.’

‘Good. Second-best in this house still means new paint and a cabin lined in Bengal silk. Johannes is using the other one.’

Nella wonders where her husband is, on his best barge, not back in time to greet her. She thinks about Peebo, alone in the kitchen, near the fire, near the pans. ‘You only have two servants?’ she asks.

‘It’s enough,’ says Marin. ‘We’re merchants, not layabouts. The Bible tells us a man should never flaunt his wealth.’

‘No. Of course.’

‘That is, if he has any left to flaunt.’ Marin stares at her and Nella looks away. The light in the room is beginning to fade, and Marin sets a taper on the candles. They are tallow and cheap, and Nella had hoped for more fragrant beeswax. The choice of this meat-smelling, smoky variety surprises her. ‘Cornelia seems to have sewn your new name on everything,’ Marin says over her shoulder.

Indeed, thinks Nella, remembering Cornelia’s baleful scrutiny. Her fingers will be red ribbons, and who will she punish for that?

‘When is Johannes coming – why is he not here?’ she asks.

‘Your mother said you were keen to begin your life as a wife in Amsterdam,’ Marin says. ‘Are you?’

‘Yes. But one needs a husband in order to do so.’

In the frost-tipped silence that follows, Nella wonders where Marin’s husband is. Maybe she’s hidden him in the cellar. She smothers her desperate impulse to laugh by smiling at one of the cushions. ‘This is all so beautiful,’ she says. ‘You didn’t have to.’

‘Cornelia did it all. I am no use with my hands.’

‘I’m sure that is not true.’

‘I’ve taken my paintings down. I thought these might be more to your taste.’ Marin gestures to the wall where a brace of game-birds has been captured in oil, hanging from a hook, all feather and claw. Further along the wall is a portrait of a strung-up hare, a hunter’s prize. Next to it a painted slew of oysters are piled on a Chinese patterned plate, shadowed by a spilt wineglass and a bowl of over-ripened fruit. There is something unsettling about the oysters, their exposed openness. In her old home, Nella’s mother covered the walls in landscapes and scenes from the Bible. ‘These belong to my brother,’ Marin observes, pointing at a brimming vase of flowers, harder than life, coloured in excess, half a pomegranate waiting at the bottom of the frame.

‘Thank you.’ Nella wonders how long it will take her to turn them to the wall before she goes to sleep.

‘You’ll want to eat up here tonight,’ says Marin. ‘You’ve been travelling for hours.’

‘I have, yes. I would be grateful.’ Nella shudders inwardly at the birds’ bloodied beaks, their glassy eyes, promising flesh puckering away. At the sight of them, she is taken by the desire for something sweet. ‘Do you have any marzipan?’

‘No. Sugar is – not something we take much of. It makes people’s souls grow sick.’

‘My mother used to roll it into shapes.’ There was always marzipan in the pantry, the only predilection for indulgence in which Mrs Oortman echoed her husband. Mermaids, ships and necklaces of sugared jewels, that almond doughiness melting in their mouths. I no longer belong to my mother, Nella thinks. One day I will roll sugar shapes for other little clammy hands, voices baying for treats.

‘I will ask Cornelia to bring you some herenbrood and Gouda,’ Marin says, drawing Nella out of her thoughts. ‘And a glass of Rhenish.’

‘Thank you. Do you have an idea of when Johannes will arrive?’

Marin tips her nose into the air. ‘What is that smell?’

Instinctively, Nella’s hands fly to her collarbone. ‘Is it me?’

‘Is it you?’

‘My mother bought me a perfume. Oil of Lilies. Is that what you smell?’

Marin nods. ‘It is,’ she says. ‘It’s lily.’ She coughs gently. ‘You know what they say about lilies.’


‘Early to ripe, early to rot.’

With that, Marin shuts the door.