Margaretha’s mother taught her to read and write, but it was her father who taught her to paint. She helped in his studio, mixed his paints, and charmed his circle of friends. He died when she was twelve, along with her mother and her brother, all taken by smallpox. There was no money left. The executors of his will put Margaretha in a waggon with the rest of the household effects, and told the carter to take everything to her grandmother in Leiden. They gave the keys of the house back to the landlord. Margaretha sat on a bale of hay, amongst the slowly lurching pile of old clothes, easels, crockery, brushes, bedlinen, paints and canvas. Behind her, the spires and windmills of Haarlem receded, the Grote Kerk of St Bavo floating above the red roofs, as if about to ascend to Heaven. She looked out across the flat polders at the horizon ahead, where the sun gilded the edge of the green earth, and the trees were so small that the finest sable brush could not paint them.The grandmother has a large garden, and Margaretha paints pictures of the flowers. Each season adds another flower: tulip, iris, carnation, lily, poppy, cornflower, rose. She paints the earwigs that emerge from the heart of the rose. She dreams of returning to Haarlem to study painting with Pieter de Molijn.
But the grandmother attributes her son’s death to his dissolute life. She is determined that her granddaughter will marry well, like Cousin Cornelia, who is married to an Amsterdam silk merchant. ‘Cousin Cornelia,’ says the grandmother, ‘was the most beautiful girl in Holland. Her skin was like pearls, and her eyes were different colours. Her right eye was gold, like your yellow ochre. Her left eye was blue, like azurite. (You see, I do pay attention to your painting.) This was the only asymmetry in a young woman who was otherwise perfect, and it captured everyone who saw her.’
Margaretha has been mixing paint. She looks down at her fingernails, which are different colours, like Cousin Cornelia’s eyes. The grandmother gives a sigh of exasperation.
‘If only Cornelia would visit, she’d be a fine example for you. You’d soon aspire to her womanly graces, and forget your childish pictures. But I daresay she’s too busy. She doesn’t even answer my letters.’
After the son’s death the grandmother has not left the house. ‘It is a grievous thing to bury your own child,’ she says, ‘more grievous than a woman can bear.’ Her world is shrinking. Four years later, she falls on the stairs, and after that, lives only in the salon, washed and dressed by her two maidservants. Margaretha paints the garden’s flowers for her.
‘Women cannot be painters,’ says the old woman, when Margaretha hangs another picture in the salon. ‘Women do not paint’.
‘Oh but they do, grandmama. A lady painter lived next-door to my father’s studio in Haarlem. She painted vases of flowers, filled with colour and light, so real that you could almost touch the petals and smell the scent.’
‘Such talent is rare. For every person like that, there are a hundred thousand who dream of greatness while creating worthless daubs.’
Margaretha says this is why she needs to study.
‘Pieter de Molijn was my father’s friend. He used to ask me about my pictures. I can mix paints and prepare canvases. I could earn my keep.’
‘Impossible! I never heard such scandalous nonsense! You should make a good marriage, before it’s too late, and all the best young men have been taken.’
The mercantile families of the county are invited to bring their sons to dinner, in descending order of importance. Margaretha concentrates on the table when her dowry is mentioned. Candle-light picks out a pattern of shadows across the cut surface of the cheese, and the blue Delftware bowl sets off the rosy brown skins of the almonds. In the metal rim of her cut glass goblet she sees her own stubborn face, flattened and grotesque. Each week, the grandmother eats less, her digestion ruined.As the seasons pass, Margaretha paints snowdrops, apple blossom, a tulip, an iris, a rose, a lily, and an ear of corn. She paints her grandmother at her writing table, with window light on her hands and the pale paper, and her quill.
‘I am writing to Cornelia, again,’ says her grandmother, ‘in the hope that she will help you to make amends for your blatant disregard of my instructions.’
Margaretha does not answer. She paints a pale shimmer on the pewter inkstand, and the figure of Mr. Curtius sitting in the shadows. His black suit is obscured, but his white collar and his bearded, frowning face are in the light.
‘Leave us,’ says her grandmother. Upstairs, Margaretha paints a bowl of apples, that her grandmother does not live to see. After the funeral Mr Curtius comes to see her. The anxious furrow between his brows has deepened, and he holds a sealed paper in trembling hands.
‘You’re aware,’ he says, ‘that I am, was, the lawyer for the deceased.’
Margaretha finds she has been disinherited.
‘I tried to dissuade her,’ says Mr Curtius.
Margaretha reads the will. Her grandmother has left her entire estate to Cornelia Jannsen, who has ‘set an example, which my only other remaining heir would do well to follow, in being the respected wife of an eminent and industrious burgher of Amsterdam.’
‘The house must be sold, I’m afraid,’ says Mr Curtius. ‘I’ll write to Willem Jannsen.’
‘I shall travel to Haarlem, then,’ says Margaretha. ‘I can support myself by my art.’
‘You must write to me. Let me know how it goes.’ It is impossible for Mr Curtius to appear more concerned. His lips are so deeply compressed together that the gap between his beard and his moustache has disappeared. He brings a purse out from his pocket, and hands it to her.
‘But she left me nothing?’ Margaretha weighs it in her hand. It’s a soft, brown pigskin pouch, heavy with the density of gold.
He taps the side of his nose. ‘Executors’ fees.’
Margaretha does not know how to ride a horse, and does not want to pay a carter, so she sets out on foot, wearing her dead brother’s clothes, with a pack slung over her shoulder. She takes her brushes and her paints, and Mr Curtius’s purse.
It’s a few days’ walk, and each night she stays at a country inn. Just after Hillegrom, the landlord enquires her business. She says she’s on an errand for her master.
‘I’m taking a letter to Mr Willem Jannsen in Amsterdam,’ she improvises. The drinkers fall silent, and the landlord looks at her with a chuckle. ‘You’ll have a long journey then, my lad.’ She questions him, but someone falls off his stool, and the replies, which seem only barkeepers’ fables, are obscured in the smoky air, and the drinkers’ laughter, and the thumping of tankards on the tables.In the early morning, a wind from the North Sea surges across the polders, and Margaretha pulls her cloak around her. Her limbs are weary and her pack is heavy. But to the north is the spire of Bennebroek. She might find shelter there by the afternoon. As she sets out, a pile of rags on a bench by the wall stirs, as though ruffled by the wind.
‘Spare a crust?’
Margaretha is startled, as the wimple of a beggar woman rises from the pile. A hand is outstretched for alms. Margaretha has seen many outstretched hands already, but this arm is of extraordinary delicacy, like a streak of China white above the umber rags. The hand is as small as a child’s. She stops.
‘So, you go to Amsterdam,’ says the beggar woman. ‘To find Mr Willem Jannsen.’
‘It’s none of your business,’ says Margaretha.
‘If you want to keep your business private, you shouldn’t shout it out to everyone. Anyway, you won’t find him in Amsterdam, I can tell you that now.’ The woman’s face is shadowed beneath her wimple, but the exquisite arm and hand are fascinating.
‘What, is he away? Has he gone overseas? I know he trades in silks from the Levant.’ Margaretha puts her pack down on the ground. She has taken a hunk of bread from the breakfast table to serve for later, and it is big enough to share.
‘There is nowhere on earth you will find him, for he is dead, and his house and his family burned to the ground by his own hand.’
‘How do you know this?’ Margaretha feels her heart suddenly thumping.
‘Everyone knows it.’
‘But, what happened?’
‘He was indeed a trader in silk, but he secured a loan on all his stock to buy tulip bulbs. He even bought a Semper Augustus weighing three hundred perits. He had a buyer, he said, and that one single deal would make him the wealthiest merchant in Amsterdam.’
‘How could tulips be so important?’ Margaretha’s grandmother had prized her tulips, but not that much, surely?
‘They were worth thousands of florins at their height,’ says the beggar woman. ‘A single bulb could be worth more than twelve acres of land. People who dealt in tulips became wealthy overnight. Everyone wanted to do it, and prices went higher and higher. But then, the prices started to fall, and the buyers refused to buy. He was lucky to get four hundred florins for what had been worth many thousands. His creditors pursued him. He was threatened with imprisonment. Rather than face ruin, he set his house afire, with himself and his entire family inside. Everything was burned.’
‘Cornelia Jannsen? Dead. Her remains were never found, consumed by the flames. Although some whispered that she had escaped, and dared not return to face a debtors’ prison.’
Margaretha tears off a piece of bread and puts it in to the fragile hand. As the woman eats, Margaretha stands wondering, the heir to a fortune. She has only to return to Leiden, and wait for Mr Curtius to complete the formalities. His letter to Amsterdam will not be answered.
But the early morning sun comes streaming across the polder, and finds its way under the wimple that shields the woman’s brow. As she looks up to ask for more bread, Margaretha notes the extraordinary symmetry of the dirty face, and that, whilst the right eye is gold, like yellow ochre, the left eye is blue, like azurite. Those eyes – Cornelia’s eyes – notice Margaretha’s stare, and analyse it.
She hands more bread to Cousin Cornelia. The landlord is sweeping the yard and comes out with his broom. He looks as though he wants to sweep the beggar woman away.
‘Be off with you, you hag! I’ve had enough of you pestering my customers. You give the place a bad name.’
He turns to Margaretha. ‘I’m sorry. I can’t get rid of her. She’s been here nearly a year. The more that people feed her, the more she stays here. You shouldn’t give her food.’
Margaretha’s first impulse is to walk on. But she gives the landlord some money. ‘Bring us some bread and ale, out here.’
Nudging Cornelia’s feet aside, Margaretha sits on the end of the bench, waiting for the food. The distant village of Bennebroek looks tiny under a massive sky. Huge clumps of cloud are diffused with light from the east. In the field across the lane, a young bull stands under a tree, his brown hide patched with white, his testicles heavy and pink, lording it over a cow, and a ram, and a couple of sheep. He shrugs flies from his back, and they hover and settle again.
‘Why, I’d have plenty to eat!’
‘Oh, a fine house, and servants, and lovely clothes. I should be a lady, again,’ says Cornelia, with a chuckle. Margaretha simulates surprise.
‘No, I was not always like this, you know.’ Cornelia pushes herself upright on the bench. ‘The richest merchants of Amsterdam once vied to gain my hand. But the value of my stock has fallen, I’m afraid.’
‘And what would you do, once you were a lady?’
‘I’d pay my creditors,’ says Cornelia.
‘And then? If there was money still?’
‘Why do you ask such foolish questions?’ Cornelia gives a snort of derision. ‘It’s the privilege of youth, I suppose.’
‘But what would you do? If you were a fine lady with a fortune?’
‘If I were respectable again, I’d be obliged to visit other respectable families and to receive house calls. I’d have to manage my household, and keep the servants in order. Then, there’s the work of the church, charity and so forth. And I might have to marry again. If only to keep other suitors away. A widower, perhaps.’
‘Oh, even at my age, if they smell out money, they’re like wasps to a jam pot. And then, once I was married, I’d do whatever my husband told me to do. And that would be it. The money would belong to him, and to his children.’ Cornelia sighs.
The landlord sets a tray of glasses and bread down on the trestle table, and pours ale from an earthenware pitcher. Margaretha knows she has only to walk away from the inn, and she will be walking into a fortune. The beggar woman will never move on. Cornelia will never learn of her legacy.
‘Could you bring me a pen and ink, and paper, if you please?’ Margaretha asks him.
‘What would I be doing with such things?’ The landlord stands with his hands on his waist, and his belly thrust out. ‘Beer and tobacco serve me well enough as a stock-in-trade. I’ve no intention of opening a shop. People round here don’t read and write, anyway.’ He mutters to himself as he turns away.
Margaretha pulls the remains of a sketchbook from her pack, and a stub of graphite pencil. She draws Cornelia’s delicate hands gripping the glass of ale.
‘And suppose Cornelia Jannsen had escaped the fire?’ she muses, as if to herself. But Cornelia replies.
‘She would have fled her creditors, never to return to Amsterdam.’
‘And then?’ Margaretha sketches, with perfect precision, the troubled symmetry of Cornelia’s face.
‘She had a grandmother in Leiden, and would have tried to make her way there. But she would have feared to face her grandmother’s anger and disappointment. There would come a point where she could not go further. When perhaps, her feet could no longer carry her, and her appearance had become reduced to mere rags.’
Margaretha shades the rags with the softness of graphite. Underneath the sketch she writes: ‘Cornelia Janssen, by Margaretha Brouwer.’ She passes it to Cornelia.
‘There is a lawyer in Leiden, called Mr Gerrit Curtius. Go to him, and give him this. I’ll give you his address, and some money for the journey. Tell him I sent you. Our grandmother is dead, Cousin Cornelia, and you are the heir.’Story © 2015 chateauxenespagne.com
Dedicated to Pavlovaqueen, who showed me the Mauritshuis.