The only sound in the early hours of the morning were the clacks of worn clogs across the parquet. Birds chirped out the cracked window, which I promptly closed to avoid anything else sneaking in while my back was turned. The sunlight made lines across the flooring, illuminating the small cabinet across the way, piled with dishes, canisters and crockery for the days meals. Something about this place made me smile. For how long had I drifted through my life seeing my family and brothers and sisters doing well for themselves, while I sat idly by and watched? This place, this new place, felt like home.
I tied my apron around my waist, grabbing it from the cabinet knob, and started sweeping the dirt and dust toward the small doorway in the corner, kicking it out into the street. Merchant men walked past, already off to their day’s work. The trees swayed in the breeze, as ships sailed into harbour and offloaded goods to be purchased and sold. Washer women walked past, their burly arms holding baskets and loads of washing, ready to be cleaned in the river. Some carrying wooden pails with iron handles to be filled with water. Fishermen, merchants and traders pushed by on boats, navigating the small canals with the help of their servants. The soft light of the morning made this whole new place seem fresh and light, like nothing one has ever seen before.
This place was not like Bredevoort, with its lacklustre landscapes, windmills sitting against the hills and houses stood clumped together with barely space for the breeze to travel. I remember sitting at the table, Mama in the corner plucking a duck that Pa had brought home, while I was in charge of skinning the rabbit that he was allowed to keep. She whacked in onto the table in front of me, its eyes white and rolled back, its fur matted and stunk. Grabbing the razor I bared to skin it. The only way being if I could recall how a flower in the field looked, remembering its yellow colour and dainty smell, wondering if that would be enough to cover up the reaking smell of blood spreading across my fingers and hands. Martijne was out with Jan again. Sometimes Hermen, Berent and Frerick would all go out with Jan to dances and taverns, sneaking around as to not let Mama know of what they were getting up to. Often though it wasn’t, since their training came first to all of them. I couldn’t imagine that - being so devoted to a cause that had been going on long before, and would continue for who knows how long.
A shiver went down my spine as I saw a rower skid along the water with canvas bags lumped in the back. They passed under the bridges and around the ring, going towards where I had been told the farms and burial plots were. The bell rung. Slamming the door I leant the broom against the wall and dusted my hands again, just to be sure.
“Hendrickje,” the older maid called from atop the stairs.
I hurried up, pulling my skirts to my ankles so as to not trip. The sound of my klomps rattled the staircase.
“Mevrouw will have her morning meal served in the parlour,” she said, looking at me in the eyes to make sure I knew exactly what she was referring to, and where I was meant to be going.
“And she has?” I asked back, not at all intimidated by her bold structure or looks.
“Cheese, bread, grapes and tea served in the silverware and porcelain.”
And by porcelain I knew she was meaning the earthen-crap made in Antwerp. I nodded, hurrying back down the stairs into the kitchen.
The plates were presented and stacked in the corner cupboards, which could almost be mistaken for a merchant’s collection if it weren’t for the shabby cabinet they were held in. I clacked them on top of one another - a large one for the bread and cheese arrangement, a small bowl with upturned, petal corners for the grapes, and a cup and saucer for the tea. The teapot, canister and platters were in the other corner, already cleaned and layed out by Heylwigis the night before.
The cheese wrapped in linen was on the buffet. I cut off a careful piece, turning it onto the plate and examining it before cutting a rough of bread and placing it next to it. The grapes plopped easily into the bowl, now all that was left was to wait for the water to boil. The stove was slow, being warmed carefully by the logs just lit. I stared at it, bending down to examine how hot the flames were, and how cold the water was, seeing if I could accurately predict how quickly it would be done. Surely since Meneer was so wealthy, he could afford a kitchen maid? I wasn’t bothered cooking, but the hassle of doing all that a kitchen maid was meant to do wore on my mind.
I pulled up a stool that was resting under the table and watched as the copper-golden kettle warmed. Resting my head in my hand, prodding my scalp with my fingers to get some relief. A sickness in my stomach always rose when I thought back. It was the kind of sickness that one gets for a moment, but feels the impact of all day long. The bell rang again. I glanced over, seeing it swing back and forth. Steam came from the kettle, finally.
Collecting everything onto the silver tray, I passed up the stairs, placing it onto the trolley Heylwigis had waiting for me, pushing it in the most refined manner I could manage to the end of the hall.
She sat there, bathed by the sunlight in her corseting and embroidered robes, her hair spun up on her crown with brunette curls beside her ears. She had a pudgy nose, I thought as I set down the tea-stuffs on the small table in front of her. The parlour was small, modest even, with not much of a touch to it.
“Thank-you my dear,” she said with a rather stifled look on her face. She made my blood boil. Acting so like she is top of everything and all else.
I forced a polite smile and made a walk back to my parlour below.
“Oh,” I felt my shoulder bump into something, flushing my face.
I had but turned around from the parlour doors for one moment when I had made a most grievous error.
“Verily I am sorry,” my face in complete shock. His face and posture was often gruff, moving about the place with a hung head and stocky pace. Surely not a beating was in order, even if that was frowned upon now, I couldn’t be sure with these older men.
He waved his hand and a smile became to his face with kind eyes and rosy lips, “It is nothing of it. Have you just started?”
I bowed my head with a grin, “Yes, Heylwigis requested me for service.”
“And you are from?”
“Bredevoort,” I said plainly.
“Ah,” his expression changed, “I am sorry to hear of the explosion. Surely you have lost a great many people.”
“Yes,” I muttered.
“Well you shall enjoy your time here I am hopeful,” His face lit up again, “I must attend to my duties.”
I bowed down, not wanting to look up at him again for fear of making another fool of myself. I could feel his gaze on me as I walked away, hot and sharp as if it could penetrate through my being.
‘That is too much for me right now,’ I thought as I made about cleaning the kitchen parlour.
A pan near the newly installed water pump had a black splotch in it’s centre. I grabbed a lemon cut off and tossed to the side, with some salt from the salt bag, and started scrubbing. I tried to push the waved locks behind my ear that fell in front of my eyes each time I lent over. That cap did nothing.
“Ah!” I threw the pan into the bucket.
Hands clasping my face and tears rolling down my cheek.
‘Pleuris,’ my mind raced, ‘Everything’s gone to shit.’
That stupid explosion. If they had better stored that buskruit. If Pa did not turn into the castle that day and give over everything he had caught for the week early, seeing as Lord and Lady Haersolte were planning guests for that evening. If Cornelius had only lived but a few blocks out he would be saved.
I clutched my mouth as to stop the screams and cries from escaping, squeezing my eyes together, feeling my cheeks burn against my hand. I soon collapsed onto the parquet, clenching my stomach and gasping. How could Mama have moved on so quickly. To ride and commit to that disgusting man living just across the way, already with three children of his own. To be forced to wait one year while secretly slipping off to his chambers each night. Sick to my stomach she makes me.
The day wore on and I was able to gather myself together, for there was so much work to be done. I would say that Geertje did not much work before she was promoted. Dead mice in the walls needed to be scooped out and tossed into the street, saucers and cups and plates to clean then stack away again, rooms to tidy and cabinets to dust.
I shook the dirt out of the large curtains upstairs, whacking the mats also, while Heylwigis sat in the corner of the room darning socks and creating exquisite needlework. Perhaps my own temper had caused me to be too harsh on her. She was a lovely woman, buxom and old but with a certain calmness to her.
“I suppose you need to send me to market for supplies?” I said from a height as I continued to shake out the dust.
“Yes I do believe we need quite a few things,” she nodded, peering down her nose through her spectacles at the darning, “Nothing overboard, just the staples. And jam,” she popped her head up, “Mevrouw has requested jam.”
I pursed my lips, letting out a sigh before coming down from the ladder. I found the basket next to the doorway. I strung off my apron laid it onto the table. The purse of money I clipped under my overskirts - just enough for the essentials.
The air was cool as it struck my cheeks and hands. The sun was not yet overhead but even if it was, would do nothing much to warm us. Like a gentle orb it glimmered, but it had no strength of a hearth.
People moved about the streets with purpose. This little town, small seemed but wealthy as ever, was always a-bustle with ships and people. I felt myself smile, although I wasn’t sure why. I could feel them looking at me with some kind of disdain, but it did little to bother me.
I looked at the water running under the bridges, the beautiful new buildings being put up in all corners of the town. Church bells rang out prompting children holding their mother’s hands to shriek and giggle with laughter. The mothers tugging on their children’s hand to ‘come on now’ and stop being so silly.
The markets were around the corner, the chatter and noise of the townspeople seeping into the quiet spaces of Amsterdam. All sorts of cheeses were sitting out on wooden boards. Big hunks from all corners - Gouda, Edam, Maasdam, Boerenkaas and Leyden.
I walked up to one vendor with a grin and asked for the two best cheeses - Maasdam and Leyden of course, to which he cut off the slices and wrapped them in two squares of linen. I placed the coins into his hand, he smiled deeply as I did so. Grimacing I collected my cheese and made off. One doesn’t wish to stick around for those sorts of glances.
Leyden was just about the best cheese I could think of, and I was sure Meneer
and Mevrouw would like it. Although I wouldn’t care if Mevrouw did. The creamiest milk blended with cumin and caraway seeds. Yellow flesh inside of a burnt-caramel outering. Maasdam was a good staple cheese. Soft to the touch but with some substance to it. When we were young, my brothers would stick their fingers or food into the holes, and Mama would whack it out of their hands. Childish, but fun.
The smell of burnt-rye with caraway drifted in the air - the best smell one could hope for. I grabbed two loaves - one of a deep rye and one of a lighter rye, just in case. All that was left was the grapes, apples, and whatever vegetables looked ‘healthful and hearty’, Heylwigis reminded me.
“Oh my dear,” Mevrouw cooed from upstairs. I had barely returned home for a moment, unpacking the basket and a tiny jar of ‘zwarte kersen’ jam, that to me looked like the plague when spread across rough bread.
I wandered into the room, clasping my hands in front of my blue skirts.
“Gather me those cheeses and breads you brought from the market? I am feeling rather peckish.”
I tried to smile politely but it felt more like a grimace, making my way out of the room.
“I do believe I am with child the way I am eating!” She called to Meneer, as he sat at his easel perfecting his latest portrait in the adjoining room.
‘No you’re not,’ My eyes pierced the space ahead of me, ‘You’re simply fat.’
I returned with a pretty platter of Leyden and light rye, setting it down in front of her.
“Oh no!” she cried, clutching her hand to her heart, “Oh no no no, you did not get any Gouda?”
“I thought you may like these cheeses,” I said in a sweet tone, hoping for Meneer to overhead the stupidity of his woman, “Leyden is a beautiful cheese-”
“No no no,” she cried once more, “No I specifically like Gouda. This is not a farm yard. I am sure I told you to always buy Gouda for me?”
I shook my head, “I will make a note of it for next time.”
“Next time,” she puffed, “Oh and where is the suikerbrood. Heylwigis knows it is my favourite.”
“She did not tell me.”
“Do you hear this Meneer! Are you hearing this!?”
His footsteps beat on the floor from the other room, the studio as Heylwigis called it. It was a small room with white walls and dark stained beams. A small latticed window let it enough light to only need a few candles during the dusk hours. The room itself was covered with masterpieces both that he had painted, and ones he had bought.
Appearing at the door he strode in. His beard scruffled and his hair bouncing slightly as he walked.
“What is it now? Are you not happy with what the lovely…”
“Hendrickje,” I corrected.
“Yes, the lovely Hendrickje has brought for you?”
“If I am to be with child, then I should think Hendrickje should have brought me what is best for my condition.”
I hated when she said my name.
“Well I should think Leyden is the perfect cheese for you. And as for that suikerbrood well it is not suitable bread for everyday. Besides, if you are with child, then you should be having a more substantial bread.”
She huffed in her chair, looking at me with quite an annoyed look. I smiled, bending down to set the rest of the teacups down, to which I could feel my top corset buttons were slightly open, and to which I knew Meneer could see my decolletage.
“Is that all Mevrouw?”
She waved her hand off at me, sulking in her chair. I could see her playing with the rings he had given her a couple of years earlier. Turning them around her pudgy knuckles as a way of soothing her mind. I would be nervous too if I had met me.
The next couple of weeks went smoothly. I was able to settle into a routine with the tasks Heylwigis had given me. Mevrouw tried her best to keep Meneer away. He was busy with his paintings, refusing to paint her anymore and instead relying on his memory. Heylwigis told me that when she had first come to his house as a wet nurse and maid for Titus, it had not taken them long to fall in love. The kind of ‘love’ Heylwigis believed wasn’t love.
“No-one can fall in love so fast after the death of such a wife,” she said bluntly one morning, putting down the dishes into the bucket for washing.
“Oh?” I said, “How do you mean?”
“Saskia was much more a wife, one who is wealthy in mind and body. He treasured her, but she was given back to God. Too much grief took hold of her…” She trailed off.
I peered over my shoulder as to remind her I was still here.
“Men cannot fall in love so quickly after losing a treasure like that,” she shook her head.
“Surely his time of mourning is sufficed?”
“I believe so. But I believe he does not love her,” she grabbed a clean rag and tossed aside the dirty one, “He keeps her as company, you know? She would be quite ruined to hear that.”
“The moment she bedded him without a marriage proposal, that was the time she destroyed whatever reputation she had left. Without him and his money she would be tossed to the streets.”
I nodded, gently wiping the plates with a linen rag as she spoke.
“Do not think you shall take her place so quickly,” Heylwigis wagged her finger at me, “He will not commit to you.”
I grimaced, “Do you really think me that much of a whore?”
“Not of you,” she said, “But of him. I have seen the ways he looks at you. I have seen his eyes wander to you. But he cannot, for if he did Titus would lose his inheritance.”
I nodded, “Enough of this talk,” I moved to go up the stairs, “I have work to continue.”
That winter, the lakes and canals had completely frozen over. Bredevoort had nothing like this. Families and children would rug up and strap on their skates, jumping from the canal walls and bridges onto the ice. They skated up and down the canals that wove their way through the city, ending at the chapel fore-garden.
That evening we had decided to join the town and skate. I had strapped my skates on and found a part of the canal where the ice almost met the step. Jumping onto the ice and twisting my ankle was far too risky.
Meneer helped Mevrouw onto the ice while Titus skated around them, mocking and laughing at her. Her feet slipped this way and that as she tried to gain her footing. Couples skated past watching her as if to say, ‘Poor lady. Unfortunate in looks and in skills.’ Unfair? Perhaps, but true on all accounts.
Titus and I skated ahead. I did my best to steer him away from trouble, like the other neighbourhood boys that he would often call on to play pranks and tricks.
“Come now Titus,” I scolded him for skating close to someone from behind.
He looked at me with a pleading expression, reluctantly skating close to my side once more.
“Race you to the end of the canal?” I looked down at his brown curls blowing this way and that in the breeze.
His expression turned to a cheeky grin, jetting off down the ice, darting between this person and that. I picked up my speed, praying that I wouldn’t have to explain to Meneer why he knocked over two dozen people.
The ice beside the church was beautifully lit. Little lanterns hung on the backs of skating sleds, and dotted the perimeter of the rink. The sun rested on the horizon, spreading streaks of dainty blue and frosted pink across the sky. Snow dusted the rooftops of the old church and the houses beyond. I practiced my own skating while Titus joined a bunch of neighbourhood boys, watched over by their nanny.
I could skate alright in a little circle, cutting the corner so as to spin myself around and around with great control. I could skate backwards, but not by much. My hands were toasted the ribbed muff Heylwigis had knitted for me.
Meneer and Mevrouw arrived when the sun was but set behind the horizon. She was clutching onto the crease of his arm, swaying all about the place. Meneer stood strong, able to glide easily along the ice. It had been one year now since I had started here.
He had come to me one night when I was fixing up the kitchen downstairs. He had walked up to the doorway and told me Mevrouw was asleep. I first set down the plates into the bucket. My stomach feeling torn and welded together.
I turned to make my way to my own chamber, but he obstructed me.
“Perhaps you should be with your wife,” I said with viper.
He recoiled. Perhaps my words were too strong.
“She is not my wife.”
“Then she is your whore?”
He smiled, “When Titus was but a babe. He is grown now, and like him, I have outgrown her.”
I shook my hand free from his, which I now only realised was in his grasp, “Be that as it may I am no fool.”
I moved past him, turning to the door on the right where my modest bed lay waiting for me.
“What is it that to mean?” He called, turning around with no composure.
“You are not to wed her in the coming weeks?” I asked, relaying what I had overheard her say to Heylwigis, who had nodded politely, trying to disguise her insincerity.
“Wh- no,” he said firmly, “No I am not to wed her.”
I stopped at my door, turning to face him. I suppose I looked quite scornful.
He moved closer to me, putting one rough hand on my cheek, rosy from the day’s work. I traced the wrinkles around his eyes, that followed their way to his cheeks when he smiled. His beard roughed with greys. There was a certain charm to him. The way he smiled. The way his eyes sparkled with kindness. I felt him push a curl behind my ear.
“How I love this colour,” he would say, “A mix of both russet and delicate brown.”
I pulled away from him, “Not like this.”
Now I was standing on the ice before him. Knowing full well that he intended to release Geertje before the year was up. Why that didn’t sit right with me, I do not know.
“I suppose you’ll join me for a skate? Geertje’s ankles cannot hold much longer and I think she may need to sit for the rest of the evening.”
“Does she know?”
He shook his head.
“And you don’t suppose this will look odd? And maybe even get you into trouble?”
Smiling he took my hand, “Why, I wouldn’t care even if it did.”
© Claudia Merrill 2019