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Authors: Kim Devereux

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BOOK: Rembrandt's Mirror
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This was heresy. I dismissed the ramblings of my tired brain. As for Rembrandt, his art was powerful but that did not mean it illuminated some deeper truth – which was what poor Samuel seemed to believe.

It was best to stick with tangible realities and the word of the Lord. Perhaps the most virtuous choice was not to marry at all. I'd live as a spinster, maybe working as a housekeeper eventually. In former times a woman like me, devoted to God, could have become a nun, her body covered in long robes and forgotten. This was such a comforting thought that I fell asleep immediately.

Later, I was woken by the sound of Geertje's feet pattering past the kitchen. She was on her way to his room again. It was like clockwork. The treads groaned as she climbed the stairs and then his door closed above.

I couldn't help but picture what was taking place above. It was as though it was all occurring with the sole purpose of vexing me. She sat with him now, on the bed, naked, their heads moving towards each other in a tender kiss. I was soon disabused of this vision by the creaks of the bed and Geertje's moans and groans. Other people conducted themselves honourably but these two thought they were above the law, God's law. I closed my eyes and tried to shut myself
away. Nothing could be heard of him but all the more of Geertje. It sounded more like pain than pleasure.

Before too long I could hear them conversing through the floor boards. ‘I wish to stay tonight,' she pleaded. ‘Please let me, Master.'

‘I am not such a person who can sleep in the same bed with another. Be gone, you shall see me again soon enough.'

There was a long pause; then she said in a pitiful voice, ‘My bed is cold.'

‘You must light the fire then,' he said with mirth.

‘I like to look on you while you sleep.'

‘Don't be silly, what would you gain from that? Besides, you staring at me would prevent the very thing that you seek to see: my slumber.' Then firmer, ‘Go on, away with you, Queen of Gouda.'

Soon she toddled past my room as she returned to her bed. It was odd that he did not want her to sleep in his bed. Surely there must be comfort in the proximity of another body? Geertje's snoring interrupted that very thought just then. The speed of her fall into sleep needled me. Even her repose lacked decorum.

I remained awake. What about him – had he already drifted off or was he still sharing, with me, the realm of the waking?

The next day was Sunday. Geertje had gone out with Titus, and the pupils would not be coming today. I was free to go on another walk through town. The market was always a spectacle. Except I'd constantly be thinking I might glimpse him there again.

In the end I could not bring myself to leave the house at all, not
even briefly. So I dressed and went upstairs to clean the studio. It was a good time to do it. While all the world was taking a breath, Rembrandt too would stay away from work. I started by brushing the grate clean, trying not to inhale the cold ash.

‘Are you not going on one of your outings?' he asked from behind me.

I turned around and saw only the high back of his armchair. Then his face appeared as he looked around the side. ‘I've heard a big ship from Japan will arrive this morning in the harbour. There will be lots to see.'

‘It does not seem like the day for it,' I said.

‘I see,' he said.

I returned to scraping away at the remnants of the fire.

‘If you must engage with coal and soot I'll show you a better way.'

He walked over and offered me a piece of drawing coal. ‘If you won't let me draw you, then you'll have to draw me.'

I could not think how to respond so I remained crouching by the grate. He produced a wad of paper and waved his hand at a chair as if it was a matter of great urgency. I walked to the chair, as if dispossessed of my own will but knew I must be on my guard.

He turned his armchair around and pulled it into the light. Then he settled into it like a bird on a nest of eggs.

I was still standing by the chair. I couldn't possibly sit down with him, much less draw him.

‘It's nothing immoral,' he assured me. ‘I just want to show you
how to draw a face – I'll be the model. Unless you prefer to draw him?'

He pointed to the wizened head of an old goat. It had no apparent use but lingered on a shelf in the studio. The buck's mouth was slightly open, showing his teeth in a demented grin. I took the paper. He assumed a pose, his gaze fixed on some point ahead. I sat down. He was one of those people you could not say
no
to.

‘Don't look at the paper, only at this,' he said, pointing at his face, grinning much like the goat. ‘Trust your hand,' he said, ‘it will do what it does. It's the seeing that matters.'

I looked at him, saw the untidy hair, the collar that was turned up on one side and down on the other, the lines around the corners of his mouth. I leaned in closer. What liberty to look at his face like this.

And then I was a wanderer who had turned a corner into an unknown land. It was spread out before me. I made my first step and followed the line of his left eyelid; it was a smooth curve. The right eyelid, however, revealed itself to have a loose fold of skin that almost drooped over the eye itself. I had not seen any of this before. My hand duly noted these discoveries. The lines in his face all beckoned to be travelled. I wanted to see them even more clearly, so I moved my chair closer – close enough to smell the paint on him, or whatever it was, that reminded me of my feelings in the boat.

I came across a deep line between the brows. It did not plunge straight down the middle of his face but slightly to the left and then took a turn towards the eye socket, where it stopped. I made a map,
line after line, noting the texture and terrain. His face was the landscape around the house where I grew up. Soon I knew it so well that I could have found my way home even in pitch darkness.

After a while the lines of his face started whispering to me of something more than their direction and location. They told me why they had been cut.

There, a change in his face. It was more exposed, vulnerable even. He lowered his gaze, almost closing his lids. Had I caused this? No, he had always been vulnerable. I had merely unveiled it, by drawing him. There were yet more veils to lift. I would go on. ‘Your eyes, I cannot see your eyes,' I said.

He lifted his chin, but still kept his eyes on the floor. I waited. He took a breath, as if it required an effort to raise his gaze, but then, breathing out, he did. His eyes met mine. Hot pokers into wax. The charcoal slippery between my fingers, all my bearings gone.

I clung to my task and the piece of charcoal. Record the shape of his iris, I told myself. My hand duly made a circle. I kept on looking at his eyes. It was more difficult for him; he was bare before me. There was something like a tremor behind his physical sight. How to record it? My hand moved but I did not care what manifested on paper. Then, something beyond the tremor. I could not name it. The reaction of my own eyes named it for me; they were moist. His eyelids came down and he looked away. We sat in silence for a little while. Then he got up and said, ‘I'd meant to teach you something, but I'm the one who's come away with a lesson. It's not so easy to be a model.'

I smiled and looked down at my drawing. It was a wild confusion of lines, criss-crossing all over the paper with only a few features discernible, such as the circles of the irises. He peered over my shoulder and laughed. ‘You've drawn the old goat after all.'

Then he added quietly, ‘You know how to look at your subject.' He pointed at the billy. ‘He'd probably come back to life if you ever looked at him like that.'

I placed the drawing and charcoal on the chair. I excused myself and quickly left the studio.

A Woman Sleeping

I was woken in the middle of the night by a creak of my door. I froze – I knew it was him before he had even crossed the threshold of my room. I kept my eyes closed. Why had he come? Did he think that because of what had happened earlier he could take liberties? I was lying on my side, half curled up, facing into the kitchen.

His footsteps approached my bed and then silence. I slowed my breath to appear asleep. It was my protection; no one could be so wicked as to trespass on a sleeper.

I prayed my blanket-hidden body was of no interest to him. But as he stood – breathing slow breaths like mine – I felt my forgotten hips as his eyes rested on their shrouded apex. Then I knew his attention on the side of my arm, my shoulder, my exposed neck. And then my face. I willed my blood not to rush there and my breath to stay the same.

Finally, his footsteps moved away. I heard him go to Geertje's room, hesitate at the threshold and then she must have woken for both of them tiptoed their way upstairs to resume their inevitable ministrations to one another.

*

When I opened the door in the morning to pour away the slops, the sky looked grey. I was standing with the bucket in my hand. The street was unusually quiet; maybe everyone expected a downpour. I watched the dark green water of the canal undulating in soft-bellied bumps, bringing with them the images of trees and then abandoning them for a window, a door or a piece of sky. The visual world was a disjointed affair. Only the water itself was continuous.

I looked at the house. I did not want to go back inside. The reflections skipped lightly across the waves. If only I could partake in life's joys with such ease or otherwise reach beyond them and be with God as only blessed souls could. I poured the dirty water into the canal.

‘Morning, Hendrikje,' said Samuel behind me.

I turned around and greeted him.

‘There's a dance next Sunday at The Mennonite Wedding. You know, the music hall. Would you like to go?'

I was without grace in dance but it had to be better than being stuck in the house with Rembrandt and Geertje on a Sunday.

On the night of the dance we made our way to the music hall. So many people were out on the streets: sailors, travellers, servants, country folk and gentlefolk, all clothed in their best garments. I'd concluded Samuel
did
find me appealing – a dizzying thought.

He was dressed so differently from his usual drab attire: white stockings, red puffy trousers and a white shirt with sleeves so voluminous that one had to search for him amongst the swathes of linen.
I had ample time to regard him properly as we walked. His face still retained too much of its boyish softness but his hair was thick and vigorous and his limbs were long.

From the outside the hall was not much more than a door in the side of a house but once we'd passed through it we were assailed by the sound of reckless gaiety. The low-ceilinged space was large enough to hold at least a hundred people. Chairs and tables were lined up along the walls of the long, rectangular hall. There was a fine wooden floor and ornate beams on the ceiling. The dance floor was still empty but couples milled around the sides. I was surprised by the women's dresses; there wasn't a brown or black garment in sight, only blues, reds, greens and whites. I should have worn more colourful attire. You could never tell in Amsterdam whether to be modest or gay. We put our things on chairs and Samuel went off to buy some wine. There were many couples but also plenty of old folk and children. Everyone seemed to be determined to derive as much pleasure from this brief suspension of life's duties as they possibly could.

At the end of the room was a small raised area where the musicians were getting ready: two fiddlers, a bagpiper and a drummer. They started to play just as Samuel returned with the wine. He held out his hand and together we joined the lines of dancers. To my dismay I did not recognize the dance at all, but Samuel with a big grin and his flag of a sleeve motioned where to go next. It was so endearing and enjoyable that I was almost glad to be ignorant of the steps.

There was much spinning and vigorous movement and soon sweat was running down my spine, tickling me. This was what I'd needed: to feel happy, giddy and carefree.

There were quieter moments too, when the couples would lift their arms to form an arched aisle for other couples to process through, reminding me of the sanctity of marriage and the purpose of a woman's life.

After this we sat down and watched the dancers for a while. He sat beside me sipping his wine. I was glad for a chance to catch my breath and tempted to stretch out my legs the way Rembrandt liked to do under the table.

‘Why is the place called The Mennonite Wedding?'

‘I don't know,' said Samuel, ‘maybe Mennonite weddings are particularly gay affairs.' Then he added, ‘You're a lovely dancer.'

‘But I don't know any of them.'

‘That doesn't matter, does it?'

I smiled at him. ‘No.'

The fiddler announced that the next dance would be
something quite new
from France and that it was already popular in England and Germany. ‘It is called
La Volta
,' he said, raising his eyebrows. He would teach us. Samuel got up, offering me his hand. I took it and got to my feet.

The fiddler had a lady with him on the platform. ‘This is how you hold each other,' he said, putting his hand on her hip, pulling her towards him. There were giggles in the room – no one was used to such proximity.

I looked at Samuel, his expression uncertain as he placed his hand above my hip, still maintaining a good gap between us. I was worried where the fiddler would be taking us and it was strange to feel Samuel's hand on my side.

The fiddler said, ‘Now it's for the lady to place her hand on her gallant gentleman's back . . .' I wished he'd drop his leering tone; he probably thought himself funny.

‘Her other hand – her left hand – in case you're already getting confused, is there to rein in the fabric of her dress in case it flies too high.' The next sentence was punctuated with more excessive eyebrow action: ‘Ladies, it is entirely up to your discretion how high is too high.'

More laughs, but not from me. I put my hand on his shoulder. If only we could start dancing quickly. It was awkward standing like this.

‘Do not be shy,' said the fiddler, ‘go on, move closer. To dance
La Volta
you should be as close together as two babes in a crib.'

No one moved.

‘I've never done this dance before,' said Samuel.

‘I wonder if everyone will join in.'

‘Would you prefer to sit down?' said Samuel.

I wanted out of this but I also wanted to enjoy myself. ‘No,' said I. ‘Let's try.'

Samuel gave me a warm smile and as I looked into his eyes, my hand settled more easily on to his shoulder.

The fiddler had pulled his partner so close that they were touching all along their legs, with their upper bodies somewhat leaning
away from each other. The hall had become very still – from fright, I assumed. No one left the dance floor. But nobody dared emulate the fiddler either, until a couple close to us adopted the wringer pose. Then, like a herd of sheep, everyone followed – except for me and Samuel.

‘Well done, boys and girls,' said the fiddler, who ought to be put in the stocks. Now he placed his left hand just below the bosom of his partner. ‘Put your hand there on the busk, if the lady is wearing one,' he chuckled. ‘Otherwise it may be prudent to place it on your partner's hip, for you will be lifting her in a minute.'

I was not wearing a busk. Samuel probably had no idea if I was or wasn't, for they were stiff plates entirely hidden by clothing. What would it be like to have a hand placed there?

‘Ha, ha,' said Samuel, ‘trust the French to come up with something like this.' But he did not move and we were still the only couple standing a foot apart – or so it seemed to me.

I took a step towards him, narrowing the gap somewhat. It was only a dance. And in response he put his hand where my ribs joined beneath my breast. His fingers were tentative and light. It was enlivening, a thrill even but then, after a mere breath or two, the thrill grew frightful. My breathing brought my flesh firmly into his palm with nothing but the thinnest fabric between my skin and his.

I wished I could withdraw like a snail into its shell. Curiosity was insufficient preparation for being touched in that soft place. I was just about to push away – faux pas or not – when the music started and Samuel removed his hand and placed it on my hip instead.

The scrawny fiddler demonstrated lifting his lady in big swooping movements and everyone else started emulating him. With the relief of movement came a childish delight at being swung through the air. Samuel lifted me higher and higher until I laughed out loud, only just managing not to scream.

And as we danced to a slower part Samuel returned his palm once more to my upper belly. I resolved to give my weight into his hand, if nothing else than to make our dancing easier but my back stiffened no matter how I tried to relax. I carried on with the required steps but, like a bad puppet master, I was unable to call forth graceful moments from my wooden limbs. All I could do was to try and keep up with his movements but still I lagged behind. He probably hated dancing with me by now. Flushed faces surged in waves around me. I was closer to a man's body than I had ever been – and yet utterly apart from him and from my own soul. Loneliness in company was the worst kind.

No, you're not giving up so easily, I told myself. That hand of mine on his shoulder was an inanimate lump. I moved it to bring some feeling into it. I
will
embrace him like I mean it. This was Samuel, who'd cared and helped me. Rembrandt's main assistant, already a promising artist in his own right. Letting go of my skirts, I placed both my hands on his back. He put both of his on my hips and pulled me closer. It was no use. I wanted out of his embrace but I could not be so rude. I had to endure until the music stopped. Ill-begotten fiddler, why won't you tire? I held my feelings in a tight grip, like the throats of hens before slaughter. How could I have
explained my tears to him? I thought of Rembrandt telling Geertje that he could not sleep in the presence of another, how he seemed so reluctant to be with her and yet he carried on. Perhaps he needed something but there always was a price to pay.

I was still being whirled about by Samuel.

Finally the music stopped and we walked to our chairs.

‘That was fun,' he said.

‘Yes,' I replied.

Samuel accompanied me back to the house. ‘Thank you for dancing with me,' he said as a way of leave-taking.

‘Thank you,' I answered.

He bent forward as if to kiss me on the mouth but I turned my head away and he kissed my cheek. Then he looked at me for a moment, and bade me goodnight.

As soon as the door was shut, I mopped the remains of the kiss from my cheek. Back in my room I quickly undressed, discarding my smelly clothes in a pile on the floor. It was always the same with me. No suitable man suited me. Samuel would probably be walking home now thinking that he'd had some first-hand experience of what I'd told him about my prickly reputation in Bredevoort. Maybe he had not even noticed. I just hoped things would not be too awkward between us now.

I would let sleep wash away the filthy dregs of the day. I closed my eyes. But the smell of stale smoke and Samuel's sweat still crept into my nostrils.

BOOK: Rembrandt's Mirror
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