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Authors: Kim Devereux

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BOOK: Rembrandt's Mirror
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Samuel is in the process of answering all the notes that have been left for Rembrandt, asking to see him on business or expressing condolences. He longs to get back to his books, but someone has to deal with the paperwork.

There are sounds of a commotion from below and then a door bangs shut. He goes downstairs and there is Geertje, outside Rembrandt's bedroom, her apron drenched. She wordlessly hands him the half-full jug, cloth and soap, and stomps off.

Bucket in hand, Samuel considers his options: he could forget
about it – there is no reason to put himself through so much unpleasantness. But perhaps he can wash away some of the darkness that is suffocating his master? He wants him back drawing something that other people don't even stop to look at until his pen discovers it for them. He has to try.

Rembrandt is in bed, blanket pulled over him with only a narrow opening for nose and blinking eyes. Samuel decides a little lie can't hurt. ‘Master, forgive me but the physician says it will be good to rub down the skin. Will you sit on the stool please, it won't take a moment.'

He seems to have special powers, for Rembrandt gets up, albeit shakily, and sits on the footstool wearing his nightshirt. Samuel puts the ceramic bowl on the floor and lifts each foot in turn, placing them in the bowl. He tests the water in the jug for temperature – it is nice and warm – and pours it over the feet. Rembrandt settles into himself and Samuel starts rubbing the shins and calves with warm water and soap. It makes him think of one of Rembrandt's drawings of Christ washing the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper. Jesus hunkered down, scrubbing away at the dirty toes.

When he is done with the feet he tells Rembrandt to lift up his arms and peels away the stinking nightshirt. The skin on his body looks even whiter than on his face. It's no different from cleaning his brushes and palette, he tells himself, and sets about scrubbing the neck with the cloth. There are grey hairs on Rembrandt's head that he has not noticed before. He dips the cloth again into the warm water and wipes it up and down the back, avoiding direct contact
with the warm skin. Now the brow, grime-streaked. Samuel dabs at it; the filth does not want to come off but he can hardly scrub it like a muddy boot. Rembrandt leans back, making it easier to see his face, and revealing to Samuel black soot-like flecks on his cheeks. He rubs away at them and to his satisfaction they start coming off. This is better.

He is as docile as a motherless lamb. Samuel does his best to carefully wipe the front of the neck. ‘Master,' he says, without really intending to, ‘I am so sorry.'

‘I know,' says Rembrandt. Then after a while, ‘You're a better man than I.'

‘It's you who taught me,' says Samuel. ‘You taught me everything.'

‘I didn't teach you this.'

Samuel sets to work on armpits, chest and arms. That done, he hesitates – down there, what to do about it? He can't possibly, but then again he always finishes what he starts . . . Rembrandt intercepts his hand.

‘Come now boy, if I don't put a stop to this, you'll soon be clucking like a brooding hen. Give me the flannel. And tell Jan Six: pitch darkness happens in the vault of the mind, even if the sun shines brightly outside. And
that
can be depicted.'

Samuel hands him the cloth and for a moment he thinks he can smell paint on him again.

Summer

Samuel is at his master's desk. He's just heard the clock chime midnight. He had hoped that things would improve more quickly but it's been almost a month and Rembrandt still refuses to see anyone except him. The pupils are on the verge of moving on to other workshops and since they provide the only remaining source of income he has to keep them occupied, pretending the master has set the tasks. At least Rembrandt now occasionally answers questions, which helps Samuel keep things going. But it is not enough. He needs to show himself soon, or he and his business will be finished. He must speak to him. Chances are he's still awake, as he mostly sleeps during the day.

Rembrandt is lying on the bed, staring at the ceiling, but sits up when he sees him. Samuel pulls up a chair and starts stuffing the pipe he has brought with tobacco. He lights it with the flame from the candle, drawing air until he tastes smoke, then gives it to Rembrandt. They pass it between them until the tobacco is spent. The room is thick with smoke, swirling in the light of the candle.

Samuel says softly, so softly that Rembrandt can pretend he has not heard it, ‘What is it like?'

‘What is what like?' asks Rembrandt.

‘Your condition?'

‘You make it sound like a disease.'

Rembrandt's eyes close and he disappears into thought. Finally he utters, ‘You know how some fools, greedy for a shiny darkness, add bitumen to their paint without sufficient driers and then a few years later the face of a dear friend, rendered in thousands of careful brushstrokes, develops blisters and then . . .' – he makes a motion with his hands of something flowing apart – ‘. . . it's ripped apart by ugly crevices.'

His eyes, behind his closed lids, strain as if trying to focus on something. ‘When I look where my love used to be . . .'

He shrugs his shoulders and sticks his finger into the spent pipe, scoops out the ash and shows it to Samuel. ‘I don't want to talk. Talking is . . .' he sighs, ‘I'm just not interested.' He rubs the black ash between his thumb and index finger. ‘Funny, to think this used to grow once in a field.'

To Samuel this does not sound like ordinary grief at all but like a canker of the soul. ‘So how do we make it better?' he asks.

‘Ah, still trying to cure me of my disease?'

‘But it's more than grief, isn't it?'

‘What makes you think it can be cured?' he says with a defeated smile that isn't one.

Samuel feels the urge to drag him to his feet, thrust a pencil into his hand and make him use it. He can't comprehend this strange apoplexy of feeling. What is the point of loving someone if it results in this incapacity? Samuel touches his arm to get his attention. ‘But before, when the babies died, you
did
go on with work?'

With a strange knowing expression in his face, Rembrandt takes
Samuel's hand and studies it. ‘You've not been painting either, have you?'

Has he lost his mind? Of course he hasn't painted – he's been running the workshop for him.

Rembrandt turns his hand over and points at the lines in his palm. ‘The body changes all the time, new lines appear, sometimes in a matter of weeks. But there are inner changes too, the flux of our natural empathies, the movements of the soul. I've taught you to see and depict them, remember?'

Samuel feels something, yes, he is subject to an inner flow, no apoplexy of feeling for
him
; he is here because of what he feels. How rough the fingers gripping his hand are. He has not noticed this before. Suddenly the window rattles from a draft. The candle splutters and dies. They are in total darkness. Like bitumen, thinks Samuel.

Rembrandt lets go of his hand and Samuel feels a rising panic. He's lost all sense of where he is, or the door, the candle or Rembrandt. It is childish but he's always been afraid of the dark. He can't help reaching out with his hand, feeling for something to orientate himself. He chances upon Rembrandt's arm and holds on to it.

Rembrandt whispers as if telling him a secret, ‘We were kin. I was as used to her as to having arms and legs. Of course, it's possible to lose a limb and get on with some kind of life . . . but Samuel, I did not
lose
her.' He pauses. ‘I cut her off.'

Samuel wants to shake him – what nonsense. He feels
Rembrandt's hand on his upper arm, like a bridge between them, a conduit. ‘I saw that she did not have many days left, so miserable coward that I was I put a gap between us, to make it bearable for myself. Do you hear, Samuel, not for her, but for
me
.' Now Rembrandt's grip loosens to almost nothing. ‘I should have waited till after she was gone but I left her, long before she went.'

Samuel understands. He too is frightened. He too has thought of leaving rather than watching his master disintegrate. If only he could put his master's soul at rest about these sins that aren't sins at all.

Samuel listens out into the silent darkness for a long time. He places his other hand also on Rembrandt's sleeve, first softly, then holding on to the arm with both his hands as if to return him to this world and keep him here.

Rembrandt's fingers are gripping Samuel's elbow. ‘Why does God teach me to love, then strip me bare, leaving me with nothing?'

Then Rembrandt lets go but Samuel doesn't. He traces the sleeve down to the rough-skinned hand and takes it in both of his. He wants to pour all his own strength into this hand, which is meant to paint. He is glad the dark conceals the moisture in his eyes. Rembrandt sighs and pulls his hand away. He must be trying to lie down, so Samuel helps him and arranges the blanket over him as best he can in the dark. ‘I'll go and fetch some light,' he says.

To his surprise, he finds the door easily despite the dark. He hastens up to the studio which has a stove with some embers in it. What a struggle it is to love and yet how easy, thinks Samuel. He puts
a candle to them and the wick bursts into flame at the first touch.

He carries the light back to Rembrandt's room and puts it by his bed. His master has already fallen asleep. What a blessing it is to see him look peaceful.

Geertje can't do anything quietly, thinks Rembrandt. If it wasn't for her I'd still be asleep. Can't she lift the chairs instead of dragging them across the stone floor?

It is impossible to produce an etching that depicts impenetrable darkness
. Who said that? If he is quick he might not see anyone. How ridiculous to be afraid of encountering another person in his own house.

He reaches the print room unnoticed. Now he's safe. They know better than to disturb him when he is working. He locks the door, turning the key as many times as it will go.

He steps towards the container where the lumps of soft ground are usually kept. Hoping that his assistants have maintained a supply of the right consistency. He picks up and sniffs up one of the pieces which are a boiled-down mixture of asphalt, resin and wax. His nose is pleasantly assaulted by the heady smell of asphalt. He inhales the invigorating fumes before wrapping it in gauze and lighting a fire in the chafing dish to heat up the plate.

Once the copper is warm enough he applies the ground which dissolves, passing through the gauze. When the plate has cooled, he opens the shutters to have more light and takes the etching needle
and puts it to the plate. The asphalt yields like butter, satisfying – a coppery trail of exposed metal.

The outlines of a small chamber have taken shape but the plate is still mostly black. To the right he sketches a small window, beneath it an old man, St Jerome, who sits at a table with an open book. But Jerome pays no attention to it. His elbow rests wearily on the table, his arm and hand propping up his head. The light is not too bright and yet the old man feels it necessary to shade his eyes.

On the left he draws the outline of a spiral staircase, which continues beyond the edge of the plate. Once he has completed this rough outline of the elements of the picture, the rhythm of his work changes. The plate is still almost entirely black, with only the sketch showing in shiny copper. He imagines it as a print: the red lines of copper transformed into black ink. He'll have to expose much more copper to get the darkness he wants. He thinks of the plate submerged in its bath, the acid eating away at the copper until it has bitten grooves deep enough to retain the ink. He starts a flurry of hatched lines, his fingers and needle a blur. More and more bright copper is exposed. It takes a long time, for it isn't a uniform darkness he wants to achieve but many shades of grey; even the darkest parts still hint at the existence of walls and furnishings, right on the edge of recognition.

He wants the onlooker to see into a special kind of darkness, one that swallows not only ordinary light but the inner light of the eyes, the light of attention. He'll lead the viewer there with his needle, up the dark staircase to the upper room beyond the edge of the plate,
where no thought, or light, or glimmer of anything exists, until the onlooker even forgets about himself.

What of Jerome? His head is being disgorged by darkness, but not the rest of him. He remains half-born in a mute world. The shadows are eating him and yet he cannot see them.

Rembrandt turns his attention to the window, the lightest part of the image. It is big enough to allow ample light into the room. But despite his seat by the window, it's as if Jerome exists in darkness, because the light can never penetrate the darkness of his mind.

The boy is terribly pleased when he discovers the etching in the print room. He believes that he brought about a change in Rembrandt but really there is none.

BOOK: Rembrandt's Mirror
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