Authors: Kim Devereux
He glanced at me before rising, and I had the strange notion that I'd seen what he had seen and that he knew.
I felt very tired when Geertje finally left the kitchen, which was where I slept. There was a box bed in the corner. From it I could see the embers still glowing in the hearth but the rest was darkness. Where did they keep the candles? I'd never be able to find the chamber pot in the dark. I hugged the pillow to my chest, thinking of my brother Harmen. If only I could talk to him now. When I was little he'd read bedtime stories to me. There was a sick feeling in my stomach. Why was I the one who had to leave? Martijne, being the oldest, had moved out but my mother and my brothers were all snug at home now with the van Dorstens â a merry lot.
Still, I was working in the house of the greatest painter in Holland. That's when it struck me as odd that I had been hired by Geertje so easily and swiftly. First she had stood frowning, clearly having no intention of letting me over the threshold. But then, after a moment's thought, she started babbling as if we were to become the best of friends. She hailed from Gouda. Her name was Geertje. Where was I from? Did I have any experience?
âNone,' I confessed.
When could I start?
âImmediately,' I said as nonchalantly as I could, even though an offer of employment from her was the last thing I'd expected.
She'd looked at me with her pale blue eyes, frowning again, and said she'd take me on.
Perhaps she could see that I was young and strong. Perhaps she thought my inexperience meant I was not set in my ways and she could teach me. But why had she not presented me to the master of the house? It was most unusual for a housekeeper to be entrusted with hiring a maid.
I closed my eyes but sleep would not come. The sights of the day pressed themselves upon me: the entrance hall with its towering walls, hung with oil paintings from floor to ceiling. Quite a few of them were portraits he had done of himself. I thought of the one with the fur collar and the fanciful hat. I noticed it each time. It was from 1640 so it depicted him in his mid thirties (Geertje had told me that he was now forty-one years of age). At first the face had seemed remote, haughty even, but when I'd looked at it again, after lunch, a
sympathetic humour had appeared that lurked behind the serious expression. I was so close to sleep that impressions jumbled together. The black feathers of the bird that had suddenly revealed their colours. What it must be to see the world as he sees it. The oily ink smell that seeped from the print room. The knuckles of the gentleman, tapping so carefully on the door. The staircase winding on up to his studio and beyond into the dark unknown. And Geertje, the way she'd placed the bowl in front of him as if he were a dog.
In the morning of my second day, Geertje charged me with cleaning the windows of the entrance hall. The glass was very dirty, but as soon as I wiped it, the obscuring veil was lifted from the merchants, carts and children playing on the street. A gentleman was approaching the house. He had light, curly, shoulder-length hair and wore a black doublet and breeches, so well-fitting they seemed to flow with him as he walked.
I'd have to answer the door. I was right next to it. And there was the knock already. He looked surprised, but greeted me cordially and introduced himself as âJan Six to see Rembrandt'. I'd never seen such a well-dressed gentleman. Even the collar of his shirt spilled over the doublet in such a smooth fashion that it had to be silk. His movements, too, were trailing, elegant, refined. He headed for the anteroom as though he knew his way around.
Rembrandt burst in and embraced Six with so much vigour that I thought he might break the dainty creature. Both men patted each other's backs as if it was a competition. Then they settled into
the seats in the anteroom and I resumed my work in the hall. The intervening door remained open.
âIt's been too long, old friend,' said Rembrandt.
âI know, I know. However, given the numbers you sell of these counterfeits of your visage, it's as if I see you everywhere I go.'
Rembrandt laughed and Six continued, âI must say it was a nice surprise not to be confronted with Geertje's omelette features but a far more pleasant and, if I may add,
sight. It's just as well she's not working for me as I might get myself into trouble.'
Did he not realize I could hear every word? How dare he speak in this way? But most unsettling of all, he was of the opinion that I possessed some kind of appeal. Maybe men's tastes in Amsterdam were different from those in Bredevoort?
âGet to it,' Rembrandt said. âSomething is on your mind?'
â'Tis true enough, dear friend. I am very concerned for you.'
âWhat? I've not done anything, have I?'
âYes, you've been doing a great many windmills. It is said that you've fallen prey to some kind of excessive humour that has you painting them all day, every day.'
At this Rembrandt and Six both burst into uncontrollable laughter, then Six resumed his normal tone of voice. âSeriously, my friend, certain esteemed and important burghers are getting
disgruntled that you've been turning down their generous portrait commissions.'
âWindmills are much prettier than their corm-nosed faces.'
âYes, but windmills are not in a position to return your affection for them with important and lucrative commissions.'
âThat is true but I wouldn't want one or two patrons, no matter how important, to think they had marital rights over my brush.'
Six chuckled. âI think there's little danger of that as long as you make yourself and your brush widely available.'
âYou'll be my teacher,' said Rembrandt.
More giggling. I could not believe the rudeness of their talk or the childishness. Six, while being much younger than Rembrandt, was not a youth anymore. Still, I could see the attraction of having a friend like Six.
Six said, âI want you to do a portrait etching of me.'
There was a pause, then Rembrandt said, âWhat kind?'
âWhatever setting pleases you but I want it to be the epitome of
âStill trying to be the perfect gentleman courtier, are we?'
Silence from Six, then Rembrandt said, âAll right, remind me of the qualities involved. As you can see, I'm a little out of practice myself.' I thought of Rembrandt sprawling on the chair during lunch.
âThe usual, you know, attributes of both a contemplative lifeâ'
âA pamphlet .Â .Â .' interjected Rembrandt.
â.Â .Â . and an active and courageous one.'
âA sword, scabbard, dagger, cape, maybe a dog.'
âA dog?' Six almost yelped.
âWell, let's say a
, to signify the qualities of loyalty and friendship and that you are a member of the hunting classes.'
âI see. All of this must seem effortless, as if we've put no thought into it at all.'
âWe'll have you casually leaning against something, your nose stuck in one of your manuscripts.'
âWhen can we start?'
âCome by next week.'
âI'm not sure about the dog, though,' said Six.
âAll right, the
,' Six said.
âJust bring it. I'll do a quick sketch first.'
âDo you realize that you're the only painter in town who has his clients cater to him rather than him catering to his clients?'
âWhat's wrong with that?'
Six laughed and said, âYou ought to draw her. She'd be a better cure for your windmill habit.'
Thankfully, Geertje came in with some beer. As soon as she'd left, Six remarked, âThere goes the true owner of your brush.'
I expected more laughter but there was only silence, then Rembrandt got up and closed the door.
When I'd finished with that great big window, I'd had quite enough of working near the main door and dealing with callers. I wanted to be alone. I grabbed the pile of sheets that Geertje had said needed
darning and headed for the linen store. It was perfect â not so much for darning but for hiding. It was up one flight of stairs from the ground floor and was accessed from the mezzanine landing. In the left and right walls of the landing were little viewing windows or peep-holes that looked down into the double-height entrance hall on one side and into Rembrandt's bedroom on the other. And straight ahead was the linen room. I went in, closing the door behind me. The smell of freshly washed linen welcomed me to my sanctuary. It was quite small and lit by only one window at the far end. I shoved the linen on to the table and took off my cap because I could never get used to the pressure of its ear irons against my temples. I settled into the high-backed wooden chair. If I'd had my foot-warmer, I would have felt just as comfortable as back at home. I sat close to the window to get as much light as possible on to the frayed hole. Soon I found a rhythm, bridging the edges with a lattice of thread. I missed the ticking of my father's clock but at least my new surroundings were already beginning to feel familiar. This morning I'd put a candle by my bed in preparation for the second night.
What had Six meant?
There goes the true owner of your brush
. Geertje certainly seemed to be in charge. None of this concerned me. I turned my attention to my own situation. I was twenty-one; it was getting late in the day. I needed to register with the church and involve myself in social activities. They spoke of marriage as a safe harbour after the treacherous straits of maidenhood but I viewed it differently. Maidenhood had been quite lacking in peril and I fervently hoped that marriage would prove to be
voyage of discovery. But
what if I didn't like anyone, not even in all of Amsterdam? And I always offended people, especially men. Despite what Six had said to Rembrandt, the truth was that I wasn't pretty; I wasn't tall and I wasn't fair. I was as dark as a witch.
The back of the chair had a vertical piece of wood down the middle which was now making itself felt. Stupid chair. I stood up and pushed it away and sat on the floor, stuffing some sheets behind my back. Much better. The door opened and in walked Rembrandt, nearly falling over my stretched-out legs. âOh, Hendrickje.'
âForgive me, Master, I am just mending some linen.' I couldn't decide whether to stay on the floor or stumble to my feet in the small space.
âIt's no bother to me, but can you see in this light?'
âErm yes, thank you, Master. I'm sorry, Master.'
He gestured at the paper he had tucked under his arm. âI need to get some chalks. They are in the cupboard.'
I mumbled further apologies and tried to get my legs out of his way.
âNo, no, don't trouble yourself, I can get there.'
He stepped around me and retrieved a small box. When he reached the door he suddenly stared at the top of my head as if I'd grown horns. He took the paper out from under his arm as if he meant to use it. What was he thinking? This was Six's doing. I pulled the linen up to my shoulders as if it was a blanket. He breathed in and then out with a little sigh. Then he tucked the paper back under his arm and left. âForgive the disturbance,' he said.
Maybe he'd not thought of drawing me at all. I got up quickly and sat on the chair. Or he'd seen something behind me? I held the linen where he had looked and a beam of sunlight shone on that very spot; revealing a glowing forest of tiny fibres. My hair, without the cap, must have produced a similar effect. I probably looked as though I had a halo.
Then I remembered the blackbird. The beautiful things I generally missed, how obvious they were to him, while I went about the world with my eyes half shut. I sat down again in the chair trying to find the hole I'd been working on.
But I could not be at peace no matter how good the linen smelled. I gathered up the sheets once more and set off for the kitchen. Geertje was out and it would be warm and quiet there â at least until Titus returned from school.
The next morning Samuel came into the kitchen. Geertje was scrubbing a pan and bubbles were rising up into the air. Samuel was lingering by the door and I thought again of the way he and his master had looked at one another.
âGeertje, we need a model for class,' said Samuel.
A preposterous thought presented itself before it could be stifled. He wanted
as a model.
Geertje turned and looked at me. âYou'll have to get one. I must be off to market.'
âOh,' I replied. I had no idea what was involved.
âDon't stand there gawping, go out and find a body.'
âA body?' I said.
âWe'd hardly send you to fetch a proper lady from a mansion on the Herengracht,' said Geertje.
Both of them sniggered. Then she explained, âIt's for the life-drawing class. You go to the harbour â that's where the street walkers are. Make sure you speak to one that you think the master would like the look of and offer her ten
. That's more than enough for a morning's work.'
âBut how will I know a working woman from an ordinary one?'
âProstitutes look exceedingly gay and wear fine dresses, almost as gentlewomen do. But they don't seem to know how to move in them with grace and their hands are coarse and marked.'
âAnd how do I know which one to pick?'
âSo many questions from you today. You'll have to guess. I grant you, it is difficult to know what suits his pencil â sometimes the more life's left marks on them, the more he likes to draw them.'
And with that and a chuckle, Geertje left.
I was soon eyeing up the women and tried imagining them doing what they ordinarily got paid for. Being a model must be an infinitely more pleasant way to make money. They were all attractively attired, with low-cut dresses. When I got closer, I noticed that their cheeks and lips were painted with rouge, which gave them a lively appearance. I reminded myself that I was not choosing for a man but for an artist, for him. Were the two entirely separate? Which woman would he like to draw?