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Authors: Kim Devereux

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BOOK: Rembrandt's Mirror
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What else was he capable of? I'd been right to worry when he'd looked at me in the linen room. And what a coincidence that I had climbed the stairs just then. Of course it was not coincidence but the goodness of the Lord.

I got out of bed again and fell to my knees. Even if kneeling had been abolished by the Church it was the only way I knew to adequately thank the Lord for preserving me by showing me the truth.

As soon as I woke, I recalled the events of the previous night. I could not help but imagine her and Rembrandt in the act, although this was hampered by the fact that I was not entirely sure of what it involved. Besides, I should not be imagining such a thing at all. But even as I quickly dressed, I could not purge my mind of the vision: them wrapped around one another, cosy in the box bed. So I prayed to the Lord, ‘Dear Father, I have sinned, I have noticed ungodly acts and have kept them in my thoughts.'

I tried to submit myself to God's mercy but lacked the faith that I would be forgiven. This reminded me that it was the second day of the two-day holiday – a day for fasting. I would dedicate the entire day to turning my thoughts away from last night and towards God. My stomach growled. I would view any physical discomfort as a reminder to practise governance over my flesh but it would be difficult without any distractions. I'd seen notices announcing a sermon to be delivered in the Oude Kerk by Jodocus van Lodenstein, a famous preacher from Utrecht. I'd go; the sermon would help to keep my mind off Rembrandt and my stomach. But first I drank a good draught of diluted beer to quell the worst of my hunger pangs.

When I arrived at the church, people were queuing at the door, but I managed to squeeze by and find a seat in one of the pews near
the front. It was hard to imagine how one man in a pulpit could make himself heard to the hundreds of people in this vast space. Van Lodenstein was small in stature and entirely dressed in black. He was shifting from one leg to the other, and had none of the aura of godly authority that a preacher like him ought to possess. At last he gave a nod to the organist and as the first notes boomed I joined in with the hymn. I didn't know a soul but it was comforting to be here, doing what I'd done at home in Bredevoort every Sunday – although I'd never enjoyed it then. After the last note had rung out, van Lodenstein waited until there was perfect silence. Even the baby in its mother's lap to my right had stopped gurgling.

A thud forced my attention back to the pulpit. Van Lodenstein had brought his fist down on the lectern and spoke. ‘Why should we harden our hearts if the Lord wishes us to turn away from our sins? Is the obedience to the flesh and its desires worth losing the Lord's favour and kindling God's terrible wrath?'

I'd never seen someone launch into a sermon like this: the backs in the pew in front had all gone from slumping to straight, as had mine. How could so small a man have such a loud voice? It was as if he was looking at me and only me. Did he know? Had I become soiled simply by living in a house of sin? Had Rembrandt really put his pezel inside her last night? I mustn't think of it. Perhaps van Lodenstein knew I'd stopped listening, for he was glowering at me. Or perhaps he was distracted by the baby, which had started cooing loudly. I'd never been able to remember what we'd been taught at Sunday school despite the inevitable punishments. My stomach was
grumbling so noisily that I was glad for the baby's commentary. At the stroke of midnight, the end of the prescribed fast, I'd eat all that remained of yesterday's stew.

Van Lodenstein was leaning so far forward in his pulpit I thought him reckless. ‘Humble yourself under the power of God's hand, because He will elevate you in His time. But you must conduct yourselves with the external humility that you display before God's face; above all it appears in your clothing, and your furniture, as well as in your children, yes, in everything.'

Humble
. I chewed the word over. Why did it matter to be humble in appearance? Surely the members of the congregation who decked themselves out the most carefully in black were the least humble?

‘Humbly we meet him in the heart, in confessing our guilt . . .' Ah, confessing guilt, this was what I'd come for. I certainly felt guilty. If only guilt could be wrapped into a parcel like mouldy pieces of cheese in cabbage, and fed to the cows.

‘. . . in the deep feeling for our sins and our sinful nature. With Ezra we can then say: “O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to thee, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens.”' A lot of cows would be required for my guilt alone. ‘Only then have we made a beginning towards the punishment of unrighteousness.'

What did he mean by punishment? I thought again of Rembrandt and Geertje in that box bed. Were they not afraid of God's punishment? I could not begin to imagine what it must be like to burn in hell for all eternity. Or was
this
, my life as it was, an ongoing series of
punishments before redemption? Life did not seem that bad, but perhaps if I'd visited the heavenly Jerusalem then being back here would seem like punishment. Yes, I did want to be with God, so that I would no longer feel separate and incomplete.

The gateway to the invisible
– what had Rembrandt meant by that? I could not grasp it with my mind, the
invisible
, and yet I wanted to experience it more than anything, even more than being loved by God. Again I quelled these unbidden thoughts. I was so imperfect, so in need of God's love. I must not become distracted. I put my hand in my mouth and bit down on it until it hurt. I wanted it to hurt. I had sinned, was constantly sinning. Obviously I could not reform myself without God's help. I needed to go to Him and not stand back as I had always done, was doing even now.

Van Lodenstein's face suddenly softened as he invited the congregation to partake of the Holy Supper. How generous he was, even to us sinners.

He looked towards heaven. ‘O eternal God and merciful Father, we humble ourselves before thy great majesty, against which we have frequently and grievously sinned.'

I had to hold on to the pew in front for I had a longing again to kneel, even to prostrate myself, to give myself to God at last – such a shame that the reformists had done away with hassocks. I wanted to repent and beg forgiveness and know what it was to be absolved, washed clean of all I had done and was yet to do. I lowered my head in submission to God's will, trying to make each of van Lodenstein's words my own most fervent plea. ‘We acknowledge our waywardness,
and are truly sorry for all our sins. Wash us in the pure spring of Jesus' blood, so that we may become clean and white as snow. Inscribe thy law upon the granite of our heart. And give us the desire and strength to follow your commandments.'

‘Amen,' said many voices as one. Then we all rose and gathered around the table that had been prepared for the Lord's Supper. I pushed my way through the crowds to get to the front, desperate to be absolved.

I was relieved to find my name had already been added to the list, though I had only registered with the Church Council a few days ago. How efficient of them. I took the tiny piece of bread and drank the wine and imagined that it cleansed me of all my sins and my mind of its imaginings.

As I left, I noticed a few people who had been excluded from partaking of the Eucharist. How cruel, I thought, to leave them with their sins.

I emerged into bright sunshine. What to do? I felt too weak to wander about in the heat. I'd head back to the house and find something to do. Put my resolution into practice. Learn to resist the demands of my growling stomach.

When I walked through the front door, I tried to work out who was in the house. It was easy enough to tell if Geertje was there but the master tended to work quietly. Somehow the place felt empty. He must be out. It did not really matter either way.

I went into the kitchen and grabbed the sheets again. They had
more holes than a Swiss cheese. No, I had to get something into my stomach first, so I drank some more diluted beer and then sat down on the chair, needle in hand, and set about my tedious task.

As it was growing dark I realized that I'd been helping myself to the beer without checking first that there was plenty left. I gave it a shake – it was near enough empty and it was the last barrel. Tomorrow a normal day's work would resume with a dozen thirsty pupils and assistants.

Geertje was still not back. I'd have to get some beer – but from where? I cradled the barrel as if it was a baby and set off. Samuel was approaching the house. He pointed at the barrel and laughed, ‘I suppose that's one way of enjoying the holiday.'

‘We've run out of beer and I must get some before tomorrow.'

‘Really,' said Samuel, ‘I cannot imagine who might have drunk it all.'

I ignored the remark and pushed the barrel into his arms. ‘You have to help me or go thirsty. I don't even know where Geertje buys it from.'

‘I don't know either and it's late but I think I know of a tavern which also sells beer by the barrel.'

We set off. It was nightfall. I hoped we'd make it back before curfew. I was feeling lightheaded, either from relief or beer.

After a few minutes of walking we saw burning torches ahead, a marriage procession. The bride and groom were in an open carriage drawn by four horses. Members of the marriage party were walking by the side, showering them so enthusiastically with flowers that
the couple had to shield their eyes. A few girls who followed the carriage were carrying sticks, with wax cupids and angels dangling on strings.

‘A religious holiday is a strange day to choose for getting married,' I said.

‘There's not too many holidays to choose from in the year.'

‘Why were you going to the house?'

‘I wanted to choose some drawings for tomorrow, for the pupils to copy.'

We walked on in silence. I noticed lights being lit in the houses. We passed different windows, almost like pictures; families at table, women preparing dinner, a man playing the lute and children engaged in games.

It seemed like a world so different from out here. How black the silhouettes of trees stood against the fading light. I could still hear the music of the wedding. I looked back. The light of their torches was flickering in the distance.

‘What's on your mind?' said Samuel.

‘Nothing,' I said quickly.

He huffed, not believing me.

‘I'm lonely,' I blurted out. The wretched beer had loosened my tongue.

Samuel stopped and looked at me wide-eyed.

‘Never mind,' I said, ‘I did not really mean that.'

We walked on and he ventured, ‘I know how I felt when I first came here. It takes a while to get used to things.'

‘Yes, no doubt I shall get used to them. The things and all.'

The orange light from the windows was reflected in the water of the canal, snaking over the waves.

‘I don't think you'll have to get used to being lonely,' said Samuel.

‘Why?'

‘You're a pretty girl for a start.'

‘I don't think so.'

‘You must have had lots of admirers at home?'

‘Not particularly.'

‘There must have been some? Tell me about them.'

I shook my head. What a strange thing to want to talk about.

He smiled and said mock pleadingly, ‘Oh, go on, please. We still have a long way to go and I'm curious to hear why you're not married yet.'

Was he making advances? I looked into his face but all I could see was his usual good-natured, honest expression.

‘Well, I suppose it is better than talking about vegetables.'

‘Huh?'

‘The first boy who took a liking to me wrote long letters about the best crops to plant and who'd grown the biggest cabbages. He was obsessed with anything that grew. I suppose it's only natural in a farmer.'

Samuel giggled, ‘That does not sound too bad.'

‘But the trouble was when he was not talking about how early he'd planted his peas he complained about things.'

‘What things?' said Samuel.

‘That it had rained too much, or too little, that his shoe hurt his little toe, the dryness of his skin.'

‘Ah, poor maid,' said Samuel. ‘How did you elude the veg- and complaints-monger?'

‘I wrote to him.'

‘You did not?'

‘Yes, I know, I should have kept quiet, made excuses until he gave up but—' I stopped, suddenly feeling embarrassed.

‘I'm sure his beans helped him get over it. Look, there's a seat, let's sit down, my arms are beginning to ache . . .' he grinned, ‘. . . and my fingers, and my little toe, and—'

I elbowed him in the side, ‘Your ribs.'

We seated ourselves on a wooden bench that was facing an empty building plot between two houses, or so I assumed, for it lay in darkness. We sat with our backs to the street, looking into the night. The crickets were chirping frantically.

‘What happened next?' said Samuel, looking at me, half of his face in shadow and the other half illuminated by light spilling from the houses behind.

‘Oh,' I said, avoiding his eyes, ‘there were others.'

‘Others you didn't like?'

‘Yes.'

‘So what's the most downhill thing that ever happened to you with these Bredevoort failures?'

‘No,' I said, ‘I can't.'

‘Why not?'

‘It's embarrassing.'

‘Even more reason to tell.'

‘How's that?'

‘First you'll feel embarrassed in the telling but then you'll be less so. Besides, I'd like to hear so I can pronounce judgement on all the men of Bredevoort.'

‘No, really, I can't,' I told him.

‘At least tell me
when
it happened – that can't hurt.'

‘All right, but don't look at me.'

He manoeuvred the barrel into an upright position on his lap so it formed a screen between us. ‘There.'

BOOK: Rembrandt's Mirror
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