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Authors: Kim Devereux

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BOOK: Rembrandt's Mirror
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I spoke into the night.

‘It was a few years ago on the first of May.'

Without looking at me, he took the cork out of the barrel and spoke into its hollow, producing a spooky voice. ‘An innocent enough sounding date, but then Bredevoort has already proved treacherous.'

Then he put the barrel back as a screen and said, ‘Perhaps men dress up as tulip bulbs and roll themselves down the high street?'

I laughed, ‘No, the custom is for young men to attach a green branch on the ridge-beam of the house of a girl they like.'

‘Your ridge-beam must have been strained to breaking point.'

‘No,' I said, looking into the black night where perhaps someone might build a house one day. ‘No branches.'

Samuel remained quiet. The crickets continued their racket.

I took a breath, ‘When I went to look in the morning there was
a life-size scarecrow. It had long, black hair, and a decidedly sour look on its face.'

I turned to look at him but there was only the empty barrel. But something touched my hand; his fingers, warm and soft. They folded around mine. I thought he'd squeeze my hand and let go again, but his hand stayed. I closed my fingers around his and disappeared into the black of my closed lids and the sound-swell of chirping crickets. I wondered if they'd ever find one another in the dark.

After a while, Samuel said, ‘We'd better go if we want to make it back before curfew.' So we got up, had our barrel filled and arrived back just in time.

I lay in bed aware of the warmth in my belly when I thought of my hand in his. I'd be tired all day if I did not soon bend my mind to sleep-provoking thoughts such as brown leaves floating on the swaying waters of the canal. Or a series of small bubbles rising to the surface from deep inside the murky waters.

When did someone last hold my hand? Not my mother. Perhaps my brother when I'd hurt my knee or my dear father. Perhaps Samuel was courting me or maybe he'd touched me out of sympathy. He always cared for everyone and everything.

Sleep – I must sleep. A gleaming sphere from deep below, getting larger, followed by another and another. A creature blowing them from its nostrils or perhaps they issued from a rotting carcass.

I imagined Rembrandt and Geertje talking in bed about all manner of things, finding great comfort in each other's company. An
upright, moving string of pearls. But as soon as the air as much as touched them they burst in quick succession, like musket fire.

The weight of the sketchbook on my legs. His eyes reading my mouth, the rocking of the boat. Him so close behind.

Once more I invoked the bubbles, but they wouldn't come. The dark waters lay sullen. Even the rot had breathed its last.

The French Bed

The next morning I decided it was time to ascend the narrow oak spiral staircase, into mystery – or so I'd come to think of the top floor. It was the only place I had not yet been to in the house, and it would benefit from a good clean. I reached a door, pushed it open and found a large, bright rectangular room. It had the same dimensions as the studio below but contained partitions made of wooden frames strung with sailcloth. From the door I could see into the first cubicle. There was a chair and a desk in front of the window. This had to be where the pupils worked on their own so they did not distract each other when copying Rembrandt's drawings or prints. No doubt their productivity benefited his purse, as he was entitled to sell all of their work. Not a place of mystery at all but of commerce, like all the rest of Amsterdam.

I got down on my hands and knees to scrub the floor by the desk, working backwards. When I'd finished with this cubicle, I continued, still on the floor, around the corner into the next and at last noticed a pair of legs. I rushed to my feet. It was Samuel. I'd not expected to see him again so soon, not now, not here.

‘I'm sorry,' I said. ‘Geertje thought you'd all be in the studio.'

‘Well, I should be, but last night I had to assist in a crisis – far more critical to the smooth running of the workshop than the choosing of a few prints.'

‘Oh,' I said, unsure whether to feel guilty or not. But I did notice that he had surreptitiously covered one of the prints on the desk with a blank sheet of paper and now he was nervously scratching his chin. My own awkwardness had one redeeming feature – it disappeared when it was outdone by somebody else's. I felt buoyant, like a bad egg bobbing in a bucket of water.

‘What are they?' I asked.

‘Uhm, you know, just etchings by the master.'

‘Oh, can I see?' I said, pointing at the covered-up one.

‘Not this one,' he said.

‘Why not?' I said.

He was thinking hard. ‘You wouldn't like it.'

I shrugged my shoulders and bent down again as if to resume my cleaning. He turned away, reaching for the packet to put the prints on the desk away. I quickly pulled the paper off the print.

It was a couple copulating in a large bed.

I took a step back, incapable of speech or breath. Samuel spun round, looked at me, then at the print and back at me again.

‘Oh dear . . .' I stammered, and tried to look as if the exposure had been entirely accidental.

He was equally anxious to disavow the drawing. ‘It's not the one I was going to choose. I've only just come across it.'

The woman was on her back, fully clothed with her legs bent, the man kneeling between them whilst supporting himself on his knuckles. Her left leg was wrapped around his calf and – as if that wasn't enough – she had one hand on his hip and the other on his buttock. How offensive and unlikely, I thought.

Samuel looked like he wished to be anywhere but here. I'd never seen a boy look so embarrassed. ‘It was my fault,' I said.

‘You didn't know.'

‘No,' I said, ‘that's true. I had no idea.'

‘It's not what you think,' he said, only half looking at me.

Even to my inexperienced eyes there was no doubt as to what was taking place.

‘I mean,' said Samuel, ‘it is not done the way this kind of picture is usually done.'

This kind of picture
? Five minutes ago I had not known that such pictures existed and now it turned out that it belonged to its own category – complete with a set of pictorial conventions for the making of indecent etchings.

‘What
would
one expect?' I said.

‘I'd better go downstairs,' he said, taking three sheets he'd put to the side. ‘they are waiting for me.'

I did not want him to go, with that dreadful thing still on the table.

He added, ‘You must not think ill of the master. This kind of print is normally for, uhm, you know,
folk
. . .' he must have meant
men
, ‘to enjoy in private, but not this one. It's not for that. He never
paints the obvious. It's the work of the painter to lift the veil from what is hidden, to reveal the inner essence of things.'

I nearly laughed. This was hardly a piece of work to start quoting Rembrandt's high ideals over. Then Samuel left.
Kind soul
, I thought, but so gullible. I suppose he could not help always seeing the best in his master. The print was still there. How could an image like this be enjoyed by men? But this one was supposedly different. I had a closer look. At least no flesh was exposed. Except, there, in a shaded area, the man's shirt had ridden up, revealing the curve of his buttock. But it was their faces that claimed my attention; he was gazing down at her and she in turn looked at him with such a sweet smile. Or was she looking past him, lost in some kind of bliss?

I contemplated again the way one of her legs was wrapped around his calf and the other planted so firmly on the bed like a buttress. I tried to imagine his rod inside her and wondered why she was pulling him towards her with both hands. Her legs, her arms, everything added up to her wanting him to come further into her.

The plush bed below, the drapes and canopy above, so sumptuous and warm. I put the print down, but I knew it was as good as etched on my mind. Perhaps there was some truth in what Samuel had said, for there was something unusual about the picture. It moved me in the most surprising way, whether I wanted it to or not. The stillness between the two lovers; the way they were so safe and happy within the canopied bed and within one another. Perhaps it was not only about lust.

*

Later, in bed, I wondered if it depicted what occurred between Rembrandt and Geertje. As if on cue, I heard her leave her room. Titus, who slept in her bed, must be a sound sleeper. I followed her – I had to. I told myself it was because I needed to decide whether to stay or go.

I crept up the stairs, feeling bad because as children we'd always been told not to pry or spy. What was private must be kept private. A matter of respect and good housekeeping. I'd even mastered the art of keeping things private from myself, when necessary.

I hastened past the door to Rembrandt's room, up the further flight of steps to see through the little window. Until now I'd listened in on conversations more or less by accident but this was by design. How I had changed in less than two weeks. What would I become if I stayed?

Rembrandt was standing a few feet away from the bed, wearing his nightshirt. But where was she? Probably inside the box bed. He had his arms crossed and now walked over to an armchair and sat down, arms still crossed like a belligerent child having a stand-off with a parent. Geertje emerged from the bed wearing her nightshirt. She strolled towards him, crouched down and put her hand on his arm. I could not hear what she said. He shook his head, averting his eyes from her. Now he pointed at the door, as though he were asking her to leave. She put her hand on his thigh. He shot up from the chair, again pointing at the door. Her response was to embrace him firmly around his waist; he – despite being taller than her – reminded me of a child who has outgrown his mother's fond embraces. His
reluctance was perplexing. I'd come to think of their involvement as one of the established routines of the household. And how dared she be so persistent against his wishes?

Now he was trying to prise her arms away but she held fast – the scene was comic for he looked like a man equal to the task. In the end it required a sudden and almost violent movement from him to extract himself. Then he grabbed her wrist and pulled her towards the door but her feet were braced against the floor. They remained like this, neither of them gaining an inch. All of a sudden, she went towards him, even pushing him, sending him backwards into the sharp corner of the bed. My hand went to my mouth; it looked so painful.

He straightened himself up with an expression like that of my brother Berent when I'd put his playing cards into the fire. He'd pulled my hair so hard that I'd fallen over. But Rembrandt did nothing, except that he shouted, loud enough for me to hear, ‘Go, now, please.' But still she did not obey, as if she had some hold over him.

He was staring at her, his mouth slightly open, his chest rising and falling. She played with the long cord on the collar of her nightdress, wrapping it slowly around her index finger and then letting it unravel again. No response from him. I was beginning to feel like a spectator at a boxing match, desperate to learn which opponent would triumph. But in a secret corner of my being I was afraid it would not be the outcome I'd started to hope for.

In the meantime she'd turned her back on him, wandered over
to the mantelpiece and made a show of studying the painting there – a portrait of him – as if she was a visitor touring the house. Rembrandt's fingers curled into fists. And she, bizarrely, started speaking to the portrait. I mean she addressed it with all the looks and smiles with which one would a person. Rembrandt disappeared from view and then I heard the door opening below. For a frightful second I thought I would be discovered, but he returned to the room, and again dragged Geertje by her wrist. But she was unwilling to budge. He gave up and shouted, ‘Enough of your games, go now, for heaven's sake!' My hands too had become clenched.

The open door allowed me to hear them easily now. She sneered, ‘You are no master, you only play at theatre up there with your so-called assistants who make you all the money because you,' she paused, as if to carefully choose her words, ‘
you
can't do it anymore. You scratch away at paper with your pencil all day but when did you last produce a proper painting?'

‘You wouldn't know a work of art if it turned up between your legs.'

She smiled. ‘I think I might.'

What had happened? He seemed less angry now. He went to close the door, took a few steps towards her and pointed at the floor.

She slowly knelt down and got on all fours. Maybe I ought to have quietly gone back to bed, for my own sanity, but I remained, unable to stop watching.

Her head and shoulders were just outside my view no matter how much I pressed my face against the glass. He knelt down behind
her, put one hand on her hip and with the other lifted the hem of her nightshirt. I took my face away from the glass. They would do it like animals. I turned my back against the wall and placed my hand on my stomach to keep nausea at bay. I had to pack straight away and leave. But no, I couldn't. It was past curfew. There were only thieves and the night watchmen on the street after ten. I'd have to stay until the morning and leave before daybreak. There were shuffling sounds from the room. I remembered the sight of the farmer's bull on top of the cow, trying to get his long, gangly organ into her, while he tottered precariously on his hind legs. I looked. He'd wedged himself, thighs and all, between her legs. His arms were stretched out, holding on and pulling on her while thrusting his body against her, into her. The bull, compared to this, had displayed finesse. This was brutal, monstrous.
He
was monstrous. Her body was shunted forward each time he pushed into her.

I crept back down the stairs, holding on to the banister, my knees forsaken by bone and sinew. As I passed, the bedroom door rattled; and then something banged against it:
thump, thump, thump
. . . I could hear it all the way down the stairs.

When I reached my bed I heard strange cries and shrieks. I wondered in earnest whether it was my Christian duty to help her. It did not seem like something anyone would willingly submit to, yet she had knelt down of her own choosing. I was stalled by my uncertainty, my cowardice and the feeling that she was more victor than victim.

The cries and banging from upstairs continued. I grabbed a
bucket and stared at its bottom but nothing came. With shaking hands I set about packing my satchel and then lay in bed waiting for the church tower to strike four, the end of curfew.

I must have fallen asleep because I woke to Geertje's words, ‘Up, up, lazy sleeper. You'll need to light the fire in the studio.' It was bright daylight.

How catastrophically stupid to have fallen asleep. Now I'd have to tell him or Geertje to their faces that I was leaving. I transferred the peat that was in the kitchen hearth to a basket. I needed time to think, so it was best to get on with lighting the fire. Strange that he wanted the fire lit. It was summer, after all. Geertje was singing as she scrubbed a pan, looking nothing like the battered figure I'd imagined. If anything she seemed happier than I'd ever seen her.

I was glad to get away from her. I entered the studio and thankfully there was no sign of Rembrandt. The stove was stone cold. I should have brought embers from the kitchen fire. I recalled seeing a tinderbox in the studio's small storeroom. It was little more than a walk-in cupboard and as I entered I could barely see a thing as it was dark apart from the light that fell in through the doorway. There was hardly room to move with all the canvas cloth and other materials that had been crammed in. I waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness – how pleasant it smelled in here – and then I searched the shelves for the tinderbox.

‘What are you looking for?'

I nearly jumped out of my skin. What was he doing here in the dark?

‘The tinderbox. I can't find it,' I said, trying to sound unperturbed.

I heard him move about and finally spotted him emerging from a corner. As he came towards me, there was that nice smell again – it was his smell. I took a step back, reminding myself to be afraid and on my guard. His eyes looked sunken and he seemed without vigour. He reached with his arm behind my head to retrieve the tinderbox. Like a fool, I remained standing in his way until his chest was only inches away from my face. My one unhelpful thought: no wonder cats roll around in certain fragrant plants as if bewitched.

BOOK: Rembrandt's Mirror
12.5Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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