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Authors: Kim Devereux

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BOOK: Rembrandt's Mirror
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He stepped away, tinderbox in hand. ‘Here,' he said.

‘Thank you,' I muttered, and followed him back into the bright studio. He sat down at his desk.

After layering up the peat, I made a separate pile of straw as tinder. I heard him behind me, sharpening a pencil. I opened the box and took out fire steel, flint and tinder cloth and then knocked the flint against the steel with the tinder cloth next to it. That charred piece of cotton was meant to burn easily but no matter how hard I knocked, no sparks were produced. While I caught my breath, I waited for the sound of his pencil on paper but it did not come. Was he watching me?

‘The air is very damp today,' he said. ‘My pencil is not catching either.'

I turned around. His elbow was propped on the desk, his hand
supporting his head, the outstretched fingers shading his eyes. Geertje excessively happy and him so sombre, melancholy even?

‘I'll fetch Geertje,' I said, ‘she's got a way with fire.'

‘No,' he said sharply. I thought he'd say something else to qualify his response but he only looked down at his paper.

‘Should I leave?' I said. ‘I'm disturbing your work.'

‘There's no work to be disturbed.'

I renewed my efforts with the flint, but there was no spark, no matter how hard I tried. When I turned, he was still looking at me.

‘I hope you did not catch cold in the boat,' he said. ‘You look a little pale.'

‘I'm well enough,' I said, ‘but I can't get this to light. I'm sorry, Master.'

He got up from behind his desk and came over. I moved out of the way, partly to avoid inhaling his scent. He looped his left hand through the D-shaped steel, also holding the tinder cloth and then started striking it with his right hand. Again and again. A small spark came a couple of times but the cloth would not light. He brought it closer to the steel and pushed his sleeve up. I could see his paint-splattered fingers and forearm. What Geertje had said was untrue; he was still painting. Then I recognized the shirt – it was the one he'd worn last night when he'd grabbed Geertje and . . . I wobbled on the balls of my feet and had to hold on to the wall. My head was spinning. I waited for it to pass while he continued to try the flint.

In the end he got up too and handed me the bits.

‘It's no use today,' he said.

‘I could fetch embers from downstairs?'

‘Never mind, once the boys get here the room will warm up anyway.'

I returned the tinderbox to the storeroom and re-emerged to find him back at the desk.

‘I've been meaning . . .' he said, looking uncomfortable. I nodded encouragement. He pointed at the empty paper, paused, glancing at the ceiling, then sighed and said, ‘I'd like to draw you. May I?'

The shock of something hot or cold, or both, rushed through me. I shook my head rather more violently than was necessary.

He nodded and let his pencil drop on to the empty paper.

I was scraping carrots. They were only the first lot of vegetables I had to prepare. Still, my mood had improved: I liked the colour of carrots and I liked eating them as I worked and Geertje didn't mind. Some of them looked like little gnomes.

It was just as well I'd mastered the art of keeping things hidden from myself or I would have had to question why I had not left by now.

A few hours later there was a knock on the kitchen door. I hoped it was Samuel but it was the same street-walker I'd procured for the lesson a few days ago. She must have been hired for another life-drawing session. So it had been for her benefit that he'd wanted a fire.

‘Pray, enter,' I said. This time she wore common garb, a well-used brown skirt and a blue jacket. Without the false finery she looked younger. I was on my guard, having heard many tales of whores who took any opportunity to steal.

She asked brazenly, ‘Do you have any food to spare?'

My stony face must have told her I needed further convincing, especially as she looked anything but ill-fed to me. ‘Ten
stuivers
is good payment for me,' she said, ‘but as soon as I return to my lodgings I will have to use it towards my debts because word will have reached the bawd that I've worked. I have not eaten since yesterday and would be grateful even for some bread.'

I was sure that she was lying but it occurred to me that I needed a certain education and she could provide it. And yet how could I question her? I could barely entertain my enquiries in my own brain, let alone utter them. But she was a knowledgeable expert, one who would not be ashamed to speak, so why should I be ashamed to ask? I would boldly beat a path to wisdom. I told her, ‘If you answer my questions, when you're done upstairs I'll give you plenty to eat.'

‘You're not thinking of questioning me for the benefit of the bailiff?'

I assured her that I was merely seeking to alleviate my ignorance in certain matters between a man and a woman.

She burst out laughing, showing the gap in her teeth. ‘Ha, I got a few customers who pay me to talk but so far I've never been hired by a woman.'

The Lord forgive me, I thought. She's right. I've struck a deal with a whore.

I had several hours to regret my boldness and hope she would just leave but she duly walked in and sat down at the table without waiting to be asked. It did not seem right to break my promise so I fetched last night's cold chicken, bread and cheese from the pantry. She set to it without delay and so did I. ‘Tell me exactly what happens when you are with a . . .'

‘Gentleman,' she supplied with her mouth full. ‘I wait on the street and if one looks interested, I look at him and strike up a conversation.'

That was not quite what I wanted to know. Still, I thought, no harm in starting with what comes before. I nodded encouragement and she continued, ‘I might say, “Doggy, where are you going?” and if they don't call me a stinking whore but look me in the eye I say, “Come, go with me to my house, we'll share a jug of beer.”'

We were getting to the heart of the matter, but now such vast quantities of meat were going into her mouth that, apart from the occasional groan of satisfaction, not a single word passed her lips. I pulled the remains of the chicken out of her reach and said, ‘What happens in the room?'

Still chewing, she continued, ‘There is a maid who will come when one of us arrives with a man. She brings wine and makes sure the man has plenty, because the money goes to our keeper. But you want to know about what they pay me for, don't you?'

I nodded. She beckoned the chicken carcass with her finger, so I
pushed it towards her. With a quick twist she detached a thigh, took a big bite and mumbled, ‘There is not much to it. I lie down and they take their plunger and sink it in the place they cannot do without and when they're done . . .'

‘Wait,' I said and poured her some milk, ‘where does this occur?'

‘Well, on the bed of course. I lie there . . .'

‘On your back?' I interjected.

‘Yes, what else? Goodness, you
are
truly innocent of all aspects pertaining to the procedure.'

I nodded, and wished it were entirely true. The image of Rembrandt and Geertje like beasts came to mind. It seemed that this was an uncommon occurrence even by a whore's standards. She resumed her speech. ‘Sometimes I make some noises for their pleasure as they seem to like it. They labour away until their seed jumps out and afterwards they are sluggish like newborn lambs, can barely stand and then they want to cling on to me.' Her face scrunched up as if this was the part least to her liking. ‘It takes some craft to get them out on the street again.'

‘What about your dress?'

‘What about it?'

‘Do you take it off, put on a nightshirt maybe?'

She looked shocked and said, ‘I'm a whore but I am not indecent. It stays on, of course, skirts and all. The men need to adjust their dress a little but not for long. Where did you get such a notion?'

While I sat, regretting that I'd started this exchange, she did some thinking and then said, ‘Once or twice I have been asked to
remove my clothes but of course I didn't. I don't oblige unnatural requests.'

I wondered why she had no objection to being painted in the nude but decided to ask a more pressing question. ‘What other unnatural requests?'

She hesitated. I reached for a half-full bottle of wine and was beginning to feel like a bawd myself as I filled her glass. This was all the encouragement she needed. ‘Some want me to shake their seed out.'

‘What?'

‘They want a milking-out.'

I shook my head.

‘A hand-catechism.'

I had heard enough but now her speech was well oiled and she continued, ‘One once asked me for an extremely filthy act,' she paused for effect. ‘To suck out his manhood in my mouth.' With that she took another big bite of the chicken.

‘What about doing it like animals?' I said.

‘What do you mean?'

‘You know, like a cat gets on top of another, or a bull or a dog?'

‘Ah', she said, digging her fingers into the chest of the chicken and pulling a piece off, ‘I've not had that request but a friend of mine has. Very un-u-su-al.'

‘Would you?' I asked.

‘No,' she replied, ‘as I said, nothing unnatural.'

‘And your friend?'

‘She refused, thought it might hurt.'

‘Does it?' I asked.

‘What? Oh, you mean when doing it as it's meant to be done?'

‘Yes.'

She thought about it. ‘Sometimes. It's important to pull up the legs and keep the soles of the feet on the bed, otherwise you can have pains in the stomach afterwards.'

Why would Geertje do something that whores only did because they were paid, especially as it was a sin? Maybe she saw the look on my face, for she added, ‘I grant you, they treat us more roughly than when their heart is in it.'

The heart being in it or not
. I pondered this, remembering the etching of the lovers, their eyes so soft, as if seeing into another world.

The door opened and Dirck stood there for a moment looking at me sitting with the whore. I stared back at him as if it was him that was at fault. He said almost apologetically, ‘The master has asked for more beer, if you please.'

‘I will bring it up, Dirck,' I said and turned back to the whore as if this was all part of ordinary business. He left.

The whore got up and said, ‘I'd better leave – it is not good for you to be seen talking to me.'

‘Wait,' I said. ‘How do you know?'

‘Know what?'

‘What it's like when their heart is in it?'

She did not answer but continued out of the kitchen and up the
stairs. When we'd reached the front door she squeezed my wrist. ‘May the Lord thank you.'

Her gratitude was genuine and what was more I'd spoken to her more candidly than I had ever to another living soul. How could I treat her like a stranger? ‘I will pray that the Lord will look after you when you need Him to. What is your name?'

She made a gesture as if wiping away tears from under her eyes and said, ‘Petronella, Petronella Kropts.'

I made to open the door for her but she stayed my hand and said, ‘I come from Bonn in Germany, from a good family. I once worked as a maid in Düsseldorf a while before I came here. I was your age. It is hard to believe but I was once a pretty girl. I loved a man. He promised to marry me, so why not share his bed? Soon I was with child and when he found out, he left the province, so I could not use the law to make him live by his promise. No one wanted a pregnant, un-wed woman to work for them. My family would not take me in – or my child. I was hungry. I had nowhere to go. You are in a good place here. Don't be too curious. You have looks. You might even find a burgher who will marry you. Take care of what you have; don't be a fool like I was.' With that she let go of my hand, opened the door and went back out into the street.

I quickly assembled beer and jugs and went to the studio. This time I did not knock but went in quietly. I was greeted with an almost ribaldrous scene. Dirck and Nicolaes were sitting casually on the stage where Petronella had been and the rest were lounging in their chairs, laughing. Rembrandt, too, looked amused. I set about collecting
the used mugs which had all been left on a table in the corner. I heard Nicolaes speak as if telling a joke. ‘Why do whores never get pregnant?' Dirck replied, ‘Grass does not grow upon the highway.' They roared with laughter and then Nicolaes quipped, ‘Or in the market place!' Again they all laughed.

Nicolaes was warming to his role as chief jester. ‘Why would a burgher shun the street-cruisers and keep himself a chamber cat?'

‘I don't know,' came a chorus of replies.

‘Because he likes paying for the privilege of having a stinking hole all to himself.'

At this Rembrandt raised his hand and said, ‘That's enough, back to work.' I left the room laden with empty jugs and a knot in my stomach. These boys were more wicked than the whore.

That night I lay in my bed feeling glum. How was it that Geertje never seemed the least bit uncertain about anything, least of all her charms, when she possessed none?

She traipsed to his bed of her own volition. I had heard people say that women are driven to things because they are born with lecherous desires. Was that why Geertje went to him? Would these things awaken in me and prove to be my undoing? I doubted it; I felt nothing but revulsion at the vile couplings. My mind turned to the etching. A painter's work was to mirror the visible to perfection so that the invisible was revealed. A better world lived and breathed somewhere beyond the surface of things. I thought of the bed with its posts, the canopy and how it held the couple as if they were in another realm.
It was said by the Church that the soul belonged to the invisible and that it was entirely separate from the body. But what if it wasn't? What if, just as the visible world was the gateway to the invisible, the physical body could be the gateway to the soul?

BOOK: Rembrandt's Mirror
13.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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