This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING
A Penguin Book / published by arrangement with the author
All rights reserved.
Copyright © 1999 by Tracy Chevalier
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First edition (electronic): August 2001
For my father
My mother did not tell me they were coming. Afterwards she said she did not want me to appear nervous. I was surprised, for I thought she knew me well. Strangers would think I was calm. I did not cry as a baby. Only my mother would note the tightness along my jaw, the widening of my already wide eyes.
I was chopping vegetables in the kitchen when I heard voices outside our front door—a woman’s, bright as polished brass, and a man’s, low and dark like the wood of the table I was working on. They were the kind of voices we heard rarely in our house. I could hear rich carpets in their voices, books and pearls and fur.
I was glad that earlier I had scrubbed the front steps so hard.
My mother’s voice—a cooking pot, a flagon—approached from the front room. They were coming to the kitchen. I pushed the leeks I had been chopping into place, then set the knife on the table, wiped my hands on my apron and pressed my lips together to smooth them.
My mother appeared in the doorway, her eyes two warnings. Behind her the woman had to duck her head because she was so tall, taller than the man following her.
All of our family, even my father and brother, were small.
The woman looked as if she had been blown about by the wind, although it was a calm day. Her cap was askew so that tiny blond curls escaped and hung about her forehead like bees which she swatted at impatiently several times. Her collar needed straightening and was not as crisp as it could be. She pushed her gray mantle back from her shoulders, and I saw then that under her dark blue dress a baby was growing. It would arrive by the year’s end, or before.
“This is the girl, then,” she said abruptly.
“This is my daughter, Griet,” my mother replied. I nodded respectfully to the man and woman.
“Well. She’s not very big. Is she strong enough?” As the woman turned to look at the man, a fold of her mantle caught the handle of the knife I had been using, knocking it off the table so that it spun across the floor.
The woman cried out.
“Catharina,” the man said calmly. He spoke her name as if he held cinnamon in his mouth. The woman stopped, making an effort to quiet herself.
I stepped over and picked up the knife, polishing the blade on my apron before placing it back on the table. The knife had brushed against the vegetables. I set a piece of carrot back in its place.
The man was watching me, his eyes grey like the sea. He had a long, angular face, and his expression was steady, in contrast to his wife’s, which flickered like a candle. He had no beard or moustache, and I was glad, for it gave him a clean appearance. He wore a black cloak over his shoulders, a white shirt, and a fine lace collar. His hat pressed into hair the red of brick washed by rain.
“What have you been doing here, Griet?” he asked.
I was surprised by the question but knew enough to hide it. “Chopping vegetables, sir. For the soup.”
I always laid vegetables out in a circle, each with its own section like a slice of pie. There were five slices: red cabbage, onions, leeks, carrots, and turnips. I had used a knife edge to shape each slice, and placed a carrot disc in the center.
The man tapped his finger on the table. “Are they laid out in the order in which they will go into the soup?” he suggested, studying the circle.
“No, sir.” I hesitated. I could not say why I had laid out the vegetables as I did. I simply set them as I felt they should be, but I was too frightened to say so to a gentleman.
“I see you have separated the whites,” he said, indicating the turnips and onions. “And then the orange and the purple, they do not sit together. Why is that?” He picked up a shred of cabbage and a piece of carrot and shook them like dice in his hand.
I looked at my mother, who nodded slightly.
“The colors fight when they are side by side, sir.”
He arched his eyebrows, as if he had not expected such a response. “And do you spend much time setting out the vegetables before you make the soup?”
“Oh no, sir,” I replied, confused. I did not want him to think I was idle.
From the corner of my eye I saw a movement. My sister, Agnes, was peering round the doorpost and had shaken her head at my response. I did not often lie. I looked down.
The man turned his head slightly and Agnes disappeared. He dropped the pieces of carrot and cabbage into their slices. The cabbage shred fell partly into the onions. I wanted to reach over and tease it into place. I did not, but he knew that I wanted to. He was testing me.
“That’s enough prattle,” the woman declared. Though she was annoyed with his attention to me, it was me she frowned at. “Tomorrow, then?” She looked at the man before sweeping out of the room, my mother behind her. The man glanced once more at what was to be the soup, then nodded at me and followed the women.
When my mother returned I was sitting by the vegetable wheel. I waited for her to speak. She was hunching her shoulders as if against a winter chill, though it was summer and the kitchen was hot.
“You are to start tomorrow as their maid. If you do well, you will be paid eight stuivers a day. You will live with them.”
I pressed my lips together.
“Don’t look at me like that, Griet,” my mother said. “We have to, now your father has lost his trade.”
“Where do they live?”
“On the Oude Langendijck, where it intersects with the Molenpoort.”
“Papists’ corner? They’re Catholic?”
“You can come home Sundays. They have agreed to that.” My mother cupped her hands around the turnips, scooped them up along with some of the cabbage and onions and dropped them into the pot of water waiting on the fire. The pie slices I had made so carefully were ruined.
I climbed the stairs to see my father. He was sitting at the front of the attic by the window, where the light touched his face. It was the closest he came now to seeing.
Father had been a tile painter, his fingers still stained blue from painting cupids, maids, soldiers, ships, children, fish, flowers, animals onto white tiles, glazing them, firing them, selling them. One day the kiln
exploded, taking his eyes and his trade. He was the lucky one—two other men died.
I sat next to him and held his hand.
“I heard,” he said before I could speak. “I heard everything.” His hearing had taken the strength from his missing eyes.
I could not think of anything to say that would not sound reproachful.
“I’m sorry, Griet. I would like to have done better for you.” The place where his eyes had been, where the doctor had sewn shut the skin, looked sorrowful. “But he is a good gentleman, and fair. He will treat you well.” He said nothing about the woman.
“How can you be sure of this, Father? Do you know him?”
“Don’t you know who he is?”
“Do you remember the painting we saw in the Town Hall a few years ago, which van Ruijven was displaying after he bought it? It was a view of Delft, from the Rotterdam and Schiedam Gates. With the sky that took up so much of the painting, and the sunlight on some of the buildings.”
“And the paint had sand in it to make the brickwork and the roofs look rough,” I added. “And there were long shadows in the water, and tiny people on the shore nearest us.”
“That’s the one.” Father’s sockets widened as if he still had eyes and was looking at the painting again.
I remembered it well, remembered thinking that I had stood at the very spot many times and never seen Delft the way the painter had.
“That man was van Ruijven?”
“The patron?” Father chuckled. “No, no, child, not him. That was the painter, Vermeer. That was Johannes Vermeer and his wife. You’re to clean his studio.”
To the few things I was taking with me my mother added another cap, collar and apron so that each day I could wash one and wear the other, and would always look clean. She also gave me an ornamental tortoiseshell comb, shaped like a shell, that had been my grandmother’s and was too fine for a maid to wear, and a prayer book I could read when I needed to escape the Catholicism around me.
As we gathered my things she explained why I was to work for the Vermeers. “You know that your new master is headman of the Guild of St. Luke, and was when your father had his accident last year?”
I nodded, still shocked that I was to work for such an artist.
“The Guild looks after its own, as best it can. Remember the box your father gave money to every week for years? That money goes to masters in need, as we are now. But it goes only so far, you see, especially now with Frans in his apprenticeship and no money coming in. We have no choice. We won’t take public charity, not if we can manage without. Then your father heard that your new master was looking for a maid who could clean his studio without moving anything, and he put forward your name, thinking that as headman, and knowing our circumstances, Vermeer would be likely to try to help.”
I sifted through what she had said. “How do you clean a room without moving anything?”
“Of course you must move things, but you must find a way to put them back exactly so it looks as if nothing has been disturbed. As you do for your father now that he cannot see.”
After my father’s accident we had learned to place things where he always knew to find them. It was one thing to do this for a blind man, though. Quite another for a man with a painter’s eyes.
Agnes said nothing to me after the visit. When I got into bed next to her that night she remained silent, though she did not turn her back to me. She lay gazing at the ceiling. Once I had blown out the candle it was so dark I could see nothing. I turned towards her.
“You know I don’t want to leave. I have to.”
“We need the money. We have nothing now that Father can’t work.”
“Eight stuivers a day isn’t such a lot of money.” Agnes had a hoarse voice, as if her throat were covered with cobwebs.
“It will keep the family in bread. And a bit of cheese. That’s not so little.”
“I’ll be all alone. You’re leaving me all alone. First Frans, then you.”
Of all of us Agnes had been the most upset when Frans left the previous year. He and she had always fought like cats but she sulked for days once he was gone. At ten she was the youngest of us three children, and had never before known a time when Frans and I were not there.
“Mother and Father will still be here. And I’ll visit on Sundays. Besides, it was no surprise when Frans went.” We had known for years that our brother would start his apprenticeship when he turned thirteen. Our father had saved hard to pay the apprentice fee, and talked endlessly of how Frans would learn another aspect of the trade, then come back and they would set up a tile factory together.
Now our father sat by the window and never spoke of the future.
After the accident Frans had come home for two days. He had not visited since. The last time I saw him I had gone to the factory across town where he was apprenticed. He looked exhausted and had burns up and down his arms from pulling tiles from the kiln. He told me he worked from dawn until so late that at times he was too tired even to eat. “Father never told me it would be this bad,” he muttered resentfully. “He always said his apprenticeship was the making of him.”
“Perhaps it was,” I replied. “It made him what he is now.”
When I was ready to leave the next morning my father shuffled out to the front step, feeling his way along the wall. I hugged my mother and Agnes. “Sunday will come in no time,” my mother said.
My father handed me something wrapped in a handkerchief. “To remind you of home,” he said. “Of us.”
It was my favorite tile of his. Most of his tiles we had at home were faulty in some way—chipped or cut crookedly, or the picture was blurred because the kiln had been too hot. This one, though, my father kept specially for us. It was a simple picture of two small figures, a boy and an older girl. They were not playing as children usually did in tiles. They were simply walking along, and were like Frans and me whenever we walked together—clearly our father had thought of us as he painted it. The boy was a little ahead of the girl but had turned back to say something. His face was mischievous, his hair messy. The girl wore her cap as I wore mine, not as most other girls did, with the ends tied under their chins or behind their necks. I favored a white cap that folded in a wide brim around my face, covering my hair completely and hanging down in points on each side of my face so that from the side my expression was hidden. I kept the cap stiff by boiling it with potato peelings.
I walked away from our house, carrying my things tied up in an apron. It was still early—our neighbors were throwing buckets of water onto their steps and the street in front of their houses, and scrubbing them clean. Agnes would do that now, as well as many of my other tasks. She would have less time to play in the street and along the canals. Her life was changing too.
People nodded at me and watched curiously as I passed. No one asked where I was going or called out kind words. They did not need to—they knew what happened to families when a man lost his trade. It would be something to discuss later—young Griet become a maid, her father brought the family low. They would not gloat, however. The same thing could easily happen to them.
I had walked along that street all my life, but had never been so aware that my back was to my home. When I reached the end and turned out of sight of my family, though, it became a little easier to walk steadily and look around me. The morning was still cool, the sky a flat grey-white pulled close over Delft like a sheet, the summer sun not yet high enough to burn it away. The canal I walked along was a mirror of white light tinged with green. As the sun grew brighter the canal would darken to the color of moss.
Frans, Agnes, and I used to sit along that canal and throw things in—pebbles, sticks, once a broken tile—and imagine what they might touch on the bottom—not fish, but creatures from our imagination, with many eyes, scales, hands and fins. Frans thought up the most interesting monsters. Agnes was the most frightened. I always stopped the game, too inclined to see th
ings as they were to be able to think up things that were not.
There were a few boats on the canal, moving towards Market Square. It was not market day, however, when the canal was so full you couldn’t see the water. One boat was carrying river fish for the stalls at Jeronymous Bridge. Another sat low on the water, loaded with bricks. The man poling the boat called out a greeting to me. I merely nodded and lowered my head so that the edge of my cap hid my face.
I crossed a bridge over the canal and turned into the open space of Market Square, even then busy with people crisscrossing it on their way to some task—buying meat at the Meat Hall, or bread at the baker’s, taking wood to be weighed at the Weigh House. Children ran errands for their parents, apprentices for their masters, maids for their households. Horses and carts clattered across the stones. To my right was the Town Hall, with its gilded front and white marble faces gazing down from the keystones above the windows. To my left was the New Church, where I had been baptized sixteen years before. Its tall, narrow tower made me think of a stone birdcage. Father had taken us up it once. I would never forget the sight of Delft spread below us, each narrow brick house and steep red roof and green waterway and city gate marked forever in my mind, tiny and yet distinct. I asked my father then if every Dutch city looked like that, but he did not know. He had never visited any other city, not even The Hague, two hours away on foot.
I walked to the center of the square. There the stones had been laid to form an eight-pointed star set inside a circle. Each point aimed towards a different part of Delft. I thought of it as the very center of the town, and as the center of my life. Frans and Agnes and I had played in that star since we were old enough to run to the market. In our favorite game, one of us chose a point and one of us named a thing—a stork, a church, a wheelbarrow, a flower—and we ran in that direction looking for that thing. We had explored most of Delft that way.