The Portuguese Maid
She took up a spoon to polish, wondering as she did so if the glint of light in its round bowl was truly a reflection of God's glorious light, as people said. A ray of sunlight, creeping across the scrubbed table fell now onto the bowl of the spoon gathering there like a clear liquid. Freida gazed, burnishing the little handle with slow automatic strokes.
A loud bell - the street doorbell, accompanied by the sound of urgent hammering, as of a fist on wood, wrenched her from her state of contemplation. Wheezing a little from the effort, she pushed herself to her feet and grumbling inwardly at the sudden racket, trudged into the hallway. Cooking, cleaning, answering the door at all times of the day and night, it was too much for an old woman, she told herself. She was barely fifty but the years hung heavily on her bones. She'd a small wizened face which had never been beautiful. A fluctuating childhood diet had left her with rickets that had bowed her thin legs but her once gaunt frame had thickened with middle age, putting greater strain on her joints so that she shuffled towards the street door and leaned heavily on the handle as she hauled the age-blackened oak towards her.
A man, breathless with the effort of first running, then knocking, presented her with a preoccupied nod and a rapid-fire enquiry for Herr van Horne.
"In his study," she murmured and jerked her thumb in the direction of the staircase leading to the first floor.
Back in the kitchen, she picked up the cloth that she'd been using for polishing, folded it into a small square and put it in the drawer where such cloths were kept. As she sat in a chair, her unlovely cheeks fell into slack folds, her hands came to rest in her lap, stumpy fingers interlaced. She breathed softly, a single hair quivering on her chin. The eyes, lidded, looked inwards at the dull red shot with orange and the pale pulsating shapes that floated ponderously into her mind's eye. She fell into a sleep, or not quite a sleep but rather a state of comfortable fuzziness in which scenes emerged from fragments of thought, a snatch of distant song, a scent of earth and rotten vegetables.
Her mother's arms - strong and sun-freckled, plunged to the elbow in a tub of water or pressing the wetness from a tangle of sodden linen. The closeness of her thigh as Freida sat next to her on a bench in the Synagogue with the other women. The rich sound of men's voices intoning.
Again with her mother, sitting this time in a meadow surrounded by the bright globes of buttercups, shy blue flowers of forget-me-not, scarlet pimpernel, tiny speedwell blooms, almost hidden by the burgeoning thistles. "Look Freida!" A huge yellow and black butterfly, dipping and swooping over the sward and then gone. But imprinted deep on her childish imagination - returning in dreams only, like her mother.
It must have been that coming winter, a day of slow, cold rain, leaving the synagogue in Lisbon, they were set upon. Freida remembered only the shouts, her mother's panicked breath and running, pulled, hauled along until her lungs were bursting.
It was dangerous, what her mother had done - taking the child to her aunt's house, a converso who had married a merchant. And so her aunt had told her but, true to her word, she had kept the child, hidden her. She had to, because Freida's mother never came back for her. It was rumoured that many had died, crushed as they fled through the streets or tortured and burned by a mob.
Freida's aunt, to protect her and to get her off her hands, had sent the child to Delft, to the house of a Dutch merchant, a business contact of her husband's. They had traded flesh for fish - a servant girl for ten barrels of salted cod. In the big, cold house in Delft, the child had cleaned the pots and scrubbed the floors, pegged out the linen in the courtyard, emptied the chamber pots and aired the bedding. She'd waged war against the fleas and silver fish and cockroaches, mice and the occasional rat, too fearsome for the small black cat.
And in secret moments when the master was sleeping, or deep in some impenetrable topic of study, she had taken out the pieces she was stitching. Her close work she called it. The good bleached cloth which she'd cover with embroidered patterns of her own: the stems and leaves and tendrils of vines creeping across the cloth and blossoming here and there a flower, the veins on its petals picked out in silver thread. She bent close over the stitching in the light of a guttering candle, to work an insect wing or the feathers of a hovering bird. When the wind cracked the branches of the linden trees and pummeled against the shuttered windows, Freida, her breathing slow, would rethread her needle with silk to pick out the glowing spot of a robin's breast, or was it a spot of blood? She knew not, being hypnotized by the motion of her fingers at their task and sometimes, looking at her fingers, she saw that they seemed to have shrunk to slivers of bone.
Freida brought a tray of food to the men at their work: pickled herrings, tightly rolled; slices of pink meat; cheese and bread. Snatches of conversation broke upon her.
"Mr Knip, you are recovered from your fevers?"
"I am, as you see, on my feet once more. I've been anxious to get back to our work."
"Well we are fortunate to have to have a very fresh and well formed specimen at our disposal today and I have taken care to obtain a good supply of the preservatives you requested."
"You are very punctilious van Horne."
"A very neat pair of scissors you've got there," said van Horne casting a slightly envious eye at the other's little brass implements.
"Made by the very best brass workers in Paris. I've always preferred to work with scissors, they don't tear the flesh as a knife does."
Freida arranged the plates and dishes on a side table. She set out a large decanter of wine and a green glass jug of water, polishing the cutlery on the corner of her apron.
"Look at the density of blood vessels here in the lower part of the uterus," Knip poked his friend with a long bony finger. They seemed companionable in their work.
Freida did not look too closely at what the men were doing at the table but she noticed that every so often Knip broke off and sketched with a red pencil on a curling piece of vellum - light, quick sketches which intrigued her because they reminded her of her own imaginings. Knip once saw her looking and raised a questioning brow but she turned quickly and escaped back to her chores. She had to go to the market for the vegetables and perhaps she would get a freshly slaughtered hare or a brace of partridge
At twelve o' clock Freida brought in a plate of cold meat and a half bottle of dark red wine which she set down with a loud clatter on the walnut sideboard.
The two men broke off from their labours to stand in the open doorway to the garden chewing on the meat and looking over the sketches Knip had made. Freida, as she poured the wine and tidied the crumbs, gazed past the men at the shining meadows. A flock of birds rose in the sunshine and wheeled round over the house. She watched them stretching their long necks and calling to each other in their plaintive voices.
Knip fidgeted, unable to contain his impatience. With a chicken leg grasped in one hand he returned to the dissection - peering deep into a cavity. Resting the chicken leg on the table, he began to sketch in details. He could not afford to pause in his work. It was vital to complete the drawing before the putrefaction was too far advanced and the veins collapsed.
"I say, van Horne, look at this!"
Van Horne swilled down the rest of his wine and wandered over. They were peering thus when Freida slipped into the room two hours later to clear up the remains of their lunch.
And still they worked, until the dying candles sent up thick streams of blackened smoke and the flames drowned in pools of wax. The following day they did the same from sunrise to sunset and Freida stomped in and out of the room with food which they left scattered around the table and picked at as they worked. After a week three burly servants carried the exhausted frame of Jan Knip out of van Horne's house on a litter and delivered him, limp and moaning feebly to his own house but their studies were almost complete.
Van Horne had called her when, in their drunkenness they'd upset a decanter of wine on the study floor. She'd gone muttering as usual to sweep up the shattered glass and mop up the thick liquid, which had spread by now under the furniture. And busy with her task: lifting the carpet, fetching fresh water to clean, she'd not noticed the table at first, or only as an object to clean around. She'd shifted it, a leg at a time to clean where the wine had spread like clotting blood.
The master had gone to bed or to drink brandy. She was alone with her buckets and cloths in the study. Of course she'd known they were busy with their knives. She'd been present when a large wooden case had been delivered. She'd even been present when the box was opened and a mass of straw had been pulled out. But what it was that the box contained she had not known or questioned. Her curiosity had not been aroused, even when she'd been asked to dispose of the straw which smelt metallic and was tangled with oddly viscous lumps.
Now, alone, a bucket in one hand, a cloth in the other, her dirty apron pulled awry, she saw what lay there on the table. Spreadeagled, a woman's torso, the arms and legs severed at shoulder and hip, headless. It was white, milky white on the breast with a slender waist - the waist of a young woman, a woman who might soon have been married. The men had been cutting two slits up into the belly and had opened a flap of skin like an apron, peeled back. Freida's eyes could not at first make sense of what she saw. Tubes, stems and flowering at the tip of each an object of strange spoiled symmetry, like a blown peony. She stared and the bucket fell, sloshing its contents over her feet and the cloth in her hand hung limply. Slowly, with a gesture as delicate as a bird stretching its wing, she brought up her hand in front of her eyes. She stood and breathed. Then she finished mopping the floor.
The morning entered the study in its usual way, sending tentative fingers of light between the chinks in the curtains. There was a sleepy sound of sparrows in the ivy above the window. Van Horne came downstairs and poked his head into the study and, seeing the curtains still closed, rang the bell. There was no answering footstep. All seemed quiet in the kitchen area.
Taking matters into his own hands, van Horne went into the study himself and drew the curtains. All seemed normal: the table in its usual place, the claw-footed chairs set back against the wall like obedient animals.
Something, however, arrested his attention. He noticed a crumpled piece of rag draped over the table, covering the nakedness of the object upon it. He peered closer. The cloth was not, as he'd thought at first, a rag full of holes and darned here and there, but was finely embroidered. Here there was a lily, with stamens of gold, there a bullfinch with a pink breast, amongst a tangle of vines crept strange beasts and a twining serpent with emerald eyes. On a grass stem, poised to leap was a grasshopper and in the middle, spreading its petals wide and flanked by swirling stems was an unearthly flower worked in crimson silk. A very odd flower, considered van Horne, almost as if it had lips to whisper some secret which he, in his busy and brilliant career, had never previously paid any attention to.
Freida was sitting by the open window in the kitchen. A pair of great tits chinked in the tree outside.
"My breakfast?" van Horne began briskly "It's late, however, I see you are busy," he paused realising that he was intruding on his maid's private world. He looked round the kitchen at the pots and pans. A partridge lay, half-plucked on the table beside a cabbage, sliced open to reveal its complex interior.
"There's no bread."
"Well, then…" he essayed a small laugh. Her small grizzled head had always struck him as oddly childlike. It occurred to him for the first time that he had no idea what was going on inside the tightly coiled mass of her hair. A thought flashed through his mind - could she, would she, start a false rumour. He'd heard of such things: men accused of devilry. Respectable men brought down by a gossiping servant. "A piece of cheese, then … and an apple. There are apples?" He coughed, a superior cough, to indicate that time was running on. Herr Knip would be arriving soon and here he was in his shirtsleeves begging for food from his maid.
She looked up at him, a slow direct gaze. And, with a look in her black eyes, continued, dragging out the words as if they were long stored and somewhat reluctant, "Apples, yes, if the moths have not got into them. One had a maggot, as big as my finger," and she held up a finger in demonstration and smiled, an odd smile, he thought. "There's many an apple has a worm at its heart."
Her eyes, the pupils grown large, were fixed on his. "And many a worm grown fat on human flesh. So people say."
Something glassy and determined in his servant's glance was making his left knee tremble.
At that moment the doorbell rang. Master and servant faced each other above the half-plucked body of the partridge, which seemed to sleep so peacefully in its nest of ruffled feathers.