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The Counterfeit Smile

He could see now the brittleness of her smile, yes, a smile that fissured as if to anticipate the radial cracking that would eventually come to his painting. He waved for some water, and his daughter Maria walked over to the angled window, open to dispel the room’s mustiness, and poured some into his cup. Something here in his daughter’s concentration recalled the inspiration for that image so long stored away under the surface of oil and varnish that he had almost forgotten the source. But here she was again, her features superimposed upon his daughter’s, as if the very canvas were being held up to him.

At this moment Catharina Bolnes, wife of Johannes Vermeer, climbed the stairs, passing on the way a series of paintings by her husband and his peers. Why had he not sold these works? They would surely fetch sums above the average if he died? She crossed herself, then manoeuvred her still shapely form, encumbered as she was by layers of fresh blankets, into the room.

And as Catharina made her journey up the stairs of the house on the Oude Langendijck to her dying husband, accompanied by the demanding wail of one of her children downstairs, the painter was making his own journey, too.

It took him down the stairs to the great hall, where he saw one of his younger children teasing the cat, and out over the threshold of their house. He continued into the street until he came to the old inn, Mechelen, which his parents once had managed and where he had spent most of his childhood.

He looked into the window awhile and saw himself as a young boy, serving soldiers, being jokingly patted on the head; he couldn’t have been more than ten years old. Then he saw Gertruy, his sister, who was serving too, sidling protectively up to him, scolding the soldiers, but managing not to offend them.

Now he remembered. It was probably the result of a moment’s lapse of concentration on his father’s part. Reynier Vos, later Vermeer, had been weaving silk, a skill he knew from his former trade and now occasionally employed to supplement their earnings from the inn and his small art-dealing business. At that moment he was entwined as much in his thoughts about how he could increase his clientèle as he was in guiding the material into intricate intersections of complementary patterns, when he became aware of his son’s attentive eye.

Johannes’s gaze was as fixed on the damask as if he had seen a monstrous shape in the sky.

‘Johannes, what is it with you?’

‘How do you do that, father?’

‘What? The weaving?’

Johannes nodded, tentatively.

Reynier was not about to instruct his son in a trade he deemed below his son’s abilities, but he saw here the promise of an allied interest. He showed his son the rough sketches he had made in preparation. Then he continued as Johannes sat with him into the early hours of the morning, the boy as unwavering in his precocious inquisitiveness as he was in his concentration. Before he put his son to bed, Reynier told him, ‘You will learn to draw, soon.’

That night the eight-year-old Johannes intimated what was to come. Although he could not name the thing itself, the whole, it was there in separated parts. Out of the darkness it took the form of an insoluble dream.

He was walking along a street in Delft behind two men who carried between them a large, heavy ebony frame whose parameters directed his attention towards a series of passing shapes and faces in the street. None of these was familiar until he saw the face of a woman, perhaps in her twenties, coming straight towards the frame, as if she would not stop. She walked up to him and stood looking through the frame, which was now angled forward as if to keep her in perspective while she looked down at him. Now the arms of the men holding the frame disappeared with the frame itself and she was leaning down at him, looking into his eyes. He no longer had the protective boundaries of the frame. He was out in the world. There was an intimation of a smile, but he could no longer be sure. His vision was misted. He could not see her face. Standing on the corner of the street as he was, he felt lonelier than he ever had before. Neighbourhood friends with whom he regularly scrapped in the market now passed him by, their eyes directed to the ground. He called, but they ignored him. He woke up crying, as if those tears had stopped him seeing properly. Now he saw Gertruy. She had heard the sounds he made and was leaning over him, wiping away his tears.

It was a year later, to the accompaniment of his mother’s muffled protests, that his father told him he would start going to the painter Cornelis Daemen Rietwijck on the nearby Voldersgracht to learn drawing.

It soon became clear to Johannes that his mother’s initial objections were purely financial. She wanted her son to rise in the world, and it was not infrequently that to this end she summoned up the stories of her brother Balthens and her father Balthasar’s adventures. Like the clouds, the stories were always in the background somewhere, never suffocating, but watching over him.

His grandfather and uncle had been counterfeiters. They had forged coins. Balthens had been in prison, but he had risen above his misdeeds to invent a machine that had saved Holland from the wrath of the Spanish.

One afternoon Reynier had walked into the kitchen at the back to hear once more his wife recounting the familiar story. He lost his temper and threw a faïence dish against the wall. ‘What rubbish are you speaking, again? Do you want the boy to grow up thinking he is descended from criminals?’

‘Talented criminals, at any rate,’ she retorted as she picked up the pieces of dish, barely able to suppress her tears. At this moment she could not look her husband in the eye.

‘He has all the talent he needs in those hands of his.’ And they all looked down at those broad wedges of flesh, which in their seeming awkwardness promised so little but already had gained him some praise. At that moment Johannes looked up and laughed, and the heaviness in the air was broken. In the middle of this Gertruy walked into the room to find the trio laughing and crying. Her smile, which was a beautiful one, had no choice but to change into a laugh, too.

Amsterdam left the young apprentice Vermeer dissatisfied. It was true that he had been able to see more examples of other paintings, especially Italian, than ever before, but he had made few friends and had never felt at home there. He was at once constricted by the canals and crowded out by the people until he felt like drawing himself in like one of the many narrow buildings standing hidden in shadow.

Utrecht offered other possibilities. He would study under the well-known artist, Abraham Bloemaert. It was here that Johannes spoke to Catharina Bolnes, of his own town of Delft, for the first time. Catharina, who was distantly related to Bloemaert, was paying a brief visit on behalf of her mother.

Johannes had seen her many times in the Great Market Square in Delft and had wanted to initiate conversation, but it had never been possible. Besides the sheer impropriety of addressing her in the open under the town’s gaze, she was Catholic and of a higher social standing.

Yet now, at Bloemaert’s in Utrecht, indirect as his sight of her was, he was emboldened to speak. He saw her first in the mirror as she stood at the virginal. There was no one else in the room. She carried on playing even when he entered, not looking up. He stood at the back, aware of himself reflected in the glass. When she stopped playing, he introduced himself, and she, as modesty bade, withdrew without a word, a benevolent smile hugging her features like leaves on a pond.

He was to see her only once more in Utrecht; on that occasion, some months later, he would make his proposal. Five years passed before he received his answer.

The young artist Johannes Vermeer contemplated and fretted over the day’s prospects of light and looked across the street at the gabled house in front of which a servant scrubbed a chequerboard of brown and pale grey tiles. It was an indifferent day; the clouds, tinged with a brooding rufous colour, hovered above the town like official seals pressed against the sky.

It was then he saw her for the first time since the dream, in three-quarter aspect, her face, her smile, floating out from her, like the trompe l’oeil effect of one of his friend Fabritius’s perspective boxes. She passed below his window, her gaze seemingly caught up in some indefinable contemplation.

Until this moment his heart had not leapt as it had that once on first sight of Catharina; and it had declined to alight from that plane to which it had ascended. But as the figure walked by, that heart teetered on the edge with inquisitiveness.

He was almost minded to send out his daughter after the young woman.

For the past few months Johannes had been contemplating his next project. His was a slow method. He was fortunate if he turned out more than three paintings a year, and not all of these were commissions. He was reluctant to bend to the wind of fashion. And now, his planned canvas lacked more than anything not just a model, but a face, a face that was intangible enough to be both an inspiration and a vessel for the shifting surface of desires he felt in him and which he wanted to communicate.

Catharina entered the room. He admired her still. He would have changed his faith for no other woman. The day of their marriage was still as clear as an image by his friend and mentor Gerard ter Borch, who, though of the Reformed faith, had come to the ceremony in the village of Schipluy. That day there had blown from the sea a wind as cold and cutting as his bride’s mother’s stare. Johannes had participated in the ceremony as if from the perspective of a consciousness once removed. He had been more a spectator than a participant. This is how he remembered the day now, as if he had been the priest. What had he, a mere innkeeper’s son, unproven in the precarious profession to which he was now yoked, and Reformed to boot, to offer a woman of Catharina’s standing? These thoughts, never openly enounced, were conveyed by Catharina’s mother’s eyes on pointed pyramids of suggestiveness.

After the ceremony, Gerard courted scandal by taking the young artist aside a moment, leaving Catharina to clasp at air and goodwill. ‘You are well matched, sir, but is she the one?’ Though the two men had never before discussed Johannes’s choice of wife, nor indeed spoken in depth about the younger artist’s ambitions, Johannes knew instinctively what the unsurpassed master of elegant social scenes meant by the words. They were to hang over him for forty years like a pastor’s mortal castigation of a sinner.

Catharina came over to her husband and took his hand.

‘You are brooding,’ she intuited.

‘I am to receive De Langue about a sale,’ he dissimulated.

‘Your own?’ she brightened.

‘No, a De Hooch.’

‘Pah,’ she returned. ‘You can do better,’ she added, and turned away.

He stayed her with his hand; his assessing eye fell on the incipient life inside her.

‘I’ve learned much from him. I’m not ashamed to sell his work.’

‘And meanwhile your work stands still like a cow in a meadow.’

‘Patience, Catharina.’

She pouted her disapproval, but it barely disturbed the strong projecting lines of her features. They were features that had surrendered little to the demands of her five childbirths.

She left the room briskly and for the first time that day Johannes turned with purpose to his new task.

The virginal had once more, to Catharina’s muted protest and at some expense, been brought up to the studio from the great hall. A pewter-lidded pitcher stood on the rug which covered the table in the foreground, and the ebony-framed mirror hung above the virginal. The painting of Cimon and Pero, of which Catharina’s mother Maria Thins had disapproved so much, hovered on the edges of the room, as it would in the finished work. Still something was missing, he knew.

There would undoubtedly be yet one of Catharina’s blue straight-backed Spanish chairs whose lion finials seemed almost to glow and project their sheen too hastily towards his colours, and there would be another figure besides the girl .... His attention was suddenly arrested by the sound of an instrument which sounded like a tenor viol.

He walked out of the studio and along the dark corridor, following the deep bass sound, to a room where he kept many of the objects inherited from his deceased parents. One of these was indeed the viol that his father had learned to play from his musician step-father, Claesz Corstiaensz. The door was slightly ajar, as if supported by the rectangular column of light escaping into the corridor. Instinctively, he said, ‘Father?’ and caught his tongue as he saw his daughter Maria embracing the huge instrument in an attempt to lift it. The painter’s wide grin of amusement stifled his momentary annoyance, and, in one dexterous movement, he lifted the child onto his knee, taking the viol with his right hand, and sat on the nearby stool. Now Johannes led his daughter’s supple hand along the bow to create and sustain a deep, mournful note. Maria laughed at the novelty, unaware of her father’s looming memories, while the amateur musician and master of the St. Luke’s Guild wavered between the sadness of an old loss and the anticipation of joy to come.

Johannes let his child down with a gently admonishing push, the girl almost falling on all fours and causing him a momentary worry, but the eight-year-old regained her balance in time, and went quickly into the corridor.

Accompanying and guiding his daughter like this, Johannes was reminded of his mother Digna’s stories of his maternal uncle Reynier Balthens, Balthens the honest master joiner, Balthens the counterfeiter, Balthens the military engineer, Balthens the States-General’s spy, Balthens the saviour of Sas van Gent. These epithets had clung to the young artist’s mind like tempera, seeping slowly into his body as the years passed until he had almost forgotten their exact provenance and no longer cared about their authenticity. They were logical progressions between him and a past he no longer sought to investigate too hard.

Soon De Langue arrived and bought the interior scene by De Hooch for twenty guilders. Johannes felt little regret. The elder artist no longer fascinated him as once he had, and De Hooch had long since left Delft to seek his fortune in Amsterdam. Johannes had considered returning to Amsterdam after he had returned from his apprenticeships there and in Utrecht, but, cynically perhaps, he had decided to turn his back on modishness and follow his own path. Furthermore, Catharina did not like the city much either. So his conscience had been appeased in that matter. He did no more work that day.

Later that night, as he lay in bed with his wife calculating what paintings he would have to sell in the coming months to feed the new mouth, two things happened that conspired to set Johannes on a path he would pursue till the end of his life. A wavering image, preceded by a negative flash, swam across his mind’s eye, that of the girl he had seen from the window that day. He could not see her face, as she was walking away from him, but her smooth, strangely tilted neck seemed tangible. This image, which was trapped between layers of near-sleep and barely perceptible wakefulness, coincided with the faltering sound of notes played on a virginal. He wanted to get up and go to the studio. Could it be Maria once more playing the musician? No, no, she could barely reach the keyboard. He tried to get up, but he could not. He was fettered as much by weariness as Cimon was by his chains. The music grew louder, insisted that he take notice, fettering him within its regular bars, finally escorting him to a familiar room. He saw her face indirectly in the mirror, turning away. To where, he could not see.

The next morning Johannes went early into his studio. He was expecting Van Leeuwenhoek to arrive soon with the new lens. However, the first interruption that morning was from Catharina.

‘Johannes,’ she said in a tone which indicated she was holding back great irritation. ‘Van Buyten has delivered the bill for the bread. It’s ... it’s absolutely beyond our means right now. What shall we do?’

Johannes scanned the bare room .

‘A painting, give him a painting,’ he said curtly, as if the details were of no concern to him.

‘Which one?’

‘Oh, the one in the vestibule, the lutenist.’

Catharina stifled a protest, stood silently awhile, and suddenly turned on her heels. It was this she had feared most, a time when they would have to give, albeit as surety, a painting for which she or their daughters Maria and Elizabeth had posed. But it was vain to hope they could hold on to all his works.

Downstairs, as she stood in front of the painting of the lutenist which showed her daughter Elizabeth wearing Catharina’s now somewhat worn yellow satin mantle, her only consolation was that this was not one of his best, the subtle impression of fine silk was now too soft, too dreamy. Her husband’s fijnschilderie had given way to blurry passages.

In his studio Johannes contemplated the merging design of his new painting, whose title was as yet uncertain. A rough sketch had so far succeeded only in outlining the barest contents of the image: the receding orthogonals of the window sills and frames on the left, the mirror, the virginal, all of these insistently directing the viewer’s attention to the light back wall. Then there was the foreground table and rug. He interrupted his work to glance on several occasions out of the window at the passers-by in the street, perhaps hoping to see that girl again.

What was she to him? As a headman of the Guild he could have his pick of all the models in Delft.

He was restless. He decided to walk to Leeuwenhoek’s house by way of his sister Gertruy’s, where he could also inquire of his order for five ebony frames from her husband Anthony. Though a relation and living nearby, Anthony’s frames were in great demand, and Johannes could already foresee the time when he would not be able to pay for the necessities of his trade so readily.

From the street he made out the form of Gertruy’s broad forehead dipped conscientiously over her lace-making. Was a child finally on the way for his unfortunate sister? He could predict the subject and course of the conversation with little error.

When he was settled in, Gertruy fed him a string of anecdotes and gossip about the latest public affairs. She spoke of the scurrilous neighbour Itge who had once more slandered a young girl with talk of having ‘conversations of the flesh’. For a moment Johannes’s curiosity was piqued. But he held himself back. He had always kept himself away from bawdy talk and refused to let it cloud his view now. Gertruy herself, simply for having served in their father’s inn, had come perilously close to never marrying. And now a child seemed an ever scarcer possibility.

‘But it is so unfair,’ she had started to say at one point. ‘Anthony’s business goes excellently. Still no child comes, yet you ... how many is it now. Four, five?’

Johannes was not shocked by her sudden feigning of forgetfulness. She knew exactly the names, ages, and dates of birth of his five children. Though she rarely visited the Papist’s Corner, she revelled in their presence.

‘You are so cut off. We should see more of you, Johannes.’

‘My dear Gertruy, you and Anthony are welcome at all times.’

He gestured to indicate he was leaving ą formalities were mercifully unnecessary with his sister ą and made his way through the house to Anthony’s workshop at the back. He put in his order with his overtaxed brother-in-law, who was engaged in teaching a new apprentice, then came out the back way, waving at Gertruy as he passed by the window again.

Walking around past the New Church in the direction of Leeuwenhoek’s house, even closer to the Reformed part of the town, Johannes felt curiously detached. This feeling was heightened considerably when he saw a familiar figure on the corner of the street towards which he was heading. It was the girl again, the one he had seen from his window some days before. He saw her go into a house which he knew to belong to the local music teacher. He lingered for some seconds.

As he looked into the front room of the house, he saw the girl standing at the virginals with her back to the street, her face visible only as a hazy shimmer in the mirror above the instrument, and a man standing in profile nervously by her side, as if he were waiting on an answer to a question he had just posed, frozen in this attitude. The young man was handsome and elegant, but the fact that he was still wearing his coat and leaning on his cane unnerved Johannes. For a brief second Johannes saw himself ten years earlier, petrified in a similar manner in front of Catharina at Bloemaert’s. Had he looked so frozen when he had first seen Catharina? Had his thoughts hung so heavily on her next words?

A shadow swept across the room. Johannes moved on, as if he had been woken by the figure of someone sweeping past him as he lay sleeping. He reproved himself. Father of five and many more to come! What were these dreamy reflections?

He proceeded to Leeuwenhoek’s, his eyes and mind focused only on his path, reluctant to lift his head and be distracted once more.

After making his apologies, he was invited into Leeuwenhoek’s study by the servant and asked to wait. He sat there some time, espying cones of light split into chevrons that played over Leeuwenhoek’s prints of De Gheyn’s studies of mice, across a map of Europe, finally pointing at a globe in the corner that he had not seen before. Then, as he turned his attention towards the window, through which in the near distance he could see the tower of the New Church, he saw a curious object. On a desk on the metal plate of a microscope, as if laid out for some surgical operation, was the dissected eye of an insect gazing up at him. Johannes moved a little closer, enough to see the multiple pin-pricks of the creature’s Hydra of eyes.

‘Ah, Johannes,’ came the words suddenly from behind.

The painter turned to see the bespectacled scientist peering at him in much the same way as if he were one of Leeuwenhoek’s skewered insects.

‘You are welcome,’ Leeuwenhoek continued. Then, ‘You have seen my delightful creature? Just imagine how it perceives the world. Do you think it sees in the same way as us?’

The question was purely rhetorical. Johannes knew that at this stage he could do nothing to stop the older man from elaborating.

‘Multiplied, and upside down. Hundreds of lenses dividing up the world around us. No, we are not unique. No, despite what the Church says.’

Johannes was loath to take up the ecclesiastical reference.

‘Yes, perhaps it is better to keep such speculations to ourselves,’ Leeuwenhoek finished. ‘Now, Johannes, you have doubtless called about the lens.’ He waved a hand to forestall an incipient reply. ‘No, I know it has been overdue for some time, but you shall not have to wait any longer.’

The lensmaker now walked over to a bureau, and drew from it an object wrapped in muslin. He unwrapped it as if it were the only surviving egg of an extinct bird.

Johannes looked down at the biconcave lens, seeing his form reflected foetus-ike within its walls. He held it up to the light and saw the New Church heretically reversed in the upside-down world of the glass. It was the clearest glass he had ever seen.

‘It is a marvel,’ Johannes exclaimed, and the lensmaker was taken aback. It was rarely that Johannes expressed himself so keenly. ‘I am grateful.’

Johannes stepped into the street more lightly than when he had come. But his calmness lasted only as far as his house on the corner of the Oude Langendijck. There, as he turned the corner and walked in the front door, he heard a pitiful sobbing. Catharina was wrapped in the arms of Tanneke, their maid, while Maria ranted into the air. Nearby stood the stone carver and occasional grinder of the artist’s paints, Gerrit Cornelisz. At first Johannes had thought this scene the issue of some terrible falling-out between mother and daughter. Then he saw the bruises on Catharina’s face.

‘What is it, my love?’ he said as he knelt down and tried to comfort her. She said nothing, continuing to sob.

‘That brute has visited again,’ Maria finally said.

‘Willem?’ Johannes said, hardly expecting to be disabused.

‘Yes, Willem. But this time there are witnesses.’

Johannes’s forehead furrowed sceptically.

‘Yes, neighbours. They are willing to make depositions. It is in their own interests. It would have been worse if not for Tanneke and Gerrit.’

Johannes looked at the sturdy, freckled maid, and the good-natured carver.

‘They came between that good-for-nothing son of mine and Catharina.’ Then she stamped her feet in fury, said, ‘I won’t rest until that boy is in a house of correction’, and hurried upstairs to her room.

Johannes’s hands were trembling at the thought of physical confrontation even as he held on to Catharina. He was ashamed that he had not been there, as had been his original intention, but secretly relieved he had not had to face his burly, flaxen-haired brother-in-law. He still shivered when his father, otherwise a kind and respectful man, boasted of the day he and two mates had taken revenge on a friend’s attacker, a captain in the army. There had been snow, and ice, and a knife had been brandished. The soldier had died of his wounds. How close had Johannes’s father come that day to torture or imprisonment? He would never know. But none of the brawls in the inn had matched that feeling of terror the story always instilled in him.

With Tanneke’s help he lifted Catharina up and they took her into the interior kitchen where the maid tended to her bruises. Johannes sent his daughter Maria to fetch the local midwife even though Catharina had not complained of abdominal pains, and then retired upstairs.

The room extended the length of three lead-mullioned, stained-glass windows, windows whose defining orthogonals he had already depicted so often and which now seemed not to begin somewhere but to converge from points inside his head. The only certain thing was that they continued to a central vanishing point.

And now, partitioned as he was behind a wooden panel in a dark room where the third window was shaded, looking through this new, clear lens, this sense of observing something to which he was the outsider, was enhanced almost beyond endurance. He felt both more part of and yet more distanced from the scene he had fashioned in his studio than at any previous time. He remembered the soldier from his father’s inn, and the laughing girl, how the soldier had always seemed to remain in shadow. Many years later, the camera obscura box would enable him to look back at that curious couple, to match their configuration in his memory with the optical insistence of the foreground figure of the model.

He had decided that only a sketch in white lead on the dark ground would be necessary. As he began to follow the contours of the inverted objects on the canvas placed against the back wall, he was aware of the light’s stealthy encroachment on space and time in a way he had never before noticed. The process was slow, and yet he seemed to have a memory of the course of shadows elongating across, behind, or above objects. Where the models were to stand he left these areas blank. The girl would stand at the virginal, the man to her right.

He had spent the whole day working at this task when he noticed a development which ran through him like a skate cutting into ice. He had turned his attention to the mirror which hung above the virginal, to find two eyes, familiar yet unplaceable, staring at him out of a face placed on a body which had no material counterpart.

It was true. No one was standing in front of that mirror. His instinct was to rush out of the box, and yet he could not. Instead he found himself compelled to record as best he could at a distance of twenty feet those uncertain but tantalising features which intimated a smile but would not confirm it. When he had finished outlining them to his satisfaction, he came out of the box, though even as he had begun to turn he saw the figure turn away from the room’s real and reflected space to disappear and wait invisibly beyond the glass’s plane somewhere in that parallel room.

For the rest of the day Johannes felt as frail and insubstantial as that spectral image. The house had been overtaken by Maertgen the midwife and her assistant. Catharina would deliver early, as a result of her brother’s blows. Linen was fetched from all over the house; Maria and Elizabeth scuttled about in imitation of the old woman. Johannes immersed himself in work on the map he was now bringing to completion. Finally, he could stand the commotion no longer. He decided to walk out to the cemetery.

In the distance, towards the northeast of the town, the sky shimmered vermeil like a vast sea of fire, as if it were reflecting the events of nearly a decade before when a part of the town had burned. He and Catharina had been married for over a year when they heard the sounds of explosions. At first they thought it a celebration or even a Spanish invasion, but soon word spread more quickly than the fire itself that it was the municipal powder magazine. With others they went out to help put out the fire that had reached the Old Church and threatened the stained-glass windows. It was while they were busy passing buckets of water, lovers bound close by the prospect of tragedy, that Johannes noticed the figure emerge from a swathe of smoke, a dimly recognised shape in a muddy stream until it reaches the surface or, even, subtly modelled features under oil paint brightening under varnish. But here the form that came into view was a devastated one, one which seemed, even in coming forward, to want to merge back with the shadows.

On that night Johannes found himself staring at the ravaged face of his friend and senior in painting by some few years, Carel Fabritius. The painter and former pupil of Rembrandt had come to Delft two years previously, only to suffer this cruelty. Johannes and Catharina turned their attention away from the church, whose windows were bulging like sheets in the wind, to the dying artist. The building, however sacred, could be rebuilt, refashioned, but neither the town nor the world would see the like again of the artist now lying at their feet.

Johannes arrived at the cemetery and stood at the foot of Carel’s grave. He remembered Carel’s surprise, when, on their first meeting at the Guild, Johannes had told him that he owned some of his paintings. Johannes was captivated by his use of impasto; he sometimes stood at a distance to the works, then walked forward until the definition of the paint lost its sharpness. More than ever, Johannes was convinced that there was a physical point at which the works could best be understood. At too great or too close a distance the faces or objects became ill-judged smudges. But it was only when he visited Carel one day and found him preparing a canvas that would, he learned, afford a view of Delft that it became obvious, and he had the courage to ask the older artist about his method.

Carel’s studio was dirty, disordered, and cold. He offered Johannes a glass of wine and stared into the younger artist’s eyes as if he had just espied an interesting fleck. Johannes shivered. At that moment he had a presentiment of disaster and sadness. Carel seemed to be looking at him from the end of a long tunnel, but without the intervening loss of scale.

Despite the general shabbiness, the studio was light, giving, on one side, onto an empty yard paved with flagstones. They might have been in uninhabited countryside, except for the proximity of the canal onto which the main studio window looked. Carel talked of Amsterdam, of Rembrandt, of darkness above all.

‘Too dark, much too dark,’ he repeated.

‘That is why you came here?’

‘What?’ Carel questioned, put off track.

‘For the light. The light is special here, do you not think?’

Carel looked at him enigmatically, twirling the end of one of his long locks, as if he were considering the charms of a young woman.

‘Ah, the light. Then you must see this, my light box.’

Carel went over to the other side of the studio and came back with a wooden box, from one end of which protruded a small cylinder containing a lens. At the other end, on the top side, was a misted glass plate. Nothing could be seen in the glass until the owner of the box directed it towards the window. Johannes saw the image of the courtyard which seemed to present itself to him more insistently than it would do on the brightest day of summer without such an intermediary. And yet it was not that the image was brighter; it was rather that colours and their tones seemed to be already segmented into logical passages to which the eye was fixed longingly without understanding its enthralment.

Johannes thought, A wondrous device, but said, ‘And how does it affect your work?’

Upon this Carel put the box under his arm and beckoned Johannes to go out with him. ‘Come, you shall see.’

He followed Carel through the courtyard to the corner of the street where it ran along the canal. In the near distance was the Nieuwe Kerk, to its right a cluster of houses, and to the left, the seated figure of an instrument maker, of whom Johannes became only belatedly aware. Whether he was selling his wares or resting, Johannes could not have said, but he seemed involved in contemplation so serene that nothing could have disturbed him, least of all the sight of these two artists standing over their strange box.

‘See,’ said Carel as he guided Johannes to look at the image in the glass, ‘how the lens enables you to encompass everything in view, right up to the thoughtful gentleman on the left and the houses on the right, which are normally outside our range of view.’

Upon these words Carel whisked away the box as if to make more dramatic the gulf between what Johannes’s naked eye would have put within the frame of a painting and what this device would allow him to.

‘Yes, I see, indeed.’

‘That is why,’ Carel continued, ‘my next painting will be called a ‘View in Delft’ and not a ‘View of Delft.

Johannes hummed his admiration with a line of words that, though they trailed out in logical connection, and Carel nodded in agreement, had in fact no connection with the workings of his mind at this time.

This dual process was perhaps due to the fact that for the younger artist it was not the albeit intriguing lateral distortions of perspective or the encompassing point of view that truly interested him, but rather the possibilities that a device might have for work of a more traditional kind. Did this device indeed not have the capacity to highlight areas of almost otherworldly shade to which the naked eye was usually unconscious, and allow a draughtsman to reassemble these passages to his liking? And yet at the same time there was at work here, he felt, a tangible, mathematical precision which would be borne out even by the work of the Italians.

He did not see his ill-fated friend very often after that day until the night of the fire, but he had carried with him constantly the image of the older artist standing on the corner of the street with that intelligent, wondering but fearful gaze, as if he could see through his lens into the future where he saw the explosion to come.

Johannes returned to a house rejoicing in the birth of a new family member, a son who was to be called Johannes after his father. Catharina’s mother, when she might for once have had reason, did not rebuke him for being absent; neither did Catharina. After five girls, she had finally borne a son, though he could see that it was more relief than joy that carried her on. What powers this woman had, he thought, looking down at the already swaddled infant as she supported it with her large hands, the only part of her that could not have been described as delicate.

For his part he found it hard to welcome the new family member, uncertain whether it was the onset of a worry about his capacity to go on supporting this family which was ever growing or simply that the poor thing held no fascination for him. What example would he be to a boy? He had looked up to his father because his father had been strong and skilled, brave yet sensitive to configurations of people and things. Would he hold such promise for his own son, when he was involved so much in the recording of things rather than in their making? His existence was a shadow one; he was there to reflect what he saw, yet not be part of it. It seemed indeed an ill omen that this had been the only birth from which he had been absent.

On the way out of the bedroom he met Tanneke in the corridor carrying a glass of milk. The midwife’s orders, no doubt. Tanneke stopped, and looked up at him with hesitation, as if she were not sure whether he would be well disposed to being congratulated on the birth. But, when she finally spoke, it seemed it must be to do with something else.

‘Mijn Heer, there was a visitor for you while you were away. A young woman.’

‘What did she want?’

‘She wanted to know if you needed a model.’

‘Ah. What did you tell her?’

‘I said to come back in a few days, due to all the excitement here.’

‘Thank you, Tanneke.’ She bowed but did not move.

‘Is there something else?’

‘Yes, Mijn Heer. Something I cannot quite explain.’

She looked down at the carpet, as if noticing a detail she had not seen before.

‘Go on.’

‘Well, we were so busy when she arrived. Normally I would have turned anyone away. But she had an air about her ... at first she said nothing about being a model. I thought she was a lady.’

‘Yes.’ He was becoming impatient but did not show it.

‘Well, I showed her to your studio to wait there, since downstairs no room was free.’

‘Is there something strange about that?’

‘No, Mijn Heer, except that I didn’t see her go. I was very busy, of course, what with the delivery, but no one seems to have seen her.’

‘How was she dressed, this visitor?’

‘She was wearing a yellow jacket … of silk, I think. She was pretty, and her hair was nicely styled, you know, in curls. She spent quite a bit of time looking around the painting room, especially at the mirror, but, I’m sorry, Mijn Heer, I had to leave her to take care of the Juffrouw. When I came back she was gone.’

‘Don’t worry, Tanneke. See to Catharina.’

The event that the maid had described was indeed extraordinary, perhaps too much so for him to express anger at Tanneke’s laxity, yet overriding this concern was the description she had provided. Though it was the briefest of sketches, Johannes felt that he knew who the woman was.

He proceeded to his studio with the intention of working, but it was now dark. He looked in to make sure that nothing had been misplaced. Everything was as it had been. Reassured, he went downstairs to take up once more the rÖle of doting father, which came easily when he was not thinking of matters artistic.

In the days and months that followed, the composition of the house changed markedly and with it the otherwise incessant mood of impending dread to which Johannes had become recently so used.

The death of his till then only and stillborn son had been somewhat assuaged by the birth of Johannes. Catharina’s mother hardly spent any time in the house except for the mornings and evenings, and sometimes she spent weeks in Gouda, the city of her birth. But her reasons were not mysterious; they were public and widely proclaimed. She was engaged in a new pursuit: to have her son Willem committed to a house of correction, and to that aim she was collecting depositions from eye witnesses and character testimonials from people who had known Willem and who had suffered at his brutal hand. Allied to this was the necessity to reclaim the various amounts of money he owed her by claiming the rents on the properties he owned. There were visitors, to be sure, for word had spread in the Catholic community that the artist and his wife had finally produced a male child. And the other children were quieter, like rivers becalmed in their helpful duties, led by Tanneke and the eldest daughter, Maria.

All this combined to leave Johannes to concentrate on the task ahead. He was happy sometimes to have a drink with Gerrit. But for the most part he was alone on the first floor of the house, calmly expectant of a visit, though he could not have said who that visitor would be.

It was as he began to lay the first in a series of fine glazes over the figures of the woman whose face was only seen in the mirror and the expectant music teacher standing by her side that the visit came. Tanneke knocked lightly on the door and, with an expression that seemed to boast of swelling pride, announced that there were three gentlemen of fine upstanding bearing, one of whom was a priest.

Johannes received them in the great hall. Monsieur de Monconys, a traveller from Lyons, seemed of the three the most curious and purposeful, and this was underlined by his bearing and appearance, all of which, from his pointed features and small, supple-looking body, conveyed an aspect of inquisitiveness and mobile readiness. He explained the reason for the unannounced visit, through the intermediary of Father LÄons interpreting, while their fellow voyager, Lieutenant Colonel Gentillo, stood respectfully by.

‘I pray, Mijn Heer Vermeer, that this visit causes you no inconvenience.’

He paused but did not wait for the artist to express any judgment on this matter.

‘You see, I come to your famous town of Delft for the second time this week. On my first visit I looked around the town and returned to The Hague with favourable impressions. It was only once I was back there that I was told of your work, and of a hidden church in this quarter. We are all, as you might surmise, of the Catholic faith and eager to know that in these hard times it survives where once it was able to flourish.

‘However, I digress. I have heard of your masterful painting and should like to ask if I may see any examples thereof.’

He finished his words with a heaviness that perhaps seemed to Johannes out of proportion to the occasion.

‘I am honoured, Monsieur, that you have made such a journey on my behalf. However, I think I must disappoint you. I have no paintings of my own here.’

Moncony’s sigh of desperation was audible enough to make the priest and lieutenant turn on their heels in embarrassment, but the Frenchman quickly filled the dawning gap.

‘That is indeed a pity. Would there not be some of your work elsewhere in Delft?’

‘You may certainly try the baker Van Buyten, who is not far from here, or my patron Pieter Claesz. van Ruijven in Leyden.’

‘I regret to say that time and other matters precluded such a journey at the moment, though I shall be happy to see Mijn Heer van Buyten.’

He paused once more, alighting on another possibility.

‘May I venture to ask if there is a work on which you are presently engaged?’

Johannes would like to have said he was presently not engaged on a painting, but it would not do to let a rumour go round that he was idle.

‘You may see, if you wish, my current work. I have just begun it.’

At this Monconys became visibly excited, almost childlike, and Johannes had to suppress a slight disdain.

The three men followed him to his studio. Once more, he thought, the place, to which he rarely even allowed his own children, would be violated by strangers, albeit well-intentioned ones.

Monconys gasped and questioned his way around the studio, bringing Johannes almost to the point of frustration. Yet despite the priest’s visible tiring, Monconys pushed on, seeking in the studio the visible counterpart of the painted objects on the canvas. All the while Johannes patiently explained his method, confident that the traveller would soon think him an eccentric and lose interest. He prayed that he would not notice the wooden partition and the lens at the back of the room.

As time went on, however, Johannes’s respect for Monconys increased. First of all he noticed and remarked on the tiles in the room. Unlike in the painting, the black-and-white marble floor tiles did not form a black cross but a white one. Furthermore, the underside of the lid of the virginal neither had a black ebony border nor the words in Latin, ‘Music is the companion of joy, the medicine of sadness’, but a borderless colourful landscape for decoration. More than this, he noticed how the floor in the painting seemed to dip down and threaten to slide out of the picture. Ingeniously, Monconys referred to this as an effect, and it was a short journey from this observation, which Johannes could not deny, to the discovery of the cause, which his visitor found at the back of the room, in the shape of the dark, partitioned-off chamber with its achingly clear glass lens.

Not quite realising how much he had given away, Johannes found Monconys’s enthusiasm breaking down his reserve and feeding his own. Together they went into the room and observed in silence the reversed images of the priest and lieutenant, who were engaged in a discussion perhaps fuelled by the Frenchman’s forwardness.

‘It is indeed a marvel,’ Monconys said via Father LÄon when they emerged from the hidden room. ‘The image is not simply true to what the eye can see here; it is truer. It is at once a picture of what is and a counterfeiting of the image.’

At this word a shiver ran through Johannes. He was not certain whether he should take it as a compliment or an accusation. He wanted to say, ‘Yes. It is a counterfeit, it is a higher representation than the original,’ but he was afraid this would displease Father LÄon in particular. He knew now, through this little demonstration, more than on any previous occasion, that there was a power here beyond the grasp of the ordinary man. Monconys was not ordinary, and he was not sure if this pleased or terrified him.

Monconys had mercifully left to last any mention of the figures, though this was perhaps because they were the only uncompleted parts of the work.

‘And the faces of the man and woman are curious indeed,’ he said. ‘He is no doubt the music teacher?’

Johannes nodded, offering no more information, relieved that no more was required of him this day.

When Monconys, the priest, and the soldier finally took their leave, Johannes felt drained, in need of air.

He could not have said that he was, at the moment of leaving the house, conscious of having a particular destination. To be sure, he wandered beyond the Catholic quarter and passed the Old Church. Memories suddenly assailed him, attaching themselves like fish-hooks to his thoughts. He felt a sense of despair over the painting he had been working on for so many months, over its immaterial provenance. There were still no models for the work, and for once he did not want any.

There was, however, a need within him, to seek out the shadowy figure of the woman whose comings and goings had paralleled the progress of the work without conceding him a substantial meeting. It was as if this lady ą for was she not indeed such? ą existed only in so far as she could not be confronted, remaining as ungraspable as motes in the rays of the sun.

It was only when he arrived at the corner of the street that he realised it was the one that contained the house of the music teacher. He resolved finally to pay a visit to the man who was an old friend of his father, and approached the house with trepidation.

His suspicion was confirmed as he approached the window. Through the latticework, which imposed a grid on the view within much like the instrument he sometimes employed for squaring up his pictures, Johannes now espied the scene with which he was so familiar. The woman stood at the virginal, the reflection of her face captured like frozen mercury as if inlaid in the very mirror, and the man waited to her right, his hand resting sedately on the cane. It was the exact scene he had witnessed half a year before.

He decided he must enter, his words unrehearsed.

A maid came to the door, and, recognising him for the noted artist whose work at this time was gaining in repute, allowed him in. She asked him to wait in the hallway while she called Master Hendricksz. He stood listening for the music which did not come, only a murmur of voices. Finally, the door to the main front room was opened, and Johannes was standing opposite the welcoming music teacher. Circumventing idle talk as quickly as politeness would allow, he inquired after the woman, surely the man’s pupil. There was a slow raising of eyebrows on the initial query, as Master Hendricksz. explained that that day he had had no pupil playing the virginal. This was followed by an arching of those eyebrows into circumflexes of incredulity when the artist gave a faithful description of the woman he had seen.

Master Hendricksz’s denial of the presence of such a woman in his house was at first adamantine, but, eventually, he weakened, taking a seat, a faint film of water thickening and magnifying his large eyes. Whilst never admitting to the presence of the woman in his house on that day, he finally conceded,

‘You, Mijn Heer, are describing the very image of the woman to whom I was once betrothed. Twenty years before now I remember standing exactly as you say in such a manner when I asked for her hand. She granted it ą in as much as she could without her parents’ knowledge. She had come especially from Amsterdam for the lessons, and she was living in my house.

‘Then she returned to Amsterdam, with the agreed intention of asking her parents’ approval.’

Here he stopped suddenly, as if unable to continue. Then, falteringly, ‘She never returned, nor did she write, nor did her relations. I have never heard from her since. I have never ... I have never ... been able to look on any other woman with desire since my hope faded.’

Johannes came forward and pitched slightly over the man, resting his hand for comfort, and as he contemplated whether he should tell about his labours, he was aware of another presence in the room. Whether benevolent or not, he could not say, but it had the superfices of benevolence.

His eye was now drawn to one indisputable point of focus, to a plane that could be said to lie neither in the space of the room nor in the counterpart one of the room’s reflection. Yet the object of his attention was undeniable in its clarity, and it lay trapped in a vitreous world.

In the angled mirror which hung above the virginal he saw not just her face, but her smile, or the hint of one. It, like his work, was phantom, counterfeit; it could have been the beginning of laughter or tears. It was ungraspable, and he was forced to turn away, leaving the poor teacher to his inconsolable sadness.

On his deathbed Monsignor Johannes Vermeer was capable of little communication; light was once more everything. The smile returned on the face of his eldest daughter and on that of his wife. It was perhaps only now that he recognised it to be truly benevolent. Downstairs, his offspring ran about the house, their limbs powered by blood he had given them, making a pulsing map out of lives to come. The final note was not dulling, but a white flash, as if lifting a veil from a foggy picture. And again it was the smile, but this time there was no doubt, no dissimulation. The smile was true.

Editor’s Notes: Juffrouw, Catharina Bolnes, wife of Vermeer; ‘Music is the companion of joy, the medicine of sadness’ is taken from from: Svetlana Alpers: The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983).

Author’s Note: Parts of this story appeared in a slightly different form in my novel, The Dance of Geometry (2002). My thanks to Matthew Miller and Aloma Halter at the Toby Press.

about the author <$author?>

Brian Howell lives and teaches in Japan. He has been publishing stories since 1990. Print publications include Critical Quarterly, Panurge, Stand, Neonlit: The Time Out Book of New Writing, Vol. 1., and Leviathan Quarterly. Online, his stories have appeared in Linnaean Street, The Richmond Review (U.K.), The Paumanok Review, and Painted Moon Review. His first collection of stories, The Sound of White Ants, dealing with a variety of aspects of modern-day Japanese life, was published in 2004 in the U.K. by Elastic Press. His novel based on the life of Jan Vermeer, The Dance of Geometry, was published in March 2002 by The Toby Press and is available at Amazon and other online booksites. Brian’s eNovella, The Study of Sleep, is published by Wind River Press. He is currently working on his fourth novel.