Chapter 1 f For as long as ten-year-old Francesca Visser could remember she had been intensely aware of the colors of her world. The golden gleam of her mother’s neatly dressed hair. The azure sparkle of Amsterdam’s many canals under a summer sky and their frosty gray-green brilliance when frozen. Tall russet roofs made pale by mist and the ruby hues of tulips in the flower beds of the rear courtyard of her home. Above all else the treasure trove of her father’s studio, where a few drops of linseed oil could make the powdery pigments, dark in their storage jars, burst gloriously into vermilion, lime yellow, deep blue and velvet purple for his palette and her own. Yet today as she posed for him, wearing her best gown and seated on the studio rostrum, everything seemed somber and shaded. A great crisis was looming up in the household and at the present time only she knew about it. She hugged the secret knowledge to herself, her heart heavy, and was afraid. The house and the studio itself were as normal. There was the familiar slap of Hendrick Visser’s dog’s-hair brush against his canvas and the distant clatter of pots in the kitchen, where Griet, the maidservant, was preparing the noon meal under the direction of old Maria, who had been nurse to Francesca’s mother and aunt before taking charge of the next generation. From beyond the diamond-paned windows came the slow clop of a horse’s hooves as it pulled a loaded barge along the canal that divided the length of the street outside. “You’re letting your head droop, Francesca. Raise your chin.” “Yes, Papa.” As Francesca obeyed, shaking back her coppery hair, she thought it no wonder that her head had sunk with the weight of the forthcoming calamity on her mind, but she set the angle of her chin resolutely, determined not to lose her pose again. She knew from experience never to fidget or else her father would get angry and bellow at her. Hendrick did not mind talk from the rostrum, but he would not tolerate movement. It was the reason why neither of her sisters liked to pose for him. Aletta, who was a year younger than Francesca, became restless through nervousness, while Sybylla, who was younger than Aletta by thirteen months, was too energetic ever to be still, except when asleep. The fact was that Hendrick could never restrain himself from shouting, wherever he was, if anything upset him. His bushy, ginger-colored brows would gather like clouds before a thunderstorm and his heavily jowled face would turn crimson, a sight dreaded more by Aletta than anyone else in the household. Francesca tried frequently to reassure her sister that the old proverb about someone’s bark being worse than his bite applied to their father, but she never paid any heed. It was not uncommon for Hendrick’s temper to lead him into quarrels in the taverns and gambling dens of Amsterdam that he frequented too often for his wife’s liking. Sometimes the trouble only started through an argument with certain of his fellow artists, hotheaded like him when they had been drinking too much, over something as easy to discuss as techniques in painting. Francesca had seen her mother roll up her eyes and let her hands droop in her lap upon hearing of this and similar causes of confrontation. “Men!” Anna Visser would sigh with emphasis, putting a cold compress on her husband’s black eye. Then he would grin, catch her hand to kiss the palm or fondle her rump through her skirts. She knew well enough that the next time he and his friends met, the discord would be forgotten until one or another subject controversial to artists came up again. Francesca, now that she was old enough to be more observant in such matters, could tell that her mother worried more about his gambling than his involvement in occasional brawls. Sometimes her parents had wrathful spats between themselves. Then it was like an explosion of fireworks, for Anna was like most tolerant people in that she could give back as fiercely as she received when her temper was finally aroused beyond control. Yet these parental upsets did not trouble Francesca, for they were never of long duration, always ending upstairs in the marital bedchamber, where there was a great deal of bumping about before her parents emerged again, smiling and kissing, arms about each other. Similarly Francesca never minded when the food on the table was plain and barely adequate, because whenever her father had money in his purse there would be plenty again. After a win at gambling he would come home with his arms full of largesse and, his breath smelling winey, toss gifts of toys and sweetmeats to her and her sisters. Then he would fill Anna’s arms with flowers, taking one to tuck into her hair, before kneeling to place pink satin shoes on her feet. After that he would unwind the rolls of fine fabrics he had bought, whirling them out like banners to show there was to be a new gown for every female in the household before he piled the multicolored velvets, silks and gilt-threaded brocades in Anna’s lap. She would always smile and sometimes laugh, but often tears would trickle from her eyes no matter how he tried to kiss them away. Yesterday there had been one of these exuberant performances. Janetje Veldhuis, who was Anna’s younger sister and lived on her own in the house in which they had grown up, had been the recipient of a present simply because she had happened to be visiting at the time. Her pretty face had become as rosy as the rich brocade that Hendrick had draped over her shoulder. “It’s not my birthday,” she had protested. “Neither is it anyone else’s,” Hendrick had laughed. Francesca had sensed instinctively that the pinkness in her aunt’s cheeks had come from embarrassment. No doubt Aunt Janetje had thought that the money for her gift would have been better spent on settling a few of the Visser household’s unpaid bills. Anna never complained, but Janetje knew how her sister had to scrimp and save and keep at bay irate tradesmen at the door. But the incident of the brocade had occurred yesterday and today Aunt Janetje’s blushes had stemmed from a different cause. Such misery welled up in Francesca at the thought of it that a noisy sob broke from her throat before she could stop it and the tears gushed at last. “Whatever is the matter?” Hendrick, agile in spite of his portly girth, almost threw aside his brush and palette as he rushed to her. “Are you tired? I shouldn’t have expected a second sitting from you this morning!” She shook her head, wrapping her arms around his neck as he swept her up and held her to him. “It’s not that,” she sobbed. “I think Aunt Janetje is going to marry and then I’ll never see her again.” He sat down on the edge of the rostrum and perched her on his knee. It was his belief that his sister-in-law saw Francesca as the daughter she had never had, which was why there was such a close bond between them. “Why should you get such a nonsensical idea into your head, child?” he asked, his eyebrows raised in surprise. “Your aunt is a fine-looking woman and would make any fortunate man a good wife, but she has never found anyone to suit her after an early disappointment and is fulfilling her life in other ways.” “She has found someone now. At the Korvers’ house. I went there in my rest period, because Maria told me that Mama and Aunt Janetje had taken Aletta and Sybylla to play there.” Hendrick gave a nod. Heer Korver was a prosperous Jewish diamond merchant who lived at the far end of the street, and the friendship between the two families was of long standing. “So what happened?” It all came pouring out. Young Jacob Korver, the eldest boy, had taken Francesca upstairs to the drawing room above the business premises to see a newly acquired kitten asleep in a basket there. She had found her mother in conversation with Heer Korver and his wife while Janetje sat apart by the window with a Florentine gentleman, Signor Giovanni de Leone, who had come to Amsterdam to buy diamonds. All were sipping wine, it being Heer Korver’s hospitable custom to conclude a good transaction with some ceremony. What had disturbed Francesca was that for the first time ever she had not been greeted by her aunt with that special display of affection reserved for a favorite niece. “Aunt Janetje hardly seemed to see me! It was the Florentine gentleman who held all her attention.” “I expect they were having an interesting conversation,” Hendrick said comfortingly. “You know how your aunt enjoys a good discussion.” “It was more than that,” Francesca wept. “How can you tell?” “They were looking at each other as you and Mama do sometimes. It doesn’t matter what you’re talking about, because your eyes and hers are saying something special.” He leaned her head on his shoulder and stroked her hair. Sometimes he wondered at his eldest child’s intelligence and perception. “What do you think when your Mama and I exchange our thoughts?” “I know it means that you love her and she loves you and you both love Aletta and Sybylla and me.” “That’s right. Well, let us think what it would mean if Janetje and this Florentine gentleman should be finding love. It may mean a few weeks of friendship before he goes away again, perhaps never to return, or if they should marry he would most surely take her home to Florence, which is one of the great centers of Italian art. Michelangelo’s city! Think of it!” He would have been at a loss many times for a nursery story to tell his children if he had not been able to draw on the lives of renowned painters and sculptors, adding some fairy-tale touches of his own. The names of Michelangelo and Titian, Raphael and Botticelli were as familiar to Francesca and her sisters as that of St. Nicholaes, who brought gifts for children every year on the sixth of December. But the tears were flowing again. “Aunt Janetje would be so far away.” “Part of her heart would always be in Holland and with us. Nobody forgets their homeland, child, or those they have left behind. When you are grown you could visit her and see all the wonders of Florence for yourself.” “Could I?” He caught the more hopeful note in her voice and set her back from him to look into her tear-stained face. “Of course you could!” He pulled a clean paint rag from the pocket of his linen smock and dried her eyes with it. “Now, you little matchmaker, are you going to sit for me again, or have you had enough of being a model for one day?” “I’ll continue, Papa.” The sitting was resumed. Francesca occupied her thoughts by considering what marriage would mean to her aunt. Anna and Janetje had been born in Amsterdam at the family house. When Grandfather Veldhuis, by then a widower, died not long after the marriage between Hendrick and Anna, Janetje had stayed on there. She had never shown any sign of being lonely, although she was always eager to join in family occasions at the Visser home and to invite them all to her house. She had a wide circle of friends and in her charity work she held the role of regentess, as women governors were called, on the all-female board of an orphanage. It was an honorable appointment, for such positions were held only by those respected for their impeccable character and good works. Anna often visited the orphanage with her sister and afterward never failed to say what a pity it was that Janetje was not married with babies of her own since she cared so much for little children. So marriage would bring her those babies. Francesca tried to fix her thoughts on that blessing for her aunt, but she was full of tears inside. Hendrick, noticing that his daughter’s face had not lost its woebegone expression, paused in his painting while he considered the best means of distracting her. “Would you like to come for a walk with me this afternoon?” he asked. There could be no hurrying of the work in hand. Paint took a long time to dry, for it had to be built up in successive layers. She nodded eagerly, too disciplined in her pose to turn her head. Walks with Hendrick were never dull. “Where are we going?” “To call on Master Rembrandt. I’ve got that new book on Caravaggio that he wants to read.” She knew about the Italian artist Caravaggio. He had led the way in the chiaroscuro technique, the dramatic use of light and shade to sway the whole mood of a painting. Hendrick followed it, as did the artist they were to visit, but her father had said often that none could surpass Master Rembrandt in creating pure spiritual feeling in his work. Similarly Hendrick and Master Rembrandt considered the category of so-called history paintings, which covered biblical, historical and mythological scenes, to be the highest form of art, a theory that was once prevalent before popular taste changed. Francesca relaxed her pose as the tinkling of a little handbell in another part of the house announced that the noon meal was served and she sped with haste from the studio to the dining hall. She wanted to see her aunt again and discover if the glow in Janetje’s eyes was still there. To her disappointment she found only her mother supervising her sisters as they took their places. No extra setting for her aunt was on the table. “Where is Aunt Janetje?” The question flew from her. “I thought she would be eating with us today.” Anna’s lips curled in a secretive little smile. “I thought the same, but that dashing Signor Giovanni de Leone invited her out with him and she is going to show him the Westerkerk and the Town Hall and a number of other fine sights that are to be seen in Amsterdam.” “She can’t do all that in one afternoon!” “I don’t believe either of them expects to cover everything in a short time. I assume they will be spending time together for the week that he plans to be here. Now take your place. The food is on the table and your father is now waiting to say grace.” Stunned by this unexpected news of the romance developing so fast, Francesca stood behind her chair. Next to her was Maria, wrinkled, stiff-jointed through aches and pains and amply built, with impish-faced Sybylla at her left hand. Facing them on the opposite side of the table was Aletta, always quiet and reserved, her hair pale as moonshine, and also good-natured Griet, it being customary for a maidservant to eat with the family, except on formal occasions, if she was well liked and fitted in domestically. Anna, slender and full-bosomed, stood at the end of the table, looking toward Hendrick at the head. He bowed his thick mane of ginger hair and sent his deep voice booming over the table.
Excerpted from The Golden Tulip by Rosalind Laker, author of To Dance With Kings. Copyright © 2007 by Rosalind Laker. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.