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Amsterdam, 29 October, Anno 1628.
I stand alone on the spice wharf and inhale the cinnamon salt-sweet fragrance that lingers still. Once again I check my papers. All in order, no detail gone unnoticed. Tutt did well. I admire his meticulous work in forging the Company seal on my accommodation pass to the officers' cabins. At last it is final.
Strange that Torrentius -- my mentor and only friend -- being an acclaimed Hollander miniaturist, was offered temporary refuge at the court of King Charles, whereas for certain beliefs of mine, I have to scuttle underground like a rat, board the ship Batavia, and adopt the crisp, moneyed manners of Dutch East India merchants bound on a five-month voyage to the Indias.
I'm no mariner. I can't even swim. I fear death by drowning, the cold touch of water on my skin. I, Jeronimus, am a man of phials, a measurer of powders on bronze scales, a potion brewer, an opium and arsenic merchant. The primped and perfumed Amsterdam burghers came to me in droves requiring cures for fevers, love balms, the miscarriage of a bastard child, and, of course, poisons. Ah, poisons. And there are many. Dusting an ostrich fan, the rim of a claret glass, the bloom on a summer rose -- beware the innocent whose lips brush his lady's lace-gloved hand. Witchcraft I leave to the crones, the illusionists in market squares, the card shufflers, the crystal ball gazers, the decipherers of strangers' shadows in cracked teacups, reminding me of that other sorcerer, the lost prophet, who divided fishes and loaves, turned water to wine, spun tall tales to fisherboys and netmenders by the riverbanks.
Torrentius's hospitality knew no bounds. My friend's mansion was one of the most magnificent residences in the town. Furnished with every conceivable luxury, the salons were designed for pleasure. Nightingales sang from the orangerie, and in the summerhouse by the ornamental lake there were frescoes of pucks, centaurs, satyrs, priapic in the Arcadian style.
There were studios dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. One devoted to natural history held my attention for a while, the accidents of nature in particular, coiled in jars of preserving fluid.
Another was a scholar's study of Zodiac charts, almanacs, the rarest of Tarot cards. These, day after day, I would play, until the worn emblems became intimate as friends.
The mansion also housed a large library of curiosa, and it was there that I spent most of my time. In addition to Greek and Latin authors, my fingers roamed the works of Shakespeare and other moderns.
Bent over his desk, in silence and solitude, my friend deciphered his family's genealogies, transcribed them from Latin to Dutch on finely calligraphed sheets of parchment in a beautiful, unhurried hand.
Under his guidance, I began my study of the humanities and explored every part of the library, the trompe-l'oeil panels which slid open at a single touch. Among this secret archive of wax-sealed documents I found a precious collection of licentious literature. Bound in yellow calf vellum, The History of the Flagellants, a translation by an Abbe of the fifteenth century, was the first to catch my eye, and there was much to be learned from this tract.
My friend had a talent for masked balls. His guests would be asked to dress for the occasion, each request sending the district for miles around into a fever of anticipation. The delivery of those black scrolls caused considerable agitation among the jaded aristocracy, who, at the first sight of Torrentius's carriage in the streets, dispatched their servants to wait by the gate. And beware the hapless footman who returned to a house empty-handed. Not for my friend pastorals of goatherds and shepherdesses or seraglios of silken slaves -- he preferred more demanding themes. Guests arrived as inquisitors, executioners, Satan's angels, pagan kings and queens. For him life was a game, his theatricals a play within a play.
Torrentius liked to teach his disciples in rented wharfside brothels. There he orchestrated secret pagan rites, choreographed magnificent still lifes, made lean street boys pose in supplicating attitudes of the bordello and desire.
One evening, when the moon crept smoothly across the parquetry floor, ruffling sighs among the shadows, my mentor took me to one side.
"I will make you an object of terror," he whispered. "You will not exist. People will look for you and never find you again."
I smiled, knowing it to be true. For I was different from the others, the fashionable, languid cherubim of his flock, with money and time on their hands, hoping to forge new lives among old gods, reciting the Lord's Prayer backward, slitting a goat's throat, desecrating tombstones in abandoned cemeteries, the usual delinquent stuff.
My friend found me firm in my principles because those I had were formed early. Always I had acted in accordance with them. Above all, I understood the nullity of virtue, for I was still very young when I learned to hold religion's fantasies in contempt, being convinced that the existence of a creator was an absurdity in which not even children should believe.
There is no need to flatter one new young god. Not when others clamor to be served.
As for this puny planet, I've been here before in many guises and Torrentius, who compiled my charts, has foretold I will return again. Paris. Raconteur, boulevardier, scratching memoirs on slivers of parchment, inciting revolutions from a Bastille cell.
Were it not for the indiscretions of Torrentius's disciples -- those fools who escaped and ran screaming to their mothers-and the pleasure -- denying Calvinist magistrates of this town, I would not be here, forged ticket in one gloved hand, condemned to Batavia.
At the heart of this city's pulsing roar of trade sits my keeper, the Honourable Company in East India House, a palatial agency which entangles every man in speculative ventures, and honeycombs the world from the Americas to Formosa with a multitude of enterprises. An oligarchy of seventeen councillors has decreed gold the Company's god and raised a veritable sovereign state, their kingdom of Batavia, into which flows all the sewage of Holland -- buccaneers and bankrupts, disgraced corporate servants, idle noblemen bored of roaming the continent on the Grooten Tour. The Company's new empire needs people, but show me one honest burgher who would volunteer for it. No, instead they apply for desk jobs as clerks, seek safe sinecures in the echoing marble chambers of India House. There, they pore over the great journal books dispatched from Batavia, compose minutes to be read by the Grand Council of Seventeen and prepare orders to be posted to chief ministers.
When a Company ship drops anchor, the mercantile clamor shrills. Precious cargoes of indigo, cardamom, saffron, rolls of raw silks are lowered from the hold and wheeled along the wharves to bolted emporiums, impregnable magazines, the Company warehouses built like forts, where armed soldiers patrol the battlements, defending these goods which will wait a seller's market and keep prices high.
Now in the guise of salaried servant, I await exile, for the ship to sail, for the solid bricks of Amsterdam to dissolve and dim as if eroded by the mists of this land.
There are plans for our city, talk of constructing a municipal hall with a dome and a bell turret in the French style, widening the cramped alleys and waterways, connecting the islands to the town, building mansions on reclaimed land, even turning the medieval ramparts into grassy promenades and tree-lined malls. I wonder if I shall see my home again.
The Honourable Company's flagship, the Batavia, looks sturdy enough. A varnished timber leviathan, all six hundred gross tons of her. If one is to believe the Company's latest announcement, the Batavia has been built to the most modern design, heralding a new generation of retourships, faster, sleeker, more handsome; at least three times the size of the caravels that sped Christophe Colombe to the shores of the West Indies in 1492. The Batavia is rigged as a three-master with a bowsprit, capable of spreading over a thousand square feet of canvas to the trade winds when all ten sails are set; she is even equipped with two officers' privies projecting from the stern and a well-stocked library. In this new life as corporate undermerchant, who am I to doubt the Company's word, its faith in figures, its proud measurements of the Batavia's length, depth, height between decks and beam?
All around peddlers, porters, pickpockets, hawkers, painted courtesans accost the merchants and sailors spilling onto the wharves. Families everywhere, streaming past anchor smithies, ship chandlers, sail-cutting workshops, point at the crimson pennants flying from the Batavia's mainmast, each emblazoned with her figurehead, the red Lion of Holland. Children ride their parents' shoulders, blowing whistles and banging toy drums.
Above the stall vendors' ceaseless chant rise the squeals of pregnant sows being hoisted into the Batavia's hold. On the jetty, roosters shriek in their pens, unsettling the hens which, beaks open in fear, jostle for space and flap their wings. Now a bull is winched aboard, snorting with rage and bucking the gray hoary air with its hooves.
Unlike the crew who swarm the main deck and swing from the rigging like untamed monkeys, the merchants and their families teeter aboard, frightened of losing their footing, unsure of the harbor's shifting equilibrium.
One by one, the crew and passengers board: the butler's mate, the cook, the cabin servants, the chief trumpeter, the carpenters, the gunners, the soldiers, the merchants, the blacksmith, the cooper, the tailors and sailors. Trust no more in man. He has but a breath in his nostrils. How much is he worth?
News carries fast in Amsterdam. They say the Batavia's hold is crammed with gold and silver, both coined and uncoined, money chests stashed with corporate cash, precious artifacts to trade with plump sultans of Mogul courts. All that wealth. Whereas I stand here on the quay, my last few guilders clinking in my pockets.
I watch the fat Predikant, his sullen wife, and six plump daughters scramble aboard. The Predikant's sallow sick-visitor, his krank-besoeker, follows like a shadow. The Predikant clasps his Bible to his chest and begins to pray.
Dressed in all his finery, breezes riffling the ostrich plume in his hat, the Commandeur stands on the poopdeck, surveying the chaos below him. The skipper marches fore and aft, shouting commands to his men.
I turn to farewell Amsterdam, beloved city of linden trees and gray-green canals spread like a fan around the harbor, the narrow lanes packed with warehouses, the islands hidden behind forests of ship masts and spars.
Amsterdam, amphibious, slippery city, wreathed in flooded marshland mists, floating on foundations of Norwegian pine daily defeating the ebb tides. A city of secrets and business assignations along footpaths beside the canals, in the shadows of the colonnaded markets, the timber wharves, the doorways of brothels, among the fetid steam clouds of the bagnios, where maidenheads can also be exchanged for small favors of bone lace, silver bodkins, hooped rings.
City of trade, where all businessmen and bureaucrats are hot to buy and sell and the world's commodities are consigned to warehouses only to go out again at higher prices.
Founded in the last decade, monstrous cathedrals of wealth now soar against the skyline: the Exchange Bank, the Lending Bank, the Bourse, securing gold ingots, silver bars, piastres, ducats and ducatons, coin and bullion, making payments quick and trade feverish, protecting investors against loss from false or clipped money.
Stashed in labyrinthine networks of locked vaults, the King of Sweden stores his stock of copper, the Hapsburg Emperors their assets of quicksilver from Idrian mines, the Tsar of Russia his ermine furs, the King of Poland his saltpeter.
In no other city is the bill of exchange used so freely, the weekly published exchange rates read so avidly and receipts for merchandise passed so swiftly from hand to hand. At rush hour, between noon and one o'clock, the Bourse and the Stock Exchange are packed with traders of all nations shouldered in a heaving hubbub of bargaining. Low interest rates at three percent for an entire year without pawn or pledge send merchants into a trading frenzy buying produce in seasons when prices are lowest-or as they say in the mercantile vernacular, out of the first hand. They even lay ready money for future commodities and sell them on trust. They buy entire forests in Germany to be felled on order, purchase grain before the harvest, wines before the vintage season, and trade with neighboring nations at prices which cannot be equaled.
Amsterdam, treacherous, lawless, lowlife city, munitions center of the world, which profits from financing rather than fighting with the Spanish enemy, furnishing warring naval supplies of muskets, buff coats, belts, gunpowder, arming ships of fighting strength, supplying corn to troops on the Iberian coast in Dutch ships sailing under false Flanders flags.
Crazed city, where a rare horticultural disease can topple the rose in favor of a tulip. An epidemic which inflames curious streaks of color in the tulip's corolla also infects the minds of men who haggle to sell three Semper Augustus bulbs at the price of waterside mansions and guard flower beds with guns and knives.
Trade -- what will a man not give in exchange of his soul?
Yet I have had to pack my worldly possessions in a sea chest like a common mariner, inventory my medicines and carry them like the cheapest of charlatans. I was ordered by the magistrates to discard my pointed hat, my black apothecary robes, remove my green crocodile sign from its hinges, and close a lucrative, if clandestine, business in medical consultations.
As for my valuable collection entombed in green glass jars of preserving fluid -- the aborted, the two-headed, the horned and hooved, twins and triplets locked at the hips at birth, those pale curled worms of humanity -- the magistrates consigned these to the gutter and the crows.
The vulgar mouths call me necromancer. The very name of chemistry sounds so deadly in their ears that many suspect I busy myself in the art of sorcery. I am feared by ignorant physicians and practitioners who never think seven years' study is enough, who never improve or bring any discoveries or inventions to their profession, but plod the common road of tradition and feed on the antiquities of long-dead masters, primitive herbalists, Galen, Hypocrates, whose prescriptions of hellebore and colloquintida are without result.
And yet I had clients in plenty. Many a veiled lady was turned from my door, having to seek uncertain remedies from the market herb woman and a season later taking her chance in the midwives' hands.
I have discovered drugs to fit all purposes, perfected each potion and greatly extended my stock of poisons.
As in any trade, fads and fashions govern my elixirs of mortality. Last year, the town's cuckolds favored powders which mortified the flesh, loosened gums like the scurvy, and turned faithless wives bald as scarecrows. This season, fashionable ladies driven to distraction by whoring lovers requested my lozenges, which if administered before the act of carnal copulation would ejaculate a mortal fountain of blood instead of seed from the victim's yard. My more conventional stock imitates disease, pockmarks fair skins with rashes and blisters, swells abdomens with sure signs of the dropsy, mimics brain fevers and heart seizures, ulcerates limbs.
Often during my consultations I would be struck by the fact that planning a lover's death was in many ways more intimate than the act of love itself. I was impressed by my clients' attention to detail, the way they leafed through my recipe books, carefully calibrating levels of pain, inquiring the precise time when the poison would strike and how long to expect before death. I think they enjoyed playing God for the day.
Now I await exile; let all Amsterdam's bastards be born and the city's cheating population soar. Let wives, cuckolds, and courtesans squander guilders on comfrey roots, sweet Juleps, licorice water, and oil of roses. Let them be duped by the efficacies in earthworm ashes, marshmallow ointments, sea-horse pizzles, dried frog spawn, the hollow promises of quacks and herbalists.
I draw my astrakhan cloak closer. I farewell the gulls diving for dabs in the cold gray waters, the louche smile of an autumn crocus vendor, the flames unfurled from a fire-eater's tongue. I hand the bosun my papers. He unfolds and inspects each page, then scrawls his signature beneath the Company seal and my name.
Balancing my luggage on their shoulders, the porters nudge their way through the crowds. And, steadying myself, I follow. I place the sole of one boot on the Batavia's gangplank and shed my old life like snakeskin.
Copyright © 2000 by Arabella Edge