The Company Daughters
"The Company Daughters is a beautifully written love story… a perfect example of the power of human will and the endurance and hope that love can give a person." 5 starsGoodreads Reviewer
Wanted: Company Daughters. Virtuous young ladies to become the brides of industrious settlers in a foreign land. The Company will pay the cost of the lady’s dowry and travel. Returns not permitted, orphans preferred.
Amsterdam, 1620. Jana Beil has learned that life rarely provides moments of joy. Having run away from a violent father, her days are spent searching for work in an effort to stay out of the city brothels, where desperate women trade their bodies for a mouthful of bread. But when Jana is hired as a servant for the wealthy and kind Master Reynst and his beautiful daughter Sontje, Jana’s future begins to look brighter.
But then Master Reynst loses his fortune on a bad investment, and everything changes. The house is sold to creditors, leaving Jana back on the street and Sontje without a future.
With no other choice, Jana and Sontje are forced to sign with the East India Company as Company Daughters: sailing to a colonial Dutch outpost to become the brides of male settlers they know nothing about. With fear in their hearts, the girls begin their journey – but what awaits them on the other side of the world is nothing like what they’ve been promised…
Based on true history, this is a beautiful and sensual historical novel, perfect for fans of The Girl with the Pearl Earring, The Miniaturist and The Indigo Girl.
Release date: October 30, 2020
Print pages: 383
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The Company Daughters
Three knocks on the door. I use the knuckle of my forefinger, quiet but distinct.
Theirs is the same dark green door of the other houses in the Herengracht. Black shutters on the windows and small, red bricks. Unlike the others, cheerful, blue crocuses line the doorstep. The blooms slant toward the sun, opening like little mouths to the light, reminding me of my sister Hlaska when she was hungry for havermout and milk in the morning.
When I see such flowers in our gray city, I think their planting is generous. Color to break up all this dimmed sky. The petunias in boxes at windowsills, hyacinths and hydrangeas in pots outside doors. Little gifts. To beggars and fishmongers and soldiers and sailors trudging the streets, surviving.
To girls like me, seeking escape.
My stomach growls, and I hope it quiets before I speak to the owner of this house. I’ve not eaten in two days. No wild sourgrass here in Amsterdam and I’m too ashamed to beg from the merchants, afraid of what they may ask for in return, afraid of being imprisoned in the Spinhuis for begging.
My neck is still bruised near my nape. Blue thumbprints on my hips. I feel scraped out from my hunger, and my bones pull like dull blades against my skin.
Unhurried steps approach the door.
The lock turns, and the door opens halfway.
A woman answers. She is around my age—seventeen or eighteen. But otherwise, nothing like me. She wears a lace collar and a pearl pendant at her throat and in the faint sunlight angling onto the step, the loose hair above her ear gleams like candle fire. I feel even smaller and uglier with my unbrushed, mud-colored strands, hastily braided and tied low at my neck to cover the bruise.
“Hallo?” she asks. Her voice is lower than I imagined. Pretty girls often have high voices and I have wondered if they train their voices to be so airy, not more than whispers, or if they are born that way. Predestined for beauty as the Calvinists claim they are predestined for heaven.
I take in a quick breath.
“My name is Jana Beil. I’m looking for work.” I slow my words. She can’t know this is the eighteenth door upon which I’ve knocked three times. If you are too hungry, they think you will steal.
I force myself to continue, though my stomach rumbles from emptiness and I’m sure she has heard it.
“I can clean and cook. Everything—rearrange your bureaus, scrub the step and rugs. Polishing work, too. Silver and wood.”
She glances over me quickly, my frayed, spotted apron, scuffed klomps, stained stockings. I fold my hands across my middle so she doesn’t see the black arcs under my nails, the pin I’ve used to hold my skirts together now that they are torn at the waist.
Few in Amsterdam use house servants, except for people in houses like this—three stories, with a long hallway stretching far back. Despite this, Amsterdam is full of women seeking such work, sleeping on doorsteps and alleys, dreaming of servants’ quarters and a hot meal.
“Tonight I’ll work for just a meal,” I continue, my words out in the world before I can think them, for I’m so hungry. “You can see how I work.” The idea takes form as I recognize the fragrances from inside. Warm hutspot and the sweetness of appeltaart, which we had in the Bos a few times each summer when my sister Helena and I picked enough wild apples.
The girl looks over me again, but now with less distrust. She must know I’m hungry. I’m too hungry even to feel ashamed at her pitying glance. “Well, we did just lose Gerta,” the girl mutters to herself. “Wait here and I will ask Fader.”
“What is his name?” I ask, hoping to impress him with my greeting.
“Pieter Reynst,” she answers, straightening her posture. “And I’m Sontje.” She turns to fetch him while I wait on the doorstep next to the blue, open-mouthed crocuses. Hungry, just like me.
Pieter Reynst is very tall, perhaps the tallest man I have seen, even in Amsterdam, where our Dutchmen are hands taller than the Spaniards and Jews who work at the docks. His dull, yellow-white hair falls to his shoulders and he has sad, blue-gray eyes lost in fine wrinkles. His skin hangs a bit loose on him, as though he lacks enough flesh for the skin to stick to.
I look at his long, graceful hands made for quills and ink. Careful hands. I have learned to look at men’s hands first, trying to determine if their hands are the kind to clutch or pummel, to pinch or remain safely folded.
His look safe enough.
“What is your name?” he asks. His voice is very soft, even for a Dutchman.
“Jana. Jana Beil.” I repeat my offer—a day’s work for a meal.
“Perhaps you’d like that meal before we talk about employment?” He smiles and his sad eyes brighten. “You look nearly the same age as my daughter. I would not have her go without food. You should not, either.”
He invites me into the house as Sontje watches, unsmiling.
I enter and note the small paintings in the hallway, the fresh-cut tulips in the vases. Not too much clutter to require dusting, and the furniture is spare: a few cupboards, benches in the main sitting room—the zaal—mats and rugs on the floor. A rectangular mirror stands in the hallway and I glance at my own reflection. I’m smaller and thinner than I imagined, with a hardness around the eyes that my sister Helena would not recognize. A year has passed since she died, and I’m relieved at least that she is spared from knowing of my difficulties.
The back of my mouth stings at the warm smell of hutspot. My stomach roars again, and I press my fist against my middle to silence it.
“Our cook Hilda left for the evening, but we will fix you a plate,” Pieter Reynst says and asks me to sit at the table. Sontje stands in the entrance to the dining room. He looks at her expectantly. “Go on and fetch her a bowl.” She walks off toward the stairwell. The kitchen must be downstairs in the cellar, and I wonder at the size of this house, which is nothing like the one-room cottage I grew up in with Fader, Moeder, Helena, and baby Hlaska, though Helena and I had the entire forest for our games. Some houses here even have a privy inside, so no chamber pots requiring emptying. I wonder if this is such a house.
Master Reynst interrupts my thoughts. “Looks that you need some regular feeding. Hunger is good motivation. You can start today. We have an attic room where you may stay tonight if you like.”
Sontje returns with a plate of food, distracting me by the smell and sight of it. Hutspot, as I guessed, but so many other things too. My stomach is sour with hunger, like it may turn in on itself.
“Let’s leave her to eat in peace,” Pieter Reynst says. Sontje looks like she wants to stay and watch, as though my grating hunger might provide entertainment.
“You probably haven’t had this before,” she says, after her father leaves the room.
I’m not sure what she means—hutspot? Or this quantity of food? Either way, the words are barbs aimed at my low condition, or perhaps she enjoys making me wait to eat my meal.
I say nothing, just imagine what I will taste first. Perhaps begin with the rye bread to settle my stomach, then the hutspot? I must eat slowly though I wish to swallow the entire meal, even the dish, simply to fill the hole in my middle.
Sontje lingers a moment, but then she leaves to another room. Maybe she realizes I will not taste anything until she’s gone.
I don’t even think of the strangeness of this meal, that they have offered me the bounty of their own supper without knowing anything about me. I think only of the food and how I would describe it to Helena. The bread is warm and flavorful and I use extra butter because you would do so if you were here.
I eat until my stomach is tight against the waistband of my skirt and my mouth aches from chewing. The rye bread and hutspot with prunes, an apple, stewed sorrel, a piece of cumin cheese the size of my fist, koeken, two roast potatoes, and, at last, a slice of appeltaart better than even Moeder could make. I describe each thing in my mind. The prunes stick to the top of my mouth. The cumin cheese tastes like smoke scattered outdoors.
I should leave something on my plate out of politeness, but I’m too hungry even for my manners. If there is good food on my plate, I shall not waste it.
Sontje returns and looks in on me before I’m finished.
“That’s more than I’ve ever eaten in two sittings,” she remarks at the scraps remaining, and my skin burns at her observation.
“It’s delicious.” I think of the remaining hutspot and how I cannot waste it.
“Bring the dishes back to the cellar and I’ll show you to your room.”
She gathers up the silver, all but my fork because I’m still using it for the last remaining bites.
The next morning, Sontje approaches as I scrub the entryway floor. She stands in the doorway and I cannot help noting how the sun settles into her hair from the high window. I’m jealous of her unripped dress, the silk ribbons in her gold hair, the cleanness of her fingernails, the whiteness of her skin, barely marred by sun or poor sleep or chapped by the cold night wind. She has never eaten sourgrass for a meal or slept in the alleys or under trees.
“Did you know you screamed when you were sleeping? I could hear you from my room.” My small, attic bedroom with its sloping ceiling lies directly above hers. A warm, dry space from which I can hear the pigeons making their nests in the rooftops.
“I did? I’m sorry if I woke you.”
But she ignores my apology. “Why did you scream?” she asks, leaning against the doorframe.
I keep scrubbing, back and forth with the boar bristle brush so I make a design of alternating triangles on the wood. I’m still tired from the days before I arrived here, the sleep which is not sleep at all, but a half-awake panic that battles fatigue. My body aches from yesterday’s work—knocking on doors, and, finally, the two hours spent before sleeping, when I swept the entire house of all cobwebs, shined up the stove and its crusted grate, and scrubbed out the pots from the meal I ate too quickly. My stomach swelled and gurgled from the shock of so much food.
“A bad dream,” I answer. My knees will be bruised from kneeling on the wooden floor, even though I’ve folded my dress beneath me.
“What about?” She watches as I scrub another triangle into the floorboards.
“I don’t remember.” But always, it is the same thing—an abandoned tobacco pipe, playing cards. Sometimes a candle’s flickering light against a dingy wall. A howling scream deep inside myself, but fear locks the scream within. I can sometimes force myself to wake, or wrest myself from the memory.
Sontje twirls a bit of her golden hair behind her small ear. She waits for more of an answer, but I refuse to provide it. She shrugs.
“When you’re finished with the floors, I need help moving my bed to face the window. My best friend Sussie—her father is a burgher whose house is even bigger than ours—says the sunlight in the morning brings better dreams at night.”
Two weeks pass and I soon find a comfortable routine at the Reynst house. Washing the steps in front of the house early each morning, dusting on Wednesday, polishing on Monday and Tuesday as well as shopping for the meals, which stout, plain-faced Hilda cooks in the evenings. Thursdays for scrubbing. On Fridays, I clean the kitchen and cellar, my fingernails blackened by the week’s thick cake of grease and my knuckles dry from soap by the end of the day.
I know every room. The foyer where Master Reynst receives merchants, the zaal with its walnut table, highbacked armchairs, and gilt leather tapestry. The fireplace, which spews smoke through the house so I must keep the bedroom doors closed. The bedsteads and backhouse. And of course, the attic, whose ceiling is so low I must bend down when I’m inside, and I’m not nearly so tall as Sontje. As I had hoped, they even have a secreet, a cupboard-size room with a hole on a bench through which you do your business. In the end, I prefer our methods in the forest, where the must of leaves and mosses and earth overcome the stench.
Today, I’m cleaning Sontje’s room. She is having tea with Sussie, whose wide-set eyes seem to run from each other to the far edges of her face. Sussie never looks at me, just hands me her cloak when she enters. I know it will always be this way with her. Such women need their servants to be invisible.
Their laughter from downstairs sounds like seagulls arguing. Louder than I expect from Sontje, since she speaks so quietly. Surely, they are discussing Sussie’s possible betrothed, a wealthy landowner’s son named Johannes—Sussie speaks of little else.
I dust Sontje’s cupboard, a massive oak and ebony piece with deep scrollwork and thick, grooved bun feet that collect grime. Her bedroom is otherwise simple—the cupboard and small bedstead, a trunk in the corner, a tapestry decorated with thin, pale green vines covering the bed.
Hearing their laughter, I try to recall when I last laughed so freely. When Helena and I were young and could run far from the cottage to play, tripping over our bare feet in the grass. We learned to hide our laughter when indoors. Fader hated the sound of it, said the noise hurt his head. If we laughed at the table, he slammed down his thick, knobby hand, shaking all the crockery. Laughter could not be trusted. It came and went so quickly, like our Dutch sunshine. Instead, we allowed ourselves quiet smiles. Only baby Hlaska was permitted laughter because she did not yet know better.
I approach Sontje’s trunk and run my hands over the top of it, smooth so it can serve as a bench. Vines carved on the outside, similar to the pattern on her bed cover. A trace of dust remains on my hands, so I clean the top using the cloth kept in the waistband of my dress.
I flip the latch up and pull open the lid.
Inside, her dresses lie neatly folded. Most of us have only one or two dresses, but she has four. I reach in and extract a Bible, and inside its pages find a long, black feather which I run over my palm and brush across my cheek. I push the dresses aside after returning the Bible. A sewing kit with a ceramic thimble rests between the layers, along with two pairs of gloves and a hand mirror with a bone handle.
I’m not thinking when I take the top dress from the trunk. Moeder said I was always this way, listening to some other voice inside myself when I should know better. Fader, before hiding me (which was often), blamed the Devil himself for my curiosity, and accepted the grim task of beating Satan from my bones.
I run the back of my hand against the dress, having never touched silk before. I smile, imagining little silkworms hard at work on a spinning wheel. Gold embroidery spills over the puffed sleeves and openwork—more stitching than I have ever seen. Nothing like my simple white cotton blouse, long skirt, and apron. I untie my own skirts so they fall, and pull off my blouse. Naked, I step into the dress, pushing my hands through the narrow sleeves, yanking up on the bodice so it fits over my shoulders.
The fabric feels heavy on my skin from all the embroidery and openwork and I realize that wealthy women walk as they do—slowly, stiffly—because they are freighted down by their wealth. Their gold earrings, ruffs, thick corsets, layers of petticoats, and embroidered dresses must burden them. I feel a surprising pity, that they, too, must sometimes feel trapped, though in a different sort of cage. Wealth for women requires slower movements, just as poverty requires a quicker pace—to finish tasks, to arrive early, to rush to the market when our employers run out of eggs. And for once, I feel some small advantage in my own poverty—at least I walk at my normal speed as long as my klomps remain comfortable on my feet.
I wonder if such a dress could make me beautiful like Sontje. I walk to the mirror on the opposite wall beside the bureau. I’m not tall, so the bodice is too long, but I become someone else in these clothes. Not quite the “ugly little speck” Fader sometimes called me. Not Jana escaping from the Bos or the Ringhouse, or Jana in my shadowed dreams.
The overlong sleeves end mid-forearm instead of at the elbow. The shoulders sag. But my skin looks almost lovely against the rose fabric. I unwind my hair and gather it at the top and turn left and right, inspecting myself, noting my left side looks better than the right. I have a small mole near my eyebrow that I have never noticed. I’m not given to seeing myself closely in mirrors. There is never enough time for it.
I release my hair and re-tie it, trying to rub out the hard, small, deepening line between my eyes. I step closer to the mirror, to see how else my face may have changed since leaving the Ringhouse. Brown eyes. Fader’s eyes. I have never liked them. Moeder’s eyes are blue, like Hlaska’s. Like Helena’s.
When I was young, I wondered if the world looked different depending on the color of one’s eyes. Did the world through Helena’s eyes look slightly blue? Perhaps my own dour expectations of the world are owing to the muddy color of my eyes. How would the world look to Sontje, who has her father’s gray eyes?
I unhook the front of the dress, unused to its closures—only the wealthy have time for such complications. I observe my nakedness, for I have only ever seen my face in a mirror. I open the dress, allowing my breasts to peek out. Open the fabric further still. I have never given my body much thought, but now I imagine seeing it as someone else would. A body that could move one to desire. Round, high breasts, red nipples the size of stuiver coins. I cup my breasts in my hands, for the first time aware of their softness, the dull sting of them when I squeeze from underneath, pushing aside thoughts of the Ringhouse.
“Jana.” Her voice is sharp and startling.
Sontje stands at the door.
For a week she does not talk to me. I spend hours in my bed before falling asleep, wondering if she has told Master Reynst, who remains distracted and kind, or if she is waiting to tell him, and why.
The memory of her gaze as I stood naked in front of her wall mirror burns me with humiliation. At first I’m relieved by her avoidance. But days pass, and I grow worried by her silence, and afraid of what will happen when Sontje tells her father of my misdeed. I did not think of her much before, but without her usual pleasantries and the questions she asks without genuine care for my answers—You slept well? You ate breakfast?—my work here grows suffocating. Such empty conversations lighten the day, allowing me the luxury of believing I belong in the Reynst house, washing their floors and dusting their furnishings.
I might lose my work, my bed, regular meals. If only I could go back to that day, somehow scrub myself clean of whatever urge compelled me to open her trunk and to pull on that dress. I have often wished to wash away all my wrong-headed impulses. And my darkest memories.
My shame makes me wish I could afford to leave this house altogether, except there is cream-porridge and roasted hen and quince cakes and veldhoenders with sauce, and a bed in the attic with only dreams of the flickering candle. And not the candle itself.
I imagine myself abandoned to Amsterdam’s damp alleys again. When I first arrived in the city, I only wished for escape, but now that I’m at the Reynst home, fed and sleeping indoors, I’m loath to lose these comforts. But having lived through so much upheaval, I doubt I will ever know the full taste of safety. I’m forever assuming some future disaster. Readying myself to flee.
It’s Friday so I clean the cellar, a hateful chore for the darkness and grime and stench of burned food from the jambless, and set myself to polishing the hinges and outside doorknob of the Reynst house so I can have some time in the sunlight. Since the Ringhouse, I’m always searching for it.
I wipe the hinges so their brightness crackles against the grayness of midday. I splash boiling water on the step and kneel to scrub it clean of bird droppings and the wind-strewn leaves stuck and flattened to the surface.
Travelers remark on Amsterdam’s cleanness. All day, street cleaners shovel the horse poep and scrub down the brick, as though our battle against filth is against Satan himself. But the filth is more than dust and droppings. It is also our sick-headed, our beggars, our pox survivors left blinded and riddled with pits. And in this desire to rid the world of evil, other evils are committed. Like those committed in the Ringhouse, hidden just outside the city, and others committed in the city itself. Just yesterday, Master Reynst remarked that a ten-year-old boy was decapitated in the House of Correction for committing a murder. Master said it was a shame indeed, but no ten-year-old should be killing. I wonder who the boy murdered. I wonder why, and what was done to him.
As I’m thinking of that unfortunate boy and scrubbing a white streak of bird droppings on the corner of the step, Sontje approaches. My stomach twists.
“Hallo, Jana,” she says, smiling. I’m unsure how to read her smile. Has she forgiven the incident with the dress? Is she simply being polite?
“Hallo, Mistress Sontje.” I look up for a minute before working the brush over the step again.
“You’re very thorough,” she says, watching. “You’re a hard worker, Jana.”
I’m confused by her compliment, so I simply nod.
“It’s been strange between us,” she says.
I wait for her to say more.
“I would like to forget it. Promise never to go through my things again.”
I nod my head, my breath lodged in my throat. I wish I did not look quite so low, kneeling on the step in front of her, scraping off its muck.
“I have just one question,” she continues. “Why did you do it?”
I stop my scrubbing, and stand up to face her.
“I don’t know.” I wish I had a better explanation, but with her gray eyes staring into mine, I can only be honest. “But I regret it.” I feel shame like thick oil on my skin.
She nods and sets her mouth in a prim line. “I keep her things because they are all I have of her.” She then takes in the whole of me, a quick glance from my stained klomps to my hollar cap. “That color was unbecoming on you. It looks better on a fair skin and you are quite dark.”
I glance down at my old klomps. Moeder often pitied me for my complexion, brown from the sun because I hated wearing a bonnet.
“If I told Fader he would remove you in an instant,” she continues. “We have had thieving servants and he has no patience for that.”
I wonder if he would think trying on a dress amounts to thievery, but I remain quiet, worrying about my employment.
She pauses. “What did it feel like? I cannot yet bring myself to wear it.”
A strange question, but at times Sontje is more thoughtful than you’d think. Helena asked such questions—if summer was a color, would it be red? Why does the grass feel soft together, but sharp alone?
I pause to consider her question and close my eyes a moment to remember.
“Heavy. And it didn’t smell like you.”
“What do I smell like?” A crooked, amused smile I haven’t seen before.
“Lavender.” I pause to think. “Sunlight.”
“Yes, lavender water. I purchase it at the Dam market—the florist makes it.” She looks pleased, and gazes at her crocuses, which look brighter on this drizzly day. “The crocuses are Moeder’s. Fader said they were her favorite flowers.”
“They are beautiful. I noticed them when I first arrived.”
“Sometimes I think I may like tulips more, but then I tell myself these are better. It’s odd how we learn to like certain things because we are expected to. Makes me wonder sometimes if I truly like anything I think I like.”
I have thought the same thing. Everyone wears decorative aprons over their dresses, but at times, I find them ugly, even ridiculous. And then the thought is overpowered by the belief that I must like them because everyone else does.
“She died during childbirth. I nearly died also,” Sontje says in a quiet voice.
“I’m sorry.” Such tragedy is not uncommon, even in the cities. Childbirth is a mess of gore and blood. I’ve seen it. “Your father didn’t remarry?”
“No. I think he wants to believe he loved Moeder too much to remarry, but Sussie’s mother told her that Fader was not especially nice to Moeder. Absent. You know, he is mostly living in his thoughts.”
“I’ve observed it.” But I have a fondness for this trait in Master Reynst. It makes him seem harmless, a bit like a child.
“I sometimes think he refuses to remarry because he feels guilty.” Sontje pauses, lost in some thought or another. “Jana, I’ll tell you a secret.” I marvel at her straight, healthy teeth, all nearly white. Most women cover their mouths when they smile or abandon the expression altogether for fear of revealing unsightly gaps and rot. But she can smile openly, and knows it. “I think I have a beau,” she whispers, and I wonder why she’s telling me this. Perhaps out of pity? Remorse for her earlier cruelty? Or because Sussie is gone for the week? “His name is Hans. His father owns one of the wealthiest shipping businesses in the city. Sussie says it would change our standing here altogether. No more poor, motherless Sontje Reynst. I would be the wife of Hans Luiken.”
I smile at her revelation. This is the Sontje I know, and I’m relieved to see it. Her earlier seriousness worried me. Not only must we servants scrub and boil and scrape and polish, we must maintain a steady, neutral tone with our employers, caring neither too much nor too little. Any shift in our employer’s favor means we will lose our work.
“It’s still early,” she continues. “But he said he thinks of me all the time. Of course, ‘with sweet words are hearts broken’—as Sussie often reminds me. But I do think he likes me. The way he looks at me. As though I’m the only girl in all of Amsterdam.”
“How did you meet him?” I’m eager to chat with her, to begin again and wipe the slate clean of my earlier errors. And this idea of courting, I find curious. I’ve never been courted myself. Indeed, I can’t imagine having the leisure or desire for such things.
“We first met at the kerkhof after church service. Sussie’s friend introduced us. And then we went as a group for a picnic. I noticed he always sat beside me. Kept looking at me.” She smiles. “Do you know how your skin feels different when you know someone is watching you? Almost like an itch?”
I nod, remembering, though I wish I did not.
“I cou. . .
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