The Love Letter
My name is Pieter van Eyken and I put pen to paper to let you know of the great injustice done to me. The year is 1667 and I live in Delft, Netherlands, where both men and women know of me as an excellent swordsman. Women wish to experience my prowess with the sword I keep in my elegant codpiece, whilst men rarely want to experience how I use the sword I keep in my scabbard.
My friend, Johannes Vermeer, or Jan, has landed me in a pile of manure that reaches my neck and threatens to engulf me.
Jan and I met in ‘56 when we were both twenty-four. He had recently completed a painting named The Procuress that showed himself and a friend in the company of a woman of easy virtue. One day, I was drinking in the Yellow Partridge Inn when an oaf started to berate a gentleman at the table next to me. The lout claimed to be an agent of the Roman church and wanted to punish the artist who dared to depict such a licentious scene. Did I tell you? The times were indeed licentious and the church was doing its utmost to stop people like me from living a life of revelry and lechery. You will therefore understand how I quickly grew tired of the belligerent boor. When some of his spittle landed in my tankard, I leapt to my feet, drew my sword, and threatened to disembowel the man if he did not leave the inn immediately. You must have guessed by now that Johannes Vermeer was the man at the next table. That day saw the start of our friendship.
The incident served to bring about a change in Jan and his style of painting. He turned his eye to peaceful domesticity. Perhaps the move by decent society away from characters like me pushed him in that direction.
His wife of three years, Catharina, was a kind, clean, domesticated woman. She looked up to her Gods whenever I appeared at their door. “Are you yet a libertine?” she always asked before giving me a welcoming embrace.
The city fathers appointed Jan to head one of the town’s guilds, but the honour of the position was less than equalled by the annual stipend that went with it. Catharina’s parents had money, but they gave little, if any, to their daughter. She was, after all, married to an artist. Being a clever (and not entirely honest) gambler, I was able to give a little cash to Jan now and then.
I often hire myself out as a debt collector and take a percentage of whatever I recover as my fee. The debtor, be he a bumpkin, occasionally pays me the same fee. There are times when I offer my services as a protector to escort merchants and their families on their travels. Some say I am mercenary in that I might, on occasion, be one of the bandits from whom they need protection.
Wealthy ladies are often generous to me after I have impaled them on my sword. There is a certain lady (I am sure you understand her name must remain unwritten) who regularly gives me fifty guilders. Not on every visit but on a regular enough basis to keep me interested. As I write these words, I sense you asking why I need money to keep me interested. I shall give you the reasons. One; she demands my undying love, which I tell her she has. (I feel I can tell you that she does not have it, as my heart belongs to another.) Two; the woman is married. (Actually, one would not normally need money for this reason. However, if I am to perpetuate my regret at her status, I must allow her to assuage my angst in the only way she can – with her husband’s money.) Three; she is considerably older than I am. Four; her overweight body is not kept as clean as it could be. Five; and this is a direct result of reasons three and four; the games she likes to play turn my stomach. I would be happier if she played these games with her husband so that she and I might perform manoeuvres that are more conventional. But when all is said and done – and, believe me, this lady has been done every which way - fifty guilders is a considerable sum of money, thus I constantly return and put my nose to the grindstone, so to speak.
The woman does have a delicious sense of humour. She likes to undress me – well, the lower half of me. She often orders me to slowly remove my collar, cuffs, shirt and undershirt while she watches me and sips her wine. Once I stand half-naked before her, she puts down her goblet and reaches for my codpiece. We have developed a game in which she allows me to twist my hips to prevent her from attaining her goal. I must not move my feet, bend at the waist, or employ my hands and arms to defend my personal jewellery. The wheezy woman loves the game so much, she sometimes disables herself with her raucous laughter. Once she gets the last lace sufficiently slackened, she shouts with joy, “Once more into the breeches!”
She-of-fifty-guilders once daringly asked to visit my favourite tavern and so I took her to the Yellow Partridge Inn where we joined a friend and his mistress for supper. The four of us drank litres of beer and dined on salted cod, potatoes, and cabbage. My benefactor caused gales of laughter when, with her mouth full, she cried out; “This is the tastiest cod that has ever been in my mouth.”
I do maintain a genuine interest; one might even say ‘love’, for an unmarried female. Myn Boogan and I met several months ago when I called at her father’s bakery to purchase a cake for she-of-fifty-gilders. A kite hung on the wall at the back of the shop and I asked the girl behind the counter if she enjoyed getting it up.
“I would, if I knew how,” she told me.
“This is your lucky day!” I replied. “I am famous for getting it up. Allow me to take you and your kite to the fields by the river on Sunday and we’ll soar to great heights.”
“And show me some fish on the river bank, no doubt,” she said impishly.
“I’m sure I will find a piece of cod for you,” I replied.
Kites and cod filled our happy Sundays until a few weeks ago.
Myn’s father had a regular order to supply bread to a rich merchant’s family. Unfortunately, the merchant’s wife was unhappy to discover a dead rat in a loaf the family ate one Sunday after returning from church. The hysterical woman told everybody she knew about the incident and the bakery suffered a severe downturn in business, forcing Myn to find work as a maid.
Jan’s paintings were taking on an importance that socially elevated his subjects. Consequently, he knew many rich and influential women in Delft and I asked him if he knew one to whom Myn might apply for work. I was not pleased to hear him tell Myn that she-of-fifty-guilders was looking for a live-in maid. What could I do? Jan was unaware of my visits to the house. I could hardly tell Myn not to seek work in a house that Jan recommended, so I remained silent. As I have already told you, fifty gilders is a lot of money. I wracked my brain but could not think an acceptable reason why Myn should refuse the job.
When she-of-fifty-guilders had not seen me for three weeks, she sent a letter asking me why I had not called on her. I wrote back and told her of an injury from a duel. The woman wished me a speedy recovery and sent me one hundred guilders. I concluded my secret was still safe.
I missed Myn more than I liked to admit. On her one day of freedom each week, she visited her home to give her earnings to her father. She allowed me but an hour of her time under the proviso, “there will be no silliness”. We have been unable to meet for the last two Sundays, as a protracted visit by some of his lordship’s relatives has caused the cancellation of ‘days-off’ for all staff.
I started calculating how much I would need to earn if I became the sort of man Myn would agree to marry. What pastimes would I have to abandon? Perhaps I could buy a horse and cart and start a bakery delivery service. Then I had a brilliant idea – sliced bread! How much further would a loaf stretch if people ate slices instead of chunks? No more dirty hands tearing odd-shaped chunks from a loaf. I would get Jan to help me design a machine to carve a loaf of bread into even slices. I might suggest changing the bakery’s name to Boogan Villa and calling my sliced bread Flour Power.
Then, on a night when I visited my artistic friend, he told me, “Pieter, my friend, you’ll be interested to learn that my latest commission is to paint the woman who is your love’s employer.” He believed that she-of-fifty-guilders had convinced her husband that Jan should paint her portrait to demonstrate her social standing to her husband’s relatives. She did not want a formal painting of her head and shoulders, but preferred a style of painting for which Jan was acquiring an enviable reputation. A scene wherein domesticity is preponderant and the characters exude silence.
It was my opportunity to get a message to Myn. I wanted to tell her to quit her job and marry me. I spent hours choosing the right words. I told her how much I loved her, nay, worshipped her. I told her of my hopes and dreams and how she was an integral part of them. I told her how much I missed her and longed to hold her again. I asked her to give up her position. She should leave everything and start a new life with me. Once the letter was completed, I gave it to Jan to pass to Myn the following day when he went to the house of she-of-fifty-guilders.
I arrived at Jan’s house at sundown the next day. He had not yet returned, and so Catharina gave me a glass of wine and asked if it was true I intended to retire from my life of lechery. Before I could answer, Jan strode noisily into the house, kissed his wife and children, cast his eyes on me, and burst out laughing.
I was not pleased. “What’s so amusing?” I asked.
“You didn’t tell me you service her ladyship,” he accused me.
“It’s none of your business,” I said bluntly.
“It is now, Pieter, it is now.” He started laughing anew. He laughed so hard, he had to hold his ribcage.
Catharina gave him a cup of water. “Tell me, Jan. What gives you so much joy?”
“Not joy; sorrow. The sorrow of seeing such a libertine as Pieter brought so easily down.”
I grasped the hilt of my sword with a threatening manner. “Damn you, Jan. Tell me what has happened.”
My artistic friend held up his hand, took another sip of water, then put down the cup. He opened his leather carry-case and extracted sketches made that day. “Her ladyship wants to use this scene for the painting.” He held out a charcoal sketch showing she-of-fifty-gilders sitting with a mandolin on her lap and holding a letter in her right hand. Myn stood in the background, looking as if she had just delivered the missive.
I let go of my sword. “Please tell me that is not my letter.”
“I’m afraid it is, Pieter. Did you not know Myn cannot read? She handed your letter to her ladyship and asked her to read it aloud. I was there, in the room with them. It took all my self-control not to laugh as her ladyship’s reaction to your letter made me realise that you are in the habit of poking both women. The words left her ladyship’s lips with increasing reluctance as she realised they came from your hand. Poor Myn; she had no idea that you were diddling her mistress. Of course, her ladyship did not tell her servant the truth of the matter. Instead, she related that she knew of you, that you are a libertine and a bandit, and that Myn should never again acknowledge your existence. Furthermore, if she should ever hear that Myn continued her association with you, she would be dismissed without a reference.” Jan wiped a tear from beneath his eye. “Oh, this is so wonderful. I can hardly control myself. I shall call my painting The Love Letter and be amused for the rest of my life at the varied explanations romantics will attach to it.”
And so, here I stand in my pile of manure. I have lost Myn, the occasional fifty guilders and civilization will never know of sliced bread.
This story won second prize in The Best of Times (2009); it was also published in Contemporary World Literature and Alfie Dog.
When a youngster, Peter Lingard told his mother many fantastic tales of intrepid adventures enjoyed by him and his friends. She always said, ‘Go tell it to the Marines’. When he asked why, she said, ‘They’ve been everywhere and done everything, so they’ll want to hear about what you’ve been up to’. Of course, Peter joined the Royal Marines as soon as he was old enough and now has a seemingly inexhaustible supply of tales to tell. He has had 300+ stories and poems published, as well as having many pieces aired on Radio NAG, Queensland and 4RPH, Brisbane. Professional actors have performed some of his poetry and he has appeared as a guest on Southern FM’s program ‘Write Now’ to read and discuss his work. He recited and chatted about some of his poems on 3CR’s ‘Spoken Word’ and had a monthly spot on 3WBC (94.1FM) to read his tales.
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