All Our Fatherland’s Great Houses

Wine and strong spirits
Flood in like seas
Over dam and dike, and great palaces
Over treasure and money
And all our Fatherland’s great houses.

- Dirk Pietersz. Pers, Bacchus Wonder-Wercken (Miracles of Bacchus)

“Will you come on? Jan! In here, now! I need you to carry the pot!”

Jan reluctantly set aside his borrowed book. “The pot? Pa won’t be happy.”

“Don’t be silly. No one’s going to notice we’re down a pot.”

“Pa will, when he wants his dinner.”

“It’s just going to the pawnshop. But I need you to carry it so Bep and I can take the linen straight to the lottery.”

“But the pot?”

Neeltje smacked her son in the back of the head. “Don’t question me! Your father understands a gamble.”

Jan picked up the heavy iron pot and followed his mother. “You’re not taking the picture?”

“I am not! What a thing to ask! My brothel picture, indeed. Pictures are genteel. Particularly brothel pictures. People see them. No one goes digging in the linen chest or poking through the kitchen cupboard.”

But Jan was relieved when the pawnbroker was not excited by their pot. “It’s not a very big one, is it? I’d give a guilder and a half for a big one, but this? I can’t go above eighteen stuivers.” “Eighteen? It was a guilder and a half new!”

“And now it’s not new, is it?”

“What about a brothel picture?” Jan piped up.

“Shut it,” his mother snapped.

“If it’s any good, I might go to fifteen stuivers. Paintings are cheap.”

“A full guilder for the pot. I’ll have silver for you after the lottery draw.”

“Eighteen. No higher.”


“But Ma!”

“Unless you have three stuivers in your pocket, you are not to touch that painting.”

In total, Neeltje van der Zee acquired thirty-one tickets for the grand lottery, thirty-one tickets to be carefully hidden from her husband until she won, and three stuivers for half a loaf of coarse bread and a few bloaters for dinner in the certainty her husband would come home penniless from the musico.

Jan ran to join his friends on the ice until dark. “Take your sister with you!” his mother called, but he ignored her. Bep was useless. All girls were useless, but Bep particularly so. And she had stolen his skates. Well, that was not quite true, he had to admit. He had carefully hidden his skates during the bankruptcy proceedings only to outgrow them and have no choice but to pass them on to Bep. Now he was reduced to sliding with the poor boys rather than skating with his old schoolfellows. Once, Jan had dared to broach the subject with his mother, couched in a careful “If we win in the lottery”, but he had been rebuffed. “Bep needs those skates - how else is she going to meet a decent man?”

“She’s seven!”

“It’s never too early to start thinking.” Bep, plain child though she was, was Neeltje’s only hope. Jan was a boy and could only go the same way as his father. Jan was determined to do nothing in the same way as his father, but that meant a list of things he would not do, not a list of things he would do. And until he did something other than spend all day out on the ice, he was no better than his father, who spent all day in the taverns and musicos of the city while she ruined her hands and her health in order to earn a few stuivers in the laundries.

But on the ice, home did not matter. What mattered was the difference between those with skates and those without. Many of the schools were out for Drie Koningen - only the strict Calvinist ones remained in session - and the the boys were free until after the great lottery draw that would begin the next day and last all week. Jan ran to join Kees and Hans and Jaap - they knew better than to talk about the lottery. Jaap’s mother had gotten Neeltje involved in the lottery gamble in the first place, so he in particular understood that it was not a happy occasion. At least Jaap’s father had regular work - there was not much demand for the one-legged drunk former sailor Wim van der Zee had become.

Jan saw Bep at the skating rink, struggling to strap on his skates which were still too big for her. He and his friends stayed at the far end, sliding on a patch too rough and narrow for the skaters. Many of the boys at his end were not in school at all - Jan had an education only from the position of his grandfather. The old preacher had died a few years ago, but one of his former pupils had been persuaded to take Jan into his school for a few terms. Jan hated being a charity case, but the only other option after the bankruptcy was to go to sea in the care of his father’s old captain. And Wim van der Zee had eliminated that possibility himself through too much genever and not enough sense.

Unlike most of Amsterdam, Jan had no real romance for the sea anyway. It had ruined his father and given his mother ideas above her station in the days when his father had brought back Chinese porcelain and Indian spices for their own use and sale. Jan’s only hope was to apprentice to a trade that he did not find completely loathsome, though it would still be years before he could leave the family home. He would not have minded going into service, as it would get him out of the house much sooner, but if Bep was not permitted such a change in condition, he certainly was not.

He and his friends stayed out until after sundown, throwing snowballs at the skaters and studiously ignoring Bep, who had no friends and skated alone, no one even bothering to pick her up when she fell. When, shivering, her patched skirt soaked, she tried to get Jan to take her home, he just pointed the way and did not even lash out at Kees for calling her a drowned monkey.

The boys made their ways home in the last light, too dark for shadows but light enough not to mistake the tavern signs. Jaap went home, but Jan and Kees lurked outside the musico where their fathers usually drank, trying to catch a glimpse through the fogged glass of the forced conviviality brought by genever and too much beer. A girl came through, the same age as Bep, carrying a jug to be filled for the family supper. When she came out, the angry voice of Wim van der Zee floated out to his son, overpowering the fiddler that made the place a musico rather than just another backstreet tavern. Jan cringed at the sound. “I ain’t waiting for that,” he told Kees. “See you tomorrow, maybe.” He slunk home through the beggars and streetwalkers, picking his way through an alley that seemed to contain all the filth everyone else carefully swept off the Amsterdam streets. That filth had become all too familiar to him in the three years since the bankruptcy.

Neeltje greeted him with a smack. “And where have you been? I told you to watch your sister, not send her home crying!” Bep looked none the worse for her walk home alone - she sat near the fire, playing with her faceless doll.

“I was checking on Pa,” he muttered, rubbing his hands to get the tingling in his fingers to stop. “I don’t think this will be a good night.”

Neeltje flipped the bloaters in the pan, sending up a fresh wave of fishy steam. Jan’s stomach gurgled in response. “You’ve never been much judge of your father.”

But Jan was not surprised when Wim stormed in a few minutes later and slammed the door, cursing about his gambling partners. “Cheats, the lot of them! What are you staring at?” he snapped at Bep, who had still not learned to hide her fascination with the turns in her father’s temper.

Jan jabbed her in the ribs with his elbow. “Ow! Jan!” She tried to pinch him back but caught only his shirt as he twisted away.

“Let your sister alone, boy! Damned kids. Where’s my dinner?”

Once Wim was eating, Jan slowly let out his breath, even as Bep managed to get in the pinch he had eluded earlier. He had got his father’s attention off her and avoided a slap. He jabbed Bep again as she pulled a face over the watered milk with which the children were expected to wash down their rough bread tasting of sawdust covered in cheap butter. They were becoming used to the dense loaves of pure Baltic rye, but the bread was hard to wash down when there was little butter and their tankards were filled with more water than milk. Jan watched his father steal the other half of his mother’s fish off her plate. The children had no fish tonight.

“I don’t know why I got married - better food in the Navy any day,” Wim announced as he picked his teeth. Neeltje theatrically ignored him. “I said, I don’t know why I married such a lousy housekeeper. And had a couple of brats. The bedding wasn’t worth it.” That much seemed to be true - Jan had not heard his parents “bedding” since before Wim came home without his right leg. Neeltje continued washing up. “A couple of bloaters is breakfast, not a fit dinner for a labouring man.”

That got her attention, precisely as it was designed to. “Labouring man, my ass! If you ever did anything except sit around the musicos, I wouldn’t be boiling my fingers off at the bloody laundry just to feed your worthless brats! Fine words at the marriage altar - you were supposed to protect me, not me keep you in genever!”

“If you weren’t such a stupid cow -”

Jan pushed Bep down on the pallet they shared. Wim was headed for the chest and Neeltje was too far away to stop him in time.

“Did you pawn the linen for the god-loving lottery?” He slammed the lid closed and rushed at her, his wooden stump clomping ominously on the bare wooden floor. “You stupid, stupid cow!” He grabbed a pewter tankard from her hand and threw it against the wall, barely missing her precious painting.

She responded in kind, dashing another to the floor at his feet. Bep shivered and huddled close to her brother. Jan wrapped a blanket around them both. The tankards that formed their missiles were already much dented from long use in that purpose. All it meant was that they would rage at each other while the fire burned out and the children shivered all night.

“Where are they?”

“As if I’d let you trade them for drinks!”

Wim began pawing at her bodice. “I know you’ve got them on you, bloody cow. Give ’em up!” Neeltje slapped him, but he still kept going.

“Get off, you’ll tear me apart and then what will we do?” She twisted away at last and pulled a wad of tickets from between her breasts. “There! You’ll get no more, no matter how hard you dig!”

Wim counted them as if they came from the stock exchange. “Seventeen? All this for seventeen tickets? You’re holding out on me!”

“You think you leave me enough to buy lottery tickets with?”

“The linen should have got you more than this!”

“Well, it didn’t!”

“I’m going down there first thing in the morning. The nerve of them, cheating my wife!”

“Yes, do that. My careful husband,” she snorted.

“Help me get this damned leg off.”

Effectively immobilised on his own pallet, Wim began snoring almost immediately.

“Tell me a story,” Bep begged, as she always did on these nights. Jan hated telling stories to Bep because she never liked the ones he knew about the Spanish war. And he had been told off about any repeats after the Siege of Leiden gave her nightmares for a week. “Go to sleep.”


So he transposed the book of Ruth to China because Bep liked to hear about the exotic places their father used to go. Jan did not care a fig for the Indies. Down the street was far enough to get away from his parents’ tempers and Bep’s wheedling. In another year, he’d be old enough to apprentice, and after seven more, he could set out as a journeyman, leaving the whole mess behind. Perhaps, in the meantime, he could get his father arrested - they probably ate better in the Rasphuis.


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