Lady writing a letter by Jan Vermeer of Delft (1632 -1675)
in the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
in the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Delft - 17th April 1655
I have to admit that you were right about Cornelis. He is often busy at the Stock Exchange and when he comes home he is so tired that he can barely keep his eyes open. Even when he calls me his 'pretty little bird' I have to wonder if he is perhaps dreaming of me for he is certainly not looking at me. I should not complain, for I know that he does all this work of his to keep me in elegant clothes and able to put good food on our table. Indeed, my dear, I do not complain, for unlike most husbands he lets me largely do as I please.
There was a large tabby cat on the other side of the courtyard this morning with the biggest green eyes. Tho' Maria was sweeping the yard, the cat looked straight at me. I swear on the Bible, that cat ignored Maria who is a good and decent girl and looked at me. I was so shocked that I blushed for shame and looked away for I could not meet its gaze. When I looked again, the cat had gone. Maria said that she had not noticed the cat at which I confess I got quite cross, for it was not a kitten, but a large cat. Really, how could she not have noticed it?
I told my aunt Sophie who visited us on the day before last and she said it was probably because I missed Cornelis. Well I do miss him during the day, but not so much as to imagine him watching me as a tabby cat! But she is a very practical woman who talks of weights and measures and prices. Cornelis is very fond of her, for he says that she thinks almost like a man. I am sure this is not something to be all that proud of! But Sophie was certainly proud of it. I wrote to my mother and told her about the cat, but I have not yet had a reply.
Delft - 20th April 1655
Yesterday, you would no doubt have laughed at me and called me a foolish girl. I swear that I was not dreaming, I swear it. I went out to see what fabrics I might find for a new dress and some shirts for Cornelis. He gave me a good amount of money for the fabrics and said that if there was anything left I might treat myself to something. I went out of the house at 10 o'clock, having had a good breakfast. I was barely across the courtyard when I felt as if something was behind me. When I turned around, I only caught a glimpse of something small disappearing into the courtyard. A small dog perhaps, except there was no sound. I was tempted to go and look, but then I remembered that all the good things would be gone if I did not get to the market without delay. So I put it out of my mind and went to the market.
Well my dear, no sooner was I at the end of the street than what did I see? You would never guess, but that large tabby cat was sitting on the other side of the street beside a house door with his tail curled neatly around his paws. His big green eyes were looking directly at me and for a moment I was tempted to go across and ask him what he thought he was looking at. But you can imagine what people would have thought and I am not gone mad yet! I moved first one way and then another and I promise you, his eyes followed me. He even turned his head to watch me. I was most frightened Susanna and I ran along the street until I came to the busy road and seeing my chance I darted across. When I turned to look between the horses, carts and carriages I could not see if the cat was watching me. To be quite honest, I was not sure I wanted to know.
I went off to the market and there I found all that I could wish for. I bought good serviceable wool broadcloth, four metres of red silk brocade and some English cotton, which was all most reasonably priced. I had a few pennies left and bought a pound of coffee, which I know Cornelis likes as much as I. I left the shop and as I turned out of it, there was that cat standing outside a fishmongers and watching me as bold as you like. I stamped my foot at him and strode home feeling quite cross. Yet, once I was home I felt much better and ate a little bread and cheese with Maria and we drank a little ale also. As I put my glass down I caught a movement outside the window and there across the courtyard was that cat! Staring at me with his big green eyes and his expressionless face.
Now don't mistake me Susanna, I have always loved animals, especially cats, but this one seemed somehow different. He was not a pretty little delicate cat, but more like one of those fierce big cats that we read about from explorer's accounts. His gaze frightened me for I felt sure he meant to do me harm. I screamed and jumped. Maria asked me if I was well and I pointed to the cat and asked her if she noticed him now. The minx smiled and said that the gentleman was certainly a handsome fellow and his whiskers were most fine too. I began to believe that perhaps I was going mad, but I stamped my foot and demanded that she tell me if she could not see that cat. To my shock, she insisted that all she saw was a handsome gentleman in a dark coat and boots. I was so distracted by this that I began to cry and said that she would drive me insane, but she was kind and asked me what I saw. I told her that I saw a large tabby cat with big green eyes. She frowned then and told me that she would take care of the matter. She went up to her room and came down the stairs with a curious little necklace with a crucifix. I have one myself, but this was not like my silver one, the metal was darker and had a reddish tint almost like dried blood. Maria begged me to wear it and not to take it off at all. If I did, she avowed, I would put myself in the most terrible danger.
Had I not been so frightened by this cat, I should have thought she was being foolish, but I promised her that I should wear it always.
Delft - 24th April 1655
Last night, I made ready to go to bed when I heard a low and menacing yowling outside the house. I turned to say something to Cornelis but he was fast asleep. I was much afraid but I glanced out of the window and there in the centre of the courtyard looking up at me was the cat. His fur was gently bathed in moonlight and his eyes were like two great green moons themselves. He was gazing up at my bed chamber casement and when he saw me, he meowed with a commanding note. I felt some influence overtaking me as if my own will were being submerged and I was compelled to come down to him. I opened my bed chamber door and stepped out onto the landing. The floorboards creaked and as I stepped onto the top step, something was put about my neck and the compelling influence fell away. Maria was holding my waist and when I turned, she pulled me into her embrace and held me for a moment.
"Keep the necklace I gave you on you at all times mistress," she said softly, "Do not take it off even for bed. "
I swayed unsure of my footing but she helped me to my bed and there I lay all night beset by strange dreams and tempting visions. I woke I think near the dawn and rising from my bed I prayed. Then I slept some more and fell into a deep and empty sleep. When I awoke, I felt drained as if I had wrestled with my conscience and the fight was not yet over. Cornelis had broken his fast and gone to work already. I wondered if I was pregnant, but even as the thought left my mind I knew I was not. I broke my fast and did a little sewing. The room was quiet and the sun warmed it as it fell through the windows with a bright cheerful beam. I felt my fears fall away and the sewing engrossed me. But as I finished what I was doing, suddenly I felt as if I were being watched and looking up I beheld the cat at my casement, sitting on the broad sill gazing upon me. He was so close at that instant that I screamed in horror and pricked my finger with the needle in my hand. It worked, for the pain broke the spell upon me and I dashed away to put cold water upon it. Even when cleaned up, it was still painful but I thanked Almighty God for it, knowing that the pain would stop me dreaming and so keep me aware.
After a little while, I heard Maria on the doorstep and when I returned to the chamber, the cat was not longer upon the sill. I did not miss his absence, for I had come to fear him. When Maria came in from the courtyard, the cat had gone, but when she entered the chamber, she had a peculiar smile upon her face and when I said that I had seen the cat outside, she grinned. It was the grin of a cat that has caught a sparrow and my hand flew to my throat where the necklace lay. The apparition that was most definitely not Maria approached step by step, deliberately. Its eyes watched my own with every step and I found that I could not move. I could not even scream or cry out for help for I was transfixed by the eyes of the cat.
Suddenly I thrust out the little crucifix and began to say the Lord's Prayer. The apparition paused as if struck but then its grin vanished and it licked its lips with a pink tongue in a gesture that was both menacing and lascivious. It made me shiver with terror and I found the words of the Prayer stuck in my throat. I could only hold up the crucifix before me and whimper in fear. Suddenly the creature stopped and half-crouched still fixing me with it's gaze. I sobbed and struggled to move, to marshal my limbs, but the creature now was utterly still, it's every muscle tensed to pounce. It wiggled it's behind in a terrible and yet obscene gesture but before it could move, Maria staggered inside the doorway blood dribbling from her brow and threw a horseshoe at it. The creature tried to move aside at the last, but the horseshoe struck it and with a sharp cry it fell down motionless.
Even as I watched, the guise of Maria left it and so did that of the cat revealing Mynheer Johannes van Sneijder a wicked and lustful man who it appears was an adept at the darkest magicks. Maria stepped over him and collapsed into my arms. It had taken all of her strength to fight him off. I half-carried, half-dragged her upstairs to her little chamber and cleaned her wound and kissed her. It seems that she had saved my very life.
I went next door and asked Mynheer van Hagerhorst to help remove Mynheer Sneijder from the parlour. He did so and went to fetch Cornelis who hurried home most anxious. I explained everything to my husband and thanked God that he had come.
The Elders have condemned Mynheer Sneijder to burn at the stake as a witch, but it appears that when they went to fetch him in the morning, his cell was empty. Where he has gone I do not know, but Maria and I are happy now that he is no longer around. Cornelis came home the other day with a small dog that it appears had followed him home. The dog was rather lovely, but Maria did not like it. She says that it has horrid large green staring eyes. I don't know what she means, I'm sure.