The Dutch House

The Dutch House
Ann Patchett

Part One

Chapter 1

The first time our father brought Andrea to the Dutch House, Sandy, our housekeeper, came to my sister’s room and told us to come downstairs. “Your father has a friend he wants you to meet,” she said.

“Is it a work friend?” Maeve asked. She was older and so had a more complex understanding of friendship.

Sandy considered the question. “I’d say not. Where’s your brother?”

“Window seat,” Maeve said.

Sandy had to pull the draperies back to find me. “Why do you have to close the drapes?”

I was reading. “Privacy,” I said, though at eight I had no notion of privacy. I liked the word, and I liked the boxed-in feel the draperies gave when they were closed.

As for the visitor, it was a mystery. Our father didn’t have friends, at least not the kind who came to the house late on a Saturday afternoon. I left my secret spot and went to the top of the stairs to lie down on the rug that covered the landing. I knew from experience I could see into the drawing room by looking between the newel post and first baluster if I was on the floor. There was our father in front of the fireplace with a woman, and from what I could tell they were studying the portraits of Mr. and Mrs. VanHoebeek. I got up and went back to my sister’s room to make my report.

“It’s a woman,” I said to Maeve. Sandy would have known this already.

Sandy asked me if I’d brushed my teeth, by which she meant had I brushed them that morning. No one brushed their teeth at four o’clock in the afternoon. Sandy had to do everything herself because Jocelyn had Saturdays off. Sandy would have laid the fire and answered the door and offered drinks and, on top of all of that, was now responsible for my teeth. Sandy was off on Mondays. Sandy and Jocelyn were both off on Sundays because my father didn’t think people should be made to work on Sundays.

“I did,” I said, because I probably had.

“Do it again,” she said. “And brush your hair.”

The last part she meant for my sister, whose hair was long and black and as thick as ten horse tails tied together. No amount of brushing ever made it look brushed.

Once we were deemed presentable, Maeve and I went downstairs and stood beneath the wide archway of the foyer, watching our father and Andrea watch the VanHoebeeks. They didn’t notice us, or they didn’t acknowledge us—hard to say—and so we waited. Maeve and I knew how to be quiet in the house, a habit born of trying not to irritate our father, though it irritated him more when he felt we were sneaking up on him. He was wearing his blue suit. He never wore a suit on Saturdays. For the first time I could see that his hair was starting to gray in the back. Standing next to Andrea, he looked even taller than he was.

“It must be a comfort, having them with you,” Andrea said to him, not of his children but of his paintings. Mr. and Mrs. VanHoebeek, who had no first names that I had ever heard, were old in their portraits but not entirely ancient. They both dressed in black and stood with an erect formality that spoke of another time. Even in their separate frames they were so together, so married, I always thought it must have been one large painting that someone cut in half. Andrea’s head tilted back to study those four cunning eyes that appeared to follow a boy with disapproval no matter which of the sofas he chose to sit on. Maeve, silent, stuck her finger in between my ribs to make me yelp but I held on to myself. We had not yet been introduced to Andrea, who, from the back, looked small and neat in her belted dress, a dark hat no bigger than a saucer pinned over a twist of pale hair. Having been schooled by nuns, I knew better than to embarrass a guest by laughing. Andrea would have had no way of knowing that the people in the paintings had come with the house, that everything in the house had come with the house.

The drawing-room VanHoebeeks were the show-stoppers, life-sized documentation of people worn by time, their stern and unlovely faces rendered with Dutch exactitude and a distinctly Dutch understanding of light, but there were dozens of other lesser portraits on every floor—their children in the hallways, their ancestors in the bedrooms, the unnamed people they’d admired scattered throughout. There was also one portrait of Maeve when she was ten, and while it wasn’t nearly as big as the paintings of the VanHoebeeks, it was every bit as good. My father had brought in a famous artist from Chicago on the train. As the story goes, he was supposed to paint our mother, but our mother, who hadn’t been told that the painter was coming to stay in our house for two weeks, refused to sit, and so he painted Maeve instead. When the portrait was finished and framed, my father hung it in the drawing room right across from the VanHoebeeks. Maeve liked to say that was where she learned to stare people down.

“Danny,” my father said when finally he turned, looking like he expected us to be exactly where we were. “Come say hello to Mrs. Smith.”

I will always believe that Andrea’s face fell for an instant when she looked at Maeve and me. Even if my father hadn’t mentioned his children, she would have known he had them. Everyone in Elkins Park knew what went on in the Dutch House. Maybe she thought we would stay upstairs. She’d come to see the house, after all, not the children. Or maybe the look on Andrea’s face was just for Maeve, who, at fifteen and in her tennis shoes, was already a head taller than Andrea in her heels. Maeve had been inclined to slouch when it first became apparent she was going to be taller than all the other girls in her class and most of the boys, and our father was relentless in his correction of her posture. Head-up-shoulders-back might as well have been her name. For years he thumped her between the shoulder blades with the flat of his palm whenever he passed her in a room, the unintended consequence of which was that Maeve now stood like a soldier in the queen’s court, or like the queen herself. Even I could see how she might have been intimidating: her height, the shining black wall of hair, the way she would lower her eyes to look at a person rather than bend her neck. But at eight I was still comfortably smaller than the woman our father would later marry. I held out my hand to shake her little hand and said my name, then Maeve did the same. Though the story will be remembered that Maeve and Andrea were at odds right from the start, that wasn’t true. Maeve was perfectly fair and polite when they met, and she remained fair and polite until doing so was no longer possible.

“How do you do?” Maeve said, and Andrea replied that she was very well.

Andrea was well. Of course she was. It had been Andrea’s goal for years to get inside the house, to loop her arm through our father’s arm when going up the wide stone steps and across the red-tiled terrace. She was the first woman our father had brought home since our mother left, though Maeve told me that he had had something going with our nanny for a while, an Irish girl named Fiona.

“You think he was sleeping with Fluffy?” I asked her. Fluffy was what we called Fiona when we were children, partly because I had a hard time with the name Fiona and partly because of the soft waves of red hair that fell down her back in a transfixing cloud. The news of this affair came to me as most information did: many years after the fact, in a car parked outside the Dutch House with my sister.

“Either that or she cleaned his room in the middle of the night,” Maeve said.

My father and Fluffy in flagrante delicto. I shook my head. “Can’t picture it.”

“You shouldn’t try to picture it. God, Danny, that’s disgusting. Anyway, you were practically a baby during the Fluffy administration. I’m surprised you’d even remember her.”

But Fluffy had hit me with a wooden spoon when I was four years old. I still have a small scar in the shape of a golf club beside my left eye—the mark of Fluffy, Maeve called it. Fluffy claimed she’d been cooking a pot of applesauce when I startled her by grabbing her skirt. She said she was trying to get me away from the stove and had certainly never meant to hit me, though I’d think it would be hard to accidentally hit a child in the face with a spoon. The story was only interesting insofar as it was my first distinct memory—of another person or the Dutch House or my own life. I didn’t have a single memory of our mother, but I remembered Fluffy’s spoon cracking into the side of my head. I remembered Maeve, who had been down the hall when I screamed, flying into the kitchen the way the deer would fly across the hedgerow at the back of the property. She threw herself into Fluffy, knocking her into the stove, the blue flames leaping as the boiling pot of applesauce crashed to the floor so that we were all burned in pinpoint splatters. I was sent to the doctor’s office for six stitches and Maeve’s hand was wrapped and Fluffy was dismissed, even though I could remember her crying and saying how sorry she was, how it was only an accident. She didn’t want to go. That was our father’s other relationship according to my sister, and she should know, because if I was four when I got that scar then she was already eleven.

As it happened, Fluffy’s parents had worked for the VanHoebeeks as their driver and cook. Fluffy had spent her childhood in the Dutch House, or in the small apartment over the garage, so I had to wonder, when her name came up again after so many years, where she would have gone when she was told to leave.

Fluffy was the only person in the house who had known the VanHoebeeks. Not even our father had met them, though we sat on their chairs and slept in their beds and ate our meals off their delftware. The VanHoebeeks weren’t the story, but in a sense the house was the story, and it was their house. They had made their fortune in the wholesale distribution of cigarettes, a lucky business Mr. VanHoebeek had entered into just before the start of the First World War. Cigarettes were given to soldiers in the field for purposes of morale, and the habit followed them home to celebrate a decade of prosperity. The VanHoebeeks, richer by the hour, commissioned a house to be built on what was then farmland outside of Philadelphia.

The stunning success of the house could be attributed to the architect, though by the time I thought to go looking I could find no other extant examples of his work. It could be that one or both of those dour VanHoebeeks had been some sort of aesthetic visionary, or that the property inspired a marvel beyond what any of them had imagined, or that America after the First World War was teeming with craftsmen who worked to standards long since abandoned. Whatever the explanation, the house they wound up with—the house we later wound up with—was a singular confluence of talent and luck. I can’t explain how a house that was three stories high could seem like just the right amount of space, but it did. Or maybe it would be better to say that it was too much of a house for anyone, an immense and ridiculous waste, but that we never wanted it to be different. The Dutch House, as it came to be known in Elkins Park and Jenkintown and Glenside and all the way to Philadelphia, referred not to the house’s architecture but to its inhabitants. The Dutch House was the place where those Dutch people with the unpronounceable name lived. Seen from certain vantage points of distance, it appeared to float several inches above the hill it sat on. The panes of glass that surrounded the glass front doors were as big as storefront windows and held in place by wrought-iron vines. The windows both took in the sun and reflected it back across the wide lawn. Maybe it was neoclassical, though with a simplicity in the lines that came closer to Mediterranean or French, and while it was not Dutch, the blue delft mantels in the drawing room, library, and master bedroom were said to have been pried out of a castle in Utrecht and sold to the VanHoebeeks to pay a prince’s gambling debts. The house, complete with mantels, had been finished in 1922.

“They had seven good years before the bankers started jumping out of windows,” Maeve said, giving our predecessors their place in history.

The first I ever heard of the property that had been sold off was that first day Andrea came to the house. She followed our father to the foyer and was looking out at the front lawn.

“It’s so much glass,” Andrea said, as if making a calculation to see if the glass could be changed, swapped out for an actual wall. “Don’t you worry about people looking in?”

Not only could you see into the Dutch House, you could see straight through it. The house was shortened in the middle, and the deep foyer led directly into what we called the observatory, which had a wall of windows facing the backyard. From the driveway you could let your eye go up the front steps, across the terrace, through the front doors, across the long marble floor of the foyer, through the observatory, and catch sight of the lilacs waving obliviously in the garden behind the house.

Our father glanced towards the ceiling and then to either side of the door, as if he were just now considering this. “We’re far enough from the street,” he said. On this May afternoon, the wall of linden trees that ran along the property line was thick with leaves, and the slant of green lawn where I rolled like a dog in the summers was both deep and wide.

“But at night,” Andrea said, her voice concerned. “I wonder if there wouldn’t be some way to hang drapes.”

Drapes to block the view struck me not only as impossible but the single stupidest idea I’d ever heard.

“You’ve seen us at night?” Maeve asked.

“You have to remember the land that was here when they built the place,” our father said, speaking over Maeve. “There were more than two hundred acres. The property went all the way to Melrose Park.”

“But why would they have sold it?” Suddenly Andrea could see how much more sense the house would have made had there been no other houses. The sight line should have gone far past the slope of the lawn, past the peony beds and the roses. The eye was meant to travel down a wide valley and bank into a forest, so that even if the VanHoebeeks or one of their guests were to look out a window from the ballroom at night, the only light they’d see would be starlight. There wasn’t a street back then, there wasn’t a neighborhood, though now both the street and the Buchsbaums’ house across the street were perfectly visible in the winter when the leaves came off the trees.

“Money,” Maeve said.

“Money,” our father said, nodding. It wasn’t a complicated idea. Even at eight I was able to figure it out.

“But they were wrong,” Andrea said. There was a tightness around her mouth. “Think about how beautiful this place must have been. They should have had more respect, if you ask me. The house is a piece of art.”

And then I did laugh, because what I understood Andrea to say was that the VanHoebeeks should have asked her before they sold the land. My father, irritated, told Maeve to take me upstairs, as if I might have forgotten the way.

Ready-made cigarettes lined up in their cartons were a luxury for the rich, as were acres never walked on by the people who owned them. Bit by bit the land was shaved away from the house. The demise of the estate was a matter of public record, history recorded in property deeds. Parcels were sold to pay debts—ten acres, then fifty, then twenty-eight. Elkins Park came closer and closer to the door. In this way the VanHoebeek family made it through the Depression, only to have Mr. VanHoebeek die of pneumonia in 1940. One VanHoebeek boy died in childhood and the two older sons died in the war. Mrs. VanHoebeek died in 1945 when there was nothing left to sell but the side yard. The house and all it contained went back to the bank, dust to dust.

Fluffy stayed behind courtesy of the Pennsylvania Savings and Loan, and was paid a small stipend to manage the property. Fluffy’s parents were dead, or maybe they had found other jobs. At any rate, she lived alone above the garage, checking the house every day to make sure the roof wasn’t leaking and the pipes hadn’t burst. She cut a straight path from the garage to the front doors with a push mower and let the rest of the lawn grow wild. She picked the fruit from the trees that were left near the back of the house and made apple butter and canned the peaches for winter. By the time our father bought the place in 1946, raccoons had taken over the ballroom and chewed into the wiring. Fluffy went into the house only when the sun was straight overhead, the very hour when all nocturnal animals were piled up together and fast asleep. The miracle was they didn’t burn the place down. The raccoons were eventually captured and disposed of, but they left behind their fleas and the fleas sifted into everything. Maeve said her earliest memories of life in the house were of scratching, and of how Fluffy dotted each welt with a Q-tip dipped in calamine lotion. My parents had hired Fluffy to be my sister’s nanny.
 
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