Penelope: A Novel of New Amsterdam
Amsterdam, Sunday, November 10, 1647
While the rest of the congregation departed and the elders arranged the room for her hearing, Penelope Kent squirmed to relieve muscles that ached from enduring a three-hour sermon on a backless bench. These separatists from the Church of England observed a myriad of prohibitions and she hoped fidgeting didn’t compound her crime—whatever it was.
Her betrothed, Matthew Prince, conferred with his father, who moved around the room pinching out the cheap hog-tallow candles with dry, calloused fingers. A chill November breeze from the North Sea swirled the acrid aroma of the smoldering wicks around the drafty room rather than clearing the air.
Again Penelope wondered what she had done, or failed to do. During her three months of attendance, the elders had summoned members almost weekly to the front of the sanctuary to confess and repent of their sins, most often impure thoughts, vain speech and sloth. She knew she was innocent of those vices.
Whereas most of the congregation lived near this church and were under constant scrutiny by their peers, the elders had scant chances to observe Penelope’s behavior because her home was a mile away on the Herengracht, or Gentlemen’s Canal, one of the better districts of Amsterdam, even if she was merely a maid living in a tiny room in a garret. She resigned herself to endure a moment of humiliation for some obscure misdemeanor.
The chief elder, Mr. Brown, rustled papers and glared at Penelope as though she were already tried and condemned of murder. She turned her head to avoid his hostility and saw Matthew depart despite his promise to remain and support her.
“Miss Kent,” Mr. Brown announced sternly. “Present yourself before this inquisition.”
She startled at the word but immediately rose to disguise her discomfiture. Although her parents were English, she had grown up here in Amsterdam where the Dutch word inquisitie was always associated with merciless horrors the Spanish had inflicted upon the Low Countries two generations earlier. An uneasy feeling twitched in her gut but she faced fellow Englishmen, not Spanish priests.
As she stepped sideways between the benches of the women’s side toward the center aisle, the swish of her velvet dress filled the otherwise silent room. Except for Matthew’s aged grandfather, Reverend Prince, who napped in the only chair after his long sermon, she was alone with the elders, separated from them by a table holding a Geneva Bible and two malodorous candles. She faced them with hands clasped meekly in front, her palms damp from sweat.
“Miss Kent.” Mr. Brown tilted the paper toward the meager candlelight. “We accuse you of infamous behavior that brings shame and embarrassment upon this congregation. Confess and repent or depart from our midst.”
Penelope gasped. Was this the normal procedure—a vague accusation? One thing was certain. If this congregation ejected her, Matthew would discard her from his life and her plans would be as useless as candle smoke.
Matthew’s sister had advised Penelope to plead feminine weakness and deep remorse. Yet it was hypocrisy to apologize for sins she hadn’t committed. To thy own self be true echoed in her mind. This Puritan-like congregation denounced plays and other worldly entertainment, but these words from Hamlet sounded like advice from Proverbs as well.
She took a deep breath and dried her palms against the soft fabric of her cloak, a long-ago gift from her father to her mother. Think, she demanded of herself. Defend yourself. But how? Two phrases from the morning sermon pushed into her consciousness—a soft answer turns away wrath and pride goes before a fall.
“Sirs.” She paused to gain time to organize her defense. Despite fleeing their country and king to save their souls by living in exile, these religious dissidents were still proud of their heritage. “As an Englishwoman, sirs, may I know the details of the charges against me that I may answer them truthfully before God and man?”
The elders exchanged glances. At the end of the bench, Matthew’s father said, “Under English custom, she has the right.”
Penelope looked at Mr. Prince. Despite three months of betrothal to his son, she still didn’t know if the father approved of her or merely acquiesced to his son’s awkward circumstances.
Meanwhile the face of Mr. Brown evolved from anger to a poorly contained smirk. Why had he always resented her? He had nearly prevented her acceptance by this congregation, which she had joined as a requirement of the betrothal.
“You are accused of roving the streets of Amsterdam without a guardian and of wearing clothes that mock God and are unbecoming to a member of this congregation.”
She involuntarily glanced down at the russet cloak that protected her slender body from the chill of the unheated church but not the harsh glare of the deacons. Fortunately, russet was one of the somber earthen colors, along with the grays of stones, the tans and browns of soil, and the dark green of forest shadows, that these former Puritans preferred.
With a look of pleasure, Mr. Brown continued. “Furthermore, you’re accused of accepting money from a known philanderer and of kissing him in public.”
Speechless and mouth agape, Penelope stared at the elder. He practically accused her of being a harlot. Never in her twenty-one years had anyone so brazenly assaulted her character. Just before she called him a liar, she realized insulting the chief elder would eliminate her from the congregation more quickly than actually being a whore. Jesus had forgiven a prostitute.
Why would the chief elder say such a thing? Surely he had confused her with someone else. She looked around for Matthew even though she knew he wasn’t there.
Her attention snapped back into focus when Mr. Brown said, “I take your silence as a confession.”
Very carefully phrasing her words and almost whispering directly to the chief elder, Penelope said, “No, it isn’t. When and where did this alleged activity occur?”
Mr. Brown half rose from the bench and shook a finger in her face. “In the forenoon of Tuesday this week in the Westermarkt, I saw you with that Jew who buys and sells used clothes from a pushcart. He placed coins in your hand, hugged you and kissed you.”
Memories of Tuesday activities swirled through Penelope’s head. Yes, she had transacted business with a peddler in the Westermarkt, the crowded marketplace by the western church. The peddler didn’t look like a Jew, but Amsterdam’s tolerance attracted all kinds.
Her chest heaved in indignation and her face warmed. “What you saw, sir, was me selling mother-of-pearl buttons to a merchant in a public market. When he placed the coins in my hand, he yanked me close and whispered lewd suggestions in my ear.”
“So you confess he kissed you?”
With a deep breath she restrained herself from shouting. “No, sir. I confess I slapped his face and stomped his foot to free myself.”
Mr. Brown jumped up, almost knocking over a candle. “Do you accuse me of bearing false witness?”
Fearful, as though standing on the edge of a deep abyss, she recalled the scene. The best vantage point for Mr. Brown would have been the bridge over the Prinzengracht, the Prince’s Canal, twenty yards from where Penelope encountered the clothing merchant. “I believe you had a poor vantage point for witnessing a distant altercation and left before the squabble was resolved with my honor intact, if not my pride.”
Still standing, Mr. Brown smiled like a cat with a bird in its mouth. “So you admit that you were in the Westermarkt without a guardian and you own a dress with gaudy buttons.”
Trapped by her own words, Penelope refused to surrender. “I admit that I inherited dresses from my mother that are inappropriate for this congregation. That’s why I sold the buttons and donated a tithe to this church.”
“Were you alone in the Westermarkt?”
Why did he harp on this point of being alone? Thousands of women freely roamed the streets daily. Unlike London, Amsterdam was perfectly safe, at least in daylight, except for pickpockets and the musicos near the wharves where mischievous sailors gathered. “I admit to being a housemaid for a righteous Dutch lady who would never tolerate misbehavior.”
Mr. Williams loomed over the table and shouted, “Your defense is that you’re a maid of Amsterdam? Throughout Europe, the maidservants of this immoral city are famed for their brazenness, their freely given kisses to men in alleyways, their hasty journey to damnation in the music halls and brothels of the Damrak.”
Waving an accusatory finger with each phrase, he thundered, “The only women more vile than the maids of Amsterdam are their mistresses, who cover their bosoms with lace, redden their lips like harlots, dance until God’s dawn reveals their iniquity, and then have the audacity to take communion in a former Papist church that boasts stained glass windows with idolatrous pictures of Christ.”
This denunciation had nothing to do with her, yet she could not refute it, having heard much worse about the women of Amsterdam from neighborhood gossip. She searched for a rebuttal but came up empty. She clutched the fabric of her skirt in disgust at this inability to defend herself and felt her legs trembling, a fear that crept upward to her heart.
As the speaker ended his harangue, Matthew’s grandfather cleared his throat. “Elder Williams, I’m honored you have listened so closely to my sermons about Sodom and Gomorrah. These evils, which you depict so vividly, do indeed flourish in this wicked city. I trust you’re describing your fears for what might befall this innocent child and not enumerating her sins.”
Reverend Prince’s mention of innocence buoyed Penelope’s spirits, yet his Cambridge-trained intellect could turn an argument or an opponent upside down in seconds. Into her mind crept a German proverb her father had recited after a voyage across a stormy Baltic Sea: Wealth lost, something lost; honor lost, much lost; courage lost, all lost. Without courage, she could forget her dreams and her future. She clenched her fists to quell her fears and steady her heart.
The aged minister didn’t embarrass Mr. Williams by waiting for an answer but rose slowly from his chair, favoring his rheumatic knee as he moved to stand beside Penelope and to face the elders with her. “I’m familiar with the child’s history. She was quite young when her mother died. Her father was an Anglican merchant but nevertheless an honorable Englishman, who died in a shipwreck in the Baltic Sea a few years ago, leaving his orphaned daughter near penniless. She’s an only child with no male relative to serve as guardian whilst she performs her daily chores amidst the numerous temptations of the Dutch.”
Penelope lifted her head enough to see that Mr. Williams still glowered at her. Matthew’s father met her gaze but his face was impenetrable. Did they expect her to grovel for forgiveness for their unfounded suspicions?
Reverend Prince switched from a conversational tone to his sonorous preaching voice. “To preserve her soul from temptation, we should invite her to live with our God-fearing flock here in our neighborhood on Bloom Alley. Who’s willing to provide her with a bed and a job?”
Each elder avoided the reverend’s eyes and the oblique request for money.
“Ah, there’s the rub,” said the minister, half turning to cast a sad glance at Penelope. “We’re as poor as she is.”
Reverend Prince directed his attention to his son. “Thomas, would you like a healthy daughter-in-law to join you and me, my wife, your wife, your son, and your two daughters and fill our cramped house with babies?”
Penelope scrutinized her future father-in-law, both curious as to how he would answer this intriguing question and discomfited at the prospect of filling a house with babies. Such responsibilities weren’t in her plans.
Mr. Prince shrugged. “Yes, sir, but I’m in no haste for such a blessing.”
Was that a sign of approval or a polite non-answer? Again she tried to interpret his face but learned nothing except he could out-stare her. The others remained silent. A gusty wind set the candles to flickering. Flickering like her hopes.
Reverend Prince limped a few steps away and stood where he could see both the woman and the five elders. “Miss Kent, that dress you’re wearing. Was it your mother’s?”
She opened her cloak to display a twenty-year-old dress of tan velvet and wondered if these men knew its original price was more than they earned in a week of hard labor. “Yes, sir, I removed the ruffles and lace and sold them to a …” She paused, afraid of miring herself deeper into this swamp, then quickly rushed on. “To a merchant. Then I added a hem of dark linen.” She smoothed her skirts to better display the costly fabric with its cheap border demurely brushing the floor.
“Why did you wear that dress today?” Reverend Prince asked.
Penelope lowered her head in guilt, knowing her mother’s ornate dresses clashed with the drabness of this congregation. “Most of my mother’s dresses are…are of a prideful color, sir. I would be embarrassed to wear them to this church.”
“How many men have you kissed?” asked Reverend Prince.
Her head jerked up and she covered her gaping mouth with a hand. Was there no end to their insults? But the reverend had asked and his eyes displayed sympathy not deception. She had to trust someone for she couldn’t rescue herself from this predicament. In for a penny, in for a pound was another of her father’s favorite expressions and she feared she was already three shillings deep. She lowered her hand and resumed her diligent study of the floor, praying the truth would set her free. “None, sir. That is, none on the lips, sir.”
“Not even your betrothed, my grandson?” Reverend Prince asked gently.
“No sir, only on the cheek. Only twice on the cheek, sir.” Her own cheeks grew warm. Those kisses had been from happiness not lust but these old men were too obsessed with sin to understand innocence.
“Elder Williams,” said Reverend Prince, more loudly, “perhaps you have some questions.” The reverend moved slowly to his chair, which creaked from his weight.
Williams looked to his companions on either side but received no guidance. “These dresses of a prideful color, why do you wear them?”
She swallowed and forced her voice to remain calm. “Sir, I cannot afford new ones.”
“Trade them to a respectable merchant for plainer clothes.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll do that.”
The silence stretched toward a minute in length. She dared to raise her eyes enough to see the elders looking dourly at each other. At last Mr. Williams announced, “You’re excused, Miss Kent. We’ll proceed with budgetary matters.”
With lips tightened to prevent uttering a parting remark she would immediately regret, she turned away. Exoneration didn’t erase the insult. Nor did winning one battle end this war with Elder Williams. She turned back in surprise when Matthew’s father said, “I’ll escort the girl to my house.”
Penelope and Mr. Prince walked down their separate sides of the church to their separate doors and strode the cobblestoned streets toward the Prince household. Rather than ponder Matthew’s absence and his father’s presence, she forced her attention to the neighborhood.
A flurry of wind parted the low-lying clouds to give her a glimpse of the city’s thirty-foot-high fortifications that both protected and imprisoned her. Only a generation ago, Amsterdam’s city walls had leapfrogged a half mile, converting straight rows of orchards into straight rows of houses to accommodate the city’s burgeoning population. Changing the French word jardin to Jordaan and naming a street Bloemstraat and a canal Rozengracht hadn’t made this new section of Amsterdam into a garden. The narrow streets and small houses of low rent contrasted sharply with the prosperous Herengracht, where Penelope had always lived, though not always in the maid’s garret.
“My wife’s quite skillful at making dresses from whole cloth,” said Mr. Prince. “The dye house where I work converts their mistakes into dark shades they sell cheaply. My son must learn a wife comes with expenses.”
“Thank you, sir.” She studied his countenance but saw only the chill of the weather and the resemblance of three generations of men: Reverend Thomas Prince, Mr. Thomas Prince, and Matthew Prince. “That’s kind of you, sir.” But every guilder spent on fabric delayed their mission. Maybe his wife could salvage fabric from outmoded clothes and convert them into acceptable garments, though she was reluctant to ask her future mother-in-law for favors.
“Miss Kent.” Mr. Prince hesitated. “Matthew desired to speak on your behalf but I ordered him to stay away. The other elders don’t believe in his mission from God and therefore don’t trust his judgment on other matters.”
Her anger at Matthew’s abandonment now transferred to the father. “Do you, sir? Do you believe that Matthew heeds a call from God?” Had she spoken too harshly? She half wanted to retract the question and half wanted to hear his answer. She compromised by watching the cobblestones instead of his face and realized that he had stopped. She turned back.
Thomas Prince stared in her direction but not at her, his grim face lost in thought. After a long pause, he said, “Before Matthew was born, Mr. Blossom, a friend from the Leiden congregation, invited me to accompany him and his eldest son on a voyage to what turned out to be the Plymouth colony. I was a doubting Thomas. The ship sailed without me.”
Why was he telling her this? Before today they had never had a conversation more than three sentences long. Curiosity overwhelmed anger. Matthew’s father had once rejected an opportunity to voyage to America. Did Matthew know? He had never mentioned it. Penelope searched for a meaningful reply. “Did your friend voyage to America?”
“No. The second ship wasn’t seaworthy and a third of the passengers remained behind. Mr. Blossom thought it was the Will of God that he and his son should return home to Leiden.”
She spoke reverently, asking him as well as herself, “Who understands the Will of God?”
“Indeed.” Mr. Prince now stared at her. “Mr. Blossom’s son died in Leiden that winter, not in America. Several years later, the man took his wife and younger children to Plymouth.”
She didn’t know what to say. Did Mr. Prince believe the Blossom boy’s death was God’s punishment for the father’s lack of faith? How does one tell the difference between a coincidence and the Will of God? Or the whispers of the devil? “Why doesn’t God protect his faithful?”
“If only the faithful prosper, where’s the challenge?” Mr. Prince resumed walking.
She strode beside him, glad she had taken the trouble to sew pebbles into the skirt’s hem to prevent the embarrassment of a blustery wind revealing her stockinged ankles.
A block later he paused with his hand on the kitchen door latch. “Miss Kent, do you believe in Matthew’s quest?”