The Dutch House - Ann Patchett

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