Pantry Prose: Tulip Mania by Susan Dean

The year 1636 saw the Netherlands in the grip of an enormous and unlikely demand for all things tulip bulbs! So great was the demand, that people were making fortunes on the stock market; the rarest of bulbs could fetch as much as the cost of a house, each. Every day the stock market was bursting at the seams with brokers and buyers all shouting, pushing and shoving in the fight for tulip bulbs. A number of people believed they would make their fortunes overnight. Hubert van Meissen was one of them. Now middle aged, he had been born an opportunist and was convinced that tulips would be his future, the gateway to the aristocratic lifestyle he had always dreamed of living.

Indeed he had already purchased a large, airy, spacious house in one of Amsterdam’s most exclusive areas; now to complete his show of new found status in the world, he needed a wife. It was after another hectic morning in the stock exchange and while in a coffee house with some of his friends that he noticed an attractive and very young woman preparing to leave the coffee house with two older women, her chaperones. Before leaving the coffee house himself, Hubert made enquiries regarding the young woman, and the proprietor informed Hubert the young woman’s name was Anna-Marie Helzing, a frequent visitor to the coffee house. Van Meissen decided he would like to meet this Anna-Marie Helzing and planned to frequent the coffee house more often and find a way to contrive an introduction.

About a week later Hubert van Meissen’s luck was in while walking down the strasse heading for the stock exchange, when he spotted Anna-Marie Helzing and her chaperones entering the coffee house. He hesitated for a moment then made for the coffee house. A little brass bell above the entrance tinkled as van Meissen opened the door and stepped inside. Then, seating himself at a small circular table covered in a bright red, chequered cloth close to the three women, he ordered coffee.

For some time Hubert sat sipping his coffee and eavesdropping on the conversation of the three women until it became obvious that they were preparing to leave. Then, he suddenly moved his chair backwards as if to stand up and bumped into the back of one of the elderly ladies. As Hubert had planned, her coffee cup from which she was about to drink the final drop tipped forward and spilled down the bodice of her gown.

‘Oh, my goodness,’ gasped the surprised elderly woman as a small brown stain began to spread over her bodice. Pretending concern, Hubert began apologising profusely and quickly produced a handkerchief for the lady to dap at the stain with.

Hubert began introducing himself and offered to purchase cakes for the ladies by way of an apology for his clumsy, foolish behaviour.

‘Cakes,’ replied the second older woman. ‘I’m afraid, Meneer van Meissen, that is out of the question, although kind of you to offer, but we are about to leave as miin man has business associates arriving for luncheon and we are expected to attend.’

‘But I insist,’ pressed Hubert. ‘We are yet to be properly acquainted and I will also pay for a cab for you ladies. Now, how does that sound?’

‘Oh, very well. I suppose one little cake won’t hurt,’ replied the woman who now introduced herself as the young woman’s Moeder and her dochter as Anna-Marie. The second older woman was the young woman’s Tante. Hubert pulled up a chair and sat down. Indicating for a waiter, he ordered cakes and soon found he had the two older women eating out of the palm of his hand, particularly when he emphasised his wealth and status in the community. The dochter, Anna-Marie, seemed a little less interested at this stage.

The result of this meeting was a number of accidental brief encounters, and before long Hubert had asked permission of Anna-Marie’s parents if he may ask her to go walking through the parks and along the canals with him, which were soon added to by way of dining out, theatre and concert evenings.

By the time Anna-Marie’s birthday came around, Hubert had discussed marriage with her parents, who had agreed with enthusiasm as van Meissen was clearly wealthy and had a more than suitable home for a bride. So Anna-Marie was not only delighted with the gift of a puppy, but acted surprised as young ladies were expected to at the marriage proposal and engagement ring purchased at great expense from Amsterdam’s diamond quarter.

Arrangements were hastily made and the couple were married within the month, with Anna-Marie moving into the beautiful spacious house with a servant to do the cooking and chores. On arrival Hubert surprised her with a gift of a beautiful green and blue parrot in a cage, which had been suspended from the ceiling in the hall of the great house.

Shortly after Hubert and Anna-Marie had settled down to married life, Hubert invited a friend to dinner who was familiar with the thriving art community in Amsterdam to discuss with the couple Hubert’s wedding gift to Anna-Marie. She was to have her portrait painted, and the three of them sat round the table discussing this intention while waiting for the artist to arrive.

Anna-Marie was the first to notice a tall young man approaching the house, and shortly afterwards a knock was heard.

‘Ah, that will be Matteo,’ laughed Hubert’s jovial friend as the servant opened the door. The moment their eyes met, Matteo and Anna-Marie were attracted and could barely keep their eyes off each other throughout the discussion to arrange for Anna-Marie’s portrait to be painted, and a considerable sum was agreed. Almost simultaneously as the young couple met for the first time, the parrot flew from his cage, which had been carelessly left open, and disappeared through an open window. Matteo, who couldn’t wait to be alone with Anna-Marie and get to know her better, wanted to begin immediately and suggested the following morning; Hubert having noticed nothing agreed.

At ten am the following morning, Matteo arrived with his artistic accoutrements in a cart and was shown to an upstairs room that had been prepared for use as a studio and he began setting out his materials. First the easel, then one or two canvases were propped against one wall and a table beside the easel was spread with paints and brushes. Then he set about a nervous wait for his subject to arrive.

Twenty minutes later two pairs of footsteps were heard on the stairs, and both Hubert and Anna-Marie entered the room. Matteo’s eyes lit up at the sight of Anna-Marie, as did her eyes at the sight of him. The sight of the lovely Anna-Marie this morning, a little more scantily clad than the previous day, excited him, and as he indicated for her to sit down on a chaise longue, then picking up charcoal and paper, he asked her to lower her pink silk dressing gown to reveal her slender long neck and sculpted shoulders. He felt the merest trickle of perspiration slide down his torso. Feverishly he began to sketch, trying hard not to spend too much time gazing at the way her neat, small, pert breast swelled slightly while resting on the weight of her arm, as the silk dressing gown slipped a little lower causing her white cotton chemise to fall from her shoulder.

Just as Anna-Marie raised her dark smouldering eyes towards Matteo, her lips parting slightly, Hubert gave a short cough and dropped his watch back into his pocket, which brought the couple back into reality with a sudden start.

‘I think that will be enough for today. We have a ball to attend this evening and I do not want my wife to tire herself. Anna-Marie, get dressed, please. I want you to rest now so you will enjoy the evening more.’

‘Perhaps, Meneer van Messien, you would care to inspect the sketches before I transfer them to a canvas?’ gushed Matteo.

‘Very well,’ replied Hubert. ‘You go ahead, my dear. I’ll ask the servant to bring lunch to your room and to you here,’ instructed Hubert turning to Matteo.

‘As you wish, miin man,’ replied Anna Marie, pulling both her chemise and dressing gown up around her shoulders as she moved towards the door and left the room.

‘These are very good drawings,’ murmured Hubert thoughtfully. ‘Yes, begin work. My wife will sit for you again tomorrow.’ And with that van Meissen left the young artist to his work.

A short time later van Messien was heard leaving the house. Moments later a note slid under the studio door. Matteo left his work, picked up the note and read:

come down to the lower floor

my boudoir is the third door on the left.


Without a moment’s hesitation, Matteo left the studio and descended the stairs only to be met by the servant on her way up with his lunch.

‘Oh, Meneer Matteo, I was just bringing you your lunch. Don’t you want it?’ questioned the surprised servant.

‘Yes, of course,’ replied Matteo, ‘but I need some air first so I thought a short walk. Please leave the meal in the studio for me.’

‘Certainly,’ replied the servant who continued on her way upstairs.

Careful not to attract attention Matteo knocked softly on Anna-Marie’s door.

‘Come in,’ a soft female voice bid.

Matteo opened the door and stepped into the room, closing the door behind him and locking it. Anna-Marie was stood beside the dressing table still wearing what she had worn for the sketches.

‘Matteo,’ she gasped and a moment later they were in each other’s arms, each searching for each other’s mouths, kissing passionately, exploring each other with their tongues. Matteo’s hands moved towards Anna-Marie’s waist and untied her dressing gown, which slid down to the floor; then, with arms raised, her chemise came off revealing her naked body. Matteo began caressing her small perfect breasts while Anna-Marie tore at Matteo’s shirt, which he quickly pulled off. Turning Anna-Marie around, he lifted her onto the bed and, still kissing and caressing her body, teased her legs gently apart and slid his hand between them. Anna-Marie gasped and tore at the lacing on Matteo’s pants, aware of the stiffness beneath the fabric. At last her hand caressed his cock and she guided him inside her. Their skin glistened with sweat as they moved together in perfect synchronisation, both enfolded in ecstasy. Peaking at the same time, they then lay breathlessly entwined and fell into a deep slumber.

It was late afternoon when they both woke. For a few moments they lay still, listening to the patter of rain drops on the window pane. Then a clock chimed five pm from somewhere in the house.

Anna-Marie gave a start. ‘We must part, my love, for now. Miin man will be home soon and I must be ready for the evening.’ With a lingering kiss, Matteo reluctantly left.

Regular love-making afternoons began to take place, meaning the portrait did not come along as quickly as expected, and the servant began to grow suspicious, then so did van Messins. With Matteo making feeble excuses, such as the paint being a problem, it was taking longer than expected to mix it to the right colour and consistency he would often claim, but van Messiens kept life normal.

Then, as the weeks passed, the air grew cooler as the seasons began to change, leaves changed from green to brown and began falling from the trees. Then came the day van Messeins returned home to find the servant standing waiting in the hall for his return.

‘She’s packed her things and left with that artist this morning,’ the servant sniffed. Van Messiens just shrugged, poured a glass of wine and waited for supper. This would be the start of his downfall, although he did not yet realise it.

The following February 1637 just one year after van Messiens dream appeared to have become a reality, the mania for tulip bulbs came to a dramatic end. Overnight the stock market crashed, leaving a number of newly wealthy people destitute. Shattered and numb with shock, van Messiens returned to his beautiful house, which would soon be lost to him in a daze.

As when his wife left, the servant was standing in the hall waiting for his return. When he walked in, he looked straight at her and said, ‘I’m sorry.’

‘I know the whole of Amsterdam knows,’ the servant replied solemnly. ‘It was the least I could do to wait for your return.’

With tears in his eyes van Messiens gazed about him at the large spacious rooms and antiques, then he looked at the servant. ‘I’m sorry I can’t pay you, I’ve nothing left to give.’

‘I know, Master. It will be fine,’ she gently answered.

‘Before you go, you know the silver chocolate pot?’

‘Of course,’ replied the servant.

‘Then find something to wrap it in. Don’t let anyone see you with it. Take it. You should get something for it to feed your family,’ instructed van Meissens. ‘Then go before the bailiff’s arrive.’

Alone now, van Meissens took a bottle of wine from a cupboard. He sat at the table and drank until the bottle was empty. He then left the house, leaving the door open for the bailiffs, and walked dazedly down first one strasse then another, gradually filling his pockets with stones. When he reached the canal he stood for a few moments looking at the gently rippling water reflecting the blackness of the night sky; then, sitting on the canal wall, his feet dangling in the water, he gradually eased himself down further and further into the dark water, feeling the weight of the stones pulling him beneath the water’s surface, until only one or two air bubbles could be seen. Then nothing but calmness.

Two days later a farm labourer walking along the canal noticed a body floating face down in the water and raised the alarm. Several people came hurrying to the scene and with some effort pulled the bloated body of van Meissens free of his watery demise.

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