Chapter OneThe Little Orchid
He taught her to think of herself as special. She was his little princess and he loved to show her off. He bought her wonderful dresses in vivid, flamboyant colors-once a dress of scarlet velvet that she wore to school. She twirled to show her father how the skirt flared out, and he beamed and told her she was beautiful. She did the same for her friends at Miss Buys's exclusive school, and they looked at her with wide eyes. They pretended to be shocked, to think it was a scandalous dress for a girl her age, but she knew they were only jealous. They were better suited to the subdued colors they habitually wore. They could have afforded a dress like hers easily, but they never could have worn such a garment with her flair. Their pallid skin and colorless hair and lack of personality condemned them. Only someone like her, with thick, darkly waving hair, compelling eyes, and cafe au lait skin-only someone whose very essence cried "Look at me!"-could get away with it.
One of her school friends in a moment of genius called her an orchid in a field of dandelions, and she was, even then. And she knew it. She knew it because she was different from everyone else. She knew it most of all because of the way her father treated her, as if she were infinitely precious. His love gave her a wonderful feeling.
She was born on August 7, 1876. Her younger brother, Johannes, was born two years after her, on November 26, 1878. Then in 1881, on September 9, came twin boys, Arie and Cornelius. The birth of her brothers never displaced Margaretha from her place in their father's affection; she was always the favored child in his eyes. She probably believed he loved her more than he loved her mother.
On her sixth birthday, her father surprised her with a goat cart, a bokkenwagon. It was the most marvelous gift she had ever received. The vehicle was an exquisite miniature phaeton as fine as the ones the rich drove with their superb horses. Hers was pulled by a matched pair of stout goats with fine horns. All her friends clamored to go for a drive in it, and she loved indulging them. The neighbors clucked their tongues at the extravagance of such a gift, and for a little girl too! It would only make her vain and give her ideas about her own importance. They should have known that she already had those ideas, that she had learned them at her father's knee.
The extraordinary goat-drawn phaeton was remembered by Margaretha's former classmates and many others in the town decades later. "It was an amazing bit of foolhardiness, which put Margaretha absolutely in a class by herself!" So said one of her former friends in 1963, when she was well over eighty years old and Margaretha was long dead. Others spoke of the gift of the bokkenwagon as the most unforgettable event of their childhood years.
But that was typical of Adam Zelle: he loved to be noticed. His daughter was in some ways his most becoming accessory. He was vain about his full beard and his good looks. He always dressed well, in a top hat and flowered waistcoat that flattered him, to advertise the quality of the goods produced by his hat factory and for sale in his haberdashery. Some people called him "the Baron," as a jibe at his pretension and posing, but he rather liked the nickname, assuming it was a recognition of his natural superiority.
In 1873 he had his greatest social triumphs, the first of which was marrying Antje van der Meulen from nearby Franeker. Although Antje was thirty-one years old, only two years his junior, and not a young woman in her first flush of marital eligibility, she was from a family with higher social standing than his. He felt the marriage was a major step up for a rising young merchant in a provincial capital in northern Holland. Later that year, Zelle was selected to be in the mounted Guard of Honor when King Willem III visited their town, Leeuwarden, in the province of Friesland. Zelle prided himself on his horsemanship and was honored to be selected to represent his town. He had his own portrait painted, showing him on horse-back and in full uniform. Many years later Zelle presented it to the new Fries Museum as an important work it ought to display. It is a mediocre piece of art but an excellent example of Zelle's personality.
Ten years after these triumphs, in 1883, Zelle's haberdashery business was doing so well that he moved his growing family into a beautiful old brick house at 28 Groote Kerkstraat. It was a fine residence and doubtless he felt himself established as one of the most important burghers of Leeuwarden. He hired more servants and sent his pretty daughter to learn elegant manners, music (both singing and piano), exquisite handwriting, and French at Miss Buys's school; his sons were growing into strong and good-looking boys, and he planned a good education for them, too. Although Amsterdamers might claim that Leeuwarden was rural and unsophisticated, Zelle felt the town in which he had been born and raised was an excellent place. It boasted nearly 27,000 inhabitants.
After another six years of acting the baron, Zelle found that Leeuwarden no longer seemed so splendid. His investments and business ventures went so far wrong that on February 18, 1889, he was forced to declare bankruptcy. The failure must have been a bitter comedown to a proud man. The news was probably a great shock to his family, for men of his background did not discuss financial matters with their wives and children. Leeuwarden was no longer a place where Zelle could live and hold up his head.