As for the Dutch language, it is a mystery to those who do not know German, and even when one knows German and can read Dutch books with a little study, one cannot understand Dutch when it is spoken. If I were asked to say what impression it makes on those who do not understand it, I should say that it seems like German spoken by people with a hair in their throats. This effect is produced by the frequent repetition of a guttural aspirate which is like the sound of the Spanish jota. Even the Dutch themselves do not consider their language euphonious. I was often asked, playfully, "What impression does it make on you?" as if they understood that the impression could not be altogether agreeable. Yet some one has written a book proving that Adam and Eve spoke Dutch in the Garden of Eden. But, although the Dutch speak so many foreign languages, they hold to their own, and grow indignant when any ignorant stranger shows that he believes Dutch to be a German dialect, this being, in truth, a theory held by many who only know the language by name. It is almost superfluous to repeat the history of the language.
The first inhabitants of the country spoke Teutonic in its different dialects. These dialects were blended and formed the ancient speech of the Netherlands, which in the Middle Ages, like the other European languages, passed through the different Germanic, Norman, and French phases, and ended in the present Dutch language, in which there is still a foundation of the primitive idiom and the evidence of a slight Latin influence. Certainly, there is a striking similarity between Dutch and German, and, above all, there are a number of root-words common to the two; but there is, however, a great difference in the grammar, that of the Dutch being much simpler in construction, and the pronunciation also is very different. This very likeness is the reason that the Dutch generally do not speak German so well as they speak English or French; perhaps the difficulty may be caused by the ambiguity of words, or because it costs them so little effort to understand the language and to speak it for their own use that they stop there, as we often do with French, which we speak at ten years of age and have forgotten at forty.
Now it is time to go and visit the art gallery, which is the greatest ornament of the Hague.
On entering we find ourselves at once before the most celebrated of all painted animals, Paul Potter's "Bull"—that immortal bull which, as has been said, was honored at the Louvre, when the mania arose of classifying these pictures in a sort of hierarchy of celebrity, by being placed near the "Transfiguration" of Raphael, the "St Peter the Martyr" of Titian, and the "Communion of St. Jerome" by Domenichino; that bull for which England would pay a million francs, and Holland would not sell for double that sum; the bull on which more pages have been written than the strokes of the artist on the canvas, and about which critics still write and dispute as if it were a real living creation of a new animal instead of a picture.
The subject of the picture is very simple—a life-size bull, standing with his head turned toward the spectator, a cow lying on the ground, some sheep, a shepherd, and a distant landscape.
The supreme merit of this bull may be expressed in one word: it is alive. The serious wondering eye, which gives the impression of vigorous vitality and savage pride, is painted with such truth that at the first sight one feels inclined to dodge to the right or left, as one does in a country road when one meets such animals. His moist black nostrils seem to be smoking, and to be drawing in the air with a prolonged breath. His hide is painted with all its folds and wrinkles; one can see where the animal has rubbed himself against the trees and the ground; the hairs look as though they are stuck on the canvas. The other animals are equally fine: the head of the cow, the fleece of the sheep, the flies, the grass, the leaves and fibres of the plants, the moss,—everything is rendered with extraordinary fidelity. Although the infinite care the artist must have taken is apparent, the fatigue and patience of the copy do not appear; it seems almost an inspired, impetuous work, in which the painter, impelled by a thirst for truth, has not felt a moment of hesitation or weariness. Infinite criticisms were made on this "incredible stroke of audacity by a young man of twenty-four." The large size of the canvas was censured, the commonplace nature of the subject, the poverty of the light effects, for the light is equally diffused and everything is placed in relief without the contrast of shadow,—the stiffness of the legs of the bull, the crude coloring of the plants and animals in the background; the mediocrity of the shepherd's figure. But, for all this, Paul Potter's bull was crowned with glory as one of the noblest examples of art, and Europe considers it as the greatest work of the prince of animal-painters. An illustrious critic very rightly said that "Paul Potter with his bull has written the true idyl of Holland."
Herein is the great merit of the Dutch animal-painters, and of Potter above all, that they have not only depicted animals, but have revealed, and told in the poetry of color, the delicate, attentive, almost maternal love with which this Dutch agricultural people cherish their cattle. Potter's animals interpret the poetry of rural life. By them he has expressed the silence and the peace of the meadows, the pleasure of solitude, the sweetness of repose, and the satisfaction of patient toil. One might almost say that he had succeeded in making himself understood by them, and that they must have put themselves in positions to be copied. He has given them the variety and attractiveness of human beings. The sadness, the quiet content which follows the satisfaction of physical needs, the sensations of health and strength, of love and gratitude toward mankind, all the glimmerings of intelligence and the stirrings of affection, all the variety of nature—all these he has understood and expressed with loving fidelity, and he has further succeeded in communicating to us the feelings by which he was animated. As we look at his pictures a strange primitive instinct of a rural life is gradually roused in us—an innocent desire to milk, to shear, to drive these gentle patient animals that delight the eye and heart. In this art Paul Potter is unsurpassed. Berghem is more refined, but Potter is more natural; Van de Velde is more graceful, but Potter is more vigorous; Du Jardin is more amiable, but Potter is more profound.
And to think that the architect who afterward became his father-in-law would not at first give him his daughter, because he was only a painter of animals! and if we may believe tradition his celebrated bull served as a sign to a butcher's shop and sold for twelve hundred and sixty francs.
Another masterpiece in the Hague Gallery is a small painting by Gerard Dou, the painter of the celebrated "Dropsical Woman," which hangs in the Louvre between pictures by Raphael and Murillo. He is one of the greatest painters of the home-life of the Dutch, and the most patient of the patient artists of his country. The picture simply represents a woman seated near a window, with a cradle by her side; but in this humble scene there is such a sweet and holy air of domestic peace, a repose so profound, a love so harmonious, that the most obstinate bachelor on earth could not look on it without feeling an irresistible desire to be the one for whom the wife is waiting in that quiet, clean room, or at least to enter it secretly for a moment, even though he remain hidden in the shadow, if so he might breathe the perfume of the innocent happiness of this sanctuary. This picture, like all the works of Dou, is painted with that wonderful finish which he carries almost to excess, which was certainly carried to excess by Slingelandt, who worked three years continuously in painting the Meerman family. This style afterward degenerated into that smooth, affected, painful mannerism where the figures are like ivory, the skies enamel, and the fields velvet, of which Van der Werff is the best known representative. Among other things to be seen in this picture by Dou is a broom-handle, the size of a pen-holder, on which they say the artist worked assiduously for three days. This does not seem strange when we reflect that every minute filament, the grain, the knots, spots, dents, and finger-marks are all reproduced. Anecdotes of his superhuman patience are recounted which are scarcely credible. It is said he was five days in copying the hand of a Madam Spirings whose portrait he painted. Who knows how long he was painting her head? The unhappy creatures who wished to be painted by him were driven to madness. It is believed that he ground his colors himself, and made his own brushes, and that he kept everything hermetically closed, so that no particle of dust could reach his work. When he entered his studio he opened the door slowly, sat down with great deliberation, and then remained motionless until the least sign of agitation produced by the exercise had ceased. Then he began to paint, using concave glasses to reduce the objects in size. This continual effort ended by injuring his sight, so that he was obliged to work with spectacles. Nevertheless, his coloring never became weakened or less vigorous, and his pictures are equally strong whether one looks at them near by or far off. They have been very justly compared to natural scenes reduced in photographs. Dou was one of the many disciples of Rembrandt who divided the inheritance of his genius. From his master he learned finish and the art of imitating light, especially the effects of candle-light and of lamps. Indeed, as we shall see in the Amsterdam Gallery, he equalled Rembrandt in these respects. He possessed the rare merit among the painters of his school in that he took no pleasure in painting ugliness and trivial subjects.
In the gallery at the Hague home-life is represented by Dou, by Adriaen van Ostade, by Steen, and by Van Mieris the elder.
Van Ostade—called the Rembrandt of home-life, because he imitated the great master in his powerful effects of chiaroscuro, of delicate shading, of transparency in shadows, of rich coloring—is represented by two small pictures which depict the inside and outside of a rustic house. Both are full of poetry, notwithstanding the triviality of the subjects which he has chosen in common with other painters of his school. But he has this peculiarity, that the remarkably ugly girls in his pictures are taken from his own family, which, according to tradition, was a group of little monstrosities, whom he held up to the ridicule of the world. Thus nearly all the Dutch painters chose to paint the least handsome of the women whom they saw, as if they had agreed to throw discredit on the feminine type of their country. Rembrandt's "Susanna," to cite a subject which of all others required beauty, is an ugly Dutch servant, and the women painted by Steen, Brouwer, and others are not worth mentioning. And yet, as we have seen, models of noble and gracious beauty were not wanting among them.
There are three fine paintings by Frans van Mieris the elder, the first disciple of Dou, and as finished and minute a painter as his master. He together with Metsu and Terburg, two artists eminent for finish and coloring, belonged to that group of painters of home-life who chose their subjects from the higher classes of society. One of these canvases portrays the artist with his wife.
Among other paintings, Steen is represented by his favorite subject, a doctor feeling the pulse of a lovesick girl in the presence of her duenna. It is an admirable study of expression, of piquant, roguish smiles. The doctor's face seems to say, "I think I understand;" the invalid's, "Something more than your prescriptions are needed;" the duenna's, "I know what she wants." Other pictures of home-life by Schaleken, Tilborch, Netscher, William van Mieris represent kitchens, shops, dinners, and the families of the artists.
Landscape and marine painting are represented by beautiful gems from the hands of Ruysdael, Berghem, Van de Velde, Van der Neer, Bakhuisen, and Everdingen. There are also a large number of works by Philips Wouverman, the painter of horses and battle-pieces.
There are two pictures by Van Huysum, the great flower-painter, who was born at a time when Holland was possessed with a mad love of flowers and cultivated the most beautiful flowers in Europe. He celebrated this passion with his brush and created it afresh in his pictures. No one else has so marvellously rendered the infinite shades, the freshness, the transparency, the softness, the grace, the modesty, the languor, the thousand hidden beauties, all the appearances of the noble and delicate life of the pearl of vegetation, of the darling of nature, the flower. The Hollanders brought to him all the miracles of their gardens that he might copy them; kings asked him for flowers; his pictures were sold for sums that in those days were fabulous. Jealous of his wife and his art, he worked alone, unseen by his fellow-artists, lest they should discover the secret of his coloring. Thus he lived and died, glorious and melancholy, in the midst of petals and fragrance.
But the greatest work in the gallery is the celebrated "Lesson in Anatomy" by Rembrandt.
This picture was inspired by a feeling of gratitude to Doctor Tulp, Professor of Anatomy at Amsterdam, who protected Rembrandt in his youth. Rembrandt portrays Tulp and his pupils grouped round a table on which is stretched a naked corpse, whose arm has been dissected by the anatomist's knife. The professor, who wears his hat, stands pointing out the muscles of the arm with his scissors, and explaining them to his pupils. Some of the scholars are seated, others stand, others lean over the body. The light coming from left to right illuminates their faces and a part of the dead man, leaving their garments, the table, and the walls of the room in obscurity. The figures are life-size.
It is difficult to describe the effect produced by this picture. The first sensation is a feeling of horror and disgust of the corpse. Its forehead is in shadow, its open eyes are turned upward, its mouth half shut as if in amazement; the chest is swollen, its legs and feet are rigid, the flesh is livid and looks as if it would be cold to the touch. In great contrast to this stiffened corpse are the living attitudes of the students, the youthful faces, the bright eyes, intent and full of thought, revealing, in different degrees, eagerness to learn, the joy of comprehension, curiosity, astonishment, the effort of the intellect, the activity of the mind. The face of the master is calm, his eye is serene, and his lips seem smiling with the satisfaction of intimate knowledge of his subject. The whole group is surrounded by an air of gravity, mystery, and scientific solemnity which imposes reverence and silence. The contrast between the light and shade is as marvellous as that between death and life. Everything is painted with infinite pains; it is possible to count the little folds of the ruff, the wrinkles in the face, the hairs of the beard. It is said that the foreshortening of the corpse is incorrect, and that in some places the finish degenerates into hardness, but universal approval places the "Lesson in Anatomy" among the greatest works of art in the world.
Rembrandt was only twenty-six years old when he painted this picture, which consequently has the mark of his early work. The impetuosity, audacity, and unequalled assurance of his genius, which shine forth in his maturer works, are not yet seen, but his immense power of painting light, his marvellous chiaroscuro, his fascinating magic of contrast, the most original features of his genius, are all to be found here.
However little we may know about art, and however much we may have resolved not to sin by excess of enthusiasm, when we come face to face with Rembrandt van Rijn, we cannot help opening the flood-gates of language, as the Spanish say. Rembrandt exerts an especial fascination. Fra Angelico is a saint, Michelangelo is a giant, Raphael is an angel, Titian a prince, Rembrandt is a spectre. What else can this miller's son be called? Born in a windmill, he arose unexpectedly without a master, without example, without any instruction from the schools, to become a universal painter, who depicted life in every aspect, who painted figures, landscapes, sea-pieces, animals, saints, patriarchs, heroes, monks, riches and poverty, deformity, decrepitude, the ghetto, taverns, hospitals, and death; who in short, reviewed heaven and earth, and enveloped everything in a light so mysterious that it seems to have issued from his brain. His work is at the same time grand and minute. He is at once an idealist and a realist, a painter and an engraver, who transforms everything and conceals nothing—who changes men into phantoms, the most ordinary scenes of life into mysterious apparitions; I had almost said who changes this world into another that does not seem to be and yet is the same. Whence has he drawn that undefinable light, those flashes of electric rays, those reflections of unknown stars that like an enigma fill us with wonder? What did this dreamer, this visionary, see in the dark? What is the secret that tormented his soul? What did this painter of the air mean to tell us in this eternal conflict of light and shadow? It is said that the contrasts of light and shade corresponded in him to moods of thought. And truly it seems that as Schiller, before beginning a work, felt within himself an indistinct harmony of sounds which were a prelude to his inspiration, so also Rembrandt, when about to paint a picture, beheld a vision of rays and shadows which had some meaning to him before he animated them with his figures. In his paintings there is a life, a dramatic action, quite distinct from that of human figures. Flashes of brilliant light break across a sombre surface like cries of joy; the frightened darkness flies away, leaving here and there a melancholy twilight, trembling reflections that seem to be lamenting, profound obscurity gloomy and threatening, flashes of dancing sunlight, ambiguous shadows, shadows uncertain and transparent, questionings and sighs, words of a supernatural language like music heard but not understood, which remains in the memory like a dream. Into this atmosphere he plunged his figures, some of them enveloped by the garish light of a theatrical apotheosis, others veiled like ghosts, others revealed by a single ray of light darting across their faces. Whether they be clothed with pomp or in rags, they all are alike strange and fantastic. The outlines are not clear; the figures are loaded with powerful colors, and are painted with such bold strokes of the brush that they stand out in sculpturesque relief, while over all is an expression of impetuosity and of inspiration, that proud, capricious, profound imprint of genius that knows neither restraint nor fear.
After all, every one likes to give his opinion: but who knows, if Rembrandt could read all the pages that have been written to explain the secret meanings of his art, whether he would not burst out laughing? Such is the fate of men of genius: every one holds that he has understood them better than his neighbor, and restores them in his own way. They are like a beautiful theme given by God which men distort into a thousand different meanings—a canvas upon which the imagination of man paints and embroiders after its own manner.
I left the Hague Gallery with one desire ungratified: I had not found in it any picture by Jerom Bosch, a painter born at Bois-le-Duc in the fifteenth century. This madcap of mischief, this scarecrow of bigots, this artistic sorcerer, had made my flesh creep first in the gallery at Madrid with a work representing a horrible army of living skeletons scattered about an immense space, in conflict with a motley crowd of desperate and confused men and women, whom they were dragging into an abyss where Death awaited them. Only from the diseased imagination of a man alarmed by the terrors of damnation could such an extravagant conception have issued. When you look at it, however long it may be since you were afraid of phantoms, you feel a confused reawakening dread. Such were the subjects of all his pictures—the tortures of the accursed, spectres, fiery chasms, dragons, uncanny birds, loathsome monsters, diabolical kitchens, sinister landscapes. One of these frightful pictures was found in the cell where Philip II. died; others are scattered throughout Spain and Italy. Who was this chimerical painter? How did he live? What strange mania tormented him? No one knows; he passed over the earth wrapped in a cloud, and disappeared like an infernal vision.
On the first floor of the museum there is a "Royal Cabinet of Curiosities," which contains some very precious historical relics, besides a great number of different objects from China, Japan, and the Dutch colonies. Amongst other things there is the sword of that Ruyter who began life as a rope-maker at Vlissingen, and became the greatest admiral of Holland; Admiral Tromp's cuirass perforated by bullets; a chair from the prison of the venerated Barneveldt; a box containing a lock of hair from the head of that Van Speyk who in 1831, on the Schelde, blew up his vessel to preserve the honor of the Dutch flag. Here, too, is the complete suit of clothes worn by William the Silent when he was assassinated at Delft—the blood-stained shirt, the jacket made of buffalo skin pierced by bullets, the wide trousers, the large felt hat; and in the same glass case are also preserved the bullets and pistols of the assassin and the original copy of his death-warrant.
This modest, almost rough dress, that was worn at the zenith of his power and glory by William, the head of the Republic of the Netherlands, is a noble testimony to the patriarchal simplicity of Dutch manners. There is perhaps no other modern nation, equally prosperous, that has been less given to vanity and pomp. It is related that when the Earl of Leicester, who was commissioned by Queen Elizabeth, arrived in Holland, and when Spinola came to sue for peace in the name of the King of Spain, their magnificence was considered almost infamous. It is further said that the Spanish ambassadors who came to the Hague in 1608 to negotiate the famous truce saw some deputies of the Dutch States seated in a field, meanly clad and breakfasting on a little bread and cheese which they had carried in their saddle-bags. The Grand Pensionary, John De Witt, the adversary of Louis XIV., kept only one servant. Admiral Ruyter lived at Amsterdam in the house of a poor man and swept out his own bedroom.
Another very curious object in the museum is a cabinet which opens in front like a book-case, representing in all its most minute details the inside of a luxurious Amsterdam house at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The Czar, Peter the Great, during his stay in Amsterdam, commissioned a rich citizen of that town to make for him this toy house, in order that he might take it back to Russia as a souvenir of Holland. The rich citizen, whose name was Brandt, executed the order like an honest Dutchman, slowly and well. The best cabinet-makers in Holland made the furniture, the cleverest silversmiths the plate, the most accurate printers printed the tiny books, the finest miniature-painters painted the pictures; the linen was prepared in Flanders, the hangings were made at Utrecht. After twenty-five years of work all the rooms were ready. In the nuptial chamber everything was prepared for the confinement of the young mistress; in the dining-room stood a microscopic tea service on a table which was the size of a crown; the picture-gallery, which was seen through a magnifying glass, was complete; in the kitchen was everything needful to prepare a savory dinner for a group of Liliputians; there was a library, and a cabinet of Chinese objects, bird-cages full of birds, prayer-books, carpets, linen for a whole family trimmed with lace and fine embroidery: there were lacking only a married couple, a lady's maid, and a cook rather smaller than ordinary marionettes. But there was one drawback: the house cost a hundred and twenty thousand francs, and the Czar, who as all know, was an economical man, refused it, and Brandt, to shame the imperial avarice, presented it to the Museum of the Hague.
In the streets of the Hague, from the first day, I had met women dressed in such a peculiar manner that I had followed them to observe every particular of their costume. At first sight I thought that they must belong to some religious order or that they were hermits, pilgrims, or women of some nomadic tribes which were passing through Holland. They wore immense straw hats lined with flowered calico, short chocolate-colored monk's cloaks made of serge and lined with red cloth; their petticoats were also of serge, short and puffed out as though they wore crinolines; they wore black stockings and white wooden shoes. In the morning they might be seen going to market bearing on their heads baskets full of fish or driving carts drawn by dogs. They usually went alone or in pairs, without any men. They walked in a peculiar manner, taking long strides, with a certain air of despondency, like those who are accustomed to walking on the sand; there was a sadness in their expression and appearance which harmonized with the monastic austerity of their attire.
I asked a Dutchman who they were, and the only answer he gave me was, "Go to Scheveningen."
Scheveningen is a village two miles from the Hague, and connected with it by a straight road bordered along its whole length by several rows of beautiful elms, which form a perfect shade. On either side of the road, beyond the elms, there are small villas, pavilions, and cottages with roofs that look like the kiosks of the gardens, and with facades of a thousand fantastic shapes, all bearing the usual inscriptions inviting to repose and pleasure. This road is the favorite promenade of the citizens of the Hague on Sunday evenings, but on the other days of the week it is almost always deserted. One meets only a few women from Scheveningen, and now and then a carriage or the coaches that come and go between the town and the village. As one walks along it seems as though the road must lead to some royal palace surrounded by a large garden or a wide park. The luxuriant vegetation, the shadow and silence, call to mind the forests of Andalusia and Granada. One no longer remembers Scheveningen and forgets that he is in Holland.
When the end of the road is reached the change of scene is so sudden that it seems unreal. The vegetation, the shade, the likeness to Granada,—all have disappeared, and one stands in the midst of dunes, sand, and desert; one feels the salt wind blow and hears its dull confused sound. From the summit of one of the dunes one may see the North Sea.
One who has seen only the Mediterranean is impressed by a new and profound feeling at sight of that sea and shore. The beach is formed of very fine, light-colored sand, over which the outermost edges of the waves flow up and down like a carpet which is being continually folded and unfolded. This sandy sea-shore extends to the foot of the first dunes, which are steep, broken, corroded mounds deformed by the eternal beating of the waves. Such is the Dutch coast from the mouth of the Meuse to the Helder. There are no mollusks, no star-fish, no shells or crabs; there is not a single bush or blade of grass. Nothing is seen but sand, waste, and solitude.
The sea is no less mournful than the coast. It corresponds closely to one's ideas of the North Sea, formed by reading about the superstitious terrors of the ancients, who believed it to be driven by eternal winds and peopled by gigantic monsters. Near the shore its color is yellowish, farther out a pale green, and still farther out a dreary blue. The horizon is usually veiled by the mist, which often descends even to the shore and hides all the waters with its thick curtain, which is raised to show only the waves that come to die on the sand and some shadowy fisherman's boat close to land. The sky is almost always gray, overcast with great clouds which throw dense changeable shadows on the waters: in places these are as black as night, and bring to mind images of tempests and horrible shipwrecks; in other parts the sky is lighted up by patches and wavy streaks of bright light, which seem like motionless lightning or an illumination from mysterious stars. The ceaseless waves gnaw the shore in wild fury, with a prolonged roar which seems like a cry of defiance or the wailing of an infinite crowd. Sea, sky, and earth regard each other gloomily, as though they were three implacable enemies. As one contemplates this scene some great convulsion of nature seems imminent.
The village of Scheveningen is situated on the dunes, which ward off the sea, and hide it so entirely that from the shore nothing is to be seen but the cone-shaped church-steeple rising like an obelisk in the midst of the sand. The village is divided into two parts, one of which is composed of elegant houses representing every kind of Dutch shapes and colors, and built for the use of strangers, with "to let" posted on them in various languages. The other part, in which the natives live, consists of black cottages, little streets, and retreats which foreigners never think of entering.
The population of Scheveningen, which numbers only a few thousands, is almost entirely composed of fishermen, the greater number of whom are very poor. The village is still one of the principal stations of the herring fishery, where are cured those celebrated fish to which Holland owes her riches and power. But the profits of this industry go to the captains of the fishing vessels, and the men of Scheveningen, who are employed as sailors, hardly earn a livelihood. On the beach, in front of the village, many of those wide staunch boats with a single mast and a large square sail may always be seen ranged in line on the sand one beside the other, like the Greek galleys on the coast of Troy: thus they are safe from the gusts of wind. The flotilla, accompanied by a steam sloop, starts early in June, directing its course toward the Scottish coast. The first herrings taken are at once sent to Holland, and conveyed in a cart ornamented with flags to the king, who in exchange for this present gives five hundred florins. These boats make catches of other fish as well, which are in part sold at auction on the sea-shore, and in part are given to the Scheveningen fishermen, who send their wives to sell them at the Hague market.
Scheveningen, like all the other villages of the coast, Katwijk, Vlaardingen, Maassluis, is a village that has lost its former prosperity in consequence of the decline of the herring fishery, owing, as every one knows, to the competition of England and the disastrous wars. But poverty, instead of weakening the character of this small population, beyond doubt the most original and poetical in Holland, has strengthened it. The inhabitants of Scheveningen in appearance, character, and habits seem like a foreign tribe in comparison with the people of their own country. They dwell but two miles from a large city, and yet preserve the manners of a primitive people that has always lived in isolation. As they were centuries ago, so are they now. No one leaves their village, and no one who is not a native ever enters it: they intermarry, they speak a language of their own, they all dress in the same style and in the same colors, as did their fathers' fathers. At the time of the fishing only the women and children remain in the village; the men all go to sea. They carry their Bibles with them on their departure. On board they neither drink nor swear nor laugh. When the stormy seas toss their little boats on the crests of the waves, they close all the apertures and await death with resignation. At the same moment their wives are singing psalms, shut in their cottages rocked by the wind and beaten by the rain. Those little dwellings, which have witnessed so many mortal griefs, which have heard the sobs of so many widows, which have seen the sacred joys of happy return and the disconsolate departure of many husbands, with their cleanliness, their white curtains, with the clothes and shirts of the sailors hanging at the windows,—tell of the free and dignified poverty of their inmates. No vagabonds nor fallen women come out of these homes; no inhabitant of Scheveningen has ever deserted the sea, and none of her daughters has ever refused the hand of a sailor. Both men and women show by their carriage and the expression of their faces a serious dignity that commands respect. They greet you without bending their heads, and look you in the face as much as to say, "We have no need of any one."
In this little village there are two schools, and it is a curious sight to see a swarm of fair-haired children with slates under their arms and pencils in their hands disperse at certain hours among these poverty-stricken streets.
Scheveningen is not only a village famous for the originality of its inhabitants which all foreigners visit and all artists paint. There are, besides, two great bathing establishments, where English, Russians, Germans, and Danes meet in the summer. The flower of the Northern aristocracy, princes and ministers, indeed half the Almanach de Gotha, come here; then there are balls, fantastic illuminations, and fireworks on the sea. The two establishments are placed on the dunes, and at all hours of the day certain carriages which look like gypsy caravans, drawn by strong horses, are driven from the shore into the sea, where they turn round. Whereupon ladies step out from them and bathe in the water, letting their fair hair blow about in the wind. At night the band plays, the visitors walk out, and the beach is enlivened by an elegant, festive, ever-changing crowd, in which every language is heard and the beauty of every country is represented. A few steps distant from this gayety the misanthrope can find solitude and seclusion on the dunes, where the music faintly strikes his ear like a far-off echo, and the houses of the fishermen show him their lights, directing his thoughts to domestic life and peace.
The first time I went to Scheveningen I took a walk on those dunes which have been so often painted by artists, the only heights on the immense Dutch plain that intercept the view—rebellious children of the sea, whose progress they oppose, being at the same time the prisoners and the guardsmen of Holland. There are three tiers of these dunes, forming a triple bulwark against the ocean: the outer is the most barren, the centre the highest, and the inner the most cultivated. The medium height of these mountains of sand is not greater than fifteen metres, and all together they do not extend into the land for more than a French league. But as there are no higher elevations near or remote, they produce the false impression of a vast mountainous region. The eye sees valleys, gorges, precipices, views that appear distant and are close at hand—the tops of neighboring dunes on which we imagine a man ought to appear as large as a child, and on which instead he seems a giant. Viewed from a height, this region looks like a yellow sea, tempestuous yet motionless. The dreariness of this desert is increased by a wild vegetation, which seems like the mourning of the dead and abandoned nature—thin, fragile grass, flowers with almost transparent petals, juniper, sweet-broom, rosemary, through which every now and then skips a rabbit. Neither house, tree, nor human being is to be seen for miles. Now and then ravens, curlews, and sea-gulls fly past. Their cries and the rustling of the shrubs in the wind are the only sounds that break the silence of the solitude. When the sky is black the dead color of the earth assumes a sinister hue, like the fantastic light in which objects appear when seen through colored glass. It is then, when standing alone in the midst of the dunes, that one feels a sense almost of fear, as if one were in an unknown country hopelessly separated from any inhabited land, and one looks anxiously at the misty horizon for the shadow of a building to reassure him.
In the whole of my walk I met but one or two peasants. The Dutch peasants usually speak to the people they meet on the road—a rare thing in a Northern country. Some pull off their caps at the side with a curious gesture, as if they did it for a joke. Usually they say "Good-morning" or "Good-evening" without looking at the person they are greeting. If they meet two people, they say, "Good-evening to you both," or if more than two, "Good-evening to you all." On a pathway in the middle of the first dunes I saw several of those poor fishermen who spend the whole day up to their waists in water, picking up the shells that are used to make a peculiar cement or to spread over garden-paths instead of sand. It must cost them at least half an hour of hard labor to take off the enormous leather boots that they wear to go into the sea; this would give an excuse to an Italian sailor for swearing by all the saints. But these men, on the contrary, perform the task with a composure that makes one sleepy, without giving way to any movement of impatience, nor would they raise their heads until they had finished even if a cannon were to be fired off.
On the dunes, near a stone obelisk recording the return of William of Orange from England after the fall of the French dominion, I saw for the first time one of those sunsets which awaken in us Italians a feeling of wonder no less than that awakened in people from the North by the sunsets at Naples and Rome. The sun, because of the refraction of light by the mists which always fill the air in Holland, is greatly magnified, and diffuses through the clouds and on the sea a veiled and tremulous splendor like the reflection of a great fire. It seemed as if another sun had unexpectedly appeared on the horizon, and was setting, never again to show itself on earth. A child might well have believed the words of a poet who said, "In Holland the sun dies," and the most cold-blooded man must have allowed a farewell to escape his lips.
As I have spoken of my walk to Scheveningen, I will mention two other pleasant excursions that I made from the Hague last winter.
The first was to the village of Naaldwijk, and from this village to the sea-coast, where they were opening the new Rotterdam canal. At Naaldwijk, thanks to the politeness of an inspector of schools who was with me, I gratified my desire to see an elementary school, and I will state at once that my great expectations were more than realized. The house, built expressly for the school, was a separate building one story in height. We first went into a little vestibule, where there were a number of wooden shoes, which the inspector told me belonged to the pupils, who place them there on their entrance into school and put them on again when they go out. In school the boys wear only stockings which are very thick, consequently their feet do not suffer from cold, especially as the rooms are as hot as if they were a minister's cabinet. On our entrance the pupils stood up and the master advanced toward the inspector. Even that poor village master spoke French, and so we were able to enter into conversation. There were in the school about forty pupils, both boys and girls, who sat on opposite sides of the room; all were fair and fat, with plump, good-natured faces; they had the precocious air of little men and women, which I could not observe without laughing. The building was divided into five rooms, each separated from the other by a large glass partition, which enclosed all the space like a wall, so that if a master were absent from one class the teacher of the next class could overlook the pupils of his colleague without leaving his post. All the rooms are large and have high windows which reach from the floor to the ceiling, so that it is almost as light inside as it is outside. The benches, walls, floors, windows, and stoves were as clean as if they had been in a ball-room. Having a lively recollection of certain unpleasant places in the schools I attended as a boy, I asked to see the closets, and found them such as few of the best hotels can boast. Afterward on the school-room walls I saw a great many things that I remember to have wished for when I sat at the desks, such as small pictures of landscapes or figures, to which the master referred in his stories and instruction, so that they should be stamped the better on the memory; representations of common objects and animals; geographical maps purposely made with large names and painted in bright colors; proverbs, grammatical rules, and precepts very plainly printed. Only one thing seemed to me lacking—personal cleanliness.
I will not repeat what many have written and some Dutchmen affirm, that in Holland cleanliness of the skin is generally neglected—that the women are dirty, and that the legs of the tables are cleaner than those of the citizens. But it is certain the cleanliness of inanimate objects is infinitely greater than personal cleanliness, and the deficiency in the last respect is made more apparent by excellence in the first. In an Italian school perhaps those boys might have seemed clean, but, comparing them with the marvellous purity of their surroundings, and reflecting that they were the children of the very women who take half a day to wash the doors and shutters, they seemed to me, and in fact were, rather dirty. In some schools in Switzerland there are lavatories where the boys are obliged to wash upon entering and leaving the school. I should have been pleased to see such lavatories in the Dutch schools too; then all would have been perfect.
I said "that poor master," but I found out afterward that he had a salary of more than two thousand two hundred francs and an apartment in a nice house in the village. In Holland the masters of elementary schools—the principals, that is, for there are assistant masters—never receive less than eight hundred francs a year. This the minimum that the commune can legally give. No commune keeps to this sum, and some masters have the same salaries as our university professors. It is true that it costs more to live in Holland than in Italy, but it is also true that the salaries which seem large to us are there considered small, and yet they propose to increase them. It must also be considered that, owing to the difference of national character, the Dutch masters are not obliged to expend as much of their breath, their patience, and good-humor as are our Italian masters, which is a consideration if it be true that health counts for something.
From Naaldwijk we went toward the coast. On the road my courteous companion explained to me clearly the point which the question of instruction has reached in Holland. In Latin countries persons when questioned by a stranger answer him with a view toward airing their knowledge and showing their conversational powers. In Holland they try rather to make you understand the subject, and if you do not comprehend directly, they impress it upon you until it is fixed in your mind as clearly and as well as it is in their own.
The question of instruction, in Holland as in most countries, is a religious question, which in its turn is the most serious, indeed the only great, question that now agitates the country.
Of the three and a half millions of inhabitants in Holland, a third, as I have remarked, are Catholics, about a hundred thousand are Jews, and the rest are Protestants. The Catholics, who chiefly inhabit the southern provinces of Limbourg and Brabant, are not divided politically as they are in other countries, but form one solid clerical legion,—Papists, Ultramontanists, the most faithful legion of Rome, as the Dutch themselves say—who buy the very straw that the pontiff is supposed to sleep on, and who thunder Italy from the pulpit and the press. This Catholic party, which would have no great strength of itself, gains a certain advantage from the fact that the Protestants are divided into a great many religious sects. There are orthodox Calvinists; Protestants who believe in the revelation, but do not accept certain doctrines of the Church; others who deny the divinity of Christ, without, however, separating themselves from the Protestant Church; others, again, who believe in God, but do not believe in any Church; others—and amongst these are many of the cleverest men—who openly profess atheism. In consequence of this state of things, the Catholic party has a natural ally in the Calvinists, who as fervent believers and inflexible conservers of the religion of their fathers, are much less widely separated from the Catholics than from a large party of those of their own co-religionists. These form, in a certain sense, the clerical wing of Protestantism. Hence in the Netherlands there are Catholics and Calvinists on one side, and on the other a liberal party, while between the two there hovers a vacillating legion that does not allow either side to gain an absolute supremacy. The chief point of contention between the extreme sections is the question of primary instruction, and this reduces itself, on the part of the Catholics and Calvinists, to insistence that so-called mixed schools, in which no special religious instruction is given (so that Catholics and Protestants of all doctrines may support them), shall be superseded by others in which dogmatic instruction is to be given, and that these shall be also supported by the commune under the direction of the state. It is easy to foresee the grave consequences that such a division in the popular educational system would produce—the germs of discord and religious animosity that would be sown, the trouble that would in time arise from separating young people into groups professing different faiths. Up to the present time the principle of mixed schools has prevailed, but the victories of the Liberals have been costly. The Catholics and the Calvinists successively obtained various concessions, and are prepared to obtain yet others. The Catholic party is, in a word, more powerful than the Calvinist party: the one, united and aggressive, gains ground day by day, and it is not unlikely that it will succeed in gaining a victory which, though not lasting, will provoke a violent reaction in the country. Things have come to such a pass that in that very Holland which fought for eighty years against Catholic despotism there are now serious reasons to fear the outbreak of a religious war.
Notwithstanding this state of things, which to the present time has prevented the institution of obligatory instruction demanded by the Liberals, and keeps a great number of Catholic children away from the schools, the education of the lower classes in Holland is in a condition that any European state might envy. In proportion, Holland contains less people who do not know their alphabet than does Prussia. "Of all Europe," as a Dutch writer has said with just pride, although he judges his country severely on other points, "Holland is the land where all such knowledge as is indispensable to civilized man is most widely diffused." I was once greatly surprised, on asking a Dutchman if there were any women-servants who could not read, to hear myself answered, "Well, yes. I remember twenty years ago that my mother had a servant who did not know her alphabet, and we thought it a very strange thing." It is a great satisfaction to a stranger who does not know the language to be sure that if he shows a name on his guide-book to the first street-urchin he meets, the boy will understand it and will try to direct him by gestures.
Talking of Catholics and Calvinists, we arrived at the dunes, and, although we were near the coast, we could not see the ocean. "Holland is a strange country," I said to my friend, "in which everything plays at hide and seek. The facades hide the roofs, the trees hide the houses, the city hides the ships, the banks hide the canals, the mist hides the fields, the dunes hide the sea." "And some day," answered my friend, "the sea will hide everything and all will be ended."
We crossed the downs and advanced toward the coast, where the preparatory works for the opening of the Rotterdam Canal were in progress.
Two dykes, one more than a thousand two hundred meters in length, the other more than two thousand meters long, separated from each other by the space of a kilometer, project into the sea at right angles to the coast. These two dykes, which are built to protect vessels entering the canal, are formed by several rows of enormous palisades made of huge blocks of granite, of fagots, stones, and earth; they are as wide as ten men drawn up in a line. The ocean, which continually washes against them, and at high tide overflows them in many parts, has covered everything,—stones, beams, and fagots, with a stratum of shells as black as ebony, which from a distance seems like a velvet coverlet, giving to these two gigantic bulwarks a severe and magnificent appearance, as if they were a warlike banner unfolded by Holland to celebrate her victory over the waves. At that moment the tide was coming in, and the battle round the extreme end of the dykes was at its height. With what rage did the livid waves avenge themselves for the scorn of those two huge horns of granite that Holland has plunged into the bosom of her enemy! The palisades and the rock foundations were lashed, gnawed, and buffeted on every side; disdainful waters dashed over them and spat upon them with a drizzling rain that hid them like a cloud of dust; then again the waves would flow back like furious writhing serpents. Even the sections far from the struggle were sprinkled by unexpected showers of spray, the advance guard of that endless army, and meanwhile the water kept rising and advancing, forcing the foremost workmen to retire step by step.
On the longest dyke, not very far from shore, they were planting some piles. Workmen with great labor were raising blocks of granite by means of derricks, and others, in groups of ten or fifteen, were removing old beams to make room for new ones. It was glorious to see the fury of the waves lashing the sides of the dyke, and the impassive calm of the workmen, who seemed almost to despise the sea. It crossed my mind that they must be saying in their hearts, as the sailor said to the monster of the Comprachicos in Victor Hugo's romance: "Roar on, old fellow!" A wind which chilled us to the bone blew the long, fair curls of the good Dutchmen into their eyes, and every now and then threw the spray at their feet or on their clothes—vain provocations to which they did not deign to reply even by a frown.
I saw a pile driven into the dyke. It was the trunk of a great tree pointed at one end and supported by two parallel beams, between which a steam-engine drove an enormous iron hammer up and down. The pile had to be driven through several very thick strata of fagots and stones; yet at every blow from the heavy hammer it sunk into the ground, breaking, tearing, and splintering, while it entered the dyke more than a hand's length, as if it were merely a mud hole. Nevertheless, what with adjusting and driving the pile, the operation lasted almost an hour. I thought of the thousands that had been driven, of the thousands still to be driven, of the interminable dykes that defend Holland, of the infinite number that have been overturned and rebuilt and for the first time my mind conceived the grandeur of the undertaking, and a feeling of dismay crept over me as I stood motionless and speechless.
Meanwhile, the waters had risen almost to the level of the dyke, with a sound of panting and breathlessness like tired-out voices that seemed to murmur secrets of distant seas and unknown shores; the wind blew colder, it was growing dark, and I felt a restless desire to withdraw from those front bastions into the interior of the fortress. I pulled the coat-tail of my companion, who had been standing for an hour on a boulder, and we returned to the shore and drank a glass of delicious Schiedam at one of those shops which are called in Dutch "Come and ask," where they sell wines, salt meats, cigars, shoes, butter, clothes, biscuits—in fact, a little of everything. Then we started on the road back to the Hague.
My next excursion was the most adventurous that I made in Holland. A very dear friend of mine who lived at the Hague invited me to go and dine with him at the house of one of his relatives who had shown a courteous desire to make my acquaintance. I asked where his relative lived; and he answered, "Far from the Hague." I asked in what direction, but he would not tell me; he told me to meet him at the railway-station the next day, and left me. On the next morning we met at the station: my friend bought tickets for Leyden. When we arrived at Leyden we alighted, but, instead of entering the town, we took a road across country. I besought my companion to reveal the secret to me. He answered that he could not do so, and as I knew that when a Dutchman does not mean to tell you anything, no power on earth will make him do it, I resigned myself. It was a disagreeable day in February; there was no snow, but a strong cold wind was blowing which soon made our faces purple. As it was Sunday, the country was deserted. We went on and on, passing windmills, canals, meadows, houses half hidden by trees, with very high roofs of stubble mixed with moss. Finally we arrived at a village. The Dutch villages are closed by a palisade: we passed through the gate, but not a living soul was to be seen; the doors were shut, the window curtains were drawn, and not a voice, nor a footstep, nor a breath was heard. We crossed the village, and paused in front of a church which was all covered with ivy like a summer-house; looking through an aperture in the door, we saw a Protestant clergyman with a white cravat preaching to some peasants whose faces were striped with gold, green, and purple, the reflection of the stained-glass windows. We passed through a clean street paved with bricks, and saw stakes put for the storks' nests, posts planted by the peasants for the cows to rub against, fences painted sky blue, small houses with many-colored tiles forming letters and words, ponds full of boats, bridges, kiosks for unknown uses, little churches with great gilded cocks on the top of their steeples; and not a living soul near or far: still we went on. The sky cleared a little, then darkened again; here the sunshine gleamed on a canal, there it made a house sparkle or gilded a distant steeple. Then again it hid itself, reappeared, and so on with a thousand coquetries, while on the horizon there appeared oblique lines denoting rain. We began to meet countrywomen with circles of gold round their heads, on which veils were fastened, the whole surmounted by hats; these were trimmed with bunches of flowers and wide fluttering ribbons. We also met some country carriages of the antique Louis XV. style, with a gilded box ornamented with carved work and mirrors, peasants with thick black clothes and large wooden shoes, children with stockings of every color in the rainbow. We arrived at another village, which was clean, shining, and brightly colored, with its streets paved with bricks and its windows adorned with curtains and flowers. Here we took a carriage and went on our way. A fine icy rain which penetrated to our bones began to fall as soon as we started. Muffled up in the wet frozen covers, we reached the bank of a large canal. A man came out of a cottage, led the horse on to a barge, and landed us safe and sound on the opposite bank. The carriage turned down a wide street, and we found ourselves on the bed of the ancient Sea of Haarlem. Our horse trotted along where the fish once swam through the water; our coachman smoked where at one time the smoke of naval battles had rolled; we saw glimpses of canals, of villages, of cultivated fields, of a new world of which only thirty years ago there had not been a trace. After we had driven about a mile the rain stopped, and it began to snow as I had never seen it snow before: it was a real whirlwind of heavy, thick snow, which the strong wind blew into our faces. We unfolded the waterproof covering, opened our umbrellas, tucked ourselves in, and bundled ourselves up, but the wind broke through all our defences and the snow sifted over us, enveloping us in white and covering our heads and feet with ice. After a long turn we left the lake; the snow ceased, we arrived at another village of toy houses, where we left our carriage and proceeded on foot. We went on and on, seeing bridges, windmills, closed cottages, lonely streets, wide meadows, but no human beings. We crossed another branch of the Rhine, and arrived at another village barricaded and silent; we continued on our way, occasionally seeing some face looking at us from behind the windows. We then left the village and found ourselves opposite the dunes. The sky looked threatening, and I became alarmed.
"Where are we going?" I demanded of my friend.
"Where fortune takes us," he replied.
We proceeded through the dunes, along narrow, winding, sandy roads, seeing no sign of habitation anywhere; we went up hill and down dale; the wind drove the sand into our faces; at every step our feet sank in it, and the country grew more and more desolate, gloomy, and foreboding.
"But who is your relative?" I said to my companion. "Where does he live? what is his business? There is some witchcraft about this; he cannot be a man like other men: tell me where you are leading me."
My friend did not answer: he stopped and stared in front of him. I stared too, and far away saw something that looked like a house, alone in the midst of the desert, almost hidden by a rise in the ground. We hastened on; the house seemed to appear and disappear like a shadow. Round about we saw stakes which looked like gibbets. My friend tried to persuade me that they were only stakes for storks' nests. We were about a hundred feet away from the house. Along a wall we saw a wooden pipe which seemed bathed in blood, but my friend assured me it was only red paint. It was a little house enclosed by a paling; the doors and windows were shut.
"Don't go in," I said. "There is yet time. There is something uncanny in that house; take care what you are doing. Look up; I have never seen such a black sky."
My friend did not hear me; he pressed on courageously, and I followed. Instead of going toward the door, he took a short cut. Behind us we heard a ferocious barking of dogs. We broke into a run, crossed a thicket of underbrush, jumped over a low wall, and knocked at a little door.
"There is yet time!" I exclaimed.
"It is too late," answered my friend.
The door opened, but nobody was to be seen. We mounted a winding staircase and entered a room. Oh pleasant surprise! The hermit, the sorcerer, was a merry, courteous young man, and the diabolical house was a villa full of comfort and warmth, sparkling with light, the dwelling of a sybarite—a real fairy palace to which our host retired some months in the year to study and to make experiments on the fertilization of the dunes. How delightful it was to look at the cold desert without through a window draped with curtains and decorated with flower-pots! We went into the dining-room and sat down at a table glittering with silver and glass, in the midst of which, surrounded by gilded and blazoned bottles, was a hot dinner fit for a prince. The snow was beating against the windows, the sea was moaning, the wind blew furiously round the house, which seemed like a ship in a terrible storm. We drank to the fertilization of the dunes, to the victors of Achen, to the prosperity of the colonies, to the memory of Nino Bixio, to the elves. Nevertheless, I was still a little uneasy. Our host when he needed the servant touched a hidden spring; to tell the coachman to get the carriage ready he spoke some words into a hole in the wall; and these tricks did not please me.
"Tell me," I said, "tell me that this house really exists; promise me that it is not all a joke and that it will not disappear, leaving nothing but a hole in the ground and a smell of sulphur in the air. Assure me that you say your prayers every evening."
I cannot describe the laughter, the merriment, the absurd speeches that succeeded each other until the middle of the night, accompanied by the clinking of glasses and the roaring of the tempest. At last the moment of departure arrived: we went down and were rolled away in a roomy carriage which dashed rapidly across the desert. The ground was covered with snow, the dunes were outlined in white on the dark sky, the carriage glided noiselessly in the midst of strange indistinct forms, which succeeded each other rapidly in the light of the lantern and seemed to melt into each other. In that vast solitude a dead silence reigned which robbed us of speech. After a time we began to see dwellings and arrived at a village. We crossed two or three deserted streets, with snow-covered houses on either side, with a few lighted windows showing human shadows. At last we came to a railway-station, and reached the Hague in a few minutes, although we had been deluded to think we had taken a long journey and crossed an imaginary country. Must I tell the truth? If I were asked to swear at the moment I am writing that the house in the midst of the dunes was a reality, I should request ten minutes for reflection. It is true that the master was polite enough to come and bid me good-bye at the station the day I left the Hague, and that when I saw him clearly by daylight he did not seem to have anything strange about him; but we all know the various forms, the simulations, the thousand arts which a certain gentleman and his servants assume.
At last I saw a Dutch winter, not as I had hoped to see it on leaving Italy, for it was very mild; but still Holland was presented to me as we are in the habit of picturing it to ourselves in the south of Europe.
Early in the morning the first thing that attracts the eye in the silent white streets is the print of innumerable wooden shoes left in the snow by the boys on their way to school, and so large are the wooden shoes that they look like the tracks of elephants. These footsteps generally go in a straight line, showing that the boys take the shortest cut to school, and, like steady, zealous Dutchmen, do not play and lose time on the road. One can see long rows of children wrapped up in large scarfs, with their heads half hidden between their shoulders—little bundles arm in arm, walking two by two, or three by three, or pressed together in groups like a bunch of asparagus, out of which peep only the tips of their noses and the ends of books. When the boys have disappeared the streets are deserted for a short time, for the Dutch do not rise early, especially in the winter. One can walk some distance without meeting any one or hearing any sound. The snow seems whiter surrounding those rose-colored houses, which have all their projections outlined with a pure white line, and the wooden heads outside of the shops wear white cotton wigs; the chains of the railings look like ermine; everything presents a strange appearance. When it freezes and the sun shines, the facades seem covered with silver sparks, the ice heaped upon the banks of the canals shines with all the colors of the rainbow, and the trees glitter with thousands of little pearls, like the plants in the enchanted gardens of the Arabian Nights. It is then that it is beautiful to walk in the forest at the Hague at sunset, treading on the hardened snow, which crackles under one's feet like powdered marble, in the avenues of large, white, leafless beech trees, which look like one gigantic crystallization, and cast blue and violet shadows, dotted with myriads of points which glisten like diamonds in the paths dyed pink by the setting sun. But nothing compares with the sight of the Dutch country seen from the top of a steeple at morning after a heavy fall of snow. Beneath the gray and lowering sky one looks over that vast white plain, from which, roads, houses, and canals have disappeared, and nothing is seen but elevations and depressions, which, like the folds of a sheet, give a vague idea of the forms of hidden houses. The boundless white is unstained save by the clouds of smoke that rise almost timidly from the distant dwellings, as if to assure the spectator that beneath the desert of snow human hearts are still beating.
It is impossible to speak of the winter in Holland without mentioning what constitutes the originality and the attraction of winter life in that country—the skating.
Skating in Holland is not only a recreation; it is the ordinary means of transportation. To cite a well-known example, all know the value of it to the Dutch in the memorable defence of Haarlem. When there is a hard frost the canals are transformed into streets, and sabots tipped with iron take the place of boats. The peasants skate to market, the workmen to their work, the small tradespeople to their business; entire families skate from the country to the town with their bags and baskets on their shoulders or drive in sledges. Skating to them is as habitual and easy as walking, and they skim along so rapidly that one can scarcely follow them with the eye. In past years bets were commonly made between the best Dutch skaters that they would skate down the canals on either side of the railway as fast as the train could go; and usually the skaters not only kept abreast of the engine, but even beat it. There are people who skate from the Hague to Amsterdam and back again on the same day; university students leave Utrecht in the morning, dine at Amsterdam, and return home before the evening; and a bet has been made and won several times of going from Amsterdam to Leyden in little more than an hour. Persons who have been drawn by sticks held by skaters have told me that the speed with which they skim over the ice is enough to turn one giddy; but this rapidity is not the only remarkable thing about it: another point very much to be admired is the security with which they traverse great distances. Peasants will go from one town to another at night. Young men go from Rotterdam to Gouda, where they buy very long clay pipes, and return to Rotterdam carrying them unbroken in their hands. Sometimes as one is walking along a canal one sees a figure flit by like an arrow, to disappear immediately in the distance. It is a peasant-girl carrying milk to a house in the city.
There are sledges of every size and shape, some pushed by skaters, others drawn by horses, others propelled by means of two iron-tipped sticks which are worked by the person seated in the sledge. One sees carts and carriages taken off of their wheels and mounted on two boards, on which they glide with the same rapidity as the other sleds. On holiday occasions the boats from Scheveningen have been seen to glide over the snow through the streets of the Hague. Sometimes ships in full sail are seen skimming over the ice of the large rivers, going so fast that the faces of the few who dare to make this experiment are terribly cut by the wind.
The most beautiful fetes in Holland are given on the ice. When the Meuse is frozen, Rotterdam becomes a place of reunions and amusements. The snow is brushed away until the ice is made as clean as a crystal floor; restaurants, coffee-houses, pavilions, and benches for spectators are set up, and at night all is illuminated. During the day a swarm of skaters of every age, sex, and class crowds the river. In other towns, especially in Friesland, which is the classical land of the art, there are clubs of men-and women-skaters who institute public races for prizes. Stakes and flags are set up all along the canals, railings and stands are raised; immense crowds come from the villages and the country-side. Bands play; the elite of the town are present. The skaters present themselves dressed in a peculiar costume, the women wearing pantaloons. There are races for men and races for women; then both men and women race together. The names of the winners are enrolled in the annals of the art and remain famous for many years.
In Holland there are two different schools of skating, the so-called Dutch school and the Frieslander school, each of which uses a peculiar kind of skate. The Frieslander school, which is the older, aims only at speed; the Dutch school cultivates grace as well. The Frieslanders are stiff in their motions; they throw their bodies forward, and hold themselves very straight, looking as though they were starched, and keeping their eyes fixed on the goal. The Dutch skate with a zigzag movement, swaying from left to right and from right to left with an undulating motion of the body. The Frieslander is an arrow, the Dutchman a rocket.
The women prefer the Dutch school. The ladies of Rotterdam, Amsterdam, and the Hague are, in fact, the most fascinating skaters in the Netherlands. They begin to skate as children, continue as girls and wives, reaching the height of beauty and the summit of art at the same time, while their skates strike out sparks from the ice which kindle many fires. It is only on the ice that Dutch women appear light-heeled. Some attain a marvellous perfection. Those who have seen them say that it is impossible to imagine the grace of movement, the bows, the glides, the thousand pretty delicate arts that are displayed. They fly and return like swallows and butterflies, and in this exercise they grow animated and their placid beauty is transformed. But all are not so skilled: many dare not show themselves in public, for those who would be considered prodigies with us are scarcely noticed there, to such perfection has the art been carried. The men, too, perform all kinds of tricks and feats, some writing words of love and fantastic figures in their twirls, others making rapid pirouettes, then gliding backward on one leg for a long distance; others twist about, making numbers of dizzy turns in a small space, sometimes bending down, then leaning to one side, then skating upright or crouching like india-rubber figures moved by a secret spring.
The first day that the canals and small docks are covered with ice strong enough to bear the skaters is a day of rejoicing in the Dutch towns. Skaters who have made the experiment at break of day spread the news abroad; the papers announce it; groups of boys about the streets burst into shouts of delight; men and women-servants ask permission to go out with the determined air of people who have decided to rebel if refused; old ladies forget their age and ailments and hurry off to the canal to emulate their friends and daughters. At the Hague the basin, which is in the middle of the city, near to the Binnenhof, is invaded by a mingling crowd of people, who interlace, knock against each other, and form a confused giddy mass. The flower of the aristocracy skates on a pond in the middle of the wood, and there in the snow may be seen a winding and whirling maze of officers, ladies, deputies, students, old men, and boys, among whom the crown prince is sometimes to be seen. Thousands of spectators crowd around the scene, music enlivens the festival, and the enormous disk of the Dutch sun at sunset sends its dazzling salutation through the gigantic beech trees.
When the snow is packed hard the turn of the sleigh comes. Every family has a sleigh, and at the hour the world goes out walking they appear by hundreds. They fly past in long rows two or three abreast. Some are shaped like shells, others like swans, dragons, boats, or chariots. All are gilded and painted in various colors; the horses which draw them are covered with handsome furs and magnificent trappings, their heads ornamented with plumes and tassels, and their harness studded with glittering buttons. In the sleighs sit ladies clothed in sable, beaver, and blue fox. The horses toss their heads, enveloped in a cloud of steam which rises from them, while their manes are covered with ice-drops. The sleighs dart along, the snow flying about them like silver foam. The splendid uncurbed procession passes and disappears like a silent whirlwind over a field of lilies and jessamine. At night, when the torches are lit, thousands of small flames follow each other and flit about the silent town, casting lurid flashes of light on the ice and snow, the whole scene appearing to the imagination like a great diabolical battle over which the spectre of Philip II. presides from the top of the Binnenhof Tower.
But, alas! everything changes, even the winter, and with it the art of skating and the use of sleighs. For many years the severe winters of Holland have been followed by such mild ones that not only the large rivers, but even the small canals in the towns, do not freeze. In consequence the skaters who have been so long out of practice do not risk giving public exhibitions when the occasion presents itself; and so, little by little, their number becomes smaller, and the women especially are forgetting the art. Last winter they hardly skated at all, and this winter (1873) there has not been a race, and not even a sleigh has been seen. Let us hope that this deplorable state of affairs will not last, and that winter will return to caress Holland with its icy bear's paw, and that the fine art of skating will once more arise with its mantle of snow and its crown of icicles. Let me announce meanwhile the publication of a work called "Skating," upon which a Dutch legislator has been employed for many years—a work that will be the history, the epic, and code of this art, from which all European skaters, male and female, will be able to draw instruction and inspiration.
While I remained at the Hague I frequented the principal club in the town, composed of more than two thousand members. It is located in a palace near the Binnenhof, and there it was that I made my observations upon the Dutch character.
The library, the dining-room, and the card-room, the large drawing-room for conversation, and the reading-room were as full as they could be from four o'clock in the afternoon until midnight. Here one met artists, professors, merchants, deputies, clerks, and officers. The greater number come to drink a small glass of gin before dinner, and return later to take another comforting sip of their favorite liquor. Nearly all converse, and yet one hears only a light murmur, so that if one's eyes were shut one would say that about half of the actual number was present. One can go round the rooms many times without seeing a gesture of excitement or hearing a loud voice: at a distance of ten steps from the groups one would not know that any one was speaking, except by the movement of his lips. One sees many corpulent gentlemen with broad, clean-shaven faces and bearded throats, who talk without raising their eyes from the table or lifting their hands from their glasses. It is very rare to see among these heavy faces a lively, piquant physiognomy like that of Erasmus, which many consider the true Dutch type, though I am not of their opinion.
The friend who opened the door of the club to me presented me to several of its habitues. The difference between the Dutch and the Italian character is especially evident in introductions. On one occasion I noticed that the person to whom I was introduced scarcely bowed his head, and then remained silent some moments. I thought my reverend face had not pleased him, and felt an echo of cordial dislike in my heart. In a little while the person who had introduced me went away, leaving me tete-a-tete with my enemy. "Now," thought I, "I will burst before I will speak, a word to him." But my neighbor, after some minutes of silence, said to me with the greatest gravity, "I hope, if you have no other engagement to-day, you will do me the honor of dining with me." I fell from the clouds. We then dined together, and my Amphytrion placidly filled the table with bottles of Bordeaux and champagne, and did not let me depart until I had promised to dine with him again. Others, when I would ask information about various things, would hardly answer me, as if they were trying to show me that I was troublesome, so that I would say to myself, "How contemptible they are!" But the next day they would send me all the details neatly and clearly written out, and minute in a higher degree than I desired. One evening I asked a gentleman to point out to me something in that ocean of figures that goes by the name of Guide to European Railways. For some moments he did not answer, and I felt mortified. Then he took the book, put on his spectacles, turned over the leaves, read, took notes; added and subtracted for half an hour, and when he had finished he gave me the written answer, putting his spectacles back into their case without speaking a word.
Many of those with whom I passed the evening used to go home at ten o'clock to work, and to return to the club at half-past eleven, after which they would remain until one o'clock. When they had said, "I must go," there was no possibility of changing their minds. As the clock struck ten they left the door; at half-past eleven they stepped over the threshold. It is not surprising that with this chronometrical precision they find time to do so many things, without doing anything in haste; even those who do not depend on their studies for their livelihood have read entire libraries. There is no English, German, or French book, however unimportant, with which they are unacquainted. French literature especially they have at their fingers' ends. And what is said of literature can be said with more reason of politics. Holland is one of the European countries in which the greatest number of foreign papers are to be found, particularly those that deal principally with national affairs. The country is small and peaceful, and the news of the day is soon exhausted; consequently it frequently happens that after ten minutes the conversation has passed beyond the Rhine and deals with Europe. I remember the astonishment with which I heard the fall of the ministry of Scialoia and other Italian matters discussed as if they were domestic affairs.
One of my first cares was to sound the religious sentiment of the people, and here I found, to my surprise, great confusion. As a learned Dutchman most justly wrote a short time ago, "Ideas subversive of every religious dogma have made much way in this land." It is quite a mistake, however, to believe that where faith decreases indifference enters. Such men as appeared to Pascal monstrous creatures—men who live without giving any thought to religion, of whom there are numbers in our country—do not exist in Holland. The religious question, which in Italy is merely a question, in Holland is a battle in which all brandish their arms. In every class of society, men and women, young and old, occupy themselves with theology and read or listen to the disputes of the doctors, besides devouring a prodigious number of polemical writings on religion. This tendency of the country is shown even in Parliament, where the deputies often confute their opponents with biblical quotations read in Hebrew, or translated and commentated, the discussion degenerating into very disquisitions on theology. All these conflicts, however, take place in the mind rather than in the heart; they are devoid of passion, and one proof of this is that Holland, which of all the countries in Europe is divided into most sects, is also the country in which these sects live in the greatest harmony and where there is the greatest degree of tolerance. If this were not the case, the Catholic party would not have made such strides as it has made, protected from the first by the Liberals against the only intolerant party in the country, the orthodox Calvinists.
I did not make the acquaintance of any Calvinists, and I was sorry on that account. I never believed all that is recounted of their extreme rigour; for example, that there are among them certain ladies who hide the legs of the tables with covers, for fear that they might suggest to the minds of visitors the legs of the mistress of the house. But there is no doubt that they live with extreme austerity. Many of them never enter a theatre, a ball-room, or a concert-hall. There are families who on the Sabbath content themselves with eating a little cold meat, so that the cook may rest on that day. Every morning in many houses the master reads from the Bible in the presence of the family and servants, and they all pray together. But, nevertheless, this sect of orthodox Calvinists, whose followers are almost all amongst the aristocracy and the peasantry, does not exert a great influence in the country. This is proved by the fact that in Parliament the Calvinists are inferior in numbers to the Catholic party and can do nothing without them.
I have mentioned the theatre. At the Hague, as in the other large Dutch cities, there are no large theatres nor great performances. They generally produce German operas sung by foreign singers, and French comedies and operettas. Concerts are the great attraction. In this Holland is faithful to its traditions, for, as is well known, Dutch musicians were sought after in all the Christian courts as early as the sixteenth century. It has also been said that the Dutch have great ability in singing in chorus. In fact, the pleasure of singing together must be great if it is in proportion to the aversion they have to singing alone, for I do not ever remember hearing any one sing a tune at any hour or in any part of a Dutch town, excepting street urchins, who were singing in derision at drunken men, and drunkards are seldom seen excepting on public holidays.
I have spoken of the French operettas and comedies. At the Hague not only the plays are French, but public life as well. Rotterdam has an English imprint, Amsterdam is German, and the Hague Parisian. So it may truthfully be said that the citizens of the large Dutch towns unite and temper the good qualities and the defects of the three great neighboring nations. At the Hague in many families of the best society they speak French altogether; in others they affect French expressions, as is done in some of the northern towns of Italy. Addresses on letters are generally written in French, and there is a small branch of society, as is frequently the case in small countries, that professes a certain contempt for the national language, literature, and art, and courts an adopted country beyond the Meuse and the Rhine. The sympathies, however, are divided. The elegant class inclines toward France, the learned class toward Germany, and the mercantile class toward England. The zeal for France grew cold after the Commune. Against Germany a secret animosity has arisen, generated by the fear that in her acquisitive tastes she might turn toward Holland. This feeling still ferments, though it is tempered by community of interest against clerical Catholicism.
When it is said that the Hague is partly a French city, it must be understood that this relates to its appearance only; at bottom the Dutch characteristics predominate. Although it is a rich, elegant, and gay city, it is not a city of riot and dissipation, full of duels and scandals. The life is more varied and lively than that found in other Dutch towns, but not less peaceful. The duels that take place in the Hague in ten years may be counted on the five fingers of one's hand, and the aggressor in the few that take place is usually an officer. Notwithstanding, to show how powerful in Holland is this "ferocious prejudice that honor dwells on the point of the sword," I recall a discussion between several Dutchmen which was raised by a question of mine. When I asked whether public opinion in Holland was hostile to duels, they answered all together, "Exceedingly hostile." But when I wanted to know whether a young man in good society who did not accept a challenge would be universally praised, and would still be treated and respected as before—whether, in short, he would be supported by public opinion so that he would not repent his conduct—then they all began discussing. Some weakly answered, "Yes;" others resolutely, "No." But the general opinion was on the negative side. Hence I concluded that although there are few duels in Holland, this does not arise, as I thought, from a universal and absolute contempt for the "ferocious prejudice," but rather from the rarity of the cases in which two citizens allow themselves to be carried by passion to the point of having recourse to arms; which is a result of nature rather than of education. In public controversies and private discussions, however violent, personal insults are very rare, and in parliamentary battles, which are sometimes very vigorous, the deputies are often exceedingly impertinent, but they always speak calmly and without clamor. But this impertinence consists in the fact rather than in the word, and wounds in silence.
In the conversations at the club I was astonished at first to note that no one spoke for the pleasure of speaking. When any one opened his mouth it was to ask a question or to tell a piece of news or to make an observation. That art of making a period of every idea, a story of every fact, a question of every trifle, in which Italians, French, and Spaniards are masters, is here totally unknown. Dutch conversation is not an exchange of sounds, but a commerce of facts, and nobody makes the least effort to appear learned, eloquent, or witty. In all the time I was at the Hague I remember hearing only one witticism, and that from a deputy, who speaking to me of the alliance of the ancient Batavians with the Romans, said, "We have always been the friends of constituted authority." Yet the Dutch language lends itself to puns: in proof of this there is the incident of a pretty foreign lady who asked a young boatman of the trekschuit for a cushion, and not pronouncing the word well, instead of cushion said kiss, which in Dutch sounds almost the same; and she scarcely had time to explain the mistake, for the boatman had already wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. I had read that the Dutch are avaricious and selfish, and that they have a habit of boring people with long accounts of their ailments, but as I studied the Dutch character I came to see that these charges are untrue. On the contrary, they laugh at the Germans for their complaining disposition. To sustain the charge of avarice somebody has brought forward the very incredible statement that during a naval battle with the English the officers of the Dutch fleet boarded the vessels of the enemy, who had used all their ammunition, sold them balls and powder at exorbitant prices, after which they continued the battle. But to contradict this accusation there is the fact of their comfortable life, of their rich houses, of the large sums of money spent in books and pictures, and still more of the widespread works of charity, in which the Dutch people certainly stand first in Europe. These philanthropic works are not official nor do they receive any impulse from the government; they are spontaneous and voluntary, and are carried on by large and powerful societies that have founded innumerable institutes—schools, prizes, libraries, popular reunions—helping and anticipating the government in the duty of public instruction,—whose branches extend from the large cities to the humblest villages, embracing every religious sect, every age, every profession, and every need; in short, a beneficence which does not leave in Holland a poor person without a roof or a workman without work. All writers who have studied Holland agree in saying that there probably is not another state in Europe where, in proportion to the population, a larger amount is given in charity by the wealthy classes to those who are in want.
It must not, however, be imagined that the Dutch people have no defects. They certainly have them, if one may consider as defects the lack of those qualities which ought to be the splendor and nobility of their virtues. In their firmness we might find some obstinacy, in their honesty a certain sordidness; we might hold that their coldness shows the absence of that spontaneity of feeling without which it seems impossible that there can be affection, generosity, and true greatness of soul. But the better one knows them, the more one hesitates to pronounce these judgments, and the more one feels for them a growing respect and sympathy on leaving Holland. Voltaire was able to speak the famous words: "Adieu, canaux, canards, canaille;" but when he had to judge Holland seriously, he remembered that he had not found in its capital "an idle person, a poor, dissipated, or insolent man," and that he had everywhere seen "industry and modesty." Louis Napoleon proclaimed that in no other European country is there found so much innate good sense, justice, and reason as there is in Holland; Descartes gave the Hollanders the greatest praise a philosopher can give to a people when he said that in no country does one enjoy greater liberty than in Holland; Charles V. pronounced upon them the highest eulogy possible to a sovereign when he said that they were "excellent subjects, but the worst of slaves." An Englishman wrote that the Dutch inspire an esteem that never becomes affection. Perhaps he did not esteem them highly enough.