AN AFTERNOON IN HOLLAND.
Sarah Orne Jewett
To exchange the uneven surface of the English Channel for the level fields of Belgium was a great pleasure. The transition would have made the Great Desert itself seem a paradise; but even the attractions of Antwerp, and the delights of its pictures, and of a Sunday in its cathedral and the cheerful streets that lead to it, failed to content us, - we were in such a hurry to get to Holland.
A constitutional dislike to climbing hills may have been attracted by the reported flatness of Holland, and a love for the sea even extended to a desire to make a voyage on a canal. And a fierce partisanship for Lombardy poplars naturally urged me out of my own country toward the peaceful asylum of those persecuted monarchs of the plain, - poplars, canals, and windmills.
It was a great surprise to find the representative Dutchman, of the long pipe and mug of comforting drink, with moon-like face and ponderous bulk, apparently wanting in Amsterdam. Either the Knickerbocker's adopted home on the Hudson had favored his increase of size, or else the Hollanders of the present day are thinner and smaller than their ancestors. The universal right to the once monopolized trade with Japan may have led to the gradual impoverishment of society. Other glories which belonged to the older merchants of Holland have also been wrested from them. Both the land and the water highways of Amsterdam were busy, and crowded with rattling wheels or leisurely gliding boats, when I saw them; but one could not help thinking of the riches of the old days, and the industry of the present seemed to be less well rewarded than that of the past.
It has been said that the Dutch language is like and unlike every other. It has a curious individuality of its own, and is full of surprises. A word which looks so familiar that you use it without hesitation proves to have a sound which is foreign to any idea ever known to you; and another visible sign of speech, which has so may double o's and j's in its spelling that you pass by it in horror and dismay, sounds, when spoken, like the easy little words which are familiar to a child of five.
We had lingered in Amsterdam after the time set for leaving, in our never-to-be-relied-upon plan of travel, and, the day being fair, we had made up our minds to go to Broeck. We were told that the steamboat for Zaardam (which noted village proved to be not far out of our way) would leave at two o'clock; so we took breakfast at our Bible Hotel, and were in no hurry about it, being assured that the place of departure was round the corner, and understanding, from the backward gesture of the porter's thumb, that the steamboat's city home was in the canal, which lay just under our own windows.
It had been a great amusement to us that the proprietors of our inn, seeming to recognize the discrepancy between the spiritual suggestions of its long-inherited name and the actual use of another kind of spirits that went on continually under its roof, had put a stained-glass window in the stairway, with an open copy of the Scriptures for its escutcheon. In distinct lettering on the page was the admonition of St. Paul to Timothy that he should drink no longer water, but a little wine. It was no unkind or unwise advice to the Timothys of Amsterdam in former years, for in that, like many another Dutch town, the water was not fit to drink.
We loitered a good while longer than was necessary over our late breakfast, and were a little startled, at last, when we found that there were only a few minutes left before the boat was to go, and taking our wraps and the umbrellas which are the modern pilgrims' staves, we hurried out through the corridor and up the street. We turned the first corner toward the canal, but there was no craft in sight - this being one of the marine by-ways of Amsterdam - except some decrepit small boats and clumsy scows, or, as I heard a delayed and enraged stewardess on the Bergen steamer call them, mudhoppers.
We stopped before a kind-hearted-looking market woman, who told us in a few stumbling English words that our wharf was beyond the railway station, three quarters of a mile away. There was no carriage visible, and it was within five minutes of two o'clock; we hurried along the street, keeping on after the bells had struck and chimed the hour with triumphant persistency, until we were not quite sure about our way. However, we came in sight of the Zaardam steamer at last, and waited fifteen or twenty minutes before she left the quay.
It really was delightful weather; the canal was so full of boats and small shipping that it seemed like a parade, and the sharp-bowed steamer moved quickly out toward the country, leaving a broad white track of foam, and sending off waves to right and left that made the little boats within their reach bob up and down distractedly. The deck was a good place to rest. There were not many people on board. We took pleasure in watching a dutiful little old woman in a plain brown dress, who sat knitting beside the engine house. She seemed to be a well-known person, for she looked up with a smile, and had an eager little talk with most of the other passengers, and even with the solemn stewardess, who carried two tumblers of beer on a plate to some voyagers who were smoking astern. She was a very grumpy stewardess, we thought. She looked as if she had used every argument to keep the men from wasting their money in beer, and now would have nothing further to say. She held the plate in her hands, and stood in the low companionway, with long wisps of her hair blowing in the wind.
Amsterdam had been a most delightful old city to stroll about in, but the suburbs of it pleased us even more. At last it was really Holland! And across the flat green fields and the dikes rose the sails of a vast company of windmills at Zaardam and Purmerend, and all the country side beyond and between. The air was thik with them, like a forest of great stumps and leafless branches. The mills near at hand were huge and round, with sails that Don Quixote would have fled from at first sight; but the farthest ones were like children's playthings, and seemed to beckon to us and to belong to our holiday. When we came nearer them we were gratified to find that the lower stories were often used for dwellings. It was a pretty picture to see children playing about the door, with the sails twirling slowly overhead, as if to frighten away some predatory fowl of the air, a grewsome hawk that was in quest of young Dutchmen. The thatch with which the tall round mills were covered was very smooth and fine, almost like fur, and of an exquisite color.
We turned presently into a narrower canal, and soon reached Zaardam. We did not have a good first impression of it. We had felt we were adventurers, and almost as if no American travelers before us had bethought themselves to make such good use of a summer afternoon. We had felt ourselves remote from the beaten track of tourists, although we had found in the guide-book directions for going to Broek by way of Zaardam. And yet it was such a quaint and pleasant corner of the world that we had all the satisfaction of being the first discoverers, until we were fairly landed on the little pier.
Then five men ran towards us in a great hurry. One claimed us for his own, and began to talk in fragments of English about Peter the Great's house, while his neighbors, in voluble Dutch, implored us to make arrangements to hire a vehicle of them, in which ti drive to see all the rest of the world; and he translated their threats and entreaties, when he could desist for a moment from telling us something we could not understand about Peter the Great. Dutch numbers are impossible for an American to recognize by ear, and it was a great relief when one of the men pulled a crumpled paper from his pocket, and pointed to a printed tariff, from which we learned that for certain gulden we could be driven to Broek, and afterward to the tollhouse, whence we could cross the ferry to Amsterdam. We were really tired when the clamor ceased, and four men turned their attention to putting in the horse, while the fifth walked quietly before us to the shrine of Zaardam.
It was our first look at a Dutch village, except as we had hurried through a part of the country on the railway, a day or two before. We thought that Broek itself, the cleanest town in the world, could hardly be cleaner than this. The salt air blew across the sweet green fields, the casements were full of flowers, and the sunshine streamed in at the open doors. All the people looked comfortable, and nobody had seemed to take any notice of the excitement on the wharf. We followed our guide along the crooked thoroughfare; having suspicions that there might be treasures waiting to be discovered in the orderly small shops, and catching glimpses of the interior of the houses as we went by.
We were fully convinced that we had not been the first strangers to come to the town, when we reached the home of the Russian Peter, if we had failed to be before, for it was so carved upon and written upon with names of pilgrims that it was like a page of the world's census. It was certainly well taken care of. The old house was warped and bent with age, but an outside shell and cover had been built over it, so that visitors could walk between the walls of the two houses. There had been not a few royal pilgrims, whose portraits and compliments, with their autographs appended, were hanging about the walls in frames, - a grander way of leaving one's name, but much the same thing as carving it with a jack-knife, that all the world may see. It was easy to fancy the young Russian coming home at night tired from his ship-building, and sitting in the three-cornered chair which is still part of the house's furniture. His thoughts must often have been far enough away from Zaardam; but I wonder that he ever lived to return to his people, if he slept in the low-storied cupboard of a bed, guarded with close doors and built in the wall of the kitchen.
The house stood just at the edge of a field, quite apart from even the small activities of Zaardam. It seemed a pity to go to see it. It is the most tired-out little house I have ever seen. It can hardly hold itself up, yet there is no appearance of dustiness or decay. The people take good care of it, and prize it highly, as well they may, since it brings them so much money; but it appeared to me like some human being who had reached a very great age, and become an object of interest to curiosity hunters. There was a garden around the keeper's lodge. Children were strolling about, and sailing little boats in a very small canal, apparently made on purpose for them. As we looked up and down the wide canal, a sluggish and idle waterway, it was pleasant to see the doors opening directly upon it, and the little boat-landings; and as for the scarlet geraniums on the wide window-sills, they all leaned over to look at themselves in the water. The grass and weeds grew in a most luxuriant fashion, and all the vegetation was as vivid a green as it ever can be in Ireland. Wherever there was a bit of ground large enough a garden had been made, and with the children's voices chirping and calling, and the sound of laughter in one of the houses near by, it was all as charming a glimpse of village life as one would care to have.
One of the four stable-men had driven to meet us, and we climbed into the heavy carriage, and began to laugh at the horse, which was as round as a dumpling, and nothing but a pony, at any rate. It seemed a brisk little creature, and we did not know how to suggest to our Dutch acquaintances that a larger one would have pleased us better. In some way or other we had learned that Broek was only a mile or two away, and so we rattled along the narrow paved street, with houses on one side and a canal on the other, until we were out in the open country. The road was at the top of a great dike; so we had a capital outlook. The wind came up a little, and the tall grass was waving about. The canals themselves could not be seen, but in every direction we could see brown or white sails gliding between the fields, and at some little distance, in the great sea canal, a large steamer was going slowly in to Amsterdam, its huge hull floating high above the rest of that level and sunken world, and looking strange and clumsy as it moved along.
The fearfulness of a break in the sea dikes cannot be understood until Holland has been seen with one's own eyes; neither can the patience and toil of the Dutch. It is no wonder that the people are willing to take such care of their country, when such infinite pains have been given to its building and defense. They work at it as ants work, or as coral insects year by year add something to a reef. Their thrift and industry are marvelous, and it would be ungrateful grass that did no grow heavy as an arctic creature's fur over the fields, or heartless flowers that would not bloom by the way. All the streets of Amsterdam are on a lower level than the sea, though it is difficult to remember it in that solid and well-build city; but out in the country the sight of the sea canal, of the great ship high above the land, of the tremendously strong walls that were built to keep the ocean within bounds, was fairly amazing. The stories of the overflowing of the country became at once realities. I pictured to myself this green and fertile neighborhood at the mercy of an inundation; the havoc and desolation and sorrow that the sea any day might make.
But the Holland men and women seemed to be sure of their safety and fearless of any trouble that day; there could not be a more peaceful country to look at. The next village was reached in course of time, and we rattled through it without stopping except to pay a turnpike toll at its entrance. The Dutch money and the coins of Belgium gave us great trouble. We were continually mistaking the shiny bits for silver, and the handfuls of nickel or base metal and copper that came to us, when we had to change even the smallest silver coin, were most surprising. We caught sight of another village, and pointed to it, and said "Broek?" inquiringly; but our driver shook his head and smiled, and pointed with his whip across the country, where the little hamlets were scattered about, half hidden, like birds' nests, under the clustered green trees. We could not tell which he meant, whether it was the nearest or the farthest, but were not impatient even to see Broek; it was so delightful a little journey we were taking toward it.
Now and then we passed a solitary man mending the embankment, where a new piece of timber was to be fitted in, or where the filling of small stones was loosened and washing away. But the great dikes looked as if they would stand forever, so welded and clamped they had been, with such a solid weight of masonry and timber. The clean, well-scrubbed Dutch houses themselves are not better tended and kept than is all out-doors in Holland. One would think the rain that fell from heaven was soap and water, and that once a week, at least, the farms were swept and dusted and put to rights, and that even the little bushes had grown afraid to stir when a breeze came to play with them, lest they should rumple their leaves, and be called untidy.
All the farms are surrounded by broad ditches, and the land is divided into squares of perhaps a quarter of an acre each. Sometimes there is a bridge, with a gate at the end, across from one field to the next. These gates looked very odd, standing stiff and straight by themselves, as if they had all the care and authority of miles of fence. Instead of fixed gates there was often a drawbridge hoisted up from the ditch, appearing as if it were meant for some kind of a trap, until you came near it. We were delighted with the beautiful cattle that were scattered about, half a dozen together, on the small green fields, and, as it grew later in the afternoon, men and boys pushed out from the kitchen doors of the farm-houses in flat-bottomed boats, with their milking-stools and white wooden pails, and followed the ditch-paths to the pastures.
The shadows grew long, and we passed one village after another, and did not come to Broek; it was nearly six o'clock, and we had ordered our dinner in Amsterdam, at that time being certain in our ignorance that Broek could not be more than a long stone's-throw away. Our driver smiled, and kept on pointing with his whip.
We had seen masts and sails always at a little distance, though we had met so many small boats hitherto in our drive, but at last the road led by a larger canal, and here we came close to the old-fashioned slug-like canal boats, where happy families lived in comfort and content, if not in splendor. Puffs of thin blue smoke were coming out of the chimneys of the little cabins, and yellow-haired children sat on the deck and watched us as we went by. Sometimes a little dog would stand with one foot on the rail and bark at us in a great frenzy, and presently we would overtake the larger dog, or the horse, and most surely the man who was tugging at the tow rope. It did not look very hard to pull even a large boat through the still water; the sloops were moved also by their sails, though there was not much wind, and no chance for beating or tackling. The little boats with their loads were drawn lightly along by a cord fastened to the top of their masts. All the people seemed to be on their way home, and we did not dare to think that the next village, also, might fail to be Broek.
Suddenly, to our great distress, we were driven into the yard of a large farm-house which stood by itself among the fields. Could our driver mean that we should spend the night there and take the rest of the journey in the morning, or had he some important errand to his own to these acquaintances? In a few moments, however (the driver had meantime alighted and stood beside us with great patience, waving his hand toward the door of the house), the latch clicked, and an elderly woman came out to greet us, and we at once accepted her invitation to come in. This, to our surprise, was Broek, or, at any rate, its suburbs, for here was the famous stable where the cows' stalls were decked with colored tissue-paper cut in shapes, with muslin curtains at their little windows, and all manner of luxurious decoration and furniture. Having become world-renowned, there was an artificial splendor and bedizening. Specimens of delftware and china were hanging on the sides of the stalls; the floors were covered with clean pebbles and with painted cockle-shells arranged in patterns. It looked like a magnificent baby-house, and as if the elders of the family had never given up playing with dolls. The cows were living in their pastures: this was only their winter residence, and for my part, I would much rather see the stable when they were in it, and I have no doubt their housekeeping is carried on in unparalleled fashion, for the beautiful sleek-coated creatures looked dainty enough to be at large anywhere, even in Holland.
The same great roof covered the stable and the house, and a door opened directly into a long kitchen, where some supper, which we should have been glad to eat, was set out on one of the tables by a latticed window, over which some vines were growing. In the next room was a great business of cheese-making, and in the next, which was walled with stone and cellar-like, were stored away a great number of cheeses, cannon-ball as to shape, and of a fragrance and yellowness impossible to describe. The point-lace lappets of our hostess's cap flapped as she walked before us and showed us room after room of her house, betraying pride only when she opened the door of one and said, "The salon!" It was the least interesting to us, being uncommonly stuffy, and carpeted and furnished in the most conventional and uncharacteristic way. We had noticed some superb pieces of furniture, heavy wardrobes and the like, of vast size and antiquity, but these were all in the living-rooms, fortunately, and not locked away from sight and use.
It was only a little way farther to the cleanest town in the world, but Broek must have won its reputation by only a length in its race with the rest of Holland. The other villages may have followed its example until they became its rivals, however, so I will not try to steal its laurels, and it certainly is a most clean-faced and well-dressed little town. The houses are very pretty, and the flower-gardens were in gayest bloom. Flocks of children were playing about the streets; we came upon a dozen of them busy with some merry game or other in a little square near the church, which was shaded with trees whose foliage was so thick that it was damp and gloomy underneath. There were some stalls and booth, as if it were a fairground or market-place, or as if some wandering showman had arranged his much-battered properties for a performance.
We could look between the houses out across the fields. The glimpses of the wide reaches of greenest grass, of the grayish willows and slender poplars, formed charming pictures. From the main street of Broek we could look far down the canal that led to Amsterdam: a delightful perspective of a tall white sail and a clump of willows, an idle windmill farther away, a blue sky that had not begun to fade, though the twilight had begun to fall, and white clouds that made the nearest stretch of water look like silver. It was dead calm on the canal; the breeze which had ruffled it a little all day had gone down with the sun. It was the Holland that Ruysdael painted, with its soft colors and its endless distances, where the earth and sky meet in a mist, like the blending of the sky and sea.
We left the main street, presently, quite sure that it was true that the paving-stones of it were scoured every Saturday, and followed the only side street to where its houses ended. They were less pretentious than those we had just left. It was supper-time, and at each door a company of wooden shoes of various sizes were waiting for their owners. This was the pleasantest part of Broek to us, but one must see it for one's self on a summer evening, and I hope everybody will be fortunate enough to see, as we did, two young men who came hurrying up the narrow tow-path and got into a boat and rowed away as if they were belated. They certainly had been left behind by the fashions, for they both wore the amazing petticoat-trousers of a past age.
It was not a long drive to the toll-house; we crossed the ferry and found a hackman who had, happily for us, finished his supper, and we were soon back at the hotel. The prim stateliness of the high-gabled roofs of Amsterdam delighted us more than ever by their contrast with that charming bit of the low countries we had just seen. The lights were shining out in the houses one by one and twinkling again in the canal underneath. I shall be glad to remember all my life how fresh the wind was, and how green the clover; how the people smiled at us, and said good-day as we passed them. I can always shut my eyes and see the sails moving this way and that among the green fields, and the round-topped windmills beckoning lazily with their long arms.
Sarah Orne Jewett.
"An Afternoon in Holland" appeared in Atlantic Monthly (50:798-804) in December 1882, after Jewett's first trip to Europe with Annie Fields. If you find errors or items needing annotation, please contact the site manager.
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Great Desert: Jewett almost certainly means the Sahara Desert of northern Africa.
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Lombardy poplars: Populus nigra, variety italica. The Lombardy poplar is the more common variety of the black poplar. It has a tall, narrow columnar form, and sports oval, fine-toothed leaves. It is widely planted in the eastern United States and Canada, and is widely used in ornamental landscape plantings among the villas of Italy and elsewhere in Southern Europe. (Source: Encyclopedia Britannica; Research: Chris Butler).
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Knickerbocker's adopted home on the Hudson: The term "knickerbocker" comes from Washington Irving's creation, Diedrich Knickerbocker, fictitious author of History of New York (1809). Knickerbocker afterward became the generic term for descendants of the original Dutch colonists in the Hudson River valley.
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monopolized trade with Japan: During the closed-door policy of the Tokugawa shogunate, only the Chinese and the Dutch were allowed to trade with Japan after 1639. This policy was ended by Commodore Matthew Perry in 1854 in what is called a classic example of "gunboat diplomacy." Perry, acting for President Millard Fillmore, secured a treaty opening Japan to commerce with the United States. (Sources: Encyclopedia Britannica and Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia; Research assistance: Chris Butler).
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Bible Hotel: Though Iíve been able to learn no details about what a Bible Hotel is, at
http://www.arthur-ransome.org/ar/literary/falcon5.htm in chapter 5 of "The Falcon on the Baltic," a
travelogue, E. F. Knight describes staying at the Bible Hotel in Amsterdam in 1886. (Research by
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Paul to Timothy: See 1 Timothy 5:22.
[ pilgrim's staves: In this case, stave is the plural of staff.
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Don Quixote would have fled from at first sight: Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) recounts Don Quixote's "terrible adventure of the windmills" in Part 1, Chapter 8 of Don Quixote (1605).
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Peter the Great's house: Peter the Great (1672-1725), was the first Czar of Russia to visit western Europe. During this visit in 1697-8, he lived for a time in Saardam, where he worked incognito at a shipyard to learn fabled Dutch ship-building skills. (Research assistance: Chris Butler).
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gulden: The basic unit of Dutch currency is known as the gulden or florin.
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delftware: tin-glazed Dutch earthenware, decorated characteristically in blue and white, but also in multiple colors.
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the Holland that Ruysdael painted: Salomon van Ruysdael (1600-1670) was a Dutch landscape painter of the Baroque style. He spent his entire life at Haarlem (in the Netherlands). He demonstrated a great command of landscape elements, such as great trees anchoring one side of the composition, distant views that draw the eye, and a vast expanse of sky and clouds. (Source: Encyclopedia Britannica; Research: Chris Butler).
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petticoat-trousers of a past age: Very likely, Jewett is referring to "rhinegraves," also known as "petticoat breeches." These were wide breeches worn by men in the mid-17th century in Europe. These breeches appeared somewhat like a divided skirt, and were usually fastened above the knee and decorated with ribbons. Rhinegraves were fashionable in England from 1660 until 1666, when Charles II dropped the style. (Source: Encyclopedia Britannica; Research: Chris Butler).
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, assisted by Chris Butler, Coe College.