Belgium: Around Antwerp

A table in the lively little Cafe de la Terrasse, up on the broad stone promenoir overhanging the Antwerp docks, is one place in a thousand for the man who is inclined toward any such unusual combination as a maximum of twentieth-century business activity in a setting of the Middle Ages. He is fortunate in locality and happy in surroundings. A Parisian waiter removes the remains of his light luncheon of a salad of Belgian greens fresh this morning from a trim truck garden beyond the ramparts, refills the thin tumbler to the taste of the guest with foaming local Orge or light Brussels Faro or the bitter product of Ghent or the flat, insipid stuff they boast about at Louvain, and supplies a light for an excellent cigar made here in Antwerp of the best growth of Havana. Supposing it to be two o’clock of the usual mottled, doubtful afternoon, – for Antwerp’s weather, like Antwerp’s history, is mingled sunshine and shadows, – the loiterer may look out at his ease on a notable and fascinating panorama. Beneath him and to either side extend miles of massive docks of ponderous masonry, upon and about which swarms an ant-like multitude of nimble and active longshoremen plying a network of ropes and tackle, and directing the labors of vast, writhing derricks that toil like a mechanical Israel in bondage. Snuggling close to the grim granite walls are merchant mammoths from the ends of the earth, and into these, with the ease of a man stooping for a pin, gigantic steel arms sweep tons of casks and bales that they have lightly plucked out of long wharf trains lying alongside. There is a prodigious bustling of porters in long blue blouses, shouts and cries from the riverful of shipping, trampling of thousands of hobnailed shoes, and an incessant clatter of the wooden sabots of little Antwerp boys in peaked caps and baggy blue trousers and of little Antwerp girls in bright skirts and curious white headdress.

This sort of thing is proceeding for miles up and down the river front, and all through the intricate series of locks and bassins and canals that quadruple the wharfage of this rejuvenated old Flemish city. They are receiving whole argosies of raw material in the shape of hides, tobacco, and textiles, and are sending away fortunes in cut diamonds, delicate laces, linens, beer, sugar, and innumerable clever products of human hands from fragile glass to ponderous machinery. And they do it with more ease and, it seems necessary to add, with less profanity than any other port of Europe. What, then, could have possessed the genial Eugene Field to pass along that ancient slander on the excellent burghers of Flanders?

While I should not wish to take such extreme ground as that assumed, in another connection, by a New York police inspector, when he observed that “every one of them facts has been verified to be absolutely untrue,” still I must say that, as far as I could notice, there is nothing notable about the Flemish oath as employed today. Indeed, it is more than likely that one could pass a long and pleasant evening loitering among the tavernes and recreation haunts of the Belgian soldier and civilian and come across nothing more vocally spirited than robust guffaws, possibly punctuated discreetly, or heavy fists thundering the time as a couple of comrades scrape over the sanded floor in the contagious rhythm of that venerable and favorite waltz of the Netherlands, –

“Rosa, willen wy dansen? Danst Rosa; danst Rosa. Rosa, willen wy dansen? Danst Rosa zoet!”

On the other hand, if, with this much of an excuse, a stranger should go exploring Antwerp between two and three o’clock in quest of “verkoop men dranken” signs, he would be quite otherwise repaid in the discovery of charming huddled and crooked streets and a wealth of architectural quaintness and beauty. He would have no difficulty in finding tavernes and drinking-places, particularly along the river front, where they abound. As he passed them he would encounter robust whiffs of acrid and penetrating odors with tar and fish in the ascendancy, and catch glimpses of a wooden-shod peasantry fraternizing with evil-eyed “water-rats” and devouring vast quantities of salmon and sauerkraut washed down with ale and white beer. There is no charge now, as once there was, for noise made by patrons. The silk-fingered gentry overreached themselves here, for when, a number of years ago, they had carried the robbing of foreign sailors to the point of international notoriety, the authorities took a hand and devised a system of payment for Jack ashore; then the American and English ministers and consuls established and made popular the Sailors’ Bethel on the quay, with its clean and attractive reading- and amusement-rooms, and the Sailors’ Home on Canal de 1’Ancre, where, for fifty-five cents a day, Jack can have a neat little room to himself and four excellent meals in the bargain. For these reasons among others, a visitor, even by night, finds much less of noise and revelry than he had anticipated, and beholds the thirsty Antwerpian content himself with a final “nip” at an estaminet or even make shift of a “nightcap ” of mineral water or black coffee at one or another of the city’s innumerable cafes. In these he will himself be welcome to read the news of the day in the columns of “Le Precurseur” or “De Nieuwe Gazet,” or, better still, in the venerable “Gazet van Gent,” one of the oldest of existing newspapers, with nearly two hundred and fifty years of publication behind it. The real drinking will have been in progress where the out-of-town people have been dining a prix fixe, and clinking their burgundy and claret glasses at the great hotels on the Quai Van Dyck, the Place de Meir, or the Place Verte. The palm should really go to the amusement seekers of the latter little square; for nothing this side the capacity of an archery club at a July kermess can compare with the thirst of the music lovers who throng the tables on the sidewalks before the restaurants and cafes of jolly Place Verte when the band is playing, on balmy summer evenings. Instead of dissipation, the man who explores Antwerp makes constant discovery of unanticipated delights. He observes about him in the surprising little streets of the old section an amazing collection of absurd roofs slanting steeply up for several stories, pierced with owl-like, staring, round windows; house fronts by the hundreds with denticulated gables stepping upward like staircases toward the sky; and pots of flowers and immaculate muslin curtains in tiny doll-house windows peering out from the most unexpected and impossible places away up among the eaves and chimneys. He will catch an occasional glimpse of massive old four-poster beds with green curtains and yellow lace valances; of shining oak chests, and highback chairs, and brown dining-rooms wainscoted in polished oak and most inviting with ponderous sideboards set with Delft platters and gleaming copper and pewter pieces. From time to time he will see large, cool living-rooms in which the father enjoys his paper and meerschaum pipe, while the placid-faced mother employs herself with lace or embroidery and the fairhaired daughter at the piano tells how

“Ik zag Cecilia komen Langs eenen waterkant, Ik zag Cecilia komen Mit bloemen in haer hand.”

As I previously observed, there is no better place for a preliminary impression of Antwerp than along the docks. There one acquires some adequate idea of the amazing extent of its industrial operations and enjoys, at the same time, an extraordinary panorama of a river choked with shipping in the immediate foreground, and, on the opposite bank, the sombre redoubts of Tete de Flandre and Fort Isabelle keeping watch and ward over the flat little farms that extend seaward in fields of pale-green corn and barley. For any one who has done the proper amount of preparatory reading on Antwerp, it will inspire stirring thoughts of the musical, artistic, and martial career of this rare old Flemish town.

If the visitor be a lover of music -of Wagner’s music -the surrounding uproar and confusion will shortly fade into a charming reverie as he gazes far down the glittering zigzag of the Scheldt and some distant glimmer will take the form of the swan-boat of Lohengrin with the Grail knight leaning on his shining shield. The docks and quays will have disappeared, and in their place will once more lie the old low meadows, and, under the Oak of Justice, King Henry the Fowler will take seat on his throne with the nobles of Brabant ranged about him. Fair Elsa, charged with fratricide, moves slowly forward, sustained by her dream of a champion who is to come to her defense; and the heralds pace off the lists and appeal to the four quarters in the sonorous chant, –

“Wer hier im Gotteskampf zu streiten kam Fur Elsa von Brabant, der trete vor.”

And suddenly the peasants by the water’s edge cry out in amazement and point down the reaches of the river, and there comes glittering Lohengrin in the “shining armor” of Elsa’s dream. The champion steps ashore and gives no heed to the awe-hushed company until he has sung to his feathered steed what now every child in Germany could sing with him, “Nun sei bedankt, mein lieber Schwan.” And then the contest rages and the false Frederick falls, and the royal cortege retires to the neighboring old fortress of the Steen. All night the treacherous Ortrud and her defeated Frederick plot by the steps of yonder cathedral, and there, in the morning, Lohengrin weds Elsa and the immortal Wedding March welcomes the “faithful and true” back to their fortress home. The black night of mistrust and carnage follows, and when day dawns Lohengrin bids farewell to his suspicious bride in these green Scheldt meadows and sails sadly away in his resplendent boat drawn by the dove of the Grail.

On the other hand, if the visitor has a mind for history, he may scorn the pretty Grail story and look with stern eyes on this Scheldt and the battle-scarred city beside it, mindful of the deeds of blood and fire that fill the hypnotic pages of Schiller, Prescott, and Motley. The monk of St. Gall could have appropriately dedicated to the war-ravaged Antwerp of those days his solemn antiphonal “media vita in morte sumus.” The grim, turreted Steen, just at hand, recalls the bloody reign of Alva and how he condemned a whole people to death in an order of three lines. In its present rSle of museum it houses hundreds of implements of torture that once were drenched in the blood of the heroic burghers of Antwerp. Not all the horrors of the ” Spanish Fury,” when eight thousand citizens of this town were butchered in three days, nor the stirring memory of the “French Fury,” with Antwerp triumphant, can dim the glory of the heroic resistance the “Sea Beggars” made to the advance of the Duke of Parma up the Scheldt.