Taken as a whole, I enjoy Holland the least of any country in Europe. For one thing, I have found it always colder than I like, for eighty-five degrees in the shade spells comfort for me, and when there in June and again in July of different years, I have shivered in cold pale sunshine, avoiding the blue shadows where the mercury crouched in the sixties. Again, the crude, raw color so continually and often so inappropriately applied by the Dutch is a perpetual offense. It is irritating to see a bright-blue tree trunk surrounded by the ever present red geranium, which must be the national flower of Holland, if there be one. After two days one prays that he may be delivered from the sight of red geraniums forever and forever.
And again, Holland is the only country where the people are, in places, distinctly rude. In no other land in Europe have I seen a dozen boys and young women follow an American girl with hoots and jeers, and this happened in Holland because her hat did not conform to their own peculiar fashion of head-dress. Of course, this assertive lack of manners is not to be found in Amsterdam or The Hague, but then, who wants to go to Amsterdam or The Hague if in search of the real, the picturesque Holland! And most emphatically and most fortunately the criticism cannot be applied to Middelburg, most charming of towns in all the land of dikes. It is generally a difficult thing to select the one town of a country that is the most interesting, the most characteristic, the most picturesque. But this difficulty does not confront one in dealing with Holland. Middelburg is so preeminently the ideal city that there is no room for hesitation. Mrs. Waller, in her bright, gossipy book, Through the Gates of the Netherlands, says of Middelburg : ” There is an indescribable charm about this island city. It lays hold upon you in numberless ways, until you say, and with truth, ` there is none such,’ and give to it your entire Dutch allegiance and your true American affection.” And Lucas, the English writer, places Middelburg first among the cities of Holland for power to charm the visitor. It is a place that is different, and it is not on the beaten track, and as inducements to go there, what can be more compelling than these?
Middelburg is the capital of Zeeland, the southwesternmost province of Holland, and lies only four miles from Flushing in the same green level country and by the same ribbon-like canals characteristic of the Netherlands. Overhead is the same cold color in the pale sky, and the same drive of white cloud, that typify the Dutch skies everywhere. The town is belted by a broad waterway that completely encircles it, and that served in the fightingdays of old, as a moat to the star-pointed walls whose place is now filled with parklike walks shaded with great trees. Across the still, dark water the gabled houses of soft pinks and creams present a picture full of a quiet and pleasant beauty. From out the red roofs and the green masses of the trees rise two great towers, that of the Town Hall, a hundred and eighty feet high, and the spire of the Nieuwe Kirk, a hundred feet higher.
Before exploring the city itself it is like tasting a new book by opening its pages here and there, to walk around the town on the shaded paths by the encircling canal, resting now and then on the benches under the trees. It is there will best come to you the perception of Middelburg’s alluring beauty, and the difference of that beauty from that of other towns. You cannot hurry, for the sense of an abiding calm grows upon you, and you linger to look at the swans sail under a rustic bridge and across the reflection of a long-armed windmill. You watch the quaintly-clad people come and go, and presently you will fall to thinking of the history of the town that waits across the moat.
Under the shadow of the great tower of the Nieuwe Kirk lies the Abbey, where, four hundred years ago, gathered the Knights of the Golden Fleece in a gleaming pageant more splendid than Holland ever saw before. The Abbey itself was founded in the eleven hundreds, and though injured by fire, still is a place of serene old age. Almost as old is the municipality itself, chartered in the year 1253, the document still carefully kept in the town-house archives. Where we now sit and look across the velvet shadows of the moat, back in the days of the bloody struggle with Spain, camped a besieging army of the Dutch. For the Spanish held the town a long time, and endured the horrors of siege and famine and death just as bravely as the Dutch endured in other towns when compassed by the troops of Alva. But that was long ago, and since those evil days the history of Middelburg has been the commonplace of peace and prosperity and the content that comes with both, for a more contented-looking people than the twenty thousand Zeelanders who live here now cannot be found in Europe.
Before you cross the bridge and enter on the town, you are sure to find, if you are a good explorer, a most delightful road that entices you along the way to Veere. It is paved and shaded, and here come and go the queer, boat like wagons of the neighboring farmers, wagons with high, bright blue wheels, and green box-like bodies, and white, rounded, canvas tops, from under which peer faces quaintly framed. The strong brown-faced farmer with bobbed hair and gold earrings, and a queer little round cap, the wife with stiff white cap and gold ornaments a-dangle down her forehead, and the youngsters just like father or mother, as the case may be.
It was on this road that I saw a roundfaced maid in wooden shoes bring forth a kettle of boiling water and, dropping on her knees, proceed to scrub the middle of the paved street. And as for the sidewalks in the town itself, they are kept in such a state of immaculate cleanliness that to walk upon them is not to be thought of, each property owner extending an iron fence from his side line straight across the walk, so that the passerby takes, perforce, to the middle of the road.
But how wonderfully charming, none the less, are these Middelburg streets! There is such softness of color in the old brick fronts; such quaintness of outline in the high, steep gables; such surprising effect in the tight board shutters painted in hourglass designs in red and black, and black and white, and green and yellow, and many another combination. And it is all so old. Judging, from the dates, everything seems to have been built in the Sixteenth Century. Some of the houses have checkerboard fronts, where colored bricks are made into intricate design. The old mint has a very interesting facade, and bears the inscriptions, ” Serving Gold is Wrong ” and ” Money is the Sinews of War.” This trick of placing significant mottoes on their buildings is typically Dutch, and many private residences are adorned with legends such as ” This is my pleasure and my life,” ” The place for song,” and the like. For public buildings and old town gates, the Scriptures are so freely drawn on that one writer remarks that, should the Bible be otherwise lost to man, it could be replaced almost intact from the inscriptions on Dutch walls.
As you go along these quaint ways, you come unexpectedly upon beautiful bits of park and quiet squares, and finally into the Market-Place itself, all one side of which is filled by the Town Hall. I have seen famous town-houses in every country of Europe, but never have I seen one that appeared to me as beautiful as this Town Hall of Middelburg. After an absence of two years I went to Holland just to look upon it again, and my first impression was confirmed, and I am ready to proclaim it as among the most noteworthy buildings in Europe. It is an irregular, Gothic pile, its front a lacework of stone set about with statues, and a three-story roof from which look out twenty-four fascinating little dormer windows with red and white shutters. Back of this high slope of roof rises the beautiful tower dominating the city. When in this market square of Middelburg, I always feel as if in a theater where the curtain had just rung up and I was watching the stage expectantly for the appearance of the players. This is when the square is empty, as it often is. But when, on market days, long lines of booths form little streets down the center, each booth presided over by some figure out of an opera, and other figures, fully dressed for the stage, go hurrying back and forth in the shadow of that strange Town Hall, then I listen for the first note of the orchestra and the opening line of the chorus. The outlines of the Town Hall are too picturesque to be real, they are such as a scene painter would have produced as a background for these oddly garbed figures clattering by in their wooden shoes. Little streets of respectable red brick houses open into the perspective so exactly as they do into the flies, and here and there quaint gable fronts come into view with the same irrelevancy and unexpectedness as sometimes they do upon the painted scenery, that it is hard to realize that it is real life being played out before you. And not only the costumes, but the people themselves, seem wholly make-believe. Take that milkmaid with her tight-fitting white cap and little corkscrews of gold bobbing by her ears, a low-necked black waist that fits like a jersey, the short tight sleeves ending above the elbow, her immensely full black skirt, her wooden shoes, and, adjusted to her shoulders, that bright-blue wooden yoke with shining brass pails balancing on either side; watch her quick, business-like walk; nobody ever saw such a milkmaid bustle in and out again in that fashion except upon the stage. And that boy of twelve, with thick bobbed hair and gold earrings and little round black cap, and short, tight jacket, and enormously full long trousers, who stands just at the right spot smoking a huge cigar-he was certainly placed by the stage manager, and you wonder what he looks like in private life. And the dear, demure little maids from school, who come up the painted streets and take their appointed places. And that strikingly made-up fisherman. This is what you see in the Market Square at Middelburg.
And along the unreal streets the costumes are found as well. Of course, the quaint Dutch dress is worn less and less by the people of the town, but, none the less, in Middelburg and the province of which it is the capital, it still prevails more generally than anywhere else in the country, save in the Island of Maarken. The bicycle is everywhere, and in combination with these costumes is sometimes startling. For instance, I saw an old lady calmly pedaling along in full Dutch dress, save that on top of her little white cap was perched a widow’s bonnet from which there streamed out behind a long black crape veil; and a tall fat man in tight little roundabout, and pantaloons of enormous dimensions, with bobbed hair and a silk hat, will ever abide as a pleasant memory.
Middelburg is round like a wheel, with the market-place for the hub, and if you are forgetful of this fact, you are liable to go around and around and never get anywhere, in the circling streets. As you keep on, however, you pass by hundreds of old Dutch houses, some modern shops, and here and there a church whose outside looks inviting. But never go into a church in Holland if you would escape disappointment, for, no matter how splendid the exterior, the interior is inevitably spoiled by being drenched in whitewash, the painful effect being further intensified by great windows of plain glass, making the interior light and cold and barren.
I suppose Puritanism was good for the world, and an essential element in making straight the road for the development of modern thought and modern life, but it has much to answer for, after all, in robbing life of joy and religion of beauty. It was an excess just as savage as the things that went before, illustrative of the truth that has been eternal, that every great movement is never an unmixed blessing nor an unmixed sin. There is much to justify a faith that expressed itself in solemn and stately ritual, and made the road to heaven that opened through its great cathedrals a beautiful one to tread. And there is much that has to be forgiven in a creed that asserted itself in whitewash and a dull, drab life.
Speaking of churches, I never saw a continental town that so proclaimed its Sunday up to six P.m. All day there is a pervading atmosphere of serious quiet. All the shops are closed and shutters and curtains drawn aggravatingly over the inter esting windows. Everyone goes to church, and after service apparently sits at home, as the streets are all but deserted. But with twilight everything changes, and the Square fills to the edge with a rather noisy, ever-changing and ever-picturesque crowd. Tall policemen with long swords in their belts march solemnly back and forth, and handsome young sailor boys from the training-ship rival trig soldiers in red and blue for the attentions of the little Dutch maidens. The bronzed-faced fisher folk are back again, and some of the older men gravely bid the stranger good-evening as they pass. There are strapping boys of eighteen in close-fitting knickerbockers like boys of ten, and boys of ten in the long trousers and silver-buttoned jackets of their fathers. Here is a different groupa half-dozen young chaps from town, dressed in clothes that are strictly up-todate, and carrying dainty canes, and who look out of place laughing with that whitecapped girl with the wooden shoes. A neighboring village, Were possibly, sends in some half-grown lads who wear curious, derby-like hats with a very flat crown, and straight, narrow brims, that look odd enough perched on bushy hair.
Passing back and forth through the crowd are many men and women dressed as London and New York are dressing, save that their clothes do not fit. Around the outskirts of the throng circle the bicycles, every third one ridden by a whitecapped, full-skirted Gretchen. All the men and most of the boys are smoking, but the women refrain. There is much laughter and not a little horseplay. A boy of thirteen or so steps up to a girl and whispers something in her ear, and gets a sound smack for his pains, amid shouts of laughter from a crowd of older boys who put him up to it. Suddenly a song is started, and a group begins marching as they sing, others join until a hundred men and women are tramping to the melody up and down the Square. One or two Englishmen are looking on, but I am the only American, for Americans come but seldom to this most fascinating and most Dutch of towns. Over all are the ever recurrent chimes, first a hymn, then a strain from a light opera, but always sweet and always beautiful. The clock in the Town Hall strikes ten, and, at the first.stroke, out on the balcony below the dial come wooden knights mounted and armed, their spears striking fiercely on each other’s shield at every stroke of the bell. It is full moon, and after a time its light falls fair on the glorious carving of the wonderful old hall and makes it more wonderful than before; it floods the market-place and the queer figures moving there. By and by the square grows quieter; the people pass and do not come again, and soon the great space is empty save for the moonlight. The stage is silent again, but tonight I have seen the play.