Netherlands – Alkmaar’s Weigh House

WE made a continuous voyage, after leaving the wind-mill country at Koog, by way of the interesting Zaan to the broad Lake of Alkmaar whereon we sailed as on the shallow waters of an inland sea. It is lonely thereabout, but not desolate, and beautiful in the long crimson lights of a brilliant sunset. Emerging from the lake we entered the North Holland Canal which runs between sparsely settled stretches of marshlands where no tree is seen, where no bird sings, where no lowing of cattle, no human note is heard at sundown between earth and sky, and made the long straight approach to Alkmaar.

At a quarter of nine we entered the haven. Behind us the night was near, and heavens and canal were darkly blue, the one a reflection of the other. Beneath and about us the waters of the narrow harbor gleamed a pomegranate pink, which is half crocus-yellow, in that wonderful afterglow. Before us the dwellings and ware-houses, the steep, irregular, crowded roofs, the curiously shaped gables and the delicate spire of the Custom House stood out black against the background of a pale, saffron-tinted sky. The illustration, which shows the approach to the ancient Weigh House at Alkmaar, is perfect in its way and serves for an intimation of what the beauty of such approaches may be when exquisite coloring enhances the reflections.

The Captain’s joy in our joy was a delight to both James and me. We followed him trustfully from the wharf (there are no conveyances to meet the Alkmaar Packet and private Broomsticks!) along a roadway paved with what I call agony stones, small, sharp-angled pieces of granite or brick or stone laid closely. The way was dark with overarching trees, and after various turnings our guide brought us to an old inn, De Toelast. It proved a very haven of rest where, after a supper of noble pro-portions at ten, we took our brass candlesticks from an ancient mahogany table in the entrance hall, and climbed the steep stairs to the cozy, old-fashioned bedrooms, furnished, all of them, in solid mahogany. As usual the beds were bolstered with a slice of mattress resembling a huge wedge of cheese ( James propounded the theory that the many round-shouldered men and women of the better class are the resultant of sleeping at such an angle), pillowed with two small beds, double-blanketed with Holland wool, and overlaid with a gay tufted cotton comforter the weight of which I judged to be about twenty pounds. In journeying through the Netherlands one should reckon on the time it takes to unmake and re-make the Dutch beds. One learns the routine with time and how to expedite matters, but out of every six months one day should be counted lost in the exigencies of bed-making.

I shall not soon forget that awakening. Half the charm of foreign travel is to enter a new place under cover of night and awake early in the morning full of anticipations at prospect of the new and the unknown. At that hour all sounds are suggestive, all garden fragrances idealizing, all glimpses of the early morning sun an earnest of many joyful hours. I awoke on this special morning with the sound of the carillon dropping its music from clear, high-pitched bells. Now and then a note struck in accord with an anvil’s hammer rung regularly by some harmonious blacksmith in the neighbor-hood. I heard the cackling of geese, the booing of sheep, but afar, the bleating of lambs, not of several, but, I judged by the noise, of several hundreds. In the midst of these sounds the clocks began striking seven. I counted six in all, each following the other with unexpected irregularity. This noisy olla podrida proved too much for a parrot beneath my window who, straightway rousing to the fray, proceeded to imitate every known bird-call and finished with a succession of meouws real enough to have deceived the best intentioned cat in Alkmaar. It was time to be abroad.

While dressing I took a peep from my window at the small Dutch garden below. It was made up of two high, ivy-covered walls and a grass-patch. A laburnum tree, laden with its drooping yellow clusters, made morning glorious in one corner, in another a magnolia was just opening its white moons. I went out into the fresh morning lights and found the town astir. In these latitudes half the work is done in the long mornings be-fore six, and I went with the human stream. It carried me along the Mient — rows of fine old houses and shops bordering a kind of Grand Canal, crossed by a brick-arched Dutch Rialto, and next-door neighbor to the Weigh House — and swept me into a corner of the Market-Place. There I remained till James and the Captain found me. That human stream debauching on the Market-Place divided my interest with the Place and its contents. It was what the Dutch call Beast Market, for there are likewise Butter Markets, Grain Markets and Cheese Markets, all of which find their social centre in the Market Place hard by the famous Weigh House. In that one spot were gathered hundreds of farmers in long blue frocks which Mauve in his paintings has made classic. They carried the shepherd’s crook, and leaned on it, hooked up lambs with it, restrained headstrong rams and lined up straying goats with it. They made their slow gesticulations of approval or dissent with it, and, for aught I know, bargained with it. It was the bishop’s crozier democratized. A man’s gathering truly, and typical of man’s occupation from Abraham down.

I have never seen such flocks of long-wooled sheep, both ewes and rams, not even on English downs, nor such herds of milk-white goats, with hair like spun silk.

The fathers of the latter were clean-limbed, thin-necked, large-eyed, the mothers delicate creatures with large full pink udders; the spotless kids worthy to be apotheosized by a Jan Steen or a Van Ostade. The Market Place was filled with the white beasts, the boats moving along the canal were white with them; the arms of small boys full of them as they aided the protesting ones by hoisting the hind legs and running them on their two forefeet along the narrow walk or gang-plank towards the pens. I discovered a fact, which is doubtless well known to the initiated, that, as a horse’s pace is set by the reach of his hind legs, so an innocent goat’s power of resistance lies in his haunches. Deprive him of these, and you have the ludicrous process of forced locomotion which I saw all through North Holland.

There is no denying it — the centre of attraction at Alkmaar is its Markets, and Market Place dominated by the ancient Weigh House, and approached by the two picturesque canals that border the Mient and Luttik Oudorp.

Like many another Dutch town Alkmaar has had its memorable siege and covered itself with the glory of a brave resistance. It has its Great Church that lost its tower four hundred years ago, which shows it to be in sympathy with a hundred other churches in a like plight. Indeed, there would seem to be scarce an Old Church or Great Church, Abbey or Cathedral in Holland, the tower of which has not tumbled down in some past century, which has not lost a nave, as at Utrecht, or an apse, a roof, or perchance itself, as at Amersfoort, in some disaster caused by wind, subsidence, fire or floods. It has a really beautiful Stadhuis and a “wood,” a weak imitation of Haarlem. It has, also, for suburban neighbors, proud Egmond aan Zee and Egmond op den Hoef and Egmond-Binnen; it will not let you forget its great names.

But when all is said and all is read — as read it may be from Motley to De Amicis — it is the beautiful old Weigh House, reflected in the tree-fringed canal by the Luttik Oudorp and presiding over the busy mart and the human throng which fills it, that draws us to Alkmaar and holds us there. It is the human life, also, that foregathers here on market days: the men in the long blue frocks, crook in hand, and their wives and daughters, charming each, whether young, middle-aged or old, in her neat costume and rich headgear, topped by a truncated cone of a yellow straw bonnet. The delicate gold band half an inch wide that is worn on the forehead is wrought with all the cunning and al-most genius of the goldsmith’s art in finest filigree. An unmarried woman wears the band across the left temple; it extends to the middle of the forehead. A married woman wears hers on the right. They are caught beneath the dainty embroidered cap, and fastened to a broad gold band beneath it by long gold pins the heads of which, projecting over each temple, are either exquisitely chased, wrought in relief, or made in filigree.

One may see hundreds of these bright, fresh faces, framed in their caps and rich headgear, on the Mient where they make their purchases. One will find them in the silversmiths’ shops buying the silver chains, the bracelets, the buttons for everyday wear. For they are rich, rich beyond telling, these plain-spoken, kindly people of North Holland, and the Market is their bourse. Like the ancient unvitiated Romans they find their riches in the barter and exchange of their pecunia; hence their satisfactory pecuniary condition.

We stood with a small group of peasants by the draw-bridge over the canal by the Luttik Oudorp and listened to the carillon in the Weigh House steeple at twelve of noon. It played unheeded by the busy hundreds who were bargaining sheep and goats, nor separating one from the other. But, when the bell boomed its dozen strokes, and the famous little knights on their mimic platform beneath the clock caracoled gaily and doughtily back and forth, in and out in mock tourney, there was a moment’s lull in the murmur of tongues, and more than one sunburned, strong-lined peasant face was raised to this mimic Pantomime of the Ages acted to the life so far above their heads. We are children, all.