Netherlands – An Ex-Voto Offering

WE lingered in Leyden, for the city charmed us, and there was something of interest for every day and hour. We did exactly as we chose, and, I’m quite sure, we generally chose to do what no one else has ever cared to do.

We leaned by the hour on the guards of the swing bridge hard by the old Zyl Gate which, as James said, is decidedly “off its base.” It is hunched and settled, and, seemingly, shrunken with age. We never tired of watching the various craft — yellow-ochre sailed, brown, white, burnt-sienna, and black sailed — that, laden with turf, lumber, willow-withes and country produce of all kinds, enter from the Old Rhine by the Zÿl Gate into the ample Rhine Haven.

The man poles his boat, the woman steers, and the inevitable dog keeps up his running accompaniment from one to the other. The bridge tender drops some-thing on the end of a long fish-line to the woman as she passes beneath him. It is a little wooden shoe such as the peasant children wear. In the toe is tucked a slip of paper which the woman extracts, and for it she substitutes the two or four cents toll according to the craft. One may see the drop of this fish-line with its small wooden shoe for bait whenever a bridge is opened for a passing boat.

We walked up one street, or singel, or gracht as it chanced, and down another, aimless, but blissfully content just to walk, to enjoy, to revel in the simple nothings which can never be found in any earthly guidebook, but which make for the joys of the true traveller: the clatter of a multitude of wooden shoes on the pavements; the setting sun suddenly eclipsed before one’s very face and eyes by a huge brown sail hobnobbing with one’s elbow; that inexplicably entrancing twilight that luminously enhances all which it should enshroud until every vista, whether of land or water, looks to be a long, long road to Paradise.

We blundered in this most irregular fashion into all sorts of delightful experiences, and our “finds” were legion. Fancy discovering a real “Long Paradise Street” in the crowded poorer section of the little city! And in the near neighborhood, we ran down a quarry of artistic charm in a kind of cul-de-sac closed by an ancient gateway. Fancy ringing at the mysterious portal and having it open to admit you into a very Court of Peace — the Joost Frans van Lindenspoort Ho f je!

These ho f jes are an institution peculiar to the Netherlands, and to understand the reason of their endowment it is necessary to describe them. The Dutch care well for their poor, but they do something finer: they enable those of restricted means to live with “dignified frugality” in the independence and freedom of their own firesides. What matter if the “fireside” be a pleasant fiction, and consist of a tiny grate and one blinking piece of turf or a briquette ? It is his own. They are well worth description as well as study, for the principle underlying the endowments for these ho f jes shows us one of the rugged foundation stones of Dutch independence, graced, where one least expects it, with ideality.

Picture within this “special” gate of the Van Lindenspoort Hofje a rectangular court set with grass, shrubs and a tree or two, bordered with spring flowers and laid about with a narrow paved walk. A blind wall pierced by the single entrance gate, and white with the bloom of a pear tree trained against it, forms one end. Two rows of tiny brick houses a story and a half high, one window and a door wide, form the sides. The other end is also a blind wall, provided with a pent roof. This covered space is furnished with table, benches and chairs, and forms an afternoon-coffee and smoking-room for the inmates of the ho f je. The regents’ rules, regulating hours of entrance, closing, and limiting the stay of ho f je guests, are hung on the wall. The open front of this invitingly cool out-of-doors coffee-room is curtained with masses of ivy.

Such friends as we made in this fascinating Joost Frans van Lindenspoort Ho f je that, long generations since, one of God’s own noblemen endowed for husbands and wives honestly poor and honestly proud!

There was the gate-keeper, hospitable, and rejoicing in his trim little garden and his own bird-cage of a house, his home for the past fifteen years. There was his comely wife of seventy-seven, with never a gray streak in her shining dark hair, and only one wise wrinkle across her forehead to inform a close observer that she had had experience of life. There was the lately widowed Vrouw A, with manners becoming a duchess, who cordially invited us into her immaculate snuggery, and showed us the whole house, which, like the others, consists of a small passageway, one tiny living-room, an infinitesimal kitchen — when she stepped into it the door could not possibly be shut — one bedroom above, and an apology for a garret. The prices paid for the houses vary in the different hofjes. Widow A’s cost her husband seven hundred gulden, a matter of two hundred and ninety dollars, some twelve years ago. This sum is equivalent to a life-lease for both man and wife. It is hers unto the end — then another fortunate couple, having arrived at the age limit of sixty, will occupy her peaceful dwelling in this little oasis on life’s “Western Slope.”

These hofjes are in no sense a charity. They are a graceful recognition on the part of the men who endow them of the two great basal principles upon which the superstructure of the happiness of the whole human race has been and will continue to be raised; one is altruistic — I am my brother’s keeper—in its most practical interpretation; the other individualistic, in that it accords to each man independence with economy, ease with frugality, and acknowledges the unit of the family. The houses are furnished by the owners always cosily and comfortably, sometimes richly. Many an heirloom in old mahogany or fine porcelain gave me an envious pang. With their Lares and Penates about them these old people provide for their own tables, receive members of their families and their friends as guests, smoke their pipes in peace, and drink their coffee to the gossipy accompaniment of wifely tongues and the click of knitting needles in busy fingers. It was a joy to see their joy in the fact that they had visitors from America. “From America! From America!” our old gate-keeper shouted in his excitement, and more than one head appeared at the tiny windows in response to the unwonted cry.

“From America, thank God!” said James, reverently. With one hand he tucked my arm through his and, despite the fact of our having been married fifteen years, squeezed it hard in the presence of our ho f je friends; with the other he shook the old gate-keeper’s hand so substantially that I feel sure the Joost Frans van Lindenspoort Hofje’s open-air coffee-room was redolent of Java, tobacco, and honey-cakes for a month afterwards.

“Persis, do you know what I’ll do if I get the award for the plans of the new Peace Conference Palace at The Hague ?”

“What, James ?”

“I’ll endow an American Persis and James Moulton of Boston Hofje for indigent husbands and wives; and when you and I are old, Persis, we’ll —”

“What, James ?”

I got no verbal answer, but I knew: we would gladly seek in our old age a refuge in just such a dear little Court of Peace, and be happy, oh, so happy! – providing only that we might be together.

James hummed ” John Anderson my jo, John,” all the way to our modest Cafe’ de Harmonie in the Breestraat, where we took our dinner. I smiled to hear him, for I knew his heart was still within the four walls of Joost van Lindenspoort’s Hofje.

Afterwards we took our way through intricate side streets, across a courtyard, beneath an archway guarded by a rampant stone lion of the Netherlands, and climbed the winding path to the eminence that is crowned by De Burcht, a thousand-year-old remnant of a supposed for-tress, and, standing there beneath one of its great round arches, we watched the sun set over the red roofs of Leyden, home of our Pilgrim ancestors! Later on, in the long twilight, we made our own daily pilgrimage to what should be every true New Englander’s Mecca: noble St. Peter’s Church in Clock Lane, where John Robinson lies buried.

Yes, our Mecca. Scrooby, Leyden, Delfshaven, Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay — every one is a name for all born on New England’s soil or who have New England’s blood in their veins to conjure with; names that should stir both young blood and old to new endeavor, that should call to mind the supreme faith of those Few whom Lanier with deep poetical vision names:

“Godly hearts that, Grails of gold, Still the blood of Faith do hold.”

The wonder is that the small bare chapel, beneath the pavement of which John Robinson lies in an unmarked grave, is not filled with offerings from across the sea. The wonder increases as we linger in the great church of St. Peter’s, that no monument erected by New England’s sons stands within it as an ex-voto offering to the brave heart that spoke courage to the Few, and sent them forth, heartened, to tread the winepress alone — and for us — across the sea.

“Oh, James!” I exclaimed, “I wish I might stir my own people to a realization of what they owe to Leyden and John Robinson! Oh, why, with the patriotic sentiment that prompts the formation of New England Societies and Mayflower Dittos and Colonial Dames and Revolutionary Sons and Daughters, can’t there be enough recognition of the spiritual import of that migration to fill this poor bare stone chapel with lovely memorial windows and some masterpiece in stone ?”

James smiled upon me indulgently. “`Why don’t you speak for yourself,’ Persis, when you get home ? I’ll wager not a son of New England would resist such persuasive eloquence.”

“I will,” I said, firmly, much to his delight; but I quaked inwardly for, of course, James, being mine, overestimates my power with other men. However, I knew he wasn’t making fun of me, so I took out of my bag my own little ex-voto offering — a surprise to James — in the shape of a spray of New England pine and a poor bit of faded arbutus vine, and laid them on the pavement of the chapel.

“I agree with you, Perlis,” said James after a moment’s silence in which he looked his surprise; “there should be a noble monument to mark the very spot; this sort of thing is too indefinite, too impersonal.”

“That’s just the way I feel; and I’d put on one face of the monument that verse of Lanier’s which is as applicable to the Netherlands as to the Pilgrim Fathers and to us.”

“I know it!” he exclaimed, promptly, and quoted the very lines:

“Freedom lives, and Right shall stand; Blood of Faith is in the land.”

“Yes,” I cried delighted, “and your being able to quote it is a positive proof of the oneness of our souls, James! although our opinions do differ more or less.”

James laughed. “Rather more than less, niet?” — James can be irritating even in his best moods sometimes. — “But you’ve made a fine distinction, little mother. By the way, you’ve kept mighty close about these bits of the real New England; — where and how did you get them?”

“From Lou.”

“Lou ?”

“Yes; and, oh, James, don’t, I beg of you, ask me anything more about it now. I’m sure thereby will hang a future tale, and I don’t dare to break the news to you, or contemplate the consequences.”

“Oh, go ahead and out with it; you’ll feel better.”

“I really can’t tell you now, James; wait till we’re on The Broomstick again.” With that he had to be satisfied.