Netherlands – Fields Elysian

FOR one day, with Leyden still as our base, we deserted The Broomstick and took the early morning train to Haarlem. The hyacinth fields were in the height of their blossoming and the tulips beginning to open. We wanted to verify the illustrated postal cards. We feared they were colored caricatures of the reality.

There is in the Mauritshuis at The Hague a notable landscape by Jacob van Ruisdael: a view of Haarlem taken from the dunes at Overveen. One can obtain much the same view from the train as it approaches the city, with an overlook of the famous flower fields which are miles in extent.

The early train was our choice, for at that hour, six or seven, light mists hang above the Low Lands and, without obscuring the view, enhance all natural beauty and soften the hard outlines of the city’s architecture. That short ride was through Elysian Fields. By means of it we caught their whole effect and were spared details. Conceive of a rainbow trailing its earth-touching ends for miles and miles over the face of the country between Leyden and Haarlem. Conceive of the perfumes of Araby following in its wake! The whole surrounding air was heavy with fragrance. The mists rose and fell over the rainbow-tinted earth, and the train sped on through an unreality of exquisitely harmonious coloring, until we saw the great church of St. Bavon rising like a grand ark of the covenant above the morning mists, and heard the guard call, “Haarlem.” We descended, slightly dazed.

“Have you found the pot of gold?” were James’ first words as we walked up the platform.

“I’m not sure, but I know I have come as near to finding it as I ever can.”

“Same here,” he said, emphatically. Then we took the electric tram to Bloemendaal and found that Huysum and Rachel Ruysch, with proverbial Dutch faithfulness, have painted their wonderful flower pieces to the life. We saw a field of early rose-pink and white tulips in bloom in which a single chalice would measure seven inches in diameter. We saw acres upon acres of hyacinths that showed an exquisite gradation of purple, lavender, pink, and white, and every single bell was the size of a small tuberose.

We returned to The Little Hague, as James calls Haarlem, and joyfully wasted our time until near sunset. We found out the winkel, or little shop, where they sell the famous Haarlem specialty in pastry, the halletjes: round thin cakes that have been made from the same recipe for the past three hundred years. And in that winkel we munched their brown crispness with entire satisfaction and inner content. We ran into the Stadhuis just for the sake of shaking hands again with our delightful Frans Hals and all his jovial company of officers. We hob-robbed especially with the Colonel of the Archers of St. Adrian and the fine Haarlem Burgomaster, and, in spirit, drank his health who looks out from the canvas with a raised antique glass in his hand, a glass in which the red wine — is wine, very blood of the grape. I have seen no such painting elsewhere; even Rembrandt has not excelled it. We took a farewell look at the ancient Meat House that stands half in the shadow of the Great Church, and from an obscure corner in the Great Market viewed the astounding high-shouldered bulk of St. Bavon’s transept.

We followed the serpentine Spaarne in its windings through the city, and when the shadows began to lengthen we preëmpted the two seats on the front platform of the steam-tram, and joggled, with innumerable stops, for more than two hours through and around and into and pretty nearly over every small town and hamlet between Haarlem and Leyden; through Heemsted, and Hillegom, through lovely Lisse, past half the back doors of Sassenheim to the front door of the Red Lion at Oegsgeest. All this journey was through the heart of the flower country.

It is a cheek-by-jowl method of travel, and, until one becomes wonted to it, one feels as if he were an intruder, and experiences a strong desire to apologize for stopping within a foot of the inhabitants’ windows and overlooking their intimate family life. It is an embarrassment to a modest soul to find himself being run, with a mighty clanging of bells, into a Dutchman’s front dooryard and up to the very door before which the family are taking their afternoon coffee; but I confess to a better understanding of Dutch village life on account of this peculiar manner of travelling.

Like everything else it has its compensations: a soft breeze from the sea blows freshly into your face; the rotating shadows of a mill’s great sails fall upon you as the tram halts beneath its sleek-thatched eaves; the small wooden-shod children make friends with you on the car steps and offer you great bunches of hyacinths strung on strings — a full peck for five cents! The night air is overpoweringly sweet with the incense shaken from an infinitude of dainty hyacinth bells; a thrush whistles to you from the top of a linden, and every turn of the highway, along which the tram is running, presents you with an unforgettable picture.

I recall at Hillegom an ivy-mantled gable by the side of a canal. I saw it at sunset across a wide foreground of early pink, and white, and yellow tulips. Some white doves were fluttering about the tiny pent-roofed dove-cote affixed to the house gable and half-hidden by the draping ivy.

All about the fields and by the side of the canals lay great masses of gathered hyacinths, as large as small haystacks: blotches of pink and purple against the green. They are cut early to strengthen the plant and insure good flowering for the marketed bulbs. This flower refuse the Dutch utilize as dressing for the fields.

As the sun sank lower its crimson light was reflected here and there along the narrow canals that intersect the fields, so banding them with brilliant color. Across many acres of pale blue hyacinths a group of barns and hayricks thatched with warm browns stood out against the level western light.

As the sun dipped to the horizon we passed the clear blue waters of a canal narrowing in perspective to the west. In the foreground was an old boat moored beside a field of white hyacinths. It was loaded above the gunwale with blood-red tulips. In the background a blood-red sun was sinking into the evening mists that were gathering beyond the dunes.

Such are a few of the aquarelles we hang upon the walls of memory. They serve to recall those illusive Elysian Fields.