Netherlands – Great Head Gate

THE best port of entry for all the delights of’ Dordrecht is Gorinchem. It is situated, as James suggests, on one of the Rhine’s granddaughters, the Merwede. The Waal at Gorinchem, a few hours above Dordrecht, takes this name — pronounced Mare-vaa-dah — and keeps on to Dordrecht where it masquerades again as De Noord and mingles with the Maas.

The approach to Gorinchem, — pronounced Horkum, as Gouda is spoken Howda — the approach to Alkmaar, and to Veere in Zeeland are, perhaps, the most strikingly effective among the many water-approaches in the Netherlands. The Waal just here is lake-like and broken into broad irregular reaches by points, a few of them wooded. We were on the lookout for ancient Woudrichem, pronounced Workum, as we rounded one of them on which stands the Castle of Loevenstein, intimately connected with the Netherlands’ seventeenth century history. After rounding this, we came upon the old church tower of Woudrichem, a ponderous, unfinished mass of great architectural beauty, and first cousin to the neighboring one of Dordrecht. It is a landmark for the country, as is Dort’s, and can be seen for miles in three directions.

Our Uncle Corney, or Oom Kees, as we preferred to call him, had been growing more and more loquacious as we neared his native Zeeland. He was a wonderful old fellow, only sixty-one, but looking seventy-five so seasoned was he with salt water and bent with toil. He had been in England, Singapore, Japan, and South America, and both spoke and understood English pass-ably well. But in his pride and excitement of showing us some new beauty of his watery land, he would lapse into Dutch, and describe it with a whole-hearted enjoyment that was always a source of amusement for James and for me. Sometimes he would tell yarns that flavored of fish; but if I doubted, he would look at me reprovingly out of his weather eye, which was always as wide open as the other was close shut — apparently! — and with a significant gesture, raise his salt-water-cracked and tiller-calloused right hand, the two first fingers up-lifted and the rest folded into the palm, with such an honestly injured expression that I was forced to believe him. Ben and he were friends from the first. He heard us exclaim at the age and mass of the ancient tower of Woudrichem, as it came into view, and favored us with a word or two of explanation in Dutch.

” Ja, it’s so old that the grass got to growing heavy on top of it — you can see from here what a sight there must have been — and nobody dared to go up there and mow it, it was so high; so they rigged up a derrick and a tackle, and hoisted a cow up there to graze it off.”

“Oh, Oom Kees! Not up there!” I had to protest.

” Ja, up there; and when they finally got the cow up she was — caput.”

“Not dead ?”

” Ja, caput for good and all.”

“When did this happen ?” James asked skeptically, thinking to phase him a little. The answer came promptly:

“Seventeen hundred and thirty-three.” We translated for Ben.

“And grass grows there now ?” Ben inquired, pursing his lips.

” Ja; take the glass and you’ll see for yourself.” He handed him the glass. Sure enough grass was growing in the crannies and on the top of the walls. Still I doubted; I turned to him.

“Now, Oom Kees, is this true ?”

He looked me straight in the eyes with his one honest, open, weather one, and, raising the two fingers of his right hand, repeated without the twitch of a facial muscle: “Seventeen hundred and thirty-three.”

What could we do but accept so solemn an affirmation?

Gorinchem, like human things, must be known to be loved. When once known and loved, one returns to it in spirit again and again, and always with the hope of returning to it in the flesh. The approach just outside the water-gate is seen in the illustration; but what is not seen is the wonderful approach on the Merwede. The town is ramparted with dykes that have salients like real fortifications, and bastioned by two great wind-mills, one at each end of the town. De Eendracht, a behemoth of a mill, the name of which signifies Union, towers above the shelving dyke-walls. Its great moving arms throw their shadows on the river waters. Within the flood-gates are the iron lock and sluice-gates that protect the inner haven. This is a large rectangular basin, bordered and shaded by elms and lindens, in which the bright-sailed craft are moored, and into which our worthy Broomstick, after nosing, literally, the iron sluice-gates, entered with colors flying, both of the Netherlands and the United States.

We moored by the broad, terraced, stone steps that extend two hundred feet or more along the “Eind” which forms within this dyke-ramparted town a kind of Venetian piazzetta. And James and I never enjoyed Venice, its canals, and piazzetta, more than we did the “Eind” and its clear green waters, shut safe and sound behind the double flood-gates. The vista of the long Linge Haven, that extends the length of the town and connects with the Linge, an affluent of the Merwede, is as fascinating in its way as the Grand Canal. Its back balconies and bow windows, projecting far over the water and filled with ivy and flowering plants, let one into the intimate life of the people as no Venetian palace façade can ever do. The town has its great campanile, also, St. Jan’s Tower that leans at a dangerous angle above the roofs of Gorinchem. It has what Venice has not, its Dalem Gate, over by the fishers’ quarters.

We took a walk that evening of our arrival out through this old gate to the adjoining fishers’ ward and the dykes beyond. We came upon a group of fishermen just outside the shadow of the arch. There were, perhaps, sixteen of them, and one and all removed their caps and gave us the usual evening salutation. It is charming to receive these greetings in a foreign land, for they are an index, not of dependent servility, but of brotherly good will and independent manhood.

There is always a foot-path along the dykes, and we followed it. In the soft rich evening light, that holds, as it were, the orange-red mists of sunset in suspension long after the sun is beneath the horizon, the wide waters of the Merwede gleamed like a mother-of-pearl shield embossed with emerald. The breeze blew fresh over the seemingly boundless meadows beyond the dykes. Some fishermen, sitting by their upturned boats, were mending their nets. The cries of children playing in the street beyond the Dalempoort came faintly to us. As the dyke zigzagged to the entrance of the haven just by the great windmill, we came upon some houses high on the dyke wall beside the water-gate. Just there a long balcony, the balustrade of which was covered with trailing vines and bright with blossoms, overhangs the outer waters of the Merwede. We saw little tables set in it, and people moving to and fro behind the vines; we heard from within the house singing and laughter. It was a living picture after Van Ostade.

It seemed the continuation of a serial story to enter the narrow streets once more, and climb the steep stairs in our comfortable inn to the large, low-celled bed-rooms; to fall asleep in the knowledge that on the morrow we might wake to all the enjoyment of “De Eendracht,” the “Eind,” the homelike clatter of wooden klompjes on the pavements, as well as all the sweet sounds of an unspoiled country life that was everywhere in evidence about us.

Such a town of “little gates” as it is! Flood-gates and sluice-gates and Dalem Gate, and one ancient, tiny “goose-gate,” which gave me entrance into a close that was a Ieft-over bit of the Middle Ages, and Hugo de Groot’s poortje, another “little gate,” and garden gates, and gates that open upon the green slopes of the far-stretching dykes!

A fine introduction, this little Gorinchem, for the greater Dordrecht on the lower Merwede ! Let anyone from across the sea enter by its water-gate and sit for a summer’s day in the shadow of De Eendracht, or on the terraced steps of the “Eind” and watch the life of the place all about him. That man will never count that day but as a gain.

We had hoped to sail from Gorinchem to Vianen and from there to Vreeland on the Vecht; but it would not bring us to Dordrecht in time for the girls. That is another bit of enjoyment we have saved for the future.

Dear old Dort! With its quays, and drawbridges, and vessels, and boats, masts, rigging, trees, houses, gates, and the Dean of Dutch towers, all higgledy-piggledy — tower, masts, and houses beginning no one knows where and ending no one knows how! One thing only is certain, as you approach it from the Merwede, that there never was just such an old town guarded by just such an old church, standing with both feet in lively, bright-blue, glinting waters, as this same Dort on the lower Merwede.

I have been so fortunate as to approach it by water — and unless one has made this approach he cannot be said to have seen Dort — six times, and every time its surpassing charm has grown the greater. To see far away in the distance, as we sail down the Merwede, the great tower loom faintly blue; to watch it draw nearer and nearer and define itself as the guardian of the town; to catch a first glimpse of Great Head Gate and see it detach itself from the surrounding jumble of houses and masts, and plant itself sturdily in open-arched welcome to the stranger; to disembark under the great trees on the Merwekade; to find one’s way through that great gate, and around the corner to a particular inn and up winding stairs to a particular room, the side window of which opens on a small balcony that is flush with the windows of that gate, is to feel “at home” in a strange land, and an “at-oneness” with the surroundings.

James had written for our rooms, and as I leaned on the taffrail watching our approach, about four in the afternoon, I pleased myself by thinking how soon I could preëmpt my room by the Great Head Gate and, placing my chair on the little balcony, watch, under the protection of the historical walls, the fascinating life of the great water way beneath me.

“The best laid plans,” etc. As we drew to the quay at the foot of the gate, I was aware of a girl dressed in pink sitting in a straw chair on that same preëmpted Great Head balcony of mine! She was holding over her bare head a rose-pink parasol, frilled and flounced with white lace and chiffon. For a most effective back-ground she had the façade of the splendid old domed Groothoofdspoort, all carved lions, and heads, and aIlegorical figures, and medallions. I confess it was a start-ling sight, and for a few minutes it dwarfed the great gate, its dome, its arch, and everything about it into insignificance — just a pretty American girl in a pink dress with a rose-pink sunshade over her head to dwarf the Great Head Gate of ancient Dordrecht!

But she did it! And so effectively that James exclaimed under his breath, before I could regain my mental equilibrium:

“By George! She’s scored one on her side this time! What’ll Ben say ?”

This was my thought — a far from pleasing one, — and I gave the girl a mental shaking for springing such a surprise on us. Yet I might have expected some-thing of the sort, knowing Lois as I do. I looked towards Ben. Apparently he was lost in admiration of the view afforded by our approach.

“Let things take their course,” I whispered hurriedly to James — and they did!

Lump always accepted the dropping of the tow-fender by Oom Kees between The Broomstick and a quay as the signal for him to make known our arrival to all whom it might, or might not, concern. This he now proceeded to do with such vim and thoroughness that our otherwise unpretentious craft was forced upon the attention of every lounger on the quay, every occupant of the inn at the windows which looked to the Merwede, every man of every crew on the various river craft about us. It was a steady fortissimo “fah, jah, :fah,” with not a breath between, wholly confusing as well as deafening.

Suddenly from the balcony came an answering yelp, then a chromatic scale of frantic squeals and choking barks. There was a flurry of the pink dress, a grab at the dog to keep him from throwing himself between the irons of the balustrade, a reaching into the window; then the two, girl and dog, stood there together. The thoroughbred Boston terrier, for such I perceived him to be — the one that Ben had given her the winter before — was vainly attempting to dash himself over into the street. With one hand the girl was waving with might and main a small Stars and Stripes; with the other she was restraining the almost frantic dog in his efforts to reach Ben. .

We perceived that this was intended for a salute to our flag. Oom Kees dipped the colors, and James and Ben bared their heads, like the two dear American men that they are; and, somehow, in the confusion of the canine duet, and amidst laughing, and pretty nearly weeping on my part, I got myself disembarked only to find Lou’s and Lois’ arms about me.

“And how do you do, Mr. Hardon ?” Lois said, cordially, offering him her hand over the gunwale as she stood on the quay. “Well, if this isn’t jolly! You don’t mean to say, Cousin James, that this is our boat and we’re to go in it! How perfectly lovely! I’m coming on board.” And therewith she ran over the small gang-plank, and within five minutes had pronounced “the whole thing perfect,” had the promise from Neeltje of a herring-salad for a supper at some future time, had shaken hands with our grave nephew-captain and brought a smile to his face, and reduced Oom Kees to an abject state of slavish adoration; in fact, in ten minutes she owned The Broomstick. That is Lois.

“Oh, where’s Bizzy ?” she exclaimed, as a sudden cessation of the double yelps allowed our own voices to be heard. “That dog’s been more trouble than he’s worth!” she exclaimed, half-pettishly. I perceived this remark to be made for the benefit of Ben.

“I’ll gladly take him off your hands, Miss Moulton. The old fellow and I used to be such chums,” said Ben, in such a hearty tone of assurance that it did my soul good to hear him; I knew he could stand his ground after I heard that.

Prince Bismarck, as the aristocratic thoroughbred was named, and called Bizzy for short, was at that moment low on his paunch engaged in licking Ben’s boots with a desperation of loving frenzy. He, too, had entered into his own again, for he had been Ben’s dog before he had been given to Lois. I saw at once that Bizzy’s return to his early allegiance and its expression were not pleasing to our small cousin. But she smiled, and answered just as heartily:

“You’re awfully kind to take him off my hands, for I shall really enjoy going about without him tagging at my heels and threatening to fight every foreign dog he meets; and, so far as I see, he meets with one about once a minute here in Holland.”

“I’ll see to it that he doesn’t trouble you any more,” said Ben, rather stiffly, and I perceived that the war was on again between the two, and groaned inwardly. “And by the way, how do you happen to come and surprise us here in this fashion ?” he said, pleasantly; “it’s time to give an account of yourselves,” he added, turning to Lou.

I know I was mean; but I left James to explain the situation as best he could, and hurried Lou away with me through the archway to the hotel — and another room than the one I had preempted by the Great Head Gate!