Netherlands – Holland Within

OUR home was not far from the beautiful estate which more than three hundred years ago belonged to the famous Jacob Cats. He was a kind of rhyming Benjamin Franklin, from all I can learn about him, and his name has become an honored household word, beloved among the Dutch in much the same sense that Franklin’s is among us. It is a synonym for homely wisdom, trenchant philosophy, shrewd diplomacy and intense patriotism. Part of this estate has been secured for the new Peace Conference Palace in The Hague.

James, after looking the ground over, was seized with the competing mania, and gave all his daylight hours — they were few enough — to that absorbing work of design. On this account, as my household was running smoothly, I found time to explore The Hague to my full satisfaction. It served to pass away the time; but four months of such pastime is sufficient. Naturally I speak as a foreigner, foreign to the land, its homes, its people, its customs. I can see only with a foreigner’s eyes, can judge only from a foreigner’s point of view. It may not be the right point from which to write upon another country than my own; yet it is one of necessity taken by many an open and right-minded German, Frenchman, or Englishman who has written on our country, and from whom we have learned “to see ourselves as others see us” with, in many instances, much profit to ourselves. I am sure the Dutch are none too good to be viewed through the same liberal glasses of an American.

I write of the Netherlands neither to criticise nor compare; that would be both unwise and ignorantly narrow-minded. I desire only to place before those who find this land for many reasons interesting beyond others, certain phases of Dutch life which presented themselves to me during a residence of many months in the Netherlands.

From the very first, there was noticeable during the winter the absence of anything like joyousness abroad in the streets. The men were stolidly sober, the women neutrally quiet, the children placid, the dogs, and they are legion, barkless, the horses without a whinny. I never saw a dog chase a cat, neither did I see girls playing tag, nor good healthy boys tearing down the Old Scheveningen Road like so many steam fire-engines to the rescue. I accounted for this last fact after seeing the fire apparatus of The Hague. One day I noticed an inoffensive-looking concern, about as large as a small dump-cart, faring at a dog-trot pace along that famous avenue. It was manned by three men in brilliant scarlet and astonishing helmets. There was an insignificant engine, connected with this portion of a Dutch fire department, and the small hook and ladder accompaniment could easily be put to shame by my window-washing truck with its ladders, buckets and poles. It was the saddest looking fire-engine I had ever seen, and there was not even one small boy to race and shout in its wake! I confess I had a homesick pang at the sight. But I put reason to work afterwards, and James said that, for once, I reasoned well and as follows: There is the minimum of heat in every house in The Hague; there must be fire to make heat; consequently, little heat, little fire; little fire, little water required to put it out. If water were needed there is enough on tap to extinguish Vesuvius in its recent eruption.

Shoals of school children used to pass me in the streets, marching sedately and stolidly two and two, the two little fingers linked, as the custom is with peasants who are betrothed, the master or mistress at the head. Often they broke forth into singing, but the singing was stolidly discordant, and the tune a legitimate heir of the Lutheran psalmody of the Reformed Church! I rarely heard a child laugh, or cry. The babies submitted to hardships that would have roused a baby of any other nationality to protest with the full vigor of his lungs. In the trams there is no genial give and take, and exchange of weather nonsense among acquaintances who chance to meet. The electrics, even, run almost noiselessly, so perfect is the roadbed and the adjustment of the wires.

Of an afternoon about four, in the dismal early dark of a Dutch winter, I liked to walk through the two or three principal streets, all of them less than twenty feet in width, just for the sake of looking into the windows of the various cafés, which were only dimly lighted, and seeing the men and women take their material pleasures, as it seemed to me, with a kind of desperate sobriety. Sometimes I used to join them. James drew the line at these cafés and would not go in, declaring they were the “limit” and made him “club-sick.” Of course I knew what he meant — I had experience of the feeling when I saw the fire-engine. But I enjoyed the fun; everybody was so abnormally solemn. Little lads in white linen caps, full, long, white duck trousers and white duck “sneaks,” flitted noiselessly hither and thither, like great white moths, with trays of chocolate, tea, coffee, and plates of rich pastries, the Dutch koeken of many names.

The occupants of the café, seated on small uncomfortable stools or narrow-backed chairs, ate the cakes and sipped their chocolate or coffee with toy spoons, the like of which the Dutch have used for centuries, without the accompaniment of a smile, a merry word, or the sound of cheerful laughter. It was all so silent, so dull, so dim, that I found myself longing for the first time in my life to be going to an afternoon “tea” at home, where I could lose myself in a rising flood of be-flounced and be-chiffoned femininity, where my voice would be’ drowned in the flood-tide of shrill chat and laughter, and my eyes be dazzled with lights and flowers and sparkling glass and silver.

Even the cakes are historical and their making an organized industry. A Dutch friend told me that for two or three centuries certain cakes, monopolies of certain cities and towns, have been made from the same recipe. It is a point of honor for one city not to steal another city’s specialty and sell it under another name. This same friend was kind enough to make a list of some of them that we might be on the lookout for these tidbits on our travels. Afterwards as we came to know not only Holland, but other portions of the Netherlands, we made a point of buying these koeken in the various cities. Thus in the course of time and travel we ate Haarlem halletjes, Utrecht theerondjes, Gouda sprits — or “spout-cakes” because the dough is dropped through a funnel — Rotterdamsche peperkoeken, Breda ontbÿtkoek, Arnhem meisjes — maids — and hop jes of The Hague, which are not cakes at all, but a kind of burnt butter-scotch candy. It seems a certain Baron Hop gave away this recipe fully three hundred years ago, and the faithful Dutch continue to serve this confection, without the suspicion of a change in ingredients, unto this very day to thousands of consumers. They are dear, too, like all else in The Hague, and the brown bits cost on an average a cent apiece.

I could read these women’s lives from their slow movements, from their expressionless faces, from their rich jewels, from their fine clothes, from their deliberate consumption of the many cakes. The routine’ would be: a breaking of fast, merely, at half-past nine, a short morning spent in a loose wrapper much affected by the Dutch, a certain care of their dogs, a hearty lunch at half-past twelve, a toilet for the street and shopping on the Noord Einde, chocolate at a café, a walk, at home again in time for dinner at half-past five, then preparation for the theatre or opera for which the bourgeoise holds a season ticket. Home again at twelve — and the round begins with the next forenoon. I learned afterwards that I was not far wrong in my reading.

I rarely saw a woman on the street without a dog attachment, sometimes two. They drive with them, sit with them, walk with them. When the dog is not accompanied by his mistress, he is with a maid. When he is not with the maid, he is with a kind of “dog-governess.” In any and all cases he is cared for, petted, and treated on the street, at least, with far more consideration than the woman herself. I add to this statement another: that not only the woman of the middle and higher classes leads about a dog by the string or, as it happens in most cases, is led about by him, but every man of her acquaintance follows the same custom. The consequence is that, whereas the dog as a beast of burden is in his place between the shafts of the peasant’s cart, and does his work as an honored friend and helper of the family, the petted poodle of the middle and upper classes is a nuisance and pest in a city like The Hague. The Dutch need never pride themselves on the proverbial municipal cleanliness so long as this custom obtains among a certain class.

The contrast between the rich and the poor is most marked in this capital. The handsome villas of the wealthy merchants of Rotterdam and Amsterdam have for their back-door neighbors, as it were, the poor fishermen’s dwellings of Scheveningen. Everywhere there is beggary in the streets, and the evidence of great poverty as a contrast to the fine showing of carriages and horses, of women dressed in luxurious velvet and furs, of liveried footmen and coroneted coach doors. I have seen faces of men and women on the Old Scheveningen Road that will haunt me always, thin for want of food, drawn with care, haggard with the waste of consumption — a result of starving rations, and foul, crowded sleeping-rooms. Instead of the heavy wines, the solid meats, the rich pastries on the tables of the rich, you will find meat in the pot only once a week in the workingman’s home; for the other days a bit of cheese, a cup of coffee, and the regulation dish of small nutty potatoes must suffice. This diet is repeated in nine families out of ten. A Scheveningen woman once told me that her husband was out fishing and would receive for the trip of eleven days six gulden, two dollars and forty-four cents! “It is so little,” she said, with the unconscious pathos of the poor, “we can scarcely make both ends meet.” There were five mouths to feed on that sum, and no prospect of steady work; there never is when one considers the caprice of the North Sea, and the fact that the fishermen do not own the boats in which they sail.

This poverty is more noticeable in The Hague than in any other city of the Netherlands, because the great contrast between the dwellers in the court quarters, the abodes of the wealthy leisure and mercantile classes and the inhabitants of the adjacent village of Scheveningen is always in evidence. Not that this mendicancy in the streets and at private doors is a proof of neglect on the part of the Dutch of their poor and needy; far from it. On the contrary I know of no country where charities are so systematized and productive of so much good as in the Netherlands. All over the land there are municipal orphanages, and ho f jes, which I shall describe in connection with Leyden, there are Oude Vrouwen and Oude Mannen houses and the Begÿnen Courts. These also must be counted in with the Gates of the Netherlands, for in most cases the entrance is through a narrow gate-way in the middle of some long city or town block. They are small, but some of them are very beautiful. The keystone generally bears an inscription with date, or the lintel a carving.

James and I never willingly passed by one of these narrow portals. Sometimes the statue of a little St. Christopher enticed us over the threshold and into the inner court, whence we could generally hear the sound of singing children’s voices. I am sure that many an orphan boy or girl has revelled in cakes for more than one day through James’ thought of his own boy. I know he could not enter one of these “little gates” without his hand finding his pocket. These unpretentious Gates of the Netherlands should never be passed by if a foreigner would know intimately and appreciate thoroughly a beautiful trait in Dutch character; for the Dutch not only feed and clothe their orphans, they care for them in a way that must be seen and felt to be understood.

In every town of importance, in every province, one may see, if he seek it, just such an interior as the illustration shows: little maids in black dresses and white caps industriously at work in surroundings that make for health, peace, and happiness. Some of these “courts” are called Begÿnen Courts, from the ancient sisterhood of St. Begga who lived some twelve hundred years ago. In almost any city of the Netherlands, if one look care-fully along a row of ancient houses in the old part of the town, he will find one of these “little gates” through which one should enter, or he can hardly be said to know the inner life of the Low Countries.

The organized begging of the churches, parishes, brotherhoods, and committees for the support of these various communities is something as remarkable, in its way, as the land itself. We had been but a short time in The Stork’s Nest, possibly a week, when various notices began to be left at the door by messengers to the effect that on such and such a day, so and so — an honorable head of a community or prominent man in a parish — would call and solicit alms for such and such an object. As the announcements were in Dutch and my powers of translation not at that period of the first order, I paid little heed to any of them. Within two or three days, as I was looking out of the living-room window, I saw at my gate the astonishing spectacle of a footman in quasi-livery. He opened the door and preceded no less a person than an ambassador, or so it seemed to me, up the walk to my front door. The ambassador was dressed in a suit of the richest broadcloth. He wore a tall hat, black kid gloves, and carried a gold-headed cane in one hand and a silver salver in the other!

I answered the bell myself as the werkvrouw had gone out of an errand, and, after an unintelligible word from the footman, I was impressed by the grandeur of it all into saying ja. It seemed safer in the circumstances than the negative. Whereupon the man bowed low and withdrew, that is the only word that expresses his deliberate action. The ambassador came slowly up the walk and with dignified greeting held out to me his silver salver. There is an old saying I have heard at times: You could knock me down with a feather. In this instance it was applicable to me, for I was weak with the strain of the anomalous position, and I had but a kwartje in my pocket! In a flash I connected messenger, foot-man, ambassador, and plate with the neglected announcement, and perceived that I was expected to contribute to charity on account of that unguarded ja. I dropped my kwartje mechanically upon the pile of silver in the plate, and received a stiff bow in acknowledgment. (I could but wonder should I have had a smile if I had contributed a rÿksdaalder?) Then the ambassador also withdrew, his dignity quite equalling the footman’s.

“And you mean to say that you had the face after all that parade to give him only ten cents ? Why, the show was worth fifty!” was James’ comment when I described this method of systematized begging. This “show” continued throughout the winter, and I soon learned to drop my ten cents into the plate without a sign of flinching or a feeling of weakness. Even a dear Dutch Salvation Army lassie was announced!

The common mendicants at the door were legion; the men without work numberless; the vendors of small wares, both men and women, who brought with them testimonials as to character and “hard luck,” more than I could count. This beggary, wholesale and retail, went on daily, sometimes hour by hour, until the spring, when, with the return of the tardy sunshine and warmer weather, the numbers perceptibly diminished. At first I used to leave the hangings at the dining-room windows undrawn of an evening; but I soon drew them close, for it was not reassuring to see a wild, appealing face pressed against the great panes with the dark night as a background. Matters are carried thus far, and too far, in the rich capital of the Netherlands.