Netherlands – Middelburg

WITH Middelburg I have associated, for charm, Hoorn ; but Middelburg stands first. It is serener, happier, more human ; while the nature of the Zeelander is to the stranger so much more ingratiating than that of the North Hollander. The Zeelander—and particularly the Walcheren islander—has the eccentricity to view the stranger as a natural object rather than a phenomenon. Flushing being avowedly cosmopolitan does not count, but at Middelburg, the capital of Zeeland, you may, although the only foreigner there, walk about in the oddest clothes and receive no embarrassing attentions.

It is not that the good people of Walcheren are quicker to see where their worldly advantage lies. They are not schemers or financiers. The reason resides in a native politeness, a heritage, some have conjectured, from their Spanish forefathers. One sees hints of Spanish blood also in the exceptional flexibility and good carriage of the Walcheren women. Whatever the cause of Zeeland’s friendliness, there it is ; and in Middelburg the foreigner wanders at ease, almost as comfortable and self-possessed as if he were in France.

And it is the pleasantest town to wander in, and an astonishingly large one. A surprising expansiveness, when one begins to explore them, is an idiosyncrasy of Dutch towns. From the railway, seeing a church spire and a few roofs, one had expected only a village ; and behold street runs into street until one’s legs ache. This is peculiarly the case with Gorinchem, which is almost invisible from the line ; and it is the case with Middelburg, and Hoorn, and many other towns that I do not recall at this moment.

My advice to travellers in Walcheren is to stay at Middelburg rather than at Flushing (they are very nigh each other) and to stay, moreover, at the Hotel of the Abbey. It is not the best hotel in Holland as regards appointment and cuisine ; but it is certainly one ‘of the pleasantest in character, and I found none other in so fascinating a situation. For it occupies one side of the quiet square enclosed by the walls of the Abbey of St. Nicholas (or Abdij, as the Dutch oddly call it), and you look from your windows through a grove of trees to the delicate spires and long low façade of this ancient House of God , which is now given over to the Governor of Zee-land, to the library of the Province, and to the Provincial Council, who meet in fifteenth century chambers and trans-act their business on nouveau art furniture.

What the Abbey must have been before it was destroyed by fire we can only guess ; but one thing we know, and that is that among its treasures were paintings by the great Mabuse (Jan Gossaert), who once roystered through Middelburg’s quiet streets. Another artist of Middelburg was Adrian van der Venne, who made the quaint drawings for Jacob Cats’ symbols, of which we have seen something in an earlier chapter. But the city has never been a home of the arts. Beyond a little tapestry, some of which may be seen in the stadhuis, and some at the Abbey, it made nothing beautiful. From earliest times the Middelburgers were merchants—wool merchants and wine merchants principally, but always tradespeople and always prosperous and contented.

A tentoonstelling (or exhibition) of copper work was in progress when I was there last summer ; but it was not interesting, and I had better have taken the advice of the Music Hall manager, in whose grounds it was held, and have saved my money. His attitude to repoussé work was wholly pessimistic, part prejudice against the craft of the metal-worker in itself, but more resentment that florins should be diverted into such a channel away from comic singers and acrobats. Seated at one of the garden tables we discussed Dutch taste in varieties.

The sentimental song, he told me, is a drug in Holland. Anything rather than that. No matter how pretty the girl may be, she must not sing a sentimental song. But if I wished to witness the only way in which a sentimental song would “go down,” I must visit his performance that evening—reserved seats one, fifty,—and hear the great Tacius. He drew from his pocket a handbill which was at that moment being scattered broadcast over Middelburg. It bore the name of this marvel, this solver of the senti-mental riddle, and beneath it three interrogation marks. The manager winked. ” That,” he said, ” will excite interest.”

We went that evening and heard Tacius-a portly gentleman in a ball dress and a yellow wig, who after squeaking five-sixths of a love song in a timid falsetto which might pass for a woman’s voice, roared out the balance like a bull. He brought down the house.

Like most other Dutch towns Middelburg had its period of siege. But there was this difference, that Middelburg was held by the Spanish and besieged by the Dutch, whereas the custom was for the besiegers to be Spanish and the besieged Dutch. Middelburg suffered every privation common to invested cities, even to the trite consumption of rats and dogs, cats and mice. Just as destruction seemed inevitable—for the Spanish commander Mondragon swore to fire it and perish with it rather than submit—a compromise was arranged, and he surrendered without dishonour, the terms of the capitulation (which, however, Spain would not allow him to carry out) being another illustration of the wisdom and humanity of William the Silent.

Middelburg has never known a day’s suffering since her siege. A local proverb says, ” Goed rond, goed Zeuwsch “—very round, very Zeelandish—and an old writer—so M. Havard tells us—describes Middelburg as a “round faced city “. If by round we mean not only circular but also plump and comfortable, we have Middelburg and its sons and daughters very happily hit off. Structurally the town is round : the streets curve, the Abbey curves ; seen from a balloon or the summit of the church tower, the plan of the city would reveal itself a circle. And there is a roundness also in the people. They smile roundly, they laugh roundly, they live roundly.

The women and girls of Middelburg are more comely and winsome than any in Holland. Their lace caps are like driven snow, their cheeks shine like apples. But their way with their arms I cannot commend. The sleeve of their bodices ends far above the elbow, and is made so tight that the naked arm below expands on attaining its liberty, and by constant and intentional friction takes the hue of the tomato. What, however, is to our eyes only a suggestion of inflammation, is to the Zeelander a beauty. While our impulse is to recommend cold cream, the young bloods of Middelburg (I must suppose) are holding their beating hearts. These are the differences of nations—beyond anything dreamed of in Babel.

The principal work of these ruddy-armed and wide-hipped damsels seems to be to carry green pails on a blue yoke—and their perfect fitness in Middelburg’s cheerful and serene streets is another instance of the Dutch cleverness in the use of green paint. These people paint their houses every year—not in conformity with any written law, but upon a universal feeling that that is what should be done. To this very pretty habit is largely due the air of fresh gaiety that their towns possess. Middelburg is of the gayest. Greenest of all, as I have said, is perhaps Zaandam. Sometimes they paint too freely, even the trunks of trees and good honest statuary coming under the brush. But for the most part they paint well.

It is not alone the cloistral Gothic seclusion in which the Abbey hotel reposes that commends it to the wise : there is the further allurement of Long John. Long John, or De Lange Jan, is the soaring tower of the Abbey church, now the Nieuwe Kerk. So long have his nearly 300 feet dominated Middelburg—he was first built in the thirteenth century, and rebuilt in the sixteenth—that he has become more than a structure of bricks and copper : a thinking entity, a tutelary spirit at once the pride and the protector of the town. His voice is heard more often than any belfry beneath whose shadow I have lain. Holland, as we have seen, is a land of bells and carillons ; nowhere in the world are the feet of Time so dogged ; but Long John is the most faithful sleuth of all. He is almost ahead of his quarry. He seems to know no law; he set out, I believe, with a commission entitling him to ring his one and forty bells every seven and a half minutes, or eight times in the hour; but long since he must have torn up that warranty, for he is now his own master, breaking out into little sighs of melancholy or wistful music whenever the mood takes him. I have never heard such profoundly plaintive airs as his—very beautiful, very grave, very deliberate, One cannot say more for persistent chimes than this—that at the Abbey hotel it is no misfortune to wake in the night.

Long John has a companion in Foolish Betsy. Foolish Betsy is the stadhuis clock, so called (Gekke Betie) from her refusal to keep time with the giant : another instance of the power which John exerts over the town, even to the wounding of chivalry. The Nieuwe Kerk would be nothing without its tower—it is one of the barest and least interesting churches in a country which has reduced to the finest point the art of denuding religion of mystery—but the stadhuis would still be wonderful even without its Betsy. There is nothing else like it in Holland, nothing anywhere quite so charming in its shameless happy floridity. I cannot describe it : the building is too complicated, too ornate ; I can only say that it is wholly captivating and thoroughly out of keeping with the Dutch genius—Spanish influence again apparent. Beneath the eaves are four and twenty statues of the Counts of Holland and Zeeland, and the roof is like a mass-meeting of dormer windows.

In addition to the stadhuis museum, which is dedicated to the history of Middelburg and Zeeland, the town has also a municipal museum, too largely given over to shells and stuffed birds, but containing also such human relics as the wheel on which Admiral de Ruyter as a boy helped his father to make rope, and also the first micro-scope and the first telescope, both the work of Zacharias Jansen, a Zeeland mathematician. More interesting perhaps are the rooms in the old Zeeland manner, corresponding to the Hindeloopen rooms which we have seen at Leeuwarden, but lacking their cheerful richness of ornamentation. It is certainly a museum that should be visited, albeit the stuffed birds weigh heavily on the brow.

After all, Middelburg’s best museum is itself. Its streets and houses are a never-ending pleasure. Something glad-dens the eye at every turn—a blue and yellow shutter, a red and black shutter, a turret, a daring gable, a knot of country people, a fat Zeeland baby, a milk-can rivalling the sun, an old woman’s lace cap, a young woman’s merry mouth. Only in two respects is the town unsatisfactory, and both are connected with its streets. The liberty given to each householder to erect an iron fence across the pavement at each limit of his property makes it necessary to walk in the road, and the pave’ of the road is so rough as to cause no slight suffering to any one in thin boots. M. Havard has an amusing passage on this topic, in which he says that the ancient fifteenth-century punishment for marital infidelity, a sin forbidden by the municipal laws no less than by Heaven, was the supply by the offending man of a certain number of paving stones. After such an ex-planation, the genial Frenchman adds, we must not complain :

Nos pères ont péchés, nos pères ne sont plus, Et c’est nous qui portons la peine de leurs crimes.

The island of Walcheren is quickly learned. From Middelburg one can drive in a day to the chief points of interest—Westcapelle and Domburg, Veere and Arnemuiden. Of these Veere is the jewel—Veere, once Middelburg’s dreaded rival, and in its possession of a clear sea-way and harbour her superior, but now forlorn. For in the seventeenth century Holland’s ancient enemy overflowed its barriers, and the greater part of Veere was blotted out in a night What remains is a mere symbol of the past; but there is enough to loiter in with perfect content, for Veere is unique. Certainly no little town is so good to approach—with the friendliness of its red roofs before one all the way, the unearthly hugeness of its church and the magic of its stadhuis tower against the blue.

The church, which is visible from all parts of the island, is immense, in itself an indication of what a city Veere must have been. It rises like a mammoth from the flat. Only the east end is now used for services ; the vast remainder, white and naked, is given up to bats and the handful of workmen that the slender restoration funds make it possible to employ. For there is some idea of Veere’s church being one day again in perfect repair ; but that day will not be in our time. The ravages of the sea only emptied it : the sea does not desecrate. It was Napoleon who disgraced the church by converting it into barracks.

Other relics of Veere’s past are the tower at the harbour mouth (its fellow-tower is beneath the sea) and the beautifully grave Scotch house on the quay, once the centre of the Scottish wool trade of these parts.

The stadhuis also remains, a dainty distinguished structure which might be the infant daughter of the stadhuis at Middelburg. Its spire has a slender aerial grace ; on its façade are statues of the Lords of Veere and their Ladies. Within is a little museum of antiquities, one of whose most interesting possessions is the entry in the Veere register, under the date July 2nd, 1608, of the marriage of Hugo Grotius with Maria Reygersbergh of Veere, whom we have seen at Loevenstein assisting in her husband’s escape from prison. The museum is in the charge of a blond custodian, a descendant of sea kings, whose pride in the golden goblet which Maximilian of Burgundy, Veere’s first Marquis, gave to the town in 1551, is almost paternal. He displays it as though it were a sacred relic, and narrates the story of Veere’s indignation when a millionaire attempted to buy it, so feelingly as to fortify and complete one’s suspicions that money after all is but dross and the love of it the root of evil.