Netherlands – St. John’s Of Bois-Le-Duc

JAMES had intended to withhold from Ben until the day came for us to embark, the pleasing fact that we had a Rhine yacht of our own for the river journey from Nÿmegen to Dordrecht. We had planned to break the long trip by a stop at Waarden in order to cross country once more to ‘s Hertogenbosch for Ascension Day, and to make a longer stay at Gorinchem. But we had to tell him a little in advance to induce him to leave Berg en Dal. His plea for lingering there was that “it was doing him no end of good.”

I looked at James significantly when this remark was made, and inwardly had a qualm at the thought that all the “good” might be undone in less than a week’s time when Lou and Lois were expected at Dordrecht. But James looked blank, and merely suggested that we go down to the Waalkade and look the boats over. There on the quay he told Ben, and we went on board our Broomstick which had weathered out the fog and made her appearance in due season. The mongrel cur, with forefeet stemmed on the stringer of the quay and his hind ones on the Broomstick’s gunwale, met us with vociferous yelps. Whether “Lump” preempted Ben, or Ben “Lump” I have never known; all I know is that from the moment of their introduction they were inseparable companions, until a week later in Dordrecht when both their noses were put out of joint, in an unexpected manner.

Neeltje made a little feast of a supper to celebrate our return, and gave us herring and potato salad, cold roast beef with mayonnaise sauce highly redolent of onion, good bread and tea, and, in addition, strawberries such as only the Netherlands can produce, with a plate of Nÿmegen mappes — I think I spell the name correctly. These are special cakes of the imperial city, and the recipe for them, for all I know, may have been handed down from Charlemagne’s chef, who concocted dishes for the emperor in the Romanesque palace that once stood on the heights above our heads. It was a thoroughly Dutch supper, but a good one.

We spent that night at Berg en Dal, and sailed the next morning when the light mists had not risen from the Waal. A little later they dispersed, and we made the voyage beneath sunny skies.

This voyage from Nÿmegen to Dordrecht should be made by everyone who may have but little time — if only two weeks — to spare for the Netherlands. All the natural beauty that is seen afar from the wooded heights of Berg en Dal, or from the span of some mighty bridge, comes into intimate hand-to-hand relation with one at the level of the river. We came to have a speaking acquaintance, as it were, with all the river craft that passed us, as well as with the hamlets and towns on the banks. The channel turns capriciously from side to side of the broad expanse. The rapid current carries the boat sometimes to the very edge of the lush meadows, and at others sweeps it out into mid-stream. The boats pulling upstream literally work their passage, and are aided by an arrangement of windlass, ropes and make-fast irons by which they are worked laboriously against the current up the river. We stopped at Waarden, and went across by way of lovely Hedel to ‘s Hertogenbosch, or Bois-le-Duc, the Duke’s Forest, as ‘s Gravenhage shows us the Preserves of the Counts.

North Brabant is a country by itself, and should be seen as such. We were obliged to save it for a bonne bouche of future travel. We saw only the northern part and a portion of the western. They may be as amphibious as the rest of the western lands, but they did not have that appearance in May. We saw hedges instead of canals, rich gardens, planted fields, thrifty orchards and thriving towns follow one another in quick succession. The sail among the meadows was rare and the windmill so seldom seen as to be a noticeable feature in the landscape. Flowers abound and the peasant life is gayer than in the provinces bordering the sea. One perceives it to be the next-door-neighbor country of David Teniers,

It was Ascension Day, and the peasants had come into the city in full force to celebrate the feast in their beloved cathedral of St. John. One goes to Bois-le-Duc to see this cathedral, and little else. The iconoclasts of the Reformation and the greater iconoclast, Time, have, in a manner, spared this house of worship, and we of To-day may enjoy much of’ its ancient beauty. This and the Dom of Utrecht were the two great cathedrals in the Netherlands. It is a magnificent structure with all the suggestion of a profuse ornamentation that does not obscure the grace and strength of its beautiful lines. We realized as we entered it that we were within the sphere of influence in art that surrounds the Cathedral at Antwerp, the Hôtel de Ville at Brussels, the Stadhuis of Middelburg; these three with Bois-le-Duc’s glorious “hymn of praise to God sung in unyielding stone” form an exquisite four-leaved clover of architecture, ecclesiastic and civic.

I wrote that first poetical flight with some satisfaction, for in this instance it did seem true; and just as I had finished, James chose to look over my shoulder, as he does frequently when I am at work — in order, I sup-pose, to assure himself that I am not getting “flowery” as he says — and took this, what seemed to me, inopportune moment to criticize my poetical statement.

“That’s all right, Persis, as poetry, but the sentiment doesn’t square with the facts.”

“What do you mean ?” I asked, with suspended pen. “Why, the fact is that this particular cathedral was built of a particularly friable stone, anything but `un-yielding,’ and until the restorations were made it was in a dilapidated condition.”

It is strange how a man of James’ ideal tendencies can suddenly drop down to the bed-rock of fact, so soon as there is a statement made that isn’t, so to speak, built on architectural lines, that is, with a base that is proportionate to the superstructure. I was moved to retort:

“Well, my dear, it may appear friable to you, but seeing it was built in fourteen hundred and something, and is still in a sufficiently robust state of preservation to last several centuries, I am going to keep my wings poised in poetical flight and stick to the `unyielding’.”

“Oh, well, it won’t harm the book; you might state the fact, however, as a set-off to it.”

“Hm-m.” With this marital intermezzo, I felt at liberty to resume my work.

I shall always associate that Ascension Day — the Journey to Heaven Day, as the Dutch say so aptly — with the Easter in the Scheveningen fishermen’s church. The same earnest, hearty spirit of worship pervaded both congregations, the one Protestant, the other Catholic. But in the cathedral there were gathered thousands, where in the other there were hundreds. In the Protestant church there were not wanting signs of indigence, and the wear and tear of poverty; in the cathedral there was everywhere in evidence the opulence of the one class and the comfortable living of the other. In the Scheveningen church there were lacking all ornament and church paraphernalia, save the gold cap-pins of the women, the silver chalices of the communion, and the grotesque yet congruous backbone of the sea leviathian in the corner. In the church, as in cathedral, there was sung the praise of the Creator; but one was filled with the deep abiding sound of the fishermen’s voices that called upon the Lord for faith and strength to endure — the cry of a toil-worn humanity. In the ancient St. John’s, the Gloria pealed among the arches of the great nave that sent back the echo of the boys’ voices, untried yet in the world’s furnace of passion and toil—the antiphonal of the “choir invisible.”

The peasants were in gala costume, and the nave was a sea of white caps and artificial flowers. The Brabantese wear a large lace cap, with full cape. A yard or two of broad white damask silk ribbon is banded over the top and fastened as far as the ears; the long ends are loose, and flutter and float about in the wind. Over the top of the cap, covering the ribbon band, is worn a large half-wreath of white artificial flowers. The effect is beautiful in the mass and charming in the individual. Even the aged women of eighty look as if they had renewed their youth, when one sees their wrinkled, but healthy, faces looking out cheerfully from the mass of lace, ribbons and flowers. The whole community, as seen that day at church and in the streets, gave one the impression of well-to-do-ness, of physical bien aise, the result of comfortable living.

The Stadhuis, after the service, was filled with citizens of all classes. One of the ancient rooms above — it was worth climbing the stairs to feel the support of a massive and ancient balustrade in carved wood — had been set apart for the distribution of prizes for the drawings of the pupils from the schools. They were remarkable, many of these drawings — all copies of prescribed works which were by masters old and new, and to judge from the exhibition, the future of the art of delineation would seem secure. I could but feel that among those pupils there must be another Israëls, another Maris, or Mauve, perhaps a Bosboom to paint for us the interior of Bois-le-Duc’s noble Cathedral of St. John as it may be seen on a bright Ascension Day.