When the Dutch speak of Holland they signify the two contiguous provinces of North and South Holland that lie along the North Sea coast in the west of the Netherlands. When they speak of their country of the Netherlands, they include both North and South Holland together with the southern provinces of Zeeland (with Zeeland-Flanders), North Brabant and Limburg, the central provinces of Utrecht and Gelderland, and the northeastern provinces of Overyssel, Drenthe, Friesland, and Groningen – eleven in all. Hence it is a misnomer to speak of the United Provinces of the Netherlands as Holland. It is equivalent to calling New England the United States. It is wise to bear this in mind when travelling through the country, also that the difference in speech is that of Yorkshire and Devon, or of Mississippi and Vermont.
Place a pencil point on Leyden and draw a diagonal straight across country to Amsterdam. Weave about this diagonal in its entire length an intricate scrollwork that shall represent the continuously deflected line of water ways, lakes, canals, river, through which The Broomstick found its way. There you have an outline of the midlands of Holland, and the scrollwork of water ways is a hem of blue embroidery that borders in its entire length the famous drained Lake of Haarlem. This is now, as every one knows, a miles-wide stretch of magnificent farm lands, or polders, circumvallated by high dykes for protection against the devastating waters. This country is one of the two marvellous lake-sections of the Netherlands.
“I never had much respect for the old Rhine when I was a boy,” said James, as we leaned on the taffrail watching the distance increase between us and the ancient Zÿl Gate. “Caesar prejudiced me. He gave me to understand that the old river `petered out’ in marshes; but I’ve changed my opinion since seeing it here in Leyden, and my respect is boundless.”
“Don’t quarrel with Caesar, James, after two thousand years; it isn’t fair. Besides, if he hadn’t been here before us we mightn’t have been here after him.”
“Well reasoned, seeing that he was a Roman with imperialistic tendencies, and you are an American with anti-ditto. I think I can catch a glimpse of the slender link that binds us at this moment to those times.” He pointed to a cubical Dutchman, square as he was thick, who was poling a raft. “I fancy the Batavians poled like that in shallow waters two thousand years ago.”
We leaned to catch a last glimpse of the old Zÿl, or Sluice Gate, bearing the crossed stone keys, Leyden’s arms, in its escutcheon, of the lovely Rhine Haven crowded with bright-sailed craft, and of the old Rhine filled with barges; then passed the Spaniards’ Bridge and steamed into the sluiceway that leads to the lake country.
Upon entering an arm of the first series of lakes, we raised our sail and remained under canvas the rest of the day a day never to be forgotten, for during it we voyaged in a new world. Remote from traffic and manufactures, far from railways, steam-trams, motors, automobiles and all the paraphernalia of this unresting age, we sailed and sailed. No ripple could be heard at the prow, no motion felt on the boat. We followed the course of the curving blue reaches into lakes, the unique beauty of which I have no fit words to describe. We left the great tranquil pools of sapphire by narrow straits into inland seas set, apparently, for boundaries were not to be defined in the intricately interwoven expanses of land and water, with gems of islands. We rounded point after point graced with a windmill, a group of dwellings and barns gray-thatched amid the green. A tiny canal beneath an arcade of drooping willows served for a front door path, and a boat was moored where in an ordinary world one would find a garden gate. Now and then a strong-armed peasant girl would row far out upon the shining waters and, lying on her oars, wait the coming of the little steamer that keeps this sacred country world in touch with the profane one of modern city life.
It was May. The fruit trees were in full bloom. The island-meadows were bright with wild flowers, and the soft air that drew across this enchanting land the freshest and sweetest I have ever breathed. A tranquil world of tender blue skies, and lush green pastures set in peaceful waters that faithfully mirrored both earth and sky; a spot that might, in truth, restore one’s soul.
Kaag on the great Kager Lake has a situation so unique as to defy description. These isolated inland-water towns were a revelation to us both. As we entered the Ringvaart, the encircling moat of the drained Lake of Haarlem, with its wall of dyke topped at intervals by small dyke-hamlets, we felt ourselves to be once more of earth. It is, at least, possible to speak in intelligible terms of this portion of our journey. We never tired of watching the dyke-life, all open to the day, as we sailed slowly along. This dyke, that borders the great Haarlem polders, is high and narrow, although sufficiently wide to admit of a highway and a row of long, low houses at intervals. It is bare of trees save for the lindens that have been planted in a row directly in front of the houses. These have been cut off at the height of the eaves, and the branches trained from tree to tree and so intertwined as to form a screen, or façade, of living green which extends sometimes for fifty feet.
The dyke-life is barren in all respects; but it is Life, and the babies in their tiny white caps and whitewashed klompjes play with the goat and chase him about the linden; the small boys and girls bob and jolt along the white bare highway, that marks the dyke, in high-backed carts drawn by the family dogs; the old men clatter about with blue butter-crocks under their arms; the women come to the canal to wash a stone jug, or bowl, or a piece of linen, and the maidens gather at the steamer-landing to watch for the daily boat and, perhaps, the expected letter or package. Love, and Life that is born of Love are here as everywhere, and the human interest seems intensified by the isolation.
Over the top of the dyke we caught glimpses of the great Haarlem polders. Now and then a barn heaved a thatched shoulder into prominence. Afar we could see something of the roofs of Venneperdorp in the very centre of what was once the shallow Lake of Haarlem.
As we drew near the white tower of Oude Wetering, and backed and filled into the narrow channel that forms the one village street of this rustic Venice, there was nothing for a while but silence for our wonder and amazement. Then James broke it: “By George, I wish Ben were here to see!”
“So do I,” I responded, heartily; “the more the better to enjoy what must be seen to be believed.” This was a stroke of diplomacy on my part, for I intended it to be an entering wedge in view of my “tale” of which, up to the present time, I had kept him in ignorance. “At any rate the Captain will meet us at Amsterdam for a day.”
“Yes,” James answered rather ruefully, “but he is a Dutchman and knows it all. I want more American eyes to see this.”
“Oh, we shall have enough in time,” I replied, hope-fully, and turned the subject. Little did James know the courage it took to speak this conviction which was based on knowledge!
Oude Wetering is one of those curious inland-water villages that, I must repeat, defy description. As James said, “It is Dutch marrow.” The main street is the narrow strait that connects the Ringvaart with the extensive Braassemer Water which lies behind the village. On each side of the water way there extends along the dykes a row of low substantial brick houses, the curious architecture hidden here and there by a trained linden. The white tower at the entrance of the strait dominates the whole. Beyond the houses one sees the shining expanse of Braassemer. A little rustic Venice this is Oude Wetering, with life all along its one water way, and pretty boats sailing “wing and wing,” back and forth before its quaint dwellings and storehouses. We were loath to leave it.
Kaag, Oude Wetering, Aalsmeer, these three form the unique village trinity in the heart of Holland, and as the children say, so say we: The last is the best of all the rest.
Aalsmeer lies more than halfway between Leyden and Amsterdam. It is a collection of floating gardens all nurseries for the flowers, fruits, and young trees that supply Amsterdam. Its fleet is flower and fruit laden. Its houses are set in the midst of these watery pleasaunces that are filled with bloom and brightness. A garden gate opens upon water-steps and gives a glimpse of the gay contents of hundreds of cold frames uncovered to the soft air and warm sunshine. Labyrinthine water-lanes, overhung by the delicate green of saplings, lead to back dooryards that are miniature lakes set round with shrubbery. Boats are everywhere in evidence among the green. A white sail forms a moving back-ground for a house and garden. A black skiff heaped with white Easter lilies rocks gently in The Broomstick’s slow wash beside a green thick-set hedge. Pear and cherry blossoms drift white upon the dark blue waters, and the westering sun slants low along the green lanes and renders the foliage translucent.
Oh, the floating gardens of Aalsmeer! We would cross the ocean, nor count the cost, just to see their beauty once more; just to inhale the fragrance, to watch the slow drift of the cherry blossoms on the bright waters, just to catch a glimpse of those green glooms and, beneath them, that black skiff, lily-laden, rocking gently in The Broomstick’s slow wash.