Netherlands – The New Pilgrim Fathers

OF course we set sail from Delfshaven, and, naturally, we called ourselves The New Pilgrim Fathers. At first James objected.

“But there isn’t a father among us, Persist— and won’t be, even when Ben and the Captain join us. It’s a misnomer, and I, for one, don’t like to sail under false colors in a foreign country.”

“I’m not asking you to sail under false colors, James. I’m going to fly — that’s the word, isn’t it ? — the Stars and Stripes from my masthead and the Netherlands’ colors at the prow.”

“Stern, you mean.”

“Well, what’s the difference, bow, or prow, or stern, so long as they fly? And as for calling ourselves after the Fathers, I don’t see why it isn’t just as logical as to christen our house The Stork’s Nest, when there isn’t a bird of that species to be found on a nest short of the Zoo at Rotterdam.” I felt my argument to be conclusive.

“Oh, well, if you’ve set your heart on it, I don’t mind! but doesn’t it sound rather sentimentally forced ?” “Sentimental ? Now, James Moulton, where is your idealism ? If you would only apply it in the right place! Haven’t you told me a dozen times in the last fifteen years that life, to be interesting, whether on land or sea, must have its sentimental factor ? Haven’t you told me time and again that we must relapse now and then into sentiment pure and simple in order that we may be strengthened to meet prosaic fact ?”

“M—m; well, perhaps I have said so under stress of weather; but I never intended my sentiments to come back at me like boomerangs just because the wife of my bosom has decided she is to be a new father.”

“Now, James, I protest.”

“Don’t protest, Persis, but put on your things and we’ll run down to Rotterdam, select a boat — and surprise Ben and the Captain.”

“Oh, James, you’re a —”

“M—m; let me breathe —”

The Spring had been calling enticingly to us for a week past. The hyacinths were in blossom, the tulips in bud. The thrushes and finches were filling the Scheveningen woods with their spring music. The tree-tops were thickening with reddish brown buds. The young green of willow and lime bordering the canals was reflected in the quiet waters Every owner of a boat was busy with a paint pot freshening his winter-worn pink, or tjalk, or kof into a semblance of the green of eternal youth. It was high time for us to be knocking at all the Gates of the Netherlands for admittance into the joys of a Dutch spring.

Rotterdam suffers from a plethora of boats. From the Rhine Haven all along the Maas they overflow into the canals within the city, and offer to the would-be voyager an embarrassment of choice.

James said I might have it all my own way and he would pay the bills, which was both dutifully masculine and marital. And it was such a delight to have my own way in just this special direction! Nothing and nobody to consult but my own sense of the fitness of things. By “things” I mean boats. But which to choose ?

There was the pink, the heavy fishing boat of the North Sea. There was the sharp-prowed tjalk, and the cumbersome kof, the barge of the canals. There was the motor boat, new, trim, a concession to progress. Finally I chose one — with James’ approval, for I dared not take the whole responsibility — that James called a hybrid: a cross between the various crafts. It was provided with steam-motor power, but carried a large sail. We could, in fact, sail, punt, steam or be towed, according to our pleasure and the exigencies of wind and tide, deep waters or shallow.

That boat was the joy of my heart and the pride of my eyes. It was painted bright apple-green like thousands of its fellows. A broad white band defined the gunwale. It had a large cabin, white within and without, shining with brass, and ornamented with several dozen of old purple-blue and white saucers and plates, of a quality like our great-grandmothers’ willow-tree bowls. Its little square windows had the regulation white lace curtains, and on the broad ledges were pots of flowering cyclamen and primroses. It was high from the water, broad of stern and sharp of prow. The great sail was a fine old burnt-sienna brown in color — iron-rust red in the sunset light. There was a cubby-hole for a cook-stove and utensils forward, besides two bunks below; and aft there was a space for an awning and deck chairs. Included in the boat’s fixtures were the owner, his wife and uncle, genuine Zeelanders, all three. The wife was to be our general “help”; the man and his uncle our crew.

We gave the woman three days to make ready for us, sent on board some comfortable furniture hired at Rotterdam, and ordered the man to proceed, when all was ready, to Delfshaven.

On the day of our departure James and I explored that ancient town. As we made our way up the old Haven Street we harked back in thought nearly three hundred years to a time when the real pilgrims trod that same way — many, I doubt not, with heavy hearts, — when they listened to those last, comforting words of their preacher, John Robinson, when they set foot on the Speedwell’s deck and went forth into the Unknown — fathers and mothers and little children, unaware of the mighty nation that in due time, which proved to be God’s time, should arise to do them honor, so few, so poor, so weak!

As we stood before the old church that leans to the street by the inner waters of the haven, and looked down into the haven itself, so filled with hull and mast and sail that little of the water was visible, I heard James quoting softly under his breath that lovely verse from Lanier’s “Psalm of the West,” beginning:

“`Mayflower piteous heartease petal —’”

We did not call our nondescript craft The Mayflower, in deference to the possible sensitiveness of certain New England societies, nor The Speedwell, because, as James said, that special ship belied her name and “never got there.” We preferred to honor the United Provinces of the Netherlands and christen it The Broomstick, in appreciative recognition of the services of that famous Admiral Martin Tromp, who proposed to sweep Holland’s enemies from the seas, and mightily accomplished his fell purpose. It was a thoroughly Dutch broom that we purchased at Rotterdam and affixed to our mast. Not by any possibility was it to be mistaken for one of American manufacture. We were forced to admit, unpatriotic as it may sound, that, as it flaunted boldly, I should say stood nailed rigidly to the mast beneath our flag, it was decidedly more picturesque in appearance than the carpet-sweepers indigenous in the United States.

Thus, being ready for our Odyssey in Dutch waters, we sailed from Delfshaven on a bright April morning in all the glory of our green paint and burnt-sienna sail, and made a slow untroubled passage along the busy Schie to Delft.

About four in the afternoon, beneath radiant sun-shine, we drew near to this most Dutch of Dutch towns, and, passing through the wide swing bridge, moored in the Singel Gracht hard by the famous East Gate. To approach Delft in the afternoon sunlight, to pass through the East, or St. Catherine’s Gate, and wander along the Oosteinde till one comes upon the dark apse of the New Church, to pass within its shadows only to emerge abruptly into the sunny open of the marketplace, is to relive the century of William of Orange.

The marketplace is backed by the Stadhuis, and dominated by the New Church tower that springs, arrow-like, straight from the pavement nearly four hundred feet into the blue. To see it as we saw it that day lively with crowds of old and young, filled with white booths piled high with blue earthenware, wooden shoes, and every necessary article in the Dutch peasant’s domestic economy, to wander farther to the Butter Bridge and, standing there, look down the vista of the Oude Delft canal to the ponderous square tower of the Old Church, leaning like a northern Pisan Campanile to its mirrored reflection in the rippleless blue waters, is to understand, at last, whence Vermeer of Delft drew his inspiration for his famous painting in the Mauritshuis at The Hague. If is to understand, also, how any one who has once come under the spell of the Nether-lands’ intimate life by entering into it through the arched way of the East Gate of Delft can never cast it off, be the environment thereafter as sordid and prosaic as it may.

Afterwards, as the shadows were lengthening, we stood in the staircase within the Prinzenhof, just opposite the tower of the Old Church, and relived in imagination that hour in which the pride, the hope, the support of the United Provinces fell in the person of her great leader, William of Orange-Nassau. It was all so bare, so chill within those white walls, that, to the inner eye, the immortal struggle for Dutch independence seemed in such surroundings to take on its true complexion: the livid hue of an eighty years’ martyrdom.

Chill, too, and dreary, robbed of the grandeur of solemnity by wooden enclosures and partitions that obstruct the view, the interior of the New Church — old church of St. Ursula and mausoleum of the House of Orange — seems unworthy of its occupants. Within, only the marvellous angel of victory by William the Silent’s tomb seems in keeping symbolically with that triumphant life. Without, only the towering spire, that carries the eye upwards and ever upwards along its reaching height, symbolizes fittingly the supreme personal faith of that Prince to whom the Netherlands owes its national life.

It was a positive relief to go out into the soft April twilight; to listen to the thrushes mingling their whistling song with the notes of the tinkling carillon in the New Church spire as they dropped streetwards in the dusk; to walk along the Oude Delft under the budding limes, and linger by the Wÿnhaven until the last bit of daylight faded from the darkening gables of the ancient Province House of all Delfland, and the red, azure, and gold of the various arms set thick on its gray façade, gave forth no single gleam of their rich coloring.

The contrasting life of the crowded water ways of the Maas and the Schie, which we left behind us, and that of the quiet, almost deserted canal that leads from The Hague to Leyden is so marked that, upon entering it on our way to the home of the Pilgrims, we had, as it were, to tune ourselves anew to our environment.

Our great sail was set, and slowly — for there was little breeze, and what need had we to hasten ? — we fared along the still waters and watched the coming of the spring. There was little talk between us that day, but the long silences were eloquent. Speech seemed almost a desecration in the inarticulate calm of the innumerable meadows about us, of the bright still waters beneath us, and the infinite blue depths above us. To the north, south, east, and west stretched miles of green pastures banded with silver. Now and then we passed a farmhouse, its red pyramidal roof, its conical thatched ricks huddled behind a group of elms and limes that showed their still meagrely graced anatomy clearly defined against the blue sky, which seemed to canopy the humble dwellings of man and beast so low it arched above them. At long intervals a sleek-thatched wind-mill’s moving arms heightened by their rotating shadows on the grass the vivid young green of the spring. Here and there a man was turning over the earth with a primitive plough, a woman was planting, another was beating her linen white in a small side canal.

All the homely, patient toil of the earth was visible to us that day, as well as the workings of an ever-miraculous natural life. The ewes, big with young, lay upon the meadows quietly biding their time. Flocks of lambs were wonting themselves awkwardly to the use of legs. Magnificent Holsteins made patches of black and white upon the pastures, and everywhere lay great garnered heaps of willow shoots which were to be utilized for dyke-thatching and wattle-work of all kinds—windbreaks, sand-breaks, fish creels and market baskets.

It was the Holland Without of Today, the Holland of Mauve and Maris, as Delft, in its chief characteristics, is still Jan Vermeer’s Delft of near three hundred years ago.