Netherlands – Wholly Domestic

NEVER, never shall I forget James’s first Dutch homecoming! It can be summed up in six words: it was so like a man. An urbaine, piled high with our baggage, stopped at the gate in the holly hedge. I was there to welcome the occupant, who seemed loath to leave the vehicle.

“Oh, James, it’s perfect!” I cried, thrusting an arm in at the window to give him a preliminary pat on the back. He could not respond as his arms were full; so, too, was the extra seat; so, likewise, the floor.

“Let me help. Whatever have you got in here ?”

“Now, one at a time, my dear girl,” said James, working his way out rather laboriously; “I knew we’d need provisioning for to-night and to-morrow. Here, lend a hand, and take what’s on the seat. I’ll go in with these.”

In the pride of his knowledge that he was providing for his family, he led the way into the house where we deposited the mysterious packages on the dining-room table. I left him to wrestle with the trunks, and made it my business to open the bundles large and small. If I make the statement that there were, in all, fully two yards of various kinds of sausage, including Bologna and leberwurst, I do not exaggerate. James is nothing if not generous. In addition, there were two loaves of bread, a meter each in length, two boxes of Russian caviare, one small keg of sauerkraut, six bottles of Pilsener beer, one full moon of a Dutch cheese, in weight about ten pounds, one bag of unground coffee, two boxes of cigars, and two pounds of hopjes — a kind of black, burnt, butter-scotch candy made in The Hague and peculiar to it.

Now I leave this list for a study, with but one questioning commentary, to any disinterested or interested appreciator of certain masculine tendencies: Wasn’t it just like a man ? Poor fellow, he had done his best and I could not find it in my heart to tell him other than if he had been intending to provide hospitably for a “stag supper,” he could not have done better. He looked doubtful over my compliment, but his doubts did not affect his appetite.

It would be far easier to omit the chronicles of our struggles for the next ten days in our efforts to establish our housekeeping on a firm basis, that is, on the basis of food and fuel; but the omission would not leave enough to the imagination. It was in fact the maximum of effort and the minimum of result, and no imagination could do justice to the reality. Those who know Holland without, the artistic allurements of its unique waterways, the fascination of its moated cities, the quaint charm of its islands and fishing hamlets, know but the lesser half. To know it from within is to take the deus ex machinâ by the hand, and make such intimate acquaintance with a life so foreign to ours, that the ways of Paris, Berlin, Munich, and Florence are as our next door neighbors’ in comparison.

For several nights we took turns in sitting up with the stoves, or kachels. “Kachel-wakes” James dubbed them. A Dutch stove is the smallest iron object I know that can generate the most heat on the least quantity of coke, and sulk the longest before it is willing to do it. Moreover, it needs constant companionship—human, as a matter of course. Lacking this, it has a curious way of disappointing one’s expectations. We had frequent consultations on this subject and many experiences with the subject matter. The relation of one of them will suffice.

I had been coaxing the fire in the kitchen stove and had re-made it three times before it so much as blinked at me. I appeal to any of my own countrywomen, who are housekeepers and appreciate a good range, to put themselves for a quarter of an hour in sympathy with me and my struggles. How would it seem to you to find a firebox four inches deep and four inches square at the bottom, hidden under the one cooking hole of a range four or five feet long and proportionately high ? How would you feel, with an abnormally healthy family, consisting of a husband, famishing above you, to attempt of a cool, damp, dark, winter morning to build a fire in such an ark with a few dainty pieces of wood the size of chopsticks, and a something that resembles a twisted stick of molasses candy ? There are a few things which can be left to the woman’s imagination; a man’s cannot compass them. Such an experience is one of them. I had insisted upon making the kitchen fire myself. I knew James would have no patience, and fret himself into a fever over it. I told him to attend to the stove in the living-room.

In my discouragement I went upstairs to warm myself and find comfort with my companion in discomfort who, by the noise, was evidently having his Waterloo with the other kachels. James was looking almost desperate, as well as wholly mad; I use the word advisedly.

“What’s the matter, James ? Won’t it go ?” I asked with real sympathy.

“Go, no! I believe the thing is playing possum. I got sight of a live coal ten minutes ago, but it’s gone back on me.” He poked, and shook, and rattled until I thought the little kachel would be driven off its legs. I sat round and looked on, now and then, only, venturing a suggestion.

“Let me try, perhaps I can coax it,” I said at last, kneeling beside him. “Here, give me the poker.”

“Poker! You call that straight twelve-inch rod a poker! Great Scott! I wish I had a blast-furnace stoker —”

“Now, James,” I said in my quietest tone that is apt to exasperate him when he is out of sorts, “let’s look at the thing scientifically.”

“Science be hanged, Persis. Can’t you see for yourself that a two-foot piece of iron no bigger than our kitchen stovepipe at home, and a grate opening no larger than a penny-in-the-slot slit, can’t warm a twenty by sixteen foot room and thirteen feet high into the bargain ? You don’t use common sense!” He shook the little black affair till it was nearly hoisted from its dachshund legs.

“Oh, don’t, James! You’ll upset the whole thing, and if a coal should fall on that rug I should have a fit.”

“Don’t complicate the situation just now, Persis, I beg of you.” When James is sarcastic I know the limit of his patience has been reached. “I’m not going to be boycotted by a Dutch stove, not if I know it — What the d ___!”

“James, James,” I expostulated, “don’t swear!”

“Why, the thing’s alive! I believe you’d be the first one, Persis, to hire a graphophone to do some talking for you if you’d picked up a live coal—darn it!” He wrung his half-blistered finger; “I believe it’s starting up.”

It was. That is the way of a Dutch stove. When one has reached the verge of desperation in consequence of its non-action, it begins to draw with a vehemence that in a short time puts all other nations’ stoves to shame. Within ten minutes we were removing ourselves to a respectful distance from the glowing iron. In another ten we opened the windows for air. In the end we had to let the fire go out in order to cool off by bedtime. Not until two weeks later did we learn, and that by chance only, that the stove could be literally disembowelled: its inside lifted out by means of an iron handle like that of a kettle, and the piece of “stovepipe” as James called it, taken down into the fuel room, emptied by a single turn of one’s hand, refilled, lighted, and carried back upstairs to be set, briskly burning, Within its glazed and perforated shell. No noise, no dust, no confusion, no smell of burning resin-sticks, no smoke of turf, nothing to offend either eye, nose, or ear.

Our fuel room was a mere closet, and the coal bin about the size of a travelling saleman’s sample trunk. This room is universally small in Dutch houses; the coal and coke are bought by the bag and from week to week. The minimum of heat, the maximum of discomfort, that is the rule. The kindlings, so-called “fire-makers,” some-thing I mistook at first for braided molasses stick-candy, are bought by the hundred. They are shavings dipped in resin and artistically doubled and twisted into something resembling a French bowknot. This confection is about three inches long; it is daintily tied with twine and delivered in pink paper bags.

When I contemplated the fact that I was mistress of a Dutch villa, the rooms of which were thirteen feet high in the walls and proportionately large in square contents, and then examined the “fire-makers,” two of which are expected to start a Dutch fire, I felt the contrast to be so painful that I half lost my courage — half, I repeat, but never wholly. I had always a reviving sense that there was enough of a unique natural beauty at my very door, to compensate for the loss of a degree or two of courage in my housekeeping attempt.

I had but to open the gate in the ivy-covered fence at the end of the garden, and there always before me stretched the wide waste of the dunes that showed like over-lapping ranges of hills against the horizon: billows of sand forty to seventy feet high, stable only for an hour, a day, then driven by the winds into shifting contours ever new, ever strange as they encroach landwards. Above them hung low the ever-changing North Sea sky, at times pale blue flecked here and there by a high-flying rook, and beneath it the sea showed a still fainter blue, gleaming white with crisping foam and thousands of snowy gulls. Sometimes, but rarely and at sunset, the heavens flamed scarlet, the sea burned red, the dunes, wherever they were set with coarse hummock grass, lightened into phosphorescent yellow, the waves, in color like the lees of wine, rolled along the wet, shining sands where a lone tern sought for his food. And often, very often, for days and nights together during the dreary winter-time, sky and sea and dunes were gray in gray, blotted out wholly in dark, rolling mists that hid both the strand and the sea — that wild sea, the terror of the ancients, which seems to utter, in the deep, continuous gasping moan of its waves, the lament of those lost souls who peopled the great winds in Dante’s Vision of Hell.

This sound is awful. I use the word in its entire signification. James and I spoke of it often, as more and more frequently we sought in our walks the famous beach of Scheveningen. It is unlike any thing we have ever heard by other waters in the New World or the Old. It seems to make articulate in that continuous, breathless moan, all the desperate pain and strife, national and individual, of the ages in which Holland has been struggling for an existence unlike that of any other nation. It interprets anew the savage despair of the centuries in which the land attempted to beat back the human tide of foreign legions, that rose higher and higher as the little archipelago raised its head from the all-embracing waters and came into historical prominence. It breathes the long-drawn breath of dogged determination with which, for eighty years, it closed in a life and death struggle with the Spaniard. We hear in it the hopeless wail of internecine war, and the agonizing cry of a nation’s soul when the body politic was dismembered, by a Frenchman’s word. We hear in it, also, the overwhelming rush of its ever-threatening sea and the uneven flow of its lawless rivers that, to this day, bear destruction on their floods.

That awful sound, coming from within the dark, impenetrable mists, brought to us a muffled knell, as it were, from thousands of engulfed belfries, the drowned bells of which seem forever to be tolling for hundreds of sunken cities and villages, for entire devastated provinces, all of which lie to-day deep beneath the shifting bottom of the North Sea sands; and, alas! for the hundreds of thou-sands of brave souls that have found death beneath its merciless waves.

Overwhelmed, yet never overmastered! This was, is, and must remain the wonder of it all.