Within the triple encompassment of Belgium and Holland and Prussia, and in actual juxtaposition with all three, there lies a bit of land which for almost a century has been under the dual rule of rival kings. Originating in mistake, the anomaly has been perpetuated by jealousy, by the inability of two governments to concur in partition.
There was awe in the conception of the man without a country; but in Neutral Moresnet there are 3781 without a country. “Under which king, Bezonian? speak or die,” demanded Ancient Pistol; but change the threat to Moresnian and there would be 3781 unable to give the saving word.
It came about through a geographical blunder of that Congress of Vienna which, after the sending of Napoleon to Elba, parceled out Europe anew. Through a district known as Moresnet, which under the French Empire had been assigned to the Department of the Ourthe, the negotiators drew a line, intending to make division between Prussia and the Netherlands. The northern end of this line demarcatory, the point where the departments of the Ourthe, the Meuse, and the Roeure converged, was well known, but about the southern end, so it was discovered, there were views variant. Prussia wished to stand by the description in one article of the treaty; the Netherlands claimed under another; and contingent upon which article was to have force was the status of a triangle of land, in the middle of Moresnet, some three miles by two miles by one, with an area of 850 acres.
A decision was postponed. There were more insistent problems. Part of Moresnet was unquestionably Prussian, part Netherlandian; and between the two portions should be this Neutral Moresnet, this No Man’s Land. It was to be under the civil administration of both countries, but under the military jurisdiction of neither.
When the Kingdom of the Netherlands was separated into Holland and Belgium, it was Belgium that retained an interest in the Triangle; when Prussia became part of Germany, it was still to Prussia and its king that the Triangle gave recognition.
Prussia and Belgium unite in the administration and divide the taxes; the money and the stamps of either country may be used; the courts of either may be appealed to; the burgomaster is alternately from one country and from the other. And there can be no garrison and no fortifications.
From its ancient and still worked deposits of calamine, the hydrous silicate of zinc, the territory is sometimes known as Vieille Montagne, or Altenberg, although the “old mountain” is but a lowish hill. From “calamine” come “Kelmis,” the name of the town where, as if by some law of precipitation, the population has settled at the bottom of the Triangle.
Although Neutral Moresnet is but a few miles from Aix-la-Chapelle, and although an electric-car line will be continued from the city to its edgeprobably, before this, has been continued-it is a lost territory. It is easily reachable from the village of Hergenrath, but this I did not easily learn. On the evening of my arrival in Aix I inquired at the hotel, at some neighboring shops, and at both of the railway stations, but no one could tell me how to reach Neutral Moresnet; they had no idea at all, or guessed at random at various impossible stations. But I set out next morning on the quest, and after some hours of travel and search was so fortunate as to find it. They love to tell, in the Triangle, of a recently appointed Prussian postoffice inspector who went from Aix to visit Neutral Moresnet officially, but who, misdirected from station to station, returned baffled at night to his starting-point.
And I recently had a personal experience that is perhaps still stranger. The division of Neutral Moresnet has long been intended, plans have from time to time been proposed for it, and it is apt to be accomplished at any moment. This would alter the national frontier of Germany; a matter of such importance that it would be expected that any German official, and especially any one connected with what we call the Department of State, would infallibly and necessarily know all about the entire situation. And so before putting this into a book, I went to the office of the German Consul in one of our largest cities to make certain that there had been no change of status. But the Consul had actually never heard of Neutral Moresnet. “It is on the German boundary, you say?” he repeated wonderingly; and he turned to his books to find it, and could then only shake his head in amazement.
Then I wrote to the German Embassy, in Washington, only to find that even there the boundaries of Germany are not watched! They knew of Neutral Moresnet, but could only “regret to say” that ” at this Embassy it is not known” about the longintended division.
No railway has its line through the neutral bit. Tracks are in Prussian Moresnet on one side, in Belgium Moresnet on the other, but within Neutral Moresnet there is only a short switch for freightcars from the mines.
The burgomaster, above whose office door are the juxtaposed coats-of-arms of Prussia and of Belgium, not only dispenses punishment for petty delinquency, but is the active governing power of the Triangle. He is assisted by a Council of Ten, a Committee of Beneficence, and a Committee for Schools; but even the awesomely named “Ten” wield no real power, for counsellors and committeemen are alike chosen by the burgomaster himself and exercise functions that are only advisory. Nor have the people of the Triangle any power of voting in regard to any public matter whatever.
Yet the burgomaster is far from being an untrammeled despot. There are two commissioners, one appointed by Prussia and one by Belgium, who visit the Triangle whenever they see fit and to whom every act of the burgomaster must be pleasing. Should they check or chide him, he must submit; should they give advice, he must comply. Should the two commissioners themselves differ, the matter must at once go to Berlin and to Brussels for decree.
Of the 3781, 1858 are males and 1923 females; 1642 are rated as Prussian, 1302 Belgian, 372 Dutch, 2 Italian, 2 Russian, and 1 Swiss. The remaining 460 are descendants of those who were inhabitants when the Triangle became neutral, and they are highly privileged, for their taxes remain the same as their ancestors paid in 1814, and they are free from any military service whatever. Alarmed at losing men from their armies, Prussia and Belgium some years ago began to claim a few years’ service from such as entered the Triangle from their respective territories, but neither country has ever attempted to alter the status of the indigenes.
Approaching the Triangle from Hergenrath, there are seen a low-rounding hill, a pointed spire, and clustered roofs half-hidden among trees, and that is Kelmis.
The houses are built to the line of cobbled sidewalk, most of them are of two stories, of brick or of brick-trimmed stone, and often a front is plastered in yellow or brown or pink; nor is the town without houses of little windows, wooden-shuttered in white or green. The floors are tiled or bricked, the kettles are copper, the crockery is of ponderousness. I noticed a plate holding up one corner of a heavy and uneven table. “It won’t hurt the plate,” said the owner, laconically, following my glance. Rain-barrels are of monster magnitude. Mottoes are darned in flaming reds and blues, as, “May the good God give us good luck!” Many a house has flowers in its windows, many a door is iron-knockered, many a fruit tree is trained against the wall. Flowers grow freely, but not in great variety; and most prized is a yellow violet which the people deem infallible as an indicator of zinc, the degree of yellow in the flower denoting the degree of metal in the soil.
When evening approaches, and the men come back from digging in the wet earth and pushing little cars on narrow tracks, the people group genially for gregarious gossip. The young folk walk together up and down, or gayly and informally dance. The children play. Music sounds from the refreshmentgardens or the casino.
The first of May is moving-day, and then the streets are filled with little two-wheeled carts, heaped high with things of the household, and one gains the impression that nearly every one is changing his domicile-and, indeed, the citizens will tell you, with great complaisance, that each family manages in time to live in nearly every house in town! With all the world before them where to choose they will not leave the Triangle, but variedly find the spice of life within its slender borders.
The water-supply is from a mighty spring just away from the town, and the water is transported by the women and the girls in buckets dangling from yokes borne across their shoulders.
There are many signs for the sale of oleomargarine, drugs, and drink, thus hinting at a possible processional cause and effect. Within this tiny acreage there are eighty places where beverages are dispensed! “Sang und Liebe, Witz und Wein, Sind des Lebens Sonnenschein!” Thus, prominently lettered in one of the houses, are the desiderata of this humble Moresnian life expressed; only, in realization, the wine is generally beer and the wit is a humor rather broad.
Taxing is done with cheerful freedom. Restaurants and cafes naturally bear an important share, and every dance, every little concert, is a taxable occasion. Dogs, too, are taxed; but only dogs of harness-” les chiens de trait”-the poor “dog Tray.” Yet taxes, in all, seem to be a little lower than in adjacent Prussia and only a little higher than in Belgium.
The solitary policeman of the Triangle, jocularly known as the “Secretary of War,” goes about with hurried assiduity, stooping under his responsibility. Diligent in his business, he stands for two kings. But in case of need the soldiers of Belgium or of Prussia may be called in; and, indeed, Prussian soldiers, patrolling with slung rifles, are a familiar sight along the border-line. Watching the customs, they-for although Moresnet is the only place in Europe where there is not the slightest customs examination for articles entering, everything which goes out is carefully scanned!
On the whole, an honest sort of place, this. “A man can go safely anywhere, night or day,” declares the burgomaster; and it is doubtless mere exuberance of heed that leads the barber to take in every evening the gleaming basin of brass that twinkles in front of his shop as the outward and visible sign of his calling.
The Prussian Eagle and the Belgian Lion have lain down together, but one intangibly gains the impression that the lion has not held the lion’s share.
Prussian governmental influence seems to be stronger. There is a preponderance of the flaxen hair and blue eyes of Germany. Although Walloon, Dutch, Flemish, French, and German are all spoken, the number of languages being inversely as the population, German has practically conquered the rest; but it bears the marks of the tongues it overcame. It is difficult to understand, as it has become a patois: in fact, the worse one’s German is, here, the better it is.
The vaccination of the children is a function civil and military. The burgomaster keeps the record. A Prussian soldier marshals the throng. The liningup, the registering, the baring of arms, the incision, the relegation to the drying rows-all is swift, methodical, capable, amusing.
In 1903 the absence of definite rule attracted the attention of men who wished to establish a great gambling resort; it was decided to locate here, large sums were spent in preparation, and gambling on an extensive scale was actually begun. The Code Napoleon, still operative in the Neutral Territory, prohibits the gathering of more than twenty persons for such a purpose, at one time, without specific authority. But the gambling promoters proceeded with much circumspection. They first decreed that no inhabitant of the Triangle should be permitted to gamble, and thus there was to be no local injury. And they arranged to play in relays of twenty!
They believed that the burgomaster and Belgium favored them, and so long as the law was observed they believed they could ignore the displeasure of Prussia.
But the man behind the sword cut the cleverly tied Gordian knot of strict legality. The Prussian King declared that unless gambling should instantly cease the territory would at once be partitioned and the neutrality should end. In distinctively Belgian or Prussian territory a Monte Carlo would not be permitted; so the gamblers swiftly vanished, and the neutrality remained.
Within Neutral Moresnet there is no court except the petty tribunal of the burgomaster. A plaintiff may bring his suit in either Prussia or Belgium, as he may prefer. The Code Napoleon, altered from time to time by mutual edicts of the two kings, forms the basis of law, but this law must be administered in accordance with the procedure of Belgian or Prussian courts. Pregnant of perplexity, all this. To Belgian Aubel or Prussian Eugen, to the court of Verviers or that of Aix-la-Chapelle, on appeal to Liege or Cologne such is the whimsical alternativeness. A criminal may find himself before a Prussian or a Belgian court. A deed may be executed before either a Prussian or a Belgian notary. and may be filed at either Verviers or Aix. The differences of legal expense and procedure; the differences in delay-nay, even potential differences in decision and in penalty-make the legal complexity a thing of real moment.
My advent caused a genuine flutter. That I could be merely an American, traveling unofficially, seemed incredible; and officials, Belgian and Prussian, and even an English consul from a Belgian town, kept dropping in, one after another, acknowledging to me, over tall beakers, that they had been anxiously wired anent my presence there.
The nearness of Aix-la-Chapelle, the favorite city of Charlemagne, tinges the entire region with fascinating historical color; and here, at the very edge of Neutral Moresnet, is Emmaburg, which was his favorite resting-place. A little stream goes bending about the rock on which the chateau stands; and one vividly realizes that the brook has gone on, unchanged, throughout the thousand years that have passed since Charlemagne loved to come here, and since the undying story of Emma and Eginhard went to its happy catastrophe.
Emma was the Emperor’s daughter; Eginhard, his secretary. A poet, a scholar, a musician, handsome, ingratiating, one whom Charlemagne himself trusted-small wonder that Emma and he fell in love. But, Eginhard being only a secretary, they dared not publicly avouch their affection and they dared not meet except in secret. On one occasion the princess allowed the young man to remain until well toward morning-“And then they parted; but at parting, lo! they saw the palace courtyard white with snow!”
Confronted by such an emergency, Emma acted with a readiness and decision worthy of her illustrious parentage. She had certainly been imprudent in her entertaining of Eginhard, with her father unaware; but her speeding of the parting guest was beyond all praise. For she promptly took Eginhard upon her shoulders and carried him to where his footsteps would not be deemed evidence condemnatory!
But Charlemagne, unknown to them, was a spectator from one of the tower windows! Yet it all came out right, just as a sweet old tale ought to do, and they married and lived happily ever after. The sour Carlyle speaks derisively of it. “Charlemagne with wanton daughters carrying secretaries through the snow,” he jibes; but his intemperate pluralization shows how bent he was upon avoiding all sweetness and charm.
The chateau has been much bewindowed and largely rebuilt, but tradition holds that the most prominent tower was standing in Charlemagne’s time, and there is no reason to doubt that the lines of the courtyard are unchanged.
Trees are attractively massed about Emmaburg, yet do not hide it from the view of Kelmis. Even within Kelmis itself there is a general aspect of trees and greenery. To the northward the Neutral Territory is covered thick with woodland, as are portions of Holland and Belgium and Prussia there adjoining.
At the extreme northern point of the Triangle are clustered four boundary-stones, one for each of the four jurisdictions.
In the midst of the woods, southward from this boundary point, I chanced one day upon an ancient stone, hidden among trees and bushes. It bore the date of 1615, and was blazoned with a defiant inscription and a long-forgotten coat of arms. Men fought, three hundred years ago, to place that stone there and maintain it. And now, so completely forgotten! stumbled upon by a stranger, and lost to all other knowledge.
Simple and plainly dressed, these folk of the Neutral Land; and they ought to be happy, for they have but little poverty and little riches. Still, there are eighteen telephones in use, Belgium in each case giving the permission, and Prussia putting each telephone in and collecting the eighty marks annually -which, again, is not altogether untypical of the division of power here!
I found even this tiny territory to be not without its own exemplification of the truth, which the traveller should always remember, that the foreign mind works differently from his own. After vainly trying”to be pleased with the assimilation of lukewarm coffee, I explained to the excellent waitress that I desired it hot. Really, my German was right enough, but her comprehension of it was not all that could have been desired. She was unfeignedly joyful at being able to please the man from across the sea-and fetched me, not hot coffee, but a cup heated to untouchableness !
On the first morning of my stay there I laid out a roll of laundry. After breakfast I looked for it, to give to a messenger; but it had disappeared! The maid, so I found, had thought the articles, laid together, to be the American sleeping-complement, and, with imaginable wonder at what she must have deemed an embarrassing multiplicity, but without a particle of hesitation, she had tucked everything, with the pajamas, at the foot of the bed-not even under the pillow, for that would not have been the Moresnet way.
The charivari is prominent among the diversions of the Triangle. Not always invoked for the delectation of the newly wedded, this, but, by a humorous perversion, even more for the distinguishment of such as have not married! The most popular music at these open-air concerts is that made by holding a great scythe against the tire of a revolving wheel; and so shrilly excruciating is it as to make a lapse from virtue a matter for serious regret.
The church of Kelmis is modern, and its glaring interior could add many a hue to the rainbow. But, though without the splendid dignity of an old cathedral, it is also without the beggars who are the sadly familiar sight at magnificent cathedral portals. Religious feast-days transcend in importance the celebration of any festivals secular. Even in secular recreations the religious element is likely to be conjoined; in parades, priestliness and playfulness may affiliate; and there is no better place for a secular outing than one of the stations of the Cross. Frequently, by the roadside, alike within the village and in the wild-woods, there are seen the crucifix and shrine. “Yet the people are not too good,” says the priest, with subtle and tolerant philosophy.
For the First Communion the entire population joins in the celebration. Great banners are hung on the outward walls, and in the cool light of early morning the streets are thronged. Led by a band, playing a stately march, the children come in procession around a corner and, the priest leading, circle through a grove of trees toward the entrance of the church. There has been lavishness of outlay, and there is a really astonishing display of scarlet and blue in the costumes, in addition to the more prevalent white. In the church, every inch of which is crowded, even for standing-room, the service is of simple effectiveness, and the organ is assisted by the band.
For the little girls it is the most important time of all their lives. All day long they wear their veils and dresses; all of the second day they wear another special suit from morning until night; all of the third day still another-for such is the custom of the Neutral Land.
I saw not only the First Communion, but the Last. One day I met the priest going on his way to the deathbed of a woman. The kuster-the sacristan-preceded him, dolefully ringing a little bell and bearing a light which glimmered strangely beneath the hot sun in its cloudless sky. Following was a constantly augmenting group, and each man’s head was bared, and all were awed and still. They came to a village house, and the priest went in, and the women silently followed, and the men stood reverently at the door. And with candle and water and sprigs the last communion was administered, and a few great tears rolled from the eyes of the woman dying there.
The amusements of Neutral Moresnet are important and numerous. There are associations musical, associations gymnastic, associations theatrical, associations for bowling, for dancing, for shooting at the mark that dangles from a lofty pole. There is an excellent band; there are two fire companies.
These people, small though their territory, will not be cabined, cribbed, confined. There are two clubs for the training and flying of carrier-pigeons! And I met a man whose delight is the gathering of newspapers in the languages of all the world; he has a wonderful collection, and lamented to me that thus far he had no newspaper of the Esquimaux or of the North-American Indian.
For the men of the Triangle there are twenty associations, but for the women there is none! There are no club-women, no “advanced” women. “They cook, they work, they make their children’s clothes,” said the priest, gravely outlining their diversions. “On Sunday they go to church. On Sunday afternoon they walk out with their husbands and children. They know nothing else. They wish nothing else. They are content. Is it not well?”
Yet one need not deem them to be always under repression. I remember hearing a morning quarrel with the milkman; and-such are the geographical advantages of the place not only the Neutral Land, but Prussia and Holland and Belgium as well, listened perforce to the woman’s side of the argument.
The very intensity of local life tends to hold the people. They are satisfied with their Lilliput. They little care to stir abroad, even for their amusements, or even to near-by Aix. With their many gathering-places, their varied means of pleasurable occupation, they need no outside aids to joyousness.
There is general pervasiveness of content. There is a sort of alfresco freedom of life, an untrammeledness which comes naturally from long-continued absence of centralized restraint. The people only fear the possible impermanency of their pleasing status.
No man can serve two masters? Why, here is the twofold subjection, the twofold loyalty, of three thousand seven hundred and eighty-one!