Holland and its People/Chapter X

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From the moment that I began writing the first pages of this book I have been in the habit of encouraging myself to proceed by thinking of the pleasure I should experience upon my first arrival at the village of Broek. I had my days of discouragement and fatigue, when I was ready to throw the whole manuscript into the fire; but the thought of Broek was always enough to revive me from that prostration of soul. The image of Broek was my polar star. "How long before we arrive at Broek? " asked my friends at home, smiling. And I answered, with a sigh, "Two months more; twenty days; a week." Here I am at last at the day so much desired. I am happy and impatient; I should like to express myself at once with pen, pencil, and voice. I have a hundred things to tell, and I do not know where to begin; and I laugh at myself, as my readers will doubtless laugh at me.

In the different cities where I had been, from Rotterdam to Amsterdam, I had heard more than once of the village of Broek, but always in a way to tickle my curiosity rather than to satisfy it. The name of Broek pronounced among a group of people always raised a laugh. When I asked why they laughed, I got the dry answer, "Because it is ridiculous." One person, at the Hague, had said to me, half pleasantly and half annoyed, "Oh, when will strangers have done with that blessed Broek? Is there nothing else for them to quiz us about?" At Amsterdam, the landlord of my hotel, tracing out for me on the map the way to Broek, laughed in his beard with an air as if he were saying, "How childish!" I had asked for information from various people, and they had one and all refused to give it, shaking their heads, and saying, "You will see." Only from a few words dropped here and there had I been able to gather that Broek was a very queer place, famous for its oddity since the last century, described, illustrated, derided, and made by foreigners a pretext for an infinite number of jokes and stories against the Hollanders.

My curiosity may be imagined. Enough to say that I dreamed of Broek every night, and that the description of all the fantastic, wonderful, and impossible villages which I saw in my dreams would fill a volume. It was with an effort that I gave precedence to Utrecht, and had no sooner returned to Amsterdam than I started for the mysterious village.

Broek is in North Holland, about halfway between Edam and Amsterdam, and not far from the shore of the Zuyder Zee. I had then to cross the gulf of the Y, and go through a portion of the Northern canal. I embarked early in one of the small steamboats which leave every hour of the day for Alkmaar and Helder, and in a few minutes reached the Grand canal.

This is the largest canal in Holland, and one of the most wonderful works of the nineteenth century in Europe. Everyone knows in what way and with what purpose it was opened. Formerly to reach the port of Amsterdam, large vessels had to cross the gulf of Zuyder Zee, which is obstructed by sand-banks and agitated by storms. The crossing, long and full of peril, was especially difficult at the point where the gulf of Zuyder Zee joins that of the Y, by reason of a great sand-bank called Pampus, which large vessels could not get over except by unshipping a part of their cargo, and being towed, with great loss of time and at great expense. To open an easier way to the port of Amsterdam, there was constructed this great canal which runs from the gulf of the Y into the North sea, crossing the whole of North Holland, almost eighty kilometres in length, forty wide, six deep. It was began in 1819, finished in 1825, and cost thirty millions of francs. Thanks to this canal, in favorable weather the largest ships can go in four-and-twenty hours from the North Sea to the port of Amsterdam. Nevertheless, the city is still, in comparison to other maritime cities, in a position of disadvantage with regard to commerce, since the entrance to the Northern canal, near the island of Texel, is exceedingly difficult; ships have to be towed even in the canal itself, so that transit, up as well as down, costs about a thousand francs; and in severe winters the water freezes, navigation is impeded and delayed, and sometimes as much as thirty thousand florins is spent in opening a passage. But the courage of the Hollanders is not arrested even in the face of such difficulties, and it has opened a new road to commerce. Another canal, which is now in course of construction, will cross the gulf of the Y in the direction of its greatest length, cross the downs, and come out into the sea near the village of Wyk-aan-zee, separating North Holland from the continent. This canal will be twenty-five kilometres in length and as wide as the Suez canal; by it ships can reach Amsterdam from the sea in two hours and a half; a large part of the gulf of the Y, filled up with the material taken from the canal, will be converted into ground capable of cultivation; and thus the way will be for ever closed against inundations by, the sea, by which Amsterdam is constantly threatened. The works, begun in 1866, are almost finished; and already on the 25th of September 1872, a vessel belonging to the society that carries on the enterprise passed triumphantly through the new canal, joyfully saluted by the city as the herald of prosperity and fortune.

Hardly had the steamboat passed beyond the monumental gates of the Northern canal, when the gulf, the port, Amsterdam itself, all vanished from my gaze; for at tills point the waters of the canal are almost three metres lower than the level of the sea; and I could see only a myriad of topmasts, points of steeples, and the ends of the wings of windmills, rising above the lofty dykes between which we were gliding. From time to time we passed through a narrow lock, shut in between high walls, not even the horizon visible; we seemed to be steaming through the intricacies of some submerged fortress. After half an hour of this furtive navigation, we reached a village, a real enigma of a village, made up of a few small colored houses ranged along a dyke, and almost entirely concealed by a row of trees cut in the form of fans and planted in front of the houses as if to defend them from the indiscreet gaze of curious passengers. The steamboat was passed through another lock and came out into the open country, where, an entirely new spectacle presented itself. The waters of the canal, being much more elevated than the surrounding country, the boat was on a level with the tops of the trees and the roof-ridges of the houses which bordered the dykes; and the people walking in the roads turned their faces upwards to look at us, as we had raised ours a little while before to look at persons walking on the dykes. We met vessels towed by horses, barges towed by the entire family, ranged in a line by order of age, from the grandfather down to the youngest child, and the dog; steamboats coming from Alkmaar and Helder, full of peasant women wearing the gold circlet on their heads; and everywhere over the fields we could see the sails of boats gliding about in the hidden canals, and looking as if they were sailing on the grass.

Arrived at my destination I landed and waited to see the steamboat go on before I took the road alone to Broek, flanked on the left by a canal, and on the right by a hedge. I had an hour's walk before me. The country was green, striped by many canals, sprinkled with groups of trees and windmills, and as silent as a steppe. Beautiful black and white cows wandered at will, untended by anyone, or reposed upon the banks of the canals; flocks of ducks and white geese swam about the basins; and here and there a boat, rowed by a peasant, darted through a canal between the meadows. That vast plain, animated by a life so mute and tranquil, inspired me with a feeling of such sweet peace, that the softest music would have disturbed me there like an importunate noise.

After half an hour's walk, although no sign of Broek appeared beyond the top of a tall steeple, I began to see here and there something which announced the neighbourbood of a village. The road ran along a dyke, and upon the side of it there were a few houses. One of these, a wooden hutch whose roof scarcely reached to the level of the road - a rough, disjointed, tumble-down place, more like a kennel than a house - had a little window with a smart white curtain tied up with a bow of blue ribbon, and showing through the panes a little table covered with cups, glasses, flowers, and shining trifles. A little further on I saw two posts planted in the ground and. supporting a hedge, which were painted in blue and white stripes like the banner-poles which are erected for public festivals; and still beyond, I came upon another peasant's house, before which were displayed small buckets, benches, rakes, shovels, and picks-all painted red, blue, white, yellow, and striped and bordered with contrasting colors, like the utensils of a mountebank. As I went on I saw other rustic houses with their windows ornamented with net curtains and ribbons, with little movable mirrors, and toys hung up; their doors and window-frames painted in bright colors. The brightness and variety of tints, the cleanliness and shining neatness of everything increased as I advanced. I saw embroidered white curtains with rose-colored bows in the windows of a mill; the nails and metal bands of the carts and agricultural implements shone like silver; the wooden houses were painted red and white; the windows were bordered with stripes of two or three colors; and finally, strangest of all, trees with their trunks colored bright blue from the root to the first branches.

Laughing to myself at this last oddity, I arrived at a large basin of the canal surrounded by thick and leafy trees, beyond which, on the other side, arose a steeple. I looked about and discovered a boy lying on the grass. "Broek?" inquired I. "Broek," he responded, laughing. Then I looked, and beheld amid the green of the trees such a show of harlequin colors, that I could only cry out in astonishment. Skirting the basin and crossing a small bridge of wood as white as snow, I entered a narrow road. I looked. Broek! Broek! I knew it, there was no mistake; it could not be any other than Broek.

Imagine a presepio* made of pasteboard by a boy of eight years old, a city made for the show-window of a Nuremburg toy-shop, a village constructed by a ballet-master after the drawing on a Chinese fan, a collection of barracks of wealthy mountebanks, a group of houses made for the scenes of a puppet-theatre, the fancy of an Oriental drunk with opium, something which makes you think of Japan, India, Tartary, and Switzerland all at once, with a touch of Pompadour rococo, and something of the constructions in sugar that one sees in a confectioner's window; a mixture of the barbaric, the pretty, the presumptuous, the ingenious, and the silly, which, while it offends good taste, provokes at the same time a good-natured laugh; imagine, in short, the most childish extravagance to which the name of village can be given, and you will have a faint idea of Broek.

All the houses are surrounded by small gardens, separated from the street by a sky-blue paling, in the form of a balustrade, with wooden apples and oranges on the top of the pales. The streets bordered by these palings are very narrow, and paved with tiny bricks of various colors, set edge-wise and combined in different designs, so that, at a distance, the street seems to be carpeted with Cashmere shawls. The houses, for the most part built of wood, and all of one storey only, and very small, are rose-colored, black, grey, purple, blue, and grass-green; their roofs are covered with painted tiles disposed in squares of different colors; the eaves ornamented with a kind of wooden festoon, carved in open work; the façades pointed, with a little flag at the top, or a small lance, or something resembling a bunch of flowers; the windows with red and blue glass, and having curtains decorated with embroidery, ribbons, fringes, and a display of cups, and vases, and toys within; the doors painted and gilded, and surmounted with all sorts of bas-reliefs representing flowers, figures, and trophies, in the midst of which can be read the name and profession of the proprietor. Almost all the houses have two doors, one front and one back - the latter for every-day use, the other for solemn occasions, such as a birth, a death, or a marriage.

The gardens are not less odd than the houses. They seem made for dwarfs. The paths are scarcely wide enough for the feet, the arbors can contain two very small persons standing close together, the box borders would not reach the knee of a child of four years old. Between the arbors and the tiny flower-beds there are little canals, apparently made for toy-boats, which are spanned here and there by superfluous bridges with little painted railings and columns; basins about as large as an ordinary sitz-bath contain a liliputian boat tied by a red cord to a sky-blue post; tiny steps, paths, gates, and lattices abound, each of which can be measured with the hand, or knocked down with a blow of the fist, or jumped over with case. Around houses and gardens stand trees cut in the shape of fans, plumes, discs, &c., with their trunks painted white and blue, and here and there appears a little wooden house for a domestic animal, painted, gilded, and carved like a house in a puppet-show.

After a glance at the first houses and gardens, I advanced into the village. There was not a living soul in the streets, or at the windows. All doors were closed, all curtains drawn, all canals deserted, all boats motionless. The village is so constructed that from no point can more than four or five houses be seen at a time; consequently at every step a new scene is discovered, a new combination of bright colors, a new caprice, a new absurdity. One expects every moment to see the doors fly open and a population of automatons come forth with cymbals and tambourines in their hands, like the figures on hand-organs. Fifty paces carry you around a house, over a bridge, through a garden, and back to your starting point. A child looks like a man, and a man appears a giant. Everything is tiny, compressed, smooth, colored, childish, and unnatural. At first you laugh; then comes the thought that the inhabitants of this village believe you find it beautiful. The caricature seems odious to you; the owners of the houses are all idiots; you would like to tell them that their famous Broek is an insult to art and nature, and that there is in it neither good taste nor good sense. But when you have relieved your mind a little in this way, the laugh returns and prevails.

After having walked about for a while without meeting anyone, I began to wish to see the inside of one of these houses. Whilst I looked about in search of some hospitable soul, I heard someone call "Monsieur!" and turning, saw a woman in a door-way, who asked me, timidly, "Would you wish to see a private house?" I accepted, and the woman, leaving her wooden-shoes outside, as is the custom in this country, led me in. She was a poor widow, she told me, and had only one room; but what a room! The floor was covered with clean matting; the furniture shone like ebony, all the little points of metal here and there looked like silver. The chimney was a real temple, lined with colored tiles, and as clean and polished as if it had never seen a fire. Not seeing any bed, I asked the good woman where she slept. She immediately opened a folding door in the wall which was concealed by the paper. The bed (in this case as in all others) was shut in a kind of closet in the thickness of the wall, and consisted of a mattress or two laid upon the lower part of the same wall, without any bedstead - a convenient bed in winter, but suffocating, one would think, in summer. She showed me the utensils for cleaning the room - enough to set up a shop; brooms, brushes, toothbrushes, cloths, scrapers, dustpans, pokers, shovels, feather brushes, aquafortis, Spanish white for the window-panes, Venetian red for the knives, coal-dust for the copper vessels, emery for polishing the iron things, brick for rubbing the pavements, and sticks for poking out the microscopic straws that get into the cracks of the floors.

She gave me some curious information about the fury of cleanliness for which the village of Broek is famous throughout Holland. It is not long since an inscription to the following effect could be seen at the entrance to the village: "Before and after sunrise, it is forbidden to smoke in the village of Broek except with a cover to the pipe-bowl (so as not to scatter the ashes); and, in crossing the village with a horse, it is forbidden to remain in the saddle: the horse must be led."

It was also forbidden to go through the village in a carriage, or with sheep or cows, or any other animal that might soil the street; and although this prohibition no longer exists, carts and animals still go round the village, from old custom. Before every house there was once (and some may still be seen) a stone spittoon, into which smokers spat from the windows. The custom of being without shoes within doors is still in vigor, and before every door there is a heap of shoes and boots and wooden pattens.

That which has been told about popular risings in Broek in consequence of strangers having scattered some cherry-stones in the street, is a fable; but it is quite true that every citizen who sees from his window a leaf or straw fall upon the pavement, comes out and throws it into the canal. That they go five hundred paces outside the village to dust their shoes, that boys are paid to blow the dust out of the cracks of the pavements four times an hour, and that, in certain cases, guests are carried in the arms lest they should soil the floors, are things which are told, said this good woman, but which probably have never happened. Before letting me go, however, she related to me an anecdote which almost made these extravagances seem possible. "In former times," she said, "the mania for cleanliness arrived at such a pass, that the women of Broek neglected their religious duties for it. The pastor of the village, after having tried all means of persuasion to cause the cessation of the scandal, took another way. He preached a sermon in which he said that every Dutch woman who should have faithfully fulfilled her duties towards God in this earthly life, would find in the other world a house full of furniture, utensils, and trifles various and precious, in which undisturbed by other occupation, she could sweep, wash, and polish for all eternity, without ever coming to an end. The image of this sublime recompense, the thought of this immense felicity, infused such ardor and piety into the women of Broek, that from that moment they were assiduous at religious exercises, and never had need of further admonition."

And yet, neither in this rage for cleanliness, nor in its oddities of architecture, lies the reason for the semi-serious celebrity of the village of Broek. This celebrity arises from an extravagance of forms and customs, beside which those which now exist are nowhere. The Broek of to-day is only the pale shade of the Broek of former times. To know this it is only necessary to visit a house placed at the entrance of the village, and open to strangers, which is a perfect model of the ancient houses, and has been preserved by the proprietor as an historical monument of past folly. The exterior of the house is not different from the others. The wonders are in the chambers and in the garden. The rooms, very small, are so many bazaars, each one of which would require a volume of description. The Dutch mania for piling object upon object and seeking elegance and beauty in the excess of the utmost disparity of ornament, is here seen pushed to the superlative of the ridiculous. There are porcelain figures on the shelves, Chinese cups and sugar-bowls on and under all the tables, plates suspended on the walls from ceiling to floor, clocks, ostrich eggs, boats, ships, vases, saucers, goblets, stuck in every space and hidden in every corner; pictures which present different figures according to the point from which they are viewed, closets full of thousands of toys and trifles; nameless ornaments, senseless decorations, a confusion and dissonance of color, bad taste so innocently displayed that it is pitiful to see.

But the absurdity is still greater in the garden. Here are bridges a palm long, grottoes and cascades of miniature proportions, small rustic chapels, Greek temples, Chinese kiosks, Indian pagodas, painted statues; tiny figures with gilded feet and hands, which bounce out of flower-baskets; automata of life size that smoke and spin; doors which open with a spring and display a company of puppets seated at a table; little basins with swans and geese in zinc; paths paved with a mosaic of shells, with a fine porcelain vase in the middle; trees cut into a representation of the human figure, bushes of box carved into the shapes of bell-towers, chapels, ships, chimeras, peacocks with spread tails, and children with arms stretched out; paths, arbors, hedges, flowers, plants, all contorted, tormented, twisted, and bastardised. And such in former times were all the houses and gardens of Broek.

But now, not only the aspect of the village but the population is much changed. Broek was formerly called a village of millionaires, because almost all its inhabitants were very wealthy merchants, who went there for the love of peace and quietness. Little by little the annoyance, the ridicule which was excited by their houses and themselves, the importunity of travellers, the desire for more agreeable surroundings, drove away almost all the rich families from Broek, and those who remained allowed the old order of things to vanish. Now Broek has about a thousand inhabitants, the greater part of whom make cheeses, and the rest are shopkeepers, manufacturers and artificers, living on their incomes.

In spite of its decadence, Broek is still visited by almost all strangers who go to Holland. In one of the rooms of the house I have described there is a large book containing several thousand visiting cards and autographs of people of every country. The greater part are Americans and English; Italians are fewest, and of these, almost all nobles from the southern provinces. Amongst the many illustrious names, I saw those of Victor Hugo, Walter Scott, Gambetta, and Emile Augier the dramatic writer. Among other things there is a paper signed by the Emperor and Empress of Russia, and given to a citizen of Broek in gratitude for hospitality shown by him to the Grand Duke Nicolas Alexandrovitch in 1864.

Apropos of illustrious visitors, the Emperor Alexander of Russia and Napoleon the Great were both at Broek. The local tradition says that each of them having wished to see the interior of a house, they were obliged before entering to draw on a pair of coarse woollen stockings presented to them by the maid-servant, so that they should not soil the floors with their boots.

The Emperor Joseph II. also made a visit to Broek; but, as it is related, not having brought any letters of introduction, he was not permitted to enter any house. An aide-de-camp having insisted that His Majesty should be admitted, the owner answered, "I do not know Your Emperor, and if he were the Burgomaster of Amsterdam in person, I would not receive him if I did not know him."

When I had visited the house and garden above described, I went to a small café, where a girl without shoes, understanding my signs, brought me half of an excellent Edam cheese, with some eggs and butter and bread, each thing in a covered dish, protected by a wire netting, and hidden under the whitest of fringed napkins; and then I went with a boy, who conversed with me by gestures, to see a dairy-farm. Many people among us who wear tall hats and gold watches, have not so pretty and clean an apartment as that in which the cows of Broek reside. Before entering, you are requested to wipe your feet on a mat laid there for that purpose. The pavement of the stalls is of various colored bricks, so clean that the hand could be passed over it; the walls are covered with pinewood; the windows decorated with muslin curtains and pots of flowers; the mangers are painted; the animals themselves are scraped, combed, washed, and, that they may not soil their coats, their tails are held up by a cord which is attached to a nail in the ceiling; a clear stream of water running through between the stalls, carries off all impurities; except under the animals' feet there is not a straw or a stain to be seen; and the air is so pure that if you close your eyes you may imagine yourself in a drawing-room. The rooms where the peasants live, the cheese-rooms, the courts and corners, are all clean and sweet. Before returning to Amsterdam I took one more turn about the village, taking care to hide my cigar when I saw a woman with a gold circlet on her head looking at me from a window. I crossed two or three white bridges, touched a few boats with my foot lingered a moment before the gayest of the painted houses; and then, seeing no living soul in the street or in the gardens, I resumed my solitary way on the horse of St. Francis,* with that feeling of weary sadness which accompanies in general curiosity satisfied.