Letters from Abroad to Kindred at Home/Place IX

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
Letters from Abroad to Kindred at Home by Catharine Maria Sedgwick
Place IX. Brussels
BRUSSELS.

Brussels, Monday, 15.—We came here twenty-five miles by railroad. The cars we thought as good as those on the "Great Western" in England; and our fare was a third less, and so was our speed. The country was a dead level. A Flemish painter only could work up to its creature comforts into picturesqueness; rich it certainly is, and enjoyed it appears. After a bustle and confusion at the depôt that made us feel quite at home, we finally got into an omnibus with twelve persons inside, nearly as many outside, and an enormous quantity of baggage, all drawn with apparent ease by two of these gigantic Finnish horses, looking, like their masters, well content with their lot in life.

Brussels is a royal residence, and gay with palaces and park. The park impresses me as twice as large as St. John's in New-York; it has abundance of trees, a bit of water with a rich fringe of flowers, and statues, in bad taste enough. There are splendid edifices overlooking it, and among them the palace of the Prince of Orange, and King Leopold's. That of the Prince of Orange, which Leopold, with singular delicacy for a king, has refused to occupy or touch, is shown to strangers. We were unlucky in the moment of making our application to see it. First come first served is the democratic rule adopted. Four parties were before us, and as we could not bribe the portress to favour us—to her honour I record it—and had no time to waste in waiting, we came away and left unseen its choice collection of paintings. Our coachman, to console us for our disappointment, urged us to go into the royal coach-house and see a carriage presented to William, which, he gave us his assurance—truly professional—was better worth seeing than anything in Brussels! A gorgeous thing it was, all gold and crimson outside, white satin and embroidery in; and with a harness emblazoned with crowns. Besides this were ten other coaches of various degrees of magnificence.

We next visited the lace manufactory of Monsieur Ducepetiaux. The Brussels' lace is, as perhaps you do not know, the most esteemed of this most delicate of fabrics. "The flax from which it is made grows near Hal; the finest sort costs from 3000 to 4000 francs per pound, and is worth its weight in gold. Everything depends on the tenuity of its fibre."[1]

It was fête-day, and we found only a few old women at work; however, we were shown the whole process very courteously, without any other fee being expected than a small alms to the poor work-women, which, after sending them, it would be difficult to withhold. I observed women from sixty to seventy at this cobweb-work without spectacles, and was told that the eye was so accustomed to it as not to be injured by it; a wonderful instance of the power of adaptation in the human frame in its most delicate organ. Girls begin at this work at four years of age, and the overseer told us she employed old woman of eighty. They begin at six in the morning and work till six in the evening ; the maximum of wages is one franc; and, to earn this, a woman must work skilfully and rapidly twelve hours and find herself! I thought of the king's ten coaches.

There are a good many changes to be made before this becomes "the best of all possible worlds!"

I spare you our visit to the Cathedral, &c., but I wish, my dear C., I could show you the most fantastical pulpit ever made: the master-piece of VerBruggen, with the story of Adam and Eve carved in wood. I am sure the artist had his own private readings of his work. There seemed to me some precious satire in the symbol he has perched about the pulpit—the monkey! the peacock! and the serpent!

We went into the market-place this morning. It was filled with well-looking peasants, with good teeth and rich nice hair. They were selling flowers, fruit, and vegetables. They addressed us in a very kindly manner, always as "ma chère." We saw excellent batter for ten sous per pound, a good cabbage for two sous, two quarts of beans for four sous.

This market-square, now looking so cheerful with the fruits of man's rural industry, has been stained with the blood of martyrs of liberty. It was here that Counts Egmont and Horn were executed by the order of the ruthless Alva; and in the Hotel de Ville, overlooking the square, we saw the hall where his master, Charles V., went through the ceremony of abdication.

We pay here, for a good carriage and two horses, two francs per hour. Some difference, M. remarks, between tins and the price we paid in London of one pound twelve shillings per day; but nowhere. I believe, is social life so taxed as in London.

We set off this morning for the field of Waterloo, a distance of twelve miles from Brussels. I sat on the box beside our coachman, a civilized young man. Travelling is a corrector of one's vanities. I heard myself designated in the court to-day as "la dame qui s'assit a côté du cocher"—my only distinction here. I liked my position. My friend was intelligent and talkative, and not only gave me such wayside information as I asked, but the history of his father's courtship and a little love story of his own, which is just at the most critical point of dramatic progress, and of which, alas! I shall never know the denœuement.

It is the anniversary of the Belgian revolution, and, of course, a fête-day. The streets were thronged. I should imagine the whole number of inhabitants, 100,000, were out of doors; and as the streets are narrow and have no side-walks, we made slow progress through the crowd—but so much the better. It was pleasant looking in their good, cheerful faces, the children in their holyday suits, and the women in their clean caps and freshest ribands. Green boughs hung over the windows, and the fruit-stalls were decked with flowers. I looked up the lanes on the right and left; they were a dense mass of human beings, looking well fed and comfortably clad. "Where are your poor people?" I asked my friend. "They are put a oneside," he replied. Alas! so are they everywhere if in the minority. There was wretchedness enough in those lanes that now appeared so well; but he assured me I might walk through them without fear, "the police was too strong for them." The suburbs were thronged too; the straggling little villages along the road full of human life. The women and men were sitting on long benches beside the houses, drinking beer and eating cakes. The pressure of the population would have driven Malthus mad. Everything of womankind, down to the girl of four years old, had a baby in her arms, and young things were strewn over the ground, kicking up their heels, and making all manner of youthful demonstrations of happiness.

If some of our worn, pale mothers, who rock their cradles by the hour in close rooms, would turn their young ones into the sweet open air, they would find it play upon their spirits like the breath of Heaven on an Æolian harp. I never before saw the young human animal as happy as other animals, nor felt how much they were the creatures of mere sensation. "You see how well they look," said my friend, who observed my pleasure in gazing at them; "they work hard too, all that can work, and eat nothing but potatoes and milk." Simple, wholesome diet, and plenty of fresh air: this tells the whole story of health.

The forest of Soignies, which Byron makes poetically grieve over the "unreturning brave," lies now, at least a good portion of it, as low as they; and in the place of it are wheat, barley, potatoes, &c., which my utilitarian friend thought far better than unedible trees. The King of the Netherlands made a very pretty present to Wellington, along with his title of "Prince of Waterloo," of 1000 acres of this forest-land, which is extremely valuable for its timber. Waterloo itself is a straggling, mean little village, in which, as we were going to the burial-place of thousands of brave men, we did not stop to weep over the grave of the Marquis of Anglesea's leg, which, with its monument, epitaph, and seeping willow, is one of the regular Waterloo lions. At Mont St. Jean, on the edge of the field of battle, we took our guide Martin, a peasant with a most humane physiognomy, indicating him fitter to show a battle-field than to fight on it

Now do not fear that I am about to commit the fplly of describing "the field of Waterloo." I shall merely tell you that we have seen the places whose names are magic words in the memories of those who remember 1815. As we left Mont St. Jean we came upon an unenclosed country, and at the large farmhouse called Ferme de Mont St. Jean we first saw a mound, surmounted by the Belgic lion. This mound is two hundred feet high, and covers the common burying-place of friends and foes. The lion is placed over the very spot where the Prince of Orange was wounded, and is cast from the cannon taken in the field of battle. To those cavillers who see no good reason why, amid such a mass of valiant sufferers, a wound of the Prince of Orange would be illustrated, or why the Belgic lion would crown the scene, and who lament that the face of the field has beat changed by the elevation of the mound, it bas been answered pithily, if not satisfactorily, that it is appropriate, "since it serves at once for a memorial, a trophy, and a tomb."[2]

Hougoumont remains as it was after the day of the battle. It is an old Flemish chateau, with farm-offices and a walled garden. The house is shattered, and the walls look as if they had been through the wars. There were twenty-seven Englishmen in the chapel, a structure not more than thirteen feet square, when it took fire. A wooden image of our Saviour is suspended over the door; and our guide averred (and, though a guide, with a moistened eye) that when the flames reached the image they stopped. "Cest Vrai," he repeated. "Aux pieds du bon Dieu! Un miracle, n'est ce pas, madame?"[3] I almost envied the faith that believed the miracle, and had the miracle to believe. The English, in their passion for such relics, had begun chipping off the foot, and our good Martin said, shuddering, that if the proper authority had not interfered, "on auroit mis le bon Dieu toutes en pièces!" The Catholic sentiment is nearly untranslateable into Protestant English.

The inner wall is written over with the names of visitors. Byron's was there; but some marauding traveller has broken away the plaster and carried it off to Paris. "Do you not think," said our guide, with an honest indignation, "that a man must be crazy to do this?" The simple peasant-guide knew the worth of Byron's name. This is fame.

We drove round the rich wheat-Geld to La Haye Sainte. There is no ground in all rich Belgium so rich as this battle-field. In the spring the darkest and thickest corn tells where the dead were buried! The German legion slaughtered at La Haye Sainte are buried on the opposite side of the road, when there is a simple monument over them.

Set where thou wilt thy foot, thou scarce canst tread
Here on a spot unhallowed by the dead."

La Belle Alliance, where Wellington and Blucher met after the battle, was pointed out to us; and Napoleon's different portions, the very spot where he stood when he first descried Blucher, and his heart for the last time swelled with anticipated triumph. How I wished for Hal to stand with me where Wellington gave that lining order, "Up, guards, and at them!"

We were shown the places where Gordon, Picton, and others of note fell; and there, where the masses lay weltering in blood, the unknown, unhonoured, unrecorded, there was

"Horror breathing from the silent ground."

"It was a piteous sight," said our guide, "to see, the next day, the men, with clasped hands, begging for a glass of water. Some had lost one side of the face with a sabre-cut; others had their bowels lain open! They prayed us to put an end to their miseries, and said, 'surely God would forgive us.' All the peasants, men, women, and children, that had not been driven clear away, came in to serve them; but there were not enough; and they died, burned with thirst, and their wounds gangrened, for there were not surgeons for the half of them. They would crawl down to those pools of water and wash their wounds; the water was red and clotted with blood. Oh, c'est un grand malheur, la guerre, mesdames!" he concluded. Martin would be an eloquent agent for our friend Ladd's Peace Society.




Belgium is a perfect garden. Between Brussels and Liege, a distance of sixty miles, we did not see, over all the vast plain, one foot of unused earth. There are crops of wheat, rye, oats, beans, and pease, and immense cabbage plantations, with no enclosures, neither fences nor hedges; no apparent division of property. You might fancy the land was under the dominion of an agrarian law, and that each child of man might take an equal share from mother earth; but, alas! when the table is thread there is many a one left without a cover.

On arriving at the depôt, a league from Leige, we had a scene of confusion unusual in these countries, that should and do get the benefit of older from their abounding police-men. A number of arklike, two-story omnibuses were drawn up. Calling out being prohibited, the signal to attract attention was a hiss, and the hissing of rival conductors was like nothing so much as a flock of enraged geese. We got involved in a dispute that menaced us with a fate similar to that adjudged by Solomon to the contested child. Monsieur le Courier had promised us to the "omnibus Jaune," and Mademoiselle la Couriere to the "omnibus Rouge;" the yellow finally carried it, and we were driven off amid such hisses as Dante might have imagined a fit Inferno for a had actor. Poor M. lost her travelling-cloak in the confusion. I can tell you nothing of Liege, from my own observation, but that it is a most picturesque old place, with one part of the town rising precipitously above the other in the fashion of Quebec; and that we went to see the interior court of the Palais de Justice, formerly the archbishop's palace, whose name will recall to you Quentin Derward. It is surrounded by a colonnade with short pillars, each carved after a diffident model. We walked round the space within the colonnade, which is filled with stalls containing such smaller merchandise as you find around our market-place. The English call Liege the Birmingham of Belgium. Their staple manufactory is firearms, and Mr. Murray tells us "they produce a better article, and at a lower price, than can be made for the same sum in England—a feather, this, in the Belgian cap! The source of their prosperity is the abundance of coal in the neighbourhood. "The mines are worked on the most scientific principles. Previous to the revolution, Holland was supplied with coal from Belgium; but the home consumption has since increased to such an extent, from the numerous manufactories which have sprung up on all sides, that the Belgian mines are now inadequate to supply the demand, and a recent law has been passed, permitting the importation of coals from Newcastle."[4] Wise Hollianders!

  1. Murray's Hand-Book.
  2. It was interesting to read, on the very spot, Byron's testimony to this as a position for a battle-field. "As a plain," he says, "Waterloo seems marked out for the scene of some great action, though this may be mere imagination. I have viewed with attention those of Plataæ, Troy, Mantinea, Leuctra, Cheronea, and Marathon; and the field around Mont St. Jean and Hougoumont appears to want little but a better cause, and that undefinable but impressive halo which the lapse of ages throws around a celebrated spot, to vie interest with any or all of them, except, perhaps, the last mentioned."
  3. "It is indeed true. At the feet of the good God. A miracle, was it not, madam?"
  4. Murray's Hand-Book