Holland and its People/Chapter XV
As the boat approached the pier, I remembered what had happened to me at Alkmaar, and was troubled at the thought that I had brought no letters of introduction for Harlingen. I had reason to be troubled, since the Frisian language, which is a mixture of Dutch, Danish, and old Saxon, is almost incomprehensible to the Hollanders themselves; and, as for me, I did not know the first word of it. I was also aware that French was scarcely spoken at all in Friesland. I prepared myself, therefore, with melancholy resignation, to gesticulate, to set people laughing, and to be led about like a child, and I began to look about among the crowd of boys and porters on the pier for some face more humane than the others, to which I might confide my luggage and my life.
Before I had found the face the boat had stopped, and I landed. Whilst I stood hesitating between two sturdy Frieslanders who wished to take possession of my person and effects, I heard whispered in my ear a word that made my heart jump-my own name! I turned as if summoned by a voice from the other world, and saw a young gentleman, who, smiling at my astonishment, repeated in French, "Are you Monsieur So-and-so?" "I am," I answered, "or, at least, I think I am, for, to speak truth, I am so amazed at being recognised by you that I almost doubt my own identity. What prodigy is this?" The prodigy was very simple. A friend at Amsterdam who had accompanied me on board in the morning, had sent a despatch, immediately after the boat left, to an acquaintance of his at Harlingen, asking him to go down to the evening boat and meet a tall, dark stranger in coffee-colored overcoat, who would be in great need of an interpreter and companion. All my travelling companions being blonde, the friend of my friend had recognised me at once, and had come to my rescue.
If I had had in my pocket the collar of the order of the Annunziata, I should have at once bestowed it upon him. Not having it, I expressed my gratitude in a flood of words, at which he was much astonished, and we went into the town, where I purposed to remain only a few hours.
Great canals full of vessels, broad streets bordered by rows of small, neat, many-colored houses, very few people out of doors, a profound silence, and a nameless air of melancholy tranquillity-such is Harlingen, a city of about ten thousand inhabitants, founded near the site of a village which was destroyed by the sea in 1134. Having taken a turn about the town, my companion took me to see the dykes, without which the place must have been a hundred times submerged, since the whole of that portion of the coast is exposed to the waves and currents of the open sea. The dykes are formed of two rows of immense piles, joined together by transverse beams of great size, and the whole set with monstrous flat-headed nails as a defence against the small marine insects which destroy the wood. Between these piles there are stout planks, or, rather, great beams sawed in two and set deep in the sand, one beside the other; behind these a wall of Cyclopean masses of red granite brought from the province of the Drenta; and behind this wall another row of stout piles, which alone would suffice to restrain the waters of a furious torrent. Upon this dyke extends a shady avenue of trees which serves as a public promenade, from which the sea can be seen, and a few houses with masts of vessels rising from among them. When we were there the horizon was still golden in the west, and very dark in the opposite quarter; there was no boat on the sea, and no movement in the port; some boys passed us, arm in arm, chattering and laughing; one turned back to look at us, and then disappeared; the moon came out of a cloud; a cold wind blew, and we walked on in silence.
"Are you in low spirits?" asked my companion. "Precisely," I replied. And I was so. Why, I cannot tell. The place and the moment remain impressed on my memory. I have only to shut my eyes, and I see it, and smell the salt odor of the sea.
My companion took me to a club, where we occupied ourselves in finding out at what hour the train left for Leuwarde, the capital of Friesland. He was the first Frieslander to whom I had had the honor of speaking, and I studied him. He was blonde, erect, grave, like almost all Dutchmen; but he had a singularly animated expression in his eyes; he spoke little, but what he did say was delivered with a rapidity and emphasis which indicated a more vivacious disposition than that of his fellow-citizens on the opposite side of the Zuyder Zee. Our conversation fell upon ancient Frisia and Rome, and was most agreeable, for he spoke of the events of antique times with extraordinary seriousness, as of things that had happened the other day, and I following his lead, we talked as if he had been a Frisian of the days of Oleunius, and I a Roman of the time of Tiberius, each advocating his own country. I reproached him with the Roman soldiers crucified, and he answered placidly that we had been the provokers, since as long as we were content with the tribute imposed by Drusus, consisting as it did of raw hides only, it had not been refused; and that if they rebelled later it was because we were no longer satisfied with hides, but wanted cattle, fields, boys, and women; and that was destruction for them. "Pacem," says Tacitus, "esuere, nostra magis avaritia quam obsequii impatientes," and adds that Drusus had imposed a small tribute because they were poor, "pro angustia rerum." And if we were to take cattle and lands from the poor, what would we take from the rich? When I heard him quote Tacitus from memory, I beat a retreat, and asked him amicably if he felt any rancor towards me because of the power of my forefathers. "Oh, Sir!" he answered, giving me his hand, as if I had spoken seriously, "not a shadow." "Either I am much mistaken," thought I, "or in my own country I could not find a vestige of such ingenuousness." And I could not but look at him in wonder, of so different a stamp did he seem from the men I was accustomed to meet.
We remained together until night, when he accompanied me to the railway station, and was then going to a concert. In that little town of sailors, butter-merchants, and fishermen, there was a concert given by four artists, two Italians and two Germans, who had come from the Hague expressly to play for two hours for the sum of two hundred and fifty florins! Where this concert was to take place, in a town like Harlingen, composed of lilliputian houses, I could not make out, unless the musicians were to play in a house and the audience to assemble in the street.
Friesland is one plain; a mixed soil of sand, clay, and peat; low everywhere, especially towards the west, where at the end of autumn it is not rare for the sea to rise and cover large tracts. There are many lakes, which form a chain across the province from Stavoren to Dokkum. The country is covered with immense meadows, and traversed in all directions by broad canals, along which for nine months in the year pasture immense herds of cattle, unguarded by herdsman or dog. Along the shore of the North Sea there are found little mounds of earth called terpen, raised by the ancient inhabitants as refuges for themselves and their herds against the rising tides, and on some of these mounds there are villages. Other villages and towns are built upon piles, on land gradually conquered from the sea. The province has two hundred and seventy-two thousand inhabitants, who gain not only their living, but wealth, from the trade in butter, cheese, fish, and peat, and communication is made easy by the canals and lakes. A few trees which hide the farm-houses and villages; some sails of vessels; flocks of lapwings, crows, and rooks; and the beautiful herds of cattle dotting the green fields with black and white, are the only objects which attract the eye upon that vast plain, whose confines are perpetually concealed by a white vaporish veil. Man, who in that country has done all, appears nowhere, and water alone seems the active living principle, while the land is possessed by the animals.
1 reached Leuwarde late in the night, and was fortunate enough to find an inn where French was spoken. Very early in the morning - I do not think there were a hundred persons a-foot in the town - I was out wandering about the deserted streets, under a slow cold rain that wetted me to the bone.
Leuwarde looks like a big village. The streets are spacious, with the usual canals and small many-colored houses. The interior canals join those of the exterior, which extend along the bastions of the city and in their turn join other canals leading to other towns and villages. Leuwarde has an air of antiquity, a primitive look, as if it were founded by a people of fishermen and herdsmen, and gradually restored, refined, and beautified. But notwithstanding its fine bridges, rich shops, and ornamente windows, its general aspect is strange and foreign, and it seems strange to see the inhabitants wearing overcoats and cylindrical hats like other people. The streets were deserted, every door closed; I felt as if I were wandering in an unknown or abandoned place which I had myself discovered. I looked at the queer little houses, and thought with amazement that within them there were doubtless well-dressed ladies, pianos, books that I had read, maps of Italy, and photographs of Rome and Florence. As I went from street to street, I passed the ancient castle of the Governors of Friesland, of the house of Nassau Diez, the ancestors of the reigning family of Orange. I discovered a very curious prison, a white and pink palace, surmounted by a lofty roof, and decorated with columns and statues, giving it the aspect of some princely villa; and I finally came out into a great square, where I saw an old brick tower, which is now ten miles from the coast, but which, five hundred years ago, bathed its base in the waters of the sea. From here, passing through streets as clean as drawing-rooms, and sheltered by my umbrella from the droppings of the eaves, I returned to the centre of the city.
In all my walk I had seen no women beyond one skinny old bag looking out of window at the weather; and it may be imagined how curious I was to see others, not so much for their celebrated beauty as because of the strange covering which they wear on their heads, and of which I had read descriptions and seen pictures in every town of Holland. The evening before, on my arrival, I had caught one glimpse, at a corner, of a group of women's heads strangely shining and glittering, but it was for a moment only, and in the dark. It must be quite another thing to see all the fair sex of the capital of Friesland in full daylight and as long as I pleased. But how to gratify this curiosity? The skies promised rain for the entire day, the women would probably remain shut up in their houses, and I should be devoured with impatience. Fortunately there came into my head one of those luminous ideas which are sometimes vouchsafed to the dullest brain. Seeing a musician of the Civic Guard pass by, with plumed hat, and trombone under his arm, I remembered that it was the birthday of the King of Holland, and that this band of music would probably march through the city, when, if I were to accompany it on its rounds, I might see the ladies come to their windows as it passed. "Bravo!" said I to myself, and humming Figaro's air, "Che invenzione prelibata," I followed the musician to the great square, where the Civic Guard were intrepidly gathering under a heavy rain and in presence of about a hundred lookers-on. In a few minutes the battalion was formed, the major gave a loud shout, the band burst into music, the column moved out of the square, and I marched beside the drum-major, delighted.
The windows of the first houses were opened, and a few women appeared at them, with heads glittering as if with helmets; and they did in fact wear two broad plates of silver, concealing the hair and a part of the forehead, and looking like the casque of an ancient warrior. As we went on, others appeared, some with silver, some with golden helmets. The battalion turned into one or the principal streets, and then at every door and window, in the corners, in the shops, and leaning over the garden gates, appeared casques of gold and silver, great and small, with veils or without, bright and glittering; mammas with their little girls about them, all in helmets; tottering old women, servant-maids with saucepan in hand, young ladies, all in the same warlike head-gear: Leuwarde seemed a great barrack full of beardless cuirassiers, a metropolis of dethroned queens, a place where the entire population had turned out for a mediaeval masquerade. I cannot describe my astonishment and pleasure at the sight. The shining helmets threw gold and silver reflections on the window-panes and on the varnished doors, shone dimly in the darkness of the ground-floor rooms, and darted lightning rays through the transparent curtains and flowers in the -windows. As we passed I could see reflected in the casques of the girls upon the side-walks the trees, the shop-windows, the sky, the Civic Guard, my own figure with its ugly and dark attire. At every step I saw something odd. A boy, to teaze a little girl, breathes upon her helmet, and the latter angrily scolds at him, and repolishes it with her sleeve, like a soldier whose accoutrements have been soiled by a companion just before a review. A young man at a window touches with the end of a stick the casque of a young lady at the next window, making it resound, and people turn to look, while the lady blushes and retires. Within a doorway a servant-maid arranges her own casque, using that of a friend, who bends prettily before her, as a looking-lass. In the vestibule of a house that must be a school, about fifty little girls, all in casques, range themselves silently two and two, like a regiment of small warriors making ready for a sortie.
From the beginning, I had been so absorbed in the contemplation of the helmets, that I had paid no attention to the faces of the lovely Frieslanders, who have the reputation of being the handsomest women in the Low Countries, descending in a direct line from the sirens of the North Sea. It is also said that they disturbed the equanimity of the Grand Chancellor of the German Empire, who is not very excitable by nature. Recovered from my first amazement at the casques, I considered the persons of the ladies themselves, and am constrained to say that I saw, as is the case in other countries, but very few who were really beautiful, and those few worthy of their fame. They are in general of tall stature, with broad shoulders; fair, white, straight as palms, and grave as antique priestesses; some with very small hands and feet; and despite their gravity, they have a soft, smiling expression, that seems a distant reflection from their fallen ancestresses. The silver helmet, which, concealing the hair, deprives them of one of beauty's best ornaments, in part makes up for this defect by displaying the noble form of the head, and gives to the face certain white and azure gleams of indescribable delicacy. To all appearance they have not a shadow of coquetry.
1 was very curious to have a close view of these helmeted heads, and to know how the casque was made, and how put on. For this end I had brought a letter to a family in Leuwarde, which I proceeded to deliver, and was courteously received in a pretty little house on the border of the canal. We had hardly exchanged the first compliments when I asked to see a casque, at which my hosts began to laugh, and declared that it was the first demand made by all strangers arriving there. Then the lady of the house rang a bell, and there appeared a servant-maid wearing a lilac gown and a golden helmet, who at a sign from her mistress came forward. She was as tall as a grenadier, robust as an athlete, white as an angel, haughty as a princess. Planting herself before me, she stood with head erect and eyes cast down. Her mistress told me that her name was Sophia, that she was eighteen years old, and was engaged to be married, her casque being a present from her betrothed.
I asked what metal it was made of.
"Of gold," the lady answered, with a slight expression of surprise at the question.
"Of gold!" I exclaimed. "Excuse me; but will you have the goodness to ask her how much it cost?"
The lady questioned the maid, and then turning to me, said: "It cost, without the chain and pins, three hundred florins."
"Six hundred francs!" cried I. "Excuse me once more; what is the young man's profession?"
"He is a wood-sawyer," answered the lady.
"A wood-sawyer! " I repeated; and thought regretfully of the size of the book that I should have to write before I could rival the magnificence of this wood-sawyer.
"They do not all have them of gold, however," said the lady; "the lover who has little money gives a silver casque. Poor women and girls wear casques of gilded copper, or very thin silver, which cost a few florins. But the great ambition is to have one of gold, and with this purpose in view, they work, and save, and sigh for years together. And as for jealousy, I, who have a maid with a gold casque, and a housemaid with a silver one, can tell something about that."
I asked if ladies also wore the casque. She answered that very few wore it now; but that all, even the first families, remembered having seen their mothers and grandmothers wearing them; and they were chased and set with diamonds, costing very large sums. In ancient times. however, the casque was not worn, but only a sort of diadem made of very thin silver, or iron, without ornament, which, little by little, was enlarged, and assumed its present form. At present, like all fashions that have become exaggerated, the casque is beginning to pass away. The women begin to think that they would like to show their beautiful fair hair. Also the casque produces baldness, and many women who are still young have bald places on their heads. The physicians, on their side, declare that the constant pressure upon the head arrests the development of the bosom; which is not difficult of belief, since, in fact, the Friesland women, robust and round in flesh as they are, are flat there, where there should be a bold curve. All these reasons have induced many ladies of the province of Gröningen, where the same fashion exists, to form a sort of league against the casque, and discontinue the use of it themselves. It will, however, be many years before it entirely disappears, the women of the lower and middle classes still clinging to it.
I wished to see Sophia's casque, but it was covered by the usual lace veil, and I did not like to ask her to remove it. I took hold of the edge of the veil, however, and explaining my words by gesture, asked if I might raise it.
"Lift it, certainly," said her mistress.
I did so. Heavens! what whiteness! I compared the neck with the veil, and could not tell to which the palm should be given. Sophia's casque was quite different from the silver ones which I had seen in the streets; indeed, the name of casque or helmet is only applicable to the gold ones. The silver ones are made of two almost circular plates, joined by a flexible ring of metal which encircles the head, and is ornamented with two chased buttons that stand out at the temples. These two plates only cover the front part of the head. The gold casques, on the contrary, are one large circle enclosing the head, except at the crown, and leaving only a small part of the forehead visible. The lamina are fine and flexible as Bristol board, so that they can be easily adapted to any head. Under the casque they wear a black silk cap that covers the hair like a night-cap, and over it a sort of veil of lace that falls over the shoulders. Upon the top of this some of the women put an indescribable little hat ornamented with flowers and fruit. The veil and hat, however, are only assumed on full-dress occasions.
My hostess told me of some singular customs still in use among the peasants of Friesland. When a young man presents himself to ask the hand of a girl in marriage, she makes him understand at once whether or no he is accepted. If she accepts him she leaves the room, and returns immediately wearing her casque. If she does not do this, it is understood that he does not please her, and that she refuses to become his queen. Betrothed lovers present their brides with a pair of garters, on which sentences of love or good wishes are embroidered. Sometimes the lover presents his lady with a handkerchief knotted up with money or trinkets inside, and an inscription on the knot. If the lady unties the knot, it is a sign of acceptance; if she does not, the contrary is the case. The highest honor hoped for by a lover is to be permitted to fasten his lady's shoe or patten on her foot, when she rewards him with a kiss. For the rest, young men and maidens enjoy the most entire liberty, They walk together like husband and wife, and often remain for hours alone at night, when the parents have gone to bed. "And do they never have to repent at leisure what has been done in haste?" I inquired. "The fault," replied my informant, "is always repaired."
During the whole of this conversation the handsome maid had remained, grave and silent as a statue. Before she went away I, to thank her with a compliment, begged her mistress to tell her for me that she was one of the most beautiful of the warrior women of Friesland. She listened with a serious face, and blushed to the roots of her hair; then, as if she had thought better of it, she smiled slightly, and, with a half-curtsey, went out of the room, with the slow, majestic step of a tragedy queen.
Thanks to the kindness of my hosts, I was enabled to see a small "Museum, of National Antiquities of Friesland," but lately formed, and already rich in many precious objects. With my small knowledge of such matters, I gave but a hasty glance at the coins and medals, and stayed long before the collection of ancient skates, rusty diadems from which the casque is derived, and certain strange-looking pipes found at a great depth under the ground, which appear to be anterior to the time of tobacco, and are believed to have been used in smoking hemp. But the oddest thing in the museum is a woman's hat, which was in use towards the end of the last century; such a ridiculous and utterly absurd hat, that if the antiquary who showed it to me had not assured me that he had seen, with his own eyes, one similar to it on the head of an old lady of Leuwarde, not many years ago, on the occasion of a festival for the arrival of the King of Holland, I could not have believed it possible that reasonable creatures could ever have crowned themselves with such things. It is not a hat, it is a tent, a canopy, a roof, under which an entire family could be sheltered from the rain and sun. It is composed of a circular piece of wood twice as large as an ordinary coffee-table, and a straw hat with a brim of the same dimensions, wanting on one side, so that it has a semicircular form. The circular piece of wood is ornamented with a deep fringe, and has a small opening in which the head is inserted, and is fastened in some way unknown to me. When this is done, the straw hat, which is separate, is put on, and stretched over it, like an awning over a booth, and the edifice is complete. When the wearer entered a church, she unroofed herself, so to speak, in order not to take up too much space, and put it on again on coming out, an operation which was thought very convenient and the hat itself extremely elegant. So true is the proverb that there is no accounting for tastes.
A courteous Friesland gentleman, to whom I had been recommended by a friend at the Hague, took me into the country to see the peasants' houses. We went from Leuwarde towards the town of Freek, crossing one of the most fertile parts of Friesland, by a fine road paved with bricks, and as clean as a Parisian boulevard. Arriving after a short walk in front of a house, my companion stopped and said with gravity, "Behold the friesche hiem of the Friesland peasant, the old farm-house of his ancestors." It was a brick house with green blinds and white curtains, surrounded by trees, and planted in the midst of a small garden, which was encircled by a deep trench full of water. Next the house stood a barn, made of immense beams of Norway pine, and covered by a roof woven of canes; and in the barn was the cow-house, shut in by a stout wooden partition. The cows, like those of North Holland, have no litter, and are tied in couples, with their tails fastened up to the beams above, so that they shall not soil themselves. Behind them runs a deep stream of water which carries off all impurities. The floors, the walls, the animals themselves are as clean as possible and have no unpleasant smell. Whilst I examined this animal drawing-room, my companion, who was a learned agriculturist, gave me much precious information with regard to the Friesland method of farming. A farm of thirty to thirty-five hectares (two and a half acres each), usually has one horse and seventy beef cattle. There is a milch cow for every hectare, and on almost all the farms eight or ten large sheep, with whose milk they make certain small cheeses which are esteemed as a great delicacy all over Friesland. The principal product, however, is not cheese; but butter. The room where the butter is made is the second chamber of all peasants' houses. We entered, and it was no small concession that we were allowed to do so, because the profane are usually stopped on the threshold. It was a room as clean as a temple and cool as a grotto, where we saw many rows of copper vessels filled to the brim with milk already covered with thick cream. The churn was put in motion by a horse, as is the custom almost everywhere in Friesland. A thermometer hung on the wall, the windows were adorned with curtains, and a pot of hyacinths bloomed on the sill of one. This Friesland butter is so exquisite, my companion told me, that in the markets of London it is sold in great quantities, and brings a large price. Every year in the different markets of the province from seven to eight millions of kilogrammes are collected. The butter is packed in little barrels made of Russian oak, and holding from twenty to forty kilogrammes each, which are transported to the municipal weighing-place of the different towns. Here an expert examines, tastes, weighs it, and stamps it with the city arms; after which it is carried to Harlingen, and put on board a steamer which takes it to London. "These are our riches," concluded the courteous Frieslander, "with which we console ourselves for the lack of the oranges and palms which you favorites of nature enjoy." He ended by telling me the anecdote of the Spanish general who one day showed an orange to a Friesland peasant, and said with pride, "This is a fruit which my country produces twice a year!" "And this," said the peasant, putting a pound of butter under his nose, "is a fruit which my country produces twice a day!"
The peasant who accompanied us allowed us to peep into a room where his wife and daughter were seated at work one on each side of a table, one wearing a gold casque and the other a silver one. It seemed a room expressly arranged for a stranger to see. There were great presses of antique form, mirrors in gilded frames, Chinese porcelain, carved flower-vases, and silver vessels standing on shelves. "And you see the smallest part of it," whispered my companion, observing my astonishment. "Those presses are full of linen, jewellery, and silk gowns, and there are some peasants who have cups, plates, and coffee-pots of silver; there are even some who have forks and spoons and tobacco-boxes of massive gold. They gain much, live very economically, and spend their savings in articles of luxury." This explained why in the smallest villages there are jewellers' shops such as are not to be found in some large cities. There are peasant women who purchase coral necklaces worth a thousand francs, and who have in their boxes more than ten thousand florins-worth of rings, pins, and trinkets. They live economically, it is true, the greater part of the year; but on great holidays, marriage, or kermesse, when they go into the towns in search of entertainment, they instal themselves in the best inns, take the best boxes at the opera and theatres, and crack, in the intervals, many a bottle of choice champagne. A peasant who possesses a capital of one hundred thousand francs is not considered rich, because there are many with two or three hundred thousand, half a million, and much more.
The character of the Frieslander is, by universal and antique testimony, bold, open, and generous. "What a pity you are not a Frieslander!" they say to one whom they esteem. They are proud of the nobility of their race, which they believe to be the first of the great Germanic family, and they boast that they are the only people of that family that has preserved its name from the time of Tacitus. Many of them still believe that their country was called Frisia, after Frisio, the son of Alan, the brother of Mesa, the nephew of Shem, and are proud o£ this antique origin. The love of liberty is their dominant sentiment. "The Frisians," says their old codex, "shall be free as long as the wind shall blow in the clouds, and as long as the world shall endure." It is Friesland, indeed, that sends to parliament the most ardent deputies of the Liberal party. The population is almost entirely Protestant, and very jealous of its faith; as also of its language, which is illustrated by a great popular poet, and cultivated with great care. "The peasant in particular," says Laveleye, "cites with pride the names of the illustrious men who were born under the Frisian hiem, the two poets Gisbertus Japhis and Salverda, and the philologist Tiberius Hemsterhuys and his son Franz, that good and profound philosopher whom Madame de Stael calls the Dutch Plato."
On our way back to Leuwarde we met some peasants' carts, drawn by those famous Friesland horses which are esteemed the best trotters in the world. They are black with long necks, heads small and full of fire. The finest are those raised in the island of Ameland. They have wonderful endurance; are good both for draught and racehorses, and, what is curious in a country where all things are marked by placidity of movement, their phlegmatic masters keep them always at a rapid trot, in the hay-cart as well as when they are in haste to arrive. The races in which these horses run, called harddraveryen, are very characteristic relics of ancient Frisia. In all the small towns an arena is prepared, divided into two parallel straight roads, on which the horses run in couples and successively; after which the victors run, against each other, until one is victor over all and obtains the prize. The people go in crowds to these races, and accompany them with applause and cries of delight, as at the skating matches.
Upon reaching Leuwarde, I had the most unexpected pleasure in the sight of a nuptial procession of peasants. There were more than thirty carriages, all with shell-shaped bodies, covered with gilding, and painted flowers, and drawn by robust black horses. In each carriage sat a peasant in his gala costume, and a rosy woman with her golden casque and lace veil. The horses went at a quick trot, the women clung each to her companion's arm, and threw sugar-plums to the crowd, the white veils fluttered, and the casks glittered in the light. The cortége passed by and disappeared like some fantastic cavalcade in the midst of festive shouts and laughter.
In the evening I amused myself by standing at the inn door, looking at the women and girls with their glittering head-gear, like a general inspector at the annual review when the soldiers pass before him, one by one, with arms and baggage. At a certain moment, however, observing that they were all moving in one direction, I followed and came out into a vast square, where a band of music was playing in the midst of a great crowd and in front of a building with illuminated windows, where the appearance, from time to time, of gentlemen in white cravats, seemed to indicate that an official dinner was in progress. Although a fine rain was falling, the people stood immovable, and the women being in the first row formed a circle of casques around the band, which, from a distance, and seen through the veil of mist, seemed a line of cuirassiers on foot keeping back the crowd. Whilst the band played, about twenty infantry soldiers, grouped in a corner of the square, accompanied it with their voices, and hopped, now on one leg, now on the other, waving their caps, and assuming the grotesque attitudes of the sots of Steen and Brouwer. The crowd looked on, and I fancy that the spectacle must have given them unmixed delight, for they shouted with laughter, got on tip-toe to see, exclaimed, and applauded noisily. For myself, I looked about for some handsome Frisian woman, and when I found her, she shot me a glance full of pride and defiance, after which I entered into conversation with a bookseller always an agreeable thing in Holland, where the booksellers are, in general, very courteous and very well informed.
That night, at the inn, I scarcely closed an eye in consequence of a rascally performer in some steeple, who, perhaps because he could not sleep himself, took a barbarous pleasure in giving samples of all Rossini's operas and various popular songs to the sleeping city. I have not yet spoken of the mechanism of these aerial organs, but this is how they are contrived. The clock of the steeple sets in motion a wheel and cylinder furnished with pins, similar to those of a hand-organ. To these pins, disposed in the order necessary for the melody, are attached wires, which move the clappers of the bells, and their respective hammers. When the hour strikes a certain air is played; but any air which is desired may be played upon the cylinder by means of springs moved by two key-boards, one of which is played by the hands, the other by the feet. The performance requires a considerable degree of strength and skill, some of the keys demanding a pressure equivalent to two pounds in weight; and yet such is the pleasure which the players take in their music - and, apparently, they ascribe the same to others - that they will play for hours together with a vigor and a passion worthy of a more harmonious result. I cannot say if the player of Leuwarde was a good performer; but I am quite sure that he must have possessed Herculean muscles and a terrible passion for Rossini. After having sent me to sleep with the "Barbicre," he woke me With the "Semiramide." sent me off again with the "Otello" roused me once more with the "Mosé in Egitto," and so on. We contended with each other, he firing off his notes and I retorting with maledictions. We ceased together at an advanced hour of the night, and I cannot tell which of us remained in debt to the other. In the morning I complained to the waiter, a phlegmatic Dutchman, the sweetness of whose repose had probably never been troubled by any sound from heaven or earth. "Do you know," I said to him, "that this steeple-music of yours is very annoying?" "How?" he answered innocently, "have you not remarked that there are all the octaves with tones and semi-tones?" "Really?" said I with clenched teeth. "That of course alters the case; excuse me."
Early in the following morning I left for Groningen, taking with me, in spite of the musical persecution, a pleasant remembrance of Leuwarde and the few persons I had known there, but embittered by a regret which I still cherish - that of not having seen the handsome, courageous, and severe daughters of the North skating and sliding on the ice, when they pass, according to Alphonso Esquiroz, wrapped in mists, and crowned with a nimbus of gold and lace, like the fantastic figures seen in a dream.
The plains of Holland, which, seen for the first time excite a vague and agreeable sensation of sadness, and present, in their uniformity, a hundred new and admirable effects which divert the fancy, end, however, by producing weariness and ennui even in those who are by nature inclined to understand and enjoy their peculiar form of beauty. There comes a day when the stranger travelling in Holland suddenly feels an irresistible longing for heights to which he may lift his eyes and his thoughts; for curves along which his gaze may glide and turn and fall; for forms which the imagination may animate with those lovely and wonderful resemblances to backs of lions and women's breasts, profiles and edifices which are presented by the mountains, cliffs, and rocks of his own land. The mind and the eve are satiated with space; and losing themselves in that boundless sea of verdure, they feel the need of peaks and abysses, of shadow, blue skies, and sunlight. Then one has seen enough of Holland, and thinks of home and country with impatient longing.
I felt this longing for the first time on my way from Leuwarde to Groningen, capital of the province of the same name. Tired of seeing through the fog, meadow after meadow, and canal after canal, I coiled myself up in a corner of the railway-carriage, and thought of the sunny slopes of Tuscany and the hilly borders of the Rhine, as Dante's Maestro Adamo thought of the little brooks of the Casentino. At a small station about midway between the two cities, a man came into the carriage who looked like, and was in fact, a peasant, fair and fat, of the color of rotten cheese, as Taine remarks of the Dutch peasantry, dressed very cleanly, with a broad woollen scarf around his neck, and a gold chain across his waistcoat. He gave me a good-humored glance and sat down opposite to me. As the train went on I continued to dream of hills and sunny slopes, and from time to time turned my head to look at the country, hoping for some change, but seeing ever the same endless plain, made unconsciously a gesture of weariness. The peasant looked for some time in silence, now at me, now at the landscape; then smiling, and pronouncing his words with great distinctness, he said in French: "Tedious-isn't it?"
I answered hastily No, that I did not find it so; on the contrary, the landscape pleased me.
"Oh, no," he said, still smiling, "it is tiresome - all plains," and making a gesture with both hands, "no mountains."
After a moment, occupied in mentally translating his thoughts, he asked, pointing at me with his finger:
"From what country?"
"From Italy," I answered.
"Italy," he repeated. "Are there many mountains there?"
"So many," I replied, "that you might cover all Holland with them."
"I" he said, pointing at himself with his hand, "have never seen a mountain in my life; I do not know what they are like; not even the hills of Gueldres."
A peasant who spoke French was already in extraordinary thing in my eyes; but a man who had never seen a hill or mountain seemed a fabulous creature. So I questioned him and drew from him some curious information.
He had never been further than Amsterdam, and had never seen Gueldres, the only mountainous province in the Netherlands; he had no idea of a mountain, beyond what he had gathered from books and pictures. The greatest heights to which his eyes had ever been raised were the tops of the steeples and the sand-banks. Like thousands of his countrymen, he said "I should like to see a mountain," as we say " I should like to see the Pyramids of Egypt." He told me that, as soon as he could, he intended to go and see the Wiesselschebosch. I asked what that was. He answered that it was a mountain in Gueldres, near the village of Apeldoorn, one of the highest in the country.
"How high is it" I asked.
One hundred and four metres," he replied.
This worthy man was destined to surprise me still more. After a moment's silence, he asked again.
"Italy," I repeated.
He was thoughtful for a moment, and then said:
"The law for obligatory instruction was rejected, was it not?
"Cospetto!" thought I, "I shall presently learn that he is a subscriber to the 'Gazzetta Ufficiale.'" It was a fact that only a few days before the House had rejected the law for obligatory instruction. I told him what little I knew about it, and after a little he smiled, seemed to be composing a sentence, and then said.
And Garibaldi, does he still continue" - here he made the gesture of digging with a spade "in his island?"
"He does," I replied, looking at him with astonished eyes, and wondering whether he were really the peasant which he so plainly looked.
He was silent for a time; then pointing his finger at me, he said :
"You have lately lost a great poet?"
At this sally, I almost jumped out of my seat.
" Yes; Alessandro Manzoni," I replied; "but how the deuce do you come to know all these things? " Now, I thought, he will certainly bring the question of the unity of tongues upon the carpet. Tell me," I said, "do you happen to speak Italian also
"No, no, no," he answered, shaking his head and laughing; "not at all, not at all."
After this he sat smiling to himself, and apparently preparing more surprises for me, until the train glided into the station at Groningen, when he got up, took up his wraps, and, pointing each syllable with his forefinger, said in Italian, with a pronunciation impossible to express., and the air of one who is making a great revelation:
"Nel mezzo?" I exclaimed in amazement. "In the midst of what?"
"Nel mez-zo del cam-miu di nostra vita,"* he shouted, and jumped out of the carriage.
"One moment!" I cried; "stop! one word! How in the world---" But he was gone.
Did ever anyone hear of a peasant like this Dutchman? And I can take my oath that I have added nothing to the picture.