Letters from Abroad to Kindred at Home/Place VIII

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Antwerp, July 12, 1839.

My dear C.,

We left the Tower Stairs yesterday at twelve, and were rowed to the steamer Soho, lying out is the Thames, in a miserable little boat, the best we could obtain. We found a natural American consolation in remarking the superiority of our Whitehall boats. We nearly incurred that first of all minor miseries (if it be minor), losing our baggage. François, not speaking a word of English, has been of little use to us; and in our greatest need, at our arrivals and departures, he has been worse than useless, as John Bull's nerves are disturbed by a foreign tongue, and the sub-officials are sure to get in a fluster. Mr. P.'s intervention came in most timely to our aid, and the last boat from the shore brought us our baggage safely. What we shall do without this friend, whose ministering kindness has been so steadfast and so effective, I know not; though François said, as soon as he had shaken the London dust from his feet, with a ludicrously self-sufficient air, "à present, madame, le courier fait tout!"[1]

The Soho, we were told, is the best steamer that plies between London and Antwerp. It is one hundred and seventy-five feet in length and twenty-eight in breadth. It has some advantages over our Hudson River steamers, a steadier motion, the result of more perfect machinery, a salle à manger (an eating-room where there are no berths), and two dinners, served two hours apart So that with one hundred and twenty passengers, there is no scrambling, and the dinner is served with English order, and eaten at leisure. I was disappointed to find, last night, our condition quite as bad as in a similar position at home. There were thirty more passengers than berths, and these luckless thirty were strewn over the saloon floor, after having waited till a late hour for the last loitering men to be driven forth from their paradise, the dinner-table. The servants were incompetent, and the bedding was deficient and in the morning we bad no place for washing, no dressing-room but this cluttered, comfortless apartment We all felt a malignant pleasure in baring these annoyances to fret about in an English dominion. Even they cannot beguile Dame Comfort to sea—like a sensible woman, she is a stayer-at-home, a lover of the fireside. The English go in troops and caravans to Germany and Switzerland for the summer, and most of our fellow-passengers seemed to be of these gentry, travelling for pleasure. How different from the miscellaneous crowd of an American steamer! There is here more conventional breeding, not more civility, than with us.

When I went on deck in the morning we had entered the Scheldt, and poor M., with her eyes half open, was dutifully trying to sketch the shores. They are so low and uniform that a single horizontal stroke of her pencil would suffice to give you at home all the idea we got; and, for a fac-simile of the architecture, you may buy a Dutch town at Werckmeister's toyshop.

We now, for the first, realize[2] that we are in a foreign land, and feel our distance from home. In our memory and feeling England blends with our own country.

We entered into the court of the Hotel St. Antoine through an arched stone gateway, and were, for the first time in our lives, in a paved court, round three sides of which the house, in the common Continental fashion, is built. The mistress of the hotel, in pretty full dress, came out to receive us; and, after hearing our wants, we were conducted through a paved gallery to spacious and well-furnished apartments. Before the hotel is a little square, surrounded with three rows of dwarf elm-trees, and in honour of these, I presume, called La Place Verte (Green Place), for there is nothing else green about it. The ground is incessantly trodden by people crossing it, or seated about on the wooden benches in social squads. All the womankind wear a high lace cap, dropping low at the ears, short gowns, and very full petticoats in the Dutch fashion, with which we were familiar enough formerly at Albany. A better class wear a black shawl over the head hanging down to their feet—a remnant of the Spanish mantilla. It is curious to see this and other vestiges of Spanish occupation here, such as some very grand old Spanish houses.

We have been driving about the town in a comfortable carriage, six of us besides the coachman, after a fat, sleek Flemish horse, who seemed quite able to trot off double the number, if need were. I wish I could give you a glimpse of these streets thronging with human life, and seemingly happy human life too. The "honest Flemings" have a most contented look. I almost doubt my identity as I hear this din of a foreign tongue in my ear, and the clattering of the -wooden shoes on the pavement. However, that "I is I," I feel too surely at this moment, having just mounted the tower of the Cathedral, 613 steps: a cathedral built in 1300, and eighty-three years in the building. The tower is beautifully wrought. Charles V. said of it, it should be kept in a case, and Napoleon compared it to Mechlin lace. If these great people have not the fairy gift of dropping pearls from their lips, their words are gold for the guides that haunt these showplaces. We paid two francs for the above jeux d'esprit to a young ciceroni, who could speak intelligibly French, Spanish, English, Italian, and Flemish of course, but could not write, and had never heard of America!!

We saw from the gallery of the tower to a distance (on the word of our guide) of eighty miles; The atmosphere was perfectly transparent, undimmed by a particle of smoke from the city; a fact accounted for by the fuel used being exclusively a species of hard coal. It is worth while to mount a pinnacle in a country like this, where there is no eminence to intercept the view. You see the Scheldt, which is about as wide as the Hudson at Albany, winding far, far away through a sea of green and waving corn,[3] and towers, churches, and villages innumerable. The view gave us New-World people a new idea of populousness.[4] After we descended from the tower a bit of antiquity was pointed out to us that would have interested your young people more than any view in Belgium. It is an old well covered with an iron canopy wrought by Quentin Matsys, the "Blacksmith of Antwerp," who, before blacksmiths were made classic by Scott's "Harry of the Winde," fell in love with the pretty daughter of a painter, and left his anvil and took to painting to win her, and did win her, and for himself won immortality by at least one master-piece in the art, as all who have seen his "Misers" at Windsor will testify.

Antwerp is rich in paintings. Many masterpieces of the Flemish painters are here, and, first among the first, "Ruben's Descent from the Cross." Do not think, dear C., that, before I have even crossed the threshold of the temple of art, I give you my opinion about such a painting as of any value. I see that the dead body is put into the most difficult position to be painted, and that the painter has completely overcome the difficulty; that the figures are perfect in their anatomy, and that the flesh is flesh, living flesh; but I confess the picture did not please me. It seemed to me rather a successful representation of the physical man than the imbodiment of the moral sublime which the subject demands. Another picture by Rubens, in the church of St. Jacques, was far more interesting to me. It is, considering the subject, fortunately placed, being the altar-piece of the altar belonging to the family of Rubens; and you look at it with the feeling that you are in the presence of this greatest of Flemish artists, as the marble slab on which you are treading tells you that his body lies beneath it. The revolutionary French, with their dramatic enthusiasm for art, spared this tomb when they broke open and pillaged every other one in this church. The picture is called a holy family. The punter, by introducing his own dearest kindred with the names and attributes of saints, has canonized them without leave of pope or cardinal. His own portrait he called St. George; his father's, St. Jerome; his old grandfather's, Time; and his son naturally enough falls into the category of angels. Martha and Mary Magdalen, two most lovely women, are portraits of his two wives; one of these is said to be the same head as the famous "Chapeau de Paille"—probably the Magdalen.

For the rest—and what a rest of churches, pictures, carvings, and tombs, that cost us hours of toilsome pleasure, I spare you.

  1. "From this time your Courier does everything."
  2. My English reader must pardon the frequent repetition of this word, and may judge of the worth of its American use by the reply of my friend, to whom I said, "I cannot dispense with this word." "Dispense with it! I could as well dispense with bread and water!"
  3. Some of our readers may not be aware that this word is not applied in Europe, as with us, alone to Indian corn, but to every kind of grain.
  4. This was from the dense population of the surrounding country.Antwerp itself contains but about 77,000 inhabitants.