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LITERATURE AND LIFE--Last Days in a Dutch Hotel

by William Dean Howells



LAST DAYS IN A DUTCH HOTEL

(1897)


When we said that we were going to Scheveningen, in the middle of
September, the portier of the hotel at The Hague was sure we should be
very cold, perhaps because we had suffered so much in his house already;
and he was right, for the wind blew with a Dutch tenacity of purpose for
a whole week, so that the guests thinly peopling the vast hostelry seemed
to rustle through its chilly halls and corridors like so many autumn
leaves.  We were but a poor hundred at most where five hundred would not
have been a crowd; and, when we sat down at the long tables d'hote in the
great dining-room, we had to warm our hands with our plates before we
could hold our spoons.  From time to time the weather varied, as it does
in Europe (American weather is of an exemplary constancy in comparison),
and three or four times a day it rained, and three or four times it
cleared; but through all the wind blew cold and colder.  We were
promised, however, that the hotel would not close till October, and we
made shift, with a warm chimney in one room and three gas-burners in
another, if not to keep warm quite, yet certainly to get used to the
cold.




I.

In the mean time the sea-bathing went resolutely on with all its forms.
Every morning the bathing machines were drawn down to the beach from the
esplanade, where they were secured against the gale every night; and
every day a half-dozen hardy invalids braved the rigors of wind and wave.
At the discreet distance which one ought always to keep one could not
always be sure whether these bold bathers were mermen or mermaids; for
the sea costume of both sexes is the same here, as regards an absence of
skirts and a presence of what are, after the first plunge, effectively
tights.  The first time I walked down to the beach I was puzzled to make
out some object rolling about in the low surf, which looked like a
barrel, and which two bathing-machine men were watching with apparently
the purpose of fishing it out.  Suddenly this object reared itself from
the surf and floundered towards the steps of a machine; then I saw that
it was evidently not a barrel, but a lady, and after that I never dared
carry my researches so far.  I suppose that the bathing-tights are more
becoming in some cases than in others; but I hold to a modest preference
for skirts, however brief, in the sea-gear of ladies.  Without them there
may sometimes be the effect of beauty, and sometimes the effect of
barrel.

For the convenience and safety of the bathers there were, even in the
last half of September, some twenty machines, and half as many bath-men
and bath-women, who waded into the water and watched that the bathers
came to no harm, instead of a solitary lifeguard showing his statuesque
shape as he paced the shore beside the lifelines, or cynically rocked in
his boat beyond the breakers, as the custom is on Long Island.  Here
there is no need of life-lines, and, unless one held his head resolutely
under water, I do not see how he could drown within quarter of a mile of
the shore.  Perhaps it is to prevent suicide that the bathmen are so
plentifully provided.

They are a provision of the hotel, I believe, which does not relax itself
in any essential towards its guests as they grow fewer.  It seems, on the
contrary, to use them with a more tender care, and to console them as it
may for the inevitable parting near at hand.  Now, within three or four
days of the end, the kitchen is as scrupulously and vigilantly perfect as
it could be in the height of the season; and our dwindling numbers sit
down every night to a dinner that we could not get for much more love or
vastly more money in the month of August, at any shore hotel in America.
It is true that there are certain changes going on, but they are going on
delicately, almost silently.  A strip of carpeting has come up from along
our corridor, but we hardly miss it from the matting which remains.
Through the open doors of vacant chambers we can see that beds are coming
down, and the dismantling extends into the halls at places.  Certain
decorative carved chairs which repeated themselves outside the doors have
ceased to be there; but the pictures still hang on the walls, and within
our own rooms everything is as conscientious as in midsummer.  The
service is instant, and, if there is some change in it, the change is not
for the worse.  Yesterday our waiter bade me good-bye, and when I said I
was sorry he was going he alleged a boil on his cheek in excuse; he would
not allow that his going had anything to do with the closing of the
hotel, and he was promptly replaced by another who speaks excellent
English.  Now that the first is gone, I may own that he seemed not to
speak any foreign language long, but, when cornered in English, took
refuge in French, and then fled from pursuit in that to German, and
brought up in final Dutch, where he was practically inaccessible.

The elevator runs regularly, if not rapidly; the papers arrive
unfailingly in the reading-room, including a solitary London Times, which
even I do not read, perhaps because I have no English-reading rival to
contend for it with.  Till yesterday, an English artist sometimes got it;
but he then instantly offered it to me; and I had to refuse it because I
would not be outdone in politeness.  Now even he is gone, and on all
sides I find myself in an unbroken circle of Dutch and German, where no
one would dispute the Times with me if he could.

Every night the corridors are fully lighted, and some mornings swept,
while the washing that goes on all over Holland, night and morning, does
not always spare our unfrequented halls and stairs.  I note these little
facts, for the contrast with those of an American hotel which we once
assisted in closing, and where the elevator stopped two weeks before we
left, and we fell from electricity to naphtha-gas, and even this died out
before us except at long intervals in the passages; while there were
lightning changes in the service, and a final failure of it till we had
to go down and get our own ice-water of the lingering room-clerk, after
the last bell-boy had winked out.




II.

But in Europe everything is permanent, and in America everything is
provisional.  This is the great distinction which, if always kept in
mind, will save a great deal of idle astonishment.  It is in nothing more
apparent than in the preparation here at Scheveningen for centuries of
summer visitors, while at our Long Island hotel there was a losing bet on
a scant generation of them.  When it seemed likely that it might be a
winning bet the sand was planked there in front of the hotel to the sea
with spruce boards.  It was very handsomely planked, but it was never
afterwards touched, apparently, for any manner of repairs.  Here, for
half a mile the dune on which the hotel stands is shored up with massive
masonry, and bricked for carriages, and tiled for foot-passengers; and it
is all kept as clean as if wheel or foot had never passed over it.  I am
sure that there is not a broken brick or a broken tile in the whole
length or breadth of it.  But the hotel here is not a bet; it is a
business.  It has come to stay; and on Long Island it had come to see how
it would like it.

Beyond the walk and drive, however, the dunes are left to the winds, and
to the vegetation with which the Dutch planting clothes them against the
winds.  First a coarse grass or rush is sown; then a finer herbage comes;
then a tough brushwood, with flowers and blackberry-vines; so that while
the seaward slopes of the dunes are somewhat patched and tattered, the
landward side and all the pleasant hollows between are fairly held
against such gales as on Long Island blow the lower dunes hither and yon.
The sheep graze in the valleys at some points; in many a little pocket of
the dunes I found a potato-patch of about the bigness of a city lot, and
on week-days I saw wooden-shod men slowly, slowly gathering in the crop.
On Sundays I saw the pleasant nooks and corners of these sandy hillocks
devoted, as the dunes of Long Island were, to whispering lovers, who are
here as freely and fearlessly affectionate as at home.  Rocking there is
not, and cannot be, in the nature of things, as there used to be at Mount
Desert; but what is called Twoing at York Harbor is perfectly
practicable.

It is practicable not only in the nooks and corners of the dunes, but on
discreeter terms in those hooded willow chairs, so characteristic of the
Dutch sea-side.  These, if faced in pairs towards each other, must be as
favorable to the exchange of vows as of opinions, and if the crowd is
ever very great, perhaps one chair could be made to hold two persons.
It was distinctly a pang, the other day, to see men carrying them up from
the beach, and putting them away to hibernate in the basement of the
hotel.  Not all, but most of them, were taken; though I dare say that on
fine days throughout October they will go trooping back to the sands on
the heads of the same men, like a procession of monstrous, two-legged
crabs.  Such a day was last Sunday, and then the beach offered a lively
image of its summer gayety.  It was dotted with hundreds of hooded
chairs, which foregathered in gossiping groups or confidential couples;
and as the sun shone quite warm the flaps of the little tents next the
dunes were let down against it, and ladies in summer white saved
themselves from sunstroke in their shelter.  The wooden booths for the
sale of candies and mineral waters, and beer and sandwiches, were flushed
with a sudden prosperity, so that when I went to buy my pound of grapes
from the good woman who understands my Dutch, I dreaded an indifference
in her which by no means appeared.  She welcomed me as warmly as if I had
been her sole customer, and did not put up the price on me; perhaps
because it was already so very high that her imagination could not rise
above it.

The hotel showed the same admirable constancy.  The restaurant was

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