List Of Contents | Contents of Saunterings, by Charles Dudley Warner
< < Previous Page     Next Page > >

-work that one must go to the Netherlands to see.  Toward evening we
came into the ancient town of Bruges.  The country all day has been
mostly flat, but thoroughly cultivated.  Windmills appear to do all
the labor of the people,--raising the water, grinding the grain,
sawing the lumber; and they everywhere lift their long arms up to the
sky.  Things look more and more what we call "foreign." Harvest is
going on, of hay and grain; and men and women work together in the
fields.  The gentle sex has its rights here.  We saw several women
acting as switch-tenders.  Perhaps the use of the switch comes
natural to them.  Justice, however, is still in the hands of the men.
We saw a Dutch court in session in a little room in the town hall at
Courtrai.  The justice wore a little red cap, and sat informally
behind a cheap table.  I noticed that the witnesses were treated with
unusual consideration, being allowed to sit down at the table
opposite the little justice, who interrogated them in a loud voice.
At the stations to-day we see more friars in coarse, woolen dresses,
and sandals, and the peasants with wooden sabots.

As the sun goes to the horizon, we have an effect sometimes produced
by the best Dutch artists,--a wonderful transparent light, in which
the landscape looks like a picture, with its church-spires of stone,
its windmills, its slender trees, and red-roofed houses.  It is a
good light and a good hour in which to enter Bruges, that city of the
past.  Once the city was greater than Antwerp; and up the Rege came
the commerce of the East, merchants from the Levant, traders in
jewels and silks.  Now the tall houses wait for tenants, and the
streets have a deserted air.  After nightfall, as we walked in the
middle of the roughly paved streets, meeting few people, and hearing
only the echoing clatter of the wooden sabots of the few who were
abroad, the old spirit of the place came over us.  We sat on a bench
in the market-place, a treeless square, hemmed in by quaint, gabled
houses, late in the evening, to listen to the chimes from the belfry.
The tower is less than four hundred feet high, and not so high by
some seventy feet as the one on Notre Dame near by; but it is very
picturesque, in spite of the fact that it springs out of a rummagy-
looking edifice, one half of which is devoted to soldiers' barracks,
and the other to markets.  The chimes are called the finest in
Europe.  It is well to hear the finest at once, and so have done with
the tedious things.  The Belgians are as fond of chimes as the Dutch
are of stagnant water.  We heard them everywhere in Belgium; and in
some towns they are incessant, jangling every seven and a half
minutes.  The chimes at Bruges ring every quarter hour for a minute,
and at the full hour attempt a tune.  The revolving machinery grinds
out the tune, which is changed at least once a year; and on Sundays a
musician, chosen by the town, plays the chimes.  In so many bells
(there are forty-eight), the least of which weighs twelve pounds, and
the largest over eleven thousand, there must be soft notes and
sonorous tones; so sweet jangled sounds were showered down: but we
liked better than the confused chiming the solemn notes of the great
bell striking the hour.  There is something very poetical about this
chime of bells high in the air, flinging down upon the hum and
traffic of the city its oft-repeated benediction of peace; but
anybody but a Lowlander would get very weary of it.  These chimes, to
be sure, are better than those in London, which became a nuisance;
but there is in all of them a tinkling attempt at a tune, which
always fails, that is very annoying.

Bruges has altogether an odd flavor.  Piles of wooden sabots are for
sale in front of the shops; and this ugly shoe, which is mysteriously
kept on the foot, is worn by all the common sort.  We see long,
slender carts in the street, with one horse hitched far ahead with
rope traces, and no thills or pole.

The women-nearly every one we saw-wear long cloaks of black cloth
with a silk hood thrown back.  Bruges is famous of old for its
beautiful women, who are enticingly described as always walking the
streets with covered faces, and peeping out from their mantles.  They
are not so handsome now they show their faces, I can testify.
Indeed, if there is in Bruges another besides the beautiful girl who
showed us the old council-chamber in the Palace of justice, she must
have had her hood pulled over her face.

Next morning was market-day.  The square was lively with carts,
donkeys, and country people, and that and all the streets leading to
it were filled with the women in black cloaks, who flitted about as
numerous as the rooks at Oxford, and very much like them, moving in a
winged way, their cloaks outspread as they walked, and distended with
the market-basket underneath.  Though the streets were full, the town
did not seem any less deserted; and the early marketers had only come
to life for a day, revisiting the places that once they thronged.  In
the shade of the tall houses in the narrow streets sat red-cheeked
girls and women making lace, the bobbins jumping under their nimble
fingers.  At the church doors hideous beggars crouched and whined,--
specimens of the fifteen thousand paupers of Bruges.  In the
fishmarket we saw odd old women, with Rembrandt colors in faces and
costume; and while we strayed about in the strange city, all the time
from the lofty tower the chimes fell down.  What history crowds upon
us!  Here in the old cathedral, with its monstrous tower of brick, a
portion of it as old as the tenth century, Philip the Good
established, in 1429, the Order of the Golden Fleece, the last
chapter of which was held by Philip the Bad in 1559, in the rich old
Cathedral of St. Bavon, at Ghent.  Here, on the square, is the site
of the house where the Emperor Maximilian was imprisoned by his
rebellious Flemings; and next it, with a carved lion, that in which
Charles II. of England lived after the martyrdom of that patient and
virtuous ruler, whom the English Prayerbook calls that "blessed
martyr, Charles the First."  In Notre Dame are the tombs of Charles
the Bold and Mary his daughter.

We begin here to enter the portals of Dutch painting.  Here died Jan
van Eyck, the father of oil painting; and here, in the hospital of
St. John, are the most celebrated pictures of Hans Memling.  The most
exquisite in color and finish is the series painted on the casket
made to contain the arm of St. Ursula, and representing the story of
her martyrdom.  You know she went on a pilgrimage to Rome, with her
lover, Conan, and eleven thousand virgins; and, on their return to
Cologne, they were all massacred by the Huns.  One would scarcely
believe the story, if he did not see all their bones at Cologne.


What can one do in this Belgium but write down names, and let memory
recall the past?  We came to Ghent, still a hand some city, though
one thinks of the days when it was the capital of Flanders, and its
merchants were princes.  On the shabby old belfry-tower is the gilt
dragon which Philip van Artevelde captured, and brought in triumph
from Bruges.  It was originally fetched from a Greek church in
Constantinople by some Bruges Crusader; and it is a link to recall to
us how, at that time, the merchants of Venice and the far East traded
up the Scheldt, and brought to its wharves the rich stuffs of India
and Persia.  The old bell Roland, that was used to call the burghers
together on the approach of an enemy, hung in this tower.  What
fierce broils and bloody fights did these streets witness centuries
ago!  There in the Marche au Vendredi, a large square of
old-fashioned houses, with a statue of Jacques van Artevelde, fifteen
hundred corpses were strewn in a quarrel between the hostile guilds
of fullers and brewers; and here, later, Alva set blazing the fires
of the Inquisition.  Near the square is the old cannon, Mad Margery,
used in 1382 at the siege of Oudenarde,--a hammered-iron hooped
affair, eighteen feet long.  But why mention this, or the magnificent
town hall, or St. Bavon, rich in pictures and statuary; or try to put
you back three hundred years to the wild days when the iconoclasts
sacked this and every other church in the Low Countries?

Up to Antwerp toward evening.  All the country flat as the flattest
part of Jersey, rich in grass and grain, cut up by canals,
picturesque with windmills and red-tiled roofs, framed with trees in
rows.  It has been all day hot and dusty.  The country everywhere
seems to need rain; and dark clouds are gathering in the south for a
storm, as we drive up the broad Place de Meir to our hotel, and take
rooms that look out to the lace-like spire of the cathedral, which is
sharply defined against the red western sky.

Antwerp takes hold of you, both by its present and its past, very
strongly.  It is still the home of wealth.  It has stately buildings,
splendid galleries of pictures, and a spire of stone which charms
more than a picture, and fascinates the eye as music does the ear.
It still keeps its strong fortifications drawn around it, to which
the broad and deep Scheldt is like a string to a bow, mindful of the
unstable state of Europe.  While Berlin is only a vast camp of
soldiers, every less city must daily beat its drums, and call its
muster-roll.  From the tower here one looks upon the cockpit of
Europe.  And yet Antwerp ought to have rest: she has had tumult
enough in her time.  Prosperity seems returning to her; but her old,
comparative splendor can never come back.  In the sixteenth century
there was no richer city in Europe.

We walked one evening past the cathedral spire, which begins in the
richest and most solid Gothic work, and grows up into the sky into an
exquisite lightness and grace, down a broad street to the Scheldt.
What traffic have not these high old houses looked on, when two
thousand and five hundred vessels lay in the river at one time, and
the commerce of Europe found here its best mart.  Along the stream
now is a not very clean promenade for the populace; and it is lined

< < Previous Page     Next Page > >

Other sites: