A Pen Picture Of Bruges
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
It is the quaintest and prettiest of all the quaint and pretty towns I have seen. A painter might spend months here, and wander from church to church, and admire old towers and pinnacles, tall gables, bright canals, and pretty little patches of green garden and moss-grown wall, that reflect in the clear quiet water. Before the inn-window is a garden, from which in the early morning issues a most wonderful odor of stocks and wall-flowers; next comes a road with trees of admirable green; numbers of little children are playing in this road (the place is so clean that they may roll on it all day without soiling their pinafores), and on the other side of the trees are little old-fashioned, dumpy, whitewashed, red-tiled houses.
A poorer landscape to draw never was known, nor a pleasanter to see—the children especially, who are inordinately fat and rosy. Let it be re-membered, too, that here we are out of the country of ugly women; the expression of the face is al-most uniformly gentle and pleasing, and the figures of the women, wrapt in long black monk-like cloaks and hoods, very picturesque. No wonder there are so many children : the "Guide-book" (omniscient Mr. Murray!) says there are fifteen thousand paupers in the town, and we know how such multiply.
How the deuce do their children look so fat and rosy? By eating dirt-pies, I suppose. I saw a couple making a very nice savory one, and another employed in gravely sticking strips of stick betwixt the pebbles at the house-door, and so making for herself a stately garden. The men and women don't seem to have much more to do. There are a couple of tall chimneys at either suburb of the town, where no doubt manufactories are at work, but within the walls everybody seems decently idle.
We have been, of course, abroad to visit the lions. The tower in the Grand Place is very fine, and the bricks of which it is built do not yield a whit in color to the best stone. The great building round this tower is very like the pictures of the Ducal Palace at Venice; and there is a long market area, with columns down the middle, from which hung shreds of rather lean-looking meat, that would do wonders under the hands of Cattermole or Haghe.
In the tower there is a chime of bells that keep ringing perpetually. They not only play tunes of themselves, and every quarter of an hour, but an individual performs selections from popular operas on them at certain periods of the morning, afternoon, and evening. I have heard to-day "Suoni la Tromba," "Son Vergin Vezzosa," from the "Puritani," and other airs, and very badly they were played too; for such a great monster as a tower-bell can not be expected to imitate Madame Grisi or even Signor Lablache. Other churches indulge in the same amusement, so that one may come here and live in melody all day or night, like the young woman in Moore's "Lalla Rookh."
In the matter of art, the chief attractions of Bruges are the pictures of Memling, that are to be seen in the churches, the hospital, and the picture-gallery of the place. There are no more pictures of Rubens to be seen, and, indeed, in the course of a fortnight, one has had quite enough of the great man and his magnificent, swaggering canvases. What a difference is here with simple Memling and the extraordinary creations of his pencil! The hospital is particularly rich in them; and the legend there is that the painter, who had served Charles the Bold in his war against the Swiss, and his last battle and defeat, wandered back wounded and penniless to Bruges, and here found cure and shelter.
This hospital is a noble and curious sight. The great hall is almost as it was in the twelfth century; it is spanned by Saxon arches, and lighted by a multiplicity of Gothic windows of all sizes; it is very lofty, clean, and perfectly well ventilated; a screen runs across the middle of the room, to divide the male from the female patients, and we were taken to examine each ward, where the poor people seemed happier than possibly they would have been in health and starvation without it.
Great yellow blankets were on the iron beds, the linen was scrupulously clean, glittering pewter-jugs and goblets stood by the side of each patient, and they were provided with godly books (to judge from the building), in which several were reading at leisure. Honest old comfortable nuns, in queer dresses of blue, black, white, and flannel, were bustling through the room, attending to the wants of the sick. I saw about a dozen of these kind women's faces; one was young,—all were healthy and cheerful. One came with bare blue arms and a great pile of linen from an out-house--such a grange as Cedric the Saxon might have given to a guest for the night. A couple were in a laboratory, a tall, bright, clean room, 500 years old at least.
"We saw you were not very religious," said one of the old ladies, with a red, wrinkled, good-humored face, "by your behavior yesterday in chapel."
And yet we did not laugh and talk as we used at college, but were profoundly affected by the scene that we saw there. It was a fete-day; a work of Mozart was sung in the evening—not well sung, and yet so exquisitely tender and melodious, that it brought tears into our eyes. There were not above twenty people in the church; all, save three or four, were women in long black cloaks. I took them for nuns at first. They were, however, the common people of the town, very poor indeed, doubtless, for the priest's box that was brought round was not added to by most of them, and their contributions were but two-cent pieces—five of these go to a penny; but we know the value of such, and can tell the exact worth of a poor woman's mite !
The box-bearer did not seem at first willing to accept our donation—we were strangers and here-tics; however, I held out my hand, and he came perforce as it were. Indeed it had only a franc in it; but "clue voulez vous?"I had been drinking a bottle of Rhine wine that day, and how was I to afford more°? The Rhine wine is dear in this country, and costs four francs a bottle.
Well, the service proceeded. Twenty poor women, two Englishmen, four ragged beggars, cowering on the steps; and there was the priest at the altar, in a great robe of gold and damask, two little boys in white surplices serving him, holding his robe as he rose and bowed, and the money-gatherer swinging his censer, and filling the little chapel with smoke.
The music pealed with wonderful sweetness; you, could see the prim white heads of the nuns in their gallery. The evening light streamed down upon old statues of saints and carved brown stalls, and lighted up the head of the golden-haired Magdalen in a picture of the entombment of Christ. Over the gallery, and, as it were, a kind protectress to the poor below, stood the statue of the Virgin.