Adventure in the Royal Palace at Brussels
( Originally Published 1903 )
WHEN I arrived in Brussels from Ghent, I found myself in a city which was very different from the others I had seen in Belgium. The capital has lost the primitive style which so many of the other towns retain, and has become a second Paris. I was successful in finding a lodging which made but moderate demands upon my purse, and I settled down to spend several days in the bright little metropolis. My room was a mere attic, away up in the top of one of the houses of the Rue des Prairies, but is was far from unattractive. The view from the dormer-window took in a great part of the city, the great Palais de Justice, the Cathedral, and the Horticultural Gardens, which were only a block or two distant.
I established myself as comfortably as possible, and I grew to feel so much at home in the little room that I was sorry to leave when my stay in Brussels was ended. With my alcohol lamp and my coffee-pot I was able to get a very satisfactory breakfast, and often, too, I prepared myself a supper in the evening. In this way I fared very well indeed, and my living expenses in Brussels were low. My noonday meal I purchased at a cheap restaurant, where at first I had some difficulty in making the waitress understand my French. Eventually, how-ever, they recognized my expressions for roast beef and veal, and I was content to alternate the two meats day after day.
" Petit Paris "
I didn't waste much time getting settled in my lodging before I started out to see something of the gay little capital. I was pleased with the city from the very first day, for it possessed a certain air of gayety which was quite refreshing after my sojourn in staid old England. The boulevards were so bright and so lively with people that one couldn't help imbibing something of the festival spirit which seemed to be abroad. The cafes were especially attractive to me, and after I had spent some time during my first day in walking about the city, I seated myself at one of the sidewalk tables with the intention of enjoying a cup of chocolate. When a waiter came I had a lot of trouble making him understand what it was I wanted, and he brought the wrong thing twice before he finally appeared with the drink I had ordered. The chocolate was delicious, and as I sat there drinking it I took in the passing show in the boulevard.
My pleasure was spoiled, however, when I looked at the check the waiter had given me. It was marked one franc, which is twenty cents in American money, and I thought it outrageous that they should demand such a sum for a tiny cup of chocolate. It was too bad, when I was living in an attic in order to save every possible cent. My only consolation was that this experience would be a lesson to me, and that in the future I would know better than to take my ease in front of boulevard cafes.
The Brussels Exhibition was in full sway during my stay in the city, and of course I visited it. It had been widely advertised in Europe and was considered a great show by the Belgians, but I didn't think it compared to the similar exhibitions I had seen in America. It seemed a success in the point of attendance, and there were crowds of visitors from all parts of the Continent. I was disgusted when I looked for the American exhibits, and found only a few bicycles and typewriters and desks, in an obscure corner, where the crowd would never penetrate. I thought it just as well that the location was no better, for the showing made was no credit to the United States, and it was fortunate that so few visitors were witnesses of our humiliation. I remained in the neighborhood but a very short time, being afraid that someone would recognize me for an American and ask me if that was the best we could do.
How Lace Is Made
There were not many " sights " to see in Brussels such as are to be found in some other cities of the Continent. The Art Gallery was fine, and there were some beautiful buildings, but the city as a whole was too modern to be very interesting in a historical sense. One thing that I particularly enjoyed was a view of the lace industry. No one should visit Brussels without seeing the lace-makers. The ladies in America all know something about Brussels lace, but they can have but little idea of the intricacies of its manufacture. I saw some of the female operatives at work on a Valenciennes lace scarf, which took nine hundred little spindles or bobbins, and on a lace parasol which required seven thousand spindles, and the skill with which the workers handled them was wonderful. The women looked poor and haggard, as they bent intently over their absorbing and delicate tasks. All the beautiful little figures are wrought by hand, and each girl has her separate piece to do. Some of the young girls wore glasses, and held their work near to their eyes, as if their eyesight were already affected by their too close application. The lace-makers each receive a name from the work assigned them. The Platteuses are those who work the flowers separately, and the Faiseuses de point a l'aiguille work the figures and ground together. The Striquese is the worker who attaches the flowers to the ground, while the Faneuse works her figures by piercing holes or cutting out pieces of the ground. The spinning of the fine thread used for lace-making in the Netherlands is an operation demanding so high a degree of minute care and vigilant attention that it does not seem possible ever to supplant the hands of women by machinery. The finest of this point lace is made in damp, underground cellars, for its fibre is so extremely delicate that it is liable to break by contact with the air above ground. Of course this continual working underground has an injurious effect upon the health of the operatives, so that they are paid good prices in order to induce them to follow this branch of their occupation. The girls in the other departments, however, may work wherever they please. They are allowed to take their work home if they like, or they can sit under the trees in the parks. I used to see large numbers of them in the shade of the boulevards. It was curious to see them seated there in groups with their lace pillows, making every species of this delicate fabric, while enjoying the fresh air and bright light away from their own darker places of abode.
Dogs at Work
In Brussels, as in Bruges and in Ghent, I saw milk carried about the city in little carts drawn by large Newfoundland dogs, and the quaint, neat dress of the girls dealing it out, and the bright, silvery cans, were always pleasing to the eye. I sometimes wished that a few of our American milkmen might see the condition of the equipment of these Belgian pedlers.
One of the things I wanted to accomplish while I was in Brussels was a view of the King of the Belgians, who was staying in the city at the time of my visit. I had been so unfortunate as to just miss seeing him on the day I visited the Exhibition, and on another occasion, when I heard a commotion in the street below, I rushed downstairs to find that his carriage had just passed. After these two disappointments, I determined that I would go to the Palais Royale, hoping that I would be able to see something of him there.
The palace of King Leopold is not a beautiful building on the exterior. It is surrounded by a high stone wall, and there are heavy iron bars at all the windows which are visible from the street. When I first saw it I thought to myself that it was a very disagreeable looking place, and I wondered if the King couldn't spend some money to improve its appearance. There was apparently no place to enter except at a large gate, which opened on the square in front of the building, and one of my first observations was that this gate was guarded by two stern-looking soldiers. I wondered whether it would be possible to walk past them without being stopped, and I determined to make the attempt. If they stopped me, I would be no worse off than I had been before, and if they didn't stop me, I would have an opportunity to enter the palace itself and state my business.
I put on an air of unconcern and marched through without looking at the guards. One of them, I noticed, made a move as if to stop me, but as I walked calmly ahead, he evidently changed his mind, and let me pass on. As soon as I was within the gates I found myself in a broad courtyard and at my right hand was the entrance to the palace building. T took in all my surroundings as quickly as possible. At the entrance were two officers, and from their appearance I guessed that they would probably make trouble for me if I tried to walk through the door. I could hardly back out, now that I had proceeded so far, so I walked up to the officers and stated the object of my visit. They looked at me closely as I approached them, and I was suddenly conscious that I wasn't particularly well-dressed. The five-dollar suit with which I had started from Chicago was beginning to show some signs of wear, and I wished that I had some better clothes.
In the Palace of the King
I had been studying my vocabulary, so I said in carefully prepared French, " Is the King at home? " The officers looked their astonishment, and one of them, immediately seizing me by the shoulders, began to speak to me rapidly in French. Of course I couldn't comprehend a word he was saying, and I had no chance to say that I couldn't understand. I realized, however, that I had probably made a break in asking if the King was at home. I saw that such a question from a youth of my age must have given them a shock, and I reproached myself that I hadn't studied up something else to say.
The officers talked to me, and they talked to each other, and it was two or three minutes before I explained that I couldn't understand French, and that all their effort was wasted. Then they consulted with each other, and one of them started off in post haste as if in search of some one else. The other continued to hold me tightly by the arm, as if he were afraid that I might escape, and when I undressed that night I found blue marks where his fingers had been.
While all this was taking place I noticed that a small-sized crowd was gathered at the outside gate, and I could see them peering through the bars, trying to see what was going to happen. The sight of the crowd didn't improve my feelings. I began to think that they must take me for some criminal who had been apprehended in an attempt on the life of the King.
When the absent officer returned he brought with him a couple of gentle-men in brilliant uniforms, and one of whom seemed to be very high in authority. He looked me over carefully, much as a prospective buyer examines a horse, and he wasn't long in reaching a decision. He gave some orders to the others, and I was led away. I had not been able to understand any of the conversation, and as I was taken off I began to fear that this adventure might result in some-thing very unpleasant. I had no idea who these officers were, and they might be intending to keep me in confinement for some time to come. I remember some stories I had read of the strange happenings in European palaces, and I wished heartily that I had remained outside, where I belonged. My fears increased with every minute, and when we entered a low building at the far end of the courtyard, I was all in a tremble. This building seemed to be the head quarters of the guard, and I wondered whether they intended to try me before a military court.
An Interpreter to the Rescue
It occurred to me after a few minutes that I had better ask for an interpreter, so that I could explain why I was within the palace gates, and what my business was. I expressed this desire in as good French as I could command, and when they understood, I was told that an interpreter had already been sent for. This was good news. It gave me confidence in my captors, for certainly it was kind of them to do this, and I knew that as soon as the interpreter arrived I would be able to prove my identity, and consequently my innocence of evil intentions.
When the interpreter appeared, I found him to be a pleasant, elderly gentle-man, who was treated by the officers with marked deference. He spoke English fluently, and I wasn't slow in telling him who I was and that I visited the palace because I had hoped to see the King. He inquired how it was that I was alone in Brussels, and I told him then about some of my experiences, and showed him some newspaper clippings to corroborate my statements. He was interested at once, and we chatted together for several minutes. The officers stood by, listening, and evidently surprised that our conversation should be so lengthy and so rapid. When the interpreter stopped talking to me and explained things to them, they laughed heartily, and poked fun at one another over the arrest. They shook hands with me, also, and congratulated me in French. The interpreter told them about my English experiences, and they listened as if they were indeed very much interested.
When the officers started away I got up, too, and walked toward the gate, but my friend called me back. " Do you know," he said, " I think his Majesty might possibly be interested in seeing you, now that you've such an experience in trying to see him. If you'll come with me, I'll speak to the King about it."
When the officers heard this they raised their eyebrows, and followed us into the palace, where two of them kept me company during the absence of my friend the interpreter. We couldn't carry on much of a conversation, but I could see by their smiles that they were friendly toward me now, and I was very happy that my fortunes had taken such an unexpected turn.
Within a few minutes I received the good news that the King was willing to receive me, and I followed my friend into a large, richly decorated room, where we seated ourselves for a few moments. I was greatly impressed with the furnishings of the apartment, and I saw that though the palace might look like a penitentiary from the outside, it certainly had a different character within.
A Lack of Ceremony
There was no ceremony about my introduction to King Leopold. The kind, old monarch extended his hand to me in greeting, and I was asked to be seated, which I thought an unusual privilege in the presence of kings. " Here is the boy," said my friend, by way of introduction, " you can tell by looking at him that he's American." " Yes," said the King, " I think he's American all right, or he wouldn't be traveling alone so far from home." Then his Majesty asked me a great many questions about the United States, and before long we were engaged in an animated conversation. The King said that he hoped to visit America before long. " I have always been interested in meeting your people," he remarked, " and I think I would like to see what your country resembles. It must be very different from anything we have over here." I assured him that he would find America different, at any rate, and that he would certainly receive a warm welcome if he came.
The King, in parting, shook hands in good American style, and I left him, feeling that he must be one of the most charming rulers in Europe. If a pleasant manner and true friendliness count for anything in European politics, the King of Belgium should be able to hold his own with any other monarch.
I left the palace overflowing with joy that my adventure had resulted so successfully, and when I reached the house in the Rue des Prairies, I went up to my attic room two steps at a time. I threw myself on the bed to think over the events of the afternoon. Certainly, I thought, I had every reason to be satisfied with the experiences of my Continental tour thus far, for more interesting adventures could hardly have been crowded into such a short period. I had seen the life of the Belgian peasants, and I had Obtained a glimpse of the Belgian King, and the contrast was something I would remember.
Thoughts of Home
As I lay there, I thought, too, of the home in Illinois, and my life in Chicago. It all seemed very far removed from the romantic existence through which I was passing, and I could hardly believe that it was such a short time since I had left the real-estate office. So much had been crowded into my life that the time seemed much longer than it really was, and I felt as if I must be much older than sixteen. I had seen more that was memorable in the past few weeks than in all my previous existence.
Before I went to bed that evening I washed out my coffee-pot and cleaned the alcohol lamp. Then I carefully folded all my belongings and arranged them in the knapsack. I wanted to have everything ready for an early departure in the morning, for now that I had seen the principal places of interest and had talked with the King, there was nothing to keep me longer in Brussels. I would have liked to remain in the fascinating city for weeks, instead of days, but my funds were rapidly diminishing, and I wanted to push on toward Holland and Germany.