Netherlands - James And I
( Originally Published 1906 )
THERE has been no monotony in our lives, James' and mine. I account for this fact on the ground of our having kept on hand during our married life a large stock of ideals, and living in the anticipation of realizing some of them at some time. And just here I may as well state a few facts about ourselves. James and I belong to the wealthier class of Americans, that is, the truly wealthy class which is a large one in our land. Lest I be misunderstood I make the following statement concerning what we look upon as our assets.
In the first place we are extraordinarily rich in blessed memories of those who have loved us — who may love us still for aught we know. This constitutes our inherited wealth. In addition td this we made early in life, we are not yet quite middle-aged, two or three large investments in old-fashioned stock, the returns from which have been enormous, namely; a marriage for love fifteen years ago and a block of solid friendships of both men and women, which may be counted in separate shares by five fingers on the one hand, and two on the other. For collateral securities on these we have an open fire for all friendly shins that need toasting and all hearts that feel a need to disburden in the flame-lighted dusk, as well for the jest and merry laughter that spring from young hearts, and others that can never grow old.
Moreover, there is an extra seat at our table for the man, woman, or child who may need or wish to occupy it. It is our memorial to our only boy, and by means of it we have entertained many an angel unawares. Little by little during the years, we, have gathered some eight hundred pleasant acquaintances about us who, although they turn their backs upon us from the bookshelves, open out most freely, if we approach them in the right mood, and yield their multitude of thoughts, sustaining, instructive, helpful, uplifting, nor ever refuse of their largess — acquaintances worth having, or so it has seemed to me. If I show you above the shelves a few choice etchings and old engravings, of which both James and I are justly proud, I think I have given a fair statement of our entire wealth, real and common.
In actual money we have James' fluctuating income which he earns literally by the sweat of his brow, for he is an architect by profession and a day laborer for the sake of it. In fat years it swells visibly to three thousand, in the lean ones it diminishes to one third of that. I can recall four years when we had only six hundred, and in those four we were richer than we ever dreamed we could be, for the gift of a child, ours for five years, filled them with treasures untold, undreamed of. Since then the words rich and poor have their own meaning for us. This is why I mention money as the last item among our assets.
On a certain evening in November in the year of Our Lord nineteen hundred and five, we were in our living-room which is library, sitting-room and parlor in one. James was reading and I was attempting a little sewing beneath the lamplight. In reality I was listening to the driving of the sleet against the windows and the periodical roar of a northeast gale that, sweeping in from the Atlantic, howled and shrieked as it found itself transiently confined in the strait-jacket of a narrow street in old Boston. It was a wild night, and as I rose to draw the curtains in order to shut out the chill sight of snow-plastered panes, I stopped for a moment to look at my favorite etching of the great tower of Leeuwarden that hangs over the centre bookshelf. I was wondering if it ever would fall to my lot to see it in reality when James spoke.
"Persis, I've been coming lately to the conclusion that I need a change."
"May I inquire what might be the nature of this special change ?" I asked without turning. I may as well state here and now that James' need of a change is constitutional, and materializes suddenly at the most unexpected times and in the most untoward places. Hence the lack of monotony in our lives.
"Oh, a mental change —"
"Mental change! Likelier a change of heart." I turned to him and looked him straight in the eyes ; whereupon he telegraphed to me by the special wireless marital code known to husbands and wives who are one in soul. I have told him for the past fifteen years that he has speaking eyes, and he has never failed to assure me that it is fortunate for him that he is thus equipped, for in my presence his tongue is an atrophied member.
I confess this message gave me a shock, for it said as plainly as words could have said: We'll close the house and go -- somewhere. And I had just finished my quince-preserving! That very day I had reviewed with a housewife's pride and satisfaction the dozens of jars and glasses of delectables I had filled for the larder. I had put up the heavy hangings at the windows, and dusted every book on the shelves, polished all the brass for the fenders, and prepared generally for a snug stay-at-home winter. Then this deluge!
"Now, James Moulton, where are you going ?
"To just the one place in the world where I can get the change."
"Where is that ?" I demanded, for I was curious to know my fate.
"Holland!" He exclaimed triumphantly. "I've been planning the whole thing. You know well enough you've been longing for it so for the last ten years that you've fairly water on the brain. Now deny it if you can."
It was an impeachment of the severest kind, yet I knew I must plead guilty. Holland had been an ideal to be realized for so long!
"But in winter, James! Holland in winter. Who ever heard of such a thing ?"
"Nobody; that is why we're going to adopt it, and somebody may hear of it and take it up. This is my first off year, and I can take my work along with me. Do say yes, Persis!"
"Say yes, indeed! What would be the use of my saying no ?" I must say I was a little irritated that the whole thing should have been planned, even if by my nearest and dearest, without once consulting me. And after all the years James and I had dreamed over it together! It was so like a man and a husband that I lost my patience.
"If you had given me just a hint of what you have been planning for so long —" I began severely enough, but was cut short by a burst of laughter.
"I can't see any jest," I began again, and this time my voice sounded a bit too tart even for James. I saw that by his eyes. "It's all very well to be sitting in the bosom of one's family —"
"Not the bosom this time, Persis; nothing so near as that;" and the Incorrigible actually had the audacity to throw his free arm around my neck. I tried to put it away for I was in no mood for a caress, but failed as usual. I ignored him and went on:
"And suddenly by a preconcerted arrangement of that bosom —"
"Hear, hear!" I gave him a look before which he, to all appearances, quailed.
"Be cast like bread upon the waters not to return until after many days."
James took me by the shoulders, turned me to the wall, and, catching my head gently between both hands, lifted my face to the massive tower of Leeuwarden still unfinished, like a master-builder's thwarted aspiration.
"Look at that, little mother." It was all he said for the moment, but I understood. When he calls me that, the thought of us both is as one; and well he knows that I must say yes to anything, to everything when he speaks to me in that voice.
"I had made no plans, Persis, until an hour ago; but you and I have talked Holland so much and for so long, that when you stopped on your way to the window and looked up at the etching so longingly I felt — the need of a change. Now, you'll go!"
"Well, I may, if you promise to stay for the spring and the tulip fields of Haarlem."
"Tulips by the acre, little mother, hurrah!" There-with James turned boy again and, making some unmentionable pun about "achers for two lips," caught me in his arms and gave me such a hug that I was breathless. Of course after that I consented in due form, and we sat before the grate fire and made plans into the small hours of the morning.
"I'm going on two conditions," said James emphatically, "two conditions that will make for my peace of mind in my work."
"And those are ?" I asked.
"No Dutch pensions, alias boarding-houses, for me; and no domestic worries of any kind —"
"You have so many at home, James!" I permitted myself that sarcasm, for James' inability to wrestle with the most simple problems of housekeeping is proverbial. He has never yet driven a nail straight, and although he is an architect I put in the closets and practicalities, even to kitchen dressers, for his clients — and he gets the credit of being a practical idealist! Idealist he is, too much of a one at times, but strictly practical, never. Naturally I say nothing of this in public for I am so proud of his work, but privately I get just one-tenth of one per cent every time for "pickings." I've been saving the pickings for the long-dreamed-of Holland.
"I assume you are giving me to understand that you will have an establishment of your own in the Low Countries. May I inquire at this distance what is the nature of this home ? I'd like to be fore-warned, as house-keeping anywhere is not a particularly easy matter," I said with some asperity, for I had visions of a green canal boat, a stretch of very wet canal ending in a vista of mist and bridges, and James calling for his shaving-water and hot towels at unearthly hours.
"Oh, just a regular home," he said after a few minutes of deep thought and in answer to my question; "a good open fire, my books, and lots of hot water. You can have your own way and say in everything else."
"Indeed! And I'm supposed to be grateful for the doubtful privilege of struggling in an unknown tongue with a foreign servant to obtain for my lord and master an open fire and plenty of hot water!"
"Oh, we'll get along. I'll turn in and help. You speak German, and we both get on well enough in French. If they can't understand either, I'll try good solid Anglo-Saxon on them. That's Low Dutch, anyway. We'll get on, don't you worry."
"I won't if you'll promise not to ask for anything absolutely preposterous like hot North Sea baths on tap, or storks' eggs for an omelette soufflee. What is it now ?" I demanded of him, for his hands were clasped behind his head, his head on the back of the chair, his face upturned to the ceiling, and in his eyes the far-away look that prognosticates the bringing down and bagging of an ideal. I have known it too long to mistake it.
"Speaking of storks," he said in what I call his mooning voice, "I must make one other condition: I can't live in a Dutch house that hasn't a stork's nest and some birds on the roof; and perhaps it might be possible to get a house with the lines of the roof thoroughly satisfactory—"
"For goodness' sake, James Moulton, come down from your heights!" I cried impatiently. "If you want a stork's nest you'll have to have one made to order and take an incubator along with you to hatch your own birds; but don't lay any such burden as that on my frail shoulders. And as for the lines of your roof, that is your business, not mine."
James rubbed his hands in his glee. "Oh, but it is good to hear her! Nothing like a change, Persis, to keep one young. We'll make it go."
I had my doubts; but I said nothing, for I didn't like to quench his enthusiasm. It has always been the oil for all my domestic machinery and, besides, was there not the great tower of Leeuwarden looming before me in the northern mists beyond the Zuider Zee ? Were not the bright tulip-fields of Haarlem luring me onward, perhaps to my destruction domestically, but very surely to the realization of one, at least, of my ideals ? Ah, it is wise, wise beyond belief, to keep on hand a large stock of ideals even in the most prosaic life, in the most restricted circumstances, for it may chance that once in a lifetime one of the many may be realized.
That was my thought as I fell asleep just before daybreak. James' last word for the night was: "I must tell Ben tomorrow; perhaps he can arrange to join us in the spring."
Ben Hardon is James' special younger friend to whom he looks for enthusiastic masculine response. I foresee domestic difficulty if James is to ask many more friends over to Holland for the spring.