Netherlands - The Stork's Nest
( Originally Published 1906 )
But where to make the home, in Amsterdam or The Hague ? This was the all-important point to settle. The December voyage was behind us, and, owing to a very low tide, we had been transferred to a tug just as we were off Vlaardingen, and were cutting through the waters of the Maas at a torpedo-boat speed.
"It's Holland, fast enough," said James, as he peered into the dense mist that, suddenly enveloping us, forced the boat to slacken speed, ''for it's the wettest thing so far I've seen; the Atlantic doesn't compare with it."
I went down into the cabin, for it was really too dismal, and first impressions are apt to discount anticipated pleasures. The boat almost stopped in order to feel her way among the shipping, and James took that time — he has not in crucial moments a supreme sense of the fitness of things — to demand a decision in regard to the home: Where should it be ?
James had said again and again he didn't care where he settled providing he had the right conditions for a snug winter-harbor, plenty of hot water and an open fire. I fairly shivered when he spoke so frequently as he did of hot water; for in the dank, dark mist of the Maas, on a chill December afternoon, in the unheated cabin of a Dutch tug that was half under water, it did seem as if there never could be such a commodity in the whole land. And James is peculiar; that is, he appears so to me. Other wives may not have had my experience. He works well only when he has what he wants. He calls it "having the right conditions." If he does not work well, he is apt to give up effort altogether; and when that point is reached there is for him little left worth living for. I am not logical, so James says, but I am consistent in drawing conclusions even when my premises are wrong. To make a perfectly clear statement: when James does not work, my mind is reduced, metaphorically, to skin and bones in my struggles to make "conditions right." Hereafter if I speak over-much and feelingly of hot water and other prosaic matters, I trust I may be excused. In view of all these inner workings, I felt the time had come with the stopping of the tug, to make the decision myself. It would end the suspense.
"We'll go to The Hague," I said bravely. "I never heard of anyone choosing that city for the winter, and we might as well settle there as any where, especially as this particular expedition seems to be following the lines of a wild goose's flight. Perhaps there'll be a little dry land about the capital to compensate for so much water around it. Besides, you'll be on the spot if you decide to compete for the new Peace Palace designs."
James heaved a relieved sigh. "That's so," he said emphatically, and squared his shoulders as if shaking off some intolerable burden, although it was I who had assumed the responsibilities of the situation and was to bear the heat of the day — that is, if there were such a thing as heat in Holland. "Then it's settled," he added with marked firmness after my making the decision (I must confess it is often the case with James). "I'm going up on deck."
At that moment something lightened into the cabin windows. The tug quivered, then shot forward again up the river. I, too, felt as if the machinery of our Holland undertaking had begun to work: We were going to the Hague. Just then James called down the companion-way:
"Persis, come; come up quickly!"
I rushed up on deck and, lo, it was Holland! The Holland I had pictured in imagination, that I had seen portrayed in etching and water-color, in paintings of the Dutch School and in the porcelain of Delft. I caught my breath just once, then linked my arm in James' that I might have something more than a hand to squeeze, for words failed me.
The fog was rolling back into the west. We were moving rapidly in a semi-transparent mist that lay upon the current of the river. All about us was dim, mysterious movement. The mist enveloping us burned slowly into amber, then, dispersing without warning, showed us the Maas at Rotterdam. The river was running red gold in the rays of the setting sun, the sun blazing golden red from a narrow horizon space of dun carbuncle beneath the black bank of fog; and black, too, against this low-spreading glory, a hundred windmills swung their black arms above the green ribbons of dykes, till it seemed as if a flock of huge rooks were hovering in mid-air and making preparation to alight on the multiple black towers of Rotterdam.
Within twenty-four hours after our arrival at The Hague I put myself in motion to find our Stork's Nest, as we had agreed to call the home — a concession to James' ideals. James was already lost to the world and his wife in a second-hand book-shop where he was rummaging about for "finds" in architectural plates. I felt this to be a relief, for when it comes to house-hunting instead of house-making he becomes both abject and desperate. I called up by telephone, through the courtesy of the porter at the hospitable Oude Doelen (it is necessary to make this statement, for my command of Dutch at this stage of proceedings was limited to two words: Hollandsche spoorwegmaatschappij and ja) three real estate agents, and each had a half-dozen houses for us. But what houses!
I scoured the capital of the Netherlands as faithfully, if not as literally, as the Dutch werkvrouws themselves. I lost my way on tram lines and was taken back to the hotel in urbaines, the city cabs. These, by the way, told severely on my nerves. We had come to Holland hoping to economize, in some directions at least, and here before me in these urbaines were automatic black and white affairs as large as a Waterbury kitchen clock, that in my very face and eyes ticked off the meters as I drove, and recorded my sins of expenditure in the shape of florins and Dutch cents! I registered a vow, as the "clock" registered five gulden against me, that when I should have found a house I would for the rest of the winter use the trams or go afoot. But the houses! Oh, the houses! Upper houses, lower houses, whole houses, villas, mansions, palaces, but no house for us.
I found the common run of Dutch city residences built very generally upon one plan, a poor one at that: a beneden, or lower house, and a boven, or upper house. Each dwelling has two street doors; one leads into the lower house which, by reason of its situation, is dismal in the extreme. It has few rooms and little light. The other opens into a narrow passage and upon a steep flight of stairs that leads to the upper house. This consists of two stories, with three rooms and a kitchen on the first floor; the other story contains three bedrooms reached by a second ladder; a third climb brings one to the servant's room in the garret. Throughout the house there are cold halls! In all my experience of house-hunting in many a city large and small, I have never seen the equal for steepness and crookedness of the regulation Dutch staircase, nor an arrangement of rooms less conducive to comfort.
To find a furnished house was not possible. Everybody was most courteous and willing to do his utmost — for remuneration; but everyone gave the same answer:
It is not the custom in The Hague. You may have an unfurnished house for a year, two years, three if you will; you may take a house for such a period and have it furnished by the month; but let a furnished house for four or five months!—oh, no, it is not the custom in The Hague." With that I had to be discontent.
"Never mind," I said to myself as, in the early dark—I think the sun set about three that day — I drove back, footsore, pridesore and a little heartsore with homesickness, to the Old Shooting Gallery, now the hospitable hostelry on what was once the ancient Tourney Field, "never mind, I'll break the news gently to James by telling him there are Dutch dykes, of custom, of which he has never heard; and to-morrow we'll try pensions."
I felt for a moment really discouraged, and lighted one of my pocket lucifers to look at the automatic-conscience which had just given a diabolical click loud enough to be ominous of ten gulden. Then I fell to laughing so heartily at my own discomfiture that I entered the hotel in good spirits. James met me like a good west wind that blows the air free from mists of every kind. He was swinging a key big enough to unlock our Boston State House door.
"I've got it!" he almost shouted, sacrificing English in his enthusiasm; "I've taken it, too!"
"Got what ? Taken what ?" James began to laugh.
"Not — not whiskey, James ?" I confess I was shocked, for his habits at home are perfectly temperate, but the extreme wetness of the climate combined with his enthusiasm aroused my suspicions. For answer he continued to laugh immoderately, or rather howl, for he rolled over on the ample Dutch sofa and I piled cushions on his head to smother his hilarity. When he was calm, he told me. I congratulated myself that he had not given me time to tell my own experience.
"I've taken a house, that's all."
"That's all!" I was reduced to an echo. "Where ?" I asked faintly. I was fearful lest in his enthusiasm he had rented one of those dismal beneden houses and would depend upon me, and possibly my "pickings," to make it liveable. Horrors!
"Scheveningen!" I was aghast. "Why, it's a fishing-village on the North Sea."
" Just so; and a mighty picturesque place it is too. I've seen roofs enough to-day to make my future secure if I can incorporate them in some of my beach houses."
"Oh, James!" I fairly groaned; for when he begins on architectural lines he is always sure to be off his base in all things practical.
"What's the matter ?"
"We can't live like storks on roofs, you know that as well as I; if you'd been climbing up to as many of them as I have the last two days in these dreadful boven houses, you would understand my feelings about roofs."
"No boven houses for me, my dear; I've taken a villa."
"A villa! Is it convenient ?" I asked a little severely.
"Well, I can't tell you so very much in detail about the inside, but the outside is really beautiful: solid brick, whitewashed, moss-green tiled roof with just a line of Venetian red showing along the eaves —"
"Oh, James!" It was a wail this time; I could not help it.
"Yes, Persis, you will love it. There's English ivy by the dozen square yards all over the walls, and a big holly hedge in front; it harmonizes with the roof —"
"Stop this very minute, James Moulton, and tell me if there is a decent kitchen and a room that is dry, and how many there are." I have to bring him down from his heights abruptly. It is the only way to make him feel the jar of the fall. My last remark really brought him to himself.
"Honestly, Persis, I can't say; but there are rooms enough, seven or eight, and an extra one for Ben when he comes. I looked through them and they seemed all right; and — and — I think, yes, I'm sure the man said every convenience. There's a bathroom anyway, I made sure of that. Of course I took his word for the inside; but I examined the outside thoroughly I assure you. Everything is in apple-pie order without disturbing the harmony —"
"There you go again, James Moulton. Do come down to the practical and tell me for how long you've taken it."
"For seven months. He wouldn't let it for less."
"And you've engaged that house for seven months without knowing whether we shall like it or not ? Well, I never!"
"Like it ? Why, of course you'll like it and be mighty sorry to leave it, too." I was silent; for I have learned that speech is indiscretion when one's enthusiastic husband takes too much for granted. James looked a little crestfallen. Seeing that, I asked:
"When do we move in ?" He brightened again.
"Oh, tomorrow morning. We'll go out there as soon as it's light enough, about eleven, and you can put things to rights while I run back into town to secure those plates on French châteaux I had sent up on approval last night. Come, let's have dinner and drink success to our Stork's Nest." I humored him, but I determined to drive out alone to The Stork's Nest, for James always confuses me more than he helps when he has architectural plates on his mind; besides, I wanted to be alone in case the house should prove a disappointment to me. I felt in duty bound as a good wife not to discourage him by letting him see this.
Scheveningen! What a word to conjure with! And its magic is the magic of woods and waters, of homes that would serve for illustrations in A Thousand and One Nights, and of a simple fishing village that literally lives from the largess of the North Sea, which dominates it spiritually as well as physically. I began to realize what a magical word it is, as I drove out from The Hague that December noon and turned into the Old Scheveningen Road that runs straight for a mile and a half, beneath one of the eight aisles of magnificent forest trees, to the fishing-village by the sea. The low, pale sunshine of Holland's short winter days struck athwart the myriad sturdy boles that showed bright green—the color of eel-grass as seen beneath clear sea-water—in the magical light of an atmosphere which is unlike anything known to us across the ocean. Here on this long avenue, unique in Europe it is said, there is no solitude, but life, life every where. Scheveningen women by the dozen lighten the long, green arcades with their immaculate white caps, their glistening gold cap-pins, and the broad, silver bands that hold the hair in place. The full capes, falling below the waist, are of all colors : mauve, pink, pea-green, purple, burnt-sienna brown, Gobelin blue, pomegranate — every one a tint an old master might have envied. They leave an impression of tropical brightness of movement in this almost unreal woodland setting. The swing of their multitudinous petticoats, thirteen for the well-to-do among them, has something of the placid rise and fall of the great fishing-boats when they rest like gulls on the slow swell of the North Sea.
My wonder increased as we turned into the avenue leading to a height of land in the woods. Everywhere about me were beautiful villas, the walls graced with masses of English ivy. The hedges surrounding them, of thrifty holly or shining oleander, were glistening in the sunshine, the lawns, in which they were set, green with the grass that is nourished by continual moisture. Here and there a gay marigold still bloomed among the universal green. Once I saw two pink rosebuds just about to open. Holly berries and roses, marigolds and oleander hedges, and everywhere the columned green aisles of the forest trees. I was not prepared for these.
The villas were soon left behind. Another turn and the transformation was completed. We were on a slight elevation, in a plantation of young pine, overlooking the wide-stretching Scheveningen woods which lay behind me. Before me, miles to the north, spread the "Sahara" of the famous North Sea dunes. Beneath me there was an irregular huddle of tiny roofs, red, and black, their crooked lines of continuance marking the lanes and alleys, the"closes," even, of the fishing-village. Beyond all was the sea, opalescent under the changing lights of the low sun.
But, oh, The Stork's Nest! I was at the very door before I knew it to be my own. It was, as James had said, satisfactorily charming. A holly hedge ran zig-zag before it, and behind it the pines formed a low back-ground for the white, ivy-draped walls. A little garden at the side counted three winding gravel paths, and all of them led to a high wrought-iron gate in the ivy-covered fence. It stood open, and through it I caught a glimpse of the great dunes reaching into and blending with the gray of the sea.
But what of the within ? I unlocked the front door, and then went my way on a tour of inspection. It is strange, but I have remarked it often : I can strain every nerve following my own practical methods in order to attain to some desired end or to carry out a certain under-taking, and when, at last, I find myself both confounded and worn out by the balking of stiff-necked circumstance, James will suddenly appear upon the scene with all the enthusiasm of a boy, to inform me that it fell in his way to secure in a moment what I had been struggling for days to obtain! This process was repeated in the finding of The Stork's Nest. It has always passed my comprehension how James brought it all about. His account of it has lacked a certain coherence; but putting two and three together, I made out that he met a man at the second-hand bookshop in The Hague, and the two found common ground in architecture. This man had a friend who owned a villa in Scheveningen. The friend had gone to the East Indies for a year, and James' acquaintanceof-the-bookshop was left in charge of the estate, hence he felt at liberty to rent it to us.
Privately I have my doubts whether the gentleman in the East Indies ever had knowledge of his tenants; but James paid the rent in advance, and a paid house rent for seven months gives one a certain audacious confidence in future possession. In view of this fact, I accepted what the gods had seen fit to provide and ceased to probe further into the matter.
When I had looked at The Stork's Nest until I was nearly dazed by what I saw, I sat down by the window that overlooks the village and took, as it were, account of stock. It was beyond my wildest dreams of Holland, or any other place, that I should ever be mistress of a villa that held such treasures as this nest of ours. I must own to a feeling of supreme satisfaction that I could for once in my life, if only transiently, indulge all my pride of housewifery and revel, not only in an immaculate yellow-tiled kitchen below, supplied with quantities of porcelain and brass, but feast my eyes on the many pieces of fine old mahogany that made our large living-rooms look like copperplates of old Dutch interiors. And all this for fifty-five dollars a month.
Fancy sitting at a window that formed the entire side of the dining-room, its dimensions thirteen by sixteen feet, and a French casement at that! It looked to the village, and I preempted it at once by pinning a paper on it to that effect. I knew I should have no chance if James happened to secure it first. This pinning on of papers is a way we have of not interfering with each other's special "finds." I began to be glad that he had not taken the time to discover the beauties of the interior.
It would be idle to catalogue them. Doubtless they would be uninteresting to others; but the great mirrors in their carved frames, the mahogany wall-tables with fluted sliding doors, the ponderous desk of the same wood, the drawers inlaid with tiny round tiles of exquisite workmanship, the huge antique lamps of blue faïence, and of beaten brass, the carved cabinets, the old china, the thick rugs of unique design were treasured by me not only for their intrinsic worth, but for the delight they afforded my inner and outer eyes. Even the Dutch coalhod came in for a goodly share of admiration; for unlike other earthly scuttles it was shaped and glazed like a tortoise, low, ample, its broad curved back lending to the open fire in the living-room a look of Dutch solidity that, in all the animal kingdom, only a turtle can give. And there was an open fire! When I saw it one burden rolled from off my shoulders, and, barring the hot water, I should for that moment at least have seen everything through rose-colored spectacles.
But that Dutch kitchen! It was a subject for a Dutch painter of still-life. Only one thing about it troubled me: it was too still, too cool, too restful for the domestic eye. Everything harmonized. Except for a kind of wooden dais some eight feet square, which was covered with a fringed rug of royal red and placed against the farther wall, it was a symphony in white and yellow, from the tiled floor and yellow and white porcelain dishes, to the arched white ceiling and the cooking utensils of shining brass that hung on the walls. Yet the vaunted "warm hearth" seemed to be wanting. I judged the temperature to be about that of a cold storage warehouse, and as I climbed the almost impossible kitchen flight in a mist formed by my own labored breathing, I perceived that mist of some kind is first rather than second nature in Holland. I felt this subterranean chill for several minutes after I sat down at my window to watch for James. It was to be his initial home-coming in Holland, and I wanted to be on hand to hug him on the installment plan just to give vent to my gratitude for The Stork's Nest.
As I watched the twilight deepen into dusk, below in the village a tiny light shone out here and there from street or alley. I opened the great casement. There was no wind; only a rush of soft air as from -a deep breathing of the great North Sea. Now and then there was mingled with it the odor of burning turf from the chimney pots of the peasants' huts beneath me. I heard the clipper-clapper-clip of innumerable wooden shoes on the brick pavements. The voices of children rose 'shrill in their play. Some belated, home-coming rooks, cawing loudly, flew low over the darkening roofs towards the Scheveningen woods. Then, somewhere near me, clear, sweet, high, a bell rang the Angelus.