Netherlands - The Swimming Lion
( Originally Published 1906 )
IT was with a feeling of positive relief, of freedom from a sense of physical oppression, that we drove back to Tholen. After such desolation, even that little village looked warm and thriving in the afternoon sun that was struggling to bring its head above the clouds and avert rain. It seemed typical to me, as I watched that struggle, of the heroic Swimming Lion in the arms of Zeeland, and a symbolization of Zeeland's device of triumphant desperation: I struggle and emerge.
And, to my inward satisfaction, the sun did break through and showed us, standing in bold relief against the dark doorway of the unpretentious little inn, Hof van Holland, the Captain! He had been able to get away on the afternoon train instead of the next morning's.
It was a joyful meeting, and a surprise all around. I must confess I took real pride in introducing him to Lou and Lois, and enjoying the Captain's surprise which he was too well-bred to show. It seemed to me I never realized before how very charming Lois could be with strangers, and how very well she dresses; and as for Lou — why, she is, I have to own up to it, really handsome, with a stately, statuesque kind of beauty that, although it is dulled in Lois' presence on account of the latter's great charm of manner, nevertheless is very attractive in its way. But she is as quiet as Lois is vivacious. I saw the Captain did not know just whom to turn to first; James helped him out with an introduction to Ben.
It was a merry party that sat down to supper in the quaint dining-room of the inn, and the staid Dutch-men and Dutchwomen, who ate with us, must have felt some curiosity as to the cause of the gayety, but they were too well-bred to show any. They had fish — a great porcelain dish of fish; and one and all carefully laid the big bones back upon that self-same dish. They had potatoes, also, and beer; they ate with the gravity of burgomasters, and called again for fish, which was brought in, piled high upon the porcelain "drainers." That was their supper. Ours was a huge roast of veal, young garden beans, tea, bread and butter, and thin delicate crępes, or pancakes the thickness of a knife, with fresh raspberries and sugar, which we were expected to mash and lay inside the crępes. We met all the expectations in a truly generous manner, and satisfied our charming little hostess, who served us herself, and ourselves as well.
We debated whether to stay in Tholen for the night, or go over to Bergen-op-Zoom; but decided for the former as, if it were clear, we knew the Broomstick would make her appearance without fail early the next day, and we did not want any delay. Not that I would advise anyone who has a sensitive nose to stay long in Tholen. The oyster beds are something to avoid — as well as the Zeeland oysters; and the drainage of the town is far from sanitary inspection. However, we made the best of it, and by nine the next morning Oom Kees signalled us from the Eendracht.
By ten we were off for Zierikzee in Schouwen.
Of course it would be a mere figure of speech to say that Oom Kees' foot was on its native heath or even land, for, so far as I could discover, most of the land was water. But I may say that he was brimming over with information about every foot of the raks, and gats, vaarts, and kreeks which serve for water-streets and lanes, squares and boulevards throughout this part of Zeeland. The water was somewhat rough and the sky not wholly clear, as we sailed over a portion of that ancient "Drowned Land." The Captain told us that with a low tide, perfectly calm water, which is rare hereabouts, and a clear unclouded sky, in the waters about Tholen, deep beneath the flood there is a grave-yard, the stones of which may still be seen when the combination of tide and wind and sky permits.
"Have you seen it ?" Lois asked, her bright face quickened into a fine expression of sympathy.
"Yes," he replied; "once in the calm waters which told no tales."
We were silent; knowing we were passing over the engulfed villages and the deep-sea graves of unnumbered thousands. We were glad to sail away from it all, past Stavenisse with a glimpse of St. Philips-land and westerly past the shores of Duiveland. Yet all about us were evidences of the recent devastation: broken dykes were being mended; here and there was an abandoned farmhouse, shallows where once were the richest farms in the Netherlands, and stretching away to the south-east the mud flats of the Drowned Land miles in extent.
But our spirits revived as we approached Zierikzee. According to Oom Kees—it was his native place—it is the best place on earth for a man to be born in, to live in, and to die in. Lois said she felt as if we were on the outer edge of the world and should drop over if we went another mile. All about us were silent green meadows; the long canal that is the approach to the town leads between them, bordered as they are with the ever-present dykes. Tern were numerous; and if the silence was broken at all, it was by their curious cry. We saw nothing ahead of us, and were not prepared for the charming picture made by the South-Haven Gate as we entered the harbor. On the quay stood the nephew-captain's mother, in all the bravery of her great cap and fine apron, ready to welcome us; indeed, everybody welcomed us, from the landlord of the good inn to Oom Kees' pretty granddaughter who was on the quay with some other girls.
All I have to say is: If anyone is desirous of seeing something utterly other-worldly, wholly peaceful, wholly restful, let him go to Zierikzee! I don't think I should advise a long stay there; it is too out of the world, too reminiscent of the Swimming Lion and his struggles to keep his noble head above water;—our landlord told me that had the high dyke given way, as they feared, or another tide increased the flood, Zierikzee would have gone under for good and all.
Lovely Zierikzee! How could we have spared you and your frisky gem of architecture they dignify with the name of Stadhuis ? How could we have missed your carillon that rings all its bells on the outside of the Stadhuis belfry ? Where else in all the world could we have seen a barrel-vaulted wooden garret in the Town Hall, and an Eskimo and his long skin kayak swung aloft therein ? Who else but the delightful custodian would assure us that in the fifteenth century (that special period of time I found to be a safe refuge for all the Dutch who told marvellous historical yarns) this same canoe came into Zierikzee harbor paddled by a man who is now represented swung aloft in the very canoe itself by a modern dummy ?
Where else can one find such a harbor-gate ? Where else such a Nobel Poort? Where else such an Oom Kees to tell the story of the two ladies Nobel, the one Anna, the other Maria, who wished to erect a gate in their beloved Zierikzee, and gave the Nobelpoort, thus memorializing themselves in a most notable way ? Who else but Oom Kees with the fingers of his right hand raised would solemnly tell you that Anna was crooked and that Maria was straight as an arrow, and that the crooked Anna memorialized herself in the left-hand crooked tower, as you may see when you go out by that same gate, and that the sister Maria memorialized her own particular straightness by the other erect and rigid one ? All this in the fifteenth century be it understood! A safe old pigeon-hole for archives — that same fourteen hundred. Where else could you see such locks and real gates to be shut at, night for the defense of the sea-girt town ?
And where else in all this world could one find an incipient rival to Strasburg Cathedral's great tower! For such is the case here in Zierikzee. This town possesses a church and tower that, had it been finished after Architect Keldermans' designs, would have been the twin for grandeur and grace and noble beauty of that other in Strasburg by the Rhine.
This is the so-called Monster Tower of St. Lieven's, and beside it Leeuwarden's Oldhove would look like a pygmy, and Our Dear Lady Tower at Amersfoort like a pine needle. It was to have been something over six hundred feet high. Picture a Washington Monument, with an added hundred feet, beginning as a tower of enormous bulk instead of a shaft, and you will have an idea of the monster tower designed by Architect Keldermans. The drawings for the completed tower were shown us in the Stadhuis; had it ever been finished there would not have been its equal and like in the world. And to this, little Zierikzee in the island of Schouwen aspired long centuries ago! At present the Department of Marine have decided to add another seventy feet to the tower as it stands, and place a large beacon light on it. It will be a coast mark for miles around.
I saw that the Captain was enjoying to the full our appreciation of his wonderful little land, and especially Lois' enthusiasm over everything Dutch — caps, costumes, towers, gates, gats and raks, boats, small boys dressed like grown-up men, and little girls a copy in miniature of their mothers. As I said to James, "It's dangerous for the Captain, I admit, but the Dutch are so slow about making up their minds, that we shall be off and away before he has had time to find out that he is captivated. Anyway, Ben is all right." To which James replied :
"Umph! You don't know Ben."
It was really delightful to see how that girl drew the Captain out; and he wasn't even aware of it! He is so modest that he would never dream of saying much about himself, his likes or dislikes. But with Lois he was ready to tell story after story about his youth and about his country, the people he knew, and his plans to visit America where he had already been. Somehow, it came to be the expected thing that Lois, Lump, and the Captain, chaperoned by Lou, would go off exploring by themselves, and James, Ben, Bizzy, and I be left to wander at our own sweet wills! But Ben didn't seem to mind it. I was grateful for this, for otherwise it would have spoiled much of my pleasure in this unroutine-like sightseeing.
We were sorry to bid good-bye to Zierikzee in Duiveland, but the Captain bade us be of good cheer for the best was to dome. After sailing away from this charming town we could hardly believe him that we should see greater beauty in Walcheren. But what he said proved to be true. We sailed by the Engelschevaart, crossing the East Scheldt and entering the passage between two portions of Beveland, catching glimpses on the way of St. Philips-land, of Tholen, and the Verdronken-Land to the southeast.
The world all about us was a water world. Here and there we saw the mussel fishing-boats on the shallows below the dykes. Once we sailed over shoals where three years ago were the rich farmlands of a prosperous farrner. Now the house stands empty, half a ruin as well as the barns; the waters at high tide wash the thresh-old; and almost within stone's throw of our deck a broken dyke told the pathetic story. Oom Kees related, that one day in crossing this place by another channel, as he was sitting by the tiller, his back to the dyke, he heard a deafening, grinding roar, and suddenly the sea surged all about him. He turned to this dyke, and saw that a large portion of it had crumbled and fallen into the sea — undermined by the ever-gnawing tides.
Here and there a sea-dog rose to the surface and, lifting his shining head above the water, looked about him slowly and deliberately. Sometimes we saw these creatures on the sand flats at the base of the dyke. Above us spread a pale blue sky; all about us were shoals and deeps, the one light green, the other dark blue — sea and dykes, sea-dogs and crying gulls, green stretches behind the dykes, and hardly a sign of human life in all that day's course!
We approached Veere as in a dream — and perhaps the approach to no other place in the Netherlands has such dream-like characteristics.
The approach to Alkmaar is an inland-water approach, narrowed to an artificial canal; the approach to Gorinchem is spacious with a river-space, and in the midst of cultivated lands and human habitations. But this approach to Veere from the sea is unbounded except by the sea, and nowhere is the wonderful atmospheric effect of blended sky and waters and luminous half-lights more in evidence than on these coasts, these outposts of the sea-islands of the Netherlands.
The word fane may in all truth be applied to the neglected church of Veere. If I had been told that what I saw over the waters was some dream-city, some Dutch Kubla Khan, I could well have believed it. Veere is unreal in its beauty, as seen from the sea. Its sea-front, the glory of which has long since departed, offers, with the noble Scotch warehouse on the dilapidated quay, a pathetic reminder of the centuries when its civic state was the proudest in the land. It is best to pass it as a dream; to sail on past its ancient wharves, its grand warehouses, its exquisite Stadhuis Tower — a mixture of Spanish bulb and muezzin tower — its grandly desolate shrine, its ancient walls and, sailing on into the canal that leads straight across Walcheren to Middelburg, remember it as a dream of past centuries : a dream that, by chance, you have seen emerging from the waters, and fading away as it is submerged in the evening mists coming in from the sea; that is, remember it as such until you see it a second time as we did.
The Lion of the Netherlands! He is a noble beast; a noble symbol of a noble land; but nowhere will you see him in such grandeur of struggle as just here, where you find him swimming for life, and struggling to keep his noble head above the engulfing waves of this ancient Zeeland, sea-land in truth ! A brave device: Luctor et emergo.