DUTCH LEISURE

EVERY tourist knows that Holland is one of the historic cradles of
political freedom, and also a chain of cities which are in effect
museums of invaluable art. The voyager in a little ship may learn that
in addition to all this Holland is the home of a vast number of plain
persons who are under the necessity of keeping themselves alive seven
days a week, and whose experiments in the adventure of living have
an interest quite equal to the interest of ancient art. To judge that
adventure in its final aspect, one should see Holland on a Sunday, and
not the Holland of the cities, but of the little towns.

We came one Sunday morning to a place called Zieriksee, on an island to
the north of the East Schelde. Who has heard of Zieriksee? Nevertheless,
Zieriksee exists, and seven thousand people prosecute the adventure
therein without the aid of museums and tourists. At first, from the
mouth of its private canal, it seems to be a huge, gray tower surrounded
by tiniest doll’s-houses with vermilion roofs; and as you approach, the
tower waxes, until the stones of it appear sufficient to build the
whole borough; then it wanes, and is lost in the town, as all towers
ultimately are. The cobbled quay and streets were empty as we moored.
And in an instant a great crowd sprang up out of the earth,–men and
boys and girls, but few women,–staring, glaring, giggling, gabbling,
pushing. Their inquisitiveness had no shame, no urbanity. Their cackle
deafened. They worried the _Velsa_ like starving wolves worrying a deer.
The _Velsa_ was a godsend, unhoped for in the enormous and cruel tedium
which they had created for themselves. To escape them we forced our way
ashore, and trod the clean, deathlike, feet-torturing streets. One shop
was open; we entered it, and were supplied with cigarettes by two polite
and gracious very old women who knew no English. On emerging from this
paganism, we met a long, slow-slouching, gloomy procession of sardonic
human beings,–not a pretty woman among them, not a garment that was
comely or unclean or unrespectable, not a smile,–the great, faithful
congregation marching out of the great church. Here was the life of
leisure in Holland as distinguished from the week-day life of industry.
It was a tragic spectacle. When we returned to the yacht, the other
congregation was still around it. And it was still there, just as noisy
and boorish, when we left several hours later. And it would still have
been there if we had remained till midnight. The phenomenon of that
crowd, wistful in its touching desire for distraction, was a serious
criticism of the leaders of men in Holland. As we slid away, we could
see the crowd rapidly dissolving into the horror of its original ennui.
I asked the cook, a cockney, what he thought of Zieriksee.

His face lightened to a cheerful smile.

“Rather a nice sort of place, sir. More like England.”

[Illustration: 0040]

The same afternoon we worked up the Schelde in a dead calm to Zijpe. The
rain had pretermitted for the first time, and the sun was hot. Zijpe
is a village, a haven, a dike, and a junction of train and steamer. The
village lies about a mile inland. The haven was pretty full of barges
laid up for Sunday. On the slopes of the haven, near the railway-station
and the landing-stage, a multitude of at least a thousand people
were strolling to and fro or sitting on the wet grass, all in their
formidable Sabbath best. We joined them, in order, if possible, to learn
the cause of the concourse; but the mystery remained for one hour and a
half in the eventless expanse of the hot afternoon, when the train came
in over the flat, green leagues of landscape. We then understood. The
whole of Zijpe had turned out to see the afternoon train come in! It was
a simple modest Dutch local train, making a deal of noise and dust,
and bearing perhaps a score of passengers. But it marked the grand
climacteric of leisured existence at Zijpe. We set off to the village,
and discovered a village deserted, and a fair-ground, with all its
booths and circuses swathed up in gray sheeting. Scarcely a soul! The
spirit of romance had pricked them all to the railway-station to see the
train come in!

Making a large circuit, we reached again the river and the dike, and
learned what a dike is in Holland. From the top of it we could look down
the chimneys of houses on the landward side. The population was now
on the dike, promenading in magnificent solemnity and self-control.
Everybody gravely saluted us in passing. We gravely saluted everybody,
and had not a moment to ourselves for miles.

“Over there,” said the skipper afterward, pointing vaguely to the
southeast over the Schelde, “they ’re Roman Catholics. There ’s a
lot of Spaniards left in Holland.” By Spaniards he meant Dutchmen with
some Spanish blood.

“Then they enjoy their Sundays?” I suggested.

“Yes,” he answered sarcastically, “they enjoy their Sundays. They put
their playing-cards in their pockets before they go to church, and then
they go straight from the church to the café, and play high, and as like
as not knife each other before they ’ve done.” Clearly it takes all
sorts to make a little world like Holland, and it is difficult to strike
the mean between absolute nullity and homicidal knives. My regret is
that the yacht never got as far as those Spaniards gaming and knifing in
cafés.

On Monday morning every skipper on every river and canal of Holland
tries to prove that the stagnation of Sunday is only a clever illusion.
The East Schelde hummed with express barges at five A. M. It was exactly
like a Dutch picture by an old master. Even we, in no hurry, with a
strong tide under us and a rising northwester behind us, accomplished
fifteen sea-miles in ninety minutes. Craft were taking shelter from the
threatened gale. In spite of mistakes by an English crew unaccustomed
to a heavy mainsail in tortuous navigation and obstreperous weather,
we reached Dordrecht railway bridge without public shame; and then the
skipper decided that our engine could not be trusted to push us through
the narrow aperture against wind and tide. Hence we bargained with a
tug, and were presently attached thereto, waiting for the bridge to
open.

Considering that Holland is a country where yachts are understood, and
where swing-bridges open at a glance, we had to wait some little time
for that bridge; namely, three hours. The patriotism of the skipper was
strained. During the whole period the tug rushed to and fro, frisking us
wildly about like a kettle at the tail of a busy dog, and continuously
collecting other kettles, so that our existence was one long shock and
collision. But we saw a good deal of home life on the barges, from a
minor barge which a girl will steer to the three-thousand-ton affair
that surpasses mail steamers in capacity.

[Illustration: 0045]

There are two homes on these monsters, one at the stem and the other
at the stern; the latter is frequently magnificent in spaciousness
and gilding. That the two families in the two distant homes are ever
intimate is impossible, that they are even acquainted is improbable;
but they seem to share a tireless dog, who runs incessantly along the
leagues of planking which separate them.

The bridge did at last open, and everything on the river, unmindful of
everything else, rushed headlong at the opening, like a crowd of sinners
dashing for a suddenly unbarred door into heaven. Our tug jerked us into
the throng, a fearful squeeze, and we were through. We cast off, the
gulden were collected in a tin, and within five minutes we were moored
in the New Haven, under the lee of the Groote Kerk, with trees all
around us, in whose high tops a full gale was now blowing.

The next morning our decks were thickly carpeted with green leaves,
a singular sight. The harbor-master came aboard to demand dues, and
demanded them in excellent English.

“Where did you learn English?” I asked, and he answered with strange
pride:

“Sir, I served seven years under the British flag.”

Standing heedless in the cockpit, under driving rain, he recounted
the casualties of the night. Fifteen miles higher up the river a
fifteen-hundred-ton barge had sunk, and the master and crew, consisting,
_inter alia_, of all his family, were drowned. I inquired how such an
event could happen in a narrow river amid a numerous population, and
learned that in rough weather these barges anchor when a tug can do no
more with them, and the crew go to bed and sleep. The water gradually
washes in and washes in, until the barge is suddenly and silently
engulfed. Dutch phlegm! Corresponding to their Sabbatic phlegm, no
doubt. Said the harbor-master:

“Yes, there is a load-line, but they never takes no notice of it in
Holland; they just loads them up till they won’t hold any more.”

The fatalism of the working-classes everywhere is perhaps the most
utterly astounding of all human phenomena.

Thoughtful, I went off to examine the carved choir-stalls in the Groote
Kerk. These choir-stalls are among the most lovely sights in Holland.
Their free, fantastic beauty is ravishing and unforgetable; they make
you laugh with pleasure as you behold them. I doubt not that they
were executed by a rough-tongued man, in a dirty apron, with shocking
finger-nails.