DUTCH WORK

We passed through Rotterdam more than once, without seeing more of
it than the amazing traffic of its river and its admirable zoological
gardens full of chromatically inclined parrots; but we stopped at a
minor town close by, on a canal off the Meuse, Schiedam. Instinct
must have guided me, for the sociological interest of Schiedam was not
inconsiderable. Schiedam is called by the Dutch “stinking Schiedam.”
I made a circuit of the town canals in the dinghy and convinced myself
that the epithet was just and not malicious. On the lengthy quays were a
large number of very dignified gin distilleries, whose architecture was
respectable and sometimes even very good, dating from perhaps early
in the last century. Each had a baptismal name, such as “Liverpool,”
inscribed in large letters across its façade. This rendering decent and
this glorification of gin constituted an impressive phenomenon. But
it was the provinciality and the uncouth melancholy of the apparently
prosperous town that took my fancy. We walked through all its principal
streets in the rain, and I thought I had never seen a provinciality so
exquisitely painful and perfect. In this city of near thirty thousand
people there was not visible one agreeably imposing shop, or one woman
attired with intent to charm, or one yard of smooth pavement. I know not
why I find an acrid pleasure in thus beholding mediocrity, the average,
the everyday ordinary, as it is; but I do. No museum of Amsterdam, The
Hague, or Haarlem touched me so nearly as the town of Schiedam, which,
after all, I suppose I must have liked.

Toward six o’clock we noticed an unquiet, yet stodgy, gathering in the
square where is the electric-tram terminus, then a few uniforms. I asked
a superior police officer what there was. He said in careful, tranquil
English:

“There is nothing. But there is a strike of glass-workers in the town.
Some of them don’t want to work, and some of them do want to work. Those
that have worked to-day are being taken home in automobiles. That is
all.”

I was glad it was all, for from his manner I had expected him to
continue to the effect that the glass-workers had been led away by paid
agitators and had no good reason to strike. The automobiles began to
come along, at intervals, at a tremendous pace, each with a policeman by
the chauffeur’s side. In one was a single artisan, middle-aged, with a
cigar in the corner of his mouth, and a certain adventurous look in his
eye. The crowd grimly regarded. The police tried to seem as if they were
there by accident, but obviously they lacked histrionic training.
In short, the scene was one of the common objects of the wayside
of existence all over the civilized world. It presented no novelty
whatever, and yet to witness it in Holland was piquant, and caused one
to think afresh and perhaps more clearly.

At night, when it had ceased to rain. I was escorting a friend to the
station. Musicians were climbing up into the bandstand in the same
square. It was Wednesday, the evening of the weekly municipal concert.
The railway-station, far out, was superbly gloomy, and it was the only
station in Holland where I failed to get a non-Dutch newspaper. The
train, with the arrogance of an international express, slid in, slid
out, and forgot Schiedam. I emerged from the station alone. A one-horse
tram was waiting.

The tram, empty, with a sinking, but everlasting, white horse under a
yellow cloth, was without doubt the most provincial and melancholy thing
that destiny has yet brought me in contact with. The simple spectacle
of it, in the flickering gaslights and in the light of its own lamps,
filled the heart, with an anguish inexplicable and beautiful. I got in.
An age passed. Then an old workman got in, and saluted; I saluted. Save
for the saluting, it was the Five Towns of the eighties over again,
intensified, and the last tram out of Hanbridge before the theater-tram.

An age passed. Then a mysterious figure drew the cloth off the horse,
and the horse braced up all its four legs. We were starting when
a tight-folded umbrella waved in the outer obscurity. An elderly,
easy-circumstanced couple arrived upon us with deliberation; the
umbrella was a good one.

We did start. We rumbled and trundled in long curves of suburban
desolation. Then a few miserable shops that ought to have been shut;
then the square once more, now jammed in every part with a roaring,
barbaric horde. In the distance, over a floor of heads, was an island of
illumination, with the figures of puffing and blowing musicians in it;
but no rumor of music could reach us through the din. The white horse
trotted mildly into and right through the multitude, which jeered
angrily, but fell back. An enormous multitude, Gothic, Visi-gothic,
savage, uncivilized, chiefly consisting of young men and big boys–the
weekly concert of humanizing music!

[Illustration: 0057]

I left the tram, and walked along the dark, empty canal-side to
the yacht. The impression of stagnation, tedium, provincialism was
overwhelming. Nevertheless, here, as in other towns, we were struck by
the number of shop-windows with artist’s materials for sale. Such was
Schiedam. If it is asked whether I went to Holland on a yachting cruise
to see this sort of thing, the answer is that I just did.

After a few weeks I began to perceive that Schiedam and similar places,
though thrilling, were not the whole of Holland, and perhaps not the
most representative of Holland. As the yacht worked northward, Holland
seemed to grow more Dutch, until, in the chain of shallow lakes and
channels that hold Friesland in a sort of permanent baptism, we came
to what was for me the ideal or celestial Holland–everything done by
water, even grass cut under water, and black-and-white cows milked
in the midst of ponds, and windmills over the eternal flatness used
exclusively to shift inconvenient water from one level to another. The
road is water in Friesland, and all the world is on the road. If your
approach to a town is made perilous by a succession of barges that
will obstinately keep the middle of the channel, you know that it is
market-day in that town, and the farmers are rolling home in agreeable
inebriation.

The motor broke down in Friesland, and we were immobolized in the midst
of blue-green fields, red dogs, the cows aforesaid, green milk-floats,
blue-bloused sportsmen, and cargoes of cannon-ball cheese. We decided to
tow the yacht until we got to a favorable reach. Certain barges sailed
past us right into the eye of the wind, against all physical laws,
but the _Velsa_ possessed not this magic. We saw three men comfortably
towing a string of three huge barges, and we would tow. Unfortunately
the only person, the skipper, who knew how to tow had to remain on
board. The cook, the deck-hand, and I towed like Greeks pulling against
Greeks, and could scarcely move one little yacht. The cook, neurasthenic
by temperament, grew sad, until he fell into three feet of inundation,
which adventure struck him as profoundly humorous, so that he was
contorted with laughter. This did not advance the yacht. Slowly we
learned that towing is not mere brute striving, but an art.

We at last came to terms with a tug, as our desire was to sleep at
Sneek. Sneek is the veritable metropolis of those regions. After
passing, at late dusk, the mysterious night-watchers of eel-nets, who
are wakened in their elaborate green-and-yellow boats by a bell, like
a Paris concierge, we gradually emerged into nocturnal Sneek through
a quadruple lane of barges and tugs so long as to put Sneek among the
seven great ports of the world. And even in Sneek at nightfall the
impression of immense quantities of water and of greenness, yellowness,
and redness was continued. It rained, as usual, in Sneek the next day,
but no rain and no water could damp Sneek. It was the most active
town any of us had ever seen. It must have been the original “hive of
industry.” It was full, and full of everything. The market was full of
cattle, pigs, and sheep, crowded in pens and in carts; calves, prone,
with all four legs tied together, filled acres of pavement. The cafés
were full of dealers and drovers, mostly rather jolly, being served by
slatternly, pleasant women. The streets were full of good shops, and
of boys and girls following us and touching us to see if we existed.
(Dreadful little boors!) The barges were full of cauliflowers, cabbages,
apples, potatoes, sabots, cheeses, and barrels. The canals were full of
barges and steamers.

And immediately one sat down to sketch a group of craft one learned that
nothing was stationary. Everything moved that floated–everything on
the surface of miles of canal! Everybody, without haste, but without
stopping ever, was tirelessly engaged in shifting matter from one spot
to another. At intervals a small steamer, twenty, thirty, fifty,
eighty tons, would set off for a neighboring village with a few
passengers,–including nice girls,–a few cattle, and high piles of
miscellaneous packages; or would come in from a neighboring village. The
kaleidoscope was everlasting; but it did not fatigue, because it never
hurried. Only it made us ashamed of our idleness. Gently occupied old
country-women, with head-dresses of lace-work and a gold casque, the
whole ridiculously surmounted by a black bonnet for fashion’s sake–even
these old women made us ashamed of our untransporting idleness.

[Illustration: 0063]

Having got our engine more or less repaired, we departed from Sneek, a
spot that beyond most spots abounds in its own individuality. Sneek is
memorable. Impossible to credit that it has fewer than thirteen thousand
inhabitants!

As, at breakfast, we dropped down the canal on the way to Leeuwarden,
a new guest on board, whose foible is the search for the ideal, and who
had been declaiming against the unattractiveness of the women of Munich,
spoke thus:

“Is this Dutch bread? I think I should like to become a Dutchman, and
live at Sneek, and marry a Dutch girl. They have such nice blue eyes,
and they ‘re so calm.”

I remarked that I should have thought that his recent experiences in
Munich would have frightened him right off the entire sex. He said:

“Well, they ‘re all beautiful in Vienna, and that worries you just as
much in another way. Sneek is the mean.”

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