SOME TOWNS

HAARLEM is the capital of a province, and has the airs of a minor
metropolis. When we moored in the Donkere Spaarne, all the architecture
seemed to be saying to us, with innocent pride, that this was the city
of the illustrious Frans Hals, and the only place where Frans Hals could
be truly appreciated. Haarlem did not stare at strangers, as did other
towns. The shops in the narrow, busy Saturday-night streets were small
and slow, and it took us most of an evening, in and out of the heavy
rain, to buy three shawls, two pairs of white stockings, and some
cigarettes; but the shopmen and shop-women, despite their ignorance of
English, American, and French, showed no openmouthed provinciality at
our fantastic demands. The impression upon us of the mysterious entity
of the town was favorable; we felt at home.

The yacht was just opposite the habitation of a nice middle-class
family, and on Sunday morning, through the heavy rain, I could see a boy
of sixteen, a girl of fourteen, and a child of five or six, all dressing
slowly together in a bedroom that overlooked us, while the father in
shirt-sleeves constantly popped to and fro. They were calmly content
to see and be seen. Presently father and son, still in shirt-sleeves,
appeared on the stoop, each smoking a cigar, and the girl above, arrayed
in Sunday white, moved about setting the bedroom in order. It was a
pleasant average sight, enhanced by the good architecture of the house,
and by a certain metropolitan self-unconsciousness.

We went to church later, or rather into a church, and saw beautiful
models of ships hung in the nave, and aged men entering, with their
hats on and good cigars in their mouths. For the rest, they resembled
superintendents of English Sunday-schools or sidesmen of small parishes.
In another church we saw a Sunday-school in full session, a parson in
a high pulpit exhorting, secretary and minor officials beneath him, and
all the boys standing up with shut eyes and all the girls sitting down
with shut eyes. We felt that we were perhaps in the most Protestant
country in Europe.

In the afternoon, when the rain-clouds lifted for a few moments and the
museums were closed, we viewed the residential prosperity of Haarlem, of
which the chief seat is the Nieuwe Gracht, a broad canal, forbidden to
barges, flanked by broad quays beautifully paved in small red brick, and
magnificent houses. A feature of the noble architecture here was that
the light ornamentation round the front doors was carried up and round
the central windows of the first and second stories. A grand street! One
properly expected to see elegant women at the windows of these lovely
houses,–some were almost palaces,–and one was disappointed. Women
there were, for at nearly every splendid window, the family was seated,
reading, talking, gazing, or drinking tea; but all the women were dowdy;
the majority were middle-aged; none was beautiful or elegant. Nor was
any of the visible furniture distinguished.

The beauty of Haarlem seems to be limited to architecture, pavements,
and the moral comeliness of being neat and clean. The esthetic
sense apparently stops there. Charm must be regarded in Haarlem with
suspicion, as a quality dangerous and unrespectable. As daylight failed,
the groups within gathered closer and closer to the windows, to catch
the last yellow drops of it, and their curiosity about the phenomena of
the streets grew more frank. We were examined. In return we examined.
And a discussion arose as to whether inspection from within justified
inquisitiveness from the street. The decision was that it did not; that
a person inside a house had the right to quiz without being quizzed. But
this merely academic verdict was not allowed to influence our immediate
deportment. In many houses of the lesser streets tables were already
laid for supper, and one noticed heavy silver napkin-rings and other
silver. In one house the shadowy figures of a family were already
grouped round a repast, and beyond them, through another white-curtained
window at the back of the spacious room, could be discerned a dim
courtyard full of green and yellow foliage. This agreeable picture,
typifying all the domestic tranquillity and dignity of prosperous
Holland, was the last thing we saw before the dark and the rain fell,
and the gas-lamps flickered in.

[Illustration: 0087]

We entered The Hague through canals pitted by heavy rain, the banks of
which showed many suburban residences, undistinguished, but set in the
midst of good gardens. And because it was the holiday week,–the week
containing the queen’s birthday,–and we desired quietude, we obtained
permission to lie at the private quay of the gasworks. The creators
of The Hague gas-works have made only one mistake: they ought to have
accomplished their act much earlier, so that Balzac might have described
it; for example, in “The Alkahest,” which has the best imaginative
descriptions of Dutch life yet written. The Hague gas-works are like
a toy, gigantic; but a toy. Impossible to believe that in this vast,
clean, scrubbed, swept expanse, where every bit of coal is scrupulously
in place, real gas is made. To believe, you must go into the city and
see the gas actually burning. Even the immense traveling-cranes, when
at work or otherwise, have the air of life-size playthings. Our quay
was bordered with flower-beds. The workmen, however, seemed quite real
workmen, realistically dirty, who were not playing at work, nor rising
at five-thirty a.m. out of mere joyous ecstasy.

Nor did the bargemen who day and night ceaselessly and silently
propelled their barges past us into the city by means of poles and
sweat, seem to be toying with existence. The procession of these barges
never stopped. On the queen’s birthday, when our ship was dressed, and
the whole town was flagged, it went on, just as the decorated trams and
tram-drivers went on. Some of the barges penetrated right through
the populous districts, and emerged into the oligarchic quarter of
ministries, bureaus, official residences, palaces, parks, art dealers,
and shops of expensive lingerie–the quarter, as in every capital, where
the precious traditions of correctness, patriotism, red-tape, order,
luxury, and the moral grandeur of devising rules for the nice conduct of
others are carefully conserved and nourished. This quarter was very well
done, and the bargemen, with their perspiring industry, might have had
the good taste to keep out of it.

The business center of The Hague, lying between the palaces and the
gas-works, is cramped, crowded, and unimpressive. The cafés do not
glitter, and everybody knows that the illumination of cafés in a capital
is a sure index of a nation’s true greatness. Many small cafés, veiled
in costly curtains at window and door, showed stray dazzling shafts of
bright light, but whether the true greatness of Holland was hidden
in these seductive arcana I never knew. Even in the holiday week the
principal cafés were emptying soon after ten o’clock. On the other hand,
the large stores were still open at that hour, and the shop-girls, whose
pale faces made an admirable contrast to their black robes, were still
serving ladies therein. At intervals, in the afternoons, one saw a chic
woman, moving with a consciousness of her own elegance; but she was
very exceptional. The rest might have run over for the day from Haarlem,
Delft, Utrecht, or Leyden. In the really excellent and well-frequented
music-halls there was no elegance either. I have never anywhere seen
better music-hall entertainments than in Holland. In certain major
capitals of Europe and elsewhere the public is apt to prove its own
essential naïveté by allowing itself to be swindled nightly in gorgeous
music-halls. The Dutch are more astute, if less elegant.

The dying engine of the yacht lost consciousness, for about the
twentieth time during this trip, as we were nearing Amsterdam; but a
high wind, carrying with it tremendous showers of rain, kindly blew us,
under bare poles, up the last half-mile of the North Sea Canal into the
private haven of the Royal Dutch Yacht-Club, where we were most amicably
received, as, indeed, in all the yacht-club basins of Holland. Baths,
telephones, and smoking-rooms were at our disposal without any charge,
in addition to the security of the haven, and it was possible to get
taxicabs from the somewhat distant city. We demanded a chauffeur who
could speak English. They sent us a taxi with two chauffeurs neither of
whom could speak any language whatsoever known to philologists. But
by the use of maps and a modification of the pictorial writing of the
ancient Aztecs, we contrived to be driven almost where we wanted. At
the end of the excursion I had made, in my quality of observer, two
generalizations: first, that Amsterdam taxis had two drivers for
safety; and, second, that taxi-travel in Amsterdam was very exciting and
dangerous. But our drivers were so amiable, soft-tongued, and energetic
that I tipped them both. I then, somehow, learned the truth: one of the
men was driving a taxi for the first time, and the other was teaching
him.

[Illustration: 0094]

After driving and walking about Amsterdam for several days, I decided
that it would be completely civilized when it was repaved, and not
before. It is the paradise of stomachs and the hell of feet. Happily,
owing to its canals and its pavements, it has rather fewer of the rash
cyclists who menace life in other Dutch cities. In Holland, outside
Amsterdam, everybody uses a cycle. If you are ran down, as you are, it
is just as likely to be by an aged and toothless female peasant as by
an office boy. Also there are fewer homicidal dogs in Amsterdam than
elsewhere, and there is the same general absence of public monuments
which makes other Dutch cities so agreeably strange to the English and
American traveler. You can scarcely be afflicted by a grotesque statue
of a nonentity in Holland, because there are scarcely any statues.

Amsterdam is a grand city, easily outclassing any other in Holland.
Its architecture is distinguished. Its historic past is impressively
immanent in the masonry of the city itself, though there is no trace of
it in the mild, commonplace demeanor of the inhabitants. Nevertheless,
the inhabitants understand solidity, luxury, wealth, and good cheer.
Amsterdam has a bourse which is the most peculiar caprice that ever
passed through the head of a stock-broker. It is excessively ugly and
graceless, but I admire it for being a caprice, and especially for being
a stock-broker’s caprice. No English stock-broker would have a caprice.
Amsterdam has small and dear restaurants of the first order, where a few
people with more money than appetite can do themselves very well indeed
in hushed privacy. It also has prodigious cafés. Krasnopolshy’s–a town,
not a café–is said in Amsterdam to be the largest café in Europe. It
isn’t; but it is large, and wondrously so for a city of only half a
million people.

[Illustration: 0099]

In the prodigious cafés you perceive that Amsterdam possesses the
quality which above all others a great city ought to possess. It
pullulates. Vast masses of human beings simmer in its thoroughfares and
boil over into its public resorts. The narrow Kalver-Straat, even in the
rain, is thronged with modest persons who gaze at the superb luxury of
its shops. The Kalver-Straat will compete handsomely with Bond Street.
Go along the length of it, and you will come out of it thoughtful. Make
your way thence to the Rembrandt-Plein, where pleasure concentrates, and
you will have to conclude that the whole of Amsterdam is there, and all
its habitations empty. The mirrored, scintillating cafés, huge and
lofty and golden, are crowded with tables and drinkers and waiters, and
dominated by rhapsodic orchestras of women in white who do what they
can against the hum of ten thousand conversations, the hoarse calls of
waiters, and the clatter of crockery. It is a pandemonium with a certain
stolidity. The excellent music-halls and circuses are equally crowded,
and curiously, so are the suburban resorts on the rim of the city. Among
the larger places, perhaps, the Café Américain, on the Leidsche-Plein,
was the least feverish, and this was not to be counted in its favor,
because the visitor to a city which pullulates is, and should he,
happiest in pullulating. The crowd, the din, the elbowing, the glitter
for me, in a town like Amsterdam! In a town like Gouda, which none
should fail to visit for the incomparable stained-glass in its church, I
am content to be as placid and solitary as anybody, and I will follow
a dancing bear and a Gipsy girl up and down the streets thereof with
as much simplicity as anybody. But Amsterdam is the great, vulgar,
inspiring world.