VOYAGING ON THE CANALS

THE skipper, who, in addition to being a yachtsman, is a Dutchman,
smiled with calm assurance as we approached the Dutch frontier in the
August evening over the populous water of the canal which leads from
Ghent to Terneuzen. He could not abide Belgium, possibly because it
is rather like Holland in some ways. In his opinion the bureaucrats of
Belgium did not understand yachts and the respect due to them, whereas
the bureaucrats of Holland did. Holland was pictured for me as a
paradise where a yacht with a seventy-foot mast never had to wait a
single moment for a bridge to be swung open. When I inquired about
custom-house formalities, I learned that a Dutch custom-house did not
exist for a craft flying the sacred blue ensign of the British Naval
Reserve. And it was so. Merely depositing a ticket and a tip into the
long-handled butterfly-net dangled over our deck by the bridge-man as we
passed, we sailed straight into Holland, and no word said! But we knew
immediately that we were in another country–a country cleaner and
neater and more garnished even than Belgium. The Terneuzen Canal,
with its brickwork banks and its villages “finished” to the last tile,
reminded me of the extravagant, oily perfection of the main tracks
of those dandiacal railroads, the North Western in England and the
Pennsylvania in America. The stiff sailing breeze was at length
favorable. We set the mainsail unexceptionably; and at once, with the
falling dusk, the wind fell, and the rain too. We had to depend again
on our erratic motor, with all Holland gazing at us. Suddenly the whole
canal was lit up on both sides by electricity. We responded with our
lights. The exceedingly heavy rain drove me into the saloon to read
Dostoyevsky.

[Illustration: 0019]

At eight P. M. I was dug up out of the depths of Dostoyevsky in order
to see my first Dutch harbor. Rain poured through the black night. There
was a plashing of invisible wavelets below, utter darkness above, and
a few forlorn lights winking at vast distances. I was informed that we
were moored in the yacht-basin of Terneuzen. I remained calm. Had we
been moored in the yacht-basin of Kamchatka, the smell of dinner would
still have been issuing from the forecastle-hatch, the open page of
Dostoyevsky would still have invited me through the saloon skylight, and
the amiable ray of the saloon lamp would still have glinted on the piano
and on the binnacle with impartial affection. Herein lies an advantage
of yachting over motoring. I redescended without a regret, without an
apprehension. Already the cook was displacing Dostoyevsky in favor of a
white table-cloth and cutlery.

The next morning we were at large on the billow’s of the West Schelde,
a majestic and enraged stream, of which Flushing is the guardian
and Antwerp the mistress. The rain had in no wise lost heart. With
a contrary wind and a choppy sea, the yacht had a chance to show her
qualities and defects. She has both. Built to the order of a Dutch
baron rather less than twenty years ago, she is flat-bottomed, with
lee-boards, and follows closely the lines of certain very picturesque
Dutch fishing-smacks. She has a length of just over fifty-five feet and
a beam of just over fifteen feet. Her tonnage is fifty-one, except when
dues have to be paid, on which serious occasions it mysteriously
shrinks to twenty-one net. Yachtsmen are always thus modest. Her rig is,
roughly, that of a cutter, with a deliciously curved gaff that is the
secret envy of all real cutters.

Her supreme advantage, from my point of view, is that she has well over
six feet of head-room in the saloon and in the sleeping-cabins. And,
next, that the owner’s bed is precisely similar to the celestial bed
which he enjoyed on a certain unsurpassed American liner. Further, she
carries a piano and an encyclopedia, two necessaries of life. I may say
that I have never known another yacht that carried an encyclopedia in
more than a score of volumes. Again, she is eternal. She has timbers
that recall those of the _Constitution_. There are Dutch eel-boats on
the Thames which look almost exactly like her at a distance, and which
were launched before Victoria came to the throne. She has a cockpit
in which Hardy might have kissed Nelson. She sails admirably with a
moderate wind on the quarter. More important still, by far, she draws
only three feet eight inches, and hence can often defy charts, and slide
over sands where deep-draft boats would rightly fear to tread; she has
even been known to sail through fields.

Possibly for some folk her chief attribute would be that, once seen, she
cannot be forgotten. She is a lovely object, and not less unusual than
lovely. She is smart also, but nothing more dissimilar to the average
smart, conventional English or American yacht can well be conceived. She
is a magnet for the curious. When she goes under a railway bridge
while a train is going over it, the engine-driver, of no matter what
nationality, will invariably risk the lives of all his passengers in
order to stare at her until she is out of sight. This I have noticed
again and again. The finest compliment her appearance ever received was
paid by a schoolboy, who, after staring at her for about a quarter of an
hour as she lay at a wharf at Kingston-on-Thames, sidled timidly up to
me as I leaned in my best maritime style over the quarter, and asked,
“Please, sir, is this a training brig?” Romance gleamed in that boy’s
eye.

As for her defects, I see no reason why I should catalogue them at
equal length. But I admit that, to pay for her headroom, she has no
promenade-deck for the owner and his friends to “pace,” unless they are
prepared to exercise themselves on the roof of the saloon. Also that,
owing to her shallowness, she will ignobly blow off when put up to the
wind. Indeed, the skipper himself, who has proved that she will live in
any sea, describes her progress under certain conditions as “one mile
ahead and two miles to leeward”; but he would be hurt if he were taken
seriously. Her worst fault is due to her long, overhanging prow, which
pounds into a head sea with a ruthlessness that would shake the funnels
off a torpedo-boat. You must not press her. Leave her to do her best,
and she will do it splendidly; but try to bully her, and she will bury
her nose and defy you.

That morning on the wide, broad Schelde, with driving rain, and an
ever-freshening northwester worrying her bows, she was not pressed,
and she did not sink; but her fierce gaiety was such as to keep us all
alive. She threshed the sea. The weather multiplied, until the half-inch
wire rope that is the nerve between the wheel and the rudder snapped,
and we were at the mercy, etc. While the skipper, with marvelous
resource and rapidity, was improvising a new gear, it was discovered
amid general horror, that the piano had escaped from its captivity, and
was lying across the saloon table. Such an incident counts in the life
of an amateur musician. Still, under two hours later, I was playing the
same piano again in the tranquillity of Flushing lock.

[Illustration: 0026]

It was at Middelburg that the leak proved its existence. Middelburg is
an architecturally delightful town even in heavy, persevering rain and
a northwest gale. It lies on the canal from Flushing to Veere, and its
belfry had been a beacon to us nearly all the way down the Schelde from
Temeuzen. Every English traveler stares at its renowned town-hall; and
indeed the whole place, having been till recently the haunt of more or
less honest English racing tipsters and book-makers, must be endeared to
the British sporting character. We went forth into the rain and into the
town, skirting canals covered with timber-rafts, suffering the lively
brutishness of Dutch infants, and gazing at the bare-armed young women
under their umbrellas. We also found a goodish restaurant.

When we returned at nine P. M., the deck-hand, a fatalistic philosopher,
was pumping. He made a sinister figure in the dark. And there was the
sound of the rain on our umbrellas, and the sound of the pumped water
pouring off our decks down into the unseen canal. I asked him why he
was pumping at that hour. He answered that the ship leaked. It did. The
forecastle floor was under an inch of water, and water was pushing up
the carpet of the starboard sleeping-cabin, and all the clean linen in
the linen-locker was drenched. In a miraculous and terrifying vision,
which changed the whole aspect of yachting as a recreation, I saw the
yacht at the bottom of the canal. I should not have had this vision
had the skipper been aboard; but the skipper was ashore, unfolding the
beauties of Holland to the cook. I knew the skipper would explain
and cure the leak in an instant. A remarkable man, Dutch only by the
accident of birth and parentage, active as a fox-terrier, indefatigable
as a camel, adventurous as Columbus, and as prudent as J. Pierpont
Morgan, he had never failed me. Half his life had been spent on that
yacht, and the other half on the paternal barge. He had never lived
regularly in a house. Consequently he was an expert of the very first
order on the behavior of Dutch barges under all conceivable conditions.
While the ship deliberately sank and sank, the pumping monotonously
continued, and I waited in the saloon for him to come back. Dostoyevsky
had no hold on me whatever. The skipper would not come back: he declined
utterly to come back; he was lost in the mazy vastness of Middelburg.

Then I heard his voice forward. He had arrived in silence. “I hear our
little ship has got a leak, sir,” he said when I joined the group of
professional mariners on the forward deck, in the thick rain that
veiled even gas-lamps. I was disappointed. The skipper was depressed,
sentimentally depressed, and he was quite at a loss. Was the leak caused
by the buffetings of the Schelde, by the caprices of the piano, by the
stress of working through crowded locks? He knew not. But he would swear
that the leak was not in the bottom, because the bottom was double. The
one thing to do was to go to Veere, and put the ship on a grid that he
was aware of in the creek there, and find the leak. And, further, there
were a lot of other matters needing immediate attention. The bob-stay
was all to pieces, both pumps were defective, and the horn for rousing
lethargic bridge-men would not have roused a rabbit. All which meant for
him an expedition to Flushing, that bustling port!

The ship was pumped dry. But the linen was not dry. I wanted to spread
it out in the saloon; but the skipper would not permit such an outrage
on the sanctity of the saloon, he would not even let the linen rest in
the saloon lavatory (sometimes called the bath-room). It must be hidden
like a shame in the forecastle. So the crew retired for the night to the
sodden, small forecastle amid soaked linen, while I reposed in dry
and comfortable spaciousness, but worried by those sociological
considerations which are the mosquitos of a luxurious age–and which
ought to be. None but a tyrant convinced of the divine rights of riches
could be always at ease on board a small yacht; on board a large one,
as in a house, the contrasts are less point-blank. And yet must small
yachts he abolished? Absurd idea! Civilization is not so simple an
affair as it seems to politicians perorating before immense audiences.

Owing to the obstinacy of water in finding its own level, we went to bed
more than once during that night, and I thought of selling the ship and
giving to the poor. What a declension from the glory of the original
embarkation!

The next afternoon, through tempests and an eternal downpour, we reached
Veere, at the other end of the canal. Veere is full of Scotch history
and of beauty; it has a cathedral whose interior is used by children as
a field, a gem of a town-hall, and various attractions less striking;
but for us it existed simply as a place where there was a grid, to serve
the purpose of a dry-dock. On the following morning we got the yacht
onto the grid, and then began to wait for the tide to recede. During
its interminable recession, we sat under a shed of the shipyard, partly
sheltered from the constant rain, and labored to produce abominable
watercolors of the yacht, with the quay and the cathedral and the
town-hall as a background. And then some one paddling around the yacht
in the dinghy perceived a trickle out of a seam. The leak! It was naught
but the slight starting of a seam! No trace of other damage. In an hour
it had been repaired with oakum and hammers, and covered with a plaster
of copper. The steering-gear was repaired. The pumps were repaired.
The bobstay was repaired. The water-color looked less abominable in the
discreet, kindly light of the saloon. The state of human society seemed
less volcanically dangerous. God was in His heaven. “I suppose you’d
like to start early to-morrow morning, sir,” said the skipper, whose one
desire in life is to go somewhere else. I said I should.

I went ashore with the skipper to pay bills–four gulden for repairs and
three gulden for the use of the grid. It would have been much more but
for my sagacity in having a Dutch skipper. The charming village proved
to be virtually in the possession of one of those formidable English
families whose ladies paint in water-colors when no golf-course is near.
They ran ecstatically about the quay with sheets of Whatman until the
heavy rain melted them. The owner of the grid lived in a large house
with a most picturesque façade. Inside it was all oilcloth, red
mahogany, and crimson plush, quite marvelously hideous. The shipwright
was an old, jolly man, with white whiskers spreading like a peacock’s
tail. He gave us cigars to pass the time while he accomplished the
calligraphy of a receipt. He was a man sarcastic about his women (of
whom he had many), because they would not let him use the _voor-kammer_
(front room) to write receipts in. I said women were often the same
in England, and he gave a short laugh at England. Nevertheless, he
was proud of his women, because out of six daughters five had found
husbands, a feat of high skill in that island of Walcheren, where women
far outnumber men.

Outside, through the mullioned window, I saw a young matron standing
nonchalant and unprotected in the heavy rain. She wore an elaborate
local costume, with profuse gilt ornaments. The effect of these Dutch
costumes is to suggest that the wearer carries only one bodice, thin and
armless, but ten thousand skirts. Near the young matron was a girl
of seven or eight, dressed in a fashion precisely similar, spectacle
exquisite to regard, but unsatisfactory to think about. Some day all
these women will put on long sleeves and deprive themselves of a few
underskirts, and all the old, jolly men with spreading white beards will
cry out that women are unsexed and that the end of the world is nigh. In
another house I bought a fisherman’s knitted blue jersey of the finest
quality, as being the sole garment capable of keeping me warm in a Dutch
summer. I was told that the girl who knitted it received only half a
gulden for her labor. Outrageous sweating, which ought never to have
been countenanced. Still, I bought the jersey.

At six-thirty next day we were under way–a new ship, as it seemed to
me. Yachts may have leaks, but we were under way, and the heavenly
smell of bacon was in the saloon; and there had been no poring over
time-tables, no tipping of waiters, no rattling over cobbles in
omnibuses, no waiting in arctic railway-stations, no pugnacity for
corner seats, no checking of baggage. I was wakened by the vibration
of the propeller; I clad myself in a toga, and issued forth to laugh
good-by at sleeping Veere–no other formalities. And all along the quay,
here and there, I observed an open window among the closed ones. Each
open window denoted for me an English water-colorist sleeping, even as
she or he had rushed about the quay, with an unconcealed conviction of
spiritual, moral, and physical superiority. It appeared to me monstrous
that these English should be so ill bred as to inflict their insular
notions about fresh air on a historic Continental town. Every open
window was an arrogant sneer at Dutch civilization, was it not? Surely
they could have slept with their windows closed for a few weeks! Or, if
not, they might have chosen Amsterdam instead of Veere, and practised
their admirable Englishness on the “Victorian Tea-Room” in that city.

We passed into the Veeregat and so into the broad Roompot Channel, and
left Veere. It was raining heavily, but gleams near the horizon allowed
me to hope that before the day was out I might do another water-color.

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