Little Travels and Roadside Sketches, by William Makepeace Thackeray

II.

Ghent — Bruges.

Ghent. (1840.)

The Beguine College or Village is one of the most extraordinary sights that all Europe can show. On the confines of the town of Ghent you come upon an old-fashioned brick gate, that seems as if it were one of the city barriers; but, on passing it, one of the prettiest sights possible meets the eye: At the porter’s lodge you see an old lady, in black and a white hood, occupied over her book; before you is a red church with a tall roof and fantastical Dutch pinnacles, and all around it rows upon rows of small houses, the queerest, neatest, nicest that ever were seen (a doll’s house is hardly smaller or prettier). Right and left, on each side of little alleys, these little mansions rise; they have a courtlet before them, in which some green plants or hollyhocks are growing; and to each house is a gate, that has mostly a picture or queer-carved ornament upon or about it, and bears the name, not of the Beguine who inhabits it, but of the saint to whom she may have devoted it — the house of St. Stephen, the house of St. Donatus, the English or Angel Convent, and so on. Old ladies in black are pacing in the quiet alleys here and there, and drop the stranger a curtsy as he passes them and takes off his hat. Never were such patterns of neatness seen as these old ladies and their houses. I peeped into one or two of the chambers, of which the windows were open to the pleasant evening sun, and saw beds scrupulously plain, a quaint old chair or two, and little pictures of favorite saints decorating the spotless white walls. The old ladies kept up a quick, cheerful clatter, as they paused to gossip at the gates of their little domiciles; and with a great deal of artifice, and lurking behind walls, and looking at the church as if I intended to design that, I managed to get a sketch of a couple of them.

But what white paper can render the whiteness of their linen; what black ink can do justice to the lustre of their gowns and shoes? Both of the ladies had a neat ankle and a tight stocking; and I fancy that heaven is quite as well served in this costume as in the dress of a scowling, stockingless friar, whom I had seen passing just before. The look and dress of the man made me shudder. His great red feet were bound up in a shoe open at the toes, a kind of compromise for a sandal. I had just seen him and his brethren at the Dominican Church, where a mass of music was sung, and orange-trees, flags, and banners decked the aisle of the church.

One begins to grow sick of these churches, and the hideous exhibitions of bodily agonies that are depicted on the sides of all the chapels. Into one wherein we went this morning was what they called a Calvary: a horrible, ghastly image of a Christ in a tomb, the figure of the natural size, and of the livid color of death; gaping red wounds on the body and round the brows: the whole piece enough to turn one sick, and fit only to brutalize the beholder of it. The Virgin is commonly represented with a dozen swords stuck in her heart; bleeding throats of headless John Baptists are perpetually thrust before your eyes. At the Cathedral gate was a papier-mache church-ornament shop — most of the carvings and reliefs of the same dismal character: one, for instance, represented a heart with a great gash in it, and a double row of large blood-drops dribbling from it; nails and a knife were thrust into the heart; round the whole was a crown of thorns. Such things are dreadful to think of. The same gloomy spirit which made a religion of them, and worked upon the people by the grossest of all means, terror, distracted the natural feelings of man to maintain its power — shut gentle women into lonely, pitiless convents — frightened poor peasants with tales of torment — taught that the end and labor of life was silence, wretchedness, and the scourge — murdered those by fagot and prison who thought otherwise. How has the blind and furious bigotry of man perverted that which God gave us as our greatest boon, and bid us hate where God bade us love! Thank heaven that monk has gone out of sight! It is pleasant to look at the smiling, cheerful old Beguine, and think no more of yonder livid face.

One of the many convents in this little religious city seems to be the specimen-house, which is shown to strangers, for all the guides conduct you thither, and I saw in a book kept for the purpose the names of innumerable Smiths and Joneses registered.

A very kind, sweet-voiced, smiling nun (I wonder, do they always choose the most agreeable and best-humored sister of the house to show it to strangers?) came tripping down the steps and across the flags of the little garden-court, and welcomed us with much courtesy into the neat little old-fashioned, red-bricked, gable-ended, shining-windowed Convent of the Angels. First she showed us a whitewashed parlor, decorated with a grim picture or two and some crucifixes and other religious emblems, where, upon stiff old chairs, the sisters sit and work. Three or four of them were still there, pattering over their laces and bobbins; but the chief part of the sisterhood were engaged in an apartment hard by, from which issued a certain odor which I must say resembled onions: it was in fact the kitchen of the establishment.

Every Beguine cooks her own little dinner in her own little pipkin; and there was half a score of them, sure enough, busy over their pots and crockery, cooking a repast which, when ready, was carried off to a neighboring room, the refectory, where, at a ledge-table which is drawn out from under her own particular cupboard, each nun sits down and eats her meal in silence. More religious emblems ornamented the carved cupboard-doors, and within, everything was as neat as neat could be: shining pewter-ewers and glasses, snug baskets of eggs and pats of butter, and little bowls with about a farthing’s-worth of green tea in them — for some great day of fete, doubtless. The old ladies sat round as we examined these things, each eating soberly at her ledge and never looking round. There was a bell ringing in the chapel hard by. “Hark!” said our guide, “that is one of the sisters dying. Will you come up and see the cells?”

The cells, it need not be said, are the snuggest little nests in the world, with serge-curtained beds and snowy linen, and saints and martyrs pinned against the wall. “We may sit up till twelve o’clock, if we like,” said the nun; “but we have no fire and candle, and so what’s the use of sitting up? When we have said our prayers we are glad enough to go to sleep.”

I forget, although the good soul told us, how many times in the day, in public and in private, these devotions are made, but fancy that the morning service in the chapel takes place at too early an hour for most easy travellers. We did not fail to attend in the evening, when likewise is a general muster of the seven hundred, minus the absent and sick, and the sight is not a little curious and striking to a stranger.

The chapel is a very big whitewashed place of worship, supported by half a dozen columns on either side, over each of which stands the statue of an Apostle, with his emblem of martyrdom. Nobody was as yet at the distant altar, which was too far off to see very distinctly; but I could perceive two statues over it, one of which (St. Laurence, no doubt) was leaning upon a huge gilt gridiron that the sun lighted up in a blaze — a painful but not a romantic instrument of death. A couple of old ladies in white hoods were tugging and swaying about at two bell-ropes that came down into the middle of the church, and at least five hundred others in white veils were seated all round about us in mute contemplation until the service began, looking very solemn, and white, and ghastly, like an army of tombstones by moonlight.

The service commenced as the clock finished striking seven: the organ pealed out, a very cracked and old one, and presently some weak old voice from the choir overhead quavered out a canticle; which done, a thin old voice of a priest at the altar far off (and which had now become quite gloomy in the sunset) chanted feebly another part of the service; then the nuns warbled once more overhead; and it was curious to hear, in the intervals of the most lugubrious chants, how the organ went off with some extremely cheerful military or profane air. At one time was a march, at another a quick tune; which ceasing, the old nuns began again, and so sung until the service was ended.

In the midst of it one of the white-veiled sisters approached us with a very mysterious air, and put down her white veil close to our ears and whispered. Were we doing anything wrong, I wondered? Were they come to that part of the service where heretics and infidels ought to quit the church? What have you to ask, O sacred, white-veiled maid?

All she said was, “Deux centiemes pour les suisses,” which sum was paid; and presently the old ladies, rising from their chairs one by one, came in face of the altar, where they knelt down and said a short prayer; then, rising, unpinned their veils, and folded them up all exactly in the same folds and fashion, and laid them square like napkins on their heads, and tucked up their long black outer dresses, and trudged off to their convents.

The novices wear black veils, under one of which I saw a young, sad, handsome face; it was the only thing in the establishment that was the least romantic or gloomy: and, for the sake of any reader of a sentimental turn, let us hope that the poor soul has been crossed in love, and that over some soul-stirring tragedy that black curtain has fallen.

Ghent has, I believe, been called a vulgar Venice. It contains dirty canals and old houses that must satisfy the most eager antiquary, though the buildings are not quite in so good preservation as others that may be seen in the Netherlands. The commercial bustle of the place seems considerable, and it contains more beer-shops than any city I ever saw.

These beer-shops seem the only amusement of the inhabitants, until, at least, the theatre shall be built, of which the elevation is now complete, a very handsome and extensive pile. There are beer-shops in the cellars of the houses, which are frequented, it is to be presumed, by the lower sort; there are beer-shops at the barriers, where the citizens and their families repair; and beer-shops in the town, glaring with gas, with long gauze blinds, however, to hide what I hear is a rather questionable reputation.

Our inn, the “Hotel of the Post,” a spacious and comfortable residence, is on a little place planted round with trees, and that seems to be the Palais Royal of the town. Three clubs, which look from without to be very comfortable, ornament this square with their gas-lamps. Here stands, too, the theatre that is to be; there is a cafe, and on evenings a military band plays the very worst music I ever remember to have heard. I went out to-night to take a quiet walk upon this place, and the horrid brazen discord of these trumpeters set me half mad.

I went to the cafe for refuge, passing on the way a subterraneous beer-shop, where men and women were drinking to the sweet music of a cracked barrel-organ. They take in a couple of French papers at this cafe, and the same number of Belgian journals. You may imagine how well the latter are informed, when you hear that the battle of Boulogne, fought by the immortal Louis Napoleon, was not known here until some gentlemen out of Norfolk brought the news from London, and until it had travelled to Paris, and from Paris to Brussels. For a whole hour I could not get a newspaper at the cafe. The horrible brass band in the meantime had quitted the place, and now, to amuse the Ghent citizens, a couple of little boys came to the cafe and set up a small concert: one played ill on the guitar, but sang, very sweetly, plaintive French ballads; the other was the comic singer; he carried about with him a queer, long, damp-looking, mouldy white hat, with no brim. “Ecoutez,” said the waiter to me, “il va faire l’Anglais; c’est tres drole!” The little rogue mounted his immense brimless hat, and, thrusting his thumbs into the armholes of his waistcoat, began to faire l’Anglais, with a song in which swearing was the principal joke. We all laughed at this, and indeed the little rascal seemed to have a good deal of humor.

How they hate us, these foreigners, in Belgium as much as in France! What lies they tell of us; how gladly they would see us humiliated! Honest folks at home over their port-wine say, “Ay, ay, and very good reason they have too. National vanity, sir, wounded — we have beaten them so often.” My dear sir, there is not a greater error in the world than this. They hate you because you are stupid, hard to please, and intolerably insolent and air-giving. I walked with an Englishman yesterday, who asked the way to a street of which he pronounced the name very badly to a little Flemish boy: the Flemish boy did not answer; and there was my Englishman quite in a rage, shrieking in the child’s ear as if he must answer. He seemed to think that it was the duty of “the snob,” as he called him, to obey the gentleman. This is why we are hated — for pride. In our free country a tradesman, a lackey, or a waiter will submit to almost any given insult from a gentleman: in these benighted lands one man is as good as another; and pray God it may soon be so with us! Of all European people, which is the nation that has the most haughtiness, the strongest prejudices, the greatest reserve, the greatest dulness? I say an Englishman of the genteel classes. An honest groom jokes and hobs-and-nobs and makes his way with the kitchen-maids, for there is good social nature in the man; his master dare not unbend. Look at him, how he scowls at you on your entering an inn-room; think how you scowl yourself to meet his scowl. To-day, as we were walking and staring about the place, a worthy old gentleman in a carriage, seeing a pair of strangers, took off his hat and bowed very gravely with his old powdered head out of the window: I am sorry to say that our first impulse was to burst out laughing — it seemed so supremely ridiculous that a stranger should notice and welcome another.

As for the notion that foreigners hate us because we have beaten them so often, my dear sir, this is the greatest error in the world: well-educated Frenchmen DO NOT BELIEVE THAT WE HAVE BEATEN THEM. A man was once ready to call me out in Paris because I said that we had beaten the French in Spain; and here before me is a French paper, with a London correspondent discoursing about Louis Buonaparte and his jackass expedition to Boulogne. “He was received at Eglintoun, it is true,” says the correspondent, “but what do you think was the reason? Because the English nobility were anxious to revenge upon his person (with some coups de lance) the checks which the ‘grand homme’ his uncle had inflicted on us in Spain.”

This opinion is so general among the French, that they would laugh at you with scornful incredulity if you ventured to assert any other. Foy’s history of the Spanish War does not, unluckily, go far enough. I have read a French history which hardly mentions the war in Spain, and calls the battle of Salamanca a French victory. You know how the other day, and in the teeth of all evidence, the French swore to their victory of Toulouse: and so it is with the rest; and you may set it down as pretty certain, 1st, That only a few people know the real state of things in France, as to the matter in dispute between us; 2nd, That those who do, keep the truth to themselves, and so it is as if it had never been.

These Belgians have caught up, and quite naturally, the French tone. We are perfide Albion with them still. Here is the Ghent paper, which declares that it is beyond a doubt that Louis Napoleon was sent by the English and Lord Palmerston; and though it states in another part of the journal (from English authority) that the Prince had never seen Lord Palmerston, yet the lie will remain uppermost — the people and the editor will believe it to the end of time. . . . See to what a digression yonder little fellow in the tall hat has given rise! Let us make his picture, and have done with him.

I could not understand, in my walks about this place, which is certainly picturesque enough, and contains extraordinary charms in the shape of old gables, quaint spires, and broad shining canals — I could not at first comprehend why, for all this, the town was especially disagreeable to me, and have only just hit on the reason why. Sweetest Juliana, you will never guess it: it is simply this, that I have not seen a single decent-looking woman in the whole place; they look all ugly, with coarse mouths, vulgar figures, mean mercantile faces; and so the traveller walking among them finds the pleasure of his walk excessively damped, and the impressions made upon him disagreeable.

In the Academy there are no pictures of merit; but sometimes a second-rate picture is as pleasing as the best, and one may pass an hour here very pleasantly. There is a room appropriated to Belgian artists, of which I never saw the like: they are, like all the rest of the things in this country, miserable imitations of the French school — great nude Venuses, and Junos a la David, with the drawing left out.

Bruges.

The change from vulgar Ghent, with its ugly women and coarse bustle, to this quiet, old, half-deserted, cleanly Bruges, was very pleasant. I have seen old men at Versailles, with shabby coats and pigtails, sunning themselves on the benches in the walls; they had seen better days, to be sure, but they were gentlemen still: and so we found, this morning, old dowager Bruges basking in the pleasant August sun, and looking if not prosperous, at least cheerful and well-bred. It is the quaintest and prettiest of all the quaint and pretty towns I have seen. A painter might spend months here, and wander from church to church, and admire old towers and pinnacles, tall gables, bright canals, and pretty little patches of green garden and moss-grown wall, that reflect in the clear quiet water. Before the inn-window is a garden, from which in the early morning issues a most wonderful odor of stocks and wallflowers; next comes a road with trees of admirable green; numbers of little children are playing in this road (the place is so clean that they may roll in it all day without soiling their pinafores), and on the other side of the trees are little old-fashioned, dumpy, whitewashed, red-tiled houses. A poorer landscape to draw never was known, nor a pleasanter to see — the children especially, who are inordinately fat and rosy. Let it be remembered, too, that here we are out of the country of ugly women: the expression of the face is almost uniformly gentle and pleasing, and the figures of the women, wrapped in long black monk-like cloaks and hoods, very picturesque. No wonder there are so many children: the “Guide-book” (omniscient Mr. Murray!) says there are fifteen thousand paupers in the town, and we know how such multiply. How the deuce do their children look so fat and rosy? By eating dirt-pies, I suppose. I saw a couple making a very nice savory one, and another employed in gravely sticking strips of stick betwixt the pebbles at the house-door, and so making for herself a stately garden. The men and women don’t seem to have much more to do. There are a couple of tall chimneys at either suburb of the town, where no doubt manufactories are at work, but within the walls everybody seems decently idle.

We have been, of course, abroad to visit the lions. The tower in the Grand Place is very fine, and the bricks of which it is built do not yield a whit in color to the best stone. The great building round this tower is very like the pictures of the Ducal Palace at Venice; and there is a long market area, with columns down the middle, from which hung shreds of rather lean-looking meat, that would do wonders under the hands of Cattermole or Haghe. In the tower there is a chime of bells that keep ringing perpetually. They not only play tunes of themselves, and every quarter of an hour, but an individual performs selections from popular operas on them at certain periods of the morning, afternoon, and evening. I have heard today “Suoni la Tromba,” “Son Vergin Vezzosa,” from the “Puritani,” and other airs, and very badly they were played too; for such a great monster as a tower-bell cannot be expected to imitate Madame Grisi or even Signor Lablache. Other churches indulge in the same amusement, so that one may come here and live in melody all day or night, like the young woman in Moore’s “Lalla Rookh.”

In the matter of art, the chief attractions of Bruges are the pictures of Hemling, that are to be seen in the churches, the hospital, and the picture-gallery of the place. There are no more pictures of Rubens to be seen, and, indeed, in the course of a fortnight, one has had quite enough of the great man and his magnificent, swaggering canvases. What a difference is here with simple Hemling and the extraordinary creations of his pencil! The hospital is particularly rich in them; and the legend there is that the painter, who had served Charles the Bold in his war against the Swiss, and his last battle and defeat, wandered back wounded and penniless to Bruges, and here found cure and shelter.

This hospital is a noble and curious sight. The great hall is almost as it was in the twelfth century; it is spanned by Saxon arches, and lighted by a multiplicity of Gothic windows of all sizes; it is very lofty, clean, and perfectly well ventilated; a screen runs across the middle of the room, to divide the male from the female patients, and we were taken to examine each ward, where the poor people seemed happier than possibly they would have been in health and starvation without it. Great yellow blankets were on the iron beds, the linen was scrupulously clean, glittering pewter-jugs and goblets stood by the side of each patient, and they were provided with godly books (to judge from the binding), in which several were reading at leisure. Honest old comfortable nuns, in queer dresses of blue, black, white, and flannel, were bustling through the room, attending to the wants of the sick. I saw about a dozen of these kind women’s faces: one was young — all were healthy and cheerful. One came with bare blue arms and a great pile of linen from an outhouse — such a grange as Cedric the Saxon might have given to a guest for the night. A couple were in a laboratory, a tall, bright, clean room, 500 years old at least. “We saw you were not very religious,” said one of the old ladies, with a red, wrinkled, good-humored face, “by your behavior yesterday in chapel.” And yet we did not laugh and talk as we used at college, but were profoundly affected by the scene that we saw there. It was a fete-day: a mass of Mozart was sung in the evening — not well sung, and yet so exquisitely tender and melodious, that it brought tears into our eyes. There were not above twenty people in the church: all, save three or four, were women in long black cloaks. I took them for nuns at first. They were, however, the common people of the town, very poor indeed, doubtless, for the priest’s box that was brought round was not added to by most of them, and their contributions were but two-cent pieces — five of these go to a penny; but we know the value of such, and can tell the exact worth of a poor woman’s mite! The box-bearer did not seem at first willing to accept our donation — we were strangers and heretics; however, I held out my hand, and he came perforce as it were. Indeed it had only a franc in it: but que voulez-vous? I had been drinking a bottle of Rhine wine that day, and how was I to afford more? The Rhine wine is dear in this country, and costs four francs a bottle.

Well, the service proceeded. Twenty poor women, two Englishmen, four ragged beggars, cowering on the steps; and there was the priest at the altar, in a great robe of gold and damask, two little boys in white surplices serving him, holding his robe as he rose and bowed, and the money-gatherer swinging his censer, and filling the little chapel with smoke. The music pealed with wonderful sweetness; you could see the prim white heads of the nuns in their gallery. The evening light streamed down upon old statues of saints and carved brown stalls, and lighted up the head of the golden-haired Magdalen in a picture of the entombment of Christ. Over the gallery, and, as it were, a kind protectress to the poor below, stood the statue of the Virgin.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 19:07