Most of us tell old stories in our families. The wife and children laugh for the hundredth time at the joke. The old servants (though old servants are fewer every day) nod and smile a recognition at the well-known anecdote. “Don’t tell that story of Grouse in the gun-room,” says Diggory to Mr. Hardcastle in the play, “or I must laugh.” As we twaddle, and grow old and forgetful, we may tell an old story; or, out of mere benevolence, and a wish to amuse a friend when conversation is flagging, disinter a Joe Miller now and then; but the practice is not quite honest, and entails a certain necessity of hypocrisy on story hearers and tellers. It is a sad thing, to think that a man with what you call a fund of anecdote is a humbug, more or less amiable and pleasant. What right have I to tell my “Grouse in the gun-room” over and over in the presence of my wife, mother, mother-inlaw, sons, daughters, old footman or parlor-maid, confidential clerk, curate, or what not? I smirk and go through the history, giving my admirable imitations of the characters introduced: I mimic Jones’s grin, Hobbs’s squint, Brown’s stammer, Grady’s brogue, Sandy’s Scotch accent, to the best of my power: and, the family part of my audience laughs good-humoredly. Perhaps the stranger, for whose amusement the performance is given, is amused by it and laughs too. But this practice continued is not moral. This self-indulgence on your part, my dear Paterfamilias, is weak, vain — not to say culpable. I can imagine many a worthy man, who begins unguardedly to read this page, and comes to the present sentence, lying back in his chair, thinking of that story which he has told innocently for fifty years, and rather piteously owning to himself, “Well, well, it IS wrong; I have no right to call on my poor wife to laugh, my daughters to affect to be amused, by that old, old jest of mine. And they would have gone on laughing, and they would have pretended to be amused, to their dying day, if this man had not flung his damper over our hilarity.” . . . I lay down the pen, and think, “Are there any old stories which I still tell myself in the bosom of my family? Have I any ‘Grouse in my gun-room?’” If there are such, it is because my memory fails; not because I want applause, and wantonly repeat myself. You see, men with the so-called fund of anecdote will not repeat the same story to the same individual; but they do think that, on a new party, the repetition of a joke ever so old may be honorably tried. I meet men walking the London street, bearing the best reputation, men of anecdotal powers:— I know such, who very likely will read this, and say, “Hang the fellow, he means ME!” And so I do. No — no man ought to tell an anecdote more than thrice, let us say, unless he is sure he is speaking only to give pleasure to his hearers — unless he feels that it is not a mere desire for praise which makes him open his jaws.
And is it not with writers as with raconteurs? Ought they not to have their ingenuous modesty? May authors tell old stories, and how many times over? When I come to look at a place which I have visited any time these twenty or thirty years, I recall not the place merely, but the sensations I had at first seeing it, and which are quite different to my feelings today. That first day at Calais; the voices of the women crying out at night, as the vessel came alongside the pier; the supper at Quillacq’s and the flavor of the cutlets and wine; the red-calico canopy under which I slept; the tiled floor, and the fresh smell of the sheets; the wonderful postilion in his jack-boots and pigtail; — all return with perfect clearness to my mind, and I am seeing them, and not the objects which are actually under my eyes. Here is Calais. Yonder is that commissioner I have known this score of years. Here are the women screaming and hustling over the baggage; the people at the passport-barrier who take your papers. My good people, I hardly see you. You no more interest me than a dozen orange-women in Covent-Garden, or a shop book-keeper in Oxford Street. But you make me think of a time when you were indeed wonderful to behold — when the little French soldiers wore white cockades in their shakos — when the diligence was forty hours going to Paris; and the great-booted postilion, as surveyed by youthful eyes from the coupe, with his jurons, his ends of rope for the harness, and his clubbed pigtail, was a wonderful being, and productive of endless amusement. You young folks don’t remember the apple-girls who used to follow the diligence up the hill beyond Boulogne, and the delights of the jolly road? In making continental journeys with young folks, an oldster may be very quiet, and, to outward appearance, melancholy; but really he has gone back to the days of his youth, and he is seventeen or eighteen years of age (as the case may be), and is amusing himself with all his might. He is noting the horses as they come squealing out of the post-house yard at midnight; he is enjoying the delicious meals at Beauvais and Amiens, and quaffing ad libitum the rich table-d’hote wine; he is hail-fellow with the conductor, and alive to all the incidents of the road. A man can be alive in 1860 and 1830 at the same time, don’t you see? Bodily, I may be in 1860, inert, silent, torpid; but in the spirit I am walking about in 1828, let us say; —— in a blue dress-coat and brass buttons, a sweet figured silk waistcoat (which I button round a slim waist with perfect ease), looking at beautiful beings with gigot sleeves and tea-tray hats under the golden chestnuts of the Tuileries, or round the Place Vendome, where the drapeau blanc is floating from the statueless column. Shall we go and dine at “Bombarda’s,” near the “Hotel Breteuil,” or at the “Cafe Virginie?”— Away! “Bombarda’s” and the “Hotel Breteuil” have been pulled down ever so long. They knocked down the poor old Virginia Coffee-house last year. My spirit goes and dines there. My body, perhaps, is seated with ever so many people in a railway-carriage, and no wonder my companions find me dull and silent. Have you read Mr. Dale Owen’s “Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World?”—(My dear sir, it will make your hair stand quite refreshingly on end.) In that work you will read that when gentlemen’s or ladies’ spirits travel off a few score or thousand miles to visit a friend, their bodies lie quiet and in a torpid state in their beds or in their arm-chairs at home. So in this way, I am absent. My soul whisks away thirty years back into the past. I am looking out anxiously for a beard. I am getting past the age of loving Byron’s poems, and pretend that I like Wordsworth and Shelley much better. Nothing I eat or drink (in reason) disagrees with me; and I know whom I think to be the most lovely creature in the world. Ah, dear maid (of that remote but well-remembered period), are you a wife or widow now? — are you dead? — are you thin and withered and old? — or are you grown much stouter, with a false front? and so forth.
O Eliza, Eliza! — Stay, WAS she Eliza? Well, I protest I have forgotten what your Christian name was. You know I only met you for two days, but your sweet face is before me now, and the roses blooming on it are as fresh as in that time of May. Ah, dear Miss X— — my timid youth and ingenuous modesty would never have allowed me, even in my private thoughts, to address you otherwise than by your paternal name, but THAT (though I conceal it) I remember perfectly well, and that your dear and respected father was a brewer.
CARILLON. — I was awakened this morning with the chime which Antwerp cathedral clock plays at half-hours. The tune has been haunting me ever since, as tunes will. You dress, eat, drink, walk and talk to yourself to their tune: their inaudible jingle accompanies you all day: you read the sentences of the paper to their rhythm. I tried uncouthly to imitate the tune to the ladies of the family at breakfast, and they say it is “the shadow dance of Dinorah.” It may be so. I dimly remember that my body was once present during the performance of that opera, whilst my eyes were closed, and my intellectual faculties dormant at the back of the box; howbeit, I have learned that shadow dance from hearing it pealing up ever so high in the air, at night, morn, noon.
How pleasant to lie awake and listen to the cheery peal! whilst the old city is asleep at midnight, or waking up rosy at sunrise, or basking in noon, or swept by the scudding rain which drives in gusts over the broad places, and the great shining river; or sparkling in snow which dresses up a hundred thousand masts, peaks, and towers; or wrapped round with thunder-cloud canopies, before, which the white gables shine whiter; day and night the kind little carillon plays its fantastic melodies overhead. The bells go on ringing. Quot vivos vocant, mortuos plangunt, fulgara frangunt; so on to the past and future tenses, and for how many nights, days, and years! Whilst the French were pitching their fulgara into Chasse’s citadel, the bells went on ringing quite cheerfully. Whilst the scaffolds were up and guarded by Alva’s soldiery, and regiments of penitents, blue, black, and gray, poured out of churches and convents, droning their dirges, and marching to the place of the Hotel de Ville, where heretics and rebels were to meet their doom, the bells up yonder were chanting at their appointed half-hours and quarters, and rang the mauvais quart d’heure for many a poor soul. This bell can see as far away as the towers and dykes of Rotterdam. That one can call a greeting to St. Ursula’s at Brussels, and toss a recognition to that one at the town-hall of Oudenarde, and remember how after a great struggle there a hundred and fifty years ago the whole plain was covered with the flying French cavalry — Burgundy, and Bern, and the Chevalier of St. George flying like the rest. “What is your clamor about Oudenarde?” says another bell (Bob Major THIS one must be). “Be still, thou querulous old clapper! I can see over to Hougoumont and St. John. And about forty-five years since, I rang all through one Sunday in June, when there was such a battle going on in the corn-fields there, as none of you others ever heard tolled of. Yes, from morning service until after vespers, the French and English were all at it, ding-dong.” And then calls of business intervening, the bells have to give up their private jangle, resume their professional duty, and sing their hourly chorus out of Dinorah.
What a prodigious distance those bells can be heard! I was awakened this morning to their tune, I say. I have been hearing it constantly ever since. And this house whence I write, Murray says, is two hundred and ten miles from Antwerp. And it is a week off; and there is the bell still jangling its shadow dance out of Dinorah. An audible shadow you understand, and an invisible sound, but quite distinct; and a plague take the tune!
UNDER THE BELLS. — Who has not seen the church under the bells? Those lofty aisles, those twilight chapels, that cumbersome pulpit with its huge carvings, that wide gray pavement flecked with various light from the jewelled windows, those famous pictures between the voluminous columns over the altars, which twinkle with their ornaments, their votive little silver hearts, legs, limbs, their little guttering tapers, cups of sham roses, and what not? I saw two regiments of little scholars creeping in and forming square, each in its appointed place, under the vast roof; and teachers presently coming to them. A stream of light from the jewelled windows beams slanting down upon each little squad of children, and the tall background of the church retires into a grayer gloom. Pattering little feet of laggards arriving echo through the great nave. They trot in and join their regiments, gathered under the slanting sunbeams. What are they learning? Is it truth? Those two gray ladies with their books in their hands in the midst of these little people have no doubt of the truth of every word they have printed under their eyes. Look, through the windows jewelled all over with saints, the light comes streaming down from the sky, and heaven’s own illuminations paint the book! A sweet, touching picture indeed it is, that of the little children assembled in this immense temple, which has endured for ages, and grave teachers bending over them. Yes, the picture is very pretty of the children and their teachers, and their book — but the text? Is it the truth, the only truth, nothing but the truth? If I thought so, I would go and sit down on the form cum parvulis, and learn the precious lesson with all my heart.
BEADLE. — But I submit, an obstacle to conversions is the intrusion and impertinence of that Swiss fellow with the baldric — the officer who answers to the beadle of the British Islands, and is pacing about the church with an eye on the congregation. Now the boast of Catholics is that their churches are open to all; but in certain places and churches there are exceptions. At Rome I have been into St. Peter’s at all hours: the doors are always open, the lamps are always burning, the faithful are for ever kneeling at one shrine or the other. But at Antwerp not so. In the afternoon you can go to the church, and be civilly treated; but you must pay a franc at the side gate. In the forenoon the doors are open, to be sure, and there is no one to levy an entrance fee. I was standing ever so still, looking through the great gates of the choir at the twinkling lights, and listening to the distant chants of the priests performing the service, when a sweet chorus from the organ-loft broke out behind me overhead, and I turned round. My friend the drum-major ecclesiastic was down upon me in a moment. “Do not turn your back to the altar during divine service,” says he, in very intelligible English. I take the rebuke, and turn a soft right-about face, and listen awhile as the service continues. See it I cannot, nor the altar and its ministrants. We are separated from these by a great screen and closed gates of iron, through which the lamps glitter and the chant comes by gusts only. Seeing a score of children trotting down a side aisle, I think I may follow them. I am tired of looking at that hideous old pulpit with its grotesque monsters and decorations. I slip off to the side aisle; but my friend the drum-major is instantly after me — almost I thought he was going to lay hands on me. “You mustn’t go there,” says he; “you mustn’t disturb the service.” I was moving as quietly as might be, and ten paces off there were twenty children kicking and clattering at their ease. I point them out to the Swiss. “They come to pray,” says he. “YOU don’t come to pray, you —” “When I come to pay,” says I, “I am welcome,” and with this withering sarcasm, I walk out of church in a huff. I don’t envy the feelings of that beadle after receiving point blank such a stroke of wit.
LEO BELGICUS. — Perhaps you will say after this I am a prejudiced critic. I see the pictures in the cathedral fuming under the rudeness of that beadle, or at the lawful hours and prices, pestered by a swarm of shabby touters, who come behind me chattering in bad English, and who would have me see the sights through their mean, greedy eyes. Better see Rubens any where than in a church. At the Academy, for example, where you may study him at your leisure. But at church? — I would as soon ask Alexandre Dumas for a sermon. Either would paint you a martyrdom very fiercely and picturesquely — writhing muscles, flaming coals, scowling captains and executioners, swarming groups, and light, shade, color most dexterously brilliant or dark; but in Rubens I am admiring the performer rather than the piece. With what astonishing rapidity he travels over his canvas; how tellingly the cool lights and warm shadows are made to contrast and relieve each other; how that blazing, blowsy penitent in yellow satin and glittering hair carries down the stream of light across the picture! This is the way to work, my boys, and earn a hundred florins a day. See! I am as sure of my line as a skater of making his figure of eight! and down with a sweep goes a brawny arm or a flowing curl of drapery. The figures arrange themselves as if by magic. The paint-pots are exhausted in furnishing brown shadows. The pupils look wondering on, as the master careers over the canvas. Isabel or Helena, wife No. 1 or No. 2, are sitting by, buxom, exuberant, ready to be painted; and the children are boxing in the corner, waiting till they are wanted to figure as cherubs in the picture. Grave burghers and gentlefolks come in on a visit. There are oysters and Rhenish always ready on yonder table. Was there ever such a painter? He has been an ambassador, an actual Excellency, and what better man could be chosen? He speaks all the languages. He earns a hundred florins a day. Prodigious! Thirty-six thousand five hundred florins a year. Enormous! He rides out to his castle with a score of gentlemen after him, like the Governor. That is his own portrait as St. George. You know he is an English knight? Those are his two wives as the two Maries. He chooses the handsomest wives. He rides the handsomest horses. He paints the handsomest pictures. He gets the handsomest prices for them. That slim young Van Dyck, who was his pupil, has genius too, and is painting all the noble ladies in England, and turning the heads of some of them. And Jordaens — what a droll dog and clever fellow! Have you seen his fat Silenus? The master himself could not paint better. And his altar-piece at St. Bavon’s? He can paint you anything, that Jordaens can — a drunken jollification of boors and doxies, or a martyr howling with half his skin off. What a knowledge of anatomy! But there is nothing like the master — nothing. He can paint you his thirty-six thousand five hundred florins’ worth a year. Have you heard of what he has done for the French Court? Prodigious! I can’t look at Rubens’s pictures without fancying I see that handsome figure swaggering before the canvas. And Hans Hemmelinck at Bruges? Have you never seen that dear old hospital of St. John, on passing the gate of which you enter into the fifteenth century? I see the wounded soldier still lingering in the house, and tended by the kind gray sisters. His little panel on its easel is placed at the light. He covers his board with the most wondrous, beautiful little figures, in robes as bright as rubies and amethysts. I think he must have a magic glass, in which he catches the reflection of little cherubs with many-colored wings, very little and bright. Angels, in long crisp robes of white, surrounded with halos of gold, come and flutter across the mirror, and he draws them. He hears mass every day. He fasts through Lent. No monk is more austere and holy than Hans. Which do you love best to behold, the lamb or the lion? the eagle rushing through the storm, and pouncing mayhap on carrion; or the linnet warbling on the spray?
By much the most delightful of the Christopher set of Rubens to my mind (and ego is introduced on these occasions, so that the opinion may pass only for my own, at the reader’s humble service to be received or declined,) is the “Presentation in the Temple:” splendid in color, in sentiment sweet and tender, finely conveying the story. To be sure, all the others tell their tale unmistakably — witness that coarse “Salutation,” that magnificent “Adoration of the Kings” (at the Museum), by the same strong downright hands; that wonderful “Communion of St. Francis,” which, I think, gives the key to the artist’s faire better than any of his performances. I have passed hours before that picture in my time, trying and sometimes fancying I could understand by what masses and contrasts the artist arrived at his effect. In many others of the pictures parts of his method are painfully obvious, and you see how grief and agony are produced by blue lips, and eyes rolling blood shot with dabs of vermilion. There is something simple in the practice. Contort the eyebrow sufficiently, and place the eyeball near it — by a few lines you have anger or fierceness depicted. Give me a mouth with no special expression, and pop a dab of carmine at each extremity — and there are the lips smiling. This is art if you will, but a very naive kind of art: and now you know the trick, don’t you see how easy it is?
TU QUOQUE. — Now you know the trick, suppose you take a canvas and see whether YOU can do it? There are brushes, palettes, and gallipots full of paint and varnish. Have you tried, my dear sir — you who set up to be a connoisseur? Have you tried? I have — and many a day. And the end of the day’s labor? O dismal conclusion! Is this puerile niggling, this feeble scrawl, this impotent rubbish, all you can produce — you, who but now found Rubens commonplace and vulgar, and were pointing out the tricks of his mystery? Pardon, O great chief, magnificent master and poet! You can DO. We critics, who sneer and are wise, can but pry, and measure, and doubt, and carp. Look at the lion. Did you ever see such a gross, shaggy, mangy, roaring brute? Look at him eating lumps of raw meat — positively bleeding, and raw and tough — till, faugh! it turns one’s stomach to see him — O the coarse wretch! Yes, but he is a lion. Rubens has lifted his great hand, and the mark he has made has endured for two centuries, and we still continue wondering at him, and admiring him. What a strength in that arm! What splendor of will hidden behind that tawny beard, and those honest eyes! Sharpen your pen, my good critic, shoot a feather into him; hit him, and make him wince. Yes, you may hit him fair, and make him bleed, too; but, for all that, he is a lion — a mighty, conquering, generous, rampageous Leo Belgicus — monarch of his wood. And he is not dead yet, and I will not kick at him.
SIR ANTONY. — In that “Pieta” of Van Dyck, in the Museum, have you ever looked at the yellow-robed angel, with the black scarf thrown over her wings and robe? What a charming figure of grief and beauty! What a pretty compassion it inspires! It soothes and pleases me like a sweet rhythmic chant. See how delicately the yellow robe contrasts with the blue sky behind, and the scarf binds the two! If Rubens lacked grace, Van Dyck abounded in it. What a consummate elegance! What a perfect cavalier! No wonder the fine ladies in England admired Sir Antony. Look at —
Here the clock strikes three, and the three gendarmes who keep the Musee cry out, “Allons! Sortons! Il est trois heures! Allez! Sortez!” and they skip out of the gallery as happy as boys running from school. And we must go too, for though many stay behind — many Britons with Murray’s Handbooks in their handsome hands — they have paid a franc for entrance-fee, you see; and we knew nothing about the franc for entrance until those gendarmes with sheathed sabres had driven us out of this Paradise.
But it was good to go and drive on the great quays, and see the ships unlading, and by the citadel, and wonder howabouts and whereabouts it was so strong. We expect a citadel to look like Gibraltar or Ehrenbreitstein at least. But in this one there is nothing to see but a flat plain and some ditches, and some trees, and mounds of uninteresting green. And then I remember how there was a boy at school, a little dumpy fellow of no personal appearance whatever, who couldn’t be overcome except by a much bigger champion, and the immensest quantity of thrashing. A perfect citadel of a boy, with a General Chasse sitting in that bomb-proof casemate, his heart, letting blow after blow come thumping about his head, and never thinking of giving in.
And we go home, and we dine in the company of Britons, at the comfortable Hotel du Parc, and we have bought a novel apiece for a shilling, and every half-hour the sweet carillon plays the waltz from Dinorah in the air. And we have been happy; and it seems about a month since we left London yesterday; and nobody knows where we are, and we defy care and the postman.
SPOORWEG. — Vast green flats, speckled by spotted cows, and bound by a gray frontier of windmills; shining canals stretching through the green; odors like those exhaled from the Thames in the dog-days, and a fine pervading smell of cheese; little trim houses, with tall roofs, and great windows of many panes; gazebos, or summer-houses, hanging over pea-green canals; kind-looking, dumpling-faced farmers’ women, with laced caps and golden frontlets and earrings; about the houses and towns which we pass a great air of comfort and neatness; a queer feeling of wonder that you can’t understand what your fellow-passengers are saying, the tone of whose voices, and a certain comfortable dowdiness of dress, are so like our own; — whilst we are remarking on these sights, sounds, smells, the little railway journey from Rotterdam to the Hague comes to an end. I speak to the railway porters and hackney coachmen in English, and they reply in their own language, and it seems somehow as if we understood each other perfectly. The carriage drives to the handsome, comfortable, cheerful hotel. We sit down a score at the table; and there is one foreigner and his wife — I mean every other man and woman at dinner are English. As we are close to the sea, and in the midst of endless canals, we have no fish. We are reminded of dear England by the noble prices which we pay for wines. I confess I lost my temper yesterday at Rotterdam, where I had to pay a florin for a bottle of ale (the water not being drinkable, and country or Bavarian beer not being genteel enough for the hotel); — I confess, I say, that my fine temper was ruffled, when the bottle of pale ale turned out to be a pint bottle; and I meekly told the waiter that I had bought beer at Jerusalem at a less price. But then Rotterdam is eighteen hours from London, and the steamer with the passengers and beer comes up to the hotel windows; whilst to Jerusalem they have to carry the ale on camels’ backs from Beyrout or Jaffa, and through hordes of marauding Arabs, who evidently don’t care for pale ale, though I am told it is not forbidden in the Koran. Mine would have been very good, but I choked with rage whilst drinking it. A florin for a bottle, and that bottle having the words “imperial pint,” in bold relief, on the surface! It was too much. I intended not to say anything about it; but I MUST speak. A florin a bottle, and that bottle a pint! Oh, for shame! for shame! I can’t cork down my indignation; I froth up with fury; I am pale with wrath, and bitter with scorn.
As we drove through the old city at night, how it swarmed and hummed with life! What a special clatter, crowd, and outcry there was in the Jewish quarter, where myriads of young ones were trotting about the fishy street! Why don’t they have lamps? We passed by canals seeming so full that a pailful of water more would overflow the place. The laquais-de-place calls out the names of the buildings: the town-hall, the cathedral, the arsenal, the synagogue, the statue of Erasmus. Get along! WE know the statue of Erasmus well enough. We pass over drawbridges by canals where thousands of barges are at roost. At roost — at rest! Shall WE have rest in those bedrooms, those ancient lofty bedrooms, in that inn where we have to pay a florin for a pint of pa — psha! at the “New Bath Hotel” on the Boompjes? If this dreary edifice is the “New Bath,” what must the Old Bath be like? As I feared to go to bed, I sat in the coffee-room as long as I might; but three young men were imparting their private adventures to each other with such freedom and liveliness that I felt I ought not to listen to their artless prattle. As I put the light out, and felt the bedclothes and darkness overwhelm me, it was with an awful sense of terror — that sort of sensation which I should think going down in a diving-bell would give. Suppose the apparatus goes wrong, and they don’t understand your signal to mount? Suppose your matches miss fire when you wake; when you WANT them, when you will have to rise in half an hour, and do battle with the horrid enemy who crawls on you in the darkness? I protest I never was more surprised than when I woke and beheld the light of dawn. Indian birds and strange trees were visible on the ancient gilt hangings of the lofty chamber, and through the windows the Boompjes and the ships along the quay. We have all read of deserters being brought out, and made to kneel, with their eyes bandaged, and hearing the word to “Fire” given I declare I underwent all the terrors of execution that night, and wonder how I ever escaped unwounded.
But if ever I go to the “Bath Hotel,” Rotterdam, again, I am a Dutchman. A guilder for a bottle of pale ale, and that bottle a pint! Ah! for shame — for shame!
MINE EASE IN MINE INN. — Do you object to talk about inns? It always seems to me to be very good talk. Walter Scott is full of inns. In “Don Quixote” and “Gil Blas” there is plenty of inn-talk. Sterne, Fielding, and Smollett constantly speak about them; and, in their travels, the last two tot up the bill, and describe the dinner quite honestly; whilst Mr. Sterne becomes sentimental over a cab, and weeps generous tears over a donkey.
How I admire and wonder at the information in Murray’s Handbooks — wonder how it is got, and admire the travellers who get it. For instance, you read: Amiens (please select your towns), 60,000 inhabitants. Hotels, &c. —“Lion d’Or,” good and clean. “Le Lion d’Argent,” so so. “Le Lion Noir,” bad, dirty, and dear. Now say, there are three travellers — three inn-inspectors, who are sent forth by Mr. Murray on a great commission, and who stop at every inn in the world. The eldest goes to the “Lion d’Or”— capital house, good table-d’hote, excellent wine, moderate charges. The second commissioner tries the “Silver Lion”— tolerable house, bed, dinner, bill and so forth. But fancy Commissioner No. 3 — the poor fag, doubtless, and boots of the party. He has to go to the “Lion Noir.” He knows he is to have a bad dinner — he eats it uncomplainingly. He is to have bad wine. He swallows it, grinding his wretched teeth, and aware that he will he unwell in consequence. He knows he is to have a dirty bed, and what he is to expect there. He pops out the candle. He sinks into those dingy sheets. He delivers over his body to the nightly tormentors, he pays an exorbitant bill, and he writes down, “Lion Noir, bad, dirty, dear.” Next day the commission sets out for Arras, we will say, and they begin again: “Le Cochon d’Or,” “Le Cochon d’Argent,” “Le Cochon Noir”— and that is poor Boots’s inn, of course. What a life that poor man must lead! What horrors of dinners he has to go through! What a hide he must have! And yet not impervious; for unless he is bitten, how is he to be able to warn others? No: on second thoughts, you will perceive that he ought to have a very delicate skin. The monsters ought to troop to him eagerly, and bite him instantaneously and freely, so that he may be able to warn all future handbook buyers of their danger. I fancy this man devoting himself to danger, to dirt, to bad dinners, to sour wine, to damp beds, to midnight agonies, to extortionate bills. I admire him, I thank him. Think of this champion, who devotes his body for us — this dauntless gladiator going to do battle alone in the darkness, with no other armor than a light helmet of cotton, and a lorica of calico. I pity and honor him. Go, Spartacus! Go, devoted man — to bleed, to groan, to suffer — and smile in silence as the wild beasts assail thee!
How did I come into this talk? I protest it was the word inn set me off — and here is one, the “Hotel de Belle Vue,” at the Hague, as comfortable, as handsome, as cheerful as any I ever took mine ease in. And the Bavarian beer, my dear friend, how good and brisk and light it is! Take another glass — it refreshes and does not stupefy — and then we will sally out, and see the town and the park and the pictures.
The prettiest little brick city, the pleasantest little park to ride in, the neatest comfortable people walking about, the canals not unsweet, and busy and picturesque with old-world life. Rows upon rows of houses, built with the neatest little bricks, with windows fresh painted, and tall doors polished, and carved to a nicety. What a pleasant spacious garden our inn has, all sparkling with autumn flowers and bedizened with statues! At the end is a row of trees, and a summer-house, over the canal, where you might go and smoke a pipe with Mynheer Van Dunck, and quite cheerfully catch the ague. Yesterday, as we passed, they were making hay, and stacking it in a barge which was lying by the meadow, handy. Round about Kensington Palace there are houses, roofs, chimneys, and bricks like these. I feel that a Dutchman is a man and a brother. It is very funny to read the newspaper, one can understand it somehow. Sure it is the neatest, gayest little city — scores and hundreds of mansions looking like Cheyne Walk, or the ladies’ schools about Chiswick and Hackney.
LE GROS LOT. — To a few lucky men the chance befalls of reaching fame at once, and (if it is of any profit morituro) retaining the admiration of the world. Did poor Oliver, when he was at Leyden yonder, ever think that he should paint a little picture which should secure him the applause and pity of all Europe for a century after? He and Sterne drew the twenty thousand prize of fame. The latter had splendid instalments during his lifetime. The ladies pressed round him; the wits admired him, the fashion hailed the successor of Rabelais. Goldsmith’s little gem was hardly so valued until later days. Their works still form the wonder and delight of the lovers of English art; and the pictures of the Vicar and Uncle Toby are among the masterpieces of our English school. Here in the Hague Gallery is Paul Potter’s pale, eager face, and yonder is the magnificent work by which the young fellow achieved his fame. How did you, so young, come to paint so well? What hidden power lay in that weakly lad that enabled him to achieve such a wonderful victory? Could little Mozart, when he was five years old, tell you how he came to play those wonderful sonatas? Potter was gone out of the world before he was thirty, but left this prodigy (and I know not how many more specimens of his genius and skill) behind him. The details of this admirable picture are as curious as the effect is admirable and complete. The weather being unsettled, and clouds and sunshine in the gusty sky, we saw in our little tour numberless Paul Potters — the meadows streaked with sunshine and spotted with the cattle, the city twinkling in the distance, the thunderclouds glooming overhead. Napoleon carried off the picture (vide Murray) amongst the spoils of his bow and spear to decorate his triumph of the Louvre. If I were a conquering prince, I would have this picture certainly, and the Raphael “Madonna” from Dresden, and the Titian “Assumption” from Venice, and that matchless Rembrandt of the “Dissection.” The prostrate nations would howl with rage as my gendarmes took off the pictures, nicely packed, and addressed to “Mr. the Director of my Imperial Palace of the Louvre, at Paris. This side uppermost.” The Austrians, Prussians, Saxons, Italians, &c., should be free to come and visit my capital, and bleat with tears before the pictures torn from their native cities. Their ambassadors would meekly remonstrate, and with faded grins make allusions to the feeling of despair occasioned by the absence of the beloved works of art. Bah! I would offer them a pinch of snuff out of my box as I walked along my gallery, with their Excellencies cringing after me. Zenobia was a fine woman and a queen, but she had to walk in Aurelian’s triumph. The procede was peu delicat? En usez vous, mon cher monsieur! (The marquis says the “Macaba” is delicious.) What a splendor of color there is in that cloud! What a richness, what a freedom of handling, and what a marvellous precision! I trod upon your Excellency’s corn? — a thousand pardons. His Excellency grins and declares that he rather likes to have his corns trodden on. Were you ever very angry with Soult — about that Murillo which we have bought? The veteran loved that picture because it saved the life of a fellow-creature — the fellow-creature who hid it, and whom the Duke intended to hang unless the picture was forthcoming.
We gave several thousand pounds for it — how many thousand? About its merit is a question of taste which we will not here argue. If you choose to place Murillo in the first class of painters, founding his claim upon these Virgin altar-pieces, I am your humble servant. Tom Moore painted altar-pieces as well as Milton, and warbled Sacred Songs and Loves of the Angels after his fashion. I wonder did Watteau ever try historical subjects? And as for Greuze, you know that his heads will fetch 1,000L., 1,500L., 2,000L. — as much as a Sevres “cabaret” of Rose du Barri. If cost price is to be your criterion of worth, what shall we say to that little receipt for 10L. for the copyright of “Paradise Lost,” which used to hang in old Mr. Rogers’s room? When living painters, as frequently happens in our days, see their pictures sold at auctions for four or five times the sums which they originally received, are they enraged or elated? A hundred years ago the state of the picture-market was different: that dreary old Italian stock was much higher than at present; Rembrandt himself, a close man, was known to be in difficulties. If ghosts are fond of money still, what a wrath his must be at the present value of his works!
The Hague Rembrandt is the greatest and grandest of all his pieces to my mind. Some of the heads are as sweetly and lightly painted as Gainsborough; the faces not ugly, but delicate and high-bred; the exquisite gray tones are charming to mark and study; the heads not plastered, but painted with a free, liquid brush: the result, one of the great victories won by this consummate chief, and left for the wonder and delight of succeeding ages.
The humblest volunteer in the ranks of art, who has served a campaign or two ever so ingloriously, has at least this good fortune of understanding, or fancying he is able to understand, how the battle has been fought, and how the engaged general won it. This is the Rhinelander’s most brilliant achievement — victory along the whole line. The “Night-watch” at Amsterdam is magnificent in parts, but on the side to the spectator’s right, smoky and dim. The “Five Masters of the Drapers” is wonderful for depth, strength, brightness, massive power. What words are these to express a picture! to describe a description! I once saw a moon riding in the sky serenely, attended by her sparkling maids of honor, and a little lady said, with an air of great satisfaction, “I MUST SKETCH IT.” Ah, my dear lady, if with an H.B., a Bristol board, and a bit of india-rubber, you can sketch the starry firmament on high, and the moon in her glory, I make you my compliment! I can’t sketch “The Five Drapers” with any ink or pen at present at command — but can look with all my eyes, and be thankful to have seen such a masterpiece.
They say he was a moody, ill-conditioned man, the old tenant of the mill. What does he think of the “Vander Helst” which hangs opposite his “Night-watch,” and which is one of the great pictures of the world? It is not painted by so great a man as Rembrandt; but there it is — to see it is an event of your life. Having beheld it you have lived in the year 1648, and celebrated the treaty of Munster. You have shaken the hands of the Dutch Guardsmen, eaten from their platters, drunk their Rhenish, heard their jokes, as they wagged their jolly beards. The Amsterdam Catalogue discourses thus about it:— a model catalogue: it gives you the prices paid, the signatures of the painters, a succinct description of the work.
“This masterpiece represents a banquet of the civic guard, which took place on the 18th June, 1648, in time great hall of the St. Joris Doele, on the Singel at Amsterdam, to celebrate the conclusion of the Peace at Munster. The thirty-five figures composing the picture are all portraits.
“‘The Captain WITSE’ is placed at the head of the table, and attracts our attention first. He is dressed in black velvet, his breast covered with a cuirass, on his head a broad-brimmed black hat with white plumes. He is comfortably seated on a chair of black oak, with a velvet cushion, and holds in his left hand, supported on his knee, a magnificent drinking-horn, surrounded by a St. George destroying the dragon, and ornamented with olive-leaves. The captain’s features express cordiality and good-humor; he is grasping the hand of ‘Lieutenant VAN WAVERN’ seated near him, in a habit of dark gray, with lace and buttons of gold, lace-collar and wristbands, his feet crossed, with boots of yellow leather, with large tops, and gold spurs, on his head a black hat and dark-brown plumes. Behind him at the centre of the picture, is the standard-bearer, ‘JACOB BANNING,’ in an easy martial attitude, hat in hand, his right hand on his chair, his right leg on his left knee. He holds the flag of blue silk, in which the Virgin is embroidered, (such a silk! such a flag! such a piece of painting!) emblematic of the town of Amsterdam. The banner covers his shoulder, and he looks towards the spectator frankly and complacently.
“The man behind him is probably one of the sergeants. His head is bare. He wears a cuirass, and yellow gloves, gray stockings, and boots with large tops, and kneecaps of cloth. He has a napkin on his knees, and in his hand a piece of ham, a slice of bread, and a knife. The old man behind is probably ‘WILLIAM THE DRUMMER.’ He has his hat in his right hand, and in his left a gold-footed wineglass, filled with white wine. He wears a red scarf, and a black satin doublet, with little slashes of yellow silk. Behind the drummer, two matchlock-men are seated at the end of the table. One in a large black habit, a napkin on his knee, a hausse-col of iron, and a linen scarf and collar. He is eating with his knife. The other holds a long glass of white wine. Four musketeers, with different shaped hats, are behind these, one holding a glass, the three others with their guns on their shoulders. Other guests are placed between the personage who is giving the toast and the standard-bearer. One with his hat off, and his hand uplifted, is talking to another. The second is carving a fowl. A third holds a silver plate; and another, in the background, a silver flagon, from which he fills a cup. The corner behind the captain is filled by two seated personages, one of whom is peeling an orange. Two others are standing, armed with halberts, of whom one holds a plumed hat. Behind him are other three individuals, one of them holding a pewter pot, on which the name ‘Poock,’ the landlord of the ‘Hotel Doele,’ is engraved. At the back, a maid-servant is coming in with a pasty, crowned with a turkey. Most of the guests are listening to the captain. From an open window in the distance, the facades of two houses are seen, surmounted by stone figures of sheep.”
There, now you know all about it: now you can go home and paint just such another. If you do, do pray remember to paint the hands of the figures as they are here depicted; they are as wonderful portraits as the faces. None of your slim Van Dyck elegancies, which have done duty at the cuffs of so many doublets; but each man with a hand for himself, as with a face for himself. I blushed for the coarseness of one of the chiefs in this great company, that fellow behind “WILLIAM THE DRUMMER,” splendidly attired, sitting full in the face of the public; and holding a pork-bone in his hand. Suppose the Saturday Review critic were to come suddenly on this picture? Ah! what a shock it would give that noble nature! Why is that knuckle of pork not painted out? at any rate, why is not a little fringe of lace painted round it? or a cut pink paper? or couldn’t a smelling-bottle be painted in instead, with a crest and a gold top, or a cambric pocket-handkerchief, in lieu of the horrid pig, with a pink coronet in the corner? or suppose you covered the man’s hand (which is very coarse and strong), and gave him the decency of a kid glove? But a piece of pork in a naked hand? O nerves and eau de Cologne, hide it, hide it!
In spite of this lamentable coarseness, my noble sergeant, give me thy hand as nature made it! A great, and famous, and noble handiwork I have seen here. Not the greatest picture in the world — not a work of the highest genius — but a performance so great, various, and admirable, so shrewd of humor, so wise of observation, so honest and complete of expression, that to have seen it has been a delight, and to remember it will be a pleasure for days to come. Well done, Bartholomeus Vander Helst! Brave, meritorious, victorious, happy Bartholomew, to whom it has been given to produce a masterpiece!
May I take off my hat and pay a respectful compliment to Jan Steen, Esq.? He is a glorious composer. His humor is as frank as Fielding’s. Look at his own figure sitting in the window-sill yonder, and roaring with laughter! What a twinkle in the eyes! what a mouth it is for a song, or a joke, or a noggin! I think the composition in some of Jan’s pictures amounts to the sublime, and look at them with the same delight and admiration which I have felt before works of the very highest style. This gallery is admirable — and the city in which the gallery is, is perhaps even more wonderful and curious to behold than the gallery.
The first landing at Calais (or, I suppose, on any foreign shore)— the first sight of an Eastern city — the first view of Venice — and this of Amsterdam, are among the delightful shocks which I have had as a traveller. Amsterdam is as good as Venice, with a superadded humor and grotesqueness, which gives the sight-seer the most singular zest and pleasure. A run through Pekin I could hardly fancy to be more odd, strange, and yet familiar. This rush, and crowd, and prodigious vitality; this immense swarm of life; these busy waters, crowding barges, swinging drawbridges, piled ancient gables, spacious markets teeming with people; that ever-wonderful Jews’ quarter; that dear old world of painting and the past, yet alive, and throbbing, and palpable — actual, and yet passing before you swiftly and strangely as a dream! Of the many journeys of this Roundabout life, that drive through Amsterdam is to be specially and gratefully remembered. You have never seen the palace of Amsterdam, my dear sir? Why, there’s a marble hall in that palace that will frighten you as much as any hall in Vathek, or a nightmare. At one end of that old, cold, glassy, glittering, ghostly, marble hall there stands a throne, on which a white marble king ought to sit with his white legs gleaming down into the white marble below, and his white eyes looking at a great white marble Atlas, who bears on his icy shoulders a blue globe as big as the full moon. If he were not a genie, and enchanted, and with a strength altogether hyperatlantean, he would drop the moon with a shriek on to the white marble floor, and it would splitter into perdition. And the palace would rock, and heave, and tumble; and the waters would rise, rise, rise; and the gables sink, sink, sink; and the barges would rise up to the chimneys; and the water-souchee fishes would flap over the Boompjes, where the pigeons and storks used to perch; and the Amster, and the Rotter, and the Saar, and the Op, and all the dams of Holland would burst, and the Zuyder Zee roll over the dykes; and you would wake out of your dream, and find yourself sitting in your arm-chair.
Was it a dream? it seems like one. Have we been to Holland? have we heard the chimes at midnight at Antwerp? Were we really away for a week, or have I been sitting up in the room dozing, before this stale old desk? Here’s the desk; yes. But, if it has been a dream, how could I have learned to hum that tune out of Dinorah? Ah, is it that tune, or myself that I am humming? If it was a dream, how comes this yellow NOTICE DES TABLEAUX DU MUSEE D’AMSTERDAM AVEC FACSIMILE DES MONOGRAMMES before me, and this signature of the gallant BARTHOLOMEUS VANDER HELST, FECIT Ao, 1648.
Yes, indeed, it was a delightful little holiday; it lasted a whole week. With the exception of that little pint of amari aliquid at Rotterdam, we were all very happy. We might have gone on being happy for whoever knows how many days more? a week more, ten days more: who knows how long that dear teetotum happiness can be made to spin without toppling over?
But one of the party had desired letters to be sent poste restante, Amsterdam. The post-office is hard by that awful palace where the Atlas is, and which we really saw.
There was only one letter, you see. Only one chance of finding us. There it was. “The post has only this moment come in,” says the smirking commissioner. And he hands over the paper, thinking he has done something clever.
Before the letter had been opened, I could read COME BACK, as clearly as if it had been painted on the wall. It was all over. The spell was broken. The sprightly little holiday fairy that had frisked and gambolled so kindly beside us for eight days of sunshine — or rain which was as cheerful as sunshine — gave a parting piteous look, and whisked away and vanished. And yonder scuds the postman, and here is the old desk.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00