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LITTLE TRAVELS AND ROADSIDE SKETCHES
by William Makepeace Thackeray
I. FROM RICHMOND IN SURREY TO BRUSSELS IN BELGIUM
LITTLE TRAVELS AND ROADSIDE SKETCHES
I.–FROM RICHMOND IN SURREY TO BRUSSELS IN BELGIUM
. . . I quitted the “Rose Cottage Hotel” at Richmond, one of the comfortablest, quietest, cheapest, neatest little inns in England, and a thousand times preferable, in my opinion, to the “Star and Garter,” whither, if you go alone, a sneering waiter, with his hair curled, frightens you off the premises; and where, if you are bold enough to brave the sneering waiter, you have to pay ten shillings for a bottle of claret; and whence, if you look out of the window, you gaze on a view which is so rich that it seems to knock you down with its splendor–a view that has its hair curled like the swaggering waiter: I say, I quitted the “Rose Cottage Hotel” with deep regret, believing that I should see nothing so pleasant as its gardens, and its veal cutlets, and its dear little bowling-green, elsewhere. But the time comes when people must go out of town, and so I got on the top of the omnibus, and the carpet-bag was put inside.
If I were a great prince and rode outside of coaches (as I should if I were a great prince), I would, whether I smoked or not, have a case of the best Havanas in my pocket–not for my own smoking, but to give them to the snobs on the coach, who smoke the vilest cheroots. They poison the air with the odor of their filthy weeds. A man at all easy in his circumstances would spare himself much annoyance by taking the above simple precaution.
A gentleman sitting behind me tapped me on the back and asked for a light. He was a footman, or rather valet. He had no livery, but the three friends who accompanied him were tall men in pepper-and- salt undress jackets with a duke’s coronet on their buttons.
After tapping me on the back, and when he had finished his cheroot, the gentleman produced another wind-instrument, which he called a “kinopium,” a sort of trumpet, on which he showed a great inclination to play. He began puffing out of the “kinopium” a most abominable air, which he said was the “Duke’s March.” It was played by particular request of one of the pepper-and-salt gentry.
The noise was so abominable that even the coachman objected (although my friend’s brother footmen were ravished with it), and said that it was not allowed to play toons on HIS ‘bus. “Very well,” said the valet, “WE’RE ONLY OF THE DUKE OF B—-‘S ESTABLISHMENT, THAT’S ALL.” The coachman could not resist that appeal to his fashionable feelings. The valet was allowed to play his infernal kinopium, and the poor fellow (the coachman), who had lived in some private families, was quite anxious to conciliate the footmen “of the Duke of B.’s establishment, that’s all,” and told several stories of his having been groom in Captain Hoskins’s family, NEPHEW OF GOVERNOR HOSKINS; which stories the footmen received with great contempt.
The footmen were like the rest of the fashionable world in this respect. I felt for my part that I respected them. They were in daily communication with a duke! They were not the rose, but they had lived beside it. There is an odor in the English aristocracy which intoxicates plebeians. I am sure that any commoner in England, though he would die rather than confess it, would have a respect for those great big hulking Duke’s footmen.
The day before, her Grace the Duchess had passed us alone in a chariot-and-four with two outriders. What better mark of innate superiority could man want? Here was a slim lady who required four–six horses to herself, and four servants (kinopium was, no doubt, one of the number) to guard her.
We were sixteen inside and out, and had consequently an eighth of a horse apiece.
A duchess = 6, a commoner = 1/8; that is to say,
1 duchess = 48 commoners.
If I were a duchess of the present day, I would say to the duke my noble husband, “My dearest grace, I think, when I travel alone in my chariot from Hammersmith to London, I will not care for the outriders. In these days, when there is so much poverty and so much disaffection in the country, we should not eclabousser the canaille with the sight of our preposterous prosperity.
But this is very likely only plebeian envy, and I dare say, if I were a lovely duchess of the realm, I would ride in a coach-and- six, with a coronet on the top of my bonnet and a robe of velvet and ermine even in the dog-days.
Alas! these are the dog-days. Many dogs are abroad–snarling dogs, biting dogs, envious dogs, mad dogs; beware of exciting the fury of such with your flaming red velvet and dazzling ermine. It makes ragged Lazarus doubly hungry to see Dives feasting in cloth-of- gold; and so if I were a beauteous duchess . . . Silence, vain man! Can the Queen herself make you a duchess? Be content, then, nor gibe at thy betters of “the Duke of B—-‘s establishment– that’s all.”
ON BOARD THE “ANTWERPEN,” OFF EVERYWHERE.
We have bidden adieu to Billingsgate, we have passed the Thames Tunnel; it is one o’clock, and of course people are thinking of being hungry. What a merry place a steamer is on a calm sunny summer forenoon, and what an appetite every one seems to have! We are, I assure you, no less than 170 noblemen and gentlemen together, pacing up and down under the awning, or lolling on the sofas in the cabin, and hardly have we passed Greenwich when the feeding begins. The company was at the brandy and soda-water in an instant (there is a sort of legend that the beverage is a preservative against sea-sickness), and I admired the penetration of gentlemen who partook of the drink. In the first place, the steward WILL put so much brandy into the tumbler that it is fit to choke you; and, secondly, the soda-water, being kept as near as possible to the boiler of the engine, is of a fine wholesome heat when presented to the hot and thirsty traveller. Thus he is prevented from catching any sudden cold which might be dangerous to him.
The forepart of the vessel is crowded to the full as much as the genteeler quarter. There are four carriages, each with piles of imperials and aristocratic gimcracks of travel, under the wheels of which those personages have to clamber who have a mind to look at the bowsprit, and perhaps to smoke a cigar at ease. The carriages overcome, you find yourself confronted by a huge penful of Durham oxen, lying on hay and surrounded by a barricade of oars. Fifteen of these horned monsters maintain an incessant mooing and bellowing. Beyond the cows come a heap of cotton-bags, beyond the cotton-bags more carriages, more pyramids of travelling trunks, and valets and couriers bustling and swearing round about them. And already, and in various corners and niches, lying on coils of rope, black tar-cloths, ragged cloaks, or hay, you see a score of those dubious fore-cabin passengers, who are never shaved, who always look unhappy, and appear getting ready to be sick.
At one, dinner begins in the after-cabin–boiled salmon, boiled beef, boiled mutton, boiled cabbage, boiled potatoes, and parboiled wine for any gentlemen who like it, and two roast-ducks between seventy. After this, knobs of cheese are handed round on a plate, and there is a talk of a tart somewhere at some end of the table. All this I saw peeping through a sort of meat-safe which ventilates the top of the cabin, and very happy and hot did the people seem below.
“How the deuce CAN people dine at such an hour?” say several genteel fellows who are watching the manoeuvres. “I can’t touch a morsel before seven.”
But somehow at half-past three o’clock we had dropped a long way down the river. The air was delightfully fresh, the sky of a faultless cobalt, the river shining and flashing like quicksilver, and at this period steward runs against me bearing two great smoking dishes covered by two great glistening hemispheres of tin. “Fellow,” says I, “what’s that?”
He lifted up the cover: it was ducks and green pease, by jingo!
“What! haven’t they done YET, the greedy creatures?” I asked. “Have the people been feeding for three hours?”
“Law bless you, sir, it’s the second dinner. Make haste, or you won’t get a place.” At which words a genteel party, with whom I had been conversing, instantly tumbled down the hatchway, and I find myself one of the second relay of seventy who are attacking the boiled salmon, boiled beef, boiled cabbage, &c. As for the ducks, I certainly had some pease, very fine yellow stiff pease, that ought to have been split before they were boiled; but, with regard to the ducks, I saw the animals gobbled up before my eyes by an old widow lady and her party just as I was shrieking to the steward to bring a knife and fork to carve them. The fellow! (I mean the widow lady’s whiskered companion)–I saw him eat pease with the very knife with which he had dissected the duck!
After dinner (as I need not tell the keen observer of human nature who peruses this) the human mind, if the body be in a decent state, expands into gayety and benevolence, and the intellect longs to measure itself in friendly converse with the divers intelligences around it. We ascend upon deck, and after eying each other for a brief space and with a friendly modest hesitation, we begin anon to converse about the weather and other profound and delightful themes of English discourse. We confide to each other our respective opinions of the ladies round about us. Look at that charming creature in a pink bonnet and a dress of the pattern of a Kilmarnock snuff-box: a stalwart Irish gentleman in a green coat and bushy red whiskers is whispering something very agreeable into her ear, as is the wont of gentlemen of his nation; for her dark eyes kindle, her red lips open and give an opportunity to a dozen beautiful pearly teeth to display themselves, and glance brightly in the sun; while round the teeth and the lips a number of lovely dimples make their appearance, and her whole countenance assumes a look of perfect health and happiness. See her companion in shot silk and a dove-colored parasol; in what a graceful Watteau-like attitude she reclines. The tall courier who has been bouncing about the deck in attendance upon these ladies (it is his first day of service, and he is eager to make a favorable impression on them and the lady’s-maids too) has just brought them from the carriage a small paper of sweet cakes (nothing is prettier than to see a pretty woman eating sweet biscuits) and a bottle that evidently contains Malmsey madeira. How daintily they sip it; how happy they seem; how that lucky rogue of an Irishman prattles away! Yonder is a noble group indeed: an English gentleman and his family. Children, mother, grandmother, grown-up daughters, father, and domestics, twenty-two in all. They have a table to themselves on the deck, and the consumption of eatables among them is really endless. The nurses have been bustling to and fro, and bringing, first, slices of cake; then dinner; then tea with huge family jugs of milk; and the little people have been playing hide-and-seek round the deck, coquetting with the other children, and making friends of every soul on board. I love to see the kind eyes of women fondly watching them as they gambol about; a female face, be it ever so plain, when occupied in regarding children, becomes celestial almost, and a man can hardly fail to be good and happy while he is looking on at such sights. “Ah, sir!” says a great big man, whom you would not accuse of sentiment, “I have a couple of those little things at home;” and he stops and heaves a great big sigh and swallows down a half-tumbler of cold something and water. We know what the honest fellow means well enough. He is saying to himself, “God bless my girls and their mother!” but, being a Briton, is too manly to speak out in a more intelligible way. Perhaps it is as well for him to be quiet, and not chatter and gesticulate like those Frenchmen a few yards from him, who are chirping over a bottle of champagne.
There is, as you may fancy, a number of such groups on the deck, and a pleasant occupation it is for a lonely man to watch them and build theories upon them, and examine those two personages seated cheek by jowl. One is an English youth, travelling for the first time, who has been hard at his Guidebook during the whole journey. He has a “Manuel du Voyageur” in his pocket: a very pretty, amusing little oblong work it is too, and might be very useful, if the foreign people in three languages, among whom you travel, would but give the answers set down in the book, or understand the questions you put to them out of it. The other honest gentleman in the fur cap, what can his occupation be? We know him at once for what he is. “Sir,” says he, in a fine German accent, “I am a brofessor of languages, and will gif you lessons in Danish, Swedish, English, Bortuguese, Spanish and Bersian.” Thus occupied in meditations, the rapid hours and the rapid steamer pass quickly on. The sun is sinking, and, as he drops, the ingenious luminary sets the Thames on fire: several worthy gentlemen, watch in hand, are eagerly examining the phenomena attending his disappearance,–rich clouds of purple and gold, that form the curtains of his bed,–little barks that pass black across his disc, his disc every instant dropping nearer and nearer into the water. “There he goes!” says one sagacious observer. “No, he doesn’t,” cries another. Now he is gone, and the steward is already threading the deck, asking the passengers, right and left, if they will take a little supper. What a grand object is a sunset, and what a wonder is an appetite at sea! Lo! the horned moon shines pale over Margate, and the red beacon is gleaming from distant Ramsgate pier.
. . . . . .
A great rush is speedily made for the mattresses that lie in the boat at the ship’s side; and as the night is delightfully calm, many fair ladies and worthy men determine to couch on deck for the night. The proceedings of the former, especially if they be young and pretty, the philosopher watches with indescribable emotion and interest. What a number of pretty coquetries do the ladies perform, and into what pretty attitudes do they take care to fall! All the little children have been gathered up by the nursery-maids, and are taken down to roost below. Balmy sleep seals the eyes of many tired wayfarers, as you see in the case of the Russian nobleman asleep among the portmanteaus; and Titmarsh, who has been walking the deck for some time with a great mattress on his shoulders, knowing full well that were he to relinquish it for an instant, some other person would seize on it, now stretches his bed upon the deck, wraps his cloak about his knees, draws his white cotton nightcap tight over his head and ears; and, as the smoke of his cigar rises calmly upwards to the deep sky and the cheerful twinkling stars, he feels himself exquisitely happy, and thinks of thee, my Juliana!
. . . . . .
Why people, because they are in a steamboat, should get up so deucedly early I cannot understand. Gentlemen have been walking over my legs ever since three o’clock this morning, and, no doubt, have been indulging in personalities (which I hate) regarding my appearance and manner of sleeping, lying, snoring. Let the wags laugh on; but a far pleasanter occupation is to sleep until breakfast-time, or near it.
The tea, and ham and eggs, which, with a beefsteak or two, and three or four rounds of toast, form the component parts of the above-named elegant meal, are taken in the River Scheldt. Little neat, plump-looking churches and villages are rising here and there among tufts of trees and pastures that are wonderfully green. To the right, as the “Guide-book” says, is Walcheren; and on the left Cadsand, memorable for the English expedition of 1809, when Lord Chatham, Sir Walter Manny, and Henry Earl of Derby, at the head of the English, gained a great victory over the Flemish mercenaries in the pay of Philippe of Valois. The cloth-yard shafts of the English archers did great execution. Flushing was taken, and Lord Chatham returned to England, where he distinguished himself greatly in the debates on the American war, which he called the brightest jewel of the British crown. You see, my love, that, though an artist by profession, my education has by no means been neglected; and what, indeed, would be the pleasure of travel, unless these charming historical recollections were brought to bear upon it?
As many hundreds of thousands of English visit this city (I have met at least a hundred of them in this half-hour walking the streets, “Guide-book” in hand), and as the ubiquitous Murray has already depicted the place, there is no need to enter into a long description of it, its neatness, its beauty, and its stiff antique splendor. The tall pale houses have many of them crimped gables, that look like Queen Elizabeth’s ruffs. There are as many people in the streets as in London at three o’clock in the morning; the market-women wear bonnets of a flower-pot shape, and have shining brazen milk-pots, which are delightful to the eyes of a painter. Along the quays of the lazy Scheldt are innumerable good-natured groups of beer-drinkers (small-beer is the most good-natured drink in the world); along the barriers outside of the town, and by the glistening canals, are more beer-shops and more beer-drinkers. The city is defended by the queerest fat military. The chief traffic is between the hotels and the railroad. The hotels give wonderful good dinners, and especially at the “Grand Laboureur” may be mentioned a peculiar tart, which is the best of all tarts that ever a man ate since he was ten years old. A moonlight walk is delightful. At ten o’clock the whole city is quiet; and so little changed does it seem to be, that you may walk back three hundred years into time, and fancy yourself a majestical Spaniard, or an oppressed and patriotic Dutchman at your leisure. You enter the inn, and the old Quentin Durward court-yard, on which the old towers look down. There is a sound of singing–singing at midnight. Is it Don Sombrero, who is singing an Andalusian seguidilla under the window of the Flemish burgomaster’s daughter? Ah, no! it is a fat Englishman in a zephyr coat: he is drinking cold gin-and-water in the moonlight, and warbling softly–
“Nix my dolly, pals, fake away,
N-ix my dolly, pals, fake a–a–way.”*
* In 1844.
I wish the good people would knock off the top part of Antwerp Cathedral spire. Nothing can be more gracious and elegant than the lines of the first two compartments; but near the top there bulges out a little round, ugly, vulgar Dutch monstrosity (for which the architects have, no doubt, a name) which offends the eye cruelly. Take the Apollo, and set upon him a bob-wig and a little cocked hat; imagine “God Save the King” ending with a jig; fancy a polonaise, or procession of slim, stately, elegant court beauties, headed by a buffoon dancing a hornpipe. Marshal Gerard should have discharged a bombshell at that abomination, and have given the noble steeple a chance to be finished in the grand style of the early fifteenth century, in which it was begun.
This style of criticism is base and mean, and quite contrary to the orders of the immortal Goethe, who was only for allowing the eye to recognize the beauties of a great work, but would have its defects passed over. It is an unhappy, luckless organization which will be perpetually fault-finding, and in the midst of a grand concert of music will persist only in hearing that unfortunate fiddle out of tune.
Within–except where the rococo architects have introduced their ornaments (here is the fiddle out of tune again)–the cathedral is noble. A rich, tender sunshine is streaming in through the windows, and gilding the stately edifice with the purest light. The admirable stained-glass windows are not too brilliant in their colors. The organ is playing a rich, solemn music; some two hundred of people are listening to the service; and there is scarce one of the women kneeling on her chair, enveloped in her full majestic black drapery, that is not a fine study for a painter. These large black mantles of heavy silk brought over the heads of the women, and covering their persons, fall into such fine folds of drapery, that they cannot help being picturesque and noble. See, kneeling by the side of two of those fine devout-looking figures, is a lady in a little twiddling Parisian hat and feather, in a little lace mantelet, in a tight gown and a bustle. She is almost as monstrous as yonder figure of the Virgin, in a hoop, and with a huge crown and a ball and a sceptre; and a bambino dressed in a little hoop, and in a little crown, round which are clustered flowers and pots of orange-trees, and before which many of the faithful are at prayer. Gentle clouds of incense come wafting through the vast edifice; and in the lulls of the music you hear the faint chant of the priest, and the silver tinkle of the bell.
Six Englishmen, with the commissionaires, and the “Murray’s Guide- books” in their hands, are looking at the “Descent from the Cross.” Of this picture the “Guide-book” gives you orders how to judge. If it is the end of religious painting to express the religious sentiment, a hundred of inferior pictures must rank before Rubens. Who was ever piously affected by any picture of the master? He can depict a livid thief writhing upon the cross, sometimes a blond Magdalen weeping below it; but it is a Magdalen a very short time indeed after her repentance: her yellow brocades and flaring satins are still those which she wore when she was of the world; her body has not yet lost the marks of the feasting and voluptuousness in which she used to indulge, according to the legend. Not one of the Rubens’s pictures among all the scores that decorate chapels and churches here, has the least tendency to purify, to touch the affections, or to awaken the feelings of religious respect and wonder. The “Descent from the Cross” is vast, gloomy, and awful; but the awe inspired by it is, as I take it, altogether material. He might have painted a picture of any criminal broken on the wheel, and the sensation inspired by it would have been precisely similar. Nor in a religious picture do you want the savoir-faire of the master to be always protruding itself; it detracts from the feeling of reverence, just as the thumping of cushion and the spouting of tawdry oratory does from a sermon: meek religion disappears, shouldered out of the desk by the pompous, stalwart, big-chested, fresh-colored, bushy-whiskered pulpiteer. Rubens’s piety has always struck us as of this sort. If he takes a pious subject, it is to show you in what a fine way he, Peter Paul Rubens, can treat it. He never seems to doubt but that he is doing it a great honor. His “Descent from the Cross,” and its accompanying wings and cover, are a set of puns upon the word Christopher, of which the taste is more odious than that of the hooped-petticoated Virgin yonder, with her artificial flowers, and her rings and brooches. The people who made an offering of that hooped petticoat did their best, at any rate; they knew no better. There is humility in that simple, quaint present; trustfulness and kind intention. Looking about at other altars, you see (much to the horror of pious Protestants) all sorts of queer little emblems hanging up under little pyramids of penny candles that are sputtering and flaring there. Here you have a silver arm, or a little gold toe, or a wax leg, or a gilt eye, signifying and commemorating cures that have been performed by the supposed intercession of the saint over whose chapel they hang. Well, although they are abominable superstitions, yet these queer little offerings seem to me to be a great deal more pious than Rubens’s big pictures; just as is the widow with her poor little mite compared to the swelling Pharisee who flings his purse of gold into the plate.
A couple of days of Rubens and his church pictures makes one thoroughly and entirely sick of him. His very genius and splendor pails upon one, even taking the pictures as worldly pictures. One grows weary of being perpetually feasted with this rich, coarse, steaming food. Considering them as church pictures, I don’t want to go to church to hear, however splendid, an organ play the “British Grenadiers.”
The Antwerpians have set up a clumsy bronze statue of their divinity in a square of the town; and those who have not enough of Rubens in the churches may study him, and indeed to much greater advantage, in a good, well-lighted museum. Here, there is one picture, a dying saint taking the communion, a large piece ten or eleven feet high, and painted in an incredibly short space of time, which is extremely curious indeed for the painter’s study. The picture is scarcely more than an immense magnificent sketch; but it tells the secret of the artist’s manner, which, in the midst of its dash and splendor, is curiously methodical. Where the shadows are warm the lights are cold, and vice versa; and the picture has been so rapidly painted, that the tints lie raw by the side of one another, the artist not having taken the trouble to blend them.
There are two exquisite Vandykes (whatever Sir Joshua may say of them), and in which the very management of the gray tones which the President abuses forms the principal excellence and charm. Why, after all, are we not to have our opinion? Sir Joshua is not the Pope. The color of one of those Vandykes is as fine as FINE Paul Veronese, and the sentiment beautifully tender and graceful.
I saw, too, an exhibition of the modern Belgian artists (1843), the remembrance of whose pictures after a month’s absence has almost entirely vanished. Wappers’s hand, as I thought, seemed to have grown old and feeble, Verboeckhoven’s cattle-pieces are almost as good as Paul Potter’s, and Keyser has dwindled down into namby- pamby prettiness, pitiful to see in the gallant young painter who astonished the Louvre artists ten years ago by a hand almost as dashing and ready as that of Rubens himself. There were besides many caricatures of the new German school, which are in themselves caricatures of the masters before Raphael.
An instance of honesty may be mentioned here with applause. The writer lost a pocket-book containing a passport and a couple of modest ten-pound notes. The person who found the portfolio ingeniously put it into the box of the post-office, and it was faithfully restored to the owner; but somehow the two ten-pound notes were absent. It was, however, a great comfort to get the passport, and the pocket-book, which must be worth about ninepence.
It was night when we arrived by the railroad from Antwerp at Brussels; the route is very pretty and interesting, and the flat countries through which the road passes in the highest state of peaceful, smiling cultivation. The fields by the roadside are enclosed by hedges as in England, the harvest was in part down, and an English country gentleman who was of our party pronounced the crops to be as fine as any he had ever seen. Of this matter a Cockney cannot judge accurately, but any man can see with what extraordinary neatness and care all these little plots of ground are tilled, and admire the richness and brilliancy of the vegetation. Outside of the moat of Antwerp, and at every village by which we passed, it was pleasant to see the happy congregations of well-clad people that basked in the evening sunshine, and soberly smoked their pipes and drank their Flemish beer. Men who love this drink must, as I fancy, have something essentially peaceful in their composition, and must be more easily satisfied than folks on our side of the water. The excitement of Flemish beer is, indeed, not great. I have tried both the white beer and the brown; they are both of the kind which schoolboys denominate “swipes,” very sour and thin to the taste, but served, to be sure, in quaint Flemish jugs that do not seem to have changed their form since the days of Rubens, and must please the lovers of antiquarian knick-knacks. Numbers of comfortable-looking women and children sat beside the head of the family upon the tavern-benches, and it was amusing to see one little fellow of eight years old smoking, with much gravity, his father’s cigar. How the worship of the sacred plant of tobacco has spread through all Europe! I am sure that the persons who cry out against the use of it are guilty of superstition and unreason, and that it would be a proper and easy task for scientific persons to write an encomium upon the weed. In solitude it is the pleasantest companion possible, and in company never de trop. To a student it suggests all sorts of agreeable thoughts, it refreshes the brain when weary, and every sedentary cigar-smoker will tell you how much good he has had from it, and how he has been able to return to his labor, after a quarter of an hour’s mild interval of the delightful leaf of Havana. Drinking has gone from among us since smoking came in. It is a wicked error to say that smokers are drunkards; drink they do, but of gentle diluents mostly, for fierce stimulants of wine or strong liquors are abhorrent to the real lover of the Indian weed. Ah! my Juliana, join not in the vulgar cry that is raised against us. Cigars and cool drinks beget quiet conversations, good-humor, meditation; not hot blood such as mounts into the head of drinkers of apoplectic port or dangerous claret. Are we not more moral and reasonable than our forefathers? Indeed I think so somewhat; and many improvements of social life and converse must date with the introduction of the pipe.
We were a dozen tobacco-consumers in the wagon of the train that brought us from Antwerp; nor did the women of the party (sensible women!) make a single objection to the fumigation. But enough of this; only let me add, in conclusion, that an excellent Israelitish gentleman, Mr. Hartog of Antwerp, supplies cigars for a penny apiece, such as are not to be procured in London for four times the sum.
Through smiling corn-fields, then, and by little woods from which rose here and there the quaint peaked towers of some old-fashioned chateaux, our train went smoking along at thirty miles an hour. We caught a glimpse of Mechlin steeple, at first dark against the sunset, and afterwards bright as we came to the other side of it, and admired long glistening canals or moats that surrounded the queer old town, and were lighted up in that wonderful way which the sun only understands, and not even Mr. Turner, with all his vermilion and gamboge, can put down on canvas. The verdure was everywhere astonishing, and we fancied we saw many golden Cuyps as we passed by these quiet pastures.
Steam-engines and their accompaniments, blazing forges, gaunt manufactories, with numberless windows and long black chimneys, of course take away from the romance of the place but, as we whirled into Brussels, even these engines had a fine appearance. Three or four of the snorting, galloping monsters had just finished their journey, and there was a quantity of flaming ashes lying under the brazen bellies of each that looked properly lurid and demoniacal. The men at the station came out with flaming torches–awful-looking fellows indeed! Presently the different baggage was handed out, and in the very worst vehicle I ever entered, and at the very slowest pace, we were borne to the “Hotel de Suede,” from which house of entertainment this letter is written.
We strolled into the town, but, though the night was excessively fine and it was not yet eleven o’clock, the streets of the little capital were deserted, and the handsome blazing cafes round about the theatres contained no inmates. Ah, what a pretty sight is the Parisian Boulevard on a night like this! how many pleasant hours has one passed in watching the lights, and the hum, and the stir, and the laughter of those happy, idle people! There was none of this gayety here; nor was there a person to be found, except a skulking commissioner or two (whose real name in French is that of a fish that is eaten with fennel-sauce), and who offered to conduct us to certain curiosities in the town. What must we English not have done, that in every town in Europe we are to be fixed upon by scoundrels of this sort; and what a pretty reflection it is on our country that such rascals find the means of living on us!
Early the next morning we walked through a number of streets in the place, and saw certain sights. The Park is very pretty, and all the buildings round about it have an air of neatness–almost of stateliness. The houses are tall, the streets spacious, and the roads extremely clean. In the Park is a little theatre, a cafe somewhat ruinous, a little palace for the king of this little kingdom, some smart public buildings (with S. P. Q. B. emblazoned on them, at which pompous inscription one cannot help laughing), and other rows of houses somewhat resembling a little Rue de Rivoli. Whether from my own natural greatness and magnanimity, or from that handsome share of national conceit that every Englishman possesses, my impressions of this city are certainly anything but respectful. It has an absurd kind of Lilliput look with it. There are soldiers, just as in Paris, better dressed, and doing a vast deal of drumming and bustle; and yet, somehow, far from being frightened at them, I feel inclined to laugh in their faces. There are little Ministers, who work at their little bureaux; and to read the journals, how fierce they are! A great thundering Times could hardly talk more big. One reads about the rascally Ministers, the miserable Opposition, the designs of tyrants, the eyes of Europe, &c., just as one would in real journals. The Moniteur of Ghent belabors the Independent of Brussels; the Independent falls foul of the Lynx; and really it is difficult not to suppose sometimes that these worthy people are in earnest. And yet how happy were they sua si bona norint! Think what a comfort it would be to belong to a little state like this; not to abuse their privilege, but philosophically to use it. If I were a Belgian, I would not care one single fig about politics. I would not read thundering leading-articles. I would not have an opinion. What’s the use of an opinion here? Happy fellows! do not the French, the English, and the Prussians, spare them the trouble of thinking, and make all their opinions for them? Think of living in a country free, easy, respectable, wealthy, and with the nuisance of talking politics removed from out of it. All this might the Belgians have, and a part do they enjoy, but not the best part; no, these people will be brawling and by the ears, and parties run as high here as at Stoke Pogis or little Pedlington.
These sentiments were elicited by the reading of a paper at the cafe in the Park, where we sat under the trees for a while and sipped our cool lemonade. Numbers of statues decorate the place, the very worst I ever saw. These Cupids must have been erected in the time of the Dutch dynasty, as I judge from the immense posterior developments. Indeed the arts of the country are very low. The statues here, and the lions before the Prince of Orange’s palace, would disgrace almost the figurehead of a ship.
Of course we paid our visit to this little lion of Brussels (the Prince’s palace, I mean). The architecture of the building is admirably simple and firm; and you remark about it, and all other works here, a high finish in doors, wood-works, paintings, &c., that one does not see in France, where the buildings are often rather sketched than completed, and the artist seems to neglect the limbs, as it were, and extremities of his figures.
The finish of this little place is exquisite. We went through some dozen of state-rooms, paddling along over the slippery floors of inlaid woods in great slippers, without which we must have come to the ground. How did his Royal Highness the Prince of Orange manage when he lived here, and her Imperial Highness the Princess, and their excellencies the chamberlains and the footmen? They must have been on their tails many times a day, that’s certain, and must have cut queer figures.
The ball-room is beautiful–all marble, and yet with a comfortable, cheerful look; the other apartments are not less agreeable, and the people looked with intense satisfaction at some great lapis-lazuli tables, which the guide informed us were worth four millions, more or less; adding with a very knowing look, that they were un peu plus cher que l’or. This speech has a tremendous effect on visitors, and when we met some of our steamboat companions in the Park or elsewhere–in so small a place as this one falls in with them a dozen times a day–“Have you seen the tables?” was the general question. Prodigious tables are they, indeed! Fancy a table, my dear–a table four feet wide–a table with legs. Ye heavens! the mind can hardly picture to itself anything so beautiful and so tremendous!
There are some good pictures in the palace, too, but not so extraordinarily good as the guide-books and the guide would have us to think. The latter, like most men of his class, is an ignoramus, who showed us an Andrea del Sarto (copy or original), and called it a Correggio, and made other blunders of a like nature. As is the case in England, you are hurried through the rooms without being allowed time to look at the pictures, and, consequently, to pronounce a satisfactory judgment on them.
In the Museum more time was granted me, and I spent some hours with pleasure there. It is an absurd little gallery, absurdly imitating the Louvre, with just such compartments and pillars as you see in the noble Paris gallery; only here the pillars and capitals are stucco and white in place of marble and gold, and plaster-of-paris busts of great Belgians are placed between the pillars. An artist of the country has made a picture containing them, and you will be ashamed of your ignorance when you hear many of their names. Old Tilly of Magdeburg figures in one corner; Rubens, the endless Rubens, stands in the midst. What a noble countenance it is, and what a manly, swaggering consciousness of power!
The picture to see here is a portrait, by the great Peter Paul, of one of the governesses of the Netherlands. It is just the finest portrait that ever was seen. Only a half-length, but such a majesty, such a force, such a splendor, such a simplicity about it! The woman is in a stiff black dress, with a ruff and a few pearls; a yellow curtain is behind her–the simplest arrangement that can be conceived; but this great man knew how to rise to his occasion; and no better proof can be shown of what a fine gentleman he was than this his homage to the vice-Queen. A common bungler would have painted her in her best clothes, with crown and sceptre, just as our Queen has been painted by–but comparisons are odious. Here stands this majestic woman in her every-day working-dress of black satin, LOOKING YOUR HAT OFF, as it were. Another portrait of the same personage hangs elsewhere in the gallery, and it is curious to observe the difference between the two, and see how a man of genius paints a portrait, and how a common limner executes it.
Many more pictures are there here by Rubens, or rather from Rubens’s manufactory,–odious and vulgar most of them are; fat Magdalens, coarse Saints, vulgar Virgins, with the scene-painter’s tricks far too evident upon the canvas. By the side of one of the most astonishing color-pieces in the world, the “Worshipping of the Magi,” is a famous picture of Paul Veronese that cannot be too much admired. As Rubens sought in the first picture to dazzle and astonish by gorgeous variety, Paul in his seems to wish to get his effect by simplicity, and has produced the most noble harmony that can be conceived. Many more works are there that merit notice,–a singularly clever, brilliant, and odious Jordaens, for example; some curious costume-pieces; one or two works by the Belgian Raphael, who was a very Belgian Raphael, indeed; and a long gallery of pictures of the very oldest school, that, doubtless, afford much pleasure to the amateurs of ancient art. I confess that I am inclined to believe in very little that existed before the time of Raphael. There is, for instance, the Prince of Orange’s picture by Perugino, very pretty indeed, up to a certain point, but all the heads are repeated, all the drawing is bad and affected; and this very badness and affectation, is what the so-called Catholic school is always anxious to imitate. Nothing can be more juvenile or paltry than the works of the native Belgians here exhibited. Tin crowns are suspended over many of them, showing that the pictures are prize compositions: and pretty things, indeed, they are! Have you ever read an Oxford prize-poem! Well, these pictures are worse even than the Oxford poems–an awful assertion to make.
In the matter of eating, dear sir, which is the next subject of the fine arts, a subject that, after many hours’ walking, attracts a gentleman very much, let me attempt to recall the transactions of this very day at the table-d’-hote. 1, green pea-soup; 2, boiled salmon; 3, mussels; 4, crimped skate; 5, roast-meat; 6, patties; 7, melons; 8, carp, stewed with mushrooms and onions; 9, roast-turkey; 10, cauliflower and butter; 11, fillets of venison piques, with asafoetida sauce; 12, stewed calf’s-ear; 13, roast-veal; 14, roast- lamb; 15, stewed cherries; 16, rice-pudding; 17, Gruyere cheese, and about twenty-four cakes of different kinds. Except 5, 13, and 14, I give you my word I ate of all written down here, with three rolls of bread and a score of potatoes. What is the meaning of it? How is the stomach of man to be brought to desire and to receive all this quantity? Do not gastronomists complain of heaviness in London after eating a couple of mutton-chops? Do not respectable gentlemen fall asleep in their arm-chairs? Are they fit for mental labor? Far from it. But look at the difference here: after dinner here one is as light as a gossamer. One walks with pleasure, reads with pleasure, writes with pleasure–nay, there is the supper-bell going at ten o’clock, and plenty of eaters, too. Let lord mayors and aldermen look to it, this fact of the extraordinary increase of appetite in Belgium, and, instead of steaming to Blackwall, come a little further to Antwerp.
Of ancient architectures in the place, there is a fine old Port de Halle, which has a tall, gloomy, bastille look; a most magnificent town-hall, that has been sketched a thousand of times, and opposite it, a building that I think would be the very model for a Conservative club-house in London. Oh! how charming it would be to be a great painter, and give the character of the building, and the numberless groups round about it. The booths lighted up by the sun, the market-women in their gowns of brilliant hue, each group having a character and telling its little story, the troops of men lolling in all sorts of admirable attitudes of ease round the great lamp. Half a dozen light-blue dragoons are lounging about, and peeping over the artist as the drawing is made, and the sky is more bright and blue than one sees it in a hundred years in London.
The priests of the country are a remarkably well-fed and respectable race, without that scowling, hang-dog look which one has remarked among reverend gentlemen in the neighboring country of France. Their reverences wear buckles to their shoes, light-blue neck-cloths, and huge three-cornered hats in good condition. To- day, strolling by the cathedral, I heard the tinkling of a bell in the street, and beheld certain persons, male and female, suddenly plump down on their knees before a little procession that was passing. Two men in black held a tawdry red canopy, a priest walked beneath it holding the sacrament covered with a cloth, and before him marched a couple of little altar-boys in short white surplices, such as you see in Rubens, and holding lacquered lamps. A small train of street-boys followed the procession, cap in hand, and the clergyman finally entered a hospital for old women, near the church, the canopy and the lamp-bearers remaining without.
It was a touching scene, and as I stayed to watch it, I could not but think of the poor old soul who was dying within, listening to the last words of prayer, led by the hand of the priest to the brink of the black fathomless grave. How bright the sun was shining without all the time, and how happy and careless every thing around us looked!
The Duke d’Arenberg has a picture-gallery worthy of his princely house. It does not contain great pieces, but tit-bits of pictures, such as suit an aristocratic epicure. For such persons a great huge canvas is too much, it is like sitting down alone to a roasted ox; and they do wisely, I think, to patronize small, high-flavored, delicate morceaux, such as the Duke has here.
Among them may be mentioned, with special praise, a magnificent small Rembrandt, a Paul Potter of exceeding minuteness and beauty, an Ostade, which reminds one of Wilkie’s early performances, and a Dusart quite as good as Ostade. There is a Berghem, much more unaffected than that artist’s works generally are; and, what is more, precious in the eyes of many ladies as an object of art, there is, in one of the grand saloons, some needlework done by the Duke’s own grandmother, which is looked at with awe by those admitted to see the palace.
The chief curiosity, if not the chief ornament of a very elegant library, filled with vases and bronzes, is a marble head, supposed to be the original head of the Laocoon. It is, unquestionably a finer head than that which at present figures upon the shoulders of the famous statue. The expression of woe is more manly and intense; in the group as we know it, the head of the principal figure has always seemed to me to be a grimace of grief, as are the two accompanying young gentlemen with their pretty attitudes, and their little silly, open-mouthed despondency. It has always had upon me the effect of a trick, that statue, and not of a piece of true art. It would look well in the vista of a garden; it is not august enough for a temple, with all its jerks and twirls, and polite convulsions. But who knows what susceptibilities such a confession may offend? Let us say no more about the Laocoon, nor its head, nor its tail. The Duke was offered its weight in gold, they say, for this head, and refused. It would be a shame to speak ill of such a treasure, but I have my opinion of the man who made the offer.
In the matter of sculpture almost all the Brussels churches are decorated with the most laborious wooden pulpits, which may be worth their weight in gold, too, for what I know, including his reverence preaching inside. At St. Gudule the preacher mounts into no less a place than the garden of Eden, being supported by Adam and Eve, by Sin and Death, and numberless other animals; he walks up to his desk by a rustic railing of flowers, fruits, and vegetables, with wooden peacocks, paroquets, monkeys biting apples, and many more of the birds and beasts of the field. In another church the clergyman speaks from out a hermitage; in a third from a carved palm-tree, which supports a set of oak clouds that form the canopy of the pulpit, and are, indeed, not much heavier in appearance than so many huge sponges. A priest, however tall or stout, must be lost in the midst of all these queer gimcracks; in order to be consistent, they ought to dress him up, too, in some odd fantastical suit. I can fancy the Cure of Meudon preaching out of such a place, or the Rev. Sydney Smith, or that famous clergyman of the time of the League, who brought all Paris to laugh and listen to him.
But let us not be too supercilious and ready to sneer. It is only bad taste. It may have been very true devotion which erected these strange edifices.
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.
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 to-day “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.
It is, my dear, the happy privilege of your sex in England to quit the dinner-table after the wine-bottles have once or twice gone round it, and you are thereby saved (though, to be sure, I can’t tell what the ladies do up stairs)–you are saved two or three hours’ excessive dulness, which the men are obliged to go through.
I ask any gentleman who reads this–the letters to my Juliana being written with an eye to publication–to remember especially how many times, how many hundred times, how many thousand times, in his hearing, the battle of Waterloo has been discussed after dinner, and to call to mind how cruelly he has been bored by the discussion. “Ah, it was lucky for us that the Prussians came up!” says one little gentleman, looking particularly wise and ominous. “Hang the Prussians!” (or, perhaps, something stronger “the Prussians!”) says a stout old major on half-pay. “We beat the French without them, sir, as beaten them we always have! We were thundering down the hill of Belle Alliance, sir, at the backs of them, and the French were crying ‘Sauve qui peut’ long before the Prussians ever touched them!” And so the battle opens, and for many mortal hours, amid rounds of claret, rages over and over again.
I thought to myself considering the above things, what a fine thing it will be in after-days to say that I have been to Brussels and never seen the field of Waterloo; indeed, that I am such a philosopher as not to care a fig about the battle–nay, to regret, rather, that when Napoleon came back, the British Government had not spared their men and left him alone.
But this pitch of philosophy was unattainable. This morning, after having seen the Park, the fashionable boulevard, the pictures, the cafes–having sipped, I say, the sweets of every flower that grows in this paradise of Brussels, quite weary of the place, we mounted on a Namur diligence, and jingled off at four miles an hour for Waterloo.
The road is very neat and agreeable: the Forest of Soignies here and there interposes pleasantly, to give your vehicle a shade; the country, as usual, is vastly fertile and well cultivated. A farmer and the conducteur were my companions in the imperial, and could I have understood their conversation, my dear, you should have had certainly a report of it. The jargon which they talked was, indeed, most queer and puzzling–French, I believe, strangely hashed up and pronounced, for here and there one could catch a few words of it. Now and anon, however, they condescended to speak in the purest French they could muster; and, indeed, nothing is more curious than to hear the French of the country. You can’t understand why all the people insist upon speaking it so badly. I asked the conductor if he had been at the battle; he burst out laughing like a philosopher, as he was, and said “Pas si bete.” I asked the farmer whether his contributions were lighter now than in King William’s time, and lighter than those in the time of the Emperor? He vowed that in war-time he had not more to pay than in time of peace (and this strange fact is vouched for by every person of every nation), and being asked wherefore the King of Holland had been ousted from his throne, replied at once, “Parceque c’etoit un voleur:” for which accusation I believe there is some show of reason, his Majesty having laid hands on much Belgian property before the lamented outbreak which cost him his crown. A vast deal of laughing and roaring passed between these two worldly people and the postilion, whom they called “baron,” and I thought no doubt that this talk was one of the many jokes that my companions were in the habit of making. But not so: the postilion was an actual baron, the bearer of an ancient name, the descendant of gallant gentlemen. Good heavens! what would Mrs. Trollope say to see his lordship here? His father the old baron had dissipated the family fortune, and here was this young nobleman, at about five-and-forty, compelled to bestride a clattering Flemish stallion, and bump over dusty pavements at the rate of five miles an hour. But see the beauty of high blood: with what a calm grace the man of family accommodates himself to fortune. Far from being cast down, his lordship met his fate like a man: he swore and laughed the whole of the journey, and as we changed horses, condescended to partake of half a pint of Louvain beer, to which the farmer treated him– indeed the worthy rustic treated me to a glass too.
Much delight and instruction have I had in the course of the journey from my guide, philosopher, and friend, the author of “Murray’s Handbook.” He has gathered together, indeed, a store of information, and must, to make his single volume, have gutted many hundreds of guide-books. How the Continental ciceroni must hate him, whoever he is! Every English party I saw had this infallible red book in their hands, and gained a vast deal of historical and general information from it. Thus I heard, in confidence, many remarkable anecdotes of Charles V., the Duke of Alva, Count Egmont, all of which I had before perceived, with much satisfaction, not only in the “Handbook,” but even in other works.
The Laureate is among the English poets evidently the great favorite of our guide: the choice does honor to his head and heart. A man must have a very strong bent for poetry, indeed, who carries Southey’s works in his portmanteau, and quotes them in proper time and occasion. Of course at Waterloo a spirit like our guide’s cannot fail to be deeply moved, and to turn to his favorite poet for sympathy. Hark how the laureated bard sings about the tombstones at Waterloo:–
“That temple to our hearts was hallow’d now, For many a wounded Briton there was laid, With such for help as time might then allow, From the fresh carnage of the field conveyed. And they whom human succor could not save, Here, in its precincts, found a hasty grave. And here, on marble tablets, set on high, In English lines by foreign workmen traced, The names familiar to an English eye, Their brethren here the fit memorial placed; Whose unadorned inscriptions briefly tell THEIR GALLANT COMRADES’ rank, and where they fell. The stateliest monument of human pride, Enriched with all magnificence of art, To honor chieftains who in victory died, Would wake no stronger feeling in the heart Than these plain tablets by the soldier’s hand Raised to his comrades in a foreign land.”
There are lines for you! wonderful for justice, rich in thought and novel ideas. The passage concerning their gallant comrades’ rank should be specially remarked. There indeed they lie, sure enough: the Honorable Colonel This of the Guards, Captain That of the Hussars, Major So-and-So of the Dragoons, brave men and good, who did their duty by their country on that day, and died in the performance of it.
Amen. But I confess fairly, that in looking at these tablets, I felt very much disappointed at not seeing the names of the MEN as well as the officers. Are they to be counted for nought? A few more inches of marble to each monument would have given space for all the names of the men; and the men of that day were the winners of the battle. We have a right to be as grateful individually to any given private as to any given officer; their duties were very much the same. Why should the country reserve its gratitude for the genteel occupiers of the army-list, and forget the gallant fellows whose humble names were written in the regimental books? In reading of the Wellington wars, and the conduct of the men engaged in them, I don’t know whether to respect them or to wonder at them most. They have death, wounds, and poverty in contemplation; in possession, poverty, hard labor, hard fare, and small thanks. If they do wrong, they are handed over to the inevitable provost- marshal; if they are heroes, heroes they may be, but they remain privates still, handling the old brown-bess, starving on the old twopence a day. They grow gray in battle and victory, and after thirty years of bloody service, a young gentleman of fifteen, fresh from a preparatory school, who can scarcely read, and came but yesterday with a pinafore in to papa’s dessert–such a young gentleman, I say, arrives in a spick-and-span red coat, and calmly takes the command over our veteran, who obeys him as if God and nature had ordained that so throughout time it should be.
That privates should obey, and that they should be smartly punished if they disobey, this one can understand very well. But to say obey for ever and ever–to say that Private John Styles is, by some physical disproportion, hopelessly inferior to Cornet Snooks–to say that Snooks shall have honors, epaulets, and a marble tablet if he dies, and that Styles shall fight his fight, and have his twopence a day, and when shot down shall be shovelled into a hole with other Styleses, and so forgotten; and to think that we had in the course of the last war some 400,000 of these Styleses, and some 10,000, say, of the Snooks sort–Styles being by nature exactly as honest, clever, and brave as Snooks–and to think that the 400,000 should bear this, is the wonder!
Suppose Snooks makes a speech. “Look at these Frenchmen, British soldiers,” says he, “and remember who they are. Two-and-twenty years since they hurled their King from his throne and murdered him” (groans). “They flung out of their country their ancient and famous nobility–they published the audacious doctrine of equality– they made a cadet of artillery, a beggarly lawyer’s son, into an Emperor, and took ignoramuses from the ranks–drummers and privates, by Jove!–of whom they made kings, generals, and marshals! Is this to be borne?” (Cries of “No! no!”) “Upon them, my boys! down with these godless revolutionists, and rally round the British lion!”
So saying, Ensign Snooks (whose flag, which he can’t carry, is held by a huge grizzly color-sergeant,) draws a little sword, and pipes out a feeble huzza. The men of his company, roaring curses at the Frenchmen, prepare to receive and repel a thundering charge of French cuirassiers. The men fight, and Snooks is knighted because the men fought so well.
But live or die, win or lose, what do THEY get? English glory is too genteel to meddle with those humble fellows. She does not condescend to ask the names of the poor devils whom she kills in her service. Why was not every private man’s name written upon the stones in Waterloo Church as well as every officer’s? Five hundred pounds to the stone-cutters would have served to carve the whole catalogue, and paid the poor compliment of recognition to men who died in doing their duty. If the officers deserved a stone, the men did. But come, let us away and drop a tear over the Marquis of Anglesea’s leg!
As for Waterloo, has it not been talked of enough after dinner? Here are some oats that were plucked before Hougoumont, where grow not only oats, but flourishing crops of grape-shot, bayonets, and legion-of-honor crosses, in amazing profusion.
Well, though I made a vow not to talk about Waterloo either here or after dinner, there is one little secret admission that one must make after seeing it. Let an Englishman go and see that field, and he NEVER FORGETS IT. The sight is an event in his life; and, though it has been seen by millions of peaceable GENTS–grocers from Bond Street, meek attorneys from Chancery Lane, and timid tailors from Piccadilly–I will wager that there is not one of them but feels a glow as he looks at the place, and remembers that he, too, is an Englishman.
It is a wrong, egotistical, savage, unchristian feeling, and that’s the truth of it. A man of peace has no right to be dazzled by that red-coated glory, and to intoxicate his vanity with those remembrances of carnage and triumph. The same sentence which tells us that on earth there ought to be peace and good-will amongst men, tells us to whom GLORY belongs.