Chapter V. The Hague
Dutch precision - Shaping hands - Nature under control - Willow
v. Neptune - The lost star - S'Gravenhage - The
Mauritshuis - Rembrandt - The "School of Anatomy" - Jan
Vermeer of Delft - The frontispiece - Other pictures - The
Municipal Museum - Baron Steengracht's collection - The Mesdag
treasures - French romantics at The Hague - The Binnenhof - John
van Olden Barneveldt - Man's cruelty to man - The churches - The
fish market and first taste of Scheveningen - A crowded
street - Holland's reading - The Bosch - The club - The House
in the Wood - Mr. "Secretary" Prior - Old marvels - Howell the
receptive and Coryate the credulous.
Although often akin to the English, the Dutch character differs from it very noticeably in the matter of precision. The Englishman has little precision; the Dutchman has too much. He bends everything to it. He has at its dictates divided his whole country into parellelograms. Even the rushes in his swamps are governed by the same law. The carelessness of nature is offensive to him; he moulds and trains on every hand, as one may see on the railway journey to The Hague. Trees he endures only so long as they are obedient and equidistant: he likes them in avenues or straight lines; if they grow otherwise they must be pollarded. It is true that he has not touched the Bosch, at The Hague; but since his hands perforce have been kept off its trees, he has run scores of formal straight well-gravelled paths beneath their branches.
This passion for interference grew perhaps from exultation upon successful dealings with the sea. A man who by his own efforts can live in security below sea-level, and graze cattle luxuriantly where sand and pebbles and salt once made a desert, has perhaps the right to feel that everything in nature would be the better for a little manipulation. Eyes accustomed to the careless profusion that one may see even on a short railway journey in England are shocked to find nature so tractable both in land and water.
The Dutchman's pruning, however, is not done solely for the satisfaction of exerting control. These millions of pollarded willows which one sees from the line have a deeper significance than might ever be guessed at: it is they that are keeping out Holland's ancient enemy, the sea. In other words, a great part of the basis of the strength of the dykes is imparted by interwoven willow boughs, which are constantly being renewed under the vigilant eyes of the dyke inspectors. For the rest, the inveterate trimming of trees must be a comparatively modern custom, for many of the old landscapes depict careless foliage - Koninck's particularly. And look, for instance, at that wonderful picture - perhaps the finest landscape in Dutch art - Rembrandt's etching "The Three Trees". There is nothing in North Holland to-day as unstudied as that. I doubt if you could now find three trees of such individuality and courage.
When I was first at The Hague, seven years ago, I stayed not, as on my last visit, at the Oude Doelen, which is the most comfortable hotel in Holland, but at a more retired hostelry. It was spacious and antiquated, with large empty rooms, and cool passages, and an air of decay over all. Servants one never saw, nor any waiter proper; one's every need was carried out by a very small and very enthusiastic boy. "Is the hroom good, sare?" he asked, as he flung open the door of the bedroom with a superb flourish. "Is the sham good, sare?" he asked as he laid a pot of preserve on the table. He was the landlady's son or grandson, and a better boy never lived, but his part, for all his spirit and good humour, was a tragic one. For the greatest misfortune that can come upon an hotel-keeper had crushed this house: Baedeker had excised their star!
The landlady moved in the background, a disconsolate figure with a grievance. She waylaid us as we went out and as we came in. Was it not a good hotel? Was not the management excellent? Had we any complaints? And yet - see - once she had a star and now it was gone. Could we not help to regain it? Here was the secret of the grandson's splendid zeal. The little fellow was fighting to hitch the old hotel to a star once more, as Emerson had bidden.
Alas, it was in vain; for that was seven years ago, and I see that Baedeker still withholds the distinction. What a variety of misfortune this little world holds! While some of us are indulging our right to be unhappy over a thousand trivial matters, such as illness and disillusion, there are inn-keepers on the Continent who are staggering and struggling under real blows.
I wondered if it were better to have had a star and lost it, than never to have had a star at all. But I did not ask. The old lady's grief was too poignant, her mind too practical, for such questions.