Chapter XIV. Alkmaar and Hoorn, The Helder and Enkhuisen
To Alkmaar by canal - The Cheese Market - The Weigh House
clock - Buyers and sellers - The siege of Alkmaar - To
Hoorn by sea - A Peaceful harbour - Hoorn's explorer
sons - John Haring's bravery - The defeat of De Bossu - Negro
heroes - Hoorn's streets - and museum - Market day - and
Kermis - Nieuwediep - The Helder - The Lighthouse - Hotel
characters - The praise of the porter - Texel - Medemblik - King
Radbod's hesitancy - Enkhuisen - Paul Potter - Sir William Temple
and the old philosopher - The Dromedary.
If the weather is fine one should certainly go to Alkmaar by canal. The journey by water, on a steamer, is always interesting and intensely invigorating. It is only one remove from the open sea, so flat is the country, so free the air.
Alkmaar's magnet is its cheese market, which draws little companies of travellers thither every Friday in the season. To see it rightly one must reach Alkmaar on the preceding afternoon, to watch the arrival of the boats from the neighbouring farms, and see them unload their yellow freight on the market quay. The men who catch the cheeses are exceedingly adroit - it is the nearest thing to an English game that is played in Holland. Before they are finally placed in position the cheeses are liberally greased, until they glow and glitter like orange fires. All the afternoon the boats come in, with their collections from the various dairies on the water. By road also come cheeses in wagons of light polished wood painted blue within; and all the while the carillon of the beautiful grave Weigh House is ringing out its little tunes - the wedding march from "Lohengrin" among them - and the little mechanical horsemen are charging in the tourney to the blast of the little mechanical trumpeter. At one o'clock they run only a single course; but at noon the glories of Ashby-de-la-Zouche are enacted.
By nine o'clock on the Friday morning the market square is covered with rectangular yellow heaps arranged with Dutch systematic order and symmetry, many of them protected by tarpaulins, and the square is filled also with phlegmatic sellers and buyers, smoking, smoking, unceasingly smoking, and discussing the weather and the cheese, the cheese and the Government.
Not till ten may business begin. Instantly the first stroke of ten sounds the aspect of the place is changed. The Government and the weather recede; cheese emerges triumphant. Tarpaulins are stripped off; a new expression settles upon the features both of buyers and sellers; the dealers begin to move swiftly from one heap to another. They feel the cheeses, pat them, listen to them, plunge in their scoops and remove a long pink stick which they roll in their fingers, smell or taste and then neatly replace. Meanwhile, the seller stands by with an air part self-satisfaction, part contempt, part pity, part detachment, as who should say "It matters nothing to me whether this fussy fellow thinks the cheese good or not, buys it or not; but whether he thinks it good or bad, or whether he buys, or leaves it, it is still the best cheese in Alkmaar market, and some one will give me my price".
The seller gnaws his cigar, the buyer asks him what he asks. The buyer makes an offer. The seller refuses. The buyer increases it. The seller either refuses or accepts. In accepting, or drawing near acceptance, he extends his hand, which the buyer strikes once, and then pausing, strikes again. Apparently two such movements clench the bargain; but I must confess to being a bad guide here, for I could find no absolute rule to follow. The whole process of Alkmaar chaffering is exceedingly perplexing and elusive. Otherwise the buyer walks away to other cheeses, the seller by no means unconscious of his movements. A little later he returns, and then as likely as not his terms are accepted, unless another has been beforehand with him and bought the lot.
Not until half-past ten strikes may the weighing begin. At that hour the many porters suddenly spring into activity and hasten to the Weigh House with their loads, which are ticketed off by the master of the scales.
The scene is altogether very Dutch and very interesting; and one should make a point of crossing the canal to get a general view of the market, with the river craft in the foreground, the bustling dealers behind, and above all the elaborate tower and facade of the Weigh House.
Alkmaar otherwise is not of great interest. It has a large light church, bare and bleak according to custom, with very attractive green curtains against its whitewash, in which, according to the author of Through Noord-Holland, is a tomb containing "the entrails of Count Florence the Fifth". Here also is a model of one of De Ruyter's ships. Alkmaar also possesses a charming Oude Mannen en Oude Vrouwen Huis (or alms house, as we say) with white walls and a very pretty tower; quiet, pleasant streets; and on its outskirts a fine wood called the Alkmaarder Hout.