David Storrar Meldrum.

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fl. 6000. My instructions were to make sure of the
purchase, and any one might have cut in above fl. 4000."
On my way to the station I call at the post office.
It is like a great many post offices I know in Holland ;
that is to say, occupies a very fine site, is quite modern,
a little new-bricky perhaps, airy, with large windows,
built in accordance with the latest Health and Dwellings
Acts, and staffed by workmanlike youths in long yellow-
white blouses, and capable maidens, whose robes I am
not called upon to describe, and a gentleman in black
somewhere in the background, who I have no doubt is
the very last word in efficiency. As a post office, how-
ever, it has one eminent defect. It is closed. These
official ladies and gentlemen must eat, possibly repose,
about this hour ; hence, as I say, it is closed. I think
with equanimity of the cramped, wire-screened counter
in our grocer's shop at the corner at home, where the
manager takes her place when the young lady lunches ;
and pass on my way reflecting that I am a citizen of a
practical country, even if it is one that sometimes only
just muddles through.

That is still the burden of my thoughts when I reach
the station, but on the railways, be it admitted, the
hand of regulation is less heavily imposed than it used to
be. There is nothing to be said against the platform-
ticket, which only costs a cent or two. . . .

Here, though it is beside the text, and impertinent,
the praise of a small coinage must be sung. Not only a
cent they mint at Utrecht, but even a half-cent, which is,


of course, a tenth of a penny, less than half our con-
temned farthing ; yet none in Holland has the ill sense
to scorn to pick it up in change. Put a half-cent stamp
on an envelope, a calling card within, with p. f. or p. c.
in the corner, and your felicitations and your condolences
are franked from Helder to Maastricht. Three cents is
the inter-town postage for a letter, and the price of
Mynheer's customary cigar. And then think how the
youthful purchaser, with five cents to spend, rejoices in
a vast selection ! What a run for his money do they
give him in Grietje's shop ! It is Grietje's living-room
and sleeping as well, flanked by the gang, where she
hangs her spare klompen, that leads from the bridge
through to the garden. The bed is a bunk. Peat burns
in the fireplace. A chest of three drawers is her only
store. A table and a chair are its only other furnishing.
But the window, the shop ! Reels of cotton, toy pistols,
caps, bait, rods, hooks (kept in a glass button box), peas,
cherries, sweets, eels, and outside a Scots boy, born
chapman from Aberdeen-away, with ten half cents for
a deal ! This is his account of it, true as it was writ :

1 Box of caps to go off by stamping on . % Cent

2 Sheets transfers Grietje keeps in her
chest (of drawers) . I

A dobber for fishing in the canal. I am to

get the money back if it doesn't bob . i

A copybook . . . . . . i

cent pears and apples . . . i

\ cent sugar scissors . . . \

Rotten herring for bait . . . |

Tottle . . \ cent too much

P.S. I let her keep the herring till I went to Tante
Hetta for the half cent.

P.PS. There are one hundred cents in a gilder.


And yet, for all its hundred cents, a " gilder " in
this country, I find, goes no farther than does a shilling
at home. . . .

The platform-ticket has its points. But it used to
be that, having bought the ticket for your journey, you
were confined in a waiting-room a very gorgeous
waiting-room if you travelled first or second class until
the arrival of the train. There was an elderly official at
Flushing with whom I struck up quite an exciting ac-
quaintance through walking out with my bag in my
hand through an injuncted door. One of my early
conflicts with the railway bureaucrats is a painful recollec-
tion, for, losing my temper, I speedily converted the
rights I stood on into wrongs. On Driebergen platform
I dropped my ticket, as I only discovered at the barrier
at Utrecht. The airy explanation and offer of my card,
which would have franked me at home, produced no
effect upon stolid gold braid ; as little did the pawky
jest, the sarcastic gibe. My ticket ? Gold-braid called
in a broader band of it for consultation, and finally there
appeared one who in the hierarchy of the Netherland-
Rhine Railway Company was very exalted indeed. His
verdict was : The fare from the terminus, Arnhem, and a
dozen guilders or so by way of fine for travelling without
a ticket. Preposterous ! But in vain I hinted at the no
mean country I had condescended from, in vain I booked
through his well-born, strongly respected high-mightiness
to blazes. Fare and fine were paid with blasphemous
demur, and refunded to me later, with compliments,
through kindly offices. And I felt small. It is not wise
to lose one's temper ever ; but to Dutch officialdom, it is

The tryst I am to keep with Mynheer is not at the
town house of his club on the market-place, but at its
bungalow quarters in a garden on the outskirts. In


Holland the Sodeteit, as the club is called, is nowhere
exactly the institution it is among ourselves. There is
no club-life in Amsterdam as there is in London, and in
the Hague it flourishes with a difference. It is again a
question of Holland's scale. When you run up to town
the Residentie town, as they name the Hague you
usually return the same night. Members of Parliament,
if they do not rent town houses, have rooms when neces-
sary at a hotel there, or at Scheveningen the Bellevue,
the Oude Doelen, the Hotel des Indes, charming if not
cheap. Men do not sleep at their club.

In the Witte Club at the Hague, however, you might
think you could look out into Pall Mall. A hospice so
free of entertainment for the stranger encourages one to
invade its privacy here. It stands upon the Plein, and
even overflows into it, for in the afternoon, if the piazza
on the pavement is crowded, you take your chairs out
among the trees. One may say of this club that it is
fed by and feeds the officials of all the Government
offices around it. Lunching or dining there, a guest
feels that he is privileged to witness the Departmental
machine of Holland being stoked.

Yet that is a very ordinary spectacle compared to
another which is to be seen at the Witte, and nowhere
else in the world perhaps, a Cabinet symposium.
There is a kind of high table at which Ministers drop in
for luncheon. There is no dining-room in the Binnenhof,
and no bar : in fact, strong drink is warned off all its
premises. This informal coffee-drinking accords with
the unceremonial dignity that hedges in the Estates.
Over in the Chamber, the Speaker, so to call him, wears
no robes of office, but appears in our evening garment.
Members pass and repass the Chair without obeisance, or
chat in the window-seats ; this free-and-easy air pervades
the lobbies, and the barrier upstairs, where the stranger


is passed to his gallery, is the kind of thing to be looked
for at a local Wonderland.

The estate of Royalty itself in this country is free of
feudal or ecclesiastical ceremony and trappings. No
goldsticks walk backward from the Presence. The
Queen drives through the Hague amid a host of bowing
heads uncovered to the First Citizen ; and yet the liveries
at Het Loo, very Royal against the greenery of Apel-
doorn, proclaim her more than that. So there is a
Republic and there is a Monarchy, and the sentiment
of the people accords with the unique blend.

But here is the club, and the end of these rambles.
I enter it with a startled recollection of having been in
it before. I remember, now, the occasion. Its cool
aspect and shady gardens, contiguous to the highway,
attracted me when I was here before, many years ago,
and I entered and ordered refreshment, and imbibed and
paid for, and tipped for it without a qualm until this
moment that the club was anything else than a kind of
refined uitspanning which we at home might do very
well to imitate.


IN Holland, as elsewhere, the hour of dining gets
steadily later. The Confederates who founded the
Beggar's Order dined at Culemborg House at eleven
in the forenoon. It was between twelve and one that
Orange came down to dine in the Prinsenhof at Delft
on the fatal day of his assassination. The hour had
been advanced considerably later in the afternoon a
hundred years ago, when travellers told how they went
to the theatre in Amsterdam at five, the performance
lasting until eleven. Now, there and in the other cities,
many dine as late as seven, or even half-past. The
custom of living out of town all the year round has
brought changes into the old Dutch order in country
places also.

Here in the house in the square, however, a quarter-
past five sees us all round the table, quite a large family
party. The cousins I met at coffee-drinking are back
again, for their parents, Mevrouw's sister and her
husband, the director of a dairying factory, have been
invited over to dine and meet the stranger. The young
people are in summer suits and frocks, the elders have
made a change of afternoon wear. Our evening garb is
still reserved here for great functions, by day or night.
I suspect Rika of putting on a black dress and a new
muslin cap for the occasion, and being rather enamoured



of her own smartness. It certainly is something novel.
A year or two ago she would have had no change for
a wrapper, and I overheard a story the other day about
a house where a black japon is kept as a " property " for
the use of a succession of maids. But Rika is an insti-
tution here. Servants in a family like this generally
remain long enough to outwear a livery. As for Antje,
the cook (who, like Mevrouw, comes from Zwol), she
has been with her mistress since her marriage ; as
sound and as durable as an outset of linen.

My friend's mahogany is spread with linen from
Brabant, fine and white, unstarched and unironed ; the
ample napkin, too, does not slip off one's knees on a
glossy side. The silver is solid and plain. Two massive
crystal compote dishes (with ginger and morels on
brandy), and a piece or two of good blue, attract
the eye. This is one of the few houses where
I have seen the komfoor, which is sufficiently Dutch
to warrant a description. It is indeed only a brazier of
peat standing on a little table by Mevrouw's hand, with
a perforated nickel top on which dishes, of vegetables
say, can be kept warm. Peat at home would smoke
and smell, but here it is of the hard kind, that glows
to the heart without throwing off disagreeable fumes.
These contrivances scarcely add elegance, but they
bring a certain comfort to the feast. By the side of
each diner is placed a crystal or silver rest for knife
and fork, which are carried forward through several
courses. The wine is not decanted. A bottle or two
already drawn, each with its glass-helmeted cork, stand
here and there on the table, like policemen on point
duty. Lit by the afternoon sun, it is a cheerful board,
though a deft hand perhaps would have made more of
the flowers.

Mynheer, out of respect to his brother-in-law, who is


Orthodox, calls upon Sammy, and he responds briskly
with " Heere, zegen deze spyzen en dranken, A men ! "
The meats and drinks to follow are sound and savoury,
but temperate enough to make the grace graceful in
Elia's ears. There is a vegetable soup, very clear ;
shrimps served in shells ; a rissole of meat, with peas
and carrots, young and tender, and small, mealy, yellow
potatoes ; fowls (a present from a neighbouring farm),
a salad (no endives) well beaten and skilfully mixed by
the host; and to crown the feast, for the children a
magnificent tart, baked by the confectioner, who, like
his guild brothers all over Holland, has a light hand
for pastry.

The wine is claret, the staple of Dutch cellars.
Mynheer, who is something of a connoisseur, discoursed
to me on the subject last night. Bordeaux the Dutch
understand, he said, as the Belgians Burgundy. But
not port. " Be careful of the port in Holland," was his
advice, "and watch the brand of the champagne."

Dutch cookery is really very good; a little rich,
perhaps : Holland has as many sauces as it has religions.
The traveller, dropping in at a good inn in the country
about half-past five, is fairly certain to find a well-cooked
dinner being served, and sometimes will land at one
where the table is superlative. This is explained by
the considerable company of unmarried officers and
bachelor lawyers and notaries who dine there, night
in, night out.

Students and officers frequently have their table at
a comestible shop ; from which too (and sometimes from
the schools of cookery that have sprung up everywhere)
are served such as eten van den kok, elderly ladies,
perhaps, or others who live in a bovenhuis or flat, and
keep a daily servant only. " To eat from the cook " is
to have your dinner delivered at your house according


to price (a guilder probably), kept warm in the tin
cylinder, or bus, with its glowing peat, which arouses
the curiosity of the stranger who sees it being carried
through the street of an evening.

The means often seems inadequate to the success
achieved at these public tables. My most recent ob-
servations were made in rather a dingy inn, the pick,
nevertheless, of a flourishing town. The ordinary guests
had probably stayed away, scenting that the occasion,
the kermis, would cause the board to blossom with
the bourgeosie. Blossom is a misleading word, for the
company, a round dozen, drooped and wilted, in spite
of the hovering host, who sprinkled and even drenched
it with a watery jocularity in his effort to revive it
His dinner really was very good, and deserved a less
solemn appreciation. It was followed immediately in
an adjoining room by another, a kermis banquet, to
which some two score officers (in mufti, by the way)
sat down, arising some hours later with benign counten-
ances that advertised the viands. I had an opportunity
of indulging my curiosity about ways and means, and
discovered that all these appetites had been appeased
with very little addition to the usual staff in the brass-
bright but rather pokey souterrain kitchen.

My greatest surprise was when we took rooms at
a grocer's for a week one summer in a Rhineland village.
The price seemed high at fifteen shillings per day for
two, but the place was something of a fashionable resort
on the sand, and Holland anywhere is apt to be dear
unless you plan for cheapness, and take the risk of
nastiness as well. But dinner the first night brought
a better explanation. It was lavish and elaborate, and
hints at some curtailment of the dishes, some reduction
of their richness, only put the cooks upon their mettle.
For Vrouw Vandam, I discovered, though not a bad


hand herself over a stove, had introduced another still
more cunning to assist. So in the rotation of that
week the dinners waxed in fatness and abundance. The
good Vrouw knew her duty, if we did not ours, and
sped us on our way with a sense of not being a credit
to her establishment.

I rather gathered from her oblique reproaches that
the natives whom she received did not fail to do her
entertainment justice, and I can believe it. In some
circles " good form " begins to demand abstemiousness,
but the Dutchman can still be cited as a capable
trencherman, though as often an epicure as a gourmand.

" Watch Mr. ," whispered a Dutch lady to me once ;

" doesn't he handle that peach as if he loved it ! " and
I perceived in his manipulation the delicate, patting
touch, the sense of appreciative satisfaction that comes
into the voice of Mynheer here, for example, when he
becomes reminiscent of choice cuisine.

For downright, solid forkwork, I need seek no
farther than Sammy opposite me. Lord, how he
plies it ! Here is no toying with the instruments of

Now the tart is brought on. " Where are the
candles ? " cries Zus in dismay, who remembers how at
Sammy's birthday party eight of these luminaries upon
the pasty signalled his achievement of as many years
that day. " This isn't a party, duffer ! " he says. " Isn't
it Mynheer's party ? " Zus asks. " It is," declares Mevrouw,
" and he shall cut the tart." I take the knife and slice
into the creamy depths. " But has Mynheer no candles ? "
persists the disappointed maidkin. Alas, Zus, your
mother cannot afford a tart big enough for all my years'
demand !

There is a touch of orange in the sun now that
flows in upon the mellow party : the flower of Dutch


domesticity is blowing in the children's hour. And
that reminds me. . . .

The night of the year for children in Holland,
their grand annual harvest and mell-supper of indulgent
and sympathising affection, is the 5th of December
I ought to take up a new pen and turn a fresh page
to write of Sint Niklaas ; but what does it matter if I
do, since there is no pot of warm memories to dip my
pen into !

Sint Niklaas is just the same as Christmas Eve,
some one says. But it is not, it cannot be. There are
things you may not compare, howsoever alike they
seem : your native landscape and mine, for example,
yours for you and mine for me, charged with the magic
of life in childhood and youth. So only Dutch men and
women can recover the magic of Sint Niklaas, and only
one or two of them, for they would have to be " the
most consummate artists in the book way " to make this
page glow with the fires that have shone in their eyes on
these long past Fifths of December.

In the agreeable deceptions of that night, Sint
Niklaas, patron-in-chief of Dutch towns and Dutch
lovers, is represented as an old man, with a long white
beard, which for some reason is accepted as the sign-
hirsute of benevolence ; though I observe that the most
disreputable among my vagabond acquaintances employ
it. He wears a robe of red trimmed with ermine, carries
his staff in his hand, and has a mitre on his head, and
he rides a white horse whose pedigree some think they
can trace back to Woden's horse, Sleipnir. Attending
him is a black servant (the Knecht Rupert), who carries
one bag full of presents and another concealing a rod :
for the good saint chastises the naughty as well as
rewards the well-behaved. And on the eve of December
6, under cover of his magic tabard, the two ride together


on circuit round the roofs of the world " from Amster-
dam to Spain," the wide world for the Dutch boys and
girls who first invoked him.

"Sint Niklaas, goed, heilig man,
Trek je beste tabberd an,
Ryd er mee naar Amsterdam,
Van Amsterdam naar Spanje,
Appeltjes van Oranje,
Appeltjes van de peereboom,
Sint Niklaasje is myn oom."

They do not hang up stockings overnight to be swollen
from his beneficence, but place boots or shoes in the
chimney corner behind the stove, singing the while

" Sint Niklaas Kapoentje
Gooi wat in myn schoentje
Gooi wat in myn laarsje
Dank U, Sint Niklaasje."

" Sint Niklaas Kapoentje " this is not the last time
that rhyme has pressed an unmeaning word into her
service " put something in my shoes, put something in
my boots. Thank you, Sint Niklaas ! " Then leaving
a carrot or two or a wisp of hay for the white horse, they
go to bed justified in their assurance of the saint's kind
deeds. And in the morning, surely enough, carrots and
hay have disappeared.

It is the season for the interchange of gifts.
Coleridge, writing of what he saw when travelling in
North Germany, described a custom of present-giving
at Christmas in terms exactly applicable to that of Sint
Niklaas in the Low Countries. The gifts are not costly,
but derive most of their value and all of their fun from
the care which has been spent in devising such as are
curious, or are specially suitable or even pleasantly ridicu-
lous for the recipient. Their great merit comes from
keeping their nature secret until the moment for presenting


them arrives. They must be surprises. I began to notice
a year or two ago that the shopkeepers were laying in
stocks of " surprises," which I took to be the first signs
of the decay of the custom ; and it has fallen a little into
disuse. Bought gifts are too costly to go round, and
the very spirit of the festival is a great expansiveness of
heart, a girth and rotundity of well-wishing. If it is to
survive, there must be a return to the olden way, when
for days and weeks previously factories of surprises are
running overtime in all the retired corners of the

Every one in this good old way knows that Sint
Niklaas gifts are in progress it cannot be hid ; but the
knowledge does not take away from the pleasure either
of giving or of receiving them. A stupid shrewdness is
not permitted to penetrate the mystery of the festival,
which a happy conspiracy increases by a wise childish
pretence at anonymity. Few fail to guess the donors,
and as a matter of fact those who do fail are not long
allowed to remain in doubt. Every one takes a hand in
this game of surprises. We have seen a good-natured
uncle sally forth with two boxes under his arm. Both
were intended for the same destination, and both
reached it, but by different ways. The old gentleman
placed one on the doorstep of his niece's house, rang the
bell, and from a little distance watched the summons
being answered and his parcel carried indoors. Then,
in order that the children should not think that it came
by the same hand as the first, he takes the air on the
plantsoen before depositing the second box in the same
spot as the first, and watching its disappearance in
turn. The deception was successful with no one but
himself, but his satisfaction in the manoeuvre was

The long life enjoyed by many institutions, and not


Dutch ones only, is not improbably due to the feasts
which always celebrate their anniversaries. But for
these many would be moribund or dog-dead which now
show the vitality of annuitants. Hollow and worn out
themselves, with scarce any in'ards of their own, they
exist by favour of appetites that have literally eaten
them into longevity. They are most numerous in
Holland because there this habit of commemorative
dining being national, there is the greatest public in-
terest in their survival. Travellers from Tacitus to
Guicciardini have observed how the Dutch never miss
an opportunity of a feast, and they still make it, where
other Calvinists would a sermon, the method of im-
proving an occasion.

There remain many survivals of an extensive ritual
of eating and drinking prescribed for social observance
during several centuries, and innumerable beverages and
bon-bons are still associated with expressions of felici-
tation. What would Sint Niklaas, for example, be
without the thin, crisp, all-spiced gingerbread cakes, in
homely figures the speculaas that have been its
special baking possibly since ever it was a feast. And
to how many Dutch folk do not New-Year's-eve good
wishes recall bolussen and punch ?

While I am among these spiced and spirituous
recollections, I must not forget the extraordinary variety
of local confections and sweets that have survived with a
reputation all over the country. A hundred years ago,
I have read somewhere, Leyden had a hundred different
kind of cakes. Every town still seems to possess one at
least. Utrecht has it theerandjes> sugared and cinnamon-
spiced rusks, packed in coarse red Dutch paper, with
a double eagle and the coat of arms of Amsterdam
(Mynheer explained to me), mistakenly supposed to be
the arms of Utrecht Province. Deventer koek, a ginger-


bread, has a wrapper that reminds me always of
Egyptian mysteries. Amsterdamsche korstjes, Haar-
lemmer halletjes, Haarlemmer roode letters, Haagsche
kopjes, Goudsche sprits, Nymeegsche moppen : I would
ask Mevrouw to add to the list, but here we are

Rink, her gardener, appears in the doorway, on
stockinged feet, his cap in his hand, the sweat in drops
where his grizzled hair meets his temples, the marks of
the sun on his clean-shaven face.

" Mynheer, Mevrouw, kinderen, goeie nacht," he says

"Goeie nacht, Rink!" "Goeie nacht, Rink," a
dozen voices follow him out to the hall. At the
outer door he slips his feet into his wooden shoes,
and, his day's work done, shuffles off to his evening

Online LibraryDavid Storrar MeldrumHome life in Holland → online text (page 10 of 31)