TO THE DOLLART
WE sailed up the long, straight cutting into the winding river, here flowing through marshy flats, and running on before the strong wind, we soon reached the little town of Zwartsluis. Here we had to leave the river and pass through a lock-gate into the canal. The lock-keeper's lodge was some little distance from the lock. I called upon him and found him sleeping in a chair in his garden.
I woke him gently, and then found that I was unable to explain to him what I required, for he understood no English. But a little crowd had gathered round us, and one intelligent man made a proposition to the lock-keeper which for some time the latter received with stolid silence. I was able to make out that the man was urging the official to try me with French, a language he professed to understand.
But the lock-keeper was diffident, and some time passed before he yielded to the entreaties of the crowd; then he took his pipe from his mouth and said to me, "Parle Francais, Mynheer?"
On this I commenced to explain volubly in French what I was, and to ask him if he would let the Falcon through the lock, whether there were tugs starting for Groningen on the morrow, and many other things. He listened solemnly. At last I was silent and waited for his reply.
"Fache, parle mal Français," he said, bringing out the words with difficulty.
He was a fraud, and knew a dozen words of French at the outside, though it seemed that he had passed himself off as a linguist among the simple people of Zwartsluis. But through our agency he now stood discovered, and his friends did not spare him. They chaffed him unmercifully as he sulkily walked down and opened the lock-gate for us.
We passed through the sluice, and, despairing of obtaining any information from the natives of Zwartsluis, we hoisted our canvas once more and sailed on.
A long canal journey was now before us, the distance to Delfzijl being about eighty miles. As far as the town of Meppel, which we reached before sunset, the canal was broad — the broadest we had yet seen in Holland — but shallow reed-beds bordered it, and we got on shore once or twice when tacking in the reaches where the wind headed us.
We passed through the lock of Meppel and brought up in the middle of the town for the night, alongside a large schuyt laden with the red cannon-ball Dutch cheeses with which we are familiar in England. We thus had a formidable bulwark between us and the naughty boys; and luckily for us the skipper of the schuyt was a surly man, who would allow no youngster to cross his deck.
After dinner I put myself in shore-going togs and proceeded to explore Meppel. It was a lovely summer's evening, and the little town looked its best. Crowds in their Sunday clothes thronged the pleasant avenues that bordered the canals. And what cheerful-looking, well-fed, well-dressed crowds they were! There were no signs of any sordid struggle for existence among this people. I began to wonder if beggars and paupers existed in Holland outside the big cities. Poor, but shrewdly thrifty and industrious, these brave Hollanders make a wonderful show of comfortable prosperity.
In one of the canals I came across a little steamer called the Cupido. She was very fat, was painted pink, and had quite a cherub-like appearance, so she was well named. Her skipper told me that he was bound for Assen at six o'clock on the morrow, and he offered to tow us there for fifteen guilders. This I considered to be too much, as the distance was only thirty miles; but he explained that his vessel was a cargo boat and not a tug, and that we should delay him a good deal at the locks, of which, he said, there were many. After some discussion, he agreed to take us in tow for twelve guilders — about a pound.
When I returned on board, the inevitable English-speaking Dutchman called on us. This time he came in the shape of a young policeman who had been to sea and retired as mate at the age of twenty-two. Nearly every Dutchman seems to have been a sailor in his time, but I was puzzled to find that so many had served as officers. Wright entertained a great contempt for these ex-mates.
"I know the chaps," he would say, "they don't need tickets (certificates) in this country, and I've often seen a lad of sixteen years old the mate of a Dutch vessel. When a boy leaves school his family send him to sea for one voyage, just to rub him up before he starts on his trade, and he calls himself a mate ever afterwards."
I believe that my man's remarks were just; and again, out of the thousands of Dutch sailors to be found on English ships how few are otherwise than very young men? A Hollander seaman is a stay-at-home fellow at heart, and only navigates the high seas from necessity. He serves on foreign-going vessels for as short a period as he is able; then he returns to his beloved lowland with a bag full of savings, either to settle down to his father's trade or to purchase a share in a schuyt, in which to earn his living on home waters as fisherman or canal-carrier. Those ancient British shell-backs whom one so often comes across on our ships, old reprobates who have knocked about the oceans for half a century and have never put by a stuiver, are rare among this provident race.
We rose at six on the following morning, to lay in a stock of bread, beef, and beer, but the Cupido did not get under way till ten. The sky was cloudless, but a strong head-wind was blowing, so I was not sorry that I had engaged a tug, for the canal was far too narrow to have allowed of the Falcon's tacking.
Before we started, the steamer's skipper offered to carry our dinghy on his deck, as she would be in the way if we towed her through the locks. He sent four men to lift her on board. They seized her, and proceeded to raise her with so much energy that she gave a jump in the air, and two of them, losing their balance, fell on their backs. They rose, gazed at the boat with intense astonishment, and then burst out laughing. Accustomed only to their own clumsy and very heavily-built boats, they had not conceived it possible that any dinghy could be so light as ours.
We passed through many swing-bridges and locks. These last were very small; in several of them there was but just space for the steamer and the Falcon to lie; while in one lock we were squeezed so tightly together as the water rose, that the dead-eyes of our shrouds were driven into our bulwarks by the Cupido's covering-board.
This canal cannot be recommended to yachtsmen; it is one of the narrowest and shallowest in Holland. A yacht's paint is sure to suffer considerably in its locks, while collisions with schuyts are very likely to occur, for in many places there is not room for two of the larger canal-boats to pass each other. We took soundings occasionally in the centre of the canal and found that the average depth was under five feet.
We travelled uphill all this day, and at each sluice we were raised about six feet. The aspect of the country gradually changed as we advanced inland; the rich well-watered pastures disappeared, and unfertile wastes of furze and sombre heath, on which only goats browsed, took their place. We passed many lagoons bordered by clumps of dark pines, while on the port hand a range of desolate sand-hills stretched along the horizon. The landscape had lost the usual Dutch characteristics — a pleasant change, however, after the oppressive culture and richness of Lower Holland, but the population and the houses were painfully Dutch in their inordinate tidiness and cleanliness.
We were not sorry to be out of the Zuider Zee this afternoon, for it began to blow a gale from the northeast, so that the lagoons were lashed into foam. The grey clouds rushed across the sky, and the bleak moors looked as they might well do in November instead of June, while the temperature fell until we shivered with cold. Those who revile the climate of England as changeable should visit the countries to the east of the North Sea.
This was by no means a dull journey, for we were traversing a remote portion of Holland inhabited by a primitive people, and the costumes of the peasants we saw on the banks of the canal were often very quaint and picturesque. Many of the women wore gold helmets, as they do in the neighbouring province of Friesland. It was a curious thing, too, to see a swell in frock coat and tall hat driving a dog tandem along the tow-path. The animals were evidently well broken in and travelled at a great pace. We saw a goodly number of dog-carts (in the literal sense of the term) in this part of the country, but I believe that the practice of harnessing dogs is forbidden by law in many provinces of Holland, as it is in England.
About half-way to Assen we passed a village called Dreuerberg. Here I was told I had to present myself at the office of the canal superintendent to pay the dues for the whole route. These amounted to about twopence halfpenny. The superintendent, who was also burgomaster, spoke tolerable English and excellent French. He came on board and had a yarn with me while we were passing through the lock. He told me that he had never before heard of an English yacht on this canal. The people certainly seemed more astonished at our appearance than they did anywhere else in Holland.
Among the crowd that saw us through the lock was a very ancient mariner, who spoke to me in a queer sort of Dutch-Yankee-English. He told me that he had lived in America and had served for many years in the English Navy, but that he had left the sea fifty years ago and had never spoken to an Englishman since. He stood on the bank as we were going through the lock and commenced to spin a fearfully tough and interminable yarn which was incomprehensible, but had something to do with Vera Cruz, sharks, and pirates. He had not finished his tale when the tug steamed away with us, and we left the poor old chap leaning on his stick looking wistfully after us, for he had now used up what was most probably his last opportunity of exercising his long-latent English.
At about six in the evening we steamed down a straight avenue of trees, at the end of which was visible a bridge, and behind this a steeple and a glimpse of red-tiled houses.
"There is Assen," shouted the skipper of the Cupido from his bridge. The tug lay alongside the quay in the middle of the town, and we remained outside of her for the night, thus cheating the boys again.
Assen is a very pleasant little place nestling in the middle of an extensive wood. It is pierced by avenues of fine trees, and the green foliage of chestnuts, blending with the scarlet tiles of houses and the rich tones of the oaken schuyts and lock-gates, produces a cheerful wealth of colour.
At one extremity of the town is a beautiful park well stocked with deer, where many paths wind among the great trees and the meadows of deep grass and brilliant flowers. Hither I strolled after dinner. The wind had dropped, and a warm summer's evening had succeeded the chilly afternoon. It was the longest day but one of the year, so there was no real darkness at night. I do not remember to have ever heard so vast a chorus of singing-birds as was ringing overhead. This was evidently the favourite haunt of birds, and also, naturally, a favourite promenade of the young lovers of Assen, of whom I met a great many walking in shy couples through the glades.
On my return I found that Wright had chummed up with the skipper of a canal-boat who had been to sea in his youth and spoke English. He invited me to visit his vessel, which lay tightly wedged in a crowd of similar craft. His own schuyt was called the Contentment, and true Dutchman that he was he had his wife and six children living with him on board. The family name might well have been Contentment too, for I never came across people of more cheerful, well-fed appearance. He told me that the boat was his own; he had bought her fourteen years ago, when he married, and she had been his home ever since. He was not only his own owner and captain, but he was his own merchant as well. He served no one and carried no other man's freight, for he made his living by sailing up the canals into remote country districts and there buying cheeses, onions, and potatoes from the farmers to retail in the towns at a considerable profit. While he lay at Assen his deck was converted into a small shop, connected with the shore by a gangway, and his plump wife, when not washing or scrubbing something or other, or looking after the children, sold the cargo by pennyworths from behind an extemporized counter in front of the binnacle.
He took me into his cabin, which, though small, was wonderfully comfortable, and looked very picturesque, with its dark oak panelling, carved cornice, and little windows with white curtains. I need not say that all was scrupulously clean; and though the woman must have plenty of work continuously on her hands, she had found time to cultivate a pretty flower-garden in a green and vermilion painted balcony which overhung the stern. I rather envied this man. Independent, free from worry, his every simple want supplied, his occupation varied and healthy, and having all his worldly goods and interests gathered together on board of his stout oak ship, he surely ought to be happy if any man can be. I told him so.
"You are right, Mynheer, I am a fortunate man, but there is my poor brother, now. He has a finer vessel than this and plenty of money, but he is not happy; he is not fat like me, but thin and bald and miserable."
"And how is that?" I asked.
"He has a she-cat for a wife," was the reply.
To be confined for life within the narrow space of a schuyt in the company of a shrew must indeed be a martyrdom. The skipper was selling his cheese at twopence a pound; we invested in some, and found it very good. He told us that no steamer would start on the following day in the direction of Groningen; so we anticipated a canal journey without assistance, a tedious task should the wind remain in its present quarter.
I was enjoying a last pipe on deck, and was just about to turn in, when a young man in a blouse hailed me from the quay. He had a great deal to say for himself, and he was very anxious that I should understand him, but I could not follow his voluble Dutch. Still he persisted; so, seeing that he must have some important communication to make, I invited him to come on board. He entered our cabin and tried hard in every possible way to express himself.
` There was one word, paard, which he constantly repeated with anxious emphasis. What on earth could paard signify? For this was evidently the key to his mystery. At last, seeing a piece of paper on the table, he seized it and proceeded to draw some strange diagrams on it with the charred end of a match. Wright and myself examined his work with puzzled interest. It was an oblong figure supported on four pedestals, with an irregular excrescence at one of the upper corners.
"It's an arm-chair," said Wright.
"Or it might be a sheep," I ventured doubtfully. "Possibly he is a butcher and wants to sell us some mutton."
The young Dutchman was becoming wild with impatience at our stupidity. Snatching up the match again, he drew a horizontal line from the figure — we watched him in suspense — and at the end of the line he sketched what we thought might be intended for a boat.
"Ah! of course! I know what he's after, sir," suddenly exclaimed Wright. "He's got a horse and wants to tow us to-morrow."
And that was exactly what he did want. Having now discovered that paard — I don't vouch for the spelling — is Dutch for horse, we soon, by sign and diagram, came to terms with him, and he undertook to tow us to Groningen at eight in the morning for four guilders. No sooner had we arranged matters thus satisfactorily than another young man appeared on the scene, and offered to tow us there for three guilders. On this a noisy discussion ensued between the rivals. Wishing to get rid of them and go to bed, I intervened, and explained that I had engaged the first-comer so was not now in a position to entertain lower tenders. When I made this clear to them the first paard owner patted me on the back with surprised approval, as much as to say, "So you are that rare thing, an honest man, O Englishman!" At every lock we passed the next day he told the bystanders the tale of my probity, and they gazed with wonder at the man who had sacrificed a guilder to his principles. How they would have despised me had they known that it was more a question of sleepiness than principles!
Punctually at eight our friend appeared with his tow-line and horse, a big strong black animal like those used at funerals at home. I noticed that nearly all the canal horses were of this description, and I believe that great numbers are exported from here for our undertaking trade.
The wind was northerly and the day was bleak and sunless. The Noord Willems canal, as this is called, took us through an infertile country of dark heaths and thorny copses, only relieved here and there by the golden blossoms of the gorse. We also passed sandy wastes and swamps, where the sole industry seemed to be the cutting of peat. The villages were small and far between.
Our tow-man, whom, as we could not pronounce his name, we called Hans, bestrode his horse and trotted along at a good pace. He had an old French horn slung on his shoulder, on which he attempted to sound a military call when we approached a swing-bridge or lock. We found towing with a horse far more comfortable than following a steamer, especially in the sluices. The canal was still narrower and shallower than that of the day before, so that the craft sailing before the wind had to haul their booms amidships in order to pass us. The schuyts which were bound in the same direction as ourselves did not attempt to sail, but were laboriously towed against the strong wind by the wives and children, while the papas steered and meditatively smoked their long pipes.
"How you like this country, sir?" called out one of the fat skippers thus taking his ease, as we passed his vessel.
"Very much, captain — fine country."
"Ah, but you should have brought your vife and the young 'uns, like me; then they would have towed you, and so you not have to pay for tow-horse."
We had been ascending all the previous day; this day we were going downhill again, for there was a fall of ten feet or so at each lock. The canal dues amounted to about twopence, and yet a friend told me that I should find these heavy in Holland. Possibly the pilot-interpreter he employed could, if he chose, explain this difference between our experiences. But I believe that most of these fellows are thoroughly trustworthy.
It was the 21st of June, the longest day of the year, and at home the Jubilee was in full swing. All Dutchmen read the papers, and those we met were taking great interest in the doings in London; they seemed to wonder that we were so unpatriotic as to be abroad at the time. We passed a canal barge towing down stream; she was carrying a large holiday party. When they saw our ensign their band struck up "God Save the Queen," and they shouted "Hurrah! Queen Victoria!" We returned the salute of the jolly Dutchmen, and they went by us singing, laughing, waving flags, drinking deep flagons of beer. It was a typical Dutch scene — the straight canal with its dyke, the numerous windmills, the red roofs here and there, and that Teniers-like crowd of revelling peasants on the clumsy oaken barge.
Later on there sailed by us a beamy little centreboard yacht flying the German flag. A gentleman and lady composed her crew. I afterwards heard that this was a young Hamburgher and his wife who had navigated their vessel by themselves all the way from that port. There were several things about the Falcon that surprised the Hollanders, but they seemed to wonder most that I had not a wife on board. A vessel without its vrouw seemed a melancholy thing in their eyes, and they evidently pitied me for my forlorn condition.
At two o'clock the spires of Groningen hove in sight, and at four Hans had brought us to the sluicegate at the entrance of the town and bade us farewell.
We passed through the lock into the harbour which is formed by the artificial deepening and widening of the two rivers that traverse the town. This commodious haven is upwards of a mile in length, and we had to quant from its eastern to its western extremity before we could find a berth; for where it flows along the south side of the city it is bordered by well-kept lawns, public gardens, and the principal boulevards, so that there is no quay to which one may make fast. It took us quite an hour to reach the commercial portion of the harbour, for five bridges, across which all the traffic of Groningen is carried, had to open to us in succession, and we were delayed for a considerable time at each.
But at last we got out of the fashionable quarter and reached the Ooster Haven, where several square rigged vessels and schooners lay alongside the broad quays. It was pleasant to behold sea-going ships again. We made fast to the quay bordered by stores and great warehouses, and the usual crowd soon gathered round us; but we were not molested. It is only on the Zuider Zee that the boys are so very objectionable.
I liked the look of Groningen, so I decided not to travel on the following day but to remain and explore the city. The next morning a pleasant, English speaking, retired sea-captain found me out and offered to accompany me round the town. After visiting the main streets and squares we went to the Plantaage, a very pretty park that was laid out three years ago on the site of the dismantled fortifications.
"There is a fine hill in the Plantaage," said my companion, "and from the summit of it you will be able to see the country for a great distance around."
It interested me greatly to hear that there was such a thing as a hill in Holland.
"But where is it?" I asked, looking round the interminable plain, "I can see no hill."
"It is just over there; but you cannot see it, for it is hidden by that bush."
I ascended this fine hill, which proved to be an artificial mound not twenty feet in height. But the natives are very proud of it, and speak of it as if it were some huge mountain. As an instance of how successfully a Groningener is deceived by his admiration for it, I may mention that my companion heaved a deep sigh, mopped his face, and dropped exhausted into a chair—thoughtfully placed there by the corporation for this object—when he reached the summit. But to do this eminence justice it must be allowed that it is beyond dispute above the level of the sea.
Of all clean Holland surely there is no cleaner city than Groningen. It contains fifty thousand inhabitants, and all of them seem well-to-do. No smoky factories disfigure it; no pallid and poverty-stricken people are to be seen in its bright streets. It is the centre of a rich agricultural district, and the trade in grain and other country produce seems to occupy all the energies of its citizens. The huge Groote Market is a model marketplace. No litter of straw and cabbage leaves is permitted here; the very eggs are carefully washed in the farmhouses before they are brought into town.
The municipality of Groningen certainly does its work well. Everything is admirably ordered here, and large sums are expended each year on improvements of all sorts, including the laying out of beautiful and extensive public gardens. A very army of labourers is constantly employed in keeping all up to the Groningen standard of smartness — a very high standard; one fears to walk its streets with muddy feet. But what is most extraordinary is that with all this great expenditure of public funds, the rate-payers seem to be contented and proud of their corporation. Here no rumours of jobbery and corruption are floating about; no cry for economy is raised. The art of local self-government must indeed be well understood in Holland.
In the evening the sea-captain and myself crossed the river to a lovely wood of oaks and other trees, which is the favourite promenade of the citizens. Broad drives and winding paths traverse this wood, and cafés and milk-houses are scattered through it. The people were here in their thousands, for it happened to be the occasion of the children's annual festival. All the public-school children of Groningen were gathered together in the wood to sing glees and hymns under the leadership of their respective masters. The prizes were afterwards distributed by a pleasant-looking gentleman, who, I believe, was burgomaster of the town. All the mammas of Groningen were, of course, here, knitting industriously and gazing at their offspring with proud eyes. Many of the fathers were also standing by smoking, with a look of stolid approval on their faces. It was a pretty sight, and though I do not altogether appreciate the Dutch style of beauty, I could not but allow that these plump, rosy, bright, and highly-polished (I am not speaking of their manners) infants were very pleasant to look upon. At sunset they sang the national anthem lustily and the ceremony was over; then the woods rang with the childish laughter and merry chattering of the innumerable scholars returning homeward.
At six on the following morning, the 23rd of June, the wind being right ahead, I arranged with a man to tow us with his horse to Delfzyl. There are sixteen draw-bridges on this canal, but we paid a guilder and a half at Groningen before starting, which franked us for the lot, and we were presented with a tin medal as big as a soup-plate, which we hung in our rigging as a sign to the bridge officials that we had duly settled the fees.
This is a fine canal, broad, straight, and deep, and it is navigable for sea-going vessels. Among other craft we passed a good-sized barque on the way.
Peter, our tow-man, had been to sea and spoke a little English, but the conversation between us was limited and somewhat jerky. He had visited several English ports, and, being an observant traveller, he favoured us with a succession of pithy comparisons between Dutch and English ways, such as, "Tobacco cheap in Holland, dear in England"; "Gin good here, bad in your country"; "Holland clean place, Cardiff dirty place"; "Drunken Dutchman a quiet man, but London docks on Saturday night, oh much row!" But honest Peter was a good-hearted fellow, and it flashed across his mind that it was cruel and impolite to thus hurt a stranger's feelings by pointing out his country's faults, so he racked his brain to find something complimentary to say about England. For some time he could think of nothing in our favour, but at last the sight of a draw-bridge inspired him. "Dat," he exclaimed, "is a poor small bridge, but Bristol has a very big bridge." He shouted out all these remarks to us in a stentorian voice, for his tow-line was long and he was far ahead of us.
We reached Delfzyl at about midday. At the entrance of the town we found the only lock on the canal, a gigantic one this; and on the other side of it flowed the tidal waters of the North Sea. Having passed through the sluice, we entered the harbour, enclosed by a breakwater, beyond which spread the estuary of the River Ems, here five miles broad, looking very rough and white with foam, for the wind was still strong. Across this we saw the low, wooded coast of Germany.
We had now traversed Holland and had done with her canals, and the next stage of our journey was to be a coasting voyage on the North Sea.