Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/A Dutch adventure




Let’s go to Holland,” said Fred Paynter, who was one of a party of four, assembled in the dining-room of an old farm-house on the banks of the Thames.

Fred was a Cambridge man, and the time of year was the Christmas vacation. I was doing duty as host to the party, and had the house and its belongings at my command. My father might be expected in about a fortnight, to see if the cattle were improving upon their winter diet, and if we kept the land well drained. My brother Geoffrey, who was at Oxford, had come down for a few days’ rabbit shooting, and brought his alter ego in the shape of Tom Tregan. Paynter had been invited to join us, and in this lonely, quaint old house, we were living the happy life of a reading party, without any reading to speak of.

We tired ourselves with dogs and guns over the frost-bound fields by day, and Mr. Peggs, the bailiff, used to say that he often heard Fred playing the old piano, and our voices joining in chorus, when the cawing from the rookery warned him it was time for farmers to be rising. But even this was not liberty and licence enough for us, and a wild expedition to the continent was resolved upon.

Fred’s suggestion of Holland was received with great applause, for we had an idea that civilisation had less hold there than in France or Belgium, but there was no longer a doubt about our destination when Tregan remembered that he had a friend who held a position in the household of His Dutch Majesty, to whom, if impecuniosity beset us—as was very likely—we might apply for succour.

It was resolved unanimously to go to Holland, and the next question was that of ways and means. Boy friends of course—like the early Christians—have all things in common, but our money heaped together made only 18l. However, we were not much discouraged by this insignificant total, for we meant to travel in the least luxurious fashion; and, moreover, possessed a large stock of Micawberism.

Fred and I had, notwithstanding, whatever soberness and matter-of-fact there was in the company, and we could see no other way of going than by the General Steam Company’s ship, which would be off the Essex coast at 8 a.m. the next morning. My brother and Tom were for joining a fishing boat or a fruit vessel, and working our passage over before the mast. However as a boat would put us off to the steamer, and as the romance of the other façon de voyage seemed likely to prove ideal, the first plan was accepted. It being then close upon midnight, there was no time for anything but a nap on the floor, after making the necessary preparations for our journey.

I trust that no Dutch Hogarth has placed upon immortal canvas, a representation of our travelling costume as typical of our countrymen in general, for we rummaged the house, not for becoming, but for warm clothing, and were as regardless of the general effect as savages rejoicing in the possession of a drowned mariner’s wardrobe. Fred looted a blue fisherman’s jersey that one of my uncles had employed for duck-shooting. I seized with great satisfaction a monster pair of stockings, constructed to carry water boots, while Tom made himself the happy master of a top coat, which, wherever it appeared, was sure to astonish the natives.

The night wore on, and after two hours passed upon the carpet in a deceitful silence, since no one slept, I voted for an early breakfast before starting, and helped to prepare some coffee and grilled rabbit. Then after taking a spoonful each of “Dutch Courage,” as particularly appropriate, we packed ourselves and then our two small bags, and made ready for a start.

Leaving a note for the bailiff, and another for my father, to explain—in case he should arrive—our sudden and astonishing absence, I unbarred the door, and with the dash of a drizzling rain upon my face, felt the first chill of a wavering resolution. Bear in mind, reader, that it was December, and our destination was Holland! But my companions were firm, particularly he of the top coat. We closed the door behind us, and as we passed under the rookery a few of the old watchers cawed a wondering and melancholy adieu. I doubt if Mark Tapley himself could have been more creditably jolly under graver circumstances than we experienced. The morning was dark and cold; gusts of wind came in quick succession over the damp marsh lands which lay between our house and the shore. We had three miles to walk before we reached the boat house, and there was every prospect that the rain would increase as the day broke.

The boatman was in bed, but a very few words made him acquainted with our wishes, and he made a quick appearance at his door.

“It’s a nasty morning to stand out to the wessel, young genlm’n,” said he.

“It’s safe enough, I hope,” I ventured to remark.

“Well, it’s rayther squally, but there ain’t no fear,” said the weather-beaten coaster, and soon we were seated in the stern sheets of his boat, the sail was set, and we were running over the long grey waves into the track of the steamer.

Soon we heard the noise of her paddles, and saw her long train of black smoke above the mist. Holloaing all together we heard an answer which might have been in Chaldee, but the slackened speed of the steam-packet quickly showed that we, at least, were understood, and we pulled hard to get alongside. It was rather a difficult operation, with the waves running high, but we were none of us bad climbers, and soon gained the deck of the steam packet, and “Go on a-head” was passed down to the engine-room.

“When shall you get to Rotterdam?” asked Tom of one of those amphibious sailors, neither landsman nor seaman, who are to be found in the debateable water of London Bridge, and are nautical or land-lubberish according as they wear a sou’-wester, or a wide-awake.

“We’re a goin’ to Calais,” he rejoined; adding, with the most unsympathetic coolness, “you’ve bin an’ got aboard the wrong boat, you ’ave, you wanted the Batavier, she’ll be about ’arf-an-hour arter us.”

I think he was a little annoyed to see how stoically we accepted our destiny. There were plenty of spare berths in the fore-cabin, and we quickly took possession of a shelf a-piece. To this day I have a sort of feeling, that in a moment we were transported from the Nore, to the still waters of Calais harbour. But Paynter declares he heard me snoring, and the inference is that I fell unconsciously asleep.

But now our real troubles began. We were soon in the Douane, worried by hotel touters, and watching the searchers as they thrust their hands into our little leathern bags. We had entirely forgotten all about passports (this was in the days before passports were superfluous), and now an official, with spectacles and a sword between his legs, was standing before us, demanding the necessary accompaniment. We were marched hither and thither, up-stairs and down-stairs, interrogated, examined, and cross-questioned, until at length, after what was to us a considerable drain upon our exchequer, we became the happy possessors of a document, that, under the hand of a consul, bade the subjects of the Emperor to admit to all the realm of France the four young Englishmen whose eyes, noses, and general physical appearance were specified below. We passed, by-the-by, as a pair of brothers, and it often taxed our memories to remember who we were. At length we regained our luggage, and soon found ourselves within the walls of Calais. We spent the night there, and early the next morning took the train to St. Omer, where Tom betook him to the classic emporium of “the pipes of Fiolet,” while the rest of us strolled about with a vague idea of seeing the Jesuit College.

We were bent upon going to Holland, and as we did not wish to beg our way through Belgium, we felt we must get on. So we travelled on the same day to Ghent, having our passports viséd at a place on the road, principally memorable for its beer. How thoroughly we enjoyed the foreign air of the old town; innocent yet, by 10l. odd, of any care for the future, we rambled through its quaint streets, peopling in our talk the gabled houses with the burghers of the olden time, when this was one of the centres of European industry. We walked through its splendid churches, and for the first time saw a religious procession, with, I can say, thoughtless as we were, a decent reverence for a faith which was not our own.

But “Excelsior,” or rather “au Pays Bas,” was the stern moral of our financial position, and Antwerp was our next halting-place. We have since sojourned in many cities, but recall few more interesting than this. After two happy days which we could have wished twenty, my brother, who acted as courier, being the only one of the party able to speak French, was set about inquiring the mode of proceeding to Rotterdam. We were glad to hear that we were to drive the whole distance by diligence, and accordingly secured four places. I have a strong suspicion that we were cheated at the coach-office mercilessly, as between guilders and francs Geoffrey’s financial ideas were much confused. At all events, we were greatly dismayed on learning that after our seats were paid for, there remained only a sum equal to about ten shillings, which seemed, even to us, rather a slender provision for four persons intending to make a tour through the Netherlands.

How the weakness of such a position would worry some of us now, when to travel we must be sure that our circular letters are pretty round and all right, and our passports, if needed, safely secured in a neat leathern case, guaranteeing the immediate protection of the Secretary for Foreign Affairs. We took our seats in the queer-shaped diligence, a jumbling compound of a railway carriage, a stage coach, and a mail phaeton, leaving all to come right of itself, and thought only of the pleasure of seeing the Dutchmen at home.

At night, we arrived at Breda, where on behalf of the King of Holland, and in consequence of the inferior “chic” of our passport, we underwent a very rigorous examination. However, I suspect our characters and our designs were written pretty legibly in our faces and manner; and, at last, in guttural accents, the officer graciously announced his contentment. We were free to invade the Netherlands. But the diligence would stop at Breda for the night, and we were not equal to an hotel bill. At this moment an obvious thought struck Fred:

“I’ll go and ask the fellow to let us sleep in the diligence,” said he, and out he ran.

But the conductor was obdurate, and probably fearful of losing his occasional glass of schnaps from the hotel-keeper, obliged us to retreat to the salle-à-manger. It was then ten o’clock, and as the diligence started at five a. m., we might very well dispense with going to bed. After a supper in which we studiously avoided any expensive dishes, we ordered a bottle of the liquor of the country, and assumed rather than felt a jolly determination to make a night of it. We agreed, too, that when the waiter was gone, we would divide the chairs, and at least make believe we were in bed.

The landlord was certainly desirous that we should try his bedding, but we resisted his invitation, retentive of our last few guilders, saying we should certainly lose the diligence if we did so, and had our own way. Morning will follow night, however uncomfortably its dark hours may pass, but we had certainly achieved a little sleep when we resumed our places in the vehicle.

Well, here was Holland, and surely no Dutchman would contend that his country is picturesque. Turner himself could not have made a pleasing landscape, with only ditches, meadows, willow trees and windmills for materials. The cattle and the milkwomen would help him a little, but the straight lines of Dutchland are dreadful.

The road from Breda to Rotterdam is like a story without a purpose, beginning anywhere and ending nowhere. There is no resting-place for the eye or the mind. There is neither up-hill nor down-hill to change the monotonous tune of the wheels upon the road, which is fringed with Dutch poplars and willows and paved with Dutch tiles. Any one mile might be a sample of the whole number, and none but the freeholder would probably be able to suggest any distinctions. There was an episode, however, in this dull journey. We came to an arm of the sea, and alighted for the lumbering diligence to be put into a barge-like boat, with the passengers congregated about it, and the horses in another. But we were soon on the road again, jogging along over the never-ending marsh.

The afternoon was well advanced before we stopped at a ferry-house opposite Rotterdam. Landing upon one of the many quays of this flat-bottomed city, we found that we possessed something like half-a-crown in money, and presented an appearance not likely to procure for us a high valuation from the thrifty Dutchmen. It was not prudent, perhaps, under these circumstances to go to the best hotel in the place, but this was the course we adopted, and few who have visited Rotterdam can fail to have observed the very pretentious edifice to which we gave our doubtful patronage. Upon gaining the dignified elevation of its coffee-room we held a council, in which it was resolved that Tom and Geoffrey should at once proceed to the Hague, and endeavour to draw funds from Tregan’s friend at the Palace, while Fred and I lived a life of expectation in Rotterdam.

After they had started, we resolved to make the best of it, and joined in the table d’hôte with faith and satisfaction. Apples, cheese, and cigars formed the concluding courses, and we had hardly done our duty by the last of these good things when we were surprised by the appearance of my brother and Tom at the door, and much dismayed at their rueful countenances.

“We couldn’t find him,” Tom whispered in my ear.

“Well, you’re doing it brown, you fellows,” said my brother, looking to the yet remaining remnants of our dinner.

“Wasn’t he at the Palace?” said Fred, with ill-concealed anxiety.

“No,” rejoined Tom; “but we’ve got scent of him. He is staying with a Dr. Reehault, some seven miles the other side of this precious Dutch town.”

Matters were becoming serious. We examined the railway bills, and found that we had just enough money left to take one man by third-class to the station nearest to which Dr. Reehault lived, and to enable him to return to Rotterdam. Tom knew he must go, but he naturally grumbled at his lot. To begin with, the object of his mission was not in itself the most agreeable, although he knew that his friend—who was acquainted with all our belongings—would be pleased with the opportunity of rendering assistance. But he had not been written to, as we hoped that our funds would have enabled us to reach home from Rotterdam. Tom could not speak a word of any language but his mother tongue, and was as ignorant of the road as he was of the navigation of the Maas.

We resolved that if possible funds should be raised to give him a companion, and gravely proceeded to cast lots which of the party should offer his watch at the shrine of a Dutch Mont de Piété. Fred laughed as he unhooked his silver hunter, and declared that he had a right to be excused from making the bargain. This my brother undertook, and after breakfast he set out in search of guilders. Meanwhile, Tom must go, or he would not be able to get back at night; so we three walked to the station, having previously made Geoffrey aware of the time at which the train started. Just as we were about to expend the whole of our joint fortune upon the ticket, we discovered Geoffrey running up the road leading to the station, and waving his hat in a most reassuring manner. He had obtained the magnificent sum of twelve guilders, and left the watch in the honoured name of “John Russell.” Giving me and Fred one to amuse ourselves with, he and Tom took the train.

We soon spent our money in coffee and billiards, and again joined the élite of commercial Rotterdam at the table d’hôte, haunted with an uncomfortable consciousness that our bill was growing to alarming dimensions. Soon after in came our companions, bringing Tom’s friend along with them.

But Tom had spoken lightly of the situation, and his friend had no immediate means of getting more money than that he carried with him, and, moreover, he was unknown at the hotel, and particularly anxious that his name and position should not be endangered by roving and impecunious countrymen. However he had something like forty guilders, and this we felt sure would much more than pay our bill; so, as he kindly volunteered to go at once to a less expensive inn, where he was well known, and make arrangements for our reception, it was agreed that my brother and I should follow after we had packed the bags and settled our bill.

We were rather startled on receiving the bill to find that it amounted to ten guilders more than we possessed. We rang the bell, and told the landlord our exact position and circumstances. The conference, however, ended in his declaring that one of us must stay, and in a waiter mounting guard, to see that the hostage was properly secured. My brother lit a cigar, and remained a prisoner, while I set off, assuring him that I would neither eat nor drink until I had redeemed him from his unpleasant situation.

I knew that our friends had gone to an inn on the Spanish Quay, and inquiring my way thither of many a Dutchman, I found them very comfortably located, making pleasant preparations for our reception. They were much surprised to hear of Geoffrey’s position, and Tom’s friend, Mr. Winter, at once offered to get the required amount from our new host. Soon I had set off at top speed, with the sum in my hand, and on reaching the hotel, went straight to the coffee-room. But Geoffrey had vanished. I knew he would not have attempted to get away unseen, so I began to be rather fearful that he had been removed to a place of greater security. When the waiter appeared in answer to my vigorous summons, he was a little frightened by my angry demand for my brother.

“Oh, please sar, he ist gone!”

“Where?” I interjected.

“Please, sar, he found zat ze landlord had made a meestake in ze bill, and ze landlord beg he’es pardon, and geef him back five guilders, which made it all right.”

This was gratifying, and I walked back in a contented frame of mind to the inn on the Spanish Quay, where I found Geoffrey had joined the party.

We were obliged to abandon our design of seeing more of Holland, as we did not wish to trespass to a greater extent than was absolutely necessary upon our friend’s credit. Our new host, Mynheer Winkelried, was very willing that we should leave our bill unpaid, and also to advance the money necessary for our passage home. We gladly accepted this arrangement, as we felt unable to write to our friends for supplies, when we had not consulted the domestic authorities before starting. But we had three wintry days, which must needs be passed in Rotterdam, before the packet sailed for England.

They who know this busy, trading Dutch city as tourists, will feel that this compulsory sojourn was the greatest misfortune of our journey. Cut off eastern from western London, at the first of the bridges, and from Billingsgate to Blackwall you have the nearest representation which London can afford to Rotterdam. The streets of the Dutch city are wider, certainly, than those of Wapping, and often partly occupied by canals, which, to the credit of Holland be it spoken, are generally fringed with trees. It is some ten years since we were there, but allowing for the lapse of time, if I were now asked for an opinion as to the chief feature of Rotterdam, my impressions would lead me to say,—Dutch cheese. Round and fiat they are rolling everywhere, over the quay sides into billy-boys and warehouses from country carts. The canal bridges are another and a less important feature of Rotterdam. During our three days’ imprisonment we often watched the hoisting of these cumbrous machines, to let some boat pass through, while the attendant obtruded upon the notice of the boatman his little money bag, fastened at the end of a long pole, and in which he received the bridge dues from those who passed.

Worthy Hollanders, forgive us if we could not find many beauties in your city. We do indeed remember that art was represented by a statue of Erasmus, which was as noticeable as that of Pitt, in Hanover Square; and certainly we did see a large church and a very large organ. But we had come from Antwerp, we had seen Rubens illustrating the divine mysteries of our religion, and high pews and whitewash had no charm for us.

We walked the Hof Strasse, and penetrated the questionable purlieus of the Sand Strasse. Dutch vrows and Dutch mynheers doubtless have warm and honest hearts, perseverance, intelligence, and—after their own fashion—activity; Dutch pictures are full of quaint humour and homely interest; but descriptions of Dutch cities and Dutch scenery will never be acceptable unless they are microscopic, and we have not the materials for manufacturing a representation of Rotterdam in mosaic.

We were truly glad when the morning of departure arrived, and we saw the “King William” getting up her steam for the voyage to England. With many thanks to Mynheer Winkelried for his kindness, and with a friendly greeting of our good friend Mr. Winter, who had stayed with us the whole time, we went on board. Scarcely had we left the mouth of the Maas, when even we could see that a storm was brewing. We remained on deck for some time, watching the misery of the cattle with which the ship was partly freighted. Soon, however, we were ordered to go below, as the waves were coming on deck in a manner which might be dangerous to an incautious landsman. The hatches were fastened down, and the tossing of the ship was only varied by an occasional trembling as she received the shock of a wave upon her broadside. Three of us were stomach-proof against the effects of the storm, but the cabin was full of groans and sickness, and every moveable article, except the passengers, was rolling about in a state of the utmost confusion. Towards morning the storm abated, and we were released from our confinement, but yet the effects of the rough night were very visible on deck. Twelve calves lay dead of sea-sickness and salt water, and high up the funnel and the rigging were traces of the aspiring rudeness of the waves. Soon we gained the quiet waters of the Thames, and signalling a fishing-boat off the spot where we wished to land, lowered ourselves into the fishermen’s skiff, and rowed for the shore. Ten days had elapsed since we left the old farm-house. My father was there, and seemed uncertain as to whether he should scold or praise us for an adventure which he evidently thought showed some spirit. On the whole, I think he was more pleased with his sons than they were with themselves. We sent good Mynheer Winkelried his money, with a silver snuff-box for a present, and have ever since profited by the moral of our expedition, which is—never undertake a journey without possessing the means to the end.

A. A.