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Chapter 7

FLIGHT THROUGH BELGIUM.


Bruges.

On the Continent at last! How strangely look the century-old towers, antique monuments, and quaint, narrow streets of the Flemish cities! It is an agreeable and yet a painful sense of novelty to stand for the first time in the midst of a people whose language and manners are different from one's own. The old buildings around, linked with many a stirring association of past history, gratify the glowing anticipations with which one has looked forward to seeing them, and the fancy is busy at work reconciling the real scene with the ideal; but the want of a communication with the living world about, walls one up with a sense of loneliness he could not before have conceived. I envy the children in the streets of Bruges their childish language.

Yesterday afternoon we came from London through the green wooded lawns and vales of England, to Dover, which we reached at sunset, passing by a long tunnel through the lofty Shakspeare Cliff. We had barely time before it grew dark to ascend the cliff. The glorious coast view looked still wilder in the gathering twilight, which soon hid from our sight the dim hills of France. On the cliff opposite frowned the massive battlements of the Castle, guarding the town, which lay in a nook of the rocks below. As the Ostend boat was to leave at four in the morning, my cousin aroused us at three, and we felt our way down stairs in the dark. But the landlord was reluctant to part with us; we stamped and shouted and rang bells, till the whole house was in an uproar, for the door was double-locked, and the steamboat bell began to sound. At last he could stand it no longer; we gave a quick utterance to our overflowing wrath, and rushed down to the boat but a second or two before it left.

The water of the Channel was smooth as glass and as the sun rose, the far chalky cliffs gleamed along the horizon, a belt of fire. I waved a good-bye to Old England and then turned to see the spires of Dunkirk, which were visible in the distance before us. On the low Belgian coast we could see trees and steeples, resembling a mirage over the level surface of the sea; at length, about ten o'clock, the square tower of Ostend came in sight. The boat passed into a long muddy basin, in which many unwieldy, red-sailed Dutch craft were lying, and stopped beside a high pier. Here amid the confusion of three languages, an officer came on board and took charge of our passports and luggage. As we could not get the former for two or three hours, we did not hurry the passing of the latter, and went on shore quite unincumbered, for a stroll about the city, disregarding the cries of the hackney-coachmen on the pier, "Hotel d'Angleterre," "Hotel des Bains!" and another who called out in English, "I recommend you to the Royal Hotel, sir!"

There is little to be seen in Ostend. We wandered through long rows of plain yellow houses, trying to read the French and low Dutch signs, and at last came out on the wall near the sea. A soldier motioned us back as we attempted to ascend it, and muttering some unintelligible words, pointed to a narrow street near. Following this out of curiosity, we crossed the moat and found ourselves on the great bathing beach. To get out of the hands of the servants who immediately surrounded us, we jumped into one of the little wagons and were driven out into the surf.

To be certain of fulfilling the railroad regulations, we took our seats quarter of an hour before the time. The dark walls of Ostend soon vanished and we were whirled rapidly over a country perfectly level, but highly fertile and well cultivated. Occasionally there was a ditch or row of trees, but otherwise there was no division between the fields, and the plain stretched unbroken away into the distance. The twenty miles to Bruges we made in forty minutes. The streets of this antique city are narrow and crooked, and the pointed, ornamented gables of the houses, produce a novel impression on one who has been accustomed to the green American forests. Then there was the endless sound of wooden shoes clattering over the rough pavements, and people talking in that most unmusical of all languages, low Dutch. Walking at random through the streets, we came by chance upon the Cathedral of Notre Dame. I shall long remember my first impression of the scene within. The lofty gothic ceiling arched far above my head and through the stained windows the light came but dimly--it was all still, solemn and religious. A few worshippers were kneeling in silence before some of the shrines and the echo of my tread seemed like a profaning sound. On every side were pictures, saints gilded shrines. A few steps removed one from the bustle and din of the crowd to the stillness and solemnity of the holy retreat.

We learned from the guide, whom we had engaged because he spoke a few words of English, that there was still a treckshuyt line on the canals, and that one boat leaves to-night at ten o'clock for Ghent. Wishing to try this old Dutch method of travelling, he took us about half a mile along the Ghent road to the canal, where a moderate sized boat was lying. Our baggage deposited in the plainly furnished cabin, I ran back to Bruges, although it was beginning to grow dark, to get a sight of the belfry; for Longfellow's lines had been running through my head all day:

"In the market place of Bruges, stands the belfry old and brown, Thrice consumed and thrice rebuilded, still it watches o'er the town."

And having found the square, brown tower in one corner of the open market square, we waited to hear the chimes, which are said to be the finest in Europe. They rang out at last with a clear silvery tone, most beautifully musical indeed. We then returned to the boat in the twilight. We were to leave in about an hour, according to the arrangement, but as yet there was no sound to be heard, and we were the only tenants. However, trusting to Dutch regularity, we went to sleep in the full confidence of awakening in Ghent.

I awoke once in the night and saw the dark branches of trees passing before the window, but there was no perceptible sound nor motion; the boat glided along like a dream, and we were awakened next morning by its striking against the pier at Ghent. After paying three francs for the whole night journey, the captain gave us a guide to the railroad station, and as we had nearly an hour before the train left, I went to see the Cathedral of St. Bavon. After leaving Ghent, the road passes through a beautiful country, cultivated like a garden. The Dutch passion for flowers is displayed in the gardens around the cottages; even every vacant foot of ground along the railway is planted with roses and dahlias. At Ghent, the morning being fair, we took seats in the open cars. About noon it commenced raining and our situation was soon anything but comfortable. My cousin had fortunately a water-proof Indian blanket with him, which he had purchased in the "Far West," and by wrapping this around all three of us, we kept partly dry. I was much amused at the plight of a party of young Englishmen, who were in the same car; one of them held a little parasol which just covered his hat, and sent the water in streams down on his back and shoulders.

We had a misty view of Liege, through the torrents of rain, and then dashed away into the wild, mountain scenery of the Meuse. Steep, rocky hills, covered with pine and crowned with ruined towers, hemmed in the winding and swollen river, and the wet, cloudy sky seemed to rest like a canopy on their summits. Instead of threading their mazy defiles, we plunged directly into the mountain's heart, flew over the narrow valley on lofty and light-sprung arches, and went again into the darkness. At Verviers, our baggage was weighed, examined and transferred, with ourselves, to a Prussian train. There was a great deal of disputing on the occasion. A lady, who had a dog in a large willow basket, was not allowed to retain it, nor would they take it as baggage. The matter was finally compromised by their sending the basket, obliging her to carry the dog, which was none of the smallest, in her arms! The next station bore the sign of the black eagle, and here our passports were obliged to be given up. Advancing through long ranges of wooded hills, we saw at length, in the dull twilight of a rainy day, the old kingly city of Aix la Chapelle on a plain below us. After a scene at the custom-house, where our baggage was reclaimed with tickets given at Verviers, we drove to the Hotel du Rhin, and while warming our shivering limbs and drying our damp garments, felt tempted to exclaim with the old Italian author: "O! holy and miraculous tavern!"

The Cathedral with its lofty Gothic tower, was built by the emperor Otho in the tenth century. It seems at present to be undergoing repairs, for a large scaffold shut out the dome. The long hall was dim with incense smoke as we entered, and the organ sounded through the high arches with an effect that startled me. The windows glowed with the forms of kings and saints, and the dusty and mouldering shrines which rose around were colored with the light that came through. The music pealed out like a triumphal march, sinking at times into a mournful strain, as if it celebrated and lamented the heroes who slept below. In the stone pavement nearly under my feet was a large square marble slab, with words "CAROLO MAGNO." It was like a dream, to stand there on the tomb of the mighty warrior, with the lofty arches of the Cathedral above, filled with the sound of the divine anthem. I mused above his ashes till the music ceased and then left the Cathedral, that nothing might break the romantic spell associated with that crumbling pile and the dead it covered. I have always revered the memory of Charlemagne. He lived in a stern age, but he was in mind and heart a man, and like Napoleon, who placed the iron crown which had lain with him centuries in the tomb, upon his own brow, he had an Alpine grandeur of mind, which the world was forced to acknowledge.

At noon we took the chars--banc, or second-class carriages, for fear of rain, and continued our journey over a plain dotted with villages and old chateaux. Two or three miles from Cologne we saw the spires of the different churches, conspicuous among which were the unfinished towers of the Cathedral, with the enormous crane standing as it did when they left off building, two hundred years ago or more. On arriving, we drove to the Bonn railway, where finding the last train did not leave for four hours, we left our baggage and set out for the Cathedral. Of all Gothic buildings, the plan of this is certainly the most stupendous; even ruin as it is, it cannot fail to excite surprise and admiration. The King of Prussia has undertaken to complete it according to the original plan, which was lately found in the possession of a poor man, of whom it was purchased for 40,000 florins, but he has not yet finished repairing what is already built. The legend concerning this plan may not be known to every one. It is related of the inventor of it, that in despair of finding any sufficiently great, he was walking one day by the river, sketching with his stick upon the sand, when he finally hit upon one which pleased him so much that he exclaimed: "This shall be the plan!" "I will show you a better one than that!" said a voice suddenly behind him, and a certain black gentleman who figures in all German legends stood by him, and pulled from his pocket a roll containing the present plan of the Cathedral. The architect, amazed at its grandeur, asked an explanation of every part. As he knew his soul was to be the price of it, he occupied himself while the devil was explaining, in committing its proportions carefully to memory. Having done this, he remarked that it did not please him and he would not take it. The devil, seeing through the cheat, exclaimed in his rage: "You may build your Cathedral according to this plan, but you shall never finish it!" This prediction seems likely to be verified, for though it was commenced in 1248, and built for 250 years, only the choir and nave and one tower to half its original height, are finished.

We visited the chapel of the eleven thousand virgins, the walls of which are full of curious grated cells, containing their bones, and then threaded the narrow streets of Cologne, which are quite dirty enough to justify Coleridge's lines:


"The river Rhine, it is well known
Doth wash the city of Cologne;
But tell me nymphs, what power divine
Shall henceforth wash the river Rhine!"


Bayard Taylor