IT sometimes happens that you do not see a certain dear friend for a long time, a very long time. Months. Years. To be quite truthful, this state of affairs does not distress you particularly, yet now and again you think of this friend. Suddenly, without apparent reason, in the midst of your work or piercing your daydreams, her face appears and you say:
“Dear Muriel. How pleased I should be to see her. I wonder what has become of her?”
And, for an instant, the memory of pleasant hours spent together weighs upon you.
A few days pass, and, better by far than memories, you find yourself pacing the quay, waiting for Muriel. She has fixed the rendezvous. In ten minutes she will be with you. She is coming to spend a short holiday in Belgium, and this is what she wired you:
“DEAR PIERRE STOP I SHALL ARRIVE AT 3 O’CLOCK STOP PLEASE MEET ME AT THE QUAY STOP MURIEL.”
Immediately on receipt of this you, being a really obliging fellow, took the boat-train, and here you are, waiting at the quay-side for the Dover mail-boat.
Good old Muriel.… What a pleasant surprise.… Will she have altered? … Is she still as jolly and charming as she used to be? … Married, perhaps … with children.… Who knows? … A lot may happen in five years. How impatient you are to see her again.… You’ve lived so long without feeling her absence, and now, because you have two more minutes to wait your impatience swells unbearably, and if she should not be on that boat, coming slowly nearer, you’d be the most wretched man on earth.
It takes three hours to cross the channel, three hours and twenty minutes to be accurate. She, too, will have had time to remember your firm friendship of the good old days. What adventures you’ve had together … what happy days you’ve shared! But all that was very long ago. It goes back to the time when Muriel helped you to discover England. This time it’s the other way round. Muriel is going to discover Belgium, and you will be her guide. You owe her that, and you intend to be the most attentive of guides.
Three hours to cross the Channel.… It’s really not a journey to speak of. Why has she waited so long? …
Three hours to cross the Channel, pondered Muriel; or rather three hours and twenty minutes. (The posters tell us it’s a three hours’ crossing, but it takes fully three hours and twenty minutes, and one and a half hours to go from London to Dover.) In five hours, roughly, I can be in Belgium.… I may as well go there.… I’ll write to Pierre, then off we go.
How surprised Pierre is going to be. What years since we met. It’ll be great fun seeing one another again. He’s quite a good sort—but what a curious profession he’s taken up: journalist, writer, the idea! However, you earn your living according to your talents; what matters is to earn it.
This is quite a comfortable boat. And the sea is really delightful. There is much less noise, too, than in London. The sky and sea are boundless. Just imagine! There are people who cross this swimming. One must really be very hard up or very strange to undertake it. It’s so much more convenient to go by steamer. Especially as the sea is so smooth and calm in these parts. The seagulls accompany the ship. Are they the birds who each carry the soul of a dead sailor? Or are they messengers of brighter things, telling us that Belgium is waiting for us and that we shall be welcomed there as old friends?
I hope Pierre will be there. Not that I’m afraid of travelling alone, but I know nothing of Belgium.
Oh! but I do. Here’s just a glimpse of Ostend in the distance, which is no longer quite strange to me. It modestly calls itself “The Queen of Watering Places.” Old King Leopold II, who reigned before King Albert, and who had such a lovely white beard, did a great deal for Ostend. He made it a fashionable resort by building a royal chalet there, which is very much deserted these days. And that enormous building which occupies the centre of the sea-front and which bulges outwards, what is that?
“That is the Kursaal, madam,” says one of the stewards. “That is where they play roulette and baccarat. One may win a fortune there in one night. One may lose it, too.”
“Oh,” says Muriel, “I shall have to look more closely into all that.”
Here is the jetty. The boat swerves round. Are we sailing back to Dover? Not a whit. We’re just sliding gracefully—backwards—into harbour. Here we are … all ready to land.
“Hello, Muriel! Had a good crossing?”
“Good old Pierre. I’m so glad you managed to come. You haven’t altered a bit.”
“Thanks. You’ve not changed either. You’re as pretty as ever. I hope you’re staying for some time? Are you alone?”
“All alone, but I’m counting on you to show me round. I don’t know a thing about Belgium. Can you spare the time? Are you free?”
“Entirely. And my greatest desire is to show you everything. If you want my advice …”
“Any advice you choose to offer. Decide. Lead me. I follow you blindly.”
“Off we go then. This is going to be a wonderful trip.… Taxi! … Hotel Imperial, please.
“If you don’t mind, we’ll stay at Ostend for a few days, we’ll visit the other seaside resorts, then we’ll travel inland. For the moment, just get settled down. You’ll see that your room is very comfortable; the bath is in working order and through the window you’ll see the Kursaal gardens and the sea. Your room is at about 200 yards from the sea. (If you should prefer a room directly in front of it, there are several excellent hotels along the front: the Osborne, the Wellington, the Hôtel des Thermes.)”
“First of all,” said Muriel when they set out from the hotel again, “I want a drink. I’m dreadfully thirsty.”
“This café, then.”
“May I go into a café?”
“Of course. Here in Belgium our cafés are open from the early hours of the morning till very late at night, and it is quite correct for ladies to go to them. In fact, the Belgian man takes his family to the café. You may drink anything in these establishments except spirits, that is to say, cognac or whisky or gin.”
“What a curious rule.”
“The law has its good points: in this way the working-class people are not tempted to spend their salaries on excessive drinking, and the men don’t go home inebriated and moneyless, which would be a double catastrophe for their wives.”
“I see. But may I have a pale ale?”
“Yes, anywhere, at any time, and all wines, champagnes, and many other things.”
“There seems to be quite a choice.”
“Let me add, to settle this alcohol question once and for all, and I must say it seems to baffle most visitors, that prohibition exists only as far as public establishments are concerned, such as cafés or restaurants. You may buy any quantity of alcohol in the shops if you want to, and you are perfectly free to drink it at home.”
“Thanks for the information, Pierre. I’m not addicted to drink, you know, but it’s interesting to hear about the foreign outlook on these things.”
“Well, I hope this satisfies you.”
(Not to be read if you are in a hurry)
“Muriel, my dear,” said Pierre when they were settled on the terrace of a café facing the sea, “this is your first visit to Belgium. I’m sure you’re impatient to visit the country, but don’t, I pray you, rush from monument to monument. It is far less interesting to ascertain whether a certain Rubens picture is to be found in Room No. 5 of a certain museum between the ninth and the tenth windows, as the Baedeker will tell you it is. I’m fond of Rubens. You probably appreciate him too, and certainly during our wanderings we shall see works of his. But let us be quite honest, it’s not for that you came to Belgium. For you it is much more important to spend a few pleasant days here and to return to your country with some understanding of the Belgian people; the richer by human experience rather than book learning.”
“If you’ll give me five minutes I’d like to talk to you a little about this people, not like a politician who would tell you that it is the most intelligent on the Continent; not in the manner of generals, who would claim it to be the bravest on the Continent; certainly not like a business man who would describe it as ‘the most industrious on the Continent.’ No. I would like to talk about my people as a friend would talk about it, a friend knowing its faults and qualities, its pride and its shortcomings.”
“The Belgian people is heterogeneous. We needn’t go back to the Roman Conquest nor to Mr. Julius Caesar, who claimed that the Belgians were the bravest of the Gauls—which didn’t prevent them from submitting to his rule. No, we’ll leave on one side all those old wars—two thousand years old—and merely recall that, during these last five centuries, the Belgians have been respectively under French, Spanish, Austrian, and Dutch rule. This explains why we have such pretty, fair women of the northern type, provocative dark beauties whose ancestors came from Spain, and others in whom the blood of various races that have settled on our soil is mingled with the happiest results.
“This makes our hyper-nationalists, who talk so eloquently about. ‘Belgian hearts beating as one,’ about the deeper reasons for our unity, and the glory of our ancestors, sound picturesque rather than convincing. Our ancestors! Why, they came from all the highways of Europe. And our ‘national’ sense has only developed since the date of our unity—1830—when we were severed from Holland by our revolution—in which France had a hand, and which won for us autonomy and independence.
“There’s enough history for you. All that belongs to the past, glorious without a doubt (ancestors and the past are always glorious). But this past explains why we have in our little country (eight million inhabitants) two such very distinct races: the Flemings and the Walloons (Germans and Latins), who each have their language (Flemish and French) and who have sometimes widely divergent political views.”
Here Muriel, who is a very practical and intelligent young woman, interrupted.
“Which race is predominant?”
“The Flemish are more numerous, about four millions, against three million Walloons and one million who are neither one nor the other. But French or Walloon influence has always been the more active, and it is only since the War that the Flemish have obtained equal rights, or almost: education, the law, military training, are carried out in the language of the district: Flemish in Flanders, French in the Walloon provinces. As for Brussels, the capital, both languages are spoken there. That is why, in Parliament, speeches are sometimes delivered in French, sometimes in Flemish, sometimes a speech is delivered in both languages, which is certainly unusual. Laws are, of course, promulgated in both languages.”
“We’re used to it. In general, the Flemish and the Walloons get on quite well together, families are mostly a mixture of the two races, and it’s above all politicians and extremists that continually discuss this question of races and languages. Some of them would like a Federal organisation, with Brussels as its neutral capital (this is what we call Separatism), others want Flanders to be annexed to Holland and the Walloon provinces to be annexed to France (this would be the end of Belgium, of course), and, lastly, the great majority think we can quite well go on as we are, as long as the government scrupulously respects the rights of both parties. This is what we are trying to secure, and for this reason French influence, which has been very strong since the War, is waning, and we are turning more towards the political policy of England. But enough of serious matters.”
“Well, it’s no longer all Dutch to me now. Tell me, however, which is the Flemish part of Belgium and which the Walloon. Ostend, for instance?”
“Ostend is a Flemish town, but it is, above all, an international town, which lives almost entirely on tourists. This is the case with most of the places we shall be visiting. That is why, almost everywhere, foreign languages are spoken, and why so many people speak or understand English. We’re in Flanders here, and the Belgian coast is entirely Flemish. So are Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, and the county of Limburg. Roughly, one half of the country—the northern half between the coast and Holland and right down to Brussels—is Flemish. South of Brussels we have Hainault, Liége, the Ardennes—Wallonie.”
“Brussels is claimed by both races. As a matter of fact, there the two races are closely intermingled. It’s a sort of neutral city in the heart of the country.”
“I understand. Let’s go for a walk after the lesson.”
They wandered along the shore, the shore that stretche. without a break for 70 kilometres along the North Seas If they’d had a car they could’ easily have explored the whole coast in the course of an afternoon, because an excellent road joins up all the seaside towns and gives you long glimpses of the sea. But they preferred to walk in more leisurely fashion along the promenade—the Digue—of which it is said that it can stand comparison with those of the south of France, which is true for the luxury and elegance which is displayed there, and also for the extreme freedom of its visitors. But the scenery is more subdued; not of the postcard variety. The sea is not of the deep blue of the Mediterranean, but rather changing, grey or green. It is not a quiet sea along our coast, and the fishermen who leave every night for the fishing banks have a hard time of it. The contrast is most striking between these fisher-folk and the brilliant and happy holiday-makers who take the town by storm during the summer months (from Easter till the end of September). The visitors generally pay little attention to the fishing port of Ostend, and it is a great pity. Only the most curious walk the mile that separates them from the fishermen’s quarter, picturesque and popular, and the wharves from which the masts and the brick-coloured sails of the heavy fishing boats rise—lumbering boats that call up visions of great struggles with the elements, and of untiring labour. Between nine o’clock at night and midnight one can see them sailing past the pier, one after the other, for the goal that will only be reached in the small hours. It is a grand and harrowing sight, this sailing of the fishing fleet: each little gleam afar proclaiming the presence of from five to ten fishermen, casting their nets upon their fleeting prey. And early in the morning it is thrilling to see them sailing home, then offering their catch, selling at an exceedingly low price the small baskets of fish—most of these wriggling still—or the baskets of shrimps that the men have cooked on their return journey.
These men, more than all others, live close to nature, engaged in a constant struggle against poverty. They are ill-paid, to judge by their houses and their belongings. Thousands of these men supply the market with fish for the whole country, and they are a race apart, with their sunburnt, brick-coloured faces, their piercing blue eyes and their broad shoulders. They are a silent race, too, and lead simple lives.
“I’m glad you showed me that first,” said Muriel. “One forgets too easily that the seaside is not only pleasure land. The sea not only links the continents together, it is also the scene of hard struggles and a source of life.
“And its waves become soft and caressing beneath the sunshine when they are rent by the happy, laughing bathers. For work is beautiful because it earns play for us. Come and rest here. Forget the day’s troubles. Let’s have our first bathe.”
You can bathe at any hour at Ostend.
The baths, newly built along the beach and efficiently planned on modern lines, are among the finest on the Continent. The cabins are built under the Digue. They are very comfortable. Shower baths, hot or cold, can be taken before or after bathing, and if you haven’t brought your bathing things, everything can be hired for a very reasonable sum. In front of the sea a great expanse of sand has been reserved where you can indulge in sunbathing, or run or play at “volley ball.” All this is excellent for the circulation, and it is as well to encourage a good circulation, since that allows one to indulge in agreeable excesses.
If, in turn, these excesses call for cures, there are plenty of remedies to hand, chief of them being the mineral-water springs at Ostend, which have acquired a great reputation.
In the evening Muriel asked:
“Must I dress for dinner? At what time do you dine in this charming country? And is the food good?”
“My dear, Belgium, with France, is the country in Europe where the food is best. Belgians are very fond of their food and are very careful in their choice of drinks. They are at once greedy and ‘gourmet.’ Breakfast is a simple matter with them: a few rolls and butter and something hot to drink. But if you should need something more substantial, you can have bacon and eggs or ham (you’ll be able to get this everywhere). The most important meal is at midday. Generally, it is composed of soup, hors d’œuvres, a fish course, meat, vegetables and potatoes, cheese and dessert. The evening meal is served between seven and eight o’clock, and is a little lighter than the midday meal. There is usually no fish course. This is a general rule for the table d’hôte meals, the price of which varies, according to the quality of the restaurant, from twenty to forty francs, drinks included.”
“What do twenty or forty francs represent?”
“The rate of exchange is in your favour. For £1 you will receive (if there is no great upheaval on the exchange market) about 150 francs. This means that a good meal costs about three shillings (twenty francs). In the very fashionable hotels, and the one you are staying at, the price of a room is about eight or ten shillings. So you see that for a pound a day you will be more than comfortable in Belgium. The more so as there is a great number of hotels along the coast, in the Ardennes, and in the great tourist centres, where the inclusive charge for board-residence ranges from 80 to 120 francs a day for first-class hotels, to 50 and 60 francs. It is unnecessary for me to give addresses. They are legion, and wherever you go you will come across them.”
Here let me draw attention to the fact that precise practical details of this nature can be obtained at most railway stations at the enquiry office (“bureau de renseignements”), where a free guide-book will be presented to any traveller on request; these include a complete list of Belgian and Luxemburg hotels with details concerning prices and the comforts they can provide. If a traveller likes reading, he will also be abundantly supplied with leaflets and booklets published by the various tourist centres which might interest him. His only trouble after that will be to fix his choice on any of the spots enthusiastically described as the “most beautiful in the country”—if not in the world. Needless to say, in this account we do not go to that extreme, and we describe things in less glowing terms, but as they strike us. (The tourist will always find information and leaflets, free of charge, at the Office Belgo-Luxembourgeois de Tourisme, 48, Place de de Brouckère, in Brussels.)
“This digression is of no use to me,” says Muriel. “I put myself into your hands. You tell me I shall need roughly a pound a day in order to live comfortably; I have noted that, and we’ll say no more about it.”
“Of course, if you go losing 500 francs at baccarat, you’ll need much more.”
“If you’re fond of champagne it’ll be the same; or if you were a man and wanted to offer flowers or jewels to the ladies.”
“Do the men offer jewellery to ladies as easily as that?”
“No, dear. But if you know them a little, or you’re invited to dine, it is considered good form to offer flowers. Flowers, and a few pleasant words, is the gift most appreciated by ladies on the Continent, as also the implication that you consider them gracious, agreeable, intelligent—which they are often enough.”
“What an optimist you are, Pierre.”
“I’m optimistic after the fashion of the gentleman who, when he sees half a bottle of whisky, says, ‘It’s half full’—whereas for the pessimist it’s half empty.”
“I see. Let’s have dinner now.”
Before going in to dinner we changed. Muriel came down in a very smart dinner gown—for Ostend is a fashionable resort and people generally dress for dinner. The men wear dinner jackets. In Brussels one is not so tied in the matter of dress. The restaurant we chose was the Bonne Auberge, and the following day the Renommée, both excellent.
After dinner we went to the Kursaal, where solemn concerts are held every night. Great singers are heard at these concerts, often among the best in the world. After the concert, and even a little before the end, to be truthful, Muriel asked me to take her to the gambling rooms.
Nothing easier, there are at Ostend two playing-rooms: one at the Kursaal, the other, the Casino Imperial (which is just behind the Kursaal), adjoins the hotel we are staying at. Both these rooms have their individual characteristics, so we were inscribed as members at both. All that was required of us was to fill in forms giving our names, addresses and ages. It is absolutely necessary to be of age in order to obtain membership cards. In exchange for this information cards were handed to us. These give access to the rooms that are so dangerous to the weak-willed and to those possessed by the gambling instinct.
The Kursaal room is enormous. Five or six roulette tables are always running, and at least fifteen baccarat tables. You meet here all manner of people. Some obviously hard up, trying to win a twenty-franc piece or two; others playing in one “coup” from 50 to 100,000 francs. Before these last lean years I have watched bancos of 1,000,000 francs being played there. And this fortune was just a heap of coloured counters of different shapes, a magnet to the eyes of the less fortunate. The spirit of the gambling rooms remains the same, but the stakes are much smaller. It is even possible to play with a capital of ten francs, though at this rate it would take years to win a fortune. It is perhaps an exaggeration to say that the player always loses, but this is nevertheless the general result of the game. From a spectacular point of view the rooms are a sight not to be missed—the great mass of human beings hiding their greed with consummate skill. A player rarely allows his disappointment to show when things go wrong.
The most curious phenomenon of all is perhaps the apparent disregard of the value of money, though money is the goal toward which all efforts tend. All that for twelve weary months has been put aside for the holidays may be lost in an hour. All that a stroke of luck has shovelled towards a winner may be spent in five minutes.
If you go to the rooms you will notice that the women, who are of course admitted and who may go there alone, are not one whit less gamblers than the men. There is a great number of them and they are great believers in “systems,” which they elaborate with much cunning. They undoubtedly add a charming note to the long nights spent at or near the tables.
Muriel was very excited by all this. She wanted to play, and risked a twenty-franc piece on the red—which was the wrong colour, of course. Then twenty francs went on the black, which was as unlucky as the red had been. She was very disappointed, but was somewhat comforted when I told her that this sort of thing often occurred ten times in succession.
“I’ll try numbers this time,” said she, and threw five francs on the cloth. She played 17, and her stake, multiplied by thirty-five, was handed to her … this little stroke brought her 175 francs. I congratulated her, and urged her to try her luck again, but she was firm. She pocketed her winnings and turned her back on the tables, declaring that all this was too much for her poor heart.
This is the way with most players; when they lose they will willingly empty their pockets, pursuing chance, but if they win, they rarely chance their luck again.
Muriel, to console me for my series of losses, offered me a drink, which I accepted, though I explained that in Belgium ladies did not stand drinks as a rule. We then betook ourselves to the Casino Imperial, whose gaming rooms Muriel also wanted to see.
Here there are not so many people, and they are perhaps more select. Most of them are English, certainly a good half of the players. Two exquisitely dressed women with sleek platinum blonde hair are there. Lady So-and-So and her daughter. One might take them for sisters. One man is so absorbed in higher mathematics that he does not even raise his head. The ventilators are for ever spinning, and the giant palms stir slightly in the breeze. We went straight to the bar. Muriel chose a delightful and innocent drink, while I ordered a whisky.
“But that is spirits,” remarked Muriel.
I then explained that as we were in a private club, not accessible to the public, anything might be taken.
“I’ll understand some day,” said Muriel. And then we chatted and made the acquaintance of some charming visitors from England.
The following day we decided to see Ostend more thoroughly: the port, the fish market, the covered market, so picturesque and colourful, the old quarter with its fine patrician houses, the two parks, the Pump Room—Palais des Thermes—the Napoleon fort, which is Ostend’s war museum. We walked to the end of the pier, which stretches for 700 metres into the sea, and we just had time, before bathing, to see a tennis match. In the afternoon we went to the race-course, the Wellington Hippodrome, which is exceedingly well planned and from which one can see, stretching on one side, the sunlit and murmuring sea, and on the other the limitless expanse of flat Flemish country, out of which, like islands in a green sea, rise the farms and houses of Flanders.
We saw thoroughbreds race here, wearing the colours of world-famed stables. All the race-horses from the race-courses round Brussels, open during the winter months, run here in July and August, during which period several Grand Prix races are run. This is one of the foremost afternoon attractions along the coast.
After a brief call for tea at the Kursaal, which was crowded with tireless and fashionable dancers, we decided to explore the coast further.
We set out for Le Zoute, the Belgian coastal resort which lies closest to the Dutch frontier. If Ostend may be considered the most important, the most international of our seaside towns, and the one that can provide the most varied entertainments, Le Zoute is without doubt the most elegant and distinguished. It is also the resort most favoured by English visitors. It might almost be considered a half English town, and it is there that you should go after having been to Ostend. The baths here are also exceedingly comfortable, and there are a great many hotels and restaurants. Very fine concerts are frequently being given, and the Casino here has gaming rooms larger and finer than those of Ostend. The building itself is carried out on daring modern lines.
As to the hotels, you may choose the Rubens or any other to be found here. They are all excellent. (Let it be said, in passing, that the hotel problem is easily solved in Belgium.) All the towns we will describe are tourist centres, and the hotel trade is very up to date and satisfactory everywhere owing to the intensive competition. This is a guarantee of service and efficiency. It is advisable, on arriving at any hotel or boarding-house, to ask for all particulars as to the rooms, the comfort you may expect, the meals, and so on. You will find that these questions will be willingly answered. As for tips, this has been regulated in Belgium, and most hotels charge an additional service fee—roughly 10 per cent. of the bill—but it is usual to give something extra to the porter. In the cafés, tea-rooms, or where there is dancing, it is understood that waiters and waitresses should be tipped. The tips vary from ten to twenty per cent, of the bill, according to the generosity of the customer, his degree of satisfaction with the service, and the amount of the bill.
When you are tired of bathing, tennis or golf at Le Zoute (there is plenty of opportunity for golf along the Belgian coast, at Le Zoute we have the biggest golf course in Europe—three 18-hole links); when you will have spent long days wandering among the dunes—wide sand-hills covered with wild grass; when you will have tried horse-riding, hockey, sand-skimming, and even flying (at Ostend there is a very big aerodrome, too), you will be able to go inland to visit the Flemish country lying flat and endless behind the dunes that roll on towards the interior of Belgium.
The people you will meet in the small villages, which lie close together, are tillers of the soil. The soil is fertile, and the wheat fields are as golden in summer as the dunes that protect them. There are great pastures too, and many cattle grazing. Everywhere you will see farms, barnyards, stables, and simple, friendly peasant folk.
The villages themselves, their houses always clustered around a church spire—these churches are often very old—have the rustic grace of things untouched by time. Here you will find old women, worn as the cobbles of the highways, smoking pipes. Flanders is an agricultural country producing the usual farm and market-garden products. The only great local industry is the weaving industry, which is very important and world famous. The flax fields cover a very large area. Farther on, on the way to Bruges, you will find the lace-makers, and beyond that, around Ghent, the countless flowers of the horticultural regions.
“Before going to Bruges and Ghent, would you care to visit the battlefields?”
“Do people talk much of war in your country?” asked Muriel.
“Yes, unfortunately, and not always with wisdom. So many people begin their world history at 1914; their eyes and hearts are riveted to this historic date. But history moves on, and a very few enlightened people admit that you cannot remain for ever morally at war with your neighbours. The War has been over for more than twenty years. If a new war breaks out to-morrow, those who fight will have been for the most part born after the tumult. What grudge can these have against the other men, as young as they, who will be their ‘enemies’? For this reason, here as everywhere, I suppose intelligent persons (which, alas, does not mean the majority) think war can only be the outcome of bad management to be laid at the door of those who govern and are influenced by great industrial interests. These also think that the poorest peace is worth the most brilliant of wars, and that these criminal follies are the greatest scourge of modern times and the most convincing proof of man’s folly. It is a great pity that so often on the Continent you hear only words of contempt and hatred for other nations, and that so often it is easier to rouse the evil in men than their finer feelings. It is sad to have to admit that people will not realise that everyone must live and that there is surfeit of everything on the earth and sunshine for all—enough to allow each one of us to live content in a peaceful world.”
“I’ve always liked olive branches,” said Muriel.
“Let’s forget about serious things for the moment. I promised to see to it that you enjoyed your holiday. If, however, you wish to visit the battlefields, which are quite close, you will find many charabanc services that will take you round them in half a day. Almost everywhere new buildings have sprung up to hide the old skeletons of wall and gaping windows. In some places, however, they have kept reminders of those old miseries. Here on the coast is Zeebrugge, which was the German submarine base during the War. It was here, on the Mole, that the British fleet blocked the channel by sinking two ships weighted with cement. Not only with cement, since the crews perished too, meeting death with open eyes and willingly. It was perhaps the most heroic action of that grim period, since it was done deliberately and of set purpose. An imposing monument and a war museum keep fresh the memory of this deed.
“Nieuport, Dixmude and Ypres, which were entirely burnt down during the War, are rebuilt now, but keep here and there some ruin in testimony of their destruction. At Ypres you will see the impressive British monument erected to commemorate the 54,000 British soldiers who fell defending the town, and whose bodies have not been recovered. It is there that every night silver bugles sound the ‘Last Post’—in honour of the dead heroes.”
Muriel was silent for a moment.
“You’re very hard on wars, and you are right. This is the spot where the futility of this slaughter is most acutely felt. During the great War the dead numbered ten millions and the expenses amounted to ten billions of francs. When you see to what purpose all this has been spent, you are more than ever convinced, of the futility of it all and realise that it is your duty to oppose in every Way those who think we should go through it all again. And I’ve not mentioned the twenty-nine millions of wounded and disabled, the nine million orphans, the five million widows, and the great moral distress that weighs down so many whose lives have been bereft of love and countless splendid reasons, for living.”
“Let’s leave this place, my dear, and let’s go to Dixmude, where stands the mightiest war monument raised in Belgium, the famous ‘Tower of the Yser,’ fifty metres high, put up by the Flemish to commemorate all the war heroes—those that fell on both sides. Graven into the stone in four languages are the words: ‘NO MORE WAR.’”
“No more war! That is the oath taken every year at the Dixmude Pilgrimage (on the first Sunday after August 15th) by more than 100,000 Flemings gathered at the foot of this tower and hailing from all parts of the country. It is the greatest and most moving manifestation in favour of peace that we have in Belgium.”
On our way back from this pious pilgrimage to the War sites we passed through Furnes, a picturesque little medieval town, where on the last Sunday in July the “Penitents’ Procession” goes forth. The Penitents of Furnes walk in their long robes, their faces veiled in cowled hoods, and bearing heavy wooden crosses. It is a sight not to be missed if one is in the neighbourhood.
Then, back at our hotel once more, we set out for a last walk along the beach. We had a glimpse of the ever-changing and moving North Sea, gleaming like burnished copper under the sun’s last rays. A host of fishing sails and sea-gulls’ wings swayed across the horizon, vying with one another in gracefulness.
“I’d not miss seeing Bruges for anything,” said Muriel.
“And I certainly wouldn’t miss the pleasure of showing it to you for anything, either,” I replied.
Bruges is quite close to the coast. Trains and buses take you there in twenty minutes. Here we are. Hotel first: there are many first-class hotels here (we’ll choose the Memlinc, on the Market Place, or the Cornet d’Or, facing a delightful old-world square, or the Hotel de Londres or the Hôtel Verriest).
Bruges is the most beautiful town in Belgium; not the largest, nor the most brilliant; nor yet the gayest, but the most wonderful by reason of its splendid buildings. It is a very small town, one of the oldest in Belgium, and in several places it has kept unchanged its medieval atmosphere. A seven-hundred-year-old tune floats from the belfry tower, where the ancient carillon rings out across the town. And along the silent waterways that encircle and cut through the city, near the age-old houses with their Flemish gables, it seems that time has arrested its flight for ever.
These canals have earned for Bruges the name of “The Venice of the North.” You will visit them by boat, and no detail will escape you of time-fretted stone at the doors of the buildings that edge the water, dipping into the canals; or of ornaments that time has left intact on the bridges, of other archaeological relics preserved from decay through the centuries.
It would be superfluous to enumerate the things one should see in Bruges. The whole town is a vast museum; from the market hall to the town hall; from the Law Courts to the Beguinage. From the cathedral to the numerous churches, paved with gravestones, it is one long array of magnificent sculpture, canvases painted by old masters and artistic treasures of every kind.
Muriel and I wandered long through this thousand-year-old city where such boundless riches have been accumulated. For, in the Middle Ages, Bruges was not only one of the greatest trading centres in the world, but also the home of famous artists, whose works are among the most highly prized treasures of the town. In those days Bruges had an outlet to the sea by a natural waterway, and the annals of the town boast that in 1456, 150 vessels entered the port in one day. This canal was choked up by sand in the course of time, and the ships were diverted towards the new port of Antwerp. This was the death-knell of the trade and life of the capital of Flanders, and this town, whose citizens numbered 75,000 in the Middle Ages, has only a population of 58,000 citizens to-day.
The town has been completely abandoned by the great traders, and its industries have died.
That is why those once busy canals are lonely now. Their waters are ruffled only by the passing of countless swans and the swish of oars or propellers as the boats go by with tourists, and that is why the once flowering gardens are full of silence and solitary grandeur.
It is a town where it is impossible not to dream—or love, the poets add. And, as we lingered by the “Minnewater” (the Love-lake), Muriel spoke:
“How pleasant it must have been to live in those olden days when men strove to produce lasting and beautiful things. What art, what splendour and what beauty in so small a space. Yes. I would have loved to live in those times.”
And I, standing beside the “Minnewater,” what could I reply?
“If I’d never met you, Muriel, my life would have been incomplete. The wonder of all this is that the past and the present are so closely linked. I look at you, and you are one with the beauty of the landscape. You dispel the phantoms and the mists wrapped about these places, and I imagine the ‘Love-lake’ was never more perfect than your dear presence makes it now.”
“Be reasonable,” said Muriel, “don’t let’s spoil this happy holiday.”
“True, there are many things to see yet. First among them the lace-makers, at their doors, working away all day and every day. This is one of the most flourishing industries in Bruges, where a great many crafts are still practised: pottery, wrought-iron work, furniture making.”
In the evening we listened to the Carillon concert which is given every Monday and Wednesday. Does it interest you to know that the belfry holds no less than forty-nine bells weighing in all 55,160 lb., and that the great bell cast in 1680 weighs alone 19,000 lb.? You must go and listen to one of these concerts and look at the great belfry, whose towers cleave the sky to a height of eighty-five metres. All authors who have written about it agree that the Belfry of Bruges is the most beautiful in the world. I am convinced you will think the same.
And now, the time has come to leave Bruges, the town in Belgium that has guarded most preciously its ancient charm; Bruges-the-dead, as George Rodenbach wrote. One day Leopold II met the poet and said: “Bruges-the-dead, yes, you’re right, M. Rodenbach, but don’t worry, we’re going to alter all that; we’re going to give it trams and buses, we’re going to build there, and you’ll see that trade will pick up again.” Fortunately, the old king did nothing of the sort, and Bruges has remained as it was.
The environment of the town, and Flanders too, are unchanged. Its rich soil stretches in great fields to Ghent, and everywhere little villages cluster round the inevitable spire.
Twenty-five minutes in the train, and we are in Ghent.
Another very old town, larger than Bruges and more adapted to modern times. In the past, Ghent was the centre of the textile industry, which was the source of its boundless wealth, abundant testimony of which remains in the splendour and magnificence of its monuments. Ghent is known as “The Town of Monuments.” At one spot one finds seven magnificent Gothic buildings built almost one on top of the other, each of which would have made a name for the town. You should visit more especially the great cathedral (Saint Bavon), which is in itself a museum. This is where you will find the famous altarpiece of the Mystic Lamb, painted by the Brothers Van Eyck, one panel of which was stolen a few years ago. So far only one face of the panel has been returned, and the other has not been traced yet. It is supposed that some collector maniac must have taken it.
Here we have a university—one of Belgium’s four universities. The lectures are delivered in Flemish and great battles had to be waged before the Flemish population secured this concession.
“And what is that enormous fortress surrounded by water?”
“That used to be a fortress, as the battlements, portholes and dungeons prove, but that was around 1200. One shell from a modern gun would destroy the whole thing. It is the castle of the Counts of Flanders. Charles V was born there in 1500.”
“Charles V? That’s a gentleman I was told about at school.”
“Of course you were. You remember he was King of Spain and Emperor of Germany. He ruled over the whole of Spain and her colonies, a part of Italy, of Flanders, of Austria, and said that on his empire the sun never set. He dreamed of conquering the whole world, but, defeated in his ambitious aims, he withdrew into a cloister when he was fifty-five years of age. He died three years later—for death overtook him despite his power and his glory. Legend has it that he ordered his funeral rites to be carried through before his death, so as to be able to assist at them, but it is only legend.
“Let us go over this ancient castle, admirably preserved, where skeletons are still to be found in the cellars and where the torture-chamber will make you shiver if you’re at all sensitive.”
Ghent is still the chief centre of the textile industry in Belgium, and its metal works are world famous. It is also the second port in Belgium. To crown this industrial and commercial activity, Ghent has monopolised the most charming of all cultures—that of flowers. It is our great horticultural centre, and has several flower gardens.
There are beguinages too. They have remained exactly as they were in the days when the beguines founded their communities, and the nuns who still live there have kept the traditional fifteenth-century costume.
“But the food is modern, my dear Muriel, and we’re now going to try a culinary speciality of the town. It is called the ‘Hochepot gantoise,’ and we’re going to sample it at the Cour Saint Georges.”
“I’ve heard that you have excellent wines in Belgium.”
“As you know, they are not made here. We leave that to the French, who are past masters in the art. But as the duties on wines are very high and as there is only a slight difference in them whether the wine imported be good or of lesser quality, we generally import very good wine. That is why you may always buy wine in Belgium without qualms. Unless, of course, you prefer that product of our national industry—beer. Our beer is light and refreshing, a harmless beverage, though real connoisseurs prefer English or German beers, which are imported on a very large scale. There is one national beer, however, that is very famous—the ‘gueuze-lambic.’ This is a high fermenting beer which is bottled for several years before being served, and which is kept in cellars like wine. I don’t think you’d like it. It is strong and sourish, and in order to like it you must become accustomed to it. It is the beer of Brussels.”
And here we are on the way to Brussels.
We have just visited the coast and Flanders. There are a thousand things still to be seen here. You will see everywhere the everlasting flat pastures and the plains, as the train carries you along, and if you go by car you will find that the sunburnt peasant women, whose hair is gathered into a brilliantly coloured kerchief, will wave a friendly hand at you as you pass; for we are an affectionate people. This artless salute you will answer without a doubt, for having spent a few days among these simple, kindly people you will have grown to like Flanders and those who live and toil there.
Ten centuries of toil, ten centuries of tumult have passed over this soil … all the armies have known it.
Despite the armies and invasion, despite new conquerors and new governments, Flanders has remained true to itself—simple and true. Of her past only the fine things have remained; the deathless beauty of finely wrought things, the magnificent strength and genius of long buried architects, and the ever new wealth of its soil, with its proudly waving corn and its carpet of flowers. Flanders, the immortal song of your poets is still ringing in your quiet paths, and your very language, so harsh to those who do not understand, so soft to those who love it, carries with it the spirit of glorious years and the grandeur of a whole race.
Here the ploughshare was abandoned when the sword was needed to defend hearth and home, and once the sword was lowered, the ploughshares rose again furrowing the brown and generous earth.
Ten centuries of toil, ten centuries of tumult have passed over this soil.
“I was impatient to see Brussels,” said Muriel. “What is its population?”
“About a million. Roughly the eighth of the entire population of Belgium. Brussels is our capital. This is where the King resides, and where Parliament sits. The various ministries are in Brussels too, as well as the National Bank and all the administrative offices.”
“I see you’re dying to talk politics again. It certainly makes a great many things clear to one. I lend you my ears.”
“It’s almost impossible to get a real insight into the character of a people, or to respond to the atmosphere of a country if one has no notion as to its government, the great popular ideals, and the general trend of its opinion.”
“Spare your eloquence for half a moment. We’re snowed under with luggage, you know. Hotel first. Lessons afterwards.”
“Very well, madam. What hotel shall I advise? The Gallia, a quiet and distinguished hotel where you will meet many English people (2, Rue Joseph II), or the Metropole, a more imposing hotel, a cosmopolitan concern with a café below, restaurant and concert-room? There is Scheers, too, comfortable and middle-class, or the Atlanta and Plaza, the most modern and luxurious.”
When a hotel had been chosen, we went to the park first of all. Brussels is peppered with parks. Thirty of them, some of which are really remarkable—the Parc Josaphat, for instance, or the Tervueren Parc, the Laeken Parc, the Parc of the Cinquantenaire, the Egmont Parc, where stands the statue of Peter Pan, and also the Royal Parc, where we are now.
A concert is being given every afternoon in summer. These concerts have their special devotees, a few hundred regular listeners, and the birds in the branches who gather here in greater numbers than in the other parks.
It is in this garden that the Belgians fought for their independence in 1830.
On one side of the garden you will see the King’s Palace, which was built not very long ago and which is, despite its size, of little architectural interest. The flag is hoisted only when the King is in Brussels. Opposite the Palace; on the other side of the Parc, are the Parliament buildings—Chamber of Deputies and Senate. You will doubtless wish to visit them, and so learn where it is that our laws are made. They have been swelling in numbers these last years. Generally, when things go wrong, laws spring up on every hand. Some people say that it is the other way round, and that the more laws that are made, the worse matters become.
In Belgium individual liberty is much appreciated—the Belgian is an individualist. Everything that appears to curtail his freedom weighs upon him, and it is extremely unlikely, despite the efforts of certain political adventurers, that dictatorship be ever established here. The democratic government which is ours, however much it is criticised and whatever its shortcomings, seems to be the one most suited to our character. Our members of Parliament are elected every four years. Men only have the right to vote, and they must be of age.
“And the women?” asked my companion.
“Women are not allowed to vote, and I agree with you that we should protest against this state of affairs. But we must admit that they don’t take very energetic steps to obtain equal rights. There is some talk of granting the vote to women for the next elections. This promise has been made many times before, but has not been carried out yet.”
Executive power is in the hands of Ministers chosen from the various political parties, according to the importance of the latter. There are not many political parties in Belgium. Two very important ones—the Catholic party (conservative tendencies) and the Socialist party (democratic)—who together represent more than three-quarters of the voting public. Beside these we have the Liberal party (reactionary) and the Communists.
Although in principle the Parliament should represent the opinion of the voting public, it would be dangerous to say that it reflects public opinion accurately. This is due to several reasons, the first of which is that the public generally votes for a party as a whole, and not for any particular candidate, with the result that members of one party often represent widely divergent views in Parliament, and often, too, once a member is elected, he evolves rapidly; his political outlook changes swiftly from extremism to a more moderate tempo. This happens everywhere, of course, and our chief grievance against our Parliament is that it is too busy with things of little import and hasn’t the time to settle more vital matters—peace, unemployment, depression, etc.
Our last government, whose premier was M. Van Zeeland, made a great effort. The World Exhibition, the devaluation of the Belgian franc, and a policy of public works have done a great deal towards diminishing the number of the unemployed. These still total 200,000, which is excessive for a little country like ours. On the other hand, those who work are ill paid, and Belgium is certainly one of the countries in Europe where the standard of living is at its lowest.
Brussels and a few other big towns have a certain air of prosperity. But you mustn’t be taken in by this: it is only superficial prosperity. Many households have to exist on a salary of less than 1,000 francs (£6 or £7) a month, and in certain parts of the country, in the Borinage for instance, which is the coal-mining district, the workers are reduced to terrible poverty.
Yet there is no revolt, no upheaval. The Socialists themselves take an active part in this government, and keep their followers comforted with the promise of better times to come. Let us hope they are coming.
“It was very kind of you to trouble to tell me all this. It’s much more interesting than I should have thought. It will help me to see your people with more understanding. And now, tell me what we are going to see in Brussels.”
“A thousand things, Muriel. We’ll start with the Market Place. Its buildings cannot be described—they must be seen. It has often been said that the Market Square should be kept under glass—so perfect is the whole. The Town Hall is famous. It is in the fifteenth-century Gothic style, with hosts of sculptured ornaments that must be seen at leisure, and a 114 metres high tower, crested with the statue of St. Michael—the patron saint of the city—slaying the dragon. This tower is a delicate tracery of stone, so finely carved that it looks like lace. It is curious to note that the tower has not been built in the exact centre of the edifice. Legend again has it that the architect in his despair hanged himself.”
All around the Market Square are the old Guild Houses.
A few yards away there is the charming and indecent little statue of Manneken-Pis, which is often taken to represent the special Brussels brand of humour. This bronze statue was raised in the seventeenth century, and history relates that it was erected by a rich merchant of the town, who, having lost his son, found him at that very spot and exactly as he is represented. The statue represents a little naked boy, but often he is dressed up, because he has a vast number of suits of all kinds, given by various societies. Some regiments of the army have even endowed him with a uniform.
You must visit the admirable cathedral—the Collegiale Ste. Gudule—and the exquisite Church of the Sablon.
The Law Courts should be seen too, or rather visited, because it would be difficult indeed not to see them, since their great mass overlooks the town. It is the largest palace in Europe; it covers an area of 52,000 square metres. The London Law Courts cover 14,693, and Saint Peter’s in Rome covers 22,000. You will see that we are well served in the way of Law Courts. This imposing monument was built quite recently—exactly fifty-three years ago—and its architect lost his reason and died before it was completed. When you visit this building entrust yourself to a guide, for otherwise you will be lost in no time.
After climbing all those stairs you will need to rest awhile, and you will find the Amphytrion a few yards farther. This is a very smart café where you may take refreshments or even dine. On the other side of the Boulevard is the Coupole, another smart establishment where one can have dinner too. While we are on the subject, we might make a note of the chief restaurants: Rotisserie Ardennaise, Taverne Royale, Trois Suisses, Palace, Central (down town), Elite, Caves de Maestricht (up town).
The commercial quarter of Brussels is down town, it is the real heart of the city: this comprises the Bourse (Stock Exchange), the Place de Brouckère and the neighbouring boulevards. Up town are the Government buildings, the Ministries, the Banks, the Law Courts, and the great avenues leading to the Bois de la Cambre and the Forest.
In the lower part of the town you will, on your shopping tours, pass through the Galeries St. Hubert (covered gallery entirely lined with shops), the central boulevards and the Rue Neuve. This is where the more important shops are to be found and is therefore one of the ladies’ favourite walks. The Innovation and the Bon Marché are two very important shops where tea can be taken on the roof, and from where one gets a fine view over the town.
In these establishments, and in many others situated in every part of the town, lady visitors will be able to find anything they might need or desire. You will find smart shops in every important town in Belgium (Brussels, Antwerp, Ostend, Ghent, Liége and Spa). You need not hesitate to go into these shops and make enquiries, even if you do not finally buy anything. The Belgian shopkeeper is very obliging, very willing to enlighten a potential customer, and, as he expresses it himself, that’s what he is there for.
“And where can I get a permanent wave?”
“Forgive me, Muriel. I’d quite forgotten to mention that. I admit it is a very important matter. You’ll have to go to one of the numerous ladies’ hairdressers whom you will find all over the town. I’m not going to give you a list of them, you’d never get to the end of it. But this sort of problem will be solved for you at your hotel. If the establishment has not its own hairdressing and manicure service, the staff can certainly recommend a good establishment.”
“And what are the places I may go to alone in the afternoon or evening?”
“Practically everywhere. There are practically no places a woman may not go to alone. The pictures, the theatre, the café, tea-rooms, and even what we call the ‘dancings.’ (The Metropole tea-room is very smart, and at the Saint-Sauveur you will be sure to enjoy yourself too.)”
“Which theatres do you recommend?”
“If you’re keen on opera, you’ll have to go to the Monnaie, which was before the War a theatre with a world-wide reputation. It has come down a little these days. The Parc—which is fitted with one of the new revolving stages—gives very good plays. If you want to see a musical comedy, the Alhambra is the place for you, and if you just need comedy and local humour—there’s the Vaudeville.”
There are any number of cinemas. The programmes are indicated in the newspapers, and probably posted up in your hotel. If you are keen on the ultra-modern film productions there are two names to jot down—the Studio at the Palais des Beaux Arts and the Studio Arenberg, where pictures are given in the original version.
“Do you have to dress in Brussels to go to the theatre, the restaurant or the pictures?”
“What other places of amusement are there?”
“Plenty. If you’re fond of skating, there are two skating rinks—the Pôle Nord and the Saint-Sauveur. If swimming is your favourite pastime, there is the Van Schelle open-air bathing pool. These establishments are open from morning till night, and you get anything you want there—even meals.”
“And what about the races?”
“Every day races are run on the race-courses around Brussels. The Boitsfort race-course is very fine. At the Palais des Sports bicycle races are run almost every Sunday.”
“Do you play football here too?”
“Football is one of our most popular sports. Every Sunday important matches are played on the ground near Brussels. The largest football ground of all—at the Heysel—can seat 60,000 people.”
“And is that all, Pierre?”
“By no means. There’s rowing on the lake of the Bois de la Cambre. When you go to the Bois, as we call it, you’ll see that dotted about among the trees there are a great number of tea-houses where one dances in the open from midday till after midnight. You must not miss that. It is a charming sight! The smartest of these places is the Laiterie; rather more middle-class is the Rossignols; quite popular and unrestrained, the rendezvous of young lovers, is Moeder Lambic and the establishments surrounding it. There you will be able to eat thick slices of bread and butter covered with cream cheese, which is a special Brussels treat. If you want more local colour, order a glass of ‘gueuze lambic’ with it.”
“If you’re at a loose end one evening, I advise you to go to the Jai-Alai. This is a vast hall (which holds 2,000 people) where the Basque game of ‘balle pelote’ is played. There are professional teams of South American and Spanish players, who are thrilling to watch. Much betting goes on about the matches just as in horse-racing.”
“And after this frivolous interlude, tell me about art in Brussels.”
“You are, after all, the complete tourist. Admirable, my dear! Painting heads the list: you’ll visit the Museum of Ancient Art; naturally. It is filled to the brim with marvels. I won’t bore you with a detailed description of it. But masterpieces by our greatest painters are sheltered there—pictures by Rubens, Jordaens, Breughel, Van Dyck, Teniers, Memlinc, and others. You’ll notice that a great effort has been made to liven up several of the rooms by arranging these ancient treasures in more modern fashion—avoiding overcrowding, or hanging out of reach—with the happiest results. A thorough cleaning of certain masterpieces has done away with an impenetrable film of old varnish which covered many a delicate shade in an old picture, and has revealed glowing tints that had been buried for centuries.
“You must not get the old Museum mixed up with the modern Museum only a few yards distant from it.
“The modern Museum is well worth a visit, since it will give you a rapid view of Belgian artistic production for the last fifty years.
“If the antique inspires you, there is still the Museum of the Cinquantenaire, where Egyptian, Greek and Roman treasures are displayed. This contains marvellous tapestries too, and lace and china, and a host of delightful and varied objects that have settled down there in the name of art and history. The Army Museum is quite near to it.
“If our Colonial art interests you, you will visit the Tervueren Museum and its wonderful park situated a few miles out of Brussels. Electric trains will take you there in a few minutes. If you’re really passionately fond of African things, there is a tiny shop, Walschot, 71 rue de la Montagne, where you will find the finest collection of African objects in Belgium.
“Another old museum, small, curious and romantic, that attracts many foreign visitors is the Wiertz Museum. Here are assembled the various works of the painter Wiertz—a sort of visionary. There are others yet, but if you should have time to explore them, you’ll find any amount of information about them later on.
“Besides these museums, which keep the past alive for us, you should see the Palais des Beaux Arts. This building is quite recent and is situated in the centre of the town. It contains enormous galleries for exhibitions of painting and sculpture, several concert halls, one of which is remarkable and contains accommodation for 2,000 persons. Belgians are very fond of music (even to neglecting other arts in its favour), and very fine concerts conducted by the greatest of musicians are given almost every day. It is in this same building that you will find the cinema which I mentioned before.”
“And what about the country around Brussels?”
“We’re coming to that. But I seem to have forgotten a number of things about Brussels itself. Let me get that over first, my dear. You simply must pass through the popular streets of the town—the rue Haute, the rue Blaes, or the rue de Flandre. You’ll see faces beaming with good nature and hear strident, good-humoured voices. At the bottom of the rue Blaes you’ll find the ‘vieux marché,’ a sort of rag market where one can buy anything from a latch-key to a bird-cage, at a very reasonable price. Now and again, too, one finds a real bargain in the way of paintings or furniture.”
“The rue des Bouchers is interesting also—you can have lunch or supper there one day, for almost every establishment in the street is a restaurant. Many of them are ‘fritures,’ famous for their chips. Mussels and chips are a national dish, and if you like them you’ll find that they are deliciously prepared here.
“Have I forgotten anything? Yes. If you should be in Brussels between July 18th and August 20th you must visit the annual Brussels fair—complete with ancient and modern booths, attractions and merry-go-rounds.
“I think that’s about all.… Anyhow, that will give you a fairly accurate general impression—and I hope a pleasant one—of the citizens of Brussels, who are kind and jovial people.
“That’s all very well,” replied Muriel, “I shall certainly take back a more truthful picture of Belgium because I’ll have followed your advice and benefited by your explanation, but supposing I’d been on my own, what would I have done then?”
“My dear and absent-minded Muriel, you’d have started by buying ON THE CONTINENT 1936, that most indispensable of guide-books for practical travellers who don’t like cut-and-dried methods. And you would have found in its friendly pages a host of useful and practical information, together with the addresses of our tourist offices, that of the Touring Club (44 rue de la Loi), of the Automobile Club (58 Avenue des Arts), of the Y.W.C.A. (46 rue Coudenberg or 36A rue Jourdan), of the British Consulate (14 rue Stévin), etc. … and you would have read that any of these data could have been supplied by the first and last of your hotel staff. And you would have learnt, too, that Belgium is a great tourist centre, and that even if you spoke English only you’d have every chance of being understood in almost every hotel and public establishment.”
There’s an excursion or two that should not be missed before you leave Brussels.
Waterloo, of course. This will take you sixteen kilometres out of Brussels. As you know, that is the spot where the English and the Prussians defeated Napoleon in 1815, a short time before he was exiled to Saint Helena, where he was to die six years later.
Nowadays you will find Waterloo a quiet, peaceful little village where a great many monuments commemorate the famous victory. At the top of a hill you will see the Lion of Waterloo facing towards France, and this is a great trial to those who call themselves “the friends of France,” because it is a reminder of defeat. But there—history is history.
In the war museum of Waterloo you will see Napoleon’s hat and other personal objects which are said to be authentic. The Emperor must have been well stocked in hats if all those kept in countless museums really belonged to him.
Waterloo is not far from the Forest of Soignes, of which we are so proud. There are magnificent walks in this forest, which is enormous, and it really marks the boundaries of the town of which it is the great game preserve.
Lastly, if you’ve seen all this and still feel you’re ready for more, there is the Parc of Laeken, with its Japanese tower and Chinese pavilion, and its private royal residence, where the King lives with his children and the Queen Mother.
All around Brussels are beauty spots, so many of them that it would take too long to mention them all. However, one day spent in Brussels will give you a general sense of the lie of the land and you will realise that you may learn to know the town superficially in a very few days, but that you may live there for weeks on end and find new things every day to stir your interest.
And you will leave Brussels behind you with very real regret.
At least I hope so.
“After this, Antwerp is calling us, Muriel, but we’ll stop at Mechlin for an hour on our way there.”
“Is that necessary?”
“Absolutely! Mechlin is a very beautiful little town (population 60,000). It was the old capital of the Netherlands. Our greatest religious dignitary lives there—the Cardinal Archbishop. You know that the Belgians are for the greater part Roman Catholics—about half of the population. There are, however, a few Protestants and quite a number of free thinkers. Officially, there is no State religion in Belgium, but it is customary to include the Catholic Church in all State ceremonial.”
Here is Mechlin (Malines). As was to be expected, the most wonderful monument of all is the Cathedral Saint Rombaut. Its tower is one of the most beautiful on the Continent and contains the most famous chimes in the world. Every Monday at 8 o’clock a carillon concert is given here. The dial of the great clock has a circumference of forty-one metres, which means that it is the largest clock in the world.
Everything is worth seeing in Mechlin (Malines), but this can be done very quickly for all its treasures are huddled together (old houses, old palaces, old churches, and a wonderful bridge).
The chief industries of Malines are: furniture-making, art tapestry, laces. Its beer is very famous, and so is the vegetable market. This is the home of the “Malines asparagus” and cauliflowers, sold not only in our Belgian market but in most foreign ones too.
We leave Malines, peaceful, charming, secular.
And Antwerp is before us.
This is quite different. A merchant town this, and cosmopolitan. It is the second town in Belgium in order of importance, and the foremost harbour on the Continent—since it took the place held before the War by Hamburg.
We’ll choose the Century or the Tourist Hotel to stay at, and we’ll have lunch anywhere: most restaurants are good and there are hundreds of them.
“A little bit of history, Muriel?”
“If you like. I know it makes you happy.”
“But it’s the only way to understand a town thoroughly, my dear. You can see its material and physical aspect, but its past, the wonder of its presence and its permanence, can only be explained to you through a historical survey. Let me modestly fulfil this pleasant office for you, and honour me with your attention—for you are the most delightful of listeners.
“How could I refuse you?”
“Let me tell you, then, that Antwerp has to-day 600,000 inhabitants. The town was already mentioned in chronicles of the seventh century. But the apex of its power was reached in the sixteenth century. At that time Antwerp could be considered the foremost commercial city in the world, and all arts flourished there. Towards the end of the sixteenth century the decadence of the town began, as a result of religious and political troubles. From 200,000 its population dwindled to 55,000, and for four centuries the Treaty of Westphalia diverted the sea trade from its harbour. In 1863, however, the port takes on new life and it has grown and strengthened ever since.”
“And what did the War do to all this?”
“Antwerp is a fortified city, but not fortified enough to put up a strong fight in self-defence, that is why in 1914 it was wise enough to prevent useless bloodshed and destruction.”
“And the trade slump?”
“We’ve suffered from it as much as our neighbours. And many are the cranes that are idle in the harbour. But here the depression is less sharply felt. What is more, Antwerp does not rely solely on its port for its livelihood. The Antwerp Exchange is very important, and among the town’s chief industries are diamond cutting, sugar refining, textile manufacturing and distilling. In the province of Antwerp radium is produced also. It is there that the largest supplies are produced at the lowest prices. Outside the Central station we have the Meir, which is a wide thoroughfare cutting across the town towards the port. You will visit the cathedral, for here, as nearly everywhere else, the most beautiful buildings are the churches. They are in most cases the oldest relics, having been patiently built and adorned by the most famous and most inspired masters of their time. The Antwerp Cathedral took no less than 200 years to finish. In this church are to be found the most magnificent of Rubens’ works (The Descent from the Cross, The Assumption of the Virgin), but, by a curious abuse, these works of art, which are the common wealth, are veiled, and in order to be able to see them you must pay a fee to the church. However, on certain dates they are uncovered and can be seen free of charge. The cathedral is the largest church in Belgium, and is in every sense a most remarkable building.”
Here Muriel was seized with laughter.
“What’s the matter, my dear?”
“You’ll wear out the superlative, Pierre! This is the tenth time you’ve said: the largest belfry in the world; the most important harbour on the Continent; the widest beach; the most massive monument; the biggest clock.… Aren’t you exaggerating a little?”
“Not a whit, and it’s certainly not foolish national vainglory that prompts me to say so. Get yourself a footrule and measure, young sceptic. Besides, you’ll admit that one church in Belgium is bound to be the biggest! Well, this is the one. And Antwerp is a very rich and powerful city.”
“Don’t get upset about it, Pierre.”
“One of our writers, George Eekhoud, called it the ‘New Carthage,’ and the poet Verhaeren said it was one of the ‘tentacular towns.’ Just follow me, we’re going to the top of that great skyscraper over there. Do you see it?”
“One can’t help seeing it, it’s so high.”
“Well, forgive me, but it is the first and highest skyscraper in Europe. The first and highest, do you hear?”
“You’re incorrigible, Pierre!”
“Eighty-eight metres high, twenty-four storeys! Take out your foot-rule again and come into the lift, we’re going to count them.”
“I’ll take your word for it.…”
From the top of the skyscraper, a great commercial building to the terrace of which the public is admitted, we saw the whole town spread out below us.
Here is the Market Place with the Town Hall that has known such hard times. Only the outside walls remain of the original building (put up in 1565). In 1576 the Spanish troops burnt it down; later it was destroyed again during the French revolution.
From this height, too, we get a fine view of the parks and gardens of Antwerp, which are many and beautiful.
An English statistician proved some years ago that Antwerp surpassed all other towns in the area devoted to its parks and public walks, considering the density of its population and its size. In this respect (I apologise, Muriel) Antwerp steals a march on London, which takes second place.
You will see the Zoological Gardens close to the station, which we will visit in detail. It contains over 5,000 animals, including some very rare species, a very well planned aquarium, and special pavilions for the different kinds of animals. In the gardens concerts are given nearly every day.
Here, below, you will notice that there are several old pinions rising above the roofs; they are the guild houses, richly decorated, which were built during the Flemish Renaissance period.
“And must we visit the museums?”
“That shall be as you please. Some travellers are seized with a zealous fervour when they come across museums, and visit them all; that is perhaps ‘wasteful and ridiculous excess.’ The natives themselves don’t do that—but then, they are prevented by their daily tasks from exploring their own treasures.”
It is with museums as with so many other things—one must not have a surfeit of them. Antwerp has a great number. The Musée Royal des Beaux Arts is very rich in fine things; beside the sculptures there are 925 canvases by old masters (Van Eyck, Memlinc, Metsys, Rubens, Van Dyck, Jordaens and many others of the Flemish school), and there are over a thousand modern paintings. There is one little museum that you must visit and that you will certainly love—the Plantin Moretus Museum. Here is the residence and the workshop of the famous printer Plantin, who published such a number of beautiful books in the sixteenth century which have now become priceless. Manuscripts are here, incunabula, engravings on copper and wood, ancient presses and all the printer’s paraphernalia. The Steen is another interesting museum: the antiques exhibited there include armour, arms, musical instruments and instruments of torture. It is complete with prison cells and dungeons. One can see it from here. It is built on one of the quays that edge the harbour. Need I say anything about the harbour? They are very much alike all over the world, but this one is so vast that one must climb very high before getting an all-embracing view of it. There beneath us lie the quays, the wharves, the warehouses, the docks. Later on we’ll go round the port by boat and you’ll be able to see everything in detail after having had this bird’s-eye view of it.
You must allow me to give you a few statistics concerning the port of Antwerp. You know that it is formed by a natural arm of the Scheldt, which is 500 metres wide at this spot. But it is lengthened by very extensive maritime works. This has allowed for twenty-five basins for water traffic and there are no less than 47 kilometres of landing quays; the warehouses cover 170 hectares (1,700,000 square metres), and 800 kilometres of railway line are needed to link up the whole. The most important sluice is the “Kruisschans” (opened in 1928); it is 35 metres wide and 270 metres long …
“Makes me think of the Ark,” whispered Muriel.
… and 240 sailing routes connect Antwerp with ports all over the world, and 10,000 ships come into the harbour every year.
On the other side of the Scheldt is a little place called Saint Anne, which can be reached by boat or by two tunnels built under the river bed. One small tunnel, reserved for pedestrians, is 570 metres long, and the other, for cars, is 2 kilometres long. These works represent an outlay of roughly 300,000,000 francs, and Antwerp may be justly proud of them.
Antwerp can boast of all the attractions of a big city—sports grounds, open-air swimming pools, concerts, cinemas, smart shops, tea-rooms, dance-halls and theatres.
Before leaving the town, let us make a note of a few addresses: Central Office of Tourism (9 rue Leys); Touring Club (Kipdorp 4); Automobile Club (26 Longue rue de l’Hôpital); Auberge de Jeunesse (Leemputstraat 21); Y.W.C.A. (39 rue des Palais); Y.M.C.A. (10 Avenue Elsdonck); British Consulate (105 Avenue de France).
Then let us leave, full of regret, this active and versatile town, so brilliant and animated, so much more cosmopolitan than Brussels; where at every step one meets strangers and sailors from the seven seas, and where the East and West for ever meet.
“And now,” asked Muriel, “are there any other interesting towns to go to? I would like to see something of the country and the natural scenery.”
“There are towns in plenty, but it’s not absolutely necessary to visit them. They are less important and less characteristic than those we have seen. Chief among them are Liége and Charleroi, industrial towns which have a charm and beauty of their own but are not so animated as Brussels or Antwerp, nor so beautiful as Bruges or Ghent. Mons, near the French frontier, is in the centre of our black country, a poverty-stricken and arid region. Verviers, near Liége, is just one tremendous weaving loom for woollen materials. Most of the woollen fabrics used in Belgium come from Verviers, but quite a number of us, I admit, have a preference for English materials. A great number of little towns have various claims to fame or interest: Eupen and Malmédy—at the German frontier; Tongres, Lierre, Hasselt, Tournai, Louvain—which suffered a great deal during the War, and is rebuilt now, is the home of the famous centuries-old Catholic university; not far from Antwerp, if you care for curious things, you will find the quaint little town of Gheel.”
Gheel is the town of lunatics. There are lunatics here as well as elsewhere. It’s your famous Bernard Shaw who said: “There are fools everywhere, even in asylums.”
Here, in addition to the asylums, we have Gheel where harmless lunatics are allowed to roam in freedom. The only restraint put upon them is that they may not wander out of the town. They live with the inhabitants, who are paid for their board and lodging. If you spend an hour in this town, you will meet “pensionnaires,” as they are called, everywhere. They will come forward to greet you, in spite of the fact that they do not know you; offer to carry your parcels, then throw them down because they are too heavy. There are some very curious types among them: there is one who thinks he is the Saviour and who preaches from morning till night; another who imagines he’s a millionaire and who tries to borrow a franc; another, a woman, is convinced that she is the Queen of Holland. Another spends her day curtseying to the passers-by.
“What a strange town!”
There’s another man who shakes hands with everyone and who says he has 20,000 children and $$$-77
beginning, then off he goes murmuring$$$ what a job.” They are gentle and harm$$$ hour spent in their company it becomes almost impossible to determine who, in that little town, is sound of mind and who is not. Thus it may happen that you stop one of the many doctors that attend the patients and ask most earnestly whether he is happy in Gheel, and whether he feels any better. Fortunately, the doctors are accustomed to this sort of thing and don’t get offended.
But surely you must have read the pages that your genial Dickens wrote about this town where he spent some time, as a visitor, I hasten to add.
We’re on the way to Spa.
This is where the Garden of Belgium begins: Spa and the Ardennes. But Spa deserves a special visit.
“Do you know, Muriel, that in the days when travelling was a great adventure and a greater luxury, Spa was already a famous holiday health resort? Its mineral water existed as early as the twelfth century, and authors of the eighteenth century often mentioned this town in their writings: Voltaire, Sheridan, Grimm, and Casanova have written about it in glowing terms. This is how Spa came to be called ‘the country House of the Fashionable People of the World.’ It was also called the Miniature Europe. The fact alone that its name should have become the general term for resorts possessing mineral springs is abundant proof of its ancient glory and fame.”
“Naturally, it is the first watering-place in the world?”
“Well, I’m sorry, my dear, but it is the oldest anyway, and you must come and see for yourself what a charming spot it is.”
The town itself is small and not of great architectural interest. Gathered together in its centre are the baths, the Kursaal and the theatre, but at a very short distance from these rise the great wooded hills from which lead numerous and delightful walks. There is a very beautiful park where concerts are given at almost every hour of the day.
Spa lies at the bottom of a great cup rimmed by the hills, even so it is 260 metres above sea-level; some of the hills attain 400 metres, and the “Signal de Botrange” (the highest point in Belgium) is 715 metres above sea-level.
This will show that the air is healthy enough there. No factories mar the landscape save the one where the mineral waters are bottled. There is a distillery in the town itself, and wooden objects are carved in the curious grey Spa wood—very ridiculous and plain most of these objects are (paper-cutters, pencil-cases, etc.)—which are sold to the tourist, and which are to be found in every shop in the town. Despite this, the only real souvenir you can take away with you on leaving Spa is the memory of its glorious scenery and the rather insipid taste of its mineral springs, containing iron and sulphur, which are excellent cures for anaemia and heart troubles.
It is in a spot beloved by the fashionable as well as by the tourist. Its Kursaal, with its gambling rooms—always open—has a fine theatre and concert room, a tea-room and dance floor, and reading and drawing rooms.
As to the thermal establishment, it is remarkable for variety of treatments. Even if you are not following any especial treatment, it should be visited. You will see the different cabins for the carbo-gaseous baths (against hypertension, arterio-sclerosis, heart trouble or angina), and the turf baths (against rheumatic affections). All the necessary medical services are provided, as well as the indispensable medical apparatus, and more than one swimming pool and Turkish bath, etc.
Another bathing pool in the open, called the “Piscine Fleurie,” is not very far from the centre of the town, and fine exhibitions of swimming are given there.
You will put up at the Hôtel de Laeken, which is in the heart of the town, or, if a 200-metre climb doesn’t scare you, “chez Annete et Lubin,” a hotel situated in the hills.
Around Spa there are plenty of interesting walks, details of which can easily be obtained on the spot. There is a golf course, several tennis courts, a hippodrome, or pigeon shooting for those to whom this barbarous sport appeals.
In short, but for this, a delightful spot, where every pleasure is provided in surroundings incomparably beautiful. There are many strangers in Spa and, at the present moment, a large colony of German Jews.
Spa is the pearl of the Ardennes, but all around it and far to the south stretch the Ardennes.
From Spa it will be quite easy to make use of the frequent autocar (charabanc) services leading to the nearest beauty spots in the Ardennes: the Barrage of the Gileppe, the Grottoes of Remouchamps, the Cascade of Coo, the Baraque Michel, the Fagne country.
And, this accomplished, you should settle in another part of the country, at Dinant for instance (Hôtel des Postes), at Rochefort (Hôtel Biron), at Han-sur-Lesse (Hôtel des Ardennes), or, if one should wish to get down to the very heart of nature, on the banks of the Semois at Alle-sur-Semois (Hôtel la Charmille).
This is the heart of the Ardennes. It is the wild Ardenne, more splendid and undaunted than at Spa, and whichever way you turn it is always grand and beautiful.
“What is the Ardenne exactly?”
“It is a region that is not very clearly defined. One may consider that it is the part of Belgium that lies south of the Meuse. I should advise you to follow the banks of the Meuse from Liége to Dinant, passing through Huy, Andenne and Namur. Namur is a fairly big town, where one could spend a day. It has, like Dinant, a very fine casino.”
At Dinant, one should dine at the Auberge de Bouvignes, by the river side, where, amidst delightful surroundings, one will taste the most delicious trout and a great delicacy in the way of chicken, “Malines Coucou,” as it is called.
Apart from the Meuse, which flows through a countless number of delightful little towns and villages (Yvoir, Lustin, Godinne, which are charming resorts quite near Dinant), there are its affluents: the Semois, the Lesse, the Ourthe, the Ambléve, whose banks lead to many exquisite places, all picturesque and peaceful and lovable.
Every hamlet is a beauty spot and the whole countryside is a paradise for tourists. The cost of living is very low in all these places and nearly all the hotels are excellent.
No industries thrive here, the soil is too rocky and wooded to encourage them (stone quarries alone are found), and fishing is a favourite sport. (All these rivers abound in trout, which are served at every meal.) In fact, all this part of the country has been delved and crumpled by natural cataclysms which occurred in the days when hyena and bear, reindeer and mammoth paced its forests. The rocks that jut out everywhere and the enormous caverns which are still to be found here and there, go back ten thousand centuries, and are one of the most ancient testimonies of the earth’s history.
“May one visit some of these grottoes?”
“Several are open to the public and visits are arranged. The most famous is the Grotto of Han. This is a cave stretching for a length of 1,500 metres beneath the earth’s crust. It is an enormous labyrinth of galleries and shimmering stalactites and underground halls, some of which are 100 metres square and 150 metres high. These are crossed by boat and they are lit by torches and a few electric lights. Besides this grotto, there are those of Rochefort, of Dinant and Remouchamps.”
“As to the numberless little rivers that lend their rippling charm to this impressive scenery, they water the tobacco fields that lie along their banks. This is the case especially for the Semois, where is grown what is known as the Semois Tobacco. I, for my part, smoke no other, and I have nought but praise for it. It is less aromatic than English tobacco, but at the same time more mellow, yet of a sharper flavour. It should preferably be used for the pipe. I heartily recommend it to you.”
“My dear Pierre, I’m not a pipe addict!” said Muriel, rather shocked.
“I never for a moment thought so. If I said that, it was rather to urge you to tell your men friends about it. In Belgium, smokers are favoured indeed. Tobacco is cheap, cigars and cigarettes at all prices and to satisfy all tastes are found everywhere; for the Belgian is a great smoker.”
“I’ll deliver your message.”
“And tell them too that our Ardennes are wondrously beautiful.”
“You may count on me.”
“We are so close to the Luxemburg border that it would be a pity not to cross it. We’ll do this by motor, as cars can easily be hired in these parts.”
“Are the roads good?”
“To be truthful, our roads are not above reproach. The great highways are very good, of course: along the coast and from Brussels to Antwerp. However, our country is so small that one has soon travelled from one end of it to the other, and so many beautiful places arrest one’s attention on the way, that one is obliged to stop every few minutes, so to speak. However, in order to avoid accidents, it is well to observe that our traffic is kept on the right of the road and not on the left as in England. The itinerary we have traced so far can apply equally well to motor-car travelling as to train journeys. Our highways as a rule keep fairly close to our railroads.”
This is the Grand Duchy. Perfect roads. We are out of Belgium, but we are excellent neighbours and trading goes on constantly between the two countries. This country is much smaller even than Belgium, but is amazingly beautiful. Several parts bear a striking resemblance to our Ardennes, but they are grander still. It makes one think of Switzerland too, because of the mountains and the splendid forests.
After having visited Luxemburg, which is the capital and the Grand Ducal seat, and which has one enormous building—the Head Office of the Arbed Steel Works—we will visit Diekirch, from where it is easy to radiate towards the four corners of the little State.
The Grand Duchy has a population of 300,000, chiefly agricultural and industrial. The Moselle runs through it, and the vineyards that edge the riverside produce the fresh and pleasant Moselle wine.
There is a wealth of magnificent scenery. A few old castles, among which that of Vianden is the most remarkable, and a good number of abbeys. Mondorf-les-Bains is a famous thermal station. Those who suffer from liver or heart complaints should go there for a cure. You’ll be able to taste of this health-giving drink, and I’m sure you’ll agree with me that it is quite the nastiest stuff you’ve ever swallowed.
As a consolation, the beers are excellent in Luxemburg, and alcohol is sold freely everywhere. Let me recommend a little glass of Quetsch, which is a most delectable variety of brandy.
The holiday is over.
With great trouble I managed to fasten the last of Muriel’s suitcases, which are fuller than when she arrived because she is taking several souvenirs back with her. And, because the rate of exchange is favourable, she bought a few things for herself as well.
In order to dispel the melancholy that was creeping upon us, we decided to have a sumptuous repast at a very select restaurant famous for its cooking: “chez Cordemans” (Petite rue au Beurre).
As an excuse for this magnificence, I explained to Muriel that the pleasures of the table are divine pleasures, with which she agreed, and that I wished to celebrate worthily our last evening together.
“You will find that the Belgians rate exquisite food very highly,” I assured her.
“When you talk about them, one would think that they are a people of great eaters, great drinkers and great smokers. Decidedly they must be very self-indulgent.”
“Perhaps,” I agreed, “but in so far as our means allow it. I think the reason for that is that we are on the whole a very hard-working people, and that, in order to compensate for our hard work, we don’t forgo certain pleasures. They are not always, alas, pleasures of the spirit, at any rate for the great majority, who allow themselves to be doped with foolish films, and by an empty Press given over to political gossip and abuse, and devoid of ideals. An intelligent people? Certainly. At least, we think so! All peoples have their racial genius, but ours doesn’t express itself easily. Either we are brilliant, or really very mediocre. Very brilliant are some of our people, our great artists (who are forced to go to other countries if they want to achieve fame), our scholars, men of science, doctors, builders, who rival the greatest in the world, and, on another plane, certain of our financiers and manufacturers and business men. But outside this élite of the intellectual, scientific and commercial world, the great mass of the people is known rather for its goodwill, good humour and perseverance. One thing condemns or uplifts a people. Its Press. Ours is a very poor thing: it is not objective, it has no courage, no broadmindedness. It is a thicket of second-hand and ready-made thoughts and beliefs. Yet everyone seems content and those that protest truly cry out in the wilderness. I know that it is not in our country alone that matters are in this state, but that is poor comfort.”
“My dear Pierre, how agitated you are!”
“How could I remain indifferent? Life is not made just for material comforts. The spirit, too, needs food. The trouble is that we are a really very small country. Little country, little people. All these races met on our soil as a result of force or coincidence, yet have been able to join hands for work, to join hearts for love, but I doubt whether they have ever joined their souls. We are a little lonely, clinging to origins, ancestors and cultures that are so different, but that is not an official truth, of course, because officially, as in all countries, the nation is a united whole, in whose veins the blood runs pure and whose thoughts and aims are uniform. It’s too good to be true, I fear, and if it were true, I expect it would be rather monotonous.”
“But this diversity is, perhaps, the greatest charm of your people, and certainly a great part of its strength.
“The mingling of so many races cannot but produce a people throbbing with life and energy and a thousand different dreams.”
“That is a charming explanation, Muriel, and I am grateful that you should have given it, but you must not imagine that these things distress me. If I draw your attention to them, it is because I wish to be honest with you and even show you the skeletons in our cupboards. I’m not paid by tourist offices to recite stereotyped praise before our very institution, to say that everything is magnificent, superb, marvellous, incomparable, unique, and to add that our intelligence and our wisdom matches, if not surpasses, the most remarkable things you may have seen in our country. I wish you to see things as they really are. That is why I unburdened my heart.
“For having seen all the beauties of my country, with you at my side, dear Muriel—and that was perhaps their greatest beauty—for having recalled the past of my people, for having been in close contact with it again from one end of the country to the other, I feel more exacting towards it. For are we not really favoured by the Gods? Our land is brimful of the marvellous gifts of the past, blest by nature with beauty and diversity. That is why I would wish to see it true to itself and beautiful as its plains and hills.
“You ask too much, my dear. Remember that what remains to bear witness of the past is its beauty and greatness, that which has stood the test of Time. To-day, as of yore, there are great riches of the heart and spirit here: I’ve been able to prove that often enough during my short stay. But these things are swamped in the tedium of every day, and only the centuries to come will recapture the treasures of our generation. And, doubtless, those that come after us will be silent with wonder and admiration before them.”
“I hope you are right, Muriel. It is very sweet of you to prophesy such pleasant things, and I suppose posterity will prove your wisdom. But, honestly, you’ve enjoyed this voyage?”
“More than I can say, Pierre, my only regret is that I must return so soon. How could I take back anything but a pleasant memory of those marvellous things we have seen. I suppose most foreigners say that.”
“Many do, but none so charmingly. That reminds me of a story which I am sure will amuse you. One day, more than ten years ago, an English journalist came over to Ostend. He’d come over for the week-end. He had only a small suitcase with him containing a dinner jacket and a toothbrush. Well, to this day, he has remained in Ostend. This may seem a very artless and improbable story, but it is true. The journalist I’m thinking of can be seen every evening at the bar of the Imperial. He’s nicknamed ‘the Captain’ and if ever you should go there, you can’t fail to see him. He always wears a dinner jacket with a red carnation in his button-hole, and he’s always smiling. When you see him, give him my kindest regards. You will oblige us.”
“I shan’t forget.”
“And Muriel, you will come back?”
“Promise, Muriel. Please come again, you and yours. It’s too late now, and all of a sudden I seem to remember lots of things I haven’t shown you. There are so many things I wanted to say to you, Muriel, and that I have not said.”
“I too. Perhaps … that will be for the next time. Good-bye.”
“Good-bye, Muriel. I don’t want to let you go.”
“What a child you are, Pierre. Don’t look so unhappy.”
“Never mind.… Good-bye.… I say, Muriel, don’t forget.”
“It only takes three hours to cross the Channel.”
“I’ll remember that, Pierre.”