THERE is no animal more to be envied, in my eyes, than a horse at grass — not one of your broken down screws, blistered all round, and left to batten on a moor; but an elderly lady’s middle – aged carriage – horse, turned out with his match for company, up to his hocks in clover, bobbing his head and shaking his mane to drive the flies from his nose, and switching his long tail to drive them from his flank.
Would that I were a horse for this one occasion! I do like standing still so much, up to my hocks in clover. Nature never meant me for an Englishman; for though there is plenty of clover in England, yet somehow or other I never stand still to eat it. A crowd there is always pushing me along, just as I get my head down, and that is not what a horse likes this hot weather.
Where will they let me stand up to my hocks in clover?
Not in France. Frenchmen are so vainglorious, and talk so much and so fast about war, and the women are so plain, and talk so much and so fast about dress; and there is not a quiet clover-field in all France, except Philippe’s, in the Rue Mont Orgueil, and there clover is dreadfully expensive, and at the most can only last two hours; whereas I like clover all night for nothing, and to be taken in when the flies come out.
Do you like yawning? I do. I delight in it, this hot weather.
Will they let me stand still on the Rhine? Certainly not.
In Germany? No!
Is there a country where nothing moves?
Is there any clover or trefoil in Belgium? Will they let me stand still in it? Will the man in office expect a passport? or will he be satisfied with the back of a letter addressed to me, William a Bon Marche, Esquire, alias Cheap William, as they called me at school?
I will try. I am at Ostend. No difficulties. My face is ingenuous: there is nothing of Will Watch in my look.
“Rien a declarer?”
“Rien, M’sieu.” I pass.
“No passport.” I show my envelope. I pass. Too-too, on a trumpet; the train starts, and I am at Bruges.
Francois is wrong; Francois, the Commissionnaire of the Hotel Fleur de Ble, is in a mistake. There is a high tower to the Halle, a tower of many steps, at the top of which are many bells, which produce many chimes of no tune, and out of time. Francois thinks that I will mount that tower of 400 steps with him, that I will buy his vile cigars, and admire all the crucifixions and ghastly martyrdoms in every church of Bruges.
Thank you much, Francois; but that is not my idea of clover.
He does not understand the expression, and continues: “Shall you see the house where your Keeng Charless leeve when at Bruges?” Not the least like clover. “Shall you like to see the mark of the last high tide on the Halle?” and he holds up his hand above his head. Does he mean the last occasion on which the dykes gave way? or the last spring-tide “as ever was?”
“Hi! you, cabby! take me out of Bruges!”
But it is late — the last train is gone. The seven gates of Bruges are closed: the keys of those gates are silver keys, and I am a pauper. So Bruges sleeps in its quiet streets, and I sleep at the Fleur de Ble, which is a pretty name for a public-house, not to be turned into English, and still to carry the sentiment, Flower of wheat is too near wheaten flour, which brings with it millers and Mark Lane.
Blossom of wheat? No.
Corn blossom? Not the least like it.
Were you ever at Bruges? An old-fashioned town — half Flemish, a quarter young Belgium (not at all a nice young man), and the rest French and Spanish. Bruges can never grow bigger, for it has a broad sedgy canal all round, and over the canal are seven bridges, and at each bridge there is a gate which is closed every night, and something is charged for coming home after hours: no latch-keys allowed.
So Bruges can only grow less inside the canal; and Bruges at present is availing itself of its only opportunity. The clover of Bruges is a poor pasture; but Bruges does not even stand still in it. Grazing terms fail me in describing Bruges, and recourse must be had to a nautical figure. Bruges is sinking at its moorings.
Nobody moves here. It is hot and sedgy, and bad for wheezy people, for we are many feet below the level of the sea; and there is that dreadful mark of the high-tide on the Halle (high up in the wall too), the thought of which gives me a swim-you-must feeling some day or other. But the natives are reconciled, and it does not look well to have misgivings where all are confiding.
Yet there is one little patch of clover in Bruges. In the year fourteen hundred and odd, a soldier was wounded at the battle of Nancy, and was removed from the field to the hospital of St. John at Bruges, where he was kept by the monks for eleven years for nothing. No, not for nothing, for there was money’s-worth in the poor wounded soldier.
His name was Emling, or Hemling, or Memling (for spelling was as lax in those days as it was in the generation just past, in which the Duke of Wellington spelled his name Wesley early in life, being a relative to the Christian of that name, and Wellesley when he grew older), and there is not a more remarkable name in the whole range of the history of painting than that of Emling.
The collateral state of the arts in different countries at different periods is very curious. Whilst artists in England were daubing in the style of the ancient Mexicans, in Flanders, only a few hours’ sail distant, a man like Emling not only knew the science of correct drawing and all the tricks of his art, but also had a knowledge of chemistry sufficient to enable him to prepare colours that have lasted 400 years, and are still as bright as the day they were laid on.
So the monks of St. John maintained Emling in hospital, while he was painting pictures for them — pictures which may be said to be priceless, for an English duke offered ten thousand pounds for one of them, and the offer was refused. In the Adoration of the Magi there is the figure of a negro in a green tunic embroidered with gold, tights and frill of Emling’s time, taking off his hat and feathers in the most courteous manner, to the little stranger, which negro, for pose drawing, colouring, and wonderful skill in expressing embroidery, velvet, negro’s skin, feathers and leather, could scarcely even be copied at the present day.
There is a shrine, or chasse, as it is called, covered with paintings, by Emling, representing the adventin-es of St. Ursula from Cologne to Rome, her reception by the Pope, her return, and the martyrdom of herself and companions in the camp of Maximian — all clover. Her figure in the last scene of all, j ust as a soldier in full knight’s armour is drawing a bow to the arrow head close to her breast, is quite beautiful.
Some may smile at the Joseph in the Adoration being dressed as a Flemish gentleman of Emling’s day, and at the negro as a page of the same period. But these are mistakes made by artists in all ages. Emling painted what he saw, which gave him an advantage over the artists nearer our own time, who usually exhibit Solomon as a Roman senator.
Did not Garrick do Macbeth in knee-breeches, silk-stockings and full bottomed wig? Is there not his picture to this effect in the Garrick Club?
When you come to Bruges, mind you spend the days of your sojourn with Emling and the man in the wig who shows the gallery. He in the wig talks as if he loved his avocations, and is well worth a franc for himself, given before-hand.
And when you have done with Emling, have done with Bruges. One Dutch gable-end is like another. The canal is equally sedgy all round, and the grass grows the same length in all its deserted alleys.
“Hi! you cabby! drive me to the station to meet any train that leaves Bruges for anywhere.” “The voiture is engaged, or would be at the service of Monsieur.”
“When does that diligence start that has Blankenberghe in big letters on its panels? Where is Blankenberghe?”
A man in blouse says, Blankenberghe is on the sea; an hour and a little quarter’s drive, and the diligence starts in twenty minutes. So do I. We are nearly full, and I sit among a family of two old ladies and one young one. We arrange legs, and I hold on my knee a puppy-dog for one of the old ladies, and a bird-cage for the young one, who has blue eyes and long black hair, and reminds me of you, O Laura! and I have a day-dream till we come to a series of half-way houses, where we all drink cheap Belgian beer, and I get a centime in exchange — supposed to be the first ever given to an Englishman. Then we see the dunes or sand-hills, which are the only barrier between the brave Belgians and an eternity of salt-water.
Then comes Blankenberghe, on the land-side of the dunes, to the top of which I mount by thirty steps, and then descend ten to the beach, which proves, without doubt or the use of the dumpy, that I am living below the level of the sea. And I am again by the sea, where I never had a lonely hour, and on a sandy beach where clover always grows for me.
There are crowds of people under the awning of the restaurant built on the dune, and on the beach below there are donkeys, and nearer the sea are the bathing-machines which are moved as the tide rises and falls, and are always kept about forty yards from the sea. And between the sea and the machines men and women of all ages and classes are walking and talking in their bathing dresses.
The ladies in dark peg-top trousers and tunics trimmed with red or orange, and their hair loose or in bags, and their white little feet bare on the yellow sands ; and the men of the machines are bathing them, and dipping and teaching them to swim by holding them gently, ever so gently, just above the waves.
I think I could do that, and I bathe and long to give lessons to the demoiselle, her of the birdcage, with blue eyes and long loose black hair; but I am shy, and on my road back to the machine I meet and have a long talk with the two old ladies who are watching the demoiselle, and I dress and mount the ten steps to the restaurant where everybody is dining, and I dine, for I never in the whole course of my life could look on long at any game.
“What would I like? Ostend oysters came into season last week, and the movies are delicious.”
“Mussels!” said I. “Do you call mussels human food? Do you take me for a gurnet or a rock cod, that you should bait for me with a mussel that has lived all its life on. a pier or a ship’s bottom, coppered or otherwise?”
“Monsieur is in a mistake. The mussels of Blankenberghe are a great delicacy; they are caught on a bank; they are kept in clear water for two days to clean; then in scalding water till they open; then a sauce of butter, parsley and other fragrant herbs is poured over them, shells and all, and they arc picked out nominally with a fork, but really with a finger and thumb, and eaten with brown bread and butter and Faro beer — clover, clover!”
The demoiselle that I longed to bathe is at the next table, picking them out with a jerk much faster than I can manage.
“Will Mademoiselle teach me how?”
“Volontiers,” and I order another bushel.
“In return I shall be happy to teach Mademoiselle to swim.”
“A thousand thanks — at nine to-morrow.”
” To-morrow at nine.”
Clover, clover, clover!
Cover: Ernest-Ange Duez, L’heure du bain