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Author: Howells, William Dean, 1837-1920
Title: Last Days in a Dutch Hotel (from Literature and Life)
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Title: Last Days in a Dutch Hotel
       From "Literature and Life"

Author: William Dean Howells

Release Date: October 22, 2004 [EBook #3385]

Language: English

Character set encoding: ASCII

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Produced by David Widger





LITERATURE AND LIFE--Last Days in a Dutch Hotel

by William Dean Howells



LAST DAYS IN A DUTCH HOTEL

(1897)


When we said that we were going to Scheveningen, in the middle of
September, the portier of the hotel at The Hague was sure we should be
very cold, perhaps because we had suffered so much in his house already;
and he was right, for the wind blew with a Dutch tenacity of purpose for
a whole week, so that the guests thinly peopling the vast hostelry seemed
to rustle through its chilly halls and corridors like so many autumn
leaves. We were but a poor hundred at most where five hundred would not
have been a crowd; and, when we sat down at the long tables d'hote in the
great dining-room, we had to warm our hands with our plates before we
could hold our spoons. From time to time the weather varied, as it does
in Europe (American weather is of an exemplary constancy in comparison),
and three or four times a day it rained, and three or four times it
cleared; but through all the wind blew cold and colder. We were
promised, however, that the hotel would not close till October, and we
made shift, with a warm chimney in one room and three gas-burners in
another, if not to keep warm quite, yet certainly to get used to the
cold.




I.

In the mean time the sea-bathing went resolutely on with all its forms.
Every morning the bathing machines were drawn down to the beach from the
esplanade, where they were secured against the gale every night; and
every day a half-dozen hardy invalids braved the rigors of wind and wave.
At the discreet distance which one ought always to keep one could not
always be sure whether these bold bathers were mermen or mermaids; for
the sea costume of both sexes is the same here, as regards an absence of
skirts and a presence of what are, after the first plunge, effectively
tights. The first time I walked down to the beach I was puzzled to make
out some object rolling about in the low surf, which looked like a
barrel, and which two bathing-machine men were watching with apparently
the purpose of fishing it out. Suddenly this object reared itself from
the surf and floundered towards the steps of a machine; then I saw that
it was evidently not a barrel, but a lady, and after that I never dared
carry my researches so far. I suppose that the bathing-tights are more
becoming in some cases than in others; but I hold to a modest preference
for skirts, however brief, in the sea-gear of ladies. Without them there
may sometimes be the effect of beauty, and sometimes the effect of
barrel.

For the convenience and safety of the bathers there were, even in the
last half of September, some twenty machines, and half as many bath-men
and bath-women, who waded into the water and watched that the bathers
came to no harm, instead of a solitary lifeguard showing his statuesque
shape as he paced the shore beside the lifelines, or cynically rocked in
his boat beyond the breakers, as the custom is on Long Island. Here
there is no need of life-lines, and, unless one held his head resolutely
under water, I do not see how he could drown within quarter of a mile of
the shore. Perhaps it is to prevent suicide that the bathmen are so
plentifully provided.

They are a provision of the hotel, I believe, which does not relax itself
in any essential towards its guests as they grow fewer. It seems, on the
contrary, to use them with a more tender care, and to console them as it
may for the inevitable parting near at hand. Now, within three or four
days of the end, the kitchen is as scrupulously and vigilantly perfect as
it could be in the height of the season; and our dwindling numbers sit
down every night to a dinner that we could not get for much more love or
vastly more money in the month of August, at any shore hotel in America.
It is true that there are certain changes going on, but they are going on
delicately, almost silently. A strip of carpeting has come up from along
our corridor, but we hardly miss it from the matting which remains.
Through the open doors of vacant chambers we can see that beds are coming
down, and the dismantling extends into the halls at places. Certain
decorative carved chairs which repeated themselves outside the doors have
ceased to be there; but the pictures still hang on the walls, and within
our own rooms everything is as conscientious as in midsummer. The
service is instant, and, if there is some change in it, the change is not
for the worse. Yesterday our waiter bade me good-bye, and when I said I
was sorry he was going he alleged a boil on his cheek in excuse; he would
not allow that his going had anything to do with the closing of the
hotel, and he was promptly replaced by another who speaks excellent
English. Now that the first is gone, I may own that he seemed not to
speak any foreign language long, but, when cornered in English, took
refuge in French, and then fled from pursuit in that to German, and
brought up in final Dutch, where he was practically inaccessible.

The elevator runs regularly, if not rapidly; the papers arrive
unfailingly in the reading-room, including a solitary London Times, which
even I do not read, perhaps because I have no English-reading rival to
contend for it with. Till yesterday, an English artist sometimes got it;
but he then instantly offered it to me; and I had to refuse it because I
would not be outdone in politeness. Now even he is gone, and on all
sides I find myself in an unbroken circle of Dutch and German, where no
one would dispute the Times with me if he could.

Every night the corridors are fully lighted, and some mornings swept,
while the washing that goes on all over Holland, night and morning, does
not always spare our unfrequented halls and stairs. I note these little
facts, for the contrast with those of an American hotel which we once
assisted in closing, and where the elevator stopped two weeks before we
left, and we fell from electricity to naphtha-gas, and even this died out
before us except at long intervals in the passages; while there were
lightning changes in the service, and a final failure of it till we had
to go down and get our own ice-water of the lingering room-clerk, after
the last bell-boy had winked out.




II.

But in Europe everything is permanent, and in America everything is
provisional. This is the great distinction which, if always kept in
mind, will save a great deal of idle astonishment. It is in nothing more
apparent than in the preparation here at Scheveningen for centuries of
summer visitors, while at our Long Island hotel there was a losing bet on
a scant generation of them. When it seemed likely that it might be a
winning bet the sand was planked there in front of the hotel to the sea
with spruce boards. It was very handsomely planked, but it was never
afterwards touched, apparently, for any manner of repairs. Here, for
half a mile the dune on which the hotel stands is shored up with massive
masonry, and bricked for carriages, and tiled for foot-passengers; and it
is all kept as clean as if wheel or foot had never passed over it. I am
sure that there is not a broken brick or a broken tile in the whole
length or breadth of it. But the hotel here is not a bet; it is a
business. It has come to stay; and on Long Island it had come to see how
it would like it.

Beyond the walk and drive, however, the dunes are left to the winds, and
to the vegetation with which the Dutch planting clothes them against the
winds. First a coarse grass or rush is sown; then a finer herbage comes;
then a tough brushwood, with flowers and blackberry-vines; so that while
the seaward slopes of the dunes are somewhat patched and tattered, the
landward side and all the pleasant hollows between are fairly held
against such gales as on Long Island blow the lower dunes hither and yon.
The sheep graze in the valleys at some points; in many a little pocket of
the dunes I found a potato-patch of about the bigness of a city lot, and
on week-days I saw wooden-shod men slowly, slowly gathering in the crop.
On Sundays I saw the pleasant nooks and corners of these sandy hillocks
devoted, as the dunes of Long Island were, to whispering lovers, who are
here as freely and fearlessly affectionate as at home. Rocking there is
not, and cannot be, in the nature of things, as there used to be at Mount
Desert; but what is called Twoing at York Harbor is perfectly
practicable.

It is practicable not only in the nooks and corners of the dunes, but on
discreeter terms in those hooded willow chairs, so characteristic of the
Dutch sea-side. These, if faced in pairs towards each other, must be as
favorable to the exchange of vows as of opinions, and if the crowd is
ever very great, perhaps one chair could be made to hold two persons.
It was distinctly a pang, the other day, to see men carrying them up from
the beach, and putting them away to hibernate in the basement of the
hotel. Not all, but most of them, were taken; though I dare say that on
fine days throughout October they will go trooping back to the sands on
the heads of the same men, like a procession of monstrous, two-legged
crabs. Such a day was last Sunday, and then the beach offered a lively
image of its summer gayety. It was dotted with hundreds of hooded
chairs, which foregathered in gossiping groups or confidential couples;
and as the sun shone quite warm the flaps of the little tents next the
dunes were let down against it, and ladies in summer white saved
themselves from sunstroke in their shelter. The wooden booths for the
sale of candies and mineral waters, and beer and sandwiches, were flushed
with a sudden prosperity, so that when I went to buy my pound of grapes
from the good woman who understands my Dutch, I dreaded an indifference
in her which by no means appeared. She welcomed me as warmly as if I had
been her sole customer, and did not put up the price on me; perhaps
because it was already so very high that her imagination could not rise
above it.

The hotel showed the same admirable constancy. The restaurant was
thronged with new-comers, who spread out even over the many-tabled
esplanade before it; but it was in no wise demoralized. That night we
sat down in multiplied numbers to a table d'hote of serenely unconscious
perfection; and we permanent guests--alas! we are now becoming transient,
too--were used with unfaltering recognition of our superior worth. We
shared the respect which, all over Europe, attaches to establishment, and
which sometimes makes us poor Americans wish for a hereditary nobility,
so that we could all mirror our ancestral value in the deference of our
inferiors. Where we should get our inferiors is another thing, but I
suppose we could import them for the purpose, if the duties were not too
great under our tariff.

We have not yet imported the idea of a European hotel in any respect,
though we long ago imported what we call the European plan. No travelled
American knows it in the extortionate prices of rooms when he gets home,
or the preposterous charges of our restaurants, where one portion of
roast beef swimming in a lake of lukewarm juice costs as much as a
diversified and delicate dinner in Germany or Holland. But even if there
were any proportion in these things the European hotel will not be with
us till we have the European portier, who is its spring and inspiration.
He must not, dear home-keeping reader, be at all imagined in the moral or
material figure of our hotel porter, who appears always in his shirt-
sleeves, and speaks with the accent of Cork or of Congo. The European
portier wears a uniform, I do not know why, and a gold-banded cap, and he
inhabits a little office at the entrance of the hotel. He speaks eight
or ten languages, up to certain limit, rather better than people born to
them, and his presence commands an instant reverence softening to
affection under his universal helpfulness. There is nothing he cannot
tell you, cannot do for you; and you may trust yourself implicitly to
him. He has the priceless gift of making each nationality, each
personality, believe that he is devoted to its service alone. He turns
lightly from one language to another, as if he had each under his tongue,
and he answers simultaneously a fussy French woman, an angry English
tourist, a stiff Prussian major, and a thin-voiced American girl in
behalf of a timorous mother, and he never mixes the replies. He is an
inexhaustible bottle of dialects; but this is the least of his merits, of
his miracles.

Our portier here is a tall, slim Dutchman (most Dutchmen are tall and
slim), and in spite of the waning season he treats me as if I were
multitude, while at the same time he uses me with the distinction due the
last of his guests. Twenty times in as many hours he wishes me good-day,
putting his hand to his cap for the purpose; and to oblige me he wears
silver braid instead of gilt on his cap and coat. I apologized yesterday
for troubling him so often for stamps, and said that I supposed he was
much more bothered in the season.

"Between the first of August and the fifteenth," he answered, "you cannot
think. All that you can do is to say, Yes, No; Yes, No." And he left me
to imagine his responsibilities.

I am sure he will hold out to the end, and will smile me a friendly
farewell from the door of his office, which is also his dining-room, as I
know from often disturbing him at his meals there. I have no fear of the
waiters either, or of the little errand-boys who wear suits of sailor
blue, and touch their foreheads when they bring you your letters like so
many ancient sea-dogs. I do not know why the elevator-boy prefers a suit
of snuff-color; but I know that he will salute us as we step out of his
elevator for the last time as unfalteringly as if we had just arrived at
the beginning of the summer.




IV

It is our last day in the hotel at Scheveningen, and I will try to recall
in their pathetic order the events of the final week.

Nothing has been stranger throughout than the fluctuation of the guests.
At times they have dwindled to so small a number that one must reckon
chiefly upon their quality for consolation; at other times they swelled
to such a tide as to overflow the table, long or short, at dinner, and
eddy round a second board beside it. There have been nights when I have
walked down the long corridor to my seaward room through a harking
solitude of empty chambers; there have been mornings when I have come out
to breakfast past door-mats cheerful with boots of both sexes, and door-
post hooks where dangling coats and trousers peopled the place with a
lively if a somewhat flaccid semblance of human presence. The worst was
that, when some one went, we lost a friend, and when some one came we
only won a stranger.

Among the first to go were the kindly English folk whose acquaintance we
made across the table the first night, and who took with them so large a
share of our facile affections that we quite forgot the ancestral
enmities, and grieved for them as much as if they had been Americans.
There have been, in fact, no Americans here but ourselves, and we have
done what we could with the Germans who spoke English. The nicest of
these were a charming family from F-----, father and mother, and son and
daughter, with whom we had a pleasant week of dinners. At the very first
we disagreed with the parents so amicably about Ibsen and Sudermann that
I was almost sorry to have the son take our modern side of the
controversy and declare himself an admirer of those authors with us.
Our frank literary difference established a kindness between us that was
strengthened by our community of English, and when they went they left us
to the sympathy of another German family with whom we had mainly our
humanity in common. They spoke no English, and I only a German which
they must have understood with their hearts rather than their heads,
since it consisted chiefly of good-will. But in the air of their sweet
natures it flourished surprisingly, and sufficed each day for praise of
the weather after it began to be fine, and at parting for some fond
regrets, not unmixed with philosophical reflections, sadly perplexed in
the genders and the order of the verbs: with me the verb will seldom
wait, as it should in German, to the end. Both of these families, very
different in social tradition, I fancied, were one in the amiability
which makes the alien forgive so much militarism to the German nation,
and hope for its final escape from the drill-sergeant. When they went,
we were left for some meals to our own American tongue, with a brief
interval of that English painter and his wife with whom we spoke, our
language as nearly like English as we could. Then followed a desperate
lunch and dinner where an unbroken forest of German, and a still more
impenetrable morass of Dutch, hemmed us in. But last night it was our
joy to be addressed in our own speech by a lady who spoke it as admirably
as our dear friends from F-----. She was Dutch, and when she found we
were Americans she praised our historian Motley, and told us how his
portrait is gratefully honored with a place in the Queen's palace, The
House in the Woods, near Scheveningen.




V.

She had come up from her place in the country, four hours away, for the
last of the concerts here, which have been given throughout the summer by
the best orchestra in Europe, and which have been thronged every
afternoon and evening by people from The Hague.

One honored day this week even the Queen and the Queen Mother came down
to the concert, and gave us incomparably the greatest event of our waning
season. I had noticed all the morning a floral perturbation about the
main entrance of the hotel, which settled into the form of banks of
autumnal bloom on either side of the specially carpeted stairs, and put
forth on the roof of the arcade in a crown, much bigger round than a
barrel, of orange-colored asters, in honor of the Queen's ancestral house
of Orange. Flags of blue, white, and red fluttered nervously about in
the breeze from the sea, and imparted to us an agreeable anxiety not to
miss seeing the Queens, as the Dutch succinctly call their sovereign and
her parent; and at three o'clock we saw them drive up to the hotel.
Certain officials in civil dress stood at the door of the concert-room to
usher the Queens in, and a bareheaded, bald-headed dignity of military
figure backed up the stairs before them. I would not rashly commit
myself to particulars concerning their dress, but I am sure that the
elder Queen wore black, and the younger white. The mother has one of the
best and wisest faces I have seen any woman wear (and most of the good,
wise faces in this imperfectly balanced world are women's) and the
daughter one of the sweetest and prettiest. Pretty is the word for her
face, and it showed pink through her blond veil, as she smiled and bowed
right and left; her features are small and fine, and she is not above the
middle height.

As soon as she had passed into the concert-room, we who had waited to see
her go in ran round to another door and joined the two or three thousand
people who were standing to receive the Queens. These had already
mounted to the royal box, and they stood there while the orchestra played
one of the Dutch national airs. (One air is not enough for the Dutch;
they must have two.) Then the mother faded somewhere into the
background, and the daughter sat alone in the front, on a gilt throne,
with a gilt crown at top, and a very uncomfortable carved Gothic back.
She looked so young, so gentle, and so good that the rudest Republican
could not have helped wishing her well out of a position so essentially
and irreparably false as a hereditary sovereign's. One forgot in the
presence of her innocent seventeen years that most of the ruling princes
of the world had left it the worse for their having been in it; at
moments one forgot her altogether as a princess, and saw her only as a
charming young girl, who had to sit up rather stiffly.

At the end of the programme the Queens rose and walked slowly out, while
the orchestra played the other national air.




VI.

I call them the Queens, because the Dutch do; and I like Holland so much
that I should hate to differ with the Dutch in anything. But, as a
matter of fact, they are neither of them quite Queens; the mother is the
regent and the daughter will not be crowned till next year.

But, such as they are, they imparted a supreme emotion to our dying
season, and thrilled the hotel with a fulness of summer life. Since they
went, the season faintly pulses and respires, so that one can just say
that it is still alive. Last Sunday was fine, and great crowds came down
from The Hague to the concert, and spread out on the seaward terrace of
the hotel, around the little tables which I fancied that the waiters had
each morning wiped dry of the dew, from a mere Dutch desire of cleaning
something. The hooded chairs covered the beach; the children played in
the edges of the surf and delved in the sand; the lovers wandered up into
the hollows of the dunes.

There was only the human life, however. I have looked in vain for the
crabs, big and little, that swarm on the Long Island shore, and there are
hardly any gulls, even; perhaps because there are no crabs for them to
eat, if they eat crabs; I never saw gulls doing it, but they must eat
something. Dogs there are, of course, wherever there are people; but
they are part of the human life. Dutch dogs are in fact very human; and
one I saw yesterday behaved quite as badly as a bad boy, with respect to
his muzzle. He did not like his muzzle, and by dint of turning
somersaults in the sand he got it off, and went frolicking to his master
in triumph to show him what he had done.




VII.

It is now the last day, and the desolation is thickening upon our hotel.
This morning the door-posts up and down my corridor showed not a single
pair of trousers; not a pair of boots flattered the lonely doormats. In
the lower hall I found the tables of the great dining-room assembled, and
the chairs inverted on them with their legs in the air; but decently,
decorously, not with the reckless abandon displayed by the chairs in our
Long Island hotel for weeks before it closed. In the smaller dining-room
the table was set for lunch as if we were to go on dining there forever;
in the breakfast-room the service and the provision were as perfect as
ever. The coffee was good, the bread delicious, the butter of an
unfaltering sweetness; and the glaze of wear on the polished dress-coats
of the waiters as respectable as it could have been on the first day of
the season. All was correct, and if of a funereal correctness to me, I
am sure this effect was purely subjective.

The little bell-boys in sailor suits (perhaps they ought to be spelled
bell-buoys) clustered about the elevator-boy like so many Roman sentinels
at their posts; the elevator-boy and his elevator were ready to take us
up or down at any moment.

The portier and I ignored together the hour of parting, which we had
definitely ascertained and agreed upon, and we exchanged some compliments
to the weather, which is now settled, as if we expected to enjoy it long
together. I rather dread going in to lunch, however, for I fear the
empty places.




VIII.

All is over; we are off. The lunch was an heroic effort of the hotel to
hide the fact of our separation. It was perfect, unless the boiled beef
was a confession of human weakness; but even this boiled beef was
exquisite, and the horseradish that went with it was so mellowed by art
that it checked rather than provoked the parting tear. The table d'hote
had reserved a final surprise for us; and when we sat down with the fear
of nothing but German around us, we heard the sound of our own speech
from the pleasantest English pair we had yet encountered; and the
travelling English are pleasant; I will say it, who am said by Sir Walter
Besant to be the only American who hates their nation. It was really an
added pang to go, on their account, but the carriage was waiting at the
door; the 'domestique' had already carried our baggage to the steam-tram
station; the kindly menial train formed around us for an ultimate
'douceur', and we were off, after the 'portier' had shut us into our
vehicle and touched his oft-touched cap for the last time, while the
hotel facade dissembled its grief by architecturally smiling in the soft
Dutch sun.

I liked this manner of leaving better than carrying part of my own
baggage to the train, as I had to do on Long Island, though that, too,
had its charm; the charm of the whole fresh, pungent American life, which
at this distance is so dear.





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