Walter Pieterse - Chapter 1                           

Chapter I

I don’t know the year; but, since the reader will be interested to know the time when this story begins, I will give him a few facts to serve as landmarks.

My mother complained that provisions were dear, and fuel as well. So it must have been before the discovery of Political Economy. Our servant-girl married the barber’s assistant, who had only one leg. “Such a saving of shoe-leather,” the good little soul argued. But from this fact one might infer that the science of Political Economy had already been discovered.

At all events, it was a long time ago. Amsterdam had no sidewalks, import duties were still levied, in some civilized countries there were still gallows, and people didn’t die every day of nervousness. Yes, it was a long time ago.

The Hartenstraat! I have never comprehended why this street should be called thus. Perhaps it is an error, and one ought to write Hertenstraat, or something else. I have never found more “heartiness” there than elsewhere; besides, “harts” were not particularly plentiful, although the place could boast of a poulterer and dealer in venison.

I haven’t been there for a long time, and I only remember that the Straat connects two main canal-streets, canals that I would fill up if I had the power to make Amsterdam one of the most beautiful cities of Europe.

My predilection for Amsterdam, our metropolis, does not make me blind to her faults. Among these I would mention first her complete inability to serve as the scene of things romantic. One finds here no masked Dominos on the street, the common people are everywhere open to inspection, no Ghetto, no Templebar, no Chinese quarter, no mysterious courtyard. Whoever commits murder is hanged; and the girls are called “Mietje” and “Jansje”—everything prose.

It requires courage to begin a story in a place ending with “dam.” There it is difficult to have “Emeranties” and “Héloises”; but even these would be of little use, since all of these belles have already been profaned.

How do the French authors manage, though, to dress up their “Margots” and “Marions” as ideals and protect their “Henris” and Ernestes from the trite and trivial? These last remind one of M’sieu Henri or M’sieu Erneste just about like our castle embankments remind one of filthy water.

Goethe was a courageous man: Gretchen, Klärchen——

But I, in the Hartenstraat!

However, I am not writing a romance; and even if I should write one, I don’t see why I shouldn’t publish it as a true story. For it is a true story, the story of one who in his youth was in love with a sawmill and had to endure this torture for a long time.

For love is torture, even if it is only love for a sawmill.

It will be seen that the story is going to be quite simple, in fact too frail to stand alone. So here and there I am going to plait something in with the thread of the narrative, just as the Chinaman does with his pigtail when it is too thin. He has no Eau de Lob or oil from Macassar—but I admit that I have never found at Macassar any berries which yielded the required oil.

To begin, in the Hartenstraat was a book-shop and circulating library. A small boy with a city complexion stood on the step and seemed to be unable to open the door. It was evident that he was trying to do something that was beyond his strength.

He stretched out his hand towards the door knob repeatedly, but every time he interrupted this motion either by stopping to pull unnecessarily at a big square-cut collar that rested on his shoulders like a yoke, or by uselessly lifting his hand to screen an ingenuous cough.

He was apparently lost in the contemplation of the pictures that covered the panes of glass in the door, turning them into a model chart of inconceivable animals, four-cornered trees and impossible soldiers. He was glancing continually to one side, like a criminal who fears that he is going to be caught in the act. It was manifest that he had something in view which must be concealed from passers-by, and from posterity, for that matter. His left hand was thrust under the skirts of his little coat, clutching convulsively at something concealed in his trousers pocket. To look at him one would have thought that Walter contemplated a burglary, or something of the kind.

For his name was Walter.

It is a fortunate thing that it occurred to me to relate his history; and now I consider it my duty to report that he was entirely innocent of any burglarious or murderous intentions.

I only wish I could clear him of other sins as easily as this. The object he was turning and twisting in his left breeches pocket was not a house-key, nor a jimmy, nor a club, nor a tomahawk, nor any infernal machine: It was a small piece of paper containing fourteen stivers, which he had raised on his New Testament with Psalms at the grocer’s on the “Ouwebrug”; and the thing that held him fast on the Hartenstraat was nothing more or less than his entrance into the magic world of romance. He was going to read “Glorioso.”

Glorioso! Reader, there are many imitations, but only one Glorioso. All the Rinaldos and Fra Diavolos are not to be mentioned in the same breath with Glorioso, this incomparable hero who carried away countesses by the dozen, plundered popes and cardinals as if they were ordinary fallible people, and made a testament-thief of Walter Pieterse.

To be sure, Glorioso was not to blame for this last, certainly not. One ought to be ashamed to be a hero, or a genius, or even a robber, if on this account one is to be held responsible for all the crimes that may be committed years afterwards in the effort to get possession of one’s history.

I myself object to any accusation of complicity in those evil deeds that are committed after my death in quenching the thirst for knowledge of my fate. Indeed, I shall never be deterred from a famous career merely by the thought that some one may sell the New Testament to get hold of the “Life and Deeds of Multatuli.”

“You rascal, what are you loitering around here for? If you want anything, come in; if you don’t, make yourself scarce.”

And now Walter had to go in, or else abandon his cherished Glorioso. But the man who bent over the counter and twisted himself like a crane to open the door and snarl these words at our young hero did not have a face that advised anything like turning back. He was angry. At first Walter had not had the courage to go in; now he did not dare to turn back. He felt himself drawn in. It was as if the book-shop swallowed him.

“Glorioso, if you please, M’neer, and here——” He drew that infernal machine from his pocket. “And here is money——”

For he had learned from his schoolmates, who had infected him with this craving for romance, that at the circulating library strangers must deposit a forfeit.

The shopman seemed to regard himself as “sufficiently protected” by the sum produced. He took down a small volume, which was greasy and well worn, and bore both within and without the traces of much unclean enjoyment.

I am certain that the “Sermons of Pastor Splitvesel,” which stood undisturbed on the top shelf and looked down contemptuously on the literature of the day, would have been ashamed to bring their spotless binding into contact with so much uncleanliness. But it is not difficult to remain clean in the upper row. I find, therefore, that the “sermons” were unjust; and the same is true of many sermons.

After Walter had given his name to the man in a trembling voice, he stuck the reward of his misdeed under his coat and hurried out the door, like a cat making away with the prey for which it has waited for hours.

Walter ran and ran, and did not know where to go. He couldn’t go home; he was watched too closely there,—which was not very difficult, as the space was rather limited.

He selected quiet streets and finally came to a gateway that he remembered to have seen several times. It was a low, smooth arch, where it always smelled like ashes. Here, as a truant, he had taken that leap! He was with Franz Halleman, who had dared him to cut sacred studies and jump from the top of this arch. Walter did it just because little Franz had questioned his courage.

To this escapade he was indebted for his great familiarity with the prophet Habakkuk, whose prophecies he had to copy twelve times as a penalty. Further, the sprain that he got in his big toe on that occasion gave him a good barometer in that organ, which always warned him of approaching rain.

In a certain sense Habakkuk is to be regarded as marking a transition in Walter’s life, viz. from nursery rhymes to books which deal with big people. For some time he had felt his admiration for “brave Heinriche” to be growing; and he was disgusted with the paper peaches that are distributed as the reward of diligence in the beautiful stories. Of any other peaches he had no knowledge, as the real article was never seen in the houses he visited.

Nothing was more natural than that he should most ardently long to talk with the older schoolboys about the wonders of the real world, where people ride in coaches, devastate cities, marry princesses, and stay up in the evening till after 10 o’clock—even if it isn’t a birthday. And then at the table one helps one’s self, and may select just whatever one wants to eat. So think children.

Every boy has his heroic age, and humanity, as a whole, has worn the little coat with the big collar.

But how far can this comparison be carried? Where does the identity stop? Will the human race become mature? and more than mature?—old? Feeble and childish?

How old are we now? Are we boys, youths, men? Or are we already——? No, that would be too unpleasant to think of.

Let us suppose that we are just in the exuberance of youth! We are then no longer children exactly, and still we may hope something of the future.

Yes, of the future,—when this stifling school atmosphere has been blown away. When we shall take pleasure in the short jacket of the boy that comes after us; when people will be at liberty to be born without any legal permit, and will not be reviled for it; when humanity will speak one language; when metaphysics and religion have been forgotten, and knowledge of nature takes the place of noble birth. When we shall have broken away from the nursery stories.

There is some silk for my Chinaman’s pigtail. Some will say it is only flax.


Walter Pieterse - Chapter 1