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Title: The Parthenon By Way Of Papendrecht

Author: Francis Hopkinson Smith

Release date: December 3, 2007 [eBook #23703]
Most recently updated: February 24, 2021

Language: English

Credits: Produced by David Widger



By F. Hopkinson Smith


It was mine host of the Ferry Inn at Cook-ham who was calling, and at the top of his voice—and a big-chested voice it was—the sound leaping into crescendo as the object of his search remained hidden. Then he turned to me:

“He's somewheres 'round the boat house—you can't miss him—there's too much of him!”

“Are ye wantin' me, sor?” came another shout as I rounded the squat building stuffed with boats—literally so—bottom, top, and sides.

“Yes—are you the boatman?”

“I am, sor—and bloody sick of me job. Do ye see that wherry shovin' off—the one with the lady in a sweater? Yes—that's right—just slipped under the bridge. Well, sor, what d'ye think the bloke did for me? Look at it, sor!” (Here he held out his hand, in which lay a half-penny.) “And me a-washin' out 'is boat, feedin' of 'is dog, and keepin' an eye on 'is togs and 'is ladies—and then shoves off and 'ands me this—a 'a'penny, sor—a 'a'penny—from the likes o' 'im to the likes o' me! Damn 'im!”—and away went the coin into the river. “You'll excuse me, sor, but i couldn't choke it down. Is it a punt ye're lookin' for?”

The landlord was right—there was a good deal of him—six feet and an inch, I should think; straight as an oar, his bared arms swinging free; waist, thighs, and back tough as a saw-log. To this was added two big blue eyes set in a clean-shaven face bronzed by the sun, and a double row of teeth that would have shamed an ear of corn. I caught, too, the muscles of his chest rounding out his boating shirt, and particularly the muscles of the neck supporting the round head crowned with closely cropped hair—evidently a young Englishman of that great middle class which the nation depends upon in an emergency. My inspection also settled any question I might have had as to why he was “William,” and never “Bill,” to those about him.

The one thing lacking in his make-up—and which only came into view when he turned his head—was the upper part of one ear. This was clipped as close as a terrier's.

Again he repeated the question—with a deprecatory smile, as if he already regretted his outburst.

“Is it a punt ye're wantin', sor?”

“Yes—and a man to pole it and look after me while I paint. I had old Norris for the past few years, but I hear he's gone back to gardening. Will you have time with your other work?”

“Time! I'll chuck my job if I don't.”

“No,—you can do both,—Norris did. You can pole me out to where I want to work; bring me my lunch when you have yours, and come for me at night. You weren't here two years ago—were you?”

“No—I was with General French. Got this clip outside Kimberly—” and he touched his ear. “Been all my life on the river—Maidenhead and Bourne's End mostly—and so when my time was up I come home and the boss here put me on.”

“A soldier! I thought so. I see now why you got mad. Wonder you didn't throw that chap into the river.” I am a crank on the happiness one gets from the giving of tips—and a half-penny man is the rock bottom of meanness.

His face straightened.

“Well, we can't do that, sor—we can't never talk back. Got to grin and bear it or lose yer job. Learned that in the Hussahs. I didn't care for his money—maybe it was the way he did it that set me goin'—as if I was—Well—let it go! And it's a punt ye want?—Yes, sor—come and pick it out.”

After that it was plain sailing—or punting. The picture of that London cad sprawling in the water, which my approval had created in his mind, had done it. And it was early and late too (there were few visitors that month); down by the Weir below the lock as far as Cliveden; up the backwater to the Mill—William stretched beside me while I worked, or pulling back and forth when a cool bottle—beer, of course—or a kettle and an alcohol lamp would add to my comfort.

Many years of tramping and boating up and down the Thames from Reading to Maidenhead have taught me the ins and outs of the river. I know it as I do my own pocket (and there is more in that statement than you think—especially during regatta week).

First comes Sonning with its rose gardens and quaint brick bridge; and then Marlowe with that long stretch of silver bordered by nodding trees and dominated by the robber Inn—four shillings and six for a sawdust sandwich! Then Maidenhead, swarming with boats and city folks after dark (it is only a step from the landing to any number of curtained sitting-rooms with shaded candles—and there be gay times at Maidenhead, let me tell you!). And, between, best of all, lovely Cookham.

thames-at-cookham (48K)

Here the river, crazy with delight, seems to lose its head and goes meandering about, poking its nose up backwaters, creeping across meadows, flooding limpid shallows, mirroring oaks and willows upside down, surging up as if to sweep away a velvet-shorn lawn, only to pour itself—its united self—into an open-mouthed lock, and so on to a saner life in a level stretch beyond. If you want a map giving these vagaries, spill a cup of tea and follow its big and little puddles with their connecting rivulets: ten chances to one it will come out right.

All this William and I took in for three unbroken weeks, my usual summer allotment on the Thames. Never was there such a breesy, wholesome companion; stories of his life in the Veldt; of his hospital experience over that same ear—“The only crack I got, sor, thank God!—except bein' 'alf starved for a week and down two months with the fever—” neither of which seemed to have caused him a moment's inconvenience; stories of the people living about him and those who came from London with a “'am sandwidge in a noospaper, and precious little more,” rolled out of him by the hour.

And the poise of the man! When he lay stretched out beside me on the grass while I worked—an old bivouac attitude—he kept still; no twitching of legs or stretching of arms—lay as a big hound does, whose blood and breeding necessitate repose.

And we were never separated. First a plunge overboard, and then a pull back for breakfast, and off again with the luncheon tucked under the seat—and so on until the sun dropped behind the hills.

The only days on which this routine of work and play had to be changed were Sundays and holidays. Then my white umbrella would loom up as large as a circus tent, the usual crowd surging about its doors. As you cannot see London for the people, so you cannot see the river for boats on these days—all sorts of boats—wherries, tubs, launches, racing crafts, shells, punts—everything that can be poled, pulled, or wobbled, and in each one the invariable combination—a man, a girl, and a dog—a dog, a girl, and a man. This has been going on for ages, and will to the end of time.

On these mornings William and I have our bath early—ahead of the crowd really, who generally arrive two hours after sunrise and keep up the pace until the last train leaves for Paddington. This bath is at the end of one of the teacup spillways, and is called the Weir. There is a plateau, a plunge down some twenty feet into a deep pool, and the usual surroundings of fresh morning air, gay tree-tops, and the splash of cool water sparkling in the sunlight.

To-day as my boat grated on the gravel my eyes fell on a young English lord who was holding the centre of the stage in the sunlight. He was dressed from head to foot in a skin-tight suit of underwear which had been cut for him by a Garden-of-Eden tailor. He was just out of the water—a straight, well-built, ruddy-skinned fellow—every inch a man! What birth and station had done for him would become apparent when his valet began to hand him his Bond Street outfit. The next instant William stood beside him. Then there came a wriggle about the shoulders, the slip of a buckle, and he was overboard and out again before my lord had discarded his third towel.

I fell to thinking.

Naked they were equals. That was the way they came into the world and that's the way they would go out. And yet within the hour my lord would be back to his muffins and silver service, with two flunkies behind his chair, and William would be swabbing out a boat or poling me home through the pond lilies.

But why?—I kept asking myself. A totally idiotic and illogical question, of course. Both were of an age; both would be a joy to a sculptor looking for modern gods with which to imitate the Greek ones. Both were equal in the sight of their Maker. Both had served their country—my lord, I learned later, being one of the first to draw a bead on Spion Kop close enough to be of any use—and both were honest—at least William was—and the lord must have been.

There is no answer—never can be. And yet the picture of the two as they stood glistening in the sunlight continues to rise in my memory, and with it always comes this same query—one which will never down—Why should there be the difference?

But the summer is moving on apace. There is another Inn and another William—or rather, there was one several hundred years ago before he went off crusading. It is an old resort of mine. Seven years now has old Leah filled my breakfast cup with a coffee that deserves a hymn of praise in its honor. I like it hot—boiling, blistering hot, and the old woman brings it on the run, her white sabots clattering across the flower-smothered courtyard. During all these years I have followed with reverent fingers not only the slopes of its roof but the loops of swinging clematis that crowd its balconies and gabies as well. I say “my” because I have known this Inn of William the Conqueror long enough to include it in the list of the many good ones I frequent over Europe—the Bellevue, for instance, at Dordrecht, over against Papendrecht (I shall be there in another month). And the Britannia in Venice, and I hope still a third in unknown Athens—unknown to me—my objective point this year.

This particular Inn with the roof and the clematis, is at Dives, twenty miles from Trouville on the coast. You never saw anything like it, and you never will again. I hold no brief for my old friend Le Remois, the proprietor, but the coffee is not the only thing over which grateful men chant hymns. There is a kitchen, resplendent in polished brass, with three French chefs in attendance, and a two-century-old spit for roasting. There is the wine-cellar, in which cobwebs and not labels record the age and the vintage; there is a dining-room—three of them—with baronial fireplaces, sixteenth-century furniture, and linen and glass to match—to say nothing of tapestries, Spanish leathers, shrines, carved saints, ivories, and pewter—the whole a sight to turn bric-a-brac fiends into burglars—not a difficult thing by the way—and then, of course—there is the bill!

“Where have you been, M. Le Rémois?” asked a charming woman.

“To church, Madame.”

“Did you say your prayers?”

“Yes, Madame,” answered this good boni-face, with a twinkle.

“What did you pray for?”

“I said—'Oh, Lord!—do not make me rich, but place me next to the rich'”—and he kept on his way rubbing his hands and chuckling. And yet I must say it is worth the price.

I have no need of a William here—nor of anybody else. The water for my cups is within my reach; convenient umbrellas on movable pedestals can be shoved into place; a sheltered back porch hives for the night all my paraphernalia and unfinished sketches, and a step or two brings me to a table where a broiled lobster fresh from the sea and a peculiar peach ablaze in a peculiar sauce—the whole washed down by a pint of—(No—you can't have the brand—there were only seven bottles left when I paid my bill)—and besides I am going back—help to ease the cares that beset a painter's life.

But even this oasis of a garden, hemmed about as if by the froth of Trouville and the suds of Cabourg; through which floats the gay life of Paris resplendent in toilets never excelled or exceeded anywhere—cannot keep me from Holland very long. And it is a pity too, for of late years I have been looked upon as a harmless fixture at the Inn—so much so that men and women pass and repass my easel, or look over my shoulder while I work without a break in their confidences—quite as if I was a deaf, dumb, and blind waiter, or twin-brother to old Coco the cockatoo, who has surveyed the same scene from his perch near the roof for the past thirty years.

None of these unconscious ear-droppings am I going to betray—delightful, startling—improper, if you must have it—as some of them were. Not the most interesting, at all events, for I promised her I wouldn't—but there is no question as to the diversion obtained by keeping the latch-string of your ears on the outside.

None of all this ever drips into my auricles in Holland. A country so small that they build dikes to keep the inhabitants from being spilt off the edge, is hardly the place for a scandal—certainly not in stolid Dordrecht or in that fly-speck of a Papendrecht, whose dormer windows peer over the edge of the dike as if in mortal fear of another inundation. And yet, small as it is, it is still big enough for me to approach it—the fly-speck, of course—by half a dozen different routes. I can come by boat from Rotterdam. Fop Smit owns and runs it—(no kin of mine, more's the pity)—or by train from Amsterdam; or by carriage from any number of 'dams, 'drechts, and 'bergs. Or I can tramp it on foot, or be wheeled in on a dog-wagon. I have tried them all, and know. Being now a staid old painter and past such foolishness, I take the train.

Toot! Toot!—and I am out on the platform, through the door of the station and aboard the one-horse tram that wiggles and swings over the cobble-scoured streets of Dordrecht, and so on to the Bellevue.

Why I stop at the Bellevue (apart from it being one of my Inns) is that from its windows I cannot only watch the life of the tawny-colored, boat-crowded Maas, but see every curl of smoke that mounts from the chimneys of Papendrecht strung along its opposite bank. My dear friend, Herr Boudier, of years gone by, has retired from its ownership, but his successor, Herr Teitsma, is as hearty in his welcome. Peter, my old boatman, too, pulled his last oar some two years back, and one “Bop” takes his place. There is another “p” and an “e” tacked on to Bop, but I have eliminated the unnecessary and call him “Bob” for short. They made Bob out of what was left of Peter, but they left out all trace of William.

This wooden-shod curiosity is anywhere from seventy to one hundred and fifty years old, gray, knock-kneed, bent in the back, and goes to sleep standing up—and stays asleep. He is the exact duplicate of the tramp in the comic opera of “Miss Hook of Holland”—except that the actor-sleeper occasionally topples over and has to be braced up. Bob is past-master of the art and goes it alone, without propping of any kind. He is the only man in Dordrecht, or Papendrecht, or the country round about, who can pull a boat and speak English. He says so, and I am forced not only to believe him, but to hire him. He wants it in advance, too—having had some experience with “painter-man,” he explains to Herr Teitsma.

I shall, of course, miss my delightful William, but I am accustomed to that. And, then, again, while Bob asleep is an interesting physiological study, Bob awake adds to the gayety of nations, samples of which crowd about my easel, Holland being one of the main highways of the earth.

I have known Dort and the little 'drecht across the way for some fifteen years, five of which have slipped by since I last opened my umbrella along its quaint quays. To my great joy nothing has changed. The old potato boat still lies close to the quay, under the overhanging elms. The same dear old man and his equally dear old wife still make their home beneath its hipped roof. I know, for it is here I lunch, the cargo forming the chief dish, followed by a saucer of stewed currants, a cup of coffee—(more hymns here)—and a loaf of bread from the baker's. The old Groote Kirk still towers aloft—the highest building in Holland, they say; the lazy, red-sailed luggers drift up and down, their decks gay with potted plants; swiss curtains at the cabin windows, the wife holding the tiller while the man trims the sail. The boys still clatter over the polished cobbles—an aggressive mob when school lets out—and a larger crop, I think, than in the years gone by, and with more noise—my umbrella being the target. Often a spoilt fish or half a last week's cabbage comes my way, whereupon Bob awakes to instant action with a consequent scattering, the bravest and most agile making faces from behind wharf spiles and corners. Peter used to build a fence of oars around me to keep them off, but Bob takes it out in swearing.

Only once did he silence them. They were full grown, this squad, and had crowded the old man against a tree under which I had backed as shelter from a passing shower. There came a blow straight from the shoulder, a sprawling boy, and Bob was in the midst of them, his right sleeve rolled up, showing a full-rigged ship tattooed in India ink. What poured from him I learned afterward was an account of his many voyages to the Arctic and around the Horn, as the label on his arm proved—an experience which, he shouted, would be utilized in pounding them up into fish bait if they did not take to their heels. After that he always went to sleep with one eye open, the boys keeping awake with two—and out of my way—a result which interested me the more.

If my Luigi was not growing restless in my beloved Venice (it is wonderful how large a portion of the earth I own) I would love to pass the rest of my summer along these gray canals, especially since Bob's development brings a daily surprise. Only to-day I caught sight of him half hidden in an angle of a wall, surrounded by a group of little tots who were begging him for paper pin-wheels which a vender had stopped to sell, an infinitesimal small coin the size of a cuff button purchasing a dozen or more. When I again looked up from a canvas each tot had a pin-wheel, and later on Bob, that much poorer in pocket, sneaked back and promptly went to sleep.

But even Bob's future beatification cannot hold me. I yearn for the white, blinding light and breathless lagoons, and all that makes Venice the Queen City of the World.

Luigi meets me inside the station. It takes a soldo to get in, and Luigi has but few of them, but he is always there. His gondola is moored to the landing steps outside—a black swan of a boat, all morocco cushions and silk fringes; the product of a thousand years of tinkering by the most fastidious and luxurious people of ancient or modern times, and still to-day the most comfortable conveyance known to man.'

Hurry up, you who have never known a gondola or a Luigi! A vile-smelling, chuggity-chug is forcing its way up every crooked canal, no matter how narrow. Two Venetian shipyards are hammering away on their hulls or polishing their motors. Soon the cost of production will drop to that of a gondola. Then look out! There are eight thousand machinists in the Arsenal earning but five francs a day, any one of whom can learn to run a motor boat in a week, thus doubling their wages. Worse yet—the world is getting keener every hour for speedy things. I may be wrong—I hope and pray I am—but it seems to me that the handwriting is already on the wall. “This way to the Museo Civico,” it reads—“if you want to find a gondola of twenty-five years ago.” As for the Luigis and the Esperos—they will then have given up the unequal struggle.

The only hope rests with the Venetians themselves. They have restored the scarred Library, and are rebuilding the Campanile, with a reverence for the things which made their past glorious that commands the respect of the artistic world. The gondola is as much a part of Venice as its sunsets, pigeons, and palaces. Let them by special license keep the Tragfaetti intact, with their shuttles of gondolas crossing bade and forth—then, perhaps, the catastrophe may be deferred for a few decades.

As it was in Dort and Papendrecht so it is in Venice. Except these beastly, vile-smelling boats there is nothing new, thank God. Everything else is faded, weather-worn, and old, everything filled with sensuous beauty—sky, earth, lagoon, garden wall, murmuring ripples—the same wonderful Venice that thrills its lovers the world over.

And the old painters are still here—Walter Brown, Bunce, Bompard, Faulkner, and the rest—successors of Ziem and Rico—men who have loved her all their lives. And with them a new band of devotees—Monet and Louis Aston Knight among them. “For a few days,” they said in explanation, but it was weeks before they left—only to return, I predict, as Jong as they can hold a brush.

As for Luigi and me—we keep on our accustomed way, leading our accustomed lives. Seventeen years now since he bent to his oar behind my cushions—twenty-six in all since I began to idle about her canals. It is either the little canal next the Public Garden, or up the Giudecca, or under the bronze horses of San Marco; or it may be we are camped out in the Piazzetta before the Porta della Carta; or perhaps up the narrow canal of San Rocco, or in the Fruit Market near the Rialto while the boats unload their cargoes.

All old subjects and yet ever new; each has been painted a thousand times, and in as many different lights and perspectives. And yet each canvas differs from its fellows as do two ripples or two morning skies.

For weeks we drift about. One day Carlotta, the fishwife up the Fondamenta della Pallada, makes us our coffee; the next Luigi buys it of some smart café on the Piazza. This with a roll, a bit of Gorgonzola, and a bunch of grapes, or half a dozen figs, is our luncheon, to which is added two curls of blue smoke, one from Luigi's pipe and the other from my cigarette. Then we fall to work again.

But this will never do! While I have been loafing with Luigi not only has the summer slipped away, but the cool winds of October have crept down from the Alps. There are fresh subjects to tackle—some I have never seen. Athens beckons to me. The columns of the Parthenon loom up!

If there are half a dozen ways of getting into Papendrecht—there is only one of reaching Athens—that is, if you start from Venice. Trieste first, either by rail or boat, and then aboard one of the Austrian Lloyds, and so on down the Adriatic to Patras.

It is October, remember—when every spear of grass from a six months' drought—the customary dry spell—is burnt to a crisp. It will rain to-morrow, or next week, they will tell you—but it doesn't—never has in October—and never will. Strange to say, you never miss it—neither in the color of the mountains flanking the Adriatic or in any of the ports on the way down, or in Patras itself. The green note to which I have been accustomed—which I have labored over all my life—is lacking, and a new palette takes its place—of mauve, violet, indescribable blues, and evanescent soap-bubble reds. The slopes of the hills are mother-of-pearl, their tops melting into cloud shadows so delicate in tone that you cannot distinguish where one leaves off and the other begins.

And it is so in Patras, except for a riotous, defiant pine—green as a spring cabbage or a newly painted shutter—that sucks its moisture from nobody knows where—hasn't any, perhaps, and glories in its shame. All along the railroad from the harbor of Patras to the outskirts of Athens it is the same—bare fields, bare hills, streets and roads choked with dust. And so, too, when you arrive at the station and take the omnibus for the Grand Bretagne.

By this time you are accustomed to it—in fact you rather enjoy it. If you have a doubt of it, step out on the balcony at the front of the hotel and look up!

Hanging in the sky—in an air of pure ether, set in films of silver grays in which shimmer millions of tones, delicate as the shadings of a pearl, towers the Acropolis, its crest fringed by the ruins of the greatest temples the world possesses.

I rang a bell.

“Get me a carriage and send me up a guide—anybody who can speak English and who is big enough to carry a sketch trap.”

He must have been outside, so quickly did he answer the call. He was two-thirds the size of William, one-half the length of Luigi, and one-third the age of Bob.

“What is your name?”


“Anything else?”


“Then we'll drop the last half. Put those traps in the carriage—and take me to the Parthenon.”

I never left it for fourteen consecutive days—nor did I see a square inch of Athens other than the streets I drove through up and back on my way to work. Nor have I in all my experience ever had a more competent, obliging, and companionable guide—always excepting my beloved Luigi, who is not only my guide, but my protector and friend as well.

It was then that I blessed the dust. Green things, wet things, soggy things—such as mud and dull skies—have no place in the scheme of the Parthenon and its contiguous temples and ruins. That wonderful tea-rose marble, with its stains of burnt sienna marking the flutings of endless broken columns, needs no varnishing of moisture to enhance its beauty. That will do for the façade of Burlington House with its grimy gray statues, or the moss-encrusted tower of the Groote Kirk, but never here. It was this fear, perhaps, that kept me at work, haunted as I was by the bogy of “Rain to-morrow. It always comes, and keeps on for a month when it starts in.” Blessed be the weather clerk! It never started in—not until I reached Brindisi on my way back to Paris; then, if I remember, there was some falling weather—at the rate of two inches an hour.

And yet I might as well confess that my fourteen days of consecutive study of the Acropolis, beginning at the recently uncovered entrance gate and ending in the Museum behind the Parthenon, added nothing to my previous historical or other knowledge—meagre as it had been.

Where the Venetians wrought the greatest havoc, how many and what columns were thrown down; how high and thick and massive they were; what parts of the marvellous ruin that High Robber Chief Lord Elgin stole and carted off to London, and still keeps the British Museum acting as “fence”; how wide and long and spacious was the superb chamber that held the statue the gods loved—none of these things interested me—do not now. What I saw was an epoch in stone; a chronicle telling the story of civilization; a glove thrown down to posterity, challenging the competition of the world.

And with this came a feeling of reverence so profound, so awe-inspiring, so humbling, that I caught myself speaking to Panis in whispers—as one does in a temple when the service is in progress. This, as the sun sped its course and the purple shadows of the coming night began to creep up the steps and columns of the marvellous pile, its pediment bathed in the rose-glow of the fading day, was followed by a silence that neither of us cared to break. For then the wondrous temple took on the semblance of some old sage, the sunlight on his forehead, the shadow of the future about his knees.