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Glimpses of Brussels by L. H. H.

1878

To leave Paris for Brussels is to exchange excitement for tranquillity, a crowd for a few, the oppressive newness and vivacity of to-day for a mild animation tempered with a flavor of bygone ages. Brussels has been called a miniature Paris. I should rather consider her as the younger sister of the great city—less beautiful, less decked out, less accomplished, less versed in the ways of the world, yet keeping a certain freshness and virginity of aspect that is lacking in her more brilliant elder.

There is one thing that a foreign resident of Paris is apt to find very enjoyable in Brussels, and that is the absence of the eternal crowd that mars for many people a full enjoyment of the pleasant places of Paris. Her thronging millions overwhelm you on every festive day or joyous occasion. Any little outside show or attraction calls together in some restricted space the population of a small city. Thirty thousand people rushed to hear the Spanish students play on the guitar in the garden of the Tuileries. Twenty thousand go every Sunday to the Salon during the period that it remains open. One hundred thousand go out to the races on ordinary days, and twice that number attend the Grand Prix. Hence comes a famine of conveyances and of seats, and a plethora of companions that are far from being uniformly agreeable.

In Brussels one has enough of human surroundings. There is no lack of companionship in her gardens, her galleries, her streets and her parks. She is not a solitude, as are some of the dead cities of Italy and Germany or some of the minor provincial towns in Belgium and France. The influence of her three hundred and fifty thousand inhabitants is very comfortably apparent. But where Paris pours forth her tens of thousands, Brussels sends out some hundreds. Hence there is always room and to spare. And she is well-to-do in the world, is this pretty capital of Belgium. She is growing and thriving, and wears every mark of an active and contented prosperity. New and handsome streets meet the view on every side. Foremost among these is the elegant Avenue Louise, named after the late queen of the Belgians, which leads out to the spacious and lovely Bois de la Cambre, a second Bois de Boulogne, omitting the traces of the siege. The Avenue Louise reminds me very much of South Broad street in Philadelphia. It forms an almost unbroken row of elegant private residences, extending for full two miles to the very gate of the Bois. The centre of the roadway is macadamized and bordered with rows of trees, thus forming a charming road to the Bois for the private carriages of the Belgian aristocracy.

The royal family of Belgium appear but little in public. A series of family misfortunes, combined with the ill-health of the king, has induced them to live in comparative retirement. Of the children of the late king Leopold, but three survive, the present king, the Count de Flandres and the luckless empress Charlotte. The last, still sunk in a state of hopeless insanity, inhabits the Château de Tervueren. The king, with his wife and family, passes most of his time at the Château de Laeken. He is a great sufferer from a disease which has attacked one of his legs. The queen, an Austrian archduchess, was formerly one of the most beautiful princesses of Europe, but she has never regained either her health or her spirits since the death of her only son some years ago, and looks faded and careworn. On the king's death the crown will pass to his only brother, the Count de Flandres. This gentleman, whose wife, a beautiful and spirited lady, is a princess of the house of Hohenzollern, is as deaf as a post. He inhabits a very handsome palace in the heart of Brussels, and his own sleeping apartments are on the ground floor. One summer night the sentinel in charge was amazed to see a crowd gathered in front of the windows of the count's room, and evidently highly amused. On approaching it was discovered that the attendants had failed to close the outside shutters, and had drawn the lace curtains merely. The room was brilliantly lighted, and of course every part of it was distinctly visible from without. And there,

Dans le simple appareil
D'une beauté qu'on vient d'arracher au sommeil,

the heir to the Belgian throne was peacefully walking to and fro in a brown study, unconscious that the eyes of some hundreds of his future subjects were fixed upon his lightly-draped form. His deafness prevented him from hearing the noise outside the window, and rendered all warnings by means of sounds ineffectual. So the prince's chamberlain was aroused, and after some delay His Royal Highness was released from his very undignified position.

Among the proprietors of the new buildings of Brussels is cited the empress Eugénie. Whole rows of newly-erected and handsome shops were pointed out to me as being her property. A very strong sympathy for the dethroned imperial family seemed to be prevalent in Brussels, as well as an equally strong dislike to the Germans. I was amused to find that two animals in the Zoological Garden, a very cross monkey and a savage-looking African boar, both bore the name of Bismarck.

This Zoological Garden, by the by, is unworthy of the beautiful city to which it belongs. It is small, shabby and ill-kept, contains very few animals, and has become a sort of beer-garden, with open-air concerts and a skating-rink for its chief attractions. A very large and beautiful aquarium, a vast grotto of artificial rock-work, is really worth seeing, but its contents are of the most commonplace kind.

The picture-gallery—or Musée Royal, as it is called—has recently been rearranged, and the modern paintings that used to be on view in the ducal palace are now installed in a series of new and beautifully-decorated rooms. Thither have also been removed a number of pictures by contemporary Belgian painters that used to adorn the public buildings of Brussels. Chief among these is Gallait's noble picture of the Abdication of Charles V. This fine work, considered by some critics as the masterpiece of the great Belgian artist, is worthy of the pencil of Delaroche. Nor is it in style unlike the best productions of that master, recalling the Death of Elizabeth by its admirable grouping and refinement of color. Verboeckhoven is seen here at his best, his Flock of Sheep in a Storm, a large and carefully-finished work, being replete with all the most striking characteristics of his genius. Madou's Interrupted Ball is a brilliant and vivacious representation of a village festival troubled by the intrusion of a group of dandies of the Directory—gay Incroyables who chuck the country damsels under the chin, rouse their swains to jealous wrath and otherwise misconduct themselves. Rohbe's pictures of still life are perfect feasts of coloring, warm, rich and glowing as the heart of a crimson rose brimming with the sunshine and sweetness of a summer's day.

The Musée itself is a noble building, and in point of arrangement and of decoration forms a contrast to the dreary halls of the Luxembourg. The gallery devoted to the old masters contains some valuable specimens of early Flemish art, and some extremely interesting historical portraits, the gem of the collection being a wonderfully fine portrait by Holbein of Sir Thomas More.

But the most interesting point in all Brussels is the Hôtel de Ville. That marvellous edifice, that looks as though it ought to be preserved in a velvet-lined case, so delicate and elaborate are its multitudinous sculptures, lifts the exquisite tracery of its spire against the summer sky, as perfect in its beauty as when Alva and Egmont and Orange passed beneath its shadow ages ago. No spot in Europe, save perhaps the Tower of London, is more haunted by historic memories than is this perfect marvel of architectural beauty. The centuries roll back as we stand beneath its shadow. There is a stain of blood upon the stones, and Philip of Spain rides by, and the duke of Alva comes through yonder doorway, and the air is full of thronging phantoms and of cries—the wail of the Netherlands beneath the sword of the oppressor.

Around the Hôtel de Ville are grouped a series of antique buildings, the one more exquisite than the other—the ancient halls of the corporations of Brussels, among which that of the brewers shows supreme by reason of the luxury of its carvings and the care wherewith its beauty and solidity have been maintained throughout the centuries. In one of the simplest houses of the square Victor Hugo first took refuge after the great catastrophe of the coup d'état. It bore the number 27. A tobacco-shop occupied the ground floor. The poet's parlor was furnished in a style of bald simplicity, with chairs and a sofa covered with black haircloth. But he was wont to say, pointing to the Hôtel de Ville, "I have the most wonderful piece of carving in the world for a sideboard." In this modest abode he wrote Napoléon le Petit. Then, stirred by the historic memories around him, he chose the Inquisition itself for a subject, and planned his as yet unpublished tragedy of Torquemada. The dwelling in the Grande Place became the haunt of all the proscribed republicans of France. Yet Belgium gave them but a cold welcome and grudging hospitality. They were subjected to a series of humiliating formalities, chief among which was the requirement of the authorities that each should provide himself with a permit of residence. These permits were temporary and revocable, and their holders were obliged to go weekly to ask for their renewal at the central police-office. It is not surprising, therefore, that so few of the fugitives should have remained in Belgium. Seven thousand took refuge there after the coup d'état, but only two hundred and fifty took up their abode on Belgian soil. Yet Brussels remained, in some sense, the continental head-quarters of Victor Hugo, though never kindly or generous in her treatment of the great exile. In 1871, the rumor having gone abroad that he had offered shelter to some of the fugitive Communists, his house was attacked by an armed mob, and its inmates barely escaped with their lives.

Brussels possesses among her other sights a curiosity with which she could very well dispense—namely, the Wiertz Gallery. It is a collection of horrors depicted on a colossal scale by a man whose powers of painting were scarcely equal to those of a respectable scene-painter. A series of nightmares, expressed with a sort of epileptic violence and without any artistic value, clothe the walls of the immense studio with gigantic abominations. There is neither originality of conception nor intelligence of execution to redeem their hideousness: their horror is of the simplest bugaboo kind. A man blowing his head to pieces with a pistol-shot; a supposed corpse coming to life in its coffin; the First Napoleon in the flames of hell, with a multitude of women shaking at him the bloody severed limbs of their sons and husbands; a child burned alive in its cradle; the head of a decapitated criminal, and the visions that filled its brain,—such are some of the ghastly imaginings of this diseased and uneducated nature. Compare such works as these with Doré's crudest conceptions, and the difference between the inventions of genius and those of a morbid intellect becomes at once apparent.

L.H.H.