[ix] FOR HANSJE AND WILLEM:
WHEN I was twelve or thirteen years old, an uncle of
mine who gave me my love for books and pictures promised
to take me upon a memorable expedition. I was to go with
him to the top of the tower of Old Saint Lawrence in Rotterdam.
And so, one fine day, a sexton with a key as large as that
of Saint Peter opened a mysterious door. "Ring the bell,"
he said, "when you come back and want to get out," and with
a great grinding of rusty old hinges he separated us from the
noise of the busy street and locked us into a world of new and
For the first time in my life I was confronted by the phenomenon
of audible silence. When we had climbed the first
flight of stairs, I added another discovery to my limited
knowledge of natural phenomena—that of tangible darkness. A
match showed us where the upward road continued. We went
to the next floor and then to the next and the next until I had
lost count and then there came still another floor, and suddenly
we had plenty of light. This floor was on an even height with
the roof of the church, and it was used as a storeroom. Covered
with many inches of dust, there lay the abandoned symbols
of a venerable faith which had been discarded by the good
people of the city many years ago. That which had meant life
and death to our ancestors was here reduced to junk and
rub- [x] bish. The industrious rat had built his nest among the carved
images and the ever watchful spider had opened up shop between
the outspread arms of a kindly saint.
The next floor showed us from where we had derived our
light. Enormous open windows with heavy iron bars made
the high and barren room the roosting place of hundreds of
pigeons. The wind blew through the iron bars and the air was
filled with a weird and pleasing music. It was the noise of the
town below us, but a noise which had been purified and cleansed
by the distance. The rumbling of heavy carts and the clinking
of horses' hoofs, the winding of cranes and pulleys, the hissing
sound of the patient steam which had been set to do the work
of man in a thousand different ways—they had all been
blended into a softly rustling whisper which provided a beautiful
background for the trembling cooing of the pigeons.
Here the stairs came to an end and the ladders began. And
after the first ladder (a slippery old thing which made one feel
his way with a cautious foot) there was a new and even greater
wonder, the town-clock. I saw the heart of time. I could hear
the heavy pulsebeats of the rapid seconds—one—two—three—up
to sixty. Then a sudden quivering noise when all the wheels
seemed to stop and another minute had been chopped off eternity.
Without pause it began again—one—two—three—until
at last after a warning rumble and the scraping of many wheels
a thunderous voice, high above us, told the world that it was
the hour of noon.
On the next floor were the bells. The nice little bells and
their terrible sisters. In the centre the big bell, which made
me turn stiff with fright when I heard it in the middle of the
night telling a story of fire or flood. In solitary grandeur it
seemed to reflect upon those six hundred years during which
it had shared the joys and the sorrows of the good people of
Rotterdam. Around it, neatly arranged like the blue jars in
an old-fashioned apothecary shop, hung the little fellows, who
twice each week played a merry tune for the benefit of the
country-folk who had come to market to buy and sell and hear
what the big world had been doing. But in a corner—all alone
[xi] and shunned by the others—a big black bell, silent and stern,
the bell of death.
Then darkness once more and other ladders, steeper and
even more dangerous than those we had climbed before, and
suddenly the fresh air of the wide heavens. We had reached
the highest gallery. Above us the sky. Below us the city—a
little toy-town, where busy ants were hastily crawling hither
and thither, each one intent upon his or her particular business,
and beyond the jumble of stones, the wide greenness of the
It was my first glimpse of the big world.
Since then, whenever I have had the opportunity, I have
gone to the top of the tower and enjoyed myself. It was hard
work, but it repaid in full the mere physical exertion of climbing
a few stairs.
Besides, I knew what my reward would be. I would see the
land and the sky, and I would listen to the stories of my kind
friend the watchman, who lived in a small shack, built in a
sheltered corner of the gallery. He looked after the clock
and was a father to the bells, and he warned of fires, but he
enjoyed many free hours and then he smoked a pipe and
thought his own peaceful thoughts. He had gone to school almost
fifty years before and he had rarely read a book, but he
had lived on the top of his tower for so many years that he had
absorbed the wisdom of that wide world which surrounded him
on all sides.
History he knew well, for it was a living thing with him.
"There," he would say, pointing to a bend of the river, "there,
my boy, do you see those trees? That is where the Prince of
Orange cut the dikes to drown the land and save Leyden."
Or he would tell me the tale of the old Meuse, until the broad
river ceased to be a convenient harbour and became a wonderful
highroad, carrying the ships of De Ruyter and Tromp upon
that famous last voyage, when they gave their lives that the
sea might be free to all.
Then there were the little villages, clustering around the
protecting church which once, many years ago, had been the
[xii] home of their Patron Saints. In the distance we could see the
leaning tower of Delft. Within sight of its high arches,
William the Silent had been murdered and there Grotius had
learned to construe his first Latin sentences. And still further
away, the long low body of the church of Gouda, the early home
of the man whose wit had proved mightier than the armies of
many an emperor, the charity-boy whom the world came to
know as Erasmus.
Finally the silver line of the endless sea and as a contrast,
immediately below us, the patchwork of roofs and chimneys
and houses and gardens and hospitals and schools and railways,
which we called our home. But the tower showed us
the old home in a new light. The confused commotion of the
streets and the market-place, of the factories and the workshop,
became the well-ordered expression of human energy
and purpose. Best of all, the wide view of the glorious past,
which surrounded us on all sides, gave us new courage to face
the problems of the future when we had gone back to our daily
History is the mighty Tower of Experience, which Time
has built amidst the endless fields of bygone ages. It is no easy
task to reach the top of this ancient structure and get the benefit
of the full view. There is no elevator, but young feet are
strong and it can be done.
Here I give you the key that will open the door.
When you return, you too will understand the reason for
HENDRIK WILLEM VAN LOON.