What the Abbey must have been before it was destroyed by fire we can only guess; but one thing we know, and that is that among its treasures were paintings by the great Mabuse (Jan Gossaert), who once roystered through Middelburg’s quiet streets. Another artist of Middelburg was Adrian van der Venne, who made the quaint drawings for Jacob Cats’ symbols, of which we have seen something in an earlier chapter. But the city has never been a home of the arts. Beyond a little tapestry, some of which may be seen in the stadhuis, and some at the Abbey, it made nothing beautiful. From earliest times the Middelburgers were merchants—wool merchants and wine merchants principally, but always tradespeople and always prosperous and contented.
A tentoonstelling (or exhibition) of copper work was in progress when I was there last summer; but it was not interesting, and I had better have taken the advice of the Music Hall manager, in whose grounds it was held, and have saved my money. His attitude to repousse work was wholly pessimistic, part prejudice against the craft of the metal-worker in itself, but more resentment that florins should be diverted into such a channel away from comic singers and acrobats. Seated at one of the garden tables we discussed Dutch taste in varieties.
The sentimental song, he told me, is a drug in Holland. Anything rather than that. No matter how pretty the girl may be, she must not sing a sentimental song. But if I wished to witness the only way in which a sentimental song would “go down,” I must visit his performance that evening—reserved seats one, fifty,—and hear the great Tacius. He drew from his pocket a handbill which was at that moment being scattered broadcast over Middelburg. It bore the name of this marvel, this solver of the sentimental riddle, and beneath it three interrogation marks. The manager winked. “That,” he said, “will excite interest.”
We went that evening and heard Tacius—a portly gentleman in a ball dress and a yellow wig, who after squeaking five-sixths of a love song in a timid falsetto which might pass for a woman’s voice, roared out the balance like a bull. He brought down the house.
Like most other Dutch towns Middelburg had its period of siege. But there was this difference, that Middelburg was held by the Spanish and besieged by the Dutch, whereas the custom was for the besiegers to be Spanish and the besieged Dutch. Middelburg suffered every privation common to invested cities, even to the trite consumption of rats and dogs, cats and mice, Just as destruction seemed inevitable—for the Spanish commander Mondragon swore to fire it and perish with it rather than submit—a compromise was arranged, and he surrendered without dishonour, the terms of the capitulation (which, however, Spain would not allow him to carry out) being another illustration of the wisdom and humanity of William the Silent.