[Brussels—Monday, 15 August 1859]
Monday August 15th A Catholic festival day. The bells were ringing at 5 o’clk and the people already flocking to the mass. All day long it continued, ladies in silk, and peasants in wooden shoes slowly going up the massive stone steps and losing themselves among the arches of the Cathedral. We drove about, went to the market-place where we found the peasants in their picturesque holiday costumes making a busy scene upon which the grim old façade of the magnificent Hotel de Ville seemed to look down in scorn. Opposite the Hotel de Ville is the ancient palace in which the Counts Horn and Egmont were confined and out of which they were led to execution while the cruel Alva [sic, for Alba] watched the agonies of his noble victims from the richly carved windows of his council-chamber. Went to the lace manufacturers. Jamie bought for me a rich mantle.
At 3 o’clk started for Antwerp. We were anxious to see this place where Rubens lived and painted, where alone he is to be studied, the home of Vandyke also, and with a Cathedral which in pomp and beauty of architecture exceeds all other remains, it seems to me (in finished work I mean). The afternoon was as fair as ever shone and this rare spire I thought leaped up into the clear blue air for pure joy in its own existence: then the bells, that marvellous chiming loveliness were singing out their sweetest notes. We stood listening entranced with this new happiness until they had quite ceased, listening to catch even the last, our favorite vibration as if the air re-echoed the music in our hearts, then we went to see the pictures in the interior. Alas! It was festival day a capuchin was preaching afterward there would be high Mass, and we could not see Rubens Masterpiece The Descent from the Cross. We determined to try again however before leaving but went immediately to the Museum to make sure of seeing the pictures there. Here Rubens picture of the Crucifixion held us, and I looked with wonder and joy upon the sketch made by himself of the Descent from the Cross. All his pictures are so real, so truly fulfil and more than fulfil what books and guides and ages of years and generations of men have promised. He, with Shakspeare, has been able to tell the whole tale, with the glory attained by a genius less brilliant only in one part. The color of Vandyke faded before the dazzling heaven-borrowed traits of Rubens. There was more in the Museum than we could begin to understand in our short visit but we were obliged to go, we wanted to see the Quays those monuments to the ancient power of the city & the Cathedral pictures if possible all in time to return by the 7½ train to Brussels.
When we reached the Cathedral evening was approaching and shrouding all things in her lovely hues of grey. The candles were already lighted throwing an uncertain light upon the thousands there assembled. They seemed to listen to the preacher, a man of fire and force at best, with intensity. The pictures which we wished so much to see were shrouded in their veils, I wonder if the monks cover them so because they fear to have such a simple utterance of truth looking down upon their mummeries, but we were a little comforted by the reflexion that the dying day-light was already insufficient. The capuchin at last was ended and as he bowed his head a solemn march about the church began of prelates in their costly robes. They chaunted as they went and all the people kneeled. From time to time we saw the silver censor swung into the air until the place was filled with incense. We moved away as they approached near us. Our hearts were oppressed with the sad idea that the Christ who had lived and died for them was not yet received or known by them. Some man near whom we stood glared upon us with a furi[ous]ness which was startling as well as shocking.
Returned late to Brussels. Met in the train an old Burgomeister as we thought and his daughter. She was a sweet creature, a true German beauty, and he was so proud of her!! She was somewhat like Charles Reade’s picture of “Margaret” in “A good Fight” and very like all the descriptions of German beauties we have known in literature.