January 27, 1907
By J. D. WHELPHEY
Early in the evening of a pleasant summer day, in the height of the season, I sat at dinner in the Hotel Continental at Ostend. As their cost, there are certain tables in the dining room of this fashionable stopping place which are close to the big French windows from which one can at leisure not only view the passersby on the Digue, but get a far lookout upon a sea, which at that time of year, when French windows are defensible, is dotted with the great white sails of fast pleasure yachts.
On this particular evening the maitre d’ hotel had apologized for putting me at the table with two other people. He had previously tested the value of my good will, but shrugged his shoulders, gave a look about the crowded room, “Monsieur is so late; we are so crowded!” he murmured, and then, as it were, laid the whole case before me with that inimitable gesture of finality and appeal which permitted of no further argument. Opposite me sat a young Englishman and his wife, a wedding tour perhaps-you cannot always tell with an English couple, but they showed a certain mutual interest in things which gave rise to suspicion.
The Digue’s Passing Show
After giving my order to an attentive ear, I idly watched the passing show on the Digue and the fading of the beautiful lights on the channel sea. Suddenly the young woman opposite me nudged her companion and said in a low voice, “The King, the King!” I involuntarily turned and looked over my shoulder. I knew at once she meant the King of the Belgians, for he was at Ostend. I had never seen him before, but like everyone else had read and heard much of him. I had perused the pamphlet printed in three languages defending his administration of the Congo, which pamphlet was to be found this summer in every “wagon-lit” on the Continent. I had red Mark Twain’s gentle twitting of His Majesty for allegedly causing the slaughter of thousands of helpless slaves, and indeed it was quite impossible to pick up a newspaper of international repute without finding some mention of his name, and generally in not too friendly a manner. And here was the man himself!
There was no mistaking him. His face is familiar in print and on postal cards, for he is much illustrated monarch: Tall and rather heavy; the famous long, gray beard, now nearly white, and trimmed square across the end; plainly dressed, walking rapidly but with a slight limp, and leaning heavily on a stout cane. As he came down the Digue he was attended by only one man, who followed closely behind him, probably an agent of the secret police. People made way, but paid little or no deference. They looked at him curiously. A few raised their hats. A man seated on a bench opposite my window rose stiffly to his feet and stood to salute – an ex-soldier probably.
The king wore a straw hat, a “boater” they call it in England, and with his left hand-his cane was in his right-he raised it rapidly, bowing in a perfunctory manner, first to the left and then to the right. As he passed my window he turned his face that way, and the light fell strong upon him. It was the face of a tired man, a man tired of all life has to give. It was just a flash, a mere look into the privacy of royalty, and one not soon to be forgotten. From it one could gain perhaps a better appreciation of the storms and stress which have come into the life of most active monarch of the Victorian era, in a long forty-one years of continuos command of a small but important and wealthy land and people sitting in the midst of powerful and covetous neighbors.
Born in 1835, of Leopold I of Belgium and Princess Louise, daughter of Louis Philippe, citizen King of the French, Louis Philippe Marie Victor received the education and training customarily given heir presumptive. He was made Duke of Brabant at eleven, and put through the army from the grade of sublieutenant to that of lietenant general. At eighteen he married Marie Henriette, daughter of Archduke Joseph of Austria; and on his majority he entered the Belgian Senate. During the following five years he traveled to Spain, Morocco, Algiers, Egypt, Palestine, India, China. He has been called the most traveled monarch in Europe; and so extensive was his knowledge of international affairs and so clear his judgement, that the personal weekly letter which he made it a practice to write to Queen Victoria had a t times no little influence upon the foreign policy of the British Government, even though the Queen rarely answered.
Through the house of Coburg-Gotha, Leopold was a cousin of Queen Victoria. His intimacy with the English court has been a tradition of his reign that has aided his diplomacy in protecting the integrity of his little kingdom against the counter intrigues of both Napoleon III. and the King of Prussia.
England Is His Model.
He set up the policy of England as the model for Belgium; and from the moment he became King in December of 1865 he has never ceased to urge the doctrine of colonization and extension of trade, through a merchant marine and through sending samples of Belgium manufacture to all parts of the world. This country is known as the “Laboratory of Europe” It was the first in Europe to build railways, and the King urged their prolongation to connect with the merchant marine that now plies between Antwerp and the Congo. In the early years of his reign he devoted much attention to municipal improvements, and Brussels, Ghne, Antwerp, Mamur, Mons, Liege, Charleroi, and Verviers bear testimony to his activity in this respect.
He advocated successfully improved houses for the working people, and old age pensions. While accused of being the most pleasure loving monarch in the world, he has always shown great interest in the working classes. In 1899 he caused two million francs, that had been subscribed to celebrate with decorations, pageants, and feast the twenty-fifth anniversary of his accession, to be devoted to a fund for injured workmen, and from this endowment some five thousand cases a year receive benefit.
Not one of the industrious Belgians works harder than the King himself. Winter and summer he rises at five o’clock; eats some grapes, a peach and a cup of chocolate; and by seven o’clock has disposed of a large batch of correspondence. An ardent automobilist, he gets into his car after a turn in the gardens at Laeken and is whirled, regardless of the speed limit, to his palace in Brussels, where he is soon busy with affairs of State.
At noon he breakfasts in the Continental fashion – and omelet, a steak, or a fillet with spinach,of which latter dish he is very fond. His afternoons are usually spent at Laeken, where his has expended millions on the marvelous Oriental pagoda, the hothouses, and stables, connecting them by a system of subways, for he has a passion for mystery and likes to render himself invisible. In his travels he prefers to go about incognito, with the result that various athletic old men with long bears have at times been mistaken for the King of the Belgians
Wants a Private Subway
His interest in the London and New York subways suggested to him the idea of connecting Laeken with the Belgian system of railways by and underground line, so that he could step from his palace into a private car and run up to Paris or Ostend without attracting attention. Leaken, which is five miles from Brussels, is famous as the place where the great Napoleon signed his fateful declaration of war against Russia.
There is certainly provocation for circumspection and even mystery on the part of the Belgian King, for like every other ruler in Europe he is on the list of the anarchists. November 14, 1902, when he was driving to the cathedral in Brussels to attend the Te Deum in memory of his dead Queen, Rubino, an Italian Red, fired three shots at him, an experience which Leopold accepted with his usual composure, in which there is a touch of cynicism. A few days later when receiving a delegation from the Chamber of Deputies, he said, referring to his narrow escape:”I am nearing the end of my life. I do not know how long I shall live. But I can assure you that all the rest of my existence will be devoted, within the limits of my constitutional powers, to the good of my country and the protection of its liberties.” Whatever his imperfections, the King has never shown the white feather.
He has always been most scrupulous, too, in observing the limits of his constitutional powers. It is said of him that he is such a good business man he ought to be his own chancellor of the exchequer, and, indeed, he has been tactfully inactive. While the bill for proportional representation was turning the kingdom up side sown and a cabinet crisis impending, Leopold discreetly disappeared, taking a run down to Geneva. Telegrams were sent to his country place in Namur, to Montreux, and to Aix-les-Bains, imploring him to come to the capital as the bill had been rejected; but Leopold waited until his subjects were really anxious to have him, when he went quietly back.
The ruling house of Belgium was not a wealthy one when Leopold came to the throne, and his early speculative ventures did not all pan out well; but in 1879 Stanley went to Africa under his patronage. Leopold genuinely admired Stanley; but Stanley was and Englishman, and it was as well to let the world know who stood behind the explorer, in case anything came of his explorations. consequently, a conference was called at Brussels under the title of “La Comite d’ Etude du Haut Congo.” It was a wise precaution. It paved the way for the Berlin Act, which is called the “Great Charter of the Congo Free State,” passed in 1885 by an international conference at Berlin in which fourteen powers were represented. Out of the Comite grew the Association Nationale du Congo, whose flag the United States recognized “as that of a friendly Government” in 1884. The Berlin Act provided for free trade, no monopoly, and the abolition of slavery and cannibalism, and selected Leopold to govern the Congo Free State with its thirty million black inhabitants. As virtual sovereign, Leopold promptly claimed the right of control over all commercial operations.
The Belgian administration of the Free State is a perennial scandal; but the venerable King protests that the charges of in human treatment of the natives have in many cases been wicked inventions. That some of them are true there is no reason to doubt; but to say that Leopold II. is another Nero is to lose sight of the fact that the King in Brussels ought not to be held responsible for the acts of cruelty committed by some of his agents in the wilds of the Congo Free State, without evidence of complicity.
That the administration of the country is a money making and not a humanitarian project must be acknowledged to by true on the authority of Felician Cattier, professor in the University of Brussels, who made an investigation. “An examination of the Congo Free State administration,” he said in his report, “reveals the clear and indisputable fact that the Congo Free State is not a colony in the proper sense of the term; it is a financial speculation. The real aims of those in authority are pecuniary- to increase the amount yielded by taxation, to exploit the natural wealth of the country, to effect all that can stimulate the powers of production. Everything else is subordinated to this end. the colony is administered neither in the interests of the natives, nor even of the economic interests of the Belgium; the moving spirit is the desire to assure to the sovereign King the maximum of pecuniary benefit.”
It is not likely that Leopold II will consent to the inclusion fo Felicien Cattier in the Pantheon at Brussels, which is to cost nine million dollars and be presented to the Belgian nation; and yet, perhaps, he won’t trouble himself to dissent. He is seventy-one, and his eyes twinkle with a kind of humorous tolerance of what the world thinks and says. He has lived an abstemious and methodical life, and despite the tales of his escapades his vigor and activity prove that he has not squandered his vital forces.
He is accused of being a heartless, selfish old man; but for more than forty years he has kept his pledge to his mother that he would never sign a death warrant. and his estates in Belgium, and his colossal interests in the Congo Free State, which make him a multi-millionaire, he has willed to his people, title to pass upon his death.