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An Inland Voyage - Sambre and Oise Canal

1. Preface

2. Antwerp to Boom

3. On the Willebroek Canal

4. The Royal Sport Nautique

5. At Maubeuge

6. On the Sambre Canalised

7. Pont-Sur-Sambre We are Pedlars

8. Pont-Sur-Sambre The Travelling Merchant

9. On the Sambre Canalised

10. At Landrecies

11. Sambre and Oise Canal

12. The Oise in Flood

13. Origny Sainte-Benoite A By-Day

14. Origny Sainte-Benoite The Company at Table

15. Down the Oise

16. La Fere of Cursed Memory

17. Down the Oise

18. Noyon Cathedral

19. Down the Oise To Compiegne

20. At Compiegne

21. Changed Times

22. Down the Oise: Church Interiors

23. Precy and the Marionnettes

24. Back to the World



Next day we made a late start in the rain. The Judge politely
escorted us to the end of the lock under an umbrella. We had now
brought ourselves to a pitch of humility in the matter of weather,
not often attained except in the Scottish Highlands. A rag of blue
sky or a glimpse of sunshine set our hearts singing; and when the
rain was not heavy, we counted the day almost fair.

Long lines of barges lay one after another along the canal; many of
them looking mighty spruce and shipshape in their jerkin of
Archangel tar picked out with white and green. Some carried gay
iron railings, and quite a parterre of flower-pots. Children
played on the decks, as heedless of the rain as if they had been
brought up on Loch Carron side; men fished over the gunwale, some
of them under umbrellas; women did their washing; and every barge
boasted its mongrel cur by way of watch-dog. Each one barked
furiously at the canoes, running alongside until he had got to the
end of his own ship, and so passing on the word to the dog aboard
the next. We must have seen something like a hundred of these
embarkations in the course of that day's paddle, ranged one after
another like the houses in a street; and from not one of them were
we disappointed of this accompaniment. It was like visiting a
menagerie, the Cigarette remarked.

These little cities by the canal side had a very odd effect upon
the mind. They seemed, with their flower-pots and smoking
chimneys, their washings and dinners, a rooted piece of nature in
the scene; and yet if only the canal below were to open, one junk
after another would hoist sail or harness horses and swim away into
all parts of France; and the impromptu hamlet would separate, house
by house, to the four winds. The children who played together to-
day by the Sambre and Oise Canal, each at his own father's
threshold, when and where might they next meet?

For some time past the subject of barges had occupied a great deal
of our talk, and we had projected an old age on the canals of
Europe. It was to be the most leisurely of progresses, now on a
swift river at the tail of a steam-boat, now waiting horses for
days together on some inconsiderable junction. We should be seen
pottering on deck in all the dignity of years, our white beards
falling into our laps. We were ever to be busied among paint-pots;
so that there should be no white fresher, and no green more emerald
than ours, in all the navy of the canals. There should be books in
the cabin, and tobacco-jars, and some old Burgundy as red as a
November sunset and as odorous as a violet in April. There should
be a flageolet, whence the Cigarette, with cunning touch, should
draw melting music under the stars; or perhaps, laying that aside,
upraise his voice--somewhat thinner than of yore, and with here and
there a quaver, or call it a natural grace-note--in rich and solemn

All this, simmering in my mind, set me wishing to go aboard one of
these ideal houses of lounging. I had plenty to choose from, as I
coasted one after another, and the dogs bayed at me for a vagrant.
At last I saw a nice old man and his wife looking at me with some
interest, so I gave them good-day and pulled up alongside. I began
with a remark upon their dog, which had somewhat the look of a
pointer; thence I slid into a compliment on Madame's flowers, and
thence into a word in praise of their way of life.

If you ventured on such an experiment in England you would get a
slap in the face at once. The life would be shown to be a vile
one, not without a side shot at your better fortune. Now, what I
like so much in France is the clear unflinching recognition by
everybody of his own luck. They all know on which side their bread
is buttered, and take a pleasure in showing it to others, which is
surely the better part of religion. And they scorn to make a poor
mouth over their poverty, which I take to be the better part of
manliness. I have heard a woman in quite a better position at
home, with a good bit of money in hand, refer to her own child with
a horrid whine as 'a poor man's child.' I would not say such a
thing to the Duke of Westminster. And the French are full of this
spirit of independence. Perhaps it is the result of republican
institutions, as they call them. Much more likely it is because
there are so few people really poor, that the whiners are not
enough to keep each other in countenance.

The people on the barge were delighted to hear that I admired their
state. They understood perfectly well, they told me, how Monsieur
envied them. Without doubt Monsieur was rich; and in that case he
might make a canal boat as pretty as a villa--joli comme un
chateau. And with that they invited me on board their own water
villa. They apologised for their cabin; they had not been rich
enough to make it as it ought to be.

'The fire should have been here, at this side.' explained the
husband. 'Then one might have a writing-table in the middle--
books--and' (comprehensively) 'all. It would be quite coquettish--
ca serait tout-a-fait coquet.' And he looked about him as though
the improvements were already made. It was plainly not the first
time that he had thus beautified his cabin in imagination; and when
next he makes a bit, I should expect to see the writing-table in
the middle.

Madame had three birds in a cage. They were no great thing, she
explained. Fine birds were so dear. They had sought to get a
Hollandais last winter in Rouen (Rouen? thought I; and is this
whole mansion, with its dogs and birds and smoking chimneys, so far
a traveller as that? and as homely an object among the cliffs and
orchards of the Seine as on the green plains of Sambre?)--they had
sought to get a Hollandais last winter in Rouen; but these cost
fifteen francs apiece--picture it--fifteen francs!

'Pour un tout petit oiseau--For quite a little bird,' added the

As I continued to admire, the apologetics died away, and the good
people began to brag of their barge, and their happy condition in
life, as if they had been Emperor and Empress of the Indies. It
was, in the Scots phrase, a good hearing, and put me in good humour
with the world. If people knew what an inspiriting thing it is to
hear a man boasting, so long as he boasts of what he really has, I
believe they would do it more freely and with a better grace.

They began to ask about our voyage. You should have seen how they
sympathised. They seemed half ready to give up their barge and
follow us. But these canaletti are only gypsies semi-domesticated.
The semi-domestication came out in rather a pretty form. Suddenly
Madam's brow darkened. 'Cependant,' she began, and then stopped;
and then began again by asking me if I were single?

'Yes,' said I.

'And your friend who went by just now?'

He also was unmarried.

O then--all was well. She could not have wives left alone at home;
but since there were no wives in the question, we were doing the
best we could.

'To see about one in the world,' said the husband, 'il n'y a que
ca--there is nothing else worth while. A man, look you, who sticks
in his own village like a bear,' he went on, '--very well, he sees
nothing. And then death is the end of all. And he has seen

Madame reminded her husband of an Englishman who had come up this
canal in a steamer.

'Perhaps Mr. Moens in the Ytene,' I suggested.

'That's it,' assented the husband. 'He had his wife and family
with him, and servants. He came ashore at all the locks and asked
the name of the villages, whether from boatmen or lock-keepers; and
then he wrote, wrote them down. Oh, he wrote enormously! I
suppose it was a wager.'

A wager was a common enough explanation for our own exploits, but
it seemed an original reason for taking notes.

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