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Home -> Robert Louis Stevenson -> An Inland Voyage -> Down the Oise

An Inland Voyage - Down the Oise

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



Carnival notoriously cheated us at first. Finding us easy in our
ways, he regretted having let us off so cheaply; and taking me
aside, told me a cock-and-bull story with the moral of another five
francs for the narrator. The thing was palpably absurd; but I paid
up, and at once dropped all friendliness of manner, and kept him in
his place as an inferior with freezing British dignity. He saw in
a moment that he had gone too far, and killed a willing horse; his
face fell; I am sure he would have refunded if he could only have
thought of a decent pretext. He wished me to drink with him, but I
would none of his drinks. He grew pathetically tender in his
professions; but I walked beside him in silence or answered him in
stately courtesies; and when we got to the landing-place, passed
the word in English slang to the Cigarette.

In spite of the false scent we had thrown out the day before, there
must have been fifty people about the bridge. We were as pleasant
as we could be with all but Carnival. We said good-bye, shaking
hands with the old gentleman who knew the river and the young
gentleman who had a smattering of English; but never a word for
Carnival. Poor Carnival! here was a humiliation. He who had been
so much identified with the canoes, who had given orders in our
name, who had shown off the boats and even the boatmen like a
private exhibition of his own, to be now so publicly shamed by the
lions of his caravan! I never saw anybody look more crestfallen
than he. He hung in the background, coming timidly forward ever
and again as he thought he saw some symptom of a relenting humour,
and falling hurriedly back when he encountered a cold stare. Let
us hope it will be a lesson to him.

I would not have mentioned Carnival's peccadillo had not the thing
been so uncommon in France. This, for instance, was the only case
of dishonesty or even sharp practice in our whole voyage. We talk
very much about our honesty in England. It is a good rule to be on
your guard wherever you hear great professions about a very little
piece of virtue. If the English could only hear how they are
spoken of abroad, they might confine themselves for a while to
remedying the fact; and perhaps even when that was done, give us
fewer of their airs.

The young ladies, the graces of Origny, were not present at our
start, but when we got round to the second bridge, behold, it was
black with sightseers! We were loudly cheered, and for a good way
below, young lads and lasses ran along the bank still cheering.
What with current and paddling, we were flashing along like
swallows. It was no joke to keep up with us upon the woody shore.
But the girls picked up their skirts, as if they were sure they had
good ankles, and followed until their breath was out. The last to
weary were the three graces and a couple of companions; and just as
they too had had enough, the foremost of the three leaped upon a
tree-stump and kissed her hand to the canoeists. Not Diana
herself, although this was more of a Venus after all, could have
done a graceful thing more gracefully. 'Come back again!' she
cried; and all the others echoed her; and the hills about Origny
repeated the words, 'Come back.' But the river had us round an
angle in a twinkling, and we were alone with the green trees and
running water.

Come back? There is no coming back, young ladies, on the impetuous
stream of life.

'The merchant bows unto the seaman's star,
The ploughman from the sun his season takes.'

And we must all set our pocket-watches by the clock of fate. There
is a headlong, forthright tide, that bears away man with his
fancies like a straw, and runs fast in time and space. It is full
of curves like this, your winding river of the Oise; and lingers
and returns in pleasant pastorals; and yet, rightly thought upon,
never returns at all. For though it should revisit the same acre
of meadow in the same hour, it will have made an ample sweep
between-whiles; many little streams will have fallen in; many
exhalations risen towards the sun; and even although it were the
same acre, it will no more be the same river of Oise. And thus, O
graces of Origny, although the wandering fortune of my life should
carry me back again to where you await death's whistle by the
river, that will not be the old I who walks the street; and those
wives and mothers, say, will those be you?

There was never any mistake about the Oise, as a matter of fact.
In these upper reaches it was still in a prodigious hurry for the
sea. It ran so fast and merrily, through all the windings of its
channel, that I strained my thumb, fighting with the rapids, and
had to paddle all the rest of the way with one hand turned up.
Sometimes it had to serve mills; and being still a little river,
ran very dry and shallow in the meanwhile. We had to put our legs
out of the boat, and shove ourselves off the sand of the bottom
with our feet. And still it went on its way singing among the
poplars, and making a green valley in the world. After a good
woman, and a good book, and tobacco, there is nothing so agreeable
on earth as a river. I forgave it its attempt on my life; which
was after all one part owing to the unruly winds of heaven that had
blown down the tree, one part to my own mismanagement, and only a
third part to the river itself, and that not out of malice, but
from its great preoccupation over its business of getting to the
sea. A difficult business, too; for the detours it had to make are
not to be counted. The geographers seem to have given up the
attempt; for I found no map represent the infinite contortion of
its course. A fact will say more than any of them. After we had
been some hours, three if I mistake not, flitting by the trees at
this smooth, break-neck gallop, when we came upon a hamlet and
asked where we were, we had got no farther than four kilometres
(say two miles and a half) from Origny. If it were not for the
honour of the thing (in the Scots saying), we might almost as well
have been standing still.

We lunched on a meadow inside a parallelogram of poplars. The
leaves danced and prattled in the wind all round about us. The
river hurried on meanwhile, and seemed to chide at our delay.
Little we cared. The river knew where it was going; not so we:
the less our hurry, where we found good quarters and a pleasant
theatre for a pipe. At that hour, stockbrokers were shouting in
Paris Bourse for two or three per cent.; but we minded them as
little as the sliding stream, and sacrificed a hecatomb of minutes
to the gods of tobacco and digestion. Hurry is the resource of the
faithless. Where a man can trust his own heart, and those of his
friends, to-morrow is as good as to-day. And if he die in the
meanwhile, why then, there he dies, and the question is solved.

We had to take to the canal in the course of the afternoon;
because, where it crossed the river, there was, not a bridge, but a
siphon. If it had not been for an excited fellow on the bank, we
should have paddled right into the siphon, and thenceforward not
paddled any more. We met a man, a gentleman, on the tow-path, who
was much interested in our cruise. And I was witness to a strange
seizure of lying suffered by the Cigarette: who, because his knife
came from Norway, narrated all sorts of adventures in that country,
where he has never been. He was quite feverish at the end, and
pleaded demoniacal possession.

Moy (pronounce Moy) was a pleasant little village, gathered round a
chateau in a moat. The air was perfumed with hemp from
neighbouring fields. At the Golden Sheep we found excellent
entertainment. German shells from the siege of La Fere, Nurnberg
figures, gold-fish in a bowl, and all manner of knick-knacks,
embellished the public room. The landlady was a stout, plain,
short-sighted, motherly body, with something not far short of a
genius for cookery. She had a guess of her excellence herself.
After every dish was sent in, she would come and look on at the
dinner for a while, with puckered, blinking eyes. 'C'est bon,
n'est-ce pas?' she would say; and when she had received a proper
answer, she disappeared into the kitchen. That common French dish,
partridge and cabbages, became a new thing in my eyes at the Golden
Sheep; and many subsequent dinners have bitterly disappointed me in
consequence. Sweet was our rest in the Golden Sheep at Moy.

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