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Home -> Robert Louis Stevenson -> An Inland Voyage -> At Compiegne

An Inland Voyage - At Compiegne

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


We put up at a big, bustling hotel in Compiegne, where nobody
observed our presence.

Reservery and general militarismus (as the Germans call it) were
rampant. A camp of conical white tents without the town looked
like a leaf out of a picture Bible; sword-belts decorated the walls
of the cafes; and the streets kept sounding all day long with
military music. It was not possible to be an Englishman and avoid
a feeling of elation; for the men who followed the drums were
small, and walked shabbily. Each man inclined at his own angle,
and jolted to his own convenience, as he went. There was nothing
of the superb gait with which a regiment of tall Highlanders moves
behind its music, solemn and inevitable, like a natural phenomenon.
Who that has seen it can forget the drum-major pacing in front, the
drummers' tiger-skins, the pipers' swinging plaids, the strange
elastic rhythm of the whole regiment footing it in time--and the
bang of the drum, when the brasses cease, and the shrill pipes take
up the martial story in their place?

A girl, at school in France, began to describe one of our regiments
on parade to her French schoolmates; and as she went on, she told
me, the recollection grew so vivid, she became so proud to be the
countrywoman of such soldiers, and so sorry to be in another
country, that her voice failed her and she burst into tears. I
have never forgotten that girl; and I think she very nearly
deserves a statue. To call her a young lady, with all its niminy
associations, would be to offer her an insult. She may rest
assured of one thing: although she never should marry a heroic
general, never see any great or immediate result of her life, she
will not have lived in vain for her native land.

But though French soldiers show to ill advantage on parade, on the
march they are gay, alert, and willing like a troop of fox-hunters.
I remember once seeing a company pass through the forest of
Fontainebleau, on the Chailly road, between the Bas Breau and the
Reine Blanche. One fellow walked a little before the rest, and
sang a loud, audacious marching song. The rest bestirred their
feet, and even swung their muskets in time. A young officer on
horseback had hard ado to keep his countenance at the words. You
never saw anything so cheerful and spontaneous as their gait;
schoolboys do not look more eagerly at hare and hounds; and you
would have thought it impossible to tire such willing marchers.

My great delight in Compiegne was the town-hall. I doted upon the
town-hall. It is a monument of Gothic insecurity, all turreted,
and gargoyled, and slashed, and bedizened with half a score of
architectural fancies. Some of the niches are gilt and painted;
and in a great square panel in the centre, in black relief on a
gilt ground, Louis XII. rides upon a pacing horse, with hand on hip
and head thrown back. There is royal arrogance in every line of
him; the stirruped foot projects insolently from the frame; the eye
is hard and proud; the very horse seems to be treading with
gratification over prostrate serfs, and to have the breath of the
trumpet in his nostrils. So rides for ever, on the front of the
town-hall, the good king Louis XII., the father of his people.

Over the king's head, in the tall centre turret, appears the dial
of a clock; and high above that, three little mechanical figures,
each one with a hammer in his hand, whose business it is to chime
out the hours and halves and quarters for the burgesses of
Compiegne. The centre figure has a gilt breast-plate; the two
others wear gilt trunk-hose; and they all three have elegant,
flapping hats like cavaliers. As the quarter approaches, they turn
their heads and look knowingly one to the other; and then, kling go
the three hammers on three little bells below. The hour follows,
deep and sonorous, from the interior of the tower; and the gilded
gentlemen rest from their labours with contentment.

I had a great deal of healthy pleasure from their manoeuvres, and
took good care to miss as few performances as possible; and I found
that even the Cigarette, while he pretended to despise my
enthusiasm, was more or less a devotee himself. There is something
highly absurd in the exposition of such toys to the outrages of
winter on a housetop. They would be more in keeping in a glass
case before a Nurnberg clock. Above all, at night, when the
children are abed, and even grown people are snoring under quilts,
does it not seem impertinent to leave these ginger-bread figures
winking and tinkling to the stars and the rolling moon? The
gargoyles may fitly enough twist their ape-like heads; fitly enough
may the potentate bestride his charger, like a centurion in an old
German print of the Via Dolorosa; but the toys should be put away
in a box among some cotton, until the sun rises, and the children
are abroad again to be amused.

In Compiegne post-office a great packet of letters awaited us; and
the authorities were, for this occasion only, so polite as to hand
them over upon application.

In some ways, our journey may be said to end with this letter-bag
at Compiegne. The spell was broken. We had partly come home from
that moment.

No one should have any correspondence on a journey; it is bad
enough to have to write; but the receipt of letters is the death of
all holiday feeling.

'Out of my country and myself I go.' I wish to take a dive among
new conditions for a while, as into another element. I have
nothing to do with my friends or my affections for the time; when I
came away, I left my heart at home in a desk, or sent it forward
with my portmanteau to await me at my destination. After my
journey is over, I shall not fail to read your admirable letters
with the attention they deserve. But I have paid all this money,
look you, and paddled all these strokes, for no other purpose than
to be abroad; and yet you keep me at home with your perpetual
communications. You tug the string, and I feel that I am a
tethered bird. You pursue me all over Europe with the little
vexations that I came away to avoid. There is no discharge in the
war of life, I am well aware; but shall there not be so much as a
week's furlough?

We were up by six, the day we were to leave. They had taken so
little note of us that I hardly thought they would have
condescended on a bill. But they did, with some smart particulars
too; and we paid in a civilised manner to an uninterested clerk,
and went out of that hotel, with the india-rubber bags, unremarked.
No one cared to know about us. It is not possible to rise before a
village; but Compiegne was so grown a town, that it took its ease
in the morning; and we were up and away while it was still in
dressing-gown and slippers. The streets were left to people
washing door-steps; nobody was in full dress but the cavaliers upon
the town-hall; they were all washed with dew, spruce in their
gilding, and full of intelligence and a sense of professional
responsibility. Kling went they on the bells for the half-past six
as we went by. I took it kind of them to make me this parting
compliment; they never were in better form, not even at noon upon a

There was no one to see us off but the early washerwomen--early and
late--who were already beating the linen in their floating lavatory
on the river. They were very merry and matutinal in their ways;
plunged their arms boldly in, and seemed not to feel the shock. It
would be dispiriting to me, this early beginning and first cold
dabble of a most dispiriting day's work. But I believe they would
have been as unwilling to change days with us as we could be to
change with them. They crowded to the door to watch us paddle away
into the thin sunny mists upon the river; and shouted heartily
after us till we were through the bridge.

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