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Home -> Robert Louis Stevenson -> An Inland Voyage -> Changed Times

An Inland Voyage - Changed Times

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


There is a sense in which those mists never rose from off our
journey; and from that time forth they lie very densely in my note-
book. As long as the Oise was a small rural river, it took us near
by people's doors, and we could hold a conversation with natives in
the riparian fields. But now that it had grown so wide, the life
along shore passed us by at a distance. It was the same difference
as between a great public highway and a country by-path that
wanders in and out of cottage gardens. We now lay in towns, where
nobody troubled us with questions; we had floated into civilised
life, where people pass without salutation. In sparsely inhabited
places, we make all we can of each encounter; but when it comes to
a city, we keep to ourselves, and never speak unless we have
trodden on a man's toes. In these waters we were no longer strange
birds, and nobody supposed we had travelled farther than from the
last town. I remember, when we came into L'Isle Adam, for
instance, how we met dozens of pleasure-boats outing it for the
afternoon, and there was nothing to distinguish the true voyager
from the amateur, except, perhaps, the filthy condition of my sail.
The company in one boat actually thought they recognised me for a
neighbour. Was there ever anything more wounding? All the romance
had come down to that. Now, on the upper Oise, where nothing
sailed as a general thing but fish, a pair of canoeists could not
be thus vulgarly explained away; we were strange and picturesque
intruders; and out of people's wonder sprang a sort of light and
passing intimacy all along our route. There is nothing but tit-
for-tat in this world, though sometimes it be a little difficult to
trace: for the scores are older than we ourselves, and there has
never yet been a settling-day since things were. You get
entertainment pretty much in proportion as you give. As long as we
were a sort of odd wanderers, to be stared at and followed like a
quack doctor or a caravan, we had no want of amusement in return;
but as soon as we sank into commonplace ourselves, all whom we met
were similarly disenchanted. And here is one reason of a dozen,
why the world is dull to dull persons.

In our earlier adventures there was generally something to do, and
that quickened us. Even the showers of rain had a revivifying
effect, and shook up the brain from torpor. But now, when the
river no longer ran in a proper sense, only glided seaward with an
even, outright, but imperceptible speed, and when the sky smiled
upon us day after day without variety, we began to slip into that
golden doze of the mind which follows upon much exercise in the
open air. I have stupefied myself in this way more than once;
indeed, I dearly love the feeling; but I never had it to the same
degree as when paddling down the Oise. It was the apotheosis of

We ceased reading entirely. Sometimes when I found a new paper, I
took a particular pleasure in reading a single number of the
current novel; but I never could bear more than three instalments;
and even the second was a disappointment. As soon as the tale
became in any way perspicuous, it lost all merit in my eyes; only a
single scene, or, as is the way with these feuilletons, half a
scene, without antecedent or consequence, like a piece of a dream,
had the knack of fixing my interest. The less I saw of the novel,
the better I liked it: a pregnant reflection. But for the most
part, as I said, we neither of us read anything in the world, and
employed the very little while we were awake between bed and dinner
in poring upon maps. I have always been fond of maps, and can
voyage in an atlas with the greatest enjoyment. The names of
places are singularly inviting; the contour of coasts and rivers is
enthralling to the eye; and to hit, in a map, upon some place you
have heard of before, makes history a new possession. But we
thumbed our charts, on these evenings, with the blankest unconcern.
We cared not a fraction for this place or that. We stared at the
sheet as children listen to their rattle; and read the names of
towns or villages to forget them again at once. We had no romance
in the matter; there was nobody so fancy-free. If you had taken
the maps away while we were studying them most intently, it is a
fair bet whether we might not have continued to study the table
with the same delight.

About one thing we were mightily taken up, and that was eating. I
think I made a god of my belly. I remember dwelling in imagination
upon this or that dish till my mouth watered; and long before we
got in for the night my appetite was a clamant, instant annoyance.
Sometimes we paddled alongside for a while and whetted each other
with gastronomical fancies as we went. Cake and sherry, a homely
rejection, but not within reach upon the Oise, trotted through my
head for many a mile; and once, as we were approaching Verberie,
the Cigarette brought my heart into my mouth by the suggestion of
oyster-patties and Sauterne.

I suppose none of us recognise the great part that is played in
life by eating and drinking. The appetite is so imperious that we
can stomach the least interesting viands, and pass off a dinner-
hour thankfully enough on bread and water; just as there are men
who must read something, if it were only Bradshaw's Guide. But
there is a romance about the matter after all. Probably the table
has more devotees than love; and I am sure that food is much more
generally entertaining than scenery. Do you give in, as Walt
Whitman would say, that you are any the less immortal for that?
The true materialism is to be ashamed of what we are. To detect
the flavour of an olive is no less a piece of human perfection than
to find beauty in the colours of the sunset.

Canoeing was easy work. To dip the paddle at the proper
inclination, now right, now left; to keep the head down stream; to
empty the little pool that gathered in the lap of the apron; to
screw up the eyes against the glittering sparkles of sun upon the
water; or now and again to pass below the whistling tow-rope of the
Deo Gratias of Conde, or the Four Sons of Aymon--there was not much
art in that; certain silly muscles managed it between sleep and
waking; and meanwhile the brain had a whole holiday, and went to
sleep. We took in, at a glance, the larger features of the scene;
and beheld, with half an eye, bloused fishers and dabbling
washerwomen on the bank. Now and again we might be half-wakened by
some church spire, by a leaping fish, or by a trail of river grass
that clung about the paddle and had to be plucked off and thrown
away. But these luminous intervals were only partially luminous.
A little more of us was called into action, but never the whole.
The central bureau of nerves, what in some moods we call Ourselves,
enjoyed its holiday without disturbance, like a Government Office.
The great wheels of intelligence turned idly in the head, like fly-
wheels, grinding no grist. I have gone on for half an hour at a
time, counting my strokes and forgetting the hundreds. I flatter
myself the beasts that perish could not underbid that, as a low
form of consciousness. And what a pleasure it was! What a hearty,
tolerant temper did it bring about! There is nothing captious
about a man who has attained to this, the one possible apotheosis
in life, the Apotheosis of Stupidity; and he begins to feel
dignified and longaevous like a tree.

There was one odd piece of practical metaphysics which accompanied
what I may call the depth, if I must not call it the intensity, of
my abstraction. What philosophers call ME and NOT-ME, EGO and NON
EGO, preoccupied me whether I would or no. There was less ME and
more NOT-ME than I was accustomed to expect. I looked on upon
somebody else, who managed the paddling; I was aware of somebody
else's feet against the stretcher; my own body seemed to have no
more intimate relation to me than the canoe, or the river, or the
river banks. Nor this alone: something inside my mind, a part of
my brain, a province of my proper being, had thrown off allegiance
and set up for itself, or perhaps for the somebody else who did the
paddling. I had dwindled into quite a little thing in a corner of
myself. I was isolated in my own skull. Thoughts presented
themselves unbidden; they were not my thoughts, they were plainly
some one else's; and I considered them like a part of the
landscape. I take it, in short, that I was about as near Nirvana
as would be convenient in practical life; and if this be so, I make
the Buddhists my sincere compliments; 'tis an agreeable state, not
very consistent with mental brilliancy, not exactly profitable in a
money point of view, but very calm, golden, and incurious, and one
that sets a man superior to alarms. It may be best figured by
supposing yourself to get dead drunk, and yet keep sober to enjoy
it. I have a notion that open-air labourers must spend a large
portion of their days in this ecstatic stupor, which explains their
high composure and endurance. A pity to go to the expense of
laudanum, when here is a better paradise for nothing!

This frame of mind was the great exploit of our voyage, take it all
in all. It was the farthest piece of travel accomplished. Indeed,
it lies so far from beaten paths of language, that I despair of
getting the reader into sympathy with the smiling, complacent
idiocy of my condition; when ideas came and went like motes in a
sunbeam; when trees and church spires along the bank surged up,
from time to time into my notice, like solid objects through a
rolling cloudland; when the rhythmical swish of boat and paddle in
the water became a cradle-song to lull my thoughts asleep; when a
piece of mud on the deck was sometimes an intolerable eyesore, and
sometimes quite a companion for me, and the object of pleased
consideration;--and all the time, with the river running and the
shores changing upon either hand, I kept counting my strokes and
forgetting the hundreds, the happiest animal in France.

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