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

An Inland Voyage - Down the Oise: Church Interiors

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 made our first stage below Compiegne to Pont Sainte Maxence. I
was abroad a little after six the next morning. The air was
biting, and smelt of frost. In an open place a score of women
wrangled together over the day's market; and the noise of their
negotiation sounded thin and querulous like that of sparrows on a
winter's morning. The rare passengers blew into their hands, and
shuffled in their wooden shoes to set the blood agog. The streets
were full of icy shadow, although the chimneys were smoking
overhead in golden sunshine. If you wake early enough at this
season of the year, you may get up in December to break your fast
in June.

I found my way to the church; for there is always something to see
about a church, whether living worshippers or dead men's tombs; you
find there the deadliest earnest, and the hollowest deceit; and
even where it is not a piece of history, it will be certain to leak
out some contemporary gossip. It was scarcely so cold in the
church as it was without, but it looked colder. The white nave was
positively arctic to the eye; and the tawdriness of a continental
altar looked more forlorn than usual in the solitude and the bleak
air. Two priests sat in the chancel, reading and waiting
penitents; and out in the nave, one very old woman was engaged in
her devotions. It was a wonder how she was able to pass her beads
when healthy young people were breathing in their palms and
slapping their chest; but though this concerned me, I was yet more
dispirited by the nature of her exercises. She went from chair to
chair, from altar to altar, circumnavigating the church. To each
shrine she dedicated an equal number of beads and an equal length
of time. Like a prudent capitalist with a somewhat cynical view of
the commercial prospect, she desired to place her supplications in
a great variety of heavenly securities. She would risk nothing on
the credit of any single intercessor. Out of the whole company of
saints and angels, not one but was to suppose himself her champion
elect against the Great Assize! I could only think of it as a
dull, transparent jugglery, based upon unconscious unbelief.

She was as dead an old woman as ever I saw; no more than bone and
parchment, curiously put together. Her eyes, with which she
interrogated mine, were vacant of sense. It depends on what you
call seeing, whether you might not call her blind. Perhaps she had
known love: perhaps borne children, suckled them and given them
pet names. But now that was all gone by, and had left her neither
happier nor wiser; and the best she could do with her mornings was
to come up here into the cold church and juggle for a slice of
heaven. It was not without a gulp that I escaped into the streets
and the keen morning air. Morning? why, how tired of it she would
be before night! and if she did not sleep, how then? It is
fortunate that not many of us are brought up publicly to justify
our lives at the bar of threescore years and ten; fortunate that
such a number are knocked opportunely on the head in what they call
the flower of their years, and go away to suffer for their follies
in private somewhere else. Otherwise, between sick children and
discontented old folk, we might be put out of all conceit of life.

I had need of all my cerebral hygiene during that day's paddle:
the old devotee stuck in my throat sorely. But I was soon in the
seventh heaven of stupidity; and knew nothing but that somebody was
paddling a canoe, while I was counting his strokes and forgetting
the hundreds. I used sometimes to be afraid I should remember the
hundreds; which would have made a toil of a pleasure; but the
terror was chimerical, they went out of my mind by enchantment, and
I knew no more than the man in the moon about my only occupation.

At Creil, where we stopped to lunch, we left the canoes in another
floating lavatory, which, as it was high noon, was packed with
washerwomen, red-handed and loud-voiced; and they and their broad
jokes are about all I remember of the place. I could look up my
history-books, if you were very anxious, and tell you a date or
two; for it figured rather largely in the English wars. But I
prefer to mention a girls' boarding-school, which had an interest
for us because it was a girls' boarding-school, and because we
imagined we had rather an interest for it. At least--there were
the girls about the garden; and here were we on the river; and
there was more than one handkerchief waved as we went by. It
caused quite a stir in my heart; and yet how we should have wearied
and despised each other, these girls and I, if we had been
introduced at a croquet-party! But this is a fashion I love: to
kiss the hand or wave a handkerchief to people I shall never see
again, to play with possibility, and knock in a peg for fancy to
hang upon. It gives the traveller a jog, reminds him that he is
not a traveller everywhere, and that his journey is no more than a
siesta by the way on the real march of life.

The church at Creil was a nondescript place in the inside, splashed
with gaudy lights from the windows, and picked out with medallions
of the Dolorous Way. But there was one oddity, in the way of an ex
voto, which pleased me hugely: a faithful model of a canal boat,
swung from the vault, with a written aspiration that God should
conduct the Saint Nicolas of Creil to a good haven. The thing was
neatly executed, and would have made the delight of a party of boys
on the waterside. But what tickled me was the gravity of the peril
to be conjured. You might hang up the model of a sea-going ship,
and welcome: one that is to plough a furrow round the world, and
visit the tropic or the frosty poles, runs dangers that are well
worth a candle and a mass. But the Saint Nicolas of Creil, which
was to be tugged for some ten years by patient draught-horses, in a
weedy canal, with the poplars chattering overhead, and the skipper
whistling at the tiller; which was to do all its errands in green
inland places, and never get out of sight of a village belfry in
all its cruising; why, you would have thought if anything could be
done without the intervention of Providence, it would be that! But
perhaps the skipper was a humorist: or perhaps a prophet,
reminding people of the seriousness of life by this preposterous

At Creil, as at Noyon, Saint Joseph seemed a favourite saint on the
score of punctuality. Day and hour can be specified; and grateful
people do not fail to specify them on a votive tablet, when prayers
have been punctually and neatly answered. Whenever time is a
consideration, Saint Joseph is the proper intermediary. I took a
sort of pleasure in observing the vogue he had in France, for the
good man plays a very small part in my religion at home. Yet I
could not help fearing that, where the Saint is so much commanded
for exactitude, he will be expected to be very grateful for his

This is foolishness to us Protestants; and not of great importance
anyway. Whether people's gratitude for the good gifts that come to
them be wisely conceived or dutifully expressed, is a secondary
matter, after all, so long as they feel gratitude. The true
ignorance is when a man does not know that he has received a good
gift, or begins to imagine that he has got it for himself. The
self-made man is the funniest windbag after all! There is a marked
difference between decreeing light in chaos, and lighting the gas
in a metropolitan back-parlour with a box of patent matches; and do
what we will, there is always something made to our hand, if it
were only our fingers.

But there was something worse than foolishness placarded in Creil
Church. The Association of the Living Rosary (of which I had never
previously heard) is responsible for that. This Association was
founded, according to the printed advertisement, by a brief of Pope
Gregory Sixteenth, on the 17th of January 1832: according to a
coloured bas-relief, it seems to have been founded, sometime other,
by the Virgin giving one rosary to Saint Dominic, and the Infant
Saviour giving another to Saint Catharine of Siena. Pope Gregory
is not so imposing, but he is nearer hand. I could not distinctly
make out whether the Association was entirely devotional, or had an
eye to good works; at least it is highly organised: the names of
fourteen matrons and misses were filled in for each week of the
month as associates, with one other, generally a married woman, at
the top for zelatrice: the leader of the band. Indulgences,
plenary and partial, follow on the performance of the duties of the
Association. 'The partial indulgences are attached to the
recitation of the rosary.' On 'the recitation of the required
dizaine,' a partial indulgence promptly follows. When people serve
the kingdom of heaven with a pass-book in their hands, I should
always be afraid lest they should carry the same commercial spirit
into their dealings with their fellow-men, which would make a sad
and sordid business of this life.

There is one more article, however, of happier import. 'All these
indulgences,' it appeared, 'are applicable to souls in purgatory.'
For God's sake, ye ladies of Creil, apply them all to the souls in
purgatory without delay! Burns would take no hire for his last
songs, preferring to serve his country out of unmixed love.
Suppose you were to imitate the exciseman, mesdames, and even if
the souls in purgatory were not greatly bettered, some souls in
Creil upon the Oise would find themselves none the worse either
here or hereafter.

I cannot help wondering, as I transcribe these notes, whether a
Protestant born and bred is in a fit state to understand these
signs, and do them what justice they deserve; and I cannot help
answering that he is not. They cannot look so merely ugly and mean
to the faithful as they do to me. I see that as clearly as a
proposition in Euclid. For these believers are neither weak nor
wicked. They can put up their tablet commanding Saint Joseph for
his despatch, as if he were still a village carpenter; they can
'recite the required dizaine,' and metaphorically pocket the
indulgence, as if they had done a job for Heaven; and then they can
go out and look down unabashed upon this wonderful river flowing
by, and up without confusion at the pin-point stars, which are
themselves great worlds full of flowing rivers greater than the
Oise. I see it as plainly, I say, as a proposition in Euclid, that
my Protestant mind has missed the point, and that there goes with
these deformities some higher and more religious spirit than I

I wonder if other people would make the same allowances for me!
Like the ladies of Creil, having recited my rosary of toleration, I
look for my indulgence on the spot.

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