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An Inland Voyage - On the Willebroek 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 morning, when we set forth on the Willebroek Canal, the rain
began heavy and chill. The water of the canal stood at about the
drinking temperature of tea; and under this cold aspersion, the
surface was covered with steam. The exhilaration of departure, and
the easy motion of the boats under each stroke of the paddles,
supported us through this misfortune while it lasted; and when the
cloud passed and the sun came out again, our spirits went up above
the range of stay-at-home humours. A good breeze rustled and
shivered in the rows of trees that bordered the canal. The leaves
flickered in and out of the light in tumultuous masses. It seemed
sailing weather to eye and ear; but down between the banks, the
wind reached us only in faint and desultory puffs. There was
hardly enough to steer by. Progress was intermittent and
unsatisfactory. A jocular person, of marine antecedents, hailed us
from the tow-path with a 'C'est vite, mais c'est long.'

The canal was busy enough. Every now and then we met or overtook a
long string of boats, with great green tillers; high sterns with a
window on either side of the rudder, and perhaps a jug or a flower-
pot in one of the windows; a dinghy following behind; a woman
busied about the day's dinner, and a handful of children. These
barges were all tied one behind the other with tow ropes, to the
number of twenty-five or thirty; and the line was headed and kept
in motion by a steamer of strange construction. It had neither
paddle-wheel nor screw; but by some gear not rightly comprehensible
to the unmechanical mind, it fetched up over its bow a small bright
chain which lay along the bottom of the canal, and paying it out
again over the stern, dragged itself forward, link by link, with
its whole retinue of loaded skows. Until one had found out the key
to the enigma, there was something solemn and uncomfortable in the
progress of one of these trains, as it moved gently along the water
with nothing to mark its advance but an eddy alongside dying away
into the wake.

Of all the creatures of commercial enterprise, a canal barge is by
far the most delightful to consider. It may spread its sails, and
then you see it sailing high above the tree-tops and the windmill,
sailing on the aqueduct, sailing through the green corn-lands: the
most picturesque of things amphibious. Or the horse plods along at
a foot-pace as if there were no such thing as business in the
world; and the man dreaming at the tiller sees the same spire on
the horizon all day long. It is a mystery how things ever get to
their destination at this rate; and to see the barges waiting their
turn at a lock, affords a fine lesson of how easily the world may
be taken. There should be many contented spirits on board, for
such a life is both to travel and to stay at home.

The chimney smokes for dinner as you go along; the banks of the
canal slowly unroll their scenery to contemplative eyes; the barge
floats by great forests and through great cities with their public
buildings and their lamps at night; and for the bargee, in his
floating home, 'travelling abed,' it is merely as if he were
listening to another man's story or turning the leaves of a
picture-book in which he had no concern. He may take his afternoon
walk in some foreign country on the banks of the canal, and then
come home to dinner at his own fireside.

There is not enough exercise in such a life for any high measure of
health; but a high measure of health is only necessary for
unhealthy people. The slug of a fellow, who is never ill nor well,
has a quiet time of it in life, and dies all the easier.

I am sure I would rather be a bargee than occupy any position under
heaven that required attendance at an office. There are few
callings, I should say, where a man gives up less of his liberty in
return for regular meals. The bargee is on shipboard--he is master
in his own ship--he can land whenever he will--he can never be kept
beating off a lee-shore a whole frosty night when the sheets are as
hard as iron; and so far as I can make out, time stands as nearly
still with him as is compatible with the return of bed-time or the
dinner-hour. It is not easy to see why a bargee should ever die.

Half-way between Willebroek and Villevorde, in a beautiful reach of
canal like a squire's avenue, we went ashore to lunch. There were
two eggs, a junk of bread, and a bottle of wine on board the
Arethusa; and two eggs and an Etna cooking apparatus on board the
Cigarette. The master of the latter boat smashed one of the eggs
in the course of disembarkation; but observing pleasantly that it
might still be cooked a la papier, he dropped it into the Etna, in
its covering of Flemish newspaper. We landed in a blink of fine
weather; but we had not been two minutes ashore before the wind
freshened into half a gale, and the rain began to patter on our
shoulders. We sat as close about the Etna as we could. The
spirits burned with great ostentation; the grass caught flame every
minute or two, and had to be trodden out; and before long, there
were several burnt fingers of the party. But the solid quantity of
cookery accomplished was out of proportion with so much display;
and when we desisted, after two applications of the fire, the sound
egg was little more than loo-warm; and as for a la papier, it was a
cold and sordid fricassee of printer's ink and broken egg-shell.
We made shift to roast the other two, by putting them close to the
burning spirits; and that with better success. And then we
uncorked the bottle of wine, and sat down in a ditch with our canoe
aprons over our knees. It rained smartly. Discomfort, when it is
honestly uncomfortable and makes no nauseous pretensions to the
contrary, is a vastly humorous business; and people well steeped
and stupefied in the open air are in a good vein for laughter.
From this point of view, even egg a la papier offered by way of
food may pass muster as a sort of accessory to the fun. But this
manner of jest, although it may be taken in good part, does not
invite repetition; and from that time forward, the Etna voyaged
like a gentleman in the locker of the Cigarette.

It is almost unnecessary to mention that when lunch was over and we
got aboard again and made sail, the wind promptly died away. The
rest of the journey to Villevorde, we still spread our canvas to
the unfavouring air; and with now and then a puff, and now and then
a spell of paddling, drifted along from lock to lock, between the
orderly trees.

It was a fine, green, fat landscape; or rather a mere green water-
lane, going on from village to village. Things had a settled look,
as in places long lived in. Crop-headed children spat upon us from
the bridges as we went below, with a true conservative feeling.
But even more conservative were the fishermen, intent upon their
floats, who let us go by without one glance. They perched upon
sterlings and buttresses and along the slope of the embankment,
gently occupied. They were indifferent, like pieces of dead
nature. They did not move any more than if they had been fishing
in an old Dutch print. The leaves fluttered, the water lapped, but
they continued in one stay like so many churches established by
law. You might have trepanned every one of their innocent heads,
and found no more than so much coiled fishing-line below their
skulls. I do not care for your stalwart fellows in india-rubber
stockings breasting up mountain torrents with a salmon rod; but I
do dearly love the class of man who plies his unfruitful art, for
ever and a day, by still and depopulated waters.

At the last lock, just beyond Villevorde, there was a lock-mistress
who spoke French comprehensibly, and told us we were still a couple
of leagues from Brussels. At the same place, the rain began again.
It fell in straight, parallel lines; and the surface of the canal
was thrown up into an infinity of little crystal fountains. There
were no beds to be had in the neighbourhood. Nothing for it but to
lay the sails aside and address ourselves to steady paddling in the

Beautiful country houses, with clocks and long lines of shuttered
windows, and fine old trees standing in groves and avenues, gave a
rich and sombre aspect in the rain and the deepening dusk to the
shores of the canal. I seem to have seen something of the same
effect in engravings: opulent landscapes, deserted and overhung
with the passage of storm. And throughout we had the escort of a
hooded cart, which trotted shabbily along the tow-path, and kept at
an almost uniform distance in our wake.

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