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Home -> Robert Louis Stevenson -> An Inland Voyage -> The Royal Sport Nautique

An Inland Voyage - The Royal Sport Nautique

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


The rain took off near Laeken. But the sun was already down; the
air was chill; and we had scarcely a dry stitch between the pair of
us. Nay, now we found ourselves near the end of the Allee Verte,
and on the very threshold of Brussels, we were confronted by a
serious difficulty. The shores were closely lined by canal boats
waiting their turn at the lock. Nowhere was there any convenient
landing-place; nowhere so much as a stable-yard to leave the canoes
in for the night. We scrambled ashore and entered an estaminet
where some sorry fellows were drinking with the landlord. The
landlord was pretty round with us; he knew of no coach-house or
stable-yard, nothing of the sort; and seeing we had come with no
mind to drink, he did not conceal his impatience to be rid of us.
One of the sorry fellows came to the rescue. Somewhere in the
corner of the basin there was a slip, he informed us, and something
else besides, not very clearly defined by him, but hopefully
construed by his hearers.

Sure enough there was the slip in the corner of the basin; and at
the top of it two nice-looking lads in boating clothes. The
Arethusa addressed himself to these. One of them said there would
be no difficulty about a night's lodging for our boats; and the
other, taking a cigarette from his lips, inquired if they were made
by Searle and Son. The name was quite an introduction. Half-a-
dozen other young men came out of a boat-house bearing the
superscription ROYAL SPORT NAUTIQUE, and joined in the talk. They
were all very polite, voluble, and enthusiastic; and their
discourse was interlarded with English boating terms, and the names
of English boat-builders and English clubs. I do not know, to my
shame, any spot in my native land where I should have been so
warmly received by the same number of people. We were English
boating-men, and the Belgian boating-men fell upon our necks. I
wonder if French Huguenots were as cordially greeted by English
Protestants when they came across the Channel out of great
tribulation. But after all, what religion knits people so closely
as a common sport?

The canoes were carried into the boat-house; they were washed down
for us by the Club servants, the sails were hung out to dry, and
everything made as snug and tidy as a picture. And in the
meanwhile we were led upstairs by our new-found brethren, for so
more than one of them stated the relationship, and made free of
their lavatory. This one lent us soap, that one a towel, a third
and fourth helped us to undo our bags. And all the time such
questions, such assurances of respect and sympathy! I declare I
never knew what glory was before.

'Yes, yes, the Royal Sport Nautique is the oldest club in Belgium.'

'We number two hundred.'

'We'--this is not a substantive speech, but an abstract of many
speeches, the impression left upon my mind after a great deal of
talk; and very youthful, pleasant, natural, and patriotic it seems
to me to be--'We have gained all races, except those where we were
cheated by the French.'

'You must leave all your wet things to be dried.'

'O! entre freres! In any boat-house in England we should find the
same.' (I cordially hope they might.)

'En Angleterre, vous employez des sliding-seats, n'est-ce pas?'

'We are all employed in commerce during the day; but in the
evening, voyez-vous, nous sommes serieux.'

These were the words. They were all employed over the frivolous
mercantile concerns of Belgium during the day; but in the evening
they found some hours for the serious concerns of life. I may have
a wrong idea of wisdom, but I think that was a very wise remark.
People connected with literature and philosophy are busy all their
days in getting rid of second-hand notions and false standards. It
is their profession, in the sweat of their brows, by dogged
thinking, to recover their old fresh view of life, and distinguish
what they really and originally like, from what they have only
learned to tolerate perforce. And these Royal Nautical Sportsmen
had the distinction still quite legible in their hearts. They had
still those clean perceptions of what is nice and nasty, what is
interesting and what is dull, which envious old gentlemen refer to
as illusions. The nightmare illusion of middle age, the bear's hug
of custom gradually squeezing the life out of a man's soul, had not
yet begun for these happy-starred young Belgians. They still knew
that the interest they took in their business was a trifling affair
compared to their spontaneous, long-suffering affection for
nautical sports. To know what you prefer, instead of humbly saying
Amen to what the world tells you you ought to prefer, is to have
kept your soul alive. Such a man may be generous; he may be honest
in something more than the commercial sense; he may love his
friends with an elective, personal sympathy, and not accept them as
an adjunct of the station to which he has been called. He may be a
man, in short, acting on his own instincts, keeping in his own
shape that God made him in; and not a mere crank in the social
engine-house, welded on principles that he does not understand, and
for purposes that he does not care for.

For will any one dare to tell me that business is more entertaining
than fooling among boats? He must have never seen a boat, or never
seen an office, who says so. And for certain the one is a great
deal better for the health. There should be nothing so much a
man's business as his amusements. Nothing but money-grubbing can
be put forward to the contrary; no one but

Mammon, the least erected spirit that fell
From Heaven,

durst risk a word in answer. It is but a lying cant that would
represent the merchant and the banker as people disinterestedly
toiling for mankind, and then most useful when they are most
absorbed in their transactions; for the man is more important than
his services. And when my Royal Nautical Sportsman shall have so
far fallen from his hopeful youth that he cannot pluck up an
enthusiasm over anything but his ledger, I venture to doubt whether
he will be near so nice a fellow, and whether he would welcome,
with so good a grace, a couple of drenched Englishmen paddling into
Brussels in the dusk.

When we had changed our wet clothes and drunk a glass of pale ale
to the Club's prosperity, one of their number escorted us to an
hotel. He would not join us at our dinner, but he had no objection
to a glass of wine. Enthusiasm is very wearing; and I begin to
understand why prophets were unpopular in Judaea, where they were
best known. For three stricken hours did this excellent young man
sit beside us to dilate on boats and boat-races; and before he
left, he was kind enough to order our bedroom candles.

We endeavoured now and again to change the subject; but the
diversion did not last a moment: the Royal Nautical Sportsman
bridled, shied, answered the question, and then breasted once more
into the swelling tide of his subject. I call it his subject; but
I think it was he who was subjected. The Arethusa, who holds all
racing as a creature of the devil, found himself in a pitiful
dilemma. He durst not own his ignorance for the honour of Old
England, and spoke away about English clubs and English oarsmen
whose fame had never before come to his ears. Several times, and,
once above all, on the question of sliding-seats, he was within an
ace of exposure. As for the Cigarette, who has rowed races in the
heat of his blood, but now disowns these slips of his wanton youth,
his case was still more desperate; for the Royal Nautical proposed
that he should take an oar in one of their eights on the morrow, to
compare the English with the Belgian stroke. I could see my friend
perspiring in his chair whenever that particular topic came up.
And there was yet another proposal which had the same effect on
both of us. It appeared that the champion canoeist of Europe (as
well as most other champions) was a Royal Nautical Sportsman. And
if we would only wait until the Sunday, this infernal paddler would
be so condescending as to accompany us on our next stage. Neither
of us had the least desire to drive the coursers of the sun against

When the young man was gone, we countermanded our candles, and
ordered some brandy and water. The great billows had gone over our
head. The Royal Nautical Sportsmen were as nice young fellows as a
man would wish to see, but they were a trifle too young and a
thought too nautical for us. We began to see that we were old and
cynical; we liked ease and the agreeable rambling of the human mind
about this and the other subject; we did not want to disgrace our
native land by messing an eight, or toiling pitifully in the wake
of the champion canoeist. In short, we had recourse to flight. It
seemed ungrateful, but we tried to make that good on a card loaded
with sincere compliments. And indeed it was no time for scruples;
we seemed to feel the hot breath of the champion on our necks.

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