home | authors | books | about

Home -> Robert Louis Stevenson -> An Inland Voyage -> On the Sambre Canalised

An Inland Voyage - On the Sambre Canalised

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



About three in the afternoon the whole establishment of the Grand
Cerf accompanied us to the water's edge. The man of the omnibus
was there with haggard eyes. Poor cage-bird! Do I not remember
the time when I myself haunted the station, to watch train after
train carry its complement of freemen into the night, and read the
names of distant places on the time-bills with indescribable

We were not clear of the fortifications before the rain began. The
wind was contrary, and blew in furious gusts; nor were the aspects
of nature any more clement than the doings of the sky. For we
passed through a stretch of blighted country, sparsely covered with
brush, but handsomely enough diversified with factory chimneys. We
landed in a soiled meadow among some pollards, and there smoked a
pipe in a flaw of fair weather. But the wind blew so hard, we
could get little else to smoke. There were no natural objects in
the neighbourhood, but some sordid workshops. A group of children
headed by a tall girl stood and watched us from a little distance
all the time we stayed. I heartily wonder what they thought of us.

At Hautmont, the lock was almost impassable; the landing-place
being steep and high, and the launch at a long distance. Near a
dozen grimy workmen lent us a hand. They refused any reward; and,
what is much better, refused it handsomely, without conveying any
sense of insult. 'It is a way we have in our countryside,' said
they. And a very becoming way it is. In Scotland, where also you
will get services for nothing, the good people reject your money as
if you had been trying to corrupt a voter. When people take the
trouble to do dignified acts, it is worth while to take a little
more, and allow the dignity to be common to all concerned. But in
our brave Saxon countries, where we plod threescore years and ten
in the mud, and the wind keeps singing in our ears from birth to
burial, we do our good and bad with a high hand and almost
offensively; and make even our alms a witness-bearing and an act of
war against the wrong.

After Hautmont, the sun came forth again and the wind went down;
and a little paddling took us beyond the ironworks and through a
delectable land. The river wound among low hills, so that
sometimes the sun was at our backs, and sometimes it stood right
ahead, and the river before us was one sheet of intolerable glory.
On either hand, meadows and orchards bordered, with a margin of
sedge and water flowers, upon the river. The hedges were of great
height, woven about the trunks of hedgerow elms; and the fields, as
they were often very small, looked like a series of bowers along
the stream. There was never any prospect; sometimes a hill-top
with its trees would look over the nearest hedgerow, just to make a
middle distance for the sky; but that was all. The heaven was bare
of clouds. The atmosphere, after the rain, was of enchanting
purity. The river doubled among the hillocks, a shining strip of
mirror glass; and the dip of the paddles set the flowers shaking
along the brink.

In the meadows wandered black and white cattle fantastically
marked. One beast, with a white head and the rest of the body
glossy black, came to the edge to drink, and stood gravely
twitching his ears at me as I went by, like some sort of
preposterous clergyman in a play. A moment after I heard a loud
plunge, and, turning my head, saw the clergyman struggling to
shore. The bank had given way under his feet.

Besides the cattle, we saw no living things except a few birds and
a great many fishermen. These sat along the edges of the meadows,
sometimes with one rod, sometimes with as many as half a score.
They seemed stupefied with contentment; and when we induced them to
exchange a few words with us about the weather, their voices
sounded quiet and far away. There was a strange diversity of
opinion among them as to the kind of fish for which they set their
lures; although they were all agreed in this, that the river was
abundantly supplied. Where it was plain that no two of them had
ever caught the same kind of fish, we could not help suspecting
that perhaps not any one of them had ever caught a fish at all. I
hope, since the afternoon was so lovely, that they were one and all
rewarded; and that a silver booty went home in every basket for the
pot. Some of my friends would cry shame on me for this; but I
prefer a man, were he only an angler, to the bravest pair of gills
in all God's waters. I do not affect fishes unless when cooked in
sauce; whereas an angler is an important piece of river scenery,
and hence deserves some recognition among canoeists. He can always
tell you where you are after a mild fashion; and his quiet presence
serves to accentuate the solitude and stillness, and remind you of
the glittering citizens below your boat.

The Sambre turned so industriously to and fro among his little
hills, that it was past six before we drew near the lock at
Quartes. There were some children on the tow-path, with whom the
Cigarette fell into a chaffing talk as they ran along beside us.
It was in vain that I warned him. In vain I told him, in English,
that boys were the most dangerous creatures; and if once you began
with them, it was safe to end in a shower of stones. For my own
part, whenever anything was addressed to me, I smiled gently and
shook my head as though I were an inoffensive person inadequately
acquainted with French. For indeed I have had such experience at
home, that I would sooner meet many wild animals than a troop of
healthy urchins.

But I was doing injustice to these peaceable young Hainaulters.
When the Cigarette went off to make inquiries, I got out upon the
bank to smoke a pipe and superintend the boats, and became at once
the centre of much amiable curiosity. The children had been joined
by this time by a young woman and a mild lad who had lost an arm;
and this gave me more security. When I let slip my first word or
so in French, a little girl nodded her head with a comical grown-up
air. 'Ah, you see,' she said, 'he understands well enough now; he
was just making believe.' And the little group laughed together
very good-naturedly.

They were much impressed when they heard we came from England; and
the little girl proffered the information that England was an
island 'and a far way from here--bien loin d'ici.'

'Ay, you may say that, a far way from here,' said the lad with one

I was as nearly home-sick as ever I was in my life; they seemed to
make it such an incalculable distance to the place where I first
saw the day. They admired the canoes very much. And I observed
one piece of delicacy in these children, which is worthy of record.
They had been deafening us for the last hundred yards with
petitions for a sail; ay, and they deafened us to the same tune
next morning when we came to start; but then, when the canoes were
lying empty, there was no word of any such petition. Delicacy? or
perhaps a bit of fear for the water in so crank a vessel? I hate
cynicism a great deal worse than I do the devil; unless perhaps the
two were the same thing? And yet 'tis a good tonic; the cold tub
and bath-towel of the sentiments; and positively necessary to life
in cases of advanced sensibility.

From the boats they turned to my costume. They could not make
enough of my red sash; and my knife filled them with awe.

'They make them like that in England,' said the boy with one arm.
I was glad he did not know how badly we make them in England now-a-
days. 'They are for people who go away to sea,' he added, 'and to
defend one's life against great fish.'

I felt I was becoming a more and more romantic figure to the little
group at every word. And so I suppose I was. Even my pipe,
although it was an ordinary French clay pretty well 'trousered,' as
they call it, would have a rarity in their eyes, as a thing coming
from so far away. And if my feathers were not very fine in
themselves, they were all from over seas. One thing in my outfit,
however, tickled them out of all politeness; and that was the
bemired condition of my canvas shoes. I suppose they were sure the
mud at any rate was a home product. The little girl (who was the
genius of the party) displayed her own sabots in competition; and I
wish you could have seen how gracefully and merrily she did it.

The young woman's milk-can, a great amphora of hammered brass,
stood some way off upon the sward. I was glad of an opportunity to
divert public attention from myself, and return some of the
compliments I had received. So I admired it cordially both for
form and colour, telling them, and very truly, that it was as
beautiful as gold. They were not surprised. The things were
plainly the boast of the countryside. And the children expatiated
on the costliness of these amphorae, which sell sometimes as high
as thirty francs apiece; told me how they were carried on donkeys,
one on either side of the saddle, a brave caparison in themselves;
and how they were to be seen all over the district, and at the
larger farms in great number and of great size.

© Art Branch Inc. | English Dictionary