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An Inland Voyage - Pont-Sur-Sambre We are Pedlars

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 Cigarette returned with good news. There were beds to be had
some ten minutes' walk from where we were, at a place called Pont.
We stowed the canoes in a granary, and asked among the children for
a guide. The circle at once widened round us, and our offers of
reward were received in dispiriting silence. We were plainly a
pair of Bluebeards to the children; they might speak to us in
public places, and where they had the advantage of numbers; but it
was another thing to venture off alone with two uncouth and
legendary characters, who had dropped from the clouds upon their
hamlet this quiet afternoon, sashed and be-knived, and with a
flavour of great voyages. The owner of the granary came to our
assistance, singled out one little fellow and threatened him with
corporalities; or I suspect we should have had to find the way for
ourselves. As it was, he was more frightened at the granary man
than the strangers, having perhaps had some experience of the
former. But I fancy his little heart must have been going at a
fine rate; for he kept trotting at a respectful distance in front,
and looking back at us with scared eyes. Not otherwise may the
children of the young world have guided Jove or one of his Olympian
compeers on an adventure.

A miry lane led us up from Quartes with its church and bickering
windmill. The hinds were trudging homewards from the fields. A
brisk little woman passed us by. She was seated across a donkey
between a pair of glittering milk-cans; and, as she went, she
kicked jauntily with her heels upon the donkey's side, and
scattered shrill remarks among the wayfarers. It was notable that
none of the tired men took the trouble to reply. Our conductor
soon led us out of the lane and across country. The sun had gone
down, but the west in front of us was one lake of level gold. The
path wandered a while in the open, and then passed under a trellis
like a bower indefinitely prolonged. On either hand were shadowy
orchards; cottages lay low among the leaves, and sent their smoke
to heaven; every here and there, in an opening, appeared the great
gold face of the west.

I never saw the Cigarette in such an idyllic frame of mind. He
waxed positively lyrical in praise of country scenes. I was little
less exhilarated myself; the mild air of the evening, the shadows,
the rich lights and the silence, made a symphonious accompaniment
about our walk; and we both determined to avoid towns for the
future and sleep in hamlets.

At last the path went between two houses, and turned the party out
into a wide muddy high-road, bordered, as far as the eye could
reach on either hand, by an unsightly village. The houses stood
well back, leaving a ribbon of waste land on either side of the
road, where there were stacks of firewood, carts, barrows, rubbish-
heaps, and a little doubtful grass. Away on the left, a gaunt
tower stood in the middle of the street. What it had been in past
ages, I know not: probably a hold in time of war; but now-a-days
it bore an illegible dial-plate in its upper parts, and near the
bottom an iron letter-box.

The inn to which we had been recommended at Quartes was full, or
else the landlady did not like our looks. I ought to say, that
with our long, damp india-rubber bags, we presented rather a
doubtful type of civilisation: like rag-and-bone men, the
Cigarette imagined. 'These gentlemen are pedlars?--Ces messieurs
sont des marchands?'--asked the landlady. And then, without
waiting for an answer, which I suppose she thought superfluous in
so plain a case, recommended us to a butcher who lived hard by the
tower, and took in travellers to lodge.

Thither went we. But the butcher was flitting, and all his beds
were taken down. Or else he didn't like our look. As a parting
shot, we had 'These gentlemen are pedlars?'

It began to grow dark in earnest. We could no longer distinguish
the faces of the people who passed us by with an inarticulate good-
evening. And the householders of Pont seemed very economical with
their oil; for we saw not a single window lighted in all that long
village. I believe it is the longest village in the world; but I
daresay in our predicament every pace counted three times over. We
were much cast down when we came to the last auberge; and looking
in at the dark door, asked timidly if we could sleep there for the
night. A female voice assented in no very friendly tones. We
clapped the bags down and found our way to chairs.

The place was in total darkness, save a red glow in the chinks and
ventilators of the stove. But now the landlady lit a lamp to see
her new guests; I suppose the darkness was what saved us another
expulsion; for I cannot say she looked gratified at our appearance.
We were in a large bare apartment, adorned with two allegorical
prints of Music and Painting, and a copy of the law against public
drunkenness. On one side, there was a bit of a bar, with some
half-a-dozen bottles. Two labourers sat waiting supper, in
attitudes of extreme weariness; a plain-looking lass bustled about
with a sleepy child of two; and the landlady began to derange the
pots upon the stove, and set some beefsteak to grill.

'These gentlemen are pedlars?' she asked sharply. And that was all
the conversation forthcoming. We began to think we might be
pedlars after all. I never knew a population with so narrow a
range of conjecture as the innkeepers of Pont-sur-Sambre. But
manners and bearing have not a wider currency than bank-notes. You
have only to get far enough out of your beat, and all your
accomplished airs will go for nothing. These Hainaulters could see
no difference between us and the average pedlar. Indeed we had
some grounds for reflection while the steak was getting ready, to
see how perfectly they accepted us at their own valuation, and how
our best politeness and best efforts at entertainment seemed to fit
quite suitably with the character of packmen. At least it seemed a
good account of the profession in France, that even before such
judges we could not beat them at our own weapons.

At last we were called to table. The two hinds (and one of them
looked sadly worn and white in the face, as though sick with over-
work and under-feeding) supped off a single plate of some sort of
bread-berry, some potatoes in their jackets, a small cup of coffee
sweetened with sugar-candy, and one tumbler of swipes. The
landlady, her son, and the lass aforesaid, took the same. Our meal
was quite a banquet by comparison. We had some beefsteak, not so
tender as it might have been, some of the potatoes, some cheese, an
extra glass of the swipes, and white sugar in our coffee.

You see what it is to be a gentleman--I beg your pardon, what it is
to be a pedlar. It had not before occurred to me that a pedlar was
a great man in a labourer's ale-house; but now that I had to enact
the part for an evening, I found that so it was. He has in his
hedge quarters somewhat the same pre-eminency as the man who takes
a private parlour in an hotel. The more you look into it, the more
infinite are the class distinctions among men; and possibly, by a
happy dispensation, there is no one at all at the bottom of the
scale; no one but can find some superiority over somebody else, to
keep up his pride withal.

We were displeased enough with our fare. Particularly the
Cigarette, for I tried to make believe that I was amused with the
adventure, tough beefsteak and all. According to the Lucretian
maxim, our steak should have been flavoured by the look of the
other people's bread-berry. But we did not find it so in practice.
You may have a head-knowledge that other people live more poorly
than yourself, but it is not agreeable--I was going to say, it is
against the etiquette of the universe--to sit at the same table and
pick your own superior diet from among their crusts. I had not
seen such a thing done since the greedy boy at school with his
birthday cake. It was odious enough to witness, I could remember;
and I had never thought to play the part myself. But there again
you see what it is to be a pedlar.

There is no doubt that the poorer classes in our country are much
more charitably disposed than their superiors in wealth. And I
fancy it must arise a great deal from the comparative indistinction
of the easy and the not so easy in these ranks. A workman or a
pedlar cannot shutter himself off from his less comfortable
neighbours. If he treats himself to a luxury, he must do it in the
face of a dozen who cannot. And what should more directly lead to
charitable thoughts? . . . Thus the poor man, camping out in life,
sees it as it is, and knows that every mouthful he puts in his
belly has been wrenched out of the fingers of the hungry.

But at a certain stage of prosperity, as in a balloon ascent, the
fortunate person passes through a zone of clouds, and sublunary
matters are thenceforward hidden from his view. He sees nothing
but the heavenly bodies, all in admirable order, and positively as
good as new. He finds himself surrounded in the most touching
manner by the attentions of Providence, and compares himself
involuntarily with the lilies and the skylarks. He does not
precisely sing, of course; but then he looks so unassuming in his
open landau! If all the world dined at one table, this philosophy
would meet with some rude knocks.

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