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An Inland Voyage - Pont-Sur-Sambre The Travelling Merchant

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



Like the lackeys in Moliere's farce, when the true nobleman broke
in on their high life below stairs, we were destined to be
confronted with a real pedlar. To make the lesson still more
poignant for fallen gentlemen like us, he was a pedlar of
infinitely more consideration than the sort of scurvy fellows we
were taken for: like a lion among mice, or a ship of war bearing
down upon two cock-boats. Indeed, he did not deserve the name of
pedlar at all: he was a travelling merchant.

I suppose it was about half-past eight when this worthy, Monsieur
Hector Gilliard of Maubeuge, turned up at the ale-house door in a
tilt cart drawn by a donkey, and cried cheerily on the inhabitants.
He was a lean, nervous flibbertigibbet of a man, with something the
look of an actor, and something the look of a horse-jockey. He had
evidently prospered without any of the favours of education; for he
adhered with stern simplicity to the masculine gender, and in the
course of the evening passed off some fancy futures in a very
florid style of architecture. With him came his wife, a comely
young woman with her hair tied in a yellow kerchief, and their son,
a little fellow of four, in a blouse and military kepi. It was
notable that the child was many degrees better dressed than either
of the parents. We were informed he was already at a boarding-
school; but the holidays having just commenced, he was off to spend
them with his parents on a cruise. An enchanting holiday
occupation, was it not? to travel all day with father and mother in
the tilt cart full of countless treasures; the green country
rattling by on either side, and the children in all the villages
contemplating him with envy and wonder? It is better fun, during
the holidays, to be the son of a travelling merchant, than son and
heir to the greatest cotton-spinner in creation. And as for being
a reigning prince--indeed I never saw one if it was not Master

While M. Hector and the son of the house were putting up the
donkey, and getting all the valuables under lock and key, the
landlady warmed up the remains of our beefsteak, and fried the cold
potatoes in slices, and Madame Gilliard set herself to waken the
boy, who had come far that day, and was peevish and dazzled by the
light. He was no sooner awake than he began to prepare himself for
supper by eating galette, unripe pears, and cold potatoes--with, so
far as I could judge, positive benefit to his appetite.

The landlady, fired with motherly emulation, awoke her own little
girl; and the two children were confronted. Master Gilliard looked
at her for a moment, very much as a dog looks at his own reflection
in a mirror before he turns away. He was at that time absorbed in
the galette. His mother seemed crestfallen that he should display
so little inclination towards the other sex; and expressed her
disappointment with some candour and a very proper reference to the
influence of years.

Sure enough a time will come when he will pay more attention to the
girls, and think a great deal less of his mother: let us hope she
will like it as well as she seemed to fancy. But it is odd enough;
the very women who profess most contempt for mankind as a sex, seem
to find even its ugliest particulars rather lively and high-minded
in their own sons.

The little girl looked longer and with more interest, probably
because she was in her own house, while he was a traveller and
accustomed to strange sights. And besides there was no galette in
the case with her.

All the time of supper, there was nothing spoken of but my young
lord. The two parents were both absurdly fond of their child.
Monsieur kept insisting on his sagacity: how he knew all the
children at school by name; and when this utterly failed on trial,
how he was cautious and exact to a strange degree, and if asked
anything, he would sit and think--and think, and if he did not know
it, 'my faith, he wouldn't tell you at all--foi, il ne vous le dira
pas': which is certainly a very high degree of caution. At
intervals, M. Hector would appeal to his wife, with his mouth full
of beefsteak, as to the little fellow's age at such or such a time
when he had said or done something memorable; and I noticed that
Madame usually pooh-poohed these inquiries. She herself was not
boastful in her vein; but she never had her fill of caressing the
child; and she seemed to take a gentle pleasure in recalling all
that was fortunate in his little existence. No schoolboy could
have talked more of the holidays which were just beginning and less
of the black school-time which must inevitably follow after. She
showed, with a pride perhaps partly mercantile in origin, his
pockets preposterously swollen with tops and whistles and string.
When she called at a house in the way of business, it appeared he
kept her company; and whenever a sale was made, received a sou out
of the profit. Indeed they spoiled him vastly, these two good
people. But they had an eye to his manners for all that, and
reproved him for some little faults in breeding, which occurred
from time to time during supper.

On the whole, I was not much hurt at being taken for a pedlar. I
might think that I ate with greater delicacy, or that my mistakes
in French belonged to a different order; but it was plain that
these distinctions would be thrown away upon the landlady and the
two labourers. In all essential things we and the Gilliards cut
very much the same figure in the ale-house kitchen. M. Hector was
more at home, indeed, and took a higher tone with the world; but
that was explicable on the ground of his driving a donkey-cart,
while we poor bodies tramped afoot. I daresay, the rest of the
company thought us dying with envy, though in no ill sense, to be
as far up in the profession as the new arrival.

And of one thing I am sure: that every one thawed and became more
humanised and conversible as soon as these innocent people appeared
upon the scene. I would not very readily trust the travelling
merchant with any extravagant sum of money; but I am sure his heart
was in the right place. In this mixed world, if you can find one
or two sensible places in a man--above all, if you should find a
whole family living together on such pleasant terms--you may surely
be satisfied, and take the rest for granted; or, what is a great
deal better, boldly make up your mind that you can do perfectly
well without the rest; and that ten thousand bad traits cannot make
a single good one any the less good.

It was getting late. M. Hector lit a stable lantern and went off
to his cart for some arrangements; and my young gentleman proceeded
to divest himself of the better part of his raiment, and play
gymnastics on his mother's lap, and thence on to the floor, with
accompaniment of laughter.

'Are you going to sleep alone?' asked the servant lass.

'There's little fear of that,' says Master Gilliard.

'You sleep alone at school,' objected his mother. 'Come, come, you
must be a man.'

But he protested that school was a different matter from the
holidays; that there were dormitories at school; and silenced the
discussion with kisses: his mother smiling, no one better pleased
than she.

There certainly was, as he phrased it, very little fear that he
should sleep alone; for there was but one bed for the trio. We, on
our part, had firmly protested against one man's accommodation for
two; and we had a double-bedded pen in the loft of the house,
furnished, beside the beds, with exactly three hat-pegs and one
table. There was not so much as a glass of water. But the window
would open, by good fortune.

Some time before I fell asleep the loft was full of the sound of
mighty snoring: the Gilliards, and the labourers, and the people
of the inn, all at it, I suppose, with one consent. The young moon
outside shone very clearly over Pont-sur-Sambre, and down upon the
ale-house where all we pedlars were abed.

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