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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



In the morning, when we came downstairs, the landlady pointed out
to us two pails of water behind the street-door. 'Voila de l'eau
pour vous debarbouiller,' says she. And so there we made a shift
to wash ourselves, while Madame Gilliard brushed the family boots
on the outer doorstep, and M. Hector, whistling cheerily, arranged
some small goods for the day's campaign in a portable chest of
drawers, which formed a part of his baggage. Meanwhile the child
was letting off Waterloo crackers all over the floor.

I wonder, by-the-bye, what they call Waterloo crackers in France;
perhaps Austerlitz crackers. There is a great deal in the point of
view. Do you remember the Frenchman who, travelling by way of
Southampton, was put down in Waterloo Station, and had to drive
across Waterloo Bridge? He had a mind to go home again, it seems.

Pont itself is on the river, but whereas it is ten minutes' walk
from Quartes by dry land, it is six weary kilometres by water. We
left our bags at the inn, and walked to our canoes through the wet
orchards unencumbered. Some of the children were there to see us
off, but we were no longer the mysterious beings of the night
before. A departure is much less romantic than an unexplained
arrival in the golden evening. Although we might be greatly taken
at a ghost's first appearance, we should behold him vanish with
comparative equanimity.

The good folk of the inn at Pont, when we called there for the
bags, were overcome with marvelling. At sight of these two dainty
little boats, with a fluttering Union Jack on each, and all the
varnish shining from the sponge, they began to perceive that they
had entertained angels unawares. The landlady stood upon the
bridge, probably lamenting she had charged so little; the son ran
to and fro, and called out the neighbours to enjoy the sight; and
we paddled away from quite a crowd of wrapt observers. These
gentlemen pedlars, indeed! Now you see their quality too late.

The whole day was showery, with occasional drenching plumps. We
were soaked to the skin, then partially dried in the sun, then
soaked once more. But there were some calm intervals, and one
notably, when we were skirting the forest of Mormal, a sinister
name to the ear, but a place most gratifying to sight and smell.
It looked solemn along the river-side, drooping its boughs into the
water, and piling them up aloft into a wall of leaves. What is a
forest but a city of nature's own, full of hardy and innocuous
living things, where there is nothing dead and nothing made with
the hands, but the citizens themselves are the houses and public
monuments? There is nothing so much alive, and yet so quiet, as a
woodland; and a pair of people, swinging past in canoes, feel very
small and bustling by comparison.

And surely of all smells in the world, the smell of many trees is
the sweetest and most fortifying. The sea has a rude, pistolling
sort of odour, that takes you in the nostrils like snuff, and
carries with it a fine sentiment of open water and tall ships; but
the smell of a forest, which comes nearest to this in tonic
quality, surpasses it by many degrees in the quality of softness.
Again, the smell of the sea has little variety, but the smell of a
forest is infinitely changeful; it varies with the hour of the day,
not in strength merely, but in character; and the different sorts
of trees, as you go from one zone of the wood to another, seem to
live among different kinds of atmosphere. Usually the resin of the
fir predominates. But some woods are more coquettish in their
habits; and the breath of the forest of Mormal, as it came aboard
upon us that showery afternoon, was perfumed with nothing less
delicate than sweetbrier.

I wish our way had always lain among woods. Trees are the most
civil society. An old oak that has been growing where he stands
since before the Reformation, taller than many spires, more stately
than the greater part of mountains, and yet a living thing, liable
to sicknesses and death, like you and me: is not that in itself a
speaking lesson in history? But acres on acres full of such
patriarchs contiguously rooted, their green tops billowing in the
wind, their stalwart younglings pushing up about their knees: a
whole forest, healthy and beautiful, giving colour to the light,
giving perfume to the air: what is this but the most imposing
piece in nature's repertory? Heine wished to lie like Merlin under
the oaks of Broceliande. I should not be satisfied with one tree;
but if the wood grew together like a banyan grove, I would be
buried under the tap-root of the whole; my parts should circulate
from oak to oak; and my consciousness should be diffused abroad in
all the forest, and give a common heart to that assembly of green
spires, so that it also might rejoice in its own loveliness and
dignity. I think I feel a thousand squirrels leaping from bough to
bough in my vast mausoleum; and the birds and the winds merrily
coursing over its uneven, leafy surface.

Alas! the forest of Mormal is only a little bit of a wood, and it
was but for a little way that we skirted by its boundaries. And
the rest of the time the rain kept coming in squirts and the wind
in squalls, until one's heart grew weary of such fitful, scolding
weather. It was odd how the showers began when we had to carry the
boats over a lock, and must expose our legs. They always did.
This is a sort of thing that readily begets a personal feeling
against nature. There seems no reason why the shower should not
come five minutes before or five minutes after, unless you suppose
an intention to affront you. The Cigarette had a mackintosh which
put him more or less above these contrarieties. But I had to bear
the brunt uncovered. I began to remember that nature was a woman.
My companion, in a rosier temper, listened with great satisfaction
to my Jeremiads, and ironically concurred. He instanced, as a
cognate matter, the action of the tides, 'which,' said he, 'was
altogether designed for the confusion of canoeists, except in so
far as it was calculated to minister to a barren vanity on the part
of the moon.'

At the last lock, some little way out of Landrecies, I refused to
go any farther; and sat in a drift of rain by the side of the bank,
to have a reviving pipe. A vivacious old man, whom I take to have
been the devil, drew near and questioned me about our journey. In
the fulness of my heart, I laid bare our plans before him. He said
it was the silliest enterprise that ever he heard of. Why, did I
not know, he asked me, that it was nothing but locks, locks, locks,
the whole way? not to mention that, at this season of the year, we
should find the Oise quite dry? 'Get into a train, my little young
man,' said he, I and go you away home to your parents.' I was so
astounded at the man's malice, that I could only stare at him in
silence. A tree would never have spoken to me like this. At last
I got out with some words. We had come from Antwerp already, I
told him, which was a good long way; and we should do the rest in
spite of him. Yes, I said, if there were no other reason, I would
do it now, just because he had dared to say we could not. The
pleasant old gentleman looked at me sneeringly, made an allusion to
my canoe, and marched of, waggling his head.

I was still inwardly fuming, when up came a pair of young fellows,
who imagined I was the Cigarette's servant, on a comparison, I
suppose, of my bare jersey with the other's mackintosh, and asked
me many questions about my place and my master's character. I said
he was a good enough fellow, but had this absurd voyage on the
head. 'O no, no,' said one, 'you must not say that; it is not
absurd; it is very courageous of him.' I believe these were a
couple of angels sent to give me heart again. It was truly
fortifying to reproduce all the old man's insinuations, as if they
were original to me in my character of a malcontent footman, and
have them brushed away like so many flies by these admirable young

When I recounted this affair to the Cigarette, 'They must have a
curious idea of how English servants behave,' says he dryly, 'for
you treated me like a brute beast at the lock.'

I was a good deal mortified; but my temper had suffered, it is a

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