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A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe
on Rivers and Lakes of Europe

By J. MacGregor (1825-1892), 1866, 1892

Chapter 11

Which way?-- Music in Jungle-- Byron-- Drawbridges-- Gros Kembs Thunderer-- Thoroughly dull-- Fifty Locks-- The Bother at them-- Thoughts-- An odd Fish-- Night Notes-- Madame Nico-- Tedious-- Stared at-- The Lady Cow-- New Wine.

BALE is, in every sense, a turning-point on the Rhine. The course of the river here bends abruptly from west to north, and the character of the scenery beside it alters at once from high sloping banks to a widespread network of streams, all entangled in countless islands, and yet ever tending forward, northward, seaward through the great rich valley of the Rhine with mountain-chains along each side, two everlasting barriers. Here then we could start anew almost in any direction, and I had not settled yet what route to take, whether by the Saone and Doubs to paddle to the Rhone, and so descend to Marseilles, and then coast by the Cornici road, and sell the boat at Genoa; or--and some other plan would be surely a better alternative, if it avoids a sale of the Rob Roy--I could not part with her now--so let us decide to go back through France.

We were yet on the river slowly paddling when this decision was arrived at, because I would not leave the pleasant current for a slow canal, until the last possible opportunity. A diligent study of new maps, procured at Bale, showed that a canal ran northward parallel to the Rhine, and approached very near to the river at one particular spot, which indeed looked hard enough to find even on the map, but was far more dubious when we got into a maze of streamlets and little rivers circling among high osiers, so thick that it was impossible to see a few yards. But the line of tall poplars along the canal was visible now and then, whereby I made a guesswork turn, and thus we got so near the canal that by winding about for a little in a pretty limpid stream, Rob Roy came at last within carrying distance. I knew very well that a song and a whistle on my fingers would be sure to bring anybody out of the osiers who was within reach of the concert, and so it proved, for a woman's head soon peered over a break in the dense cover. She wished to carry the boat, but the skipper gallantly had scruples as to this proposal, so she fetched a man, and we bore the canoe through hedges and bushes, and over dykes and ditches, and deep grassy fields, till she was safely placed on the canal.

The man was delighted by a two-franc piece; he had been well paid for listening to bad music. As for the boat, she lay still and resigned, awaiting our next move, and as for me, I sighed while giving a last look backward, and said in Byron's lines--

"Adieu to thee, fair Rhine! How long delighted
The stranger fain would linger on his way!
Thine is a scene alike where Souls united
Or lonely contemplation thus might stray;
And could the ceaseless vultures cease to prey
On self-condemning bosoms, it were here,
Where Nature, nor too sombre nor too gay,
Wild but not rude, awful yet not austere,
Is to the mellow earth as autumn to the year.

"Adieu to thee again! a vain adieu!
There can be no farewell to scene like thine
The mind is colour'd by thy every hue;
And if reluctantly the eyes resign
Their cherish'd gaze upon thee, lovely Rhine
'Tis with the thankful glance of parting praise;
More mighty spots may rise, more glaring shine,
But none unite in one attaching maze
The brilliant, fair, and soft--the glories of old days.

"The negligently grand, the fruitful bloom
Of coming ripeness, the white city's sheen,
The rolling stream, the precipice's gloom,
The forest's growth, and Gothic walls between,
The wild rocks shaped as they had turrets been
In mockery of man's art; and these withal
A race of faces happy as the scene,
Whose fertile bounties here extend to all,
Still springing o'er thy banks, though empires near them fall.

"But these recede. Above me are the Alps,
The palaces of nature, whose vast walls
Have pinnacled in clouds their snowy scalps,
And throned eternity in icy halls
Of cold sublimity, where forms and falls
The avalanche--the thunderbolt of snow!
All that expands the spirit, yet appals,
Gather around these summits, as to show
How earth may pierce to heaven, yet leave vain man below."

Childe Harold, Canto iii.

To my pleasant surprise the canal had a decided current in it, going in the right direction about two miles an hour; and though the little channel was hardly twelve feet wide, yet it was clear and deep, and by no means stupid to travel on. After a few miles we reached a drawbridge, which rested within a foot of the water. A man came to raise the bridge by machinery, and he wondered at my better way of passing it; by shoving my boat under the bridge, while I walked over the top and got into the boat at the other side. Doubtless the Rob Roy was the first boat which had gone under that bridge; but I had passed several very low bridges on the Danube, some of them not two inches above the water, and in these cases the Rob Roy went over the bridge. It may be asked, how do such low bridges fare in flood times? Why, the water simply overflows them. In some cases the planks which form the roadway are removed when the water rises, and then the wayfaring man who comes to the river must manage somehow, but his bridge is removed at the very time when the high water makes it most necessary.

The bridge man was so intelligent in his remarks that we determined to stop there and breakfast, so I found my way to a little publichouse at the hamlet of Gros Kembs, and helped the wizened old lady who ruled there to make me an omelette--my help, by the by, consisted in ordering, eating, and paying for the omelette, for the rest she was sure to do well enough, as all French women can.

The village gossips soon arrived, and each person who saw the boat came on to the inn to see the foreigner who could sail in such a bateau. The courteous and respectful behaviour of Continental people is so uniform that the stranger among them is bound, I think, to amuse and to interest these folk in return. This was most easily done by showing all my articles of luggage, [footnote 1] and of course the drawings. A Testament with gilt leaves was, however, the chief object of curiosity, and all the savants of the party tried in turn to read it.

One of these as spokesman, and with commendable gravity, told me he had read in their district newspaper about the canoe, but he "little expected to have the honour of meeting its owner." Fancy the local organ of such a place. Is it called the "News of the World," or the "Gros Kembs Thunderer"? Well, whatever was the title of the Gazette, it had an article about Pontius Pilate and my visit to the Titisee in the Black Forest, and this it was no doubt which had made these canal people so very inquisitive on the occasion.

The route now lay through the great forest of La Hardt, with dense thickets on each side of the canal, and not a sound anywhere to be heard but the hum now and then of a dragon-fly. One or two woodmen met me as they trudged silently home from work, but there was a lonely feeling about the place without any of the romance of wild country. I had to push on, however, and sometimes, for a change, to tow the boat while I walked. In the most brilliant day the scenery of a canal has at best but scant liveliness, the whole thing is so prosaic and artificial, and in fact stupid, if indeed one can ever call a place stupid where there is fresh air and clear water, and blue sky and green trees. Still the difference between a glorious river encircling you with lofty rocks and this canal confining with its earthen walls, was something like that between walking among high mountains and being shut up by mistake in Bloomsbury-square.

No birds chirped or sung, or even flew past, only the buzzing of flies was mingling with the distant shriek of a railway train. It is this iron road that has killed the canal, for I saw no boats moving upon the water. The long continued want of rain had also reduced its powers of accommodation for traffic, and the traffic is so little at the best that it would not pay to buy water for the supply. For in times of drought canal water is very expensive. It is said that the Regent's Canal (in London) had to pay 5000l. for what they required one very dry summer.

At length we came to a wide fork of the canal in a basin, and I went along the branch to the town of Mulhouse, a place of great wealth, the largest French cotton town--the Manchester of France, but now bold Germany's. The street boys here were very troublesome, partly because they were intelligent, and therefore inquisitive, and partly because manufacturing towns make little urchins precocious and forward in their manners.

I hired a truck from a woman and hired a man to drag it, and so we took the boat to the large hotel, where they at once recognized the canoe, and seemed to know all about it from report.

Next morning, when we took the Rob Roy into the railway office as usual and placed her on the counter with the trunks and bandboxes, the officials declined to put her in the train. This was the first time the canoe had been refused on a railroad, and I used every kind of persuasion, but in vain, and this being the first application of the kind on French soil we felt it was a bad precedent, and that difficulties were ahead.

The French railways would not then take a canoe as baggage, while the other seven or eight countries we had brought the boat through were all amenable to pressure on this point, but the French too are wiser now, since other paddlers have journeyed there.

We had desired to go by the railway only a few miles, but it would have enabled me to avoid about fifty locks on the canal and thus have saved two tedious days. As, however, they would not take the boat in a passenger train we carried her back to the canal, and I determined to face the locks boldly, and to regard them as an exercise of patience and of the flexor muscles, in fact a "constitutional" on the water.

The Superintendent of the Rhine and Rhone Canal was very civil, and endeavoured to give me the information I required, but which he had not got, that is to say, the length, depth, and general character of the several rivers we proposed to navigate in connection with streams less "canalisé," so I had to start as usual, without any knowledge of the way.

With rather an ill-tempered "adieu" to Mulhouse, the Rob Roy set off again on her course, and the water assumed quite a new and unpleasant aspect, now that one must go by it, but it was not so much the water as the locks that were objectionable. For at each lock there is a certain form of operations to be gone through--all very trifling and without variety, yet requiring to be carefully performed, or you may have the boat injured, or a ducking for yourself.

When we come to a lock I have to draw to the bank, open my waterproof apron, put my package [footnote 2] and paddle ashore, then step out and haul the boat out of the water. By this time two or three persons usually congregate. I select the most likely one, and ask him to help in such a persuasive but dignified manner that he feels it is an honour to carry one end of the boat while I take the other, and so we put her in again above the barrier, and, if the man looks poor, I give him some halfpence. At some of the locks they asked me for a "carte de permission," or "pass" for travelling on their canal, but I laughed the matter off; and when they pressed it with a "mais, monsieur!" I kept treating the proposal as a good joke, until the officials were fairly baffled and gave in. We had in fact got into the canal as one gets over the hedge on to a public road, and as I did not use any of the water in locks or any of the lock-keepers' time, and the "pass" was a mere form, price 5d., it was but reasonable to go unquestioned; and beside, this "carte" could not be obtained except at the beginning of the whole canal.

How is it that the French, who are such slaves of rule and system in all their official life, are yet so violent in changes of their form of Government? and how is it that the Americans, who are so elastic in their regulations and so ready for a novelty in action, are yet so perseveringly consecutive in their form of Government?

Perhaps because the Yankee has the good sense to see that a Republic is the best or the only possible form for a new and huge body of people, which found itself suddenly without a dynastic head, and which could not wait in confusion through the long years of lineal authority which are absolutely necessary to establish a personal sovereign.

King-power in America would be as difficult to root as a Republic in France, and yet it would be easier for Americans to become monarchists than for Britons to become Republican. But is there not a better reason for the success of America and the failure of France? that while France is all nerve and joints there is in her no national backbone of religion, whereas in America, though no man can claim majesty by birth, there is a true faith in God among the people, a fearless courage to confess it, and a widespread eagerness to serve with loyal devotion that One Eternal Sovereign Supreme.

After a time our route suddenly passed into the river Ill, a long dull stream, which flows through the Vosges into the Rhine. This water was now quite stagnant, and a mere collection of pools covered by thick scum. It was therefore a great comfort to have only a short voyage upon it. When the Rob Roy again entered the canal, an acquaintance was formed with a young lad, who was reading as he sauntered along. He was reading of canoe adventures in America, and so I got him to walk some miles beside me, and to help the boat over some locks, telling him he could thus see how different actual canoeing was from the book stories about it made up of romance. He was pining for some expansion of his sphere, and specially for foreign travel, and above all to see England.

We went to an auberge, where I treated my friend to a bottle of wine, its cost being twopence halfpenny. After he left, in the dark, I put my boat in a lock-keeper's house, and his son led me to the little village of Illfurth, a most unsophisticated place indeed, with a few vineyards on a hill behind it, though the railway has a station near. It was not easy to mistake which was the best house here even in the dark, so I inquired of Madame at "The White Horse" if she could give me a bed. "Not in a room for one alone; three others will be sleeping in the same chamber."

This she had answered after glancing at my puny package and travel-worn dress, [footnote 3] but her ideas about the guest were enlarged when she heard how he had come, and so she managed (they always do if you give time and smiles and show sketches) to allot me a nlce little room for myself with two beds of the hugest size, a water-jug most minute, and sheets very coarse and clean. Another omelette was consumed while the customary visitors surrounded the benighted traveller; carters, porters, all of them with courteous manners, and behaving so well to me and to one another, and talking such good sense, as to make me feel how different from this is the noisy taproom of a roadside English "public."

Two fine fellows of the Gendarmerie came in for their penny half bottle of wine, and as both of them had been in the Crimea we had soon a most interesting conversation. This was conducted in French, but the people here usually speak a patois utterly impossible for any fellow to comprehend. In this jargon they were discussing me under various conjectures, and they settled at last that I must be rather an odd fish, but certainly "a gentleman," and probably "noble." They were most surprised to hear that I meant to stop all the next day at Illfurth, simply because it was Sunday, but they did not fail to ask for my passport, which until this time had been carried all the way without a single inquiry on the subject. The sudden change from a first-rate hotel this morning to the roadside inn at Illfurth was more entertaining on account of its variety than for its agreeables; but in good health and good weather one can put up with anything.

The utter silence of peaceful and cool night in a place like this reigns undisturbed until about four o'clock in early morn, when the first sound is some matutinal cock, who crows first because he is proud of being first awake. After he has asserted his priority thus once or twice, another deeper-toned rooster replies, and presently a dozen cocks are all in full song, and in different keys. In half an hour you hear a man's voice; next, some feminine voluble remarks; then a latch is moved and clicks, the dog gives a morning bark, and a horse stamps his foot in the stable because the flies begin to breakfast on his tender skin. At length a pig grunts, his gastric juice is fairly awake, and the day is begun. And so the stream of life, thawed from its sleep, flows gently on again, and at length the full tide of village business is soon in agitation, with men's faces and women's as full of grave import as if this French Stoke Pogis were the capital of the world.

While the inmates prepare for early mass, and my bowl of coffee is set before me, there are four dogs, eight cats, and seven canaries (I counted them) all looking on, moving, twittering, mewing, each evidently sensible that a being from some other land is present among them; and as these little pets look with doubtful inquiring eyes on the stranger, there is felt more strongly by him too, "Yes, I am abroad."

On Sunday I had a quiet rest, and walk, and reading, and then an Englishman, who had come out from Mulhouse to fish, dined in the pleasant arbour of the inn with his family. One of his girls managed to fall into a deep pond and was nearly drowned, but I heard her cries, and we soon put her to rights. This Briton himself spoke with quite a foreign accent, having been six years in France; but his Lancashire dialect reappeared in conversation, and he said he had just been reading about the canoe in a Manchester paper. His children had gone that morning to a Sunday-school before they came out by railway to fish in the river here; but I could not help contrasting their rude north country manners with the good behaviour of the little "lady and gentleman," children of my host. One of these, Philibert, was very intelligent, and spent an hour or two with me, so we became great friends. He asked all kinds of questions about England and America, and was delighted to receive a little book with a picture in it, to read it to his father, for it contained the remarkable conversation between Napoleon and his Marshal at St. Helena concerning the Christian religion, a paper well worth reading, whoever spoke the words.

This Sunday being an annual village fête, a band played, and some very uncouth couples waltzed the whole day. Large flocks of sheep, following their shepherds, wandered over the arid soil. The poor geese, too, were flapping their wings in vain as they tried to swim in water an inch deep, where usually there had been some pleasant pools in the river. I sympathized with the geese, for I missed my river sadly too. My bill here for two nights, with plenty to eat and drink, amounted to five shillings, and I left good Madame Nico with some regret, starting again on the canal, which looked more dull and dirty than before. After one or two locks this sort of travelling became so insufferable that I suddenly determined to change my plans entirely--for is not one free?

A few moments of thought, and I got on the bank to look for a way of deliverance. By the present route several days would be consumed in going over the hills over a series of tedious locks; and this very canal had been already traversed by the four-oar boat Waterwitch some years ago. Far off could be seen the vine-clad hills of the Vosges, and I decided at once to leave the canal, cross the country to those hills, cart the canoe over the range, and so reach the source of the Moselle, and thus begin to paddle on quite another set of rivers. We therefore turned the prow back, went down the canal, and again entered the river Ill, but soon found it was now too shallow to float even my canoe. Once more I retraced my way, ascending the locks, and passing by Illfurth, went on to reach a village where a cart could be had. Desperation made me paddle hard even in the fierce sun, but it was not that this so much troubled me as the humiliation of thus rowing back and forward for miles on a dirty, stagnant canal, and passing by the same locks two or three times, with the full conviction that the people who gazed at the procedure must believe me not only to be mad (this much one can put up with), but furiously insane, and dangerous to be at large.

Nobody likes to be stared at, and he must be bold indeed who can bear the sufferings of a martyr, without his cause or his glory. Ah, we are getting out of our depth, I fear, in metaphysics, which means, you know, "When ane mann explains till anither what he disna understaun himsel, that's metapheesics."

Well, when we came to the prescribed village, named Haidwiller, they had plenty of carts, but not one would come to help me even for a good round sum. It was their first day with the grapes, and "ancient customs must be observed;" so we went on still further to another village, where they were letting out the water from the canal to repair a lock.

Here was a position of unenviable repose for poor Rob Roy. No water to float in, and no cart to carry her. To aid deliberation I attacked a large cake of hot flour baked by the lock-keeper's dirty wife, and we stuck plums in it to make it go down, while the man hied off to the fields to get some animal that could drag a clumsy vehicle--cart is too fine a name for it--which I had impressed from a ploughman near.

The man came back leading a gloomy-looking bullock, and we started with the boat now travelling on wheels, but at a most dignified pace. Our sketch opposite represents the lady cow which dragged the cart at Lauffenburg, but it will do almost equally well for the present equipage.

The Rob Roy on Wheels

This was the arrangement till we reached another village, which had no vineyards, and where therefore we soon found a horse, instead of the gruff bullock; while the natives were lost in amazement to see a boat in a cart, and a foreigner in neutral tint gabbling beside it.

The sun was exceedingly hot, and the road was dusty; but the walk was a pleasant change, though my driver kept muttering to himself about my preference of foot-pace to the fearful jolts of his cart.

We passed thus through several villages on a fine fruitful plain, and at some of them the horse had to bait, or the driver to lunch, or his employer to refresh the inner man, in every case the population being favoured with an account by the driver of all he knew about the boat, and a great deal more. At one of the inns on the road some new wine was placed on the table. It had been made only the day before, and its appearance was exactly like that of cold tea, with milk and sugar in it, while its taste was very luscious and sweet. This new wine is sometimes in request, but especially among the women. "Corn shall make the young men cheerful, and new wine the maids." (Zech. ix. 17.)


[footnote 1]: See an inventory of these in the Appendix.

[footnote 2]: In the Baltic voyage the luggage was placed out of the way, forward, and the canoe being 20lbs. lighter than the old Rob Roy, many improvements were of course effected in passages of this sort. The invaluable "post-office" waterproof bag of the Jordan cruise is the last improvement in this direction.

[footnote 3]: MEM.--Go thus accoutred when you wish to "shop" at half-price.

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