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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 12

River Thur-- Fire! Fire!-- Over the Vosges-- "Th"-- Popish Pilgrims-- Source of the Moselle-- Remiremont-- Launched on the Moselle-- Lovely Scenes-- The Paddle-- Spell-bound-- Washerwomen-- Graceful Salute-- Run away with-- Policemen.

THE little flag of the Rob Roy, which was always hoisted, even in a cart, showed signs of animation as evening came on, being revived by a fresh cool breeze from the beautiful Vosges mountains when we gradually brought their outline more distinctly near. Then we had to cross the river Thur, but that was an easy matter in these scorching days of drought. So the cavalcade went on till we drove the cart into the pretty town of Thann. The driver insisted on our going to his hotel, but I saw at once it could not be the best in the town of this size (for experience quickens perception in these matters), and I simply took the reins, backed out of the yard, and drove to a better one.

Here the hotel-keeper had read of the Rob Roy, so it was received with all the honours, and the best of good things was at our disposal. In the evening I burned the magnesium lights as usual to amuse the rustics, who came in great crowds along the road, drawing home their bullock-carts, loaded with large vats full of the new grapes, and singing hoarsely as they waved flowers and garlands aloft, and danced around them--the rude rejoicings for a bounteous vine harvest. It is remarkable how soon the good singing of Germany is missed when you cross into France, though the language of the peasant here was German enough and his sympathies too.

At night we went to see an experiment in putting out fires. A large bonfire was lighted in the market-place, and the inventor of the new apparatus came forward, carrying on his back a vessel full of water; under the pressure of "six atmospheres" of carbonic acid gas. He directed this on the fire from a small squirt at the end of a tube, and it was certainly most successful in immediately extinguishing the flames. [footnote 1] This gentleman and other savants of the town then visited the boat, and the usual entertainment of the sketch-book closed a pleasant day, which had begun with every appearance of being the reverse. Although this is a busy place, I found only one book-shop in it, and that a very bad one. A priest and two nuns were making purchases there, and I noticed that more images and pictures than printed books were kept for sale.

Next morning a new railroad enabled me to take the canoe a little further into the hills; but the officials fought hard to make her go separate, that is, in a "merchandise" train, though I said the boat was "my wife," and could not travel alone. At last they put their wise heads together; filled up five separate printed forms, charged double fare, and the whole thing cost me just ninepence. Verily, the French are still overloaded with forms, and are still in the straitwaistcoat of système.

The railway winds among green mountains, while here and there a "fabrik," or factory, nestles in a valley, or illumines a hill-side at night with its numerous windows lighted up. These are the chief depôts of that wonderful industry of taste which spreads the shawls and scarfs of France before the eyes of an admiring world, for ladies to covet, and for their husbands to buy. It is said that the designs for patterns here cost large sums, as if they were the oil paintings of the first masters, and that three times as much is paid in France for cutting one pattern in wood as will be given by an English manufacturer.

At Wesserling we managed to mount the Rob Roy on a spring vehicle, and we set off gaily up the winding road that passes the watershed of the Vosges mountains. I never had a more charming drive. For six hours we were among woods, vineyards, bright rivulets, and rich pastures. Walking up a hill, we overtook a carriage, and found one of the occupants was an Englishman. But he had resided in France for more than twenty years, so really one could scarcely understand his English. He spoke of "dis ting," and "ve vill go," and frequently mingled French and German words with his native tongue. In a newspaper article here we noticed after the name "Matthews" the editor had considerately added, "pronounced in English, Massious." This was well enough for a Frenchman, but it was difficult to conceive how a real live Briton could fail in pronouncing "th." When he found out my name, he grasped my hand, and said how deeply interested he had been in a pamphlet written by one of the clan. [footnote 2]

The spring carriage had been chartered as an expensive luxury in this cheap tour, that is to say, my boat and myself were to be carried about thirty-five miles in a comfortable four-wheeled vehicle for twenty-six francs--not very dear when you consider that it saved a whole day's time to me and a whole day's jolting to the canoe, which seemed to enjoy its soft bed on the top of the cushion, and to appreciate very well the convenience of springs. After a good hard pull up a winding road we got to the top of the pass of this "little Switzerland," as it is called, and here was a tunnel on the very crest of the watershed.

The arch of this dark tunnel as we passed through it made an excellent frame to a magnificent picture; broad France lay stretched before me. Every stream at our back went down to the all-absorbing Rhine, but those in front would wend their various ways, some to the Mediterranean, others into the Bay of Biscay, and the rest into the British Channel. A thousand peaks and wooded knolls were on this side and that, while a dim panorama of five or six villages and sunny plains extended in front. This was the chain of the Vosges mountains and their pleasant vales, where many valorous men have been reared. The most noted crusaders came from this district, from here the great Napoleon drew his best soldiers, and here there limped but lately the brave red-shirted Garibaldi. [footnote 3] Most of the community are Protestants.

High up on our left is a pilgrim station, where thousands of people come year by year, and probably they get fresh air and useful exercise. The French seem to walk farther for superstitious purposes than for exercise or amusement. [footnote 4]

Our English friend now got into my carriage, and we drove a little way from the road to the village of Bussang to see the source of the Moselle. This beautiful river rises under the "Ballon d'Alsace," a lofty mountain with a rounded top, and the stream consists at first of four or five very tiny trickling rivulets which unite and come forth in a little spring well about the size of a washing-tub, from which the water flows across the road in a channel that you can bridge with your fingers. But this bubbling brook had great interest for me, as I meant to follow its growth until it would be strong enough to bear me on its cool, clear water; which as yet was only like feathers strewed among the grass, and singing its first music very pretty and low.

A romantic man must have piquant thought at the sight of a great river's source, and a poetic man must be stirred by its sentiment. Every great thought must also have had a source or germ, and it would be interesting to know how and when some of the grand ideas that have afterwards aroused nations first thrilled in the brain of a genius, a warrior, a philosopher; or a statesman. And besides having a source, each stream of thought had a current too, with ripples and deep pools, and scenery, as it were, around. Some thoughts are lofty, others broad; some are straight, and others round about; some are rushing, while others glide; only a few are both clear and deep.

But we are not to launch upon fancy's dreams, or to linger among the pretty valleys in the Vosges; and we go through these to find real water for the Rob Roy, and in this search we keep descending every hour. When the bright stars came out they glittered below thick trees in pools of the water now so quickly become, a veritable river; and I scanned each lagoon in the darkness to know if it was still too small for the boat.

At Remiremont there was a bad sort of inn, where all was disorder and dirt. The driver sat down with me to a late supper; and behaved with true French politeness, which always shows better company than in private, or when real self-denial or firm friendship is to be tested. So he ate of his five different courses, and had his wine, fruit, and neat little etceteras, and my bill next day for our united entertainment and lodging was just 3s. 4d. This cocher was an intelligent man, and conversed on his own range of subjects with considerable tact, and when our conversation was turned upon the greater things of another world he said, "They must be happy there, for none of them have ever come back"--a strange thought, oddly phrased. As he became interested in the subject, I gave him a paper upon it, which he at once commenced to read aloud. [footnote 5]

Next morning, the 20th of September; the Rob Roy was brought to the door in a handcart, and was soon attended by its usual levee; but as we had come into the town late at night the gazers were ignorant of any claims this canoe might have upon their respect, and some of them derided the idea of its being able to float on the river here, or at any rate to go more than a mile or two. Having previously taken a long walk before breakfast to examine the Moselle, I was convinced that it could be begun even here and in this dry season. The porter was therefore ordered to advance, and the boat moved towards the river amid plaudits rather ambiguous, until a curious old gentleman, with green spectacles and a white hat, kindly brought the sceptical mob to their senses by telling them that he had read often about the boat, and they must not make fun of it now.

Then they all chopped round and changed their minds in a moment--the fickle French--and they helped me with a will, and carried the Rob Roy about a mile to the spot fixed upon for the start, which was speedily executed, with a loud and warm "Adieu!" and "Bon voyage!" from all.

It was pleasant again to grasp the paddle and to find dear water below, which we had not seen since the Danube, also a steady current, that was so much missed on the sluggish river Ill, and the Basel Canal. Pretty water flowers quivered in the ripples round the mossy stones, and park-like meadows sloped to the river with fruit trees heavy laden. After half an hour of congratulation that we had come to the Moselle rather than the Saone and the Doubs, I settled down to my work with gladness.

The water of this river was very clear and cool, meandering through long deep pools, and then over gurgling shallows; and the fish, waterfowl, woods, and lovely green fields were a most welcome change from the canal we had left. The sun was intensely hot, but the spare jib, as a shawl on my shoulders, defied its fierce rays and so we glided along in solitary enjoyment. The numerous shallows required much activity with the paddle, and the Rob Roy had more bumps and thumps to-day than in any other day of the cruise. Of course I had often to get out and to tow her through the water: sometimes through the fields, or over rocks, but this was easily done with canvas shoes on, and flannel trousers made for constant ducking.

The aspect of the river had an unusual character for several miles, with low banks sloping backwards, and richly carpeted with grass, so that the view on either side was ample; while in front was a spacious picture of successive levels, seen to great advantage as the Rob Roy glided smoothly on crystal waters lipped with green. Again the playful river descends by sudden leaps and deep falls, chiefly artificial, and some trouble is caused in getting down each of these, for the boat had to be lowered by hand, with a good deal of gymnastic exercise among the slippery rocks, which were mantled by mosses and lichens that were studded in anything but botanical order.

The paddle now felt so natural in my hands from long use of it every day, that it was held unconsciously. In the beginning of my practice various tethers and ties were invented to secure this all-important piece of furniture from being lost if it should fall overboard, and I had practised what ought to be done if the paddle should ever be beaten out of my hand by a wave, or dropped into the water in a moment of carelessness. But none of these plans were satisfactory in actual service. The strings got entangled when I jumped out suddenly, or I forgot the thing was tied when it had to be thrown out on the shore, so it was better to have the paddle perfectly loose, and thus free, it never was dropped, even in those times of confusion when twenty things had to be done, and each to be done first, when an upset was imminent, and a jump out had to be managed instead. [footnote 6]

The movement of the paddle, then, became involuntary, just as the legs are moved in walking, and the ordinary difficulties of a river seemed to be understood by the mind without special observation, and to be dealt with naturally, without hesitation or reasoning as to what ought to be done. This faculty increased until long gazes upwards to the higher grounds or to the clouds above were fully indulged without apparently interrupting the steady and proper navigation of the boat, even when it was moving with speed.

On one of these occasions I had got into a train of thought on this subject, and was regretting that the course of the stream made me turn my back on the best scenery. I had spun round two or three times to feast my eyes upon some glowing peaks, lit up by the setting sun, until a sort of fascination seized the mind, and a quiet lethargy crept over the system; and, moreover, a most illogical persuasion then settled that the boat always did go right, and that one need not be so much on the alert to steer well. This notion still held me as we came into a cluster of a dozen rocks all dotted about, and with the stream welling over this one and rushing over that, and yet I was spell-bound and doggedly did nothing to guide the boat's course. But the water was avenged on this foolish defiance of its power, for in a moment I was driven straight on a great rock, only two inches below the surface, and the boat at once swung round, broadside on the current, and then slowly but determinedly began to turn over. At it canted more and more my lax muscles were rudely aroused to action, for the plain fact stared out baldly that this stupid, lazy fit would end in a regular ducking.

The worst of it was I was not sitting erect, but stretched almost at full length in the boat, and one leg was entangled inside by the strap of my bag. In the moments following (that seem minutes in such a case) a gush of thoughts went through the mind while the poor little boat was still turning over, until at last I gave a spring from my awkward position to jump into the water. The jerk released the canoe from the rock, but only the head and arms of its captain fell into the river--though in a most undignified pose, which was soon laughed off, when my seat was recovered, with a wet wig and dripping sleeves, which soon quite wakened and sobered me. So it was well to have done with sentiment and reveries, for the river was now quite in earnest about going along.

Washing Barge

Permit me again to invite attention to the washerwomen; for this institution, which one does not find thus floating on our streams in England, becomes a very frequent object of interest if you canoe it on the Continent.

As the well in Eastern countries is the recognized place for gossiping, and in colder climes a good deal of politics is settled in the barber's shop, so here in fluvial districts the washing-barge is the forum of feminine eloquence.

The respectability of a town as you approach it is shadowed forth by the size and ornaments of the blanchtseusses' float; and as there are often fifty faces seen at once, the type of female loveliness may be studied for a district at a time. While they wash they talk, and while they talk they thump and belabour the clothes; but there is always some idle eye wandering which speedily will catch sight of the Rob Roy canoe.

In smaller villages, and where there is no barge for them to use, the women have to do without one, and they kneel on the ground, so that even in far-off parts of the river we are sure to find them. A flat-sounding whack! whack! tells that round the corner we shall come upon at least a couple of washerwomen, homely dames, with brown faces and tall caps, who are wringing, slapping, and scrubbing the "linge." Though this may encourage the French cotton trade, I rejoice that my own shirts are of strong woollen stuff, which defies their buffeting.

I always fraternized with these ladies, doffing my hat, and drawing back my left foot for a bow, though the graceful action was not observed under the macintosh. Other travellers, also, may find there is something to be seen and heard if they pass five minutes at the washing-barge. But even if it were not instructive and amusing thus to study character when a whole group is met with at once, surely it is to be remembered that the pleasure of seeing a new sight and of hearing a foreigner speak cheerful and kind words is to many of these hard-working, honest mothers a bright interlude in a life of toil.

To give pleasure is one of the best pleasures of a tourist; and it is in acting thus that the lone traveller feels no loneliness, while he pleases and is pleased. Two Englishmen may travel together agreeably among foreigners for a week without learning so much of the life, and mind, and manners of the people as will be learned in one day if each of the tourists goes alone, provided he is not too shy or too proud to open his eyes, and ears, and mouth among strangers, and if he has sense enough to be an exception to the rule that "Every Englishman is an island."

Merely for a change, I now ran the Rob Roy into a long millrace in search of breakfast. This stream having secured hold of the boat soon ran away with us stealthily in a winding course among the hayfields, and quite out of reach of the river, until it seemed that after all we were only in a streamlet for irrigation, which would vanish into rills an inch deep in a meadow. However, I put a bold face on it, and gravely and swiftly sped through the fields, and bestowed a nod now and then on the rural gazers. A fine boy of twelve years old soon trotted alongside, and I asked him if he was "an honest lad," which he answered by a blush, and "Yes." "Here is a franc, then. Go and buy me bread and wine, and meet me at the mill."

A few of the mill hands soon found out the canoe, which was moored, as I had thought, in quiet retirement, with its captain resting under a tree, and presently a whole crowd of them swarmed out, and shouted with delight as they pressed round to see. The boy brought a very large bottle of wine, and a loaf big enough to dine four men; and I set to work with a canoeist's appetite, and that happy sang-froid which no multitude of gazers now could disturb. Presently, one of the party invited me into her house, and soon set delicate viands before the new guest, while the others filled the room in an instant, and they were replaced by sets of fifty at a time, all very good-humoured and respectful.

But it was so hot and bustling here that I resolved to go away and have a more pleasant and sulky meal by myself on some inaccessible island. The retreat through the crowd had to be regularly prepared for by military tactics; so I appointed four of the most troublesome boys as "policemen" to guard the boat in its transit across the fields, but they discharged their new duties with such vigour that two little fellows were soon knocked over into the canoe, and so we launched off, while the manager of the factory called in vain to his cotton-spinners, who were all now in full cry after the boat, and were taking a holiday without leave.

As I trace these lines, written first in sunny, laughing times of wayward France, it does indeed look as if her gloom of midnight had come at last as on a dark December day. Unhappy child of Europe, laughing, screaming, singing, raging, mountebank of the nations, scapegrace, and yet somehow the pet of us all, we are ashamed of you and yet proud of you--pretty, giddy France.


[footnote 1]: This invention, l'Extincteur, has since become well known in London, and it seems to be a valuable one.

[footnote 2]: The Loss of the Kent East Indiaman by Fire in the Bay of Biscay, by General Sir D. MacGregor, K. C. B. (Religious Tract Society, Paternoster Row.) See a further note on this in the Appendix.

[footnote 3]: The giant called "Anak," who was lately exhibited in London, came from the Vosges mountains.

[footnote 4]: Among other celebrated French "stations" there is the mountain of La Salette, near Grenoble, where, even in one day, 16,000 pilgrims have ascended to visit the spot where the Virgin Mary was said to have spoken to some shepherds. On the occasion of my pilgrimage there I met some donkeys with panniers bringing down holy water (in lemonade bottles) which was sold throughout Europe for a shilling a bottle, until a priest at the bottom of the mountain started a private pump of his own. The woman who had been hired to personate the Holy Saint confessed the deception, and it was exploded before the courts of law in a report which I read on the spot; but the Roman Catholic papers, even in England, published attractive articles to support this flagrant imposture, and its truth and goodness were vehemently proclaimed in a book by the Romish Bishop of Birmingham, with the assent of the Pope.

Methinks it is easier to march barefoot 100 miles over sharp stones than to plod a true and honest walk of life on common pavement and with strong soled boots.

[footnote 5]: Some days previously a stranger gave me a bundle of papers to read, for which I thanked him much. Afterwards at leisure I examined the packet, which consisted of about thirty large pages sewn together, and comprising tracts upon politics, science, literature, and religion. The last subject was prominent, and was dealt with in a style clever, caustic, and censorious, which interested me much. These tracts were printed in England, and with good paper and type. They are a weekly series, distributed everywhere at six shillings a dozen, and each page is entitled "The Saturday Review."

[footnote 6]: After ten more voyages with precisely the same result, it may be stated that a spare paddle, so often recommended, would be quite superfluous. The bamboo mast was meant originally to serve also as a boat-hook or hitcher, and had a ferrule and a fishing gaff neatly fastened on the end which went into the mast step. I recollect having used the boat-hook once at Gravesend, but it was instantly seen to be a mistake. You don't want a boat-hook when your canoe can come close alongside where it is deep, and will ground when it is shallow. Besides, to use a boat-hook you must drop the paddle.

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