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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 13

River Moselle-- The Tramp-- Battery of Blessings-- Halcyon-- Painted Woman-- Sad Loss-- Very Shabby-- In a Hedge-- A Discovery-- River Meurthe-- Flirting-- Ducks-- A Moving House-- A Mother's Tear-- Night Frolic-- Salt Mine-- Work for the Young.

UNDER an arch of dark foliage, where the water was deep and still, I moored to the long grass, cast my tired limbs into the fantastic folds of ease, and, while the bottle lasted and the bread, I watched the bees and butterflies, and the beetles and the rats, and the coloured tribes of air and water life that one can see so well in a quiet half-hour like this.

How little we are taught at school about these wondrous communities, each with its laws and instincts, its beauties of form, and marvellous ingenuities! How little of flowers and insects, or of trees and animals, a boy learns as school-lessons, while he is getting beaten into him at one end, and crammed in at the other, the complicated politics of heathen gods, and their impossible loves and faction fights.

The Moselle now rapidly enlarged in volume, though one could easily see that its stream had seldom been so low before. It is a very beautiful river to row on, especially in the higher waters. Then it winds to the west and north, and again, turning a little eastwards, it traverses a lovely country between Treves and Coblentz to join the ancient Rhine.

My resting-place this evening was at Epinal, a town with little to interest; and so we could turn to books and pencils until it was time for bed. Next morning the scenery was by no means attractive, but there was plenty of hard work, which was enjoyed very much, my shoes and socks being off all day, for it was useless to put them on when so many occasions required me to jump out. Here it was a plain country, with a gravel soil, and fast rushing of current; and then long pools like the Serpentine, and winding turns leading entirely round some central hill which the river insisted upon circumventing.

At noon we came upon a large number of labourers at work on a milldam, and as this sort of crowd generally betokens something to eat (always, at any rate, some drinkable fluid), I left my boat boldly in mid-stream, and knocked at a cottage, when an old woman came out.

"Madame, I am hungry, and you are precisely the lady who can make me an omelette."

"Sir, I have nothing to give you."

"Why," said I, "look at these hens; I am sure they have laid six eggs this morning, they seem so conceited."

She evidently thought I was a tramp demanding alms, and when told to look at the boat which had come from England, she said she was too old and too blind to see. However, we managed to make an omelette together, and she stood by (with an eye, perhaps, to her only fork) and chatted pleasantly, asking "What have you got to sell?" I told her I had come there only for pleasure. "What sort of pleasure, Monsieur, can you possibly hope to find in this place?" But I was far too gallant to say bluntly that her particular mansion was not the ultimate object of the tour. After receiving a franc for the rough breakfast, she kept up a battery of blessings till the Rob Roy started, and she ended by shrieking out to a navvy looking on, "I tell you every Englishman is rich!"

Next day was bright and blue-skyed as before, and an early start found the fresh morning air on the river. Its name is sometimes pronounced "Moselle," and at other times "Mosel," what we should call "Mozle." When a Frenchman speaks of "la Moselle," he puts an equal emphasis on each of the three syllables he is pronouncing; whereas generally we Englishmen call this river Mosélle. The name of a long river often goes through changes as it traverses various districts and dialects; for instance, the Missouri, which you hear the travellers in Kansas call "Mzoory," while they wend along the Californian road.

When the scenery is tame to the canoeist, and the channel of the river is not made interesting by dangers to be avoided, then he can always turn again to the animals and birds, and in five minutes of watching he will surely see much to please. Here, for instance, we have the little kingfisher again, who had met us on the Danube and the Reuss, and whom we all know well in England; but now we are on a visit to his domain, and we see him in private alone. There are several varieties of this bird, and they differ in form and colour of plumage. This "Royal bird," the Halcyon of antiquity, the Alcedo in classic tongue, is called in German "Eisvogal," or "Ice bird," perhaps because he fishes even m winter's frost, or because his nest is like a bundle of icicles, being made of minnows' bones most curiously wrought together.

But now it is on a summer day, and he is perched on a twig within two inches of the water, and under the shade of a briar leaf, his little parasol. He is looking for fish, and is so steady that you may easily pass him without observing that gaudy back of azure, or the breast of blushing red.

When I desire to see these birds, I quietly move my boat till it grounds on a bank, and after it is stationary thus for a few minutes, the Halycon fisher becomes quite unconcerned, and plies his pretty pranks as if unseen. He peers with knowing eye into the shallow below him, and now and then he dips his head a bit to make quite sure he has marked a fish worth seizing; then suddenly he darts down with a spluttering splash, and flies off with a little white minnow, or a struggling sticklebat nipped in his beak. If it is caught thus crosswise, the winged fisherman tosses his prey into the air, and nimbly catches it in his mouth, so that it may be gulped down properly. Then he quivers and shakes with satisfaction, and quickly speeds him to another perch, flitting by you with wonderful swiftness, as if a sapphire had been flung athwart the sunbeam, flashing beauteous colours in its flight.

Or, if bed-time has come, or he is fetching home the family dinner, he flutters on and on, and then with a sharp little note of "good-bye" he pops into a hole, the dark staircase to his tiny nest, and there he finds Mrs. Halcyon sitting in state, and thirteen baby kingfishers gaping for the dainty fish. This pretty bird has an air of quaint mystery, soft beauty, and vivid motion, all combined, which has made him a favourite with the Rob Roy, and often we have paddled beside him on the deep jungle banks of Jordan.

Strangely enough, the Moselle in this part of its course actually gets less and less as you descend it. Every few miles some of the water is drawn off by a small canal to irrigate the neighbouring land, and in a season of drought like this very little of the abstracted part returns. They told me that the river never has been so "basse" for thirty years, and I was therefore an unlucky voyageur in having to do for the first time what could have been done more easily in any other season.

As evening fell we reached the town of Chatel, and the Rob Roy was sent to bed in the wash-house of the hotel. But five minutes had not elapsed before a string of visitors came for the usual inspection of the boat. While I sauntered along the bridge a sprightly youth came up, who had not seen the canoe, but who knew I was "one of her crew." He was most enthusiastic on the subject, and took me to see his boat, a ghastly-looking flat-bottomed open cot, painted all manner of patterns; and as he was extremely proud of her, I did not tell him that a boat is like a woman, too good for paint, which spoils a pretty one, and makes a plain one hideous.

Then he came for a look at the Rob Roy, and, poor fellow, it was amusing to observe how instantly his countenance fell from pride to envy. He had a "boating mind," but he had never seen a really pretty boat till now. However, to console himself he invited me to another hotel to drink success to the canoe in Bavarian beer, and to see my drawings, and then I found that my intelligent, eager, and, we may add, gentlemanly friend was the waiter there!

A melancholy sensation pervaded the Rob Roy to-day, in consequence of a sad event, the loss of the captain's knife. We had three knives on board in starting from England: one had been already given away in reward for some signal service, another was lost, and no wonder--in so many leaps and somersaults. The canoeman should have his boat knife secured to a lanyard.

A singular conformation of the river-bed was observed upon this part of the Moselle. Without much warning the banks of rock became quite vertical and narrowed close together. They reminded me of the rock-cutting near Liverpool, on the old railway to Manchester. The stream there was very deep, but its bed was full of enormous stones and crags, very sharp and jagged, which, however, could be easily avoided, because the current was gentle.

A man I found fishing told me that a little further on there was an "impossible" place, so when after half a mile the well-known sound of rushing waters came, we beat to quarters and prepared for action. The ribbon to keep my hat was tied down. Sleeves and trousers were tucked up. The apron was braced tight, and the baggage secured below; and then came the eager pleasures of wishing, hoping, expecting, fearing--those mingled elements of what we call "excitement."

Very soon the river itself took a very strange form. If you suppose a trench cut along Oxford-street to get at the gas-pipes, and if all the water of a river which had filled the street before were to suddenly disappear in the trench, that would be exactly what the Moselle had become.

The plateau of rock on each side was perfectly dry, through in flood times, no doubt, the river covers that too. The river boiled and foamed through this channel from three to twenty feet deep, but only in the trench, which was not five feet wide. An intelligent man came near to see me enter this curious passage, but when we had gone a little way I had to stop the boat, by putting my hands on both sides of the river! Then I debarked and carefully let the boat drive along the current, but still held by the painter. Soon the current was too narrow and fast even for this process, so I pulled the canoe upon the dry rock, and sat down to breathe and to cool my panting frame. Two other gentlemen had come near me by this time, and on a bridge above them were several more with ladies. I had to drag the boat some hundred yards over most awkward rocks, and these men hovered round and admired, and even talked to me, and actually praised my perseverance, yet not. one offer of any help did any one of them give!

In deep water again, and now exactly under the bridge I looked up and found the whole party regarding the Rob Roy with curiosity and smiles. Within a few yards was a large house that these people had come from, and I thought their smiles were surely to preface, "Would you not like a glass of wine, Sir, after your hour of hard work?" But as it meant nothing of the sort I could not help answering their united adieux! by these words, "Adieu, ladies and gentlemen. Many to look, but none to help. The exhibition is gratuitous!" Was it rude to say this? I couldn't help thinking it.

One or two other places gave trouble without interest, such as when we had to push the boat into a hedge point foremost, and to pull it through by main force from the other side, and then, after all, we had pushed her into the wrong field, so the operation had to be done over again in a reverse direction. But all this counted in the day's work, and it was forgotten after a good sleep, or was recompensed by some interesting adventure. The water of the Moselle is so clear that the scenery under the surface continually occupied my attention. In one long reach, unusually deep and quiet, and shallow, because of the long drought, I was gazing down at some huge trout, when a large stone, the upper part of a fine column, was suddenly perceived at the bottom, at least ten feet below me. The capital showed it to be Ionic, and near this was another, a broken pediment of large dimensions, and a little further on a pedestal of white marble. I carefully examined both banks, to see if a Roman villa or bridge, or other ruin, indicated how these subaqueous reliques had come into this strange position, and I inquired diligently at Charmes, the next town; but although much curiosity was shown on the subject, no information was obtained, except that the Romans had built a fort somewhere on the river (but plainly not at that spot), so we may consider that the casual glance at the fish revealed a curious fragment of the past hitherto probably unnoticed, and that these carved pillars may have been upset in this pool many centuries ago.

After paddling along the Moselle, from as near to its source as my canoe could find water, until the scenery became dull at Charmes, we bid farewell to this beauteous stream, which in years since then has had its waters burdened with corpses and fouled by the carrion of ten thousand chargers--starved or slain.

It was resolved to go next to Blainville, on the river Meurthe, which is a tributary of the Moselle, for I thought some new scenery might be found in this direction. The Rob Roy was therefore sent by herself in a goods' train, the first separation between us for three months. It seemed as if the little boat, leaning on its side in the truck, turned from me reproachfully, and we foreboded all sorts of accidents to its delicate frame, but the only thing lost was a sponge, a necessary appendage to a boat's outfit when you desire to keep it perfectly dry and clean, and an article frequently stolen afterwards in my Baltic cruise.

Two railway porters, with much good-humoured laughing, carried the Rob Roy from the station to the water, and again we paddled cheerily on a new river, with scenery and character quite different from the Moselle. The Meurthe winds through rich plains of soft earth, with few rocks and little gravel. But then in its shallows it has long thick mossy weeds, all under the surface. These were found to be very troublesome, because they got entangled with my paddle, and since they could not be seen beforehand, the best channel was not discernible, as it is where rocks or gravel give those various forms of ripples which the captain of a canoe soon learns to scan like a chart telling the depth in inches. Moreover, when you get grounded among these long weeds, all pointed down stream, it is very difficult to back out, for it is then like combing your hair against the grain.

French Fishers

The larger rivers in France are all thoroughly fished. In every nook you find a fisherman. They are just as numerous here as they are rare in Germany. And yet one would think that fishing is surely more adapted to the contemplative German than to the vivacious French. Yet, here they are in France by hundreds, both men and women, and every day, each staring intently on a tiny float, or at the grasshopper bait, and he is quite satisfied it now and then he can pull up a fish the size of your thumb. Not one of these fishers I spoke to had ever seen an artificial fly.

Generally, these people are alone, and when they asked me at hotels if I did not feel lonely in the canoe, the answer was, "Look at your fishermen, for hours by choice alone. They have something to occupy attention every moment, and so have I." Sometimes, however, there is a whole party in one clumsy boat. The pater familias sits content, and recks not if all his time is spent in baiting his line and lighting his pipe. The lazy "hopeful" lies at full length on the grass, while a younger brother strains every nerve to hook a knowing fish that is laughing at him under water, and winking its pale eye to see the fisher just toppling over. Mademoiselle chatters whether there are bites or not, and another, the fair cousin, has got on shore, where she can bait her hook and set her cap and simper to the bold admirer by her side.

Then besides, we have the fishers with nets. These are generally three men in a boat, with its stem and its stern cocked up, and the whole affair looking as if it must upset. Exactly such boats were painted by Raphael in the great Cartoons, where it may be observed how small the boat is when compared with the men it carries.

Again, there are some young lads searching under the stones for ecrevisses, the freshwater prawns so much in request, but which give very little food for a great deal of trouble. Near these fishers the pike plies his busy sportsman's life below the surface, and sometimes a poor little trout would leap high into the air to escape from the long-nosed pursuer, who followed him even out of the water, and snapped his jaws on the sweet morsel impudently. This sound, added to the very suspicious appearance of the Rob Roy gliding among the islands; decides the doubtful point with a duck, the leader of a flock of wild ducks that have been swimming down stream in front of me with a quick glance on each side, every one of them seemingly indignant at this intrusion on their haunts. At last they find it really will not do, so with a scream and a spring they flap the water and rise in a body to seek if there be not elsewhere at least some one nook to nestle in where John Bull does not come.

That bell you hear tinkling is at the ferry, to call the ferryman who lives at the other side, and he will jump into his clumsy boat, which is tied to a pulley running on a rope stretched tight across the river. He has only to put his oar aslant and the current soon brings the boat to the other bank. Paddling on further, after a chat with the ferryman (he is sure to be ready for that), a phenomenon appears. We see a house, large, new, and of two stories high,--it has actually moved. We noticed it a few minutes ago, and now it has changed its position. While we gaze in astonishment, lo! the whole house entirely disappears. Now, the true explanation of this is soon found when we get round the next corner of the reach;--the house is a great wooden bathing "établissement," built on a barge, and it is being slowly dragged up the stream.

After wonder comes sentiment. Three women are seen on the river-bank evidently in great alarm: a mother, a daughter, and a servant-maid, who are searching in vain for two boys, supposed to have gone away to fish, but now missing for many hours. The ladies eagerly inquired if I had seen the lads, and implored me with tears to give them advice. I tried my best to recollect, but no! I had not seen the boys, and so the women went away distracted, and left me sorrowful--who would not be so at a woman's tears, a mother's too? But suddenly, when tolling in the middle of a difficult piece of rock-work, I remembered having seen those very boys, so I ran over the fields after the anxious mamma and soon assured her that the children had been safe an hour ago, and their faithful servant with them, but that he had become the fisherman, and they, like boys, had soon tired of the rod, and were playing with a goat. When the poor mother heard that the little fellows were safe, her tears of joy were quite affecting, and they vividly recalled one's schoolboy days, when the thoughtless playtime of childhood so often entails anxiety on a loving mother's heart. Such, then, are the river sights and river wonders, new, though perhaps trifling, but far more lively and entertaining than the common incidents of a dusty road, or a whirring, shrieking train.

With a few wadings and bumpings, and one or two "vannes," or weirs, we slipped along pleasantly until evening came. Still it was only a slow stream, and the towers of St. Nicholas, long visible on the horizon, seemed ever to move from side to side without being any nearer, so much does this river wind in its course. The Rob Roy paddled at her best pace, but the evening rapidly grew darker, until we overtook two youths in a boat, the first time we had noticed Frenchmen rowing for exercise. They could not keep up with the canoe, so I had to leave them ingloriously aground on a bank, and yet they were too lazy to get out and help their boat over the difficulty.

Next there was a great weir about fifteen feet in height, the deepest we had encountered, and half a sigh was heaved that there was no escape from the bother of getting out and gymnasticizing here after a long day's work to get the boat over this weir in the dark; and then, what was far worse, I found myself in a maze of shallows, without any light to see how to get through them. Whenever I stopped for a rest, there was only darkness, silence, and no motion--not even the excitement of a current to arouse. Finally, I had to wade and haul the boat along, and jump in and ferry myself over the pools, for nearly half a mile, until at length the "look-out" man of our starboard watch hailed loudly, "A bridge and a house on the lee bow!" and a joyous cheer burst forth from the crew. All this, which may be told in a few lines, took a full hour of very tiresome work, though, as there was no current, there was no danger, and it was merely tedious, wet, unlighted, and uncomfortable, so I sang and whistled all the time.

When the bridge was reached of course there must be a town, and then happened a scene almost an exact counterpart of that which took place at Gegglingen, on the Danube. For when after hauling up my boat on the dark shore, and all dripping wet, I mounted to the house above, and aroused the inmates,--a window opened, and a worthy couple appeared in their night-dresses, holding a candle to examine the intruder. The tableau was most comical. The man asked, "Is it a farce?" He could scarcely expect a traveller from England to arrive there at such an hour. But he soon helped me to carry the boat to a little Restaurant, where a dozen men were drinking, who rushed out with lamps to look at the boat, and we had to carry her through the dark streets to another house, where another lot of topers received me in like style. We put the Rob Roy into a garden here, and her sails flapped next morning while a crowd gazed over the walls with anxious curiosity. The husband who had thus left his sleeping spouse that he might carry my wet boat, was highly pleased with a five-franc piece, which must have been like a five-pound note to him in such a cheap country. Next morning we surveyed the scene of last night's adventure, and it was very amusing to trace the various channels we had groped about in during black darkness.

Here I met a French gentleman of gay and pleasant manner, but who bemoaned his lot as Secretary of a great factory in this outlandish place, instead of being in joyous, thoughtless, brilliant Paris, where, he said, often for days together he never slept in a bed, but ran one night into the next by halls, theatres, and parties. He kindly took me to see the great salt works, which send refined salt throughout Europe. This rock salt is hoisted out of a deep mine in blocks like those of coal, having been hewn from the strata below, which are pierced by long and lofty galleries. Then it is covered in tanks by water, which becomes saturated, and is conducted to flat evaporating pans, when the water is expelled by the heat of a furnace, and the salt dries in masses like snow-drift. Salt that is sold by weight they judiciously wet again, and other qualities sold by measure they cleverly deposit in crooked crystals, so as to take up as much space as possible!

We found a canal here, and as the river was so shallow the Rob Roy mounted to the artificial channel, and with a strong and fair wind she was soon sailing along. This canal has plenty of traffic upon it, and only a few locks; so it was by no means tedious. They asked for my card of permission, but I smiled the matter off as before. However, an officer of the canal who was walking alongside looked much more seriously at the infringement of rules, and when we came to a lock he insisted we must produce the "carte." As a last resort, I showed him the well-worn sketch-book, and then he at once gave in. In fact, after he had laughed at a culprit's caricatures, how could he gravely sentence him to penalties?.

It is wonderful how a few lines of drawing will please these outlying country people. Sometimes we gave a small sketch to a man when it was desirable to get rid of him: he was sure to take it away to show outside, and when he returned we had gone. Once I gave to a little girl a portrait of her brother, and next morning she brought it again all crumpled up. Her mother said that the child had held it all night in her hand.

Work for the young, O brother canoemen. Get the "Boy's Beadle" to befriend the hapless wanderers. Teach them to earn their bread and not to beg. Change their sodden brown rags into bright red coats, as shoeblacks, or bright blue jackets, as sailor boys, and hurrah for the "Chichester," the floating home of the homeless boy. Teach him to read, and give him a "British Workman," and a "Boy's Own Paper," and "Home Words," and a "Chatterbox," and tear up the journals of garbage.

Sit steady on the "School Board," Rob Roy, as you have sat on the foot board of your canoe.

Pray for them all, these little folk, or your work will be lifeless. Don't mind the "cant" of the people who call it "cant" to kneel while you work. A Strong Arm was reached far down to save you and me, and the boy and the girl, that cry to us both in their misery.

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