Next> | <Prev | ^ToC | End

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

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

Chapter 14

Luxuries-- Monks-- Camp at Chalons-- Inns of Court-- Widower-- Leaks-- Come to see a Smash-- Champagne-- The River Marne-- Name of my Wife-- Silence-- The Sun-- Rafts and Flocks-- Newspapers-- Millstones-- Hot Wind-- Old Soldier.

THE canal brought me to Nancy, a fine old town, with an Archbishop, a Field-marshal, a good hotel, large washstand basins, drums, bugles, ices, and all the other luxuries of life. Yet Nancy surrendered all these to the summons of a couple of Uhlians! In the cathedral there was more tawdry show about the Mass than we ever remarked before, even in Italy. At least thirty celebrants acted in the performance, and the bowings and turnings and grimaces of sedate old men clad in gorgeous dirtyneedle work, fumbling with trifles and muttering Latin, really passed all bounds: they were an insult to the population, who are required to attend this vicarious worship, and to accept such absurdities as the true interpretation of "This do in remembrance of Me."

A large congregation, nearly all women, hastened to an eloquent sermon from a young priest who glorified an old saint. it is possible that the ancient worthy was a most respectable monk, but probably a good deal like the monks one meets now in the monasteries, and having lived pretty frequently with these gentlemen in Europe, Asia, and Africa, one smiles to think of canonizing such folk as if any one of them had unapproachable excellence. Perhaps, however, this particular monk distinguished himself by proper daily ablutions, and so gained the rare reputation of being reasonably clean. In the afternoon the relics of the monk were borne through the streets by a procession of some thousand women and a few men. These ladies, some hundreds of whom were dressed in white muslin, chanted as they slowly marched, and all the bystanders took off their hats, but I really could not see what adoration was due to the mouldering bones of a withered friar, so my excellent straw hat was kept on my head.

The French, who live in public, must have a public religion, a gregarious worship, with demonstrative action and colours and sounds. Deep devotion, silent in its depth, is for the north and not for this radiant sun, though you will find that quieter worship again in lower latitudes where the very heat precludes activity. Some thirty years ago, one of our ablest Cambridge men read a paper on the influence of the insular position and the climate of Britain upon our national character. For the Frenchman, in a third-rate town like Nancy, for instance, nearly all the agrements depend on the climate, and they would be sadly curtailed by rain or snow. So when this Frenchman visits England and gets laughed at for mistakes in our difficult language, and has to eat only two dishes for dinner, and drinks bad coffee, and has no evening lounge in the open air, and is then told to look at our domestic life and finds he cannot get an entrance there (for how very few French do enter there), his miseries are directly caused by our climate, and no wonder his impression of Albion is that we are all fog and cotton and smoke, and everything triste.

From Nancy the canoe went by rail to meet me on the river Marne, and while the slow luggage-train lumbered along I went off to visit the Camp of Chalons, the Aldershot of France. An omnibus takes you from the railway station, by a long straggling street of very little houses, built badly, and looking as if one and all could be pushed down by your hand. These are not the military quarters, but the self-grown parasite sutlers' town, which springs up near every camp. Here is "Place Solferino," and there you see "Rue Malakhoff;" where the sign of the inn is a Chinaman having his pigtail lopped off by a Francais. The camp is in the middle of a very large plain, with plenty of dust and white earth, which glared on my eyes intensely, this being the hottest day during the cruise. But there are trees for shade, and a good deal of grass on these extensive downs, where great armies manoeuvred to march past the late Emperor enthroned under a bower on that hill-crest overlooking all--and then soon fled in terror.

The permanent quarters for the troops consist of about 500 separate houses, substantial, airy, and well lighted, all built of brick, and slated, and kept in good repair; each of these is about seventy feet long, twenty broad, and of one story high. A million and a half pounds sterling have already been expended on this camp. Behind the quarters are the soldiers' gardens, a feature added lately to the camps in England. There were only a few thousand soldiers at the place, so we soon saw all that was interesting, and then at a restaurant I observed about twenty officers go to breakfast together, but their loud, coarse, and outrageously violent conversation really amazed me. The din was monstrous and without intermission. We had never before fallen in with so very bad a specimen of French manners, and I cannot help thinking that there may have been special reasons why these men went on bellowing for half an hour as they ate their breakfast.

The military mess system has been tried in the French army several times, but it always fails, as the French Clubs do, on the whole. It is not wise, however, for a traveller to generalize too rapidly upon the character of any portion of a great people if he has not lived long among them. By a hasty glance you may discern that a stranger has a long nose, but you must have better acquaintance with him before you can tell his character. [footnote 1]

Another interesting town in this department of France is Rheims (spelt Reims, and pronounced very nearly Rens). I enjoyed a visit to its very splendid cathedral, which is one of the finest in Europe, very old, very large, very rich, and celebrated as the place of coronation for the French sovereigns. Besides all this it is kept in good order, and is remarkably clean. The outside is covered with stone figures, most of them rude in art, but giving at a distance an appearance of prodigal richness of material.

A little periodical called France I1lustrated is published at fourpence each number, with a map of the Department, several woodcuts of notable places or events, and a brief history of the principal towns, concluding with a résumé of the statistics of the Department. A publication of this kind would be very useful in England; and for travellers especially, who could purchase at the County town the particular number then required. In one of the adjoining Departments, this publication said that there are about a hundred suicides in the year among a population of half a million. Surely this is an alarming proportion; and what should we say if Manchester had to report that a hundred men and women in one year put themselves to death?

But we are subsiding, you see, into the ordinary tales of a traveller, because I am waiting now for the train and the Rob Roy, and certainly this my only experience of widowerhood made me long again for the well-known yellow oaken side of the boat and her pink-brown cedar deck. Well, next morning is the canoe at Epernay, arrived all safe at a cost of 2s. 6d. All safe we thought at first, but we soon found she had been sadly bruised, and would surely leak. On the railway platform in the hot sun, we occupied three good hours in making repairs and greasing the seams. But after all this trouble, when we put the boat into the Marne, the water oozed in all round.

It is humiliating to sit in a leaky boat--it is like using a lame horse or a crooked gun; of the many needful qualities of a boat the first is to be staunch. So I stopped at the first village, and got a man to mix white lead and other things, and worked this into the seams, leaving it to harden while I fed in the auberge by the shore, where they are making the long rafts to go down to Paris, and where hot farmers sip their two-penny bottle of wine.

The raft man was wonderfully proud of his performance with the canoe, and he called out to each of his friends as they walked past, to give them its long history in short words. When he was paid at last, he said I must never forget that the canoe had been thoroughly mended in the middle of France, at the village of ------, but I really do not remember the name. However, there were not wanting tests of his workmanship, for the Rob Roy had to be pulled over many dykes and barriers on the Marne. Some of these were of a peculiar and novel construction. A "barrage" reached across the stream, and there were three steps or falls on it, with a plateau below each. The water ran over these steps, and was sometimes only a few inches in depth on the crest of each fall, where it had to descend about eight inches. This, of course, would have been easy enough for the canoe to pass, but then a line of iron posts was ranged along each plateau, with chains tied from the top of one post to the bottom of another, diagonally, a very puzzling arrangement to steer through in a fast current.

The Chain Barrier

In cases of this sort we usually went ashore to reconnoitre, and having calculated the angle at which we must enter the passage obliquely (down a fall, and across its stream), I managed to get successfully through several of these strange barriers. But we came at length to one which was extremely difficult, because the chains were slack, and there was only an inch or two of "law" on either side of the channel through them. Just then a man happened to see my movements, and he called some dozen of his fellow-navvies from their work to look at the navigator. The captain of the canoe was therefore incited to try the passage, and he resolved to be at any rate cool and placid, however much discomfiture was to be endured. The boat was steered to the very best of my power, but her bow swerved an inch in the swift oblique descent, and instantly it was locked in the chains, while I quietly stepped out (whistling an air in slow time), and steadily lifted the boat through the iron network and got into her, dripping wet, though wincing not. The navvies cheered a long and loud bravo! but the canoeist felt ashamed of having yielded to the desire for ignorant applause, and round the next corner he changed his wet things, a wiser and a sadder man, but dry.

This part of the river is in the heart of the champagne country, and all the softly swelling hills around are thickly covered by vineyards. The vine for champagne is exceeding small, and grows round one stick, so the hill-side looks just like a carding-brush, from the millions of these little sharp-pointed rods upright in the ground and close together, without any fence between the innumerable lots. The grape for champagne is always red, and never white (so they said), though white grapes are grown for eating. During the last two months few people had consumed more grapes in this manner than the chief mate of the Rob Roy.

On one of these hills we noticed the house of Madame Clicquot, whose name has graced many a cork of champagne bottles and of bottles not champagne. The vineyards of Ai, near Epernay, are the most celebrated for their wine. After the bottles are filled, they are placed neck downwards, and the sediment collects near the cork. Each bottle is then partly uncorked for an instant in this position, and the confined gas forces out a little of the wine with the sediment, while a skilful man replaces the cork. When the bottles are stored in "caves," or vast cellars, the least change of temperature causes them to burst by hundreds. Sometimes one-fourth of the bottles explode in this manner, and it is said that the renowned Madame Clicquot lost 400,000 bottles in the hot autumn of 1843, before sufficient ice could be fetched from Paris to cool her spacious cellars. Every year about fifty million bottles of genuine champagne are made in France, and no one can say how many more millions of bottles of "French champagne" are imbibed every year by a confiding world. Even Bellona respects these bottles.

The Marne is a large and deep river, and its waters are kept up barriers every few miles. It is rather troublesome to pass these by taking the boat out and letting it down on the other side, and in crossing one of them the stern of the canoe had a serious blow against an iron bar. This collision started four planks from the stempost, and revealed to me also that the whole frame had suffered from the journey that night on an open truck. But, as my ship's carpenter was on board, and had nails and screws, we soon managed to make all tight again, [footnote 2] and by moonlight came to Dormans, where she had the invariable run of visitors, until everybody went to bed.

It was curious to remark the different names by which the canoe was called, and among these were the following:--"Bateau," "schiff" "bôt," "barca," "canôt," "caique" (the soldiers who have been in the Crimea call it thus), "chaloupe," "navire," "schipp" (Low German), "yacht" ("jacht"--Danish, "jaht," from "jagen," to ride quickly--properly a boat drawn by horses). Several people have spoken of. it as "bateau á vapeur" for in the centre of France they have never seen a steamboat, but the usual name with the common people is "petit bateau," and among the educated people "nacelle" or "périssoir;" this last as we call a dangerous boat a "coffin" or "sudden death." The paddler is "pagayeur." In the East the Turks and Egyptians called her "shaktoora," and sometimes "sheitan" (spirit).

An early start next morning found us slipping along with a tolerable current and sailing before a fine fresh breeze, but under the same blue sky. I had several interesting conversations with farmers and others riding to market along the road which here skirts the river. What most surprises the Frenchman is that a traveller can possibly be happy alone. However selfish it may seem to be, it is far best for this sort of journey to travel entirely seul.

Pleasant trees and pretty gardens are here on every side in plenty, but where are the houses of the gentlemen of France, and where are the French gentlemen themselves? This is a difference between France and England which cannot fail to "knock" the observant traveller (as Artemus Ward would have said)--the notable absence of country seats during hours and hours of passage along the best routes; whereas in England the prospect from almost every hill or woodland would have a great house at the end of its vista, and the environs of every town would stretch into outworks of villes smiling in the sun. The French have ways and fashions which are not ours, but their nation is large enough to entitle them to a standard of their own, just as the Americans, with so great a people agreed on the matter, may surely claim liberty to speak with a twang, and to write of a "plow."

It is a mistake to say that we Britons are a silent people compared with the French or Americans. At some hundred sittings of the table d'hôte in both these countries I have found more of dull, dead silence than in England at our inns. An Englishman accustomed only to the domestic chat of a pleasant dinner feels ill at ease, perhaps, when dining with foreigners, and so notices their silence all the more; but the purely French table d'hôte (not in the big barrack hotel, for English tourists) has as little general conversation as any dinner in England, and an American table has far less.

Here in France come six or seven middle-class men to dine. There is the napkin kept for each from yesterday, and recognized by the knots he tied on it. He puts it up to his chin like the pinafore of a baby, and wipes plate, fork, and spoon with the other end, and eats bits and scraps of many dishes, and scrapes his plate almost clean, and then departs, and not one word has been uttered all the time.

Again, there is the vaunted French climate. Bright sun, no doubt, but pray forget not that it is so very bright as to compel all rooms to be darkened from ten till four every day. At noon the town is like a cemetery; no one thinks of walking, riding, or looking out of his window in the heat. From seven to nine in the morning, and from an hour before sunset to any time you please at night, the open air is delicious. But in a week of our common summer weather we see more of the sun in England than in France, for we seldom have so much of it at once as to compel us for six hours to close our eyes against its fierce rays. In fact, the sensation of life in the South, after eleven o'clock in the morning, is that of waiting for the cool hours, and so day after day is a continual reaching forward to something about to come; whereas, an English day of sunshine is an enjoyable present from beginning to end. Once more, let it be remembered that twilight lasts only for half an hour in the sunny South; that delicious season of musing and long shadows is a characteristic of the northern latitudes which very few Southerners have ever experienced at all.

The run down the Marne for about 200 miles was a pleasant part of the voyage, but not so exciting in adventure as the paddling on unknown waters. Long days of work could therefore be now well endured, for constant exercise had trained the body, and the Rob Roy's paddle was in my hands for ten hours at a time without weariness, and sometimes even for twelve hours at a stretch.

After a comfortable night at Chateau Thierry in the Elephant Hotel, which is close to the water, I lowered my canoe from a hayloft into the river. The current gradually increased, and the vineyards gave place to forest trees. See, there are the rafts, some made of casks, lashed together with osiers, some made of planks, others of hewn logs, and others of great rough trees. The straw hut on each is for the captain's cabin, and the crew will have a stiff fortnight's work to drag, push, and steer this congeries of wood on its way to the Seine. The labour spent merely in adjusting and securing the parts is enormous, but labour of that kind costs little here.

Further on there is a large flock of sheep led to the river to drink, in the orthodox pastoral manner of picture-books, but also driven by the sagacious shepherd's dogs, whd seem to know perfectly that the woolly multitude has come precisely to drink, and, therefore, the dogs cleverly press forward each particular sheep; until it has got a place by the cool brink of the water. In the next quiet bay a village maid drives her cow to the river, and chats across the water with another, also leading in a cow to wade knee deep, and to dip its broad nose, and lift it gently again from the cool stream. On the road alongside is a funny little waggon, and a whole family are within. This concern is actually drawn along by a goat. Its little kid skips about, for the time of toil has not yet come to the youngling, and it had better gambol now.

But here is the bridge of Nogent, so I leave my boat in charge of an old man, and give positive pleasure to the cook at the auberge by ordering a breakfast. Saints' portraits adorn the walls, and a "sampler" which some little girl had worked, with only twenty-five letters in the alphabet, when the "w" was as yet ignored in classic French grammars, though it has now to be constantly used in their common books and newspapers. Why, they even adopt our sporting terms, and you see in a paper that such a race was only "un Walkover," and that another was likely to be "un dead heat."

And then these French newspapers, what poor weaklings they are at best, with each writer's signature stripping him of his best title, the anonymous, like an actor off the boards, or a fiddler in a frock coat.

Perish that flimsy page with its "chocolat" and lotteries in huge letters, and its novelette at the end! and oh! for the goodly "Times," and the dapper "News," and the ample "Standard," and the blithe "Spectator," and the Saturday Satire, and the "thirteenth 'dishun of the 'Echo.'" Is it a very naughty thing to smile this evening in the face of that man who has set the world to rights to-day by that scarifying leader he wrote last night?

Suddenly in my quiet paddling here the sky was shaded, and on looking up amazed I found a cloud; at last, after six weeks of brilliant blue and scorching glare, one fold of the fleecy curtain has been drawn over the sun. The immediate effect of this cooler sky was very invigorating, and yet after hot glare so long beating from above, and reflected upwards into my face from the water, it seemed the most natural thing to be always in a blaze of light, though much of the inconvenience of it was avoided by a plan which is explained in the Appendix, with some other hints to Boating Men. The day went pleasantly now, and with only the events of ordinary times, which need not be recounted. The stream was steady, the banks were peopled, and many a blue-bloused countryman stopped to look at the canoe as she glided past, with the captain's socks and canvas shoes on the deck behind him, for this was his drying-place for any wet clothes.

Now and then a pleasure-boat was seen, and there were several canoes at some of the towns, but all of them flat-bottomed and open, and desperately unsafe--well named "périssoires." Some of these were made of metal, the use of which is a great mistake for any boat under ten tons, for in all such cases metal is much heavier than wood of the same strength, considering the strains which a boat must expect to undergo.

"La Ferté sous Jouarre" was the long name of the next stopping-place. There are several towns called by the name La Ferté (La Fortifiée). which in some measure corresponds with the termination "caster" or "cester" of English names. Millstones are the great specialty of this La Ferté. A good millstone costs 50l., and there is a large exportation of them. The material has the very convenient property of not requiring to be chipped into holes, as these exist in this stone naturally. At La Ferté I put the boat into a hayloft; and at dinner with me there was an intelligent and hungry bourgeois from Paris, with his vulgar and hearty wife, and opposite to them the gossip of the town, who kept rattling on the stupid, endless fiddle-faddle of everybody's doings, sayings, failings, and earnings. Some amusement, however, resulted from the collision of two gossips at our table of four guests, for while the one always harped upon family tales of La Ferté, its local statistics, and the minute sayings of its people, the other kept struggling to turn our thoughts to shoes and slippers, for he was a commercial traveller with a cartful of boots. But, after all, how much of our conversation in better life is only of the same kind, though upon larger, or at any rate other things; what would sound trifles to our British Cabinet might be the loftiest politics of Honolulu.

Starting early next day I felt an unaccountable languor; my arms were tired, and my energy seemed, for the first time, deficient. This was the result of a week's hard exercise, and of a sudden change of wind to the North. Give me our English climate for real hard work to prosper in. One generally associates the idea of north wind with cool and bracing air, and certainly in the Mediteranean it is the change of wind to the south, the hated sirocco, that enervates the traveller at once. But this north wind on the Marne came over a vast plain of arid land heated by two months of scorching sun, whereas the breezes of last week, though from the east, had been tempered in passing over the mountains of the Vosges. Forty-two miles lay before me to be accomplished before arriving to-night at my resting-place for Sunday, and it was not a pleasant prospect to contemplate with stiff muscles in the shoulders. However, after twelve miles I found that some turnings of the river could be cut off by putting the boat on a cart, and thus a league of walking and 3s. 4d. of payment solved the difficulty. The old man with his cart was interesting to talk to, and we spoke about those deeper subjects which are of common interest to all.

At a turn in the road we came to a cart overturned and a little crowd round it, while the earth was covered with a pool of what seemed to be blood, but was only wine. The cart had struck a tree and the wine-cask on it had instantly burst, which so frightened the horse that he overset the cart. The Rob Roy was soon in the water again, and amid scenery much more enjoyable. I found an old soldier at a ferry who fetched me a bottle of wine, and then he and his wife sat in their leaky, flat, green-painted boat and we all became very great friends. He had been at the taking of Constantine in Algeria, a place which really does look quite impossible to be taken by storm; but the appearance of a fortress is deceptive except to the learned in such matters. Who would think that the concealed fortress of Comorn, in Hungary, is stronger far than Constantine?

Meanwhile, a breeze has freshened up, and wafted me to Meaux, so that the day, begun with forebodings, ends as easy and as pleasant as the rest.


[footnote 1]: In a little book lately published in France about the English Bar two facts are noted, that Barristers put the name of their "Inn" on their visiting cards, and that the Temple Volunteers are drilled admirably by a Serjeant-at-Law, who wields "an umbrella with a varnished cover, which glances in the sun like a sword!"

[footnote 2]: No permanent damage was done, and the Rob Roy afterwards went to Ireland, Scotland, and the North Cape in Norway. Now she rests in peace, "Emerita," the mother of at least 1000 boats built like her.

Next> | ^Top