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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 5

Panting Visitors-- Hohenzollern-- Roman Nose-- Herons in Council-- Among the Haymakers-- Boating Boy-- Winged Music-- Arched Chasms-- Hidden Song-- Navvies-- Different Dangers-- A Gale-- Hungry Nap-- Chasing a Church-- Snags in Darkness-- The Vagrant-- Classics-- Hotel Bills.

THE sides of the river were now less precipitous, and the road came within a field or two of the water, so things seemed quite homely for a time.

I had heard a loud jingling sound on this road for at least half an hour, and observed a long cart with two horses trotting fast, and evidently daring to race with the Rob Roy. But at length such earnest signals were made from it that I stopped, and the car at once pulled up, and from it there ran across the field a man breathless and hot, without his hat, and followed by two young ladies, equally hurried. He was a German, resident for a short time in London, and now at home for a month's holiday, and he was prodigal of thanks for my "great courtesy "in having stopped that the ladies might see the canoe which they had followed thus for several miles, having heard of its fame at their village. On another occasion three youths voluntarily ran alongside the boat and panted in the sun, and tumbled over stocks and stones at such a rate, that after a mile of the supererogatory exercise, I asked what it was all about. Excellent villagers! they had taken all this trouble to arrive at a point further down the stream where they knew there was a hard place, and they thought they might help me in passing it.

Such exertions on behalf of a stranger were really most kind, and when I allowed them to give a nominal help (where in reality it was easy enough to get on unaided), they were much delighted and more than rewarded, and went back prattling their purest Suabian in a highly satisfied frame of mind.

Many are the bends and currents, but at last we arrived at the town of Sigmaringen. It had certainly an aristocratic air, though there are only 3,000 inhabitants; but then it had a Principality. though the whole population of this was only 52,000. Fancy a parish in London with a Prince all to themselves, and bearing such a fine grand name too--"His Royal Serene Highness the Hereditary Prince of Hohenzollern Sigmaringen." But though I have often laughed at this petty kingdom in the geography books, I shall never do so again, for it contains some of the most beautiful river scenery in the world, and there will always be a grim interest in a name that was the spark to light the tinder only too ready for explosion in a deadly war.

There are pretty gardens here, and a handsome Protestant church, also a few good shops, schlosses on the hills, and older castles perched on high rocks in the usual picturesque and uncomfortable places where our ancestors built their nests. The Deutscher Hof is the hotel just opened, and all its inmates are in a flutter when their first English guest marches up to the door with a boat and a great many gazers. The waiter, too, all fresh from a year in London at the Palace Hotel, Buckingham Gate, how glad he is that his English vocabulary is now in requisition, sitting by me at dinner and talking most sensibly all the time.

The weather still continued superb as we paddled away. Deep green woods dipped their lower branches in the water; but I found that the stream had sometimes a fashion of carrying the boat under these, and it is especially needful to guard against this when a sharp bend with a fast current hurries you into a wooded corner. Indeed, strange as it may seem, there was more danger to the boat from these trees than from rocks or banks, and far more trouble. For when the boat gets under their low branches your paddle is quite powerless, because you cannot lower one end to hold the water without raising the other and so catching it in the trees. Then if you put your head down forward you cannot see, and the boughs are generally as hard as an ordinary skull when the two are in collision. Finally, if you lean backwards the twigs scrape your face and catch upon a nose even of ordinary length, and if you take your hand from the paddle to protect the face away goes the paddle into the river. Therefore, although my hat was never knocked off; and my skull was always the hardest, and my paddle was never lost, and my nose was never de-Romanized by the branches, I set it down as a maxim, to keep clear of trees in a stream.

Still it was tempting to go under shady groves when I tried to surprise a flock of herons or a family of wild ducks.

Once we came upon twenty-four herons all together. As my boat advanced silently gliding, it was curious to watch these birds, who had certainly never been disturbed before by any boat in such a place.

They stared eagerly at me and then looked at each other, and evidently took a vote of the assembly as to what all this could mean. If birds' faces can give any expression of their opinions, it is certain that one of these herons was saying then to the others, "Did you ever?" and an indignant sneer was on another's beak that plainly answered, "Such impudence indeed!" while a third added, with a sarcastic chirp, "And a foreigner too!" But, after consultation, they always got up and circled round, flew down stream, and then settled all again together in an adjourned meeting. A few minutes brought me to their new retreat, and so we went on for miles, they always flying down stream, and always assembling, though over and over again disturbed, until at last an amendment on the plan was moved in their Parliament, and they bent their way aside.

A pleasant and favourable breeze springing up, which soon freshened into a gale, my sails were set, and the boat went at her best speed; dashing over rocks and bounding past the haymakers so fast that when one who had caught sight of her had shouted to the rest of his "mates," the sight was departed for ever before they came, and I heard them behind me arguing in excited tones, probably about the ghost.

In the Hayfields

But it was a shame to be a phantom ship too often, and it was far more amusing to go right into the middle of these people, who knew nothing about the canoe, who had never seen a boat, and never met a foreigner in their lives. Thus, when a waterfall was found too high to "shoot," or a wide barrier made it advisable to take the boat by land, I used to walk straight into the hayfields, pushing the boat point foremost through a hedge, or dragging her steadily over the wet newly-mown grass in literal imitation of the American craft which could go "wherever there was a heavy dew." On such occasions the amazement of the untaught clowns was beyond all description. Some even ran away, very often children cried outright, and when the grey stranger looked gravely on the ground as he marched and dragged the boat, and then suddenly stopped in their midst with a laugh and an English harangue, the whole proceeding must have seemed to them at least as strange as it did to me.

The water of the river all at once became here of a pale white colour, and I was mourning that the pretty scenes in the deep below were clouded; but in about thirty miles the pebbles appeared again, and the stream resumed its charming limpid clearness. This matter of dark or black water is of some importance, because when it is clear you can easily estimate after a little experience the general depth, even at some distance, by the shades and hue of the water, while the sunk rocks, big stones, and other particular obstacles are of course more visible then.

Usually I got well enough fed at some village, or at least at a house, but in this lonely part of the river it semed wise to take provender with me in the boat, and to picnic in some quiet pool, with a shady tree above. One of the very few boats I saw on the river appeared as I was thus engaged, and a little boy was in it. His specimen of naval architecture (no doubt the only one he had ever seen) was an odd contrast to my polished canoe. He had a pole and a shovel; the latter article he used as a paddle, and his boat was of enormous thickness and clumsiness, made of three planks, abundantly clamped with iron. I gave him some bread, and we had a chat; then some butter, and then some cheese. He would not take wine, but he produced a cigar from his wet jacket, and also two matches, which he lighted with great skill. We soon got to be friends, as people do who are together alone, and in the same mode of travelling, riding, or sailing, or on camels' backs. So we smiled in sympathy, and I asked him if he could read, and gave him a neat little page prettily printed in German, with a red border. This he read very nicely and was glad to put in his ragged pocket; but he could scarcely part from me, and struggled vainly to urge his tub along with the shovel till we came to a run of dashing waves, and then of course I had to leave him behind, looking and yearning, with a low, murmuring sound, and a sorrowful earnest gaze I shall never forget.

Shoals of large and small fish are in this river, and very few fishermen. I did not see ten men fishing in ten days. But the pretty little Kingfisher does not neglect his proper duties, and ever and anon his round blue back shines in the sun as he hurries away with a note of protest against the stranger who has invaded his preserves. Bees are buzzing while the sun is hot, and when it sinks, out gush the gnats in endless mazes to hop and flit their tangled dance, the creatures of a day--born since the morning, and to die at night.

Before the Danube parted with the rocks that had been on each side for days together, it played some strange pranks among them, and they with it.

Often they rose at each side a hundred feet without a bend, and then behind these were broken cliffs heaved this way and that, or tossed upside down, or as bridges high over chasms.

Here and there a huge splinted tooth-like spire of stone stuck out of the water, leaning at an angle. Sometimes in front there was a veritable upright wall, as smooth as if it were chiselled, and entirely cutting off the middle of the stream. In advancing steadily to such a place it was really impossible to determine on which side the stream could by any means find an exit, and once indeed I was persuaded that it must descend below.

In other cases the river, which had splayed out its width to that of the Thames at Hungerford, would suddenly narrow its size to a six-foot passage, and rush down that with a "whishhh!" The Rob Roy cheerily sped through these, but I landed to scan the course before attempting the most difficult cuts.--Oh, how lonely it was!

A more difficult vagary to cope with was when in a dozen petty streams the water tumbled over as many little cascades, and only one was passable--sometimes not one. The interest of finding these channels, examining, trying, failing, and succeeding, was a continuous delight, and filled up every mile with exciting incidents, till at length the rocks were done.

And now we enter a vast plain, with the stream bending round on itself and hurrying swiftly on through innumerable islands, eddies, and "snags," or trees uprooted, sticking in the water. At the most critical part of this labyrinth we were going a tremendous pace, when suddenly we came to the fork in the river. One of the two channels was barred by a tree that would catch the mast, so I instantly turned into the other, when up started a man and shouted impetuously that no boat could pass by that course. It was a moment of danger, but I lowered the sails in that moment, took down my mast, and, despite stream and gale, I managed to paddle back to the proper channel. As no man had been seen for hours before, the arrival of this warning note was opportune.

A new amusement was invented to-day--it was to pitch out my empty wine-bottle and to watch its curious bobbings and whirlings as the current carried it along, while I floated near and compared the natural course taken by the bottle with the selected route which intelligence gave to the Rob Roy. Soon the bottle became impersonated, and we were racing together, and then a sympathy began for its well-known cork as it plumped down when its bottom struck a stone, for the bottle drew more water than my canoe--and every time it grounded there came a loud and melancholy clink of the glass, and down it went.

The thick bushes near the river skirted it now for miles, and at one place I could see above me, through the upper branches, about twenty hay-makers, men and women, who were honestly working away, and therefore had not observed my approach.

I resolved to have a bit of fun here, and therefore closed in to the bank, but still so as to see the industrious group. Then suddenly I began in a very loud voice with--

"Rule, Britannia,
Britannia rules the waves"

Long before I got to the word "slaves" the whole party were like statues silent and fixed in amazement. Then they looked right, left, before, behind, and upwards in all directions, except, of course, into the river, for why should they look there--nothing had ever come up from the river to disturb their quiet mead. I next whistled a lively air, and then dashing out of my hiding-place stood up in my boat, and made a brief (but, we trust, brilliant) speech to them in the best English I could muster, and in a moment afterwards we had vanished from their sight.

A little further on there was some road-making in progress, and I pulled up my boat under a tree and walked up to the "barraque," or workman's canteen, and entered among thirty or forty German navvies, who were sitting at their mid-day beer. I ordered a glass and drank their health standing, paid, bowed, and departed, but a general rush ensued to see where on earth this flannel-clad being had come from, and they stood on the bank in a row as I waded, shoved, hauled, paddled, and carried my boat through a troublesome labyrinth of channels and embankments, with which their engineering had begun to spoil the river.

But the bridges one had now more frequently to meet were far worse encroachments of civilization, for most of them were so low that my mast would not pass under without heeling the boat over on one side, so as to make the mast lean down obliquely. In one case of this kind she was very nearly ship-wrecked, for the wind was so good that I would not lower the sail, and this and a swift current took us (me and my boat--she is now, you see, installed as a "person") rapidly to the centre arch, when just as we entered I noticed a fierce-looking snag with a sharp point exactly in my course. To swerve to the side would be to strike the wooden pier, but even this would be better (for I might ward off the violence of a blow near my hands) than to run on the snag, which would be certain to cut a hole.

With a heavy thump on the pier the canoe began to capsize, and only by the nearest escape was she saved from foundering. What I thought was a snag turned out to be the point of an iron stake or railing, carelessly thrown into the water from the bridge above.

It may be here remarked that many hidden dangers occur near bridges, for there are wooden or iron bars fixed under water, or rough sharp stones lying about, which, being left there when the bridge was building, are never removed from a river not navigable or used by boats.

Another kind of obstruction is the thin wire rope suspended across the rivers, where a ferry is established by running a flat boat over the stream with cords attached to the wire rope. The rope is black in colour, and therefore is not noticed till you approach it too near to lower the mast, but this sort of danger is easily avoided by the somewhat sharp "look-out" which a week or two on the water makes quite instinctive and habitual.

Perhaps one of the many advantages of a river tour is the increased acuteness of observation which it requires and fosters.

I stopped next at a clumsy sort of town called Riedlingen, where an Englishman is a very rare visitor. The excitement here about the boat became almost ridiculous, and one German, who had been in America and could jabber a little in English, was deputed to ask questions, while the rest heard the answers interpreted.

Next morning at eight o'clock at least a thousand people gathered on the bridge and its approaches to see the boat start, and shoals of schoolboys ran in, each with his little knapsack of books. [footnote 1]

The scenery after this became of only ordinary interest compared with what I had passed through, but there would have been little spare time to look at it had it been ever so picturesque, for the wind was quite a gale, and right in my favour, and the stream was fast and tortuous with banks, eddies, and innumerable islands and cross channels, so that the navigation occupied all one's energy, especially as it was a point of honour not to haul down the sail in a fair wind. [footnote 2]

Mid-day came, and yet I could find no place to breakfast, though the excitement and exertion of thus sailing was really hard work. But still we hurried on, for dark clouds were gathering behind, and thunder and rain seemed very near.

"Ah," said I inwardly, "had I only listened to that worthy dame's entreaties this morning to take good provision for the day!" She had smiled like the best of mothers, and timidly asked to be allowed to touch my watch-chain, "it was so schön" so beautiful to see. But, oddly enough, we had taken no solid food on board to-day, being so impatient to get off when the wind was strong and fair. The rapid pace then brought us to Ehingen, the village I had marked on the map for this night's rest. But now we came there it was found to be too soon. I could not stop for the day with such a splendid breeze inviting progress; nor would it do to leave the boat on the bank and go to the village to eat, for it was too far from the river, and so the current and sails must hurry us on as before.

Now and then I asked some gazing agriculturist on the bank where the nearest houses were, but he never could understand that I meant nearest, and also close to the river; so the end of every discussion was that he said, "Ja wohl," which means in Yankee tongue, "That's so;" in Scottish, "Hoot, aye;" in Irish, "Troth, an' it is;" and in French, "C'est vrai;" but then none of this helps one a bit.

I therefore got first ravenous and then faint, and after mounting the bank to see the turns of the river in advance, I actually fell asleep under a tree. The wind had quite subsided when I awoke, and then quaffed deep draughts of water and paddled on.

The banks were now of yellow mud, and about eight or ten feet high, quite straight up from the water, just like those on the Nile, and several affluent streams ran from the plain to join the river. Often, indeed, I saw a church tower right ahead, and laboured along to get there, but after half a mile the stream would turn sharp round to one side, and still more and more round, and at last the tower once in front was directly behind us. The explanation of this tormenting peculiarity was simply this,--that the villages were carefully built away from the river bank because it is a bad foundation, and is washed away as new channels are formed by the flood.

When the light began to fail I took a good look at the map, and serpentine bends were marked on it plain enough indeed, but only in one-half of their actual number; and, moreover, I saw that in the forest we had now entered there would be no suitable villages at all. The overhanging trees made a short twilight soon deepen into night; and to add to the interest the snags suddenly became numerous, and some of them waved about in the current, as they do on the Upper Mississippi, when the tenacious mud holds down the roots merely by its weight. All this made it necessary to paddle slowly and with great caution, and to cross always to the slack side of the stream instead of by one's usual course, which, in descending, is to keep with the rapid current.

Sometimes I had to back out of shallows which were invisible in the dark, and often I stopped a long time before a glance of some ripple obscurely told me the probable course. The necessity for this caution will be evident when it is remembered that in case of an upset here both sets of clothes would have been wet together, and without any house at hand to dry them.

All at once, I heard a bell toll quite near me in the thick wood, and I came to the bank, but it was impossible to get ashore on it, so I passed that place too, and finally made up my mind to sleep in the boat, and soon had all sort of plans in course of devising.

Just then two drops of rain came on my nose, and I resolved at once to stop, for if my clothes got wet before I was snugly in bed in the canoe there would be little comfort all night, without anything solid to eat since morning, and all my cigars already puffed away. As I now cautiously searched for some root projecting from the bank to make fast to, a light appeared straight in front, and I dashed forward with the boat to reach it, and speedily ran her into a strange sort of lake or pond, where the stream ceased, and a noise on the boat's side told of weeds, which proved to be large round leaves on the surface, like those of the Victoria Regia. I drew up the boat on shore, and mounted the high bank through a thicket, carrying my long paddle as a protection against the large dogs which farmhouses sport here, and which might be troublesome to quarrel with in the dark. The house we came to on the top of the precipice had its windows lighted and several people were talking inside, so I knocked loudly, and all was silence. Then I knocked [the surprised host] again, and whined out that I was a poor benighted "Englander," and hoped they would let me in, at which melancholy tale they burst out laughing, and so did I! After an argument between us, which was equally intelligible on both sides, a fat farmer cautiously took the light upstairs, and, opening a window, thrust the candle forward, and gazed out upon me standing erect as a true Briton, and with my paddle, too, but in reality a humiliated vagrant, begging for a night's lodging.

After due scrutiny he pulled in his head and his candle, shut the window, and fell to laughing immoderately. At this I was glad, for one seldom finds it difficult to get on with a man who begins in good humour.

[the vagrant guest]

Presently the others went up, and I stood their gaze unflinchingly, and, besides, made an eloquent appeal in the vernacular--mine, not theirs, be it clearly understood. Finally, they were satisfied that I was alone, and, though probably mad, yet not quite a match for all of them, so they came down gallantly; but then there was the difficulty of persuading the man to grope down to the river on this dark night that he might carry up a boat.

With some exertion we got it up by a better way, and safely locked it in the cowhouse of another establishment, and there I was made thoroughly comfortable. They said they had nothing to eat but kirchwasser, bread, and eggs, and how many eggs would I like? So I said, "To begin with, ten;" and I ate them every one. By this time the Prester had come; they often used to send for the Priest to do the talk. The large room soon got full, and the sketch-book was passed round, and an india-rubber band made endless merriment for the smaller fry, all in the old routine, the very mention of which it may be tedious to hear of so often, as indeed it was to me to perform.

But then in each case it was their first time of going through the performance, and they were so kind and courteous one could not refuse to please such people. The priest was very communicative, and we tried to converse in Latin, for my German was not good enough for him nor his French for me. But we soon agreed that it was a long time since our schoolboy Latin days, though I recollect having had long conversations in Latin with a monk at Nazareth, but there we had ten days together, and so had time to practise.

Thus ended the lst of September, the only occasion on which I had to rough it at all during the voyage; and even then it may be seen that the very small discomforts resulted from gross want of prudence on my own part, and they ended. in nothing worse than a hard day's work with its breakfast and dinner merged into a late supper. My bill here was 3s. 6d., and the day before it was 4s. 6d., including always wine and luxuries.


[footnote 1]: Knapsack, from "schnap," "sach," provision bag, for "bits and bats," as we should say; havresack is from "hafer," "forage bag." Query.--Does this youthful carriage of the knapsack adapt boys for military service, and does it account for the high shoulders of many Germans?

[footnote 2]: In the newspaper accounts of the weather it was stated that at this time a storm swept over Central Europe.

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