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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 6

Day-dream-- Ulm-- River Iller-- Bismarck's Besom-- Fredrickshafen-- Lake Constance-- Idiots-- A Wiseacre-- On Rhine again-- Goosewinged-- Sign speech-- Gasthaus-- With an Arab-- Water bewitched-- The Emperor-- How to Moor-- Grand Duchy again-- By the Moon-- The Idlers.

THE threatening rain had not come during the night, and it was a lovely morning next day, like all the rest before and after it; and as we were leaving this place I found it was called Gegglingen, [footnote 1] and was only nine miles from Ulm.

The lofty tower of the Cathedral of this town soon came in view, but I noticed it without any pleasure, for this was to end my week on the Danube; and in my ship's log it was truly entered as a "most pleasant week for scenery, weather, exercise, and adventure."

In a pensive mood, therefore, I landed at a garden, and reclined on a warm mossy bank to have a rest and a day-dream, but very soon the loud booming of artillery aroused the hill echoes, and then sharp rattling of infantry firing. The heights around were crested with fringes of blue-coated soldiers and glistening bayonets, amid the soft, round, cotton-like volumes of smoke from the great guns spurting out their flashes of fire long before the sound comes. It was a review of troops that was going on, and a sham attack on a fort surmounting the hill, near the well-known battle-field of long years ago at Ulm. If they fought in fury, let them now rest in peace. The shame of Ulm is covered by Metz and Sedan.

Come back, my thoughts, to the river at my feet.

I had been with this river from its infancy, nay, even from its birth in the Schwartzwald. I had followed it right and left, as it seemed to toddle in zigzag turnings like a child; and I had wound with it hither and thither as it roamed away further like free boyhood. Then it grew in size by feeding on the oozy plain, and was still my companion when it got the strength of youth, dashing over the rocks, and bounding through the forests; and I had come at last to feel its powerful stream stronger than my strength, and compelling my respect. And now, at Ulm, I found it a noble river, steady and swift, as if in the flower of age; but its romance was gone. It had boats on it, and navigation, and bridges, and railways, like other great waters; and so I would let it go on alone, tumbling, rushing, swelling, till its broad bosom bears whole fleets at Ofen, and at length as a great water giant it leaps down headlong into the Black Sea.

Having seen Ulm in a former tour, I was in no mood to "go over" the sights again, nor need they be related here, for it is only river travel and lake sailing that we are concerned with; while reference may be made to the Guide-books if you wish to hear this sort of thing:

"Ulm, lat. 97 degrees, an old Cathedral (a) town, on two (note) hills (see Appx.). Pop. 9763; situated (note) on the Danube."

At that I stop, and look into the water again.

The river is discoloured here--what is called in Scotland "drumly;" and this seems partly owing to the tributary Iller, which rises in the Tyrol, and falls into the Danube, a little way above the town. The Iller has a peculiar air of wild, forlorn bleakness, with its wide channel half occupied by cold white gravel, and its banks scored and torn, with weird, broken roots, gnarled trees, barkless and fallen, all lying dishevelled; surely in flood times, and of dark wintry nights, a very deluge boils and seethes along there.

Then, at last, there are the barges on the Danube, and very rudimental they are; huge in size, with flat bottoms, and bows and stems cocked up, and a roofed house in the middle of their sprawling length. The German boys must have these models before them when they make the Noah's Arks for English nurseries; and Murray well says of these barges, they are "nothing better than wooden sheds floating in flat trays."

In 1839 a steamer was tried here, but it got on a bank, and the effort was abandoned; so you have to go on to Donauwerth before this mode of travelling is reached, but from thence you can steam down to the Black Sea, and the passage boats below Vienna are very fast and well appointed.

Rafts there are at Ulm, but we suppose the timber of them comes by the Iller, for I did not notice any logs descending the upper part of the Danube. Again, there are the public washhouses in the river, each of them a large floating establishment with overhanging eaves, under which you can see, say fifty women all in a row, half kneeling or leaning over the low bulwarks, and all slapping your best shirts mercilessly.

I made straight over to these ladies, and asked how the Rob Roy could get up so steep a bank, and how far it was to the railway; and so their senior matron kindly got a man and a hand-cart for the boat, and, as the company of women heard it was from England, they all talked louder and more together, and pounded and smacked the unfortunate linen with additional emphasis.

The bustle at the railway-station was only half about the canoe; the other half was for the King of Wurtemburg, who was getting into his special train to go to his palace at Fredrickshafen. Behold me, then, fresh from Gegglingen and snags, in the immediate presence of Royalty. But this King was not at all kingly, though decidedly stiff. He was rather amusing, however, sometimes; as when he ordered sentries to salute even empty Royal carriages.

Bismarck's besom has swept him right away.

I got a newspaper here, and had twelve days to overtake of the world's doings while we had roamed in hill, forest, and waves. Yet I had been always asked there to "give the news," and chiefly on two points,--the Great Eastern, with its electric cable, and a catastrophe on the cruel Swiss glacier, the two being at times vaguely associated as if the breaking of the cable in the one had something to do with the loss of mountaineers in the other. So, while I read, the train bore us southwards to Fredrickshafen, the canoe being charged as baggage three shillings, and patiently submitting to have a label pasted on her pretty brown face.

This lively port, on the north side of the Lake of Constance, has a charming view in front of it well worth stopping to enjoy. It is not fair to treat it as only a half-hour's town, to be seen while you are waiting for the lake steamer to take you across to Switzerland. But now I come to it for a Sunday's rest (if you wish to travel fast and far, rest every Sunday), and, as the hotel faced the station, and the lake faced the hotel, this was the very place to stop in with a canoe.

So we took the boat upstairs into a loft, where the washerwomen not only gave room for the well worked timbers of the Rob Roy to be safe and still, but kindly mended my sails, and sundry other odds and ends of a wardrobe somewhat disorganized by rough times.

Next day there was service in the Protestant church, a fine building, well filled, and duly guarded by a beadle in bright array. The service began by a woman singing "Comfort ye" from Handel, in exquisite taste and simple style, with a voice that made one forget that this solemn melody is usually sung by a man. Then a large number of school children were ranged in the chancel, round a crucifix, and sang a very beautiful hymn, and next the whole congregation joined in chanting the psalms in unison, with tasteful feeling and devoutness. A young German preacher gave us an eloquent sermon, and then the people were dismissed.

The afternoon was drummed away by two noisy bands, evidently rivals, and each determined to excel the other in loudness, while both combined to persecute the poor visitors who do wish for quietness, at any rate once a week. I could scarcely escape from this din in a long walk by the lake, and on coming back found a man bathing by moonlight, while rockets, squibs, and catherine wheels were let off in his boat. Better indeed was it for me to look with entranced eyes on the far-off snowy range, now lit up by the full harvest moon, and on the sheen of "each particular star," bright above, and bright again below, in the mirror of the lake.

The Lake of Constance is forty-four miles long, and about nine miles wide. I could not see a ripple there when the Rob Roy was launched at early morn, with my mind, and body, and soul refreshed, and an eager longing to begin the tour of Switzerland once more, but now in so new a fashion. Soon we were far from the shore, and in that middle distance of the lake where all shores seem equally near, and where "the other side" appears never to get any nearer as you go on. Here, in the middle, I rested for a while, and the sensation then was certainly new. Beauty was everywhere around, and there was full freedom to see it. There was no cut-and-dry route to be followed, no road, no track on the water, no hours, no time-table to constrain. I could go right or left by a stroke of the paddle, and I was utterly my own master of whither to steer, and where to stop.

The "pit-a-pat" of a steamer's wheels was the only sound, and that was very distant, and when the boat came near, the passengers cheered the canoe, and smiles of (was it not?) envy told of how pleasant and pretty she looked. After a little wavering in my plans, I settled it was best to go to the Swiss side, and, after coasting by the villages, I selected a little inn in a retired bay, and moored my boat, and ordered breakfast. Here was an old man of eighty-six, landlord and waiter in one, a venerable man, and we respect age more while growing older.

He talked with me for five hours while I ate, read, and sketched, and feasted my eyes on mountain views, and answered vaguely to his remarks, said in a sleepy way, and in a hot, quiet, basking sun. There are peaceful and almost dreamy hours of rest in this water tour, and they are sweet too after hard toil. It is not all rapids and struggles when you journey with a canoe.

Close to the inn was the idiot asylum, an old castle with poor demented women in it. The little flag of my boat attracted their attention, and all the inmates were allowed to come out and see it, with many smiles of pleasure, and many odd remarks and gestures. Disentangling myself from this strange group, I landed again, and, under a splendid tree, spent an hour or two in carpenter's work (for we had a few tools on board), to repair the boat's damages and to brighten her up a bit for the English eyes we must expect in the next part of the voyage.

Not a wave had energy to rise on the lake in the hot sun. A sheep-bell tinkled now and then, but in a tired, listless, and irregular way. A gossamer spider had spun his web from my mast to the tree above, and wagtails hopped near me on the stones, and turned an inquiring little eye to the boat lying half in the water, and its master at rest on the grass.

It was an easy paddle from this to the town of Constance, at the end of the lake. Here a douanier made a descent upon me and was inexorable. You must have the boat examined." "Very well, pray examine it." His chief was absent, and I must put the canoe in the Custom-house till to-morrow morning. An hour was wasted in palaver about this, and at first I protested vigorously against such absurdity in "free Switzerland." But Constance is not in Switzerland, it is in the Grand Duchy of Baden, and so to keep it grand they must do very little things, and at any rate can trouble travellers. At length an obliging native, ashamed of the proceeding, remonstrated with the douanier, and persuaded him at least to search the boat and let it pass.

He took as much time to inspect as if she were a brig of 300 tons, and, when he came to look at the stern, I gravely pointed to a round hole cut in the partition for this very purpose! Into this hole he peered, while the crowd was hushed in silence, and as he saw nothing but darkness, extremely dark (for nothing else was there), he calmly pronounced the canoe "free," and she was duly borne to the hotel.

But Constance once had a man in it who was really "grand," John Huss, that noble martyr for the truth. In the council Hall you see the veritable cell in which he was imprisoned some hundreds of years ago, and on a former visit I had seen from the tower, through a telescope, the field where the faggots burned him, and from whence his great soul leaped up to heaven out of the blazing pile.

"Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints, whose bones
Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold;
E'en them who kept thy truth so pure of old
When all our fathers worshipped stocks and stones."


Now we enter the broad Rhine again. The water is deep, and of a faint blue, but clear enough to show what is below. The pebbly bottom seems to roll up towards us from underneath, and village churches appear to spin quietly round on the banks, for the land and its things seem to move, not the water, so glassy its surface steadily flowing.

Here are the fishers again, slowly paying out their fine-spun nets, and there is a target-hut built on four piles in the river. The target itself is a great cube of wood, six feet on each side. It is fired at from another hut perched also on posts in the water, and a marker safely placed behind the great block of wood turns it round on a vertical pivot, and so patches up the bullet-hole, and signals its position.

The Rhine suddenly narrows soon after leaving the Boden See, or Lake Constance as we call it, but the banks again open out until it is a mile or two in breadth. Here and there are glassy islands, and you may notice, by long stakes stuck on the shallows, which tremble as the water presses them, that the channel for steamers is very roundabout, though the canoe will skim over any part of it comfortably. Behind each islet of tall reeds there is a fishing-boat held fast by two poles stuck in the bottom of the river; or it is noiselessly sculled by the boatman, moving to a more lucky pool, with his oar at only one side--rather a novel plan--while he pays out the net with his other and. Rudely-made barges are afloat, and seem to turn round helplessly in the current of the deeper parts, or hoist their great square sails in the dead calm--perhaps for the appearance of the thing--a very picturesque appearance, as the sail has two broad bands of dark blue cloth for its centre stripes. But the pointed lateen sail of Geneva is certainly a more graceful rig than the lug, especially when there are two masts, and the white sails swell towards you, goosewinged before a flowing breeze.

The river has probably a very uneven bottom in this part, for the water sometimes rushes round in great whirlpools, and strange overturnings of itself, as if it were boiling from below in exuberant volume with a gushing upwards; and then again it wheels about in a circle with a sweep far around, before it settles to go onward. [footnote 2]

On the borders of Switzerland the German and French tongues are both generally known at the hotels, and by the people accustomed to do business with foreigners travelling among them.

But in your course along a river these convenient waiters and polyglot commissionaires are not found in attendance at every village, and it is, therefore, to the bystanders or casual loungers you have to speak.

Frequent intercourse with natives of strange countries, where there is no common language between them and the tourist, will gradually teach him a "sign language" which suits all people alike. By this means, no matter what was the dialect of the place, it was always easy to induce one or two men to aid in carrying the canoe, and the formula for this was something in the following style.

I first got the boat on shore, and a crowd of course soon collected, while I arranged its interior, and sponged out the splashed water, and fastened the apron down. Then, tightening my belt for a walk, I looked round with a smile, and selecting a likely man, would address him in English deliberately as follows--suiting each action to the word, for sign language is made more natural when you speak your own tongue all the time you are acting:--"Well now, I think as you have looked on enough and have seen all you want, it's about time to go to an hotel, a Gasthaus. Here! you--yes, you!--just take that end of the boat up, so,--gently, 'langsam!' 'langsam!'--all right, yes, under your arm, like this; now march off to the best hotel, Gasthaus."


Then the possession naturally formed itself. The most humorous boys of course took precedence, because of services or mischief willing to be performed; and, meanwhile, they gratuitously danced about and under the canoe like Fauns around Silenus. Women stared and waited modestly till the throng had passed. The seniors of the place kept on the safer confines of the movement, where dignity of gait might comport with close observation.

In a case of sign talking like the foregoing you can be helped by one substantive and one adverb; and if you pronounce these clearly, and use them correctly, while all the other expressions are evidently your language and not theirs, they will understand it much better than if you try signs in dumb show or say the whole in bad German, which would surely give rise to all possible mistakes of your meaning.

But it is quite another matter when you have forgotten--or have never acquired--the foreign word for the noun you wish to name, though, even then, by well chosen signs, and among an intelligent people, a good deal can be conveyed, as may be shown in the following cases.

Once I was ridlng along the Algerian coast, on the way from Carthage, and my guide, a dense Kabyle, was evidently taking me past a place I wished to visit, and which had been duly entered in the list when he was engaged.

I could not make him understand this, for my limited Arabic had been acquired under a different pronunciation in Syria; but one night, it happened that a clever chief had lodged me in a kind of booth, just like the top of a gipsy cart. I explained to him by signs (and talking English) that the muleteer was taking me past the place it was desired to see. Then I tried to pronounce the name of that place, but it was always wrong, or he could not make it out. Maskutayn was the place intended, or "bewitched waters," a wonderful volcanic valley, full of boiling streams and little volcanoes of salt.

At length, sitting in the moonlight, signs were tried even for this difficult occasion. I put my chibouque (pipe) under the sand and took water in my hand, and as he looked on intently--for the Arabs love this speaking action--I put water on the fire in the pipe-bowl, and blew it up through the sand, talking English all the time. This was done again, and suddenly the black lustrous eyes of the Ishmaelite glistened brighter. He slapped his forehead. He jumped up. You could almost be sure he said "I know it now;" and then he roused the unfortunate muleteer from his snorings to lecture him soundly, and so we were directed next day straight to the very place I wanted.

In a few cases of this international talking it becomes necessary to sketch pictures, which are even better than signs, but not among Arabs. During a visit to the fair of Nijni Novgorod, in the middle of Russia, I passed many hours in the "Chinese street" there, and found it was very difficult to communicate with Ching Loo, and even signs were useless. But they had some red wax about the tea-chests, and there was a white wall beside us, so upon this I put a whole story in large pictures, with an explanatory lecture in English all the time, which proceeding attracted an audience of several scores of Chinamen and Kalmuks and other outlandish people, and the particular group I meant to enlighten seemed perfectly to understand all that was intended.

So if you can work your paddle well, and learn the general sign language, and a little of the pencil tongue, you can go very far in a canoe without being starved or homeless; wandering delighted over a very wide field for the study of character.

To come back, however, from the Volga to the Rhine. The current flows more gently as we enter the Zeller See, or Unter See, a lake which would be called pretty if our taste has not been sated for a while by the snowy range background to the views on Constance. But the Lake of Constance sadly wants islands, while here in the Zeller See are several, one of them rather large. The Emperor of the French had passed two days at his château on this lake, just before we arrived, and of course he would have waited a week had he known that the Rob Roy was coming, for in a canoe, if not in a Cabinet, there is nothing like personal government. [footnote 3]

However, as we were too late to breakfast with his Majesty, I pulled in at the village of Steckborn, where an inn is built on the actual edge of the water, a state of things most convenient for the aquatic tourist, and which you find pretty often along this part of the Rhine. In a case of this sort you can tap at the door with your paddle, and order a repast before you debark, so that it is boiling and fizzing, and the table is all ready, while you put things to rights on board, and then tie the boat to the window balcony, or, at any rate, so that it can be seen all the time while you breakfast or dine, and rest, and read, and draw.

Experience has proved to me that very few boys, even of the most mischievous species, will meddle with a boat which is floating, but that very few men, even of the most amiable order, will refrain from pulling it about when the little craft is left on shore.

To have your boat not only moored afloat but in your sight too,--that is perfection, and it is worth any additional trouble to arrange this, because then for all the hours of the mid-day stoppage, you will be wholly at ease, instead of being anxious about your absent boat, as if it were a valuable horse in a strange stable.

The landlord was much interested in my sketch-book, so he brought a friend who could speak French, and who had himself constructed a boat of two tin tubes, on which a stage is supported, with a seat and rowlocks, the oddest looking thing in nautical existence. I persuaded him to put this institution into the water, and we started for a cruise; the double-tube metal boat, with its spider-like gear aloft, and the oak canoe, so low and rakish, with its varnished cedar deck, and quivering flag, now racing side by side, each of them a rare sight, but the two together quite unprecedented. [footnote 4]

The river here is like parts of the Clyde and the Kyles of Bute, with French villages let in, and an Italian sky overhead. We crossed to a village where a number of Jews live, for I wished to visit their Synagogue; but, lo! this was the Grand Duchy of Baden again, and a heavily-armed sentry, ever watching for insidious foes, found us invading the dominion, so he deployed and formed square to force us to land somewhere else. The man was civil, but his orders were unreasonable, so we merely embarked again and went over to Switzerland, and ran our little fleet into a bramble bush, to hide it while we mounted to an auberge on the hill for a sixpenny bottle of wine.

The pretty Swiss lass in charge said she once knew an Englishman--but "it was a pity they were all so proud." He had sent her a letter in English, which I asked her to let me read for her. It began, "My dear little girl, I love you;" and this did not sound so very proud for a beginning. My new boating friend of the double-tubed craft promised to make her a tin cafetière, and so it was evident that he was the tinman of the village, and a most agreeable tinman too.

She came to see us on board, and her father arrived just in time to witness a triangular parting, which must have puzzled him a good deal, Amelia waving farewell to a "proud" Englishman and a nautical whitesmith, who both took leave also of each other, the last sailing away with huge square yards and coloured canvas, and the Rob Roy drifting with the stream in the opposite direction.

"Proud Englishman"--the sound of these words was still in my ears though the speaker was out of sight. Can any nation judge any other as to which of the nations is "proud"--i.e., unduly proud, for there is a proper pride for every people? Some philosopher must come from Uranus to answer this, and he will find it much easier to give his verdict on a first survey of the English, the French, and the Americans, than to give a sharp, clear, and crisp decision after he has dwelt among each people and really known them. But here is his present verdict:--

"John Bull is complacent before the picture of his ancient victory in freedom's cause, his prosperous family in every clime, and his hopes of peaceful progress to the end of time.

"Jonathan is rightly proud of his past, that began ten years ago, and which has certainly astounded us all, and he exults in a future of vastness that has illimitable room to expand in a prairie sea peopled by sanguine fancy.

"The Frenchman exults in France as a brilliant light, though it is more often a beacon to warn us off than a pharos to show a safe harbour; nay, worse, it is a firework of dangerous sparks and loud explosions, but still he is glad that you must look at it, and you cannot but hear its noise, and cannot tell what it will end in.

"John looks from a height and is proud; Jonathan looks to a height and is proud; while Monsieur makes all of us look at his capers, and he too is proud as the enfant terrible of the world."

Every day for weeks past had been as a picnic to me, but I prolonged this day into night, the air was so balmy and the red sun setting was so soon replaced by the white moon rising, and besides, the navigation here had no dangers, and there were villages every few miles. When I had enough of it, cruising here and there by moonlight, we drew up to the town of Stein, but all was now lonely by the water-side. This is to be expected when you arrive late; however, a slap or two on the water with the paddle, and a loud verse of a song, Italian, Dutch, a pibroch, any noise in fact, soon draws the idlers to you, and it is precisely the idlers you want. One of them readily helped me with the boat to an inn where an excellent landlady greeted the strange guest. From this moment all was bustle there, and it was very much increased by a German visitor who insisted on talking to me in English, which I am sure I did not understand a bit better than the Germans who came to listen and look on.


[footnote 1]: It will be noticed how the termination "ingen"is common here. Thus in our water route we have passed Donanesehingen, Geisingen, Mehringen, Tuttlingen, Friedingen, Sigmaringen, Reidlingen, Ehingen, Disehingen, and Gegglingen, the least and last. In England we have the "ing" in Dorking, Kettering, &c.

[footnote 2]: These maelstroms seem at first to demand extra caution as you approach, but they are harmless enough, for the water is deep, and it only twists the boat round; and you need not mind this except when the sail is up, but have a care then that you are not taken aback. In crossing one of these whirlpools at full speed it will be found needless to try to counteract the sudden action on your bow by paddling against it, for it is better to hold on as if there were no interference, and presently the action in the reverse direction puts all quite right.

[footnote 3]: That his late Majesty did not forget the canoe will be seen from the following, which appeared in the "Globe" of April 20 (the Emperor's birthday):--

"By an edict, dated April 6, 1866, issued this morning, the Ministre d'Etat institutes a special committee for the organization of a special exhibition, at the Exposition Universelle of 1867, of all objects connected with the arts and industry attached to pleasure boats and river navigation. This measure is thought to display the importance which amateur navigation has assumed during the last few years--to display the honour in which is held this sport nouveau, as it is denominated in the report, and to be successful in abolishing the old and absurd prejudices which have so long prevented its development in France. The Emperor, whose fancy for imitating everything English leads him to patronise with alacrity all imitation of English sports in particular, is said to have suggested the present exhibition after reading MacGregor's 'Cruise of the Rob Roy,' which developes many new ideas of the purposes besides mere pleasure to which pleasure boats may be applied, and would be glad to encourage a taste for the exploration of solitary streams and lonely currents amongst the youth of France."

The Baltic Rob Roy canoe was at this Exhibition in Paris, and the Emperor, having seen her performance on the Seine, forthwith bought a sister ship from Searle, and gave it to the Prince Imperial, who, when he became a member of the Royal Canoe Club, called his canoe the "Rhone," and complied with the good custom of exchanging cartes with the Captain.

[footnote 4]: Double boats with paddle-wheels, worked by pedals, are now common in England, but they are stupid things. A double canoe sails well on smooth water, if the inner sides of the two hulls are parallel upright planes.

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