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 7

Fog Picture-- Boy Soldiers-- Schaffhausen Falls-- Eating-- Bachelor's Fare-- Lake of Zurich-- Like a Dog-- Crinoline-- Spectator-- Lake of Zug-- Swiss Riflemen-- Mist Curtains-- Sailing-- Fishing Britons-- Flogging the Water-- Odd Britons-- Talk-books-- A Suggestion.

IN the morning there was a most curious change of air; a dense white fog was all around. Truly it was now to be "sensation rowing;" so we hastened to get off into this milky atmosphere. I have an idea that we passed under a bridge; at least the usual cheers sounded this time as if they were above me, but the mist was as thick as our best November Cheshire-cheese fogs, and quite as interesting. On several occasions I positively could not see the bow of my boat, but only a few feet from my nose. The whole arrangement was so unexpected and entirely novel,--paddling on a fast invisible stream--that I had the liveliest emotions of pleasure without seeing anything at all.

But then fancy had free play all the time, and the pictures it drew were vivid and full of colour, and, after all, our impressions of external objects are only pictures, so say the philosophers; and why not then enjoy a tour in a fog, with a good album of pictures making the while in the brain?

Sounds, too, there were, but like those of witches and fairies--though perhaps it was only the cackling of some antique washerwomen on the banks. However, I addressed the unseen company in both prose and poetry, and was full of emphasis, which now and again was increased by my boat running straight into the shore. The clearing away of the fog was one of the most interesting evolutions of nature to be seen. In one sort or other, every traveller has enjoyed the quick or gradual tearing up of a fog curtain on mountain or moor, but here it was on a beauteous river.

I wish to describe this process, but I cannot. It was a series of "Turner pictures," with glimpses right and left, and far overhead, of trees, sky, castles, each lightened and shown for a moment, and then gauzed over again and completely hidden; while the mind had to imagine all the context of the scenery, and it was sure to be quite wrong when another gleam of sun disclosed what was there in reality. For it cleared away at last, and Father Sol avenged himself by an extra hot ray, for thus interfering with his beams.

The Rhine banks here were sloped steeply; pleasant meadows, vineyards, and woods were mingled with tolerable fairness to all three. But almost any scenery seemed to be good when the genial exercise of the canoe was the medium for enjoying it. Soon afterwards the woods thickened, the mountains rose behind them, the current got faster and faster, the houses, at first dotted on the knolls, were closer and more suburb-like, and then a grand sweep of the stream opened up Schaffhausen to the eye, while a sullen sound on the water warned us of "rapids ahead." Some caution was needed in steering here, but there is no very great difficulty, for steamboats navigate thus far, and of course it is easy for a canoe. But when I glided down to the bridge there was the "Goldenen Schiff" hotel. So one was bound to patronise it, because of its name, and because there was a gigantic picture of a Briton on the adjoining wall. He was in full highland costume, though the peculiar tartan of his kilt showed that there is still one clan we have not yet recognized.

Here began a novel kind of astonishment among the people: for when they asked, "Where have you come from?" and were told, from England, they could not understand how this could be, my course seemed as if we came from Germany.

The short morning's work being soon over, there was all the day for wandering about. Drums and a band presently led me to a corps of little boys in full uniform, about 200 of them, with real guns and with boy officers, most martial to behold, albeit they were munching apples between the words of command, and pulling wry faces at the urchins of eight years old, who strove in vain to take very long steps with very short legs.

They had some skirmishing drill, and used small goats' horns to give the orders instead of bugles. These horns are used on the railways too, and the note is very clear, and may be heard quite well a long way off. Much might be done in our drill at home by something of this sort.

It is a short three miles to the Belle Vue, built above the falls of Schaffhausen, and in full view of that noble scene. These great falls of the Rhine looked much finer than I had recollected them some years before; it is pleasant, but unusual, for one's second visit to such sights to be more striking than the first. At night the river was splendidly illuminated by Bengal lights, and the effect of this on the tossing foam and rich full body of ever-pouring water, made thus a torrent of fire, was a spectacle of magical beauty and grandeur, well seen from the balcony of the hotel, by many travellers from various lands. On one side of me was a Russian, and a Brazilian on the other.

Next day, at the railway-station, I put the sharp bow of the Rob Roy in at the window of the "baggages" office, and asked for the "boat's ticket." The clerk did not seem at all surprised, for he knew I was an Englishman, and they know well enough that nothing is too odd, queer, mad, in short, for Englishmen to do. But the porters, guards, and engine-drivers made a good deal of talk before the canoe was safely stowed among the trunks in the van; and I now and then visited her there, just for company's sake, and to see that the sharp-cornered, iron-bound boxes of the American tourists had not made holes in her oaken skin. One could not but survey too, with some anxiety, the lumbering casks on the platform, waiting to be rolled in beside the canoe; and the fish baskets, iron bars, crates, and clumsy gear of all sorts, which at every stoppage is tumbled in or roughly shovelled out of the luggage-van.

This care and sympathy for a mere boat may be called enthusiasm by those who have not felt the like towards inanimate objects linked to our pleasures or pain by hourly ties of interest; but others will understand how a friendship for the boat was felt more in such a cruise; her strong points were better known as they were more tried but the weak points, too, of the frail traveller became now more apparent, and the eager desire to bring her to England unharmed was increased every day when we had made the homeward turn.

The mere cost of the railway ticket for the boat's carriage to Zurich was two or three shillings,--not so much as the expense of taking it between the stations and the hotels. Submitting, then, to be borne again on wheels and through tunnels in the good old railway style, we soon arrive among the regular Swiss mountains, and where gather the Swiss tourists, for whom arise the Swiss hotels, those huge establishments founded and managed so as best to fatten on the wandering Englishman, and to give him homoeopathic feeding while his purse is bled.

For suffer me again to have a little gossip about eating. Yes, it is a mundane subject, and undoubtedly physical; but when the traveller has to move his body and baggage along a route by his own muscles, by climbing or by rowing, or by whipping a mule, it is a matter of high moment, to him at least, that fibrine should be easily procurable.

If you wish, then, to live well in Switzerland and Germany go to German hotels, and avoid the grand barracks reared on every view-point for the English tourists. See how the omnibus, from the train or the steamer, pours down its victims into the landlords' arms. Papa and mamma, and three daughters and a maid: well, of course they will be attended to. Here is another timid lady with an alpenstock, a long white pole people get when they arrive in Switzerland, and which they don't know what on earth to do with. Next there will issue from the same vehicle a dozen new-fledged Londoners; and the whole party, men and women, are so demure, so afraid of themselves, that the hotel-keeper does just what he likes with them, every one.

Without a courier, a wife, heavy baggage, or young ladies, I enter too, and dare to order a cutlet and potatoes. After half an hour two chops come and spinach, each just one bite, and cold. I ask for fruit, and some pears are presented that grate on the knife, with a minute bunch of grapes, good ones let us acknowledge. For this we pay 2s.

Next day, for a contrast, I paddle three miles down the lake, and order, just as before, a cutlet, potatoes, and fruit, but this time at a second-rate German inn. Presently behold two luscious veal cutlets, with splendid potatoes, and famous hot plates; and a fruit-basket teeming gracefully with large clusters of magnificent grapes, peaches; pears all gushing with juice, and mellow apples, and rosy plums. For this I pay 1s. 6d. The secret is that the Germans won't pay the prices which the English fear to grumble at, and the Germans won't put up with the articles the English fear to reject. Nor may we blame the hotel-keepers for their part in this business. They try to make as much money as they can, and most people who are making money try to do the same.

In the twilight the Rob Roy launched on the Lake of Zurich, so lovely by evening, cool and calm, with its pretty villages painted again on the reflecting water below, and soft voices singing, and slow music floating in the air, as the moon looked down, and the crests of snow were silvered on far-off hills. The canoe was now put up in a boat-house where all seemed to be secure. It was the only time I had found a boathouse for my boat, and the only time when she was badly treated; for, next morning, though the man in charge had appeared to be a solid, honest fellow, I saw at once that the canoe had been sadly tumbled about and filled with water, the seat cast off and floating outside, the covering deranged, the sails untied, and the sacred paddle defiled by clumsy hands. The man who suffered this to be perpetrated will not soon forget the Anglo-German-French setdown he received (with a half-franc), and I have never forgotten since to observe the time-honoured practice of carrying the canoe invariably into the hotel. Another piece of experience gained here was this, that to send your luggage on by a steamer, intending to regain it at the end on your arrival, adds far less of convenience than it does of anxiety and trouble, seeing that in a canoe tour you can readily take the baggage with you always and everywhere in your boat. Freedom is the paddler's joy.

Much of the charm of next day's paddle in the lake consisted in its perfect independence of all previous arrangements, and in the absence of such thraldom as, "You must be here by ten o'clock;" or, "You have to sleep there at night." So now, let the wind blow as it likes, I could run before it, and breakfast at this village; or cross to that point to bathe; or row round that bay, and lunch on the other side of the lake, or anywhere else on the shore, or in the boat itself as it pleased me.

I felt as a dog must feel on his travels who has no luggage and no collar, and has only one coat, which always fits him, and is always getting new.

When quite sated with the water, I fixed on Horgen to stop at for a rest, to the intense delight of all the Horgen boys. How they did jump and caper about the canoe, and scream with the glee of young hearts stirred by a new sight! It was one of the great treats of this voyage to find it gave such hours of pleasure to the juvenile population in each place; and along the vista of my recollection, as I think over the past days of the cruise, many thousand childish faces brimming with happiness range before my eye their chubby or not chubby cheeks.

These young friends were still more joyous when the boat was put into a cart, and the driver got up beside it, and the captain of the canoe began his hot walk behind. A number of their mammas came out to smile on the performance, and some asked to have a passage to England in the boat, to which there was the stock reply, given day by day, "Not much room for the crinoline." Only once was given this rejoinder, that the lady would willingly leave her expansion at home; though on another occasion (and that in France too) they answered, "We poor folks don't wear crinoline."

In every group there were various forms of inquisitiveness about the canoe. First, those who examined it without putting questions; and then those who questioned about it without examining. Some lifted it to feel the weight; others passed their hands along its smooth deck to feel the polished cedar; others looked underneath to see if there was a keel, or bent the rope to feel how flexible it was, or poised the paddle (when I let them), and said, "How light!" and then more critical inquirers measured the boat's dimensions, tapped its sides with their knuckles, and looked wise; sketched its form, scrutinised its copper nails, or gently touched the silken flag, with its hem now frayed a little, and its colour fading; in all places this last item (our burgee), as an object of interest, was always the first exclaimed about by the lady portion of the crowd. It is with such light but pleasant trivialities that a traveller's day may be filled in this enchanting atmosphere, where simply to exist, to breathe, to gaze, and to listen, are enough to pass the sunny hours, if not to engage the nobler powers of the mind.

The Lakes of Zurich and Zug are not far separate. About three hours of steady road walking takes you from one to the other, over a high neck of forest land, and a hot walk this was from twelve to three o'clock in the brightest hours of the day. The heat and the dust made me eager again to be afloat. By the map, indeed, it seemed as if one could row part of this way on a river which runs into Zug, but maps are no guidance as to the fitness of streams for a boat. They make a black line wriggling about on the paper do for all rivers alike, and this tells you nothing as to the depth or force of the current, nor can the drivers or innkeepers tell you much more, since they have no particular reason for observing how a river comports itself; their business is on the road.

The driver was proud of his unusual fare, a boat with an English flag, and he gave a short account of it to every friend he met; an account no doubt frightfully exaggerated, but always accepted as sufficient by the gratified listener. The worthy carter, however, was quite annoyed that I stopped him outside the town of Zug (paying thirteen francs for the cart), for I wished to get the canoe into the water unobserved, as the morning's work had left me yet no rest, and sweet repose could best be had by floating in my boat. However, there was no evading the townspeople's desire to see "the schiff in a cart from England." We took her behind a clump of stones, but they climbed upon the stones and stood. I sat down in a moody silence, but they sat down too in respectful patience. I tried then another plan, turned the canoe bottom upward, and began lining a seam of the planks with red putty. They looked on till it was done, and I began the same seam again, and told them that all the other seams must be thus lined. This, at last, was too much for some of the wiser ones, who turned away and murmured at my slowness, but others at once took their places in the front row. It seemed unfriendly to go on thus any longer, and as it was cooler now, I pushed the boat into the lake, shipped my luggage on board, and after the usual English speech to them from the water, bid every one "adieu." [footnote 1]

New vigour came when once the paddle was grasped again, and the soft yielding water and gentle heaving on its bosom grave fresh pleasure now after the dusty road. It seems as if one must be for ever spoiled for land travel by this smooth liquid journeying.

Zug is a little lake, and the mountains are over it only at one end, but then there are glorious hills, the Rigi and a hundred more, each behind another, or raising a peak in the gaps between. I must resolutely abstain from describing these here. The sight of them is well known to the traveller. The painted pictures of them in every shop window are faithful enough for those who have not been nearer, and words can tell very little to others of what is seen and felt when you fill the delighted eye by looking on the snowy range.

Near one end of the lake I visited the line of targets where the Switzers were popping away their little bullets at their short ranges, with all sorts of gimcrack instruments to aid them, lenses, crooks, and straps for the arms, hair-triggers, and everything done under cover too. Very skilful indeed are they in the use of these contrivances; but the weapons look like toy-guns after all, and are only one step removed from the crossbows you see in Belgium and France, where men meet to shoot at stuffed cockrobins fixed on a pole, and do not hit them, and then adjourn for beer.

The Swiss are good shots and brave men, and woe be to their invaders. Still, in this matter of rifle shooting their dilettanti practice through a window, at the short range of 200 yards, seems really childish when compared with that of the manly groups at Wimbledon, where, on the open heath, in sun or drifting hail, the burly Yorkshireman meets with the hardy Scot, and sends his heavier deadly bullet on its swift errand right away for a thousand yards in a storm.

Leaving the shooters to their bull's-eyes, I paddled in front of the town to scan the hotels, and to judge of the best by appearances. Out came the boats of Zug to examine the floating stranger. They went round and round, in a criticising mood, just as local dogs strut slowly in circles about a new-come cur who is not known to their street, and besides is of ambiguous breed. These boats were all larger than mine, and most of them were brighter with plenty of paint, and universally they were encumbered with most awkward oars. A courteous Frenchman in one of the boats told me all the Zug news in a breath, besides asking numerous questions, and giving a hasty commentary on the fishing in the lake. Finally, he pointed out the best hotel, and so the naval squadron advanced to the pier, led by the canoe. A gracious landlady here put my boat safe in the hotel coach-house, and offered to give me the key of the padlock, to make sure. In the salle à manger were some English friends from London, so now I felt that here was an end of lone wanderings among foreigners, for the summer stream of tourists from England was encountered at this. point.

An early start next morning found the mists on the mountains, but they were quickly furled up out of the way in airy festoons like muslin curtains. We skirted the pretty villas on the verge of the lake, and hauled in by some apple-trees to rig up the sails. This could be done more easily when the boat was drawn ashore than when it was afloat; though, after practice, I could not only set the mast and hoist the sails "at sea," but could even stand up and change my coat or tie the flag on the masthead, or survey a difficult channel, while the boat was rocking on the waves of a rapid. [footnote 2]

On Lake Zug

Sailing on a lake in Switzerland is a full reward for carrying your mast and sails unused for many a long mile. Sometimes, indeed, the sails seemed to be after all an encumbrance, but this was when they were not available. Every time they came into use again the satisfaction of having brought them was fully reassured. In sailing while the wind is light you need not always sit, as must be done for paddling. Wafted by the breeze you can now recline, lie down, or lie up, put your legs anyhow and anywhere, in the water if you like, and the peak of the sail is a shade between the sun and your eyes, while the ripples seem to tinkle cheerfully against the bow, and the wavelets seethe by smoothly near the stern. When you are under sail the hill tops look higher than before, for now you see how far they are above your "lofty" masthead, and the black rocks on the shore look blacker when seen in contrast with a sail like cream. [footnote 3]

After a cruise that left nothing more to see Zug, we put into port at Imyn, and though it is a little place, only a few houses, the boys there were as troublesome as gnats buzzing about; so the canoe had to be locked in the stable out of sight.

Three Britons were waiting here for the steamer. They had come to fish in Switzerland. Now fishing and shooting and travelling kill each other, so far as my experience goes, unless one of them is used as a passetemps because you cannot go on with the other. Thus I recollect once at the town of Vossevangen, in Norway, when we had to wait some hours for horses, it was capital fun to catch three trout with a pin for a hook fastened on the lash of a gig-whip, while a fellow-traveller shot with a pistol at my Glengarry cap on a stone.

The true fisherman fishes for the fishing, not for the fishes. He himself is pleased even if he catches nothing, though he is more pleased to bring back a full basket, for that will justify him to his friends. Now when you stop your travelling that you may angle, if you catch nothing you grudge the day spent, and keep thinking how much you might have seen in a day on the road. On the other hand, if you do happen to catch a fish, you don't like to leave the place where more might be taken, and your first ten miles after departure from it is a stage of reflection about pools, stones, bites, and rises, instead of what is going on all around. Worst of all, if you have hooked a fish and lost him, it is a sad confession of defeat then to give up the sport and moodily resume the tour. [footnote 4]

As for the three visitors at Imyn, they had just twenty minutes sure, so they breakfasted in five minutes, and in the next three minutes had got their rods ready, and were out in the garden casting as fast as possible, and flogging the water as if the fish also ought to be in a hurry to get taken. The hot sun blazed upon the bald head of one of these excited anglers, for he had not time to put on his hat. The other had got his line entangled in a bush, and of course was hors de combat. The third was a sort of light skirmisher, rushing about with advice, and pointing out shoals of minnows everywhere else but where his companions were engaged. However, they managed to capture a few monsters of the deep, that is to say, a couple of misguided gudgeons, probably dissipated members of their tribe, and late risers, who had missed their proper breakfasts. The most ardent Izaak Walton of us all could not surely enjoy fishing after this sort.

To be in this tide of wandering Britons, and yet to look at them and listen to them as if you were distinct--this is a post full of interest, and amusement; and if you can, even for one day, try to be (at least in thought) a Swiss resident or a Parisian, and so to regard the English around you from the point they are seen from by the foreigners whom they visit, the examination becomes far more curious. But this has been done by many clever tourists, who have written their notes with more or less humour, and with severity rather more than less; so I shall not attempt to analyse the strange atoms of the flood from our islands which overflow the Continent every year. It is the fashion to decry three-fourths of this motley company as "snobs," "spendthrifts," or "greenhorns." But is not much of the hard criticism published by travellers against their fellows only a crooked way of saying that the writer in each case has at any rate met some travellers inferior to himself?

Of course, among the Englishmen whom I met now and then in the course of this voyage there were some very strange specimens, and their remarks were odd enough, when alluding to the canoe. One said, for example, "Don't you think it would have been more commodious to have had an attendant with you to look after your luggage and things?" The most obvious answer to this was probably that which I gave, "Not for me, if he was to be in the boat; and not for him if he had to run on the bank." Another Englishman (but he was at home) asked me in all seriousness about the canoe voyage, "Was it not a great waste of time?" And when I inquired how he had spent his vacation, he said, "Oh, I was all the time at Brighton."

In returning again to conversation in English, one is reminded how very impractical are all the "Talk-books" published to facilitate the traveller's conversation in foreign languages. Whether they are meant to help you in French, German, Italian, or Spanish, these little books, with their well-known double columns of words and phrases, and their "Polite Letter-writer" at the end, all seem to be equally determined to force words upon you which you never will need to use; while the things you are always wanting to say in the new tongue are either carefully buried among colloquies on botany or precious stones, or among philosophical discussions about metaphysics, or else the desirable phrases are not in the book at all.

This need of a brief and good "Talk-book" struck me particularly when I had carefully marked in my German one all the pages which would never be required in the tour, so that I could cut them out as an unnecessary addition to the weight of my ship's library. Why, the little book, when thus expurgated, got so lamentably thin that the few pages left of it, as just possible to be useful, formed only a wretched skeleton of the original volume.

Another fault of these books is that half the matter in them is made up of what the imaginary chatting foreigner says to you, the unhappy Englishman, and this often in long phrases, or even in set speeches. But when, in actual life, the real foreigner does speak to you, he somehow says quite a different set of words from any particular phrases you see in the book, and you cannot make out his meaning, because it does not correspond with anything you have learned.

It is evident that a dictionary is required to get at the English meaning of what is said to you by another; while a talk-book will suffice for what you wish to say to him; because you can select in it and compose from it before you utter any particular phrase. The Danish phrase-book for Norway and Sweden is a tolerably good one, and it holds in a short compass all the traveller wants; but I think a book of this kind for each of the other principal languages might well be constructed on the following basis.

First, let us have the expression "I want," and then the English substantives most used in travel talk, arranged in alphabetical order, and with their foreign equivalents. Next put the request "Will you," and after it place each of the verbs of action generally required by travellers. Then set forth the question, "Does the," with a column of events formed by a noun, verb, and preposition in each, such as "coach stop at," "road lead to," "steamer start from," &c.; and, lastly, give us the comprehensive "Is it," with an alphabetical list of adjectives likely to be employed. Under these four heads, with two pages of adverbs and numerals, I think that the primary communications with a foreigner can be comprised; and as for conversations with him on special subjects, such as politics, or art, or scenery, these are practically not likely to be attempted unless you learn his language, and not merely some of its most necessary words; but this study of language is not the purpose for which you get a talk-book.

Having talked our homily on international talking, it is time to be on the move again.


[footnote 1]: This word, like other expressive French words, is commonly used in Germany and Switzerland.

[footnote 2]: This standing-up drill is so very useful in extending the horizon of view, and in enabling you to examine a whole ledge of sunken rocks at once, that it is well worth the trouble of a week or two's practice.

[footnote 3]: The sails of the Jordan Rob Roy were dyed dark blue--an excellent plan for alleviating the glare of an African sun, and for eluding the gaze of hostile Arabs. For an opposite purpose, in lonely Eastern parts, when it was desirable to be discerned afar off by my dragoman, I wore the bright red jersey shown on the cover of this book. [Online editor's note: the cover cannot be reproduced, as our copy-text's cover is quite mutilated by water damage.]

[footnote 4]: Fishing from a canoe is, however, very pleasant when the current bears you along, as is told in the log of our Swedish tour. One summer, with a faithful mate, my little terrier "Rob," the Rob Roy plunged into the breakers among the seals at the Scilly Isles and round the bold capes of the Cornish coast, visiting 100 German vessels kept in various ports by fear of the looming French warships outside, and then for the winter the canoe was hauled up through a window to her bedroom in the Temple.

Next> | ^Top