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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 15

Blacksmith-- Holy Water-- Quaint Questions-- Unprotected Female-- Grave Gazers-- Wrong Ways-- The Boys, the Boys-- Bends of the Marne-- Last Mooring-- The Seine-- Paris-- Home.

NOW RISES the moon so clear, that we can't see the "man in the moon," but under the pale, quiet radiance there is a party of guests at a wedding-dinner. The younger portion of the company adjourn to the garden and let off squibs and crackers, while some signal lights are shown from my window, and cheers resound as the Englishman illumines the neighbourhood. Next day the same people all assembled for the marriage breakfast, and Madeira and champagne flowed from the well-squeezed purse of the bride's happy father. The Germans had not come yet to Meaux.

One may notice that in a village the last sound to give way to the stillness of evening is that of the blacksmith's hammer, which is oftener heard abroad than at home. Perhaps this is because much of their execrable French ironwork is made separately in every town; whereas in England it is manufactured at special places by machinery. At any rate, after you have travelled on the continent long enough to become calm and observant, and to see, hear, and scent what is around, there is sure to be a picture in the memory full of blue dresses, white stones, jingling of bells, and the "cling, ding" of the never idle blacksmith.

This town of Meaux has a bridge with houses on it, and great mill-wheels filling up the arches as they did in old London-bridge. Pleasant gardens from the river and cafés glitter there at night. These are not luxuries but positive necessaries of life for the Frenchman, and it is the absence of these in new countries which is one chief cause why the Frenchman is so bad a colonist, for he has only the expression "with me" for "home," and no word for "wife" but "woman."

The cathedral of Meaux is grand and old, and see how they masquerade the service in it! Look at the gaunt "Suisse," with his cocked hat kept on in church, and his sword and spear. The twenty priests and twelve red-surpliced boys intone to about as many hearers. A monk makes believe to sprinkle holy water on all sides from that dirty plasterer's brush, and then two boys carry on their shoulders a huge round loaf, the "pain benit," which, after fifty bowings, is blessed, and escorted back to be cut up, and is then given in morsels to the congregation. These endless ceremonies are the meshes of the net of Popery, and they are well woven to catch many French flies and other folks who must have action, show, the visible tangible outside, whatever may be meant by it.

Some form, of course, there must be in worship. One may suppose, indeed, that perfect spirit can adore God without attitude, or even any sequence or change. Yet in the Bible we hear of Seraphs veiling their bodies with their wings, and of Elders prostrate at certain times, and Saints that have a litany even in heaven, Mortals, too, must have some form of adoration, but there is the question, How much? and on this great point how many wise and foolish men have written books without end?

The riverside of the Marne was a good place for a quiet Sunday walk. Here a flock of 300 sheep had come to drink, and to nibble at the flowers hanging over the water, and the simple-hearted shepherd stood looking on while his dogs rushed backward and forward, evidently yearning for some sheep to do wrong, that their dog service might be required to prevent or to punish naughty conduct. This "Berger" inquires whether England is near Africa, and how large our legs of mutton are, and if we have sheep-dogs, and are there any rivers in our island on the sea. Meanwhile at the hotel the marriage party kept on breakfasting, even until four o'clock, and non-melodious songs were sung. The French, as a people, do not excel in vocal music, either in tone or in harmony, but they are precise in time.

Afloat again next morning, and quite refreshed, we prepare for a long day's work. The stream was now clear, and the waving tresses of dark green weeds gracefully curved under water, while islands amid deep shady bays varied the landscape above. There are three hemispheres of scenery visible to the traveller who voyages thus in a boat on the river. First, the great arch of sky, and land, and trees, and flowers down to the water's brink; then the whole of this reflected beautifully in the surface of the river; and then again the wondrous depths in the water itself, with its animal life, its rocks and glades below, and its flowers and mosses underneath.

I saw a canal lock open, and paddled in merely for variety, passing soon into a tunnel, in the middle of which there was a huge boat fixed, and nobody with it. The boat exactly filled the tunnel, and the men had gone to their dinner, so I had first to drag their huge boat out, and then the canoe proudly glided into daylight, having a whole tunnel to itself. In the war this tunnel was blown up. At Lagny, where we meant to breakfast, I left the Rob Roy with a nice old gentleman, who was fishing in a nightcap and spectacles, and he assured me he would stop there two hours. But when I scrambled back to it through the mill (startling the miller's men among their wholesome dusty sacks), the disconsolate canoe was found all alone, the first time she had been left in a town an "unprotected female."

To escape a long serpent wind of the river, we entered another canal and found it about a foot deep, with clear water flowing pleasantly. This seemed to be very fortunate, and we enjoyed it most thoroughly, for a few miles, little knowing what was to come. But weeds began, then clumps of great rushes, then large bushes and trees, all growing with thick grass in the water, and at length this got so dense that the prospect before me was precisely like a very large hayfield, with grass four feet high, all ready to be mowed, but which had to be tediously rowed through. This on a hot day without wind, and in a long vista, unbroken by a man or a house, or anything lively, was rather daunting, but we had gone too far to recede with honour, and so by dint of pushing and working I actually got the boat through some miles of this novel obstruction (known only this dry summer), and brought her safe and sound again to the river.

Canal miseries

At one place there was a bridge over this marsh, and two men happened to be going over it as the canoe came near. They soon called to some neighbours, and the row of spectators exhibited the faculty so notable in French people and so rarely found with us, that of being able to keep from laughing right out at a foreigner in an awkward case. The absurd sight of a man paddling a boat amid miles of thick rushes was indeed a severe test of courteous gravity. However, I must say that the labour required to penetrate this marsh was far less than one would suppose from the appearance of the place. The sharp point of the boat entered, and its smooth sides followed through hedges of aquatic plants, and, on the whole--after all was done--the trouble and muscular effort of this passage was better than the monotonous calm of sailing on a canal. [footnote 1]

Fairly in the broad river again, the Rob Roy came to Neuilly, and it was plain that my Sunday rest had enabled over thirty miles to be accomplished without any fatigue at the end. The canoe went to bed in a summer-house, and her crew in a garret, where they could not stand upright--the only occasion where we were badly housed, misled by the sign of "The Jolly Rowers." Next day the river flowed fast again, and numerous islands made the channels very difficult to find. The worst of these troubles is that you cannot prepare for them. No map gives any just idea of your route, and the people on the river itself are profoundly ignorant of its navigation; for instance, in starting, my landlord told me that in two hours we should reach Paris; after ten miles an intelligent man said, "Distance from Paris? it is six hours from here;" while a third informed me a little further on, "It is just three leagues and a half from this spot."

The banks were now dotted with villas, and numerous pleasure-boats were moored at neat little stairs. The vast number of these boats quite astonished me, yet very few of them were ever to be seen in actual use. The French are certainly ingenious in their boat-making, but more of ingenuity than of practical exercise is seen on the water. On several rivers we remarked the "walking machine," in which a man can march on the water by fixing two small boats on his feet. A curious mode of rowing with your face to the bows has lately been invented by a Frenchman. [footnote 2]

We breakfasted at a new canal cutting, and as there were many gamins about, I fastened a stone to my painter, and so left the Rob Roy in the middle of the river, moored within sight of the arbour where I sat, and also within sight of the ardent-eyed boys who gazed for hours with wistful looks on the tiny craft. Their desire to handle as well as to see is only natural for these little fellows, and therefore, if the lads behave well, I always make a point of showing them the whole affair quite near, after they have had to abstain from it so long as a forbidden pleasure.

Strange that this quick curiosity of French boys does not ripen more of them into travellers, but it soon gets expended in trifling details of a narrow circle, while the sober, sedate, nay, the triste Anglian is found scurrying over the world with a carpet-bag, and pushing his way in foreign crowds without knowing one word of their language, and all the while as merry as a lark. Among the odd modes of locomotion adopted by Englishmen, we have already mentioned that of the gentleman (now a member of the Canoe Club) who was travelling in Germany with a four-in-hand and two spare horses. We met another Briton who had made a tour in a road locomotive which he bought for 700l., and sold again at the same price. One more John Bull, who regarded the canoe as a "queer conveyance," went himself abroad on a velocipede. None of these, however, could cross seas, lakes, and rivers like the canoe, wherever a man could walk or a plank could swim.

It seemed contrary to nature that, after thus nearing pretty Paris, one's back was now to be turned upon it for hours in order to have a wide vague, purposeless voyage into country parts. But the river willed it so; for here a great curve began and led off to the left, while the traffic of the Marne went straight through a canal to the right, through a canal, and therefore the Rob Roy would not follow it there.

The river got less and less in volume; its water was used for the canal, and with its maimed strength it could scarcely trickle through a spacious sweep of country file; but now, since these lines were first written, the desperate sorties of Ducrot have flooded that channel with blood. In this long roundabout we were often grounded, or entangled in soft mossy weeds, or fastened in overhanging trees, and, in fact, suffered all the evils which the smallest brook could entail, though this was the bed of a mighty river. The bend of its course was more and more inexplicable. as it turned more round and round, until my face was full in the sunlight at noon, and I saw that the course was now due south. Rustics were there to look at me, and wondering herdsmen too, as if the boat was in mid Germany, instead of being close to Paris. Evidently boating men in that quarter never came here by the river, and the Rob Roy was a rara avis floating on a stream unused.

But the circle was rounded at last, as all circles are; and we got back to the common route, to civilization, fishing men and fishing women, and on open water in the broad Marne once more I stopped for a rest and a ponder.

And now we unmoor for the last time, and enter the Rob Roy for the last of more than a thousand miles we have paddled and sailed since our start. I will not disguise my feeling of sadness then, that the end had come so soon.

So when the murmuring stream glided into the Seine I found a cool bank to lie upon under the trees, with my boat gently rocking in the ripples below, and the near sound of a great city telling that Paris was at hand.

"Here," said I, "and now is my last hour of life savage and free. Sunny days, alone, but not solitary; worked, but not weary "--As in a dream the things, and places, and men I had seen for months of pleasant voyage now floated before my eyes half closed. The panorama was wide and fair to the inner sight; but it spoke forth a tale always the same as it rolled quickly past--that vacation was over, and work must begin.

Up, then, for this is not a life of mere enjoyment. Again into the harness of "polite society," the hat, the collar, the braces, the gloves, the waistcoat, the latch-key--perhaps, the razor--certainly the umbrella. How every joint and limb will rebel against these manacles, but they must be endured!

The gradual approach to Paris by gliding down the Seine was altogether a new sensation. By diligence, railway, or steamer, you have nothing like it--not certainly by walking into Paris along a dusty road. For now we are smoothly carried on a wide and winding river, with nothing to do but to look and to listen while the splendid panorama majestically unfolds. Villas thicken, gardens get smaller as houses are closer, trees get fewer as walls increase. Barges line the banks, commerce and its movement, luxury and its adornment, spires and cupolas grow out of the dim horizon, and then bridges seem to float towards me, and the hum of life gets deeper and busier, while the pretty little prattling of the river stream yields to the roar of traffic, and to that indescribable thrill which throbs the air around this the capital of the Continent, the centre of politics, the focus of pleasure, and splendour, and lies of the world.

In passing the island at Notre Dame I fortunately took the proper side, but even then we found a very awkward rush of water under the bridges. This was caused by the extreme lowness of the river, which on this very day was three feet lower than in the memory of man. The fall over each barrier, though wide enough, was so shallow at the last bridge that the crowd above me evidently calculated upon my being upset; and they were nearly right too. The absence of other boats also showed that some great difficulty was at hand, but I remarked that by far the greater number of observers had collected over one particular arch, where at first there seemed to be the very worst chance for getting through.

By logical deduction I argued from this, "That arch must be the best after all, for they evidently expected me to try it," and, with a horrid presentiment that my first upset was to be at my last bridge, I boldly dashed forwards--whirl, whirl the waves, and grate--grate--my iron keel; but the Rob Roy rises to the occasion, and a rewarding Bravo! from the Frenchmen above is answered by a British "All right" from the Rob Roy below.

No town was so hard to find a place for the canoe in as this bright, gay Paris. We went to the floating baths; they would not have me. We paddled to the funny old ship; they shook their heads. We tried a coal wharf; but they were only civil there. Even the worthy washerwomen, my quondam friends, were altogether callous now about a harbour for the canoe. In desperation we paddled to a bath that was being repaired, but when my boat rounded the corner it was met by a volley of abuse from the proprietor for disturbing his fishing; he was in the act of closing in deadly struggle with a goujon.

Relenting at last as we told the Rob Roy's tale, he housed her there for the night; and I shouldered my luggage and walked to an hotel.

Here is Meurice's, with the homeward tide of Britons from every Alp and cave of Europe flowing through its salons. Here are the gay streets, too white to be looked at in the sun, and the poupeée theatres under the trees, and the dandies so stiff in hired carriages, and the dapper little soldiers, and the tinkling horse-bells, and the gilded cafés.

Yes, it is Paris--and more brilliant than ever!

I faintly tried to hope, but I could not believe that any person there had enjoyed his summer months with such delight as the captain, the purser, the ship's-cook, and cabin-boy of the Rob Roy canoe.

Eight francs take the boat by rail to Calais. Two shillings take her thence to Dover. The railway takes her free to Charing Cross, and there two porters put her in the Thames again.

A flowing tide, on a sunny evening, bears her fast and cheerily straight to Searle's, there to debark the Rob Roy's cargo safe and sound and thankful, and to plant once more upon the shore of Old England

The flag that braved a thousand miles,
The rapid and the snag.


[footnote 1]: The remembrance of this afterwards enabled the Rob Roy to penetrate successfully the dense jungle of the vast marsh at the mouth of the Abana. east of Damascus.

[footnote 2]: Described in "The Voyage Alone in the Yawl Rob Roy" (3rd edition. Low and Marston), when our little three-ton yacht visited Paris for the Exhibition of 1867.


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