And they scorn to make a poor mouth over their poverty, which I take to be the better part of manliness. I have heard a woman in quite a better position at home, with a good bit of money in hand, refer to her own child with a horrid whine as 'a poor man's child.' I would not say such a thing to the Duke of Westminster. And the French are full of this spirit of independence. Perhaps it is the result of republican institutions, as they call them. Much more likely it is because there are so few people really poor, that the whiners are not enough to keep each other in countenance.
The people on the barge were delighted to hear that I admired their state. They understood perfectly well, they told me, how Monsieur envied them. Without doubt Monsieur was rich; and in that case he might make a canal boat as pretty as a villa--joli comme un chateau. And with that they invited me on board their own water villa. They apologised for their cabin; they had not been rich enough to make it as it ought to be.
'The fire should have been here, at this side.' explained the husband. 'Then one might have a writing-table in the middle-- books--and' (comprehensively) 'all. It would be quite coquettish-- ca serait tout-a-fait coquet.' And he looked about him as though the improvements were already made. It was plainly not the first time that he had thus beautified his cabin in imagination; and when next he makes a bit, I should expect to see the writing-table in the middle.
Madame had three birds in a cage. They were no great thing, she explained. Fine birds were so dear. They had sought to get a Hollandais last winter in Rouen (Rouen? thought I; and is this whole mansion, with its dogs and birds and smoking chimneys, so far a traveller as that? and as homely an object among the cliffs and orchards of the Seine as on the green plains of Sambre?)--they had sought to get a Hollandais last winter in Rouen; but these cost fifteen francs apiece--picture it--fifteen francs!
'Pour un tout petit oiseau--For quite a little bird,' added the husband.
As I continued to admire, the apologetics died away, and the good people began to brag of their barge, and their happy condition in life, as if they had been Emperor and Empress of the Indies. It was, in the Scots phrase, a good hearing, and put me in good humour with the world. If people knew what an inspiriting thing it is to hear a man boasting, so long as he boasts of what he really has, I believe they would do it more freely and with a better grace.
They began to ask about our voyage. You should have seen how they sympathised. They seemed half ready to give up their barge and follow us. But these canaletti are only gypsies semi-domesticated. The semi-domestication came out in rather a pretty form. Suddenly Madam's brow darkened. 'Cependant,' she began, and then stopped; and then began again by asking me if I were single?
'Yes,' said I.
'And your friend who went by just now?'
He also was unmarried.
O then--all was well. She could not have wives left alone at home; but since there were no wives in the question, we were doing the best we could.
'To see about one in the world,' said the husband, 'il n'y a que ca--there is nothing else worth while. A man, look you, who sticks in his own village like a bear,' he went on, '--very well, he sees nothing. And then death is the end of all. And he has seen nothing.'
Madame reminded her husband of an Englishman who had come up this canal in a steamer.
'Perhaps Mr. Moens in the Ytene,' I suggested.
'That's it,' assented the husband. 'He had his wife and family with him, and servants. He came ashore at all the locks and asked the name of the villages, whether from boatmen or lock-keepers; and then he wrote, wrote them down. Oh, he wrote enormously! I suppose it was a wager.'
A wager was a common enough explanation for our own exploits, but it seemed an original reason for taking notes.
THE OISE IN FLOOD
Before nine next morning the two canoes were installed on a light country cart at Etreux: and we were soon following them along the side of a pleasant valley full of hop-gardens and poplars. Agreeable villages lay here and there on the slope of the hill; notably, Tupigny, with the hop-poles hanging their garlands in the very street, and the houses clustered with grapes.