CHAPTER II. MORET-SUR-LOING.
The valley of the Loing abounds in captivating spots, Moret-sur-Loing bearing the palm. Over the ancient town, bird-like broods a majestic church, as out-spread wings its wide expanse of roof, while below by translucent depths and foliage richly varied, stretch quarters old and new, the canal intersecting the river at right angles. Lovely as is the river on which all who choose may spend long summer days, the canal to my thinking is lovelier still. Straight as an arrow it saunters between avenues of poplar, the lights and shadows of wood and water, the sunburnt, stalwart barge folk, their huge gondoliers affording endless pictures. Hard as is undoubtedly the life of the rope tower, rude as may appear this amphibious existence, there are cheerful sides to the picture. Many of these floating habitations possess a fireside nook cosy as that of a Parisian concierge, I was never tired of strolling along the canal and watching the barge folk. One day a friend and myself found a large barge laden with coal at the head of the canal, the huge dark framework and its sombre burden lighted up with touches of grace and colour. At the farther end of the vessel was hung a cage of canaries, at the other end was a stand of pot-flowers, geraniums and petunias in full bloom and all the more brilliant by virtue of contrast. A neighbour of the bargeman, a bright, intelligent woman, brown as a gipsy but well-spoken and of tidy appearance, invited us to enter. Imagine the neatest, prettiest little room in the world, parlour, bedchamber and kitchen in one, every object so placed as to make the most of available space. On a small side-table - and of course under such circumstances each article must be sizable - stood a sewing machine, in the corner was a bedstead with exquisitely clean bedding, in another a tiny cooking stove. Vases of flowers, framed pictures and ornamental quicksilver balls had been found place for, this bargewoman's home aptly illustrating Shakespeare's adage - "Order gives all things view." The brisk, weather-beaten mistress now came up, no little gratified by our interest and our praises.
"You ladies would perhaps like to make a little journey with me?" she asked, "nothing easier, we start to-morrow morning at six o'clock for Nevers, you could take the train back."
Never perhaps in our lives had myself and my companion received an invitation so out of the way, so bewilderingly tempting! And we felt too, with a pang, that never again in all probability should we receive such another. But on this especial day we were not staying at Moret, only running over for the afternoon from our headquarters at Bourron. Acceptance was thus hemmed round with small impediments. And by way of consolation, next morning the glorious weather broke. A downpour recalling our own lakeland would anyhow have kept us ashore.
"Another time then!" had said the kind hostess of the barge at parting. She seemed as sorry as ourselves that the little project she had mooted so cordially could not be carried out.
The Loing canal joins the Seine at Saint Mammes, a few kilometres lower down, continuing its course of thirty kilometres to Bleneau in the Nievre. Canal life in Eastern France is a characteristic feature, the whole region being intersected by a network of waterways, those chemins qui marchent, or walking roads as Michelet picturesquely calls them. And strolling on the banks of the canal here you may be startled by an astonishing sight, you see folks walking, or apparently walking, on water. Standing bolt upright on a tiny raft, carefully maintaining their balance, country people are towed from one side to the other.
These suburban and riverside quarters are full of charm. The soft reds and browns of the houses, the old-world architecture and romantic sites, tempt an artist at every turn. And all in love with a Venetian existence may here find it nearer home.
A few villas let furnished during the summer months have little lawns winding down to the water's edge and a boat moored alongside. Thus their happy inmates can spend hot, lazy days on the river.
Turning our backs on the canal, by way of ivy-mantled walls, ancient mills and tumbledown houses, we reach the Porte du Pont or Gate of the Bridge. With other towns of the period, Moret was fortified. The girdle of walls is broken and dilapidated, whilst firm as when erected in the fourteenth century still stand the city gates.
Of the two the Porte du Pont is the least imposing and ornamental, but it possesses a horrifying interest. In an upper storey is preserved one of those man-cages said to have been invented for the gratification of Louis XI, that strange tyrant to whose ears were equally acceptable the shrieks of his tortured victims and the apt repartee of ready-witted subjects.
"How much do you earn a day?" he once asked a little scullion, as incognito he entered the royal kitchen.
"By God's grace as much as the King," replied the lad; "I earn my bread and he can do no more."
So pleased was the King with this saying that it made the speaker's fortune.
We climb two flights of dark, narrow stone stairs reaching a bare chamber having small apertures, enlargements of the mere slits formerly admitting light and air. The man-cage occupies one corner. It is made of stout oaken ribs strongly bound together with iron, its proportions just allowing the captive to lie down at full length and take a turn of two or three steps. De Commines tells us that the cage invented by Cardinal Balue, and in which he languished for eleven years, was narrower still. An average sized man could not stand therein upright.