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Charles Dickens > American Notes > Chapter I

American Notes

Chapter I


I SHALL never forget the one-fourth serious and three-fourths
comical astonishment, with which, on the morning of the third of
January eighteen-hundred-and-forty-two, I opened the door of, and
put my head into, a 'state-room' on board the Britannia steam-
packet, twelve hundred tons burthen per register, bound for Halifax
and Boston, and carrying Her Majesty's mails.

That this state-room had been specially engaged for 'Charles
Dickens, Esquire, and Lady,' was rendered sufficiently clear even
to my scared intellect by a very small manuscript, announcing the
fact, which was pinned on a very flat quilt, covering a very thin
mattress, spread like a surgical plaster on a most inaccessible
shelf. But that this was the state-room concerning which Charles
Dickens, Esquire, and Lady, had held daily and nightly conferences
for at least four months preceding: that this could by any
possibility be that small snug chamber of the imagination, which
Charles Dickens, Esquire, with the spirit of prophecy strong upon
him, had always foretold would contain at least one little sofa,
and which his lady, with a modest yet most magnificent sense of its
limited dimensions, had from the first opined would not hold more
than two enormous portmanteaus in some odd corner out of sight
(portmanteaus which could now no more be got in at the door, not to
say stowed away, than a giraffe could be persuaded or forced into a
flower-pot): that this utterly impracticable, thoroughly hopeless,
and profoundly preposterous box, had the remotest reference to, or
connection with, those chaste and pretty, not to say gorgeous
little bowers, sketched by a masterly hand, in the highly varnished
lithographic plan hanging up in the agent's counting-house in the
city of London: that this room of state, in short, could be
anything but a pleasant fiction and cheerful jest of the captain's,
invented and put in practice for the better relish and enjoyment of
the real state-room presently to be disclosed:- these were truths
which I really could not, for the moment, bring my mind at all to
bear upon or comprehend. And I sat down upon a kind of horsehair
slab, or perch, of which there were two within; and looked, without
any expression of countenance whatever, at some friends who had
come on board with us, and who were crushing their faces into all
manner of shapes by endeavouring to squeeze them through the small

We had experienced a pretty smart shock before coming below, which,
but that we were the most sanguine people living, might have
prepared us for the worst. The imaginative artist to whom I have
already made allusion, has depicted in the same great work, a
chamber of almost interminable perspective, furnished, as Mr.
Robins would say, in a style of more than Eastern splendour, and
filled (but not inconveniently so) with groups of ladies and
gentlemen, in the very highest state of enjoyment and vivacity.
Before descending into the bowels of the ship, we had passed from
the deck into a long narrow apartment, not unlike a gigantic hearse
with windows in the sides; having at the upper end a melancholy
stove, at which three or four chilly stewards were warming their
hands; while on either side, extending down its whole dreary
length, was a long, long table, over each of which a rack, fixed to
the low roof, and stuck full of drinking-glasses and cruet-stands,
hinted dismally at rolling seas and heavy weather. I had not at
that time seen the ideal presentment of this chamber which has
since gratified me so much, but I observed that one of our friends
who had made the arrangements for our voyage, turned pale on
entering, retreated on the friend behind him., smote his forehead
involuntarily, and said below his breath, 'Impossible! it cannot
be!' or words to that effect. He recovered himself however by a
great effort, and after a preparatory cough or two, cried, with a
ghastly smile which is still before me, looking at the same time
round the walls, 'Ha! the breakfast-room, steward - eh?' We all
foresaw what the answer must be: we knew the agony he suffered.
He had often spoken of THE SALOON; had taken in and lived upon the
pictorial idea; had usually given us to understand, at home, that
to form a just conception of it, it would be necessary to multiply
the size and furniture of an ordinary drawing-room by seven, and
then fall short of the reality. When the man in reply avowed the
truth; the blunt, remorseless, naked truth; 'This is the saloon,
sir' - he actually reeled beneath the blow.

In persons who were so soon to part, and interpose between their
else daily communication the formidable barrier of many thousand
miles of stormy space, and who were for that reason anxious to cast
no other cloud, not even the passing shadow of a moment's
disappointment or discomfiture, upon the short interval of happy
companionship that yet remained to them - in persons so situated,
the natural transition from these first surprises was obviously
into peals of hearty laughter, and I can report that I, for one,
being still seated upon the slab or perch before mentioned, roared
outright until the vessel rang again. Thus, in less than two
minutes after coming upon it for the first time, we all by common
consent agreed that this state-room was the pleasantest and most
facetious and capital contrivance possible; and that to have had it
one inch larger, would have been quite a disagreeable and
deplorable state of things. And with this; and with showing how, -
by very nearly closing the door, and twining in and out like
serpents, and by counting the little washing slab as standing-room,
- we could manage to insinuate four people into it, all at one
time; and entreating each other to observe how very airy it was (in
dock), and how there was a beautiful port-hole which could be kept
open all day (weather permitting), and how there was quite a large
bull's-eye just over the looking-glass which would render shaving a
perfectly easy and delightful process (when the ship didn't roll
too much); we arrived, at last, at the unanimous conclusion that it
was rather spacious than otherwise: though I do verily believe
that, deducting the two berths, one above the other, than which
nothing smaller for sleeping in was ever made except coffins, it
was no bigger than one of those hackney cabriolets which have the
door behind, and shoot their fares out, like sacks of coals, upon
the pavement.

Having settled this point to the perfect satisfaction of all
parties, concerned and unconcerned, we sat down round the fire in
the ladies' cabin - just to try the effect. It was rather dark,
certainly; but somebody said, 'of course it would be light, at
sea,' a proposition to which we all assented; echoing 'of course,
of course;' though it would be exceedingly difficult to say why we
thought so. I remember, too, when we had discovered and exhausted
another topic of consolation in the circumstance of this ladies'
cabin adjoining our state-room, and the consequently immense
feasibility of sitting there at all times and seasons, and had
fallen into a momentary silence, leaning our faces on our hands and
looking at the fire, one of our party said, with the solemn air of
a man who had made a discovery, 'What a relish mulled claret will
have down here!' which appeared to strike us all most forcibly; as
though there were something spicy and high-flavoured in cabins,
which essentially improved that composition, and rendered it quite
incapable of perfection anywhere else.

There was a stewardess, too, actively engaged in producing clean
sheets and table-cloths from the very entrails of the sofas, and
from unexpected lockers, of such artful mechanism, that it made
one's head ache to see them opened one after another, and rendered
it quite a distracting circumstance to follow her proceedings, and
to find that every nook and corner and individual piece of
furniture was something else besides what it pretended to be, and
was a mere trap and deception and place of secret stowage, whose
ostensible purpose was its least useful one.

God bless that stewardess for her piously fraudulent account of
January voyages! God bless her for her clear recollection of the
companion passage of last year, when nobody was ill, and everybody
dancing from morning to night, and it was 'a run' of twelve days,
and a piece of the purest frolic, and delight, and jollity! All
happiness be with her for her bright face and her pleasant Scotch
tongue, which had sounds of old Home in it for my fellow-traveller;
and for her predictions of fair winds and fine weather (all wrong,
or I shouldn't be half so fond of her); and for the ten thousand
small fragments of genuine womanly tact, by which, without piecing
them elaborately together, and patching them up into shape and form
and case and pointed application, she nevertheless did plainly show
that all young mothers on one side of the Atlantic were near and
close at hand to their little children left upon the other; and
that what seemed to the uninitiated a serious journey, was, to
those who were in the secret, a mere frolic, to be sung about and
whistled at! Light be her heart, and gay her merry eyes, for

The state-room had grown pretty fast; but by this time it had
expanded into something quite bulky, and almost boasted a bay-
window to view the sea from. So we went upon deck again in high
spirits; and there, everything was in such a state of bustle and
active preparation, that the blood quickened its pace, and whirled
through one's veins on that clear frosty morning with involuntary
mirthfulness. For every gallant ship was riding slowly up and
down, and every little boat was splashing noisily in the water; and
knots of people stood upon the wharf, gazing with a kind of 'dread
delight' on the far-famed fast American steamer; and one party of
men were 'taking in the milk,' or, in other words, getting the cow
on board; and another were filling the icehouses to the very throat
with fresh provisions; with butchers'-meat and garden-stuff, pale
sucking-pigs, calves' heads in scores, beef, veal, and pork, and
poultry out of all proportion; and others were coiling ropes and
busy with oakum yarns; and others were lowering heavy packages into
the hold; and the purser's head was barely visible as it loomed in
a state, of exquisite perplexity from the midst of a vast pile of
passengers' luggage; and there seemed to be nothing going on
anywhere, or uppermost in the mind of anybody, but preparations for
this mighty voyage. This, with the bright cold sun, the bracing
air, the crisply-curling water, the thin white crust of morning ice
upon the decks which crackled with a sharp and cheerful sound
beneath the lightest tread, was irresistible. And when, again upon
the shore, we turned and saw from the vessel's mast her name
signalled in flags of joyous colours, and fluttering by their side
the beautiful American banner with its stars and stripes, - the
long three thousand miles and more, and, longer still, the six
whole months of absence, so dwindled and faded, that the ship had
gone out and come home again, and it was broad spring already in
the Coburg Dock at Liverpool.

I have not inquired among my medical acquaintance, whether Turtle,
and cold Punch, with Hock, Champagne, and Claret, and all the
slight et cetera usually included in an unlimited order for a good
dinner - especially when it is left to the liberal construction of
my faultless friend, Mr. Radley, of the Adelphi Hotel - are
peculiarly calculated to suffer a sea-change; or whether a plain
mutton-chop, and a glass or two of sherry, would be less likely of
conversion into foreign and disconcerting material. My own opinion
is, that whether one is discreet or indiscreet in these
particulars, on the eve of a sea-voyage, is a matter of little
consequence; and that, to use a common phrase, 'it comes to very
much the same thing in the end.' Be this as it may, I know that
the dinner of that day was undeniably perfect; that it comprehended
all these items, and a great many more; and that we all did ample
justice to it. And I know too, that, bating a certain tacit
avoidance of any allusion to to-morrow; such as may be supposed to
prevail between delicate-minded turnkeys, and a sensitive prisoner
who is to be hanged next morning; we got on very well, and, all
things considered, were merry enough.

When the morning - THE morning - came, and we met at breakfast, it
was curious to see how eager we all were to prevent a moment's
pause in the conversation, and how astoundingly gay everybody was:
the forced spirits of each member of the little party having as
much likeness to his natural mirth, as hot-house peas at five
guineas the quart, resemble in flavour the growth of the dews, and
air, and rain of Heaven. But as one o'clock, the hour for going
aboard, drew near, this volubility dwindled away by little and
little, despite the most persevering efforts to the contrary, until
at last, the matter being now quite desperate, we threw off all
disguise; openly speculated upon where we should be this time to-
morrow, this time next day, and so forth; and entrusted a vast
number of messages to those who intended returning to town that
night, which were to be delivered at home and elsewhere without
fail, within the very shortest possible space of time after the
arrival of the railway train at Euston Square. And commissions and
remembrances do so crowd upon one at such a time, that we were
still busied with this employment when we found ourselves fused, as
it were, into a dense conglomeration of passengers and passengers'
friends and passengers' luggage, all jumbled together on the deck
of a small steamboat, and panting and snorting off to the packet,
which had worked out of dock yesterday afternoon and was now lying
at her moorings in the river.

And there she is! all eyes are turned to where she lies, dimly
discernible through the gathering fog of the early winter
afternoon; every finger is pointed in the same direction; and
murmurs of interest and admiration - as 'How beautiful she looks!'
'How trim she is!' - are heard on every side. Even the lazy
gentleman with his hat on one side and his hands in his pockets,
who has dispensed so much consolation by inquiring with a yawn of
another gentleman whether he is 'going across' - as if it were a
ferry - even he condescends to look that way, and nod his head, as
who should say, 'No mistake about THAT:' and not even the sage Lord
Burleigh in his nod, included half so much as this lazy gentleman
of might who has made the passage (as everybody on board has found
out already; it's impossible to say how) thirteen times without a
single accident! There is another passenger very much wrapped-up,
who has been frowned down by the rest, and morally trampled upon
and crushed, for presuming to inquire with a timid interest how
long it is since the poor President went down. He is standing
close to the lazy gentleman, and says with a faint smile that he
believes She is a very strong Ship; to which the lazy gentleman,
looking first in his questioner's eye and then very hard in the
wind's, answers unexpectedly and ominously, that She need be. Upon
this the lazy gentleman instantly falls very low in the popular
estimation, and the passengers, with looks of defiance, whisper to
each other that he is an ass, and an impostor, and clearly don't
know anything at all about it.

But we are made fast alongside the packet, whose huge red funnel is
smoking bravely, giving rich promise of serious intentions.
Packing-cases, portmanteaus, carpet-bags, and boxes, are already
passed from hand to hand, and hauled on board with breathless
rapidity. The officers, smartly dressed, are at the gangway
handing the passengers up the side, and hurrying the men. In five
minutes' time, the little steamer is utterly deserted, and the
packet is beset and over-run by its late freight, who instantly
pervade the whole ship, and are to be met with by the dozen in
every nook and corner: swarming down below with their own baggage,
and stumbling over other people's; disposing themselves comfortably
in wrong cabins, and creating a most horrible confusion by having
to turn out again; madly bent upon opening locked doors, and on
forcing a passage into all kinds of out-of-the-way places where
there is no thoroughfare; sending wild stewards, with elfin hair,
to and fro upon the breezy decks on unintelligible errands,
impossible of execution: and in short, creating the most
extraordinary and bewildering tumult. In the midst of all this,
the lazy gentleman, who seems to have no luggage of any kind - not
so much as a friend, even - lounges up and down the hurricane deck,
coolly puffing a cigar; and, as this unconcerned demeanour again
exalts him in the opinion of those who have leisure to observe his
proceedings, every time he looks up at the masts, or down at the
decks, or over the side, they look there too, as wondering whether
he sees anything wrong anywhere, and hoping that, in case he
should, he will have the goodness to mention it.

What have we here? The captain's boat! and yonder the captain
himself. Now, by all our hopes and wishes, the very man he ought
to be! A well-made, tight-built, dapper little fellow; with a
ruddy face, which is a letter of invitation to shake him by both
hands at once; and with a clear, blue honest eye, that it does one
good to see one's sparkling image in. 'Ring the bell!' 'Ding,
ding, ding!' the very bell is in a hurry. 'Now for the shore -
who's for the shore?' - 'These gentlemen, I am sorry to say.' They
are away, and never said, Good b'ye. Ah now they wave it from the
little boat. 'Good b'ye! Good b'ye!' Three cheers from them;
three more from us; three more from them: and they are gone.

To and fro, to and fro, to and fro again a hundred times! This
waiting for the latest mail-bags is worse than all. If we could
have gone off in the midst of that last burst, we should have
started triumphantly: but to lie here, two hours and more in the
damp fog, neither staying at home nor going abroad, is letting one
gradually down into the very depths of dulness and low spirits. A
speck in the mist, at last! That's something. It is the boat we
wait for! That's more to the purpose. The captain appears on the
paddle-box with his speaking trumpet; the officers take their
stations; all hands are on the alert; the flagging hopes of the
passengers revive; the cooks pause in their savoury work, and look
out with faces full of interest. The boat comes alongside; the
bags are dragged in anyhow, and flung down for the moment anywhere.
Three cheers more: and as the first one rings upon our ears, the
vessel throbs like a strong giant that has just received the breath
of life; the two great wheels turn fiercely round for the first
time; and the noble ship, with wind and tide astern, breaks proudly
through the lashed and roaming water.

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