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Charles Dickens > American Notes > Chapter XIII

American Notes

Chapter XIII


I MAY premise that the word Prairie is variously pronounced
PARAAER, PAREARER, PAROARER. The latter mode of pronunciation is
perhaps the most in favour.

We were fourteen in all, and all young men: indeed it is a
singular though very natural feature in the society of these
distant settlements, that it is mainly composed of adventurous
persons in the prime of life, and has very few grey heads among it.
There were no ladies: the trip being a fatiguing one: and we were
to start at five o'clock in the morning punctually.

I was called at four, that I might be certain of keeping nobody
waiting; and having got some bread and milk for breakfast, threw up
the window and looked down into the street, expecting to see the
whole party busily astir, and great preparations going on below.
But as everything was very quiet, and the street presented that
hopeless aspect with which five o'clock in the morning is familiar
elsewhere, I deemed it as well to go to bed again, and went

I woke again at seven o'clock, and by that time the party had
assembled, and were gathered round, one light carriage, with a very
stout axletree; one something on wheels like an amateur carrier's
cart; one double phaeton of great antiquity and unearthly
construction; one gig with a great hole in its back and a broken
head; and one rider on horseback who was to go on before. I got
into the first coach with three companions; the rest bestowed
themselves in the other vehicles; two large baskets were made fast
to the lightest; two large stone jars in wicker cases, technically
known as demi-johns, were consigned to the 'least rowdy' of the
party for safe-keeping; and the procession moved off to the
ferryboat, in which it was to cross the river bodily, men, horses,
carriages, and all, as the manner in these parts is.

We got over the river in due course, and mustered again before a
little wooden box on wheels, hove down all aslant in a morass, with
'MERCHANT TAILOR' painted in very large letters over the door.
Having settled the order of proceeding, and the road to be taken,
we started off once more and began to make our way through an ill-
favoured Black Hollow, called, less expressively, the American

The previous day had been - not to say hot, for the term is weak
and lukewarm in its power of conveying an idea of the temperature.
The town had been on fire; in a blaze. But at night it had come on
to rain in torrents, and all night long it had rained without
cessation. We had a pair of very strong horses, but travelled at
the rate of little more than a couple of miles an hour, through one
unbroken slough of black mud and water. It had no variety but in
depth. Now it was only half over the wheels, now it hid the
axletree, and now the coach sank down in it almost to the windows.
The air resounded in all directions with the loud chirping of the
frogs, who, with the pigs (a coarse, ugly breed, as unwholesome-
looking as though they were the spontaneous growth of the country),
had the whole scene to themselves. Here and there we passed a log
hut: but the wretched cabins were wide apart and thinly scattered,
for though the soil is very rich in this place, few people can
exist in such a deadly atmosphere. On either side of the track, if
it deserve the name, was the thick 'bush;' and everywhere was
stagnant, slimy, rotten, filthy water.

As it is the custom in these parts to give a horse a gallon or so
of cold water whenever he is in a foam with heat, we halted for
that purpose, at a log inn in the wood, far removed from any other
residence. It consisted of one room, bare-roofed and bare-walled
of course, with a loft above. The ministering priest was a swarthy
young savage, in a shirt of cotton print like bed-furniture, and a
pair of ragged trousers. There were a couple of young boys, too,
nearly naked, lying idle by the well; and they, and he, and THE
traveller at the inn, turned out to look at us.

The traveller was an old man with a grey gristly beard two inches
long, a shaggy moustache of the same hue, and enormous eyebrows;
which almost obscured his lazy, semi-drunken glance, as he stood
regarding us with folded arms: poising himself alternately upon
his toes and heels. On being addressed by one of the party, he
drew nearer, and said, rubbing his chin (which scraped under his
horny hand like fresh gravel beneath a nailed shoe), that he was
from Delaware, and had lately bought a farm 'down there,' pointing
into one of the marshes where the stunted trees were thickest. He
was 'going,' he added, to St. Louis, to fetch his family, whom he
had left behind; but he seemed in no great hurry to bring on these
incumbrances, for when we moved away, he loitered back into the
cabin, and was plainly bent on stopping there so long as his money
lasted. He was a great politician of course, and explained his
opinions at some length to one of our company; but I only remember
that he concluded with two sentiments, one of which was, Somebody
for ever; and the other, Blast everybody else! which is by no means
a bad abstract of the general creed in these matters.

When the horses were swollen out to about twice their natural
dimensions (there seems to be an idea here, that this kind of
inflation improves their going), we went forward again, through mud
and mire, and damp, and festering heat, and brake and bush,
attended always by the music of the frogs and pigs, until nearly
noon, when we halted at a place called Belleville.

Belleville was a small collection of wooden houses, huddled
together in the very heart of the bush and swamp. Many of them had
singularly bright doors of red and yellow; for the place had been
lately visited by a travelling painter, 'who got along,' as I was
told, 'by eating his way.' The criminal court was sitting, and was
at that moment trying some criminals for horse-stealing: with whom
it would most likely go hard: for live stock of all kinds being
necessarily very much exposed in the woods, is held by the
community in rather higher value than human life; and for this
reason, juries generally make a point of finding all men indicted
for cattle-stealing, guilty, whether or no.

The horses belonging to the bar, the judge, and witnesses, were
tied to temporary racks set up roughly in the road; by which is to
be understood, a forest path, nearly knee-deep in mud and slime.

There was an hotel in this place, which, like all hotels in
America, had its large dining-room for the public table. It was an
odd, shambling, low-roofed out-house, half-cowshed and half-
kitchen, with a coarse brown canvas table-cloth, and tin sconces
stuck against the walls, to hold candles at supper-time. The
horseman had gone forward to have coffee and some eatables
prepared, and they were by this time nearly ready. He had ordered
'wheat-bread and chicken fixings,' in preference to 'corn-bread and
common doings.' The latter kind of rejection includes only pork
and bacon. The former comprehends broiled ham, sausages, veal
cutlets, steaks, and such other viands of that nature as may be
supposed, by a tolerably wide poetical construction, 'to fix' a
chicken comfortably in the digestive organs of any lady or

On one of the door-posts at this inn, was a tin plate, whereon was
inscribed in characters of gold, 'Doctor Crocus;' and on a sheet of
paper, pasted up by the side of this plate, was a written
announcement that Dr. Crocus would that evening deliver a lecture
on Phrenology for the benefit of the Belleville public; at a
charge, for admission, of so much a head.

Straying up-stairs, during the preparation of the chicken fixings,
I happened to pass the doctor's chamber; and as the door stood wide
open, and the room was empty, I made bold to peep in.

It was a bare, unfurnished, comfortless room, with an unframed
portrait hanging up at the head of the bed; a likeness, I take it,
of the Doctor, for the forehead was fully displayed, and great
stress was laid by the artist upon its phrenological developments.
The bed itself was covered with an old patch-work counterpane. The
room was destitute of carpet or of curtain. There was a damp
fireplace without any stove, full of wood ashes; a chair, and a
very small table; and on the last-named piece of furniture was
displayed, in grand array, the doctor's library, consisting of some
half-dozen greasy old books.

Now, it certainly looked about the last apartment on the whole
earth out of which any man would be likely to get anything to do
him good. But the door, as I have said, stood coaxingly open, and
plainly said in conjunction with the chair, the portrait, the
table, and the books, 'Walk in, gentlemen, walk in! Don't be ill,
gentlemen, when you may be well in no time. Doctor Crocus is here,
gentlemen, the celebrated Dr. Crocus! Dr. Crocus has come all this
way to cure you, gentlemen. If you haven't heard of Dr. Crocus,
it's your fault, gentlemen, who live a little way out of the world
here: not Dr. Crocus's. Walk in, gentlemen, walk in!'

In the passage below, when I went down-stairs again, was Dr. Crocus
himself. A crowd had flocked in from the Court House, and a voice
from among them called out to the landlord, 'Colonel! introduce
Doctor Crocus.'

'Mr. Dickens,' says the colonel, 'Doctor Crocus.'

Upon which Doctor Crocus, who is a tall, fine-looking Scotchman,
but rather fierce and warlike in appearance for a professor of the
peaceful art of healing, bursts out of the concourse with his right
arm extended, and his chest thrown out as far as it will possibly
come, and says:

'Your countryman, sir!'

Whereupon Doctor Crocus and I shake hands; and Doctor Crocus looks
as if I didn't by any means realise his expectations, which, in a
linen blouse, and a great straw hat, with a green ribbon, and no
gloves, and my face and nose profusely ornamented with the stings
of mosquitoes and the bites of bugs, it is very likely I did not.

'Long in these parts, sir?' says I.

'Three or four months, sir,' says the Doctor.

'Do you think of soon returning to the old country?' says I.

Doctor Crocus makes no verbal answer, but gives me an imploring
look, which says so plainly 'Will you ask me that again, a little
louder, if you please?' that I repeat the question.

'Think of soon returning to the old country, sir!' repeats the

'To the old country, sir,' I rejoin.

Doctor Crocus looks round upon the crowd to observe the effect he
produces, rubs his hands, and says, in a very loud voice:

'Not yet awhile, sir, not yet. You won't catch me at that just
yet, sir. I am a little too fond of freedom for THAT, sir. Ha,
ha! It's not so easy for a man to tear himself from a free country
such as this is, sir. Ha, ha! No, no! Ha, ha! None of that till
one's obliged to do it, sir. No, no!'

As Doctor Crocus says these latter words, he shakes his head,
knowingly, and laughs again. Many of the bystanders shake their
heads in concert with the doctor, and laugh too, and look at each
other as much as to say, 'A pretty bright and first-rate sort of
chap is Crocus!' and unless I am very much mistaken, a good many
people went to the lecture that night, who never thought about
phrenology, or about Doctor Crocus either, in all their lives

From Belleville, we went on, through the same desolate kind of
waste, and constantly attended, without the interval of a moment,
by the same music; until, at three o'clock in the afternoon, we
halted once more at a village called Lebanon to inflate the horses
again, and give them some corn besides: of which they stood much
in need. Pending this ceremony, I walked into the village, where I
met a full-sized dwelling-house coming down-hill at a round trot,
drawn by a score or more of oxen.

The public-house was so very clean and good a one, that the
managers of the jaunt resolved to return to it and put up there for
the night, if possible. This course decided on, and the horses
being well refreshed, we again pushed forward, and came upon the
Prairie at sunset.

It would be difficult to say why, or how - though it was possibly
from having heard and read so much about it - but the effect on me
was disappointment. Looking towards the setting sun, there lay,
stretched out before my view, a vast expanse of level ground;
unbroken, save by one thin line of trees, which scarcely amounted
to a scratch upon the great blank; until it met the glowing sky,
wherein it seemed to dip: mingling with its rich colours, and
mellowing in its distant blue. There it lay, a tranquil sea or
lake without water, if such a simile be admissible, with the day
going down upon it: a few birds wheeling here and there: and
solitude and silence reigning paramount around. But the grass was
not yet high; there were bare black patches on the ground; and the
few wild flowers that the eye could see, were poor and scanty.
Great as the picture was, its very flatness and extent, which left
nothing to the imagination, tamed it down and cramped its interest.
I felt little of that sense of freedom and exhilaration which a
Scottish heath inspires, or even our English downs awaken. It was
lonely and wild, but oppressive in its barren monotony. I felt
that in traversing the Prairies, I could never abandon myself to
the scene, forgetful of all else; as I should do instinctively,
were the heather underneath my feet, or an iron-bound coast beyond;
but should often glance towards the distant and frequently-receding
line of the horizon, and wish it gained and passed. It is not a
scene to be forgotten, but it is scarcely one, I think (at all
events, as I saw it), to remember with much pleasure, or to covet
the looking-on again, in after-life.

We encamped near a solitary log-house, for the sake of its water,
and dined upon the plain. The baskets contained roast fowls,
buffalo's tongue (an exquisite dainty, by the way), ham, bread,
cheese, and butter; biscuits, champagne, sherry; lemons and sugar
for punch; and abundance of rough ice. The meal was delicious, and
the entertainers were the soul of kindness and good humour. I have
often recalled that cheerful party to my pleasant recollection
since, and shall not easily forget, in junketings nearer home with
friends of older date, my boon companions on the Prairie.

Returning to Lebanon that night, we lay at the little inn at which
we had halted in the afternoon. In point of cleanliness and
comfort it would have suffered by no comparison with any English
alehouse, of a homely kind, in England.

Rising at five o'clock next morning, I took a walk about the
village: none of the houses were strolling about to-day, but it
was early for them yet, perhaps: and then amused myself by
lounging in a kind of farm-yard behind the tavern, of which the
leading features were, a strange jumble of rough sheds for stables;
a rude colonnade, built as a cool place of summer resort; a deep
well; a great earthen mound for keeping vegetables in, in winter
time; and a pigeon-house, whose little apertures looked, as they do
in all pigeon-houses, very much too small for the admission of the
plump and swelling-breasted birds who were strutting about it,
though they tried to get in never so hard. That interest
exhausted, I took a survey of the inn's two parlours, which were
decorated with coloured prints of Washington, and President
Madison, and of a white-faced young lady (much speckled by the
flies), who held up her gold neck-chain for the admiration of the
spectator, and informed all admiring comers that she was 'Just
Seventeen:' although I should have thought her older. In the best
room were two oil portraits of the kit-cat size, representing the
landlord and his infant son; both looking as bold as lions, and
staring out of the canvas with an intensity that would have been
cheap at any price. They were painted, I think, by the artist who
had touched up the Belleville doors with red and gold; for I seemed
to recognise his style immediately.

After breakfast, we started to return by a different way from that
which we had taken yesterday, and coming up at ten o'clock with an
encampment of German emigrants carrying their goods in carts, who
had made a rousing fire which they were just quitting, stopped
there to refresh. And very pleasant the fire was; for, hot though
it had been yesterday, it was quite cold to-day, and the wind blew
keenly. Looming in the distance, as we rode along, was another of
the ancient Indian burial-places, called The Monks' Mound; in
memory of a body of fanatics of the order of La Trappe, who founded
a desolate convent there, many years ago, when there were no
settlers within a thousand miles, and were all swept off by the
pernicious climate: in which lamentable fatality, few rational
people will suppose, perhaps, that society experienced any very
severe deprivation.

The track of to-day had the same features as the track of
yesterday. There was the swamp, the bush, and the perpetual chorus
of frogs, the rank unseemly growth, the unwholesome steaming earth.
Here and there, and frequently too, we encountered a solitary
broken-down waggon, full of some new settler's goods. It was a
pitiful sight to see one of these vehicles deep in the mire; the
axle-tree broken; the wheel lying idly by its side; the man gone
miles away, to look for assistance; the woman seated among their
wandering household gods with a baby at her breast, a picture of
forlorn, dejected patience; the team of oxen crouching down
mournfully in the mud, and breathing forth such clouds of vapour
from their mouths and nostrils, that all the damp mist and fog
around seemed to have come direct from them.

In due time we mustered once again before the merchant tailor's,
and having done so, crossed over to the city in the ferry-boat:
passing, on the way, a spot called Bloody Island, the duelling-
ground of St. Louis, and so designated in honour of the last fatal
combat fought there, which was with pistols, breast to breast.
Both combatants fell dead upon the ground; and possibly some
rational people may think of them, as of the gloomy madmen on the
Monks' Mound, that they were no great loss to the community.

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