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Charles Dickens > American Notes > Chapter XV

American Notes

Chapter XV


I wish to abstain from instituting any comparison, or drawing any
parallel whatever, between the social features of the United States
and those of the British Possessions in Canada. For this reason, I
shall confine myself to a very brief account of our journeyings in
the latter territory.

But before I leave Niagara, I must advert to one disgusting
circumstance which can hardly have escaped the observation of any
decent traveller who has visited the Falls.

On Table Rock, there is a cottage belonging to a Guide, where
little relics of the place are sold, and where visitors register
their names in a book kept for the purpose. On the wall of the
room in which a great many of these volumes are preserved, the
following request is posted: 'Visitors will please not copy nor
extract the remarks and poetical effusions from the registers and
albums kept here.'

But for this intimation, I should have let them lie upon the tables
on which they were strewn with careful negligence, like books in a
drawing-room: being quite satisfied with the stupendous silliness
of certain stanzas with an anti-climax at the end of each, which
were framed and hung up on the wall. Curious, however, after
reading this announcement, to see what kind of morsels were so
carefully preserved, I turned a few leaves, and found them scrawled
all over with the vilest and the filthiest ribaldry that ever human
hogs delighted in.

It is humiliating enough to know that there are among men brutes so
obscene and worthless, that they can delight in laying their
miserable profanations upon the very steps of Nature's greatest
altar. But that these should be hoarded up for the delight of
their fellow-swine, and kept in a public place where any eyes may
see them, is a disgrace to the English language in which they are
written (though I hope few of these entries have been made by
Englishmen), and a reproach to the English side, on which they are

The quarters of our soldiers at Niagara, are finely and airily
situated. Some of them are large detached houses on the plain
above the Falls, which were originally designed for hotels; and in
the evening time, when the women and children were leaning over the
balconies watching the men as they played at ball and other games
upon the grass before the door, they often presented a little
picture of cheerfulness and animation which made it quite a
pleasure to pass that way.

At any garrisoned point where the line of demarcation between one
country and another is so very narrow as at Niagara, desertion from
the ranks can scarcely fail to be of frequent occurrence: and it
may be reasonably supposed that when the soldiers entertain the
wildest and maddest hopes of the fortune and independence that
await them on the other side, the impulse to play traitor, which
such a place suggests to dishonest minds, is not weakened. But it
very rarely happens that the men who do desert, are happy or
contented afterwards; and many instances have been known in which
they have confessed their grievous disappointment, and their
earnest desire to return to their old service if they could but be
assured of pardon, or lenient treatment. Many of their comrades,
notwithstanding, do the like, from time to time; and instances of
loss of life in the effort to cross the river with this object, are
far from being uncommon. Several men were drowned in the attempt
to swim across, not long ago; and one, who had the madness to trust
himself upon a table as a raft, was swept down to the whirlpool,
where his mangled body eddied round and round some days.

I am inclined to think that the noise of the Falls is very much
exaggerated; and this will appear the more probable when the depth
of the great basin in which the water is received, is taken into
account. At no time during our stay there, was the wind at all
high or boisterous, but we never heard them, three miles off, even
at the very quiet time of sunset, though we often tried.

Queenston, at which place the steamboats start for Toronto (or I
should rather say at which place they call, for their wharf is at
Lewiston, on the opposite shore), is situated in a delicious
valley, through which the Niagara river, in colour a very deep
green, pursues its course. It is approached by a road that takes
its winding way among the heights by which the town is sheltered;
and seen from this point is extremely beautiful and picturesque.
On the most conspicuous of these heights stood a monument erected
by the Provincial Legislature in memory of General Brock, who was
slain in a battle with the American forces, after having won the
victory. Some vagabond, supposed to be a fellow of the name of
Lett, who is now, or who lately was, in prison as a felon, blew up
this monument two years ago, and it is now a melancholy ruin, with
a long fragment of iron railing hanging dejectedly from its top,
and waving to and fro like a wild ivy branch or broken vine stem.
It is of much higher importance than it may seem, that this statue
should be repaired at the public cost, as it ought to have been
long ago. Firstly, because it is beneath the dignity of England to
allow a memorial raised in honour of one of her defenders, to
remain in this condition, on the very spot where he died.
Secondly, because the sight of it in its present state, and the
recollection of the unpunished outrage which brought it to this
pass, is not very likely to soothe down border feelings among
English subjects here, or compose their border quarrels and

I was standing on the wharf at this place, watching the passengers
embarking in a steamboat which preceded that whose coming we
awaited, and participating in the anxiety with which a sergeant's
wife was collecting her few goods together - keeping one distracted
eye hard upon the porters, who were hurrying them on board, and the
other on a hoopless washing-tub for which, as being the most
utterly worthless of all her movables, she seemed to entertain
particular affection - when three or four soldiers with a recruit
came up and went on board.

The recruit was a likely young fellow enough, strongly built and
well made, but by no means sober: indeed he had all the air of a
man who had been more or less drunk for some days. He carried a
small bundle over his shoulder, slung at the end of a walking-
stick, and had a short pipe in his mouth. He was as dusty and
dirty as recruits usually are, and his shoes betokened that he had
travelled on foot some distance, but he was in a very jocose state,
and shook hands with this soldier, and clapped that one on the
back, and talked and laughed continually, like a roaring idle dog
as he was.

The soldiers rather laughed at this blade than with him: seeming
to say, as they stood straightening their canes in their hands, and
looking coolly at him over their glazed stocks, 'Go on, my boy,
while you may! you'll know better by-and-by:' when suddenly the
novice, who had been backing towards the gangway in his noisy
merriment, fell overboard before their eyes, and splashed heavily
down into the river between the vessel and the dock.

I never saw such a good thing as the change that came over these
soldiers in an instant. Almost before the man was down, their
professional manner, their stiffness and constraint, were gone, and
they were filled with the most violent energy. In less time than
is required to tell it, they had him out again, feet first, with
the tails of his coat flapping over his eyes, everything about him
hanging the wrong way, and the water streaming off at every thread
in his threadbare dress. But the moment they set him upright and
found that he was none the worse, they were soldiers again, looking

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