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Charles Dickens > American Notes > Chapter V

American Notes

Chapter V


LEAVING Boston on the afternoon of Saturday the fifth of February,
we proceeded by another railroad to Worcester: a pretty New
England town, where we had arranged to remain under the hospitable
roof of the Governor of the State, until Monday morning.

These towns and cities of New England (many of which would be
villages in Old England), are as favourable specimens of rural
America, as their people are of rural Americans. The well-trimmed
lawns and green meadows of home are not there; and the grass,
compared with our ornamental plots and pastures, is rank, and
rough, and wild: but delicate slopes of land, gently-swelling
hills, wooded valleys, and slender streams, abound. Every little
colony of houses has its church and school-house peeping from among
the white roofs and shady trees; every house is the whitest of the
white; every Venetian blind the greenest of the green; every fine
day's sky the bluest of the blue. A sharp dry wind and a slight
frost had so hardened the roads when we alighted at Worcester, that
their furrowed tracks were like ridges of granite. There was the
usual aspect of newness on every object, of course. All the
buildings looked as if they had been built and painted that
morning, and could be taken down on Monday with very little
trouble. In the keen evening air, every sharp outline looked a
hundred times sharper than ever. The clean cardboard colonnades
had no more perspective than a Chinese bridge on a tea-cup, and
appeared equally well calculated for use. The razor-like edges of
the detached cottages seemed to cut the very wind as it whistled
against them, and to send it smarting on its way with a shriller
cry than before. Those slightly-built wooden dwellings behind
which the sun was setting with a brilliant lustre, could be so
looked through and through, that the idea of any inhabitant being
able to hide himself from the public gaze, or to have any secrets
from the public eye, was not entertainable for a moment. Even
where a blazing fire shone through the uncurtained windows of some
distant house, it had the air of being newly lighted, and of
lacking warmth; and instead of awakening thoughts of a snug
chamber, bright with faces that first saw the light round that same
hearth, and ruddy with warm hangings, it came upon one suggestive
of the smell of new mortar and damp walls.

So I thought, at least, that evening. Next morning when the sun
was shining brightly, and the clear church bells were ringing, and
sedate people in their best clothes enlivened the pathway near at
hand and dotted the distant thread of road, there was a pleasant
Sabbath peacefulness on everything, which it was good to feel. It
would have been the better for an old church; better still for some
old graves; but as it was, a wholesome repose and tranquillity
pervaded the scene, which after the restless ocean and the hurried
city, had a doubly grateful influence on the spirits.

We went on next morning, still by railroad, to Springfield. From
that place to Hartford, whither we were bound, is a distance of
only five-and-twenty miles, but at that time of the year the roads
were so bad that the journey would probably have occupied ten or
twelve hours. Fortunately, however, the winter having been
unusually mild, the Connecticut River was 'open,' or, in other
words, not frozen. The captain of a small steamboat was going to
make his first trip for the season that day (the second February
trip, I believe, within the memory of man), and only waited for us
to go on board. Accordingly, we went on board, with as little
delay as might be. He was as good as his word, and started

It certainly was not called a small steamboat without reason. I
omitted to ask the question, but I should think it must have been
of about half a pony power. Mr. Paap, the celebrated Dwarf, might
have lived and died happily in the cabin, which was fitted with
common sash-windows like an ordinary dwelling-house. These windows
had bright-red curtains, too, hung on slack strings across the
lower panes; so that it looked like the parlour of a Lilliputian
public-house, which had got afloat in a flood or some other water
accident, and was drifting nobody knew where. But even in this
chamber there was a rocking-chair. It would be impossible to get
on anywhere, in America, without a rocking-chair. I am afraid to
tell how many feet short this vessel was, or how many feet narrow:
to apply the words length and width to such measurement would be a
contradiction in terms. But I may state that we all kept the
middle of the deck, lest the boat should unexpectedly tip over; and
that the machinery, by some surprising process of condensation,
worked between it and the keel: the whole forming a warm sandwich,
about three feet thick.

It rained all day as I once thought it never did rain anywhere, but
in the Highlands of Scotland. The river was full of floating
blocks of ice, which were constantly crunching and cracking under
us; and the depth of water, in the course we took to avoid the
larger masses, carried down the middle of the river by the current,
did not exceed a few inches. Nevertheless, we moved onward,
dexterously; and being well wrapped up, bade defiance to the
weather, and enjoyed the journey. The Connecticut River is a fine
stream; and the banks in summer-time are, I have no doubt,
beautiful; at all events, I was told so by a young lady in the
cabin; and she should be a judge of beauty, if the possession of a
quality include the appreciation of it, for a more beautiful
creature I never looked upon.

After two hours and a half of this odd travelling (including a
stoppage at a small town, where we were saluted by a gun
considerably bigger than our own chimney), we reached Hartford, and
straightway repaired to an extremely comfortable hotel: except, as
usual, in the article of bedrooms, which, in almost every place we
visited, were very conducive to early rising.

We tarried here, four days. The town is beautifully situated in a
basin of green hills; the soil is rich, well-wooded, and carefully
improved. It is the seat of the local legislature of Connecticut,
which sage body enacted, in bygone times, the renowned code of
'Blue Laws,' in virtue whereof, among other enlightened provisions,
any citizen who could be proved to have kissed his wife on Sunday,
was punishable, I believe, with the stocks. Too much of the old
Puritan spirit exists in these parts to the present hour; but its
influence has not tended, that I know, to make the people less hard
in their bargains, or more equal in their dealings. As I never
heard of its working that effect anywhere else, I infer that it
never will, here. Indeed, I am accustomed, with reference to great
professions and severe faces, to judge of the goods of the other
world pretty much as I judge of the goods of this; and whenever I
see a dealer in such commodities with too great a display of them
in his window, I doubt the quality of the article within.

In Hartford stands the famous oak in which the charter of King
Charles was hidden. It is now inclosed in a gentleman's garden.
In the State House is the charter itself. I found the courts of
law here, just the same as at Boston; the public institutions
almost as good. The Insane Asylum is admirably conducted, and so
is the Institution for the Deaf and Dumb.

I very much questioned within myself, as I walked through the
Insane Asylum, whether I should have known the attendants from the
patients, but for the few words which passed between the former,
and the Doctor, in reference to the persons under their charge. Of
course I limit this remark merely to their looks; for the
conversation of the mad people was mad enough.

There was one little, prim old lady, of very smiling and good-
humoured appearance, who came sidling up to me from the end of a
long passage, and with a curtsey of inexpressible condescension,
propounded this unaccountable inquiry:

'Does Pontefract still flourish, sir, upon the soil of England?'

'He does, ma'am,' I rejoined.

'When you last saw him, sir, he was - '

'Well, ma'am,' said I, 'extremely well. He begged me to present
his compliments. I never saw him looking better.'

At this, the old lady was very much delighted. After glancing at
me for a moment, as if to be quite sure that I was serious in my
respectful air, she sidled back some paces; sidled forward again;
made a sudden skip (at which I precipitately retreated a step or
two); and said:

'I am an antediluvian, sir.'

I thought the best thing to say was, that I had suspected as much
from the first. Therefore I said so.

'It is an extremely proud and pleasant thing, sir, to be an
antediluvian,' said the old lady.

'I should think it was, ma'am,' I rejoined.

The old lady kissed her hand, gave another skip, smirked and sidled
down the gallery in a most extraordinary manner, and ambled
gracefully into her own bed-chamber.

In another part of the building, there was a male patient in bed;
very much flushed and heated.

'Well,' said he, starting up, and pulling off his night-cap: 'It's
all settled at last. I have arranged it with Queen Victoria.'

'Arranged what?' asked the Doctor.

'Why, that business,' passing his hand wearily across his forehead,
'about the siege of New York.'

'Oh!' said I, like a man suddenly enlightened. For he looked at me
for an answer.

'Yes. Every house without a signal will be fired upon by the
British troops. No harm will be done to the others. No harm at
all. Those that want to be safe, must hoist flags. That's all
they'll have to do. They must hoist flags.'

Even while he was speaking he seemed, I thought, to have some faint
idea that his talk was incoherent. Directly he had said these
words, he lay down again; gave a kind of a groan; and covered his
hot head with the blankets.

There was another: a young man, whose madness was love and music.
After playing on the accordion a march he had composed, he was very
anxious that I should walk into his chamber, which I immediately

By way of being very knowing, and humouring him to the top of his
bent, I went to the window, which commanded a beautiful prospect,
and remarked, with an address upon which I greatly plumed myself:

'What a delicious country you have about these lodgings of yours!'

'Poh!' said he, moving his fingers carelessly over the notes of his

I don't think I was ever so taken aback in all my life.

'I come here just for a whim,' he said coolly. 'That's all.'

'Oh! That's all!' said I.

'Yes. That's all. The Doctor's a smart man. He quite enters into
it. It's a joke of mine. I like it for a time. You needn't
mention it, but I think I shall go out next Tuesday!'

I assured him that I would consider our interview perfectly
confidential; and rejoined the Doctor. As we were passing through
a gallery on our way out, a well-dressed lady, of quiet and
composed manners, came up, and proffering a slip of paper and a
pen, begged that I would oblige her with an autograph, I complied,
and we parted.

'I think I remember having had a few interviews like that, with
ladies out of doors. I hope SHE is not mad?'


'On what subject? Autographs?'

'No. She hears voices in the air.'

'Well!' thought I, 'it would be well if we could shut up a few
false prophets of these later times, who have professed to do the
same; and I should like to try the experiment on a Mormonist or two
to begin with.'

In this place, there is the best jail for untried offenders in the
world. There is also a very well-ordered State prison, arranged
upon the same plan as that at Boston, except that here, there is
always a sentry on the wall with a loaded gun. It contained at
that time about two hundred prisoners. A spot was shown me in the
sleeping ward, where a watchman was murdered some years since in
the dead of night, in a desperate attempt to escape, made by a
prisoner who had broken from his cell. A woman, too, was pointed
out to me, who, for the murder of her husband, had been a close
prisoner for sixteen years.

'Do you think,' I asked of my conductor, 'that after so very long
an imprisonment, she has any thought or hope of ever regaining her

'Oh dear yes,' he answered. 'To be sure she has.'

'She has no chance of obtaining it, I suppose?'

'Well, I don't know:' which, by-the-bye, is a national answer.
'Her friends mistrust her.'

'What have THEY to do with it?' I naturally inquired.

'Well, they won't petition.'

'But if they did, they couldn't get her out, I suppose?'

'Well, not the first time, perhaps, nor yet the second, but tiring
and wearying for a few years might do it.'

'Does that ever do it?'

'Why yes, that'll do it sometimes. Political friends'll do it
sometimes. It's pretty often done, one way or another.'

I shall always entertain a very pleasant and grateful recollection
of Hartford. It is a lovely place, and I had many friends there,
whom I can never remember with indifference. We left it with no
little regret on the evening of Friday the 11th, and travelled that
night by railroad to New Haven. Upon the way, the guard and I were
formally introduced to each other (as we usually were on such
occasions), and exchanged a variety of small-talk. We reached New
Haven at about eight o'clock, after a journey of three hours, and
put up for the night at the best inn.

New Haven, known also as the City of Elms, is a fine town. Many of
its streets (as its ALIAS sufficiently imports) are planted with
rows of grand old elm-trees; and the same natural ornaments
surround Yale College, an establishment of considerable eminence
and reputation. The various departments of this Institution are
erected in a kind of park or common in the middle of the town,
where they are dimly visible among the shadowing trees. The effect
is very like that of an old cathedral yard in England; and when
their branches are in full leaf, must be extremely picturesque.
Even in the winter time, these groups of well-grown trees,
clustering among the busy streets and houses of a thriving city,
have a very quaint appearance: seeming to bring about a kind of
compromise between town and country; as if each had met the other
half-way, and shaken hands upon it; which is at once novel and

After a night's rest, we rose early, and in good time went down to
the wharf, and on board the packet New York FOR New York. This was
the first American steamboat of any size that I had seen; and
certainly to an English eye it was infinitely less like a steamboat
than a huge floating bath. I could hardly persuade myself, indeed,
but that the bathing establishment off Westminster Bridge, which I
left a baby, had suddenly grown to an enormous size; run away from
home; and set up in foreign parts as a steamer. Being in America,
too, which our vagabonds do so particularly favour, it seemed the
more probable.

The great difference in appearance between these packets and ours,
is, that there is so much of them out of the water: the main-deck
being enclosed on all sides, and filled with casks and goods, like
any second or third floor in a stack of warehouses; and the
promenade or hurricane-deck being a-top of that again. A part of
the machinery is always above this deck; where the connecting-rod,
in a strong and lofty frame, is seen working away like an iron top-
sawyer. There is seldom any mast or tackle: nothing aloft but two
tall black chimneys. The man at the helm is shut up in a little
house in the fore part of the boat (the wheel being connected with
the rudder by iron chains, working the whole length of the deck);
and the passengers, unless the weather be very fine indeed, usually
congregate below. Directly you have left the wharf, all the life,
and stir, and bustle of a packet cease. You wonder for a long time
how she goes on, for there seems to be nobody in charge of her; and
when another of these dull machines comes splashing by, you feel
quite indignant with it, as a sullen cumbrous, ungraceful,
unshiplike leviathan: quite forgetting that the vessel you are on
board of, is its very counterpart.

There is always a clerk's office on the lower deck, where you pay
your fare; a ladies' cabin; baggage and stowage rooms; engineer's
room; and in short a great variety of perplexities which render the
discovery of the gentlemen's cabin, a matter of some difficulty.
It often occupies the whole length of the boat (as it did in this
case), and has three or four tiers of berths on each side. When I
first descended into the cabin of the New York, it looked, in my
unaccustomed eyes, about as long as the Burlington Arcade.

The Sound which has to be crossed on this passage, is not always a
very safe or pleasant navigation, and has been the scene of some
unfortunate accidents. It was a wet morning, and very misty, and
we soon lost sight of land. The day was calm, however, and
brightened towards noon. After exhausting (with good help from a
friend) the larder, and the stock of bottled beer, I lay down to
sleep; being very much tired with the fatigues of yesterday. But I
woke from my nap in time to hurry up, and see Hell Gate, the Hog's
Back, the Frying Pan, and other notorious localities, attractive to
all readers of famous Diedrich Knickerbocker's History. We were
now in a narrow channel, with sloping banks on either side,
besprinkled with pleasant villas, and made refreshing to the sight
by turf and trees. Soon we shot in quick succession, past a light-
house; a madhouse (how the lunatics flung up their caps and roared
in sympathy with the headlong engine and the driving tide!); a
jail; and other buildings: and so emerged into a noble bay, whose
waters sparkled in the now cloudless sunshine like Nature's eyes
turned up to Heaven.

Then there lay stretched out before us, to the right, confused
heaps of buildings, with here and there a spire or steeple, looking
down upon the herd below; and here and there, again, a cloud of
lazy smoke; and in the foreground a forest of ships' masts, cheery
with flapping sails and waving flags. Crossing from among them to
the opposite shore, were steam ferry-boats laden with people,
coaches, horses, waggons, baskets, boxes: crossed and recrossed by
other ferry-boats: all travelling to and fro: and never idle.
Stately among these restless Insects, were two or three large
ships, moving with slow majestic pace, as creatures of a prouder
kind, disdainful of their puny journeys, and making for the broad
sea. Beyond, were shining heights, and islands in the glancing
river, and a distance scarcely less blue and bright than the sky it
seemed to meet. The city's hum and buzz, the clinking of capstans,
the ringing of bells, the barking of dogs, the clattering of
wheels, tingled in the listening ear. All of which life and stir,
coming across the stirring water, caught new life and animation
from its free companionship; and, sympathising with its buoyant
spirits, glistened as it seemed in sport upon its surface, and
hemmed the vessel round, and plashed the water high about her
sides, and, floating her gallantly into the dock, flew off again to
welcome other comers, and speed before them to the busy port.

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