Four Months with Charles Dickens

Return to Part One of this story, from the October 1870 Atlantic.

Part II.

From Philadelphia Mr. Dickens went direct to Washington. On reaching Baltimore the cars stopped awhile in the market-place. In a couple of minutes word had passed through the crowd that "Dickens was on board the train." Instantly the windows were darkened with faces, and all sorts of comments—but mostly kind and respectful—were made upon his looks and general appearance.

A market-woman near by, seeing the rush, came up close to the windows, but she could not make out what all the excitement was about, and calling to a friend who was standing at the window near me, she loudly asked, "What's the matter? What is it all about, say, John, what is it?" "Why," answered the man, looking over his shoulder, "they've got Boz here !" "Got Boz!" said she; "what's Boz? what do you mean?" "Why," said the man, "it's Dickens. They've got him in here!" "Well, what has he been doing?" said she. "He ain't been doing nothing," answered the man. "He writes books." "O," said the woman, indignantly, "is that all? what do they make such a row about that for, I should like to know!"

It was here that Mr. Dickens, in his "Notes," says he gained so much information in reference to his own nose and eyes and the impressions wrought upon different minds by his mouth and chin, and how his head looked when viewed from behind, etc. On arriving at Washington Mr. Dickens went to his quarters at "Willard's." But "Willard's" was not then the splendid hotel it now is. It was a low two-story building, with many odd additions which had been put on at intervals, and the rooms were small. But the house was well kept, and every attention was paid the visitors. There was a big triangle placed in the back yard close to our rooms, and at all hours of the day and night it sent its summons to the servants. It was rather troublesome for a day or two, but we finally got used to it. Mr. Dickens had letters from distinguished English and American friends to all the leading members of Congress and other official dignitaries, and in due time Webster, Calhoun, Bell of Tennessee, and many others, called to pay their respects. Among the rest the Honorable R. C., then member of the Senate from Massachusetts, came. I had often heard his splendid pleading at the bar; and after he left I said to Mr. Dickens "That, sir, is one of the most remarkable men in our country." "Good God! Mr. P.," answered he, "they are all so! I have scarcely met a man since my arrival who wasn't one of the most remarkable men in the country!"

Mr. Dickens visited President Tyler, and afterwards, with Mrs. Dickens, attended a reception at the White House; and, as it was known that he was to be present, the attendance was very large and fashionable, and made brilliant by the presence of eminent statesmen and government officials with their families. Washington Irving, who had just received his appointment as Minister to Spain, was, to Mr. Dickens's great joy, also present, and shared with him the honors of the occasion.

While at Washington an ocean steamer, supposed to have been lost, arrived at New York, and the long-looked-for tidings from home and family came at last, to their great relief.

Leaving Washington, Mr. Dickens took the steamer down the Potomac to Potomac Creek. He rose early in the morning to get a glimpse of Mount Vernon, for he cherished a profound respect for the great man who lies buried there. On arriving at Potomac Creek we found stages to take us to Fredericksburg, Virginia, and as usual Mr. Dickens secured his favorite seat on the box beside the driver. This ride and the negro drivers of the seven coaches is most graphically described in his "Notes." The roads were bad past all description, and seemed to be impassable; but the negro drivers possessed great skill, and drove through without accident.

At Fredericksburg we took the cars for Richmond. After travelling awhile we came to a very lonely and dismal-looking country. We passed plantations long ago deserted, the houses and barns rotting down, and the ground as barren of soil as a New England street. A gentleman told me that the vast pine barrens, stretching miles away, through which we were occasionally passing, were, years ago, the same as these barren fields; for only pines of the most meagre growth could grow on this slavery-cursed soil. I called the attention of Mr. Dickens to the sterility and ruin all around us, and he seemed astounded at the fact that this land was once fertile, the very "garden of America!" Turning to his wife, he exclaimed "Great God! Kate, just hear what Mr. P. says! These lands were once cultivated! And have been abandoned because worn out by slave labor!" At sight of this widespread desolation his already deep detestation of slavery became intensified.

An incident upon the road added, if possible, to this feeling. Stopping at a lonely station in the forest for wood and water, we noticed a colored woman with several small children standing by, who seemed to be waiting for passage. After a little time we heard the woman and children weeping, and some one in the car asked the cause. A bluff, well-dressed man near us answered: "It's them d—d niggers; somebody has bought them and is taking them down to Richmond, and they are making a fuss about it!"

Dickens heard the answer, and what impression this separation of families made upon the mind of one who loved so well the freedom and happiness of all human beings may be imagined.

At Richmond Mr. Dickens took rooms at the Exchange. Here as elsewhere large numbers of the most prominent people called upon him, and a dinner was given in his honor. Here, too, he visited the tobacco factories, and saw "the happy slaves singing at their work." But it was a useless task to attempt to blind the eyes or corrupt the heart of this friend of humanity. All that was praiseworthy in our people and their institutions he praised without stint; but he would not indorse any wrong, especially that of slavery.

Mr. Dickens originally intended to travel quite extensively in the South; but the short time he had to remain in the country, and the increasing heat of the weather in that region, induced him to abandon the idea of going farther south than Richmond; and, after a few days sojourn, he returned to Washington. He made a very short stay in the capital, and went thence to Baltimore, and then to Harrisburg Pennsylvania, from which place he had arranged to go by canal to Pittsburg. On arriving at Harrisburg we passed the night at an excellent hotel, and the next day went on board the canal-boat to continue our journey to Pittsburg. As it was early in the season, the boat was not overcrowded with passengers. The captain very kindly gave up his own little private cabin at the bow of boat to Mr. and Mrs. Dickens, and this made their journey unusually comfortable. The mode of travel was quite new to them, and the scarcely perceptible motion of the boat, and the perfect quiet which surrounded us, were in delightful contrast with the noise, turmoil, and excitement of the past few weeks. As we went on the number of passengers increased, and soon the little deck, or cabin top, became well covered with trunks and baggage. Here the passengers assembled and sat upon the trunks, but at intervals the helmsman's cry of "Bridge!" "Low bridge!" would come, and then those who desired to save their brains stooped low till the bridge was passed.

In front of their cabin, at the bow of the boat, was a little deck space with room for a couple of chairs, and here Mr. and Mrs. Dickens sat for hours, greatly enjoying the absolute stillness of the scene. As evening came on, the scenery became more wild and grand, for we were approaching the "spurs of the Alleghanies," and occasionally the helmsman would take his Kent bugle and wake the echoes of the solitudes.

Excepting when out upon the tow-path for exercise, Mr. Dickens spent most of his time while on the canal in this sheltered nook at the bow of the boat, sitting by the side of his wife, reading or conversing. The country through which we were passing was now exceedingly picturesque. The log-cabins of the settlers in that almost untrodden region, the little groups of houses which constituted the "towns," the homes of the "lock-tenders," and everything around us, was so unlike anything in the old country that our travellers were never weary. Each turn in the canal brought out new combinations of scenery; and when night came on, and the moon rose over the mountains, the prospect became still more charming and novel.

It was on the deck of the canal-boat that a stranger, after following Mr. Dickens several times up and down, staring at the overcoat of "astrachan goat-skin" which Mr. Dickens wore, came to him, felt of the coat, and asked what it was, the price, etc., and many other questions. His curiosity much amused Mr. Dickens, who answered his questions very kindly, smiling all the while at the earnestness and perfect self-complacency of his questioner.

On leaving the canal-boat we took the cars up the inclined planes of the Alleghanies, and, reaching the summit, soon began the descent on the other side. We had a very early breakfast that morning, and long before noon began to be hungry. There was no station where we could obtain refreshments, but after a long suspense we heard that about the middle of the afternoon we should "reach the hotel to dine." The time at last arrived, and the moment the train stopped we hurried into the hotel. A glance at the table showed what was likely to be the fare. So I managed to find good places near the head of the table for Mr. and Mrs. Dickens, close by what seemed to be a small dish of veal. They succeeded in getting a little of it and a small portion of bread and butter, and were thankful, as indeed they and those near the "veal" had good reason to be, for the mass of hungry passengers got little or nothing. There was a big dish of something on the table, and the long-nosed landlord walked round and round the table, asking the starving passengers, through his nose, if they would "have some of the potpie? some of the pot-pie?"

The "potpie" was examined and generally refused. A few, however, had the temerity to taste it. It was a mass of bacon-rinds, pork-scraps, bits of gristle, and potatoes, and such odds and ends as usually go into the waste-tub, and which had probably been accumulating for several weeks. The hungry passengers took very little of it, preferring to pay for rather than to eat it. The last I saw of that landlord he was walking round the half-deserted table with the dish in his hands, and asking the guests if they would "have some of the potpie? some of the pot-pie?"

In due time we arrived at Pittsburg, and took rooms at the Exchange Hotel. The accommodations were excellent, and a few days were spent in visiting the objects of interest in and around the city, and in receiving visitors and making visits.

On April 1st we left Pittsburg on board the steamer Messenger for Cincinnati.

The passage down the Ohio was full of interest for our travellers, being unlike any former experience of theirs. The captain had politely given them a pleasant state-room toward the stern of the boat, and when the sun was hot they sat there on the little gallery outside and enjoyed the quiet of the scene. Toward evening Mr. and Mrs. Dickens, ever anxious to keep up their old English habit of "taking exercise," would go to the hurricane-deck and walk there for hours. During the day they sat generally outside their state-room, and seemed to enjoy much the constant change of scenery as we swept down the Ohio.

Mr. Dickens maintained throughout his travels a constant and large correspondence with friends at home; and often, while writing, his face would be convulsed with laughter at his own fun; and on his showing the letters to Mrs. Dickens she would join heartily in the mirth.

Whenever the boat reached a town on the river, word would be passed by the passengers to the people on the landing that "Boz was on board," and there would be a gathering of persons earnestly looking for him, and many gentlemen would hasten on board to get a glimpse of the great author.

On arriving at Cincinnati we went to the hotel where rooms had been already engaged, and here again the admirers of "Boz" came in crowds to see him. Mr. Dickens greatly enjoyed his visit to Cincinnati, and often referred to it with pleasure afterwards.

After spending a few days and enjoying the society of the people of this beautiful city, Mr. Dickens decided to make a visit to St. Louis, and we embarked on the steamer Pike for the latter place. On arriving at St. Louis we took rooms at the Planter's Hotel, and found it to be a most excellent place. Soon after his arrival a party composed of some fourteen gentlemen—choice spirits they were—was got up to make an excursion to the Looking-glass Prairie, many miles off on the Illinois side of the river. I recollect that Rev. Dr. Eliot of St. Louis was that one of the number whose presence in the group was most pleasant to all, and to Mr. Dickens in particular.

We started pretty early one hot morning, and, crossing the river on the ferryboat, landed on the opposite shore. The travelling here was dreadful. For a dozen miles at least the wheels sank below their hubs in the soft black soil of the bottom-lands, and the horses with difficulty pulled us through. On reaching the upland the road became much better. After some hours we arrived at a log settlement. It was "court term," and we breakfasted with the judges and lawyers at the log-tavern. On our way to the prairie we saw in the distance one of those mysterious "mounds," but had not time to visit it. Late in the afternoon we reached the prairie, and the baskets of lunch, brought all the way from St. Louis, were hastily unpacked, and a hearty meal of good things, among which was "buffalo's tongue," a new and delicious edible to Mr. Dickens, was eaten with a relish. We spent the night at a log-tavern on the edge of the prairie, and the next morning returned to St. Louis. Mr. Dickens enjoyed this jaunt very much. It gave him an insight into Western rural life, and he often referred to the excursion and to the gentlemen who composed the party with great pleasure.

At the Planter's House the visitors poured in as at other places, and were cordially received by Mr. and Mrs. Dickens, who always highly appreciated the generosity of their American welcome.

One day a well-known literary gentleman called and was cordially received by Mr. Dickens. After conversing for some time he began to speak of the condition of society in America, and at last in a most bland and conciliating manner asked: "Mr. Dickens, how do you like our domestic institution, sir?" "Like what, sir?" said Mr. Dickens, rousing up and looking sharply at his visitor. "Our domestic institution, sir, slavery!" said the gentleman. Dickens's eyes blazed as he answered promptly, "Not at all, sir! I don't like it at all, sir!" "Ah!" said his visitor, considerably abashed by the prompt and manly answer he had received, "you probably have not seen it in its true character, and are prejudiced against it." "Yes, sir!" was the answer, "I have seen it, sir! all I ever wish to see of it, and I detest it, sir!"

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