Four Months with Charles Dickens

The gentleman looked mortified, abashed, and offended, and, taking his hat, bade Mr. Dickens "Good morning" which greeting was returned with promptness, and he left the room. Mr. Dickens then, in a towering passion, turned to me. "Damn their impudence, Mr. P.! If they will not thrust their accursed "domestic institution" in my face, I will not attack it, for I did not come here for that purpose. But to tell me that a man is better off as a slave than as a freeman is an insult, and I will not endure it from any one! I will not bear it!"

It was not uncommon, in the various places at which we stayed, for persons of unsettled minds persistently to seek an interview with the novelist. It was impossible, of course, for him to see them, for he had not half time enough to devote to the sane people who thronged his rooms. But to these unfortunates he always sent a kind word, expressing his regret that he could not see them personally.

At St. Louis there was an old man who came and stayed about every day. His shirt-bosom and pockets were running over with manuscript, and in a letter to Mr. Dickens, he informed him that he "had paraphrased the entire Book of Job, and wanted to read it to Mr. Dickens and get his opinion of it." I had to meet the old gentleman every day with some excuse, kindly expressed, why Mr. Dickens could not see him, and so I tried to put him off each day till our time came to leave. But as the time approached, the old man determined that he would waylay Mr. Dickens in some of the passages of the hotel, and the last I saw of him he was standing looking round a corner in the hall, his bosom and pockets bursting with written and printed matter. When I told Mr. Dickens of this, he expressed the greatest pity for the poor old man. "God help him, poor fellow!" said he.

Taking our passage down the river in the Messenger, we arrived again in due time at Cincinnati. After resting for a day here, we took the stagecoach for Columbus. The coach was crowded with passengers, and, as usual, Mr. Dickens secured his favorite seat, on the box with the driver. We travelled all night, and a weary journey it was. Mrs. Dickens sat on the back seat, and my place was on the middle seat by the window in front of her. Opposite me, through the night, sat a well-dressed man; but all night long he poured out a rain of tobacco-spittle, which from the motion of the coach fell on us in showers. I tried to screen Mrs. Dickens; but notwithstanding my efforts, and the aid of a thick veil, she could not escape the disgusting results.

Arriving at Columbus, we stopped at the Neil House, an excellent hotel; a few hours were given to rest and sleep, and afterwards Mr. Dickens received for an hour or two the ladies and gentlemen who called upon him. The plan of travel was to get to Sandusky City on Lake Erie, take a steamer to Buffalo, thence go to Niagara, and thence to Canada.

At Columbus we hired a stage-coach exclusively for our party, and the stage company sent an agent with the driver to go through with us. The upper portion of Ohio was largely at that time an unbroken forest, and the accommodations for travellers were very poor. Nothing but corn-bread and bacon could be obtained at the log-cabins on the road, and so our good landlord of the Neil House had a basket of provisions put up for us to dine upon. The road was pretty good at first, but did not improve as we went on. We had, however, a good stage-coach to ourselves, and a good team and driver. So for many miles we went on quite well. The driver, at intervals of a dozen miles or so, would commence blowing his horn, to give notice at the station, a mile or more ahead, that a relay of horses was to be ready. It was evidently unusual for an "extra" to go through on that road, and while we changed horses all the people in the log-tavern and its neighborhood would assemble to look at us, and they generally found out by questioning the driver that it was "Boz" who was travelling with an "extra" toward the lake. Soon after noon we came to a pleasant nook in the woods, not far from a log-cabin, and our basket of provisions was opened and the cloth spread upon the grass. I obtained a pitcher of cool water at the cabin near by, and dinner was ready. I trust I shall be excused if I mention here a little instance of the kindness of heart always shown by Charles Dickens. The driver and his friend, who were now waiting with the coach at a little distance, had dined at the log-tavern which we passed a half-hour before. But before we dined Mr. Dickens, heaping up a large quantity of oranges, apples, nuts, and raisins, which we had brought for dessert, and a quantity of wine added, requested me to take them to the driver and his companion, which I did. It was a little incident; but it was characteristic of that man throughout life to remember others.

After dinner I returned the pitcher, taking the basket and dishes with me to the log-cabin; and the people were greatly pleased and surprised when I made them a present of the whole. We hurried off again, as the road was constantly growing worse and night not far distant.

At the next place for changing horses—a log-tavern and stable, standing all alone in the forest—we alighted for a few moments and went in. An elderly woman received us kindly and gave us seats. In an adjoining room there were two tall, good-looking young girls, her daughters, spinning. They seemed quite desirous to know, and were too bashful to ask, who the strangers were. Being curious to see if, in the midst of the almost unbroken forests of Northern Ohio, the inmates of that lone cabin had ever heard of Charles Dickens, I incidentally mentioned his name. "Is it, indeed?" said the girls, and with brightened eyes and looks of pleasure on their handsome faces they came and sat down where they could see Mr. and Mrs. Dickens. The coach was soon ready, and with a few words and a kind "good by" to the woman and her daughters from Mr. and Mrs. Dickens, we went on our way. I told Mr. Dickens that the girls had read his books and were happy to have seen him; and the incident seemed to gratify him, as well it might.

We soon began to know something of the exquisite softness of "corduroy roads." Some dozen miles of this kind of road lay now before us, and as they talked of "building a good road there some time or other," no repairs had for a long interval been made in the "corduroy"; consequently holes nearly large enough to bury coach, horses, and all were constantly occurring, which, however, the driver managed with great skill to avoid. It was a wondrous talent that put the wood and iron of that coach together, for it did not seem possible that it could long remain unbroken.

Mrs. Dickens had the back seat to herself; as the terrible jolting increased, Mr. Dickens, taking two handkerchiefs, tied the ends of them to the door-posts on each side, and the other ends Mrs. Dickens wound around her wrists and hands. This contrivance, to which was added the utmost bracing of the feet, enabled the kind and patient lady to endure the torture of the "corduroy." Mr. Dickens and myself occupied the middle seat, with our arms wound tightly around the other door-posts, and Mrs. Dickens's maid Ann occupied the front seat facing us. Mr. Dickens on his side, and I on mine, kept a sharp lookout ahead as well as we could, and when we saw—as we did almost every minute—an uncommonly large hole into which the wheels must go, we shouted, "Corduroy!" and prepared ourselves for the shock. But preparation was of little avail, for with all our strength we found it impossible to keep our places, but were constantly tumbling upon each other and picking ourselves up from the bottom of the coach. At last we got through the swamp, and thankfully left the "corduroy" behind us. As night came on, a smart thunder-shower passed over us, and by the gleams of the lightning we followed the winding forest road. The driver told us we should reach Upper Sandusky a little before midnight and stop there till morning. This was good news, for perhaps there never yet was a set of travellers more utterly weary and worn out than ourselves. We looked forward with pleasure to supper, good clean beds, and a few hours' sleep. The time seemed very long, but at last, about eleven o'clock, when yet a mile or more from the place, our driver began to blow his horn to rouse the people at the tavern.

In due time we arrived. The log-tavern was a long, low structure a story and a half high. We got out of the coach, sore and lame, and soon sat down to a supper of bacon, bread and butter, and hot tea. Mr. and Mrs. Dickens had a room on the groundfloor, and into it all the trunks and baggage—including all overcoats and shawls—were carried. Mr. Dickens called my attention to the fact that there were no fastenings to either of the doors of his room, but said, "I can pile all the trunks up against the doors, and no one can possibly get in without waking us." Mrs. Dickens was naturally rather nervous, for the place certainly looked new and strange. We heard that an "Indian council" had just been held at the lodge near by, and there were hundreds of Indians at that time in the vicinity, and everything looked like being in a wild and uncivilized country.

So "Boz" and his wife went thankfully to rest, and the landlord, lighting a tallow candle, showed me up a flight of outer stairs into the chamber or loft of the cabin. There were two beds in the room, and one was already occupied by a man who snored in splendid style. I was too tired to mind that, and got into bed as soon as possible. But it was useless to try to sleep. The bed literally swarmed with bugs, and I found it impossible to close my eyes. After trying in vain for some time to endure the torment, I dressed and went down the stairs again out doors. It was in April, and the night air was piercing cold. I could not obtain an overcoat or shawl, for they were all in Mr. Dickens's room, and I would not alarm Mrs. Dickens by trying to get in. So I took to the coach. It was better than standing out doors; but as it was lined with leather, it was not very warm. I spent the night in useless attempts to catch a nap.

As daylight began to glimmer, I "crowed" very loudly several times, hoping that the old darky who did the chores would think it was morning and get up and light the fires. But the ruse did not suceed, though the "crowing" was very well done indeed.

As soon as it was light, I got out and crept to the cabin. While I was standing there, Mrs. Dickens, with a face full of trouble, and rubbing her wrists and hands, came from her room to the tin wash-basin provided for the public, which stood upon a stump near the door. I bade her good morning, and asked how she had rested. "O Mr. P.," said she, "I have been almost devoured by the bugs!" I then related my "experience," which excited both her mirth and sympathy, and calling to her husband said, "Charles, Charles! just come here, and listen to what Mr. P. suffered last night!" I told my "experience" again, without any embellishments,—none were needed,—and with laughter and kind words Mr. Dickens heard it and has duly chronicled it in his "Notes."

We had breakfast, and, the coach being ready, we all got in and were on the point of starting, when the landlord mentioned that "the bill was not paid!" The bill not paid? Good Heavens! Mr. P., the bill not paid, sir! Why, how is this ! I hope you have not neglected it before, have you? I apologized to the landlord, and explained that I had never before forgotten to pay all bills; but having spent the night in the coach, I had no consciousness of having stopped anywhere or of owing anything; with which explanation Mr. Dickens nodded and smiled his satisfaction. The landlord, however, seemed not well pleased, but received his money sullenly, and we went on our way.

Our stage-coach ride across Ohio ended at Tiffin, a small town which we reached about noon, from whence was a railroad to Sandusky City on Lake Erie. The good landlord at Tiffin, finding who were his guests, did his best to please, and also to let the entire town know that "Dickens was at his hotel." And when we left the house for the depot he had a large kind of open wagon on springs, with seats very high, on which Mr. and Mrs. Dickens were perched. I think the driver was instructed to pass through all the principal streets of the place before he reached the railroad station, for we went at a slow pace and were a long time going; and the people awaited us in groups, as if by appointment, at the street-corners and at the windows and doors of the houses; and if the inhabitants of Tiffin, Ohio, did not on that occasion see "Boz" and his wife, it certainly was not the fault of that good landlord or of his carriage-driver.

The change from coach and corduroy to the rail was most grateful, and in the evening we reached Sandusky City. A lake steamer made her appearance in the harbor the next day, and we embarked for Buffalo.

At Buffalo our travellers gladly welcomed their letters from home which were awaiting them there, and it was here that Mr. Dickens received from Carlyle and other eminent English writers the letters endorsing his views upon the subject of an "international copyright law." It was but a short ride from Buffalo to Niagara. Mr. Dickens had been repeatedly warned not to expect too much of Niagara, and told that people were often disappointed in their anticipations of the grandeur of the scene.

As we crossed in the ferry-boat, Dickens gazed at the falls with astonishment When midway over, he looked around for a few moments and said, solemnly, as if to himself: "Great God! How can any man be disappointed at this!"

Rooms had been engaged at the Clifton House, and now the tired travellers looked forward to a season of perfect rest and quiet. In this they were not disappointed. It was much too early in the season for visitors, and, with the exception of a few English officers and gentlemen residing in the neighborhood, there was no company to call upon them. The time allotted to be spent at Niagara was full of pure enjoyment, and when it was over they started for Toronto, thence to Kingston, Montreal, and Quebec. At all these places Mr. Dickens and his wife were most cordially received by the government officials, officers of the army, and the resident English population. The time was pleasantly passed in rides and visits, and also in some private theatricals in which Mr. Dickens and several English officers took part.

Bidding adieu to their kind friends in Canada, Mr. and Mrs. Dickens hastened back to New York, from whence it had been arranged they should take passage to England. Having still a few days to spare, Mr. Dickens with a party of friends went out to see the Shaker village at Lebanon. They afterwards visited West Point, and then returned to New York.

The old friends came again to greet them, and many others came from Boston, Philadelphia, and other places to hid them farewell; and on the morning of the 7th of June a large party accompanied them on the steamer down the harbor to embark on board the packet-ship George Washington, for England.

Only those whose opportunities brought them in close contact with Charles Dickens can know the full beauty and purity of his nature, and how intensely he loathed all that was coarse and low. An incident occurred during our journey which illustrated this. On one occasion, at a public dinner given him,—many ladies being present as spectators,—some persons, entirely mistaking the character of their guest, had secured the presence of a certain "Doctor," famous it would appear for story-telling. After the speeches commenced, there were frequent calls for the "Doctor," and at last he rose and said that he "must be excused from saying anything while the ladies were present." There was instantly a movement among the ladies to go. Mr. Dickens beckoned to me and said earnestly, "Please ask the ladies to stay, say I wish them to stay!" I spoke to Mrs. Dickens, and she said a few words to those around her, and the ladies remained. The rebuke was gentle but efficient, and there were no more calls for the "Doctor" during the rest of the evening.

Many kind letters of remembrance came to me from Mr. Dickens during the long interval which has passed since his memorable visit in 1842, and it scarcely need be said that on the occasion of his last coming he received the writer of these recollections with both hands outstretched and with a most cordial greeting. And then together we again went over the old journey.

I congratulated him upon his evident health and robustness, and spoke of the long years that we trusted were yet before him, in which the world should receive yet more of his wondrous productions; and his cheery answer was, "I am, indeed, well and very strong. And, please God, Mr. P., we'll do something yet!"

But that hope has been disappointed. A loving world has looked for the last time upon that dear face, listened to the last words, read the last line, of Charles Dickens, and the record is closed forever!

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

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