Chapter 12424639

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Chapter NumberVOLUME II:VIII
Chapter TitleTHE PASSAGE HOME.
Chapter Urlhttp://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article12424639
Full Date1843-06-02
Page Number4
Corrections1
Word Count3512
IllustratedN
Last Corrected2010-07-07
Newspaper TitleThe Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954)
Trove TitleAmerican Notes for General Circulation
article text

AMERICAN NOTES

FOR  

GENERAL CIRCULATION.

BY CHARLES DICKENS.

Chapter VIII.

THE PASSAGE HOME.

I never had so much interest before, and very likely I shall never have so much interest again, in the state of the wind, as on the long looked-for morning of Tuesday, the seventh of June. Some nautical au- thority had told me a day or two previous, "anything with west in it will do;" so when I darted out of bed at daylight, and throwing up the window, was saluted by a lively breeze from the north-west, which had sprung up in the night, it came upon me so freshly, rustling with so many happy, associations, that I conceived upon the spot a special regard for all airs blow- ing from that quarter of the compass, which I shall cherish, I dare say, until my own wind has breathed its last frail puff, and withdrawn itself for ever from the

mortal calendar.

The pilot had not been slow to take advantage of this favourable weather, and the ship which yesterday had lain in such a crowded dock, that she might have retired   from trade for good and all, for any chance she seemed to have of going to sea, was now full sixteen miles away. A gallant sight she was, when we, just gaining on her in a steamboat, saw her in the distance, riding at anchor : her tall masts pointing up in graceful lines against the sky, and every rope and spar expressed in delicate and threadlike outline : gallant too, when we, being all aboard, the anchor came up to the sturdy chorus " Cheerily men, oh cheerily !" and she followed proudly in the towing steamboat's wake : but bravest and most gallant of all, when the tow-rope being cast adrift, the canvass fluttered from her masts, and spreading her white wings, she soared away upon her free and solitary course.

In the after-cabin we were only fifteen passengers in all, and the greater part were from Canada, where some of us had known each other. The night was rough and squally, so were the next two days, but they flew by quickly, and we were soon as cheerful and as snug a party, with an honest, manly-hearted cap- tain at our head, as ever came to the re-

solution of being mutually agreeable, on

land or water.

We breakfasted at eight, lunched at twelve, dined at three, and took our tea at half-past seven. We had abundance of amusements, and dinner was not the least among them : firstly, for its own sake ; secondly, because of its extraordinary length : its duration, inclusive of all the long pauses between the courses, being seldom less than two hours and a half ; which was a subject of never-failing enter- tainment. By way of beguiling the tedi- ousness of these banquets, a select associ- ation was formed at the lower end of the table, below the mast, to whose distin- guished president modesty forbids me to make any further allusion, which, being a very hilarious and jovial institution, was (prejudice apart) in high favour with the rest of the community, and particularly with a black steward, who lived for three weeks in a broad grin at the marvellous humour of these incorporated worthies.

Then we had chess for those who

played it, whist, cribbage, books, back- gammon, and shovelboard. In all wea- then, fair or foul, calm or windy, we were everywhere on deck, walking up and down in pairs, lying in the boats, leaning over the side, or chatting in a lazy group toge- ther. We had no lack of music, for one played the accordion, another the violin, and another, (who usually began at six o'clock, A.M.) the key bugle : the com- bined effect of which instruments, when they all played differed tunes, in different parts of the ship, at the same time, and within hearing of each other, as they some- times did (everybody being intensely satisfied with his own performance), was sublimely hideous.

When all these means of entertainment

failed, a sail would heave in sight ; looming, perhaps, the very spirit of a ship, in the misty distance, or passing us so close that through our glasses we could see the peo- ple on her decks, and easily make out her name, and whither she was bound. For hours together we could watch the dolphins and porpoises as they rolled, and leaped, and dived around the vessel ; or those small creatures ever on the wing, the Mother Carey's chickens, which had borne us company, from New York Bay, and for a whole fortnight fluttered about the vessel's stern. For some days, we had a dead calm, or very light winds, during which the crew amused themselves with

fishing, and hooked an unlucky dolphin. who expired in all his rainbow colours on the deck : an event of such importance in our barren calendar, that afterwards we dated from the dolphin, and made the day

on which he died, an era.

Besides all this, when we were five or six days out, there began to be much talk of icebergs, of which wandering islands an unusual number had been seen by the ves- sels that had come into New York a day or two before we left that port, and of whose dangerous neighbourhood we were warned by the sudden coldness of the weather, and the sinking of the mercury in the barometer. While these tokens lasted, a double look-out was kept, and many dismal tales were whispered, after dark, of ships that had struck upon the ice and gone down in the night ; but the wind obliged us to hold a southward course, we saw none of them, and the weather soon grew bright and warm again.

The observation every day at noon, and the subsequent working of the vessel's course, was, as may be supposed, a feature in our lives of paramount importance ;     nor were there wanting (as there never are) sagacious doubters of the captain's calcu- lations, who, as soon as his back was turned, would, in the absence of com- passes, measure the chart with bits of string, and ends of pocket-handkerchiefs, and points of snuffers, and clearly prove him to be wrong by an odd thousand miles or so. It was very edifying to see these unbelievers shake their heads and frown, and hear them hold forth strongly upon navigation : not that they knew any thing about it, but that they always mistrusted the captain in calm weather, or when the wind was adverse. Indeed, the mercury itself is not so variable as this class of passengers, whom you will see, when the ship is going nobly through the water, quite pale with admiration, swearing that the Captain beats all captains ever known, and even hinting at subscriptions for a piece of plate : and who next morning when the breeze has lulled, and all the sails hang useless in the idle air, shake their despondent heads again, and say, with screwed-up lips, they hope that Captain is a sailor, but they shrewdly

doubt him ; that they do.

It even became an occupation in the   calm to wonder when the wind would spring up in the favourable quarter, where,

it was clearly shown by all the rules and  

precedents, it ought to have sprung up long ago. The first mate, who whistled for it zealously, was much respected for his perseverance, and was regarded even by the unbelievers as a first-rate sailor. Many gloomy looks would be cast upward through the cabin skylights at the flapping sails while dinner was in progress ; and some growing hold in ruefulness, predicted that we should land about the middle of July. There are always on board ship, n Sanguine One and a Despondent One. The latter character carried it hollow at this period of the voyage, and triumphed over the Sanguine One at every meal, by inquiring where he supposed the Great Western (which left New York a week after us) was now : and where he sup- posed the Cunard steam-packet was now : and what he thought of sailing vessels as compared with steam-ships now : and so beset his life with pestilent attacks of that kind, that he too was obliged to affect despondency, for very peace and quietude.

These were additions to the list of en- tertaining incidents, but there was still another source of interest. We carried in the steerage nearly a hundred pas- sengers : a little world of poverty : and as we came to know individuals among them by sight, from looking down upon the deck where they took the air in the daytime, and cooked their food, and very often ate it too, we became curious to know their histories, and with what ex- pectations they had gone out to America, and on what errands they were going home, and what their circumstances were. The information we got on these heads from the carpenter, who had charge of these people, was often of the strangest kind. Some of them had been in America but three days, some but three months, and some had gone out in the last voyage of that very ship in which they were now returning home. Others had sold their clothes to raise the passage-money, and had hardly rags to cover them ; others had no food, and lived upon the charity of the rest ; and one man, it was discovered nearly at the end of the voyage, not be-

fore—for he kept his secret close, and did   not court compassion—had had no suste-   nance whatever but the bones and scraps

of fat he took from the plates used in the   after-cabin dinner, when they were put out

to be washed.

The whole system of shipping and con- veying these unfortune persons, is one that stands in need of thorough revision. If any class deserve to be protected and assisted by the Government, it is that

class who are banished from their native land in search of the bare means of sub- sistence. All that could be done for these poor people by the great compassion and humanity of the captain and officers was done, but they require much more. The law is bound, at least upon the English side, to see that too many of them are not put on board one ship : and that their accommodations are decent: not demora- lising and profligate. It is bound, too, in common with humanity, to declare that no man shall be taken on board without his stock of provisions being previously inspected by some proper officer, and pro- nounced moderately sufficient for his sup- port upon the voyage. It is bound to provide, or to require that there be pro- vided, a medical attendant ; whereas in these ships there are none, though sick- ness of adults and deaths of children on the passage, are matters of the very com- monest occurrence. Above all, it is the duty of any government, be it monarchy or republic, to interpose and put an end to that system by which a firm of traders in emigrants purchase of the owners the whole 'tween-decks of a ship, and send on board as many wretched people as they can lay hold of, on any terms they can get, without the smallest reference to the conveniences of the steerage, the number of berths, the slightest separation of the sexes, or anything but their own imme- diate profit. Nor is even this the worst of the vicious system : for certain crimp- ing agents of these houses, who have a per- centage on all the passengers they in- veigle, are constantly travelling about those districts where poverty and discontent are rife, and tempting the credulous into more misery, by holding out monstrous induce- ments to emigration which never can be

realised.

The history of every family he had on board was pretty much the same. After hoarding up, and borrowing, and begging, and selling everything to pay the passage, they had gone out to New York, expect- ing to find its streets paved with gold ; and had found them paved with very hard and very real stones. Enterprise was dull ; labourers were not wanted : jobs of work were to be got, but the payment was not. They were coming back even poorer than they went. One of them was car- rying an open letter from a young English artisan, who had been in New York a fort- night, to a friend near Manchester, whom he strongly urged to follow him. One of the officers brought it to me as a curiosity. " This is the country, Jem," said the writer. " I like America. There is no des- potism here ; that's the great thing. Employment of all sorts is going a-beg- ging, and wages are capital. You have only to choose a trade, Jem, and be it. I haven't made a choice of one yet, but I shall soon. At present I haven't quite made up my mind whether to be a car- penter—or' a tailor."

There was yet another kind of passenger, and but one more, who, in the calm and the light winds, was a constant theme of conversation and observation among us. This was an English sailor, a smart, th0- rough-built English man-o'-war's man, from his hat to his shoes, who was serving in the American navy, and having got leave of absence, was on his way home to see his friends. When he presented him- self to take and pay for his passage, it had been suggested to him, that being an able seaman he might as well work it and save the money, but this piece of advice he very indignantly rejected : saying, " He'd be d——d but for once he'd go aboard ship as a gentleman." Accordingly they took his money, but he no sooner came aboard   than he stowed his kit in the forecastle, arranged to mess with the crew, and the very first time the hands were turned up, went aloft like a cat, before anybody. And all through the passage there he was, first at the braces, outermost on the yards, per- petually lending a hand everywhere, but always with a sober dignity in his manner, and a sober grin on his face, which plainly said, " I do it as a gentleman. For my own pleasure, mind you !"

At length, and at last, the promised wind came up in right good earnest, and away we went before it, with every stitch of canvass set, slashing through the water nobly. There was a grandeur in the mo- tion of the splendid ship, as overshadowed by her mass of sails, she rode at a furious pace upon the waves, which filled one with an indescribable sense of pride and exulta- tion. As she plunged into a foaming valley, how I loved to see the green waves, bordered deep with white, come rushing on astern, to buoy her upward at their pleasure, and curl about her as she stooped

again, but always own her for their haughty    

mistress still !

On, on we flew, with changing lights upon the water, being now in the blessed region of fleecy skies ; a bright sun lighting us by day, and a bright moon by night ; the vane pointing directly home- ward, alike the truthful index to the favouring wind and to our cheerful hearts ; until at sunrise, one fair Monday morning —the 27th of June, I shall not easily for- get the day—there lay before us, old Cape Clear, God bless it, showing in the mist of the early morning, like a cloud : the bright- est and most welcome cloud, to us, that ever hid the face of Heaven's fallen sister —Home.

Dim speck as it was in the wide pros- pect, it made the sunrise a more cheerful sight, and gave to it that sort of human interest which it seems to want at sea.

There, as elsewhere, the return of day is inseparable from some sense of renewed hope and gladness ; but the light shining on the dreary waste of water, and showing it in all its vast extent of loneliness, pre- sents a solemn spectacle, which even night, veiling it in darkness and uncertainty, does not surpass. The rising of the moon is more in keeping with the solitary ocean,

and has an air of melancholy grandeur,   which, in its soft and gentle influence,  

seems to comfort while it saddens. I re-  

collect when I was a very young child, having a fancy that the reflection of the moon in water was a path to Heaven, trodden by the spirits of good people on their way to God ; and this old feeling often came over me again, when I watched it on a tranquil night at sea.

The wind was very light on this same Monday morning, but it was still in the right quarter ; and so, by slow degrees, we left Cape Clear behind, and sailed along, within sight of the coast of Ireland. And how merry we all were, and how loyal to the George Washington, and how full of mutual congratulations, and how venturesome in predicting the exact hour at which we should arrive at Liverpool, may be easily imagined and readily un- derstood. Also, how hearty we drunk the Captain's health that day at dinner; and how restless we became about packing up ;

and how two or three of the most san-

guine spirits rejected the idea of going to bed at all that night as something it was not worth while to do, so near the shore, but went nevertheless, and slept, soundly ; and how to be so near our journey's end, was like a pleasant dream, from which

one feared to wake.

The friendly breeze freshened again next day, and on we went once more before it, gallantly : descrying now and then an English ship, going homeward, under shortened sail, while we, with every inch of canvas crowded on, dashed gaily past, and left her far behind. Towards evening the weather turned hazy, with a drizzling rain, and soon became so thick that we sailed as it were in a cloud. Still we swept onward, like a phantom ship, and many an eager eye glanced up to where the looks-out on the mast kept watch for Holyhead.

At length his long-expected cry was heard, and at the same moment there shone out from the haze and mist ahead a gleaming light, which presently was gone, and soon returned, and soon was gone again. Whenever it came back, the eyes of all on board brightened and sparkled like itself ; and there we all stood watching this revolving light upon the rock at Holyhead, and praising it for its brightness and its friendly warning, and lauding it, in short, above all other signal lights that ever were displayed, until it once more glimmered faintly in the dis- tance, far behind us.

Then it was time to fire a gun for a pilot, and almost before its smoke had cleared away, a little boat, with a light at her mast-head, came bearing down upon us, through the darkness, swiftly ; and presently, our sails being backed, she ran alongside, and the hoarse pilot, wrapped and muffled in pea-coats and shawls to the very bridge of his weather-ploughed-up   nose, stood bodily among us on the deck ; and I think if that pilot had wanted to borrow fifty pounds for an indefinite period, on no security, we should have engaged to lend it him among us, before his boat had dropped astern, or (which is the same thing) before every scrap of news in the paper he brought with him had become the common property of all on board.

We turned in pretty late that night, and turned out pretty soon next morning. By six o'clock we clustered on the deck pre- pared to go ashore ; and looked upon the spires and roofs, and smoke of Liverpool. By eight we all sat down in one of its Hotels, to eat and drink together for the last time. And by nine we had shaken hands all round, and broken up our social company for ever.

The country, by the railroad, seemed, as we rattled through it, like a luxuriant garden. The beauty of the fields (so small they looked!) the hedge-rows, and the trees ; the pretty cottages, the beds of flowers, the old churchyards, the antique houses, and every well-known object ; the exquisite delights of that one journey, crowding in the short compass of a sum- mer's day, the joy of many years, and winding up with home and all that makes it dear: no tongue can tell, or pen of

mine describe.