Domestic Manners of the Americans, by Fanny Trollope

Chapter 27

Return to Stonington — Thunderstorm — Emigrants — Illness — Alexandria

A fortnight passed rapidly away in this great city, and, doubtless, there was still much left unseen when we quitted it, according to previous arrangement, to return to our friends in Maryland. We came back by a different route, going by land from Newcastle to French Town, instead of passing by the canal. We reached Baltimore in the middle of the night, but finished our repose on board the steam-boat, and started for Washington at five o’clock the next morning.

Our short abode amid the heat and closeness of a city made us enjoy more than ever the beautiful scenery around Stonington. The autumn, which soon advanced upon us, again clothed the woods in colours too varied and gaudy to be conceived by those who have never quitted Europe; and the stately maize, waving its flowing tassels, as the long drooping blossoms are called, made every field look like a little forest. A rainy spring had been followed by a summer of unusual heat; and towards the autumn frequent thunderstorms of terrific violence cleared the air, but at the same time frightened us almost out of our wits. On one occasion I was exposed, with my children, to the full fury of one of these awful visitations. We suffered considerable terror during this storm, but when we were all again safe, and comfortably sheltered, we rejoiced that the accident had occurred, as it gave us the best possible opportunity of witnessing, in all its glory, a transatlantic thunderstorm. It was, however, great imprudence that exposed us to it, for we quitted the house, and mounted a hill at a considerable distance from it, for the express purpose of watching to advantage the extraordinary aspect of the clouds. When we reached the top of the hill half the heavens appeared hung with a heavy curtain; a sort of deep blue black seemed to colour the very air; the blizzards screamed, as with heavy wing they sought the earth. We ought, in common prudence, to have immediately retreated to the house, but the scene was too beautiful to be left. For several minutes after we reached our station, the air appeared perfectly without movement, no flash broke through the seven-fold cloud, but a flickering light was visible, darting to and fro behind it. By degrees the thunder rolled onward, nearer and nearer, till the inky cloud burst asunder, and cataracts of light came pouring from behind it. From that moment there was no interval, no pause, the lightning did not flash, there were no claps of thunder, but the heavens blazed and bellowed above and around us, till stupor took the place of terror, and we stood utterly confounded. But we were speedily aroused, for suddenly, as if from beneath our feet, a gust arose which threatened to mix all the elements in one. Torrents of water seemed to bruise the earth by their violence; eddies of thick dust rose up to meet them; the fierce fires of heaven only blazed the brighter for the falling flood; while the blast almost out-roared the thunder. But the wind was left at last the lord of all, for after striking with wild force, now here, now there, and bringing worlds of clouds together in most hostile contact, it finished by clearing the wide heavens of all but a few soft straggling masses, whence sprung a glorious rainbow, and then retired, leaving the earth to raise her half crushed forests; and we, poor pigmies, to call back our frighted senses, and recover breath as we might.

During this gust, it would have been impossible for us to have kept our feet; we crouched down under the shelter of a heap of stones, and, as we informed each other, looked most dismally pale.

Many trees were brought to the earth before our eyes; some torn up by the roots, and some mighty stems snapt off several feet from the ground. If the West Indian hurricanes exceed this, they must be terrible indeed.

The situation of Mrs. S—’s house was considered as remarkably healthy, and I believe justly so, for on more than one occasion, persons who were suffering from fever and ague at the distance of a mile or two, were perfectly restored by passing a week or fortnight at Stonington; but the neighbourhood of it, particularly on the side bordering the Potomac, was much otherwise, and the mortality among the labourers on the canal was frightful.

I have elsewhere stated my doubts if the labouring poor of our country mend their condition by emigrating to the United States, but it was not till the opportunity which a vicinity to the Chesapeake and Ohio canal gave me, of knowing what their situation was after making the change, that I became fully aware how little it was to be desired for them.

Of the white labourers on this canal, the great majority are Irishmen; their wages are from ten to fifteen dollars a month, with a miserable lodging, and a large allowance of whiskey. It is by means of this hateful poison that they are tempted, and indeed enabled for a time, to stand the broiling heat of the sun in a most noxious climate: for through such, close to the romantic but unwholesome Potomac, the line of the canal has hitherto run. The situation of these poor strangers, when they sink at last in “the fever,” which sooner or later is sure to overtake them, is dreadful. There is a strong feeling against the Irish in every part of the Union, but they will do twice as much work as a negro, and therefore they are employed. When they fall sick, they may, and must, look with envy on the slaves around them; for they are cared for; they are watched and physicked, as a valuable horse is watched and physicked: not so the Irishman, he is literally thrown on one side, and a new comer takes his place. Details of their sufferings, and unheeded death, too painful to dwell upon, often reached us; on one occasion a farmer calling at the house, told the family that a poor man, apparently in a dying condition, was lying beside a little brook at the distance of a quarter of a mile. The spot was immediately visited by some of the family, and there in truth lay a poor creature, who was already past the power of speaking; he was conveyed to the house and expired during the night. By enquiring at the canal, it was found that he was an Irish labourer, who having fallen sick, and spent his last cent, had left the stifling shanty where he lay, in the desperate attempt of finding his way to Washington, with what hope I know not. He did not appear above twenty, and as I looked on his pale young face, which even in death expressed suffering, I thought that perhaps he had left a mother and a home to seek wealth in America. I saw him buried under a group of locust trees, his very name unknown to those who laid him there, but the attendance of the whole family at the grave, gave a sort of decency to his funeral which rarely, in that country, honors the poor relics of British dust: but no clergyman attended, no prayer was said, no bell was tolled; these, indeed, are ceremonies unthought of, and in fact unattainable without much expense, at such a distance from a town; had the poor youth been an American, he would have been laid in the earth in the same unceremonious manner. But had this poor Irish lad fallen sick in equal poverty and destitution among his own people, he would have found a blanket to wrap his shivering limbs, and a kindred hand to close his eyes.

The poor of great Britain, whom distress, or a spirit of enterprise tempt to try another land, ought, for many reasons, to repair to Canada; there they would meet co-operation and sympathy, instead of malice, hatred, and all uncharitableness.

I frequently heard vehement complaints, and constantly met the same in the newspapers, of a practice stated to be very generally adopted in Britain of sending out cargoes of parish paupers to the United States. A Baltimore paper heads some such remarks with the words

“INFAMOUS CONDUCT!”

and then tells us of a cargo of aged paupers just arrived from England, adding, “John Bull has squeezed the orange, and now insolently casts the skin in our faces.” Such being the feeling, it will be readily believed that these unfortunates are not likely to meet much kindness or sympathy in sickness, or in suffering of any kind. If these American statements be correct, and that different parishes are induced, from an excessive population, to pay the voyage and outfit of some of their paupers across the Atlantic, why not send them to Canada?

It is certain, however, that all the enquiries I could make failed to substantiate these American statements. All I could ascertain was, that many English and Irish poor arrived yearly in the United States, with no other resources than what their labour furnished. This, though very different from the newspaper stories, is quite enough to direct attention to the subject. It is generally acknowledged that the suffering among our labouring classes arises from the excess of our population; and it is impossible to see such a country as Canada, its extent, its fertility, its fine climate, and know that it is British ground, without feeling equal sorrow and astonishment that it is not made the means of relief. How earnestly it is to be wished that some part of that excellent feeling which is for ever at work in England to help the distressed, could be directed systematically to the object of emigration to the Canadas. Large sums are annually raised for charitable purposes, by weekly subscriptions of one penny; were only a part of the money so obtained to be devoted to this object, hundreds of families might yearly be sent to people our own land. The religious feeling, which so naturally mixes with every charitable purpose, would there find the best field for its exertions. Where could a missionary, whether Protestant or Catholic, find a holier mission than that which sent him to comfort and instruct his countrymen in the wilderness? or where could he reap a higher reward in this world, than seeing that wilderness growing into fertile fields under the hands of his flock?

I never saw so many autumn flowers as grow in the woods and sheep-walks of Maryland; a second spring seemed to clothe the fields, but with grief and shame I confess, that of these precious blossoms I scarcely knew a single name. I think the Michaelmas daisy, in wonderful variety of form and colour, and the prickly pear, were almost my only acquaintance: let no one visit America without having first studied botany; it is an amusement, as a clever friend of mine once told me, that helps one wonderfully up and down hill, and must be superlatively valuable in America, both from the plentiful lack of other amusements, and the plentiful material for enjoyment in this; besides, if one is dying to know the name of any of these lovely strangers, it is a thousand to one against his finding any one who can tell it.

The prettiest eclipse of the moon I ever saw was that of September, of this year, (1830). We had been passing some hours amid the solemn scenery of the Potomac falls, and just as we were preparing to quit it, the full moon arose above the black pines, with half our shadow thrown across her. The effect of her rising thus eclipsed was more strange, more striking by far, than watching the gradual obscuration; and as I turned to look at the black chasm behind me, and saw the deadly alder, and the poison-vine waving darkly on the rocks around, I thought the scene wanted nothing but the figure of a palsied crone, plucking the fatal branches to concoct some charm of mischief.

Whether some such maga dogged my steps, I know not, but many hours had not elapsed ere I again felt the noxious influence of an American autumn. This fever, “built in th’ eclipse,” speedily brought me very low, and though it lasted not so long as that of the preceding year, I felt persuaded I should never recover from it. Though my forebodings were not verified by the event, it was declared that change of air was necessary, and it was arranged for me, (for I was perfectly incapable of settling any thing for myself,) that I should go to Alexandria, a pretty town at the distance of about fifteen miles, which had the reputation of possessing a skilful physician.

It was not without regret that we quitted our friends at Stonington; but the prescription proved in a great degree efficacious; a few weeks’ residence in Alexandria restored my strength sufficiently to enable me to walk to a beautiful little grassy terrace, perfectly out of the town, but very near it, from whence we could watch the various craft that peopled the Potomac between Alexandria and Washington. But though gradually regaining strength, I was still far from well; all plans for winter gaiety were abandoned, and finding ourselves very well accommodated, we decided upon passing the winter where we were. It proved unusually severe; the Potomac was so completely frozen as to permit considerable traffic to be carried on by carts, crossing on the ice, from Maryland. This had not occurred before for thirty years. The distance was a mile and a quarter, and we ventured to brave the cold, and walk across this bright and slippery mirror, to make a visit on the opposite shore; the fatigue of keeping our feet was by no means inconsiderable, but we were rewarded by seeing as noble a winter landscape around us as the eye could look upon.

When at length the frost gave way, the melting snow produced freshes so violent as to carry away the long bridge at Washington; large fragments of it, with the railing still erect, came floating down amidst vast blocks of ice, during many successive days, and it was curious to see the intrepidity with which the young sailors of Alexandria periled their lives to make spoil of the timber.

The solar eclipse of the 12th of February, 1831, was nearer total than any I ever saw, or ever shall see. It was completely annular at Alexandria, and the bright ring which surrounded the moon’s shadow, though only 81° in breadth, gave light sufficient to read the smallest print; the darkness was considerably lessened by the snow, which, as the day was perfectly unclouded, reflected brightly all the light that was left us.

Notwithstanding the extreme cold, we passed the whole time in the open air, on a rising ground near the river; in this position many beautiful effects were perceptible; the rapid approach and change of shadows, the dusky hue of the broad Potomac, that seemed to drink in the feeble light, which its snow-covered banks gave back to the air, the gradual change of every object from the colouring of bright sunshine to one sad universal tint of dingy purple, the melancholy lowing of the cattle, and the short, but remarkable suspension of all labour, gave something of mystery and awe to the scene that we shall long remember.

During the following months I occupied myself partly in revising my notes, and arranging these pages; and partly in making myself acquainted, as much as possible, with the literature of the country.

While reading and transcribing my notes, I underwent a strict self-examination. I passed in review all I had seen, all I had felt, and scrupulously challenged every expression of disapprobation; the result was, that I omitted in transcription much that I had written, as containing unnecessary details of things which had displeased me; yet, as I did so, I felt strongly that there was no exaggeration in them; but such details, though true, might be ill-natured, and I retained no more than were necessary to convey the general impressions received. While thus reviewing my notes, I discovered that many points, which all scribbling travellers are expected to notice, had been omitted; but a few pages of miscellaneous observations will, I think, supply all that can be expected from so idle a pen.

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