The Englishwoman in America, by Isabella Bird

Chapter 20.

The America — A gloomy departure — An ugly night — Morning at Halifax — Our new passengers — Babies — Captain Leitch — A day at sea — Clippers and steamers — A storm — An Atlantic moonlight — Unpleasant sensations — A gale — Inkermann — Conclusion.

On reaching Boston I found that my passage had been taken in the Cunard steamer America, reputed to be the slowest and wettest of the whole line. Some of my kind American friends, anxious to induce me to remain for the winter with them, had exaggerated the dangers and discomforts of a winter-passage; the December storms, the three days spent in crossing the Newfoundland Banks, steaming at half-speed with fog-bells ringing and foghorns blowing, the impossibility of going on deck, and the disagreeableness of being shut up in a close heated saloon. It was with all these slanders against the ship fresh in my recollection that I saw her in dock on the morning of my leaving America, her large, shapeless, wall-sided hull looming darkly through a shower of rain. The friends who had first welcomed me to the States accompanied me to the vessel, rendering my departure from them the more regretful, and scarcely had I taken leave of them when a gun was fired, the lashings were cast off, and our huge wheels began their ceaseless revolutions.

It was in some respects a cheerless embarkation. The Indian summer had passed away; the ground was bound by frost; driving showers of sleet were descending; and a cold, howling, wintry wind was sweeping over the waters of Massachusetts Bay. We were considerably retarded between Boston and Halifax by contrary winds. I had retired early to my berth to sleep away the fatigues of several preceding months, and was awoke about midnight by the most deafening accumulation of sounds which ever stunned my ears. I felt that I was bruised, and that the berth was unusually hard and cold; and, after groping about in the pitch-darkness, I found that I had been thrown out of it upon the floor, a fact soon made self-evident by my being rolled across the cabin, a peculiarly disagreeable course of locomotion. It was impossible to stand or walk, and in crawling across to my berth I was assailed by my portmanteau, which was projected violently against me. Further sleep for some hours was impossible. Bang! bang! would come a heavy wave against the ship’s side, close to my ears, as if trying the strength of her timbers. Crash! crash! as we occasionally shipped heavy seas, would the waves burst over the lofty bulwarks, and with a fall of seven feet at once come thundering down on the deck above. Then one sound asserted its claim to be heard over all the others — a sound as if our decks were being stove — a gun or some other heavy body had broken loose, and could not be secured. The incessant groaning, splitting, and heaving, and the roar of the water through the scuppers, as it found a tardy egress from the deluged deck, was the result of merely a “head-wind” and “an ugly night.”

Late on the second evening of our voyage, I walked on deck. It was the “fag-end” of a gale, and the rain was pouring down upon the slippery planks. Brightly a skyrocket whizzed upwards from a distant ship, and burst in a shower of flame, followed by two others, signalling our old acquaintance the Canada, bound from Liverpool to Boston. We sent up some fireworks in return, and soon lost sight of the friendly light on her paddle-box. She was the only ship that we saw till we reached the Irish coast.

With some of the other passengers, I was on deck at five in the morning, to see the lights on the heads of Halifax harbour. It was dark and intensely cold and wet. A shower of rain had frozen on deck during the night, and as it began to melt the water ran off in little sooty rills. Slowly, shivering figures came on deck, men in envelopes of fur, and oilskin capes and coats, with teeth chattering with cold, with wrinkled brows, and blue cold noses. And slowly lightened the clear eastern sky, and the crescent moon and stars disappeared one by one, and gradually the low pine-clad hills of Nova Scotia stood out in dark relief against the light, when, all of a sudden, “like a glory, the broad sun” rose behind the purple moorlands, and soon hill and town and lake-like bay were bathed in the cold glow of a winter sunrise. It was now half-past seven — the morning-gun had boomed from the citadel, and, in honour of such an important event as the arrival of the European steamer, it might have been supposed that the inhabitants of the quiet town of Halifax would have been astir. In this idea a Scotch friend and I stepped ashore with the intention of visiting an Indian curiosity-shop. In dismal contrast to the early habits which prevail in the American cities, where sleep is yielded to as a necessity, instead of being indulged in as a luxury, we found the shops closed, and, except the people immediately connected with the steamer, none were stirring in the streets but ragged negroes and squalid-looking Indians. A few ‘cute enterprising Yankees would soon metamorphose the aspect of this city. As an arrogant American once observed to me, “It would take a ‘Blue Nose’ (a Nova–Scotian) as long to put on his hat as for one of our free and enlightened citizens to go from Bosting to New Orleens.” The appearance of the town was very repulsive. A fall of snow had thawed, and mixing with the dust, store-sweepings, cabbage-stalks, oyster-shells, and other rubbish, had formed a soft and peculiarly penetrating mixture from three to seven inches deep.

Eighteen passengers joined the America at Halifax, and among them I was delighted to welcome my cousins, a party of seven, en route from Prince Edward Island to England. The two babies which accompanied them were rather dreaded in prospect, but I believe that their behaviour gained them general approbation. As dogs are not allowed on the poop or in the saloon, a well-conditioned baby is rather a favourite in a ship; gentlemen of amiable dispositions give it plenty of nursing and tossing, and stewards regard it with benignant smiles, and occasionally offer it “titbits” purloined from dinner.

Among the passengers who joined us at Halifax were Captain Leitch, and three of the wrecked officers of the steamship City of Philadelphia, which was lost on Cape Race three months before. Captain Leitch is a remarkable-looking man, very like the portraits of the Count of Monte Christo. His heroism and presence of mind on the occasion of that terrible disaster were the means of saving the lives of six hundred people, many of whom were women and children. When the ship struck, the panic among this large number of persons was of course awful; but so perfect was the discipline of the crew, and so great their attachment to their commander, that not a cabin-boy left the ship in that season of apprehension without his permission. Captain Leitch said that he would be the last man to quit the ship, and he kept his word; but the excitement, anxiety, and subsequent exposure to cold and fatigue, more especially in his search after the survivors of the ill-fated Arctic, brought on a malady from which he was severely suffering.

We had only sixty passengers on board, and the party was a remarkably quiet one. There was a gentleman going to Paris as American consul, a daily, animated, and untiring advocate of slavery; a Jesuit missionary, of agreeable manners and cultivated mind, on his way to Rome to receive an episcopal hat; two Jesuit brethren; five lively French people; and the usual number of commercial travellers, agents, and storekeepers, principally from Canada. There were very few ladies, and only three besides our own party appeared in the saloon. For a few days after leaving Halifax we had a calm sea and fair winds, accompanied with rain; and with the exception of six unhappy passengers who never came upstairs during the whole voyage, all seemed well enough to make the best of things.

A brief description of the daily routine on board these ships may serve to amuse those who have never crossed the Atlantic, and may recall agreeable or disagreeable recollections, as the case may be, to those who have.

During the first day or two those who are sea-sick generally remain downstairs, and those who are well look sentimentally at the receding land, and make acquaintances with whom they walk five or six in a row, bearing down isolated individuals of anti-social habits. After two or three days have elapsed, people generally lose all interest in the novelty, and settle down to such pursuits as suit them best. At eight in the morning the dressing-bell rings, and a very few admirable people get up, take a walk on deck, and appear at breakfast at half-past eight. But to most this meal is rendered a superfluity by the supper of the night before — that condemned meal, which everybody declaims against, and everybody partakes of. However, if only two or three people appear, the long tables are adorned profusely with cold tongue, ham, Irish stew, mutton-chops, broiled salmon, crimped cod, eggs, tea, coffee, chocolate, toast, hot rolls, &c. &c.! These viands remain on the table till half-past nine. After breakfast some of the idle ones come up and take a promenade on deck, watch the wind, suggest that it has changed a little, look at the course, ask the captain for the fiftieth time when he expects to be in port, and watch the heaving of the log, when the officer of the watch invariably tells them that the ship is running a knot or two faster than her real speed, giving a glance of intelligence at the same time to some knowing person near. Many persons who are in the habit of crossing twice a-year begin cards directly after breakfast, and, with only the interruption of meals, play till eleven at night. Others are equally devoted to chess; and the commercial travellers produce small square books with columns for dollars and cents, cast up their accounts, and bite the ends of their pens. A bell at twelve calls the passengers to lunch from their various lurking-places, and, though dinner shortly succeeds this meal, few disobey the summons. There is a large consumption of pale ale, hotch-potch, cold beef, potatoes, and pickles. These pickles are of a peculiarly brilliant green, but, as the forks used are of electro-plate, the daily consumption of copper cannot be ascertained.

At four all the tables are spread; a bell rings — that “tocsin of the soul,” as Byron has sarcastically but truthfully termed the dinner-bell; and all the passengers rush in from every quarter of the ship, and seat themselves with an air of expectation till the covers are raised. Grievous disappointments are often disclosed by the uplifted dish-covers, for it must be confessed that to many people dinner is the great event of the day, to be speculated upon before, and criticised afterwards. There is a tureen of soup at the head of each table, and, as soon as the captain takes his seat, twelve waiters in blue jackets, who have been previously standing in a row, dart upon the covers, and after a few minutes of intense clatter the serious business of eating begins. The stewards serve with civility and alacrity, and seem to divine your wishes, their good offices no doubt being slightly stimulated by the vision of a douceur at the end of the voyage. Long bills of fare are laid on the tables, and good water, plentifully iced, is served with each meal. Wine, spirits, liqueurs, and ale are consumed in large quantities, as also soups, fish, game, venison, meat, and poultry of all kinds, with French side-dishes, a profusion of jellies, puddings, and pastry, and a plentiful dessert of fresh and preserved fruits. Many people complain of a want of appetite at sea, and the number of bottles of “Perrin’s Sauce” used in the Cunard steamers must almost make the fortune of the maker. At seven o’clock the tea-bell rings, but the tables are comparatively deserted, for from half-past nine to half-past ten people can order whatever they please in the way of supper.

In the America, as it was a winter-passage, few persons chose to walk on deck after dinner, consequently the saloon from eight till eleven presented the appearance of a room at a fashionable hotel. There were two regularly organised whist-parties, which played rubbers ad infinitum. Cards indeed were played at most of the tables — some played backgammon — a few would doze over odd volumes of old novels — while three chess-boards would be employed at a time, for there were ten persons perfectly devoted to this noble game. The varied employments of the occupants of the saloon produced a strange mixture of conversations. One evening, while waiting the slow movements of an opponent at chess, the following remarks in slightly raised tones were audible above the rest:— “Do you really think me pretty? — Oh flattering man! — Deuce, ace — Treble, double, and rub — That’s a good hand — Check — It’s your play — You’ve gammoned me — Ay, ay, sir — Parbleu! — Holloa! steward, whisky-toddy for four — I totally despise conventionalisms — Checkmate — Brandy-punch for six — You’ve thrown away all your hearts” — and a hundred others, many of them demands for something from the culinary department. Occasionally a forlorn wight, who neither played chess nor cards, would venture on deck to kill time, and return into the saloon panting and shivering, in rough surtout and fur cap, bringing a chilly atmosphere with him, voted a bore for leaving the door open, and totally unable to induce people to sympathise with him in his complaints of rain, cold, or the “ugly night.” By eleven the saloon used to become almost unbearable, from the combined odours of roast onions, pickles, and punch, and at half-past the lights were put out, and the company dispersed, most to their berths, but some to smoke cigars on deck.

Though the Cunard steamers are said by English people to be as near perfection as steamers can be, I was sorry not to return in a clipper. There is something so exhilarating in the motion of a sailing-vessel, always provided she is neither rolling about in a calm, lying to in a gale, or beating against a head-wind. She seems to belong to the sea, with her tall tapering masts, her cloud of moving canvas, and her buoyant motion over the rolling waves. Her movements are all comprehensible, and above-board she is invariably clean, and her crew are connected in one’s mind with nautical stories which charmed one in the long-past days of youth. A steamer is very much the reverse. “Sam Slick,” with his usual force and aptitude of illustration, says that “she goes through the water like a subsoil-plough with an eight-horse team.” There is so much noise and groaning, and smoke and dirt, so much mystery also, and the ship leaves so much commotion in the water behind her. There do not seem to be any regular sailors, and in their stead a collection of individuals remarkably greasy in their appearance, who may be cooks or stokers, or possibly both. Then you cannot go on the poop without being saluted by a whiff of hot air from the grim furnaces below; men are always shovelling in coal, or throwing cinders overboard; and the rig does not seem to belong to any ship in particular. The masts are low and small, and the canvas, which is always spread in fair weather, looks as if it had been trailed along Cheapside on a wet day. In the America it was not such a very material assistance either; for on one occasion, when we were running before a splendid breeze under a crowd of sail, the engines were stopped and the log heaved, which only gave our speed at three miles an hour. One lady passenger had been feeding her mind with stories of steamboat explosions in the States, and spent her time in a morbid state of terror by no means lessened by the close proximity of her state-room to the dreaded engine.

On the sixth day after leaving Halifax the wind, which everybody had been hoping for or fearing, came upon us at last, and continued increasing for three days, when, if we had been beating against it, we should have called it a hurricane. It was, however, almost directly aft, and we ran before it under sail. The sky during the two days which it lasted was perfectly cloudless, and the sea had that peculiar deep, clear, greenish-blue tint only to be met with far from land. There was a majesty, a sublimity about the prospect from the poop exceeding everything which I had ever seen. There was the mighty ocean showing his power, and here were we poor insignificant creatures overcoming him by virtue of those heaven sent arts by which man

“Has made fire, flood, and earth,

The vassals of his will.”

I had often read of mountain waves, but believed the comparison to be a mere figure of speech till I saw them here, all glorious in their beauty, under the clear blue of a December sky. Two or three long high hills of water seemed to fill up the whole horizon, themselves an aggregate of a countless number of leaping, foam-capped waves, each apparently large enough to overwhelm a ship. Huge green waves seemed to chase us, when, just as they reached the stern, the ship would lift, and they would pass under her. She showed especial capabilities for rolling. She would roll down on one side, the billows seeming ready to burst in foam over her, while the opposite bulwark was fifteen or eighteen feet above the water, displaying her bright green copper. The nights were more glorious than the days, when the broad full moon would shed her light upon the water with a brilliancy unknown in our foggy clime. It did not look like a wan flat surface, placed flat upon a watery sky, but like a large radiant sphere hanging in space. The view from the wheel-house was magnificent. The towering waves which came up behind us heaped together by mighty winds, looked like hills of green glass, and the phosphorescent light like fiery lamps within — the moonlight glittered upon our broad foamy wake — our masts and spars and rigging stood out in sharp relief against the sky, while for once our canvas looked white. Far in the distance the sharp bow would plunge down into the foam, and then our good ship, rising, would shake her shiny sides, as if in joy at her own buoyancy. The busy hum of men marred not the solitary sacredness of midnight on the Atlantic. The moon “walked in brightness,” auroras flashed, and meteors flamed, and a sensible presence of Deity seemed to pervade the transparent atmosphere in which we were viewing “the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.”

I could scarcely understand how this conjunction of circumstances could produce any but agreeable sensations; but it is a melancholy fact that the saloon emptied and the state-rooms filled, and the number of promenaders daily diminished. People began to find the sea “an unpleasant fact.” I heard no more Byronic quotations about its “glad waters,” or comments on the “splendid run” — these were changed into anxious questions as to when we should reach Liverpool? and, if we were in danger? People querulously complained of the ale, hitherto their delight; abused the meat; thought the mulligatawny “horrid stuff;” and wondered how they could ever have thought plum-puddings fit for anything but pigs. Mysterious disappearances were very common; diligent peripatetics were seen extended on sofas, or feebly promenading under shelter of the bulwarks; while persons who prided themselves on their dignity sustained ignominious falls, or clung to railings in a state of tottering decrepitude, in an attempted progress down the saloon. Though we had four ledges on the tables, cruets, bottles of claret, and pickles became locomotive, and jumped upon people’s laps; almost everything higher than a plate was upset — pickles, wine, ale, and oil forming a most odoriferous mixture; but these occurrences became too common to be considered amusing. Two days before reaching England the gale died away, and we sighted Cape Clear at eight o’clock on the evening of the eleventh day out. A cold chill came off from the land, we were enveloped in a damp fog, and the inclemency of the air reminded us of what we had nearly forgotten, namely, that we were close upon Christmas.

The greater part of Sunday we were steaming along in calm water, within sight of the coast of Ireland, and extensive preparations were being made for going ashore — some people of sanguine dispositions had even decided what they would order for dinner at the Adelphi. Morning service was very fully attended, and it was interesting to hear the voices of people of so many different creeds and countries joining in that divinely-taught prayer which proclaims the universal brotherhood of the human race, knowing that in a few hours those who then met in adoration would be separated, to meet no more till summoned by the sound of the last trumpet.

Those who expected to spend Sunday night on shore were disappointed. A gale came suddenly on us about four o’clock, sails were hastily taken in, orders were hurriedly given and executed, and the stewards were in despair, when a heavy lurch of the ship threw most of the things off the table before dinner, mingling cutlery, pickles, and broken glass and china, in one chaotic heap on the floor. As darkness came on, the gale rose higher, the moon was obscured, the rack in heavy masses was driving across the stormy sky, and scuds of sleet and spray made the few venturous persons on deck cower under the nearest shelter to cogitate the lines —

“Nights like these,

When the rough winds wake western seas,

Brook not of glee.”

I might dwell upon the fury of that night — upon the awful blasts which seemed about to sweep the seas of every human work — upon our unanswered signals — upon the length of time while we were

“Drifting, drifting, drifting,

On the shifting

Currents of the restless main” —

upon the difficulty of getting the pilot on board — and the heavy seas through which our storm-tossed bark entered the calmer waters of the Mersey: but I must hasten on.

Night after night had the French and English passengers joined in drinking with enthusiasm the toast “La prise de Sebastopol” — night after night had the national pride of the representatives of the allied nations increased, till we almost thought in our ignorant arrogance that at the first thunder of our guns the defences of Sebastopol would fall, as did those of Jericho at the sound of the trumpets of Joshua. Consequently, when the pilot came on board with the newspaper, most of the gentlemen crowded to the gangway, prepared to give three cheers for the fall of Sebastopol!

The pilot brought the news of victory — but it was of the barren victory of Inkermann. A gloom fell over the souls of many, as they read of our serried ranks mown down by the Russian fire, of heroic valour and heroic death. The saloon was crowded with eager auditors as the bloody tidings were made audible above the roar of winds and waters. I could scarcely realise the gloomy fact that many of those whom I had seen sail forth in hope and pride only ten months before were now sleeping under the cold clay of the Crimea. Three cheers for the victors of Inkermann, and three for our allies, were then heartily given, though many doubted whether the heroic and successful resistance of our troops deserved the name of victory.

Soon after midnight we anchored in the Mersey, but could not land till morning, and were compelled frequently to steam up to our anchors, in consequence of the fury of the gale. I felt some regret at leaving the good old steamship America, which had borne us so safely across the “vexed Atlantic,” although she rolls terribly, and is, in her admirable captain’s own words, “an old tub, but slow and sure.” She has since undergone extensive repairs, and I hope that the numerous passengers who made many voyages in her in the shape of rats have been permanently dislodged.

Those were sacred feelings with which I landed upon the shores of England. Although there appeared little of confidence in the present, and much of apprehension for the future, I loved her better when a shadow was upon her than in the palmy days of her peace and prosperity. I had seen in other lands much to admire, and much to imitate; but it must not be forgotten that England is the source from which those streams of liberty and enlightenment have flowed which have fertilised the Western Continent. Other lands may have their charms, and the sunny skies of other climes may be regretted, but it is with pride and gladness that the wanderer sets foot again on British soil, thanking God for the religion and the liberty which have made this weather-beaten island in a northern sea to be the light and glory of the world.

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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52