Joseph Hubert Diss Debar Collection
Reminiscence of Charles Dickens’ first visit to America
by a fellow passenger (J. H. Diss Debar)
Reminiscence of Charles Dickens’ first visit to America
It was not of the 3d as the “American_____ have it, but on the 4th day of January 1842, ___ Cunard steamer “Britannia,” with Boz among ___ human freight, left Liverpool for Halifax and Boston. My memory which enjoyed a commercial training and is reliable authority in such matters, recalls to me that, having engaged passage on the same vessel, I left Paris on Saturday 1st of January, spent Sunday and Monday in London and took rail on the evening of the latter day for Liverpool where I breakfasted on Tuesday morning, 4th, a few hours before crossing over to the steamer then anchored in the middle of the Mersey river. Nor was it in the morning, as the “Notes” would seem to convey, that their distinguished author established himself on board in a permanent way. If he came there ___ all in the forenoon, it must have been to pla___ Dickens in possession of the conjugal state ___ he attended a certain valedictory from ___
Adelphi Hotel. Another slight variance from well remembered facts appears in the mention of the coming on board of the somewhat belated and much expected captain of the ship. Mr Dickens certainly was not on board when the captain’s boat put off from shore and therefore describes that incident from one of those imaginary points of view in which he was so perfectly at home. The boat in which Mr Dickens and friends came on board was the last one that touched the ship, except the skiff which brought up some belated mail bags, also mentioned in the “Notes”. I distinctly remember observing Mrs Dickens and the “little scotch lady” anxiously watching the shore some little time after the steamer had been announced to sail, and the exclamations, “There he comes! and “at last” mentioned as relating to the captain’s advent, actually fell from the lips of that lady and unquestionably referred to her wayward and dilatory husband. That the latter had been honored with a more than ordinary convivial sent-off was evident from the merry sounds that wafted toward the steamer and became more confused as the jolly-boat drew near. Yet, when the festive party stepped upon the deck indiscriminately shaking hands all around the lion of the hour along, although glowing with facial symptoms of green seal and wire-fastened corks, maintained the dignified composure which never forsakes great minds in any emergency. After the inevitable ceremony of the stirrup cup, which transpired in the saloon under the auspices of the hospitable captain, the best of friends were doomed to part, and as the jovial band rowed landward with moving pats and ebbing cheers, the now passive object of this fugitive homage but faintly responded by now and then raising his right hand out of his overcoat pocket in a somewhat abstract manner, clearly indicating that his interest in their proceedings was measurably diminished.
It was at this moment that in a profile view, a few feet from my standpoint, Mr Dickens first attracted my attention, though I then had but a vague idea of his importance. At that time, although Boz had fairly made his mark among the reading public of the English tongue, relatively few nations on the continent more than knew him by fame. The portraits of him published since photography came into popular use are most excellent likenesses, which cannot be said of those that appeared before that time. At least none of that period I ever saw, while full of English exuberance in that line of art, did full justice to that mild, yet brilliant and searching eye, and that richly molded mouth so firm in it’s natural curves, yet so varied in playful expression. None of the rigid lines of his later photographs marred the plaid, beardless surface of that genial face, whose principal charm, beneath all it’s visible beauty lay in a deep, reserved power heightened by apparent unconsciousness. The graces of person were all the more real as they were totally unaided by the resources of the toilet. The pea-coat referred to in the “Notes” was of a coarse-haired dark-brown material, and a trifle large, a feature duly compensated by the stringent dimensions of a pair of steel-gray trousers striped with black on the outer seams. The cork-soled boots were evidently shaped to keep off corns as well as the damp, and a dark, flat neglige cap seemed an unsuitable covering to the fine open brow and the leonine wealth of dark wavy hair. A worsted comforter for promenade on deck completed the costume. Imagine this traveler quietly standing or strolling about with both hands in his pea-coat pockets and the slight stoop peculiar to most men of thought, and the picture of Chas. Dickens Esqr on his passage out, is complete.
The circumstance of his coming on board as above related, excited some curiosity among his fellow passengers of other than English origin, and we soon learned what was known of him in the literary world. Gradually, also, some of his writings found their way upon the saloon table, and I, among others, enjoyed the privilege of cultivating the acquaintance of Mr Pickwick under the very eye of his genial progenitor, who, growing an inch in my respect with every line, had climbed the summit of Mount Parnassus long before I reached the last page of the book. That he preferred this mode of popularity to any other more personal was apparent from his reserve toward his fellow travelers, excepting three or four of them with whom he habitually conversed or walked on deck when not engaged in solitary rambles about the ship.
On the other hand Mrs Dickens, the wife of his bosom, to whose inability to “to talk to him” during sea-sickness he refers with undisguised satisfaction, was far more sociably inclined, and, in co-operation with the little Scotch lady, generally held an informal after-dinner levee over a glass of punch or sherry, the quality of which, no less than the dearth of female society on board usually secured a respectable attendance from acquaintances of the other sex. Of robust, florid English appearance and amiable manners, this martially much unappreciated lady was not insensible to such polite attention as her simple hospitalities called forth, and conscientiously strove to carry out the intimation of acquaintances of the other sex. Of robust, florid English appearance and amiable manners, this martially much unappreciated lady was not insensible to such polite attention as her simple hospitalities called forth, and conscientiously strove to carry out the intimation of per liege lord to make herself as agreeable as possible while he sought fresh air in another direction.
Mr. Dickens’ reserve toward his fellow-passengers was a subject of general remark. Whatever may have been his reasons for this seeming exclusiveness – and they may be readily imagined – it is doubtful whether he did not enter more intensely into the proceedings around him than he could have done by mingling more freely with the crowd. Nothing usurped his unobtrusive, yet watchful eye, and much of what he observed of human nature during that experience of eighteen days was possibly treasured up for other uses than circulation in the “American Notes” Thus when he alludes to the young passenger who was reported to have lost fourteen pounds at vingt-et-un, he does not intimate that he knew more about the incident than any one else on board, the writer of these lines only excepted, And thereby hangs a tale.
For pastime only – for I have never played anything but whilst or e’carte’ before – I took part in a game of vingt-et-un in the saloon, supposing the company respectable and the risk slight. The fascinations of the game, however, and the stimulating example of an American gentleman at my elbow, carried me beyond my soundings. I lost nearly fifty dollars the first day and half as much the next – almost a catastrophe for a young commercial traveler on a moderate salary. Hoping to retrieve my luck, I next morning again ventured to the shrine of the fickle goddess and had recovered half my losses, when, a change of dealer or banker occurring, I felt a soft but significant touch upon my right shoulder, and looking around beheld a pair of large and wonderfully eloquent eyes beckoning me to come away. Comprehending the situation, I quietly arose under some pretext and took a walk on deck, where Mr Dickens made his appearance an hour after, apparently unconscious of my presence. Seeing me approach him, he waived the formality of my expressions of gratitude with a sweeping gesture, merely inquiring whether I meant to play again in that company. Upon my unhesitating reply in the negative his satisfaction was unequivocal, and with a brief injunction of secrecy regarding his intervention he gently bowed himself away Subsequent developments in the case of another victim of nearly my age revealed the fact that certain passengers, rising importers of New York City, whose banking proved so disastrous to some of their clients, were confederates playing into each other’s hands by such tricks as may readily be surmised by persons familiar with the game.
Another occasion on which Mr Dickens was forced out of his contemplative mood into something like personal display was afforded by the midnight storm so graphically depicted in the “Notes”. Granting that this war of elements was all that is claimed for it by the imaginative author, it failed to impress itself upon a majority of the passengers as a narrow escape from a watery grave. Perhaps an accident to the cow, which somewhat reduced the supply of milk in the regulation tea and coffee, contributed to magnify the perils of the gale in the eyes of transatlantic neophites. At any rate they regarded the occasion as one eminently suggestive of a substantial testimonial of their grateful admiration to the captain, although this gallant little man, on hearing of the proposition while picking up crumbs around his plate with his moistened index, “thought he had often seen much worse weather.” A meeting was called, attended by scarcely any one not belonging to the British mess. In explanation of this term it may be of interest to state here that in those days English travelers on transatlantic steamers generally outnumbered all the others put together, and regularly messed at one and the same table during the passage. On this trip this table was presided over by the captain or his next in rank and occasionally by a young Briton, a colonel in a Canada regiment which he was going to join. Since this scion of nobility could be spared from the turf and field, it undeniably was a wise discretion that destined him to the military instead of the diplomatic career in which his father, a peer of the realm, occupied a distinguished rank. And it was undoubtedly the attraction of opposites which threw this young man preferably into the society of Mr Dickens, who, at the table, occupied the seat immediately to his right. The other table in the saloon was almost exclusively tenanted by passengers from the continent, with a sprinkling of Americans and such Celts from the Green Isle or the land of Scots as were conscious of a tinge of disloyalty to her majesty’s authority.
Some one having called the meeting to order, the choice of president fell upon the youthful Colonel, and Chas. Dickens Esqr was chosen secretary. So far, so good; but when the first named officer blushingly arose to explain the object of the meeting, an incident occurred, the generous omission in the “Notes” is herewith supplied it is hoped without impropriety. Although endowed with an organ that would have marshaled a whole army corps as well as a regiment, the noble colonel was totally unable to give vent to his feelings. In vain did his nervous hand wander from the tips of his flaxen hair to the depths of his pockets and vice-versa, but beyond the thrice repeated invocation, “Gentlemen – I – ah – awh” – he could not proceed. The meeting was beginning to look blue and sly jokes were already flashing up and down the opposition table, when the cart was happily pulled out of the bog by the nimble secretary who, gently elbowing down his honorable friend, accomplished the refractory task in his most felicitous style. As a result it was unanimously decided to present Captain Hewitt with a silver tea-set, for which a subscription was raised before the meeting adjourned. Nor did the luckless orator lack in grateful appreciation of his timely rescue from a critical strait, for he was ever afterward observed to cling to his benefactor more devotedly than ever, and at the sightseeing at Halifax and Boston the two had become perfectly inseparable.
When the steamer was being fastened to her pier at the latter place and everybody was preparing to bid her farewell, some one announced that a press delegation was coming on board to welcome Mr Dickens, who was then curiously observing the crowd on shore through the lowering dusk. Mrs Dickens, with perceptible alarm in her voice, having called her husband’s attention to the inadequacy of his nautical costume to the impending ordeal, Dickens coolly replied “Oh never mind” simply glancing down the stripes of his trousers to his sufficiently polished boots, “we are on the other side now.” It was not until the next morning, Sunday at the Tremont house, that Mr Dickens convinced his traveling companions that he was in possession of at least one suit of hobo? Clothes, which he wore, like many other mortals, with visible conscious ___ improved appearance.
My final destination being New York City, I left Boston the following Tuesday, but not without bidding adieu to Mr Dickens a grateful allusion to the service he had rendered me. It was a mistaken sense of dignity, perhaps that I added some___ about exposing or otherwise obtaining satisfaction from genteel blacklegs at their own headquarters. His re___ probably characteristic of his views concerning this ___ at that time. “Don’t think of it” said he, with ___ erable warmth,” they are natives of some influence, __ doubt, you are quite young and a stranger; the ___ would put a ball through you and call it “___ Nobody hurt but yourself!”
Arts and Entertainment