Charles Dickens.

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whose face is hidden from him also. Day after day, and often
when he wakes up in the middle of the night, he thinks of
these two men until he is almost distracted. He never changes
them. There they are always as he first imagined them an
old man on the right ; a younger man upon the left whose
hidden features torture him to death, and have a mystery
that makes him tremble.

The weary days pass on with solemn pace, like mourners at
a funeral; and slowly he begins to feel that the white walls
of the cell have something dreadful in them : that their colour
is horrible : that their smooth surface chills his blood : that
there is one hateful corner which torments him. Every morning
when he wakes, he hides his head beneath the coverlet, and
shudders to see the ghastly ceiling looking down upon him.
The blessed light of day itself peeps in, an ugly phantom
face, through the unchangeable crevice which is his prison
window.

By slow but sure degrees, the terrors of that hateful corner
swell until they beset him at all times ; invade his rest, make
his dreams hideous, and his nights dreadful. At first, he
took a strange dislike to it ; feeling as though it gave birth
in his brain to something of corresponding shape, which ought
not to be there, and racked his head with pains. Then he
began to fear it, then to dream of it, and of men whispering
its name and pointing to it. Then he could not bear to look
at it, nor yet to turn his back upon it. Now, it is every
night the lurking-place of a ghost: a shadow: a silent
something, horrible to see, but whether bird, or beast, or
muffled human shape, he cannot tell.

When he is in his cell by day, he fears the little yard
without. When he is in the yard, he dreads to re-enter the
cell. When night comes, there stands the phantom in the
corner. If he have the courage to stand in its place, and
drive it out (he had once : being desperate), it broods upon



128 AMERICAN NOTES.

his bed. In the twilight, and always at the same hour, a
voice calls to him by name ; as the darkness thickens, his
Loom begins to live ; and even that, his comfort, is a hideous
figure, watching him till daybreak.

Again, by slow degrees, these horrible fancies depart from
him one by one : returning sometimes, unexpectedly, but at
longer intervals, and in less alarming shapes. He has talked
upon religious matters with the gentleman who visits him,
and has read his Bible, and has written a prayer upon his
slate, and hung it up as a kind of protection, and an assurance
of Heavenly companionship. He dreams now, sometimes, of
his children or his wife, but is sure that they are dead, or
have deserted him. He is easily moved to tears ; is gentle,
submissive, and broken-spirited. Occasionally, the old agony
comes back : a very little thing will revive it ; even a familiar
sound, or the scent of summer flowers in the air ; but it does
not last long, now : for the world without, has come to be the
vision, and this solitary life, the sad reality.

If his term of imprisonment be short I mean comparatively,
for short it cannot be the last half year is almost worse
than all ; for then he thinks the prison will take fire and he
be burnt in the ruins, or that he is doomed to die within
the walls, or that he will be detained on some false charge
and sentenced for another term : or that something, no matter
what, must happen to prevent his going at large. And this
is natural, and impossible to be reasoned against, because,
after his long separation from human life, and his great
suffering, any event will appear to him more probable in the
contemplation, than the being restored to liberty and his
fellow-creatures.

If his period of confinement have been very long, the
prospect of release bewilders and confuses him. His broken
heart may flutter for a moment, when he thinks of the world
outside, and what it might have been to him in all those
lonely years, but that is all. The cell-door has been closed
too long on all its hopes and cares. Better to have hanged



UNFITNESS FOR SOCIETY ENGENDERED. 129

him in the beginning than bring him to this pass, and send
him forth to mingle with his kind, who are his kind no more.

On the haggard face of every man among these prisoners,
the same expression sat. I know not what to liken it to.
It had something of that strained attention which we see
upon the faces of the blind and deaf, mingled with a kind of
horror, as though they had all been secretly terrified. In
every little chamber that I entered, and at every grate through
which I looked, I seemed to see the same appalling counte-
nance. It lives in my memory, with the fascination of a
remarkable picture. Parade before my eyes, a hundred men,
with one among them newly released from this solitary
suffering, and I would point him out.

The faces of the women, as I have said, it humanises and
refines. Whether this be because of their better nature,
which is elicited in solitude, or because of their being gentler
creatures, of greater patience and longer suffering, I do not
know; but so it is. That the punishment is nevertheless, to
my thinking, fully as cruel and as wrong in their case, as in
that of the men, I need scarcely add.

My firm conviction is that, independent of the mental
anguish it occasions an anguish so acute and so tremendous,
that all imagination of it must fall far short of the reality
it wears the mind into a morbid state, which renders it unfit
for the rough contact and busy action of the world. It is my
fixed opinion that those who have undergone this punishment,
MUST pass into society again morally unhealthy and diseased.
There are many instances on record, of men who have chosen,
or have been condemned, to lives of perfect solitude, but
I scarcely remember one, even among sages of strong and
vigorous intellect, where its effect has not become apparent,
in some disordered train of thought, or some gloomy halluci-
nation. What monstrous phantoms, bred of despondency and
doubt, and born and reared in solitude, have stalked upon
the earth, making creation ugly, and darkening the face of
Heaven !



130 AMERICAN NOTES.

Suicides are rare among these prisoners : are almost, indeed,
unknown. But no argument in favour of the system, can
reasonably be deduced from this circumstance, although it is
very often urged. All men who have made diseases of the
mind their study, know perfectly well that such extreme
depression and despair as will change the whole character,
and beat down all its powers of elasticity and self-resistance,
may be at work within a man, and yet stop short of self-
destruction. This is a common case.

That it makes the senses dull, and by degrees impairs the
bodily faculties, I am quite sure. I remarked to those who
were with me in this very establishment at Philadelphia, that
the criminals who had been there long, were deaf. They,
who were in the habit of seeing these men constantly, were
perfectly amazed at the idea, which they regarded as ground-
less and fanciful. And yet the very first prisoner to whom
they appealed one of their own selection confirmed my im-
pression (which was unknown to him) instantly, and said, with
a genuine air it was impossible to doubt, that he couldn't
think how it happened, but he was growing very dull of
hearing.

That it is a singularly unequal punishment, and affects the
worst man least, there is no doubt. In its superior efficiency
as a means of reformation, compared Avith that other code of
regulations which allows the prisoners to work in company
without communicating together, I have not the smallest
faith. All the instances of reformation that were mentioned
to me, were of a kind that might have been and I have no
doubt whatever, in my own mind, would have been equally
well brought about by the Silent System. With regard
to such men as the negro burglar and the English thief,
even the most enthusiastic have scarcely any hope of their
conversion.

It seems to me that the objection that nothing wholesome
or good has ever had its growth in such unnatural solitude,
and that even a dog or any of the more intelligent among



A CURIOUS STORY. 131

beasts, would pine, and mope, and rust away, beneath its
influence, would be in itself a sufficient argument against this
system. But when we recollect, in addition, how very cruel
and severe it is, and that a solitary life is always liable to
peculiar and distinct objections of a most deplorable nature,
which have arisen here, and call to mind, moreover, that the
choice is not between this system, and a bad or ill-considered
one, but between it and another which has worked well, and
is, in its whole design and practice, excellent; there is surely
more than sufficient reason for abandoning a mode of punish-
ment attended by so little hope or promise, and fraught,
beyond dispute, with such a host of evils.

As a relief to its contemplation, I will close this chapter
with a curious story arising out of the same theme, which
was related to me, on the occasion of this visit, by some of
the gentlemen concerned.

At one of the periodical meetings of the inspectors of this
prison, a working man of Philadelphia presented himself
before the Board, and earnestly requested to be placed in
solitary confinement. On being asked what motive could
possibly prompt him to make this strange demand, he answered
that he had an irresistible propensity to get drunk ; that he
was constantly indulging it, to his great misery and ruin ;
that he had no power of resistance; that he wished to be
put beyond the reach of temptation ; and that he could think
of no better way than this. It was pointed out to him, in
reply, that the prison was for criminals who had been tried
and sentenced by the law, and could not be made available
for any such fanciful purposes ; he was exhorted to abstain
from intoxicating drinks, as he surely might if he would ;
and received other very good advice, with which he retired,
exceedingly dissatisfied with the result of his application.

He came again, and again, and again, and was so very
earnest and importunate, that at last they took counsel
together, and said, " He will certainly qualify himself for
admission, if we reject him any more. Let us shut him up.



132 AMERICAN NOTES.

He will soon be glad to go away, and then we shall get rid
of him." So they made him sign a statement which would
prevent his ever sustaining an action for false imprisonment,
to the effect that his ineai'ceration was voluntary, and of his
own seeking; they requested him to take notice that the
officer in attendance had orders to release him at any hour
of the day or night, when he might knock upon his door for
that purpose ; but desired him to understand, that once going
out, he would not be admitted any more. These conditions
agreed upon, and he still remaining in the same mind, he
was conducted to the prison, and shut up in one of the cells.

In this cell, the man, who had not the firmness to leave a
glass of liquor standing untasted on a table before him in
this cell, in solitary confinement, and working every day at
his trade of shoemaking, this man remained nearly two years.
His health beginning to fail at the expiration of that time,
the surgeon recommended that he should work occasionally in
the garden ; and as he liked the notion very much, he went
about this new occupation with great cheerfulness.

He was digging here, one summer day, very industriously,
when the wicket in the outer gate chanced to be left open :
showing, beyond, the well- remembered dusty road and sun-
burnt fields. The way was as free to him as to any man
living, but he no sooner raised his head and caught sight of
it, all shining in the light, than, with the involuntary instinct
of a prisoner, he cast away his spade, scampered off as fast
as his legs would carry him, and never once looked back.



CHAPTER VIII.

WASHINGTON 1 . THE LEGISLATURE. AND THE PRESIDENT^ HOUSE.

WE left Philadelphia by steamboat, at six o'clock one very
cold morning, and turned our faces towards Washington.

In the course of this day's journey, as on subsequent
occasions, we encountered some Englishmen (small farmers,
perhaps, or country publicans at home) who were settled in
America, and were travelling on their own affairs. Of all
grades and kinds of men that jostle one in the public convey-
ances of the States, these are often the most intolerable and
the most insufferable companions. United to every disagree-
able characteristic that the worst kind of American travellers
possess, these countrymen of ours display an amount of
insolent conceit and cool assumption of superiority, quite
monstrous to behold. In the coarse familiarity of their
approach, and the effrontery of their inquisitiveness (which
they are in great haste to assert, as if they panted to revenge
themselves upon the decent old restraints of home), they
surpass any native specimens that came within my range
of observation : and I often grew so patriotic when I saw
and heard them, that I would cheerfully have submitted
to a reasonable fine, if I could have given any other country
in the whole world, the honour of claiming them for its
children.

As Washington may be called the head-quarters of tobacco-
tinetured saliva, the time is come when I must confess, without



134 AMERICAN NOTES.

any disguise, that the prevalence of those two odious prac-
tices of chewing and expectorating began about this time to
be anything but agreeable, and soon became most offensive
and sickening. In all the public places of America, this
filthy custom is recognised. In the courts of law, the judge
has his spittoon, the crier his, the witness his, and the
prisoner his; while the jurymen and spectators are provided
for, as so many men who in the course of nature must desire
to spit incessantly. In the hospitals, the students of medicine
are requested, by notices upon the wall, to eject their tobacco
juice into the boxes provided for that purpose, and not to
discolour the stairs. In public buildings, visitors are implored,
through the same agency, to squirt the essence of their quids,
or " plugs," as I have heard them called by gentlemen learned
in this kind of sweetmeat, into the national spittoons, and
not about the bases of the marble columns. But in some
parts, this custom is inseparably mixed up with every meal
and morning call, and with all the transactions of social life.
The stranger, who follows in the track I took myself, will
find it in its full bloom and glory, luxuriant in all its alarm-
ing recklessness, at Washington. And let him not persuade
himself (as I once did, to my shame) that previous tourists
have exaggerated its extent. The thing itself is an exaggera-
tion of nastiness, which cannot be outdone.

On board this steamboat, there were two young gentlemen,
with shirt-collars reversed as usual, and armed with very big
walking-sticks ; who planted two seats in the middle of the
deck, at a distance of some four paces apart ; took out their
tobacco-boxes ; and sat down opposite each other, to chew.
In less than a quarter of an hour's time, these hopeful youths
had shed about them on the clean boards, a copious shower
of yellow rain ; clearing, by that means, a kind of magic
circle, within whose limits no intruders dared to come, and
which they never failed to refresh and re-refresh before a spot
was dry. This being before breakfast, rather disposed me, I
confess, to nausea ; but looking attentively at one of the



WAITED ON BY SLAVES. 135

expectorators, I plainly saw that he was young in chewing,
and felt inwardly uneasy, himself. A glow of delight came
over me at this discovery ; and as I marked his face turn
paler and paler, and saw the ball of tobacco in his left cheek,
quiver with his suppressed agony, while yet he spat, and
chewed, and spat again, in emulation of his older friend, I
could have fallen on his neck and implored him to go on
for hours.

We all sat down to a comfortable breakfast in the cabin
below, where there was no more hurry or confusion than at
such a meal in England, and where there was certainly
greater politeness exhibited than at most of our stage-coach
banquets. At about nine o'clock we arrived at the railroad
station, and went on by the cars. At noon we turned out
again, to cross a wide river in another steamboat ; landed
at a continuation of the railroad on the opposite shore; and
went on by other cars ; in which, in the course of the next
hour or so, we crossed by wooden bridges, each a mile in
length, two creeks, called respectively Great and Little
Gunpowder. The water in both was blackened with flights
of canvas-backed ducks, which are most delicious eating, and
abound hereabouts at that season of the year.

These bridges are of wood, have no parapet, and are only
just wide enough for the passage of the trains; which, in
the event of the smallest accident, would inevitably be
plunged into the river. They are startling contrivances, and
are most agreeable when passed.

We stopped to dine at Baltimore, and being now in
Maryland, were waited on, for the first time, by slaves. The
sensation of exacting any service from human creatures who
are bought and sold, and being, for the time, a party as it
were to their condition, is not an enviable one. The institu-
tion exists, perhaps, in its least repulsive and most mitigated
form in such a town as this; but it *'.v slavery; and though
I was, with respect to it, an innocent man, its presence filled
me with a sense of shame and self-reproach.



136 AMERICAN NOTES.

After dinner, we went down to the railroad again, and
took our seats in the cars for Washington. Being rather
early, those men and boys who happened to have nothing
particular to do, and were curious in foreigners, came
(according to custom) round the carriage in which I sat; let
down all the windows ; thrust in their heads and shoulders ;
hooked themselves on conveniently, by their elbows; and
fell to comparing notes on the subject of my personal appear-
ance, with as much indifference as if I were a stuffed figure.
1 never gained so much uncompromising information with
reference to my own nose and eyes, and various impressions
wrought by my mouth and chin on different minds, and how
my head looks when it is viewed from behind, as on these
occasions. Some gentlemen were only satisfied by exercising
their sense of touch ; and the boys (who are surprisingly
precocious in America) were seldom satisfied, even by that,
but would return to the charge over and over again. Many
a budding president has walked into my room with his cap
on his head and his hands in his pockets, and stared at me
for two whole hours : occasionally refreshing himself with a
tweak of his nose, or a draught from the water-jug; or by
walking to the windows and inviting other boys in the street
below, to come up and do likewise : crying, " Here he is ! "
" Come on ! " " Bring all your brothers ! " with other hospi-
table entreaties of that nature.

We reached Washington at about half-past six that evening,
and had upon the way a beautiful view of the Capitol, which
is a fine building of the Corinthian order, placed upon a noble
and commanding eminence. Arrived at the hotel ; I saw no
more of the place that night; being very tired, and glad to
get to bed.

Breakfast over next morning, I walk about the streets for
an hour or two, and, coming home, throw up the window in
the front and back, and look out. Here is Washington, fresh
in my mind and under my eye.

Take the worst parts of the City Road and Pentonville,



WASHINGTON. 137

or the straggling outskirts of Paris, where the houses are
smallest, preserving all their oddities, but especially the
small shops and dwellings, occupied in Pentonville (but not
in Washington) by furniture-brokers, keepers of poor eating-
houses, and fanciers of birds. Burn the whole down; build
it up again in wood and plaster; widen it a little; throw in
part of St. John's Wood; put green blinds outside all the
private houses, with a red curtain and a white one in every
window ; plough up all the roads ; plant a great deal of
coarse turf in every place where it ought not to be ; erect
three handsome buildings in stone and marble, anywhere, but
the more entirely out of everybody's way the better ; call one
the Post Office, one the Patent Office, and one the Treasury ;
make it scorching hot in the morning, and freezing cold
in the afternoon, with an occasional tornado of wind and
dust; leave a brick-field without the bricks, in all central
places where a street may naturally be expected : and that's
Washington.

The hotel in which we live, is a long row of small houses
fronting on the street, and opening at the back upon a
common yard, in which hangs a great triangle. Whenever
a servant is wanted, somebody beats on this triangle from
one stroke up to seven, according to the number of the house
in which his presence is required ; and as all the servants are
always being wanted, and none of them ever come, this en-
livening engine is in full performance the whole day through.
Clothes are drying in the same yard ; female slaves, with
cotton handkerchiefs twisted round their heads, are running
to and fro on the hotel business; black waiters cross and
recross with dishes in their hands; two great dogs are
playing upon a mound of loose bricks in the centre of the
little square ; a pig is turning up his stomach to the sun, and
grunting "that's comfortable!"; and neither the men, nor
the women, nor the dogs, nor the pig, nor any created
creature, takes the smallest notice of the triangle, which is
tingling madly all the time.



138 AMERICAN NOTES.

I walk to the front window, and look across the road upon
a long, straggling row of houses, one story high, terminating,
nearly opposite, but a little to the left, in a melancholy piece
of waste ground with frowzy grass, which looks like a small
piece of country that has taken to drinking, and has quite
lost itself. Standing anyhow and all wrong, upon this open
space, like something meteoric that has fallen down from the
moon, is an odd, lop-sided, one-eyed kind of wooden building,
that looks like a church, with a flag-staff as long as itself
sticking out of a steeple something larger than a tea-chest.
Under the window, is a small stand of coaches, whose slave-
drivers are sunning themselves on the steps of our door, and
talking idly together. The three most obtrusive houses near
at hand, are the three meanest. On one a shop, which
never has anything in the window, and never has the door
open is painted in large characters, "THE CITY LUNCH."
At another, which looks like a backway to somewhere else,
but is an independent building in itself, oysters are pro-
curable in every style. At the third, which is a very, very
little tailor's shop, pants are fixed to order; or in other
words, pantaloons are made to measure. And that is our
street in Washington.

It is sometimes called the City of Magnificent Distances,
but it might with greater propriety be termed the City of
Magnificent Intentions ; for it is only on taking a bird's-eye
view of it from the top of the Capitol, that one can at all
comprehend the vast designs of its projector, an aspiring
Frenchman. Spacious avenues, that begin in nothing, and
lead nowhere ; streets, mile-long, that only want houses,
roads and inhabitants ; public buildings that need but a
public to be complete ; and ornaments of great thoroughfares,
which only lack great thoroughfares to ornament are its
leading features. One might fancy the season over, and
most of the houses gone out of town for ever with their
masters. To the admirers of cities it is a Barmecide Feast :
a pleasant field for the imagination to rove in ; a monument



THE CITY OF MAGNIFICENT DISTANCES. 139

raised to a deceased project, with not even a legible inscrip-
tion to record its departed greatness.

Such as it is, it is likely to remain. It was originally
chosen for the seat of Government, as a means of averting
the conflicting jealousies and interests of the different States;
and very probably, too, as being remote from mobs : a con-
sideration not to be slighted, even in America. It has no
trade or commerce of its own : having little or no population
beyond the President and his establishment ; the members of
the legislature who reside there during the session ; the
Government clerks and officers employed in the various
departments ; the keepers of the hotels and boarding-houses ;
and the tradesmen who supply their tables. It is very un-
healthy. Few people would live in Washington, I take it,



Online LibraryCharles DickensThe works of Charles Dickens (Volume 28) → online text (page 12 of 43)