day two (Dec 22 – 23, 1838)

Fanny Kemble's Journey

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Portsmouth VA to Stantonsburg NC

At Portsmouth there is a fine dry dock, and navy yard, as I was informed . . . . The appearance of the place in general was mean and unpicturesque. Here I encountered the first slaves I ever saw, and the sight of them in no way tended to alter my previous opinions upon this subject. They were poorly clothed; looked horribly dirty, and had a lazy recklessness in their air and manner as they sauntered along, which naturally belongs to creatures without one of the responsibilities which are the honorable burthen of rational humanity. 

Our next stopping place was a small town called Suffolk. Here the Negroes gathered in admiring crowds round the railroad carriages. They seem full of idle merriment and unmeaning glee, and regard with an intensity of curiosity, perfectly ludicrous, the appearance and proceedings of such whites as they easily perceive are strangers in their part of the country. As my child leaned from the carriage window, her brilliant complexion drew forth sundry exclamations of delight from the sooty circle below, and one woman, grinning from ear to ear, and displaying a most dazzling set of grinders, drew forward a little mahogany-colored imp, her grandchild, and offered her to the little "Missis" for her waiting maid. I told her the little missis waited upon herself; whereupon she set up a most incredulous giggle, and reiterated her proffers, in the midst of which our kettle started off, and we left her. VaToWeld.jpg (91092 Byte)

To describe to you the tract of country through which we now passed would be impossible, so forlorn a region it never entered my imagination to conceive. Dismal by nature, indeed, as well as by name, is that vast swamp, of which we now skirted the northern edge, looking into its endless pools of black water, where the melancholy cypress and juniper trees alone overshadowed the thick-looking surface, their roots all globular, like huge bulbous plants, and their dark branches woven together with a hideous matting of giant creepers, which clung round their stems, and hung about the dreary forest like a drapery of withered snakes.

It looked like some blasted region lying under an enchanter's ban, such as one reads of in old stories. Nothing lived or moved throughout the loathsome solitude, and the sunbeams themselves seemed to sicken and grow pale as they glided like ghosts through these watery woods. Into this wilderness it seems impossible that the hand of human industry, or the foot of human wayfaring should ever penetrate; no wholesome growth can take root in its slimy depths; a wild jungle chokes up parts of it with a reedy, rattling covert for venomous reptiles; the rest is a succession of black ponds, sweltering under black cypress bough—a place forbid.

The wood which is cut upon its borders is obliged to be felled in winter, for the summer, which clothes other regions with flowers, makes this pestilential waste alive with rattlesnakes, so that none dare venture within its bounds, and I should even apprehend that, traveling as rapidly as one does on the railroad, and only skirting this district of dismay, one might not escape the fetid breathings it sends forth when the warm season has quickened its stagnant waters and poisonous vegetation.

After passing this place, we entered upon a country little more cheerful in its aspect, though the absence of the dark swamp water was something in its favor—apparently endless tracks of pine forest, well called by the natives, Pine Barrens. The soil is pure sand; and, though the holly, with its coral berries, and the wild myrtle, grow in considerable abundance, mingled with the pines, these preponderate, and the whole land presents one wearisome extent of arid soil and gloomy vegetation. Not a single decent dwelling did we pass: here and there, at rare intervals, a few miserable Negro huts squatting round a mean framed building, with brick chimneys built on the outside, the residence of the owner of the land, and his squalid serfs, were the only evidences of human existence in this forlorn country.

Toward four o'clock, as we approached the Roanoke, the appearance of the land improved; there was a good deal of fine soil well farmed, and the river, where we crossed it, although in all the naked unadornment of wintry banks, looked very picturesque and refreshing as it gushed along, broken by rocks and small islands into rapid reaches and currents. Immediately after crossing it, we stopped at a small knot of houses, which, although christened Weldon, and therefore pretending to be a place, was rather the place where a place was intended to be. Two or three rough pine warerooms, or station houses, belonging to the railroad; a few miserable dwellings, which might be either not half built up, or not quite fallen down, on the banks of a large millpond; one exceedingly dirty4ooking old wooden house, whither we directed our steps as to the inn; but we did not take our ease in it, though we tried as much as we could.

However, one thing I will say for North Carolina—it has the best material for fire, and the noblest liberality in the use of it, of any place in the world. Such a spectacle as one of those rousing pine-wood chimneyfuls, is not to be described, nor the revivification it engenders even in the absence of every other comfort or necessary of life. They are enough to make one turn Gheber—such noble piles of fire and flame, such hearty brilliant life—full altars of light and warmth. These greeted us upon our entrance into this miserable inn, and seemed to rest and feed, as well as warm us. We (the women) were shown up a filthy flight of wooden stairs, into a dilapidated room, the plastered walls of which were all smeared and discolored, the windows begrimed, and darkened with dirt. Upon the three beds, which nearly filled up this wretched apartment, lay tattered articles of male and female apparel; and here we drew round the pine-wood fire, which blazed up the chimney, sending a ruddy glow of comfort and cheerfulness even through this disgusting den. We were to wait here for the arrival of the cars from a branch railroad, to continue our route; and in the meantime a so-called dinner was provided for us, to which we were presently summoned. Of the horrible dirt of everything at this meal, from the eatables themselves to the tablecloth, and the clothes of the Negroes who waited upon us, it would be impossible to give any idea. The poultry, which formed here, as it does all through the South, the chief animal part of the repast (except the consumers always understood), were so tough that I should think they must have been alive when we came into the house, and certainly died very hard. They were swimming in black grease, and stuffed with some black ingredient that was doubt and dismay to us uninitiated; but, however, knowledge would probably have been more terrible in this case than ignorance. We had no bread, but lumps of hot dough, which reminded me forcibly of certain juvenile creations of my brothers, yclept dumps. I should think they would have eaten very much alike.

I was amused to observe that while our tea was poured out, and handed to us by a black girl of most disgustingly dirty appearance, no sooner did the engine drivers, and persons connected with the railroads and coaches, sit down to their meal, than the landlady herself, a portly dame, with a most dignified carriage, took the head of the table, and did the honors with all the grace of a most accomplished hostess. Our male fellow travelers no sooner had dispatched their dinner, than they withdrew in a body to the other end of the apartment, and large rattling folding doors being drawn across the room, the separation of men and women so rigidly observed by all traveling Americans, took place. This is a most peculiar and amusing custom, though sometimes I have been not a little inclined to quarrel with it, inasmuch as it effectually deprives one of the assistance of the men under whose protection one is traveling, as well as all the advantages or pleasure of their society. Twice during this southward trip of ours my companion has been most peremptorily ordered to withdraw from the apartment where he was conversing with me, by colored cabin girls, who told him it was against the rules for any gentleman to come into the ladies' room. This making rules by which ladies and gentlemen are to observe the principles of decorum and good breeding, may be very necessary, for aught I can tell, but it seems rather sarcastical, I think, to have them enforced by servant girls.

The gentlemen, on their side, are intrenched in a similar manner; and if a woman has occasion to speak to the person with whom she is traveling, her entrance into the male den, if she has the courage to venture there, is the signal for a universal stare and whisper. But, for the most part, the convenient result of this arrangement is, that such men as have female companions with them pass their time in prowling about the precincts of the "ladies' apartment"; while their respective ladies pop their heads first out of one door and then out of another, watching in decorous discomfort the time when "their man" shall come to pass. Our sole resource on the present occasion was to retire again to the horrible hole above stairs, where we had at first taken refuge, and here we remained until summoned down again by the arrival of the expected train. My poor little children, overcome with fatigue and sleep, were carried, and we walked from the hotel at Weldon to the railroad, and by good fortune obtained a compartment to ourselves.

It was now between eight and nine o'clock, and perfectly dark. The carriages were furnished with lamps, however, and, by the rapid glance they cast upon the objects which we passed, I endeavored in vain to guess at the nature of the country through which we were traveling; but, except the tall shafts of the everlasting pine trees which still pursued us, I could descry nothing, and resigned myself to the amusing contemplation of the attitudes of my companions, who were all fast asleep.

Between twelve and one o'clock [in the early morning of Sunday, December 23, 1838], the engine stopped, and it was announced to us that we had traveled as far upon the railroad as it was yet completed, and that we must transfer ourselves to stagecoaches; so in the dead middle of the night we crept out of the train, and taking our children in our arms, walked a few yards into an open space in the woods, where three four-horse coaches stood waiting to receive us. A crowd of men, principally Negroes, were collected here round a huge fire of pinewood, which, together with the pine torches, whose resinous glare streamed brilliantly into the darkness of the woods, created a ruddy blaze, by the light of which we reached our vehicles in safety, and, while they were adjusting the luggage, had leisure to admire our jetty torchbearers, who lounged round in a state of tattered undress, highly picturesque—the staring whites of their eyes, and glittering ranges of dazzling teeth, exhibited to perfection by the expression of grinning amusement in their countenances, shining in the darkness almost as brightly as the lights which they reflected.

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We had especially requested that we might have a coach to ourselves, and had been assured that there would be one for the use of our party. It appeared, however, that the outside seat of this had been appropriated by someone, for our coachman, who was traveling with us, was obliged to take a seat inside with us; and though it then contained five grown persons and two children, it seems that the coach was by no means considered full. The horrors of that night's journey I shall not easily forget. The road lay almost the whole way through swamps, and was frequently itself under water. It was made of logs of wood (a corduroy road), and so dreadfully rough and unequal, that the drawing a coach over it at all seemed perfectly miraculous. I expected every moment that we must be overturned into the marsh, through which we splashed, with hardly any intermission, the whole night long. Their drivers in this part of the country deserve infinite praise both for skill and care; but the roadmakers, I think, are beyond all praise for their noble confidence in what skill and care can accomplish.

You will readily imagine how thankfully I saw the first whitening of daylight in the sky. I do not know that any morning was ever more welcome to me than that which found us still surrounded by the pine swamps of North Carolina, which, brightened by the morning sun, and breathed through by the morning air, lost something of their dreary desolateness to my senses. . . .

Not long after daybreak we arrived at a place called Stantonsborough. I do not know whether that is the name of the district, or what; for I saw no village—nothing but the one lonely house in the wood at which we stopped. I should have mentioned, that the unfortunate individual who took our coachman's place outside, toward daybreak became so perished with cold, that an exchange was effected between them, and thus the privacy (if such it could be called) of our carriage was invaded, in spite of the promise which we had received to the contrary. As I am nursing my own baby, and have been compelled to travel all day and all night, of course this was a circumstance of no small annoyance; but as our company was again increased some time after, and subsequently I had to travel in a railroad carriage that held upwards of twenty people, I had to resign myself to this, among the other miseries of this most miserable journey.


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