day three (Dec 23 – 24)

Fanny Kemble's Journey

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Stantonsburgh NC to Wilmington NC

As we alighted from our coach, we encountered the comical spectacle of the two coachloads of gentlemen who had traveled the same route as ourselves, with wristbands and coat cuffs turned back, performing their morning ablutions all together at a long wooden dresser in the open air, though the morning was piercing cold. Their toilet accommodations were quite of the most primitive order imaginable, as indeed were ours. We (the women) were all shown into one small room, the whole furniture of which consisted of a chair and wooden bench: upon the latter stood one basin, one ewer, and a relic of soap, apparently of great antiquity. Before, however, we could avail ourselves of these ample means of cleanliness, we were summoned down to breakfast; but as we had traveled all night, and all the previous day, and were to travel all the ensuing day and night, I preferred washing to eating, and determined, if I could not do both, at least to accomplish the first. There was neither towel, nor glass for one's teeth, nor hostess or chambermaid to appeal to. I ran through all the rooms on the floor, of which the doors were open; but though in one I found a magnificent veneered chest of drawers, and large looking glass, neither of the above articles [was] discoverable. Again the savage passion for ornament occurred to me as I looked at this piece of furniture, which might have adorned the most luxurious bedroom of the wealthiest citizen in New York—here in this wilderness, in a house which seemed but just cut out of the trees, where a tin pan was brought to me for a basin, and where the only kitchen, of which the window of our room, to our sorrow, commanded an uninterrupted prospect, was an open shed, not fit to stable a well-kept horse in.

As I found nothing that I could take possession of in the shape of towel or tumbler, I was obliged to wait on the stairs, and catch one of the dirty black girls who were running to and fro serving the breakfast room. Upon asking one of these nymphs for a towel, she held up to me a horrible cloth, which, but for the evidence to the contrary which its filthy surface presented, I should have supposed had been used to clean the floors. Upon my objecting to this, she flounced away, disgusted, I presume, with my fastidiousness, and appeared no more. As I leaned over the banisters in a state of considerable despondency, I espied a man who appeared to be the host himself, and to him I ventured to prefer my humble petition for a clean towel. He immediately snatched from the dresser where the gentlemen had been washing themselves a wet and dirty towel, which lay by one of the basins, and offered it to me. Upon my suggesting that that was not a clean towel, he looked at me from head to foot with ineffable amazement, but at length desired one of the Negroes to fetch me the unusual luxury.

 

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Of the breakfast at this place no words can give any idea. There were plates full of unutterable-looking things, which made one feel as if one should never swallow food again. There were some eggs, all begrimed with smoke, and powdered with cinders; some unbaked dough, cut into little lumps, by way of bread; and a white hard substance, calling itself butter, which had an infinitely nearer resemblance to tallow. The mixture presented to us by way of tea was absolutely undrinkable; and when I begged for a glass of milk, they brought a tumbler covered with dust and dirt, full of such sour stuff that I was obliged to put it aside, after endeavoring to taste it. Thus refreshed, we set forth again through the eternal pinelands, on and on, the tall stems rising all round us for miles and miles in dreary monotony, like a spell-land of dismal enchantment, to which there seemed no end . . . .

North Carolina is, I believe, the poorest state in the Union: the part of it through which we traveled should seem to indicate as much. From Suffolk to Wilmington we did not pass a single town—scarcely anything deserving the name of a village. The few detached houses on the road were mean and beggarly in their appearance; and the people whom we saw when the coach stopped had a squalid, and at the same time fierce air, which at once bore witness to the unfortunate influences of their existence. Not the least of these is the circumstance that their subsistence is derived in great measure from the spontaneous produce of the land, which yielding without cultivation the timber and turpentine, by the sale of which they are mainly supported, denies to them all the blessings which flow from labor.

How is it that the fable ever originated of God's having cursed man with the doom of toil? How is it that men have ever been blind to the exceeding profitableness of labor, even for its own sake, whose moral harvest alone—industry, economy, patience, foresight, knowledge—is in itself an exceeding great reward, to which add the physical blessings which wait on this universal law—health, strength, activity, cheerfulness, the content that springs from honest exertions, and the lawful pride that grows from conquered difficulty. How invariably have the inhabitants of southern countries, whose teeming soil produced, unurged, the means of life, been cursed with indolence, with recklessness, with the sleepy slothfulness which, while basking in the sunshine, and gathering the earth's spontaneous fruits, satisfied itself with this animal existence, forgetting all the nobler purposes of life in the mere ease of living? Therefore, too, southern lands have always been the prey of northern conquerors; and the bleak regions of Upper Europe and Asia have poured forth from time to time the hungry hordes, whose iron sinews swept the nerveless children of the gardens of the earth from the face of their idle paradises: and, but for this stream of keener life and nobler energy, it would be difficult to imagine a more complete race of lotus-eaters than would now cumber the fairest regions of the earth.

Doubtless it is to counteract the enervating effects of soil and climate that this northern tide of vigorous life flows forever toward the countries of the sun, that the races may be renewed, the earth reclaimed, and the world, and all its various tribes, rescued from disease and decay by the influence of the stern northern vitality, searching and strong, and purifying as the keen piercing winds that blow from that quarter of the heavens. To descend to rather a familiar illustration of this, it is really quite curious to observe how many New England adventurers come to the Southern states, and bringing their enterprising active character to bear upon the means of wealth, which in the North they lack, but which abound in these more favored regions, return home after a short season of exertion, laden with the spoils of the indolent Southerners. The Southern people are growing poorer every day, in the midst of their slaves and their vast landed estates: whilst every day sees the arrival amongst them of some penniless Yankee, who presently turns the very ground he stands upon into wealth, and departs a lord of riches at the end of a few years, leaving the sleepy population among whom he has amassed them floated still farther down the tide of dwindling prosperity . . . .

At a small place called Waynesborough . . . I asked for a glass of milk, and they told me they had no such thing. Upon entering our new vehicle, we found another stranger added to our party, to my unspeakable annoyance. Complaint or remonstrance I knew, however, would be of no avail, and I therefore submitted in silence to what I could not help. At a short distance beyond Waynesborough we were desired to alight, in order to walk over a bridge, which was in so rotten a condition as to render it very probable that it would give way under our weight. This same bridge, whose appearance was indeed most perilous, is built at a considerable height over a broad and rapid stream, called the Neuse, the color of whose water we had an excellent opportunity of admiring through the numerous holes in the plankage, over which we walked as lightly and rapidly as we could, stopping afterwards to see our coach come at a foot's pace after us. This may be called safe and pleasant traveling.

The ten miles which followed were over heavy sandy roads, and it was near sunset when we reached the place where we were to take the railroad. The train, however, had not arrived, and we sat still in the coaches, there being neither town, village, nor even roadside inn at hand, where we might take shelter from the bitter blast which swept through the pinewoods by which we were surrounded; and so we waited patiently, the day gradually drooping, the evening air becoming colder, and the howling wilderness around us more dismal every moment.

In the meantime the coaches were surrounded by a troop of gazing boors, who had come from far and near to see the hot-water carriages come up for only the third time into the midst of their savage solitude. A more forlorn, fierce, poor, and wild-looking set of people, short of absolute savages, I never saw. They wandered round and round us, with a stupid kind of dismayed wonder. The men clothed in the coarsest manner, and the women also, of whom there were not a few, with the grotesque addition of pink and blue silk bonnets, with artificial flowers, and imitation-blonde veils. Here the gentlemen of our party informed us that they observed, for the first time, a custom prevalent in North Carolina, of which I had myself frequently heard before—the women chewing tobacco, and that, too, in a most disgusting and disagreeable way, if one way can be more disgusting than another. They carry habitually a small stick, like the implement for cleaning the teeth, usually known in England by the name of a root—this they thrust away in their glove, or their garter string, and, whenever occasion offers, plunge it into a snuffbox, and begin chewing it. The practice is so common, that the proffer of the snuffbox, and its passing from hand to hand, is the usual civility of a morning visit among the country people; and I was not a little amused at hearing the gentlemen who were with us describe the process as they witnessed it in their visit to a miserable farm house across the fields, whither they went to try to obtain something to eat.

It was now becoming dark, and the male members of our caravan held council round a pine fire as to what course had better be adopted for sheltering themselves and us during the night, which we seemed destined to pass in the woods. After some debate, it was recollected that one Colonel ——, a man of some standing in that neighborhood, had a farm about a mile distant, immediately upon the line of the railroad; and thither it was determined we should all repair, and ask quarters for the night. Fortunately, an empty truck stood at hand upon the iron road, and to this the luggage, and the women and children of the party, were transferred. A number of Negroes, who were loitering about, were pressed into the service, and pushed it along; and the gentlemen, walking, brought up the rear. I don't know that I ever in my life felt so completely desolate as during that half hour's slow progress. We sat cowering among the trunks, my faithful Margery and I, each with a baby in our arms, sheltering ourselves and our poor little burthens from the bleak northern wind that whistled over us.

The last embers of daylight were dying out in dusky red streaks along the horizon, and the dreary waste around us looked like the very shaggy edge of all creation. The men who pushed us along encouraged each other with wild shouts and yells, and every now and then their labor was one of no little danger, as well as difficulty—for the road crossed one or two deep ravines and morasses at a considerable height, and, as it was not completed, and nothing but the iron rails were laid across piles driven into these places, it became a service of considerable risk to run along these narrow ledges, at the same time urging our car along. No accident happened, however, fortunately, and we presently beheld, with no small satisfaction, a cluster of houses in the fields at some little distance from the road. To the principal one I made my way, followed by the rest of the poor womankind, and, entering the house without further ceremony, ushered them into a large species of wooden room, where blazed a huge pine-wood fire. By this welcome light we descried, sitting in the corner of the vast chimney, an old ruddy-faced man, with silver hair, and a good-humored countenance, who, welcoming us with ready hospitality, announced himself as Colonel ——, and invited us to draw near the fire.

The worthy Colonel seemed in no way dismayed at this sudden inbreak of distressed women, which was very soon followed by the arrival of the gentlemen, to whom he repeated the same courteous reception he had given us, replying to their rather hesitating demands for something to eat, by ordering to the right and left a tribe of staring Negroes, who bustled about preparing supper, under the active superintendence of the hospitable colonel. His residence (considering his rank) was quite the most primitive imaginable—a rough brick-and-plank chamber, of considerable dimensions, not even whitewashed, with the great beams and rafters by which it was supported displaying the skeleton of the building, to the complete satisfaction of any one who might be curious in architecture. The windows could close neither at the top, bottom, sides, nor middle, and were, besides, broken so as to admit several delightful currents of air, which might be received as purely accidental. In one corner of this primitive apartment stood a clean-looking bed, with coarse furniture; while in the opposite one, an old case clock was ticking away its time and its master's, with cheerful monotony. The rush-bottomed chairs were of as many different shapes and sizes as those in a modern fine lady's drawing room, and the walls were hung all round with a curious miscellany, consisting principally of physic phials, turkey-feather fans, bunches of dried herbs, and the Colonel's arsenal, in the shape of one or two old guns, etc.

According to the worthy man's hearty invitation, I proceeded to make myself and my companions at home, pinning, skewering, and otherwise suspending our cloaks and shawls across the various intentional and unintentional air gaps, thereby increasing both the comfort and the grotesqueness of the apartment in no small degree. The babies had bowls of milk furnished them, and the elder portion of the caravan was regaled with a taste of the Colonel's homemade wine, pending the supper, to which he continued to entreat our stay. Meantime he entered into conversation with the gentlemen; and my veneration waxed deep, when the old man, unfolding his history, proclaimed himself one of the heroes of the revolution—a fellow fighter with Washington. I, who, comforted to a degree of high spirits by our sudden transition from the cold and darkness of the railroad to the light and shelter of this rude mansion, had been flippantly bandying jokes, and [had] proceeded some way in a lively flirtation with this illustrious American, grew thrice respectful, and hardly ventured to raise either my eyes or my voice as I inquired if he lived alone in this remote place. Yes, alone now; his wife had been dead near upon two years.

Suddenly we were broken in upon the arrival of the expected train. It was past eight o'clock. If we delayed we should have to travel all night; but, then, the Colonel pressed us to stay and sup (the bereaved Colonel, the last touching revelation of whose lonely existence had turned all my mirth into sympathizing sadness). The gentlemen were famished, and well inclined to stay; the ladies were famished too, for we had eaten nothing all day. The bustle of preparation, urged by the warmhearted Colonel, began afresh; the Negro girls shambled in and out more vigorously than ever, and finally we were called to eat and refresh ourselves with dirty water—I cannot call it tea, old cheese, bad butter, and old dry biscuits. The gentlemen bethought them of the good supper they might have secured a few miles further, and groaned; but the hospitable Colonel merely asked them half a dollar apiece (there were about ten of them); paying which, we departed, with our enthusiasm a little damped for the warrior of the revolution; and a tinge of rather deeper misgiving as to some of his virtues stole over our minds, on learning that three of the sable damsels who trudged about at our supper service were the Colonel's own progeny. I believe only three—though the young Negro girl, whose loquacity made us aware of the fact, added, with a burst of commendable pride and gratitude: "Indeed, he is a father to us all!" Whether she spoke figuratively, or literally, we could not determine. So much for a three-hours' shelter in North Carolina . . . .

I had been very much struck with the appearance of the horses we passed occasionally in enclosures, or gathered round some lonely roadside pine-wood shop, or post office, fastened to trees in the surrounding forest, and waiting for their riders. I had been always led to expect a great improvement in the breed of horses as we went southward, and the appearance of those I saw on the road was certainly in favor of the claim. They were generally small, but in good condition, and remarkable well made. They seemed to be tolerably well cared for, too; and those which we saw caparisoned were ornamented with gay saddlecloths, and rather a superfluity of trappings for civil animals.

At our dismal halt in the woods, while waiting for the railroad train, among our other spectators was a woman on horseback. Her steed was uncommonly pretty and well-limbed; but her costume was quite the most eccentric that can be imagined, accustomed as I am to the not over-rigid equipments of the Northern villages. But the North Carolinian damsel beat all Yankee girls I ever saw hollow, in the glorious contempt she exhibited for the external fitness of things in her exceeding short skirts and huge sunbonnet. After our departure from Colonel ——'s, we traveled all night on the railroad. One of my children slept in my lap, the other on the narrow seat opposite to me, from which she was jolted off every quarter of an hour by the uneasy motion of the carriage, and the checks and stops of the engine, which was out of order. The carriage, though full of people, was heated with a stove, and every time this was replenished with coals we were almost suffocated with the clouds of bituminous smoke which filled it. Five hours, they said, was the usual time consumed in this part of the journey; but we were the whole mortal night upon that uneasy railroad, and it was five o'clock in the morning [Monday, December 24, 1838] before we reached Wilmington, North Carolina. When the train stopped it was yet quite dark, and most bitterly cold; nevertheless, the distance from the railroad to the only inn where we could be accommodated was nothing less than a mile; and, weary and worn out, we trudged along, the poor little sleeping children carried by their still more unfortunate, sleepless nurses—and so by the cheerless winter starlight we walked along the brink of the Cape Fear River, to seek where we might lay our heads.

We were shown into a room without window curtains or shutters, the windows, as usual, not half-shut, and wholly incapable of shutting. Here, when I asked if we could have some tea (having fasted the whole previous day, with the exception of Colonel 's bountiful supper), the host pleasantly informed us, that the "public breakfast would not be ready for some hours yet." I really could not help once again protesting against this abominable tyranny of the traveling many over the traveling few in this free country. It is supposed impossible that any individual can hunger, thirst, or desire sleep at any other than the "public hours"—the consequence is, that let one arrive starved at an inn, one can obtain nothing till such hours when those who are not starving desire to eat; and if one is foredone with travel, weary, and wanting rest, the pitiless alarum bell, calling those who may have had twelve hours' sleep from their beds, must startle those who have only just closed their eyes for the first time, perhaps, for three nights,—as if the whole traveling community were again at boarding school, and as if a private summons by the boots or chamber-maid to each apartment would not answer the same purpose.

We were, however, so utterly exhausted, that waiting for the public appetite was out of the question; and, by dint of much supplication, we at length obtained some breakfast. When, however, we stated that we had not been in bed for two successive nights, and asked to be shown to our rooms, the same gentleman, our host, an exceedingly pleasant person, informed us that our chamber was prepared, adding, with the most facetious familiarity, when I exclaimed: "Our chamber!" (we were three, and two children),

"Oh! madam, I presume you will have no objection to sleeping with your infant" (he lumped the two into one); "and these two ladies (Miss [Butler] and Margery) will sleep together. I dare say they have done it a hundred times."

This unheard-of proposition, and the man's cool impudence in making it, so astonished me, that I could hardly speak. At last, however, I found words to inform him that none of our party were in the habit of sleeping with each other, and that the arrangement was such as we were not at all inclined to submit to. The gentleman, apparently very much surprised at our singular habits, said:

"Oh! he didn't know that the ladies were not acquainted" (as if, forsooth, one went to bed with all one's acquaintance!) "but that he had but that one room in the ladies' part of the house."

Miss [Butler] immediately professed her readiness to take one in the gentlemen's "part of the house," when it appeared that there was none vacant there which had a fireplace in it. As the morning was intensely cold, this could not be thought of. I could not take shelter in [Mr. Butler]'s room; for he, according to this decent and comfortable mode of lodging travelers, had another man to share it with him. To our common dormitory we therefore repaired, as it was impossible that we could any of us go any longer without rest. I established Margery and the two babies in the largest bed; poor Miss [Butler] betook herself to a sort of curtainless cot that stood in one corner; and I laid myself down on a mattress on the floor; and we soon all forgot the [in]conveniences of a Wilmington hotel in the supreme convenience of sleep.


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