Homeward Bound – Overseas Travel During the Late 1800s

We slid out of St. Katharine’s Dock at noon on the appointed day, and with a pair of sooty steamboats hitched to our vessel, moved slowly down the Thames in mist and drizzling rain. I stayed on the wet deck all afternoon, that I might more forcibly and joyously feel we were again in motion on the waters and homeward bound ! My attention was divided between the dreary views of Blackwall, Greenwich and Woolwich and the motley throng of passengers who were to form our ocean society. An English family, going out to settle in Canada, were gathered together in great distress and anxiety, for the father had gone ashore in London at a, late hour, and was left behind. When we anchored for the night at Gravesend, their fears were quieted by his arrival in a skiff from the shore, as he had immediately followed us by railroad.

My cousin and B- had hastened on from Paris to join me, and a day before the sailing of the “Victoria,” we took berths in the second cabin, for twelve pounds ten shillings each, which in the London line of packets, includes coarse but substantial fare for the whole voyage. Our funds were insufficient to flay even this; but Captain Morgan, less mistrustful than my Nor-man landlord, generously agreed that the remainder of the fare should be paid in America. B- and I, with two young Englishmen, took possession of a state-room of rough boards, lighted by a bull’s-eye, which in stormy weather leaked so much that our trunks swam in water. A narrow mattress and blanket with a knapsack for a pillow, formed a passable bed. A long entry between the rooms, lighted by a feeble swinging lamp, was filled with a board table, around which the thirty-two second cabin passengers met to discuss politics and salt pork, favorable winds and hard sea-biscuit.

We lay becalmed opposite Sheerness the whole of the second day. At dusk a sudden squall came up, which drove us foaming towards the North Foreland. When I went on deck in the morning, we had passed Dover and Brighton, and the Isle of Wight was rising dim ahead of us. The low English coast on our right was bordered by long reaches of dazzling chalky sand, which glittered along the calm blue water.

Gliding into the Bay of Portsmouth, we dropped anchor opposite the romantic town of Ryde, built on the sloping shore of the Green Isle of Wight. Eight or nine vessels of the Experimental Squadron were anchored near us, and over the houses of Portsmouth, I saw the masts of the Victory-the flag-ship in the battle of Trafalgar, on board of which Nelson was killed. The wind was not strong enough to permit the passage of the Needles, so at midnight we succeeded in wearing back again into the channel, around the Isle of Wight. A head wind forced us to tack away towards the shore of France. We were twice in sight of the rocky coast of Brittany, near Cherbourg, but the misty promontory of Land’s End was our last glimpse of the old world.

On one of our first day’s at sea, I caught a curlew, which came flying on weary wings to-wards us, and alighted on one of the boats. Two of his brethren, too much exhausted or too timid to do likewise, dropped fiat on the waves and resigned themselves to their fate without a struggle. I slipped up and caught his long, lank legs, while he was resting with flagging wings and half-shut eyes. We fed him, though it was difficult to get anything down his reed-shaped bill; but he took kindly to our force-work, and when we let him loose on the deck, walked about with an air quite tame and familiar. He died, however, two days afterwards. A French pigeon, which was caught in the rigging, lived and throve during the whole of the passage.

A few days afterwards a heavy storm came on, and we were all sleepless and sea-sick, as long as it lasted. Thanks, however, to a beautiful law of memory, the recollection of that dismal period soon lost its unpleasantness, while the grand forms of beauty the vexed ocean presented, will remain forever, as distinct and abiding

I kept on deck as long as I could stand, watching the giant waves over which our vessel took her course. They rolled up towards us, thirty or forty feet in height-dark gray masses, changing to a beautiful vitriol tint, wherever the light struck through their countless and changing crests. It was a glorious thing to see our good ship mount slowly up the side of one of these watery bills. till her prow was lifted high in air, then, rocking over its brow, plunge with a slight quiver low n-ward, and plough up a briny cataract, as she struck the vale. I never before realized the terrible sublimity of the sea. And vet it was a pride to see how man-strong in his godlike will -could bid defiance to those whelming surges, and brave their wrath unharmed.

We swung up and down on the billows, till we scarcely knew which way to stand. The most grave and sober personages suddenly found themselves reeling in a very undignified manner, and not a few measured their lengths on the slippery decks. Boxes and barrels were affected in like manner ; everything danced around us. Trunks ran out from under the berths ; packages leaped down from the shelves ; chairs skipped -across the rooms, and at table, knives, forks and mugs engaged in a general waltz and break down. One incident of this kind was rather laughable. One night, about midnight, the gale, which had been blowing violently, suddenly lulled, “as if,” to use a sailor’s phrase, it had been chopped off!” Instantly. the ship gave a tremendous lurch, which was the signal for a general breaking loose. Two or three others followed, so violent, that for a moment I imagined the vessel had been thrown on her beam ends. Trunks, crockery and barrels went banging down from one end of the ship to the other. The women in the steerage set up an awful scream, and the German emigrants, thinking we were in terrible danger, commenced praying with might and main. In the passage near our room stood several barrels, filled with broken dishes, which at every lurch went banging from side to side, jarring the board partition and making a horrible din. I shall not soon forget the Babel which kept our eyes ()pen that night.

The 19th of May a calm came on. Our white wings flapped idly on the mast, and only the top-gallant sails were bent enough occasionally to lug us along at a mile an hour. -A barque from Ceylon, making the most of the wind, with every rag of canvas set, passed us slowly on the way eastward. The sun went down unclouded, and a glorious starry night brooded over us. Its clearness and brightness were to me indications of America. I longed to be on shore. The forests about home were then clothed in the delicate green of their first leaves, and that bland weather embraced the sweet earth like a blessing of heaven. The gentle breath from out the west seemed made for the odor of violets, and as it came to me over the slightly-ruffled deep, I thought how much sweeter it were to feel it, while “wasting in wood-paths the voluptuous hours.”

Soon afterwards a fresh wind sprang up, which increased rapidly, till every sail was bent to the full. Our vessel parted the brine with an arrowy glide, the ease and grace of which it is impossible to describe. The breeze held on steadily for two or three days, which brought us to the southern extremity of the Banks. Here the air felt so sharp and chilly, that I was afraid we might be under the lee of an iceberg, but in the evening the dull gray mass of clouds lifted themselves from the horizon, and the sun set in clear, American beauty away beyond Labrador. The next morning we were enveloped ill a dense fog, and the wind which bore us on-ward was of a piercing coldness. A sharp look-out was kept on the bow, but as we could see but a short distance, it might have been dangerous had we met one of the Arctic squadron. At noon it cleared away again, and the bank of fog was visible a long time astern, piled along the horizon, reminding me of the Alps, as seen from the plains of Piedmont.

On the 31st, the fortunate wind which carried us from the Banks, failed us about thirty-five miles from Sandy Hook. We lay in the midst of the mackerel fishery, with small schooners anchored all around us. Fog, dense and impenetrable, weighed on the moveless ocean, like an atmosphere of wool The only incident to break the horrid monotony of the day, was the arrival of a pilot, with one or two newspapers, detailing the account of the Mexican war. We heard in the afternoon the booming of the surf along the low beach of Long Island-hollow and faint, like the murmur of a shell. When the mist lifted a. little, we saw the faint line of breakers along the shore. The Germans gathered on deck to sing their old, familiar songs, and their voices blended beautifully together in the stillness.

Next morning at sunrise we saw Sandy Hook; at nine o’clock we were telegraphed in New York by the station at Coney Island; at eleven the steamer “Hercules” met us outside the Hook; and at noon we were gliding up the Narrows, with the whole ship’s company of four hundred persons on deck, gazing on the beautiful shores of Staten Island and agreeing almost univers ally, that it was the most delightful scene they had ever looked upon.

I shall not attempt to describe the excitement of that afternoon. After thirty-seven days between sky and water, any shore would have been beautiful, but when it was home, after we had been two years absent, during an age when time is always slow, it required a powerful effort to maintain any propriety of manner. The steward prepared a parting dinner, much better than any we had had at sea ; but I tried in vain to eat. Never were trees such a glorious green as those around the Quarantine buildings, where we lay to for half an hour, to be visited by the physician. The day was cloudy, and thick mist hung on the tops of the hills, but I felt as if I could never tire looking at the land.

At last we approached the city. It appeared smaller than when I left, but this might have been because I was habituated to the broad distances of the sea. Our scanty baggage was brought on deck, for the inspection of the custom-house officer, but we were neither annoyed nor delayed by the operation. The steamer by this time had taken us to the pier at Pine-street wharf, and the slight jar of the vessel as she came alongside, sent a thrill of delight through our frames. But when finally the ladder was let down, and we sprang upon the pier, it was with an electric shock, as if of recognition from the very soil. It was about four o’clock in the after-noon, and we were glad that night was so near at hand. After such strong excitement, and even bewilderment of ‘feeling as we had known since morning, the prospect of rest was very attractive.

But no sooner were we fairly deposited in a hotel, than we must needs see the city again. How we had talked over this hour ! How we had thought of the life, the neatness, the comfort of our American cities, when rambling through some filthy and depopulated capital ,of the Old World! At first sight our anticipations were not borne out ; there had been heavy rains for a week or two, and the streets were not remarkably clean; houses were being built up or taken down, on all sides, and the number of trees in full foliage, every where visible, gave us the idea of an immense unfinished country town. I took this hack, it is true, the next morning, when the sun was bright and the streets were thronged with people. But what activity, what a restless eagerness and even keenness of expression on every countenance ! I could not have believed that the general cast of the America n face was so sharp yet nothing was so remarkable as the perfect independence of manner which we noticed in all, down to the very children. I can easily conceive how this should jar with the feelings of a stranger, accustomed to the deference, not to say servility, in which the largest class of the people of Europe is trained; but it was a most refreshing change to us.

Life at sea sharpens one’s sensibilities to the sounds and scents of land, in a very high degree. We noticed a difference in the atmosphere of different streets, and in the scent of leaves and grass, which a land friend who was with us failed entirely to distinguish. The next day, as w e left New York, and in perfect exultation of spirit sped across New Jersey, (which was never half so beautiful to our eyes,) I could feel nothing but one continued sensation of the country-fragrant hay-field and wild clearing, garden and marshy hollow, and the cool shadow of the woodlands-I was by turns possessed with the spirit of them all. The twilight deepened a s we passed down the Delaware; I stood on the promenade deck and watched the evening star kindling through the cloudless flush of sunset, while the winds that came over the glassy river bore me the odor of long-remembered meadow flow-ers. We asked each other what there was in the twilights of Florence and Vallombrosa more delicious than this?

A night in neat, cheerful, home-like Philadelphia, whose dimensions were also a little shrunken in our eyes, and a glorious June morning broke on the last day of our pilgrimage. Again we were on the Delaware, pacing the deck in rapture at the green, luxuriant beauty of its shores. Is it not worth years of absence, to learn how to love one’s land as it should be loved? Two or three hours brought us to Wilmington, in Delaware, and within twelve miles of home. Now came the realization of a plan we had talked over a hundred times, to keep up our spirits when the weather was gloomy, or the journey lay through some waste of barren country. Our knapsacks, which had been laid down in Paris, were again taken up, slouched German hats substituted for our modern black cylinders, belt and blouse donned, and the pilgrim staff grasped for the rest of our journey. But it was a part of our plan, that we should not reach home till after nightfall; we could not think of seeing any one we knew before those who were nearest to us and so it was necessary to wait a few hours before starting.

The time came; that walk of three or four hours seemed longer than many a day’s tramp . of thirty miles, but every step of the way was familiar ground. The people we met stared, laughed, or looked suspiciously after us, but we were quite insensible to any observation. We only counted the fields, measured the distance from hill to hill, and watched the gradual de-cline of the broad, bright sun. It went down at last, and our homes were not far off. When the twilight grew deeper, we parted, and each thought what an experience lay between that moment and the next morning. I took to the fields, plunged into a sea of dewy clover, and made for a light which began to glimmer as it grew darker. When I reached it and looked with the most painful excitement through the window on the unsuspecting group within, there was not one face missing.