The Canal Boat by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Story type: Essay

Of all the ways of travelling which obtain among our locomotive nation, this said vehicle, the canal boat, is the most absolutely prosaic and inglorious. There is something picturesque, nay, almost sublime, in the lordly march of your well-built, high-bred steamboat. Go, take your stand on some overhanging bluff, where the blue Ohio winds its thread of silver, or the sturdy Mississippi tears its path through unbroken forests, and it will do your heart good to see the gallant boat walking the waters with unbroken and powerful tread; and, like some fabled monster of the wave, breathing fire, and making the shores resound with its deep respirations. Then there is something mysterious, even awful, in the power of steam. See it curling up against a blue sky, some rosy morning–graceful, floating, intangible, and to all appearance the softest and gentlest of all spiritual things; and then think that it is this fairy spirit that keeps all the world alive and hot with motion; think how excellent a servant it is, doing all sorts of gigantic works, like the genii of old; and yet, if you let slip the talisman only for a moment, what terrible advantage it will take of you! and you will confess that steam has some claims both to the beautiful and the terrible. For our own part, when we are down among the machinery of a steamboat in full play, we conduct ourself very reverently, for we consider it as a very serious neighborhood; and every time the steam whizzes with such red-hot determination from the escape valve, we start as if some of the spirits were after us. But in a canal boat there is no power, no mystery, no danger; one cannot blow up, one cannot be drowned, unless by some special effort: one sees clearly all there is in the case–a horse, a rope, and a muddy strip of water–and that is all.

Did you ever try it, reader? If not, take an imaginary trip with us, just for experiment. “There’s the boat!” exclaims a passenger in the omnibus, as we are rolling down from the Pittsburg Mansion House to the canal. “Where?” exclaim a dozen of voices, and forthwith a dozen heads go out of the window. “Why, down there, under that bridge; don’t you see those lights?” “What! that little thing?” exclaims an inexperienced traveller; “dear me! we can’t half of us get into it!” “We! indeed,” says some old hand in the business; “I think you’ll find it will hold us and a dozen more loads like us.” “Impossible!” say some. “You’ll see,” say the initiated; and, as soon as you get out, you do see, and hear too, what seems like a general breaking loose from the Tower of Babel, amid a perfect hail storm of trunks, boxes, valises, carpet bags, and every describable and indescribable form of what a westerner calls “plunder.”

“That’s my trunk!” barks out a big, round man. “That’s my bandbox!” screams a heart-stricken old lady, in terror for her immaculate Sunday caps. “Where’s my little red box? I had two carpet bags and a–My trunk had a scarle–Halloo! where are you going with that portmanteau? Husband! husband! do see after the large basket and the little hair trunk–O, and the baby’s little chair!” “Go below–go below, for mercy’s sake, my dear; I’ll see to the baggage.” At last, the feminine part of creation, perceiving that, in this particular instance, they gain nothing by public speaking, are content to be led quietly under hatches; and amusing is the look of dismay which each new comer gives to the confined quarters that present themselves. Those who were so ignorant of the power of compression as to suppose the boat scarce large enough to contain them and theirs, find, with dismay, a respectable colony of old ladies, babies, mothers, big baskets, and carpet bags already established. “Mercy on us!” says one, after surveying the little room, about ten feet long and six high, “where are we all to sleep to-night?” “O me! what a sight of children!” says a young lady, in a despairing tone. “Poh!” says an initiated traveller; “children! scarce any here; let’s see: one; the woman in the corner, two; that child with the bread and butter, three; and then there’s that other woman with two. Really, it’s quite moderate for a canal boat. However, we can’t tell till they have all come.”

“All! for mercy’s sake, you don’t say there are any more coming!” exclaim two or three in a breath; “they can’t come; there is not room !”

Notwithstanding the impressive utterance of this sentence, the contrary is immediately demonstrated by the appearance of a very corpulent, elderly lady, with three well-grown daughters, who come down looking about them most complacently, entirely regardless of the unchristian looks of the company. What a mercy it is that fat people are always good natured!

After this follows an indiscriminate raining down of all shapes, sizes, sexes, and ages–men, women, children, babies, and nurses. The state of feeling becomes perfectly desperate. Darkness gathers on all faces. “We shall be smothered! we shall be crowded to death! we can’t stay here!” are heard faintly from one and another; and yet, though the boat grows no wider, the walls no higher, they do live, and do stay there, in spite of repeated protestations to the contrary. Truly, as Sam Slick says, “there’s a sight of wear in human natur’.”

But, meanwhile, the children grow sleepy, and divers interesting little duets and trios arise from one part or another of the cabin.

“Hush, Johnny! be a good boy,” says a pale, nursing mamma, to a great, bristling, white-headed phenomenon, who is kicking very much at large in her lap.

“I won’t be a good boy, neither,” responds Johnny, with interesting explicitness; “I want to go to bed, and so-o-o-o!” and Johnny makes up a mouth as big as a teacup, and roars with good courage, and his mamma asks him “if he ever saw pa do so,” and tells him that “he is mamma’s dear, good little boy, and must not make a noise,” with various observations of the kind, which are so strikingly efficacious in such cases. Meanwhile, the domestic concert in other quarters proceeds with vigor. “Mamma, I’m tired!” bawls a child. “Where’s the baby’s night gown?” calls a nurse. “Do take Peter up in your lap, and keep him still.” “Pray get out some biscuits to stop their mouths.” Meanwhile, sundry babies strike in “con spirito,” as the music books have it, and execute various flourishes; the disconsolate mothers sigh, and look as if all was over with them; and the young ladies appear extremely disgusted, and wonder “what business women have to be travelling round with babies.”

To these troubles succeeds the turning-out scene, when the whole caravan is ejected into the gentlemen’s cabin, that the beds may be made. The red curtains are put down, and in solemn silence all, the last mysterious preparations begin. At length it is announced that all is ready. Forthwith the whole company rush back, and find the walls embellished by a series of little shelves, about a foot wide, each furnished with a mattress and bedding, and hooked to the ceiling by a very suspiciously slender cord. Direful are the ruminations and exclamations of inexperienced travellers, particularly young ones, as they eye these very equivocal accommodations. “What, sleep up there! I won’t sleep on one of those top shelves, I know. The cords will certainly break.” The chambermaid here takes up the conversation, and solemnly assures them that such an accident is not to be thought of at all; that it is a natural impossibility–a thing that could not happen without an actual miracle; and since it becomes increasingly evident that thirty ladies cannot all sleep on the lowest shelf, there is some effort made to exercise faith in this doctrine; nevertheless, all look on their neighbors with fear and trembling; and when the stout lady talks of taking a shelf, she is most urgently pressed to change places with her alarmed neighbor below. Points of location being after a while adjusted, comes the last struggle. Every body wants to take off a bonnet, or look for a shawl, to find a cloak, or get a carpet bag, and all set about it with such zeal that nothing can be done. “Ma’am, you’re on my foot!” says one. “Will you please to move, ma’am?” says somebody, who is gasping and struggling behind you. “Move!” you echo. “Indeed, I should be very glad to, but I don’t see much prospect of it.” “Chambermaid!” calls a lady, who is struggling among a heap of carpet bags and children at one end of the cabin. “Ma’am!” echoes the poor chambermaid, who is wedged fast, in a similar situation, at the other. “Where’s my cloak, chambermaid?” “I’d find it, ma’am, if I could move.” “Chambermaid, my basket!” “Chambermaid, my parasol!” “Chambermaid, my carpet bag!” “Mamma, they push me so!” “Hush, child; crawl under there, and lie still till I can undress you.” At last, however, the various distresses are over, the babies sink to sleep, and even that much-enduring being, the chambermaid, seeks out some corner for repose. Tired and drowsy, you are just sinking into a doze, when bang! goes the boat against the sides of a lock; ropes scrape, men run and shout, and up fly the heads of all the top shelfites, who are generally the more juvenile and airy part of the company.

“What’s that! what’s that!” flies from mouth to mouth; and forthwith they proceed to awaken their respective relations. “Mother! Aunt Hannah! do wake up; what is this awful noise?” “O, only a lock!” “Pray be still,” groan out the sleepy members from below.

“A lock!” exclaim the vivacious creatures, ever on the alert for information; “and what is a lock, pray?”

“Don’t you know what a lock is, you silly creatures? Do lie down and go to sleep.”

“But say, there ain’t any danger in a lock, is there?” respond the querists. “Danger!” exclaims a deaf old lady, poking up her head; “what’s the matter? There hain’t nothin’ burst, has there?” “No, no, no!” exclaim the provoked and despairing opposition party, who find that there is no such thing as going to sleep till they have made the old lady below and the young ladies above understand exactly the philosophy of a lock. After a while the conversation again subsides; again all is still; you hear only the trampling of horses and the rippling of the rope in the water, and sleep again is stealing over you. You doze, you dream, and all of a sudden you are started by a cry, “Chambermaid! wake up the lady that wants to be set ashore.” Up jumps chambermaid, and up jump the lady and two children, and forthwith form a committee of inquiry as to ways and means. “Where’s my bonnet?” says the lady, half awake, and fumbling among the various articles of that name. “I thought I hung it up behind the door.” “Can’t you find it?” says poor chambermaid, yawning and rubbing her eyes. “O, yes, here it is,” says the lady; and then the cloak, the shawl, the gloves, the shoes, receive each a separate discussion. At last all seems ready, and they begin to move off, when, lo! Peter’s cap is missing. “Now, where can it be?” soliloquizes the lady. “I put it right here by the table leg; maybe it got into some of the berths.” At this suggestion, the chambermaid takes the candle, and goes round deliberately to every berth, poking the light directly in the face of every sleeper. “Here it is,” she exclaims, pulling at something black under one pillow. “No, indeed, those are my shoes,” says the vexed sleeper. “Maybe it’s here,” she resumes, darting upon something dark in another berth. “No, that’s my bag,” responds the occupant. The chambermaid then proceeds to turn over all the children on the floor, to see if it is not under them. In the course of which process they are most agreeably waked up and enlivened; and when every body is broad awake, and most uncharitably wishing the cap, and Peter too, at the bottom of the canal, the good lady exclaims, “Well, if this isn’t lucky; here I had it safe in my basket all the time!” And she departs amid the–what shall I say?–execrations?–of the whole company, ladies though they be.

Well, after this follows a hushing up and wiping up among the juvenile population, and a series of remarks commences from the various shelves, of a very edifying and instructive tendency. One says that the woman did not seem to know where any thing was; another says that she has waked them all up; a third adds that she has waked up all the children, too; and the elderly ladies make moral reflections on the importance of putting your things where you can find them–being always ready; which observations, being delivered in an exceedingly doleful and drowsy tone, form a sort of sub-bass to the lively chattering of the upper shelfites, who declare that they feel quite wide awake,–that they don’t think they shall go to sleep again to-night,–and discourse over every thing in creation, until you heartily wish you were enough related to them to give them a scolding.

At last, however, voice after voice drops off; you fall into a most refreshing slumber; it seems to you that you sleep about a quarter of an hour, when the chambermaid pulls you by the sleeve. “Will you please to get up, ma’am? We want to make the beds.” You start and stare. Sure enough, the night is gone. So much for sleeping on board canal boats.

Let us not enumerate the manifold perplexities of the morning toilet in a place where every lady realizes most forcibly the condition of the old woman who lived under a broom: “All she wanted was elbow room.” Let us not tell how one glass is made to answer for thirty fair faces, one ewer and vase for thirty lavations; and–tell it not in Gath!–one towel for a company! Let us not intimate how ladies’ shoes have, in a night, clandestinely slid into the gentlemen’s cabin, and gentlemen’s boots elbowed, or, rather, toed their way among ladies’ gear, nor recite the exclamations after runaway property that are heard. “I can’t find nothin’ of Johnny’s shoe!” “Here’s a shoe in the water pitcher–is this it?” “My side combs are gone!” exclaims a nymph with dishevelled curls. “Massy! do look at my bonnet!” exclaims an old lady, elevating an article crushed into as many angles as there are pieces in a minced pie. “I never did sleep so much together in my life,” echoes a poor little French lady, whom despair has driven into talking English.

But our shortening paper warns us not to prolong our catalogue of distresses beyond reasonable bounds, and therefore we will close with advising all our friends, who intend to try this way of travelling for pleasure, to take a good stock both of patience and clean towels with them, for we think that they will find abundant need for both.

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