WHAT with lying on the rocks four days at Louisville, and some
other delays, the poor old 'Paul Jones' fooled away about two weeks in making the voyage from Cincinnati to New Orleans. This
gave me a chance to get acquainted with one of the pilots, and he taught me how to steer the boat, and thus made the fascination
of river life more potent than ever for me.
I soon discovered two things. One was that a vessel would not
be likely to sail for the mouth of the Amazon under ten or twelve years; and the other was that the nine or ten dollars still
left in my pocket would not suffice for so imposing an exploration as I had planned, even if I could afford to wait for a
ship. Therefore it followed that I must contrive a new career. The 'Paul Jones' was now bound for St. Louis.
I planned a siege against my pilot, and at the end of three hard days he surrendered. He agreed to teach me the Mississippi
River from New Orleans to St. Louis
for five hundred dollars, payable out of the first wages I should receive after graduating. I entered upon the small enterprise
of 'learning' twelve or thirteen hundred miles of the great Mississippi
River with the easy confidence of my time of life. If I had really known what I was about to require of my faculties, I should
not have had the courage to begin. I supposed that all a pilot had to do was to keep his boat in the river, and I did not
consider that that could be much of a trick, since it was so wide.
The boat backed out from New
Orleans at four in the afternoon, and it was 'our watch' until eight. Mr. Bixby, my chief, 'straightened
her up,' plowed her along past the sterns of the other boats that lay at the Levee, and then said, 'Here, take her; shave
those steamships as close as you'd peel an apple.' I took the wheel, and my heart-beat fluttered up into the hundreds; for
it seemed to me that we were about to scrape the side off every ship in the line, we were so close. I held my breath and began
to claw the boat away from the danger; and I had my own opinion of the pilot who had known no better than to get us into such
peril, but I was too wise to express it. In half a minute I had a wide margin of safety intervening between the 'Paul Jones'
and the ships; and within ten seconds more I was set aside in disgrace, and Mr. Bixby was going into danger again and flaying
me alive with abuse of my cowardice. I was stung, but I was obliged to admire the easy confidence with which my chief loafed
from side to side of his wheel, and trimmed the ships so closely that disaster seemed ceaselessly imminent. When he had cooled
a little he told me that the easy water was close ashore and the current outside, and therefore we must hug the bank, up-stream,
to get the benefit of the former, and stay well out, down-stream, to take advantage of the latter. In my own mind I resolved
to be a down-stream pilot and leave the up-streaming to people dead to prudence.
Now and then Mr. Bixby called my attention to certain things.
Said he, 'This is Six-Mile Point.' I assented. It was pleasant enough information, but I could not see the bearing of it.
I was not conscious that it was a matter of any interest to me. Another time he said, 'This is Nine-Mile Point.' Later he
said, 'This is Twelve-Mile Point.' They were all about level with the water's edge; they all looked about alike to me; they
were monotonously unpicturesque. I hoped Mr. Bixby would change the subject. But no; he would crowd up around a point, hugging
the shore with affection, and then say: 'The slack water ends here, abreast this bunch of China-trees; now we cross over.'
So he crossed over. He gave me the wheel once or twice, but I had no luck. I either came near chipping off the edge of a sugar
plantation, or I yawed too far from shore, and so dropped back into disgrace again and got abused.
The watch was ended at last, and we took supper and went to
bed. At midnight the glare of a lantern shone in my eyes, and the night watchman said -- 'Come! turn out!' And then he left.
I could not understand this extraordinary procedure; so I presently gave up trying to, and dozed off to sleep. Pretty soon
the watchman was back again, and this time he was gruff. I was annoyed. I said: --
'What do you want to come bothering around here in the middle
of the night for. Now as like as not I'll not get to sleep again to-night.'
The watchman said --
'Well, if this an't good, I'm blest.'
The 'off-watch' was just turning in, and I heard some brutal
laughter from them, and such remarks as 'Hello, watchman! an't the new cub turned out yet? He's delicate, likely. Give him
some sugar in a rag and send for the chambermaid to sing rock-a-by-baby to him.'
About this time Mr. Bixby appeared on the scene. Something like
a minute later I was climbing the pilot-house steps with some of my clothes on and the rest in my arms. Mr. Bixby was close
behind, commenting. Here was something fresh -- this thing of getting up in the middle of the night to go to work. It was
a detail in piloting that had never occurred to me at all. I knew that boats ran all night, but somehow I had never happened
to reflect that somebody had to get up out of a warm bed to run them. I began to fear that piloting was not quite so romantic
as I had imagined it was; there was something very real and work-like about this new phase of it….
Mr. Bixby made for the shore and soon was scraping it,
just the same as if it had been daylight. And not only that, but singing --
'Father in heaven,
the day is declining,' etc."
It seemed to me that I had put my life in the keeping of a peculiarly
reckless outcast. Presently he turned on me and said: --
'What's the name of the first point above New Orleans?'
I was gratified to be able to answer promptly, and I did. I
said I didn't know.
This manner jolted me. I was down at the foot again, in a moment.
But I had to say just what I had said before.
'Well, you're a smart one,' said Mr. Bixby. 'What's the name
of the NEXT point?'
Once more I didn't know.
'Well, this beats anything. Tell me the name of ANY point or
place I told you.'
I studied a while and decided that I couldn't.
'Look here! What do you start out from, above Twelve-Mile Point,
to cross over?'
'I -- I -- don't know.'
'You -- you -- don't know?' mimicking my drawling manner of
speech. 'What DO you know?'
'I -- I -- nothing, for certain.'
'By the great Caesar's ghost, I believe you! You're the stupidest
dunderhead I ever saw or ever heard of, so help me Moses! The idea of you being a pilot -- you! Why, you don't know enough
to pilot a cow down a lane.'
Oh, but his wrath was up! He was a nervous man, and he shuffled
from one side of his wheel to the other as if the floor was hot. He would boil a while to himself, and then overflow and scald
'Look here! What do you suppose I told you the names of those
I tremblingly considered a moment, and then the devil of temptation
provoked me to say:
'Well -- to -- to -- be entertaining, I thought.'
This was a red rag to the bull. He raged and stormed so (he
was crossing the river at the time) that I judge it made him blind, because he ran over the steering-oar of a trading-scow.
Of course the traders sent up a volley of red-hot profanity. Never was a man so grateful as Mr. Bixby was: because he was
brim full, and here were subjects who would TALK BACK. He threw open a window, thrust his head out, and such an irruption
followed as I never had heard before. The fainter and farther away the scowmen's curses drifted, the higher Mr. Bixby lifted
his voice and the weightier his adjectives grew. When he closed the window he was empty. You could have drawn a seine through
his system and not caught curses enough to disturb your mother with. Presently he said to me in the gentlest way --
'My boy, you must get a little memorandum book, and every time
I tell you a thing, put it down right away. There's only one way to be a pilot, and that is to get this entire river by heart.
You have to know it just like A B C.'
That was a dismal revelation to me; for my memory was never
loaded with anything but blank cartridges. However, I did not feel discouraged long. I judged that it was best to make some
allowances, for doubtless Mr. Bixby was 'stretching.'
By the time we had gone seven or eight hundred miles up the
river, I had learned to be a tolerably plucky up-stream steersman, in daylight, and before we reached St. Louis I had made a trifle of progress in night-work, but only a trifle. I had a note-book
that fairly bristled with the names of towns, 'points,' bars, islands, bends, reaches, etc.; but the information was to be
found only in the notebook -- none of it was in my head. It made my heart ache to think I had only got half of the river set
down; for as our watch was four hours off and four hours on, day and night, there was a long four-hour gap in my book for
every time I had slept since the voyage began….
The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book -- a
book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most
cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for
it had a new story to tell every day. Throughout the long twelve hundred miles there was never a page that was void of interest,
never one that you could leave unread without loss, never one that you would want to skip, thinking you could find higher
enjoyment in some other thing. There never was so wonderful a book written by man; never one whose interest was so absorbing,
so unflagging, so sparkingly renewed with every re-perusal. The passenger who could not read it was charmed with a peculiar
sort of faint dimple on its surface (on the rare occasions when he did not overlook it altogether); but to the pilot that
was an ITALICIZED passage; indeed, it was more than that, it was a legend of the largest capitals, with a string of shouting
exclamation points at the end of it; for it meant that a wreck or a rock was buried there that could tear the life out of
the strongest vessel that ever floated. It is the faintest and simplest expression the water ever makes, and the most hideous
to a pilot's eye. In truth, the passenger who could not read this book saw nothing but all manner of pretty pictures in it
painted by the sun and shaded by the clouds, whereas to the trained eye these were not pictures at all, but the grimmest and
most dead-earnest of reading-matter.
Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come
to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made
a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived.
All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river! I still keep in mind a certain wonderful sunset
which I witnessed when steamboating was new to me. A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance
the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long,
slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted
as an opal; where the ruddy flush was faintest, was a smooth spot that was covered with graceful circles and radiating lines,
ever so delicately traced; the shore on our left was densely wooded, and the somber shadow that fell from this forest was
broken in one place by a long, ruffled trail that shone like silver; and high above the forest wall a clean-stemmed dead tree
waved a single leafy bough that glowed like a flame in the unobstructed splendor that was flowing from the sun. There were
graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances; and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights
drifted steadily, enriching it, every passing moment, with new marvels of coloring.
I stood like one bewitched. I drank it in, in a speechless rapture.
The world was new to me, and I had never seen anything like this at home. But as I have said, a day came when I began to cease
from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river's face; another
day came when I ceased altogether to note them. Then, if that sunset scene had been repeated, I should have looked upon it
without rapture, and should have commented upon it, inwardly, after this fashion: This sun means that we are going to have
wind to-morrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers
to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody's steamboat one of these nights, if it keeps on stretching out like that;
those tumbling 'boils' show a dissolving bar and a changing channel there; the lines and circles in the slick water over yonder
are a warning that that troublesome place is shoaling up dangerously; that silver streak in the shadow of the forest is the
'break' from a new snag, and he has located himself in the very best place he could have found to fish for steamboats; that
tall dead tree, with a single living branch, is not going to last long, and then how is a body ever going to get through this
blind place at night without the friendly old landmark.
No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river.
All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting
of a steamboat. Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty's cheek mean
to a doctor but a 'break' that ripples above some deadly disease. Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are
to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn't he simply view her professionally,
and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn't he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost
most by learning his trade?