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cause he was brim full, and here were subjects who would The voice of the invisible watchman called up from the hur-talk back. He threw open a window, thrust his head out, and ricane deck—
such an irruption followed as I never had heard before. The
“What’s this, sir?”
fainter and farther away the scowmen’s curses drifted, the
higher Mr. Bixby lifted his voice and the weightier his ad-I said to myself, I wish I might venture to offer a small bet jectives grew. When he closed the window he was empty.
that it isn’t. But I did not chirp. I only waited to see. Mr.
You could have drawn a seine through his system and not Bixby handled the engine bells, and in due time the boat’s caught curses enough to disturb your mother with. Pres-nose came to the land, a torch glowed from the forecastle, a ently he said to me in the gentlest way—
man skipped ashore, a darky’s voice on the bank said, “Gimme
“My boy, you must get a little memorandum book, and de k’yarpet-bag, Mars’ Jones,” and the next moment we were every time I tell you a thing, put it down right away. There’s standing up the river again, all serene. I reflected deeply only one way to be a pilot, and that is to get this entire river awhile, and then said—but not aloud— “Well, the finding by heart. You have to know it just like A B C.” of that plantation was the luckiest accident that ever hap-That was a dismal revelation to me; for my memory was pened; but it couldn’t happen again in a hundred years.” never loaded with anything but blank cartridges. However, And I fully believed it was an accident, too.
I did not feel discouraged long. I judged that it was best to By the time we had gone seven or eight hundred miles up make some allowances, for doubtless Mr. Bixby was ‘stretch-the river, I had learned to be a tolerably plucky up-stream ing.’ Presently he pulled a rope and struck a few strokes on steersman, in daylight, and before we reached St. Louis I the big bell. The stars were all gone now, and the night was had made a trifle of progress in night-work, but only a trifle.
Life on the Mississippi - Mark Twain I had a note-book that fairly bristled with the names of towns, instead of a broad wooden box filled with sawdust; nice new
“points,” bars, islands, bends, reaches, etc.; but the informa-oil-cloth on the floor; a hospitable big stove for winter; a tion was to be found only in the notebook—none of it was wheel as high as my head, costly with inlaid work; a wire in my head. It made my heart ache to think I had only got tiller-rope; bright brass knobs for the bells; and a tidy, white-half of the river set down; for as our watch was four hours aproned, black “texas-tender,” to bring up tarts and ices and off and four hours on, day and night, there was a long four-coffee during mid-watch, day and night. Now this was “some-hour gap in my book for every time I had slept since the thing like,” and so I began to take heart once more to believe voyage began.
that piloting was a romantic sort of occupation after all. The My chief was presently hired to go on a big New Orleans moment we were under way I began to prowl about the boat, and I packed my satchel and went with him. She was a great steamer and fill myself with joy. She was as clean and as grand affair. When I stood in her pilot-house I was so far dainty as a drawing-room; when I looked down her long, above the water that I seemed perched on a mountain; and gilded saloon, it was like gazing through a splendid tunnel; her decks stretched so far away, fore and aft, below me, that she had an oil-picture, by some gifted sign-painter, on every I wondered how I could ever have considered the little ‘Paul stateroom door; she glittered with no end of prism-fringed Jones’ a large craft. There were other differences, too. The chandeliers; the clerk’s office was elegant, the bar was mar-
‘Paul Jones’s’ pilot-house was a cheap, dingy, battered rattle-velous, and the bar-keeper had been barbered and uphol-trap, cramped for room: but here was a sumptuous glass stered at incredible cost. The boiler deck (i.e. the second temple; room enough to have a dance in; showy red and story of the boat, so to speak) was as spacious as a church, it gold window-curtains; an imposing sofa; leather cushions seemed to me; so with the forecastle; and there was no piti-and a back to the high bench where visiting pilots sit, to spin ful handful of deckhands, firemen, and roustabouts down yarns and “look at the river”; bright, fanciful “cuspadores” there, but a whole battalion of men. The fires were fiercely 41
Life on the Mississippi - Mark Twain glaring from a long row of furnaces, and over them were in) was low; and the Mississippi changes its channel so con-eight huge boilers! This was unutterable pomp. The mighty stantly that the pilots used to always find it necessary to run engines—but enough of this. I had never felt so fine before.
down to Cairo to take a fresh look, when their boats were to And when I found that the regiment of natty servants relie in port a week; that is, when the water was at a low stage.
spectfully “sir’d” me, my satisfaction was complete.
A deal of this “looking at the river” was done by poor fellows who seldom had a berth, and whose only hope of getting Chapter 7
one lay in their being always freshly posted and therefore ready to drop into the shoes of some reputable pilot, for a A Daring Deed
single trip, on account of such pilot’s sudden illness, or some other necessity. And a good many of them constantly ran up WHEN I RETURNED TO THE PILOT-HOUSE St. Louis was gone and down inspecting the river, not because they ever really and I was lost. Here was a piece of river which was all down hoped to get a berth, but because (they being guests of the in my book, but I could make neither head nor tail of it: you boat) it was cheaper to “look at the river” than stay ashore understand, it was turned around. I had seen it when com-and pay board. In time these fellows grew dainty in their ing up-stream, but I had never faced about to see how it tastes, and only infested boats that had an established repu-looked when it was behind me. My heart broke again, for it tation for setting good tables. All visiting pilots were useful, was plain that I had got to learn this troublesome river both for they were always ready and willing, winter or summer, ways.
night or day, to go out in the yawl and help buoy the chan-The pilot-house was full of pilots, going down to “look at nel or assist the boat’s pilots in any way they could. They the river.” What is called the “upper river” (the two hundred were likewise welcome because all pilots are tireless talkers, miles between St. Louis and Cairo, where the Ohio comes when gathered together, and as they talk only about the river 42
Life on the Mississippi - Mark Twain they are always understood and are always interesting. Your hope all out of me. One visitor said to another—
true pilot cares nothing about anything on earth but the
“Jim, how did you run Plum Point, coming up?” river, and his pride in his occupation surpasses the pride of
“It was in the night, there, and I ran it the way one of the kings.
boys on the ‘Diana’ told me; started out about fifty yards We had a fine company of these river-inspectors along, above the wood pile on the false point, and held on the cabin this trip. There were eight or ten; and there was abundance under Plum Point till I raised the reef—quarter less twain—
of room for them in our great pilot-house. Two or three of then straightened up for the middle bar till I got well abreast them wore polished silk hats, elaborate shirt-fronts, diamond the old one-limbed cotton-wood in the bend, then got my breast-pins, kid gloves, and patent-leather boots. They were stern on the cotton-wood and head on the low place above choice in their English, and bore themselves with a dignity the point, and came through a-booming—nine and a half.” proper to men of solid means and prodigious reputation as
“Pretty square crossing, an’t it.?”
pilots. The others were more or less loosely clad, and wore
“Yes, but the upper bar ‘s working down fast.” upon their heads tall felt cones that were suggestive of the Another pilot spoke up and said—
days of the Commonwealth.
“I had better water than that, and ran it lower down; started I was a cipher in this august company, and felt subdued, out from the false point—mark twain—raised the second not to say torpid. I was not even of sufficient consequence reef abreast the big snag in the bend, and had quarter less to assist at the wheel when it was necessary to put the tiller twain.”
hard down in a hurry; the guest that stood nearest did that One of the gorgeous ones remarked—
when occasion required—and this was pretty much all the
“I don’t want to find fault with your leadsmen, but that’s a time, because of the crookedness of the channel and the scant good deal of water for Plum Point, it seems to me.” water. I stood in a corner; and the talk I listened to took the There was an approving nod all around as this quiet snub 43
Life on the Mississippi - Mark Twain dropped on the boaster and “settled” him. And so they went sion. I took my supper and went immediately to bed, dis-on talk-talk talking. Meantime, the thing that was running couraged by my day’s observations and experiences. My late in my mind was, “Now if my ears hear aright, I have not voyage’s note-booking was but a confusion of meaningless only to get the names of all the towns and islands and bends, names. It had tangled me all up in a knot every time I had and so on, by heart, but I must even get up a warm personal looked at it in the daytime. I now hoped for respite in sleep; acquaintanceship with every old snag and one-limbed cot-but no, it reveled all through my head till sunrise again, a ton-wood and obscure wood pile that ornaments the banks frantic and tireless nightmare.
of this river for twelve hundred miles; and more than that, I Next morning I felt pretty rusty and low-spirited. We went must actually know where these things are in the dark, un-booming along, taking a good many chances, for we were less these guests are gifted with eyes that can pierce through anxious to “get out of the river” (as getting out to Cairo was two miles of solid blackness; I wish the piloting business was called) before night should overtake us. But Mr. Bixby’s partin Jericho and I had never thought of it.” ner, the other pilot, presently grounded the boat, and we At dusk Mr. Bixby tapped the big bell three times (the lost so much time in getting her off that it was plain that signal to land), and the captain emerged from his drawing-darkness would overtake us a good long way above the mouth.
room in the forward end of the texas, and looked up inquir-This was a great misfortune, especially to certain of our vis-ingly. Mr. Bixby said—
iting pilots, whose boats would have to wait for their return,
“We will lay up here all night, captain.” no matter how long that might be. It sobered the pilot-house
“Very well, sir.”
talk a good deal. Coming up-stream, pilots did not mind That was all. The boat came to shore and was tied up for low water or any kind of darkness; nothing stopped them the night. It seemed to me a fine thing that the pilot could but fog. But down-stream work was different; a boat was too do as he pleased, without asking so grand a captain’s permis-nearly helpless, with a stiff current pushing behind her; so it 44
Life on the Mississippi - Mark Twain was not customary to run down-stream at night in low wa-W——stepped aside. For the next thirty minutes every man ter.
held his watch in his hand and was restless, silent, and un-There seemed to be one small hope, however: if we could easy. At last somebody said, with a doomful sigh—
get through the intricate and dangerous Hat Island crossing
“Well, yonder’s Hat Island—and we can’t make it.” All the before night, we could venture the rest, for we would have watches closed with a snap, everybody sighed and muttered plainer sailing and better water. But it would be insanity to something about its being ‘too bad, too bad—ah, if we could attempt Hat Island at night. So there was a deal of looking at only have got here half an hour sooner!’ and the place was watches all the rest of the day, and a constant ciphering upon thick with the atmosphere of disappointment. Some started the speed we were making; Hat Island was the eternal sub-to go out, but loitered, hearing no bell-tap to land. The sun ject; sometimes hope was high and sometimes we were de-dipped behind the horizon, the boat went on. Inquiring looks layed in a bad crossing, and down it went again. For hours passed from one guest to another; and one who had his hand all hands lay under the burden of this suppressed excite-on the door-knob and had turned it, waited, then presently ment; it was even communicated to me, and I got to feeling took away his hand and let the knob turn back again. We so solicitous about Hat Island, and under such an awful pres-bore steadily down the bend. More looks were exchanged, sure of responsibility, that I wished I might have five min-and nods of surprised admiration—but no words. Insensi-utes on shore to draw a good, full, relieving breath, and start bly the men drew together behind Mr. Bixby, as the sky over again. We were standing no regular watches. Each of darkened and one or two dim stars came out. The dead si-our pilots ran such portions of the river as he had run when lence and sense of waiting became oppressive. Mr. Bixby coming up-stream, because of his greater familiarity with it; pulled the cord, and two deep, mellow notes from the big but both remained in the pilot house constantly.
bell floated off on the night. Then a pause, and one more An hour before sunset, Mr. Bixby took the wheel and Mr.
note was struck. The watchman’s voice followed, from the 45
Life on the Mississippi - Mark Twain hurricane deck—
After a pause, another subdued voice—
“Labboard lead, there! Stabboard lead!”
“Her stern’s coming down just exactly right, by George!” The cries of the leadsmen began to rise out of the dis-
“Now she’s in the marks; over she goes!” tance, and were gruffly repeated by the word-passers on the Somebody else muttered—
“Oh, it was done beautiful—BEAUTIFUL!”
“M-a-r-k three!.... M-a-r-k three!.... Quarter-less three! ....
Now the engines were stopped altogether, and we drifted Half twain! .... Quarter twain! .... M-a-r-k twain! .... Quar-with the current. Not that I could see the boat drift, for I ter-less—”
could not, the stars being all gone by this time. This drifting Mr. Bixby pulled two bell-ropes, and was answered by faint was the dismalest work; it held one’s heart still. Presently I jinglings far below in the engine room, and our speed slack-discovered a blacker gloom than that which surrounded us.
ened. The steam began to whistle through the gauge-cocks.
It was the head of the island. We were closing right down The cries of the leadsmen went on—and it is a weird sound, upon it. We entered its deeper shadow, and so imminent always, in the night. Every pilot in the lot was watching seemed the peril that I was likely to suffocate; and I had the now, with fixed eyes, and talking under his breath. Nobody strongest impulse to do SOMETHING, anything, to save was calm and easy but Mr. Bixby. He would put his wheel the vessel. But still Mr. Bixby stood by his wheel, silent, down and stand on a spoke, and as the steamer swung into intent as a cat, and all the pilots stood shoulder to shoulder her (to me) utterly invisible marks—for we seemed to be in at his back.
the midst of a wide and gloomy sea—he would meet and
“She’ll not make it!” somebody whispered.
fasten her there. Out of the murmur of half-audible talk, The water grew shoaler and shoaler, by the leadsman’s cries, one caught a coherent sentence now and then—such as—
till it was down to—
“There; she’s over the first reef all right!”
“Eight-and-a-half!.... E-i-g-h-t feet!.... E-i-g-h-t feet!....
Life on the Mississippi - Mark Twain Seven-and—”
of the island so closely as to brush the overhanging foliage Mr. Bixby said warningly through his speaking tube to with her stern, but at one place she must pass almost within the engineer—
arm’s reach of a sunken and invisible wreck that would snatch
“Stand by, now!”
the hull timbers from under her if she should strike it, and
destroy a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of steam-boat
“Seven-and-a-half! Seven feet! Six-and—” and cargo in five minutes, and maybe a hundred and fifty We touched bottom! Instantly Mr. Bixby set a lot of bells human lives into the bargain.
ringing, shouted through the tube, “NOW, let her have it—
The last remark I heard that night was a compliment to every ounce you’ve got!” then to his partner, “Put her hard Mr. Bixby, uttered in soliloquy and with unction by one of down! snatch her! snatch her!” The boat rasped and ground our guests. He said—
her way through the sand, hung upon the apex of disaster a
“By the Shadow of Death, but he’s a lightning pilot!” single tremendous instant, and then over she went! And such a shout as went up at Mr. Bixby’s back never loosened the Chapter 8
roof of a pilot-house before!
There was no more trouble after that. Mr. Bixby was a Perplexing Lessons
hero that night; and it was some little time, too, before his exploit ceased to be talked about by river men.
AT THE END OF WHAT SEEMED A TEDIOUS WHILE, I had manFully to realize the marvelous precision required in laying aged to pack my head full of islands, towns, bars, “points,” the great steamer in her marks in that murky waste of water, and bends; and a curiously inanimate mass of lumber it was, one should know that not only must she pick her intricate too. However, inasmuch as I could shut my eyes and reel off way through snags and blind reefs, and then shave the head a good long string of these names without leaving out more 47
Life on the Mississippi - Mark Twain than ten miles of river in every fifty, I began to feel that I hasn’t the same shape in the night that it has in the day-could take a boat down to New Orleans if I could make her time.”
skip those little gaps. But of course my complacency could
“How on earth am I ever going to learn it, then?” hardly get start enough to lift my nose a trifle into the air,
“How do you follow a hall at home in the dark. Because before Mr. Bixby would think of something to fetch it down you know the shape of it. You can’t see it.” again. One day he turned on me suddenly with this set-
“Do you mean to say that I’ve got to know all the million tler—
trifling variations of shape in the banks of this interminable
“What is the shape of Walnut Bend?”
river as well as I know the shape of the front hall at home?” He might as well have asked me my grandmother’s opin-
“On my honor, you’ve got to know them better than any ion of protoplasm. I reflected respectfully, and then said I man ever did know the shapes of the halls in his own house.” didn’t know it had any particular shape. My gunpowdery
“I wish I was dead!”
chief went off with a bang, of course, and then went on
“Now I don’t want to discourage you, but——” loading and firing until he was out of adjectives.
“Well, pile it on me; I might as well have it now as another I had learned long ago that he only carried just so many time.”
rounds of ammunition, and was sure to subside into a very
“You see, this has got to be learned; there isn’t any getting placable and even remorseful old smooth-bore as soon as around it. A clear starlight night throws such heavy shadows they were all gone. That word ‘old’ is merely affectionate; he that if you didn’t know the shape of a shore perfectly you was not more than thirty-four. I waited. By and by he said—
would claw away from every bunch of timber, because you
“My boy, you’ve got to know the shape of the river per-would take the black shadow of it for a solid cape; and you fectly. It is all there is left to steer by on a very dark night.
see you would be getting scared to death every fifteen min-Everything else is blotted out and gone. But mind you, it utes by the watch. You would be fifty yards from shore all 48
Life on the Mississippi - Mark Twain the time when you ought to be within fifty feet of it. You
“NO! you only learn the shape of the river, and you learn can’t see a snag in one of those shadows, but you know ex-it with such absolute certainty that you can always steer by actly where it is, and the shape of the river tells you when the shape that’s in your head, and never mind the one that’s you are coming to it. Then there’s your pitch-dark night; the before your eyes.”
river is a very different shape on a pitch-dark night from
“Very well, I’ll try it; but after I have learned it can I de-what it is on a starlight night. All shores seem to be straight pend on it. Will it keep the same form and not go fooling lines, then, and mighty dim ones, too; and you’d run them around?”
for straight lines only you know better. You boldly drive your Before Mr. Bixby could answer, Mr. W—— came in to boat right into what seems to be a solid, straight wall (you take the watch, and he said—
knowing very well that in reality there is a curve there), and
“Bixby, you’ll have to look out for President’s Island and that wall falls back and makes way for you. Then there’s all that country clear away up above he Old Hen and Chick-your gray mist. You take a night when there’s one of these ens. The banks are caving and the shape of the shores chang-grisly, drizzly, gray mists, and then there isn’t any particular ing like everything. Why, you wouldn’t know the point above shape to a shore. A gray mist would tangle the head of the 40. You can go up inside the old sycamore-snag, now.”*
oldest man that ever lived. Well, then, different kinds of So that question was answered. Here were leagues of shore moonlight change the shape of the river in different ways.
changing shape. My spirits were down in the mud again.
Two things seemed pretty apparent to me. One was, that in
“Oh, don’t say any more, please! Have I got to learn the order to be a pilot a man had got to learn more than any one shape of the river according to all these five hundred thou-man ought to be allowed to know; and the other was, that sand different ways? If I tried to carry all that cargo in my head it would make me stoop-shouldered.”
*It may not be necessary, but still it can do no harm to explain that “inside” means between the snag and the shore.—M.T.
Life on the Mississippi - Mark Twain he must learn it all over again in a different way every twenty-bend, and say we were abreast of such-and-such a man’s wood-four hours.
yard or plantation. This was courtesy; I supposed it was ne-That night we had the watch until twelve. Now it was an cessity. But Mr. W—— came on watch full twelve minutes ancient river custom for the two pilots to chat a bit when the late on this particular night,—a tremendous breach of eti-watch changed. While the relieving pilot put on his gloves quette; in fact, it is the unpardonable sin among pilots. So and lit his cigar, his partner, the retiring pilot, would say Mr. Bixby gave him no greeting whatever, but simply sur-something like this—
rendered the wheel and marched out of the pilot-house with-
“I judge the upper bar is making down a little at Hale’s out a word. I was appalled; it was a villainous night for black-Point; had quarter twain with the lower lead and mark twain*
ness, we were in a particularly wide and blind part of the with the other.”
river, where there was no shape or substance to anything,
“Yes, I thought it was making down a little, last trip. Meet and it seemed incredible that Mr. Bixby should have left any boats?”
that poor fellow to kill the boat trying to find out where he
“Met one abreast the head of 21, but she was away over was. But I resolved that I would stand by him any way. He hugging the bar, and I couldn’t make her out entirely. I took should find that he was not wholly friendless. So I stood her for the ‘Sunny South’—hadn’t any skylights forward of around, and waited to be asked where we were. But Mr.
W—— plunged on serenely through the solid firmament of And so on. And as the relieving pilot took the wheel his black cats that stood for an atmosphere, and never opened partner* would mention that we were in such-and-such a his mouth. Here is a proud devil, thought I; here is a limb of Satan that would rather send us all to destruction than put himself under obligations to me, because I am not yet one of
*Two fathoms. “Quarter twain” is two-and-a-quarter fathoms, thirteen-and-a-half feet. ‘Mark three’ is three fathoms.
*”Partner” is a technical term for “the other pilot.” 50
Life on the Mississippi - Mark Twain the salt of the earth and privileged to snub captains and lord to know the river in the night the same as he’d know his own it over everything dead and alive in a steamboat. I presently front hall?”
climbed up on the bench; I did not think it was safe to go to
“Well, I can follow the front hall in the dark if I know it is sleep while this lunatic was on watch.
the front hall; but suppose you set me down in the middle of However, I must have gone to sleep in the course of time, it in the dark and not tell me which hall it is; how am I to because the next thing I was aware of was the fact that day know?”
was breaking, Mr. W—— gone, and Mr. Bixby at the wheel
“Well you’ve got to, on the river!” again. So it was four o’clock and all well—but me; I felt like
“All right. Then I’m glad I never said anything to Mr. W—” a skinful of dry bones and all of them trying to ache at once.
“I should say so. Why, he’d have slammed you through Mr. Bixby asked me what I had stayed up there for. I con-the window and utterly ruined a hundred dollars’ worth of fessed that it was to do Mr. W—— a benevolence,—tell window-sash and stuff.”
him where he was. It took five minutes for the entire pre-I was glad this damage had been saved, for it would have posterousness of the thing to filter into Mr. Bixby’s system, made me unpopular with the owners. They always hated and then I judge it filled him nearly up to the chin; because anybody who had the name of being careless, and injuring he paid me a compliment—and not much of a one either.
I went to work now to learn the shape of the river; and of
“Well, taking you by-and-large, you do seem to be more all the eluding and ungraspable objects that ever I tried to different kinds of an ass than any creature I ever saw before.
get mind or hands on, that was the chief. I would fasten my What did you suppose he wanted to know for?” eyes upon a sharp, wooded point that projected far into the I said I thought it might be a convenience to him.
river some miles ahead of me, and go to laboriously photo-
“Convenience D-nation! Didn’t I tell you that a man’s got graphing its shape upon my brain; and just as I was begin-51
Life on the Mississippi - Mark Twain ning to succeed to my satisfaction, we would draw up to-the other, I’ve got to waltz to larboard again, or I’ll have a ward it and the exasperating thing would begin to melt away misunderstanding with a snag that would snatch the keelson and fold back into the bank! If there had been a conspicuous out of this steamboat as neatly as if it were a sliver in your dead tree standing upon the very point of the cape, I would hand. If that hill didn’t change its shape on bad nights there find that tree inconspicuously merged into the general for-would be an awful steamboat grave-yard around here inside est, and occupying the middle of a straight shore, when I got of a year.”
abreast of it! No prominent hill would stick to its shape long It was plain that I had got to learn the shape of the river in enough for me to make up my mind what its form really all the different ways that could be thought of,—upside down, was, but it was as dissolving and changeful as if it had been a wrong end first, inside out, fore-and-aft, and “thortships,”—
mountain of butter in the hottest corner of the tropics. Noth-and then know what to do on gray nights when it hadn’t any ing ever had the same shape when I was coming downstream shape at all. So I set about it. In the course of time I began to that it had borne when I went up. I mentioned these little get the best of this knotty lesson, and my self-complacency difficulties to Mr. Bixby. He said—
moved to the front once more. Mr. Bixby was all fixed, and
“That’s the very main virtue of the thing. If the shapes ready to start it to the rear again. He opened on me after this didn’t change every three seconds they wouldn’t be of any fashion—
use. Take this place where we are now, for instance. As long
“How much water did we have in the middle crossing at as that hill over yonder is only one hill, I can boom right Hole-in-the-Wall, trip before last?”
along the way I’m going; but the moment it splits at the top I considered this an outrage. I said—
and forms a V, I know I’ve got to scratch to starboard in a
“Every trip, down and up, the leadsmen are singing through hurry, or I’ll bang this boat’s brains out against a rock; and that tangled place for three-quarters of an hour on a stretch.
then the moment one of the prongs of the V swings behind How do you reckon I can remember such a mess as that?” 52
Life on the Mississippi - Mark Twain
“My boy, you’ve got to remember it. You’ve got to remem-Chapter 9
ber the exact spot and the exact marks the boat lay in when we had the shoalest water, in everyone of the five hundred Continued Perplexities
shoal places between St. Louis and New Orleans; and you mustn’t get the shoal soundings and marks of one trip mixed THERE WAS NO USE IN ARGUING with a person like this. I up with the shoal soundings and marks of another, either, promptly put such a strain on my memory that by and by for they’re not often twice alike. You must keep them sepa-even the shoal water and the countless crossing-marks began rate.”
to stay with me. But the result was just the same. I never When I came to myself again, I said—
could more than get one knotty thing learned before an-
“When I get so that I can do that, I’ll be able to raise the other presented itself. Now I had often seen pilots gazing at dead, and then I won’t have to pilot a steamboat to make a the water and pretending to read it as if it were a book; but living. I want to retire from this business. I want a slush-it was a book that told me nothing. A time came at last, bucket and a brush; I’m only fit for a roustabout. I haven’t however, when Mr. Bixby seemed to think me far enough got brains enough to be a pilot; and if I had I wouldn’t have advanced to bear a lesson on water-reading. So he began—
strength enough to carry them around, unless I went on
“Do you see that long slanting line on the face of the wa-crutches.”
ter Now, that’s a reef. Moreover, it’s a bluff reef. There is a
“Now drop that! When I say I’ll learn* a man the river, I solid sand-bar under it that is nearly as straight up and down mean it. And you can depend on it, I’ll learn him or kill as the side of a house. There is plenty of water close up to it, him.”
but mighty little on top of it. If you were to hit it you would knock the boat’s brains out. Do you see where the line fringes out at the upper end and begins to fade away?”
*‘Teach’ is not in the river vocabulary.
Life on the Mississippi - Mark Twain
well up on the bar, now; there is a bar under every point,
“Well, that is a low place; that is the head of the reef. You because the water that comes down around it forms an eddy can climb over there, and not hurt anything. Cross over, and allows the sediment to sink. Do you see those fine lines now, and follow along close under the reef—easy water on the face of the water that branch out like the ribs of a fan.
there—not much current.”
Well, those are little reefs; you want to just miss the ends of I followed the reef along till I approached the fringed end.
them, but run them pretty close. Now look out—look out!
Then Mr. Bixby said—
Don’t you crowd that slick, greasy-looking place; there ain’t
“Now get ready. Wait till I give the word. She won’t want nine feet there; she won’t stand it. She begins to smell it; to mount the reef; a boat hates shoal water. Stand by—wait—
look sharp, I tell you! Oh blazes, there you go! Stop the star-WAIT—keep her well in hand. Now cramp her down! Snatch board wheel! Quick! Ship up to back! Set her back!” her! snatch her!”
The engine bells jingled and the engines answered He seized the other side of the wheel and helped to spin it promptly, shooting white columns of steam far aloft out of around until it was hard down, and then we held it so. The the ‘scape pipes, but it was too late. The boat had ‘smelt’ the boat resisted, and refused to answer for a while, and next she bar in good earnest; the foamy ridges that radiated from her came surging to starboard, mounted the reef, and sent a long, bows suddenly disappeared, a great dead swell came rolling angry ridge of water foaming away from her bows.
forward and swept ahead of her, she careened far over to
“Now watch her; watch her like a cat, or she’ll get away larboard, and went tearing away toward the other shore as if from you. When she fights strong and the tiller slips a little, she were about scared to death. We were a good mile from in a jerky, greasy sort of way, let up on her a trifle; it is the where we ought to have been, when we finally got the upper way she tells you at night that the water is too shoal; but hand of her again.
keep edging her up, little by little, toward the point. You are During the afternoon watch the next day, Mr. Bixby asked 54
Life on the Mississippi - Mark Twain me if I knew how to run the next few miles. I said—
know which end I stood on; I gasped and could not get my
“Go inside the first snag above the point, outside the next breath; I spun the wheel down with such rapidity that it one, start out from the lower end of Higgins’s wood-yard, wove itself together like a spider’s web; the boat answered make a square crossing and—”
and turned square away from the reef, but the reef followed
“That’s all right. I’ll be back before you close up on the her! I fled, and still it followed, still it kept—right across my next point.”
bows! I never looked to see where I was going, I only fled.
But he wasn’t. He was still below when I rounded it and The awful crash was imminent—why didn’t that villain come!
entered upon a piece of river which I had some misgivings If I committed the crime of ringing a bell, I might get thrown about. I did not know that he was hiding behind a chimney overboard. But better that than kill the boat. So in blind to see how I would perform. I went gaily along, getting desperation I started such a rattling ‘shivaree’ down below as prouder and prouder, for he had never left the boat in my never had astounded an engineer in this world before, I fancy.
sole charge such a length of time before. I even got to ‘set-Amidst the frenzy of the bells the engines began to back and ting’ her and letting the wheel go, entirely, while I vainglori-fill in a furious way, and my reason forsook its throne—we ously turned my back and inspected the stem marks and were about to crash into the woods on the other side of the hummed a tune, a sort of easy indifference which I had pro-river. Just then Mr. Bixby stepped calmly into view on the digiously admired in Bixby and other great pilots. Once I hurricane deck. My soul went out to him in gratitude. My inspected rather long, and when I faced to the front again distress vanished; I would have felt safe on the brink of my heart flew into my mouth so suddenly that if I hadn’t Niagara, with Mr. Bixby on the hurricane deck. He blandly clapped my teeth together I should have lost it. One of those and sweetly took his tooth-pick out of his mouth between frightful bluff reefs was stretching its deadly length right his fingers, as if it were a cigar—we were just in the act of across our bows! My head was gone in a moment; I did not climbing an overhanging big tree, and the passengers were 55
Life on the Mississippi - Mark Twain scudding astern like rats—and lifted up these commands to
“No sir,—and I wasn’t trying to follow it. I was getting me ever so gently—
away from a bluff reef.”
“Stop the starboard. Stop the larboard. Set her back on
“No, it wasn’t a bluff reef; there isn’t one within three miles both.”
of where you were.”
The boat hesitated, halted, pressed her nose among the
“But I saw it. It was as bluff as that one yonder.” boughs a critical instant, then reluctantly began to back away.
“Just about. Run over it!”
“Stop the larboard. Come ahead on it. Stop the starboard.
“Do you give it as an order?”
Come ahead on it. Point her for the bar.”
“Yes. Run over it.”
I sailed away as serenely as a summer’s morning Mr. Bixby
“If I don’t, I wish I may die.”
came in and said, with mock simplicity—
“All right; I am taking the responsibility.” I was just as
“When you have a hail, my boy, you ought to tap the big anxious to kill the boat, now, as I had been to save her be-bell three times before you land, so that the engineers can fore. I impressed my orders upon my memory, to be used at get ready.”
the inquest, and made a straight break for the reef. As it I blushed under the sarcasm, and said I hadn’t had any disappeared under our bows I held my breath; but we slid hail.
over it like oil.
“Ah! Then it was for wood, I suppose. The officer of the
“Now don’t you see the difference? It wasn’t anything but watch will tell you when he wants to wood up.” a wind reef. The wind does that.” I went on consuming and said I wasn’t after wood.
“So I see. But it is exactly like a bluff reef. How am I ever
“Indeed? Why, what could you want over here in the bend, going to tell them apart?”
then? Did you ever know of a boat following a bend up-
“I can’t tell you. It is an instinct. By and by you will just stream at this stage of the river?”
naturally know one from the other, but you never will be 56
Life on the Mississippi - Mark Twain able to explain why or how you know them apart” life out of the strongest vessel that ever floated. It is the faintest It turned out to be true. The face of the water, in time, and simplest expression the water ever makes, and the most became a wonderful book—a book that was a dead language hideous to a pilot’s eye. In truth, the passenger who could to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me not read this book saw nothing but all manner of pretty without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly pictures in it painted by the sun and shaded by the clouds, as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be whereas to the trained eye these were not pictures at all, but read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell the grimmest and most dead-earnest of reading-matter.
every day. Throughout the long twelve hundred miles there Now when I had mastered the language of this water and was never a page that was void of interest, never one that had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the you could leave unread without loss, never one that you great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, would want to skip, thinking you could find higher enjoyI had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, ment in some other thing. There never was so wonderful a too. I had lost something which could never be restored to book written by man; never one whose interest was so ab-me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had sorbing, so unflagging, so sparkingly renewed with every re-gone out of the majestic river! I still keep in mind a certain perusal. The passenger who could not read it was charmed wonderful sunset which I witnessed when steamboating was with a peculiar sort of faint dimple on its surface (on the new to me. A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; rare occasions when he did not overlook it altogether); but in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, to the pilot that was an italicized passage; indeed, it was more through which a solitary log came floating, black and con-than that, it was a legend of the largest capitals, with a string spicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling of shouting exclamation points at the end of it; for it meant upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boil-that a wreck or a rock was buried there that could tear the ing, tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted as an opal; 57
Life on the Mississippi - Mark Twain where the ruddy flush was faintest, was a smooth spot that sun means that we are going to have wind to-morrow; that was covered with graceful circles and radiating lines, ever so floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; delicately traced; the shore on our left was densely wooded, that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is and the somber shadow that fell from this forest was broken going to kill somebody’s steamboat one of these nights, if it in one place by a long, ruffled trail that shone like silver; and keeps on stretching out like that; those tumbling ‘boils’ show high above the forest wall a clean-stemmed dead tree waved a dissolving bar and a changing channel there; the lines and a single leafy bough that glowed like a flame in the unob-circles in the slick water over yonder are a warning that that structed splendor that was flowing from the sun. There were troublesome place is shoaling up dangerously; that silver graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft dis-streak in the shadow of the forest is the “break” from a new tances; and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving snag, and he has located himself in the very best place he lights drifted steadily, enriching it, every passing moment, could have found to fish for steamboats; that tall dead tree, with new marvels of coloring.
with a single living branch, is not going to last long, and I stood like one bewitched. I drank it in, in a speechless then how is a body ever going to get through this blind place rapture. The world was new to me, and I had never seen at night without the friendly old landmark.
anything like this at home. But as I have said, a day came No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the river’s face; another day came when I ceased altogether the safe piloting of a steamboat. Since those days, I have to note them. Then, if that sunset scene had been repeated, pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in I should have looked upon it without rapture, and should a beauty’s cheek mean to a doctor but a “break” that ripples have commented upon it, inwardly, after this fashion: This above some deadly disease. Are not all her visible charms 58
Life on the Mississippi - Mark Twain sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of when you apply it to vast streams like the Mississippi and hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn’t the Missouri, whose alluvial banks cave and change con-he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her stantly, whose snags are always hunting up new quarters, unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn’t he some-whose sand-bars are never at rest, whose channels are for times wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by ever dodging and shirking, and whose obstructions must be learning his trade?
confronted in all nights and all weathers without the aid of a single light-house or a single buoy; for there is neither light Chapter 10
nor buoy to be found anywhere in all this three or four thousand miles of villainous river.* I feel justified in enlarging Completing My Education
upon this great science for the reason that I feel sure no one has ever yet written a paragraph about it who had piloted a WHOSOEVER HAS DONE ME THE COURTESY to read my chapters steamboat himself, and so had a practical knowledge of the which have preceded this may possibly wonder that I deal so subject. If the theme were hackneyed, I should be obliged to minutely with piloting as a science. It was the prime pur-deal gently with the reader; but since it is wholly new, I have pose of those chapters; and I am not quite done yet. I wish felt at liberty to take up a considerable degree of room with to show, in the most patient and painstaking way, what a it.
wonderful science it is. Ship channels are buoyed and lighted, When I had learned the name and position of every vis-and therefore it is a comparatively easy undertaking to learn ible feature of the river; when I had so mastered its shape to run them; clear-water rivers, with gravel bottoms, change that I could shut my eyes and trace it from St. Louis to New their channels very gradually, and therefore one needs to Orleans; when I had learned to read the face of the water as learn them but once; but piloting becomes another matter
*True at the time referred to; not true now (1882).
Life on the Mississippi - Mark Twain one would cull the news from the morning paper; and fi-
“The leads tell me that.” I rather thought I had the ad-nally, when I had trained my dull memory to treasure up an vantage of him there.
endless array of soundings and crossing-marks, and keep fast
“Yes, but suppose the leads lie? The bank would tell you hold of them, I judged that my education was complete: so so, and then you’d stir those leadsmen up a bit. There was a I got to tilting my cap to the side of my head, and wearing a ten-foot bank here last trip, and there is only a six-foot bank tooth-pick in my mouth at the wheel. Mr. Bixby had his eye now. What does that signify?”
on these airs. One day he said—
“That the river is four feet higher than it was last trip.”
“What is the height of that bank yonder, at Burgess’s?”
“Very good. Is the river rising or falling?”
“How can I tell, sir. It is three-quarters of a mile away.”
“Very poor eye—very poor. Take the glass.”
“No it ain’t.”
I took the glass, and presently said— “I can’t tell. I sup-
“I guess I am right, sir. Yonder is some drift-wood floating pose that that bank is about a foot and a half high.” down the stream.”
“Foot and a half! That’s a six-foot bank. How high was the
“A rise starts the drift-wood, but then it keeps on floating bank along here last trip?”
a while after the river is done rising. Now the bank will tell
“I don’t know; I never noticed.”
you about this. Wait till you come to a place where it shelves
“You didn’t? Well, you must always do it hereafter.” a little. Now here; do you see this narrow belt of fine sedi-
ment That was deposited while the water was higher. You
“Because you’ll have to know a good many things that it see the driftwood begins to strand, too. The bank helps in tells you. For one thing, it tells you the stage of the river—
other ways. Do you see that stump on the false point?” tells you whether there’s more water or less in the river along
“Ay, ay, sir.”
here than there was last trip.”
“Well, the water is just up to the roots of it. You must 60
Life on the Mississippi - Mark Twain make a note of that.”
“And how about these chutes. Are there many of them?”
“I should say so. I fancy we shan’t run any of the river this
“Because that means that there’s seven feet in the chute of trip as you’ve ever seen it run before—so to speak. If the 103.”
river begins to rise again, we’ll go up behind bars that you’ve
“But 103 is a long way up the river yet.” always seen standing out of the river, high and dry like the
“That’s where the benefit of the bank comes in. There is roof of a house; we’ll cut across low places that you’ve never water enough in 103 NOW, yet there may not be by the noticed at all, right through the middle of bars that cover time we get there; but the bank will keep us posted all along.
three hundred acres of river; we’ll creep through cracks where You don’t run close chutes on a falling river, up-stream, and you’ve always thought was solid land; we’ll dart through the there are precious few of them that you are allowed to run at woods and leave twenty-five miles of river off to one side; all down-stream. There’s a law of the United States against we’ll see the hind-side of every island between New Orleans it. The river may be rising by the time we get to 103, and in and Cairo.”
that case we’ll run it. We are drawing—how much?”
“Then I’ve got to go to work and learn just as much more
“Six feet aft,—six and a half forward.” river as I already know.”
“Well, you do seem to know something.”
“Just about twice as much more, as near as you can come
“But what I particularly want to know is, if I have got to at it.”
keep up an everlasting measuring of the banks of this river,
“Well, one lives to find out. I think I was a fool when I twelve hundred miles, month in and month out?” went into this business.”
“Yes, that is true. And you are yet. But you’ll not be when My emotions were too deep for words for a while. Pres-you’ve learned it.”
ently I said—
“Ah, I never can learn it.”
Life on the Mississippi - Mark Twain
“I will see that you do.”
They are too narrow to turn around in, too crooked to back By and by I ventured again—
out of, and the shoal water is always up at the head; never
“Have I got to learn all this thing just as I know the rest of elsewhere. And the head of them is always likely to be filling the river—shapes and all—and so I can run it at night?” up, little by little, so that the marks you reckon their depth
“Yes. And you’ve got to have good fair marks from one by, this season, may not answer for next.” end of the river to the other, that will help the bank tell you
“Learn a new set, then, every year?”
when there is water enough in each of these countless places—
“Exactly. Cramp her up to the bar! What are you standing like that stump, you know. When the river first begins to up through the middle of the river for?” rise, you can run half a dozen of the deepest of them; when The next few months showed me strange things. On the it rises a foot more you can run another dozen; the next foot same day that we held the conversation above narrated, we will add a couple of dozen, and so on: so you see you have to met a great rise coming down the river. The whole vast face know your banks and marks to a dead moral certainty, and of the stream was black with drifting dead logs, broken never get them mixed; for when you start through one of boughs, and great trees that had caved in and been washed those cracks, there’s no backing out again, as there is in the away. It required the nicest steering to pick one’s way through big river; you’ve got to go through, or stay there six months this rushing raft, even in the day-time, when crossing from if you get caught on a falling river. There are about fifty of point to point; and at night the difficulty was mightily in-these cracks which you can’t run at all except when the river creased; every now and then a huge log, lying deep in the is brim full and over the banks.”
water, would suddenly appear right under our bows, com-
“This new lesson is a cheerful prospect.” ing head-on; no use to try to avoid it then; we could only
“Cheerful enough. And mind what I’ve just told you; when stop the engines, and one wheel would walk over that log you start into one of those places you’ve got to go through.
from one end to the other, keeping up a thundering racket 62
Life on the Mississippi - Mark Twain and careening the boat in a way that was very uncomfort-murky night, a light would hop up, right under our bows, able to passengers. Now and then we would hit one of these almost, and an agonized voice, with the backwoods “whang” sunken logs a rattling bang, dead in the center, with a full to it, would wail out—
head of steam, and it would stun the boat as if she had hit a
“Whar’n the —— you goin’ to! Cain’t you see nothin’, continent. Sometimes this log would lodge, and stay right you dash-dashed aig-suckin’, sheep-stealin’, one-eyed son of across our nose, and back the Mississippi up before it; we a stuffed monkey!”
would have to do a little craw-fishing, then, to get away Then for an instant, as we whistled by, the red glare from from the obstruction. We often hit white logs, in the dark, our furnaces would reveal the scow and the form of the ges-for we could not see them till we were right on them; but a ticulating orator as if under a lightning-flash, and in that black log is a pretty distinct object at night. A white snag is instant our firemen and deck-hands would send and receive an ugly customer when the daylight is gone.
a tempest of missiles and profanity, one of our wheels would Of course, on the great rise, down came a swarm of prodi-walk off with the crashing fragments of a steering-oar, and gious timber-rafts from the head waters of the Mississippi, down the dead blackness would shut again. And that coal barges from Pittsburgh, little trading scows from every-flatboatman would be sure to go into New Orleans and sue where, and broad-horns from “Posey County,” Indiana, our boat, swearing stoutly that he had a light burning all the freighted with “fruit and furniture”—the usual term for de-time, when in truth his gang had the lantern down below to scribing it, though in plain English the freight thus aggran-sing and lie and drink and gamble by, and no watch on deck.
dized was hoop-poles and pumpkins. Pilots bore a mortal Once, at night, in one of those forest-bordered crevices (be-hatred to these craft; and it was returned with usury. The hind an island) which steamboatmen intensely describe with law required all such helpless traders to keep a light burning, the phrase “as dark as the inside of a cow,” we should have but it was a law that was often broken. All of a sudden, on a eaten up a Posey County family, fruit, furniture, and all, but 63
Life on the Mississippi - Mark Twain that they happened to be fiddling down below, and we just shoal water. And then there would be no end of profane caught the sound of the music in time to sheer off, doing no cordialities exchanged.
serious damage, unfortunately, but coming so near it that Sometimes, in the big river, when we would be feeling our we had good hopes for a moment. These people brought up way cautiously along through a fog, the deep hush would their lantern, then, of course; and as we backed and filled to suddenly be broken by yells and a clamor of tin pans, and all get away, the precious family stood in the light of it—both in instant a log raft would appear vaguely through the webby sexes and various ages—and cursed us till everything turned veil, close upon us; and then we did not wait to swap knives, blue. Once a coalboatman sent a bullet through our pilot-but snatched our engine bells out by the roots and piled on house, when we borrowed a steering oar of him in a very all the steam we had, to scramble out of the way! One doesn’t narrow place.
hit a rock or a solid log craft with a steamboat when he can get excused.