It was a rather dingy night, although a fair number of stars were out. The big mate was at the wheel, and he had the old tub pointed at a star and was holding her straight up the middle of the river. The shores on either hand were not much more than half a mile apart, but they seemed wonderfully far away and ever so vague and indistinct. The mate said:--
'We've got to land at Jones's plantation, sir.'
The vengeful spirit in me exulted. I said to myself, I wish you joy of your job, Mr. Bixby; you'll have a good time finding Mr. Jones's plantation such a night as this; and I hope you never WILL find it as long as you live.
Mr. Bixby said to the mate:--
'Upper end of the plantation, or the lower.?'
'I can't do it. The stumps there are out of water at this stage: It's no great distance to the lower, and you'll have to get along with that.'
'All right, sir. If Jones don't like it he'll have to lump it, I reckon.'
And then the mate left. My exultation began to cool and my wonder to come up. Here was a man who not only proposed to find this plantation on such a night, but to find either end of it you preferred. I dreadfully wanted to ask a question, but I was carrying about as many short answers as my cargo-room would admit of, so I held my peace. All I desired to ask Mr. Bixby was the simple question whether he was ass enough to really imagine he was going to find that plantation on a night when all plantations were exactly alike and all the same color. But I held in. I used to have fine inspirations of prudence in those days.
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 me again.
'Look here! What do you suppose I told you the names of those points for?'
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.