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?
Chapter 10 Completing My Education
WHOSOEVER has done me the courtesy to read my chapters which have preceded
this may possibly wonder that I deal so minutely with piloting as a science.
It was the prime purpose of those chapters; and I am not quite done yet.
I wish to show, in the most patient and painstaking way, what a wonderful
science it is. Ship channels are buoyed and lighted, and therefore it is
a comparatively easy undertaking to learn to run them; clear-water rivers,
with gravel bottoms, change their channels very gradually, and therefore
one needs to learn them but once; but piloting becomes another matter
when you apply it to vast streams like the Mississippi and the Missouri,
whose alluvial banks cave and change constantly, whose snags are always
hunting up new quarters, whose sand-bars are never at rest, whose channels
are for ever dodging and shirking, and whose obstructions must be
confronted in all nights and all weathers without the aid of a single
light-house or a single buoy; for there is neither light nor buoy to be
found anywhere in all this three or four thousand miles of villainous
When I had learned the name and position of every visible feature of the river; when I had so mastered its shape that I could shut my eyes and trace it from St. Louis to New Orleans; when I had learned to read the face of the water as one would cull the news from the morning paper; and finally, when I had trained my dull memory to treasure up an endless array of soundings and crossing-marks, and keep fast hold of them, I judged that my education was complete: so I got to tilting my cap to the side of my head, and wearing a tooth-pick in my mouth at the wheel. Mr. Bixby had his eye on these airs. One day he said--
'What is the height of that bank yonder, at Burgess's?'
'How can I tell, sir. It is three-quarters of a mile away.'
'Very poor eye--very poor. Take the glass.'
I took the glass, and presently said--'I can't tell. I suppose that that bank is about a foot and a half high.'
'Foot and a half! That's a six-foot bank. How high was the bank along here last trip?'
'I don't know; I never noticed.'
'You didn't? Well, you must always do it hereafter.'
'Because you'll have to know a good many things that it tells you. For one thing, it tells you the stage of the river--tells you whether there's more water or less in the river along here than there was last trip.'
'The leads tell me that.' I rather thought I had the advantage of him there.
'Yes, but suppose the leads lie? The bank would tell you so, and then you'd stir those leadsmen up a bit. There was a ten-foot bank here last trip, and there is only a six-foot bank now. What does that signify?'
'That the river is four feet higher than it was last trip.'