At New Orleans Bixby left the "Paul Jones" for a fine St. Louis boat, taking his cub with him. This was a sudden and happy change, and Sam was a good deal impressed with his own importance in belonging to so imposing a structure, especially when, after a few days' stay in New Orleans, he stood by Bixby's side in the big glass turret while they backed out of the line of wedged-in boats and headed up the great river.

This was glory, but there was sorrow ahead. He had not really begun learning the river as yet he had only steered under directions. He had known that to learn the river would be hard, but he had never realized quite how hard. Serenely he had undertaken the task of mastering twelve hundred miles of the great, changing, shifting river as exactly and as surely by daylight or darkness as one knows the way to his own features. Nobody could realize the full size of that task--not till afterward.

[2] Horace Bixby lived until 1912 and remained at the wheel until within a short time of his death, in his eighty-seventh year. The writer of this memoir visited him in 1910 and took down from his dictation the dialogue that follows.

XIII.

LEARNING THE RIVER

In that early day, to be a pilot was to be "greater than a king." The Mississippi River pilot was a law unto himself--there was none above him. His direction of the boat was absolute; he could start or lay up when he chose; he could pass a landing regardless of business there, consulting nobody, not even the captain; he could take the boat into what seemed certain destruction, if he had that mind, and the captain was obliged to stand by, helpless and silent, for the law was with the pilot in everything.

Furthermore, the pilot was a gentleman. His work was clean and physically light. It ended the instant the boat was tied to the landing, and did not begin again until it was ready to back into the stream. Also, for those days his salary was princely--the Vice-President of the United States did not receive more. As for prestige, the Mississippi pilot, perched high in his glass inclosure, fashionably dressed, and commanding all below him, was the most conspicuous and showy, the most observed and envied creature in the world. No wonder Sam Clemens, with his love of the river and his boyish fondness for honors, should aspire to that stately rank. Even at twenty-one he was still just a boy--as, indeed, he was till his death--and we may imagine how elated he was, starting up the great river as a real apprentice pilot, who in a year or two would stand at the wheel, as his chief was now standing, a monarch with a splendid income and all the great river packed away in his head.

In that last item lay the trouble. In the Mississippi book he tells of it in a way that no one may hope to equal, and if the details are not exact, the truth is there--at least in substance.

For a distance above New Orleans Mr. Bixby had volunteered information about the river, naming the points and crossings, in what seemed a casual way, all through his watch of four hours. Their next watch began in the middle of the night, and Mark Twain tells how surprised and disgusted he was to learn that pilots must get up in the night to run their boats, and his amazement to find Mr. Bixby plunging into the blackness ahead as if it had been daylight. Very likely this is mainly fiction, but hardly the following:

Presently he turned to 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.

"Don't know!"

His 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 awhile and decided that I couldn't.

"Look here! What do you start 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."

Bixby was a small, nervous man, hot and quick-firing.

The Boys Life of Mark Twain Page 27

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