Life on the Mississippi/Chapter 18
DURING the two or two and a half years of my apprenticeship, I served under many pilots, and had experience of many kinds of steamboatmen and many varieties of steamboats; for it was not always convenient for Mr. Bixby to have me with him, and in such cases he sent me with somebody else. I am to this day profiting somewhat by that experience; for in that brief, sharp schooling, I got personally and familiarly acquainted with about all the different types of human nature that are to be found in fiction, biography, or history. The fact is daily borne in upon me, that the average shore-employment requires as much as forty years to equip a man with this sort of an education. When I say I am still profiting by this thing, I do not mean that it has constituted me a judge of men--no, it has not done that; for judges of men are born, not made. My profit is various in kind and degree; but the feature of it which I value most is the zest which that early experience has given to my later reading. When I find a well-drawn character in fiction or biography, I generally take a warm personal interest in him, for the reason that I have known him before--met him on the river.
The figure that comes before me oftenest, out of the shadows of that vanished time, is that of Brown, of the steamer 'Pennsylvania'--the man referred to in a former chapter, whose memory was so good and tiresome. He was a middle-aged, long, slim, bony, smooth-shaven, horse-faced, ignorant, stingy, malicious, snarling, fault hunting, mote-magnifying tyrant. I early got the habit of coming on watch with dread at my heart. No matter how good a time I might have been having with the off-watch below, and no matter how high my spirits might be when I started aloft, my soul became lead in my body the moment I approached the pilot-house.
I still remember the first time I ever entered the presence of that man. The boat had backed out from St. Louis and was 'straightening down;' I ascended to the pilot-house in high feather, and very proud to be semi-officially a member of the executive family of so fast and famous a boat. Brown was at the wheel. I paused in the middle of the room, all fixed to make my bow, but Brown did not look around. I thought he took a furtive glance at me out of the corner of his eye, but as not even this notice was repeated, I judged I had been mistaken. By this time he was picking his way among some dangerous 'breaks' abreast the woodyards; therefore it would not be proper to interrupt him; so I stepped softly to the high bench and took a seat.
There was silence for ten minutes; then my new boss turned and inspected me deliberately and painstakingly from head to heel for about--as it seemed to me--a quarter of an hour. After which he removed his countenance and I saw it no more for some seconds; then it came around once more, and this question greeted me--
'Are you Horace Bigsby's cub?'
After this there was a pause and another inspection. Then--
'What's your name?'
I told him. He repeated it after me. It was probably the only thing he ever forgot; for although I was with him many months he never addressed himself to me in any other way than 'Here!' and then his command followed.
'Where was you born?'
'In Florida, Missouri.'
A pause. Then--
'Dern sight better staid there!'
By means of a dozen or so of pretty direct questions, he pumped my family history out of me.
The leads were going now, in the first crossing. This interrupted the inquest. When the leads had been laid in, he resumed--
'How long you been on the river?'
I told him. After a pause--
'Where'd you get them shoes?'
I gave him the information.
'Hold up your foot!'
I did so. He stepped back, examined the shoe minutely and contemptuously, scratching his head thoughtfully, tilting his high sugar-loaf hat well forward to facilitate the operation, then ejaculated, 'Well, I'll be dod derned!' and returned to his wheel.
What occasion there was to be dod derned about it is a thing which is still as much of a mystery to me now as it was then. It must have been all of fifteen minutes--fifteen minutes of dull, homesick silence--before that long horse-face swung round upon me again--and then, what a change! It was as red as fire, and every muscle in it was working. Now came this shriek--
'Here!--You going to set there all day?'
I lit in the middle of the floor, shot there by the electric suddenness of the surprise. As soon as I could get my voice I said, apologetically:--'I have had no orders, sir.'
'You've had no ORDERS! My, what a fine bird we are! We must have ORDERS! Our father was a GENTLEMAN--owned slaves--and we've been to SCHOOL. Yes, WE are a gentleman, TOO, and got to have ORDERS! ORDERS, is it? ORDERS is what you want! Dod dern my skin, I'LL learn you to swell yourself up and blow around here about your dod-derned ORDERS! G'way from the wheel!' (I had approached it without knowing it.)
I moved back a step or two, and stood as in a dream, all my senses stupefied by this frantic assault.
'What you standing there for? Take that ice-pitcher down to the texas-tender-come, move along, and don't you be all day about it!'
The moment I got back to the pilot-house, Brown said--
'Here! What was you doing down there all this time?'
'I couldn't find the texas-tender; I had to go all the way to the pantry.'
'Derned likely story! Fill up the stove.'
I proceeded to do so. He watched me like a cat. Presently he shouted--
'Put down that shovel! Deadest numskull I ever saw--ain't even got sense enough to load up a stove.'
All through the watch this sort of thing went on. Yes, and the subsequent watches were much like it, during a stretch of months. As I have said, I soon got the habit of coming on duty with dread. The moment I was in the presence, even in the darkest night, I could feel those yellow eyes upon me, and knew their owner was watching for a pretext to spit out some venom on me. Preliminarily he would say--
'Here! Take the wheel.'
Two minutes later--
'WHERE in the nation you going to? Pull her down! pull her down!'
After another moment--
'Say! You going to hold her all day? Let her go--meet her! meet her!'
Then he would jump from the bench, snatch the wheel from me, and meet her himself, pouring out wrath upon me all the time.
George Ritchie was the other pilot's cub. He was having good times now; for his boss, George Ealer, was as kindhearted as Brown wasn't. Ritchie had steeled for Brown the season before; consequently he knew exactly how to entertain himself and plague me, all by the one operation. Whenever I took the wheel for a moment on Ealer's watch, Ritchie would sit back on the bench and play Brown, with continual ejaculations of 'Snatch her! snatch her! Derndest mud-cat I ever saw!' 'Here! Where you going NOW? Going to run over that snag?' 'Pull her DOWN! Don't you hear me? Pull her DOWN!' 'There she goes! JUST as I expected! I TOLD you not to cramp that reef. G'way from the wheel!'
So I always had a rough time of it, no matter whose watch it was; and sometimes it seemed to me that Ritchie's good-natured badgering was pretty nearly as aggravating as Brown's dead-earnest nagging.
I often wanted to kill Brown, but this would not answer. A cub had to take everything his boss gave, in the way of vigorous comment and criticism; and we all believed that there was a United States law making it a penitentiary offense to strike or threaten a pilot who was on duty. However, I could IMAGINE myself killing Brown; there was no law against that; and that was the thing I used always to do the moment I was abed. Instead of going over my river in my mind as was my duty, I threw business aside for pleasure, and killed Brown. I killed Brown every night for months; not in old, stale, commonplace ways, but in new and picturesque ones;--ways that were sometimes surprising for freshness of design and ghastliness of situation and environment.
Brown was ALWAYS watching for a pretext to find fault; and if he could find no plausible pretext, he would invent one. He would scold you for shaving a shore, and for not shaving it; for hugging a bar, and for not hugging it; for 'pulling down' when not invited, and for not pulling down when not invited; for firing up without orders, and for waiting FOR orders. In a word, it was his invariable rule to find fault with EVERYTHING you did; and another invariable rule of his was to throw all his remarks (to you) into the form of an insult.
One day we were approaching New Madrid, bound down and heavily laden. Brown was at one side of the wheel, steering; I was at the other, standing by to 'pull down' or 'shove up.' He cast a furtive glance at me every now and then. I had long ago learned what that meant; viz., he was trying to invent a trap for me. I wondered what shape it was going to take. By and by he stepped back from the wheel and said in his usual snarly way--
'Here!--See if you've got gumption enough to round her to.'
This was simply BOUND to be a success; nothing could prevent it; for he had never allowed me to round the boat to before; consequently, no matter how I might do the thing, he could find free fault with it. He stood back there with his greedy eye on me, and the result was what might have been foreseen: I lost my head in a quarter of a minute, and didn't know what I was about; I started too early to bring the boat around, but detected a green gleam of joy in Brown's eye, and corrected my mistake; I started around once more while too high up, but corrected myself again in time; I made other false moves, and still managed to save myself; but at last I grew so confused and anxious that I tumbled into the very worst blunder of all--I got too far down before beginning to fetch the boat around. Brown's chance was come.
His face turned red with passion; he made one bound, hurled me across the house with a sweep of his arm, spun the wheel down, and began to pour out a stream of vituperation upon me which lasted till he was out of breath. In the course of this speech he called me all the different kinds of hard names he could think of, and once or twice I thought he was even going to swear--but he didn't this time. 'Dod dern' was the nearest he ventured to the luxury of swearing, for he had been brought up with a wholesome respect for future fire and brimstone.
That was an uncomfortable hour; for there was a big audience on the hurricane deck. When I went to bed that night, I killed Brown in seventeen different ways--all of them new.