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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol II, Part 1: 1875 - 1886|
CXL. Down the River
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|Osgood was doing no great things with The Prince and the Pauper, but
Clemens gave him another book presently, a collection of sketches--The
Stolen White Elephant. It was not an especially important volume, though
some of the features, such as "Mrs. McWilliams and the Lightning" and the
"Carnival of Crime," are among the best of their sort, while the
"Elephant" story is an amazingly good take-off on what might be called
the spectacular detective. The interview between Inspector Blunt and the
owner of the elephant is typical. The inspector asks:
"Now what does this elephant eat, and how much?"
"Well, as to what he eats--he will eat anything. He will eat a man,
he will eat a Bible; he will eat anything between a man and a
"Good-very good, indeed, but too general. Details are necessary;
details are the only valuable thing in our trade. Very well, as to
men. At one meal--or, if you prefer, during one day--how many men
will he eat if fresh?"
"He would not care whether they were fresh or not; at a single meal
he would eat five ordinary men."
"Very good; five men. We will put that down. What nationalities
would he prefer?"
"He is indifferent about nationalities. He prefers acquaintances,
but is not prejudiced against strangers."
"Very good. Now, as to Bibles. How many Bibles would he eat at a
"He would eat an entire edition."
Clemens and Osgood had a more important publishing enterprise on hand.
The long-deferred completion of the Mississippi book was to be
accomplished; the long-deferred trip down the river was to be taken.
Howells was going abroad, but the charming Osgood was willing to make the
excursion, and a young man named Roswell Phelps, of Hartford, was engaged
as a stenographer to take the notes.
Clemens made a farewell trip to Boston to see Howells before his
departure, and together they went to Concord to call on Emerson; a
fortunate thing, for he lived but a few weeks longer. They went again in
the evening, not to see him, but to stand reverently outside and look at
his house. This was in April. Longfellow had died in March. The fact
that Howells was going away indefinitely, made them reminiscent and sad.
Just what breach Clemens committed during this visit is not remembered
now, and it does not matter; but his letter to Howells, after his return
to Hartford, makes it pretty clear that it was memorable enough at the
time. Half-way in it he breaks out:
But oh, hell, there is no hope for a person that is built like me,
because there is no cure, no cure.
If I could only know when I have committed a crime: then I could
conceal it, and not go stupidly dribbling it out, circumstance by
circumstance, into the ears of a person who will give no sign till
the confession is complete; and then the sudden damnation drops on a
body like the released pile-driver, and he finds himself in the
earth down to his chin. When he merely supposed he was being
Next day he was off with Osgood and the stenographer for St. Louis, where
they took the steamer Gold Dust down the river. He intended to travel
under an assumed name, but was promptly recognized, both at the Southern
Hotel and on the boat. In 'Life on the Mississippi' he has given us the
atmosphere of his trip, with his new impressions of old scenes; also his
first interview with the pilot, whom he did not remember, but who easily
"I did not write that story in the book quite as it happened," he
reflected once, many years later. "We went on board at night. Next
morning I was up bright and early and out on deck to see if I could
recognize any of the old landmarks. I could not remember any. I did not
know where we were at all. It was a new river to me entirely. I climbed
up in the pilot-house and there was a fellow of about forty at the wheel.
I said 'Good morning.' He answered pleasantly enough. His face was
entirely strange to me. Then I sat down on the high seat back of the
wheel and looked out at the river and began to ask a few questions, such
as a landsman would ask. He began, in the old way, to fill me up with
the old lies, and I enjoyed letting him do it. Then suddenly he turned
round to me and said:
"'I want to get a cup of coffee. You hold her, will you, till I come
back?' And before I could say a word he was out of the pilot-house door
and down the steps. It all came so suddenly that I sprang to the wheel,
of course, as I would have done twenty years before. Then in a moment I
realized my position. Here I was with a great big steamboat in the
middle of the Mississippi River, without any further knowledge than that
fact, and the pilot out of sight. I settled my mind on three
conclusions: first, that the pilot might be a lunatic; second, that he
had recognized me and thought I knew the river; third, that we were in a
perfectly safe place, where I could not possibly kill the steamboat. But
that last conclusion, though the most comforting, was an extremely
doubtful one. I knew perfectly well that no sane pilot would trust his
steamboat for a single moment in the hands of a greenhorn unless he were
standing by the greenhorn's side. Of course, by force of habit, when I
grabbed the wheel, I had taken the steering marks ahead and astern, and I
made up my mind to hold her on those marks to the hair; but I could feel
myself getting old and gray. Then all at once I recognized where we
were; we were in what is called the Grand Chain--a succession of hidden
rocks, one of the most dangerous places on the river. There were two
rocks there only about seventy feet apart, and you've got to go exactly
between them or wreck the boat. There was a time when I could have done
it without a tremor, but that time wasn't now. I would have given any
reasonable sum to have been on the shore just at that moment. I think I
was about ready to drop dead when I heard a step on the pilothouse stair;
then the door opened and the pilot came in, quietly picking his teeth,
and took the wheel, and I crawled weakly back to the seat. He said:
"'You thought you were playing a nice joke on me, didn't you? You
thought I didn't know who you were. Why, I recognized that drawl of
yours as soon as you opened your mouth.'
"I said, 'Who the h--l are you? I don't remember you.'
"'Well,' he said, 'perhaps you don't, but I was a cub pilot on the
river before the war, when you were a licensed pilot, and I couldn't get
a license when I was qualified for one, because the Pilots' Association
was so strong at that time that they could keep new pilots out if they
wanted to, and the law was that I had to be examined by two licensed
pilots, and for a good while I could not get any one to make that
examination. But one day you and another pilot offered to do it, and you
put me through a good, healthy examination and indorsed my application
for a license. I had never seen you before, and I have never seen you
since until now, but I recognized you.'
"'All right,' I said. 'But if I had gone half a mile farther with that
steamboat we might have all been at the bottom of the river.'
"We got to be good friends, of course, and I spent most of my time up
there with him. When we got down below Cairo, and there was a big, full
river--for it was highwater season and there was no danger of the boat
hitting anything so long as she kept in the river--I had her most of the
time on his watch. He would lie down and sleep, and leave me there to
dream that the years had not slipped away; that there had been no war, no
mining days, no literary adventures; that I was still a pilot, happy and
care-free as I had been twenty years before."
From the book we gather that he could not keep out of the pilot-house.
He was likely to get up at any hour of the night to stand his watch, and
truly enough the years had slipped away. He was the young fellow in his
twenties again, speculating on the problems of existence and reading his
fortune in the stars. To heighten the illusion, he had himself called
regularly with the four-o'clock watch, in order not to miss the mornings.
--[It will repay the reader to turn to chap. xxx of Life on the
Mississippi, and consider Mark Twain's word-picture of the river
The majesty and solitude of the river impressed him more than ever
before, especially its solitude. It had been so full of life in his
time; now it had returned once more to its primal loneliness--the
loneliness of God.
At one place two steamboats were in sight at once an unusual spectacle.
Once, in the mouth of a river, he noticed a small boat, which he made out
to be the Mark Twain. There had been varied changes in twenty-one years;
only the old fascination of piloting remained unchanged. To Bixby
afterward he wrote:
"I'd rather be a pilot than anything else I've ever done in my life. How
do you run Plum Point?"
He met Bixby at New Orleans. Bixby was captain now on a splendid new
Anchor Line steamboat, the City of Baton Rouge. The Anchor Line steamers
were the acme of Mississippi River steamboat-building, and they were
about the end of it. They were imposingly magnificent, but they were
only as gorgeous clouds that marked the sunset of Mississippi steamboat
travel. Mark Twain made his trip down the river just in time.
In New Orleans he met George W. Cable and Joel Chandler Harris, and they
had a fraternizing good time together, mousing about the old French
Quarter or mingling with the social life of the modern city. He made a
trip with Bixby in a tug to the Warmouth plantation, and they reviewed
old days together, as friends parted for twenty-one years will.
Altogether the New Orleans sojourn was a pleasant one, saddened only by a
newspaper notice of the death, in Edinburgh, of the kindly and gentle and
beloved Dr. Brown.
Clemens arranged to make the trip up the river on the Baton Rouge. Bixby
had one pretty inefficient pilot, and stood most of the watches himself,
so that with "Sam Clemens" in the pilot-house with him, it was
wonderfully like those old first days of learning the river, back in the
"Sam was ever making notes in his memorandum-book, just as he always
did," said Bixby to the writer, recalling the time. "I was sorry I had
to stay at the wheel so much. I wanted to have more time with Sam
without thinking of the river at all. Sam was sorry, too, from what he
wrote after he got home."
Bixby produced a letter in the familiar handwriting. It was a tender,
I didn't see half enough of you. It was a sore disappointment.
Osgood could have told you, if he would--discreet old dog--I
expected to have you with me all the time. Altogether, the most
pleasant part of my visit with you was after we arrived in St.
Louis, and you were your old natural self again. Twenty years have
not added a month to your age or taken a fraction from your
Said Bixby: "When we arrived in St. Louis we came to the Planters' Hotel;
to this very table where you and I are sitting now, and we had a couple
of hot Scotches between us, just as we have now, and we had a good last
talk over old times and old acquaintances. After he returned to New York
he sent for my picture. He wanted to use it in his book."
At St. Louis the travelers changed boats, and proceeded up the
Mississippi toward St. Paul. Clemens laid off three days at Hannibal.
Delightful days [he wrote home]. Loitering around all day long,
examining the old localities, and talking with the gray heads who were
boys and girls with me thirty or forty years ago. I spent my nights with
John and Helen Garth, three miles from town, in their spacious and
beautiful house. They were children with me, and afterward schoolmates.
That world which I knew in its blooming youth is old and bowed and
melancholy now; its soft cheeks are leathery and withered, the fire has
gone out of its eyes, the spring from its step. It will be dust and
ashes when I come again.
He had never seen the far upper river, and he found it very satisfying.
His note-book says:
The bluffs all along up above St. Paul are exquisitely beautiful
where the rough and broken turreted rocks stand up against the sky
above the steep, verdant slopes. They are inexpressibly rich and
mellow in color; soft dark browns mingled with dull greens--the very
tints to make an artist worship.
In a final entry he wrote:
The romance of boating is gone now. In Hannibal the steamboat man is no
longer the god.