The Boys’ Life of Mark Twain
by Paine

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Public Domain Books

XIV. River Days

Piloting was only a part of Sam Clemens’s education on the Mississippi. He learned as much of the reefs and shallows of human nature as of the river-bed. In one place he writes:

In that brief, sharp schooling I got personally and familiarly acquainted with all the different types of human nature that are to be found in fiction, biography, or history.

All the different types, but most of them in the rough. That Samuel Clemens kept the promise made to his mother as to drink and cards during those apprentice days is well worth remembering.

Horace Bixby, answering a call for pilots from the Missouri River, consigned his pupil, as was customary, tonne of the pilots of the “John J. Roe,” a freight-boat, owned and conducted by some retired farmers, and in its hospitality reminding Sam of his Uncle John Quarles’s farm. The “Roe” was a very deliberate boat. It was said that she could beat an island to St. Louis, but never quite overtake the current going down- stream. Sam loved the “Roe.” She was not licensed to carry passengers, but she always had a family party of the owners’ relations aboard, and there was a big deck for dancing and a piano in the cabin. The young pilot could play the chords, and sing, in his own fashion, about a grasshopper that; sat on a sweet-potato vine, and about–

An old, old horse whose name was Methusalem,
Took him down and sold him in Jerusalem,
A long time ago.

The “Roe” was a heavenly place, but Sam’s stay there did not last. Bixby came down from the Missouri, and perhaps thought he was doing a fine thing for his pupil by transferring him to a pilot named Brown, then on a large passenger-steamer, the “Pennsylvania.” The “Pennsylvania” was new and one of the finest boats on the river. Sam Clemens, by this time, was accounted a good steersman, so it seemed fortunate and a good arrangement for all parties.

But Brown was a tyrant. He was illiterate and coarse, and took a dislike to Sam from the start. His first greeting was a question, harmless enough in form but offensive in manner.

“Are you Horace Bigsby’s cub?"–Bixby being usually pronounced “Bigsby" in river parlance.

Sam answered politely enough that he was, and Brown proceeded to comment on the “style” of his clothes and other personal matters.

He had made an effort to please Brown, but it was no use. Brown was never satisfied. At a moment when Sam was steering, Brown, sitting on the bench, would shout: “Here! Where are you going now? Pull her down! Pull her down! Do you hear me? Blamed mud-cat!”

The young pilot soon learned to detest his chief, and presently was putting in a good deal of his time inventing punishments for him.

I could imagine myself killing Brown; there was no law against that, and that was the thing I always used to do the moment I was abed. Instead of going over the river in my mind, as was my duty, I threw business aside for pleasure, and killed Brown.

He gave up trying to please Brown, and was even willing to stir him up upon occasion. One day when the cub was at the wheel his chief noticed that the course seemed peculiar.

“Here! Where you headin’ for now?” he yelled. “What in the nation you steerin’ at, anyway? Blamed numskull!”

“Why,” said Sam in his calm, slow way, “I didn’t see much else I could steer for, so I was heading for that white heifer on the bank.”

“Get away from that wheel! And get outen this pilot-house!” yelled Brown. “You ain’t fitten to become no pilot!” An order that Sam found welcome enough. The other pilot, George Ealer, was a lovable soul who played the flute and chess during his off watch, and read aloud to Sam from “Goldsmith” and “Shakespeare.” To be with George Ealer was to forget the persecutions of Brown.

Young Clemens had been on the river nearly a year at this time, and, though he had learned a good deal and was really a fine steersman, he received no wages. He had no board to pay, but there were things he must buy, and his money supply had become limited. Each trip of the “Pennsylvania” she remained about two days and nights in New Orleans, during which time the young man was free. He found he could earn two and a half to three dollars a night watching freight on the levee, and, as this opportunity came around about once a month, the amount was useful. Nor was this the only return; many years afterward he said:

“It was a desolate experience, watching there in the dark, among those piles of freight; not a sound, not a living creature astir. But it was not a profitless one. I used to have inspirations as I sat there alone those nights. I used to imagine all sots of situations and possibilities. These things got into my books by and by, and furnished me with many a chapter. I can trace the effects of those nights through most of my books, in one way and another.”

Piloting, even with Brown, had its pleasant side. In St. Louis, young Clemens stopped with his sister, and often friends were there from Hannibal. At both ends of the line he visited friendly boats, especially the “Roe,” where a grand welcome was always waiting. Once among the guests of that boat a young girl named Laura so attracted him that he forgot time and space until one of the “Roe” pilots, Zeb Leavenworth, came flying aft, shouting:

“The “Pennsylvania” is backing out!”

A hasty good-by, a wild flight across the decks of several boats, and a leap across several feet of open water closed the episode. He wrote to Laura, but there was no reply. He never saw her again, never heard from her for nearly fifty years, when both were widowed and old. She had not received his letter.

Occasionally there were stirring adventures aboard the “Pennsylvania." In a letter written in March, 1858, the young pilot tells of an exciting night search in the running ice for Hat Island soundings:

Brown, the pilot, stood in the bow with an oar, to keep her head out, and I took the tiller. We would start the men, and all would go well until the yawl would bring us on a heavy cake of ice, and then the men would drop like so many tenpins, while Brown assumed the horizontal in the bottom of the boat. After an hour’s hard work we got back, with ice half an inch thick on the oars . . . . The next day was colder still. I was out in the yawl twice, and then we got through, but the infernal steamboat came near running over us . . . . The “Maria Denning” was aground at the head of the island; they hailed us; we ran alongside, and they hoisted us in and thawed us out. We had been out in the yawl from four in the morning until half-past nine without being near a fire. There was a thick coating of ice over men and yawl, ropes, and everything, and we looked like rock-candy statuary.

He was at the right age to enjoy such adventures, and to feel a pride in them. In the same letter he tells how he found on the “Pennsylvania” a small clerkship for his brother Henry, who was now nearly twenty, a handsome, gentle boy of whom Sam was lavishly fond and proud. The young pilot was eager to have Henry with him–to see him started in life. How little he dreamed what sorrow would come of his well-meant efforts in the lad’s behalf! Yet he always believed, later, that he had a warning, for one night at the end of May, in St. Louis, he had a vivid dream, which time would presently fulfil.

An incident now occurred on the “Pennsylvania” that closed Samuel Clemens’s career on that boat. It was the down trip, and the boat was in Eagle Bend when Henry Clemens appeared on the hurricane deck with an announcement from the captain of a landing a little lower down. Brown, who would never own that he was rather deaf, probably misunderstood the order. They were passing the landing when the captain appeared on the deck.

“Didn’t Henry tell you to land here?” he called to Brown.

“No, sir.”

Captain Klinefelter turned to Sam. “Didn’t you hear him?”

“Yes, sir!”

Brown said: “Shut your mouth! You never heard anything of the kind!”

Henry appeared, not suspecting any trouble.

Brown said, fiercely, “Here, why didn’t you tell me we had got to land at that plantation?”

“I did tell you, Mr. Brown,” Henry said, politely.

“It’s a lie!”

Sam Clemens could stand Brown’s abuse of himself, but not of Henry. He said: “You lie yourself. He did tell you!”

For a cub pilot to defy his chief was unheard of. Brown was dazed, then he shouted:

“I’ll attend to your case in half a minute!” And to Henry, “Get out of here!”

Henry had started when Brown seized him by the collar and struck him in the face. An instant later Sam was upon Brown with a heavy stool and stretched him on the floor. Then all the repressed fury of months broke loose; and, leaping upon Brown and holding him down with his knees, Samuel Clemens pounded the tyrant with his fists till his strength gave out. He let Brown go then, and the latter, with pilot instinct, sprang to the wheel, for the boat was drifting. Seeing she was safe, he seized a spy-glass as a weapon and ordered his chastiser out of the pilot-house. But Sam lingered. He had become very calm, and he openly corrected Brown’s English.

“Don’t give me none of your airs!” yelled Brown. “I ain’t goin’ to stand nothin’ more from you!”

“You should say, `Don’t give me any of your airs,’” Sam said, sweetly, “and the last half of your sentence almost defies correction.”

A group of passengers and white-aproned servants, assembled on the deck forward, applauded the victor. Sam went down to find Captain Klinefelter. He expected to be put in irons, for it was thought to be mutiny to strike a pilot.

The captain took Sam into his private room and made some inquiries. Mark Twain, in the “Mississippi” boot remembers them as follows:

“Did you strike him first?” Captain Klinefelter asked.

“Yes, sir.”

“What with?”

“A stool, sir.”


“Middling, sir.”

“Did it knock him down?”

“He–he fell, sir.”

“Did you follow it up? Did you do anything further?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What did you do?”

“Pounded him, sir.”

“Pounded him?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Did you pound him much–that is, severely?”

“One might call it that, sir, maybe.”

“I am mighty glad of it! Hark ye–never mention that I said that! You have been guilty of a great crime; and don’t ever be guilty of it again on this boat, but–lay for him ashore! Give him a good, sound thrashing, do you hear? I’ll pay the expenses.”

In a letter which Samuel Clemens wrote to Orion’s wife, immediately after this incident, he gives the details of the encounter with Brown and speaks of Captain Klinefelter’s approval.[4] Brown declared he would leave the boat at New Orleans if Sam Clemens remained on it, and the captain told him to go, offering to let Sam himself run the daylight watches back to St. Louis, thus showing his faith in the young steersman. The “cub,” however, had less confidence, and advised that Brown be kept for the up trip, saying he would follow by the next boat. It was a decision that probably saved his life.

That night, watching on the levee, Henry joined him, when his own duties were finished, and the brothers made the round together. It may have been some memory of his dream that made Samuel Clemens say:

“Henry, in case of accident, whatever you do, don’t lose your head–the passengers will do that. Rush for the hurricane-deck and to the life- boat, and obey the mate’s orders. When the boat is launched, help the women and children into it. Don’t get in yourself. The river is only a mile wide. You can swim ashore easily enough.”

It was good, manly advice, but a long grief lay behind it.

[4] In the Mississippi book the author says that Brown was about to strike Henry with a lump of coal, but in the letter above mentioned the details are as here given.


Preface  •  I. The Family of John Clemens  •  II. The New Home, and Uncle John Quarles’s Farm  •  IV. Education Out of School  •  V. Tom Sawyer and His Band  •  VI. Closing School-Days  •  VII. The Apprentice  •  VIII. Orion’s Paper  •  IX. The Open Road  •  X. A Wind of Chance  •  XI. The Long Way to the Amazon  •  XII. Renewing an Old Ambition  •  XIII. Learning the River  •  XIV. River Days  •  XV. The Wreck of the “Pennsylvania”  •  XVI. The Pilot  •  XVII. The End of Piloting  •  XVIII. The Soldier  •  XIX. The Pioneer  •  XX. The Miner  •  XXI. The Territorial Enterprise  •  XXII. “Mark Twain”  •  XXIII. Artemus Ward and Literary San Francisco  •  XXIV. The Discovery of “The Jumping Frog”  •  XXV. Hawaii and Anson Burlingame  •  XXVI. Mark Twain, Lecturer  •  XXVII. An Innocent Abroad, and Home Again  •  XXVIII. Olivia Langdon. Work on the “Innocents”  •  XXIX. The Visit to Elmira and Its Consequences  •  XXX. The New Book and a Wedding  •  XXXI. Mark Twain in Buffalo  •  XXXII. At Work on “Roughing It”  •  XXXIII. In England  •  XXXIV. A New Book and New English Triumphs  •  XXXV. Beginning “Tom Sawyer”  •  XXXVI. The New Home  •  XXXVII. “Old Times,” “Sketches,” And “Tom Sawyer”  •  XXXVIII. Home Pictures  •  XXXIX. Tramping Abroad  •  XL. “The Prince and the Pauper”  •  XLI. General Grant at Hartford  •  XLII. Many Investments  •  XLIII. Back to the River, With Bixby  •  XLIV. A Reading-Tour With Cable  •  XLV. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”  •  XLVI. Publisher to General Grant  •  XLVII. The High-Tide of Fortune  •  XLVIII. Business Difficulties. Pleasanter Things  •  XLIX. Kipling at Elmira. Elsie Leslie. The “Yankee”  •  L. The Machine. Good-By to Hartford. “Joan” Is Begun  •  LI. The Failure of Webster & Co. Around the World. Sorrow  •  LII. European Economies  •  LIII. Mark Twain Pays His Debts  •  LIV. Return After Exile  •  LV. A Prophet At Home  •  LVI. Honored by Missouri  •  LVII. The Close of a Beautiful Life  •  LVIII. Mark Twain at Seventy  •  LIX. Mark Twain Arranges for His Biography  •  LX. Working With Mark Twain  •  LXI. Dictations at Dublin, N. H.  •  LXII. A New Era of Billiards  •  LXIII. Living With Mark Twain  •  LXIV. A Degree From Oxford  •  LXV. The Removal to Redding  •  LXVI. Life at Stormfield  •  LXVII. The Death of Jean  •  LXVIII. Days in Bermuda  •  LXIX. The Return to Redding  •  LXX. The Close of a Great Life

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