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.