Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter XXVIII

Piloting and Prophecy

Those who knew Samuel Clemens best in those days say that he was a slender, fine-looking man, well dressed — even dandified — given to patent leathers, blue serge, white duck, and fancy striped shirts. Old for his years, he heightened his appearance at times by wearing his beard in the atrocious mutton-chop fashion, then popular, but becoming to no one, least of all to him. The pilots regarded him as a great reader — a student of history, travels, literature, and the sciences — a young man whom it was an education as well as an entertainment to know. When not at the wheel, he was likely to be reading or telling yarns in the Association Rooms.

He began the study of French one day when he passed a school of languages, where three tongues, French, German, and Italian, were taught, one in each of three rooms. The price was twenty-five dollars for one language, or three for fifty dollars. The student was provided with a set of cards for each room and supposed to walk from one apartment to another, changing tongues at each threshold. With his unusual enthusiasm and prodigality, the young pilot decided to take all three languages, but after the first two or three round trips concluded that for the present French would do. He did not return to the school, but kept his cards and bought text-books. He must have studied pretty faithfully when he was off watch and in port, for his river note-book contains a French exercise, all neatly written, and it is from the Dialogues of Voltaire.

This old note-book is interesting for other things. The notes are no longer timid, hesitating memoranda, but vigorous records made with the dash of assurance that comes from confidence and knowledge, and with the authority of one in supreme command. Under the head of “2d high-water trip — Jan., 1861 — Alonzo Child,” we have the story of a rising river with its overflowing banks, its blind passages and cut-offs — all the circumstance and uncertainty of change.

Good deal of water all over Coles Creek Chute, 12 or 15 ft. bank — could have gone up shore above General Taylor’s — too much drift. . . .

Night — didn’t run either 77 or 76 towheads — 8 ft. bank on main shore Ozark Chute. . . .

And so on page after page of cryptographic memoranda. It means little enough to the lay reader, yet one gets an impression somehow of the swirling, turbulent water and a lonely figure in that high glassed-in place peering into the dark for blind land-marks and possible dangers, picking his way up the dim, hungry river of which he must know every foot as well as a man knows the hall of his own home. All the qualifications must come into play, then memory, judgment, courage, and the high art of steering. “Steering is a very high, art,” he says; “one must not keep a rudder dragging across a boat’s stern if he wants to get up the river fast.”

He had an example of the perfection of this art one misty night on the Alonzo Child. Nearly fifty years later, sitting on his veranda in the dark, he recalled it. He said:

“There was a pilot in those days by the name of Jack Leonard who was a perfectly wonderful creature. I do not know that Jack knew anymore about the river than most of us and perhaps could not read the water any better, but he had a knack of steering away ahead of our ability, and I think he must have had an eye that could see farther into the darkness.

“I had never seen Leonard steer, but I had heard a good deal about it. I had heard it said that the crankiest old tub afloat — one that would kill any other man to handle — would obey and be as docile as a child when Jack Leonard took the wheel. I had a chance one night to verify that for myself. We were going up the river, and it was one of the nastiest nights I ever saw. Besides that, the boat was loaded in such a way that she steered very hard, and I was half blind and crazy trying to locate the safe channel, and was pulling my arms out to keep her in it. It was one of those nights when everything looks the same whichever way you look: just two long lines where the sky comes down to the trees and where the trees meet the water with all the trees precisely the same height — all planted on the same day, as one of the boys used to put it — and not a thing to steer by except the knowledge in your head of the real shape of the river. Some of the boats had what they call a ‘night hawk’ on the jackstaff, a thing which you could see when it was in the right position against the sky or the water, though it seldom was in the right position and was generally pretty useless.

“I was in a bad way that night and wondering how I could ever get through it, when the pilot-house door opened, and Jack Leonard walked in. He was a passenger that trip, and I had forgotten he was aboard. I was just about in the worst place and was pulling the boat first one way, then another, running the wheel backward and forward, and climbing it like a squirrel.

“‘Sam,’ he said, “let me take the wheel. Maybe I have been over this place since you have.’

“I didn’t argue the question. Jack took the wheel, gave it a little turn one way, then a little turn the other; that old boat settled down as quietly as a lamb — went right along as if it had been broad daylight in a river without snags, bars, bottom, or banks, or anything that one could possibly hit. I never saw anything so beautiful. He stayed my watch out for me, and I hope I was decently grateful. I have never forgotten it.”

The old note-book contained the record of many such nights as that; but there were other nights, too, when the stars were blazing out, or when the moon on the water made the river a wide mysterious way of speculative dreams. He was always speculating; the planets and the remote suns were always a marvel to him. A love of astronomy — the romance of it, its vast distances, and its possibilities — began with those lonely river-watches and never waned to his last day. For a time a great comet blazed in the heavens, a “wonderful sheaf of light” that glorified his lonely watch. Night after night he watched it as it developed and then grew dim, and he read eagerly all the comet literature that came to his hand, then or afterward. He speculated of many things: of life, death, the reason of existence, of creation, the ways of Providence and Destiny. It was a fruitful time for such meditation; out of such vigils grew those larger philosophies that would find expression later, when the years had conferred the magic gift of phrase.

Life lay all ahead of him then, and during those still watches he must have revolved many theories of how the future should be met and mastered. In the old notebook there still remains a well-worn clipping, the words of some unknown writer, which he had preserved and may have consulted as a sort of creed. It is an interesting little document — a prophetic one, the reader may concede:

HOW TO TAKE LIFE. — Take it just as though it was — as it is — an earnest, vital, and important affair. Take it as though you were born to the task of performing a merry part in it — as though the world had awaited for your coming. Take it as though it was a grand opportunity to do and achieve, to carry forward great and good schemes; to help and cheer a suffering, weary, it may be heartbroken, brother. Now and then a man stands aside from the crowd, labors earnestly, steadfastly, confidently, and straightway becomes famous for wisdom, intellect, skill, greatness of some sort. The world wonders, admires, idolizes, and it only illustrates what others may do if they take hold of life with a purpose. The miracle, or the power that elevates the few, is to be found in their industry, application, and perseverance under the promptings of a brave, determined spirit.

The old note-book contains no record of disasters. Horace Bixby, who should know, has declared:

“Sam Clemens never had an accident either as a steersman or as a pilot, except once when he got aground for a few hours in the bagasse (cane) smoke, with no damage to anybody though of course there was some good luck in that too, for the best pilots do not escape trouble, now and then.”

Bixby and Clemens were together that winter on the Alonzo Child, and a letter to Orion contains an account of great feasting which the two enjoyed at a “French restaurant” in New Orleans —“dissipating on a ten-dollar dinner — tell it not to Ma!”— where they had sheepshead fish, oysters, birds, mushrooms, and what not, “after which the day was too far gone to do anything.” So it appears that he was not always reading Macaulay or studying French and astronomy, but sometimes went frivoling with his old chief, now his chum, always his dear friend.

Another letter records a visit with Pamela to a picture-gallery in St. Louis where was being exhibited Church’s “Heart of the Andes.” He describes the picture in detail and with vast enthusiasm.

“I have seen it several times,” he concludes, “but it is always a new picture — totally new — you seem to see nothing the second time that you saw the first.”

Further along he tells of having taken his mother and the girls — his cousin Ella Creel and another — for a trip down the river to New Orleans.

Ma was delighted with her trip, but she was disgusted with the girls for allowing me to embrace and kiss them — and she was horrified at the ‘schottische’ as performed by Miss Castle and myself. She was perfectly willing for me to dance until 12 o’clock at the imminent peril of my going to sleep on the after-watch — but then she would top off with a very inconsistent sermon on dancing in general; ending with a terrific broadside aimed at that heresy of heresies, the ‘schottische’.

I took Ma and the girls in a carriage round that portion of New Orleans where the finest gardens and residences are to be seen, and, although it was a blazing hot, dusty day, they seemed hugely delighted. To use an expression which is commonly ignored in polite society, they were “hell-bent” on stealing some of the luscious-looking oranges from branches which overhung the fence, but I restrained them.

In another letter of this period we get a hint of the future Mark Twain. It was written to John T. Moore, a young clerk on the John J. Roe.

What a fool old Adam was. Had everything his own way; had succeeded in gaining the love of the best-looking girl in the neighborhood, but yet, unsatisfied with his conquest, he had to eat a miserable little apple. Ah, John, if you had been in his place you would not have eaten a mouthful of the apple — that is, if it had required any exertion. I have noticed that you shun exertion. There comes in the difference between us. I court exertion. I love work. Why, sir, when I have a piece of work to perform, I go away to myself, sit down in the shade, and muse over the coming enjoyment. Sometimes I am so industrious that I muse too long.

There remains another letter of this period — a sufficiently curious document. There was in those days a famous New Orleans clairvoyant known as Madame Caprell. Some of the’ young pilot’s friends. had visited her and obtained what seemed to be satisfying results. From time to time they had urged him to visit the fortune-teller, and one idle day he concluded to make the experiment. As soon as he came away he wrote to Orion in detail.

She’s a very pleasant little lady — rather pretty — about 28 — say 5 feet 2 1/4 — would weigh 116 — has black eyes and hair — is polite and intelligent — used good language, and talks much faster than I do.

She invited me into the little back parlor, closed the door; and we were alone. We sat down facing each other. Then she asked my age. Then she put her hands before her eyes a moment, and commenced talking as if she had a good deal to say and not much time to say it in. Something after this style:

‘Madame.’ Yours is a watery planet; you gain your livelihood on the water; but you should have been a lawyer — there is where your talents lie; you might have distinguished yourself as an orator, or as an editor — you have written a great deal; you write well — but you are rather out of practice; no matter — you will be in practice some day; you have a superb constitution, and as excellent health as any man in the world; you have great powers of endurance; in your profession your strength holds out against the longest sieges without flagging; still, the upper part of your lungs, the top of them, is slightly affected — you must take care of yourself; you do not drink, but you use entirely too much tobacco; and you must stop it; mind, not moderate, but stop the use of it, totally; then I can almost promise you 86, when you will surely die; otherwise, look out for 28, 31, 34, 47, and 65; be careful — for you are not of a long-lived race, that is, on your father’s side; you are the only healthy member of your family, and the only one in it who has anything like the certainty of attaining to a great age — so, stop using tobacco, and be careful of yourself. . . . In some respects you take after your father, but you are much more like your mother, who belongs to the long-lived, energetic side of the house. . . . You never brought all your energies to bear upon any subject but what you accomplished it — for instance, you are self-made, self-educated.

‘S. L. C.’ Which proves nothing.

‘Madame.’ Don’t interrupt. When you sought your present occupation, you found a thousand obstacles in your way — obstacles unknown — not even suspected by any save you and me, since you keep such matter to yourself — but you fought your way, and hid the long struggle under a mask of cheerfulness, which saved your friends anxiety on your account. To do all this requires the qualities which I have named.

‘S. L. C.’ You flatter well, Madame.

‘Madame.’ Don’t interrupt. Up to within a short time you had always lived from hand to mouth — now you are in easy circumstances — for which you need give credit to no one but yourself. The turning-point in your life occurred in 1840-7-8.

‘S. L. C.’ Which was?

‘Madame.’ A death, perhaps, and this threw you upon the world and made you what you are; it was always intended that you should make yourself; therefore, it was well that this calamity occurred as early as it did. You will never die of water, although your career upon it in the future seems well sprinkled with misfortune. You will continue upon the water for some time yet; you will not retire finally until ten years from now. . . . What is your brother’s age? 23 — and a lawyer? and in pursuit of an office? Well, he stands a better chance than the other two, and he may get it; he is too visionary — is always flying off on a new hobby; this will never do — tell him I said so. He is a good lawyer — a very good lawyer — and a fine speaker — is very popular and much respected, and makes many friends; but although he retains their friendship, he loses their confidence by displaying his instability of character. . . . The land he has now will be very valuable after a while ——

‘S. L. C.’ Say 250 years hence, or thereabouts, Madame ——

‘Madame.’ No — less time — but never mind the land, that is a secondary consideration — let him drop that for the present, and devote himself to his business and politics with all his might, for he must hold offices under Government. . . .

After a while you will possess a good deal of property — retire at the end of ten years — after which your pursuits will be literary — try the law — you will certainly succeed. I am done now. If you have any questions to ask — ask them freely — and if it be in my power, I will answer without reserve — without reserve.

I asked a few questions of minor importance — paid her and left — under the decided impression that going to the fortune-teller’s was just as good as going to the opera, and cost scarcely a trifle more — ergo, I will disguise myself and go again, one of these days, when other amusements fail. Now isn’t she the devil? That is to say, isn’t she a right smart little woman?

When you want money, let Ma know, and she will send it. She and Pamela are always fussing about change, so I sent them a hundred and twenty quarters yesterday — fiddler’s change enough to last till I get back, I reckon.

In the light of preceding and subsequent events, we must confess that Madame Caprell was “indeed a right smart little woman.” She made mistakes enough (the letter is not quoted in full), but when we remember that she not only gave his profession at the moment, but at least suggested his career for the future; that she approximated the year of his father’s death as the time when he was thrown upon the world; that she admonished him against his besetting habit, tobacco; that she read. minutely not only his characteristics, but his brother Orion’s; that she outlined the struggle in his conquest of the river; that she seemingly had knowledge of Orion’s legal bent and his connection with the Tennessee land, all seems remarkable enough, supposing, of course, she had no material means of acquiring knowledge — one can never know certainly about such things.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00