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....
run either 77 or 76 towheads—8 ft. bank
on main shore
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.”