In “Life on the Mississippi” we read that the author ran away, vowing never to return until he could come home a pilot, shedding glory. But this is the fiction touch. He had always loved the river, and his boyhood dream of piloting had time and again returned, but it was not uppermost when he bade good-by to Macfarlane and stepped aboard the “Paul Jones,” bound for New Orleans, and thus conferred immortality on that ancient little craft.
Now he had really started on his voyage. But it was a voyage that would continue not for a week or a fortnight, but for four years—four marvelous, sunlit years, the glory of which would color all that followed them.
RENEWING AN OLD AMBITION
A reader of Mark Twain’s Mississippi book gets the impression that the author was a boy of about seventeen when he started to learn the river, and that he was painfully ignorant of the great task ahead. But this also is the fiction side of the story. Samuel Clemens was more than twenty-one when he set out on the “Paul Jones,” and in a way was familiar with the trade of piloting. Hannibal had turned out many pilots. An older brother of the Bowen boys was already on the river when Sam Clemens was rolling rocks down Holliday’s Hill. Often he came home to air his grandeur and hold forth on the wonder of his work. That learning the river was no light task Sam Clemens would know as well as any one who had not tried it.
Nevertheless, as the drowsy little steamer went puffing down into softer, sunnier lands, the old dream, the “permanent ambition” of boyhood, returned, while the call of the far-off Amazon and cocoa drew faint.
Horace Bixby, pilot of the “Paul Jones,” a man of thirty-two, was looking out over the bow at the head of Island No. 35 when he heard a slow, pleasant voice say, “Good morning.”
Bixby was a small, clean-cut man. “Good morning, sir,” he said, rather briskly, without looking around.
He did not much care for visitors in the pilothouse. This one entered and stood a little behind him.
“How would you like a young man to learn the river?” came to him in that serene, deliberate speech.
The pilot glanced over his shoulder and saw a rather slender, loose-limbed youth with a fair, girlish complexion and a great mass of curly auburn hair.
“I wouldn’t like it. Cub pilots are more trouble than they’re worth. A great deal more trouble than profit.”
“I am a printer by trade,” the easy voice went on. “It doesn’t agree with me. I thought I’d go to South America.”
Bixby kept his eye on the river, but there was interest in his voice when he spoke. “What makes you pull your words that way?” he asked—“pulling” being the river term for drawling.
The young man, now seated comfortably on the visitors’ bench, said more slowly than ever: “You’ll have to ask my mother—she pulls hers, too.”