Chapter 24: My Incognito is Exploded. Free audiobook of Mark Twain's "Life on the Mississippi". Audio courtesy of Librivox.
My Incognito is Exploded
AFTER a close study of the face of the pilot on watch, I was satisfied that I had never seen him before; so I went up there. The pilot inspected me; I re-inspected the pilot. These customary preliminaries over, I sat down on the high bench, and he faced about and went on with his work. Every detail of the pilot-house was familiar to me, with one exception,--a large-mouthed tube under the breast-board. I puzzled over that thing a considerable time; then gave up and asked what it was for.
'To hear the engine-bells through.'
It was another good contrivance which ought to have been invented half a century sooner. So I was thinking, when the pilot asked--
'Do you know what this rope is for?'
I managed to get around this question, without committing myself.
'Is this the first time you were ever in a pilot-house?'
I crept under that one.
'Where are you from?'
'First time you have ever been West?'
I climbed over this one.
'If you take an interest in such things, I can tell you what all these things are for.'
I said I should like it.
'This,' putting his hand on a backing-bell rope, 'is to sound the fire-alarm; this,' putting his hand on a go-ahead bell, 'is to call the texas-tender; this one,' indicating the whistle-lever, 'is to call the captain'--and so he went on, touching one object after another, and reeling off his tranquil spool of lies.
I had never felt so like a passenger before. I thanked him, with emotion, for each new fact, and wrote it down in my note-book. The pilot warmed to his opportunity, and proceeded to load me up in the good old-fashioned way. At times I was afraid he was going to rupture his invention; but it always stood the strain, and he pulled through all right. He drifted, by easy stages, into revealments of the river's marvelous eccentricities of one sort and another, and backed them up with some pretty gigantic illustrations. For instance--
'Do you see that little boulder sticking out of the water yonder? well, when I first came on the river, that was a solid ridge of rock, over sixty feet high and two miles long. All washed away but that.' [This with a sigh.]
I had a mighty impulse to destroy him, but it seemed to me that killing, in any ordinary way, would be too good for him.
Once, when an odd-looking craft, with a vast coal-scuttle slanting aloft on the end of a beam, was steaming by in the distance, he indifferently drew attention to it, as one might to an object grown wearisome through familiarity, and observed that it was an 'alligator boat.'
'An alligator boat? What's it for?'
'To dredge out alligators with.'
'Are they so thick as to be troublesome?'
'Well, not now, because the Government keeps them down. But they used to be. Not everywhere; but in favorite places, here and there, where the river is wide and shoal-like Plum Point, and Stack Island, and so on--places they call alligator beds.'
'Did they actually impede navigation?'
'Years ago, yes, in very low water; there was hardly a trip, then, that we didn't get aground on alligators.'
It seemed to me that I should certainly have to get out my tomahawk. However, I restrained myself and said--
'It must have been dreadful.'