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Mark Twain > The Gilded Age > Chapter IV

The Gilded Age

Chapter IV


--Seventhly, Before his Voyage, He should make his peace with God,
satisfie his Creditors if he be in debt; Pray earnestly to God to prosper
him in his Voyage, and to keep him from danger, and, if he be 'sui juris'
he should make his last will, and wisely order all his affairs, since
many that go far abroad, return not home. (This good and Christian
Counsel is given by Martinus Zeilerus in his Apodemical Canons before his
Itinerary of Spain and Portugal.)


Early in the morning Squire Hawkins took passage in a small steamboat,
with his family and his two slaves, and presently the bell rang, the
stage-plank; was hauled in, and the vessel proceeded up the river.
The children and the slaves were not much more at ease after finding out
that this monster was a creature of human contrivance than they were the
night before when they thought it the Lord of heaven and earth. They
started, in fright, every time the gauge-cocks sent out an angry hiss,
and they quaked from head to foot when the mud-valves thundered. The
shivering of the boat under the beating of the wheels was sheer misery to
them.

But of course familiarity with these things soon took away their terrors,
and then the voyage at once became a glorious adventure, a royal progress
through the very heart and home of romance, a realization of their
rosiest wonder-dreams. They sat by the hour in the shade of the pilot
house on the hurricane deck and looked out over the curving expanses of
the river sparkling in the sunlight. Sometimes the boat fought the mid-
stream current, with a verdant world on either hand, and remote from
both; sometimes she closed in under a point, where the dead water and the
helping eddies were, and shaved the bank so closely that the decks were
swept by the jungle of over-hanging willows and littered with a spoil of
leaves; departing from these "points" she regularly crossed the river
every five miles, avoiding the "bight" of the great binds and thus
escaping the strong current; sometimes she went out and skirted a high
"bluff" sand-bar in the middle of the stream, and occasionally followed
it up a little too far and touched upon the shoal water at its head--and
then the intelligent craft refused to run herself aground, but "smelt"
the bar, and straightway the foamy streak that streamed away from her
bows vanished, a great foamless wave rolled forward and passed her under
way, and in this instant she leaned far over on her side, shied from the
bar and fled square away from the danger like a frightened thing--and the
pilot was lucky if he managed to "straighten her up" before she drove her
nose into the opposite bank; sometimes she approached a solid wall of
tall trees as if she meant to break through it, but all of a sudden a
little crack would open just enough to admit her, and away she would go
plowing through the "chute" with just barely room enough between the
island on one side and the main land on the other; in this sluggish water
she seemed to go like a racehorse; now and then small log cabins appeared
in little clearings, with the never-failing frowsy women and girls in
soiled and faded linsey-woolsey leaning in the doors or against woodpiles
and rail fences, gazing sleepily at the passing show; sometimes she found
shoal water, going out at the head of those "chutes" or crossing the
river, and then a deck-hand stood on the bow and hove the lead, while the
boat slowed down and moved cautiously; sometimes she stopped a moment at
a landing and took on some freight or a passenger while a crowd of
slouchy white men and negroes stood on the bank and looked sleepily on
with their hands in their pantaloons pockets,--of course--for they never
took them out except to stretch, and when they did this they squirmed
about and reached their fists up into the air and lifted themselves on
tip-toe in an ecstasy of enjoyment.

When the sun went down it turned all the broad river to a national banner
laid in gleaming bars of gold and purple and crimson; and in time these
glories faded out in the twilight and left the fairy archipelagoes
reflecting their fringing foliage in the steely mirror of the stream.

At night the boat forged on through the deep solitudes of the river,
hardly ever discovering a light to testify to a human presence--mile
after mile and league after league the vast bends were guarded by
unbroken walls of forest that had never been disturbed by the voice or
the foot-fall of man or felt the edge of his sacrilegious axe.

An hour after supper the moon came up, and Clay and Washington ascended
to the hurricane deck to revel again in their new realm of enchantment.
They ran races up and down the deck; climbed about the bell; made friends
with the passenger-dogs chained under the lifeboat; tried to make friends
with a passenger-bear fastened to the verge-staff but were not
encouraged; "skinned the cat" on the hog-chains; in a word, exhausted the
amusement-possibilities of the deck. Then they looked wistfully up at
the pilot house, and finally, little by little, Clay ventured up there,
followed diffidently by Washington. The pilot turned presently to "get
his stern-marks," saw the lads and invited them in. Now their happiness
was complete. This cosy little house, built entirely of glass and
commanding a marvelous prospect in every direction was a magician's
throne to them and their enjoyment of the place was simply boundless.

They sat them down on a high bench and looked miles ahead and saw the
wooded capes fold back and reveal the bends beyond; and they looked miles
to the rear and saw the silvery highway diminish its breadth by degrees
and close itself together in the distance. Presently the pilot said:

"By George, yonder comes the Amaranth!"

A spark appeared, close to the water, several miles down the river. The
pilot took his glass and looked at it steadily for a moment, and said,
chiefly to himself:

"It can't be the Blue Wing. She couldn't pick us up this way. It's the
Amaranth, sure!"

He bent over a speaking tube and said:

"Who's on watch down there?"

A hollow, unhuman voice rumbled up through the tube in answer:

"I am. Second engineer."

"Good! You want to stir your stumps, now, Harry--the Amaranth's just
turned the point--and she's just a--humping herself, too!"

The pilot took hold of a rope that stretched out forward, jerked it
twice, and two mellow strokes of the big bell responded. A voice out on
the deck shouted:

"Stand by, down there, with that labboard lead!"

"No, I don't want the lead," said the pilot, "I want you. Roust out the
old man--tell him the Amaranth's coming. And go and call Jim--tell him."

"Aye-aye, sir!"

The "old man" was the captain--he is always called so, on steamboats and
ships; "Jim" was the other pilot. Within two minutes both of these men
were flying up the pilothouse stairway, three steps at a jump. Jim was
in his shirt sleeves,--with his coat and vest on his arm. He said:

"I was just turning in. Where's the glass"

He took it and looked:

"Don't appear to be any night-hawk on the jack-staff--it's the Amaranth,
dead sure!"

The captain took a good long look, and only said:

"Damnation!"

George Davis, the pilot on watch, shouted to the night-watchman on deck:

"How's she loaded?"

"Two inches by the head, sir."

"'T ain't enough!"

The captain shouted, now:

"Call the mate. Tell him to call all hands and get a lot of that sugar
forrard--put her ten inches by the head. Lively, now!"

"Aye-aye, sir."

A riot of shouting and trampling floated up from below, presently, and
the uneasy steering of the boat soon showed that she was getting "down by
the head."

The three men in the pilot house began to talk in short, sharp sentences,
low and earnestly. As their excitement rose, their voices went down.
As fast as one of them put down the spy-glass another took it up--but
always with a studied air of calmness. Each time the verdict was:

"She's a gaining!"

The captain spoke through the tube:

"What steam are You carrying?"

"A hundred and forty-two, sir! But she's getting hotter and hotter all
the time."

The boat was straining and groaning and quivering like a monster in pain.
Both pilots were at work now, one on each side of the wheel, with their
coats and vests off, their bosoms and collars wide open and the
perspiration flowing down heir faces. They were holding the boat so
close to the shore that the willows swept the guards almost from stem to
stern.

"Stand by!" whispered George.

"All ready!" said Jim, under his breath.

"Let her come!"

The boat sprang away, from the bank like a deer, and darted in a long
diagonal toward the other shore. She closed in again and thrashed her
fierce way along the willows as before. The captain put down the glass:

"Lord how she walks up on us! I do hate to be beat!"

"Jim," said George, looking straight ahead, watching the slightest yawing
of the boat and promptly meeting it with the wheel, "how'll it do to try
Murderer's Chute?"

"Well, it's--it's taking chances. How was the cottonwood stump on the
false point below Boardman's Island this morning?"

"Water just touching the roots."

"Well it's pretty close work. That gives six feet scant in the head of
Murderer's Chute. We can just barely rub through if we hit it exactly
right. But it's worth trying. She don't dare tackle it!"--meaning the
Amaranth.

In another instant the Boreas plunged into what seemed a crooked creek,
and the Amaranth's approaching lights were shut out in a moment. Not a
whisper was uttered, now, but the three men stared ahead into the shadows
and two of them spun the wheel back and forth with anxious watchfulness
while the steamer tore along. The chute seemed to come to an end every
fifty yards, but always opened out in time. Now the head of it was at
hand. George tapped the big bell three times, two leadsmen sprang to
their posts, and in a moment their weird cries rose on the night air and
were caught up and repeated by two men on the upper deck:

"No-o bottom!"

"De-e-p four!"

"Half three!"

"Quarter three!"

"Mark under wa-a-ter three!"

"Half twain!"

"Quarter twain!-----"

Davis pulled a couple of ropes--there was a jingling of small bells far
below, the boat's speed slackened, and the pent steam began to whistle
and the gauge-cocks to scream:

"By the mark twain!"

"Quar--ter--her--er--less twain!"

"Eight and a half!"

"Eight feet!"

"Seven-ana-half!"

Another jingling of little bells and the wheels ceased turning
altogether. The whistling of the steam was something frightful now--it
almost drowned all other noises.

"Stand by to meet her!"

George had the wheel hard down and was standing on a spoke.

"All ready!"

The, boat hesitated seemed to hold her breath, as did the captain and
pilots--and then she began to fall away to starboard and every eye
lighted:

"Now then!--meet her! meet her! Snatch her!"

The wheel flew to port so fast that the spokes blended into a spider-web
--the swing of the boat subsided--she steadied herself----

"Seven feet!"

"Sev--six and a half!"

"Six feet! Six f----"

Bang! She hit the bottom! George shouted through the tube:

"Spread her wide open! Whale it at her!"

Pow-wow-chow! The escape-pipes belched snowy pillars of steam aloft, the
boat ground and surged and trembled--and slid over into----

"M-a-r-k twain!"

"Quarter-her----"

"Tap! tap! tap!" (to signify "Lay in the leads")

And away she went, flying up the willow shore, with the whole silver sea
of the Mississippi stretching abroad on every hand.

No Amaranth in sight!

"Ha-ha, boys, we took a couple of tricks that time!" said the captain.

And just at that moment a red glare appeared in the head of the chute and
the Amaranth came springing after them!

"Well, I swear!"

"Jim, what is the meaning of that?"

"I'll tell you what's the meaning of it. That hail we had at Napoleon
was Wash Hastings, wanting to come to Cairo--and we didn't stop. He's in
that pilot house, now, showing those mud turtles how to hunt for easy
water."

"That's it! I thought it wasn't any slouch that was running that middle
bar in Hog-eye Bend. If it's Wash Hastings--well, what he don't know
about the river ain't worth knowing--a regular gold-leaf, kid-glove,
diamond breastpin pilot Wash Hastings is. We won't take any tricks off
of him, old man!"

"I wish I'd a stopped for him, that's all."

The Amaranth was within three hundred yards of the Boreas, and still
gaining. The "old man" spoke through the tube:

"What is she-carrying now?"

"A hundred and sixty-five, sir!"

"How's your wood?"

"Pine all out-cypress half gone-eating up cotton-wood like pie!"

"Break into that rosin on the main deck-pile it in, the boat can pay for
it!"

Soon the boat was plunging and quivering and screaming more madly than
ever. But the Amaranth's head was almost abreast the Boreas's stern:

"How's your steam, now, Harry?"

"Hundred and eighty-two, sir!"

"Break up the casks of bacon in the forrard hold! Pile it in! Levy on
that turpentine in the fantail-drench every stick of wood with it!"

The boat was a moving earthquake by this time:

"How is she now?"

"A hundred and ninety-six and still a-swelling!--water, below the middle
gauge-cocks!--carrying every pound she can stand!--nigger roosting on the
safety-valve!"

"Good! How's your draft?"

"Bully! Every time a nigger heaves a stick of wood into the furnace he
goes out the chimney, with it!"

The Amaranth drew steadily up till her jack-staff breasted the Boreas's
wheel-house--climbed along inch by inch till her chimneys breasted it--
crept along, further and further, till the boats were wheel to wheel--and
then they, closed up with a heavy jolt and locked together tight and fast
in the middle of the big river under the flooding moonlight! A roar and
a hurrah went up from the crowded decks of both steamers--all hands
rushed to the guards to look and shout and gesticulate--the weight
careened the vessels over toward each other--officers flew hither and
thither cursing and storming, trying to drive the people amidships--both
captains were leaning over their railings shaking their fists, swearing
and threatening--black volumes of smoke rolled up and canopied the
scene,--delivering a rain of sparks upon the vessels--two pistol shots
rang out, and both captains dodged unhurt and the packed masses of
passengers surged back and fell apart while the shrieks of women and
children soared above the intolerable din----

And then there was a booming roar, a thundering crash, and the riddled
Amaranth dropped loose from her hold and drifted helplessly away!

Instantly the fire-doors of the Boreas were thrown open and the men began
dashing buckets of water into the furnaces--for it would have been death
and destruction to stop the engines with such a head of steam on.

As soon as possible the Boreas dropped down to the floating wreck and
took off the dead, the wounded and the unhurt--at least all that could be
got at, for the whole forward half of the boat was a shapeless ruin, with
the great chimneys lying crossed on top of it, and underneath were a
dozen victims imprisoned alive and wailing for help. While men with axes
worked with might and main to free these poor fellows, the Boreas's boats
went about, picking up stragglers from the river.

And now a new horror presented itself. The wreck took fire from the
dismantled furnaces! Never did men work with a heartier will than did
those stalwart braves with the axes. But it was of no use. The fire ate
its way steadily, despising the bucket brigade that fought it. It
scorched the clothes, it singed the hair of the axemen--it drove them
back, foot by foot-inch by inch--they wavered, struck a final blow in the
teeth of the enemy, and surrendered. And as they fell back they heard
prisoned voices saying:

"Don't leave us! Don't desert us! Don't, don't do it!"

And one poor fellow said:

"I am Henry Worley, striker of the Amaranth! My mother lives in St.
Louis. Tell her a lie for a poor devil's sake, please. Say I was killed
in an instant and never knew what hurt me--though God knows I've neither
scratch nor bruise this moment! It's hard to burn up in a coop like this
with the whole wide world so near. Good-bye boys--we've all got to come
to it at last, anyway!"

The Boreas stood away out of danger, and the ruined steamer went drifting
down the stream an island of wreathing and climbing flame that vomited
clouds of smoke from time to time, and glared more fiercely and sent its
luminous tongues higher and higher after each emission. A shriek at
intervals told of a captive that had met his doom. The wreck lodged upon
a sandbar, and when the Boreas turned the next point on her upward
journey it was still burning with scarcely abated fury.

When the boys came down into the main saloon of the Boreas, they saw a
pitiful sight and heard a world of pitiful sounds. Eleven poor creatures
lay dead and forty more lay moaning, or pleading or screaming, while a
score of Good Samaritans moved among them doing what they could to
relieve their sufferings; bathing their chinless faces and bodies with
linseed oil and lime water and covering the places with bulging masses of
raw cotton that gave to every face and form a dreadful and unhuman
aspect.

A little wee French midshipman of fourteen lay fearfully injured, but
never uttered a sound till a physician of Memphis was about to dress his
hurts. Then he said:

"Can I get well? You need not be afraid to tell me."

"No--I--I am afraid you can not."

"Then do not waste your time with me--help those that can get well."

"But----"

"Help those that can get well! It is, not for me to be a girl. I carry
the blood of eleven generations of soldiers in my veins!"

The physician--himself a man who had seen service in the navy in his
time--touched his hat to this little hero, and passed on.

The head engineer of the Amaranth, a grand specimen of physical manhood,
struggled to his feet a ghastly spectacle and strode toward his brother,
the second engineer, who was unhurt. He said:

"You were on watch. You were boss. You would not listen to me when I
begged you to reduce your steam. Take that!--take it to my wife and tell
her it comes from me by the hand of my murderer! Take it--and take my
curse with it to blister your heart a hundred years--and may you live so
long!"

And he tore a ring from his finger, stripping flesh and skin with it,
threw it down and fell dead!

But these things must not be dwelt upon. The Boreas landed her dreadful
cargo at the next large town and delivered it over to a multitude of
eager hands and warm southern hearts--a cargo amounting by this time to
39 wounded persons and 22 dead bodies. And with these she delivered a
list of 96 missing persons that had drowned or otherwise perished at the
scene of the disaster.

A jury of inquest was impaneled, and after due deliberation and inquiry
they returned the inevitable American verdict which has been so familiar
to our ears all the days of our lives--"NOBODY TO BLAME."

**[The incidents of the explosion are not invented. They happened just
as they are told.--The Authors.]

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