On Board the War Eagle

Accompanying Constance to her home, I returned with all haste, to find the War Eagle ready to cast off; and the captain seeing me come aboard, gave the word, whereupon the boat backed into the stream. No sooner had I set foot on deck, however, than the roustabouts and emigrants flocked about me as if I were a lord, determined to make a great deal out of what I had done. This is always the way, though, and grows out of the natural amiability of men and the desire they have to be agreeable. Among the foremost to welcome me were the child’s father and mother, the latter holding the little thing high above her head. Upon perceiving me, it reached out its hands, and seeing this I took it in my arms, but more to please its father and mother than anything else. For, like most men, I have never had any great fancy for strange children. The father and mother I could hardly shake off, and throughout their lives, all too short, they loved me and never tired of going out of their way to do me some office of kindness. Telling them, and truly enough, that if I had not done what I did, others would, I finally got off, and so made my way to the captain on the upper deck. He received me kindly, and upon my answering that I was ready to go to work, sent for Mr. Devlin, the third steward, and put me in his charge. This gentleman, when stripped of all superfluity of title, I found to be the head waiter, and nothing more. Taking me to his room, he offered me the half of it, which kindness I gladly accepted. Here I was fitted out with my uniform of light shoes, duck trousers, and jacket to match, a military cap completing the outfit. Thus arrayed I looked far more like a dapper young cadet, I thought, than the country-bred lad I was.
As the day was partly spent, Mr. Devlin told me I need not go on duty till the next morning, and in the mean time might look about and acquaint myself with the boat and the duties I was to perform. Thanking him, I first of all sought out those who were to be my companions, and these I found to be agreeable young fellows, mostly the sons of farmers and small traders living about the river towns. They one and all received me kindly, as did the lower officers, so that I was at once put at my ease among them. After that I made a tour of the War Eagle, and a fine vessel she was, with side-wheels, and a sharp prow that stuck out like the nose of a fox, and in a way that seemed to invite other boats to follow. A band of gold encircled her side, and at the summit of her flagstaff an eagle perched as if about to fly. Another like it, but of burnished gold, hung suspended between the smokestacks, and this with outstretched wings and eager neck, as if all its strength were put forth to keep up with the noble vessel.
Going through the boat, and critically, as one having some knowledge of these things, I found it far beyond what I had thought, and such as to fulfill in everyway the captain’s pride of ownership. The management and practices on board, too, were also in keeping and orderly, as I soon came to know. For the captain was a fine business man, and neither drank nor gambled, nor encouraged such things in others. This, every one agreed, was greatly to his honor, considering that the receipts of the tap-room were wholly dependent upon such lines of custom, and by his giving way ever so little its earnings might have been greatly increased. Being a firm man, however, he was never led astray by prospect of gain once he had made up his mind in regard to a thing of this nature. He was also strenuous in respect to matters of conduct in others. Thus, he would have it that all gaming should cease promptly at break of day, and this so that the business of the boat and the comfort of other passengers might not be interfered with unduly. If there were exceptions to the rule, they were infrequent and such as could not properly be criticised, being called forth by the prominence of the guests, or for some other equally good reason. Another thing he did that was commendable was this: Whenever guests became incompetent from drink, and so as to scandalize the management or create disorder, he would insist that they should abstain from further indulgence for the time being, and if still incompetent, should go to their rooms. I could recite a hundred instances like these, if necessary, to prove his fine sense and firm determination not to let matters drift as the captains of some vessels were in the habit of doing, to the great scandal of the river and its business.
tumblr_ogny5pe1hr1tk91bqo6_r1_1280After I had finished the round of the boat, I went to join Mr. Devlin, and this young gentleman I found stretched in his bunk, reading Kent’s Commentaries, or something like that. For it was his ambition, it appeared, to become a lawyer, and his present duties were only a means thereto. Notwithstanding this, he easily surpassed every one about him in the business we had in hand. For once a guest had been served, and opportunity afforded Mr. Devlin to get a look at him, he knew from that time on better than the man himself what dishes pleased him best. A passenger had but to move his lips or raise his eyes, and he was off like a shot to procure what was wanted. If we did not happen to have the thing asked for, which was sometimes the case, though not often, he was never abrupt or rude in making it known, as less skillful persons would have been, but tactful, so that in the end the passenger felt that nothing in the world could have been more inopportune than his request. Thus he kept every one in good humor and taught his subordinates, by example and otherwise, the science of doing obscure things well. Often, too, it fell out that some of us small fry would get into trouble with a guest, whereupon Mr. Devlin would be called, and always to the extinguishment of the passenger. For, while he did not deny that we were in the wrong, he in the end never failed to bring about our vindication. This, however, only to such as he thought were doing their best. The others he sent ashore with their pack and such small savings as the clerk had to their credit at the first landing.
Unused to business or any kind of stir, I thought it fine to be doing something, but strive as I would I could never come up to the needs of the office. Of all the things set me to do, however, I found it hardest to remember the names of the dishes to be served at dinner and the order in which they were prescribed. For we had no written or printed bill of fare, as was afterward the custom, and as, indeed, some of the more wastefully managed boats had at the time of which I speak. These lapses of memory, so strange and inexcusable, were a constant source of mortification to me, for none of my companions had any difficulty in saying off the names glibly enough. To overcome this weakness I put forth every effort, but never with any success to speak of. Thus, acquainting myself with the names of the dishes in advance, I would con them over till I had them at my tongue’s end; but when I approached a guest and sought to repeat them in order, they vanished from my mind as if I had never heard them. This not wholly, but in part, and usually the more important dishes, such as rare meats and particular pies, held in high esteem by our customers. Perhaps if some irate guest had rebuked me, I might have mended, but no such thing happened. For sometimes, when one would face about with kindling eye as if to say some rude thing, they would turn it off in another way. Why, I do not know, unless it might be because of my heightened color and look of shame. My companions soon came to know my failing, and so would stop as they passed to and fro to set me right, or recite at length the dishes that were being served. Because of this I labored the harder to master the business, but never, as I have said, with any success. Truly, I would often say to myself in shame, the captain was right when he said I was not smart enough for the business. No, alas! and never would be.
We had breakfast on the War Eagle at seven, and dinner at twelve, supper being served at six. With the first and last I got on very well, as there were but few dishes and they easily remembered. Dinner being an elaborate affair and made much of by the captain, I could in no way get the hang of it. Because of these lapses I mourned much in secret, and came to look forward to the hour with direful forebodings. Mr. Devlin, in his great kindness, placed me at the upper end of the saloon, where the ladies sat, and this, I knew, because they were less exacting than the men. Indeed, I was every day in debt to one or more of these dear creatures for some act of forbearance or gentle office of kindness in this connection. Sometimes, when I blundered more than usual, I would glance in affright at the captain to see if he noticed my awkwardness, and doing so would perhaps see a frown on his face; but when he saw me looking toward him he would smile in the most amiable way possible and as if greatly pleased at the deftness I showed in a business so perplexing. This forbearance endeared him to me the more, but without in any way lessening the shame I felt at not being able to do as well as the others. Indeed, in the end, it so preyed upon me that I went to Mr. Devlin and asked to be put in the pantry to look after the knives and forks. This he would by no means do, saying I got along very well, and that no complaint had ever been made by the captain or any guest. Encouraged by this, I redoubled my efforts to please, but without ever being able to come up to any just expectation of what I was required to do.
One of my duties, and that which I liked best, was to see that the pilots were supplied with drinking-water and such small things as their business required, which the fixedness of their work did not permit them to look after themselves. This took me to the wheelhouse, and many times, I am sure, when there was no excuse for it. For of all places this was the best for seeing what was going on, and especially for watching the river and the country round about. Had I been older, I thought, I should have sought to learn the trade of pilot, for save that of captain, it seemed to me the most considerable in the world. To know the channel by day or night and be able to carry the boat forward and be its master were things apart and worthy of any man’s strivings.
The work of the cabin boys was not hard, nor their hours long. We were up at sunrise and off duty at seven in the evening. After that we were our own masters; and it was my habit, if the weather was not too rough, to spend my spare time on the upper deck or in the pilot-house. Thus midnight often found me, and reluctant to go to my room, where I was always sure to find Devlin poring over his studies.
Of all the things that happened, and they were many, the most romantic, I thought, was the landing at night for wood. Then the torches, placed here and there, lit up the dark forest and glistening water, making them look for all the world as if they were alive to what we were doing. At such times the patient roustabouts, running back and forth, amid the cries of the mate, gave to the scene the air of being a place of punishment, where lost souls were scourged with blows and curses to do more than lay in the power of men. This, I have often thought in my more mature years, was not far from the real truth, though the necessity of haste in the business of such carriers makes those in charge impatient of delay, and so perhaps more prone to lose their tempers than other men.
Thus the summer and fall passed as the War Eagle went back and forth between the fair city of St. Louis and the distant posts on the upper river. St. Louis was then the most considerable city in the West, and well worth studying by those seeing the world. Because of this I sought in every way during our visits to increase my knowledge of its affairs; and thus it fell out that here for the first time I found my way to the theater one hot night in midsummer. This not advisedly, as it turned out, for demanding a ticket at the office, and the agent being busy over his accounts, answered absently:
“Where?”
Not knowing what he meant, I replied at random:
“Anywhere, if you please.”
At this he looked up, and seeing me, cried out with great promptness and show of gayety:
“Ha, no coat! From the country. To the gods with you”; and straightway handed me a bit of paper and claimed his quarter.
Not among the gods, but rather with the damned in hell, I thought, on climbing to my seat, for I could conceive of no hotter place than that in which I found myself. Here, too, I lost what small change I had about me, and this by the help of a pleasant-spoken young man who sat beside me and was at pains to point out the fine points of the play, and otherwise entertain me with stories of the town, in the intervals of the acts. This adventure, because of my inexperience, discouraged me from making further excursions of a like nature, so that thereafter I was content with such exterior views of the city as my short stature and the crowded streets would permit.