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Chapter 5: a southern river boat race.

  • An Alabama steamer
  • -- General Van Dorn -- what river travel is -- a calliope and its master -- Banter for a race -- excitement of all on board -- a close shave -- neck and neck -- how a race is won -- a unique toast.
    “Hurry, my boy! Pack up your traps and get ready for the boat,” cried Styles Staple, bursting into my room in his usual sudden fashion the day we got the news from Virginia. “All's fixed. The colonel, you and I are to have a trip of a week, stop at Mobile and then run down t‘ Orleans!”

    So by sundown we were quietly smoking our cigars on the topmost deck of the “Southern Republic.”

    Nowhere in the world can be found just such boats as those that navigate our south-western rivers. Great three or four-storied constructions, built upon mere flats of the lightest possible draught, with length and breadth of beam sufficient to allow storage room for an immense number of cotton bales and barrels upon the lowest deck; with their furnaces, boilers and machinery all above the water line, they look like up-country hotels that, having got out of their element, contemplate a down-trip for the benefit of their health-or cuisine.

    The “Southern Republic” was a new boat, built after the most approved plan, on a scale of size and magnificence unequaled on the river. Sitting flat and square upon the water, her four decks rising one above the other — with the thousand doors and windows of her state-rooms seeming to peer like eyes over the balconies around them-she seemed more like some fabled marine monster than a vessel meant for speed and comfort. Her length was immense, and her draught necessarily very light — not four feet when full loaded; for the Alabama is subject to many vagaries and what was a clear channel yesterday may be only a two-foot shoal to-day. Of course, with solidity and strength sacrificed to this extreme lightness, when the powerful engines are put to any strain, the high, thin fabric thrills from stem to stern with their every puff, like a huge card-house.

    The speed of a first-class high-pressure boat is very great in the longer “reaches;” but, the Alabama is a most tortuous stream. Often you stand by the pilot-house and see, right under the quarter, a [43] gleaming streak of water across a neck of land over which you might toss a stone; and yet you may steam on miles around the point that juts ahead, before you get into it.

    The “Southern Republic,” from her immense size and unusually handsome equipment, was a novelty even to the river people; and each afternoon of her starting, crowds came aboard to bid farewell to friends and roam over the vessel, or collected on the bluffs above to see her swing out to the shrill notes of her “calliope,” the best and least discordant on the river. A few evenings before we left, a large party had collected in honor of General Earl Van Dorn. He had recently resigned; and the commission as colonel of the only regiment of regular cavalry in the Confederacy was tendered him. Now,on the eve of departure for his well-known expedition to Texasthen considered a momentous and desperate one-numbers of fair women thronged the bluffs to catch a glimpse of the hero of the hour, while friends gathered round to grasp the hand, than which no firmer ever drew blade!

    Few men had started in the war with brighter auspices and more ardent well-wishings-none could have had a sadder ending! I remember well the last sight I ever had of his neat but powerfullyknit figure, as he stood with one hand resting on the rail of the upper deck and the other raising his broad sombrero over the clear, sharp features, with the peaked moustache and beard of the cuirassier. A brilliant and handsome staff surrounded him; from the bluffs, the ladies waved their handkerchiefs and the men their hats; the wild notes of the calliope echoed back the “Marseillaise;” but in memory's photograph of the scene, his figure alone — the proud swell of the thin nostril and the deep, smothered flame in the cold gray eyestands out clear and sharp.

    We are aboard the “Southern Republic;” the last bell has sounded, the last belated trunk has been trundled over the plank; and we are off, the calliope screaming “Dixie” like ten thousand devils, the crowds on the bank waving us bon voyage!

    The main saloon of the boat was a spacious apartment, a hundred feet long by thirty in breadth, gorgeously decorated with modern paint and brilliantly lighted; the galleries leading to the state-rooms rising tier upon tier entirely around it, while above, a skylight of tinted glass shed a soft, warm light. [44]

    There were offices, card-rooms, bar-rooms aboard all these boats; and as the down-trip occupies from forty-eight to one hundred hours-according to the stage of the river and the luck in running aground, a performance to be expected once in each trip-we become quite a mutual amusement community by the time it is over.

    This trip the boat was very crowded, and at supper the effect of the line of small tables, filled with officers in uniform, ladies tastefully dressed and a sprinkling of homespun coats-all reflected in the long mirror — was very bright and gay. After meals, there is generally a promenade on the upper deck, where people talk, smoke, inspect each other and flirt. They then adjourn to state-room, saloon or carpd-room, to lounge or read to kill time; for the Alabama is anything but a picturesque stream, with its low, marshy banks only varied by occasional “; cotton slides” and “negro quarters.”

    This night was splendidly clear, the moon bright as day, and Staple and I with our cigars staid on deck to scrape acquaintance with the pilot and the small,seedy Frenchman who officiated at the calliope. He was an original in his way--“the Professor” --his head like a bullet, garnished with hair of the most wiry blackness, cut close as the scissors could hold it, looking like the most uncompromising porcupine. Of course, he was a political refugee.

    Dixie! Aire nationale! pas bonne chose!” he exclaimed, seating himself at his instrument and twirling a huge moustache. “Voila le Marseillaise! Zat make hymn national for you!” And he made the whistle roar and shriek in a way to have sent the red caps into the air a hundred miles away.

    “Grand! Splendid!” roared Styles above the steam. “Why, Professor, you're a genius. Come and take some brandy.”

    The professor banged the lid of his instrument, led the way instanter down to our state-room; and, once there, did take something; then something else and, finally, something more, till he got very thick-tongued and enthusiastic.

    “Grand aire of ze Liberte!” he cried at last, mounting again to his perch by the smoke-stack. “Song compose by me for one grand man-ze Van Dorn. I make zees-me, myself-and dedicate to heem!” And he banged at the keys till he tortured the steam into the Liberty duet, from Puritani.

    “ How you fine zat, eh? Zat makes ze hymn for ze Souse. Me, [45] I am republican! Voila! I wear ze moustache of ze revolutionaire--my hairs cut themselves en mecontent! Were zere colere more red as red, I should be zat!”

    The professor was so struck by the brilliancy of this idea, that he played the air again, until it rang like a phantom chorus over the still plantations. At last, overcome by emotion and brandy, he slid from the stool and sat at the foot of the smoke-stack, muttering:

    Zat is ze hymn-hic-dedicate to ze general and to ze-hic-countree!

    Then he slept the sleep of the just conscience.

    “Thar's the ‘Senator,’ and she's gainin‘ on us,” said the pilot, as we walked forward, pointing to a thin column of smoke rising over the trees just abreast of us.

    “How far astern?”

    “A matter of two mile round that pint.”

    “Splendid night for a race,” muttered Styles. “Will she-overtake us, Cap'n?”

    “ Wail, maibee!” replied the old river dog, while the most professional grin shot over his hard-wooden features. “Specially ef I ease up this ‘ar ole gal.”

    “Ha! Now we'll have it. We won't turn in just now,” chuckled Styles, banging me in the back.

    Almost imperceptibly our speed slackens, the thin dark column creeps nearer round the trees on the point in our wake; at last the steamer bursts into sight, not a pistol shot astern.

    There is a sharp click of our pilot's bell, a gasping throb, as if our boat took a deep, long breath; and just as the “Senator” makes our wheel we dash ahead again, with every stroke of the piston threatening to rack our frail fabric into shreds.

    The river here is pretty wide and the channel deep and clear.. The “Senator” follows in gallant style, now gaining our quarter, now a boat's length astern-both engines roaring and snorting like angry hippopotami; both vessels rocking and straining till they seem to paw their way through the churned water.

    Talk of horse-racing and rouge-et-noir! But there is no excitement that can approach boat-racing on a southern river! One by one people pop up the ladders and throng the rails. First come the unemployed deck-hands, then a stray gentleman or two, and finally ladies and children, till the rail is full and every eye is anxiously strained to the opposite boat. [46]

    She holds her own wondrous well, considering the reputation of ours. At each burst, when she seems to gain on us, the crowd hold their breath; as she drops off again there is a deep-drayn, gasping sign of relief, like wind in.the pines. Even the colonel has roused himself from dreams of turtle at the St. Charles, and red fish at Pensacola; coming on deck in a shooting jacket and glengary cap, that make him look like a jaunty Fosco. He leans over the stern rail, smoking his cabana in long, easy whiffs as we gain a length; sending out short, angry puffs at the “Senator” as she creeps up on us.

    Foot by foot, we gain steadily until the gap is widened to three or four boat-lengths, though the “Senator” piles her fires till the shores behind her glow from their reflection; and her decks-now black with anxious lookers-on-send up cheer after cheer, as she snorts defiantly after us.

    Suddenly the bank seems to spring up right under our port bow! We have cut it too close! Two sharp, vicious clicks of the bell; our helm goes hard down and the engines stop with a sullen jar, as I catch a hissing curse through the set teeth of the pilot.

    A yell of wild triumph rises from the rival's deck. On she comes in gallant style, shutting the gap and passing us like a race-horse, before we can swing into the channel and recover headway. It is a splendid sight as the noble boat passes us; her black bulk standing out in the clear moonlight against the dim, gray banks like a living monster; her great chimneys snorting out volumes of massive black smoke that trail out level behind her, from the great speed. Her side toward us is crowded with men, women and children; hats, handkerchiefs and hands are swung madly about to aid the effort of the hundred voices.

    Close down to the water's edge-scarce above the line of foam she cuts-her lower deck lies black and undefined in the shadow of the great mass above it. Suddenly it lights up with a lurid flash, as the furnace-doors swing wide open; and in the hot glare the negro stokers-their stalwart forms jetty black, naked to the waist and streaming with exertion that makes the muscles strain out in great cordsshow like the distorted imps of some pictured inferno. They, too, have imbibed the excitement. With every gesture of anxious haste and eyeballs starting from their dusky heads, some plunge the long [47] rakes into the red mouths of the furnace, twisting and turning the crackling mass with terrific strength; others hurl in huge logs of resinous pine, already heated by contact till they burn like pitch. Then the great doors bang to; the Yo! Ho! of the negroes dies away and the whole hull is blacker from the contrast; while the “Senator,” puffing denser clouds than ever, swings round the point a hundred yards ahead!

    There is dead silence on our boat-silence so deep that the rough whisper of the pilot to the knot around him is heard the whole length of her deck: “Damnation! But I'll overstep her yit, or — bust!”

    “ Good, old man!” responds Styles-“Let her out and I'll stand the wine!”

    Then the old colonel walks to the wheel; his face purple, his glengary pushed back on his head, his cigar glowing like the “red eye of battle,” as he puffs angry wheezes of smoke through his nostrils.

    “Damned hard! sir-hard! Egad! I'd burn the last ham in the locker to overtake her!” --and he hurls the glowing stump after the “Senator,” as the Spartan youth hurled their shields into the thick of the battle ere rushing to reclaim them.

    On we speed, till the trees on the bank seem to fly back past us; and round the point to see the “Senator,” just turning another curve!

    On still, faster than ever, with every glass on board jingling in its frame; every joint and timber trembling, as though with a congestive chill!

    Still the black demons below ply their fires with the fattest logs, and even a few barrels of rosin are slyly slipped in; the smoke behind us stretched straight and flat from the smoke-stack.

    Now we enter a straight, narrow reach with the chase just before us. Faster-faster we go till the boat fairly rocks and swings from side to side, half lifted with every throb of the engine. Closer and closer we creep-harder and harder thump the cylinders-until at last we close; our bow just lapping her stern! So we run a few yards.

    Little by little-so little that we test it by counting her windowswe reach her wheel-pass it-lock her bow, and run nose and nose for a hundred feet!

    The stillness of death is upon both boats; not a sound but the [48] creak and shudder as they struggle on. Suddenly the hard voice of our old pilot crashes through it like a broadaxe:

    Good-bye, Sen'tor! I'll send yer a tug!

    --and he gives his bell a merry click.

    Our huge boat gives one shuddering throb that racks her from end to end-one plunge-and then she settles into a steady rush and forges rapidly and evenly ahead. Wider and wider grows the gap; and we wind out of sight with the beaten boat five hundred yards behind us.

    The cigar I take from my mouth, to make way for the deep, long sigh, is chewed to perfect pulp. A wild, pent — up yell of half-savage triumph goes up from the crowded deck; such as is heard nowhere besides, save where the captured work rewards the bloody and oftrepeated charge. Cheer after cheer follows; and, as we approach the thin column of smoke curling over the trees between us, Styles bestrides the prostrate form of the still sleeping professor and makes the calliope yell and shriek that classic ditty, “Old gray horse, come out of the Wilderness!” at the invisible rival.

    I doubt if heartier toast was ever drunk than that the colonel gave the group around the wheel-house, when Styles “stood” the wine plighted the pilot. The veteran was beaming, the glengary sat jauntily on one side; and his voice actually gurgled as he said:.

    “ Egad! I'd miss my dinner for a week for this! Gentlemen, a toast! Here's to the old boat! God bless her--soul!”

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