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Chapter 14

CHAPTER XIV [Rafting Down the Neckar]

When the landlord learned that I and my agents were artists, our party
rose perceptibly in his esteem; we rose still higher when he learned
that we were making a pedestrian tour of Europe.

He told us all about the Heidelberg road, and which were the best places
to avoid and which the best ones to tarry at; he charged me less than
cost for the things I broke in the night; he put up a fine luncheon
for us and added to it a quantity of great light-green plums, the
pleasantest fruit in Germany; he was so anxious to do us honor that he
would not allow us to walk out of Heilbronn, but called up Goetz von
Berlichingen's horse and cab and made us ride.

I made a sketch of the turnout. It is not a Work, it is only what
artists call a "study"--a thing to make a finished picture from. This
sketch has several blemishes in it; for instance, the wagon is not
traveling as fast as the horse is. This is wrong. Again, the person
trying to get out of the way is too small; he is out of perspective,
as we say. The two upper lines are not the horse's back, they are the
reigns; there seems to be a wheel missing--this would be corrected in a
finished Work, of course. This thing flying out behind is not a flag,
it is a curtain. That other thing up there is the sun, but I didn't get
enough distance on it. I do not remember, now, what that thing is that
is in front of the man who is running, but I think it is a haystack or a
woman. This study was exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1879, but did not
take any medal; they do not give medals for studies. [Figure 3]

We discharged the carriage at the bridge. The river was full of
logs--long, slender, barkless pine logs--and we leaned on the rails
of the bridge, and watched the men put them together into rafts. These
rafts were of a shape and construction to suit the crookedness and
extreme narrowness of the Neckar. They were from fifty to one hundred
yards long, and they gradually tapered from a nine-log breadth at their
sterns, to a three-log breadth at their bow-ends. The main part of the
steering is done at the bow, with a pole; the three-log breadth there
furnishes room for only the steersman, for these little logs are not
larger around than an average young lady's waist. The connections of the
several sections of the raft are slack and pliant, so that the raft
may be readily bent into any sort of curve required by the shape of the
river.

The Neckar is in many places so narrow that a person can throw a dog
across it, if he has one; when it is also sharply curved in such places,
the raftsman has to do some pretty nice snug piloting to make the turns.
The river is not always allowed to spread over its whole bed--which is
as much as thirty, and sometimes forty yards wide--but is split into
three equal bodies of water, by stone dikes which throw the main
volume, depth, and current into the central one. In low water these neat
narrow-edged dikes project four or five inches above the surface, like
the comb of a submerged roof, but in high water they are overflowed. A
hatful of rain makes high water in the Neckar, and a basketful produces
an overflow.

There are dikes abreast the Schloss Hotel, and the current is violently
swift at that point. I used to sit for hours in my glass cage, watching
the long, narrow rafts slip along through the central channel, grazing
the right-bank dike and aiming carefully for the middle arch of the
stone bridge below; I watched them in this way, and lost all this time
hoping to see one of them hit the bridge-pier and wreck itself sometime
or other, but was always disappointed. One was smashed there one
morning, but I had just stepped into my room a moment to light a pipe,
so I lost it.

While I was looking down upon the rafts that morning in Heilbronn, the
daredevil spirit of adventure came suddenly upon me, and I said to my
comrades:

"_I_ am going to Heidelberg on a raft. Will you venture with me?"

Their faces paled a little, but they assented with as good a grace as
they could. Harris wanted to cable his mother--thought it his duty to
do that, as he was all she had in this world--so, while he attended to
this, I went down to the longest and finest raft and hailed the captain
with a hearty "Ahoy, shipmate!" which put us upon pleasant terms at
once, and we entered upon business. I said we were on a pedestrian tour
to Heidelberg, and would like to take passage with him. I said this
partly through young Z, who spoke German very well, and partly through
Mr. X, who spoke it peculiarly. I can UNDERSTAND German as well as the
maniac that invented it, but I TALK it best through an interpreter.

The captain hitched up his trousers, then shifted his quid thoughtfully.
Presently he said just what I was expecting he would say--that he had no
license to carry passengers, and therefore was afraid the law would be
after him in case the matter got noised about or any accident happened.
So I CHARTERED the raft and the crew and took all the responsibilities
on myself.

With a rattling song the starboard watch bent to their work and hove
the cable short, then got the anchor home, and our bark moved off with a
stately stride, and soon was bowling along at about two knots an hour.

Our party were grouped amidships. At first the talk was a little gloomy,
and ran mainly upon the shortness of life, the uncertainty of it, the
perils which beset it, and the need and wisdom of being always prepared
for the worst; this shaded off into low-voiced references to the dangers
of the deep, and kindred matters; but as the gray east began to redden
and the mysterious solemnity and silence of the dawn to give place
to the joy-songs of the birds, the talk took a cheerier tone, and our
spirits began to rise steadily.

Germany, in the summer, is the perfection of the beautiful, but nobody
has understood, and realized, and enjoyed the utmost possibilities of
this soft and peaceful beauty unless he has voyaged down the Neckar on
a raft. The motion of a raft is the needful motion; it is gentle,
and gliding, and smooth, and noiseless; it calms down all feverish
activities, it soothes to sleep all nervous hurry and impatience; under
its restful influence all the troubles and vexations and sorrows that
harass the mind vanish away, and existence becomes a dream, a charm,
a deep and tranquil ecstasy. How it contrasts with hot and perspiring
pedestrianism, and dusty and deafening railroad rush, and tedious
jolting behind tired horses over blinding white roads!

We went slipping silently along, between the green and fragrant banks,
with a sense of pleasure and contentment that grew, and grew, all the
time. Sometimes the banks were overhung with thick masses of willows
that wholly hid the ground behind; sometimes we had noble hills on one
hand, clothed densely with foliage to their tops, and on the other hand
open levels blazing with poppies, or clothed in the rich blue of
the corn-flower; sometimes we drifted in the shadow of forests, and
sometimes along the margin of long stretches of velvety grass, fresh and
green and bright, a tireless charm to the eye. And the birds!--they were
everywhere; they swept back and forth across the river constantly, and
their jubilant music was never stilled.

It was a deep and satisfying pleasure to see the sun create the new
morning, and gradually, patiently, lovingly, clothe it on with splendor
after splendor, and glory after glory, till the miracle was complete.
How different is this marvel observed from a raft, from what it is when
one observes it through the dingy windows of a railway-station in some
wretched village while he munches a petrified sandwich and waits for the
train.

Mark Twain