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Captain Dunlevy's Last Trip

It was against the law, in such case made and provided,
Of the United States, but by the good will of the pilots
That we would some of us climb to the pilot-house after our breakfast
For a morning smoke, and find ourselves seats on the benching
Under the windows, or in the worn-smooth arm-chairs. The pilot,
Which one it was did not matter, would tilt his head round and say, "All right!"
When he had seen who we were, and begin, or go on as from stopping
In the midst of talk that was leading up to a story,
Just before we came in, and the story, begun or beginning,
Always began or ended with some one, or something or other,
Having to do with the river. If one left the wheel to the other,
Going off watch, he would say to his partner standing behind him
With his hands stretched out for the spokes that were not given up yet,
"Captain, you can tell them the thing I was going to tell them
Better than I could, I reckon," and then the other would answer,
"Well, I don't know as I feel so sure of that, captain," and having
Recognized each other so by that courtesy title of captain
Never officially failed of without offense among pilots,
One would subside into Jim and into Jerry the other.

It was on these terms, at least, Captain Dunn relieved Captain Davis
When we had settled ourselves one day to listen in comfort,
After some psychological subtleties we had indulged in at breakfast
Touching that weird experience every one knows when the senses
Juggle the points of the compass out of true orientation,
Changing the North to the South, and the East to the West. "Why, Jerry, what was it
You was going to tell them?" "Oh, never you mind what it was, Jim.
You tell them something else," and so Captain Davis submitted,
While Captain Dunn, with a laugh, got away beyond reach of his protest.
Then Captain Davis, with fitting, deprecatory preamble,
Launched himself on a story that promised to be all a story
Could be expected to be, when one of those women—you know them—
Who interrupt on any occasion or none, interrupted,
Pointed her hand, and asked, "Oh, what is that island there, captain?"
"That one, ma'am?" He gave her the name, and then the woman persisted,
"Don't say you know them all by sight!" "Yes, by sight or by feeling."
"What do you mean by feeling?" "Why, just that by daylight we see them,
And in the dark it's like as if somehow we felt them, I reckon.
Every foot of the channel and change in it, wash-out and cave-in,
Every bend and turn of it, every sand-bar and landmark,
Every island, of course, we have got to see them, or feel them."
"But if you don't?" "But we've got to." "But aren't you ever mistaken?"
"Never the second time." "Now, what do you mean, Captain Davis?
Never the second time." "Well, let me tell you a story.
It's not the one I begun, but that island you asked about yonder
Puts me in mind of it, happens to be the place where it happened,
Three years ago. I suppose no man ever knew the Ohio
Better than Captain Dunlevy, if any one else knew it like him.
Man and boy he had been pretty much his whole life on the river:
Cabin-boy first on a keelboat before the day of the steamboats,
Back in the pioneer times; and watchman then on a steamboat;
Then second mate, and then mate, and then pilot and captain and owner—
But he was proudest, I reckon, of being about the best pilot
On the Ohio. He knew it as well as he knew his own Bible,
And I don't hardly believe that ever Captain Dunlevy
Let a single day go by without reading a chapter."


While the pilot went on with his talk, and in regular, rhythmical motion
Swayed from one side to the other before his wheel, and we listened,
Certain typical facts of the picturesque life of the river
Won their way to our consciousness as without help of our senses.
It was along about the beginning of March, but already
In the sleepy sunshine the budding maples and willows,
Where they waded out in the shallow wash of the freshet,
Showed the dull red and the yellow green of their blossoms and catkins,
And in their tops the foremost flocks of blackbirds debated
As to which they should colonize first. The indolent house-boats
Loafing along the shore, sent up in silvery spirals
Out of their kitchen pipes the smoke of their casual breakfasts.
Once a wide tow of coal-barges, loaded clear down to the gunwales,
Gave us the slack of the current, with proper formalities shouted
By the hoarse-throated stern-wheeler that pushed the black barges before her,
And as she passed us poured a foamy cascade from her paddles.
Then, as a raft of logs, which the spread of the barges had hidden,
River-wide, weltered in sight, with a sudden jump forward the pilot
Dropped his whole weight on the spokes of the wheel just in time to escape it.


"Always give those fellows," he joked, "all the leeway they ask for;
Worst kind of thing on the river you want your boat to run into.
Where had I got about Captain Dunlevy? Oh yes, I remember.
Well, when the railroads began to run away from the steamboats,
Taking the carrying trade in the very edge of the water,
It was all up with the old flush times, and Captain Dunlevy
Had to climb down with the rest of us pilots till he was only
Captain the same as any and every pilot is captain,
Glad enough, too, to be getting his hundred and twenty-five dollars
Through the months of the spring and fall while navigation was open.
Never lowered himself, though, a bit from captain and owner,
Knew his rights and yours, and never would thought of allowing
Any such thing as a liberty from you or taking one with you.
I had been his cub, and all that I knew of the river
Captain Dunlevy had learnt me; and if you know what the feeling
Is of a cub for the pilot that learns him the river, you'll trust me
When I tell you I felt it the highest kind of an honor
Having him for my partner; and when I came up to relieve him,
One day, here at the wheel, and actu'lly thought that I found him
Taking that island there on the left, I thought I was crazy.
No, I couldn't believe my senses, and yet I couldn't endure it.
Seeing him climb the spokes of the wheel to warp the Kanawha,
With the biggest trip of passengers ever she carried,
Round on the bar at the left that fairly stuck out of the water.
Well, as I said, he learnt me all that I knew of the river,
And was I to learn him now which side to take of an island
When I knew he knew it like his right hand from his left hand?
My, but I hated to speak! It certainly seemed like my tongue clove,
Like the Bible says, to the roof of my mouth! But I had to.
'Captain,' I says, and it seemed like another person was talking,
'Do you usu'lly take that island there on the eastward?'
'Yes,' he says, and he laughed, 'and I thought I had learnt you to do it,
When you was going up.' 'But not going down, did you, captain?'
'Down?' And he whirled at me, and, without ever stopping his laughing,
Turned as white as a sheet, and his eyes fairly bulged from their sockets.
Then he whirled back again, and looked up and down on the river,
Like he was hunting out the shape of the shore and the landmarks.
Well, I suppose the thing has happened to every one sometime,
When you find the points of the compass have swapped with each other,
And at the instant you're looking, the North and the South have changed places.
I knew what was in his mind as well as Dunlevy himself did.
Neither one of us spoke a word for nearly a minute.
Then in a kind of whisper he says, 'Take the wheel, Captain Davis!'
Let the spokes fly, and while I made a jump forwards to catch them,
Staggered into that chair—well, the very one you are in, ma'am.
Set there breathing quick, and, when he could speak, all he said was,
'This is the end of it for me on the river, Jim Davis,'
Reached up over his head for his coat where it hung by that window,
Trembled onto his feet, and stopped in the door there a second,
Stared in hard like as if for good-by to the things he was used to,
Shut the door behind him, and never come back again through it."
While we were silent, not liking to prompt the pilot with questions,
"Well," he said, at last, "it was no use to argue. We tried it,
In the half-hearted way that people do that don't mean it.
Every one was his friend here on the Kanawha, and we knew
It was the first time he ever had lost his bearings, but he knew,
In such a thing as that, that the first and the last are the same time.
When we had got through trying our worst to persuade him, he only
Shook his head and says, 'I am done for, boys, and you know it,'
Left the boat at Wheeling, and left his life on the river—
Left his life on the earth, you may say, for I don't call it living,
Setting there homesick at home for the wheel he can never go back to.
Reads the river-news regular; knows just the stage of the water
Up and down the whole way from Cincinnati to Pittsburg;
Follows every boat from the time she starts out in the spring-time
Till she lays up in the summer, and then again in the winter;
Wants to talk all about her and who is her captain and pilot;
Then wants to slide away to that everlastingly puzzling
Thing that happened to him that morning on the Kanawha
When he lost his bearings and North and South had changed places—
No, I don't call that living, whatever the rest of you call it."
We were silent again till that woman spoke up, "And what was it,
Captain, that kept him from going back and being a pilot?"
"Well, ma'am," after a moment the pilot patiently answered,
"I don't hardly believe that I could explain it exactly."

William Dean Howells