Marco Paul on the Erie Canal

Chapter X - The Steersman

AFTER this Marco and Forester took a walk to see more of the canal. They passed across the river on the aqueduct, and came out to the canal at the chequered house again. They then followed the canal up, going from lock to lock, as it gradually ascended along the bank of the river.

They stood upon the bank at one of the locks, seeing a boat go through. It was about half-past six o'clock, and a calm and pleasant evening. The boat was not a packet, but it had several passengers on board. There was a woman sitting upon the deck, forward, with a little child by her side. The woman was knitting. The child was playing with a little basket.

"Cousin Forester," said Marco, "let us get aboard of that boat and go along the canal a little way."

"Then how shall we get back ?" said Forester.

"Why, we can find some other boat coming back," replied Marco. "The boats are going and coming all the time."

The boat was then in the lock, and was rising very rapidly, as the water boiled up under it from the passages which they had opened through the bottom of the upper gates. Marco was in great haste to have Forester decide in favor of going, so that he might jump on the boat and be buoyed up with it. So Forester went to the edge of the lock with him, and they both stepped on together.

When the lock was full, the upper gates were opened and the boats sailed along. Forester and Marco sat down near the woman and attempted to talk with her, but they found that she could not speak English. She was a German woman. The child was just learning to talk, and Marco was very much amused at hearing so small a child speaking a foreign tongue. Presently, Forester took out a piece of paper from his pocket-book and said that he was going to draw a view of the canal, as it appeared before them while they were sailing along.

Every time they came to a bridge, the steersman, who stood in the stern of the boat, would call out, "BRIDGE !" in a sharp tone, and then all who were sitting upon the deck would bow their heads to pass under, as has already been explained. This gave Forester so much inconvenience in his drawing that he concluded to go and take his seat on the little low deck at the bows of the boat. There was a small deck very near the bows in almost all the boats, made so in order to furnish an entrance to the cabin from the front of the boat. Forester took his place here, and was now no longer in danger of the bridges.

While he was sitting there Marco wanted to look at the map, in order to see from the profile whether there were many locks in that part of the canal where he was sailing. So he asked Forester for it, and Forester handed it up to him from his place on the little deck below. Forester charged him not to get so interested in looking on his map as to forget to bow his head when the steersman called out Bridge. So Forester went on with his drawing.

Marco looked at the map for a short time, and then folded it up. The little German child seemed much attracted by the map, and especially by the red covers, which were brought very distinctly to view when Marco folded it up. Marco tried again to talk with her, but she could not understand what he said. She extended her hand toward Marco, and said something to him in return, but he could not understand her language any better than she could his. He understood her gestures, however, and he handed her the map-book. She was seated all the time upon the deck, a little way from her mother.

Marco's attention was here arrested by the sight of another boat coming into view on the canal before them. It was advancing to meet the boat which Marco was in.

"Look, cousin Forester," said Marco; "here comes a boat; you must make it in your drawing; -- quick, before it gets away."

A moment after he had said this, the boat came on to meet them. It was loaded with barrels. Marco supposed they were barrels of flour. On the side of the boat were painted the words, NEW YORK AND ERIE LINE. Marco then remembered that he had seen the words ROCHESTER LINE painted upon the boat which he was in. He had noticed it at the time that he first saw the boat, when it was rising up in the lock.

Marco rose from his seat and walked toward the stern of the boat, following the other boat as it passed them. While he was looking at it, the steersman called out,


Marco jumped down to the place where the steersman was standing, which was a low part of the deck near the stern; and thus he glided under the bridge in safety.

As soon as he came out from under the bridge, he saw, at a short distance before them, a man upon the tow-path, with a cane in one hand and a small bundle in the other. He appeared to be an old man. He stood at the edge of the tow-path near the water, and he made a signal to the steersman to take him on board. The boat was at this time in the middle of the canal, and if she had kept on in the same course, it would have been impossible for the man to have got on board.

"That man wants you to stop for him, I expect," said Marco.

The steersman said nothing, but he pressed the helm off to the farther side of the boat, and this caused the bows of the boat to turn in toward the shore. Thus the boat glided along very near to the bank where the man was standing, but without at all diminishing the speed. The old man stepped on board at the stern, and then the boat soon swept on out into the middle of the canal again. The old man ascended to the deck, walked on toward the bows, and then stepped down and took his seat on the little forward deck with Forester. Forester was on one side of the door leading into the cabin, and he on the other.

"Where is that man going ?" said Marco to the steersman.

"I expect he is going to Herkimer," said the steersman.

Here there was a pause. Marco wanted to talk with the steersman, but he did not know exactly what to say. He waited, therefore, hoping that the steersman would say something to him. But the man did not appear much inclined to converse. In fact, Marco thought that he was rather a surly looking fellow.

"I wish you'd let me steer the boat a little," said Marco.

"Poh, -- you can't steer," replied he.

"But I want you to teach me," said Marco.

"Teach you !" said the steersman, in a tone of contempt; -- and just at that instant the boat happening to come to a turn of the canal, which rendered it necessary for him to crowd the helm hard over toward the side where Marco was standing, he added in a very rough manner, "Get out of the way !"

Marco retreated a step or two to a place where he could not be in the way; and there he stood and looked into the face of the steersman with an expression of astonishment. The man paid no attention to him, but looked straight ahead, with a countenance stern and unmoved.

"Were you ever a boy yourself, sir ?" said Marco.

The rigid features of the steersman's iron visage slowly relaxed into a sort of smile at this question, and he replied, after a moments pause, "And when you wanted to learn, did they tell you to get out of the way?"

"Yes," said the steersman; "they treated me a great deal worse than that. But what do you want to learn to steer for ? You'll never go on a canal."

"Very likely I shall," said Marco.

"Why isn't your father rich ?"

"Yes," said Marco, "he is rich enough now, but I expect he will fail one of these days. However, if I should go on the canal, I should rather drive the horses than steer."

"Then," said the steersman, "you had better go and get Joe to teach you to ride, -- not ask me to teach you to steer."

Marco and the Steersman

"Is the driver's name Joe ?" asked Marco.

"Yes," said the steersman.

"Joe what ?" asked Marco.

"I don't know," said the steersman. "I never heard any other name for him."

"Where does he live ?" asked Marco.

"I don't know," said the steersman. "He lives on his horse pretty much, I think."

"And do you think he'd let me ride," said Marco, "if I should go and ask him ?"

"Yes," said the man, "I think he would."

"Well," said Marco; "only you must steer the boat up near the bank, so that I can jump out."

"Very well," replied the man, "go to the side, and be all ready to jump."

The steersman turned the boat in a little, so as to bring it up pretty near to the bank, but he was very careful not to get it so near as that Marco could jump across to the land. He wanted to make him jump and come down into the edge of the water. So when he got it as near as it was going, and Marco stood poising himself on the edge of the boat, he called out aloud,

"Jump! Jump!!"

In a moment the boat was rapidly receding from the bank again. Marco turned round and looked at the steersman. He did not know whether he was making a fool of him or not. The man laughed.

"Why did not you jump ?" said he. "You might have been on the horse by this time, and so rode to the station. But look there," continued the steersman! pointing down into the canal by the side of the boat, "there goes your book."

"It's cousin Forester's map," said Marco. "Dear me ! it has fallen into the water. Stop the boat ! stop the boat !"

Nothing was done, however, to stop the boat. It glided steadily on its way, and soon left the square red spot, which the covers of the map made upon the water, far astern. Marco ran forward to tell Forester that his map was overboard.

Marco was stopped, however, when he reached the place where the German child was sitting, by observing that the child had the map itself, still in her hands. She had torn it out of its cover, and had only thrown the cover overboard. She was just then beginning to tear the map. Her mother happened to look round and see her just as Marco came up.

The mother seemed very much concerned, and she seized the child and took the map away. In doing this she handled the poor child very roughly, and seemed to be very much displeased with it. At this moment Forester looked behind him and perceived what was going on. He came up upon the deck and told the woman that the accident was of no consequence; it was an old map, he said, and he did not care about it at all. She did not understand one word that he said, but she went on talking, herself, in German, with great fluency, pointing first at the map and then at the child; and then she advanced to the child and took hold of her shoulder, and began to shake her.

Forester shook his head, and made signs that she must not punish the child. He pointed to Marco and made believe strike him, and then made signs of giving the map to the child. He meant that Marco was to blame for giving the map to the child, and not the child for tearing it.

It is very uncertain whether the German woman understood Forester's signs or not. But as he could see very plainly from her countenance and actions that she was very much concerned at the accident, so it is not improbable that she understood from him that he did not care much about it. Pretty soon Forester went back to his place, and Marco followed him to see his drawing.

The old man was sitting there too, quietly leaning upon the top of his cane; and Marco soon found that he was as good-natured and talkative as the steersman was morose and sullen.

"Well, Bob," said the old man, "and how do you get along on the canal ?"

Marco was smoothing out the remains of the map, and folding it up. He looked up from his work at the man and said,

"My name is not Bob, sir."

"What is your name ?" asked the old man.

" Marco, sir," was the reply.

"Well, Marco, how should you like to go driver in the Rochester line ? See that boy out there on the horse. You could ride like him all day long."

"Perhaps I should get tired of riding all day long," said Marco.

"Very well," rejoined the old man, "then you could jump off and walk alongside the team. You would have to do that often in the cold mornings, to keep warm."

"How far should I have to ride in a day?" asked Marco.

"Why, there are stations all along the canal," said the man, " where the horses are put up. You would ride from one station to another." " And then how long should I rest ?"

"You would rest until it came your turn to go out again; sometimes an hour, and sometimes a day. First in, first out, is the rule."

Marco could not understand the old man's account of the system by which the boats of a line are towed along the canal. But he received the idea that the driver's life was a very irregular one; and he saw at once that it must be a life of great exposure and fatigue.

"How many hands does it require to manage a line-boat ?" asked Forester.

"Why, there is the captain, and the bowsman, and the steersman, and the cook. Though the cook is generally a woman. If they go night and day, they must have a double set."

"What does the bowsman do ?" asked Forester.

"Why, he takes care of the tow-rope," said the man, "and sees to securing the boat in the lock when she is run in."

"Here comes another boat," said Marco.

"Yes," said Forester, "and it is getting dark; so I think we had better go back on her."

So Forester gathered up and put away his drawing materials, and then he went and found the captain, and gave him a little change to pay for the passage which be and Marco had had in his boat. Then they bade the old man good-bye; and they also nodded to the German woman and her child, though they knew it would do no good to say any words to them. By this time the two boats were opposite to each other, and Forester and Marco stepped across to the one which was going down the canal; and in the course of half an hour they were landed at the lock opposite to the aqueduct, at the village of Little Falls.

As they were walking along toward the hotel, Marco said that he was sorry that their map was torn up and spoiled.

"That is no great calamity," said Forester. "Besides, I can tell you a way by which you can make it useful, yet."

"How ?" asked Marco.

"Why, I have been thinking," said Forester, "that when we get home to Vermont, I should let you take for one of your first exercises, an essay on the Erie canal."

"I don't know how to write essays," said Marco.

"So I supposed," replied Forester, "and therefore I was going to let you learn. I thought 1 would make you a small book, and let you write in it all that you can remember about the Erie canal. And you can have two maps in it now; for you can cut out of this torn map the profile of the canal which is in one corner, and also that part of the middle of the map which contains the course of the canal. These you can paste on fresh sheets of paper, so as to get a new margin around them, and then make a new border with a pen. Then I will show you a way to paste and fold them into your book, and so you will have an essay on the Erie canal, illustrated with a profile and a map."

Marco smiled at this proposal, and said that he should like it very much.

After this there was a pause for a few minutes, until they had nearly reached the hotel. Then Marco broke the silence, by saying,

"I should like to understand German, cousin Forester."

"So should I," said Forester, "and I intend to learn it."

"Do you think I could learn it?" asked Marco.

" Certainly," said Forester; " you are better able to learn German than that little child is; and she is learning it very fast."

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