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Writers’ Wheelhouse: a passage from The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain

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A passage from The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain

[Aboard the vessel Quaker City headed for Europe in 1867]

I picked up a good deal of information during the afternoon. At one time I was climbing up the quarterdeck when the vessel’s stem was in the sky; I was smoking a cigar and feeling passably comfortable. Somebody ejaculated:
“Come, now, that won’t answer. Read the sign up there – NO SMOKING ABAFT THE WHEEL!”
It was Captain Duncan, chief of the expedition. I went forward, of course. I saw a long spyglass lying on a desk in one of the upper-deck state-rooms back of the pilot-house and reached after it – there was a ship in the distance.
“Ah, ah – hands off! Come out of that!”
I came out of that. I said to a deck-sweep – but in a low voice: “Who is that overgrown pirate with the whiskers and the discordant voice?”
“It’s Captain Bursley – executive officer – sailing master.”
I loitered about awhile, and then, for want of something better to do, fell to carving a railing with my knife. Somebody said, in an insinuating, admonitory voice:
“Now, say – my friend – don’t you know any better than to be whittling the ship all to pieces that way? You ought to know better than that.”
I went back and found the deck sweep.
“Who is that smooth-faced, animated outrage yonder in the fine clothes?”
“That’s Captain L****, the owner of the ship – he’s one of the main bosses.”
In the course of time I brought up on the starboard side of the pilot-house and found a sextant lying on a bench. Now, I said, they “take the sun” through this thing; I should think I might see that vessel through it. I had hardly got it to my eye when someone touched me on the shoulder and said deprecatingly:
“I’ll have to get you to give that to me, Sir. If there’s anything you’d like to know about taking the sun, I’d as soon tell you as not – but I don’t like to trust anybody with that instrument. If you want any figuring done – Aye, aye, sir!”
He was gone to answer a call from the other side. I sought the deck-sweep.
“Who is that spider-legged gorilla yonder with the sanctimonious countenance?”
“It’s Captain Jones, sir – the chief mate.”
“Well. This goes clear away ahead of anything I ever heard of before. Do you – now I ask you as a man and a brother – do you think I could venture to throw a rock here in any given direction without hitting a captain of this ship?”
“Well, sir, I don’t know – I think likely you’d fetch the captain of the watch maybe, because he’s a-standing right yonder in the way.”
I went below – meditating and a little downhearted. I thought, if five cooks can spoil a broth, what may not five captains do with a pleasure excursion.

Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1869; 1899), chapter 3, 63-65.

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