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Mark Twain, a Biography — Volume II, Part 1: 1886-1900 online

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Meantime, the struggle with the "awful German language" went on. It was
a general hand-to-hand contest. From the head of the household down to
little Clara not one was exempt. To Clemens it became a sort of
nightmare. Once in his note-book he says:

"Dreamed all bad foreigners went to German heaven; couldn't talk, and
wished they had gone to the other place"; and a little farther along, "I
wish I could hear myself talk German."

To Mrs. Crane, in Elmira, he reported their troubles:

Clara Spaulding is working herself to death with her German; never
loses an instant while she is awake - or asleep, either, for that
matter; dreams of enormous serpents, who poke their heads up under
her arms and glare upon her with red-hot eyes, and inquire about the
genitive case and the declensions of the definite article. Livy is
bully-ragging herself about as hard; pesters over her grammar and
her reader and her dictionary all day; then in the evening these two
students stretch themselves out on sofas and sigh and say, "Oh,
there's no use! We never can learn it in the world!" Then Livy
takes a sentence to go to bed on: goes gaping and stretching to her
pillow murmuring, "Ich bin Ihnen sehr verbunden - Ich bin Ihnen sehr
verbunden - Ich bin Ihnen sehr verbunden - I wonder if I can get that
packed away so it will stay till morning" - and about an hour after
midnight she wakes me up and says, "I do so hate to disturb you, but
is it 'Ich Ben Jonson sehr befinden'?"

And Mrs. Clemens wrote:

Oh, Sue dear, strive to enter in at the straight gate, for many
shall seek to enter it and shall not be able. I am not striving
these days. I am just interested in German.

Rosa, the maid, was required to speak to the children only in German,
though Bay at first would have none of it. The nurse and governess tried
to blandish her, in vain. She maintained a calm and persistent attitude
of scorn. Little Susy tried, and really made progress; but one, day she
said, pathetically:

"Mama, I wish Rosa was made in English."

Yet a little later Susy herself wrote her Aunt Sue:

I know a lot of German; everybody says I know a lot. I give you a
million dollars to see you, and you would give two hundred dollars
to see the lovely woods that we see.

Even Howells, in far-off America, caught the infection and began a letter
in German, though he hastened to add, "Or do you prefer English by this
time? Really I could imagine the German going hard with you, for you
always seemed to me a man who liked to be understood with the least
possible personal inconvenience."

Clemens declared more than once that he scorned the "outrageous and
impossible German grammar," and abandoned it altogether. In his
note-book he records how two Germans, strangers in Heidelberg, asked him
a direction, and that when he gave it, in the most elaborate and correct
German he could muster, one of them only lifted his eyes and murmured:

"Gott im Himmel!"

He was daily impressed with the lingual attainments of foreigners and his
own lack of them. In the notes he comments:

Am addressed in German, and when I can't speak it immediately the
person tackles me in French, and plainly shows astonishment when I
stop him. They naturally despise such an ignoramus. Our doctor
here speaks as pure English, as I.

On the Fourth of July he addressed the American students in Heidelberg in
one of those mixtures of tongues for which he had a peculiar gift.

The room he had rented for a study was let by a typical German family,
and he was a great delight to them. He practised his German on them, and
interested himself in their daily affairs.

Howells wrote insistently for some assurance of contributions to the

"I must begin printing your private letters to satisfy the popular
demand," he said. "People are constantly asking when you are going to

Clemens replied that he would be only too glad to write for the Atlantic
if his contributions could be copyrighted in Canada, where pirates were
persistently enterprising.

I do not know that I have any printable stuff just now - separatable
stuff, that is - but I shall have by and by. It is very gratifying to
hear that it is wanted by anybody. I stand always prepared to hear the
reverse, and am constantly surprised that it is delayed so long.
Consequently it is not going to astonish me when it comes.

The Clemens party enjoyed Heidelberg, though in different ways. The
children romped and picnicked in the castle grounds, which adjoined the
hotel; Mrs. Clemens and Miss Spaulding were devoted to bric-a-brac
hunting, picture-galleries, and music. Clemens took long walks, or made
excursions by rail and diligence to farther points. Art and opera did
not appeal to him. The note-book says:

I have attended operas, whenever I could not help it, for fourteen
years now; I am sure I know of no agony comparable to the listening
to an unfamiliar opera. I am enchanted with the airs of "Trovatore"
and other old operas which the hand-organ and the music-box have
made entirely familiar to my ear. I am carried away with delighted
enthusiasm when they are sung at the opera. But oh, how far between
they are! And what long, arid, heartbreaking and headaching
"between-times" of that sort of intense but incoherent noise which
always so reminds me of the time the orphan asylum burned down.

Sunday night, 11th. Huge crowd out to-night to hear the band play
the "Fremersberg." I suppose it is very low-grade music - I know it
must be low-grade music - because it so delighted me, it so warmed
me, moved me, stirred me, uplifted me, enraptured me, that at times
I could have cried, and at others split my throat with shouting.
The great crowd was another evidence that it was low-grade music,
for only the few are educated up to a point where high-class music
gives pleasure. I have never heard enough classic music to be able
to enjoy it, and the simple truth is I detest it. Not mildly, but
with all my heart.

What a poor lot we human beings are anyway! If base music gives me
wings, why should I want any other? But I do. I want to like the
higher music because the higher and better like it. But you see I
want to like it without taking the necessary trouble, and giving the
thing the necessary amount of time and attention. The natural
suggestion is, to get into that upper tier, that dress-circle, by a
lie - we will pretend we like it. This lie, this pretense, gives to
opera what support it has in America.

And then there is painting. What a red rag is to a bull Turner's
"Slave Ship" is to me. Mr. Ruskin is educated in art up to a point
where that picture throws him into as mad an ecstasy of pleasure as
it throws me into one of rage. His cultivation enables him to see
water in that yellow mud; his cultivation reconciles the floating of
unfloatable things to him - chains etc.; it reconciles him to fishes
swimming on top of the water. The most of the picture is a manifest
impossibility, that is to say, a lie; and only rigid cultivation can
enable a man to find truth in a lie. A Boston critic said the
"Slave Ship" reminded him of a cat having a fit in a platter of
tomatoes. That went home to my non-cultivation, and I thought, here
is a man with an unobstructed eye.

Mark Twain has dwelt somewhat upon these matters in 'A Tramp Abroad'. He
confesses in that book that later he became a great admirer of Turner,
though perhaps never of the "Slave Ship" picture. In fact, Mark Twain
was never artistic, in the common acceptance of that term; neither his
art nor his tastes were of an "artistic" kind.



Twichell arrived on time, August 1st. Clemens met him at Baden-Baden,
and they immediately set out on a tramp through the Black Forest,
excursioning as pleased them, and having an idyllic good time. They did
not always walk, but they often did. At least they did sometimes, when
the weather was just right and Clemens's rheumatism did not trouble him.
But they were likely to take a carriage, or a donkey-cart, or a train, or
any convenient thing that happened along. They did not hurry, but idled
and talked and gathered flowers, or gossiped with wayside natives and
tourists, though always preferring to wander along together, beguiling
the way with discussion and speculation and entertaining tales. They
crossed on into Switzerland in due time and considered the conquest of
the Alps. The family followed by rail or diligence, and greeted them
here and there when they rested from their wanderings. Mark Twain found
an immunity from attention in Switzerland, which for years he had not
known elsewhere. His face was not so well known and his pen-name was
carefully concealed.

It was a large relief to be no longer an object of public curiosity; but
Twichell, as in the Bermuda trip, did not feel quite honest, perhaps, in
altogether preserving the mask of unrecognition. In one of his letters
home he tells how; when a young man at their table was especially
delighted with Mark Twain's conversation, he could not resist taking the
young man aside and divulging to him the speaker's identity.

"I could not forbear telling him who Mark was," he says, "and the mingled
surprise and pleasure his face exhibited made me glad I had done so."

They climbed the Rigi, after which Clemens was not in good walking trim
for some time; so Twichell went on a trip on his own account, to give his
comrade a chance to rest. Then away again to Interlaken, where the
Jungfrau rises, cold and white; on over the loneliness of Gemini Pass,
with glaciers for neighbors and the unfading white peaks against the
blue; to Visp and to Zermatt, where the Matterhorn points like a finger
that directs mankind to God. This was true Alpine wandering - sweet

The association of the wanderers was a very intimate one. Their minds
were closely attuned, and there were numerous instances of
thought - echo-mind answering to mind - without the employment of words.
Clemens records in his notes:

Sunday A.M., August 11th. Been reading Romola yesterday afternoon,
last night, and this morning; at last I came upon the only passage
which has thus far hit me with force - Tito compromising with his
conscience, and resolving to do; not a bad thing, but not the best
thing. Joe entered the room five minutes - no, three minutes later
- and without prelude said, "I read that book you've got there six
years ago, and got a mighty good text for a sermon out of it the
passage where the young fellow compromises with his conscience, and
resolves to do, not a bad thing, but not the best thing." This is
Joe's first reference to this book since he saw me buy it twenty-
four hours ago. So my mind operated on his in this instance. He
said he was sitting yonder in the reading-room, three minutes ago (I
have not got up yet), thinking of nothing in particular, and didn't
know what brought Romola into his head; but into his head it came
and that particular passage. Now I, forty feet away, in another
room, was reading that particular passage at that particular moment.

Couldn't suggest Romola to him earlier, because nothing in the book
had taken hold of me till I came to that one passage on page 112,
Tauchnitz edition.

And again:

The instances of mind-telegraphing are simply innumerable. This
evening Joe and I sat long at the edge of the village looking at the
Matterhorn. Then Joe said, "We ought to go to the Cervin Hotel and
inquire for Livy's telegram." If he had been but one instant later
I should have said those words instead of him.

Such entries are frequent, and one day there came along a kind of
object-lesson. They were toiling up a mountainside, when Twichell began
telling a very interesting story which had happened in connection with a
friend still living, though Twichell had no knowledge of his whereabouts
at this time. The story finished just as they rounded a turn in, the
cliff, and Twichell, looking up, ended his last sentence, "And there's
the man!" Which was true, for they were face to face with the very man of
whom he had been telling.

Another subject that entered into their discussion was the law of
accidents. Clemens held that there was no such thing an accident: that
it was all forewritten in the day of the beginning; that every event,
however slight, was embryonic in that first instant of created life, and
immutably timed to its appearance in the web of destiny. Once on their
travels, when they were on a high bank above a brawling stream, a little
girl, who started to run toward them, slipped and rolled under the bottom
rail of the protecting fence, her feet momentarily hanging out over the
precipice and the tearing torrent below. It seemed a miraculous escape
from death, and furnished an illustration for their discussion. The
condition of the ground, the force of her fall, the nearness of the fatal
edge, all these had grown inevitably out of the first great projection of
thought, and the child's fall and its escape had been invested in life's
primal atom.

The author of A Tramp Abroad tells us of the rushing stream that flows
out of the Arcadian sky valley, the Gasternthal, and goes plunging down
to Kandersteg, and how he took exercise by making "Harris" (Twichell) set
stranded logs adrift while he lounged comfortably on a boulder, and
watched them go tearing by; also how he made Harris run a race with one
of those logs. But that is literature. Twichell, in a letter home, has
preserved a likelier and lovelier story:

Mark is a queer fellow. There is nothing that he so delights in as
a swift, strong stream. You can hardly get him to leave one when
once he is within the influence of its fascinations. To throw in
stones and sticks seems to afford him rapture. Tonight, as we were
on our way back to the hotel, seeing a lot of driftwood caught by
the torrent side below the path, I climbed down and threw it in.
When I got back to the path Mark was running down-stream after it as
hard as he could go, throwing up his hands and shouting in the
wildest ecstasy, and when a piece went over a fall and emerged to
view in the foam below he would jump up and down and yell. He said
afterward that he hadn't been so excited in three months. He acted
just like a boy; another feature of his extreme sensitiveness in
certain directions.

Then generalizing, Twichell adds:

He has coarse spots in him. But I never knew a person so finely
regardful of the feelings of others in some ways. He hates to pass
another person walking, and will practise some subterfuge to take
off what he feels is the discourtesy of it. And he is exceedingly
timid, tremblingly timid, about approaching strangers; hates to ask
a question. His sensitive regard for others extends to animals.
When we are driving his concern is all about the horse. He can't
bear to see the whip used, or to see a horse pull hard. To-day,
when the driver clucked up his horse and quickened his pace a
little, Mark said, "The fellow's got the notion that we are in a
hurry." He is exceedingly considerate toward me in regard of
everything - or most things.

The days were not all sunshine. Sometimes it rained and they took
shelter by the wayside, or, if there was no shelter, they plodded along
under their umbrellas, still talking away, and if something occurred that
Clemens wanted to put down they would stand stock still in the rain, and
Twichell would hold the umbrella while Clemens wrote - a good while
sometimes - oblivious to storm and discomfort and the long way yet ahead.

After the day on Gemmi Pass Twichell wrote home:

Mark, to-day, was immensely absorbed in the flowers. He scrambled
around and gathered a great variety, and manifested the intensest
pleasure in them. He crowded a pocket of his note-book with his
specimens and wanted more room. So I stopped the guide and got out
my needle and thread, and out of a stiff paper, a hotel
advertisement, I had about me made a paper bag, a cornucopia like,
and tied it to his vest in front, and it answered the purpose
admirably. He filled it full with a beautiful collection, and as
soon as we got here to-night he transferred it to a cardboard box
and sent it by mail to Livy. A strange Mark he is, full of
contradictions. I spoke last night of his sensitive to others'
feelings. To-day the guide got behind, and came up as if he would
like to go by, yet hesitated to do so. Mark paused, went aside and
busied himself a minute picking a flower. In the halt the guide got
by and resumed his place in front. Mark threw the flower away,
saying, "I didn't want that. I only wanted to give the old man a
chance to go on without seeming to pass us." Mark is splendid to
walk with amid such grand scenery, for he talks so well about it,
has such a power of strong, picturesque expression. I wish you
might have heard him to-day. His vigorous speech nearly did justice
to the things we saw.

In an address which Twichell gave many years later he recalls another
pretty incident of their travels. They had been toiling up the Gorner

As we paused for a rest, a lamb from a flock of sheep near by ventured
inquisitively toward us, whereupon Mark seated himself on a rock, and
with beckoning hand and soft words tried to get it to come to him.

On the lamb's part it was a struggle between curiosity and timidity, but
in a succession of advances and retreats it gained confidence, though at
a very gradual rate. It was a scene for a painter: the great American
humorist on one side of the game and that silly little creature on the
other, with the Matterhorn for a background. Mark was reminded that the
time he was consuming was valuable - but to no purpose. The Gorner Grat
could wait. He held on with undiscouraged perseverance till he carried
his point: the lamb finally put its nose in his hand, and he was happy
over it all the rest of the day.

The matter of religion came up now and again in the drift of their
discussions. It was Twichell's habit to have prayers in their room every
night at the hotels, and Clemens was willing to join in the observances.
Once Twichell, finding him in a responsive mood - a remorseful mood - gave
his sympathy, and spoke of the larger sympathy of divinity. Clemens
listened and seemed soothed and impressed, but his philosophies were too
wide and too deep for creeds and doctrines. A day or two later, as they
were tramping along in the hot sun, his honesty had to speak out.

"Joe," he said, "I'm going to make a confession. I don't believe in your
religion at all. I've been living a lie right straight along whenever I
pretended to. For a moment, sometimes, I have been almost a believer,
but it immediately drifts away from me again. I don't believe one word
of your Bible was inspired by God any more than any other book. I
believe it is entirely the work of man from beginning to end - atonement
and all. The problem of life and death and eternity and the true
conception of God is a bigger thing than is contained in that book."

So the personal side of religious discussion closed between them, and was
never afterward reopened.

They joined Mrs. Clemens and the others at Lausanne at last, and their
Swiss holiday was over. Twichell set out for home by way of England, and
Clemens gave himself up to reflection and rest after his wanderings.
Then, as the days of their companionship passed in review, quickly and
characteristically he sent a letter after his comrade:

DEAR OLD JOE, It is actually all over! I was so low-spirited at the
station yesterday, and this morning, when I woke, I couldn't seem to
accept the dismal truth that you were really gone, and the pleasant
tramping and talking at an end. Ah, my boy! it has been such a
rich holiday to me, and I feel under such deep and honest
obligations to you for coming. I am putting out of my mind all
memory of the times when I misbehaved toward you and hurt you; I am
resolved to consider it forgiven, and to store up and remember only
the charming hours of the journeys and the times when I was not
unworthy to be with you and share a companionship which to me stands
first after Livy's. It is justifiable to do this; for why should I
let my small infirmities of disposition live and grovel among my
mental pictures of the eternal sublimities of the Alps?

Livy can't accept or endure the fact that you are gone. But you
are, and we cannot get around it. So take our love with you, and
bear it also over the sea to Harmony, and God bless you both.




The Clemens party wandered down into Italy - to the lakes, Venice,
Florence, Rome - loitering through the galleries, gathering here and there
beautiful furnishings - pictures, marbles, and the like - for the Hartford

In Venice they bought an old careen bed, a massive regal affair with
serpentine columns surmounted by singularly graceful cupids, and with
other cupids sporting on the headboard: the work of some artist who had
been dust three centuries maybe, for this bed had come out of an old
Venetian palace, dismantled and abandoned. It was a furniture with a
long story, and the years would add mightily to its memories. It would
become a stately institution in the Clemens household. The cupids on the
posts were removable, and one of the highest privileges of childhood
would be to occupy that bed and have down one of the cupids to play with.
It was necessary to be ill to acquire that privilege - not violently and
dangerously ill, but interestingly so - ill enough to be propped up with
pillows and have one's meals served on a tray, with dolls and
picture-books handy, and among them a beautiful rosewood cupid who had
kept dimpled and dainty for so many, many years.

They spent three weeks in Venice: a dreamlike experience, especially for
the children, who were on the water most of the time, and became fast
friends with their gondolier, who taught them some Italian words; then a
week in Florence and a fortnight in Rome.

- [From the note-book:
"BAY - When the waiter brought my breakfast this morning I spoke to him in
"MAMA - What did you say?
"B. - I said, 'Polly-vo fransay.'
"M. - What does it mean?
"B. - I don't know. What does it mean, Susy?
"S. - It means, 'Polly wants a cracker.'"]

Clemens discovered that in twelve years his attitude had changed somewhat
concerning the old masters. He no longer found the bright, new copies an
improvement on the originals, though the originals still failed to wake
his enthusiasm. Mrs. Clemens and Miss Spaulding spent long hours
wandering down avenues of art, accompanied by him on occasion, though not
always willingly. He wrote his sorrow to Twichell:

I do wish you were in Rome to do my sight-seeing for me. Rome interests
me as much as East Hartford could, and no more; that is, the Rome which
the average tourist feels an interest in. There are other things here
which stir me enough to make life worth living. Livy and Clara are
having a royal time worshiping the old masters, and I as good a time
gritting my ineffectual teeth over them.

Once when Sarah Orne Jewett was with the party he remarked that if the
old masters had labeled their fruit one wouldn't be so likely to mistake
pears for turnips.

"Youth," said Mrs. Clemens, gravely, "if you do not care for these
masterpieces yourself, you might at least consider the feelings of
others"; and Miss Jewett, regarding him severely, added, in her quaint
Yankee fashion:

"Now, you've been spoke to!"

He felt duly reprimanded, but his taste did not materially reform. He
realized that he was no longer in a proper frame of mind to write of
general sight-seeing. One must be eager, verdant, to write happily the
story of travel. Replying to a letter from Howells on the subject he

I wish I could give those sharp satires on European life which you
mention, but of course a man can't write successful satire except he
be in a calm, judicial good-humor; whereas I hate travel, and I hate
hotels, and I hate the opera, and I hate the old masters. In truth

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Online LibraryAlbert Bigelow PaineMark Twain, a Biography — Volume II, Part 1: 1886-1900 → online text (page 5 of 20)