Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CXXI

Paris, England, and Homeward Bound

They decided to spend the spring months in Paris, so they gave up their pleasant quarters with Fraulein Dahlweiner, and journeyed across Europe, arriving at the French capital February 28, 1879. Here they met another discouraging prospect, for the weather was cold and damp, the cabmen seemed brutally ill-mannered, their first hotel was chilly, dingy, uninviting. Clemens, in his note-book, set down his impressions of their rooms. A paragraph will serve:

Ten squatty, ugly arm-chairs, upholstered in the ugliest and coarsest conceivable scarlet plush; two hideous sofas of the same — uncounted armless chairs ditto. Five ornamental chairs, seats covered with a coarse rag, embroidered in flat expanse with a confusion of leaves such as no tree ever bore, six or seven a dirty white and the rest a faded red. How those hideous chairs do swear at the hideous sofa near them! This is the very hatefulest room I have seen in Europe.

Oh, how cold and raw and unwarmable it is!

It was better than that when the sun came out, and they found happier quarters presently at the Hotel Normandy, rue de l’Echelle.

But, alas, the sun did not come out often enough. It was one of those French springs and summers when it rains nearly every day, and is distressingly foggy and chill between times. Clemens received a bad impression of France and the French during that Parisian-sojourn, from which he never entirely recovered. In his note-book he wrote: “France has neither winter, nor summer, nor morals. Apart from these drawbacks it is a fine country.”

The weather may not have been entirely accountable for his prejudice, but from whatever cause Mark Twain, to the day of his death, had no great love for the French as a nation. Conversely, the French as a nation did not care greatly for Mark Twain. There were many individual Frenchmen that Mark Twain admired, as there were many Frenchmen who admired the work and personality of Mark Twain; but on neither side was there the warm, fond, general affection which elsewhere throughout Europe he invited and returned.

His book was not yet finished. In Paris he worked on it daily, but without enthusiasm. The city was too noisy, the weather too dismal. His note-book says:

May 7th. I wish this terrible winter would come to an end. Have had rain almost without intermission for two months and one week.

May 28th. This is one of the coldest days of this most damnable and interminable winter.

It was not all gloom and discomfort. There was congenial company in Paris, and dinner-parties, and a world of callers. Aldrich the scintillating 97 was there, also Gedney Bunce, of Hartford, Frank Millet and his wife, Hjalinar Hjorth Boyesen and his wife, and a Mr. and Mrs. Chamberlain, artist people whom the Clemenses had met pleasantly in Italy. Turgenieff, as in London, came to call; also Baron Tauchnitz, that nobly born philanthropist of German publishers, who devoted his life, often at his personal cost, to making the literature of other nations familiar to his own. Tauchnitz had early published the ‘Innocents’, following it with other Mark Twain volumes as they appeared, paying always, of his own will and accord, all that he could afford to pay for this privilege; which was not really a privilege, for the law did not require him to pay at all. He traveled down to Paris now to see the author, and to pay his respects to him. “A mighty nice old gentleman,” Clemens found him. Richard Whiteing was in Paris that winter, and there were always plenty of young American painters whom it was good to know.

97 [ Of Aldrich Clemens used to say: “When Aldrich speaks it seems to me he is the bright face of the moon, and I feel like the other side.” Aldrich, unlike Clemens, was not given to swearing. The Parisian note-book has this memorandum: “Aldrich gives his seat in the horse-car to a crutched cripple, and discovers that what he took for a crutch is only a length of walnut beading and the man not lame; whereupon Aldrich uses the only profanity that ever escaped his lips: ‘Damn a dam’d man who would carry a dam’d piece of beading under his dam’d arm!’”]

They had what they called the Stomach Club, a jolly organization, whose purpose was indicated by its name. Mark Twain occasionally attended its sessions, and on one memorable evening, when Edwin A. Abbey was there, speeches were made which never appeared in any printed proceedings. Mark Twain’s address that night has obtained a wide celebrity among the clubs of the world, though no line of it, or even its title has ever found its way into published literature.

Clemens had a better time in Paris than the rest of his party. He could go and come, and mingle with the sociabilities when the abnormal weather kept the others housed in. He did a good deal of sight-seeing of his own kind, and once went up in a captive balloon. They were all studying French, more or less, and they read histories and other books relating to France. Clemens renewed his old interest in Joan of Arc, and for the first time appears to have conceived the notion of writing the story of that lovely character.

The Reign of Terror interested him. He reread Carlyle’s Revolution, a book which he was never long without reading, and they all read ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. When the weather permitted they visited the scenes of that grim period.

In his note-book he comments:

“The Reign of Terror shows that, without distinction or rank, the people were savages. Marquises, dukes, lawyers, blacksmiths, they each figure in due proportion to their crafts.”

And again:

“For 1,000 years this savage nation indulged itself in massacre; every now and then a big massacre or a little one. The spirit is peculiar to France — I mean in Christendom — no other state has had it. In this France has always walked abreast, kept her end up with her brethren, the Turks and the Burmese. Their chief traits — love of glory and massacre.”

Yet it was his sense of fairness that made him write, as a sort of quittance:

“You perceive I generalize with intrepidity from single instances. It is the tourists’ custom. When I see a man jump from the Vendome Column I say, ‘They like to do that in Paris.’”

Following this implied atonement, he records a few conclusions, drawn doubtless from Parisian reading and observation:

“Childish race and great.”

“I’m for cremation.”

“I disfavor capital punishment.”

“Samson was a Jew, therefore not a fool. The Jews have the best average brain of any people in the world. The Jews are the only race in the world who work wholly with their brains, and never with their hands. There are no Jew beggars, no Jew tramps, no Jew ditchers, hod-carriers, day-laborers, or followers of toilsome mechanical trade.

“They are peculiarly and conspicuously the world’s intellectual aristocracy.”

“Communism is idiocy. They want to divide up the property. Suppose they did it. It requires brains to keep money as well as to make it. In a precious little while the money would be back in the former owner’s hands and the communist would be poor again. The division would have to be remade every three years or it would do the communist no good.”

A curious thing happened one day in Paris. Boyesen; in great excitement, came to the Normandy and was shown to the Clemens apartments. He was pale and could hardly speak, for his emotion. He asked immediately if. his wife had come to their rooms. On learning that she had not, he declared that she was lost or had met with an accident. She had been gone several hours, he said, and had sent no word, a thing which she had never done before. He besought Clemens to aid him in his search for her, to do something to help him find her. Clemens, without showing the least emotion or special concentration of interest, said quietly:

“I will.”

“Where will you go first,” Boyesen demanded.

Still in the same even voice Clemens said:

“To the elevator.”

He passed out of the room, with Boyesen behind him, into the hall. The elevator was just coming up, and as they reached it, it stopped at their landing, and Mrs. Boyesen stepped out. She had been delayed by a breakdown and a blockade. Clemens said afterward that he had a positive conviction that she would be on the elevator when they reached it. It was one of those curious psychic evidences which we find all along during his life; or, if the skeptics prefer to call them coincidences, they are privileged to do so.

Paris, June 1, 1879. Still this vindictive winter continues. Had a raw, cold rain to-day. To-night we sit around a rousing wood fire.

They stood it for another month, and then on the 10th of July, when it was still chilly and disagreeable, they gave it up and left for Brussels, which he calls “a dirty, beautiful (architecturally), interesting town.”

Two days in Brussels, then to Antwerp, where they dined on the Trenton with Admiral Roan, then to Rotterdam, Dresden, Amsterdam, and London, arriving there the 29th of July, which was rainy and cold, in keeping with all Europe that year.

Had to keep a rousing big cannel-coal fire blazing in the grate all day. A remarkable summer, truly!

London meant a throng of dinners, as always: brilliant, notable affairs, too far away to recall. A letter written by Mrs. Clemens at the time preserves one charming, fresh bit of that departed bloom.

Clara [Spaulding] went in to dinner with Mr. Henry James; she enjoyed him very much. I had a little chat with him before dinner, and he was exceedingly pleasant and easy to talk with. I had expected just the reverse, thinking one would feel looked over by him and criticized.

Mr. Whistler, the artist, was at the dinner, but he did not attract me. Then there was a lady, over eighty years old, a Mrs. Stuart, who was Washington Irving’s love, and she is said to have been his only love, and because of her he went unmarried to his grave. — [Mrs. Clemens was misinformed. Irving’s only “love” was a Miss Hoffman.]— She was also an intimate friend of Madame Bonaparte. You would judge Mrs. Stuart to be about fifty, and she was the life of the drawing-room after dinner, while the ladies were alone, before the gentlemen came up. It was lovely to see such a sweet old age; every one was so fond of her, every one deferred to her, yet every one was joking her, making fun of her, but she was always equal to the occasion, giving back as bright replies as possible; you had not the least sense that she was aged. She quoted French in her stories with perfect ease and fluency, and had all the time such a kindly, lovely way. When she entered the room, before dinner, Mr. James, who was then talking with me, shook hands with her and said, “Good evening, you wonderful lady.” After she had passed . . . he said, “She is the youngest person in London. She has the youngest feelings and the youngest interests . . . . She is always interested.”

It was a perfect delight to hear her and see her.

For more than two years they had had an invitation from Reginald Cholmondeley to pay him another visit.

So they went for a week to Condover, where many friends were gathered, including Millais, the painter, and his wife (who had been the wife of Ruskin), numerous relatives, and other delightful company. It was one of the happiest chapters of their foreign sojourn.98

98 [Moncure D. Conway, who was in London at the time, recalls, in his Autobiography, a visit which he made with Mr. and Mrs. Clemens to Stratford-on-Avon. “Mrs. Clemens was an ardent Shakespearian, and Mark Twain determined to give her a surprise. He told her that we were going on a journey to Epworth, and persuaded me to connive with the joke by writing to Charles Flower not to meet us himself, but send his carriage. On arrival at the station we directed the driver to take us straight to the church. When we entered, and Mrs. Clemens read on Shakespeare’s grave, ‘Good friend, for Jesus’ sake, forbear,’ she started back, exclaiming, ‘where am I?’ Mark received her reproaches with an affluence of guilt, but never did lady enjoy a visit more than that to Avonbank. Mrs. Charles Flower (nee Martineau) took Mrs. Clemens to her heart, and contrived that every social or other attraction of that region should surround her.”]

From the note-book:

Sunday, August 17,’79. Raw and cold, and a drenching rain. Went to hear Mr. Spurgeon. House three-quarters full-say three thousand people. First hour, lacking one minute, taken up with two prayers, two ugly hymns, and Scripture-reading. Sermon three-quarters of an hour long. A fluent talker, good, sonorous voice. Topic treated in the unpleasant, old fashion: Man a mighty bad child, God working at him in forty ways and having a world of trouble with him.

A wooden-faced congregation; just the sort to see no incongruity in the majesty of Heaven stooping to plead and sentimentalize over such, and see in their salvation an important matter.

Tuesday, August 19th. Went up Windermere Lake in the steamer. Talked with the great Darwin.

They had planned to visit Dr. Brown in Scotland. Mrs. Clemens, in particular, longed to go, for his health had not been of the best, and she felt that they would never have a chance to see him again. Clemens in after years blamed himself harshly for not making the trip, declaring that their whole reason for not going was an irritable reluctance on his part to take the troublesome journey and a perversity of spirit for which there was no real excuse. There is documentary evidence against this harsh conclusion. They were, in fact, delayed here and there by misconnections and the continued terrific weather, barely reaching Liverpool in time for their sailing date, August 23d. Unquestionably he was weary of railway travel, far he always detested it. Time would magnify his remembered reluctance, until, in the end, he would load his conscience with the entire burden of blame.

Their ship was the Gallia, and one night, when they were nearing the opposite side of the Atlantic, Mark Twain, standing on deck, saw for the third time in his experience a magnificent lunar rainbow: a complete arch, the colors part of the time very brilliant, but little different from a day rainbow. It is not given to many persons in this world to see even one of these phenomena. After each previous vision there had come to him a period of good-fortune. Perhaps this also boded well for him.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:05