Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CLXXVI

A European Summer

They landed at Havre and went directly to Paris, where they remained about a week. From Paris Clemens wrote to Hall that a deal by which he had hoped to sell out his interest in the type-setter to the Mallorys, of the Churchman, had fallen through.

“Therefore,” he said, “you will have to modify your instalment system to meet the emergency of a constipated purse; for if you should need to borrow any more money I would not know how or where to raise it.”

The Clemens party went to Geneva, then rested for a time at the baths of Aix; from Aix to Bayreuth to attend the Wagner festival, and from Bayreuth to Marienbad for further additions of health. Clemens began writing his newspaper letters at Aix, the first of which consists of observations at that “paradise of rheumatics.” This letter is really a careful and faithful description of Aix-les-Bains, with no particular drift of humor in it. He tells how in his own case the baths at first developed plenty of pain, but that the subsequent ones removed almost all of it.

“I’ve got back the use of my arm the last few days, and I am going away now,” he says, and concludes by describing the beautiful drives and scenery about Aix — the pleasures to be found paddling on little Lake Bourget and the happy excursions to Annecy.

At the end of an hour you come to Annecy and rattle through its old crooked lanes, built solidly up with curious old houses that are a dream of the Middle Ages, and presently you come to the main object of your trip — Lake Annecy. It is a revelation. It is a miracle. It brings the tears to a body’s eyes. It is so enchanting. That is to say, it affects you just as all other things that you instantly recognize as perfect affect you — perfect music, perfect eloquence, perfect art, perfect joy, perfect grief.

He was getting back into his old descriptive swing, but his dislike for travel was against him, and he found writing the letters hard. From Bayreuth he wrote “At the Shrine of St. Wagner,” one of the best descriptions of that great musical festival that has been put into words. He paid full tribute to the performance, also to the Wagner devotion, confessing its genuineness.

This opera of “Tristan and Isolde” last night broke the hearts of all witnesses who were of the faith, and I know of some, and have heard of many, who could not sleep after it, but cried the night away. I feel strongly out of place here. Sometimes I feel like the one sane person in the community of the mad; sometimes I feel like the one blind man where all others see; the one groping savage in the college of the learned, and always during service I feel like a heretic in heaven.

He tells how he really enjoyed two of the operas, and rejoiced in supposing that his musical regeneration was accomplished and perfected; but alas! he was informed by experts that those particular events were not real music at all. Then he says:

Well, I ought to have recognized the sign the old, sure sign that has never failed me in matters of art. Whenever I enjoy anything in art it means that it is mighty poor. The private knowledge of this fact has saved me from going to pieces with enthusiasm in front of many and many a chromo. However, my base instinct does bring me profit sometimes; I was the only man out of 3,200 who got his money back on those two operas.

His third letter was from Marienbad, in Bohemia, another “health-factory,” as he calls it, and is of the same general character as those preceding. In his fourth letter he told how he himself took charge of the family fortunes and became courier from Aix to Bayreuth. It is a very delightful letter, most of it, and probably not greatly burlesqued or exaggerated in its details. It is included now in the “Complete Works,” as fresh and delightful as ever. They returned to Germany at the end of August, to Nuremberg, which he notes as the “city of exquisite glimpses,” and to Heidelberg, where they had their old apartment of thirteen years before, Room 40 at the Schloss Hotel, with its wonderful prospect of wood and hill, and the haze-haunted valley of the Rhine. They remained less than a week in that beautiful place, and then were off for Switzerland, Lucerne, Brienz, Interlaken, finally resting at the Hotel Beau Rivage, Ouchy, Lausanne, on beautiful Lake Leman.

Clemens had agreed to write six of the newspaper letters, and he had by this time finished five of them, the fifth being dated from Interlaken, its subject, “Switzerland, the Cradle of Liberty.” He wrote to Hall that it was his intention to write another book of travel and to take a year or two to collect the material. The Century editors were after him for a series after the style of Innocents Abroad. He considered this suggestion, but declined by cable, explaining to Hall that he intended to write for serial publication no more than the six newspaper letters. He said:

To write a book of travel would be less trouble than to write six detached chapters. Each of these letters requires the same variety of treatment and subject that one puts into a book; but in the book each chapter doesn’t have to be rounded and complete in itself.

He suggested that the six letters be gathered into a small volume which would contain about thirty-five or forty thousand words, to be sold as low as twenty-five cents, but this idea appears to have been dropped.

At Ouchy Clemens conceived the idea of taking a little trip on his own account, an excursion that would be a rest after the strenuous three months’ travel and sightseeing — one that he could turn into literature. He engaged Joseph Very, a courier used during their earlier European travels, and highly recommended in the Tramp Abroad. He sent Joseph over to Lake Bourget to engage a boat and a boatman for a ten days’ trip down the river Rhone. For five dollars Joseph bought a safe, flat-bottom craft; also he engaged the owner as pilot. A few days later — September 19 — Clemens followed. They stopped overnight on an island in Lake Bourget, and in his notes Clemens tells how he slept in the old castle of Chatillon, in the room where a pope was born. They started on their drift next morning. To Mrs. Clemens, in some good-by memoranda, he said:

The lake is as smooth as glass; a brilliant sun is shining.

Our boat is so comfortable and shady with its awning.

11.20. We have crossed the lake and are entering the canal. Shall presently be in the Rhone.

Noon. Nearly down to the Rhone, passing the village of Chanaz.

Sunday, 3.15 P.M. We have been in the Rhone three hours. It is unimaginably still & reposeful & cool & soft & breezy. No rowing or work of any kind to do — we merely float with the current we glide noiseless and swift — as fast as a London cab-horse rips along — 8 miles an hour — the swiftest current I’ve ever boated in. We have the entire river to ourselves nowhere a boat of any kind.

Pleasant it must have been in the warm September days to go swinging down that swift, gray stream which comes racing out of Switzerland into France, fed from a thousand glaciers. He sent almost daily memoranda of his progress. Half-way to Arles he wrote:

It’s too delicious, floating with the swift current under the awning these superb, sunshiny days in deep peace and quietness.

Some of these curious old historical towns strangely persuade me, but it is so lovely afloat that I don’t stop, but view them from the outside and sail on. We get abundance of grapes and peaches for next to nothing. My, but that inn was suffocating with garlic where we stayed last night! I had to hold my nose as we went up-stairs or I believe I should have fainted.

Little bit of a room, rude board floor unswept, 2 chairs, unpainted white pine table — void the furniture! Had a good firm bed, solid as a rock, & you could have brained an ox with the bolster.

These six hours have been entirely delightful. I want to do all the rivers of Europe in an open boat in summer weather.

Still further along he described one of their shore accommodations.

Night caught us yesterday where we had to take quarters in a peasant’s house which was occupied by the family and a lot of cows & calves, also several rabbits. 127 The latter had a ball & I was the ballroom; but they were very friendly and didn’t bite.

127 [His word for fleas. Neither fleas nor mosquitoes ever bit him — probably because of his steady use of tobacco.]

The peasants were mighty kind and hearty & flew around & did their best to make us comfortable. This morning I breakfasted on the shore in the open air with two sociable dogs & a cat. Clean cloth, napkins & table furniture, white sugar, a vast hunk of excellent butter, good bread, first-class coffee with pure milk, fried fish just caught. Wonderful that so much cleanliness should come out of such a phenomenally dirty house.

An hour ago we saw the Falls of the Rhone, a prodigiously rough and dangerous-looking place; shipped a little water, but came to no harm. It was one of the most beautiful pieces of piloting & boat management I ever saw. Our admiral knew his business.

We have had to run ashore for shelter every time it has rained heretofore, but Joseph has been putting in his odd time making a waterproof sun-bonnet for the boat, & now we sail along dry, although we have had many heavy showers this morning.

Here follows a pencil-drawing of the boat and its new awning, and he adds: “I’m on the stern, under the shelter, and out of sight.”

The trip down the Rhone proved more valuable as an outing than as literary material. Clemens covered one hundred and seventy-four pages with his notes of it, then gave it up. Traveling alone with no one but Joseph and the Admiral (former owner of the craft) was reposeful and satisfactory, but it did not inspire literary flights. He tried to rectify the lack of companionship by introducing fictitious characters, such as Uncle Abner, Fargo, and Stavely, a young artist; also Harris, from the Tramp Abroad; but Harris was not really there this time, and Mark Twain’s genius, given rather to elaboration than to construction, found it too severe a task to imagine a string of adventures without at least the customary ten per cent. of fact to build upon.

It was a day above Avignon that he had an experience worth while. They were abreast of an old castle, nearing a village, one of the huddled jumble of houses of that locality, when, glancing over his left shoulder toward the distant mountain range, he received what he referred to later as a soul-stirring shock. Pointing to the outline of the distant range he said to the courier:

“Name it. Who is it?”

The courier said, “Napoleon.”

Clemens assented. The Admiral, when questioned, also promptly agreed that the mountain outlined was none other than the reclining figure of the great commander himself. They watched and discussed the phenomenon until they reached the village. Next morning Clemens was up for a first daybreak glimpse of his discovery. Later he reported it to Mrs. Clemens:

I did so long for you and Sue yesterday morning — the most superb sunrise — the most marvelous sunrise —& I saw it all, from the very faintest suspicion of the coming dawn, all the way through to the final explosion of glory. But it had an interest private to itself & not to be found elsewhere in the world; for between me & it, in the far-distant eastward, was a silhouetted mountain range, in which I had discovered, the previous afternoon, a most noble face upturned to the sky, & mighty form outstretched, which I had named Napoleon Dreaming of Universal Empire —& now this prodigious face, soft, rich, blue, spirituelle, asleep, tranquil, reposeful, lay against that giant conflagration of ruddy and golden splendors, all rayed like a wheel with the up-streaming & far-reaching lances of the sun. It made one want to cry for delight, it was so supreme in its unimaginable majesty & beauty.

He made a pencil-sketch of the Napoleon head in his note-book, and stated that the apparition could be seen opposite the castle of Beauchastel; but in later years his treacherous memory betrayed him, and, forgetting these identifying marks, he told of it as lying a few hours above Arles, and named it the “Lost Napoleon,” because those who set out to find it did not succeed. He even wrote an article upon the subject, in which he urged tourists to take steamer from Arles and make a short trip upstream, keeping watch on the right-hand bank, with the purpose of rediscovering the natural wonder. Fortunately this sketch was not published. It would have been set down as a practical joke by disappointed travelers. One of Mark Twain’s friends, Mr. Theodore Stanton, made a persistent effort to find the Napoleon, but with the wrong directions naturally failed.

It required ten days to float to Arles. Then the current gave out and Clemens ended the excursion and returned to Lausanne by rail. He said:

“It was twenty-eight miles to Marseilles, and somebody would have to row. That would not have been pleasure; it would have meant work for the sailor, and I do not like work even when another person does it.”

To Twichell in America he wrote:

You ought to have been along — I could have made room for you easily, & you would have found that a pedestrian tour in Europe doesn’t begin with a raft voyage for hilarity & mild adventure & intimate contact with the unvisited native of the back settlements & extinction from the world and newspapers & a conscience in a state of coma & lazy comfort & solid happiness. In fact, there’s nothing that’s so lovely.

But it’s all over. I gave the raft away yesterday at Arles & am loafing along back by short stages on the rail to Ouchy, Lausanne, where the tribe are staying at the Beau Rivage and are well and prosperous.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00