Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CLXXIX

A Dinner with William II.

The dinner with Emperor William II. at General von Versen’s was set for the 20th of February. A few days before, Mark Twain entered in his note-book:

In that day the Imperial lion and the Democratic lamb shall sit down together, and a little General shall feed them.

Mark Twain was the guest of honor on this occasion, and was seated at the Emperor’s right hand. The Emperor’s brother, Prince Heinrich, sat opposite; Prince Radolin farther along. Rudolf Lindau, of the Foreign Office, was also present. There were fourteen at the table, all told. In his memorandum made at the time, Clemens gave no account of the dinner beyond the above details, only adding:

After dinner 6 or 8 officers came in, & all hands adjourned to the big room out of the smoking-room and held a “smoking parliament” after the style of the ancient Potsdam one, till midnight, when the Emperor shook hands and left.

It was not until fourteen years later that Mark Twain related some special matters pertaining to that evening. He may have expanded then somewhat to fill out spaces of his memory, and embroidered them, as was his wont; but that something happened, either in reality or in his imagination, which justified his version of it we may believe. He told it as here given, premising: “This may appear in print after I am dead, but not before.

“From 1891 until day before yesterday I had never mentioned the matter, nor set it down with a pen, nor ever referred to it in any way — not even to my wife, to whom I was accustomed to tell everything that happened to me.

“At the dinner his Majesty chatted briskly and entertainingly along in easy and flowing English, and now and then he interrupted himself to address a remark to me or to some other individual of the guests. When the reply had been delivered he resumed his talk. I noticed that the table etiquette tallied with that which was the law of my house at home when we had guests; that is to say, the guests answered when the host favored them with a remark, and then quieted down and behaved themselves until they got another chance. If I had been in the Emperor’s chair and he in mine I should have felt infinitely comfortable and at home, but I was guest now, and consequently felt less at home. From old experience I was familiar with the rules of the game and familiar with their exercise from the high place of host; but I was not familiar with the trammeled and less satisfactory position of guest, therefore I felt a little strange and out of place. But there was no animosity — no, the Emperor was host, therefore, according to my own rule, he had a right to do the talking, and it was my honorable duty to intrude no interruptions or other improvements except upon invitation; and of course it could be my turn some day — some day, on some friendly visit of inspection to America, it might be my pleasure and distinction to have him as guest at my table; then I would give him a rest and a quiet time.

“In one way there was a difference between his table and mine-for instance, atmosphere; the guests stood in awe of him, and naturally they conferred that feeling upon me, for, after all, I am only human, although I regret it. When a guest answered a question he did it with a deferential voice and manner; he did not put any emotion into it, and he did not spin it out, but got it out of his system as quickly as he could, and then looked relieved. The Emperor was used to this atmosphere, and it did not chill his blood; maybe it was an inspiration to him, for he was alert, brilliant, and full of animation; also he was most gracefully and felicitously complimentary to my books — and I will remark here that the happy phrasing of a compliment is one of the rarest of human gifts and the happy delivery of it another. I once mentioned the high compliment which he paid to the book ‘Old Times on the Mississippi’; but there were others, among them some high praise of my description in ‘A Tramp Abroad’ of certain striking phases of German student life.

“Fifteen or twenty minutes before the dinner ended the Emperor made a remark to me in praise of our generous soldier pensions; then, without pausing, he continued the remark, not speaking to me, but across the table to his brother, Prince Heinrich. The Prince replied, endorsing the Emperor’s view of the matter. Then I followed with my own view of it. I said that in the beginning our government’s generosity to the soldier was clear in its intent and praiseworthy, since the pensions were conferred upon soldiers who had earned them, soldiers who had been disabled in the war and could no longer earn a livelihood for themselves and their families, but that the pensions decreed and added later lacked the virtue of a clean motive, and had, little by little, degenerated into a wider and wider and more and more offensive system of vote-purchasing, and was now become a source of corruption, which was an unpleasant thing to contemplate and was a danger besides. I think that that was about the substance of my remark; but in any case the remark had a quite definite result, and that is the memorable thing about it — manifestly it made everybody uncomfortable. I seemed to perceive this quite plainly. I had committed an indiscretion. Possibly it was in violating etiquette by intruding a remark when I had not been invited to make one; possibly it was in taking issue with an opinion promulgated by his Majesty. I do not know which it was, but I quite clearly remember the effect which my act produced — to wit, the Emperor refrained from addressing any remarks to me afterward, and not merely during the brief remainder of the dinner, but afterward in the kneip-room, where beer and cigars and hilarious anecdoting prevailed until about midnight. I am sure that the Emperor’s good night was the only thing he said to me in all that time.

“Was this rebuke studied and intentional? I don’t know, but I regarded it in that way. I can’t be absolutely sure of it because of modifying doubts created afterward by one or two circumstances. For example: the Empress Dowager invited me to her palace, and the reigning Empress invited me to breakfast, and also sent for General von Versen to come to her palace and read to her and her ladies from my books.”

It was a personal message from the Emperor that fourteen years later recalled to him this curious circumstance. A gentleman whom Clemens knew went on a diplomatic mission to Germany. Upon being presented to Emperor William, the latter had immediately begun to talk of Mark Twain and his work. He spoke of the description of German student life as the greatest thing of its kind ever written, and of the sketch on the German language as wonderful; then he said:

“Convey to Mr. Clemens my kindest regards, ask him if he remembers that dinner at Von Versen’s, and ask him why he didn’t do any more talking at that dinner.”

It seemed a mysterious message. Clemens thought it might have been meant to convey some sort of an imperial apology; but again it might have meant that Mark Twain’s breach and the Emperor’s coolness on that occasion were purely imaginary, and that the Emperor had really expected him to talk far more than he did.

Returning to the Royal Hotel after the Von Versen dinner, Mark Twain received his second high compliment that day on the Mississippi book. The portier, a tow-headed young German, must have been comparatively new at the hotel; for apparently he had just that day learned that his favorite author, whose books he had long been collecting, was actually present in the flesh. Clemens, all ready to apologize for asking so late an admission, was greeted by the portier’s round face all sunshine and smiles. The young German then poured out a stream of welcome and compliments and dragged the author to a small bedroom near the front door, where he excitedly pointed out a row of books, German translations of Mark Twain.

“There,” he said; “you wrote them. I’ve found it out. Lieber Gott! I did not know it before, and I ask a million pardons. That one there, Old Times on the Mississippi, is the best you ever wrote.”

The note-book records only one social event following the Emperor’s dinner — a dinner with the secretary of the legation. The note says:

At the Emperor’s dinner black cravats were ordered. Tonight I went in a black cravat and everybody else wore white ones. Just my luck.

The Berlin activities came to an end then. He was still physically far from robust, and his doctors peremptorily ordered him to stay indoors or to go to a warmer climate. This was March 1st. Clemens and his wife took Joseph Very, and, leaving the others for the time in Berlin, set out for Mentone, in the south of France.

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