Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine


A Summer in Switzerland

The Queen’s Jubilee came along — June 22, 1897, being the day chosen to celebrate the sixty-year reign. Clemens had been asked to write about it for the American papers, and he did so after his own ideas, illustrating some of his material with pictures of his own selection. The selections were made from various fashion-plates, which gave him a chance to pick the kind of a prince or princess or other royal figure that he thought fitted his description without any handicap upon his imagination. Under his portrait of Henry V. (a very correctly dressed person in top hat and overcoat) he wrote:

In the original the King has a crown on. That is no kind of a thing for the King to wear when he has come home on business. He ought to wear something he can collect taxes in. You will find this represenation of Henry V. active, full of feeling, full of sublimity. I have pictured him looking out over the battle of Agincourt and studying up where to begin.

Mark Twain’s account of the Jubilee probably satisfied most readers; but James Tufts, then managing editor of the San Francisco Examiner, had a rather matter-of-fact Englishman on the staff, who, after reading the report, said:

“Well, Jim Tufts, I hope you are satisfied with that Mark Twain cable.”

“Why, yes,” said Tufts; “aren’t you?”

“I should say not. Just look what he says about the number of soldiers. He says, ‘I never saw so many soldiers anywhere except on the stage of a theater.’ Why, Tufts, don’t you know that the soldiers in the theater are the same old soldiers marching around and around? There aren’t more than a hundred soldiers in the biggest army ever put on the stage.”

It was decided to vacate the house in Tedworth Square and go to Switzerland for the summer. Mrs. Crane and Charles Langdon’s daughter, Julia, joined them early in July, and they set out for Switzerland a few days later. Just before leaving, Clemens received an offer from Pond of fifty thousand dollars for one hundred and twenty-five nights on the platform in America. It was too great a temptation to resist at once, and they took it under advisement. Clemens was willing to accept, but Mrs. Clemens opposed the plan. She thought his health no longer equal to steady travel. She believed that with continued economy they would be able to manage their problem without this sum. In the end the offer was declined.

They journeyed to Switzerland by way of Holland and Germany, the general destination being Lucerne. They did not remain there, however. They found a pretty little village farther up the lake — Weggis, at the foot of the Rigi — where, in the Villa Buhlegg, they arranged for the summer at very moderate rates indeed. Weggis is a beautiful spot, looking across the blue water to Mount Pilatus, the lake shore dotted with white villages. Down by the water, but a few yards from the cottage — for it was scarcely a villa except by courtesy — there was a little inclosure, and a bench under a large tree, a quiet spot where Clemens often sat to rest and smoke. The fact is remembered there to-day, and recorded. A small tablet has engraved upon it “Mark Twain Ruhe.” Farther along the shore he discovered a neat, white cottage were some kindly working-people agreed to rent him an upper room for a study. It was a sunny room with windows looking out upon the lake, and he worked there steadily. To Twichell he wrote:

This is the charmingest place we have ever lived in for repose and restfulness, superb scenery whose beauty undergoes a perpetual change from one miracle to another, yet never runs short of fresh surprises and new inventions. We shall always come here for the summers if we can.

The others have climbed the Rigi, he says, and he expects to some day if Twichell will come and climb it with him. They had climbed it together during that summer vagabondage, nineteen years before.

He was full of enthusiasm over his work. To F. H. Skrine, in London, he wrote that he had four or five books all going at once, and his note-book contains two or three pages merely of titles of the stories he proposed to write.

But of the books begun that summer at Weggis none appears to have been completed. There still exists a bulky, half-finished manuscript about Tom and Huck, most of which was doubtless written at this time, and there is the tale already mentioned, the “dream” story; and another tale with a plot of intricate psychology and crime; still another with the burning title of “Hell-Fire Hotchkiss”— a, story of Hannibal life — and some short stories. Clemens appeared to be at this time out of tune with fiction. Perhaps his long book of travel had disqualified his invention. He realized that these various literary projects were leading nowhere, and one after another he dropped them. The fact that proofs of the big book were coming steadily may also have interfered with his creative faculty.

As was his habit, Clemens formed the acquaintance of a number of the native residents, and enjoyed talking to them about their business and daily affairs. They were usually proud and glad of these attentions, quick to see the humor of his remarks.

But there was an old watchmaker-an ‘Uhrmacher’ who remained indifferent. He would answer only in somber monosyllables, and he never smiled. Clemens at last brought the cheapest kind of a watch for repairs.

“Be very careful of this watch,” he said. “It is a fine one.”

The old man merely glared at him.

“It is not a valuable watch. It is a worthless watch.”

“But I gave six francs for it in Paris.”

“Still, it is a cheap watch,” was the unsmiling answer. Defeat waits somewhere for every conqueror.

Which recalls another instance, though of a different sort. On one of his many voyages to America, he was sitting on deck in a steamer-chair when two little girls stopped before him. One of them said, hesitatingly:

“Are you Mr. Mark Twain?”

“Why, yes, dear, they call me that.”

“Won’t you please say something funny?”

And for the life of him he couldn’t make the required remark.

In one of his letters to Twichell of that summer, Clemens wrote of the arrival there of the colored jubilee singers, always favorites of his, and of his great delight in them.

We went down to the village hotel & bought our tickets & entered the beer-hall, where a crowd of German & Swiss men & women sat grouped around tables with their beer-mugs in front of them — self-contained & unimpressionable-looking people — an indifferent & unposted & disheartening audience —& up at the far end of the room sat the jubilees in a row. The singers got up & stood — the talking & glass-jingling went on. Then rose & swelled out above those common earthly sounds one of those rich chords, the secret of whose make only the jubilees possess, & a spell fell upon that house. It was fine to see the faces light up with the pleased wonder & surprise of it. No one was indifferent any more; & when the singers finished the camp was theirs. It was a triumph. It reminded me of Lancelot riding in Sir Kay’s armor, astonishing complacent knights who thought they had struck a soft thing. The jubilees sang a lot of pieces. Arduous & painstaking cultivation has not diminished or artificialized their music, but on the contrary — to my surprise — has mightily reinforced its eloquence and beauty. Away back in the beginning — to my mind — their music made all other vocal music cheap; & that early notion is emphasized now. It is entirely beautiful to me; & it moves me infinitely more than any other music can. I think that in the jubilees & their songs America has produced the perfectest flower of the ages; & I wish it were a foreign product, so that she would worship it & lavish money on it & go properly crazy over it.

Now, these countries are different: they would do all that if it were native. It is true they praise God, but that is merely a formality, & nothing in it; they open out their whole hearts to no foreigner.

As the first anniversary of Susy’s death drew near the tension became very great. A gloom settled on the household, a shadow of restraint. On the morning of the 18th Clemens went early to his study. Somewhat later Mrs. Clemens put on her hat and wrap, and taking a small bag left the house. The others saw her go toward the steamer-landing, but made no inquiries as to her destination. They guessed that she would take the little boat that touched at the various points along the lake shore. This she did, in fact, with no particular plan as to where she would leave it. One of the landing-places seemed quiet and inviting, and there she went ashore, and taking a quiet room at a small inn spent the day in reading Susy’s letters. It was evening when she returned, and her husband, lonely and anxious, was waiting for her at the landing. He had put in the day writing the beautiful poem, “In Memoriam,” a strain lofty, tender, and dirge-like-liquidly musical, though irregular in form.142

142 [Now included in the Uniform Edition.]

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