Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CXCIX

Winter in Vienna

They remained two months in Weggis — until toward the end of September; thence to Vienna, by way of Innsbruck, in the Tyrol, “where the mountains seem more approachable than in Switzerland.” Clara Clemens wished to study the piano under Leschetizky, and this would take them to Austria for the winter. Arriving at Vienna, they settled in the Hotel Metropole, on the banks of the Danube. Their rooms, a corner suite, looked out on a pretty green square, the Merzimplatz, and down on the Franz Josef quay. A little bridge crosses the river there, over which all kinds of life are continually passing. On pleasant days Clemens liked to stand on this bridge and watch the interesting phases of the Austrian capital. The Vienna humorist, Poetzl, quickly formed his acquaintance, and they sometimes stood there together. Once while Clemens was making some notes, Poetzl interested the various passers by asking each one — the errand-boy, the boot-black, the chestnut-vender, cabmen, and others — to guess who the stranger was and what he wanted. Most of them recognized him when their attention was called, for the newspapers had proudly heralded his arrival and his picture was widely circulated.

Clemens had scarcely arrived in Vienna, in fact, before he was pursued by photographers, journalists, and autograph-hunters. The Viennese were his fond admirers, and knowing how the world elsewhere had honored him they were determined not to be outdone. The ‘Neues Viener Tageblatt’, a fortnight after his arrival, said:

It is seldom that a foreign author has found such a hearty reception in Vienna as that accorded to Mark Twain, who not only has the reputation of being the foremost humorist in the whole civilized. world, but one whose personality arouses everywhere a peculiar interest on account of the genuine American character which sways it.

He was the guest of honor at the Concordia Club soon after his arrival, and the great ones of Vienna assembled to do him honor. Charlemagne Tower, then American minister, was also one of the guests. Writers, diplomats, financiers, municipal officials, everybody in Vienna that was worth while, was there. Clemens gave them a surprise, for when Ferdinand Gross, Concordia president, introduced him first in English, then in German, Mark Twain made his reply wholly in the latter language.

The paper just quoted gives us a hint of the frolic and wassail of that old ‘Festkneipe’ when it says:

At 9 o’clock Mark Twain appeared in the salon, and amid a storm of applause took his seat at the head of the table. His characteristic shaggy and flowing mane of hair adorning a youthful countenance attracted the attention at once of all present. After a few formal convivial commonplaces the president of the Concordia, Mr. Ferdinand Gross, delivered an excellent address in English, which he wound up with a few German sentences. Then Mr. Tower was heard in praise of his august countryman. In the course of his remarks he said he could hardly find words enough to express his delight at the presence of the popular American. Then followed the greatest attraction of the evening, an impromptu speech by Mark Twain in the German language, which it is true he has not fully mastered, but which he nevertheless controls sufficiently well to make it difficult to detect any harsh foreign accent. He had entitled his speech, “Die Schrecken der Deutschen Sprache” (the terrors of the German language). At times he would interrupt himself in English and ask, with a stuttering smile, “How do you call this word in German” or “I only know that in mother-tongue.” The Festkneipe lasted far into the morning hours.

It was not long after their arrival in Vienna that the friction among the unamalgamated Austrian states flamed into a general outbreak in the Austrian Reichsrath, or Imperial Parliament. We need not consider just what the trouble was. Any one wishing to know can learn from Mark Twain’s article on the subject, for it is more clearly pictured there than elsewhere. It is enough to say here that the difficulty lay mainly between the Hungarian and German wings of the house; and in the midst of it Dr. Otto Lecher made his famous speech, which lasted twelve hours without a break, in order to hold the floor against the opposing forces. Clemens was in the gallery most of the time while that speech, with its riotous accompaniment, was in progress. 143 He was intensely interested. Nothing would appeal to him more than that, unless it should be some great astronomic or geologic change. He was also present somewhat later when a resolution was railroaded through which gave the chair the right to invoke the aid of the military, and he was there when the military arrived and took the insurgents in charge. It was a very great occasion, a “tremendous episode,” he says.

143 [“When that house is legislating you can’t tell it from artillery practice.” From Mark Twain’s report, “Stirring Times in Austria,” in Literary Essays,]

The memory of it will outlast all the others that exist to-day. In the whole history of free parliament the like of it had been seen but three times before. It takes imposing place among the world’s unforgetable things. I think that in my lifetime I have not twice seen abiding history made before my eyes, but I know that I have seen it once.

Wild reports were sent to the American press; among them one that Mark Twain had been hustled out with the others, and that, having waved his handkerchief and shouted “Hoch die Deutschen!” he had been struck by an officer of the law. Of course nothing of the kind happened. The sergeant-at-arms, who came to the gallery where he sat, said to a friend who suggested that Clemens be allowed to remain:

“Oh, I know him very well. I recognize him by his pictures, and I should be very glad to let him stay, but I haven’t any choice because of the strictness of the order.”

Clemens, however, immediately ran across a London Times correspondent, who showed him the way into the first gallery, which it seems was not emptied, so he lost none of the exhibit.

Mark Twain’s report of the Austrian troubles, published in Harper’s Magazine the following March and now included with the Literary Essays, will keep that episode alive and important as literature when otherwise it would have been merely embalmed, and dimly remembered, as history.

It was during these exciting political times in Vienna that a representative of a New York paper wrote, asking for a Mark Twain interview. Clemens replied, giving him permission to call. When the reporter arrived Clemens was at work writing in bed, as was so much his habit. At the doorway the reporter paused, waiting for a summons to enter. The door was ajar and he heard Mrs. Clemens say:

“Youth, don’t you think it will be a little embarrassing for him, your being in bed?”

And he heard Mark Twain’s easy, gentle, deliberate voice reply:

“Why, Livy, if you think so, we might have the other bed made up for him.”

Clemens became a privileged character in Vienna. Official rules were modified for his benefit. Everything was made easy for him. Once, on a certain grand occasion, when nobody was permitted to pass beyond a prescribed line, he was stopped by a guard, when the officer in charge suddenly rode up:

“Let him pass,” he commanded. “Lieber Gott! Don’t you see it’s Herr Mark Twain?”

The Clemens apartments at the Metropole were like a court, where with those of social rank assembled the foremost authors, journalists, diplomats, painters, philosophers, scientists, of Europe, and therefore of the world. A sister of the Emperor of Germany lived at the Metropole that winter and was especially cordial. Mark Twain’s daily movements were chronicled as if he had been some visiting potentate, and, as usual, invitations and various special permissions poured in. A Vienna paper announced:

He has been feted and dined from morn till eve. The homes of the aristocracy are thrown open to him, counts and princes delight to do him honor, and foreign audiences hang upon the words that fall from his lips, ready to burst out any instant into roars of laughter.

Deaths never came singly in the Clemens family. It was on the 11th of December, 1897, something more than a year after the death of Susy, that Orion Clemens died, at the age of seventy-two. Orion had remained the same to the end, sensitively concerned as to all his brother’s doings, his fortunes and misfortunes: soaring into the clouds when any good news came; indignant, eager to lend help and advice in the hour of defeat; loyal, upright, and generally beloved by those who knew and understood his gentle nature. He had not been ill, and, in fact, only a few days before he died had written a fine congratulatory letter on his brother’s success in accumulating means for the payment of his debts, entering enthusiastically into some literary plans which Mark Twain then had in prospect, offering himself for caricature if needed.

I would fit in as a fool character, believing, what the Tennessee mountaineers predicted, that I would grow up to be a great man and go to Congress. I did not think it worth the trouble to be a common great man like Andy Johnson. I wouldn’t give a pinch of snuff, little as I needed it, to be anybody, less than Napoleon. So when a farmer took my father’s offer for some chickens under advisement till the next day I said to myself, “Would Napoleon Bonaparte have taken under advisement till the next day an offer to sell him some chickens?”

To his last day and hour Orion was the dreamer, always with a new plan. It was one morning early that he died. He had seated himself at a table with pencil and paper and was setting down the details of his latest project when death came to him, kindly enough, in the moment of new hope.

There came also, just then, news of the death of their old Hartford butler, George. It saddened them as if it had been a member of the household. Jean, especially, wept bitterly.

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