Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CCIII

An Imperial Tragedy

For the summer they went to Kaltenleutgeben, just out of Vienna, where they had the Villa Paulhof, and it was while they were there, September 10, 1898, that the Empress Elizabeth of Austria was assassinated at Geneva by an Italian vagabond, whose motive seemed to have been to gain notoriety. The news was brought to them one evening, just at supper-time, by Countess Wydenbouck-Esterhazy.

Clemens wrote to Twichell:

That good & unoffending lady, the Empress, is killed by a madman, & I am living in the midst of world-history again. The Queen’s Jubilee last year, the invasion of the Reichsrath by the police, & now this murder, which will still be talked of & described & painted a thousand years from now. To have a personal friend of the wearer of two crowns burst in at the gate in the deep dusk of the evening & say, in a voice broken with tears, “My God! the Empress is murdered,” & fly toward her home before we can utter a question — why, it brings the giant event home to you, makes you a part of it & personally interested; it is as if your neighbor Antony should come flying & say, “Caesar is butchered — the head of the world is fallen!”

Of course there is no talk but of this. The mourning is universal and genuine, the consternation is stupefying. The Austrian Empire is being draped with black. Vienna will be a spectacle to see by next Saturday, when the funeral cortege marches.

Clemens and the others went into Vienna for the funeral ceremonies and witnessed them from the windows of the new Krantz Hotel, which faces the Capuchin church where the royal dead lie buried. It was a grandly impressive occasion, a pageant of uniforms of the allied nations that made up the Empire of Austria. Clemens wrote of it at considerable length, and sent the article to Mr. Rogers to offer to the magazines. Later, however, he recalled it just why is not clear. In one place he wrote:

Twice the Empress entered Vienna in state; the first time was in 1854, when she was a bride of seventeen, & when she rode in measureless pomp through a world of gay flags & decorations down the streets, walled on both hands with the press of shouting & welcoming subjects; & the second time was last Wednesday, when she entered the city in her coffin, & moved down the same streets in the dead of night under waving black flags, between human walls again, but everywhere was a deep stillness now & a stillness emphasized rather than broken by the muffled hoofbeats of the long cavalcade over pavements cushioned with sand, & the low sobbing of gray-headed women who had witnessed the first entrance, forty-four years before, when she & they were young & unaware. . . . She was so blameless — the Empress; & so beautiful in mind & heart, in person & spirit; & whether with the crown upon her head, or without it & nameless, a grace to the human race, almost a justification of its creation; would be, indeed, but that the animal that struck her down re-establishes the doubt.

They passed a quiet summer at Kaltenleutgeben. Clemens wrote some articles, did some translating of German plays, and worked on his “Gospel,” an elaboration of his old essay on contenting one’s soul through selfishness, later to be published as ‘What is Man?’ A. C. Dunham and Rev. Dr. Parker, of Hartford, came to Vienna, and Clemens found them and brought them out to Kaltenleutgeben and read them chapters of his doctrines, which, he said, Mrs. Clemens would not let him print. Dr. Parker and Dunham returned to Hartford and reported Mark Twain more than ever a philosopher; also that he was the “center of notability and his house a court.”

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