Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CCXXX

The Return to Florence

From the note-book:

Saturday, October 24, 1903. Sailed in the Princess Irene for Genoa at 11. Flowers & fruit from Mrs. Rogers & Mrs. Coe. We have with us Katie Leary (in our domestic service 23 years) & Miss Margaret Sherry (trained nurse).

Two days later he wrote:

Heavy storm all night. Only 3 stewardesses. Ours served 60 meals in rooms this morning.

On the 27th:

Livy is enduring the voyage marvelously well. As well as Clara & Jean, I think, & far better than the trained nurse.

She has been out on deck an hour.

November 2. Due at Gibraltar 10 days from New York. 3 days to Naples, then 2 day to Genoa. At supper the band played “Cavalleria Rusticana,” which is forever associated in my mind with Susy. I love it better than any other, but it breaks my heart.

It was the “Intermezzo” he referred to, which had been Susy’s favorite music, and whenever he heard it he remembered always one particular opera-night long ago, and Susy’s face rose before him.

They were in Naples on the 5th; thence to Genoa, and to Florence, where presently they were installed in the Villa Reale di Quarto, a fine old Italian palace built by Cosimo more than four centuries ago. In later times it has been occupied and altered by royal families of Wurtemberg and Russia. Now it was the property of the Countess Massiglia, from whom Clemens had leased it.

They had hoped to secure the Villa Papiniano, under Fiesole, near Professor Fiske, but negotiations for it had fallen through. The Villa Quarto, as it is usually called, was a more pretentious place and as beautifully located, standing as it does in an ancient garden looking out over Florence toward Vallombrosa and the Chianti hills. Yet now in the retrospect, it seems hardly to have been the retreat for an invalid. Its garden was supernaturally beautiful, all that one expects that a garden of Italy should be — such a garden as Maxfield Parrish might dream; but its beauty was that which comes of antiquity — the accumulation of dead years. Its funereal cypresses, its crumbling walls and arches, its clinging ivy and moldering marbles, and a clock that long ago forgot the hours, gave it a mortuary look. In a way it suggested Arnold Bocklin’s “Todteninsel,” and it might well have served as the allegorical setting for a gateway to the bourne of silence.

The house itself, one of the most picturesque of the old Florentine suburban palaces, was historically interesting, rather than cheerful. The rooms, in number more than sixty, though richly furnished, were vast and barnlike, and there were numbers of them wholly unused and never entered. There was a dearth of the modern improvements which Americans have learned to regard as a necessity, and the plumbing, such as it was, was not always in order. The place was approached by narrow streets, along which the more uninviting aspects of Italy were not infrequent. Youth and health and romance might easily have reveled in the place; but it seems now not to have been the best choice for that frail invalid, to whom cheer and brightness and freshness and the lovelier things of hope meant always so much. 165 — Neither was the climate of Florence all that they had hoped for. Their former sunny winter had misled them. Tradition to the contrary, Italy — or at least Tuscany — is not one perpetual dream of sunlight. It is apt to be damp and cloudy; it is likely to be cold. Writing to MacAlister, Clemens said:

165 [Villa Quarto has recently been purchased by Signor P. de Ritter Lahony, and thoroughly restored and refreshed and beautified without the sacrifice of any of its romantic features.]

Florentine sunshine? Bless you, there isn’t any. We have heavy fogs every morning & rain all day. This house is not merely large, it is vast — therefore I think it must always lack the home feeling.

His dissatisfaction in it began thus early, and it grew as one thing after another went wrong. With it all, however, Mrs. Clemens seemed to gain a little, and was glad to see company — a reasonable amount of company — to brighten her surroundings.

Clemens began to work and wrote a story or two, and those lively articles about the Italian language.

To Twichell he reported progress:

I have a handsome success in one way here. I left New York under a sort of half-promise to furnish to the Harper magazines 30,000 words this year. Magazining is difficult work because every third page represents two pages that you have put in the fire (you are nearly sure to start wrong twice), & so when you have finished an article & are willing to let it go to print it represents only 10 cents a word instead of 30.

But this time I had the curious (& unprecedented) luck to start right in each case. I turned out 37,000 words in 25 working days; & the reason I think I started right every time is, that not only have I approved and accepted the several articles, but the court of last resort (Livy) has done the same.

On many of the between-days I did some work, but only of an idle & not necessarily necessary sort, since it will not see print until I am dead. I shall continue this (an hour per day), but the rest of the year I expect to put in on a couple of long books (half-completed ones). No more magazine work hanging over my head.

This secluded & silent solitude, this clean, soft air, & this enchanting view of Florence, the great valley & snow-mountains that frame it, are the right conditions for work. They are a persistent inspiration. To-day is very lovely; when the afternoon arrives there will be a new picture every hour till dark, & each of them divine — or progressing from divine to diviner & divinest. On this (second) floor Clara’s room commands the finest; she keeps a window ten feet high wide open all the time & frames it in that. I go in from time to time every day & trade sass for a look. The central detail is a distant & stately snow-hump that rises above & behind black-forested hills, & its sloping vast buttresses, velvety & sun-polished, with purple shadows between, make the sort of picture we knew that time we walked in Switzerland in the days of our youth.

From this letter, which is of January 7, 1904, we gather that the weather had greatly improved, and with it Mrs. Clemens’s health, notwithstanding she had an alarming attack in December. One of the stories he had finished was “The $30,000 Bequest.” The work mentioned, which would not see print until after his death, was a continuation of those autobiographical chapters which for years he had been setting down as the mood seized him.

He experimented with dictation, which he had tried long before with Redpath, and for a time now found it quite to his liking. He dictated some of his copyright memories, and some anecdotes and episodes; but his amanuensis wrote only longhand, which perhaps hampered him, for he tired of it by and by and the dictations were discontinued.

Among these notes there is one elaborate description of the Villa di Quarto, dictated at the end of the winter, by which time we are not surprised to find he had become much attached to the place. The Italian spring was in the air, and it was his habit to grow fond of his surroundings. Some atmospheric paragraphs of these impressions invite us here:

We are in the extreme south end of the house, if there is any such thing as a south end to a house, whose orientation cannot be determined by me, because I am incompetent in all cases where an object does not point directly north & south. This one slants across between, & is therefore a confusion. This little private parlor is in one of the two corners of what I call the south end of the house. The sun rises in such a way that all the morning it is pouring its light through the 33 glass doors or windows which pierce the side of the house which looks upon the terrace & garden; the rest of the day the light floods this south end of the house, as I call it; at noon the sun is directly above Florence yonder in the distance in the plain, directly across those architectural features which have been so familiar to the world in pictures for some centuries, the Duomo, the Campanile, the Tomb of the Medici, & the beautiful tower of the Palazzo Vecchio; in this position it begins to reveal the secrets of the delicious blue mountains that circle around into the west, for its light discovers, uncovers, & exposes a white snowstorm of villas & cities that you cannot train yourself to have confidence in, they appear & disappear so mysteriously, as if they might not be villas & cities at all, but the ghosts of perished ones of the remote & dim Etruscan times; & late in the afternoon the sun sets down behind those mountains somewhere, at no particular time & at no particular place, so far as I can see.

Again at the end of March he wrote:

Now that we have lived in this house four and a half months my prejudices have fallen away one by one & the place has become very homelike to me. Under certain conditions I should like to go on living in it indefinitely. I should wish the Countess to move out of Italy, out of Europe, out of the planet. I should want her bonded to retire to her place in the next world & inform me which of the two it was, so that I could arrange for my own hereafter.

Complications with their landlady had begun early, and in time, next to Mrs. Clemens’s health, to which it bore such an intimate and vital relation, the indifference of the Countess Massiglia to their needs became the supreme and absorbing concern of life at the villa, and led to continued and almost continuous house-hunting.

Days when the weather permitted, Clemens drove over the hills looking for a villa which he could lease or buy — one with conveniences and just the right elevation and surroundings. There were plenty of villas; but some of them were badly situated as to altitude or view; some were falling to decay, and the search was rather a discouraging one. Still it was not abandoned, and the reports of these excursions furnished new interest and new hope always to the invalid at home.

“Even if we find it,” he wrote Howells, “I am afraid it will be months before we can move Mrs. Clemens. Of course it will. But it comforts us to let on that we think otherwise, and these pretensions help to keep hope alive in her.”

She had her bad days and her good days, days when it was believed she had passed the turning-point and was traveling the way to recovery; but the good days were always a little less hopeful, the bad days a little more discouraging. On February 22d Clemens wrote in his note-book:

At midnight Livy’s pulse went to 192 & there was a collapse. Great alarm. Subcutaneous injection of brandy saved her.

And to MacAlister toward the end of March:

We are having quite perfect weather now & are hoping that it will bring effects for Mrs. Clemens.

But a few days later he added that he was watching the driving rain through the windows, and that it was bad weather for the invalid. “But it will not last,” he said.

The invalid improved then, and there was a concert in Florence at which Clara Clemens sang. Clemens in his note-book says:

April 8. Clara’s concert was a triumph. Livy woke up & sent for her to tell her all about it, near midnight.

But a day or two later she was worse again — then better. The hearts in that household were as pendulums, swinging always between hope and despair.

One familiar with the Clemens history might well have been filled with forebodings. Already in January a member of the family, Mollie Clemens, Orion’s wife, died, news which was kept from Mrs. Clemens, as was the death of Aldrich’s son, and that of Sir Henry M. Stanley, both of which occurred that spring.

Indeed, death harvested freely that year among the Clemens friendships. Clemens wrote Twichell:

Yours has just this moment arrived-just as I was finishing a note to poor Lady Stanley. I believe the last country-house visit we paid in England was to Stanley’s. Lord! how my friends & acquaintances fall about me now in my gray-headed days! Vereshchagin, Mommsen, Dvorak, Lenbach, & Jokai, all so recently, & now Stanley. I have known Stanley 37 years. Goodness, who is there I haven’t known?

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