A Tramp Abroad — Volume 02 eBook: Page2

Mark Twain (1994)


  At this point the police noticed that the public had massed themselvestogether on the right and left of the field; they therefore begged adelay, while they should put these poor people in a place of safety.

  The request was granted.

  The police having ordered the two multitudes to take positions behindthe duelists, we were once more ready. The weather growing still moreopaque, it was agreed between myself and the other second that beforegiving the fatal signal we should each deliver a loud whoop to enablethe combatants to ascertain each other's whereabouts.

  I now returned to my principal, and was distressed to observe that hehad lost a good deal of his spirit. I tried my best to hearten him. Isaid, "Indeed, sir, things are not as bad as they seem. Consideringthe character of the weapons, the limited number of shots allowed, thegenerous distance, the impenetrable solidity of the fog, and the addedfact that one of the combatants is one-eyed and the other cross-eyed andnear-sighted, it seems to me that this conflict need not necessarily befatal. There are chances that both of you may survive. Therefore, cheerup; do not be downhearted."

  This speech had so good an effect that my principal immediatelystretched forth his hand and said, "I am myself again; give me theweapon."

  I laid it, all lonely and forlorn, in the center of the vast solitudeof his palm. He gazed at it and shuddered. And still mournfullycontemplating it, he murmured in a broken voice:

  "Alas, it is not death I dread, but mutilation."

  I heartened him once more, and with such success that he presentlysaid, "Let the tragedy begin. Stand at my back; do not desert me in thissolemn hour, my friend."

  I gave him my promise. I now assisted him to point his pistol toward thespot where I judged his adversary to be standing, and cautioned him tolisten well and further guide himself by my fellow-second's whoop.Then I propped myself against M. Gambetta's back, and raised a rousing"Whoop-ee!" This was answered from out the far distances of the fog, andI immediately shouted:

  "One--two--three--FIRE!"

  Two little sounds like SPIT! SPIT! broke upon my ear, and in the sameinstant I was crushed to the earth under a mountain of flesh. Bruisedas I was, I was still able to catch a faint accent from above, to thiseffect:

  "I die for... for ... perdition take it, what IS it I die for? ... oh,yes--FRANCE! I die that France may live!"

  The surgeons swarmed around with their probes in their hands, andapplied their microscopes to the whole area of M. Gambetta's person,with the happy result of finding nothing in the nature of a wound. Thena scene ensued which was in every way gratifying and inspiriting.

  The two gladiators fell upon each other's neck, with floods of proud andhappy tears; that other second embraced me; the surgeons, theorators, the undertakers, the police, everybody embraced, everybodycongratulated, everybody cried, and the whole atmosphere was filled withpraise and with joy unspeakable.

  It seems to me then that I would rather be a hero of a French duel thana crowned and sceptered monarch.

  When the commotion had somewhat subsided, the body of surgeons held aconsultation, and after a good deal of debate decided that with propercare and nursing there was reason to believe that I would survive myinjuries. My internal hurts were deemed the most serious, since it wasapparent that a broken rib had penetrated my left lung, and that many ofmy organs had been pressed out so far to one side or the other of wherethey belonged, that it was doubtful if they would ever learn to performtheir functions in such remote and unaccustomed localities. They thenset my left arm in two places, pulled my right hip into its socketagain, and re-elevated my nose. I was an object of great interest,and even admiration; and many sincere and warm-hearted persons hadthemselves introduced to me, and said they were proud to know the onlyman who had been hurt in a French duel in forty years.

  I was placed in an ambulance at the very head of the procession;and thus with gratifying 'ECLAT I was marched into Paris, the mostconspicuous figure in that great spectacle, and deposited at thehospital.

  The cross of the Legion of Honor has been conferred upon me. However,few escape that distinction.

  Such is the true version of the most memorable private conflict of theage.

  I have no complaints to make against any one. I acted for myself, and Ican stand the consequences.

  Without boasting, I think I may say I am not afraid to stand before amodern French duelist, but as long as I keep in my right mind I willnever consent to stand behind one again.

  CHAPTER IX

  [What the Beautiful Maiden Said]

  One day we took the train and went down to Mannheim to see "King Lear"played in German. It was a mistake. We sat in our seats three wholehours and never understood anything but the thunder and lightning; andeven that was reversed to suit German ideas, for the thunder came firstand the lightning followed after.

  The behavior of the audience was perfect. There were no rustlings, orwhisperings, or other little disturbances; each act was listened to insilence, and the applauding was done after the curtain was down. Thedoors opened at half past four, the play began promptly at half pastfive, and within two minutes afterward all who were coming were in theirseats, and quiet reigned. A German gentleman in the train had said thata Shakespearian play was an appreciated treat in Germany and thatwe should find the house filled. It was true; all the six tiers werefilled, and remained so to the end--which suggested that it is not onlybalcony people who like Shakespeare in Germany, but those of the pit andgallery, too.

  Another time, we went to Mannheim and attended a shivaree--otherwise anopera--the one called "Lohengrin." The banging and slamming and boomingand crashing were something beyond belief. The racking and pitiless painof it remains stored up in my memory alongside the memory of the timethat I had my teeth fixed.

  There were circumstances which made it necessary for me to stay throughthe four hours to the end, and I stayed; but the recollection of thatlong, dragging, relentless season of suffering is indestructible. Tohave to endure it in silence, and sitting still, made it all the harder.I was in a railed compartment with eight or ten strangers, of the twosexes, and this compelled repression; yet at times the pain was soexquisite that I could hardly keep the tears back.

  At those times, as the howlings and wailings and shrieking of thesingers, and the ragings and roarings and explosions of the vastorchestra rose higher and higher, and wilder and wilder, and fiercer andfiercer, I could have cried if I had been alone. Those strangers wouldnot have been surprised to see a man do such a thing who was beinggradually skinned, but they would have marveled at it here, and maderemarks about it no doubt, whereas there was nothing in the present casewhich was an advantage over being skinned.

  There was a wait of half an hour at the end of the first act, and Icould have gone out and rested during that time, but I could not trustmyself to do it, for I felt that I should desert to stay out. There wasanother wait of half an hour toward nine o'clock, but I had gone throughso much by that time that I had no spirit left, and so had no desire butto be let alone.

  I do not wish to suggest that the rest of the people there were likeme, for, indeed, they were not. Whether it was that they naturallyliked that noise, or whether it was that they had learned to like itby getting used to it, I did not at the time know; but they did likeit--this was plain enough. While it was going on they sat and looked asrapt and grateful as cats do when one strokes their backs; and wheneverthe curtain fell they rose to their feet, in one solid mighty multitude,and the air was snowed thick with waving handkerchiefs, and hurricanesof applause swept the place. This was not comprehensible to me. Ofcourse, there were many people there who were not under compulsion tostay; yet the tiers were as full at the close as they had been at thebeginning. This showed that the people liked it.

  It was a curious sort of a play. In the manner of costumes and sceneryit was fine and showy enough; but there was not much action. That isto say, there was not much really done, it was only talked about; andalways violently. It was what one might call
a narrative play. Everybodyhad a narrative and a grievance, and none were reasonable about it, butall in an offensive and ungovernable state. There was little of thatsort of customary thing where the tenor and the soprano stand down bythe footlights, warbling, with blended voices, and keep holding outtheir arms toward each other and drawing them back and spreading bothhands over first one breast and then the other with a shake and apressure--no, it was every rioter for himself and no blending. Each sanghis indictive narrative in turn, accompanied by the whole orchestra ofsixty instruments, and when this had continued for some time, and onewas hoping they might come to an understanding and modify the noise, agreat chorus composed entirely of maniacs would suddenly break forth,and then during two minutes, and sometimes three, I lived over again allthat I suffered the time the orphan asylum burned down.

  We only had one brief little season of heaven and heaven's sweet ecstasyand peace during all this long and diligent and acrimonious reproductionof the other place. This was while a gorgeous procession of peoplemarched around and around, in the third act, and sang the WeddingChorus. To my untutored ear that was music--almost divine music. Whilemy seared soul was steeped in the healing balm of those gracious sounds,it seemed to me that I could almost resuffer the torments which hadgone before, in order to be so healed again. There is where the deepingenuity of the operatic idea is betrayed. It deals so largely in painthat its scattered delights are prodigiously augmented by the contrasts.A pretty air in an opera is prettier there than it could be anywhereelse, I suppose, just as an honest man in politics shines more than hewould elsewhere.

  I have since found out that there is nothing the Germans like so much asan opera. They like it, not in a mild and moderate way, but with theirwhole hearts. This is a legitimate result of habit and education. Ournation will like the opera, too, by and by, no doubt. One in fifty ofthose who attend our operas likes it already, perhaps, but I think agood many of the other forty-nine go in order to learn to like it, andthe rest in order to be able to talk knowingly about it. The latterusually hum the airs while they are being sung, so that their neighborsmay perceive that they have been to operas before. The funerals of thesedo not occur often enough.

  A gentle, old-maidish person and a sweet young girl of seventeen satright in front of us that night at the Mannheim opera. These peopletalked, between the acts, and I understood them, though I understoodnothing that was uttered on the distant stage. At first they wereguarded in their talk, but after they had heard my agent and meconversing in English they dropped their reserve and I picked up manyof their little confidences; no, I mean many of HER littleconfidences--meaning the elder party--for the young girl only listened,and gave assenting nods, but never said a word. How pretty she was,and how sweet she was! I wished she would speak. But evidently she wasabsorbed in her own thoughts, her own young-girl dreams, and found adearer pleasure in silence. But she was not dreaming sleepy dreams--no,she was awake, alive, alert, she could not sit still a moment. She wasan enchanting study. Her gown was of a soft white silky stuff that clungto her round young figure like a fish's skin, and it was rippled overwith the gracefulest little fringy films of lace; she had deep, tendereyes, with long, curved lashes; and she had peachy cheeks, and adimpled chin, and such a dear little rosebud of a mouth; and she was sodovelike, so pure, and so gracious, so sweet and so bewitching. For longhours I did mightily wish she would speak. And at last she did; the redlips parted, and out leaps her thought--and with such a guileless andpretty enthusiasm, too: "Auntie, I just KNOW I've got five hundred fleason me!"

  That was probably over the average. Yes, it must have been very muchover the average. The average at that time in the Grand Duchy of Badenwas forty-five to a young person (when alone), according to the officialestimate of the home secretary for that year; the average for olderpeople was shifty and indeterminable, for whenever a wholesome younggirl came into the presence of her elders she immediately lowered theiraverage and raised her own. She became a sort of contribution-box.

  This dear young thing in the theater had been sitting thereunconsciously taking up a collection. Many a skinny old being in ourneighborhood was the happier and the restfuler for her coming.

  In that large audience, that night, there were eight very conspicuouspeople. These were ladies who had their hats or bonnets on. What ablessed thing it would be if a lady could make herself conspicuous inour theaters by wearing her hat.

  It is not usual in Europe to allow ladies and gentlemen to take bonnets,hats, overcoats, canes, or umbrellas into the auditorium, but inMannheim this rule was not enforced because the audiences were largelymade up of people from a distance, and among these were always a fewtimid ladies who were afraid that if they had to go into an anteroom toget their things when the play was over, they would miss their train.But the great mass of those who came from a distance always ran the riskand took the chances, preferring the loss of a train to a breach of goodmanners and the discomfort of being unpleasantly conspicuous during astretch of three or four hours.

  CHAPTER X

  [How Wagner Operas Bang Along]

  Three or four hours. That is a long time to sit in one place, whetherone be conspicuous or not, yet some of Wagner's operas bang along forsix whole hours on a stretch! But the people sit there and enjoy it all,and wish it would last longer. A German lady in Munich told me that aperson could not like Wagner's music at first, but must go through thedeliberate process of learning to like it--then he would have his surereward; for when he had learned to like it he would hunger for it andnever be able to get enough of it. She said that six hours of Wagner wasby no means too much. She said that this composer had made a completerevolution in music and was burying the old masters one by one. Andshe said that Wagner's operas differed from all others in one notablerespect, and that was that they were not merely spotted with music hereand there, but were ALL music, from the first strain to the last. Thissurprised me. I said I had attended one of his insurrections, and foundhardly ANY music in it except the Wedding Chorus. She said "Lohengrin"was noisier than Wagner's other operas, but that if I would keep ongoing to see it I would find by and by that it was all music, andtherefore would then enjoy it. I COULD have said, "But would you advisea person to deliberately practice having a toothache in the pit of hisstomach for a couple of years in order that he might then come to enjoyit?" But I reserved that remark.

  This lady was full of the praises of the head-tenor who had performed ina Wagner opera the night before, and went on to enlarge upon his old andprodigious fame, and how many honors had been lavished upon him by theprincely houses of Germany. Here was another surprise. I had attendedthat very opera, in the person of my agent, and had made close andaccurate observations. So I said:

  "Why, madam, MY experience warrants me in stating that that tenor'svoice is not a voice at all, but only a shriek--the shriek of a hyena."

  "That is very true," she said; "he cannot sing now; it is already manyyears that he has lost his voice, but in other times he sang, yes,divinely! So whenever he comes now, you shall see, yes, that the theaterwill not hold the people. JAWOHL BEI GOTT! his voice is WUNDERSCHOEN inthat past time."

  I said she was discovering to me a kindly trait in the Germans whichwas worth emulating. I said that over the water we were not quite sogenerous; that with us, when a singer had lost his voice and a jumperhad lost his legs, these parties ceased to draw. I said I had been tothe opera in Hanover, once, and in Mannheim once, and in Munich(through my authorized agent) once, and this large experience had nearlypersuaded me that the Germans PREFERRED singers who couldn't sing. Thiswas not such a very extravagant speech, either, for that burly Mannheimtenor's praises had been the talk of all Heidelberg for a week beforehis performance took place--yet his voice was like the distressing noisewhich a nail makes when you screech it across a window-pane. I said soto Heidelberg friends the next day, and they said, in the calmest andsimplest way, that that was very true, but that in earlier times hisvoice HAD been wonderfully fine. And the tenor in H
anover was justanother example of this sort. The English-speaking German gentleman whowent with me to the opera there was brimming with enthusiasm over thattenor. He said:

  "ACH GOTT! a great man! You shall see him. He is so celebrate in allGermany--and he has a pension, yes, from the government. He not obligedto sing now, only twice every year; but if he not sing twice each yearthey take him his pension away."

  Very well, we went. When the renowned old tenor appeared, I got a nudgeand an excited whisper:

  "Now you see him!"

  But the "celebrate" was an astonishing disappointment to me. If hehad been behind a screen I should have supposed they were performing asurgical operation on him. I looked at my friend--to my great surprisehe seemed intoxicated with pleasure, his eyes were dancing with eagerdelight. When the curtain at last fell, he burst into the stormiestapplause, and kept it up--as did the whole house--until the afflictivetenor had come three times before the curtain to make his bow. While theglowing enthusiast was swabbing the perspiration from his face, I said:

  "I don't mean the least harm, but really, now, do you think he cansing?"

  "Him? NO! GOTT IM HIMMEL, ABER, how he has been able to sing twenty-fiveyears ago?" [Then pensively.] "ACH, no, NOW he not sing any more, heonly cry. When he think he sing, now, he not sing at all, no, he onlymake like a cat which is unwell."