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Mark Twain > A Tramp Abroad > Chapter XVII

A Tramp Abroad

Chapter XVII


[Why Germans Wear Spectacles]

A mile or two above Eberbach we saw a peculiar ruin projecting
above the foliage which clothed the peak of a high and
very steep hill. This ruin consisted of merely a couple
of crumbling masses of masonry which bore a rude resemblance
to human faces; they leaned forward and touched foreheads,
and had the look of being absorbed in conversation. This ruin
had nothing very imposing or picturesque about it, and there
was no great deal of it, yet it was called the "Spectacular
Ruin."

LEGEND OF THE "SPECTACULAR RUIN"

The captain of the raft, who was as full of history as he
could stick, said that in the Middle Ages a most prodigious
fire-breathing dragon used to live in that region,
and made more trouble than a tax-collector. He was as long
as a railway-train, and had the customary impenetrable
green scales all over him. His breath bred pestilence
and conflagration, and his appetite bred famine. He ate
men and cattle impartially, and was exceedingly unpopular.
The German emperor of that day made the usual offer:
he would grant to the destroyer of the dragon, any one
solitary thing he might ask for; for he had a surplusage
of daughters, and it was customary for dragon-killers
to take a daughter for pay.

So the most renowned knights came from the four corners
of the earth and retired down the dragon's throat one after
the other. A panic arose and spread. Heroes grew cautious.
The procession ceased. The dragon became more destructive
than ever. The people lost all hope of succor, and fled
to the mountains for refuge.

At last Sir Wissenschaft, a poor and obscure knight,
out of a far country, arrived to do battle with the monster.
A pitiable object he was, with his armor hanging in rags
about him, and his strange-shaped knapsack strapped
upon his back. Everybody turned up their noses at him,
and some openly jeered him. But he was calm. He simply
inquired if the emperor's offer was still in force.
The emperor said it was--but charitably advised him to go
and hunt hares and not endanger so precious a life as his
in an attempt which had brought death to so many of the
world's most illustrious heroes.

But this tramp only asked--"Were any of these heroes
men of science?" This raised a laugh, of course,
for science was despised in those days. But the tramp
was not in the least ruffled. He said he might be a
little in advance of his age, but no matter--science
would come to be honored, some time or other. He said
he would march against the dragon in the morning.
Out of compassion, then, a decent spear was offered him,
but he declined, and said, "spears were useless to men
of science." They allowed him to sup in the servants'
hall, and gave him a bed in the stables.

When he started forth in the morning, thousands were
gathered to see. The emperor said:

"Do not be rash, take a spear, and leave off your knapsack."

But the tramp said:

"It is not a knapsack," and moved straight on.

The dragon was waiting and ready. He was breathing forth
vast volumes of sulphurous smoke and lurid blasts of flame.
The ragged knight stole warily to a good position,
then he unslung his cylindrical knapsack--which was simply
the common fire-extinguisher known to modern times--
and the first chance he got he turned on his hose and shot
the dragon square in the center of his cavernous mouth.
Out went the fires in an instant, and the dragon curled up
and died.

This man had brought brains to his aid. He had reared
dragons from the egg, in his laboratory, he had watched
over them like a mother, and patiently studied them
and experimented upon them while they grew. Thus he had
found out that fire was the life principle of a dragon;
put out the dragon's fires and it could make steam
no longer, and must die. He could not put out a fire
with a spear, therefore he invented the extinguisher.
The dragon being dead, the emperor fell on the hero's neck
and said:

"Deliverer, name your request," at the same time beckoning
out behind with his heel for a detachment of his daughters
to form and advance. But the tramp gave them no observance.
He simply said:

"My request is, that upon me be conferred the monopoly
of the manufacture and sale of spectacles in Germany."

The emperor sprang aside and exclaimed:

"This transcends all the impudence I ever heard! A
modest demand, by my halidome! Why didn't you ask
for the imperial revenues at once, and be done with it?"

But the monarch had given his word, and he kept it.
To everybody's surprise, the unselfish monopolist immediately
reduced the price of spectacles to such a degree that a
great and crushing burden was removed from the nation.
The emperor, to commemorate this generous act, and to
testify his appreciation of it, issued a decree commanding
everybody to buy this benefactor's spectacles and wear them,
whether they needed them or not.

So originated the wide-spread custom of wearing
spectacles in Germany; and as a custom once established
in these old lands is imperishable, this one remains
universal in the empire to this day. Such is the legend
of the monopolist's once stately and sumptuous castle,
now called the "Spectacular Ruin."

On the right bank, two or three miles below the Spectacular
Ruin, we passed by a noble pile of castellated buildings
overlooking the water from the crest of a lofty elevation.
A stretch of two hundred yards of the high front wall
was heavily draped with ivy, and out of the mass of
buildings within rose three picturesque old towers.
The place was in fine order, and was inhabited by a
family of princely rank. This castle had its legend,
too, but I should not feel justified in repeating
it because I doubted the truth of some of its minor details.

Along in this region a multitude of Italian laborers
were blasting away the frontage of the hills to make
room for the new railway. They were fifty or a hundred
feet above the river. As we turned a sharp corner they
began to wave signals and shout warnings to us to look
out for the explosions. It was all very well to warn us,
but what could WE do? You can't back a raft upstream,
you can't hurry it downstream, you can't scatter out
to one side when you haven't any room to speak of,
you won't take to the perpendicular cliffs on the other
shore when they appear to be blasting there, too.
Your resources are limited, you see. There is simply
nothing for it but to watch and pray.

For some hours we had been making three and a half or four
miles an hour and we were still making that. We had been
dancing right along until those men began to shout;
then for the next ten minutes it seemed to me that I had
never seen a raft go so slowly. When the first blast went
off we raised our sun-umbrellas and waited for the result.
No harm done; none of the stones fell in the water.
Another blast followed, and another and another.
Some of the rubbish fell in the water just astern
of us.

We ran that whole battery of nine blasts in a row, and it
was certainly one of the most exciting and uncomfortable
weeks I ever spent, either aship or ashore. Of course
we frequently manned the poles and shoved earnestly
for a second or so, but every time one of those spurts
of dust and debris shot aloft every man dropped his pole
and looked up to get the bearings of his share of it.
It was very busy times along there for a while.
It appeared certain that we must perish, but even that was
not the bitterest thought; no, the abjectly unheroic nature
of the death--that was the sting--that and the bizarre
wording of the resulting obituary: "SHOT WITH A ROCK,
ON A RAFT." There would be no poetry written about it.
None COULD be written about it. Example:

NOT by war's shock, or war's shaft,--SHOT, with a rock,
on a raft.

No poet who valued his reputation would touch such a
theme as that. I should be distinguished as the only
"distinguished dead" who went down to the grave unsonneted,
in 1878.

But we escaped, and I have never regretted it.
The last blast was peculiarly strong one, and after
the small rubbish was done raining around us and we
were just going to shake hands over our deliverance,
a later and larger stone came down amongst our little
group of pedestrians and wrecked an umbrella. It did
no other harm, but we took to the water just the same.

It seems that the heavy work in the quarries and the
new railway gradings is done mainly by Italians.
That was a revelation. We have the notion in our country
that Italians never do heavy work at all, but confine
themselves to the lighter arts, like organ-grinding,
operatic singing, and assassination. We have blundered,
that is plain.

All along the river, near every village, we saw little
station-houses for the future railway. They were
finished and waiting for the rails and business.
They were as trim and snug and pretty as they could be.
They were always of brick or stone; they were of graceful
shape, they had vines and flowers about them already,
and around them the grass was bright and green,
and showed that it was carefully looked after. They were
a decoration to the beautiful landscape, not an offense.
Wherever one saw a pile of gravel or a pile of broken stone,
it was always heaped as trimly and exactly as a new grave
or a stack of cannon-balls; nothing about those stations
or along the railroad or the wagon-road was allowed
to look shabby or be unornamental. The keeping a country
in such beautiful order as Germany exhibits, has a wise
practical side to it, too, for it keeps thousands of people
in work and bread who would otherwise be idle and mischievous.

As the night shut down, the captain wanted to tie up,
but I thought maybe we might make Hirschhorn, so we went on.
Presently the sky became overcast, and the captain came
aft looking uneasy. He cast his eye aloft, then shook
his head, and said it was coming on to blow. My party
wanted to land at once--therefore I wanted to go on.
The captain said we ought to shorten sail anyway,
out of common prudence. Consequently, the larboard watch
was ordered to lay in his pole. It grew quite dark,
now, and the wind began to rise. It wailed through
the swaying branches of the trees, and swept our decks
in fitful gusts. Things were taking on an ugly look.
The captain shouted to the steersman on the forward
log:

"How's she landing?"

The answer came faint and hoarse from far forward:

"Nor'-east-and-by-nor'--east-by-east, half-east, sir."

"Let her go off a point!"

"Aye-aye, sir!"

"What water have you got?"

"Shoal, sir. Two foot large, on the stabboard,
two and a half scant on the labboard!"

"Let her go off another point!"

"Aye-aye, sir!"

"Forward, men, all of you! Lively, now! Stand by to crowd
her round the weather corner!"

"Aye-aye, sir!"

Then followed a wild running and trampling and hoarse shouting,
but the forms of the men were lost in the darkness and
the sounds were distorted and confused by the roaring
of the wind through the shingle-bundles. By this time
the sea was running inches high, and threatening every
moment to engulf the frail bark. Now came the mate,
hurrying aft, and said, close to the captain's ear,
in a low, agitated voice:

"Prepare for the worst, sir--we have sprung a leak!"

"Heavens! where?"

"Right aft the second row of logs."

"Nothing but a miracle can save us! Don't let the men know,
or there will be a panic and mutiny! Lay her in shore
and stand by to jump with the stern-line the moment
she touches. Gentlemen, I must look to you to second
my endeavors in this hour of peril. You have hats--go
forward and bail for your lives!"

Down swept another mighty blast of wind, clothed in
spray and thick darkness. At such a moment as this,
came from away forward that most appalling of all cries
that are ever heard at sea:

"MAN OVERBOARD!"

The captain shouted:

"Hard a-port! Never mind the man! Let him climb aboard
or wade ashore!"

Another cry came down the wind:

"Breakers ahead!"

"Where away?"

"Not a log's length off her port fore-foot!"

We had groped our slippery way forward, and were now
bailing with the frenzy of despair, when we heard
the mate's terrified cry, from far aft:

"Stop that dashed bailing, or we shall be aground!"

But this was immediately followed by the glad shout:

"Land aboard the starboard transom!"

"Saved!" cried the captain. "Jump ashore and take a turn
around a tree and pass the bight aboard!"

The next moment we were all on shore weeping and embracing
for joy, while the rain poured down in torrents.
The captain said he had been a mariner for forty years
on the Neckar, and in that time had seen storms to make
a man's cheek blanch and his pulses stop, but he had never,
never seen a storm that even approached this one.
How familiar that sounded! For I have been at sea a good
deal and have heard that remark from captains with a
frequency accordingly.

We framed in our minds the usual resolution of thanks
and admiration and gratitude, and took the first
opportunity to vote it, and put it in writing and
present it to the captain, with the customary speech.
We tramped through the darkness and the drenching summer
rain full three miles, and reached "The Naturalist Tavern"
in the village of Hirschhorn just an hour before midnight,
almost exhausted from hardship, fatigue, and terror.
I can never forget that night.

The landlord was rich, and therefore could afford to be
crusty and disobliging; he did not at all like being
turned out of his warm bed to open his house for us.
But no matter, his household got up and cooked a quick
supper for us, and we brewed a hot punch for ourselves,
to keep off consumption. After supper and punch we
had an hour's soothing smoke while we fought the naval
battle over again and voted the resolutions; then we
retired to exceedingly neat and pretty chambers upstairs
that had clean, comfortable beds in them with heirloom
pillowcases most elaborately and tastefully embroidered
by hand.

Such rooms and beds and embroidered linen are as frequent
in German village inns as they are rare in ours.
Our villages are superior to German villages in
more merits, excellences, conveniences, and privileges
than I can enumerate, but the hotels do not belong in the list.

"The Naturalist Tavern" was not a meaningless name; for all
the halls and all the rooms were lined with large glass
cases which were filled with all sorts of birds and animals,
glass-eyed, ably stuffed, and set up in the most natural
eloquent and dramatic attitudes. The moment we were abed,
the rain cleared away and the moon came out. I dozed off
to sleep while contemplating a great white stuffed owl
which was looking intently down on me from a high perch
with the air of a person who thought he had met me before,
but could not make out for certain.

But young Z did not get off so easily. He said that as he was
sinking deliciously to sleep, the moon lifted away the shadows
and developed a huge cat, on a bracket, dead and stuffed,
but crouching, with every muscle tense, for a spring,
and with its glittering glass eyes aimed straight at him.
It made Z uncomfortable. He tried closing his own eyes,
but that did not answer, for a natural instinct kept
making him open them again to see if the cat was still
getting ready to launch at him--which she always was.
He tried turning his back, but that was a failure;
he knew the sinister eyes were on him still. So at
last he had to get up, after an hour or two of worry
and experiment, and set the cat out in the hall. So he won,
that time.

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