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Mark Twain > A Tramp Abroad > Chapter XVIII

A Tramp Abroad

Chapter XVIII


[The Kindly Courtesy of Germans]

In the morning we took breakfast in the garden,
under the trees, in the delightful German summer fashion.
The air was filled with the fragrance of flowers
and wild animals; the living portion of the menagerie
of the "Naturalist Tavern" was all about us. There were
great cages populous with fluttering and chattering
foreign birds, and other great cages and greater wire pens,
populous with quadrupeds, both native and foreign.
There were some free creatures, too, and quite sociable
ones they were. White rabbits went loping about the place,
and occasionally came and sniffed at our shoes and shins;
a fawn, with a red ribbon on its neck, walked up and
examined us fearlessly; rare breeds of chickens and
doves begged for crumbs, and a poor old tailless raven
hopped about with a humble, shamefaced mein which said,
"Please do not notice my exposure--think how you would
feel in my circumstances, and be charitable." If he
was observed too much, he would retire behind something
and stay there until he judged the party's interest had
found another object. I never have seen another dumb
creature that was so morbidly sensitive. Bayard Taylor,
who could interpret the dim reasonings of animals,
and understood their moral natures better than most men,
would have found some way to make this poor old chap forget
his troubles for a while, but we have not his kindly art,
and so had to leave the raven to his griefs.

After breakfast we climbed the hill and visited the ancient
castle of Hirschhorn, and the ruined church near it.
There were some curious old bas-reliefs leaning against
the inner walls of the church--sculptured lords of
Hirschhorn in complete armor, and ladies of Hirschhorn
in the picturesque court costumes of the Middle Ages.
These things are suffering damage and passing to decay,
for the last Hirschhorn has been dead two hundred years,
and there is nobody now who cares to preserve the family relics.
In the chancel was a twisted stone column, and the captain
told us a legend about it, of course, for in the matter
of legends he could not seem to restrain himself; but I
do not repeat his tale because there was nothing plausible
about it except that the Hero wrenched this column into its
present screw-shape with his hands --just one single wrench.
All the rest of the legend was doubtful.

But Hirschhorn is best seen from a distance, down the river.
Then the clustered brown towers perched on the green hilltop,
and the old battlemented stone wall, stretching up and over
the grassy ridge and disappearing in the leafy sea beyond,
make a picture whose grace and beauty entirely satisfy
the eye.

We descended from the church by steep stone stairways
which curved this way and that down narrow alleys
between the packed and dirty tenements of the village.
It was a quarter well stocked with deformed, leering,
unkempt and uncombed idiots, who held out hands or caps
and begged piteously. The people of the quarter were not
all idiots, of course, but all that begged seemed to be,
and were said to be.

I was thinking of going by skiff to the next town,
Necharsteinach; so I ran to the riverside in advance of
the party and asked a man there if he had a boat to hire.
I suppose I must have spoken High German--Court German--I
intended it for that, anyway--so he did not understand me.
I turned and twisted my question around and about,
trying to strike that man's average, but failed.
He could not make out what I wanted. Now Mr. X arrived,
faced this same man, looked him in the eye, and emptied
this sentence on him, in the most glib and confident way:
"Can man boat get here?"

The mariner promptly understood and promptly answered.
I can comprehend why he was able to understand that
particular sentence, because by mere accident all the
words in it except "get" have the same sound and the same
meaning in German that they have in English; but how he
managed to understand Mr. X's next remark puzzled me.
I will insert it, presently. X turned away a moment,
and I asked the mariner if he could not find a board,
and so construct an additional seat. I spoke in the
purest German, but I might as well have spoken in the
purest Choctaw for all the good it did. The man tried
his best to understand me; he tried, and kept on trying,
harder and harder, until I saw it was really of no use,
and said:

"There, don't strain yourself--it is of no consequence."

Then X turned to him and crisply said:

"MACHEN SIE a flat board."

I wish my epitaph may tell the truth about me if the man
did not answer up at once, and say he would go and borrow
a board as soon as he had lit the pipe which he was filling.

We changed our mind about taking a boat, so we did not have
to go. I have given Mr. X's two remarks just as he made them.
Four of the five words in the first one were English,
and that they were also German was only accidental,
not intentional; three out of the five words in the second
remark were English, and English only, and the two German
ones did not mean anything in particular, in such a connection.

X always spoke English to Germans, but his plan was
to turn the sentence wrong end first and upside down,
according to German construction, and sprinkle in a German
word without any essential meaning to it, here and there,
by way of flavor. Yet he always made himself understood.
He could make those dialect-speaking raftsmen understand
him, sometimes, when even young Z had failed with them;
and young Z was a pretty good German scholar. For one thing,
X always spoke with such confidence--perhaps that helped.
And possibly the raftsmen's dialect was what is called
PLATT-DEUTSCH, and so they found his English more familiar
to their ears than another man's German. Quite indifferent
students of German can read Fritz Reuter's charming
platt-Deutch tales with some little facility because many
of the words are English. I suppose this is the tongue
which our Saxon ancestors carried to England with them.
By and by I will inquire of some other philologist.

However, in the mean time it had transpired that the men
employed to calk the raft had found that the leak was not
a leak at all, but only a crack between the logs--a crack
that belonged there, and was not dangerous, but had been
magnified into a leak by the disordered imagination of
the mate. Therefore we went aboard again with a good degree
of confidence, and presently got to sea without accident.
As we swam smoothly along between the enchanting shores,
we fell to swapping notes about manners and customs
in Germany and elsewhere.

As I write, now, many months later, I perceive that each of us,
by observing and noting and inquiring, diligently and day
by day, had managed to lay in a most varied and opulent
stock of misinformation. But this is not surprising;
it is very difficult to get accurate details in any country.
For example, I had the idea once, in Heidelberg,
to find out all about those five student-corps. I started
with the White Cap corps. I began to inquire of this
and that and the other citizen, and here is what I found
out:

1. It is called the Prussian Corps, because none
but Prussians are admitted to it.

2. It is called the Prussian Corps for no particular reason.
It has simply pleased each corps to name itself after
some German state.

3. It is not named the Prussian Corps at all, but only
the White Cap Corps.

4. Any student can belong to it who is a German by birth.

5. Any student can belong to it who is European by birth.

6. Any European-born student can belong to it, except he
be a Frenchman.

7. Any student can belong to it, no matter where he
was born.

8. No student can belong to it who is not of noble blood.

9. No student can belong to it who cannot show three full
generations of noble descent.

10. Nobility is not a necessary qualification.

11. No moneyless student can belong to it.

12. Money qualification is nonsense--such a thing has
never been thought of.

I got some of this information from students themselves--
students who did not belong to the corps.

I finally went to headquarters--to the White Caps--where I
would have gone in the first place if I had been acquainted.
But even at headquarters I found difficulties; I perceived
that there were things about the White Cap Corps which
one member knew and another one didn't. It was natural;
for very few members of any organization know ALL that can
be known about it. I doubt there is a man or a woman
in Heidelberg who would not answer promptly and confidently
three out of every five questions about the White Cap Corps
which a stranger might ask; yet it is a very safe bet
that two of the three answers would be incorrect every time.

There is one German custom which is universal--the bowing
courteously to strangers when sitting down at table or
rising up from it. This bow startles a stranger out of his
self-possession, the first time it occurs, and he is likely
to fall over a chair or something, in his embarrassment,
but it pleases him, nevertheless. One soon learns to expect
this bow and be on the lookout and ready to return it;
but to learn to lead off and make the initial bow
one's self is a difficult matter for a diffident man.
One thinks, "If I rise to go, and tender my box,
and these ladies and gentlemen take it into their heads
to ignore the custom of their nation, and not return it,
how shall I feel, in case I survive to feel anything."
Therefore he is afraid to venture. He sits out the dinner,
and makes the strangers rise first and originate the bowing.
A table d'ho^te dinner is a tedious affair for a man
who seldom touches anything after the three first courses;
therefore I used to do some pretty dreary waiting
because of my fears. It took me months to assure myself
that those fears were groundless, but I did assure myself
at last by experimenting diligently through my agent.
I made Harris get up and bow and leave; invariably his bow
was returned, then I got up and bowed myself and retired.

Thus my education proceeded easily and comfortably for me,
but not for Harris. Three courses of a table d'ho^te
dinner were enough for me, but Harris preferred thirteen.

Even after I had acquired full confidence, and no longer needed
the agent's help, I sometimes encountered difficulties.
Once at Baden-Baden I nearly lost a train because I could
not be sure that three young ladies opposite me at table
were Germans, since I had not heard them speak; they might
be American, they might be English, it was not safe to venture
a bow; but just as I had got that far with my thought,
one of them began a German remark, to my great relief
and gratitude; and before she got out her third word,
our bows had been delivered and graciously returned,
and we were off.

There is a friendly something about the German character
which is very winning. When Harris and I were making
a pedestrian tour through the Black Forest, we stopped at
a little country inn for dinner one day; two young ladies
and a young gentleman entered and sat down opposite us.
They were pedestrians, too. Our knapsacks were strapped
upon our backs, but they had a sturdy youth along to carry
theirs for them. All parties were hungry, so there was
no talking. By and by the usual bows were exchanged,
and we separated.

As we sat at a late breakfast in the hotel at Allerheiligen,
next morning, these young people and took places
near us without observing us; but presently they saw
us and at once bowed and smiled; not ceremoniously,
but with the gratified look of people who have found
acquaintances where they were expecting strangers.
Then they spoke of the weather and the roads. We also
spoke of the weather and the roads. Next, they said they
had had an enjoyable walk, notwithstanding the weather.
We said that that had been our case, too. Then they said
they had walked thirty English miles the day before,
and asked how many we had walked. I could not lie, so I
told Harris to do it. Harris told them we had made thirty
English miles, too. That was true; we had "made" them,
though we had had a little assistance here and there.

After breakfast they found us trying to blast some
information out of the dumb hotel clerk about routes,
and observing that we were not succeeding pretty well,
they went and got their maps and things, and pointed
out and explained our course so clearly that even a New
York detective could have followed it. And when we
started they spoke out a hearty good-by and wished us
a pleasant journey. Perhaps they were more generous
with us than they might have been with native wayfarers
because we were a forlorn lot and in a strange land;
I don't know; I only know it was lovely to be treated so.

Very well, I took an American young lady to one of the fine
balls in Baden-Baden, one night, and at the entrance-door
upstairs we were halted by an official--something about Miss
Jones's dress was not according to rule; I don't remember
what it was, now; something was wanting--her back hair,
or a shawl, or a fan, or a shovel, or something.
The official was ever so polite, and every so sorry,
but the rule was strict, and he could not let us in.
It was very embarrassing, for many eyes were on us.
But now a richly dressed girl stepped out of the ballroom,
inquired into the trouble, and said she could fix it in
a moment. She took Miss Jones to the robing-room, and soon
brought her back in regulation trim, and then we entered
the ballroom with this benefactress unchallenged.

Being safe, now, I began to puzzle through my sincere
but ungrammatical thanks, when there was a sudden mutual
recognition --the benefactress and I had met at Allerheiligen.
Two weeks had not altered her good face, and plainly
her heart was in the right place yet, but there was such
a difference between these clothes and the clothes I
had seen her in before, when she was walking thirty miles
a day in the Black Forest, that it was quite natural
that I had failed to recognize her sooner. I had on MY
other suit, too, but my German would betray me to a person
who had heard it once, anyway. She brought her brother
and sister, and they made our way smooth for that evening.

Well--months afterward, I was driving through the streets
of Munich in a cab with a German lady, one day, when she
said:

"There, that is Prince Ludwig and his wife, walking along there."

Everybody was bowing to them--cabmen, little children,
and everybody else--and they were returning all the bows
and overlooking nobody, when a young lady met them and made
a deep courtesy.

"That is probably one of the ladies of the court,"
said my German friend.

I said:

"She is an honor to it, then. I know her. I don't know
her name, but I know HER. I have known her at Allerheiligen
and Baden-Baden. She ought to be an Empress, but she
may be only a Duchess; it is the way things go in this way."

If one asks a German a civil question, he will be quite
sure to get a civil answer. If you stop a German in the
street and ask him to direct you to a certain place,
he shows no sign of feeling offended. If the place be
difficult to find, ten to one the man will drop his own
matters and go with you and show you.

In London, too, many a time, strangers have walked several
blocks with me to show me my way.

There is something very real about this sort of politeness.
Quite often, in Germany, shopkeepers who could not furnish
me the article I wanted have sent one of their employees
with me to show me a place where it could be had.

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