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Mark Twain > A Tramp Abroad > Chapter XLVII

A Tramp Abroad

Chapter XLVII


[Queer European Manners]

We spent a few pleasant restful days at Geneva,
that delightful city where accurate time-pieces are made
for all the rest of the world, but whose own clocks
never give the correct time of day by any accident.

Geneva is filled with pretty shops, and the shops are
filled with the most enticing gimacrackery, but if one
enters one of these places he is at once pounced upon,
and followed up, and so persecuted to buy this, that,
and the other thing, that he is very grateful to get
out again, and is not at all apt to repeat his experiment.
The shopkeepers of the smaller sort, in Geneva,
are as troublesome and persistent as are the salesmen
of that monster hive in Paris, the Grands Magasins du
Louvre--an establishment where ill-mannered pestering,
pursuing, and insistence have been reduced to a science.

In Geneva, prices in the smaller shops are very elastic--
that is another bad feature. I was looking in at a window
at a very pretty string of beads, suitable for a child.
I was only admiring them; I had no use for them; I hardly
ever wear beads. The shopwoman came out and offered
them to me for thirty-five francs. I said it was cheap,
but I did not need them.

"Ah, but monsieur, they are so beautiful!"

I confessed it, but said they were not suitable for one
of my age and simplicity of character. She darted in and
brought them out and tried to force them into my hands,
saying:

"Ah, but only see how lovely they are! Surely monsieur will
take them; monsieur shall have them for thirty francs.
There, I have said it--it is a loss, but one must live."

I dropped my hands, and tried to move her to respect
my unprotected situation. But no, she dangled the beads
in the sun before my face, exclaiming, "Ah, monsieur
CANNOT resist them!" She hung them on my coat button,
folded her hand resignedly, and said: "Gone,--and for
thirty francs, the lovely things--it is incredible!--but
the good God will sanctify the sacrifice to me."

I removed them gently, returned them, and walked away,
shaking my head and smiling a smile of silly embarrassment
while the passers-by halted to observe. The woman leaned
out of her door, shook the beads, and screamed after me:

"Monsieur shall have them for twenty-eight!"

I shook my head.

"Twenty-seven! It is a cruel loss, it is ruin--
but take them, only take them."

I still retreated, still wagging my head.

"MON DIEU, they shall even go for twenty-six! There,
I have said it. Come!"

I wagged another negative. A nurse and a little English girl
had been near me, and were following me, now. The shopwoman
ran to the nurse, thrust the beads into her hands, and said:

"Monsieur shall have them for twenty-five! Take them
to the hotel--he shall send me the money tomorrow--
next day--when he likes." Then to the child: "When thy
father sends me the money, come thou also, my angel,
and thou shall have something oh so pretty!"

I was thus providentially saved. The nurse refused
the beads squarely and firmly, and that ended the matter.

The "sights" of Geneva are not numerous. I made one
attempt to hunt up the houses once inhabited by those
two disagreeable people, Rousseau and Calvin, but I had
no success. Then I concluded to go home. I found it was
easier to propose to do that than to do it; for that town
is a bewildering place. I got lost in a tangle of narrow
and crooked streets, and stayed lost for an hour or two.
Finally I found a street which looked somewhat familiar,
and said to myself, "Now I am at home, I judge." But I
was wrong; this was "HELL street." Presently I found
another place which had a familiar look, and said to myself,
"Now I am at home, sure." It was another error. This was
"PURGATORY street." After a little I said, "NOW I've got the
right place, anyway ... no, this is 'PARADISE street';
I'm further from home than I was in the beginning."
Those were queer names--Calvin was the author of them,
likely. "Hell" and "Purgatory" fitted those two streets
like a glove, but the "Paradise" appeared to be sarcastic.

I came out on the lake-front, at last, and then I knew
where I was. I was walking along before the glittering
jewelry shops when I saw a curious performance.
A lady passed by, and a trim dandy lounged across the walk
in such an apparently carefully timed way as to bring
himself exactly in front of her when she got to him;
he made no offer to step out of the way; he did not apologize;
he did not even notice her. She had to stop still and let
him lounge by. I wondered if he had done that piece
of brutality purposely. He strolled to a chair and seated
himself at a small table; two or three other males were
sitting at similar tables sipping sweetened water.
I waited; presently a youth came by, and this fellow got
up and served him the same trick. Still, it did not seem
possible that any one could do such a thing deliberately.
To satisfy my curiosity I went around the block, and,
sure enough, as I approached, at a good round speed, he got
up and lounged lazily across my path, fouling my course
exactly at the right moment to receive all my weight.
This proved that his previous performances had not
been accidental, but intentional.

I saw that dandy's curious game played afterward, in Paris,
but not for amusement; not with a motive of any sort, indeed,
but simply from a selfish indifference to other people's
comfort and rights. One does not see it as frequently
in Paris as he might expect to, for there the law says,
in effect, "It is the business of the weak to get out of
the way of the strong." We fine a cabman if he runs over
a citizen; Paris fines the citizen for being run over.
At least so everybody says--but I saw something which
caused me to doubt; I saw a horseman run over an old woman
one day--the police arrested him and took him away.
That looked as if they meant to punish him.

It will not do for me to find merit in American manners--
for are they not the standing butt for the jests
of critical and polished Europe? Still, I must venture
to claim one little matter of superiority in our manners;
a lady may traverse our streets all day, going and coming
as she chooses, and she will never be molested by any man;
but if a lady, unattended, walks abroad in the streets
of London, even at noonday, she will be pretty likely
to be accosted and insulted--and not by drunken sailors,
but by men who carry the look and wear the dress of gentlemen.
It is maintained that these people are not gentlemen,
but are a lower sort, disguised as gentlemen. The case
of Colonel Valentine Baker obstructs that argument,
for a man cannot become an officer in the British army
except he hold the rank of gentleman. This person,
finding himself alone in a railway compartment with
an unprotected girl--but it is an atrocious story,
and doubtless the reader remembers it well enough.
London must have been more or less accustomed to Bakers,
and the ways of Bakers, else London would have been
offended and excited. Baker was "imprisoned"--in a parlor;
and he could not have been more visited, or more overwhelmed
with attentions, if he had committed six murders and then--
while the gallows was preparing--"got religion"--after
the manner of the holy Charles Peace, of saintly memory.
Arkansaw--it seems a little indelicate to be trumpeting forth
our own superiorities, and comparisons are always odious,
but still--Arkansaw would certainly have hanged Baker.
I do not say she would have tried him first, but she would have
hanged him, anyway.

Even the most degraded woman can walk our streets unmolested,
her sex and her weakness being her sufficient protection.
She will encounter less polish than she would in the
old world, but she will run across enough humanity to make
up for it.

The music of a donkey awoke us early in the morning,
and we rose up and made ready for a pretty formidable
walk--to Italy; but the road was so level that we took
the train.. We lost a good deal of time by this, but it
was no matter, we were not in a hurry. We were four
hours going to Chamb`ery. The Swiss trains go upward
of three miles an hour, in places, but they are quite safe.

That aged French town of Chamb`ery was as quaint and crooked
as Heilbronn. A drowsy reposeful quiet reigned in the back
streets which made strolling through them very pleasant,
barring the almost unbearable heat of the sun.
In one of these streets, which was eight feet wide,
gracefully curved, and built up with small antiquated houses,
I saw three fat hogs lying asleep, and a boy (also asleep)
taking care of them. From queer old-fashioned windows
along the curve projected boxes of bright flowers, and over
the edge of one of these boxes hung the head and shoulders
of a cat--asleep. The five sleeping creatures were the
only living things visible in that street. There was not
a sound; absolute stillness prevailed. It was Sunday;
one is not used to such dreamy Sundays on the continent.
In our part of the town it was different that night.
A regiment of brown and battered soldiers had arrived home
from Algiers, and I judged they got thirsty on the way.
They sang and drank till dawn, in the pleasant open air.

We left for Turin at ten the next morning by a railway which
was profusely decorated with tunnels. We forgot to take
a lantern along, consequently we missed all the scenery.
Our compartment was full. A ponderous tow-headed Swiss woman,
who put on many fine-lady airs, but was evidently more
used to washing linen than wearing it, sat in a corner
seat and put her legs across into the opposite one,
propping them intermediately with her up-ended valise.
In the seat thus pirated, sat two Americans, greatly incommoded
by that woman's majestic coffin-clad feet. One of them
begged, politely, to remove them. She opened her wide eyes
and gave him a stare, but answered nothing. By and by he
proferred his request again, with great respectfulness.
She said, in good English, and in a deeply offended tone,
that she had paid her passage and was not going to be
bullied out of her "rights" by ill-bred foreigners,
even if she was alone and unprotected.

"But I have rights, also, madam. My ticket entitles me
to a seat, but you are occupying half of it."

"I will not talk with you, sir. What right have you
to speak to me? I do not know you. One would know
you came from a land where there are no gentlemen.
No GENTLEMAN would treat a lady as you have treated me."

"I come from a region where a lady would hardly give me
the same provocation."

"You have insulted me, sir! You have intimated that I am
not a lady--and I hope I am NOT one, after the pattern
of your country."

"I beg that you will give yourself no alarm on that head,
madam; but at the same time I must insist--always
respectfully--that you let me have my seat."

Here the fragile laundress burst into tears and sobs.

"I never was so insulted before! Never, never! It
is shameful, it is brutal, it is base, to bully and abuse
an unprotected lady who has lost the use of her limbs
and cannot put her feet to the floor without agony!"

"Good heavens, madam, why didn't you say that at first! I
offer a thousand pardons. And I offer them most sincerely.
I did not know--I COULD not know--anything was the matter.
You are most welcome to the seat, and would have been
from the first if I had only known. I am truly sorry it
all happened, I do assure you."

But he couldn't get a word of forgiveness out of her.
She simply sobbed and sniffed in a subdued but wholly
unappeasable way for two long hours, meantime crowding
the man more than ever with her undertaker-furniture
and paying no sort of attention to his frequent and
humble little efforts to do something for her comfort.
Then the train halted at the Italian line and she hopped
up and marched out of the car with as firm a leg as any
washerwoman of all her tribe! And how sick I was, to see
how she had fooled me.

Turin is a very fine city. In the matter of roominess
it transcends anything that was ever dreamed of before,
I fancy. It sits in the midst of a vast dead-level, and one
is obliged to imagine that land may be had for the asking,
and no taxes to pay, so lavishly do they use it.
The streets are extravagantly wide, the paved squares
are prodigious, the houses are huge and handsome,
and compacted into uniform blocks that stretch away as
straight as an arrow, into the distance. The sidewalks
are about as wide as ordinary European STREETS, and are
covered over with a double arcade supported on great stone
piers or columns. One walks from one end to the other
of these spacious streets, under shelter all the time,
and all his course is lined with the prettiest of shops
and the most inviting dining-houses.

There is a wide and lengthy court, glittering with the
most wickedly enticing shops, which is roofed with glass,
high aloft overhead, and paved with soft-toned marbles
laid in graceful figures; and at night when the place
is brilliant with gas and populous with a sauntering
and chatting and laughing multitude of pleasure-seekers,
it is a spectacle worth seeing.

Everything is on a large scale; the public buildings,
for instance--and they are architecturally imposing,
too, as well as large. The big squares have big bronze
monuments in them. At the hotel they gave us rooms
that were alarming, for size, and parlor to match.
It was well the weather required no fire in the parlor,
for I think one might as well have tried to warm a park.
The place would have a warm look, though, in any weather,
for the window-curtains were of red silk damask,
and the walls were covered with the same fire-hued
goods--so, also, were the four sofas and the brigade
of chairs. The furniture, the ornaments, the chandeliers,
the carpets, were all new and bright and costly.
We did not need a parlor at all, but they said it belonged
to the two bedrooms and we might use it if we chose.
Since it was to cost nothing, we were not averse to using it,
of course.

Turin must surely read a good deal, for it has more
book-stores to the square rod than any other town I
know of. And it has its own share of military folk.
The Italian officers' uniforms are very much the most
beautiful I have ever seen; and, as a general thing,
the men in them were as handsome as the clothes. They were
not large men, but they had fine forms, fine features,
rich olive complexions, and lustrous black eyes.

For several weeks I had been culling all the information
I could about Italy, from tourists. The tourists were
all agreed upon one thing--one must expect to be cheated
at every turn by the Italians. I took an evening walk
in Turin, and presently came across a little Punch and Judy
show in one of the great squares. Twelve or fifteen
people constituted the audience. This miniature theater
was not much bigger than a man's coffin stood on end;
the upper part was open and displayed a tinseled
parlor--a good-sized handkerchief would have answered
for a drop-curtain; the footlights consisted of a couple
of candle-ends an inch long; various manikins the size
of dolls appeared on the stage and made long speeches at
each other, gesticulating a good deal, and they generally
had a fight before they got through. They were worked
by strings from above, and the illusion was not perfect,
for one saw not only the strings but the brawny hand
that manipulated them--and the actors and actresses all
talked in the same voice, too. The audience stood in front
of the theater, and seemed to enjoy the performance heartily.

When the play was done, a youth in his shirt-sleeves started
around with a small copper saucer to make a collection.
I did not know how much to put in, but thought I would
be guided by my predecessors. Unluckily, I only had two
of these, and they did not help me much because they
did not put in anything. I had no Italian money,
so I put in a small Swiss coin worth about ten cents.
The youth finished his collection trip and emptied
the result on the stage; he had some very animated talk
with the concealed manager, then he came working his
way through the little crowd--seeking me, I thought.
I had a mind to slip away, but concluded I wouldn't;
I would stand my ground, and confront the villainy,
whatever it was. The youth stood before me and held
up that Swiss coin, sure enough, and said something.
I did not understand him, but I judged he was requiring
Italian money of me. The crowd gathered close,
to listen. I was irritated, and said--in English,
of course:

"I know it's Swiss, but you'll take that or none.
I haven't any other."

He tried to put the coin in my hand, and spoke again.
I drew my hand away, and said:

"NO, sir. I know all about you people. You can't play
any of your fraudful tricks on me. If there is a discount
on that coin, I am sorry, but I am not going to make
it good. I noticed that some of the audience didn't pay
you anything at all. You let them go, without a word,
but you come after me because you think I'm a stranger
and will put up with an extortion rather than have a scene.
But you are mistaken this time--you'll take that Swiss
money or none."

The youth stood there with the coin in his fingers,
nonplused and bewildered; of course he had not understood
a word. An English-speaking Italian spoke up, now, and said:

"You are misunderstanding the boy. He does not mean any harm.
He did not suppose you gave him so much money purposely,
so he hurried back to return you the coin lest you
might get away before you discovered your mistake.
Take it, and give him a penny--that will make everything
smooth again."

I probably blushed, then, for there was occasion.
Through the interpreter I begged the boy's pardon,
but I nobly refused to take back the ten cents. I said
I was accustomed to squandering large sums in that way--
it was the kind of person I was. Then I retired to make
a note to the effect that in Italy persons connected
with the drama do not cheat.

The episode with the showman reminds me of a dark chapter
in my history. I once robbed an aged and blind beggar-woman
of four dollars--in a church. It happened this way.
When I was out with the Innocents Abroad, the ship
stopped in the Russian port of Odessa and I went ashore,
with others, to view the town. I got separated from the rest,
and wandered about alone, until late in the afternoon,
when I entered a Greek church to see what it was like.
When I was ready to leave, I observed two wrinkled old
women standing stiffly upright against the inner wall,
near the door, with their brown palms open to receive alms.
I contributed to the nearer one, and passed out.
I had gone fifty yards, perhaps, when it occurred to me
that I must remain ashore all night, as I had heard
that the ship's business would carry her away at four
o'clock and keep her away until morning. It was a little
after four now. I had come ashore with only two pieces
of money, both about the same size, but differing largely
in value--one was a French gold piece worth four dollars,
the other a Turkish coin worth two cents and a half.
With a sudden and horrified misgiving, I put my hand in
my pocket, now, and sure enough, I fetched out that Turkish
penny!

Here was a situation. A hotel would require pay in
advance --I must walk the street all night, and perhaps
be arrested as a suspicious character. There was but one
way out of the difficulty--I flew back to the church,
and softly entered. There stood the old woman yet,
and in the palm of the nearest one still lay my gold piece.
I was grateful. I crept close, feeling unspeakably mean;
I got my Turkish penny ready, and was extending a trembling
hand to make the nefarious exchange, when I heard a cough
behind me. I jumped back as if I had been accused,
and stood quaking while a worshiper entered and passed up
the aisle.

I was there a year trying to steal that money; that is,
it seemed a year, though, of course, it must have been
much less. The worshipers went and came; there were hardly
ever three in the church at once, but there was always one
or more. Every time I tried to commit my crime somebody
came in or somebody started out, and I was prevented;
but at last my opportunity came; for one moment there
was nobody in the church but the two beggar-women and me.
I whipped the gold piece out of the poor old pauper's palm
and dropped my Turkish penny in its place. Poor old thing,
she murmured her thanks--they smote me to the heart.
Then I sped away in a guilty hurry, and even when I was a mile
from the church I was still glancing back, every moment,
to see if I was being pursued.

That experience has been of priceless value and benefit
to me; for I resolved then, that as long as I lived I
would never again rob a blind beggar-woman in a church;
and I have always kept my word. The most permanent lessons
in morals are those which come, not of booky teaching,
but of experience.

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