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Mark Twain > A Tramp Abroad > Chapter XLIX

A Tramp Abroad

Chapter XLIX


[Hanged with a Golden Rope]

One lingers about the Cathedral a good deal, in Venice.
There is a strong fascination about it--partly because
it is so old, and partly because it is so ugly.
Too many of the world's famous buildings fail of one
chief virtue--harmony; they are made up of a methodless
mixture of the ugly and the beautiful; this is bad;
it is confusing, it is unrestful. One has a sense
of uneasiness, of distress, without knowing why. But one
is calm before St. Mark's, one is calm in the cellar;
for its details are masterfully ugly, no misplaced
and impertinent beauties are intruded anywhere; and the
consequent result is a grand harmonious whole, of soothing,
entrancing, tranquilizing, soul-satisfying ugliness.
One's admiration of a perfect thing always grows,
never declines; and this is the surest evidence to him
that it IS perfect. St. Mark's is perfect. To me it
soon grew to be so nobly, so augustly ugly, that it was
difficult to stay away from it, even for a little while.
Every time its squat domes disappeared from my view,
I had a despondent feeling; whenever they reappeared,
I felt an honest rapture--I have not known any happier hours
than those I daily spent in front of Florian's, looking
across the Great Square at it. Propped on its long row
of low thick-legged columns, its back knobbed with domes,
it seemed like a vast warty bug taking a meditative walk.

St. Mark's is not the oldest building in the world, of course,
but it seems the oldest, and looks the oldest--especially inside.

When the ancient mosaics in its walls become damaged,
they are repaired but not altered; the grotesque old
pattern is preserved. Antiquity has a charm of its own,
and to smarten it up would only damage it. One day I
was sitting on a red marble bench in the vestibule looking
up at an ancient piece of apprentice-work, in mosaic,
illustrative of the command to "multiply and replenish
the earth." The Cathedral itself had seemed very old;
but this picture was illustrating a period in history
which made the building seem young by comparison.
But I presently found an antique which was older than either
the battered Cathedral or the date assigned to the piece
of history; it was a spiral-shaped fossil as large as
the crown of a hat; it was embedded in the marble bench,
and had been sat upon by tourists until it was worn smooth.
Contrasted with the inconceivable antiquity of this
modest fossil, those other things were flippantly
modern--jejune--mere matters of day-before-yesterday.
The sense of the oldness of the Cathedral vanished away
under the influence of this truly venerable presence.

St. Mark's is monumental; it is an imperishable remembrancer
of the profound and simply piety of the Middle Ages.
Whoever could ravish a column from a pagan temple,
did it and contributed his swag to this Christian one.
So this fane is upheld by several hundred acquisitions
procured in that peculiar way. In our day it would be
immoral to go on the highway to get bricks for a church,
but it was no sin in the old times. St. Mark's was itself
the victim of a curious robbery once. The thing is set
down in the history of Venice, but it might be smuggled
into the Arabian Nights and not seem out of place
there:

Nearly four hundred and fifty years ago, a Candian
named Stammato, in the suite of a prince of the house
of Este, was allowed to view the riches of St. Mark's.
His sinful eye was dazzled and he hid himself behind
an altar, with an evil purpose in his heart, but a priest
discovered him and turned him out. Afterward he got
in again--by false keys, this time. He went there,
night after night, and worked hard and patiently, all alone,
overcoming difficulty after difficulty with his toil,
and at last succeeded in removing a great brick of the marble
paneling which walled the lower part of the treasury;
this block he fixed so that he could take it out and put
it in at will. After that, for weeks, he spent all
his midnights in his magnificent mine, inspecting it
in security, gloating over its marvels at his leisure,
and always slipping back to his obscure lodgings before dawn,
with a duke's ransom under his cloak. He did not need
to grab, haphazard, and run--there was no hurry.
He could make deliberate and well-considered selections;
he could consult his esthetic tastes. One comprehends
how undisturbed he was, and how safe from any danger
of interruption, when it is stated that he even carried off
a unicorn's horn--a mere curiosity--which would not pass
through the egress entire, but had to be sawn in two--
a bit of work which cost him hours of tedious labor.
He continued to store up his treasures at home until his
occupation lost the charm of novelty and became monotonous;
then he ceased from it, contented. Well he might be;
for his collection, raised to modern values, represented nearly
fifty million dollars!

He could have gone home much the richest citizen of his country,
and it might have been years before the plunder was missed;
but he was human--he could not enjoy his delight alone,
he must have somebody to talk about it with. So he
exacted a solemn oath from a Candian noble named Crioni,
then led him to his lodgings and nearly took his breath
away with a sight of his glittering hoard. He detected
a look in his friend's face which excited his suspicion,
and was about to slip a stiletto into him when Crioni
saved himself by explaining that that look was only
an expression of supreme and happy astonishment.
Stammato made Crioni a present of one of the state's
principal jewels--a huge carbuncle, which afterward
figured in the Ducal cap of state--and the pair parted.
Crioni went at once to the palace, denounced the criminal,
and handed over the carbuncle as evidence.
Stammato was arrested, tried, and condemned, with the
old-time Venetian promptness. He was hanged between
the two great columns in the Piazza--with a gilded rope,
out of compliment to his love of gold, perhaps. He got
no good of his booty at all--it was ALL recovered.

In Venice we had a luxury which very seldom fell to our lot
on the continent--a home dinner with a private family.
If one could always stop with private families,
when traveling, Europe would have a charm which it
now lacks. As it is, one must live in the hotels,
of course, and that is a sorrowful business.
A man accustomed to American food and American domestic
cookery would not starve to death suddenly in Europe;
but I think he would gradually waste away, and eventually die.

He would have to do without his accustomed morning meal.
That is too formidable a change altogether; he would
necessarily suffer from it. He could get the shadow,
the sham, the base counterfeit of that meal; but it would
do him no good, and money could not buy the reality.

To particularize: the average American's simplest and
commonest form of breakfast consists of coffee and beefsteak;
well, in Europe, coffee is an unknown beverage. You can
get what the European hotel-keeper thinks is coffee, but it
resembles the real thing as hypocrisy resembles holiness.
It is a feeble, characterless, uninspiring sort of stuff,
and almost as undrinkable as if it had been made in an
American hotel. The milk used for it is what the French
call "Christian" milk--milk which has been baptized.

After a few months' acquaintance with European "coffee,"
one's mind weakens, and his faith with it, and he begins
to wonder if the rich beverage of home, with its clotted
layer of yellow cream on top of it, is not a mere dream,
after all, and a thing which never existed.

Next comes the European bread--fair enough, good enough,
after a fashion, but cold; cold and tough, and unsympathetic;
and never any change, never any variety--always the same
tiresome thing.

Next, the butter--the sham and tasteless butter; no salt
in it, and made of goodness knows what.

Then there is the beefsteak. They have it in Europe, but they
don't know how to cook it. Neither will they cut it right.
It comes on the table in a small, round pewter platter.
It lies in the center of this platter, in a bordering
bed of grease-soaked potatoes; it is the size, shape,
and thickness of a man's hand with the thumb and fingers
cut off. It is a little overdone, is rather dry,
it tastes pretty insipidly, it rouses no enthusiasm.

Imagine a poor exile contemplating that inert thing;
and imagine an angel suddenly sweeping down out of a better
land and setting before him a mighty porterhouse steak an
inch and a half thick, hot and sputtering from the griddle;
dusted with a fragrant pepper; enriched with little
melting bits of butter of the most unimpeachable freshness
and genuineness; the precious juices of the meat trickling
out and joining the gravy, archipelagoed with mushrooms;
a township or two of tender, yellowish fat gracing
an outlying district of this ample county of beefsteak;
the long white bone which divides the sirloin from the
tenderloin still in its place; and imagine that the angel
also adds a great cup of American home-made coffee,
with a cream a-froth on top, some real butter, firm and
yellow and fresh, some smoking hot-biscuits, a plate
of hot buckwheat cakes, with transparent syrup--could
words describe the gratitude of this exile?

The European dinner is better than the European breakfast,
but it has its faults and inferiorities; it does not satisfy.
He comes to the table eager and hungry; he swallows his
soup--there is an undefinable lack about it somewhere;
thinks the fish is going to be the thing he wants--
eats it and isn't sure; thinks the next dish is perhaps
the one that will hit the hungry place--tries it,
and is conscious that there was a something wanting
about it, also. And thus he goes on, from dish to dish,
like a boy after a butterfly which just misses getting
caught every time it alights, but somehow doesn't get caught
after all; and at the end the exile and the boy have fared
about alike; the one is full, but grievously unsatisfied,
the other has had plenty of exercise, plenty of interest,
and a fine lot of hopes, but he hasn't got any butterfly.
There is here and there an American who will say he can remember
rising from a European table d'ho^te perfectly satisfied;
but we must not overlook the fact that there is also here
and there an American who will lie.

The number of dishes is sufficient; but then it is such
a monotonous variety of UNSTRIKING dishes. It is an inane
dead-level of "fair-to-middling." There is nothing to
ACCENT it. Perhaps if the roast of mutton or of beef--a big,
generous one--were brought on the table and carved in full
view of the client, that might give the right sense of
earnestness and reality to the thing; but they don't do that,
they pass the sliced meat around on a dish, and so you
are perfectly calm, it does not stir you in the least.
Now a vast roast turkey, stretched on the broad of his back,
with his heels in the air and the rich juices oozing
from his fat sides ... but I may as well stop there,
for they would not know how to cook him. They can't
even cook a chicken respectably; and as for carving it,
they do that with a hatchet.

This is about the customary table d'ho^te bill in summer:

Soup (characterless).

Fish--sole, salmon, or whiting--usually tolerably good.

Roast--mutton or beef--tasteless--and some last year's potatoes.

A pa^te, or some other made dish--usually good--"considering."

One vegetable--brought on in state, and all alone--usually
insipid lentils, or string-beans, or indifferent asparagus.

Roast chicken, as tasteless as paper.

Lettuce-salad--tolerably good.

Decayed strawberries or cherries.

Sometimes the apricots and figs are fresh, but this is
no advantage, as these fruits are of no account anyway.

The grapes are generally good, and sometimes there
is a tolerably good peach, by mistake.

The variations of the above bill are trifling. After a
fortnight one discovers that the variations are only apparent,
not real; in the third week you get what you had the first,
and in the fourth the week you get what you had the second.
Three or four months of this weary sameness will kill
the robustest appetite.

It has now been many months, at the present writing,
since I have had a nourishing meal, but I shall soon
have one--a modest, private affair, all to myself.
I have selected a few dishes, and made out a little bill
of fare, which will go home in the steamer that precedes me,
and be hot when I arrive--as follows:

Radishes. Baked apples, with cream
Fried oysters; stewed oysters. Frogs.
American coffee, with real cream.
American butter.
Fried chicken, Southern style.
Porter-house steak.
Saratoga potatoes.
Broiled chicken, American style.
Hot biscuits, Southern style.
Hot wheat-bread, Southern style.
Hot buckwheat cakes.
American toast. Clear maple syrup.
Virginia bacon, broiled.
Blue points, on the half shell.
Cherry-stone clams.
San Francisco mussels, steamed.
Oyster soup. Clam Soup.
Philadelphia Terapin soup.
Oysters roasted in shell-Northern style.
Soft-shell crabs. Connecticut shad.
Baltimore perch.
Brook trout, from Sierra Nevadas.
Lake trout, from Tahoe.
Sheep-head and croakers, from New Orleans.
Black bass from the Mississippi.
American roast beef.
Roast turkey, Thanksgiving style.
Cranberry sauce. Celery.
Roast wild turkey. Woodcock.
Canvas-back-duck, from Baltimore.
Prairie liens, from Illinois.
Missouri partridges, broiled.
'Possum. Coon.
Boston bacon and beans.
Bacon and greens, Southern style.
Hominy. Boiled onions. Turnips.
Pumpkin. Squash. Asparagus.
Butter beans. Sweet potatoes.
Lettuce. Succotash. String beans.
Mashed potatoes. Catsup.
Boiled potatoes, in their skins.
New potatoes, minus the skins.
Early rose potatoes, roasted in the ashes, Southern style, served hot.
Sliced tomatoes, with sugar or vinegar. Stewed tomatoes.
Green corn, cut from the ear and served with butter and pepper.
Green corn, on the ear.
Hot corn-pone, with chitlings, Southern style.
Hot hoe-cake, Southern style.
Hot egg-bread, Southern style.
Hot light-bread, Southern style.
Buttermilk. Iced sweet milk.
Apple dumplings, with real cream.
Apple pie. Apple fritters.
Apple puffs, Southern style.
Peach cobbler, Southern style
Peach pie. American mince pie.
Pumpkin pie. Squash pie.
All sorts of American pastry.

Fresh American fruits of all sorts, including strawberries which
are not to be doled out as if they were jewelry, but in a more
liberal way. Ice-water--not prepared in the ineffectual goblet,
but in the sincere and capable refrigerator.

Americans intending to spend a year or so in European hotels
will do well to copy this bill and carry it along. They will
find it an excellent thing to get up an appetite with,
in the dispiriting presence of the squalid table d'ho^te.

Foreigners cannot enjoy our food, I suppose, any more than we
can enjoy theirs. It is not strange; for tastes are made,
not born. I might glorify my bill of fare until I was tired;
but after all, the Scotchman would shake his head and say,
"Where's your haggis?" and the Fijian would sigh and say,
"Where's your missionary?"

I have a neat talent in matters pertaining to nourishment.
This has met with professional recognition. I have often
furnished recipes for cook-books. Here are some designs
for pies and things, which I recently prepared for a
friend's projected cook-book, but as I forgot to furnish
diagrams and perspectives, they had to be left out,
of course.

RECIPE FOR AN ASH-CAKE

Take a lot of water and add to it a lot of coarse
Indian-meal and about a quarter of a lot of salt.
Mix well together, knead into the form of a "pone," and let
the pone stand awhile--not on its edge, but the other way.
Rake away a place among the embers, lay it there,
and cover it an inch deep with hot ashes. When it
is done, remove it; blow off all the ashes but one layer;
butter that one and eat.

N.B.--No household should ever be without this talisman.
It has been noticed that tramps never return for another
ash-cake.

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RECIPE FOR NEW ENGLISH PIE

To make this excellent breakfast dish, proceed as
follows: Take a sufficiency of water and a sufficiency
of flour, and construct a bullet-proof dough.
Work this into the form of a disk, with the edges turned
up some three-fourths of an inch. Toughen and kiln-dry
in a couple days in a mild but unvarying temperature.
Construct a cover for this redoubt in the same way and
of the same material. Fill with stewed dried apples;
aggravate with cloves, lemon-peel, and slabs of citron;
add two portions of New Orleans sugars, then solder
on the lid and set in a safe place till it petrifies.
Serve cold at breakfast and invite your enemy.

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RECIPE FOR GERMAN COFFEE

Take a barrel of water and bring it to a boil; rub a chicory
berry against a coffee berry, then convey the former
into the water. Continue the boiling and evaporation
until the intensity of the flavor and aroma of the coffee
and chicory has been diminished to a proper degree;
then set aside to cool. Now unharness the remains of a
once cow from the plow, insert them in a hydraulic press,
and when you shall have acquired a teaspoon of that
pale-blue juice which a German superstition regards
as milk, modify the malignity of its strength in a bucket
of tepid water and ring up the breakfast. Mix the
beverage in a cold cup, partake with moderation, and keep
a wet rag around your head to guard against over-excitement.

----------

TO CARVE FOWLS IN THE GERMAN FASHION

Use a club, and avoid the joints.

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