The Complete Works of Mark Twain

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
Mark Twain > Innocents Abroad > Chapter XV

Innocents Abroad

Chapter XV

One of our pleasantest visits was to Pere la Chaise, the national
burying-ground of France, the honored resting-place of some of her
greatest and best children, the last home of scores of illustrious men
and women who were born to no titles, but achieved fame by their own
energy and their own genius. It is a solemn city of winding streets and
of miniature marble temples and mansions of the dead gleaming white from
out a wilderness of foliage and fresh flowers. Not every city is so well
peopled as this, or has so ample an area within its walls. Few palaces
exist in any city that are so exquisite in design, so rich in art, so
costly in material, so graceful, so beautiful.

We had stood in the ancient church of St. Denis, where the marble
effigies of thirty generations of kings and queens lay stretched at
length upon the tombs, and the sensations invoked were startling and
novel; the curious armor, the obsolete costumes, the placid faces, the
hands placed palm to palm in eloquent supplication--it was a vision of
gray antiquity. It seemed curious enough to be standing face to face, as
it were, with old Dagobert I., and Clovis and Charlemagne, those vague,
colossal heroes, those shadows, those myths of a thousand years ago! I
touched their dust-covered faces with my finger, but Dagobert was deader
than the sixteen centuries that have passed over him, Clovis slept well
after his labor for Christ, and old Charlemagne went on dreaming of his
paladins, of bloody Roncesvalles, and gave no heed to me.

The great names of Pere la Chaise impress one, too, but differently.
There the suggestion brought constantly to his mind is, that this place
is sacred to a nobler royalty--the royalty of heart and brain. Every
faculty of mind, every noble trait of human nature, every high occupation
which men engage in, seems represented by a famous name. The effect is a
curious medley. Davoust and Massena, who wrought in many a battle
tragedy, are here, and so also is Rachel, of equal renown in mimic
tragedy on the stage. The Abbe Sicard sleeps here--the first great
teacher of the deaf and dumb--a man whose heart went out to every
unfortunate, and whose life was given to kindly offices in their service;
and not far off, in repose and peace at last, lies Marshal Ney, whose
stormy spirit knew no music like the bugle call to arms. The man who
originated public gas-lighting, and that other benefactor who introduced
the cultivation of the potato and thus blessed millions of his starving
countrymen, lie with the Prince of Masserano, and with exiled queens and
princes of Further India. Gay-Lussac the chemist, Laplace the
astronomer, Larrey the surgeon, de Suze the advocate, are here, and with
them are Talma, Bellini, Rubini; de Balzac, Beaumarchais, Beranger;
Moliere and Lafontaine, and scores of other men whose names and whose
worthy labors are as familiar in the remote by-places of civilization as
are the historic deeds of the kings and princes that sleep in the marble
vaults of St. Denis.

But among the thousands and thousands of tombs in Pere la Chaise, there
is one that no man, no woman, no youth of either sex, ever passes by
without stopping to examine. Every visitor has a sort of indistinct idea
of the history of its dead and comprehends that homage is due there, but
not one in twenty thousand clearly remembers the story of that tomb and
its romantic occupants. This is the grave of Abelard and Heloise--a
grave which has been more revered, more widely known, more written and
sung about and wept over, for seven hundred years, than any other in
Christendom save only that of the Saviour. All visitors linger pensively
about it; all young people capture and carry away keepsakes and mementoes
of it; all Parisian youths and maidens who are disappointed in love come
there to bail out when they are full of tears; yea, many stricken lovers
make pilgrimages to this shrine from distant provinces to weep and wail
and "grit" their teeth over their heavy sorrows, and to purchase the
sympathies of the chastened spirits of that tomb with offerings of
immortelles and budding flowers.

Go when you will, you find somebody snuffling over that tomb. Go when
you will, you find it furnished with those bouquets and immortelles. Go
when you will, you find a gravel-train from Marseilles arriving to supply
the deficiencies caused by memento-cabbaging vandals whose affections
have miscarried.

Yet who really knows the story of Abelard and Heloise? Precious few
people. The names are perfectly familiar to every body, and that is
about all. With infinite pains I have acquired a knowledge of that
history, and I propose to narrate it here, partly for the honest
information of the public and partly to show that public that they have
been wasting a good deal of marketable sentiment very unnecessarily.

                     STORY OF ABELARD AND HELOISE

Heloise was born seven hundred and sixty-six years ago. She may have had
parents. There is no telling. She lived with her uncle Fulbert, a canon
of the cathedral of Paris. I do not know what a canon of a cathedral is,
but that is what he was. He was nothing more than a sort of a mountain
howitzer, likely, because they had no heavy artillery in those days.
Suffice it, then, that Heloise lived with her uncle the howitzer and was
happy. She spent the most of her childhood in the convent of Argenteuil
--never heard of Argenteuil before, but suppose there was really such a
place. She then returned to her uncle, the old gun, or son of a gun, as
the case may be, and he taught her to write and speak Latin, which was
the language of literature and polite society at that period.

Just at this time, Pierre Abelard, who had already made himself widely
famous as a rhetorician, came to found a school of rhetoric in Paris.
The originality of his principles, his eloquence, and his great physical
strength and beauty created a profound sensation. He saw Heloise, and
was captivated by her blooming youth, her beauty, and her charming
disposition. He wrote to her; she answered. He wrote again; she
answered again. He was now in love. He longed to know her--to speak to
her face to face.

His school was near Fulbert's house. He asked Fulbert to allow him to
call. The good old swivel saw here a rare opportunity: his niece, whom
he so much loved, would absorb knowledge from this man, and it would not
cost him a cent. Such was Fulbert--penurious.

Fulbert's first name is not mentioned by any author, which is
unfortunate. However, George W. Fulbert will answer for him as well as
any other. We will let him go at that. He asked Abelard to teach her.

Abelard was glad enough of the opportunity. He came often and staid
long. A letter of his shows in its very first sentence that he came
under that friendly roof like a cold-hearted villain as he was, with the
deliberate intention of debauching a confiding, innocent girl. This is
the letter:

         "I cannot cease to be astonished at the simplicity of Fulbert;
         I was as much surprised as if he had placed a lamb in the power
         of a hungry wolf. Heloise and I, under pretext of study, gave
         ourselves up wholly to love, and the solitude that love seeks
         our studies procured for us. Books were open before us, but we
         spoke oftener of love than philosophy, and kisses came more
         readily from our lips than words."

And so, exulting over an honorable confidence which to his degraded
instinct was a ludicrous "simplicity," this unmanly Abelard seduced the
niece of the man whose guest he was. Paris found it out. Fulbert was
told of it--told often--but refused to believe it. He could not
comprehend how a man could be so depraved as to use the sacred protection
and security of hospitality as a means for the commission of such a crime
as that. But when he heard the rowdies in the streets singing the love-
songs of Abelard to Heloise, the case was too plain--love-songs come not
properly within the teachings of rhetoric and philosophy.

He drove Abelard from his house. Abelard returned secretly and carried
Heloise away to Palais, in Brittany, his native country. Here, shortly
afterward, she bore a son, who, from his rare beauty, was surnamed
Astrolabe--William G. The girl's flight enraged Fulbert, and he longed
for vengeance, but feared to strike lest retaliation visit Heloise--for
he still loved her tenderly. At length Abelard offered to marry Heloise
--but on a shameful condition: that the marriage should be kept secret
from the world, to the end that (while her good name remained a wreck, as
before,) his priestly reputation might be kept untarnished. It was like
that miscreant. Fulbert saw his opportunity and consented. He would see
the parties married, and then violate the confidence of the man who had
taught him that trick; he would divulge the secret and so remove somewhat
of the obloquy that attached to his niece's fame. But the niece
suspected his scheme. She refused the marriage at first; she said
Fulbert would betray the secret to save her, and besides, she did not
wish to drag down a lover who was so gifted, so honored by the world, and
who had such a splendid career before him. It was noble, self-
sacrificing love, and characteristic of the pure-souled Heloise, but it
was not good sense.

But she was overruled, and the private marriage took place. Now for
Fulbert! The heart so wounded should be healed at last; the proud spirit
so tortured should find rest again; the humbled head should be lifted up
once more. He proclaimed the marriage in the high places of the city and
rejoiced that dishonor had departed from his house. But lo! Abelard
denied the marriage! Heloise denied it! The people, knowing the former
circumstances, might have believed Fulbert had only Abelard denied it,
but when the person chiefly interested--the girl herself--denied it, they
laughed, despairing Fulbert to scorn.

The poor canon of the cathedral of Paris was spiked again. The last hope
of repairing the wrong that had been done his house was gone. What next?
Human nature suggested revenge. He compassed it. The historian says:

         "Ruffians, hired by Fulbert, fell upon Abelard by night, and
         inflicted upon him a terrible and nameless mutilation."

I am seeking the last resting place of those "ruffians." When I find it
I shall shed some tears on it, and stack up some bouquets and
immortelles, and cart away from it some gravel whereby to remember that
howsoever blotted by crime their lives may have been, these ruffians did
one just deed, at any rate, albeit it was not warranted by the strict
letter of the law.

Heloise entered a convent and gave good-bye to the world and its
pleasures for all time. For twelve years she never heard of Abelard--
never even heard his name mentioned. She had become prioress of
Argenteuil and led a life of complete seclusion. She happened one day to
see a letter written by him, in which he narrated his own history. She
cried over it and wrote him. He answered, addressing her as his "sister
in Christ." They continued to correspond, she in the unweighed language
of unwavering affection, he in the chilly phraseology of the polished
rhetorician. She poured out her heart in passionate, disjointed
sentences; he replied with finished essays, divided deliberately into
heads and sub-heads, premises and argument. She showered upon him the
tenderest epithets that love could devise, he addressed her from the
North Pole of his frozen heart as the "Spouse of Christ!" The abandoned

On account of her too easy government of her nuns, some disreputable
irregularities were discovered among them, and the Abbot of St. Denis
broke up her establishment. Abelard was the official head of the
monastery of St. Gildas de Ruys, at that time, and when he heard of her
homeless condition a sentiment of pity was aroused in his breast (it is a
wonder the unfamiliar emotion did not blow his head off,) and he placed
her and her troop in the little oratory of the Paraclete, a religious
establishment which he had founded. She had many privations and
sufferings to undergo at first, but her worth and her gentle disposition
won influential friends for her, and she built up a wealthy and
flourishing nunnery. She became a great favorite with the heads of the
church, and also the people, though she seldom appeared in public. She
rapidly advanced in esteem, in good report, and in usefulness, and
Abelard as rapidly lost ground. The Pope so honored her that he made her
the head of her order. Abelard, a man of splendid talents, and ranking
as the first debater of his time, became timid, irresolute, and
distrustful of his powers. He only needed a great misfortune to topple
him from the high position he held in the world of intellectual
excellence, and it came. Urged by kings and princes to meet the subtle
St. Bernard in debate and crush him, he stood up in the presence of a
royal and illustrious assemblage, and when his antagonist had finished he
looked about him and stammered a commencement; but his courage failed
him, the cunning of his tongue was gone: with his speech unspoken, he
trembled and sat down, a disgraced and vanquished champion.

He died a nobody, and was buried at Cluny, A.D., 1144. They removed his
body to the Paraclete afterward, and when Heloise died, twenty years
later, they buried her with him, in accordance with her last wish. He
died at the ripe age of 64, and she at 63. After the bodies had remained
entombed three hundred years, they were removed once more. They were
removed again in 1800, and finally, seventeen years afterward, they were
taken up and transferred to Pere la Chaise, where they will remain in
peace and quiet until it comes time for them to get up and move again.

History is silent concerning the last acts of the mountain howitzer. Let
the world say what it will about him, I, at least, shall always respect
the memory and sorrow for the abused trust and the broken heart and the
troubled spirit of the old smooth-bore. Rest and repose be his!

Such is the story of Abelard and Heloise. Such is the history that
Lamartine has shed such cataracts of tears over. But that man never
could come within the influence of a subject in the least pathetic
without overflowing his banks. He ought to be dammed--or leveed, I
should more properly say. Such is the history--not as it is usually
told, but as it is when stripped of the nauseous sentimentality that
would enshrine for our loving worship a dastardly seducer like Pierre
Abelard. I have not a word to say against the misused, faithful girl,
and would not withhold from her grave a single one of those simple
tributes which blighted youths and maidens offer to her memory, but I am
sorry enough that I have not time and opportunity to write four or five
volumes of my opinion of her friend the founder of the Parachute, or the
Paraclete, or whatever it was.

The tons of sentiment I have wasted on that unprincipled humbug in my
ignorance! I shall throttle down my emotions hereafter, about this sort
of people, until I have read them up and know whether they are entitled
to any tearful attentions or not. I wish I had my immortelles back, now,
and that bunch of radishes.

In Paris we often saw in shop windows the sign "English Spoken Here,"
just as one sees in the windows at home the sign "Ici on parle
francaise." We always invaded these places at once--and invariably
received the information, framed in faultless French, that the clerk who
did the English for the establishment had just gone to dinner and would
be back in an hour--would Monsieur buy something? We wondered why those
parties happened to take their dinners at such erratic and extraordinary
hours, for we never called at a time when an exemplary Christian would be
in the least likely to be abroad on such an errand. The truth was, it
was a base fraud--a snare to trap the unwary--chaff to catch fledglings
with. They had no English-murdering clerk. They trusted to the sign to
inveigle foreigners into their lairs, and trusted to their own
blandishments to keep them there till they bought something.

We ferreted out another French imposition--a frequent sign to this
procured the services of a gentleman experienced in the nomenclature of
the American bar, and moved upon the works of one of these impostors. A
bowing, aproned Frenchman skipped forward and said:

"Que voulez les messieurs?" I do not know what "Que voulez les
messieurs?" means, but such was his remark.

Our general said, "We will take a whiskey straight."

[A stare from the Frenchman.]

"Well, if you don't know what that is, give us a champagne cock-tail."

[A stare and a shrug.]

"Well, then, give us a sherry cobbler."

The Frenchman was checkmated. This was all Greek to him.

"Give us a brandy smash!"

The Frenchman began to back away, suspicious of the ominous vigor of the
last order--began to back away, shrugging his shoulders and spreading his
hands apologetically.

The General followed him up and gained a complete victory. The
uneducated foreigner could not even furnish a Santa Cruz Punch, an Eye-
Opener, a Stone-Fence, or an Earthquake. It was plain that he was a
wicked impostor.

An acquaintance of mine said the other day that he was doubtless the only
American visitor to the Exposition who had had the high honor of being
escorted by the Emperor's bodyguard. I said with unobtrusive frankness
that I was astonished that such a long-legged, lantern-jawed,
unprepossessing-looking specter as he should be singled out for a
distinction like that, and asked how it came about. He said he had
attended a great military review in the Champ de Mars some time ago, and
while the multitude about him was growing thicker and thicker every
moment he observed an open space inside the railing. He left his
carriage and went into it. He was the only person there, and so he had
plenty of room, and the situation being central, he could see all the
preparations going on about the field. By and by there was a sound of
music, and soon the Emperor of the French and the Emperor of Austria,
escorted by the famous Cent Gardes, entered the enclosure. They seemed
not to observe him, but directly, in response to a sign from the
commander of the guard, a young lieutenant came toward him with a file of
his men following, halted, raised his hand, and gave the military salute,
and then said in a low voice that he was sorry to have to disturb a
stranger and a gentleman, but the place was sacred to royalty. Then this
New Jersey phantom rose up and bowed and begged pardon, then with the
officer beside him, the file of men marching behind him, and with every
mark of respect, he was escorted to his carriage by the imperial Cent
Gardes! The officer saluted again and fell back, the New Jersey sprite
bowed in return and had presence of mind enough to pretend that he had
simply called on a matter of private business with those emperors, and so
waved them an adieu and drove from the field!

Imagine a poor Frenchman ignorantly intruding upon a public rostrum
sacred to some six-penny dignitary in America. The police would scare
him to death first with a storm of their elegant blasphemy, and then pull
him to pieces getting him away from there. We are measurably superior to
the French in some things, but they are immeasurably our betters in

Enough of Paris for the present. We have done our whole duty by it. We
have seen the Tuileries, the Napoleon Column, the Madeleine, that wonder
of wonders the tomb of Napoleon, all the great churches and museums,
libraries, imperial palaces, and sculpture and picture galleries, the
Pantheon, Jardin des Plantes, the opera, the circus, the legislative
body, the billiard rooms, the barbers, the grisettes--

Ah, the grisettes! I had almost forgotten. They are another romantic
fraud. They were (if you let the books of travel tell it) always so
beautiful--so neat and trim, so graceful--so naive and trusting--so
gentle, so winning--so faithful to their shop duties, so irresistible to
buyers in their prattling importunity--so devoted to their poverty-
stricken students of the Latin Quarter--so lighthearted and happy on
their Sunday picnics in the suburbs--and oh, so charmingly, so
delightfully immoral!

Stuff! For three or four days I was constantly saying:

"Quick, Ferguson! Is that a grisette?"

And he always said, "No."

He comprehended at last that I wanted to see a grisette. Then he showed
me dozens of them. They were like nearly all the Frenchwomen I ever saw
--homely. They had large hands, large feet, large mouths; they had pug
noses as a general thing, and moustaches that not even good breeding
could overlook; they combed their hair straight back without parting;
they were ill-shaped, they were not winning, they were not graceful; I
knew by their looks that they ate garlic and onions; and lastly and
finally, to my thinking it would be base flattery to call them immoral.

Aroint thee, wench! I sorrow for the vagabond student of the Latin
Quarter now, even more than formerly I envied him. Thus topples to earth
another idol of my infancy.

We have seen every thing, and tomorrow we go to Versailles. We shall see
Paris only for a little while as we come back to take up our line of
march for the ship, and so I may as well bid the beautiful city a
regretful farewell. We shall travel many thousands of miles after we
leave here and visit many great cities, but we shall find none so
enchanting as this.

Some of our party have gone to England, intending to take a roundabout
course and rejoin the vessel at Leghorn or Naples several weeks hence.
We came near going to Geneva, but have concluded to return to Marseilles
and go up through Italy from Genoa.

I will conclude this chapter with a remark that I am sincerely proud to
be able to make--and glad, as well, that my comrades cordially endorse
it, to wit: by far the handsomest women we have seen in France were born
and reared in America.

I feel now like a man who has redeemed a failing reputation and shed
luster upon a dimmed escutcheon, by a single just deed done at the
eleventh hour.

Let the curtain fall, to slow music.

< Back
Forward >

Index Index

Other Authors Other Authors

Mark Twain. Copyright 2008,
Contact the webmaster
Disclaimer here. Privacy Policy here.