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Mark Twain > Innocents Abroad > Chapter XVI

Innocents Abroad

Chapter XVI

VERSAILLES! It is wonderfully beautiful! You gaze and stare and try to
understand that it is real, that it is on the earth, that it is not the
Garden of Eden--but your brain grows giddy, stupefied by the world of
beauty around you, and you half believe you are the dupe of an exquisite
dream. The scene thrills one like military music! A noble palace,
stretching its ornamented front, block upon block away, till it seemed
that it would never end; a grand promenade before it, whereon the armies
of an empire might parade; all about it rainbows of flowers, and colossal
statues that were almost numberless and yet seemed only scattered over
the ample space; broad flights of stone steps leading down from the
promenade to lower grounds of the park--stairways that whole regiments
might stand to arms upon and have room to spare; vast fountains whose
great bronze effigies discharged rivers of sparkling water into the air
and mingled a hundred curving jets together in forms of matchless beauty;
wide grass-carpeted avenues that branched hither and thither in every
direction and wandered to seemingly interminable distances, walled all
the way on either side with compact ranks of leafy trees whose branches
met above and formed arches as faultless and as symmetrical as ever were
carved in stone; and here and there were glimpses of sylvan lakes with
miniature ships glassed in their surfaces. And every where--on the
palace steps, and the great promenade, around the fountains, among the
trees, and far under the arches of the endless avenues--hundreds and
hundreds of people in gay costumes walked or ran or danced, and gave to
the fairy picture the life and animation which was all of perfection it
could have lacked.

It was worth a pilgrimage to see. Everything is on so gigantic a scale.
Nothing is small--nothing is cheap. The statues are all large; the
palace is grand; the park covers a fair-sized county; the avenues are
interminable. All the distances and all the dimensions about Versailles
are vast. I used to think the pictures exaggerated these distances and
these dimensions beyond all reason, and that they made Versailles more
beautiful than it was possible for any place in the world to be. I know
now that the pictures never came up to the subject in any respect, and
that no painter could represent Versailles on canvas as beautiful as it
is in reality. I used to abuse Louis XIV for spending two hundred
millions of dollars in creating this marvelous park, when bread was so
scarce with some of his subjects; but I have forgiven him now. He took a
tract of land sixty miles in circumference and set to work to make this
park and build this palace and a road to it from Paris. He kept 36,000
men employed daily on it, and the labor was so unhealthy that they used
to die and be hauled off by cartloads every night. The wife of a
nobleman of the time speaks of this as an "inconvenience," but naively
remarks that "it does not seem worthy of attention in the happy state of
tranquillity we now enjoy."

I always thought ill of people at home who trimmed their shrubbery into
pyramids and squares and spires and all manner of unnatural shapes, and
when I saw the same thing being practiced in this great park I began to
feel dissatisfied. But I soon saw the idea of the thing and the wisdom
of it. They seek the general effect. We distort a dozen sickly trees
into unaccustomed shapes in a little yard no bigger than a dining room,
and then surely they look absurd enough. But here they take two hundred
thousand tall forest trees and set them in a double row; allow no sign of
leaf or branch to grow on the trunk lower down than six feet above the
ground; from that point the boughs begin to project, and very gradually
they extend outward further and further till they meet overhead, and a
faultless tunnel of foliage is formed. The arch is mathematically
precise. The effect is then very fine. They make trees take fifty
different shapes, and so these quaint effects are infinitely varied and
picturesque. The trees in no two avenues are shaped alike, and
consequently the eye is not fatigued with anything in the nature of
monotonous uniformity. I will drop this subject now, leaving it to
others to determine how these people manage to make endless ranks of
lofty forest trees grow to just a certain thickness of trunk (say a foot
and two-thirds); how they make them spring to precisely the same height
for miles; how they make them grow so close together; how they compel one
huge limb to spring from the same identical spot on each tree and form
the main sweep of the arch; and how all these things are kept exactly in
the same condition and in the same exquisite shapeliness and symmetry
month after month and year after year--for I have tried to reason out the
problem and have failed.

We walked through the great hall of sculpture and the one hundred and
fifty galleries of paintings in the palace of Versailles, and felt that
to be in such a place was useless unless one had a whole year at his
disposal. These pictures are all battle scenes, and only one solitary
little canvas among them all treats of anything but great French
victories. We wandered, also, through the Grand Trianon and the Petit
Trianon, those monuments of royal prodigality, and with histories so
mournful--filled, as it is, with souvenirs of Napoleon the First, and
three dead kings and as many queens. In one sumptuous bed they had all
slept in succession, but no one occupies it now. In a large dining room
stood the table at which Louis XIV and his mistress Madame Maintenon, and
after them Louis XV, and Pompadour, had sat at their meals naked and
unattended--for the table stood upon a trapdoor, which descended with it
to regions below when it was necessary to replenish its dishes. In a
room of the Petit Trianon stood the furniture, just as poor Marie
Antoinette left it when the mob came and dragged her and the King to
Paris, never to return. Near at hand, in the stables, were prodigious
carriages that showed no color but gold--carriages used by former kings
of France on state occasions, and never used now save when a kingly head
is to be crowned or an imperial infant christened. And with them were
some curious sleighs, whose bodies were shaped like lions, swans, tigers,
etc.--vehicles that had once been handsome with pictured designs and
fine workmanship, but were dusty and decaying now. They had their
history. When Louis XIV had finished the Grand Trianon, he told
Maintenon he had created a Paradise for her, and asked if she could think
of anything now to wish for. He said he wished the Trianon to be
perfection--nothing less. She said she could think of but one thing--it
was summer, and it was balmy France--yet she would like well to sleigh
ride in the leafy avenues of Versailles! The next morning found miles
and miles of grassy avenues spread thick with snowy salt and sugar, and a
procession of those quaint sleighs waiting to receive the chief concubine
of the gaiest and most unprincipled court that France has ever seen!

From sumptuous Versailles, with its palaces, its statues, its gardens,
and its fountains, we journeyed back to Paris and sought its antipodes--
the Faubourg St. Antoine. Little, narrow streets; dirty children
blockading them; greasy, slovenly women capturing and spanking them;
filthy dens on first floors, with rag stores in them (the heaviest
business in the Faubourg is the chiffonier's); other filthy dens where
whole suits of second and third-hand clothing are sold at prices that
would ruin any proprietor who did not steal his stock; still other filthy
dens where they sold groceries--sold them by the half-pennyworth--five
dollars would buy the man out, goodwill and all. Up these little crooked
streets they will murder a man for seven dollars and dump the body in the
Seine. And up some other of these streets--most of them, I should say--
live lorettes.

All through this Faubourg St. Antoine, misery, poverty, vice, and crime
go hand in hand, and the evidences of it stare one in the face from every
side. Here the people live who begin the revolutions. Whenever there is
anything of that kind to be done, they are always ready. They take as
much genuine pleasure in building a barricade as they do in cutting a
throat or shoving a friend into the Seine. It is these savage-looking
ruffians who storm the splendid halls of the Tuileries occasionally, and
swarm into Versailles when a king is to be called to account.

But they will build no more barricades, they will break no more soldiers'
heads with paving-stones. Louis Napoleon has taken care of all that. He
is annihilating the crooked streets and building in their stead noble
boulevards as straight as an arrow--avenues which a cannon ball could
traverse from end to end without meeting an obstruction more irresistible
than the flesh and bones of men--boulevards whose stately edifices will
never afford refuges and plotting places for starving, discontented
revolution breeders. Five of these great thoroughfares radiate from one
ample centre--a centre which is exceedingly well adapted to the
accommodation of heavy artillery. The mobs used to riot there, but they
must seek another rallying-place in future. And this ingenious Napoleon
paves the streets of his great cities with a smooth, compact composition
of asphaltum and sand. No more barricades of flagstones--no more
assaulting his Majesty's troops with cobbles. I cannot feel friendly
toward my quondam fellow-American, Napoleon III., especially at this
time,--[July, 1867.]--when in fancy I see his credulous victim,
Maximilian, lying stark and stiff in Mexico, and his maniac widow
watching eagerly from her French asylum for the form that will never
come--but I do admire his nerve, his calm self-reliance, his shrewd good

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