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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol III, Part 1: 1900 - 1907|
CCXXX. The Return to Florence
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|From the note-book:
Saturday, October 24, 1903. Sailed in the Princess Irene for Genoa
at 11. Flowers & fruit from Mrs. Rogers & Mrs. Coe. We have with
us Katie Leary (in our domestic service 23 years) & Miss Margaret
Sherry (trained nurse).
Two days later he wrote:
Heavy storm all night. Only 3 stewardesses. Ours served 60 meals
in rooms this morning.
On the 27th:
Livy is enduring the voyage marvelously well. As well as Clara &
Jean, I think, & far better than the trained nurse.
She has been out on deck an hour.
November 2. Due at Gibraltar 10 days from New York. 3 days to
Naples, then 2 day to Genoa.
At supper the band played "Cavalleria Rusticana," which is forever
associated in my mind with Susy. I love it better than any other,
but it breaks my heart.
It was the "Intermezzo" he referred to, which had been Susy's favorite
music, and whenever he heard it he remembered always one particular
opera-night long ago, and Susy's face rose before him.
They were in Naples on the 5th; thence to Genoa, and to Florence, where
presently they were installed in the Villa Reale di Quarto, a fine old
Italian palace built by Cosimo more than four centuries ago. In later
times it has been occupied and altered by royal families of Wurtemberg
and Russia. Now it was the property of the Countess Massiglia, from whom
Clemens had leased it.
They had hoped to secure the Villa Papiniano, under Fiesole, near
Professor Fiske, but negotiations for it had fallen through. The Villa
Quarto, as it is usually called, was a more pretentious place and as
beautifully located, standing as it does in an ancient garden looking out
over Florence toward Vallombrosa and the Chianti hills. Yet now in the
retrospect, it seems hardly to have been the retreat for an invalid. Its
garden was supernaturally beautiful, all that one expects that a garden
of Italy should be--such a garden as Maxfield Parrish might dream; but
its beauty was that which comes of antiquity--the accumulation of dead
years. Its funereal cypresses, its crumbling walls and arches, its
clinging ivy and moldering marbles, and a clock that long ago forgot the
hours, gave it a mortuary look. In a way it suggested Arnold Bocklin's
"Todteninsel," and it might well have served as the allegorical setting
for a gateway to the bourne of silence.
The house itself, one of the most picturesque of the old Florentine
suburban palaces, was historically interesting, rather than cheerful.
The rooms, in number more than sixty, though richly furnished, were vast
and barnlike, and there were numbers of them wholly unused and never
entered. There was a dearth of the modern improvements which Americans
have learned to regard as a necessity, and the plumbing, such as it was,
was not always in order. The place was approached by narrow streets,
along which the more uninviting aspects of Italy were not infrequent.
Youth and health and romance might easily have reveled in the place; but
it seems now not to have been the best choice for that frail invalid, to
whom cheer and brightness and freshness and the lovelier things of hope
meant always so much.--[Villa Quarto has recently been purchased by
Signor P. de Ritter Lahony, and thoroughly restored and refreshed and
beautified without the sacrifice of any of its romantic features.]
--Neither was the climate of Florence all that they had hoped for.
Their former sunny winter had misled them. Tradition to the contrary,
Italy--or at least Tuscany--is not one perpetual dream of sunlight. It
is apt to be damp and cloudy; it is likely to be cold. Writing to
MacAlister, Clemens said:
Florentine sunshine? Bless you, there isn't any. We have heavy fogs
every morning & rain all day. This house is not merely large, it is
vast--therefore I think it must always lack the home feeling.
His dissatisfaction in it began thus early, and it grew as one thing
after another went wrong. With it all, however, Mrs. Clemens seemed to
gain a little, and was glad to see company--a reasonable amount of
company--to brighten her surroundings.
Clemens began to work and wrote a story or two, and those lively articles
about the Italian language.
To Twichell he reported progress:
I have a handsome success in one way here. I left New York under a
sort of half-promise to furnish to the Harper magazines 30,000 words
this year. Magazining is difficult work because every third page
represents two pages that you have put in the fire (you are nearly
sure to start wrong twice), & so when you have finished an article &
are willing to let it go to print it represents only 10 cents a word
instead of 30.
But this time I had the curious (& unprecedented) luck to start
right in each case. I turned out 37,000 words in 25 working days; &
the reason I think I started right every time is, that not only have
I approved and accepted the several articles, but the court of last
resort (Livy) has done the same.
On many of the between-days I did some work, but only of an idle &
not necessarily necessary sort, since it will not see print until I
am dead. I shall continue this (an hour per day), but the rest of
the year I expect to put in on a couple of long books (half-
completed ones). No more magazine work hanging over my head.
This secluded & silent solitude, this clean, soft air, & this
enchanting view of Florence, the great valley & snow-mountains that
frame it, are the right conditions for work. They are a persistent
inspiration. To-day is very lovely; when the afternoon arrives
there will be a new picture every hour till dark, & each of them
divine--or progressing from divine to diviner & divinest. On this
(second) floor Clara's room commands the finest; she keeps a window
ten feet high wide open all the time & frames it in that. I go in
from time to time every day & trade sass for a look. The central
detail is a distant & stately snow-hump that rises above & behind
black-forested hills, & its sloping vast buttresses, velvety & sun-
polished, with purple shadows between, make the sort of picture we
knew that time we walked in Switzerland in the days of our youth.
From this letter, which is of January 7, 1904, we gather that the weather
had greatly improved, and with it Mrs. Clemens's health, notwithstanding
she had an alarming attack in December. One of the stories he had
finished was "The $30,000 Bequest." The work mentioned, which would not
see print until after his death, was a continuation of those
autobiographical chapters which for years he had been setting down as the
mood seized him.
He experimented with dictation, which he had tried long before with
Redpath, and for a time now found it quite to his liking. He dictated
some of his copyright memories, and some anecdotes and episodes; but his
amanuensis wrote only longhand, which perhaps hampered him, for he tired
of it by and by and the dictations were discontinued.
Among these notes there is one elaborate description of the Villa di
Quarto, dictated at the end of the winter, by which time we are not
surprised to find he had become much attached to the place. The Italian
spring was in the air, and it was his habit to grow fond of his
surroundings. Some atmospheric paragraphs of these impressions invite us
We are in the extreme south end of the house, if there is any such
thing as a south end to a house, whose orientation cannot be
determined by me, because I am incompetent in all cases where an
object does not point directly north & south. This one slants
across between, & is therefore a confusion. This little private
parlor is in one of the two corners of what I call the south end of
the house. The sun rises in such a way that all the morning it is
pouring its light through the 33 glass doors or windows which pierce
the side of the house which looks upon the terrace & garden; the
rest of the day the light floods this south end of the house, as I
call it; at noon the sun is directly above Florence yonder in the
distance in the plain, directly across those architectural features
which have been so familiar to the world in pictures for some
centuries, the Duomo, the Campanile, the Tomb of the Medici, & the
beautiful tower of the Palazzo Vecchio; in this position it begins
to reveal the secrets of the delicious blue mountains that circle
around into the west, for its light discovers, uncovers, & exposes a
white snowstorm of villas & cities that you cannot train yourself to
have confidence in, they appear & disappear so mysteriously, as if
they might not be villas & cities at all, but the ghosts of perished
ones of the remote & dim Etruscan times; & late in the afternoon the
sun sets down behind those mountains somewhere, at no particular
time & at no particular place, so far as I can see.
Again at the end of March he wrote:
Now that we have lived in this house four and a half months my
prejudices have fallen away one by one & the place has become very
homelike to me. Under certain conditions I should like to go on
living in it indefinitely. I should wish the Countess to move out
of Italy, out of Europe, out of the planet. I should want her
bonded to retire to her place in the next world & inform me which of
the two it was, so that I could arrange for my own hereafter.
Complications with their landlady had begun early, and in time, next to
Mrs. Clemens's health, to which it bore such an intimate and vital
relation, the indifference of the Countess Massiglia to their needs
became the supreme and absorbing concern of life at the villa, and led to
continued and almost continuous house-hunting.
Days when the weather permitted, Clemens drove over the hills looking for
a villa which he could lease or buy--one with conveniences and just the
right elevation and surroundings. There were plenty of villas; but some
of them were badly situated as to altitude or view; some were falling to
decay, and the search was rather a discouraging one. Still it was not
abandoned, and the reports of these excursions furnished new interest and
new hope always to the invalid at home.
"Even if we find it," he wrote Howells, "I am afraid it will be months
before we can move Mrs. Clemens. Of course it will. But it comforts us
to let on that we think otherwise, and these pretensions help to keep
hope alive in her."
She had her bad days and her good days, days when it was believed she had
passed the turning-point and was traveling the way to recovery; but the
good days were always a little less hopeful, the bad days a little more
discouraging. On February 22d Clemens wrote in his note-book:
At midnight Livy's pulse went to 192 & there was a collapse. Great
alarm. Subcutaneous injection of brandy saved her.
And to MacAlister toward the end of March:
We are having quite perfect weather now & are hoping that it will bring
effects for Mrs. Clemens.
But a few days later he added that he was watching the driving rain
through the windows, and that it was bad weather for the invalid. "But
it will not last," he said.
The invalid improved then, and there was a concert in Florence at which
Clara Clemens sang. Clemens in his note-book says:
April 8. Clara's concert was a triumph. Livy woke up & sent for
her to tell her all about it, near midnight.
But a day or two later she was worse again--then better. The hearts in
that household were as pendulums, swinging always between hope and
One familiar with the Clemens history might well have been filled with
forebodings. Already in January a member of the family, Mollie Clemens,
Orion's wife, died, news which was kept from Mrs. Clemens, as was the
death of Aldrich's son, and that of Sir Henry M. Stanley, both of which
occurred that spring.
Indeed, death harvested freely that year among the Clemens friendships.
Clemens wrote Twichell:
Yours has just this moment arrived-just as I was finishing a note to
poor Lady Stanley. I believe the last country-house visit we paid
in England was to Stanley's. Lord! how my friends & acquaintances
fall about me now in my gray-headed days! Vereshchagin, Mommsen,
Dvorak, Lenbach, & Jokai, all so recently, & now Stanley. I have
known Stanley 37 years. Goodness, who is there I haven't known?