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SPECIAL FEATURE

MARK TWAIN'S TRAVEL LETTERS FROM 1891-92
with original illustrations by Dan Beard and Harold R. Heaton

Chicago Daily Tribune, November 8, 1891

Aix-Les-Bains

MARK TWAIN AT AIX-LES-BAINS

Certainly Aix-les-Bains is an enchanting place. It is a strong word, but I think the facts justify it. True, there is a rabble of nobilities, big and little, here all the time, and often a king or two, but as these behave quite nicely and also keep mainly to themselves, they are little or no annoyance. And then a king makes the best advertisement there is, and the cheapest. All he costs is a reception at the station by the Mayor and the police in their Sunday uniforms, shop-front decorations along the route from station to hotel, brass band at the hotel, fireworks in the evening, free bath in the morning. This is the whole expense; and in return for it he goes away from here with the broad of his back metaphorically stenciled over with display ads, which shout to all the nations of the earth, assisted by the telegraph:

Rheumatism routed at Aix-les-Bains!
Gout admonished, Nerves braced up!
All Diseases welcomed, and satisfaction given, or the money refunded at the door.

Royal Billboards
ROYAL BILL-BOARDS

We leave nature's noble cliffs and crags undefiled and uninsulted by the advertiser's paint-brush. We use the back of a king, which is better and properer, and more effective,too, for the cliff stays still and few see it, but the king moves across the fields of the world, and is visible from all points like a constellation. We are out of kings this week, but one will be along soon--possibly his Satanic Majesty of Russia. There's a colossus for you! A mysterious and terrible form that towers up into unsearchable space and casts a shadow across the universe like a planet in eclipse. There will be but one absorbing spectacle in this world when we stencil him and start him out.

This is an old valley, this of Aix, both in the history of man and the geological records of its rocks. Its little Lake of Bourget carries the human history back to the lake dwellers, furnishing seven groups of their habitations, and Dr. William Wakefield says in his interesting local guide-book that the mountains round about furnish "geologically, a veritable epitome of the globe." The stratified chapters of the earth's history are clearly and permanently written on the sides of the roaring bulk of the Dent du Chat, but many of the layers of race, religion, and government, which in turn have flourished and perished here between the take dweller of several thousand years ago and the French Republican of today, are ill-defined and uninforming by comparison. There were several varieties of pagans. They went their way, one after the other, down into night and oblivion, leaving no account of themselves, no memorials. The Romans arrived 2,300 years ago; other parts of France are rich with remembrances of their eight centuries of occupation, but not many are here. Other pagans followed the Romans. By and by Christianity arrived, some 400 years after the time of Christ. The long procession of races, languages, religions, and dynasties demolished each other's monuments and obliterated each other's records--it is man's way always.

As a result, nothing is left of the handiwork of the remoter inhabitants of the region except the constructions of the lake dwellers and some Roman odds and ends. There is part of a small Roman temple, there is part of a Roman bath, there is a graceful and battered Roman arch. It stands on a turfy level over the way from the present great bath-house, is surrounded by magnolia trees, and is both a picturesque and suggestive object. It has stood there some 1,600 years. Its nearest neighbor, not twenty steps away, is a Catholic church. They are symbols of the two chief eras in the history of Aix. Yes, and of the European world. I judge that the venerable arch is held in reverent esteem by everybody, and that this esteem is its sufficient protection from insult, for it is the only public structure I have yet seen in France which lacks the sign, "It is forbidden to post bills here." Its neighbor, the church, has that sign on more than one of its sides, and other signs, too, forbidding certain other sorts of desecration.

Three Eras
THREE GREAT ERAS

The arch's next nearest neighbor--just at its elbow, like the church--is the telegraph office. So there you have the three great eras bunched together--the era of war, the era of theology, the era of business. You pass under the arch, and the buried Ceasars seem to rise from the dust of the centuries and flit before you; you pass by that old battered church, and are in touch with the middle ages, and with another step you can put down ten francs and shake hands with Oshkosh under the Atlantic.

It is curious to think what changes the last of the three symbols stands for; changes in men's ways and thoughts, changes in material civilization, changes in the Deity--or in men's conception of the Deity, if that is an exacter way of putting it. The second of the symbols arrived in the earth at a time when the Deity's possessions consisted of a small sky freckled with mustard seed stars, and under it a patch of landed estate not so big as the holdings of the Czar today, and all his time was taken up in trying to keep a handful of Jews in some sort of order--exactly the same number of them that the Czar has lately been dealing with in a more abrupt and far less loving and long-suffering way. At a later time--a time within all old men's memories--the Deity was otherwise engaged. He was dreaming his eternities away on his great white throne, steeped in the soft bliss of hymns of praise wafted aloft without ceasing from choirs of ransomed souls, Presbyterians and the rest. This was a Deity proper enough to the size and condition of things, no doubt a provincial Deity with provincial tastes. The change since has been inconceivably vast. His empire has been unimaginably enlarged. Today he is master of a universe made up of myriads upon myriads of gigantic suns, and among them, lost in that limitless sea of light, floats that atom, his earth, which once seemed so good and satisfactory and cost so many days of patient labor to build, a mere cork adrift in the waters of a shoreless Atlantic. This is the business era, and no doubt he is governing his huge empire now, not by dreaming the time away in the buzz of hymning choirs, with occasional explosions of arbitrary power disproportioned to the size of the annoyance, but, by applying laws of a sort proper and necessary to the sane and successful management of a complex and prodigious establishment, and by seeing to it that the exact and constant operation of these laws is not interfered with for the accommodation of any individual or political or religious faction or nation.

Mighty has been the advance of the nations and the liberalization of thought. A result of it is a changed Deity, a Deity of a dignity and sublimity proportioned to the majesty of his office and the magnitude of his empire, a Deity who has been freed from a hundred fretting chains and will in time be freed from the rest by the several ecclesiastical bodies who have these matters in charge. It was, without doubt, a mistake and a step backward when the Presbyterian Synods of America lately decided, by vote, to leave him still embarrassed with the dogma of infant damnation. Situated as we are, we cannot at present know with how much of anxiety he watched the balloting, nor with how much of grieved disappointment he observed the result.

Well, all these eras above spoken of are modern, they are of last week, they are of yesterday, they are of this morning, so to speak. The springs, the healing waters that gush up from under this hillside village, indeed are ancient; they, indeed, are a genuine antiquity; they antedate all those fresh human matters by processions of centuries; they were born with the fossils of the Dent du Chat, and they have been always limpid and always abundant. They furnished a million gallons a day to wash the lake dwellers with, the same to wash the Caesars with, no less to wash the Balzac with, and have not diminished on my account. A million gallons a day--for how many days? Figures cannot set forth the number. The delivery, in the aggregate, has amounted to an Atlantic. And there is still an Atlantic down in there. By Dr. Wakefield's calculation that Atlantic is three-quarters of a mile down in the earth. The calculation is based upon the temperature of the water, which is 114° to 117° Fahrenheit, the natural law being that below a certain depth heat augments at the rate of one degree for every sixty feet of descent.

Aix is handsome and handsomely situated, too, on its hill slope, with its stately prospect of mountain range and plain spread out before it and about it. The streets are mainly narrow, and steep, and crooked, and interesting, and offer considerable variety in the way of names; on the corner of one of them you read this: Rue du Puits d'Enter--pit of Hell street. Some of the sidewalks are only eighteen inches wide; they are for the cats probably. There is a pleasant park, and there are spacious and beautiful grounds connected with the two great pleasure resorts--the Cercle and the Villa des Fleurs. The town consists of big hotels, little hotels, and pensions. The season lasts about six months, beginning with May. When it is at its height there are thousands of visitors here, and in the course of the season as many as 20,000 in the aggregate come and go.

These are not all here for the baths; some come for the gambling facilities and some for the climate. It is a climate where the field strawberry flourishes through the spring, summer, and fall. It is hot in the summer, and hot in earnest; but this is only in the daytime; it is not hot at night. The English season is May and June; they get a good deal of rain then, and they like that. The Americans take July and the French take August. By the 1st of July the open air music and the evening concerts and operas and plays are fairly under way, and from that time onward the rush of pleasure has a steadily increasing boom. It is said that in August the great grounds and the gambling-rooms are crowded all the time and no end of ostensible fun going on.


NOISES OF AIX-LES-BAINS

It is a good place for rest and sleep and general recuperation of forces. The book of Dr. Wakefield says there is something about this atmosphere which is the deadly enemy of insomnia,and I think this must be true, for, if I am any judge, this town is at times the noisiest one in Europe, and yet a body gets more sleep here than he could at home, I don't care where his home is. Now we are living at a most comfortable and satisfactory pension, with a garden of shade trees and flowers and shrubs, and a convincing air of quiet and repose. But just across the little narrow street is the little market square, and at a corner of that is that church that is neighbor to the Roman arch, and that narrow street, and that billiard-table of a market place, and that church are able, on a bet, to turn out more noise to the cubic yard at the wrong time than any other similar combination in the earth or out of it. In the street you have the skull-bursting thunder of the passing hack, a volume of sound not producible by six hacks anywhere else; on the hack is a lunatic with a whip, which he cracks to notify the public to get out of his way. This crack is as keen and sharp and penetrating and ear-splitting as a pistol shot at close range, and the lunatic delivers it in volleys, not single shots. You think you will not be able to live till he gets by, and when he does get by he only leaves a vacancy for the bandit who sells Le Petit Joumal to fill with his strange and awful yell. He arrives with the early morning and the market people, and there is a dog that arrives at about the same time and barks steadily at nothing till he dies, and they fetch another dog just like him. The bark of this breed is the twin of the whip volley, and stabs like a knife. By and by, what is left of you the church-bell gets. There are many bells, and apparently 6,000 or 7,000 town clocks, and as they are all five minutes apart--probably by law--there are no intervals. Some of them are striking all the time--at least, after you go to bed they are. There is one clock that strikes the hour, and then strikes it over again to see if it was right. Then for evenings and Sundays there is a chime--a chime that starts in pleasantly and musically, then suddenly breaks into a frantic roar, and boom, and crash of warring sounds that make you think Paris is up and the revolution come again. And yet, as I have said, one sleeps here--sleeps like the dead. Once he gets his grip on his sleep neither hack, nor whip, nor news fiend, nor dog, nor bell-cyclone, nor all of them together can wrench it loose or mar its deep and tranquil continuity. Yes, there is indeed something in this air that is death to insomnia.

The buildings of the Cercle and the Villa des Fleurs are huge in size and each has a theater in it and a great restaurant, also conveniences for gambling and general and variegated entertainment. They stand in ornamental grounds of great extent and beauty. The multitudes of fashionable folk sit at refreshment tables in the open air afternoons and listen to the music, and it is there that they mainly go to break the Sabbath.

To get the privilege of entering these grounds and buildings you buy a ticket for a few francs which is good for the whole season. You are then free to go and come at all hours, attend the plays and concerts free, except on special occasions, gamble, buy refreshments, and make yourself symmetrically comfortable.

Nothing could be handier than those two little theaters. The curtain doesn't rise until 8:30. Then between the acts one can idle for half an hour in the other departments of the building, damaging his appetite in the restaurants or his pocket in the baccarat room. The singers and actors are from Paris and their performance is beyond praise.

I was never in a fashionable gambling hell until I came here. I had read several millions of descriptions of such places, but the reality was new to me. I very much wanted to see this animal, especially the now historic game of baccarat, and this was a good place, for Aix ranks next to Monte Carlo for high play and plenty of it. But the result was what I might have expected--the interest of the looker-on perishes with the novelty of the spectacle--that is to say, in a few minutes. A permanent and intense interest is acquirable in baccarat or in any other game, but you have to buy it. You don't get it by standing around looking on.

The baccarat table is covered with green cloth and is marked off in divisions with chalk or something. The banker sits in the middle, the croupier opposite. The customers fill all the chairs at the table, and the rest of the crowd are massed at their backs and leaning over them to deposit chips or gold coins. Constantly money and chips are flung upon the table, and the game seems to consist in the croupier's reaching for those things with a flexible sculling oar and raking them home. It appeared to be a rational enough game for him, and if I could have borrowed his oar I would have staid, but I didn't see where the entertainment of the others came in. This was because I saw without perceiving and observed without understanding. For the widow and the orphan and the others do win money there. Once an old gray mother in Israel or elsewhere pulled out, and I heard her say to her daughter or her granddaughter as they passed me: "There, I've won six louis, and I'm going to quit while I'm ahead." Also there was this statistic. A friend pointed to a young man with the dead stub of a cigar in his mouth, which he kept munching nervously all the time and pitching hundred-dollar chips on the board while two sweet young girls reached down over his shoulders to deposit modest little gold pieces, and said: "He's only funning now; wasting a few hundred to pass the time--waiting for the 'gold room' to open, you know, which won't be till well after midnight--then you'll see him bet! He won £14,000 there last night. They don't bet anything there but big money."

The thing I chiefly missed was the haggard people with the intense eye, the hunted look, the desperate mien, candidates for suicide and the pauper's grave. They are in the descriptions, as a rule, but they were off duty that night. All the gamblers, male and female, old and young, looked abnormally cheerful and prosperous.

However, all the nations were there, clothed richly, and speaking all the languages. Some of the women were painted and were evidently shaky as to character. These items tallied with the descriptions well enough.

The etiquette of the place was difficult to master. In the brilliant and populous halls and corridors you don't smoke, and you wear your hat, no matter how many ladies are in the thick throng of drifting humanity; but the moment you cross the sacred threshold and enter the gambling hell, off the hat must come, and everybody lights his cigar and goes to suffocating the ladies. But what I came here for, five weeks ago, was the baths. My right arm was disabled with rheumatism. To sit at home in America and guess out the European bath best fitted for a particular ailment or combination of ailments, it is not possible, and it would not be a good idea to experiment in that way, anyhow. There are a great many curative baths on the continent, and some are good for one disease but bad for another. So it is necessary to let a physician name your bath for you. As a rule, Americans go to London to get this advice, and South Americans go to Paris for it. Now and then an economist chooses his bath himself and does a thousand miles of railroading to get to it, and then the local physicians tell him he has come to the wrong place. He sees that he has lost time and money and strength, and almost the minute that he realizes this he loses his temper. I had the rheumatism and was advised to go to Aix, not so much because I had that disease as because I had the promise of certain others. What they were was not explained to me, but they are either in the following menu or I have been sent to the wrong place. Dr. Wakefield's book says:

"We know that the class of maladies benefited by the water and baths at Aix are those due to defect of nutrition, debility of the nervous system, or to a gouty, rheumatic, herpetic, or scrofulous diathesis--all diseases extremely debilitating and requiring a tonic, and not a depressing action of the remedy. This it seems to find here, as recorded experience and daily action can testify. . . . According to the line of treatment, followed particularly with due regard to the temperature, the action of the Aix waters can be made sedative, exciting, derivative, or alterative and tonic."

Going to bath
GOING TO THE BATH

The "Establishment" is the property of France, and all the officers and servants are employes of the French Government. The bath-house is a huge and massive pile of white marble masonry, and looks more like a temple than anything else. It has several floors, and each is full of bath cabinets. There is every kind of bath--for the nose, the ears, the throat, vapor baths, tube baths, swimming baths, and all people's favorite, the douche. It is a good building to get lost in when you are not familiar with it. From early morning until nearly noon people are streaming in and streaming out without halt. The majority come afoot, but great numbers are brought in sedan chairs, a sufficiently ugly contrivance whose cover is a steep little tent made of striped canvas. You see nothing of the patient in this diving-bell as the bearers tramp along, except a glimpse of his ankles bound together and swathed around with blankets or towels to that generous degree that the result suggests a sore piano leg. By attention and practice the pallbearers have got so that they can keep out of step all the time--and they do it. As a consequence their veiled chum goes rocking, tilting, swaying along like a bell-buoy in a ground swell. It makes the oldest sailor sea-sick to look at that spectacle.

The "course" is usually fifteen douche baths and five tub baths. You take the douche three days in succession, then knock off and take a tub. You keep up this distribution through the course. If one course does not cure you, you take another one after an interval. You seek a local physician and he examines your case and prescribes the kind of bath required for it, with various other particulars; then you buy your course tickets and pay for them in advance--$9. With the tickets you get a memorandum book with your dates and hours all set down in it. The doctor takes you into the bath the first morning and gives some instructions to the two doucheurs who are to handle you through the course. The pour boires are about 10 cents to each of the men for each bath, payable at the end of the course. Also, at the end of the course, you pay three or four francs to the superintendent of your department of the bath house. These are useful particulars to know, and are not to be found in the books. A servant of your hotel carries your towels and sheet to the bath daily and brings them away again. They are the property of the hotel; the French Government doesn't furnish these things.

the liar
HE HAD 'EM ALL

You meet all kinds of people at a place like this, and if you give them a chance they will submerge you under their experiences, for they are either glad or sorry they came, and they want to spread their feelings out and enjoy them. One of these said to me:

"It's great, these baths. I didn't come here for my health--I only came to find out if there was anything the matter with me. The doctor told me if there was the symptoms would soon appear. After the first douche I had sharp pains in all my muscles. The doctor said it was different varieties of rheumatism, and the best varieties there were, too. After my second bath I had aches in my bones, and skull, and around. The doctor said it was different varieties of neuralgia, and the best in the market--anybody would tell me so. I got many new kinds of pains out of my third douche. These were in my joints. The doctor said it was gout, complicated with heart disease, and encouraged me to go on. Then we had the fourth douche, and I came out on a stretcher that time and fetched with me one vast, diversified, undulating, continental kind of pain, with horizons to it and zones and parallels of latitude and meridians of longitude and isothermal belts and variations of the compass--O, everything tidy and right up to the latest developments, you know. The doctor said it was inflammation of the soul, and just the very thing. Well, I went right on gathering them in--toothache, liver complaint, softening of the brain, nostalgia, bronchitis, osteology, fits, coleoptera, hydrangea, cyclopedia britannica, delirium tremens, and a lot of other things that I've got down in my list that I'll show you, and you can keep it if you like and tally off the bric-a-brac as you lay it in.

"The doctor said I was a grand proof of what these baths could do; said I had come here as innocent of disease as a grindstone, and inside of three weeks these baths had sluiced out of me every important ailment known to medical science, along with considerable more that were entirely new and potentable. Why he wanted to exhibit me in his bay window."

There seems to be a good many liars this year. I began to take the baths, and found them most enjoyable; so enjoyable that if I hadn't had a disease I would have borrowed one, just to have a pretext for going on. They took me into a stone- floored basin about fourteen feet square, which had enough strange-looking pipes and things in it to make it look like a torture chamber. The two half-naked men seated me on a pine stool, and kept a couple of warm-water jets as thick as one's wrist playing upon me while they kneaded me, stroked me, twisted me, and applied all the other details of the scientific massage to me for seven or eight minutes. Then they stood me up and played a powerful jet upon me all around for another minute. The cool shower bath came next, and the thing was over. I came out of the bath-house a few minutes later feeling younger and fresher and finer than I have felt since I was a boy. The spring and cheer and delight of this exaltation lasted three hours, and the same uplifting effect has followed the twenty douches which I have taken since.

After my first douche I went to the chemist's on the corner, as per instructions, and asked for half a glass of Challe water. It comes from a spring sixteen miles from here. It was furnished to me, but, perceiving that there was something the matter with it, I offered to wait till they could get some that was fresh, but they said it always smelt that way. They said that the reason that this was so much ranker than the sulphur water of the bath was that this contained thirty-two times as much sulphur as that. It may be true, but in my opinion that water comes from a cemetery, and not a fresh cemetery, either. History says that one of the early Roman Generals lost an army down there somewhere. If he could come back now I think this water would help him find it again. However, I drank the Challe, and have drank it once or twice every day since. I suppose it is all right, but I wish I knew what was the matter with those Romans.

My first baths developed plenty of pain, but the subsequent ones removed almost all of it. I have got back the use of my arm these last few days, and I am going away now.

There are many beautiful drives about Aix, many interesting places to visit, and much pleasure to be found in paddling around the little lake Bourget on the small steamers, but the excursion which satisfied me best was a trip to Annecy and its neighborhood. You go to Annecy in an hour by rail, through a garden land that has not had its equal for beauty, perhaps, since Eden; and certainly Eden was not cultivated as this garden is. The charm and loveliness of the whole region are bewildering. Picturesque rocks, forest-clothed hills, slopes richly bright in the cleanest and greenest grass, fields of grain without fleck or flaw, dainty of color, and as shiny and shimmery as silk, old gray mansions and towers half buried in foliage and sunny eminences, deep chasms with precipitous wars, and a swift stream of pale blue water between, with now and then a tumbling cascade, and always noble mountains in view, with vagrant white clouds curling about their summits.

Then at the end of an hour you come to Annecy and rattle through its old crooked lanes, built solidly up with curious old houses that are a dream of the middle ages, and presently you come to the main object of your trip--Lake Annecy. It is a revelation, It is a miracle. It brings the tears to a body's eyes it is so enchanting. That is to say, it affects you just as all things that you instantly recognize as perfect affect you--perfect music, perfect eloquence, perfect art, perfect joy, perfect grief. It stretches itself out there in the caressing sunlight, and away towards its border of majestic mountains, a crisped and radiant plain of water of the divinest blue that can be imagined. All the blues are there, from the faintest shoal water suggestion of the color, detectable only in the shadow of some overhanging object, all the way through, a little blue and a little bluer still, and again a shade bluer till you strike, the deep, rich Mediterranean splendor which breaks the heart in your bosom, it is so beautiful.

And the mountains, as you skim along on the steamboat, how stately their forms, how noble their proportions, how green their velvet slopes, how soft the mottlings of sun and shadow that play about the rocky ramparts that crown them, how opaline the vast upheavals of snow banked against the sky in the remotenesses beyond--Mont Blanc and the others--how shall anybody describe? Why, not even the painter can quite do it, and the most the pen can do is to suggest.

Up the lake there is an old abbey--Talloires--relic of the middle ages. We stopped there; stepped from the sparkling water and the rush and boom and fret and fever of the nineteenth century into the solemnity and the silence and the soft gloom and the brooding mystery of a remote antiquity. The stone step at the water's edge had the traces of a worn-out inscription on it; the wide flight of stone steps that led up to the front door was polished smooth by the passing feet of forgotten centuries, and there was not an unbroken stone among them all. Within the pile was the old square cloister with covered arcade all around it where the monks of the ancient tunes used to sit and meditate, and now and then welcome to their hospitalities the wandering knight with his tin breeches on, and in the middle of the square court (open to the sky) was a stone well curb, cracked and stick with age and use, and all about it were weeds, and among the weeds moldy brickbats that the Crusaders used to throw at each other. A passage at the further side of the cloister led to another weedy and roofless little enclosure beyond, where there was a ruined wall clothed to the top with masses of ivy and flanking it was a battered and picturesque arch. All over the building there were comfortable rooms and comfortable beds, and clean plank floors with no carpets on them. In one bedroom upstairs were half a dozen portraits, dimming relics of the vanished centuries--portraits of abbots who used to be as grand as princes in their old day, and very rich and much worshiped and very holy; and in the next room there was a howling chromo and an electric bell. Down stairs there was an ancient wood carving with a Latin word commanding silence, and there was a spang new piano close by. Two elderly French women, with the kindest and honestest and sincerest faces, have the abbey now, and they board and lodge people who are tired of the roar of cities and want to be where the dead silence and serenity and peace of this old nest will heal their blistered spirits and patch up their ragged minds. They fed us well, they slept us well, and I wish I could have staid there a few years and got a solid rest.

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