Abroad with Mark Twain and Eugene Field/How Mark Would Safeguard England


"Not on your life," said Mark Twain, in pajamas and dressing gown, lolling in his big armchair at Brown's ("the only subdued and homelike inn left in London," he used to call it)—"not if you bring the Bath Club (and tub) right into this suite so I don't have to shock my good English friends by painting the town blue skipping across Dover Street in my dressing gown. By the way," he added, winking an eye at Bram Stoker, "my daughter Clara bought me this—(he held up the skirts of his bathrobe with both hands) "a most refined girl! If she wasn't, would she have sent me a wire like this?

"'Much worried by newspapers. Remember proprieties.'"

"And what did you answer?" asked Bram.

"None of your business! You are getting as fresh as a reporter," snapped Twain, with mock severity, while looking at me.

In the meanwhile I consulted my notebook. "It's sixteen years since the Kaiser—" I reopened the case— "Oh, I have a notebook too. Wait a minute," interrupted Twain. He gave his secretary directions, and presently read from an old, much worn diary, sustaining my date-line as it were—

". . . since this democratic lamb and the Imperial lion laid down together, a little General providing grub—"

"Sixteen years is a long time, and if the Kaiser imposed silence upon you then and there, the lid is certainly off now," I insisted. "Besides, at present, he's got Nietzsche on the brain."

"I don't care whether Annie Besant and William Jennings Bryan occupy lofts in his upper story," said Twain. "I had promised Von Versen" (the General and Mark's relation) "not to talk about that jamboree, and the worms, if interested, will have to turn burglars and jimmy my brain cells, where memories of the banquet are stored, for I swear I'll leave no skeleton key."

"Pshaw! You are still sore because Willie wouldn't let you get in a word edgewise," said Stoker.

"Man alive!" cried Twain, "his talk was selling books for me. I was in rotten bad shape then financially, doing syndicate work for 'The Sun' and 'McClure's'. Could I afford to say, 'Can your talk, Willie—like poverty, they have you with them always—but I am here for a short time only—my turn to stir up the animals."

We agreed that if an emperor climbs the dizzy heights of bookmongerdom he ought to have all the rope he wants.

"And did you like the British better than the Berlin brand of king?" was asked.

"They let me do a lot of talking at Windsor," evaded honest Mark. "I like these folks immensely. Ed is a manly fellow, despite his Hoboken accent—no wonder he fought with his ma, who wore the pants while Albert was alive, and tried to impose her German policies on her successor-to-be. Ed recalled an indigestion which we both entertained at Homburg, at the Elizabeth Spa there, which is more kinds of pure salt than Kissingen even. The blonde Fräulein who had sold us the liquid caviar advised walking it off, and as stomachache inclines to democracy the same as toothache, I didn't mind tramping with Ed, though I fancied that I would hear more about royal inner works than was decent for a minister's son."

"Did you tell the King any yarns?"

"Well, he referred to my giving out that interview about the news of my death being greatly exaggerated, and was pleased to call it funny. When I said that everybody more or less was given to overstatement, Ed commented, dryly, 'Especially my nephew of Germany.' So I told the story of the Russian Jew who claimed to have been chased by 47 wolves.

"'You probably were so frightened you saw double,' suggested the magistrate.

"'There were 12 at least,' insisted Isaac.

"'Won't half a dozen do?'

"'As I live, there were seven.'

"'Now tell the truth, Isaac. There was one wolf—one is enough to frighten a little Israelite like you.'

"Isaac, glad of saving one out of 47, nodded.

"'But maybe the creature wasn't a wolf at all!'

"'No wolf!' cried Isaac, 'what else could he be? Didn't he have four legs, and didn't he wag his tail?'

"After that Ed turned me over to the Queen and a tribe of Princes and Princesses, who all seemed much relieved when I solemnly informed them that I had no intention of buying Windsor Castle this trip. Then we talked commonplaces until Alexandra commanded me to put on my hat lest I catch cold, which gave me a chance to tell about Will Penn. Penn, you'll remember, insisted on wearing his hat everuwhere. When he saw King Charles, the second of his name, doff his chapeau at a court function the future Philadelphian inquired:

"'Friend Charles, why dost thou take off thy lid?'

"'Because,' answered Charles, 'it is customary at court that only one may remain covered in the King's presence.'

"I was ashamed, cracking that chestnut," said Mark, "but Alexandra and the youngsters seemed to think it a real side-splitter to judge by the noise they made."

"Nice people," said Bram.

"You bet," spoke Mark emphatically, "and that's why I'll have a word or two with the War Office of this here realm before I quit. I have been thinking, you know. When we got through with the grub at General Versen's and retired to the smoking room, that Kaiser, in the meantime reinforced by a lot of his officers that came in for beer, pretzels and cigars—that Kaiser worked himself up into a fine frenzy about his U-boats. His Germania Shipyards at Kiel (they were really Krupps, but he was the principal stockholder) would turn out better and bigger U-boats, he said, than the French and English could ever hope to build. And when he had enough of them, with all the improvements science and technique could provide—then beware, proud Albion!

"Invasion was the least he threatened unless England helped him exterminate France.

"'It was the easiest thing in the world,' boasted William, 'a hundred U-boats operating against England, Scotland, and Ireland simultaneously could pull off the trick in a day or two.'"

Mark lit a fresh cigar, tilted his feet as high as the chiffonier allowed and developed what he was pleased to call his "strategy."

"You see," he said, "the waters 'round these islands are charted to the last half pint. The British Admiralty knows the bottom as well as the surface and the coast. Now suppose Willie or any other divinely Appointed One (I don't think, though, there is another as foolish and reckless as he) should attempt to carry out that invasion threat. Mind, its possibilities are not denied by British strategists; I have made inquiries. Now, to meet invasion in the old orthodox way would cost a million lives, a thousand millions in treasure, and, after all, the result would be problematical.

"To make defeat of the invasion plans certain, we must forestall execution. And the only way to do that is to stew those U-boats in their own electric fat—juice, I mean. See my point?"

Bram and I said we did, "but—" and Twain, knowing that we were lying like thieves, explained:

"In time of peace, et cetera…. In this case (I will have the device patented, of course) we will build a steel fence all around the three kingdoms, height to be determined by local conditions. In all cases it will be so graduated as to allow the biggest ocean liner to pass over, yet high enough to bar the biggest and the smallest U-boat pirate. Are you on?" asked Mark.

Bram said he was, but I couldn't tell another lie before luncheon.

"Well, it's this way, you duffer," said Mark, "somewhere, everywhere on the English, Scottish and Irish coasts, immense dynamos will be established—these with no fancy brushes, mark you—to connect with certain points of my steel fence by naked cables.

"The British Admiralty will know, of course, when the U-boat armada sets out, and will turn on the current when and where it will do the most harm. Now the moment a U-boat touches my fence, out of business it goes, goes for good, but at the same time its agony will start. For my fence will be magnetized as well as electrified, and though the U-boat is momentarily repulsed, it is held, at the same time, captive by a giant magnet.

"Think of the fine time the enemy crew will have," chuckled Twain, "with ten thousands of volts pumped into their vessel at the bottom of the sea, the magnet preventing its getaway.

"Boys," he continued, "I would like to sit on top of Big Ben" (in the tower of Parliament House, London) "and direct the electric strokes myself."

"And this epoch-making invention of yours, will you present it to Great Britain as a free gift?"

"Not I," said Twain. "I have a family to look after. I intend to get a round million sterling from the War Office here. And if the British refuse to pay, why, when you come to think of it, we have quite a long coast line in the United States—" While Mark was speaking, Sir Thomas Lipton came in with a newspaper poster, four days old, that read:

Mark Twain Arrives

Ascot Cup Stolen

And that turned the conversation into other channels.

  1. London, June 24th or 25th, 1907, a few days after the famous Royal Garden Party at Windsor, where Mark had been lionized. Persons present, Mark Twain and secretary, Bram Stoker, and author.