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Chapter 17

CHAPTER XVII [Why Germans Wear Spectacles]

A mile or two above Eberbach we saw a peculiar ruin projecting above the
foliage which clothed the peak of a high and very steep hill. This ruin
consisted of merely a couple of crumbling masses of masonry which bore
a rude resemblance to human faces; they leaned forward and touched
foreheads, and had the look of being absorbed in conversation. This
ruin had nothing very imposing or picturesque about it, and there was no
great deal of it, yet it was called the "Spectacular Ruin."


The captain of the raft, who was as full of history as he could stick,
said that in the Middle Ages a most prodigious fire-breathing dragon
used to live in that region, and made more trouble than a tax-collector.
He was as long as a railway-train, and had the customary impenetrable
green scales all over him. His breath bred pestilence and conflagration,
and his appetite bred famine. He ate men and cattle impartially, and
was exceedingly unpopular. The German emperor of that day made the usual
offer: he would grant to the destroyer of the dragon, any one solitary
thing he might ask for; for he had a surplusage of daughters, and it was
customary for dragon-killers to take a daughter for pay.

So the most renowned knights came from the four corners of the earth and
retired down the dragon's throat one after the other. A panic arose and
spread. Heroes grew cautious. The procession ceased. The dragon became
more destructive than ever. The people lost all hope of succor, and fled
to the mountains for refuge.

At last Sir Wissenschaft, a poor and obscure knight, out of a far
country, arrived to do battle with the monster. A pitiable object he
was, with his armor hanging in rags about him, and his strange-shaped
knapsack strapped upon his back. Everybody turned up their noses at him,
and some openly jeered him. But he was calm. He simply inquired if
the emperor's offer was still in force. The emperor said it was--but
charitably advised him to go and hunt hares and not endanger so precious
a life as his in an attempt which had brought death to so many of the
world's most illustrious heroes.

But this tramp only asked--"Were any of these heroes men of science?"
This raised a laugh, of course, for science was despised in those days.
But the tramp was not in the least ruffled. He said he might be a little
in advance of his age, but no matter--science would come to be honored,
some time or other. He said he would march against the dragon in the
morning. Out of compassion, then, a decent spear was offered him, but
he declined, and said, "spears were useless to men of science." They
allowed him to sup in the servants' hall, and gave him a bed in the

When he started forth in the morning, thousands were gathered to see.
The emperor said:

"Do not be rash, take a spear, and leave off your knapsack."

But the tramp said:

"It is not a knapsack," and moved straight on.

The dragon was waiting and ready. He was breathing forth vast volumes
of sulphurous smoke and lurid blasts of flame. The ragged knight
stole warily to a good position, then he unslung his cylindrical
knapsack--which was simply the common fire-extinguisher known to modern
times--and the first chance he got he turned on his hose and shot the
dragon square in the center of his cavernous mouth. Out went the fires
in an instant, and the dragon curled up and died.

This man had brought brains to his aid. He had reared dragons from the
egg, in his laboratory, he had watched over them like a mother, and
patiently studied them and experimented upon them while they grew. Thus
he had found out that fire was the life principle of a dragon; put out
the dragon's fires and it could make steam no longer, and must die.
He could not put out a fire with a spear, therefore he invented the
extinguisher. The dragon being dead, the emperor fell on the hero's neck
and said:

"Deliverer, name your request," at the same time beckoning out behind
with his heel for a detachment of his daughters to form and advance. But
the tramp gave them no observance. He simply said:

"My request is, that upon me be conferred the monopoly of the
manufacture and sale of spectacles in Germany."

The emperor sprang aside and exclaimed:

"This transcends all the impudence I ever heard! A modest demand, by my
halidome! Why didn't you ask for the imperial revenues at once, and be
done with it?"

But the monarch had given his word, and he kept it. To everybody's
surprise, the unselfish monopolist immediately reduced the price of
spectacles to such a degree that a great and crushing burden was removed
from the nation. The emperor, to commemorate this generous act, and to
testify his appreciation of it, issued a decree commanding everybody to
buy this benefactor's spectacles and wear them, whether they needed them
or not.

So originated the wide-spread custom of wearing spectacles in Germany;
and as a custom once established in these old lands is imperishable,
this one remains universal in the empire to this day. Such is the legend
of the monopolist's once stately and sumptuous castle, now called the
"Spectacular Ruin."

On the right bank, two or three miles below the Spectacular Ruin, we
passed by a noble pile of castellated buildings overlooking the water
from the crest of a lofty elevation. A stretch of two hundred yards of
the high front wall was heavily draped with ivy, and out of the mass
of buildings within rose three picturesque old towers. The place was in
fine order, and was inhabited by a family of princely rank. This castle
had its legend, too, but I should not feel justified in repeating it
because I doubted the truth of some of its minor details.

Along in this region a multitude of Italian laborers were blasting away
the frontage of the hills to make room for the new railway. They were
fifty or a hundred feet above the river. As we turned a sharp corner
they began to wave signals and shout warnings to us to look out for the
explosions. It was all very well to warn us, but what could WE do? You
can't back a raft upstream, you can't hurry it downstream, you can't
scatter out to one side when you haven't any room to speak of, you won't
take to the perpendicular cliffs on the other shore when they appear to
be blasting there, too. Your resources are limited, you see. There is
simply nothing for it but to watch and pray.

For some hours we had been making three and a half or four miles an hour
and we were still making that. We had been dancing right along until
those men began to shout; then for the next ten minutes it seemed to me
that I had never seen a raft go so slowly. When the first blast went
off we raised our sun-umbrellas and waited for the result. No harm
done; none of the stones fell in the water. Another blast followed, and
another and another. Some of the rubbish fell in the water just astern
of us.

We ran that whole battery of nine blasts in a row, and it was certainly
one of the most exciting and uncomfortable weeks I ever spent, either
aship or ashore. Of course we frequently manned the poles and shoved
earnestly for a second or so, but every time one of those spurts of dust
and debris shot aloft every man dropped his pole and looked up to get
the bearings of his share of it. It was very busy times along there for
a while. It appeared certain that we must perish, but even that was
not the bitterest thought; no, the abjectly unheroic nature of the
death--that was the sting--that and the bizarre wording of the resulting
obituary: "SHOT WITH A ROCK, ON A RAFT." There would be no poetry
written about it. None COULD be written about it. Example:

NOT by war's shock, or war's shaft,--SHOT, with a rock, on a raft.

No poet who valued his reputation would touch such a theme as that. I
should be distinguished as the only "distinguished dead" who went down
to the grave unsonneted, in 1878.

But we escaped, and I have never regretted it. The last blast was
peculiarly strong one, and after the small rubbish was done raining
around us and we were just going to shake hands over our deliverance, a
later and larger stone came down amongst our little group of pedestrians
and wrecked an umbrella. It did no other harm, but we took to the water
just the same.

It seems that the heavy work in the quarries and the new railway
gradings is done mainly by Italians. That was a revelation. We have
the notion in our country that Italians never do heavy work at all, but
confine themselves to the lighter arts, like organ-grinding, operatic
singing, and assassination. We have blundered, that is plain.

All along the river, near every village, we saw little station-houses
for the future railway. They were finished and waiting for the rails and
business. They were as trim and snug and pretty as they could be. They
were always of brick or stone; they were of graceful shape, they had
vines and flowers about them already, and around them the grass was
bright and green, and showed that it was carefully looked after. They
were a decoration to the beautiful landscape, not an offense. Wherever
one saw a pile of gravel or a pile of broken stone, it was always heaped
as trimly and exactly as a new grave or a stack of cannon-balls; nothing
about those stations or along the railroad or the wagon-road was
allowed to look shabby or be unornamental. The keeping a country in such
beautiful order as Germany exhibits, has a wise practical side to
it, too, for it keeps thousands of people in work and bread who would
otherwise be idle and mischievous.

As the night shut down, the captain wanted to tie up, but I thought
maybe we might make Hirschhorn, so we went on. Presently the sky became
overcast, and the captain came aft looking uneasy. He cast his eye
aloft, then shook his head, and said it was coming on to blow. My party
wanted to land at once--therefore I wanted to go on. The captain said we
ought to shorten sail anyway, out of common prudence. Consequently, the
larboard watch was ordered to lay in his pole. It grew quite dark, now,
and the wind began to rise. It wailed through the swaying branches of
the trees, and swept our decks in fitful gusts. Things were taking on an
ugly look. The captain shouted to the steersman on the forward log:

"How's she landing?"

The answer came faint and hoarse from far forward:

"Nor'-east-and-by-nor'--east-by-east, half-east, sir."

"Let her go off a point!"

"Aye-aye, sir!"

"What water have you got?"

"Shoal, sir. Two foot large, on the stabboard, two and a half scant on
the labboard!"

"Let her go off another point!"

"Aye-aye, sir!"

"Forward, men, all of you! Lively, now! Stand by to crowd her round the
weather corner!"

"Aye-aye, sir!"

Then followed a wild running and trampling and hoarse shouting, but the
forms of the men were lost in the darkness and the sounds were distorted
and confused by the roaring of the wind through the shingle-bundles. By
this time the sea was running inches high, and threatening every moment
to engulf the frail bark. Now came the mate, hurrying aft, and said,
close to the captain's ear, in a low, agitated voice:

"Prepare for the worst, sir--we have sprung a leak!"

"Heavens! where?"

"Right aft the second row of logs."

"Nothing but a miracle can save us! Don't let the men know, or there
will be a panic and mutiny! Lay her in shore and stand by to jump with
the stern-line the moment she touches. Gentlemen, I must look to you to
second my endeavors in this hour of peril. You have hats--go forward and
bail for your lives!"

Down swept another mighty blast of wind, clothed in spray and thick
darkness. At such a moment as this, came from away forward that most
appalling of all cries that are ever heard at sea:


The captain shouted:

"Hard a-port! Never mind the man! Let him climb aboard or wade ashore!"

Another cry came down the wind:

"Breakers ahead!"

"Where away?"

"Not a log's length off her port fore-foot!"

We had groped our slippery way forward, and were now bailing with the
frenzy of despair, when we heard the mate's terrified cry, from far aft:

"Stop that dashed bailing, or we shall be aground!"

But this was immediately followed by the glad shout:

"Land aboard the starboard transom!"

"Saved!" cried the captain. "Jump ashore and take a turn around a tree
and pass the bight aboard!"

The next moment we were all on shore weeping and embracing for joy,
while the rain poured down in torrents. The captain said he had been a
mariner for forty years on the Neckar, and in that time had seen storms
to make a man's cheek blanch and his pulses stop, but he had never,
never seen a storm that even approached this one. How familiar that
sounded! For I have been at sea a good deal and have heard that remark
from captains with a frequency accordingly.

We framed in our minds the usual resolution of thanks and admiration
and gratitude, and took the first opportunity to vote it, and put it
in writing and present it to the captain, with the customary speech. We
tramped through the darkness and the drenching summer rain full three
miles, and reached "The Naturalist Tavern" in the village of Hirschhorn
just an hour before midnight, almost exhausted from hardship, fatigue,
and terror. I can never forget that night.

The landlord was rich, and therefore could afford to be crusty and
disobliging; he did not at all like being turned out of his warm bed to
open his house for us. But no matter, his household got up and cooked
a quick supper for us, and we brewed a hot punch for ourselves, to keep
off consumption. After supper and punch we had an hour's soothing smoke
while we fought the naval battle over again and voted the resolutions;
then we retired to exceedingly neat and pretty chambers upstairs that
had clean, comfortable beds in them with heirloom pillowcases most
elaborately and tastefully embroidered by hand.

Such rooms and beds and embroidered linen are as frequent in German
village inns as they are rare in ours. Our villages are superior
to German villages in more merits, excellences, conveniences, and
privileges than I can enumerate, but the hotels do not belong in the

"The Naturalist Tavern" was not a meaningless name; for all the halls
and all the rooms were lined with large glass cases which were filled
with all sorts of birds and animals, glass-eyed, ably stuffed, and set
up in the most natural eloquent and dramatic attitudes. The moment we
were abed, the rain cleared away and the moon came out. I dozed off to
sleep while contemplating a great white stuffed owl which was looking
intently down on me from a high perch with the air of a person who
thought he had met me before, but could not make out for certain.

But young Z did not get off so easily. He said that as he was sinking
deliciously to sleep, the moon lifted away the shadows and developed
a huge cat, on a bracket, dead and stuffed, but crouching, with every
muscle tense, for a spring, and with its glittering glass eyes aimed
straight at him. It made Z uncomfortable. He tried closing his own eyes,
but that did not answer, for a natural instinct kept making him open
them again to see if the cat was still getting ready to launch at
him--which she always was. He tried turning his back, but that was a
failure; he knew the sinister eyes were on him still. So at last he had
to get up, after an hour or two of worry and experiment, and set the cat
out in the hall. So he won, that time.

Mark Twain