The Venice of the West
 About the Author/Artist
 Alternative History Timeline  
 Double Fiction Issue

Part I: Alta California
 I Meet Mark Twain
 I Meet John Sargent
 A Humorist, Not a Politician
 The Venice of the West
 The Fair Marina
 A Candide Character
 A Swan Among Geese

 So Much?
 Gibralter the Egg Mule
 An American Vandal Abroad
 Daisy and Oscar
 A Chance Encounter
 Goya’s Studio
 Holy Relics

Part II: Sakrametska in Rossland
 Boundary Values
 The Unholy Family
 Boom Town
 New Dog, Old Tricks
 Commission of a Lifetime
 Minor Moon of a Minor Planet

  NOVEL EXCERPTS by Patrick Fanning



William Dean Howells
Atlantic Weekly
Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Dear William:

If my last letter to you was intoxicated, this one is the hangover. It is all my fault for succumbing to flattery, for placing my hope in monarchs, for failing to extinguish in myself that instinctive awe that hereditary rulers evoke in the common-born.

Despite my republican values, I approached my audience with Tsar Nicholai in a state of giddiness. I polished my boots, trimmed my moustache, and had Marina coach me in several phrases of well-turned Russian. Then I made one mistake: I brought Marina and Sargent along, in the guise of translator and secretary, to fill out my entourage.

To my disappointment, we were received by the Tsar in a large drawing-room, rather than in a genuine throne room. A few chairs around the walls were occupied by miscellaneous courtiers and hangers-on, whispering in the background. The Tsar is a tall, skinny gent, with that poker-up-the-backside carriage I associate more with Prussians than Russians. He and I got on tolerably well, with a minimum of bowing and scraping. He seemed truly glad to receive the leather-bound Innocents you provided me—thank you for that, by the way.

I had just started to relax and enjoy myself, when Sargent bushwhacked me. The whelp stole my thunder! One moment I was trading Russian and Esperanto witticisms with the emperor, the perfect image of the visiting literary lion; and the next moment I was holding Master John’s coat while he gossiped endlessly in French with my Tsar.

Sargent has taken to Sakrametska like a bear to honey. He scoops up the attention of all those around him and plays the Russians like a cello. He and Nicholai were chattering like a pair of schoolgirls at a party. The Tsar even offered him a commission for a portrait! I can just imagine the sort of flattering, sugary image that will result. In France and Italy I saw miles of such paintings by the old masters. Some of them were beautiful, no doubt, but their nauseous adulation of princely patrons was more prominent to me than the charm of color and expression which are claimed to be in the pictures.

Sargent has been baldly hinting that I should allow him to paint my portrait. To my shame, I have occasionally been attracted to the notion—he is undoubtedly talented in that line. But his fawning behavior with the Tsar has hardened my heart against that project.

 I have enclosed another piece for the Weekly, dealing chiefly in the elevation of the downtown streets. Since it is somewhat critical of the regime, you should probably save it for publication after I am safely back in California. Believe me, I could have given the rascals an even harsher scouring, had I chosen to speak of the laborers who are doing the work—they are little better than slaves. It seems to me that the Russians build nothing for themselves. The Summer Palace in Fort Ross was built over decades by Aleuts from the Straits of Kamkatchka. When those died off, the onion domes of the cathedral there were completed by Pomo and Miwok Indians. The Winter Palace here in Sakrametska is steeped in the blood of poor Chinese, Yankees, and yet more local Indians. Their descendants, no better off, no further up the ladder of society, are now raising the very streets to the level of the Tsar’s driveway, without any hope of raising their own prospects.

Twenty-five years after the discovery of gold in the Sierras, you can still feel the bustle of the gold rush in this town. I have tried to limn that feeling in the enclosed piece, for the entertainment of your readers. But it is not a healthy excitement. It is like the final fever of typhus, when the patient seems to become more animated and alert, just before the last decline. I sense a fatal fervor in the tone of civic discourse here, that speaks to me of revolution and civil war. I think the Tsar’s contemplated invasion of California is more desperate distraction than true ambition. You may pass that along to your Washington cronies, for whatever it may be worth.

Meanwhile, I remain…

Your faithful correspondent
Mark Twain

  © Patrick Fanning, 2012


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