St. Mark's is not the oldest building in the world, of course, but it seems the oldest, and looks the oldest--especially inside.
When the ancient mosaics in its walls become damaged, they are repaired but not altered; the grotesque old pattern is preserved. Antiquity has a charm of its own, and to smarten it up would only damage it. One day I was sitting on a red marble bench in the vestibule looking up at an ancient piece of apprentice-work, in mosaic, illustrative of the command to "multiply and replenish the earth." The Cathedral itself had seemed very old; but this picture was illustrating a period in history which made the building seem young by comparison. But I presently found an antique which was older than either the battered Cathedral or the date assigned to the piece of history; it was a spiral-shaped fossil as large as the crown of a hat; it was embedded in the marble bench, and had been sat upon by tourists until it was worn smooth. Contrasted with the inconceivable antiquity of this modest fossil, those other things were flippantly modern--jejune--mere matters of day-before-yesterday. The sense of the oldness of the Cathedral vanished away under the influence of this truly venerable presence.
St. Mark's is monumental; it is an imperishable remembrancer of the profound and simply piety of the Middle Ages. Whoever could ravish a column from a pagan temple, did it and contributed his swag to this Christian one. So this fane is upheld by several hundred acquisitions procured in that peculiar way. In our day it would be immoral to go on the highway to get bricks for a church, but it was no sin in the old times. St. Mark's was itself the victim of a curious robbery once. The thing is set down in the history of Venice, but it might be smuggled into the Arabian Nights and not seem out of place there:
Nearly four hundred and fifty years ago, a Candian named Stammato, in the suite of a prince of the house of Este, was allowed to view the riches of St. Mark's. His sinful eye was dazzled and he hid himself behind an altar, with an evil purpose in his heart, but a priest discovered him and turned him out. Afterward he got in again--by false keys, this time. He went there, night after night, and worked hard and patiently, all alone, overcoming difficulty after difficulty with his toil, and at last succeeded in removing a great brick of the marble paneling which walled the lower part of the treasury; this block he fixed so that he could take it out and put it in at will. After that, for weeks, he spent all his midnights in his magnificent mine, inspecting it in security, gloating over its marvels at his leisure, and always slipping back to his obscure lodgings before dawn, with a duke's ransom under his cloak. He did not need to grab, haphazard, and run--there was no hurry. He could make deliberate and well-considered selections; he could consult his esthetic tastes. One comprehends how undisturbed he was, and how safe from any danger of interruption, when it is stated that he even carried off a unicorn's horn--a mere curiosity--which would not pass through the egress entire, but had to be sawn in two-- a bit of work which cost him hours of tedious labor. He continued to store up his treasures at home until his occupation lost the charm of novelty and became monotonous; then he ceased from it, contented. Well he might be; for his collection, raised to modern values, represented nearly fifty million dollars!
He could have gone home much the richest citizen of his country, and it might have been years before the plunder was missed; but he was human--he could not enjoy his delight alone, he must have somebody to talk about it with. So he exacted a solemn oath from a Candian noble named Crioni, then led him to his lodgings and nearly took his breath away with a sight of his glittering hoard. He detected a look in his friend's face which excited his suspicion, and was about to slip a stiletto into him when Crioni saved himself by explaining that that look was only an expression of supreme and happy astonishment. Stammato made Crioni a present of one of the state's principal jewels--a huge carbuncle, which afterward figured in the Ducal cap of state--and the pair parted. Crioni went at once to the palace, denounced the criminal, and handed over the carbuncle as evidence. Stammato was arrested, tried, and condemned, with the old-time Venetian promptness. He was hanged between the two great columns in the Piazza--with a gilded rope, out of compliment to his love of gold, perhaps. He got no good of his booty at all--it was all recovered.
In Venice we had a luxury which very seldom fell to our lot on the continent--a home dinner with a private family. If one could always stop with private families, when traveling, Europe would have a charm which it now lacks. As it is, one must live in the hotels, of course, and that is a sorrowful business. A man accustomed to American food and American domestic cookery would not starve to death suddenly in Europe; but I think he would gradually waste away, and eventually die.
He would have to do without his accustomed morning meal. That is too formidable a change altogether; he would necessarily suffer from it. He could get the shadow, the sham, the base counterfeit of that meal; but it would do him no good, and money could not buy the reality.
To particularize: the average American's simplest and commonest form of breakfast consists of coffee and beefsteak; well, in Europe, coffee is an unknown beverage. You can get what the European hotel-keeper thinks is coffee, but it resembles the real thing as hypocrisy resembles holiness. It is a feeble, characterless, uninspiring sort of stuff, and almost as undrinkable as if it had been made in an American hotel. The milk used for it is what the French call "Christian" milk--milk which has been baptized.
After a few months' acquaintance with European "coffee," one's mind weakens, and his faith with it, and he begins to wonder if the rich beverage of home, with its clotted layer of yellow cream on top of it, is not a mere dream, after all, and a thing which never existed.
Next comes the European bread--fair enough, good enough, after a fashion, but cold; cold and tough, and unsympathetic; and never any change, never any variety--always the same tiresome thing.
Next, the butter--the sham and tasteless butter; no salt in it, and made of goodness knows what.
Then there is the beefsteak. They have it in Europe, but they don't know how to cook it. Neither will they cut it right. It comes on the table in a small, round pewter platter. It lies in the center of this platter, in a bordering bed of grease-soaked potatoes; it is the size, shape, and thickness of a man's hand with the thumb and fingers cut off. It is a little overdone, is rather dry, it tastes pretty insipidly, it rouses no enthusiasm.
Imagine a poor exile contemplating that inert thing; and imagine an angel suddenly sweeping down out of a better land and setting before him a mighty porterhouse steak an inch and a half thick, hot and sputtering from the griddle; dusted with a fragrant pepper; enriched with little melting bits of butter of the most unimpeachable freshness and genuineness; the precious juices of the meat trickling out and joining the gravy, archipelagoed with mushrooms; a township or two of tender, yellowish fat gracing an outlying district of this ample county of beefsteak; the long white bone which divides the sirloin from the tenderloin still in its place; and imagine that the angel also adds a great cup of American home-made coffee, with a cream a-froth on top, some real butter, firm and yellow and fresh, some smoking hot-biscuits, a plate of hot buckwheat cakes, with transparent syrup--could words describe the gratitude of this exile?
The European dinner is better than the European breakfast, but it has its faults and inferiorities; it does not satisfy. He comes to the table eager and hungry; he swallows his soup--there is an undefinable lack about it somewhere; thinks the fish is going to be the thing he wants-- eats it and isn't sure; thinks the next dish is perhaps the one that will hit the hungry place--tries it, and is conscious that there was a something wanting about it, also. And thus he goes on, from dish to dish, like a boy after a butterfly which just misses getting caught every time it alights, but somehow doesn't get caught after all; and at the end the exile and the boy have fared about alike; the one is full, but grievously unsatisfied, the other has had plenty of exercise, plenty of interest, and a fine lot of hopes, but he hasn't got any butterfly. There is here and there an American who will say he can remember rising from a European table d'hôte perfectly satisfied; but we must not overlook the fact that there is also here and there an American who will lie.
The number of dishes is sufficient; but then it is such a monotonous variety of unstriking dishes. It is an inane dead-level of "fair-to-middling." There is nothing to accent it. Perhaps if the roast of mutton or of beef--a big, generous one--were brought on the table and carved in full view of the client, that might give the right sense of earnestness and reality to the thing; but they don't do that, they pass the sliced meat around on a dish, and so you are perfectly calm, it does not stir you in the least. Now a vast roast turkey, stretched on the broad of his back, with his heels in the air and the rich juices oozing from his fat sides ... but I may as well stop there, for they would not know how to cook him. They can't even cook a chicken respectably; and as for carving it, they do that with a hatchet.
This is about the customary table d'hôte bill in summer:
It has now been many months, at the present writing, since I have had a nourishing meal, but I shall soon have one--a modest, private affair, all to myself. I have selected a few dishes, and made out a little bill of fare, which will go home in the steamer that precedes me, and be hot when I arrive--as follows:
Radishes. Baked apples, with Brook-trout, from Sierra cream. Nevadas. Fried oysters; stewed oysters. Lake-trout, from Tahoe. Frogs. Sheepshead and croakers from American coffee, with real cream. New Orleans. American butter. Black-bass from the Mississippi. Fried chicken, Southern style. American roast beef. Porterhouse steak. Roast turkey, Thanksgiving Saratoga potatoes. style. Broiled chicken, American style. Cranberry sauce. Celery. Hot biscuits, Southern style. Roast wild turkey. Woodcock. Hot wheat-bread, Southern Canvasback-duck, from style. Baltimore. Hot buckwheat cakes. Prairie-hens, from Illinois. American toast. Clear maple Missouri partridges, broiled. syrup. Possum. Coon. Virginia bacon, broiled. Boston bacon and beans. Blue points, on the half shell. Bacon and greens, Southern style. Cherry-stone clams. Hominy. Boiled onions. San Francisco mussels, steamed. Turnips. Oyster soup. Clam soup. Pumpkin. Squash. Asparagus. Philadelphia Terrapin soup. Butter-beans. Sweet-potatoes. Oysters roasted in shell--Lettuce. Succotash. Northern style. String-beans. Soft-shell crabs. Connecticut Mashed potatoes. Catsup. shad. Boiled potatoes, in their skins. Baltimore perch. New potatoes, minus the skins. Early Rose potatoes, roasted in Hot egg-bread, Southern style. the ashes, Southern style, Hot light-bread, Southern style. served hot. Buttermilk. Iced sweet milk. Sliced tomatoes, with sugar or Apple dumplings, with real vinegar. Stewed tomatoes. cream. Green corn, cut from the ear and Apple pie. Apple fritters. served with butter and pepper. Apple puffs, Southern style. Green corn, on the ear. Peach cobbler, Southern style. Hot corn-pone, with chitlings, Peach pie. American mince pie. Southern style. Pumpkin pie. Squash pie. Hot hoe-cake, Southern style. All sorts of American pastry.
Fresh American fruits of all sorts, including strawberries, which are not to be doled out as if they were jewelry, but in a more liberal way.
Ice-water--not prepared in the ineffectual goblet, but in the sincere and capable refrigerator.
Americans intending to spend a year or so in European hotels, will do well to copy this bill and carry it along. They will find it an excellent thing to get up an appetite with, in the dispiriting presence of the squalid table d'hôte.
Foreigners cannot enjoy our food, I suppose, any more than we can enjoy theirs. It is not strange; for tastes are made, not born. I might glorify my bill of fare until I was tired; but after all, the Scotchman would shake his head and say, "Where's your haggis?" and the Fijian would sigh and say, "Where's your missionary?"
I have a neat talent in matters pertaining to nourishment. This has met with professional recognition. I have often furnished recipes for cook-books. Here are some designs for pies and things, which I recently prepared for a friend's projected cook-book, but as I forgot to furnish diagrams and perspectives, they had to be left out, of course.
N.B. No household should ever be without this talisman. It has been noticed that tramps never return for another ash-cake.