From Berlin to Budapest in 1892 (Chapter XIII)

Chapter XIII

As we pushed our bicycles over the paying of Prague, a young man stepped up to us and a crowd gathered. He was a Freemason of the wheel, disguised in everyday dress; they were men; idle loafers. While they stared, he directed us out of the town-he was an unpatriotic young Czech, and spoke German-planned a new route for us, and sent us on our way rejoicing, for he said the road from Prague to Carlsbad was the best in Bohemia. We crossed the bridge, we toiled up the hill, we followed the horse-car tracks, we rode and walked through an endless suburb, past the enormous fortifications, past a great monastery with the feeling of the East in its many domes: we were at last in the open country; but all the good road we found was in the young man’s promise. Up and down we went, on foot the greater part of the time; and the road stretched a straight line in front of us, so that at the top of every hill we foresaw our coming martyrdom. The surface was so bad it kept us to the narrowest footpath; and that we should have fared no better with our faces turned the other way we knew by the weary cyclist bound for Prague, who sat on the grass mopping his face, his tall ordinary propped up against the tree, behind him. All disagreeable things are sure to come together. Of course we lost our way in the hills, and made our journey twice as long as it need have been; and equally, of course, everybody to whom we appealed for help gave us different directions. The road- mender told us to keep on; a polite man, out walking with his wife, told us to go back. We were so bewildered that I remember one village through which we rode four times, to the joy of all the youthful population. Then, so long were the kilometres that every town we came to we were certain must be Schlan, where we made up our minds we would spend the night. But it always turned out to be some other place, until we began to think we were hopelessly off the track and would never come to Schlan at all Nothing reconciled me to life, save the honours —musical honours once —we received by the way. In the road an old organ-grinder, in a small cart, pulled by a woman, at sight of us stopped in the middle of the road, seized his organ, and ground out vigorously a stirring, wheezy march, and its gasps and hoarse gurgles floated after us until we were out of hearing. In a town men at their shop-doors in the square, cried “Bravo! Bravo!” as we passed. But my first happy moment was when, after the sun had set. we wheeled up in front of the Hotel of the Post in Schlan. It was run by a young enthusiast with three machines in his hall, and an irreproachable English cut to his clothes. Even his vest was in the very latest Piccadilly fashion, and the only thing that gave him away was the point to his boot-. He was waiter as well as proprietor, and as he was so mu h more elegant than we had ever hoped to be, we were a trifle embarrassed to know what to do about feeing him It was awkward to offer such an imposing person the regulation half-dozen or so kreutzers. But there was another man, a native evidently, having his supper at a near table, and we watched to see how he would manage. As he left the usual coppers on the table, we ventured to do the same, and the young swell came and took them as gratefully as a common waiter, and became in return quite amiable and confidential. It was from Schlan that the road was so very good, he said, and he drew such a glowing picture of the pleasure awaiting us that we forgot that the youth in Prague had been as enthusiastic about the run to Schlan. Naturally, it rained in the morning, and, quite as naturally, the flood did not begin until we were out of the town. It seemed too late to turn back, and, hoping that perhaps it was only a passing shower, we went and stood in the tall grass under a cherry-tree, where peasants, on the way from the market in Schlan, were standing too. But the rain kept on about us steadily as it knew how: it began to get damp under the cherry-tree, and we started a second time. Then floundering in the mud, I tumbled off my machine, and Joseph

had to help me on when I promptly fell a second time. After that, we tried waiting under the trees again, then we rode a little, then we decided to go back to Schlan, and we went about half a kilometre towards it. Then we thought that would be nonsense, and we turned our faces once more in the direction of Carlsbad. Then I fell off some more. It was awful. When I fell for the sixth time, Joseph got off his machine and waited for me to catch up to him. The rain for the minute had stopped. “I am sick and tired of this sort of thing,” he said; “we won’t go another foot until you have learned to get on by yourself.” For, so far, I have carefully concealed the fact that, though I had cycled it from Cologne to Berlin and from Berlin to Prague, I could not yet mount my safety unless Joseph steadied it by holding the saddle. This was all very well at our first start in the morning. But there were times when it became an unqualified nuisance— when, for example, a rut or a stone brought me to my feet, or I came off for no particular reason, but much to my own surprise. Joseph might be yards ahead at the time; if he did not happen to look back, he might, and often did, ride out of sight. He would go on communing with nature or something; I would stand by the roadside screaming! Though he says my scream is not a success-it is too much like the squeak of an indiarubber doll. He declared that he was either perpetually turning his head to see if I was all right, or else waiting half an hour at a time for me to overtake him. As for me, it was not much more amusing. Many a long walk, pushing mv machine, was I forced to take sorely against my will. And now and then I was in positive danger, as on the ever-memorable morning when a vicious cur ran out barking from a farmhouse and caught my skirt between its teeth. I had warned Joseph. as long ago as that first day out of Calais, that, this would happen. I called wildly, “Joseph! Joseph!” but, as usual, he did not hear me. Brought to the ground, I should be at the mercy of the beast-there was no escape. But, fortunately it had barked itself out of breath, and could not keep its hold for more than a minute, and I stuck to my machine like grim death. Now, I knew that Joseph was right, But it was so much easier to put off the evil moment. I feebly expostulated. “No,” he said, “It’s perfect nonsense, and we won’t move until you era do it yourself.” He leaned on the saddle of his machine and watched. “Now get on.” “The wind is right in my face,” I groaned. “Turn your machine around,” was his cheerful suggestion. “lt’s always the way,” I told him; “you always choose the wrong time. I’m so hungry I don’t know what to do with myself. My strength’s all gone.” “I don’t care if it is,” was his one and only answer. l have got to get on, or we won’t stir from this place all day.” Well, of course. I did get on: not at the first trial, or the second, or at the third, but at the fourth, and, though there were tears in my eyes, I was intensely proud when I wheeled away all by myself. And when another heavy shower almost immediately forced me to jump off again and put on my macintosh, Joseph had to beg very humbly before I would let him help me mount, in the old fashion, because, he explained, it was so much harder in the rain and with my long cape catching in the saddle. I was quite in earnest when I said that I was hungry; but all we got for breakfast was cold sausages and bread and beer, which we ate in company with a wandering organ-grinder, a peddler, and two carters in a village inn. Bohemia is not the ideal land for the hungry cyclist: long kilometres lie between good meals. But the smallest Bohemian in, with its big bare room furnished with rough chairs and tables, and a selection of the royal family on its walls is immaculately clean. In primitive, and out-of-the-way places you are served with rolls which in London are only to be had at the Vienna Bakery; and when it comes to the beer—Pilsener beer—why, then I wish I were a poet to sing its praises aright.

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