From Berlin to Budapest in 1892 (chapter XXIII)

Chapter XXIII

Between Amstatten and Vienna stretch one hundred and twenty-seven kilometres, and we rode them in a day. There was no longer mud to flounder through, showers to dodge, hills to crawl up and down. The rain had stopped, a hot summer sun was shining, and for the first ninety or so kilometres to Neulengbach, where we lunched, we flew over the smooth hard surface of a road fairly level and mostly good—indeed, in places not far behind the perfection of a French Route Nationale. It is the charm of cycling that when the pleasure comes the misery is forgotten; and today the pleasure was all in the going. We stopped only once to look from a hilltop to the far Danube, with the little white towns and big castle on its banks; once to buy fruit under the shadow of the enormous Renaissance monastery of Melk, where we again came out on the river. We dismounted only to walk over the paved streets of St. Polten and Boheim- kirchen. But all this was changed after lunch. Gone was the good road, and in its place had come back familiar mud and ruts. Too soon were the wheeling through interminable suburbs full of people and carts and carriages, too soon did the paving begin, the dust become intolerable. The last kilometres into Vienna were as wearisome as the first out of Amstatten had been exhilarating. For days we had been living in small towns and villages, travelling over lonely country roads. Now, by contrast, the noise and movement of the capital were bewildering. I thought I had never seen such reckless driving even among Parisian glazed coats and red waistcoats. But the excitement of our first impressions wore quickly off. By our second evening Vienna seemed dull and lifeless—a milk-and-water Paris. Theatres were closed galleries were either moving or taking a holiday. If we went to the Volksgarten to hear a Strauss concert, the rain was sure to drive us away again. When soldiers, with oak-leaves in their hats, marched through the town in honour of the Kaiser’s birthday they aroused such languid interest that there was no inducement to go later to see the fireworks in the Prater. Only a few of the giddier cafes made a show of life and gaiety. We would have left at once had we not given our bicycles for a general cleaning and overhauling to a Viennese cycle agent, who said that they were the dirtiest he had ever seen. We felt this to be a distinction, but to him it was an excuse to keep them several days. Under any circumstances, it is a nuisance to ride through a large town which you do not know. In Vienna it is something worse; since, if you have not a license, if you have not a number big enough to be seen a mile off on the front of your machine, a policeman as likely as not will stop you at every turn. And so, when our bicycles were clean and in order again, we did not attempt to start from the hotel, but took the boat going eastward from Vienna, and went down the river as far as Pressburg. Hungary was the end of our long journey across Central Europe. We felt that it ought to be uncivilised and Eastern, all gipsies and music and wild creatures with the stamp of Attila—whatever that might mean—on every feature. But, then, we had hoped for almost as much of Bohemia, and Bohemia had turned out to be very like any other country in Europe, only below the average of picturesqueness in costume and architecture. Now, however, the boat had hardly passed the “Gates of Hungary,” where the old fortress stands in ruins on the rocks—it had not touched the first pier below— when we found that we were in another world, a world where men wore wide white linen drawers, real divided skirts, the link between the trousers of the West and what Kinglake calls the petticoat breeches of the East; where the women’ s skirts stood out as in the days of crinoline, and were short enough to show either bare ankles and sturdy calves or a pair of neat high boots; where the occasional man in a fez was a real Servian, and not a sham Turk; where soldiers were arrayed in skin-tight red breeches, braided with yellow, and brilliant Hussar jackets. All along, now, in the wide fields and meadows washed by the river, the same white divided skirts followed the plough or wandered with the great herds of cattle that grazed on the banks; everywhere and there on the water lay an old floating mill. Even at a glance, even so near the Austrian frontier, Hungary could not be reproached with lack of character. When Pressburg, with its castle-crowned hill, came in sight, we had seen enough to make us glad to be on shore and on our machines again. But not long did our gladness last. The country was all right—the endless plain dotted with the white peasants, the villages with their wide streets lined with low white houses, their little pond in the centre, and at their every door a well, with long inclined pole, so that as you entered it the street looked like a quay with the masts of ships rising its entire length. And the peasants, too, were all that they should have been, with costume enough to satisfy the most exacting, and, despite their strange loose shirts and drawers, a certain dignity about the men, tall and erect their faces clean-shaven save for the long moustache burnt yellow by the sun. But the road was all wrong. It was nothing better than a broad sand track across the plain: in places it got inextricably lost in the no less sandy fields, and we seemed to be going across country as recklessly as a huntsman after the hounds. Only by good luck was it that we kept on in the right direction. It was a long, steady, slow grind to work our bicycles over the loose surface, the wheels sinking deeper at every turn. Nor was it much easier to walk; mud, I think, would have been pleasanter. By evening we had got no farther than Raab. It was a pretty town, and in front of the hotel there was a carriage with a crest on the door and a coachman, worthy of the stage, in white drawers, blue coat, braided and frogged like a Hussar’s, and a round felt hat with long ribbons hanging in the back, a feather stuck on one side. But we were so tired that, even though the gipsies we had come all this long distance to see and hear were going to play in the restaurant, we went to bed as soon as we had eaten our supper. It was through our window, open to the soft August night, that we heard the first wail of the Czardas on its native soil. If we had not let mud and hills long before this bring our cycling to an end, now we were not going to be baulked by sand. We started out the next morning, again by the road, which was no better. It was just the same sand track across the same sandy fields. Of our route I can say nothing, since we promptly lost our way; nor could we ask it of the peasants, who spoke only Hungarian. “Why don’t they talk a decent Christian language?” we grumbled; though, if they had, of course we would be the first to take them to task for not having a language of their own. The plain still stretched far away on each side; there were still the little white villages with their wide street and great rows of mast-like poles to the wells; still the crowd of white-robed peasants rushing out to watch us ride. Men in the ordinary clothes of civilised life we saw only occasionally in a village, and once in carriages on the road, when they stared and smiled and tried to race us. ‘‘Cads are the same the world over,” said Joseph, for we were ploughing through the sand, and in no smiling humour. Things looked serious towards noon. We were starving; not a town was in sight, and, as we had no idea where we were, there was no help to be got from a map. For all we knew, we might follow the road for kilometres and kilometres, and see never so much as an inn by the way. And when we did, in the course of an hour, reach a village, it seemed as if, for all prospect of eating, we might as well be back in the open fields. We wheeled slowly through the wide street: there was not a sign of inn or even shop where bread could be bought. We came to the far end: nothing. A little beyond was a small house standing quite alone. Without much hope, I walked towards it, while Joseph waited with his machine.

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