From Berlin to Budapest in 1892 (ChapterXII)

Chapter XII

The only trees we came to were the cherry-trees by the roadside, and then there was no eating the cherries in peace. If we picked them, even if Joseph reached up for them from his bicycle—a bit of trick – riding which I did not seek to emulate—a dog barked, a woman screamed, or a man swore from the ditch or from the little straw hut pitched under the trees. I believe the fruit belongs to the commune, and when picking time comes the people send out their watchman to guard it and save it from the traveller. They were friendlier in Saxony, where, on the road from Dresden to Konigstein, no one objected to our helping ourselves and eating as much as we could. The towns and villages were as over-civilised, in the modern sense, as the country was over-cultivated. We had not journeyed all this distance to see nothing but staring new apartment houses and town halls, not half so good as those at home. What is the use of an old country if it has no old stuff to show for its years? We passed a few churches with eastern-like domes for belfries, a convent with beautiful renaissance portal, and the castle of Raudnitz, and that was all, except those irresistible rococo statues which the Morris school would declare debased, but which to our unregenerate taste were a never-ceasing delight. Everywhere, in roadside shrines, in little chapels of their own, in the market-squares, in the churches, were the deliciously affected, self-conscious Madonnas and saints, and the conceited, posing little angels with chubby hand, pretending to wipe the tears from one eye while with the other they looked to see the effect upon the passer by. The rest, however, was modem-hopelessly modern. There must have been a big building boom in the north of Bohemia somewhere about the year 1888, the favourite date on street paving and pretentious buildings, but, like so many booms in America, it apparently had come to nothing. Some of the largest houses had never been finished, but stood, ruined before they were built—a melancholy moral for social and industrial reformer. The towns were given over to modern Improvements, the villages—those immaculately clean little villages—to geese. Once, in a village shop-window, among a distressing lot of tin and china trash, we found a beautiful large jar, the only thing we wanted in the whole course of our Bohemian ride. However, you cannot Carry bric-a-brac of that kind on a bicycle, especially over roods where you feel as if you yourself might full to pieces any minute. As for the people, there was not a sign of the dreamy sadness and strange mysticism of the Slav that one is forever reading about. They worked with a dogged energy and commonplace industry that would not have been out of the way in Zola’s peasants. In no other country is it so impossible to remain unconscious of the surplus population question and the hopelessness of the peasant’s fate. In Germany, or during other rides in France, in Italy, in England, we sometimes had the road to ourselves; in Bohemia, never. There was always someone just behind us or just in front of us, always toilers, chiefly women, in the fields. The one touch of Arcadian freedom was in the group of young girls bathing at noon in a pool by the roadside just on the outskirts of a large village, who ran to the bank when they saw us, and stood there as we passed, unabashed as Eve before she ate the apple, while the water trickled off their naked bodies. From the moment we first saw Prague, it impressed us as the most theatrical city we had ever seen off the stage. Nothing could have been more dramatic than our first glimpse of it from the distance. It had been a long day’s run from Aussig, doubly tiresome because of the hills and the heat, which was intense, and we counted upon staying in a village ten kilometres or more on the Aussig side of Prague. But when we reached it we found no hotel, and a native cyclist assured us there was none by the way, though we were quite sure that the house in front of which he stood was an inn; and so, though the sun had set, and now and then rain fell in a light drizzle, we had to keep on. There was nothing to do but to pull ourselves together and settle down to hartd work. When the way was dreariest and the evening gloomiest, suddenly below us — the road turning sharply without our realising it—millions of lights hinged up in the darkness: lights in long lilies, lights in circles, lights in fantastic arabesques, all leading up to one high flaming pyramid. This was what we should have seen oh the Brocken. It was a spectacle which, had Sir Augustus Harris or Mr. Irving invented it would have doubled his fortune in a season. But, though these were the lights of Prague, the road left them far behind, and went on and on through endless crowded suburbs. And the drizzle turned into drenching rain, and the mud, as we neared the town, grew deeper, and we walked and walked and walked—first in the middle of the road, then along a dark, shady path, thou on the pavement under dim street lamps, for Prague, now we were in it, was as dingy as it had been brilliant from the distance. We were so miserable that we took refuge in the first hotel we reached, without looking at its name, and, what was of more account to us, without asking its prices; for, to be done with a disagreeable subject. I might us well say hear that in Bohemia you must bargain as in Italy, since the Bohemian, like the Italian, will cheat you if he can, though, unlike the Italian, when you find him out, he does not see the honour of it, but, if you object, threatens to call the police. The hotel was unpretending, really nothing more than a large beer-hall. But our room, which, I must admit, was large and clean and comfortable, cost us more than in the large hotels of Berlin and Vienna. It is by the river that Prague is most theatrical, when one looks to its cathedral and palace-crowned hill from the bridge where the rococo religious figures strike attitudes in a long line on either side. The bridge was being restored when we were there, and many of the statues had been put away for the time. But I hope and believe they are to be faithfully put back again in their old places, for the delight of the world and the greater comfort of the pious native, who crosses himself— or, more generally, herself—before each statue in turn, by no menus a light task. Much depends upon this restoration, for, without the bridge the picturesqueness of Prague would lose its special and delightful quality. Not that I would make light of the cathedral, which is striking in position, impressive architecturally, and full of fine detail, even though its nave is being built for the first time to-day. Nor would I deny the beauty and interest of the old Romanesque church, of the town hull and so many other ancient houses, of the hilly streets, of those marvellous gates, each one more theatrical than the last, or of the dominican monastery on the brow of the hill, where the affable little father took us through the library and showed us shells and minerals we did not want to see, all the time talking his soft musical Bohemian to two friends, and where, in the green space outside, I watched the Father Superior walking peacefully in the morning sunshine and patting the passing children on the head, while another monk took J to see the Albert Durer, which hangs in the innermost cloisters, where women are not allowed to go. There were plenty of tourists about, but none were English, and it was because old Prague seemed to us so inexhaustible that we found no time for the great Exhibition which young Czechs were then doing their best to turn into political capital. However, when all is said, the fact remains that while Prague cannot boast a monopoly of Romanesque and Gothic architecture, of hills and monasteries, its bridge knows no rival throughout the world. The rococo statues are the most characteristic feature of northern Bohemia, and on the bridge of Prague they reach their highest rococo perfection.

 

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