From Berlin to Budapest in 1892 (ChapterXIV)

Chapter XIV

In Germany I drank beer under protest; in Bohemia with pleasure. It is so light that warm and thirsty after your morning’s work, you can take a great, long, refreshing drink and be none the worse, but much the better, for it, and everywhere it is brought to you cold as ice. The natives, too, when they talk a language you understand, are kind and friendly, and in this part of the country, as the rococo Statues grow fewer and fewer more and more of the people speak German. The entire company spoke it in the inn where we lunched, and where the motherly landlady, in a burst of amiability, offered me a bite of the cinnamon bun she was eating, which, apparently, she had made for herself as a special treat. The proprietor of the Post, if he spoke the truth, often rides from Sudan to Carlsbad in a day. But it is more probable that he lied. All cyclists do, so that it reflects no discredit upon him as a hotel-keeper, or as a cyclist either. It is only a way men and women -who ride cycles have when they talk about their performances; which means that my readers must decide for themselves how much of my story is to be believed. I can assure them, however, that they need be in no doubt when I say that, all that afternoon we toiled up and down, up and down through a country divided into countless patches of cultivated ground, between rows of cherry-trees, meeting a ceaseless procession of peasants, the women bearing the burdens and doing the work, the men smoking their long pipes, and that by the sunset hour we had got no farther than Lubenz. It was not a large village, nor was its best hotel much better than the inn where we had eaten our midday meal. But the room into which we were shown, though carpet-less, and with cheap pine beds and washing-stand and two chairs for all furniture, was fresh and clean. The bare floor was as white as constant scrubbing could make it, and the linen was spot-less. Bohemia is a clean country. As we had no idea of paying higher than Metropole rates in this small village, we asked how much the room would be. The landlord smiled warily, shifted from one foot to the other, and started downstairs without answering. We called him back. “It will not be two gulden.” he said. But we insisted, and at last he offered it to us for one about a shilling and nine- pence. To make sure of us in his turn, he locked up the bicycles in another room and pocketed the key, and charged for our beds with our supper. In France, in an inn of the same size, the room would have been atrocious, the dinner delicious. Here the supper was only passable. It was amusing, however, for the red cloth was laid in the common room below, where every little girl in the village, one after another, came in with a jug for beer, and where, around a table in the centre, a postman and two or three of his cronies, in soft felt hats and feathers, gathered for the evening pipe and Pilsener. It was funny to hear how the postman, who was an official, always, spoke German, even to answer his friends’ Bohemian. The next day’s ride was a queer contrast to the run from Schlan to Lubenz. We still had the hills, now with, now against us, now better, now worse, until, finally, in long steep zigzags, the road dropped from the hilly upland to the green hollow were Carlsbad lay, well shut in by mountains. But yesterday we had lunched in a wayside inn with peddler, and organ grinders and carters; this morning we breakfasted in the swellest hotel in Carlsbad with magnates and Idlers from every comer of the earth. For, if one day you eat cold sausages and butterless bread, the next you will have saved up enough to have Hungarian wine and pate de foie gras. Thus you can average your daily expenses. It may not be true economy but it is nice. We did not think we had a moneyed look, but the waiter did. When, modestly, we said we would like to wash our hands, we were led up three flights of stairs into a large bed-room, where two chambermaids came to bring one pitcher of water and a towel, and where a notice on the wall, explained in all civilised languages, that you were expected to fee all servants who looked at you, and it gave the tariff for it too. We were assured that there was notable a note, in the dining-room, the waiter came up rubbing his hands: what would we have? The bill of fare! We told him. But we could have anything, he explained; there was rosbif English. But we got our bill of fare in the course of time. We do not believe in paying fancy prices made for our special benefit. And then, no sooner had we given our orders than we saw the menu of a breakfast to begin at twelve-that is, an hour later. The soup he brought was taken back to the kitchen. It is not only in the small village that the Bohemian will cheat you if he can.

The springs were under repair. All sorts of pipes and appliances were being laid down and set up in the colonnade- and it looked as if it were going to take a steam-engine to get those waters to work again. In the streets the most conspicuous objects were the Polish Jews, in long black caftans, a corkscrew curl over each ear, and unkempt beards. We expected to find the streets here a new edition of the Row or of the Bois de Boulogne; instead, they swarmed with creatures who would have seemed more at home in Bethnal Green or Batignolles. We wondered whether Carlsbad had been made a Headquarters for Baron Hirsch’s emigrants. It was only many days later that a Pole we met on the road explained that the place is as popular with Polish Jews as with crowned heads of Europe. After Carlsbad we came to the one and only real castle we saw in Bohemia. It was in El Imogen, and it stood well on a wooded hill, with the river flowing round it-a Bohemian Durham. We sat down by the roadside to have a look at such an unexpected sight, when three cyclists, feet up, coasted madly by. They waited for us in the town, wheeled slowly over the paving, when; we, with better sense, walked, and across the bridge beyond, and then they asked if they might ride with us. We could not say no, but it made me rather nervous How would I succeed in getting on my machine I had not yet had two days’ practice. However, with Joseph’s help I made a creditable start: and if I tumbled once without provocation and Knocked over the whole procession, later climbed a long hill with great distinction. They were scorchers, and did their best to run away from us, until, before long, they stopped for their first drink, and they kept on drinking the rest, of the way. In every little town we missed them, and then in five or ten minutes they would overtake us, and say that they were so thirsty they had stopped for beer. And in front of wayside farmhouses we left them, great cups of milk in their hands. Towards evening, however, we let them get well ahead. Why should one tear when the road is good, the country pretty, and the sun setting behind far wooded hills, its light tailing here and there on a broad pool in the open fields, or between the pines by the wayside? But when someone who wants to get on is riding with you, you are bound to keep up with him, and so you hang the sunset, and put your head down and scorch! But once rid of them, there was nothing to hurry us, and at this hour we always loved to linger as we rode. Believe me, there are few greater pleasures in life than to cycle through a fair land at the hour of sunset in the peaceful quiet of the closing day. Eger was a fitting end to the afternoon’s riding. Its beautiful square was gaily decorated with greens and a triumphal arch was raised at one end, as if to celebrate our coming. But they were quick to tell us at the hotel that all this display was in preparation for a grand Schutzen Fest to be held on Sunday. Here, instead of the carpet-less room, with its cheap pine beds of the night before, we slept in a palatial apartment, with large bow window overlooking the square, and great silver candelabra set upon the table, and yet we only paid a gulden more than in the humbler quarters. If you travel by road in Bohemia, one day you may be treated as a pauper, but the next you fare as a prince.

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