From Berlin to Budapest on a Bicycle in 1892 (chapter II)

Chapter II

I have been so often reproved for referring to rain in the stories of our travels that I am almost afraid to say that the rest of the day’s ride left behind it confused memories of rain and mud, of wet little timbered villages and stretches of watery road running through drenched woods, of peasants who roared with delight when they saw me in my macintosh, and of many cyclists, who always overtook us just when I was ignominiously walking. My misery reached its height when, late in the afternoon, unexpectedly my safety lay down in the middle of the road and I sat on top of it. The result was something dreadful the matter with the pedal; followed by Joseph’s assurance that my riding was all over and I might as well go back to Cologue at once. I hated him; I hated myself; I hated Germany: above all, I hated the wretched thing which played me such a trick, when, thanks to it, I was already so stiff and bruised that all I wanted was to creep off into a comer by myself and lie down there and die ; and yet, it did seem a little soon to take the train again, a little soon to exchange the sweet smells of the country for the old town mustiness. But my cup of sorrow was filled to overflowing when we reached Engelkirchen, a small village, where we were obliged to spend the night, since it was too late to go farther with a broken machine. I think every child in that odious village turned out to greet us. Tired, cross, wet as we were, to be besieged on all sides by screaming, dancing, yelping boys and girls was more than human nature could stand. I can still see Joseph swinging his macintosh as if it were a scythe and mowing them all down. And oh! the first gloomy impressions of the best inn in the place, with its dark, close entrance hall, where we fell over more dirty children and yelping dogs at every comer. But upstairs we found a large, clean, airy room, with three windows, soft bed, though with the vile overgrown pillows that Germans think can answer the purpose of Christian sheets and blankets, and the coldest water it has ever been my pleasure to sponge off with. A good supper completed our mental transformation, and, while two ladies from the village strummed on the piano in the dining-room, Joseph, by the light of a candle, overhauled my machine and found matters were not so desperate after all. I never knew anything to improve so ou acquaintance as a German village inn. At a glance it may seem out of the question. But usually it has one or two comfortable bed-rooms, and there is always someone about who can cook, not a French dinner, of course, but, at least, a Schnitzel. The sun was shining in the morning, the children were all in school, and my machine ran as well as ever, save for a grinding noise it made with every turn of the injured pedal. The road, muddy at first where trees closely overshadowed it, was hard and dry where it wound in open sunshine between wide, fields. It was a disappointment those first two days to find the peasants without costume, the villages with but little picturesqueness of architecture, and the landscape with no marked character. It is one of the great charms of England that it is so English, of France that it is so French. But the country we were now riding through might have been anywhere—it was quite as American as it was German. A still greater surprise was the friendliness of the people. Perhaps the German cannot stand transportation, but certainly in America one is apt to think of him as a surly, awkward creature, indifferent to everything but his beer and pipe. Now we kept meeting people who were so decent you might have fancied they knew beforehand what we thought and were determined to show us our mistake. About eleven we stopped at a roadside inn for a sandwich and beer, and I can never forget the willingness of the man there to understand my pantomime and his seeming delight when he was able to bring me a needle and thread to mend my dress, which I was in a constant state of mending from that time until I got to Berlin. In the village where we dined a native cyclist led us in triumph to the house of an old lady, who gave us a cheery Willkommen, and fed us as if we had been prodigals, all because she had a sister in South America. I am afraid it was basely ungrateful on our part to be so thankful that when we started off again the cyclist did not reappear to carry out his threat of riding to Helchenbach in our company. On the road, only a Chinese mandarin or a Mohammedan at his studies could have nodded an answer to every greeting religiously given by every man, woman, and child. In all the fields, in all the houses, as we passed by, people stopped in their work to see us—or, I flatter myself, to see me—ride, and if it was still another disappointment to hear them express their interest and approval with the loud guffaw of the London costermonger, it could do us no harm. To such a matter-of-course incident as the rain I might not refer, perhaps, if it had not driven us that same afternoon into a wayside Gaethaus, where we had our first experience of the German peasant in his cups. Several were youthful conscripts, who had evidently been making a day of it, which with them meant the wearing of enormous crowns of artificial flowers and feathers with gay ribbons streaming in the back, and the drinking of far more Schnapps than was good for them. They were in the singing stage when we arrived, and were not iu the least put out, as Englishmen of the same class would have been, by our arrival. Between their songs they amiably drank from each other’s glasses, according to the most elegant German etiquette. There were on the other side of the room a few more sober citizens—a postman among their number—who devoted themselves to the study of our map, and talked to us as if we understood. For their benefit I got off my first German joke, of which I was not a little proud. “Wir fahren besser als wir sprechen,” I said; and I think I enjoyed it more than they did. The daughter of the house hovered about us; she had studied English in school, and longed, but was afraid, to air it. Altogether, they were so friendly and sociable that, instead of going on to Helchenbach, as we had intended, we put up there for the night. I do not think I ever did know the name of the village, but I do know that we provided an evening’s amusement for the girl who could speak English and her brother, who shared her accomplishment. I do not believe they ever had had such a chance for fine practice before, and, the ice once broken, they did not neglect it.

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