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Chapter 20



I feel as if out of the world, in this strange, fantastic, yet beautiful old city. We have been rambling all morning through its winding streets, stopping sometimes at a church to see the dusty tombs and shrines, or to hear the fine music which accompanies the morning mass. I have seen no city yet that so forcibly reminds one of the past, and makes him forget everything but the associations connected with the scenes around him. The language adds to the illusion. Three-fourths of the people in the streets speak Bohemian and many of the signs are written in the same tongue, which is not at all like German. The palace of the Bohemian kings still looks down on the city from the western heights, and their tombs stand in the Cathedral of the holy Johannes. When one has climbed up the stone steps lending to the fortress, there is a glorious prospect before him. Prague, with its spires and towers, lies in the valley below, through which curves the Moldau with its green islands, disappearing among the hills which enclose the city on every side. The fantastic Byzantine architecture of many of the churches and towers, gives the city a peculiar oriental appearance; it seems to have been transported from the hills of Syria. Its streets are full of palaces, fallen and dwelt in now by the poorer classes. Its famous University, which once boasted forty thousand students, has long since ceased to exist. In a word, it is, like Venice, a fallen city; though as in Venice, the improving spirit of the age is beginning to give it a little life, and to send a quicker stream through its narrow and winding arteries. The railroad, which, joining that to Brünn, shall bring it in connection with Vienna, will be finished this year; in anticipation of the increased business which will arise from this, speculators are building enormous hotels in the suburbs and tearing down the old buildings to give place to more splendid edifices. These operations, and the chain bridge which spans the Moldau towards the southern end of the city, are the only things which look modern--every thing else is old, strange and solemn.

Having found out first a few of the locations, we hunted our way with difficulty through its labyrinths, seeking out every place of note or interest. Reaching the bridge at last, we concluded to cross over and ascend to the Hradschin--the palace of the Bohemian kings. The bridge was commenced in 1357, and was one hundred and fifty years in building. That was the way the old Germans did their work, and they made a structure which will last a thousand years longer. Every pier is surmounted with groups of saints and martyrs, all so worn and time-beaten, that there is little left of their beauty, if they ever had any. The most important of them, at least to Bohemians, is that of the holy "Johannes of Nepomuck," now considered as the patron-saint of the land. He was a priest many centuries ago, whom one of the kings threw from the bridge into the Moldau, because he refused to reveal to him what the queen confessed. The legend says the body swam for some time on the river, with five stars around its head. The 16th of May, the day before we arrived, was that set apart for his particular honor; the statue on the bridge was covered with an arch of green boughs and flowers, and the shrine lighted with burning tapers. A railing was erected around it, near which numbers of the believers were kneeling, and a priest stood in the inside. The bridge was covered with passers-by, who all took their hats off till they had passed. Had it been a place of public worship, the act would have been natural and appropriate, but to uncover before a statue seemed to us too much like idolatry, and we ventured over without doing it. A few years ago it might have been dangerous, but now we only met with scowling looks. There are many such shrines and statues through the city, and I noticed that the people always took off their hats and crossed themselves in passing. On the hill above the western end of the city, stands a chapel on the spot where the Bavarians put an end to Protestantism in Bohemia by the sword, and the deluded peasantry of the land make pilgrimages to this spot, as if it were rendered holy by an act over which Religion weeps!

Ascending the broad flight of steps to the Hradschin, I paused a moment to look at the scene below. A slight blue haze hung over the clustering towers, and the city looked dim through it, like a city seen in a dream. It was well that it should so appear, for not less dim and misty are the memories that haunt its walls. There was no need of a magician's wand to bid that light cloud shadow forth the forms of other times. They came uncalled for, even by fancy. Far, far back in the past, I saw the warrior-princess who founded the kingly city--the renowned Libussa, whose prowess and talent inspired the women of Bohemia to rise at her death and storm the land that their sex might rule where it obeyed before. On the mountain opposite once stood the palace of the bloody Wlaska, who reigned with her Amazon band for seven years over half Bohemia. Those streets below had echoed with the fiery words of Huss, and the castle of his follower--the blind Ziska, who met and defeated the armies of the German Empire--moulders on the mountain above. Many a year of war and tempest has passed over the scene. The hills around have borne the armies of Wallenstein and Frederic the Great; the war-cry of Bavaria, Sweden and Poland has echoed in the valley, and the red glare of the midnight cannon or the flames of burning palaces have often gleamed along the "blood-dyed waters" of the Moldau!

But this was a day-dream. The throng of people coming up the steps waked me out of it. We turned and followed them through several spacious courts, till we arrived at the Cathedral, which is magnificent in the extreme. The dark Gothic pillars, whose arches unite high above, are surrounded with gilded monuments and shrines, and the side chapels are rich in elaborate decorations. A priest was speaking from a pulpit in the centre, in the Bohemian language, which not being the most intelligible, I went to the other end to see the shrine of the holy Johannes of Nepomuck. It stands at the end of one of the side aisles and is composed of a mass of gorgeous silver ornaments. At a little distance, on each side, hang four massive lamps of silver, constantly burning. The pyramid of statues, of the same precious metal, has at each corner a richly carved urn, three feet high, with a crimson lamp burning at the top. Above, four silver angels, the size of life, are suspended in the air, holding up the corners of a splendid drapery of crimson and gold. If these figures were melted down and distributed among the poor and miserable people who inhabit Bohemia, they would then be angels indeed, bringing happiness and blessing to many a ruined home- altar. In the same chapel is the splendid burial-place of the Bohemian kings, of gilded marble and alabaster. Numberless tombs, covered with elaborate ornamental work, fill the edifice. It gives one a singular feeling to stand at one end and look down the lofty hall, dim with incense smoke and dark with the weight of many centuries.

On the way down again, we stepped into the St. Nicholas Church, which was built by the Jesuits. The interior has a rich effect, being all of brown and gold. The massive pillars are made to resemble reddish-brown marble, with gilded capitals, and the statues at the base are profusely ornamented in the same style. The music chained me there a long time. There was a grand organ, assisted by a full orchestra and large choir of singers. It was placed above, and at every sound of the priest's bell, the flourish of trumpets and deep roll of the drums filled the dome with a burst of quivering sound, while the giant pipes of the organ breathed out their full harmony and the very air shook under the peal. It was like a triumphal strain; the soul became filled with thoughts of power and glory--every sense was changed into one dim, indistinct emotion of rapture, which held the spirit as if spell-bound. I could almost forgive the Jesuits the superstition and bigotry they have planted in the minds of men, for the indescribable enjoyment that music gave. When it ceased, we went out to the world again, and the recollection of it seems now like a dream--but a dream whose influence will last longer than many a more palpable reality.

Not far from this place is the palace of Wallenstein, in the same condition as when he inhabited it, and still in the possession of his descendants. It is a plain, large building, having beautiful gardens attached to it, which are open to the public. We went through the courtyard, threaded a passage with a roof of rough stalactitic rock, and entered the garden where a revolving fountain was casting up its glittering arches. Among the flowers at the other end of the garden there is a remarkable fountain. It is but a single jet of water which rises from the middle of a broad basin of woven wire, but by some means it sustains a hollow gilded ball, sometimes for many minutes at a time. When the ball drops, the sloping sides of the basin convey it directly to the fountain again, and it is carried up to dance a while longer on the top of the jet. I watched it once, thus supported on the water, for full fifteen minutes.

There is another part of Prague which is not less interesting, though much less poetical--the Jews' City. In our rambles we got into it before we were aware, but hurried immediately out of it again, perfectly satisfied with one visit. We came first into a dark, narrow street, whose sides were lined with booths of old clothes and second-hand articles. A sharp featured old woman thrust a coat before my face, exclaiming, "Herr, buy a fine coat!" Instantly a man assailed me on the other side, "Here are vests! pantaloons! shirts!" I broke loose from them and ran on, but it only became worse. One seized me by the arm, crying, "Lieber Herr, buy some stockings!" and another grasped my coat: "Hats, Herr! hats! buy something, or sell me something!" I rushed desperately on, shouting "no! no!" with all my might, and finally got safe through. My friend having escaped their clutches also, we hunted the way to the old Jewish cemetery. This stands in the middle of the city, and has not been used for a hundred years. We could find no entrance, but by climbing upon the ruins of an old house near, I could look over the wall. A cold shudder crept over me, to think that warm, joyous Life, as I then felt it, should grow chill and pass back to clay in such a foul charnel-house. Large mounds of earth, covered with black, decaying grave-stones, which were almost hidden under the weeds and rank grass, filled the inclosure. A few dark, crooked alder-trees grew among the crumbling tombs, and gave the scene an air of gloom and desolation, almost fearful. The dust of many a generation lies under these mouldering stones; they now scarcely occupy a thought in the minds of the living; and yet the present race toils and seeks for wealth alone, that it may pass away and leave nothing behind--not even a memory for that which will follow it!

Bayard Taylor