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Chapter 21


Our road the first two days after leaving Prague led across broad, elevated plains, across which a cold wind came direct from the summits of the Riesengebirge, far to our left. Were it not for the pleasant view we had of the rich valley of the Upper Elbe, which afforded a delightful relief to the monotony of the hills around us, the journey would have been exceedingly tiresome. The snow still glistened on the distant mountains; but when the sun shone out, the broad valley below, clad in the luxuriance of summer, and extending for at least fifty miles with its woods, meadows and white villages, looked like a real Paradise. The long ridges over which we travelled extend for nearly a hundred and fifty miles--from the Elbe almost to the Danube. The soil is not fertile, the inhabitants are exceedingly poor, and from our own experience, the climate must be unhealthy. In winter the country is exposed to the full sweep of the northern winds, and in summer the sun shines down on it with unbroken force. There are few streams running through it, and the highest part, which divides the waters of the Baltic from those of the Black Sea is filled for a long distance with marshes and standing pools, whose exhalations must inevitably subject the inhabitants to disease. This was perceptible in their sallow, sickly countenances; many of the women are afflicted with the goitre, or swelling of the throat; I noticed that towards evening they always carefully muffled up their faces. According to their own statements, the people suffer much from the cold in winter, as the few forests the country affords are in possession of the noblemen to whom the land belongs, and they are not willing to let them be cut down. The dominions of these petty despots are marked along the road with as much precision as the boundaries of an empire; we saw sometimes their stalely castles at a distance, forming quite a contrast to the poor scattering villages of the peasants.

At Kollin, the road, which had been running eastward in the direction of Olmutz, turned to the south, and we took leave of the Elbe, after tracing back his course from Magdeburg nearly to his home in the mountains of Silesia. The country was barren and monotonous, but a bright sunshine made it look somewhat cheerful. We passed, every few paces, some shrine or statue by the roadside. This had struck me, immediately on crossing the border, in the Saxon Switzerland--it seemed as if the boundary of Saxony was that of Protestantism. But here in the heart of Bohemia, the extent to which this image worship is carried, exceeds anything I had imagined. There is something pleasing as well as poetical in the idea of a shrine by the wayside, where the weary traveller can rest, and raise his heart in thankfulness to the Power that protects him; it was no doubt a pious spirit that placed them there; but the people appear to pay the reverence to the picture which they should give to its spiritual image, and the pictures themselves are so shocking and ghastly, they seem better calculated to excite horror than reverence. It was really repulsive to look on images of the Saviour covered with blood, and generally with swords sticking in different parts of the body. The Almighty is represented as an old man, wearing a Bishop's mitre, and the image of the Virgin is always drest in a gay silk robe, with beads and other ornaments. From the miserable painting, the faces often had an expression that would have been exceedingly ludicrous, if the shock given to our feelings of reverence were not predominant. The poor, degraded peasants always uncovered or crossed themselves when passing by these shrines, but it appeared to be rather the effect of habit than any good impulse, for the Bohemians are noted all over Germany for their dishonesty; we learned by experience they deserve it. It is not to be wondered at either; for a people so poor and miserable and oppressed will soon learn to take advantage of all who appear better off than themselves. They had one custom which was touching and beautiful. At the sound of the church bell, as it rung the morning, noon and evening chimes, every one uncovered, and repeated to himself a prayer. Often, as we rested at noon on a bank by the roadside, that voice spoke out from the house of worship and every one heeded its tone. Would that to this innate spirit of reverence were added the light of Knowledge, which a tyrannical government denies them!

The third night of our journey we stopped at the little village of Stecken, and the next morning, after three hours' walk over the ridgy heights, reached the old Moravian city of Iglau, built on a hill. It happened to be Corpus Christi day, and the peasants of the neighborhood were hastening there in their gayest dresses. The young women wore a crimson scarf around the head, with long fringed and embroidered ends hanging over the shoulders, or falling in one smooth fold from the back of the head. They were attired in black velvet vests, with full white sleeves and skirts of some gay color, which were short enough to show to advantage their red stockings and polished shoe-buckles. Many of them were not deficient in personal beauty--there was a gipsy-like wildness in their eyes, that combined with their rich hair and graceful costume, reminded me of the Italian maidens. The towns too, with their open squares and arched passages, have quite a southern look; but the damp, gloomy weather was enough to dispel any illusion of this kind.

In the neighborhood of Iglau, and, in fact, through the whole of Bohemia, we saw some of the strangest teams that could well be imagined. I thought the Frankfort milkwomen with their donkeys and hearse-like carts, were comical objects enough, but they bear no comparison with these Bohemian turn-outs. Dogs--for economy's sake, perhaps--generally supply the place of oxen or horses, and it is no uncommon thing to see three large mastiffs abreast, harnessed to a country-cart. A donkey and a cow together, are sometimes met with, and one man, going to the festival at Iglau, had his wife and children in a little wagon, drawn by a dog and a donkey. These two, however, did not work well together; the dog would bite his lazy companion, and the man's time was constantly employed in whipping him off the donkey, and in whipping the donkey away from the side of the road. Once I saw a wagon drawn by a dog, with a woman pushing behind, while a man, doubtless her lord and master, sat comfortably within, smoking his pipe with the greatest complacency! The very climax of all was a woman and a dog harnessed together, taking a load of country produce to market! I hope, for the honor of the country, it was not emblematic of woman's condition there. But as we saw hundreds of them breaking stone along the road, and occupied at other laborious and not less menial labor, there is too much reason to fear that it is so.

As we approached Iglau, we heard cannon firing; the crowd increased, and following the road, we came to an open square, where a large number were already assembled; shrines were erected around it, hung with pictures and pine boughs, and a long procession of children was passing down the side as we entered. We went towards the middle, where Neptune and his Tritons poured the water from their urns into two fountains, and stopped to observe the scene. The procession came on, headed by a large body of priests, in white robes, with banners and crosses. They stopped before the principal shrine, in front of the Rathhaus, and began a solemn religious ceremony. The whole crowd of not less than ten thousand persons, stood silent and uncovered, and the deep voice of the officiating priest was heard over the whole square. At times the multitude sang responses, and I could mark the sound, swelling and rolling up like a mighty wave, till it broke and slowly sank down again to the deepest stillness. The effect was marred by the rough voice of the officers commanding the soldiery, and the volleys of musquetry which were occasionally discharged. It degraded the solemnity of the pageant to the level of a military parade.

In the afternoon we were overtaken by a travelling handwerker, on his way to Vienna, who joined company with us. We walked several miles together, talking on various matters, without his having the least suspicion we were not Germans. He had been at Trieste, and at length began speaking of the great beauty of the American vessels there. "Yes," said I, "our vessels are admired all over the world." He stared at me without comprehending;--"your vessels?" "Our country's," I replied; "we are Americans!" I can see still his look of incredulous astonishment and hear the amazed tone with which he cried: "You Americans--it is impossible!" We convinced him nevertheless, to his great joy, for all through Germany there is a curiosity to see our countrymen and a kindly feeling towards them. "I shall write down in my book," said he, "so that I shall never forget it, that I once travelled with two Americans!" We stopped together for the night at the only inn in a large, beggarly village, where we obtained a frugal supper with difficulty, for a regiment of Polish lancers was quartered there for the night, and the pretty Kellnerin was so busy in waiting on the officers that she had no eye for wandering journeymen, as she took us to be. She even told us the beds were all occupied and we must sleep on the floor. Just then the landlord came by. "Is it possible, Herr Landlord," asked our new companion, "that there is no bed here for us? Have the goodness to look again, for we are not in the habit of sleeping on the floor, like dogs!" This speech had its effect, for the Kellnerin was commanded to find us beds. She came back unwillingly after a time and reported that two, only, were vacant. As a German bed is only a yard wide, we pushed these two together, but they were still too small for three persons, and I had a severe cold in the morning, from sleeping crouched up against the damp wall.

The next day we passed the dividing ridge which separates the waters of the Elbe from the Danube, and in the evening arrived at Znaim, the capital of Moravia. It is built on a steep hill looking down on the valley of the Thaya, whose waters mingle with the Danube near Pressburg. The old castle on the height near, was formerly the residence of the Moravian monarchs, and traces of the ancient walls and battlements of the city are still to be seen. The handwerker took us to the inn frequented by his craft--the leather-curriers--and we conversed together till bed-time. While telling me of the oppressive laws of Austria, the degrading vassalage of the peasants and the horrors of the conscription system, he paused as in deep thought, and looking at me with a suppressed sigh, said: "Is it not true, America is free?" I told him of our country and her institutions, adding that though we were not yet as free as we hoped and wished to be, we enjoyed far more liberty than any country in the world. "Ah!" said he, "it is hard to leave one's fatherland oppressed as it is, but I wish I could go to America!"

We left next morning at eight o'clock, after having done full justice to the beds of the "Golden Stag," and taken leave of Florian Francke, the honest and hearty old landlord. Znaim appears to great advantage from the Vienna road; the wind which blew with fury against our backs, would not permit us to look long at it, but pushed us on towards the Austrian border. In the course of three hours we were obliged to stop at a little village; it blew a perfect hurricane and the rain began to soak through our garments. Here we stayed three hours among the wagoners who stopped on account of the weather. One miserable, drunken wretch, whom one would not wish to look at more than once, distinguished himself by insulting those around him, and devouring like a beast, large quantities of food. When the reckoning was given him, he declared he had already paid, and the waiter denying it, he said, "Stop, I will show you something!" pulled out his passport and pointed to the name--"Baron von Reitzenstein." It availed nothing; he had fallen so low that his title inspired no respect, and when we left the inn they were still endeavoring to get their money and threatening him with a summary proceeding if the demand was not complied with.

Next morning the sky was clear and a glorious day opened before us. The country became more beautiful as we approached the Danube; the hills were covered with vineyards, just in the tender green of their first leaves, and the rich valleys lay in Sabbath stillness in the warm sunshine. Sometimes from an eminence we could see far and wide over the garden-like slopes, where little white villages shone among the blossoming fruit-trees. A chain of blue hills rose in front, which I knew almost instinctively stood by the Danube; when we climbed to the last height and began to descend to the valley, where the river was still hidden by luxuriant groves, I saw far to the southwest, a range of faint, silvery summits, rising through the dim ether like an airy vision. There was no mistaking those snowy mountains. My heart bounded with a sudden thrill of rapturous excitement at this first view of the Alps! They were at a great distance, and their outline was almost blended with the blue drapery of air which clothed them. I gazed till my vision became dim and I could no longer trace their airy lines. They called up images blended with the grandest events in the world's history. I thought of the glorious spirits who have looked upon them and trodden their rugged sides--of the storms in which they veil their countenances, and the avalanches they hurl thundering to the valleys--of the voices of great deeds, which have echoed from their crags over the wide earth--and of the ages which have broken, like the waves of a mighty sea, upon their everlasting summits!

As we descended, the hills and forests shut out this sublime vision, and I looked to the wood-clothed mountains opposite and tried to catch a glimpse of the current that rolled at their feet. We here entered upon a rich plain, about ten miles in diameter, which lay between a backward sweep of the hills and a curve of the Danube. It was covered with the richest grain; every thing wore the luxuriance of summer, and we seemed to have changed seasons since leaving the dreary hills of Bohemia. Continuing over the plain, we had on our left the fields of Wagram and Essling, the scene of two of Napoleon's blood-bought victories. The outposts of the Carpathians skirted the horizon--that great mountain range which stretches through Hungary to the borders of Russia.

At length the road came to the river's side, and we crossed on wooden bridges over two or three arms of the Danube, all of which together were little wider than the Schuylkill at Philadelphia. When we crossed the last bridge, we came to a kind of island covered with groves of the silver ash. Crowds of people filled the cool walks; booths of refreshment stood by the roadside, and music was everywhere heard. The road finally terminated in a circle, where beautiful alleys radiated into the groves; from the opposite side a broad street lined with stately buildings extended into the heart of the city, and through this avenue, filled with crowds of carriages and people on their way to those delightful walks, we entered Vienna!

Bayard Taylor