Prague: Staring gloomily down on the Kleinseite

Like an aged soldier nodding in his armchair in the sun, the Wallenstein Palace, once passion-rocked and treachery-haunted, basks this afternoon in an atmosphere of the intensest calm and peace. To ramble through it is to learn history from a participant. One courtyard, in particular, is so serene and lovely as to be really unforgettable. One entire side of this enclosure is a lofty, echoing loggia three stories high, with arching spans for a roof supported on graceful, towering columns. Within the loggia are heavy sculptured balustrades, and a broad flight of marble steps flanked by huge stone urns leads to a beautiful open space of soft lawns bordered with simple flowers. It was a favorite resort of Wallenstein’s, and he called it his sala terrina. In its present mellow and half-deserted beauty it is a place for a poet to dream away a life in.

Staring gloomily down on the Kleinseite, and set solidly far above it on a precipitous hill, the rugged old Hradschin, Prague’s acropolis, warms into mild ruddy tones in the afternoon sun. I have said it reminds one of a barracks, such an enormous, rambling affair as it is; though its commanding situation and impressive proportions would immediately suggest to a stranger some more consequential employment in other days. Undoubtedly it is the most striking feature of Prague. One might think it a solid architectural mass, as seen from the Karlsbrucke, but on closer inspection it resolves itself into a series of separate structures falling into irregular groups, but which, taken together, composed the setting of the imperial court during the long period of Bohemia’s independence. That splendid fragment, the vast cathedral of St. Vitus, supplies a worthy centrepiece; and is full of interest, too, with its rich Gothic windows, chapel walls set with precious stones, marble tombs of the Bohemian kings, and the wonderful silver monument to St. John Nepomuc. Indeed, the whole Hradschin abounds in rich surprises. Such, for instance, is the venerable church of St. George, awkward and archaic, which has stood for nine hundred years and is the sole memorial in Bohemia of the earliest period of Romanic architecture. Every one, of course, hurries to see the rude royal palace of the Hofburg, on the edge of an adjacent steep hill, from the windows of whose Kanzlei Zimmer the Imperial Councillors were “defenestrated” and the Thirty Years’ War, in consequence, precipitated upon the troubled states of Europe. And then there is the archbishop’s palace, across the quadrangle from the Hofburg, in whose courtyard the church authorities impotently burned the two hundred Wycliffe books that John Huss had loaned them with the challenge to read and, if they could, refute. Two grim towers on the eastern extremity, the Daliborka and the Black Tower, have no end of creepy legends of tortures and prison horrors. The former takes its name from a romantic knight, Dalibor, who is said to have been long confined there and of whom and his solacing violin we hear at pleasant length in Smetana’s opera of that name. One of the most curious sights of the Hradschin is the low, drawn-out Loretto church, with a maximum of frontage and a minimum of depth, like city seminaries for young ladies. Among the red tiles of its steep roof, giant stone saints perform miracles of precarious footing, and out of the centre of the facade, on a base of colossal spirals, rises an antique belfry spire set with domes and turrets and bearing aloft a huge clock dial like a burnished shield. Surely, somewhere in this Hradschin-wonderland occurred the unrecounted events of that much-interrupted narrative of the “King of Bohemia and his Seven Castles,” which Trim tried so hard to tell to Uncle Toby Shandy; and may we not be confident that the charming Prince Florizel, whose strange adventures Stevenson has so gracefully recounted, once lived and courted perils in these romantic surroundings!

It is to be hoped that every visitor will have more than one hour in Prague; and then, of course, he will want to go up to the Hradschin and loiter through and about it at his leisure. He will find large and beautiful gardens where he can rest under noble trees and enjoy an inspiring view of the city in the pleasant companionship of statuary and fountains. When he has exhausted this viewpoint he can secure quite another from the colonnaded verandas of the Renaissance Belvedere; or, perhaps better still, he will journey out to the picturesque Abbey of Strahow, embowered in blooming orchards that are vocal with blackbirds, and from its yellow stuccoed walls look down on the dense forests of the Laurenzberg sweeping in billowy green to the very banks of the Moldau.

At this hour a sharp point of light, seen from the observation tower on the summit of the Hasenberg, marks the location of a little white church on a distant hilltop – and when you have been told all about what happened there at the fatal battle of the White Hill you will have listened to the bitterest chapter in the whole history of Bohemia and will know how the national life of this kingdom gasped itself out, three centuries ago, in the panic and rout of the ” Winter King’s ” ill-managed soldiery before the fierce infantry of Bavaria. There fell the state won by the flails of a fanatical peasantry whose sonorous war-hymn, “Ye Who Are God’s Warriors,” had so often struck terror into the ranks of the finest armies of Europe. Those were the men whom the furious Ziska led – Ziska, the squat and one-eyed, the friend and avenger of Huss; “John Ziska of the Chalice, Commander in the Hope of God of the Taborites.” Such was the terror in which this dread chieftain was held by his foes that they feared him even after his death and declared that his skin had been stretched for drumheads to summon his followers on to victory.

Since the battle of the White Hill there has been little for Prague in the way of war except sieges and captures; and it has mattered little to her whether it was Maria Theresa come to be crowned, or Frederick the Great come to destroy, or the Swedes of Gustavus Adolphus come to plague and offend. Suffering has been her regular portion. During the Thirty Years’ War alone, Bohemia’s population declined from four millions to fewer than seven hundred thousand.

The stranger on the Karlsbrtieke will turn from thoughts of Ziska’s peasants to regard with increased interest the occasional specimen of the countryman who strides past along the bridge with no embarrassment at appearing in the streets of his capital in the costume of his nation. Behold him in his high boots, tight buff trousers, well-embroidered, blue bolero jacket with many buttons, broad lapels and embroidered cuffs, his soft shirt puffed out like a pigeon, and the jaunty Astrachan cap cocked to one side. And there, too, marches his wife; boots laced high, bodice bright and abbreviated, petticoats short and broad and covered by a wide-bordered apron, her arms bare to the shoulders, and her headdress of white linen very starchy and stiff. Sometimes one passes wearing a hat that suggests Spain, but he, too, as they all do, wears the tight trousers and the close-fitting knee boots. In time one learns to distinguish the Slovaks and Moravians by their long, sleeveless white coats, tight blue trousers, and white jackets with lapels and cuffs embroidered in red.

One hears many interesting things about these peasants. Throughout the year, it is said, they fare frugally on black bread and a cheese made of sheeps’ milk, to which is added an occasional trout from the mountain streams. The great age some of them attain speaks well for the diet. Strangers who go up into the hills to stalk chamois and have a go at the big game come back with surprising stories of the inherited deference that is still paid in the country to caste. They will tell you that the peasant still kisses the hand of the lord of the soil. The Praguer thinks highly of his country brother, though he finds a vast amusement in observing his rustic antics when he comes to town on St. John Nepomuc’s Day and shuffles about the streets, wide-eyed and gaping, after the manner of rus in urbe the world over.

Curious stories are told of peasant customs. Christmas is their day of days, and preparations for its proper observance are made long in advance.” They believe it to be a season when evil spirits are powerless to injure and may even be made to aid. When the great day arrives, the cottages are scrupulously cleaned, fresh straw laid on the earthen floor, and the entire household assembled for a processional round of the outbuildings. In the course of this ceremonial parade, beans are carefully dropped into cracks and chinks of the buildings, with elaborate incantations for protection against fires. Bread and salt are offered to every animal on the place. The unmarried daughters are sprinkled with honeywater to insure them faithful and sweet-natured husbands. The family drink of celebration is the plum-distilled slivovitz.

What effective use the great national composers of Bohemia – Smetana, Dvorak, and Fibich – have made of the native melodies and costumes! Smetana, a friend and protege of Liszt, – the master utilizer of Hungarian folk-themes, – was determined that Bohemia, too, should have music of a distinctively national character; and in his eight operas and six symphonic poems, as well as in his beautiful stringed quartette, the “Carnival of Prague,” he abundantly realized his ambition. There is no more popular opera played in Prague today than his “Bartered Bride.” One hears a great deal of Smetana in talking with the people of this city; of his poverty and sadness, his final deafness, and of how, when fame at last crowned him so completely, he was dying in an asylum here. Music is a favorite topic of conversation in Prague. A violin player in one of the local theatre orchestras was no less a person than the great Dvorak, a pupil of Smetana’s; and he, too, added to Bohemian musical glory with his Slavonic rhapsodies and dances and the splendid overture that he constructed on the folk-melody “Kde Domov Muj.” There was a sort of Bach-like foundation for all these composers in the early litanies of the talented Bishop of Prague. The Czech temperament finds its natural expression in music. It is even insisted that their most popular movement, the polka, was invented by a Bohemian servant girl.

Certainly there has been no lack of beautiful legendary material on which to construct effective compositions. These traditional stories are all full of sadness and superstition, and they always revolve about simple, natural elements – the rain, the mountains, the valleys, ghosts, and wild hunters, and, above all, that most recurrent and universal of themes, love.

Could we win favor with some old Praguer this afternoon and entice him into the sunny corner of Karl IV’s monument place, beside the bridge, we should close out our hour with many a captivating and romantic story that would alone have made our visit well worth while. Such, for example, is the legend of the “Spinning Girl.” Deserted by her lover, she wove a wonderful shroud threaded with moonbeams, and in this she was buried, and by its magic she appeared to him on his wedding night and lured him to leap to his death in the river. And there is the story of the “Wedding Shirt”: A girl implores the Virgin either to let her die or restore her absent lover who, unknown to her, has been dead some time. The Virgin bows from the holy picture, and forthwith the pallid lover appears and conducts his sweetheart by a midnight journey to the spot where his body lies buried. Thereupon ensues a desperate struggle by fiends and ghouls to capture the soul of the girl, who is finally rescued by the interposition of the Virgin to whom in her terror she appeals. The wedding shirts that she had brought as her bridal portion are found scattered in fragments by the sinister spirits on the surrounding graves. The flight of the maid and her ghostly lover is vividly depicted at length, and is expressed, in translation, by such lurid lines as

“O’er the marshes the corpse-lights shone, Ghastly blue they glimmered alone.”

One of the most romantic of these legends is the “Golden Spinning-Wheel.” A king loses his way while hunting and stops for a drink at a peasant’s cottage. There he finds a marvelously beautiful girl, to whom he eagerly offers himself in marriage. This girl is an orphan, with a stepmother and stepsister who are cruel and jealous. Under pretense of accompanying her to the king’s castle they lure her into a black forest and slay her, taking great pains to conceal her identity by removing and carrying with them her eyes, hands, and feet. They then proceed to the castle and the wicked daughter successfully impersonates the good one, whom she closely resembles. Seven days of wedding festivities ensue, at the end of which the king is called away to the wars. In the mean while a mysterious hermit – a heavenly messenger in disguise – takes up the dead body in the forest, dispatches his lad to the castle and secures the eyes, hands, and feet by bartering for them a golden spinning-wheel, a golden distaff, and a magic whirl. Thus equipped, he miraculously restores the girl to life and limb. When the king returns from the wars he invites his false bride to spin for him with her new golden wheel, and forthwith the magic instrument sings aloud the whole miserable story. The furious king rushes to the forest, finds his real sweetheart, and installs her in his castle, while the murderers are mutilated as she had been, and cast to the wild wolves.

It may be thought that I have gone somewhat out of my allotted way in taking such notice as I have of the superstitions, customs, and music passion of the Bohemians, but I cannot believe that a satisfactory idea of Prague can be had in this, or any other hour, without some conception of the fundamental traits that so powerfully sway this people. For the real significance of the city lies deeper than its surface-showing of wooded hillsides sown with quaint buildings and a broad blue river rushing under many bridges; it is its peculiar raciness of the soil that underlies the Czech’s mad devotion to his capital. Expressing, as only Prague does, so much that is dear and beautiful to him, it centres in itself the most burning and passionate interests of the race. Without some knowledge of this desperate attachment one would fail utterly to grasp the force and truth of such a fine observation as Mr. Arthur Symons has made on the devotion of the Bohemian to this city: “He sees it, as a man sees the woman he loves, with her first beauty; and he loves it, as a man loves a woman, more for what she has suffered.”