Twilight on the Ultava

THE young Spring sun gilds the upper windows of the houses on the Quay, and throws into startling relief the seven Muses and the plunging black horses high on the foursquare roof of the National Theatre; and as I turn into the Masaryk Quay, I stop, enchanted at the view across the river: for a year of changing seasons has failed to dull the first sudden rapture of the scene, the imperishable beauty sinking, day by day, into my soul like the odor of some rare, precious perfume.

And as the sun disappears, dropping quietly out of sight behind the two tiny towers of the Strahov Monastery, my thoughts travel back to the romantic impulse that brought me here — a chance phrase thrown into a conversation, that a certain person was in Prague, and the comparative security of London life was left behind to follow a strange, unsuccessful quest; for the certain person had gone on to Italy, and to more distant countries still, and my journey half across Europe has brought me nothing more beautiful than this mediæval scene.

‘Golden Prague, the City of a Hundred Towers,’ is, according to my Czech friend, the ‘fourth most beautiful city in Europe’; and I can well believe his proud boast, for surely there are few cities with green-wooded hills rising from their very hearts.

Opposite is the Petrin, its green slopes sweeping steep and superb to the cloudless evening sky; its trees, white with May blossom, flooded and suffused with the pink afterglow of the sun, which also throws a soft wash of light over the Castle of Hradchany on the other slope, its long low roofs broken by the half-concealed Cathedral; and below, red roof on red roof, clusters the old Mala Strana, some of its houses sheer to the water’s edge, others climbing the hillside like the old houses in some half-forgotten Italian painting.

I rarely like statues, perhaps because in England they are generally so ugly and hideous; but this statue of Charles the Fourth pleases me: a fine, upright figure of a man, bearded, and smiling benevolently, one hand resting negligently on his hip, the other clasping the seal of the University he founded here; for he was a patron of the arts and sciences, and was called ' the father of his people.’ But I find it difficult to reconcile this graceful monarch with the old Charles Bridge close by, adorned some time later than his reign with foolish, posturing, gesticulating stone saints, and a crucified Christ, golden from crowned head to pierced feet, a hateful, parvenu Christ, straight from the golden streets of Heaven; although I can well imagine Charles as a great friend of the priests and monks, enjoying equally their food, their wine, and their witty stories; and many an evening such as this must have found him in their company.

The last pink glow fades from a sky tinged with green; the solitary evening star appears in the west; and at last dusk descends, slowly blurring the long level lines of windows in the Castle; smudging the indistinct colors of the old houses into soft ash-gray shadows; and casting over all, the infinite sadness of a romantic twilight.

The mysterious, shapeless shadows cast by the tall trees on the Strelecky Island hide the last few boats slipping to the shore; two naked boys rapidly paddle their canoe; a slight girl, rowing with strong, steady, rhythmical strokes, trails a silver shadow along the water; and when she disappears beneath the overhanging trees, the wide river is green and calm and beautiful as a silent lake hidden in a mountain fastness.

But the sad, twilight mood of the river, enclosing within itself the romantic, picturesque glamour of a faded past, is no fit companion to the melancholy gloom of my own unquiet heart, unable to indulge in that lofty, serene contemplation, which belongs to age that looks back upon its wasted days with calm eyes and deep content; for the impulse of our age is toward strife and conflict, and all our joy and happiness is found in the struggle to live our dreams.

Silhouetted against the faint, lingering light in the western sky, the Castle of Hradchany and the Cathedral become a poetical pile of romance sunk in soft, deep, pencil-black shadows; and under the darkness of the approaching night they appear as enchanted places, sleeping, virgin and untouched by the modern craving that would so readily destroy them; and upon looking down, the impression is deepened, for the whole mass is shadowed in the water like the fairy city of one’s childhood imagination, the diagonal line of the weir, silver beneath a newly risen moon, cutting sharply across the reflection with a strange air of reality.

Across the river tiny dots of lights glimmer into being; and half-way up the dark mass of the Petrin slope the outdoor restaurant flashes its row of clear lights like signals; and I can imagine the lovers who will be sitting there, absorbed in each other, blind to the stained tablecloths, the bad tea, and the crumpled cakes.

Close by, the bright, glaring arclamps of the modern bridge, the Bridge of the Soldiers, swing high and dominant in curious contrast to the low, mediæval lamps of the old Charles Bridge at the other end of the Quay.

A chill breeze blows across the river, sending me across the road to our favorite coffeehouse, the Karvana Slavia, where I sit at a window facing the National Theatre so I can watch the audience as it streams forth; and stirring the thick white cream of my bilo karva, I wonder how Alvina will like Sasha Leontiev and Lydia Salmonova in Strauss’s Legend of Joseph; but I know well what she will say about the music, her shrill London voice clattering the air of the coffeehouse with shameless ‘ Wonderfuls,’ our laughter disturbing the chess-players.

The short, fat headwaiter, who speaks English because he has been in America, is approaching, and I look up and see Hyde, his pink, chinless face an intellectual challenge to the fat, well-fed habitués of the coffeehouse, making his way from the door; and as he gains our table, the headwaiter thrusts a week-old Daily Telegraph into my hands, and says, ‘Goodevening, gents’ — a salutation that never fails to amuse us.