Cracow - Poland
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Cracow, old, tired and dispirited, speaks and thinks only of the ruinous past. When you drive into Cracow from the station for the first time, you are breathless, smiling, and tearful all at once; in the great Ring-platz—a mass of old buildings—Cracow seems to hold out her arms to you—those long sides that open from the corner where the cab drives in. You do not have time to notice separately the row of small trees down on one side, beneath which bright-colored women-figures control their weekly market; you do not notice the sort of court-house in the middle with its red roof, cream-colored galleries and shops beneath; you do not notice the great tall church at one side of brick and stone most perfectly time-reconciled, or the houses, or the crazed paving, or the innocent little groups of cabs—you only see Cracow holding out her arms to you, and you may lean down your head and weep from pure instinctive sympathy.
Suddenly a choir of trumpets breaks out into a chorale from the big church tower; the melancholy ,of it I shall never forget—the very melody seemed so old and tired, so worn and sweet and patient, like Cracow. Those trumpet notes have mourned in that tower for hundreds of years. It is the Hymn of Timeless Sorrow that they play, and the key to which they are attuned in Cracow's long despair. Hush! That is her voice, the old town's voice, high and sad—she is speaking to you.
Dear Cracow ! Never again it seems to me, shall I come so near to the deathless hidden sentiment of Poland as in those first moments. It would be no use to tell her to take heart, that there may be brighter days coming, and so forth. Lemberg may feel so, Lemberg that has the feelings of any other big new town, the strength and the determination; but Cracow's day was in the long ago, as a gay capital, a brilliant university town full of princes, of daring, of culture, of wit. She has outlived her day, and can only mourn over what has been and the times that she has seen; she may be always proud of her character, of the brave blood that has made scarlet her streets, but she can never be happy remodeled as an Austrian garrison town, and in the new Poland—the Poland whose foundation stones are laid in the hearts of her people, and that may yet be built some day—in that new Poland there will be no place for aristocratic, high-bred Cracow.
During my stay in the beautiful butter-colored palace that is now a hotel, I went round the museums, galleries, and universities, most if not all of which are free to the public. It would be unfair to give the idea that Cracow has completely fallen to decay. This is not the case. Austria has erected some very handsome buildings; and a town with such fine pictures, good museums and two universities, can not be complained of as moribund. At the same time, I can only record faithfully my impression, and that was that everything new, everything mod-ern, was hopelessly out of tone in Cracow; progress, which, tho desirable, may be a vulgar thing, would not suit her, and does not seem at home in her streets.
About the Florian's Thor, with its round towers of old, sorrel-colored brick, and the Czartoryski Museum, there is nothing to say that the guide-book would not say better. In the museum, a tattered Polish flag of red silk, with the white eagle, a cheerful bird with curled tail, opened mouth, chirping defiantly to the left, imprest me, and a portrait of Szopen (Chopin) in fine profile when laid out. For amusement, there was a Paul Potter bull beside a Paul Potter willow, delightfully unconscious of a coming Paul Potter thunderstorm, and a miniature of Shakespeare which did not resemble any of the portraits of him that I am familiar with. Any amount of Turkish trappings and reminiscences of Potocki and Kosciuczko, of course. As I had no guide-book, I am quite prepared to learn that I overlooked the most important relies.
In the cathedral, away up on the hill of Wawel, above the river Vistula (Wisla) I prowled about among the crypts with a curious specimen of beadledom who ran off long unintelligible histories in atrocious Viennese patois about every solemn tomb by which we stood. So far as I was concerned it might just as well have been the functionary who herds small droves of visitors in Westminster Abbey. I never listen to these people, because (1) I do not care to be informed; and (2) since I should never remember what they said, it is useless my even letting it in at one ear. The kindly, cobwebby old person who piloted me among those wonderful kings' graves in Cracow was personally not uninteresting, indeed a fine study, and his rigmaroles brought up infallibly upon three words which I could not fail to notice : these were "silberner Sarg vergoldet" (silver coffin, gilded). It had an odd fascination for me this phrase, as I stood always waiting for it; why, I wondered, should anybody want to gild a good solid silver coffin?
At the time of my first visit, the excavation necessary to form the crypt for the resting-place of Mickiewicz was in progress, and I went in among the limey, dusty workmen, with their tallow candles, and looked round. In return for my gulden, the beadle gave me a few immortelles from Sobieski's tomb, and some laurel leaves from Kosciuszko's; and remembering friends at home of refinedly ghoulish tastes, I determined to preserve those poor moldering fragments for them.
Most of my days and evenings I spent wandering by the Vistula and in and out of the hundred churches. My plan was to sight a spire, and then walk to the root of it, so to speak. In this manner I saw the town very well. The houses were of brick and plaster, the rich carmine-red brick that has made Cracow so beautiful. On each was a beautiful facade, and pediments in renaissance, bas-relief work of cupids, and classic figures with ribands and roses tying among them, seeming to speak, somehow, of the dead princes and the mighty aristocracy which had cost Cracow so dear.
In the Jews quarter that loud lifelong market of theirs was going forward, which required seemingly only some small basinfuls of sour Glurken and a few spoonfuls of beans of its stock-in-trade. Mingling among the Jews were the peasants, of course; the men in tightly fitting trousers of white blanket cloth, rich embroidered on the upper part and down the seams in blue and red; the women wearing pink printed muslin skirts, often with a pale blue muslin apron and a lemon-colored fine wool cloth, spotted in pink, upon the head. They manifested a great appreciation of color, but none of form, and after the free dress of the Hucal women, these people, mummied in their red tartan shawls—all hybrid Stewarts, they seemed to me—were merely bright bundles in the sunshine.
In the shops in Cracow, French was nearly always the language of attack, and a good deal was spoken in the hotel. I had occasion to buy a great many things, but, according to my custom, not a photograph was among them; therefore, when I go back, I shall receive perfectly new and fresh impressions of the place, and can cherish no vague memories, encouraged by an album at home, in which the nameless cathedrals of many countries confuse themselves, and only the Coliseum at Rome stands forth, not to be contradicted or misnamed.
But it became necessary to put a period to my wandering, unless I wished to find myself stranded in Vienna with "neither cross nor pile." The references to money-matters have been designedly slight throughout these pages. It is not my habit to keep accounts. I have never found that you get any money back by knowing just how you have spent it, and a conscience-pricking record of expenses is very ungrateful reading. So, when a certain beautiful evening came, I felt that I had to look upon it as my last. Being too early for the train, I bid the man drive about in the early summer dark for three-quarters of an hour.
To such as do not care for precise information and statistics in foreign places, but appreciate rather atmosphere and impression, I can recommend this course. In and out among the pretty garden woods, outside the town, we drove. Buildings loomed majestically out of the night; sometimes it was the tower of an unknown church, sometimes it was the house of some forgotten family that sprang suggestively to the eye, and I was grateful that I was left to suppose the indefinite type of Austrian bureau, which occupied, in all probability, the first floor. Then we came to the river, and later, Wawel stood massed out black upon the blue, the glorious gravestone of a fallen Power.
All the stars were shining, and little red-yellow lights in the castle windows were not much bigger. Above the whisper of the willows on its bank came the deep, quiet murmur of the Vistula, and every now and then, over the several towers of the solemn old palaces and the spires of the church where Poland has laid her kings, and so recently the king of the poets, the stars were dropping from their places, like sudden spiders, letting themselves down into the vast by faint yellow threads that showed a moment after the star itself was gone.
Later, as I looked from the open gallery of the train that was taking me away, I could not help thinking that, just a hundred years ago, Wawel's star was shining with a light bright enough ,for all Europe to see; but even as the stars fell that night and left their places empty, so Wawel's star has fallen and Poland's star has fallen too.