Maria Felicia/Chapter 7
AN endless army of peasants, all of lean forms, clothed in ragged garments, with walking-sticks in their hands and bags of bread on their backs, were pouring from: the northeast over all the roads and paths toward Prague. It was not the pilgrimage of St. John, nor yet that of St. Václav, for it was early in the spring of 1775.
The Empress, with her son, had issued a decree that lightened the service; the rest of the promised privileges, however, were not granted, but the peasants were permitted to arrange those matters themselves with their masters. In order to do so, the peasants were now advancing toward Prague to their lords. On their way they had said that the Emperor intended to do much more for them had it not been for the opposition of the nobles; that the nobles reproached him for not being like his predecessors, who defended their rights and tried to enrich them, some even going so far as to accuse Joseph of the intention of making beggars of the nobles in the interests of the peasants, that they might idle their time away on their ovens. The peasants, acting on the privilege granted them by the new law, decided to go to Prague, to speak humbly to their masters in behalf of their interests. They desired to prove to the nobility that they did not wish to be idle, to explain what they had to endure during years of poor crops, and how miserably whole families were dying of hunger; and then to beg the nobles to take pity and spare them at least some crumbs from their bountiful supplies.
In every village the number of the pilgrims was increasing; the peasants made known their purpose, and those who thought as they did and were burdened as they were, joined them. At the head of the band marched two young men, both handsome, and both of refined manners. The taller and stronger of the two carried a flag. It was made of coarse cloth like the garments of those following it; the picture of a plow in its center was intended to show that, although they desired to have their work lightened, they did not desire to be idle. The other young man carried a Bible, to show that they had been led to this pilgrimage by no idle whim, but that they intended to act according to the commandments of God.
Andrew carried the flag, and the harper carried the Bible. It was the Bible of the president of the Union; it was almost as old as the Union itself, and so was not printed, but artistically written. Andrew and the harper were the speakers who addressed the villagers. The harper was known far and wide. As Brother-Assistant he had made long journeys and had won the hearts of all the peasants who had made his acquaintance. As soon as he spoke all flocked to him as to an experienced and trustworthy friend. It was evident that he had disseminated in the hearts of the peasants the conviction that the nation must arise and openly demand its rights. Through his influence the band of pilgrims was constantly increasing, and it moved toward Prague in a spirit of perfect peace and understanding. Two whole days they journeyed on quietly and unmolested, at night sleeping under the wide heavens. As they neared some castle or manor, the officials fled terror-stricken, conscious of the injuries they had inflicted on the peasants and fearing that the day of reckoning had come. Not until the end of the third day, when they found themselves at the foot of a chain of mountains, did they see a frightful wall on the horizon, moving and quickly approaching them. It was a regiment of soldiers. The official runaways had signaled to Prague that peasants were on their way to the city to settle with their masters; and in consequence of this the city officers had sent the soldiers against them.
The peasants, though amazed, yet bravely and confidently advanced toward the soldiers. The commander should see that they were not armed, and hearing their St. Václavian hymn he would know that they intended no harm. And, besides, the peasants were ready to acknowledge the object of their journey, feeling convinced that the commander would then let them pass. But they were mistaken in believing that they would not be opposed in traveling over the public roads to ask for justice.
“Halt!” suddenly exclaimed a thundering voice, when the peasants had come within a few hundred feet of the soldiers. “Halt, or we fire.”
All remained still, being unable to comprehend what they had heard.
“What do you demand of us, master, that you want us to stop?” Andrew asked the commander, a young man in uniform, puffed with pride.
Being thus addressed, he turned purple with anger.
“You have no right to ask me; it is your duty to obey at once,” he answered gruffly. “I command you to surrender quietly, otherwise you shall be treated with due severity.” And the soldiers, hearing a command, quickly loaded their guns.
On this brutal threat a timid murmur arose. But the young leaders did not lose their presence of mind.
“Why do you want to capture us, Hypolit Felsenburk?” the harper demanded. “We are marching to Prague to speak humbly and peacefully to our masters. If you want to prevent our going, you must have misunderstood the Emperor’s Patent, which gives us the privilege to do so. You are making void your Emperor’s will.”
The young Hypolit of Felsenburk flamed with anger.
“Utter another word, villains, and I will execute on you right here what awaits every one of you that shall behold Prague,” he exclaimed, pointing significantly to two tall trees.
“Whoever opposes my orders shall not move alive from the spot.”
Again the people murmured, but this time not with fear; they threatened. As an answer the soldiers aimed at the peasants.
“What a terrible example you are giving to people who are peacefully seeking their rights!” Andrew exclaimed with anger. “How are we, then, to get justice? Through force, treason, murder? Are you not setting us an example of rebellion yourselves? Must not we regret not having taken sterner measures to attain our rights? If you give orders to fire at unarmed people, you deserve to be called a murderer. But no one will be surprised if you do; you are a Felsenburk, and Felsenburks always gladly performed the headsman’s duties on the Bohemian people.”
A thundering noise interrupted his speech. A thousand hissing sounds flew over the peasants’ heads; moans, sighs and threats quickly answered them. Clouds of smoke concealed the scene of excitement and despair. Some of the peasants, in a blind instinct of self-preservation, started on a crazy run, and were followed by a part of the army; the rest in raging fury fell upon the soldiers with savage strength, and the staves in their hands became terrible weapons.
“What have we done?” again they cried. “Why do you want to kill us? Have you not been born among us; do you not know the lot we are enduring? Is this what we get for wishing to beg for what is ours by right?”
But their words were fruitless; the firing was repeated, and those who did not fall in their own blood were soon under arrest.
Andrew and the harper were in the midst of the terrible fray from the very first. Around them the wildest conflict raged. The harper, wounded in the head by a bullet, fell to the ground; and Andrew, struck with a stick by a peasant who had raised it to strike a soldier, fell on his knees beside the harper and tried to protect him with his body.
“Run,” said the harper, collecting his strength. “Run! nothing more can be done to-day.”
“I will not move from the spot without you, and for you to get up or for me to lift you is impossible,” Andrew sighed.
“Oh, let me lie and bleed! Let the blood of Maria Felicia wash away the crime committed by her ancestors against the Bohemian nation and your dislike for her,” the harper gasped, and fainted away.
At these words it seemed that Andrew’s strength returned. For a moment, as if stunned, he looked into the harper’s face, forgetting the struggle around him; and then suddenly he arose, lifted the harper, pressed him to his bosom, made his way out through the struggling crowd, and started into the forest. Young Felsenburk, seeing that Andrew was running away and carrying his comrade in his arms, commanded his soldiers to follow him, and promised a great reward to him who should bring back the brave flagbearer, dead or alive. They started to the forest, surrounded and searched it through and through, and not finding the runaway, they set it on fire; but no trace of the young men was found. The peasants concluded that they had either died as heroes in some cave, or that Andrew had accomplished a miracle, running so fast that he left the forest behind him before the soldiers had reached it.
Other bands of peasants succeeded in getting to Prague; but they were repulsed by the authorities, who even refused to listen to their supplication, and treated them as rebels. Many of them were imprisoned, others sent back to their estates, where various punishments were inflicted upon them, and four were hanged on public highways to serve as a warning to the passers-by.