IN THE COMPANY
2: PRAGUE, October 1914
Prague at dawn. Alex Branda entered a
park on the West Bank of the Vltava River walking beside his father
with their usual energetic stride. He could feel the chill of winter
in the air as patches of white mist drifted downstream. Up ahead to
his right, where sharply pointed spires of Old Town rose darkly against
an orange sky, the mist suddenly burst into a golden haze. It looked
to be the start of a perfect day.
Alex enjoyed these daily treks together:
his father on the way to work in the glass shop near Old Town Square,
and he to Falcon House Gymnasium before classes at the university. He
may have been the only son in the capital city who, despite being twenty-two
years old and a little taller, was proud to be seen walking with his
own father every morning. And why not? Not everyone was the son of a
man the caliber of Anton Branda, President of the Falcon Athletic Association,
and a man of ardent political passion who was revered throughout Prague
– even throughout Bohemia. Besides, Alex was confident that no
one's admiration exceeded his own.
Alex had always loved the peaceful dignity
of the park with its regimented rows of precisely trimmed holly hedges
set in patterns designed centuries before, now bristling with frost
and giving clear direction to their way. Here there was a sense of permanence
that made him feel part of some great plan.
Are you ready for that clever little center
of theirs?" his father asked as pebbles crunched on the pathway
curving beneath a long line of poplars. "He'll be dangerous."
Alex forced himself to breathe normally
as he thought about the man he would mark tomorrow for the National
Football Cup. He nodded. "I believe I am."
"Good. Then you can win."
Alex returned his look with a smile, hoping
to reduce the worry he could see pulling at small folds near his father's
Their path opened out onto Na Kampe Street
one hundred metres or so from the Charles Bridge. From here, Alex could
see life-sized statues looming above the river's drifting mist, standing
high on pedestals built into the sturdy stone walls and framing each
side of the broad walkway. This was the ancient road from Prague Castle
on the West Side, winding down the hill and across the river to Old
Town Square, its gas lamps still showing the way at dawn with splashes
of yellow on the dark cobblestones.
Thirty Gothic ghosts stood above the walls
of this bridge, black against the morning sky in eternal martyrdom against
the various tyrannies that had taken their lives; Bohemian saints and
Czech heroes, watching the river, watching the years, watching the citizens
of Prague trudge by. Alex knew that his father walked beneath their
stern gaze every day, alert to the presence of these silent guardians
and well aware of the special atmosphere on this bridge where the conscience
of the country was preserved as a permanent vigil for the path to freedom.
For himself, Alex always felt an overwhelming sense of deference as
he passed beneath their frozen stare. Knowing their determination, their
strength, and their sacrifice, could anyone feel less?
He glanced up at the statue of Jan Nepomuk
and shuddered. How could a man summon that much courage? Condemned to
the stake for his love of freedom . . . burned alive by his enemies,
but still shouting defiance even as he choked on the flames. Alex frowned
at the thought. As a student, he had not yet earned the right to cross
this bridge with pride. Perhaps, though, with the cup . . . .
To the west lay the graceful park near
the university he loved, and to his right the river gliding by the twisted
medieval streets of Old Town, but really, he knew it was the bridge
that was his preoccupation. It was, somehow, the key to his purpose,
and he hoped that one day he might be able to walk across, knowing that
he deserved the privilege. But even as he formed this thought, he began
to shake his head. To die for one's beliefs . . . I never want to face
a test like that.
Near the high arched gate on the town
side, red and white Austrian flags fluttered near the Empire's black
eagle as a reminder to all Czechs that freedom was nothing more than
a dream. That flag does not belong here, he thought, not near this bridge,
but of course, this was part of the usual Hapsburg insensitivity.
It was here on the bridge, Alex supposed,
that his father daily fueled his unshakable determination to excel,
and perhaps it was the nearness to these martyrs now that prompted Anton
to grip Alex's arm.
He waited while his father searched for
words, raking fingers through a head of wiry gray hair. Staring down
the two lines of statues, Anton said in a troubled voice, "Be careful
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474 pages - 32 Chapter map illustrations. Book dimensions: 6”
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474 pages - 32 Chapter map illustrations. Book
dimensions: 6” x 9”
Price: $25.00 CAD