The Witch of Prague by F. Marion Crawford
Unorna let herself sink into a chair. She stared almost vacantly at Keyork, then glanced uneasily at the motionless specimens, then stared at him again.
"Yes," she said at last. "Perhaps I was a little nervous. Why did you lock me in? I would have gone with you. I would have helped you."
"An accident--quite an accident," answered Keyork, divesting himself of his fur coat. "The lock is a peculiar one, and in my hurry I forgot to show you the trick of it."
"I tried to get out," said Unorna with a forced laugh. "I tried to break the door down with a club. I am afraid I have hurt one of your specimens."
She looked about the room. Everything was in its usual position, except the body of the African. She was quite sure that when she had head that unearthly cry, the dead faces had all been turned towards her.
"It is no matter," replied Keyork in a tone of indifference which was genuine. "I wish somebody would take my collection off my hands. I should have room to walk about without elbowing a failure at every step."
"I wish you would bury them all," suggested Unorna, with a slight shudder.
Keyork looked at her keenly.
"Do you mean to say that those dead things frightened you?" he asked incredulously.
"No; I do not. I am not easily frightened. But something odd happened --the second strange thing that has happened this evening. Is there any one concealed in this room?"
"Not a rat--much less a human being. Rats dislike creosote and corrosive sublimate, and as for human beings----"
He shrugged his shoulders and smiled.
"Then I have been dreaming," said Unorna, attempting to look relieved. "Tell me about him. Where is he?"
"In bed--at his hotel. He will be perfectly well to-morrow."
"Did he wake?" she asked anxiously.
"Yes. We talked together."
"And he was in his right mind?"
"Apparently. But he seems to have forgotten something."
"Forgotten? What? That I had made him sleep?"
"Yes. He had forgotten that too."
"In Heaven's name, Keyork, tell me what you mean! Do not keep me--"
"How impatient women are!" exclaimed Keyork with exasperating calm. "What is it that you most want him to forget?"
"You cannot mean----"
"I can, and I do. He has forgotten Beatrice. For a witch--well, you are a very remarkable one, Unorna. As a woman of business----" He shook his head.
"What do you mean, this time? What did you say?" Her questions came in a strained tone and she seemed to have difficulty in concentrating her attention, or in controlling her emotions, or both.
"You paid a large price for the information," observed Keyork.
"What price? What are you speaking of? I do not understand."
"Your soul," he answered, with a laugh. "That was what you offered to any one who would tell you that the Wanderer was safe. I immediately closed with your offer. It was an excellent one for me."
Unorna tapped the table impatiently.
"It is odd that a man of your learning should never be serious," she said.
"I supposed that you were serious," he answered. "Besides, a bargain is a bargain, and there were numerous witnesses to the transaction," he added, looking round the room at his dead specimens.
Unorna tried to laugh with him.
"Do you know, I was so nervous that I fancied all those creatures were groaning and shrieking and gibbering at me, when you came in."
"Very likely they were," said Keyork Arabian, his small eyes twinkling.
"And I imagined that the Malayan woman opened her mouth to scream, and that the Peruvian savages turned their heads; it was very strange--at first they groaned, and then they wailed, and then they howled and shrieked at me."
"Under the circumstances, that is not extraordinary."
Unorna stared at him rather angrily. He was jesting, of course, and she had been dreaming, or had been so overwrought by excitement as to have been made the victim of a vivid hallucination. Nevertheless there was something disagreeable in the matter-of-fact gravity of his jest.
"I am tired of your kind of wit," she said.
"The kind of wit which is called wisdom is said to be fatiguing," he retorted.
"I wish you would give me an opportunity of being wearied in that way."
"Begin by opening your eyes to facts, then. It is you who are trying to jest. It is I who am in earnest. Did you, or did you not, offer your soul for a certain piece of information? Did you, or did you not, hear those dead things moan and cry? Did you, or did you not, see them move?"
"How absurd!" cried Unorna. "You might as well ask whether, when one is giddy, the room is really going round? Is there any practical difference, so far as sensation goes, between a mummy and a block of wood?"
"That, my dear lady, is precisely what we do not know, and what we most wish to know. Death is not the change which takes place at a moment which is generally clearly defined, when the heart stops beating, and the eye turns white, and the face changes colour. Death comes some time after that, and we do not know exactly when. It varies very much in different individuals. You can only define it as the total and final cessation of perception and apperception, both functions depending on the nerves. In ordinary cases Nature begins of herself to destroy the nerves by a sure process. But how do you know what happens when decay is not only arrested but prevented before it has begun? How can you foretell what may happen when a skilful hand has restored the tissues of the body to their original flexibility, or preserved them in the state in which they were last sensitive?"
"Nothing can ever make me believe that a mummy can suddenly hear and understand," said Unorna. "Much less that it can move and produce a sound. I know that the idea has possessed you for many years, but nothing will make me believe it possible."
"Nothing short of seeing and hearing."
"But you have seen and heard."
"I was dreaming."
"When you offered your soul?"
"Not then, perhaps. I was only mad then."
"And on the ground of temporary insanity you would repudiate the bargain?"
Unorna shrugged her shoulders impatiently and did not answer. Keyork relinquished the fencing.
"It is of no importance," he said, changing his tone. "Your dream--or whatever it was--seems to have been the second of your two experiences. You said there were two, did you not? What was the first?"
Unorna sat silent for some minutes, as though collecting her thoughts. Keyork, who never could have enough light, busied himself with another lamp. The room was now brighter than it generally was in the daytime.
Unorna watched him. She did not want to make confidences to him, and yet she felt irresistibly impelled to do so. He was a strange compound of wisdom and levity, in her opinion, and his light-hearted moods were those which she most resented. She was never sure whether he was in reality tactless, or frankly brutal. She inclined to the latter view of his character, because he always showed such masterly skill in excusing himself when he had gone too far. Neither his wisdom nor his love of jesting explained to her the powerful attraction he exercised over her whole nature, and of which she was, in a manner, ashamed. She could quarrel with him as often as they met, and yet she could not help being always glad to meet him again. She could not admit that she liked him because she dominated him; on the contrary, he was the only person she had ever met over whom she had no influence whatever, who did as he pleased without consulting her, and who laughed at her mysterious power so far as he himself was concerned. Nor was her liking founded upon any consciousness of obligation. If he had helped her to the best of his ability in the great experiment, it was also clear enough that he had the strongest personal interest in doing so. He loved life with a mad passion for its own sake, and the only object of his study was to find a means of living longer than other men. All the aims and desires and complex reasonings of his being tended to this simple expression--the wish to live. To what idolatrous self- worship Keyork Arabian might be capable of descending, if he ever succeeded in eliminating death from the equation of his immediate future, it was impossible to say. The wisdom of ages bids us beware of the man of one idea. He is to be feared for his ruthlessness, for his concentration, for the singular strength he has acquired in the centralization of his intellectual power, and because he has welded, as it were, the rough metal of many passions and of many talents into a single deadly weapon which he wields for a single purpose. Herein lay, perhaps, the secret of Unorna's undefined fear of Keyork and of her still less definable liking for him.
She leaned one elbow on the table and shaded her eyes from the brilliant light.
"I do not know why I should tell you," she said at last. "You will only laugh at me, and then I shall be angry, and we shall quarrel as usual."
"I may be of use," suggested the little man gravely. "Besides, I have made up my mind never to quarrel with you again, Unorna."
"You are wise, my dear friend. It does no good. As for your being of use in this case, the most I can hope is that you may find me an explanation of something I cannot understand."
"I am good at that. I am particularly good at explanations--and, generally, at all post facto wisdom."
"Keyork, do you believe that the souls of the dead can come back and be visible to us?"
Keyork Arabian was silent for a few seconds.
"I know nothing about it," he answered.
"But what do you think?"
"Nothing. Either it is possible, or it is not, and until the one proposition or the other is proved I suspend my judgment. Have you seen a ghost?"
"I do not know. I have seen something----" She stopped, as though the recollections were unpleasant.
"Then" said Keyork, "the probability is that you saw a living person. Shall I sum up the question of ghosts for you?"
"I wish you would, in some way that I can understand."
"We are, then, in precisely the same position with regard to the belief in ghosts which we occupy towards such questions as the abolition of death. The argument in both cases is inductive and all but conclusive. We do not know of any case, in the two hundred generations of men, more or less, with whose history we are in some degree acquainted, of any individual who has escaped death. We conclude that all men must die. Similarly, we do not know certainly-- not from real, irrefutable evidence at least--that the soul of any man or woman dead has ever returned visibly to earth. We conclude, therefore, that none ever will. There is a difference in the two cases, which throws a slight balance of probability on the side of the ghost. Many persons have asserted that they have seen ghosts, though none have ever asserted that men do not die. For my own part, I have had a very wide, practical, and intimate acquaintance with dead people --sometimes in very queer places--but I have never seen anything even faintly suggestive of a ghost. Therefore, my dear lady, I advise you to take it for granted that you have seen a living person."
"I never shivered with cold and felt my hair rise upon my head at the sight of any living thing," said Unorna dreamily, and still shading her eyes with her hand.
"But might you not feel that if you chanced to see some one whom you particularly disliked?" asked Keyork, with a gentle laugh.
"Disliked?" repeated Unorna in a harsh voice. She changed her position and looked at him. "Yes, perhaps that is possible. I had not thought of that. And yet--I would rather it had been a ghost."
"More interesting, certainly, and more novel," observed Keyork, slowly polishing his smooth cranium with the palm of his hand. His head, and the perfect hemisphere of his nose, reflected the light like ivory balls of different sizes.
"I was standing before him," said Unorna. "The place was lonely and it was already night. The stars shone on the snow, and I could see distinctly. Then she--that woman--passed softly between us. He cried out, calling her by name, and then fell forward. After that, the woman was gone. What was it that I saw?"
"You are quite sure that it was not really a woman?"
"Would a woman, and of all women that one, have come and gone without a word?"
"Not unless she is a very singularly reticent person," answered Keyork, with a laugh. "But you need not go so far as the ghost theory for an explanation. You were hypnotised, my dear friend, and he made you see her. That is as simple as anything need be."
"But that is impossible, because----" Unorna stopped and changed colour.
"Because you had hypnotised him already," suggested Keyork gravely.
"The thing is not possible," Unorna repeated, looking away from him.
"I believe it to be the only natural explanation. You had made him sleep. You tried to force his mind to something contrary to its firmest beliefs. I have seen you do it. He is a strong subject. His mind rebelled, yielded, then made a final and desperate effort, and then collapsed. That effort was so terrible that it momentarily forced your will back upon itself, and impressed his vision on your sight. There are no ghosts, my dear colleague. There are only souls and bodies. If the soul can be defined as anything it can be defined as Pure Being in the Mode of Individuality but quite removed from the Mode of Matter. As for the body--well, there it is before you, in a variety of shapes, and in various states of preservation, as incapable of producing a ghost as a picture or a statue. You are altogether in a very nervous condition to-day. It is really quite indifferent whether that good lady be alive or dead."
"Indifferent!" exclaimed Unorna fiercely. Then she was silent.
"Indifferent to the validity of the theory. If she is dead, you did not see her ghost, and if she is alive you did not see her body, because, if she had been there in the flesh, she would have entered into an explanation--to say the least. Hypnosis will explain anything and everything, without causing you a moment's anxiety for the future."
"Then I did not hear shrieks and moans, nor see your specimens moving when I was here along just now?"
"Certainly not! Hypnosis again. Auto-hypnosis this time. You should really be less nervous. You probably stared at the lamp without realising the fact. You know that any shining object affects you in that way, if you are not careful. It is a very bright lamp, too. Instantaneous effect--bodies appear to move and you hear unearthly yells--you offer your soul for sale and I buy it, appearing in the nick of time? If your condition had lasted ten seconds longer you would have taken me for his majesty and lived, in imagination, through a dozen years or so of sulphurous purgatorial treatment under my personal supervision, to wake up and find yourself unscorched--and unredeemed, as ever."
"You are a most comforting person, Keyork," said Unorna, with a faint smile. "I only wish I could believe everything you tell me."
"You must either believe me or renounce all claim to intelligence," answered the little man, climbing from his chair and sitting upon the table at her elbow. His short, sturdy legs swung at a considerable height above the floor, and he planted his hands firmly upon the board on either side of him. The attitude was that of an idle boy, and was so oddly out of keeping with his age and expression that Unorna almost laughed as she looked at him.
"At all events," he continued, "you cannot doubt my absolute sincerity. You come to me for an explanation. I give you the only sensible one that exists, and the only one which can have a really sedative effect upon your excitement. Of course, if you have any especial object in believing in ghosts--if it affords you any great and lasting pleasure to associate, in imagination, with spectres, wraiths, and airily-malicious shadows, I will not cross your fancy. To a person of solid nerves a banshee may be an entertaining companion, and an apparition in a well-worn winding-sheet may be a pretty toy. For all I know, it may be a delight to you to find your hair standing on end at the unexpected appearance of a dead woman in a black cloak between you and the person with whom you are engaged in animated conversation. All very well, as a mere pastime, I say. But if you find that you are reaching a point on which your judgment is clouded, you had better shut up the magic lantern and take the rational view of the case."
"Perhaps you are right."
"Will you allow me to say something very frank, Unorna?" asked Keyork with unusual diffidence.
"If you can manage to be frank without being brutal."
"I will be short, at all events. It is this. I think you are becoming superstitious." He watched her closely to see what effect the speech would produce. She looked up quickly.
"Am I? What is superstition?"
"Gratuitous belief in things not proved."
"I expected a different definition from you."
"What did you expect me to say?"
"That superstition is belief."
"I am not a heathen," observed Keyork sanctimoniously.
"Far from it," laughed Unorna. "I have heard that devils believe and tremble."
"And you class me with those interesting things, my dear friend?"
"Sometimes: when I am angry with you."
"Two or three times a day, then? Not more than that?" inquired the sage, swinging his heels, and staring at the rows of skulls in the background.
"Whenever we quarrel. It is easy for you to count the occasions."
"Easy, but endless. Seriously, Unorna, I am not the devil. I can prove it to you conclusively on theological grounds."
"Can you? They say that his majesty is a lawyer, and a successful one, in good practice."
"What caused Satan's fall? Pride. Then pride is his chief characteristic. Am I proud, Unorna? The question is absurd, I have nothing to be proud of--a little old man with a gray beard, of whom nobody ever heard anything remarkable. No one ever accused me of pride. How could I be proud of anything? Except of your acquaintance, my dear lady," he added gallantly, laying his hand on his heart, and leaning towards her as he sat.
Unorna laughed at the speech, and threw back her dishevelled hair with a graceful gesture. Keyork paused.
"You are very beautiful," he said thoughtfully, gazing at her face and at the red gold lights that played in the tangled tresses.
"Worse and worse!" she exclaimed, still laughing. "Are you going to repeat the comedy you played so well this afternoon, and make love to me again?"
"If you like. But I do not need to win your affections now."
"Have I not bought your soul, with everything in it, like a furnished house?" he asked merrily.
"Then you are the devil after all?"
"Or an angel. Why should the evil one have a monopoly in the soul- market? But you remind me of my argument. You would have distracted Demosthenes in the heat of a peroration, or Socrates in the midst of his defence, if you had flashed that hair of yours before their old eyes. You have almost taken the life out of my argument. I was going to say that my peculiarity is not less exclusive than Lucifer's, though it takes a different turn. I was going to confess with the utmost frankness and the most sincere truth that my only crime against Heaven is a most perfect, unswerving, devotional love for my own particular Self. In that attachment I have never wavered yet--but I really cannot say what may become of Keyork Arabian if he looks at you much longer."
"He might become a human being," suggested Unorna.
"How can you be so cruel as to suggest such a horrible possibility?" cried the gnome with a shudder, either real or extremely well feigned.
"You are betraying yourself, Keyork. You must control your feelings better, or I shall find out the truth about you."
He glanced keenly at her, and was silent for a while. Unorna rose slowly to her feet, and standing beside him, began to twist her hair into a great coil upon her head.
"What made you let it down?" asked Keyork with some curiosity, as he watched her.
"I hardly know," she answered, still busy with the braids. "I was nervous, I suppose, as you say, and so it got loose and came down."
"Nervous about our friend?"
She did not reply, but turned from him with a shake of the head and took up her fur mantle.
"You are not going?" said Keyork quietly, in a tone of conviction.
She started slightly, dropped the sable, and sat down again.
"No," she said, "I am not going yet. I do not know what made me take my cloak."
"You have really no cause for nervousness now that it is all over," remarked the sage, who had not descended from his perch on the table. "He is very well. It is one of those cases which are interesting as being new, or at least only partially investigated. We may as well speak in confidence, Unorna, for we really understand each other. Do you not think so?"
"That depends on what you have to say."
"Not much--nothing that ought to offend you. You must consider, my dear," he said, assuming an admirably paternal tone, "that I might be your father, and that I have your welfare very much at heart, as well as your happiness. You love this man--no, do not be angry, do not interrupt me. You could not do better for yourself, nor for him. I knew him years ago. He is a grand man--the sort of man I would like to be. Good. You find him suffering from a delusion, or a memory, whichever it be. Not only is this delusion--let us call it so--ruining his happiness and undermining his strength, but so long as it endures, it also completely excludes the possibility of his feeling for you what you feel for him. Your own interest coincides exactly with the promptings of real, human charity. And yours is in reality a charitable nature, dear Unorna, though you are sometimes a little hasty with poor old Keyork. Good again. You, being moved by a desire for this man's welfare, most kindly and wisely take steps to cure him of his madness. The delusion is strong, but your will is stronger. The delusion yields after a violent struggle during which it has even impressed itself upon your own senses. The patient is brought home, properly cared for, and disposed to rest. Then he wakes, apparently of his own accord, and behold! he is completely cured. Everything has been successful, everything is perfect, everything has followed the usual course of such mental cures by means of hypnosis. The only thing I do not understand is the waking. That is the only thing which makes me uneasy for the future, until I can see it properly explained. He had no right to wake without your suggestion, if he was still in the hypnotic state; and if he had already come out of the hypnotic state by a natural reaction, it is to be feared that the cure may not be permanent."
Unorna had listened attentively, as she always did when Keyork delivered himself of a serious opinion upon a psychiatric case. Her eyes gleamed with satisfaction as he finished.
"If that is all that troubles you," she said, "you may set your mind at rest. After he had fallen, and while the watchman was getting the carriage, I repeated my suggestion and ordered him to wake without pain in an hour."
"Perfect! Splendid!" cried Keyork, clapping his hands loudly together. "I did you an injustice, my dear Unorna. You are not so nervous as I thought, since you forgot nothing. What a woman! Ghost-proof, and able to think connectedly even at such a moment! But tell me, did you not take the opportunity of suggesting something else?" His eyes twinkled merrily, as he asked the question.
"What do you mean?" inquired Unorna, with sudden coldness.
"Oh, nothing so serious as you seem to think. I was only wondering whether a suggestion of reciprocation might not have been wise."
She faced him fiercely.
"Hold your peace, Keyork Arabian!" she cried.
"Why?" he asked with a bland smile, swinging his little legs and stroking his long beard.
"There is a limit! Must you for ever be trying to suggest, and trying to guide me in everything I do? It is intolerable! I can hardly call my soul my own!"
"Hardly, considering my recent acquisition of it," returned Keyork calmly.
"That wretched jest is threadbare."
"A jest! Wretched? And threadbare, too? Poor Keyork! His wit is failing at last."
He shook his head in mock melancholy over his supposed intellectual dotage. Unorna turned away, this time with the determination to leave him.
"I am sorry if I have offended you," he said, very meekly. "Was what I said so very unpardonable?"
"If ignorance is unpardonable, as you always say, then your speech is past forgiveness," said Unorna, relenting by force of habit, but gathering her fur around her. "If you know anything of women--"
"Which I do not," observed the gnome in a low-toned interruption.
"Which you do not--you would know how much such love as you advise me to manufacture by force of suggestion could be worth in a woman's eyes. You would know that a woman will be loved for herself, for her beauty, for her wit, for her virtues, for her faults, for her own love, if you will, and by a man conscious of all his actions and free of his heart; not by a mere patient reduced to the proper state of sentiment by a trick of hypnotism, or psychiatry, or of whatever you choose to call the effect of this power of mine which neither you, nor I, nor any one can explain. I will be loved freely, for myself, or not at all."
"I see, I see," said Keyork thoughtfully. "something in the way Israel Kafka loves you."
"Yes, as Israel Kafka loves me, I am not afraid to say it. As he loves me, of his own free will, and to his own destruction--as I should have loved him, had it been so fated."
"So you are a fatalist, Unorna," observed her companion, still stroking and twisting his beard. "It is strange that we should differ upon so many fundamental questions, you and I, and yet be such good friends. Is it not?"
"The strangest thing of all is that I should submit to your exasperating ways as I do."
"It does not strike me that it is I who am quarrelling this time," said Keyork.
"I confess, I would almost prefer that to your imperturbable coolness. What is this new phase? You used not to be like this. You are planning some wickedness. I am sure of it."
"And that is all the credit I get for keeping my temper! Did I not say a while ago that I would never quarrel with you again?"
"You said so, but--"
"But you did not expect me to keep my word," said Keyork, slipping from his seat on the table with considerable agility and suddenly standing close before her. "And do you not yet know that when I say a thing I do it, and that when I have got a thing I keep it?"
"So far as the latter point is concerned, I have nothing to say. But you need not be so terribly impressive; and unless you are going to break your word, by which you seem to set such store, and quarrel with me, you need not look at me so fiercely."
Keyork suddenly let his voice drop to its deepest and most vibrating key.
"I only want you to remember this," he said. "You are not an ordinary woman, as I am not an ordinary man, and the experiment we are making together is an altogether extraordinary one. I have told you the truth. I care for nothing but my individual self, and I seek nothing but the prolongation of life. If you endanger the success of the great trial again, as you did to-day, and if it fails, I will never forgive you. You will make an enemy of me, and you will regret it while you live, and longer than that, perhaps. So long as you keep the compact there is nothing I will not do to help you--nothing within the bounds of your imagination. And I can do much. Do you understand?"
"I understand that you are afraid of losing my help."
"That is it--of losing your help. I am not afraid of losing you--in the end."
Unorna smiled rather scornfully at first, as she looked down upon the little man's strange face and gazed fearlessly into his eyes. But as she looked, the smile faded, and the colour slowly sank from her face, until she was very pale. And as she felt herself losing courage before something which she could not understand, Keyork's eyes grew brighter and brighter till they glowed like drops of molten metal. A sound as of many voices wailing in agony rose and trembled and quavered in the air. With a wild cry, Unorna pressed her hands to her ears and fled towards the entrance.
"You are very nervous to-night," observed Keyork, as he opened the door.
Then he went silently down the stairs by her side and helped her into the carriage, which had been waiting since his return.