The Witch of Prague by F. Marion Crawford
A month had passed since the day on which Unorna had first seen the Wanderer, and since the evening when she had sat so long in conversation with Keyork Arabian. The snow lay heavily on all the rolling moorland about Prague, covering everything up to the very gates of the black city; and within, all things were as hard and dark and frozen as ever. The sun was still the sun, no doubt, high above the mist and the gloom which he had no power to pierce, but no man could say that he had seen him in that month. At long intervals indeed, a faint rose-coloured glow touched the high walls of the Hradschin and transfigured for an instant the short spires of the unfinished cathedral, hundreds of feet above the icebound river and the sepulchral capital; sometimes, in the dim afternoons, a little gold filtered through the heavy air and tinged the snow-steeples of the Teyn Kirche, and yellowed the stately tower of the town hall; but that was all, so far as the moving throngs of silent beings that filled the streets could see. The very air men breathed seemed to be stiffening with damp cold. For that is not the glorious winter of our own dear north, where the whole earth is a jewel of gleaming crystals hung between two heavens, between the heaven of the day, and the heaven of the night, beautiful alike in sunshine and in starlight, under the rays of the moon, at evening and again at dawn; where the pines and hemlocks are as forests of plumes powdered thick with dust of silver; where the black ice rings like a deep-toned bell beneath the heel of the sweeping skate--the ice that you may follow a hundred miles if you have breath and strength; where the harshest voice rings musically among the icicles and the snow-laden boughs; where the quick jingle of sleigh bells far off on the smooth, deep track brings to the listener the vision of our own merry Father Christmas, with snowy beard, and apple cheeks, and peaked fur cap, and mighty gauntlets, and hampers and sacks full of toys and good things and true northern jollity; where all is young and fresh and free; where eyes are bright and cheeks are red, and hands are strong and hearts are brave; where children laugh and tumble in the diamond dust of the dry, driven snow; where men and women know what happiness can mean; where the old are as the giant pines, green, silver-crowned landmarks in the human forest, rather than as dried, twisted, sapless trees fit only to be cut down and burned, in that dear north to which our hearts and memories still turn for refreshment, under the Indian suns, and out of the hot splendour of calm southern seas. The winter of the black city that spans the frozen Moldau is the winter of the grave, dim as a perpetual afternoon in a land where no lotus ever grew, cold with the unspeakable frigidness of a reeking air that thickens as oil but will not be frozen, melancholy as a stony island of death in a lifeless sea.
A month had gone by, and in that time the love that had so suddenly taken root in Unorna's heart had grown to great proportions as love will when, being strong and real, it is thwarted and repulsed at every turn. For she was not loved. She had destroyed the idol and rooted out the memory of it, but she could not take its place. She had spoken the truth when she had told Keyork that she would be loved for herself, or not at all, and that she would use neither her secret arts nor her rare gifts to manufacture a semblance when she longed for a reality.
Almost daily she saw him. As in a dream he came to her and sat by her side, hour after hour, talking of many things, calm, apparently, and satisfied in her society, but strangely apathetic and indifferent. Never once in those many days had she seen his pale face light up with pleasure, nor his deep eyes show a gleam of interest; never had the tone of his voice been disturbed in its even monotony; never had the touch of his hand, when they met and parted, felt the communication of the thrill that ran through hers.
It was very bitter, for Unorna was proud with the scarcely reasoning pride of a lawless, highly gifted nature, accustomed to be obeyed and little used to bending under any influence. She brought all the skill she could command to her assistance; she talked to him, she told him of herself, she sought his confidence, she consulted him on every matter, she attempted to fascinate his imagination with tales of a life which even he could never have seen; she even sang to him old songs and snatches of wonderful melodies which, in her childhood, had still survived the advancing wave of silence that has overwhelmed the Bohemian people within the memory of living man, bringing a change into the daily life and temperament of a whole nation which is perhaps unparalleled in any history. He listened, he smiled, he showed a faint pleasure and a great understanding in all these things, and he came back day after day to talk and listen again. But that was all. She felt that she could amuse him without charming him.
And Unorna suffered terribly. Her cheek grew thinner and her eyes gleamed with sudden fires. She was restless, and her beautiful hands, from seeming to be carved in white marble, began to look as though they were chiselled out of delicate transparent alabaster. She slept little and thought much, and if she did not shed tears, it was because she was too strong to weep for pain and too proud to weep from anger and disappointment. And yet her resolution remained firm, for it was part and parcel of her inmost self, and was guarded by pride on the one hand and an unalterable belief in fate on the other.
To-day they sat together, as they had so often sat, among the flowers and the trees in the vast conservatory, she in her tall, carved chair and he upon a lower seat before her. They had been silent for some minutes. It was not yet noon, but it might have been early morning in a southern island, so soft was the light, so freshly scented the air, so peaceful the tinkle of the tiny fountain. Unorna's expression was sad, as she gazed in silence at the man she loved. There was something gone from his face, she thought, since she had first seen him, and it was to bring that something back that she would give her life and her soul if she could.
Suddenly her lips moved and a sad melody trembled in the air. Unorna sang, almost as though singing to herself. The Wanderer's deep eyes met hers and he listened.
"When in life's heaviest hour Grief crowds upon the heart One wondrous prayer My memory repeats. "The harmony of the living words Is full of strength to heal, There breathes in them a holy charm Past understanding. "Then, as a burden from my soul, Doubt rolls away, And I believe--believe in tears, And all is light--so light!"
She ceased, and his eyes were still upon her, calm, thoughtful, dispassionate. The colour began to rise in her cheek. She looked down and tapped upon the carved arm of the chair with an impatient gesture familiar to her.
"And what is that one prayer?" asked the Wanderer. "I knew the song long ago, but I have never guessed what that magic prayer can be like."
"It must be a woman's prayer; I cannot tell you what it is."
"And are you so sad to-day, Unorna? What makes you sing that song?"
"Sad? No, I am not sad," she answered with an effort. "But the words rose to my lips and so I sang."
"They are pretty words," said her companion, almost indifferently. "And you have a very beautiful voice," he added thoughtfully.
"Have I? I have been told so, sometimes."
"Yes. I like to hear you sing, and talk, too. My life is a blank. I do not know what it would be without you."
"I am little enough to--those who know me," said Unorna, growing pale, and drawing a quick breath.
"You cannot say that. You are not little to me."
There was a long silence. He gazed at the plants, and his glance wandered from one to the other, as though he did not see them, being lost in meditation. The voice had been calm and clear as ever, but it was the first time he had ever said so much, and Unorna's heart stood still, half fire and half ice. She could not speak.
"You are very much to me," he said again, at last. "Since I have been in this place a change has come over me. I seem to myself to be a man without an object, without so much as a real thought. Keyork tells me that there is something wanting, that the something is woman, and that I ought to love. I cannot tell. I do not know what love is, and I never knew. Perhaps it is the absence of it that makes me what I am--a body and an intelligence without a soul. Even the intelligence I begin to doubt. What sense has there ever been in all my wanderings? Why have I been in every place, in every city? What went I forth to see? Not even a reed shaken by the wind! I have spoken all languages, read thousands of books, known men in every land--and for what? It is as though I had once had an object in it all, though I know that there was none. But I have realised the worthlessness of my life since I have been here. Perhaps you have shown it to me, or helped me to see it. I cannot tell. I ask myself again and again what it was all for, and I ask in vain. I am lonely, indeed, in the world, but it has been my own choice. I remember that I had friends once, when I was younger, but I cannot tell what has become of one of them. They wearied me, perhaps, in those days, and the weariness drove me from my own home. For I have a home, Unorna, and I fancy that when old age gets me at last I shall go there to die, in one of those old towers by the northern sea. I was born there, and there my mother died and my father, before I knew them; it is a sad place! Meanwhile, I may have thirty years, or forty, or even more to live. Shall I go on living this wandering, aimless life? And if not what shall I do? Love, says Keyork Arabian--who never loved anything but himself, but to whom that suffices, for it passes the love of woman!"
"That is true, indeed," said Unorna in a low voice.
"And what he says might be true also, if I were capable of loving. But I feel that I am not. I am as incapable of that as of anything else. I ought to despise myself, and yet I do not. I am perfectly contented, and if I am not happy I at least do not realise what unhappiness means. Am I not always of the same even temper?"
"Indeed you are." She tried not to speak bitterly, but something in her tone struck him.
"Ah, I see! You despise me a little for my apathy. Yes, you are quite right. Man is not made to turn idleness into a fine art, nor to manufacture contentment out of his own culpable indifference! It is despicable--and yet, here I am."
"I never meant that," cried Unorna with sudden heat. "Even if I had, what right have I to make myself the judge of your life?"
"The right of friendship," answered the Wanderer very quietly. "You are my best friend, Unorna."
Unorna's anger rose within her. She remembered how in that very place, and but a month earlier, she had offered Israel Kafka her friendship, and it was as though a heavy retribution were now meted out to her for her cruelty on that day. She remembered his wrath and his passionate denunciations of friendship, his scornful refusal, his savage attempt to conquer her will, his failure and his defeat. She remembered how she had taken her revenge, delivering him over in his sleep to Keyork Arabian's will. She wished that, like him, she could escape from the wound of the word in a senseless lethargy of body and mind. She knew now what he had suffered, for she suffered it all herself. He, at least, had been free to speak his mind, to rage and storm and struggle. She must sit still and hide her agony, at the risk of losing all. She bit her white lips and turned her head away, and was silent.
"You are my best friend," the Wanderer repeated in his calm voice, and every syllable pierced her like a glowing needle. "And does not friendship give rights which ought to be used? If, as I think, Unorna, you look upon me as an idler, as a worthless being, as a man without as much as the shadow of a purpose in the world, it is but natural that you should despise me a little, even though you may be very fond of me. Do you not see that?"
Unorna stared at him with an odd expression for a moment.
"Yes--I am fond of you!" she exclaimed, almost harshly. Then she laughed. He seemed not to notice her tone.
"I never knew what friendship was before," he went on. "Of course, as I said, I had friends when I was little more than a boy, boys and young men like myself, and our friendship came to this, that we laughed, and feasted and hunted together, and sometimes even quarrelled, and caring little, thought even less. But in those days there seemed to be nothing between that and love, and love I never understood, that I can remember. But friendship like ours, Unorna, was never dreamed of among us. Such friendship as this, when I often think that I receive all and give nothing in return."
Again Unorna laughed, so strangely that the sound of her own voice startled her.
"Why do you laugh like that?" he asked.
"Because what you say is so unjust to yourself," she answered, nervously and scarcely seeing him where he sat. "You seem to think it is all on your side. And yet, I just told you that I was fond of you."
"I think it is a fondness greater than friendship that we feel for each other," he said, presently, thrusting the probe of a new hope into the tortured wound.
"Yes?" she spoke faintly, with averted face.
"Something more--a stronger tie, a closer bond. Unorna, do you believe in the migration of the soul throughout ages, from one body to another?"
"Sometimes," she succeeded in saying.
"I do not believe in it," he continued. "But I see well enough how men may, since I have known you. We have grown so intimate in these few weeks, we seem to understand each other so wholly, with so little effort, we spend such happy, peaceful hours together every day, that I can almost fancy our two selves having been together through a whole lifetime in some former state, living together, thinking together, inseparable from birth, and full of an instinctive, mutual understanding. I do not know whether that seems an exaggeration to you or not. Has the same idea ever crossed your mind?"
She said something, or tried to say something, but the words were inaudible; he interpreted them as expressive of assent, and went on, in a musing tone, as though talking quite as much to himself as to her.
"And that is the reason why it seems as though we must be more than friends, though we have known each other so short a time. Perhaps it is too much to say."
He hesitated, and paused. Unorna breathed hard, not daring to think of what might be coming next. He talked so calmly, in such an easy tone, it was impossible that he could be making love. She remembered the vibrations in his voice when, a month ago, he had told her his story. She remembered the inflection of the passionate cry he had uttered when he had seen the shadow of Beatrice stealing between them, she knew the ring of his speech when he loved, for she had heard it. It was not there now. And yet, the effort not to believe would have been too great for her strength.
"Nothing that you could say would be--" she stopped herself--"would pain me," she added, desperately, in the attempt to complete the sentence.
He looked somewhat surprised, and then smiled.
"No. I shall never say anything, nor do anything, which could give you pain. What I meant was this. I feel towards you, and with you, as I can fancy a man might feel to a dear sister. Can you understand that?"
In spite of herself she started. He had but just said that he would never give her pain. He did not guess what cruel wounds he was inflicting now.
"You are surprised," he said, with intolerable self-possession. "I cannot wonder. I remember to have very often thought that there are few forms of sentimentality more absurd than that which deceives a man into the idea that he can with impunity play at being a brother to a young and beautiful woman. I have always thought so, and I suppose that in whatever remains of my indolent intelligence I think so still. But intelligence is not always so reliable as instinct. I am not young enough nor foolish enough either, to propose that we should swear eternal brother-and-sisterhood--or perhaps I am not old enough, who can tell? Yet I feel how perfectly safe it would be for either of us."
The steel had been thrust home, and could go no farther. Unorna's unquiet temper rose at his quiet declaration of his absolute security. The colour came again to her cheek, a little hotly, and though there was a slight tremor in her voice when she spoke, yet her eyes flashed beneath the drooping lids.
"Are you sure it would be safe?" she asked.
"For you, of course there can be no danger possible," he said, in perfect simplicity of good faith. "For me--well, I have said it. I cannot imagine love coming near me in any shape, by degrees or unawares. It is a strange defect in my nature, but I am glad of it since it makes this pleasant life possible."
"And why should you suppose that there is no danger for me?" asked Unorna, with a quick glance and a silvery laugh. She was recovering her self-possession.
"For you? Why should there be? How could there be? No woman ever loved me, then why should you? Besides--there are a thousand reasons, one better than the other."
"I confess I would be glad to hear a few of them, my friend. You were good enough just now to call me young and beautiful. You are young too, and certainly not repulsive in appearance. You are gifted, you have led an interesting life--indeed, I cannot help laughing when I think how many reasons there are for my falling in love with you. But you are very reassuring, you tell me there is no danger. I am willing to believe."
"It is safe to do that," answered the Wanderer with a smile, "unless you can find at least one reason far stronger than those you give. Young and passably good-looking men are not rare, and as for men of genius who have led interesting lives, many thousands have been pointed out to me. Then why, by any conceivable chance, should your choice fall on me?"
"Perhaps because I am so fond of you already," said Unorna, looking away lest her eyes should betray what was so far beyond fondness. "They say that the most enduring passions are either born in a single instant, or are the result of a treacherously increasing liking. Take the latter case. Why is it impossible, for you or for me? We are slipping from mere liking into friendship, and for all I know we may some day fall headlong from friendship into love. It would be very foolish no doubt, but it seems to me quite possible. Do you not see it?"
The Wanderer laughed lightly. It was years since he had laughed, until this friendship had begun.
"What can I say?" he asked. "If you, the woman, acknowledge yourself vulnerable, how can I, the man, be so discourteous as to assure you that I am proof? And yet, I feel that there is no danger for either of us."
"You are still sure?"
"And if there were, what harm would be done?" he laughed again. "We have no plighted word to break, and I, at least, am singularly heart free. The world would not come to an untimely end if we loved each other. Indeed, the world would have nothing to say about it."
"To me, it would not," said Unorna, looking down at her clasped hands. "But to you--what would the world say, if it learned that you were in love with Unorna, that you were married to the Witch?"
"The world? What is the world to me, or what am I to it? What is my world? If it is anything, it consists of a score of men and women who chance to be spending their allotted time on earth in that corner of the globe in which I was born, who saw me grow to manhood, and who most inconsequently arrogate to themselves the privilege of criticising my actions, as they criticise each other's; who say loudly that this is right and that is wrong, and who will be gathered in due time to their insignificant fathers with their own insignificance thick upon them, as is meet and just. If that is the world I am not afraid of its judgments in the very improbable case of my falling in love with you."
Unorna shook her head. There was a momentary relief in discussing the consequences of a love not yet born in him.
"That would not be all," she said. "You have a country, you have a home, you have obligations--you have all those things which I have not."
"And not one of those which you have."
She glanced at him again, for there was a truth in the words which hurt her. Love, at least, was hers in abundance, and he had it not.
"How foolish it is to talk like this!" she exclaimed. "After all, when people love, they care very little what the world says. If I loved any one"--she tried to laugh carelessly--"I am sure I should be indifferent to everything or every one else."
"I am sure you would be," assented the Wanderer.
"Why?" She turned rather suddenly upon him. "Why are you sure?"
"In the first place because you say so, and secondly because you have the kind of nature which is above common opinion."
"And what kind of nature may that be?"
"Enthusiastic, passionate, brave."
"Have I so many good qualities?"
"I am always telling you so."
"Does it give you pleasure to tell me what you think of me?"
"Does it pain you to hear it?" asked the Wanderer, somewhat surprised at the uncertainty of her temper, and involuntarily curious as to the cause of the disturbance.
"Sometimes it does," Unorna answered.
"I suppose I have grown awkward and tactless in my lonely life. You must forgive me if I do not understand my mistake. But since I have annoyed you, I am sorry for it. Perhaps you do not like such speeches because you think I am flattering you and turning compliments. You are wrong if you think that. I am sincerely attached to you, and I admire you very much. May I not say as much as that?"
"Does it do any good to say it?"
"If I may speak of you at all I may express myself with pleasant truths."
"Truths are not always pleasant. Better not to speak of me at any time."
"As you will," answered the Wanderer bending his head as though in submission to her commands. But he did not continue the conversation, and a long silence ensued.
He wandered what was passing in her mind, and his reflections led to no very definite result. Even if the idea of her loving him had presented itself to his intelligence he would have scouted it, partly on the ground of its apparent improbability, and partly, perhaps, because he had of late grown really indolent, and would have resented any occurrence which threatened to disturb the peaceful, objectless course of his days. He put down her quick changes of mood to sudden caprice, which he excused readily enough.
"Why are you so silent?" Unorna asked, after a time.
"I was thinking of you," he answered, with a smile. "And since you forbade me to speak of you, I said nothing."
"How literal you are!" she exclaimed impatiently.
"I could see no figurative application of your words," he retorted, beginning to be annoyed at her prolonged ill humour.
"Perhaps there was none."
"In that case--"
"Oh, do not argue! I detest argument in all shapes, and most of all when I am expected to answer it. You cannot understand me--you never will--" She broke off suddenly and looked at him.
She was angry with him, with herself, with everything, and in her anger she loved him tenfold better than before. Had he not been blinded by his own absolute coldness he must have read her heart in the look she gave him, for his eyes met hers. But he saw nothing. The glance had been involuntary, but Unorna was too thoroughly a woman not to know all that it had expressed and would have conveyed to the mind of any one not utterly incapable of love, all that it might have betrayed even to this man who was her friend and talked of being her brother. She realised with terrible vividness the extent of her own passion and the appalling indifference of its objet. A wave of despair rose and swept over her heart. Her sight grew dim and she was conscious of sharp physical pain. She did not even attempt to speak, for she had no thoughts which could take the shape of words. She leaned back in her chair, and tried to draw her breath, closing her eyes, and wishing she were alone.
"What is the matter?" asked the Wanderer, watching her in surprise.
She did not answer. He rose and stood beside her, and lightly touched her hand.
"Are you ill?" he asked again.
She pushed him away, almost roughly.
"No," she answered shortly.
Then, all at once, as though repenting of her gesture, her hand sought his again, pressed it hard for a moment, and let it fall.
"It is nothing," she said. "It will pass. Forgive me."
"Did anything I said----" he began.
"No, no; how absurd!"
"Shall I go. Yes, you would rather be alone----" he hesitated.
"No--yes--yes, go away and come back later. It is the heat perhaps; is it not hot here?"
"I daresay," he answered absently.
He took her hand and then left her, wondering exceedingly over a matter which was of the simplest.
It was some time before Unorna realised that he was gone. She had suffered a severe shock, not to be explained by any word or words which he had spoken, as much as by the revelation of her own utter powerlessness, of her total failure to touch his heart, but most directly of all the consequence of a sincere passion which was assuming dangerous proportions and which threatened to sweep away even her pride in its irresistible course.
She grew calmer when she found herself alone, but in a manner she grew also more desperate. A resolution began to form itself in her mind which she would have despised and driven out of her thoughts a few hours earlier; a resolution destined to lead to strange results. She began to think of resorting once more to a means other than natural in order to influence the man she loved.
In the first moments she had felt sure of herself, and the certainty that the Wanderer had forgotten Beatrice as completely as though she had never existed had seemed to Unorna a complete triumph. With little or no common vanity she had nevertheless felt sure that the man must love her for her own sake. She knew, when she thought of it, that she was beautiful, unlike other women, and born to charm all living things. She compared in her mind the powers she controlled at will, and the influence she exercised without effort over every one who came near her. It had always seemed to her enough to wish in order to see the realisation of her wishes. But she had herself never understood how closely the wish was allied with the despotic power of suggestion which she possessed. But in her love she had put a watch over her mysterious strength and had controlled it, saying that she would be loved for herself or not at all. She had been jealous of every glance, lest it should produce a result not natural. She had waited to be won, instead of trying to win. She had failed, and passion could be restrained no longer.
"What does it matter how, if only he is mine!" she exclaimed fiercely, as she rose from her carved chair an hour after he had left her.