The Witch of Prague by F. Marion Crawford
Israel Kafka found himself seated in the corner of a comfortable carriage with Keyork Arabian at his side. He opened his eyes quite naturally, and after looking out of the window stretched himself as far as the limits of the space would allow. He felt very weak and very tired. The bright colour had left his olive cheeks, his lips were pale and his eyes heavy.
"Travelling is very tiring," he said, glancing at Keyork's face.
The old man rubbed his hands briskly and laughed.
"I am as fresh as ever," he answered. "It is true that I have the happy faculty of sleeping when I get a chance and that no preoccupation disturbs my appetite."
Keyork Arabian was in a very cheerful frame of mind. He was conscious of having made a great stride towards the successful realisation of his dream. Israel Kafka's ignorance, too, amused him, and gave him a fresh and encouraging proof of Unorna's amazing powers.
By a mere exercise of superior will this man, in the very prime of youth and strength, had been deprived of a month of his life. Thirty days were gone, as in the flash of a second, and with them was gone also something less easily replaced, or at least more certainly missed. In Kafka's mind the passage of time was accounted for in a way which would have seemed supernatural twenty years ago, but which at the present day is understood in practice if not in theory. For thirty days he had been stationary in one place, almost motionless, an instrument in Keyork's skilful hands, a mere reservoir of vitality upon which the sage had ruthlessly drawn to the fullest extent of its capacities. He had been fed and tended in his unconsciousness, he had, unknown to himself, opened his eyes at regular intervals, and had absorbed through his ears a series of vivid impressions destined to disarm his suspicions, when he was at last allowed to wake and move about the world again. With unfailing forethought Keyork had planned the details of a whole series of artificial reminiscences, and at the moment when Kafka came to himself in the carriage the machinery of memory began to work as Keyork had intended that it should.
Israel Kafka leaned back against the cushions and reviewed his life during the past month. He remembered very well the afternoon when, after a stormy interview with Unorna, he had been persuaded by Keyork to accompany the latter upon a rapid southward journey. He remembered how he had hastily packed together a few necessaries for the expedition, while Keyork stood at his elbow advising him what to take and what to leave, with the sound good sense of an experienced traveller, and he could almost repeat the words of the message he had scrawled on a sheet of paper at the last minute to explain his sudden absence from his lodging--for the people of the house had all been away when he was packing his belongings. Then the hurry of the departure recalled itself to him, the crowds of people at the Franz Josef station, the sense of rest in finding himself alone with Keyork in a compartment of the express train; after that he had slept during most of the journey, waking to find himself in a city of the snow- driven Tyrol. With tolerable distinctness he remembered the sights he had seen, and fragments of conversation--then another departure, still southward, the crossing of the Alps, Italy, Venice--a dream of water and sun and beautiful buildings, in which the varied conversational powers of his companion found constant material. As a matter of fact the conversation was what was most clearly impressed upon Kafka's mind, as he recalled the rapid passage from one city to another, and realised how many places he had visited in one short month. From Venice southwards, again, Florence, Rome, Naples, Sicily, by sea to Athens and on to Constantinople, familiar to him already from former visits--up the Bosphorus, by the Black Sea to Varna, and then, again, a long period of restful sleep during the endless railway journey-- Pesth, Vienna, rapidly revisited and back at last to Prague, to the cold and the gray snow and the black sky. It was not strange, he thought, that his recollections of so many cities should be a little confused. A man would need a fine memory to catalogue the myriad sights which such a trip offers to the eye, the innumerable sounds, familiar and unfamiliar, which strike the ear, the countless sensations of comfort, discomfort, pleasure, annoyance and admiration, which occupy the nerves without intermission. There was something not wholly disagreeable in the hazy character of the retrospect, especially to a nature such as Kafka's, full of undeveloped artistic instincts and of a passionate love of all sensuous beauty, animate and inanimate. The gorgeous pictures rose one after the other in his imagination, and satisfied a longing of which he felt that he had been vaguely aware before beginning the journey. None of these lacked reality, any more than Keyork himself, thought it seemed strange to the young man that he should actually have seen so much in so short a time.
But Keyork and Unorna understood their art and knew how much more easy it is to produce a fiction of continuity where an element of confusion is introduced by the multitude and variety of the quickly succeeding impressions and almost destitute of incident. One occurrence, indeed, he remembered with extraordinary distinctness, and could have affirmed under oath in all its details. It had taken place in Palermo. The heat had seemed intense by contrast with the bitter north he had left behind. Keyork had gone out and he had been alone in a strange hotel. His head swam in the stifling scirocco. He had sent for a local physician, and the old-fashioned doctor had then and there taken blood from his arm. He had lost so much that he had fainted. The doctor had been gone when Keyork returned, and the sage had been very angry, abusing in most violent terms the ignorance which could still apply such methods. Israel Kafka knew that the lancet had left a wound on his arm and that the scar was still visible. He remembered, too, that he had often felt tired since, and that Keyork had invariably reminded him of the circumstances, attributing to it the weariness from which he suffered, and indulging each time in fresh abuse of the benighted doctor.
Very skilfully had the whole story been put together in all its minutest details, carefully thought out and written down in the form of a journal before it had been impressed upon his sleeping mind with all the tyrannic force of Unorna's strong will. And there was but little probability that Israel Kafka would ever learn what had actually been happening to him while he fancied that he had been travelling swiftly from place to place. He could still wonder, indeed, that he should have yielded so easily to Keyork's pressing invitation to accompany the latter upon such an extraordinary flight, but he remembered then his last interview with Unorna and it seemed almost natural that in his despair he should have chosen to go away. Not that his passion for the woman was dead. Intentionally, or by an oversight, Unorna had not touched upon the question of his love for her, in the course of her otherwise well-considered suggestions. Possibly she had believed that the statement she had forced from his lips was enough and that he would forget her without any further action on her part. Possibly, too, Unorna was indifferent and was content to let him suffer, believing that his devotion might still be turned to some practical use. However that may be, when Israel Kafka opened his eyes in the carriage he still loved her, though he was conscious that in his manner of loving a change had taken place, of which he was destined to realise the consequences before another day had passed.
When Keyork answered his first remark, he turned and looked at the old man.
"I suppose you are tougher than I," he said, languidly. "You will hardly believe it, but I have been dozing already, here, in the carriage, since we left the station."
"No harm in that. Sleep is a great restorative," laughed Keyork.
"Are you so glad to be in Prague again?" asked Kafka. "It is a melancholy place. But you laugh as though you actually liked the sight of the black houses and the gray snow and the silent people."
"How can a place be melancholy? The seat of melancholy is the liver. Imagine a city with a liver--of brick and mortar, or stone and cement, a huge mass of masonry buried in its centre, like an enormous fetish, exercising a mysterious influence over the city's health--then you may imagine a city as suffering from melancholy."
"My dear boy, I rarely say absurd things," answered Keyork imperturbably. "Besides, as a matter of fact, there is nothing absurd. But you suggested rather a fantastic idea to my imagination. The brick liver is not a bad conception. Far down in the bowels of the earth, in a black cavern hollowed beneath the lowest foundations of the oldest church, the brick liver was built by the cunning magicians of old, to last for ever, to purify the city's blood, to regulate the city's life, and in a measure to control its destinies by means of its passions. A few wise men have handed down the knowledge of the brick liver to each other from generation to generation, but the rest of the inhabitants are ignorant of its existence. They alone know that every vicissitude of the city's condition is traceable to that source--its sadness, its merriment, its carnivals and its lents, its health and its disease, its prosperity and the hideous plagues which at distant intervals kill one in ten of the population. Is it not a pretty thought?"
"I do not understand you," said Kafka, wearily.
"It is a very practical idea," continued Keyork, amused with his own fancies, "and it will yet be carried out. The great cities of the next century will each have a liver of brick and mortar and iron and machinery, a huge mechanical purifier. You smile! Ah, my dear boy, truth and phantasm are very much the same to you! You are too young. How can you be expected to care for the great problem of problems, for the mighty question of prolonging life?"
Keyork laughed again, with a meaning in his laughter which escaped his companion altogether.
"How can you be expected to care?" he repeated. "And yet men used to say that it was the duty of strong youth to support the trembling weakness of feeble old age."
His eyes twinkled with a diabolical mirth.
"No," said Kafka. "I do not care. Life is meant to be short. Life is meant to be storm, broken with gleams of love's sunshine. Why prolong it? If it is unhappy you would only draw out the unhappiness to greater lengths, and such joy as it has is joy only because it is quick, sudden, violent. I would concentrate a lifetime into an instant, if I could, and then die content in having suffered everything, enjoyed everything, dared everything in the flash of a great lightning between two total darknesses. But to drag on through slow sorrows, or to crawl through a century of contentment--never! Better be mad, or asleep, and unconscious of the time."
"You are a very desperate person!" exclaimed Keyork. "If you had the management of this unstable world you would make it a very convulsive and nervous place. We should all turn into flaming ephemerides, fluttering about the crater of a perpetually active volcano. I prefer the system of the brick liver. There is more durability in it."
The carriage stopped before the door of Kafka's dwelling. Keyork got out with him and stood upon the pavement while the porter took the slender luggage into the house. He smiled as he glanced at the leathern portmanteau which was supposed to have made such a long journey while it had in reality lain a whole month in a corner of Keyork's great room behind a group of specimens. He had opened it once or twice in that time, had disturbed the contents and had thrown in a few objects from his heterogeneous collection, as reminiscences of the places visited in imagination by Kafka, and of the acquisition of which the latter was only assured in his sleeping state. They would constitute a tangible proof of the journey's reality in case the suggestion proved less thoroughly successful than was hoped, and Keyork prided himself upon this supreme touch.
"And now," he said, taking Kafka's hand, "I would advise you to rest as long as you can. I suppose that it must have been a fatiguing trip for you, though I myself am as fresh as a May morning. There is nothing wrong with you, but you are tired. Repose, my dear boy, repose, and plenty of it. That infernal Sicilian doctor! I shall never forgive him for bleeding you as he did. There is nothing so weakening. Good-bye--I shall hardly see you again to-day, I fancy."
"I cannot tell," answered the young man absently. "But let me thank you," he added, with a sudden consciousness of obligation, "for your pleasant company, and for making me go with you. I daresay it has done me good, though I feel unaccountably tired--I feel almost old."
His tired eyes and haggard face showed that this at least was no illusion. The fancied journey had added ten years to his age in thirty days, and those who knew him best would have found it hard to recognise the brilliantly vital personality of Israel Kafka in the pale and exhausted youth who painfully climbed the stairs with unsteady steps, panting for breath and clutching at the hand-rail for support.
"He will not die this time," remarked Keyork Arabian to himself, as he sent the carriage away and began to walk towards his own home. "Not this time. But it was a sharp strain, and it would not be safe to try it again."
He thrust his gloved hands into the pockets of his fur coat, so that the stick he held stood upright against his shoulder in a rather military fashion. The fur cap sat a little to one side on his strange head, his eyes twinkled, his long white beard waved in the cold wind, and his whole appearance was that of a jaunty gnome-king, well satisfied with the inspection of his treasure chamber.
And he had cause for satisfaction, as he knew well enough when he thought of the decided progress made in the great experiment. The cost at which that progress had been obtained was nothing. Had Israel Kafka perished altogether under the treatment he had received, Keyork Arabian would have bestowed no more attention upon the catastrophe than would have been barely necessary in order to conceal it and to protect himself and Unorna from the consequences of the crime. In the duel with death, the life of one man was of small consequence, and Keyork would have sacrificed thousands to his purposes with equal indifference to their intrinsic value and with a proportionately greater interest in the result to be attained. There was a terrible logic in his mental process. Life was a treasure literally inestimable in value. Death was the destroyer of this treasure, devised by the Supreme Power as a sure means of limiting man's activity and intelligence. To conquer Death on his own ground was to win the great victory over that Power, and to drive back to an indefinite distance the boundaries of human supremacy.
It was assuredly not for the sake of benefiting mankind at large that he pursued his researches at all sacrifices and at all costs. The prime object of all his consideration was himself, as he unhesitatingly admitted on all occasions, conceiving perhaps that it was easier to defend such a position than to disclaim it. There could be no doubt that in the man's enormous self-estimation, the Supreme Power occupied a place secondary to Keyork Arabian's personality, and hostile to it. And he had taken up arms, as Lucifer, assuming his individual right to live in spite of God, Man and Nature, convinced that the secret could be discovered and determined to find it and to use it, no matter at what price. In him there was neither ambition, nor pride, nor vanity in the ordinary meaning of these words. For passion ceases with the cessation of comparison between man and his fellows, and Keyork Arabian acknowledged no ground for such a comparison in his own case. He had matched himself in a struggle with the Supreme Power, and, directly, with that Power's only active representative on earth, with death. It was well said of him that he had no beliefs, for he knew of no intermediate position between total suspension of judgment, and the certainty of direct knowledge. And it was equally true that he was no atheist, as he had sanctimoniously declared of himself. He admitted the existence of the Power; he claimed the right to assail it, and he grappled with the greatest, the most terrible, the most universal and the most stupendous of Facts, which is the Fact that all men die. Unless he conquered, he must die also. He was past theories, as he was beyond most other human weaknesses, and facts had for him the enormous value they acquire in the minds of men cut off from all that is ideal.
In Unorna he had found the instrument he had sought throughout half a lifetime. With her he had tried the great experiment and pushed it to the very end; and when he conducted Israel Kafka to his home, he already knew that the experiment had succeeded. His plan was a simple one. He would wait a few months longer for the final result, he would select his victim, and with Unorna's help he would himself grow young again.
"And who can tell," he asked himself, "whether the life restored by such means may not be more resisting and stronger against deathly influences than before? Is it not true that the older we grow the more slowly we grow old? Is not the gulf which divides the infant from the man of twenty years far wider than that which lies between the twentieth and the fortieth years, and that again more full of rapid change than the third score? Take, too, the wisdom of my old age as against the folly of a scarce grown boy, shall not my knowledge and care and forethought avail to make the same material last longer on the second trial than on the first?"
No doubt of that, he thought, as he walked briskly along the pavement and entered his own house. In his great room he sat down by the table and fell into a long meditation upon the most immediate consequences of his success in the difficult undertaking he had so skilfully brought to a conclusion. His eyes wandered about the room from one specimen to another, and from time to time a short, scornful laugh made his white beard quiver. As he had said once to Unorna, the dead things reminded him of many failures; but he had never before been able to laugh at them and at the unsuccessful efforts they represented. It was different to-day. Without lifting his head he turned up his bright eyes, under the thick, finely-wrinkled lids, as though looking upward toward that Power against which he strove. The glance was malignant and defiant, human and yet half-devilish. Then he looked down again, and again fell into deep thought.
"And if it is to be so," he said at last, rising suddenly and letting his open hand fall upon the table, "even then, I am provided. She cannot free herself from that bargain, at all events."
Then he wrapped his furs around him and went out again. Scarce a hundred paces from Unorna's door he met the Wanderer. He looked up into the cold, calm face, and put out his hand, with a greeting.
"You look as though you were in a very peaceful frame of mind," observed Keyork.
"Why should I be anything but peaceful?" asked the other, "I have nothing to disturb me."
"True, true. You possess a very fine organisation. I envy you your magnificent constitution, my dear friend. I would like to have some of it, and grow young again."
"On your principle of embalming the living, I suppose."
"Exactly," answered the sage with a deep, rolling laugh. "By the bye, have you been with our friend Unorna? I suppose that is a legitimate question, though you always tell me I am tactless."
"Perfectly legitimate, my dear Keyork. Yes, I have just left her. It is like a breath of spring morning to go there in these days."
"You find it refreshing?"
"Yes. There is something about her that I could describe as soothing, if I were aware of ever being irritable, which I am not."
Keyork smiled and looked down, trying to dislodge a bit of ice from the pavement with the point of his stick.
"Soothing--yes. That is just the expression. Not exactly the quality most young and beautiful women covet, eh? But a good quality in its way, and at the right time. How is she to-day?"
"She seemed to have a headache--or she was oppressed by the heat. Nothing serious, I fancy, but I came away, as I fancied I was tiring her."
"Not likely," observed Keyork. "Do you know Israel Kafka?" he asked suddenly.
"Israel Kafka," repeated the Wanderer thoughtfully, as though searching in his memory.
"Then you do not," said Keyork. "You could only have seen him since you have been here. He is one of Unorna's most interesting patients, and mine as well. He is a little odd."
Keyork tapped his ivory forehead significantly with one finger.
"Mad," suggested the Wanderer.
"Mad, if you prefer the term. He has fixed ideas. In the first place, he imagines that he has just been travelling with me in Italy, and is always talking of our experiences. Humour him, if you meet him. He is in danger of being worse if contradicted."
"Am I likely to meet him?"
"Yes. He is often here. His other fixed idea is that he loves Unorna to distraction. He has been dangerously ill during the last few weeks but is better now, and he may appear at any moment. Humour him a little if he wearies you with his stories. That is all I ask. Both Unorna and I are interested in the case."
"And does not Unorna care for him at all?" inquired the other indifferently.
"No, indeed. On the contrary, she is annoyed at his insistance, but sees that it is a phase of insanity and hopes to cure it before long."
"I see. What is he like? I suppose he is an Israelite."
"From Moravia--yes. The wreck of a handsome boy," said Keyork carelessly. "This insanity is an enemy of good looks. The nerves give way--then the vitality--the complexion goes--men of five and twenty years look old under it. But you will see for yourself before long. Good-bye. I will go in and see what is the matter with Unorna."
They parted, the Wanderer continuing on his way along the street with the same calm, cold, peaceful expression which had elicited Keyork's admiration, and Keyork himself going forward to Unorna's door. His face was very grave. He entered the house by a small side door and ascended by a winding staircase directly to the room from which, an hour or two earlier, he had carried the still unconscious Israel Kafka. Everything was as he had left it, and he was glad to be certified that Unorna had not disturbed the aged sleeper in his absence. Instead of going to her at once he busied himself in making a few observations and in putting in order certain of his instruments and appliances. Then at last he went and found Unorna. She was walking up and down among the plants and he saw at a glance that something had happened. Indeed the few words spoken by the Wanderer had suggested to him the possibility of a crisis, and he had purposely lingered in the inner apartment, in order to give her time to recover her self- possession. She started slightly when he entered, and her brows contracted, but she immediately guessed from his expression that he was not in one of his aggressive moods.
"I have just rectified a mistake which might have had rather serious consequences," he said, stopping before her and speaking earnestly and quietly.
"We remembered everything, except that our wandering friend and Kafka were very likely to meet, and that Kafka would in all probability refer to his delightful journey to the south in my company."
"That is true!" exclaimed Unorna with an anxious glance. "Well? What have you done?"
"I met the Wanderer in the street. What could I do? I told him that Israel Kafka was a little mad, and that his harmless delusions referred to a journey he was supposed to have made with me, and to an equally imaginary passion which he fancies he feels for you."
"That was wise," said Unorna, still pale. "How came we to be so imprudent! One word, and he might have suspected--"
"He could not have suspected all," answered Keyork. "No man could suspect that."
"Nevertheless, I suppose what we have done is not exactly-- justifiable."
"Hardly. It is true that criminal law has not yet adjusted itself to meet questions of suggestion and psychic influence, but it draws the line, most certainly, somewhere between these questions and the extremity to which we have gone. Happily the law is at an immeasurable distance from science, and here, as usual in such experiments, no one could prove anything, owing to the complete unconsciousness of the principal witnesses."
"I do not like to think that we have been near to such trouble," said Unorna.
"Nor I. It was fortunate that I met the Wanderer when I did."
"And the other? Did he wake as I ordered him to do? Is all right? Is there no danger of his suspecting anything?"
It seemed as though Unorna had momentarily forgotten that such a contingency might be possible, and her anxiety returned with the recollection. Keyork's rolling laughter reverberated among the plants and filled the whole wide hall with echoes.
"No danger there," he answered. "Your witchcraft is above criticism. Nothing of that kind that you have ever undertaken has failed."
"Except against you," said Unorna, thoughtfully.
"Except against me, of course. How could you ever expect anything of the kind to succeed against me, my dear lady?"
"And why not? After all, in spite of our jesting, you are not a supernatural being."
"That depends entirely on the interpretation you give to the word supernatural. But, my dear friend and colleague, let us not deceive each other, though we are able between us to deceive other people into believing almost anything. There is nothing in all this witchcraft of yours but a very powerful moral influence at work--I mean apart from the mere faculty of clairvoyance which is possessed by hundreds of common somnambulists, and which, in you, is a mere accident. The rest, this hypnotism, this suggestion, this direction of others' wills, is a moral affair, a matter of direct impression produced by words. Mental suggestion may in rare cases succeed, when the person to be influenced is himself a natural clairvoyant. But these cases are not worth taking into consideration. Your influence is a direct one, chiefly exercised by means of your words and through the impression of power which you know how to convey in them. It is marvellous, I admit. But the very definition puts me beyond your power."
"Because there is not a human being alive, and I do not believe that a human being ever lived, who had the sense of independent individuality which I have. Let a man have the very smallest doubt concerning his own independence--let that doubt be ever so transitory and produced by any accident whatsoever--and he is at your mercy."
"And you are sure that no accident could shake your faith in yourself?"
"My consciousness of myself, you mean. No. I am not sure. But, my dear Unorna, I am very careful in guarding against accidents of all sorts, for I have attempted to resuscitate a great many dead people and I have never succeeded, and I know that a false step on a slippery staircase may be quite as fatal as a teaspoonful of prussic acid--or an unrequited passion. I avoid all these things and many others. If I did not, and if you had any object in getting me under your influence, you would succeed sooner or later. Perhaps the day is not far distant when I will voluntarily sleep under your hand."
Unorna glanced quickly at him.
"And in that case," he added, "I am sure you could make me believe anything you pleased."
"What are you trying to make me understand?" she asked, suspiciously, for he had never before spoken of such a possibility.
"You look anxious and weary," he said in a tone of sympathy in which Unorna could not detect the least false modulation, though she fancied from his fixed gaze that he meant her to understand something which he could not say. "You look tired," he continued, "though it is becoming to your beauty to be pale--I always said so. I will not weary you. I was only going to say that if I were under your influence--you might easily make me believe that you were not yourself, but another woman-- for the rest of my life."
They stood looking at each other in silence during several seconds. Then Unorna seemed to understand what he meant.
"Do you really believe that is possible?" she asked earnestly.
"I know it. I know of a case in which it succeeded very well."
"Perhaps," she said, thoughtfully. "Let us go and look at him."
She moved in the direction of the aged sleeper's room and they both left the hall together.