The Witch of Prague by F. Marion Crawford
Unorna was superstitious, as Keyork Arabian had once told her. She did not thoroughly understand herself and she had very little real comprehension of the method by which she produced such remarkable results. She was gifted with a sensitive and active imagination, which supplied her with semi-mystic formulae of thought and speech in place of reasoned explanations, and she undoubtedly attributed much of her own power to supernatural influences. In this respect, at least, she was no farther advanced than the witches of older days, and if her inmost convictions took a shape which would have seemed incomprehensible to those predecessors of hers, this was to be attributed in part to the innate superiority of her nature, and partly, also, to the high degree of cultivation in which her mental faculties had reached development.
Keyork Arabian might spend hours in giving her learned explanations of what she did, but he never convinced her. Possibly he was not convinced himself, and he still hesitated, perhaps, between the two great theories advanced to explain the phenomena of hypnotism. He had told her that he considered her influence to be purely a moral one, exerted by means of language and supported by her extraordinary concentrated will. But it did not follow that he believed what he told her, and it was not improbable that he might have his own doubts on the subject--doubts which Unorna was not slow to suspect, and which destroyed for her the whole force of his reasoning. She fell back upon a sort of grossly unreasonable mysticism, combined with a blind belief in those hidden natural forces and secret virtues of privileged objects, which formed the nucleus of mediaeval scientific research. The field is a fertile one for the imagination and possesses a strange attraction for certain minds. There are men alive in our own time to whom the transmutation of metals does not seem an impossibility, nor the brewing of the elixir of life a matter to be scoffed at as a matter of course. The world is full of people who, in their inmost selves, put faith in the latent qualities of precious stones and amulets, who believe their fortunes, their happiness, and their lives to be directly influenced by some trifling object which they have always upon them. We do not know enough to state with assurance that the constant handling of any particular metal, or gem, may not produce a real and invariable corresponding effect upon the nerves. But we do know most positively that, when the belief in such talismans is once firmly established, the moral influence they exert upon men through the imagination is enormous. From this condition of mind to that in which auguries are drawn from outward and apparently accidental circumstances, is but a step. If Keyork Arabian inclined to the psychic rather than to the physical school in his view of Unorna's witchcraft and in his study of hypnotism in general, his opinion resulted naturally from his great knowledge of mankind, and of the unacknowledged, often unsuspected, convictions which in reality direct mankind's activity. It was this experience, too, and the certainty to which it had led him, that put him beyond the reach of Unorna's power so long as he chose not to yield himself to her will. Her position was in reality diametrically opposed to his, and although he repeated his reasonings to her from time to time, he was quite indifferent to the nature of her views, and never gave himself any real trouble to make her change them. The important point was that she should not lose anything of the gifts she possessed, and Keyork was wise enough to see that the exercise of them depended in a great measure upon her own conviction regarding their exceptional nature.
Unorna herself believed in everything which strengthened and developed that conviction, and especially in the influences of time and place. It appeared to her a fortunate circumstance, when she at last determined to overcome her pride, that the resolution should have formed itself exactly a month after she had so successfully banished the memory of Beatrice from the mind of the man she loved. She felt sure of producing a result as effectual if, this time, she could work the second change in the same place and under the same circumstances as the first. And to this end everything was in her favour. She needed not to close her eyes to fancy that thirty days had not really passed between then and now, as she left her house in the afternoon with the Wanderer by her side.
He had come back and had found her once more herself, calm, collected, conscious of her own powers. No suspicion of the real cause of the disturbance he had witnessed crossed his mind, still less could he guess what thing she meditated as she directed their walk towards that lonely place by the river which had been the scene of her first great effort. She talked lightly as they went, and he, in that strange humour of peaceful, well-satisfied indifference which possessed him, answered her in the same strain. It was yet barely afternoon, but there was already a foretaste of coming evening in the chilly air.
"I have been thinking of what you said this morning," she said, suddenly changing the current of the conversation. "Did I thank you for your kindness?" She smiled as she laid her hand gently upon his arm, to cross a crowded street, and she looked up into his quiet face.
"Thank me? For what? On the contrary--I fancied that I had annoyed you."
"Perhaps I did not quite understand it all at first," she answered thoughtfully. "It is hard for a woman like me to realise what it would be to have a brother--or a sister, or any one belonging to me. I needed to think of the idea. Do you know that I am quite alone in the world?"
The Wanderer had accepted her as he found her, strangely alone, indeed, and strangely independent of the world, a beautiful, singularly interesting woman, doing good, so far as he knew, in her own way, separated from ordinary existence by some unusual circumstances, and elevated above ordinary dangers by the strength and the pride of her own character. And yet, indolent and indifferent as he had grown of late, he was conscious of a vague curiosity in regard to her story. Keyork either really knew nothing, or pretended to know nothing of her origin.
"I see that you are alone," said the Wanderer. "Have you always been so?"
"Always. I have had an odd life. You could not understand it, if I told you of it."
"And yet I have been lonely too--and I believe I was once unhappy, though I cannot think of any reason for it."
"You have been lonely--yes. But yours was another loneliness more limited, less fatal, more voluntary. It must seem strange to you--I do not even positively know of what nation I was born."
Her companion looked at her in surprise, and his curiosity increased.
"I know nothing of myself," she continued. "I remember neither father nor mother. I grew up in the forest, among people who did not love me, but who taught me, and respected me as though I were their superior, and who sometimes feared me. When I look back, I am amazed at their learning and their wisdom--and ashamed of having learned so little."
"You are unjust to yourself."
"No one ever accused me of that," she said. "Will you believe it? I do not even know where that place was. I cannot tell you even the name of the kingdom in which it lay. I learned a name for it and for the forest, but those names are in no map that has ever fallen into my hands. I sometimes feel that I would go to the place if I could find it."
"It is very strange. And how came you here?"
"I was told the time had come. We started at night. It was a long journey, and I remember feeling tired as I was never tired before or since. They brought me here, they left me in a religious house among nuns. Then I was told that I was rich and free. My fortune was brought with me. That, at least, I know. But those who received it and who take care of it for me, know no more of its origin than I myself. Gold tells no tales, and the secret has been well kept. I would give much to know the truth--when I am in the humour."
She sighed, and then laughed again.
"You see why it is that I find the idea of a brother so hard to understand," she added, and then was silent.
"You have all the more need of understanding it, my dear friend," the Wanderer answered, looking at her thoughtfully.
"Yes--perhaps so. I can see what friendship is. I can almost guess what it would be to have a brother."
"And have you never thought of more than that?" He asked the question in his calmest and most friendly tone, somewhat deferentially as though fearing lest it should seem tactless and be unwelcome.
"Yes, I have thought of love also," she answered, in a low voice. But she said nothing more, and they walked on for some time in silence.
They came out upon the open place by the river which she remembered so well. Unorna glanced about her and her face fell. The place was the same, but the solitude was disturbed. It was not Sunday as it had been on that day a month ago. All about the huge blocks of stone, groups of workmen were busy with great chisels and heavy hammers, hewing and chipping and fashioning the material that it might be ready for use in the early spring. Even the river was changed. Men were standing upon the ice, cutting it into long symmetrical strips, to be hauled ashore. Some of the great pieces were already separated from the main ice, and sturdy fellows, clad in dark woollen, were poling them over the dark water to the foot of the gently sloping road where heavy carts stood ready to receive the load when cut up into blocks. The dark city was taking in a great provision of its own coldness against the summer months.
Unorna looked about her. Everywhere there were people at work, and she was more disappointed than she would own to herself at the invasion of the solitude. The Wanderer looked from the stone-cutters to the ice- men with a show of curiosity.
"I have not seen so much life in Prague for many a day," he observed.
"Let us go," answered Unorna, nervously. "I do not like it. I cannot bear the sight of people to-day."
They turned in a new direction, Unorna guiding her companion by a gesture. They were near to the Jewish quarter, and presently were threading their way through narrow and filthy streets thronged with eager Hebrew faces, and filled with the hum of low-pitched voices chattering together, not in the language of the country, but in a base dialect of German. They were in the heart of Prague, in that dim quarter which is one of the strongholds of the Israelite, whence he directs great enterprises and sets in motion huge financial schemes, in which Israel sits, as a great spider in the midst of a dark web, dominating the whole capital with his eagle's glance and weaving the destiny of the Bohemian people to suit his intricate speculations. For throughout the length and breadth of Slavonic and German Austria the Jew rules, and rules alone.
Unorna gathered her furs more closely about her, in evident disgust at her surroundings, but still she kept on her way. Her companion, scarcely less familiar with the sights of Prague than she herself, walked by her side, glancing carelessly at the passing people, at the Hebrew signs, at the dark entrances that lead to courts within courts and into labyrinths of dismal lanes and passages, looking at everything with the same serene indifference, and idly wondering what made Unorna choose to walk that way. Then he saw that she was going towards the cemetery. They reached the door, were admitted and found themselves alone in the vast wilderness.
In the midst of the city lies the ancient burial ground, now long disused but still undisturbed, many acres of uneven land, covered so thickly with graves, and planted so closely with granite and sandstone slabs, that the paths will scarce allow two persons to walk side by side. The stones stand and lie in all conceivable positions, erect, slanting at every angle, prostrate upon the earth or upon others already fallen before them--two, three, and even four upon a grave, where generations of men have been buried one upon the other--stones large and small, covered with deep-cut inscriptions in the Hebrew character, bearing the sculpture of two uplifted hands, wherever the Kohns, the children of the tribe of Aaron, are laid to rest, or the gracefully chiselled ewer of the Levites. Here they lie, thousands upon thousands of dead Jews, great and small, rich and poor, wise and ignorant, neglected individually, but guarded as a whole with all the tenacious determination of the race to hold its own, and to preserve the sacredness of its dead. In the dim light of the winter's afternoon it is as though a great army of men had fallen fighting there, and had been turned to stone as they fell. Rank upon rank they lie, with that irregularity which comes of symmetry destroyed, like columns and files of soldiers shot down in the act of advancing. And in winter, the gray light falling upon the untrodden snow throws a pale reflection upwards against each stone, as though from the myriad sepulchres a faintly luminous vapour were rising to the outer air. Over all, the rugged brushwood and the stunted trees intertwine their leafless branches and twigs in a thin, ghostly network of gray, that clouds the view of the farther distance without interrupting it, a forest of shadowy skeletons clasping fleshless, bony hands one with another, from grave to grave, as far as the eye can see.
The stillness in the place is intense. Not a murmur of distant life from the surrounding city disturbs the silence. At rare intervals a strong breath of icy wind stirs the dead branches and makes them crack and rattle against the gravestones and against each other as in a dance of death. It is a wild and dreary place. In the summer, indeed, the thick leafage lends it a transitory colour and softness, but in the depth of winter, when there is nothing to hide the nakedness of truth, when the snow lies thick upon the ground and the twined twigs and twisted trunks scarce cast a tracery of shadow under the sunless sky, the utter desolation and loneliness of the spot have a horror of their own, not to be described, but never to be forgotten.
Unorna walked forward in silence, choosing a path so narrow that her companion found himself obliged to drop behind and follow in her footsteps. In the wildest part of this wilderness of death there is a little rising of the ground. Here both the gravestones and the stunted trees are thickest, and the solitude is, if possible, even more complete than elsewhere. As she reached the highest point Unorna stood still, turned quickly towards the Wanderer and held out both her hands towards him.
"I have chosen this place, because it is quiet," she said, with a soft smile.
Hardly knowing why he did so, he laid his hands in hers and looked kindly down to her upturned face.
"What is it?" he asked, meeting her eyes.
She was silent, and her fingers did not unclasp themselves. He looked at her, and saw for the hundredth time that she was very beautiful. There was a faint colour in her cheeks, and her full lips were just parted as though a loving word had escaped them which she would not willingly recall. Against the background of broken neutral tints, her figure stood out, an incarnation of youth and vitality. If she had often looked weary and pale of late, her strength and freshness had returned to her now in all their abundance. The Wanderer knew that he was watching her, and knew that he was thinking of her beauty and realising the whole extent of it more fully than ever before, but beyond this point his thoughts could not go. He was aware that he was becoming fascinated by her eyes, and he felt that with every moment it was growing harder for him to close his own, or to look away from her, and then, an instant later, he knew that it would be impossible. Yet he made no effort. He was passive, indifferent, will-less, and her gaze charmed him more and more. He was already in a dream, and he fancied that the beautiful figure shone with a soft, rosy light of its own in the midst of the gloomy waste. Looking into her sunlike eyes, he saw there twin images of himself, that drew him softly and surely into themselves until he was absorbed by them and felt that he was no longer a reality but a reflection. Then a deep unconsciousness stole over all his senses and he slept, or passed into that state which seems to lie between sleep and trance.
Unorna needed not to question him this time, for she saw that he was completely under her influence. Yet she hesitated at the supreme moment, and then, though to all real intents she was quite alone, a burning flush of shame rose to her face, and her heart sank within her. She felt that she could not do it.
She dropped his hands. They fell to his sides as though they had been of lead. Then she turned from him and pressed her aching forehead against a tall weather-worn stone that rose higher than her own height from the midst of the hillock.
Her woman's nature rebelled against the trick. It was the truest thing in her and perhaps the best, which protested so violently against the thing she meant to do; it was the simple longing to be loved for her own sake, and of the man's own free will, to be loved by him with the love she had despised in Israel Kafka. But would this be love at all, this artificial creation of her suggestion reacting upon his mind? Would it last? Would it be true, faithful, tender? Above all, would it be real, even for a moment? She asked herself a thousand questions in a second of time.
Then the ready excuse flashed upon her--the pretext which the heart will always find when it must have its way. Was it not possible, after all, that he was beginning to love her even now? Might not that outburst of friendship which had surprised her and wounded her so deeply, be the herald of a stronger passion? She looked up quickly and met his vacant stare.
"Do you love me?" she asked, almost before she knew what she was going to say.
"No." The answer came in the far-off voice that told of his unconsciousness, a mere toneless monosyllable breathed upon the murky air. But it stabbed her like the thrust of a jagged knife. A long silence followed, and Unorna leaned against the great slab of carved sandstone.
Even to her there was something awful in his powerless, motionless presence. The noble face, pale and set as under a mask, the thoughtful brow, the dominating features, were not those of a man born to be a plaything to the will of a woman. The commanding figure towered in the grim surroundings like a dark statue, erect, unmoving, and in no way weak. And yet she knew that she had but to speak and the figure would move, the lips would form words, the voice would reach her ear. He would raise this hand or that, step forwards or backwards, at her command, affirm what she bid him affirm, and deny whatever she chose to hear denied. For a moment she wished that he had been as Keyork Arabian, stronger than she; then, with the half-conscious comparison the passion for the man himself surged up and drowned every other thought. She almost forgot that for the time he was not to be counted among the living. She went to him, and clasped her hands upon his shoulder, and looked up into his scarce-seeing eyes.
"You must love me," she said, "you must love me because I love you so. Will you not love me, dear? I have waited so long for you!"
The soft words vibrated in his sleeping ear but drew forth neither acknowledgment nor response. Like a marble statue he stood still, and she leaned upon his shoulder.
"Do you not hear me?" she cried in a more passionate tone. "Do you not understand me? Why is it that your love is so hard to win? Look at me! Might not any man be proud to love me? Am I not beautiful enough for you? And yet I know that I am fair. Or are you ashamed because people call me a witch? Why then I will never be one again, for your sake! What do I care for it all? Can it be anything to me--can anything have worth that stands between me and you? Ah, love--be not so very hard!"
The Wanderer did not move. His face was as calm as a sculptured stone.
"Do you despise me for loving you?" she asked again, with a sudden flush.
"No. I do not despise you." Something in her tone had pierced through his stupor and had found an answer. She started at the sound of his voice. It was as though he had been awake and had known the weight of what she had been saying, and her anger rose at the cold reply.
"No--you do not despise me, and you never shall!" she exclaimed passionately. "You shall love me, as I love you--I will it, with all my will! We are created to be all, one to the other, and you shall not break through the destiny of love. Love me, as I love you--love me with all your heart, love me with all your mind, love me with all your soul, love me as man never loved woman since the world began! I will it, I command it--it shall be as I say--you dare not disobey me--you cannot if you would."
She paused, but this time no answer came. There was not even a contraction of the stony features.
"Do you hear all I say?" she asked.
"Then understand and answer me," she said.
"I do not understand. I cannot answer."
"You must. You shall. I will have it so. You cannot resist my will, and I will it with all my might. You have no will--you are mine, your body, your soul, and your thoughts, and you must love me with them all from now until you die--until you die," she repeated fiercely.
Again he was silent. She felt that she had no hold upon his heart or mind, seeing that he was not even disturbed by her repeated efforts.
"Are you a stone, that you do not know what love is?" she cried, grasping his hand in hers and looking with desperate eyes into his face.
"I do not know what love is," he answered, slowly.
"Then I will tell you what love is," she said, and she took his hand and pressed it upon her own brow.
The Wanderer started at the touch, as though he would have drawn back. But she held him fast, and so far, at least, he was utterly subject to her. His brow contracted darkly, and his face grew paler.
"Read it there," she cried. "Enter into my soul and read what love is, in his own great writing. Read how he steals suddenly into the sacred place, and makes it his, and tears down the old gods and sets up his dear image in their stead--read how he sighs, and speaks, and weeps, and loves--and forgives not, but will be revenged at the last. Are you indeed of stone, and have you a stone for a heart? Love can melt even stones, being set in man as the great central fire in the earth to burn the hardest things to streams of liquid flame! And see, again, how very soft and gentle he can be! See how I love you--see how sweet it is--how very lovely a thing it is to love as woman can. There--have you felt it now? Have you seen into the depths of my soul and into the hiding-places of my heart? Let it be so in your own, then, and let it be so for ever. You understand now. You know what it all is--how wild, how passionate, how gentle and how great! Take to yourself this love of mine--is it not all yours? Take it, and plant it with strong roots and seeds of undying life in your own sleeping breast, and let it grow, and grow, till it is even greater than it was in me, till it takes us both into itself, together, fast bound in its immortal bonds, to be two in one, in life and beyond life, for ever and ever and ever to the end of ends!"
She ceased and she saw that his face was no longer expressionless and cold. A strange light was upon his features, the passing radiance of a supreme happiness seen in the vision of a dream. Again she laid her hands upon his shoulder clasped together, as she had done at first. She knew that her words had touched him and she was confident of the result, confident as one who loves beyond reason. Already in imagination she fancied him returning to consciousness, not knowing that he had slept, but waking with a gentle word just trembling upon his lips, the words she longed to hear.
One moment more, she thought. It was good to see that light upon his face, to fancy how that first word would sound, to feel that the struggle was past and that there was nothing but happiness in the future, full, overflowing, overwhelming, reaching from earth to heaven and through time to eternity. One moment, only, before she let him wake--it was such glory to be loved at last! Still the light was there, still that exquisite smile was on his lips. And they would be always there now, she thought.
At last she spoke.
"Then love, since you are mine, and I am yours, wake from the dream to life itself--wake, not knowing that you have slept, knowing only that you love me now and always--wake, love wake!"
She waved her delicate hand before his eyes and still resting the other upon his shoulder, watched the returning brightness in the dark pupils that had been glazed and fixed a moment before. And as she looked, her own beauty grew radiant in the splendour of a joy even greater than she had dreamed of. As it had seemed to him when he had lost himself in her gaze, so now she also fancied that the grim, gray wilderness was full of a soft rosy light. The place of the dead was become the place of life; the great solitude was peopled as the whole world could never be for her; the crumbling gravestones were turned to polished pillars in the temple of an immortal love, and the ghostly, leafless trees blossomed with the undying flowers of the earthly paradise.
One moment only, and then all was gone. The change came, sure, swift and cruel. As she looked, it came, gradual, in that it passed through every degree, but sudden also, as the fall of a fair and mighty building, which being undermined in its foundations passes in one short minute through the change from perfect completeness to hopeless and utter ruin.
All the radiance, all the light, all the glory were gone in an instant. Her own supremely loving look had not vanished, her lips still parted sweetly, as forming the word that was to answer his, and the calm indifferent face of the waking man was already before her.
"What is it?" he asked, in his kind and passionless voice. "What were you going to ask me, Unorna?"
It was gone. The terribly earnest appeal had been in vain. Not a trace of that short vision of love remained impressed upon his brain.
With a smothered cry of agony Unorna leaned against the great slab of stone behind her and covered her eyes. The darkness of night descended upon her, and with it the fire of a burning shame.
Then a loud and cruel laugh rang through the chilly air, such a laugh as the devils in hell bestow upon the shame of a proud soul that knows its own infinite bitterness. Unorna started and uncovered her eyes, her suffering changed in a single instant to ungovernable and destroying anger. She made a step forwards and then stopped short, breathing hard. The Wanderer, too, had turned, more quickly than she. Between two tall gravestones, not a dozen paces away, stood a man with haggard face and eyes on fire, his keen, worn features contorted by a smile in which unspeakable satisfaction struggled for expression with a profound despair.
The man was Israel Kafka.