The Witch of Prague by F. Marion Crawford
The Wanderer looked from Unorna to Kafka with profound surprise. He had never seen the man and had no means of knowing who he was, still less of guessing what had brought him to the lonely place, or why he had broken into a laugh, of which the harsh, wild tones still echoed through the wide cemetery. Totally unconscious of all that had happened to himself during the preceding quarter of an hour, the Wanderer was deprived of the key to the situation. He only understood that the stranger was for some reason or other deeply incensed against Unorna, and he realised that the intruder had, on the moment of appearance, no control over himself.
Israel Kafka remained where he stood, between the two tall stones, one hand resting on each, his body inclined a little forward, his dark, sunken eyes, bloodshot and full of a turbid, angry brightness, bent intently upon Unorna's face. He looked as though he were about to move suddenly forwards, but it was impossible to foresee that he might not as suddenly retreat, as a lean and hungry tiger crouches for a moment in uncertainty whether to fight or fly, when after tracking down his man he finds him not alone and defenceless as he had anticipated, but well-armed and in company.
The Wanderer's indolence was only mental, and was moreover transitory and artificial. When he saw Unorna advance, he quickly placed himself between her and Israel Kafka, and looked from one to the other.
"Who is this man?" he asked. "And what does he want of you?"
Unorna made as though she would pass him. But he laid his hand upon her arm with a gesture that betrayed his anxiety for her safety. At his touch, her face changed for a moment and a faint blush dyed her cheek.
"You may well ask who I am," said the Moravian, speaking in a voice half-choked with passion and anger. "She will tell you she does not know me--she will deny my existence to my face. But she knows me very well. I am Israel Kafka."
The Wanderer looked at him more curiously. He remembered what he had heard but a few hours earlier from Keyork concerning the young fellow's madness. The situation now partially explained itself.
"I understand," he said, looking at Unorna. "He seems to be dangerous. What shall I do with him?"
He asked the question as calmly as though it had referred to the disposal of an inanimate object, instead of to the taking into custody of a madman.
"Do with me?" cried Kafka, advancing suddenly a step forwards from between the slabs. "Do with me? Do you speak of me as though I were a dog--a dumb animal--but I will----"
He choked and coughed, and could not finish the sentence. There was a hectic flush in his cheek and his thin, graceful frame shook violently from head to foot. Unable to speak for the moment, he waved his hand in a menacing gesture. The Wanderer shook his head rather sadly.
"He seems very ill," he said, in a tone of compassion.
But Unorna was pitiless. She knew what her companion could not know, namely, that Kafka must have followed them through the streets to the cemetery and must have overheard Unorna's passionate appeal and must have seen and understood the means she was using to win the Wanderer's love. Her anger was terrible. She had suffered enough secret shame already in stooping to the use of her arts in such a course. It had cost her one of the greatest struggles of her life, and her disappointment at the result had been proportionately bitter. In that alone she had endured almost as much pain as she could bear. But to find suddenly that her humiliation, her hot speech, her failure, the look which she knew had been on her face until the moment when the Wanderer awoke, that all this had been seen and heard by Israel Kafka was intolerable. Even Keyork's unexpected appearance could not have so fired her wrath. Keyork might have laughed at her afterwards, but her failure would have been no triumph to him. Was not Keyork enlisted on her side, ready to help her at all times, by word or deed, in accordance with the terms of their agreement? But of all men Kafka, whom she had so wronged, was the one man who should have been ignorant of her defeat and miserable shame.
"Go!" she cried, with a gesture of command. Her eyes flashed and her extended hand trembled.
There was such concentrated fury in a single word that the Wanderer started in surprise, ignorant as he was of the true state of things.
"You are uselessly unkind," he said gravely. "The poor man is mad. Let me take him away."
"Leave him to me," she answered imperiously. "He will obey me."
But Israel Kafka did not turn. He rested one hand upon the slab and faced her. As when many different forces act together at one point, producing after the first shock a resultant little expected, so the many passions that were at work in his face finally twisted his lips into a smile.
"Yes," he said, in a low tone, which did not express submission. "Leave me to her! Leave me to the Witch and to her mercy. It will be the end this time. She is drunk with her love of you and mad with her hatred of me."
Unorna grew suddenly pale, and would have again sprung forward. But the Wanderer stopped her and held her arm. At the same time he looked into Kafka's eyes and raised one hand as though in warning.
"Be silent!" he exclaimed.
"And if I speak, what then?" asked the Moravian with his evil smile.
"I will silence you," answered the Wanderer coldly. "Your madness excuses you, perhaps, but it does not justify me in allowing you to insult a woman."
Kafka's anger took a new direction. Even madmen are often calmed by the quiet opposition of a strong and self-possessed man. And Kafka was not mad. He was no coward either, but the subtlety of his race was in him. As oil dropped by the board in a wild tempest does not calm the waves, but momentarily prevents their angry crests from breaking, so the Israelite's quick tact veiled the rough face of his dangerous humour.
"I insult no one," he said, almost deferentially. "Least of all her whom I have worshipped long and lost at last. You accuse me unjustly of that, and though my speech may have been somewhat rude, yet may I be forgiven for the sake of what I have suffered. For I have suffered much."
Seeing that he was taking a more courteous tone, the Wanderer folded his arms and left Unorna free to move, awaiting her commands, or the further development of events. He saw in her face that her anger was not subsiding, and he wondered less at it after hearing Kafka's insulting speech. It was a pity, he thought, that any one should take so seriously a maniac's words, but he was nevertheless resolved that they should not be repeated. After all, it would be an easy matter, if the man again overstepped the bounds of gentle speech, to take him bodily away from Unorna's presence.
"And are you going to charm our ears with a story of your sufferings?" Unorna asked, in a tone so cruel, that the Wanderer expected a quick outburst of anger from Kafka, in reply. But he was disappointed in this. The smile still lingered on the Moravian's face, when he answered, and his expressive voice, no longer choking with passion, grew very soft and musical.
"It is not mine to charm," he said. "It is not given to me to make slaves of all living things with hand and eye and word. Such power Nature does not give to all, she has given none to me. I have no spell to win Unorna's love--and if I had, I cannot say that I would take a love thus earned."
He paused a moment and Unorna grew paler. She started, but then did not move again. His words had power to wound her, but she trembled lest the Wanderer should understand their hidden meaning, and she was silent, biding her time and curbing her passion.
"No," continued Kafka, "I was not thus favoured in my nativity. The star of love was not in the ascendant, the lord of magic charms was not trembling upon my horizon, the sun of earthly happiness was not enthroned in my mid-heaven. How could it be? She had it all, this Unorna here, and Nature, generous in one mad moment, lavished upon her all there was to give. For she has all, and we have nothing, as I have learned and you will learn before you die."
He looked at the Wanderer as he spoke. His hollow eyes seemed calm enough, and in his dejected attitude and subdued tone there was nothing that gave warning of a coming storm. The Wanderer listened, half-interested and yet half-annoyed by his persistence. Unorna herself was silent still.
"The nightingale was singing on that night," continued Kafka. "It was a dewy night in early spring, and the air was very soft, when Unorna first breathed it. The world was not asleep but dreaming, when her eyes first opened to look upon it. Heaven had put on all its glories-- across its silent breast was bound the milk-white ribband, its crest was crowned with God's crown-jewels, the great northern stars, its mighty form was robed in the mantle of majesty set with the diamonds of suns and worlds, great and small, far and near--not one tiny spark of all the myriad million gems was darkened by a breath of wind-blown mist. The earth was very still, all wrapped in peace and lulled in love. The great trees pointed their dark spires upwards from the temple of the forest to the firmament of the greater temple on high. In the starlight the year's first roses breathed out the perfume gathered from the departed sun, and every dewdrop in the short, sweet grass caught in its little self the reflection of heaven's vast glory. Only, in the universal stillness, the nightingale sang the song of songs, and bound the angel of love with the chains of her linked melody and made him captive in bonds stronger than his own."
Israel Kafka spoke dreamily, resting against the stone beside him, seemingly little conscious of the words that fell in oriental imagery from his lips. In other days Unorna had heard him speak like this to her, and she had loved the speech, though not the man, and sometimes for its sake she had wished her heart could find its fellow in his. And even now, the tone and the words had a momentary effect upon her. What would have sounded as folly, overwrought, sentimental, almost laughable, perhaps, to other women, found an echo in her own childish memories and a sympathy in her belief in her own mysterious nature. The Wanderer had heard men talk as Israel Kafka talked, in other lands, where speech is prized by men and women not for its tough strength but for its wealth of flowers.
"And love was her first captive," said the Moravian, "and her first slave. Yes, I will tell you the story of Unorna's life. She is angry with me now. Well, let it be. It is my fault--or hers. What matter? She cannot quite forget me out of mind--and I? Has Lucifer forgotten God?"
He sighed, and a momentary light flashed in his eyes. Something in the blasphemous strength of the words attracted the Wanderer's attention. Utterly indifferent himself, he saw that there was something more than madness in the man before him. He found himself wondering what encouragement Unorna had given the seed of passion that it should have grown to such strength, and he traced the madness back to the love, instead of referring the love to the madness. But he said nothing.
"So she was born," continued Kafka, dreaming on. "She was born amid the perfume of the roses, under the starlight, when the nightingale was singing. And all things that lived, loved her, and submitted to her voice and hand, and to her eyes and to her unspoken will, as running water follows the course men give it, winding and gliding, falling and rushing, full often of a roar of resistance that covers the deep, quick-moving stream, flowing in spite of itself through the channel that is dug for it to the determined end. And nothing resisted her. Neither man nor woman nor child had any strength to oppose against her magic. The wolf hounds licked her feet, the wolves themselves crouched fawning in her path. For she is without fear--as she is without mercy. Is that strange? What fear can there be for her who has the magic charm, who holds sleep in the one hand and death in the other, and between whose brows is set the knowledge of what shall be hereafter? Can any one harm her? Has any one the strength to harm her? Is there anything on earth which she covets and which shall not be hers?"
Though his voice was almost as soft as before, the evil smile flickered again about his drawn lips as he looked into Unorna's face. He wondered why she did not face him and crush him and force him to sleep with her eyes as he knew she could do. But he himself was past fear. He had suffered too much and cared not what chanced to him now. But she should know that he knew all, if he told her so with his latest breath. Despair had given him a strange control of his anger and of his words, and jealousy had taught him the art of wounding swiftly, surely and with a light touch. Sooner or later she would turn upon him and annihilate him in a dream of unconsciousness; he knew that, and he knew that such faint power of resisting her as he had ever possessed was gone. But so long as she was willing to listen to him, so long would he torture her with the sting of her own shame, and when her patience ended, or her caprice changed, he would find some bitter word to cast at her in the moment before losing his consciousness of thought and his power to speak. This one chance of wounding was given to him and he would use it to the utmost, with all subtlety, with all cruelty, with all determination to torture.
"Whatsoever she covets is hers to take. No one escapes the spell in the end, no one resists the charm. And yet it is written in the book of her fate that she shall one day taste the fruit of ashes, and drink of the bitter water. It is written that whosoever slays with the sword shall die by the sword also. She has killed with love, and by love she shall perish. I loved her once. I know what I am saying."
Again he paused, lingering thoughtfully upon the words. The Wanderer glanced at Unorna as though asking her whether he should not put a sudden end to the strange monologue. She was pale and her eyes were bright; but she shook her head.
"Let him say what he will say," she answered, taking the question as though it had been spoken. "Let him say all he will. Perhaps it is the last time."
"And so you give me your gracious leave to speak," said Israel Kafka. "And you will let me say all that is in my heart to say to you--before this other man. And then you will make an end of me. I see. I accept the offer. I can even thank you for your patience. You are kind to-day--I have known you harder. Well, then, I will speak out. I will tell my story, not that any one may judge between you and me. There is neither judge nor justice for those who love in vain. So I loved you. That is the whole story. Do you understand me, sir? I loved this woman, but she would not love me. That is all. And what of it, and what then? Look at her, and look at me--the beginning and the end."
In a manner familiar to Orientals the unhappy man laid one finger upon his own breast, and with the other hand pointed at Unorna's fair young face. The Wanderer's eyes obeyed the guiding gesture, and he looked from one to the other, and again the belief crossed his thoughts that there was less of madness about Israel Kafka than Keyork would have had him think. Trying to read the truth from Unorna's eyes, he saw that they avoided his, and he fancied he detected symptoms of distress in her pallor and contracted lips. And yet he argued that if it were all true she would silence the speaker, and that the only reason for her patience must be sought in her willingness to humour the diseased brain in its wanderings. In either case he pitied Israel Kafka profoundly, and his compassion increased from one moment to another.
"I loved her. There is a history in those three words which neither the eloquent tongue nor the skilled pen can tell. See how coldly I speak. I command my speech, I may pick and choose among ten thousand words and phrases, and describe love at my leisure. She grants me time; she is very merciful to-day. What would you have me say? You know what love is. Think of such love as yours can have been, and take twice that, and three times over, and a hundred thousand times, and cram it, burning, flaming, melting into your bursting heart--then you would know a tenth of what I have known. Love, indeed! Who can have known love but me? I stand alone. Since the dull, unlovely world first jarred and trembled and began to move, there has not been another of my kind, nor has man suffered as I have suffered, and been crushed and torn and thrown aside to die, without even the mercy of a death-wound. Describe it? Tell it? Look at me! I am both love's description and the epitaph on his gravestone. In me he lived, me he tortured, with me he dies never to live again as he has lived this once. There is no justice and no mercy! Think not that it is enough to love and that you will be loved in return. Do not think that--do not dream that. Do you not know that the fiercest drought is as a spring rain to the rocks, which thirst not and need no refreshment?"
Again he fixed his eyes on Unorna's face and faintly smiled. Apparently she was displeased.
"What is it that you would say?" she asked coldly. "What is this that you tell us of rocks and rain, and death-wounds, and the rest? You say you loved me once--that was a madness. You say that I never loved you --that, at least, is truth. Is that your story? It is indeed short enough, and I marvel at the many words in which you have put so little!"
She laughed in a hard tone. But Israel Kafka's eyes grew dark and the sombre fire beamed in them as he spoke again. The weary, tortured smile left his wan lips, and his pale face grew stern.
"Laugh, laugh, Unorna!" he cried. "You do not laugh alone. And yet--I love you still, I love you so well in spite of all that I cannot laugh at you as I would, even though I were to see you again clinging to the rock and imploring it to take pity on your thirst. And he who dies for you, Unorna--of him you ask nothing, save that he will crawl away and die alone, and not disturb your delicate life with such an unseemly sight."
"You talk of death!" exclaimed Unorna scornfully. "You talk of dying for me because you are ill to-day. To-morrow, Keyork Arabian will have cured you, and then, for aught I know, you will talk of killing me instead. This is child's talk, boy's talk. If we are to listen to you, you must be more eloquent. You must give us such a tale of woe as shall draw tears from our eyes and sobs from our breasts--then we will applaud you and let you go. That shall be your reward."
The Wanderer glanced at her in surprise. There was a bitterness in her tone of which he had not believed her soft voice capable.
"Why do you hate him so if he is mad?" he asked.
"The reason is not far to seek," said Kafka. "This woman here--God made her crooked-hearted! Love her, and she will hate you as only she has learned how to hate. Show her that cold face of yours, and she will love you so that she will make a carpet of her pride for you to walk on--ay, or spit on either, if you deign to be so kind. She has a wonderful kind of heart, for it freezes when you burn it, and melts when you freeze it."
"Are you mad, indeed?" asked the Wanderer, suddenly planting himself in front of Kafka. "They told me so--I can almost believe it."
"No--I am not mad yet," answered the younger man, facing him fearlessly. "You need not come between me and her. She can protect herself. You would know that if you knew what I saw her do with you, first when I came here."
"What did she do?" The Wanderer turned quickly as he stood, and looked at Unorna.
"Do not listen to his ravings," she said. The words seemed weak and poorly chosen, and there was a strange look in her face as though she were either afraid or desperate, or both.
"She loves you," said Israel Kafka calmly. "And you do not know it. She has power over you, as she has over me, but the power to make you love her she has not. She will destroy you, and your state will be no better than mine to-day. We shall have moved on a step, for I shall be dead and you will be the madman, and she will have found another to love and to torture. The world is full of them. Her altar will never lack sacrifices."
The Wanderer's face was grave.
"You may be mad or not," he said. "I cannot tell. But you say monstrous things, and you shall not repeat them."
"Did she not say that I might speak?" asked Kafka with a bitter laugh.
"I will keep my word," said Unorna. "You seek your own destruction. Find it in your own way. It will not be the less sure. Speak--say what you will. You shall not be interrupted."
The Wanderer drew back, not understanding what was passing, nor why Unorna was so long-suffering.
"Say all you have to say," she repeated, coming forward so that she stood directly in front of Israel Kafka. "And you," she added, speaking to the Wanderer, "leave him to me. He is quite right--I can protect myself if I need any protection."
"You remember how we parted, Unorna?" said Kafka. "It is a month to-day. I did not expect a greeting of you when I came back, or, if I did expect it, I was foolish and unthinking. I should have known you better. I should have known that there is one half of your word which you never break--the cruel half, and one thing which you cannot forgive, and which is my love for you. And yet that is the very thing which I cannot forget. I have come back to tell you so. You may as well know it."
Unorna's expression grew cold, as she saw that he abandoned the strain of reproach and spoke once more of his love for her.
"Yes, I see what you mean," he said, very quietly. "You mean to show me by your face that you give me no hope. I should have known that by other things I have seen here. God knows, I have seen enough! But I meant to find you alone. I went to your home, I saw you go out, I followed you, I entered here--I heard all--and I understood, for I know your power, as this man cannot know it. Do you wonder that I followed you? Do you despise me? Do you think I still care, because you do? Love is stronger than the woman loved and for her we do deeds of baseness, unblushingly, which she would forbid our doing, and for which she despises us when she hates us, and loves us the more dearly when she loves us at all. You hate me--then despise me, too, if you will. It is too late to care. I followed you like a spy, I saw what I expected to see, I have suffered what I knew I should suffer. You know that I have been away during this whole month, and that I have travelled thousands of leagues in the hope of forgetting you."
"And yet I fancied I had seen you within the month," Unorna said, with a cruel smile.
"They say that ghosts haunt the places they have loved," answered Kafka unmoved. "If that be true I may have troubled your dreams and you may have seen me. I have come back broken in body and in heart. I think I have come back to die here. The life is going out of me, but before it is quite gone I can say two things. I can tell you that I know you at last, and that, in spite of the horror of knowing what you are, I love you still."
"Am I so very horrible?" she asked scornfully.
"You know what you are, better than I can tell you, but not better than I know. I know even the secret meaning of your moods and caprices. I know why you are willing to listen to me, this last time, so patiently, with only now and then a sneer and a cutting laugh."
"In order to make me suffer the more. You will never forgive me now, for you know that I know, and that alone is a sin past all forgiveness, and over and above that I am guilty of the crime of loving when you have no love for me."
"And as a last resource you come to me and recapitulate your misdeeds. The plan is certainly original, though it lacks wit."
"There is least wit where there is most love, Unorna. I take no account of the height of my folly when I see the depth of my love, which has swallowed up myself and all my life. In the last hour I have known its depth and breadth and strength, for I have seen what it can bear. And why should I complain of it? Have I not many times said that I would die for you willingly--and is it not dying for you to die of love for you? To prove my faith it were too easy a death. When I look into your face I know that there is in me the heart that made true Christian martyrs----"
"Would you be a martyr?" she asked.
"Nor for your Faith--but for the faith I once had in you, and for the love that no martyrdom could kill. Ay--to prove that love I would die a hundred deaths--and to gain yours I would die the death eternal."
"And you would have deserved it. Have you not deserved enough already, enough of martyrdom, for tracking me to-day, following me stealthily, like a thief and a spy, to find out my ends and my doings?"
"I love you, Unorna."
"And therefore you suspect me of unimaginable evil--and therefore you come out of your hiding-place and accuse me of things I have neither done nor thought of doing, building up falsehood upon lie, and lie upon falsehood in the attempt to ruin me in the eyes of one who has my friendship and who is my friend. You are foolish to throw yourself upon my mercy, Israel Kafka."
"Foolish? Yes, and mad, too! And my madness is all you have left me-- take it--it is yours! You cannot kill my love. Deny my words, deny your deeds! Let all be false in you--it is but one pain more, and my heart is not broken yet. It will bear another. Tell me that what I saw had no reality--that you did not make him sleep--here, on this spot, before my eyes--that you did not pour your love into his sleeping ears, that you did not command, implore, entreat--and fail! What is it all to me, whether you speak truth or not? Tell me it is not true that I would die a thousand martyrdoms for your sake, as you are, and if you were a thousand times worse than you are! Your wrong, your right, your truth, your falsehood, you yourself are swallowed up in the love I bear you! I love you always, and I will say it, and say it again-- ah, your eyes! I love them, too! Take me into them, Unorna--whether in hate or love--but in love--yes--love--Unorna--golden Unorna!"
With the cry on his lips--the name he had given her in other days--he made one mad step forwards, throwing out his arms as though to clasp her to him. But it was too late. Even while he had been speaking her mysterious influence had overpowered him, as he had known that it would, when she so pleased.
She caught his two hands in the air, and pressed him back and held him against the tall slab. The whole pitilessness of her nature gleamed like a cold light in her white face.
"There was a martyr of your race once," she said in cruel tones. "His name was Simon Abeles. You talk of martyrdom! You shall know what it means--though it be too good for you, who spy upon the woman whom you say you love."
The hectic flush of passion sank from Israel Kafka's cheek. Rigid, with outstretched arms and bent head, he stood against the ancient gravestone. Above him, as though raised to heaven in silent supplication, were the sculptured hands that marked the last resting- place of a Kohn.
"You shall know now," said Unorna. "You shall suffer indeed."