The Witch of Prague by F. Marion Crawford
Unorna's voice sank from the tone of anger to a lower pitch. She spoke quietly and very distinctly as though to impress every word upon the ear of the man who was in her power. The Wanderer listened, too, scarcely comprehending at first, but slowly yielding to the influence she exerted until the vision rose before him also with all its moving scenes, in all its truth and in all its horror. As in a dream the deeds that had been passed before him, the desolate burial-ground was peopled with forms and faces of other days, the gravestones rose from the earth and piled themselves into gloomy houses and remote courts and dim streets and venerable churches, the dry and twisted trees shrank down, and broadened and swung their branches as arms, and drew up their roots out of the ground as feet under them and moved hither and thither. And the knots and bosses and gnarls upon them became faces, dark, eagle-like and keen, and the creaking and crackling of the boughs and twigs under the piercing blast that swept by, became articulate and like the voices of old men talking angrily together. There were sudden changes from day to night and from night to day. In dark chambers crouching men took counsel of blood together under the feeble rays of a flickering lamp. In the uncertain twilight of winter, muffled figures lurked at the corner of streets, waiting for some one to pass, who must not escape them. As the Wanderer gazed and listened, Israel Kafka was transformed. He no longer stood with outstretched arms, his back against a crumbling slab, his filmy eyes fixed on Unorna's face. He grew younger; his features were those of a boy of scarcely thirteen years, pale, earnest and brightened by a soft light which followed him hither and thither, and he was not alone. He moved with others through the old familiar streets of the city, clothed in a fashion of other times, speaking in accents comprehensible but unlike the speech of to-day, acting in a dim and far-off life that had once been.
The Wanderer looked, and, as in dreams, he knew that what he saw was unreal, he knew that the changing walls and streets and houses and public places were built up of gravestones which in truth were deeply planted in the ground, immovable and incapable of spontaneous motion; he knew that the crowds of men and women were not human beings but gnarled and twisted trees rooted in the earth, and that the hum of voices which reached his ears was but the sound of dried branches bending in the wind; he knew that Israel Kafka was not the pale-faced boy who glided from place to place followed everywhere by a soft radiance; he knew that Unorna was the source and origin of the vision, and that the mingling speeches of the actors, now shrill in angry altercation, now hissing in low, fierce whisper, were really formed upon Unorna's lips and made audible through her tones, as the chorus of indistinct speech proceeded from the swaying trees. It was to him an illusion of which he understood the key and penetrated the secret, but it was marvellous in its way, and he was held enthralled from the first moment when it began to unfold itself. He understood further that Israel Kafka was in a state different from this, that he was suffering all the reality of another life, which to the Wanderer was but a dream. For the moment all his faculties had a double perception of things and sounds, distinguishing clearly between the fact and the mirage that distorted and obscured it. For the moment he was aware that his reason was awake though his eyes and his ears might be sleeping. Then the unequal contest between the senses and the intellect ceased, and while still retaining the dim consciousness that the source of all he saw and heard lay in Unorna's brain, he allowed himself to be led quickly from one scene to another, absorbed and taken out of himself by the horror of the deeds done before him.
At first, indeed, the vision, though vivid, seemed objectless and of uncertain meaning. The dark depths of the Jews' quarter of the city were opened, and it was towards evening. Throngs of gowned men, crooked, bearded, filthy, vulture-eyed, crowded upon each other in a narrow public place, talking in quick, shrill accents, gesticulating, with hands and arms and heads and bodies, laughing, chuckling, chattering, hook-nosed and loose-lipped, grasping fat purses in lean fingers, shaking greasy curls that straggled out under caps of greasy fur, glancing to right and left with quick, gleaming looks that pierced the gloom like fitful flashes of lightning, plucking at each other by the sleeve and pointing long fingers and crooked nails, two, three and four at a time, as markers, in their ready reckoning, a writhing mass of humanity, intoxicated by the smell of gold, mad for its possession, half hysteric with the fear of losing it, timid, yet dangerous, poisoned to the core by the sweet sting of money, terrible in intelligence, vile in heart, contemptible in body, irresistible in the unity of their greed--the Jews of Prague, two hundred years ago.
In one corner of the dusky place there was a little light. A boy stood there, beside a veiled woman, and the light that seemed to cling about him was not the reflection of gold. He was very young. His pale face had in it all the lost beauty of the Jewish race, the lips were clearly cut, even, pure in outline and firm, the forehead broad with thought, the features noble, aquiline--not vulture-like. Such a face might holy Stephen, Deacon and Protomartyr, have turned upon the young men who laid their garments at the fee of the unconverted Saul.
He stood there, looking on at the scene in the market-place, not wondering, for nothing of it was new to him, not scorning, for he felt no hate, not wrathful, for he dreamed of peace. He would have had it otherwise--that was all. He would have had the stream flow back upon its source and take a new channel for itself, he would have seen the strength of his people wielded in cleaner deeds for nobler aims. The gold he hated, the race for it he despised, the poison of it he loathed, but he had neither loathing nor contempt nor hatred for the men themselves. He looked upon them and he loved to think that the carrion vulture might once again be purified and lifted on strong wings and become, as in old days, the eagle of the mountains.
For many minutes he gazed in silence. Then he sighed and turned away. He held certain books in his hand, for he had come from the school of the synagogue where, throughout the short winter days, the rabbis taught him and his companions the mysteries of the sacred tongue. The woman by his side was a servant in his father's house, and it was her duty to attend him through the streets, until the day when, being judged a man, he should be suddenly freed from the bondage of childish things.
"Let us go," he said in a low voice. "The air is full of gold and heavy. I cannot breathe it."
"Whither?" asked the woman.
"Thou knowest," he answered. And suddenly the faint radiance that was always about him grew brighter, and spread out arms behind him, to the right and left, in the figure of a cross.
They walked together, side by side, quickly and often glancing behind them as though to see whether they were followed. And yet it seemed as though it was not they who moved, but the city about them which changed. The throng of busy Jews grew shadowy and disappeared, their shrill voices were lost in the distance. There were other people in the street, of other features and in different garbs, of prouder bearing and hot, restless manner, broad-shouldered, erect, manly, with spur on heel and sword at side. The outline of the old synagogue melted into the murky air and changed its shape, and stood out again in other and ever-changing forms. Now they were passing before the walls of a noble palace, now beneath long, low galleries of arches, now again across the open space of the Great Ring in the midst of the city--then all at once they were standing before the richly carved doorway of the Teyn Kirche, the very doorway out of which the Wanderer had followed the fleeting shadow of Beatrice's figure but a month ago. And then they paused, and looked again to the right and left, and searched the dark corners with piercing glances.
"Thy life is in thine hand," said the woman, speaking close to the boy's ear. "It is yet time. Turn with me and let us go back."
The mysterious radiance lit up the youth's beautiful face in the dark street and showed the fearless yet gentle smile that was on his lips.
"What is there to fear?" he asked.
"Death," answered the woman in a trembling tone. "They will kill thee, and it shall be upon my head."
"And what is Death?" he asked again, and the smile was still upon his face as he led the way up the steps.
The woman bowed her head and drew her veil more closely about her and followed him. Then they were within the church, darker, more ghostly, less rich in those days than now. The boy stood beside the hewn stone basin wherein was the blessed water, and he touched the frozen surface with his fingers, and held them out to his companion.
"Is it thus?" he asked. And the heavenly smile grew more radiant as he made the sign of the Cross.
Again the woman inclined her head.
"Be it not upon me!" she exclaimed earnestly. "Though I would it might be for ever so with thee."
"It is for ever," the boy answered.
He went forward and prostrated himself before the high altar, and the soft light hovered above him. The woman knelt at a little distance from him, with clasped hands and upturned eyes. The church was very dark and silent.
An old man in a monk's robe came forward out of the shadow of the choir and stood behind the marble rails and looked down at the boy's prostrate figure, wonderingly. Then the low gateway was opened and he descended the three steps and bent down to the young head.
"What wouldest thou?" he asked.
Simon Abeles rose until he knelt, and looked up into the old man's face.
"I am a Jew. I would be a Christian. I would be baptized."
"Fearest thou not thy people?" the monk asked.
"I fear not death," answered the boy simply.
"Come with me."
Trembling, the woman followed them both, and all were lost in the gloom of the church. They were not to be seen, and all was still for a space. Suddenly a clear voice broke the silence.
"Ego baptizo te in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti."
Then the woman and the boy were standing again without the entrance in the chilly air, and the ancient monk was upon the threshold under the carved arch; his thin hands, white in the darkness, were lifted high, and he blessed them, and they went their way.
In the moving vision the radiance was brighter still and illuminated the streets as they moved on. Then a cloud descended over all, and certain days and weeks passed, and again the boy was walking swiftly toward the church. But the woman was not with him, and he believed that he was alone, though the messengers of evil were upon him. Two dark figures moved in the shadow, silent, noiseless in their walk, muffled in long garments. He went on, no longer deigning to look back, beyond fear as he had ever been, and beyond even the expectation of a danger. He went into the church, and the two men made gestures, and spoke in low tones, and hid themselves in the shade of the buttresses outside.
The vision grew darker and a terrible stillness was over everything, for the church was not opened to the sight this time. There was a horror of long waiting with the certainty of what was to come. The narrow street was empty to the eye, and yet there was the knowledge of evil presence, of two strong men waiting in the dark to take their victim to the place of expiation. And the horror grew in the silence and the emptiness, until it was unbearable.
The door opened and the boy was with the monk under the black arch. The old man embraced him and blessed him and stood still for a moment watching him as he went down. Then he, also, turned and went back, and the door was closed.
Swiftly the two men glided from their hiding-place and sped along the uneven pavement. The boy paused and faced them, for he felt that he was taken. They grasped him by the arms on each side, Lazarus his father, and Levi, surnamed the Short-handed, the strongest and the cruellest and the most relentless of the younger rabbis. Their grip was rough, and the older man held a coarse woollen cloth in his hand with which to smother the boy's cries if he should call out for help. But he was very calm and did not resist them.
"What would you?" he asked.
"And what doest thou in a Christian church?" asked Lazarus in low fierce tones.
"What Christians do, since I am one of them," answered the youth, unmoved.
Lazarus said nothing, but he struck the boy on the mouth with his hard hand so that the blood ran down.
"Not here!" exclaimed Levi, anxiously looking about.
And they hurried him away through dark and narrow lanes. He opposed no resistance to Levi's rough strength, not only suffering himself to be dragged along but doing his best to keep pace with the man's long strides, nor did he murmur at the blows and thrusts dealt him from time to time by his father from the other side. During some minutes they were still traversing the Christian part of the city. A single loud cry for help would have brought a rescue, a few words to the rescuers would have roused a mob of fierce men and the two Jews would have paid with their lives for the deeds they had not yet committed. But Simon Abeles uttered no cry and offered no resistance. He had said that he feared not death, and he had spoken the truth, not knowing what manner of death was to be his. Onward they sped, and in the vision the way they traversed seemed to sweep past them, so that they remained always in sight though always hurrying on. The Christian quarter was passed; before them hung the chain of one of those gates which gave access to the city of the Jews. With a jeer and an oath the bearded sentry watched them pass--the martyr and his torturers. One word to him, even then, and the butt of his heavy halberd would have broken Levi's arm and laid the boy's father in the dust. The word was not spoken. On through the filthy ways, on and on, through narrow courts and tortuous passages to a dark low doorway. Then, again, the vision showed but an empty street and there was silence for a space, and a horror of long waiting in the falling night.
Lights moved within the house, and then one window after another was bolted and barred from within. Still the silence endured until the ear was grown used to it and could hear sounds very far off, from deep down below the house itself, but the walls did not open and the scene did not change. A dull noise, bad to hear, resounded as from beneath a vault, and then another and another--the sound of cruel blows upon a human body. Then a pause.
"Wilt thou renounce it?" asked the voice of Lazarus.
"Kyrie eleison, Christie eleison!" came the answer, brave and clear.
"Lay on, Levi, and let thy arm be strong!"
And again the sound of blows, regular, merciless, came up from the bowels of the earth.
"Dost thou repent? Dost thou renounce? Dost thou deny?"
"I repent of my sins--I renounce your ways--I believe in the Lord--"
The sacred name was not heard. A smothered groan as of one losing consciousness in extreme torture was all that came up from below.
"Lay on, Levi, lay on!"
"Nay," answered the strong rabbi, "the boy will die. Let us leave him here for this night. Perchance cold and hunger will be more potent than stripes, when he shall come to himself."
"As though sayest," answered the father in angry reluctance.
Again all was silent. Soon the rays of light ceased to shine through the crevices of the outer shutters, and sleep descended upon the quarter of the Jews. Still the scene in the vision changed not. After a long stillness a clear young voice was heard speaking.
"Lord, if it be Thy will that I die, grant that I may bear all in Thy name, grant that I, unworthy, may endure in this body the punishments due to me in spirit for my sins. And if it be Thy will that I live, let my life be used also for Thy glory."
The voice ceased and the cloud of passing time descended upon the vision and was lifted again and again. And each time the same voice was heard and the sound of torturing blows, but the voice of the boy was weaker every night, though it was not less brave.
"I believe," it said, always. "Do what you will, you have power over the body, but I have the Faith over which you have no power."
So the days and the nights passed, and though the prayer came up in feeble tones, it was born of a mighty spirit and it rang in the ears of the tormentors as the voice of an angel which they had no power to silence, appealing from them to the tribunal of the Throne of God Most High.
Day by day, also, the rabbis and the elders began to congregate together at evening before the house of Lazarus and to talk with him and with each other, debating how they might break the endurance of his son and bring him again into the synagogue as one of themselves. Chief among them in their councils was Levi, the Short-handed, devising new tortures for the frail body to bear and boasting how he would conquer the stubborn boy by the might of his hands to hurt. Some of the rabbis shook their heads.
"He is possessed of a devil," they said. "He will die and repent not."
But others nodded approvingly and wagged their filthy heads and said that when the fool had been chastised the evil spirit would depart from him.
Once more the cloud of passing time descended and was lifted. Then the walls of the house were opened and in a low arched chamber the rabbis sat about a black table. It was night and a single smoking lamp was lighted, a mere wick projecting out of a three-cornered vessel of copper which was full of oil and was hung from the vault with blackened wires. Seven rabbis sat at the board, and at the head sat Lazarus. Their crooked hands and claw-like nails moved uneasily and there was a lurid fire in their vulture's eyes. They bent forward, speaking to each other in low tones, and from beneath their greasy caps their anointed side curls dangled and swung as they moved their heads. But Levi the Short-handed was not among them. Their muffled talk was interrupted from time to time by the sound of sharp, loud blows, as of a hammer striking upon nails, and as though a carpenter were at work not far from the room in which they sat.
"He has not repented," said Lazarus, from his place. "Neither many stripes, nor cold, nor hunger, nor thirst, have moved him to righteousness. It is written that he shall be cut off from his people."
"He shall be cut off," answered the rabbis with one voice.
"It is right and just that he should die," continued the father. "Shall we give him over to the Christians that he may dwell among them and become one of them, and be shown before the world to our shame?"
"We will not let him go," said the dark man, and an evil smile flickered from one face to another as a firefly flutters from tree to tree in the night--as though the spirit of evil had touched each one in turn.
"We will not let him go," said each again.
Lazarus also smiled as though in assent, and bowed his head a little before he spoke.
"I am obedient to your judgment. It is yours to command and mine to obey. If you say that he must die, let him die. He is my son. Take him. Did not our father Abraham lay Isaac upon the altar and offer him as a burnt sacrifice before the Lord?"
"Let him die," said the rabbis.
"Then let him die," answered Lazarus. "I am your servant. It is mine to obey."
"His blood be on our heads," they said. And again, the evil smile went round.
"It is then expedient that we determine of what manner his death shall be," continued the father, inclining his body to signify his submission.
"It is not lawful to shed his blood," said the rabbis. "And we cannot stone him, lest we be brought to judgment of the Christians. Determine thou the manner of his death."
"My masters, if you will it, let him be brought once more before us. Let us all hear with our ears his denial, and if he repent at the last, it is well, let him live. But if he harden his heart against our entreaties, let him die. Levi hath brought certain pieces of wood hither to my house, and is even now at work. If the youth is still stubborn in his unbelief, let him die even as the Unbeliever died--by the righteous judgment of the Romans."
"Let it be so. Let him be crucified!" said the rabbis with one voice.
Then Lazarus rose and went out, and, in the vision, the rabbis remained seated, motionless in their places awaiting his return. The noise of Levi's hammer echoed through the low vaulted chamber, and at each blow the smoking lamp quivered a little, casting strange shadows upon the evil faces beneath its light. At last footsteps, slow and uncertain, were heard without, the low door opened, and Lazarus entered, holding up the body of his son before him.
"I have brought him before you for the last time," he said. "Question him and hear his condemnation out of his own mouth. He repents not, though I have done my utmost to bring him back to the paths of righteousness. Question him, my masters, and let us see what he will say."
White and exhausted with long hunger and thirst, his body broken by torture, scarcely any longer sensible to bodily pain, Simon Abeles would have fallen to the ground had his father not held him under the arms. His head hung forward and the pale and noble face was inclined towards the breast, but the deep, dark eyes were open and gazed calmly upon those who sat in judgment at the table. A rough piece of linen cloth was wrapped about the boy's shoulders and body, but his thin arms were bare.
"Hearest thou, Simon, son of Lazarus?" asked the rabbis. "Knowest thou in whose presence thou standest?"
"I hear you and I know you all." There was no fear in the voice though it trembled from weakness.
"Renounce then thy errors, and having suffered the chastisement of thy folly, return to the ways of thy father and of thy father's house and of all thy people."
"I renounce my sins, and whatsoever is yet left for me to suffer, I will, by God's help, so bear it as to be not unworthy of Christ's mercy."
The rabbis gazed at the brave young face, and smiled and wagged their beards, talking one with another in low tones.
"It is as we feared," they said. "He is unrepentant and he is worthy of death. It is not expedient that the young adder should live. There is poison under his tongue, and he speaks things not lawful for an Israelite to hear. Let him die, that we may see him no more, and that our children be not corrupted by his false teachings."
"Hearest thou? Thou shalt die." It was Lazarus who spoke, while holding up the boy before the table and hissing the words into his ear.
"I hear. I am ready. Lead me forth."
"There is yet time to repent. If thou wilt but deny what thou hast said these many days, and return to us, thou shalt be forgiven and thy days shall be long among us, and thy children's days after thee, and the Lord shall perchance have mercy and increase thy goods among thy fellows."
"Let him alone," said the rabbis. "He is unrepentant."
"Lead me forth," said Simon Abeles.
"Lead him forth," repeated the rabbis. "Perchance, when he sees the manner of his death before his eyes, he will repent at the last."
The boy's fearless eyes looked from one to the other.
"Whatsoever it be," he said, "I have but one life. Take it as you will. I die in the faith of the Lord Jesus Christ, and into His hands I commend my spirit--which you cannot take."
"Lead him forth! Let him be crucified!" cried the rabbis together. "We will hear him no longer."
Then Lazarus led his son away from them, and left them talking together and shaking their heads and wagging their filthy beards. And in the vision the scene changed. The chamber with its flickering lamp and its black table and all the men who were in it grew dim and faded away, and in its place there was a dim inner court between high houses, upon which only the windows of the house of Lazarus opened. There, upon the ground, stood a lantern of horn, and the soft yellow light of it fell upon two pieces of wood, nailed one upon the other to form a small cross--small, indeed, but yet tall enough and broad enough and strong enough to bear the slight burden of the boy's frail body. And beside it stood Lazarus and Levi, the Short-handed, the strong rabbi, holding Simon Abeles between them. On the ground lay pieces of cord, ready, wherewith to bind him to the cross, for they held it unlawful to shed his blood.
It was soon done. The two men took up the cross and set it, with the body hanging thereon, against the wall of the narrow court, over against the house of Lazarus.
"Thou mayest still repent--during this night," said the father, holding up the horn lantern and looking into his son's tortured face.
"Ay--there is yet time," said Levi, brutally. "He will not die so soon."
"Lord, into Thy hands I commend my spirit," said the weak voice once more.
Then Lazarus raised his hand and struck him once more on the mouth, as he had done on that first night when he had seized him near the church. But Levi, the Short-handed, as though in wrath at seeing all his torments fail, dealt him one heavy blow just where the ear joins the neck, and it was over at last. A radiant smile of peace flickered over the pale face, the eyelids quivered and closed, the head fell forward upon the breast and the martyrdom of Simon Abeles was consummated.
Into the dark court came the rabbis one by one from the inner chamber, and each as he came took up the horn lantern and held it to the dead face and smiled and spoke a few low words in the Hebrew tongue and then went out into the street, until only Lazarus and Levi were left alone with the dead body. Then they debated what they should do, and for a time they went into the house and refreshed themselves with food and wine, and comforted each other, well knowing that they had done an evil deed. And they came back when it was late and wrapped the body in the coarse cloth and carried it out stealthily and buried it in the Jewish cemetery, and departed again to their own houses.
"And there he lay," said Unorna, "the boy of your race who was faithful to death. Have you suffered? Have you for one short hour known the meaning of such great words as you dared to speak to me? Do you know now what it means to be a martyr, to suffer for standing on the very spot where he lay, you have felt in some small degree a part of what he must have felt. You live. Be warned. If again you anger me, your life shall not be spared you."
The visions had all vanished. Again the wilderness of gravestones and lean, crooked trees appeared, wild and desolate as before. The Wanderer roused himself and saw Unorna standing before Israel Kafka's prostrate body. As though suddenly released from a spell he sprang forward and knelt down, trying to revive the unconscious man by rubbing his hands and chafing his temples.